DADDY SHIFTED IN THE PASSENGER seat, an ache creaking in his unfamiliar joints. He groaned and the tang of urine filled the car again. Mommy wrinkled her nose—unlike her eyes, it was still her own, upturned with a dusting of freckles—but left the window up. She knew the twins wouldn’t like the wind ruffling their paper.
She was nothing if not a mother.
Beside her, Daddy leaned on the window, the side of his face clacking against the glass when the car hit an occasional dip. Neither had slept since sneaking out of Florida two nights ago. Mommy kept driving until at last the twins put their sketchpads away, closed their watchful eyes and nodded off.
North of Omaha they rented a room from a bored older man who didn’t comment on their gloves and heavy coats in August. The clerk kept his glance away from the two pairs of wide mirrored sunglasses staring at him. The credit card was swiped and the clerk typed in Mommy’s real name. She wanted badly to ask what that name was, even though she knew she wouldn’t hear it if it were spoken, just as she couldn’t string together the letters no matter how long she stared at the Amex or her driver’s license.
They were Mommy and Daddy. Any other names they chose for masks would dissolve into gibberish.
They returned to the car and drove around the shorter arm of the motel. In the backseat, the twins leaned into each other in sleep, crayon nubs held in loose fists. They did not stir as their parents lifted them out.
The traffic noise from the interstate washed the motel, a soft unbroken roar from the inside of a seashell. Closer, from the open window of an old pickup parked outside the single pool of fizzing sodium light, radio voices murmured. Decades had rusted the fenders, faded the paint to a pastel brown nearly colorless against the fresh, wide red stripe on either door. A peeling bumper sticker read SAVE THE LITTLE PEOPLE.
Daddy stopped with the boy in his arms, hardly noticing the weight in the crook of his elbow. Both the twins were the size of children half their six years.
A lump of dark sat behind the wheel of the truck. As Daddy stared at it, the radio’s volume spiked and the words, “Folks, don’t forget to keep an eye out for true life, fifty miles,” blared out into the night, then raked through a garble of signals before settling into a lonesome Hank Williams croon. A cricket answered from a stunted tree.
His wife hissed at him and they carried the twins into a room on the ground floor. It was carpeted in the vague green of a half-dead lawn, walls capped with a white ceiling textured with plaster clouds. They crossed to a sagging bed and laid down their burdens, pale little things with their mouths closed over flexing mandibles, eyes turned inward to peculiar dreams.
Mommy searched the children and found part of a red crayon in their daughter’s pocket. She took it, smoothed back the long wheat hair from each domed forehead, and stepped away.
Daddy found three pens and two notepads on the scarred desk.
They surveyed the room a final time. Mommy went to the nightstand and removed the Bible from its drawer, slipping it into her purse. She nodded and they went outside and shut the door behind them. The snick of the automatic lock was like scissors closing.
They looked at one another, the mirrored lenses casting endless silver eyes. For the first time today Mommy smiled, tired though it was. Her husband savored it and tried to give it back. The radio from the truck threaded the quiet, wove it into patches. A familiar song crackled, then fell away. Daddy tried to pull its melody from the static.
Weeds struggled from cracks in the asphalt. Their feet throbbed with pain under their heavy bodies. They passed blown sodium lamps into deeper shadows that spread like a black lake, ending in the gravel beach of the vacant lot adjacent. A weary sort of refuge.
The farthest side of the motel was blank, windowless. They pulled at their gloves and opened their coats. Six appendages unfolded from each of their torsos, exposing the soft meat of their bellies. They placed their hands on the wall, its cinderblocks painted and repainted into smoothness over an age, and scuttled up its sheer face, twenty feet above the wide flat Midwest earth. The roof was ringed by a shallow lip and sticky with tar. Its pitted face gazed at a curving sky dashed with stars.
They lay on their backs, the grit and the tar tugging at their clothes. The moon was in the center of the sky, like a thumbtack holding it all up. It shone off their carapaces, smudges of light caught along the blue-black of their limbs.
