When we pull up to Auntie’s in our blood-colored minivan, Olly is definitely gone. Auntie says he’s in the woods, she apologizes for him, but she’s smiling, so I know she doesn’t mean it. She loves Olly—it kills her.
In the twilight, the house is a tomb, stone and square and knowing, with windows like five yellow eyes. Auntie hasn’t put up any Christmas lights—she hasn’t for ten years. We stumble out of the car, take our suitcases from the trunk. August drags the luggage through the snow. He flexes linebacker muscles. Meanwhile, Dad and Mama take turns admiring the house, is that new paint, are those new shutters, and they almost make it seem like they haven’t been arguing all the way here. Only Auntie sees my face and touches me between the shoulders, fingers feather-light, like a ghost’s.
“He’ll be back,” she says. “He’s missed you.”
I nod. I don’t believe her. If Olly had been counting down the seconds, he would’ve been here in the driveway, and he’s not, so that’s all.
On the inside, Auntie’s house is a wood-paneled junk drawer of Goodwill furniture and fake ferns; it makes me asthmatic and reeks perpetually of root vegetables. The rooms are small, the ceilings low, and August has to bend his neck to squeeze under the door frames, which he complains about religiously (no one could care less). It isn’t really Auntie’s house, anyway—it’s Grandma’s, and she left it to Auntie and Uncle Jack in her will, which drives Mama crazy, even though she hates this house like it’s a tumor. Auntie hasn’t put up a Christmas tree. There are only the three stockings—one for Olly, one for Auntie, one for Uncle Jack—hanging over the fireplace in the living room. The stockings are speckled with holes, probably from the mice. Auntie’s house is infested with mice. They chew through the floorboards, the drywall; they’re crunching through the foundation. I can almost hear their teeth.
“Where’s Packer at?” asks Dad—Packer is Olly’s dog.
Auntie shrugs. “With Olly, I would guess.”
“And where’s Olly?” mutters August, but everyone ignores him.
After unpacking, we eat dinner—lentils, Auntie loves them—and play Monopoly in the living room. August accuses me of cheating; I call him a liar. Baby Lila starts crying because she’s emotionally defective, so Mama tells both of us to shut up and Dad looks out the window and says, “What a beautiful sunset,” which makes all of us remember that Olly is in the woods. Curled up in her dead husband’s armchair, Auntie stares into her cup of Earl Grey.
“He’ll be back,” she whispers.
Mama smiles at Auntie the way she smiles at Lila: alright, alright, no one believes you. But Auntie doesn’t notice. She just drinks her tea as the sun slips behind the mountains like a body into the earth.
There’s a knock at the door: Dad answers it, blinks down at a small and freckled cop who tips her head to him, good evening, sir. She just came by to warn us about letting dogs or small children go unattended in the woods—there have been multiple sightings of a large male bear in this area of the country. Dad thanks her for the update, offers her coffee. She refuses him politely, tips her head again, and half-skips off the porch.
“Well how about that, I’m not the only bear in these woods,” says Dad, and laughs at his own joke. “Alright, who’s playing the wheelbarrow?”
But no one is really playing anymore. Lila is starving, Mama has to nurse her, and Auntie is humming a Beatles song under her breath. So August quits the Monopoly game to call his girlfriend, and we all go to bed.
Every year, we come to Auntie’s house for Christmas on a guilt trip. Auntie is Mama’s sister, and they hate each other, except in December when they agree not to talk about politics, religion, or Olly, because of Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack is dead—he died ten years ago on Christmas, when I was five and Olly was eight. I remember that he smoked Cuban cigars, that he spoke bad French and liked fishing, but that’s all. Olly never talks about him. Maybe he doesn’t remember Uncle Jack, either. Or maybe he remembers too much.
August snores next to me, but I don’t fall asleep. I stare out the window, at the shadows of the trees that look like crooked human spines, and I wonder if Olly is tucked into a bed of snow. I wonder if he’s sealed in a chrysalis of ice, if he’ll wake up the next morning with roots sprouting from his feet and worms between his toes, like a new-age Captain America. Then I wonder if he’ll freeze to death. But when I ask August how long it takes to die of hypothermia, he chokes on a spit bubble and mumbles his girlfriend’s name like a prayer.
