“We did good didn’t we, babe?”
“We did great, in fact, I’m up for round two of ‘great’ if you are.” His eyebrows wiggle mischievously as he pulls me close to him, and I can’t help but take a swing at his arm. Really. Can’t help it.
“That’s not what I mean and you know it. The dunge- basement.”
“In that case, we did fantastic.”
“He’ll love it?”
“Absolutely. You know he will. Ready?”
I’ll never forget the way Bean’s eyes light up as he takes in his basement-dungeon-game room. For a moment he stands there slack-jawed in his awe with tears of joy gleaming in his eyes as he tries to take in everything at once. Never one to be under-impressed, or just simply ‘impressed,’ our eldest son has been rendered speechless by our awesome decorating skills. Finally, meek as a mouse: “F-for… me?”
“For you.” Berjes affirms and the spell breaks.
“This is amazing. This is perfect. Oh wow look at th- is this a- it is! And all of the-…”
For five minutes Bean races from one wall of the room to another. Picking everything up and putting it down, gushing over every item – from the ceiling to the pencils – and then being distracted by the next. I feel… Proud. Berjes and I have worked tirelessly on this for the last month, not letting Bean have so much as a peek until we were sure it was ready and seeing him so excited makes it all worth while. Inspection complete, Bean somehow manages to throw his arms around my growing ego and squeezes me tightly.
“Thanks mom, this is awesome! I can’t wait to have my friends over.”
And that last sentence was the best part of it all.
I won’t say that I thought Bean didn’t have any friends. He and Maebe did homework at the library together sometimes, and he spoke of a couple of other kids at school, but he’d never brought anyone to the house, never asked to go to someone’s house, never got invited to parties and never sat with anyone on the bus. He never seemed lonely though, and at parent-teacher interviews his teachers never expressed any concerns and they assured us that he got along great with his classmates but hearing from his mouth that he was inviting friends over? That might’ve just been the most wonderful thing I’d heard all month.
Making friends is not a problem that Jack has at this stage. Oh no, when he looks at you with those big gold eyes, you can’t help but melt into a helpless puddle. He’s got all of us – mom, dad, brother, babysitter, maid, aunts, uncles, cousins – all of us, wrapped around his itty-bitty little finger. He’s just such a good little baby, always in good spirits, never lashing out and hitting or grabbing or getting grumpy. A perfect little angel, and best of all, he always slept through the night. Like a rock, he slept, snoring little baby snores.
Friday afternoon, school had let out half an hour ago and the bus had dropped my son and three children onto my lawn before driving away as the kids burst into my foyer. My first impression of the quartet makes me feel about as young as they are, as I take them in and immediately brand the less-than-fashionable group ‘nerds.’ Being a nerd is cool now though, right? Or is that being a geek? Bean introduces them quickly as they run past me to grab a snack before they begin their inaugural session of P&P. He points at them one at a time, while calling over his shoulder: “That’s Jeremy,” a shy, plump child who looks far from comfortable in the group and always seems to be looking at something that isn’t there. “Maebe,” is jumping up and down with excitement, blabbering a mile a minute and almost running into walls. ” and Eric.” wears meticulously cleaned and pressed clothing and that wide-eyed expression I see so often on Bean’s face.
It sounds like a herd of elephants, trampling down the stair case and then a family of monkeys, chattering about how cool the basement was. Once they quieted down I dared peek in on them, all dressed as princesses, princes and knights, rolling dice and discussing their character sheets. Perched at the top of the stairs I listened in as Bean unraveled a tale about a mystical world that sounded so uninviting that I was curious to know more. He gave a detailed description of a ramshackle township before Lord Eric the Orc, Captain Jeremy the Werellama and Princess Maebe the Elven Battle-Mage meet to take off on their first goblin-slaying adventure. They don’t take a breath from their ‘campaign’ until dusk draws near and then Bean’s friends say their goodbyes in order to be home before dark, and curfew, fall.
The next morning, the kids are back bright and early. In proper Saturday fashion I’m not out of bed yet and Berjes and Jack are downstairs watching television. Not weekend morning cartoons, as would be appropriate for a toddler, but my husband’s TV obsession – Cookin’ Cable. Jack doesn’t mind though, he doesn’t seem to mind anything, happily going along with anyone’s plans just like a good baby should. He picks up on everything too. He may not know the words to any of the stories I read him, but he’s pretty much reading along with his father when he gets tales like “Eggs Machiavellian” and “Cheesesteak.” And when it comes to taking after his Momma? He does that too.
Ever since I started back at work I’ve fallen back in love with music. My music. The music I wrote when I was pregnant, the songs I wrote with Jackson for The Mighty Huge, back in high-school and even the ditties, the simple little melodies from my childhood. As always, it’s the piano I’m drawn to, the harmonies flow smoothly while I sit on my worn bench, fingers gliding over the keys. Sometimes I hammer out a simple beat at the drums but for my music, I won’t touch the instruments I work with. Approaching the guitar or bass in my free time feels like going to the theatre on a concert night, stomach in knots at the threat of someone being sick. Of me needing to perform. Down in the basement, no one experiences performance anxiety. Fearsome monsters roam my home now, joining the prancing nobility in an endless quest for imagination.
