crack baby you don’t know what you want
but you know that you had it once
and you know that you want it back
crack baby you don’t know what you want
but you know that you’re needing it
and you know that you need it bad
Lena Pohl had a child of her own for three days before she gave him up.
She didn’t want to let him go. Not really. But she was young, so young, and her parents insisted.
‘You think you can raise a child?’ said her mother bitingly. Lena sunk deeper into her chair, dreading the rant. ‘Do you even know what that means? Everything you’ll have to sacrifice? He’s not a plaything, for god’s sake. He’s going to be hard work, draining you of everything you have, and if you think we have money to spare for you then you’re more foolish than I thought. You’ll be bleeding money with everything you have to buy - clothes and nappies and endless piles of junk, and that’s not even mentioning all the food. You children never stop eating!’
Lena had two older brothers and their stomachs had always rumbled when they lived at home.
Her mother kept ranting, punctuated with rigorous shakes of the towels she was folding. ‘How many times have I told you what it was like for your Oma? She was nineteen when she had me and oh, the grief I caused her! All her plans to the gutter. I swore I’d never be so stupid. And now you - I thought you wanted to go to university and do something with yourself. Or was that all hot air?’
‘No, I still do!’ she shot back, flame of anger across her cheeks.
‘You can’t support a child without a job, Lena,’ Papa said quietly. ‘You can’t work and study and look after a baby.’
‘I can! I can try. I can put study off for a while, I can make it work. I’m not giving him away. He’s mine!’
Her mother scoffed. ‘Ha! Yours? You might as well have found him on the side of the street with how fast this has happened. Carry him for nine months, then maybe you’ll have earned the right to claim that he’s yours.’
Lena burst into furious tears, acutely aware of the pain from yesterday’s impossible birth, while her father tutted, putting his arm around her. She cried into his shoulder.
‘Look, Lena,’ her mother said, softer now. ‘That English gentleman offered us whatever we wanted. You wouldn’t have to work to put yourself through classes. We could ask for enough to buy some property of our own as well - a house for your father and I, for your brothers, and for you too, of course. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And we could go on holiday. Haven’t you always wanted to go on a real, proper foreign holiday?’
Her rage got caught somewhere in her throat. ‘A holiday?’
‘A holiday is perhaps a bit callous,’ Papa said. ‘But you have always wanted to get out from this tower block.’
‘And think of the boy,’ her mother added. ‘Think of the life that man will be able to offer him, all the opportunities. He’ll have none of that if he stays with you.’
‘Your mother’s right. You have to do what’s best for him.’
‘I know!’ she cried, exasperated. ‘But how am I supposed to… it’s not fair. You’ve both already decided what you think is best and it’s not even your decision!’
Papa sighed. ‘That’s true. It’s not. We can’t make your mind up for you.’
‘No matter how much I wish I could drum some sense into you,’ her mother said from between her teeth.
‘We can’t,’ Papa said, giving her mother a tired look. ‘But we have your best interests at heart too. That’s our job as your parents. That’s your job now, and you have a very important choice to make.’
A monstrous choice she thought as she wiped her eyes.
The same arguments circled them like ravenous vultures for the rest of the day. Other family members gathered in their little flat, brothers and aunts and uncles and grandparents all coming to see their very own Virgin Mary and her unnatural spawn. They pricked and prodded at her with their questions and their concerns. No matter how often they insisted it was her decision, her voice was lost amongst the clamour as they argued over the fate of this baby, her baby, her little boy that hadn’t existed at the dawn of the day he was born.
He existed now. He existed with his scrunched up newborn face, his tiny fingers clasping hers, his wisps of dark hair - just like her own - and a cry that she already knew she’d never forget. Oh, that child could cry. He cried and cried and cried until he was picked up from wherever he’d been resting - they had no crib, of course they didn’t - and only once he was held close was he content. He was a tiny wee thing, but you’d never think so from the strength of his voice.
She didn’t give him a name. Her mother said it was best that way.
