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.
“Can you believe it?” Jae said over the phone.
Esther was quiet. “He’s always been different.”
“Different, sure, but not stupid. I think he wants to turn, to be this way all the time.”
“It’ll be okay.” Esther went quiet. “This is why we did custody with the boys this way, right? So you can be there now to steer Con on this.”
“So I gave him this disease, and now I’m not steering him enough.”
“Whoa. Jae. No. I’m just saying, you share something with him that his brother and I don’t. So, you know, try to use that. Talk to him. That’s all.”
Jae thought again about the letter.
“I seriously doubt he’d tell me anything anymore. But…I’ll try,” he said. “When did the boys get so goddamn difficult?”
“You know my answer. I think it was in the womb from the get-go.”
Jae laughed and, for a second, he was reminded of the nights when he and Esther would lie in bed, staring at the ceiling and talking in the dark about the twins until it was far too late.
“Thanks, Es,” he said.
“Good luck, Jae. Let me know how it goes.”
Esther had always said that the way to see into Jae’s soul was his coffee. On regular days, his coffee was light, creamy, and sugary. On bad days, he took it black and piping hot, too preoccupied to do anything with it.
By the same token, she thought that the way into Connor’s soul was his paintings. The subjects, lighting, and color never mattered, but when Connor was content, his brush strokes were smooth and decisive. When he was troubled, they were ragged, shaky, or dotted. Look at the lines, Esther always said. That’s how you knew if something was off.
Jae thought about that as he tried to read one of Connor’s canvases, holding his mug of coffee, but he had no idea what he was looking at. This particular painting in progress was unlike anything he’d seen his son make before–an abstract swirl of blue, black, and grey colors of various shades, all twisting and turning. The lines were messy, but they were purposeful.
“You need something?” Connor stepped into the room.
Jae cleared his throat. “Sorry, I was just looking for you. Didn’t mean to pry.”
“Whatever, it’s fine.” Connor stood next to him. His relaxed response took Jae by surprise, since he would normally chase Jae out of the room.
“Well, it’s very striking,” Jae said as he took a sip. “I like the way you got that wavy texture there with those greys. How’d you…you know, do that?”
“Palette knife,” Connor replied.
“Palette knife,” Jae repeated and went silent. The fact that his son was even answering the question was unusual, so he didn’t want to ruin it by saying too much.
“I figured if anyone would get this one, it would be you.”
“Me?” Jae blinked. He looked back at the canvas and the swirls of dark colors. “Oh.” Jae saw the flashes of color in his mind with the memory of the clouds. “It’s up there, isn’t it?” He looked over at his son.
“Yeah.” Connor kept looking at the canvas. “Or, well, more the feeling of being up there, I guess.”
“It’s a great feeling…” Jae said.
Connor seemed skeptical of his father’s response, but he kept talking. “I dream about it. A lot,” he said. “Do you ever, you know, dream about it too?”
“Flying?” Jae looked at the painting again. “I used to,” he admitted. “But that changes eventually. I dream about different things now.”
“Ah, boring things,” he said.
“Do you ever…” Connor seemed to be feeling out the words. “Do you wonder where the others like us are? The ones who turn fully?”
So this was why Connor was so receptive, Jae thought. He was probing for answers too.
“No,” Jae responded, which was a half-truth. “But I can understand why you’d be curious. Since you brought it up, Con. The other night, that thing you were saying about…”
He trailed off as his eyes floated toward the window. There was a classic car parked just across the street, a brown 1967 Plymouth GTX that stood out in a little residential area like theirs. Jae didn’t know the first thing about cars, but he knew this one because he’d seen that model before.
There was a knock at their front door.
“Hold on,” Jae tensed.
He went over to the door and looked out the peephole to see a man standing on their porch. The man was young, with shoulder-length brown hair and a handlebar moustache that sloped down to his chin. He was dressed flashily in a loud Hawaiian shirt and a distressed, leather jacket.
“Hello?” the man said with a friendly tone.
Jae opened the door. “Hi. Can I help you?”
The young man smiled. “Well, can I help you is the question. I was passing by your house and just really admired the exterior–so well-maintained. You ever think about selling?”
“Hadn’t crossed my mind, to be honest,” Jae said. “Are you a realtor?”
“Guilty!” the man laughed. When he did, the heavy smell of garlic filled the entryway. “This area has been an interest of mine lately. Three houses nearby sold for over a million this last month, did you know that?”
