It was already late when she entered my room that night. I was afraid she had come to check if I was asleep as I was supposed to, but she sat by my side and started talking, stroking my hair. She knew I was awake. Mothers always do. I could smell the distinctive scent of her nightgown and the hand cream she always applied before going to bed. She talked in a smooth voice, the kind you use to soothe a child, almost a whisper. I had already overgrown the night lamp, but the small round octopus was still plugged into the wall outlet beside my bed. She stroked my hair with slow and long movements, the octopus seemed to move due to the dim light coming from the semi-opened door and the shadow of her arm. I had just one eye slightly open, pretending to be asleep. She said I was still much too young to see but, beyond all the times she corrected me – which seemed like a lot – and sent me to my room, beyond all the imposed chores and all the arguments over TV time and homework, I was a great boy, a great son. I was, and that was something that was supposed to be kept between us, her favourite. She knew she was wrong just by having a favourite, let alone telling me about it, but she had to say it. She said another two or three variations of that, adding something about me continuing to be such a great boy and make my father proud, then kissed my forehead and got up. I waited until she left the room to sit up, as confused as any eight-years-old kid would after that. I’ve heard a couple of her soft slipper-coated steps on the hallway before everything went back to total silence. Surprisingly, it didn’t take me long to sleep after that.
She wasn’t there the following morning.
It has been twenty years now, and I kept the silent promise I made to her that night. I had been a good boy, as good a teenager as it is possible, a good young man. We, my siblings and I, wanted to ease the burden on our father. She left no note, no reason, no explanation. Only three kids and an unsuspected husband. He did a pretty good job, considering he had no clue whatsoever for the first year or two. Truth be told, my older sister took care of our little brother and me until dad was up to speed, and she would still intervene when his choices were less than ideal. All of us helped dad a lot, just by being the most well-behaved kids around. It wasn’t all flowers and honey all the time, of course, but we generally did well.
My sister and I had been in a car for the last couple of hours, driving to pick up our little brother, now a university graduate ready to take on the world. She did it for me, even if – or maybe because of – nobody was there for her. I would, but I wasn’t allowed to drive at the time. Dad used all of his strength bringing us up and was now fragile, emotionally more than physically. He forgot dates and meetings, and was issued an early retirement because he was becoming a danger to himself and others. It wasn’t rare to find him sobbing at mom’s pictures, alone in his room. My sister resumed her mothering until she left for college, then she passed the baton for me. When I left, she stayed close to keep an eye in our little brother and our dad, and she wouldn’t let me leave campus if it wasn’t in her car. She also let me live with her until I got a job good enough to provide for myself. I was ready to do the same for Eddie, but she insisted on going along. Not only that, she insisted in using her much better car.
“Is it true he grown a beard?”
“Haven’t you seen the photos? It is more a stubble than a real thing, though. But yeah, there’s hair in his face now.”
“And where did he got the idea?”
“Probably out of boredom. You now how writing those final papers can be.”
We were outside his dorm building, looking at the several boys and girls coming with suitcases and dreams. I showed her the last picture Eddie sent me, the one with the so-called beard, and we were waiting for such a person to pass through the door with his things. There were a few groups saying their goodbyes, a few parents with family vehicles ready to transport whatever their sons had gathered during college, a few teachers giving last-time pieces of advice and recommendation letters. One particular group seemed to be out of place: five young, well-dressed people having what could well be a business meeting, standing in a side of the lawn in front of the building. We were scanning the area, waiting for our brother to emerge from one of the doors, looking at our watches thinking he probably forgot we were coming and was collecting his things right then. But out of the five business-like people came out our own Eddie, white button-down shirt neatly tucked inside his marine-blue dress pants, secured by a black leather silver-buckled belt, stepping on the grass in shiny oxfords, hair carefully styled. And shaved. We couldn’t take out eyes off him while he walked towards us, like a lord.
“I have a surprise for you”, he said, before hugging us in a fashion way warmer anyone dressed like that has any right to. It was still our little brother after all.
“I bet you do”, said Liz, “otherwise I will check for my real brother inside.”
“It just happened”, he said. “We’ve applied for a trainee position in one of the most prominent business development companies in the country a few weeks ago, and we’ve just heard the answer.”
“Yes, the five of us got it”, he said pointing to the others. “It is a rather disputed program, three-fourths of the trainees are kept in the company, the others are handpicked by the competition. It is not only a great learning opportunity, but they also offer the same benefits any other employee has, plus a nice entry salary.”
“That’s all fantastic and everything”, said Liz, “but do they require you guys to leave campus like that?”
“Well, that’s actually the surprise. I’m not going home. We have our first meeting this afternoon.”
“And where is it?”, I asked. “We can still drive you, right?”
