Aaron didn’t talk. Not much, anyway. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to, or didn’t have anything to say, it was that his words piled up behind each other, creating a log jam in his brain until nothing could come out. He was 15 now and in all those years he had only said three words,”Mother,” no,” and home.”
Each night his father and brother, Jonathan, sat at the kitchen table, the farm books open between them and Pee Wee, Mother’s five-pound Jack Russell, at their feet. Aaron stood apart and watched as they pored over bloodlines, arguing that this stud would be better for that mare due to conformation, or gait, or temperament. He could almost see the words falling from their lips. They spilled like water as he stared, desperate to unlock his own dammed stream. Sometimes hope, so strong it hurt, bubbled up in him and he’d open his mouth, trying to join in with a comment about a particularly fine stud, or sweet natured mare; what came out instead was,”Aaagggee.”
At the weird croak that sprang out of his mouth they’d stop talking and turn toward him, pity washing over his father’s face. Aaron clamped his hand over his mouth, always surprised the sounds that came out of his mouth were not the words he heard in his head. Then he’d turn away so that he did not have to see in his father’s eyes the words he never spoke with his mouth, “You are broken.”
His father never understood what his mother was born knowing: you didn’t have to speak to be heard. When he was younger she devised her own version of sign language for him, a few traditional signs, combined with a three-ring binder of laminated pictures that he pointed to when he wanted something.
“The boy will never talk if you keep flapping your hands at him like that,” his father said.
But she shrugged and said, “He is talking,” then turned back to Aaron, who was sitting on the kitchen floor, banging his head against the cabinet door.
“I can’t hear him,” his father said and stalked out the door.
It never used to bother Aaron that he was different, but in the year since his mother’s death, his world just seemed so small. There were the horses, who actually preferred his silence to Father’s gruff voice, and then there was Sara, his twin. They had their own language and she never minded that it didn’t involve words. She was the only one he talked to now.
She wasn’t home the first time he saw the thing in the woods, so he didn’t tell anyone. It was late October and the air was so sharp it burned his nose when he drew a deep breath. He was behind the barn, rinsing the feed buckets, when he looked up and the woods shimmered like asphalt on a hot summer day. He jumped and dropped the hose, drenching his jeans with the icy water, then he blinked, trying to clear his eyes.
It was still there when he opened them. A misty spot in the middle of the woods that looked like Mr. Spock when he stood on the transporter and said, “Beam me down, Scotty.” Blink hard and it will go away, he thought. He stood still and clamped his eyes shut, squeezing out tears that trickled down his cheeks onto his neck. In the back of his mind a flicker of fear flared — It’s happening again.
Slowly he opened his eyes. For a moment the sun blinded him, and he couldn’t see anything except yellow strobes of light. Then the thing moved, sending a ripple of fog across the woods, and the flicker of fear burst into a flame that raced down his legs and out his arms until he was bouncing and flapping so hard his head hurt.
Most of his life Aaron was on the outside looking in. But there were times, like now, as he and Sara huddled on the couch watching an original Star Trek marathon on the Sci Fi channel, that he didn’t feel so different. He almost thought he could open his mouth and say, “There’s something in the woods.” The words would be smooth on his tongue like marbles, and as he spoke he would feel lighter than air.
He could tell her about the thing. She would believe him. She always did. But if he did, the illusion of normalcy would slip like a cloak from his shoulders. Normal people did not see through this world into another one. So he kept his hands still and giggled along with Sara as Kirk was buried under an avalanche of Tribbles.
They were still laughing when their father came out and yelled that it was after midnight and they needed to “turn the damn TV off.”
At the door to his room, Sara turned around and held up her hand with her fingers splayed. “Live long and prosper,” she said. He made the same sign and they touched hands, his fingers tingling as they pulled away.
The next day he was leading Colonel, a big bay Thoroughbred, out to the field when he saw it again. They were halfway down the path leading to the back gate when the horse planted his feet and refused to budge, even though Aaron tugged on the lead line and gave him a tap on the butt.
There, in front of the white birch at the edge of the woods was a blurry spot. Excitement jumped down his spine. No one, not even a horse, had ever seen the odd things that floated in and out of his vision. He never knew when he would look up and see through the thin veil of reality that surrounded this world into something Other. The visions came and went without his control. Sometimes they lasted only seconds. Sometimes hours. The only thing they shared was silence. The things he saw never made a sound.
Last year, when thousands of crows hunched shoulder to shoulder on the phone lines, opening their beaks without uttering a sound, Sara and Jonathan ran under the wires all day without a glance skyward. The horses didn’t even flick an ear in that direction. And when he pointed at the wires, even Sara gave him a look that said he might be crazy. That day he did his chores with one eye over his shoulder, expecting the whole flock to fly at him at any moment like they did in that crazy Hitchcock movie The Birds.
