The Permanent Ache by Gary J. Garrison
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Mostroferrato, Ancient Stronghold of the Briscoletti Family by Sam Martone
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Her Last Friday by Lucas Southworth
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To the Wall by Holly M. Wendt
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Justice by Alyce Miller
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The Pine Tree by Joy Weitzel
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French Carousel by Susana H. Case
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The Heron Rookery by Timothy Shea
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The Haircut by Timothy Shea
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Death Row Report by Dale M. Brumfield
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Bloom by Kate Bolton Bonnici
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Afternoon Heat Wave, Northern California: Lament for the Gulf Coast by Kate Bolton Bonnici
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To the Wall
The inside of her car bakes, the slow, thick heat leeching into Sandy through the gray upholstery, through the steering wheel where her knuckles have gone white around it. The windows are still rolled up tight because the signs in the parking lot say that the doors must be locked, the cars must be secure. Two years ago, a boy left the treatment center and stole a car. He crossed state lines. He will be in prison until he should have graduated college.
Sandy’s son is in this treatment center now. It is private, discreet, made to help young people, especially, and she will have to take out a loan to pay for it. The treatment center is also voluntary, though minors cannot leave on their own. The doors and windows all lock, so Jacob cannot leave. She doesn’t tell anyone at all about the red and purple rings on her upper arms where he’d tried to throw her away from him, the sneaker-sized bruise on her hip where he’d kicked her. When she finally closed the car door, though, Jacob had gone limp. He lay in the front seat like a dead thing, wild eyes shaded by his shock of dark hair, his hands fallen open on the seat. When they got there, he walked into the building without fighting. He sat in a room as instructed. Somehow, that was worse than his wiry flailing.
Jacob is fourteen. Jacob is small and Jacob is clever. He had to be clever to get the prescriptions, OxyContin and Percocet, to convince the doctors, to convince her. She has brought him here, to Aspen Ridge, she tells herself, so that Jacob can stay clever, can find his way, maybe, to doing sports announcing or voice work for comic book cartoons, the things he has wanted to do since he was seven. He can imitate Yoda and all four of the Ninja Turtles and two versions of The Joker. He can also mimic Dr. Mitchins and the new pharmacist at Safeway. His school principal. His own mother.
Jacob will start ninth grade in the fall. He will be home by then, Sandy thinks. He will. He will start school with the rest of his classmates. No one will know what has happened.
For a few hours every day, Sandy can manage to convince herself that Jacob is, in fact, at his grandparents’ in Omaha. Mostly, her coworkers are impressed that her ex-husband’s parents are far more loyal than he ever was, and Sandy makes the right noises to help the conversation along. She’d warned the counselors at the Center that Jacob was very, very good at making the right noises. It’s what he called doing well in classes he hated. What he calls. Jacob’s not dead.
The house echoes. It’s been four days since she left him there. She left him. She has called the center five times since, to check on him. The staff says Jacob is fine. That he’s funny, when he’ll talk, though that’s getting rarer. That’s not uncommon, they say. They’ll take care of him. Has she checked his room yet?
She said she’d do that tonight. She didn’t say that Jacob talks all the time, used to talk all the time, that if he’s not talking, something’s wrong. She remembers the last two months of school, when Jacob went most of every day without saying anything to her, when he came home late and went to his room and she trusted when he said he was taking a nap, chatting with someone on his computer, reading. He read a lot. Reads, she reminds herself. She sits on the edge of his rucked-up bed, takes the two books from the stack beside it, puts them beside the door. There’s a visiting afternoon next Sunday. Two weeks after she left him.
The other books on the stack are ones she knows he’s read before, his favorites. One of them she read because he wanted her to read it. There were dragons involved, a lot of blood and swords and fire. She didn’t enjoy it and she doesn’t remember it, not really, except it somehow managed to have a happy ending, more or less. What she remembers is that Jacob was so excited while she was reading it, always asking if she’d gotten to the “part where—” She flips through the pages; the Center staff said she needed to go through every book. Some people hollowed them out, kept stashes.
She said Jacob would never do that to a book. The whole stack under her hand here looks completely unread, spines not even bent.
The young woman behind the counter had straightened, looked her in the eye. “Most people say their child would never do drugs, too.”
Sandy pulls every book from the shelf, shakes them out. All she finds are Star Wars bookmarks, a love note from a girl whose name she has never heard, some stickers from a vending machine: a big psychedelic peace sign, a four-leaf clover, a Colorado Rockies logo. On the wall is a framed photo and baseball card of Todd Helton. Jacob had won it at the state fair, said the card wasn’t worth anything but Helton was good, if kind of old. Todd Helton is two years younger than she is.