Two days later, Olly is nowhere. Auntie keeps apologizing about it: he’s always like this around Christmas, because of Jack. Her curls bob when she shakes her head, and she looks almost like Mama, except Mama’s eyes are puffed and pouchy from what she calls “child-induced insomnia.” Sometimes I wish the sisters didn’t hate each other, because I like Auntie. She reminds me of a cat we used to have, a small tabby that watched us with yellow eyes like it knew something we didn’t, until it was hit by a car.
While scrambling eggs, Dad tells Auntie not to worry too much about Olly, boys will be boys, just look at August—he’d run away for two weeks when he was twelve, good as gone, until they found him drinking ginger ale at a bar in Calgary.
“I was a kid,” August mutters. “Olly’s old enough to buy a car.”
“Some people grow up later than others.”
“Some people never do,” says my brother.
Auntie only smiles her still-lake smile, which makes Mama open her mouth to say something, but then Dad asks, too loud, what everyone wants for Christmas, and Mama remembers that it’s December and keeps her mouth shut. I might be the only one who sees the way Auntie wrings the newspaper under the table; I watch the shreds snow down to the floor and I tell myself that Olly isn’t dead of hypothermia. Is that what Auntie’s telling herself, too?
I know that she’s thinking about him because the next morning, before sunrise, I find her huddled in Uncle Jack’s armchair, cuddling one of Olly’s flannels. Her nose is pressed into it, like she can pull Olly through her lungs, inside of her.
“He looks so much like Jack, now,” she says. I don’t know if she’s talking to me, because she’s staring into nowhere, so I just stand there and twist my fingers until the knuckles crack.
“Sometimes I think he is Jack. That Jack is in him, talking to me. Jack loved the woods.”
“He’ll come back,” I tell her, lamely.
“Mm,” hums Auntie. She smiles, pets the flannel gently. “Making him stay here, it’s like asking him to leave a part of himself. Men don’t know how to give themselves up the way women do. We leave ourselves”—her hand flops at the wrist—“everywhere. For men, it kills them.”
This is one of the things Mama hates about Auntie: her “other-world tongue,” the way she talks about life like it’s some kind of mystery. Life, according to Mama, isn’t a mystery. It’s a predictable and unavoidable sequence of tragedies, ending in death.
“I know he loves being with you,” I reassure her.
She laughs softly. I’ve never noticed how small she is until now—she’s shorter than me, and thinner, and the veins stand out on the backs of her hands like blue, bulging snakes. I imagine them slithering under her skin, up her arms, to the base of her wrinkled neck. I imagine her own veins strangling her from the inside.
“So did Jack,” Auntie says.
Then Mama comes into the room, and her mouth is a line I don’t want to cross. So I mutter something about waking August up, and I slip away before Mama says a word. On my way out, I notice that Olly’s checkered flannel is spotted with dried blood.
A little past noon, August rips the book I’m reading out of my hands and asks me if I’m coming with him. Coming where? The woods, idiot. To find our idiot cousin before some bear does. So we put on our coats and boots and trudge out into the snow, calling Olly’s name.
August forges ahead, frightening every living thing within a fifty mile radius with his huffing and puffing. When I tell him that we’re walking in circles, he insists he’s following his internal compass, and we argue, but then we get tired of arguing and just sulk (me) or mumble about nothing (August). The branches whistle. The snow drips.
We stumble home five hours later, soaked and silent. Mama, rocking Baby Lila while she screams, demands to know where we’ve been. Dad tells her not to badger us, she yells at him, Lila wails. Auntie stirs a pot of soup, doesn’t even notice when the boiling broth splashes against her skin. Then August dozes off on the living room couch (he could sleep in a war zone), and I lock myself in our bedroom. I stretch out on the bed and watch the trees.
“Do you think this is about Uncle Jack?”
I turn to find August in the door frame, arms over his chest, chewing his bottom lip. Somehow, he’s always more awake than I think he is.
