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It was a summer of sticky blood orange days and liberally rationed sun block. The air smelt of old leather shoe soles and expired mustard, and July had never tasted quite so much like turpentine. As fate would have it, the swing sets at the park had long since been torn down, and the boys of the Mullen household found themselves spending the saltdrop evenings pasted by the napes of their necks to the rails of the porch, upper lips unpleasantly moist with condensation, nails stiff with week-old earthworm grime. The brothers might very possibly have been triplets, if not for a few discrepancies -- but worry had rippled the skin on Will's forehead and drawn down the corners of his mouth, and the neglect of listless dreaming had blued Jared's quagmire eyes. Only Oliver was both plain and beautiful, small and frail in his too-big shorts covering the burn marks from the accident that still marred his hip.
The house was a city landmark, the realtor had told them -- the refurnished version of some old country patriot's 18th-century home. But even if the Mullens had cared enough to enquire further or dared to publicize the fact, it would have made little difference. The town was far too secluded to attract tourist attention even in the middle of nectarine season, and its residents too shy and delicately packaged to pay their regards. Excitement was an alien luxury; comfort was in the poplars and the candied leaves of autumn fruit, amongst the beige Cadillac Coupe Devilles and gentle comedy commercials wedged between reruns of Gilligan's Island.
Each of the boys had his own bedroom; it hadn't been this way before, and the absence of clutter beneath their wool-footed socks and unobstructed views of the river rapids below were, in a way, bafflingly unpleasant. The shelves in Will's room, normally overflowing with useless trinkets and shapeless papier-mÃ¢ché, were now strenuously forced into use with his sparse collection of school trophies and soccer league completion awards spaced equally across the wooden boards.
Jared's room, if anything, was worse; after years of complaining of back pain, he had swapped his bed frame for a tattered sleeping bag, wedging his sleeping quarters into a burrow-like mess in one corner and unintentionally coating the remainder of the room with scraps of discarded paper and forgotten childhood treasures.
Only Oliver's living situation had retained a semblance of its former self; he seemed, now more than ever, eons away from aging, and still his room was a cloudy den of clumped themes and eclectic obsessions: a bed with cherry sheets salvaged from his "red" phase; incomplete pyramids of grizzled tennis balls left over from a valiant attempt from his mother to athleticize her youngest son; a softly sheltered platoon of multi-color paper cranes; spyglasses and plastic kaleidoscopes crusted with old raspberry jam.
As a whole, the curious phenomenon of free space made little sense to them, considering that it was now that they had fewer personal belongings than ever. But none of them dared to inquire past the how and the what; their parents, much like the rest of the town, didn't want to talk about the why. In the end, there was no blame to be placed; change had been infrequent in their early childhoods, unlike the fluxes and confused haze of the present.
Once there had been twin mahogany staircases twining up the sides of the foyer as well -- staircases that had led to their shared bunk bed dormitories and playrooms and sunrooms. Those had disappeared as well. But they didn't want to talk about it.
Had a stranger with a flat tire or misconceptions of good sightseeing wandered into the town on a lazy May afternoon, he might have inquired at the lone gas station about the dreary old two-story overlooking the river. And if, by chance, the attendant was past his fourth beer, as he quite often was, he might have told him about the matches. How careless hands, glossed with cheap champagne, had missed the stovetop and flown instead to the cutting board, to the shelves, to the antique chairs. How the three children -- the boisterous soccer star, the promising artist, and the exuberantly outspoken youngest -- had not seen the flames until it was nearly too late. How the father had ushered out the eldest boy and lost track of the second in the chaos. How the littlest boy, only seven years old, had fought tooth and nail to wrench himself from his mother's grasp and stagger back up the less burnt of the twin mahogany staircases, back to his collection of multi-color cranes. How the inferno had feasted ravenously upon the tips of their wings, blue, orange, yellow, green, charring their beaks and the boy's frantic, snatching fingers. How his mother had rushed up after him, tearing the sobbing child away from the ashen menagerie as her nightgown and auburn hair caught flame. How she had been rushed away on a stretcher, face and shoulders and legs angrily scarlet and blistered, leaving her speechless, vacant son in the arms of his father; how she had wailed and wept and torn at the ruptured ridges coddling her bleeding eyes. How the little boy didn't utter a single word for weeks, instead retreating into the glens behind the house to sketch countless childish pictures of birds with gold flake feathers and diamond eyes and candy canes for toes. And how the paramedics had, hours after the last of the embers had died, miraculously cleared away heaps of charred houseflesh rubble to find the missing second son sobbing beneath the kitchen sink, reeking of drainage fluid and his own urine but otherwise unharmed.
