“But why?” Charlotte whined.
In the front seat, our mother consulted the map. “I’m not going to keep answering that.”
Anyone who’d come within shouting distance of our old house the week before could have done it for her, given how often it had been repeated. Mom’s office was moving her to Binghamton, and Dad had found a new firm there, so that was that. Plus there was an alternative school they thought would be good for Denny.
The poisonous look Charlotte shot Denny across the back seat made me lean back out of the line of fire. For the hundredth time, I wished I were in the station wagon’s rear-facing bench seat with Ringo, our beagle mix, even though it always made me sick. Instead, I was riding bitch between Charlotte and Denny, a convenient receptacle into which Charlotte could further misplace her already misplaced ire.
“Freak,” Charlotte whispered.
“What was that?” Mom asked.
Denny didn’t respond, of course. He was busy walking a My Little Pony and Battle Cat across the door’s plastic armrest, gabbling softly in his made-up language.
But that was Denny. It wasn’t that he couldn’t understand what people were saying—he just didn’t care. Which was probably for the best, given most people’s opinion of him.
What he cared about was animals. Not real ones—those never seemed to hold his attention for long, not even Ringo. When he was younger, he’d run around the zoo all excited, clinging to the bars and yapping away in Denny Speak, then burst into tears when none of them greeted him back. Eventually he stopped bothering.
Toys, though . . . toys were different. LEGO horses, the pewter Monopoly dog, stolen nativity figurines—the quality didn’t matter. If it was animal-shaped, Denny loved it. He would lie on the ground, getting down to eye level with them, holding one-sided conversations in his trademark babble. He’d let you join, if you wanted, but any attempt to mimic his language or engage in an actual game—making the animals fight, or go on an adventure—got you ignored at best, if not bitten. If you asked him what the animals were saying, he’d look at you like you were the world’s biggest idiot and say, “They don’t talk back.” But he always looked kind of sad when he said it.
You’d think our sister Charlotte—a girl who talked constantly, even in her sleep—would have been ecstatic to have a checked-out little brother. Less competition, right? But for Charlotte, it wasn’t enough to simply let her talk. You had to show you were listening: ask her questions, repeat her last words back to her. Her life was a talk show, and you were the host, posing the questions and making her feel the spotlight—or else. Denny’s total disregard for other people was a personal affront. And that had been before the move.
In retrospect, dealing with Charlotte might have explained our parents’ acceptance of Denny’s silence.
“Turn here,” Mom ordered.
Dad turned us down a longish gravel driveway, acorn husks crunching under the tires. Oak trees loomed from either side, creating a tunnel of golden autumn.
Our parents: two adult-shaped clouds floating through our lives. Mom in her gray suits, shoulders padded like a linebacker, determined to prove Xerox hadn’t made a mistake hiring the first woman onto their sales force. Dad with a head full of structural engineering. They weren’t cold or warm—they were simply there, like a couch or a lamp. They bore us no ill will, and we returned the favor. It was true laissez-faire parenting: they kept us fed and clothed, and beyond that let the garden of their children grow wild and untended.
We pulled up to the house. Given the epic driveway, I’d hoped for a Victorian manor with a wizard’s tower. But it was only a flat little shoebox, without even a second story. Dad parked in front of the garage and brought his hand up to his mouth, as if using a CB radio.
“This is your captain speaking,” he announced, muffling the sound. “We have arrived at your final destination. Please claim your baggage at Carousel Five.”
Nobody laughed. Dad opened the doors of the little U-Haul car trailer and loaded each kid up with a precarious tower of luggage as Mom unlocked the front door.
Inside, the house felt strange. At home, in Rochester, our house had a stairway as soon as you came in, taking you upstairs to the main areas or downstairs to the Kid Hole, as Dad called the basement bedrooms. This place was basically one giant room, with a freestanding brick fireplace in the middle and the kitchen off to one side. But the most unnerving part was the furniture.
“Whose stuff is this?” I asked.
“Ours now.” Mom draped a garment bag across a couch the color of snot. “Fully furnished!”
Dad huffed into the kitchen with a box full of pots and pans. “Bedrooms are down the hall. Boys in the first room, Charlotte in the second.”