Jacob never played sports, not even little league, but he watches baseball, a sport she hates, a sport that bores her, a sport that is all hurry and wait and shaking off the signs. Her marriage was all about shaking off the signs, and she won’t participate. Jacob watches baseball as rabidly as his father had, even though he has never seen a game with his father, live or televised. Jacob has been a season ticket holder for the city’s little minor league club since he was ten. The two tickets are in his name, and he has a jersey from every year, signed by each no-name player and the often-changing coaches. But Jacob can point at signatures, say, He pitched a no-hitter in Triple-A, or He’ll be at second base for the Rockies in two years. She still doesn’t know who he’s ever talking about. No matter what she thought of the sport, though, when he slept through Opening Day this year, she should have noticed. She should have noticed a lot of things.
She takes the wooden plaque down; the wall is smooth and whole behind it. His dresser drawers hold nothing but clothes poorly folded. His closet is mostly empty because he’d sold the toy cars, the plastic guns with their laser sounds—anything he said wasn’t “collectible.” A loose corner of the carpet gives up only gray foamy padding beneath. She peels it up, finds nothing but sub-flooring.
Under his bed, she finds the Frank Miller comic books she’d forbidden him to have until he was older. There are no dirty magazines. Something in the bed rattles, hollow and ticking. The sound has to be the snake on the other side of the room, a scarlet king snake that Jacob got from a friend who moved away. The name of the boy slips her mind, but the snake is named Plink because that’s what it sounds like when she taps on the aquarium glass with her red nose. The noise wasn’t a plasticky rattle. It was Plink. Sandy bundles up the sheets for the laundry, leaves, closes the door.
The telephone handset is heavy in her hand, but it’s quiet now. Tim from work had said the call might come, that he’d mentioned her name because her kid was gone for the summer, because she had a spare room until August and it’s only temporary, the local minor league affiliate needing a host family for one more player, a late signing. They’d find a new place if she didn’t want to keep him the whole season, which only lasts until September, but their usual back-up host family is taking care of an elderly father, lung cancer, and they’re sorry but won’t she help? The guys are gone fully half the time anyway; they don’t come with much stuff. “A lot less trouble than a fourteen-year-old,” Tim said, laughing. He and his wife have been hosting players for three years now. Jacob has been hounding her to do this for ages. No one even uses the office. Make it a guest room. It would be so cool. This spring, when there was the article in the paper that mentioned the host family program, Jacob hadn’t said anything about it. When the notice passed without notice, she’d been relieved.
Somewhere in the conversation, though, Sandy accidentally made the right noise because, three days later, she’s getting an orientation from one of the team’s front-office interns. Tim has come with her because she knows he’s trying to show gratitude and because he wants to buy a new t-shirt for his oldest girl.
“Jacob will love it. In two or three years, he might be able to watch the Rockies and see this kid in the majors and say ‘that guy lived with us’.”
Sandy can only say, “Jacob’s not even here.” She can’t say where he is—can’t name the truth or the lie. “He’ll miss it.” She has no intention of keeping the young man the whole season. What she is hoping is that Jacob will never know it happened. Jacob will come home, and he can come back to his life simply, easily.
“Maybe he wants to come home early.” Tim checks his watch. “When I was fourteen, I’d rather have been around a pro ball player than my grandparents. Especially in Omaha.”
“I wouldn’t consider Casper ‘professional’ baseball.”
It’s only Rookie ball. When she used to go to the games, before Jacob simply biked there with a friend, she took a novel and a book of crossword puzzles with her. She did take him to one last year, when Todd Helton was doing an injury rehab assignment with the club, when Jacob’s right arm was in a cast from his elbow to his fingertips. The little stadium was never so full, and Helton signed a thousand autographs, posed for innumerable photos. He laughed on the field, the back strain clearly gone. Can she think about Jacob doing the same? In a decade, will Jacob look back on his “rehab assignment” and laugh?
She tries to pay attention to the intern. Most of the players are fresh out of high school, the same age as the oldest schoolmates Jacob will have next year, many of them from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, South America. On the phone, she tried to protest that she didn’t speak Spanish, but her player is coming from Australia. She didn’t even know Australia had baseball. And who would come from there to here?
“It’s a step, Sandy. Have to take the first one,” Tim says.
The Center likes to say that, too. Everything is a step. She doesn’t want to think about steps. She wants to see her son, wants to be anywhere but here because the orientation feels useless. The players are young, but they are grown men, too. They can take care of themselves. Derek Tangas, according to the program mock-up, is a month past nineteen. The little blurb about him says he’s been playing in an Australian league for a team with a name she cannot recognize as a team name—Manly Warringah—that he has some kind of record for stolen bases, that he’s got some awards for track and field, too, for sprints and shot-put and that doesn’t make sense, either. Tim must see her scowling at the page, says the kid’s here to work on batting because the manager used to be a hitting coach in Oakland and maybe he can give him the tools to make it.
