Hero has trouble staying asleep since what happened with Mari. Not falling asleep but staying there, his body constantly jerking itself awake as if it’s fighting not to sink underwater. He’s gotten used to it, these regular interruptions into bleary reality before he closes his eyes once more, so when he awakes on the floor of Basil’s living room, he at first believes that he’s in the remnants of a dream. The blankets and pillows lying empty in front of him like a burst cocoon. The sound trailing from somewhere, a low and quivering moan like the dismal parody of a cartoon ghost: ooh. Ooooh.
Then Hero remembers where he is and his head jerks up, all weariness banished. He twists around in his blankets and sees Kel’s round, worried face staring back at him – Kel is usually the more restful sleeper, but also more prone to waking completely, lying wide-eyed for hours until he settles down again. Aubrey is pushing herself up from the couch, the gaudy tendrils of her hair swinging free.
Hero wants to ask where Sunny has gone but the noise continues and drowns all other questions. He rises on shaky knees and steps into the back hall. Polly is there around the corner. She sits against the wall opposite Basil’s bedroom, face buried in her hands, and the sound trickles between her fingers like the wind across a bottletop.
With a sleepwalker’s sludginess, Hero nears the blackened polygon of that door. He grips the knob as Polly begs him not to open it, turns, pushes, and then slams it shut again, the shape burned into his eyes, Basil lying there, Basil mannequin-pale with his hair a dry shock of straw around his lolling head and blood splashed behind him dark as an inkblot in the murky bedroom, and Hero lurches away and leans against the wall where Polly still sits and weeps, a hand clapped over his nose and mouth before any more of the blood’s metallic stench can invade it, and he watches his friends approach the same door with grinding inevitability though he too tells them not to look. They look. They see. They are each marked in their own ways.
There’s nothing they can do besides call the ambulance. Hero feebly attempts to comfort Polly but his body feels foreign to him. The mousy young woman, who has aged fifty years this night, thanks them for their kindness and asks them to go home. The police will come eventually. They might have to make a statement. She doesn’t want them to suffer through that now.
The children step out into the chittering night, a darkness come alive with the talk of crickets and bats. They stumble as if pulled on strings. Kel is the first to ask where Sunny has gone, and after some contemplation they decide he must not have been comfortable sleeping on the floor like that, deciding to slip out and return to his own bed. Better that way. Better for him to stay ignorant, at least for a little while. Aubrey touches the slashed flesh under her sleeve and murmurs the words could he have and then stops, to Hero’s relief. No, he couldn’t have. Sunny would never. And there would have been the sound of a struggle.
They part a block away from Hero’s house. The brothers watch Aubrey slouch back to her own home, her outline drained away by shadows until only her hair remains, drifting disembodied, a neon phantasm. By the time Hero unlocks the front door and they creep in, praying not to disturb their parents, sirens can be heard in the distance. Hero collapses into bed alongside his brother, and the shape of what he saw in Basil’s room hangs behind his lids.
When he next opens them, the sirens are still there, and he groans and buries his face in the pillow, hoping to chase them out of his dreams. Then he bolts up again because the light in his room is different; it’s far brighter now, the sirens far closer. Kel’s bed is empty.
He tears out of his room and past his shocked parents, his little sister squalling in his mother’s arms. The front door is ajar, hysterical blue-and-red light flooding the living room alongside the sunshine. Hero shoulders the door open and runs to the sidewalk and sees the ambulance, the unopened moving truck further down the road, Kel standing there on the pavement with his arms limp at his side. Kel turns in place and stares at him. His expression is inscrutable.
In the days to come, this is what Hero remembers most clearly. Not the corpse of Basil, or Polly’s cries, or huddling with his family as a small pale shape is carried out of Sunny’s house and his mother’s broken wails stream out behind it in a wretched imitation of the sirens now rending the air. More than anything, he remembers Kel with those pulsating lights behind him, limning him in a feverish halo.
* * *
One funeral, for both bodies. It is agreed to be the economical choice. Basil has no one but Polly, his grandmother having expired in the hospital the night after his own body was found, and so his coffin and grave is laid out beside Sunny’s. Sunny lies with his hands folded over the hole he’d gouged into his chest. With his porcelain skin and neat black suit, he looks somehow unreal, monochrome as piano keys.
