The mother told the boy that after his birth, names flew through her head: Typhus, Suffering, Beast. But she told Adam to name his child, like he’d named the first one, the girl, Ellie. He decided on Matthew, which seemed unlikely to offend.
Even as a small kid, Matthew was alert in his body. Pet me until I can't stand it anymore, and I’ll run. Said in cat language, which is usually a raised tail seen from the back. Asshole. That's how the mother took it, every time.
She had always hated the idea of pets. Too much, too needy, unnecessary. Like babies forever.
Grow the fuck up.
He attracted her attention, though, always. The slow ruin of her life concentrated in him, the boredom and disgust. She looted her heart for pain: the times she'd been passed over, done wrong. She’d sit unwinding her spool of grievances. All reminders of what had come for her: him.
He learned early to read her, even through the bars of the crib in the dim curtained room. A snap into a bad mood was preceded by a tiny barometric warning, a lift in the pressure. But she wasn’t worth battling; she was older and slower, and once in a while, at random, she was kind. On those days, he watched her closely. There was something sticky about her then. Like gum. Like swamp, like tar.
When the children were both in school, the mother backed off a little: You’re old enough.
Ellie took over breakfast and school lunches and bedtime, climbing into Matthew’s bed with its hospital-green sheets to read to him at night. She said, Smoke is fuel. It burns itself, and sets the air on fire. And chokes you before you know it. Did you know that?
She liked nonfiction, planning to know how everything works. She knew already how to deal with their mother, which was to love her extravagantly, pick her flowers and buy her chocolate bars and write love notes to leave on her pillow, and otherwise keep out of her way. She tried to help Matthew remember. His occasional offerings were tangled yarn things made in art class. She tried to improve them, and wrote love notes in his name. She loved him because she knew she was better at it than the mother. Some nights, she dreamed wonderful painful sentences to say to him:
Wash your mouth out. Wash your blood out. Take mine instead.
Cut your teeth on me.
When the mother was particularly dark, her anger an undertow as she vacuumed wildly through the house , Ellie would take Matthew out to the park, or to ride bikes around the neighbourhood or downtown. He was lean and shaggy-haired, smooth of face, though with knees often scraped from falls. In her mind he was soft, fragile as a baby bird's wings. A fanning of thin bones and membrane. Wobbling on air. She loved to think of it.
He called her El, which he thought of as just the letter L, a wide-open angle. He wanted to rip up her peace.
In spite of all her reading, Ellie held on tight to her innocence, pointing it at people like a gun. She moved slowly. Round limbs, round stomach even as a little girl in the fading yellow beach Polaroids. In every shot looking like she was copying someone else out of the frame, or waiting to be told how to stand. Little hands on little hips. For a long time she thought she was invisible outside the house. Startled to be noticed.
She loved history, photo albums, souvenirs. Remember that time—
Matthew didn’t care. He let her do it, her collecting everything she could about him, from schoolwork to anecdotes to whatever photos their dad took of him, as if she were his external brain. He let her cuddle up to him when she read aloud. An easy favour. She was very warm.
She might die. We could kill her.
Of course he was the one to say it. The thought had never taken a breath in Ellie’s mind. He had waited for a day when Vange, as he called their mother, had told them to stay out until 10:45 P.M. so she could do all the things she needed to do in peace. Their dad was gone by then, apologetically aware that the mother’s tests were not passable, like Cinderella set to pick lentils from the ashes in the original story. No ants or birds came to help. Now he had a new girlfriend who kept buying wrongheaded presents, simple jigsaw puzzles or sock puppets, for Ellie and Matthew.
Ellie gaped at what Matthew said, as he’d known she would. She’d been meditating on a park bench, trying to send good energy homeward to Vange. She shoved one of his crackers into her mouth and crunched it with her lips firmly closed.
Matthew said, Then we could leave.
He lowered his voice as he ended the sentence. Here was the thing: to tie Ellie between her two loves, stretch her, pull her to his side, and to pieces if necessary. Beside her on the bench, he could feel the small flashes of her thinking. She said, We’re too young. You’re only ten.
She ruffled herself, brushing crumbs from her chin. He knew he wasn’t only ten, he was ancient, something that had been alive forever. But she didn’t know, and she said, How would we live? We wouldn’t have a house.
We don’t need a house. We could live here. Or in another park. There are parks everywhere.
Ellie hugged him. Little boy. She stretched inside like knitting. She lay her head on his neck, where his heart beat slowly, and his jaws carried on chewing above.
He had to try something else, some unexpected variation on his suffering. Give her a produce aisle full of untried things, sparkling with spray, all colours, all tastes, all skins and raw wet insides. He arched his back, and said, But I like to be outside.