There is so much talk of tools. The brochures for the Center have that word on it three times. “Tools for making choices for a healthy future.” I did that, she wants to say. My son knows how to do that because he had been making those choices for fourteen years. She doesn’t say to Tim, out loud, that she doesn’t care. If anyone can see that much on her face, no one mentions it. Jacob wouldn’t eat for most of three days. It was a challenge the staff and Jacob were able to overcome, says the young woman who’d answered. She doesn’t know if Jacob’s read his books. He wouldn’t say anything to her when she visited the first time; the staff sent her home with the two braided necklaces Jacob had been wearing. He doesn’t really need them here, they said. They’re leaving things out, she’s sure of it.
Derek Tangas’s flight from Salt Lake—the sixth plane he will have been on, according to the itinerary—arrives on Tuesday at noon. Her responsibilities are food and shelter. The Williamses two blocks away are hosting two players already, and they’ve said they’ll get Derek to and from the field. She’ll get a small stipend from the team for her part in this. She doesn’t want a check, doesn’t want a part in this at all. At home, Jacob’s bed is still unmade. If she rearranges the clothes in Jacob’s dresser, she can make space enough for the ballplayer to have two drawers of his own. Too many of Jacob’s clothes are in her suitcase, the big one, the one she left at the reception desk at the Center. The staff went through the whole bag, each piece of clothing, before Jacob got it. She should have packed his Han Shot First shirt. It’s still hanging in the closet.
Derek Tangas’s flight is on time, and she writes his name on a piece of paper to hold up even though she knows she doesn’t need to. Of the people who exit the plane, he can only be himself because she recognizes most of the people already, and no one else is so tall and tanned and so obviously not-from-here. He’s carrying a backpack with a baseball mitt hanging from one strap, is wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a Ghosts cap backwards. Even though she sees him first, she lets him find her in the small knot of waiting people, and he smiles wide and white and with a chipped front tooth.
“Mrs. Dodson. Thanks for coming to get me and letting me crash.” There’s an ease with which he says it that makes her think he’s done this kind of system before, and he isn’t half as nervous-seeming as she thinks he should be. He sounds like a character from a movie. Jacob would worship him.
Her mouth works by itself and she is grateful. Welcome to Casper, what a long trip, you must be exhausted, pleasantry, normalcy, ease.
He says he’s gotten good at sleeping on planes, and he looks a hundred times more rested than she’s felt in three months.
She leaves him with a short tour, a house key, her work telephone number, free rein in the kitchen. He likes the snake when he finds out she’s not venomous. She says he can call his parents, tell them he’s there, and he laughs, says e-mail’s good and he has a laptop. Sandy goes back to work and checks her calendar, recounting the number of days Jacob has been gone, the days until he will come home, and wonders what she will do with a strange young man in her house. By the end of the afternoon, she’s not entirely sure she meant Derek Tangas.
Days go by. Derek’s presence is mostly indicated by dishes in the dishwasher, the occasional load of laundry in the dryer, a constantly empty peanut butter jar. She goes to Sam’s Club and buys a container that she needs two hands to pick up. When she gets home from work, it’s sitting on the countertop, one of Jacob’s acid-green Post-It notes on it. This is ace. Ta! She has come to learn that as “thank you.” Derek’s handwriting is all big, hard capital letters, and he signs his name to notes and shopping lists like he’s practicing for autographs.
He is there for almost a week and then he’s gone for eight days, their first games of the season in Utah. Sandy drives four hours herself, to the Center, to see Jacob.
His face looks thinner than it had; he looks paler, faint circles darkening his eyes. She thinks he might be taller, too, but he stays cross-legged in the chair the whole time she’s there. His eyes bore a green hole in the wall, six inches to the left of her head, while she tells him about the movie she watched last week. It was a romantic comedy that didn’t make her laugh, and she’s telling him so he’ll tell her it’s stupid, but he won’t say it.
“Ron and Becky got another dog. It never stops barking.” This is where Jacob’s supposed to say they should get a dog. He’ll train it and it will be good. He watches Cesar Milan, does the voice. She thinks if he asks now, she’ll say yes. He pulls his sneaker up into his lap, studies the sole. Everything he does is slower than he usually does it.
She can’t tell him about Derek. Her son wasn’t even gone for three weeks when she let someone else stay in his room. Use his Post-It notes. When she gets home, she leaves a polite note to Derek to please not use up Jacob’s things. When Derek is back the following Wednesday, he never says anything about the note. She knows he’s seen it. She’d put it on the peanut butter jar.
