2012 Quill winner ~ it will make you cry
2012 Quills Honorable Mention Best Short Story
Editor's choice February 2013 Spiritual NL
A fist rapped on the kitchen door. “Mrs. Davenport?"
I cringed. "Shea, is that you?" Whenever Shea showed up, I knew he brought trouble—trouble in the form of my son, Max. I opened the door to the garage. A gaggle of twelve-year-old kids, pushing, hollering, and laughing, silenced when they saw my face. Shea spoke up.
"Max's got somethin', Mrs. D."
What now? "Another alligator?"
Max called from behind Shea's back, "Nope, no alligator, Mom. ’Sides, it's puny, can't bite anyone."
I massaged the back of my neck, calming a spasm. "Capturing alligators is a felony, for heaven's sake."
"Sorry, Mom." His tone brightened. "He likes his cage."
I clapped my hands over my ears. "Don't tell me." I stretched up on my toes and tried to see over Shea's shoulder, but the kids shifted and blocked my view. I sighed and hazarded another guess. "It's a dog, right?" Last month he came home tugging a red pit bull. I noted her swollen belly.
"Found her in the park, playing with a ball. Nobody around. Had to bring her home."
The next day, I tracked down the owner, who offered me a pup. Lucky for me Max was in school. Saying no to him is like defying gravity.
Andrea, one of Max's many girlfriends, said, "No, Mrs. D. No dog."
How can a twelve-year-old boy have so many girlfriends? We installed a dedicated phone line. I lost five pounds one month, running from place to place trying to find him. A popping sound leeching from under the kitchen door caught my attention. I twirled on my toes and ran back inside to pull boiling soup from the microwave. It splashed on my hand. The back door to the past yawned and an image formed. Was Max only two when he tried to microwave his plastic book? I laughed. Maybe I should write a collection of short stories. Story one: Max and the Microwave. All I needed was a title.
Max called from the garage. I wiped up the soup and delivered my mind and body into the hands of my son. "Okay, okay." I surveyed the heads of the kids. They looked too happy. What could it be this time? My mind whirled back to last summer: Max and the Horses. Last August, horses neighing in my backyard woke me. I peered out the window and saw four horses tethered to trees. Max said he found them straying in the field behind our house. Later, I found out Max knocked down a section of the corral . . . "No more horses, right?"
"No, Mrs. D. My parents kinda' said Max can't come anymore." This from Lisa. Her parents owned the horse ranch that butted up to our property.
"A snake?" Another story for my collection: Max Dances with Snakes. That's what my neighbors call him when they find a snake on their property. My son claims he knows the difference between poisonous and harmless. But every time I watch him rip his T-shirt off and ensnare the reptile by its neck in one magnificent motion I tremble—what if? Max stepped forward, arms behind his back. How bad can this be? I wanted to run away, to not be this child's mother for just a few seconds.
“You wanna' hear all the story or just the ending, Mom?"
These questions kill me. He always offers the abbreviated version, but tells you the whole thing anyhow. Resistance is futile. "From the beginning."
He grinned. "Ya know the lake behind Mick's house?"
I crossed my arms and scowled. "Your father said to stay away from there."
"Thought you said from the beginning."
Somehow he manages to look contrite and irresistible at the same time. It's in his eyes, bright azure, like his dad's. "Okay, let's hear it."
"We found a turtle. I captured it." He held it up for inspection, and I plopped down.
"Out. Everybody out." The kids drifted away. The world needs replacement mothers for people like me—clones to take a shift or two of motherhood. Max had not captured a turtle. The turtle captured him. His left thumb was imprisoned under the turtle's shell. Are there guide books for kids like this? Do manuals exist where moms can look in the index and find solutions for thumbs trapped in turtles? New story: Max and the Turtle. "We'll just wait for the turtle to relax and open his shell."
Max shrugged and collapsed on the floor, the turtle nestled in his lap. He flipped open his cell and started calling friends. I crouched nearby. For twenty minutes nothing worried me. I stared at Max—this glorious, horrible boy who brings joy and disaster into my life—and just breathed. The miraculous moment passed when the turtle opened up and released my son's undamaged thumb. He jumped up, tucked the turtle under his arm, and called back over his shoulder.
"Amy saw a water moccasin in that creek behind her house. Gotta go catch it."
"Water moccasins are poison—"
"Don't worry. Got my lucky stone Dad brought from Colorado."
