“Between childhood, boyhood, adolescence and manhood (maturity) there should be sharp lines drawn with tests, deaths, feats, rites, stories, songs, and judgments.”
The phone in Megan’s pocket was ringing again. It was Friday—the day she worked from home—and she’d invited her mother over for lunch. They were sitting down to smoked trout sandwiches as the familiar ringtone of a trumpeting elephant sounded. Megan got up and took the call in another room. It was the school again, this time the principal. He wasn’t irate, but he was close to it.
“Is there a problem?” Megan’s mother asked when she’d returned.
“It’s Aiden,” she said. “He’s always circling the periphery of trouble.”
“Really? That’s hard to believe. Boy’s sharp as a tack.”
Megan stood a moment at the corner of the walnut table. She drummed her fingers upon it—nervous energy—before retreating to her chair. “Aiden’s like a director, or a puppet master. A smooth one for eleven. He gets other kids to carry out his untoward plans. When they get busted he just shrugs his shoulders.”
“Hmm…I’m a little surprised,” her mother said, leaning in over the table.
“Don’t be,” Megan said. “This time it involved a classroom boycott he instigated. Although the funny thing is, he’s the only one who showed up to class. He just sat and smiled at the teacher until she excused him.”
“Oh my! Recently I was explaining about Eugene Debs and the Pullman Strike. Do you think—?”
“Please… enough about your nefarious grandson,” Megan said, scissoring her arms to cut off further discussion. “Let’s eat.”
Sometimes, when Aiden couldn’t sleep right away, he’d lie in bed and consider things his grandma told him, tales of history and lore. He particularly liked stories about the “old country,” the rolling green hills of Ireland. Cork was the place, and he’d picture this big island adrift at sea, floating along at the end of a bottle.
It was magical there, his grandma always told him, but some bad people from England—the Protestants—had wanted to ruin it. The IRA was a small army of Irish willing to fight back in any way possible. They’d been the good guys, she said. And when she was young she had a boyfriend who was a soldier in that army. He’d do things he wouldn’t tell her about; she’d only find out through local gossip. One time he and his friends fastened a bomb to the underside of a police car. Only one officer died in the explosion, but his grandma’s neighborhood was never the same afterward.
That particular story now inspired Aiden as if it were a silent battle cry. Aiden knew an eighth-grader who had a connection to all sorts of firecrackers and low-level dynamite from some place in Chinatown. There in the dark, pitch black but for the faint strip of hallway light pushing through the open crack of his bedroom door, Aiden nodded off with a crooked grin. His mind filled with a dreamy vision. One in which a certain car in the school parking lot backfired with the pyrotechnic bang and pop of an Independence Day celebration.
Two Sundays later was the first time Megan had let Aiden out of the house since the incident. For the boy each day slogged by in a miserable eternity. It now seemed ages ago, that afternoon when’d he hummed with excitement. To Aiden it had been a personal matter, and so he did the honors himself. The big bang went as planned, but for once there’d been a witness—a doe-eyed girl with a Twilight Series lunch box—as he set the long fuse he’d hung from the tailpipe of the principal’s car.
Aiden’s school suspension ran another week and Megan had been of a mind to keep him enclosed at home until then. But her mother convinced her otherwise. It was tough being a single mom and Megan always appreciated the advice. She knew her mother had made many tough decisions before and her experience with such matters was welcome.
“A picnic, the three of us,” Aiden’s grandma had said. And so there they were, three people of three generations on a grassy hilltop above a man-made lake with mottled swans and plastic wrappers drifting across its murky waters.
Since their awkward meeting with the principal, Aiden had spoken few words to his mother. For the most part that was fine with Megan. Her once-fiery auburn hair was starting to gray, and engaging with her bright-minded but aggravating and exasperating offshoot took its toll. Already her demanding boss at the publishing house put her through the daily grind with an almost sadistic pleasure, sapping her energy. So when she returned home from work she wasn’t ready for any more battles. Aiden tested her, she knew, and too often she relented.