Tim is the one who asks if she’s going to the home opener that Thursday night. She says she can’t, that she’d already had plans. After work, she goes to a park on the other side of town and walks along the Platte River until the game has started, makes sure she’s in bed before it’s over. She wakes up early, leaves early, but reads in the newspaper that Derek Tangas scored what would turn out to be the winning run in that game. The Casper Ghosts are 5-3 to start the season, their best start in four years. The newspaper credits the pitching, the home-run power of the catcher and the first baseman, for the success, but the article says some nice things about solid defense, smart baserunning. Jacob liked to say that was “huge,” smart base running. If Jacob had played baseball, that would be the part he was best at.
Saturday comes and there’s no way to avoid Derek and there’s no way to avoid that she has been avoiding him. So she waits until she hears him in the hallway, until the shower kicks on, and then starts making a big breakfast: eggs and bacon and pancakes.
He edges into the kitchen, blinks at the spread on the table, the teabag steeping in the biggest mug she has. It’s from the Thermopolis Dinosaur Center, a present Jacob had brought her from a school trip when he was small.
“Thanks heaps,” he says, fork already in hand when she puts the plate down. He’s through two eggs, four strips of bacon, and three pancakes when he glances up at her, the coffee cupped in her hands. “You skipping all this?” His eyebrows quirk under the unruly scruff of curls that rings his head. It occurs to Sandy that this might be the first time she’s seen him without a baseball cap. His hair is clearly dyed, yellow-blond up to an inch of dark roots that match his eyebrows. One summer, she let Jacob put red streaks in his hair.
Derek says, “I can’t eat all this.”
She looks at him, and he grins.
“All right, I shouldn’t. I’ll be so full I can’t run.”
She eats most of a pancake, a few forkfuls of scrambled eggs, and then she cooks the rest of the batter because it’s something to do. Derek asks permission to do laundry. Some of the host families do the players’ laundry for them. Tim’s wife does. Luanne Williams does. Sandy is not Derek’s mother.
She goes outside to stare at her flowerbeds, the phone in her pocket. The Center might call. So far that hasn’t happened, and maybe it’s good because it means there haven’t been emergencies. It also means Jacob hasn’t wanted to call her. They let them do that, two calls a week if they want them. Green-gray spikes of dandelion litter the tired mulch, last year’s, and the perennials droop, dry. Insufficient turgor pressure, Jacob would supply. Not enough water to plump the cells, cell walls broken past holding. Physical, functional impairment. She moves away from the flowerbed, knots her fingers in a tuft of crabgrass growing in the dug-up patch that had been Jacob’s garden last year. He stopped tending it after he fell.
He’d been rollerblading, something he was good at it in the way that meant she couldn’t bear to watch him, able to slide down rails and leap staircases. He’s told her the names of these things, but she doesn’t like the hard, exciting words. To say he wiped out on an indy grab doesn’t say that he landed on the halfpipe’s concrete edge, that he broke his wrist and his forearm higher up, that he had a concussion despite his helmet. It doesn’t explain the need for two surgeries, one soon after the accident, another on Thanksgiving to fix something that didn’t set right after the first.
Jacob had asked for the surgery on Thanksgiving Day itself so he could be back in school by Monday, without missing anything. How could he have an addiction if he wanted to be back at school? If his grades were still good? By the spring, though his grades were falling, everything was falling, but wasn’t that what fourteen was like? The other mothers she knew said it was so much worse.
She was the one who took him back to the doctor after his surgeries, who asked the doctor for refills because Jacob said the pain made it so that he couldn’t concentrate, that he couldn’t read, that it hurt to type for forty minutes when they had essay tests in History and English. When Jacob made friends with Marc Pitman, whose father had had a rod put into his back after a motorcycle accident two years ago, who still walked with a cane, Sandy had been proud of him. Jacob helped Marc shovel snow from the driveway, helped with carrying in coal for the furnace. She’d been glad, too, because it seemed like his arm didn’t hurt anymore.
Two weeks after that, she saw Marc Pitman’s father in line at the pharmacy, arguing over a prescription refill. He told Sandy that his kid was grounded, pretty much for life, so no letting Jacob get away with the “I’m at Marc’s” excuse. She never asked what Marc had done. She’d only said she was sorry, said boys of that age got up to things. He’d just shaken his head. Sandy didn’t say what she was thinking: my son isn’t up to anything. If you weren’t the type of father who rides motorcycles and gets in wrecks and almost dies, who makes it so a child has to look after you, maybe the child would make better decisions.
Sandy crouches in the brittle grass and pretends it isn’t falling to her knees. Her fingers knot in the weeds, but she hasn’t got the strength to pull.