He was gone. Dinner time passed and shadows hunkered down behind trees. Max's phone rang six times and went to voice mail. "Max, please call." Five minutes later: "Max, where are you? Please call." I hung up and dialed again. "Max, you're scaring me. Call back." Thirty minutes ticked by while trying to reach him. I called Shea, then Lisa, and then Andrea. I called Shea again and asked for his mother. Why had I relied on a kid for information?
"No, I'm sorry, Bridgette—"
The doorbell chimed, and I hung up mid-sentence. Thank heavens. Max lost his keys and cell phone, that's all. But when the door swung open, two police officers stood on the front porch.
"Mrs. Davenport? I'm Officer Bridges, and this is my partner, Officer Hanson. May we come in?" Their uniforms were crisp, their eyes a calculated neutral. I hesitated. "It's about your son."
My fingers curled around the door frame and I leaned on it for support. "Max?"
My voice quivered. "Please come in." I gestured toward the living room and followed with reluctant steps. The two officers flanked the fireplace. I focused on the shelf above and the gaps where Jake's photos had been before I boxed and stored them in the attic. The female cop stepped forward and squeezed my hand.
"Mrs. Davenport, I'm sorry. We have some bad news."
My heart hit the pit of my stomach before soaring into my throat. The scene before me blurred, and I blinked several times before responding. "Officer Hanson—"
I swallowed hard and nodded. "Wendy, Max is full of mischief, but he's never done anything wrong. He's not in any trouble?"
"No, nothing like that." Her voice trailed off, and she placed her hand on my back, guiding me to the rocking chair, but I perched on the seat, desperately unwilling to abandon my wild hope. I planted both elbows on my knees and leaned forward.
"The snake bit him?"
The male officer—Officer Bridges—cleared his throat. "Is there anyone we can call to sit with you?"
I shook off Wendy's hand and asked Bridges, "What the hell happened to my son?"
"What about your husband? Can you reach him?"
"No. I already told you. Just me and Max." Wendy looked at me like she appreciated a single mother's pain. My words came out on a sanded tongue. "Jake . . . he's . . . he was my husband, died last year. Rare brain tumor. Gone in six months." Wendy passed me a tissue, and I crumpled it in my fist. "For God's sake, tell me what's going on."
The man officer—forgot his name already—said, "Your son cut through neighbors' yards on his way home. Jumped out of a clump of bushes onto the street." He paused and locked his eyes on mine. "Near dusk."
I catapulted from the rocker, grabbed my jacket and purse, and squeezed the keys in my palm, gouging the skin. I wanted to inflict pain, to prepare my body for the oncoming train wreck of truth. "He was running for help after the snake bit him. You got him to the hospital in time?" Wendy resisted my tug toward the door, and I yanked my wrist from her grasp. "Come on. I gotta go. He's probably scared to death."
"Please, Mrs. Davenport, sit back down."
"No. I don't want to sit down. I want to get Max. He needs his mother. What's wrong with you people? Can't you see we're wasting time?" I shoved a knuckled fist into my mouth and bit down with my front teeth, damming tears before they spilled.
"The driver"—Officer Bridges flipped through his notes—"a Mr. Blake Carrington, said Max came from nowhere."
My brow furrowed. "The driver? What're you saying? This . . . uh . . . Mr. Carrington took him to the hospital?" If I continued my mind game, Max was still alive.
Wendy and her partner exchanged looks. "It was an accident."
"Accident? What accident?" I swiveled on my heel and peered from one to the other, my fingers laced together, clenching and then unclenching. I licked salted drops that escaped the dam and cascaded unheeded down my face before pooling around the corners of my mouth. A cold finger of certainty traced down my spine. No more time to play with. I was forced to accept the message I intuited the second the cops appeared at my door. Still, Officer Bridges' words were gut punches.
“Vehicle vs. pedestrian. Mr. Carrington's SUV hit Max dead on. He was D. O. A. when we got there."
“Don't say that—D.O. A.—like you're filling out some routine paperwork." Visions sprang to mind. Max smashed in the road? Zipped up in a body bag? Was I expected to identify the body? My throat ached from the strain of suppressing emotions. If I maintained my composure, the tragedy would remain undefined. Unreal. My fingers shredded Wendy's tissue—all the specks drifting like people amiss. "You're wrong. Mixed him up with some other kid." I loosened the twisty-tie holding back my hair and raked fingers through it. "Please, not Max. He's my life. My son."
Wendy fished around in her purse and pulled out a plastic evidence bag. She rattled the stone inside. "We found this in his pocket."
I plucked the bag from the air. "Oh, God, no. Please, no." A sob escaped.
