Robin Kozak

Hey Buddy

He was at it again, kneeling in the gusty palm-tree shadows by the bassinet with his hand over his sister’s mouth.

“Hey buddy!” his mother called. “Leave Amelia alone, okay? She needs her rest.”

“It’s okay, Mom! I’m operating.” As Ella leaned forward on her lounger she could see her son’s tanned hand splayed and the baby squirming, squirming underneath the pressure. “I’m doing real good today! She’s going under fast!”

“Do something,” Ella said.

John Randolph rattled his tattered copy of The Economist impatiently. He liked magazines, said the feel of paper at his fingertips kept him sane.

“It’s just a game, honey. Chill.”

The wind ruffled the little lake, muffled with its innocent lapping what was surely the sound of her baby in distress. “Do something,” Ella snapped.

“Fine.” With a look, her husband levered himself off his deck chair. He was a big man, fit, with curly longish hair that petered out in tough-guy stubble on his cheeks and thrusting jaw and a passing resemblance to John F. Kennedy Jr. that Ella used to find hot. John John, she called him, or used to, in private. Now that she was tired all the time she found him tiresome too.

Magazine under his arm, he approached Ross and squatted beside him, his Hugo Boss swim trunks printed with hula girls tightening over his thighs.

“Hey buddy.”

“Yeah?” There was an insolence in her son’s voice that set Ella’s teeth on edge. You’re the parent, J.R., she thought. Act like one.

“Let your sister rest, okay? Okay?” John Randolph added for emphasis.

“But I wanna be a doctor, Dad. Remember?”

“Sure do, buddy. That’s fine. A fine ambition,” J.R. said, drawing out the word in his bookish fashion. “Know what that is?”

Ross shrugged. Gently, in the approved manner of thoroughly modern parents, J.R. removed his son’s fingers, one by one, from Amelia’s mouth. The baby screamed. “It means you know where you’re going, buddy,” he continued casually, in spite of the racket. “And you do, right? You’ll be an awesome doctor one day. But your sister’s not your patient and she needs her rest.”

Ross clapped his hands over his ears. “She’s so noisy!” he bellowed.

The baby screamed louder. Ella watched J.R. fiddle with her sun hat, adjusting first the chin strap and then the creamy dollops of lace that starred the pink gingham as if that would handle everything.

“Well, she’s a baby,” John Randolph said. Giving up on the hat altogether, he scooped Amelia into his arms and rose. “You were a baby once too, buddy.”

Ross’s face, normally so bland in repose, screwed up so that his mouth looked like a cut tomato.

“Not like her.”

“No. You’re a boy,” said J.R. with satisfaction. “Boys are different. And you were so quiet at night, buddy. You were the best! Me and Mom couldn’t figure it out.”

He brought the baby to Ella and Ella took her, rocking her against her shoulder, cupping the surprisingly hard little head with its soothing scent of talcum, all the while studying Ross as he rocketed with a scream into the pool. That part was true, Ella thought. Ross never cried. Only when she’d neglected him. His blue eyes had focused early, following Ella with intensity as she labored over him at the changing table, with what she thought of at the time as animal cunning and still did in private, never quite relinquishing the delusions that had dogged her home from the hospital and stopped her dead in her tracks.

It began with a smell. She’d smelled shrimp on Ross’s whiskery skin. There was a meal Ella loved to cook, prawns with a creamy wine and basil sauce, sweet prawns split down the middle and kissed with a hint of lemon, but this was more like the vile smell of shrimp shells that had spent all night in the garbage can. She’d spent so much time sniffing her newborn with suspicion that she sometimes forgot to feed him, and when Ross screamed in hunger she told him to shut the hell up. She knew babies were a pain but this was different. Her baby was a giant shrimp, the disgusting color of that rubbery little thing inside his diaper, and when John Randolph came back from the Publix with supper she’d told him so.

“You’re tired,” her husband had said slowly, as he set two Boar’s Head sandwiches, wrapped in butcher’s paper, on the table. “Just tired, honey. Rest.”