“I didn’t…” Jae said.
“I know this is an imposition, but I was wondering if I could peek inside? Might be able to tell you how much you’re looking at if you decide to put this on the market. Just a quick look.”
Jae smiled politely. “How could I say no to that?” He stepped back and let the young man enter the home.
The man spotted Connor in the hallway. “This your son? Nice to meet you.” The man said, staring at the boy for a few seconds, then walked into the living room. “This is beautiful. Really, just beautiful. Three beds, two baths, I’m guessing?”
“You guessed right.” Jae smiled and then turned to his son. “Connor, ‘Don’t listen,’okay?” he said pointedly. “I’m not selling anytime soon, but this nice man says he can tell us what it’s worth.”
Jae turned back to their visitor. “This is his childhood home, so he gets sensitive about the idea of us selling. You know how it is.”
“I getcha,” the young man said softly and paced around the house. “Wonderful layout. Master there, and other two there, huh?” He walked over toward the door to the basement. “May I?” He looked at Jae.
“Go for it.”
The man opened the door and looked down the basement stairway. “Jeepers, don’t think I’ve seen a basement this clean before.”
He smiled and did not blink.
“I try.” Jae watched the back of the man’s jacket as he leaned over and saw a wooden handle between the waist of his jeans and his Hawaiian shirt. “Listen, I appreciate the interest, but my son and I were actually about to step out. Mind if I cut to the chase and ask what you think?”
“Of course not,” the young man said. “This right here? Well, and this is just a guess, but you’re sitting on gold is what I think. In this market, you’d be able to get one point one mill, easy. Maybe, and I don’t want to jinx it, maybe even one point two.”
“Wow.” Jae gave a low whistle. “That’s a lot of change.”
“Sure is,” the young man said, stroking his moustache with his fingers. “Anywho, I know you got a day to get to, so I’ll get out of your way. Appreciate you indulging me, though.” He made his way to the front door. “Listen,” he said softly, and handed him a business card with a phone number on it. “Just in case. I think you could turn this real quick.”
Jae took the card. “I’ll keep you in mind.”
The young man winked and turned to Connor. “You two have a good one.”
Jae shut the door and looked out the peephole as their visitor got into the Plymouth. The engine turned over, and the car rolled slowly out of sight.
Connor walked over to the window and looked out at the street. “‘Don’t listen’, huh? We haven’t played that game since I was like eight. What part of all that was the lie?”
“All of it,” Jae said. “That wasn’t a realtor, and he wasn’t here to look at the house.” He locked the door. “That was a Hatchetman.”
Connor made a face. “Come on.” His father had told him stories about the Hatchetmen when he was younger, but they had always sounded outlandish. “That’s not real.”
Jae walked to the kitchen and poured another cup of coffee. He drank it while looking into the sink. The visitor was just like the one Jae remembered when he was a boy. Long hair, leather jacket, old car, garlic breath.
“I bet some of them think we’re not real either,” Jae said.
“Even if that’s true…” Connor realized his father was serious. “You think he knows about us?”
“Knows or suspects.”
The boy glowered and crossed his arms. “Well, let him try something if he wants. We can–”
“Stop,” Jae snapped. “Just stop it already. This is not the time to act like a tough guy. These guys are fucking killers, do you understand? All they do is hunt people like us.”
“They don’t scare me.”
“Well then wake the fuck up, Connor!” Jae raised his voice. “Why do you think he was here? Could it be that he spotted someone the other night, just maybe?”
His son opened his mouth like he was about to respond, but he swallowed it.
Jae continued to drink his coffee, staring out the front window and watching the street. Connor went back to his room and resumed his painting, slashing colors raggedly across the canvas.
Over the next few days, Jae did not see the brown Plymouth. Perhaps the visitor moved on or something else caught his interest. The new moon was fast approaching, so they would have to take extra care on the next dark night.
When the night came, they prepared in the basement as always–plastic, bucket, towels. Bit by bit, their eyes, their teeth, their bones went through the changes. When it was done, Jae paused before they left the basement.
“We should stay indoors, Con. Not enough cloud cover.”
“We don’t know who’s out there. We should be careful tonight, and the next few dark nights, actually.”
“No one’s out there, Dad. I checked.”
“Still not worth the risk.”