The baby was peaceful in her arms when Sir Hargreeves visited for the second time. He stirred as he was passed over, but as soon as he was in the man’s arms he settled again.
If this were a fairy tale, her baby would have felt the difference between arms of burgeoning love and arms of greed. He would have screamed his lungs out in a last-ditch effort to prevent his fate. She would have snatched him back, away from the fearsome interloper stealing her child to raise in secrecy, or, if she was not a quick-witted heroine, the thief would have fled while she began a quest to free her child from his clutches. The journey would change her, perhaps unrecognisably, but she would get him back in the end and all would be well.
Only this wasn’t a fairytale. This was Munich in 1989. The Brothers Grimm were long dead.
By the time the business deal was complete, there was no such thing as magic in this world of hers anymore. Monetary wishes were not granted by villains looking to ensnare souls but by well-known and worldly philanthropists. Babies didn’t appear out of nowhere - at least not when there was no baby left to prove it. When the shock of what she’d done hit her later, as she screamed I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU at her parents and at the world, Lena learnt that important choices were never easy, that once they were made there were no magic fixes, and that no matter the intensity of her anguish it would not make any difference to a fate already sealed. He was gone, gone from her, far from here, across the country, across the earth.
She didn’t get out of bed for a week.
Then, if only to stop her mother nagging, she got up. She stormed out the front door, fetched the mail and stormed back upstairs, throwing it down on the table without a word. Her face said, there, I did it, now leave me alone, clear as day. She went right back to bed.
The next day was easier. And the next she even showered.
Days blurred together. She got on with things. She applied to university, and got in, and went. She refused to speak of him, especially to her parents, although the thought of her new friends knowing made her shudder too.
That didn’t mean she didn’t think of him.
Sometimes she dreamed of him. In those dreams, she came across him in the strangest of places.
Once while wandering an old house - it looked like the home of a friend from school, only all the hallways were longer and more mazelike than she remembered - she found him abandoned in a doorway. He was bundled up in blankets right on the threshold, rather like whoever placed him down was not sure whether he should be here or there. He was not sleeping: that squall of a cry echoed in the empty room and all the way down the hall. Through it she heard footsteps, far off, coming closer, and she spun to look. There was no one there. Her baby went silent.
Another night, another dream. She was driving her car at a highly unsafe speed on roads that looped like rollercoasters. A light began to flash on the dashboard, bright red and urgent, then another, and another, and another. She tried to pull over in a panic but she no longer had a steering wheel. The brakes didn’t work either (but they never had). She abandoned her seat, clambering into the back. There in the footwell, buried under a heap of cabbage leaves, was a tiny pale arm, fingernails blue and corpselike; she felt a wave of horror upon recognising it, then began to toss the leaves aside as the car continued to skid, trying to dig him out. Each leaf she grabbed seemed to multiply into more until she was up to her neck in pale green.
Once he was held out to her by a faceless stranger. Her arms were already full - with what, she could not say - so she couldn’t take him, and while she fretted with what to do he was swept away into a morphing, fleshy crowd. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t follow. She awoke feverish and upset.
(In another life, when she feeds him at her breast and her mother huffs with a disapproving frown, she doesn’t bow her head and ease him off. No. Instead she holds him closer, his skin on hers, and she stares back at her mother resolutely, head held high. Shame is no companion in this life. Even though this life looks like part-time salary apartments and a table covered in bills. It looks like hand-me-down baby clothes and dirty nappies and exhaustion and a degree on hold, for a while. It sounds like a disconnected telephone, dial tone silence, although she supposes that this way the told-you-so rants are unable to get through. It sounds like crying, tears at all hours, hers and the baby's. It feels like cheek fuzz, sharp little fingernails, and fluffy woollen hats with mismatched mittens to keep the bitter winter at bay. It feels like cradling a fragile thing as she sleeps. Like loneliness and an endless slog.