When she finally goes back inside, there’s a fresh pitcher of iced tea in the refrigerator. Derek makes the best iced tea she’s ever had. He burns toast, “cooks” only with the microwave, but iced tea? No worries.
She sits on the couch with a glass and another one of Jacob’s fantasy books in her hands. She holds it open, turns the pages only half-read. Derek cruises through the room for the kitchen, his game day hat already on, backwards.
“There you go,” he says. “Good on ya.”
She tells him to have a good game.
His head bobs and a car horn blows outside. He is back to Jacob’s room and loping out the door, his baseball bag slung over one shoulder. He is all knees and elbows. He is Jacob, stretched out. When the screen door bangs shut, she lies back, puts the book on her face, leaves it there.
In the morning, she makes breakfast again because the leftovers from yesterday are long gone. She makes herself ask how the game went.
“We won,” Derek says. “Two to one. Jorge threw a gem.”
She has no idea who Jorge is, but she knows enough to know that such a low score is rare for teams so young. “And you?” She flops two more slices of French toast on his plate.
His fork slows. “Couple of put-outs from center. Couldn’t hit a fucking thing, though.” His face falls and he apologizes for his language.
She waves that away, refills her coffee. The television is always on the Rockies channel when she turns it on. “Even Todd Helton has bad days.” He must, right?
Derek brightens a little. “Not many, this season. The Toddfather’s on it.” He smears peanut butter and syrup on his French toast. “Your kid,” he says. “He’s a fan?”
She nods. “Jacob likes the outfield guy best, the one with his hair like this.” She holds her fingertips a few inches apart, runs her hand over the top of her head. It’s not really a mohawk, but something like it. Jacob would be rolling his eyes, saying the player’s name like the Rockies lineup is something she should already know.
Derek shakes his head in that slow, disbelieving way. “I’d give my left arm to be Carlos Gonzalez.”
“That’d make it a little harder to play, wouldn’t it?” She smiles. He laughs at the joke, and something feels better, just for a moment.
Derek clears the dishes—hers, too—and she doesn’t stop him from washing up the frying pan. She thinks she’s supposed to, but she doesn’t. Derek looks over his shoulder while he washes. “When’s Jake coming home?”
No one calls him Jake. “I don’t know,” she says.
His expression is strange and she realizes she’s said the wrong thing. She’s supposed to know that. She amends, “When his grandparents are sick of him, or when he’s sick of them. Whichever comes first.”
And Derek sort of laughs at that. He says, “I hope he’s back in time for a game. Goose and Jorge are worth seeing.” He dries his hands and leaves the room to gather his things for their mid-afternoon game before she can say that Jacob will be home. He’ll be home before August is over, home in time for school. Home in time for it to be like nothing has happened.
The drive south is forever-long, and from Medicine Bow to Laramie to Aspen Ridge, she thinks about the fact that Jacob is a minor, that she is his parent, that if he is not home, it is her fault. She checked him in. She can check him out. Her son is not baggage, but she could take him home. She could take him home today.
Today, though, he doesn’t even look like Jacob. His face is more drawn-looking, and though the room seems warm to her, he’s wearing a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over his head, the cuffs curled down over his fingertips. There used to be a string around the hood. It was there when she brought it, but it’s gone now. When she sits down on the chair across from his bed, he jams his hands into the front pouch.
On the little table, the books sit. So Long and Thanks for All the Fish is torn through at the spine, packing tape shining slick over the split, the pages bent and crumpled. She wants to hug this strange, quiet boy, this child who is not like her son. This is difficult, the counselors said. We can get him through withdrawal, but the rest has to be him. Can she get him to talk?
She can’t say anything about the ruined book. She says that she’s trying to read that hobbit one again, though. Did he see the picture that came out, the one from the movie they’re making? As soon as she says it, she knows she shouldn’t have. There’s no internet here, only limited television. She knows, too, that if this were her son, he would say she was wrong, it’s two movies they’re making. God, doesn’t she pay attention to anything important? Her son would smile as he said it. The boy sitting on the bed curls his feet under himself, sneakers on the sheets. His hands shift inside the pouch, too, and for a moment, she’s afraid he’s flipping her off. Then she sees the points against the fabric. It could be his knuckles. It could be both middle fingers. Or it could be the first and second finger, the V, the number of movies. She is not foolish enough to think it means peace.
The hood of the sweatshirt falls forward more, and then the whole boy falls forward, and she reaches to catch him, but he twists and rolls, curls up with his whole back to her, his head at the foot of the bed. Sandy is trying not to cry. Salt burns in her sinuses as she sniffs back hard.
“The Toddfather’s having a really good month.”
The boy’s black-clad spine goes rigid.
