Alan Smalky, ten years old and sporting a fresh sunburn on his cheeks and shoulders, came in through the back door with a juice box he had taken from the cooler on the deck. Lanky and graceless, a bit of a mouth-breather, he came into the living room and plopped down on the armchair near the sofa.
Jonathan Smalky was on the couch, not watching the news on TV and not reading the paper on his phone at the same time. His wife Karen was curled up next to him with her head resting on his thigh, either half-asleep or trying to be. At this time of year the sunlight poured onto the couch for a few hours in the early afternoon, and it was rare for them to be able to sit and enjoy it together.
Neither one noticed their son’s presence for a few minutes, and since he wasn’t doing anything to draw attention to himself they didn’t feel any particular need to acknowledge him, either, but eventually the child’s continued silence became a provocation in itself so Jonathan mumbled something that sounded vaguely parental. Even a second later he couldn’t remember what he’d said, but it was enough to prompt Karen to try again.
“Where’s your sister?” she asked dreamily without opening her eyes. It was a question that implied a command: “Go play with her, leave us alone.”
Alan didn’t answer her. He just burst into tears, and his parents’ pleasant afternoon came to an abrupt end.
Karen shot up right away, and Jonathan clumsily sought a place to put his phone.
“What’s the matter?”
Through his sobs, Alan was able to point in the direction of the yard. Jonathan led the way, charging ahead of the rest of them and running out onto the deck. Karen came just behind him, holding Alan by the hand.
The back door opened onto a deck with a patio dining set and a cooler full of snacks and juice boxes. This was as far into the yard as the parents ever went. Inside the house there were computers, books, televisions, and voice-operated sensors that did everything from turn on the lights to order pizza. That was a world for adults, oriented towards the street, the garage and, ultimately, the city.
The deck faced away from all of those, towards the acre-and-a-half of lush green grass, and beyond it the limitless expanse of trees and creeks. There was a sandbox and a swing set and a weatherbeaten plastic play house, but otherwise there was nothing. It was an empty canvas to be painted with the delirious brushstrokes of a child’s imagination.
Jonathan had read once that small children are so overwhelmed with new and unknown sensations that they are basically high all the time. In a yard like this one, a small child could spend hours watching an ant climb a blade of grass, or wondering if trees can see. This yard was why, when Karen was pregnant with her second child, the Smalkys traded their adorable condo in the city for a long commute to work.
Alan did eventually go out there to spend long hours battling imaginary monsters, but not for a while, because just two weeks after they moved in, with many of the boxes still unpacked, Jena Smalky was born and Alan’s lit little mind was blown.
As an infant Jena was an exact clone of her older brother, and not in the way that all babies kind of look like splotchy burritos with squishy faces. This was uncanny, right down to the stork bites on her right eyelid. She was his same length, and only an ounce lighter. The apparently traditional hospital blanket and red-and-blue striped knit cap only completed the effect.
Alan was captivated. He stayed by her side always, or at least as much as his attention span would allow. He slept on her floor, stroked her feet while she nursed, and once she could sit up he would sit in front of her for hours, playing with her toys and teaching her to play with his.
They looked so much alike that strangers mistook Jena for a boy unless she was wearing a dress, and even then the Smalkys were sure they could hear people asking themselves, “Why is that little boy in a dress?”
Once Jena was old enough to go outside with Alan, they began their custom of going into the yard and happily disappearing, and the move to the country finally paid off. This was their empire, a world only they could see, and which, frankly, only they cared about. Jonathan put the patio table out there so he and Karen could watch them if needed, and a cooler full of snacks so the kids could feed themselves without needing to come inside. The deck was like an airlock on a spaceship, where two worlds met and incompatible atmospheres equalized.
Alan’s sobs were easing but he still wasn’t speaking. The adult presence was reassuring, their physical size almost enough to fix what had gone wrong.
“Jena!” Jonathan called out, but there was no reply. The property was big but not so big that the kids couldn’t hear his voice. Karen called out, too, but all that did was disturb a bird a tree. She didn’t look down at Alan, but gave him a slight tug.
“Come, sweetie, show me where she is.”
Alan’s eyes registered a change from grief to fear. Jonathan recognized it, the way his son’s pupils grew and his mouth grew taut when he was guilty, when he knew he was in trouble. The look added an urgency that both parents tried hard not to show.
Alan and Jena looked so much alike that their grandmother had framed two pictures of Alan thinking that they were one of each. It took a while for Alan to notice. He, and pretty much only he, could spot the subtle differences in their freckles, not because he knew how his looked but because he knew hers so well.
In person it was easier to tell them apart, though, because she was three years younger and thus that much smaller, and although both had chirpy little kid voices, hers was higher, with a charming lilt.
