The car ride home was silent. Natalia didn’t discuss the ins and outs of the meeting, and Evan didn’t seem to care. He did ask what was on the menu for dinner, which was one of the only questions that she could rely on hearing daily. Otherwise, there was nothing but a prolonged, deafening hush that dwelled between them, and it brought a slight edge of concern to her.
Have I been a good mother?
Evan was clean, and while he was thin, it wasn’t the scrawniness of a starving child, but rather, the lean build of an athletic youth. He played baseball and soccer and was pretty good at both of them, though not really a standout in either. The image she pictured of him most when he wasn’t around was that of Evan smiling and laughing. He seemed so happy.
Have I lost him since his father has been gone?
There was the question that had been lingering upon her for the past seven months. She’d never had as much time as she needed to grieve, because she knew that she had to be strong for her son. But now, she wondered if he’d been the strong one through everything, and that because she’d thought he was handling himself well that maybe she could take that time that she needed for herself.
The possibilities made her ill. She loathed selfishness. It was one quality that she had sworn to keep from festering inside her son, and she felt like she’d done an exemplary job of such education, but had his selflessness been precisely the thing that kept him from being able to mourn his own dad? Her heart felt heavy in her chest at the thought of Mrs. Maloney’s unspoken accusations.
She pulled into the driveway and shut the car off, and before she could even open her mouth, Evan was already out the door and headed along the pathway to the front porch. She sighed. Her eyes looked exhausted as they stared back at her in the rearview mirror. “I can do this,” she said softly. “I just have to do it right.”
By the time she’d made it indoors, Evan was already in his room. She considered going into the kitchen to start dinner, but she knew that the longer she delayed, the harder it would be to talk to him about the poem and the rest of his writing.
He was digging through a pile of clothes when she knocked softly at his door. He looked up, eyebrows raised, face innocent and beautiful as it always seemed to be. She must have been smiling because he was smiling back, though his eyebrows remained raised, curious about her intrusion.
She pulled the poem from the folder and offered it out to him. Comprehension dawned slowly across his face, and when he looked back at her, his expression was suspicious. His eyes tightened briefly and she noticed his jaw tilting forward slightly. She hadn’t expected such a reaction so quickly, and she spoke before it could get any worse. “It’s a beautiful poem, Evan.”
He stared at it, and she thought for a moment that he would snatch it from her furiously and stuff it amidst the detritus he called a bedroom. But he didn’t take it. He was still looking at her sideways, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Thanks.” It was a brief response, not nearly enough to set her mind at ease, but it would do for the here and now.
She edged into his room, and upon finding nothing visible to sit on, chose to lean against his dresser. It tilted with her weight; she’d never been able to get him sturdy, proper furniture. “It’s about Dad, isn’t it?”
He nodded and said nothing.
She glanced over the words again, and before she could let the emotion of the poem overtake her, turned her glance back to her son. She suddenly saw that his eyes were glassy with unshed tears, and for a moment she wanted nothing more than to rush forward and hold him, but something told her to wait. Keeping her voice as even as possible, she spoke more. “Your teacher thinks you should submit it to a magazine. He thinks that it’s a really great poem, Evan.” She paused. “I think it’s really great, too.”
“What about Dad?” Evan suddenly asked, and his voice was breaking. His face trembled and became distraught. “Do you think he likes it?”
They rushed to each other, and embraced tightly, both shaking with sobs and tears. His face was buried in her chest, and she clung to him as he shivered with each breath. She realized that he was actually wailing, letting everything out in a sharp and sudden rush. She shushed him amidst her own tears, softly stroking his hair and waiting for the cries and the tears to subside.
After what felt like an eternity, Evan looked up. His face was bright crimson, his eyes shimmering. He wiped his face roughly. “Sorry,” he croaked.
“Never apologize for that,” Natalia responded, and kissed his forehead. “Your father meant so much to both of us. He would have loved this.” She sat the poems down beside them. “He loved to write. I never cared for it very much, but it was his release. Maybe it is yours, too. And I think that it’s fine.”
Evan disentangled himself from his mother’s arms and walked to his dresser. He pulled the top drawer back, reached within, and pulled out a battered notebook. “I found this one day when you were sleeping. It was Dad’s notes. It was everything that he was thinking about writing. Some of it didn’t make any sense, but that’s okay, too.” He hugged the notebook tightly, the way that a younger child might squeeze a stuffed toy. “It’s why I want to write.”
He slowly pulled the notebook away from his chest and looked down at it. He smiled. “I want it back, Mom, but I think you should read it, too.” His eyes narrowed at her. “He says in here that you don’t like his writing.” It sounded like an accusation, and one she wouldn’t bother denying. “But it’s all I have left of Dad, and I think it would be selfish not to share it.”
She took the notebook, and she could tell that Evan didn’t want to part with it. She glanced down at the blocky script written on the front cover – simply reading “NOTES” – and ran her fingers over the letters her late husband had written. Truthfully, she had never even seen this notebook before today, but it was of little doubt that it had once belonged to Eric. He was constantly keeping notes on his thoughts. She smiled at Evan. “Thank you.”
“I will want that back,” he reiterated, and she agreed. She stood, stiff, and tucking the notebook in the crook of her elbow like a schoolgirl.
“Dinner’s in a few. Why don’t you wash up?”
Their dinner was uneventful, and Natalia had an idea that had to do more with the shame of crying than anything else. She’d tried to open up conversation, but Evan seemed distant. He played with his food, and answered with brief responses. When she tried to pry into his writing, Evan still remained closed. She frowned as she watched him eat, never looking toward her. Why so distant?
Evan asked if he could be excused, and there wasn’t much left on his plate. “Sure.” She tilted her head curiously. “Go get cleaned up.”
“Are you going to read the notebook or just put it away?” he blurted.
She stiffened. “Excuse me?”
“You haven’t read it yet,” he said, voice trembling. Whether with fear, or sorrow, or rage, she couldn’t tell. “I am going to want it back tonight.”
“You’ll have it back, son,” she said, eyebrows merging. “I don’t understand what…”
“Stories are meant to be read, not ignored,” he said darkly. “If you don’t want to read it, then just give it back. I guess it doesn’t matter that they were his.”
“Evan, I want you to go take a shower and get ready for bed,” she said sharply. “I don’t care for how you’re speaking to me. I told you I would read this, and I told you that you would get it back. That should be enough for you.”
“When?” he cried. “When will you read it?”
“Shower.” Her voice cracked like a whip. His face twisted, but before he could say anything, he stalked out of the room.