Their district had its flaws.
Each unit was tautly placed beside the next. They were stacked on top of another, and another, and another. If your neighbors were playing a game of chess, you could hear the pieces clacking together from a floor below. Something about living there, in Foxglove, gave off a feeling of clinical circumstances.
Like you were part of an experiment.
And the streets, with their pristinely swept, freshly paved glisten, didn’t help alleviate this feeling. However, it did make Jane feel safe. It made her natural, maternal fears about Oliver subside a little bit. Regardless of how crammed everything was, a sense of community was present.
John, the guy who led the custodial staff in the alleys and streets, gave Jane a kind wave whenever she came in passing. He ensured Oliver had a smile on his face. When he didn’t, he stopped whatever he was doing and asked, “What’s got you in the dumps, kiddo? You know I’ve got to clean that up. It’s my job to clean things up, after all.”
Oliver would giggle.
He got used to living in Foxglove pretty quickly, as moving from place to place wasn’t foreign to that kid.
“I’m sorry that we keep leaving,” Jane said to her son one night. It was before the start of the school week, they’d just finished watching one of Oliver’s favorite movies—perhaps a little too violent for him, but Jane certainly didn’t care, as long as it made him happy—and the popcorn bowl was down to just the kernels.
“It’s okay, Mama.” He chomped on one of the kernels.
“Stop,” she admonished half-heartedly. “We can’t afford new teeth for you.”
He hummed. “Would I be able to get them in a different color?”
“Yeah, what about purple?”
“Purple?” She snickered. “You’re crazy, boy.”
Oliver’s imagination spilled out of his eardrums, it was so vivid. He was getting to that age where boys were starting to do their hair themselves—not their mothers doing it for them—and the toys and accompanying laser-mouth-sounds abated. It was either sports, theatre, or sitting in the corner of the classroom and shutting up.
But Oliver had a dangerous combination of traits for a boy his age. He still played with toys avidly, and he didn’t hide it because he didn’t care.
At the previous schools he attended, sure, he’d been cast out of just about every social circle, but it wasn’t actively malicious. He invented his own friends and did what he could to enjoy his time at school. Even the teachers tried to ignore his “immature” tendencies, though at one point, his math instructor rebuked him for doodling in the margins of a test.
“But I’ve answered all the questions!” he protested.
He ignored Oliver, swiping the test away.
But at this new school, Oliver found no such luxury. A luxury the boy didn’t even know he had.
It was a remnant of the past when those boys approached him on the pavement.
Oliver had been camped under a slanted bit of roof, using a pair of action figures his mother got him for his birthday in a duel. Gigamax, the violet-armored, samurai-inspired warrior was pinned against a cliffside—the brick pillar holding up the roof—by Charlotte, the magically capable empress when they came over and interrupted.
“What’s the newbie doing over here?” one of them said. “You a little slow?”
It took Oliver a moment to remove the fantastical lens from his eye. His mind. That moment was too long for the four kids that towered over his crouch.
“He is slow,” another said. “So why is he in our class?”
Oliver held his figures close to his chest.
“Shouldn’t he be in with the other apes?”
He hadn’t been to the nurse in all his life.
Oliver had an irrational fear of doctor’s offices. He didn’t like how they smelled. How the magazines were always at least six months old. How most of the TV’s were still those boxy monitors that hummed with static.
It reminded him of that one place he used to call home.
“What brings you in, sweetie?” The nurse at the desk was in her forties, had nails that screeched for the eye with their electric hue, and smiled only with her lips.
“Your stomach hurts?”
“Like throw-up hurts?”
“No. It just hurts.” He still held the action figures close to his chest, and his thumb stroked the top of Charlotte’s icy blonde hair.
“Well,” she began, “you can go lay down in one of the cots.” She pointed, practically illuminating a sharp ray of neon light toward a collection of anemically sheeted, single beds. “Close your eyes and we’ll check on you in a few minutes, okay?”
Oliver nodded. He scurried over to a mattress situated in the corner, near a small window. The boy hoisted himself onto the cot, which was worse than he perceived. It was a thin, plasticky mattress without a pillow, draped with a long stretch of brown paper. Every time Oliver adjusted himself, it crinkled below him.
