Awake in the dark bedroom, Julian tongued the gap where his front tooth had been. He explored the throbbing space where the teeth once stood side by side. When he fell into his twin’s open grave, he’d felt strangely at home, even as he’d tried to yell, even as his face had smashed against the casket’s polished wood.
Julian rolled away from the wall, the bunk bed creaking beneath him, a reminder of Mom’s promise to buy real beds when Carson left the hospital. That was when they still thought his brother would come home. At the funeral, Julian had been trying to follow his uncle’s lead and scatter a handful of dirt across Carson’s final resting place. One dress shoe caught the raised lip of the graveside rug and he’d gone tumbling. Uncle Tommy and the parish priest had knelt and rushed to haul Julian—blood dripping from his wailing mouth—out of his twin’s grave. While Mom had rushed him to the oral surgeon, the men had combed the dirt with rough hands, searching for Julian’s missing tooth. After an hour, they gave up, burying it along with Carson.
A soft clinking from the hall outside his bedroom, like marbles in a velvet bag, breezed through Julian’s haze of pain.
“Mom?” Julian sat up against the headboard. There. More clinking and someone opened the bedroom door just wide enough to show a boy silhouetted against the hallway light.
Even if she was still mad, Mom would have pushed open the door and asked, “Everything alright, Julian?” This wasn’t Mom. Was it Carson? The shadow was just the right size and shape—meaning Julian’s size and Julian’s shape—but it couldn’t be Carson.
“I. Hate. Carson.” Julian had said in the car one the way home from the oral surgeon. “He left us. Just like Dad.” He’d pushed each word away from himself and into her. When he’d finished, when he saw that each word had hit home in the wet of her eyes and the tight cords of her neck, he’d smiled. It had hurt to stretch his lips out around his swollen mouth, but he’d given her his widest smile and filled his eyes with spite, something he knew Carson never would have done.
She made him walk the rest of the way home after that. He’d ripped open the car door and stepped out, saying, “You’re such a great mother! Just like Carson always said.” That time, he hadn’t waited to see the wound.
Julian crawled from under the sheet and slid off the bottom bunk toward the figure. Was it a boy? He stepped closer. A statue? Rather than one smooth piece of flesh or rock, it was made of tiny white stones, smoothly jointed together in the shape of a boy. He stared at its face, the sharp slope of its nose, the blank eyes, white and open like a Greek statue. It breathed. The seams in its chest widened and shrank in living rhythm.
Julian wanted to run. His mind told him to run, but he didn’t back up or turn around. He recognized this figure. It was Carson. It was him. It was them. Then, it smiled and he realized what it was. Teeth. Not little white stones. It was made entirely of teeth, only this boy’s smile had a full set and Julian’s was missing one.
The movement, the smile, should have been scary or grotesque, but Julian relaxed when he saw it. It had been so long since Carson had smiled like that. Julian reached out, half-expecting the figure to disappear or turn around. Instead, it took his hand.
Its fingers were smooth and light, but strong where they gripped Julian’s palm. It moved to stand directly in front of him and brought its face close to his. This close, the seams looked reptilian, like the scales on the iguana he and Carson had held at the zoo one time. The figure, with pupil-less eyes, seemed to be staring back as Julian studied its face. The boy-statue took Julian’s fingers and pressed them against its cheek. Julian could feel the skin, like polished stone, but as he pushed, he felt the softness beneath, the gentle give of tissue and, deeper, the hardness of bone.
“Carson?” Julian felt the word shiver out of him, like he’d let the possibility into the world.
The boy didn’t answer.
“Can you talk?”
The boy opened his mouth, face puzzled and concentrating. Julian was reminded of Carson looking at the directions for a new LEGO set. “Talk?” His voice was raspy and Julian saw a white tongue working in the darkness of his mouth. “I can talk.” It seemed as much a realization for the boy as an answer to Julian’s question.
Already, the boy sounded stronger, more certain, while Julian’s mouth felt strangely dry and useless.
They turned, mirror images, at a sudden creak in the hall, a soft voice calling beyond the bedroom door. “Julian?” Mom asked.
Spell broken, Julian pushed away, knocking the boy onto the bottom bunk. Would seeing the boy give Mom a heart attack? Would she throw herself onto the boy like he was Carson, back from the dead? Which would be worse? Julian did the only thing that came to mind, the thing he’d always done. He turned and crawled into the closet, his hide-and-seek standby, he settled between the frayed knees of a dangling snowsuit, pulled a pile of dirty sweatshirts over his legs. His hand squished against worn velvet, Roo Roo. A few weeks ago, Mom had asked him to find one of Carson’s old toys to bring to the hospital. The one-eyed kangaroo had been buried at the bottom of the bin, but it had been Carson’s favorite.
