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Coping Mechanisms

By Kerri Zuiker

“Hey, before you become permanently attached to the couch, could you grab me a Coke?” Becca asked, complete with the guilt trip puppy dog eyes.

“Fine,” I surrendered, walking backwards the four steps from the living room into the tiny kitchen of our apartment. Headlights of cars down on the street shone through the window and bounced off the whitewashed brick walls in the kitchen. I grabbed a cold Coke out of the fridge and went back over to the couch, handing it to her. “But you have to get up and get the popcorn when it’s done.” I slumped onto the couch next to her, feet propped up on the table, and put one arm around her shoulders.

“Deal,” she agreed, and reached forward to push the ‘play’ button on the DVD remote.

The THX crescendo started up as the logo came onscreen, and I reached over to turn off the lamp by the edge of the couch. The only light came from the dim light over the sink in the kitchen. Perfect movie-watching atmosphere. As the opening credits of Raiders of the Lost Ark started up, I grinned and kissed Becca on the forehead. “Did I mention I never get tired of watching this movie?” I said.

“Only a couple hundred times,” she laughed.

On the TV, the Paramount mountain was turning into a scene in South America, and Indiana Jones’s familiar fedora’ed profile came into view when the phone rang.

“Dammit,” I groaned. I looked pleadingly over at Becca, “You wanna…?”

Oh, no,” she replied, pushing me up and off the couch with a grin. “I only agreed to get the popcorn. The phone was never part of the deal. You get it.”

“Fine, fine…” I stepped over her legs and into the kitchen, grabbing the phone out of its cradle on the wall. “Hello?”

“Hello?” a woman’s voice said back. “Is this Edward?” She sounded upset, like she’d been crying.

“Yes,” I drawled out, trying to figure out who she was.

“Edward, it—it’s Tracy.” Why was Tracy calling here?

“Um, hi. Hi, Tracy.” I was thoroughly confused now. Tracy took care of my brother once in awhile when my mom was busy, but I’d barely talked to her in years. She’d never called me before, and didn’t have any reason to, unless— “Is something wrong? Did something happen to Oliver?”

“No, Oliver’s fine,” she said. What she said next didn’t even register in my brain at first. “Edward, I—I’m so sorry. Your mom, she was in an accident…” She kept talking, and somewhere in my head I kept listening, but my body had stopped responding. Suddenly I was feeling the floor beneath me and all I could think about was how the kitchen felt bigger and colder down here.

Becca’s voice sounded unbelievably loud when she spoke. “Edward, what’s wrong? What happened?”

“My… my mom…” I managed to say, and then I couldn’t say anything else. So I just sat there. For what felt like a long time, I sat and stared at the wall, trying not to think about what was happening. This happened in movies and books, not in real life. Not to me.

At some point I realized that Becca had taken the phone, and was speaking into it, but I wasn’t listening to what she was saying.

I finally got up off of the floor and hurried to the door, pulling on my shoes and searching around for my keys. I needed a key rack or something – I could never find the stupid things when I needed them.

Becca appeared behind me and I heard myself say, “I have to go,” as I finally saw my keys on the floor in the corner by the other shoes.

“I know,” she said. “I’m coming with you.” She pulled on her jacket and handed me mine, and I suddenly remembered it was still March, and cold outside. She closed the door behind us, and in a few minutes we were out of the parking garage and on the way to my mom’s house.

I was silent the whole way there. It wasn’t that I couldn’t talk, it just didn’t even occur to me to say anything. I was operating entirely on automatic, my mind a blank, taking all the familiar exits and turning down the right streets.

It wasn’t until I got to my old neighborhood that I really started to feel anything. I drove down the hilly street to our house and I was angry. Angry at everyone else, probably asleep by now in their charming little Victorian houses. Every yard looked the same, with the same trees and flowers and kids’ bikes laying by their front doors. Everything looked the same and my life had just flipped upside-down.

