Egon thought he heard the voice of God. In a soft rumble that had formed words, telling him not to fear, to relax, to listen, to trust. He was in the shadows of an oak tree beneath its crown of dark brambles. He looked up to locate the source of this phenomenon as the voice began to fade like a sputtering airplane. The branches were arched and formed the dome of a cathedral with stained-glass views of blue sky and sunbeams streaming through its windows.
Blinded for a second, Egon shielded his eyes. In the sparkling blackout, he smelled blackberries mixed with the scent of sage, along with whiffs of dust stirred in the air by his feet. The mountain trail was cooler inside this shady grove, but sweltering beyond its shelter. Even birds weren’t talking much, being quieter than normal, hiding from the heat. His forehead was damp with sweat. It was morning, not even noon. He stopped to watch a squirrel scamper up the trunk of a tree and chatter at him before he ventured out into the endless blue sky with the full force of the sun upon him.
Egon never thought his sister would actually do it, run away, but now she had, and he was searching the woods looking for her. Being twins, they were supposed to know each other’s thoughts and feel what the other was feeling. Which was stupid. He rarely knew what Faye was thinking or feeling. Contrary to what he’d overheard on the school bus, the older kids saying twins were “telepathic.” He had to look up the word in the dictionary. The meaning was clear. They believed twins could transmit thoughts supernaturally. Which meant these other kids thought they were both freaks.
Faye didn’t care. But Egon did. He wanted to know what else people thought about him and his sister.
It was pointless to shout. If Faye wanted to be found she would be found. But that didn’t stop him from searching overhead as he passed under branches because Faye liked to climb trees. She’d hide, then jump down to startle him. That was how she played.
With the sun at his back, Egon observed his shadow as it took the lead, attached to his feet and the ground. He flailed his arms and watched the elongated figure mimicking his gestures, mocking their connection. It reminded him of the conjoined twins he’d seen on TV. Because of a birth defect, two girls were forced to share a body. They had separate heads and hearts, but only two arms and two legs. Each girl had her own personality and independent sensations. Somehow they had learned to play the piano, ride a bike, swim, even drive a car. They were considered a medical mystery.
Egon couldn’t imagine sharing a body with his sister. It would never work. They were too independent. He told Faye about seeing these two girls inside one body but she wasn’t interested. She said she already felt like a freak and didn’t need reminding.
On their ninth birthday, his sister gave up playing with dolls and stuffed animals. She wanted to become magical.
That was three years ago. They’d been walking along this same path. “Nine is a magical age,” she’d told him. “And a lucky number. The highest single-digit. It’s the symbol for dragons who have supernatural powers.”
“Chinese mythology,” he told her. “I knew that. There are nine muses in Greek mythology too. So what?”
“And nine choirs of angels. It proves my theory.”
“You have no theory.”
“Do too. Special powers don’t come unless you seek them out. How many lives do cats have? Nine.”
Egon laughed. “Not the ones Dad shoots.”
“We don’t know for sure. Maybe they already had nine—”
“And nine circles of Hell.”
“You’re a killjoy.”
“I am not. It’s what they told us in church.”
Egon looked at his sister and each time it felt strange. Because they looked alike. They came from different eggs and were fraternal twins. Yet they had the same blue eyes, almost silver. Same shape to their face except Faye’s lips were fuller. And they had the same black hair, roughly the same length, except on this morning his sister had decided to tie hers into a ponytail. It swished back and forth with each turn and flick of her head.
“You look like a horse.”
She made a face. “Then so do you.”
“With your ponytail.”
“It’s fun. You should try it.”
“Boy’s don’t wear—”
“Then stop trying to look like me.”
“Cut your hair then.”
“Lots of boys have long hair.”
He swatted her hand away from touching him.
“So prickly,” she teased. “You’re a porcupine.”
“Are too. You expect the worst and see the worst.”
“That’s not true. Look. Over there.”
Egon walked off the trail to a cluster of bushes and pointed at a large spiderweb. Its iridescent strands glistened in the sunlight.
Faye was unimpressed. “So?”
“It’s a work of art.”
“It’s a stupid spiderweb, Egon.”
“I bet you didn’t know that silk threads are stronger than steel if they were the same thickness. Spiders are weird. Did you know they’ve been on Earth for like more than 350,000 years?”
