Do you still remember June? Do you remember how we were back then? I’ll give you some clues: the air, thick with barbecue smoke and cold with winter; the chattering of the crowd, euphoric and restless; your backpack, green; my backpack, red. The colors are a hint of what’s to come. Another refresher: we were midway through our three buses from work to home and got off in front of the terminus downtown, where everyone was gathering.
“Another protest?” you asked. “Like yesterday’s?”
Think carefully now. Yes, another protest, but we had not been notified of this one. No one in my classes knew; no one talked about it online. Street vendors piled in front of the terminus, offering all kinds of products: strips of roasted meat, popcorn, green and yellow vuvuzelas, knockoff football shirts.
“We should stay,” you told me.
The crowd began to move. All kinds of people surrounded us, and my eyes stopped at the embroidered double-sig rune on somebody’s jacket.
I called your name. Double bolts, Iron Cross, death’s head. I grabbed your arm to lead you away from the corner where those people stood, and we headed toward the vendors. “There’s a bunch of neo-Nazis in front of the market.”
“Nazis? No way.”
I started to pay attention, finding the usual syndicalist groups across the street, shouting their usual slogans and holding their usual signs. Maybe I’m seeing things, I thought, but there was something else, something wrong. The previous protests had drawn thousands of activists, but the ones flocking in front of the bus terminus that day didn’t look like the kind of people who would protest the increase in bus fares. The crowd was different—richer, older—and their patriotic rallying cries made my hair stand on end.
“Popcorn, popcorn, popcorn, butter, caramel popcorn…!” chanted a vendor wearing the uniform of the national football team. A couple bought two cold beers, and a man by their side recorded a live video on Facebook. “One shirt, thirty, two shirts, fifty-five…!”
“We gotta go back home,” I said, and this time I wasn’t concerned about the cops. A single police truck was parked in the main road, but the officers were taking a selfie with two women with painted faces and carnival wigs.
When I turned around to find you, you were already gone.
• • •
There is not a single day that I don’t think about you. It can happen at any given point: when I’m waking up, when I brush my teeth, when I peel carrots and potatoes to cook your favorite stew. What did I do wrong? Where are you? Do you ever think of me?
• • •
Street lights flickered above me. One of the vendors—popcorn, butter, caramel popcorn—knelt by my side and touched my bruised forehead. “Alive,” he told his wife. “Even if we call an ambulance, I don’t think it would reach the avenue.”
“I’m fine, thank you.” I accepted his hand to get back to my feet. “I just need to find my little brother.”
The vendor laughed. “In this crowd?”
• • •
I texted you, saying that I would wait at home—got harassed in front of the terminus, I’m leaving—and got inside a bus. You never answered. I called, too, but the phone insisted that your number no longer existed. The next day, I went to the police, but they frowned, claiming there were no records of anyone with your name. They showed me my registry number, without a known sibling, the only child of parents who were never there.
“Hah,” I laughed, thinking it was a joke. The officer didn’t find it as amusing as me. “Would you please check again? I was there when he was born. I was the first person to ever hold him. I wouldn’t mistake his name.”
I knew you then as I know you now: a baby with reddened cheeks, screaming at the top of his lungs. A little boy with curly hair and brown eyes, pretending he hadn’t eaten my share of cake. A teenager with a cracking voice, a college student with horrible grades, my dearest, closest friend.
“He exists,” I said before leaving. I don’t need to see you to know you. “He exists.”
• • •
Nine months have passed, and there are no signs of you. When we first moved to this apartment, we were able to keep a certain organization amid the mess, but now only chaos remains. There are clothes all over the sofa, dishes to clean, garbage that I haven’t taken out. The guys from work don’t remember who you are, and my ex thinks I’ve lost it, but our neighbor downstairs knows the truth. She sees me in the elevator, dark circles under my eyes, anxious fingers playing with the strap of my backpack (it’s not red anymore—not after you left), mouth going dry.
“You’re all grown now,” she says with the voice of someone who means something they don’t plan to say. “But something has been worrying me. Your brother, has he moved out?”
The elevator stops at her floor: sixth. “You remember him?” I grab her shoulders, and recompose myself when I remember that she’s seventy-five.
