It feels like less than five minutes before Lee’s wall is complete. A seemingly endless, featureless barrier locks the Clarke family in while keeping the rest of the world at bay.Where there once used to be a sweeping view of the bay below, now dense stacks of stone blot the horizon, an eye-sore broken only by a tiny, locked gate. The voices that used to filter into the neighbourhood, raised and angry, have fallen silent as if everyone within is whispering, if they dare speak at all. Alone, at the end of the road, a sad, solitary fortress.
Things have changed drastically: Despite the imposing rock walls rising above their heads, Berjes and Bean are no longer so trapped within their home. Each morning Bean bounds from the house with excitement and enthusiasm, eager to get to school. There’s not another child in Sunset Valley who is so happy on Monday mornings. Lee watches from the living room window, shaking with fear and genuinely expecting shadowy hands to pluck her eldest son from the path. This was her concession, Berjes allowed her to build the wall on the condition that Bean return to his classes. Each minute that he’s not home is unbearable to Lee, all she can do is imagine the worst, and she finds herself calling the school any number of times a day, just to make sure he’s in class.
Being back out in the wide, wild world – even for a couple of hours a day – is joy for Bean, he feels like he’s breathing again. Outside the walls surrounding the walls of his house, colour and life exist. Each day when the bus lets him out front the gate he descends the steps as slowly as he can, plodding reluctantly across the sidewalk and narrow strip of grass until he had no choice but to wrap his fingers around the cool wrought iron bars and push his way inside. Each day, and on Friday’s especially, he feels as though he’s resigning himself towards his imprisonment.Never the best student, Bean’s far behind in his studies. He tried so hard to keep up while he was locked away but facts and numbers have never stuck in his head for long (unless you want to know the critical strike damage of an NPC goblin rogue, armed with a twice imbued Broad-Dagger of Draining) and he might as well be reading English for all he’s understanding. Each afternoon Berjes meets his son at the front door and they move to the nearest open space to battle away at his homework. Berjes wasn’t top of his class either but with Bean’s head so far in the clouds, his energy is wasted and Bean isn’t bringing home any grade higher than a B-… And that’s with his teachers taking pity on him too.
Berjes has taken over pretty much every responsibility in the house; from instructing the maid (thank everything that is good, for the maid) to cooking and helping with school work, paying the bills and continuing to field any questions about Jack’s disappearance, he’s running himself ragged. Even still, he does it with a smile on his face. A sad, strained smile, but sometimes, when he’s slaving over a hot stove, it’s a real smile. There are rarely leftovers on the table at dinner-time when Berjes and Bean sit down with one another to enjoy their meal. Each day is something fresh and tasty and every now and then when he’s had a chance to catch a half hour show on Cookin’ Cable, there’s something new. When he cooks, Berjes finally feels like he’s resting. Measuring and kneading, stirring and mashing, none of them feel like actual work to him, and that’s a blessing for a man who has become a single father, essentially overnight.
While Berjes and Bean chat about their day over the dinner table, Lee’s food lies cold and abandoned on the desk she’s installed in her studio. It’s been ages since she did anything other than spend her time in there, she hasn’t checked the mail or called any friends. She hasn’t asked how her husband’s or son’s days were, in fact, she’s hardly spoken a word to either of them, except when she whispers “stay safe” as Bean heads off to school in the mornings. When her breakfast, lunch, or dinner have been delivered to her she hardly acknowledges it’s presence, never mind the hand that holds it. Unless her subconscious takes over, she doesn’t eat.
From morning ’til night, sorrowful melodies weep through the building as Lee pours her all her heart and anguish through the instruments around her. Some songs she plays once, others – the tunes of loss, guilt, loneliness, fear, hopelessness – are played over and over until they are fine-tuned to Lee’s soul. She can’t possibly to talk with anyone about this, she doesn’t really have words anymore. Her entire being is full of emotion, overwhelming her and taking over her mind so that when she tries to verbalize her pain it crashes through her at breakneck speed, leaving her an absolute wreck. Intense emotion, she can struggle through, but she cannot cope when she has to really remember and really identify what she’s feeling.
Her sheets of music become her diary, filled with notes instead of letters. In each crescendo, adagio and harmony she releases, ever so briefly, the hurt in her mind and body. The pages of her therapy fall across every surface, gathering in corners and slipping under furniture. Some compositions lie unfinished or a sole page long, while others – the ones called loss, guilt, loneliness, fear and hopelessness – are bound together with staples, folds or proximity. In the solitude of the music studio, Lee leans on her piano, bass, drums and guitar for support while her family holds on to each other, strangers in the same prison.
