My Son

When Joseph first came back to the house, it felt to Marcie as though she was living with a shadow rather than a son. He was not quite present, but not absent, either; he was not visible, but not invisible. He was sometimes heard—the flushing toilet, the creaking floorboards, the quiet thunk of his bedroom door’s lock being twisted into place—but he was never seen. Joseph ate his breakfast while Marcie walked the dog, after Ron left for work. She didn’t invite him to dinner, but then again, she didn’t during his first eighteen years of life, either. It was dinner; everyone just showed up. She left meals, mostly take out these days, in the refrigerator for him: pizza from the place down the street, defrosted lasagna, take out Chinese. He ate what was left behind after she and Ron went to bed. In the morning, his dishes were in the drying rack. He’d been at the house for four days and Marcie had only seen him a handful of times. It was not, she knew, the behavior of an innocent person.

Were Joseph blameless, he wouldn’t be acting this way. This thought came to Marcie involuntarily and more often than she liked. It was frequently followed by a kind of shudder, a spasm like the ones that sometimes came after she had been in the cold for too long. Were her son innocent, they would likely be talking about what happened, and he would be trying to defend himself. He would be insisting over and over again that what happened had been through no fault of his own. Marcie longed to hear those words escape her son’s thin and pale lips. She wanted to see rebuke or a fight instead of endless, silent admission. She longed for a narrative that contradicted what she saw in the world around her.

On the first day, the day that it happened, she had looked for a shred of innocence, a tiny spec of something that she could hold on to. But then she and Ron spoke to various cops and heard about what Joseph’s roommate had walked into the night before. She learned of the Rohypnol found in his room and in the girl’s system. Still, she hoped in the face of insurmountable contradiction that it had all been a big mistake. The papers and the local media outlets used the word “accused” when they spoke of Joseph, but only because they had to. Comments on social media from armchair judges called for his demise. “Castrate him,” they said. “Lock him up and throw away the key.”

Joseph came home late in the evening on the day that it happened, after he’d been bailed out. He clung to the walls, he hardly made a sound, and he avoided both her and Ron.

When Chelsea came home, four days after everything happened, Joseph failed the final test. She pounded on her brother’s bedroom door. She yelled, she cried, she begged for him to come out.

The sounds that escaped her daughter’s mouth were unlike anything Marcie had heard before, and she had to leave the house. It was warm out; she sat on the driveway near the garbage cans, pressed against the wall and hoping the neighbors couldn’t see her. She would have cried, but at that point she had nothing left to cry. When she went back into the house and looked up to the second floor, where her son’s bedroom door was visible, she saw Chelsea sitting outside the door. She found her there in the morning, too, with a blanket and pillow from her bedroom.

Marcie had slept in on the morning that it happened. It was a Monday, it was April, and it was sunny. The only evidence of winter that remained were the blackened pyramids of ice that stood in the grocery store parking lot and the matted down grass in the lawns of their neighborhood. Ron had even left for work without his winter coat; it sat on the kitchen counter next to the pot of coffee he brewed for her. She took a mug from the cabinet but turned her attention to Sandy instead of the coffee, who entered the kitchen looking like she’d just woken up herself. She sat on the rug in front of Marcie, tail sweeping the floor like a large feather duster, staring and waiting.

“Who’s a good girl?” Marcie asked, petting the Golden’s head. After she scratched behind her ears, the dog retreated to her spot under the kitchen table. She would lie there while Marcie read the paper and ate her breakfast, waiting, until it was time for their walk. It was a routine that had become so set in stone that even the dog knew what to expect. That summer, there had been a night when Marcie slept on and off for only a few hours. She gave up on sleep and breakfasted before the sun rose, planning to walk Sandy a few hours earlier than she typically would. But when she stood before the dog holding her leash, Sandy wouldn’t come out of her crate. Their routine, she silently insisted, would stay the same.

Marcie put a bagel in the toaster and poured her coffee; she was still holding the carafe when the phone, the landline that was so infrequently used these days, rang.

“Marcie Lamb?” a woman asked.

“Speaking,” Marcie said, wishing she had cleared her throat first. She sounded like she had just crawled out of bed.

“Elaina Sanchez, St. David’s residence life. Your son was taken to Mercy Hospital late last night,” she said.

“Joe?” Marcie asked, slamming the carafe back onto the burner. “Is he okay?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything,” she said.

