Mornings after coffee, it was a practice of William’s to stand by the back door—the glass door—and look out at the yard and woods. He and his wife had bought the house for the ravine in back and the woods beyond. Their chain link fence ran to the ravine, and they kept the lawn short and the yard clear but for the here-and-there pine and spruce that had matured many years before they’d arrived—those years were cousin now to what William often thought about, or fell into thinking about as easier thoughts gave way: how time had passed; how this place, for example, had gone through separate lives before his inhabitance; who those others may have been; what he now was. A husband, a retiree. Not a father.
William’s wife had had an affair that started before they were married and went on through the early part of their marriage. The affair didn’t end until she tried to get pregnant and found out she was unable, and the melancholy that descended upon her, through which William, her mother, and his parents nursed her, settled a fatherlessness within and at the same time made the man, whose name William never learned, think twice about whether she was the jolly sexual creature to whom he enjoyed easy carnal access.
William had found out about the affair a year prior, after his retirement, when on an unremarkable night, she confessed. It had been absurd to face the news in the abstract light of the dusty, shelved nature of the relationship. He was jealous, disgusted for weeks. But William and his wife were not young lovers in the throes of sexual possession, and it had been sex, nothing more, and had faded when the fantasy faded. Stupidity. Crassness. Baseness. But not love.
Yet it hurt so deeply and in such an uncommon place that the pain was like an exotic physical exertion that leaves heretofore unfamiliar muscles sore.
So it was a ritual, mornings since, in the peace of an empty house, to think over her betrayal and the heroism of his acceptance—he considered it nothing less than heroism. Her penance became that she had to work while he did not, out in the City, by train. He imagined her on the train, fetching in a turtleneck. Men would strike up pithy conversations. Had she gotten her fill, by now, of the edge she walked up to, the stress of ensuring she didn’t spill over while counteracting the pressure of a man who would gladly go over the edge with her? It must have been addictive, those years back—and this stormed William’s psyche, enraged him: the sex itself had been secondary to the naughtiness of sex, the hide and seek she and this man had been playing.
Sometimes, through the glass, he’d catch sight of a deer, maybe a spry fawn following an anxious doe. Now, all of a sudden, he saw what struck him first as a daydream, so much so he had to tell himself, “No, William, you are seeing this.” Four children were scurrying along the river. This in itself was odd, for it was a school day, around nine-thirty. But they were holding hands. They weren’t sprinting as in a game of hide and seek. They were moving briskly yet would not let go of each other.
He stepped onto his deck and hugged his robe snug. There was an awful chill in the air; it was those kids passing. Very disconcerting. William got this closed-off feeling in his chest, which stopped him from calling out. He didn’t have the wind. Anyway, kids do what they do; never having had any, he did not understand them as predictable creatures.
They kept moving northwest along the river.
William had never delighted in an overwhelming paternal instinct. Even around his nephews, who were generous with their love and taste for him as an uncle, he’d never been comfortable, rarely said or did the right thing, and latched onto the right thing too strongly when he had done it, which enthusiasm set off alarm bells in his nephews, a reaction that irked William. He thought it a mark of manhood to become comfortable in the presence of another man’s enthusiasm.
His wife enjoyed an easy way around children. A natural mother. An ironic curse, then, her barrenness. She had been a school teacher until they found out she could not have children. She left that calling for a career with UBS, citing pay. He believed, always, that her choice had been a mistake, but it was one of those things that got wrapped up in the descent of reality upon her—the end of her affair; her retreat into the scraped womb of their marriage.
Yet, as the backs of those boys grew a certain distance from William and he saw that they were still holding hands, his paternity kicked in. Something had gone dreadfully wrong.
He raced off. He knew the ravine. The boys would emerge on John Street. As he went through his front door, he heard sirens. Many sirens. More than he’d ever heard before, far off and out of concert with one another.
He raced the car over to John Street, a neighborhood of large, old, wood frame homes, oddly quiet given those sirens, which persisted in the distance as William approached. The four boys were sitting on a curb in front of the lawn that led to a big, white Victorian. There was something about their body language, something forlorn and shaken, that reminded him of Barbara after the news they would never have children—perhaps of himself after her confession.
He pulled his car along the curb one house to the east and climbed out and went up the sidewalk. One of the boys, the biggest, it seemed—hard to tell, with the others sitting—stood and said, “Who are you?”
