When her son is nine years old, Sue Walker thinks for the first time my Kieren is different from the other boys. It's during a birthday party at William's house, a boy from school. Sue is pretending to enjoy chatting with the other mothers, sipping a glass of wine, while their sons kick around a football on the grass. But really she's watching Kieren, who has removed himself from the group, is aimlessly swinging a branch he's picked up from the ground, and is pacing around a lilac bush, his mouth moving gently as if he's quietly talking to himself.
No one notices him or seems to care that he's wandering alone. Sue is moments away from going to him, his loneliness an acute pain in her chest, to ask if wants to leave. Then Rick, Janet Macy's son, (such a cheerful, out-going boy, Sue thinks), pulls out of the game and joins him, his approach casual and easy, and Kieren lights up, his face all smiles and animation as they circle the bush together, round and round, and say whatever it is nine and ten-year-old boys say to each other when they are alone.
Sue's reverie is broken by Janet, who has sidled closer and is watching the boys as well, sipping her wine. "We should get them together more, Sue. Kieren is welcome to come by after school."
Sue looks over at Janet, a reserved, quiet woman (rather hard to get to know, Sue remembers thinking, and that proves true), then looks back at their two sons, giggling together over something Rick's just said. "They do seem to get on, don't they?" Maybe not so different from the other boys, after all, Sue thinks, and the pain in her heart eases, just a little.
When Kieren is thirteen, he asks for a paint set for his birthday, so Sue buys one, an elaborate box of acrylic colors and brushes, three small canvases, and a sketchbook. She nudges Steve to return the goalkeeper's gloves he's bought (Kieren has asked to quit football, hasn't told his dad yet). Steve takes them back to the shop and comes home with a small stereo for Kieren's room that he wraps up instead. It's been a long, trying year with Jem, but Steve does this without comment.
Sue wonders if her husband might not be noticing more than he lets on.
When the children were babies, Sue held out hope that they would inherit only the good stuff: be thoughtful, loving, kind, with Steve's sense of humor and his steadfast loyalty. But it doesn't really work like that, she knows. They get the other parts in there as well: Steve's endless worrying, her own dibillitating sadness, their shared inability to express themselves until too late.
Kieren comes home from the Macys one day, fourteen, lanky and awkward, growing so much this year (she can't keep him in trousers for a week, it seems). He's riled, Sue can see it, he's been crying but trying not to, his jaw is clenched and solid.
He slams the door, then storms past her in the sitting room, she's puttering about washing up and getting dinner ready. Her hands are full of spoons.
"Kieren?" she says. "What wrong?"
"Nothing, mum. Honestly." He is on his way up the stairs, and then she hears the door to his room slam, faint music start. She wants to go up, to press him to talk to her, tell her what's happened. She wants to, but she doesn't. Sue has never been any good at this bit, and Kieren wouldn't know how to talk with her anyway, obviously wants his privacy (she tells herself, over and over, for the many sleepless nights that follow).
Kieren doesn't go to the Macys anymore after school. Rick comes by sometimes, they do school work for an hour or two in Kieren's room, but Rick never stays for supper. Kieren doesn't cry again and Sue never asks.
Sue runs into Janet Macy at the Save 'n Shop one Saturday, several months later. She looks tired, and odd (Sue realizes later that it's because she's wearing a thick wool jumper with a high collar, and it's a warm day in August), but she stops her trolley for a chat, and Sue's glad.
"How is Kieren?"
"Becoming quite the artist, actually," Sue says. "Walls filling up with his paintings."
"That so? Well." Janet smiles, her eyes downcast. "I do miss having him round," in an undertone, like a confession.
"Hope he wasn't ever a problem for you," Sue says, close as she can come to asking what has happened to change things, to so upset Kieren.
"Oh not at all," Janet says, and then her voice drops even lower and softer. "I was thinking..." She looks round the aisle like a secret agent, so Sue does as well, unsure. They are alone. "Does your family have anything special on Thursdays?"
Sue's curiosity flares, but she restrains herself and simply shakes her head. "No, average boring school night at home, I'm afraid."
