“When he stopped answering to his name altogether, and just stared blankly, she knew something was deeply wrong.” A stirring short story that exemplifies that idea that the most terrifying thing in the world is to truly love a child…
by: Carly A. Krakow
The small, curved soles of the tiny feet in the pale yellow, cushioned socks go pitter-patter, pitter-patter on the concrete. The sidewalk is smooth, light gray, and mostly clean except for the occasional dried, white splatter where a bird in flight has relieved itself. No broken glass in sight. No dog excrement left behind by a careless pet owner, no discarded and rotting food, no used condoms. Just a usual level of dirt, most of it accidentally blown onto the pavement by the landscapers. The lawns on this street are all neat — sod, or grass mowed down short to look even and lush. The lawns look like a dozen extra-large squares of green, chia pet-coated carpet.
The pale yellow, cushioned socks are lined in soft, fuzzy cotton. The kind with long, loopy threads that get stuck in between the boy’s toes. The socks that encase the tiny feet have small rubber shapes on the bottom. Toddler Grippers is the name for these kind of socks, and the rubber grips on the bottom of this pair are tiny orange suns, tiny blue moons, and tiny gold stars. They are meant to provide traction, to prevent the boy from slipping on glossy, wood dining room floors, or on shiny bathroom tiles. But they do not slow him down. Not one bit. With each step he takes, slapping his feet against the hard pavement, the bottoms of the pale yellow socks take on a dustier hue.
Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, pitter-patter. The boy is running very fast now, though he does not really know why.
Three months ago, the mother and the father moved the family out of their house in the other neighborhood. Three whole months, but the new apartment still does not feel like home. Located on the margins of this new neighborhood with the lush green lawns, their new apartment is on the ground floor of a new condo complex.
The apartment is much smaller than their old house, which had a front porch and a swing set in the backyard and a second floor with one bedroom for the boy, another bedroom for the daughter, and a third bedroom with a bay window for the mother and the father. But the new apartment is brand new construction.
“Completely modern, just finished a month ago. All up to par,” the real estate agent had told them, sensing their over-eagerness to sign the lease.
In a panic, they grabbed it, despite the ugliness of its gray kitchen and bathroom, and the cramped living room that is now stuffed with a queen-sized bed for the mother and the father, and in the corner a small bed in the shape of a race car for the boy. Their daughter has the one bedroom with a door so she can have a small table and chair for doing homework in quiet. But this apartment was what they could find on such short notice without having to change school districts, and what they could afford, especially while they still paid the mortgage for the old house and waited for an offer that might not come, after the discovery. And they needed the apartment to be new, the mother was very intent on that.
“Don’t you understand?” she had screamed at the father in a terrified rage the day she and the boy went to the emergency room, three and a half months ago. “This paint is killing him. They said the blood levels he has mean he has been absorbing this stuff for months. And we did nothing the whole time! They don’t know if the treatment will work. He could be this way for life.”
They had noticed the symptoms a few weeks before the ER doctor diagnosed the boy with lead poisoning from dust and paint chips that flaked off the walls of the very old house. The boy alternated between staring into space, and becoming so hyper that he ran around the room, unable to concentrate on anything or sit still. “The terrible twos,” the boy’s aunts and uncles and grandparents had told the mother over the phone from her hometown a three-hour plane ride away. But she noticed a big change. When he stopped answering to his name altogether, and just stared blankly, she knew something was deeply wrong, but the doctor at the clinic had been unhelpful in the rushed five-minute-long appointment. And then the boy had a seizure just as the mother was about to drop him at daycare, and she rushed him to the hospital.
They had moved into that house when the boy was eighteen months old. It was supposed to be a first happy home in the suburbs. A chance to move out of the city and get the daughter into the highly-ranked public elementary school just before she entered fifth grade. “Sure, it’s old, but it’s charming. You’ll make it charming,” the father had convinced the mother. And she did. Quaint furniture from the flea market, and curtains made out of toile and checked fabrics that she had purchased at a discount. “And there’s so much space,” they had agreed.