Inside the warm embrace of their home, Berjes does everything he can to offer Bean a normal life. The house is haunted by the ghost of his mother, who walks the halls in an unseeing daze and by the memories of his missing brother. Sadness seeps through the walls yet day after day, night after night, Berjes and Bean chase away the darkness by continuing to live as best they can. Bedtime stories resume, most often read by Berjes but sometimes his son takes over, and in the stillness of the night they escape the world they live in to some imaginary place of magic and adventure. Wrapped in the comforts of the master bedroom, with his father’s voice echoing through the images dancing in his mind, Bean often falls asleep tucked into the side of the bed that used to belong to his mother. Her scent no longer wafts up from the linens as they’ve been washed many times since she last shared a bed with her husband and with Bean in her space, somehow the house feels less like a shell and Berjes can sleep easily, knowing no harm will fall upon his son. When the wall went up around the house, it placed a divide between Berjes and Lee as well. To him, she became as hard as the stones that encase them, as unyielding and unresponsive. There was no discussion, just change. She lugged her belongings down the steps and into the room she could never bring herself to visit before Jack was taken from her. Wrapped tightly in her mother’s own blankets, surrounded by the memories of a time when everything was safe and happy, Lee sleeps apart from her family, just as she lives her days.
In the stillness of the night, feeling confined, Bean often slips silently from beneath the duvet – either of his own bed or his father’s – and tiptoes across the floor and up the stairs to the highest point of the house. Settling down on the bench at the top of the turret, Bean can look out over the walls and pretend that they don’t exist. Alone in the night-time, away from curious eyes, Bean allows himself to miss his brother and his mother, his friends and his freedom. Quiet tears run over his cheeks as he reminds himself that all that has happened isn’t his fault. He couldn’t have stopped whoever stole his Jack from his family, he couldn’t have bargained to go in his stead, he cannot bring his mother back from wherever it is she has retreated to. And yet… He feels like he should have done all those things, that he’s failing by not being able to repair the family he broke.
Before long, Berjes can’t pinch anymore pennies. Both he and Lee have been out of work for so long dealing with the crisis at hand that funds have run short. With great reluctance he begs for his job at the diner back. First thing in the morning he’s out the door in order to flip pancakes and make omelets for the people of Sunset Valley. He pushes through the morning rush, the lunchtime crowd, and finishes his shift with just enough time to get home and shower before Bean steps off the school bus. This is the job he hated before but now that it’s saving his family from financial ruin he can’t help but appreciate the opportunity and put his all into it. His hard work does not go unnoticed; along with his skill and experience, Berjes begins to once again move up through the ranks within the greasy restaurant.
As Berjes literally slaves over a hot stove, his wife remains locked in her own world, strumming her guitar until her fingers bleed, playing her drums until calluses develop. Nothing exists outside of herself, just her music, her emotions, her battle. She’s hardly aware of the sacrifices her husband is making on her behalf, where once she would have greeted him after a long day at work, listened to his frustrations and encouraged him to reach for what he truly wants, it’s now unclear whether she even knows that he is working again.
“Hey, loser!” the boy crows, much as he does every other day after the bell rings. “Heading home to your mommy?” Slowly, the bully and his flunkies force Bean into the lonely corner that has become so familiar to him. “Bet she doesn’t even want you to come home, does she, nerd?” His words cut deep and not because they’re overly harsh but because, to Bean, they ring true. “You’re so stupid I bet your mom and dad wish it was you who got kidnapped.” Behind him, his pals snicker, the rest of the school ignores the taunts and Bean is left to either withstand the endless barrage of stinging words or fight back. His hands ball into fierce fists and before he can do anything, one of the bullies is called over by their parents and Bean is allowed to escape to the school bus.
Troubled and isolated from both family and friends – how do you maintain a friendship when you can only see people in classrooms? – Bean is again retreating into himself. If it weren’t for Berjes’ insistence upon helping him with homework, none would get done. Once their afternoon ritual is completed, Bean rushes upstairs to find anything to distract himself from real life. He spends hours, gazing over the walls of his house and into space through the old, creaky telescope, imagining a different version of himself somewhere in a far away land where he is powerful and confident, where magic and fantasy collide into a world that is so much more than he can ever hope for in Sunset Valley.