“He’s just Olly,” I say.
“He’s a jerk,” says August. “Leaving his mom like that. Making her worry.”
“He can’t help it.”
“He doesn’t have to, when everyone lets him get away with murder.”
I don’t recognize my brother’s voice. It’s old, pitched too low.
“Did Mom tell you yet?”
“What?” I say.
“They’re getting a divorce.”
“I know. I found the papers in her purse.” I turn back to the trees. “Dad told her not to tell me, he thinks I can’t handle it. Too ‘emotionally volatile.’”
August doesn’t have anything to say to that. “I’m not leaving after graduation. I’ll stay with you and Lila.”
“What about sports?” I say.
“It doesn’t matter,” says August.
“Yes it does.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I’m not stupid.”
For once, August doesn’t argue with me. He slumps on the edge of the bed; the springs squeal. I twist to look at him, the line of his hooked nose and broad shoulders in the dark, and it occurs to me that August is there, like an arm or a leg that you don’t notice until it’s broken. So I sit up and sit next to him, and we’re one body, inseparable, and we watch the woods.
Then August says, so quietly that I almost can’t hear: “Olly can freeze for all I care.”
The next morning, we find Olly eating a bowl of Cheerios in the kitchen. He grins at us through milk-rimmed lips.
“Oy,” he says. “Miss me?”
Before August can answer him, I tackle my cousin into the counter and wring him by his skinny neck. He laughs, apologizing, and I tell him he’s an idiot, which makes him laugh harder. I pull back. I look at him, squinting. He’s taller than I remember: he has Auntie’s cat eyes, round and yellow, and Uncle Jack’s puggish nose. His fingers tap-tap-tap against his thigh. But his voice isn’t low and knowing, like August’s, and his cheeks still dimple when he talks, everything’s a joke to him.
“Where were you?” I ask him.
“Later,” he promises, winks.
“Or right now,” says August. “Go ahead, Olly. Explain it to me. How’d you leave your mom alone, disappear for days, and show up eating Cheerios?” His jaw clicks to the left. “If you’re gonna lie, you might as well do it to my face.”
Olly blinks. Then Mama comes into the kitchen with Lila, and Auntie and Dad come next, and everyone is talking over each other while Olly laughs.
“Hey Aunt Heather, hey Uncle Phil,” he says, sheepish, running a hand over his pony-tailed hair.
He kisses Lila on her bald spot, tells some story about tracking beavers, and in that instant Olly is forgiven. Auntie wraps him in her sweater; Mama serves him eggs and bacon; Dad claps him on the back. August scowls and storms out the back door, I’m going for a run fired over his shoulder. I stare after him. Then Olly waves me over, and I, too, forget.
“Wanna come to the woods with me?”
“I found this old shed. We could see what’s inside.”
His eyes glint—pennies in a fountain—un-granted wishes—he’s itching for air. I notice, for the first time, the sick-yellow color of his caved-in cheeks. But I’m not August—I don’t say the things I should.
“Are you ever going to tell us where you were?” Are you ever going to tell me?
“Later,” he says, the same way as before. “Come on, before they see us.”
Following at Olly’s heels, I trip through the gray, bristling trees. I don’t say much—Olly does that for me, filling the air with one story after another, all true, gospel gold. He tells me about hitchhiking to the mountain, about chasing a falcon all the way to a waterfall, about some girl who likes him at school, he doesn’t like her back, what are you gonna do. The woods are stuffed and bloated with Olly; they’ve eaten too much of him at once. He whistles, sings, and rambles instead of breathing, like he’ll drop dead and silent in the snow if he stops, and his sounds are like bird calls or leaves rustling, just natural. Sometimes, my cousin is suffocating. I want to pelt him into the dirt, pound the life out of him. But then he makes me laugh, and I could listen to him, follow him, all day and anywhere. When he asks, I lie and say I have a girlfriend. He wrinkles his pug nose and teases me—who knew I was the real killer, after all—and instantly I regret what I said, I tell him that it’s just a temporary thing, that I don’t really like her, anyway. Olly nods sagely, tossing a stick. I feel better about myself; I walk with my legs swung wide.
