White Box 
Barbara Cameron

Winner, Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction

“My medication is mixing weird with my marijuana.”

“Turn right at that billboard. GPS woman with British accent says in 500 feet turn right.”

“Drive into it. I want in that billboard.”

“I like the black stars.”

“What are you talking about?”

“On my phone. The grammar thing.”

“Asterisks?”

“U-turn it, hurry.”

“Fuck you.”

“What the fuck?”

“Not you, my Snapchat password.”

“Hi. I am saying hi to me. I’m social.”

“Can’t you hear the music?”

“Faster.”

“The white light.”

“Mommy.”

#

The audio transmitted from her son’s phone is her black box, similar to an airplane’s flight recorder. By accident, his phone had been on record. Touching its glassy surface shocks like electroshock therapy. With the opposite effect: detachment from reality, desire to commit suicide. She does it anyway. Listens as an addict would, again and again, until she can no longer stand the fucking thing near her. Maybe the recording wasn’t an accident? These kids think–thought–everything they say–said–and do–did–has–had–monumental importance.

Now, as it turns out, it does have value to this mother of the driver: Linda.

Linda’s son, Charlie, the science kid. Handsome Charlie, dark hair–highlighted red when the sun hits. Eyes the color of Linda’s favorite flower, the charismatic blue forget-me-not, as if she had picked those eyes.

“Look,” Charlie said, defending himself. “I am.” Linda had caught him flipping screens and accused him of playing video games instead of doing homework. “See. It’s not like the airplane’sblack box. In science, the black box is an open system viewed solely in terms of stimuli inputs and output reactions, the system itself is black to the observer without any knowledge of its internal workings.”

“I’m impressed,” Linda responded genuinely. Charlie, so smart if only he could get focused, stay organized, and apply himself. Also, she was tired of arguing about unfinished schoolwork, incomplete college applications and essays, and pot. Mostly, Linda understood none of it. On her terms, like everything nonsensical, she made some kind of sense of it all.

“The opposite of the black box is the white box,” Charlie concluded. “A system where the inner components or logic are available for inspection.”

Three viewings and funerals behind her, Linda needs a white box.

The woman driving down the hill, “a quick ice cream pick-up,” neglecting to follow safety rules to buckle up before colliding with Charlie, had been mercifully thrown into the 25 percentile of people who live ejected from a car. “She is,” her husband said on the local news, “resting, medicated.”

Linda refused drugs. Raised by a dictatorial, although loving, father, she is nothing if not resilient. He worshipped at the altar of education. “Getting the grades” in her house was a moral virtue, so Linda got them. Straight As. Once, receiving a B, her father said, “There’s no such thing as a B.” Linda never demanded As from Charlie. Just that he get organized, do his homework, and go to class. That was all she asked.

Sobbing friends presented dolls, stuffed animals, and sentimental mementos all over the crash site. At the burial, in California’s irrepressible November sunshine, appropriately still enamored of spectacle, children sought her out. Tears smeared across tender faces with the back of their hands, sleeves clutched in their palms–the way teenagers do, Linda noted longingly, and adults do not–a tiny girl, long bangs covering acne scars, introduced herself.

I’m Rach” opened her delicate fist as if something would bloom from it. A miniature gray plastic cat with a sprig of green attached to its side. On its back, a lobster bound to a brick of rice by a thin strip of nori. “It’s a sushi cat. Charlie gave it to me to hang from my rearview mirror. He said I was a bad driver, and it would bring me luck. Charlie was such a good driver, and he loved cats so much. We all loved Charlie.” Quickly, Rach dropped it into Linda’s hand and ran, leaving Linda greedily clutching the keepsake.

Some in suits and ties, a few in flowy floral dresses, others skinny jeans and wrinkled dress shirts, one by one, they hugged Linda. Over and over, she hugged back until her arms dropped by her sides, limp, and the children held fast. One fortunate friend, not in the car that night, told her, “Nothing will ever be the same without him,” before he fell into her arms crying. She stilled, and then hugged back, knowing that, for this boy, the statement would not hold. For Linda, like chewing earth for iron, anything to keep her tough the way her father raised her, it would.

In freshly dug earth, Linda spied half a worm, alive, wiggling, and burrowing. She threw a ceramic angel prayed to while trying to get pregnant with Charlie atop the coffin and watched until it vanished.

The next morning, Linda wakes up to a single thought jammed into her head: It’s my fault. Knowing he got high, how could I have let him drive? An impulse denied: re-drive their final journey, straight up, past the accident site. Sensing distant peril, drawn to it, anger wanting in for days, Linda takes it head-on: God-damn defiant Charlie, come home.

She strays to the window, awed at the life charging at her. A mailwoman stuffs a small metal box with oversized junk-mail and a bird wisps by while Linda’s neighbor wheels her mentally disabled daughter around the courtyard, as she does every day, as the trees and random trash blow.

Had Linda loved Charlie as unconditionally as she believed?

In their–unbeknownst to Charlie–shared iCloud Notes, a month ago, Linda had found, along with the password for his phone, his half-finished college applications. Sparse offerings, ill-fated from the beginning. Charlie’s attempts to apply to college, tiny points of contention that had added up to non-stop arguments. She strains her thoughts to this stale safer torment, opens, and rereads Persuasive Essay Idea # 1: Why science is just as important as humanities. Discuss atoms being mostly empty space and how it relates to everything. Idea #2 Bananas and their lifestyle, a documentary. Bananas should be grown in trees and not in bushes. Thousands of dollars spent on tutors and prep for that?