“And where before that?”
“All I’m saying is they’ve been here a lot longer than us.”
“What are you saying, they’re smarter?”
“No, but we can learn from them.”
Faye touched her palms together in prayer. “Oh great wise one, come out wherever you are. Teach us your secrets. You’re smarter than my brother, I know that. Because he’s an idiot.”
“You sound like dad.”
Faye was laughing. “You’re a nerd. Better?”
Egon pretended to ignore her and examined the web. “Spiders eat their webs too. Did you know that?”
“They recycle the silk to build new ones. It’s true. See, I told you spiders were weird.”
“That’s more than weird. It’s gross.”
“Not the males. Only females build spiderwebs.” Egon smiled and poked his sister.
She hit him back. “It figures. Girls do all the real work. Boys are useless.”
Egon pointed into the bush. “There. See?”
“There he—I mean, she is. Hiding.”
Faye blew air at the spider. “We see you. Stop spying.”
“Did you know Little Miss Muffet was a real girl?”
Faye scrunched her lips. “Who?”
Egon took a gulp of water from his thermos. “You know, from that fairytale. Her dad was a doctor. He crushed up spiders and had her eat them. He thought it was a cure for the common cold.”
“Men are morons.”
Faye grabbed his water bottle and drank from it.
Egon took out his pocket compass and watched the arrow spin to the north. “Except he was right. Sorta. Spiderwebs really do have healing powers.”
Faye widened her eyes to express disbelief.
“I’m serious. Their silk has properties that can stop bleeding. When placed over a wound.”
“It helps coagulation. The silk has vitamin K—”
Faye swept the spiderweb up in her hand and wiped it over her brother’s face. “There—go heal yourself.” She squealed and ran off laughing.
“That’s not funny!”
Egon spat, laughing too, brushing off the sticky web and chased after his sister before finally stopping, knowing he’d never catch her. She was too fast.
Egon stood there, recalling the memory. They had been nine. They were now twelve.
He could almost picture her disappearing into the trees off in the distance, after running through the tall green grass, now golden. He wiped sweat from his forehead and decided to go look where she had gone that day. He trampled a new path through the brittle stalks of wheat that cracked and hissed. While trudging along the hillside that dipped down, then rose up, then down again, he heard the clicking of insects but couldn’t spot or hear a single bird.
“Forty-eight hours,” said his father. “You wait forty-eight hours before you call someone a missing person. Police, they won’t do a damned thing or take you seriously.” His father had been reclined in his armchair. His, because no one else was allowed to sit there. He was on his second beer and third shot of tequila. “In case you ever vanish, and you don’t make it back within that time frame. Or, let’s say you do show up after running away. Then hell, I’d be forced to bury you myself. Advance warning.” His father had grinned to show he was half joking, bending back his head to swallow tequila before wiping his mouth, followed by a laugh.
Time was running out for Faye. It was close to forty-eight hours since she’d gone missing. Egon could hardly blame her. He’d heard her muffled cries from the night before. Egon knew what his father had done. He now realized he’d been doing it to her for years.
The following morning his sister had refused to come out of her bedroom. She had yelled at him when he entered. “You do nothing. You let him get away with it!”
Egon snapped back, “What am I supposed to do?”
“I hate you.”
“I’m not him, Faye,”
“You will be.”
“No, I won’t.”
“You’re a boy. Next a man. I hate my life!”
Egon stood helpless as he watched his sister throw herself onto the bed and cry into her pillow. When she looked up and saw he was still standing there, she screamed at him. “I said—go away! Leave me alone! I never want to see you ever again! Ever!”
Egon had shut the door behind him, never actually believing he wouldn’t see his sister again. He blinked, looking up at the sun, into the blinding light before shutting his eyes. He had to wait a moment to collect his senses. When he opened his eyes he felt light-headed and dizzy.
He came upon the grove of trees. The clustered oaks made him think of cattle herded around a source of water. The stream was now a mere trickle. He slid down the riverbank avoiding rocks and ruts to reach the water. He walked downstream and came to the millpond his sister had discovered when they were five years old. It was one of their secret hiding places even though a few other kids knew about the swimming hole too. The stream had been dammed into a pond by someone, and so the water level remained pretty much the same year-round.