“It is to me.” Connor’s beak clicked, and he turned his head. “This is the only thing I–” He stopped.
“I understand,” Jae said.
“No. You don’t. I won’t stop just because of some creeps.” Connor began to head up the basement steps.
Jae grabbed him with a clawed hand.
Connor looked down at it. “You can’t stop me,” he said.
Against his better nature, Jae reacted emotionally. He grabbed his son by the shoulders and extended his wings, which spanned up and around the two of them. But faster than he could react, Connor pushed him.
Jae stumbled and nearly lost his balance, his back knocking over several tools from a nearby bench.
His son showed only the smallest glimmer of remorse and surprise at what he had done, but it was replaced with a hard stare. He turned and walked up the basement steps and slammed the door closed.
“I’m losing him,” Jae said to Esther the next morning.
The phone call went quiet.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Connor’s been calling me and Chris the last few weeks, talking to us about it. He says he wants to go and find others like you.”
Jae breathed in sharply. “And what did you tell him?”
“The truth. I have no idea where to look.”
“And you told him to stop looking, right?”
Esther paused. “No.”
“What good would it do? He’s not going to change his mind just because I say so, and practically speaking, we can’t always be there to stop him. If he wants to turn, he’ll find a way to turn, one way or another.”
“Come on! What kind of thinking is that!” Jae paced around the dining room. “I thought we were united on this.”
“What about studying art? Living out his twenties? Falling in love, for chrissakes! Think of everything he’s giving up if he does something stupid!”
“I agree with you completely.”
“If he wants to spend the rest of his life like that, he can do that later. He’s just a kid right now!”
“I wish he were,” Esther said. “But he hasn’t been for a while. Neither has Chris for that matter. They’re not just our boys anymore, even if we think of them that way.”
Jae fumed, but he did it silently.
“I don’t want this for Connor,” Esther went on. “I mean, I don’t even like the thought of Chris going to Chicago. But whether it’s today or a year from now, or a decade, we’re going to say goodbye to them. Whether it’s college, or somewhere else, they’re going to leave us, Jae. You know that, right?”
“What does this have to do with…”
“They’re going to leave us,” Esther repeated.
Jae sat down in a chair.
She spoke very softly. “Maybe we’ll see them once in a while. Maybe they’ll keep coming home. But they will go, and it’ll never be in a way that we want, because we don’t want it at all. I don’t, at least.”
“But it’s not–I mean, he’s not…” Jae grasped for a response but it was pointless.
He had no control over what was going to happen, and he never would.
“We gave them a good home and a good childhood, and I know they’re going to be good men whenever they go off on their own. You believe that much, don’t you?”
This was one thing Jae could admit. “I do,” he said.
“Then remember that,” Esther replied. “We did everything as best we could, and that’s as far as we go. Just because something doesn’t last forever, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good thing…”
Jae pressed his hand to his forehead. “Are we still talking about the boys?” he asked.
Jae sighed. “I’ll talk to Con.”
“Everything will be okay.”
Jae stood outside of Connor’s bedroom for a minute. He knocked quietly and waited before opening the door, only to find the room empty.
“Con?” Jae called out, walking around the house.
Jae texted Connor: Did you go out this morning?
There was a buzz, and he saw Connor’s phone on the dining table where he had left it before he changed for the dark night. Jae started looking around the house more quickly, calling out for Connor.
After several minutes, he realized that his son had not been home. Jae assumed the boy had just snuck back to his room and sulked, but there was no sign of it. His stomach dropped at the thought that Connor had finally done what he had threatened to do.
When Jae ran through every contact on his phone he could think of without results, he took the next step. The police came a few hours after Jae called to take his statement. There was not much Jae could tell them, other than the fact that his son had gone out and had not returned. The officer told Jae that it was more likely than not that Connor was going to be back in a couple of days, that he was just rebelling the way teenage boys do.
But a day passed.
Jae and Esther called the hospitals nearby. They talked with Chris about whether his brother told him anything about where he was going or what he might do.
Chris had no idea.
Jae called the officer in charge of Connor’s case first thing in the morning after two days had gone by. His son still wasn’t home, and there was another possibility, a worse one that he didn’t want to, but had to, consider.
Jae told the police about the Plymouth that had come by the home, the young man in the leather jacket who said he was a realtor, and Jae offered to give the police the business card he had received, though it had no address.