“What’s the bar on this?” Charlie asked in the middle of a fierce fight three weeks ago. Linda had received an email from school: Charlie’s missed schoolwork and perpetual lateness had put him at risk of failing three classes.

“The bar?” Linda answered sarcastically. “The bar is going to school, getting there on time, and doing your homework, and believe me, it isn’t that high.”

“God, you come in here, all freaking out yelling. Calm down, dude.”

“I am not your dude, I’m your mother, and I wasn’t yelling, but I am now,” Linda lit into him. How was Linda to know the Beast, thief of magic, lay waiting? On the floor now, no one there to pick her up, swiping his phone obsessively, Charlie’s voice lifts and drops Linda the way he had when he first discovered he was taller. His last cry–Mommy–will never be silenced.

#

Her reaction, and not the school’s, to that email, extreme, had landed them at Charlie’s therapist, Dr. Truitt, for an emergency session.

“She brings me down. Every time something good happens, she says something that makes me feel bad about myself,” Charlie told him.

She shrank, mouth shut; this therapy was for Charlie.

When Charlie was sixteen, Linda had found a bong in his backpack and toilet paper rolls filled with dryer sheets in his dresser drawer. Confessing to getting high two to three times a week meant every day. She had arranged for Charlie to see Dr. Truitt: the doctor asked to see them together.

After owning up to getting “toasted every morning before school,” with his help, Charlie had quit. In a private session, which they did from time to time, the therapist told Linda: Charlie admitted he was able to get sober for a few months because it was “too much for him, the way it affected his relationship with you.” Pride and shame interwove surprisingly cold comfort.

Eventually, Charlie went back to getting high, although not nearly as often, and they stayed with the therapist. They liked him. Two weeks ago, as she did from time to time, Linda went alone.

“Why do you think Charlie isn’t applying himself?” Dr. Truitt asked.

“I think he’s confident, and sometimes, deluded, and plain god-damned lazy.” Anger languished. “He said he wanted help with the ACT test and then missed almost every appointment.”

“Maybe how you’re feeling is a better place to start.”

“Who knows?” All the secrets Linda kept, even to herself about herself, nothing scandalous or sensational, just in her sedated subconscious, a learned way to be, as needy as she was self- reliant. “Like I’ve mentioned, growing up in my house, we lived in fear of my father’s wrath. The key was endurance. I hate confrontation. Even with Charlie. In many ways, he can be a bully.”

“How do you mean?”

“Basically,” she said, “if he doesn’t get what he wants or I pressure him, give him an ultimatum, he’s miserable and argumentative.”

“Well, most teenagers are.”

Charlie punching his fist through the closet door. Charlie, taking her car after the fight resulting from finding his weed. Refusing to come home, saying he was parked blocks away and would sleep overnight in the car. Past midnight, freezing in her pajamas, Linda walked the dark streets begging him on the phone, which, at least, he answered, “Come home, please, it isn’t safe.” Linda told Dr. Truitt everything.

“He came home?”

“Uh-huh. Finally.”

“They’re tantrums, clear, and simple, Linda. You need to draw the line.”

“Sometimes, though, weeks fly by with just hugs and jokes. We’re close, you know that, but Charlie wears me down. I give him more room because his anxiety can be off the charts, and I’m all he has to push against. Mother and father.”

Linda took her phone from her bag; she could have sworn it rang? She shoved the phone back in her purse. “Sometimes, my heart breaks for him. Before the anti-anxiety meds, once, he grabbed a knife. ‘Maybe you would be happier if I was dead, and you had a normal kid,’ hesaid.”

“Did he–”

“No. He just held it in his hand.” Linda realized she had never revealed this to anyone, not even Charlie’s prescribing doctor. “I told him how much I loved him and that there is no normal. After his explosions, he melts and opens up about how bad he feels about himself sometimes.That’s when we have our best talks.”

“Probably so,” Dr. Truitt said. “However, Charlie has to learn how to deal with his emotions without exploding. The older he gets, the more abusive it’ll feel.”

“I don’t feel abused.”

He waited, questions like speed bumps on side streets dangerous to travel too fast.

“Linda, was your father ever violent?”

For the first time, Linda observed the doctor, almost scientifically, assessing his skills. “No. My father never hit me. Or my mother.”

“Was there anyone else to hit?”

She found the doctor’s questions strange, like a light shining on her concealed independent mind: a man interested in her feelings, even if it was his job. Twice, her father had hit her older sister, Vivian, the one who fought him. “Yeah, my sister, Vivian. It’s funny; I used to say: ‘My father hit with his mouth and not his hands.’ One day, Viv heard me and flipped out. Understandably,” Linda qualified, raking her reddish-blonde hair with her fingers. “He hit her twice. Once, a slap, but the second time, a real beating.”

The doctor’s facial expression flickered lightly like candlelight: Linda, all her delicate anticipating of other’s needs while trying to keep the peace in her house growing up–she was good at reading people–could not tell what he was thinking.

“What caused your father to lose control with your sister?”

“She refused to eat her peas. Swear to God.”

“Was food a big thing in your house?”

