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When he was young, Jensi Sato had no idea that anything was wrong with his brother. Istvan had always been the way he was—always a little off, obsessed with patterns and numbers, entranced by shifts in light, prone to sudden fits of rage or mental absence. Or he had changed so gradually that Jensi, around him every day, hadn’t noticed how different he had become.
As boys, they roamed the projects together, raising hell, heads always aching from breathing the thin, imperfect atmosphere of the dome they lived in on Vindauga. Really, it was Istvan raising hell and Jensi, younger, following along. But Jensi was glad to be included. And even if he didn’t always quite understand why Istvan did what he did, he did want to get out of the house, did want to get away from their mother.
By the time he was in his teens, Jensi had begun to see how different Istvan was. His brother wasn’t like other people. Most of the time, he didn’t know how to talk to other people, and when he did the things he said didn’t have the effect he thought they would. He saw how the other boys looked at Istvan strangely, how they drew away from him, then from both of them. Soon Jensi and Istvan were pretty much left to themselves.
It wasn’t as easy as saying that Istvan wasn’t normal, because in basic ways he was, more or less. He could get by if he had to, could usually make his way through brief and ordinary interactions without a tremor. But the more time you spent around him, the stranger he seemed. He lived in his own world, always getting caught up in the shapes and patterns he saw around him—patterns that Jensi often couldn’t see. Istvan grew frustrated with other people quickly. He was less able to pay attention to others. It never occurred to him to care what other people thought of him, and he also wasn’t afraid. Really, the only person he ever listened to was Jensi, and he only listened to him sometimes, only reluctantly letting himself be coaxed out of real trouble.
* * *
At age twelve, Jensi was out with Istvan, wandering through the compound where they lived, searching for something to do. The Mariner Valley compound was kept separate from the larger domes that comprised the rest of the town by a tube, and it was only later that Jensi realized this was because they lived in low-income housing into which all the undesirables on Vindauga were pushed.
That day, there had been a half dozen children a few years younger than them crouched near the outer wall of the dome, near a place where the inner wall had been cracked and rendered opaque. There was a slow leak there, quickly compensated for by the dome’s oxygen protocol. The kids kept daring one another to get close to it. Holding their breath, one of them would run to the dome wall, touch the opaque section, and run back. The others would slap him on the back in congratulation and then would push at another boy until he did it, too.
“What kind of game is that?” asked Istvan, directing the question to none of them and all of them at once.
Most of the boys just ignored him, looking away as if they hadn’t heard. One, the biggest, just shrugged. “Just something to do,” he said.
“But it’s not even dangerous,” said Istvan. “How can it be fun pretending something’s dangerous when it’s not?”
Jensi put his hand on his shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “Leave them alone. Let’s go.”
But Istvan shook the hand off. “Don’t you want to play a real game?” he asked them.
Defensive, the leader of the boys said, “It is a real game.”
“No,” said Istvan. “It’s not. You can’t just run up close to it and run back. It’s calling you to perfect it. That’s the game it wants to play. Can’t you see the shape is wrong?”
“It?” said one of the boys. “What do you mean?”
Isvtan gestured toward the damaged section of dome. The boys glanced that way and Jensi followed their gaze. What would make the shape of it right or wrong? he wondered. What was Istvan seeing?
“Do you want to see a real game?” asked Istvan.
The boys stayed huddled together, arms crossed, silent.
“Come on,” said Jensi again to his brother. “Let’s go.”
“It doesn’t matter if you want to see or not,” said Istvan. “It wants to play.” He leaned forward, locking his arms behind his back. He pawed the filthy ground with his feet and then, suddenly, screaming, he charged.
The group of kids scattered. But he wasn’t aiming at them. He rushed past them without a glance and ran smack into the opaque portion of dome wall, his forehead striking it hard. Jensi felt his heart leap in his throat.
There was a hiss, and the cracks worsened, the shape of the opaque section expanding, but the plate, luckily, did not give. Istvan, though, did give, collapsing in a heap, his forehead smeared with blood. The scattered boys re-formed and stood huddled at a distance. Jensi ran quickly forward, knelt beside his brother.
“Istvan?” he said, shaking him. “Istvan? Why would you do that?”
Blood dripped slowly from his forehead. For a moment Istvan’s eyes were glazed and loose in the sockets, and then they slowly focused on his brother. And then he smiled and let his gaze drift back to the opaque part of the wall. “There,” he said. “Now the shape is right. Now we know what’s really there.”