“I’m counting on it. If only you were willing to cross two state borders with me.”
Liz looked at me, I just shrugged.
“Sure, it will be fun!”, she answered. “But where will you live, then?”
“We will share an apartment there for the duration of the program. After that, we should be able to support ourselves.”
Liz and I looked at each other. “Sounds like a plan”, she said. “Pick up your things and let get going!”
“I’m good”, he said. “Our stuff already left this morning. The company paid the moving expenses.”
“Look at you”, I joked, “fresh out of college and already a big shot!”
We drove for a few hours before stopping for lunch, sharing college memories and misadventures, laughing and listening to 90’s songs. Despite the social attire, Edward was our little brother Eddie again. I kept thinking, and I’m sure Liz did the same, how come the three of us got out so well. Our mother vanished when we were kids, forcing us to mature ahead of our time to deal with an unprepared recently single dad and having to make ends meet with his then single meager income. During lunch, we asked Eddie to tell us all about his exciting new job.
“First of all, explain to us how you came to choose business as a major. We all thought you would pursue something like biology or veterinary.”
“I did think about it. I even got a few classes. But I decided I could be of better use in the business world.”
“It was quite a shock for us seeing you all dressed up like that”, I said. “We were expecting a long-haired, teenage-bearded, tie-dyed t-shirt guy who would keep his hands dirty with animals and stuff.”
“Yeah, that would probably keep me happy in the short-term.”
“And what made you change your mind?”
“You know how I was still little when mom left, right?”
Liz looked at me, we both tried to keep the smiles in our faces. There was a considerable space between us, Liz being five years older than me, and Eddie four years younger. He had just turned four at the time, and we rarely included him when we talked about mom. We had memories of her, we remembered how she was with us, in the house, with dad. We remember how we had no clue she would simply leave one night. Eddie grew up without her, knowing her mostly by the pictures dad started hiding at some point. He used to ask us all kinds of things until he was a teenager, until Liz left for college. We were never sure what he remembered, what was real and what was a mix of his imagination and the stories we told him. I’ve tried remembering the things that happened when I was his age, and couldn’t make much of it. We always wanted him to have a tender image of mom, and sometimes we feared to paint an overly idyllic canvas that would impress the little boy.
“We were all little”, I said. “I mean, Liz was on the verge of her first period, but still.”
“Hey!”, she complained. Eddie and I laughed.
“What? Do you think I didn’t notice? It was the first time dad really got out of the stupor, since you were the one caring for us.”
“Besides, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. It was a normal and beautiful thing that happens with every girl.” I wonder if Eddie will keep cracking jokes like that in his future business meetings.
“Ok, stop you two. We were talking about Eddie’s choices, not about my blossoming.”
“Your what?” Eddie nearly choked on his soda.
“Shut up and continue your story.”
“Can’t do both.”
“Just talk about college and forget the rest.”
“So, as I was saying, I was only four. I don’t remember much, honestly, but there is one memory I’m sure it’s real. The one thing I held on to.”
“And what is that?”
“The night mom disappeared, after we were all already in bed, she went into my room.”
I held my breath for a moment and looked at Liz instinctively. Her eyes were wide open, and I could see she was holding herself not to say something. Eddie took a long pause, as to increase the dramatic effect on what he was about to say.
“She did?”, Liz said, clearly struggling with saying what she really wanted to.
“Yes, I was already asleep. She put my head on her lap and stroked my hair, whispering I was a good boy.”
He should have chosen a creative writing major or something. All those pauses. He bitted into his sandwich or took a sip at his soda after every sentence.
“I’m a bit concerned to tell you guys this, but I swear it is true. We are all adults now, we can talk about it.”
“Says our little brother fresh out of university.”
“Yeah, when did you got so mature?”
“As I said, it may look like something I imagined as a child, but is it the most vivid memory I have of mom. I’m positive it happened as I will tell.”
“So, please, tell us.” I was getting nervous, having an incredible last night story of my own.
“Well, she said I was a good boy, and that I was doing quite well, even if sometimes she and dad didn’t show it.” I could feel a sweat drop sliding through my face. Liz barely breathed. “In the end, she told me that, even knowing it was wrong to feel that way and to tell me that, I was her favourite. I guess I just wanted to make her proud, and to take care of dad someday.”
Liz dropped her drink. “What?”
“Calm down, Liz. We are all adults, remember?”
“I can’t believe she told you that!”, she was almost hysterical.
“I know it sounds unlikely, but it is true.” Eddie’s face showed no signs of being joking. Right then, he was businessman Edward.
“I know”, I said. “She did the same with me. Except for the head on the lap part, everything else was the same. Are you sure you weren’t eavesdropping? You used to do that.”
“No, it was real” Liz answered, crying. “She did the same with me, too.”