Thomas Allaband turned to Mr. Penguin, as if the stuffed animal were an adult who had all the world's answers, as if he were actually real. But he knew he wasn't, and knew he was getting too old to do such a thing. Being that his tenth birthday had been a massive four days ago, he felt embarrassed now, when the nurses came, as they regularly did; they might have noticed Mr. Penguin, disguised so expertly, beneath his pillow, and laugh at him because his best friend was a soft toy. And not love him.
He and Mr. Penguin saw two dark shapes. One with a white outside, one without, through a vertical rectangle of frosted glass. The door held only that insight into what was happening in the corridor outside. That and the larger clear window to the right of it, which viewed onto the nurses station and elevator. He remembered the elevator, from his first meeting with the hospital; he was crossing the precipice between the living and the dead, and the almost living with the almost dead. The cords which hanged the elevator stayed tight, with gaining or losing altitude; when he stepped out of the threshold of it, over the heavy, floating drop, he hopped weakly as not to fall. But nothing mattered there, because that's where mom wasn't. He knew, just knew one of the dark shapes belonged to his mother, because he recognised the impressions her light, shoulder-length hair commanded, even though it now slept. Muffled and hazy. She was nodding, he noticed, nodding but shaking. Nodding like she had agreed to something she wanted to but could not say no to. Like if Thomas was asked if he wanted to die.
Sometimes it felt like his voice was the only perfectly working part of his being, and he would exercise such a gift, as he was scared of it failing too. He sang lowly to himself, so only he could hear. He somehow knew that, if he was to die, his voice would be the last thing to leave him. Not mom. Not dad. His voice. It had always lied to him, which he loved it for, in the same way he loved his mother for it. Not savagely honest as his thoughts, but deceitful, when he hid beneath bed sheets and told himself he'd be okay after all. It seemed his voice knew, itself, that it was lying, so openly, not with any idea of clandestine activities, but continued in its ritualistic begging. It would perish, and in perishing, would become quiet until it became thoughts, and in its thought-form would be honest, and Thomas would truly hate it. And be truly dead.
He fingered the flightless bird's beak, feeling for something; perhaps vibrations of understanding, or words that could interpret what had been said outside their room. Or, perhaps, just to keep his small hands employed and keep them out of his mouth. He was ten years old now, after all. Across the room diagonally, to his three o'clock, his golden eyes moved from one side of the neat walls, along the perimeter of its whitewashed colour: scentless, joyless, and stopped again familiarly. Again, he saw the shape, the skeletal 2D model, permanently imprinted on its flat poster, but this time wondered if it was male or female. He stopped his quiet singing. She had no rude parts, he noted, and if she had, he would have looked away out of respect, or his own embarrassment. Moving Along their usual track, his thin eyebrows lowered onto the window ledge, as if for a rest, and stayed.
The window was a guillotine, which threatened to fall, if he ever reached over its threshold even slightly. He looked through the gap between the blade and the wood, through standing on his knees and arched toes, that separated his glassed life, and the outside death. Stretching his chest toward the shine of early yellow afternoon, the vibrations his heart made against his pyjama shirt increased, making it jump in even, quickening intervals, if seen from a motherly distance. Thomas's eyes narrowed then rose, in curiosity. People. People's heads. Up. Down. Shown. Hidden. Shown. Hidden. Alive. Dead. Alive. He wondered how long each person had left to live. Ten years? One year? Five months? Two weeks? One day? Dead. And wondered if they would live any differently, if they knew, or if they'd want to know at all. Or if they were even living at all. The people's lifespans made him think of the lifespan of the flowers, near his mother, when they were sat with them all around them. A butterfly landed on a disposable coffee cup, then to lips, in a kiss and flew. Thomas wondered what coffee really tasted like, and if he would like it as he was older since he last pondered it.
Some coffee cost more than other coffee, and the people who bought the different types of coffee, walked in different ways - he learned by watching. The people walked, almost ranking themselves subconsciously in an orchestrated dance; some displaying their cup proudly like a religious icon, others hiding their cheap logo with a careful forefinger. If some coffee was more expensive, did that make it, congenitally, more delicious and more valuable? He wondered the same question about healthcare; if his parents had spent more money, would he have had a new heart by now? Would he have been normal? It seemed too much to hope for, but sitting there, on his knees and naked toes, he wished for a fortune to find his family – if only to test his theory – then desert them again. Because he knew there was a natural order to life; a good thing couldn't happen without something bad balancing it, and vice versa. But he knew that he was different, and hated how unfair it was, that his bad things far outweighed the good. Even though he had begun to manufacture his own good things, or, in other words: things he could control. Like what he would eat for dinner each day, when he could eat, and which books he would read when he couldn't sleep.
The choice of meal seemed rather unnecessary, because all the food tasted the same; but he loved the choice – enjoyed the delicious control it granted him. The choice of book, however, was necessary, because instead of filling his need for control, it took away the need. This was a complicated emotion for him to understand; without the need, there was no pleasure from the need being met. Yet he yearned for his books, for his needs to be snatched away from him - like his desperate heart's need for breath. Exactly like that, Thomas thought sadly and looked down at the creases his body broke upon the sheets, blocking them from being complete and balanced, and happy.
He looked again to the guillotine and noticed a sudden, tantalising gleam when the sun hit it just the right way, which reflected thoughts he had attempted to bury. The thoughts that invitingly said: 'I should reach over the guillotine. Maybe I won't die.' It was an optimistic idea, but Thomas was feeling anything but. He probably would die, if he ventured across the blade, but at least it would be a reaction of an action of his, and under his control; he could make everything in his life complete, even prematurely, as to have no controllable regrets – like choosing to leave a home now, rather than being forcibly evicted at some unknown time. He wasn't afraid of the mystery of death, or its answer, not when he saw the metal with its gleam. Not a guillotine death. What terrified him, what awoke him in the night, was that life would be snatched from him, by that bastard death – the death of his heart – which he knew was a bomb the doctors couldn't defuse.