We trooped dutifully down the hall, Denny trailing a hand along the wall’s pebbled surface.
Our new room had clearly been somebody’s nursery. The walls were sky blue with puffy clouds and a smiling cartoon sun painted by a loving parent who really should have hired someone. A pair of comically narrow beds lined the walls.
“We’ll get you some new beds soon.” Dad appeared in the door with duffel bags. “Something you can grow into.”
I wished they already had. Not because the beds weren’t big enough—at ten and eight, respectively, Denny and I were both still small for our ages. But I wasn’t keen on sleeping in somebody else’s bed.
Denny, however, paid no attention. He ran straight to the sliding glass door leading out to the yard and squashed his face and hands against it like he was at the aquarium. The purple backpack he always wore rattled as he danced from foot to foot.
Dad smiled. “I thought you’d like that. Go ahead—check it out.”
Denny yanked open the door, rattling the cluster of vertical plastic blinds that hung to one side. Then he was gone, out into the backyard like a dog slipped from a leash.
As I followed him through, I saw what had him so excited. In the middle of the nondescript patch of grass sat a squared-off expanse of sugar-brown sand. Denny launched himself into it.
“Five minutes!” Dad called. “Then come back and help unload!”
Nobody expected Denny to respond. Nobody was really talking to him.
I sat on the thick four-by-fours edging the box and watched him unzip his backpack, placing animals reverently across the sand. A parrot from a pirate costume. A stuffed pink chipmunk. A wind-up chicken that no longer walked. The sand was old, dirty and weathered, and the fall dew had seeped down and hardened the top into a crème brûlée crust. It crumbled into chunks as he scooped it up, digging out caves and mounding up castles to house his menagerie.
If we’d been a different sort of brothers, those clumps would have been perfect for dirt-clod battles, exploding against targets with a satisfying pop. But I’d long ago stopped wishing for things to be different than they were.
“Oh good, the freak has a litter box.”
Charlotte stood halfway across the yard, arms folded across her chest. She’d insisted on wearing halter-tops ever since her boobs started coming in, and she was always hugging herself to stay warm, which one could argue defeated the purpose. It also did nothing to improve her mood.
“Don’t call him that,” I snapped.
“Why not? He’s half the reason we’re here. So Mom and Dad can enroll him in spaz school.”
“Mom’s office would have moved us anyway. The school is just a bonus.”
“A bonus for you.” She stomped over to glare down at us—her default expression. “Now you won’t have to go to school with him every day. People won’t automatically know how weird our family is. Maybe you’ll even make some normal friends.” Her frown twisted into an evil smile. “Or maybe not.”
“Why do you have to be such a bitch, Char?”
She reached down and grabbed my arm. Charlotte’s Indian burns were legendary—if actual Indians had given them, Columbus would have turned around and left well enough alone.
“You listen to me, Jeremy.” She hissed bubblegum-scented venom into my face. “This year was mine. I was going to get cast in the play. Michael Case was going to ask me to the seventh-grade social. Now I’m going to be the New Girl for the rest of my life. So you and Denny can shove this sand up your dickholes.”
“Char-lotte!” Mom sang from inside the house. “I don’t see you carrying anything!”
I braced for the inevitable burn, but Charlotte only spat her wad of gum into Denny’s sandbox, then turned and stomped back into the house.
“Keep it classy, assy,” I muttered. I dug my hand into the sand beneath the gum, scooping it like the litter box she’d accused it of being, and dumped the offending wad out onto the grass.
“Sorry about that, buddy.”
But Denny paid no attention.
• • • •
Dinner was delivery pizza, too thick and bready compared to the luxurious grease of Papa Mushroom back home. We sat around someone else’s dining table, in chairs with wooden slats that hurt your back. Dad couldn’t stop talking about the perks of “mid-century ramblers”—a term that pretty well described himself—while Mom tried to get us pumped about the fact that we’d only be starting school a few weeks late. Charlotte threw her head back and sulked.
Afterward, Denny and I crawled into our borrowed beds, my feet pressed flat against the footboard. Mom had stopped tucking us in a few years ago when she’d started working overtime, and never really started up again. I pretended I didn’t miss it, figuring I’d have had to give it up sooner or later anyway if I ever wanted a girlfriend. Denny had never seemed to care either way. Still, as the slat blinds chopped moonlight into pearlescent prison bars across the mural’s leering sun, I found myself lying awake long after lights out, longing for that generic parental comfort. I would have settled for Ringo at the foot of the bed, but Charlotte had claimed that right years ago. Even in sleep, she needed an audience.