I pulled into the driveway and instantly felt guilty. This was where my mom parked her car. But she wouldn’t park here again if she was—

“Come on,” I made myself say, climbing out of the car, and trying not to think. I found the right key in the orange streetlight glow and went up the front steps, unlocking the familiar blue door.

All the lights were on inside, and it was too bright. It felt wrong. We should’ve been asleep by now. We should all have been asleep, everything safe and dark and quiet.

“Hello?” I called, walking down the hallway to the kitchen. Tracy was there, leaning against one of the counters and looking lost and helpless, and not at all like she usually did. She looked up at me, and her face was red and splotchy.

“Edward,” she said, rushing toward me and hugging me. She didn’t usually do that, either. She was usually so in control, even if she was surrounded by chaos, and it occurred to me that I’d never actually seen her get upset before. Why was everything so different?

She let go, and then she was talking, and I was only half-listening. I paced around the kitchen, looking for something to do.

“She had gone out for a few hours, just to run some errands,” Tracy was saying. “So… so I was here with your brother a-and around eight I got a call from the police. They—they said she’d died instantly—“

“I don’t—can we not talk about this right now?” I cut her off harshly. I didn’t mean to. But it was too much to think about. “Where’s Oliver?”

“Upstairs in his room,” she answered.

I left Becca to comfort Tracy in the kitchen and went upstairs to find my brother.

There he was, sitting on the floor by his bed and looking through a book, but probably not actually reading it. He flipped through the pages, while one hand twisted absently through his dark hair.

He was so calm.

I just stood there, staring at him. He didn’t get up. He didn’t ask why I was there. He didn’t even know what was going on. He was eighteen years old and he didn’t know, didn’t understand that our mother was—

“Hi, Oliver,” I said anyway. After a moment, he looked up, smiled at me, and then he went back to his book. I sat down on the floor, under the door frame, and neither of us did anything.

* * *

“Edward, someone from the church is on the phone for you…” Becca’s voice called from the kitchen.

Actually getting to the kitchen would be a challenge, though. First there were all of the people to navigate through.

“Eddie, man, let me know if there’s anything I can do, okay?” my best friend Jeff was saying. He’d come over earlier that day, wanting to help, and was now following me around saying things like that, but not actually being very helpful.

There were people everywhere, trying to help me out and offer their condolences, and I wanted them all to leave. Neighbors, friends, people I hardly knew.

You’d think after someone you love dies, people would leave you alone for awhile to process what’s going on. Nobody ever does. Instead they invaded my mother’s house – the one I’d suddenly inherited – and refused to leave, making the big old house seem unbelievably small. And on top of all of the chaos in my house, I could hear my brother upstairs, screaming and throwing things around. I couldn’t blame him. It seemed like an effective way to process grief. Only it wasn’t grief that he was feeling. He didn’t understand grief, didn’t understand death. He was just trashing his room because all of these people being here was not part of his routine, and that was the only way he could deal with it. Naturally, I hated him for it. I wanted him to be down here with me, pretending to be nice to all of these people. But he couldn’t do that.

“Jesus, Oliver…” I grumbled, rolling my eyes toward the ceiling and willing him to shut up.

It didn’t work.

* * *

Everyone was gone. It was quiet. But no matter how many times I’d closed my eyes and wished to be back in my own apartment, where everything was safe and all I had to worry about was what to wear to work tomorrow, it hadn’t worked yet. I’d found myself back in the position of brother-dad, a role I thought I’d left behind years ago.

Oliver was still up in his room, pacing around and yelling occasionally. Usually I’d go up there and help him to stop, get him to do something else, but this time it almost didn’t seem worth it.

It was just two minutes after I’d ushered the last visitor out of my house and all I wanted to do was shut down and go to sleep. Instead, Becca was standing over me, asking, “Edward? Are you gonna…?” She jerked her head up, indicating Oliver’s room above us.