The townspeople chip in for the expenses and gather in the pews amongst the bedraggled scraps of Sunny’s family. His mother is there, looking like a smudged charcoal drawing of herself. The whispering gossip around her is not kind. If only she had been there, her neighbors say out the corners of their mouths. After this business is concluded, she will leave the town and not return. Polly will depart soon as well, the memories of these days clinging to her heels.
The children say nothing. They sit and stand in their uncomfortable clothes as directed and hear the pastor’s words like static. The world beneath their feet has fractured, its shape gone predatory. Kids aren’t supposed to concern themselves with these matters. They’re meant to worry about schoolwork, crushes, the chance of rainy weather. They don’t vanish into their houses for years at a stretch, or wither into shivering and hollow-eyed husks of themselves. They don’t hang themselves from trees or quietly shut their bedroom doors and drive blades into their hearts. They don’t go through every day feeling like hands are clenched tight around their chests so that they breathe and breathe and never get enough air. The pastor remains admirably steadfast, though his voice trembles a bit during the benediction. Hero sits beside Kel and Aubrey and none of them meet the other’s gazes.
It’s overcast today and the three of them watch the burial through the gaps of Sunny’s gathered relatives. Liquid birdsong underscores the pastor’s last rites. When the coffins at last begin to lower into the ground, Kel speaks, in a toneless whisper thin as a spider’s leg.
“I never should have made him come outside,” he says.
Aubrey says, just as quietly, “Shut the fuck up or I’ll break your arm.”
Hero glares daggers at her but she and Kel both continue to stare ahead, faces slack. It’s as though the words were never spoken at all. He sighs and turns back to the coffins just as they disappear from view. As the soil is shoveled onto their lids he tries to remember better days – the endless picnics, Basil with his camera raised and color in his cheeks, the bright sound of Mari’s piano, Sunny poised with his violin at the ready. He can’t hold onto any of it for long; all of these images are blotted out by the shape of what he saw that night. He wishes they had the photo album, but it’s outside their reach now, boxed up with the rest of Sunny’s things, bound for parts unknown.
* * *
The summer heat is intense on the day Hero returns to the cemetery, the air close and wet. He waits until late afternoon, when the sunlight’s hue deepens and drips like honey, and sweat drips on his collar when he enters the church. The dusty silence inside coils around him; the pastor is the only one attending, and gives him a wordless nod. Hero nods back. They both look older.
In one hand he clutches three bundles of flowers. He hates coming here but knows that he has to keep his body moving, performing these meaningless little rituals. The grey days that followed Mari’s death linger in his memory, wrapped in his blankets and waiting for something to happen. Whenever he thinks of his childhood, he has to mentally subtract that null year from his recollections, a subconscious arithmetic. He can’t let himself sink back into those swamps again. For Kel’s sake, if nothing else.
He hears the coughing as soon as he passes through the cemetery’s gates. Guttural and harsh. It’s not long before he discovers the source – Aubrey, standing before Sunny’s grave. She’s bent slightly, wiping her mouth. Her hair is like a shout in the surrounding greyness. It never meshes with her surroundings; it always makes her presence known. She looks over her shoulder as Hero’s shoes crunch the dirt behind her and Hero notices the cigarette pinched between her thumb and forefinger, still mostly unsmoked.
“Hey,” she says. Her eyes are bloodshot.
“Where’d you get that?” Hero asks.
“Vance hooked me up. He works part-time at a corner store now.”
She glares at Hero, expecting some kind of rebuke. Instead, he just says, “You don’t look like you’re enjoying it much.”
She can’t argue with that. Instead she takes another defiant drag and hacks it out again, cursing under her breath. Hero steps up beside her and looked down at the stone. The inscription is brief: SUNNY, BELOVED BY ALL.
“We haven’t seen you since the funeral,” he says.
“I’ve been around. Why, is your brother asking?”
“No. I think he’s still processing all of this.”
Kel has spoken little in the past week. He sits on their bedroom floor, playing video games, his face wan in the television’s glow. He keeps the volume low enough so that Hero can hear the controller clacking whenever they’re in the room together, like a message in code. Yesterday his mother took him aside and said she was going to find them a therapist. He was too tired to protest.
That exchange during the funeral was the last that he and Aubrey had spoken to each other. The incident hangs between her and Hero now, uncoiling like the cigarette smoke.
“He really is unbelievable,” she says at last. “Two people dead and he tried to make it all about him.”
“You know he didn’t mean it that way, Aubrey.”
“I don’t care how he meant it. That’s what it was.”
“They were our friends. He wanted to bring us all together again more than anyone. It makes sense that he’d feel responsible.”
