Author: Clea Saal
Genre: Philosophical Horror
Page count: 252 pages
He woke up, covered in sweat, but the dream, the nightmare, kept calling him back. His father was there before he knew it, holding him, comforting him as if he were afraid.
Paul held onto the child in his arms like a lifeline, though he really couldn’t tell who was supposed to be anchoring whom. He wanted so desperately to protect him, to shelter him from the storm that was raging around him. Kyle was all that remained.
His eyes drifted to the empty bed on the other side of the room, and he felt a pang of guilt when he caught himself wondering what to do with Alex’s things. He dreaded the idea of touching them, especially this soon. Had this been only Alex’s room he would probably have left things as they were for a few days, maybe even for months or years, but he knew he couldn’t do that to Kyle. He couldn’t turn what was now his room into a museum honoring his brother.
There was no question about the toys, seeing how most of those were Kyle’s as well, though the beaten-up stuffed frog had been Alex’s alone. The clothes he would give away, even though Kyle would soon grow into them. Paul just couldn’t fathom seeing them on him… and then his eyes fell on Alex’s most prized possession: his beloved fish tank. Looking at it, it was hard to imagine that it had all begun with a single little goldfish that, much to his dismay, the boy had won at a fair. Now there were so many different shapes and colors gliding through the water. Paul remembered how his older son used to spend hours sitting in rapt fascination, just watching the fish swim, forming an ever-changing, living pattern.
For almost two years Alex had cared for that tank almost obsessively, to the point that, even though he was only seven years old, and just barely able to read, Paul had already been actively encouraging him to learn as much as he could about the sea and its creatures. Kyle, on the other hand, had never shown the slightest bit of interest in the tank or its inhabitants. At first Paul had assumed that it was because he was just too young, but as time went by he had come to the realization that it was simply that Kyle didn’t care. Maybe he could look after the tank himself, as Alex would have done.
Paul was numb and exhausted, but he couldn’t keep himself from reliving the events of the past 48 hours over and over again. Accepting that it had been an accident was all but impossible because deep down he knew he really should have known better. He knew he should have gotten rid of those damned pills while he still had the chance. He should have thrown them away the first time he had seen them in Kyle’s hand, after the boy had managed to climb up to the bathroom sink and open the medicine cabinet somehow. Instead he had hesitated, as he had been hesitating to touch all of Sarah’s things for the past eight months, so, after warning Kyle never to touch them again, Paul had hidden them in an old shoe-box on the top shelf of his own closet, confident that they were safely out of the children’s reach, and then he had forgotten all about them.
He had forgotten, but Kyle hadn’t.
Paul remembered how he had been working in his study, listening to the boys playing in his room as they often did, when all of a sudden Kyle had burst in, saying something about Alex being asleep and not wanting to wake up. He had followed his son back to his room, slightly annoyed by the interruption, only to discover Alex unconscious, and an almost empty bottle of pills lying on the bed. The ambulance had been there in a matter of minutes, but he had known even then that only a miracle would save his son… and he had buried his faith in miracles along with Sarah.
The next couple of hours, hours he had spent in the hospital’s waiting room with Kyle sitting on his lap, were forever etched in his memory. Paul had struggled with the fear, the guilt, the confusion and the anger. It was just too much and it needed an outlet, something he could ill afford. He could not, would not, blame Kyle for a tragedy that he knew to be of his own making. He wanted to question the boy so badly, but he knew he was strung too tight, and he dreaded the possibility of losing control, of saying something he might regret. He had expected his boys to be more responsible, to act like more than children. Numbed by the horror of it all, Paul had done the only thing he could think of: he had held Kyle as closely as he could, afraid that he too might somehow be snatched away from him. He focused on Kyle, who seemed to be almost oblivious to the magnitude of what had happened… as he probably was. For a moment Paul wondered whether or not a five-year-old child, even a five-year-old child who had already lost his mother, could possibly grasp the concept of death. He didn’t think so.
At that point Paul’s thoughts had been interrupted by the arrival of a social worker, a certain Ms. Jones. She had told him that she wanted to ask him a few questions, apparently unaware of just how devoid of answers he actually felt. Paul had told her what he could, but it wasn’t much.