The gleam on the blade beckoned him closer; he fixed himself higher onto his small knees, to allow himself to almost be within kissing distance of the empty space between his and the guillotine's eyes, but not angled the right way to truly do so. He waited, turned back to the two dark shapes in the corridor, and away from the red light from outside. Still talking. Still talking about him. Not to him. Hiding from him. Hiding his death from him, probably, he thought bitterly to himself. With frustration, he turned sharply back to the guillotine and disobeyed his mother's earlier wishes of only standing, if she was here to protect him from the probable fall. His legs hadn't stopped working yet, he thought matter-of-factly, as he moved from his knees and dangled his legs over the side of his borrowed bed, knowing that they would stop working someday. And not an imaginary someday, but a someday to which he could work out the day of the week in which it would land – or fall.
As if testing the temperature, though he knew it would be warm, he placed but ended up pushing a single set of his toes into the floor, stripped of their sole, with more weight than had been intended, due to the weak balance he controlled over himself, and within his inexperience of doing such a supposedly natural task. Even while mostly sitting, he feared that, if he were to place his sole down, it may fall, and may snap his leg in two; not that that was very likely, he concluded, and pushed down the unpleasant thought with the bottom of his foot. From this position, he could have easily reached over the guillotine, if only just; but Thomas wanted to stand, to not die in his sleep - if it came to that. In the same calculated movements, yet different due to the mirroring, he touched, more gently this time, onto the floor with his left toes – it seemed he was right-footed yet left-handed; he caressed his sweet distracting thought – it was a cat touch, then their guardian met the floor too. For support, he held the ceramic basin which existed next to the bed, but more toward the wood than the guillotine, and pushed his small bones from the sheets.
He sweated most of the time, even at rest in his favourite place – the hospital's central garden – with his mother, when the winter chill had hit hardest and even the grass was dry and frozen, and all the flowers had been a long time dead. While his head was pressed gently against her breasts, her hand stroking his exposed to the cold, cheek, he felt the slightest recoil that was so quickly hidden, he simply believed it to be dream, but he knew her fingers had become wetted from the contact, and how they would then be at the mercy of the cold air. His sweat was an uninvited guest, invading the precious moments he had with his mother. A thin, greasy sheet which she had slipped from and left the two further apart, and left him disgusted. He had forgotten the natural colour of his virgin hair; it was either wet from having been washed, or sweaty from after the act – both instances darkened it beyond identification. It was an uncomfortable symptom of his condition, which made him feel especially self-conscious in front of the nurses.
His sweat was amplified as he finally stood and saw his guillotine goal; it glued his pyjamas to his back, so indistinguishable, that the stained material seemed to be its maiden colour. He pulled frustratingly at it, to release the hug of the skin and shirt, like his own hug of mom telling him never to go near the guillotine; the skin came free, reddened slightly from the Sellotape's binding. If it truly was Sellotape, it would have, probably, taken all the skin away with it – he thought and gripped the material of his thigh with one hand, the other still attached to the wash basin – and still be hugging, and never be free. Releasing his leg first, then the sink, his hands reached closer to the guillotine's precipice; if it had meant death, he had already gotten his accounts in order, said goodbye. For every time he kissed his mother, he did so on the lips, as a goodbye, and because every time might, truly be, the last time. And he didn't want her to forget him, so he had kissed her on the lips. Even now, invisibly, through the frosted, cold glass that separated them. He saw again, her familiar shape, felt tears create multiples of it, allowing his eyes to grow more reflective, and therefore more valuable, then faced the guillotine again. His hands: like they were praying, or bound, leaned defencelessly forward, guiltily, as a convicted criminal, toward inevitability. His golden eyes were growing, like his quickening chest rose and sank again. He swallowed, tasted salt, cried, sniffed, saw more red light, then the gleam moved from the entirety of the blade, down to a slither of its point. The gleam was leaving; the feeling of knowing, of being sure, was going. It seemed the gleam was being forced away by the door handle beginning to move, then stopped again. Thomas came away from himself and rushed, as best he could, back into the bed, and back under the innocence of his sheets. He rubbed his face roughly, to erase the emotion that still stained it, then softly, like he was applying makeup. He had thought the intruder would come in, in that moment, but it would be four more minutes of loneliness first, and plenty time to compose himself – to return his skin back to the pale.
Mrs. Allaband's fingers gripped the door handle, but not as Mrs. Allaband, not as Clara, but as Thomas's mother – a role she assumed often – but this time she assumed the role of Thomas's mother at the scene proceeding a tragedy. That scene would have usually taken place more than halfway through the story and be followed by a happy ending; but perhaps the reason why she could play the part of Thomas's mother at the scene proceeding a tragedy, so convincingly, was because she knew the ending would not be happy. It was quite rare for a character and a player, as the same person, to have intimate knowledge of a story's ending. Usually, the player would spin an invisible web between herself and the character, to retain the crucial dramatic irony, even to the leeching part of themselves. Growing, like two plants growing in a small chest; as one grows, it steals resources from the other, and true harmony is an absolute impossibility. The stage Director, dressed in a white coat, who had been the other dark shape stained across the frosted glass, had said with a hush, those cursed, final words in the corridor. Maybe he thought it would enhance her performance, or maybe he felt true pity for the character, which spilled into pity of the player, as he struggled to separate the two anymore.
Mrs. Allaband entered the room. Her eyes raw and terrified, hiding down. Thomas noticed, but he didn't have the tools to excavate his mother's lies, so he chose to believe them. She took small steps toward the metal frame of Thomas's bed; if she pretended it was the bedframe she was going to, and not her son, then the journey might not have weighted her heart down as it did. She took small steps toward the metal frame of Thomas's bed, until even those small steps seemed to get her there. She regretted that she had not made them smaller, to allow her more time to apply her mask. She looked sorrowful and desperate, even now; even while looking, deliberately, into Mr. Penguin's shiny eyes. Even though her husband was still alive. Even though he had yet to be killed.
She searched the air for words to speak, swallowed nothing at all, scratched her palms, the routes of her, three minutes ago, tears. She had not looked into Thomas's eyes. Not yet. Only into Mr. Penguin's black ones, then to Miss Cow's identical ones. She hugged up an idea in her mind and picked the stuffed cow up from the floor with one hand, like Thomas could have been, after he was prematurely born. Miss Cow was less than an acquaintance of Thomas's, but a close friend of Mr. Penguin's, apparently. Thomas always looked disapprovingly toward the cow and penguin together, as if they'd begun dating. Dating, which he knew the existence of, from the lazy chatter between the nurses while they thought he slept. They didn't know about his difficulty in achieving sleep, or his nightmares if he ever achieved it. The fact that they couldn't find his secrets, and expose them, almost broke his comforting illusion of adults being sinless - if it weren't for him embracing it. Thomas was disgusted by the mere prospect of dating, at his age. And terrified of being alone.
