“Thanks again for callin’,” Stanley’s mother says into the phone. “If the future ever grows uncertain again, just give me another ring.”
She hangs up, and reaches over to muss up Stan and Ford’s hair. The boys are crammed on either side of her as she sits on the windowsill, having spent the whole phone call poking each other and whispering jokes and doing just about everything they could to annoy their mother.
“All right, what’s the fuss about this time?” she asks them. “Stanford, you got a question for me?”
“When doesn’t he?” Stan snarks, but Ford ignores him and asks:
“Are we supposed to be able to see the future like you, Mom?”
Their mother sighs, and shakes her head. “Odds are I’ve passed my Sight onto you, but it’s not gonna show up ‘til you’re teenagers. I’ve told you this before, haven’t I?”
“You have, but… are you sure?” Ford frowns, like he’s struggling to find the right words to capture all the thoughts floating around in that big brain of his. “Because I just don’t get how seeing the future is supposed to work. Do you just see possibilities, or is the whole future already determined?”
Their mother starts to reply, but Ford doesn’t stop talking. “It can’t just be possibilities, can it? Because you’re always so sure about whether one of your clients will get a job, or stay healthy, or whatever they’re asking you about. Except if there’s only one future, if… if everything is predestined, then… by who? Does someone up there —”
He points to the sky. “— just choose every single thing that happens to us? And if we can’t control any of our destiny anyway, then what would even be the point of —”
Their mother holds up a hand. “Whoa there, smarty-pants, you’re starting to lose even me a little bit. I know you’re not gonna like me saying that you’ll get it when you’re older, but you’ll get when you’re older. It all sounds complicated now, I know, but sometime when you’re in high school or thereabouts it’ll start making sense all of a sudden, and you’ll see it’s a lot simpler than that.”
Ford frowns, but she pats him on the shoulder and gives him a wide, knowing smile — the teasing smile, Stan has always called it in his head, the one she makes when she’s hiding something from the twins.
“But I can promise you now, your choices are yours and no one else’s. They do matter. Some things might be certain, but not in the way you think they are — you’re the one who makes things certain for yourself, not any being up in the heavens.”
“Maybe you’re right that I need to be older,” Ford mutters, “because I don’t get how that works at all.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I didn’t either, for a long time.” Their mother turns to look at Stan. “Stanley, you’ve been quiet. What do you think about all this?”
“I dunno. I kinda got lost once Ford started talking about destiny.” Stan’s not too upset about not getting it, if Ford doesn’t get it either. When Ford says something doesn’t make sense, it usually doesn’t make sense.
Their mother looks like she’s about to say one last thing, but then the phone rings again, and she gestures for them to wait. But Ford doesn’t stick around — instead, he trudges upstairs, shoulders slumped and eyes fixed on the stairs below him.
Stan follows. “What’s with the long face, Sixer?”
Ford shrugs as he heads into the twins’ bedroom. “It’s nothing.”
“C’mon, I know there’s gotta be something botherin’ you.”
“I just…” Ford sits down on the lower bunk of their bed and half-heartedly flips through a comic book. “I guess I’m just not used to not understanding things.”
“Well,” Stan tells him, “even if you don’t get it right now, I bet you’ll still end up with psychic powers way before you’re a teenager.” He gives Ford a playful punch in the arm. “It could happen any day now!”
Ford’s frown fades away and his eyes light up with excitement. “Hey, you’re right! It could!”
A few hours later, before Stan goes to sleep, Ford puts a pen and a notebook on the table beside their bed, and then tosses another set onto his bunk up top.
“The human brain isn’t very good at remembering dreams after it wakes up. So that’s why tomorrow morning, I’m going to write down all my dreams before I forget them, so we can decipher their meaning and see if they predict anything! You should too — psychic powers seem like the type of thing that would sync up in twins.”
He notices Stan giving him a skeptical look and adds “Please?”
“Okay, nerd, I’ll try. But don’t get on my back if I don’t write anything, ‘cause I don’t really dream that much.”
It’s true — or at least, Stan thinks it is. In the mornings, Ford’s always retelling some wild adventure from the past night, something about dinosaur ghosts, or Bigfoot getting abducted by aliens, or his comic books coming to life, forgetting half the details but still enthusiastically recounting the sensation of dreaming. Stan always wakes up remembering nothing but a black void.
But there’s a difference between not dreaming at all, and forgetting all one’s dreams when morning arrives — and Stan falls in the latter category.
He’s watching a soaring bird — or is he the bird? No, there’s two of them, and he’s flying a bit behind the other, catching an easy ride as its dark form slices through the wind ahead of him. There’s a warm, blustery feeling against his stomach, and he and the other bird both spread their wings wide —
But he doesn’t rise.
He’s left behind.
ulglqj rq brxu eurwkhu’v frdwwdlov — vfudsh wkh eduqdfohv rii wkh grfn — frph ylvlw ph rq wkh rwkhu vlgh ri wkh frxqwub
He cries out for the other one, the one that the updraft catapulted towards the bright yellow sun, but his caw is lost in the wind. He flaps harder and harder, but he feels like he’s only sinking lower and lower, until finally he’s on the ground and his wings ache too much to lift him up again.