He remembered the dread that that woman’s presence had inspired in him, as it rekindled his fears of losing Kyle. It had taken him months to accept the notion that he would have to raise his boys alone, the sheer scope of that task was daunting, and he was well aware that there were those who thought he couldn’t, or rather shouldn’t, do it… like Sarah’s parents. Paul was also painfully aware of what kind of power Ms. Jones wielded. He knew that, should she deem him to be either an unfit or a negligent parent, he could easily end up losing both his sons. However, in spite of those fears, when she asked for his permission to question Kyle, Paul immediately agreed, hoping that that would enable him to find some answers.
Kyle’s words had been so innocent, so child-like, that they had chilled him to the bone. After making a few irrelevant comments intended to put the boy at ease, Ms. Jones had asked him why they had grabbed the pills in the first place.
“We were playing,” explained Kyle. “Alex was sick, so I gave him the pills to make him feel better.”
“And who thought about using them?” asked Ms. Jones, carefully watching the boy.
“I did, ‘cos Alex didn’t know where dad kept them.”
“And you did?” she asked, sounding rather puzzled.
“Yups, I saw daddy put them in his closet when I founded them in the bathroom.”
That somewhat garbled statement, together with the angry look Ms. Jones shot at him, made Paul realize just how serious a mistake it had been to hide the pills in the boy’s presence.
“And what did your daddy say the first time you found them?” she prodded, keeping her eyes on Paul.
“He said that I shouldn’t touch them because they were bad… but why would he give something bad to my mommy?” asked Kyle, sounding more than a little confused.
“I see, so you had seen him give the pills to your mommy?”
“They made the pain go away,” explained the boy, nodding emphatically.
Paul didn’t know how a social worker would take those words. He realized that he had made a series of mistakes, but the truth was that, when the pain hit, neither he nor Sarah had had the presence of mind to tell the boys to leave the room while she took her medication. Paul could only hope that Ms. Jones would understand that.
“And so when you found them, your dad told you never to touch them again, and then he put them on top of his closet. Is that it?” asked Ms. Jones, trying to recreate the scene in her mind.
“And earlier today, while you were playing, where was your daddy?”
“In his book room. He was working, and I thought he was going to get mad at me when I told him that Alex was asleep,” said Kyle shyly.
“Does he get mad a lot?”
“No, but we are not supposed to go in there when he is working,” explained the boy.
“So you didn’t go looking for him right away, after Alex swallowed the pills?”
“No, I told you. We were playing, but then Alex was asleep and I couldn’t get him to play with me any more. I tried to wake him up, but he wouldn’t, so I went looking for dad.”
“But there is something I still don’t understand, Kyle,” said Ms. Jones, seemingly confused. “If the pills were on top of your dad’s closet, how did you get all the way up there to reach them? Can you tell me?”
“I knew daddy kept them in his closet ‘cos I had seen him put them there, so we opened the drawers to climb up,” the boy tried to explain. “We just wanted to play.”
“You opened the drawers?”
“Yes, like steps, and then Alex went up to get them.”
“But your daddy had told you that you were not supposed to play with those pills,” Ms. Jones confronted the boy, though Paul couldn’t fathom what good that would do. Kyle was only five, it hadn’t been the boy’s fault. It had been his mistake.
“Yes, but I already told you, we were playing, and we had seen them make mommy’s pain go away,” insisted Kyle.
“And after Alex got them down, how did you open the bottle?” asked Ms. Jones, aware that the package itself should have been child-resistant.
“I don’t know. It was hard. At first Alex couldn’t figure out how to do it, but after trying for a while he just did it.”
“So Alex opened the bottle, and then he swallowed the pills?”
“Yes, he was very sick, and the pills were going to make everything better.”
“You mean he got very sick?” asked Ms. Jones, trying to make some sort of sense out of the child’s words.
“No, he was sick in the game we were playing.”
