My older brother’s bedroom door was locked. It usually was, but I always liked to rattle the knob to check before knocking. Each knock varied in strength and landed on a different part of the door. I thought of it as a sisterly tap code, and it only ever conveyed one message: “Come out, Douglas. I’m lonely.”
That night, Douglas didn’t respond to my knocks by screaming at me to go away. He didn’t invite me inside either. From his room, I heard nothing.
A few weeks earlier, he had covered the top half of his door with an illustration of a demon stuffing a young girl into its slavering mouth. The girl’s face wasn’t visible, merely traces of her white-blonde hair and a purple sneaker poking out of the demon’s fist.
Uncoincidentally, I had white-blonde hair and wore purple sneakers.
The child-gobbling demon had kept me away, until my loneliness overcame my fear. I missed Douglas, the old Douglas who had been nice enough to play board games with me and sometimes watch a movie we would both like. He had been replaced with a rageful and melancholy version of himself. I knew that knocking on his door would do nothing but anger him, unless I could tell him something that would tempt him into a conversation.
“Doug!” I called. “Dougie,” I added, in the hopes of annoying him into a response with a hated nickname.
Two hours earlier, at dinner, we had sat three feet apart at the kitchen island eating microwaved pizza. Our parents had fluttered between the living room, the kitchen, and the first-floor master bedroom, adding layers of fancy evening clothes to themselves and pausing frequently to peer at their phones.
Our dad had spoken to us once, to chide us about our poor performance at school. Douglas was in ninth grade, and his test scores and homework in all subjects had recently become abysmal. As for myself, I made an effort with my work, but other problems weighed on me. My fourth-grade teacher had complained to my parents about my absent-mindedness, a tendency to get tangled up in imaginative threads. “Imagination is wonderful,” Mrs. Carron had remarked at the parent-teacher conference, “but even good qualities need moderation.”
Or, as my dad had put it, “You need to grow up, Emily. Your behavior is getting ridiculous.”
After dinner, the babysitter had turned up. She was a sullen college student who lived two doors down. Douglas had insisted that there was no need for a babysitter, because he was 14, but my parents hadn’t known how late they would return. They hadn’t wanted to give my brother the responsibility of looking after me for so many hours.
Whenever the babysitter was over, she left us alone. As long as the house wasn’t burning down around her or getting burglarized, she would stay squashed up in an armchair in the living room. She would ignore my requests for games and tell me to feed myself if I wanted bedtime snacks. Although my parents always offered her the use of a spare bedroom, she would fall asleep in the armchair in a cloud of soft snores. Even though she was in the house that night, I was essentially alone with my older brother.
I pressed an ear to his door, at the spot where the demon’s clawed foot was embedded in a gray and brown scree. I imagined I could hear the scratches of colored pencils through the door and the puffs of my brother’s breath.
“Douglas!” I nearly whined. “I need to show you something!”
The crack of the lock and the door flying open arrested my speech. My brother didn’t look surly or furious. His cheeks weren’t blotchy with frustration. Instead, he looked as if he had fitted a tight, pale mask to himself, from which his eyes, dark and frantic, sought escape.
“What do you want?” he mumbled. “I’m busy.”
I peered past him into the concentrated shadows of his room, where only the desk light was on. The light struck a piece of paper covered in crisscrossing red, gold, and black lines.
As the door swung shut, I jammed my foot against it and told him, “You need to see this.”
A pause followed, in which I thought he would scream at me to stop bothering him. But the door crept open, leaving a gap large enough for him to fill. He was a lanky boy with streaks of neon blue in his brown hair. That night, he was enfolded in an enormous purple t-shirt that seemed a part of the darkness in his room.
I allowed the locket to drop and dangle from my fist. Although it hung from what appeared to be a silver chain, the oval-shaped locket was made of copper. It bore a detailing of delicate flowers. I thought of them as wildflowers plucked from the side of a forest path.
My older brother’s expression didn’t change. “Did you ransack Mom’s jewelry box?”
More times than I could count, but the point was immaterial. “I didn’t find it there. I found it out in the yard.”
The fence at the far end of our backyard separated us from a nature preserve. Beside the fence and inside the confines of our yard, a beech tree grew with a hole in its heart. Sometimes, I stuck things into it for safekeeping, like pencils I had stolen from classmates or candy wrappers with messages. I also liked to search it now and then, because I believed that it was a magical tree and that I would find something mysterious in it. On discovering the locket, I hadn’t felt any surprise, only excitement.
“Look inside,” I urged. “Do you know who it is?”