When the universe becomes too lonely Bean retreats again, this time inside to the room he was born in, the one attached to his, the only room that still has any “Jack” left in it. No one but Bean and the maid use this room any more – the maid dusts and Bean hides away in his books, trying to feel the presence of his brother somewhere amongst the sun-faded fabrics. Lee never enters the room, all it holds for her are harsh memories, while Berjes no longer really sees the room. When he walks past, his gaze skips over the door to the nursery, it is a somewhat blank spot in his mental map of the house, his mind seems to be shielding him from the pain that emanates from the room. Only Bean uses it to remember his little brother, using their shared toys to be reminded of the good times they had.
It doesn’t take the best father in the world to tell when their son is miserable, and Berjes prides himself in being – at the very least – the best father he can be to the son that is left to him. He tries so very hard to socialize with Bean and to bring him out of his shell, but he knows that a growing boy needs more than just his father as his friend. He needs to play with other kids, kids his own age, the way he used to with his old friends.
“Hold on, dad! I’m thinking. Jeez…”
“Bean, do you think Eric may be able to come over sometime to help you with your homework? It’s starting to be just beyond me… Would you like that?”
Bean freezes in his seat, his eyes wide, and he stops thinking about the chess game in front of him. He will lose in five moves. He’s really wanted to have friends over, but somehow it just didn’t seem right to ask about it, never mind invite them by. Not with his mom like she is. Hope glimmers in those wide blue eyes and he starts bouncing in the chair with excitement. “Really dad?! Really really? That would be so cool! And Eric’s really super duper smart.”
With promises made, Bean makes his move. In five moves, it’s checkmate and Bean is bounding from his chair to call Eric.
“… so the mayors of Bridgeport and Starlight Shores signed the agreement and all sanctions were lifted and their economies rapidly improved!” Eric finishes his lesson with a flourish, standing proudly and waits for Bean to respond.
Eric’s shoulders fall and he runs a hand through his hair, massaging at a headache that’s beginning to build. “Seriously, Bean?”
“Well… Where did I lose you this time?”
“Lemme check…” Bean murmurs, flipping back in his notebook. One page, two page, red page, blue page. “Bridgeport is red, right?” he asks, indicating the colour coding that Eric meticulously set up for him.
“Seriously, Bean?!” Exasperation bursts from Eric before he can stop it, catching his friend by surprise.
“I’m sorry!” he pleads, looking up at Eric helplessly “I got distracted – I swear for just a second – ’cause I thought about how the mayors were like kings from Plumbobs & Pixies and when I tuned back in…” his arms flail above his head for a moment before he slumps in his chair, letting his forehead smack down amongst his notes. The rest of his words are muffled by their proximity to the paper. “Everything was all confused! I’m really sorry I’m so stupid.”
With a sigh Eric slumps into the seat next to Bean, patting his back awkwardly. “It’s OK, man. You’re not stupid, you just gotta concentrate. We’ll try again, K? I have an idea.” Once Bean has righted himself in the chair and is firmly focused on his work, Eric begins again. “Once upon a time, in the land of Bridgeport, the mayo- the king’s advisers began to plot…”Bean isn’t the only one who gets visitors, he just pays more attention to his… Believe it or not.
“Lee? Lee are you even listening to me?”
“Huh? Yeah… Yeah.”
“Lee. You need to snap out of this. I’m serious, hon. I’m worried about you, Adam’s worried about you. Conrad and Troy are worried about you. Conrad says he was here last week and you hardly said a word to him. Do you even remember him being here?!”
“Uh… I… Maybe?” Lee doesn’t even have the good graces to look sheepish.
“He was here for two hours and all you can say is ‘maybe’? You need to leave this room, Lee. You need to leave the walls you’ve locked around you and you need to start to live again. You’re not doing yourself any good. Not you, or Berjes or Bean…” Kaitlin pauses, uncertain if she should go forward, uncertain of how her little sister will react. “Or Jack. Lee, you’re not helping yourself or Jack if you stay locked away like this.” Holding her breath, Kaitlin waits. And waits. And waits.
At the sound of her lost son’s name Lee disappears. Suddenly she’s overcome by memories of carrying him home in her arms, his silky blond hair and sparkling gold eyes. His scent seems to envelope her and Lee’s eyes glaze over as Jack’s entire life begins to flash before her. Birth. Toddler. Talking, walking, learning to potty. Smiling. Giggling. A child. Running. First day of school. Laughing. Cleaning. Playing. Fishing. Hugging. Giving. Youth, exuberance, happiness… Gone.
By the time Lee returns to earth, her cheeks are crusted with tears she doesn’t remember crying, just like she doesn’t remember what set her off this time. Kaitlin’s gone, the sun is setting, there’s a beat on the palm of her hands itching to get out. She reclaims the drumsticks from where they lie on the floor (unable to recall dropping them when she lost hold of her senses), slides onto the stool and begins the complex tattoo of her hopelessness – frustration, atrophy, fear.