Kyle appeared to be perplexed, and more than a little exasperated, by the social worker’s seeming inability to tell what he believed to be the obvious difference between reality and a game. In his mind, the game was still nothing more than a game. Well, Paul thought, at least that would explain how he could remain so calm. Still, it was kind of ironic… children were too often accused of confusing fantasy and reality. They were routinely dismissed because it was assumed that they believed that fantasy was fact, but now Kyle appeared to be unaware that the opposite had happened. The boy insisted on keeping fact and fiction apart long after they had merged… long after fantasy had become fact.
Ms. Jones didn’t leave after questioning Kyle. She stayed with them, refusing to give Paul the space and the privacy he so desperately needed.
Eventually a grim-faced doctor approached them, and Paul knew what it was that the man was going to say from the moment he saw him.
The words rang hollow. A well practiced speech that had been repeated so many times that it had been rendered almost completely meaningless. He already knew the words, having heard them from the lips of another grim-faced doctor eight months prior. He wanted to cry, to scream, but he couldn’t do it… not with Kyle watching him.
Ms. Jones left after that. She had more questions to ask, and more pressing cases to attend to. For her, Alex had already turned into a closed case, one she was eager to cross off her list.
Almost mechanically, Paul signed some papers, donating Alex’s organs in a desperate attempt to salvage at least something of his son, even after the doctor had made it clear to him that most of those organs had been compromised by the drugs. In spite of his own grief, Paul was unable to forget that children’s organs were a precious commodity.
The following morning came Alex’s hastily organized funeral. As no arrangements had been made, Paul found himself with no choice but to debate dollars and cents with the vultures that sought to profit from his pain. It was a cold place, an assembly line of grief where the dead became nothing but contract numbers who had lost not just their lives, but also their names and identities… a place in which the bodies were handled with the same cold indifference as carcasses in a slaughterhouse. He almost lost it when he heard a salesman extol the virtues of the different caskets, as if he were merely shopping for clothes, or maybe a new car.
There was an eerie feeling in Alex’s funeral, as a number of his friends were led by their parents past the small casket. For most of them this was their first experience dealing with death, and it had come embodied in a child like themselves. Kyle stood quietly by his father’s side. The boy was calm, maybe even detached, as the events unfolded in front of him. Kyle had only asked if Alex had gone away ‘like his mommy’, and Paul had barely dared to nod at that, unsure of whether or not he would be able to control his emotions long enough to speak.
In addition to that there were also countless nameless faces expressing their condolences with empty words, and Paul suddenly realized that Alex had somehow been transformed into Alexander… a man’s name he would never grow into. He became almost painfully aware of the fact that his son had never truly been Alexander before, only Alex. Like so many parents before him, he had branded his son with a man’s name before he was even born, only to change it to a child’s nickname the first time he’d seen him… and now, in death, his son had morphed into a stranger Paul had never met.
Once the service was over, there was the burial itself. A painfully small grave had been dug open next to Sarah’s headstone, in the place Paul had always assumed he would one day occupy.
He felt lost as he tried to imagine what might have been if something, anything, had been different. Paul was horrified when he caught himself wondering what his feelings would have been if Kyle, and not Alex, had been the patient in their deadly game.
If Kyle had been the patient, he would still have been there, saying goodbye to one of his sons, holding Alex’s hand, comforting him as he now knew he would never do again. He would have been standing on that same spot, holding Alex’s hand in the same way in which he was now holding Kyle’s. His own grief might have been different, as both boys had always been, but it certainly wouldn’t have been less. He would still have been there, wondering what might have been had Alex been the patient. Without even realizing it, Paul tightened his grip on Kyle’s hand, needing the reassurance of the boy’s presence. He was so distracted that he couldn’t even hear the priest offer what he believed to be words of comfort.
Paul was not a religious man, he had never been. For him church was a place he was expected to attend a couple of times a year, part of a ritual rather than a faith… and lately a place to bury the dead, but in spite of that he caught himself muttering a prayer to Sarah, begging for her forgiveness and asking her to keep Alex safe, as he vowed to keep Kyle. He would not fail twice.
