Signs of Life
From SIGN: A collection of stories by the members of Seventeen Syllables, curated by Guest Editor, Grace Loh Prasad (introduced here)
Lydia swears she can feel it, the bursting through. She is washing the dinner dishes. The neighborhood boys are riding their bikes in circles in front of her house. With sudsy fingers, she presses the tender spot above the elastic of her panties. This month it’s on the right side. Tonight, she will convince him, make him forget that he’s afraid. She told him that every generation believes this, that the world is too fucked up to bring a baby into.
The only thing she is afraid of is that she’s waited too long. The women in her family were already done by the time they were her age. They try, off and on. But every month, the blood comes, and she mopes that first day until Gerald complains, “Not this again.”
She fixes his drink how he likes it and presents it to Gerald, reclined in his leather chair in front of his shows. Lydia refills his glass and laughs with him until he tires of his shows and turns to face her, his eyes bleary. Lydia unties her hair and shakes the curls out, hiding the gray at her temples.
Later, right before she’s lost to sleep, she sees a red bridge in fog. The bridge their daughter will cross, Lydia is certain.
They have a son, Junior. They are always tired, but also unexpectedly happy.
For his whole life, Junior wishes for a brother, even a sister. Sometimes the longing and grief are so overwhelming, he has to run laps back and forth across the backyard until the feelings go away. He realizes it isn’t really a sibling he wants, but something else that he can’t name except to know that he wants, he wants, he wants.
Junior hears the neighborhood boys before he sees them.
Roughhousing, Mama calls their behavior. Stay away from them, she says.
The boys smash red strips of exploding paper with rocks and make firecrackers. They catch frogs from the pond and peel off their skin, leaving the white bodies in the street for the cars to pop. They are always pushing and punching and shouting. They are having fun.
The only reason Mama doesn’t like the boys is because Junior asked her if it was true what the boys said, that they were as old as grandparents.
Junior stands in front of his house where he’s allowed to be. Maybe today the boys will invite him to play. The boys are passing a bag, a pillowcase with something in it, back and forth.
“Come over here, Junior,” one of the boys says. Junior has been waiting his whole life, six long years, to hear this. The boys are in the street, where Junior is not allowed. He stands on the edge of the sidewalk.
The bag is popping and thrashing. Someone asks, “Hey Junior, do you like cats?”
“No, thank you,” Junior answers. He’s learned to be polite, even when terrified.
The last thing he sees is the cat coming towards him and he runs hard.
Gerald is not here, waiting outside the hospital morgue until he’s called. He closes his eyes and returns to his leather recliner, to when Junior was a newborn, asleep on his chest, exhaling milky air. He is bathing his son in the sink, his hand a visor over his eyes as he pours water over Junior’s soapy head. Gerald hears Junior’s constant questions, Why Papa? Why? Why? Why? Gerald is running alongside his son’s bike, letting go of the seat, and feeling his stomach jump as his son pedals away from him.
Gerald does not believe he can forgive his wife for making him love someone he never even asked for in the first place.
Lydia is waiting for the boys. Their mothers are behind them. Everyone is coated in shame. They’re as tall as men, but still boys.
They cross the room to her now, quieting each row as they pass, tragedy gawkers and parents relieved that it wasn’t their son that died.
At first, the boys had lied about what happened. They blamed Junior. Even the driver lied. Lydia saw everything from the kitchen window. The boys threw the bag at Junior. The cat clawed at Junior’s face and he stumbled into the street. The driver was looking at her phone.
When Lydia was interviewed by the police, she also lied. “It was an accident,” she said. “I saw it.” She knew all of them would suffer plenty, tethered to this moment, each other.
The boys present themselves. Even with their eyes on the floor, their faces are changed, older.
Years from now, again and again, these boys will return to Lydia, just like this. She will display their graduation photos on her mantel above the fireplace; the photos of their children; their holiday cards of vacations to places she will never go. Even though her husband excuses himself to the basement whenever the boys come to town for polite visits once or twice a year, never longer than twenty minutes. Still, he doesn’t stop Lydia from depositing the small checks they send monthly.
And even later, but sooner than they expected, before the morphine makes it impossible to argue, Gerald doesn’t protest when his wife informs him that the boys have asked to be his pallbearers. They want to be the ones to accompany him up and down the church aisle, to settle him into the ground. She knows that the boys will do the same for her.
The boys will return to Lydia, the mother of the life that was possible after, because of what she did, surprising even herself, in front of her son sleeping in his suit, in front of everyone, Gerald.
All at once, she is overwhelmed with an unexpected feeling. She can do something. She can spare them, these boys who so casually took away her entire world. Under her arms, their bodies throb with fear. Before she can think, she declares, “You are all my sons now.”
Grace Talusan was born in the Philippines and raised in New England. She is the recipient of a U.S. Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines and an Artist Fellowship Award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Talusan is the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence at Brandeis University. She has published in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Boston Magazine, Boston Globe, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. The Body Papers, winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, is her first book.
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