She sighed and it was almost a sob. “But they’ll grow up one day,” she said. Her voice had rust in it. “They’ll grow out of it, I mean.”
“Hush,” he said. “You thought they’d start talking one day, too, didn’t you? Our money has to be almost gone. We’ve been over this. We have to get us back.”
“But can we?”
“We’ll leave after they’ve been asleep too long to notice.”
“They’ll find something to use. They’ll just draw on the walls.”
“I don’t know. We can get far enough away this time, maybe.”
They watched the sky. The more human of his left hands found her right, fingers just able to twine. Their shells clicked together and, as always, they settled into their strange anatomies.
The radio in the truck played on as the moon sank. An hour later, Daddy shook Mommy awake and they descended the wall. The truck was silent and the air had swollen with coming rain. They drove away in the car, leaving the children behind again.
THE HIGHWAY STRETCHED along the suture of Iowa and Nebraska. Rain drummed the roof of the car. Vast fields, islands of pine, billboards ticked by in the smeared predawn. To the west, the Missouri River snaked close enough at times to catch dull glints of gunmetal.
In small glances, Daddy took in the graying waves of Mommy’s hair, the shape of her figure leaning back in the seat. Her arms were freckled again. She was fresh and whole, held together by a shaky, hesitant grace. A soap bubble of hope.
She saw him sneaking looks at her. “This is draining us. I’m thirty-one and I look like a grandmother.”
“You don’t look a day over forty-one,” he said, squeezing her hand.
“I want a name. If it sticks then maybe that means this is going to work. What should I call you?”
He was quiet a moment, poking his lower lip out in thought. “How about Hal?”
“All right, Hal. I like that. I’ll be Catherine. And I don’t like Cat or Cathy or any shortcuts.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Catherine.” He pumped her hand up and down. “Stick with me. I’ll take you as far as I can.”
They took a minute to pretend inside the noise of the rain. Catherine timed her precious idle thoughts with the beat of the windshield wipers.
“Should we give them names?” she asked him, ashamed that she’d returned to the subject of the children so soon.
“I don’t know, honey. Maybe we should just keep away from it.” His jaw tightened and he returned his hand to the steering wheel. For a moment she worried he was gritting his teeth—his familiar sign of stress—but she was too glad they were his own teeth, his own hands and habits.
“Remember their first pictures?”
“The abstract scrawls we put on the fridge?” he said, and actually laughed. “I remember the migraines those gave us.”
“I meant when they were old enough to really draw us. When they turned four. That first one they did together, all of us holding stick hands, with two suns in a green sky.”
“And the birds like little letter m’s, yeah. Pink hearts floating. Of course I remember. It’s in my suitcase in the trunk.”
Her glance was sharp, but she smiled. Their closeness was almost nice. Almost normal. Hal held the drawing in his mind, its vivid, waxy colors. Lemon, summer grass, cotton candy. The picture had been in the upstairs hallway, behind glass in a beveled frame.
Mommy—Catherine, she told herself, Catherine, biting her tongue to drive it home—thought of the drawing, too, made at a time when their little gods had been full of hugs, still young enough to want kisses on the mouth. Just a bare moment, it felt looking back, before their art became something else. She remembered the night last winter, when she and her husband had leaned over the twins in their beds. Clutching pillows like shields toward the sleeping faces, hope mingling with a desperate shame. They had stood there until daylight, their arms outstretched, unable to follow their decision.
The percussion on the car roof lessened to softer, jazzy interludes. Catherine turned to look into the empty backseat. White pages torn from sketchbooks covered the floorboards like snowdrifts. She picked one up, feeling the wax under her thumb. They drew so hard. The car was littered with broken crayons.
In the drawing, she and Hal walked on all fours, their backs round humps filled in with black. Manic smiles exaggerated their faces. MOMMY and DADDY were bluntly printed above them. In the upper left corner, two stick figures pursued at a downward angle, brief tick lines trailing them to denote speed.