Still. It looks like big green eyes full of innocent trust. It sounds like his first laugh. It feels like her heart growing warmer each day, growing as he grows.
And eventually summer arrives. In this life she gives him his first haircut, sealing a curl in a box on her dresser, greater than any treasure. She finds a new apartment where she doesn’t have to scrub black mould until her hands are raw, nor share a bathroom with unhygeinic neighbours. She visits her parents for the first time since she left. She takes her son to meet them again and she is proud of how he stands up all by himself now, and even though he is a crybaby, a clingy wee thing, crying at the slightest disturbance, crying until she thinks she’ll lose her mind, she still thinks that sound is the sound of life and love and she never ignores it.)
More often than not she dreamed of the dark haired baby as she remembered him on that fateful day. He was lingering on her conscience, no doubt. But every now and again he appeared to her grown, and if she had cared to ponder those dreams in depth then perhaps she might have noticed that they always aligned with the age he would have been if she’d kept him. The age he was somewhere out there in the big wide world: a five month old rolling onto his stomach, a nine month old smacking his hands against pots and pans, a toddler teetering on unsteady legs.
Except she didn’t like to think about the dreams too much. They were only dreams. Fitful, nonsensical derivations of things she’d buried deep long ago - a tangle of confusion and guilt and regret. It was easier not to acknowledge them. Perhaps that was why he appeared to her less and less as the years went by. Perhaps she was finally getting over it all. Healing.
She dreamed of a him as a child only three times.
The first one was warm.
Everything was honey-gold and hazy: the long, floaty curtains (from behind them came the buzz of a bee, gentle, harmonious); the hessian rug beneath her bare feet; the vase full of daisies and straw; the specks of dust catching the light; and the teddy-bear sitting up against the wall with its worn fur and kind amber eyes.
There were children everywhere. They held hands, all of them in a big circle, singing at the top of their voices in the sunshine as they danced around her. She was a maypole, their Maibaum, they were her spring dancers.
(but the buzz of the bee was not a bee)
‘One, and two, and three, and four, and five, and six, and seven,’ they chanted as they whirled in and around each other to help them keep the beat. They did not look at her. She could not see their faces.
(it was a wasp)
The banners they danced with began to tangle; she was clutching the ends high above her head. They were already braiding down her arm, halfway to mummifying her. Two of the children collided and knocked themselves down. They got back up immediately, stilted in their movements. Neither cried. The two strands of colourful cloth fell limp against Lena’s thigh and the fallen children did not try to retrieve it. The other children slowed, then stopped. The dance didn’t work without them all.
(and the wasp was getting louder)
Besides, there were better things to move on to! Over in the sun-laden corner opposite from the watchful bear was a basket overflowing with all the toys a child could dream of, and they scampered over to it with glee.
But one stayed. He skipped up to her - his ribbon was emerald green and glossy - and he gently pressed it into her other hand, the hand that wasn’t wrapped like a fairy present.
(the wasp was trapped behind the curtains, the curtains which hung so thick and heavy that the breeze was unable to make them billow, and between the curtains, the glass, and the bright white windowsill it was getting hot, hot, hot: oh, what a perfect cage; oh, tortuous design)
She still didn’t see his face.
(and the wasp raged and grazed against the glass, trapped in the sunlight that was not sweet, not soft - instead it was stifling, it burned, the window channelling heat like a child with a magnifying glass, setting fire to the object of their observation, turning delicate exoskeletons crisp and black)
(oh, child, they ask, was it an accident that we burned? did you mean to singe our wings so we could no longer fly?)
(oh, child, they ask, why did you refuse to open the curtains a crack? did you not notice us struggling to crawl to a cooler home? why did you watch as our legs gave out?)
(oh, child, they ask, how many wasps will perish here? how many sunny afternoons will end in ashes? how many mistakes can one man make?)
She placed a hand on the top of his head and learnt that his hair was soft, and that he was still a small thing barely past her hip, and that he was bounding with energy.