So when Colonel pawed the ground and snorted in the direction of the trees, he wanted to throw his arms around the big horse’s neck and kiss him full on the lips. Instead, he contented himself with a happy bounce on his toes before pointing at the woods and then to his eyes, letting Colonel know he saw it too. The horse started moving again when he pulled on the lead line, although he did keep one ear cocked toward the barn, ready to make a run for his stall if Aaron gave him the chance.
The woods were normal when they got to the gate. No fuzzy edges, no blurry lines, just maples and oaks, locusts and poplars. Aaron unclipped the lead line and Colonel took off for the far end of the field, where he stretched his neck over the fence, nosing at the now normal trees.
The other horses were already in the field, so he sat down on the stump they used for a mounting block and waited. If he stayed long enough it might come back. So he stared, holding his eyes open for so long between blinks he thought they would dry up into raisins. An hour later when Aaron’s jeans were soaked through from the dew on the stump and he couldn’t blink if he tried, Sara pelted up the path calling his name.
“What are you doing?” she said between pants. She bent over, resting her hands on her knees as she drew in great gulps of air. Her gypsy brown hair was so long it tickled her knuckles.
He shrugged and pointed at the woods.
“What?” She squinted but he knew she didn’t see anything. She wasn’t even looking in the right direction.
He pointed at the trees and then his eyes. If he could talk, he would open his mouth and the words would roll right out. “There’s something in the woods,” he’d say, the words slipping from his lips like a ribbon of silk, and she would believe him, not because he was her brother but because of the words. He pictured it so hard that his mouth opened and a strange gurgling noise fell out before he could stop it.
But she didn’t laugh. “Scoot over,” she said and squished next to him on the stump. They sat shoulder to shoulder, his blond head next to her dark one, watching the trees in silence.
After the initial embarrassment over his failed attempt to speak faded, he was comfortable with the quiet. This was their way. Sara was always there. She was born first, but she was breech. Her feet came easily but just below her shoulders she got stuck, and for a whole minute she was between worlds, half in this one and half in his. When they finally pulled her out, her right arm was stretched over her head, her fingers twined through his so he slipped out easily behind her.
They weren’t identical twins. Besides the male-female difference, she was dark like Mother and he was fair like Father and Jonathan. But if someone had been watching them sitting on the stump, heads cocked at the same angle, hands folded right over left in their laps, they would have noticed more similarities than differences. That is, until Aaron opened his mouth and nothing came out. Under the light of such strangeness, similarities vanished.
Heavy footsteps on the path broke the silence. It was his father. He knew before he turned around and the knowledge set his fingers to twitching and his legs to bouncing.
“What are you doing out here?” Father said with a hint of irritation in his voice. Aaron knew what he was thinking — there were stalls to muck, an arena to till, and you two are out here sitting on your butts.
“Aaron thinks there’s something in the woods,” Sara said.
“Well, what is it?” Father said.
Father turned toward the woods and squinted against the sun with a look that said there’d better be something out there. Of course there wasn’t. They were all staring at normal trees and Aaron squirmed on the stump. The weight of his father’s presence pushed his shoulders down until he curled into a ball, his nose touching his knees.
After a full minute Sara broke the silence. “He doesn’t lie,” she said.
Father drew in a deep breath and blew it out through pursed lips. “Go get Jonathan,” he said to her. “Old Sam saw a couple of wolves prowling around his cattle last night.”
She ran off and Father turned back to the woods. Aaron tried to open his mouth to say, “It’s not wolves,” but as usual, nothing came out. He knew the wolves Old Sam was talking about. He had been in the top branches of the maple at the back of their property when he saw them. The trees were just fine then.
When Jonathan ran up with a gun Father unlatched the gate. “Aaron, bring the horses in,” he said without even a backward glance at his youngest son.
“What do you think it is?” Jonathan asked.
“Don’t know. Could be wolves. Old Sam said there were a few nosing around his cattle the other day.”
Aaron waited until they disappeared into the woods before bringing the horses in. Whatever it was would not come out for them.
Later that night Aaron set the table for five, just like always, and just like always, Father pretended not to notice. When the four of them sat down for dinner, one seat was empty but that was okay, Aaron imagined Mother was in the bathroom, or out in the barn.
“Did you find anything?” Sara asked as she pulled out her chair.
“Nope,” Father said, his voice indicating that he hadn’t expected to find anything.
Aaron kept his head down. He had known it wouldn’t come out for them.
