Child to Whom This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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     Dirt-stained fingers stuck lightly to thewindowpane of Charlie’s Candy Store as Jayden licked the salivacollecting in the corners of his lips.

“C’mon,Jay!” The group of nine-year-olds had lost interest in the shopafter the choco-nut clusters had been the featured item for two months.

“We ain’t gonna get any of that so you may as wellstop dreamin’.” Sifting his toes through the gravel on theroad, Jayden followed his friends, still imagining what something sorich must taste like.

“Hey, Jay, you get that bolt fromyour daddy’s truck yet?”

“Naw, he was in townall last night. I dunno if he ever even came home. What about you, Ty,you get those new blades for the motor?” His friends knew thatJayden’s father hadn’t been out all night, but they alsoknew how hard it was for Jayden to talk about him.

“Youthink I’d let you down?” Ty held up a three-bladed speedboathub. “That boat house don’t even bring them boats in atnight; it was a cinch. I can get that bolt tonight, if you want me to,Jay. My pa’s home for the week. His truck won’t miss thatbolt any more than your daddy’s.”

“That’sokay, I’ll get it tonight,” Jay promised. Everyone knew Tywould bring the bolt tomorrow and Jayden would have another story aboutnot being able to get it.

The boys trekked through the woods,across the creek and down the deer path to the lake. A mound of leafybranches marked the spot of the hidden boat. They ran to it and beganuntying the bent saplings to reveal rusted car hoods that had been bentand hammered into the rough shape of a fishing boat.

“Man!She’s a beauty!” The boys admired their handiwork of thepast few months. “Are you sure that hub’s gonna fit onthere, Ty? It looks a little big.”

“Shut up, Randy.I’m the one doing the motor work here. Any hub would fit on amotor like this.” Ty bent to his knees and fidgeted with the hub,scraping and twisting it until he finally got it to stay in place.

“Alright, now tomorrow I’m gonna slide that boltthrough and it should hold this piece in place.” Impressed withhis work, the boys nodded in ap-proval. Ty himself was pleased with hisdumb luck; he never imagined that old lawn mower motor would ever holdsomething so powerful.

The early autumn breeze swept away everycare the boys had as they skipped pebbles across the lake and talkedabout their plans to run away in the boat someday. Feeling freedom was adream Jayden was sure he would never attain, but the thought kept himgoing. The joyful scream of Randy vaulting out of the old tree fort intothe lake drew Jayden back to reality.

“Hey, Cleggy, whattime is it?” Jayden had let time slip by and had nearly forgottenabout his father.

Cleggy, the only boy with a time piece, pulledhis pocket watch from his trousers. “Um ... looks like it’sabout four past five.”

“Shoot!” Jaydenexclaimed. “Sorry, guys, I forgot I had to do somethingtonight.” He ran back into the woods, and cut straight up thedeer’s path and through the wheat field, bursting through the backdoor to find his father crying in the big oak chair.

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m here now.” Jaydenwrapped his arms around his father’s neck and made a seat forhimself on his lap as he buried his head in his father’s chest.“I’m here, Daddy.” The cries became whimpers and thewhimpers became heavy breathing, and finally, Jayden stood up.“I’ll get you a biscuit, okay?” His father saidnothing. “Will a biscuit be okay until Chad comes home?”Chad, Jayden’s 16-year-old brother, had been supporting them fortwo years, ever since Daddy quit managing the Jack and Jill Grocery tohelp Mother. This time of year always seemed more terrible for Daddy,and Jayden’s upcoming tenth birthday, he knew, would be the worstyet.

***

At six years old, Jayden sat at the door ofMother’s bedroom as she let out another scream. Chad’s handtightened on Jayden’s wrist as a sign of reassurance. She’dbeen screaming for over three hours, and the boys were getting nervous.Mother had always wanted a little girl, and it didn’t sound likethe doctor was doing a good job at getting it for her. The soft hum ofDaddy’s voice not only quieted Mother, but it made Jayden and Chadfeel better, too. Suddenly the room was quiet. There was no morescreaming, no humming and no heavy breathing. “Can we go innow?” Jayden had never seen a babybefore.

“No.” Chad remembered waiting outside thatsame bedroom six years earlier when Jayden was born. “You have towait for after the quiet when they call you in.” The boys sat inthe anxious silence for an eternity before another noise came from thebedroom. It was not a sound of joy, but a pain-filled scream of emotion.Their mother was crying, howling in grief. The door creaked open and theboys ran in to see what had happened. A mass of hair sat atopMother’s head as she rocked back and forth, clinging to a lifelessbundle in her arms. Daddy stood between the boys and put a hand on theirshoulders. His sturdy hands had never felt so a-fraid. He turned fromhis wife to look into his sons’ faces. His cool, blue-green eyeswere red and wet. No words were necessary.

Hours later Daddyemerged and stumbled, exhausted, down the stairs to talk tothem.

