The world shone bright behind the house. The trees came close together to form a low roof of branches, light bulbs hanging from them, the cords weaving through Fall-touched, golden leaves.
Two rattan chair were strategically placed before a fire pit that opened like a bowl. I didn’t recognize the metal it was made out of, but it glistened with a bronze tint, the surface like a polished mirror, clean like it had never been used before.
I immediately noticed the heavy woolen blankets on the chairs, and the cushions with stag faces on them. They were a bit tacky, but somehow they belonged there just fine.
A coffee table sat in between the chairs with two metal mugs atop. My stomach clenched. It looked for a second like he’d been waiting for me. But, there was no steam rising from the mugs. They were empty. Decoration, like everything else. The mugs were of the same metal that made the fire pit. They matched perfectly. Shiny. Luminous. Golden red.
Two ground lanterns sat behind one of the chairs. One was as big as the chair, in fact. The other was a bit smaller. Tall, thick candles burned inside them, and I could make out their shapes through the foggy glass panels.
And, not too far back, a tall pine tree sat covered in Christmas lights. Unreachable. I almost didn’t notice it at first. It blend in the background of shiny foliage.
He stood beside me as I gawked at his backyard, his hands in his pockets.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
He nodded, but his expression remained frozen.
“Is it like this all year long?” Halloween was approaching. Bats and spiderwebs didn’t quite match his family’s Christmasy landscaping. I couldn’t imagine them replacing all the golden lights with purple and orange ones.
My first instinct was to take a step into the backyard, but something stopped me. I felt like an intruder prying into private thoughts. I worried I somehow could disturb the place just by being there... You see, there were two armchairs. Two blankets. Two mugs. The perfect illusion of familial intimacy... and only that. An illusion. Nothing more. He suddenly seemed more lonely than I already suspected he was.
“Do you know when your parents are coming back?” I said, and his eyes then narrowed like I’d poked an open wound. I’d sounded like my mom. She was always commenting on how “a fifteen-year-old boy shouldn’t be left to his own devices.” I regretted having asked it.
“The dates they give me always change,” he said, and sat down on the red stone steps. I sat down beside him. Even he knew not to step on the ground. The backyard was just a pretty live picture to be looked at.
The golden glow of the lights shone on us, but, even though bathed in light, his eyes remained dull.
“You see that?” He said, pointing at a spot near the lanterns.
I squinted at the direction and craned my neck. An involuntary gasp escaped me when I spotted it. A toy. A small wooden figurine. It sat with its back resting against one of the lanterns. I felt myself smile.
“It was my brother’s,” he said.
“I didn’t know you have a bro--”
My words died the moment I glanced at him. He glanced back at me.
“You didn’t know I had a brother?” He finished it for me, correcting the tense. His dark eyes never looked so somber.
“I’m sorry,” I said, mentally kicking myself for being so careless. I got on my feet. He stood up, too.
“Are you leaving?”
Suddenly, the backyard didn’t look so enchanting anymore. That increasing sense of intrusion was starting to feel unbearable, like an invisible wall forcing me farther and farther away from it.
“I said I wouldn’t be late for dinner,” I lied, turned around, and saw myself out. As I strode up the side of the house, I heard footsteps quickly approaching behind me. I looked over my shoulder, certain that I’d find him standing there. But I found no one.