This is who he’s always been – the mediator, the one who kept the seesawing hostility between Aubrey and Kel from going too far in either direction. He’s trying to do it now, and though the words are correct they sound false as they leave his mouth, flat and off-key. Detached as he feels, he has the fleeting impression that they aren’t emerging from him at all, but from the empty air over his shoulder.
Regardless, they have some effect. Aubrey purses her lips around the cigarette like she’s about to kiss it goodnight, then lowers it again.
“You can tell him I’m sorry if you want,” she says. “But I’m staying away. I can’t deal with him anymore, Hero. If I tried to hang out with him again, after all this, I’d end up doing something we’d all regret.”
I understand, he wants to say, but can’t force it out. The trees’ lengthening shadows brush their own, as the sun continues along its axis.
“I guess it was fun for a little while,” she goes on. “For that one day. But it didn’t matter, did it? Everything we said about friends being there for each other, or that apology I made when we went to Basil’s. It was too little, too late.” She shakes her head ruefully. “Can’t believe I said all that mushy crap to a locked door. And Sunny just stood there the whole time. He was a disgusting coward. Right up to the end.”
“Aubrey, please don’t.”
“It’s the truth. That’s why he left us that night. He must have seen what Basil did. Before anyone else.” Her mouth thins. “And instead of trying to help him, or even waking us up, he just went home and…”
She exhales, long and shuddering, like she’d been holding her breath the whole time. Hero stares at the gravestone. The shadows gather and pool in the engraved letters.
“What happened the day Mari died?” he asks.
Aubrey’s head snaps in his direction, her lip curled like that of a dog about to bite. “What’s that mean?”
“It’s like you said. Sunny was the first to see what happened to Basil. It was the same with Mari. He found her before anyone.” The words spill out of him, fragmented, listless, as though he’s trying to read them off a damaged document. “I still don’t understand why. Why she did it. What did Sunny see? And Basil…I can’t remember how he learned about it. He needed Sunny more than any of us but never went looking for him when he shut himself away. Like he knew something. Hiding something. When did he…when Mari died, what did they…”
Something assembles itself in his mind, a configuration monstrous and dark. His heart begins to race just from the glimpse of it. But he doesn’t know how to finish putting it together. The strings break; it all goes to pieces. He’s left standing in place, mouth flapping uselessly open and shut, as Aubrey’s irritation shifts to concern.
“Never mind,” he mutters. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying.”
“You look awful,” she says. “You should take it easy while you’re still in town. Get some rest.”
“I’m trying. I’ll try.”
Aubrey brings the cigarette up and takes one final drag, slowly, with determination. This time she’s able to hold it in, and she turns her head and breathes a soft cloud of grey smoke. She drops the half-spent cigarette onto the churned earth of Sunny’s grave and turns to face Hero fully.
“See you later,” she says.
The smoke behind her does not disperse immediately. It hangs in the heavy air and blossoms into a different shape, unnerving and unrecognizable. As it reaches out with wispy tendrils to caress Aubrey’s neck, Hero understands that she’s right, and they will see each other for a while yet. For this summer and all the other times he returns home from college, he’ll glimpse her in the park or around the plaza; she’ll be smoking more or maybe dropped the habit, have dyed her hair a different color or let it bleed away completely, and she’ll have grown harder and meaner all the while. They’ll exchange glances, maybe even some hesitant small talk, but that’s where it will end, because the shadow of what they saw in Basil’s room will divide them still, their tenuous friendship at last frayed beyond mending. He’ll see her, but she won’t really be there, until the day comes when she ceases to be there at all.
* * *
Hero awakes half-strangled by his sheets, his tossing and turning somehow braiding them into a knot around his chest. He groans and struggles to uncoil them in the fuzzy darkness of his bedroom. His periods of waking have become more frequent, and sleep harder to find. In the mornings he feels like he’s been hollowed out and filled with lead.
By the time he’s rearranged his bedding, his night vision has adjusted. He falls back into his pillows, turns to his side, and then sits up stiff as if he’s suffered an electric shock. Kel’s bed is empty.
The alarm clock says it’s one-thirty in the morning. Kel is not, has never been a restless sleeper; he seldom even crawls out of bed for a drink of water or a trip to the bathroom. Hero tries to remain optimistic nevertheless. With utmost care, he opens his door and pads into the hall. The bathroom is wide open and empty. The kitchen and living room are also darkened, Hector a sandy lump curled in one corner. He’s also become worn out these past days; Kel cuddles and strokes him constantly when he’s not occupied by his games console. Hero’s heart begins to pound against his ribs. When he tries the front door and finds it unlocked, a thin moan escapes his throat.
