A Sudden, Violent Removal
Peter is in the car when it happens, but he doesn’t remember anything.
The seat belt, the doctors tell his uncle later, while they think Peter is asleep, broke a few of his ribs, bruised his sternum, and knocked the wind out of him so forcefully it probably also knocked him unconscious the second the car collided with the eighteen-wheeler. No head injuries though, they assure him. Really lucky, considering the state of the car, and its other two passengers. Miraculous, when you think about it. No concussion, no brain damage. The memory loss is a result of the blackout, which was a result of a sudden, violent removal of all of the air from his lungs.
A sudden, violent removal.
Peter might not remember the accident, but he will remember that phrase for a long time.
Uncle Ben comes in a moment later and sees that Peter is awake. He freezes in the doorway, a rumpled blur, far enough away that Peter can only imagine how worn-out his face must be. The impression of grief is somehow sharper than the reality, makes a sensation like swallowing jagged ice arrive in Peter’s throat—and then Uncle Ben takes a step toward him and the reality is worse.
Of course it is. That’s how grief works.
“Hey, Peter,” he says. His voice is hoarse. His eyes are red-rimmed. But he’s not crying as he sits on the edge of the bed. “You’re supposed to be asleep, bud.”
“Where are my glasses?” says Peter.
It’s not what he means to say. What he means to say is, Where are my mom and dad? but his mouth doesn’t seem to be taking orders.
Uncle Ben blinks down at him.
“I’m… gonna have to get you some new ones, I think.”
“You are?” Peter says.
Why isn’t my dad going to do it?
Uncle Ben’s adam’s apple bobs.
“Yeah, Pete. I am.”
“So I’m going home with you.”
So they’re dead.
Uncle Ben nods.
Peter starts to cry. For the first time, it’s exactly what he means to do.
After the bandages come off and the physical pain recedes, there’s a settling period. A period where the tears, such a welcome relief that first day in the hospital—proof that he still had some control over his own body—become a terrible, unpredictable presence, rising up so suddenly and frequently Peter starts to feel like the sadness controls him instead of the other way around. Peter cries when Ben shows him his new room (which isn’t really new, because Peter has stayed there when his parents were on business trips and on “family weekends,” but now it’s not the guest room, it’s his). He cries when Ben sets a plate of overcooked spaghetti in front of him their first night together. He cries in front of his whole fifth-grade class on his very first day, because apparently no one told the teacher’s aide why he transferred and the first thing she does when she introduces him is ask him to tell the class what his parents do for work.
(A kid named Flash laughs at him for it at recess. Another kid, Ned, tells Flash to eat dirt. It’s the one good thing to come out of the day.)
But there are other times it happens, too. Weird times, times when Peter isn’t thinking about his parents or even thinking about anything at all—and suddenly there are hot tears pouring down his cheeks, or he’s reaching for his inhaler, his lungs suddenly empty. It happens while he’s doing his homework, teardrops turning fractions into smudges of graphite. It happens while he’s watching Spongebob on a Saturday morning.
He tries to hide it from Ben. Not all of it: that would be impossible. But the unexplained tears, at least, he tries to cover up by rushing to the bathroom or turning away until they stop. Peter doesn’t want Ben to ask why he’s crying, because Peter doesn’t know, and he’s afraid if he can’t explain it, Ben will think he’s broken.
Peter’s afraid he might be broken.
And besides, he knows Ben didn’t ask for this.
Peter has always liked Ben a lot. Whenever he would come here before they would watch old black-and-white horror movies with Ben’s wife, or Ben would take him to Coney Island, or they would fix things together in the rusty old storage unit Ben rents in Jersey… but even at ten years old, Peter knows there’s a difference between a day at the fair and having to live with a kid twenty-four seven. Whenever those inexplicable tears rise, Peter remembers something Ben used to say when he would drop him off at the end of one of those weekends: I do not know how you people keep up with this little Tasmanian devil. Thank goodness I’m allowed to give him back.
Ben said it like it was a joke. His parents used to laugh. Peter used to laugh. He thinks he did. But looking back now, he can’t quite remember the inflection, and when he tries to recall the expression on Ben’s face when he said things like that, the memory-Ben’s face goes all shadowy, like one of the monsters in those old horror flicks.
What if Ben still wants to give him back?
So Peter hides this maybe-brokenness. He hides it in fogged-up bathroom mirrors and sleeves pressed to his mouth and half-hidden glances when his uncle isn’t looking. He hides it well, he thinks.
Until, one day, he can’t.
