Patrick Nathan

To Francine Mavencamp of Tallahassee, FL

Winner of the 2012 Boulevard
Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers


T hat his son wrote letters to people he’d never met was something Stephen could’ve lived with. But he’d always been too curious, and he’d wanted to understand, so he read one of them.
       Once, the word father had done something for his heart, and he’d often recited it in his head. He’d pictured it, his heart, like an idiot dog bouncing around the room whenever you said, Treat! in a funny voice.
       It was nothing like that, fatherhood. It’d grown worse every day since January, and now, glancing over the letter once more, he only had to read phrases like He hits me and I’m afraid to wish Cameron had never been born.
       But he wasn’t supposed to wish that. Instead, standing in the upstairs hallway, Stephen let everything he wanted to shout twitch itself out of his eye. You couldn’t scold him, Cameron. But you couldn’t comfort him, either.
       He’d tried that once. Stephen had given Fs to enough of his students to know how an eighth-grade boy cries, how he tries to hide it by sucking in these deep, choked breaths, and how in an hour it won’t mean anything. That wasn’t what he’d heard, the night Cameron had cried. The only night. It came out muted, deadened somewhere in his pillow. Listening to it, something cinched in his back —a little hooked organism that said, Comfort him, like they’d have a long talk about growing up and how to go on living when someone you love has died. “Leave,” was all Cameron had said, before Stephen could even speak.
       He was softer then, Stephen. He’d been too reasonable. Sometimes I stay home cuz I can’t hide the bruises, Cameron had written, and you had to wonder about the rest of them, the letters. Every few days he’d bring two or three down to breakfast and peel stamps from the roll they kept in the kitchen. Clara Hutchison of Richmond, VA. Michelle Washburn of Billings, MT. Eleanor Yaritz — the address obscured by Cameron’s hand. How many more people had he lied to? How many out there thought Stephen beat his only son, that he was some monster who couldn’t be controlled?
       For so long he’d thought it was something creative, some weird art project only a kid would think of. He was always asking for money to buy stamps, for rides to the post office. It’d been their reason for talking.
       He’s got a good soul, Stephen remembered thinking, back in January, when Cameron had first come to live with him. He’d glanced over at him in the passenger’s seat, hunched over his notebook, the stunted skyscrapers of Minneapolis drifting by the window unnoticed. “Are you writing poems?” he’d asked — hurt, he now realized, by how badly he’d wanted it to be true, not to mention Cameron’s shrug, his “Just tell me when we’re almost at the stupid museum” as he shielded the page with the notebook’s cover, as he ignored the city’s cleanly fallen snow.
       But he’d written it off, Stephen, as a teenager’s secrecy. The letters had meant something then. Cameron was a boy up to something beautiful. That he kept to himself — that he could paralyze you with a simple, hateful look — was just how boys grieved. He’ll come out of it soon, Stephen had told himself and still let himself hope, even now, when there was nothing else to believe. This was someone in pain, he had to remind himself, even though, from the moment he’d brought Cameron home from the airport, pain was all you could see. He’d learned right away there was nothing you could do to change it.
       He’d tried to make it welcoming, his son’s bedroom, changing all the light bulbs to something called soft light and buying a spider plant to hang in the corner. “I thought after you’re all unpacked we’d get some coffee,” he said, standing in his doorway. “You like coffee?”
       Cameron shook his head, running his finger along the bedspread. “No thanks.”
       “Are you sure? We have a lot to talk about. Catch up on, I guess.”
       “Don’t worry about it.” Cameron tucked his suitcase under the bed. “Thanks though.”
       Outside it was snowing, the sky pink like from a night light. Stephen watched as his son sat on the bed, as he switched on his lamp, moving around and newly real. There was a wooden picture frame facing the bed, or at least it looked wooden. Something chewed at his stomach as Cameron picked it up and held it in his lap.
       “This is mom,” Cameron said.
       “I thought you might like to have it.”
       “How old was she?”
       “Nineteen,” he said. “Twenty. I don’t really remember.” He took a step into the room, and that’s when he got it, the look. It was startling, how he couldn’t move. He should’ve picked an age, sounded sure of himself. How could he not remember? “Are you sure you don’t want some coffee? The mochas down at — ”
       “I’m sure,” Cameron said. He set the frame on the night stand and turned to look at the window, at the sill where a lump of snow was watching them. “Good night.”
       He needs time to adjust, Stephen had thought after he’d gone to bed.
