Every Sunday during Mass, Grace stared at little Noreen Baransky—at her swollen joints and wasted limbs, her bulging, watery eyes, the discolored fingernails. Grace wondered what was wrong with her. Maybe a rare chromosomal disorder with a complicated Latin name. Sometimes her eyes strayed from the girl’s wan profile to her son Aiden’s sweet—though sullen—face. He wouldn’t say the recitations unless she handed him a hymnal, and she had to prod him to kneel. At least he could kneel. Noreen usually stayed hunched between her parents, her chapped skin mottled an odd hue by the sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows. Forgive me, Grace prayed sometimes after receiving Communion, forgive me for being thankful she’s not mine.
It was Noreen’s mother who explained the little girl’s condition on the first day of Sunday school, a mild September morning. Noreen had been assigned to Grace’s class. A hole in her heart kept her blood from being properly oxygenated—hence her purplish skin, which wasn’t a trick of the stained glass as Grace had assumed. Up close, the girl’s breathing rattled like a faulty steam radiator, and there was something sour about her expression. As her mother talked, Noreen picked at one scaly elbow and regarded the other children at their kidney-shaped desks with a faintly proprietary air. Her gaze settled on Aiden, who sat in back. Promise, he’d said, no goofy names, no kissing hello, no hint they were related (they were new to Venice Beach and Grace had started using her maiden name, which worked in his favor). He had an image to maintain, he told her. An image, in third grade. She had almost called Barry to say, Can you believe our son? But she wasn’t ready to be friends just yet.
“I want that seat.” Noreen pointed at Aiden, who didn’t budge.
“That one’s empty.” Grace gestured to a desk up front.
Noreen’s skin flushed a shade deeper; her chest heaved. “Mom, why won’t he move?”
“Please. She’s not supposed to get upset,” Noreen’s mother said. Harriet, she’d asked to be called, but the assumed complicity in her request annoyed Grace too much for informality. Where was the sympathy she should feel for someone with such a sick kid?
“You can sit up here,” Grace said to Aiden, biting back the “sweetheart” she’d normally add. He scowled but moved.
Noreen’s mother helped the girl settle in, then beckoned Grace into the hallway. “Her inhaler’s in her backpack. If she feels faint, there are fruit rollups. Here’s my number, just in case. I’ll pick her up here after class. She’ll want to go to the playground with the other kids, but she’s got to conserve her energy.”
Grace felt like she should be taking notes. She must have looked nervous because Noreen’s mother said, “Everything should be fine. Really, she’s a sweet girl.”
Back in the classroom Grace walked to the blackboard. “Welcome, I’m Ms. Cole,” she said as she wrote her name. Behind her, an insistent humming rode an undercurrent of whispers.
“Let’s quiet down,” she said. The whispering stopped, but not the humming. Grace turned. The children were darting glances at Noreen, whose head was on the desk. She hummed loudly as she thumped her heels against the chair legs.
Grace walked over and touched her shoulder. It felt bony and insubstantial, so unlike Aiden’s body, which was a coil of muscle and energy, constantly flexing.
“Noreen, we’re starting.”
The girl looked up. “Sorry.” She put her head down again. Her heels kept thumping, but at least she’d stopped humming.
The other children, including Aiden, kept looking from Grace to Noreen. Grace walked back up front and smiled. “Let’s talk about things we’re thankful for. Open your books to page three.”
They all did, except Noreen. Grace ignored her. Better to pick battles wisely.
After Sunday school, Grace and Aiden worked on the playhouse in the backyard. She had been planning it since they’d moved in three months ago, after the separation. Aiden slumped on a wood pile while Grace set up the table saw. The floor was done, a sturdy rectangle of two-by-sixes topped with plywood. The walls were next. Almost all the two-by-fours for framing them were cut and stacked in four piles. With the saw in place, Grace arranged the other tools in a neat row. She had always been the handy one, who finished what she started. The orderliness should have pleased her but didn’t.
“It’s all dusty and hot back here,” Aiden said.
“Since when do you care?” she said, although he had a point. The scruffy lawn was more dirt than grass, and the beds overflowed with weeds. But fixing up the yard felt like she meant for them to stay. Maybe they would. Neither she nor Barry had much desire to reconcile. “Once we finish the playhouse, it’ll be nicer.”