“I use my Firebreath against the Giant Lobster and turn it to stew! … Fail. Darn!”
“The Lobster’s armour reflects your Firebreath, causes you 1d6+…3 damage, causes Bean and Jer… 1d4 damage each.”
“I use Overgrowth to and ensnare the Giant Lobster! … Only 4 damage? This guy is too big for us, Maebe.”
“I still don’t see why I had to be the pink dragon… This is lame. I wanna be red.”
“So you’re forfeiting your turn to whine? Giant Lobster attacks Jer-”
“Fine. Stupid pink dragons… I cast Calm on Giant Lobster… Success… and use my group heal necklace for… 2 points of healing each.”
“Giant Lobster is vulnerable to Nurture Magic, critical success… You put Giant Lobster into a deep sleep, he misses his next initiative. Eric?”
“Remember! He’s got Damage resist!”
“Right… I… Use my racial to gain an extra Movement – success – and search for physical vulnerabilities – success?”
“Success. Hold on… Physical vulnerability is… uh… right here! Between the head and back plates, exposed during sleep.”
“Yes! I use my second turn to cast level 3 Claw Rake… Critical success!”
“You slay the Giant Lobster only to hear a familiar keening… Another Giant Lobster crests the sand dune, and this one is ENRAGED!”
With little fanfare, but delicious cake, Jack’s birthday rolls around. In the backyard, the four of us gather to celebrate with delicious cake. Jack drinks in the attention we offer him, as he gets cuddled and cheered for by each of us before Berjes scoops him up and leans him over the cake. We’ve been teasing him with tastes of the icing all afternoon and he’s eager for more – almost spilling out of his daddy’s arms when he leans in to blow out the candles.
I barely have a moment to drink in the sight of my baby bow, all growed up, before he and Bean rush to the living room for some video games. For the rest of the evening cheers and jeers echo through the lower part of my house as Jack brings out the rambunctious, boyishness of his big brother. I’d expected life with boys to be loud, and up until this exact moment in time I’d been mistaken. Now, I fear the noise is just beginning. The battle really begins at bedtime, as I try to coax them away from their game and up to the bathroom to brush their teeth. Pleas for one more level, another round, another half hour, five more minutes come fast and furious as Berjes and I herd them up to bed and it takes two bedtime stories before they climb up into their beds. “Not tired” they had claimed, but both were out before their heads hit the pillows.
I walk through the nursery and realize that there’s no baby in the crib. For the first night in years I won’t be worrying about whether there’s a dirty diaper or hungry mouth in the other room. A wave of bittersweet emotion sweeps through me as I think of the past and how time flies and how much future is still in front of me and my family. With a final smile into the room as I plan it’s next phase, I take a last glance into the boys room, flick off the light and head to bed, where my husband is waiting.“How ya doing babe?” He murmurs as I enter the room, holding his arms out for me. As I slide into them and relax against him I tell him what’s been going through my mind since Jack blew out his candles. Berjes’ lips press to my temple “If you’re missing having a baby… that can be arranged.” I deliver a swat to his arm as I shake my head and snuggle in closer.
“Not unless you’re doing the ‘being pregnant’ part this time… Although I wouldn’t mind…” He catches the look in my eyes and we dive under the covers.And just like that, both of my boys are in school. First thing in the morning the climb the steps onto their bus and disappear from my side until they get home from school or I get home from work. The apprehension in Jack’s face on his first day was clear but with his brother at his side he acted brave and plastered on a smile. For the first time, Bean smiled on the bus as well, waving cheerfully to us as he pulled away, with someone finally filling the seat next to him.
Jack has fully embraced school life, signing up for after school activities and taking every opportunity presented to him to pursue his own interests. He’s even begun dragging Berjes away from the kitchen to fish with him in the park across the street. Berjes hates it, the fishing that is, but fully enjoys the chance to bond with our son. They use it as a time to talk through things and it’s a great way for both of us to gain insight into both of our boys. Jack doesn’t hold back when it comes to secrets and it was during one of their afternoons in the sun that Jack opened up not about his life but Bean’s.
“Do you remember how we were concerned about Bean and school?”
To me, Berjes’ question is totally out of the blue and I look up from my breakfast and eye him quizzically. “We were worried about how he was getting on with the other kids and then we met his friends and realized he was doing just fine… Remember?”
Berjes frowns at me, making me feel like I’ve missed the point, and then tells me what Jack had told him at the park. Apparently, the other children in his grade had made the same snap judgement about Bean and his friends as I had when they first walked through my front door. Not the popular kids. Geeks. Nerds. Weirdos. They were outcast from the rest of their class, picked on or shunned alternately, depending on how the alpha-kids were feeling that day. Jack promised us that it was “never too bad… really…” They never got roughed up or had their lunch money taken but they were being bullied. My son was being bullied and I’d had no idea.