“How are my big guys?” Daddy’s voicebristled with anguish. “Your mother isn’t doing well rightnow.” Struggling for words, Daddy babbled his way throughconversation. “I can’t ... ugh ... You see, yourmother’s very sick, and I can’t leave her here all day whileI go to work. She’s not going to be able to take care of herselfbecause she thinks this is her fault, and she ... well, she mightaccidentally hurt herself if I’m not with her. What I mean is, bereally nice to Mother and try to stay out of her way.”Daddy’s sweaty hand couldn’t stop rubbing the back of hisneck. “Chad, why don’t you stop by the barber shop tomorrowand see if Theo can use your help. I’m gonna need you to workthere until Mother gets a little better.”

The next morning,Jayden woke early. The stairs creaked under his feet as he tiptoed downto the kitchen. He still hadn’t spoken to Mother, and wantedeverything to be just right when he did.

Never put an empty poton the stove. Jayden tried to recall Mother’s instructions whenshe cooked. The wobbly chair was just high enough for him to reach thesink. Spilling only a few drops of water on the counter, he managed toput the nearly empty pot on the stove and turn it on. Jayden filled therest of the pot with grits and waited for them to “smoke.”

Mother’s ladle made a sucking noise as the grits weredivided into two bowls. With spoons and napkins, breakfast was ready.Jayden crept back up the stairs into his parents’ room.

“Mother?” He placed the bowls on the nightstand ashe climbed on the bed. “Mother, I made you breakfast.” Cold,tired eyes opened, boring into Jayden.

“I ... I made youporridge, Mother, to cheer you up.” Her hollow spheres narrowedbefore she threw Jayden off the bed and began sobbing again. Daddy wokeabruptly and held her in his arms.

“What did you do?”Knowing he’d done wrong, Jayden said nothing and ran out of theroom. During the next few days the boys heard nothing from their mother.Only the soft murmurs of “Keep praying” and “Stayquiet” from Daddy kept them connected with theirparents.

Tears continued to be quite frequent for Mother. Sheblamed herself for the loss of the baby, and seeing her sons was aconstant reminder. Under the stairs of the back porch, Jayden satlistening to his mother’s cries. Knowing his efforts to comforther would only make it worse, he stayed silent, waiting for her to go tobed. The closing of the liquor cabinet door was a signal to

Jayden that he would need to hide for another hour before hecould eat his supper and go to bed.

“Honey, I thinkyou’ve had enough for today.” Daddy’s voice was scaredand tired, tired of the same thing every day.

“Get offme!” Shattering the glass on the kitchen floor, Mother, onceagain, could not control herself. Jayden wondered if she drank morewhiskey, or threw more of it at Daddy when she’d had toomuch.

“Maylene, sweetie, just come here a second.”Mother managed to clomp two steps across the kitchen before collapsingin a drunken pile of tears. Daddy’s big arms pulled her togetheras he held her rocking lightly back and forth in the whiskey puddle.“Shhh, it’s okay. God’s with us. We’re gonnamake it through this.”

“There is no God!”Mother spat out through her tears. “If there were a God, I’dbe a mother!”

“You are the mother of the two finestboys I’ve ever seen. Don’t go ...” Mother’swordless screams covered any thoughts Daddy had.

The monthsinched by, and fall came. Jayden could no longer feel safe under thestairs, or anywhere, when Mother was awake. Her hand was stuck to thebottle and Jayden stayed away from home for fear of her drunken rage. Hestayed in town at night until sunset and sat in the bed of the truck atnight, whittling and reading until Daddy came out to tell him Mother hadgone to bed. He always made it a point to give Jayden a kiss beforebed.

***

“Happy birthday, Jay.” Daddy’swarm hand brushed the wispy hairs from Jayden’s sleeping face. Theblurred outline of Daddy’s shoulders was silhouetted against theopen window, full of beautiful sunrise. Jayden smiled. Enveloping him inhis arms, Daddy pressed his lips to Jayden’s head and held himthere. The safety in Daddy’s arms was the best present Jaydencould have asked for.

“There’s a surprise on thetable for you,” Daddy whispered. Jayden looked at hisfather’s tender smile and ran down to the kitchen. On the tablesat a brown box no larger than Jayden’s fist. Approaching it withcare, he drew off the single red ribbon and removed the lid. Inside, aperfect peanut butter and nougat-filled bonbon lay glistening in thegolden light. The rich scent tickled the hairs in his nose; he looked athis father.

“Go ahead,” Daddy said. The chocolatecasing of the flawless dessert reached Jayden’s lips and hecarefully licked its edge. Immediately his mouth erupted in pleasure andbegan watering for another taste of the sweet. He ate the bonbon ever soslowly, allowing the outer chocolate to melt over his fingers, a treatin itself. After licking the last bit of heaven from his finger, Jaydenlooked up at his father. A rustling up-stairs told them that Mother hadawakened. The moment of serenity was over, and Daddy gave Jayden onelast kiss before sending him to school.