“Not wasting food, being disciplined with food, was a thing. You know what’s funny, I kept a shoebox in my closet filled with sweets because my father counted everything. One doughnut per family member, you know. But I never ate them, just switched them out when they got stale incase I needed them.” She smiled at the memory.

“Well, of course you did, in that house.”

She felt a heart thud, the way she used to on the swim team, racing breaststroke in a relay. Flipping her underwater turn, her father’s unmistakable voice above, watery below, “You’re losing time on your turns.” Linda’s feet against the cement wall; anger pushed her off and away. Sometimes propelling her to win, sometimes to defeat.

“It wasn’t as if I had a terrible childhood. There was a lot of love, too. I mean, my dad was not a monster.” She shrugged and surrendered to end it. “I don’t know? Why was I the one who was always trying to keep him happy? And then trying to please everyone my whole life. Even Charlie.” So young, all of a sudden. Shy. “Maybe because I was overweight? Although looking back at photographs, I look average now. Everyone was skinny back then.” He didn’t even blink. “Listen,” she said, “I don’t think I feel lovable.” It hit the air unskilled, never having been articulated. “I mean, romantically, sexually. Even after I gained weight from the anorexia. It wasn’t until I turned forty that I realized how lonely I was, but I never craved being a wife, only a mother. I never tried very hard, either, to have a relationship.”

The look on the doctor’s face, Linda had a desire to ask for it back–that last piece of information.

“You mentioned anorexia? Did you get therapy or go to rehab?”

“It was the early 1980s. No Oprah, no word anorexia,” she quipped. “Basically, I cured myself.” She laughed. “I’m sorry, it’s not funny, I just remembered something my dad did once. He had this cyst on his chest, about the size of a quarter. I noticed a bandage and asked, ‘When did you have it removed?’ He said? ‘I didn’t. I got my navy surgical kit, put whiskey on it, drank a shot, and cut the damn thing out myself. Those bastards wanted five-hundred dollars to do it.’”

A hush.

“Linda? No parents or friends stepping in? How thin were you?”

Linda manufactured a forsaken smile. “I weighed 102 pounds at 5’7”, and no, no one stepped in.” Her phone buzzed: Charlie sending a video of their cats, leaping gloriously through the air, chasing a fly. She showed Dr. Truitt. As there was a strict no-pets policy in their apartment building, he had written the letter for Charlie declaring them emotional support pets. “I never wanted them. He promised to do everything for them, and then I ended up with all the responsibility. I kept thinking my father would have said, ‘Take care of them, or I’ll give them away,’ kept his word, and followed through. Anyway, I gave myself over, and, oddly, it bonded us again.”

“In what way?”

“Oh, how I fell for these cats. Talking to them the way I talked to Charlie when he was little. Sweet. Affectionate nicknames I had for Charlie, like Pudikins. So I say, ‘How are my pudi-cats today?’ I feed them ‘Mommy’s special dinner.’ Maybe watching me with them, he remembers how much I love him?”

“Maybe you both do?” For a few moments, there was a mutual waiting. “Linda, did it ever occur to you that you could make Charlie honor his commitment to care for the cats without threatening to get rid of them?”

Linda said nothing.

“May I ask you something a little more personal? If I say anything you’re not comfortable with, let me know, okay?”

Linda made a face, a less legible expression. “Sure.”

“Do you ever think about why you chose to have Charlie on your own? No judgment, believe me. Statistics actually show that unmarried women your age are happier than married women.”

His statistics didn’t help. As annoying as the gynecologist asking if she was sexually active or planning to be? No, and probably not, Linda always responded falsely: not at the moment, and possibly. Linda had decided a long time ago that the truth in these matters was not possible. It was a stone, and the deep, solid, sinking to the depths of Linda’s oceanic soul stone was admitting that no one had ever loved her enough to pursue her in that way, all the way through the resistance she subconsciously put forth. Dreaming of it as a young girl–love–but always a fantasy: Linda thin. By the time Linda became skinny, still: fat Linda.

She threw back her stock answer: “I swore I would never let anyone control me the way my father controlled us.”

The reality of that stone: a feather floating mid-air because the stone didn’t haunt Linda. Egg-donor sperm-donor, she carried Charlie, gave birth, lost her period, and, without the hormones flowing, never thought about marriage again.

“I guess, in retrospect, I let go of the possibility of marriage.”

“In retrospect?”

“Things kinda hit me later. That’s how I am.”

“Linda, can you tell me anything about the time your father beat your sister?” He surprised her, his dark eyes warm, regarding.

#

Lying on the couch, she unmutes the TV. Mostly Turner Classic Movies, no chance of being blindsided by contemporary youth. A tribute to Barbara Stanwick, a tour de force and a wreck, from Meryl Streep. Linda clicks the MUTE button and watches the visuals flutter away before her eyes until she dozes off.

A knock at her door wakes her. Late-afternoon reveals Amanda, her dear friend, naturally pretty, wearing a long, shapeless tunic like a maternity shirt, and skinny leggings underneath, at the door. Neither speaks until Amanda says, “Are you going to let me in?”

“Of course.”

“How are you doing?”

“It’s fucking unbearable,” Linda says, only wanting to collapse into her arms.

“You’re one of the strongest women I know. You’ll get through this.” For a short time, Amada says nothing, and then she clicks off the TV and pops the top of her Tupperware, scaring the female cat, Little Girl, so easy to startle. “I’ve made a fruit salad,” she says, pulling off the lid.

