10: Melt
by Wax Jism


When Zeke was ten years old, he broke his neck and spent six months in a cast. Sometimes - not often anymore, but sometimes - he wakes up from nightmares where he's caught in plaster, fixed immobile and helpless, pins and screws, and staring up at his mother's face.

Wednesday morning, he lies in bed, cold and damp with scared sweat and tries to talk himself down from the chilly rush. He can hear his mother moving around in the kitchen, putting on coffee, opening a newspaper, turning on the radio. Everything else is too quiet. He can hardly hear his own breathing, even though it's still coming in short pants.

He moves his head carefully, rolls it on his neck - the neck that hasn't been stiff and sore in years and isn't hurting now. When he first opened his eyes, he was sure his mother was in the room, standing by his bed and looking down at him. He sleeps naked, always, and the blanket is somewhere on the floor. He woke up and froze, and didn't move until he was sure she was a figment of his imagination.

He gets up and walks, still naked, to the bathroom. He lives here. She doesn't. She doesn't look up from the paper.

He takes a shower and jerks off. Thinks about Casey, Delilah, their skin and their mouths. If he wanted to rebel, he would've had three large drug dealing gangbangers in his bedroom. She should know that by now.

"I see you're still doing business in school," she says when he walks back towards his room. He stops in the kitchen door. She's already dressed and made up. Her hair shows no grey. Her mouth is still full. Her hands are perfectly manicured, but he thinks he can see signs of ageing there.

"I have to do something," he says. She taps a finger on the tabletop and sips her coffee.

"Do get dressed," she says and turns away.

*

"I suppose you're not going to school," she says later. "I'll take you to Vincent's."

*

He hates Italian food, ever since they spent a summer in Verona after he got out of the hospital and he was sick almost every day. He doesn't think she's forgotten that. She might have, of course, but he thinks she's like him that way; she notices things and uses them.

She kisses Vincent on the cheek and they catch up while Zeke chain-smokes to block out the stench of garlic and olive oil.

She smokes after she's eaten, slim French cigarettes. She looks like she should have a mouthpiece for them. She's plucked her eyebrows to thin, delicate arches. He remembers her eyebrows from her bohemian phase; they were thick and almost met over her nose.

"Is there anything you need?" she asks.

"No," he says, although he can think of a few things. For her to be gone, for example. Her blouse is low-cut. She's always toed the line between slut and stylishly sexy, always stayed clear on the conservative side. She's well bred.

"Any trouble in school?"

This would probably be what passes for parenting. "Nope," he says. "I'll flunk history again, no problem."

She smiles. Her mouth is beautiful, but her smiles always look reluctant. "You still think you're Peter Pan, Zeke."

"I can't fly," he says.

"Pity," she says. She probably wishes he'd tried to fly instead of encouraging other people to try for him. If he'd been the one who died, she could have gone on with her life.

Not that she hasn't. "How long are you staying?" he asks and lights another cigarette.

"I'm meeting Alice and Bruno in Santa Cruz Friday night. My flight leaves at noon."

She smokes and looks out the window. He studies her profile, which is more delicate than his; female, but so obviously kin. She turns her head and catches him staring, but they've been playing this game for a while and he won't let her intimidate him. "Where did you pick up those two hapless children yesterday?" she asks finally and stubs out her cigarette.

"School," he says. He has a strange impulse to defend Casey and Delilah, but it's not hard to curb. After all, they are hapless children. He really can't wait to hear all she has to say about Delilah's obvious upper class bad girl shtick and Casey's entire scrawny, downtrodden existence. Zeke's mother would have caught enough about them in a few glances to figure out a few likely weak spots. Zeke would have.

"You still like the younger boys, I see," she says, and just like that, he's cold, down at the bottom of his stomach. So cold it feels hot, melting hot. "Doesn't he remind you a little of-- I can't even remember his name anymore. But really, Zeke. I thought we put that behind us."

"That wasn't anything like this." Anyone else in the world - any fucking one, up to and including the Pope - would pay for talking to him like this. Maybe not immediately, but appropriately.

