We cherished that house, though we only ever knew it at night. Mother had a company, spent her days sniffling and pointing at screens, and Nadine and I were middle-school students, strung along in the world of cotillion and sport. We spent long days striving to accumulate things: experience, money—it didn't matter so long as it was more. And to return home was to claim our prize. There was the television with its narcotic glow, and story-hour, when mother would do funny voices, read us Poe in her beautiful red robe.
All was well. Until November of 1988 I had little reason to complain.
I was asleep when I heard a thud. It was a leaden noise, a noise from a dream. I turned over and tried to go back to sleep. Then it happened again, directly above my room.
I sprang from my bed and jogged the long hallway to Mother's room. She was taking a sip of Gatorade, standing in the middle of the room with Nadine at her side.
How cozy she looked in her sweatpants and zippered fleece. Her hair was long and golden, and, due to a surgery, her face would never crease.
“Walker,” she said, “do we call the police? You’re the man here.”
“Yes,” I said. “No, it was probably a suitcase. Doesn’t Leslie stack them when she cleans?”
Mother looked to Nadine for confirmation. Nadine squirmed. It was Mother who had told us this information in the first place.
I took the phone from the nightstand and punched in 911, waiting to call.
Then it happened again. The room shook. Nadine yelped and Mother put out her hands as if she were learning to surf, surveying the ceiling, the cords in her neck taut.
“Dammit.” She never cursed. “Downstairs. In the car.”
For ten minutes we waited there with the garage door open and the engine running, until the police finally arrived.
There were two of them, both men, and I saw them enter the house with their guns drawn. They found nothing. They checked the attic and basement, shined flashlights in the crawl spaces. They didn’t take us seriously. A decorative mother and a pair of of brats raised with a silver spoon. They called the sound a fluke.
That night I was too afraid to sleep on my own, and for the first time in as long as I could remember, I decided to spend it on Mother's couch. I made every effort to avoid detection, waiting until I knew Nadine had fallen asleep to tiptoe down the hall.
I lay awake on the couch while my mother tossed and turned in her bed. “I love you, Walker,” she mumbled woozily, drugged by the sleep.
I wanted morning to come. I wanted Mother to see me through the night. But I was no longer so young. I knew there were certain feelings I would have to graduate from. One could regress if one wasn’t on guard.
“I love you, too,” was all I said.
The following morning proceeded as most mornings did. We didn't talk about last night, Nadine, my mother and I. There was little to say. It was an eerie night, and we didn't expect to be reminded of it again.
Coming home from school that day, I volunteered to take the dogs for their nightly walk. It was nearly 7:00 p.m., and the sun had already set.
Langston and Stacey pulled me through the pale darkness of the street. Leaves starved since their fall disintegrated beneath my feet, and aside from the panting of the dogs and the patter of our steps, the world was quiet, without wind. Where were our neighbors? I never saw them. They always seemed to be on trips, and their properties were fenced and removed from ours by acres of grass. We all had acres, which we meticulously kept.
When we had finished the walk and reached the edge of our property, I noticed a sedan parked at the end of the driveway. Its lights were off and, at 150 yards, its occupants invisible. The dogs were curious. They strained to pull further up the street, but I had little reason to let them, to investigate something as mundane as a car on a public street. I tried to think rationally and forced the dogs across the lawn.
“Whose car?” I asked. Mother was reading a book, mixing a stir-fry with a wooden spoon.
I assumed it a visitor, a friend of hers.
“The one out front. Hanging by the driveway.”
She put the book down, lowered the heat, then paced to the dining room. Standing with her arms akimbo, she peered through the bay windows out to the street.
“Nothing,” she said.
I nodded then sat at the counter, watched her cook.
“Do we own a gun?”
She arched her neck and gave a short, single laugh.
“We? No. I despise guns. They’re for rednecks,” she said.
“Todd's dad has one. Mr. Ravenal—he’s got a rifle.”
She plated the food and called to Nadine upstairs. She glanced toward me with cautious eyes. “That's quite the question, Walk. Why are you thinking about guns?”
I didn't say anything. I blew on my food and started to eat.
The bathroom door slammed shut on the second floor, and Mother called again, her voice flagging with the effort.
“Talk to me, Walk.”
“Protection. Some people use them for protection. That's all.”
“I know that, but what do we need protection from? People are friendly out here. There’s hardly any crime.”
“I know, it’s nothing,” I told her.
She kissed my cheek, tussled my hair. Her words had failed to make me less afraid, but she had stoked something with her touch, had softened the blow of the coming night. And again, for the second night in a row, I slept on Mother’s couch.
My performance at school began to dip. It happened quickly. I was firing lacrosse balls over nets, getting B's. I spilled sparkling cider on Emily Dune-Kingsley's chest.