“What does it mean,” she asks, “to have a couple of put-outs from center?”
Thirty-five minutes of nothing goes by. A counselor comes to escort her out, to give her back her purse.
Two days later, while she is at work, her cell phone rings, and she rushes the phone and herself to the restroom, locks the door. It’s the Center.
“Mrs. Dodson,” the voice says, and it’s Cody, one of the young men who works there, his voice bright. “Jacob asked me to call.”
The dozen questions catch sideways in her throat, spiked. Before she can sort one from the tangle, other words fall out of her mouth. “Can I talk to him?”
The sound of Cody purses, narrows. “He said no, but he wanted me to read you something. I think he misses baseball.”
“Yes,” Sandy says. She doesn’t say that she wishes he missed her. “What did he say?”
Paper crinkles. “ ‘A put-out is another name for an outfield assist. The outfielder throws the ball that makes the out at the base.’ And he asked some questions: ‘Any of them at home? Which bases?’” Cody pauses. “Is this some sort of a code?” There’s a frown in the noise.
“No,” Sandy says. “He just wants to know.” He wants to know and she doesn’t know the information and Tim’s at lunch. There’s no one else in the office who would have any idea. She asks if she can call right back, and Cody says she can, though he doesn’t seem to see why this is so important.
She scrolls through the numbers in her phone, finds the one for the Ghosts’ front office. The voice who answers is the intern, and the intern doesn’t know what happened at that game. “We won,” he says, cheerfully, and then he suggests that Sandy call Derek. “They always know exactly what they did, what inning, how many outs, direction of the wind—in case someone ever asks for an interview.” The implication is clear: no one ever really does, though the local newspaper has run a few columns on the team in addition to printing the box scores and highlights.
He seems a little confused when he answers the phone, more question in his “hello” than greeting. There’s also the quietly swallowed near-”r” sound on the end of the word, something she hears on a lot of his Australian vowels. Jacob would roll the sound around on his tongue, would practice it until he could do it, too. When she asks the question, though, he gets excited, and he narrates the play: “So I’m going back, like two steps off the track, and their guy’s already more than halfway to third, so I just let it fly and pray. Got him at home by half a step.” That one was in the eighth, when the game was still tied. The other out was at third, in the fourth inning. That’s money, Jacob would say. In the background, there are other voices, the dense thump of metal. He must be at the gym. They are always at the gym. She thanks him, apologizes for interrupting, and he says it’s okay. She can hear the beaming whiteness of his teeth. It’s only at the last second that she says, “Jacob asked about it.”
Derek’s quiet for a moment. “Cool,” he says. “If he’s not headed home soon, you can give him my number. Like to thank him for having a Spanish dictionary, and that comic cartoon is sweet.”
She hadn’t known he was using the dictionary, but it’s good. A lot of the team speaks Spanish and Derek clearly doesn’t. She had known that he’s been watching an episode of Justice League after games while he eats. Jacob has the whole series on DVD. He talks about Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill like they’re gods. Hamill’s best role wasn’t Skywalker. It was The Joker. All she says is thank you again, then calls the Center back immediately. The message leaves her mouth as much like it had left Derek’s as she can make it, and Jacob will know the words aren’t hers. Cody says he’s sorry Jacob won’t say much to her—anything, she thinks, but keeps her mouth closed—but he’s making progress. The phone call, that’s important.
For the rest of the day, she keeps her phone in her lap, but it doesn’t ring. She crosses paths with Derek in the driveway. He’s wearing half of his uniform, has his game day duffel on the curb, and he’s picking up sticks from the front yard while waiting, presumably, for the Williamses and their players. He asks if she’ll come to the game.
Sandy shakes her head. “I’d like to, but I don’t want to miss Jacob’s call. I haven’t heard from him in a while.” She hasn’t heard his voice in twenty-nine days.
“Yeah,” he says. The Williamses’ SUV trundles down the street. “Tell Jake the Snake I said hi.”
She says good luck, but the car door is already closed when her lips move. She manages to wave. Luanne Williams waves back.
The night passes in silence, and she’s still sitting on the couch, holding her phone and Jacob’s book when Derek comes back in. His posture is muted, and she doesn’t want to ask how it went, so she says nothing, doesn’t even move, while he shifts in the kitchen, and when he reaches for the remote he doesn’t even see her until the second time he glances up. The plate in his left hand jerks toward his chest, dumping the peanut butter sandwich onto the carpet.
“Fuck,” he says, and he immediately apologizes. He bends to pick up the sandwich, which he puts right back on his plate as he flops onto the floor.
The television stares bluely from a menu screen as he chews.
“How was the game?” She doesn’t care, but Jacob would ask.
