In the last year of his life, the boy tried again and again to put his parents back together again. It became his imperative, circling his thoughts before bed like a carousel and dropping into his mind the moment he woke to turn and turn through the day. Their separation was nothing new to him, but he worried that without him, his father would be lonely.
“We ought to all go back to the beach together,” he said to his father one day. They were driving the river road to the grocery store in town. The floor of the forest to the left was littered red and brown; on the right were openings in the thinning underbrush where the river shone, slipping along with a warm gold sparkle that belied her cold autumn underbelly.
“Wouldn’t that be fun?” he said.
“You’d get pretty tired,” his father answered. “But we’ll see what the doctors say.”
“We should do it soon, while I still can.”
His father kept his eyes on the road, but his adams apple dipped and rose again as he swallowed. It took him a moment to say anything more. “Well, we’ll see.”
“But it would have to be all of us.”
“Well, your mother and Johnny…”
“Oh, why him? Couldn’t it be just us?”
His father had to hit the brakes because a deer had stepped into the road. She was a delicate thing and she looked up at them before she passed. When they started forward, his father changed the subject to something else, asked the boy to help him remember what they needed at the store.
Shortly after that, when the autumn days had further shortened and after they’d had one light sugary snow, he tried another way. Late one night after his father had gone to sleep, he flipped open the laptop on the table in the kitchen, entered the password, and began to compose a letter. It took him a while to get it right, but he was smiling as he did it, proud of his cunning. When he was done, he sent it to the printer in the basement office. He’d picked a font that looked like cursive handwriting because it was pretty and seemed like something his mother might like.
In the kitchen, he mixed a little mustard and water and dabbed it on the edge of the printed letter, but it wasn’t brown enough, so he added ground ginger from the spice rack. Then he added some paprika and it seemed right. With a basting brush, he yellowed the page, front and back, and then blotted it dry with a paper towel. He practiced his mother’s signature several times on a piece of paper he pulled from the printer and, when it was just right, he signed the mustard stained letter. He balled up the page and smoothed it again and then he folded it twice and tucked it in a book from the living room shelf.
He left the book on the kitchen counter and went to bed satisfied with his work. The next morning, he felt heavy in his legs and arms. His mother would have reminded him that sleep was more important for him now than ever.
When it was obvious his father had not looked at the book left for his discovery, the boy brought it with him to the kitchen table and pretended to glance through it as he ate his cereal. His father was returning emails on the laptop, lost in thought.
“Oh, what’s this?” the boy said, lifting the page out of the book and shaking it open. It wanted to stick together.
His father glanced up for only a moment. “Whatever it is, it smells like food.”
“Why, it’s a letter from Mom. To you. It’s dated a year ago, almost to the date.”
His father looked at him steadily. “You always did talk funny, pumpkin.”
“But, Dad, you should read it.” He filled his mouth with cereal and put the letter down on the keyboard before his father.
Instead, his father studied him a while longer, his eyes slowly filling with tears. The boy felt the food in his mouth turn to tasteless mush. He frowned into the bowl in front of him.
“I read it already,” his father said. “You left it up on the computer.”
He wanted to protest and would happily have lied, but one outraged glance at his father told him he’d never win this one. Instead, he went on the offensive, something he’d learned from both of his parents, in early days.
“You won’t even try to patch things up!” he yelled, getting up from his chair. “It’s disgusting how lazy you both are about….” He fumbled for the right word. “Love!”
“We’re not lazy about….that.”
His father smiled at him, “Your mother would never use a phrase like ‘a deep well of misunderstanding’. Nor would she have said she was sorry for meeting Johnny, because they love each other a lot. She knows I wouldn’t want her to feel bad about that. But I give you props for trying.”
All of his steam was spent and the boy stood looking at the ground for only a moment more before he folded himself back in front of his cereal. They sat in silence for a while, the man tapping at the keys in front of him and the boy eating his breakfast. Outside, a fox wandered into the yard, sniffed the air, and vanished into the woods. Neither of them saw it, deep as they were in their own thoughts.
“Do you want to know how I made the paper look old?”
