Carrie didn’t know whether eavesdropping outside her son’s bedroom at 3am ignited the trembling in her chest, or if it was the cold air circulating in the house. She clutched the throat of her nightgown to block the breeze. Insomnia was partly to blame. She’d been awake since watching a documentary about young boys growing up in Papua New Guinea.
After Stu had gone to bed, she sat back on the sofa and cruised the channels looking for the rerun that satisfied something she couldn’t explain. It wasn’t the voice of the stodgy British narrator but the drums that cued her to brace herself against the acceleration of her heart. No matter how hard she held back, she shed tears in sympathy with the wailing mothers. Crouched in a group, the women’s voices rang in painful harmony against the rapid beat of drums while they watched the elders of the village nab their young sons in the middle of the night. Something small and persistent in Carrie’s chest fluttered with the rhythm.
Standing in the dark now it was Jake’s voice that resonated on the other side of the door. It was chat time. He was on Skype, she could tell, given the response from someone who spoke in a tenor, somewhere between hysteria and whining. She left Stu deep in sleep protected by his snoring, and figured it was useless to ask him to speak to Jake. Besides, two hours from now he’d be walking shoeless through security for an early flight to Philadelphia. Since the car accident she felt Jake pulling away from her. She was convinced it wasn’t only the concussion. What was he talking about at this hour? She moved closer toward the door left ajar.
This place sucks, came the grumbling voice. I hate it, my father, my mother, this school …
Jake’s voice was lower in pitch, Don’t do it. It’s stupid. She was proud of the way he warned the other kid. And with that realization her guilt deepened about snooping. She should just go back to bed. But if she turned to leave now he’d probably hear her steps in retreat. Then again, he needed his sleep if he was to recover completely from the concussion. Arguing back and forth like this rendered her immobile. Her bare feet felt numb against the cold wood floor and sent a signal to move or risk freezing on the spot. So it was a bit of a relief when she pushed open the door and heard Jake’s words, Cutting’s stupid.
“What are you doing?”
The glow from his laptop rendered a silver pallor to his muscular face, a leaner Stu with a strong jaw. His dark brown hair and eyes sparked with metallic glints in the eerie light. Rapid-fire clicks across the keyboard pricked her ears to a familiar sound alerting the other end that the enemy, known as mother, had invaded. But before he hit the send button she leaned closer to the screen. Featured in the Skype window she recognized the broad-faced boy with dark eyes and a tense mouth where above his lips a shadow of a mustache hinted at older years. Andy Marcus. In a blink, the quadrant on the screen went blank and the boy was gone.
“See what you did?” Jake shouted. “He’s really upset and now he’s upset with me!” His fingers ran a frantic pace across the keyboard.
“Jake, if he’s cutting he needs help.”
“Oh, so you were listening. Nice.”
“You need to tell his parents,” she said.
“It’s none of your business.” He brought up a racecar video game on his screen.
“It’s not up to you, Jake.” She felt her insistence weaken competing with his focus on the game. He hadn’t once looked at her, and his posture sunk into a shell with his protruding neck poised for action only from the screen.
His insolence was impenetrable. The cold air in his room swirled again inside her nightgown leaving her feeling exposed before him. It was wrong to snoop. From either side of his bed’s headboard, metal rock blasted guttural moans of annihilation. That was her cue to leave. She shut the door behind her.
When she returned to bed the pounding rhythm from the other side of the wall made it impossible to sleep with anxiety pulsing deep inside her. She didn’t want Jake losing sleep over Andy who needed professional help, not a friend. Beside her, Stu generated enough heat under the covers to supply the entire house. And yet the shivering beat that danced in her body persisted. It was her nerves. She watched Stu’s slack lips puff each exhalation that would protect his sleep for at least another hour. So she gave in, dressed and went downstairs to wait.
An hour later, over a coffee and bagel she told Stu what she saw and heard in Jake’s room. “Andy needs help. Jake told me he’s not living with his parents. No one can parent a thousand miles away.”
“Why don’t you call Geoff?”
“Does he still live here? Pam left town after the divorce.”