His tone was brusque. No. More than that—forthright, and backed by what, ethos? Righteousness? Coming from a child, it sent a chill up William’s spine. Feeling the chill, he remembered the unemployed picture he must have made, wearing his robe out of doors.
“I’m… I live along the ravine. I saw you boys running.”
The other boys had looked up but hadn’t stood. It seemed they wanted to but weren’t moving.
“Who are you?” the oldest boy asked again.
“What’s going on?” William demanded. “I saw you running behind my house.”
The sirens. The four boys, who formerly had been in desperate motion, all dressed neatly…
“Everyone’s dead,” the youngest boy whispered, suddenly.
“Don’t!” said the boy who was standing. They looked alike.
“I don’t care. I don’t care,” the little boy said, and started crying.
The boy who was standing appeared to be in fourth or fifth grade. The others were younger, and the two youngest resembled the one who was standing. The odd one out was chubbier than the others, and dressed differently. The one who stood wore jeans and a sweatshirt, running sneakers. The chubby boy sat on the curb in khakis and a button down, though the tail of the shirt had pulled out.
The oldest boy had brown hair, same as the other two. “If you touch me, if you try to touch me or hurt them, I’m going to fight you.”
“What happened?” William asked, but was beginning to understand in the wailing of siren after siren racing from earshot. Toward the school from which they must have fled.
“I took them out of there,” said the big boy.
“Do you live here? In this neighborhood?”
“That’s our house.” The older boy hiked his thumb at the large house behind.
The chubby one said, “I live up the street. Over there,” and pointed.
“Why don’t you go inside.”
“I can see in all directions. I can see if someone is coming. I’m gonna protect my brothers.”
“He saved my life,” the chubby boy said. “We’re friends. That’s it. We’re friends.”
The middle brother started crying. It went from the littlest one to the second like a yawn. Sobbing. The chubby boy put his arm around the middle brother while the oldest glanced down a long time, glanced at the back of his brother’s head, and now was crying, too, but silently, like a father might.
After the news that she could not have a child, Barbara had taken to praying. More than anything, she prayed for the protection of her precious little ones in this edgy world, her modifiers. She would lock herself in the bedroom and pray, and from the door William, a less patient man back then, could hear her whispering fiercely to God, making demands.
He, an intellectual, carried at best a belief in a meandering spirit up above, surely nothing to which you actually made requests, as though It, looking down on the very problems from which she prayed her precious ones be delivered, would choose her voice for a response. Callously, as he stood at the door and heard her sweet little voice behind, her girlish voice, he came up with several ironclad intellectual arguments against the existence of God, ending with a poor paraphrase of Nietzsche, the most ironclad of all.
Lunches out, he berated her with these arguments, especially when she seemed most disinterested in him. The ire that rose in him was casual as he listened intently to stories starring her schoolchildren yet noted she did not pay attention—she didn’t—to his recap of a project at which he was toiling. As time grew and he became middle-aged, he blamed himself, his disgruntled-ness, his overreaction. How could she, a lover of love, be the cold one? Surely he had made the mistake of introducing distance between them, even disdain.
But last year, when she gave her confession, all analysis of history was revised, and a resolution presented itself: around those lunches had been the time she was suddenly without this man. She had been learning wifehood, monogamy, having lost Plan B, and she’d grappled with every shaky minute of it.
He sat down on the curb next to the oldest boy’s Nikes. The oldest boy remained standing. William hugged his knees to his chest. He had taken out his cell phone, but it would be futile to call in. If his thinking was correct, considering the abject horror of what may have happened three miles away, the fact that the boys were safe and with him was enough and there would be no men to spare. 9-1-1, anyway, would be jammed.
“We can’t stay out here,” he said.
“Why not?” the older boy challenged.
“Because if that monster comes—and I’m going to speak frankly with you, son—“ he stared intensely at the boy “—if that monster comes, we’re right out in the open. I continue to suggest you go inside.”
The sunlight was breaking around his soft hair, light brown—he’d be full black by William’s age. The sunlight broke in a mystical way, in flecks, like little dancing angels.
“I’ll come in with you.”
“How do I know you won’t hurt us?”
“Gimme a break,” William said, unable to halt his facetiousness. “You’ve caught on to my master plan. I’ve been living here a decade so that one day disaster would strike, I would come upon four boys by themselves, I would lure them into their own house—a house I do not know—and there, I would take advantage.”