* * *
Jensi had tried to ask him about it later, but Istvan had been unable to explain in a way that Jensi could follow. Istvan’s brain was always hunting for patterns, always making connections that Jensi had a hard time seeing himself. Istvan had seen the crack in the dome and had known, he claimed, what he needed to do. The crack had called to him. He knew what it wanted him to do and what it would take to make it whole.
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean? Make it whole?”
Istvan had tried to explain, but he just couldn’t. His attempts at making sense of his thinking for Jensi just led him further and further into confusion until Jensi finally stopped him.
“Look,” he finally said. “You sound crazy. You shouldn’t tell anybody this.”
And for once his brother listened, and stopped talking. Which made it so that any hope that Jensi had of figuring out what Istvan meant was drastically reduced.
* * *
When Jensi was fourteen, a group of girls chalked on the ground an old game one of them had read about in the vid library: a series of numbered squares, all connected, that you had to hop through, skipping squares according to a predetermined pattern. The girls were standing around the game, arguing about how you knew which squares you had to skip. Istvan, though, had been drawn by the numbers in the squares, his head rapidly swiveling from one to the next. He had simply walked through the group of girls, almost as if he didn’t notice them. He knocked one of them down, scattering the handful of rocks they had gathered, crushing the chalk. The girls were yelling at him, the one on the ground crying and holding up her skinned elbow accusingly, but Istvan was now standing over the squares. Gingerly, he stepped into one, then leaped into another, then leaped back, following a complex pattern that only he could see until with a final leap he came to the top of the game and stepped carefully out again.
Once out, he stopped as if paralyzed. He stared at the uneven ground past the game. Jensi, not knowing what else to do, went to him.
“That was mean,” he said.
But Istvan didn’t answer. Instead he squatted and brushed his finger along the ground, tracing an irregular shape on it.
Angrily, Jensi batted his brother’s shoulder. “Hey,” he said. “Why did you have to be so mean to them?”
“Don’t you see it?” said Istvan. “How they drew the right pattern and then it led me here?” He traced the shape again, his eyes gleaming. Jensi, squinting, could barely make out what Istvan was looking at, an unevenness in the ground, a tusk-shaped discoloration that made the ground just slightly different. “It’s perfect,” said Istvan, and reached down to stroke it again.
“Istvan,” said Jensi. “What’s wrong with you? It’s just the ground.”
“Huh?” said Istvan. “What?” It was like he was coming out of a trance. Quickly he stood up. Then he turned and looked back at the girls. They stood with their hands on their hips, still angry, though no longer yelling. “What’s wrong with them?” he asked.
“You ruined their game.”
“I did?” said Istvan. He seemed genuinely puzzled, as if he really didn’t remember. He stayed staring at them a moment, then his features grew hard. “They didn’t know what they were playing,” he claimed. “I’m the only one who knows.”
* * *
Jensi thought of the many times he had woken up in their bedroom late at night to hear his brother. Istvan would be mumbling, talking in his sleep, but the same pattern of words would be repeated over and over again, endlessly. Or he would be sitting on the edge of his bed, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, rocking back and forth, rattling about a sequence of numbers, his voice almost worshipful. He was like that; he loved numbers and patterns, could get lost in them. They were almost like people to him, but people were less interesting. He also seemed to pick up things naturally about computers, had been hacking since he was nine, and had taught Jensi how to do the same. But here it was numbers, mumbled, repeated again and again.
“Istvan,” Jensi would whisper. But Istvan wouldn’t hear him.
Sometimes Jensi was lucky and his brother would simply stop on his own. Other times, though, he threatened to rock back and forth forever. Jensi would get up and shake him but sometimes even that wouldn’t stop him. It was as if he were elsewhere, as if he had stepped outside of his body for a while. Sometimes it took a very long time for him to step back in.
* * *
I should have known, thought Jensi once he was grown. I should have known how wrong things were for him. I should have known how damaged he was. I should have tried to get him help. I should have been able to save him.
But how—another part of him wondered, a part he tried hard to suppress—how could he have known? He was the younger brother, after all. There was only so much he could do. And his mother, no, she didn’t believe in doctors, thought that God would sort everything out on his own and that you shouldn’t interfere. He had, actually, tried several times to tell her that something was wrong with Istvan. But each time she had looked up at him with bleary eyes.
“Wrong?” she said. “Of course there’s something wrong with him. He’s evil.”
“No,” he said. “Something’s gone wrong inside of him. Something’s wrong with his mind.”