At some point as she got older they began to diverge, at least physically, and because this was natural and inevitable nobody really noticed the pain it caused Alan until much later. Although the two Smalky kids were basically the same, Jena was just, well, better. They were both born cheerfully bald, and both slowly, patchily, grew wiry red hair. Once Alan’s hair had fully grown in, his parents buzzed it down to a crew cut because it was clear the he was never going to brush it, and because both he and they were sensitive to the gentle teasing he got from friends and relatives: carrot-top, copper-top, ginger, rusty. Cut short it was still red but at least indoors it was almost brown.
Wiry or no, however, they never considered cutting Jena’s hair, and once it had grown out enough it lost its unruly stiffness and softened into gentle cascade the color of a summer sunset. The widow’s peak that gave him a slightly sinister air instead made her face a warm heart, and while the bright freckles on ghostly-pale skin made him look a little sick, it made for a pretty show of color on her. His pug nose was snotty and off-putting; hers (the same nose!) was both noble and cute, like a purebred puppy’s.
Even their names, Karen lamented. What kind of a name for a little boy was “Alan?” They couldn’t even form a diminutive of it. It wasn’t really her choice: Jonathan had promised years ago to name his first son after his grandfather. With Jena there were no such promises, so Karen was able to choose a name she actually liked, something pretty. (As for Smalky–well, Alan would be stuck with it for his whole life, but Jena would someday be able to get a better one, if she wanted.)
Academically they were cut from the same cloth, with a gift for numbers and an ear for music. Alan was an independent learner and earned praise from his teachers, but when Jena came to school, even though she was younger, she quickly became the star. For the first few weeks she was Alan Smalky’s little sister; by the end of the year he was Jena Smalky’s older brother. By the end of the following year almost nobody drew any connection between them at all: she was Jena, the strawberry sunshine that skipped down the halls, and he was the increasingly weird and weird-looking kid by himself at recess.
And he was certainly getting weird. Moody. Acting out. His fourth grade teacher was the one who first articulated what everyone else was only starting to suspect: in his mind Alan and Jena were one and the same, Alanandjena, she his beloved little clone, the reason for the sun and the moon, a reflection of the best of himself. Now she was leaving him behind, and even if she didn’t know that and he couldn’t articulate it to himself everybody knew that the break between them was coming, and he dealt with it the best way his immature mind could. She was prettier, smarter, friendlier, more charming. She didn’t leave him much to excel at, so he seized on what he could. He could be meaner. He could be ruder. He could be dirtier.
His parents were alarmed at the change in him. They felt more than a little guilty, because they knew that even though they tried to hide it, they liked her a lot more than they liked him. Even if they never said it, they knew that he knew.
But Jena didn’t notice. However distant she was at school, at home, as soon as they could and for as long as they could, they came out here, into this alien territory where only they existed.
Here he led marches across ancient battlefields, or expeditions to distant planets. They scaled fortress walls, sank the Titanic, made first contact with alien life. He was the best, and she was his loyal companion, and together they ruled over an empire as vast as any universe.
He led his parents through it, his cheeks burning from the slight sunburn and the growing sense of shame. The yard, which only a few hours earlier had been the South Seas, was just a patch of grass. It had taken him and Jena hours to make it across. Now that he strode across it with his parents in about a minute, everything seemed stupid. How could he have been so stupid? The word shot across his mind, forceful and clear: stupid. He almost started crying again, but mostly now he was worried.
There were paths in the woods, but they were child-sized. He knew he couldn’t lead his parents through that way. The way he took them was longer but it meant that they didn’t have to duck under any low branches. There was a stream up ahead; usually Alan and Jena, with their plastic Crocs, would just splash across it, but his parents had on real shoes that would get muddy and waterlogged, so he led them to the spot that he and Jena called Hercules’ Ford, although he didn’t tell his parents that name. It was too stupid.
“How far are we going, buddy?” Jonathan asked. They weren’t going far, Alan wanted to say, but knew he wouldn’t be able to explain why they just couldn’t take the most direct way there.
The last obstacle was the big pile of logs–Holy Mount, they called it. Home of gods or goblins or enemy troops, depending on the game. Alan and Jena could and did often climb over it, but the logs were wobbly and he didn’t want his parents to fall, so they went around, and at this last detour Jonathan finally had enough. “Where is she?” he snapped, and Alan panicked and started to cry again. He was doing his best to take the smartest route to her–didn’t they know that he wanted them to find her as quickly as possible? How could he be in trouble for doing the right thing?
He hurried them around the logs and pointed. Karen gasped and then she and Jonathan both ran as fast as they could. Alan stood frozen, crying softly.
Jena was still where he’d left her, face down on the ground, her hair blending in with the exposed tree roots. Later they would ask him what happened, and he would be tell them that he didn’t know, they had been up in the tree and she fallen and hit her head on the roots. It was entirely true but it was also a lie, and not even Alan could explain how that could be so.