“Then drop it. Boys say a lot of things they don’t follow through on. Even I’m guilty of that, right?” He managed to lighten her spirit a bit and leaned in for a kiss. The moist remnant of cream cheese was now hers. He reached and tapped his finger on it and licked.
By the time the garage door went down with his departure and his reassurance that Jake was being just a boy, she could almost go back to sleep but she had to drive Jake to school. Even though it was a cool sun the morning dew on the new grass had begun to evaporate. The air in the kitchen had a crispness that signaled the energy of spring. But in spite of what should give hope, her thoughts returned to the look of Andy on the screen, his boyish mopey look.
“You want cereal or toast?” she asked Jake when he came down in the morning. She stretched an arm to reach the box on the high shelf. When she turned around she noticed he was staring at the flab exposed above her waist where her shirt had lifted. Her discipline for the gym had vanished since the accident. He gave her a furtive glance avoiding eye contact, and muttered, “weird.”
“No more weird than your friend last night.”
“He’s not weird. You’re clueless.”
She was being insensitive, but Jake was the one she needed to be concerned about. She didn’t want to revisit their encounter last night. “You have an appointment with Dr. Silva. I’ll pick you up at 3.”
In the car, Jake slumped against the passenger window with his eyes closed. He’d never been a morning person; even as a toddler he was groggy in the morning. But now she was dealing with a sulking teenager who wanted his driver’s license back. “Maybe this will be the ‘okay’ you want from him,” she said. When she touched his shoulder his muscle flinched rejecting her attempt at tenderness. And when he stepped out of the car at school, he slammed the door pitching her off an imaginary cliff and her stomach rolled.
Spring had blown its annual flurry of pollen into the house and the car, so thick she could taste its bitter sweetness on her lips. She loved Jake but the disdain he cast was even more palpable on her lips. She needed a coffee to wash it down and called Myra to meet her at noon at their coffee shop.
Two weeks before Christmas, Stu surprised them with a new car, a Jaguar XKR. His first convertible. The end of year bonus was good. Carrie knew he wanted to trade in his old car. Jake knew too because he and Stu had talked about possibilities, with Jake pushing the models designed with tipped noses and elevated cheetahs like the ones in his video games. The beginning of Jake’s winter break had begun with the school’s traditional evening choral program. Stu had been driving the new car for about ten days. Twice he’d let Jake take the wheel while he sat in the passenger seat.
“Let me drive,” Jake asked the night of the performance. Other years they had to drag him to the event, but tonight he was motivated on the chance driving of the Jag to school.
“One condition,” Stu said dangling the keys midway between them. “The radio settings don’t change, and we listen to one of Mom’s CDs.”
He grabbed the key. “That’s two conditions in case you’re counting.”
They were easy with each other lately. Carrie found herself on the sidelines and it actually felt right. She saw them in this new way; more like watching them exchange a pair of shoes now that they wore the same size rather than father and son.
At the end of the program, Jake was behind the wheel again, driving smooth and cautious. Stu suggested they watch a movie at home. He took the initiative to run inside for the rental movie while Carrie stayed in the car with Jake.
“You’re a good driver, Jake,” she said. “But the back seat here leaves a lot to be desired!” She’d been a good sport agreeing to wedge herself into the tiny bucket seat. She just fit and it was only for a short drive.
“Yeah. I’d like to try it out with the top down,” he said. His hand glided over the smooth wood paneled dash and then he tuned in a rock station on the radio.
“Hey what about the deal?”
“That was between me and Dad. When he gets back I’ll turn it off.”
The pounding beat of the music vibrated from speakers close to her head. She closed her eyes. She didn’t want to spoil the good mood with picky criticism. Frankly, she’d had her fill of Christmas music. So she concentrated on getting home to bake holiday cookies and smiled remembering when Jake use to help with the frosting and sprinkles. At least he was still that little kid when it came to eating them.
At home that night, she darted back and forth between the oven and the movie, catching most of the action. They’d seen it when it first hit the theater. But when the maligned high-tech spy finally out-maneuvered his pursuants and regained his memory, the movie credits rolled. Jake sprang from the sofa. He popped out the DVD. “Let me take it back, just up the road and back.” He stood towering over Stu who remained on the sofa sluggish from three glasses of wine. Jake spoke with earnest seriousness and a measured hint of pleading.