Doing so -- coming clean -- would have been vulgar, but honest. A reversal of denial. An emotional panacea.
But they didn't want to talk about it.
The humidity that had driven the boys away from the disenchantment of the broken air conditioning unit in the parlor now scattered them onto different areas on the creaky wooden steps: Will, onto the old homemade swing near the kitchen window with his head swallowed by incomprehensible volumes of Gogol and Proust (books that, he felt, vindicated his approaching entrance into his first year of high school); Jared, onto the creaky wooden steps with a jar in which he would capture a legion of ants; Oliver, onto the grubby pavement driveway, a white paper crane unfailingly suspended on his knee.
Practical nights occurred once or twice a week, and Oliver, squinting into the glare of the bare industrial lights, would tumble past the wilting screen door with blankets and handfuls of overripe fruit in his arms. He would hover and flit, flapping quilts into the filthy sky and draping them round his brothers' shoulders until every inch of exposed skin was sheltered to his satisfaction. But still their sweat was sweet with the sugar from the white-fleshed peaches they loved, and the heat gave way to involuntary shrugs and slipping threads. Evening drifted in with paddling beats, and amongst the fireflies and yonic peach pits, the mosquitoes descended upon them with unrelenting fervor.
Inside, Mr. Mullen read the daily paper through smeared lenses for which he could never quite muster up the ardor to clean. Beside him his wife listened to Steinbeck and Huxley on the cassette deck, tapping her clammy palms methodically against the metal of her rickety four-wheel EPW. The humidity had rendered the fireplace useless, and the only internal heat in the room rose from Mr. Mullen's coarse heirloom pipe. When the clock struck eleven, the maid would shuffle in and silently clear away the stony tea and uneaten pastries from in front of Mrs. Mullen's vacant, milky eyes.
As some saw it, she was lucky. The ophthalmologists had salvaged enough of her sight in the right eye to provide her with semblances of shapes, dreary solute colors and indecisive outlines; and while she could not maneuver her way around the home without her chair, the lower body paralysis and scar tissue that had cast her left arm into a wing-like hook were considered miraculously minimal injuries, by medical standards. The town, red with cloaked shame, graciously turned its bashful eyes away in checkout lines and on the street; when Mrs. Mullen neared, lips pursed in wordless sympathy and mothers quietly snapped shut their children's gaping mouths.
But news of the fire had, of course, spread to neighboring cities, and the spawn of the slums, whose nighttime folklore consisted of erotic scenes of medieval torture and fantastic portraits of scientific utopias, readied their spears and stones at sunset and rallied at the gates. Up from within the sewers and out of crevices the urchins would crawl, pasty faces papered over with foul leers. They would giggle through slanted ochre teeth and point with spiny starfish hands, cawing and flapping their scabby elbows. "The Crow Lady's nest!" they screeched, puckering their lips into beaks and pecking at each other's clothing. "And look, her hatchlings -- all around the roost!"
Will would fling himself off the railing, hurtling into their tight pack with fists flying. "Shut up! Shut up! You sick little f***s!" Each time, he returned brutalized and clawed and bleeding, but bearing the face of a proudly wounded warrior. "Next time," he would swear without fail, "Next time, I'll f*****' crush 'em under the wheel of the Camaro." At the sight of Will's battle scars, Oliver would hide his face and steal away to his room.
In the library, Jared built trains out of cherimoya seeds and read St. Augustine's City of God.