His mother's hand wrapped around Miss Cow's thorax, if she were a Miss Spider, expertly hidden like a ventriloquist's, and assumed the role seriously. Words always came more easily to her, if the words were someone else's, she thought sadly to herself. Through neglect, Miss Cow's stuffing had sunken down into her abdomen, which made her top half hunch over her bloated belly. It looked like she was expecting, Mrs. Allaband noticed. Remembering her own pregnancy, she now understood why Miss Cow's voice had been birthed, so effortlessly, from her lips – it was because Miss Cow was a mother, too.
"Moo! I have good news, Mr. Penguin!" She had wanted to say great, but, even as Miss Cow, the word simply sounded out as good. The voice was high and animated, which she didn't allow her sorrow to betray. She spoke from the side of her closed lips, from the unmoving, dead mouth of the cow. Thomas looked to the 'talking' animal, unimpressed.
"Mom, I'm ten years old now. I am too old to play with stuffed toys." Thomas replied woodenly, with his own dead lips, not with Mr. Penguin's, and with a certain maturity it seemed like he was feigning. He had made a, clear to him, distinction between keeping stuffed toys close, and playing with them. After all, mom kept things close to her, which brought her comfort; like dad's Castro cap – even at her old age.
Miss Cow ceased her puppet movements, her strung actions that mimicked a beating, failing heart.
"Yes. I suppose you are." Because mom's hand clutched still, to the thorax, it seemed like the words were coming from the animal's afterlife – begging and deflated – and not from her very human and alive, tongue. Thomas shuffled uncomfortably, in guilt; it seemed that he had sunken more into the bed – outweighing her in that moment. He felt the fresh sadness of the vibrations of her voice. It was new to him, like hearing someone's first laugh. Her face sure looked sad a lot, but her voice – never. He had to correct that, to repair the damage.
His little, grasping fingers sought to disguise his hand as skilfully as mom had, onto Mr. Penguin's body. Corrupting it, or purging it, of its former identity, he took a virgin breath.
"Qu-Quack!" Did penguins even quack? "Wh-What's that, Miss Cow?" His voice, stretched even higher than usual, rose and fell in self-consciousness. He had played the part of Mr. Penguin many times before, but never as a ten-year-old. He, also, wasn't as well-versed at playing other characters, besides himself, as his mother was.
She half-smiled to herself, after hearing Thomas's squeaky pretending. She possessed Miss Cow again, even then unseeingly by him, and spoke: "Moo! We all get to go – Moo! – " He stopped breathing and listened for the sounding of the next word, not allowing even his air intake to mask it, like a crocodile looks for movement before the kill.
"Home." Mr. Penguin's face fell.
Although she usually lied about when he would truly leave; that time, by the sheer graveness of her happy tone, he knew there was something fatal about it. She had always kissed him, after a lie, and kissed him even after that truth, which signified to Thomas there was a lie hidden within. He was older now, ten now, but old enough to know that lies were kisses; some used to greet, some used to leave, and some used to delay the inevitable. And some used to mark death.
It was one week later, when Thomas left his borrowed room.
He was simply crossing the precipice between being hanged and being free, in the elevator, then stepping over the threshold out of it; though he was really crossing the precipice between the living and the dying, and left behind their identities hidden. Thomas Allaband never returned to the hospital. Not with his heart still pumping.
It was almost 2am. No time to be eating cereal. But Robert Allaband, twin brother of Thomas, was doing just that; he knew the small hours were the safest hours in the day - the hours where his mother finally slept, and where he could leave his bedroom. As he ate the Count Chocula shapes - Tom's favourite - he noticed miserably, the sound of his own swallowing, which was so clear and precise a sound, it could only be heard in such a way if there was silence - which there was.
He was an overachiever in every subject at school, even though he despised each one. In his family life, however, he was a hopeless dropout. He frowned at the thought, drawing his eyebrows together at the innocent cereal. Dropout implied a deliberate leaving. He didn't leave with the movements of his own feet; he was accurately cut away from his family, like a benign tumour is cut away from its host. And the culprit of the cutting was Thomas's illness - a thing Robert knew very little of. He hadn't been in a privileged position enough, to even see his brother for the past forty weeks. He sure as Hell knew nothing of the inner-workings of his disease, this curse that consumed Tom. He just knew one thing - that it was killing him.
The day Thomas returned home, not five days ago: Robert had been instructed by his mother not to come out of his bedroom. She offered no real reason as to why. He nodded, knowing he was only feeding his impatience. He kept silent as to not break the tradition of there being very few words between himself and Mrs. Allaband. He looked around his room, like he'd never visited it before, with a false curiosity and intrigue to pass the creeping time, which stopped its creeping and crawled. Robert eyed his tidy bedroom scrutinisingly; the room, though rather small, seemed larger and more open due it being almost entirely clear - the only parts that weren't were where his limited furniture stood. A bed. Some drawers. A desk. A chair. It hadn't always been this way. Mom had sold most of his other belongings; things that weren't critical to his care, like toys or crayons, and most of his clothes, to pay for Thomas's treatment. This left him with only his jeans and T-shirt for school, and his small pyjamas for home.
Robert had eaten the cereal now, spooning the remnants of the milk onto his spoon, then the spoon into his waiting mouth. He sat straight at the tabled chair, his feet contacting the cold floor where Tom's would have dangled. He blinked away the thought of drinking the milk straight from his bowl, even though his mother wasn't there to enforce the law. Because that's what a parent's rules are to her children - the law - and the biggest crime of all was seeing Thomas.