It’s muddy here, and the dampness seeps into his feathers, sending a chill through his tiny body. He ducks underneath a tree, hoping that it’ll be drier there and that the warm bed of pine needles below him will keep him warm…
It’s dark here too, not a single star in the sky and the moon just a sliver of white that keeps shrinking more and more, leaving him blind. What is he supposed to do? Where is he supposed to go?
It’s lonely here, so lonely. He wishes the other one would come back.
But he is a bit warmer now, and drier too. Maybe he’ll be alright, just staying like this for a while…
There is smoke in his lungs and fire at the tips of his feathers, waves of red surging all around him, lashing out at him. He launches himself into flight, and barely escapes from beneath the old pine tree before it topples to the ground, ablaze. It will no longer be a sanctuary for him.
(But maybe that’s for the best — it stirred up an uncomfortable twinge of homesickness in his stomach anyway.)
The fire keeps raging, flickering flames reaching closer and closer, so he keeps fleeing it — he must, if he wants to survive. It roars and sputters, it’s scorching hot but cold and lonely, it’s the anger of the rest of the world but it’s a part of him too, it’s the past and the present and the future.
It’s inevitable, it’s destiny. He will burn one day —
But not today. It’s not the right time, not yet. He’s not ready to go up in smoke.
He keeps flying, staying barely ahead of the blaze until his tail feathers are nearly singed into nothingness and his wings feel like they’re made of lead. Only rarely does he find a moment to rest, and even more rarely does that reprise last more than a few seconds.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been fleeing like this — though he doesn’t spend much time wondering, either. All he can do is fly…
But suddenly, he hears a caw, and pain tears through his gut like a lightning strike. He soars past a cliff, and the trees and flames come to a halt, replaced below with an ocean’s choppy waves and above with a sky full of constellations, of bears and hunters and triangles.
The other bird is here, suspended between sea and sky as if in a trance. Even though it’s far away, he recognizes it as the same one from before. Its feet have one more talon than his do.
But the other one is still rising — soaring towards the stars, the hypnotizing light of the cosmos reflected in its eyes. It moves unnaturally, barely flapping its wings but going faster and faster, like gravity has reversed and it’s unable to stop itself.
He flies after it, not knowing why. Nothing good happened the last time he tried to catch up with it — but he must follow, he can’t just leave the other like this. Not now, not after having missed it so much. Not when everything about this ascent to the heavens feels so horribly wrong. He has to catch up to it, he has to…
He flaps harder and harder, and the air around them grows warmer and warmer, like they’ve grown close enough to the stars to feel the heat from their fire. The spot where his right wing meets his body begins to burn with a sudden red-hot pain, but he keeps flying, and the gap between him and the other grows smaller and smaller —
A black feather floats past him, falling in a spiral. Then another, and another, and then he finally sees it — the other bird isn’t rising anymore.
For one terrifying moment of revelation, it’s held in place in the sky, wings dripping feathers like splotches of melted tar. For the first time, it acknowledges him — letting out a hollow, frightened caw. A plea. A prayer.
Then it falls. The one that could never do anything but rise falls, and he dives after it.
No, this can’t happen —
l mxvw jrw klp edfn, l fdq'w orvh klp djdlq —
They’re still far above the sea, but he can already tell that he won’t catch up in time. Please, he prays to the stars and the waves, please help, I’ll do anything…
For a moment, there’s no response.
But then beneath him, as they plummet towards the water, black feathers begin to glow golden-white. No longer is the other bird shedding drops of tar — now it’s liquid fire, it’s candle wax, it’s starlight.
The sea goes calm, the rough foam of the waves dissipating to form a flat surface, a perfect mirror of what lies above. When the other strikes it, it does not splash — only distorts for a moment, and suddenly the bird is gone, but there’s another star in the reflection that isn’t there in the sky.
He cries out for the other, but no sound comes, and something tugs at him from behind. He can see a glow appearing at the tips of his wings and spreading towards his body, and an unseen power hurtles him towards the cosmos, higher than he’s ever been, where his feathers melt away into a brilliant explosion of gas. He can still see, but cannot move, as if the other heavenly bodies around him have become his cage.
Far below, he can just barely make out his reflection — the star that used to be the other bird. You were supposed to be the one up here, he tries to call to it. What went wrong?
But he’s a star now too, and stars have no voice. So all he can do is watch, staring down at the faint light of his reflected twin.
Twin stars above and below. Twin stars, fallen. Twin stars, trapped.
He wonders if this is how he’s meant to burn, imprisoned in the vast and lonesome cosmos. But it can’t be, for this is not an end for him — no, instead he’s the source of continued life, an anchor in reality so that his twin may live on in a reflection.
He’s still so terribly, terrifyingly alive.
