Sunmar was supposed to be a kept secret. Tucked away like a miser’s treasure, safe from prying and greedy eyes. Sunmar was my cousin.
My brother, Jeff, and I would always go to Auntie Jackie’s and Uncle Vern’s house for winter break. We knew they had a son, but we’d never been introduced to him. He existed like a ghost pressed upon our memories and an awareness of him always prickled at my spine whenever I saw his baby pictures. It was odd that there were no photographs after his toddler years, only a mysterious gap that kept widening as we got older. But my brother and I knew better than to ask questions. We rolled curiosity beneath our tongues, grinded it between our teeth and swallowed back every bitter chunk.
My brother sometimes joked that Sunmar was a freak of nature with a grotesque abnormality that made him terrifying to look at. I thought that was stupid. Auntie Jackie and Uncle Vern were both perfectly normal people. In a lot of ways, the resemblance between her and my mother was eerily similar even though they weren’t twins. But Auntie Jackie’s age showed in the half-moon shadows beneath her eyes.
I didn’t like the way my brother always used such harsh words to describe Sunmar, because I was certain his voice dashed the halls and bounded up the steps to Sunmar’s room. And there were times, when the house fell still, that I could hear the quiet pitter-patter of footsteps. The timid rustle of quiet breaths. I was sure it was Sunmar. But for some reason, my heart would flail and heave against my ribcage and I’d hide beneath the covers as if to save myself from a monster lurking the thick shadows of the room – or prowling the corridors outside.
It was silly to be afraid. Sunmar was perhaps the same age as Jeff and twelve-year-old’s weren’t really that scary. But I hardly knew Sunmar and the unknown silhouette of him planted in my mind took on every terrifying projection of my imagination. I blamed Jeff for that; it was his fault such ugly ideas had rooted so deep in my thoughts. And then one night, I found out Jeff had been wrong all along.
Sunmar wasn’t anything horrific like the fabled Minotaur trapped in Daedalus’ labyrinth. He was a normal kid, like Jeff and I, with a slighter frame and an even more diminutive air. I saw him in the corridor as I darted from dark corners to get to the bathroom down the hall. We crashed into each other and before I could apologize, he tugged me into the bathroom and put his finger up to his lips.
Footsteps rippled through the silence toward the bathroom and Sunmar didn’t look away from me, only flinching at the sound of Auntie Jackie calling at the door.
“I’m sorry Auntie Jackie, I slipped on the way to the bathroom, but I’m okay.”
Auntie Jackie yawned around a sleepy rebuke that I shouldn’t have been running in the hallway. I apologized again and listened as she walked away. When I was sure she was gone, I offered Sunmar a smile. He did not smile back.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Sunmar.”
He ignored my greeting, “You cannot tell your brother you saw me.”
The quiet urgency steeling his voice made me nervous. I crossed my hands at my midriff, frowning down at him. Did I look like a blabbermouth?
He shook his head, eyes glistening with many things. His fear was the most palpable and I immediately felt my stomach sink like an anchor, clattering to the floor of my soul. Were Auntie Jackie and Uncle Vern hurting him? But that couldn’t be possible. They were such nice people.
“I promise I won’t tell.”
“You never saw me, okay?”
I had so many questions, but his frantic tone shook something inside me that became afraid for him. I swore to him that I would never tell anyone and then he was gone. I couldn’t hear his footsteps, but I knew he was running back to his room.
I went back to bed after washing my hands and buried myself beneath the sheets. Was it strange to feel victorious yet defeated at the same time? I knew what he looked like, but I couldn’t tell Jeff.
Sunmar had been like a doll. Porcelain face and eyes the color of a deep forest rich with morning dew. He had the reddest lips I’d ever seen. His hair, dark mahogany and curled, framed his cheeks perfectly. He was so beautiful. I wished we could have talked more, because I wanted him to be my friend. But my brother and I were going to leave in the morning, which meant I would have to wait until next winter.
And when the months finally settled into the chilling flurries of winter, we were packed into Dad’s truck and driven to Auntie Jackie’s and Uncle Vern’s for the winter break. Auntie Jackie and Uncle Verne were happy to see us as usual. They played with us and I could feel Sunmar’s eyes watching me from the photographs on the walls. It was when the final light of dusk had melted away into the horizon that I realized Sunmar was gone.