He had continued to brush off the top of his drawers, like there was imaginary dust there - because, to Robert, there was invisible dust everywhere. And nothing was ever, truly, clean. He bathed twice daily, but even this felt incompetent at fulfilling his need, and hated how his clothes felt like prison rags. He brushed again; he brought his hand up to his eyes, a mere four inches away and inspected for dirt; he knew he'd find nothing - if there was any serious dirt there, he wouldn't be in the same room as it not to mention touching. Yet he inspected it: his open, spread, pink hand. The dust could be there - was there - it was invisible but he could feel it. He dug his fingers into his palm, tight, and felt nausea cling to the lining of his throat. Why did he touch the drawers? He knew the dust was there. He knew it was invisible. He knew it would cling, crawl on his flesh. He knew he was unclean now, corrupted by the filth. Why did he touch the drawers? Because he wasn't allowed to see his own brother - that's fucking why! Robert felt an unknown, familiar anger fill his slim frame, but what made it feel foreign was that it moved him forward instead of forcing him down. He crossed the clear distance between himself and the door, and grabbed for the handle; with an unthinking turn he was free from his cell. More of the invisible dust reached for his hand and embraced it coldly, crawling up his arms like spiders. He thought maybe they were on their way to eat his eyeballs, so closed and reopened them again.
Robert stood still, beside the judging, open door to his right. He frowned forward with his head first, then his chest, and legs last. He covered the carpeted distance of four feet, the distance which separated the two minor bedrooms of their house, and the sixteen that separated him and Thomas - he calculated to both compose and distract himself. Transferring the sweat from his palm to the dryness of the door handle, Robert stood on his tiptoes, reached, like he was trying to see through the wood of the door and into Tom's bedroom - to see without being seen - though he knew that was impossible. He then landed again when Mrs. Allaband's sharp hand grabbed his wrist. She stared down at him like a caught criminal, seeing his scared eyes bleached with guilt. "What did I tell you? You are not to leave your bedroom!" She shouted in her whispered, eliminating tone. Robert tried not to cry, not this time. He pushed his teeth together, behind his lips, so they couldn't be seen. He, too, wished to not be seen, because he knew what was coming. He knew words were hopeless against her, so he didn't speak. He felt the invisible dust grow louder now, more unbearable; from her grasp to his skin, from the spit from her words, to his hair. He had to move. Had to disappear. He then tried, out of terror, to pull his wrist away from her holding. That was perhaps his worst mistake, and he knew it. His eyes grew wider and more fearful, and more begging as hers narrowed and her thin mouth opened to speak. No words attacked. A frustrated grunt was all that did. She then forcibly - though no true force was required - pulled him along the corridor and down the stairs, and out the kitchen door which lead onto her and Thomas's garden.
Robert felt an icy wind knock against the exposed skin of his arms and legs, from the small pyjamas. The grass was swamped and browned, and slushed with drowned snow; he knew that every day for the past fortnight, it had rained at exactly 15:30. And, as Mrs.Allaband's stretched open hand pulled back then smacked into his cheek, he knew it must have been around that time, because the rain then fell. It was a welcome wetness to his face, for it disguised his tears. If she would have noticed him crying again, he would have been in for much worse. At least, he thought she wouldn't notice. She looked down at him with disdain. "Fucking crying again. It's not like you're the one who's dying!" She hit his face again. Robert didn't try to defend himself, cover any part of himself with his hands, like he used to. Dying. He heard the word echo in his thoughts, from her tongue, which was how so many of his thoughts were birthed and voiced. Was Thomas dying? He assumed that he was better now, now that he was returning home. It was a naive thought, he admitted, with shame, as another hit contacted his stomach this time. He fell as the air was punched from his lungs and they both collapsed, and felt as though neither of the three of them would breathe again. With each hit, the invisible dust seemed to dissipate more, to a degree where Robert was even thankful to Mrs. Allaband - for ridding him of it. For with each hit, he knew he was alive - knew he hadn't died - and he was thankful for that, at least. Mrs. Allband looked disgusted at her healthy son, who had joined the dirt in the ground. "You are filthy! You're not coming in my house like that - you'll make Thomas even sicker!" She brought her leg powerfully forward and kicked Robert's struggling, thin body. "You're not coming back inside until you're clean!" He was grasping for breath still, and looked up into her eyes in such a pathetic and loving way, that it made her stop mid-attack. She became still and expelled a sigh, which contained something akin to mild irritation lined with a dark amusement. "I only hit you because you break my rules - because you're bad - because you're unclean - you do understand this, don't you?" She spoke lowly but still louder than the rain. He tried to kill his sobs, and weakly nodded - choking air, out and in. She crouched next to him, stroked then kissed his cheek. She looked deeply into his eyes, with honesty. "It should be you who is dying, not Thomas." She simply said, and meant every word. He stared back, pained. "I know." He simply said, and meant every word.
She seemed satisfied at the response and stood him back up. She then began to undress him from his pyjamas. "You can clean yourself with the hose." She looked toward the green coiled snake beside its porch steps. She finished and took the clothes inside to be washed. Robert's legs shook as he reached for the long pipe and turned its copper handle. It felt as if pain itself spurted from its single hole, and doused his nakedness, which made sure that all physical dirt was driven away. What was also driven away was Robert's held breath. He sobbed loudly now that his pathetic sounds would be masked by the water flow, and his tears by the cold streams down his cheeks. Where the salt had been refused access, he now cried; he let his composure shatter, and the pieces, in joining, became humiliation. Mrs. Allaband didn't hit him again that night; so as he lay in bed, he lay there with the invisible dust. And when he fell into his thin, weak sleep, the invisible dust followed him - even there.
He cleaned his bowl and spoon, and put them away precisely, as to not leave any evidence of his presence in the kitchen. As he remembered the hits Mrs. Allaband delivered him, his hand reached up to his cheek. He expected it to burn still, after her hand's attack, but it was again cold. There was the dry blood of a scratch shape, from one of her long fingernails, but that was all. He noticed it was crusted and painless, and pushed it down and around with his fingertip. This broke and scattered the dark blood dust, then he brushed it away again; this made the wound appear even more insignificant than it was, though the action of taking would add to the recovery time, instead of taking away from it. Some of the maroon specks fell onto a newspaper, which had been pushed to the side and out of the way of nothing, across until it was barely upon the family's dining table at all. It was unseeingly dark, but Robert knew what would be written upon it, just after the date written down, of Sunday 20th February 1972:
They were calling it the "First Television War" - which made Robert laugh bitter silent breaths, silent as not to give away his position, to himself, or to Mrs. Allaband. He knew they didn't have a TV - he hardly had food. He then thought of his daddy, laying in the dirt over there, noiselessly so the enemy wouldn't hear him - and kill him - and wondered if he and him were really in two different places, two different situations. Because sometimes it felt like she might actually kill him. But she never did. It was different, he finally concluded; mom wasn't a "fucking commie asshole" - a string of words he'd heard in the playground at school - at least he didn't think so. She didn't look very red to him, he finalised and continued his stare to the dark around him. He had been so scared the pop of the lightbulb coming aglow, would have woken someone - or something - in their witching-hour house, that he had navigated the kitchen, prepared his food, eaten it, and cleaned, all in this perfect darkness. And perfect silence. He had been hungry enough to leave his room, hungry enough to risk; but when he did eat, he got full easily, before even his tongue had time to reflect on the tastes. And after, he always felt like vomiting.