Oliver's nose was cold. It had been pressed up against the freckled windowpane for some time now, a crutch for the eyes that were following the uneven stop-and-go of the evening stupor. The sky was nearly burgundy in hue, baring its sandpaper throat to the clouds oozing into the trees. He felt particularly small today, Oliver reflected mildly; he was dressed in nothing more than an oversized white button-up, pilfered innocently from his father's closet. Oliver peeled the tip of his nose away from the glass, leaving a puff of condensation in its wake, and plodded over to his bureau. Assembled there was an array of forty-three freshly folded paper cranes garbed in every color, each with a perfect crick in its tail and a symmetrical set of folded wings. At the center of the procession rested a single dove-colored specimen, mounted painstakingly upon a crude crimson throne. Oliver plucked the bird from its nest with shy, chary fingers and cradled it in his hand, bobbing its miniscule head into an affirming nod.
Jared stood uncomfortably in the doorway, arms tucked into a neat rectangle behind his back. "Oliver…" he said again, almost as though asking a question, as he stepped unsurely into the room.
Oliver's eyes flitted momentarily to the soft leather moccasins adorning his brother's feet before returning to the crane.
Clearing his throat, Jared tried once more. "Mom wants you to come downstairs for some dinner." But still Oliver did not respond, choosing instead to venture back in the direction of the window, where he perched the white paper crane atop a ridge in the wooden frame and huddled down into a protective knot.
Jared bit his lip, hesitating before turning in the doorway and feeling ridiculous for having even bothered.
Even from ten feet away, Oliver's voice was nearly inaudible. Jared pivoted to see Oliver had moved up against the window once more, ghosts of words bursting at his lips. "Jared," he breathed. "Look."
Frowning in bewilderment, Jared joined his brother at the glassy panes, scouring the landscape. "I don't see anything," he admitted, latching his fingers into Oliver's collar and tugging gently. "… I don't… what are you looking at?"
Oliver was silent. Then, without warning, he darted from his position at the windowsill and bolted for the door. Startled, Jared did not react for several moments; only when he heard the front door slam did it occur to him that he should pursue his brother.
The gravel of the driveway snagged at his shoes, and he desperately regretted not having time to change. Ahead, Oliver's bare feet chugged on, nearly sprinting now as he vaulted himself over the fence and onto the hillside path, his oversized white button-up a beacon in the blue. The snap of the wind tightened the cords around Jared's throat. "Oliver, come back!" he implored feebly, knowing full well that he would neither be heard nor heeded.
They had entered the wooded pathway, stirring up the flat terrain below. The spines of the barbed pines spun past -- running reels of verdant film, all darkening beneath the fast-fading light. Jared quickened his pace to a jog. "Stop!" he cried. He had begun to pant. "Where are you -- where are you going? STOP!"
The reply returned to him with a weak, echoing resonance, ricocheting off the bark of the apple groves. "No -- I see him, I do!"
But this time, no comforting reply weaved back through the mess of foliage. Panicking, Jared began to run haphazardly, hurtling off the path and into the thick of the forest, the soles of his moccasins flapping ineffectually against the ground.
They were scrambling over broken block ledges, through rushes and burrs with gangly claws and bandy forelegs, and still they had not slowed their frenzied gait. "Oliver…" Jared's voice had grown hoarse and faint; as he thrashed through the foliage, he raised a hand to clutch at the stitch in his chest.
As the path began to slope upwards, Jared was hit with the sudden realization that they were headed in the direction of the river. Already, the forest had grown sparse, the shrubbery thin -- and just ahead was the cline of a vast, arcing gorge that housed a wide canal of rapids. Even from this substantial distance, Jared could hear the howling whistle of the barren inland riptide as it broke with remorseless fury against the sandstone walls of the canyon below. Clamping his fingers together, he urged himself on, knuckles bursting bare and white from their skin.
From somewhere in front of him -- Jared could no longer place where -- Oliver was pleading someone to slow down. Somehow, Jared had the disconcerting feeling that the call was not intended for him. "Please -- " The distressed wheedling siphoned through the vines. "Don't leave me behind."
"Oliver -- " A thorn cut sharply into Jared's left elbow. He felt something wet pool at his side. "Who are you talking to?"
The churning of the white water had increased in intensity. As Jared ascended the rocky torr, he dimly made out the slim figure of his brother patched inexpertly against the crest of the overhang.
