by Christopher C. Smith
I was confused. I hopped sideways and swiveled my head to see who he might have meant. And there, behind me, was a tall olive-skinned girl with shoulder-length dark brown hair and smiling chestnut eyes. I squawked in surprise. My sister! And tailing her was an older, dumpier version of herself.
No, that’s not fair, I thought. They may look alike, but Sara is nothing like Mother.
“Hello, Ben,” Sara said with a shy half-grin.
I hopped back to my keypad as Sara pulled up a chair and my mother rounded the table and took the doctor’s seat.
“Dr. Roberts told me he was going to meet you here,” Sara explained softly. “You’re not easy to get hold of these days.”
“I’m a hawk. It’s not like I need my own apartment.” It wasn’t a lie, per se, but it wasn’t really the whole truth, either. I hadn’t really wanted to be gotten hold of.
“I don’t think you really wanted to be gotten hold of,” my mother said hotly. She glared at me from under eyelashes caked with mascara.
“That’s ridiculous,” I typed. For once I was glad of my expressionless face and my voice synthesizer’s boring monotone. It makes lying a good deal easier.
My sister flashed a warm smile that said she didn’t believe me, but she understood anyway. My mother just snorted self-righteously.
I eyed their very businesslike gray suits. “Dressed for court?”
She nodded. “Mom and I decided to come support you.”
I made my laughing noise again, trying to make it sound derisive this time. I wasn’t very successful, of course, but they got the idea. “I don’t seem to remember you being very supportive last time we spoke,” I said to Mother in my mechanical drone.
If I’m Perdix, I realized, then Mother is the Daedalus of this story. She’s the one who pushed me off the tower.
She sneered. “I told you not to do this. I told you it was illegal and it would ruin your life, not to mention mine and your sister’s. But you did it anyway. You went behind my back, without even telling me. How did you expect me to react?”
“I’m eighteen, Mother,” I said calmly. “I can make my own decisions, and I don’t have to tell you about them if I don’t want to.”
“I’m your Mother,” she whispered sharply, as if that made her the queen of the world.
I stared dispassionately at her. “What do you want from me, Mother? Why are you here?”
She frowned for a long moment, then her expression softened. “I want you to come home.”
Her jaw dropped, and then she looked at Sara and shook her head. “I told you. He’s not sorry at all. It doesn’t bother him one bit. Everything I sacrificed, eighteen years of scraping and scratching to keep my family fed and clothed, not to mention the trouble of giving birth to him in the first place, and this is the thanks I get? Blatant disobedience, and then he walks away forever, screaming about what an adult he is, when really he’s acting like a child.” It’s an annoying habit of my mother’s to talk about me as though I were not even there.
Sara looked at me with a frown and nearly whispered, “You knew we wouldn’t be able pay the bills without your call center paycheck.”
“Is that what this is about? You want money?” I wished birds could roll their eyes.
Sara said, “No,” but Mother took the opportunity to launch into another tirade.
“That’s another thing. We were barely making ends meet with your help. Now I’m running up the credit cards, and the neighbor is helping me advertise all over the Internet for extra seamstress work but there’s only so much work to be had and I only have so much time, and your sister is applying all over kingdom come but she’s only sixteen and no one hires sixteen-year olds anymore. And all the while you’re out looping and corkscrewing in the clouds as happy as a lark, like you don’t even care that the rest of us are down here working our asses off just to make ends meet!”
My mother was horribly over made up, so that her bright red lipstick just called attention to the fact that her mouth was running all the time. Her curls bounced and shook as she bobbed her head in a dignified huff. It would have been comical if it weren’t so maddening.
I chose the most hurtful words I could think of. “If you can’t pay the bills by yourself, maybe you shouldn’t have kicked Dad out.”
Sara was horrified. “Dad cheated on her!”
My mother’s unnaturally dark eyebrows bunched together angrily. “Don’t be stupid, boy. Your father treated me like garbage, and he slept with two different women that I know of, and the first time I forgave him but the second time was just too far, and when I told him to get out he didn’t argue, didn’t plead, didn’t ask forgiveness, didn’t even want to stay. He left of his own free will, you better believe that. And it certainly wasn’t my fault he left.”
I cranked up the volume on my keypad. “Maybe if you hadn’t driven him out with all your endless nagging all the time, he wouldn’t have left!” I regretted the words almost as soon as I had typed them, but I wasn’t about to take them back. She was a nag, and it only got worse after Dad left. I hadn’t wanted to stay when she kicked me out of the house, either, so I could hardly blame my father.
My Mom looked at me with a blank, defeated expression on her face. Sara studied me with the stern sort of frown that was about the most severe emotion that ever interrupted her normally cool demeanor. Emotional withdrawal, I thought. One of the first skills you learn when you live with a nag. Even as you judge me, Sis, you prove me right.
“Turn the volume down, Ben,” Sara finally said. “People are staring.”
She was right. They were staring. And from the expressions on their faces, at least some of them guessed at my identity as Ben Johnson, that boy from TV. Icarus. The dead boy. I glared back at them until the last of them turned away.