“Can I play Wii?”
“No, but you can check how many more two-by-fours we need.”
He groaned but started counting wood. She knew he would prefer a tree house. He had cried when she’d said they couldn’t take his, a slapdash affair (typical Barry) mounted in the magnolia behind their Topanga Canyon cottage. Her playhouse would be an improvement, with a bark-shingled roof and shutters for privacy. Something to make this clammy rental house feel more familiar to Aiden amidst all the newness: new school, new friends, newly separated parents.
“One more piece,” he said, finished counting.
“Coming up.” She placed a two-by-four on the table saw.
He scuffed his heels in the dirt. “Dad lets me cut stuff.”
“You’re eight. This thing’s heavy, and dangerous.”
“That’s what you always say.”
He looked just like Barry when he frowned.
“OK,” she said, “but only if I help.”
Together—her arms around him, her hands steadying his—they cut the final piece. The end clattered to the ground.
“Told you I could do it,” he said.
He paraded around, bowing, happy for once. She couldn’t help clapping. Immediately he stopped. Still, he picked up the two-by-four when she asked and helped her carry it to the piles.
Halfway there, he stumbled and dropped his end.
“Ouch!” He wouldn’t unclench his hand when she tried to look.
“Let me see.” She coaxed open his fingers. A large splinter protruded from his thumb, the grayish tip embedded in the skin. He flinched, but she held his hand firmly and plucked. “Done,” she said and held it up.
Like that he was glaring. “I never get splinters with Dad.”
Of course you do, she almost said. That and worse. She had memorized the number for urgent care and had learned to dread whenever Barry proposed a new adventure: skateboarding in empty swimming pools or biking down the steepest mountain trails. Worrying invited disaster, Barry said if she objected. They couldn’t live their lives expecting the worst. And the worst happened anyway, he would say now. Their family was in ruins.
She pointed Aiden toward the house. “That needs soap.”
“Dad would rinse it off with a hose.”
“I’m not Dad.” She could see him getting impatient, but there was an order to things he had to understand. “Your thumb could get infected if we don’t clean it and then you’ll have to go to the doctor. Now move.”
Suddenly he stomped his foot. “Leave me alone!”
Before she could stop him, he ran into the house and slammed the door.
Jealousy, not faith, had driven her to join Saint Timothy’s.
It was early on a hot summer Sunday a few weeks after their move. Aiden had planted himself by the living room window half an hour before Barry was due. “He’s here!” he shouted when the car pulled up, and then he ran outside without saying goodbye. Still carrying her coffee mug, she hurried after him and stopped him on the porch for a fierce hug that made her slop some coffee on his backpack.
“Mom,” he protested.
“I’ll miss you.” She waved like crazy as he slid into the passenger seat and the car pulled away.
Back inside, she tried to work. She was a landscape architect with her own small practice, and there were always blueprints to draft. She drew and erased and checked the clock every few minutes. They could be bungee jumping or racing Quarter Midgets. No, even Barry knew better. More likely they would drive up to Malibu so Barry could teach Aiden to surf. No matter what they did, Aiden would come home pulsing with excitement. Maybe this time he would announce that he really, really wanted to live with Dad and she shouldn’t mind since then she could stop worrying whether he’d cleaned his room or finished his science projects. Dad was better at science anyway.
She fled to her car and drove aimlessly before heading for a coffee shop, straight past Saint Timothy’s. She had passed it before, its stone façade like her childhood church back East. This time she found herself veering into a parking space. The Sundays of her childhood, daydreaming beside her parents in a pew. The security of her own innocence.
Inside, she sat in back. The prayers were so familiar she could recite them without thought. Then the march to the altar for Communion, the wafer stiff and flavorless, dissolving quickly, along with her anger at Aiden, at Barry, at everything.
She returned every weekend that summer until the priest who said High Mass greeted her by name afterward. It seemed natural to respond to the request for Sunday school teachers at summer’s end.
“Why do I have to go?” Aiden demanded the night she announced that she’d enrolled him. He was already in bed, the covers pulled up to the belligerent jut of his chin.
She leaned against the doorjamb. Because you might like me again if you see that other kids do.
“You can’t make me,” he said.
“Wanna bet,” she said and flicked off the light.
“Who can define agapē?”