“Old Sam caught it,” Jonathan said as he shoveled a spoonful of mashed potatoes into his mouth.
“Yeah?” Father looked up and smiled at his perfect oldest son.
Jonathan nodded, his cheeks so packed with potatoes that he looked like a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter. “I talked to him just before I came in.” Even though his words were a muffled mess because of the potatoes, everyone understood him. Words have weight even when not backed by the truth.
Aaron shook his head and rocked in his chair. It wasn’t a wolf.
Father sighed as if exhausted just by looking at him. “There’s nothing in the woods. Jonathan and I walked through every inch behind the back pasture. Nothing’s there except a few old paw prints.”
But wolves didn’t make trees waver and blink. If he could just say the words they would believe him. He pulled at his lips as if he could yank the words out. Not a wolf. Not a wolf. The phrase looped through his mind but never made it past his lips. He shook his head hard enough to make his hair whip across his face, stinging his cheeks.
“Aaron….” Father brushed his fingertips across Aaron’s shoulder. They were like firebrands, and Aaron jerked away from the touch, a low moan falling from his lips.
“Maybe there is something,” Sara said. “He doesn’t lie.”
“Nothing’s there,” Jonathan said. “We looked everywhere.”
“But he doesn’t lie.”
Darkness fell like a blanket over the farm. Aaron sat out back on a cold Adirondack chair, staring at the sky where stars spilled like diamonds across the black velvet night. Pee Wee was curled at his feet, nose twitching, scenting something even in sleep. Aaron reached down and scratched his ears, and the dog fell into a deeper sleep. While petting the dog, he wondered if the thing in the woods was watching him, but he couldn’t see the end of the barn, much less the beginning of the woods. Something had been there. He was sure of it. He was also sure no one but Sara would believe him. People didn’t acknowledge what they couldn’t see and didn’t believe what they couldn’t hear.
The patio door slid open with a whoosh. “I couldn’t sleep,” Sara said as she pulled up a chair and sat down next to him. Aside from the soft snorts of the horses in the barn, it was quiet. He let the silence wrap itself around him like a cocoon and the day’s anxiety trickled out of his fingertips in a series of tiny pops and twitches.
For once, he was at peace and Sara was troubled. He saw it in the tense lines of her neck, in the way she clenched the chair arms so hard her knuckles were bright white. Had he been anyone else he would have simply asked what was wrong. But he couldn’t slip out of his skin into someone else’s, so he sat and waited for her to speak.
When she did, her voice was so small it almost disappeared into the night. “You know it’s Mother’s birthday,” she said, her eyes fixed on some distant star.
He nodded, thinking of the gold-plated locket he had wrapped and shoved under his bed just before dinner.
“I dreamed of her last night.” There was a slight tic in the corner of her left eye. “I thought I was past all that — the dreams, I mean — but last night she was here, and not here at the same time. I didn’t see her or hear her, I just kind of . . . felt her. Know what I mean?” She turned toward him, but her hair fell forward, shading her face so that he couldn’t see her eyes.
He did know. Sometimes it was like he was in a maze and Mother was calling him, but he could never find her. On those days he was sure he would walk into the barn, and she would be there, just like always, and his heart crumpled a little when she wasn’t.
“The thing is,” Sara said,”it was worse knowing she was there and I couldn’t see her, couldn’t talk to her, than it was knowing she was gone.”
He knew that too. Everything changed when his mother died. He didn’t cry at the funeral, or the next day, or the one after that, until soon it seemed like nothing had happened and she was just away. At a horse show maybe, or the Kentucky State Fair. But there was a hole, just above his stomach and a little to the left, that ached whenever he thought of her, and he had to rub it to keep it from growing so big that it swallowed him up.
Aaron was on his back in the hay loft. They had been loading hay all morning and were taking a break, gulping water and shaking loose hay out of their shirts. He was scratching his cuts and watching the horses when he noticed all five of them backed up against the barn with their noses toward the woods.
He knew what he would see when he looked out back. In front of the horses, at the end of the field, the trees winked and shimmered out of focus. For a moment they were solid and then they were not. But this time the thing stopped in front of a white birch and didn’t leave. It was more solid now. He could feel it watching them and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
No one else noticed, so he didn’t say anything. Then Pee Wee started barking.
“Shut up, Pee Wee,” Jonathan yelled. The dog ignored him, yipping and running in circles until he peed in the middle of the barn aisle.
Father kicked sawdust over the urine spot. “Damn dog.”
Sara was in the hay loft next to Aaron. She looked at the dog, then at him. “It’s there again, isn’t it?”
At his nod she got up and slid down the ladder, landing with a thump in the riding arena next to Father.