When we get to the shed, six guys hover around it like vultures, hair long and greasy under homemade caps, voices too loud. I glare at Olly, and he smiles, rubs his neck.
“They’re my friends, they’ll like you, they’ll be gone in a bit. You good?”
Without waiting for an answer, he races over to them, and they pound fists. I shove my hands in my pockets and follow, wondering where August is, knowing he’d be ticked—then Olly’s friends see me standing there, and I don’t think about August.
“My cousin,” Olly explains.
“Hey, hey,” they say.
I nod at them.
“Alright,” says Olly, “let’s open ‘er up.”
The shed is squat, tilted, and rotting in places, left behind by long-gone neighbors who forgot to tear it down. Olly surveys it. The guys tail him as he walks a slow, observant circle, calculating his point of entry. He tests the door; it’s frozen shut. He pulls on it. Nothing. Puts his full weight against it. Nothing. Olly chews his lip like August does.
“Get out of here, you’re ten pounds soaking wet,” says one of the guys, and then they’re all taking turns, seven wannabe King Arthurs, yanking at the door and laughing.
Finally, Olly holds up a hand, enough. He shields his eyes from the winter sun and squints. He watches a robin dip down from the sky and disappear through the shed roof, then reappear and settle in the branches of a nearby birch. My cousin turns to me and says:
“Wanna climb up on the roof?”
I shake my head on instinct; I’m terrified of heights. “What are you, crazy?”
“There’s a hole up there. We’ll boost you up.”
“Come on,” groans one of the guys, and then they’re all saying it, keening like dogs.
But then Olly mutters, under his breath, I shouldn’t have asked, so I roll my eyes, fine, I’ll do it, and the guys cheer, line up. They make steps for my feet with their interlocked fingers, they’re a ladder of limbs, they hoist me toward the sky, and I clamber up their arms and onto the roof. I feel my boots grip the snow-slick roof tiles. Olly asks if I’m good. I tell him sure. Slowly, I straighten. I stand. My heart pounds hard enough to kill me. The guys tell me to look for the hole, so I turn, find the gaping void where the roof has fallen in. I bend my knees, leaning towards it. And that’s when the roof collapses.
The first thing I feel is the pain in my leg, blinding. The darkness swirls—I’ve hit my head. There’s a smell, too, something rotting. I try to stand and nearly scream, collapsing back, gripping my calf between my hands. Blood. There’s blood on my fingers—I’ve sliced my leg, I feel around for sharp objects, and I find something—a hunting knife, on the shed floor. I want to throw up. I hear Olly shouting, the guys arguing about how to get me out. My face burns with the humiliation of it. So I stand again, gritting my teeth against a whimper. I tell them I’m alright. What is that smell?
Then I hear August’s voice, low and angry. He must’ve tracked our footprints.
“If he’s hurt, I’ll kill you.”
Olly apologizes, he wouldn’t have asked me to do it if I didn’t want to, but August ignores him. There’s a kick against the side of the shed, then another, and another, the wood cracks, and August is standing there, panting. He asks me if I’m hurt; I tell him it’s fine, just get me out of here. He kicks against the wood again until there’s a hole big enough for me to squeeze through, and he drags me through it by the shoulder. Then he growls.
“What happened to your leg?”
I try to shrug; I can feel the guys watching me. “I must’ve fallen on something, it’s no big deal.”
“No big deal?” He’s angry with me now, and his nostrils flare. “You’re covered in blood.”
“It’ll heal up, it doesn’t even hurt.”
Olly says, “It might look worse than it—“
“Shut up,” snaps August.
“Don’t talk to him like that.”
“I can talk to him however I want.” He turns on Olly. “What the heck were you thinking? You bring a fifteen-year-old kid out here with your stupid drunk friends and let him get stabbed in a toolshed?”
Olly’s eyes narrow to slits. “He’s the one who climbed up there. What do you want me to do, put him on a leash?”