Ms. Odete invites me to her house and prepares a bowl with fruit and cassava starch cookies. She only speaks again in the kitchen, when we are both holding cups of warm coffee. “My daughter is gone as well,” she begins. “But look. Look at the oven.”
I don’t understand what she means. There is nothing on the oven: no pans or dishes, only an embellished rag with embroidered flowers. This kitchen is protected by God, it says.
My eyes stop at the reflective glass panel, and I finally see it: a middle-aged woman, hair tied into a bun, taking a tray of vegetables out of the fire. Her movements are stilted, her features twist into confusion, but I can see her for a few seconds before she disappears, a lagged image of an old television lost in the panel.
• • •
It’s the second year without you, but your face is everywhere. In my—our—kitchen. In the metal of the sink, shining and distorted. In the cracked screens of electronic devices, in the alarm clock I keep near the bed, in the humid walls of the shower.
“You’re alive!” I scream when I see you again, and your image shimmers for a few seconds before vanishing. Your hair is longer and you haven’t shaved, but you’re wearing new clothes; it’s been a while, but I still wear my old ones. “You’re alive!”
There are so many things I wish I could tell you. One: I gave up on college. I don’t feel safe in class anymore, and I’m just too tired to keep studying between jobs. Two: I don’t read any kind of news. I avoid anything that might remind me of what’s happening, from social media to my inbox, from newspapers to TV. Three: I was fired from the company. Now I deliver food on a local app. Who would have thought, right? Four: Things are not as they were. I’m growing afraid. They might never be the same again.
• • •
The bus price has risen again. I see you in the glass near the seat, watching corners turn into avenues as I go back home. I see you in my bicycle bell. One day, I see you walking on the same street as I am—in a display window—and my heart races. You and I, side by side, like in the old times. We’re even wearing the same shirt: long sleeves, plain, red (I shouldn’t have worn red). You notice me, too, and your eyes widen, but it’s not recognition I see in your face. Run, you seem to say. Run.
It’s my shirt; the color haunts me as of late. Like on the day I lost you, it attracts the worst kind of attention. In the crowd, someone had pulled my backpack: what are you, a fucking commie? In front of the display window, the tone is graver, and the first punch leaves a wet trail of blood down my nose and chin: scum like you have no place here anymore.
Three against one. I’ve heard about cases like this. A murder in a bar because of a political disagreement. A woman getting beaten on her university campus. A guy shot in the head. Don’t react, I tell myself, trying to smile my way out of there.
I stop wearing red.
• • •
Sooner or later, we will laugh about this. I know it when I see you in the reflection of the mirror, the shadow of a line appearing between your nose and your cheeks. Lately, you look back at me. You show me headlines of newspapers I’ve never heard of through the reflection, and I wonder if they’re real or if I’m imagining a better outcome for you than the one I have to live. Dollar drops again and settles at R$2.40, one of them reads.
I show you mine: Dollar rises to R$4, then 5, then 6, then almost 7. The others are too bad to even mention. We smile at each other, brown eyes against brown eyes. I wish I could hear your voice. Your annoying, boyish, homely voice telling me to stop being emotional all the time.
“Take care,” your lips say.
• • •
It’s been seven years. Seven years without you, without the neighbor’s daughter. Many people went missing that June, but only a few of us remember them. We speak about it through messages on the internet; we whisper your names in dimly lit corridors. Is it the same on your side? Does anyone remember us? Most importantly: will you forget me one day? Have you already?
Last night, I scurried outside in secret, hours after curfew (did I tell you about curfew?). You would say that it wasn’t my smartest idea, and I might even agree with you. It wasn’t, but it made me remember what our lives felt like before. It made me remember what we could do when you were still here.
I need to leave our city, but I force myself to stay. If I escape the country, I might never see your reflection again, and this is the only comfort that gives me strength.
• • •
Joke’s on me—you haven’t appeared since February, and it’s already April. I look at reflections every day, but your face is never there. Once or twice, I’ll see fragments of your eyes, your cheeks, your hands, but you disappear so swiftly that it might be only my imagination. Some fears overcome me, and I have nightmares thinking that you and your side are dead.
I want you to be healthy, to be happy, to be safe. As for me, I keep going. Keep working. Keep hoping. Take care, brother. Visit me when you can.
My world is on fire, but I want to believe that we will meet again.