She shuddered and picked up another. It featured a boxy shape she recognized as a pickup truck only by the scribbled wheels. In the front seat, a round face grinned at her. A heavy red stripe had been dragged from back to front of the vehicle, tearing two small holes in the paper. Clumps of crayon were caught in the stripe like clotted blood.
Mommy and Daddy made appearances here, too, hunched in the bed of the truck, smiling out at Catherine.
Rain sheeted the back window as she stared through it into kinder times, unable to stop herself from crying. She thought of that first picture again, almost asking Hal to pull over so they could look at those two suns smiling down upon the family, arms linked like paper dolls, for a while, forever.
THE TWINS WERE BORN EIGHT weeks premature. Her labor pains eclipsed the world, fourteen hours of dark red contractions until the babies at last emerged, moments apart. Tiny porcelain dolls. They waited through a strained silence—the sound of the forceps placed in a tray, the squeak of a nurse’s shoe—for their first squalls of life. Then a murmured, “Everything’s just fine, try to rest,” and a closing door.
She slept through the night, wrung out. Her husband paced, his hair in agitated spikes. Neither nurse would meet her eyes when the babies were placed in her arms the next morning.
Those first three years were cocoons. They wrapped them in blankets, warm, nested, always within reach. Neither child would accept her breast milk, which cast her into a depression that was slow to depart. But it did fade. Then came teething, eerie soundless giggles in the bathtub, trips to see grandparents, all those moments once kept in daydreams. She enjoyed her little ones with a fierceness their father never understood. Their bodies remained so small, disproportionate, even as they grew into themselves and their tools.
Age four was princesses and cops and robbers. The back yard of their rural Florida home sloped down to a line of pecan trees and a high plank fence hemming the brief wilderness beyond. For a time, the children were children. Their acre kept them in their secret mute world, a battlefield of play deaths and improbable rescues. It slowed the burgeoning of their talents, perhaps, like heavy-lidded beasts stretched out in high grass. If sometimes the woods outside the fence shook, if sometimes an impossible cloud of black birds erupted from them, cawing into noon dusks, snowy June evenings, the parents only sheltered the twins more closely.
The pediatrician referred them to a speech therapist and a child psychiatrist. The parents made appointments but never quite kept them. They skirted the word special and their blooming fear, even when both sets of grandparents stopped asking when their little angels were coming to visit.
Then the children discovered drawing. It focused their attention like a lens. They went through reams of copy paper, washable paints, spiral-bound pads, plastic bins full of crayons. One rainy afternoon, half a wall in their bedroom became a canvas of finger paints. The children began to hold interest only in the trees and sunlight they created.
One late fall morning, they proudly presented their second picture of their mommy, jumping up and down as she placed it under a banana magnet on the refrigerator door. Mommy praised their effort, pulling fruit out of a bowl for breakfast, and felt her hair lengthening from its dark bob to tresses of light gold that brushed her waist. The clothes she wore unfurled into a lush pink gown. She crumpled to the kitchen floor and spent a month, comatose, in the hospital. Finally, her husband, following wordless gestures from their daughter, pressed his mouth against Mommy’s dry lips. She woke then, to identical bright smiles.
Back at home, shut away in their bedroom, she told Daddy that the last thing she remembered was eating an apple.
It was the end of the good years. When everyone had names.
THE SKY CLEARED OUTSIDE of Sioux City and the sun burned its way across Iowa toward them. Hal knelt on the shoulder, sheltered from the slipstream of passing cars, whirling nuts off the back wheel with a lug wrench. The tire had shredded and he cut his hand twice working it off the car.
Catherine crouched beside him, pushing the nuts around in the dirt and listening behind them for rustles in the trees. They were almost to South Dakota and neither of them could guess how much farther would be far enough.
He secured the spare, lifted the old wheel into the trunk and tossed the tools beside it. Halfway back into the car, he thought he saw the old brown pickup ahead, rattling along in the middle lane. The red stripe stood out in the traffic like a wound. He watched it fade out of view and noticed a sign wedged into the wet earth a few hundred feet up the highway. He couldn’t read it from this distance, but a chord of familiarity struck, quivering, in his chest. “We need to go,” his wife said from her seat, but he ignored her and walked along the shoulder.
