Joyland

New York |

Changeling

by Silvia Park

edited by Amy Shearn

We were ten when our brother Michael was lost then found. That night, our mother answered the phone and whispered to our father, Michael, as if the word belonged in the bottom of the swear jar. They summoned Mrs. Kim, Pastor Paul’s wife, who showed up with her crochet bag and Bible, bursting with post-its, to spend the night. Our parents left, in such a hurry, Mother almost backed the car into the mailbox, then drove, owl-eyed with burning headlights, into the darkness.

The morning after, our parents had yet to return. Mrs. Kim brought us to church where Pastor Paul led the congregation in a last-minute prayer for Michael. Because of its last-minute-ness, it came after the trifling requests: Mr. C’s recovery from cancer of the prostate; a welcome increase in church attendance, a responsive decrease in gas prices. And finally, one of Pastor Ryan’s triplets had gone missing at summer camp and we ought to pray for his boy, so he will be found safe and sound. Pastor Paul broke into a coughing fit mid-prayer, so what he actually said was “sound safe and found.”

As we bowed our heads, Gabe’s eyes remained hard and wet behind his glasses. His lips did not move in shape of the words. Michael used to fake-pray like this. Father would say, “Thank you, O Lord,” and Michael would mouth, “Rock on, I’m bored.”

Michael, for his part, hadn’t wanted to go to camp. After the cat incident, our mother hired an Ivy League expert who flew from Chicago to Bloomington, spent one afternoon with Michael, then placed him in an eight-week program that we all agreed to call “camp.” A special camp for kids like Michael, though Gabe and I hadn’t known at the time. Innocently, I’d asked if there were going to be horses and archery. Father began talking about a big, almost magical forest full of critters. Mother interrupted, “It’s going to make Raph want to go.”

It wouldn’t, but I didn’t say so.

“Well, I don’t want to go,” Michael said. “But obviously no one listens to me.”

On our way to bed, I promised Michael we’d write him letters. Michael stopped, snatched a glance over his shoulder, then leaned in to say, “I’m going to send you a dead snake and it’s going to be full of diseases,” hissing it, as if the snake had possessed him, already.

*

After the 10 am service, Pastor Paul shook hands with the parishioners. They delivered their condolences for Pastor Paul to pass onto our father, as if Michael were already dead and buried.

Gabe, never one to sit still, rolled a Christmas-striped hula hoop through the courtyard. This was our Garden of Eden, not so much in bounty but wilderness. We used to take turns riding Malibu, our neighbor’s golden retriever and knight’s steed on the sniff for adventure. During the fourth grade, we’d discovered a lime-green spider, the width of my palm. The legs were speckled black and yellow, and it spun prey into balls of cotton candy.

Terrified of creepy-crawlies, Gabe had hidden behind Our Lady of Assumption, the faux-marble statue that wore the same wan face as our mother, flaking with love.

Michael, insistent on delivering the spider to Gabe, grabbed a leg and yanked. I shouted. The spider’s colors changed. The green went yellow, the yellow went white, it had gone pale with anguish, pulling the remaining legs into a riveting spasm of itself.

Michael had waved the speckled spider leg, but his grin slipped when he saw the look on my face. “Jeez, relax. It was an accident.” He threw the leg away. “It’s still got a billion legs.”

The spider was long gone, but the web remained, wispy as a dreamcatcher. I sneaked away to light a candle of deliverance for Michael in the back of the garden. Some parishioners saw me kneel in front of the statue of the Virgin, which Michael had vandalized by adding nipples to the chest.

“Oh, you poor, sweet boy,” Mrs. P said. “I pray your dear brother comes home.”

“Thank you, Grandma,” which is what we called all the church ladies, “and thanks for sharpening the pencils every morning. Daddy says there’s a seat in Heaven with your name on it.”

“Oh, well,” Mrs. P tittered.

Sometimes I lied, but unlike Michael, it was because I nipped for affection. Even then, I had a weakness for older women. The parishioners seldom recognized me if I was on my own. To elderly ladies like Mrs. P., my brothers and I were the church mascot.

