The Vanishing Twin
A new resident showed up that afternoon. They called us residents instead of, y’know, convicts, same as they call this place a Home—technically it was a Juvenile Custody Facility—instead of prison. Custodians instead of guards. Bunkdown area instead of cellblock. If they ever printed a brochure, commenting on its “natural setting” and “stimulating activities,” you’d think it was a summer camp. But it’s not like anyone’s letting us mosey out the gate free and easy.
The transport van bumped down the dirt road, raising a rooster tail of dust. The new resident was tall with freckles and red hair sticking up in spikes. Instead of a hand, these shiny metal calipers poked from the left sleeve of his overalls. When the DC gripped his elbow and led him towards the processing shed, the boy jerked free and stood stiff-spined.
“Easy, Sunny Jim.” Domino-sized teeth crowded in his mouth like they were having a fight. “I know I’m differently-abled but you’ll be shocked to learn I can walk myself...and talk and chew gum and carry a tune.”
The boy whistled, a bird-chirp, and did a goofy soft-shoe routine. The toes of his boots were squashed flat like clown shoes. He saw us watching through the chainlink and gave a chummy wave with his metal hooks.
“Hoo boy, I’ve seen smarter faces at a petting zoo. Kidding, my new brothers, kidding.”
The pack broke apart, everyone drifting back to our spots in the yard—which was a whole half-acre. Charlie said it was the same with zoos: By law, you had to give animals enough “habitat.” If you didn’t they’d go batshit. Fight each other, mutilate themselves, howl and moan and tear out fur, stop eating, stop screwing, stop feeding their kids.
Every week the DCs put on a “Treasure Hunt”: hiding balsa wood glider kits, boxes of raisins and Silly Putty eggs around the yard. But Charlie always fucked off at hunt-time.
“Zookeepers freeze fish into blocks of ice for polar bears; it tricks them into thinking they’re still hunting. Are you a fucking polar bear, Hen?”
“I’m not, Char,” I’d told him. “But who doesn’t like raisins?”
Our habitat had a basketball hoop, a woodworking shed and the owlhouse. A soccer net, too, but we couldn’t play because Brody Brooks kicked the ball over the wall yesterday and the DCs said no, we aren’t shagging your stupid ball.
Me and Charlie staked out a picnic table at the northern edge of the yard. A poplar tree threw down shade on summer days. The nicest spot, my opinion, except for the bench near the gate where you could see the first cut of woods. Days had a lazy rhythm. We had chores—trimming the yard with push mowers and bagging the confetti-like clippings; yanking crabgrass and clover until our palms were blistered. It filed down our edges.
That afternoon we were lying on the picnic table. A balsa wood glider was stuck on a tree branch. I was hoping the wind would knock it down. A rotten-eggy stink drifted over the wall; there was a pulp mill a mile away, but you got used to it. I daydreamed about the redhaired boy with the metal hand, wondering if other parts of him were metal too. Alder Coates came over.
“Go away,” Alder said. Sounded like: G’way.
There were thirty-so boys at the Home, ages twelve to seventeen. Alder was a farm boy with hay-baling farm muscles. Most farm boys were lambs but Alder had been kicked in the head by a horse—you could see the half moon scar where the horseshoe ripped his scalp open—and it screwed with his brainwaves. One spazzy eyeball pushed from Alder’s socket, jittering like an egg yolk in a fry pan.
Charlie propped up on his elbows, squinting in the greenish light under the tree. “Come again?”
Alder said: “Out,” hooking his thumb.
Charlie and me were fifteen. Twins. Fraternal. Charlie the smaller, with cool green eyes and dark hair that stayed slick no matter how much he washed it. I was a head taller and thick in the shoulders, butt and hamhocks.
“Out of the Home?” Charlie said. “Oh I’d love to, Alder, but I’m worried they won’t let me. I’ve already asked nicely. Got any ideas?”
I didn’t fight much but I didn’t mind, either—punches don’t sting so bad, maybe my nerves are messed up I don’t know, plus I could lay a good lick if you peed me off. But Alder was ratbag crazy. He’d crept into the family cowshed and slashed the cow’s udders with a witchblade, which I guess is some kind of sickle? When the cops asked why Alder said the cows were keeping secrets.
“Or do you mean out, like, vacate this spot?” Charlie said. “Because that’ll be an order, Alder, and unless you’ve been promoted to deputy DC I don’t take orders from you.”
Charlie was too smart for fifteen, scary-smart—and Alder had the damaged brain of a five-year-old. You could see the wires heating up inside his skull, cooking his noodle. I sat on the table edge, legs dangling, shoulders slumped and fingers knotted at my gut. Cocked my head at Alder like: We’re going to do this over a spot of shade? We fight over the smallest things, small things being all we’ve got.