       Maybe he’s still adjusting, he thought now, standing outside that same bedroom, three months of living together behind them.
       That the letter had made him imagine it — a flash of Cameron fending him off as he backhanded him across the face — had him retching a clear, bubbly liquid on the rug. That he could still taste it made him want to explain everything, how they couldn’t do this to each other. Tell me what’s wrong, Stephen wanted to say — not even a question. What’s with this, he wanted to say, shaking the letter at him. He’d go into that room and demand an explanation. He wouldn’t leave until he’d found him, the real Cameron, the long-lost Cameron who’d loved him, once.
       No shouting, he reminded himself, and he opened the door to his son’s bedroom.
       “The fuck!”
       “Sorry,” he said as Cameron wrenched the sheet up to his chest. “I didn’t mean —sorry.” He backed out of the room and closed the door.
       Immediately there were the sounds you’d expect — a creak as Cameron leapt off the bed, a wooden clunk as he barred the door with his chair. Stephen was trembling, he realized, more embarrassed than he’d been in decades, like he was the one who’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
       Hand in the cookie jar, he thought, and he couldn’t help it — he laughed out loud. He backed away from the door and put his hand over his mouth, chuckling as he made his way back downstairs. At least he’s human, he thought, and laughed again as he took the letter from his pocket. The envelope was where he’d left it, and with a little care he could seal it as though it’d never been opened. Francine Mavencamp of Tallahassee, FL would never know her mail had been intercepted. It was easy to get carried away, sometimes, and believe in things like monsters and people born without souls. You had to love him, Cameron, even if his soul was a blind dumb thing that bumped into his heart’s walls. Because love, Stephen had been raised to believe, conquers all, and like anyone other weapon, you were stupid not to keep it sharp.
       Father, he said to himself, his magic word, but it’d long ceased to do anything.

Stephen’s plan, in the beginning, was to be a phenomenal father. Cameron’s life had become his responsibility, and he’d sworn to make it flourish, he remembered.
       Later, he only aimed to be a decent father, which he defined as one who could make a good impression. You had to shape him, Cameron. Stephen thought of things that fathers were supposed to do, like give advice or share their wisdom.
       It terrified him, thinking that anything inside him could be called wisdom.
       “If you want to get a girl to like you,” he’d told him on the way to dinner one evening, “you have to listen to what she has to say. They love that.”
       “Whatever.”
       “Trust me. You wouldn’t have been born if I wasn’t a good listener.”
       “That’s disgusting.”
       This wisdom — he’d always share it in the car, to or from school, on the way to the grocery store. It was the only place that Cameron couldn’t escape or shut him out.
       It had become Stephen’s favorite part of the day, the drive through town, dispensing wisdom like it was the weather or the score of a Twins game. Even when he began to think about all the years he could’ve spent with his son had he not left, years ago, when Cameron was still a toddler, it still felt like everything was untangling itself.
       “You have to stand up for yourself,” he’d told Cameron that afternoon, after his detention. This was something fathers always told their sons, he imagined. If Cameron’s mother was still alive she’d be proud to hear it, like she’d placed Cameron in good hands.
       Cameron was looking out the window. It was late March and the winter still showed no sign of relenting. “I did stand up for myself,” he said.
       “You called him a name.”
      “So what the fuck do you want me to do?”
      “Hey, easy on the French.”
      “Whatever.”
      There was a Stones song on the radio. Stephen couldn’t remember the name but he knew the chorus, mouthing the words in a way that made his tongue click against his teeth.
      Cameron reached over and switched off the radio.
      “If someone talks to you like that again,” Stephen said, “you really need to show them you won’t take any shit.”
      “Seriously? Are we still talking about this?”
      “The next time this kid says something —what’s his name? Tyler?”
      “Tucker.”
      “Even worse. The next time this Tucker says something, don’t be afraid to just let loose and sock him. Right in the jaw.”
      Cameron put his hands under his thighs and leaned forward. “You really think that’s a good idea?”
      “It’ll teach him a lesson,” Stephen said.
      “It’ll also get me suspended.”
      “Maybe.” Stephen glanced at him, sitting there hunched over. “You’ll feel like it was worth it, though, and this Tucker kid won’t bother you again.”
      They rolled to a stop at a red light, not far from home. There was a line of small children following an old man through an intersection, each holding another’s hand. Cameron looked up at the street sign. “Turn here,” he said.