Jonathan scooped Jena up and slung her over his shoulder. She was able to cling to his neck with her own strength, and that calmed them all down a little. Jonathan stroked her hair and shooshed her, and walked out of the woods as fast as he could. Karen followed a step behind, wiping blood from Jena’s forehead and trying to keep her own tears at bay. Jonathan chose the fastest route back. At the creek he just took a big step and crossed it without getting his shoes wet. None of them were prepared to look at Alan, and the boy found his own way home.
Jena’s leg was broken and a tooth was knocked out, but the cut on her head wasn’t as bad as it looked and the bump on her forehead would go away without leaving a mark. Back home in her bed her parents read her books and plied her with ice cream. They asked her what happened, but she didn’t provide much ore information than he had. They had been playing in the tree, and then she fell.
There was a branch that she had never been able to reach. Alan had to stretch to reach it, and Jena, four inches shorter, just couldn’t. At least part of his authority rested on the fact that he could get up there and she couldn’t. It didn’t really–he was in charge because he was bigger and older and he had taught her everything and she loved him at least as fiercely as he loved her–but his loftier perch was an easy shorthand for all that.
On this day she reached up, and though she could touch the branch now she still couldn’t wrap her hand around it enough to pull herself up. However, she realized that she could grip the trunk with one arm and lift herself up the last inch that she needed. Her feet gave way and for one thrilling moment she was dangling in midair, held up entirely by her arms, until she wrapped her legs around the trunk and pushed up, and now she could grip the branch just fine. Seconds later, beaming, she was sitting beside her brother on the highest climbable branch in the tree.
“I made it!” she said, lifting her hands over her head to celebrate.
And without any warning he pushed her.
He didn’t know why. There wasn’t a clear thought, a moment where he said to himself, “You’ve taken yet another thing from me.” It was more like a swirl of color deep in his heart, a dark and pained color, a pungent and unidentifiable shadow. Inarticulate, angry. He didn’t remember doing anything until he saw her falling–she fell for such a long time, he had time to realize that his arm was outstretched, that he had touched her shirt and had felt the fragile little ribs underneath, he had pushed her at a careless moment when she couldn’t have held onto anything to steady herself. She landed on her leg and then hit her head on the root. Alan’s heart started racing afterwards, when he saw she wasn’t moving.
He climbed down carefully, for the first time aware of how high up he was and what the consequences could be for slipping. He waited for her to wake up but she didn’t. Some blood dripped off the root, and he couldn’t let himself believe that this was real. He couldn’t feel anything, not the fabric of her clothes or the down on her arm as he shook her, or the earth under his feet. He felt nothing but his own heartbeat, like in a dream.
He went home, but slowly, in case she called to him. When he got home he realized, ridiculously, that he was thirsty, so he took a juice box. Cherry, because it was tart and his throat felt so numb.
He wanted to tell his parents right away to come, but they were both so calm and happy on the couch. He realized he’d taken too long to get to them, and he didn’t know what else to do.
Jonathan and Karen talked about it after they were sure he was asleep. There was something wrong with him. Even if he hadn’t been the cause of her falling from the tree–and something about the kids’ evasive answers convinced Jonathan that this wasn’t the case–he had still taken so long to get them help. The juice box was the detail that stuck with him. Why stop for juice when your sister was hurt, and even could be dead?
The long roundabout way that Alan took them to her bothered them both. They spent nearly ten minutes reaching her; only about three minutes getting back. Even at the log pile he had led them around the longest possible way. Did he know she was still alive? What if her injuries had been worse?
Maybe it was time to move back into the city. There were plenty of parks, and now that they weren’t in strollers anymore getting around would be easier. Plus, Jonathan and Karen would be able to spend more time at home and less time commuting. The city meant more supervision. It was something to consider. In the meantime they’d build a fence in the yard, to keep the kids out of the woods.
Jena healed quickly. The bump on her head left a small scar despite the doctor’s assurances that it wouldn’t, but her hair covered it most of the time. The lost tooth was replaced with a prosthetic and the difference was barely noticeable.
Alan visited her room daily, but he didn’t stay long. He read to her, and they watched cartoons together, but then he’d go back outside by himself, to swing lazily and stare down at the grass. When she could get up on her own she started going to the patio deck with a book and stayed there, half in the grown-up house and half in the children’s empire. Even after the cast came off, that was as far out as she would go.
They never spoke about it and she always insisted that she didn’t remember how it was that she fell from the tree, and in time she even came to believe it, at least partly. No matter how she tried, though, she couldn’t forget the lesson that she learned: he had hurt her. She didn’t know why, but it didn’t matter in the end. He had hurt her, intentionally, and though she loved him with all of her heart and knew without a doubt that he did the same, he could do it again. Justly or unjustly, their empire was now only his.