The sound of dirt raining down on his son’s casket was almost deafening, but no one else seemed to be aware of it. Paul gathered his courage to look around. He was surrounded by his closest friends, as well as some of his colleagues and even a few of his students, but the ones that drew his attention were the little mourners who had never mourned before, and their parents. Their parents who were too afraid to look him in the eye, their expressions a mixture of compassion and accusation.
Paul suddenly realized that those children, the ones that seemed to be so oddly out of place in such a gathering, were the only ones that were there really because of Alex, the only ones who had had a chance to get to know him. The adults were there for him, or perhaps because they felt it was their “duty”. Even his own family had failed to attend. It really hadn’t been their fault, seeing how most of them lived thousands of miles away, and everything had been so sudden. Sarah’s parents had asked him to put off the service for one more day to make it possible for them to be there, but Paul had refused. For Kyle’s sake, he couldn’t allow things to drag on any longer.
He was grateful when he felt a hand being place gently on his shoulder, distracting him from his own thoughts. He turned around and saw that Sandra, one of his closest friends, was standing behind him. Paul tried to give her a reassuring smile, but failed miserably. She didn’t say anything, silently acknowledging the fact that there was nothing for her to say. She just remained there grounding him, lending him the strength he needed to keep himself together as the ceremony dragged on.
Paul hated himself for feeling relieved when it was finally over, but he couldn’t help it. There was something about funerals that always made him sick. It went beyond the obvious, it had to do with the emptiness of the ritual, and not just with its purpose. They felt almost as a charade in which each one of the participants had a role to play, and he couldn’t help but to fear that he was going to get his own lines wrong.
His mind drifted back to Sarah’s funeral. Back then everything had been ready, prepared. At the time he had found himself almost wishing for a different kind of ceremony –perhaps a sky burial or an open-air cremation– one that would not hide the magnitude of what had happened, one that would not leave a neat mound of earth to remind him of what he had lost. That had been then, but, as he buried his son, Paul was shocked by the realization that there was a part of him that was actually relieved at the thought of having a physical place that could act as a monument, as a reminder of the fact that the boy had lived.
As soon as they got home, Paul realized that what he had not counted on was Alex’s presence on literally every inch of the house. He couldn’t take a single step without feeling overwhelmed by memories he didn’t even know were there. It was so different from Sarah’s death. That had been expected, they had had the time to say goodbye, they had even had time to try to accept what they knew was coming, but now his soul was struggling with the inconceivable idea of letting go of Alex, a child who had had so much to do, so much to see and so much to give.
Paul looked around. Suddenly he could remember everything, a scraped knee here, a bit of innocent mischief there, over there something that was once new and exciting. Everywhere the boys laughing, playing and even fighting.
He tried to distract himself with simple chores, with things that had to be done, such as feeding Kyle and tucking him in. The boy was exhausted, that much was obvious, so Paul put him to bed, and he even managed to read him a bedtime story, but even after the boy fell asleep, Paul still couldn’t bring himself to let him out of his sight.
While he watched his son sleep, Paul finally had a chance to at least try to analyze some of his own feelings. Entering the boys’ room had been devastating. For years he had been trying, without much success, to get his sons to pick up after themselves, but their room had always reminded him of a battlefield after a particularly gruesome confrontation, with the fallen remains of loyal toys scattered as far as the eye could see. While Kyle slept, Paul picked those toys up, and then he proceeded to bury them in a chest by Alex’s bed, in a funeral that somehow seemed more fitting than the one he had endured a couple of hours earlier.
It was strange, almost funny: in his mind it had always been ‘the boy’s room’, and now that it was only Kyle’s, Paul had to struggle to keep himself from thinking of it as being Alex’s.
Of course, as painful as being in that room was, he still felt better in it than he would have felt in his own. What Paul dreaded the most was the image of the bottle of pills he was certain he would see as soon as he walked in there, even if on a rational level he knew that that bottle was no longer physically there. In addition to that, the notion of going to sleep on that bed was all but inconceivable, and because of that he had been deliberately turning everything, even his desire to comfort and protect Kyle, into an excuse to put off the inevitable. So in the end there he was, holding a frightened little boy in his arms in the middle of the night, while he himself was haunted by the ghost of another little boy… and of his own failure.