“You don’t know why he’s there?” Marcie asked.

For a moment, she heard nothing on the other end of the line but static. It was harder to hear on the landline, which was one of the reasons why they were considering canceling the service for good. The woman at the other end had not yet hung up, but was not speaking, either.

“Hello?” Marcie asked.

There was another silent beat. “They’ll fill you in when you get to Mercy,” she said.

Until she merged onto the highway, Marcie didn’t realize that she forgot to swap her slippers for real shoes. Her foot was sliding out of the soft fleece and onto the floor. She bent down, her eyes just able to peer over the dash, and took the slipper off with one hand. It was almost nine, and the highway was still filled with rush hour traffic. In seventy-mile-per-hour gridlock, she reached for her cellphone. She chastised people for this. She drilled into her children, over and over again, the dangers of talking on or looking at a cellphone while driving. But this was an emergency. Eyes flitting between her screen and the road, she called Ron and put it on speaker. He didn’t answer until the third call, when he sounded agitated. Typically, Marcie waited for Ron to call during weekdays; he was busy at work.

“Hey,” he said somewhat forcefully.

“Joe’s in the hospital. I don’t know why. Someone from the school just called.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

Marcie sighed. “I don’t know. I just know that he’s there. He’s at Mercy.”

“Where are you?” he asked.

“On my way.”

“I’ll see you there.”

She hung up without saying goodbye. Ron worked in town—an insurance adjustor—and she hoped that he would get to the hospital first. He would learn about whatever happened to their son first, he would know how to soften the blow for Marcie. It had to be bad, she thought. He had a cell phone just like everyone else in 2017. He should have, and would have, texted if he could. If it was a sinus infection or a stomach bug she would have known about it already because she and Joe talk on the phone every few days and text in the interim. If it were a sprained ankle or broken arm, he would have sent her a message in the middle of the night.

St. David’s College was near a sometimes-dangerous part of the city, the way all colleges and universities seem to be. She worried that Joe was somewhere he shouldn’t have been—what if he had been shot or stabbed? What if he had bacterial meningitis? That broke out on college campuses every few years. But no, he’d been vaccinated. Marcie leaned forward, slightly hunched over the wheel, as though her leaning might help the car move faster.

An air-conditioned chill gripped the emergency department’s waiting room.

Marcie walked through a mess of soon-to-be patients clutching their arms or their stomachs as she made for the front desk. She saw a young boy, maybe four years old, crying in his mother’s lap while she held a dishtowel to his bleeding head. There was a woman in a wheelchair, a man strapped to a gurney being pushed by paramedics. Seeing no sign of Joe, Marcie stood near the information desk, behind a man in a suit who was nervously tapping his foot.

She did the same. She swung her arms and sighed deeply, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Finally, when the man took a step back from the desk, Marcie lunged forward.

“Joseph Lamb, I’m his mother Marcie,” she said.

The nurse seated before her dropped her pen, which bounced off the desk and hit the floor. She swiveled around in her chair to face the cluster of doctors and nurses who stood behind her shuffling papers and looking at computers.

“Who has Lamb?” she asked.

A woman in light green scrubs turned to face Marcie.

“Step over to the doors, ma’am,” she said, motioning to a set of double doors to the left of the desk.

Marcie slipped through before they were fully open. “Can you tell me,” she said, her words trailing into breath as the hospital carried on around her, “is he alive?”

“Of course,” the nurse said.

“Oh,” Marcie gasped, exhaling. “The woman on the phone didn’t know anything. I got a little carried away on the drive down here, wondering about what happened.”

The nurse nodded, but didn’t say anything. They walked down a labyrinth of hallways past rooms and drawn curtains that quartered off beds. People swarmed around them pushing patients and carts laden with equipment. Marcie heard the soft beeps of monitors, the clicking of buttons on computer mice. From one room she heard vomiting, a retching that made her stomach clench; from another she heard the loud crackle of police radios, the tops of the officers’ caps just visible through a window mostly blocked by privacy partitions. She looked everywhere for Joe, for his mouse-colored hair and his crinkled green eyes. Her ears strained for his call, “Mom!” She waited and waited to hear it. Finally, the nurse brought her to a room marked, “Family Room.”

