(maybe the centre picked the wrong child.)
henry is born in an autumn that is picking up the pieces of the hot, stale summer. he’s a squalling baby that his sister wrinkles her nose at, still unconcerned with being the eldest sibling to a young baby destined to be forgotten. his mother nurses him, then kills a man. his father holds him, looks a little longer at him, before asking if his sister wants to hold him. she doesn’t.
henry counts the beads on his toy before he can properly talk. the shows on television are faded, staticky, but he counts the heartbeats between each hiccup, each jolt of the screen, each time the show overlaps with the one that comes after it. he babbles, tries for words he can’t yet discern, but he counts. it’s the least he can do.
henry’s the first to notice the wrongness in his sister. she thinks in long strokes that paint their home in vibrant colours that henry can’t necessarily understand but still feels. paige haunts their home like a phantom, like their parents, disappearing and reappearing whenever she thinks she’s wanted or needed. henry counts the times in one month he is home alone, but his hands aren’t big enough to hold that many numbers.
he is home alone when he goes to the basement, scouring for a sweater his mother decided to wash when it was sitting clean in his closet. henry’s used to the movement of his things, of the way he seems to inhabit this house more than anyone else. the floorboards creak (something paige doesn’t know yet), the windows clank in the wind (something his father doesn’t recognize yet), the phone lines are all connected and with the right timing, listening in one conversations is easier than anyone in his entire family knows.
the basement is littered in old things, new things, distant things that henry almost has no recollection of using or playing with. his mother hangs christmas lights like she’s obligated, places halloween ghouls like it’s a trick, packs old clothes instead of giving them away. he spots an old sled in one corner, a homemade cutting board in another. he wonders if his father keeps a picture of him in his wallet, or if he sits in the basement to remember his children.
the dryer is crooked and henry knows this not because he does his own laundry (“yeah, mom, i’ll do it,” even though he knows she needs things to do in the middle of the night) but because he counts the tiles along the floor and counts one extra. it’s not too obvious. sometimes, henry counts as a way to calm himself, remind himself that numbers are concrete and unchanging. he counts the tiles on the floor and knows there’s something behind the dryer.
at first, he doesn’t check. he looks, pursuing and peeking, but finds his sweater and hangs back. maybe he doesn’t want to know. maybe he’d rather be the one in the family that keeps them together, the glue that holds it together when no one else seems to mind. maybe he’ll be the woman in the movies who has no idea the guy she’s been seeing is a—
his mother will always tell him he watches too much t.v., but he thinks she should spare the time to indulge in a few select films.
he doesn’t immediately think spies. though, he pays more attention. eventually, he looks behind the dryer. he finds the crack in the ceiling. a wire poking out of his mother’s laundry basket, random pieces of paper with numbers on them. he becomes a spy himself. uses a pencil to unearth the number written on the notepad near the phone. stays awake long enough to see his mother leaving the house in a short blond wig. notices his father putting on his wedding ring in the drive way. counts the times their faces remain unmarked when they lie.
and they lie a lot. almost as much as paige, who is not the best. she puts too much effort into it. she creates stories around the lie, centring herself in the middle of her very own narrative that henry could pick apart in a second. she says, “i was just with kyle,” and every word from her mouth is false and pretend and henry thinks maybe that’s why his parents love her more, despite themselves.
once, after school, henry goes downtown to the travel agency. stavos is friendly and warm and kind and when henry asks, “my dad forget a chequebook here last night. can i look in their office?” stavos has the same confused look on his face when henry, last week, asked matthew if paige had been over.
“mr. phillip wasn’t here last night,” stavos says then cracks a smile, “but you want to check? jennings, always forgetting something.”
it confirms, in henry’s mind, that his parents are spies. he doesn’t think it’s something the kids have to deal with it. their entire family lying with smiles and excuses that fall flat and end. bad spies, henry thinks, but maybe it’s the way they overlook him in favour of paige, the way they seem to remember him just too late.
(sometimes, henry sits outside their bedroom door when he knows they’re both inside, and he just listens his hardest to them breathing. maybe, he thinks, if they’re unconscious, they’ll tell the truth. maybe even in deep sleep they’ll let something slip; a hitched breath, a knee jerk, a honest body reaction he doesn’t see during the day.
but they just sleep. or his mother or father will get up and sneak out and he’ll have to pretend, like the rest of them, that he’s been sleeping all along.)
he doesn’t think russian until his mother flinches—actually flinches—when a political general is killed in an blatant attack. rouge american nationalist, but henry harbours the remote so she can’t turn the t.v. off. he watches her out of his corner eye, the way she clenches and relaxes, the way she herself can’t seem to look away. the way she looks russian, just a little, in that moment.
he doesn’t know what looking russian means, but she emits it so hard that he wonders. henry starts to wonder. and that’s the worst thing a child can do unattended and left with the whole world at their disposal. henry lingers, he listens, and he wonders.
they won’t tell him. he’ll have to find out after paige does. he listens through the goddamn door as they tell her she can’t tell anyone, not even him, not even her friends, what her parents—and by extension, her and henry—are. he sits in his room later and thinks about it. he only cries a little. he can’t remember the last time his mother came in to brush his hair away from his face when she thought he was sleeping.
maybe paige was the right choice. it only meant henry was even better.
(he goes to stan’s house a few months later and sits in his living room and eats his pizza and watches sports with him and thinks, i can tell him. i can end it all right now.
but he catches a glimpse of stan’s f.b.i. badge.
and henry wonders.)