In school, which was majority-Catholic, Caucasian, and conscientious, everyone gravitated toward us for being triplets. Together, we made up for each other’s deficiencies and uplifted any strengths. Gabe was the leader, the athlete, despite his bouts of asthma. I was the straight-Excellent student, a “sweet boy.” Michael, the Needs Improvement type, could draw the most elegant wolves in art class, rounding us out with his willfulness and Picassoesque charisma. Without Michael, it was just me and Gabe, and do you know what happens when just two people are standing together? The lack in the other is stark.

I prayed for Michael’s return. But also that he’d return a holier version of himself.

*

Michael had tried to lure a girl named Sarah into the forest with a shiny Charizard card. Sarah returned alone, clutching the card. After hours of scouring by camp counselors and rangers and volunteers, the sun had breached the sky and Michael was found at the bottom of a ravine, spooked but unharmed. This was the official story.

“Shall we order in?” Father said, unknotting his Sunday tie, as he steered Michael into the house. Mother was outside, brushing off pine needles from the hood of the car.

Michael wore his favorite Bart Simpson T-shirt that said, Ay, caramba! and the neon-green Sketchers our parents had bought for him as consolation present for camp. These were the shoes he forgot to take off before entering the house. He’d never made this mistake before.

I had to warm up for my smile. But Michael went up and thumped his skinny arms around each of us.

“I missed you, Gabe,” he said.

“Did you miss me, Raph?” he said.

I said I did, but the words caught in my throat, like a clump of hair.

“What happened, Mikey?” Gabe said, which made our mother wince, as though he’d flicked her in the face with a rubber band.

A few weeks ago, Michael had requested we stop calling him Mikey. He said nicknames were lazy. The parishioners called us simply “the triplets” because our English names— Ga-bu-ri-el, Mi-ka-el, Ra-pa-el—bludgeoned the Korean tongue. The lisping children from the church nursery called our father Pastor Lion; often he’d smile and roar. But Michael had long since switched out of Korean, as neatly as the day he’d demanded his own bedroom, which had caused Gabe to retaliate, “Do you hate us, Mikey? Do we smell, Mikey? Mikey Mikey Mikey

Gabe’s “Mikey” this time was a slip-up. My parents and I dug in our heels for Hurricane Michael.

Michael’s smile remained untouched. He gazed beyond us at an invisible chalkboard full of secrets. He’d lost weight. The whites of his eyes were blued.

“I got lost,” he said. “Then I was found.”

*

That his name wasn’t supposed to be Michael may have been the source of all our earthly suffering. Gabe was born eleven minutes earlier than me and I was born four minutes earlier than Michael. Our mother had almost died the night of our childbirth. “Praise the Lord,” our father had said as he told the story. Then he saw our tripled confusion and added, “Well, she survived.”

It turned out one of us had almost killed our mother. He never said which one.

For the record, it wasn’t me. I reached this conclusion not out of a pious arrogance but cheerful rationality. I was born the smallest of the three. The runt, so to speak, which may have been why the nurse had assumed I was youngest, bumping Michael to the front. Our parents had long since decided the order of our names—the eldest would be Michael, the greatest of archangels, followed by Gabriel, the left hand of God, and Raphael, relegated to youngest.

According to our father, all three of us had so much hair, monstrously black, the admiring nurse took out a fine-tooth comb and parted our hair right along the middle. Lying in a row, the tops of our heads looked like defaced Bibles, open to Revelations.

If I wished to be facetious, I could blame the nurse for my brothers’ eternal tug-of-war. Had Michael been named Raphael, he might not have rebelled against Gabe so much. Every night, our mother penciled them against a bookshelf with our father’s complete series of Chicken Soup For The Soul. They’d tilt their chins in front of the uncooperative mirror to see who had grown a moustache overnight. Gabe was the first to get glasses. Michael was so angry, he’d slammed the toilet seat repeatedly as he howled like a wounded animal.

They were racing toward ruin.

*

Mother, who wasn’t much of a cook, ordered in Michael’s favorite meal to celebrate. Father thanked our Heavenly Father for Michael’s return and for the Little Caesars Bacon-Wrapped Cheese Crust Deep Dish Pizza.