But Faye wasn’t there. At least, not in plain site. He knew she could be hiding, but he had his doubts. She’d left the house in the middle of the night. Her purple backpack was gone. Drawers had been left open, half shut, with clothing missing. Her favorite frayed blue denim jacket was not in the hall closet. He assumed she’d taken food from the kitchen too. He’d done his best to cover for her by pretending to bring food to her room and telling both his parents she wasn’t feeling well. His mother was half drunk by dinnertime. And his father said nothing. Except to lift his gaze from the football game to give him a suspicious look.
Egon gazed at the millpond, searching its shore. It was wider than their backyard and deep in the center for diving. Egon wanted to strip to his shorts and swim. But he resisted, climbing one of the oak trees instead. Several branches extended over the water. One had a rope swing. Egon positioned his body where the crook of higher branches spread out from its trunk. It gave him a mostly clear view of the entire pond, while keeping him camouflaged, unseen unless someone happened to look up.
Assuming Faye hadn’t reached the highway and hitched a ride, Egon guessed she’d be somewhere in the woods, and would gravitate to this pond eventually. Because of the heat. And the water. So he sat and waited, cooling off in the shade.
Having dozed, he awakened to a barking dog. Looking down, he saw a golden labrador drinking at the shore. Next came a girl. She stood beside the dog and petted its head. Egon recognized her. She was a year younger and went to the same middle school.
Egon watched the girl pick up a stick and toss it into the water. The dog dove after it. After retrieving the stick, she threw it in again. She did this several times before moving away to sit upon the ground. The lab came out of the pond and dropped the stick in front of her, then shook his body – spraying water on her.
The girl shrieked and laughed. Gershwin? Strange name for a dog thought Egon. The name of a musician. He recalled seeing her carrying a case for an instrument, maybe a flute or clarinet. He had watched her on the playground with her friends and thought she was pretty. But because of their difference in age and sex, they were never really part of the same social group.
Egon held his breath. He realized what the girl was about to do. He remained still, unlike her dog, who squirmed as she commanded to him to “Stay.” After a careful examination of her surroundings, she removed her shirt, next her bra, exposing her breasts with their budding nipples. She kicked off her shoes and removed her shorts. Except for white panties, she was naked and waded into the water. Glancing back at her dog, she pointed and commanded, “Stay! You be my watchdog. Bark if you see anyone coming.”
The dog seemed confused, cocking its head as she lowered her body into the water and swam away. Gershwin leapt into the pond and dog-paddled after her.
“Gershwin! I told you to stay! Go back!”
She laughed as she scolded her dog. His disobedience amused Egon too. He wanted to take part in this fun, leap into the water and surprise them both. Instead, he continued to watch from above. The girl held her breath and dove, legs kicking upwards, exposing her pink bottom before she disappeared underwater.
More than thirty seconds had passed and she hadn’t surfaced. Egon began to worry. Her dog too, swimming in circles, aimlessly looking for her. Then she shot up, gasping for air, laughing.
She swam back to shore, Gershwin splashing behind her. She emerged from the water and found a patch of dry grass to sit on with sunlight shining through the patchwork of trees. Gershwin plopped down beside her. While drying off in the heat, she gazed around, appearing to admire the beauty, the seclusion, then tilted her head back and closed her eyes.
As she absorbed the warmth of the sun, Egon absorbed the sight of her. He thought she looked like a goddess he’d seen in a painting. Her golden hair hung in wet tangles from her head tilted upwards. Both arms were extended behind to prop her body, her chest arched, with water drops glistening on her skin like jewels.
The world felt mystical and magical, and Egon became aroused. He felt the stirrings of love and lust, unable to take his eyes off her. That is until she opened her eyes – blinking and refocusing – seeing him in a tree!
She screamed, covered her breasts and stood. Her dog barking, unsure what was happening. The girl was scrambling to get dressed, ducking into her t-shirt, stepping into her shorts, grabbing her bra, slipping on her shoes, then running away.
She ran up the riverbank and was gone.
It happened fast.
The barks from Gershwin faded into the distance. The silence that followed was disquieting. He wondered if she had seen his face? Had she recognized him? He felt embarrassed, ashamed, perched in a tree like a monster. A gargoyle. An aberration of nature. A boy transformed into an ungodly creature, cursed by the gods.
His metamorphosis was aborted by a voice.