The perfection of color is like Dorothy landing in sepia tones in The Wizard of Oz, which Linda had seen that morning. You never knew you craved it until she stepped out that door, her dress turned blue, and that brick road was bright yellow. Linda plucks a purple grape, its initial sweetness unexpectedly bitter.

“Sour grapes,” Linda says and laughs.

Little Boy, the male cat, noses and rejects the fruit. Linda brings a cold bottle of Fiji water, the best she can manage, and offers it up. “My heart goes out to you,” she remembers someone saying at the funeral.

“Where will my heart go now?”

“Aw, sweetie, come here.”

Linda remains frozen, the condensation on the bottle cooling her hand.

“I can’t bear to think of his face in the headlights. Did he live for a second after the crash? Did any of them?”

“Honey, you can’t think like that.”

“Whatever thoughts come, I let them.” Linda gasps, “How could I have been so negligent?”

“Linda, it was an accident.” A subtle expression of doubt crosses her friend’s face, the mother of a teenager as well, whose daughter has never experimented with drugs but with whom Linda has shared her concerns about Charlie. “Can I ask you something? And if you don’t want to answer, that’s fine, you can tell me.”

Linda says nothing.

“Was Charlie high? Please know, I’m not asking to torture you, but it might help to have someone to talk to about it if he was. You know I’m your friend, and I understand.”

Linda, without Charlie, is no one. Just Linda. How could she have foreseen losing the piece that had made her somewhat like other people? A mother. Part of a collective charity, giving to one another, sharing, understanding. Although she had many lovely friends, the truth was that Linda had felt alone until she gave birth. Linda’s group of mother friends had been an unexpected added benefit of parenthood.

“Is the mother of a dead child still a mother?” Linda asks.

“Don’t say that, Linda. You were a wonderful mother, always there for Charlie, and he knew it. Teenagers can be agonizing.”

Face turned upward to the ceiling, Linda thinks back to the night of that blood sacrifice–to what god she has no idea. Before he left, Charlie had hugged her goodbye. As he had a habit of doing, taller now for years, he affectionally patted her head, and said, “I love you, little mama.” Daggers into the edge of heaven, zero gravity, Linda floats up, a lonely slave to her hopeless love for this child, to see him once again and tell him what? Gravity binds humans to earth. Cars hit head-on release them.

“No, he wasn’t,” Linda looks right at Amanda’s face and lies as if she knows. If she says otherwise, somewhere on another day in another friend’s living room, unable to help herself, Amanda will confide to that friend, also sworn to secrecy: ‘Poor Linda, wasn’t sure if Charlie was high that night.’ She knows how this works. Highly alert, she feigns exhaustion.

Impossibly, Amanda says, “Well, that must be some comfort.”

“There’s nothing for me,” Linda mouths. Out loud, she says, “Solace or otherwise.”

“What did you say, honey, that first part?”

“Nothing.”

“Listen, I’m here. I’ve cleared my calendar.”

“I think I need to be alone.”

“I’m not going to hover.” She scans the room. “I’ll clean up.”

A week in, Linda misses believing in God, that airy way where you don’t have to do anything but fall to your knees and give in to prayer.

Because how many times, after complaining about feeling drained from trying to please everyone since childhood, has Linda been told, “It’s not their fault if you don’t say what you want, Linda.” She can no longer count. Out of pure animal jealousy, Amanda, with her living child, Linda attacks. “I said I wanted to be alone. What aren’t you hearing?”

Amanda turns crossly, spins back, face blushed, and takes Linda’s hand. Without breaking eye contact, gently, she pries open each finger to reveal the sushi cat. “It’s mine,” Linda rasps. She fists it, her nails digging into her palms, folds her arms tight, and feels her rapidly beating heart like a bird stuck inside a glasshouse, banging around until it will stupidly, innocently knock itself dead.

“Maybe you can’t know what you want right now.”

“What is there to understand?” Linda wildly bites the air. “You know what I want, I want Charlie.”

“There must be something I can do for you,” Amanda says to defend herself.

“Oh, I know,” Linda says, ready to pounce. “Myperfectbaby1. Lindalovescharlie4ever. Charlielovesscience%15.” Amada looks puzzled. “My passwords! Let’s change them! I’ve got it. Charlieisdead18.” Tears pour out of her. “Nobody thinks about that stuff, Amanda. I want those parents to have their children back, and I want Charlie, but I can’t have him, so for the love of whatever god, leave me alone.”

Shocked, Amanda looks down as if to remind herself where she is, in what room, sharing what circumstances. “It’s okay, honey,” she says. “I love you, and when you are ready, I’ll help. I can’t even imagine having to type them.” This sweet woman, unable to grasp: Linda will never change her passwords. They embrace, and she leaves. Linda. Dead alone.

Hilarious, so easy to fool, Linda thinks. When have I ever needed anyone more? Why couldn’t she have asked Amanda to stay? Damaged, that’s why.

Falling onto the couch, she spies The Princeton Review Best 382 Colleges in the bookcase, shoots up, rips it off the shelf, and tosses it out the kitchen window. Had Linda withheld love because Charlie was not a good student? The way her father had tortured Viv who defied him, grades worse every year? Yes, yes, and, without realizing it, yes.