There had been a sort of fluttering feeling in her gut after she received the phone call. The flutter hadn’t been calmed by her car ride filled with musings, or by her husband’s inadequate words on the phone. It had ceased somewhat after the nurse told her that yes, Joe was alive, but it came roaring back when she saw the family room and the emptiness of it. There were padded chairs, boxes of tissues on every armchair and end table, and cheap hotel art decorated the walls. There was a water dispenser and coffee maker in one corner, a fake tree in another. The nurse motioned to one of the couches and Marcie sat with her; a tightness had crept over her entire body, making her feel as though she was being squeezed.

“Mrs. Lamb,” the nurse began. She crossed her legs and faced Marcie, whose breathing had become shallow and rapid. “Your son was brought here at five this morning, intoxicated and combative.”

“Combative? I don’t—” Marcie began, but she found she could not speak anymore. The door opened and a police officer entered the room. He stood between the door and the two women, a few feet of space in both directions.

“He was found on St. David’s campus,” she continued.

“Found?” she asked. “He goes there, he’s in college.”

The nurse sat and stared; somehow, she seemed lost for words.

Marcie watched as the officer swept the cap off his head and walked over to the pair of them with an explanation. “Joseph is under arrest for sexual assault. He was injured while fleeing a—”

“No,” Marcie said, cutting him off. Almost instantly, her chest felt bound, so incredibly tight that breathing had become difficult. “No, he wouldn’t. You’ve got the wrong kid.” Her voice broke; the disbelief and exasperation became audible. “When they called me they just said that he was here, nobody said anything about . . . ” but she stopped. She couldn’t continue. When she thought about saying “arrest” or “assault,” her lips felt flaccid and unmovable.

“I don’t know the details,” the nurse said, “but he was tackled by his roommate. He has a pretty serious concussion and needed stitches on his head. He’s doing fine now.” The nurse’s voice had more warmth in it, more feeling and sympathy.

“Okay,” Marcie said. She looked at the couch and let tears drip onto the gray fabric.

“We’re taking him down to the station when he’s released. You can probably post bail in a few hours,” the officer said.

“Did he beat someone up or something?” she asked.

The officer stared. “Ma’am, he’s been accused of rape,” he said.

Every sensation in her body vanished. She couldn’t feel her own heartbeat, the deep cut on her index finger that she sustained while cutting vegetables the night before, or the softness of the couch underneath her. “My husband,” Marcie said while she still felt the breath in her, “should be here any minute. He’ll sort this out.”

Ron would sort it all out. There had to be a misunderstanding; maybe Joe was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe someone was framing him. There was no way, absolutely no way at all, that Joe would do the things that these people said he did.

“I’ll go look for him,” the officer said.

The nurse, whose name she never learned, sat with Marcie while she sobbed. She put her hand on Marcie’s back and told her everything was going to be okay, though Marcie didn’t see how that was going to happen. When she was done, when it felt as though each drop of moisture had been expelled from her face, she turned to the nurse.

“Would you like to see him?” she asked.

There was another officer by Joseph’s room. He stood outside the curtain, a gun and Taser clipped to his belt. She was only a few paces from her son now; between them stood a few feet of space that felt as wide and as treacherous as a river. She wasn’t crying; her breath didn’t come in quick heaves. Somehow, she was just walking. The nurse slipped into the curtained off room and left Marcie standing in the hall.

“Your mom’s right outside,” she said. While her tone wasn’t entirely unpleasant, it had lost its warmth. She was treating him differently. She—like the cops, the papers, and the people on social media—knew he was guilty.

Once again, Marcie strained to hear her son’s voice. But nothing came. Instead, she heard the nurse again. “I’ll bring her in.”

Marcie shut her eyes. Whether she knew it then or not, she was trying to preserve the image of her son that she’d had in her head for the past eighteen years. Joe at his high school graduation, Joe and Chelsea pulling weeds in their grandparent’s flowerbeds, Joe playing sax in the junior high band, Joe at little league games and early morning hockey practices. She wondered if the images would be tainted now, she wondered if they even could be tainted. He was her son, her flesh and blood, one of the two most important things in her life—wouldn’t he always be? But even then she sensed that things were changing, that things would never be the same. Not after this. Unless, of course, it had all been a misunderstanding, which it probably was. But the solemnity of the officer and the nurse scared her. They seemed to know something that she didn’t.

