The leaves rustled in that way they always did, the way that infused in Lysander a prickling sense of unease. Someone would hear this time. Someone would find out. Of course, a mile into deep forest, the roots of this fear were shallow, if existent at all. He’d be fine, he whispered to himself, repeating the words like a mantra. Lysander’s hands twitched as he pulled the white softness of his sweater tighter to him in the chill.
It was almost one in the morning when Ilias finally arrived. His footsteps were quiet, subtle; but Lysander had learned to detect them, to hear the soft contact of Ilais’s worn sneakers on soil. To him, it was the prettiest sound in the world. The air around the two was thick with shadows as they spoke to each other in hushed tones, exchanging the priceless gifts of each other’s words. The moon would occasionally join them, but tonight, it hid; leaving the sky deep and dark, and every once in a while when a cloud would obscure the stars, seemingly pulsating as a heart would. Lysander’s fingers intertwined with Ilais’s and for the first time that day, the two were at ease. Out of a shallow pocket, Ilais pulled a worn book of Nobokov’s poetry, the yellowed pages crackling when turned. They favoured different pieces, sharing their preferences with one another. Dog-eared for Lysander was the poem In Paradise, one stanza underlined, etched into his memory:
Whom will you tell, whom?
Where is the world and the labeled roses,
the museum and the stuffed birds?
And you look and look through your tears
at those unnamable wings.
“Unnamable wings,” Lysander sighed. “Wow.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think even angels are beyond classification,” Ilais replied.
“Without existing, they can be anything they want to be. Can’t we idealize every now and then? It makes things prettier,” Lysander said as a strong breeze rippled through tree branches.
“It does.” Ilais paused and looked towards the soil, absentmindedly digging at it. “It does.”
They went on like this, absorbed in the layered meanings of Nabokov’s poems. A possum once scurried past them and Ilais laughed at how Lysander abruptly stood and stumbled back, the tiny white creature paying no heed. They discussed their futures, of running off to some big city and writing books together. There would be charming espresso nooks and musty bookshops; and in an apartment filled with modern art and Afghan rugs two desks would sit adjacently next to a window. They’d go about their days illuminated by the rays of sun streaming through. Everything would have life — no more harshly lit, dead-eyed supermarket trips, no more cookie cutter houses… no more hiding. Their laughter rang out through the night till the sun peeked out from behind the hills and their oasis had to be abandoned.
* * *
The next day was sluggish and empty, like most. Lysander trudged to school and for a few brief hours was whirled into the wider world, into the chaotic mess of the Russian Revolution and the intricacies of calculus held up by carefully constructed scaffolding. He particularly loved philosophy — there was never a right answer, there was never an ultimate good, and he liked it that way. The morality of war especially captivated him. Every human instinct seemed to fade; every unspoken code of existing, of being here on this planet, was broken. He hoped that no matter what, his wouldn’t. That even in the thick of all that is terrible, he’d maintain his humanity. A small voice always nagged at him, however — why would he be special? Isn’t it far more likely that he’d succumb? It haunted him, that he knew he could morph into a monster under the right conditions.
He asked his dad what he thought about the matter that afternoon while doing homework, raising his voice to be heard over the blare of television. His father waved his hand dismissively from his beige, cushy chair and scoffed, a deep scoff.
“Of course you’d kill if you had the chance. You’re not some saint. Far from it.”
“Can your philosophy crap, why don’t you?” Lysander reverted back to his essay, silent for the rest of his dad’s game.
Home was lifeless. There was about as much conversation within its glaringly bare walls as there was at a funeral service. Upstairs were two bedrooms, for Lysander’s father and for him. His room was a deep blue, pathetic sports participation awards dating back to his early childhood scattered around it. On the top shelf of his closet at the bottom of a box of old clothing, shoved underneath too-small shirts and faded shorts, were stacks upon stacks of writing. Short stories and poetry and songs and essays; they all resided clandestinely in the only part of the house Lysander could even consider calling home.
Downstairs was what his father, to Lysander’s utter disgust, considered the pride of the home. The gun cabinet. Sometimes a ray of light would strike a rifle and it would gleam, its shimmering prying a smirk out of his father. Lysander found himself despising the sun for having to lay bare the dead world around him. It was so much nicer shielded, blanketed by the rich blue black of the night sky. You could almost forget.
And so he waited for the sun to set, scribbling out pages upon pages of an assigned essay he was done with long ago for the lack of anything better to do. At some point he must’ve gotten up and microwaved two frozen dinners for him and his dad. It all blurred together.
A supreme court case verdict was announced and his father muttered under his breath, “Fucking democrats.” Lysander rolled his eyes and bit his lip to keep from responding. “CNN and all those bullshit news organizations are brainwashing everyone. It’s the liberal conspiracy to take over America.”
“Yeah.” Lysander’s voice was strained as he forced himself to express agreement. He tuned out the rest of the unhinged rambling, suspecting his father to be slightly drunk. It was maybe 10:30 when he finally trudged up the steps to his room. Lysander lightly crept up the staircase a few minutes later and crouched by his door, listening for snoring. A half hour later, Lysander decided it was safe. Slipping on a jean jacket and shoes, he slipped out, gently shutting the door behind him.
* * *
With most people, you eventually strike bedrock. With Ilais, Lysander never did. He was endlessly interesting, an expanse of mind going on and on and on.