Alone again, Linda cannot perform the miracle of doing anything but sleeping and watching TV. All About Eve. For no apparent reason, certain films bedevil rather than soothe. She switches back to National Geographic Channel, her other anchor since the accident. Nature shows: sanctioned barbarity. These, Linda can stomach, refreshing in the way Machiavelli and MalcolmX had been when she’d first read them.

“Danger stalks the open grassland,” Powers Boothe narrates. “Ghosts in the moonlight, if animals can hate, this between the lions and the hyenas is a blood feud of hatred.” Linda wonders: Do animals hate? Last night, another documentary stated that much research is being done to debunk human exceptionalism. What they do know: exclusively, humans create gods and write poetry. “The ability to produce strings of conscious thought makes us human,” the documentary flatly stated.

Poetically, Linda’s thoughts spring with a mysterious tie-in she can’t decipher. Is hate a human survival instinct? By the time Linda was a young woman, she had told people, “I hate my father,” so quickly, it was shocking.

#

Weeks previously, when asked by Dr. Truitt about Vivian’s beating, without warning, Linda was crying. Her stupid glasses lenses always filthy, she removed them, wiped her eyes, and, blurred, continued. “Jesus, it’s not like, Oh, my God, it’s all coming back to me. I’ve told thisstory before. Vivian, tenth grade, so I was in seventh? My father said, ‘Finish your peas.’ Vivsaid, ‘I don’t want them.’ He yelled, ‘Eat your god-damned peas.’ She pushed her plate away and left. He shoved his chair back and chased her into the living room.”

“Were you a witness to the hitting?”

“Yup.”

“Did you know that when people witness violence, especially children, they experience it as well?”

So tightly, his words squeezed, and it hurt, but everywhere, nowhere specific Linda could conquer. She slid her glasses back onto her face. “It wasn’t like he hit all the time. Men who hit hit, right? Not that I’m making excuses, but mostly he yelled and screamed about our grades andthe house not being immaculate. Which, believe me, was fucking hell, too.”

“What did ‘fucking hell’ feel like? Can you name it as an emotion?”

“Hate.”

“Okay. I’d like to go a little further with that unless you think it’s too much for today?” Eyeing the time on her phone, Linda felt broken and perceived she had unwittingly passed it on to Charlie. Removing her mini glass-cleaning kit from her purse, she stood, held her eyeglasses to the light, and polished them for the drive home, recovered. Linda could not trust him. After everything she had revealed in the past hour, how could he think she could ever admit that anything was too much?

“Ask away,” she said.

“Never mind, let’s schedule next week with Charlie, and then with you alone again.”

One hand on the doorknob, Linda pushed the hair off her lightly freckled forehead with the other, relieved the session had no particular effect on her mood now that it had ended, agreed, and left.

#

Powers Boothe says, “We examine the horror, the turmoil of their hidden battlefield of secret, special magic.” Linda clicks mute.
Is love a human survival technique? Linda, the first to forgive her father when he begged for it later. “No human ever,” Linda moans, clutching an indifferent cat, squirming to get out of her stronghold, “cradles their newborn and says, Oh, boy, am I gonna fuck you up.” Her father had not, and neither had she, but, a single mom, if Charlie was fucked up, and if it was a parent’s fault, it’s all hers.

It was all Linda’s at the funerals.

Charlie, haughtily presenting his Medical Marijuana Card, purchased the day he turned eighteen from some charlatan in Malibu for sixty lousy fucking bucks. Linda, repeating her rant. “I get it, overcrowded jails, blah, blah, blah, but vaping weed and nicotine in candy flavors, eating cannabis mints and gummy bears? These stupid pot-head losers and money-making- lobbyists, when they made it legal, was anybody thinking about the kids? Did this idiot know you’re on Prozac for anxiety and take meds for ADHD? That your prescribing doctor told youit’s the worst thing you could be doing?” Linda asked.

“God, mom, everyone else thought it was funny. Even the teachers at school. Of course, you have to react like a crazy person.”

He was over eighteen, what could she do?

Maybe Charlie had been sober? This single thought allayed Linda’s insufferable existence for days because that’s what mother’s do, they hope, and she cannot shed motherhood. His recorded voice never claimed to be high. Petting Little Boy along his jawline, the exact point that sinks his entire body with pleasure at the same time slacks his mouth and bares his savage teeth, Linda remembers the particular hollow-sounding groove in Charlie’s infant back where she had tapped lightly, soothing him to sleep. Something he would never have known. Something she might have told him, much later, maybe when she was old, if he asked, “What was I like when I was a baby, mom?” the way she had once asked her mother.

Attracted despite herself to the visual on the TV–lioness and newborn cubs–Linda unmutes. “Separated from the pride to give birth, the lioness’s secret spot tucked away, chosen to protect her cubs from hyenas, turns out to be a bad choice.”

A cobra appears, dances in front of them briefly, before biting them all. Almost immediately, the lioness’s cubs die. Dazed, blind, terribly weakened as the poison fills her bloodstream, the mother can only sniff her dead babies before the hyenas take possession, carrying them away to feed their young.

Linda did not protect Charlie. In doing so, she failed to protect the other children in the car.

Within minutes, the lioness collapses and dies alone. “Life on the savannah goes on, never a moment of repose, always alert. Another lioness hunting baby zebra successfully kills her prey.”