Alder grunted as his hands balled into fists. Charlie made this weird shushing noise like to calm a rabbity horse.
“Alder, can I...I tell you something real quick?”
Alder’s bottom lip hung, shiny with spit. Charlie said: “Lean down. I have to whisper it.”
I heard the whishwssywshwss of Charlie’s breath going into Alder’s ear. Alder’s flapjack-flat face went tight and the blood fell out of it. His bad eye sunk into his socket kinda like some big pressure had sucked at it.
Charlie leaned back. “Should I do that for you?” he said—but he said so to Alder’s back because Alder had already turned away, walking fast across the yard. After ten steps he started to run.
When me and Charlie were fetuses I nearly ate him. What the doctors say, anyhow. I don’t know ate-ate. More like...absorbed?
We weren’t even people yet. Just sacks of goo. Sometimes with twins, one tries to suck the other into itself. “Vanishing Twin Syndrome.” That, or flattens the other one against the womb until it’s thin as onionskin paper. So it’s either an act of complete love—imagine loving someone so much that you want to hold them inside you forever, right?—or crazy hate. Charlie almost vanished but I guess he wanted to live because he fought me off.
I came out a lot bigger. Ten pounds, six ounces. Charlie four-something. I was too big. It was my mom’s first pregnancy, which they say is the hardest. She bled to death. Nobody came right out and said it. You killed your mom.
To me she’s just photos in albums and a voice on an answering machine message dad couldn’t bring himself to erase. Calling to tell him she’s leaving work and does he want her to pick anything up at the grocery? He’d get drunk—if there was one thing dad was all-day good at, it was drinking—and listen to it over and over. Then one day she was gone. Charlie must’ve erased her. Dad figured he’d done it himself by accident, which made him drink even harder. Big shock.
We first met Lazlo Boal at evening chow. He walked down the long table with the thumb of one hand hooked into his overalls, his other hand—the metal one—going clik-clik on the tabletop. Smiling his big-toothed smile. A real swinging dick, my dad would say.
He peeked into the steam trays. The food was almost totally grey, like a very specialized vampire had sucked the colour out of it.
“Mighty fine vittles,” he said. “Can I ask, milady, which culinary institute you studied at? Let me guess.” He pressed a finger to his lips. “Le Cordon Bleu?”
The cafeteria lady, who was about five-hundred years old and was often seen smoking over the stewpot, said, “Eat it or don’t eat, wiseass, I don’t give a rat’s ass.”
“Ah, so that’s your secret ingredient?” Lazlo took two scoops of grey and gave her a curtsy. “I shall eat with great gusto, I assure you.”
The DCs watched Lazlo in their no-expression way—“The Serengeti Gaze,” Charlie called it, big cats scoping water buffalo from the shade of a tree. Lazlo sat at the table’s edge and elbowed a few extra inches for himself.
Alder Coates sat across from him. Lazlo said, “You giving me the stinkeye? Just kiddin’, buddy.”
Charlie’s brow bunched up like: This guy want to get killed or what? But Alder was mesmerized. Lazlo had that effect. Didn’t make sense, seeing as he wasn’t big or tough. But he gave you the sense that he knew things about the world, the secret ways it worked, plus he was smart—not Charlie-smart, but close. It amazed me how many smart kids were locked up while packs of stupid kids drifted around outside the walls.
Alder said: “Where you from?”
“Slave Lake Reservation,” he said. “I’m half Ticonderoga Red Indian. My father was a travelling vacuum cleaner salesman from Poughkeepsie. Knocked up my mom, a good squaw, and vamoosed! Nine months later I come along. Heap big trouble, huh? I went on a dream-quest and my spirit animal—the walrus—told me to seek my fortunes in the white man’s world.” He slapped the table with an open palm. “So I hot-wired a car and that’s just what I did, Sunny Jim!”
“How’d you lose your fucking hand?”
Lazlo leaned forward, staring down the table to see who’d asked.
“What makes you think I lost it?” he said to Charlie. “My dad was a goddamn robot, man. A sophisticated replicant model created by the government.” Lazlo held up his hooks. “This is all natural, from his side of the family.”
“You said your dad was a vacuum cleaner salesman.”
“That was his cover, man. His means of in-fil-trayyy-tion. It’s all very hush-hush and high-level. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”
That almost sounded like a threat—except Lazlo was smiling, his horse-teeth jabbing all whichways.
“I’ll count ten ways your story doesn’t make sense.” Charlie held up his fingers. “Number one: Robots can’t have kids.” He tucked his pinkie to his palm. “Number two: our government can’t afford to build robot vacuum cleaner salesmen.” He tucked another finger. “Number three...”
Charlie named ten and when he was finished he set his fists on the table.
“Now, want to give me ten reasons I’m wrong? Oh, wait: I guess you can only give me, what, seven?”