Across the room, small feet padded to the floor.
The rattle of blinds. Denny was standing at the sliding door, staring out at the sandbox.
“Go back to bed, Den.”
He didn’t move.
With a surge of subversive glee, it occurred to me that having a sliding door in our room was a level of freedom I’d never known before. I slipped out of bed and joined Denny at the glass.
Outside, the world was monochrome, metallic white or inky shadow with nothing in between. The sandbox gleamed, beckoning like a lighthouse lamp.
In truth, the reaching trees along the fence line gave me a cold shiver, but I clamped it down. “You wanna go outside, Denny?”
Slowly, quietly, I eased the door open, letting us escape out into the yard.
The October night was frigid and still, biting through my pajamas. We cold-footed it across the lawn until I could sit once more on the wooden edge, hauling my feet free of the chill grass.
Denny immediately began digging, excavating straight down with both hands like a dog.
“Careful, bud.” I dodged the rooster tail of sand he sent up behind him. “You don’t want to toss all the sand out.”
He ignored me as usual, digging the hole deeper and wider.
Trying to engage with Denny was a fool’s game, and the fact that it clearly wasn’t personal only made it more demoralizing. That night, however, there was something about the fervor with which he dug that seemed to invite assistance. With all other eyes—especially Charlotte’s—safely asleep, I got down into the sandbox and joined him.
Most sandboxes were just four walls with some sand inside, but this one had clearly been excavated. Instead of hitting dirt after a few inches, the sand just kept going. We were nearly two feet deep when I hit the bag.
It was rough, like the potato sacks our school brought in for races on Field Day. At first it was just a corner, a little scrap of fabric resisting as I scooped away sand. But as we kept digging, it revealed itself. When it was half uncovered, I yanked it free. Denny stopped digging and sat back to look.
It was indeed a sack, brown burlap about the size of a lunchbox. Splotches along one side might have been printing at some point, but had long since faded into illegibility. It clinked heavily as I lifted it.
“Holy shit.” Visions of pirate treasure immediately clogged my imagination. Forget the fact that we were two hours from Lake Ontario and three from the ocean—this was the moment television had prepared me for. Besides, there were other people who buried treasure. Gangsters, maybe.
The mouth of the bag was tied with a leather thong—an incongruous shoelace bow. I pulled, and it fell open.
My hopes fell alongside it. Inside wasn’t gold bars or stolen jewels, just a jumble of dark shapes. I dumped some out onto the sand to get a better look.
They were animals—a whole zoo’s worth. Each figurine was maybe one inch by two, their outlines vague but recognizable, like animal crackers. The smooth black stone—if stone it was, and not ceramic or something—flashed bright in the moonlight.
Denny gave a rare grin. “Animals!”
“Yeah, I guess so.” I hefted one, surprised at the weight of it.
Inside the house, a light clicked on.
“Come on,” I whispered, and grabbed him by the arm.
Like I’ve said, Denny wasn’t stupid. He knew better than to reveal our secret freedom so soon. Silent as mice, we raced back to the house, the bag heavy in my hand.
• • • •
Fifth grade in Binghamton was better than I could have hoped. Our teacher, Mr. Tibbett, taught us games and read aloud from The Hobbit, even loaning me a copy so I could catch up on the chapters I’d missed. For all Charlotte’s whining, being the new kid didn’t seem to be a death sentence. And there was David Englebright, the boy who sat in front of me, who wore a denim jacket and immediately began starring in my daydreams.
The only thing wrong with the situation was that Denny wasn’t there. Or rather, it wasn’t wrong that he wasn’t there—it was wrong that it felt so right. Witchy as she was, Charlotte had been spot-on about that part. It was easier to just be Jeremy, rather than Jeremy-and-Denny, always having to watch his back for bullies. Which meant that in addition to all the problems Denny had brought me over the years, Binghamton had managed to find a new one: the guilt over how good it felt to be without him.
