Jae didn’t mean to find the letter.
He had been putting away clothes in his son’s room when a pair of socks rolled by the bookshelf. As he bent down, he saw an envelope tucked behind a few paperbacks. Jae picked it up, pushed open the torn top of the envelope just enough to glance at the first few words, then put it back behind the lowest shelf carefully.
Perhaps his son was just waiting to talk about it, Jae reasoned, but days went by and it never came up.
On Friday afternoon, Jae waited at the dining table for the familiar sound of the front door opening and a backpack dropping on the floor. Connor came in, hunched, with his earphones in, barely stopping as he marched toward his room. “Hey, Dad.”
“Con,” Jae replied. “Don’t forget. Dinner with Mom and Chris soon.”
Connor pulled out one of his earphones. “That’s tonight?”
“It’s the first Friday, isn’t it?” Jae said.
“Oh…” Connor said. “I was going to–You know what? It’s fine.”
“You okay?” Connor paused.
Jae stared for a moment. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Cool.” Connor walked away.
Jae went to the kitchen sink, turned on the faucet, and watched the water run into the basin. He washed the vegetables under the rushing water, then put on music as he chopped up salad and boiled pasta, a pot of meat sauce already simmering beside it. Eventually he set two plates of spaghetti on the dining table, opposite an open laptop.
“Con! Dinner!” Jae called. He leaned over the laptop and opened up his video chat.
Esther appeared on the computer screen at her dining table. “Hey, there,” she said. “Chris is washing up.”
“No worries, Connor’s dragging his feet too.” Jae sat down. “What are you guys having?”
“Didn’t have time, so it’s just sushi from down the street.”
“Big city sushi. I’m jealous,” he said playfully. “It’s just simple spaghetti over here.”
“Always spaghetti with you.”
Connor emerged from his room and walked over to the dining table. He pushed his hair out of his eyes and looked over at the chat window on the laptop. “Hey, Mom.”
“Hey, buster. How’s last semester? You keeping busy?”
“Not really,” Connor shrugged. “Everyone’s just killing time before graduation and acting stupid. You know.”
“Oh, I see. Well, have you been killing time and acting stupid in that case?”
Connor smiled a little without answering and played with the spaghetti on his plate when his brother Chris appeared on the video screen next to Esther and sat down at her table. Jae squinted at the laptop and noted that Chris’s hair was tightly cropped on the sides and top. The twins had always had similar haircuts growing up, so it was a change that took Jae aback.
“Chris, you cut your—”
“Yeah, Dad,” Connor jumped in. “Chris cut it like a month ago. You already saw it.”
“I guess I didn’t realize it was that short…” Jae said.
Chris grinned on the screen and rubbed the sides of his head. “Thought I’d try out a new look before college. Maybe grow it back out before the fall or whatever.”
“Looks good.” Jae commented, mostly to himself, as he took a bite of spaghetti.
“So, Con,” Esther said, pouring a glass of wine. “What else is new with you?”
“Nothing.” Connor took a bite.
“Chris showed me some of your new paintings on Photon. They’re really good, honey. I mean it. Beautiful.”
“Proton?” Jae asked.
“Photon,” Chris said in the video chat window. “It’s a social media thing, Dad.”
“Oh.” Jae looked over at Connor. “I didn’t know you put your paintings online. I’d love to see them too.”
“You can just see them here, Dad,” he replied.
“Except you don’t show them to me here either, do you?” said Jae, more brusquely than he intended.
Connor furrowed his brow, and Chris had an identical expression on the screen.
“Never mind. Forget it,” Jae turned back to his meal.
For the rest of the dinner, Esther prodded the boys with questions while Jae ate quietly. Eventually, Chris excused himself and Connor did the same, heading off to their rooms and leaving Esther and Jae on the chat by themselves.
“You okay?” Esther asked.
“Sorry,” Jae frowned.
“It’s hard. I get it,” Esther said. “They’re only ours for a few more months and then…” She finished her glass of wine. “It gets worse. I think Chris is leaning toward UChicago.”
“But he hasn’t heard back from the California schools yet.”
“And what about NYU? I thought if he was staying out east, he’d be in the city with you?”
“Chicago is so cold and…cold.”
“I know…” Esther groaned. “What about Connor? Still no word from Haller?”
Jae paused. “No.”
“Any day now, I’m sure.”
“It’ll be okay.” Esther finished her wine. “I should let you go. It’s a dark night, isn’t it?”
