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A Certainty

Photo of Rumaan Alam

Rumaan Alam

a certainty

When you get old, your skin goes soft. Like the pages of a library book, my grandmother’s hands, papery and cool. She’d take my hand in hers and trace lines on my palm. I squinted, but I could never see them. She’d point out what would happen to me, tell me what each line meant. She’d done the same thing to my mom, her daughter. Mom told me about it, years later.

This line, she probably said. I don’t know. No one ever bothered to teach me the language my grandmother spoke. This line means trouble. Your heart will break one day and never recover.

I can see my grandmother shrugging her shoulders, because there was nothing she could do about it.


We always lived in the suburbs. We had trees, leaves to rake, a sidewalk to shovel, a driveway to roller skate in. I always wanted to walk to school, or ride my bike, but the bus picked us up in front of our house, and Mom would watch, cup of tea in hand, as we’d climb onto the bus, and I’d wave from the window until I was old enough to know how uncool that was. Then I’d pretend I didn’t see her. She always waved anyway.

After school, I played a long-running game of house with Emily, who lived next door. We had three children, Hannah, Beth, and Sarah, and terrible things were always happening to them. We always had to summon the doctor, because Hannah’s head was falling off, or Beth had been bitten by a hundred snakes while she napped in her crib. We were very concerned with continuity. If Beth had been in trouble one day, the next would be Sarah’s turn for calamity: a high fever, unstoppable hiccups. Robbie never played with us. He preferred soccer, or contests that involved handstands or burping, or kicking a ball up into the sky, over the roof, from the front yard to the back.


My grandmother came to live with us when I was five and Robbie seven. She came from the other side of the world, a place I knew nothing about, except that it was always hot there, and there was a war. I imagined men with guns and scarves tied around their faces, like the hijackers on TV. I was scared of hijackers, even though we never went anywhere on a plane.

My grandmother spent all day shuffling around the house, sari trailing behind her. She watched the television, game shows with flashing lights and delirious studio audiences. She stirred bubbling pots on the stove. In the winter, the kitchen windows were slick with mist.

Robbie was eleven when he went away. I still think of it that way: went away, though he didn’t go away. He disappeared, the heartbreak my grandmother had always known was coming.


After Dad died, years after my grandmother had died, years after we’d given away Robbie’s clothes and toys, after we’d boxed up our things and left the house on Van Buren Road, even though I know both of my parents wanted to stay there, because back then kids were taught to memorize their addresses and telephone numbers so in case a stranger took them away the police would know where to take them back to, I asked Mom about my grandmother.

I never knew what she was saying, I told her. We were having lunch at a restaurant Mom liked. It was a loud place, with a model train on a track suspended from the ceiling whirring around the room. The restaurant had a train theme.

Mom sipped her ice water. Sometimes I didn’t either. I came here to become an American. I forgot my own language. I can’t even write my name in that alphabet anymore.

This made me sad. Do you feel like you lost something, coming here? I asked her. I took a bite of my roast beef, which tasted like nothing.

I lost almost everything, Mom said.


One game we played together was nuclear war. Robbie would be the President of Russia, and pick up my toy telephone, the one with the red plastic handset, the string cord, the clanging silver bell inside it, and order the missile launch. I’d lie down on the ground with my hands over my head, and scream and writhe, and then Robbie would say, Stop, you’re dead, you disappeared. The world is over. We loved this game.


I don’t remember much of being nine. I remember nights spent at Emily’s house, her parents walking me home in the morning, my hand in theirs, like I would vanish too, leave the safety of Emily’s bunk beds (how I wanted bunk beds) and slip into nothingness. It would be too much to bear. I remember visits from the police. I remember television cameras, and newscasters on the front lawn, with pretty hair and big microphones.

There was a photo of Robbie on the milk carton. Kids in other states must have looked at it over breakfast before tying their shoes and putting homework into backpacks. Robbie, eleven, slender, dark eyed, long hair in his eyes, not smiling. Looking grim, like he knew something rotten was in store for him.


Dad worked at the University. He drove a station wagon, the back part filled with cardboard boxes and rolled up papers. I can’t remember what his voice sounded like.

He called my grandmother Ma, like my Mom did, like she was his mother, not his mother in law, but that was the custom where they came from. Just because you leave a place, leave your ability to read and write your own name, you don’t leave behind everything. He began to die the day Robbie went away, but it took ten years in all, ten years of saying even less, driving off to work in that same station wagon, and home every night, half expecting, every time, that Robbie would have come home, would be sitting at the kitchen table, Ma feeding him, the way she always fed him, mixing the rice and meat into a paste, forming the paste into a ball, shoveling it directly into his mouth. That too was the custom, where they came from.

That’s the scene I used to picture anyway, on the bus, on the way home, though I guess if Robbie had come back, the principal’s office would have sent someone to my classroom to let me know.


A few years after Dad died, Mom was contacted by this group, the Missing Angel Project. Since Robbie disappeared, there have been many advancements in science. It’s possible to use the slightest trace of someone—eyelashes, an impossible-to-explain fibula—to identify them. It might be possible, the people at the Missing Angel Project thought, to match my DNA with the many samples they had on file. I picture a grim library, hundreds of drawers filled with milk teeth, locks of hair, fingernails.

I drove to a lab in the city, and the attendant (not a nurse, but dressed like one, in a white lab coat) brushed the inside of my cheek with a cotton swab.

That’s it? I asked.

That’s it, he told me.

There were no matches. Don’t give up hope, said the lady from the Missing Angel Project. Our database is constantly growing.

Growing, meaning more: more stained cotton underpants, more crusty samples.


