Something catches in the weave as the washcloth scrubs my back. It’s an old washcloth that I probably should throw away. It’s been a long day helping Pa and the others gather apples in the orchards and I’m filthy. My skin’s peeling from all the hours spent outside. Harvest is always the busiest on our farm. Dirtiest too. The grime pools at my feet before slipping down the drain.
I wash my hair with soap. Our neighbor, Lesley, cuts my hair for free every six weeks. Says it gives her a chance to keep her salon skills sharp. She’s always telling me to stop using bar soap on it. Apparently it dries out my scalp. I’m not sure why she thinks I’d care about a dry scalp. I’m a farm boy. The paparazzi’s not taking undercover photographs of me. Soap’s cheaper than the bottles of shampoo and conditioner at the local grocer anyway.
The hot water’s almost gone. As usual, I’m the last one to shower. Geordie, my little brother, took a ten minute shower. More than double the time we’re allowed. Pa doesn’t shout and bang on the door when Geordie goes over the time limit. Geordie never gets yelled at. I suppose it’s because he’s delicate.
Geordie was born funny -- all pointy teeth and ears and extra bits of skin -- and had to have lots of surgeries as a kid. Some of them were performed up in his bedroom with the local doctor. To this very day, the smell of antiseptic gives everyone in our house the shakes. I was born funny too. Good thing they tore off my wings before I grew up to be a shame to my parents. Parent. Ma died giving birth to Geordie.
I turn off the knobs and stand in the shower, letting the drops of water run down my arms and legs. Having nothing but boys in the house makes it easy to avoid “women’s work” like washing towels. Of course, when I need one, there’s only the pile of mismatched towels on the floor. Still damp from Geordie and Pa. I shake my head and rub my thick hair, trying to squeegee it off between my fingers. The same approach is used on my arms and legs.
The light in the bathroom is harsh and fluorescent. It shows all the weight I’ve lost this year in sharp angles that stand out. I was scrawny to begin with and now I’m a mess of ligaments and bones with skin stretched over. Muscular is not a word I’d ever use to describe myself. Pa keeps feeding me extra. Telling me it’s nothing to be worried about because I’ve grown three inches this summer. Great, now I’m going to be the second shortest guy in high school instead of the shortest.
With summer coming to a close, it also means that the thing I’ve been dreading must be done tonight. For an entire 3 months, the scarred and disfigured nubs on my shoulder blades have been growing. Pa lets my wings -- what’s left of them -- grow in the summer when there’s no chance they’ll be seen by someone in gym class. Without fail, the end of harvest means it’s back to searing off those parts of me that make me a freak.
The cracked mirror above the sink reflects back my gaunt face. Disgusting. Maybe Pa will let me start lifting weights in the barn. I tried asking him last year after Julie Martin beat me up. Yeah, I was that guy. He told me I wasn’t old enough and it would do my body more harm than good. Problem was, he didn’t have to go back to school where the taunting surrounded me from every side. It’s bad enough being the older brother of Geordie. Who’s really a great kid. I’m not trying to get sympathy or anything. But people make fun of him most of the time. When that’s not entertaining enough they turn on me. Pa keeps telling me it builds character.
The light flickers. I hope it doesn’t go out. Even though my body is dead tired from working all day, I want to finish the book I’m reading. It’ll relax me and make what I have to do a little easier to bear. The task is made ten times worse when I have to do it in the dark. Pa refuses to help and Geordie just cries. A noise from outside distracts me. The sound is a high whine or shriek. Weird.
I turn back to the mirror, steeling myself for the pain. Someone told me that pain goes away after the first time. That it becomes a dull throb. I think they were lying. Or maybe they’d only had pain like that once and never again. Grabbing my toothbrush, I bite down on it. Then I strike the match and light the large candle that sits on the back of the toilet. While it’s burning down the wick, I pull on my boxers and a pair of shorts.
The smell of vanilla fills the room as the wax melts; my stomach twists in protest. On the rare occasion I’m in town, if someone has vanilla scented perfume, I throw up or faint. Neither of which is an option. There’s absolutely nothing I can do to try and pretend I don’t know what’s coming. Better get it over with as quickly as possible. I lift the large metal knife. Parts of it are rusted. Parts of it still have dried blood smeared from the last time.