She purses her lips and smiles. "Did you even notice when we gave up on you?" she asks. She reaches over the table and touches his face and he flinches. He sets his jaw - he's not Casey. He's nothing like Casey - and stills. She strokes his jaw with cool fingers, his mouth, his cheekbone. She looks almost regretful for a second. "I don't know when you gave up on us."

He could cry right now. He hasn't cried in years. Maybe not since they moved to Santa Cruz, nine years ago. Right now, though, with her hand on his face and her eyes softening, her dark voice gentle in his ears, he could.

He pushes her hand down. "Did I ever count on you, anyway?" He leaves her with the check. She has a real job.

He sort of saw this coming and took his own car, so he can slide in behind the wheel and feel at home immediately. He bought this car himself, with honest-to-God drug money he made a fairly memorable summer two years ago, cutting coke and peddling it to college kids up in Gambier.

He drives down to the lake. The water is still and looks oily in the pale sunlight. He still lets her play him. He's always just as amazed once he gets out of her immediate presence. That she can just reach in and get him.

The sun's low in the sky and useless, and this place is one of the most grey and miserable spots in the entire state, anyway. He likes it, though; no one ever comes here. Great for a little downtime, especially on those rare occasions when his house is invaded by parents.

He thinks about Casey on the ground here, Casey going nuts and trying to run. It seems very long ago. He needs to stay away from Casey for a while now. Who knows what he might do. His mother always brings out the worst in him. She pushes him far closer to the edge than he'd ever allow himself to get pushed by anyone else. His mother is just like him.

She'll be gone soon. She'll be gone and he'll take a week to wipe his brain clean of her and then he'll have his comfortable little existence back.

He has a gun; he keeps in his car now. He doesn't want her to find it.

It's a Colt Cobra .38 special. Its usual place is on a shelf next to the TV. Zeke moved it one day to the coffee table, where it lay under a pile of magazines. Casey found it and made a face.

"It's my mom's gun," Zeke said into an issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. It was one of the endless afternoons when there was nothing to do but fuck and fuck and lie sweaty and spent on the sofa afterwards. Or dedicate some time to academic pursuits while his houseguests roamed free. "She bought it when my dad was in Zimbabwe for six months. I was ten." It had been right before he'd taken the car for a little spin in their neighbourhood in Santa Cruz and wrapped it around a telephone pole, but he didn't tell Casey that.

Casey stared at it, apparently fascinated. Zeke could almost see his hands twitching with conflicting urges. "Do you know how to use it?"

"Of course. I was a better shot than her when I was thirteen." He had a memory right then, one of those really bright ones, like a flashback. Holding the gun and his mother laughing at him and telling him to put it down or he'd shoot himself in the foot. Firing a round into the wall next to her. He wasn't sure it'd actually happened. Maybe he just wished it had. He would never hurt her.

Delilah picked up the gun when Casey seemed to have decided to let it be. "Is it loaded?"

"Yeah," Zeke said and pretended to go back to the article on interstitial cystitis in middle-aged women.

"Put it down," Casey said and Delilah made a face at him, but she put down the gun.

"Got anything better to do?"

"I can think of a few things," Zeke said before Casey had time to open his mouth.

"I wasn't asking you, lab rat."

"I can think of a few things," Casey said. Zeke was sure he could too, and Casey was bright-eyed and red-cheeked that day, almost happy, and Zeke put down his magazine and waited for them to come to him.

*

He spends an hour shooting at the branches of one of the gnarled and twisted willows by the water. His mother's not there when he gets home.

*

She finds the pictures on Thursday morning. He comes down to the basement and she's bent over the table, picking through them. Her hair is loose and falls over her shoulder; it touches the surface of the table. He holds a cup of coffee in his hand and almost drops it. The sickening crunch of dj vu is the strongest he can remember ever feeling. She's a little taller, a little bonier than Delilah, but her pose is exactly the same and her hands on the pictures are red-nailed and predatory.