• • • •
Something about the animals made me want to keep them a secret. Maybe it was a sense even then that there was something wrong about them. All we’d done is dug in a sandbox, but I couldn’t help feeling like we’d done something inappropriate. Something shameful. Or maybe it was that Denny also seemed disinclined to let our parents know about them, stashing the bag beneath animal-themed baby puzzles and boxes of neon plastic dinosaurs.
Maybe I just wanted to share a secret with my brother. For all the time we spent together, I never really seemed to be a part of his world. It was nice to have something that was just ours.
By unspoken agreement, we waited until long after bedtime that night, listening for our parents to turn off the newly set up television and retreat to their bedroom. Then Denny slipped out of bed and carefully unearthed the bag from its hiding place.
Where the animals had shimmered and shone in the moonlight, in the light of my Scooby-Doo flashlight they appeared dull and bland. Denny touched my hand and switched it off.
There were more of them than I remembered, the bag full to bursting. I sat back and rubbed one between my fingers as Denny began arranging them. Shapes that seemed like crude outlines when you looked at them proved more intricate to the touch, the faint lines of tiger stripes and elephant ears becoming more obvious, till you could hardly believe you hadn’t noticed before. There were other shapes mixed in that made less sense, though. I kept rubbing, trying to sense what they might have been—letters? pictures? symbols?—but each time the ball of my thumb passed over them, they seemed to be in slightly different places. The moonlight didn’t help. When I finally grew frustrated and snapped the flashlight on again—earning another disapproving looking from Denny—there was nothing visible, the surface as smooth as glass. I clicked the light off.
Denny was setting up the animals in concentric circles. It was one of his usual configurations—“the Sped Circus,” as Charlotte dubbed it—with the animals in each ring following each other in a grand parade, clockwise and counterclockwise. Yet something about this time unnerved me. The toys were still toys, yet out of the corner of my eye they seemed to run, flanks heaving, jaws open in silent roars.
There was a sound, like a distant television set, too far away to be the one in the living room. A neighbor? But it wasn’t so much in my ears as in my teeth—a faint buzzing.
He didn’t look up, just kept placing animals.
I reached out to stop him. As the lion he held touched my skin, I yelped, jerking my hand back. It had been like static electricity, and yet not a simple sting—it was like the buzzing in my teeth had suddenly burst out into the rest of my body.
But beneath that, it had been warm. Soft.
“Denny!” I hissed, holding my shocked hand.
He didn’t look up.
The noise grew louder, skittering over my skin. In the room next door, Ringo began to howl.
“Screw this.” I swept my arm through the figurines.
That got Denny’s attention. He leapt on me with a snarl, biting and clawing.
If I’ve made it sound so far like Denny was some sort of third-grade Buddha, please blame it on the natural desire to elegize those we’ve lost. While it’s true that Denny suffered most indignities with quiet indifference, there were a few crimes he could not abide. When someone committed a cardinal sin, as I just had, he became a wildcat.
He latched onto my shoulder, biting deep. I responded by grabbing a hank of his blond bowl cut. As I’ve said, we were both small for our ages, but it was our ages that mattered. I had twenty pounds and four inches on him. After a furious minute in which we both slammed painfully into one of the bedframes, I managed to pry him loose and twist his arm up behind him, doing my best to lock him down without breaking him.
“Stop it, Denny!”
A fist pounded on the wall, startling both of us.
“Shut up over there!” Charlotte commanded. “You’re scaring the dog!”
Denny went limp. When I felt fairly sure he’d surrendered, I turned him loose. There was wetness on my arm where I’d wrapped it around his throat, and I was only somewhat relieved to see that it was tears rather than blood.
He didn’t move again as I quickly shoved the animals back into the bag. The buzzing was gone now, whatever it had been, and I felt suddenly like a jerk for freaking out. Yet it didn’t stop me from taking the bag with me into bed, clutching it to my chest to make sure it wouldn’t be opened again.
I fell asleep with Denny still watching me.
• • • •
I’m not proud of what I did next. Maybe I was just scared, and trying to protect us both. Maybe it was an unspeakable bit of cruelty to a boy already living in a very small world. Maybe it was all of the above.
