What Has Robbie Done

Ted checked his watch: 9:35. The meeting with the principal was at 10. Better to get there early, so he grabbed the car keys from the kitchen counter and called “Anna–time to go” but was careful not to sound impatient. His wife got flustered by impatience. She was already flustered enough, forced as they were to see the principal at Robbie’s school. And on a Saturday, no less.

No answer at first, but then, after a moment, Anna’s quiet response. “Just a minute.”

Ted followed her voice to the front of the house to the doorway leading into Robbie’s bedroom. There he found the two of them, his wife and son, sitting side by side on Robbie’s little bed. Despite all his worry (why couldn’t the principal wait until Monday to meet with us? What the hell had Robbie done?), Ted took a moment to enjoy the scene: The plain white walls and the wooden crucifix hanging over the cot-like bed made it more like a monk’s cell than the bedroom of a nine-year-old. Sure, it was stark, but it was peaceful, too. Not cluttered and gloomy like the room he’d had as a boy.

They had their backs to him and didn’t see Ted at the door. The morning sun blazing through the window seemed to melt Anna and Robbie into one: a two-headed creature with hair as black as coal and skin as white as–

Ted marveled again at the whiteness of their skin. What could be that white?

A maggot.

Oh God no, Ted thought: not a maggot.

A … a lily.

Yes. That was much better.

Skin as white as a lily.

Anna bowed her head and Robbie did the same, and Ted waited for the inevitable: for Anna to mumble a little Russian prayer. It didn’t take much for her to do that, and times like these, with their boy in trouble again, definitely called for prayer. Dear God, Ted would have said if he prayed, Dear God, Dear God … But he wouldn’t know what to say after that. He left all the praying to his wife, hoping God and all the saints didn’t hate the sound of Russian as much as he did. Such a harsh language. So coarse. Invented, Ted imagined, by some drunk, ill-tempered Cossack. He braced himself for the sound of it.

But Robbie piped up before Anna could start to pray. “I’m a good boy, Mama. I swear I am. I didn’t do anything bad.”

Ted knew that tone of voice: Perplexed and indignant. Full of fire, but full of ice, too, somehow. The same tone Robbie used whenever he defended himself. “I didn’t spill the juice on the carpet,” “I didn’t squirt toothpaste into the toilet,” “I didn’t eat all the cookies, I swear I didn’t, I swear I swear I swear!” And last year, at the other school, the thing about the bugs–“Those bugs were already dead, Daddy, I swear!” Perplexed, indignant, his big black eyes full of tears. Big, black and wet. Like Lake George on a moonless night.

Moon. Moon white.

Skin as white as the moon–that’s another good one, Ted thought, before Robbie’s voice brought him back to the hallway outside the bedroom door.

“They’re’ all a bunch of liars, Mama. That stupid principal. And that stupid janitor. He’s the biggest liar of all. Don’t believe anything they tell you.”

“I won’t. I won’t. You’re my good boy.” Anna murmured something else, Ted couldn’t hear what, and then she reached around and touched Robbie lightly behind the ear, just behind the lobe. Robbie touched the spot himself, and they both nodded as if agreeing on something.

Ted pulled back from the doorway and let them have their moment. He found the spot behind his own ear, a soft dimpled pocket where his jawbone ended and his skull began. A pressure point, maybe. Applying pressure there must calm yourself. That was probably it. Anna knew about that kind of thing. She was a nurse, after all.

But what had she whispered to Robbie? A little Russian prayer, maybe. A prayer to Saint Ephraim, the patron saint of consolation. (Or was that Saint Eustathius? Ted could never keep them straight.) Or “Press your finger here when you feel upset”–maybe that’s all she’d said.

Anyway, Ted thought, whatever Anna whispered, it’s none of my business. A secret here, a secret there; what did it matter? Mothers and sons have a special bond. Or some did. The lucky ones. Not him and his mother, of course. Ted’s mother used to slap him whenever he got in trouble. If her mood was particularly rotten, she’d hit him with a belt. “Stop. Causing. Trouble,” she’d say, in time with each whack.

Ted glanced at his mother’s bedroom, right next to Robbie’s, and wondered if he should check on her before they left. The door was slightly ajar and the room semi-dark. Anna kept the curtains drawn; his mother had stopped asking to open them years ago. Ted couldn’t see her from where he stood, but he could still feel his mother’s presence. Big, dark and heavy, like a caged gorilla. She was an invalid now and couldn’t hurt him anymore, but he never went into her room unless he had to. He decided he’d check on her when they got back.