“I see,” the officer said. “Well it’s unusual for kidnappers to target someone your son’s age, particularly if, and excuse me for saying so, you’re not wealthy. Is there some reason this man would take your son?”
Jae could not tell him his suspicions about what the man was without revealing what he and Connor were. “I’m telling you, I just think this guy took an unusual interest. I didn’t get his license plate, but there can’t be that many ‘67 Plymouths here, right? Please, just find him.”
The officer politely said he would, but Jae could tell by his tone that he thought this was just a desperate call from a father who had nothing else to cling to.
Jae started driving around the surrounding neighborhoods looking for the Plymouth. A few times he came close, but the model wasn’t quite right, or the color was different when he looked carefully. When he wasn’t in his car he sat in the backyard scouring the clouds for any sign of Connor, any small shadow or movement.
As each day passed, the nauseous panic in Jae slowly hardened into an empty dread. Eventually, the following week, he got a call from the officer in charge that the investigation was not turning up anything, and at this point they were concluding that Connor had run away from home.
“What about the Plymouth?” Jae raised his voice.
“Dead end,” the officer replied.
“But did you find it? Did you find the guy?” Jae yelled into his phone.
“If we learn anything else, you’ll be our first call.”
“But did you find him?” Jae shouted.
The officer thanked Jae for his time and said he would be in touch before hanging up.
Jae sat on Connor’s bed, staring at everything in the room before his eyes rested on the unfinished painting on an easel, the swirls of blue and grey. ?
The most important things in Jae’s life often happened by chance. The fact that he inherited his condition from his father came down to probability. The fact that Connor got it too, but that Chris didn’t, could have easily gone other ways. That a young woman that he met in college would not only fall in love with him, but, when she saw his changes for the first time–everything from the bloody teeth and claws and wingbones–did not run away screaming, was, to Jae, just dumb luck.
So it felt natural to him, somehow, that he had found the Plymouth by accident.
He had been driving home from the store one evening, his eyes starting to close on their own because of the string of sleepless nights, and he stopped at a diner to get a cup of coffee. He pulled into the parking lot and turned off the engine when he saw it, the brown ‘67 Plymouth sitting a few spaces away.
Jae sat for a few minutes, now wide awake.
He saw the young man who had introduced himself as a realtor–long hair, moustache, leather jacket, loud Hawaiian shirt–sitting in a booth by one of the windows. Jae had made the decision countless times before in his mind, so it wasn’t long before he got out of the car and entered the diner.
He approached the booth where the man was.
“Excuse me?” the young man said, startled. “Can I help you, man?”
Jae stared, dark circles under his eyes. He saw that the young man had a large bandage over one of his cheeks.
“I know you,” the young man squinted. “Three-bed-two-bath and super-clean basement, right?”
Jae looked at him.
The man looked around the diner. “Did you rethink selling or something? What do you want?”
Jae blinked. “Are you going to pretend you don’t know why I’m here?”
“No idea.” The man absent-mindedly grazed the bandage on his cheek.
Jae stared at him for a time before turning away.
He left the diner and got in his car. He drove it around the corner, parked, and waited.
The man came out of the diner fifteen minutes later and got into the Plymouth. When he was sure the man was a safe distance away, Jae pulled out of the sidestreet and followed the two brake lights glowing red ahead of him.
The Plymouth turned onto a road not far from Jae’s house that went up a neighboring hill. Traffic thinned, so Jae turned off his headlights, following cautiously as their cars winded up a ways. There were no streetlights on this particular hill, and the trees began to grow thick and tall at either side of the road, closing in on the only pathway that led near the hilltop.
Jae lost sight of the Plymouth after a curve and almost missed the turnoff.
He braked suddenly, spotting a long driveway and made the turn just in time, his tires rumbling on gravel as he followed the path through the trees. He slowed as the driveway ended before a clearing and put his car in park.
The Plymouth was parked in front of a small house, a single porchlight glowing. The large lot on which the house rested was surrounded by closely planted rows of trees, so there was no neighbor to see in or out.
Jae got out of his car slowly and stepped toward the home.
As he got to the first step, the front door opened. The young man in the leather jacket emerged in the door frame, expectantly.
“Would you like to come in?” the man asked.
Jae did not know what to do but nod.