Derek shakes his head. “We got wrecked. I left five guys on base, too.” The blue light casts his yellow hair almost green. He puts his plate aside, shakes his head, dog-like, twitches all the way down to his socked feet. “That’s going to happen sometimes.” The sentence falls into the carpet, and he cues up the cartoon, leans back against the far side of the couch.
The moment, whatever it was, is done. Would it be better for her, somehow, if he sulked and railed? Some small twist in her stomach wants him to. Let Derek Tangas flay himself with doubt and worry. But Derek Tangas only stretches his arms toward the ceiling, coming to rest with his elbow propped loosely on one drawn-up knee, as Batman and Hawkgirl argue ethics.
Sandy sits there because getting up is too hard and because she remembers this episode, remembers Jacob trying to force his ten-year-old voice into the rough gravel of a grown man’s. When the credits scroll, Derek tilts his head back to look at her, glances from her face to the book still in her lap.
“Liking it?” Aside from the dictionary, Derek has confessed himself as not much of a reader, though Yogi Berra’s autobiography has migrated from Jacob’s shelf of baseball books to the nightstand.
“It’s good,” she says. “Funny.” She can’t remember anything she’s read in it. She hopes that’s right.
He cocks one dark eyebrow. “My sister never said Tolkien had much sense of humor.” His teeth worry the edge of his left thumbnail, something he doesn’t do very often. “She’s mad for that business. Been to the Kiwi movie sets and all.”
“Jacob would be so jealous.” They’d talked about a trip there, someday. Now, it’s going to be a very, very long time until she can afford to fly them anywhere.
“Guess he didn’t call, hey?”
Sandy tries to say he did, and he’s fine, and he’s glad the dictionary’s useful. What comes out is, “No. He won’t talk to me.”
“That’s rough,” Derek says. His breath is a dull hiss. “Fourteen sucked.” He levers himself up, disappears from the room.
Sandy presses her face into the upholstery’s nap. How long until the circular button on the cushion presses a half-moon under her eye? How long until it takes that sleepless purple bruise? The sound of Derek’s steps back to the room jerks her upright. There’s something shadowed in his hand.
“None of my business, but he’s not at his grandparents’, is he?” A small plastic bottle rests in his palm, the one with Marc Pitman’s father’s name on the label. It rattles slightly when he cracks it open to show her the tablets inside and puts it down on the couch. “Found it in the mattress. Didn’t want to say anything, so you wouldn’t think—well.” He scrubs a hand through his hair. “Still hope he makes it back in time for the last home stand against Billings.” He stands up again, and now he says goodnight, and down the hall, a door closes.
She wants, so much, to have her son in her home, and not someone else’s.
Three days later, the Ghosts are two days into an eleven-day road trip on the day that she makes her last trip to the treatment center. The one where she’ll come home with Jacob. Before she leaves, she straightens Jacob’s room, moves Derek’s clothes from the dresser into his duffle, replaces the Yogi Berra book on Jacob’s shelf. Before she leaves, she calls the Ghosts front office and leaves a message: Could they find another place for Derek? It’s not urgent, he’s a very nice boy, but can they please? Before the road trip’s over? She doesn’t know how she’ll tell him, not when he’s been the one to feed Plink because she hates to do it, the frozen baby mice thawing from the heat of one’s hand. Derek has taken to wearing Plink like a red bracelet sometimes, the way Jacob has her in the photo on his desk, so the snake’s not lonely. But she doesn’t need Derek Tangas in her house, knowing whatever he thinks he knows about her son, thinking whatever he thinks.
The solitary bag she puts in the office, behind the door. Ready to go.
When she gets to Aspen Ridge, Jacob is still packing the suitcase, one sock at a time, glacial. Cody says it’s like that sometimes, be patient. While she’s filling out Jacob’s exit paperwork, Cody tells her that Jacob wouldn’t play in yesterday’s whiffleball game, but he did take out the open mic amplifier and microphone and call the game. “Madison Square Garden style—everyone’s name took him thirty seconds to say. They loved it.” It’s been sixty-one days since Jacob has said a word directly to her. In that time, she’s had one hand gesture and a note someone else read to her. She nods, swallows.
For two hundred and twenty-one miles, Jacob doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t touch the car stereo, even though she brought a sleeve of his CDs along, even though there’s probably some kind of baseball being broadcast on AM radio somewhere. At home, Jacob doesn’t really even go to his room, stops there only to drop the suitcase and lift Plink out of her aquarium. He winds her around his neck and she’s more interested in continuing her sleep than in working her way slowly down his arm. He goes to the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. A tall pitcher of iced tea is still there, only half empty, and Jacob glances over his shoulder once before he opens the cupboard, gets a glass. He takes a sip, and he looks at her again, his eyebrows furrowed.
