Your Brother’s Touchstone

Phillip is about to disappear again. You’re a block away from school, and your brother is dragging his feet as you try to pull him across the crosswalk. Your opposite forces cancel out, leaving you at a standstill in the middle of the street. It’s a little annoying that he can do this now. He’s only eight, fully three years younger and half a foot shorter than you, but taekwondo has really strengthened his resolve this year, while treatment has only weakened yours.

“Noona, I don’t wanna goooo,” he moans. “School is so stupid. I hate it.”

You roll your eyes. “Phillip, it’s not a choice.” You look around you, at the familiar delis and brick apartments that line the street. You walk these three blocks from Haraboji’s townhouse every morning, and lately Phillip has been throwing a fit half the time. An older boy you’ve seen around before watches with mild interest from the skatepark on the corner of the street, probably wondering if you’re going to get run over by a car. “People are looking at us,” you hiss at him, but he holds his ground.

“My teacher is so mean,” he whines. “She says I don’t pay attention, but it’s not my fault she’s sooo boring.” It’s only when a car turns the corner that you can finally drag him across the street. Once you hit the sidewalk, though, he shakes you off and bursts ahead, rounding a corner.

“Phillip, wait!” you call after him, but when you turn the same corner you’re greeted by an empty street. You look around you, but there’s no crevice he could have hidden in, no alleyway to escape to. He’s gone.

You shut your eyes and groan. This is the third time this year that this has happened, and it’s not even November yet.

You walk the remaining block to school, joining the steady stream of kids heading inside. You go straight to the Principal’s office, where Rosy the secretary is clacking her shiny nails on the keyboard. She raises her eyebrows at you when she sees you walk in. “Good morning, Miss Hana.”

“Phillip’s sick again,” you tell her. She purses her lips slightly, and then just nods and waves you in. Other kids think she’s mean, but she’s let these absences with Phillip slide. You know it’s only because she feels bad for you—maybe she thinks your entire family is ill. You feel her eyes shift to your short, uneven hair, and you quickly murmur a goodbye and escape out the door before she can say another word.

Phillip’s absence falls to the background for most of the school day, though during silent reading period you stare at your book, eyes glazing over words, and wonder if he’s come back yet. After the final bell rings, you wait for him at the entrance until you realize he’s not coming. In fact, he doesn’t come back until much later that night.

* * *

“Noona, wake up,” a voice whispers into your ear. You open your eyes. In the darkness you can’t see much of anything, but you feel his breath on your cheek, hot and quick. You feel a wave of relief, but also a flash of annoyance as you remember your walk home alone. The boy at the skatepark was there again, wearing a beaten red jacket and a weird look on his face the entire time you went down the block.

“Phillip?” you say, lifting yourself up in a daze. You turn on the lamp between your matching twin beds. “Finally, you’re back.”

“What did you tell Haraboji?” he asks, his eyes wide.

“Huh? I told him you were gonna stay with Mom and Dad tonight.”

“Oh.” He crinkles his nose. “I hate sleeping in the dry cleaner apartment. It never stops shaking.”

“You should be thanking me for covering for you,” you say exasperatedly, though secretly you agree. The apartment above your parents’ dry cleaners is tiny and boring and hot, not to mention much farther from school. You swing your legs off the bed. “So where did you go this time?”

He thinks for a moment. “A field. It was so huge—I could only see grass. I kept shouting and running and looking for people, but I couldn’t find anyone.”

You stare at him. “You spent the entire day in a field? Did you eat anything after breakfast?”

He shrugs. “I’m hungry now, Noona.”

You walk to the kitchen and turn on the light. From the fridge you dig out leftover kimchi pancake and soup and put them in the microwave. It hums in the background as you scrutinize your brother, who sits at the island with his legs swinging. “Okay, let’s go over the clues. Today you were in a field. Last time…”

“I was in the woods, somewhere. There was no one there either.” He shivers at the memory. “But the first time this year, I landed in a street I didn’t recognize. I asked a lady for her phone and tried calling Haraboji and the dry cleaners, but strangers answered instead.”

