Two decades ago my older brother pried open the doors of a moving bus and jumped out. Fate was on his side, but gravity was not. While he didn’t die, his body crashed on the highway. Multiple injuries—a broken wrist, a spinal compression fracture, large gashes on his arms and forehead—brought him home to my parents’ house in California where I still lived.
“There were scary people on the bus,” he murmured while he stood at the stove stirring the tomato and garlic mixture. “I had to get away from them.”
I pictured menacing cartoon villains chasing him off the vehicle, and, fortunately, he’d escaped, just like on TV.
A few days prior to his collision with the asphalt, he’d abandoned his apartment and all his possessions and boarded that long-haul bus headed east. We’d probably never have known were it not for his hospitalization.
“San Francisco was a lonely, depressing place.” His words were low, scratchy, as he drained the pasta, his face enshrouded in steam. “I was going somewhere more happy.”
He never told me where he was going, and I’d been instructed by my father not to ask any questions. The product of a strict Catholic upbringing, I did as I was told and still felt guilty about doing so. While my brother divided the noodles and sauce into two bowls, I stole glances at him—soiled bandages, angry scars, vacant eyes—and quietly accepted the food he’d prepared. I was a teenager—too young to realize, even though he was physically with me, he was hiding someplace else.
As children, we played endless games of Hide and Seek in our suburban neighborhood. We didn’t need any equipment, and the activity had the added benefit of irritating the neighbors whenever they’d discover us in their yards. When it was my turn to hide, I’d crouch down low in the juniper bush and hold my breath, trying to keep still and not make a sound as the needle-like leaves pierced my skin through my clothing. It didn’t matter where I hid—my brother always spotted me.
“Found you!” he’d chide. “Go back to home base!” I’d plod back to our house, contemplating my status as a loser—clearly my destiny as the youngest child.
When it was my turn to be “it,” I’d sit on the porch and hurriedly count to twenty, skipping over a mumbled number or two. “Ready or not, here I come!” I’d holler. I usually found at least one other hider, but I was never able to track down my brother. I’d search for clues—a shadow behind a car, trembling branches in a tree, a displaced garbage can. But he hid too well. Perhaps farther down the street or deeper into the cracks. I could never trick him into revealing his hiding spaces by calling out his name, and he’d never tell me where he’d been. Sometimes he’d just show up at the front door and loudly declare himself “safe on home base!” A winner, with his arms in the air like his favorite World Wrestling Federation champion.
A few years after his leap from the bus, my brother left town again without telling anyone. A disturbing pattern was emerging.
“Did your brother call you or stop by?” The concern in my father’s voice burst through the phone. “We don’t know where he is.”
My eyes darted around my apartment, willing my sibling to appear from behind a door or inside a closet. “No, I haven’t heard from him.”
After our conversation, I sat motionless on the couch, trying to convince myself not to worry—not to be discouraged. My brother had taken off before, and he’d come back home. Battered and bruised, but safely back home.
The private investigator my parents hired located my brother’s abandoned vehicle near the bus station, but no sign of my brother. When searching his bedroom, my mother found empty vodka bottles hidden in dresser drawers. Crammed between the mattresses. Stashed on closet shelves. But no goodbye note. And no clues to his whereabouts—only to his state of mind.
I hoped he’d eventually come out of hiding, but the passing years tested my faith. He wasn’t around to make an irreverent toast at my wedding. Or crack jokes about becoming a bastard after our parents’ marriage annulment. He wasn’t present to eulogize our grandmother, the woman he’d taken to church and lunch every Sunday. “Such a good boy,” Grandma always said, patting his hand. Under my breath, I’d call him a suck-up.
Several years after his disappearance, an internet search revealed my brother was living a few states over in Colorado. With the click of a mouse, I had an email address and a phone number. My family inundated him with emails and flooded him with phone calls. Updating him on our lives. Asking him to come home. Begging him to respond.
His response never came.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” I’d scream down the cul-de-sac until my throat ached. Unable to find my big brother, I’d call it quits and walk back to home base. The streetlights had come on—the universal signal to end our playtime and go inside for dinner.
After the Colorado sighting, my brother would surface online every couple of years. His name in a magazine in New Mexico. His picture on a hotel website in Arizona. His profile on Facebook.
I sent an email to his most recent work address and stared at the inbox for hours. “Olly olly oxen free,” I whispered to the computer. “Game over—you can come out of hiding now.”
He never replied, but his silence spoke volumes.
The coroner gave away my brother’s final hiding place when he arrived at my mother’s house late one night. My brother had died by suicide in his apartment seven hundred miles away. The landlord discovered him partially suspended in the closet. He’d been dead a few weeks, and the pins in his wrist from the bus accident provided positive identification. Fortunately, no one needed to view the body prior to cremation. Unfortunately, we’d never see his face emerge from hiding again.
On a scorching July afternoon, I drove down a gravel road to a small funeral home outside of Phoenix, Arizona, retrieved my brother’s ashes, and escorted him on a plane back to our childhood home. The years-long search had ended, but neither of us had won. I’d lost my brother, and he’d lost his battle with mental illness.
Walking up the pathway, I choked back sobs. This was not the homecoming I’d envisioned for so many years. But as I stood on the porch, my eyes surveying the neighborhood, I could smell the sharp scent of juniper berries. I could hear the screams and laughter from our childhood. I could see his dirt-smudged face, his eyes bright with mischief, his smile crooked and sincere. In that moment, my brother was with me—finally—back safe on home base.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Francisco Luco