Back to the pride, the screen reveals the lion’s head deep in the striped beast’s carcass, inner organs and flesh clawed out, “the frenzied banquet of a hungry animal. The male eats first and leaves the scraps. Soon, after feeding, he will rest in the shade. His spot.”

The lion of the pride: Linda’s father. Your father’s chair, your father’s bread, and your father’s maple syrup from Vermont.

“Self-preservation rules the animal kingdom in Africa.” The best bacon, the best fruit, and the best piece of fish always reserved for Linda’s father. Yet, unlike the male lion who “pays little or no attention to the cubs,” Linda’s father loved and sacrificed for his family. Linda’s father, and no one else’s, happily took their friends for ice cream on warm nights. And more. Her father and not her mother had been the storyteller in the family.

Unless he was in a bad mood, and then he withheld. He was a steadfast provider, never a drinker or gambler. He protected his children, and he beat Vivian.

Beasts and humans.

Everything depends on Linda being able to shut down. Mr. Boothe continues on and, dreamy, catatonic as if drugged naps pull Linda, a grateful haul down. Stupor-like seconds convert tender pain drops, evaporating Linda’s severe case of introspection. She falls in and out of blissful archaic sleep, sedated by crushing grief, unable to brush her teeth or eat.

Until that sleep trembles with a nightmare in which she is burning her dead son’s clothes. She wakes.

Is suicide a survival instinct? She heads to his room, remembering how lately she entered to nag him. “Throw away these empty bottles, ice-cream-cone wrappers, and put your dirty dishes in the sink.” But, mostly, “Are you doing your homework?”

Should she call Dr. Truitt?

Restlessly cliché to think she should have done anything differently. Day-to-day living requires chores, upkeep, and hygiene. And, dammit, education. What would Linda say if she had a second chance? There are paths you can never come back from, and it’s my job to guide you. You’re a young boy growing into a man. Dangerous roads I’ve seen others go down; I have to block, or at least warn you against.

She had said all those things.

The cats trail her, sniffing for Charlie, and settle. Linda falls into a pile of his dirty clothes, crouching with them like an animal in hiding, nestled in the stale odor of him, Fiji Old Spice and perspiration. “You try this motherhood thing without instinct and instinct alone. You try this with a mind, a heart, and a past,” she tells the cats. She remembers barging into Charlie’s room one night, shortly after he’d brought the cats home. “It’s one thing not to take care of yourself,” she said, crossing a line, trudging onward. Someone had to say it; it was her job. “Not showering or brushing your teeth, your room a pigsty, but how can you let these poor things wait for food, clean water, and litter box? They’re babies. They depend on you to take care of them.”

Hurting him deeply.

Linda’s mother was kind, even if weak when it came to standing up to her father. “It was an accident, honey,” her mom said. Linda, age ten, in the backseat of the car. Having slipped on a diving-board ladder, each metal-thump down had ripped her chin open. Shivering, she held a bloody towel to her jaw on the way to the hospital. “There’s no such thing as an accident, only carelessness, and negligence,” her father sternly lectured. Linda knows now: Her father was afraid, unable to keep his daughter out of harm’s way.

The alert sound on her iPhone. An email from the school. “Jesus fucking Christ.” Neglecting to remove Linda from the list: a vigil and special remembrance, as well, free counseling for those students, cost covered by the school, to help deal with “this tragic, abrupt loss of three classmates.”

Can Linda live in a town where three children might have died because she didn’t insist Charlie not take her car that Friday night? Untamed, no matter the danger, her thoughts roam. Did the lioness think about suicide in the seconds after she discovered her cubs were killed before she succumbed? Did she berate herself for her poor choices? Linda could go to the top of that peak, abandon her pulse into the earthy dampness below.

Little Boy scratches the cat tower, climbs it, and, perched at the top, stares out the window. The gnawing at Linda’s bone-thoughts: could she step out with drugs? Never. Linda, built to last like the appliances in her home that her father, having bought the best, refused to get rid of until they broke down. The twenty-five-year-old Frigidaire with the tiny icebox that had to be defrosted weekly with hot water. Like Linda, it kept running. “When it breaks, I’ll replace it,” her father said.

Linda dives onto Charlie’s messy bed, sheet slipped off the corner, dirty socks, his belt, and a few hangers. Little Boy leaps atop, flips, belly exposed, and curls his head into Linda’s chest. Thumb gently to his nose, she digs back through the middle of his eyes the way he likes it and traces back to the time when Charlie’s future was a golden glow, reflecting onto Linda. “Sweetboy, you’re the perfect baby,” she coos. “If you blink your eyes when you look at me, I read that means you love me. Do you love me, Little Boy?” Slowly, they shut and open. “You do love your mother.” Little Boy stares his cat-blank stare. “He was mine. The kid needed boundaries, and I fucked up,” Linda says, shoving him off the bed. “Too bad, born into the wrong family,”she whispers at his aloof glance from the floor. “Like Charlie.”

And what the fuck difference does it make now if he was driving high? That accident could have happened if he was sober, valedictorian of his class, and had completed all of his college applications.

What was at the top of the hill?

Linda will never know, so she begins the treachery of the living aimed at the dead by cleaning his room. Keeps going until every hairball, Dr. Pepper bottle cap, cotton swab, Drumstick ice cream wrapper, Cheetos Flamin’ Hot Crunchy bag, and speck of dirt is off that floor. She might hate cleaning, goddamnit, but raised by her father, Linda knows how to clean.