But Ella couldn’t rest either. Her lovely comfy lace-trimmed bed had lumps in it. For three days she tossed and turned, becoming more frantic by the minute, ripping back the top sheet and the fitted one by turns but discovering nothing, and after three utterly sleepless days and nights she began to wonder, really wonder, about those lumps. At first she thought it was a pile of shrimp someone had tucked under the comforter as a joke, because the omnipresent smell of rot was there too, but when she finally inspected the bumps more closely in daylight she found fingers wrapped in damp butcher’s paper and she fled. Right out of the house she fled, shrieking, or tried to, but as she sprinted for the pool out back she ran full-tilt into the glass patio doors by mistake and clocked herself good in the process.

So she spent her precious first days as a new mother with a broken nose and two black eyes and stitches on her chin, and when Ella’s mother came up from Winter Park to help she burst into tears.

“Honey, you should have called me first thing. First thing,” wept her mother, “at the first sign of trouble.”

Ella was practically catatonic in her turquoise blue Adirondack chair.

“He’s hairy,” she muttered.

“Who?”

“Ross. The shrimp. He’s disgusting. All that nasty fuzz on his back,” Ella shuddered. “I hate him.”

“Honey, don’t,” her mother said. “Words have power.”

Now, remembering the exchange, Ella wondered about that, too.

“Don’t jump there, buddy, you’ll splash that lady!” she called. “Go closer to the steps. No, by the steps! Ross, I mean it!” In her son went. A dazzling sheet of water shot up from the explosion, waves overtopped the tiles, and instinctively Ella rotated in space to keep Amelia’s face dry. “Ross, stop that!”

“He didn’t get me,” her neighbor said, with a laugh. “Or only a very little.”

Ella handed her one of half a dozen spare towels stacked like cord wood in her pool tote.

“He’s a monster,” she said. “Ella Jeffers. I’m so sorry! Six years old and he thinks he’s boss.”

“I am boss!” Ross shouted.

“Wilma. And I have boys too,” said the woman, who was silver-haired and in possession of the same unnatural blue eyes that defined Ross’s face. She wore a black one-piece suit that clung to her stocky frame and as she plucked her sandals from the path of the oncoming tsunami, her wedding ring, three diamonds set in yellow filigree, flashed in the sun. Delicately she patted her curls dry. “There! No harm done,” she announced.

“BOSS, BOSS, BOSS…”

Ignoring him, Ella accepted the damp towel and with a glance at J.R. flung it under his chair. Her husband was on the phone again, a dodge he employed whenever the unwashed ninety percent intruded on his ten, so the burden of conversation was up to her.

“How many boys?”

“Two. Jimmy and Bill. Both college professors now. One in Alabama, and the other in Arkansas, with kids of their own. But no girls,” she added, looking wistfully at Amelia.

Ella turned, so the two could make eye contact. As Wilma began a lively game of peekaboo through her fingers, Ella admitted that it was nice to have a friendly baby; it was no different in kind, really, than the iPhone in J.R.’s hand. Amelia liked everyone, and Ella took advantage of that. It was a way of being close to people without letting them get too close to her.

“Mom, watch me!”

“In a minute, Ross, I’m talking!” Ella shouted, then laughed. “He’s got me doing it now. Sorry, Wilma. Would you like to hold her?

The woman nodded vigorously, and over the baby went with arms waving like a swimmer.

“Watch me, Mom, watch me!”

“I’m watching,” Ella assured him. But she wasn’t. Instead she snuggled deeper in her lounger, relaxed as she hadn’t been in days. She loved this spot. The pool hung like a jewel above Deer Run, a bright whitewashed octagon with pots of salvia dotting at intervals the iron fence and a resident alligator who was sunk to his eyes as usual in the muck around the lake, and in the distance Ella could see the rustic wooden bridges and cart paths and glittering marshes that absorbed the fury of every storm as they rode in like horsemen from Mickler’s Beach. It was the homeowners’ association pool, the one that served the transient population of Sawgrass—the snowbirds and their guests and the golfers and their families who came every year for the Players Championship. Technically Ella didn’t belong here, but J.R. said that as charter members they had a right to go where they chose and on this point Ella agreed with him. Besides, the doctor who’d treated her at the Mayo Clinic had said company was what Ella needed, people who were just people and would make her feel at home with what had happened to her, folks who wouldn’t judge. And Ella did feel judged, at the country club, and in the company of the glib financiers and developers and their wives who were her husband’s friends. Once she’d liked them, marveled that she was rich now, with a staggering eight-hundred-plus a month HOA fee to prove it, and she was only too happy to throw money down the well of her impoverished past and effectively bury in greenbacks the Ella who didn’t belong.