(a monocle makes a very good magnifying glass in the hands of a sadist)
Before he skipped away again to laugh and play with the other children he leaned into her touch, a skinny arm wrapping around one of her legs. In that moment she felt that he loved her even though he didn’t know who she was.
(some fires burn hot and dry and give off little warning smoke)
And she wondered: how could such a tiny being be filled with so much love?
(some wasps burn without making a sound)
A few years later she dreamed of the boy for the second time.
She was sitting at her local library’s issues desk, where she’d worked for five weeks now in her waking life. As she was caught in the mundane repetition of stamping books with return dates, she noticed a little boy hand in hand with two other boys, one on each side, all in matching blue pyjamas. The one in the middle had damp curls and cheeks turned pink from scrubbing. The other two boys looked equally clean and shiny. One of them held a knife (that didn’t strike her as odd until much later) and the other looked nervous, as if he expected to be chased out of the premises. The middle boy was grinning with his head held aloft, pulling the others forward.
She abandoned her desk and trailed behind them. The middle boy seemed familiar; looking at him nudged something in her mind.
‘We’re not allowed to leave the house,’ the nervous boy said. ‘Dad might find out.’
The middle boy groaned, while the boy with the knife said, ‘Don’t be such a chicken.’
He pouted. ‘I’m not a chicken.’
‘No, you’re not,’ the middle boy teased. ‘You’re a scaredy-cat.’
The middle boy laughed. ‘Suuuure, Six. This is my dream, you know. You’re allowed to be bad - you’re not even real!’
‘Am so,’ the boy called Six retorted (the name was another thing that did not strike Lena as strange until much later). ‘And who says it’s your dream?’
‘Well, it’s not mine,’ said knife boy. ‘I don’t wanna dream about a library.’
The middle boy tugged them down between two shelves that were nearly toppling over from the weight of the books, saying, ‘At least it’s better than the one at home. That one’s the most boring library in the world and it smells like old people.’ He dropped the other boys’ hands to seize an ornate picture book. ‘This one’s fun! It’s got pictures!’
Sinking to the ground, he settled the hefty book atop his knee. For a moment he was entranced, then he began to haphazardly and hurriedly tear out the most brightly coloured illustrations, stuffing them in his pocket and up his sleeves.
Lena hovered in the aisle over from them, peering through the narrow space between the shelves. She told herself she was watching to make sure they didn’t get up to too much mischief. She didn’t quite know why she couldn’t tear her eyes away.
‘I reckon it’s all me,’ Six said, picking up a book of his own and flipping through it. ‘It’s probably because I was reading “Matilda” before I went to sleep-’
‘Again? ’ the middle boy exclaimed without looking up, while knife boy snorted.
‘-and she escapes to the library in that,’ he continued. ‘And yes, again. It’s good!’
‘You’re such a nerd,’ knife boy said, whittling a pointy, symmetrical “2” into the wooden shelf - just like the sharp “S” Lena saw children draw everywhere, only reversed.
‘Okay, Trunchbull,’ Six muttered.
The middle boy (her boy, said a voice at the very back of her mind, a voice she had not listened to in a long, long time) ceased his tearing of library property and held up his hand for Six to high-five, grinning.
Knife boy frowned at the slap of their hands. ‘Wait, why’d you call me that? What does it mean?’
‘Means you won’t get saved by Miss Honey when she rescues the rest of us,’ Six said.
Knife boy’s eyes widened in alarm. ‘Why not? Who’s Miss Honey?’
‘If you read the book you’d know,’ said Six smugly.
‘Oh, I get it,’ he said, turning to cut deeper slashes in the wood. ‘She’s made up. Ha-ha, very funny.’
Lena’s boy sighed dreamily, steepling his hands in prayer. ‘Oh Miss Honey, if you’re listening, we’d like to come and visit. Forever.’
‘You’ve read it too?!’ asked knife boy.