“Aaron sees it again.”
“What?” Father was leaning against the red Ford pickup, shaking hay out of his gloves, not paying attention to her.
She pointed to the horses bunched together just outside the arena gate. “The thing. In the woods. Aaron sees it again.”
Father glanced up at the hay loft, then out into the woods. He squinted for a minute, then went back to shaking hay from his gloves. “There’s nothing out there.”
“But Aaron says there is.”
“And I say there’s not.” Father dropped his gloves and glared at her.
“Look at the horses. Look at Pee Wee.” The dog was standing with his front paws at the arena gate, staring out into the woods, his whole body quivering.
“They caught the wolf,” Jonathan said from the back of the Ford.
“Aaron says it’s not a wolf.”
“Aaron is a lunatic,” Jonathan said in a small voice as if he wished it wasn’t true.
In the hay loft, Aaron signed, I can hear you.
“Jonathan–” Father said.
“He is not,” Sara said in a cracked voice. “He’s just…different.”
“You got that right,” Jonathan murmured.
“That’s enough.” Father slammed his fist down on the hood of the pickup. “You,” he pointed at Sara, “there’s nothing in the woods. You,” he pointed at Jonathan, “keep your mouth shut. And you,” he looked up at Aaron, “stop scaring your sister.”
Aaron shrugged. He hadn’t said anything in the first place.
Sara balled her hands into fists. “But he’s seen things before–”
“Drop it,” Father said.
She turned away from him, but as she climbed the ladder to the hay loft she said,”Mother would have believed him.”
“Drop. It.” Father looked around at all of them. “Break’s over.” He tossed a bale up to Aaron, where he pulled it to the spot above Colonel’s stall and stacked it with the others.
The moon hung low in the sky and the clock pointed toward midnight but Aaron was still awake. He sat on his bed, knees pulled to his chest, covers puddled around his ankles, thinking of all the words he would say if he could get them past his lips. There were several, but the one he kept coming back to was Truth. It was a good word, short but weighty. And he knew if he could just move it from his brain to his mouth it would feel smooth and round on his tongue, like pebbles in a stream. He pursed his lips and tried in the stillness of his room to say it. “TTuuuhh.” The word came out in a puff of air. He tried again. This time his lips locked on the letter “T” and he spit the sound out like a snare drum.
Embarrassed even in the silence of his room, he kicked the covers away from his feet and walked to the window. The moon was full and bright as it rained light on the earth. He pressed his nose to the winter-cold glass, trying to see something out of place, something different, but the farm looked the same as it did every other mid-fall night. The woods were still and even the air felt sleepy. He figured he was the only one awake on the entire farm. Nights like this, even the barn was quiet.
A knock on the door proved that at least one other person was awake. “Aaron?” Sara said as she slipped into his room. She looked over her shoulder as if to make sure no one had followed her, which was crazy because she was the only one who ever came into his room.
As she entered the room the stillness of the night fell away. Even her hair crackled with energy, and he was halfway to the door before she said, “I think we should go find it,” as if they shared one mind. Hearing her say the words that he wanted to say but couldn’t made his blood run faster and his skin prickle. He stretched up on his toes and gave an excited bounce before he grabbed his flashlight and they slipped out the back door.
“Do you see anything?” she asked before his eyes even had a chance to adjust. Outside, the moon didn’t seem as bright as it had from the warmth of his room. He clicked on the flashlight and swept the beam across the woods.
“Maybe once we’re there it will come out again.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him along. Her fingers felt like feathers in a nice tickly sort of way. He stumbled through the dark after her, and soon they were in the woods. It was even darker there. The canopy of leaves held the moonlight at bay, and he couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of him. He shined the light around the trees, but nothing was out of the ordinary. A slight breeze ruffling the leaves was the only noise. Even the crickets were quiet.
“Anything?” she whispered.
He shook his head.
“Well,” she said, looking around and spotting a downed maple. “Guess we’ll just wait a bit.” They sat together on the tree even though the bark was damp and their pants were soaked through in a minute.
In a way that went through every inch of Aaron’s body, he knew it would come tonight. All they had to do was wait. What he didn’t know was whether Sara would see it this time. It wouldn’t matter, he knew. She would believe him even if she didn’t see, but in the same way that he hoped for words he couldn’t find, he hoped for her to see.
In her own way, she was as different as he was. He supposed most of it was his fault; after all, she was his twin, and that alone was enough to impart some of his weirdness to her. The rest of it came from being the lone girl in a family of men. It didn’t help that she was dark like Mother. You couldn’t look at Sara without seeing Mother.