      Stephen flicked the turn signal. His left ear was ringing and made the signal’s tick sound dull and far away. “Out of stamps again?”
      “I need you to get a bigger roll this time.”
      There was a tremor coming through the steering wheel — at least three hundred dollars even at the cheap mechanic on Lake Street, Stephen could tell.
      “Cam, are you ever going to tell me who these people are?”
      The light turned green. The last child skipped over a sewer grate and laughed when she planted her feet on the sidewalk. At least it looked like she laughed. Stephen was watching her as she reached again for her companion’s hand. He swore when they hit a deep pothole and the car groaned under its own weight.
      “Well?”
      “Just go to the post office.”

It’d come as a surprise, Cameron’s detention.
       Stephen had been grading papers in his classroom when she found him, the other eighth-grade history teacher.
       “You’ll have class with Vanessa — Miss Dahlin,” Stephen had told Cameron on their first day together. “It would be weird for both of us if you were my student. Maybe illegal, I’m not sure.”
       “Staying late?” Vanessa asked. She leaned back against a desk and it lowed as it slid across the linoleum.
       “No choice,” he said.
       “I’ll bet I know why.”
       “You should.” He clicked the pen in his fingers and made a slash mark on the page in front of him, then another, then a third for good measure even though if you squinted it could look like the right word. “You’re the one who gave him detention,” he said.
       “Come on, Stephen.” She crossed one leg over the other and let her shoe dangle from her big toe. “He called another kid — I quote — ‘a jizz-filled asshole’. I couldn’t let it slide. Not with everyone in the class having heard it.”
       Stephen looked down at his desk. He wasn’t supposed to be smiling.
       But he was hilarious, Cameron, when he wanted to be.
       “He was provoked,” she said, “but you see what position I was in.” He leaned back in his chair and looked up at her. Her hair was a different color this week — something rusty enough to look real but dark enough for her students to tell. He liked the way it looked under the fluorescents.
       He’d already asked her to dinner three times. No, of course she’d said, like she didn’t even need to think about it, like she’d forgotten the faculty party, back in December.
       There were little scarlet locks curled around her neck, pointing at the hem of her blouse.
       “So.” He looked down at his desk, at the half-graded paper. “So what’d this other kid say? That pissed off Cam?”
       “The usual things they say to each other. Gay jokes. Mom jokes.”
       “Mom jokes?”
       “Yeah. Pretty standard. Your mom’s like a screen door, and so on.”
       Stephen had one hand wrapped around the other, cradling his fist. It was clenched, he realized, and he made no effort to relax it. He imagined this boy, smirking at his desk. “What a little prick,” he said.
       “They’re just teenagers,” she said. “Calm down. You know how it is.”
       “Cameron’s mother is dead.”
       It surprised him, how he just said it. Like it should end the conversation, right there.
       Vanessa uncrossed her legs. There was a sound like an inhalation as she stepped back into her shoe. “You didn’t tell me that.”
       “Why would I?”
       “I don’t know.” Her hair hugged the line of her neck as she glanced behind her, as she pushed herself up on top of the desk. She sat with her legs swinging out in front of her.
       He’d never been a leg man, but he could understand why some men were.
       “Most people mention these things,” she was saying.
       His fist — he’d let it go, let it unfurl and lay flat on the desk like he was bracing himself or holding his weight upright.
       “If I’d have known that,” she was saying. “I don’t know. Maybe I could’ve been more lenient.”
       “Yeah, well.”
       “When did she die, if you don’t mind me asking?”
       “A few months ago.”
       “Jesus, Stephen. I thought — I figured it was just your turn to look after him. For custody.”
       He ran his tongue along his teeth, along the undersides, where they were sharp.
       It surprised him, the sharpness of his teeth.
       She’d stopped swinging her legs. Instead they were tucked underneath the desk where she held them still. Her lip was caught between her teeth as she tried to meet his eye.
       He wouldn’t let her meet his eye.
       “Are you — are you handling it okay?”
       “I think so.” He stood up from the desk and walked over to the white board. His back was turned as he erased dates and the locations of battles. “It’s Cameron you should worry about. Me and Heather split up years and years ago.”
       “Still, that’s gotta be hard.”
       “Don’t worry about me,” he said as he returned the eraser to its tray. Everything looked like a weapon right then, and he wondered how you could bloody someone with an eraser. He turned to look at her. “What’d Cam do? In response? Did it look like they’d fight?”