Stu remained silent looking at the blank television screen. At first, Carrie thought Stu hadn’t heard Jake and was mesmerized in an afterglow of the actor’s bravado, his earnest pursuit of injustice, and the high-speed chase. But he gathered energy and rose with a compliant sigh as he dug into his trouser pocket. “I suppose so. It’s only ten minutes up the road.” Jake waltzed closer to Stu who dropped the key into his open palm.
A low level buzz went off in Carrie’s ear. A litany of protest noted the late hour, the darkness, that tomorrow would be soon enough, that Stu should go too, … but instead of protesting, she took heart in the way the two of them moved in harmony, an unconscious mirroring of the other.
Ten minutes had passed before she and Stu exchanged looks daring the other to do something. Stu called Jake but he didn’t answer. Another five minutes went by and Stu exploded. “This is it. The last time I trust him. I’m going out to look for him. I’ll check McDonald’s too.” He took off in Jake’s Civic.
Within minutes Carrie got the phone call. It was the police. She immediately called Stu and told him to turn around and come home. “I found him,” she said. Not until he showed up did she tell Stu where they were headed.
Jake’s face was swollen, both eyes bruised, and he was unconscious. His head had been shaved on one side; tubes ran in his arm and nose. Different nurses kept entering the room reading signals on a monitor as if they didn’t see the boy sending the signals. They would not let her touch him. And the Jag was totaled.
Carrie kept looking at the unresponsive face for a sign. Where was he? Where’s my son? she repeated after she and Stu left the room and walked down the slick tiled corridor. When they returned home that night the unanswered question pulsed inside her skull. She wanted to cry into her pillow but neither a sound nor tears would come. Stu gave her Valium to soothe her nerves and rubbed her back. Eventually she dozed off but the sound of her unanswered question was still there when she woke.
Jake regained consciousness and returned home after three days.
“I’ll never buy another Jag,” Stu said one night after Jake went to bed. It had been two weeks since the accident when they had begun to talk about what led up to that night.
“Is that all you can say?” She wanted an answer about why it happened. Blaming Stu offered some satisfaction. Her emotions were raw and she wasn’t sure what she felt. “You gave him the key. You could at least show some regret about that.”
“No, I don’t regret that,” he said stepping closer to her. “What I do regret is that Jake made a stupid mistake to drive back home on another road, with the top down, so that he could push the limits of the car.”
“If you weren’t trying so hard to be his friend maybe you would have made a responsible decision,” she said.
“I’m going out for a walk.” It was nearly midnight.
The accident fell on Jake entirely. His choice, his bad decision. Carried doubted that. She could have intervened that night but she didn’t. And now she was the one who witnessed Jake during the afternoons when he came home from school.
Have you seen my iPod? Or, hesitating mid-sentence: I can’t remember the history teacher’s name. Or, watching him become frustrated with math flash cards that he had whipped through in 5th grade. These were the daily reminders of her choice. And the silent cry, where’s my son, played like a broken record in her mind.
With time, Jake’s memory improved and so, shouldn’t her silent cry have receded by now? It hadn’t. It helped to talk with Myra, to distract herself from this cry that has a memory place lodged high within her chest where a softness grows thick and tight.
When the documentary returns in her mind it is as if those women draw that cry of hers from that mysterious, soundless place. The Papua New Guinea mothers are not playing a rehearsed fear as she’d at first thought. They give voice to terror through their strength and ritual. She sees it imprinted on their upturned faces, their unblinking eyes, their hands clasped tightly on their laps, and their naked bellies concave as they sit bent over their kneeling legs. They are powerless, except for their voices, after giving birth to innocence only to face horror.
In the coffee shop, a toddler bellowed under a table, his face swollen and red while sitting above him were two young women attempting an adult conversation. Their hands were neatly clasped around mugs of coffee, oblivious and resolute at the same time, sitting in their chairs and chatting away. Carried wondered how long they could ignore his demands?
The line moved slowly. Across the room she spotted Myra knitting violently, her Salvation Army project. With a coffee in hand, Carrie stopped for milk at the service bar when she heard a familiar, almost buoyant voice. It was Geoff Marcus.