Denny’s alternative school was five miles from our house, as was Charlotte’s middle school, so Mom and Dad dropped them off on their way to work. Next year that would be me as well, but for now my elementary school was just a quarter mile down the road. Mom had been quick to point out how easily I’d be able to bring friends home after school.
We all left at the same time. I had felt Denny’s eyes on me all morning, as I hid the bag under my bed and behind a suitcase, yet mornings were a carefully structured blitz, giving Denny no chance to go for them.
Now, however, as the station wagon pulled away, I walked to the end of the block, then circled back. The sliding door opened easily.
In daylight, the bag looked so small and dirty that I risked opening it. Inside, the animals looked just how they had in my flashlight—crude little stone tokens, like something from a craft fair. There was no buzz, no electric charge. I remembered an episode of Mr. Wizard, where he’d produced static by rubbing amber with a cloth. Was this stuff like amber? I was starting to feel silly for my fright. And more than that—guilty.
Yet I remembered that noise.
Without giving myself time to think, I retied the bag and shoved it into my backpack. Halfway to school, I stopped at a thick bush along the side of a culvert and pushed the bag deep inside.
• • • •
I recognize the irony in saying Denny gave me the silent treatment, yet I don’t know what else to call it. For the next three weeks, he refused to look at me. If I came toward him, he walked away.
Charlotte noticed immediately. “Aww, did baby brothers have a fight? What’d you do, shit on his Pound Puppies? Drop a log on his dogs?” Charlotte reveled in crudity.
Even with us at different schools, it hurt. I was starting to meet other kids, just as Charlotte had predicted. Without my brother, there was nothing to set me apart, and the fact that I threw a halfway decent spiral meant I slid into recess games of Flyer’s Up easily enough. Yet those hours at home were unspeakably lonely. Especially falling asleep, the shape of his back an accusation in the dark.
Only once did he speak of it: the night after he first discovered what I’d done. I’d been ready for hatred—honestly ready to defend myself from another attack—but he’d only looked at me with a sorrow deep and long.
“But I could hear them,” he whispered.
My skin prickled. “Hear who, Den?”
But that was all I got.
• • • •
Denny’s school was alternative in every sense. Hours were flexible, and there were no grades, or even classes—just “learning facilitation groups.” Classrooms were full of art supplies and science equipment, books and photography gear, while longhaired men and short-haired women stood ready to assist children in pursuing whatever sparked their curiosity. It was simultaneously a gifted program, special ed, and the last stop on the school-to-prison pipeline.
The latter worried me, but the school seemed to be as good as its promises. If anybody was picking on Denny, they weren’t leaving marks. And the place was definitely prettier than my drab, industrial-looking public school. The building was an old convent, all red brick and gabled roofs, surrounded by kid-tended gardens and more of the ancient oaks that dominated our yard.
I got my first and only look at it on that last afternoon. It was almost Halloween, and we were supposed to meet Dad downtown to shop for costumes as a family. Denny was the last stop, as Charlotte was already riding shotgun, using the vanity mirror to reapply lip gloss for the second time in ten minutes.
A woman who might have been a nun in a previous life approached the car with a clipboard and a smile. “Hi there! Here for Denny, right?”
“That’s right!” Mom grinned as if she’d been shown a magic trick.
“He’s with the drama contingent out back. They’re just finishing up—you can drive right around.” She waved to the parking lot that curled halfway around the school.
Mom did just that, coming around the side of the building. There, as promised, was a knot of kids in construction-paper costumes. It seemed to be some sort of pirates and princesses affair, with at least one spaceman.
And there was Denny, crouched in the grass well off to one side, galloping cardstock creatures across the grass.
Mom’s hands tightened on the wheel.
“He’ll make friends soon,” she said, but her lips were thin.
• • • •
I don’t know how he found them. Or worse, maybe I do.
Dad had insisted we eat dinner at a dive called Sharkey’s, famous for inventing a sandwich called the spiedie. Personally, I felt “inventing” was a strong term for “putting meat cubes in a hamburger bun,” but Dad acted like we’d just eaten a sacred artifact. Denny pretended to feed cubes to a plastic tiger.
Now we were home again, costumes safely stowed for the last few days of October. I’d gone with a red rubber dragon mask—I wanted to be Smaug from The Hobbit—which prompted Mom to get a knight costume for Denny, despite the fact that it didn’t fit the canon. Denny, as usual, didn’t seem to care.