They’re walking down the boys’ aisle at Ross. Ben is looking around like a man who’s just been suddenly transported to an alien planet, and Peter is trailing after him, running his hands over shirts that are too large because they are in the 10-12 section and Peter still wears 7-9, even though he will be eleven in just a few months. It’s the first time they’ve had to buy clothes since the accident. This is fine. They’re just clothes. Peter has had to buy tons of clothes before, and he’ll have to buy tons more in the future. He didn’t even like shopping when he used to go with his mom. In fact, he hated it. And this feeling he has, like he’s going to become a stranger if he has to give up his old t-shirts—someone his parents wouldn’t recognize on the street, if they ever saw him—doesn’t make any sense, because his parents are dead.
It doesn’t make any sense, so neither does the fact that right as Ben turns to examine the tag on a shirt with a green cartoon superhero on it, Peter starts to sob.
“I’m sorry,” he says, as Ben drops to one knee in front of him, grabbing him by the shoulders and looking into his face like he expects Peter to suddenly disappear. “I’m sorry.”
“Peter,” says Ben, “Peter, buddy, what’s going on? Are you hurt?”
Peter shakes his head. The tears on his cheeks are so thick they go flying in every direction.
“I just—I just—I don’t know,” he admits, when no other words will come. “I don’t know. I don’t know.” He presses his hands to his eyes, knocking his glasses off. Peter hears them clatter to the linoleum floor, but neither of them retrieve them. “Please don’t be mad.”
“Mad? Peter, honey, why would I be mad?”
Ben has never called him honey before. Peter’s dad never used the word. He only ever called him “pal,” or “buddy,” which is what Ben has done too, until now.
The strange endearment makes Peter look up. Ben doesn’t look mad. He looks… scared. Tired. But not mad.
“I’m sorry you have to do this,” Peter whispers, finally. “I’m sorry you have to take care of me.”
Ben’s eyes turn to water. It’s scary, and Peter stops crying abruptly.
“Honey,” Ben says again. “No.”
Ben tightens his grip on Peter’s shoulders. He looks at the floor, just for a second to compose himself, and his tears meet Peter’s on the ground.
When he looks up, his expression is fierce.
“Peter,” he says, “what happened to your parents… that was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” Peter flinches. “But you? You’re the absolute best. The greatest gift I’ve ever gotten. I will always, always want you. Do you understand me?”
Things start to get better after that.
It turns out Ben knew about the hidden tears. Pretty much all of them—he just wasn’t sure what the best way to approach them was. He’d opted for giving Peter space, but after the incident at Ross, he switches tack.
“You look sad,” he says, whenever Peter gets the distant look on his face that says an episode is arriving. “Do you want to talk about it?”
At first, Peter does not. Ben doesn’t push, but he also doesn’t let him hide. When the tears are silent, they sit together and watch TV wait for them to peter out. When they’re not so silent, Ben hugs him and shushes him and Peter doesn’t even mind that it makes him feel like a little kid because that’s how he feels when it happens and when he feels like that all he really wants is a hug.
His parents were never huggers, besides a quick squeeze before bed, or after a school play. Peter never resented it, or even really thought about it, but he’s glad that Uncle Ben is different. He seems to like giving Peter hugs. Sometimes he asks for it even when Peter isn’t crying, and after a while Peter stops feeling guilty when he asks for them too.
“Are you happy, Peter?” Ben asks him one day while they’re both on the couch. The TV is off. They’re both reading identical copies of Where the Red Fern Grows, even though Ben’s eyelids are drooping from his double shift, because it’s Ben’s month to lead the parent reading group at Peter’s school.
“Not really,” says Peter, frowning at the book. “It’s a super depressing story, Uncle Ben.”
Ben smiles, and some of the tiredness leaves his face.
“Just wait ‘til next month, they’re gonna make you read Bridge to Terabithia.” He closes his copy, sets it on the coffee table. “But I wasn’t talking about the book. I mean… just in general, I guess. Are you happy?”
Peter’s frown deepens. Ben has never asked him before. He sometimes asks why Peter is sad, but only when he’s having a moment.
“Uh, yeah,” he says, nervous. “I mean, sure.”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” Ben says. “I’m not looking for any particular answer, Pete. I really want to know. The truth, I mean. Are you happy?”
Peter gets that feeling in the back of his throat, the one that usually signifies tears are on their way. He looks at his book, shrugs. Pretends to read in the hope that Ben will drop it.
Ben does not. He puts a hand on Peter’s book and waits until Peter looks up at him.
“Pete,” he says. “You know, grief doesn’t have a timeline. You’re allowed to be sad as long as you need to be.”
“I want to be happy, though,” he says. “I mean, it’s not like… I like living here. It’s just…”
“It’s just not your parents’ house.”