Delicately now, she dusts her Valentine’s Day present given to Charlie when he was in fifth grade. The red ceramic car, two M&M’s, holding hearts in their laps. One M&M hand waving, the other’s hand cracked off in a fall, Charlie found it a few years later in the trash, incredulous.“I love that car. You gave it to me. I don’t care if it’s broken.”

Lastly, the plastic bag with the clothes he died in. How can Linda throw them away? She cannot. Vacant habit, as always when doing his laundry, she roots through the pants pockets for stray paper or tissue that transform into a disastrous lint detonation in the machine.

Crumpled, a receipt in his faded black jeans. Her body is air. All fatigue.

Always, Charlie will have her heart by the throat.

Physical threats of harm over, deceptive, this unraveling receipt a serpent slithering until the discovery breaks open raw pain. Soaked with sweat. Dizzy. Found, therefore, fact.

RECEIPT # 100Z5T
Granddaddy Purp Weekender
Thank you
Choosing ERBA Warning: This product can expose you to chemicals including marijuana smoke which is known to cause Cancer. For more information www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.

Budtender: JOHN

page23image57882880

Order Completed:11/22/2018 5:15 pm.

#

Time of death: 11/22/18 9:43 pm. Drugs. Stimulus: response.

Life. Stimulus: response.

Death: a Black Box.

Linda calls Dr. Truitt.

#

“That narrow road. And they would’ve probably been going too fast, anyway, like teenagers do,” Dr. Truitt is telling her. Framed by the light coming from the window, he looks heavenly, so Linda decides to believe him, even if just in the moment.

Linda laughs a lying laugh that spooks them both. “Say what you will, my father taught me to persevere, to survive. Jesus Christ Almighty, you have to be a fucking sheet of metal to survive this world.” The light changing, Linda sees Dr. Truitt’s facial expression now: attachment. “My father would have never let me have his car if he knew I was using drugs.”

“Slow down, breathe.”

“This nature video I watched said that humans can, if desired to be broken, break their habits. All I ever wanted to do was to raise Charlie with love, not fear. I caved a lot when I tried to be firm. He had no fear of me.”

“All parents sometimes feel that way, Linda.”

“No,” she says fiercely. “Not all parents.”

Calmly, Dr. Truitt says, “You’re breathless. Relax.”

It is only then that Linda understands the depth of what she still has to face.

“A week before the accident, we had a brutal fight. Charlie woke me out of a sound sleep, asking to go to a friend’s house downtown. So fucking tired of losing battles, instead of flat out saying no like I wanted to, I asked, ‘Why tonight?’ He said, ‘No, reason.’ It was too risky, so I said, ‘No, you’re not taking the car. There’s no need to go now.’”

He went back into his room, and I thought, Wow, it worked. But then, out came Charlie with his backpack. ‘I’m taking the train,’ he said. I said, ‘Absolutely not. You’re not taking a train downtown at midnight. It’s not safe.’ Other times, in the past, I had let go, justified: Okay, he has to learn the hard way, but that night, God help me, and not the Friday of the accident, I thought: I can’t live with myself if I don’t stop him and something terrible happens. Like seeing the hyena and not the cobra.”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing.” Her eyes searching, voice full-speed, “Back and forth, we yelled until Charlie shouted, ‘You think I want to stay here in this house with you? I fucking hate you!’ Something snapped. I screamed, ‘You’re cruel. I don’t want you here. Go!’ For the first time in his life, I struck him–with my mouth, even if not my fist. And then the door slammed, and he was gone.”

The doctor takes Linda’s hand. Seeing a tear in his eye, she feels it on her skin and continues.

“I never cry.” The doctor visibly winces. “My glasses felt, I don’t know, in the way? So I took them off, and it started. My face in my hands, I sobbed and sobbed.”

“Well, of course, Linda. Defenses require a great deal of energy.”

“The yelling, the door slamming? Who knows? But out of nowhere, maybe because you were asking about it, but it all came back to me, that night my father beat Vivian. Fast, like it was happening.”

“Emotional recall usually works that way. What did you feel when you remembered?”

“I don’t know? Scared?”

“Maybe we can remind the little girl watching that night that she is safe, and we can go back there?”

“That’s stupid.”

“Just stay with me in the present, see yourself in that room and tell me what you feel?”

“Helpless,” Linda whispers. “To help Vivian.”

“Well, yes, and yourself, Linda. Maybe, at times, Charlie, too.”

This slays her. Something inside of Linda that always determined she had no right to indulge her feelings, bother anyone with them, disappears. “But it was the weirdest thing,” she says. “At the same time, other flashbacks came, too, but the opposite of abuse. Memories of my father’s kindness. On a ski trip, taking off his gloves in the bitter cold to retie my laces. Looking up at him, how protected I felt! How I loved him!”

“It’s perfectly healthy to have different feelings toward people at once.”

“I loved Charlie. But I couldn’t get past the stupidest things. I was so underneath-mad all the time, it seems now. Because he vaped and neglected school? I was mean, sometimes. How could I have been so mean,” her voice sings up to stop the tears, “ever? When I loved–love–Charlie with all my heart?”

“What about that night, Linda, the beating? Where were you physically?”