“Amen,” Michael said.

Gabe rolled his eyes at me, but I was watching our mother. I’d like to think I was her favorite, willing to help out in the kitchen, exquisitely sensitive, alternatively supportive.

Her smile braced itself. She asked Michael if he’d made any friends. He said, “Tons,” but failed to supply names.

“What about Sarah?” I said.

“Who?” Michael said.

“She stole your Charizard card,” Gabe said.

“Yeah,” Michael said. “That bitch.”

“Michael!” Mother said.

Michael laughed. “That Sarah.”

“Did Sarah push you into the ravine?” Mother said.

“I forgive her.” Michael lifted his fork and knife, the conductor to his own orchestra. “Thank you for the pizza, Mom and Dad.”

He might as well have called them Ryan and Michelle.

Mother wasn’t done, but Father began praising Michael for turning cheeks.

Later, during our bath, Gabe wouldn’t disengage his glasses. They fogged up into twin moons. I gave him a meaningful look, like, “Gabe. C’mon.” He said he needed them to make sure it was him.

“What about the scar I gave him?” I whispered. Michael had just strolled into the bathroom, covered in nothing but the oil on his mouth, lurid orange from pizza.

Gabe finished scrubbing my back and I, his. The both of us waited for Michael, feeling our skin dry and clutch the baby-blue plastic stools.

It was unfamiliar, pitying Michael, who curled up alone in the tub. His ribs jutted, the husk of a sunken pirate ship. We eyed the scar on his chest, shaped in a tiny black heart, which Michael had always hated. Father said I’d stabbed Michael with a pencil seven years ago. I was only four, so how could I remember?

Instead of leaving, Gabe toweled off slowly. All evening, he had stared at Michael, not discreetly as was my propensity, but with a finger-pointing disbelief.

I was glad to have Michael back. I should add, I’d never felt the urge to compete with my brothers. We were a unit like the Holy Trinity. Or better yet, the giant robot in Power Rangers. Gabe was the head, I was the torso, and Michael was the legs. In later years, I’d compare myself to the neck, supporting the head and giving it guidance. If Gabe could be relied upon and Michael could be admired, I would be the bridge.

“This water is nice,” Michael said. “So is this little boat.” He made a caw-caw noise and lifted the boat into the air. Then he let it sink.

He would continue to act like this for the rest of the summer: alternating flashes of the old vicious Michael and the deficient, frankly stunted new. After minutes of humming and rocking, Michael climbed out of the tub, hair plastered to his skull, and left without wiping off on a towel, tracking glistening footprints.

“It’s not him,” said Gabe.

*

I never expected Gabe would want the old Michael back. Since the second grade, Michael had pendulumed from sullen flatness to uncontrollable rage, and aimed most of it at Gabe, who’d insisted on munificently playing big brother.

The angrier Michael grew, the more our father reminisced. “You used to kiss each other,” Father had confided while teaching me chess, just the two of us, for once. “Lots of little kisses. Raph, you didn’t like them much. You’d always scream.”

“I don’t mind them now,” I’d said, eyes wide.

“I tell your mom you screamed your life’s quota as a toddler. Like you were shouting, Look at me, look at me! Michael was the opposite. Never made a sound. He was such a good, calm baby.”

I found the calm Michael more dangerous. Sometimes, the fog of rage would lift, permitting him to channel his mind for micro-cruelisms. There was a week when I was being punished, maybe after the cat incident. Michael, leaning treacherously across the dining table, would jab the points of his chopsticks for the soy sauce. I, who sat closer, would naturally hand it to him. He’d grimace. Pluck the saucer with fingertips. This physical avoidance escalated. By the end of the week, he’d shudder from me. Full-body shivers. The kids in school picked up on this. They would walk around me. Look right through me.