He tugged it out of my hand and popped it open. For what seemed like hours he stared at the image inside: the pensive face of a teenaged boy with white-blonde hair.
“So he did leave something behind,” Douglas murmured.
“Who?” I asked.
His voice trembled. “Where did you find this?”
“In the beech tree. Who is it?”
“Of course you wouldn’t remember.” The locket vanished into his fist. “It’s our older brother.”
I reached for the locket, but he shoved his fist behind his back. “We don’t have an older brother,” I said.
“We do,” he insisted. “He’s gone.”
“You mean… he died?”
“No. He’s gone. I’m the only one who remembers him.”
Douglas swallowed hard. “Because I was with him when he disappeared. I followed him into the woods that day.”
Douglas stared past my shoulder. “It was night actually. He climbed over the back fence and followed a hiking trail deep into the woods. I think he knew I was following him, but he didn’t care.”
“When did this happen?”
“A couple of months ago.”
I laughed and shook my head. My ears picked up the murmur of the TV downstairs and the grating pitch of the babysitter’s voice as she spoke on the phone. These were real-world noises, a stark contrast to my brother’s eerie lies.
“What’s his name?” I challenged.
Fear clutched at me, and I had to remind myself that he was making this all up. “How did he disappear?”
“He met with… something.” Douglas flicked a glance at his bedroom door, where the demon continued to devour the blonde child with the purple sneakers.
It crossed my mind that, just possibly, I wasn’t the only child in the family with blonde hair and shoes of that color.
“You’re telling me Mom and Dad never noticed he’s gone?”
Douglas licked his lips and shivered. “When he… when he vanished, the world seemed to shift. Like something had been swallowed up. No one noticed he was ever born or ever disappeared. Except for me. Maybe because I was there.”
“But what happened?” I cried.
“He messed with something he should’ve left alone.” Douglas rapped his knuckles on the door, and I flinched. “This is a warning,” he said. “You need to stay away. No matter what, you can’t follow me.”
I noticed only then that my cheeks were wet. With the backs of my hands, I rubbed at the tears. “Did the demon eat him?”
Douglas bit his lip. “I don’t think he’s dead. I think I figured out how to get to him. I could save him.”
My hands slipped from my cheeks and into my hair, which I clutched at the roots. “Stop, already. You’re just making things up.”
His face hardened. “Like I said, you whiny little brat, you can’t follow me. Go away.”
I thought he would slam the door then, but he continued to glare at me. “I hate this house.” His voice broke in a dry sob. “I hate how empty it is. No one notices what’s missing.”
I understood what he meant by empty. How our parents were as remote as comets. How we were housed, fed, clothed, and largely unnoticed, except for when we were at fault. I burned with loneliness sometimes. Until recent months, Douglas had been my friend, or had at least tolerated me. Now, he was heading down a path I couldn’t follow or even understand.
His bedroom door quietly shut. Though I stood outside it for a while, I didn’t knock or call for him. I didn’t press my ear against it to hear what he might be doing. I also averted my eyes from the illustration of the gorging demon. Looking back on that moment, I wondered if I was already saying good-bye to Douglas. I may have experienced a premonition of what would happen in the morning.
My sleep that night wasn’t troubled by nightmares, at least not any that I could remember. I woke up once, listening to the rustle of coats, the clatter of keys on the hall table, and the low voices of my parents. Sleep caught me up again soon after. I slept heavily, until 10, and woke up with a headache at my temples. When I trudged to the bathroom, I noticed that the illustration on my older brother’s door was gone. What remained was scarred white paint.
My heart was thick in my throat as I stared at his door. I couldn’t bring myself to touch the surface, not even to knock. From downstairs came the rattle of cutlery and the prattle from a weekend morning news program. I slunk down the stairs and spotted my mom at the stove with her back to me and my dad tucking his head into the fridge. They moved languidly, as if they were fronds of an underwater plant. A glance at the living room armchair showed me that the babysitter had already left.
My eyes searched the room and landed on a cluster of family photos next to the TV. It didn’t take me long to realize that Douglas wasn’t in any of them. I looked from one to the other, hoping to uncover him, but he was absent. He had evaporated from photos with my parents, and from a photo taken with me on our front lawn a couple of years ago. I remained alone against the backdrop of our house. Also gone was the photo of him as a baby in a mustard-colored onesie, his mouth glistening with drool.
I turned and ran up the stairs to his room. My hand curled around the doorknob, and I twisted it. The door was locked. I rattled the knob to make sure, and followed through by knocking. I already knew, before I finished, that there would be no point in summoning him, in telling him to come out because I was alone.