When the light disappeared from behind the curtains it didn’t matter whether our parents were next door or not, it was only Ranyo that made me feel safe. He hugged me goodnight and afterwards he lay on the top bunk with his head dangling down the side of the bed. Every night he watched over me until I fell asleep and only then my brother went to sleep himself.
I don’t have many memories from my early childhood – I mean the ages 3 to 6 – but most of them are memories of Ranyo. He showed me how to make paper airplanes, he taught me to count from one to ten, and he was the one that told me about the treasure chests filled with toys in our garage.
I could not have imagined a better brother than Ranyo. He shared everything with me, even the secrets that I was not supposed to know. Once he showed me how to open the gummi bear drawer and afterwards we sat on the top bunk and ate little cola bottles and sweet green and red cherries until I felt sick.
Ranyo went to a different school than I did. He had to leave earlier than me and so I rarely saw him in the morning. But in turn he also finished earlier and nearly every day he stood on our front porch when mom and I arrived home. Only when it rained he hid inside the house, usually on his bunk with a teddy bear or two in his arms.
Ranyo hated the rain, but even more he hated the bath. I liked taking long baths with my ducks and ships, but Ranyo never joined me; he always just stood in the doorway and pleaded with me to come out so that we could play something else together.
I wondered how Ranyo showered if he hated water so much.
“In the morning, but really quickly,” he said. “You smell bad if you don’t shower, mom always says that!”
I thought that he would look funny in the shower. I imagined him rushing into the shower and right back out. I wanted to see or at least hear Ranyo shower, but I never managed to wake up early enough.
The only thing Ranyo hated more than water were babysitters. Usually mom asked the old lady that lived next door to take care of us when our parents went out for their movie nights, but on the few occasions when the lady was busy, or maybe sick, our parents hired one of their friends’ daughters to stay the evening with us. There were three or four different girls that babysat us, but Ranyo liked none of them.
“Girls are mean,” he said.
Sometimes mom allowed me to stay over at one of my male or female friends’ places, and sometimes they stayed over with us. Ranyo never came to the sleepovers; he said he was too old. I always thought that he was just scared that there might be girls in the house. But even when friends stayed over at our place Ranyo slept in the living room and the visitor got the top bunk insead. I didn’t like those nights. Instead of Ranyo’s calm protection the other kids usually rolled around or kicked against the wall or the reeling. Those that talked were the worst. I liked to sleep in silence and I liked to sleep with Ranyo watching me.
When Ranyo told me about the treasure chests in the garage I was in heaven. I was probably 5 years old at the time. I remember being in the garage with Ranyo. We ripped open box after box and found more and more buried treasures. We went to dinner and showed off some of the toys and clothes we found.
The next morning all the boxes were gone.
I don’t know for sure how old I was when Ranyo got sick. He was already sick when he showed me the treasure chests, so I was likely 4 or 5 when I first noticed his disease.
I saw it first in his cheeks. His cheeks were not smooth and round anymore, instead they began to fall inwards and they lost their color. When he showed me the boxes most of the color on his face was already gone; the pink-orange of his skin was more and more replaced by a light gray and finally, when his skin also got dry, a dark gray.
Ranyo never admitted to me that he had a disease. I asked him many times about it, but he always said that he was fine and that nothing would happen to him. I knew that was a lie and I told mom and dad that he had lied to me. Bur rather than scold him they got really angry and told me never to talk so badly about my brother.
Ranyo stood in the doorway and watched them scold me, but he didn’t say anything.
His disease got worse and sometimes, when I was alone in the bathroom, I cried because of it. His face looked scary with the sunken cheeks and the dry and dark eyes and I didn’t like that his skin felt like old paper. I played less with Ranyo and more with my friends, but I felt bad for him because he didn’t see his friends, except for when he went to school.
But the more his disease progressed the less Ranyo went to school. Instead he was home when I left in the morning and he was still home when I returned.
I asked whether I could stay home too, but mom said that I shouldn’t be silly and that school was good for me.
Every night Ranyo lay on the top bunk with his head bent down to watch me fall asleep. Sometimes we talked for a few minutes. Usually he asked me about my day but when I asked about his he just said that it was boring.