He turns away immediately, but she's heard him of course. "They're good pictures. Which one of them took them?"

He doesn't answer. He won't talk to her about this. He can't bring Casey here, not while she's here - even though he wants to. He doesn't like being prevented from doing what he wants to. That goes against everything he's built his life on. Her presence unsettles things. He can picture her ripping into Casey; there'd be nothing left.

"Why did you come here?" he asks to distract her.

"I wanted to see you," she says. "I'm your mother." Her smile is small and mirthless. She's looking at him, not at his face - her eyes slide lazily over his body. He never runs; if he were the type to turn tail, he'd be out the door, flying down the street by now.

"Yeah. Mom," he says and matches her stare, stares back, lingers on her chest and her legs. She straightens her back and says,

"Maybe we've had enough of a staring contest now. I'm going shopping." She passes him in the stairs and her perfume tickles his nose. "Did I scare your friends away?" she says.

He goes down to the lab and feeds his mice. The female is named Clarissa. He thinks about renaming it Katherine after her and dissecting it today. That might be a little more petty than he likes to allow himself, though. Too psych 101. Too conventional.

*

"Did you have a nice day?" she asks him when he comes back in at five. He's been driving. He almost kept going; the road ahead seemed full of promise, a long straight, clear path. Then he turned back and drove once past Casey's house and back home. There would always be another day to go.

"Yes," he says. She's sitting in the living room, listening to Duke Ellington and reading his copy of Slaughterhouse 5. She's been in his room, going through his books. He has a shelf of books he likes to have close by. He can see her standing in front of it, running her fingers over the tattered paperbacks, picking one out there, one out there. Probably pressing her lips together in contempt for his mundane taste. Vonnegut would be the only author of the lot she'd accept.

"I suppose we need to talk." She puts down the book and looks at him. "Since I'm leaving."

"I suppose we do," he says.

"Sit down." He sits down, in one of the easy chairs across from the sofa. "Your father is in So Paulo. I'd tell you he sends his love, but..."

"He doesn't."

"No," she says, and he can almost catch a little curl of her mouth. He wonders if she's getting less opaque or if he's getting better at reading her. "I don't think he'll be coming here for your graduation."

"I'm not going to graduate."

"Ah, yes. You're going to stay in high school all your life."

"I'm not in a hurry anywhere."

"The world isn't your oyster, Zeke. You're a teenage malcontent with nothing better to do than peddle drugs and play spin the bottle with your classmates and you think you have it all figured out?" She doesn't raise her voice at all; one thing that makes it so hard to argue with her. "You've really reached new heights of pathetic this year."

"So I guess I'm the asshole here, right? Don't make me blame you, mother."

She comes as close to unattractive as she ever does: her lips press together in a thin red gash and fine lines deepen on her face. "Oh, you already do," she says. "Hasn't everything you ever did been a cry for attention?"

"Don't try to analyse me--"

"I don't need to analyse you, Zeke. You think you're hiding anything?" She leans a little forward. "You had that oedipal complex when you were ten years old."

His hands lie still on his legs. Not the slightest twitch, no urge to knot them into fists and pound her face to a bloody pulp. He even tries to picture it, but he has to stop - her eyes would stop him. Her mouth would stop him. Her voice would stop him before he even raised his hand. He could growl "Don't fuck with me," but it would have no impact because she's playing this game so much better. And she knows it.

She raises an eyebrow. "Just don't take your frustrations out on your little friends, Zeke," she says and gets up. "I don't think I can keep you out of prison forever. I'm not sure I'd even bother this time. You're old enough to calculate the damage yourself. Now, I'm going to take a bath. Excuse me."

"Bitch," he says weakly after she's gone, but it doesn't fit her - it seems too small a word for her.

He takes the Vonnegut back to his room and lies on the bed flipping through the pages. He's written little squiggly comments in the margins here and there, random thoughts, references, quotes. He hates the thought of her reading his books; he stares at the pages and can almost see her fingerprints there, burned into the yellowing paper.