Five fingers, two hooks.
Lazlo said: “Unlike some people, I don’t need my fingers to count.”
Charlie’s jaw tensed. This sort of bickering gave him a thrill—fighting, pretty much, but without fists. He’d finally found a half-decent opponent.
“Come on, Hen,” he said, picking up his tray.
That night I awoke. The bunkdown area was still. Out the barred window, twisty ribbons of smoke from the pulp mill went silvery in the moonlight.
My heart was shivering in my chest. Nightmare? My eyes adjusted. Alder Coates lay three rows over, his chest hitching hard, that one big eye shiny with tears. I went to him, my sock feet slipping over the tiles.
“S’okay, Alder,” I whispered. “You have a nightmare, too?”
Alder tried to blink but his eyelid never quite closed over that bugged-out eye. The doctor made him put medicated gauze over it to keep the eyeball moist.
“Can’t sleep, Henry.”
“Your brother says...says I got three eyes. Three eyes is good luck, he says—a special gift. Gift of...of second...second—”
“Sight, Alder. Second sight, I think. Speak softly. I’m right here.”
“He says my third eye lives behind this one.” Alder touched the lid of his bad eye. “Trying to...to push its way out, same way your grownup tooths push out your milk tooths. Charlie says my third eye is red. Like, a demon-eye. Says I’ll be able to see right through folk’s skin. See their hearts...see the thoughts swimming in their brains. People turn like glass. You can see their secrets, just like Charlie sees.”
Greasy drips of sweat tracked lines through the grime on Alder’s forehead. He smelled godawful: the pill-poison working out of his body.
“Charlie says he’s gonna cut my eye open, let the third eye out. Do it with a razor blade while I’m sleeping. Like, as a favour.” I’d never seen the farm boy so shit-scared. “I don’t wanna...wanna see all that.”
“Shshsh, Alder. The DC’s gonna come.”
Alder settled, shivering. “Don’t let him cut me. Please, Henry.”
“Okay, Alder. I’ll...I promise.”
When I crept back under the sheets Charlie was watching. We slept side-by-side, nearly as close as we’d been inside mom. Charlie said we’d once shared the same heart, before we split and I tried to kill him. His eyes glittered like dark little stars. World-eaters, those stars’re called.
“You’re such a nice person, Hen.”
Charlie said it kind of the way you’d call someone a coward or a thief. He held out his hand. His grip was pure fury: you’d think he wanted to reach right into my skin, melt our bones together.
A floorwalker came by swinging his flashlight. The beam fell on our hands. Our fingers fell apart. Charlie winked and shut his little stars.
Five years ago a hulking boy named Laird Fairchild beat Charlie up beside a frozen oxbow lake. “Tuned him up,” as the local saying goes. Charlie called him “Lard” in algebra class and Laird—who’d had been held back in third grade, twice—became focused, in his mule-like way, on setting matters straight. He’d chased Charlie down after school, kicked him in the ribs and head with steel-toed boots, chipping a few teeth.
I’d been home sick. A real bad stomach ache—felt like the cellar was rotting out of my guts. I’d seen the doctor twice; he’d prescribed pills first, then a chalky syrup called Cytotec. Neither worked, but later, once Charlie started spending nights away from home, the ache had gone away on its own.
When Charlie came home with a hole in his lip—it was tight and rubbery like the split in a superball—dad had a shit-fit. His cheeks were furry with a two-week beard. Some days still he’d put on his old suit, like when he used to go to the office, except he’d been fired. He said it was because of mom but mom was eight years ago.
“Who in hell did this to you?”
Charlie said: “What would you do about it?”
Dad would drink. He used to drink Crown Royal, giving us the velvet purple sacks to hold our marbles. But when money got tight he switched to Ontario Premium, which came in a cardboard box, then to Proof Whisky, which came in the paper bag the cashier put it in.
“Goddamn it, Charlie, let me help.”
When Charlie relented, dad smiled gratefully and hunted the Coates’ name out of the phonebook.
“This is Dale Webster.” As if his name might mean anything to the person on the other end. “Your boy beat holy hell out of my boy. Got a hole in his lip you could steer a Buick through. What sort a piece-a-shit are you raising, anyhow?”
The voice on the other end rose up: a tea-kettle shriek that vibrated the receiver. Dad’s face did a funny thing.
“Now hold on, hold your horses...naturally I figured...bullying your boy?” He glanced at Charlie desperately. “That doesn’t sound like my...teasing him mercilessly...? No, I’m not buying that.”
The voice on the other end changed. Gruff, booming. Coates’ father.
“No, now listen, I never...never said that, exactly.” Dad swallowed like a guy holding back a big puke. “Right then, my apologies. I got off wrongheaded. No, that’s not necessary. No...okay, that’s your right to say...fine, I deserve that ...I’ll talk to him, yes I will. You can set your watch on it.”