Paul was trying, but it was hard. The house was so quiet that sometimes he was tempted to scream just to break the silence. Kyle played alone now, and his voice was as silent as Alex’s. His son had no one to talk to. He had tried to play with the boy, to keep him company as much as he could, but Kyle didn’t seem to care. In addition to that there had been three casualties in Alex’s fish tank before Paul had caught on to the fact that he was actually overfeeding the fish. That had forced him to change the tank’s water, and he had almost managed to flood the house in the process.
A little more than a week after the funeral, Paul gathered his professional persona around himself as he prepared to drop Kyle off at the day care center. He was aware that taking the first steps towards reestablishing some semblance of normalcy in their lives was necessary, and he also knew that it was time for him to go back to the classroom, but at the same time moving on felt almost like a betrayal.
As he approached the day care center, he was neatly intercepted by Ms. Daniels, a no-nonsense woman who had been running the place for well over thirty years and who, in spite of her almost seventy years, showed no signs of mellowing out or slowing down. After greeting them, Ms. Daniels told Martha to take Kyle straight to the playroom with the other children before asking Paul to follow her. He suddenly felt as nervous as a child being summoned to the principal’s office, though the rational part of his mind kept telling him that he had nothing to fear.
After going through the motions of offering her condolences, Ms. Daniels proceeded to question Paul on how to deal with the subject of Alex’s death as far as Kyle was concerned. She explained to him that she wasn’t willing to run the risk of confusing the boy even more by contradicting his father, so she needed to know exactly what it was that the child had been told, and how. Her point was a valid one, of course, though Paul felt that a tank might have presented it with a little more delicacy, but then again he remembered having had the same talk –and pretty much the same impression– shortly after Sarah’s death.
Rather reluctantly, he admitted that he hadn’t really been able to bring himself to talk to Kyle about it at all, that he had been deliberately putting that conversation off until he could be reasonably sure that his own emotions wouldn’t overwhelm him.
After that Paul had to force himself to sit still while he listened to Ms. Daniels’s advice. It was strange, the woman was both kind and competent when dealing with the children left under her care, but when it came to their parents ‘kind’ didn’t seem to enter the equation. Paul knew she had loved Alex, he had never questioned that fact. He had seen her at the funeral, saying goodbye to one of her children, and keeping a careful eye on the rest of her flock, but at the time she had kept her distance, and now she was questioning him in a way that was oddly reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition.
The truth was that, even though Ms. Daniels was usually a firm believer in ‘letting the parents do the parenting’, she also considered Paul to be something of an exception in that regard. Over the past eight months she had appointed herself as a sort of surrogate grandmother to his boys, taking a few more liberties with them than she did with the rest of ‘her’ children. For his part Paul could have written a book on Ms. Daniels’s elaborate Dr. Webster/Paul code. Before Sarah’s death he had always been Dr. Webster to her, and she had treated him like she treated the rest of the parents, but since then she had taken to calling him Paul under certain circumstances… mostly when she was offering some advice that usually sounded a lot like an order to him. If Ms. Daniels happened to have a first name, he had never heard of it.
After leaving Kyle, Paul tried to steel himself to face his students. He knew that he would need a couple of days to get back in the rhythm of things. If nothing else he would need at least that long to find out what his students had been up to for the past week or so. He took a deep breath and sighed. He had a few misconceptions to vanquish.
Ms. Daniels watched as Martha all but dragged Kyle into a game she was playing with some of the other children. He clearly wasn’t happy about that one, but then again his reluctance to join in came almost as a relief, seeing how a sociable Kyle would have painted a far more troubling picture. In fact the boy appeared to be almost unchanged in spite of the strain that the events of the previous week had almost certainly put on him.
Kyle had always been a strange one in that regard. The truth was that Ms. Daniels felt that there was something odd in most of her children lately. They were different somehow, but even there Kyle stood out, perhaps because of the contrast with Alex. Both boys had always been so different from one another that it was hard to believe that they actually came from the same family, that they shared the same parents and the same general upbringing.
