South Africa

by Daniel Enjay Wong

My brother was found on a mountain in Cape Town, dead from a fall. None of us could explain how he got up there. William wasn't athletic, even though he was older than me and better at a lot of things. He didn't even like being outdoors, to our knowledge.

A few days after we received the news, the director of William's abroad program called from South Africa to send her condolences. It was 6:00 PM our time and 4:00 AM hers. I sat on the couch while my parents kneeled by the machine, leaning in for every word.

"What a passionate young man he was," the director said over speakerphone. "You could tell just by talking to him, he would have made a fine teacher."

"William was pre-med," said my mother, frowning. Her eyes were dark all around.

There was a pause, and the director said, "Oh." The machine light was blinking red.

William's belongings were all still at the program house in Cape Town. "We will gladly sponsor your airfare and lodging if you'd like to see his room before it's packed up," the director said. "Perhaps as an act of closure for the family."

"Closure," my father repeated. My mother reached over and squeezed his leg.

"Can I go do homework?" I asked.

My mother turned and narrowed her eyes at me.  It was the same expression she made when I said I wanted to skip William's Eagle Scout ceremony.

 "I'm sure Mrs. Blackwell would excuse you," she said in a low voice. "Didn't you tell her what happened?"

I shook my head no. It was still early in the year, and Mrs. Blackwell hadn't made the connection that my brother and I were related. I was in no hurry to say anything.

My mother kept her gaze on me, but returned to normal volume. "I'm sorry." I couldn't tell whether she was talking to the director or me.

"Was that William's brother?" the director asked. "Of course, you're invited too. I didn't mean to leave you out, honey."

She then made arrangements with my parents for the three of us to spend a week in South Africa. I wondered what excuse I would give Mrs. Blackwell.

As it turned out, I didn't have to wonder—my mother notified the school the next day. Suddenly all my teachers were pulling me aside, patting my shoulder, postponing my assignments.

"Take all the time you need," said Mrs. Blackwell. I nodded because I didn't know what else to do.

But I didn't need time—everyone else did. Instead of starting the next math chapter, we watched Air Bud while Mrs. Blackwell cried at her desk in the dark.

When I returned home from school, the answering machine light was still blinking. The screen read, "Fax Waiting, Press Start."

I did. Something began buzzing furiously. I went into the kitchen and ate from a sleeve of Oreos, listening to page after page print. All the Oreos were gone before the machine went quiet again.

It was a police report from South Africa—the paper was hot in my hands as I read it. One part listed details describing how William was found. He was wearing running shoes.

I circled the section with the same pen I used to do homework.

When my mother came home from work, the stack of paper was still warm. I showed it to her and asked, "Isn't that weird?" My voice came out in uneven waves.

My mother put her fingers to her mouth as she read what I'd circled. She didn't flip through any other pages. She just stood there, blinking. Then she handed the pages back to me and went upstairs. My father and I didn't see her until after dinner. She came down again later to check the deadbolt.

We left for our trip the next week. During the layover at Heathrow Airport, my father read from a book about South African geography--we'd decided not to visit the mountain--while my mother rearranged the clothes in her carry-on. I wanted the three of us to have a conversation, but no one started one.

Once we reached Cape Town, my mother rushed us out of the airport and into a taxi. Everyone drove on the wrong side of the road.

On the passenger side, my mother clicked the dashboard with her nails. Whenever traffic slowed, she asked the driver, "What's taking so long?" The whole time, my father stared out at mountains that looked like tabletops.

We pulled up to the program house, where the director, a small woman with her hair in a bun, was waiting to meet us. After handing me William's key, she turned to my parents. She was holding a big blue binder.

"I thought you might want to see some of the work William was doing for his degree," she said.

We entered the house. I went upstairs to the student rooms while the adults sat down at a table with the binder.

In the hallway outside William's room, there were flowers and fake electric candles on the floor. The room itself was sparse. I thought about its counterpart back home: posters, awards, trophies. These walls were empty.

Under the bed, I found three large oatmeal containers. Inside two of them were condiment packets from fast food restaurants, mostly ketchup and mustard. The third can was full of packets squeezed empty.

I thought only old people saved containers and filled them with items that didn't belong. When she was alive, my grandmother did this. She stuffed cardboard juice cartons with organic waste she planned to bury in the yard. Once, I found a carton in the refrigerator and thought there was orange juice inside. Instead, a chunk of raw meat tumbled into my cup, fat caked onto red bone.

My hands shook as I combed through the packets. I thought back to the last time I Skyped with William. How skinny he was. His hair looked big.

I felt myself begin to move, like someone else was controlling my body. Then the oatmeal containers were in my arms, and I was leaving the room. I found an unlocked storage closet down the hall and stuffed the containers far in the back, behind bottles of bleach.

A few minutes later, my parents came upstairs. They both seemed different, but I couldn't figure out how.

We packed up William's effects and left the house for good. In the taxi, my mother held onto the blue binder. She massaged the cover like a baby she was putting to sleep.

The program put us up in an expensive hotel. There was a giant cage of tropical birds in the lobby, all the way up to the ceiling.

"You know what, let's go out tonight," said my father, his head craned up as he watched a macaw fly in small circles.

The rest of the week passed like a vacation. We ate at sit-down restaurants. Beef jerky and chutney-flavored chips dried our tongues. We went to the beach and laughed when a seagull chased my mother. She laughed, too. In the hotel room, we stayed up looking at pictures of William on my father's iPhone.

On the day of our departure, the sun was low in a cloudless sky. As our plane taxied, light from outside flooded the fuselage.

My mother threw up her hands. "Of course the only perfect weather happens on the day we leave!" She leaned back into a beam of sun, and I could see dust floating around her head.

The plane took off, and the green land below unfolded like a map. You could finally see the tops of those tables.

My father loudly pointed out landmarks he'd learned from his book as we flew over them.

"That one's called Lion's Head!" he shouted, leaning over me. His bad breath smelled of mustard.

I remembered the empty space under William's bed. While we were packing up his room, my father got on his hands and knees and swept his arm around down there. He found nothing. My parents would always remember a clean room.

I turned my gaze out the window, following my father's pointed finger to Lion's Head. With a name like that, I'd expected something far more impressive. I was surprised at how small it looked from above, even though it cast a long, hard shadow, bigger than any mountain.

Daniel Enjay Wong is a recent graduate of Stanford University. His work has appeared in PANK and Hektoen International. He lives in Los Angeles. For more, visit  www.dwong.net.