Both officers lowered their voices. "We're sorry for your loss."
The floor rushed up, but Wendy caught me before I fainted. "You're sure there's no one we can call?"
The need for solitude engulfed me. "No, no. It's fine. Please, just go." I ushered them out the door, and when it closed a void opened in my soul—a hole where Max had lived. I sat dry-eyed in shock, feeling nothing, while my foot pushed the rocker to and fro, Max's picture album clutched to my chest. What was wrong with me? I should be wrecked, a sobbing wretch. No more snakes, alligators, or dogs—no more Max.
If only the turtle kept his shell closed—holding my son captive for more than twenty minutes—he might still be alive. Did I say, 'I love you,' enough? Tears splattered the album, and I brushed them away with my sleeve. Was life worth living without Max? Without Jake . . . without anyone? I sequestered the anguish, same as when Jake died.
Upstairs, I pulled the anti-anxiety prescription my doctor prescribed after Jake's death from my nightstand and jiggled the bottle. Five, maybe six. I scrounged around in the back of the drawer and pulled out a refill. Thirty-seven pills total. Sufficient to end my life? I emptied the contents into my palm and filled a glass with water. So easy, never facing the double deaths, but so wrong. The faucet dripped after being turned off, but underneath that trickling a sound drifted up the stairs . . . my cell phone? Wrong number, probably. Let it ring. The essence of my son filled the room, so real I extended my hand to brush his cheek, but swept empty air. Max?
The glass slipped from my fingers, shattered on the cold tiles, and the pills scattered across the bathroom floor. I clambered down the stairs two at a time. Where did I leave the damn phone? Kitchen? Living room? Five rings, six—how many before it goes to voice mail? I switched on the light—there, under the rocker. I popped open the cell phone on the seventh ring.
"H . . . Hello?"
"Max?" I clamped the cell to my ear. My vision narrowed to black spots. Breathe. In. Out. "The police just left. They said you were—"
"Dead, I know. But it was fast, like turning off a light."
The lone lamp in the living room extinguished. My breath hitched and I twirled around the room, searching for Max. The gloom glared. "I don't understand . . . how is this possible?"
“I'm calling on God's telephone."
"Calling me on God's . . . Wait, what?"
"Can't talk long. Sorry for all the trouble."
My body trembled and I grabbed a sweater from the back of the rocker. "Oh, God, Max. You never caused trouble. Can you come back?"
“Mom, I'm in Heaven. Dad's here. Be strong. We love you."
Embracing the ethereal realm was horrifyingly tempting. Maybe Max wouldn't be forever lost. "Wait, don't go." My throat constricted. "I love—" Static, then silence—only the vacuum of the transcendent beyond remained. With the cell phone pressed to my chest, I picked up his photo album, sat on the floor, and let my fingers trip through the years. The last picture taken six months ago. I should have taken more. His baby pictures swam before my eyes.
If time passed, it passed unaware, out of sync with me, out of sync with the universe. I surrendered myself to the River Cry, and with not a soul to witness, I broke. My shoulders heaved until my ribs ached under the assault of punishing, gulping sobs. I punched the wall and licked the blood glistening on my knuckles. My stomach uncoiled and I retched. My vocal chords were ravaged from screaming—no, no, no—until the words sharpened to inhuman sounds.
Sunshine pricking my eyelids woke me. My bones ached from sleeping on the floor, my face sore from resting on the picture album. I swallowed past a rock of pain lodged in my throat, and a few seconds ticked before yesterday came barging in. Max. The phone call, was it real? I lifted my gaze to the mantelpiece and rubbed my eyes. I crept closer. Front and center, a framed snapshot of Jake holding Max—one I had never taken—gazed back at me. I picked it up and ran disbelieving fingers across their faces. A rosy glow permeated the room, chasing away the despair. Jake and Max wanted me to live. I kissed the picture, and a melodic surge of energy strummed my body. No, not just live, they wanted me to celebrate life. My son's smile shone brilliant in my mind, and with the grief I suppressed after their deaths embraced, came a paradigm shift—life refocused.
I shuffled to the kitchen, started coffee brewing, and booted up my PC. The word processing program flashed its virgin pages. A smile chased across my face, and I blotted tears before they splashed down. Inspiration lit. My fingers found their rhythm as I started typing the title page: Maximum Mischief by Bridgette Davenport.
Somewhere, Jake is holding our son, and they're laughing.
Inspired by the true antics of my son, who turned 30 in 2014. Twenty years, and he was never bitten until 2014 June by a baby copperhead. Of course, he survived.