“Are those real?”
He was standing, back to her, face to the low table against the wall. She tried to see what he was looking at. It was impossible.
“Are what real?”
“Those,” he said, tossing his white-blonde head over his left shoulder in her direction.
The woman looked behind her. Soft light from the desk lamp illuminated the usual: half-finished patient notes, scribbled thoughts, cards, small gifts, thank yous, and the over flowing calendar that made her shudder. All of it far too real. She turned back.
He had crossed the room silently and was looking down at her, hands in his pockets, still motioning with his head.
This time she felt his eyes. Her hand went to her throat.
“Oh,” she said. “These?”
“Ya,” he nodded.
“Yes,” she answered, less surprised by the question itself than by the fact that an eleven year old boy would think to ask it. “Yes, they’re real.”
“Relatively,” she smiled.
“Know how you can tell?”
She did, but shook her head.
“Rub ‘em on your teeth – like this,” he demonstrated, curling his upper lip and moving his forefinger across his teeth like a brush.
“Oh?” she said with just the right amount of incredulity.
“Ya.” He wiped his finger on his shirt before sticking the hand back into his pocket. “Want me to check ‘em for ya?”
“It’s ok,” she smiled. “I’m pretty sure they’re real.”
“K,” he shrugged.
They were silent for a while. It was an easy silence. For the most part. In the beginning, they had played silence like a game of Uncle which she always won. She had to. Past the obligatory introductions of the social worker who had brought him, their first session had been fifty full minutes of silence.
“Have a seat, Travis,” she smiled after closing the door behind the other woman. “Wherever you like.”
He looked at the three available guest chairs then headed for the chair behind her desk. She watched him. He was small for eleven. Small and round, not fat, but round. Round white head, round grey eyes, round pink cheeks, round soft tummy. He looked at her, waiting for her to say No. She pulled out a pillow from the basketful in the corner then curled up on it in the floor. He watched her for a moment then slowly sat down in her chair.
“Shall I call you ‘Travis’, or is there another name you prefer?” she asked.
He looked down at her, his small round body swallowed up by the office-grade cherry veneer of the desk. He said nothing.
She looked back. After a while, she stood slowly and crossed to the desk. He pushed back fast, the chair rolling off the plastic floor mat.
“It’s ok,” she said easily. “I just need to get this file.” She picked up a green folder from the desk, a clipboard, a pen, then smiled at him before going back to the pillow on the floor.
“About me.” His voice was deeper than she had expected, though it cracked a bit from non-use. It was a statement of fact, not a question, and would be the only words he spoke to her for three weeks.
“No,” she said, lowering herself back onto the floor. “About me.”
And it was. The folder was full of bits and pieces she was struggling to turn into a short, but publishable, biography. Opening it up, she hissed softly. The boy laughed. She looked up, and, apprehended, he immediately frowned and spun the chair away from her.
That had been six months ago.
“Where did you learn that trick?” she asked.
“Huh?” he said, blinking as though she had pulled him back from some far away place.
“That trick with the pearls, where did you learn it?”
“No trick,” he said, shaking his head. “It works. It’s a test, not a trick.”
She nodded. “Sorry,” she said. And she was. “How did you find out about it?”
“Mom told me.”
She had expected this and so was able to keep her face smooth.
“Dad gave her a necklace one time – one a those.” He pointed to her neck. “She took it outta the box and stuck it in her mouth, then she threw it at him. Called him a cheap bastard then told me how to test ‘em.”
“Ya,” he said, walking to the big chair in the corner. “But not that one.”
That one had been almost three years ago, his mother’s fortieth birthday. A big day, complete with black crepe over-the-hill decorations and a huge party during which his father had shot his mother three times – chest, belly, and head – and then fired the gun into his own.
“You buy yours yourself?” He slumped down in the chair, legs splayed in front of him. Much of his roundness was gone now, elongated these six months into a pre-adolescent gangliness that hinted at height to come
“No,” she answered, deciding against explanation in the hopes that more questions might tell her where he was going with this.
“A guy?” He was looking at his feet, knocking the toes together hard enough to bounce off each other.
He looked up. “That guy?” He pointed to the small photograph of a man hanging beside the larger one of some buildings.
“You’re always wearin’ ‘em.” He scooted himself up in the chair and began to rub his thumbs down his thighs over and over.
Silence. The boy fidgeted, considered standing, decided against it and dropped with a sigh against the back of the chair.
“Why?” he asked after a bit.
“Why you always wear ‘em?”
“Does it bother you that I do?”
“Why does it bother you?”
“Why do you wear ‘em all the time?” He looked at her. She smiled a bit. Another Uncle game, but this one she could afford to lose. She thought before answering.
“Because they make me feel safe,” she said, looking straight at him.
“Why?” He met her gaze, something he did not often do. She thought again before speaking. She would not lie to him, she never did, never would, to any of them, but sometimes it was very important that she speak truth with just the right words. This was one of those times.
“I’m not sure I know exactly,” she said after a moment. “Perhaps because I know they were given by someone who loved me very much.”
She smiled again – he had caught the past tense. Nothing got by this one.
“No, he’s not dead.”
“Stop lovin’ you?”
That was unexpected. It took her a couple of breaths to answer.
“I don’t know,” she finally said. “I hope not.”
He was quiet now, clearly thinking as he stared back down at his feet.
“Naw,” he said, standing suddenly. “Nobody could stop lovin’ you.”
There was a bite to his voice she had not heard in a while. She watched him walk to the window.
“Travis?” she said after a bit.
“Do I get to know what’s up?”
He kept staring out the window. Finally, he turned to her.
“Why didn’t I stop him?”
Tears stood in his grey eyes and he opened them wider, as though he knew a blink would send them falling down his still-round cheeks.
“Why didn’t I stop him?” he repeated through clenched teeth.
She took a deep, but silent breath.
“Because you were an eight year old child.” She knew this most obvious of answers would not be enough, but it was the greatest truth she had.
He shook his head. “So????” He spit the word at her.
“So,” she began softly. “An eight year old child cannot stop a forty year old man bent on doing harm. Especially not when that man is the child’s father. “
“Why not??” The question hung in his throat. Dislodging it let loose the tears as well. “Why NOT???”
She looked at him. All of her wanted to go to him, wrap her arms around him, tell him he was loved and wanted and safe. She sat still.
“For many reasons,” she said, forcing her voice steady. “Physical size, emotional and mental maturity, fear, anxiety…”
He was staring at her, face wet, eyes begging for more.
“But mostly…” she went on. “Mostly because life just isn’t fair. Sometime it just isn’t fair at all.”
A cry escaped his throat, his shoulders shook. She opened her arms. He walked into them. She wrapped him up, letting his salt tears feed the pearls at her throat for the rest of their hour.
©s rogers 29 january 2010