Jayden took his time,basking in the morning as he sauntered down Cutter Lane. Wondering ifthings would ever return to the way they had been, Jayden thought howmuch he missed his mother and hated only being able to see his father inthe early morning before she woke. Chad, too, was scarcely a part ofJayden’s life anymore, working as a sweeper for Theo at the barbershop and cleaning the school at night. He made enough money to feedthem, but only came home for a few hours to sleep before going to workagain. Daddy promised that once Mother was better, Chad could return toschool, but Mother had only gotten worse.

After school Jaydenwent to the lake with his friends, a group of seven-year-olds with wilddreams. They skipped rocks, swam and talked about running away. Nobodyknew how Jayden actually longed for that freedom. When the sun began tonear the horizon, the boys left for home. Jayden tried to persuade themto stay, but without luck. He left after the boys and took as much timeas he could to get home. Sitting in the truck was not the way he’dwanted to spend the rest of his birthday, but he knew Daddy would havesomething special planned for him.

A smoldering stub of a cigarlay on the railing of the porch. The ashes that preceded the burning endsuggested that the cigar had been lit, but not smoked. Jayden raninside.

“Hello?” His voice echoed through the house.The bed at the top of the stairs lay cold and Daddy’s truck wasgone. Jayden had only minutes to contemplate the whereabouts of hisparents before the deep roar of a diesel engine lured him outside. Daddyturned off the engine. Skidding to a stop a yard away from his father,Jayden saw that Daddy’s face was a pale green.

“Daddy? Is everything-” Daddy collapsed to theground and began sobbing, cutting Jayden’s breath mid-sentence.Shocked, Jayden’s heart stopped. He had never seen Daddy cry. Historn collar revealed his tense muscles. Daddy lay in a helpless heap,scratching and digging for mercy in the gravel as time stopped andJayden watched his world crumble. Slowly he approached his father andplaced his hand on his bare shoulder. The emotional unease that passedthrough Jayden’s tender touch froze Daddy. As though it were heldunder a great weight, Daddy lifted his head to look into Jayden’seyes. He rose to his knees and pulled Jayden into an embrace that passeda sentiment no seven-year-old had ever felt before.

Jayden knewit was Mother. He didn’t want to ask; he didn’t need to. Astrange burning in his chest drew him to hold his father tighter.Through the heavy breaths on his neck and the clenched hands slowlycompressing his tiny body, Jayden could feel what his father could notsay. He did not know what had happened, but he knew he’dnever see her again.

***

Lightly scuffing thefloor, the tattered pant legs of Jayden’s pajamas made the onlynoise the house had heard all week, with the exception of crying andquiet words between him and Chad. Sitting in the old rocker, Daddystared blankly across the room at the photographs of him and Mother.They had been re-moved from their hiding place in the closet and hung inthe living room where Daddy sat all day. His favorite picture was Motherin her beautiful wedding dress; it sat on the coffee table in front ofDaddy. Jayden sat by his father for the seventh day in a row, hopingthat his loving persistence would break Daddy’s silence. All hewanted was to hear the sweet hum of his fa-ther’s deep voice tocomfort his fears. The clock sounded noon and Jayden rose and slowlywalked to the kitchen, returning with two glasses of water and cheesesandwiches. As long as Jayden stayed, Daddy would eat.

The hoursdragged as Jayden waited for Chad to get home with dinner. Final-ly,when the light thudding of Chad’s boots brought Jayden out of histrance, he felt free to go upstairs and wash for dinner. The boys fearedwhat would happen if their father were left alone.

When hereturned, Jayden was met by Chad’s always-hopeful eyes. With aslow turn of his head Jayden informed his brother that Daddy still hadnot spoken, let alone told him about Mother. No funeral was held andDaddy never left the house for a burial, but the boys longed to knowwhere their mother lay.

Jayden went to the kitchen to help Chadwith dinner, barely heated canned soup and yesterday’s bread. Itwas the best dinner they’d had all week.

“Oh, Jay, Igot something for you.” Chad reached into his pocket and pulledout a small brown box with a single red ribbon. “Happy birthday,Jay.”

***

“C’mon, Jay, keep your eyesclosed.” The cold fingers on his face couldn’t keep tightover Jayden’s eyes as he was guided down the all-too-familiartrail into the woods. Through squinting eyes, he could see the autumnleaves brushing against the arms and faces of his companions as thetree’s veneer floated to the ground piece bypiece.

“Okay, take a big step here.” Though Jaydenknew where he was, the intensity of the moment pushed adrenaline throughhis body.

“Hey, keep ’em closed,Jay!”

“Turn around, no, thisway!”

“Alright, now sit down and open youreyes.”

“Happy Birthday, Jay!” Immense smilesstudied the completed project as the boys longed to be in Jayden’splace. “We finished the boat yesterday and decided that you shouldbe the first one to test it out.” Ty pulled the boat’s nyloncord fiercely until the engine started.

Slowly and wordlessly,Jayden left the shore. He was on the lake, the buzzing hum of the motorunheard as he looked across the horizon toward the river. This was it,the time for change, his chance to be free. Ahead lay the calmtogetherness he longed for while all around him a warm whisper in thebreeze told him that he was where he needed to be - home.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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