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He learns how to count this year, and his parents are so proud of their little boy. He counts everything he does, and they beam every time they hear his voice calling out the numbers in a slow, even order.
He’s in the grocery store with his mom, and he’s just gotten off the horse ride in the front of the store. The buzz of the busy supermarket drones in the background, but for once he pays no mind to the incessant hum of noise around him.
Mom pulls him down before he can count, and a tugging feeling at the pit of his stomach makes him feel sick. Pulling at her cold hands, he screams for her to let him go back and count or else. She thinks he’s being unruly, and she promptly yanks him out of the store before giving his bottom a harsh smack as he gets in the car.
“James,” she hissed, trying not to let anyone overhear her scolding, “you shouldn’t make such a fuss in a public place! It’s rude and I’ll not have you doing that. It’s not normal for little boys to yell and carry on because they can’t count something!”
“But Mama--” he responds, pearly tears forming in his big brown eyes as he realizes that he’s being punished for the first time. The knot in his stomach gets tighter and he feels like his insides are being twisted and tied into knots.
“No buts.” She cuts him off and gives him another smack on his backside before strapping him into his car seat and getting in.
As they drive home, she doesn’t hear him counting quickly and nervously under his breath.
It’s his birthday today, and the fall breeze whips through his hair at a breakneck speed. He’s brought cupcakes in, and he counts them three times before he lets his mother box them up. The glow in his face as he gets excited for the attention he’ll receive today doesn’t go unnoticed by his mother, but she is concentrating on other things.
“Jamie, you’ll be late if you don’t hurry up,” she says tentatively, pained from the way he was meticulously pointing to each little dessert, but she knows she cannot rush him. It’ll be worse if she does because he’ll have to start over. They’ve done this too many times, in too many ways, and its starting to show in the streaks of gray through her hair and the frown lines creasing the corners of her lips.
“…fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen!” he cries with joy, finally finished with the excruciatingly slow process, but he can’t not count; it wouldn’t be right.
He turns to his mother with obvious glee on his features; his are cheeks flushed with pride because of the exciting event, and she forgets for a while because he’s so cheerful.
When she picks him up that day, he is less than content, and Mom’s face falls as she sees her little boy coming to the car in a slow funeral march. She can see that his lips are moving at a quick pace as he watches his feet, and she’s afraid that he’ll fall. He doesn’t, but he trips a little bit; a girl behind him laughs loudly with her friends, pointing and giggling.
The glee on that little girl’s face matched the expression James had had that morning, and Mom feels a knife puncture her heart for the first time.
He crawls into the backseat, his brow furrowed, and she starts to pull away.
The knife slices deeper and twists a little bit when she hears the anguish—even in that one syllabic word that she had come to adore—that shouldn’t be present in such a young voice
“What does ‘abnormal’ mean?”
The knife is shoved further in and it twists just a little bit harder.
He’s in high school now, a sophomore and he’s taller than his mother. She’s so proud of him as he walks out the door to school, even after he’s been doing it for a little more than a year. She never thought he’d make it this far.
He saves her the trouble of hearing his muttering; he knows it upsets her.
The walk to the bus-stop is uneventful, but he occupies himself with what has to be done.
“Twelve paces to the car.”
“Twelve paces back to the door because you forgot to touch the handle.”
“Twelve paces to the car.”
“Step on the crack with your right foot; now the left.”
“Touch the door of the car three times.”
“Back away three paces.”
“Count fifteen three-steps to the bus stop.”
He thinks to himself things that don’t make any logical sense, but they must be done or else. Or else what, he does not know, but his mind gives him scenarios that bend him to do its bidding.
At school, he looks at the floor, careful to hide his tall, lanky frame amongst the bigger kids; no one his age will talk to him because they know what he does.
He’s counting the steps to his locker now, but he knows how many there are from where the bus drops him off.
“Spin the combination three times,” he whispers quietly to himself.
An itch sparks at the back of his neck from the wool uniform he has to wear; he has to touch it three times before he can scratch it and he knows he looks silly.
Florescent lights burn noisily in the ceiling above his head as he listens with one ear to the droning professor, and one ear to the ticking clock on the wall; he’s not paying attention, preferring to stare out the window and count the ticks of the old clock in the room. He’s not so desperate for three anymore, but it makes him feel better when it comes out to be nine instead of seven. Nothing new is being said by the crowing instructor so he doesn’t bother with even one ear after a while.
