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A Night Out

Thursday 11/02/2006 2:40 AM

There was something about that spot of red that bothered her. The test results would be back today.

She remembered the blood on his pillow when he had lost one of his baby teeth. The tooth had been loose for a while, but the rough housing with his dad had knocked it out prematurely. He had been anxious to put it under his pillow, and as she held the cotton ball in his mouth in the bathroom before he went to bed, he said it didn't hurt.

C'mon, Ma, he had said on the cool tile of the bathroom in the new house in the city. He was never in a hurry to go to bed. This time, though, he knew the truth, the reality of the situation. That the faster he fell asleep, the quicker his still bloody tooth would be exchanged for his gift.

That was a year or two ago. Baby teeth were way behind them now. But that just made that single splotch of crimson all the more unsettling.

You'd think he would have woken up screaming in the middle of the dark, waking her with a jolt. Night terrors are something most children experience once or twice. But no, his bedroom that night had been quiet as a crypt.

The morning started like any other. Brushing teeth. Getting breakfast ready. It was in the kitchen where it all began.

I'm not hungry, Ma, he said.

What? she asked.

I'm not hungry, he repeated. And he went to go watch a few minutes of TV before it was time to leave.

She watched him wander into the living room. Always the good mother, she wrapped up his breakfast so he could have it in the car when he realized he hadn't eaten anything yet, but he had other plans for her once they were on the way to school.

They were at a stoplight when she heard the slight intake of breath, the precursor to a question he didn't know how to ask.

Do people ever die in dreams, Ma? he asked.

She wasn't exactly sure where this was going, but she held to her motherly committment of truth at all costs.

Sometimes they do, Monkey, but dreams are different from reality, she explained.

He looked at her with a slight frown. He was getting too old to be called Monkey.

That intake of breath again into his little mouth.

So if someone dies in a dream, they don't die for real, do they, Ma? he asked.

Of course not, she said. Did something bad happen to you in your dreams last night, Monkey?

That little frown again and then a long pause. The light turned green and they continued down the street. After another minute of silence, he whispered, "Not to me."

Years from now, long since she'll have burned the evidence but not had the courage to run the test again, she'll tell anyone who will listen to her that she had heard him, but she hadn't really heard him. That half-listening that all mothers perfect in time.

They arrived at school and she sent him on his way. Most of his friends were there and they all went into the building together, unaware of how different this day was going to be from all the others before and since.

Back at home, she went into his bedroom to make his bed and that's when she saw it: The single, dime-sized stain of red on his pillow.

She remembered the baby tooth from the year or two before. But that wasn't the same pillowcase. She ran back over the previous day's activities. No nicks or scrapes, bumps or bruises that she could remember.

Then the phone rang.

All the parents were being called... at home, at work, on cellphones, wherever they were. Come get your son, your daughter. We're sorry for the inconvenience, but we're simply following policy. There had been a tragedy and they didn't want the children learning from other children. All parents were to come to the school to pick them up ASAP. School was cancelled for the day.

Counselors would be available tomorrow, the woman on the phone had said. But until then, everything was in the hands of the parents.

It was the look on his face when she picked him up. She was panicked, worried for her son's well being. He was fine, but he had that look.

It had been a little white lie so long ago. The old man in the house next door when they lived in the country. He had died, but at the time she didn't think her son was ready for that kind of information. The old man moved away, she had told him confidently. But later that night, long after he'd gone to bed, they talked about it, whether they should go to the funeral even though they hardly knew him. It's the right thing to do, his father had said.

It was about that time when they saw him standing in the hallway, having heard the truth. And he had that look on his face. He never said a word. He simply went back to bed.

After that, she didn't mention the old man again. And neither did he.

So there he was, getting into the car silently with his face fixed that same way. He handed her the envelope the woman from the school had said he would give her. It was sealed. We're still getting the details, the woman on the phone had said. The letter in the envelope will tell you everything we know.

Once they were home, she sat him down in front of the televsion and put in one of his videos. Then she walked to the kitchen with the envelope in her hand.

Sometimes parents have night terrors too, and the contents of the envelope were the perfect script. But with the horror came relief. Knowing some fluke tragedy had happened so close to them, within their proximity, made it seem like there was a circle of protection around him now. Schadenfreude isn't the right word, but it's the first word that comes to mind.

They made it through the day and, later, the week. She made him go back to his therapist, and after a few sessions, he was given a clean bill of health.

It wasn't until several weeks later that she remembered. That she awoke in the middle of night with a stomach ache of grief. Of woe.

She quietly got up and went to the hamper, but it wasn't there. She found it in the closet with the other bedding.

She didn't sleep anymore that night. She just sat on the floor, holding it in her hands, staring at that single, solitary spot.

It was brown now, but it confounded her more than ever.

The long story involves an exploration of parts of campus she didn't think she'd ever need again. A contrived story about wanting to check the DNA for a childhood disease marker. The tenured professor and distinguished researcher who honored her request without question.

The short story is that a few weeks later, she had another envelope to open. She waited until after he went to bed, until his father went to bed.

Now, she sits in her study, staring at the envelope, and her dread is palpable. She decides if there was ever a time to make an exception to that whole no smoking in the house business, this is it. She lights a cigarette and enjoys it puff by puff, inhaling slowly, holding it in as long as possible and then exhaling deliberately. Delaying the inevitable.

Finally, there are no more excuses. It is almost midnight as she rips it open. Below the university letterhead there is a single sentence. No doubt, the professor who typed the message had been pleased to deliver these words of hope to the overly nervous English professor who asked him to run the test. But when she reads it, her only response is to stifle a whimper in her study in the quiet of the house. She reads the sentence over and over, hoping that one word will be different, but it is the same the second time, the fifth time, the seventeenth time. Everytime she reads it, she shudders.

Finally, she surrenders. She opens a window and lights a match. She holds it to the corner of the page and watches the flames grow and grow. When the evidence is gone, she holds her head in her hands and sobs into the early morning.

No one will ever believe her, but her hell is the knowing of it all. A thousand years from now, if she was somehow still alive, she knows she could never forget. If she took an electric drill to her head, she could never find that spot of gray to grind the word from out her brain:

It is my great pleasure to tell you that your daughter is completely free of any known genetic disease.

File Under: Alex; Writing Sample
Music: Tori Amos "The Original Bootlegs"

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