It’s too hard to stay there, to listen to his silence. Yesterday’s mail still sits in the box outside, so she ducks back out, deciding to listen to the message on the answering machine when Jacob goes to bed, and when she comes back, Jacob’s not there. The urge to run from room to room to find him, the way she did when he was five, thrums through her spine, but he’s only just come home. She plants herself again on the couch, waits.
The whole house is quiet, quiet for almost an hour, when she can’t take it anymore. She starts at Jacob’s room. Plink is back in her aquarium, but Jacob is not there. She checks the back yard, the garage. His bike is where it had been, leaning up against one wall. The sidewalks are empty in all directions. Fear clogs her throat, thick and hot. She wants to call his name, to shout, but he’s not going to shout back. She makes it as far as the kitchen table, where she can see the answering machine’s red light now off, before wetness clouds her eyes, before she gulps blocky mouthfuls of air that choke her.
The crash of broken glass and a dense thump come from the hallway. When she turns the corner, there is Derek’s folder, Derek’s bag, not hidden in the office. Jacob’s voice is saying shit, shit, shit from inside, the door mostly shut.
She edges it open, and there is Jacob, kneeling in front of a broken lamp and a face-down bookcase.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, though the words croak.
Jacob’s head is a vicious slash, a shake, a near wail of black hair. “No,” he says. “You can’t.” He picks the bookcase up, light enough, now, without the magazines and photo albums and the hardcover books. He drags it to the bare wall near her computer, slides back across the carpet to gather up the spilled things, puts them onto shelves. His sneakered feet skirt the broken lightbulb, the cracked ceramic base.
“Jacob,” she says, and she puts herself around the glass as best she can, shielding him or it, she doesn’t know.
He scrambles around her, picking up more books, even the doily that had been under the lamp before it fell. She gathers up the thin shards, cups them in her hand.
Jacob’s shadow is beside her. “He’s not really leaving, is he?” She hears the working of his throat. “I just got here.” He bends down, presses his fingertip against more of the tiny fragments, as fine as glitter, and flicks them into the trashcan. His voice turns flat, hard. “My whole summer got—got fucked—and now you’re getting rid of the only part of the whole thing that doesn’t suck? That’s bullshit.” His nostrils are flared, his chin up. Jacob has never said those words in front of her, and he seems caught between fear and exhilaration at having made the leap to do it.
The strangest thing is that she wants to laugh. She wants to laugh but it will sound like a sob if she does. She says, “It’s such a mess.” Her hand goes out toward the glass and toward the door, where Derek’s things are.
“Yes!” Jacob all but shouts. “It is a mess.”
He was nine the last time she heard him at this volume, nine and scared after a nightmare. He’d had a fever then, was sick with the flu. Right now, he doesn’t sound scared at all. His cheeks are the right color. And he says, a little more quietly, “But it’s not the end of the fucking world.” He adjusts the bookcase against the wall, gently, and it takes a while before he looks toward her again. He says, “Can’t you call them back?”
“There isn’t room,” she says, and Jacob’s face screws up tight. “There isn’t room,” she starts again, “for two foul-mouthed young men.”
Jacob’s jaw snaps shut. “Sorry,” he says.
She kneels by the computer to separate cables. She’ll move the computer and desk into her room, since Jacob has his own. They’ll need to get some kind of bed. She needs to make another phone call. The black wires tangle like snakes and she can barely see which is which through her blurry eyes. She says, “Give me a hand?” and she swallows hard.
Jacob crouches beside her, already batting her away. The wires make tidy coils on the floor, and Jacob moves the monitor and keyboard out of the way. He has the whole computer, the modem, the wireless router all set up in the living room by the time she finishes vacuuming the floor one more time.
Tomorrow, they’ll go look for a bed. She’ll borrow Tim’s pick-up. Sandy listens to the message that Jacob listened to first—sorry to hear that, it’s going to take a few days to find Derek a new host family, are you certain?—then calls back to say it’s okay. The housing situation is sorted, she’s sorry for the confusion.
After dinner, Jacob follows the game online. Ogden is winning by two, the game action conveyed by single lines of text on the league website.
Sandy sits at the kitchen table, The Hobbit open in front of her. She might still only be turning the pages, but it’s because every so often, Jacob will come through the room for more food, more iced tea. “Derek’s having a good night,” he says, around a mouthful of pretzels, bobbing his head toward the dull-looking screen. A single, a stolen base, another outfield assist. Jacob goes back to calling the game to Plink, wrapped like a red cast around his arm. The snake isn’t listening, but Sandy is: Tangas at bat, the fielder going back-back-back. The catch on the bounce. The throw. Safe.