When she opened her eyes, she saw a near-replica of her child; he almost looked like the Joe that she knew, loved, and raised. It was his body, but it was occupied by another boy’s spirit. Part of his hair was matted with blood, a bandage covered most of his forehead, an IV dripped into his left arm. His wrists were shackled to the bedrails with shiny silver handcuffs. His eyes, their radiant green irises were dull and lifeless, partially due to the bruise that blossomed over the right one. His face showed no trace of laughter and had very little color to it.

He looked nothing like the boy that she and Ron had taken to dinner the week before. He looked nothing like the son she had raised.

She stared at her son. She studied his face, the lilac and eggplant-colored bruises that blossomed over his eyes and cheeks, the strawberry-red blood smeared on his skin. She looked intensely at the boy she thought she knew inside and out, but who wouldn’t look at her now.

“Is it true, Joe? It can’t be true,” she said. Much later, Marcie would admit that she knew then that Joseph had done it. She would cite the life that had vanished from his eyes, the handcuffs that tied him to the bed, the way he seemed to melt with embarrassment under her gaze. But most of all, she knew it by the way that he avoided her eyes, how he gazed at the floor, unmoving, as she stood so near him.

Before Joseph could say anything, if he was going to say anything, Ron arrived.

He ran over to Marcie with the same police officer from the Family Room trailing behind him.

“Sir!” he shouted at Ron.

But Ron slowed to a stop next to Marcie, he put his hands around Marcie, he comforted Marcie. The officer stopped, relieved.

“Jesus, Joe. What the hell?” he panted.

Then, Marcie finally heard her son’s voice. But it wasn’t the ray of hope that she thought it would be, it wasn’t a relief. His voice was soft, defeated, and guilty.

“Please leave,” he whispered.

Ron bailed Joseph out that evening. Marcie wondered what, if anything, the pair would talk about on the drive home. Ron could be quiet. He was meditative; he thought before he spoke. He frequently detached from conversation or the world around him, deep in his own musings. He could sit still for incredibly long periods of time; he read whole books in mere hours, he sat watching the snow fall or scouring a dark summer sky for shooting stars.

Marcie could only remember him yelling at the kids once. It was a snow day. The kids had been kicking around a soccer ball on the first floor of the house, even after he’d asked them not to. One of them, they never said who, sent the ball flying into an old ashtray—a bowl of shimmering blue glass with a wavy lip and indentations for cigarettes. It had been Ron’s mother’s. It shattered on the floor. He yelled at them, he sent them to their rooms. But hours later, he was over it. Kids will be kids.

Marcie had poured herself a large glass of wine; it sat before her on the kitchen table, though she no longer wanted it. She’d poured it when Ron left nearly two hours earlier. She thought it would help her pass the time. Mostly, she pet Sandy, who sat up every now and then for a quick scratch on the head before returning to her spot under the table.

When she first sat down in the kitchen, she brought the phones with her—the landline and her cell. Both had been ringing every ten or so minutes. At first, she answered the calls—on the other end was someone from Saint David’s, someone from one of the news outlets, or one of Joseph’s friends from school. Marcie listened only long enough to find out who was calling before she hung up.

Eventually, she unplugged the landline and silenced her cell phone.

She’d ignored Chelsea’s calls, too, opting to text instead. She knew that was wrong; she knew that what her daughter needed was somebody to talk to. But Marcie couldn’t be that person. She couldn’t talk about it to anyone else; she could barely wrap her own mind around what had happened. Chelsea could turn to her friends or her cousins; she had plenty of other people to talk to.

Marcie didn’t want her daughter to hear her voice. If Chelsea heard her, she would come running home. She’d hear the pain and the suffering, she’d know just how bad it was.

Chelsea was in Philadelphia; she was successful at her first big girl job, doing well in her first truly independent year. She had to concentrate on that, if she could.

A car turned into the driveway, then she heard the moan of the garage door.

Marcie shut her eyes, sighed, and took a few deep breaths, none of which slowed her quickening pulse. She heard footsteps that gradually became louder, then the door to the basement. It opened and closed. She thought her heartbeat might rattle her teeth. Marcie listened as her son climbed the stairs to the second floor and then disappeared into his locked bedroom. She had been so focused on Joseph’s movements that she hadn’t noticed that Ron was in the kitchen until he dropped his keys on the table.