TRUE LIFE 50 MILES, he read when he was near. It was printed on a square of green metal leaning to the right on a wooden stake, with uneven shavings around its edges that caught the sun. The words were stenciled in white paint. He touched the letters. Long dried.
Ahead lay only the bland, eternal ribbon of road, the meager hint of mountains untold miles away around the curve of the earth. He thought of the truck. The words its radio had blared back at the motel. To his right he caught movement, a shiver passing through the low pines stretching back from the highway. The air was still and warm around him. Not even the speeding cars stirred it.
Catherine shouted from the car and he broke into a sprint toward her.
The trees lashed and bowed. Birds exploded into the blue-white sky. She had slid over and started the car, so he jumped into the passenger seat. A dust cloud spumed from the tires and they swerved back onto the road. In the rearview, they watched the twins scrabble up onto the shoulder and stare after them.
AGE FIVE WAS DINOSAURS. The family spent much of the year in the unclaimed woods behind their street. It was the year Daddy lost his job when he ran out of sick days.
The dinosaurs, like all things the children made them, were out of true, the lines unclean, and they hid in the trees as various amalgams of giant lizards and imagination and artistic limitations. Mommy a triceratops scaled with a mess of red and blue, Daddy a fluorescent yellow raptor. Or lumbering brontosauruses ducking their great serpent necks when planes passed overhead. The products of growing minds.
In the nights, they would shrink back to themselves and creep into the house. When Daddy cleared the house of paper, crayons, paints, the twins scratched the tables with knives, breathed fog on the windows and drew their parents into beasts with their stubby fingers.
The man and woman lost their names somewhere in those woods and the children wouldn’t give them back. Staring at bills and old love letters did nothing. Their earlier selves lost definition. Weeks blended, months blurred. When they had the power of speech, they explained to the boy and girl their need to go to work, to pay for their crayons and their food, but still Mommy and Daddy spent their days skulking, at times taller than the house, among the trees and the endless roosting birds. The taste of feathers would never fade from their mouths.
CATHERINE DROVE FAST. The car shook and the interstate throbbed around it like an artery of some great heart they were desperate to keep beating. The world emptied out the farther north they went.
Two more crude signs flashed by. They pulled over beyond the second and Hal trotted back. TRUE LIFE 30 MILES, the words like the ghost of a song nagging at the back of his mind.
For the second time, he brought up the radio playing in the truck the night before. Catherine pretended not to remember it and didn’t mention the drawing in the floorboard behind them. She had her sights set on Canada. Something about all that wilderness soothed her doubts.
Before long they slowed to read TRUE LIFE NEXT EXIT. “We’re not stopping because you heard some commercial on the radio,” she said.
“I think we’re being helped,” Hal said, and something in his voice eased her foot off the pedal. She flicked the turn signal and its rhythm ticked like a clock. In the rearview, the sense of an ending—the past, freedom, she didn’t know—flared out behind them.
AGE SIX BROUGHT AN OBSESSION with bugs.
In early July, before the bank foreclosed, they began to hear the children on the roof at night, the scratch of unspeakable legs and the dragging of swollen bellies against the shingles. The parents had dreaded this—the twins finally learning how to change themselves—but never addressed it. They had addressed so little. It was a new terror but also a sort of reprieve. They were left alone, just long enough for a vague hope to kindle within a home wrapped in cobwebs.
A sort of peace settled, brief and profound and fragile.
Letters from the bank, collectors, all cramped with swimming type that no longer made sense, filled a wicker basket in the front hall. Then, three days ago, a sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door, a thin sheaf of papers in his hands. Lines and lines of nonsense. But enough of the deputy’s words managed to make it through the space between his voice and their ears. They were losing the house.
