The first thing David learned about Aaron was that he had a fascination with dead things. It wasn’t a secret—in seventh grade social studies he did his report on mummies. His face shone as he walked the class through the evisceration of the body, the slippery removal of the brain, the appliance of natron salts, cedar oil, cassia, resins, myrrh, and palm oil. It was this shameless interest that attracted David to Aaron and made him want to be friends. Lately he was spending all of his time in his house, and in his house he felt suffocated. He had two older brothers, but they were nothing like him. Henry played football and managed straight As, while Zachary played his music too loudly and brought girls over on Fridays. Only David spent night after night alone in his room, poring over comics, streaming b-horror movies, and hacking away at the science fiction book he was writing. His book was his most carefully guarded secret. He would not have spoken of it for the life of him.
But there were other things he wanted to talk about, thoughts and ideas that pressed on his tongue for release. He needed somebody he could trust, somebody he could express things to without the words getting fumbled up in the telling. Most importantly, he needed his parents to leave him alone. His mother was always pressing him to make friends, and the pressure left him feeling useless and small. Her voice was taking up too much room in his thoughts.
He made his decision quickly after the mummy presentation, but he still waited a week before he approached Aaron after school. Aaron was waiting on the curb of the parking lot with his hands squished in the pockets of his oversized jacket. His backpack was slumped on the ground with the pockets unzipped. It looked empty. David stood next to Aaron and watched the pickup line of cars drag past. He wished he could wait to speak until all of the other kids standing on the curb had gone home, but he knew he didn’t have that kind of time. Any car might be Aaron’s ride. He asked, “Which organs did the Egyptians save?”
Aaron’s face, normally pinched and drawn, expanded into a slow grin. “Lungs, stomach, liver, intestines.”
David hadn’t expected such a sudden recital. He nodded. “That’s sick.”
“Not the heart though.”
“Where’s that go?”
“Back into the body. They take it out, but only to preserve it.”
The conversation ebbed into silence. Across the street a few boys were skateboarding up and down a steep driveway. Occasionally one zoomed out into the middle of the street and stopped traffic. The boys’ hollers and laughter bit across the parking lot. David said, “You should come over sometime.”
Aaron twisted his mouth to the side. “Why?”
“My mom’s getting on my case about being in my room all the time.”
“Come over to my house instead,” Aaron said. “That’ll really get her off your back for a while.”
He exhaled. “This weekend?”
“Sure. Saturday afternoon.” Aaron gave that peculiar expansive grin again. “There are these woods behind my house. We can play there.”
The stream of cars moved forward and a pickup truck rolled up to the curb. It honked and Aaron ran over without saying goodbye. David craned his head to try and glimpse who was driving the truck, but it was impossible to see the person’s face. He waited until Aaron had pulled away before he began his walk home.
• • •
That night at dinner he held a new pride in his chest, warm and beating. When he was younger he had friends, but sometime between elementary school and middle school the rules of socializing had shifted and David had been left behind. Suddenly there wasn’t one classroom of people to get used to, but seven. Friends fell away, and he didn’t know the protocol of retrieving them. He let his voice wither. Sometimes when a teacher called on him in class it hurt his throat to force words out his mouth. Other times he fantasized about standing up and screaming.
Now he felt like laughing. He kept the urge inside, deep down in the pit of his stomach. His brothers would make fun of him if they knew he was excited about making a friend. Zachary would call him gay, and his mother would become angry, and soon everybody would be on edge. It was best just to shovel the pasta down and retreat to his room as quickly as possible. He had two full days to prepare himself for Aaron’s house and to think about what he wanted to talk about.
“Slow down, dear,” his mother said.
“Yeah, dear, where’s the fire?” Zachary asked.
“I have stuff to do.”
“What kind of stuff?” Henry asked.
“None of your business stuff.”
“Can we please shut the stuff up?” his father asked. He was rubbing at his temples in an exaggerated motion. David had as little interest in his father as he did in his brothers. Every time he messed up—if he brought home a bad grade or if he forgot to turn the television off at night—it was, without a doubt, the Most Irresponsible Thing David Had Ever Done. Tired stories of his father’s past were dredged up and presented one by one for David’s personal edification. David had to listen repeatedly to a description of the cramped house his father had shared with his seven-person family growing up, and of the way his father had to pawn everything he inherited from his grandfather’s death to put himself through school. It became grating, meaningless. He let his father’s voice fade out into white noise.
David crammed a final forkful of spaghetti into his mouth and washed it down with a gulp of water. “All done.” He pushed out his chair with a screech and left before his parents could say anything about him not being excused. The laughter of his brothers followed him down the hallway and up the stairs. The weekend couldn’t come quickly enough. Even his room was losing its appeal. He did his homework in spurts, pacing around every ten minutes or so. Saturday was taking a magnetic hold on him. When he fell asleep that night he dreamt of trees sprouting up all around him, erupting from his bedroom floor and splintering the furniture. We can play here, Aaron told him, and David was glad.
