Sunlight streamed through the orange and red forest canopy, dappling the ground with warm light while a brisk wind rustled through the forest. Waves and drifts of leaves moved around like an ocean - the graveyard of autumn’s past. Henry Wallman walked through these woods in a good fitting pair of dark blue jeans, a faded orange shirt, and a black bomber jacket. On his wrist he wore a watch worth more than the phone in his pocket, and around his neck he wore a necklace with a ring on it. Fall was always a bittersweet time for him - on one hand, there was no denying the beauty before him. It was as though nature had been offered a challenge by Aphrodite and had reared up on her legs and offered this as a haughty, dazzling response. But on the other hand, fall was always a reminder of the life he had to achieve.
No, not live… achieve. His life was not an ever-changing story; a book where turning each page introduced a new fold in the plot. Henry’s life was more akin to a catalog of predestined pictures. At the age of six there was a picture of him entering the junior scientists competition and winning - the youngest to have won in his school’s history. At age eleven he was president of the student council, tutoring younger kids, and achieving straight A’s. When he turned fourteen, he had not received any presents save a ticket to Switzerland to attend a highly exclusive highschool. He remembered crying in his father’s chilly embrace at the airport. All his friends, all his memories… they’d be washed away in the Atlantic as he crossed it.
Henry kicked a tree, spooking a squirrel. His blond hair was lazily parted - a half-baked rebellion against his mom’s insistence on a severe, gelled part. When he’d come back from Switzerland, he had received a warmer welcome from the stones outside his parents estate than his parents themselves. And from there, it was college. Stanford. And that’s where he would be next fall. But his gap year would not be wasted, oh no! He was not allowed to spend some time in his home, lounging around and decompressing. Henry’s father had already bought him a ticket to begin a lab internship at an Australian pharmaceutical company.
“Mind if I join you?”
The voice cut through the swishing wind and made Henry start. On turning around, he saw it was his sister, Mary. He smiled. Her fate was as preordained as his own. She had attended middle school in Canada and highschool in Amsterdam. For her, their father had chosen Harvard. They were just a year apart, though they’d never attended the same schools. She had brown hair which flowed down her shoulders and a face significantly less pinched than Henry’s, but in their eyes both siblings were identical in their eyes - startling gray and inherited from their mother.
“Please,” welcomed Henry.
She smiled and caught up with him. “I don’t think we ever saw enough of these days.”
“No… no we didn’t.”
“Aren’t kids supposed to be running around this time of year, playing in the leaves and all that? This is when school’s supposed to be lightest too, right?”
He grinned sourly. “I don’t know what kids are supposed to do anymore, Mary.”
“Not wear sullen clothes and walk by themselves kicking trees, I would think,” she said in a coy tone.
Henry raised his eyebrows. “I’m not dressed sullenly! I saw some guy in a Sunglass Hut commercial wear this!”
“Pretty sure that was a commercial for Fluoxetine,” said Mary. “And that was before he started taking the medicine.”
She shoved him a little with her elbow. “So what’s up.”
“Nothing’s up,” he said defensively.
Mary rolled her eyes. “Right. You just decided to miss breakfast and lunch to walk alone in the woods.” He didn’t reply, so she sighed and added, “I’m sorry about the joke, okay?”
“It… no, I’m sorry,” he shook his head, “I shouldn’t be such a… a…”
“I - yeah,” he agreed apologetically.
“So… What is up?”
Henry looked into the distance, eyeing the edge of the woods and the lake beyond. “I don’t know… I’ve just been thinking about what mom and dad always say.”
“Sheesh, that’s enough to put someone on Fluoxetine,” she grinned but quickly added, “Sorry, what about what they say?”
“Just the part when they say, ‘You’ve got the genes, boy. You’re born to be something great.’ That always struck me as… off.”
She nodded. “They say the same stuff to me.”
“I know… isn’t it just… awful?”
“I…” Mary stopped to ponder. “Do you think it’s true?”
“What, that we’re better than everyone else?” he scoffed, but then his face darkened. “I don’t know. Somewhere in my heart I think I latched onto that idea. I believe it now, even if I don’t want to. I believe I’m better than other people.” He shivered. “I was… getting coffee the other day and the person in front of me couldn’t decide what they wanted. I got irritated so quickly I thought to myself, ‘Look at this bald idiot. What a waste of life!’”
Mary grimaced. “I’ve had those thoughts too.”
“And I remember… everything,” Henry shivered. “I remember the exact moment mom took away my toys when I was five. I remember the exact moment she enrolled me into the science fair, and I remember exactly what dad said when he told me I was going to Switzerland to study. He said, ‘Listen carefully, boy. I’m going to send you to a school in Europe to continue your education, just like your sister. You’ll do alright, you were born for it. These other kids, they… can’t compete with you. Now, no crying! Only normal children cry. You are not a child and you are not normal!’”
