by Koji A. Dae
I tiptoe upstairs, my palms slick against a mug of warm milk. I imagine the way Martin will close his always-excited eyes and drift into a peaceful sleep after he drinks it. He’ll lay still, sweet like an angel. There won’t be any flailing, just easy sleep.
He tosses in bed, wrapping the sheet around his ankles. A hint of bittersweet laughter bubbles in me as he attempts to untangle himself. He’s so helpless. No mother. No father. He’s too small to take care of himself, let alone do any harm. I wipe my smile away before rapping on the doorjamb. Like most five-year-olds, Martin hates being laughed at.
“I’ve told you to pick up your toys before bedtime, haven’t I? If you need something at night, I could trip. Hurt myself. Or break your toys.” I place the milk on the nightstand and stoop to toss wooden train tracks into the box at the foot of Richard’s bed. No. Not Richard’s anymore. Martin’s.
“I won’t need anything.” Martin juts out his chin, defiant. He never remembers his nightmares in the mornings.
The muscles in my lower back ache. I sit back on my heels and give up with only a small path cleared.
Impatient as ever, Martin reaches for the milk. I pick up the dark brown teddy from the floor and hand it to him instead.
The blond child—hair as fine as his father’s—turns up his nose. “I don’t need a lovie.”
Richard used to say the same thing. Beyond apathy, he hated these tender toys. As a toddler, he banged them against the corner of his dresser until their stuffing leaked out. With no fluffy protector to fight them off, nightmares plagued him. I tried to calm him during his darkest hours, offered different stuffed animals that he swatted away. As he grew up, the nightmares grew more violent. His batting hands turned to fists that colored my arms purple with bruises.
Martin’s hands, clenching his blanket, are still soft and babyish. Plump fingers. Innocent.
I run my gnarled thumb over the rough seam I’ve resewn on this teddy. Richard tore the head clean off once. But it’s a solid toy. Toys deserve a second chance. So do little boys. I tuck the teddy next to Martin. “See, it’s cozy.”
He pushes the bear out from under the sheet and it lands on the carpet with a plop, bouncing beneath the bed. I sigh and bend again to retrieve it. How many times did I pick up Richard’s messes?
The first time he brought Cassandra home I thought to warn her. She was a sweet girl. Showed up in a printed dress, proper as Sunday, and looked at my son with big old doe eyes. After they got engaged, she visited me for tea once a week, and it would have been easy to let my tongue slip between sugary sips. “The boy never had a lovie.”
But my loyalty was to Richard. Besides, she would have laughed at me. Was I implying my own son couldn’t love because he had no interest in plush toys when he was a kid? Absurd. They weren’t flesh and bone. Didn’t have souls. Cassandra was lit with spirit, nothing like the toys I tried to force on Richard.
Was. Until the Thursday she didn’t show for tea.
I waited at the kitchen table, my drumming fingers rattling the cookie plate. The week before she’d worn a sweater—such a thick garment for the middle of July. Too similar to the ones I once wore to hide my son’s marks. She didn’t pick up the phone.
I called the police. Just a well-check. Young people get busy, forget meetings with old women. Don’t answer calls. But a well-check would put my mind at ease.
They found her in her nightie, her head caved in where he had pounded it against the bedpost. I imagined her yellow hair, brain spilling out like stuffing. Another destroyed lovie. I should have warned her. Stopped him.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep with the teddy?” I offer once more, holding the lovie out to Martin.
“Daddy says not everyone needs one.” His dull brown eyes look through me. Martin’s nightmares aren’t as violent as Richard’s were. He shifts and whimpers instead of roaring and batting. The psychologist the social services lady recommended said they’re to be expected. He’s under stress, processing a dead mother and a father in jail. Any kid would have trouble sleeping. But I’ve seen these nightmares before, and I know what they mean. When I took him in, he only wanted me to bring his matchbox cars and train set—hard things with sharp edges. No interest in soft things. And those eyes. So much Richard’s eyes.
I set the teddy down and pick up the milk. It’s no longer steaming, just warm enough to send him into a gentle sleep. My heart stretches like bittersweet taffy melting in the summer sun as I pass him the mug. My own mouth is dry as cotton.
“Mm. It’s sweet, Grandma.” He gulps down the drink greedily and hands the mug back to me with just a slosh left in the bottom. His eyelids grow heavy.
I move his hair from his clammy forehead. His skin is soft. Tender. Vulnerable. But beneath that skin his skull is hard. And further down is a brain. Rotten, just like his father’s. I ignored the warning signs with Richard. I won’t do the same with Martin.
His eyes close and he murmurs, his words slurring, “Maybe, for tonight, I want the teddy.”
My stomach churns at his simple request, but my panic passes as his eyes fall closed. His breath slows. I kiss his cheek and tuck the bear next to him. “You go be with your momma.”
∼ Read February’s story, “The Reason for the Season” by Bill Hughes ∼