He slips on his shoes and steps outside.
Sunny’s sealed house radiates an oppressive quietude that Hero feels like a cold wind - from the yard already overgrown, the pollen-discolored siding, the vacant windows' idiot stare. Hero can’t bring himself to approach the house, can’t even focus on it for too long out of worry that he’ll see other shapes coalescing in the darkness behind that blind glass, and so he tells himself that Kel wouldn’t be here either. It’s possible that he jumped the fence and ventured to the treehouse out back, but the thought of following that path, where the sheared tree stump lies in wait, makes Hero’s guts clench into a hot and acidic ball. So he turns away, and heads for the other only place Kel could be.
This night is all wrong. Smothered, paralytic. As Hero walks through the slumbering neighborhood he can glimpse the flashes of fireflies in the distance, but the light is too dim and too quickly gone, as if devoured by the surrounding murk. The crickets’ and the bats’ chatter is there but faraway, and remains faraway no matter where he walks. He sees no movement at all. No flitting shapes in the trees, no specks of midges or gnats. Not a single lit window. The sky appears somehow clear and starless both at once. The air is clammy and hangs from him like an invalid’s embrace.
The park is similarly desolate, bereft of stray cats or slumbering derelicts. He detours to the playground and gives one of the swings a single weak push and it moves back and then forward and goes still. The back of his neck itches and he glimpses behind him and sees nothing but the ranked houses, dark and yawning shapes like fractures in the surrounding night. The shadows of the treebranches overhead are bent like spiders and the implication alone is enough to make him shudder. He’s always loathed spiders, not just for their shapes but for their movement. Languid and peaceful one moment, then rushing at you faster than you can blink.
This was one more place he’d whiled away his childhood, with his brother, with Aubrey, Sunny, Basil. Mari. Basil would stalk among the flowers with his camera at the ready while Kel ran rings around Hero and Sunny on the basketball court, Aubrey content to dominate the tetherball pole, Mari reading on the bench. Smell of barbecues and cut grass. Lemonade tart and cool on their tongues. All these spaces, haunted now.
Hero finds the gap between the bushes and walks through, heedless to the underbrush scraping at his skin. The clearing beyond is transfigured by this sepulchral night – toys rendered indistinct like strange fungus, the picnic blanket like a discarded skin. The pond is utterly still and black as oil. Sitting at the edge of the dock is Kel, straight-backed, hands on his knees.
The wood creaks under Hero’s step as he approaches Kel and sits beside him. Kel angles his head towards Hero, and then he goes back to looking at the water. He’s wearing the jersey and shorts that he slept in, and his face is unsmiling and clings to his skull like raw dough. His feet are bare. He hadn’t even bothered to put shoes on before leaving. Unsafe, Hero thinks inanely. There could be broken glass out here.
“You couldn’t sleep either?” Kel asks, finally.
“Not really. You know how it is, the insomnia. When I saw your bed was empty I couldn’t have gotten back to sleep anyway.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to worry you. But I’d been lying there wide awake for like four hours and I got sick of it. I thought this might help.” A vibrato of dread creeps into his voice. “Mom doesn’t know, does she?”
“I really hope not,” says Hero.
“Should’ve stuck some pillows under the covers.”
“I don't think that’s ever fooled anyone except on TV.”
That gets a chuckle out of him. Then his face droops again, like he’s ashamed of having laughed.
“This sucks,” he says hoarsely.
“I bumped into Aubrey the other day. She wanted me to tell you that she’s sorry for what she said at the funeral.”
“It’s fine. Should have kept my mouth shut anyway.”
“She’ll come around, Kel. She just needs time.”
Again that feeling of thrown voice, the impression that this is not his speech, his convictions. There’s no truth behind them; Hero speaks from reflex, trying to find the words that will make Kel become less of a waxwork.
“Mom told me she’s going to find a therapist,” says Hero. “For both of us.”
“So, what, are we supposed to go in at the same time, or…?”
“That’d be interesting. I’m not actually sure.”
“I hope she gets her money’s worth.” Kel rakes at the matted nest of his hair. “Hey, Hero. Can I ask a personal question?”
“When I was trying to cheer you up after Mari died and you, y’know, melted down at me, do you remember any of the stuff you said? Like, specifically?"