He unbuckles his jeans and slides his hand down to curl around his cock. If he's lying here thinking deep thoughts, he might as well jerk off. Same thing, really, and they go together well. Jerking off to an image of his mother in the bath feels like a punishment, but he's not sure who he's punishing. He stops before the rush hits, yanks his hand away and thinks, deliberately, about Casey's room - Casey alone there on his bed while his parents are busy ignoring him. Casey would sit curled up and he'd think about Zeke. Zeke can't imagine Casey thinks of much else. It's very easy to imagine Casey thinking about Zeke and touching himself, a little hesitantly because Casey does everything hesitantly unless someone's there to make him forget himself.

Maybe Casey thinks about Delilah and is less hesitant.

The drain in the bathroom gurgles and Zeke wraps his hand around his cock again and finishes off in three quick strokes.

*

He still has his hand down his pants when she pushes open his door and says, "Clean yourself up. I'm taking you out."

He sits up sharply and tries to button up his jeans without too much of a mess, although that's sort of a lost cause already. "You're what?" he says to distract her, but she's glancing at his crotch with a curt little smile.

"Unless you're otherwise occupied, of course. Are you missing the boy or the girl or both?"

He almost pulls his hand through his hair before he remembers that it's sticky. She must see his awkward gesture. She doesn't let on, though. "Come on, Mom. Where are we going?"

"You still call me 'Mom'," she says. "Isn't that sweet."

*

"Not that thing," she says when he heads for his car. "It's filthy."

His car is a little muddy from his earlier drive - it's raining, a chilly, insistent drizzle - but he washed it three days ago. "It's not filthy."

"Of course it is. You're nineteen. You've had sex with your little friends in that car." She smoothes a hand over her skirt. "This is a Vuitton. We're taking mine."

He's not used to being a passenger, and she drives infuriatingly slowly. He lights a cigarette and she reaches out and snatches it from his mouth and throws it out the window.

"Not in the car."

"Well, pull over then, I wanna smoke."

"Learn self-control."

She listens to the Adult Top 40 station, which he suspects is part of some psychological torture scheme she's using on him. She doesn't even like that kind of music.

The last time she was in town - in August, she stayed for two days. The time before that, a week during which she talked to him exactly three times.

"I met Steven in Columbus," she says suddenly, and he almost asks, "Who?" He hasn't seen his father in three years. "In Barney's. We're going to Barney's today. Not as a memory lane thing, of course, but it's the best jazz bar in Ohio."

"Never heard of it," he mutters. Celine Dion makes him grumpy, not smoking makes him grumpier, and his mother acting psycho makes him nervous. The rain is picking up.

"Of course not," she says, as if his ignorance is only expected. "You're turning into a small town dullard."

"Wasn't that the point?"

"No, the point was keeping you out of trouble. I think Steven actually said, 'Small town. What could possibly happen?' Emphasis mine, of course."

"Of course."

"Are you actually having some sort of relationship with those two? I would not have pegged you for the type."

"The type to do what?"

"The girl, what was her name? She looked moderately presentable. Suburban teenage angst seeping through, of course, but she looked like she knew how to carry herself." She leans forward and squints out the window. By now, sheets of rain are pelting the window, covering it in snaking tendrils, turning the inside of the car into a reverse aquarium. The windshield vipers can't keep up. She slows down even more. "This weather. Why didn't we stay in California?"

"Because you put me in school in Ohio."

"California would have been too interesting for you."

And you wanted to be rid of me, he thinks. Ohio's been good to him. This was perhaps the best idea his parents ever had. He remembers California in short, vague flashes, but he was a different person then. He wasn't in control.

"The boy, though," she says. "Did I say he reminded me of Terrence? Terrence was his name, wasn't it?"

"Yeah," he says, but he can't remember what Terry looked like. Thinking about Casey or Terry when his mother sits next to him feels dangerous.