And as the sounds of that office—phones ringing, fingers tapping on keyboards, and low chatting—turned into a cycle of noise, Oliver felt himself drift.
Drift further and further away.
Jane took off work.
And since she’d gotten that stiff promotion—thank god, who knows what would’ve happened otherwise—she was getting paid to do it.
After the overwhelming pressure from Donna, she had also decided that it was time. Not time to move on, per say, but time to peruse. To finally dip her toe in the water with what the hell women were up to. To follow that side of her lust. Enough men, she decided.
So, Jane took the leap a couple nights ago and signed up for one of those apps. There were probably a hundred of them, but they all accomplished the same thing. They had the same culture. Well, according to Donna at least.
And after careful—not careful enough—consideration, a lump in her gut that wouldn’t abate, and about seventy-five messages, she was sitting in a coffee shop, waiting.
She tapped her foot on the tile. She gazed emptily at an open book’s pages. Didn’t read the words. Instead, Jane thought of the words she’d say to her once she did arrive. But as Jane’s mind went blank—for the first time today—she spotted someone strutting up the sidewalk through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
She tracked the woman with her eyes through every step toward the coffee shop entrance. Watched her open the door, look up from her phone, and lock eyes with Jane. She smiled.
Jane smiled back.
The woman sat down just across from her. “Hey, beautiful.”
Jane’s heart leapt. “H-hey.”
“So, you really are new to this whole thing.”
“I am.” She shrugged. “A little rusty when it comes to this part.”
There was a drawn out silence. Jane looked anywhere besides the girl’s face. And make no mistake, even though this woman was twenty-five, she looked remarkably young.
“Do you want me to get you something?” Jane asked, vaguely pointing toward the counter.
She shook her head. “I mean, we can just go back to my place, or yours.”
Jane chuckled. “Don’t you want to talk first?”
“I don’t really see a point.” She shrugged. “Might as well just get to it.”
It was different in her head.
Jane was so disgusted by the thought of being—of laying—with another man that the allure of other women gave her a speculative sort of power. She was willing to do anything in that scenario of cathartic lust. Anything that other person wanted.
Jane held the black whip with white knuckles. Not out of pleasure, eagerness, or lascivious desire, but out of something deeper. Something more difficult to explain in common words.
“Come on, Jane, hit me.”
She did the best she could, whirling the flimsy tail through the air with a stiff wrist. The smack on flesh was louder than Jane anticipated, and she flinched with greater conviction than the girl did.
But the truth was harsher than the next smack or the next.
Jane had longed for this moment before. Jane had, in a distant time, wished to be in this position of utter control. With the belt in her hands. A scenario where Oliver was away somewhere, under a responsible—truly responsible—watchful eye, divulged in something proper.
Where everything could just spill out of Jane without a filter.
She didn’t want to go back to that mindset. That state of being where she was so hurt—so driven into a corner—that hate fueled her thought. It was like now, as she walloped on this girl, she was being thrust back.
She stopped, one smack too late. “Wh-what is it?” Fear swept over her like an avalanche.
What had she done?
“Your phone’s ringing.” The girl’s voice was so casual, like she wasn’t just getting struck red. “Do you want to get that?”
Jane paused for a moment, letting every sound and sight enter her, rather than every thought. She heard the muffled traffic of the street outside, a distant siren, and an overhead plane. But overpowering it all was the blare of her ringtone.
And for some reason, it rang with a tinge of irrefutable dread.
She scrambled across the room, her sweaty feet sticking and unsticking to the vinyl floor. She dug through her bag, pulled out her phone and answered it without looking at who decided to call her now.
Work probably. Hopefully.
“Is this Ms. O’Brien?”
Her heart dropped. The previous milieu shattered into a million pieces.
“Your son is missing.”
Jane O’Brien was a different woman, now.
The fear. The festering. The remembering.
It all gave way to pure instinct. Rage.
“Can you please explain to me, once again, what the fuck happened?” she pressed, driving her finger into the hard surface of that desk.
The nurse pleaded not only with her words, but with her hands. “Ma’am, I understand that you are upset, and understandably so, but I’d ask that you not swear. There are—”
“There are what? Kids here?” She gave a horrifying chuckle. “That’s the problem. My kid isn’t here. What did you do with Oliver?”