When I turned back to my Mother, I found an empty seat. She walked slowly away, her shoulders slumped. Now Sara cried, angry for real. I backed away a little. I’d never seen her so angry.
“You’re just like Dad!” she choked through a sob.
“Is that supposed to be an insult?” I typed hesitantly, unsure if this was a fight I wanted to pick.
She growled. “You have such a twisted view of everything! How can you blame Mom for Dad leaving? He’s the one who slept around!”
“She drove him to it. And then she kicked him out. It wasn’t Dad’s fault.”
“Mom only started to go crazy after the first time he did it.”
“Mom was always crazy. You just don’t remember, ’cause you’re younger.”
“Dad wanted to leave. He didn’t love those other women. He only slept around so he wouldn’t have to be the one to break it off. So Mom would get mad and kick him out. Because he didn’t have the guts to tell her to her face that he didn’t love us anymore.”
Now it was my turn to get angry. I hopped up and down and flared my wings a little. “You’re wrong!” I typed. “Dad loved us! It was Mom he couldn’t stand. She’s the one who drove him away.”
“If Dad’s such a stand-up guy who loves us so much, why has he never once tried to contact us since he left?”
I didn’t have an answer for that. It scared me a little. “Because he doesn’t want to have to see Mom,” I attempted.
“Does he hate her so much more than he loves us? So much that he can’t bear to stand the sight of her even for a few moments while he picks us up and drops us off? So much that he can’t call, or even write?”
I didn’t answer. She was right. Dad didn’t love us.
She glared at me with an intensity I didn’t know she was capable of. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe Dad left because he didn’t want to take care of his crippled son?”
My beak dropped open. No, I thought. “No!” I shouted. Except that in my anger I forgot I don’t have lips or a tongue anymore, so my attempt at speech just came out as a frustrated squawk.
Sara nodded grimly as if I had conceded her point. “And you’re just like him.”
I used my keypad this time. “Am not!”
“You are. You wanted to get away from Mom too, but you didn’t have the courage to face her either. You didn’t want to take responsibility for your actions. So you disobeyed her, you went and got yourself turned into this, so that she would kick you out too and you could blame her for it.” The disgust in her voice was unbearable.
“You have no idea what it’s like to spend your life in a wheelchair. You know I’ve wanted to fly for a long time!” I protested.
She nodded gravely. “I remember. All those days on the back porch, watching the birds and wishing you had wings. You know what else I remember? I remember it started right around the time Dad left. You didn’t want to fly, Ben. You wanted to fly away. Like father, like son.”
“I did want to fly,” I insisted. But what she was saying scared me, because it rang true. Is that really why I did all this? To escape responsibility? To get away from my mother? To follow in the footsteps of my adulterous father? Did that mean I was a terrible person? That Dr. Roberts was putting his career on the line to help a stupid, selfish teenager run away from home? That all this talk about fighting for my right to choose was a load of bull?
The right to be an asshole and abandon your family is more like it, I thought miserably. But no. This wasn’t for nothing. Dr. Roberts believes in the cause, and he won’t regret fighting for it even if he finds out what an ass I am. Maybe he does know it, I realized. After all, he set up this meeting with my family today, and gave us privacy when we needed it. Is it possible that he knew this about me and decided to help me anyway? I wouldn’t put it past him. Dr. Roberts is a good man. A very good man.
Sara surely couldn’t read my facial expressions, but she seemed to know she was getting through to me. “Mom loves you,” she said quietly.
“And I love her too,” I typed, a little tremblingly. And to my surprise, I realized it was true.
“Come home with us.”
I thought about that for a long moment. There were plenty of reasons not to go home. “There’s no way I could help pay the bills anymore, not as a hawk. My bank account’s almost dry, as it is.” Quietly I feared that if I couldn’t help around the house, Mother might decide she didn’t want me there after all. And having just discovered that I still loved her, I didn’t think I could handle that kind of rejection.
“Mr. Anderson does falconry. Maybe he’d pay you to spot for him when he goes hunting. Or maybe the police could use you. It’d be cheaper than a helicopter, right? There’s gotta be something useful a hawk can do. We’ll think of something together.”
But there was another, even stronger reason I couldn’t go home. “Dr. Roberts gave up so much to give me this freedom. If I go home now, and admit all this was a mistake, what will he think? It would be like pissing on his sacrifice.”
“How do you plan on making it worth his trouble? Fly around the world in forty days? You can fly at home just as much as you can here. It won’t dishonor anyone to be with your family.”
Almost I was convinced.
My mother approached the table again. Her vigor seemed restored, but a dark expression clouded her face. Sara looked up hopefully. “Mom forgives you. Isn’t that right, Mother?”
“No, I don’t.” She turned her back on me. “Come on, we’ve got a train to catch.”
Sara jumped up with a worried expression on her face. “But the trial! Don’t you want to support your son?”
“I don’t have a son.” My mother walked briskly away into the crowd. Sara looked at me helplessly and hurried after her.
Well, that takes care of that, I thought. What was I thinking, considering going home with that nasty woman?
But there was a lump in my throat that made it difficult to swallow my lunch.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher C. Smith