"Not looks, of course - this one is much prettier. But his eyes...you like that, don't you? He worships you." By now they've almost slowed to a stop, and she turns to him, her eyes bright and sharp. "You always break your toys in the end, Zeke."

He could probably say, "This isn't like that," but she wouldn't believe him and he's not going to start explaining. But it isn't like that.

"When you were in Munich with Steven, Terrence's mother called me," she says.

He fishes out his cigs and lights one, avoids her hand and blows smoke at her.

"Are you trying to convince me that you're still fourteen?" she says.

"No," he says. "But if you're going to talk about my fucked up childhood, I'm going to smoke."

"Would you rather talk about the weather?" she asks him and speeds up a little. The rain is still coming down, but it looks a little thinner now. They can actually see the road.

"Yes," he says and stubs out the cig and finds a station that plays classic rock. She drops the subject, but he doesn't think she's forgotten about it. Maybe she's trying to lull him into a false sense of safety. Maybe she's feeling magnanimous. Maybe, just maybe, she's tired of yanking his chain.

*

He's been going to clubs since he was seventeen, ever since he grew tall and broad enough to pass for 21, but it feels strange to go with his mother. She holds his hand when they walk in and the bouncer's eyes slide over him without really seeing him.

He yanks his hand back as soon as they're inside and she leans closer to him and says, "Stop acting like a child."

"I am your child."

"Not in here."

He looks around. A whole clubful of people his mother's age, with a few pretty young things scattered between them - trophy wives and boytoys.

"You took me here to show me off to your friends?" he says, incredulous. She throws him an exasperated glance.

"Don't flatter yourself. I'm here for the music. You're here because we're spending quality time together." She actually wrinkles her nose at 'quality time'.

She gets them martinis. Gin makes him sick to his stomach, as a rule. If he ever drinks, which happens rarely these days, he drinks beer or vodka. "One of us has to drive home," he says.

"Not me," she says and sips. "I have no friends here," she adds. "I haven't been in this place since 1976."

"You're dating yourself."

"You had to come from somewhere. Although sometimes I wonder if they didn't switch you in the hospital. You were such a pretty little baby, but what we got home was quite different."

He wasn't an attractive child, or an attractive adolescent. Gawky and clumsy and his face had been too big for the rest of him, all chin and nose and eyebrows. He's grown up well, and she's told him that - "Thank God you didn't stay ugly," she said last time she was here, "At least you can get by on your looks," as if she'd entirely missed the fact that he has her brains and is using them - but when he was fourteen, he was skinny and too tall and graceless.

Sometimes, he'd catch her twisting her mouth in disgust at the sight of him. Now her eyes are on his face, studying him calmly. "Steven is in So Paulo this spring."

"Good for him." He hasn't seen his father in three years. He thinks they may be divorced, but he's not sure.

"I look like you," he points out.

She waves at a waiter. "Yes, much to my dismay-- We'd like to eat."

There's thankfully no Italian food on the menu, and he orders ribs. She makes a face and asks for the house salad and another martini.

"You can have mine," he says.

"I think you'll need it. Now, tell me about your friends."

"I don't think my friends are any of your business, Mom."

"I'm just trying to make conversation, honey. I've thought about this. The girl could be something. A touch of class. The boy worries me."

"I guess you're gonna tell me why."

"You don't need that kind of thing right now. You're not in a position to indulge in your deviancy yet."

He blinks. "My deviancy?"

"Did you learn nothing in Santa Cruz?"

"Yes, I did, actually." He finally gives up and drinks. The shock of alcohol is a good distraction. "I learned not to trust you."

She leans forward over the table. He leans towards her before he even realises what he's doing. "You were a mess, you were an amateur fumbling at a very adult game, and you fucked it up. I don't think it's time for you to start slipping into that again."

He sits back, quickly. Her eyes are too close, too intense. "I was fourteen years old," he says. "I wasn't playing a game, I was living my life."

