A short story about a young girl and her older brother who loves the sea.
My older brother loved the sea more than anyone I’ve ever known. When we were little and growing up with our mother in a tiny orange-roofed house on the island of Martinique, we would wake up at the first glimmer of sunrise and hurry towards Petit Anse beach, my tiny hand holding tightly onto his much larger and stronger hand as he led me there.
“C’mon, tiny!” he would shout, over his shoulder, his favorite nickname for me.
I didn’t like it when he called me tiny, and every time he did at home, I’d puff out my chest and stand directly in front of him as if I, an-actually-tiny nine-year-old girl, could take on her twelve-year-old brother: the same brother who had a good six inches on me and worked at the local beach shack, hauling several pounds of produce every day after school, while also working as a cashier, selling surfboards, managing jet ski rentals, and creating smoothies. My brother was a dream child to have and my mother knew it. I, on the other hand, was always a bit more rambunctious: I would get into brawls with the boys at school if they picked on me; I was always a picky eater which might be why I still wear most of my clothes from middle school and high school as they still fit me now that I'm nineteen; and I constantly challenged my mother's parenting even though I know she had the best intentions at heart.
Whenever we ran towards the beach, my brother's long legs would move across the pavement with such ease while I, a whole three years younger than him, was still growing into my body and could barely control my feet fast enough to match his pace. There was a tiny boat at the dock on the beach that wasn’t in use until eight in the morning, so from six a.m. until seven a.m., my brother would row us half a mile out from shore and we would lay down on our backs and watch the sky unravel above us, going from a mixture of purple and grey to the lightest blue in the Caribbean. On weekends, he would leave me in the boat for a few minutes and dive in, swimming another half mile out from the boat and smiling every single second that he was in the serene-aquamarine waters that surrounded our home island.
He was happiest when he was in his element: water. He used to tell me that he believed everyone had an element or something that when they were in it or a part of it, it felt like coming home.
For him, it was water.
For me, it was both earth and water; I suppose that’s why when I would swim with him far out to sea, I would be the first of us to suggest we head back to shore sooner rather than later. Without me there to keep him in check, my brother would have kept going further and further out to sea.
Even though my brother picked on me occasionally, he cared for me more than anyone else did: he walked me to dance class every Thursday night for three years in a row, even if he had somewhere else he had to be at that time. He taught me how to fix cars and motorbikes. He showed me how to stand up for myself and not take anyone's shit. He taught me how to be self-sufficient and value myself. And most importantly, he taught me how to love people honestly and whole-heartedly.
As we both grew older, a lot of people expected that we would grow apart. After all, that's what happened to most sibling relationships as they grew up. When you're little, you and your sibling are super close because you're young and have similar interests (typically) and can horse around together and be nuisances to your parents; and in some cases, you have your own secret language that no one else but either of you can understand. But then, when you get older, you start to go your separate ways and can't relate to one another as much as you did just a few short years ago.
But we didn’t grow apart. Instead, we grew closer.
Whenever I felt awkward telling our mom about my problems, I turned to him. He’d always get up out of his chair in the kitchen - it was right next to the window that faced the street - and take me to the beach. The night before he left, he was sitting in his seat, writing something down in his notebook.
“Thomas,” I mumbled his name from the kitchen doorway. He frowned at the notebook before looking up at me and smiling.
“Hey,” he closed the black journal and tossed it into his knapsack in one swift motion, “beach?”.
When we would get to the beach, he would typically say the same thing: “First, we run in. And then we get out and you tell me what’s going on.”
And that’s we’d we do: we’d run into the cold water (sometimes at eleven o’clock at night), get ourselves entirely soaked, and then come back out and sit on this one tree log, down on the sand, with the waves lapping at our feet.
I never understood why he would make us do that when I was younger, but by the time I was fifteen, I started to understand that if I could run into ‘the unknown’ willingly, then I could handle whatever problems I was going to tell him shortly thereafter. That, and the fact that when I was asking him for help, I was often wet and looked like some sort of sea-monster, so it made my problems really not seem that serious at all. I remember how he would always try to stifle a laugh just as I was starting to tell him about how upset I was about something that had happened at school that day.
