As you enter the doors of this school for the last time, the girl who your brother slept with last night brightens for just a moment before she realizes you’re not Jesse. She deflates.
You and your brother should be identical—technically you are—but no one has ever mistaken you for each other.
Jesse comes out the door just behind you, and the girl’s gaze ignites once more. You lean against the lockers, your backpack lumpy against your shoulders, and listen patiently, painfully, as she stutters her way through nonchalance she obviously practiced in front of the mirror this morning.
Jesse shares a mirror with you, and all he talked about was what your next house will be like, your next school.
You had nothing to say about the next school because you like this one. It’s nothing special—it’s a rural school, smaller than your last. Everything is the color of Reese’s Pieces, except the vomit-green floor. You stare at it, at your and Jesse’s white-capped sneakers and Dani’s—Dina’s?—weird purple bowling shoes, stationary pylons in the sea of other feet pattering by.
Work boots shedding dirt, more skate shoes, shiny running shoes, spiked Doc Martens—and a pair of ghostly pale bare feet, the toes so long they could curl around a pencil, the talons stained a dark rust-red.
Your head snaps up, but you see only two bulky boys laden in plaid, ones you named Fox Buckle and Fox Hat in your head. In the second it takes them to pass, whoever—whatever—walked beyond them has vanished.
“Jasper, you okay?” Jesse asks.
“Yeah, I just—” You look around for an excuse, so you don’t sound crazy in front of this D-named girl who might tell everyone, which you shouldn’t even care about since you’re moving again.
Jesse is sharp enough to spot Freddy.
Freddy wears those spikey Docs, a septum ring, and a halo of dark curls. Even though you’ve never said a word about thinking Freddy is cute, Jesse knows the photos you heart on Instagram.
He elbows you just a little too hard. “Last chance,” he whispers, before he turns his attention back to D-name Girl.
He’s right. You think about it, about asking Freddy if he wants to come over tonight and play videogames or watch a movie or something. But you can’t do it. Somehow it’s easy to just put on headphones and a blindfold and pretend Jesse isn’t having sex in the bed next to yours, but you don’t think you could lose your virginity with him playing air guitar across the room, which is the only way Jesse wears headphones. Not even your kissing virginity.
The bell rings.
Your family prays before every meal, and you wish you didn’t have to hold your mother’s hand, because she squeezes like you have a secret, like she knows you.
“How was your last day?”
She asks this for the second time this year, and it’s only May. She pushes back the sleeves of her comfy sweater as she pours herself a glass of orange juice.
“I got everyone to sign my guitar case,” Jesse says. He shovels pancakes-for-dinner into his mouth as if they were his favorite, but they’re actually yours, and that’s why you eat slowly, cutting the pancakes into fluffy squares and savoring every bite as you listen to him talk about a day that won’t matter by tomorrow.
Eventually, there is a lull as he drinks his juice.
“Jasper?” your father asks.
When you don’t respond, he prods, “You okay?”
“You know exactly how I am.”
You leave the table and go outside. You don’t slam the front door, but you think you would, if you were a different person.
Jesse will be your only real friend until you go to college, and even though you love him, you cannot help but hate this truth, hate hate hate. Your social media accounts are ripe with followers, but it’s just the wretched evidence of how many times you bonded long enough for them to feel bad deleting you. Thousands of ghosts of the friendships that never were.
You’re afraid if you stay on the porch someone will come out to Talk to you, so you shuffle down the weed-dappled sidewalk.
At your last house, the neighbors had carefully coiffed shrubbery and plants that weren’t allowed to touch one another, stranded in clinical strips of shredded bark. You saw only one car that looked over ten years old—a restored classic that had a crank engine, sleeping in someone’s garage. Everyone was retired and they kept inviting you to church, pointedly, especially when you wore pink.
The place before that was an apartment complex where the neighbors smoked on the stairs and “forgot” to empty their ashcans, and everyone had cats but no one gave them flea meds, and it stunk like piss and despair any time you opened your tiny window.