I sigh, waiting for the knife to sterilize in the heat. The sound outside comes again. This time it seems closer.
Geordie knocks on the door and it actually startles me. He whispers into the keyhole, “Trevor, don’t do it tonight. I can help you tomorrow. I know I can do it this time.” His voice quivers a little as he repeats my name like a question.
“Geordie, get to bed. Pa will whip you if he catches you still up.” An obvious lie and we both know it.
He doesn’t answer. I know he’s still there. In my mind, I see him wearing his footie pajamas, even though it’s sweltering hot and we don’t have air-conditioning. His black hair will be sticking up irregularly, no matter how many times he combs it or wets it down. But Geordie’s most endearing asset is his eyes. They’re large and grey, like a stormy day in autumn. Too trusting. Too easy to lose your good intentions in.
“Geordie,” I say, pressing my palm against the door where I think he’s standing, “go on. I’m almost done here.”
He pads off down the hallway. A moment later and he’s back. He taps on the door, as if I couldn’t hear him coming back. I laugh a little.
“Trevor, please, let me help you tomorrow. Pa says you can read me a story before bed.”
The kid is hard to ignore. I weigh the trouble I’ll be in if Pa finds me still with wing-sprouts against the tears that will fill Geordie’s big grey eyes if I’m cruel and send him to his room. The choice isn’t hard. I blow out the candle and put the knife back under the sink.
Opening the door, I’m greeted with a huge lop-sided smile. Geordie’s only wearing a pair of hand-me-down boxers. In his arms he’s carrying a stuffed moose. I pick him up, moose and all, and carry him over my shoulder. He giggles and then bends down and kisses one of the bony protrusions on my back. The kiss almost makes me set him down and bolt back to the bathroom to complete my job. It reminds me how dangerous it is to wait any longer.
If Geordie, with his poor eyesight, can see one of them in a darkened hallway, then they must be much bigger than either Pa or I ever guessed. The brief moment of happiness I’d experienced is gone.
The walk to Geordie’s room is only accompanied by his squirming and sing-song voice. I place him on his bed; it’s still too hot to sleep under the covers. He moves over and waits for me to sit next to him. When I do, he puts his stuffed moose in my lap.
“Moe wants to listen too,” he says. Then he’s reaching his hand behind the bed. He brings out a familiar picture book. I read it to Geordie and Moe three times before I’m not commanded to read it again. Moe takes his rightful place in Geordie’s arms. I kiss my brother’s forehead and switch the light off.
The strange noise that’s been whistling or chanting across the night sky sounds again. I pause, straining my ears to try and detect where it’s coming from.
“Here for you,” Geordie yawns.
I look at him. He’s asleep. “Who’s here for me?” Heavy breathing answers me. “Geordie,” I poke him, “who’s here for me?” Still nothing.
Regardless of the stifling heat, I walk to his window and close it. It takes a few tries, but I manage to move the rusty lock in place. We never lock anything. Tonight I feel like I should lock everything. The lock nicks my finger. The blood smears against the glass. On the way out of Geordie’s room, I shut his door. The faint glow from his night-light escapes from under the door.
I pass the bathroom. Think better of it and go in to close and try to lock that window. No matter how hard I twist the metal plate, it won’t budge. I wedge the knife from under the sink into the casement. We’re on the second floor, so I hope it’s enough of a deterrent for whatever might (or might not, Geordie’s seven and asleep) be out there waiting for me.
The light over my desk is on in my room. A breeze from the orchard rustles the papers there. The air is laden with the sweet smell of apples. It’s a pity I have to close the window when the temperature is finally cooling down outside. Pausing to savor the night air, I hear the high-pitched call again. Yeah, not going to take any chances tonight. My window closes and locks easily. Sometimes my asthma acts up in the spring, so I’m constantly closing my window. I lock it because when I was little Ma told me the lock was magic. It would keep out the pollen and things that made me sneeze and itched my throat.
I throw a shirt over my head and head downstairs.
“Hey, Pa?” I walk into the kitchen. The dishes are still drying on the rack. The window’s wide open. “Pa?”
“In here, Trev.” I close the kitchen window before following his voice into the den.