It was out before he could stop himself, one of those moments he was sure he’d said precisely the wrong thing. But the oldest boy seemed mildly impressed, if he could wear that countenance in this moment. Again, William was cursed with a strange misunderstanding: here was certain he’d said the wrong thing, yet it had been precisely what was needed: the most human thing, the rawest thing. And he understood, in a flash, that he must say what he wished to say, must be direct and honest with children.
He had a thought, which fled after its conception, that it wasn’t the affair which pressed upon his wife until she confessed, but the crushing adulthood of inveracity.
“C’mon,” he said, getting to his feet. Again, more directly, “C’mon.” He started up the three steps from the sidewalk to the long walkway that crossed the pretty front yard. “Let’s go inside and lock up.”
In the home, they kept the lights off. The boys and he gathered in the kitchen. The three other boys sat on stools before an island where there was a counter and sink, and William had the oldest boy pour them each a glass of whatever soda they wanted.
Next, William asked the oldest boy to turn on the television in the other room and turn the volume up, and he instructed the three boys that at no time were they to leave the stools. He then asked the oldest boy to round the house and double-check the doors and windows on the bottom floor.
When the oldest boy returned, the news had broken. They were listening to CNN. It was a time during which details were sketchy; it was publicly known only that there had been a shooting. William did not need to know anymore, so he instructed the oldest boy to shut the television. The oldest boy protested.
“Jason,” he said, surprised at how easily he’d remembered the boy’s name, “think of me as your teacher, okay, if a poor substitute. I needed to know what others knew. Now go ahead and shut the television. Come back inside, and call your parents from your house phone, because what I needed to know was whether they may have gotten the news already, and it seems they may have.”
This made sense to Jason. He went into the other room and shut the tv and came back to the kitchen. The two brothers gave their names: Scott, the middle brother; Joseph, the youngest. The chubby boy was Caleb.
“Caleb, are you okay?” William asked.
He looked the most beaten up of the four, the most fazed, staring off into an unknown distance. William worried he, of the four, had seen it up close—seen a gunshot—and was going to fall into that distance.
William had served, and that stare of Caleb’s was familiar. If the boy had seen, it would be a terrible disaster. Perhaps it was best to talk about it now.
“All right, so you saw something.”
Caleb snapped his head in William’s direction.
“I’m going to tell you, Caleb, you’re okay. Those are words you’re going to live by. ‘I’m okay.’ I don’t care if you have to say that to yourself the rest of your natural born life. You hear me?”
The boy nodded, hypnotized twice over, by William and by what he’d seen.
“You two—“ he was speaking to Scott and little Joey “—you saw nothing, correct?”
“I heard bangs like when you pop something with a tire.” That was Joey.
“Okay. You, Scott?”
“I wasn’t there.”
“Then you’re going to help your little brother and your friend. And your older brother will help you. Jason, where are you?”
He had gone out of the room and was watching television on mute. William went to get him, shut off the tv, and said, “Come inside. Call your parents right now. Talk with them.”
He was walking the boy by the hand to the phone in the kitchen. The boy’s hand felt clammy. William kept his grip firm, protective. “It’s okay, young man. Tell them you’re okay. Call their cell phones. Then give me the phone.”
Jason was crying by the time his mother picked up, and William could hear the mother’s screams of joy and terror through the phone.
Jason said, “Yeah, they’re okay. And Caleb’s okay. I think it was a first grade class because Joey heard.”
William said, “Tell her I’m here and let me have the phone, please.”
The boy did so. William got on the phone. “I don’t know your name. What is your name, dear?” he asked, softly.
It was a very soft voice he was using, surprising even him with its mildness—Jason’s voice on the sidewalk had come from a fearsome place, but this was quite another voice, from up above, the place to which Barbara prayed.
“Jean,” she said. “That’s why two of my sons have ‘J’—” she laughed. “Oh, God. Oh, God. I don’t know how to feel!”
“They’re okay. That’s the important thing.”
“I know the parents of Joey’s friends.”
“Yes,” William said, calmly, softly. “We don’t know how bad it is, okay? Let’s focus on what we know and can do. You’re on your way. Your boys are safe, and Caleb is safe. So there’s no reason to speed and get into an accident.”
“I am speeding,” she admitted.
“Of course you’re speeding. It’s natural to speed, but it’s not necessary. Don’t. They’re here. They’re safe in your home with an adult. All the doors are locked. There are no guns in the house, correct?”
“Good. That’s the last thing we need. Armed children.”
It was comforting for them both to laugh, and they forgave themselves.