Ms. Daniels remembered how both boys’ had responded in the aftermath of their mother’s passing. Alex had reacted basically like she had expected him to. He had been unusually quiet for weeks, and more than once she had found herself comforting him as he cried. Kyle, on the other hand, had seemed to be virtually untouched by the tragedy that had befallen him. He had remained as shy and as withdrawn as he had always been. At the time Ms. Daniels had dismissed Kyle’s attitude by telling herself that perhaps he was just too young to grasp the magnitude of what had happened, but deep down she had known even then that there was more to it than that… and now Kyle had a new tragedy to come to terms with.
Of course, even though Kyle was Ms. Daniels’s most immediate concern following Alex’s accident, he was not the only one. She knew that what had happened was bound to have an impact on all of her charges, and she was going to have no choice but to deal with the aftermath. She had had to see children through the deaths of grandparents and, more rarely, parents before, but in more than thirty years only twice had she had to help them cope with the loss of one of their own playmates, and she knew that those losses were far more difficult for the little ones to handle, as they forced them to confront, at least at some level, the fact that they were themselves mortal.
That was one of the things that had changed the most since her own childhood. Back then death had been, if not a constant companion, at least a familiar presence, one that had been mostly beaten back thanks to the advent of vaccines and antibiotics. That children could, and did, die was a reality Ms. Daniels had hoped to keep from her charges for a little longer, unfortunately that was no longer an option.
The umpteenth skirmish of the day distracted her from her thoughts. Sometimes she really wished her children could get along better, but for the past fifteen years or so she had had the nagging feeling that she was dealing with pint-sized gangs.
From what she could see, the children seemed to be growing increasingly selfish. They cared for nothing except for what they wanted, or perhaps the problem wasn’t so much that the children had changed, but rather that she had. ‘Perhaps I’m growing bitter in my old age,’ she chided herself. She knew Martha usually dismissed her concerns whenever she tried to voice them, and she had learned to keep them mostly to herself as a result, but regardless of whether she voiced them or not, those concerns were still undeniably there.
She shook her head at that thought. Martha was her right hand woman. She had begun working for her a couple of hours a day shortly after she had come to college, hoping to earn a little extra money as well as some practical experience, and the truth was that she had turned out to be a blessing from above. The younger woman had been working full-time at the center for the past three years, ever since she had gotten her degree. She knew all of the children, some of them since they were no more than a couple of months old, and the little ones loved her. Besides, Ms. Daniels knew that her flock had grown a little too big for her to be able to handle it on her own.
She remembered seeing a dramatic change take place in that regard. It had begun as a trickle that had rapidly turned into an outright flood. In thirty years she had seen how, as the number of single and working mothers increased, more and more children had required of her services. At times Ms. Daniels had even tried to pretend that that basic difference in their families’ structures was enough to account for the changes she could see in those children’s behaviors, unfortunately there were some facts that just refused to play along with that particular theory. No matter what she did, the times just didn’t fit, with the shift in their families’ structures having taken place some thirty years prior, and the change in the children’s behaviors having taken place within the past fifteen years or so. Granted, she couldn’t quite rule out the possibility that the whole thing was just a byproduct of the fact that she was nowhere near as young as she used to be, but she didn’t think that was likely to be the case.
The problem was that, as much as she trusted and respected Martha’s opinion, the simple fact remained that if the children had truly changed in the past fifteen years or so, it had been at a time when Martha was still too young to have noticed. Sometimes Ms. Daniels just wished she could convince her young assistant that, against popular belief, there were some advantages to old age, but she knew better than to hope that that would happen any time soon.
Thinking back to her children, Ms. Daniels was forced to acknowledge that it wasn’t really that all of them had changed, but some of them… most of them to tell the truth. It was as if there were two groups of children, and those two groups didn’t get along. Ever since that gap had first become apparent, each child that crossed the center’s threshold had been almost immediately drawn towards one group or the other, and even though the children that had started it all were now in college themselves, the gap had somehow remained and even grown. The problem was that she knew that explanation to be far from accurate. There was something deeper, something that went to the core of who the children were, something she could sometimes spot even in a newborn. More than once, when a baby that was only a couple of months old was dropped off at the center for the very first time, she had been able to tell towards which group it would eventually be pulled.