You punch open the microwave two seconds before it beeps, so you don’t wake up Haraboji. You put the food in front of Phillip and watch as he scarfs it down quickly. You try to make sense of the things he’s told you, puzzle pieces you can grasp in your mind but can’t quite fit together. The case of your weird, disappearing brother, who eats with his mouth open and has a new obsession every week, who likes to open and close the door in his sleep but never remembers doing so the next morning. Who can’t control when he disappears or where he goes. Thinking about it makes your body tingle all over, a greater mystery than in any of the detective books that you devour.
“You have to learn how to control this, Phillip,” you tell him. “You can’t keep disappearing whenever you feel like it. Rosy is gonna get suspicious.”

He pouts. “Noona, I don’t know how.”

You start to pace, something the people in your books are always doing. “What’s been the same about all the times it’s happened? Were you thinking something, doing something?”

He thinks while chewing. “I don’t know… uh, I guess I’ve always been outside. And I’ve always been running, too.”

You nod, satisfied. “Okay. Well, we can train tomorrow after my appointment.”

He makes a face at the word train but says nothing, finishing the rest of the food. Then he hops off the chair and heads down the dark hallway. “G’night, Noona.”

You put his plate in the sink and follow him down the hallway, flipping off the light as you leave. Phillip is already out cold when you enter the bedroom, and you tug a little more blanket over him before crashing into your own bed. Whatever he’s doing, wherever he’s going— all you know is that it’s exhausting.

* * *

Haraboji takes you to the hospital after school the next day. He seats himself in the waiting room while you approach the front desk.

“Hi, my name is Hana Chae,” you say. “I have an appointment at 4:30?”

“Can I speak to a parent, darling?” the woman drawls from behind the glass, hardly looking up. She mouses around at a massive, ancient computer, reminding you of Rosy.

“They’re not here, actually. I came with my grandfather. He doesn’t speak English very well,” you say, trying to talk as slowly and helpfully as you can. You hate when adults make you repeat yourself, because you weren’t ‘speaking clearly enough’. “But I know all of my information, so you can just ask me everything.”

She looks up at you, and you muster a wide smile. “Alright,” she finally grumbles.

After about ten minutes a nurse calls your name. You follow her through the door, past all the regular check-up rooms to the large testing room in the back. She takes your weight and height and swabs your cheek. You tell her how you’ve felt for the past few weeks, which is fine. Then she withdraws a vial of blood and gives you a pink and white polka-dotted band-aid.

“You’re good to go, sweetie,” she says. “We’ll call Mom and Dad with the results in a bit.” Then you walk back to the waiting room where Haraboji has dozed off, gently shake him awake, and head home.

Phillip is sprawled on the floor and shuffling cards when you get back. Playing cards are his current infatuation, and he’s been badgering you to play new games all the time. This time, though, you give him a knowing look and he rolls over, disgruntled as he gets to his feet. I’m going outside, you say to Haraboji in Korean.

You walk to the backyard, where there’s a small meadow that also borders the surrounding houses. Phillip trails behind you. “This is dumb,” he announces as you come to a stop amongst the thin grass. This place is little more than a mud pit after it rains, a far cry from the majestic field that Phillip had told you all about yesterday. Still, it’s better than nothing.

You point in front of you. “Run. Try to disappear.”

Phillip grumbles for a moment, then starts to sprint. He waves his arms around and leaps, then comes crashing down to the ground. He walks back to you. “Nope.”

You tell him to try again. You tell him to yell the place he wants to go to before he jumps, to empty his head, to think about flying. You tell him to think about his favorite food, black bean noodles. For half an hour he runs around, with nothing to show for it. The next time he retreats, you’re startled to see his eyes glistening. You realize he wants to figure this out just as much as you.

You look at your brother, bruised, dirty, and panting, and hold out your hand. “That’s enough for today. Let’s go home,” you tell him. You help him up and suggest you guys make black bean noodles for dinner. Haraboji only has the instant kind, but still.