He could talk about anything with his mother. She was an easy kind of person, with a quiet way of entering the room and dark, thoughtful eyes that turned green when she cried. They walked in the park near her house one Sunday just before Valentine’s Day, covered from top to bottom in big fluffy clothes to keep the cold off. Still, the northers coming over the lake set icy fingertips to their noses and to the cracks where sleeves met gloves.
“Is Johnny going to do something nice for you for Valentine’s?” he asked through his scarf.
“I think we’ll go out to dinner.”
“You should ask Dad to come, too.”
She glanced away, something about her eyes like a funny kind of grin. “I don’t think so, little man.”
“We’re all a little lonely now and again. But your father is clever and kind and one day he’ll find someone.”
He stopped on the path with a snow covered fountain behind him. To his mother, the bowl of the fountain, split in two by the boy’s shoulders, looked like wide, immaculate wings. It took her breath from her. She almost felt like she’d black out, but she took breaths, many of them, slow and steady.
“What if I made it my last wish?” he said. “That you guys get back together.”
“Oh, honey,” she murmured. She knelt in front of him and pulled him around until the fountain bowl became itself again, the wings a vanished illusion. “You can’t ever use power like that over someone else. Your father and I would want anything for you, but not for you to think you could make other people do what they can’t to make you happy. That’s not what real happiness is about. I bet you know that.”
He studied her a moment, his eyes black with thought. He nodded. After a moment they walked on through the grey morning. Slowly, he asked her a question she found it impossible to answer.
“Is it hard to know that all your life lessons for me won’t come to anything? I mean, that you won’t get to see how I turn out?”
He didn’t mean to be cruel; like each of his parents, he wanted to know things better. If he were older, trained as they were in subtleties, he’d work delicate, as if with a scalpel. But with the bluntness of children, he opened this line of thought with hatchet brutality. She walked on with no answer, holding his hand tight. Breathing.
In June, they took him to the beach. Johnny would join them later, he was told, but for a while it would just be the three of them.
“Like it’s always supposed to have been,” he said in the car as they drove south. They did not respond to him, though they exchanged a bittersweet kind of smile.
“Will we make a fire on the beach at night?” he asked.
“Will the Millers be there this year?”
“I think so,” his mother said.
He looked out between their seats, at the changing landscape outside the car. Whenever they got close to the beach, he noticed how the trees all turned to pines, tall and slender, and how below them, the bushes were waxy and large, blooming purple and pink this time of the year. The mini mall near their place looked the same as ever when they got to town. Everything was painted dull shades of grey and tan here, but it never felt gloomy to him.
It didn’t take long to make up the beds and wipe down the kitchen. Someone came a few times a year in the winter to clean, so the place never had a year’s neglect.
His mother hadn’t seen the house in two summers. She stood beside the silk palm tree near the patio doors and shook her head. “I can’t believe I ever wanted one of these.”
“It’s pretty, isn’t it?”
She shook her head again, “I don’t like fake things like that anymore.”
At that moment his father put the ice chest on the counter with a loud thump and he and his mother started. Her hand flew to her throat, an elegant little compulsion, her son noticed, though the fright was ordinary.
“You’re beautiful, mommy.”
She smiled at him and then went to help put away the groceries with his father. He sat out on the patio and watched them through the glass until the sun shifted and all that he could see was himself, staring back from under the brim of a hat. His face was white and the eyes dark all around now. Sometimes he thought he looked like a Halloween mask more than an eleven year old boy. He turned his gaze to the other houses, all crowded so near each other one never saw the water until they walked down to where the grass met the sand.
When the Millers arrived a couple days later, they changed the atmosphere of the street. The four older boys and the two girls, the round blond twins, were all equally vivacious in one way or another. Their father had a loud kind of voice and spoke in an accent his mother said was Bostonian. Mrs. Miller was from Kentucky. Everything hard about her husband’s way of talking was soft in hers, but she was as bold and brass as the rest of her brood. One could hear them the moment they rolled out of their SUV.
His father glanced down over the balcony rail at the family and said drily, “Here comes the entertainment.”
“Mike,” his mother said, smiling into the folds of the newspaper.