Ms. Daniels had spent countless hours watching the children, trying to pinpoint the difference in an attempt to solve the problem once and for all, but she had been unable to do it. She had considered their families, their environments but, trendy as that explanation might be, she knew that it was far more complicated than that. Two brothers, as had been precisely the case with Kyle and Alex, could fall into different groups. She couldn’t tell why, or how, but the children knew. The little ones always knew.
With Kyle it had been so obvious that she had known from the very beginning. He had been one of those babies. Ms. Daniels was still thinking about it when, almost without realizing it, she turned her attention toward the object of her concerns. Even though he appeared to be doing fine, she knew that right now the child needed an extra dose of support, and she also knew that Martha –capable and loving as she was– was nowhere near experienced enough to handle that particular situation on her own.
The boy was sitting on the floor, tracing a complex pattern with a green truck, making a circuit around himself after an apparently successful escape from any kind of organized activity that Martha had sought to impose on him. He didn’t usually talk much, nor was he fond of allowing others into his private games, and that, Ms. Daniels reminded herself, could also help explain why he could appear to be unchanged in spite of everything he had been through: if an outgoing child, such as Alex had always been, suddenly seemed to be quiet and withdrawn, that was a warning sign, but with a shy little boy like Kyle it was much harder to tell what was really going on.
The child looked up at her from where he sat. She hesitated for a moment before struggling to lower herself to the ground by his side. Kyle saw her but, as usual, he didn’t say anything. He just kept playing with his truck as if she weren’t even there, making it follow the same path time and time again. Determined to get him to at least acknowledge her presence, Ms. Daniels grabbed a car and began following his truck, pretending to honk her horn, and trying to force Kyle to allow her into his game, but the boy just stopped what he was doing, abandoned the small truck, and walked away. That left her with the rather unenviable task of trying to get up. It was precisely at times like that that she wished that the difference between her bones and those of her charges weren’t so great.
Well, at least Kyle had fled toward a group of children and was playing with them, or rather they were playing in close proximity to one another, each immersed in his or her own private world, sharing nothing. Watching them, Ms. Daniels was reminded once more of the differences that were apparent between them. Kyle, and the ones he was playing with, always seemed to do the same thing: they hoarded as many toys as they possibly could, but then they didn’t quite seem to know what to do with them and grew tired of them fairly quickly as a result. The other children had more patience, they interacted with one another to a greater extent, and they also seemed to be more willing to share.
Ms. Daniels wondered if perhaps she could convince Paul to seek some kind of professional help for the boy, though she doubted it would make much of a difference. Yes, there was something about Kyle’s attitude that she found deeply disturbing, but that attitude wasn’t exactly a new development. Blaming it on his brother’s death, or even his mother’s, was a lie, and she knew it.
Of course, in a way the fact that Kyle had a hard time relating to other children was not entirely unexpected either. Ms. Daniels knew he was bright, maybe even too bright. As a five-year-old he had neither the social nor the fine motor skills that would have enabled him to keep up with the older children, but intellectually he was considerably ahead of his own peers. She had been surprised when, while she was helping Alex learn his ABCs a couple of years prior, Kyle had not only taken an interest in what they were doing, but he had actually managed to master the letters and the numbers before his brother did. She had talked to his parents about the possibility of having the boy tested then, but they had refused. They had said that he was too young and the tests wouldn’t change anything, besides they had more pressing matters to deal with, such as Sarah’s illness. They had known even then that their time together was too short and precious to waste.
“And speaking of too short a time…” she muttered to herself as a quick look at the clock reminded her that some of the parents would be arriving shortly to collect their children. Ms. Daniels was almost embarrassed when she realized that she had spent most of her morning hovering over a single child and doing nothing. Besides, she knew that Paul would almost certainly be one of those parents, since he had already told her that, at least for a couple of weeks, he would not be helping his students in the afternoon, as he usually did.