The area was not as “safe,” not as clean, as the neighborhood with the lush green lawns, but they thought that was a good sign. Somehow a middle ground between the city life they were giving up, and the sterile, new suburbia that intimidated them. But, since moving into the apartment, it was in the new suburbia that they had ended up after all. It was the only part of town with new construction, and that was the most important thing. Anything built after 1978 — anything guaranteed to be free of lead paint and lead dust.
The apartment was not really “part” of the new neighborhood, however. It was very obviously on the periphery — backed up against a cul-de-sac, which marked the actual start of the new neighborhood. The building’s residents were mostly young single people and couples who commuted into the city for work. The space was not designed for kids. All glass doors and sharp edges.
The building sat on the eastern edge of the new neighborhood, close to the center of town with all the shops and restaurants. And then, behind the building, there was the cul-de-sac with four big houses, which gave way to the street with more big houses. The street curved and continued on for half a mile down to the west end of the neighborhood, where the street opened up onto the main road. Cross the four-lane road from there, and in three more minutes you would be back in the old neighborhood and at the old house.
The father liked to go on that walk with their brown Labrador, Patti. He had been taking the walk most nights after dinner lately, to say hi to the old neighbors and grab a bite to eat and a few beers if they were barbecuing, and to sit and chat and watch the neighbors’ kids ride their bikes up and down the street and throw tennis balls for Patti to catch. Would his son ever be able to ride a bike? Would his son ever be able to throw a ball? “Too soon to tell,” was all the doctors would say. The father hated to admit it, but the walks were a refuge from the boy’s screaming and running and crying, and the mother’s shouting about the boy’s screaming and running and crying.
Patti had been the mother’s dog for a long time, since the mother had first moved to the city with an ex-boyfriend, before she met her husband. But Patti had adored the father, and the mother would later say that was how she knew he was “the one.” When they were first dating, Patti would lie between them in bed at night, curling up against the father’s feet. When the daughter and the boy were later born, the mother and the father joked that Patti thought she was the children’s mother — she would inch towards the babies on the bed and then and roll onto her side, as if prepared to nurse them like newborn puppies.
Now the boy is darting down the curved street in the new, safe neighborhood. Pitter-patter, pitter-patter. He is following roughly the same path that his father takes on the nightly walks with Patti — it is really the only path available if you go out the back door of the ground floor apartment, and walk through the small patch of woods that butts up against the cul-de-sac. The path in the other direction, towards town, has been blocked off by a construction barrier for two weeks.
Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, pitter-patter. Darting past swimming pools and past BMWs parked in circular driveways, the boy is about halfway to the main road that marks the threshold of the old neighborhood when the mother screams.
“Where is he? Where is he? Where is my baby?” Her scream is so loud that she will later wonder if the boy could hear her in that moment, even though he was already too far away.
When the boy had gotten out of the apartment three weeks prior and wandered towards the small patch of woods behind the apartment building, the father jumped up as soon as he heard the glass door slide open, and spotted him from the living room before the boy had a chance to travel out of sight. “Impulsive and erratic behavior can be part of the effects of the toxic exposure,” the new specialist doctor had told them. So they decided to leave the couch pushed up firmly against the glass door ever since.
“Why was the door open?” the mother screams. She grabs her shoes and the father grabs the daughter and they all run out of the apartment, leaving the glass door partly open behind them in their panic. The father and the daughter run east, over the construction barrier and towards the shops and restaurants. The mother runs west, towards the old house. She runs for three minutes but it feels like thirty. She is sweating and trying to catch her breath. Somehow she is pushing one leg in front of the other, but her legs feel frozen. Solid. Stiff. Like they are made out of lead.
She imagines the dust the boy had been breathing in all those months swirling up into her own body, lying dormant until this very moment, when it all pools in her calves to sabotage her at a time when she most needs her legs to work properly. “That’s not how lead poisoning works, you fucking idiot” she tells herself, managing to loathe herself for abstractifying the situation when she most needs to be sharp and in the moment.