“I thought that was you,” he said, setting down two steaming cups. “You were ahead of us in line and your name was on the tip of my tongue. Carrie Linden, Jake’s mom, right?”
She greeted him stumbling over his name. If he hadn’t spoken first she wouldn’t have recognized him. It had been a few years since his divorce; he’d lost weight and now dressed differently, dapper even. At odds from the days when she and Stu sat next to him and Pam on the bleachers cheering their boys on the soccer team. She asked about him, his job and Andy.
“You won’t believe this. But just last night I saw Andy on Skype,” she said.
“Really? Keeping in touch with old friends.”
“Have you talked with him recently?” Carrie felt a responsibility to speak up in spite of what Stu had said that morning.
Geoff looked up from the two coffee cups he’d placed on the counter. He grabbed a wooden stir stick. “Yeah, he’s doing fine.”
“But right now he’s having trouble. Serious trouble. It’s not something you can parent a thousand miles away.” From the look on his face she wished she could have retracted those words.
“Once Pam left I couldn’t handle him alone.” In an instant, the glare in his eyes softened in defeat and the hollows below his cheekbones deepened. “My sister rescued me and Andy. He’s got a house full of cousins instead of this old man on his back.”
They had never confided during soccer days. But intact couples have a way of dealing with private matters, shutting out those who might hold them in judgment. For Carrie, it was painful enough to be banned from within by Jake.
Geoff’s thick fingers trembled when he tore the thin sugar packets. He released a cascade of white into the cups while some of the silt deposited around the base on the table. “Look, he’s fine. He loves the snow, the cold, the mountains. So, how’s Jake? Back on board with everything?”
She heard his need to shift ground and in a subtle way he showed polite concern about Jake’s accident. She was grateful for this bridge to her own son. “He’s fine. The only thing wrong with him is senioritis; comes to life at night and moves like a slug in the morning.” Although she heard herself convey a glib confidence about Jake she knew she was lying.
He smiled through his teeth, picked up the coffees, and headed toward his sugar waiting at the door.
The smell of coffee was delicious but her stomach churned acid. How could she confront Geoff about having a son a thousand miles away when she had not intervened last December to prevent Jake from taking the car keys? A brand new car, a boy of seventeen, and Stu gleaning from his son the lure of the road. She stood wordless while Stu handed the keys to Jake who lived not a thousand miles away but she had felt a million miles away, invisible while the two of them stood smiling.
As she walked toward Myra she hadn’t realized that she’d forgotten to pour milk in her coffee when she brought the steaming cup to her lips. That’s when the burn startled her. She stumbled and Myra extended a hand.
“Carrie, are you okay?” she asked. “I hate when that happens to me.” She held up a tube of Chap Stick.
“My mind is somewhere else,” she said taking Myra’s offer. “These lids do it to you, too?” It hurt to touch the spot even with the gummy balm. Carrie made note of the little boy under the table now pounding a beat with his hand against the closed top of a Jack-in-the-box. The women seated at the table above him did not seem to notice.
“Was that Geoff Marcus you were talking to? Did he remarry?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t introduced,” she said placing her cell phone on the table.
Myra’s hands resumed looping strands of baby blue yarn with two needles. Her cropped white hair had come in early and with her plump cheeks she looked like somebody’s wrinkle-free grandmother.
“Look, I have a new strategy,” Myra said leaning to her side. She lifted her cell phone from the purse lying on the floor beside her chair. “I turn it off. That way they can’t reach me.” She opened her hand and let it drop it into the open purse below, never blinking an eye.
Her son had graduated from the same high school as Jake, two years ago and now was stationed in Afghanistan. Knitting was Myra’s way of taking her mind off her son. Were the two of them no different than Geoff, Carrie thought, bending their necks from myopia in order to tighten a lid on some unspoken fear about their sons? She leaned closer to find some clarity written in the fine lines across Myra’s face.
“The Army,” Myra said. “The State Department. You know ‘the regret to inform you’ call.”
