Sylvia snorts derisively, and for a moment this seems to be her total response. Then she snaps, "Don't bust Mama's chops right now, you mind?" and in the silence that follows, I'm embarrassed for both of them. "I'm the one who's out of control," she mutters. Caroline touches her elbow, and Sylvia says, "All right, all right," and places her hands on Ryan's shoulders. "Don't you want to stay in school here with your friends? Rather than having to make up a lot of work? Hmm? Isn't that a good idea?" Kneeling before him, she puts on a smile. "Howie has a great big Victorian house and a nice spare bedroom you'll have all to yourself. And there's lots of interesting people living there. So let Mama get her act together, then we'll have such a reunion, 'kay?"
Ryan frowns. He looks down, mumbling something no one can hear. Sylvia says, "Hm?" then "Speak!" and for a moment he looks defiant. He kicks at a leaf that's fluttered to the flagstones, then carefully flattens it with the toe of a sneaker. In his arms, the cat twitches her tail. At last, he leans against Sylvia and whispers.
Sylvia sighs. "Please don't do this. Howie's known you all your life. He loves you a lot." She speaks so Caroline and I can hear, and I smile at Ryan, but I'm relieved when he keeps his face to her shoulder. It's true, of course, that when he was born I went to the hospital, and I even wept as I held him in my arms. But Sylvia knows I wasn't weeping for joy, and she can't think he and I have much of a bond. I see Ryan when his mother calls me - she wants a couch moved, some wood chopped, the cat brought off the roof - and with a task involved, she makes an effort to be cheerful. As for Ryan, he's polite but aloof with me, and I'm carefully polite and amiable toward him. But love? We don't go beyond neutral.
Sylvia says, "You and Howie will do all sorts of guy things. Whatever guys do." She's being comical, but when he remains impassive her voice hardens. "Anyway, buster, it's what's happening, and it's not open to discussion. So let Caroline take Bindi back to Chicago. That's the most she can handle with her great big job." Caroline steps forward, and Ryan shrinks back, hugging the cat. Sylvia says, "Sweetie, there's dogs at Howie's -"
"Not!" I say. This is one word I can dependably force out. The only dog at our place is Laurel's French bull, who's too chubby and placid ever to mix it up with Bindi, so I nod and reach for the cat myself. But Caroline only hands me an envelope she's fished from her bag. I think I recognize "Sylvia Mohr" written on the outside, but I don't take time to puzzle out all the letters: the address and phone number of the facility, I suppose. Inside the envelope, a business card is folded between three hundred-dollar bills. I wonder how they came up with the figure.
I offer the money back to Caroline. I can cover the kid's meals, and I won't have it thought that my friendship's for hire. But Caroline tucks Bindi under an arm and waves the bills away, flapping her hand as if I might not understand. Ryan and Sylvia observe this spectacle, then Sylvia snorts again. "Caro," she says. "Howie's not deaf. If you spoke, I bet he'd hear you."
Caroline reddens. "In case of emergency," she says, but now I'm mad. I fling the money at her, and the bills and business card flutter to the ground. The cat yowls, and Caroline winces. As she plucks up the money, a red scratch appears on her forearm. "You can call me anytime," she says grimly, handing back the business card. I'd like to tell her I don't make phone calls.
Sylvia runs her hands down Ryan's brown arms. "You do everything you're told, now. I called the school, left Ms. Monetti a message." Ryan scowls at the road. Sylvia wraps her arms around him, holding him tight for several minutes, and at last he softens and murmurs into her neck. Sylvia sighs, glaring at Caroline. "Satisfied?" she says. "It must feel damn good, storming in here, uprooting our lives. Because you sure don't give one shit about the cost to me. Or my child."
Copyright © 2005 by Dave King
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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