Hands shot into the air. It was the third week of Sunday school. The children had proven to be bright and eager. She always brought snacks and played at least one game. To her relief, the material was more ethical than religious: offer forgiveness instead of revenge, be thankful for the gifts you receive.
The boys still hung back (Aiden scowling among them), but the girls crowded around her before class, vying to be her helper. Noreen, though, sprawled across her own desk as if too weary to sit upright. Which could be true.
The other kids liked Noreen. She had a way of telling stories—“Missy’s new dog is as big as a pony,” she might start out, her eyes wide with conviction—that made her classmates listen eagerly. And they jumped to help her, fetching tissues or a sweater when she sniffled. A far more generous response than the resentful clench in Grace’s chest.
Noreen’s hand with its oversized nails waved in response to Grace’s question.
“Noreen, tell us what agapē means.”
“It’s when someone’s mouth opens real wide, like this.” She stretched open her purple lips until the other children giggled.
“That’s ‘a-gāpe.’” Grace kept her tone neutral, although Noreen’s grin made her suspect the flub was intentional. “You were supposed to read about a-gap-ē for this week. Can someone else define it?”
“How come we get homework in Sunday school?” Noreen’s voice was muffled, her head buried in her arms. The children were silent. No one raised a hand.
“We’re learning about how God loves us. That’s worth some effort.” Still no raised hands. She settled on Aiden, who was coloring his book jacket. “Aiden, maybe you can help.”
“Teacher’s pet.” The words were a hiss, barely audible, like a swift breeze off a frozen lake. The classroom filled with titters. Aiden flushed. His eyes flew to Noreen, who had laid her cheek on her arms. Her purplish scalp showed through her thin blond hair.
“Noreen—” she said and saw Aiden shake his head. But she would reprimand her regardless of whom she teased. “There’s no name calling, Noreen.”
Noreen looked up with wide eyes. “I didn’t say anything.”
“I heard you—”
“My dad says there’s no God,” Aiden burst out, his gaze fixed on his book. “He says there’s nothing in the sky but the solar system.”
My dad, as if she didn’t know who that was.
“Everyone’s entitled to an opinion,” she said curtly to Aiden. “Now, please read us the first paragraph on page eleven.”
The classroom was quiet except for pages rustling and Aiden reading aloud the definition of unconditional love.
She finished the playhouse over several weeknights and Saturdays while Aiden was with Barry. Inside she put a battery-operated lantern and a crate of Aiden’s favorite comic books bookended by beanbag chairs. As a favor, her crew cleared the beds and planted a fledgling olive tree that would eventually cast a comfortable shade.
The day of the unveiling she covered the playhouse with a tarp and waited by the living room window for the school bus. It was unreasonable to expect much reaction, but she couldn’t help imagining how Aiden would hug her and grin like he did when Barry’s car pulled up. Their old tree house listed and was furnished with sleeping bags. Still, she used to have to coax Aiden and Barry down after a night spent eating corndogs and making shadow animals with flashlights. “No girls!” they shouted if she climbed up to check on them; then they pelted her with corndog sticks.
The bus was late. As she stepped outside to check for it, it rounded the bend. Reflexively she waved, then realized her mistake. Aiden didn’t want her waiting outside. Some Sunday school kids went to his regular school and rode his bus.
Aiden got out and stood by the curb until the bus pulled away. Once it turned the corner, he trudged up the walkway, past her into the house. She followed him to the kitchen.
“How was school?”
He opened the refrigerator. “They all saw you.”
“Everybody has a mom, Aiden. So what if kids know I’m yours?”
He kept gazing in the refrigerator. Maybe he was ashamed of her.
“I’ve got a surprise,” she said.
He looked over. Finally, a grin.
She made a production of the reveal, blindfolding him, guiding him out back, where she uncovered his eyes and swept off the tarp.
“Ta-da!” she said.
He stood staring.
“It’s not like ours at home. I mean, at Dad’s house,” he said. “Thanks, though.”
He walked inside and sat carefully in a beanbag chair. She watched him and tried to smile.
Noreen’s mother was late again. Grace read a magazine while Noreen sat at her desk. Aiden drew on the chalkboard. Usually he ran ahead and waited by the car. But Noreen’s mother had been arriving a little later each week. She was always flustered and apologetic. Maybe this was her only time to herself. Still, Grace disliked the idea of Aiden alone in the parking lot for who knew how long.