Phillip smiles weakly. “And then afterwards we play Spit.”

“Yea, okay,” you say, even though he beats you every time. Together you start to wade out of the grass, and he never lets go of your hand.

* * *

The weekend comes without any further disappearances. Usually you spend the time with your parents, but today they’re doing heavy-duty repairs on the washers and you’ve been told the dust isn’t good for your lungs. Instead, your aunt has volunteered to take you two. Phillip declares he’d rather stay with Haraboji than spend the weekend with a relative he barely knows. You’d honestly prefer the same, but over the phone your mom had insisted you go. You never see Imo, she says, which isn’t wrong. Aunt Lynne is someone you see solely on Thanksgiving, who hands you a new sweater and then disappears for another year. So on Saturday morning you throw together an overnight bag and grab your library book from the nightstand. Phillip gives you a half-wave from the TV as you walk to the driveway, where her car is waiting.

When you get to Aunt Lynne’s apartment and walk through the door, it takes a moment for you to adjust to your surroundings. The place is smaller than both Haraboji’s townhouse and your parents’ apartment, and filled to the brim with things— colorful stained-glass cups, gold-plated bookmarks and silver bangles, a huge tapestry on the wall, gleaming with pale violet and metallic woven threads. You remember the nickname your mom uses for her— Ggamagui Imo, Aunt Crow— and it suddenly makes sense.

Your aunt makes small talk with you as you unpack and she boils water for yuzu tea. You tell her about the mystery novel you’re currently reading. You can’t believe that the main character, only a year or so older than you, is able to take a plane by herself to Monaco, where a billionaire has been murdered. Your mom would never.

Aunt Lynne laughs. Her voice is musical, you think, much brighter than a crow. Like a songbird. “Don’t worry, Unni has always been no fun.” Her face straightens and you know what she’s thinking. “Anyways, Hana, maybe she’s right. Flying isn’t really safe for you right now.”

“But I’m fine,” you say quickly. “Nothing has gotten worse for months now.”

Aunt Lynne just nods. She takes a big spoonful of yuzu jelly and stirs it into your mug, changing the topic to ask you about school and living with Haraboji. You tell her school is good, that Haraboji is nice but doesn’t really care what you do, so you and Phillip have a lot of time to yourself. “We play outside a lot. Phillip was really into jump roping. Now it’s cards.”

She smiles, and then falls silent. You get the sense that she’s hovering over words. “You guys keep yourselves busy, then?” she says softly.

You smile back, uncertain. “I guess.”

“And so you know which one of you is the special one, right?” she asks.

You freeze. “What?”

She raises her eyebrows, her eyes glinting. “Well. If you don’t know, then it’s probably Philip.”

You stare at her. Another puzzle piece has suddenly fallen into your lap, it seems. “It is,” you say slowly, after a long pause. “He… disappears.” Your heart pounds. You and Phillip have guarded this secret your entire life, and speaking it out loud feels monumental, irreversible.

Aunt Lynne’s face morphs into something like Huh, neat. Something about her reaction flips a switch in you and opens up a floodgate of words. “He’s been doing this since he was three, but never more than a few minutes. And no one knows— I’ve covered for him every time. But now he’s disappearing more and more, for hours at a time, sometimes the whole day. And he can’t control it. He doesn’t know how.”

“Phillip just needs to find a touchstone. An emotional anchor,” she says simply. “That, and practice.”

You mull over this. “Imo, I… how did you even…? Do you…?”

Aunt Lynne shakes her head. “I can’t believe Unni never told you. It’s probably because she wasn’t the special one,” she says, smiling. You follow her gaze to the lush tapestry on the wall. “Our family has a way with things, Hana. We see time and space for what it is: fine threads interlocked together, waiting to be pulled and rewoven.”

You feel your breath quicken. “So— can you explain why he disappears? What he’s actually doing?”

She frowns. “I couldn’t tell you. It’s different in every generation, every person, even. Phillip will have to figure it out for himself. It’s what I had to do.”

But he’ll have me, you think. You ponder what she said. “Imo what can you do?”

