Thomas woke alone, and opened his sticky eyes to the dusty golden light filling the bedroom. He expected to see Benjamin in the other bed, beside him, as if they were still children together. The bed was filled with familiar shadows, but Benjamin wasn’t there. Instead, among their discarded toys, he found another boy’s body, again.
His memory stuttered, caught on faces and places and angles of light, aromas and flavors that had long since faded to dust. He sighed, and closed his bleary eyes against the visions.
He rose, and lifted the corpse from his brother’s bed, cradling it like a doll. He closed his eyes, and opened them again to see what he held, hoping all the years behind him had dissolved and made him new, hoping he would hold his brother. Sadness, swelling, filled him. His long hands released the boy’s drained body, let it slump to the floor like empty clothes. He still saw the reflection of his brother’s face in the boy’s clouding eyes, his memory stronger than his sight.
• • • •
He could hear their mother calling them to come in for dinner. He darted up the long back lawn, knowing that Benjamin was just behind him. He ran faster to beat his brother to the porch.
But when he leapt to the top step and turned, grinning with triumph, Benjamin was just emerging from the trees that shadowed the stream running along the back of the property. The lingering golden dusk made a shadowy abstract of his face as he climbed the gentle slope to the house.
Thomas stood back as Benjamin came up the steps, unnerved by the brightness of his brother’s eyes and the strange cheer in his voice.
“You beat me today,” Benjamin said. “But it doesn’t matter. I’ll show you what I found in the stream tomorrow.” And he went inside, where the lamplight disguised his new glow.
Thomas heard the clatter of dinner being put on the table. But he wasn’t hungry for it.
• • • •
As soon as their chores were done, Thomas followed his brother down to the stream. Benjamin still seemed lit from within, full of a marvelous secret.
What waited for them in the stream was as bright as a star, its pale yellow light diffused beneath the rippling water. Thomas ran forward, reaching for it, but Benjamin pulled him back.
“No,” Benjamin said, his eyes glistening, wet and shining with reflected radiance. “Be patient.”
Thomas struggled to do as Benjamin said, fidgeting and scuffing his feet in the mud of the bank. But then the light bubbled up through the running stream, flowing into the air above it on currents he could not feel even though he licked his palm and held it out to catch them.
Benjamin laughed at him and held out his own hand.
The brightness, translucent in the air, coiled up and around Benjamin’s arm like a trained serpent. He laughed and lifted his shining arm toward his brother.
“What is it?” Thomas breathed.
Benjamin shook his head. “I don’t know. It was just there, after you were gone.”
He waved his arm through the air, the light clinging and trailing from it like lace.
“See?” Benjamin said. “It likes me!”
The light made a faint buzzing in the air, the noise of summer insects.
“Share it!” Thomas cried, hating the childish whine in his voice.
Thomas reached for it again, and Benjamin pulled his arm away.
“Let’s see if it will come to you,” he said, grinning. Thomas fought down raw resentment, waiting for his chance.
Benjamin stepped down into the stream and held his arm out. The light danced along it like fire on the edge of a blade, then wound its way back down his arm and around his body before gliding up into his smiling mouth. The light bubbled like laughter. Benjamin’s teeth shone like gold.
Thomas could not contain himself any longer.
“It’s not fair!” he shouted at Benjamin, and leaped at him. Benjamin lost his footing among the wet stones, and the two boys fell hard into the water. Benjamin squirmed, but Thomas was on top and fought to stay there. He got his hands around Benjamin’s neck and squeezed as hard as he could, holding Benjamin under the water, watching the ripples distort his brother’s screaming face as he struggled to breathe.
When Benjamin stopped fighting, Thomas took his hands from his throat and climbed, sodden, to his feet.
He looked down at the light streaming from his beneath his brother’s closed lids, from his nostrils, his barely-parted lips. He wanted it. The light was more beautiful than Benjamin could ever be.
Around him in the rushing water, the yellow light flashed and eddied and flowed away. He stumbled free of Benjamin’s body to follow it down the streambed, but the water was quicker than he could be. Where the stream slowed and pooled and grew deeper, the light dissipated, dilute and invisible.
He waded back to where Benjamin lay, cold beneath the water.
Blood still seeped from Benjamin’s skin where Thomas’s digging hands had torn it, spinning threads along the currents. The blood glowed with remnants of the light, and without thought Thomas bent swiftly to scoop the shining, stained water up in his cupped hands, pouring handful after handful into his thirsty mouth. The blood was sour on his tongue, but he didn’t stop. He felt the light spark inside him. He was aglow with it, alive, more alive than he had been.
When the water flowed clean again, he stopped, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
Benjamin’s eyes had opened in the moving stream, and he stared up blindly at the trees above them. The daylight grew softer as the evening drew down, and Benjamin’s pale face looked like a pearl.
Thomas bent over his brother and prodded him with his toe. Benjamin lolled along the streambed, cradled in the stones. Water swirled his auburn hair in strange patterns around his empty face.
Thomas began to weep then, his anger fled, suddenly aware of what he had done and what trouble he had made.
