For the first weeks after Nicholas ran away, I’d run for the front door in the morning. Ma would find me staring at the steps. At first she said things like “Maybe tomorrow,” and then after a while she’d go into the kitchen without saying anything at all. Eventually, I went to Nicholas’ house. I’d avoided seeing his mother for weeks because I was afraid she would say “Hello Ina,” as if nothing had happened. Of course she didn’t feel that way, but it was hard not to blame her a little. His mom was taken aback when she saw me at the door. Her eyes watered and she said, “It’s good to see you, Ina.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing at all. I followed her into the kitchen and she made me tea that I didn’t drink. Nicholas’ mom had brown hair and navy eyes. Her face was thin and would have been pretty once. She had a nice soft voice, but I was never entirely comfortable with her or in her house. She took care of me when I was a kid, from four until I was old enough to stay at home alone, and I used to hide in the closets or under Nicholas’ bed. His mom said I was always playing, but I don’t think it was a game. Apparently Nicholas found me one day in the laundry basket and he climbed in beside me and that was that.
“Have you heard from him?” I asked when she’d taken the seat beside me. She looked tired and drained but I felt no pity. I didn’t think what it might have been like for her in that marriage without a job or money. I didn’t think about her being unable to see a way out or that things were never simple. But I do now, and if I could, I’d go back and take hold of her hand instead of sitting stiff-limbed and straight-backed.
She told me no, she hadn’t heard anything. She said it was good that he ran away but she wished he’d gone sooner. “He won’t forgive himself,” she said softly and I didn’t know how I felt. There was an urge to argue, but I’d seen Nicholas’ face and hands before he left. The memory of the blood and bruising was like a weight sinking inside me, I felt heavy and tired. The radio was on low and the sound grated on my nerves. I don’t know how long we sat there before I asked what happened. She looked at me with red-rimmed eyes. Her mouth was slack and I thought she might cry, and realized that in all the years I had never seen her break down.
“He’d had enough, that’s what happened,” she said.
The kitchen was closing in on me and I wanted to run from the place, but I was frozen with the thought of Nicholas lashing out. Once, I’d seen his father slap Nicholas on the face. His arm had darted out so fast I wouldn’t have known what had happened if not for the resounding sound of skin on skin that was held in the air for a long time after. Now I think those sounds never leave. They get embedded into the walls and the furniture and were the reason for the houses’ gloom. They took up space like ghosts.
We had nothing to say to each other, Nicholas’ mom and me. She wouldn’t pretend everything was okay. She wouldn’t cry but she wouldn’t lie either. She was in that halfway point where the feeling is mostly a kind of dazed numbness and I suppose I was with her too. I could pretend at home. I could run out to the doorway and expect to see Nicholas sitting on the step. I could imagine sitting beside him and handing him his coffee. He’d smile at me with none of the fear I’d often seen in his eyes. But I could not imagine such a thing in his kitchen. There, I knew Nicholas was never coming back.
Lorna Brown’s stories have appeared in several magazines such as Litro, The Capra Review, Congruent Spaces, The Missing Slate, The Manila Envelope and others. She grew up in Ireland but lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three daughters and their dog.