It was that wretched couch, I told myself, a love seat really, that was keeping me from a good night’s sleep. For the past two weeks I had watched the sun rise from Mother’s balcony, shivering in my boxers, alone above the frost.
And I owed Mother greatly, for she had worked to keep my scant dignity intact. Each morning she woke me ten minutes before Nadine, gave me time to return to my room and remove the evidence from hers. The arrangement had begun under circumstance, but was building into habit. I couldn’t say whether it was only the fear that kept me in her room. I was afraid—certainly—but I loved my mother. I hated the time we spent apart.
We were in the back gardens on a clear autumn day, pulling weeds though we didn’t have to, though we had a landscaping team, when Mother pointed toward my eyes and mentioned the bags. She was wearing running clothes, spandex, and they fit her perfectly.
“What about moving back to your room, Walk? It’s been a little while.”
I grunted, gritting my teeth as I pulled an innocuous root from the ground.
“I like having you in my room—you’re a doll—but it makes me worried. You haven’t been seeing your friends.”
I pulled another root.
“Okay, alright,” I said. “It’s done.”
While Mother continued to pick at the ground, I went looking for a sketchbook that had gone missing in the past few days. It contained a semester's worth of work for Intermediate Drawing, and I needed it to pass the class.
I combed my room, searched the house thoroughly, but it was nowhere; the book had disappeared.
An hour had passed before I went back outside. Mother swore she hadn't seen it, so I left her there in the garden and made my way beneath the pergola and back to the house.
“Weed-wacker! Attic!” I heard her yell from afar. She enunciated very well, and there was no way to pretend I hadn’t heard.
I grabbed a flashlight from beneath the sink. I had to do it, to enter the attic, the geographic center of my fear. High school was less than a year away. There was shame and dignity to consider. In two months I would turn fourteen.
The stairs creaked painfully as I pulled them from the ceiling, and a cold mustiness breathed forth.
There were alleys of cardboard boxes and plastic containers, and I meandered through them until I found the light switch. It wasn’t so bad in the light. I had a clear line of sight across the space, and my pulse slowed as I wandered and found the weed-wacker. I took it, killed the lights, then lowered the tool through the glowing gap in the floor. The job was done.
“Very good” Mother said. “That was strong of you. It takes a very strong boy to face his fears.”
I shook my head and plugged the thing in. It buzzed maniacally and a familiar heat spread through my face. Mother often made me blush. Sometimes she praised me. Sometimes she tickled my neck. And though I loved these moments, I resented Mother for speaking of my fear in the light of day. The hours we spent in her room, lying together, dreaming and inhaling the same body of air—these hours belonged to the night. They were secretive and beautiful and dangerous and they were not to be discussed.
The next morning was a Sunday, bright and gusty. I had just returned to my room when Mother knocked at my door.
“I found it,” she said. “I found your book.”
She walked to my bed and handed it to me.
“How about a thank-you for your mother?” she said, leaning in and taking me in a hug.
“Where was it?”
“The attic. It was on the ground in a dusty corner where we keep the old pillows and comforters. I saw it when I was putting the weed-wacker back.”
“That doesn’t make sense. I hadn’t been up there until yesterday. I never go in the attic.”
Mother made a silly face, blew a bubble with her gum. It was big and lewd and it refused to pop.
“Are you listening to me? I don’t go up there. You know I don’t go up there. That’s not where I left my book.”
Finally it popped, then another bubble.
“What do you want me to say? It was the gypsies that live in the basement! The old sorcerer who’s always hiding behind the couch!”
I didn’t laugh. I glared at Mother until she had no choice but to speak. “I’m teasing! Your mother likes to tease. It was probably Nadine. Or Leslie. She could have put it there the last time she came to clean.”
I was unconvinced. I had already asked Nadine, and Leslie had the conscience of a nun. She wouldn’t have touched my book.
Night came early and I decided to draw.
Beginning at the first page of illustrations, I flipped through my semester's work. The degree of progress was impressive and, for a moment, the dread was gone. I breathed easily and felt something close to pride.
Then it changed. My breathing, my composure—all of it changed.
Someone had been in the book. These stick figures, haikus, venn diagrams and games of tic-tac-toe, none of them were mine. There was a poem written for Janice, a love poem. I didn’t know Janice. I had never known Janice. I had never written a poem and I didn’t know love.
The book trembled in my hands. I gagged twice then got sick on the floor.
As I hurried down the hall, the photographs of our family seemed malicious and new, like they were taunting me. We had always been the agreed-upon inhabitants of this house, the three of us, but now things had gotten funny, and I was no longer so sure. I thought of the thud in the attic and the idling car, now the sketchbook, and tried to piece them all together. I couldn’t.