This house is Goldilocks perfect, even if there aren’t enough bedrooms. You feel like you belong in this quirky cottage, nestled in a neighborhood quilted together by gradual changes in zoning laws, with a multitude of toys lying on the sidewalk and happy, stupid dogs snuffling at dilapidated fences. Everyone has an ugly vegetable garden, and sometimes there are signs that say “Take some!”
You almost walk to Freddy’s house—you know where his family’s mobile home is, resplendent in year-round Halloween decorations. But even if Jesse thinks it’s a good idea, even if Freddy miraculously feels the same, you know what your parents would think.
When you return, you overhear Mom and Dad whispering as you slink past their window. Even though you know you shouldn’t, you pause.
Mom: “…Keep this up, we just can’t.”
Dad: “But if we don’t, they’ll catch…”
Some indistinct words and then Mom again: “We never should have stolen…”
These words are abstract poetry, pretend-intrigue from a life you know your parents can’t possibly have, but these words are also the sharpest of their kind, and they stab deep into your thoughts.
You’re still wondering what it means, if they’re secretly on the run from the Mafia or if they’re Russian spies or maybe just playing a sex game (unhear, UNHEAR) when you clamber through the window into the room you share with Jesse.
There’s a plate of soggy pancakes sitting on the desk and a wet ring where there used to be a bottle of lemonade beside it.
Jesse sits on your bed, not his, sipping the bottle. “I got sick of waiting for you,” he says, as if that’s an apology, so you sit beside him while you eat, his arm and leg warm against yours.
“You know Mom and Dad love their jobs,” Jesse says in a low voice. “All these kids we’ve met, their parents hate their jobs. They argue all the time.”
You shake your head. “They could keep doing it,” you say, even as you wonder again if they really are travel writers, if they used to be bank robbers or if they’re still hackers, assassins, recruiting for a cult. “They could travel, and write about it, and just come home in between.”
“We might be old enough to drive, but someone would still call CPS,” he says. To change the subject, he hands you a sack from under your pillow, and you already know what’s in it, because you can feel the cool cylinders through the paper.
“This town will remember us. Blue or yellow?” he says, and for a moment, you stare at the spray paint and think about explaining yourself to the deputies or getting hit by a train or just not being good at tagging.
Screw it. “Yellow.”
Jesse pulls on a black hoodie — your black hoodie, but you keep a spare because you’ve known him for sixteen years — and you follow him out the window.
Jesse climbs down first, unafraid of the dozens of spiders with tangled webs that have beaten you to decorating the train trestle. Even at dusk, the metal beams are warm from hours of sun. Your palms sweat, but the river is only twenty feet below—if you fall you’ll get wet, and it’ll ruin your phone, but you’ll survive.
Jesse paints two dragons 69ing, borrowing your yellow for the flames that cover the genitalia. You concentrate on writing your initials in bubble letters. They’re the same as Jesse’s, so it’ll double as a signature for his piece.
The secret is, you don’t mind being you. You used to casually mention that you’re not as popular, not as fun, not as adventurous, but people acted like you might be suicidal. Now you know: They don’t want to be a shadow, so they think you don’t, either.
You’re still painting when Jesse invites you to jump in with him. The water below is slow and an unappetizing brown, and you’re about to offer to hold his clothes for him when he’s already leaping off, can in hand. He sprays it in the air as he goes down with a whoop.
He splashes in, bobs back up—and a few feet behind him, something else rises. A discarded foam Halloween skull, with skeleton hands? No, a live thing, like a human but paler, with bulbous, dark eyes and rust-colored nails on the tips of its too-long fingers. It reaches toward the trestle. Toward Jesse.
Its thin fingers are only a couple feet away, and you know if you yell at Jesse he will turn and look instead of just swimming away, so you throw the can of paint as hard as you can. It spins through the air and crashes into the thing’s face, which dents like a boiled egg before spewing black bubbles.