“St. David’s is packing up his stuff. I’ll go get it tomorrow. He’s not allowed back on campus,” he said, sitting. He rubbed his hand across his stubble-covered cheek and up to the back of his neck where it lingered for a moment, as if he were massaging a knot.

“He hasn’t been charged with anything yet,” Marcie whispered.

“Still broke their alcohol policy. Arraignment’s in two days.” Ron sat at the table across from her. “He’s guilty, hon,” he said.

Marcie didn’t say anything.

“I talked to the arresting officer. I heard what the roommate saw, what the boy on his way to the bathroom saw. He did it.”

“Do we get him a lawyer?” Marcie whispered.


Both of them stared into the center of the kitchen table, into the swirling and uniquely patterned wood grain that looked almost like a hurricane. The table had been their first real piece of furniture; they bought it when they moved into the house, when Joseph was one and Chelsea was five. It had replaced the card table they’d previously used as their kitchen table.

Gradually, they’d replaced all their hand-me-down furniture with more unique yet humble pieces, but the table had always been their favorite. They liked the lack of uniformity in the grain, the one-of-a-kind quality it had. Now, the pattern was nothing more than something to look at: a distraction.

Ron moved slowly. He reached across the table not for Marcie’s hand, but for her wine glass. He pulled it to him, drained it in a few gulps, and placed the empty glass on the table. He looked exhausted and she felt the same. It reminded her of their trip to Disney World a decade earlier. Hours of waiting in line in the Orlando heat drained them of their energy, but they hadn’t realized at the time. They were surrounded by rides and characters, by games and distractions, and by their overjoyed children. It wasn’t until dinner that they noticed how tired they were, when the four of them sat down at a buffet-style restaurant and were too exhausted to stand once more for food.

Of course, this was a different kind of exhaustion. Marcie felt unbalanced and woozy—not from getting on and off rollercoasters all day, but from a monstrous shock to her system. She didn’t want to eat or drink. She didn’t want to move. She didn’t know what she wanted.

“He could get a public defender,” Ron said.

“I just don’t know why it had to be this,” Marcie said through gritted teeth.

She closed her eyes and swallowed, trying to push back the tears that she knew were coming.

“Why couldn’t he steal a car or something?” She was surprised to hear herself say it, but she kept going. “Robbery would be even better. He breaks into a house, steals something to pay for something, like drugs. There would be a motive. For virtually every other crime, there’s an explanation. Driving drunk? Stupid, irresponsible, perhaps alcoholic, needs rehab. Getting into a fight? Youth and pride. What does this tell us?”

“Marcie . . . ”

“No, I’m serious. What the explanation for this other than faulty morality?” she asked.

Ron shrugged. They were too tired.

When Marcie was in college, she learned what it meant to have been sexually assaulted. She discussed it with friends, with classmates in women’s studies classes, and later, with her own husband. For most of her life, Marcie thought she had been the victim of bad luck, not the victim of an assault committed by a vicious and entitled boy. He was her neighbor. She’d grown up in rural Pennsylvania, farm country. Her road was dirt, her elementary school had three rooms, and kids had free reign in the summers. There was a pack of them that traveled around together. Boys and girls, young and old, they roamed the cornfields and the woods, they rode bikes if they had them, and they swam in large streams. It was idyllic.

It happened first when Marcie was seven and Peter was eleven. There were maybe twenty of them swimming in the stream near the high school. It was the best place to swim—about fifteen feet wide and four feet deep in most parts, though there was one small area that was deep enough for doing cannonballs off the banks. Marcie didn’t have any swimsuits then; she swam in her underwear and t-shirts like the rest of the kids did. After it happened, she begged her parents for a one-piece swimsuit, thinking that Peter only did what he did because she’d been wearing the underwear and t-shirt. He’d cornered her, trapping her by the bank. Quickly, he stuck his hand in her underpants and stuck his finger inside her. She squirmed and gasped; he backed away smirking.

It happened again the next spring, when she was eight and he was twelve. They were walking home from school, alone; she couldn’t remember where the rest of the kids were that day.

“I want to show you something,” Peter said, and he grabbed Marcie’s wrist, pulling her toward a small wooded area beyond the road. When they were a safe distance from the road, lightly shielded by trees, he dropped his lunchbox in the grass. He looked her directly in the eyes as he undid the belt around his too-big shorts. Marcie was looking at his erection, but wasn’t quite sure what she was looking at. She just knew that something was wrong.