I glared at her, more out of frustration and tiredness than anything else. “Our mother just died, Becs. What the fuck d’you want me to do?”

She pointed her finger in the direction of the stairs, all matter-of-fact and authoritative. “I want you to go up there and take care of your brother! It’s not his fault that he doesn’t understand this.”

I couldn’t argue with her when I knew she was right, so I pushed myself off the couch and headed for the stairs. “I’ve got a question for you,” I called back. “How exactly do you think I’m going to do that?”

“Just be his brother, Edward,” she said from behind me.

I sighed. “It’s harder than you’d think.”

* * *

His long fingers held the brush steadily, sweeping across the canvas in a smooth motion. His skin was smudged with paint, flecks of blues and greens and white clinging to his fingers. This was Oliver, completely in his element, unaware of anything but colors, shapes, layers, and perspective.

At least he wasn’t screaming anymore.

Most of his room was still a complete mess. Books on the floor, tables overturned, and the mattress half-pulled off the bed frame. But the corner with the easel, paints, canvases, brushes, colors— that was where Oliver was safe. Nothing could touch him when he was absorbed in his painting, and he liked it that way.

I stopped at the doorway, watching. For a second I couldn’t think of anything to say to him, and then I decided to go with the most obvious topic. “What are you painting?” I asked, stepping forward to stand behind him.

“Yeah, you painting,” he replied quietly. He rubbed one hand against his forehead and it left a blue streak of paint above his eyebrow.

What are you painting, Oliver?” I repeated, emphasizing the word. Questions had never been one of his strengths.

“…Squares.” The canvas was already halfway full of small squares, in an alternating pattern of blue and green. It looked like a checkerboard, only in Dr. Seuss colors. This was one of his “calming down” paintings. When there was too much going on around him and he got over-stimulated, this was one of the ways he settled down. I think the repetition of the patterns helped a lot. On the floor next to the easel was a carefully placed painting of green hills and a bright blue sky. It was only half finished, but there were the beginnings of a playground in the bottom corner and I recognized it as one of the parks near our house.

“Are you okay now?” I asked him as he picked up the brush from the can of green paint. Stupid question.

“Go home,” he said.

Assuming he meant the crowd of people, and not me personally, I said, “Yeah, everybody went home. It’s just us now. Oliver and Edward and Becca.”

“And Mom,” he added, still focused on the squares.

“No, not Mom. Just the three of us.”

“Yeah, and Mom…”

At this point I wasn’t going to try to argue with him. Maybe he just needed time to figure it out. He whined a little, and I could tell he was getting tired of talking to me.

“Want to paint,” he said. He pushed me towards the doorway – not violently, just hard enough to show his insistence.

“Oliver, you have to use words. No pushing.”

He whined wordlessly, that familiar left hand coming up to tangle itself in his hair, and I stood there, waiting. A moment later he said, “Edward go… go now. No talking. Yeah, no talking.”

“Okay,” I agreed, walking towards the door. “I’ll leave you alone. I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”

“Downstairs,” he echoed quietly, and like that, the conversation was over. * * *

I was sitting in the living room with the lights turned down, watching TV, when I heard him behind me. That quiet, “Hunh…”, the breathy whimpering noise Oliver made when he was agitated or upset. I turned around on the couch to find him standing in the kitchen, staring down into the living room.

He looked lost, standing there and rocking from side to side, hands tangled together, and all I could say was, “Oliver?”

Eyes focused on the ceiling, out the window, anywhere but on me, he responded quietly, “Yeah.”

I slid off of the old, comfy couch, and walked up into the kitchen. I tried to get him to look at me, asking, “Are you ready to go to bed?”

He kept rocking and, almost too quietly to be heard, started to repeat, “Can’t… can’t…”

“What? You can’t what?” I asked, slipping immediately into comforting big-brother mode.

“…Can’t find Mom. Mommy has your shirt…” he whispered.