The last night before he left, after we’d dried off and started heading back towards the paved streets, he nudged my right shoulder with his left and suggested: “Race me back home?”.
We’d never raced back home before, so naturally, I felt like something was off but decided to ignore it anyway. He called down 3, 2, 1, and we both took off down the gravel streets of our neighborhood.
As always, Thomas was far ahead of me for the first two minutes, but at some point and maybe it was divine intervention this time or maybe my brother was just plain tired for once, I passed him by and kept going full-steam ahead. I ran up our driveway and grabbed onto our front door handle a good fifteen seconds before he did. Startled and completely confused, but also massively excited, I nearly broke our front door handle off the door from how much I shook it out of disbelief that I had finally beaten my older brother in a race. The same older brother who was a track champion on our island. His eyes fell momentarily and I felt a twinge of guilt in my body; I quickly tried to stop my gloating, but before I even could calm myself down, he looked back up at me and grinned the same way he did when mom would tell him she was making chicken masala for dinner.
“I always knew you’d beat me one day,” and with that, he nudged the gold-painted door handle of our front door open and stepped inside our house. I stood there, not certain of what I was supposed to be feeling. On one hand, I was overjoyed at the fact that I had just kicked my brother's ass in something he was skilled at. But something also felt deeply off and I couldn't tell what it was.
I stepped inside, locked the door behind me and jogged up the stairs to my brother's room. The door was slightly ajar so I gently peered in to find him looking out the window. He hadn't turned the lights on so the night sky cast a blue glow into his room that illuminated all around his silhouette. In a sort-of magical way, with how the light was bouncing around in his room, my brother, from behind, looked like one of the fantasy water creatures he drew thousands of times in his notebook as a kid.
I didn't want to disturb him so I slowly backed away and tip-toed over to my room, deciding that I would talk to him about it tomorrow.
The next morning, I woke up and immediately made a beeline into my brother’s room only to have found his bed was empty but made. I felt a small knot in my stomach as I walked over to his bathroom door and knocked.
I nervously peered in, worried I would find him just getting out of the shower and thereby, scaring the shit out of him. But that wasn't the case as I found everything in its place except for him.
Where was he?
I grabbed my keys and ran through our backyard and over the neighbor's low fence to get to the beach quickly. I peered through the windows of the closed beach shack that he still worked at occasionally to see if he was inside, perhaps prepping for his shift later that day but found nothing and no one.
So then, I ran towards the dock to try to see if our rowboat (that we had technically been stealing for over ten years now) was still there amongst the other motorboats, jet skis and rowboats that were periodically tied to the dock by other locals. And it was.
I started shouting his name, each of my shouts growing louder and more panicked. There was no response of course, not that I was expecting one really. However, I was met with one of the beachfront house's dogs growling back at me from its front yard so I quickly shut up after that because I didn't feel like being attacked by a dog this early in the morning just yet.
I started heading back towards the shoreline to look around in the sand, thinking maybe I had missed something, some sort of clue. Thomas was a big fan of mysteries and clues; as a child, he dressed up as a detective for three Halloween's straight and always fancied the idea of becoming a detective later in life after he did all the things he wanted to do in his 20s and 30s. I retraced my steps around the dock before I got back on the sand. Maybe there was something in between the wooden boards? Or maybe he had tied something to another one of the boats?
I found nothing.
I went to back our log and sat down in my usual spot and then looked at where he would’ve sat had we just gotten back off the rowboat. There, I found a small note taped down to the log, with my name written on it in my brother’s fluid handwriting.
I tenderly tore the note off the log and brought it onto my lap, holding it delicately like my brother would whenever he found an injured bird on the side of the road. "Tiny, look", he would say with his blue eyes wide and his face in amazement at the beauty of nature, while raising the tiny bird to my face, "we're going to take care of her and then release her back into the wild."
I opened the note slowly, uncertain of what I was about to read. What if this was my brother's suicide note for godsakes? I felt the saliva in my mouth dry up immediately and my eyes began to pool with tears at just the simple thought that my brother did not exist anymore.
The note wasn't long at all. In the middle of the page, it simply read: "First, I run in. And then I’ll get out and tell you what’s going on.