“Did anything interesting happen to you today?”
“My father detailed, to my absolute delight, the liberal conspiracy to destroy America.”
“Those commie snowflakes,” Ilais mockingly growled. Their laughter rang out into the cold, the first time Lysander had laughed all day.
“I don’t think I love him.”
“Yeah. Is that horrible?”
“No. Of course it isn’t. He hasn’t earned it.” A sliver of moon emerged from behind a cloud as Ilais spoke. There was a moment of comfortable silence.
“Do you think I’d become a demon under the right circumstances? The sadist inside me would come pouring out?”
Ilais smiled, a slight and real smile. “You couldn’t be cruel if you tried.”
“He seems to think otherwise.”
“Look at me.” Ilais turned Lysander’s face to his. Their eyes met, Ilais’s glimmering brown and Lysander’s soft blue ones. “You’re the most angelic creature I’ve ever met.”
Lysander leaned his head on Ilais’s shoulder and they remained that way the rest of the night, staring out over the shadowed undergrowth to see the stars — thumbtacks pinning up the slate of sky.
* * *
As yellow light poured over the crumpled sheets of Lysander’s bed, he pried open a floorboard, a familiar creak ensuing. Underneath was a neat stack of cassettes. On it, the wailing of strings: obscure concertos and sonatas, beauty packed into suites and orchestral compositions. He started to shimmy one out of its tight positioning when a harsh knocking sounded at his door, followed by the jiggling of his doorknob. Locking the door had been a good idea — there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with classical music, per se, but rather who many of those cassettes had come from. Lysander quickly placed back the plank of wood and threw a blanket over it for good measure.
“Do you know where my wallet is?”
Lysander’s eyebrows furrowed. “No.”
“You didn’t take it, didja?”
“Okay, then,” his father grumbled. “Have a good day at school.”
“Thanks.” The door swung shut as his dad walked away.
On the bus, Lysander started to reread A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. It consumed him for the entirety of the ride before he was let off onto the concrete moat circling his two-story, gray and red school. Trudging up to the steps felt the exact same as trudging down nine hours later, yet this time it was dark outside. Tuesdays the library was open, and his time had been whittled away there faster than months of JCPOA negotiations had been squashed like a bug. He biked back to his house in the soft glow of street lamps, taking his time as he maneuvered his way down sidewalks and through alleyways.
When he got home, his father was standing in the middle of the living room scanning a piece of paper in lamplight, a box of old clothing beside him.
“Dad?” Monotonously, his father began to read aloud.
“Thirty feet from the stream it lies.
A heaven in woods, no ears and no eyes.
Moonlight illuminates tap dancing leaves,
As soft winter flowers and sprouts interweave
With animal tracks imprinted in dirt,
It’s only here in the darkness that shadows don’t lurk.
From behind swaying branches, he’ll soon appear –
A heaven in woods, no eyes and no ears.”
His father put down the paper as Lysander stood tensed. Frozen. He felt his arm jerk back of its own accord as his father grasped his wrist abrasively, beginning to march up the stairs. Lysander’s breathing was shallow and quick as he was dragged behind, stumbling over carpeted steps. A shove and a slam and a click was all it took.
He was locked in.
* * *
The footsteps weren’t Lysander’s. They were heavier, hammering down the leaves with a brute force. Lysander’s steps were gentle, kind. Through the dim, Ilais could make out one large silhouette.
“Ilais? That your name, innit? You the one contaminating my boy?”
Lysander rammed himself against the door: once, twice, thrice. It didn’t even creak. His father could hurt Ilias, he would hurt Ilias, and there was absolutely nothing Lysander could do about it.
“No more. No more.” The silhouette was no longer a silhouette, but a man; who pulled something from his side.
With the help of a metal lamp, the door finally broke. He rushed to the living room, panting as he skipped steps. A pistol was missing from his father’s gun cabinet.
Ilais’s hands began to shake uncontrollably. He ran at a speed he didn’t know he was capable of, yet the voice followed.
“Bullets are faster.”
A mile. Why had they always met so far away? He started to sprint. He was sorry, sorry for not protecting Ilais, sorry for everything. Sticks bit into his bare feet; he didn’t notice.
The gunshot echoed through the trees.
* * *
Lysander’s father dragged him home, weeping, screaming. The sky didn’t pulsate; its heart had ceased to beat. All there was was harsh moonlight, illuminating his father’s rough hand, illuminating everything Ilais didn’t want to see. He was shouting, shouting louder and louder, but there was no response. Shoot me, too. You shot him; shoot me, too.
By the time they were at their house, Lysander was silent. His leg bounced frantically as he waited for his dad’s voice to quiet, for a path to clear. He proceeded to break the window of his locked room. As he climbed out, shards etched red streaks into his skin. He didn’t notice. Burrs got caught on his hoodie as his mind travelled faster than his feet. Maybe he was still alive. Maybe he was bleeding out. Maybe Lysander would get to him in time.
Maybe he wouldn’t.
Ilais’s blood gleamed in the soft starlight. Lysander couldn’t hear his breath and all of a sudden couldn’t breathe. He slipped his hand into Ilais’s as his fingers reached to feel his pulse. Utter, monstrous, stillness. Lysander began to tremble. The melodies of the wind, the insects, morphed back to noise. Lysander began to break.
And you look and look through your tears at those unnamable wings.