He then wondered if his daddy had killed people. He wondered if he would still love him, if he had. It was a quick ponder - a quick conclusion. Almost thoughtless, but not so indiscriminate, or uncaring as that. He would; for the love he felt for his father was the most dangerous love there was - the type of love that stopped your rational mind. Of course, he knew it wasn't a dangerous love - not with his father. The love he held for Mrs. Allaband, however, was a different strain of love altogether. Like his autonomic nervous system, which he knew about, allowed his body to breathe without him even thinking about it, he loved his mother with the same unthinkingness. Within his unthinking, while his heart felt still electric from the memory of her recent blows, he wondered if she truly hated him, or if it was only her autonomic nervous system - perhaps hers was one of hate for him, as his was one of love for her. His was a shallow, necessary for survival, love; he hoped her hate was just the same - if it existed at all. He then shook those thoughts from his head until what was left was only his own truth; he was punished by Mrs. Allaband when he did something wrong - he was a guilty criminal - and was punished. Nothing wrong with that - it was justice. She had told him that, and he ate every word; like the cereal he ate most nights - every night - he hungrily drank every line of her milk. He accepted he was to blame, accepted her reasons, invented his own excuses for bruises, at school; he was to blame - it was easier this way. Robert knew non-autonomous loves existed, like his need for daddy, or his care for Tom, and that meant that there were real hates, too. The thought his mom might actually hate him, might want to hurt or neglect him, would destroy him; so he blinded himself to her cruelty and served his sentence, and never complained. He took his beatings without any attempt of defence, because he knew he was guilty; even if not from the crimes of her laws, but for living a healthy life by leeching from Thomas's, before they were even born. Which he knew about, from Mrs. Allaband, but wished he didn't. He was guilty of the worst crime of all - a real life crime - murder. Or murder-in-progress, he corrected himself, as he always did. He lost again, his sad eyes to the dark; if there was a monster there, waiting to attack, waiting to rip his throat out, hungrily anticipating the right moment - the moment to strike - would he try to fight back? Maybe monsters were sent from Hell to punish the guilty; he was full of guilt, so would he fight back? Would the creature be feral, or would it speak with sentience? Would it smile as it cut his throat, or frown as it opened his chest and ate his heart. If it did eat his heart, at least then they'd be even - in those few seconds a human could remain conscious without a heart - and would be innocent again. He stretched. To somebody from the outside looking in, it might have looked like a carefree stretch; but from the inside looking out, it looked like Robert was allowing his neck to open, allowing his life to be sacrificed. But he knew monsters and creatures, at least the ones from stories, didn't exist, so he lowered it again.
Robert surrendered to his urge, as he no longer fought it, and washed his bowl and spoon once more, then once again, then one final time. In fact, he hardly thought of it as a surrendering at all anymore. It was so much a part of himself, that it came as naturally to him as blinking - and be just as temporary. He moved across the tiled floor, feeling the chill move again from his feet to his body, then relieved as he wiped the table four times, too. Or three and an extra as he liked to call it. He liked the extra, it made him feel safe - it made him feel like the three could turn into anything. He liked three for the same reason, because three went into nine, which was his favourite; and the parts of nine, once multiplied - no matter how you multiplied them, or it - always equalled nine again. This structured, mathematic consistency brought stability to his unstable world, and order to his disordered life. And a cold compress to his painful bruises, which now stained his chest and abdomen. He lifted his pyjama shirt up so he could keep it hanged, with his chin, and examined them through the dark, like he was searching for the reasons behind them - even though he thought he knew why. With his, now free, hands, he rubbed them softly, then applied pressure to both, simultaneously, gauging how much - or little - pressure would arouse the pain. It seemed not much. Robert lifted his chin, loosing the cloth, imprisoning it back over his thin body. The thought of imprisonment made him think of his bedroom, and Tom's, and how Tom was alone now. Mrs. Allaband was sleeping. Sleeping and not hitting. Maybe hitting in her dreams - but they weren't real. This was real: she's away from Tom. And he knew he wanted - he had - to see his brother. He moved from the kitchen and quick, slow, silent, careful motions brought him face-to-face with Tom's bedroom door.
It would be so simple, to reach fingers out, along its small metal shape and twist, and open the wood from its secrets. Yet, despite the simplicity, it felt - was - impossible.
Although Robert's mind was made up, to open the door, he looked down the hallway and onto Mrs. Allaband's closed master bedroom, with an unsurity that was so sudden and fleeting, it both choked, and killed, any thought of returning to his own bed.
In his careful, calculated haste up the dozen or so steps, Robert's pyjama shirt had become pulled from its proper place - tucked neatly into his trousers. It's new position felt as foreign as an intruder. And was expelled, corrected, just so. In a pushed-quiet, disgusted flurry of face and body, he crammed the material back inside; the added pressure and definition was a wanted but unneeded medicine. It hugged, squeezed his hips again; just as it was holding, it was guarding and was exactly as it should be. The familiarity of the action cleaned the infant disgust from Robert's face. He scratched his hands to punish, expel their invisible dust, then tried to touch the door, or its lonely handle. He failed. It seemed its one-point-five inches of wood were more of an obstruction to seeing Thomas, than their time apart had been. He only mouthed the words - because he didn't want to be heard: "Please. Be open. Be Open for me. Be open for just me." Robert begged the mirroring mathematic door, and rubbed his hands to his waist, as if he was protecting it - or it him.