It sinks immediately, but you imagine it under the surface, reaching for Jesse with those bony fingers…
You yell at Jesse to get out of the water with more authority in your voice than you’ve ever used. He complies and nimbly jumps up the bank, then runs along the rails straight toward you, as if he thinks you’re the one who needs help.
You clamber up onto the top of the trestle before he can reach you, leaving only a JR without the Z, because you need to get Jesse home.
You grab his hand, his wet sleeve partially covering his palm and squelching under your grip, and run.
He doesn’t ask questions-he probably assumes you’re just chickening out—and you let him.
When the two of you reach the end of your street, you slow. Red and blue lights blink with lazy regularity in front of the quirky cottage, and there are shadows on the lawn.
Everyone is furious until they see that Jesse is wet, and he uses it to smooth things over. “We went for a walk and I fell off the park bridge,” he says, and even though that’s a whole mile from where you were, and the water there is much shallower, they buy it because Jesse exhales white lies as easily as he inhales air.
“Please, let’s all just go to bed,” Mom says, and you let yourself be shepherded into the house, but you don’t let go of Jesse’s hand, and even though he gives you a curious Look, he allows it.
The deputy shakes your parents’ hands, and they’re all smiles until they shut the door.
Mom catches sight of a strand of weed draped over Jesse’s shoulders, and as she draws it away, you see it’s actually many strands of waterweeds that have been woven into a necklace. There’s a white stone in the center, the size of a pea.
“Where were you?” Mom’s voice is thick and wrong.
Jesse smiles placatingly. “I told you—”
“Did someone who looked like a model lure you away?” Mom demands. “The devil never looks like the devil—”
“Did you follow music?” Dad interrupts. “Or a beautiful light?”
The Look you and Jesse exchange this time is mutual, because Mom balances her checkbook nightly before she goes to bed while Dad falls asleep playing the uncool kinds of videogames, and they both shop at Sears and are afraid to eat sushi because it’s raw. They’re painfully ordinary, until this very moment, when they are insane.
Mom looks down and notices that you and Jesse are still holding hands. Her face crumples and she joins Dad, who is already crying. “We’ll talk about this later. Don’t leave this goddamned house again, do you understand?”
Jesse inhales, as if he’s about to ask questions or argue, but you tighten your grip and lead him to your room.
“What the hell is wrong with them?” Jesse asks, and you almost tell him what you heard, that maybe your parents are on the run.
That you’re not sure what they stole, but you’re starting to think you might know who wants it back. You open up your laptop and type in a few things, things you never thought you’d be saying to Google, but it’s “lady in water with teeth” that gets convincing results.
Before you can tell Jesse, he whispers your name and points at the window sill. Someone has nailed the window shut, not neat, but messy, with so many roofing nails crammed together that they are splitting the wood.
“Maybe they’re on drugs,” Jesse says. “Like a mid-life crisis kind of thing.”
“I don’t think so,” you say. You share the fruits of your eavesdropping, the feet glimpsed in the hallway, and the true story of what happened at the trestle.
“I think it was a… a jenny greenteeth,” you say, and your lips feel like a chicken must feel when it shits out an egg. The words are so foreign, they stretch your ability to say them to the person you love most. “It’s… a faery. Mom and Dad must have stolen from them.”
Jesse shrugs, but you can see everything in the way he avoids your eyes. Your stomach clenches in a ball, and you are about to cry like Mom and Dad.
Maybe you are going crazy. Jesse’s never been perfect, but he’s always been right. No regrets, extraordinarily confident in his momentary cruelties and sudden gifts, strangely innocent and canny all at once.
“We’re not twins,” you whisper. You don’t mean to say it aloud, but it spills out, because you’re so used to telling him everything.
“I’m going to shower,” Jesse says, and you beg him to leave the door open, so you can be sure he’s still there, that they haven’t managed to take him.