She looks around and her laughter fills the tiny room. “Where do you think I got all of this stuff? Do you think I just bought it?”

* * *

“A touchstone. An emotional anchor,” you repeat to Phillip after school. It’s a few days later and you’re standing in the small backyard meadow again, the sun dipping below the trees.

“What does that even mean?” Phillip asks, his face scrunched. You open your mouth before realizing you don’t really know, either.

“Think about something that makes you really happy?” you say. “Or sad. Or excited.” Phillip starts spinning around in circles. You cross your arms. “Hey, take this seriously.”

“Blah blah blah,” he says, stomping around the grass. He’s dropped his interest cards since last week and has taken to acting like a dinosaur around the house. After a while of this you turn on your heel and start to head back. You hear Phillip yelp and scurry after you.

When you step through the back door, the sky behind you has darkened to twilight, and to your surprise there are people sitting at Haraboji’s kitchen table. They turn around. Phillip crashes into your back as you stand there. “Mom. Dad.”

“Hana, come here,” your dad says. Your stomach twists. Your parents should be working at the dry cleaners; they shouldn’t be here. On the table you see packets of paper, bar charts and paragraphs in thin black ink that look all too familiar.

Phillip untangles himself from your sweater and glances around. “What happened?” he asks. “Why are you guys here?”

Your mom opens her mouth to speak, but your ears close to her words, your head unable to register their meaning. Your world is suddenly wrung, as if it were you that had been spinning.

* * *

Sleeping through the night gets harder now. Your days consist of school and then endless appointments, a blur of different starched hallways and the insides of MRI scanners. At night you lie on your side so that it doesn’t feel like you’re in a machine. The door opens and closes softly at odd times, every click jolting your body awake. At the umpteenth time you tear off your blankets and yell at the door. “Phillip! Stop it!”

A mound stirs next to you, and you realize it’s him. He wasn’t near the door at all. But who was? You squint into the darkness, while the blurry form of Phillip’s head rears up. “Noona?”

“Sorry, Phillip, I… I had a bad dream,” you say. “Go back to sleep.”

A few moments pass and he drowsily gets to his feet. You watch him walk to your bed and get under the covers, and you feel the warmth of his small body as he curls up next to you. He hasn’t done this in years. “Noona, don’t be scared,” he whispers.

You lie back down and rest your head on the pillow next to his. His hair has gotten so shaggy and might be just about as long as yours. “You too,” you whisper. You close your eyes and try to slow your breathing, in and out and in again until it matches the rhythm of his.

* * *

This is how you remember it happening. You and Phillip are on your way to school on a Monday morning like always. He hasn’t had a fit for weeks, ever since that afternoon your parents visited. Today, he busies himself by kicking acorns as you walk down the block, humming the theme song to the ninja cartoon he’s always watching. You turn the corner at the skatepark, where the boy you always see is doing ollies on the sidewalk. For the first time Phillip stops to stare at him. “I wanna learn how to skateboard,” he announces. The boy is close enough to hear; he looks up and grins.

You look at Phillip, who doesn’t smile back. Instead, an expression like you’ve never seen crosses his face, as if he is totally spooked. He hurries ahead towards the crosswalk, faster than you can keep up. You usually cross the street together, but he dashes across before you reach him. He doesn’t see the car yet, but you do. The car doesn’t see Phillip yet, but you do.

“PHILLIP!” you scream. The car honks and swerves, and Phillip disappears behind its silver body. For a few awful seconds you stand there in shock. You barely register the car speeding off, leaving behind an empty street. You take a shaky step forward and look up and down the road. You don’t see anything, not even Phillip.

The car never hit him. You whisper the words to yourself, willing yourself to believe in them, but doubt creeps into your head as the seconds tick by. He’s gone, you know, but is he okay? Is he hurt? The thought of him limping around in an unfamiliar place, unable to leave or get himself help, makes your stomach turn. You stagger back, looking around for anyone who might be able to help.