Ben takes a breath. “I want you to know,” he says, “that’s okay. And if you’re feeling sad, you can tell me… you can tell me before it gets bad. My feelings won’t be hurt. In fact, it would make me really happy to know you can trust me. Would that be okay?”
Peter pretends to consider the question for a minute, but really he’s just biting down until the razor in his throat goes away and he’s able to smile, just a little.
“You’re a weird guy, Uncle Ben.”
Ben hugs Peter to his side.
“Sure am, Pete.”
Peter sort of expects Ben to ease off after their talk, but instead he digs in.
“Are you happy?” he asks, when Peter is putting the final touches on his science fair project.
“Are you happy?” he asks, when Peter emerges, red-eyed, from a particularly long shower.
“Are you happy?” he asks, nearly every day when he arrives home from work.
At first, Peter just shrugs. Ben never pushes, at least not in the moment. But the question always comes back, and after a while, without thinking about it, Peter starts to answer honestly.
“I don’t know,” he says over dinner, because he isn’t sure why the smell of mac and cheese makes him want to run to his room (he will figure out, later, that it’s because his mom only made mac and cheese when he was sick, or for his birthday).
“Not today,” he says, on a day when Flash stuffed him in a locker after gym, even though Ned rescued him pretty much instantly.
“No,” he says, on the first anniversary of his parents’ death.
He says it a lot around that time.
But the anniversary passes. Things keep moving. He grows out of all of his old clothes, but he discovers he really likes the ones Ben buys as replacements, which are covered in science puns. Flash continues to torment him—after one particularly illuminating health class, he dubs him “Penis Parker,” and unfortunately it sticks—but he and Ned get closer, enough that Ned, whose mom is strict, as he puts it, starts spending most afternoons at the Parker apartment. Ben gets better at cooking spaghetti, graduates to burgers and, eventually, can even make a slightly-blackened chicken parm.
“I’m not so bad,” says Peter, when Ben asks after he wins an award for his essay on Bridge to Terabithia.
“I think so,” he says, on his first day of middle school, and Peter tries to pretend he doesn’t notice how hard Uncle Ben is trying to control his expression as he waves goodbye.
Over winter break that year, Ben takes him to Rockefeller center to see the tree, and to ice skate. Peter’s never been—when he was little he would get sick every time he stayed outside for more than fifteen minutes in the winter. But he’s grown a lot in the last year, even though he’s still the smallest kid in his class, and he’s only had a few colds since summer. He’s hardly had to use his inhaler in the last six months, either, and it’s this improvement that makes Ben take the risk, though he still bundles Peter up until he looks like nothing so much as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man from Ghostbusters (one of their favorites) before taking him out.
Peter is… not a great ice-skater. Ben, who played hockey in college, tries his best to coax him through the basics, holding his hands and dragging him upright every time he stumbles, but, unsurprisingly, the general gracelessness with which Peter lives the rest of his life extends to the ice rink, and by the time they break for lunch he’s covered in a symphony of little bruises in spite of his fifteen layers of clothing.
“We can go home,” Ben offers, approaching Peter where he’s waiting on a bench and handing him a cocoa and a hot dog. “I promise I won’t be offended if ‘Olympic figure skater’ isn’t written in the stars for you.”
Peter has been looking at the tree, which has to be five stories high and is glittering with gold and silver tinsel, brilliant even though it isn’t lit. His gaze goes to a family on the ice as he takes the food. The dad is skating backward, dragging his son around while his mom and sister cheer from the sidelines. Me and Ben looked like that, Peter thinks, and even though there’s no mom and sister there to clap for him, it doesn’t make him want to cry. In fact, it makes him smile.
He looks at his uncle as Ben takes a seat next to him, puffing into his mittened hands.
“I’m really happy.”
He doesn’t mind when Ben looks away, coughing groughly. He knows, finally, that tears aren’t always bad.
Uncle Ben was married once.
Peter remembers Ben’s wife, who was his aunt for a while. He remembers that for a long time she would come with them to all the carnivals and movies, and they would all laugh when either she or Ben tried to make dinner because they were both such bad cooks. He remembers that Ben smiled a lot when she was around—more than he smiles now, even though things are getting easier since the accident. Peter liked her a lot too, but she was gone before Peter came to live with Ben.
Divorce, his mom had explained to him. It happens sometimes. It wasn’t anybody’s fault.
She meant it as a comfort—no one fought, so there’s no need for you to be scared—but for Peter it had the opposite effect: he wondered if his parents could just happen to get divorced, too. If it’s no one’s fault, could it come at any time?
