He didn’t remember the first time they met - not really. Not once the dream had ended. He’d been much, much too young, and it lasted only as a vague sort of impression deep down in his memory. But at the time, it was so vivid.
Two little boys nestled together under a shelf, tucked away in a pantry. It smelt of spices - cumin, paprika, black pepper - and there were bulbs of garlic hanging down in strings in front of them. Both boys in shorts and button up shirts, both with neatly clipped hair that seemed to want to curl or stick up out of place. Both hugging themselves small. One reached out, the older one, parting the garlic curtain with an unsure glance at the other.
‘What are we hiding from?’ asked the younger boy. He had chubby cheeks, bright blue eyes.
‘Shh,’ hissed the other, looking afraid at the noise. Then, almost as an afterthought: ‘My dad.’
‘Oh.’ The younger looked relieved, and let go of his uncomfortable grip on his knees, sinking back against the pantry wall, legs slipping out the entrance. ‘I thought it was gonna be something scary.’ He’d been imagining monsters: vicious dinosaurs breaking into the house, or a swarm of enormous blood-eating mosquitoes coming to drain him dry.
The older boy let the garlic fall back into place. It swung to and fro, papery skin rustling. Somewhere, a door slammed, and they both flinched from the suddenness of it. The bang reverberated for a while, far too long, although eventually it settled and the garlic finally stopped swinging.
‘Why’re you hiding from him?’
The older boy, dark-haired with a narrow face, held out his hand. Delicately, he unfurled his fingers. Sitting in his palm was a bird’s skull, small and sharp. Something little, like a sparrow. Something harmless and mundane.
Shivers went up the younger boy’s spine at seeing a dead thing. The older was too accustomed to be afraid like that any longer.
‘I stole it,’ the older boy whispered. ‘From his study.’
‘I wanted to bury it.’
Suddenly, footsteps began to approach, a heavy tapping on the tiles, long strides, moving fast. The older, slighter boy hid away the skull again and scrunched himself up as small as possible, pulling in his knees, curling his toes in his hard leather shoes and taking a gulp of air to hold, to hold and hold as long as he could. He didn’t dare make a noise.
The other boy then realised his mistake - maybe this father really was something to fear, maybe hiding was still necessary - and he hurried to copy his fellow kitchen stowaway, and he too held his breath, stealing glances at the floor beyond, somewhere in the back of his mind wondering why exactly he was here at all -
Footsteps, nearer and nearer.
The younger boy was struck by an idea. He tapped the other on the arm, maybe a bit hard in his hurry because the older boy jolted and tried to move away from him. ‘Look, give it here,’ he whispered, eyeing the fist with the skull in it as the footsteps came closer and closer. ‘Come on, pass it over!’
‘You’ll get in trouble,’ the other breathed, wide-eyed.
The younger boy shook his head confidently. ‘He’s only looking for you.’ How he knew this, he didn’t know, but he was certain that he didn’t belong here, in this warped game of hide and seek, and he wouldn’t be chased.
A frantic moment passed as they stared at each other, as the older boy tried to make up his mind. Then he thrust his hand forward, dropping the skull into the awaiting palm, and immediately the younger boy scrambled out on elbows and knees, hand clutched closed to his chest, careful and protective like he was cradling a flimsy-shelled egg.
‘Bury it,’ called the boy who was left behind. ‘Please!’
He peered out through the tangled strings, watching as the little kid got to his feet and ran, startling the approaching man who had a face obscured by shadows and thunderclouds, dodging him by jumping over a chair like a dog running heels over hands, so surprisingly fast and nimble, and then he was gone, out into the fuzzy beyond, and the thin boy trembled and looked up into the impossible face of the one he feared the most.
That’s how it began. Two little boys, nestled together. Two boys, two worlds, entirely different yet so alike, the two of them drawn back together again and again when they should never have met at all.
Odds be damned, said the universe. These two fit best. So help me I will bring them close however I can.