While the children slept that night, Mommy and Daddy smuggled themselves out to the car, bags in the trunk and a nervous blankness across the road ahead. Mommy sobbed for a hundred miles.
They were found at their first stop, a diner just across the Georgia state line. Daddy would laugh, later, at the fact that he’d ordered dessert. As if apple pie, a mundane symbol of freedom, were something that could fit into their lives.
He kissed his wife in the diner’s parking lot, smudged her tears with his thumb, and walked her to the car. The twins sat in the backseat, excited about a trip, eyes glittering in their too-large faces. Fresh pages had been turned over in their sketchpads, waiting for creation.
THE EXIT RAMP DUMPED THEM in Vermillion, a town flat and dusty as an old map. Here their guide abandoned them and Catherine turned left, guessing, toward a sky so wide it looked torn open. The same empty mile seemed to repeat until they saw an enormous brown tractor crawling through a field. A violent red thresher jutted out ahead of it and they each thought of an insect.
At a narrow fork, a dented strip of a sign read SPIRIT MOUND with an arrow pointing right. She pulled over and looked through the back window at rich green clouds, spreading like ink in water.
“What happened to this true life thing?” she asked.
The arrow tugged at Hal. “That’s it,” he said, and lifted his chin toward the sign.
Two miles later, they came upon the smallest church Catherine had ever seen and another sign for the mysterious Spirit Mound. She turned and the land grew sparser and even more like a page. For a moment, she felt moth wings or eyelash-kisses against her face. Beside her, Hal rocked gently in his seat.
The air carried a bittersweet taste that reminded her of the inside of a crayon box. A faraway plane droned like ripping paper. She shook her head to remind herself she was driving on solid asphalt with fertile earth surrounding her. None of it was paper. Even at this thought, she pictured short fingers drawing in the dirt, things teeming in the soil. She remembered her babies climbing into her lap so long ago, showing off their first picture of the family: stick arms holding stick hands, waxy, smiling light.
They passed a peeling strip mall, a new trailer park, a gas station from which an elderly man in a rocking chair tipped them a wave, but the whole of it was eaten by the vast loneliness of the land and soon that loneliness was all that remained. Not even dust hung in the air. Signs directed them to the left, then right. An old barn sat near the memory of a road. To the east, a silo reached into the green-muddled sky and the rest was the open hum of silence.
After half a mile, they came to a wide wood-slatted sign that read WELCOME TO SPIRIT MOUND HISTORIC PRAIRIE. There was a museum, charming and dreadful and out of place, tucked away behind a riot of yellow wildflowers. Crayola yellow, she almost said aloud. They watched the building a moment, but it might have been closed for months. The sense of long vacancy seemed to squeeze the car.
The clunks of their doors resonated in the gulf. Catherine looped her purse around her arm. The two of them gazed at the Spirit Mound as though beholding a mountain, an epoch of time, though it was little more than a hump in the earth. A stilled swell in a sea of grass.
Hal stepped over to a placard and bowed his head to read. For a moment she thought he was praying.
“Says here,” he called back to her, “the Plains Indians—the Sioux, I guess—wouldn’t come near here. They thought demons lived in the mound. Something about ‘little people.’”
He came back to the car and opened the trunk and held up the twins’ first drawing, the one that never quite left their minds. The four of them in a happy row. “Look,” he said, tracing a finger across the left side of the picture. “Where the line curves up and over. You’d never think much of it—because the clouds are green too—but it could be that mound.”
Catherine stared down at it. Her fingers crept across her mouth. The children had drawn this place over two years ago. Hal moved close and tried to kiss her cheek, but she turned her face away. She watched the sky fuming grass-green behind him, peppered with what could have been a battalion of approaching birds. She looked back at the same sky Hal held in his hand.
They stepped into that lush sea and both saw the pickup truck in the same instant. It was parked in the near distance, halfway between the road and the mound. The vibrant red stripe bisected the older, over-creamed coffee shade of the body. Someone sat behind the wheel, a faint silhouette through the grime of the back window.