For a moment Carrie felt pressured to do the same but she kept her phone on the table. Afghanistan. She couldn’t blame Myra for bringing it up. But her conversation always came to the same conclusion; somewhere in the dust-covered valleys and mountains her son had to scour the ground for roadside bombs while terrorists burrowed below the cover of rocks and trees. And we go on driving large SUVs and drinking expensive coffee. But why, Carrie wondered, did Myra stand by and watch her son enlist? She startled herself by asking of Myra what she’d been asking herself.
She allowed herself to be distracted by the toddler under the table who went into his second act. He wailed with his nose pressed against the floor, legs kicking while the two women continued to talk. Carrie and Myra watched until one of the women scooped up the screaming kid, head first over her shoulder and restrained both legs with her hands. The friend bagged the strewn toys and other paraphernalia, and then shuffled after the two without looking around. “I don’t miss those days,” Myra said lifting an eyebrow.
“We may not carry our sons like that anymore but we still carry the choices they make.”
“Carrie, lighten up!” She rested her needles on the lump of knitted yarn in her lap.
“You don’t understand,” Carried said realizing she hadn’t been able to drink her coffee. Her upper lip recoiled whenever she tried and she stomach churned with nerves. “I’ve been up all night and I don’t have a baby for an excuse! My excuse is a seventeen-year old on Skype.” She hesitated before revealing the details. If she mentioned what Andy Marcus had been doing or thinking about doing, she’d have to reveal her talk with Geoff. Telling Myra would be gossip, causing a stink that would carry an odor of omission; the one ingredient was always the person left out.
“You’re lucky. At least you know where your son is. Look at me.” Myra lifted the blue blanket as evidence of what she’d lost.
“Most of the time I feel I’m in the woods when it comes to Jake.” Carrie sat back with a sigh. She looked out the window at the parking lot of cars. People were getting out, cell phones up to their ears and moving on with the business of their life.
“This is blanket number twenty-five,” Myra said. “I want to cast off before I leave so I can head out to The Village Stitch. They’re running a sale on baby yarn.”
Neither wanted to deny their self-inflicted burden nor did they want to acknowledge the hurt they could inflict on each other. It was better to shift focus. The lunch crowd was arriving and filling empty tables around them. Carrie decided she was hungry and drinking water sounded good. She had nothing to do but take Jake to his appointment after school. A text message pinged from her phone.
“He’s got a ride this afternoon. Don’t bother to pick me up, he says.” She looked at Myra. “You believe that? He’s convinced some kid to let him drive. That’s what that’s about.”
Just as she began to text back a reply, Myra placed her hand on Carrie’s wrist. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to stop him.”
“No you’re not. You’re going to show up at the doctor’s. Meet Jake. Don’t say a word.” Myra could be insistent but Carrie wasn’t sure she needed that.
“He can’t just decide this without me,” she said.
“Pick your battles. This one’s not worth it. He’s probably going to be driving today after he sees the doctor, right?”
The main road through town was lined with blooming pear trees, severely pruned in asymmetry to clear the utility lines from the tangle with branches. Along the curbside, yellow pollen whipped like a snake with each passing car. It would take a decent rain to leave a trail of yellow stain along the storm drains before creamy white blooms or redbud or cherry would flutter along the roadside.
Where she should have continued along the highway to the west side of town to Dr. Silva’s office, Carrie slowed at an intersection and turned the steering wheel north onto a familiar narrow road. It ended at one of the parks that ran along the Chattahoochee River. Hers was the only car on the road and the trees were tall and thick in spite of their leafless branches. It seemed as if they still were in the doldrums of winter, lagging behind nature’s timetable in town.
She eased her way into the parking lot, paved but with a rough contour. An eerie quietness settled around. The hum of her car tires on the highway was replaced by the crunch of acorns and pinecones underway. It was here that she and Stu had brought Jake often on summer nights to explore the woods, the rough paths, the moving river, and the sound of owls after dark. That had been at least five years ago. Jake’s fascination with nature was since replaced by his fascination with social media. She reached for her cell phone and powered it off. Myra had a point.