“Why is he still here?” Noreen sounded peevish and tired.
“She’s driving me home,” Aiden said before Grace could answer.
She turned pages and eyed the children. Aiden focused on his skateboard drawing, but Noreen kept peering at him from the nest of her arms.
“My birthday party’s Saturday,” she finally said. “You can come if you want.”
“Nope.” Aiden glanced at Grace. “I mean, no thanks.”
Noreen’s mouth pursed in a tight frown.
“Cheryl Myrtle thinks you’re cute,” she said. “Lanni Errico, too.”
His ears flamed. Grace pretended to read. Poor kid.
“Oh yeah?” he said. The flush spread to his neck.
Noreen stared. “I think you’ve got a big nose.”
“Noreen, be nice,” Grace said.
“What does she know?” Aiden said, still drawing. “She’s butt ugly.”
Grace’s mind whirred, searching for any thought other than the one—God, yes—that filled her head. Noreen’s hands were clasped tight enough to whiten her purplish nails. How many taunts had it taken until she learned to be so different that other children’s stares hurt less?
“Aiden Keenon, apologize!”
“But Mom, she started it—”
“She’s your mom?”
Noreen’s eyes darted between them. Aiden gaped as he realized what he’d said. He looked miserable. Grace half-stood, but he had already turned away to scribble tight, dark circles across the skateboard, the chalk shrieking.
Fall turned to winter. Noreen started waiting in the hall for her mother. A cluster of little girls, including Cheryl Myrtle and Lanni Errico, took to waiting with her. They all went to Aiden’s regular school, as did Noreen. Every Sunday the girls peered into the room at Aiden. Grace could never quite catch what they were saying. Slime Eyes, maybe. Potato Nose. Aiden didn’t race ahead to the car anymore now that everyone knew his secret. Noreen had made sure of it. Instead, he drew on the blackboard (witches riding fiery broomsticks, monsters with talons and bulging eyes) and frowned at the door, which Grace longed to shut but couldn’t. She had to keep an eye on Noreen, whose expression turned angelic whenever Grace strolled over to eavesdrop on the little girls’ whispered conferences.
There were phone calls, too, in the early evenings, a few in quick succession with giggles on the other end. Once, when Aiden beat her to the phone, he listened, then shouted, “I’m not!” She couldn’t help snatching the receiver. “Stop calling here,” she said and hung up, but not before hearing a piping voice (not Noreen’s, but probably a girl coached by her) chanting, “Mama’s Boy, Mama’s Boy!”
She told Aiden that this was how girls acted when they had unrequited crushes. They got silly and mean but eventually they stopped. “I could have her class switched,” she said. “Or call her mom.”
“No!” he said, so loudly she flinched. “Can’t I spend Sundays with Dad, like when you first made us leave?”
“Dad and I agreed together—” She stopped herself. “Look, honey, she’s a sick little girl who wants your attention. Try to be the bigger person.”
“I gotta finish my homework,” he said, this boy who fought for every last minute of playtime, and he trudged to his room.
She shouldn’t have been surprised when the principal started calling. She should have suspected Aiden would act on his frustration. This teasing was new. He had been well-liked at his old school. One day he was sent to the principal’s office for shoving an older kid. Grace gasped when she saw his swollen eye. “He started it,” was all he would explain. Another day he sneaked into the main office at lunchtime and shredded half the papers on the secretary’s desk before getting caught. Another day he jumped from the top of the jungle gym. “They’re only bruised,” he said about his ribs when Grace yelled that he could have gotten a concussion or broken an arm or worse. He shrugged when she took away his Wii privileges. “Dad’ll let me play his,” he said. It wasn’t true—Barry had been equally worried when she’d phoned—but just his saying it made her wonder.
The principal called late one afternoon to say she thought Grace should come see what Aiden had done this time. Grace made it to school record fast.
Aiden sat in the main office with two bigger boys who stopped poking each other when Grace walked in. Aiden stared at the floor. He looked pale and frightened. She crouched beside him.
“Honey, are you OK?” she asked, but he wouldn’t look up.
Someone coughed by the doorway. Noreen stood holding a “restroom” placard. Her shirt cuffs didn’t reach her bony wrists. She stared at Aiden.
