A recently widowed wife discovers many things her late husband left behind through her son.
She didn’t want to look at him as they sat in the lobby. It wasn’t that she was afraid of him, or even mad at him, but rather the mystery of everything that caused her to look away. He peered down into the screen of his handheld game system, oblivious to her concern, happily saving the universe from something with steady, practiced pushes from his thumbs. She unfolded the paper that he’d given to her yesterday, and read it once more, despite its succinct and straightforward instructions:
Teacher’s Conference. Tomorrow, 2:20. We need to talk, Mrs. Fellowes.
She’d already asked Evan more than a few times what was going on, but he would only shrug and say that Mr. Timothy had handed him the note as he was leaving class. Did you get in a fight? she asked, and Evan shook his head. Did you say something inappropriate? Evan only said, “No.” Are other kids picking on you in class? His eyebrows shot up, and he flashed a quick grin, rolling up the sleeve of his right arm and flexing. “Heck no.”
He seemed at ease with this meeting, but in her experiences, Natalia never knew of a teacher’s conference that didn’t have some sort of bad news attached to it. Maybe his grades were slipping, but she saw the folders he brought home and never noticed any dropping grades. Admittedly she didn’t delve into the papers and scour through them question by question, but she would ask him about anything that was below a ‘B’.
“Chill out, mom,” Evan suddenly said, and he looked up from his game. His eyebrows were knitted together. “It’s probably just something like a reminder about a bake sale or something. Relax.”
Natalia bit back a grin. It never ceased to amaze her at how old her son had suddenly become. The years had passed like weeks. They’d switched roles as the time passed, with his title of Embarrassing Son, earned from announcing in public when he had filled his diapers, had passed on to her, only she was Embarrassing Mother, capable of causing moments when he would want to hide in his own clothes and pray that no one saw them together.
There was a low creak, and Natalia saw Mr. Timothy peering around the door. His hair was the color of iron, fringing a pink scalp that threatened to overtake what was left of his meager hair. He looked apologetic, offering a distracted little smile. “Apologies, Mrs. Fellowes. Mrs. Maloney is meeting with me briefly prior to you coming in for the meeting. She’s insisting that she sit in as well.” He must have noticed her concern, because gestured calmly. “I assure you, Evan isn’t in any trouble. It’s just protocols, I’m afraid.” He glanced at Evan and winked. “Sorry for taking up your afternoon, Evan. You’ll all be home before you know it.” He nodded back at Natalia and shut the door gently.
“Who is Mrs. Maloney?” she asked in hushed tones.
“Guidance counselor,” Evan replied blandly. His eyes never left the screen of his video game.
“Is there a reason the guidance counselor should want to speak with me?”
He sighed and looked up, closing the video game. His face was controlled, but his eyes were impatient. It made her catch her breath when he would look at her this way, because it was the same look that Eric used to give her when she would ask him to do something after he’d just sat down. But he would always do it anyway. He might give me a snarky little response for waiting until he was seated, but he would do it. Just like Evan. He will always be like his father.
“Don’t look at me that way. I’m talking to you; I expect you to look at me when I talk to you.”
He had the decency to look abashed. He stuffed the video game into his pocket. There wasn’t a trace of frustration or sullenness in his expression, though she was pretty sure that it was there, buried beneath the surface and just beyond her vision. She narrowed her eyes at him, making it clear that she knew what he was thinking, and his face flushed. “Sorry,” he muttered.
She sighed. “I’m not really mad at you. I don’t see any reason why you would be in trouble, but when you’re acting all secretive, I’m going to ask questions and a simple shrug of your shoulders isn’t going to cut it for an answer.” She stroked his hair. “I’m not mad, though, okay? I love you.”
He smiled up at her and hugged her waist. “I know you do, Mom. I know you always will, no matter what. You tell me all the time.”
“I just don’t want you to forget,” she said without thinking, and her heart fluttered. He’s got Eric’s stubbornness, and I’m saying Eric’s words. He left us so many things we never considered.
Before she had a moment to recover from that sad thought, the door opened again, and Mr. Timothy was gesturing for her to enter. He stopped Evan as he stood. “Not you, son. This is just for your mom, okay? We won’t keep you here too long.”