But I had faith. I’d try to make up for it at home. Wash him strawberries. Scrub the dishes on his nights. Copy my homework onto his. It took two weeks for the punishment to lift. The television, a negative influence, had been banished to the Judgment Day bunker, but on Saturday mornings when our parents were busy with preparations at the church, we fought over Father’s La-Z-Boy, lumpy from all the times we’d tried to wedge our butts into the seat, and watched reruns of Ed, Edd n Eddy and Samurai Jack.

Michael, enthroned in the La-Z-Boy, asked for the remote.

I’d relinquished it with simpering delight. He gave me a deliberate, flat-eyed smile and said we should watch Sixth Sense, which he’d nagged our mother into renting from Blockbuster.

“Bruce Willis is a ghost but doesn’t know it,” he said, spoiling the ending. The FBI warning flashed blue on the screen. “Such an idiot.”

*

Turning the other cheek is what I’m known for. This is why I offered the metaphorical branch on the night Michael returned from summer camp. We brushed our teeth. Michael tried to use my white toothbrush, instead of his green, which sparked off suspicion in Gabe’s eyes. I asked Michael if he was going to sleep alright. He asked if he could sleep in the same room.

Ever so diplomatic, I said, “Sure, your bed hasn’t gone anywhere.”

Gabe jumped in, practically brandishing a megaphone. “Why? You have your own room. You wanted your own room.”

The look on Michael’s face went blank with surprise, then bewilderment, which flickered into that secretive, gleaming hate, so familiar it intoxicated.

Our bunk beds were piled on top of each other, mine and Gabe parallel. Michael used to sleep in perpendicular, facing us like a battering ram. Some nights, especially the teeth-chattering ones, we’d clamber into one bed creaking in protest, which was often mine, since it felt like a secret treehouse, with the oak canopy and Superman curtain. Michael had wanted Batman. Gabe and I outvoted him.

If anyone wanted to sleep in the same bed, the unspoken rule was to never mock or deny these requests, always a whisper, often past midnight, after a bad dream, sometimes a shared dream. I would blearily scooch over and Gabe would bellyflop, Michael and I would both swear (“Shat!”), then Michael would tug the blanket over us, which ended up a tangled rat’s tail come morning.

I waited for Gabe to fall asleep before I rose, softening the squeak of coils. Gabe sided with our mother, believing Father and I were too soft on Michael. Father was weak. Mind you, I had the utmost respect for him. He served as my primary role model, as the youthful star of Our Lady of Assumption. His sermons rivaled even the most lavish spectacles at those LA mega-churches. A pastor family—especially from Indiana U’s cloistered Korean-American community where gossip was routinely flown back home to the motherland—must be perfect to the teeth. Our mother, as “Pastor Lion’s” wife, took up triple-duty as mother to her children, the church’s children, the church as her children.

I suspect this was why she Old Testamented us, often with the shoehorn. It was a fine, slender thing, dark as wine, and whenever we’d misbehaved, our mother would force us to bring it and it would always be Gabe, the oldest, who had to carry the shoehorn down the hall to our parents’ bedroom with quivering solemnity. After the shoehorn disappeared—since we buried it in the courtyard—our mother had said nothing, replacing it with a ruler, cheap and effective.

Father, batting for Matthew over Malachi, answered our bleating for mercy. But even I would say he handled Michael with kid gloves. He’d dismissed Michael’s issues as a phase, admitting he was a bit “yangachi” himself before he turned twenty and found his way to Jesus.

On my way to Michael’s room, I didn’t turn on the lights. I was curious. Had the camp cured Michael or changed him?

Mother used to say when Korea was a very poor nation, poorer even than Africa, which was not too long ago, the feeble, elderly, or naughty were abandoned in the woods to starve or be eaten by wild animals. Sometimes they’d return. They’d return different.

My feet pricked with each step. I wasn’t afraid of the dark, even as a child. To this day, I seek an elusive comfort in it. One can stand in the dark and expect not to be seen.

The door was open but pressed against the doorway in a closed smile. I stuck a finger in the gap, widening it by half an inch.

Someone was standing in the middle of the room. A ghost, I thought. Or a robber.

It was Michael. The bed was still made, sheets flat as a napkin, pillow fluffed. Everything else was untouched, including Michael’s Jurassic Park duffle bag, unzipped.