“Evil is in him,” muttered his mother. “He needs to have it driven out.” And then, with horror, he realized that he’d given his mother an excuse to hurt his brother.
But as Istvan grew older and bigger his mother started leaving him alone. She would curse him from the other side of the room, tell him that he was vile, but she no longer touched him. She was a little afraid of him. And that meant she no longer laid a finger on Jensi, either. She became more and more withdrawn. Or maybe she had always been that way and Jensi hadn’t realized. Had Istvan gotten whatever was wrong with him from her? Was it something genetic, something inherited? And did that mean that Jensi might have it inside himself as well? No, he didn’t want to be like his mother. He didn’t want to be like his brother, either, but he loved his brother, felt responsible for him. Istvan had always looked out for him. Maybe now, now that his brother was becoming strange, it was Jensi’s turn. It was time for him to look out for his brother.
* * *
Istvan was seventeen, Jensi fifteen, when things started to go seriously wrong. It started with their mother.
They had come back from another day of wandering through the Mariner Valley compound. When they arrived, their apartment door was ajar, their mother’s passkey lying on the hall floor. They pushed open the door and saw a spill of dropped assistance packages, their mother lying in the middle of them, her body shivering.
Jensi crouched down beside her. He tried to turn her over to see her face, but it was hard. Her body was stiff, resistant.
“Help me, Istvan,” he said to his brother.
But Istvan just stayed where he was. He was looking not at his mother, but at the packages. Jensi watched him mumble, gesture at them with his finger, tracing a figure through the air.
“Istvan,” he said again. “Help!”
But Istvan was in a trance, mesmerized by the pattern made by the fallen packages. He was muttering under his breath, and then his eyes traced the pattern round again and then began to stare into empty air. Their mother, Jensi saw, was foaming at the mouth. The foam was red-flecked and he could see between her teeth and lips her tongue, partly bitten through.
“This is serious,” he said. And when Istvan still didn’t respond, he screamed his brother’s name.
His brother flinched, then shook his head, then looked down. His expression was unfathomable.
“She might die,” said Jensi.
“Yes,” said Istvan, but he made no move to help. “Don’t you see him?” he asked slowly.
“See what?” asked Jensi.
“The shadow man,” said Istvan. “He’s choking her.”
The shadow man? “Istvan,” said Jensi slowly. “Go to the vid and call emergency.”
And slowly, almost like a sleepwalker, not taking his gaze away from the boxes, Istvan did.
Jensi held his mother, talked to her, and stroked her face until the emergency crew arrived. He massaged her jaw over and over until it relaxed enough to release her tongue and then he turned her head to the side so she wouldn’t choke on the blood. Istvan, after making the call, simply stood on the opposite side of the room, watching. He refused to come close. The shadow man? wondered Jensi. What did he mean by that? He was crazy.
If I hadn’t been here, thought Jensi later as they took his mother away, Istvan would have let her die.
* * *
Istvan had come through the door only to stop stock still, breathless. There it was, he could see it, the same pattern, just the same, glimmering. He had seen it so many times before, again and again, just waiting for someone to come along and see it and put it together—just waiting for him to come put it together, because the world called to him in a different way than to others. There was his mother, lying sprawled on the floor, but that wasn’t important, she wasn’t important. She wasn’t part of the arrangement. She didn’t tell him anything about what was real. She was just in the way.
No, what was important were the things she had been holding and the way they had fallen when she had dropped them, the way that each of them, tumbling out of her hands, had found its true and proper place. Things were like that. They told him something. They gave him a rough sketch of something else, something grander, something hidden. He could feel it, sense it, but it was far away, too deeply buried to make out completely. So he could only have this, this arrangement of packages that marked out something else, pointed to something else that he could almost see but couldn’t quite.
Only maybe he could have more than that.
He held himself very still. He held his breath. He stared as hard as he could, letting his eyes follow the lines between things, connecting them, spinning from object to object. He could begin now to see the blaze of the lines of connections, was beginning to peel back the cover of the world and peer inside.
His brother was saying something, calling to him, but Istvan couldn’t hear him, couldn’t pay attention, because no, this was important, something was really happening.
For among the lines and between them he could see something beginning to emerge. A shape. A shadow that at first he mistook for his own shadow. But was it his own shadow? It didn’t seem to belong to him exactly. It was attached to him, sure, but he didn’t feel as though he were controlling it. It was its own creature. It was bound up in the objects around it and was, he realized, looming over his mother as well. It was a shadow but it was also a man, a man but also a shadow.
