It was early evening, and an ashen light had settled on the bathroom like a layer of dust. A young boy knelt before the toilet in an attitude of fearful reverence, his gaze directed through the window above his head. His eyes brimmed with tears, blurring a vision of the sky made fugitive by passing clouds and the boughs of an oak. Outside the wind howled, the branches waved, and the tree seemed to delight in its obstruction. The rattle of leaves fell on the boy’s ears like mocking laughter. A gnarled limb stretched forth in accusation; the boy inched slowly backwards. The limb’s progress halted at the windowpane. He watched it bob hypnotically, his eyes divesting of tears like upturned buckets. His heart, already beating painfully, increased its rhythm to match the insistent tap of wood on glass. Beyond the door and down the hall his parents spoke in low tones, and the sound reached him as a quiet murmur. He sniffled and gingerly rubbed his right shoulder, which still ached from his father’s grip.
“How can you tell me not to worry? He’s my son, for chrissakes.”
“He’s my son too, but you’re scaring him. Did you see how pale he was? He was shaking life a leaf.”
“That’s because he knows he did something wrong.”
The boy shivered in the sterile gloom of the bathroom, curling his toes beneath his feet. His shoes and socks were still at the neighbors’, forgotten in the hectic moments after reality burst in upon make-believe. He struggled to piece together what had happened, but his young mind failed to draw parallels between action and consequence. It was all a jumble of faces and light; the dim glow of afternoon in the girl’s bedroom, the sun drawing its sequined hem across the floor in a final flourish. He and the girl stand in what remains of the golden light; he almost smiled at the memory of her laughing eyes and flushed cheeks, and wondered if he himself had looked half so pretty. A sudden crescendo in the wind outside shattered his halcyon vision, and his lips tightened over chattering teeth.
“But he doesn’t understand what it was. He’s so little, you confuse him by getting so upset. And, quite frankly, you confuse me, too. What can’t you just let him be?”
“Because I care about him, and it’s time he stop being confused. Other people are tired of it. You saw how angry the neighbor was, dragging Joey back here.”
“And you think she was right to do that? What do you really care about, your son or peoples’ judgements?”
The chill of the tile floor transported Joey to a moist, sealed place. His head filled with the sound of his own heavy heartbeat, a cadenced tremor that shook his delicate frame. The sky darkened beyond the window. He closed his eyes and saw the girl’s mother. A cruel twinge pinched his chest at the memory of her shadow falling across their shining patch of carpet. The girl gasps and drops the silk scarf she held behind his neck. The large woman looms over them, imposing as Vesuvius. Joey felt again the tears behind his eyes and the grip of the woman’s sweaty palm through the thin fabric of his t-shirt. A sour taste filled his mouth. He opened his eyes a bit to allow the tears room. Rocking back and forth, he felt them warm on his cheeks, and watched as they fell to collect on the toilet lid. They formed a polluted puddle, black like his mascara.
“That’s bullshit, and you know it. I just don’t want my son to become a pariah. You remember the little league tryouts, how the other kids made fun of him, calling him a girl, a sissy? And what about that time he took his damn doll to school and came home crying because some boys stole it? Jesus Christ, imagine if those boys had seen him today!”
“Those boys are terrible! Making fun of Joey because he’s different. He’s not like other boys; he doesn’t have their energy, he likes different things.”
“That’s because he spends too much time indoors at the neighbors’. I always wondered what he was doing over there all the time. Well, all that’s gonna stop! I’m gonna make a man out of that kid if it kills him, and I won’t have you coddling him anymore!”
“Coddling him? Oh Christ, you’re so full of shit.”
The escalation of his parents’ voices mingled in Joey’s ears with the throb of his pulse. He felt suddenly the icy tips of his fingers and toes. A strange weakness, a kind of cowardice born of the moment gave way to a fresh wave of tears. The bathroom dissipated into a liquid blur, and the image of his father shutting the door rose clearly in memory. The face had been in sharp profile, expressionless and dark, a hedge against the light beyond. The door had closed with a soft click. Joey knew it would open soon, and was ashamed of how his father would find him. He wiped furiously at his face, backs of hands across cheeks, fingertips to eyes, forearm under nose and across lips. They came away glistening, streaked with mucus, rouge, tears, lipstick and mascara. Anxiety swelled in his chest. Looking at his hands, coated with the proof of his transgression, he suddenly felt ill. His lungs constricted, and he began to gasp for air.
“Excuse me? Don’t talk to me like that, woman.”
“I’m sorry. I just don’t see how you can blame me for this.”
“I’m not blaming you. All I’m saying is that a father knows best how to turn his son into a man. You have to trust me.”
“Fine. Do what you want, then. Spank him if it will make you feel better.”
“It’s not a matter of me feeling better. The boy needs some iron put into his spine and that’s the best way I know how. Whatever pain he gets from a whipping won’t be half of what he’ll get from the other kids if he keeps this shit up.”
“Then do it. Just hurry up, dinner’s getting cold.”
Joey’s breath came faster and faster, higher and higher. A stone rose slowly inside him, approaching his throat. He felt his eyelids grow heavy, and a sensation of weightlessness began to alleviate the stifling heat and pressure of his body. His fevered thoughts grew softer, quieter, as he relinquished himself to a blissful reverie. He saw, as if in a dream, a girl, young and fair. She twirls a dandelion between her fingers, and Joey lies beside her in the grass of her backyard. He notices they cast no shadows and senses that the sun has set. He wonders how he can see in the dark, and realizes the girl emits her own light, as if the sun had taken refuge in her body. She twirls the flower slowly, smiling as she catches his eyes. Lifting the flower to her lips, she expands her cheeks and softly blows. Dandelion seeds explode outwards, catch a warm breeze and sail over his head. He watches them disappear, then turns his sleepy eyes back to the girl. She holds the naked remains of the flower in her hand.
“You killed it,” he says.
She laughs with a sound like the tinkling of small bells.
“No I didn’t, silly. I helped it get away.”
Joey closed his eyes upon her words. He saw small points of light dancing behind his eyelids and wondered if they were the seeds of a dandelion. The stone reached his throat and stopped, expanding in tandem with the slowing of his heart. The pinpoints of light extinguished one by one, and a uniform darkness filled the void of his vision. Now a stone himself, the darkness enveloped him, and he sank into its fathomless depths. The bathroom door opened. A voice entered:
“Son? Don’t be scared. I want you to know that this will hurt me more than . . . ”
The voice faltered.