Michael stood still, facing the wall by the bed.

I didn’t move.

His head turned. The angle of the neck was strange.

I couldn’t see the face. It was night, yes, but the face had morphed into a blackhole where nothing but air whistled through, sweet and beckoning.

Is that you, Michael? I would have asked—if I could.

*

Curing Michael was all our parents had prayed for. We’d often listen in on our mother’s calls from the kitchen, all three of us squirming against the phone by her piano. “It’s not ADHD,” she was saying. “Mom, I told you, the psychologist, this is the researcher from Columbia. Ryan has a friend who specializes in ADHD and he said it’s not just impulse control.”

I’d mouthed, “What’s ADHD?”

“Asshole Dickhead Has Diarrhea,” Michael said.

We burst out laughing. Our mother hollered, “Off! Off the phone!” and Gabe, still giggling, dropped it, cla-clank, and we scattered for a minute before regrouping outside by the lavender bush.

I took a detour, a brief one. I popped back into the living room and picked up the phone to catch a sliver of our mother’s voice, as she switched and plunged into Korean, which I knew meant it was serious, urgent, prophetic: “You know what they say. Hurting animals. It’s the first damn sign.”

A week after the phone call, a man and woman visited our house. The woman was tall and pretty as a giraffe, with thick, soupy eyelashes. The man, the Ivy League expert, had electrocuted hair and a very pink face, as if freshly scrubbed from the sauna. He perched at the dining table which afforded him a savannah view of the living room, a notepad balanced on a knee that jiggled furiously.

We were supposed to be in the wild but were acutely aware of being watched. Gabe and I glued our eyes to the Pokémon movie, while Michael peeled tangerines. Three in a row. He’d offered me a scalped tangerine. “This is for you, Raph.”

I’d accepted it with an equally sarcastic, “Thank you, Michael.” It was a habit of ours to do everything in threes. I resented how Michael was perverting our ritual for his fake show of generosity.

“I would love a tangerine,” said the giraffe, rapturous.

I was grinding tangerine peels in the waste disposal when Dr. Hanson cornered me. I switched it off, but a low growl lingered as he asked me about school, my friends, family, brothers, if I got along with them.

I asked if he was recording me. The question slipped out. Fortunately, Dr. Hanson took it as a sign of nervousness rather than displeasure. He assured me not to worry.

I said my brothers were okay, Dr. Hanson.

“Your father tells me you’re close.”

“We’re a trinity.” I was proud of that word. “It means we’re a trio.”

“You’re very good at English.”

I smiled. I must have seemed shy. Dr. Hanson lifted the recorder and made the show of turning it off. “Your mother told me about the incident.”

“Which one, Dr. Hanson? The chandelier incident? The ghost? The cat?”

“That’s a lot of incidents.”

“It was all my fault.”

I paused. Concern, parasitic, burrowed its way into Dr. Hanson’s brow.

“I shouldn’t have pushed Michael,” I said.

“Could you explain that?”

I tried to recall Bast. My eyes tingled. Tears welled. Our father was very good at crying on behalf of his parishioners. “There was a cat in our church. She had three kittens.” One calico, one striped, and one black. They were terrified of us. They were right to be. Only the mother, Bast, had trusted me. I’d coaxed her with dolphin-safe tuna cans, rescued from our father’s Judgement Day bunker, and soon she’d slink against my leg, her fur rich with fish oil and contentment. The cat had a muddy, undesirable coat, which I’ve since learned is called tortoiseshell, but her eyes, they were Egyptian turquoise, flecked with green and gold. Look into a cat’s eyes and you can see the universe.

I told Dr. Hanson I named her after the cat-headed goddess. We’d just learned about Ancient Egypt. Michael didn’t care for Bast, but had a keen interest in the kittens. He’d stalk them from afar. They always spotted him with their catty sense and scampered onto the walls where they’d mewl in frustration for their mother, seduced by me.

Dr. Hanson had wanted to know why I thought it was my fault.

Because Michael said so.