He moved his hands to try to touch it. When his hands moved, the shadow moved as well and placed its hands around his mother’s neck. Then it turned its smoky mouth toward him and spoke.
Watch this, it said. Here’s how you do it. Here’s how you’ll kill her.
He heard his brother scream his name.
He could not move his hands. The shadow man was choking his mother, smiling, but no longer speaking. Why had he stopped speaking? “She’s going to die,” he heard a distance voice say, a voice that was not the shadow man, a voice that he realized belonged to his brother. He made an effort of will and spoke.
“Yes,” he said. “Don’t you see him?”
But when he tried to explain to his brother what it was he saw, just as when he’d tried to explain so many times before, it came out in ways that he understood but his brother did not. Jensi did not think right about the world. Istvan was helpless to make it make sense for him. And so, slowly, he was snapped again out of this world of arrangements that he so loved and that so loved him, and brought once again to see not the pattern beneath things but the surface of them. And on that surface was his mother: dying. But, unfortunately, not already dead.
* * *
By the time the emergency team took her to the hospital, Istvan seemed normal again, or as normal as he ever was. She was there a day, then was transferred to a mental ward, straitjacketed, put away for what potentially could be for good. A social worker, a severe elderly woman, came out to the house and told the two brothers that they would be taken into governmental care.
“But I’m almost eighteen,” claimed Istvan in a moment of lucidity. “I don’t need a guardian.”
“Almost doesn’t count,” she insisted. “You have to have one.”
But the mistake the social worker made was leaving them alone for a few minutes instead of whisking them into care immediately. As soon as she was gone, Istvan began to make plans for leaving. He got an old, stained backpack out of the closet, stuffed it full of clothes, then dumped in a random assortment of things from the pantry, including things that he would never eat. Other things that were more edible he left where they were, adjusting their positions slightly. All part of making the pattern, Jensi couldn’t help but think. Istvan was in his own world, unaware of anything but the task he was completing. Jensi just stood watching him, feeling a greater and greater sense of despair for his brother.
When he was finished, Istvan zipped the backpack closed and looked up.
“Why aren’t you packed?” he asked Jensi.
“Where are you going?” Jensi responded.
“You heard that woman,” said Istvan. “She wants to put us with someone. We’ll have to learn how they think and they’ll be like mother only they’ll be worse because we’re not related to them.”
“Maybe they won’t be worse,” said Jensi. “Maybe they’ll be better.”
Istvan shook his head. “That’s what they want you to think,” he said. “That’s how they get you every time.”
That’s how they get you every time, thought Jensi But it was not they that were getting Istvan, but Istvan who was making things hard for himself. The idea of Istvan being his own guardian—or being the guardian for both of them—that would never work. Istvan could hardly care for himself, let alone someone else.
“Come on,” Istvan said. “No time to pack—they’ll be back soon. You’ll just have to go as you are. That’s what the room is saying.”
“Can’t you see it?” said Istvan, gesturing around him. “Can’t you feel it?”
Later, this would seem one of those decisive moments where his life could go either one direction or another, where Jensi could take a step toward his brother and whatever skewed version of the world existed inside of Istvan’s mind or where he could step closer to the real world. The terrible thing was that even as young as he was he couldn’t help but feel that either choice he made would be, in some way or another, not quite right. Either way he would lose something.
“Come on,” said Istvan again, anxious.
“I…” said Jensi. “But I—”
“What’s wrong with you?” said Istvan. “Can’t you see what’s happening here?”
But that was the problem: he could see. He could see that if he went with Istvan no good would come of it, even if Istvan could not.
“I can’t go,” he finally said, not looking his brother in the eye.
“Sure you can,” said Istvan, his eyes darting all around the room. “It’s the easiest thing in the world. All you have to do is walk out the door.”
“No,” said Jensi. “I’m sorry. I’m not going.”
For a moment Istvan just stared at him, his face blank, and then Jensi watched something flit across his brother’s expression as he took in what Jensi was saying. Then all at once his face was creased with genuine pain.
“You’re abandoning me?” he asked in a voice that was almost a wail. It was nearly unbearable for Jensi to hear.
“No,” Jensi tried to say. “Stay here. Stay with me. It’ll be okay.” But he knew that to Istvan that was as unimaginable as leaving was to him. For a moment Istvan looked stunned. And then, heaving the backpack onto his shoulder, Istvan went out and Jensi found himself alone.
Copyright © 2012 by Electronic Arts, Inc