“Go home, August,” I interrupt them. “I don’t need you following me around.”
“Yeah, sure,” he says, never taking his eyes off Olly. “You’re doing just fine.”
“Maybe you should put a collar on him, too,” says Olly. “Carve his little name on it.”
August’s fingers curl in on themselves, knuckles cracking.
“August,” I say.
“Stay out of this.”
“Stop treating me like a kid.”
“I will when you stop acting like one.” He looks at Olly when he says it.
My leg seizes and buckles—August snaps to catch me—but I shove him off. Nostrils flaring, he straightens and laughs to himself.
“Fine. Whatever. Run around in the woods playing make believe, what do I care.”
And I’m sick and tired of August, so I say, “Or maybe I could just drop out of college and sleep on my parents’ couch, instead.”
The trees creak like bones on the verge of snapping. August stares at me. He looks the way he does when Dad and Mama fight, with eyes wide open and sealed shut all at once.
“Just so you know,” he says, “there’s a dead dog in that shed.”
Without another word, he walks back toward the house; he acts like Olly isn’t there, at all.
“Yo, Oliver. Didn’t you say your dog got lost?” says one of the guys.
My cousin watches August until he disappears.
“Come on,” he says after a minute, smiling apologetically. “We should get back.”
He tells the guys goodbye, I throw my arm over his shoulder, and we hobble back to Auntie’s in silence.
While I’m holed up in bed with stitches in my leg, Olly disappears into the woods. August is too mad to talk about it—if anyone mentions Olly, he storms out of the room before they can say another word. For some reason, though, he hasn’t told anyone how I really hurt my leg. He let me lie and say I sliced it open on a rock, that it wasn’t Olly’s fault—he ground his teeth tight and didn’t say a word, and I’m not sure I know my brother anymore. He’s almost a man, grown up and folded inward, keeping his thoughts to himself, and I don’t know how to be around him, so when he tries to talk to me, I answer Yes and No and that’s all. Eventually, he leaves me alone.
Christmas comes and goes, and the truce between Mama and Auntie shatters. Mama tells Auntie that she’s ruining Olly, that he’s eighteen now with no career aspirations, that he needs guidance and focus and actual parenting. Auntie is silent until Mama brings up Uncle Jack, and then she says that Mama can’t throw stones while she’s living in a glass house on the edge of divorce. Dad tries to intervene, which gets him yelled at, Lila just wails and wails, and I bury my face in my book and watch the woods for yellow eyes.
By New Year’s Eve, my leg is healed enough to walk on, and Mama says that she wants to drive home before a snowstorm traps us here. Dad is too tired to fight her; he packs our suitcases, we’ll leave first thing in the morning. Watching him, I notice that he looks nothing like August. He’s skinny and gray-headed, with my narrow shoulders and Peter Pan nose. I remember that Mama chose him by default—she’d been in love with Uncle Jack, and she might still love him, but Jack chose Auntie in the end. At least, he chose her until he chose the woods.
At midnight, we watch the live-streamed ball-drop in New York City with a party-sized bag of lentil chips. Three, two, one, and August squeezes my shoulder, Auntie kisses his cheek, and Mama and Dad just smile at each other, like two strangers passing on the street. Lila claps her fleshy hands, but her blue eyes are fish-wide, her mouth limp—why are we celebrating? Then she looks around and starts to bawl, so we wish each other a happy new year and retreat to our rooms. August and I lay in the dark, still as corpses.
“I think Lila knows,” I say. “About the divorce.”
“She’s a baby.”
“Babies can feel things.”
“How did Uncle Jack die?”
I look over at him. He’s staring at the ceiling; his chest rises and falls predictably.
“He just disappeared. He went out to the woods one day, and he never came back. They searched for a while. Then they chalked it up to a hunting accident.”
“Do you think that’s what it was?”
August sighs. “I hope that’s what it was,” he says.
Before I can ask him what he means, he’s already snoring.
