How Not to Come Undone
by Richard Thomas
The family heard that the meteor shower would be visible from the cornfields of northern Illinois, just twenty minutes away from their sedentary suburban bliss, but Robert had been sleepless for weeks already, images flickering across his dreams—shadows and voices, a burning sensation running all the way to his core. They were mother and father, sister and brother—nothing special, rows of houses the same, but in blue, or yellow, or brick. But the boy—half of a set of twins, all the magic and wonder resting in his cells—the darkness and vengeance in his sister, Rebecca. So as they snuffed out the lights of the family sedan, hand in hand down a dirt path the boy had mapped out, trust so easy to come by in this family—the girl sparked danger in her squinting eyes, as the boy’s ever widened to the stars, and possibility. Fresh cut grass lingered under buzzing power lines that disappeared as they stretched out to the horizon, a moist smell ripe with cleanliness and godliness—a hint of something sour underneath. The girl grinned as the rest held their noses, so eager she was to embrace death.
There was little talking, words so often failing them—the father full of muscle and pride, a quick arm around them all, a comforting presence on most days. The mother overflowing with worry, her long black hair often charged with static, as if thought and trembling nerves bubbled up to the surface of her pulsating skull. They did their best. And as the dry grasses and weeds rose up around them they held hands again, as the twins parted, spying each other, mother and father taking a breath together, searching for peace. They had spoken of meteors, talked about aliens, listed off planets—space so wide and unforgiving. Such potential, still, and yet, so much that was unknown, unimaginable. In each of them a different static, signals from far away mumbling welcome, whispering promise, giggling failure.
At the top of a hill they stopped, a blanket unfurled, some of them sighing, others grimacing in pain. The questions they would ask themselves on nights like this, and were in fact contemplating at this very moment, ran the gamut from inspired to self-destructive. Why me? Why not me? What does it all matter? Why are we here? On the darker nights when children lay healing, or feverish, or sick with disease, the father might pray a little—ask for the burden all to himself, willing to eat such pain with hardly a hesitation. On the darker nights the mother asked for forgiveness—somehow feeling that it must surely be her fault. Both asking quiet gods to pass over their twins, to find their sacrifice elsewhere. The boy might lie staring at his sister, the room black around them but for a singular bulb in the closet, her eyes as dark as coal, yet shimmering all the same.
“Becca, don’t,” he’d say.
“What?” she might reply.
“Any of it,” he whispered, pausing. “All of it.”
But he knew what she was, what she would become, and no matter his hope, his spark, there was little he could really do.
Or so he thought.
In the grass, on the hill, they scanned the sky for falling stars, for meteors, bits of fire and light and danger. The father fell asleep first, one last deep breath, searching his mind for the answer to so many questions, unable to quite figure it out before he went silent. It was like this on most nights—but then again, some evenings he solved many a riddle. The mother felt her husband go, and let it happen, the weight of it all just too much to carry, letting worry run off of her like rain on a slicker, giving in to weakness, expecting only the worst. But it rarely came. The girl had been waiting for this, the parents to slip away into slumber, for the darkness was calling to her, from every corner of the field.
“No, don’t,” the boy said.
“What?” she laughed.
“Any of it,” he sighed. “All of it. Please. No. Let it be.”
She batted her eyes, as if confused, and then lowered her gaze, incantations slipping over her lips, as the wind picked up, fireflies dancing on the breeze, a faint brush of lavender from the bushes back by the car.
But the boy was curious, and so he propped himself up on his elbows, the night full of so much curiosity—why not her? Maybe he was wrong. He could be wrong.
She found a stick and broke it into pieces, quickly stacking the twigs on a flat rock that sat exposed to the moonlight, forming the wooden splinters into a triangle, and then a pyramid, crossing one over the other, pulling a clover with four leaves from the grass, running a sharp thumbnail over her scarred palm, drops of crimson falling to the stone.
“No,” Robert said, standing up, his parent oblivious, as if spellbound. “Not like that.”
“This is the moment you always get queasy, brother,” she whispered. “Not all that glitters is gold,” she said, staring at the moon, baring her long, white neck as the boy took a step toward her.
“Must it always be death?” he asked.
“No,” she said, bowing her head, as if that was the only trick she knew.
A flash of light overhead and his eyes shot toward the heavens, black felt dotted with pinpricks, slashes and sparks darting right to left, right to left, disappearing and fading over the hills and into the distance.
“So it begins,” he said, embracing what she’d set in motion.
“I don’t think that’s me, brother,” she laughed.
He spread his arms wide, as the stars fell around them, filling the sky, but so very far away. To the horizon it was as if they might land upon them, but no, that wouldn’t happen. Couldn’t happen.
If she had asked for death, then what had he asked for?
Evoking a crucifix he open his palms, and stardust fell upon them, as their eyes grew wide, a distant spark growing closer and closer until it lit up the field, the two of them trembling, his right hand catching something red.
He brought his hands together, the left hand over the right fist, a heat inside, bouncing and struggling, his hands glowing yellow beneath the flesh, orange seeping out, the girl coming closer, smiling wide, the boy trembling, skin gone pale, sick and uncertain.
What had he done?
“Open your hands,” she asked
“No, I can’t,” he said.
And so he did.
It glowed and pulsed, voices like underwater mumbling, a dark sphere spinning and rolling, spilling into itself, some sort of question being asked—forgiveness, perhaps, favor maybe, unable to breathe, his mouth open wide.