       “What?”
       “Did it look like he was going to beat the shit out of this —what’s his name?”
       “Tucker.”
       “Tucker. Did it look like he’d beat the shit out of Tucker?” Vanessa pushed her hair back behind her ear. “Maybe we should try to talk this over later. The three of us, maybe?” She’d unhooked her legs and let them swing again. There was no way she didn’t know what she was doing.
       “I’ll talk to Cam,” he said as he collected the papers graded and ungraded from his desk. “He’s sensitive and he takes this stuff to heart, but we’ll work on it. You worry about this Tyler kid. He’s dead meat.”
       “Tucker.”
       “Tucker,” he said. “Whatever. He’s history.”

Cam’s sensitive, Stephen was thinking when they arrived home from the post office. He takes this stuff to heart, he was thinking, when the truth about Cameron was that he had no heart.
      It was easier, though, to pretend he did.
      “I don’t want you to think I’m angry,” he told Cameron as they walked up the front steps.
      “Okay.”
      “I’m just concerned for you.” Stephen slid the key into the lock but didn’t turn it. He didn’t want to turn it just yet, to open up places where Cameron could hide. Cameron was holding the stamps and flicking the paper’s edge with his thumb. The sun had managed to push away the clouds and spill itself brightly all over the snow. They were both squinting, nowhere to look.
      “I don’t want school to be any harder for you than it needs to be.”
      “Don’t worry about it,”
      Cameron said. He was looking at the key, pinched between Stephen’s fingers. “I can’t help but worry. You’re — I’m your father.”
      Cameron looked down at the steps, over at the buried flowerbeds, down the street where a car refused to start.
      “I love you.”
      “It’s cold out here,” Cameron said, pointing at the lock with the roll of stamps, still flicking his thumb against the paper.
      Stephen clamped his tongue between his teeth as he turned the key, as he put all his weight into the door.
      In the kitchen, Cameron took a letter from his backpack and peeled a stamp from the new roll.
      “I thought we’d make the salmon tonight,” Stephen said into the refrigerator. He was trying not to think of their moment on the porch, how he’d finally said what he’d meant to say for months. How Cameron had fucking ignored it.
      “I’m not hungry.” He chewed his lip as he smoothed the stamp with two fingers.
      “We can wait a while if you want.”
      He set it in the center of the table, the letter, propped up between the salt and the pepper. “I’m actually going up to my room.”
      “For the night?”
      “Yeah.” He brushed his hair away from his eye and glanced through the doorway, at the stairs. “I kinda wanna be left alone.”
      “You don’t want dinner?”
      Cameron shook his head and took up his backpack. “Good night,” he said.
      Stephen crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s not even five o’clock.” He realized how defensive he must’ve looked — hurt, even — and he forced himself to smile.
      “Please don’t come upstairs,” Cameron said.
      “Cam,” he said. “Cam, tell me what’s wrong.”
      “Nothing.”
      “Are you mad about what I said in the car?”
      He shook his head, his hand resting on the doorframe. “I just feel weird.”
      “Goddamn it, Cameron. Tell me what’s bothering you.”
      “Good night.”
      Stephen watched him slip into the foyer and take the stairs two at a time. After that he was alone with the refrigerator’s hum, a rattling somewhere behind it.
      He should fix it, that rattle.
      Stephen knew it’d solve nothing, but he thought of how fathers got even. Taking his door off its hinges, a lights-out on weeknights, tearing up his envelopes, burning his spiral notepads, making him peel one stamp after another from the roll and crumple them into little balls and throw them away. Stephen could count, out loud, to make sure they’d missed none. You’re the worst dad in the world, Cameron would say, and Stephen would shrug and tell him that’s just what he’d have to deal with. There’s nothing you can do about it, he’d tell him, and the echo of those words in his head made him sick, like he’d actually said them and Cameron had already taken them to mean Your mother is dead, and I’m all you have left, and you better get used to it.
      It made his arms tremble, thinking of the hate where love was supposed to be, that kitchen where Cameron was supposed to be, where he could touch his shoulder, if he needed to.
      Stephen looked at the letter, left all alone on the table. Cameron didn’t want that touch on the shoulder, just like he didn’t want to hear about love or wisdom. He only wanted to write these letters, to siphon Stephen’s cash for rolls of stamps honoring bonsai trees or teapots. This one was addressed to Francine Mavencamp of Tallahassee, FL.