And then what happens next is something you still can’t explain. On the other corner of the street, you see someone gawking at you. In another moment you realize you’re staring at Phillip. But his jacket is an unfamiliar color, a bright neon red that envelops his body. His white sketchers are caked in mud. You start to walk to him in a daze, but as soon as you make eye contact he breaks off into a run. In another moment he’s gone. You stop in your tracks.

You look behind you, half expecting to see him somehow transported again. But the street’s empty, except for a small figure on the other end. The boy at the skatepark watches you from a distance. You start to run towards him, his face apprehensive as you approach. “Have you seen my brother?” you gasp. You know it’s a ridiculous question, but you don’t know what else to ask. He shakes his head silently.

You feel yourself hyperventilating now. Every other time you’ve kept your cool, lied through your teeth and played along like your favorite sleuths. But doing so now suddenly seems unfathomable. You want someone to tell you what to do, where to go, how to get him back. All you want is to get him back.

You back away from the skatepark, and your legs move you the remaining block to school. You pass through the front doors and into the Principal’s office. Rosy glances up at you as you enter. Your mouth feels dry as you form your words. “Phillip isn’t here.”

“Sick again?” she asks, raising her eyebrows. She’d probably let it slide a fourth time if you nodded and kept moving. But you shake your head. Her brow furrows. “Then where is he?”

“I don’t know,” you say, and brace for the world to fall.

* * *

You lie quietly in the half-empty room, listening to voices in the early evening. It’s two days later, and Phillip is still missing. After Rosy called your parents, they came and spoke with the officers, and then you all went home. Now your mom and dad switch between shifts at the dry cleaner’s so one of them can sit on your bed and stroke your hair. You can hear someone murmuring outside now, see ripples of light leaking in underneath the door.

You remember how the principal and officers had implored you for an explanation, how you had lied. Sitting in that office, you realized there was no possible way to explain everything, especially considering you understood none of it. So you didn’t. You told them he ran away. You studied your mom afterwards, but her face was like glass, still and empty.

Now you hear her knocking on the door. “Hana, are you awake? There’s—”

“I’m sleeping!” you call immediately, though in reality you haven’t slept for more than an hour since Thursday. There’s a brief silence, then more murmuring, and the light beneath the door shifts brighter. You press your face into your pillow and shut your eyes.

About an hour passes and you have to go to the bathroom. You creep out of your room. The kitchen is dark; your mom must have left, Haraboji gone to sleep. On your way back, you notice the big white box sitting on the island. There’s a card lying on top of it, ornate leaves surrounding a turkey. Is it Thanksgiving already? you wonder to yourself, peeking inside. It’s hard to make out the scribbling in the darkness, but you recognize the signature at the bottom— Aunt Lynne’s annual clothing drop.

Was she out there, a while ago? Is that why your mom had called you? You suck in your cheek, suddenly angry. Unknowingly you had turned away the only person who might have understood what you’re going through. Frustrated, you fumble for the light switch and shimmy the lid off the box.

The first thing you lift up is a shawl, undoubtedly her holiday present to you. You hold it up to the light, feeling your breath catch in your chest. The material is nearly identical to the tapestry you had seen on her wall; silver and violet threads weaving into each other, knit tightly into a beautiful fabric. You hold it to your chest, feeling tears sting in your eyes.

You dip your head and blink them away. When you open your eyes, your gaze lands on the other item in the box. It’s folded into a neat rectangle, but what you see is undeniably part of a red, puffy jacket. You stare at the bright swath of color, your entire body suddenly very cold and still. You drop the shawl and back away from the table. Your body hits the back door, and before you know it you are slipping outside.

You stumble into the meadow from the backyard, disoriented from lying in darkness all day. Night has fallen and wet grass brushes your ankles, the earth beneath your feet soft from the day’s rain. As you stand here, the cool air prickling the back of your neck, you start to bawl. The wall of shock inside you finally succumbs to staggering emotion, the numbness in your chest replaced with sharp pain and confusion. Nothing makes sense to you any more. And your brother is still gone.

