A Happy Home, part 4 of 5

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Ok, i lied. Sue me. i thought it would only take one more segment to conclude, but i vastly underestimated. Don’t mistake this for the end. Also, sorry for pulling a George R.R. here.

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From time to time the Youngs would encounter the Millers around the neighborhood, at school functions or PTA meetings, but the families rarely exchanged more than a brief greeting, and never visited one another intentionally again. Years later, when Miles was in the fourth grade, Mrs. Young ran into Mrs. Miller at the grocery store. Both were retrieving milk from the cooler, and suddenly it seemed conversation was unavoidable, even though the couples had spent years casually avoiding one another. This was not born out of spite, at least not for the Youngs. They had no reason to hold a grudge against the Millers, and in fact rather pitied them for their struggles with Billy. In their eyes, the whole incident had long ago passed into the realm of harmless, humorous memory, relegated strictly and solely to the past. What instead perpetuated the Youngs’ tacit participation in this game of social evasion was not bitterness, but fear: they could not be certain that the Millers were as ready to forgive as they.

Mrs. Young’s first inclination was to turn and pretend she hadn’t seen the other woman, but courtesy demanded that she say something; it would only be more awkward if she didn’t. She flashed a bright smile that reflected the glow of her bright yellow blouse, and mustered up her friendliest hello.

Mrs. Miller only seemed to look up from her list for an instant, just long enough to know who was speaking. “Karen, hi. How are you?” Her tone was polite yet distant.

“We are quite well, thank you! How are you? How is the family?”

“We’re good,” she said flatly, then repeated it as if it needed further proof. “We’re good. Frank is getting promoted soon, we think, so that will hopefully give us some regularity at the house, finally, maybe allow me to spend a little more time at home or, I don’t know, work a little more regular hours.” The implication was clear. Mrs. Young wondered if she should press the issue, and very nearly decided against it, but she had a concerned curiosity at this point, and it got the best of her.

“And how is little Billy?”

Mrs. Miller’s response was delayed, and measured when it came. “He is…doing better. Actually, we got him a dog. I know, I know, it seems like a silly thing to do on the surface, but we read…somewhere, I don’t know, that it might help children develop a sense of responsibility if they have a pet. So far it seems to be working quite well.” She gave a single thin laugh, accompanied by a wispy thin smile. “He loves that dog more than anything, actually.”

Mrs. Young was genuinely pleased. “I’m so glad! Very happy to hear that. I hope that gives you guys a little relief.”

“We do too! Absolutely.” She was looking back at her list, seeming anxious to be off. Mrs. Young took the hint.

“Well, it was great seeing you. Tell Frank we said hello.”

“I will. Good seeing you too. Take care.”

She wheeled her cart around and then turned it down the nearest aisle, not looking back. Mrs. Young watched her until she disappeared, then turned back to her own shopping. She had mostly forgotten the encounter by the time she got home, where Miles greeted her with an enthusiastic hug, as if she’d been gone for weeks.

 

Miles’s school career was predictably, almost mundanely, successful. His early propensity for learning paid dividends of continued excellence throughout elementary school, but what pleased the Youngs most was not his aptitude but rather his appetite; he had a genuine hunger for education. In the evenings after dinner, Miles always volunteered to do his homework, which he would finish promptly. At first the Youngs had offered to check his work and help him where he was confused, but it was not long before they realized that these offers were quite superfluous. His work was always flawless. The first few times he had come home with a report card containing only A’s, they were unsurprised, but ecstatic nevertheless. The cards had immediately achieved prominence on the refrigerator, winning out over old Christmas photos and favorite family recipes. By the time Miles reached the third grade, however, it became apparent that his grades were never going to falter, and not only did the Youngs stop displaying his grades, they stopped even checking them. He attended the same school where Mrs. Young worked, and this enabled her to stay well-informed about his activity, but truly there was no need to keep tabs on him. His teachers had nothing but glowing remarks about both his scholarship and his behavior, and his achievements were recognized with every possible award during those years. In what had become their typical fashion, the Youngs received compliments about Miles with an air of grace and humility, pointing always to divine grace for their good fortune, refusing to take any of the credit for the child’s behavior. Inwardly, though, they beamed with pride.

A few weeks after her encounter with Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Young noticed her son talking to Billy at recess. Or rather, he was being talked to. Miles mostly spent his recesses reading, usually sitting against the wall near the basketball court. Billy usually played basketball with some other boys, and could often be heard arguing with them about whether or not he had fouled them during their shot. Mrs. Young suspected that he probably had, in most cases. Generally she afforded Miles his privacy at recess, rarely even saying hello to him, because, like all children, he was squeamish about talking to his mother in public. But this particular day, she happened to glance in his direction and noticed Billy standing over him, talking and laughing.

She had seen that laugh before, and the memory of it brought her heart into her throat for a moment. Not wanting to make unwarranted assumptions, but also wanting to protect her child should anything be amiss, she discretely made her way towards the boys until she could overhear the conversation.