      They usually go straight to the mailbox, he was thinking.
      Stephen had never dealt with temptation very well.
      “Don’t you ever have that little voice that tells you something is wrong?” Heather had demanded when they were still together, when she was still alive.
      Maybe I could’ve been a better husband, he thought right then, her death making the whole thing sound so much more corrupt. Or maybe not corrupt, exactly.
      He opened the letter anyway.
      Profane — that was the word.
      “Dear Mom,” he read aloud.
      It began to tremble, the letter. At least it looked that way. He turned it over and held it against his chest, afraid to read more. The sun had not yet set, and as he carried the letter into the living room, its hooked light draped all over the furniture felt alien, like it should’ve been gone forever.
      But every winter was like that. You forget about it, the sun.
      All he could read were those two words, over and over, and in them the extraordinary neatness of his son’s handwriting. Little round letters, like a girl’s love note. Stephen’s own handwriting looked etched onto his students’ quizzes and assignments like runes. Here the letter “e” was perfect — one of the hardest letters to make legible, Stephen had always thought. It occurred to him then that he’d never seen Cameron’s handwriting before, and seeing it now, Dear Mom, he felt proud, like his son had accomplished something great.
      That Francine Mavencamp wasn’t his mother, that they’d never in their lives been to Florida, made him feel less proud. Stephen imagined Cameron, hunched over the notebook like he’d grown used to seeing him, laboring over those words, crafting each curve and cross, knowing his mother would never read them, knowing some woman in Florida might simply throw it away.
      Why didn’t you tell me? he thought he might say to Cameron, but he couldn’t articulate what wasn’t being told. Why don’t you love me? is more what it meant.
      That they’d been in this house for three months and that nothing had improved made him blame the house itself, the city, the school. What they needed, maybe, was to leave behind the three-foot snowdrifts along the curb and the way they looked burnt on the bottom, black from exhaust, not to mention a roomful of teenagers and their idiot questions about a history they’d never care about. He could even get away from Vanessa and the way she looked at him during lunch, almost like she wanted him to ask her, just once more, to have dinner with him.
      Somewhere in Mexico they’d sit together on a beach, and it’d be easy to pretend Heather had gone off by herself to go shopping, that she’d soon come back with junky souvenirs.
      She’d done that, he remembered, after they first married, bringing a tiny set of maracas back to their hotel like she couldn’t wait to show him. He’d left them behind when he moved to Minneapolis, the maracas, along with her painted violins, a piano that looked like it’d survived a flood, wooden blocks you’d knock together, and her bongo drums lined up first by size, then color.
      Cameron had liked the bongos more than anything else, sitting with the ones that were small enough or kneeling at those that weren’t, banging out something you couldn’t even call a song. Or at least it didn’t sound like a song, at the time.
      He’d been one of those boys who couldn’t stay out of your lap. You’d lift him up by his armpits and set him on the floor. Go entertain yourself, you’d say, and he’d crawl right back onto the couch. He’d been this warm, wriggling thing that never left you alone. Now, thinking of how small his wrists had been, or how he’d craned his neck when you touched his hair, Stephen felt like his lungs were collapsing.
      Outside there were clouds flanking the sun. “It’s supposed to snow tonight,” he’d said to Cameron, almost like it was good news. Now the entire idea of snow seemed obscene and repulsive. He couldn’t believe human beings had willfully settled a wasteland, or that he’d been stupid enough to follow.
      He couldn’t believe anything. For a second, there was only his life now, in the living room with Cameron’s letter, and his life in that other living room where he did his best to ignore what he now imagined as the most comforting song a child could play. There was nothing in between.
      Cameron was upstairs, in his room. He’d loved his mother. Stephen knew that even before he read on, before he read things like I still miss you and I dunno if I can make it here. It was a love that called to mind fairy tales and movies made for television, and it hurt to know it was there but locked up. He thought he’d only have to wait, to give him time, before he read things like, I can’t stand this guy and I can’t believe you married him and He beats the shit out of me no matter what, and There’s nobody I can tell. After that, the Cameron that’d written Dear Mom grew up into the angry boy upstairs full of nothing but hate. That Cameron had used his mother like this made it clear how everything he said about missing her, about loving her, was just a little psychopath’s lie to get what he wanted, whatever that was. The letter was trembling again. Heather was a joke to Cameron, just like everyone and everything else.
      I’ll show you beating, Stephen thought, right before he vomited on the rug.

