You can say anything to babies, if you do it in the proper tone of voice.
“Once upon a time,” and I put down Good Night Moon, “Grandma’s very bestest friend was a boy named Rickie. And he became a murderer!”
I gave Linnie a big squeeze and she laughed joyfully.
“I never told your mommie or your uncle. But I’m going to tell you…”
I learned all the rest afterwards, of course. Our orbits intersected only once. Like the effect of platinum on lesser elements, Rickie transmuted my impurities while remaining unchanged himself.
He’d never bullied a classmate or tortured a small creature; he had a courtesy most of us encounter only in old British films.
Certainly the anguish his victims felt in those few brief moments before death was monstrous, and their families left to endure it ever after.
“He’s always been self-directed,” his mother said at the trial. She was a charming woman with an exceptional sort of honesty. She was sorry for what he’d done but she deserved no guilt.
Their likeness was striking; eyes nearly the same except for that difference in thermal conductivity. The civilizing gene hadn’t switched on in Rickie.
You can’t fault people like him for acting according to their natures. They’re born with a sort of impermissible curiosity, and they need to hunt. You can’t sate them with dogs’ meat. You must hope to catch them, and lock them up.
Rickie’d wasted none of the time they gave him. Completed his master’s and earned a Ph.D. and presented himself as an extraordinary candidate for ordination in the Episcopal church.
He’d written a stunning thesis positing Meister Eckhart as a science fiction visionary, and gained a cult status within certain corners of modern philosophical discourse, and I could imagine the despair he’d been for the prison chaplains.
Parole boards, too. Rickie’d done wonderful things inside; run sessions in the prison library like they’d been Oxford tutorials. Some of his students achieved remarkable results.
But the fellow inmate he’d killed — “I regret he chose to impale himself upon the sword of free will,” Rickie told them gently, “by attempting to make me his catamite.”
He was a creature outside their experience. They didn’t know how to grasp him. Finally they had to let him go.
I had Linnie three days a week and sometimes for an overnight. I was grateful for my good children.
“I’d pay for daycare, wouldn’t I?”
I’d had to work even when Rose and Ash were small; Rose had to work now.
“I never worry, knowing she’s with you,” Rose said.
“…you’d accept. But we’ll both understand if you can’t.”
His mother came back from Geneva, reopened the lakeside house, and made his forty-five-years’ absence seem like the consequence of a foolishly-chosen road detour which had forced a postponement of lunch.
They both looked lovely. It’s true what they say about bone structure.
She hadn’t forsworn all of life’s enjoyments after Rickie’s conviction but had tried not to further affront the families his actions had ravaged.
This house was the respectably modest sort of summer place any reasonably successful city banker might choose to have.
Reasonable she’d want a little help now. An imported Swiss couple served tiny sandwiches and breathtaking slices of cake and never let my glass or cup go empty.
It was the least of the absurdities — and me their only desired guest, in leggings and pretty thrift-shop top and with my long-again hair silvering, remembering my adulation of that seventeen-year-old boy who’d treated me like a favored pet, and this my very first time actually meeting Rickie’s mom.
I’d ended up more than fine: my children had taught me love; the disinterested generosity, over the course of one summer, of a casual acquaintance later to be a slaughterer of innocents had rendered me safe for human consumption.
And here I sat laughing with them as though I’d finally grown up to be Rickie’s equal and a natural member of their set.
Captivity turns wild things rotten. The clear Arctic light in Rickie’s eyes had gone yellow and I knew it wasn’t the cancer.
I was concerned for his mother but guessed she was willing to take her chances.
“Choosing to stay one’s hand. In that willing subsummation of one’s nature, one’s nature is permanently altered, whatever you might choose later.”
He’d asked me to define the civilizing moment. More accurately, I’d said, it’s how one becomes domesticated. The willing acceptance of a yoke.
It was an older house and at some point the top-floor servants’ quarters had been remodeled into what would have been my dream garret. An entire wall was windows overlooking the lake. They’d raised the roof a little and added a skylight.
He was sitting on the wide sill, back to the view, knowing that would turn me a little green.
“Yes,” he said. “Well-put.”
It was only a philosophical discussion. Rickie had never acted contrary to his own desires. Had never felt a need to stay his hand.
He’d tolerated the chemo well and had stopped being gaunt. But I knew his eyes would stay sick.
I think I’d always felt closer to him than anyone else in all my life. Few people know you for all of what you are and almost no one should. Part of being a parent is keeping blackness away from those you love. They don’t need to understand everything.
I hadn’t ever thought I’d been in any way important to Rickie. And here he’d made our orbits intersect again in an interdependent necessity.
He’d gripped my wrist, firm and hard, fingers still beautiful, still governed by his own purpose.
“How old is your grandchild?”
I didn’t answer. He didn’t need to know.
I pushed him and he opened his palm at the last moment, saluting me as he fell.
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — have appeared on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)