Finally, with some downtime, Berjes begins to attend to himself. It’s been just about a year of turmoil and grief. He’s lost a son and his wife but, he thinks and hopes, he has done right by Bean and as much as he could for Jack and Lee. The search for the missing children has petered out and so have interview requests and he’s done everything he could to bring Lee back from the edge she teeters on to no avail. He won’t give up hope and prays nightly for the reunion of his family, but when he’s not working and not taking care of anything and everything to do with his house, he takes care of himself.
Berjes re-immerses himself in his passion for learning new recipes, determined to read every cookbook he can get his hands on and then test the meals within. It seems as though there is a never ending list of foods; regional, vegetarian and something called ‘molecular gastronomy’ all designed to test his skills and patience.
Once Eric has been invited into the Clarke home, the floodgates opened and soon he, Jeremy and Maebe were back to spending afternoon after afternoon in the role-play-room that had been built for them. With a warm plate of cookies on hand they would grind through their homework, helping one another but especially Bean. Once their friendship had been given the room to flourish away from school, the trio had rallied around Bean – standing up to the bullies on his behalf (even if it meant they were all bullied more relentlessly than they had been before), helping him with homework and projects more than Berjes ever could (earning him his first A in history), and proving their loyalty at every turn.
Before long, even their weekends were filled with one another, joining Bean in adventures that took all four of them far from the closed in lot at the top of the hill in Sunset Valley.
“You’ve arrived at the edge of a small, walled, village. It’s only dusk but they have already closed the gates. It’s also the night before…” Bean’s eyes twinkle as he builds suspense, looking at Jeremy “the full moon!”
“Dun dun DUH!”
“It’s too late to find a place in town to lock-up the werellama and he is beginning to change. Jeremy, you miss two turns while your bones break and mend and hair sprouts from your elongating neck, k?”
“How do you proceed, Princess?”
Maebe and Eric whisper between one another, “I… I cast Calming level 2 on Jeremy… Add for dexterity and intellect… Success!”
“Jeremy stops thrashing about as violently and the changing process speeds up.”
“I sneak up behind him and toss a rope around him to bind his legs. Dexterity, stamina, strength… Fail! Uh oh…”
“A hoof smacks you in the face as you fall forward, breaking your nose and leaving you with black eyes… Minus two health, and you’re down an intellect for two turns and two charisma until our next game on account of your ugly orc face being even uglier!”
The quartet crack-up laughing, berating Maebe for refusing to learn any healing spells, and it’s another ten minute before play in underway again, as the Princess Battle-mage and Orc Warrior chase their Werellama friend in circles around the town, all while Jeremy runs through the basement howling and kicking up his legs.
If only the quiet, solemn, peace that had descended over the Clarke family could last. In a fit of either profound emotion or profound clarity, Lee takes it upon herself to at long last clear out the nursery. Bean is at school and she’s not sure where Berjes is (work) so other than the maid, Lee is alone at home. Her frantic energy tears around the upstairs room, moving from one task before the last is competed – dinosaurs and wall paper are torn from the walls with Lee’s own nails, toys are stored, furniture removed from the house, curtains pulled from their rods. As she works she screams from the effort and sobs from the memories, occasionally manic giggles of triumph echo off the stone clad walls. There is something therapeutic about the work, as if she’s cleansing her soul, yet she works ceaselessly because with each pause she takes, the emptiness she feels creeps back into her body and her relief lasts only as long as she works.
By the time Bean is home from classes, the nursery is barren save for boxes that Lee couldn’t find anywhere to put. He mounts the stairs to his room wearily, afternoons aren’t as fun when none of his friends can come over and he plans on reading an old favourite – if only he can decide which book to choose. Lost in his decision making as he is, he notices the change to the adjoining room immediately. Shock and then horror flow through him, and then rage. His angry scream fills the house and Lee comes running from where she is cleaning the grime of her day’s activities from her hands.
At the sight of her, Bean’s blood boils. He knows it was her and this was the last straw.
“What have you done!” He gestures wildly around the empty room that somehow seems both smaller and larger now that there’s nothing in it. “How dare you take this down without…” a sob hitches in his voice, but he forces it down the way his seething fury pushes away his tears. “Without having any right?! I liked it with stuff in it, and maybe dad too! You don’t get to do things here any more, not since you stopped being my mom. You’re just some person who lives here, you don’t talk to us about anything you don’t do anything but play your stupid music.” He spits out each word with disdain “You don’t care about me or dad or Jack or anything. You don’t ask me how my day was, you don’t say thank you for anything and now you wander in here and mess everything up??”