Divorce. A big, neon-red word, written on a guillotine in Peter’s imagination. For a long time, it felt like the worst thing that could possibly happen.
It’s a lot less scary now.
Still, Peter is twelve years old before he gets up the courage to ask. And then it’s not so much courage as it is his inability to shut up, which has become an increasing problem as Peter has gotten older.
“Why did you and May break up?” he blurts one night at dinner, and then goes as red as the cherry tomatoes in his wilted salad, at which he immediately and intensely stares.
Ben puts down his fork—surprise, like many of Ben’s expressions, appears mildly. He considers Peter for a moment.
“Can you always tell when I’ve been talking to her?” he asks.
Peter’s ears feel hot. He stirs his salad.
“Yeah. I mean, kinda. You get this look on your face, I guess. And you get all quiet and stuff.” Peter shrugs. “Sorry. We don’t have to talk about it.”
But when he glances at Ben’s face his uncle doesn’t look mad.
“You know,” he says, “a lot of really smart kids aren’t so great when it comes to emotional intelligence. Why couldn’t you be one of those kids?”
Peter smiles. “Sorry Uncle Ben. I guess I’ll, uh… try to be stupider?”
Ben shakes his head and smiles back. “Nah, I like bragging about you too much,” he says. The smile fades a little. “That’s what May and I were talking about. I was telling her about how they want to bump you up a grade in math.”
“You guys talk about me?”
Ben nods. He’s watching Peter’s face like he’s expecting something, but Peter isn’t sure what it is. He’s too busy feeling surprised to think about it.
“She remembers me?” says Peter.
“Who could forget an ugly mug like that?”
“Ha, ha.” Peter rolls his eyes. Frowns. “If you guys talk, why did you get divorced? Doesn’t talking mean you still like her?”
“I do still like her,” says Ben. “She’s a very special woman.”
“So why don’t you get married again?”
Peter can tell right away he’s said the wrong thing. Ben’s expression doesn’t exactly fall, but it does slide a little, becoming fixed. Peter swallows and forces himself not to look back at his plate while Uncle Ben works on his response.
“Sometimes,” he says slowly, “staying together isn’t just a matter of love. Sometimes two people can love each other very much and it just… doesn’t work out. Does that make sense?”
Peter doesn’t feel very hungry anymore. He drops his fork and slides lower in his chair.
“Peter,” says Ben. “I’m not talking about us, buddy. Romantic love is different than what you and I have. We’re family.”
“When you get married you’re supposed to be family.”
Ben is quiet for such a long time that Peter eventually tries to steal a glance at him from under his lowered brow. Ben raises an eyebrow.
“Does it bother you that it’s just us?” he says.
“No.” Peter clambers to sit straight. “No, I’m… this is great. I’m not, like, trying to complain about my life or whatever. It’s just.” He chews his lip. “Okay. So, you ask me all the time if I’m happy, right? Like, so much it gets annoying.”
“Hey, I’m just trying—”
“I know, I know. You’re making sure I’m okay. It’s cool, Uncle Ben. But… are you happy? I mean, I know I make you happy, don’t freak out. But are you happy happy?” He shrugs again. “I guess that’s all I wonder about.”
Ben doesn’t say anything else. But he does get a little furrow between his eyes, which Peter knows only happens when he’s thinking hard.
A few months after that, May comes to visit. She only stays for a week, but they go to the beach together, and see a play, and even walk around Times Square in spite of the tourists, because May says she misses New York. Gloucester, where her family lives, is not the same.
“There are more lobsters than people,” she says. “All I want is a New York hot dog, and I swear all I can find is lobster rolls.”
She laughs when Uncle Ben buys her a lobster roll for lunch, laughs harder when he produces the hot dog he was hiding behind his back the whole time.
“We’re just friends,” Ben says, after May leaves.
“Uh-huh,” says Peter, and he pretends he doesn’t notice how much more Ben smiles over the next few weeks. Even when he thinks Peter isn’t looking.
May comes once more that summer. And twice in the fall.
Ben smiles a lot during this time.
It’s nice, Peter thinks, when they’re both happy.
After a while, though, May stops visiting.
“Peter,” Ben snaps, when Peter asks why for the thousandth time, “not everything has a why, okay? Sometimes, things are just hard.”
“That’s stupid,” says Peter.
“That’s life, pal.”
Peter slams the door when he retreats to his room. He expects his uncle to come after him, like he usually does. But he doesn’t.
Early that spring, Uncle Ben loses his job.
He finds two more to replace it, but the money still isn’t as good, and it means he’s not home as much. Peter does his homework alone after Ned leaves, and some nights he’s too tired to wait up until he hears the click of the door to signify his uncle is home.