She laughs and finishes her drink. "That's not what Terrence's mother said. Were you fucking him?" He's not used to obscenities out of her mouth, and they jar. There's a trickle of ice creeping down his spine. "She didn't know about that, but I always wondered. You're fucking Casey, right? How about little Terry?"

She's already upping the ante. He has no idea why he let her drag him here. She's going to push him and push him for her amusement, and he's probably going to let her.

He slouches back in his chair and takes another sip of the martini - it's already easier to drink. "Do you think about me fucking a lot, Mom?" he asks.

"Oh, you're in," she says, smugly. "I do. Your attempts at a social life intrigue me. Quite a little party team you have for yourself now."

"Does it bother you?"

"I only want what's best for you," she says with a completely straight face. The fucking gin is starting to look like a really good idea. He's not going to win any ground with her, sober or drunk, so he might as well be comfortably numb. "Did you ever think about college?" she adds out of the blue.

"What?"

"Before you decided to thumb your nose at us at the expense of your own life, I mean."

"I'm fine, thanks."

"You could still pick yourself out of the gutter. You think you can go on like this forever? You'll be on the streets in a year."

The band plays classic jazz, the kind his mother likes. Benny Goodman, The Duke, Bird. The woman singing has a slow, warm voice and a tight dress. Zeke watches her instead of his mother for a while. Their food arrives, more martinis for her, a beer for him and silence between them as they eat. The singer moves slowly and holds the microphone like a lover. Zeke thinks about Casey and Delilah. He likes watching them kiss. Casey has a habit of simply lying back and letting himself be kissed, utterly passive; Delilah will grab his head and dive in, biting his lips and licking the sore spot. Casey's hands will scrabble helplessly over her back.

I'm gonna get myself a shotgun...

"I have a loft on the Upper East Side."

Twice as long as I am tall...

His mother's voice is deep and husky, but never warm. "You could take the SATs again. You could be a person rather than some small town loser with a junk habit and a fast track ticket to Oakwood. New York would give you plenty of opportunities."

I'm gonna shoot that man...

His own voice is scratchy. "I don't have a junk habit."

"You will." Her hand on his, suddenly, and he turns away from the singer. His mother has finished his martini, too, and her eyes are just a little glazed. "Steven isn't coming back from Brazil, Zeke. Maybe we've been approaching this whole thing the wrong way, all along."

"What thing?" he asks. His palm is sweaty against the tabletop. He wants to smoke. Her hand is dry and cool; he can feel her nails lie sharp against his skin, potential danger at rest, like a cat's sheathed claws. Her hands are larger than Casey's.

"You. You were a disturbed child. You scared us. We may have overreacted."

She's throwing him some sort of line. He didn't expect this. Her hand has trapped his - how can that happen? He has big hands. He can fold Casey's hand or Delilah's hand entirely into his. He can twist a quarterback's arm and make him cry uncle. His mother's hand is light and bony, and when her fingers slide around his wrist, he can almost hear the click of a handcuff locking.

"You're an adult now, Zeke," she says, almost sweetly, and so softly that he has to lean in, has to stay inclined towards her. Her lips forming the words fascinate him. "You can do whatever you want."

"I am doing what I want," he says. The table between them is too narrow; she's too close. He might not be able to walk away. She smiles.

"You're miserable. You've always been miserable. Too smart to fit in, too ruthless to be loved, too scared to leave."

"I am--" Loved. He freezes. The music is a screech of disharmony in the background. Her face is calm and her voice has spun a cloud around him and he's afraid of her. "I'm not afraid," he lies and thinks, this is how Casey feels. He has no desire to ever feel like Casey.

She laughs, keeping it low and throaty and for his ears only. "I don't think you know how scared you are." She lifts her hand off his and puts it on his face instead. He bows his head and she strokes his cheek softly. "Maybe you've been afraid too long to even notice."

He shivers under her touch and can't move.

"It's a beautiful loft," she whispers. "Hardwood floors and brick walls. I did the interior design myself."

