MY SON • by Billy Justus

Westwood Elementary student arrested with gun at school. No injuries.

Phones ding and buzz mid-meeting with the news alert. Sharp breaths and low groans ricochet around the table. Everyone turns to me.

Westwood is my son Kiel’s school.

Naturally, I could excuse myself, but I am the only woman in a room of power-hungry men. I cannot show fear. I must not show anxiety. Still, it seems unnatural to remain entirely composed.

A soft knock at the door allows me a few deep breaths. It is an intern, some rat-faced boy. He’s the type who will grovel his way into midrange management one day. He says, “Mrs. Gamble has a phone call.”

Eyebrows arch. Looks are exchanged. My palms become sticky with sweat.

I rise, snatching my cellphone. The walk along the hallway feels endless, and the intern’s cologne, a musky smell, is suffocating.

At his small desk, I smooth my skirt and take the phone. “This is Janet Gamble.”

***

I do not return to the meeting. I go to my desk. I get my purse. I grab a work padfolio. I shutdown the computer. This seemingly routine exit is the only thing scotch taping my emotional capacity.

My son. My husband’s gun.

“He needs to know what it is,” Mark insisted once.

Well, look where that got us. Mark’s always careless with ideas, quick to act, no consideration of the consequences.

It takes twenty minutes to get to the police station. Every stoplight catches me. I hit every pothole. Other drivers honk and slam on their brakes. I refuse to look at them. I also ignore the tension between my shoulders. I try to convince myself this is a mistake. Kiel — age seven with thick, dark brown curls and dewy hazel eyes — would not have taken…

…would he?

Last night, over dinner, Kiel talked about being picked on. The bully was a new kid, bigger and older than the rest. He put an upturned trash can on Kiel’s head and hit it repeatedly with a ruler. Mark ferreted out minor details while I sat seething. As we readied for bed, I told Mark I was going to call the school and file a complaint against the teacher. She shouldn’t leave them unattended. Mark was dismissive. “That won’t do any good.”

I wanted to know how we were supposed to help our son. Mark said,

“You’re being too protective. Kiel should learn to stand up for himself.”

I wanted to know why this was happening at all. Mark said, “Boys will be boys, Janet.”

I pointed my finger at him. I told him that way of thinking was dangerous. Mark yawned. “You’re being shrewish.”

Shrewish. That was too far. So, I began listing his flaws: one step away from being a deadbeat; not holding down a job; always out with the guys; forgetting he has a family. Really, I alone keep this family going. Shouldn’t I be the one deciding what is and is not appropriate for us to do?

Mark, though, is an expert at undercutting me through guilt. “All I’ve ever done is love you. And love Kiel.”

I rolled my eyes so he would not see those words burrowing into my skin and gnawing at me.

Mark turned down the bed in a brisk, jerking fashion, betraying the practiced impassivity of his eyes. Those eyes only softened for Kiel. To me, they were no more than a warning before Mark erupted or his hands balled into fists or his tongue became a knife.

“Pathetic.” I spat the word as I moved toward the bed.

Mark glared and huffed. Then he found his suitcase under our bed. “Well, if I’m that disappointing, I’ll just leave. Let you get on with your lives.”

He gathered loose socks from the floor, underwear from the dresser, shirts and pants from the closet. He cradled those clothes with a tenderness he had denied me since before Kiel was born.

“You’re running away?”

Mark’s eyes flashed, and the clothes exploded, looking like a flock of angry birds taking flight, when he hurled the suitcase off our bed. I slammed the bedroom door shut. Our arms flailed. Our feet stomped. Our screamed words drowned in our frustration until there was only the sound of heavy breathing.

Then, in fury gone cold: “Sometimes, I could kill you.”

***

At the police station, Kiel and a stuffed dinosaur are in a small holding room. It’s almost inviting, this room, with its toybox and walls painted primary colors.

“Ouch,” Kiel says when I hug him. The scent of mango shampoo floods my nose.

There are so many things I want to say to my son. All the I love yous. Apologies for everything — timeouts, scoldings, boring road trips, not enough icing on his birthday cake.

What tumbles out: “Why did you do this?”

Kiel’s body goes rigid, and I let him go.

I soften my voice. “Honey, why did you take Daddy’s gun? It’s okay to tell me.”

Apologetic tears leak from his eyes. He looks away as mucus pools at the corner of his nose. Kiel can be like this. Obstinate. It’s a trait from Mark.

“If you don’t tell me, I can’t help you.”

His tears become a steady stream. I see how much his cheeks have paled. His freckles make a dark constellation. The scar along his chin glints in the florescent light. I hear the click, click, click of his chattering teeth. His arms tremble, and his fingers twist and weave the dinosaur’s tail into knots.

“Kiel. Please.”

He sniffs. When I gently place my hands on his upper arms, his head snaps up. His eyes grow wide, and his lips go translucent. He’s starting to realize how serious this is, I think. Let me protect you, honey.

Then, in a whisper so low I almost miss the words, my son says, “I don’t want you to kill my daddy.”


Billy Justus grew up in rural North Carolina. He now lives in urban North Carolina. This is his first published work.


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