“Oliver, Mom’s dead. She’s not coming back.”

He nodded silently, and for a moment I hoped he understood, before he said, “…Okay, tomorrow.”

“No. Not tomorrow.” I carefully took his arm, and he followed me down the hallway. “I’ll get your shirt, okay? Is it the blue one?” The last time I visited, he wore the same blue long-sleeved shirt to bed every night to keep him warm. I hoped it was still the same one.

“Yeah, blue one,” he echoed, tapping his fingers against his thigh as he followed after me.

* * *

It was 2:36 in the morning and I couldn’t sleep. I’d tried, I really had, but even if I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep, it wasn’t working. I just lay there, staring at the ceiling of my old bedroom, at the single glow-in-the-dark star still stuck up in the far corner of the room. Becca’s arm was flung across my chest, and I listened to her slow breathing, wondering if she was dreaming about anything.

This wasn’t working. So as carefully as I could, I moved her arm over and got up out of bed, feeling my way to the door and out into the hallway.

It was so quiet. Back at home, I was used to noises at night. Cars driving by, people – usually drunk – walking home from clubs or bars or movies, the occasional siren blaring by in the distance. Here, though, in the middle of a quiet neighborhood, it didn’t seem like there was anyone else even at awake at two in the morning.

Eventually I found myself back in the kitchen, sitting on top of the island in the middle and letting my heels kick against the cabinets. If my mom had been there, she’d have yelled at me, told me to get off of her precious counter space.

I remembered the last time I’d been in this kitchen. Almost three months ago, at Christmas. Becca and I had come over to spend the holiday with my mom and Oliver.

We got there late, because it had started snowing on the way over. My mom was still awake, but Oliver had already gone to bed. It was obvious she’d been waiting for us, because as soon as we pulled into the driveway, she was out the door in her snow boots, helping us bring our stuff in.

“Oh, I’m so glad you guys are here,” she said, hauling the last suitcase inside and shutting the door after us. “I was starting to get worried that you’d get stuck on the road out there.”

I glanced out the window at the front yard again, where the grass and dead leaves were already covered with the still-falling snow. Oliver would be ecstatic the next morning. Snow was one of his favorite things.

I dragged our suitcases upstairs while my mom and Becca chatted with each other. After my mom had forced hot chocolate on us and we’d talked awhile, we all agreed it was time to go to bed. It was Christmas Eve tomorrow, and in our family, that was almost as big a deal as Christmas itself.

The next day, we had big plans. As soon as Oliver woke up, he started reminding us of the things we were supposed to do that day. “Christmas Eve, make cookies,” he said, following my mom around the kitchen. It was what we did every year. We made cookies during the day, and then we watched a Christmas-themed movie later that night. We’d been doing it ever since Oliver was little, since before he understood the point of Christmas.

“I know, honey,” she replied, turning around to explain things to him. “We’ll make cookies. First we need to eat breakfast and get dressed. Then we will go to the grocery store and buy the ingredients for the cookies.”

“Make cookies after the store,” Oliver said, rocking from one foot to the other.

“That’s right,” Mom assured him.

“Yeah, okay,” Oliver answered, and walked off into the living room to stare at the lights on the Christmas tree. I watched him from where I was leaning against the counter, carefully sipping my mug of hot chocolate. I turned my head as Becca walked into the kitchen and smiled at her, holding out the mug to offer her some.

“We’re making cookies?” she said, having heard the last part of our conversation. She took the cup from me and sat down on one of the kitchen table chairs.

“Yup. It’s kind of a tradition in our house,” I explained. “On Christmas Eve, we always make chocolate chip cookies. Possibly pie or bread, too, if we feel like it.”

Becca was almost as obsessed with baking as my mom was, and she grinned with excitement. “Can I help?” she asked.

From the living room, Oliver screamed, a wordless sound of frustration and anger.