What he wanted, the following morning, was for Cameron to be uneasy, for him to sense something was wrong. Instead he’d never been more sure of himself. Cameron used all the looks in his arsenal until Stephen believed everything was his fault, even the silence on their way to school.
       He couldn’t stand it, the silence. “I’m sorry about last night,” he said, like he’d been tricked.
       “Whatever.”
       “The same thing happened to me when I was your age,” he went on. “Your grandpa just walked right in. I thought I was gonna die.”
       “You read my letter,” Cameron said.
       It felt violent, the way he said it — enough to make Stephen’s heart reel back. “I —I’m —”
       “Do you want to know how I know?”
       Cameron was doing that thing he always did, his hands tucked under his thighs as he watched his knees. Stephen’s hands were on the wheel, that same vibration coming through his gloves until his palms itched. “Let me guess,” he said, coolly as he could. “You sealed it a certain way.”
       “Nope.”
       He was so pleased with himself. You could hear it. “So how did you know?”
       “I just knew,” Cameron said. “No tricks or anything. I just knew you’d read it.”
       “What do you mean?”
       “I knew if I left it on the table you’d read it, that’s all.”
       “So what if I hadn’t read it?” Stephen tightened his grip on the steering wheel and tried to make the trembling stop, tried to control it. You have no idea what you’re dealing with, he felt like saying, but Cameron would only laugh. “Seriously, Cam, what if I hadn’t read it?”
       “I just knew,” Cameron said, watching the blanched houses drift by the window, the knotted trees wearing their scarves of snow. A dog walker shot by on the sidewalk, her breath coming out of her like a speech bubble.
       “But how the fuck did you know?”
       He shrugged again, like it didn’t matter. Something trivial, that was all.
       “Goddamn it, Cameron,” Stephen said, and he wasn’t aware he’d said Cameron with the back of his hand until he felt the ache on his knuckles.
       He was back to looking at his knees, Cameron, open-mouthed, with one hand over his cheek.
       The rest of the morning tasted like bile.

"He does love you,” Vanessa assured him as they ate lunch in her classroom.
       “It’s easy for you to say that,” Stephen said. “To think that. Kids are supposed to love their parents, so of course it make sense when you just say it.” He looked down at his sandwich, its grey flap of turkey resting on the wax paper. “But something’s different about me and Cam.”
       Most parents don’t hit their kids, he thought. Most fathers don’t vanish for ten years.
       “I feel like I’m totally in over my head,” he said.
       “I don’t think it’s all that different. He’s just reacting to his mother’s death in his own way.” She was eating a salad with shaved carrots and Stephen tried not to notice the little orange darts in her teeth. “It might not be very sophisticated,” she was saying, “but he’s just acting out in the only way he knows how.”
       Stephen hadn’t mentioned that morning’s car ride, how the letter had come true.
       “He hates me,” he said. “At least his mother knew how to handle him.”
       “Come on, Stephen. Be fair.”
       She was looking at him. There was a topaz butterfly pinned in her hair, the tips of its wings peering out just behind it, that look.
       He wasn’t sure of the exact rule, but he thought if he told her what’d he’d done she wouldn’t have any choice. They were mandatory reporters, all of them, and if you saw harm done to a child it was your job. That he couldn’t convince himself she’d make an exception, just for him, gave him the strength to look away from her.
       “I really don’t think he appreciated her,” he said. He dipped the sandwich into the little container of ranch dressing he’d brought from home. “Since he said all that — I don’t know.”
       Vanessa cleared her throat and sighed into her napkin. She pushed her salad away from her like she wasn’t allowed to eat. “Tell me about her,” she said.
       “Who?”
       “Your ex-wife. Cameron’s mother. She’s obviously on your mind, so talk about her.”
       It felt cold in his hands, the sandwich, the bread gone soft and wet with condensation. He kept looking at it, a dollop of dressing hiding his teeth marks.
       “I don’t really know what to say.”
       “Say anything.”
       “Okay.” He set the sandwich on his napkin and arched his hands over the desk. The clock on the wall was stuttering, the second hand trapped behind the six. There was a word for it, the thing that kept time, the thing on her piano. “She collected instruments,” he said.
       “Instruments of . . . ?”
       “Musical instruments. She had a whole room full of them. She’d go to estate sales, antique shops and all that. Never played them. Just liked to have them.” He moved his hands like Vanessa was there in the old sun room, how through a rusted harp with no strings you could see, framed like a photo, the tangle of bleeding hearts Heather had hung on the old clothesline, how it stretched to the palms at the edge of their lawn. Like a red carpet, he’d always thought.