Mother was beneath the covers when I opened the door. Her nose was whistling and a thin strand of hair divided her face.
“What is it, honey?” She was half asleep but could still see it on my face, the fear. Anyone could.
“Did you have a nightmare, Walk?”
I walked past the couch and sat on the opposite side of her bed, where my father had slept when Nadine and I were small, with a pillow over his head.
Mother pointed toward the couch. “The couch is over there, Walk.”
“I’m sick,” I said, not wanting to talk about the book, for the book was still the stuff of movies, unassimilated, and I was too timid to bring it to voice.
“What is it, honey?”
I pulled the covers back and fit myself beneath them. Slowly, as the night grew, Mother’s warmth drew me across the bed. It was safer on her side of the mattress, and I was no longer concerned with shame. Fear and allure had put shame to rest—it had become irrelevant—and another night passed and we spent it very close.
She was convinced it had been the work of classmates, Mother was, that they had drawn in my book and planted it in the attic. But I hadn’t had friends over in weeks, and I had lost the book only days before.
This was how Mother saw the world. Hers was a world of comfortable truths.
But Mother was nothing if not giving, and she played along with my fear, offered to search the house with her friend and her friend’s husband. And so they came that very night, Jean and Arthur, an identical looking couple that could have just as easily been siblings. After dinner, the adults began to joke about the task ahead. To them, it was a scavenger hunt, nothing more than a game. Arthur asked Mother when was the last time she played baseball, and each of us took our bat.
We started in the basement, which was unfinished and vast, and at every corner we rounded, every cranny we explored, Arthur and Jean giggled in the way of conspirators. I couldn’t be bothered by what Jean and Arthur thought—they were strangers—but Mother’s laughter wounded me in a terrible way. She knew good and well that our little search set my heart to pound, that, for me, each closet door was opened with mortal stakes.
Next we combed the furnished floors of the house. We used these rooms; there were plastic containers beneath the beds and linens lining the closet shelves. Where, physically speaking, could an intruder think to hide? I was trying to be objective, to think in terms of concrete fact. In the daylight I had this luxury, to look through an unclouded lens. Perhaps the adults were right.
Finally we came to the attic, and I was weak again. Boxes were moved, every square foot of floor passed beneath our feet, and by the time it was through, I was powerless to the truth. There was no man living in our house—there couldn’t be. The sketchbook, the constant feeling that I was being watched—these were nothing more than the fantasies of a child. I was clinging to these fantasies. I didn’t want to grow up.
Mother and I stood together in the cold night. We waved Arthur and Jean off as they drove away into the dark.
“All better?” Mother asked.
“You were laughing,” I said. “You were laughing at me.”
She hugged me. She used her touch so she wouldn’t have to explain.
“It’s okay to be afraid, Walker. I am sometimes. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“When are you ever afraid?”
We were still outside for some reason, though we could see our breath. Mother wrung her hands then breathed on them. “Last night,” she said. “My eyes were playing tricks on me last night. You were next to me, you had fallen asleep, but I couldn’t sleep so I went for some fresh air on the balcony. All of a sudden, I’m standing there and I see what looks like some guy crawling across the yard. I wasn’t wearing my contacts. It must have been a deer, of course. But, point is, Walker, your mind will do that. You have to remember what's logical, then your eyes will only show you what makes sense.”
I didn’t say anything. My face must have changed because Mother felt the need to make nice. “Oh no, that was nothing, honey. You know I’d call the police if I ever felt unsafe.”
“Where did you see the deer?”
“Oh, just there.” She pointed to a stand of birch trees in the distance. I had never seen deer in the backyard; it was fenced off from the woods, divided from the land in the front by another fence. She’d suggested that I remember what is logical, and I was struggling to take her advice.
“I’d like to go to sleep,” I told Mother. “Can we please go to sleep?”
She had given up on keeping me away. Her bed was mine now, uncontested, and she hadn’t thought to complain.
“Why yes, my Walks,” she said. “Nadine is staying at Rachel's tonight. I’ll make milkshakes. We can drink them under the sheets.”
Lacrosse game. A chippy affair against the Haverford School for Boys.
I saw Mother in the stands, wearing an anorak, clapping her gloves when my stick found the ball.
I wanted to prove to her my age, the raw strength of puberty.
I slashed a mid-fielder less than an inch below his throat and was awarded a 1-minute penalty. I was proud and I panted and I looked to the farthest reaches of the stands. Mother. She was making a cute little face. A face of false rebuke. A phony call to behave.
It had been however many weeks. Mother and I were still sharing the same bed. We had enrolled in a French cooking class together; she let me drink the backwash from her wine.
“You’re not still scared, are you?”