The teacher stops talking and he doesn’t notice, too caught up in his daydream and the timed, perfect ticks of the clock. She walks slowly to his desk, a smug smile on her wrinkled face, thin lips curled as she closes in on her prey.
“James!” she squawks, and he jumps in his seat in response, his head snapping toward her.
“Y-Yes, ma’am?” his voice trembles as he slowly looks up to the ancient woman with wide, frightened eyes.
“Repeat to me what I just said, word for word.”
The smug smile morphs into a smirk and she stands up a little taller as the man before her struggles for a response. When he says nothing, shamefully looking at his bedraggled shoes, she slaps his desk with the text book—missing his fingers by only a millimeter or two (he wishes it were three)—and stalks to the front of the room.
“You’ll write me a paper on the art of listening, Mr. Evans,” she says, shouting it for his chuckling classmates to hear, “and you will read the essay to the class on Monday; seven pages, single spaced.”
He is embarrassed and frustrated and she takes pride in her teaching ability.
He’s walking by himself now, a small smile on his lips as he enjoys the early spring day in its finest hour. Just before dawn, he walks out of the house every morning for a stroll, intent on following something other than numbers for once. He doesn’t feel a tug in his gut, and he’s thankful for that.
He still counts his steps, but it’s unconscious now, and he’s learned to touch things as discreetly as possible so as not to disturb the children. His son turned five this year, and he began copying his father when he would touch the car handle three times, thinking it was a game.
For his children, he would brave the tight gut and tied knots, but it isn’t as bad as he feared it would be.
His thoughts this morning are somber, despite the pleased expression on his face; the anniversary of Mom’s death is today, and he’s still in mourning even after all these years. His wife knows this, and she doesn’t complain when his weight shifts the bed too early this morning; a knife twists a little in her heart, though, as she hears him come back and sit down two more times.
She doesn’t ever say anything, but it hurts her to see him endure this. He doesn’t think he’s suffering, but she can see how much more he could be if he could stop counting; he can’t though, and she convinces herself that “what ifs” were going to drive her mad if she kept thinking about them.
They aren’t rich, but they get by, and they’re happy where they are despite the neighborhood’s less than reputable activity. Their neighbors are nice to them for the most part and everyone leaves well enough alone.
No one notices his lips moving to form the too familiar sounds of a too familiar sequence.
It’s his son’s first day out of school, and James promised to take him to soccer practice and watch him play. He loves watching his little son play; he doesn’t see moving lips or a furrowed brow, only eyes like his own that are determined to get the black and white ball into the net again and again.
He is so proud of Aaron, and nothing could tear him from watching as his son excelled in everything that he considered mind-numbingly difficult. The fact that Aaron—or anyone else for that matter—can run without counting is beyond him.
When it’s all over and they’re walking back to the car, James realizes that he has forgotten to count his steps from the sidelines. He doesn’t think it’ll be too much of a big deal, but a sharp tug in the pit of his stomach tells him otherwise.
“I left something in the bleachers,” he says to his son; he’s embarrassed and ashamed of lying, but he does it anyway. “I’ll be right there.”
He counts back to the bleachers, and he picks up a stray piece of paper just in case Aaron asks what he needed to get.
He doesn’t see the man with the gun behind him; he doesn’t hear as his unnoticed companion cocks the weapon and aims it at his back; he doesn’t think about anything but the calming, cool numbers.
The gunman counts to himself slowly, the drug induced rush blurring his senses as he slowly puts more and more pressure on the trigger.
“One, two, three.”
As the screams of the ambulance’s sirens rush through his fading consciousness, James hopes that Aaron didn’t see anything.
James’ funeral is quiet, and the only mourners are his friends from work and his family. His wife’s sobs are muffled in Aaron’s suit as the boy holds his mother in a loose embrace. She’s just noticing how similar to his father he looks, and she hasn’t quite gotten over how tall he is; the knife twists and stabs repeatedly all day because of the similarities between her son and her husband, and for once she thinks she knows how James felt when he couldn’t count.
Aaron clings to sanity by not talking; if he doesn’t talk about it, it didn’t happen.
When the headstone is put on his grave, they visit again, this time with flowers. Aaron lets his mother pay her respects, and as she walks back to the car he realizes that it’s his turn to talk to his father.
He doesn’t say anything except a quick, “I love you,” before he walks away.
His father and grandmother look down on him from their final resting places as he walks from the grave-site, and as they hear him go through an almost inaudible—but sickeningly familiar—sequence, both feel a knife piercing and twisting their hearts around the sound.