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the son you always had

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I. 2016

There’s only one picture of his dad. Well, there are more pictures somewhere in the house, but there’s only one that hangs up in the hall and stares Will down every morning. He sees how his mom’s eyes mist over sometimes, sees how they dart between the picture and Will’s face. She doesn’t say you look so much like your father, but Will knows he does.

When his school pictures come he holds one up to the photo. The similarities are obvious: dark hair, big nose (his mom calls it prominent or distinguished, but Will doesn’t see it that way). Will is tall - at fifteen he’s already five-ten; he outgrew his mom the summer before seventh grade - and in the picture his dad towers over his mom. They’d be a ridiculous-looking couple, honestly, if they didn’t also look obsessed with each other.

Most parents hate each other, as far as Will can tell. At best, they display a cool indifference. He wonders if that would be true of his parents, if his dad were still around. Somehow he doesn’t think so. It’s obvious that his mom’s love has survived fifteen years of his dad being dead, so it probably would have survived fifteen years of raising him.

His mom doesn’t even date. He’s never asked her about it - God, that would be mortifying - but he hears her talking about it with his grandma sometimes. He’s overheard her saying things like I still don’t think I could love anyone else, and when he was a kid he thought that it was gross and mushy, but now it just makes him really, really sad.

It’s Tuesday, and on Tuesdays his mom works late at the hospital so he makes dinner. Tonight it’s Kraft macaroni and cheese and a slightly wilted salad. Last week it was scrambled eggs. Will’s cooking repertoire is limited, but so is his mom’s. They get take-out at least twice a week.

His mom takes a heaping bowl of salad and a tiny scoop of mac and cheese; Will does the opposite. They eat at the kitchen counter. There’s a table in the dining room, but it’s reserved for Sunday dinners with Grandma and whichever holidays they host. Will can’t wait until he’s old enough to bail on Thanksgiving at Uncle Bill’s house.

“I’ve been thinking about skipping senior year,” Will says, stirring the bright orange noodles with his fork. “I’ll have enough credits to graduate at the end of this year, technically, but if I finish out my junior year, I’ll have a bunch of AP credits, too.”

She smiles at him. He loves that about his mom. Lots of parents would freak out at their kid announcing something like that, but she always takes him seriously, and she always trusts him. “Do you want to travel?”

“I was thinking about working for a year. You know, to make some money for college.”

At that, her expression shifts. “You don’t need to do that, love,” she says gently.

Will shifts in his chair. “I just want to help.”

“I know, but you don’t need to. You can go to any school you want. If you want to work for a year, you can, but your college tuition is more than covered. Believe me.”

“Mom, I know how much money you make, and I know how expensive it is to live here.” He’s looked up their condo on Zillow. Not to even mention that she’s been paying private school tuition since he was in kindergarten.

She sighs and puts her fork down. “Will, your father left us a lot of money.”

Will has always assumed there must be a stash somewhere, though he still doesn’t see how it could cover four years at Stanford. “How much?”

His mom never lies to him, and she never talks down.“His family was very well off, and he left everything to us. After I sold his family’s properties…it’s a few million dollars, Will. You don’t need to worry about money. Ever.”

All he can think to say is, “Oh.” But that number scrolls through his head all evening, and a lot of things start to make sense. The expensive summer programs, the vacations to Europe and Asia, the fact that he goes to school with the children of senators and ambassadors. Some of his classmates have parents who are doctors, too, but it’s always both parents, and one of them is always an anesthesiologist.

It’s another puzzle piece: his father was rich. Will wonders if that changes anything. You know, other than his whole future. A few million dollars. Okay. Sure.

Late that night Will comes into the kitchen for a snack. The kettle’s on and he hears his mom in her bedroom, talking on the phone. Her voice is muffled through the door, but he hears her say, “I still miss him.” Will closes his eyes.

His father has never been a real person. He’s only always a whispered name, a fading photograph; everything Will knows about him is mediated through someone else.

After a few minutes his mom comes out, eyes still bright. “Will? What are you doing up so late?”

He holds up a slice of peanut butter toast, half eaten. “Hungry.”

Her face softens. “You’re gonna be eight feet tall, kiddo.”