The nurse stood and walked over toward the cots, a neon-painted finger already pointing. “Once he told us what was going on—how his stomach hurt—we sent him to lay down in the corner.”
Jane followed, and once they reached the cot Oliver once lay in, she scoured the floor, all the way up to the ceiling. Searching for anything. And all she could find was an open window, just large enough for a child to squeeze through.
The boy could hear the sirens, albeit distant.
Every house he saw, peering at him through the autumn trees, he avidly avoided. A monster like him shouldn’t be anywhere near people. Nowhere near life. He even contemplated throwing those figures to the brittle leaves for a proper burial.
But since the beginning of the transformation, Oliver needed every source of strength. And as he meandered through the woods, the sun falling out of the sky for the moon to take its place, that strength came solely from the stoic Gigamax and Charlotte.
As that painful, throbbing pit in his stomach grew and multiplied, spreading throughout his torso like a parasite, he rubbed and rubbed the plastic of those figures. That plaguing agony pressed against his skin, begging to break through.
Oliver did all he could to fight that internal uprising.
But what had triggered this?
Ever since those boys talked with him in the schoolyard, ever since they taunted him endlessly, this turmoil wouldn’t let up. He read about the Bubonic Plague in a book once. About the Ebola virus in Western Africa.
What if he was patient zero of something new?
Something only kids like Oliver could get?
He wasn’t sticking around to find out. No, he was smarter than this thing inside him. Smarter than anyone who tried to hurt him. In fact, he was just like Gigamax and Charlotte. Brave and powerful and rebellious. In those comics he read, Charlotte often fended off swathes of aliens, those that belonged to species she knew nothing about.
And this pain, like those aliens to Charlotte, was something Oliver had never experienced. Something he’d never fought before. He didn’t know how to beat the unfurling, prickly sensation that oozed into his extremities—that made his fingers tingle. But every time he thought of that boy’s face—how he wouldn’t leave—it made it unfathomably worse.
Something clicked. Shifted.
Oliver found a hollowed tree, brittle and unoccupied by anything living. Only the brown, crunching grass, brittle autumn leaves, and solid ground lay within. And like a pod designed just for his little figure, the boy hugged his knees and sat within the tree. It was his very own shell to defend from anything outside.
As the sky darkened, he found there wasn’t much to look at.
Only that pain to feel, and the crescendo of his breath to keep at bay.
Flashlights impaled the darkness, catching dust and falling leaves in their luminous glares. She’d hardly been able to speak to Donna—due to a swarm of surging emotions—and accurately explain what was going on without panic tainting every word. But now, as the pair of them—amongst the many others—scoured the woods, a new panic was taking shape.
Jane needed to be everywhere.
She needed to be the fastest one amongst them all. The most observant.
She needed to have the command over everyone’s attentiveness. Their movements.
But she couldn’t conquer it all.
To even be allowed on this search, Jane had to assure the detectives of her calmness. It required quite the performance—one she didn’t know was conjurable.
“He’s the brightest kid I know,” Donna said. “I wasn’t kidding when I said what I said about him earlier.”
“W-why, what did you say?” It wasn’t even that cold, but Jane felt like her skin was being chipped away by an icepick. Her jaw was tighter than a sailboat’s knot, and her teeth clacked together. She also had the untamable urge to shit.
“He’s gonna be the next Mark Zuckerberg.”
“I would prefer he not be that out of touch.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Jane scoffed. “Trust me, Donna, you don’t have to tell me how smart my kid is. I know.”
Donna was usually one to retaliate with a stiff rebuttal. But this time, she diverted that irritation into a keen eye.
“I know you’re just trying to ease my fears.” Jane bit her lip. “But he’s just so fragile. He’s so pure.”
Donna looked at her.
“I can’t lose that in my life.”
Oliver still lay within that hollowed tree, consumed by the groaning wood’s embrace. The wind only reached his skin intermittently. Those distant sirens didn’t wail any longer. In fact, the only place they cried was within his memory.
Perhaps everyone stopped looking for him.
He was a burden on his mother, that he knew. Oliver may’ve been a child, but he wasn’t clueless as to why the pair of them kept moving around so much. His mom never went to college. And that was correlative with making a lot of money, as per his observations at school.