I do too, she said, hugging him tighter.
Vange won’t let me go—
It was the way he said her name, the soft breath, the slight dirtiness of the word, the boy who couldn’t say Mommy or Mama because his mother wouldn’t have it. The motherless boy. Her pet boy, staring at her in unblinking close-up, asking, the way animals do.
Ellie was pulled beyond endurance. She was taffy, a thin stretch of melted sweetness and holes. She sat up, found another bag of crackers in her backpack, and gave it to him. Do you want some water too? Don’t forget to drink.
They rode their bikes to the big park across the city, the one with a sandy beach. The sun looked higher than usual, a white eye above the lake and its boats. The water was silty brown, sparkling with mineral flecks that stayed on their skin after they swam. Matthew’s shoulders and back were already tender. Ellie could see they’d redden and peel tonight.
She’d packed a change of clothes, and a towel to share. They used it as a blanket later when the sun dropped, and they found a little space between rhododendron bushes in the wooded part of the park. They ate the remaining crackers and the apples Ellie had thought to slice that morning, now gently mushy. Matthew said she was like an angel. He meant it, but not the way she took it. She was something different from him, another species.
He said, Let’s have a campfire.
Her happy glow shrank. We can’t! You can’t have fires in parks.
It’s illegal. Anyway, we don’t have any matches.
He slipped a pack from his shorts pocket. The edge of his intelligence shone up suddenly, a knife in a drawer. She stared at the matches, Vernon’s stamped on the cardboard in red script. Where did you get those?
He smiled at her, his best smile. His subtle smile, the way he used to sometimes in his crib when she’d climb up its side to look at him. Her heart unfurled. He said he was thirsty, but oh, they’d run out of water. He wanted to fill the bottle at the lake, but she said it wasn’t potable, a word she’d read. They could buy some tomorrow somewhere, she said. She promised. So he said he was tired, and she agreed that he was. They lay down, and she told him some facts she remembered about trees and outdoor survival as the dark came over them. At 10:45 she checked her watch, and worried about Evangeline waiting up for them, alone in the house. But her legs ached from biking and swimming, dragging her attention into her bones. It was a good nest in the bushes, and the towel cushioned the dirt. She fell asleep with her feet twitching.
In the morning, Matthew was gone. She waited, humming, figuring he’d headed to pee or find a water fountain or some of the edible types of roots and berries she’d talked about last night. He was gone a long time, and eventually she left a note on their towel, saying she’d gone out to look for him and would be back at 9 A.M. Stay here. She ended it with her name and a row of ballpoint hearts.
He wasn’t at the lakeshore. He wasn’t on any of the paths. He wasn’t anywhere in the park, though his bike was still hidden where they’d left it. All afternoon she waited at their little camp, her breath dry and her unbrushed teeth scrummed. Her pulse pounded so hard, she couldn’t hear his, though she kept trying to follow it with a meditation.
She examined herself viciously: she’d looked at him too long, she’d let him out of her sight. She hadn’t let him drink. She’d kept him out all night. Little boy. She went back to the lake again, where they’d gone swimming together, where she’d kept her eyes on him so carefully to prevent drowning or washing away.
She walked all over the park, afraid to leave it. In the trees she found a bone, probably chicken from someone’s picnic, though she feared it was his, from some part of him she couldn’t recognize. She thought of a story Evangeline had once read them, one of the few she ever had. In it, someone was killed, and their bone, carved into a flute, sang of their fate. The grey one in her fingers didn’t sing. It didn’t reveal anything, not even teeth marks.
Whoever drinks of me shall be a wolf—
Whoever drinks of me shall be a tiger—
Whoever drinks of me shall be a deer—
This was from a story in the same book, this one about some lost kids, a sister and brother. She’d loved it, though the girl in it had been a better sister than Ellie, warning her brother not to drink the enchanted water from the brook in the forest where they were lost, or he would turn into a wild animal and tear her up, or run away. The sister was the one who could hear what the brook was really saying. Sitting in the camp as night fell again, Ellie listened hard, leaking tears, remembering Evangeline reading that book aloud with the lamp on, and her own love of it. Remembering Matthew’s sunburn and the scab up his shin. She found the matches under the towel when she took it up the next morning to shake the leaves off.
He got her out. His gift. She could go home if she wanted to, but he knew she wouldn’t, or at least not for a long time. She could look for him. He didn’t mind. He had no bargain with her.
He ran all day and night, unable to stop, his muscles sleeking, his eyes catching everything that mattered, his bones lightening. The wind disturbed his peeling skin, the hairs on it, the fur on it, if that’s what it had become.