"Just for me." He hadn't meant for a sounding to flee, from his closed-prison vocal strings, but his defences must have faltered in that moment - the three word's audio form was born. He hated himself for the lapse in his security; the words which were now free, were hobbling, like toddlers, out into this unsafe glass house. Maybe to be neglected, or worse - heard. Maybe out of bravery, maybe out of the fear that Mrs. Allaband might have heard his weak, rebellious words, he clawed his hand around the door handle. With an urgent but slight depression, its weight moved easily, allowing the door to slide itself open a little, with the momentum. With a frightened, solitary look back to Mrs. Allaband's door, he pushed the handle with enough force to be noiseless, but also enough to leave it open fully, without fear of it shutting itself. In that moment, he thought that Thomas and himself must be two positive, or negative, magnets, for he found it impossible to enter through the empty doorway. He could only look forward and into the unusually occupied room. It was how it always was, since Thomas's admission to hospital left only his absence; but it was now a little fuller, and the bed was entirely different. The sheets were straighter, more restricting, thinner, thicker. Then, within the covering, he noticed the small frame of a boy - his brother - it had to be; but what if it wasn't? What if he was his brother, but a new brother? It had been forty weeks and four days, after all. What if Tom hated him now?
As he watched the Thomas-shape beneath sheets, Robert noticed how still he was, and wondered if he had died already. It was a stupid thought. He knew he was alive. He could hear his breathing, even if he couldn't quite see the risings or the fallings. Unlike his own bedroom, which faced the garden, Thomas's viewed out onto the road outside. Through this guilty position, the smoky glows of streetlight both burrowed and squeezed, through the bottom and vertical spacings of his curtains, and made the room appear more grey than black. As Robert leaned against the doorframe, as if for support, careful so he wasn't too touching of it or its dust - he noticed Thomas's oak chest to the lefthand corner of the bedroom space. He had always kept the container closed and full of things - secrets - for it had always been locked. But now it was open, and open-empty. Robert looked distrustfully at its lid. Through this semi-dark, it mutated into a mouth - a teethed, dangerous mouth. It was only a chest still, if only for daylight. But here, the same chest's fangs grew twisted and straight, like curved blades made to kill. As his stare remained on this dark-birthed creature, he knew it wasn't real, knew it was only because it was late and alone, and unclean. But his body went still with fear, including his stopped breath. His pupils grew, and in their hesitant growing, the room became clearer in its shades, and the chest was then just a chest once more. He breathed again. Within its shaky resume, he now felt embarrassed that he'd been scared at all. He knew he'd been a victim of one of the dark's cruel pranks - the dark who was usually such a good friend of his; although this wasn't the same dark, and he knew it - since noticing the streetlights outside. He still trusted any type of darkness more than the light.
Robert knew about light and the speed in which it ran. He knew that if you had a powerful telescope, you could see stars and planets so far away that when you looked at them, you were only looking at the object's own history - like looking back in time - until the present and future caught up. If Thomas were to die on Jupiter, Robert would still see him as alive for forty-three minutes, if seen from Earth - like he had banked those final, precious moments. Although, in reality, the light would be so precise and unforgiving, that this extra forty-three minutes wouldn't be any extra at all. His life would be equally as short, and any living Thomas, as seen through a telescope, would be merely an illusion. As he continued to stare through the doorway, he saw Thomas alive, and felt as though the doorway was a telescope; and he was looking into the past. Because, in his mind, he had already decided his twin was dead. Because that's how it felt, looking at Thomas: it was like looking at a dead star.
Free-floating is a term used to describe an object, which floats through space with no fixed point of orbit - no host star to move around or rely on. The first time Robert had read that, he frowned and thought that didn't sound like such a bad thing - to have complete freedom, to not be tethered to your parent star. Perhaps the planet's path of orbit brought it too close to its mother, and it burned it; or maybe it was too far away from its daddy, and it froze. Without a host star at all, a planet would still be impossibly cold, but at least it would be free, and travelling, unanchored, and safe from physical harm, and free. But now, in this small moment, as he saw Thomas's face and hair appear out from the neck of his sheets, and how they seemed to darkly glow from the absence of warm light, he realised that to be free-floating would be the world's worst punishment. For Mrs. Allaband wasn't his host star, not even daddy was. Free-floating object in space was either an orphaned planet, whose sun had died, or a sun itself in growing. In a pitiless scan downward, Thomas' eyes moved around his body, from his feet up to his chest then his arms and hands, and decided something he already knew - he was no star. Although he wanted to run to Thomas and protect him, keep him warm, keep him safe, guard his fleeting, fragile life - all with a simple holding - he knew the one benefitting from the embrace would be him. He often looked to his just-younger brother's ghosts for comfort, when he found himself easily inside Thomas' bedroom while he was away; finding solace in the memories, the light, that remained there. He'd been taken to the central hospital overnight, the hospital that resided not a fifteen minutes' drive away, but far enough that if he did die there and Robert could see him, he would see him alive for a microscopic fraction of a second longer than Mrs. Allaband would. In reality, he knew he was lying to himself, but he embraced the cold comfort and turned it to truth. Robert was a thief as he swallowed and prepared to move his feet silently forward; it seemed ridiculous that the same longing that had made him enter this bedroom hundreds of times before, now made the entering seeming like breaking, and not breaking impossible. Maybe in entering it would mean death for Thomas, and in not-entering would preserve his life somehow; like if he closed his eyes to it, maybe it wouldn't exist, and Thomas would be safe. But Thomas was his host star, and in dying would kill them both. He had to close the distance between them, to be trapped in his gravitational pull. In their moving forward, he felt his satellite feet start on their path, seemingly without exertion of force or any thrust. They were floating. They were falling.