“No,” I said, and I wondered if I would ever learn to behave.
We were required, as eighth graders, to attend the final winter cotillion. I didn’t care about dancing. I hardly cared about school. But Mother saw this as an opportunity for me, and she was very interested in who I would ask.
My options were technically limitless. My date was not required to be a student at the Academy, and there was no explicit stipulation of age. In the past, I had heard of boys who had brought a beautiful cousin, or even a sister from another marriage. There was a precedent to keeping it within the family, and Mother was comely, kind, and at thirty-five, looked young.
But she laughed at the idea. She was always laughing. “You can’t be serious, babe. They’ll have a field day. They’ll never let you live it down.”
“Please,” I said.
She stared at me for a moment, waited for the longing in my eyes to break, though it never would.
“That’s really what you want? You won’t be embarrassed?”
Maybe I would, but I couldn’t summon the will to care. Mother would straighten her hair and pad her cheeks in rouge. She would wear a fine red dress and be the envy of the dance.
“Yes,” I said, “that’s what I want.”
I thought of Mother in terms of her beauty, her glowing eyes and pouty lips. It had been weeks since our nights had turned simple, since the fear had gone and left us to enjoy the movements of our sleep. The way our chests were made buoyant then suddenly fell.
No, I would not be embarrassed. I had once heard a man on the television say, “In true beauty there can be no shame.”
Nadine was horrified when she heard. She said we were crazy, that she would never forgive Mother, that I could no longer call myself her brother. But why worry about Nadine? She had come out of focus. I never saw her, and I swore that Mother loved her less.
On the night of the dance Mother and I met at the bottom of the house’s central stairs. I bowed, she curtsied. We looked splendid, Mother in her red lace dress, and I in the tuxedo that had been tailored to my shape.
We took off in her car and sped through the night. The township had banned streetlights many years ago, so we followed the path of our brights, past hobby-farms and estates, and arrived at the Academy soon after the dance had begun. Without speaking, Mother took my hand and led me into the ballroom.
People stared. Classmates, boys whom I used to call friends—they had met Mother in the past and now they nodded hello. Chaperones whispered to one another. A girl who had kissed me the past summer had a fit of nervous laughter. Mother was a good sport and giggled as if our pairing was some kind of joke.
I offered her my hand and we took to the floor. Then we were off, foxtrotting through clouds of body odor and perfume, multiplying in the room’s mirrored walls. We danced the whole night through. Mother commented on the beauty of adolescent malaise. Sweat dripped, collected in the small of her back, so much that it became difficult to keep my hand in place. It was slipping, so Mother took it and wiped it on the front of her dress, less than an inch below the bust. My world history teacher and I locked eyes in that moment, then he lost his nerve and quickly looked away. But there was little reason for weakness in the knees; all was well, my hand was dry, and it stayed on Mother’s back until it became wet again.
It was just before midnight when Mother fetched the car and took us home. In the car, she asked me if it had been a success, if I regretted having asked her to come. I told her of course not, that I would have been miserable without her.
“You were the most handsome of them all,” she told me, and she drove the rest of the way with one hand in my hair, picking away flakes of dandruff then flicking them into the passing night.
The dark was impenetrable when we pulled into our long, snaking driveway. Hardly anything could be seen. Mother parked the car, closed the garage, then kissed my head and yawned as we walked to the door.
It was open a crack. There was a slit of light bleeding through.
“Your mother is silly, Walk,” she said. “I forgot to shut the door all the way.”
We entered. Mother removed her heels and took them by their straps.
“You danced tremendously tonight. You were—” she started to say, when suddenly she, both of us, lost the ability to speak. We could neither move nor breathe.
Cartons of Chinese food littered the kitchen counter. A pair of wine glasses idled next to the sink. A bath towel was draped over the seat of a barstool. There were clumps of mud leading from the breakfast nook to the sliding porch doors. Whistling. Someone was whistling upstairs, but the speed was off. The world was stripped of its normal speed; it reached me in a delay.
“No,” I started.
Mother’s eyebrows were raised, eyes pulled wide. She looked persecuted and embarrassed as if she had been caught at something naughty. As if she were somehow to blame.
“Don't look,” she said, and we left the house and ran together to the street.
I watched the flashing lights emerge from the dark. Six police cars.
“They must have had a copy of the key,” Mother said. “We looked. We looked, didn’t we?”
I didn’t care about these specifics. It was all too violent and new, and I slipped my arms beneath Mother’s coat and found something good and final in her warmth. Her back had dried. The night was cold. I told Mother I loved her and I wondered where we would sleep.
Connor McElwee splits his time between Missoula, Montana and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University and currently a student in the University of Montana MFA program in Creative Writing.