I remember most of my sixth birthday. In the morning mom, dad and I had cake, but Ranyo was already at school. I kept a piece for him to eat later. I thought he had gotten very thin and that he needed to eat more cake because mom always said that cake makes you fat.
At school my class sang for me and the teacher gave me a book.
After school a few friends came to our house. There were balloons on the door. Mom had prepared games, but dad was at work and Ranyo hid on his bunk. I thought about introducing him to my friends and I wanted to offer him to take one of my friends because I had so many and he had none. Then I thought that he might be ashamed because of his disease and that the others might tease him for it. I felt sorry for Ranyo and I felt angry at my friends for making him scared.
Dad brought pizza. My friends and I ate pizza downstairs and I reserved a slice for Ranyo and placed it on his bunk.
When my friends had left mom and dad kissed me goodnight. I went back to my room and Ranyo sat on the bed. He was already in the blue pajamas that he wore every night. I scolded him for not eating and told him that mom would be angry because of the tomato stains on the sheets.
Ranyo said that the pizza wasn’t important. He climbed down the ladder and pulled me in front of the mirror. I remember that his hands scratched my skin; they were dry and wavy like the brown leaves that are blown off trees in autumn.
“Look,” he said.
The difference in the mirror scared me. He looked gray and frail and I looked round and rosy. His shirt was hanging loosely from his body and mine was too tight. I pulled on my shirt.
“Not that,” Ranyo said. “Look at our heads.”
His eyes terrified me. The rings around his eyes were a dark, close even to a greenish black. His eyeballs seemed to have shrunk; they looked like big black raisins. His nose seemed broken off and I could see the bones under his cheeks. I knew he didn’t want to hear that.
“See?” he asked; his finger pointed towards the top of our heads.
My hair was full and colored in a bright blond. It looked good with my birthday haircut. Ranyo’s hair was thin and patchy. It had looked bad before, but now, next to mine, it looked even worse.
Next to mine!
“We are the same size,” I said.
His wide grin exposed blackness where his gums should have been.
“Exactly,” he said. “Now you don’t need a big brother anymore.”
I smiled. Ranyo always knew how to make me feel proud.
He hugged me. I slipped into my pajamas and climbed into my bunk. When I was wrapped in my new white and green fish-pattern blanket Ranyo too climbed back into his bunk.
A moment later his head appeared down the side of the bed.
“You’re a great brother,” I said.
“Don’t miss me,” Ranyo said.
In the morning he was gone. I tried to stay calm.
When I came home from school he still wasn’t there.
“Where is Ranyo?” I asked.
Mom looked surprised but just shrugged her shoulders.
At night I asked mom and dad to call the police. I told them that someone must have abducted Ranyo because he was so weak.
They smiled. My parents smiled.
For weeks I searched and pleaded with my parents to help find him. They just nodded.
Even the teachers at school just nodded.
He never came back.
For years I wondered why there were photos of Ranyo and photos of me, but none of both of us together.
When I turned sixteen my parents sat me down. They said they wanted to make sure I understood it. They told me that I had had an older brother. I said I knew that. Dad looked confused and mom looked worried.
Ranyo died shortly before I was born. Mom said he really wanted a little brother. He always hugged the belly to say goodnight.
When Ranyo turned six they held a party for him at the lake house. Mom had to go to the hospital because there were complications with her pregnancy. They hired a babysitter to help dad with the party.
Dad made the barbeque and the babysitter played with Ranyo and his friends in the shallow end of the lake.
She chased Ranyo around because he was the birthday boy. She thought he was just making fun when he kept his head underwater. Another boy distracted her. She saw too late that Ranyo didn’t move.
And still, in my memory he was real. He taught me things that no one else would have taught me – like the gummi bear drawer. He showed me his old toys in the garage. And, every night, he watched me fall asleep.
Now I bring him flowers twice per year. Once I come on his birthday and once I come on mine.
I just wonder what I saw when his face turned gray and hollow and his skin hard and dry. I wonder whether that was how, back then, his body really looked.