He knows she's lying - not in words perhaps, but in intentions, and still he can feel himself slipping. She's never really asked anything of him before. There has to be a reason for this. She hates him. She hates him. Her fingertips touch his mouth and there's a heaviness in his body, a heat and a weight in his limbs.

He's seduced people like this.

"Tell me something, Mom," he says. Her nail scratches his lower lip lightly when he speaks. "How many beds in your loft?"

He leans back and she lets her hand drop to the table. "I have a sofa," she says smoothly.

"Fuck off, Mom," he says and it doesn't even feel good. He wants another fucking martini. For the first time in ages, he would not say no to some chemical entertainment.

He knots his hands into fists and concentrates on the sliver of pain where his nails dig into his palms. She lights a cigarette and smiles at him. "It's time for you to get out of Ohio, honey."

He finds a spot on her blouse to focus on and says, "I like Ohio."

Her turn to freeze. He can see the realisation dawn in her eyes, and this should feel good too, but it doesn't.

"What do you have here? Nothing. Your little tramp and your little toy, a school you don't go to, an empty house."

He's unfrozen entirely now that she's slipped back from seductive to vicious. She's a little drunk, he thinks; not quite up to her game. He might be, too. "Better than you. Hitting on your son? Are you lonely, Mom?"

For a fraction of a second, he can see that he has her; he's hit her in the one single soft spot she has. Then her expression smoothes out and she says, "As you wish. The house is yours. I'll send someone to collect my personal effects."

It still hurts. How can it hurt? "Yeah, fine. Whatever."

*

She drinks a few more martinis and he smokes and listens to the band. They leave at midnight and Zeke drives. It's stopped raining and the world is star-bright and glistening wet.

"I didn't even want children," she mutters. She's more than a little drunk now and she's given up on her no-smoking-in-the-car rule.

"Shouldn't disowning me be enough, Mom?" he asks. "Need to hammer it in just a little more, huh?"

"But you were beautiful - you had a thick head of curly black hair and your little hands were the most wonderful thing I'd ever seen. I cried with joy when I got to see you in the hospital."

"Mom..."

"We had a little room made up - at first we were in San Francisco and didn't have the space, but after we moved into your grandmother's old house we made you a room with stars in the ceiling."

"Look, this is great, memory lane, great, but seriously, I have no--"

"We had a dog named Burt. Did I ever show you pictures? That dog loved you."

He pulls over to the side of the road so quickly the tires screech. She catches herself against the dashboard. He turns to her. "Shut the FUCK UP, MOM."

He can't hit her. He wants to. Oh, he wants to. Instead, he hits the dashboard, hits the radio so the knobs come loose and skitter to the floor, hits the heating system controls. He realises he's losing it. She's pressed against the window on her side and he has a quick, sickening flash of Casey, Casey's face beat bloody, Casey's eyes staring at his fists.

His mother touches his hand and stops the next punch with cool fingers. "Stop it, Zeke," she says. "You're throwing a tantrum. Listen to me. You played in the yard with your Tonka truck. You never hurt animals, I never caught you pulling the wings off flies."

He leans his face against the wheel and listens. His hand throbs. She's stroking his cracked knuckles. "On your first day in school, you got into a fight with a third grader. You beat his head against a wall and they told us to get you therapy.

"I didn't know what happened to my beautiful baby.

"I remembered why I didn't want children.

"The day you broke your neck; when I saw you fall--"

He's still leaning into her touch. "--I was happy. I thought you'd die."

*

He wants to sleep through her leaving, but instead he stands in the door and watches her load her suitcase into the back of the Saturn. She shows no signs of a hangover. Zeke has a headache and the morning sun is too bright in his eyes.

They haven't spoken at all since last night, and he's not about to start a conversation. Her dress and make up are perfect. Sometimes he thinks he sees a little smile on her face; sometimes it looks like she's just tightening her mouth in disapproval. Or pain, although that might be too much to hope for.

"Goodbye," she says and leans in and kisses the corner of his mouth. He waits until after she's gone to rub his face to get rid of the imprint of her lips.

He goes back inside.




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