But when he shuts the door, for the first time ever, the lock clicks.
You drift off in spite of yourself, because for over an hour you have been using every available neurochemical to process this day, and now you feel like a papery exoskeleton.
When you wake again, you aren’t sure why. It’s not dark, but when you pass your hand over the screen, your phone swears it’s 12:01 a.m.
After a moment, you realize the light isn’t coming in through the window—the light is standing just inside the window, a slender figure in robes made of moonlight. Their—her?—hair is the same ghostly pallor as her skin, and her eyes are the glossy, wet red-black of movie blood.
“How’d you get past the iron nails?” you ask, because in your groggy state, this is the first question you have.
“I have ways,” the figure responds, and her voice is seed pods rattling in an autumn wind.
“You can’t have him,” you say, and you glance toward Jesse, who is predictably sound asleep, one hand still curled around Mimmussy, the tiger he’s had since he was a baby.
The faery pulls the moonlight around her shoulders, as if it were a blanket, and settles onto the edge of your bed. The springs barely compress, as if she weighs no more than a stack of towels.
“Because he’s my brother and I love him.”
“Even though everyone likes him better?”
You snatch the salt shaker from the bedstand and flick it toward the folds of light and the wet eyes.
The faery’s horrible shriek is muted, as if it’s happening under a blanket. The light folds in on itself and blinks out.
Now you can’t sleep. You lie in bed and stare at Jesse drooling on his pillow, his dark lashes stark against his cheeks.
You imagine life without him, without lying to cover up his antics, without being able to coast on his social skills, without someone who knows sixteen years’ worth of your feelings, failures, triumphs, and in-jokes.
It smells like sausage in the morning, and when you and Jesse sit down at this dining room table for the last time, you find a breakfast banquet.
Jesse, who inconveniently slept through your guest last night, stuffs his face with sausages and omelet and begins talking about the new house’s lake access and how he’d like to learn to kayak.
“A person in glowing robes came into our room last night and threatened us,” you say calmly, as you slice into the single sausage on your plate. “I salted them.”
The air is heavy, and it feels like you’re stealing silence with every quiet breath.
“Good job,” Mom finally says.
“Stop me if I get anything wrong.” You cut into your sausage again: perfectly even slices that fall into a line like collapsed dominoes. “Sixteen years ago, you had a baby. The faeries stole him and replaced him with a facsimile. The moment you saw him, you knew he wasn’t yours.”
You and your brother are supposedly identical, but no one has ever mistaken one of you for the other.
“The new one—it didn’t cry,” Mom whispers.
Your fork pins the omelet down like a dead butterfly, and your knife cleaves it, again and again, until there is a grid. “You never went on an expedition to the Andes. When you tell your hiking stories, they’re about a trek to Underhill, where you stole back your son—but you’d already fallen in love with the magic baby, the one that’s too perfect to possibly be real.”
Mom and Dad stare at you, and for the first time, you realize how exhausted they must be, running from mythical creatures for so many years. Had your parents ever thrown salt that smoked on a faery’s eyes or swung iron to leave bubbling welts against its flesh? Are they freelancers, or are they warriors?
“They are both perfect,” Dad says, and he closes his eyes, his voice croaking as if he’s never used it before.
Jesse drops his silverware. “Why are you all doing this? Do you hear yourselves? Please tell me this is a joke.”
“It’s not a joke, Jesse. Your parents are thieves.”
The new voice fills the kitchen, and you all turn to see a tall, pale person with a crust of enormous sparkling gems glued to her skull. Last night she wore robes of moonlight, and today she wears a red dress embellished with cicada husks. A cloak of shadow coils about her shoulders, rippling like water, wisps snaking off and disintegrating in the sunlight.
She wiggles her long, many-jointed fingers, and the cloak flows from her shoulders and pours across the floor, sprouting up into indistinct grey golems of many shapes and sizes. Each is translucent, but you can tell by the way the floor creaks under their weight that they are real.