The foreign objects hadn't offended him at all, in the dark, from the telescope doorway; they had been disguised by the grey, their lines softened, their straight edges and clinical scent camouflaged. In place of Thomas's normal, boy's bed, there was now a white, broader bed with protective railings fixed to the sides. Though whether their metallic servitude was in the direction of protection or incarceration, was unclear to him, and his young eyes. Robert automatically held the bars as he moved from the foot of the bed to the head of it; he touched them suspiciously, like a baby inspects new food to make sure its not poisonous. It seemed easier to feign curiosity onto the metal, than it was to look where he truly wanted to. A shift of the covers moved his eyes to Thomas's face, which became entirely uncovered, along with his neck and shoulders. Through the absence of most light, Robert looked across the boy's face, as if to assess his identity. After counting the freckles on his small nose, until they equalled nine, in three and an extra patches, he was satisfied. The dormant, ancient part of Thomas's brain must have awakened in that moment - must have known he was being watched - for it opened his eyes. Although his sight had already adjusted to the dark behind his eyelids, all he saw when he awoke was a new dark, and a black shape, hovering over him. Fully alert, he tensed-up and reached for his bedside lamp, desperate to ignite the light. The wire where the button lived dangled to away from his fingers, as he tried to capture it. "It's me. It's me." Robert repeated the hushed words, tried to hold Tom's hands still, and free them of panic. Thomas's movements slowed, and luckily, he hadn't made a sound. In an action that begged forgiveness, Robert sparked the lamp into life; its orange field was strong near its core, warmer, and cold, weak, beyond its event horizon. Thomas had not a whisper of tiredness about his face - he stared at Robert unenthusiastically. "Robbie." He rolled his eyes. "Staring at someone while they're asleep is kinda - no - very creepy, you know." Robert looked to his feet, ashamed of their satellite properties. Thomas sat up so his back was against the top of the bed, and continued to stare at his older brother, expecting him to say something, though he knew he wouldn't - not within this line of questioning. He sighed again. "Well, I'm up now. You may as well speak. What time is it?" He asked, which made Robert look up and into his golden eyes, for the first time since their apartness began. It was only a golden second, then gone again, as Robert moved toward the curtain and separated it just enough, so he could see the glowing clock from atop the chapel, which seemed to stare at their home from across the street. Its hands pointed together in a northeasterly touch, though the contact would soon be gone again. The chapel's windows were black as tunnels; shine-less, due to the trees on its grounds, who protected it from the streetlight stain. The tunnels were eyes. Hollow, evil eyes. Robert had looked at the white face just for a moment, like he had planned. He didn't want to see the black, the coal eyes. But a certain, morbid, curiosity held his eyes and dragged them there every time. And there they now landed. And there they went again, away from them. But with each look, the evil from the windows seemed to collect within him, and never dissipated.
"It's two-ten." Robert said as a sorry, before he closed the curtains and moved back to the bedside. An apology was needed - he hadn't seen Tom for the forty weeks, or these last four days - which felt ninety hours long each - since he'd been back. Deeply inside his own chest of secrets, he knew Mrs. Allaband was to blame, but also knew he was responsible for her behaviour - his own punishments, his own absence. He was to blame. Letting Tom know what his mother was really like, and how cruel she could be, would destroy him, so Robert kept it to himself, and allowed Thomas his comforting illusion. And became himself - a liar again.
"I didn't want to see you lik-" His words stopped, weighed down, snatched away from his voice when his eyes met Thomas's again. Through their forty-week absence, Robert had yearned to see the golden glow from his brother's eyes again. But now that they were here, reflecting imperfectly back to his own, he felt his throat tighten and he swallowed just to make sure he still could. To make sure he still had even the most basic of control over his breathing, and not die of suffocation. It seemed the glow was missing, but it left no absence. There lay something in its place - something that Robert didn't recognise - something that made him feel like crying. Robert then broke the stare with Thomas's eyes, dropping his own like a dead man's hands. "Like that. In the hospital." Thomas watched Robert's awkward apology and tilted his head. "What's the difference between seeing me like that in the hospital, and seeing me like this - here - now?" Thomas asked, but with no malice. It was an honest question. When Robert realised this, he spoke again: another lie. "Well, you're better now - right?" He was impressed by his own ability to construct untruths, and smile at the same time. Then ashamed. Thomas looked across and against his brother's face, like he was looking at a small child, who had no idea about the workings or nuances there were to life. He then smiled for the same reason. "Yeah. I'm gonna be okay now. It was touch and go for a moment there, though, so you better appreciate me from now on." He joked, pulling a displeased housewife face, like they were a married couple struggling to finish relationship therapy. Robert, feeling the contagious grin from Thomas hit him, smiled back, and all the thoughts he had about any possible animosity between them, were smothered. Thomas knew he was dying. No-one had, officially, informed him, not even mom. But his body was his oldest acquaintance, and he knew it too well. It had no secrets left inside itself. It would die - and he with it. They both laughed. Robert then felt his brain and thoughts erupt from within, and out into the safe space he felt, inside his brother's aura. He pointed to the lamp light, with a loud, restricted enthusiasm, as not to wake Mrs.Allaband. Thomas had been mirroring the quiet voicing, out of respect instead of fear, for his mom. "I've been reading loads of books about space, at the library." His eyes glowed with proud interest, turning him into a new, temporary boy, away from his usual doubt and shyness, and eagerly wanted to spread their contagion to Thomas's. He then continued to display his bountiful knowledge without further warning, by teaching Tom all about the speed of light, planets, stars, and free-floating objects. His cheeks turned red from both the excitement of the topic, and the lack of air going into his lungs. It felt like a beautiful dying. Robert stopped speaking and began breathing, and tried to gauge his brother's reaction. Thomas stared at him, intrigued but still without giving much away; then he, too, exploded into enthusiasm for the topic he'd been taught about.
"You're so clever, Robbie. You'll probably cure cancer one day, or something, or, like, be the reason we can finally travel to those other stars. You know?" Thomas spoke with such sincerity, that it made Robert feel self-conscious and apologetic; the kind words wounded more than any insult, and formed horrible water upon his eyes, of which he turned away to conceal. Tom recognised the action of shame and leaned across the bed rails, holding them, his face becoming closer to the back of Robert's head sat upon his craned neck. "Come on, don't start the waterworks." He almost complained, due to the discomfort in his voice and shifted weight. "I-I'm not." Robert replied protectively, though he knew he was only defending a castle that had already been breached. "I was being nice." Thomas said, confused to himself and the awkward air, not understanding of how compliments could cause tears. "I-I know." Robert's voice hitched, imprisoned within the first syllable, then broke away upon the sounding of know. Then was released, like his silent crying. Upon seeing the full, fragile tears, Thomas, on instinct, drew his face away again, a few inches, then frowned to himself guiltily. His hands, supported still to the railing, stayed but wanted to move - needed to comfort Robert. "Come sit with me." He asked softly; it wasn't a question, but it sure sounded like permission was needed - for anything - in that powerful, powerless moment between them. Robert stood still, silent; his water-stained, turned-away cheek was white against grey, and reflected orange nearer the lamp. The contrasting side was a black hole. He was ashamed by his leaking emotions, how a compliment had such powerful possession, such consuming control over his body. How it had subjugated him - it made his eyes leak and his secrets be known. He liked his thoughts, for they were his alone and no-one could read them; but when he cried, they spilled out, in water-form; and water couldn't lie.