My mom calmly joined him in the living room, saying, “Don’t shout, Oliver. What’s making you mad?”

He put his hands up to his ears, another thing he did when he was upset. “No help!” he growled.

This was beginning to turn into a familiar scene. Oliver didn’t like it when things changed, or more specifically, he didn’t like when the things he wanted to do changed. If it involved other people, he wouldn’t even care. But this was something he always did, and no one else besides my mom and the two of us had made cookies on Christmas.

I looked over at Becca, who was looking at me uneasily. “If it’ll be a problem, I don’t have to help,” she suggested.

“No, don’t worry about it. Just let my mom talk to him. He’ll get over it,” I said. Sure enough, my mom was still there in the living room with her hands on my brother’s shoulders, talking softly to him. Slowly his expression changed from anger to acceptance and I heard him repeat, “Becca can make cookies, too.”

With that issue solved, the rest of the day passed without any major catastrophes, and Oliver slowly got used to Becca being there. It didn’t hurt that Becca came from a big family, and was used to adapting to different kinds of people. She always seemed to know how to interact with people and get to know them pretty quickly. I think I was a little bit jealous of that.

I glanced up at the clock above the stove. 3:17.

Pushing myself off of the countertop, I turned out the light in the kitchen and left the room. It probably wasn’t going to work, but I figured I’d give sleeping another try. I had a big day tomorrow.

* * *

The day I had to bury my mother, it should have been rainy, dark, gloomy. Instead it was the warmest, cheeriest Monday there could possibly be this time of year. I cursed the weather for not empathizing with me.

After the Mass, as I watched everyone leave, I couldn’t help thinking, shouldn’t we have had a party? My mother hated funerals. She thought it was a shame to sum up a person’s life in the course of one depressing ceremony.

I kind of agreed with her, but how was I supposed to have planned a death party on my own? I didn’t exactly have a huge family to help me out with all of this. And the one person that I had left wasn’t even aware of what was going on. He was standing over by the small group of trees, mesmerized by the way the sunlight sparkled through the leaves. My eighteen-year-old brother who didn’t understand death, who didn’t even realize we were putting our mother in the ground.

This was it. There was no one else now. Just us.

* * *

After the funeral, Becca and I started bringing our stuff to the house, basically moving in. Someone had to stay and take care of Oliver, and even though Tracy had offered to help out, I couldn’t rely on her all the time. After all, she had her own job, her own life. So Becca and I had made a few trips back to our apartment, bringing all of the stuff we needed until we could figure out what to do permanently. I took off work to stay at home with Oliver, while Becca went back to the city during the day to work. I knew it was only a temporary fix, but all I could do was take it day by day until I figured out how this situation was going to work.

It was Saturday morning and we were down in the kitchen. I was making pancakes, and she was sitting on the counter in a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. Oliver was, thankfully, still asleep upstairs.

“So,” Becca started to say, and from her tone of voice I knew this was going to be one of those big conversations.

I turned to her, eyebrows raised in expectation, and said, “Yeah?”

“What do you think you’re going to do?” she asked, taking a sip of her orange juice.

“About Oliver, you mean?” At her nod, I said, “Well, I guess I’m staying here. He can’t live on his own, and our apartment’s too small for the three of us. Besides, I don’t think he’d adapt to a new place very easily. It took him almost a year to adjust to this house when we moved here.”

She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Have you thought about any of this long-term, though? Are we ready to handle taking care of him on our own? Maybe it would be better – for all three of us – if we found him a place to live—“

“I’m not sending him to some institution or—or a group home or something,” I cut her off, angry that she’d even suggest it. “My mom spent eighteen years taking care of him so he wouldn’t have to live in some strange place without his family. My dad left us because she refused to send him away somewhere. I don’t even want to think about that option, okay?”