The inside of the house was uninteresting, with all the ordinary furnishings and framed art and domestic trappings someone might expect. But the overwhelming, sulfuric stench of garlic hung in the stale air and in every corner of the place. Jae’s eyes watered as he stepped through the entryway and into the living room.
The young man took off his leather jacket and sat in an armchair, offering Jae another that was nearby. “Can I get you anything?” he asked.
“No,” Jae replied, not taking his eyes off of him.
“You want to tell me what this is about? Hardly normal to follow a man all the way to his house. I’d take it as a threat if you didn’t seem like such a gentle person.” He smiled.
Jae studied the young man’s face. “What happened?” He pointed at the bandage.
“Oh, this?” The young man said. “Hunting accident.”
“Wouldn’t bandage it otherwise.” He smiled again. “Do you hunt?”
“No,” Jae said. “I’ve never understood it.”
“So that’s it? You just wanted to ask me about my face?” The young man stopped smiling. “Spit it out.”
Jae looked down for the first time, breaking his stare.
“I’m looking for something important to me. I think you might have come across it when you were hunting,” he said. “One way or another…I have to know.” Jae locked eyes with the man. “I won’t leave until you give me an answer,” he said with finality. “I mean it.”
The young man rested his hand over his mouth, thinking.
“Let me show you something.” The young man got up, and he beckoned for Jae to follow him. They went down a hallway, Jae walking several feet behind him, until they stopped outside of a door. The young man opened it and turned on a light, revealing a series of steps down into a basement.
“I saw yours, after all,” he said. “It’s only fair.”
The sulfuric smell grew even stronger as Jae followed down the creaking steps. This basement contained almost nothing–bare cement walls and floor that looked like they were cleaned regularly. A single light in the middle of the room hung by a cord. At the far end of the room was a simple set of shelves.
Jae walked closer, still keeping his distance from the man, but looking at the shelves’ contents. He saw a medium-sized hatchet with a wooden handle, sharpened and sitting by a whetstone. Next to that, there were a dozen or so curved, black scythe-like shapes.
Jae recognized them as talons and claws, bits and pieces of hands and feet from people like him, that were cleaned and preserved for display.
“Do you like them?” the young man asked.
Jae felt light-headed, but breathed deeply as he looked at the talons, unable to tell which, if any, were newer than the others. He looked over at the young man but said nothing.
“The birds I hunt are pretty damn big. I mean, look at those things,” he grinned. “Clever too, and very rare.” The young man picked up the hatchet and inspected it. “So, to get to your question. You want to know if I’ve hunted lately, if I came across that important thing of yours,” he said. “But there’s a problem.”
Jae inched away from the shelves but did not turn or look at the door, or give any sign that he even thought of trying to leave.
“What’s that?” Jae asked.
“You see, there are only two answers I can give you, and neither are going to work,” the young man said. “I could tell you that I’ve been hunting, and maybe I came across your important thing. Maybe I followed it a ways and waited until it was distracted and didn’t know I was there. Maybe I tried to take it down, but it was too….young, too strong, and it got the best of me.” He touched the bandage on his cheek again. “Flew off like the devil and never looked back, and I haven’t seen it since. You’d like that answer. But…” The young man looked Jae in the eyes. “You would never believe me. Not really.”
“Is that what happened?” Jae said, trying to hide any hint of hope in his voice.
“But,” the young man went on. “The other answer is that I hunted your precious thing. I followed it a ways, waited until it was distracted, and,” he made a whistling noise, drawing the hatchet across his throat.
“And you wouldn’t like that answer either, would you?”
Jae’s breath was ragged, but he continued to look the young man in the eyes. “Why not say you never hunted it at all?”
The man laughed and shook his head. “What the hell’s fun about that?”
Jae’s hand trembled, but he held it at his side and closed it.
The young man grinned. “Then again, birds are all the same to me after a while, so who knows if I even know for sure? At the end of the day, you don’t really get a meaningful answer at all, do you?”
Jae stood still and watched the man’s hatchet.
“The better question is, if I’m the kind of hunter you think I am,” the hatchet dangled in the man’s hand, “why would you come down to my basement?”
Jae did not move. He believed that if he flinched even a little, that it would trigger something worse. “Well, there’s…nothing worth hunting now,” he said. “Guy like you would want to wait until the new moon when the birds come out, I would think. Otherwise, what’s the point? ”
The young man stepped closer.