But the postpartum psychosis, Ella knew, had set her apart again. Baby blues were routine, and the unlucky thirteen percent who teetered into postpartum depression had no worries either; blog after blog provided comfort, provided advice, provided assurances that you were not alone. But the psychosis she’d suffered from was different. No one understood. The whole neighborhood knew that she’d been screaming in the can after Ross’s birth, on and off, for days, and had noted with a stoicism that Ella secretly suspected was derision her departure, her tearful mom riding shotgun, for her first shrink’s visit. But nothing much, she reflected, had come of that. When Dr. Berman briskly had suggested electroshock therapy J.R. had said, no fucking way, got a referral on the spot from one of his partners, and booked them on a private jet to Rochester. For fourteen months they’d medicated the crap out of her; weaning her off the meds, once she was herself again, took even longer. That was why she and John Randolph had waited so long to try for a second baby. Ella was terrified that it would happen again. Madness was an abyss she’d stared into, one too close to the real world to be forgotten or denied, and she still felt like a stranger. With J.R., with her little boy, but mostly with herself.

“You’re not listening!” Ross hissed in her ear. And as Ella jumped she saw him walk to the deep end of the pool and calmly drop her tote, with its load of towels, into the drink.

“John Ross Jeffers!” she snapped. “Get back here! Get back here and help me get those towels! Now, Ross! I mean it!”

But her son was swaggering past the bathrooms, on his way to the iron gate, that loose-limbed lope of his that was as pointed as a slap in the face, and she knew he had no intention of stopping.

“I’m sorry he splashed you,” she repeated inanely, red-faced, as Amelia reached for her and Wilma handed her back with the prim look of someone who had come to a conclusion she wasn’t about to share.

“He’s a handful,” she said, and closed her eyes.

Meanwhile Ella’s towels were providing a diversion for a pair of teenage girls, one sporting a black bandage bikini and the other luscious pink ruffles, who were taking turns taking selfies of each other’s bare butts as they lounged on the steps of the swimming pool.

“Look, I’m Meghan Markle!” screamed the girl in pink, plopping a sopping white towel on her head.

“You wish,” her friend sniffed.

Ella poked J.R.’s shoulder. “Do something,” she demanded. “He’s halfway to China by now.”

“Who?”

“Your son, that’s who! And help me get those towels before they sink!”

Suspended aloft along their flocked length by air bubbles, their Italian fringe waving, the towels had formed an archipelago of beige and Cayman blue and white that reminded Ella she hadn’t been on vacation in a long, long time.

“Gotta go, Becky. Kill that sucker for me, okay? Peace.”

“Maybe with the skimmer,” Ella suggested, as her husband turned to her with a look of elaborate patience. “But find Ross first! I’ll bet he’s throwing rocks at the pelicans again. I’ve got Melly and the diaper bag and the bassinet. And don’t forget my tote! It’s on the bottom, J.R. There! Right above the drain! I’m going to kill that kid, I really am. It’s Hermès, for God’s sake! But it’s canvas,” she added, remembering the salesman in Houston and his laundry list of benefits and features. “Maybe if I use my hairdryer on it it might be okay.”

This, J.R. said, is not how he wanted to spend a Sunday.

In bed that night, she told him, “It’s not how I wanted to spend my Sunday either.”

“I know.”

“Did you punish him?”

J.R. was texting again, the preternatural glow of the screen embers in his eyes.

“He got a time-out.”

“A time-out?” Ella slapped her forehead. “A twenty-three hundred dollar disaster and Ross gets a time-out?”

“It’s just a bag, Ella. Disaster is the Twin Towers or the Parkland school massacre or Katrina.” He looked at her. “And don’t say ‘Hermès’ like that,” he added, with a frown. “Like you did at the pool. People who know don’t care. And the people at that pool don’t know shit. You sounded like a climber.”

Ella flushed. “Which I am.”

“Hardly.”

“Sure I am,” Ella said bitterly. “Or at least that’s what your friends think.” And she rolled over to check on Amelia, who was snug in her bassinet beside her. “Teach the white trash some manners,” she continued, rocking the little bed with its crown of hanging stars more violently than she ought to. “Make sure your dumb wife doesn’t offend.”