*

A week before school started, Gabe caught the flu. He likely drove himself into a fever spying on Michael all of summer break. I didn’t know how to dissuade him. Every time he’d talk to Michael, he’d be mocking and cruel, “Did you brush your teeth, Mikey?” “Do you remember how to play chess, Mikey?” or “What happened in the woods, Mikey?”

Since the night Michael returned from camp, I’d been avoiding him myself. It wasn’t because I was full of fear, like with the cat incident, which put me on stilts. Michael was acting stalkerish, tailing me with his blueish-white gaze. It was Gabe -> Michael -> me. Like a love triangle, but irritating.

Gabe peeled tangerines from the top bunk. Lined them up, three in a row. He stared at them morosely.

“Gotta eat ’em all,” I sang. Mother, who’d stayed home, forgoing the church charity drive, had sent me to check in on him.

Gabe flipped over. Pretty passive-aggressive for him.

“How are you okay with this?” Gabe said.

I should have said, “Gabe, no matter what I’m on your side.”

Instead I said, “Gabe, he was left in a forest. He must have been alone and scared. What if an animal attacked him? Remember Mom’s stories? The Korean folktale stuff?”

In these non-Christian tales, the people who are left behind—the feeble, the elderly, the naughty—they’re eaten by wild animals, sometimes. And sometimes these wild animals put on their skins and return to the village where they wait for the neighbors to fall asleep before removing the skins. Sometimes they come out at night.

“Yeah, exactly,” Gabe said. “What if it’s not him?”

“Do you know that?”

“I’ll prove it.”

Gabe, our leader, such a go-getter. Since we were toddlers, Father would take us on grocery runs to Sakura Mart, which sounds convincingly Japanese but was Korean-owned, lugging Michael on his back and me in front. To open the car, he’d set everything down and have his oldest stand guard. Imagine Gabe, dimpled legs apart, the infant lookout for potential grocery-thieves.

“Okay,” I said. “How are you going to prove Michael’s not Michael?”

“You tell me. You’re the nerd.”

“Are you going to beat it out of him? Throw holy water? Shove his head to the stove?”

Maybe Michael was possessed, but he had been acting possessed since age seven. We had lost our brother once, then twice to camp. Did we have to lose him a third time?

“I’m glad Michael is back. Even if he’s different. That’s just how he is. He always has to be different.”

Gabe slumped, including his glasses, which seemed to bend at the nose. He reached for one of the tangerines, peels spread like a carnivorous flower. I was about to close the bedroom door when I heard a scream.

Gabe flung the tangerine, screaming, “His hair, his hair!”

I picked up the tangerine from the floor. It was light as a plastic bag. Inside the skin was no fruit, but the sticky fist of hair, like a big crushed spider.

“It’s just,” I said. “It’s hair.”

“It’s Michael.”

Michael’s hair was darker than this, not quite so soft, so skinnable. This was like cat fur.

I dropped it with a small shriek. Our mother came in with a tray of chicken ginger porridge and steaming mug of hanyak, herbal medicine at its foulest. She dropped the tray on the desk. Wasting no movement, her hand cupped Gabe’s forehead, then forced hanyak down his throat.

I could feel a gaze on me. I didn’t dare look behind. Maybe I was in a daze. It took a minute to feel my shaking hands, my own two hands, spiritually amputated, while the rest was tangled up in a choking sigh.

*

It was Easter when Gabe noticed one of the kittens had gone missing.

“I can’t find the black one,” Gabe said.

He and I had looked at each other, then at Michael, who lay flat on his belly in our father’s office, coloring in a three-headed dragon. Black fire scribbled from rotting purple jaws. His shoulders shrugged before we even spoke.

“Have you seen the kitten?” I asked.

This time he’d looked up at me in affected surprise. “No.” He added, “Sorry.”

We combed the courtyard. I searched behind Our Lady of Assumption. The back of her cascading dress, hollowed inside, had once nursed a nest of quail eggs. In the end, we found only two of the kittens. No sign of Bast, even.