Paul approached the day care center almost hesitatingly. Even though he really admired Ms. Daniels, and he had to admit that she had been a great help as he tried to get used to the everyday challenges of being a single parent, the truth was that the woman frightened him more than a little… especially when she was in ‘mother hen’ mode, and he distinctly remembered that she had been in fine form that morning. Oh, there was no denying that she had made the best career choice possible given her nature, but sometimes he just wished he could convince her that he wasn’t the enemy.
Well, the good news was that, at least from what he could tell, Kyle’s first day back had gone pretty much according to plan. Things had been rough for the boy lately and, even though he was usually quiet, perhaps even exceedingly so, he also had a temper that could flare at the slightest provocation. In that regard the fact that there appeared to be no angry parents waiting to talk to him as he approached the building was definitely reassuring.
Unfortunately his own day had been about as pleasant as he had been expecting it to be. The pity he had seen reflected in most of his colleagues eyes had been more annoying than comforting, and his students… his students remained as stubborn as they had always been. Sure, he loved teaching, and he particularly enjoyed the challenge of working with kids that were fresh out of high school, but sometimes they clung fiercely to their misconceptions… and, when it came to history, they had plenty of them.
He figured that lunch would do the trick in terms of getting his students out of his mind, at least for a couple of hours. He wanted to surprise Kyle by taking him out for pizza. After all, seeing how he had already lost one of his boys, he figured it would be pointless to endanger the other one’s survival by exposing him to something that could almost be deemed a weapon of mass destruction: his own cooking.
Of course, there was another reason for his decision to eat out on that particular day: after thinking it over, he had decided to heed Ms. Daniels’s advice and have a talk with Kyle about Alex’s death. He knew he couldn’t keep putting it off. More than once during the past week he had found himself hastily changing the subject whenever Kyle brought it up, and he was afraid that, if he kept that up for much longer, the subject would become a sort of taboo for the boy, but at the same time he didn’t want to have the memory of that particular conversation haunting him in the house.
Yes, the rational part of his mind couldn’t help but to acknowledge that that talk was long overdue, but it could wait a little longer.
The pizzeria was almost empty, seeing how, more often than not, people just ordered their pizzas from home, and didn’t usually bother to eat out, but Paul enjoyed being there, with the heat coming out of the oven and that wonderful smell. Now he just had to brace himself for whatever combination of ‘yummy toppings’ Kyle would see fit to concoct on that particular day.
Paul knew that his son loved pizza, but he was also aware that for the boy eating it was nowhere near as important as playing with it. He recalled the last time that the three of them had been there together. He remembered how he had been the instigator on that particular day, and how they had spent half an hour taking full advantage of the slices’ shape to use them as planes in a very enthusiastic recreation of some of the greatest battles in the history of aviation. They had had a wonderful time, even if they had wound up in the rather absurd position of having to eat cold pizza right in front of the oven.
Now their meal was a little more subdued, and when they were done he asked his son about his day, hoping to get eventually to the subject of Alex, though he didn’t really know how he was supposed to broach that one. In the end it was Kyle who brought it up by saying that he kind of missed his brother.
“I just want you to know that it is okay to talk about Alex, about what happened to him,” Paul tried to reassure him.
“But I already know what happened to him,” said Kyle. “He died, just like mommy.”
“I know you know that, but I also wanted you to know that it is alright to miss him, and to talk about him.”
“You miss him a lot, don’t you, daddy?”
“Of course I miss him!”
“Sometimes I wish we could still play together,” sighed the boy.
“I know you do, and do you want me to tell you something? So do I, but if you tell me, I will play with you when you are lonely.”
“Even if you are busy?”
“No matter what,” Paul promised.
“But it won’t be the same,” said Kyle after a few seconds.
“Oh, Kyle, I know it won’t be the same! That’s why I told you not to touch those pills!” Paul exclaimed. He hadn’t meant for it to come out sounding so harshly, but he couldn’t keep the despair out of his voice.
“But I didn’t, daddy, I didn’t touch them,” replied the boy.