“Is everything alright, Julian?” Mom pushed open the door and walked in.
He squeezed Roo Roo and braced for her scream. When he didn’t hear it, Julian opened his eyes to see that the boy had wriggled under the blankets and tucked himself in, a Julian-shaped mass in the still-dark room.
Mom left the lights off and sat on the side of the bed. She kept her back to the boy, but Julian could see the puffiness of her eyes and the red on her cheeks.
On the bed, she sat, stiff-backed and staring at the wall, hands gripping the white frame below each thigh. It was like she couldn’t stand to look at him. Julian wondered whether she’d ever be able to look at him, whether she’d always see Carson’s face instead.
“You hurt me, Julian.” She said it low, almost hissing, and stopped short like she heard the way it sounded.
In the closet, Julian’s hand gripped Roo Roo’s neck. Good, he thought.
During Carson’s worst days, which is the same as saying his last days, Julian would leave the hospital room, his twin brother’s weak smile biting into his heart. Those were the days when Carson was too weak to continue comforting either Julian or their mom, the days when the world seemed tense and small, crushing each of them into separate knots of grief. Before that, Carson comforted them as he always had. He laughed and flicked his sweep of blond hair, said how lucky he was to sit in bed and play video games all day. Carson had always been the kind one, the helper, the one who picked up his toys.
The boy didn’t respond. He lay quiet and still until Julian was sure his mom would wonder what was wrong, look right into his face, see the reptilian skin, the staring eyes. Instead, she stared at the wall as if replaying a memory: their fight in the car? The funeral? Carson’s last breath?
Finally, the tooth boy spoke in a gravelly voice that sounded choked with emotion. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Mom sighed and released the bed frame, her shoulders slumping. Only then did Julian realize she’d been bracing herself for his response.
“Do you really hate Carson?” she asked.
“I don’t hate anybody.”
She laughed, a relieved breath that escaped between her teeth. “I’m glad to hear that, Julian.” She started to turn toward the boy, relaxed now.
Julian tensed, gripping the toy kangaroo and waiting for the moment when she would see the imposter, the moment when she would need Julian to rush out and pull her away from this thing, this freak that was not her son.
She stopped turning, stiffened again, as if stuck on a final thought. “Do you really think I’m a bad mother?”
“You are a good mother,” said the boy-statue.
She smiled and turned. Julian leaned forward, ready for her to see the monster in his bed. Ready for the scream, the shriek.
Instead, she turned and kissed the tooth boy’s forehead, brushed his cheek with a tender thumb, and then left the room seeming as happy as Carson had ever made her.
Julian dropped Roo Roo, hands pounding with aimless adrenaline, no one left to rescue. Mom hadn’t noticed. No, she must have noticed, but she was pretending. Couldn’t she tell it wasn’t him? Julian remembered her smile, her relief at being freed from his anger. He clenched both fists. This boy was nothing like him. Julian never would have apologized. He did hate Carson.
Julian stood, walked to the door, pressed it shut. He turned, climbed onto the bed and over the boy until he was kneeling on the thing’s chest, pinning its arms under the sheet. He looked down at the figure’s face, mouth slack, eyes empty and smooth. Julian studied it as he’d studied driveway ants before pulling off a leg or an antenna to watch them stagger around. The echo of his mom’s relieved laugh beat at his skull. This boy-thing was just like Carson.
With a sudden jerk of his whole body, Julian swung a fist into the boy’s face. His knuckle burst against the boy’s teeth and when the rush of pain traveled up Julian’s arm, he swung again. The boy didn’t struggle or strain against the sheet. He made no effort to get free or to move away from Julian’s fists. Soon, the tooth boy’s face was smeared with red, like water color spilled on a white table. It flowed through the natural cracks and seams of the boy’s face, ran across his cheeks and onto Julian’s pillow. A pool of it swirled in his mouth.
“Aren’t you even going to fight?” Julian heaved and realized he was sobbing. “I could kill you. Don’t you care?”
The boy raised his head. “I’m sorry, Julian. Are you mad?” As the boy spoke, blood spilled from the sides of his mouth. From where he was kneeling, Julian could see that the boy’s perfect smile was now missing a tooth—one of the front ones—a perfect copy of Julian’s own.