John Randolph shrugged and went back to his phone.

“I meant what I said and that’s it. A bag’s a bag, honey. Don’t make such a big deal out of everything. I’ll buy you another.”

“Limited edition, remember?” Ella flopped back on the bed. “And I’ll never get used to it,” she said, more gently. “Twenty-three hundred is a very big deal to me, J.R.” She watched the phone-glow cast shadows, straight out of Rembrandt, on her husband’s face. “Do you know I didn’t even have a purse in high school? A crummy back pack and that’s it.”

He grinned. “Let me buy you a Birkin then. Forbes says it’s a good investment.”

Ella shuddered.

“Forget it. I’d be afraid to touch the thing, let alone carry it.”

“Done!” J.R. signed off with a flourish. And as he lay down and gathered her close, he said, “A house came on the market today. In 7 Mile Drive.”

“Not that again,” murmured Ella.

“The house is too small with two kids. You said so yourself.”

“But we fixed it up for us, J.R. Not to sell.”

“Meet me halfway on this, Ella. The windows in this place are amazing, and it’s got a full lake view from the master. See the realtor at least.”

“You see her,” Ella said crossly, and closed her eyes. “And by the way, who’s Becky?”

She could feel him choosing his words with care. Not because he’d done anything, but because he resented the question.

“Rebecca. Bill Ehrlich’s wife. Tall, dark, and anorexic. I’ve been playing golf with them every Friday for about a year.” He tugged her hair. “I’d rather play with you. Your mom would spell you in ten seconds flat. She’s minus a man right now, remember? We could make it a weekend thing starting now. Call her.”

“No,” Ella said, “I’m done with that.”

It was the last thought she had before she fell asleep, and it was her very first thought upon waking. What was she done with? Ella wondered, as she listened to the whine of cicadas outside. Her mother? The country club crowd? Or golf, which was a joke? She hated the game, always had. She’d taken it up to humor J.R. and as a form of exercise, nothing more. But as she turned over possibilities in her mind, her attention split between the wet gray dawn and the bassinet, alert to any sound Amelia might make, she remembered a line from Gone with the Wind: “He made her play and she had almost forgotten how.” She’d read once that the book was about hunger, in all its forms, and as she rose and dressed she understood. Ella was hungry too, had survived a Civil War of her own, and the scars still showed; maybe it would take a wild card like Rhett Butler to set her free. Not that she wanted a different man, but she wanted something.

She checked Amelia again. But the baby slept on, snoring, and with a silent cheer Ella went for coffee.

The house, for lack of a better word, rambled; it was a 1970s ranch, with a front door that opened rather grandly on a wall and a formal dining room off the master that she could cross in a dozen steps. Only the skylights, Ella thought, looking up at them with pleasure, redeemed it. There were seven: two each in the family and Florida rooms and the rest in the master, dining room, and kitchen. Those rectangles of light were what had sold her and J.R. on the place when they easily could have afforded more house. On a clear day they shone blue and gold but today they were a murky green lanced with the slap, slap of raindrops and the scream, so close, of insects in the trees.

As she reached the kitchen she froze. Ross had dragged a chair from the breakfast bar inside the kitchen proper and was kneeling on it in his Superman pajamas, barring her way. On the quartz counter, where her coffee cup waited, was a cicada, which Ross had flipped upside down on her best maple cutting board and was holding fast in her eyelash curler. Her tweezers were in his hand, and Ella’s stomach turned as she saw the wings scattered on the counter and the creature’s legs, intensely black against the white stone, which Ross had plucked from the iridescent turquoise body, one by one.

“Hey Mom,” her son said, and she lunged at him.

“What are you doing?” she screamed. And seizing his thin shoulders and the scruff of cotton at his neck she swung him to the ground. The chair toppled, hitting the refrigerator with a clang, and Ella dodged, pulling Ross and his bare feet with her. Before she knew what she was doing, she’d swatted his bottom, once, twice, and Ross howled. “But I used a cutting board,” he shouted, indignation in his tone, and as Ella heard her chief complaint against J.R.’s kitchen routine fly out of her son’s mouth she sagged against the counter, not sure whether to laugh or cry. Meanwhile the cicada was wriggling and squawking and flopping from side to side, using its remaining good leg like a cane, and now Ella could see the fluid oozing from its amber belly and the wet white stains on the maple and she was sick on the spot. As bile seeped through her fingers she held grimly onto Ross and, dragging him behind her, reached the Kleenex.