‘Nah, Six has only been telling me everything. Matilda’s got powers, just like us - she goes wham-bam-bazaam,’ he gestured wildly, ‘and makes crazy things happen. Like turning a ghost into a funny parrot.’
‘Hmm… not exactly,’ Six said.
‘And her family sucks ass.’ He whispered the last word. ‘But she gets so much revenge. She sets fire to her Dad’s hair-’
‘Uh, no…’ Six murmured.
‘- and I think that’s the best idea I’ve ever heard in the world and we should totally try to do that, and then she runs away with Miss Honey who gives her the biggest chocolate cake in the universe and takes her to the zoo and then they get to watch movies together and also play dress up without getting in trouble and her bedtime is never and she’s allowed to talk at the table too -’
‘Matilda doesn’t like TV,’ Six said, although her boy talked so fast that he’d long moved past the point about films.
He talked like a child who still believed in fairytales, whose dreams were out of scale and tinted with wonder, who wanted to run headlong into the world so it could fill him up. He talked like a child who lived out his childhood in wishes, his words a glimpse of a hungry heart. He twisted details to his own liking. Mixed tidbits of normality in with fantasy like he couldn’t quite tell them apart. (She wanted to make him that cake and let him lick the spoon and then they’d eat it together while it was still warm - but where were those feelings coming from? She didn’t know this boy. She didn’t know him. She couldn’t. She wasn’t anything like Miss Honey - she wouldn’t even make it into the story.)
‘- and also she only ever trains her power when she wants to and that’s only ever to use it for revenge against the bad guys like her dad and the Trunchbull who’s the most evil of them all.’
Knife boy’s eyes bulged. ‘How’d Dad even let you read a book like that?’ he demanded.
‘He didn’t,’ Six replied. ‘Pogo got it for me. He got me a whole box of cool stories, but this one’s my favourite.’
‘Pogo never got me anything special.’
‘You’ve got all your knives,’ her boy said. He was back to flipping through the book, searching for other pages that appealed. There weren't many left.
‘These are Dad’s knives technically. I’m not supposed to have them but I hid this one under my pillow.’
‘That’s dumb,’ Six said. ‘You might cut your face off.’
‘And both ears,’ her boy added.
‘No, I won’t. I’m not an idiot.'
‘Sure…’ Six said.
Her boy stood up all of a sudden, rustling as he did. ‘I’m bored of this. Can we do something actually fun now?’
‘Like reading?’ Six asked hopefully.
‘Uh, no… Haven’t you seen this place? It’s huge! We can play for as long as we want! And there aren’t any ghosts. No Dad. No Pogo. We’re free for the night!’
Two’s face lit up. ‘We should build a fort! The books can be our bricks.’ He grabbed an armful off the shelf, dropping them onto the floor without a care.
‘Yeah! An entire castle!’ Her boy sweeped even more onto the pile. ‘And no one’s allowed in except us!’
‘We could use the shelves as the walls if we move them together,’ Six said, ‘then fill in all the gaps with books until no one can peek.’
‘But we’d probably need One to move them,’ her boy said, craning his neck up. ‘They are sooo tall.’
‘Reckon I can climb up to the top?’ Two asked.
Her boy jumped on the spot in excitement. ‘Ooh, I’ll race you.’
Six looked up dizzily. ‘I think I’ll just be the judge.’
‘Come onnnn,’ her boy wheedled.
Two made chicken sounds.
‘Oh, fine,’ Six sighed.
‘See, guess you’re not a scaredy-cat after all,’ Two said with a knowing look, almost gentle.
The three children lined themselves up, facing the shelf in determination. Lena watched them from behind with bated breath. Two dropped into a crouch, ready to spring, while Six fiddled with his buttons.
‘Okay, let’s go when I say go,’ her boy said. He took a deep breath in. ‘Ready, set -’
Before reaching the end he threw himself onto the perilously packed shelf, feet scrambling for a hold.
Two immediately shouted, ‘HEY!’ and leapt after him.
