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The Other Child

“Mama! Ma-ma!”

She sat at that white enamel table with the edges streaked in red, the table she and Milo had picked up during one of their routine Saturdays spent poking about local thrift shops and indoor flea markets. Those were the golden days, she and Milo laughing and talking, walking with careless ease and holding Scotty’s leash so he trailed clumsily behind. Those were the golden days before…before what?

What.

She knew what, or rather whom, and she felt her jaw tighten as again the frantic cries echoed through the air.

“Mama! Mama, please!

It was a long morning and she’d felt overjoyed when the girls went racing out to play. Of course that joy was followed by an immediate tingling of dread when Petey announced that he was going along, too. But Alma and Anna offered little protest and she was desperate for just five minutes with a warm mug of coffee and the morning paper.

Somehow she talked herself into believing that maybe, just this once, everything would be alright. Now the urgency in Alma’s voice was unmistakable and again she found herself filled with that familiar sense of dread as her daughters scurried up the back porch steps.

“Mama, look!” And there was Alma, bursting through the kitchen door with eyes blazing hot indignance as she shoved a sobbing Anna before her. “Just look what Petey’s done to Anna’s hair!”

Just look what Petey’s done to Anna’s hair.

“Oh, Anna. Oh, no!”

She dropped the classifieds onto the tabletop, then gathered her youngest in her arms in one swift movement.

The Anna that skipped out on Alma’s heels nearly an hour before wore twin braids secured with bright red ribbon at either side of her head. This Anna had only one braid and opposite, short tufts of hair where its mate once was.

“How?” She scanned Alma’s face while Anna shuddered and continued to sob into her chest, “How did it happen? Weren’t you watching her? Weren’t you watching him?”

Alma’s gaze turned harsher still and her voice, when she spoke, was that of a prosecutor offering her closing argument, “Anna and I were playing by the roses and Petey hid in the yellow. We didn’t know he was there but then he jumped out at us and Anna was scared; but I wasn’t.” She paused for some sign of her mother’s awe at her bravery and finding only anxiety in the cool amber eyes fixed upon her, begrudgingly continued, “He had a bird – an old blue jay – in his hand and he said it was dead and wouldn’t we like to see. I told him no and go away but he said the underside was all eaten with maggots and he wanted to show us. I told him we didn’t care about his stupid maggots and Anna said she was going to tattle if he didn’t leave us alone. So, he threw the blue jay at her and we ran but Anna’s too little and…”

“Petey caught her.”

Alma was sorry for the defeat in her mother’s voice but nodded anyway, “He knocked her down.” And now the tears pooled at the corner of her own eyes, though she would never carry on like Anna, “I tried to stop him but…I thought Daddy said Petey wasn’t allowed to have sharp things anymore.”

Yes, Charles had confiscated the boy’s thin folding knife and promised to keep it someplace he would not find it. This, of course, was after that unfortunate incident with Mrs. Hetzel’s marmalade kitten. The elderly neighbor remained at a loss – who would do such a thing to a kitten – but she knew right away and took special pleasure in relaying the information to her husband when he returned from the office.

“He’s killing animals now.”

“What?” He knew what. It was written in his eyes.

“Animals. He’s killing them.”

She wasn’t sure which infuriated her more, the silence that fell heavily about them or Charles’ unwillingness to face her. He kept his gaze fixed upon his reflection instead, fingers working to knot his tie.

“Did you hear me?”

He sighed at her persistence, “What do you want me to do?”

Send him away.

Have him committed.

Be Milo.

This last thought shamed her. Charles had never presumed to fill the space left by her first husband’s absence.

No one could.

‘How do I compete with a ghost?’ He asked in the days when they took long walks together in the park or wandered the halls of local museums. ‘Should I try?’

When did he stop trying?

After the girls were born? After Petey came? Perhaps even sooner. Could it be that things begin to change the moment she said ‘I do?’

He turned suddenly, as if sensing her distress; and she watched him close the space between them, felt herself melt at the feel of his hands on her shoulders and hated herself for it. Butterflies still, and a school girl flush, a physical attraction that rivaled what she’d once felt for Milo.

No.

Her feelings for Milo transcended the shallow. They ran soul deep.

Charles was saying what she’d known he’d say, “I can’t send him away. He’s my son.”

And I’m your wife.

“He’s been through so much.”

As have I.

“It can’t be easy for him. He needs time to adjust.”

Liar.

He will never adjust.

He will never settle.

He will never be…right.

Aloud she said, “I understand. I just thought you should know.”

“I’ll mention it to Dr. Kinnon.”

She nodded and accepted his kiss goodnight before burrowing under the bedsheets, purposefully disregarding the disappointment in his eyes as she switched off the lamplight.

That was three days ago.

She had not considered hiding the black handled scissors kept in the catchall drawer. She did not have to look to know they were now missing. She knew. Just as she knew that Dr. Kinnon had yet to be called. Not that it mattered. Dr. Kinnon had little help to offer. These things take time. Blended families are difficult. Loss is difficult. Patience and understanding are key.

Yes. She knew; and she tried. They all tried to make Petey feel a part of things, to make him feel accepted, to make him feel loved. And in the meanwhile…?

Alma was saying, “I’m sorry, Mama.”

Anna offered tearful agreement, “Me, too, Mama. I’m sorry. It looks awful, doesn’t it? It looks like a monster!”

“Oh, no. No, no, honey. It’s fine.” She kissed the child’s forehead and thumbed at falling tears, “A pretty girl is always pretty and you are beautiful.” She turned to her eldest once more, “Where is he now?”

Alma shrugged, eyes trained to beige and white checked tile, the scuffed toes of her beloved Chuck Taylors.

“Alma Rose…”

“He dropped the scissors and ran down the driveway.”

Nodding, she sat the still silently sobbing Anna on the edge of the nearest counter and headed for the kitchen door.

“Mama…” For a moment Alma faltered, unsure whether the thought resting heavily about them all should be spoken into words, “Can’t you just let him go to the road? You don’t have to go after him, do you? If anything happened by mistake, it wouldn’t be anyone’s fault,would it? Just an accident…”

Just an accident.

The eyes of the daughter lifted and locked with those of the mother, then appalled by what each found reflected in the soul of the other, the gaze was hurriedly broken.

Recommended2 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Contemporary Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

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