Patsy Cline sang abruptly into the stillness, an ache rubbing their hearts like bone. Catherine had always adored Patsy’s “Back in Baby’s Arms,” though she and her husband each parsed the words differently. Hal leaned forward to embrace her just as she heaved a sob and twisted around to look for their children.
A thick brown arm slipped through the truck window. It hung down to the red stripe across the door, a gesture of ease that managed to seem tense as a snake. A spill of black hair tumbled over the shoulder.
The sky was now suffused with green, blending with the earth to form a great verdant bubble. The sun split in two and drifted to either horizon. Patsy’s voice filled the world, quick stabs of weeping strings into the gallop of bass.
And the mound tugged at them. The children appeared over its dull peak and crouched there, watching. They wore their natural bodies, blond hair framing the blank, beautiful faces in identical chin-length sheets. Two small hands lifted in waves.
The figure in the truck adjusted the side mirror. One of the suns winked off the glass and speared Catherine’s eyes. The radio clicked off and quiet rippled through the grass.
Her twins gnawed at their hands and bent their attention to something before them. She thought it was paper, a fresh white shape on the green hilltop. They were drawing with their blood.
Hal dropped to his knees as his arms elongated, sprouting wire bristles and folding like pocketknives above the elbows. Catherine’s purse slipped off her collapsing shoulder and scattered its contents on the ground. She snatched at a lipstick and uncapped it. Pink.
“You can grow out of it, sweethearts,” she said, then shouted the words across the prairie. “Look what you did once!” Hal writhed on the ground, one then two pairs of legs pushing out of his side. Dimly, she registered the same happening to her. She pulled the picture from beneath Hal and smeared lipstick over the pink crayon hearts. The bones in her hand thrummed. She tried to trace the originals exactly and when she looked up she saw those very hearts suspended in the sky. Their color was alien amidst all the green.
She knelt beside Hal. His extra limbs melted away, though the coarse black hairs still pierced the skin. She heard thunder and looked up to see birds flood the sky. Lowercase m’s grew into scribbled crows, vultures, swallows—all soot-black and swarming. Caws and song resounded.
And the twins clung to the mound, their eyes burning the air.
Their father gained his feet and stood beside her, holding a felt pen from the litter of her purse. She let him take the drawing. The pen scratched the paper and he handed it back. CLAY, he’d written above the tallest of the four stick figures.
“My name,” he said, and smiled. “I’m almost sure.”
She took the pen. Above her own likeness, she drew a large bowlegged M. “Megan,” she whispered. “That’s what my name is.” The pen moved in her hand and the paper fell to the grass like a blade.
The pickup truck grumbled to life. Brake lights gleamed red.
“Megan, that’s right! Megan and Clay.” He bent to pick up the picture, tasting his own name, molding it in his mouth. “I think if I tear it in half, right between us and th—”
“Don’t,” Megan said, and he stopped, fingers gripping the middle edge of the paper. “Leave it alone.” She walked toward the mound. He watched golden hair erupt and plunge down her back. Her dark jeans ballooned into a pink bell.
“Max! Claire!” The children’s names, unlocked, shook the prairie. The crude hearts trembled around them. She turned back to her husband. “Oh, Clay, don’t you feel it? It was just love, everything they did.”
“Wait, honey!” he yelled. The truck’s gears grinded and it lurched forward, springs bouncing on the uneven earth. The driver’s arm rose up and gestured Clay forward. Then the truck curved behind the hill and was gone, blaring Patsy Cline again.
Clay looked back at the drawing. She’d written MOMMY in proud, bold letters. Ahead of him, she laughed. He hardly recognized the sound. A sort of glow hugged her as she sank onto hands and knees and dragged herself up the mound.
He placed the picture on the grass, patted it, then raced after her, after them, stumbling as he reached the base of the slope. Mommy had nearly crested the low peak. He looked down at himself, wishing for the worthy clothing of a prince.
A skyful of birds wheeled. The twin suns smiled down with a muted radiance onto their beautiful children, their open, twitching arms.