• • •
On Saturday he took out the school directory and looked up Aaron’s house. His father was lying on the couch doing a Sudoku puzzle and his mother was reorganizing the spice cabinet. He asked his mother for a ride.
“A new friend huh?” She was all smiles and sweetness as she ushered him into the garage. As he climbed into the minivan he heard his father shout something about all of the spice jars his mother had left scattered across the kitchen counters. His mother, completely unbothered, squinted at the scrap of paper he had copied the address onto. “Wilson Road? That’s practically farmland. Does he live on a farm?”
“I don’t know.”
“That would be so good for you,” his mother said. “To be friends with a boy who lives on a farm.”
The drive took twenty-five minutes. That was twenty-five minutes pent up in a car that stank of his mother’s floral perfume. Once he tried lowering the window and his mother complained of the chill and raised it up again. He pressed his face up against the glass and watched the houses grow larger and farther apart as the car bumped and thudded down roads eaten away by potholes. The sky was streaked with thin, stretched-out clouds. He hoped Aaron didn’t mind rain. He wanted to see the woods that had made Aaron smile like that.
His mother pulled into a long dirt driveway that led them to the house. He could tell Aaron lived differently than he did just by looking at the front yard, where there was a wooden chicken coop and a tangled vegetable garden. The house itself was country-style, white and rectangular and hosting a wide wraparound porch. The small windows with their shades only half-drawn reminded him of little winking eyes.
“How pretty is this?” his mother asked. “Maybe I’ll come in, meet his parents...?”
“Not now, Mom.”
“When I pick you up, then. 5 o’clock?”
“Sure. See you later.”
He waited for his mother’s car to pull away before he walked up the porch steps. Aaron was waiting behind the screen door. He smiled and David’s stomach gave a tiny flip. He climbed the porch steps as Aaron opened the door. He noticed the screen was torn in several places.
“Do you have chickens?” David asked.
“Yeah. Dad wants to buy a cow too.”
From deep in the house came the buzz of a football game. If Aaron had visited David’s house, his mother would have waiting to greet him, probably with offers of iced tea and cookies. He wondered about Aaron’s life, how supervised it was and how often his parents came knocking on his bedroom door to demand he come be social for a change. Nobody came out to greet David as he followed Aaron upstairs to see his bedroom.
Inside Aaron’s room David found everything he could have hoped for in a potential friend. The shelves were overflowing with fantasy and horror books, the same thin, pulpy stuff David consumed religiously. There were other things as well—stacks of computer games on the desk and posters of superheroes and supervillains—but it was the books mostly that excited David. Often the best part of the day was climbing into bed at night, settling under the covers with a flashlight, and flipping open a story he had read maybe four times already. He could stay awake for hours, eyes bleary from squinting in the dim light, fingers sore from gripping the book. In the quiet of his room in the middle of the night the entire world seemed to open up to him, bigger and more mystifying than anything he ever saw in his own life. He could fall asleep thinking not about mean kids at school or math tests but about space-pirates and seven-eyed monsters.
Aaron was watching him look around the room. He nodded whenever David pointed out something they had in common, but also he kept fidgeting his hands. It put David on edge. He said, “Maybe we should go outside?”
A smile. Aaron flipped the lights out and exited the room without waiting to see if David was following.
Outside a deep chill had invaded the air. It made David shiver. Aaron showed him the chicken coop and gave David a handful of feed so that the chickens would come poking out to peck at the ground. He had never seen chickens up close before, and he found their sharp eyes and red scrunched faces oddly alien-looking. Aaron showed him how to send the chickens into chaos by throwing the feed this way and that and soon enough David and Aaron were doubled over laughing. He felt the tightness in his chest loosen. The words started to come easier.
They left the coop and went around the back of the house. There was a rusty barbecue grill and some deck furniture that looked like it was going to rot. He realized that Aaron might not have a mother. Everything at the house seemed slightly dilapidated, masculine. But that meant Aaron’s father was doing the gardening and that also seemed strange. The only hobby David’s father had was doing mechanical work. He had bought an old car recently and now spent many of his weekends tinkering with it in the garage. Sometimes Zachary or Henry helped. David didn’t see the appeal.
Beyond the grill and the furniture were the woods, spread out behind the house. He had had seen them from the front yard, but from there they seemed just a backdrop. Here in the backyard they were commanding and endless, a world unto themselves.
“What kinds of games do you play here?” David asked.
“Oh, loads.” He paused, as if trying to gauge if David would make fun of him or not. “Mostly pretend stuff.”
“What kind of pretend?”
“Soldiers is one.”
“Let’s do that.”
He had thought himself too old for this kind of thing—he hadn’t really played pretend with anyone since elementary school—but the awkwardness of it faded quickly. Soon he and Aaron were zigzagging through the trees, rolling in the dead leaves beaten into the forest floor, and taking running leaps over fallen branches and marshy patches. The woods were thick with the smells of life and decay, plants and animals thriving and rotting. David and Aaron moved deeper and deeper into the heart of the woods as the thin clouds worked their way across the sky.