A shooting star crosses the sky, but instead of burning out, it changes direction, and he realizes it’s heading towards him — then another star falls from its place in the north, above the Big Dipper, to follow the meteor’s path. Together, the two bright lights circle him, as if they’re accepting him into some embrace — they feel young for some reason, young and friendly. After a moment’s hesitation, he tries to move and finds that he still cannot, but he embraces them back in spirit.
Below, there is no such display of affection reflected in the sea — but there is a raging supernova, tainting the whole sky red and growing brighter with every minute.
He’s running out of time to save the other.
A human with an obscured face walks through a vaguely familiar forest, breathing in the morning mist as their gaze flickers between the trees, between the pines and the birches. For some reason, it lingers on the birches for just a little longer.
A small, battered-looking crow eventually catches their attention. They’re no birdwatcher, but they know they’ve seen this specific animal before — the scar on its right wing is hard to miss. They watch it from a distance, as it hops around on the forest floor and collects silvery shards of glass — no, of a mirror.
The human suppresses a chuckle.
What a funny bird, the crow. Genius by animal standards, but still so dedicated to such strange rituals. Is it because so much of the world lies hopelessly beyond their comprehension, that they choose to focus on such worthless things as mirrors?
For a long time, the human watches the crow as it labors, paying more attention to the status of its craft than to the behavior of the animal itself. Finally, they see it arrange the shards into a small but complete triangle, where despite the cracks, its shadowy reflection becomes clear — only for that reflection to leap out of the mirror and strike at the bird, lashing out with long, strong wings and talons.
To work so hard, to sacrifice so much, with this as your goal? The human laughs, and laughs, and laughs.
hyhubwklqj l'yh zrunhg iru, hyhubwklqj l fduh derxw, lw'v doo iru wklv idplob — l phdq, zkr zrxog vdfulilfh hyhubwklqj wkhb'yh zrunhg iru mxvw iru wkhlu gxpe vleolqj?
He’s a bird again, and so is the other, blindly fluttering through a smoke-filled forest together. Just when he feels like he’ll die if he takes another breath, they finally find a clear patch, and look to the sky to see that it’s all gone red.
Three more birds descend. All of them are made of stars, but two are from the real night sky while the third is from the sea’s reflection, that horrible nightmare prison, that corruption of all the promised secrets of the universe. The beast from the reflection flashes red and blue, suspended in air not by wings, but by massive plumes of fire. The crackling of its flames sounds like a horrible, mocking laugh, as it grips the other two birds from the stars in its talons.
The captives are so small and so fragile, their golden-white glow flickering. That glow should never leave them, not like it left the two elder birds — for these children were born as stars, not imprisoned there, and that light is a part of their nature. If it’s going out, then it’s only a matter of time until…
Without a single sound exchanged, the elder twins reach a decision.
He’s burning, and this time he knows it’s the time, the destined time. There are two things that are making this time different, so different from when the forest fire would singe his tail feathers and from when he was caged in the sky —
First, the flames are not orange-red, or golden-white, but blue. There’s two different shades of blue, really, and they’re working against each other, but it’s easy to see which one will win. After all, fire destroys — you can’t save yourself from fire with more fire. (Ru fdq brx?)
And second, he’s not lonely anymore. He doesn’t want to go up in flames, but he now sees why he must. It’s worth it, to save them. (Jxhvv l zdv jrrg iru vrphwklqj diwhu doo.)
He knows he could not stop this fire. It’s all laid out ahead of him and behind him, every choice of his life — fixed, yet still his. Destinies are not made by some divine mastermind setting your path for you, but by the non-linearity of time, by all your own choices all flowing back to exist simultaneously, pooling together into one spectacular fate of your own choosing, one beautiful destiny that resonates deep within you, all at once and not at all. He sees that now.
He burns, and a warm updraft catches the embers. In front of two stars shedding golden sparks and a mirror shedding silver tears, a flaming pair of wings spreads out once more.
Two crows are soaring just above the ocean. Other birds of their species might shy away from conditions like these, but the salt in the air and splashes from the waves only feeds their excitement. They could fly across the world like this.
For a moment, the sun above them seems to blink like the yellow eye of a cat. But everything is at peace now, and it’s not really here. It’s just a memory.
It’s only here, only now, that the rhythmic crashing of the waves lulls Stanley awake.
He forgets about the notebook in the foggy haze of morning, and the dream fades to a blur by the time he eats breakfast. Ford wakes up shortly after him, and excitedly recounts a thrilling nightmare about exploring a haunted mansion, but when he asks Stan if he had any dreams of his own, Stan shakes his head.
By the time they’re teenagers, they learn how cold reading works. They come to identify their mother’s knowing, teasing smiles as not those of someone withholding genuine information, but simply those of a parent pulling their children’s legs. Neither can remember for sure who first voiced skepticism, but by the time they’re in high school it seems perfectly obvious.
Of course Caryn Pines fakes her “Sight.” If she really could see the future, she’d be able to make a lot more money than the meager earnings of a phone psychic. Neither Stan nor Ford is particularly upset about her lies, though — after all, they were the naive little kids who believed it without a second thought.
But every once in a while, Stan will still close his eyes and find himself locked in the sky again, alone.