“Jesus,” she moaned, as she wiped her mouth, “I have to kill that thing. It’s suffering.”

“But I want to,” Ross said plaintively. “I had a knife picked out and—”

“Silence!” Ella snapped. “Not another word! Go to your room!” To her surprise, Ross bolted. As his bedroom door slammed the timbers shook. All at once Ella became aware of Amelia wailing and ran to the magazine rack in the family room. Choosing the oldest issue of The Economist was easy; approaching the cicada, which had fallen on its back in the gleaming farmhouse sink, wasn’t. As she hovered uncertainly above it, she saw that Ross had put out one of its eyes, which explained the safety pin by the paper towel dispenser. “Forgive me,” said Ella hoarsely, and smashed it.

She spent the rest of the day with Amelia. And Ella felt as usual a kind of Zen-like calm descend on her as she bathed her baby and diapered her and fed her plums from a jar. Amelia needed her, and the need was never an intrusion, as it had been with Ross. Of course, she was ill then, Ella reminded herself; crazy, in fact. The Behavioral Health Unit in Rochester was a locked unit. She couldn’t even have a belt to hold up her pants while she was in there, or shoelaces on her Nikes. And when they’d brought Ross to her, visits that were always supervised, she’d resented it.

“I’m going to kill that kid,” she said, for the hundredth time, as she lay with Amelia on the couch. “Really kill him.” With a gurgle Amelia reached for her mouth, and as the little fingers touched her Ella realized that the baby was listening and she knew she’d better stop. She didn’t want kill to be the first word Amelia spoke, especially since she didn’t mean it.

She was ordering a new cutting board from Williams Sonoma when J.R. got home.

“You’re late,” she said.

“Mondays,” he grunted. “Big boss down from Westport. You know the drill.” As he tossed his blue Zegna suit jacket on the chaise he looked around the scrupulously neat room, normally a jumble of sippy cups and monster trucks and rubber dinosaurs, as if it belonged to someone else. “Nice. What gives?”

“Melly went early. And Ross is in his room,” Ella informed him, as she closed her laptop. “A time-out. He’s been there all day.”

“Yeah?” With a shake of his head John Randolph collapsed on the couch. “Way to go, honey. What did you use? Handcuffs?”

“No, I locked him in. He wouldn’t stay put so I pushed the hall table in front of the door and piled a few suitcases on top, and he can’t get out.”

Her husband stared.

“Don’t you think that’s kind of extreme? I mean, what if there’s a fire?”

Ella shrugged.

“I was home all day, J.R. I wouldn’t leave him like that. He got bathroom breaks and everything. And anyway, he deserved it.” And she told him about the cicada.

“So what? He wants to be a doctor. He’s practicing.”

“Yes,” Ella snapped, “just like he practices on his sister. That crap where he tries to smother her? Well, that stops today. I wish I’d spanked him harder.”

“You spanked him?” John Randolph straightened, his palms flat on his thighs, and for the first time Ella understood why his staff called him Robocop behind his back: there was a good man in there, but the armor and big guns were a given. “You spanked my son?”

“Two swats on the butt. That’s it.”

“But we agreed! You agreed! Before we married. It was a condition then, and it’s a condition now.” And her husband rose, towering over her fragile French Provincial writing desk with his fists clenched. “There will be no violence in this household. Not like there was in mine.”

She looked up at him and saw the blood darkening his skin, and the calm never left her. “Your father,” she said, “hit you with a two by four, J.R.. Your brother’s deaf in one ear because of it. And your mother looked the other way. There was too much green involved for her to take a stand, I guess. That’s sick. And it’s tragic. But this isn’t child abuse. Ross has been out of control for a while now, and we have to do something about it. There’s something wrong with him.”

“Really? That’s rich. Seen the doctor at the Mayo Clinic lately?” After her discharge from Rochester, Ella had been referred to the Jacksonville branch of the hospital for outpatient care. “Maybe you should.”