“ENEMY SPOTTED!” Aaron roared. David emerged from his hiding spot behind a fallen tree and took off at a mad sprint. Sweat was dripping down the back of his shirt as he pumped his legs. He hadn’t run like this in ages.
Aaron came out of nowhere and tackled him to the ground. They tumbled down a slope and ended in a heap of arms and legs. Pressed close together David felt a zing go through his body that startled him. He pulled away and brushed the dead leaves off of his clothing.
“I think that was a direct hit,” he said.
Aaron threw him arms out and shouted into the trees, “VICTORY IS MINE!”
What birds hadn’t flown south yet scattered into the sky.
Out of breath, David and Aaron collapsed again onto the forest floor and were quiet. David didn’t understand the feelings building up inside him so he couldn’t decide if he liked them or not. He thought about Zachary and the girls he brought over. Just once David had walked in on him with one of them. He had been struggling to get the internet to work, and the only other person home was David’s father, who had renounced technology after his first flip phone. David opened the bedroom door without waiting for Zachary to answer his knock and found Zachary and the girl sprawled out on the bed together. She was shirtless and her large breasts heaved as she fell back in surprise, crossing a protective arm over herself. Zachary shot up—he was wearing only his boxers—and pushed David out of the room. “What the fuck are you doing?” The thing that had stuck with David was the surprised look on the girl’s face. Eyes wide, cheeks flushed, mouth parted and wet. Her dark hair had been fanned out around her shoulders. The sight of her had sent some kind of feeling zipping through him, but it hadn’t been anything like this.
He turned to Aaron, unsure of what he was going to say or do. Aaron said, “Wanna see my secret spot?”
Aaron scrambled to his feet and started walking. David had to hurry to keep up. The thought of being let in on one of Aaron’s secrets sent a thrill of pleasure down his spine. Aaron stopped in front of a very old, thick tree. It looked as though it was decaying. Just a few weeks ago, David’s father had dragged him outside so that David could help him cut down some branches. Although David hadn’t cared to know, his father had explained that one of the trees in their backyard was sick with heart rot. Fungi had entered the tree through an open wound and decayed the wood from the inside out. He wondered if this tree was diseased as well.
Aaron said, “Promise not to tell.”
Aaron pointed forward.
David circled around the old tree. Laid out in front of it was a dead squirrel. The chest cavity was collapsed and the sightless eyes bulging. The stink of decomposition rose off it in waves. He had never seen a dead thing up close before. He felt a bout of nausea and fought it off—he didn’t want to show weakness. As a steadying tool he reached into the depths of his mind and came back with Aaron’s mummy presentation. He repeated the foreign words in his head like a mantra. Natron. Cedar. Cassia. He couldn’t remember them all—the tools of preserving the dead.
“What do you think?”
Aaron had appeared beside him. His face was pale and excited.
The dead squirrel was pressed up against the tree, arranged with neatness and care. The right question rose to the surface of David’s mind, unbidden, obscene. “Did you find it like this?”
Aaron smiled. He kissed David. It only lasted a second. David tasted dead leaves and trees. He jumped back as if shocked.
“What?” Aaron asked. “That’s what you wanted to happen.”
“My mom’s going to be here soon.”
“Right.” Aaron picked up a twig and prodded the dead thing with it. He giggled. Then he walked away. David followed him out of the woods. By the time they reached Aaron’s backyard, the sky had become packed with clouds. The air smelled like rain. Inside the house he heard his mother’s voice. He followed it into the living room and found her sitting on the couch opposite Aaron’s father with a black bottle in her hand. He thought it might be beer.
“There they are,” Aaron’s father said. He had a gruff voice, a big body packed with muscle and fat.
“You boys are filthy,” his mother said.
“I let them play in the woods,” Aaron’s father said. “It’s good for them to get fresh air.”
“Yes, David definitely needs that.” His mother took a swig, wiped her mouth, and placed the bottle on the coffee table. She walked over to David and made a fuss, brushing dirt off his clothing and rubbing it away from his cheeks. When she neared his lips he grew terrified. He was sure she would be able to see or smell the difference in him. The place the lips touched, leaving a mark like a dirt stain.
“Did you have fun?” she asked.
“Loads,” Aaron said. “Bye, David.”
His mother thanked Aaron’s father. They left.
As his mother pulled the car out of the driveway, David turned around so he could watch the house grow smaller and smaller. Finally his mother turned onto the main road and the house disappeared altogether, swallowed up by trees and distance.
“Did you make a new friend today?” his mother asked.
All of the conversation topics he had forgotten to broach filed into his head like foot soldiers all in a line. He sent them away. He did not answer his mother, even when she repeated the question. He swallowed his voice. It was gone. He thought again about the mummies who had their hearts taken out and carefully placed back in again. It would be impossible for those hearts to remain the same.