Dad hung up. His hands shook so bad.
I didn’t see Charlie much the next few weeks. He wasn’t talkative and often came home shivering after dark. Then, during our last class one Friday, Charlie dropped a note on Laird’s desk. As his eyes staggered over whatever Charlie had written, huge anger collected in Laird’s shoulders and hands.
He almost caught Charlie at the bike racks after last bell but Charlie squirted free and sprinted across the soccer field. Laird plodded after in unlaced boots, unzipped parka flapping. I trailed them to the woods bordering the river. The hillside spilled steeply down to the basin; scraggly pines poked out of the ground.
A bluff overlooked the hill and the river beyond. Laird and Charlie were zig-zagging down the steep embankment. There was a fifteen-foot shelf of snow packed solid by the wind; below it lay sharp river rocks and brambles. A hole was sunk into the snow crust—a tunnel?
Charlie looked over his shoulder, saw Laird coming and dove. Laird followed because he was stupid and because the scent of the hunt was jacked into him.
Later I’d see how carefully Charlie had planned it. He must’ve roamed up and down the river, searching for that spot exactly. He’d spent days digging the hole, making it extra-wide so Laird wouldn’t chicken out. I imagined him ten feet down, digging as his fingers went numb, carving out space until he nearly froze to death. Stuck down that hole with barely enough room to move and only the cold light of the moon above, testing angles, seeing where he could fit and where his pursuer could not. The determination it must’ve taken...was it even revenge Charlie wanted? I believe my brother was simply expressing a part of himself. The coldest, craziest part? Maybe the biggest part.
I crept down the hillside. Laird’s boots kicked stupidly around the tunnel’s gooseneck bend, way down. He was bellowing. I peeked over the shelf. Charlie had one boot off—maybe he’d untied it, let Laird grab it, just to suck him in deeper. He brushed snow off his shoulders and spotted me. His jaw went hard, then he waved me down.
When I reached them Charlie was sitting crosslegged by the tunnel-mouth. Laird was stuck. Charlie had dug it just big enough so that Laird—who was built like a bowling pin—could clear his shoulders but not his hips. His arms were pinned to his sides. His nose was bloody. Laird was screaming by then.
“Shut up.” Charlie’s voice had no tone at all.
But Laird kept screaming. Not for help—he had to realize nobody could hear him— but for mercy. Saying he was sorry, so sorry, then back to screaming.
Charlie found a rock the size of a sparrow’s egg, winged it. It bounced off the tunnel ice and struck Laird’s head with a hollow wonk!, which may have been funny except for Charlie’s eyes—blown-out pupils making them almost black; a magpie’s eyes— and the fact that blood quietly leaked from Laird’s scalp.
He unzipped his pants and took out his penis, shrunken by the cold. He duck-walked over and pissed. Urine splashed on Laird’s skull, turning his hair into steaming wet ropes. It mixed with the blood and ran down to the riverside. Laird was so scared he was quaking—his head beating like a second heart, the skin and bones pulsing like his skull was full of bugs or something, ready to split apart out of pure terror.
Charlie whispered something to Laird. I couldn’t make out what but I think I heard the word “puncture”—funny how a word can be scary all on its own. Laird stopped screaming and went real quiet.
When he started booting the snow to cave in the tunnel—nasty, stabby little kicks that sent ice crashing down—I grabbed him. Charlie let out a choked yip, the sound of a leashed dog yanked away from a good smell. When I let go he put his hands on his knees, glaring. Calculating, maybe, what it meant to let this go and where it would put us if he didn’t.
“I won’t let anyone hurt us,” he said. “Not hurt, not shame us neither.”
He left me with Laird. It was rough work pulling him out. His parka tore. I think he cracked a rib. When he crawled free, Laird hugged me. The pissy stink of his hair and his big soft body sobbing against mine.
“It’s okay, Laird. Charlie was just joking. He wasn’t really gonna...”
“I can’t explain it,” Dr. Pelley said.
We were in the owlhouse: Charlie, me, the doctor. Something was the matter with the owl’s eye. One was the yellow of a devil’s eye marble. The other? Milky, like an Atomic Fireball after you suck it. You could still see a teensy bit of yellow; it glowed under the milkiness kinda like a car headlight sunk in a lake.
Percy. The owl’s name. A Great Horned Owl. She flew into an electric cattle fence along Old Stone Road and came to us in an eentsy little cage. Her wing hung funny...kinda boneless? A sleeve without the arm in it, like.
“You’re cleaning Percy’s cage every day?”
Charlie said, “Yes, doctor P.”