Evan and Natalia shared a brief glance, and Evan shrugged again before plopping back into his seat. He surreptitiously reached into his pocket to fish out the video game, thinking his mother wouldn’t notice, but she did. I catch everything you do, she thought happily, but then she saddened. But I didn’t catch this. I didn’t know we would be here. Oh, Eric, I still need you.
She sat in one of the desks, feeling ungainly as she squeezed into the space meant for a 9 year-old body. Mr. Timothy was offering a polite smile, but Mrs. Maloney had a grim expression plastered on her face, her eyebrows sagging and lips pressed together in a bloodless line. Natalia briefly thought "Good Cop/Bad Cop", and stifled a chuckle that threatened to burst forth.
Mrs. Maloney must have noticed Natalia's brief, delirious amusement, for her look of consternation only deepened.
Mr. Timothy thankfully spoke first. "We would both like to thank you for coming on such short notice," he said, leaning against his desk. "I want to start by assuring you that Evan is doing very well. This isn't a bad meeting or anything of the sort." Natalia nodded and smiled, and also noted that Mrs. Maloney still had the same half-desperate, half-constipated look she had been wearing all along.
“I’m glad to hear that,” she said, offering an awkward smile. She fidgeted without thinking. It was hard for her; she’d been a great student in school, but was always nervous when the stares were on her. Some things apparently didn’t change.
“There are some concerns, however, Mrs. Fellowes,” Mrs. Maloney said quickly, and it was in that moment that Natalia took an instant disliking to the woman. It wasn’t just the exaggerated look of concern that seemed plastered to her features, but it was also that voice; so condescending and unrelenting at the same time. It was the voice of a woman that spent her entire workday speaking down to children and found it impossible to shed that tone for the adults she saw once she was off the clock.
“What concerns?” Natalia replied tersely, and she was unable to rein in the edge to her voice; she’d never been very good at hiding her feelings.
Mrs. Maloney either didn’t notice or didn’t care, and she went on, tilting her head sadly to the side and gesturing with open hands; it was the image of a benevolent martyr, and it made Natalia’s lip curl. “Your family has suffered a loss recently. Your son, being at such a difficult age already, has had to face the brunt of this tragedy. How does a child his age cope with such an issue? What’s his release Mrs. Fellowes?”
“Yes, yes, release,” Mrs. Maloney said, her hands making fists and arms shaking. In that moment she looked like she was delivering a sermon. Even Mr. Timothy couldn’t hide his embarrassment. Mrs. Maloney went on, smiling beatifically. “Some run or compete in athletics. Some paint, draw, and sculpt. But your boy, he doesn’t do any of this. No, he chooses to write.”
Natalia’s brows furrowed, and she shifted her gaze upon Mr. Timothy. He was nodding in agreement with Mrs. Maloney, though he still looked uncomfortable sharing anything with the counselor. “I don’t know what you mean. I’ve never seen Evan doing any writing.”
“That was actually a concern of mine,” Mr. Timothy replied. “I’d sent home some of his writing, but it was never returned with the signature I asked for.” He reached into his desk and pulled a small stack of papers. “After the first couple of essays didn’t make it back, I kept these. He’s really got a gift. Are you a writer?”
A pang of loss swept over her. Eric. Eric all over again. “No.”
Mr. Timothy understood immediately. “Oh. Apologies.”
“It’s okay.” She sighed. “It was husband’s hobby. Whenever he had a little free time, he would write. He won a couple of online contests, but never anything else. The
only book he’d ever finished was a little notebook of poems and letters he wrote me when we were dating.” Still on the shelf in our room. She shook her head, feeling her face start to crumple. Still too soon for all of this, she thought bitterly. Mr. Timothy placed a box of Kleenex on her desk. She nodded to him gratefully. “I never knew that Evan was doing it, too. It makes sense; he is so much like his father was.”
It was Mrs. Maloney’s turn to place something on the desk. It was a single sheet of paper. This one was clearly a copy, with its too-dark ink in some spots and fades in others. She could see her son’s awkward, looping script and thought bitterly, he even has your handwriting, before reading the paper.
Pieces of Him
By Evan Fellowes
My hair is the same dark brown
My eyes are a match as well
My cheeks and my ears do him justice
It’s easy for any to tell
I might not be a perfect copy
But I’m close as I can try
And while I am happy it is so
I still find myself asking “Why?”
He left before I learned to drive
He only managed to teach me to swim
It’s so hard to look in the mirror
And see I’m just pieces of him.