“Okay!” she said back, looking angry now, and I knew I’d screwed up. “It was just a suggestion. Don’t go crazy.” She sighed before she continued, “It’s just a big responsibility, that’s all I’m saying. I love your brother, I really do. I’m just not sure we’re ready to be parents. Are you sure you can do it? Are you sure you want to?”

I turned back to the pancakes, flipping them over before they burned. “He’s my brother. I’m taking care of him.”

* * *

“I don’t know what you want, okay?” I yelled, throwing my hands into the air. “Why can’t you just talk to me like a normal person?”

Oliver put his hands up against his ears, continuing his incessant humming, and ignored the plate of lasagna that he’d pushed away after I put it in front of him. I turned around and stormed down the hallway.

“You have to tell me what you want, you know,” I lectured, partly directed at him and partly just to vent. “Mom didn’t exactly leave me an instruction manual on how to take care of you. Nooooo, we’re all going along perfectly fine until some idiotic, over-tired businessman falls asleep at the wheel of his fucking Lexus and everything goes completely to hell and I’m stuck trying to figure all of this shit out!” I stopped in the foyer, thumping my head quietly against the front door, and tried to stop behaving like a complete asshole.

But we weren’t even halfway through the day yet, and already I felt like I was going crazy. I think Oliver had finally started to figure out that Mom wasn’t coming back, and it was beginning to show. He’d been stimming all morning – humming, twisting his fingers and flapping his hands. It was his way of dealing with something new, his way of calming himself down. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the same effect on my mental state.

“Mom makes lunch… yeah, mom makes lunch. Not lasagna. You don’t have lasagna for lunch,” he babbled away in the kitchen while I paced angrily back and forth, trying to regain some shred of patience.

Becca came down the stairs, probably having heard my little outburst, and asked, “What is going on?”

I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath, and gestured towards the kitchen, “I try to talk to him, he ignores me. I try to feed him lunch, he freaks out. Am I that horrible?”

“Want me to try?” she asked.

I knew she was probably grinning at me and how pathetic I was, so I kept my eyes closed. “Go for it.” She’d always had much more patience than me.

She gave me a reassuring – at least I’m sure it was meant to be – pat on the shoulder and strode into the kitchen to calm my distraught brother.

Five minutes later, I walked back into the kitchen to find Oliver happily eating a sandwich and Becca leaning against the kitchen island with a satisfied smile on her face. The plate of leftover funeral lasagna sat in the middle of the table, untouched.

I made a helpless, defeated sort of motion with my hands and said, “Okay. What’d you do?”

“He wanted a sandwich, not leftover lasagna,” she explained, as if it was the most obvious solution in the world. “So I made him a sandwich.”

Oliver, swallowing a bite of said sandwich, offered his own helpful advice, “Turkey, tomato, mayonnaise, and no lettuce on white bread.”

“Hey, Becs. You’ve got a big family. D’you think they’d want one more?” I said, mostly sarcastically.

“It’s not that hard, Ed. You’ve just gotta listen to him,” she said sympathetically.

She was right. But I still couldn’t help feeling that she was much better at it, and probably always would be.

* * *

The weekend after the funeral, Becca decided I needed a break. So she made me leave and told me not to come back until I’d seen at least one movie and hung out at Barnes and Noble listening to CDs for awhile. I was nervous about leaving her alone with Oliver, but she assured me they’d be fine and gently pushed me out the door with a promise not to come back until the afternoon.

Once I’d left, she went upstairs to wake up Oliver, who almost never woke up early unless he was forced to get out of bed. Becca quietly opened the door to his bedroom and walked across the room to pull the shades back from the windows. Oliver was sprawled out on the bed, the blankets and sheets kicked down to around his feet. He lay on his stomach, breathing slowly.

Becca sat down on the edge of the bed, reaching out one hand to shake his shoulder. “Oliver, honey, wake up,” she murmured.

Oliver stretched out in the bed like a sleepy cat, rubbing his face with one hand and blinking his eyes. He always took awhile to wake up fully.