“That was mean,” Noreen said to him. She frowned, her expression suddenly fierce. “But it doesn’t change anything.”
“Leave me alone,” he muttered.
“What’s going on?” Grace asked.
The principal—a brisk, decisive woman—emerged from her office. “Noreen, you shouldn’t be here.” She guided the child into the hallway. When she returned, she gestured to Grace. “Let’s see your son’s handiwork,” she said and led Grace outside.
There it was on the kickball field, chiseled into the dirt:
“Noreen sucks cock.”
The e’s were crooked, the s’s squat and sluglike, like Aiden’s. Beneath was a remarkably accurate rendition of Noreen’s bulging eyes and toothy grin.
“He doesn’t even know what this means,” Grace said. She clutched the chisel the principal had found, the handle neatly labeled with Grace’s own initials. The playground was deserted, as if everyone had fled the ugly taunt.
“Some fifth graders told him what to write,” the principal said, “which doesn’t excuse him. They’ll all have two weeks detention. Frankly, Aiden’s getting out of control. Something needs to be done.”
Grace nodded. This was her fault. He had been oozing anger and hurt for so long. Noreen was an easy target. Grace followed the principal inside. She had to help him.
A week passed, then another with no phone calls from school. The principal had recommended a therapist. Aiden didn’t talk much during his first two sessions, which the therapist said was normal. He was also quiet at home, but in a peaceful way, as if he’d resolved an interior battle. Grace grounded him for a month and took away his television and computer privileges. Even so, he seemed content to sit with her in the evenings, reading or doing homework. One night she woke to find him curled against her, asleep.
Her decision to fix up the house and make it feel more permanent also could be helping. Kids needed a secure environment, the therapist had emphasized. So, the weekend after the playground incident, she started planting a garden. Wires strung with bougainvillea crisscrossed the fence in a hatch pattern, and she punctuated the beds with succulents and grasses hearty enough to withstand the winter chill. Rose bushes, spiky and denuded of buds, filled the back bed, where eventually they would flourish in the southern exposure.
The next weekend, early Sunday morning, she tackled the sprinkler system. A few heads needed replacing, as did a length of leaky pipe. Next she used wire mesh and stakes to fence off a patch for vegetables. She and Aiden had planted vegetables every year since he was big enough to hold a spade. He loved watching the plants push through the dirt. Last year he had set up a stand and sold Armenian cucumbers and snap peas to the neighbors. They could plant this garden together in spring. He would be feeling better by then, more like himself. They both would.
She had just finished the fencing when she heard the front door slam. It was early for Aiden. Barry usually returned him at the last possible moment, right before they had to leave for Mass and Sunday school.
Aiden entered the yard.
She brushed off her knees as she stood. “What’re you doing home?”
“Dad wanted to go out for brunch. I didn’t feel like it.” He wandered to the potting bench. “He was meeting some girl.”
It wasn’t surprise, exactly, that rocked her backward—this moment was inevitable—more a piercing jab of grief, and resignation. If she felt this way, what about Aiden?
“It’s good that your dad has someone to keep him company,” she said, carefully. “You must feel strange, though.”
He shrugged and started scooping potting soil into a container.
“Wanna talk about it?” she asked.
She wanted to hug him, but his shoulders looked so rigid. She settled for touching his hair. “Later, then, when you’re ready,” she said and went to rinse the tools behind the garage.
As she was finishing, she heard a guttural cry and a cracking sound. She ran back to the yard. Aiden was attacking the olive tree with pruning shears. Silvery leaves rained down as he chopped viciously.
She grabbed him, but he jerked away.
“You’re not even trying to fix things!” he shouted and kept chopping.
She bear-hugged him, but he was strong, so much stronger than she’d thought, and they fell to the ground, wrestling, and she felt a blade slice her palm, feet kicking her thighs, an elbow in her gut, winding her, bringing tears, and then she wrenched away the shears, rolled onto her back, still gasping, her wounded hand an excruciating pulse.
“I hate you!” Aiden yelled, his voice muffled by his arms.
“I hate you too!” she spat and immediately kneeled beside him, trying to pry apart his arms, her bloody hand staining his sleeves. “Oh, baby, I didn’t mean it—”
He curled away from her.
