Hello, my dear strangers!
I may have mentioned this before, but there was a short story contest at my Uni a few weeks back. I submitted my story, though I had no high expectations. There were probably about eighty other students entering the contest as well and all I really hoped for was some positive feedback or perhaps a chance to enter the final round. Enter the final round I did and, though I didn’t take home the winning prize, I have nonetheless won second place.
The announcement came during the first exam period of the summer, a very stressful time filled with textbooks and studying and despairing. It gave me a boost of confidence I sorely needed and reassured me that my work was up to scratch. The 1000-word-limit represented a bit of an obstacle, as I’m not very good with “showing and not telling” and require lots of detailed descriptions. I like to dissect emotions and then write down as much as I can about them, once I’ve broken them down into microscopic pieces. So, I decided to experiment a bit and tried my hand at writing in a minimalist style, which is something I’d never done before. And – it paid off!
Seldom do I show my work to other people, as I can’t stand the thought of having my baby criticised and butchered by others. However, I’m showing it to you, with the deepest hope that you’ll be kind with your constructive criticism. This story is something of a love letter to my parents, a way to say “Hey, congratulations, you raised a crazy kid and an autistic kid and you’ve still got all your marbles. You made it through to the other side and we couldn’t be more grateful for everything you’ve done for us.” Enjoy.
A day in the life of a woman, a man and a boy
“So, what happened today?”, the woman asked.
All of a sudden, his look turned distant. His smile receded. His hand clutched hers that much tighter. The woman sighed and looked away.
She knew she wouldn’t be getting an answer. She remembered reading once that children process grief and trauma much differently than adults do. There might be shudders within, but no more than a ripple on the surface. Besides, she had already grown used to the boy’s silence.
The principal had already told her about what had happened at school that morning. The story never deviated much. The boy’s strange ways and his innate desire to fit in often clashed with the norms, prompting his peers to distance themselves from him even more, labelling him as the other, the one whose behaviour could never be accepted. His inarticulate screams and puzzling hand gestures never were interpreted for what they really were – earnest attempts at reaching out.
“Sticks and stones”, the woman repeated her trite mantra.
“Zzzzz”, the boy hissed through his teeth. Besides an occasional ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, that was the only sound he had ever uttered.
The woman had noticed an almost imperceptible change in the boy’s demeanour. While he was usually ready to accept such statements with an unwavering faith of a child, he now seemed more sullen and dubious. The doctor had told her that was a good sign. It meant the boy was growing up and accepting injustice that came with being.
They slowly made their way home. The boy didn’t like public transportation. The woman dreaded it as well. There were too many disapproving stares, usually directed at her. She could read the tacit rebuke in the eyes of the elderly ladies.
“Eat your veggies”, the woman said once they had reached their small apartment, placing a colourful plate in front of the boy.
A quiet ‘zzzzz’ was his only comment of objection. He slowly raised the fork and tried to aim at the mouth. As usual, peas scattered everywhere.
The woman quickly gave him a spoon, then collected the peas and tossed them in the cat’s bowl. It suddenly occurred to her that she wouldn’t be able to make it to her high school reunion. The boy had a check-up the following morning, an event that required lots of preparation and soothing words. She wondered sometimes just how much of it he understood.
The doctor had told her it would get better. The priest had advised her not to lose hope. She smiled bitterly at the memory. There was nothing in the holy book of lies to alleviate her pain, nothing that would vouch for advancement. She used to be an aimless child of privilege, the entire world beneath her feet, ready for the taking. As the years went on, her options seemed fewer and fewer. Her idealism was caving under the pressures of responsibility, washed away by the waves of tomorrow.
She sometimes missed the boy. Even though they had lived under the same roof, she missed the illusion of what their relationship would’ve been like, had he been born a healthy baby.
Fear for the future crept back into her bones, yet she wouldn’t fight it. At times, it felt as though fear was the only thing she had. Without it, she failed all of life’s tests.
The door opened and the man walked inside. He smiled and set down a rectangular parcel on the counter. A beam of light coming from the narrow balcony shone over his face and, for a moment there, he looked like he was twenty again, his face wrinkle-free, his shoulders unburdened. The woman smiled. She knew it was a folly. The arrow of time points in one direction only.
“I bought the cake”, he said and gave her a routine peck on the cheek, before going to the bathroom.
“I’ll get the candles”, the woman said.
Another memory snuck back into her thoughts. Shortly after the boy had been born, the man had offered to quit his job and stay home to look after him. The woman loved him for being ready to do it. But she could see that he would never be able to live with such a sacrifice. So, she had quit her job and stayed home instead. She never thought she could do something like that, but one way or another, she kept allowing for more. Her tolerance and the very notion of what was acceptable and what wasn’t perpetually kept expanding. She couldn’t figure out whether that had meant she was losing her principles or her innocence. In any case, day after day, she kept allowing for a little more reality.
The sun was beginning to descend. The woman quickly changed into a pair of old, bleached jeans and her nicest cashmere sweater. Her best friend had given it to her seven months earlier, when they had arranged a meeting in a busy cafe. Her friend had squeezed her in between two power lunches, regaling her with anecdotes from her travels and the successful deals she had closed. The dreaded question hadn’t been far off.
“So, what about you?”, her friend had asked, sipping her pricey cocktail.
The conversation had died down soon afterwards. Her friend had offered her a few sympathetic words of comfort. At the time, they had sounded genuine.
After putting on some light make-up, the woman went to the kitchen and quickly lit the candles atop a simple chocolate cake. She set it down on the dining room table and then peeked in the boy’s room. The man was helping him dress.
They came out shortly afterwards and the man seated the boy in a chair before the cake. They sang for him. They blew out the candles for him. They clapped their hands for him. The woman quickly brought a knife from the kitchen and began cutting the cake. The man knelt down beside the chair the boy was sitting on, embraced him and said: “Happy fourteenth birthday, son.”