Six followed almost delicately in comparison, with a measured and secure first step, though he still hurried to catch up (and although Lena couldn’t see his face, she knew there was a small grin of delight upon it).
A cascade of pages fell from her boy’s pyjamas, fluttering into his opponent’s faces, and he cackled as he climbed.
‘You’re a cheat!’ Two yelled, clambering just behind him.
Two grabbed at her boy’s foot, tugged hard.
Her boy kicked out, dangerously shifting all his weight to the side, still laughing. ‘Hey! Let go!’
‘That’s what you get!’
The shelf wobbled, then creaked, and then let out a long, reverberating groan. The whole thing started to lean. Books toppled and dropped like overripe fruit.
‘Oh shit!’ cried one of the children, and Lena suspected that she knew which one.
A moment later the whole thing came crashing down onto the next bookcase, the one she was hiding behind, the next in a long line of enormous dominoes.
She heard the boys fall to the ground, shrieking and laughing with the thrill, the sound nearly buried by the thwop and thwack of hundreds of solid tomes and the crack of splintering wood.
Lena ducked as she was blanketed by books, and they were weighty until they were not. By then they were merely soft blankets, and she could hear a scratchy song playing on the radio, which meant it was time to get up and go to the real library where the shelves were much more sensibly sized.
It was not long before she dreamed of him for the third time.
Lena was deep within the Black Forest. She recognised it immediately; she’d been here when she was younger, backpack laden with studentenfutter, bouncy sneakers tied with double bows, exploring hand in hand with her father. But this time the trees were packed so densely that barely any light filtered down from above. It was dark as the dead of the night. Skeletal trunks loomed out of shadows, appearing where she thought there had been nothing. The silence was oppressive.
She’d been wandering there for days with only a basket woven from reeds hanging from the crook of her arm, and she knew that she was seeking something silver - a key, perhaps, or a drop of moonlight - but she could not find it. Whenever she thought she saw it glinting in the shadows, she would be distracted by the crack of a twig right behind her or the rustle of leaves, and when she twisted to see who - or what - was sneaking up through the gloom, she saw nothing. Upon turning back, the elusive silvery light was always gone.
She clambered over a mossy boulder and slid down the other side, taking much too long to reach the ground as the height of the drop distorted and stretched. Eventually she landed with a dull thump. She could see the sky here, and by starlight took in her surroundings. Only then did she realise she had dropped into a pit lined on all sides by more boulders, their sides smooth and green with not a handhold to be seen.
Curled up in a hollow between two jutting rocks was a small boy, the same boy from the library - her boy. It was his mop of curls that she recognised first, although in this dream his hair was strewn with cobwebs and dust rather than damp and shiny from a bath. He was hiding his face in his knees, arms covering his head protectively, deathly still but whimpering - so quiet she almost didn’t hear him at first.
She stepped towards him, and with the crunch of her foot upon the ground her boy startled like a spooked rabbit. He twisted away from her, sobbing as he clawed at the stone, hands frantic as if to scrape it away piece by piece. She stepped forward again in alarm, soothing murmurs falling from her lips. The child began to scream. She retreated swiftly, not daring to utter a word, but he did not stop.
The rock did not give either. His fingernails had split, and across the stone were dark smears of blood painted by his fingertips. His screams died out and he began to beg instead, a garble of helpless, broken phrases: please leave me alone, please please please, go away, I don’t want to talk to you, please let me out, Dad, please, I’ll do anything, I’ll be good, I promise, just let me out… please…
She never saw his face, but the echoes of his voice stayed with her even once she woke.
(In another life, he wriggles in her lap with his arms around her neck when she reads him a bedtime story, skin smooth and warm with youth, and he stands atop a chair at the kitchen bench as she shows him how to peel carrots and potatoes, and he skitters through their cramped apartment with all the elegance of a startled cat, playing with his imaginary friends - the ones that were nice to him, not the bad ones.