“I couldn’t leave my sister, so I sat on the third step to the top. I did nothing. I watched.”

“You were a child, Linda. Powerless.”

“No, if I had run downstairs, he would have snapped out of it. I know he would have.” She touches her heart. “I can’t.”

“You assume that now, but you couldn’t possibly have known. There are no right answers, just what you feel.”

Correct and incorrect answers permeate her life. Good and bad decisions, a delicate trust so thin that Linda knows to hold tightly, slightly aggrieved she has fallen for this, her face pointed with determination, her voice swollen, inflamed, she keeps going. “Vivian’s thick hair, my father’s arms, wild. Finally, one last whack, it ended. I followed Viv upstairs but heard panting. When I looked back, my father, out of breath, breathing heavily, was sitting in his red leather chair, his two arms extended on each armrest as if in an electric chair, staring straight ahead into nothing.”

“The aftermath of violence is usually feeling defeat and humiliation, especially for a controlling person.”

“The house was dead with it.”

“Linda, you never mentioned your mother. Where was she that night?”

Unflinching, “She had to work. She was in real estate. Showing a house. Her job gave us financial freedom, no more begging my father for money! But she left us alone to fend for ourselves.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“Women were powerless back then.”

“Parents are the adults. While blaming them is useless, at times, they do have to be held responsible for their children’s well-being.”

“Is Charlie driving high my fault? Yes. I’m the watcher, frozen during the most important fights of my life.”

“It was an accident, Linda.”

“That night of our fight, crying, alone, I thought: Great, I’ve failed at this, too.” Linda speaks calmly now. “Then I heard the door.”

“Charlie?”

“Charlie came back. Bloody hand from punching god knows what, ‘Come here,’ he said. Shaky, I went to him. He wrapped his arms around me. ‘It’s okay. I’m sorry, mama, but I came back,’ he said. He patted me on my back, and I cried into him. ‘You only love me when you’re getting what you want, Charlie, and it’s painful,’ I said. ‘You do that to me, too, mama,’ he said. Neither of us knew how to break it, so we held each other for a long time.” Linda stops, skimming her fingers along her brow as her brain is an open wound. “And that night, I knew we would always be okay. No matter what happened, Charlie would always come back to me.”

“Linda, I am so sorry for the little girl, enduring everything in that house, and for your pain now.”

Scarcely daring to move, bright and empty, tears flowing, “The thing is, if Charlie had lived, I think we would have made it through the teen phase. I think we would have been fine.”

#

Fear scratching raw at the back of Linda’s neck, compelled to understand because that is what human animals do, Linda takes the drive to trace the scent of her dead cub. Her sushi cat dangling, tied to the rearview mirror and swinging, Sunset Boulevard’s view cut with billboards, no less than ten advertise cannabis until Linda sees what she is looking for, the advertisement Charlie’s friend had claimed he wanted to be in: Marijuana is Here! Delivered to Your Doorstep.

Knowing she never had, nor has she now, any power to banish danger, Linda starts up the hill. It is almost dark, the end of the day spikes through the greenery.

Ascending, nothing Linda sees on her drive, thus far, adds up to anything she can go home with and not want death. Had Charlie thought of Linda in the end? Yes. Mommy. If only she can make it past the accident site without looking. She is too strong; she looks. As humans will, amongst the ground cover of flowers and stuffed animals, someone has left a patch of battery-operated candles. Pale yellow illumes a photo of Charlie, staring at his mother. 

Clipped with a wooden clothespin to a make-shift popsicle stick fence squaring—ruffled like Charlie’s hair in the dim glow—a richly soiled plot: A Forget-Me-Not Memorial Seed Packet. Beside it, handwritten: Do Not Despoil: Seedlings Planted. For Linda, In Loving Memory of Charlie, Amanda. 

Surviving on the instinct of the insane, her mind is alive. She keeps going.

The top. A dry night, sticky only at the bottom of the hill, the moon is rising. The black sky is wounded with white star punches. Glittering asterisks. The view remaining shadowy, the empty tug of a windless twilight. The air stinking potent and beautifully full of skunk shoots into Linda’s nose. She stands perfectly still, perched at the edge. Scattered in the void, prayers, and old warnings. Unheeded. Charlie tore loose from her anyway. This youth has passed. Charlie’s youth has come and gone. Linda’s youth has come and gone.

Drawn to the vast night sky, the moon visible now in full force; madness, so gorgeous out there. “All creatures strive blindly toward life,” Powers Boothe had concluded. It would be beautiful. If she could be a part of the Universe? Linda imagines that she is in a documentary, hears Powers Boothe narrate. Linda, a mere human, with all of her humanity, her battle of wits, and control? Her crazy deep love? She, too, is a part of the poetry of our magnificent Universe. “Show me how,” she breathes, letting her resting-heart throb.

No black box; no white box. Only remnants. Steadied, Linda tosses both the phone and the sushi cat into the abyss, feels her wet face, the hair on her head tingle, and shrieks into the night.

Barbara Cameron lives in Los Angeles, where she manages a restaurant in the historic Sunset Tower Hotel. Her work has appeared in Northern Colorado Writers: Pooled Ink (Editor’s Pick), Angels Flight Literary West, & American Literary Review (winner, first place in Creative Nonfiction). Barbara received her BA from Barnard. She lives with her teenaged son.