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A Boy in Winter (Maxine Chernoff)


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  Time

I remember the face on the cover of Time. It was a British boy around ten years old, who had smothered a neighbor child while playing. I sat on my bed and stared at that cover. Danny was only two then, and his father had just left us. It took me forever to fall asleep in those days. My mind, like a spring tornado, spun with trouble. I focused on the boy's face until the page got grainy, and the photo looked crude, like a bad painting. Then I brushed my hair; it was still long--I suppose I wanted to look young--and wondered about evil, whether it's a force in nature or just in us.

I looked at Link, Alex's old dog, dumb gray animal panting up at me with eager eyes, and knew he couldn't be evil. I started pacing the room and looked down from the apartment window at the street where a single car was cruising like a phantom. Where was the driver going? Probably to meet a lover or to kill someone who had betrayed him, which is what I thought about often then. In my better moments I asked myself what weapon I would use to snuff out Alex when I found him. First I would confront him with all of the things I hadn't had the presence of mind to say when he left. I would walk back into his life like a Fury, my defense well-rehearsed, my vengeance a fine-honed instrument.

More often, I was up late, wanting Alex in bed with me, whatever the cost and humiliation, wanting him back so much that I could smell him in the air, hating him at the same time. It became a game I played. I conjured up his good side, which had held our son and made me laugh and touched me in all the right ways. Then I thought of the night he left, and how I was in a panic, unable to dismiss his face.

Alex smiled at me when he said he was leaving, like he was giving me a present. But my freedom wasn't a gift. I was still in love. And it wasn't freedom because he was walking away, and I had Danny. If that smile had meaning beyond a nervous gesture, I haven't stumbled upon it in nine years.

Then I went into Danny's room and held his hand. He was such a sound sleeper that unless I shouted in his ear, I couldn't have disturbed him. Holding on to him, I banished the thought that any child could do such a terrible thing. I wouldn't allow it to enter my mind or to occupy Danny's room with its shiny yellow walls and tulip-faced trim. When I went back to my bedroom, I threw the magazine away just like that.

Now that I'm looking for answers about Danny, I wish that I had saved it.


Slogans

I see cars all the time with the slogan, "Guns don't kill, people do." I see cars all the time with the slogan, "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." I see cars all the time with the slogan, "Shit happens," "Practice acts of random kindness," "Save the Whales." I want a bumper sticker that says "Save Danny." I need to understand, though, how it happened that I need to save him, how my son, a normal, eleven-year-old child, became newsworthy, how Frank Nova aided and abetted my son in this process, how a compound bow is fired, how it will feel if I lose Danny forever.

Sometimes I think being locked up with him would be the best solution. We could be sent away together somewhere safe. I'd still be able to take care of him then, and I could spend all the rest of my time figuring this out. What will Danny do in this new place, which I imagine to be Montana, woodsy and isolated, somewhere a boy can't meet other people and cause trouble? Watch TV, play video games, build model gliders, collect baseball cards, tell lame jokes that I pretend are funny, all the things he's always done: until we met the Novas and our lives changed, first for the better and then for the worse.


Social Science

My mother called after she heard the news. She's a kind of hermit, she and her cats. I don't talk to her that often now that Dad isn't alive, which might make her feel inhibited with me. Instead, it makes her more frank, as if our estrangement is a way for her to leverage power when we do speak.

"I can understand those children at Cabrini-Green," she said, "doing things like this. They throw each other out of windows every day." Her voice was calm and low. I could see her in her housedress, coffee at the ready, a cloud of cats billowing around her ankles. "I can see why a child who has nothing, no love at all, goes out and harms another child. But Danny?"

I could only be silent, and my silence provided another window for my mother, who can jimmy any psychological lock. Knowing my mother's power to be fierce makes me believe in all those determined lady detectives that fiction is handing us lately.

"What did you do to him?" she asks flatly.

"Nothing. I love him, Mother."

"Did you sleep around? Did men visit you?"

"I had dates now and then, but nothing too serious.

I wasn't going to try and explain Frank Nova and me to my mother.

"There's always motivation, Nancy. Things make sense."

"Well, this breaks all the rules, Mom."

"Was he jealous of the other child?"

"Eddie was his friend. They were as close as brothers."

Then we didn't speak. She was probably pursing her lips and waiting for me to admit something. Give her some evidence; she'll grip it, jaws locked. While she waited for me to offer a guilty clue, the kitchen filled with the sound of order that intruded from outside. It was Thursday, and the streets were being swept. A giant whooshing engulfed the room.

"I've learned a lot from my cats, Nancy," her voice interrupted. "I can give you two examples. One cat I had, Chloe, the white one--you remember her maybe--was an only child. She was a crazy nervous little thing, afraid of her own shadow. And when she got too frightened, she'd sink her teeth into things. When we moved and Dad went to pick her up, she gave your father's hand a real good bite. Remember that?"

"I do."

"Well, I say it was being an only child."

More silence from me. No clues.

"The other possibility," she continued, undaunted by my silence, "is hardship. George, my new cat--you haven't met him--was a stray. He's the best hunter I've ever seen. Without claws he can pick birds right out of the trees."

"Amazing," I say flatly.

"We do what we need to survive."

"People aren't cats, Mother."

I'm just saying that there was some need in Danny, some hole he had to fill."

"I still think he was playing. Without the bow, Eddie would be alive. This nightmare wouldn't be. I believe what he's told me. Why can't you?"

I think she said, "Wishful thinking, Nancy," before I hung up on her for the first time in thirty-eight years.


Life Opened Up

I remember the day that Danny was born with great clarity. Even mothers rendered unconscious to relieve their pain have said this. I can't say that I haven't always been sentimental about it, but thinking of it now...his smallness against me, after he came out and rested on my chest, how it felt that first time he pulled at my breasts and they magically gave up what he needed. I had always prized my own intelligence, the ability I had to shape myself into a woman despite my mother, despite the fears that every girl has that the place inside her, her soul that should be, is somehow lacking. But as soon as I saw him, I began to trust my instincts; no one can try to convince me that it's reason that draws two people into a huddle from which heat and life grow.

This is it, I said when the birth waters gushed warm between my legs. And with every stab of pain, I repeated a vow: I will love and protect my child, I will never harm my boy. So many times I've broken this in small ways. Before this happened, I always felt that it was the first day of his life and that whatever went wrong yesterday--a nasty fall, an angry gaze, some faint shadow of disappointment temporarily skimming his face--could be corrected tomorrow. Life, I always thought, was a series of alterable scenes, an accordion of possibility. I always imagined, and this is as close to religion as I ever got, that what connects us, what holds us all to this world is the river that flows from the moment that a life begins. The worst thing is losing that.

 
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Excerpted from A Boy in Winter by Maxine Chernoff. Copyright © 1999 by Maxine Chernoff. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.