Dr. Pelley was short and fragile—what my dad would call “petite”—and smelled of cinnamon hearts though I never saw her sucking one. She ran the owlhouse for the Humane Society. The program was called “Youths Give Back to Nature.” Residents at the Welland Home for Troubled Boys bred frogs for a wetland project. Suckers. Owls were waaaay cooler than frogs.
“Could be an infection,” the doctor said. “Some breed of mold or airborne fungus. God, I’ve never seen it this bad.”
The owlhouse was a shack with a top of greenhouse glass. A caterpillar inched across the roof, throwing its shadow on the dirt floor. The shelves were stocked with clay flowerpots, cocoa shells and weed killer. Some of Percy’s feathers were whitened, too. Little red marks rung her bad eye.
“Been scratching at it,” the doctor said. “She’ll make it worse.”
I liked feeding Percy. First I’d tried to feed her grapes from the cafeteria. But Dr. Pelley said owls only eat things that move. So every morning I’d find snails on the high wall. They trooped out of the wet grass like soldiers on the march. Moving so slow that, if I watch them for too long, it’s almost like it’s the wall that’s growing— pushing out of the ground, a plant made of solid concrete, taking the snails up with it.
They’re just goo, Henry, Charlie would tell me. Snot with a shell. Look at them, slug-slugging along. Where are they even going? Stupid things.
I figured they wanted something better, yeah? The mystery on the other side. Sometimes I dreamt about following them. But the wall was fifteen feet tall with razor wire tumbleweeding along the top—the sun glittered off the sharp bits, looking like the Wilkinson-Sword blades in my dad’s old razor.
Doctor Pelley wrapped a padded gauntlet around her arm and opened the cage. Percy screeched and tore tufts of padding with her beak.
“She’s absolutely terrified,” the doctor said.
She inspected Percy’s wing. It was healing nicely, at least.
“We should be getting set to release her but with this eye, I just don’t know how she’d do in the wild.”
“So we can keep her,” Charlie said.
Dr. Pelley said, “That’s not the point of this project, Charles. The owls come to us hurt, we release them all better. They return to their natural way of life.”
“But if she’s still hurt,” Charlie said in his reasonable way, “then she can’t go back to her natural life, can she? We can keep her.”
“You can’t really keep wild things. Either they die or they hurt their keepers.”
She returned Percy to the cage. More and more I was feeling like I was the problem—in some terrible way I couldn’t even guess, I was making the owl sick. Something leaking out of my skin and poisoning her.
“I’ll get the mouse,” Charlie said.
A white one this time. Its eyes the size of peewee marbles. Red rubies—the rarest of all. Charlie caught hold of its tail. It came out of its cage squeaking and kicking, scratching at Charlie’s fingers with claws soft as a baby’s fingernails. Charlie tickled its belly and laughed.
The doctor said: “Don’t make sport of it, Charles. Take no joy in it.”
“I’m not making sport. I’m just making it comfortable before it dies.”
Charlie nodded. “Palliative measures. And my name is Charlie.”
“Charlie, not Charles.”
The doctor’s hands disappeared in her pockets. To stop them from shaking?
“You don’t have to stay, Henry,” she said. “I know it upsets you. But leave the door open, would you?”
The afternoon was bright and warm. Residents were scattered around the yard; the DCs watched us from shaded patio chairs.
I followed a beam of sunshine to our picnic table. Lazlo Boal was lying on it. A big ole shiner squeezed one eye shut but I knew Lazlo wouldn’t tell me who’d done it.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” he said.
I liked Lazlo. A lot, actually. He’d detached his fake hand—“uncoupled” was the proper word, Lazlo said—to let his skin breathe. Lazlo said the stump could get real hummy. The stump, he said, the way you’d talk about something you owned, maybe, but that wasn’t a part of you. Skin stretched tight over the nub of bone, which pushed out so far that I thought it’d rip through. It did have a smell: moist and musty like the skin trapped under a cast.
“You mind picking my nose for me?” Lazlo asked. “I can’t anymore.”
“Use the hand you’ve got left.”
Lazlo acted all upset. “Oh, I see—you won’t help a handicapped buddy prospect for nose-gold.” He went silent, then said: “You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.”
I wanted to ask how he’d lost his hand—seemed the kind of secret friends would share—but I’d get one of his crazy lies. Aliens abducted it, a pissed-off croc chomped it off in the Everglades or whatever.
“How’s your dad?”
My neck cranked around. Lazlo wasn’t smiling. Was he needling me?
“No reason. Just wondering.”
My fists clenched, blood bunching in my veins. But Lazlo was the kind of guy...you could punch his face until it caved in and he’d sit there taking it. So I walked over to the wall. Pressed my ear to the cement. Lazlo asked what I was doing.
“Nothing. You’ll think it’s stupid.”
“No, I won’t.”