“Hey there,” Becca smiled. “It’s time to get up. Do you want me to make you some breakfast?”

Oliver pressed his face into his pillow and mumbled something incomprehensible.

“What?” Becca asked. “Say it again. I didn’t hear you.”

“No, Mom…” Oliver repeated in an insistent tone of voice. “Mom makes your breakfast. Saturday, pancakes and bacon.”

“Really? Well, I can make you pancakes. Do you want me to make you some?”

His answer was the complete opposite of what Becca had expected. Instead of accepting her offer, his expression turned angry and he started to protest. “No, Mom makes your breakfast!” he growled, kicking his feet against the mattress. “Mom makes your breakfast!”

Becca reached out to him again, trying to console him and stop him from getting more upset. “Oliver, Mom’s not here. But I can make it for you, okay?” she said, hoping he’d calm down.

Mom makes your breakfast!” he screamed. His whole body was tense, and he reached up with one hand to pull furiously at his own hair, pushing his face into the pillow.

Becca grabbed Oliver’s arms, trying to get his hands out of his hair as gently as possible. “Oliver, stop! Mom’s gone. Mom’s not here.”

“No Mom’s gone!” he yelled back, completely frustrated and anxious. Tears were starting to run down his face as repeated over and over, “Mom makes your breakfast.”

“It’s okay, Oliver, it’s okay. I’ll take care of you now,” Becca repeated.

By that point Oliver was sobbing, and all Becca could do was sit back and let him calm himself down. He lay like that for a long time, crying and whispering to himself between big gulping breaths. Eventually the tears stopped and he whispered very quietly, “Becca… Becca makes breakfast…”

“That’s right. I’ll make you breakfast now. Do you want to help me make the pancakes?” she said, smiling with relief.

Oliver sat up, rubbing at his teary eyes. “Yeah, make pancakes…” he answered. He slowly got out of bed and stood there, waiting. One hand flew up to his head and he twirled his black hair slowly around his fingers, his own way of reassuring himself.

Becca started towards the door, turning around to get him to follow her. “Let’s make pancakes, okay?” she repeated.

“…Yeah, okay,” Oliver replied, following her down the stairs into the kitchen.

When I got home, Becca told me the whole story. They’d managed to make the pancakes together, and Oliver had been pretty quiet for most of the morning. I hoped that meant that he was finally starting to realize that this was the way it would be from now on, that we weren’t going anywhere. And that Mom really wasn’t coming back.

* * *

Oliver stood pressed up against the kitchen door, his breath fogging the glass. He’d been like that for awhile, staring out the window at the yard and the trees. I came up behind him and stared out the window, too, trying to figure out what was so interesting.

“What’re you looking at?”


I laughed quietly. “All of it, or anything in particular?”

He didn’t respond to that, and I didn’t expect him to. Instead, running his fingers absently along the window panes, he said, “Do you want to take a walk.” It wasn’t a question for me, it was his way of telling me what he wanted. Having never quite mastered pronouns or asking questions, he had his own echo-y way of asking for something when he wanted it.

“I’ll go with you if you want to take a walk,” I answered. “Get your jacket and we’ll go.”

He immediately went to the coat closet to find his jacket, and after putting on his shoes, followed me outside, nearly bouncing with excitement.

The path in the woods behind our house had been my favorite place to run around when I was younger. I remembered spending days out there in the summer, playing games with my friends or exploring with Oliver. For me, it was kind of nostalgic being back there, but for him, it was just as exciting as it had been years ago. It was familiar, and that made it wonderful.

I watched, hanging back as he walked down the path, head constantly moving to take it all in. Occasionally he’d stop, one hand coming up to tangle itself in his dark hair as he stared out into the woods. Every tree, every flower, every squirrel and bird and cricket, he wanted to see it. He crouched down at the edge of the path to watch a robin hopping around in the grass, completely fascinated, and I wished for a second that I could be that open and uninhibited. I envied him, and his ability to live completely in the moment.