He stood in the water for a long time, his feet numb in the chilly stream, his eyes sore from crying. As it grew darker, he could not help himself from looking for any glint of the light. There was none. Even Benjamin’s face had become as dull as the stones he lay on.
When he heard his mother calling for them, he slogged out of the stream and made his way slowly back to the house. The green-yellow pulses of fireflies lit his way up the long back lawn through the failing day. In their flickering he imagined Benjamin walked beside him, as he always had.
He did not know what he would tell her when he got home.
• • • •
He stayed in the house alone while the neighbors brought Benjamin’s body back from the stream.
He could hear his mother’s keening in the still summer air, rising and falling like a siren as she drew in breath. That night he listened to her sob steadily in her bed as he watched the faint tracery of light move under his skin. The glow was already fading.
The endless night wore on. He could not sleep. In their thirteen years he had never been apart from Benjamin. He rose quietly and walked through the rooms of their small house like a lost lamb, hating Benjamin for his light and missing him, missing him.
• • • •
Thomas tried to escape the grim show of his brother’s funeral, but his mother laid Benjamin out in the front parlor and made Thomas sit quietly in the wing chair beside the closed coffin. Thomas wondered if it were filled with light seeping from his brother’s body. He kept his eyes down, not really wanting to know the answer.
His mother and the preacher spoke in hushed voices in the doorway as the hours dragged on. He heard her whispering, no, no, to the preacher’s questions, and drawing him into prayer to stop him asking any more. No one else came to call, not even the neighbors who had carried him up from the stream, until the mortician arrived in the afternoon to take Benjamin to his grave.
The carriage ride was solemn, with only the sound of the horses to break the hot summer stillness.
At the graveyard, the preacher said the proper words while his mother cried into her handkerchief, hugging Thomas against her hip, as if he would die, too, if she didn’t. Then Benjamin was lowered into the hole dug next to their father’s grave, and the ceremony was over.
His mother clutched the handful of dirt she was to have thrown onto Benjamin’s coffin, refusing to help bury her boy. She held on to it until they were back home again and the preacher gently pried her hand open and brushed the dirt onto the front step.
“Dust to dust, Elly,” he said, patting her shoulder and casting a sharp glance at Thomas before climbing into his buggy and heading back to town.
When they were alone, she hugged Thomas tightly again and then went to her room and shut the door. She did not come out for supper. He lit the lamps and sat on the porch, watching the stars flare and fade in the deep, deep sky.
Before dawn came, he made his way on foot back to the burial plot and brought Benjamin home.
• • • •
Although his mother forbade it, he would not stay away from the stream. She huddled in her bed and made no move to stop him, only begged him in a thin, frightened whine not to go, not to leave her, too. Day after day he made his way down to the water, her plaintive protests growing faint behind him until he could not hear her at all.
Each day he pulled a stone from the stream and added it to the cairn he built over Benjamin’s body to keep it from the animals. The pile was almost as high as his waist, now, and the summer was growing short.
He knew if the light had come once, it would come again. He more than knew. He was sure of it.
And one day he was right.
As he set another stone over his brother that heavy morning he caught a flash in the water, too golden for the sun so early in the day.
He crouched on the bank, cautious of scaring it away. Slowly, so slowly, he leaned toward it, dipping his fingers into the stream and holding them there, waiting for the light to find them. Benjamin was not able to lure it from him, now.
The light flickered in the water, flashes and streaks like silver minnows darting to and then away from his hands. He leaned out further, grasping at the insubstantial. He wanted it with his whole heart, wanted it so much he forgot how much he hated Benjamin for being its chosen vessel.
He slipped from the muddy bank and fell, still reaching for the light. His head struck a stone that sat higher than the others, and the ringing pain drove him out of himself. His mouth and nose filled with cool water, and when he gasped at the weight of it the water choked him, dimming his sight, closing his throat. He lay still in the chilly stream for hours, aware of the sun moving above him, of the singing birds darting through the trees, of the small fish that explored his open eyes, his open mouth.
The light was in him.
He lay there, cold, and reveled in it.
As the sun began to set he heard his mother calling, more loudly than she had before. Closer than she had been. She was looking for him.
“Thomas!” she called, her voice high and shrill. “Where are you?”
He could hear the fear in her voice, that she should lose her last son, too.
Around him, the stream grew dark, the golden light washing away. He stood without grace, as if he inhabited his body for the first time, and climbed carefully up the slick bank toward where she waited for him.
It was far harder than he expected.
The light in him died as the day died, and he felt himself dying with it. The dimming became a dull ache in his muscles, his bones. His limbs felt distant, disconnected and not his own. He lay down beside Benjamin’s cairn, too tired to stand, until his mother’s approaching pleas forced him to his feet again. He moved.
She cried out when she saw him shambling across the lawn in the violet dusk, wet and disjointed. She ran to him, her dressing gown flapping around her, and gathered him to her, drying his face with her skirts. He felt her shudder when she found the long, bloodless gash at his hairline. He saw the fear in her eyes, the instinctive, animal doubt that he was only injured.