Three of you reach for the salt shaker, but you are too slow; fingers of shadow grip all of your wrists and bind you to your chairs.
“At least we gave you something in return,” the faery goes on. “At least we were fair.”
Mom’s face purples, and you almost don’t recognize her as she snarls, “When I stepped inside your bone hut, you were smearing bird blood on his penis! Directly out of the bird!”
“You know nothing of our ways, mortal,” the faery snaps.
“You’re savages!” Dad roars. “Monsters.”
“Witches,” Mom adds. “We raised two good Christian boys, healthy Christian boys.”
“But what is good? Has my boy been given the leisure to learn a place down to its very roots? To fall in love?”
“Shut your filthy animal mouth, he’s ours, HE’S OURS!” your father shrieks.
You feel like you’re in a car wreck, where you can see the other vehicle spinning towards yours, and there’s nowhere to go, just an impact to brace for. Some vehicular damage is permanent, can never be hammered out and painted smooth, just the way that you can never unhear your parents’ sick words.
You and Jesse share one mutual glance before his eyes wander up to the person who really made him. You wonder if he’s going to go, if he’s going to leave you.
Light refracts from the faery’s cap of gems, sending rainbow rays across your soggy cereal. Her gaze finds yours, not Jesse’s.
“Come with me, my child. You don’t belong here, and you never have.”
The words hang in the air, their meaning so colossal you have a hard time bending your perception into this new paradigm, one in which you are special and otherworldly.
How much would you have to love someone to become a fugitive for them, and what of the hollow-eyed parents whose children end up on milk cartons?
“Am I made of sticks and mud?” you ask.
“You will never again be what you once were,” the faery says. She might as well have said yes. She gestures toward you with pianist fingers. “Nothing binds you, child, for you are one of us. Make your choice.”
You ponder the alchemy that makes a live creature from organic detritus. About what must lie dormant inside you, like turtles sleeping under winter mud.
You wish away the cool grey fog-snakes, but not just from your own hands. You wish Jesse free.
“Thank you, Jasper,” the woman who pretended to be your mother says, but you don’t unbind her, and her face pinches when she realizes this.
“Don’t be ungrateful, Jasper. You have no idea what we saved you from. We Saved you.”
Jesse meets your eyes again, and everything is familiar and right for a tiny, iridescent moment in the sucking swamp of nonsense that has swallowed both of your lives. You know your brother, and your brother knows you.
“You guys kidnapped him,” Jesse says to your parents. “You literally stole a baby.”
Jesse grabs your hand in his, and it’s dry and firm. Yours is sweaty, but you squeeze back as you turn to face the faery.
“You made me as nothing more than an escape plan, so you could get away with a crime. How could you think I’d want to go with you?”
Jesse grabs your hand, and you squeeze back.
“Go ahead and keep our bank account full,” he says to your parents.
You meet the faery’s eyes. “You go ahead and leave us care packages on our porch.”
“We don’t want to see you, any of you. We need some time,” Jesse says, and it’s just what you wanted him to say.
As you walk out of the room, all of your parents begin arguing behind you. You slam and lock the door and pour salt over the carpet.
“Lake house?” Jesse asks, his eyes pleading. You loved this place, but you already knew Jesse would be your best friend until college, and you can hate hate hate it all you want, but you love love love your brother.
“Lake house,” you agree.
He throws a chair through the window, and even though you roll your eyes when he yells, “Dude, I’ve always wanted to do that!” you dutifully cover the jagged shards with a pile of bedclothes so neither of you cuts yourself on your way out.
Cory Skerry divides his workday between writing the impossible, illustrating the outrageous, and assisting individual authors and small presses who want their manuscripts to exceed reader expectations. When his current meatshell begins to decay, he’d like science to put his brain inside a giant killer octopus body, with which he’ll be very responsible and not even slightly shipwrecky. Pinky swear. For more, visit inkshark.net.