"Bill's night out, he don't get home 'till after ten."
"Ah?" Sue says.
"If Kieren even wanted to...well, maybe on a Thursday."
"Yeah?" Sue's not entirely sure what to make of this, but she knows her heart is beating hard and fast just looking at Janet. "Shall I have Kieren ask him round for supper next week then?"
Janet's eyes are sad as she smiles and nods and murmurs a faint, "Do that."
At home, later, Kieren is studying at the dining table as Sue does the washing up. Steve is upstairs getting Jem to bed. Sue's read an article that says to ask your children the hard questions when you don't have to look each other in the eye. So, now.
"Kieren," she starts, leaning back to make sure he can hear her, "was there ever any problem between you and Bill Macy?" It's quiet for a long minute after, only the sound of the water running into the sink.
Finally Kieren replies, not looking up from his work. "Why?"
"Saw Janet today, and just something she said." Sue scrubs the next plate, keeping her voice steady. "And you haven't been over there much anymore, so I was just wondering."
"Yeah, well, he hates me. I suppose that's a problem." Pencil still moving over his problem set.
"Why would he hate you?"
Kieren snorts, and Sue looks in at him. "Look at me, mum," Kieren says, throwing his arms wide. He's in his favorite black t-shirt, now peppered with holes from being so worn and a ripped jean vest covered with safety pins. He's used her black eyeliner again. "He just does."
Sue opens her mouth to say "Sweetheart, I'm sure you have that wrong," but then stops herself, thinks over what she knows of Bill Macy: his loud, bigoted talk at church, Janet's fear (because that's what it was, Sue sees it now), Kieren's angry tears and how Rick always leaves their house with plenty of time to get home before his father. She thinks about why Janet Macy might need to hide herself in a bulky jumper in the middle of summer. A shudder of panic passes through her (that bastard; how dare he) before she manages to speak.
"Well, sod Bill Macy then. Janet suggested we have Rick over for supper on Thursday," Sue says, trying to keep the furious shake out of her voice. "What do you say to that."
Kieren puts his pencil down then, looks in at Sue, his eyes huge. "She said that?"
Sue steals glances at Kieren for the next ten minutes as she finishes up in the kitchen, and he never stops smiling once.
Sue knows when Kieren starts sneaking out of the house. He's sixteen.
She's never been a deep sleeper, and between Jem's on-going struggles with confidence and Kieren's need to dramatically express himself, she finds plenty to keep her awake and fretting at all hours. She hears the squeak of the stairs and looks at the clock. One a.m. Steve is snoring peacefully at her side (which doesn't help her sleep, either, if she's honest).
She pops her head out of the bedroom and whispers, "Kieren?" just as the front door clicks shut. No answer.
"He's gone out, mum. He's done it before." Jem is standing in her doorway at the end of the hall in her nightgown, arms crossed in pre-adolescent indignance. "Took you long enough to notice."
"Do you know where he's gone?" Sue wraps her robe around herself and goes into Kieren's room to look out onto the street.
Jem sidles down the corridor. "Rick Macy swipes beer from his dad, and he and Kieren go off to the woods to drink it."
"Do they?" She looks both directions down the street, but Kieren is already out of sight.
"I think they might smoke as well. Is he grounded for life?"
"I don't think so, Jem."
"Figures." Jem pouts, shaking her head. "Perfect boy gets away with everything."
"Jem." But she's stomped back down the hall and into her room, shutting the door behind her.
Sue sits in the quiet of Kieren's room, stares at the new portrait of Rick he's finished and hung on the wall opposite his bed. Now what? Confront Kieren when he returns? Go after him? Pretend she doesn't know? Just go back to sleep? (That makes her laugh at herself, she won't be getting any more sleep tonight.) Safe enough in Roarton, but still.
In the end, she makes her way back to her bedroom, takes off her robe, and slides in next to Steve, who mutters and groans and turns over, cracking his eyes open.
"Where were you off to?" he asks, voice sleep bleary.