“I’d settle for six,” he says, taking another bite. “Who were you talking to?”

The kettle sings, and she pours each of them a cup of chamomile tea, stirring some honey into Will’s. “One of your dad’s friends.”

“Byers?”

She nods.

“Mom, you know that he’s your friend, right?” This always bothers him. His father has been dead for longer than Will’s been alive. It seems absurd that those guys are still your dad’s friends, rather than hers.

When she looks at him her eyes are sad. “It’s just a habit, Will.”

“When I was little, I thought you and Byers were gonna get married,” Will says, grinning a little at the memory.

His mom chokes out a laugh. “Really?”

“Yeah. I mean, he was nice and smart and…clean.” Compared to Frohike and Langly, especially. “He seemed like he’d be good. And he never had any girlfriends, and you never…” His voice drops off.

“Will,” his mom says, hesitant, “does it bother you that I never - that I haven’t—“

“No, of course not,” he says hurriedly. “It’s just. I mean, you could, it wouldn’t bother me. There’s like, OK Cupid and stuff.”

“I think I’m a little old for that.”

He shrugs. “That’s how Parker’s mom met her boyfriend.”

“Yeah.” She puts her hands around her mug, exhales across the steaming surface. “Will, I know this is hard for you to understand. And maybe if I’d met someone, things would have been different. But I…I’ve never really wanted to find someone else. Your father was…”

Will looks down at the counter. “I don’t know what he was,” he says quietly. “I don’t…I don’t miss him, Mom. I never even knew him.”

She bites her lip and he knows he’s hurt her feelings, but she doesn’t say anything, just waits for him to gather his thoughts. His mom is good like that.

“And he never even knew I existed.” There’s just the crust left of his toast, and he starts picking at it, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs on the counter. “Mom, you were saying that he left all this stuff to us, all his money and his house or whatever, but that’s not true. He didn’t even know about me. He left all of it to you.” He can hear the thickness in his voice, and he resents it.

“Oh, Will. Is that what you think?” She sounds like her heart is breaking.

“Of course it is,” he mumbles. “It’s true.”

Tears spark in her eyes. He’s made his mom cry. Good work, asshole, he thinks. But she brushes the hair back from his forehead like he’s still a little kid, and he can’t help but be comforted. “There are so many kinds of truth, love,” she says.

“Okay, Mom.”

“He would have been so happy when he found out. And he’d be so proud of you.” She puts her arm around him and even though he’s too tall for it to be comfortable, he leans his head on her shoulder. “You’re curious and hard-working and kind, and that’s all anyone could want from their children. It’s what he’d have wanted.”

He shakes his head. “You don’t know that.”

“Then I guess you’re just going to have to trust me.” Her fingers tangle in the gold chain at her neck, and the familiar gesture catches his eye.

“Is that why you don’t date people? Because you think he’s…up there somewhere, watching us?” Will still goes to church for Christmas and Easter, because he thinks it’d break his mom’s heart if he didn’t, but he stopped believing a long time ago. If he ever did.

“It’s nothing that literal,” she says, and quickly changes the subject. “But Will…I don’t want you to worry about me, okay? Worrying is my job. It’s your job to ace your AP Physics quiz tomorrow.”

He groans. “I thought you said I just had to be curious and kind.”

“And hard-working,” she reminds him.

“Right,” he says, half smiling. Together they clear away their midnight snack - compulsive neatness is something he definitely got from her. Once everything’s put away, he tells her good night.

“Good night, love,” she says, and he suddenly sees how tired she looks. Blurry around the edges. “You’re okay?”

He thinks about that for a minute. Finally he says, “I know you don’t like to talk about him. But I think…it would be good if you did, sometimes.”

His mom is nodding while he says this. “I can do that.” Then re-evaluates: “I can try.”

“You loved him a lot,” Will says. He feels brazen; it’s not something he’s ever said out loud. It’s not something he’s ever heard her say, either.

“Yes, I do,” she says. The change in tense doesn’t slip past him. “And I know you hate to hear this, Will, but you’ll understand someday.”

After she goes to bed he stands in the dark kitchen for a long time, looking at her closed door, looking at the photo on the wall. A history of loss. And he feels like a traitor when he whispers: “I hope not.”