That question dispels a little of the numbness pervading him; he feels a slithering tendril in his stomach, hot and dark. The null year was bad but not as bad as its ending, when Hero had uncorked all that furious grief onto his well-meaning brother. At this point all that mostly remains is sensation – the reek of his unwashed bedsheets, his raw throat and burning cheeks, his measured and diplomatic voice splintering like glass. Their parents had rushed in and soothed Hero while Kel fled to the bathroom, and Hero, in a moment of desperate clarity, had wriggled away from them and followed him instead, where he’d curled up next to the toilet, weeping. For all his exuberance, Kel was never a very enthusiastic crier, and the memory of his weak and wounded hiccups as Hero held him tight still makes his cheeks flush with guilt.
“It’s mostly a blur,” he says. “Not the sort of thing I’d want to remember.”
“Yeah. Same, I guess. I blacked most of it out.” Kel hunches low, fingers laced. “But I keep coming back to it anyway. For some reason I remember you calling me useless, or worthless, stuff like that, but that’s not the kind of thing you’d say. Not in those words, at least. So it’s got me thinking that maybe I’m, like, projecting onto you. How messed up is that? Putting your shitty thoughts into someone else’s mouth?”
Hero doesn’t answer. He can’t think of anything to say.
“How’d you get better?” Kel asks. “It couldn’t have just been because of me.”
“You snapped me out of it. But after that, I had to take things day by day.” He sighs. “It’s not as easy as it sounds. That whole year felt like one long day, you know? The same thing repeated over and over again. You have to accept that things can change. Even if it’s scary.”
“That makes sense. If things change, that means they can get better.”
“That’s right,” he says.
“And you did. Everything did. For a little while.” Then Kel’s lip trembles, his voice breaks. “And then they got worse all over again.”
Hero reaches out and pulls Kel close as he starts crying, the same broken hiccups from that day in the bathroom. His body convulses in Hero’s grip, skin burning through their thin clothes. The crickets’ muffled gossip around them persists as Hero stares hollowly at nothing.
“I can’t take this,” Kel sobs. “Why does this keep happening to us? When’s it finally going to stop?”
“I don’t know. I wish I knew.”
“I really thought I’d gotten it right this time.” He clutches Hero, nails digging through his shirt. “I just wanted everyone to be happy and I screwed it up all over again. If I hadn’t dragged Sunny out to see Basil…”
“You can’t think of it that way, Kel. You’re not responsible for this. None of us were. Whatever drove them to it, it must have been eating at them for a long time. All you did was give Sunny a chance to see his friends again. That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Kel looks up at him, eyes wet and red-rimmed. It’s the exact same face Hero would see whenever he got a bad scrape or stomped off from a particularly fierce argument with Aubrey, and the gangling frame it’s now attached to only adds to this surreal atmosphere, like Kel’s borrowing the body of a stranger.
“You think so?” he asks.
Hero nods his head because he has to. He wipes away Kel’s tears with just the right mix of affection and condescension, because he has to. He repeats these performances and platitudes even though it now feels as though unseen hands are reaching out from behind him and guiding his mouth and movements, because he has to play the peacekeeper, and if he can’t keep the peace in his brother’s heart then he’ll lose him too. When Mari died she took a great deal of Hero with her, parts that were essential and irrecoverable, and he’s bulwarked against that emptiness with the people around him. If he loses Kel, then Hero will fall apart like a broken marionette.
“We should head home,” he says. “Before Sally wakes up Mom and she notices we’re missing.”
“Yeah, she’ll ground us for the entire summer. Like everything didn’t suck enough already.”
Kel wipes his face and lets Hero help him to his feet. Hero walks to where the dock’s planks meet the soil, turns back to Kel – and freezes.
At first he thinks the fireflies are swarming over the lake, but their number is too few, their shine too bright. Because the pulsating lights that he sees behind Kel are those of the ambulance that announced Sunny’s departure, the fever-light now disembodied and coalescing into something for which he has no name but gnawing dread. The siren is there but grown distant and alien as all other sound tonight, reduced to a sinister tinnitus, and the lights bob and spiral like will-o’-the-wisps, beckoning into the water’s black fathoms.
He knows that he must speak, before Kel can turn around. He will work this ventriloquist mouth until his jaw breaks off and clatters to his feet, do whatever it takes to banish that ruinous shape. But before Hero can say anything, his brother’s eyes widen. They are filled with fear.
Kel says, “There’s something behind you.”