Weeks later, as summer crept on us, parishioners complained of a stench, but with discretion, leaving little folded notes in the suggestion box. This was weeks before that Ivy League expert would diagnose Michael and send him to camp. Our mother traced the smell to the heaters behind the altar. It was the corpse of a cat, mangled and soggy, with stumps for legs and dust-filled sockets, missing a pair of Egyptian turquoise eyes.

*

When I returned to the kitchen with the tangerine, Michael was playing with Father’s Isle of Lewis chess set. Michael knew how to play chess—he was even good at it—but instead of actually playing it, he was making caw-caw noises, lifting the pieces over his head, then let them fall. “Snap!” he said. “Snap! Snap!”

A wave of bristling violence crashed within, chipping away at the me I wanted to be. I wanted to grind the tangerine peels in his face, like anyone would seize a puppy by the scruff and shove its nose in its piddle.

I ran the tangerine skin through the waste disposal. The hair, tangling up in the blades, flailed in rivets of spider legs.

The phone shrilled. Mother shouted at me, specifically, to answer it. She was downstairs in the Judgment Day bunker, probably scanning the tuna shelves for more hanyak. I reached for the phone on the hook. The rings stopped midway.

As I clambered down the stool, Gabe stood in the doorway. The front of his soccer pajamas was soaked. His eyes, swiveling, were almost merry in their brightness.

“Gabe—,” I started, but he shoved past me. Michael looked up from the chessboard, the king and pawn in each fist.

Gabe said, “Get out.”

“Gabe,” Michael said, with his chalkboard smile.

“Get out of here.”

“Gabe,” I said, “you’re acting crazy—”

Gabe seized the chessboard and hurled it at Michael. The chessmen pitter-pattered. I kicked away the knight, sheer instinct, then tried to grab it as it rolled bumpily toward the fridge. Gabe shouted over the thumping in my ears, “What did you do to him? Where is he? Where is Michael?”

“I’m Michael,” Michael said in a piping voice. “I’m here.”

I grabbed the knight. The head had snapped off the neck. “Oh no,” I murmured. It wasn’t even real wood. The white sutured veins gave that impression. Even now, I marvel at how it broke so easily, like an infant. The head dangled, as if by a fold of skin. I picked up the pawn. Found the king. Fell to my hands and knees. Queen. Knight. Another pawn. Even the bishop with his shoulders hunched to his thick earlobes. All broken, necks snapped.

Gabe pushed Michael, who crumpled gleefully boneless. Michael didn’t fight back. This was killing Gabe. Because that’s all Michael did: fight.

Michael rose, flushed, eyes of ecstasy.

“Ha!” he said. “Ha! Ha!” He shucked off his shirt. Freckled skin stretched over his ribs. He’d filled out, no longer so sunken or pale. He must have been feeding off of us. He laughed, “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Gabe started choking. His inhaler. I should have gone to get it, or our mother. Michael grabbed the milk from the fridge and poured it over Gabe’s head—a baptism. He poured the milk into his own mouth. The milk, frothing, topped his throat. When Mother arrived, the milk was still flowing. It slicked down the hollows of his chest and legs in rivulets, pooling between his feet in a white puddle of urine. Michael was still laughing. Or maybe I was the one laughing, maybe inside.

*

Sometimes I miss Michael. Then I scold myself. Raph, you shouldn’t be harboring such negative thoughts. Michael is still with us, even if he’s different now. It’s difficult to explain. It’s just I wish it could have been different. I wish I could feel different. But we were all created as God intended. I don’t think anyone is to blame here.

It wasn’t my fault, Michael kept saying, the night before he was sent away. We could hear him from our parents’ bedroom. Why do you hate me? I hate you. Ill kill you. Ill kill this whole family. His rages turned tearfully Korean. Umma, appa. Please dont send me away.

Gabe’s breath shuddered from above. I’d stared at the ceiling. The darkness had taken on a reddish tint from the Superman curtain, the velvet walls of a womb. Father never told us which of us had almost killed our mother.

Outside, the light switched on.

Michael knocked on our door.

Gabe? he said. Raph?

I knew Gabe was awake. Gabe knew I was awake.