Without thinking he swallowed it down, hands to his mouth, as it burned and healed down this throat, burned and sealed as it descended, as it burrowed deeper, filling his body with light, rays pouring out of his mouth, his nostrils, his ears, leaking out of his eyes—arms wide, his sister stepping back in horror, his chest thrust out, neck bent back and then it was over.
The boy collapsed.
The girl grinned.
And the parents woke up.
It was only the beginning.
After that, things were different.
The summer unspooled like a giant ball of twine, the boy glowing everywhere he went, his skin tan, eyes sparkling, his brown hair more blond every day. And the girl, just the opposite, pale to the point of translucence, her eyes two black orbs, her fingernails bitten to jagged daggers.
As long as they had been aware of each other, and possibly even before that, the twins had balanced each other out in so many different ways—yin and yang, dark and light, day and night. Things were more established now, nearly teens, the concrete nearly set, but it hadn’t always been that way. The balance, it had been fluid. When Robert was joyful, Rebecca became angry. When the boy fell ill, the girl danced around the house, trying to cheer him, full of life. The best they could wish for was a rare neutral state where neither was happy or sad, just present—equal. And that was no way to live a life. Was it?
The family didn’t talk about the meteors, the light show, what might have happened. It was a buried secret that no one ever brought up. Partly, the parents felt responsible, no surprise, and partly they didn’t believe. But the twins knew, and their eyes lingered on each other, opening their mouths to speak, like baby birds eager for a worm, only to snap shut. Quiet. Uncertain.
More and more the boy would find himself sitting on the front porch of their house, Chicago brick, split with wooden frames, windows facing out in all directions, enough of a yard to run around. Rebecca would find him sitting with his legs crisscrossed, applesauce, eyes closed, open palms resting on his knees, a smile filling his face. Oh how she hated him then. The stories he told now, about what he could do. Had done.
And the she saw it with her own eyes—the boy so still, for so long, that a gimpy squirrel approached him, sniffing out the acorns he had placed in each open hand, its hind leg crooked, fur missing, a scar running across the mottled flesh. The little creature took first one acorn, and then the other, chewing at the shell, getting to the meat, finally resting in the boy’s lap, against all odds—taking a well-deserved nap. The boy stroked the animal, gently, his hands resting on its hindquarters, his face rippling in pain as if he’d found a tack, and not soft fur. Her blood boiled. She opened the door, and shooed the creature away, its gait no longer hesitant or slow, bounding to the nearest tree, and up it in a flash.
When the boy opened his eyes and turned to her, she scowled.
“Did you see?” he asked.
“No,” she growled.
“You did. I know it.”
“There is nothing special about you,” she whispered, her dark side of the scale dipping lower, as his face shone brightly in the sun.
It had come to this.
The rest of the summer would find strange cars parked in the driveway, bikes tossed to the grass, neighbors wandering over to return borrowed power tools, each of them pausing to say hello to the boy. They made it a point to shake his hand, slowly, to grasp them both, to hold them a little bit longer than necessary. He knew. And he smiled. Sometimes they gave him a hug, and he would hug them back, fearless, hands on their shoulders, sometimes moving lower to where a kidney might reside. Eventually he set a basket on the edge of the porch, so the giving would be less awkward, the words needed to explain, to thank, to rejoice now left on quivering lips—this would be their secret as well. The basket filled with candy and toys, with crumpled up dollar bills, jars of fruit preserves and plates of homemade cookies—whatever they had to offer.
Robert was not blind to Becca’s descent, it had been up and down as long as he could remember, but there was so much darkness now, so much pain. He felt that he had driven her there with his joy, his love of life—and his gift.
He offered her a deal, but she refused. She hated him now. Perhaps it was too late. So he decided to trick her.
On the next full moon, when the parents were asleep, they went out to the back yard, behind the pile of wood for the winter, past the birdhouse swinging in the breeze from a rope tied to an ancient oak tree, past the pet cemetery down by the azaleas, to the makeshift altar the girl had built.
“What is it you want to see?” she’d said.
“Any of it,” he whispered. “All of it.”
She smiled in the darkness. She’d been building the shrine for days—the sticks, the feathers—the twine. There were acorn husks, a rotten apple, and a handful of writhing earthworms. There was paint in complicated hieroglyphics—stars, and circles, and lines. When she chewed at her ragged fingernail, pulling away a bit of keratin, blood blossomed to the surface, running down her finger, a single red coin landing on the rock below.
He acted quickly.
Robert took her hands, as she gasped and tried to escape, holding them tight, his own fingers now slick with her blood.
“You will not come undone,” he said, anger flushing to the surface, a truth that danced across his skin, his eyes fading, his skin dulling. He pulled her close and held her tight. She struggled at first, and then realizing how strong he was, gave in. Her pain and suffering, it quieted for a moment, the voices dissipating, her tension unwinding into his frame. They met somewhere in the middle, brother and sister. A single cough, and the last of the glow escaped from his mouth, now a dancing firefly, heading out across the yard. As one lost its shine, the other filled with light, and as the moon overhead sat witness to it all, a shooting star ran across the sky, a spark of hope to all that saw it.
Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Staring into the Abyss, Herniated Roots, Tribulations, and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). His over 140 stories in print include Cemetery Dance (twice), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he writes for Lit Reactor and is Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.