"I'm here," the silhouette said.
Jared shook his head. "Who are you talking to?" he demanded wearily.
After a moment, the response came echoing back. "The… it's the crane," it throbbed. "Oh, he's beautiful."
"The -- "
-- crane? But -- all this time… Jared passed a hand over his eyes and stared disbelievingly into the inky horizon; it was, as he had grimly anticipated, unoccupied. No crane, no grand Godsend -- not even a passing pigeon. Just Oliver, in his oversized white button-up, billowing in the breeze.
"Oliver -- " he whipped a stray branch away from his ear. "Are you listening to me? There's nothing -- " The sapling came thwapping back -- and with a protective arm extended forward, Jared did not notice the protruding root that had wound its way up and over his moccasin, gnarling his toes and bringing him crashing down into the earth.
He landed face-first in the acrid muck, jamming his tooth and immediately swallowing a clump of soot. Raising himself onto one elbow, he turned and spat a mouthful of blood onto the path.
Someplace above him, Oliver began to weep.
Oliver balanced himself vigilantly on the ledge. He looked on, mesmerized, as the magnificent bird pleated its smooth white wings and touched down onto the rocky face with prickle-pear toes. The crane bowed its head and peered at him with its glittering black eyes.
"Look," Oliver murmured from his perch, teetering on the tips of his toes. He wanted to move forward -- stretch his fingers just a tiny bit further, stroke the silken feathers. "I'm -- I'm here. I've come." Across the way, the bird did not answer, but scrutinized him fastidiously, serenely, as though preparing to admonish him. It then blinked twice and hopped to the daggered rim of the cliff.
"No!" It couldn't have been more than a whisper; but it was too late: the bird was already soaring to the other side. "No, no, no! Come back!" Oliver swallowed. "I don't want to be alone anymore."
Jared coughed dryly. His tongue still tasted of battery acid; this was his lone consideration as he rolled onto his shoulder blades, heaving with fatigue. The night air was cool and merciful, and he felt so heavy --
He trained his eyes upward. The sky above was thick and promising and beautiful: a roughly hewn feather trap of amnesiac blue.
As he shifted his weight, something stung the inside of his wrist; starting, Jared unfolded his hand to reveal a very mashed, very damaged white paper crane stowed carefully away between his thumb and forefinger. He didn't even remember snatching it from the windowsill, he realized with a jolt -- but somehow, in this moment, its fragile presence, tucked with its head between his palm lines, seemed right.
A swift flash of white caught Jared's eye and, with a pang, he remembered Oliver. Oliver. He had to bring himself to stand, Jared decided, to rush to the cliff -- to speak reason -- because Oliver was still on the ledge, Oliver was still on the ledge alone, shrieking like a lunatic after some enormous imaginary bird, and he was --
The space above the rocky overhang was suddenly and frighteningly bare. Jared's heart swelled. "Oliver?"
Only the dull roar of the torrent below met his straining ears. Dazedly, he stumbled further up the cliff, blood pounding in a rhythm that matched that of the whorls of the river, the water with its monstrous gaping army of ravenous mouths…
"Oliver." Even to himself, his voice sounded small and tinny. Jared squeezed his eyes shut, as hard as he could until his eyelids were sore with the strain -- and peeled them slowly open. But the ledge remained empty. "Oliver."
He exhaled, shaking. The inside of his palms were prickling; slowly, he unclenched his fingers to find the pale, ivory crane crushed against his skin, sticky with sweat and grime but miraculously intact. Liberated from its purgatory, it unfurled its wings hesitantly, pressing its beak affectionately into his thumb.
The night air was a sucking triggerfish cold. The insides of Jared's lungs ached -- the inside of his everywheres ached. But he couldn't remember ever having seen quite so clearly. With the temperance of a vindicated soldier, he licked his foamy lips, turned on his heel, and padded softly away from the ledge. The paper crane slipped lightly from his grasp and, free at last, fluttered downwards into the dust.
On the other side of the gorge, the patient white bird spread its great gossamer wings and, in a flurry of majestic light, launched itself into the sky.