Halfway to the center of town in the other direction, the daughter, unable to keep up with her father’s marathon pace, stops and the tears that have been streaming down her face give way to a harrowing sob. The father turns around and gestures for her to catch up with him. When she doesn’t, he jogs back a few paces to meet her. “I opened the glass door to play with Patti out back yesterday. What if I forgot to put the couch back?” she cries. The father picks her up and holds her in his arms and keeps walking. Tears stream down his face as he thinks about opening the glass door early this morning to take out the garbage, and tries to remember the click of the small metal lock and the sound of the couch legs rubbing against the tiled floor as he pushed the couch back up against the glass. He remembers clearly. But was that yesterday or today? He is sleep-deprived from being up until the early morning hours with the boy. His mouth goes dry and he swallows and he is not sure.
Nearly a mile in the other direction now, the mother is running and running. The tears on her cheeks have evaporated. Her body has no new tears left to give. She is at the main road now, and her heart skips a beat as she looks around, crossing four lanes of traffic with no sign of the boy. She is terrified she has not found him. She is relieved she has not found him here.
She crosses the main road and is now back in the old neighborhood. Continuing to follow the curve of the street, her heart fully, authentically, stops. She spots one dirty, pale yellow, cushioned sock with tiny orange suns and tiny blue moons and tiny gold stars lying on the pavement next to a broken beer bottle and a clump of cigarette butts.
Now the old house is visible in the distance, and she sees a police car’s red and blue lights flashing and hears the wail of its siren. Air stops moving in and out of her lungs. Or at least it feels that way.
The most terrifying thing in the world is to truly love a child.
The mother sees her old neighbor, the retired schoolteacher with two daughters and four granddaughters, kneeling on the ground, diagonal from a parked police car. “I’m so sorry, darling,” she says to the mother, a tear streaming down her face.
Patti is lying in the street. Blood stains the concrete around her four, fur-covered legs. Skid marks are visible on the road beside her limp body.
Over the schoolteacher’s shoulder, the mother sees the schoolteacher’s daughter, holding the boy. Her boy! One of the boy’s feet dangles out from underneath the schoolteacher’s daughter’s arms, covered in a pale yellow sock, the other foot wearing a hot pink sock, much too big for him.
He is crying and squirming, and the mother runs towards him faster than she has ever run towards anything in her life and grabs him from the schoolteacher’s daughter’s arms.
“I’m so sorry sweetheart. Patti was always such a wonderful dog. Your little one must’ve run ahead of you? Didn’t want him to see this, so just scooped him up and covered that precious tiny bare foot in one of my Julie’s socks. Hope that’s alright.”
“No, he…he didn’t…he wasn’t…we were…”
The mother tries to explain, but cannot. She squeezes her boy and touches her hot check to his hair. She sobs for Patti, her beloved companion for so many years. Her shock gives way to grief for the life of a beloved friend, lost forever.
She sobs for her son — for his life, also lost, perhaps forever, in so many ways that matter.
Three minutes’ walking distance back towards the new neighborhood, the father, having called a friend from work to stay with the daughter and having dropped the daughter back at the apartment so he could continue the search, finally has the presence of mind to check his phone notifications.
He sees twelve missed calls from his wife, sees the flashing lights in the distance and hears the howl of the police car siren. He sees the now-dirty, pale yellow sock on the ground.
In that moment he learns how it feels to desperately, and immediately, want to die.
His phone rings. He answers. His wife’s voice on the other line, “I found him. He’s having another seizure. A bad one. We’re in front of the old house. An ambulance is on the way. But there is something else.”
The father stops hearing after he hears the words “found him.” This is the happiest phone call the father has received in his life.
“When he gets better, I’m going to start taking my boy on those after-dinner walks with me and Patti,” he thinks. “Maybe the whole family can go.”
The father picks up the dusty, pale yellow sock. Overcome with relief, he runs down the street to reach his broken wife, and his dead dog, and his very sick son.
“The most beautiful thing in the world is to truly love a child,” he reassures himself.
Carly A. Krakow is a writer, freelance journalist, editor, and activist based in New York City and London, UK. Her fiction, humor, poetry, essays, and political analyses have appeared in publications including Potato Soup Journal, The Daily Drunk, Unique Poetry Journal, openDemocracy, Jadaliyya, Al Jazeera, and Truthout. She posts updates about her work at www.carlykrakow.com and is on Twitter @CarlyKrakow.