Lazlo wasn’t a tough kid. Wasn’t that freaky hardness to him, the sort rooted in most of us. Not the genuine craziness, either, like you saw in guys like Alder Coates, who only put his pants on in the morning so he could stick his hands down them. I may never know how Lazlo ended up here but it wasn’t on account of him hurting anybody. Disrespecting property or authority, probably, just being a screwball. His heart was marshmallowy. He wasn’t built for this place and I’m pretty sure that fact had kicked its way in by now.
“I can feel Niagara Falls,” I said. “When I put my ear on the wall, I feel it through the brick...I...I can’t say why it...”
Lazlo nodded like to say I’d explained it perfectly. I pressed my whole body to the wall. A snail was stuck near my elbow, higher than I’d ever seen one.
When I sat down next to Lazlo, he said: “It was bloodflow. Poor bloodflow, that’s all.” He held up the stump. “The veins in my hand...like, they could’ve belonged to a ninety-year-old guy. The skin started to die. It could’ve spread, right? The elbow, shoulder. You sacrifice a little to save the rest.”
He said, “Serious,” and I could tell he meant it.
Lazlo picked up the fake hand with his good hand, flipping it up and catching it. “I was in a ward with other people who’d lost stuff. Arms and legs, boobs and even nuts. The doctors said if we talked about it, shared our commonality of circumstance, we’d feel better. But nobody’d got anything blown off diffusing a bomb, or y’know, jumping out of an airplane on a top-secret recon mission. They stepped on a rusty nail or cut their finger cleaning their fucking aquarium and some fish-bacteria ate their skin. Or they scarfed too many Charleston Chews, got diabetes and the doctors had to cut off the sugary bits. You sit there listening to their stories and it’s like: Holy shit! This is so boring.” He touched the calipers to his tongue, tasting the metal. “But hey, that’s me too.”
Charlie was watching us from the owlhouse. A cold stone lodged in my gut.
“Fuck off, Lazlo, you fucking spaz.”
I cocked my fist back like to plant him. Lazlo tipped back, surprised, and rolled assways off the table. I left him there and jogged over to Charlie.
“You guys having a happy little chat?” he said when I reached him.
“What, with the gimp? No way, Char.”
That night Charlie crawled into my bed. His body clammy like weeping tile, and hard: all elbows, kneecaps and long bones. He slid one arm around my chest and one under my neck and over my shoulder, hands knitting over my heart. He hooked his legs around, heels dug into my thighs, anchoring himself. Kind of spiderish: you’d expect him to sink fangs into my neck and wrap me in sticky threads. But Charlie’d done the same in the cradle: dad would come into the nursery and find him wrapped around me just so.
One morning dad said my one eye was all red. Charlie squeezed so hard that a vessel popped inside my eye. I don’t remember it happening, though, or if it hurt or not. Dad could have lied about it even. I was just a little-bitty baby.
“You think that’s a black hold up there?” I whispered, pointing out the barred window to a bruised spot in the sky.
Charlie set his chin on my shoulder and said: “Black hold?”
“Yeah. A place where the blackness gets held. That’s why it’s darker.”
“They’re called black holes, Hen, not holds.”
“How could anything hold the blackness of the universe, Hen? It’s all black, isn’t it? Otherwise the sky would be white, with little specks of black where the dark is held. A black hole is a dead sun. Those stars up there? Suns. They all have planets floating around them, same as we float round our sun. But suns run out of gas. Takes a bazillion years but they do, and when it happens they die. Except a sun, like, eats itself. Turns inside-out, sort of. Goes from giving off light and warmth to giving nothing at all. Just a big black mouth sucking everything into it, right? It eats planets. Crushes them like a garbage compactor. It even eats the light, Hen. Imagine blackness so deep and hungry that it can do that.”
“Weird,” I said, because I couldn’t think what else.
“I love you, Hen.”
Squeezing me. Tight.
“Love you, Char.”
Later the floorwalker found Charlie and hauled him off. Charlie hissed and struck with his fists. The DCs clamped him down. He spent the next three days in Time Out. Which, fine by him—Charlie doesn’t feel things the same way the world does, anyway.
Copper sulfate. Mean-ass chemical. Look of table salt, only blue. Eats through things slowly but endlessly like an itch you can’t get rid of.
Dad killed our neighbour’s tree with the stuff. Charlie helped. Its branches rose over the fence, dropping crabapples in our yard. Dad asked our neighbour to prune it, sick of the rotten-apple stench. Neighbour said no. Dad said, “Well, I asked nice.”
They did it at night. I watched at the window. First frost: the moon lit the grass with an icy glow. Two shapes stole across the fenceline. Dad with a hacksaw, Charlie with two paintbrushes. Dad gashed the tree. They spat on the paintbrushes and dipped them into a pot of sulfate. They painted the gashes with poison and came home, eyes blazing with their devilry.