She wondered how her mother was able to engage her son so easily. Even that day, picnicking there on the hill, she could see how Aiden had a special rapport with his grandma that Megan had been unable to muster, no matter how hard she tried. Megan watched her mother and son soon stroll along the lakeshore with the remainders of the baguette they brought, breaking off pieces for the swans and ducks that circled near the water’s edge. The pair gazed at the birds as they lunged for the soggy bread with their pluming butts in the air. After the loaf was gone and the birds scattered away, Aiden and Grandma stood along the sandy bank and conversed. They were much too far away, though, for Megan to overhear even a word.
Aiden remained sullen, eyes often fixed on his feet. He kept muttering things, trying in his own way to tell his grandma that everyone was out to get him: his mother, his teachers, the principal; even kids at school he barely knew.
“Oh, it’s not like that, Aiden,” his grandma said, coming over to put her arm around his shoulder. “They’re all just trying to help. You need to realize there are consequences for your actions. Sometimes you do things that affect others in ways you may not intend but, for whatever reason, turn out wrong.”
She kept on, trying to rationalize with her grandson but he was seemingly in denial. Aiden said he was always getting blamed for things he didn’t do. And he’d become tired of it.
“Why do I have to have it so bad, Grandma?” he whined.
“Listen, kiddo, consider yourself among the lucky. Do you realize that in countries like Egypt the poorest of the poor pay to be blinded or have a limb cut off? Talk about having it bad.”
“Really? But why?” Aiden said. He suddenly became ramrod straight, and his eyes turned as bright as the sunlight shimmering off the lake.
“Because there are so many street beggars that it’s the only way to stand out in the crowd. It’s what they have to do to draw pity from those able to flip them a coin or two. It’s a sad fact, but it’s what they need to do to survive.”
“Oh, man,” Aiden said, appearing awestruck.
“See, I told you you’re lucky,” his grandma said. She turned her head around in the direction of the blanketed spot on the hill where Megan sat cross-legged. “Now, let’s get back to our picnic spot and rejoin your mother.”
Aiden ably obliged, marking his way up the green grassy hill in an energized gait.
Upon Aiden’s return to school, Megan was diligent. She quizzed him every night after dinner about his homework. Algebra, science, history, it didn’t matter; she was on it. And she shuttled him home after soccer practice right after the coach blew the final whistle, and kept him active in their neighborhood, door-to-door recycling project. What’s more, unbeknownst to her son, within the month she’d met with each and every one of Aiden’s teachers. They all said he was doing well. “Suddenly, he’s a godsend!” his Spanish teacher eagerly volunteered. The spring report card arrived and Aiden’s grades were on the uptick.
Megan couldn’t have been more pleased. Friends began laughing in her presence, remarking how happy they were that her sense of humor was back, full throttle. She found herself as carefree and alive as she’d been in years. But then, whenever she’d get too far ahead of herself and think she was in the clear, a sour grind would well at the pit of her stomach. Was it too good to be true? That was a question she didn’t want to answer.
And then, not long before school let out for summer, Aiden started to act antsy. Megan noticed. At least she swore she did in hindsight. Looking back, there’d been clues. Not that she’d have been able to do anything to stop it.
It was Friday, Megan’s work-at-home day. It had been a while so she invited her mother over for lunch. Her mother was already seated at the table as Megan finished tossing a Caesar salad. She plated a pair of considerable servings upon the counter when the trumpet call came from her pocket, as loud and clear as an elephant’s greeting from the Serengeti.
“Uh…um…yes,” Megan said, the phone fastened to her ear. “This is Aiden’s mother.”
From the table, Megan’s mother saw her daughter flush, saw the lifeblood leave her cheeks and saw a ghost emerge. Her daughter quickly vacated the kitchen but the news was clear: Aiden was at it again. And now his grandma was stricken by the memory of their conversation at the lake that day, and how Aiden had become enlivened by some morbid facts she was all too happy to relate.
“It’s Aiden,” Megan said to her mother once she returned, the words barely escaping her breath as if she’d been punched in the stomach. “They’ve called an ambulance. Who would believe it?”
“Oh, I do,” her mother said, leaping from her chair to wrap her arms around her daughter in a vice-grip hug. “Let’s just hope he hasn’t killed somebody.”
Megan fought through her mother’s hold and backed away, shaken. She wondered which of them was being naïve.