In this life it is just the two of them and sometimes she wishes it wasn’t, sometimes she can’t get a break. Sometimes she doesn’t know what the hell is going on with that boy, whether he is prone to bouts of melancholy unusual for a child his age (so says the professional, paid for by her parents) or whether he has an overactive mind (so says the other professional) or whether he is merely a sweet wee thing with a sensitive heart (so says Maria Paulik, the batty but kind old lady from across the hall who lets Lena borrow from her pantry when money is low).
Maria is a godsend, truly, in this life. She's always doting on Lena’s little boy - babysitting him, letting him get his sticky hands into her drawer full of ancient silk nightdresses, letting him drape himself in all of them at once until he is layered up like a doll in pastel petticoats, lacy straps overlapping on his bare shoulders, gap-tooth grin and oversized sunglasses on his face. Maria takes photos on her sturdy old camera and slips them under Lena’s door once they are developed. Lena sticks the best ones on the fridge and her little boy begs to go play next door even when she doesn’t have to go to work.
He hates sleeping alone. Most nights he sneaks under her blankets and curls up beside her, and she wakes in the morning with his head tucked under her chin. She doesn’t fret because what harm is it causing, really? He will grow out of it in his own time.
As he plays with his cousin, her parents tell her in hushed tones that while they still think she made a poor decision (that judgement slices into her - a papercut wince, thin and shallow but so, so full of sting - and she will rage over it later with a friend and a glass of deep red wine) they are glad he is in their lives, the strange, uncanny boy that he is. He shrieks when his Opa kisses him on the cheek, beard tickling his skin, and giggles when his Opa tosses him up in the air. He is timid around his Oma because she is sharp and no-nonsense while her boy is brimming with nonsense and easily cut. Unlike his mother, he hasn’t yet learnt how to hide his hurt. She doesn’t want him to have to learn that for a long time.
In this life she saves up specially to send him off to school with a sparkly backpack.
In this life, as well as the other, he is the class clown. He makes friends easily. He is a chatterbox.
In this life, as well as the other, he gets in trouble with the teachers for his naughty and inexplicable behaviour. He sees things that others do not. He is scared of the dark.
In this life, Lena leaves lights on for him. She studies up on ghost stories from around the world in an attempt to understand, even when her eyes droop with exhaustion in the long evenings. She holds him when he shakes with fear. No matter how many people tell her not to play into his morbid attempt for attention, she cannot dismiss that raw terror as an act.
She tries her best and she isn’t perfect. She shouts at him sometimes, temper frayed. She always regrets it.
He hides in the curvy yellow slide at the playground and refuses to come out. He is begging them all to go away and before long he is wailing and incomprehensible. She begs and begs for him to come out, to let her bundle him home. He doesn’t move. Other parents take their children away from the slide, offer help, and all she can offer in return is a pained grimace, a shake of the head. Eventually she clambers inside and pulls him out by the cuff of his jersey, the static from the slide making the cheap polyester crackle, and he screams, hitting the sides, trying to jam himself inside with his legs, and she is perhaps too rough, and people are staring, and once she has him out she has to keep a hold on him to stop him from darting right back in again. She drags him away.
At the gate of the playground he stops resisting. She looks at him properly. His eyes are red and swollen. His nose is running. He has broken the skin on his palms where his fingernails pressed in too deep, a mirror image on each side.
He will not meet her eye. She bursts into tears because she feels so hopeless.
He is startled, distracted. She has to sit down on the ground she is so entirely drained.
He picks her wilted flowers from the roadside, pats her hair and says, ‘Sorry for being so bad. I won’t ever be that naughty again. Just please don’t cry, Mama.’
She wants to cry harder but she doesn’t. She takes the flowers, smile watery. ‘Oh, Klaus-maus,’ she says, putting her arms around him. She thinks about what else she can say.
‘Am I in big trouble now?’ he asks.
It’s easy to answer a question. ‘No, maus,’ she says, and kisses the top of his head. ‘You were scared. You won’t ever be in trouble for getting scared.’)