Stepping outside her car the rush of water slapped against boulders in the river and announced a welcome she had seldom heard. Two well-used flatbed trucks were parked at the opposite end of the lot. Dampness rising from the river penetrated her sweater. A metallic smell that at first irritated her nose yielded an odor earthy and mysterious. From the bank that sloped down to the water’s edge she spotted two fishermen halfway across the span of the shallow river. They were spaced ten feet or so apart. Each wore bright yellow waist-high boots and had waded out to different spots where flat rocks were exposed. A large Coleman cooler was perched on the surface of one rock which no doubt held their bait and the results of their communal effort. By their silhouettes they were not lean boys, but men lumpy in waders with their backs and necks craned like old herons poised in silence for signs of fish.
Turning from the river she walked along a rise and soon the packed dirt under foot gave way to a pathless area of thick pine needles and dry leaves. The smell of pine was pleasant. Above her, shriveled winter leaves rattled in the breeze. She recognized the distinct shapes of oak and maple against the sky. A pair of screeching squirrels flew with such lightness that the branches barely stirred. When she heard the primal hooting of a barred owl, her ears pricked with caution.
Walking among the dense, tall pines she was surrounded by quiet and yet a strange crowdedness in spite of the fact that she was alone. At a clearing, the trunk of an old pine tree had long ago stopped midair by snagging its thin taper on a high rock ledge. Grey-green lichen like sea kelp sprouted from the wide base near the roots. Just beyond lay a boy with one leg dangling, the tip of his boot touching the ground. A fishing pole leaned against one side of the trunk. Was he with the two men? She stood in silence but he must have felt her presence because he sat up with a start and pulled out one ear bud.
“What do you want?”
He was wearing an olive-green ski cap pulled down low over his forehead. Wisps of brown hair that escaped the knitted edge lay flat on his neck.
“How old are you?” she asked nearing him now.
The boy’s skin was sallow; the color oak leaves turn in the fall, and his eyes were narrow-set above a thin pointed nose. His chin was delicate and tapered.
“Look, I’m not skipping school.” A stream of brown juice landed on the ground near his boot. A plug of tobacco bulged from the inside of his lower lip. “I had a free during last period and I left.”
“Fishing?” she asked nodding toward his pole. “Catch anything?”
“Yeah. Red herring?”
“Okay. I have a 17-year-old son.” He was smaller than Jake but looked older, wizened. And yet, they had something in common; a look that perhaps comes from their brassy and heedless challenge of the world.
He replaced the ear bud and lay back down on the trunk. The dead tree was caged by barren kudzu vine. In early summer, a thick layer of broad flat leaves would emerge and transform the trunk into living green. A light breeze brought a scent of smoke. She looked around for evidence that he’d been inhaling something too. Down by the bank, Carrie caught a glimpse of silver light on the river’s verdant surface, and across the water through a veil of trees she noticed a house. And her gaze followed a rising plume of smoke above the house and surrounding trees. She was convinced it was smoke. But smoke depends on a draft of air fueled by heat. She continued to peer in silence fighting her inclination to shout “fire.”
The boy opened his eyes and sat up with a disbelieving look. He pulled the ear bud again and turned in the direction she was looking. “It’s a grill,” he shrugged, his words laced with disdain. She followed the trail of smoke looking for the source on the open deck of the house, but was embarrassed because her eyes were no match for his.
“You need a ride?”
“I have a truck,” he said simply and pointed in the direction of the parking lot, at the same time suggesting she leave.
Of course he did. She felt foolish and needed to move. So she walked down to the water’s edge to get a closer look at the house. There was no harm in a kid finding solace along the river she told herself, but she struggled leaving him chewing tobacco and alone. The physical trembling she felt in her body she recognized as a sign of her own fears about Jake. What do boys do without their mothers?
High branches cut like strips of lead across the gray clouds of the sky with a promise of rain. There was the house across the river and still the smoke rose. She believed the kid about the grill even though she couldn’t see it. It was curious how nature offered evidence of things unseen such as the draft of heated air made visible by smoke. And now the rain began.
She stood with her mouth open to the sky for the taste of water. Drops fell on her cheeks, her chin, and her neck; everywhere, but her mouth. Then, one after another, raindrops seared the burn on her upper lip. And recalling the Papua New Guinea mothers, Carrie spoke her words where’s my son? and defied the silence where she stood.