You dip your head, trying to catch your breath, and stare at the craters of mud that have risen at the impact of your slippers. What does it all mean? You close your eyes and will yourself to remember, to search through every moment. You go back to that morning, see the boy at the skatepark, Phillip’s unsettled face, the car flashing by. You see the red jacket. You see his muddy shoes.

You open your eyes. Your body starts to tingle, just like it does when you get to the best part of your books, the part where the teen detective connects all the dots and finds the killer.

Phillip doesn’t just disappear.

You wrap your mind around this. You picture Aunt Lynne’s gifts, hear her words— We see time and space for what it is: fine threads interlocked together, waiting to be pulled and rewoven. Phillip is the special one. He may not be able to see the threads now, but maybe someday he’ll learn. You pick up the new puzzle pieces and click them into place, and suddenly you see what you couldn’t before: Phillip leaping into the air in this field and arriving at the corner by school: Phillip swallowed in the new red jacket Aunt Lynne got him: Phillip calling strangers when he wanted your family, because those phone numbers once belonged to someone else.

The more you think about this, the more you feel your understanding expand. You remember how much Phillip always denied opening and closing the door at night, though you swear up and down that you had heard him. Is that another Phillip, hovering over your bedroom? How many Phillips have there been? For maybe the first time ever you imagine your brother as a tall and serious grown up. Who does Phillip become? And then you feel your body become very still, because you remember the boy at the skatepark— lanky and silent, but with the same jet black hair, the same restlessness— and you realize you already know.

Phillip comes back, he’s not gone, he’s okay. He has to be, because he’s already here. You chant this to yourself as you close your eyes, a wave of relief passing over your body. You know now why he had reacted the way he did that morning— he must have recognized himself, even when you couldn’t. Maybe he understands what he can do now, too. But then you’re left with a final mystery: what is this older Phillip coming back for in the first place, over and over? Almost every day you’ve seen him at the skatepark. Why?

You ponder this for a long time, and the answer creeps up on you slowly. But once you have it, you are sure of its veracity, because it’s the only thing that completes the puzzle, the only thing that could make sense. He’s coming back to see you. Because wherever and whenever he’s from, you aren’t there.

This thought echoes in your head for a bit. You’re not as alarmed as you wonder you should be. Instead, you feel pulled to action like a magnet, filled with an urgency to do something. You tell yourself that you can dwell on all the other implications later, that there are things you have to do in the meantime. After all, Phillip might not know how to get back quite yet. But maybe you can go to him.

* * *

You slip out that morning when Haraboji is just waking up, when he doesn’t expect you to wake for hours. You walk quickly through the foggy morning, down the two blocks that take you to the bigger road where you cross the street to school. But today you stop well before and step into the skatepark on the corner. The boy faces away from you on the other side of the pipe, focused on the ground rolling below him. His red jacket is worn, but it fits him now.

Before you approach him, you stop and think to yourself, It’s so early. You marvel at all the times you remember seeing him here before school, practicing dutifully. He must be so good now. All these times, was he really waiting to catch a glimpse of you? The thought makes you want to cry again, but you steel yourself quickly.

It also occurs to you that today is Sunday, that there’s no school to catch you walking to. Briefly, you wonder how he knew to come here this time. It occurs to you that it might be because you’ll tell him to, someday. You make a mental note of this.

The boy sees you now, and he starts to cross the pipe to reach you. As he gets closer, you realize how tall he is— taller than Haraboji, taller than Dad. You really look at his face for the first time and realize his eyes are the same as they’ve always been.

You stare at each other, as if you are both in the presence of ghosts. He shifts the skateboard to his other hand and scratches his head. “Hi, Noona.”

“You’re here, Phillip,” is all you can say. But this isn’t your Phillip, not yet. Not ever.

He smiles weakly. “You were always a good detective.”

You really do start to cry again now, the words you were going to say next swallowed by your tears. You think he can tell what you would say, though: You’re so big. I’m sorry. I’m so proud of you for figuring out.

He envelops you into a hug, and you press your face into his jacket in place of words. You come back, is what you’d say. And he does. Time and time again.