       “That’s nice,” Vanessa was saying. “Very sweet.”
       “You could say that.”
       “Maybe a little eccentric.” She took her napkin and dabbed the corners of her mouth. When she set it on the table it stayed upright, a swan-shaped triangle. “What else?”
       Stephen wasn’t looking, but he could feel Vanessa waiting across the desk. What else was there to know? How could you not understand already?
       “She was kind,” he said.
       “Kind,” she repeated.
       Stephen could tell she hadn’t meant it to sound petulant, but it came out all wrong.
       Like she doubted him.
       That moment — it could’ve been very different, two people who might be in love sitting in a classroom sharing lunch. Even the clock could be part of it, broken so they’d never have to end it. He could take her hand and tell her what he’d done, and they’d all three untangle everything at once — the violence, the letters, the secrecy, things like death and love and pain. From then on they’d make it work and even Cameron would love her.
       But Cameron didn’t love her anymore than Stephen loved her, or anymore than he loved Stephen. Love was a science experiment to Cameron — something to be analyzed and disproved with startling certainty. It failed every test.
       He’d changed, Cameron. At some point he’d become inhuman.
       But so had everyone else.
       What he’d said about the musical instruments — it hadn’t come out right. If he’d explained the drums, if he’d told her what Cameron used to do, she would’ve reached across the table. She would’ve touched his hand.
       But she wouldn’t touch his hand, and he’d begun to realize he didn’t even want her to.
       He closed his eyes. “Do you ever — do you ever wonder how you got here?”
       She blinked and looked up at him. “What do you mean?”
       It rang right then, the lunch bell. Stephen shook his head and gave the best smile he could manage before he took up his sandwich and ate it in two bites.
       “I’m sorry Stephen,” Vanessa said, but you could tell she didn’t know what for.
       By the time the first clamor of laughter and teenage profanity ricocheted somewhere down the hall he’d swallowed. He’d wiped his mouth with the napkin. He’d dusted the crumbs from his sweater and looked at Vanessa once more. He was about to say his good-bye, to switch himself off and go back to his classroom, when that clamor turned cacophonous and the swearwords ripened into slurs. Everybody was shouting. A body slammed into a locker. Someone’s throat was put to work as it brought one deep breath after another into a chest you knew was hurting. Still, he forced himself to look out into the hall.
       “Oh god,” he said.
       “What? Who is it?”
       He turned away from the door and steadied himself on the nearest desk.

"Idon’t think you’ll get expelled,” he told Cameron later that night. It was easier to look at him now, lying there on his bed facing the wall, a grey streak from his eye to the pillowcase. “I’ll tell them you weren’t thinking. Everything you’ve been through.”
      He’d watched, Stephen, as Tucker’s face met with the locker. There was no way to forget the star print of blood left behind, shiny in the fluorescents like it could’ve been paint. Cameron would be expelled without question, and Stephen hoped that was all — no assault charges, no jail, or wherever it was they sent kids like Cameron, whatever Cameron was.
      Tucker had managed a punch or two, in the beginning. That Stephen couldn’t tell the difference between Cameron’s new bruises and the welt he’d left that morning — that he’d fantasized all afternoon about driving Cameron to the airport and shipping him back to his grandparents in Pasadena — it brought back that taste, like he’d chewed open a battery.
      But Cameron would stay. Jail, some alternative learning center, home-schooled — he’d stay.
      “Nobody has any right to say those things about her,” Stephen told him, running his hand through Cameron’s hair in a way they’d both forgotten. Cameron didn’t crane his neck.
      He’d thought, standing in the doorway, that someone else would’ve stopped it, but it wasn’t long before the blood on the locker couldn’t even be called a star anymore. Instead it’d crunched and spilt its way into something alive, a kindling bone-and-blood rorschach, and in it nothing but you — past, future, love, and loneliness, but still just you. It didn’t lie. You couldn’t blink.
      Maybe he was human, Cameron, if there was such a thing. The most human boy alive.
      “Your mother,” Stephen said as he tried to comfort him. That’s all his knotted and pinched muscles wanted. Comfort him, they droned, because they still hadn’t learned. He shook his head and started over. “How can I say this?”
      But there was no way to say it. He should’ve learned by now there was nothing to say and nothing to understand.