Most kids, especially the ones that were causing my boy trouble, would have called what Jack did ‘tattling’ and insisted he was just trying to get them into trouble. Those kids don’t know Jack. Jack never does anything unless he believes whole-heartedly that it’s the right thing to do. He would never try to get anyone into trouble, he would always try to get someone out of trouble. Jack will walk old ladies across the street who are perfectly happy where they are, only to be thanked profusely on the other side. Jack gives every cent of his allowance to charity. Need I say more?I go to work with much effort. I would much rather march over to the school and talk to Bean’s teacher, or classmates, or principal or the janitor… Anyone who’ll listen. But I know I need to talk to Bean first. That doesn’t stop me from imagining all the things I want to say to those kids parents while I softly play along with the concerto being practiced on the main stage. As I lose myself in the notes, it’s almost lost on me that for the first time my job is soothing my nerves instead of fraying them… Except I think I hear Monika sniffling…
Upon our return from our respective work places, Berjes and I find Bean in the basement working hard on the next part of his adventure. He doesn’t look up from his writing as we invade his space, or as I draw a chair up beside him.
“Bean, can we talk to you?” No response, just furrowed brows. “Carter?”
“Can we talk to you?”
“Hm. Sure, yeah.”
He still doesn’t look up. Hardly glances at me or his father as we tell him what we’ve been told. Just shrugs. When we ask if he has anything he wants to say about it, he just shrugs again. We don’t get any input until, as I stand and move the chair back where it belongs, I tell him I’m going to arrange a meeting with his teacher and principal to discuss it. Then he pays attention, looking up at me with wide eyes.
“You don’t need to do that. Don’t do that.” Noting the frown on his parents faces Bean sighs. “Please? It’s OK really. I don’t want to be friends with them, they say stupid things and think they’re better than us ’cause they can play sports or whatever. Please?” I can see that he’s hurt by the ‘stupid things’ that they say, it shines in his eyes but so does his resolve.“So you really don’t care what those guys say ’bout you?”
“I told dad, he told mom, and then I listened in when they talked to you.”
“But seriously, you don’t care?”
“‘Course I do. A bit. Only a bit.”
“Maybe if… Uh… Maybe if you and your friends weren’t so…”
“So what, Jack?”
“So… I dunno, Bean. Maybe if you guys pretended not to like the things you like then the other kids wouldn’t know and then they would be nice to you and be your friends and invite you to their birthday parties!”
“I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“Besides, I don’t wanna pretend not to like P&P”
“Oh. OK. Sorry, Bean.”
“Sorry for telling mom and dad too?”
“S’OK too.”It did seem to be OK. I monitored Bean carefully for signs of discontent. I kept a firm eye on the history on all of our computers and I’m only slightly ashamed to say that I’ll listen in on bits of his private conversations now and then. Truthfully, Bean seems just find. Happy with his friends and never too grumpy about going off to school. That’s not to say he’s not happier to come home, but what kid isn’t? Maebe, Jeremy and Eric are over most days now, and all weekend too, since Jeremy has started up a third game, Lightening Bug, a game based after their favourite TV show.
I’d been briefly concerned that Jack’s ‘interference’ would hurt the boys relationships with one another, but so far it seems as though nothing can do that. Jack loves the dress-up chest as much as Bean and his friends do and every pillow fight in the house is punctuated with cries of “en garde!” and other pseudo knightly phrases. They run about the house with hardly a care in the world – especially for my breakables – and why should they, when the biggest threat to their happiness is the mean kids at school?
Growing up in Sunset Valley, for me, was different, at least once the kidnappings began. I was pretty sheltered from the news all along, but you always looked ’round corners and kept an eye over your shoulder in case someone was lurking, but for the kids? The curfew has been in place for nearly fifteen years now, it’s all they know. Nothing’s open after dark, so they’re home and that’s how it is. Except it’s not anymore.
“So you heard the news? … No, not that news … She didn’t! … Nope. … About the curfew of course! … I know, it’s so exciting. So I was thinking – … No. … No! … *laughing* No again! … We’re going to throw a New Year’s Eve party. Ring in the New Year, after dark, with everyone! … Whoever decides to join us … It usually is … Hope to see you there! Kisses to the kids … You too … Uh huh … Bye now … Uh huh … Of course … I will … Sure thing … I really have to – … OK … Yeah … Really now? … Oh! Jack fell down the stairs gotta go bye!”
As the party draws near it’s a rush to get the house in order. Sure, we have a maid who comes daily, but she spends more time brushing her teeth and playing on the computers than she does cleaning toilets, and trust me when I say she’s the best we have. For once though, there is an eager participant. For Jack, cleaning day is like a party in and of itself. He walks around with a grin and a bounce in his step as he clears plates, tidies shelves and dusts the curtains. If he didn’t come out of me and didn’t have my eyes, I would swear that he could never be my son. Not this slob’s.