Jae was surprised that she remembered.
“Some habits die hard,” she said, as if she knew what he was thinking. “Goodnight, Jae.”
In the basement, next to his supplies, Jae kept the wooden frames of the twins’ childhood beds. As he did every time he went down there, he paused to look at them, remembering another time when he was a young man, thinner and with blacker hair, how those beds used to sit on either side of their room, covered in big, puffy blankets that were decorated with stars and planets.
And then, after he had shaken away thoughts of the little ghosts of his sons, he remembered why he came. He bent to pick up a roll of plastic sheeting, then carefully laid it out across the linoleum of the basement floor, making sure to cover all of the open space. Next he took a bucket from the corner and placed it in the middle of the room. Last, he undressed and folded his clothes, then wrapped a towel around his waist.
He knelt, and he waited.
Eventually, Jae felt a familiar pressure begin to build in his sinuses. Small trails of blood began to seep from his tear ducts. The pupils of his eyes began to expand, and the whites of his eyes retreated.
The basement door above him opened, and Connor stood at the entrance, looking down at Jae. “Sorry,” Connor said as he walked down the basement steps, carrying a towel. “Lost track of time.” He joined his father on the plastic, quickly changing out of his clothes and wrapping the towel around him. Connor wiped blood from his cheeks as he knelt, and his eyes quickly turned to glistening pools of black.
“When you’re living on your own next year, you can’t do that on dark nights,” Jae said. “I’m not going to be there to prepare this for you.” He stopped speaking when he felt the tightness in his mouth, and as always, his two front teeth squeezed their way out of his gums first, dropping onto his tongue. Jae swished them and sucked up some of the blood. Then he grabbed the bucket and spit out the teeth, which clattered lightly at the bottom like tiny pebbles.
“I said sorry,” Connor replied. He grunted as his teeth squeezed their way out of his mouth. One by one, Connor’s teeth fell, dripping with red into the bucket.
Jae looked at his son. “Remember, ‘Deep breath.’”
When the boys were young, Jae used to make up games for them, some of which weren’t really games. “Deep breath” came about when Connor was six, and he fell off of the jungle gym and broke his arm. The goal of the game was to hold your breath as long as possible and then let the air out slowly. It kept Connor calm all the way to the emergency room and pulled focus from the pain, and sometimes, it helped with the changes on nights like these.
“Hear anything from Haller?” Jae asked, spitting a few more of his teeth into the bucket.
Connor breathed in deeply, then spit. “No.”
Jae studied his son’s face.
“I’ve been thinking, maybe Haller isn’t right for me,” Connor said.
The bones underneath Jae’s skin started shifting. His cheek bones cracked and pushed forward, as did parts of his jaw. Everything leveled, bit by bit, until his face became a round, flat disc. Jae took a moment to catch himself before speaking. “You said their visual arts program was great for what you wanted to study, right?”
“Yeah, I know what I said, Dad.”
Jae winced. He felt the familiar crack of his nose breaking and curving closer to his mouth. The cartilage and bones reformed and hardened into a clicking beak.
Connor spit into the bucket and looked away from Jae. “I just don’t know if college makes a lot of sense with everything going on.”
Jae sat up.
Connor’s face followed Jae’s, flattening, and then shaping his mouth and nose. He bent over and gripped his knees, fighting the urge to cry out until the movement in his bones stopped.
Jae opened and closed what used to be his mouth and clicked his beak a few times as he adjusted. “If you mean because of this…It’s just a condition like any other. You can manage it.”
“Condition. Right.” Connor held up his hands. His fingers stretched thinner as the skin on them turned gray and leathery. His fingernails split and sloughed off and longer, sharper bones pushed out from the tips of his fingers and extended into little scythes. Connor grew in height several inches as his feet lengthened and thickened into claws. There was a tapping sound as an extra toe bone broke through the skin at each of his heels and scraped onto the plastic.
“I mean it, Con. You’ll figure out ways like I did. You can still go to Haller or…you know…anywhere else.”
“That’s not it,” Connor grunted. “I’m not like you.”
“What does that mean?”
Connor avoided looking at him.
Jae let it rest for a moment since they were nearing the end of the change. He pulled his shoulders back, tensing. Two large bones broke through the skin from his shoulder blades, one on either side. To his left and his right, the two bones spread and grew into wet, skeletal wings, extending from Jae’s back.