“Come home and be with them. Would you call your husband?”
“Wait five minutes. I’m going to have Jason call him first. He should hear directly from his son, as well.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Oh, God. I feel dizzy.”
“Just drive home. You’re driving home as you always do. Pretend. Like a child, Jean. Pretend you’re just driving home, and really, more than ever, you know your children are waiting.”
He saw it through. There was a blitz of emotion when the mother was reunited. Caleb got in on it, and they all embraced for a time, and they were all crying. William watched this from the porch like a grandfather—indeed, the mother was in her thirties. He came down the porch steps in his bathrobe when the reunion quieted on the walkway.
She thanked him and eyed his queer outfit.
“Well,” he said, “I left the house in a rush.”
Meantime, he’d spoken briefly with Barbara, who was staying in the City—no reason to come home, no children, no affiliation with that particular school, though she’d decided she would ask for time off to volunteer. It had come out that the shooting was a rampage, that there were many victims, some teachers and administrators, perhaps children, though the latter was still rumor.
William now touched the shoulder of the mother, and she hugged him and thanked him for staying with her children, with Caleb.
“They had a glass of soda. Pure sugar. I don’t know what else to report. They’re exceptional, all four of them. You boys are exceptional,” he said, frankly. “I think that of you.”
The oldest boy nodded with masculinity, as one might facing a beer, talking truths at a bar.
He went down the walkway and climbed into his car and made his way home slowly. He aroused no suspicion, and none but the woman and those boys knew his small act of genuine heroism. The mother’s name was Jean. They’d exchanged numbers, but if they met again, wonderful, and if they did not, that was fine, too, and she could try to forget or block it out. He was at their service forever, now. He had said, in a way he never had said it before—meaning it—“If you need anything—anything, a babysitter, a friend—you can call me, okay. I have plenty of time, and you’ll be doing my wife a favor to get me out of the house.”
But while he was driving home, he started to cry. At first, he was crying for the boys, but soon, he was crying for Barbara. Why had he never—even way back when they were falling in love—shown her the same softness, the same vulnerability? Why had he never been the enthusiastic one? Why had he never shown the child in her anything but frustration—especially when it was the closest they could come to a child of their own?
He had but one question, and felt he had to ask it, but a certain way. All afternoon, while the news came out, he lived within a duality, watching the horror of the news as more detail was revealed yet also imagining what he would say when Barbara came through the door.
When she arrived home that evening, after calling him twice, after he gave her something—a little something—that she remarked upon, a new softness, an appreciation of her, which he came close, even, to spelling out in words, he confronted her with this, right at the door: “I want you to know that you’re the most important thing in the world to me. I need you to know that.”
She watched his face for aggravation or signs of temporariness. She would not indulge him if this new mood would vanish tomorrow.
“There is one thing I need to know. I want you to tell it to me, and then I’m going to forgive you—I cannot forget. I know it was the ritual. I think of that boy. He must have formed a bond with the lifting of the gun, of firing. And that was his only bond. Like you have your ritual behind a locked door at night, which you deserve and which I never should have belittled. A ritual is good or bad. But needed. I have mine, at the door in the morning. And you have the good taste not to interrupt me. I should never had disdained you. I should never have hurt… what I would say is the child in you.”
She was crying.
“Barbara, tell me his name. What was his name?”
Her lips were trembling. She could see in his eyes that if she gave him this, it would matter. Would it make life perfect? Life was never perfect with men in the world. She did the best she could in marrying him. They would have had good children, peaceful children—peaceful enough. Edgy like him, maybe sullen, competitive—all those things, if they were boys. But strong. Successful. Engaged. Didn’t he understand how much she loved him? She would show him. She would give him the name he wanted.
And when she did—Fred, of all names. Fred! he thought. Fred? he laughed—when she did, he walked to her and hugged her. He was still wearing his robe. He smelled of himself, of his pheromones. She thought maybe they would make love, but he wasn’t in that mood. Just wanted to hug her in the hallway of their home, a retired man, a husband—a kind of father if the moment called for it. Good enough.
He led her to the kitchen. He poured her a glass of whatever soda she wanted, and they spoke of how terrible it was.
Nick LaRocca has published short stories and essays in several reviews and anthologies, including the Beloit Fiction Journal and Rush Hour, and has the recipient of the Robert Wright Prize for Writing. He is the Associate Professor of English at Palm Beach State College and lives in Delray Beach, Florida, with his wonderful wife and two dogs.