Anna and Robbie emerged from Robbie’s bedroom just then, arms entwined, their faces somber until they saw Ted standing there, and then they both smiled at him with the same toothy grins. It’s almost like they rehearsed it, smiling like that–but Ted chided himself for thinking such a thing.

“Time to go, honey,” Ted said.

Anna dropped Robbie’s arm and stood on tiptoe to kiss Ted’s cheek. “Yes, darling. Time to go.” She rubbed Ted’s arm in that soft way she had, like he was a precious thing, and she held his hand as they walked to the front door.

Flushed and happy from his wife’s touch, Ted forgot to worry about whatever it was Robbie had done. But it came back to him the closer they got to the front door, that unease in his gut. The worry that somehow he was to blame. He was Robbie’s father, after all. “The fruit don’t fall far from the tree” is how his mother put it.

He opened the door for his wife, but before stepping outside, she paused at the metallic icon of Saint Anastasia on the wall. Ted watched her kiss the spot where the saint’s hand held the cross–the same spot she kissed every time, worn down to a pale copper. Anna’s lips were so plump and full; so red, even without lipstick. She stared into the saint’s eyes, said a prayer (in Russian, of course; such ugly sounds, Ted thought, coming from such a pretty mouth) and then quickly left the house. Ted pointed the key fob at the car and unlocked it.

“Hold down the fort while we’re gone, Rob,” Ted said, but Robbie didn’t seem to hear him. He had settled down on the couch and was staring at the TV. A Skittles commercial was on, or maybe it was an ad for cereal. “You’re in charge of Grandma,” Ted said a bit louder, but Robbie still didn’t respond–too busy now, sucking his thumb–but Ted heard a muffled cry from his mother’s room. He ignored it, irritated by Robbie’s thumb-sucking (wasn’t he too old to do that? Anna didn’t think so, but Ted had his doubts) and was on the porch and about to close the front door when he heard his mother cry out again, this time more urgently. He checked his watch, decided he could spare a minute and headed back inside.

Every time he entered his mother’s room, Ted felt his face change. Felt it become hard. Scornful. Impatient. The same expression his mother had worn all those years, until the MS did her in. Ted might wear his mother’s mask when he saw her, but that was as far as it went. He had no desire to slap her. To pinch, to bully, to whip her with a belt.

“What’s wrong, Mom?”

His mother’s eyes were big and watery–not blue anymore, but gray, just like the rest of her. She tried to say something but her words were garbled. That new medicine was to blame, Ted thought, or maybe her mind was finally going. In either case, Ted was glad about it. Now she couldn’t nag him anymore, or say terrible things about Anna. “Evil bitch,” is what she usually said, including once when Robbie was in the room. “Don’t say that!” Robbie had cried, to which Ted’s mother, in fine form, had responded, “Well that’s what she is, an evil bitch.” Funny thing, Ted realized now: that might have been the last clear thing she’d ever said.

“Why all the moaning, Mom? We’ll be back soon.” Ted said it loudly, in case his mother’s hearing was shot, too.

She shook her head and held out a hand to him–an old lady’s hand, quivering and spotted. He didn’t take it but instead averted his eyes and pulled the blanket up to her neck. But he pulled too hard and the foot of her blanket became untucked. “We can’t have that now, can we?” he said, something she used to say to him, but never in a kind way.

The sheet had come undone as well, and he was about to retuck both sheet and blanket when he saw her right foot: the long, yellow toenails; the dry, flaky skin; and (this was new) a network of tiny cuts. She moaned and pointed a shaky finger at her foot and looked at Ted with wild eyes. It’s those damn toenails, Ted thought. They’d gotten so thick that Anna couldn’t cut them anymore. He would have to do it. Or could he hire someone to do that? He hoped so. He hated the thought of touching his mother’s feet. She used to make him rub her feet after work as she partook of what she called her “constitutional” (and what Ted called “a rum and coke”). She never took off her nylons when he had to rub her feet. There was something even worse about it that way. Professional toenail cutters–would they be listed in the Yellow Pages?