Late that night, when she couldn’t bear watching the clock anymore, she wrapped herself in an old robe of Barry’s and wandered outside. The stitches in her palm itched as she contemplated the playhouse. Inside it was comfortable, orderly. Totally unappealing to an eight-year-old boy. She eased open the door, felt her way to the lantern, turned it on. There in a beanbag chair was Aiden, his knees pulled to his chest, his face hidden.
She settled on the floor and hunkered close. Then she heard him, so quiet, so defeated and old: “We’re not going home, are we?”
The church’s winter festival buzzed with people hawking prizes at game booths and children screeching on whirling rides. Sizzling oil prickled Grace’s hands as she drizzled funnel cake batter over the fryer. The night air filled with a yeasty swoon that almost made her forget her stitches, which still itched after a week. Whenever kids from her class ran up to her booth, she gave them an extra funnel cake. A few boys walked over to where Aiden sat drawing at a nearby picnic table. He brightened as he spoke to them, but when they gestured to the rides, he shook his head and huddled over his drawing pad as if he couldn’t risk enjoying himself. He’d barely spoken to her all week.
She piled some funnel cakes on a plate and walked over after the boys left. Aiden’s drawing pad swirled with colors, in the middle a small dark figure, arms extended as if in flight. She sat on the bench and offered him the plate.
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“You should go explore with your friends.”
“Don’t feel like it.”
“When Mrs. James takes over, let’s do the basketball toss.”
She slid closer. “Honey, things seem bad now—”
“Why are you sitting here?” said a nasally voice.
There beside them stood Noreen, bundled in a heavy winter coat. She hadn’t been to Sunday school since the playground epithet. Her mother had been gracious when Grace phoned to apologize. “At least no one got physically hurt,” she’d said. Grace’s face burned thinking about the conversation. She wasn’t sure she would have been as forgiving.
Aiden started scribbling on his pad. Grace stood.
“Nice to see you, Noreen,” she said. An excusable lie. “Would you like a funnel cake?”
Noreen regarded her seriously. “I’m not allowed. Anyway, I’m talking to him. Want to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl?”
Aiden kept drawing. “Nope.”
“The Flying Saucers?”
“The Shrieking Snake?”
He glared at her. “I’m not!”
“Prove it,” she said, an odd smile twitching her livid lips.
She was behind everything, Grace understood with a sickening jolt. The shredded papers, the jump from the jungle gym, each dare more outrageous to prove he was no Mama’s Boy but the opposite, his father’s son. The slur carved into the playground must have been his attempt to rebel.
“He’s not proving anything—”
“Anybody selling funnel cakes?” she heard behind her.
“Hold on,” she called. Aiden slumped over his pad and chewed his lower lip. She fixed on Noreen, who considered her with those unblinking, owlish eyes. “Stay away from my son.”
“You can’t tell me what to do.” Said with a phlegmy hiss. How gratifying it would be to shake those puny shoulders.
There was a crash behind them, a startled shout. Grace whirled around. A man with a huge pot belly stared into her booth, where the fryer hung by its cord dripping oil. Funnel cakes littered the ground. The man sheepishly held one up. “Sorry,” he said.
“Stay here,” she said to Aiden and ran to pick up the fryer. She looked back at the picnic table.
Aiden and Noreen were gone.
Grace dashed from the booth, calling Aiden’s name. He couldn’t have gotten far. Her thudding heart left her wheezing. She pushed through the crowd searching for Aiden’s face, Noreen’s with its purplish glow, but they were nowhere.
At the fair’s outskirts she paused, gasping, at a soccer field. Bleachers loomed in the field’s floodlights. On top stood two small forms, one sturdy and straight, the other hunched in a puffy coat.
Then she was running again, her limbs horribly heavy, as if she were struggling through glue. Even her shout—“Aiden, don’t!”—sounded sluggish. The figures joined hands and jumped, hanging in the air forever, it seemed. Later, after the surgery that removed Aiden’s spleen and repaired his punctured lung, after Noreen’s fractured fingers and arm were set in casts, her left knee braced while the pins settled into place, after Grace leaned over Noreen in the hospital to hear her whisper, “We floated,” after Aiden was home, pale and wan in his own bed, miles away from the boy he used to be, she would sit in the playhouse in the dark hours of the morning, those two suspended figures imprinted on her brain, along with the feeling of her own aching, shattered heart.