“I love you, Mom!”
Why did he have to say that? Of everything Kyle could have said on his way out the door, or every nothing, of all the times he muttered in his life. Why did he have to be audible that afternoon? And why did he have to yell that he loved her right then? Why not any other time, she couldn’t remember any other time in at least two years, so why not pick any moment in those two years other than the last?
Kyle was above embarrassing emotions. He was too old, too young, too manly, too preoccupied, too thoughtless, too next-generation. She played out the reasons as she wandered his room, and her room, and the garden he’d planted for her birthday, around the tree fort she’d broken her hand building for him. It was reducible, she thought one midnight: he was what she’d been at that age. She would have made fun of such clichés when she was his age, but now he’d never be her age.
Now it was all she heard. Now when the pressure cooker hissed, she heard, “I love you, Mom!” Now when the alarm clock beeped, waking her or confirming she’d laid awake all night, she heard him yelling between the chirps, “I love you, Mom!” When tires screeched on the pavement outside their house, she imagined her boy skidding off the highway and yelling, “I love you, Mom!” Twice now when Freddie opened the front door, she’d honestly heard him yelling it.
Some nights she felt like a living ghost, her son’s ghost, inspired by him, tethered by him, tortured by his absence, tortured by his refusal to come back through any doorway she checked. The neighbors said she wandered, as though walking around your own property was uncouth just because of the hour. She’d paid her mortgage, she’d earned this place without her runaway husband, and raised two good boys at the same time. So didn’t she have the right? Who had the gall to revoke that, to call the cops, to call Freddie to intervene in her rights?
Freddie wanted to help her. She saw it in his face, mixed in with the hurt of being the other son, the other man, the person she couldn’t help but find less interest in, all because he was simply there. He slept on the sofa, which wasn’t even a fold out, to make sure she wasn’t alone. Sometimes when she turned into a ghost, he followed her around the house, taking sharp things out of her hands. She forgot she picked those up. Sometimes he put stress balls into her palm, a sort of jestful, sort of earnest compromise.
She sat on the coffee table Freddie had bought her, squeezing a stress ball until she felt the sand inside grate against her fingertips, and watching her surviving boy sleep. Her eyes lit on his chest, constantly assuring herself that he was breathing, that he was okay, as though if she was certain enough one was alive, then the other would come home, come through the front door and yell, “I love you, Mom!”
Freddie murmured something in his sleep, something idle, something anodyne, something intelligible. Something that wouldn’t haunt anyone. She wished she could fixate on that, and knew she couldn’t. So she reached out and stroked his mangy beard, and whispered, “I love you, too.”