Mama’s nightmare becomes reality in two different ways—a storm hits overnight, and Olly returns. He looks even sicker than before, his brown skin soured like old milk. But he grins at me through a mouthful of cereal and asks me about my leg, looks ashamed when I show him the stitches, then claps me on the back for my bravery, and soon I’m grinning back at him, ignoring the way August glowers. Dad and Mama break into a raging argument—we should’ve left a week ago, we couldn’t have known, now we’re stuck here, the kids will miss school, if you’d just listen to me—and August heads outside to help Dad push the car out of the snow. Auntie and Mama frost bagels with cream cheese, knives moving in quick, jerky slashes; Mama barks at me to watch my sister.
In the living room, I turn on some Tom and Jerry reruns, and Olly sits with Lila in his lap, bouncing her on his knee. She loves him—she gurgles happily, crinkling her wide, stupid eyes. She’s closer to him now than I’ve ever been, so I tell him, sulking, that my parents are getting divorced.
“Oh. That’s tough,” he says, eyebrows knitted, thinking.
“August wants to stay with us after he graduates. He’s giving up his football scholarship.”
“He’s a good older brother.”
“You’re not bad, either.”
Olly’s leg bounces faster; Lila’s head bobs so wildly that I think her neck might snap. So I tug her away on instinct, pulling her into my chest. She bursts into tears. Mama yells at me, she scoops Lila up, and Olly and I are left on the couch watching Tom and Jerry chase each other into oblivion.
“Do you ever get tired?” says Olly, softly.
“This.” He tips his chin at Lila, then over his shoulder at Mama and Auntie in the kitchen.
I don’t know what he means, but I pretend. “Sure,” I say. “Sometimes.”
“Do you wanna come with me?”
“I’m serious this time. I wanna show you something.”
“Right. Your parents.”
Something about the way he says it makes me bristle. “I just don’t want to upset anybody. August still hates you, by the way.”
Olly snorts. “He doesn’t like you hanging around me. He wants you to stay pure and innocent or something.”
I open my mouth, then shut it when I realize he’s right. August, Mama, Dad, all of them, they whisper and talk in code, they treat me like Lila, like I can’t understand anything about the divorce, Auntie, Uncle Jack or any of it. I wonder if Olly knows the truth about his dad—I wonder if I should tell him. But before I can say anything he’s up and off the couch, tap-tap-tapping his fingers against his thighs.
He says, “Do you wanna come or not?”
I look at him. “Okay,” I say, because I’m tired of something, too, even if I don’t know what it is.
My cousin grins. “I always miss you.”
There’s something wrong with Olly’s face. It’s too sharp, it hurts to look at him. But I smile because he likes me more than anyone else—he asked me to go with him—and we slip out the back door toward the woods before anyone catches us.
This time, we don’t walk—we run. Olly’s legs are longer than mine, and he lopes over the snow like a deer, born for this. I stumble behind him, wincing when the stitches in my legs pull against the skin. I shouldn’t be here. But Olly’s eyes are pennies again, flashing between tree trunks, just out of reach, so I chase him further and further into the woods, laughing until the cold scrapes my throat raw. Then, too late, I realize where we’re going. I stop; I stand still in the snow while Olly races the rest of the way to the shed, his long legs carrying him in three quick leaps. When he notices that I’m not following, he turns to look at me, teeth bared.
“Come on, don’t be mad at me,” he says. “There’s a reason, I promise.”
My stomach twists with disappointment. “I have to go.” I turn, trudging back toward the house. The stitches in my leg burn with each step.
“Come on,” he repeats, a whine in his voice.
“You gotta grow up, Olly.”
“Wait.” I pause. “What if I don’t?”
I turn back to him. “What?”
He holds up a hand. Then he disappears around the corner of the shed, and after a few minutes, emerges from the hole August kicked in dragging something large and golden behind him. I inhale, suddenly sick—it’s Packer, Olly’s retriever, mangled and maggot-ridden. Turning away, I bend over my knees and throw up onto the snow.
“You okay?” calls Olly.
“No,” I spit, fingers too numb to clench. “I’m going home.”
“I knew it,” he mutters. “None of you get it, none of you understand.” Then, louder: “Whatever, just go, you’re leaving anyway.”