“There’s some weird noise outside, Pa.” He eyes me over his thick-rimmed reading glasses. “Can we shut up the house tonight?”
He waves me out, not bothering to get up from his chair. “It’s the middle of summer. We’re not closing all the windows because of some animal. Sleep with your gun near your bed. I doubt anything will come in, but if it does, shoot it.”
The thought doesn’t comfort me one bit. If I wanted to make a bigger deal of it, I’d tell him what Geordie said. One look at his face tells me not to bother. He’s looking over the bills for the summer. Trying to see if we’ll be able to survive another winter on the farm. The farm’s the only place Pa can keep his boys safe. The only place we get the whole summer to run free as ourselves. Of course, there’s work to be done, but there’s no pain in the summer.
I turn to leave, knowing this isn’t something up for further discussion.
Pa stops me with, “Trevor, make sure you finish your chores before you go to bed.” By which I know he’s seen the first signs of wings on my back. He wants them gone before morning. If only it were that easy. If only I were that strong right now.
“Yes, Pa.” It’s another lie. I’m becoming very good at telling them tonight. I have no intention of mutilating myself, even if it means I get out of other chores for a week.
I climb back up the stairs and instead of going to the bathroom, I head to my room. My bedroom window’s not only unlocked, but it’s sitting wide open like the gap in your mouth when you’re missing a tooth. The black of night hangs beyond the false cheer of my desk lamp.
Instead of rushing to the window and closing it again, I turn and make a beeline to Geordie’s room. His night-light still spills out across the floor. My hand shakes a little as I reach for his door knob. False terror. Geordie’s still sound asleep in his bed where I left him. His window is shut tight, lock in place.
Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I remember closing my window, but in my rush I went downstairs without doing anything. Shrugging, I close Geordie’s door and return to my room.
Just in case, I say, “I have a gun here. I know how to shoot too.” I remove the gun from my closet. It’s loaded, so I make sure the safety’s on before setting it next to my bed. Again -- for the first time? -- I close and lock my window. As if in response, the strange noise echoes beyond the pane. Does my heart stop? Guess not.
I flick off the light and back away from the window. The book I meant to read lies on my bed. Sitting on it, I grab it and toss it to the floor, not taking my eyes off the window. Instead of removing my shirt and shorts, I leave them on and crawl towards the head of my bed. As an extra measure, I leave my shoes on too. My eyes have adjusted to the darkness well enough that I can see the familiar shapes in my room. Everything is as it should be. Except in that split second I’ve taken my eyes from the window.
Instinctively, my hand reaches out and grabs my shotgun. I pull it towards me, almost like a lover, and lay it across my lap. All done without looking. For the rest of the night, I will not take my eyes from the window.
Followed by nothing happening.
Boredom sets in. Even when Pa and I go hunting, there’s something to do to stave off the hours. Keeps the brain working, he tells me. This is more than torture. It’s tedious to always be on edge for something to happen that never does. I dose off. When I start awake, I’m angry for being so weak. The glow of my alarm reads 03:23. The house remains still and … safe?
The shotgun rests in my lap. It might be wise to leave it and check on Geordie one more time. Don’t get the chance to do that though, as there’s something at the window. Something big. Something that’s blocked out all the stars and the faint moonlight. The firm grip I had on my gun turns slippery and slick. The butt of the rifle’s at my shoulder. I’m taking careful aim. Less than a breath after I pull the trigger, the window explodes.
Pa and Geordie wake. But there’s another noise in the house. A faint scraping sound. A lot like claws on wood. My shotgun’s reloaded before Pa shouts out, “What’s going on? Trevor? Geordie?”
Pa’s in my room with his own shotgun, cocked and ready to fire. Geordie’s trying to stifle his sobs. He’s brought his moose with him instead of a weapon. The night air blows through what’s left of the window. Pieces of glass are scattered across my desk and floor. They crunch beneath Pa’s slippers.
“Something was at the window, Pa, I swear. It covered up the whole sky.”
Pa’s never struck me, but I fear he might. There’s no light on in my room. Now that the thing’s gone from my window, there’s enough starlight to see the look on his face. He’s furious. Windows aren’t cheap. He snaps on the desk lamp and returns his attention to the window. I brace myself for the punishment that’s going to follow.