“Fight fair,” said Ella, reddening. “You know there’s no question of that! I went for three solid months after Melly was born, J.R.. Just to make sure. Dr. Ammons said I was fine.”

“You thought Ross was a goddamned shrimp! You threw him in the trash can!”

“I know,” Ella said. And she touched the scar on her chin, the little hook that brought it all back so clearly. “I’ll never forgive myself for that. I thought you had,” she added. “You said you had, J.R.. Maybe you can’t forgive me after all, and I’ll have to live with that. But that changes nothing,” Ella continued, “about what Ross was doing to that cicada. He was tearing it apart with tweezers, and it was screaming the way you would scream if someone tore your legs off. And the look on his face! No remorse! No emotion at all, in fact. He was having a good time torturing that bug and he wanted to kill it. He begged me for the chance!”

“But doctors have to…you know, compartmentalize…put their feelings aside so they can do the job,” John Randolph suggested, as he paced back and forth in front of her desk. “A guy can’t look at a patient’s exposed brain on the operating table and worry that his scalpel might slip. One slip and game over, right? It takes nerve to operate, and maybe Ross is learning that early. I’m sure that’s what you saw.”

At this Ella rose too. “Don’t patronize me,” she told him, in a cold voice. “I know all about doctors, remember?”

J.R. shrugged. “Sorry.”

“And then there’s this itty-bitty little thing called compassion. Doctors are supposed to have that, too.” Ella jabbed a finger into her palm. “There’s compartmentalization on the one hand and coldness on the other. One you need, and one’s a no-no. And Ross is cold, J.R. Flat out cold. He makes my skin crawl sometimes. Watch him when he plays with Melly. It’s like she’s a doll or something. He’s as cold as they come.”

“I don’t believe this,” J.R. said, stalking back to the couch. “Ross is six and you’re talking like he’s Ted Bundy. He’s just a kid, Ella. Headstrong. Impulsive. He’s a boy, remember? Boys are different.”

Ella laughed. “You say that all the time. I don’t even know what you mean when you say it.”

“Boys experiment. They’re risk-takers. They hack NASA. They free solo. They blow things up and hang the consequences. A bug’s just a bug to them.”

“Did you ever do anything like that?”

“Me? No.” He grimaced. “But my cousin did. He had this thing about cats. Cats and Jews. Crazy alt-right shit. We didn’t call it that back in the day but that’s what it was. He’d feed the neighborhood strays tins of sardines to win them over. Then he’d tie rope onto their tails and set them—”

“Don’t,” Ella interjected. “I’m still queasy.”

They eyed each other, unhappily, across the desk. The rain had stopped, but drops from the century-old oak that shaded the house kept up their chatter on the skylights. The sound echoed in the sudden silence.

“And I know the spanking frightens you, but Ross went to his room when I told him to,” Ella sighed. “For once he listened to me. You know he never does.”

“True,” her husband said.

He loosened his tie and rose again. The viridian stripes on his shirt and the skylights overhead gave his face a strange pallor, and Ella remembered suddenly that he was thirty-eight and looked every bit of that. “I guess I should go talk to him,” he said.

“I’ll do it,” Ella offered. “You look like hell, John John. Make a cocktail or something.”

“A Moscow Mule,” J.R. said, and laughed. “Sounds about right. You want one?”

She shook her head. “It’s a whatever night. I thought I’d scramble some eggs. Wine makes more sense.”

“Chives? Sausage?”

“Sure,” Ella said.

As she headed down the hall, she called, “Use a cutting board!” Then she was laughing too. She was sure J.R. had no clue where the spare plastic board was; their tiny kitchen precluded the luxury of choice, and she was the one who’d made the space work. But after what she’d seen today, did it even matter?

At Ross’s door she felt a moment’s fear. There was no sound inside, and as Ella unstacked the suitcases and shoved the console table into place with her backside the word fire was uppermost in her mind. But Ross was lying in bed, looking at People Magazine.

“Where did you get that?” she demanded, because J.R. would no more read a celebrity rag than he would hijack a jet liner.

Her son shrugged. “The grocery store. When you went back for wet wipes.”

He’d changed after their latish lunch into khaki cargo shorts and his favorite black tee shirt, the one with his name emblazoned on it in letters a foot high, and as Ella absorbed this she watched her son’s right knee sway up and down, up down, forming a triangle with the other leg indolently extended on the bed. It was a tic Ross had, had always had, but today it struck Ella as sinister.