Now we were home in bed. To my shame, I confess that in a few short weeks, I’d gotten used to not interacting with Denny. I’d gone from guilt to anger to indifference with the speed only a preteen can master. What’s more, Mom had barely hesitated when I asked if I could go trick-or-treating with David Englebright instead of her and Denny. I fell asleep dreaming of mounds of candy.
I woke with a start in the middle of the night, and for a second didn’t know what had woken me. Then it came again—a cold breeze, accompanied by the rattle of vinyl slats.
The door was open. I walked to it in a daze, some part of me already knowing what I’d find.
Outside, the yard was once more ablaze with moonlight, the way it had been that first night. Denny lay in the sandbox, placing animals with both hands.
It was his circus, but not like before. Now it spread across the sandbox, more figurines than could have possibly come from that bag. And still there were more, piece after piece. Their shadows seemed to flow together as he built, running like ink. Moving as a pack.
As I approached, I could hear it again: the buzz in my teeth. It built with every step I took, filling my head like bees.
The animals weren’t crude anymore, either. Moonlight squirmed bright across their surfaces, tracing liquid shapes that flickered and changed. Ears and whiskers twitched, muscles coiling and uncoiling.
The sound in my teeth was deafening now. I stopped at the edge of the widest circle, looking down at moonlight pooling silver in the center, the creatures leaping and cavorting in zoetrope animation.
Denny looked up at me suddenly, and his satisfied smile shocked me as much as anything else.
“You can hear them,” he whispered.
And I could.
It was voices—thousands upon thousands of voices, all cheering in Denny’s secret language, the words overlaid into a hash of white noise. Their roars buzzed through my bones.
I knelt, mimicking Denny’s posture. With my eyes closer, I could see the way they ran—not the stones themselves, but the moonlight inside them. They moved without moving, spinning ever faster in their circles, unfamiliar limbs churning, a wild joy on faces that no longer resembled lions and horses.
Denny stood and put one foot into the circle.
“Stop!” My voice was shrill.
He paused, but shook his head. “It’s okay. They know me.”
From behind us, impossibly distant, came the slide of a screen door.
“What are you dumbasses doing?” Charlotte demanded.
But Denny only had eyes for me.
“They know me,” he repeated. “They’ve always known me.”
He stepped into the center of the circles.
It’s hard to say exactly what happened next. There are times when I think the light from the animals—his animals—reached up, wrapping him in its embrace. Other times, I think it was his own light, shining through as the rest of him burned away. He blazed bright against the night.
“Denny!” Charlotte ran forward.
If there can be something said for Charlotte, it’s this: for all her casual sadism, her vanity, her endless self-obsession . . . in the end, she reached for her brother.
As she touched his starlit skin, the light spread to cover her as well, a nimbus of silver.
And then they were gone.
The wind blew, and creatures toppled to the sand.
• • • •
We stayed in the house, if you can believe it. According to the FBI, it’s about fifty-fifty. A lot of folks can’t stand to live in a place where they’ve lost a child, let alone two. Others stay forever, hoping against the odds that one day they’ll come back.
I tried recreating the circus, of course. A thousand times, a thousand different configurations. My parents thought it was a grieving process—a way to remember Denny. I guess maybe it was.
No matter how many times I tried, though, I could never replicate it. There were no instructions for which creature should follow which, no magic words but the ones inside Denny’s head. I couldn’t even feel the hidden shapes in the figurines anymore, not even in the moonlight.
At eighteen, the night before I left for Purdue, I walked out onto the old rail bridge south of William Hill Park. Below me, the Susquehanna River flowed fast and furious, ripe with the promise of fall floods. I hefted the bag, feeling for the last time its curious weight—then threw it as far out into the middle of the river as I could.
Maybe you think that’s wrong. That I was abandoning them somehow. But I don’t think so. I think it was about a chance to start fresh. Denny would understand that.
And Charlotte, well . . . I hope she at least had the comfort of knowing she was right in the end. Right forever, unless someone else stumbled across the bag. She would indeed always be the New Girl. But not Denny.
Somehow, I think he was finally home.