“Take off your shorts,” he said.

She didn’t move. He repeated his words and twisted the skin on her wrist—an Indian burn, they called them. She did it. He touched her and he touched himself. Until it was over, until Peter had uttered a loud and shuddering moan, Marcie kept her eyes closed.

She never told anyone what happened, not until college. She’d told Ron when they were dating, and she told Chelsea and Joe, right? She had told Joe. Ron thought they were too young to be hearing the story. Marcie argued that they weren’t; they were older than she was when it happened. They needed to know. Not to be afraid of people, not to avoid boys and friends. They needed to know so they could understand that even people who were class president, who were loved by everyone in town, who went to college in Erie on a wrestling scholarship, could be capable of doing something life-altering.

Joseph’s arraignment on Wednesday was brief. So brief that Marcie was concerned when he and Ron came out of the courthouse as quickly as they did. They walked through the parking garage with another man—the public defender—between them, talking rapidly to Joseph.

Ron hurried around to the driver’s side and wrenched open the door. “Not guilty,” he muttered after pulling the door shut.

Marcie was surprised she didn’t cry; maybe she had nothing left, no more energy.

She glanced out the car window and looked at Joseph. It was cold again, and windy. Joseph’s hands were in his pants pockets; the hem flapped in the wind a few inches above his ankles as the lawyer talked at him. He hadn’t worn the suit since his Confirmation. She didn’t look at her son when he got in the car. She didn’t say anything to him.

“Anyone need to stop anywhere?” Ron asked, trying to make their situation seem normal.

Neither Marcie nor Joseph said anything.

Joseph was in the paper the next day. She read the article, she couldn’t help it. When she was done, the paper went into the recycling bin. But throughout the day she saw glimpses of the newsprint. She was reminded of details, the same details that the police officer told her and Ron before they left the hospital. That Joseph’s roommate, Connor, who was nameless in the paper, had come into their dorm room around four that morning. He thought he’d just walked in on his roommate having sex until Joseph jumped from the bed and started to run. Connor noticed then that the woman, a fellow St. David’s student, wasn’t moving. Connor charged after Joseph, tackling him in the floor’s lounge. Joseph’s head went right into the corner of one of the wood-framed couches, immediately knocking him unconscious. Another nameless boy saw this incident as he walked to the bathroom. The article also mentioned the Rohypnol in the woman’s system, and that Joseph was drunk and combative when he was taken to the hospital after he woke up.

Ron was at work, Joseph was upstairs making no noise, and Marcie didn’t know what to do with herself. She sat in the living room with a book open on her lap, Sandy on the couch beside her. She couldn’t watch TV, she couldn’t bring herself to cook or clean, but she tried to read. She’d picked up an old Steinbeck novel that she loved, but she found she was simply staring at it, reading the first paragraph over and over. The way he described the scorched earth—cracked, red, and dry—made her think of the sandbox they’d built in the back yard and how baby Joe would sit in it for hours with a truck and a shovel, she and Ron hovering around the outside trying to get him to keep the sand in the sandbox. Steinbeck’s romantic descriptions of fading grass and vegetation made Marcie think of the summers spent outdoors, their walks and vacations, and their meals in the back yard. Even when the author mentioned corn, she thought of Joe’s last few years of high school when he worked on a nearby family farm. Was this how it was going to be? Would every detail of her life remind her of her son’s, of everything that he used to be, everything that he could have been? She snapped the book shut when she heard a car in the drive. There was no point in trying to escape; she couldn’t.

Sandy was by the door now, her tip-tapping toenails dancing on the hardwood.

A key turned in the lock. There were only a few people with keys to the house, but Marcie didn’t bother to guess or look out the window to see who’s car sat in the driveway.

It was Chelsea. When she entered the house, Sandy rolled over and whimpered, but her daughter barely pet their beloved dog and walked swiftly over to Marcie instead.

“You came,” she said to her daughter. But she couldn’t stand up, she couldn’t greet her properly. She let Chelsea bend and hug her, her long hair sweeping forward from under a knit beanie on her head.

“How could I not?” she asked. She quickly followed that with another question. “Where is he?”

“He’s in his room. He doesn’t come out when we’re around.”

“Do you knock on the door?” Chelsea asked.