“I was in school once,” said Mary distantly, “and a girl asked me what I was doing for summer vacation. She said her family was going to Cancun. I said my dad signed me up to take extra math classes and work as an intern in a law firm.”
Henry ripped a leaf off a branch and crunched it up, his knuckles going white from the effort. “I know it’s the worst thing in the world to believe,” he said angrily, “So why does it seem so… right?”
“That we’re not normal?”
Mary considered this, chewing on her words. She only came up to Henry’s shoulder, but he never felt like he was looking down at her when they spoke. “There’s… something about us that’s odd, I guess, but I don’t know if that’s because of our genetics or because of what mom and dad put us through. I mean, I’ve always had trouble fitting in, and I know you have too.”
Nodding, Henry said, “And what parents put their kids in different schools when they’re almost the same age?”
“I was so upset when I found out you’d be going to Gordon’s Elementary,” said Mary with a melancholic smile. “I felt like I’d just lost a friend.”
They reached the lake and walked out on the dock. The sun was beating down, as though it remembered summer and didn’t want them to forget, but the cool breeze coming off the lake was enough to make the day brisk and comfortable. They sat with their feet over the edge, Henry’s white Adidas shoes just barely touching the water’s surface.
“What a nice day,” he remarked. The sky was a pale blue, with hints of wispy clouds streaked across like remnants of paint.
Henry picked at the wood and said, “I do believe it, you know, and I know I’ve said it before. I believe we’re better than other kids. I mean, mom and dad have always been straight with us, right?”
“Yes, but… I don’t know, Henry,” said Mary helplessly, “I just… it feels so bad to even think that way!”
“I don’t know another way to think,” muttered Henry..
After a pause, Mary agreed, “Me neither.”
He kicked his foot outward and made a small ark of water. Neither of them noticed the old man come down the dock until he was almost next to them.
“Grandpa!” cried Mary with surprise.
“How’d you get-”
Grandpa put a finger up to his lips. “Your mother thinks I went out to bring you kids back. Told her I knew exactly where you were.” His slightly southern drawl had never gone away, though he had raised his family on this dock in New England.
“How’d you know?” asked Mary.
He shrugged. “Call it an old man’s intuition. Somethin’ I didn’t have to go to Harvard or Stanford to get.”
“Grandpa, I’m sorry if we sounded snobby,” said Henry, pinching the bridge of his nose. “We know it’s not right, but mom-”
“Your mother,” grumbled grandpa, “didn’t speak a word til she was two years old. She couldn’t even be potty trained til she was six. We had to… homeschool her so we wouldn’t have to send her to school in diapers. From what I gather from your other grandad, your father wasn’t too different.”
“What?” Henry was stunned.
“Why d’you think they don’t want us old folk around?” he asked wisely. “Because we know the truth about y’all.”
“The truth?” asked Mary, her face pale.
Grandpa’s face wrinkled into a smile. He had the same gray eyes as their mom. His baseball cap hung slightly off-key from his head, covering a mop of curly white hair. He didn’t bother adjusting it. “The truth is that none of you kids are anythin’ special. I’ve tried to tell you that so many times, but… since your mother doesn’t allow me anywhere near you, I never really got the chance to articulate it.”
“Listen, boy,” he said sharply, “There ain’t no special breed of humans out in this world. Y’either born or you ain’t born. Heck, your mother probably woulda been eatin’ glue out of a bottle if we hadn’t decided to homeschool her. Where d’you kids think you got your ‘genius’ genes from, then? Your dad? Well… don’t tell him I told you this, but he never went for a single science competition in school. And from what old Ed tells me, he was never the brightest bulb in the bin.”
“So what our parents told us… was a lie?” asked Mary.
Grandpa laughed. “Your parents, well… it’s a good thing they found each other, I guess. Y’know it reminds me of a story from back in my day. I grew up here, y’know, and I used to want to be a mechanic. I’d spend hours after school when I should’ve been studyin’ just hunched over the hood of my old Ford, or under it. I remember I once had a math final which I hadn’t studied for all year, and instead of even tryin’ to do better, I decided to fix a creaky steerin’ column in my car… Well, needless to say, I failed that final and that class. I needed to do summer school that year, but I didn’t mind. When I got out of school, I wanted to go right into the shop. Y’know old Marvin’s Maintenance down on High Street?”
“Yeah,” nodded Henry.
Grandpa’s eyes gleamed. “Well, I did everything I could to get an apprenticeship under him. I used to bother Marvin before he got into work, I used to hang around his place until after work, and then I used to write him letters or call him all the time. Finally, after three years of grovellin’, he let me apprentice under him. Normally you gotta go to a trade school or whatnot, but I was so convinced I was a mechanical prodigy that I thought I could become the best mechanic in the northeast on my own.”
