Until they were two years old, Randall had lived in Oran’s armpit. Not exactly breathing but sharing, his blood pumping, his presence a warm comfort. A misshapen mishap of brother, a part to hug that was not Oran’s own flesh despite being connected to him. And after an operation that made one boy flourish and another boy stop, Oran hugged in vain. He wondered if it was really better to be one than two. Wondered what made one person grow and one person not. And in whose opinion, and who got to make that choice.
Still, Oran grew into exactly one man, no extra parts. Shame or ambivalence kept him from telling Edith when they married, and the secrets stayed stashed in Oran and in the walls of the house he built for them. Maybe she knew. Maybe that’s why she liked to pave the walls so often, creating fresh starts. Oran never spoke of the scar and Edith pretended not to notice. Maybe she really never did. She must have asked, when they were courting all those years ago, if he had any siblings. But Randall was a white lie only, Oran told himself. Barely a brother at all—a thought that brought him alternately triumph and guilt, and caused him to up his ante of secrets.
After Edith died he was hesitant to sell the house. A string of young couples paraded through, touching the walls and fixtures in a proprietary way. So many of them felt wrong, but Sherry—a sad, strong woman, fresh off a divorce, who deserved a good house—felt right enough. And Oran couldn’t cling forever. He resigned himself to it.
As the realtor shuffled papers, Oran watched Sherry trail her fingers along the living room wallpaper, catching deliberately on a peeling edge.
“Careful,” he said. “There are secrets in this house.”
“Oh yeah?” Sherry humored him.
“Yes ma’am.” He sucked in a sigh. “Secrets only me and Randall know.”
That had been weeks ago and Sherry had mostly forgotten the exchange until now, when she was finally left alone with the house. Her house. Alone. She didn’t know if she should feel triumph or grief. The divorce was long final, but a voice inside her still incessantly asked—why her? Why here? What made one grow away from another, and why was she the one left behind?
To tamp down her own questions, she thought about Oran’s secrets, and who Randall could be. She thought she could feel those secrets lurking and, with all the space to herself and plenty of her own feelings to ignore, she set out to find them. They weren’t in the kitchen—she’d checked every corner of the cupboards and pantry. Had found mouse droppings, mustard seeds. Nothing she thought Oran could care about.
The bedrooms were clean empty boxes—one blue, one yellow. No secrets.
The family room made her uneasy. There was something about the wallpaper, specifically the volume of it. The most recent look was likely from the 90s, of shabby-chic strawberries set against a yellowing cream, but the edges curled to indicate that there were layers. Sherry’d trailed her fingers over it when she’d first looked at the place, wondering how deep it went. Now was as good a time as any to excavate—she hadn’t even begun to set the room up yet, the furniture still piled in the middle.
Sherry threw open the windows and put on her worst shirt. She tied her hair back in a knot and put on louder music than she usually liked. She armed herself with a spray bottle and a putty knife, and she stripped and stripped.
Behind the strawberries was something brownish and somber, imitating damask. Behind that, an electric blue anaglypta, texture of quatrefoils and crosses. As she scraped, much of the blue flaked off, revealing itself to be paint over eggshell, a mistake from the 70s. Behind the anaglypta, an understated cool gray with Arts and Crafts roses (her favorite, she decided). Under that, brittle drywall.
Down near the floor in the interior corner of the room, where a seam of damask met the baseboard, there was something different about the quality of the wall. A squarish protuberance. Was there a warmth and a pulse to the place? If not a real pulse, at least the feeling that this was the heart.
She’d smelled secrets after the first layer of wallpaper was gone, knew they were here after the second. She sat down cross-legged and drove into the last layers, stripping off the flaking blue, the eggshell, the pale gray. And there it was—an irregular seam. An imperfect perforation. Sherry pried with her putty knife, found a screwdriver. The rough square of drywall finally came away. And here were the secrets: jars and boxes, stacks of them, each one labeled with an “R.”
For Randall the old man had set aside the following: A jar of baby teeth and a jar of dust, mint tins full of nail clippings (toe and finger, separate), and several small boxes of the different types of hair that a person has. The dust, Sherry realized, might be skin flakes, deteriorated.
A larger box contained a collection of bones. Most of them looked like chicken bones, a few bovine. A few human. Sherry closed the box quickly but couldn’t help thinking she could build a person from this. They would be rudimentary and sculptural more than accurate, and with extra wishbones, but that was what the collection amounted to.
There was a jar of money too, coins and paper, hundreds of dollars if not more. On top of it all was a journal, crammed with notes and diary entries and plans. A blueprint for a specific, unlived life. An old man’s scrapbook tribute to completion, drawings describing the pain of loosing someone and seeking to rebuild.
Sherry tucked them back into the dark place where they came from, not because they belonged in the dark, but because they were not hers and their reason for coming into the light had expired. This was not a brother kit, as Oran may have intended, but a collection of longings and regrets, reluctantly but finally at rest.
Emily Jane Young is a fiction writer and visual artist in Portland, Maine. When there isn’t a raging pandemic she hosts Word Portland, a multi-genre reading series. She spends her free time repairing pianos and raising cats. See more at emily-jane-young.com