In two days the tree’s leaves had gone wilty. Gravity treated it differently— punishing it, seemed like, pushing it hard to the earth. I picked one of the apples and it tasted...one time I’d found a D-cell battery in the garage, busted open and furred with greeny acid. Curious, I’d touched my tongue to it—the apple tasted a lot like that battery. The poison was spiked through it, twisting it towards death. I felt sorry for the tree. It was no way for anything to die.
They say dad’s stomach was eaten half to hell with the same stuff. His intestines, too: a surgeon sliced him open and tugged out, like, fifteen feet. It was all...riddled, is I think the word. Riddled with holes? And intestines are pretty, like, durable, as far as the stuff that we humans are made up of. Stronger than plain old skin or even muscle. But you got to figure: that shit ate through a tree. You go to the Pioneer Village and you’ll see wood cabins that’re, what, two hundred years old?
Dad was drinking it. That’s anyone’s best guess, anyway. Little specks—“trace residue,” the cops called it—were found inside his Proof Whisky bottles. The forensic guys barely noticed it, until they did, and then they found it other places too. Dad’s shampoo bottle. His foot powder. Not his toothpaste or whatever. He never tasted it: the amount in his booze was so small that the alcohol masked it.
Dad was pretty bad off by then, even before the sulfate. A Children’s Aid worker showed up. The Humane Society had sent her—a week before dad dragged me in to pick up a dog. Dad’s eyes were radishy, bloodshot to hell. The woman not only refused to let him have the dog—an old, sick-looking beagle named Petey—but said she didn’t think dad could be trusted to keep a goldfish alive. Dad got pissed and pointed at me like the fact I was alive proved something.
The Children’s Aid worker’s report said if dad didn’t pull his shit together Charlie and me would go into care. But dad was pretty much all shit by then; you figure there was really anything to pull together?
The idea of being taken away scared me, yeah, but Charlie even worse—the social worker said there was a good chance we’d be separated. Happened a lot, she said, because foster families could only take one kid into their homes.
After that dad got sick. Weird, because until then he hardly ever did. Dad used to call whisky Nature’s Medicine—killed the bacteria, right? But one afternoon I found him throwing up in the toilet. All red and ...pulpy?
“What the heck have I been eating?” he said, speaking into the john. The fear cooked off his bones, hot as flames in a firepit.
Next he was in the hospital, a surgeon cutting his guts apart. Sure I cried. He was a shitty dad, but he’s the only dad I’d ever have and I loved him anyway. The doctors figured it was the booze, right? But they took some tests and that led to more tests and...the cops went to the house, found it riddled with poison. I mean, it’s not like Doctor Scholl’s was putting that shit in their foot powder, right?
A cruiser took Charlie and me to the station. Two cops, one short and one tall, sat us down.
“It’s weird,” the short one said.
“Very weird indeed,” the tall one said.
“We got this guy, your pops,” the short one said, “nearly dead from swallowing tree killer, i.e.: poisoned, but real slow—”
“Crafty,” the tall one said.
“Crafty, yeah, that’s the word. And the question that needs to be asked is: who would poison your dad? Who’d poison a mopey drunk?”
Charlie said: “People’re always saying they understand.”
The tall one said: “Understand?”
“Why dad drinks,” Charlie said. “Because of mom, right? It wrecked him, they say, and so, like, it’s okay he is how he is. But we lost her, too. Why let him off the hook?”
The short one said: “You want to tell us something, son?”
Charlie leaned down to the tape recorder and said: “We did it.” Just like that.
I’d never seen Charlie more worried. If you didn’t know him, you’d think it was on account of what he’d said and what it meant: court, lawyers, the Home. But that wasn’t it. The moment hung, getting bigger, more possibilities attaching to it.
“I knew about it,” I said.
I pictured Charlie ghosting through the house, sprinkling fairy-dust. Watering down the poison and adding it to dad’s bottles, calculating how much and how long it would take to work. To all the cops, the lawyers, the judge I only said: “I knew.” After awhile it felt like I really had—my mind accepted the fact that I’d seen Charlie doing it. Could probably even pass a lie detector by now. I guess it broke dad’s heart to hear, but truth was Charlie’d done a hell of a lot more for me than dad ever had.
After the trial they let me see him. Charlie refused to go. Dad was in a hospital bed on the sixth floor of the Niagara General. The moon hung above the Falls out the hospital window—you could see the craters on its surface, the rind of an albino orange. Blankets were bunched up to dad’s neck. Whatever was underneath made me think of a jumble of driftwood blown into a loose pile by the wind. The doctors had to flush his insides with sodium citrate twice a day to stop the sulfate from eating him. His face was yellow and his eyelids hung almost inside-out, same as that old hound-dog at the Humane society. He had hardly any teeth—he’d thrown up so much that the stomach acids ate them down to nubs. His mouth had the look of a caved-in mineshaft.