Michael turned the doorknob. It hit a snap. I never told Gabe I’d locked the door. After everything Michael had done to us, we’d never tried to lock him out. Through the door’s bright gap, Michael’s shadow stretched into our room, trying to reach us. I could hear him breathing hard, like he was gulping down the tears as they came. I’d only seen Michael cry in anger, never in sorrow.

He’d stood there. Then, finally, his footsteps had faded away.

*

That night, Gabe slept in Michael’s room. He said he didn’t want to spread his flu. I didn’t take it personally. Gabe wanted to sleep in Michael’s bed. To soak up what little was left of our lost-then-found brother. I didn’t tell Gabe those sheets had been laundered and fleeced of any scent, and all he was clutching was a facsimile of comfort. I’d learned that the truth wasn’t always tolerated. Michael had taught me well.

I had a dream. I rarely dream. If I do, they’re black and gray, like the fog in Our Lady’s courtyard. In this dream, I’m lost in the forest, swampy and decayed as an old mouth, relying on my feet and sounds. Snap, crackle, crunch. Someone is holding my hand. It’s Michael. His hand is spongy, the bones dissolved inside. A tingle crawls up my arms, beetles shining midnight, worms trailing slime, and loose skin begins to slough onto my palm. Michael’s hand ends at his wrist. Bone protrudes sharp like straw in a sippy cup. I drop the hand in terror. I run until my foot slips and ankle snaps, and I fall and land on my—

I woke.

Someone stood over me. Michael, head tilted, faceless. From where I lay, his neck looked broken.

“Don’t do that,” I said.

Michael lifted his head. The neck seemed to right itself.

“You’re doing everything wrong. You might have changed, but you still need to act like the old Michael. You can’t be a suck-up.” I sat up. “Stop trying to mirror me. You’re not me.”

“You’re not you,” Michael said.

That wasn’t unwarranted, but still it irritated me. “You have to trick people into loving you,” and I heard how cold my voice was. I tried on our father’s soothing, pastoral tone. “It’s not supposed to be easy.”

Michael’s face began to show. Maybe my eyes were adjusting to the dark. He looked lost. As a child, I must have felt pity. Pieta. Piety. If it weren’t for my brothers, I too would have been lost. But I knew my place. I was the bridge. The hypotenuse of our trinity. The least I could do was embrace Michael for what he was, as God had accepted me.

“I’m cold,” Michael said blankly.

I took him by the hand. His hand was ice, but I held on. I wouldn’t reject him. This was Michael, at least in flesh. We’d checked for the pencil marked heart I had left on him.

In Michael’s old room, Gabe slept. He gripped the clumpy pillow, his eyes swollen lumps, smelling sweet of sickness and hanyak. I sank my knee into the mattress. Gabe opened his eyes to see us watching him. The whites of his eyes glistened. He shivered and his eyes closed. It made me smile. I wanted to put his glasses on him.

Gabe rolled over, as I knew he would. I climbed in. Then Michael.

Gabriel. Raphael. Michael. This is the right order.

Michael faced me, fingers in an open fist. For a long time, he watched. Then, without closing his eyes, his features stiffened. A statue of ice, melting a little. Coldness seeped into the sheets. His skin’s moon-white plasticity sunk into his skelature. The faint scent of lavender lingered, but not real lavender. The lavender that hangs in a little cross-shaped pouch in our car. He smelled preserved.

I could have touched him. He would have slept, eyes open, whites almost blue. He trusted me. Like the time Bast climbed onto my lap and kneaded her paws. The breaths she took, the bed of fur and flesh stirring over the bone cage. I’d stroked her face, gently with my knuckles. She’d placed her chin in the palms of my hands, like an offering. I reached for the scissors in my back pocket. Behind my eyes, the emptiness stirred. I too could be moved and feel my lack and salvation in the faith of one of God’s living creatures. She saw and loved me. Her Egyptian eyes. I could hold onto them forever.

It was Michael who found me. Her eyes, slick in my palms. Lumps of Jell-O.

Michael had finally caught the black kitten, but the thing wailed in his muddied embrace. He dropped it. Off it ran. I never saw it again.