“No. Ron tried on the first day.”

“Does he talk to you?”


“Have you tried?” she asked.

“What am I supposed to say?” Marcie asked her daughter.

But Chelsea didn’t have an answer. She tossed her bag and coat on the floor and sat on the other end of the couch. Sandy sat between them. Again, Marcie couldn’t cry. She could barely move. She just looked at her daughter, her first born, who was a much more rebellious child.

She pushed the boundaries, she sat in timeout and sang and laughed, she probably broke the ashtray. She was the kid Marcie worried about, yet here she sat, the kid who came to the rescue.

“I don’t know if I want to be around him,” Marcie said. Her voice wavered, shook slightly.

Chelsea remained quiet.

“I just keep thinking about the articles and what the cops said. I can’t stop thinking about the poor girl.” Marcie stopped speaking for a moment, but upon hearing her daughter’s silence, started again. “Should I want to be around him? Should I want to talk to him about this? What am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know what you’re supposed to do,” Chelsea whispered.

“Did we do something to him? Did I? Did I not teach him what respect was?

Did he think he was so—entitled?”

“I’ve been asking myself the same questions,” Chelsea said.

Until then, Marcie hadn’t noticed how red her daughter’s eyes were, how the skin was red and puffy. In comparison, the rest of her face was pale. The skin at the corners of her lips was peeling, enormous bags sat under her eyes. She hadn’t looked like this in January, the last time Marcie saw her daughter, when she went to Philadelphia. She was a young professional who was full of exuberance for her work. She wore makeup and pencil skirts, she did her hair and walked with a stride that came with years of professional experience, not months.

“You shouldn’t be worrying about that,” Marcie said. “Of course you didn’t do anything.”

“I’m his sister, how could I not think of it?” she asked, stroking Sandy’s head.

“None of us did anything.”

“So, what? It’s random? I raised a criminal after all?”

It was the first time she’d said the word—criminal. Her son was a criminal. Someday, he’d be in jail. The truth of those words felt overwhelming, oppressive, stifling.

Chelsea shrugged. Sandy hopped off the couch and went to Marcie, resting her head on her legs.

That was the night Chelsea spent outside her brother’s room, the night she knocked on the door and begged to talk to him, the night he ignored the one person he had never before ignored.

Marcie didn’t wake her up in the morning. She went to the kitchen where she made coffee and ate a bagel with the dog by her feet. She put the leash on Sandy and took her for a short walk. She didn’t notice the kids of things that she typically would have, like the buds on the trees or the finches whose feathers were turning back to the summer gold from their winter brown. Instead, as Sandy pulled at the lease and sniffed everything she could, she thought of Chelsea sleeping in the hall, the tips of her toes nearly touching her brother’s bedroom door.

She had been nervous when she had Joseph. She’d wanted to have kids closer together, closer in age, but it hadn’t worked out. Her second pregnancy had turned into a miscarriage. She and Ron had only wanted two kids and, had it not been for the miscarriage, they never would have had Joseph. He was their little blessing, she and Ron often said. But still, she worried. Two children, two different sexes, four years apart—the fights would be inevitable. But they didn’t happen. Joe played with blocks and Legos in Chelsea’s Barbie Dream House. They watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They hung out with each other’s friends and talked daily. When Chelsea went to college, they talked on the phone several times a week. They were inseparable.

When they returned home, Sandy retreated to her crate for a nap.

Despite being three, she still slept there; she still had a proclivity for tearing up pillows and getting into the garbage while they were either out or asleep. Marcie left her shoes by the door and walked to the kitchen in her socks. Chelsea was at the table, staring at the same swirling knot in the wood. Her knees were pulled to her chest and she sipped coffee from her favorite mug, the one with the Penguin’s logo on the front. She looked like she did the night before—exhausted.

“He’s gone,” she said. The mug hovered a few inches from her mouth. “I tried the door when I woke up. It was unlocked. His wallet is gone; I can’t tell if anything else is missing. He left his phone and computer. He must’ve snuck past me.” Chelsea didn’t look at her mother while she spoke, not even when she handed her the pad of paper that was sitting beside her.

It was what Marcie frequently wrote her shopping lists on, white paper with “Giant Eagle Pharmacy” on the top in red letters.

I’m leaving

I’m safe

I’m sorry, it said.  

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