He stares down at Packer, but says nothing. I’m already leaving when he calls me back, his voice strangely thin, like fresh ice over a black and bottomless lake.
Slowly, I turn. His eyes are like twin moons, unreachable. But then, all of a sudden, he’s smiling. He’s looking at me like I’ve unlocked some great secret, and he says:
“Jack is alive.”
Right, sure, I tell him. He’s alive for all of us, nobody’s gonna forget him. But Olly just smiles, and his lips crack a little, bleeding purple.
“He’s alive, I saw him.”
“What do you mean, you saw him?”
“You promise you won’t tell anyone?”
I hesitate. “I swear.”
So Olly sits down in the snow beside his dead dog, and he tells me the story of the Bear. He tells me that a man married a woman, once, who was gentle and kind and lovely, and that the man took her to live with him in the snow-covered mountains. But on every side of their little stone house, the woods called. They sang all night and day, sometimes whispering and sometimes screaming, their voices strangely female, until, eventually, the man gave in. Not entirely, or all at once. First it was a ten minute walk. Then it was an overnight hunting trip. And then it was days, weeks at a time, disappearing into the trees, leaving his wife behind. The woman had a baby, and that kept the man home for a while, because he loved his son. But the woods called again, louder this time, and the man followed their voices into the dark, and he never returned. He became a part of the trees, a great, roaming Bear, who traveled over the mountains and slept once a year. The little boy he left behind searched the woods for his father—his tiny heart was breaking, bleeding, forming. He, too, heard the voices, and though his mother tried to stop him, he followed their calls. The boy became a bear; the boy always was one.
“You can do it, too,” my cousin tells me. “You can come with me, over the mountains.”
My leg throbs. My skin is shredding at the seams. “No, I can’t.”
“I have a family,” I tell him.
“They’ll understand,” he says.
“They won’t forgive me. I won’t forgive myself.”
“You’ll forget, when you’re a bear.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
Olly blinks at me. “Everyone does.”
“Not me,” I lie. “Not me.”
“You’re a man, aren’t you?”
“I want to be.”
“Then come with me. Look, look, I’ll show you.”
Before my eyes, Olly shifts. His legs grow fur, grow stocky—his eyes sink back into pits—his teeth curl down, his back humps toward the sky. My cousin is a bear; he is more himself than he has ever been. After gaining his footing, he barrels toward me, growling something that sounds like my name. He doesn’t know me, I think, he doesn’t know me. I dive out of the way, into the snow. He spins—his nostrils smoke. Then he charges again, so I scramble to my feet, I race toward the shed for no particular reason, and the stitches in my leg snap. I tumble through August’s hole. I reach for something, anything, I can use to fight. The hunting knife. It glints on the floor, still stained with my blood. Behind me, the bear that was and is my cousin breaks into the shed. So I grab the knife, turn, hold it up—
I realize, now, that Olly must have killed Packer. He must have stored what was left of the body in the shed—he must have wanted me to find it, to know him fully, as no one else did.
Snow, when it’s covered in blood, looks good enough to eat.
When Olly doesn’t come home, no one is surprised. August and Dad dig the car out of the snow; we pack up our suitcases; we hug Auntie goodbye. She apologizes for Olly’s absence, eyes my bundle of crumpled laundry, and smiles at nothing. Then Lila starts crying again, so we pile into the car and start the long drive home. Auntie waves in the rearview mirror—she is smaller and smaller until she is invisible.
“What’s with that?” says August, pointing at my hands. Blood is crusted under my nails.
“We found Packer,” I say. “The bear got to him.”
“Oh. That’s tough.”
“Yeah,” I say.
We drive into the night. Lila falls asleep in her car seat next to me—her small head droops too far to the right, so I tip her by the chin until she’s comfortable, pulling her blanket over her. August catches me doing it; he smiles.
“You’re gonna stay?” I say to him.
He closes his eyes, leaning back, but the smile stays on his face. “I’m gonna stay,” he says.
Lila’s blanket is made of bear skin. For now, we won’t talk about the woods.