Esme hurriedly ran down the stairs towards the kitchen when she heard the good news. She was inside her bedroom doing her homework. Her mother knocked on the door and told her that her brother Ipe was finally coming home for a short vacation.
“I need you to help me around the house to prepare for his visit.”
“Of course! I’d love to help! When is he coming home, Mama?”
“He’ll be here after a couple of sleeps.”
Esme could not hide her excitement. She wondered if her Kuya still looked the same after two years of studying in Canada. She was only in first grade the last time she saw him. And she missed him terribly.
Esme had only a faint memory of their father. He died soon after her fourth birthday. Whenever she felt sad about not having their father around, she would think of Kuya Ipe. He was the one who defended her from her classmates when they teased her for not having a father. And he used to read her favorite books to her before she went to sleep. Her Kuya also helped their mother around the house. Her brother was enough, she thought to herself. He was like the father she never had.
Esme found it hard to sleep that night. She could not wait for her brother to come home. She lay still on her bed, planning the things she would do with her brother. The first place they would go to would be their farm. She never visited the place since Ipe had left. Esme tried to remember what the farm looked like: a two-story house made of brick stood in the middle of the farm. Behind the house was a little vegetable garden. Their grandparents tended the tomatoes, eggplants, cabbages, and other plants that grew in there. A few meters away stood the huge neem tree that they used to climb.
Esme also recalled the first time her brother brought home a pet for her. The white mice were from Ipe’s completed science project. He told her that they would take care of the mice together. Each morning, they would wake up early just to feed them. When summer came, they took the mice with them to the farm. Esme noticed that one particular mouse was bigger. Her brother told her that it was pregnant. She was amazed when she woke up one morning and saw that the mouse had given birth to six babies. They had no fur and were extremely small. They didn’t look like their mom, Esme thought.
A few days later, while riding around the farm in her bike, Esme took one of the baby mice out of the cage. She placed it inside the pocket of her shorts and started riding around. After some minutes, she noticed a tiny white creature lying still near the cabbage patch. She stopped and dug her hand into her pocket to check if the mouse was still there. She let out a shriek and felt her heart race when she found out that it was gone! Esme climbed off the bike and came closer to the unmoving creature. She was right! She took the poor mouse and saw a bit of blood coming from its nose. She had probably run over the creature unknowingly. She was almost in tears, scared that her brother might find out and be mad at her. So she went to the huge neem tree nearby and buried the mouse close to the tree’s roots. But what if it grew into a plant and sprouted tiny white mice? Then her brother will find out what she did! But she prayed that wouldn’t happen. The next day, Ipe asked her about the missing mouse.
“I don’t know, Kuya. I thought there were just five of them,” she lied. Her brother looked puzzled but didn’t ask her any further. Years passed and Esme was relieved that her brother never found out about the incident.
On the day of Ipe’s arrival, Esme took a bath right after she woke up. She went to the kitchen to have breakfast so she could help her mother with the cooking afterwards. She saw a stranger sitting on her brother’s seat. He was wearing a powder blue polo shirt with its sleeves rolled up to his elbows and black-rimmed eyeglasses. But the stranger had her Kuya’s eyes. And his thick mane of dark curls. Wait a moment, Esme thought. It was her brother! She stood frozen for a moment, trying to think of what she should do next.
“Kuya?” Esme ran towards him and embraced him tightly.
“You’ve grown, little one. And you gained a little weight too!”
“You look really different, Kuya.” Esme didn’t let go of her brother. “How long are you going to stay here?”
“About a week or so. I wanted to stay longer, but I can’t.”
“But can we visit the farm before you go back?” Esme asked.
“Of course, but let me rest first, okay?” Ipe ruffled Esme’s hair.
Esme watched her brother go upstairs before she sat in one of the dining chairs. She still couldn’t believe that her Kuya was finally home. It felt odd, though. She felt that something was different with her brother now but she couldn’t tell exactly what it is.
“Mama, are you sure that he’s really my Kuya?”
“What are you talking about?” her mother laughed. “Of course, he is. He may look and sound a little different but he’s still your brother.”
Three days passed but they still hadn’t visited the farm. Her brother would usually wake up late. He would often leave right after lunchtime and she had no idea where he would go. She barely saw him in the house; sometimes it felt like he was avoiding her. But why would he avoid me? I did not do anything wrong, Esme thought. All of a sudden, she remembered the dead mouse. Has her brother finally found out? Maybe that’s the reason he doesn’t talk to her that much anymore. She didn’t want to lose her brother. She tried to remain calm. He’s not asking her about it yet. She thought that if she didn’t think too much about what she did, the guilt would go away.
They were having breakfast when Ipe finally remembered their plan to go to the farm.
“I also want to see Lolo and Lola before I go back,” he added.
They left early that day. Their mother drove them to the farm. After having lunch with their grandparents in the brick house, Ipe and Esme went out to explore the farm.
Esme sat under the neem tree and saw that no mouse-plants had grown in the spot where she had buried the mouse. It was impossible for her brother to have found out what happened while he was in Canada. But what if he really did, for some reason? Maybe he took her here to remind her of what she did. Perhaps Ipe was just waiting for her to admit it. The guilt she buried years ago slowly came back.
“I want to confess something, Kuya.”
She thought he would get mad at her for lying, but when she had finished her tale, he roared with laughter instead.
“I knew it!” he said. “When I noticed that mother mouse was missing one of its babies, I just knew you had something to do with it. I remembered you counted six baby mice, not five.”
“I thought you were mad at me because I had lied to you about the mouse. And now that I’ve told you the truth, you won’t get mad anymore, and you’d spend time with me again.”
“Esme, I wasn’t mad at you. You’re my sister,” said Ipe. “I just got too busy catching up with my friends.”
“Still, I’m sorry I lied, Kuya. I didn’t want you to get angry at me.”
“Hey, it’s all right.” Ipe crouched in front of her and ruffled her hair. “I’m sorry too. I promise to spend more time with you and Mama before I leave.”
“But when are you going to leave?”
“The day after tomorrow. I know it’s too soon.”
“Will you come back?”
“Of course. I will always come back, Esme,” Ipe promised.
Ma. Jocedel A. Zulita is a BA English-Creative Writing student in the University of the Philippines Mindanao. She hails from General Santos City.