Small ruffles of feathers sprouted through the pores of Jae’s face, pushing outward in flecks of white and gold. Thicker feathers began to grow on the bones on Jae’s upper back, draping down like curtains. A smaller skirt of white feathers extended from his lower back and lifted up and down slightly.
Connor’s wings and feathers formed as well, spreading across the span of the basement from his shoulder blades. The disc shape of his white, owl-like face and dark eyes turned at an extreme angle as he blinked at Jae and clicked his beak.
“Ready when you are,” Connor said softly.
They stepped out into the backyard, which was pitch black beneath the new moon. Their house was surrounded by tall fences that allowed them to walk the yard freely. Streetlights speckled the bottom of their hill, but the neighborhood and the sky were shrouded in a heavy, cloudy blanket. The conditions were just right.
Jae jumped first, beating his wings silently as he ascended into the dark.
Connor flew up after him.
They moved swiftly and quietly through the cloud cover, up into the cold air, which whipped around them. Connor glided ahead of his father through swirling wisps, and Jae pulled alongside him. His son moved faster, stretching his powerful wings, more smoothly and effortlessly than Jae.
As he watched his son float ahead of him through the grayness, Jae was reminded of the bike rides they would take at the park, how he would see Connor and Chris race ahead across grass while he sauntered leisurely behind, holding Esther’s hand. There was always a lump in his throat, wondering if one or both of them might crash to the ground, and he was always ready to call out to them if they went too far ahead.
In the midst of those memories, Jae realized that Connor had steered upward. The boy pulled out of the cloud cover and erupted out into the open air high above where someone might see them. Jae chased after him.
Connor knew better, Jae thought. He burst above the clouds, the open sky spreading across his view, and he saw Connor waiting, hovering as his wings beat.
The boy stared at the silhouette of the mountain near their home. It loomed over the houses on their hill, a solitary colossus.
“We can’t stay up here!” Jae yelled.
Connor twisted his head to look back at his father, then nodded. The boy folded his wings and dropped, headfirst, cutting back into the wisps of the gray cloudy surface beneath.
Jae dived after him.
The wind buffeted Jae’s face. He could see the shape of Connor falling in front of him, and he reached forward with a clawed hand.
“Connor!” Jae screeched.
As if suddenly remembering where he was, Connor flattened his body and pulled upward with his wings outstretched. He curved gracefully through the clouds.
Jae stretched his wings a second later, which pulled them back too quickly and strained his joints painfully. He pulled up and glided alongside his son. “Stay in the cloud cover!” He yelled.
“Sorry,” Connor blinked as he floated. “Got carried away.”
“What’s going on with you?” Jae asked.
Connor didn’t reply.
They circled above the house for the next few hours, wordlessly. Eventually, as the night came to a close, they descended to their yard. Connor landed first, his clawed feet pressing and kicking onto the dirt, then Jae came down behind him.
The sounds and smell of the air were shifting with daylight coming.
“Come on,” Jae huffed and walked through the patio door back into the house, but he turned back when he realized that Connor was still standing in the yard, looking at the sky.
“Con, sun-up,” Jae muttered. They were already cutting it closer than usual.
Connor looked at the sky, his dark black eyes fixed on the horizon.
“The sun. Get inside now.”
Connor looked down at his clawed hands. “You always said if we’re not back by sun-up, we stay this way always, in these bodies, right?” He looked back over his shoulder. “But what if…that isn’t a bad thing?”
Jae stepped forward warily, watching the horizon. “Connor,” he said sternly. “Get inside the house right now.” Jae spread his wings, extending out from his broad shoulders.
His son’s dark eyes flashed for just a second, a hint of fear, but also confidence.
They both stayed there for a moment.
Then Connor broke his gaze and looked down.
Father and son returned to the cover of the windowless basement, waiting until the sun emerged. Their bodies knew the moment morning broke and began to revert. Claws and wings and feathers reformed into hands and skin and hair. Nose and mouth reshaped and cut themselves from flesh, with new kernels of teeth pressing their way out of swollen gums.
When it was done, Jae and Connor rolled up the plastic sheets on the ground, just barely stained with streaks of their blood, and stuffed them in garbage bags. Jae picked up the bucket and walked up the basement steps behind Connor.
At the bottom of the bucket, the white and red pieces of bone shimmered like little shells, the last sign that anything had happened. Jae poured them into the kitchen sink and watched as the rush of water took them clattering down the drain where they disappeared.
He turned off the faucet and wiped the sink clean.