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In the Family

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“I was only playing,” Michael says to her knees.  His eyes dart up to her face, then skitter back down to the floor.  His hands are fisted in the hem of his sister’s best church dress, bought for Christmas that past year, the red one with the sweet little gold bows.  The Mary Janes to match aren’t on his feet, though.  Too big for them, certainly; he's gone up two sizes in the last year alone.  Her boy is due a growth spurt, else he’s going to mature into a very strangely proportioned young man.  There is red lipstick on his lips.  The little tube rests on the nightstand, rolled onto its side. 

Mrs. Caffrey feels detached; her brain has somehow floated off from the rest of her.  She hears the door knob squeak as if it is far away, perhaps still with her body.  When she looks down to inspect it, she sees that her knuckles have gone white.  She relaxes her grip.

“I…” she starts and has to try again, “I—hmm.”  Her mouth opens once, then twice, soundlessly, before she closes it again. 

Abruptly she lifts a single finger, “wait.”



“Now look up.”

Michael obeys.  She swipes the mascara wand across the underside of his lashes.

She feels more grounded now, more present, but her thoughts are giddy, ludicrous. What am I doing?  Why am I doing this?  He makes for a lovely girl.  And it’s true.  Prettier than she had been at that age, all frumpy hair and big glasses and too-bright wrong-color eyeshadow, applied in secret in the girls’ toilet at school.  Glasses are nicer nowadays.  There’s hardly any shame in wearing them at all, now. 

“You take off that lipstick,” she orders him, passing him a tissue dipped in cold cream.  She is aiming for a stern tone and not quite managing it.  “That one is much too grown up.”  She reaches into her makeup bag, fingers flicking over the options, before selecting a mauve which will flatter his skin.  Her son’s lips are parted as she applies it for him, gaze too intense and curious to meet.

“There,” Mrs. Caffrey says, unnaturally cheery.  She holds his chin between her thumb and forefinger and turns him toward the mirror.  Michael makes as if to touch his skin, the blush swept over his cheekbone, and she halts his hand’s progress. 

“Don’t touch your face.  You’ll be getting pimples soon enough.  No need to hurry them along.”

“Thanks.”  His voice is tight.

“Don’t,” be afraidEver hide.  Be like your dad, “mention it,” she finishes stupidly, still strange and bright, as if she were selling oven cleaner in an advertisement.  She busies herself with gathering her makeup back into the bag and heads back to the doorway, footsteps light.  She can feel Michael’s eyes on her back.