“Let’s get you home,” she said, her voice breaking. She kept her eyes away from his face, from his injury. She held him close to her side and steadied him as they walked back up to the house.
• • • •
The stream did not compel him any longer. He wanted what was gone, what he did not know how to get. In his indeterminacy he stayed near his mother. She needed him near, a reassurance that she was not alone. Sometimes, she called him Benjamin. Sometimes, he would let himself be Benjamin, for her. He knelt at her feet as she read to him, to Benjamin, from Genesis, Leviticus, Psalms and Acts. He listened to her phlegmy voice but there was no atonement for him to make, no prayer to release him. She read the words aloud anyway, her voice a proof of her belief and a solace against his quiet shape.
But he had already learned a different lesson. He knew what had happened to him, there in the stream. The light in the blood was a lie, a promise that could not ever be fulfilled, a fleeting respite from the truth of the grave. He grew used to the incessant hunger for it, unsated.
Seasons passed. His mother grew frail and frightened of him. He did not age, but he changed all the same. How long did his mother believe he was still with her, still alive, he wondered. And how much longer did she tell herself he still was, even after she knew it was false?
She tried to make him explain it to her, more than once, what was different, what he had become. He could not. He would not try. When, after years of his silences, she coughed, and cried, and fell lifeless from her chair, he felt a strange relief that she would not demand answers of him ever again.
He put her in the remains of her flower garden, which she had loved. And he brought Benjamin up from the stream bank, to share the house with him again.
• • • •
They were forgotten, he thought, when he thought of anything else. He could not remember any neighbors, not after so long. The road to the house was overgrown, its line broken by strong young trees. The fields, too, filled with weeds and saplings swaying in the sun. All that remained was the house, weathered white and crack-windowed. And him. He remained. He grew used to the loneliness.
He would sit in the sunlight, on the long grass, basking like a lizard in its heat. The skin pulled tight across his face, drying to brown leather. He did not look in the filmy mirror anymore. He knew what he looked like.
He was still shaped like the boy he had been that summer day, but his skin sagged in brittle brown folds and his limbs were like sticks. He had clung to his semblance of life for so long that his form had crumpled and distorted under the weight of the years. His eyes had become damp, shrunken stones in his face, his teeth fangs that cut through his papery cheeks. He thought if he lay in the overgrown garden he would be overlooked as a pile of broken branches.
While the days passed he lay there, and watched, and waited to see who might find the forgotten old house. There had always been a few, travelers or adventuring souls. Until they came, he would close his eyes and talk with Benjamin, believing.
• • • •
When the first child pried open the warped kitchen door and explored the house with adolescent bravado, Thomas waited in his bed, hidden like a spider, anxious and uncertain of what would come. When the boy walked cautiously into the shaded bedroom, Thomas saw the golden light, the elusive light, shining through the boy’s skin.
At that instant, the boy looked like Benjamin. Thomas’s vision blurred and scattered, wanting his brother again.
He leapt up from his bed with an inconsolable urgency and snatched at the boy’s hair, his shirt, his face, clawing at him and knocking him to the floor. He dug in with nails and teeth, splitting open the shining skin, gulping down the gouting blood, slaking his thirst on the light.
He wanted, he wanted. He could not swallow fast enough. His mouth, his throat, his belly full, full to bursting, he could feel the light within him surging hot and already fading.
When the violent passion burned itself out he looked down at the scraps of flesh he still clutched, at the torn face, at the wasted blood. The light was going from it now, but he could feel it moving through his own veins, dimmed but still potent.
The boy did not look like Benjamin at all.
He gathered up the remains and buried them at the bottom of the yard.
If one curious child had come, he thought, there would be others.
He could wait, dormant as a dried seed waiting for rain. He had been hungry before.
Between the brief sparks that found him he lay still, without strength, filled with nothing but want of the light. He was always wanting, even as he slept. The light never lasted, not in him. Never in him.
• • • •
He buried the new body with all the others, at the edge of the grass just before the trees began. The sun made the skin on his neck and back crackle as he bent to his task. He made the grave shallow. He did not know how long the light within him would last, how long he would be strong enough to walk to the stream, to bask in the afternoon light, to bury the body. He did not want to waste what was inside him.
He could just make out the boy’s features through the sparse screen of dirt. The boy had been beautiful, before he was dead. As beautiful as Benjamin had been. But his eyes saw what his memory would not. The boy was not Benjamin. None of the boys had been Benjamin. He closed his faithless eyes and let his thoughts flutter loose again. If he did not look, then his brother was there with him, at least for a moment, an hour, perhaps a day. He was no longer angry that he had kept him from the light, that day. Benjamin had surely known better.
He lay down beside the graves. The warm, honeyed summer sun felt good on his thin brown skin. He only remembered summer, now, not the pale mist of spring or the sinking chill of autumn becoming winter. Summer was when Benjamin was still alive.
He stayed there all afternoon, remembering, reliving, until the blue shadows stretched across the lawn and, cold, he rose to face the waning light. Beside him, where his brother should have been, were only dusty bones.