“Miles is a bitch. Bitch bitch bitch.” Billy was laughing, and his friends were doing the same. Miles was saying nothing yet, which was reassuring to his mother, who leaned against the wall around the corner. Her natural instinct as both a mother and an educator was to intervene immediately, but she also had a slightly morbid curiosity about how Miles would handle the situation when unsupervised, so she hesitated just a few more moments before revealing herself.

“Look at him. Who reads at recess? Bitches.” Billy laughed jeeringly again, and his friends followed suit.

Mrs. Young could hear Miles close his book. “A bitch is a female dog,” he retorted. “I am obviously not either of those. I thought you had a dog. Shouldn’t you know that?”

As reasonable as his response was, it only elicited more guffaws from the boys. “Only a bitch would say that!” Billy exclaimed, and at this Mrs. Young decided she had heard enough. She appeared from around the corner and called out Billy’s name.

“That is quite enough of that mouth!” All the other boys went running back to the basketball court, attempting to appear as if they had no part in what was going on.

“Mom!” Miles expressed, incredulous at being rescued by his mother. “Geez, I’m fine! I don’t need your help!”

“Miles, this is not about you. Billy needs to learn how to respect others and mind his tongue. Billy, come with me right away. You are going to sit out recess today, and your mother will be hearing about this.” She grabbed him by his wrist, and proceeded to guide him inside. He dragged his feet the whole way. She glanced back once at Miles, who was hiding his face in embarrassment as the other boys laughed again. Her heart sunk.

That evening, when the family was at dinner, Miles was ruffled and silent, and picked at his food sparingly. It was obvious that the incident was still bothering him. Mr. Young, who had heard the story while his wife had prepared dinner, gave his wife a silent nod, then motioned to the boy with his head. They had agreed that she would talk, since she had been present. She began haltingly, opening the door just a crack.

“Miles, honey, would you like to talk about what happened today?”

Miles sighed profusely. “I’m fine, mom, geez. I told you. They do that all the time.”

Her eyes widened at this. How had she been so oblivious? She was out there every day. How had she not seen this before? Mr. Young was looking at her intently, his eyes asking the same question of her. “What do you mean, all the time?” she asked.

“Gosh, it’s no big deal, mom. Billy calls me…he says the b-word, but it’s not true, so it doesn’t bother me.”

Mr. Young chimed in. “Maybe it is not a big deal to you, son, and I am certainly glad that you maintained your composure today, but it is an inappropriate way for a young man to behave, so something must be done about him.” He sighed. His temple throbbed at the thought of getting involved with the Millers again, and he closed his eyes and massaged it with his thumb. Mrs. Young could see his strain, and frowned.

“I can take care of this, Jack. Don’t concern yourself with it. In fact, it is my responsibility, not only as Miles’s mother but also as the teacher on duty. I already spoke to Billy’s teacher, who spoke to Mrs. Miller today. I will monitor the situation closely, I assure you.”

Abruptly Miles slammed his fork down on the table and shot out of his chair. “I don’t need your help, mom!” he shouted, in a voice they had never heard from him before. His outburst shocked the couple, who sat with wide eyes and dumbstruck mouths at the table, their bodies pressed against the back of their chairs. Miles inhaled hugely, nasally, dropped his chin to his chest, and leaned on the table, arms taut and fists clenched. He stayed that way for a moment, his exhale slow and soft, his eyes closed; it seemed for a moment as if he were praying. When he looked at them again, he seemed to have regained his composure, and spoke to them in low, haunting tones. “I can take care of myself,” he said coolly. It sounded like it had come from an adult. “Now I have homework to do.” He shoved himself away from the table and walked up the stairs to his room.

The Youngs sat motionless and speechless for a minute, gathering their thoughts. Their faces looked to one another as if they had just found out someone had died. Brows furrowed and lips pressed tightly together, they stared in abject disbelief, alternately at one another and up the stairs towards Miles’s room. They fully expected that any minute their sweet, patient, loving son would return unbidden to apologize for yelling at them. When he did not do so after a few minutes, Mr. Young decided to go check on him.

When he entered the room, Miles was standing by his window, staring out silently. “Miles?” he began. The boy did not respond. “Your mother and I…we were a bit concerned that you got so upset just now. Is everything ok?”

“I told you, I’m fine. Just leave me alone.” He did not turn around.

Mr. Young was at a loss for what to say. His son’s gaze was fixed firmly on something outside the house, down the street, elsewhere in the neighborhood. Mr. Young stood at the doorway for a moment, then crossed over the room to him. Every step seemed to be sluggish, laborious; it seemed to take several minutes to walk just a few feet. He placed his hand gently on Miles’s shoulder. The boy did not pull away, but crossed his arms across his chest. His father followed his gaze out the window. Down the street, where the Millers lived, he could see Billy running around in the yard, chasing and wrestling his dog, laughing in utter ecstasy. Not the derisive, hateful laugh they had heard before, but a new one; a purer, gentler one. The night was still, clear, virginal; utterly soundless except for the songful peal of Billy’s mirth, which seemed to resonate in almost perfect harmony with the clean, playful yips of the pup.

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Part 5 will be the end, i promise. Forgive me if i don’t feel like going back and changing the titles of the other posts. If you are following, you will figure it out soon enough.

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