One kid, John Giolito, who went to the second school in this relocation escapade, always wore expensive jewelry and shoes. When they went around the classroom on the first day, asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” John responded with, “Brain surgeon. Just like my dad.”
He was met with gasps, even from the teachers.
“I’m going to go to Harvard, too, just like he did.”
So, when it got around to being Oliver’s turn, no matter how he twisted the already mediocre truth, it wouldn’t be anywhere close to the standard John set. Because the fact was, John had a plausible future in being a brain surgeon. His father’s accomplishments gave it authenticity.
Oliver’s mother had him when she was very young. She couldn’t focus on herself. And over the past few months, that was starting to weigh on the boy. At the end of the day, regardless of how deeply he buried himself in fantasy, Oliver truly was nothing but a burden.
He alone ruined his mother’s dreams. Everything she ever wanted to be.
The boy stood up from his fetal position and listened to the sounds of the night unfiltered. The blare of the wind colliding with the autumn leaves—which clung to branches just barely—punctuated the undertones of tree trunks moaning. Perhaps Oliver was deeper in the forest than he originally thought, as no evidence of other people existed. There were no highways, busy roads—or even quiet ones—that he could take solace in.
He was alone.
And when he held his hand up to the face of the moon, those hands didn’t look their normal hue. No, they were turning a shade of lifeless grey.
“I know you don’t have kids, so, you wouldn’t really understand.”
Donna raised an eyebrow. “Sure, but I’ve been around you and Oliver.” She smiled. “I know he makes you happy.”
“It’s more than happiness.” Jane shook her head, slightly, as they continued to follow the decree of their flashlights. “Oliver is like an extension of myself, but, he’s obviously his own person. I mean, you said it yourself, look at how bright the boy is. I wasn’t ever that smart at his age.”
Each person scouring the woods had struck up their own conversations, related to Oliver or not. The crunching below their feet, at this point, had become the silence.
“He’s like a canvas I put my everything into. All the mistakes I’ve made, all the good, all the things I could never control.” She looked up to the sky, at the face of the moon. “I’m changing his future. Shaping the way he views the world.”
Donna was happy to be a part of that silence as her best friend talked.
“I mean, it’s so important. Anything I do—no matter how small—could be what he remembers me for.” Jane gripped her flashlight tighter. “But what’s even crazier is what he was supposed to represent.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was pregnant with Oliver at sixteen. I barely finished high school. And after that, my parents shut me out of their lives. Then, well, everything with him.”
Donna nodded. Kicked a handful of leaves. “Yeah.”
“Oliver marked the end of my youth. The affirmation that I was a slut. The anger from my husband.”
Donna said nothing.
Jane scoffed. “Nobody stayed for him, Donna. Nobody thought of who he is. What he’s going through.” She felt the bombardment of tears, the forming of a lump in her throat, and the emptiness of despair assault her. “Even when he was the best thing to ever happen to me.”
Oliver was nothing but a burden, and now that pain—whatever it was—fronted the assault on his body. It tore at the life in his flesh, flushing all of it away. He couldn’t even feel the wind with his hands anymore, and as the seconds passed, his face met the same fate.
The boy was without sensory feeling.
His legs moved automatically underneath him, and both Charlotte and Gigamax fell from his hands. Each step droningly came after the last, crunching the brittle, dead leaves below. His mind separated itself from those steps. From the sight of the forest and wind and moon.
Oliver remembered the feeling of the pain, even as the sharpness of it receded and gave way to numbness. He tried to place what even caused it in the first place, but that newfound numbness reminded him of how pointless that was. How the only thing that mattered was aimlessly wandering.
“There he is!”
All with flashlights converged on him, and Jane let those emotions loose. Even the EMTs made way for the mother, easing their apprehension once they realized the boy was upright. But when Jane held him close, sobbing into his shoulder, she could feel the emptiness dripping from him.
She looked into his listless eyes with her glassy ones. “What is it, honey? Is everything alright? Are you hurt?”
Even as she peered into his very core, Oliver came to that devastating realization. Not even his own mother could see the reckoning of that pain. She couldn’t see the grey that plagued his skin.