The blanket and sheet firmly tucked in, Ted stood upright and felt himself towering over her, a sad old woman in a twin bed. That’s when he saw the ceramic saint on his mother’s night stand tipped over, face down. St. Basil. Patron saint of the sick. Or was it the elderly? In any case, Anna wouldn’t like seeing it tipped over like that. She’d say it was bad luck. She’d want to say a prayer. Anna was in the car, sure, but Robbie was in the other room, and if he saw Saint Basil like that, he’d let Anna know about it, and then they’d never get out of here. Ted quickly stood the saint upright. Its tiny white face was grim and unthankful.

“We’ll be back soon, Mom. And don’t tip over the statue anymore. Anna doesn’t like it.”

His mother shook her head and held out her hand again but he turned and left. He kept her door slightly ajar so Robbie could hear her in case she needed him.

Robbie was lost in his TV show–something about cheetahs and hyenas, frolicking across the savanna. What a smart little boy, Ted thought, always so interested in animals. That situation with the bugs last year, didn’t that show he had a scientific bent? Maybe he’ll be a vet, Ted thought. Doctoring ran in the family–well, on Anna’s side, at least. “My father was a doctor,” Anna always said, which is all she ever said about him.

“Be back soon, Rob,” Ted said. He locked the front door and headed toward the car as wispy white clouds sailed across the sky above him, quick and frightened, like they were being chased. Anna was in the passenger seat, gazing down, frowning, and she didn’t look up, not even after he got in. Probably praying, Ted thought. To Saint Kuksha, maybe, or Saint Olga. Patron saints of–oh, hell. He couldn’t remember. Each saint had a different specialty, but Ted got them confused most of the time. It didn’t matter. That was Anna’s domain. To him, the saints were like spices. He knew oregano was for Italian food and cumin for Mexican, but what about, say, marjoram? When was the right time to use marjoram? But he didn’t need to worry about any of that. Anna took care of the spices just like she took care of the saints.

He started up the car, and Anna immediately rolled down her window a crack. She needed the air to keep from getting car sick.

“Would you rather walk?” he asked. It would take only 10 minutes or so. He checked his watch–only 9:45. They could make it in plenty of time.

“No,” Anna said, her expression hard. “Only peasants walk. We will drive.”

Ted eased the car out of the driveway and onto the street. He’d known what she’d say and wondered why he’d bothered to ask. In any case, it was better if they drove. Those clouds overhead–they worried him. More and more were coming in, and they weren’t so white or wispy anymore.

“Why do they call us in like this? And on a Saturday?” Anna made it sound like a challenge, like Ted was to blame, since this was his country they were living in. She tilted her nose toward the open window and continued. “He is too little to have done something much bad. Only nine. What could he have done?”

He made a slow smooth stop at the stop sign and a gentle right onto Elm. “I don’t know, sweetheart. Nothing probably. Maybe he’s getting an award or something.”

Such a strange thing for him to say–“getting an award.” When had Robbie ever got an award for anything? But then Ted remembered telling his mother the very same thing once, long ago, after Ted himself had been sent to the principal’s office and was late getting home. “I got an award, Mom!” But she didn’t believe him. “Liar!” she’d said. And then the ol’ slapawak–what Ted called her beatings. But only to himself.

They pulled into the parking lot, and Ted marveled again at how nice the school was–so much nicer than Henry Hudson Elementary, the one he’d gone to. No barred windows, no peeling paint, and a wide swathe of grass out front, always mowed and litter-free. This is where my son goes, Ted thought, and he felt proud about it. He hoped there wasn’t any real trouble with Robbie, like there’d been at the last school.

They had a few minutes to spare so, after he parked, they sat in the quiet before getting out. He glanced at Anna–he would stare at her all day if she didn’t hate it so. His beautiful Russian wife with her coal-black hair, full red lips and moon-white skin. Such a miracle, having her in his life, when his mother always said he’d be alone forever. (“Who’d want you? You’re too much trouble. Just like your father.”) But Anna, his mother’s nurse all those years ago, had rescued him from that. (“Ha! A fine pair you make, my good-for-nothing son and his lunatic wife …”)

He put his hands back on the steering wheel and gripped it so hard that his fingers hurt. Forty years old and still hearing his mother’s voice in his head. Even now that she couldn’t talk, he still heard it. Even after she was dead, he’d still hear it. He needed some chit chat just to drown her out.

“I saw you and Robbie this morning. Having a pow wow.” But he’d chosen the wrong thing to say.

Anna glared at him. “What is this ‘pow wow’? You make us sound savage.”

“Okay. Never mind.” He shouldn’t have brought that up. It was their moment–Anna’s and Robbie’s–after all. A mother and son moment. Nothing to do with him. “Ready to go?”