“Tomorrow,” she announced, “we’ll go to the Publix after breakfast. And you will tell the manager what you did.”

“Aw Mom,” Ross groaned, “do I have to?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I said so.”

“But—”

“No buts. Give it to me,” she said, motioning to him. “And no pool for a week.”

“A week?” Ross whined, as he slapped the magazine into her open hand. “But it’s—”

“Two,” said Ella.

He glowered at her.

“You can’t go either then. You and Melly.”

“That’s right,” Ella agreed, in a mild voice. “So we have plenty of time to learn how to play nicely together. You, me, and Melly. You’re mean to your sister, Ross, and Daddy and I don’t like that.” She glanced curiously at the magazine. Chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade, both dead now, were on the cover, and the number of the National Suicide hotline. “Ross, can you even read this?”

“No!” he shot back, and it was almost a shout.

“Then why?”

“I need it.”

“For what?” Ella asked him, mystified.

Her son’s jaws snapped shut.

“I just do.”

“Well, too bad, because it’s going back tomorrow,” Ella told him. And smoothing the crumpled cover she tucked the magazine under her arm. “Stealing is wrong, Ross. Just as bad as what you did to that bug. You better shape up or you’ll be stuck in the house all summer.”

“And if I’m good?”

Ella almost smiled. She’d expected that. Ross was always at his best when there was something in it for him.

“Well…” She spread her hands expansively. “You want to be a doctor, right? Did you know Mommy was a doctor too?”

He stared. And a smile of pure joy lit his face that was genuine but disturbed Ella regardless. It was the speed of it, she thought. Ross went from rage to rapture as if they were one and the same. “Really?” her son sang.

“Really, buddy,” she said, and hugged him. “It was before I married Daddy. I went to school to be a doctor. And if you’re a good boy there’s lots of doctor stuff we can do together. Like dissect a frog.”

“What’s that?”

“It means we’ll take a disgusting frog…one that’s dead…and we’ll cut it open and see what’s inside.”

“Awesome!” Ross cried. “I like frogs! I bet they smell bad and everything!”

“Oh yeah,” said Ella, remembering the stench of formaldehyde and the way it clung to her skin. One cadaver was all it took to end her medical career for good, and she wasn’t sorry. Being a mother was an antidote to that. “Now go wash your hands and give Daddy a kiss. He needs it.”

“Okay!” Ross said, and ran from the room.

She sat on his bed and, holding the magazine firmly by its bound top corner, let it swing in her fingers. The power of observation, she thought. There was a place where Ross had paid attention; the pages gaped there, like a door. Spreading the magazine on her lap, Ella looked. It was a story about Trooping the Colour, the official celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s birthday. On the Buckingham Palace balcony were the usual suspects: William and Kate, Charles and Camilla; the newly-minted Duchess Meghan, ravishing in pink, one row back with her Prince. The House of Windsor never had looked more handsome, and Ella smiled as she took in the reds and robin’s-egg blues, the bright medals and gilt sashes and pastel fascinators, those pink-cheeked English faces, so different from her own. And the children! They were so beautiful, clustered like flowers front and center, and she finally had to force herself to turn the page.

A little girl in pink, with Ross’s eyes, was holding her hand over the mouth of the future King. To Ella she looked like a changeling with her wild blonde mane, a demon who knew the value of the camera. The caption made light of the moment; the child, Savannah Phillips, was great-granddaughter to the Queen, beyond reproach. But Ella saw on Prince William’s face the consternation as he looked down at his firstborn son, and something else.

Pageantry was one thing, the ovens were another. You could cross the abyss, Ella knew, in a dozen steps. And you could do anything once you got there. You could set a cat on fire if you had the nerve. You could kill Jews. You could kill your sister. Ross was learning that part early. But Ella was learning too.

Robin Kozak’s writing has appeared in Arkansas Review, Field, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, Poetry Northwest, Sequestrum, Witness, and other publications, and her awards include two Creative Artist Program grants from the city of Houston and the 2016 Sandy Crimmins Prize for Poetry. An authority on antique and estate jewelry, she currently is finishing Berkowitz, a collection of short fiction.

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