“Why would the window collapse inwards?” The answer seems to match up with what I’d told him. Picking a shard of glass from the desk, he holds it up more closely to his face. “Blood.” He looks at me. “You bleeding, son?”
My bed is certainly covered in enough of the window’s remains. I put my gun down. Geordie’s still sniffling against my door. I smile at him and hold up my hands. “Geordie do you see any blood on my face?”
He doesn’t answer immediately, but steps closer. His fingers run over my face. It’s hard to remember how much he relies on his other senses. Geordie finishes what he’s doing, wipes his arm across his face. Then he shakes his head. “No blood from Trevor, Pa.”
Pa’s picking up more shards. “This one’s got blood too.” He eyes me again. “Looks like you shot something. Geordie, go back to your room. Close the door and shove your bed against it. Don’t open the door until we come back up. Okay?”
Geordie’s having none of it, shaking his head back and forth violently. He stares at me. “Take me with you, Trevor. Carry me on your back.” His little hands reach for me.
Looking at Pa, who sighs, I help Geordie onto my back. Once there, he makes no mention of my wings. Thank goodness for tiny miracles. Geordie weighs almost nothing, and I’m glad of it as I follow Pa downstairs. The house is so quiet. Eerily quiet like when we’re walking through the woods making noise and everything around us simply stops. Sweat beads up on my forehead.
Pa motions me towards the door. He follows with some more gestures that I take to mean he wants me to cover the door as he opens it. I take aim. Pa opens the door slowly. Any slower and the tension in my stomach would rip a hole through to my navel. But nothing’s behind the door, or on the porch, or in the front yard.
We move silently towards the back of the house that my room overlooks. The spot directly beneath my window is littered with more glass. It crunches under my shoes. Whatever had been at my window might be gone. Every shadow remains suspicious. Pa treads back and forth across what passes as our lawn.
“Don’t think the two of us should go out in the orchards tonight. Think we might have to sleep in the shelter as a precaution.”
I nod, realize he can’t see me. “I’ll go get the lantern.” No sooner have I turned around than I see something crumpled near the corner of the house. The shape wasn’t there five seconds ago. I wonder if it dropped from the sky.
“Trevor,” Geordie says barely loud enough for me to hear. “Is that what you shot?”
“I’m not sure.” Which is true. I have a feeling it’s the same thing. I can only see it because it’s so black. Blacker than the shadows in our yard.
Training my shotgun on the shape, I shout out, “Pa, it’s over here!”
The shape struggles. The feeling I had turns into a firm belief. That’s the thing I shot. Pa and I move closer. Neither of us wanting to be the one attacked by whatever I shot, yet not wanting the other to be attacked either. Geordie’s grip on my neck tightens.
The shape emits a high-pitched keening sound. Geordie lets go of my neck and covers his ears. He buries his head against my spine the best he can. The spill of fresh tears follows.
Whatever this thing is, it’s hurting Geordie. I take careful aim and pull the trigger for the second time tonight. The explosion from the gun cuts off the wailing. Geordie’s little body stops shivering against me.
“Nice shot, son,” Pa says. He hands me his gun, which I take with a trembling hand. He pokes the thing on the ground with his foot. It doesn’t move. I’ve definitely killed it.
Pa drags the body around to the front where the porch light gives us a better idea of what I’ve shot. Only it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. Pa gasps, like he recognizes … but that’s impossible. This creature has thin membranous wings. It’s covered in thick black fur. The head resembles a fox. The hands are small and clawed. The feet are clawed too. It’s like we’ve found a science experiment gone terribly wrong.
Geordie’s breathing is so shallow. I’m afraid he’s gone into shock. I lean the guns against the porch. While I’m bent over, I slid Geordie around from my back to my front. He’s sucking his thumb, eyes squeezed tight. I lift him up to my shoulder. He clings to me like a child half his age.
“What is it, Pa?”
He doesn’t say anything for a long time. When he speaks, I almost drop my brother.
“Oh, Trevor. You’ve killed your mother.”
Can you tell I have major author-love for Geordie? This isn't the most stylish prose out there, I know, still ... I feel like I could make a much longer story out of this. Hmmm. Oh noes!