Anna nodded, but before they got out she took his hand, squeezed it and smiled at him, her expression sad and sorry. He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. Her skin–it was so soft, even the skin over her knuckles. Soft as silk. Smooth as butter. Her whole body was like that.

The wind turned gusty as they walked hand in hand up to the main building. There was no secretary in the office to greet them–Ted called “Hello!” and was about to repeat himself when Anna pointed to a note taped on the principal’s door just beyond the front desk. “Mr. and Mrs. Collins: Come on in,” it said, so they stepped inside the principal’s office and took a seat.

The clock on the wall ticked loudly and somewhat unevenly. “And now we wait,” Ted said, smiling, but Anna had closed her eyes and lowered her head. Praying again. Always praying. For what? Ted didn’t know. Married 10 years and he still didn’t know what she prayed for.

He watched the morning light play across the snow globes along the window sill. About a dozen of them, lined up in alphabetical order, starting with Albany and ending in Washington, DC. They sparkled in the sun, dimmed when a cloud swept by, and then sparkled again.

… Boston, Denver, Miami, Montreal …

Back at Henry Hudson Elementary, there’d never been snow globes to look at in the principal’s office. Ted should know–he’d spent a lot of time there as a kid. And for what? Stealing snacks from lunch pails. Never sandwiches, only snacks. Ding Dongs, Twinkies, Ho Hos. Not all the time, just once in a while, when he couldn’t stand it anymore, those crummy bologna sandwiches, day in, day out. “Teddy took my Ding Dongs!” someone’d cry, and off he’d go to Mr. Fitzgerald’s office, who’d nearly paddled Ted the first time but stopped when he saw the bruises on his arms. So from then on, whenever Ted got sent to the office, he sat at the corner table to work on a puzzle, while Mr. Fitzgerald looked over papers or talked on the phone or sometimes sat right alongside Ted, putting together pictures of Vermont Farm in Autumn or Winter Waters of Lake Champlain.

… New York, Omaha, Pittsburgh …

No snow globes in Mr. Fitzgerald’s office, but Ted remembered the smell of Old Spice and strong coffee. But the smell of whiskey? Beer? Wine? No, Ted didn’t remember that, even though his mother still said (or did say, until the new medicine had taken her tongue) that Mr. Fitzgerald was a drunk. “Stupid old drunk. Everyone knew it. Everyone but you.” What nonsense. Mr. Fitzgerald was no drunk. He had allergies, that’s all.

There was the sound of a door opening somewhere and then high-heeled shoes clicking toward them from down the hall. A moment later, Mrs. Boyd the principal bustled in.

“Thank you for coming in today.” She reached over and shook their hands before sitting down at her desk. “I know how busy Saturdays can be.”

Mrs. Boyd was a heavy-set woman, perfectly groomed, with a powdery, flowery smell. She emanated efficiency and competence, just like Mr. Fitzgerald did, Ted thought. Even when Mr. Fitzgerald’s eyes were unfocused and bloodshot, he had seemed confident and capable.

The office darkened as a cloud blocked the sunlight. Ted suddenly remembered Anna’s car window, and wondered whether she’d rolled it up all the way and whether he should go out and check before it started to rain–but just then Mrs. Boyd cleared her throat. She looked from Ted to Anna and smiled. It was a just-enough smile. One to lessen the blow, Ted thought.

He shifted in his seat and glanced at his wife. Anna’s pretty face was hard and unsmiling. Just like Saint Erasmus. Patron saint of tummy troubles–Ted had no trouble remembering that. There was a ceramic figurine of Saint Erasmus in their bathroom. Dour ol’ Erasmus. Nothing you did ever pleased him.

“We need to talk about Robert,” said Mrs. Boyd.

“Robbie,” Ted said. So that’s how it was, he thought: The people here at school don’t know my son at all. His boy was Robbie, not Robert. The same thing had happened last year, at the other school, with the principal there, that Mrs. What’s Her Name, that ugly horse of a woman, who’d gone on and on about Robbie and that bug collection of his. “You don’t know him like we do,” Ted had said to her, to which she’d promptly responded, “And you don’t know him like we do.”

“Robbie. Yes, of course,” Mrs. Boyd said, temporarily chastened. She recovered her composure quickly and resumed, just as the wind picked up outside and raindrops began to fall. “We’re concerned about Robbie’s behavior. Very concerned.”