Just like after his parents died, Peter starts to feel things without knowing why.
Except this time, it’s not tears that arise. It’s a hot feeling in his chest, a stickiness in his throat that feels like it won’t go away unless he shouts, and sometimes he does. He shouts when Uncle Ben tells him off for not doing the dishes. He shouts when he can’t go on the eighth grade retreat and Ben won’t even give him a good reason why.
When he isn’t shouting, he’s quiet.
So is Ben.
One night, Peter is lying in bed, watching the numbers on his digital clock tick closer to midnight, listening for the door, and he thinks, I don’t have to stay here.
So he puts on his sneakers, his jacket, and he slips out the back window and down the fire escape, not really knowing where he’s going until he’s at the twenty-four hour convenience store around the corner. He buys a Coke and a pack of gummy worms with his allowance, and feels a little thrill when the guy behind the counter doesn’t even glance at him as he shoves Peter’s change through the bulletproof glass.
He takes his prize home and eats it on the fire escape, and when the door finally opens around one in the morning, he crawls back through his window and into his bed. But Ben goes straight to his own room without checking on Peter, and a second later he hears the springs in the mattress creak as Ben climbs into bed.
For once, it’s nice not to think about why he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s nice not to think about how it makes him feel.
Peter just leaves.
A few months later, Ben is the one who leaves.
Peter slips out of the ratty old chair next to the deputy’s desk, where he’s been sitting for the past three hours. The deputy disappeared an hour ago. In the middle of the night, the rest of the bullpen is almost empty.
Peter tiptoes past the room’s only other occupant: the detective who brought him in, asleep at his desk. He opens the door just wide enough to slip through and heads straight for the payphone he saw there earlier, digging a fistful of quarters out of his jeans as he does.
(Peter had gone to the arcade.)
The quarters sound like a hammer on an anvil as he drops them into the slot.
(Ben had been on a night shift. Peter, bolder with his nighttime excursions with each passing week, took a bus to the arcade, not realizing it stopped running at midnight.)
The finger Peter uses to dial is still crusty with blood. He’d scrubbed as much as he could off on the towel the deputy gave him, but it’s under his fingernails. His hands shake as he presses the ancient buttons.
Peter only has two numbers memorized, and the first one is Ben’s. He dials the second.
(He thought he’d walk home. It wasn’t like Ben checked on him most nights, anyway. He could make it home before three am if he walked fast. But he’d barely made it two blocks before his cell phone rang.)
“Hello?” says a woman’s voice on the other end.
Peter can’t speak. He’s been telling police officers what happened all night. Now, when it matters, he can’t say it again.
(For once, Ben’s expression was not mild.)
“Hello?” says the voice again. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I can’t hear you.”
(“Jesus Christ,” Ben said when he spotted him. “Jesus Christ, Peter, it’s like you have no sense of your own limits. Do you have any idea how dangerous this city can be late at night?”)
“It’s me,” Peter whispers.
(“You act like nothing bad’s ever happened to me,” Peter said, ashamed but covering it in annoyance. “You didn’t have to come all the way out here. I could have walked.”)
“Sorry, say again?”
(“Like hell you could have. You’re thirteen years old! In this neighborhood, past dark? You might be smart, kiddo, but dammit, sometimes you are dumb.”)
“It’s me.” Just a little louder. “Peter.”
“Peter? Honey, what’s wrong? It’s the middle of the night. Where are you calling from?”
“Can you come get me?”
(“I thought you said I was smart at everything.”
“Yeah.” Ben walked quickly, not bothering to cover his own annoyance. “And you act like it means you can do whatever you want. Intelligence isn’t just a free pass to make your teachers feel stupid and skip out on studying, or to… to manipulate me so you can sneak out of my house. Your smarts are a gift, Peter, but any gift is also a responsibility.”)
“What happened, Peter?”
Her voice is sharp. Panic rising.
(“Maybe I don’t want to be responsible all the time. Maybe I don’t like being the biggest dork at school, Uncle Ben, did you think of that? Maybe sometimes I just want to have fun.”)
Peter’s is flat, as dull as hers is dangerous.
“Ben is dead,” he says.
(Ben turned around, leaving his back open to the dark mouth of the alley up ahead. “Responsibility,” he said, “is not a choice.”)
“He got shot.”
A long, long silence. Then—
“Peter. I’m coming to get you, okay? I’m coming to get you.”
A hand falls on his shoulder just as their time runs out. The phone clunks as it drops the call. Peter turns toward the officer’s stern but sympathetic face.
“Your guardians are here, son,” the officer says.
May never does show up.