Julian slumped and collapsed next to the tooth boy, cradling his throbbing hand.
After a few breaths, he turned his head to study the boy’s imperfect smile. “We’re really twins now,” Julian said, “just like with Carson.” Julian looked up at the thumb-thick bars supporting Carson’s upper bunk. “He and I used to trade places all the time. When we were really little, we thought it was hilarious even though we weren’t smart enough to fool anyone.”
The tooth boy looked over at him and smiled again, forcing more blood to streak from the corners of his mouth.
“Everyone thought we eventually gave it up, but we really just got better. Carson had us switch clothes and practice in front of the mirror for hours.” Julian paused and looked down at his weeping knuckle. “Carson was always better at it. I never liked that game. I wanted them to see me, to tell me they weren’t fooled.”
The boy sat up and nodded, as if deciding. “Would you like to switch places, Julian?”
The boy climbed out from under the sheet and stood next to the bed, offering Julian a hand.
As they crept by Mom’s office, Julian caught a glimpse of her through the cracked door. She was leaned back in her chair. Eyes closed. A tired smile on her face.
After a few blocks, he saw where they were going. The cemetery was darker at night, but the moon was full and the marble headstones held a soft glow. The tooth boy was up ahead, leading the way. He glowed too, even dressed in a pair of Julian’s jeans and an old black t-shirt. Julian followed the brightness of the tooth boy’s arms and the back of his head, moonlit and pearly. Now, he felt a familiar biting around his heart as if something had gotten ahold of him and was tugging him forward, step after step.
The tooth boy stopped next to the pile of dirt and motioned to Carson’s re-opened grave. The top layer of earth had been shoved aside, leaving a shallow hole, as if something—someone—had dug its way out. “Trade places,” the boy said, motioning again.
Julian thought of his mom, asleep in her office chair. He thought of the pain in his knuckles where they’d split against this boy’s face.
Julian took a deep breath and then lowered himself into the shallow grave. The grass around the grave’s edge felt thick and alive between his fingers. He lay back and the low dirt walls seemed to rise up around him, cutting him off from everything but a few wispy clouds and the empty sky. The tooth boy loomed up against that sky, shovel in hand. He nodded to Julian and smiled down with that Carson smile, the one that pulled your problems right out.
Julian closed his eyes and listened to the tooth boy jab the shovel into the dirt pile above. Crumbs of it landed on his chest, scattering across his shoulders and over his arms. The next shovelful dusted his neck and collected under his chin. He pressed his lips together and breathed through his nose.
It rained down, coated his ankles, legs, and shoes. The tooth boy was finding a rhythm now, digging away with Carson’s old athleticism. Julian listened to the steady scrape of the blade against the dirt, the metallic ring of it leaving the shovel before thumping into the ground. Soon he was outlined with gentle slopes of black earth.
He dug his fingernails into the loose soil and remembered when Mom and Carson had buried him on the beach, the chill of the damp sand and the slow pressure hugging his chest. Carson had smiled down at him and then laughed, asking if Julian could still wiggle his toes, move his arms. Julian had strained upward and managed to lift an arm, shedding an avalanche and giggling. Mom laughed, too. She sat back on her heels and wiped his hand clean. She had looked down at him, just him, and smiled. Julian had felt as if the sand would press down through his skin, trickle and fill his chest until there wasn’t room for anything else inside him. It was only a month or so afterward that they’d first found out Carson was sick.
“Wait.” Julian raised an arm and waved away the raining dirt. The tooth boy stopped shoveling and peered down at him. Julian didn’t say anything else. He didn’t know what to say anymore. The tooth boy watched him with Carson’s face for a moment before setting aside the shovel and climbing down next to him. Julian knew that, eventually, one of them would get up and bury the other, but for now, they lay side by side at the bottom of the grave while the moon grinned bright and white overhead.
Mike Keller-Wilson lives, writes, and teaches in Iowa City, Iowa. He received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and has been published in Arcturus Magazine. In his day job, he teaches writing and dad jokes to a captive audience of 7th graders. You can find him on Twitter @Mike3Stars.
I (Ijeoma Ntada) am a Nigerian Writer/Poet and mobile photographer who keeps a bulbous afro and loves to be black and proud. I have published works on The Love Anthology, Ducor Review, The Praxis Review and elsewhere. I'm _ijentada on Twitter.