A frog croaked from somewhere near the stream and he laughed with glee at the sound, throwing his head back with a grin. He stood up and scanned around for a sign of the little thing. I didn’t see it either, but it croaked again and Oliver responded with the same wild laughter. Then he paused for a moment, head tilted, before he set off across the path, saying, “…Find the frog.”

“Whoa, hey!” I reached out an arm and pulled him back by the sleeve of his hoodie. “Remember the rule? What’s the rule?”

He hung his head down and replied, “Stay on the path, Oliver.” He planted his feet firmly on the ground.

“That’s right. Stay on the path. I don’t want you getting hurt,” I told him seriously. Then I grinned at him, and said, “But I’ll race you back to the house.”

His eyes lit up immediately. He loved running, especially because he knew he could usually beat me. And sure enough, before I could say anything else, he took off running with a laugh and I chased after him.

* * *

Eventually, I had to go back to work – there was only so much leave I could take before they fired me – but there was still the question of what to do with Oliver. He’d actually been in school until a few weeks before the accident, but my mom thought the program he was in wasn’t helping him enough and she pulled him out. Unfortunately for all of us, she hadn’t found a new school for him before she died. So until I did some research and could find a new one for him to go to, my brilliant solution was to take him to work with me. It had taken some serious pleading with my boss, and promises that he wouldn’t a problem, but I think she saw how desperate I was. With the assurance that it was only a temporary thing, she’d said I could bring him with me.

Before we left that morning, I sat Oliver down with me on the couch in the living room, making sure he was looking at me before I spoke to him.

“Oliver, are you listening to me?” I asked.


“You sure?”

“Yes, listening,” he insisted, playing with the hem of his t-shirt.

“I can’t leave you in the house by yourself, so you’re coming to work with me today, okay?” I explained.

He obviously had other ideas. “Yeah, go… go to work and paint in your room.”

“No, you’re not going to paint in your room,” I corrected. “You’re going to work with me. But I’ll bring a notebook so you can draw. After work, when we come home, you can paint in your room, okay?”

He nodded, fidgeting. “Yeah, okay. Draw and paint in Edward’s office.”

“No painting,” I repeated. “Just drawing. With a pencil and paper. Do you understand?”

“Okay, just drawing,” Oliver agreed, and I sent him into the kitchen to eat his breakfast.

We got to my building almost on time, and Oliver followed me up to my office, where I sat him down at the small table by the window. My cubicle was right next to it, thank God, so I could keep an eye on him. I handed him a sketchbook and a few pencils, and he immediately opened it up and started drawing.

The day passed by with surprisingly few incidents. Oliver spent most of his time plugged into my iPod, big headphones covering his ears as he sketched away. I, on the other hand, had to frantically try to catch up on all of the work that I’d fallen behind on while I’d been gone. Whenever Oliver didn’t specifically need me for something, I just let him be. By the end of the day, he’d filled up half of the sketchbook and switched over to staring out the window at the cars down on the street.

After I’d turned off my computer and started to get ready to leave, I picked up his sketchbook and started flipping through it. I landed on a drawing he’d done of the woods near our house. There it was, an almost exact replica of the path we’d walked on the other day, detailed down to the small curves in the path and the ripples in the stream.

Oliver turned around and saw what I was looking at. “Can’t find the frog,” he said, before he took the notebook from my hands and placed it carefully in his backpack.

“You know, you could always draw him in there, anyway,” I said, but he was intently focused on gathering up his stuff, making sure everything went in its proper pocket.

When everything was in order, he stood up and slung his backpack over one shoulder. “Time to go home,” he said, waiting for me to agree.

So I did. “Yeah. Time to go home.” I guided him through the office to the door, waving to the few other people that were still working. “We have to pick up Becca first, though.”

Then, probably making sure I’d keep my promise, he added, “Go home and paint.”