People blame their childhood for everything—infidelity, problem drinking, an inability to hold down a job. An old boyfriend blamed my refusal to marry him on Robbie’s disappearance. I didn’t think there was a connection. I don’t like it when people who didn’t know him talk to me about Robbie. To them, he’s hypothetical.

Once, Mom pointed out that if she hadn’t moved to America, still lived back home, I would be considered an old maid. She didn’t mean it unkindly.

It’s not Robbie’s fault that I’m not married. Not everything is a meaningful experience. Sometimes little boys vanish, and the story ends there.


In the old house, in the living room closet, we had a big wicker basket, full of envelopes of photographs. My parents imagined that someday they’d sit down at the dining room table and sort through it all. This never happened.

I rarely opened that closet. The only other things we kept in there were board games and a couple of threadbare blankets that smelled of my grandmother (camphor, baby powder). I don’t like those pictures: Robbie after a soccer game, hair damp. Robbie, in cotton pajamas printed with cartoonish pictures of spaceships. Robbie and his missing teeth. Robbie and I, holding hands and grinning in front of the beluga whale at the aquarium. I don’t remember these moments, but then photographs suggest memories, of course. I can smell the fish, the brackish water. I can feel Robbie’s hand, a little soft, a little sticky, in mine. It’s not real, it’s just what I’ve learned to remember.


I told this story so many times (to police men and women, some in uniform, some dressed regularly, sometimes across a table spread with crayons and paper, sometimes in our living room) I can no longer be certain I have it right. Why do children have such faulty memories, such unformed minds? Even the smartest—and I was smart, reading on a seventh grade level, multiplying and dividing sums of more than three digits easily—cannot be trusted with facts. This is less what I remember than it is the story I remember telling.

The school bus dropped us off, as usual, at 2:20. It was a Thursday. Thursdays, Robbie had soccer practice at 3, and didn’t take the bus home from school, but was picked up by the mother of a teammate and taken to their house for a snack and to change before practice. My mother would pick up both boys after practice.

I let myself into the house. The door was never locked. Mom was out. She often was, but we were never alone. My grandmother rarely left the house, except to walk, slowly, the rubber soles of her slippers scratching on the driveway, to the mailbox. My grandmother was probably tending the plants, or cooking dinner, or playing Patience. I watched television, a bowl of cereal on the carpet in front of me. Kix. We pleaded, but Mom never let us eat anything more sugary than Kix.

Eventually it got later. Mom called home.

Your brother? He’s there? She was annoyed, I could tell.

He wasn’t there.

She came home a few minutes later, and I don’t remember much more. Except that I had another bowl of cereal. I poured sugar into the bowl when no one was paying attention.


Generally, we ignored my grandmother. She was there to look after us. We didn’t need her to. We fixed our own snacks, turned on the television ourselves. She didn’t help us with homework or untie our shoelaces. And what if: an armed intruder, a sudden fire. Did she even know about 911?

We didn’t play with her. She didn’t boss us around. It was détente. We’d race around, policewoman and serial killer, James Bond and Octopussy. She’d sit quietly, peeling cards off the deck, frowning at the columns arrayed in front of her, or filling the teakettle to make another cup of tea. She reused each tea bag three times.

I’m sure she was sad after Robbie went away, but I never saw her cry. I never noticed her reaction. Everyday was the same: tea kettle, patience, the shuffle of her slippers, the steaming pot of rice.


Robbie was older than me, so he got to stay up later. Half an hour later.

Our two favorite TV shows were on back to back. My favorite was about a little girl, abandoned by her parents, who finds a home with an old man who runs a camera store. Robbie’s favorite show was about a little boy whose father was very rich, but he didn’t have a mother, and he still had plenty of problems. We loved something about this—children in the world on their own. Orphans are romantic; children who disappear are horrifying.


I remember my grandmother, braiding my hair. I was thirteen. I was too old for it—the babyish braids, the grandmaternal treatment. But I didn’t know that then.

I was sitting on the floor, she was on a stool behind me, yanking at my head firmly but delicately, more patient than my mother. Only my grandmother could do my hair properly.

We sat in silence. She couldn’t understand me. I couldn’t understand her. But she was the one I asked.

What happened to Robbie, do you think?

I know she knew the name. I know she recognized the Robbie at least, that corruption of Robindra.

She gave my braid a tug, smoothed the hair on top of my head flat.

I had been wanting to ask this question. But there was no one to ask. Dad was always avoiding me. Mom I hated. Everything about her—I was thirteen. I couldn’t ask my friends, because their parents had told them to never, ever bring up the subject of my missing brother. I couldn’t ask teachers, because I’d be sent back to the guidance counselor, or, worse, the therapist.

What happened to Robbie? I asked her. Louder, that old mistake: volume to bridge the language barrier. I felt like she knew. She’d known it was coming, right? She’d traced the lines of my hand and foretold misery. How could I know then that there’s no magic to that? That everyone’s life contains a misery. Foretelling that is a cinch. Not even a party trick. A certainty.

What happened to Robbie? I asked again. I didn’t expect her to say anything, and she didn’t. She licked the tips of her fingers, pasted some errant hairs back to the top of my head, pressed the heels of her hands against my shoulders to help her stand. She shuffled away, slippers whispering against the parquet.

About the Author

Rumaan Alam

Rumaan Alam’s writing has been published in New York Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, The Rumpus, Washington Square Review, Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. He started his career in fashion publishing at Lucky magazine, has written extensively on interior design for Domino, Lonny, Elle Decor,, and elsewhere, and has worked in advertising as a copywriter and creative director. He studied at Oberlin College, and lives in New York. His debut novel Rich and Pretty was published in June, 2016.

“A Certainty” was a finalist in The Literarian‘s first short story contest and was featured in Issue 12.