“I’m sorry, dad,” I said.
He didn’t say anything. Asleep with his eyes open? Next his hand snaked from under the sheets and grabbed my wrist—the hand of something that’d laid in a crypt a hundred years.
“Charlie...” Dad’s breath reeked of bitter lemon from the citrate. “...Charlie is...chaos.”
I started to scream. The nurses hustled me out. Dad’s still alive. I sort of wish he’d die. I think he’d like that. But bodies are stubborn. Minds, too.
They took Lazlo to the hospital today. A few hours later I find Charlie in the owlhouse.
It’s twilight. Charlie’s alone. The DCs hadn’t seen him slip away but he’s good at vanishing into blind spots—most of his life was spent in that little grey slit at the edge of your vision where your eyes aren’t really focused.
Something to do with Lazlo’s ear. I’d overheard him complaining to the DCs this morning—weird, because Lazlo wasn’t a bellyacher. At lunch he’d fallen to the cafeteria floor, shrieking and clutching his head. The DCs took him to the infirmary. His screams carried back into the cafeteria. Charlie’s face was unreadable.
Pudding cups for dessert today. Comes in metal tins. I licked the lid clean, bent it in half and when nobody was looking I slipped it into my pocket.
The owlhouse door is open a crack. I linger outside, letting my eyes adjust. Inside everything is dark and still. The eerie rustling of feathers.
An ambulance showed up. Took Lazlo to the Niagara Gen. Same place as dad.
Listen, it’s not as if I was born nice. I’ve done my share of rotten-ass stuff. Put a tack on my teacher’s chair. Fed a frog Alka Seltzer to see it blow up like a grenade. I’ve done those things and I’ll do them again, or things very much like it. My father didn’t raise no saint.
And see, Charlie’s never done any of that. Those stupidly terrible things boys do. Every act of cruelty Charlie’s ever committed had a reason. He’s never been . . . what’s the word? Fickle? Never been fickle with his cruelties. Everything comes from a place of real strong purpose. Follow the threads back and you’ll see that.
Still, Charlie’s half-devil. Three-quarters maybe. He’s my brother so I guess I can say so.
Percy screeched. Charlie’s voice, soft and mothering: “Shshsh...pretty bird.”
Sometimes Charlie would bring it up—the fact I tried to eat him. It pissed me off. Worse than that...shamed me. With him I’d share anything, y’know? We were partners, way I saw it. As brothers, twins, we were blood-partners.
I can see Charlie in the owlhouse now. The nose-watering smell of bleach. He’s right up to Percy’s cage. Something’s sticking out of his mouth ...a straw?
A white blob shoots into the cage, hitting Percy. The owl screeches—the most awful sound: a cry of confusion and pain—and pulls into a tight little ball.
When the owl first came to the Home, Charlie had carefully wrapped bandages around Percy’s broken wing. He’d mixed pablum and fed Percy with an eyedropper. He loved that owl. And he loved me, too. If we were dying in the desert, he’d give me the last sip of water in his canteen...but sometimes I wonder who he’d think he was saving—me, or the other half of himself?
He turns and smiles as if I’ll understand—after all, I cared for Percy too, and would understand what needed to be done to keep her close. So where does that put him and me, on a long enough timeline?
I step inside the owlhouse. The moonlight fades as the shadows creep over my shoulders. We draw together. Charlie’s lips are white with bleach. Percy huddles in her cage, peeping softly. Charlie’s head doesn’t even come up to my chin but I’m the one who’s shivering.
“I love you, Hen. Always have, always will.”
Why did that always sound like a threat?
“I love you too, Char.”
And really, I do. I do. He’s all I have left of a family. Charlie’s it.
Charlie opens his arms. I open my own. The pudding lid sits in my right hand. I’d cut my finger on one months ago, nearly to the bone. Its edge holds the moonlight that falls through the roof: a curve of pure and ghostly silver.
We’re just standing here, my brother and me, in the moon’s cruel light. Before long I guess something’s gonna happen.
First published in The Fiddlehead (Canada)
Editor: Ross Leckie
Fiction Editors: Gerard Beirne, Mark Anthony Jarman
The Fiddlehead, published four times a year, is Canada's oldest literary journal. Since 1945 it has surprised and delighted readers in Canada and across the world with its thoughtful mix of stories, poems, book reviews, and occasional interviews and essays. In alternating years the summer issue is devoted entirely to either poetry or fiction; these special, extended issues measure the pulse of literary writing. The Fiddlehead’s annual literary contest closes on December 1 with winners published the subsequent spring.
Craig Davidson is the author of The Fighter, Sarah Court, and Rust and Bone, which was made into a film starring Marion Cotillard. His book Cataract City will be out in September. Visit his website.