“And,” Jae knew he had to think of something quickly. “If I’m wrong, I might have texted my ex-wife this address while I was in the car,” he lied, “and told her to contact people if we don’t talk within the hour…”
It sounded true enough in the moment.
The young man watched Jae’s eyes carefully, then broke into a grin.
“And you say you don’t understand hunting,” he laughed.
Jae turned his back purposefully and without hesitation. “I’ll show myself out.” With every step he took up the stairs, he listened with anticipation for the sound of the man following him, any shift of air or creak of steps behind him, but it didn’t come.
Jae opened the basement door, further from the worst of the sulfuric smell.
“Sorry I couldn’t help you!” the young man called up from the bottom of the stairs. “You drive safe now!”
The door creaked closed behind Jae.
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 chopped up salad and boiled pasta, a pot of meat sauce already simmering beside it. Eventually he set one plate of spaghetti on the dining table, opposite an open laptop.
He leaned over the laptop and opened up his video chat.
Esther appeared on the computer. “Hey,” she said. “Chris is coming down.”
“Okay.” Jae could see that Esther hadn’t slept. Her hair was always in disarray when she didn’t get enough sleep. “What are you having?” Jae asked.
“Takeout. You? Spaghetti?”
Chris appeared next to his mother and sat at the table. “Hey, Dad.”
“Hey, buster. How are you?”
“I dunno, same as you guys.” The boy looked down at his plate, pushing his food to the side with his fork. “I’ve been doing some research online. Looking at some of the mountains near you and the national parks.”
“Oh?” Jae said, not touching his food.
Esther ate quietly.
“Yeah. Sometimes people on forums talk about sightings, weird things they see. I was thinking if I could check those against nearby places, I might be able to figure out where he might have gone. Maybe, you know, he found others too, like he said.”
Jae nodded. “Maybe.”
“And I was thinking,” Chris continued. “You know, I could stick around here with mom for a while, maybe stay out there with you too, just for a few months. Help look for him.”
“That’s a nice thought,” Jae said, looking at Esther, who seemed surprised. “But you don’t need to do that. Besides, there’s Chicago, right?”
Chris shrugged. “People defer all the time. Chicago can wait, or it doesn’t even have to be Chicago. There are other schools. The point is, I want to help.”
“I know,” Jae nodded. He looked at Chris and imagined him with longer hair for a moment. “I know. That’s really good of you. But…for what it’s worth, I know you had your heart set on Chicago. So, it’s okay to go too, if that’s really what you want,” Jae said quietly. “Your mom and I will be okay. Really.”
Esther touched her son’s hand. “We appreciate it, Chris, and we can keep talking about it. Okay?”
After dinner, Jae and Esther sat on video for a while. They cleaned up their respective tables and waited until Chris left.
“It’s a dark night, right?” Esther asked.
Jae nodded. It was the first since Connor had left.
“I checked the forecasts,” Esther said. “Not a lot of cloud cover, but maybe some. If he’s stuck somewhere, he might be waiting until he can safely come back.”
“He might be,” Jae said tiredly.
“If you go out there, maybe leave the patio door unlocked for him? Just in case?”
Jae looked at Esther. “Do you remember when the boys were young, how I used to make up games for them?”
She sipped her glass of wine. “Yeah.”
“There was one game where I’d pick them up and spin them around really fast until they were dizzy, then I’d fling them onto our bed.”
“‘Hold on tight,’” she said.
“That was it,” Jae said softly. “I’d say, ‘Hold on tight!’ And they’d giggle and yell, ‘Hold on tight!’ Their voices were so little back then.”
“Jae. Why are you talking about this?”
Jae stared with unfocused eyes. “For them, the fun part was always the end, when I’d drop them on the bed. But sometimes, I’d keep spinning, just to mess with them. Just never let go and held onto them.”
“Stop it, Jae.”
“Connor hated it. He’d always get mad when I did that. ‘Daddy, let go! Let go! ’”
“Jae!” Esther snapped. “Please don’t do this to me right now. Don’t talk like that.” She covered her face with her hand and started to sob.
“Sorry,” Jae said. He wanted to comfort her, but he didn’t know how.
In her heart, she still believed Connor was coming home, and he didn’t. That was always the difference between them.
He waited quietly with her at the table.
The sun was still setting when Jae walked into Connor’s room.
He went to the bookshelf and bent down to retrieve the envelope that was stuffed behind the lowest of the shelves. He sat down on Connor’s bed and opened the letter inside, reading it for the first time since he had found it.