The boy watched them all the time, catching these little moments that felt like the old days. How could they be so comfortable together, such natural friends, yet still not want to live together? That day, as the Millers chattered their way across the path to their house, he said angrily, “We don’t need Johnny here.”
“Hey now,” his father said.
His mother smiled peacefully, “You love Johnny. He’s a good person and you know it.”
There was no answering that, so he left them and went into the house. But the dim living room made him feel trapped and it made him feel sad. He descended the carpeted staircase slowly and left the house by the front door.
Mrs. Miller had come back out with three of her boys to get more things out of the car. She was giving orders in that sweet, thick accent of hers. “Bryce, don’t scratch those skis. Your daddy will have a shit fit. Where’s my other pair of sunglasses? They were on the dash and now they’re gone. Get that bottle under the seat. This car looks like white trash has been living in it.”
She turned then and saw him standing half in the shadow of his house and half in the blinding brightness. He could tell she thought she saw a Halloween mask, too, because she lifted a hand to her throat just as his mother had done when the ice chest crashed onto the counter.
“Oh, my lord,” she mouthed without thinking. Then she pulled her sunglasses down over her eyes, though they were tangled in her windswept blond hair. He’d seen her eyes filling with tears before the dark lenses dropped over them. A kind smile bloomed on her tanned face.
“Come here, sugar booger!” she said to him, but she crossed the distance instead. She knelt down and gave him a big hug, like she hadn’t done since he was younger and smaller.
“You’re getting tall,” she said, her voice thick and rusty.
He knew she felt sorry for him, something his folks were careful not to show around him. It felt both a little nice and yet deeply sad. It was hard for him to smile back at her, though she was as bright and cheerful as a row of sunflowers preening in the light.
“When did you all get in?” she asked.
“Thursday,” he said.
“Well, your mamma said everyone was going to come this time. That’s wonderful, now isn’t it?”
He almost said it would be better if Johnny didn’t come, but he mumbled something else, something about looking forward to getting into the pool. It wasn’t fair to be mean about Johnny, and it wouldn’t have been loyal to do it in front of Mrs. Miller. She gave him another hug.
“I don’t have to tell you to wear sun screen,” she said. Then she paused. Later that night, drinking wine with another mother, she’d say, “Honey, I felt terrible. I only meant because of sunburn, but then I thought he probably thought I meant cancer.” Though they were sitting in her kitchen alone, all the kids down the street getting ice cream with their fathers, she whispered the last word the way her mother used to do the ‘n’ word.
When Johnny came, he brought with him his big spirit, his kind smile, his battered guitar. He played for everyone down by the fire, many nights, and he was as good with the kids as any of the fathers. He wove his usual spell and the boy found himself both comforted by the presence of the other man and saddened by his own words and thoughts against him in days before.
The four of them made up a happy house for two weeks, everyone doing their best to get along. Even when the boy started to feel more and more exhausted from play, when it got to where he couldn’t stand the sun so much anymore, spirits remained cheerful in the tall, skinny house with the grey shingles all over. Everyone had agreed, ten months ago, when the final option fell through due to the rarity of his illness, to make it a year of happiness and harmony.
He had been the only one to resist, so determined to reset things to where they had been before the twin tragedies of the divorce and the illness.
One night in the orange light of the fire circle, he watched his father sitting just a little by himself, away from Johnny and from his mother, who sat so close to her husband she could feel the vibrations of the strings as he played. The couple was beautiful in that light, and brave and sad, too, all which the boy could see plainly, wizened by his own fate. His father was each of these things, too, but still the boy saw him as alone, unsheltered and a little forgotten, at least by his mother.
For a moment he felt an old anger rise in him and the gaze he cast her was almost dark, but just as quickly it faded and things were as they had been a moment before. The two men and the woman, brave and golden and sad each, doing all they had in their power to do. There was just enough space between his father and his mother for him to sit and so he rose up slowly, his body heavy, heavy, and he filled the gap between them. Now the four of them made a row at the fireside, completed, with the ocean before them, dark and blue in the moonlight, brushing the sand, a soft percussion under Johnny’s cheerful strumming.