"Kieren's been sneaking out of the house," Sue replies as she tucks in next to Steve and he wraps an arm around her so that she is nestled into the crook of his shoulder.
"Has he?" Sue can hear Steve's appraising frown, even in the dark. "Well, good on him. Best nights of me life were had on a good sneak out."
"Steve." Sue laughs, bats him with her hand.
It's quiet for a minute, and Sue closes her eyes. Then Steve says, "You reckon he's got a girlfriend?"
Sue's eyes flutter open and she stares into the darkness. "No."
Steve is quiet, as if he's thinking of saying something, but when he speaks, he just says, "Nah, me neither."
And that's all they ever say about that.
It's such a little thing, just a split second of a moment in one ordinary day, but Sue Walker thinks about that moment over and over, for years, about what it means, about how it changes the meaning of everything that comes after. It's just below Kieren's collar at the base of his throat, peeps out when he stretches across the breakfast table for jam, just for a moment. Sue is sure she's the only one to see it; a small, dark oval imprinted on his skin, the kind she used to dab with cover-up after necking with Michael Corley, so her mum wouldn't see.
"Who were you out with last night, Kieren?" she asks quietly, head down to hide her blush.
"Just Rick, mum." Kieren jams two pieces of toast in his mouth and dashes out the door, late for school.
Sue sits and thinks and sips her tea.
Rick Macy leaves Roarton on a cool day in October.
Kieren had received his admittance to art school the week previous, the family had enjoyed a celebratory supper, and Kieren had started to assemble (far too early, but he's eager) what he'll need to live in a dormitory for a year. He and Rick had been out together every night since. (Shirley Wilson mentioned that she had seen the two of them in the village, looked like maybe holding hands even. She sounded so pleased as she shared this, though it makes Sue's stomach twist with worry; not everyone thinks like Shirley).
Sue is out in the garden, pulling in the tomato cages, when Kieren comes careening through the carport, face ashen, eyes red and swollen, looking around (could it be for her? she can't recall the last time he needed her). When he sees Sue, his face crumples, and she dashes over and he wraps himself into her arms and sobs, full body heaves, her shoulder growing damp with tears, her arms and back strained as she holds up her grown boy as if he were six years old again, and his goldfish has just been found floating.
She gets him inside once the initial storm passes. Jem has been watching from the window, looks on in mystified wonder at her big brother brought so low. It takes him a long time to get out the few sentences to explain that Rick had not showed up for a planned lunch, so Kieren had gone in search, and Bill had met him at the door and told him Rick had gone to Preston to start basic training and was never coming back.
Kieren posts a letter every morning. It's like a ritual: breakfast, clothes, walk to the post box, home, back to bed. He's sleeping long hours, since. Sue wonders what there is to write about every day, marvels at her son, at that deep loyalty that she had dreamed for him before he was even born.
Sue retrieves the family post every afternoon, in hope, but there is never a letter in return.
(It's years later, after everything has happened and Bill is dead, that Janet Macy sends Sue a strange letter (from her sister's in York, where she's gone to stay). The letter is full of regrets and memories about Kieren. Janet explains how that day, when Rick left, Kieren had begged for an address, and Bill had given him one, but with the numbers wrong; he'd laughed about it for days after. She'd wanted to tell Kieren, Janet wrote, more than anything, but couldn't, wasn't brave enough, and she's never let herself forget it. Sue takes the letter into the bathroom and reads it again and thinks of all those letters posted to nowhere, one every day, cries for ten minutes solid. She puts Janet's note away to show Kieren someday, when it seems right. It hasn't seemed right yet.)
They hear about Rick's death in passing. Maggie Burton, days before her stroke, mentions it as they unpack the groceries from the Volvo and she's out watering her pots. Roadside bomb. Such a shame. A promising lad. Sue feels her heart in her knees, can't look at Kieren, closes her eyes and pictures the two little boys, long ago, circling the lilac bush, laughing at nothing with each other, in the summer sun.
Kieren doesn't cry, just goes still and silent, and Sue never forgives herself that she didn't guess, right that moment, how deep a cut he would make.