Thank you for your application to The Haller Institute of Visual Arts. We regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you admission this coming fall. Haller has seen thousands of talented applicants compete for a limited number of available spots this year, many of whom are extraordinary candidates for the institute. Thus, Haller is forced to choose among many more highly qualified students than it has room to admit.
We wish we could admit more of our applicants, and understand how difficult this process is for our candidates. We are sorry to share this news with you, and we wish you nothing but the best of luck on all of your future endeavors.
Jae folded the letter, put it back in the envelope, and placed the envelope back behind the lowest shelf before walking out.
The basement that night felt quieter. He could hear the sound of every shift in the plastic sheeting as he pulled out a roll from next to the boys’ old bed frames and laid it out across the basement floor. The bucket made a hollow sound as he dropped it in the middle of the room. Jae got out of his clothes and wrapped a towel around himself.
The blood trickled from his eyes as they turned black. His teeth dropped one by one into the bucket. His fingernails and toenails were pushed away by the curve of his talons, and the skin on his hands and feet hardened. The bones in his face cracked and flattened. His wings broke through the skin on his shoulders and stretched as the feathers worked their way out of his pores.
When it was done, Jae looked up at the basement door.
The Hatchetman opened the trunk of his Plymouth.
He loaded pieces of his equipment, one by one. There was a catchpole with a thin wire looped at its head, and a weighted net that he folded and placed beside that. A rifle with a long barrel and a portable strobe light he checked before putting it down. He inspected his hatchet, tucked its handle in the back of his jeans, and pulled his shirt over it before closing the trunk.
Jae watched from the trees as the young man lit a cigarette and took a long drag.
It happened quickly after that.
Jae’s feathers were so soft that they never made a sound when he glided down.
The Hatchetman only saw the smallest flicker of a shadow before the claws of Jae’s feet wrapped around his shoulders and Jae’s talons sliced through his jacket and into his skin, securing him.
The Hatchetman’s cigarette fell to the grass as he was jerked straight upward.
Jae beat his wings ferociously, ascending as the man flailed and reached into his waistband for the hatchet. There was a dull and distant pain from the hacking of the metal blade into Jae’s legs. It was possible Jae was losing a lot of blood, but he ignored it as the young man desperately tried to cut himself free.
They flew further up and burst through the blanket of grey clouds.
Jae hovered there for a moment in the blackness, looking out at the sky and the solitary mountain near their hill.
The thudding noise of the hatchet hacking wildly at his legs was drowned out.
Instead, Jae heard a little boy laughing.
Hold on tight!
Jae let go of the Hatchetman, who dropped like a stone through the clouds, his unfeeling, unreadable face disappearing from view.
Jae listened for the final sound of the body obliterated.
He stayed there, above the clouds, for a long time that night, eventually gliding below toward his hill and his house.
When he touched down in the yard, the sounds and smell of the air were shifting with daylight coming.
He was about to go in, but stopped himself.
The dark purple of the sky was starting to change, and he looked up at it, wondering what would happen if he waited for the sun. He looked down at his claws and his bloodied feet, and then at his wings, folded in at his shoulders.
He waited until it was beyond prudent, and then decided he would go back inside. Leaving the patio door unlocked, he made his way through the halls of the empty house to the basement door.
Jae walked down the steps and back onto the plastic.
Too tired to clean or wait for the change, he lay down on the crinkling sheets on his side and brought his knees to his chest.
As he drifted away, he dreamed of when he was a young man, and he was thinner and his hair was black. He remembered sitting in a chair in a dark bedroom where there were two small beds on either side, covered in big, puffy blankets that were decorated with stars and planets.
Two little boys’ faces looked at him as he talked, though he didn’t know what he was saying.
Eventually, he got up to leave the bedroom, as he always did, but one of the boys called out to him.
“Daddy, please stay. Please, Daddy?”
If this were a real memory he would have wished them a good night, turned off the light in the hall, and left the room. But instead he went back to the chair and slowly sat down again and looked at his sons.
He did not understand why, in that moment, but he realized that he was crying.
“Okay,” he said to them softly. “Go to sleep, boys. I’ll be right here.”
He would try to stay with them for as long as he could.
Thomas lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young children and, when not chasing after his kids, enjoys writing speculative fiction.