“I thought you were a car salesman,” said Mary, one eyebrow raised.
“I was,” grandpa smiled, “I’m gettin’ to that. Well, Marvin let me into his shop, and boy, I got thrown for a right loop. Turns out not every car is a 1956 Ford. There were cars in that shop which were completely… Suffice to say I had no clue what I was doin’. I started workin’ there when I was 21 - now, that was in 1965. By then, there were cars so different from what I’d grown up with that I didn’t know a spark plug from an air compressor.” He chuckled. “I spent exactly one year there, doin’ crap jobs one after another. It was how I met your grandmother.”
“Really?” Henry smiled.
Grandpa returned his smile. “Oh yeah. She was fiery in those days - heck, she was fiery until she died. I remember seein’ her in my first month of workin’ at Marvin’s. She’d come in with some sort of problem with the engine. She was so pretty, I knew I had to work on her car. Marvin was married, so he let me have a swing at it. Well… I mucked up the job so bad that she came right back in the next week, and I mean marched right back in and demanded to strangle the guy who’d messed up her car.”
“Oh wow,” said Mary.
“Well, Marvin gave her a refund out of my paycheck, but not before I managed to convince her to go out to dinner with me. That was the first time I realized I wasn’t cut out for that job. And it definitely wasn’t the last. When I finally got fired, I only had about 150 bucks and a girlfriend to show for my time. If it weren’t for your grandma, I’d be livin’ on the streets. But she had a job as a secretary and I decided to try my hand at sellin’ cars. Next thing you know, it’s 1972. We’d gotten married, I made a decent livin’, and we decided to have your mother.”
There was a brief pause, when autumn seemed to exhale over the lake. Henry sighed in response. “So, what’s the-”
“The point?” said grandpa sharply. “I thought you’d at least be able to figure that part out yourselves. Ain’t you goin’ to one of those expensive schools?”
“So, you thought you’d be good at one thing, but it turns out you were really bad at it. You lied to yourself, and when you learned the truth, you were able to be happy doing what you were doing?” Mary’s voice was hopeful.
Grandpa chewed on his words. “Well, that’s part of it, but I don’t think I was ever really happy sellin’ cars. I’d always steal away moments when your mother was growin’ up to fix cars, even though I was lost without a map. When those Japanese cars came to America, boy… I was even worse than I thought.”
“So the lesson is,” said Henry slowly, “That we lie to ourselves, and sometimes the truth isn’t what we want it to be.”
“That’s more like it,” smiled grandpa, “Sometimes the deepest, darkest lies come from within us - even though they were seeded from the outside. Your parents drilled it into you that you were somethin’ special - that you were goin’ to be the youngest to ever do this, or the best to ever do that. So at some point you believed it. But you know that’s a load of bull. Like I said, God doesn’t just make one kid a super genius and the other billion kids luddites. The important thing is that you know it’s a lie - that you’re willin’ to accept what comes next.”
“Which is what?” asked Mary, with an edge of fear to her voice.
Grandpa grinned. “I don’t know. You two have always come first in any competition, right? Well, maybe at your new schools you come in second. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you keep comin’ in first. But at some point the lie’s gonna catch up with you. For me it was the first day I really spent as Marvin’s apprentice. For you, maybe it’s your first day on the job.”
“So what should we do?” asked Henry.
Grandpa shrugged. “Heck if I know. At some point you were gonna learn this yourselves anyway. Your parents won’t be able to dictate your whole lives. I’m just tryin’ to make sure you two do the right thing when you do learn that lesson.”
Henry stared out at the mirror-like surface of the lake. His mind rejoiced at grandpa’s story - it meant he was just like other people. He didn’t have to worry about fulfilling some grand schemes concocted by his parents. But his heart… his heart ached, and in looking at his sister’s troubled gray eyes, he knew she felt the same. A twisted part of him wanted the lie to be true. He wanted to be better than people. As much as he tried to deny it, that piece of him was there, and it was inexorable. His grandpa had spent his life tinkering with cars even though the lie that he was a good mechanic was broken decades prior. Henry knew, with dooming certainty, that he’d always hold a shred of superiority over his peers because of the lies his parents had driven into him from a young age, which had nestled their way into the dark fens of his heart.
They sat on the dock for several minutes in silence, letting fall do the talking. Finally, grandpa stood up with a massive groan and said, “Well, I’d better bring you kids back before your mother calls the cops to report three missin’ persons.” They got up, but before they could go, grandpa hugged them tightly. “You may not be superhuman, but bein’ human ain’t so bad.”
They broke apart, smiling, and Henry blinked some tears out of his eyes. With their arms around each other, they walked back into the woods.
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