"Come sit with me." Thomas tried again, his voice softer, but more determined. Robert was still the same - the only movements were his tears. "Look," Thomas began, removing one hand from the railings and touched, but then held onto, his brother's arm. Robert visibly stiffened from the contact, then hid it apologetically. Thomas sighed through his nose. "It's okay to cry. I cry all the fucking time." Robert's neck edged back, toward the sudden bad word, bringing his streaked face into view. Fully against the two suns, his voice was still hitching. "Y-you do?" He asked. Thomas smiled sheepishly. "Well, not all the time. But you know, now and again. Maybe." He shrugged with his own blameless, special charm, which disabled any sorrow Robert was feeling, and always had done, now that he thought about it. It was a powerful weapon, and he was only too grateful his brother was the only one who held the ammunition for it. Although his face was still reddened and ugly, from crying, he surrendered to his brother's charisma, and smiled; they laughed small, then big. But all the time quiet.
"Mom always tells me laughter's the best medicine." Thomas said naively, after the laughter had died. Perhaps it was the mention of medicine that made Robert accept Thomas's previous invitation of sitting. Or perhaps it was the mention of Mrs. Allaband. The true cause still unknown to him, Robert moved closer to the frame of the bed, so his waist was touching it. Thomas interpreted the movement and shifted away, moving his hands from his brother's arm and the railing. Neither of them knew how to lower the metal bars, and he wanted to remain noiseless, so as Robert climbed over the fence and into his brother's world, he did so by embracing the cage close to his body and sliding from the outside into the in. To allow a space for him to reside, Thomas shuffled up toward his pillows and sat cross-legged. As Robert assumed the same position, across from his brother with a one foot gap between them, it was never clearer that they, truly were, twins. Some things were different, but those small things were crimes of environment, rather than genetics. As if finding the clear comparison hard to bear, Robert moved again, so he was sat upon his knees - a stance which was more painful, due to his abdominal bruising, but more comfortable, due to him being closer to Thomas. He knew their time together was limited, and if history was anything to go by, he didn't know when he would see his brother again. He may disappear by morning. But still, Robert couldn't do the things he so badly wanted to do. He wanted to reach forward, protect him, and himself. He wanted to tell him about Mrs. Allaband's cruelty, the lies he told himself, the bullies at school, all the things he's ever learned, girls, maybe even death. But as each thread of his heart yearned for him to say something, each thing, itself, begged him to stay silent. But he still had these seconds now, and his hands - they were silent - blameless - unrevealing, if opened correctly. He held his breath between swallowed guilt words, and risking saying them aloud, and leaned further forward, anchored onto his slight shins. He knew he was being selfish, was leeching life and comfort from Thomas again, or would be in a few moments; but he still moved, still absorbed - his arms spreading in surrender. The opening contained all the hidden, unspoken emotion from the last forty weeks; all the hits from Mrs.Allaband, all the nights without sleep, all the cereal he ate, and sometimes vomited straight back out, his worry for Thomas, and the knowledge of the inevitable death. He felt his arms wrap around his brother's small body, and in doing so, his before tears were reborn, and in their rebirth were different in shape and form, and more honest in their sobbing. Still quiet, still careful, but sobbing. He held on, like he was holding onto the Earth before it suddenly stopped turning. Thoughts. Thoughts in his unquiet mind: thoughts of his dying brother. Thoughts of the new bed. New, because it wasn't the same bed, not anymore; and neither would anything be again.
Thomas could feel the wet salt drops spill against his neck and cheek - they were quiet cries; invisible to all but them; like a secret language. And then he knew for sure - he truly contained hate for Robert. Hate for him being healthy while he was dying, hate for his pathetic looks, hate for his innate need be protected, hate for his much handsomer, more palatable appearance; even hate for his divine absences. He hated him for all those reasons, sure, but most of all he hated how Robbie was the only reason, the only person who could make his own tears fall. And they did fall, in joining, with his twin's. Thomas felt his body being pulled closer to Robert's, in the embrace, and answered it by gathering him in his own, smaller, arms. He did hate him. But the hate was hidden, even to himself. It was only visible on clear, windy nights, and usually beaten-down by his love. It couldn't be killed. But it could be attacked, and could be defeated. If only for now. His hate was like clear poison trapped inside a curtain of silk.
Thomas closed his eyes against Robert's hair, then, to choke the thoughts, kissed his brother's face. It seemed like such an unbrotherly, foreign action, but it managed to stop any reinforcements pouring from Robert's eyes, yet multiply his own, and managed to stem the hate within himself. It appeared again, weakly, when he moved his hand to comfort Robbie - he stroked his contrasting hair, feeling how soft and perfect it was. And how his might have been, if not for his dirty sweat. The wind outside caused an abused, whistling sound to appear against his window frame, which twisted itself into a laugh. But not a happy, joyous laugh. A cruel, mocking, taunting laugh. It was evil. It was horrible. Thomas felt sudden fear. Even within the hug. His eyes were closed still. Maybe he was safe then. Maybe something would be there, when he opened them. Something would be there. And kill him. And Robert. And them both. Together. But only if he opened them. Maybe he was safe behind them. But he couldn't be blind forever. Not blind - and - dying. The laughter grew louder, like an ignored tantrum. Robert didn't change, didn't waver. Perhaps he couldn't hear it. Was it even real? Did it exist only for himself? It was a thought. It wasn't a thought. It wasn't like a thought-sound. This had physicality. This had a point of origin. It came from his still open door. He could tell. The same place he now felt a presence. Someone there. Something watching him. He pushed eyes tighter. Kissed Robert again. Prayed. Then opened. Ready for death. The laughing stopped. The lamp glow yet lived. The doorway was empty. Before its emptiness was truly clear, in between scared blinks, Thomas had seen a shape so clear and unnatural, it could only have been a nightmare. The white glove - like that of Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, had clutched the doorframe. It was clearly stretched to accommodate a hand. A real life hand. But it couldn't have been real. Like the laugh. Just the imaginations of a tired, frightened mind. He tried to kill his fear, murder his body's reaction to it. But the terror it had birthed, so sadistically, was genuine, and tormenting. And made his heart feel anything but dead, but all the more closer to it.
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