Anna squirmed in her chair and made an awful fart-like noise against the leather upholstery. Mrs. Boyd pretended not to notice–a real professional, Ted thought, while he tried hard to squelch a laugh. Being nervous like this made him giddy, and it took all he had now to keep a straight face.

Anna didn’t seem to notice the terrible noise she’d made. She squinted her eyes and set her lips in a hard little frown–the same look she got when she thought she heard mice scurrying behind the walls. She looked toward Mrs. Boyd but not exactly at her, Ted could tell by the confused look on Mrs. Boyd’s face. Anna spaced out like that whenever she was upset. Ted couldn’t blame her. This was no fun.

“What has Robbie done?” Ted asked. He very nearly added the word “now” to the end of his question, but he stopped himself just in time. It would be like admitting something, when there was nothing to admit. True, there was that episode last year, at the other school, that brouhaha over Robbie and those bugs of his. Boys will be boys. Hell, Ted thought, I even kept a box of dead bugs when I was Robbie’s age, and had dissected them, too. “But Mr. Collins, I’m sure you waited until they were dead before you dissected them.” That’s what the principal at the other school said, to which Robbie had responded, “Liar! Liar! They were already dead when I cut them up. I swear Daddy. I swear!” His big black eyes full of tears.

“What has Robbie done?” Mrs. Boyd said, frowning. “Well.” She lifted her eyebrows high and shook her head as she opened up the folder in front of her.

A picture was clipped to the upper corner of the folder. It was upside down from where Ted sat, but he still recognized it. Robbie’s school photo. This year’s was so different from last year’s, when Robbie was in the third grade. The great big smile that Robbie had in his kindergarten picture had subsided each year, until now, in the fourth grade picture, he had no smile at all. Robbie’s eyes were different, too. The light was gone, Ted realized now. Kids grew up too quickly these days. He wondered if the TV was to blame, and if he should get rid of it.

Mrs. Boyd sighed as if what she would have to say was unpleasant. “Robbie killed a cat.”

Ted felt his body freeze and his face flush. The clock’s ticking filled the whole world. He heard his mother’s words–

You’re broken …

Nothing but trouble …

Rotten fruit don’t fall far from the tree …

–and knew now they were all true. His mother was right. He was broken. Rotten to the core. And he’d passed it all on to his son.

Mrs. Boyd continued. “It was one of the strays that wander into the playground from time to time.” She kept her eyes on the typed sheet in the folder. “Mr. Jones–the janitor–said he found Robbie behind the dumpster out near the baseball field after school. He said he found Robbie with his hands around the cat’s neck.”

Ted felt his body unfreeze, just slightly, just enough so he could turn to look to Anna, hoping for some kind of support–anything–but she didn’t look at him. She had untucked a lock of hair, the one she usually kept behind her left ear, and was twisting it. Her black hair looked so pretty against her maggot white skin. No, Ted corrected himself. Lily white. Moon white.

“Cats are filthy. They cannot be trusted,” Anna muttered, to which Mrs. Boyd, clearly surprised by the response, said, “Well I hardly think that’s the point, even if it were true …” and on and on, but Ted was remembering a few months back, when he’d found a dead cat in their own backyard, its eyes bulging, a frantic, terrified look on its little face, its tiny pink tongue sticking out its tiny mouth, and when he’d gone into the house he’d found Anna at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of tea, flipping through Good Housekeeping, and when he told her about the cat she’d said the same thing: “Cats are filthy. They cannot be trusted,” without looking up from the magazine.

Even for Anna, that was a strange thing to say. Ted wondered now: Had she been covering up for Robbie? Had Robbie killed that cat?

But no: Robbie had been in bed that whole weekend, sick with the stomach flu.

And anyway, Ted thought, why should I think such a thing? About my very own son?

Anna had stopped twisting her hair and had begun to rub behind her ear. Just behind the lobe. Ted thought of her and Robbie, sitting side by side on the little bed, having their pow wow, her arm around his shoulders, protecting him, comforting him; and all the tender times before that, ever since Robbie was born: Anna swaddling him in a blanket, combing his hair, rubbing him all over with baby oil.

No one knew what is what like in their house. No one saw all the love they had for each other, all the tenderness. It had never been like that in his house growing up. And this Mrs. Boyd wanted to ruin all that. Her and that janitor.