He glanced at her now and could just barely make out her profile, her brown hair that shaded her face and blended with the night sky. She leaned forward as if ready to leap to her feet and run down anything that appeared before them. Every line of her body screamed anticipation even as she shivered against the breeze.
They had been sitting a little over an hour when his legs started to cramp up. In spite of the season he wasn’t cold. He stood and stretched the cramps out of his legs, then walked toward the trees. His heart was pumping so hard, pushing blood through his veins so fast that beads of sweat dotted his forehead. As he shined the flashlight deep into the woods he saw it — a foggy shadow about ten feet away. His heart leaped into his throat and he forgot to breathe.
“It’s here, isn’t it?” she asked at his elbow.
He nodded. Something was there, but he didn’t know what.
Sara clutched his elbow. Her fingers didn’t feel like feathers anymore, and he tried to shake loose. “Quit it,” she said, and held on.
The fog rolled together then pulled apart. Crickets started to sing, and the moonlight broke through the branches, washing everything silver. He forgot Sara and stared as it took shape. Somewhere he had seen this before. He just needed time for his brain to pull it together.
“Well?” she whispered as if the weight of her words would send it away.
He shushed her with his hand and shifted from foot to foot as the thing coalesced into a tall column in front of the white birch. His stomach was doing a funny flip-flop thing, and the sensible part of his brain told him he should be afraid, but he wasn’t. Instead, everything felt familiar, like coming home after being away for too long. But he still couldn’t figure out why. The answer danced like a mad fairy at the tip of his brain, just out of reach.
Then she walked out of the fog and something in him started to hurt.
His knees buckled a bit. It had been over a year since he’d seen her. She was younger, fresher, like a flower dotted with morning dew. Her dark hair glowed in the moonlight and her eyes were brighter than the stars. He stared at her until his chest ached and his throat closed. Then he half raised his hand, their signal for “Hello.”
Her face glowed when she realized he could see her. I hoped you would be able to see me, she signed and stepped into the clearing.
“You see something, don’t you?” Sara squinted into the flashlight beam.
The light around Mother filled his senses and he pulled away from Sara, ignoring her tug at his elbow.
I’ve missed you, he signed, and as he did, he realized that words could not capture how he felt.
“Aaron?” Sara was a few steps behind him. He ignored her, afraid that if he turned from Mother, she would leave again.
Mother looked at them both and seemed to shine brighter. The light around her had the same silvery quality as the light surrounding the moon, only brighter and with more substance. Without thinking, he stepped away from Sara, so that the light surrounding Mother engulfed him. It was like touching joy.
Never had there been a time when he was glad to be different. Until now. He looked back at Sara as she stared into the darkness, right through Mother.
I’m here, even when you can’t see me, Mother signed.
He wanted to ask her why she hadn’t come before. Why she had come now. But already she was beginning to fade. A thin transparent edge traced her body.
She folded her hands over her heart, then pointed to him. His throat swelled and his eyes stung. At his nod, she turned to Sara. Softly, so that her feet made no sound, Mother moved past him to stand in front of Sara. I love you, she signed. Sara stared through her. Then Mother lifted her hand and cupped Sara’s cheek.
A shiver ran through Sara and she backed away. “It’s cold,” she said, and wrapped her arms across her chest.
Lifting the corners of her mouth in a sad smile, Mother turned toward Aaron and spread her hands as if to say, See? Pain was woven through the tiny laugh lines around her mouth, and her eyes were bright. He thought if he reached toward her, he could touch her pain, and he almost turned away. This was a role he never played before, conduit between the two people who spoke for him, and he did not know what to do.
Sara reached for him. “Is it still here?” Hope spilled out of her eyes, and he thought he had to tell her. He lifted his hands to sign, It’s Mother, but Mother caught his eye and shook her head.
She can’t see me. It will be worse if you tell her, she signed.
Aaron thought of the other night on the patio and of Sara’s dream. He thought of the way it felt when he knew the words were there, just out of reach, but he couldn’t force them out. And he knew Mother was right. Sometimes knowing was worse. The wind picked up, and this time he shuddered.
Mother placed a hand on either side of his face and drew his face down so that she could kiss his forehead. Her hands were warm, just as they had been when she was alive.
You are not alone, she signed when she released him. Don’t forget. And then she was gone.
I won’t, he thought as the woods grew quiet again. He stared at the spot where she had been as if he could pull her back by the force of his will.
There was a small tug at his elbow. Sara was there, a frown covering her face. “Come on, Aaron,” she said. “You saw something, didn’t you?”
He tore his gaze away from the now empty spot where Mother had stood. An old ache snuck up his throat and his nose started to run. The word slipped out before he had a chance to stop it. “No,” he lied.