His tirade is endless and Lee stands meekly by, absorbing each word as a blow to her body. Without interruption he rants, letting out every word of his feelings of abandonment, exposing every slight – real or perceived – and making sure that he gets absolutely everything off of his chest.
By the time Berjes gets home from a late evening at work, Bean is petering off, but still the angry young voice pulls him up the stairs two at a time. He pushes into the room and stands still in the doorway as he takes in the room filled with boxes and his feuding family.
“Look what she did, dad!” Bean proclaims “Look what she did!” A brief pause hangs in the air for what feels like minutes, loaded with tension. “I HATE HER!”
“I HATE YOU!”
The words seem to bounce off the walls, over and over. There’s no doubt and certainly no remorse. A moment later Lee gasps a squeaky gasp and breaks the stillness. She rushes to the door as Berjes rushes to Bean, heading for her refuge while Bean quivers with his resentment. “I hate her!” He whispers into his father’s shoulder, over and over as his energy fades. He still does not cry and within twenty minutes he’s calm enough to dismiss Berges and begin working on his homework, all by himself.
As night falls, Berjes slips from the house and makes his way to Lee, checking on his wife for the first time in months. He finds her sitting at her piano, fingers flying across the keys as she plays the mournful melody of a new song, one that has only found her now. As Berjes stands, unnoticed, behind her, the notes tear through his very being because she’s playing his pain. Each chord strikes at the core of him, resonating within him as if she’s playing through him. Tears he didn’t know he had fall over his cheeks as Lee’s music caresses emotions he didn’t know he felt.
In truth, Lee plays her own hurt from a different angle, one with more anger than before. When Lee finishes, Berjes is standing there still as a statue, wondering at his wife’s skill. It doesn’t occur to either of them, even once their eyes meet, that they’ve shared this pain the whole time and that had they confided in one another, maybe they could have been of some help.
Lee rises from the worn bench with an unspoken question on her lips. What is he doing here? She can’t even imagine. The confusion is clear in her eyes, the message is clear and Berjes realizes how far they’ve drifted. Without thought, his hands reach out to grab Lee’s arms. He wants to shake her and bring her back to reality, but Lee’s already getting there. At his touch – the first shared touch in months – something in Lee breaks. She stares at him blankly while Berjes searches her face for answers. It seems like forever before Lee moves again – a shake of her shoulders, and then another and another and another. Her defenses crumble and she remains tethered to the earth through Berjes. Usually, this would be the part where Lee began to block out everything but now she remembers. Sobs tear through the fragile woman and she feels like she’s drowning. “He’s gone!” She gasps, falling into Berjes arms. “I miss him! He hates me. He’s not coming back.” Words tumble from her mouth, incoherent to Berjes but he holds her nonetheless, until her rambling stops, until her tears dry and her chest stops heaving. He holds her until she grows heavy in his arms.
Berjes spends the night with Lee, watching her as she sleeps soundly on the couch he lowered her onto. He brushes the hair from her eyes and wonders about getting a blanket from inside the house, but he’s scared that if he leaves the room the connection he feels between the two of them – the connection he misses so dearly – will fade and he won’t come back. Sitting behind the piano, he lowers his fingers onto the keys and with his limited skills picks out half-remembered lullabies until dawn.
In the weeks that come the repercussions of Lee’s redecorating stifle the house. Bean will not apologize for the words he said; he meant every one of them. Lee cannot apologize for her actions; Bean will not let her and she doesn’t have the words. Time after time she approaches him only to receive the cold shoulder, if he even acknowledges her again. Bean won’t talk about it and goes about his day as before – cheery when his friends are over, isolated when they are not and always as happy to spend time with his father as ever before.
Lee is struggling to re-enter the world around her. Still, most days, she spends lost in herself but for maybe an hour a day a couple of times a week she makes the effort. She tries to help tidy or will take out the trash or bring in the mail, if she passes Berjes in the hallway, she’ll attempt a smile, but no amount of effort will warm Bean towards her.
By the time Bean’s birthday rolls around, nothing has changed between him and his mother. Berjes had wanted to plan a party but all Bean asked for for his birthday, the only thing he was adamant about, was that Lee not attend. Despite Berjes’ reluctance, he passed on the message yet in the end, Lee did join them for the small celebration. While Bean readied himself for the next stage of his life, Berjes made enough noise for a party and Lee cowered in the corner, watching from afar.