This was bullshit, Ted thought. Bullshit with a capital B. Look at the life I’ve built. A nice house in a good neighborhood, a beautiful wife and son. This principal, and the one last year–it was some kind of conspiracy. I’ve worked so hard to build a normal life, and they want to destroy it all. Mother is behind it all somehow. She’s determined to ruin my life.

Mrs. Boyd continued to blah blah blah about something, but Ted cut her off. “My son didn’t kill any cat. He must have he found it like that.”

Anna didn’t respond at all to his outburst, but Mrs. Boyd seemed confused, like she’d lost her train of thought, and she shook her head as if to clear it. “Mr. Jones said the cat was alive when he got there. Barely alive, but still. He told Robbie to stop, but then he ‘finished the job.’ Mr. Jones’ words, not mine.”

“Who is this Mr. Jones? Why should we believe him?”

The force of his words took Mrs. Boyd by surprise; she looked like she’d been slapped. “I’ve never known Mr. Jones to lie.”

“That’s a pretty big accusation to make. He should be here if he’s going to say those kinds of things.”

“I–I didn’t think it was necessary, having him here.” Mrs. Boyd shifted in her seat and made her own fart-like noise.

But Ted was too indignant to be amused by it. “I want to meet this Mr. Jones.”

“If you really think it’s necessary…”

“I do.” Ted felt strong, like a real man of the house. The protector of his domain. Oh, how his dear old mother would sneer if she could see him now. “Think you’re a big shot, don’t you. Well, think again”–he could hear her words right in his ear. But what did she know? Old hag alone in a bed, with yellow toenails and cut-up feet.

Ted stood to leave–the meeting was over as far as he was concerned–and helped Anna up from her chair. Mrs. Boyd, red-faced and flustered, said they weren’t done, said they needed to address this issue, said, if they didn’t, “your son will do something even worse, you can bet on that,” but Ted and Anna left the office without another word.

It was pouring rain now; Ted held Anna’s arm and hurried her back to the car. She didn’t seem to notice the rain, or where they were, or what they were doing. Ted had to help her into the car and then, once he got himself in, he strapped the seat belt over her. He buckled himself in then, but waited before turning the key.

He sat there and watched the rain run over the windshield, turning Henry Hudson Elementary into a smear of crying colors. The janitor had it wrong, but even so, they were all against Robbie now. “The troubled boy” is how they’d see him. They’d have to move again. Try another school. Maybe the third time would be the charm. Maybe at the next school, they’d finally see Robbie for what he was: a good boy.

He said aloud what it all came down to: “They don’t know him like we do.”

Anna jumped in her seat at his words. She looked at Ted as if she didn’t know where he’d come from. But then her eyes cleared and she smiled a tiny smile. “Yes, darling. They don’t know him like we do.”

Her smile died as she turned to look out the window. She tucked her hair behind her ear. The skin behind her lobe–the spot she’d been rubbing earlier–was bright red; raw, almost. It hurt Ted to look at it.

The ride back home was quiet, except for the sound of rain and wipers. We’ll get past this, Ted thought. We’ll sort this out. They don’t know Robbie like we do. He didn’t kill that cat. Ridiculous! They don’t know how it is in our home, how happy we are. Today is Saturday. Tonight we’ll eat dinner on TV trays in the den and watch “Deadliest Catch.” That’s our tradition. Did crazy, dangerous people do that sort of thing? No. They didn’t.

“Why is he outside?” Anna said, and that’s when Ted saw Robbie, sitting on the front porch. Crying in the rain. Soaking wet.

Ted came to a hard stop in the driveway. Anna jumped out of the car and ran to the boy. Ted followed close behind.

Robbie stood up, held out his arms to his mother. There was blood oozing from below his ear. Blood on his neck. Blood on his hands, too, and his shirt, and his pants–like he’d tried to wipe his hands clean of it. Much more blood than could have come from his ear.

He choked out words between his sobs. “I did what you said, Mama–but it didn’t work–I rubbed my ear–a lot–but the bad thoughts didn’t stop–“

Anna shushed him and led him into the house.

Ted followed them in, saw Anna usher Robbie to the couch. Saw that his mother’s door was closed.

He wondered about that.

Did I close her door? Didn’t I leave it open?

“Mom?” He waited for her muffled cry. No response.

He took one last look at his family: Anna with her arms wrapped around Robbie, his head on her chest, his thumb in his mouth as she held him, her little boy covered in blood. Mothers and sons have such a special bond, he thought. And then he opened his mother’s door.

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Published in Fiction Silicon Valley, 2016

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