The Long Winter

Here’s the first chapter from my novel, That Which Binds Us.  I’ve just finished the latest series of revisions and will begin querying agents soon for this novel.  Let me know what you think.

I knew my son was trouble from the moment he was conceived.  Unlike the pregnancies with my two older children, I fell ill almost from the point of conception with him, sicker than I had ever been in my life.  The misery refused to subside or at the very least it segued into a final trimester of extreme discomfort that tugged on every last fiber of my being and pushed me to my knees in fits of agony.  I wanted that child out of my womb in the worst way, but he denied me even that courtesy.  My due date came and went with no signs that he’d arrive anytime soon.  Finally, after a week of waiting for a natural end to my agony, my doctor forcibly removed him by C-section.  He had tormented me as long as he possibly could, a tendency that he never outgrew.

His birth offered little relief.  The effects of the C-section, my first and only one, left me doubled over in pain for a while afterward, and the phantom discomfort that remained tortured me for many months more.  Adding to my misery, he refused to sleep on anything resembling a regular schedule.  A fussy and impossibly implacable baby, he failed to sleep through a single night without waking up or needing an unreasonable amount of attention at odd hours until well past his fifth birthday.  He left me constantly fatigued, so I miserably vowed to never have another child.  And I didn’t.  He retained the title of my youngest child, the last of three.  I couldn’t fathom going through that again and surviving.  I doubted I’d survive him, but he had certainly destroyed any romantic notions I had held about cute and cuddly infants and the joys of motherhood.  With him joy dissipated somewhere along with the euphoria of discovering that I was pregnant for the third time.

Over twenty years later he sat across from me with a dour look on his face periodically staring down at his fidgeting hands, one of several nervous habits that he had developed over an angst-filled childhood.  All grown up, at least in a chronological sense, he said few words and maintained a distant, cold demeanor, even to his own mother.  I had never imagined I’d be in a place like that with him.  Never.  The reality tore at my heart and made me want to cry, but I had to be strong for him.  He needed me, just like he had needed me all those years ago as a fussy baby.  I was all he had left.

“Where’s everyone else?” he asked refusing to look me in the eye.  He rarely looked people in the eye when he spoke to them.  Confidence had always betrayed him.

I froze for an instant.  I knew he would ask about them, but I had never really prepared an answer.  “They couldn’t make it today,” I lied.  I immediately hated myself for lying to my son, but the truth was so painful that I couldn’t even utter it.  My heart ached as I watched him absorb my response.  He didn’t flinch, but he blinked fast like he was trying to fight back tears.  He had been an emotional child, more so than even his sister who choreographed histrionics to great effect.

“They’re not coming to see me are they?”

“They will.  Just not today.  This is hard on them too, you know.”  Another lie.  I couldn’t tell him the truth in his fragile state.  Neither of us needed to hear the agonizing truth out loud.

He finally looked up at me.  His face, freshly shaved and smooth, betrayed his intense yet shaky disposition.  His youth shocked me momentarily.  He barely looked twenty years old despite what the calendar said.  He should have had his whole wonderful life ahead of him, but he didn’t.  Not anymore.  Ferocity glowed in his eyes when he said with uncharacteristic certainty, “I know they’re not coming.  They’ve never believed me.  You’re the only one who’s ever believed me.  Besides, they’ve never visited me before.  Why would they come now?”

At once I understood how alone in the world he felt.  My heart ached more, if that were possible, and I wanted to reach out and hug him close just like when he was a little boy, but I couldn’t.  Those sleepless nights flashed in my memory.  At once he morphed into that little five-year-old, small and fragile.  I lay next to him hugging his tiny body close to mine trying to rock him to sleep.  The pain of exhaustion from sleep deprivation filled every crack and crevice in my body.  I repressed the urge to lash out against him and tell him to let me sleep, but in those few lucid moments, when I looked at him lying against me, sleeping fitfully yet hugging me close, I felt a love that was immeasurable and inconceivable.  That love trumped everything else.  I loved my son no matter what, and I would always take care of him.  Always.  No matter what.

He fell silent again.  He’d never been much for words, a predisposition that revealed itself very early in his life.  He celebrated his fourth birthday before I coaxed full sentences out him.  Our innate connection blossomed and thrived, but few others grew beyond mere coexistence.  Even his father failed to build that paternal bond with him as a kid, but my husband neglected our youngest son for reasons beyond his Tommy’s control.  The difficulty of his birth and childhood certainly furthered my husband’s discontent, but it only amplified the awful truth.  My husband never wanted Tommy.  Nevertheless, I kept searching for answers in the past, and I wondered what went wrong.  How did this happen?  I shook the thoughts from my head.  Turning to the past proved as vain as predicting the future.

“How are they treating you?” I asked.

He looked irritated by my question.  He furrowed his brow and tightened his lips into a straight line across his face.  His lips were so pale that they blended into the skin on his face.  A sigh escaped before he responded to me.  “Okay, I guess.  They keep me separated from the others.”

“That’s good.”

“Why?”

“You don’t want to get hurt.”

“There’s no one to talk to.  I’m alone.  Even the guards don’t talk to me.”

“I know, but…” I began.  My logic implicated certain things that I refused to consider, so I changed my response. “…it’s a tough place.  I’m not sure you’d want to talk to anyone anyway.”

“What if I’m here forever?  Is this all I have to look forward to?”  He looked frightened and desperate as he said it.  I wanted to reach out and hug him close just like I did when he was frightened by thunderstorms as a toddler.  I thought of how tiny he used to be, how he used to fit perfectly in my arms and I would roll him up into a ball with lanky arms and legs protruding in all directions and kiss him until he laughed.  I’d tickle him too.  He’d run from me and I would chase him around the house laughing and shrieking like we’d been made for exactly that.  The joy and innocence of those fond memories forever faded into a past that seemed so inexplicable at that very moment, so ephemeral, as if they never happened.

“You won’t be here forever.”

“How do you know?” he said.  Exasperation and frustration seeped from his words.

“Did you do it?”

“No!” He said emphatically.  He sat up ramrod straight in his chair and stared directly into my eyes for the first time.  I saw something frightening in his penetrating stare.  He didn’t blink or falter or give any signs that indicated that he was lying.  I believed him.  I had to believe him.  I looked away briefly, relieving the tension of the moment, but I could feel his intense stare on my neck.  I imagined it burned me, an injury on top of all injuries.

“Then, you won’t be here forever.”  I turned back to face him and tried to sound as self-assured as possible for his sake.  Inside, I trembled with fear because I just didn’t know.  I could only hope.  That’s all I had.  His whole life rested on my hope.

I looked at the clock on the wall behind him.  “Our time is almost up.”

His mood noticeably shifted from detached to gloomy.  I could see the fear building in his eyes washing away the brief intensity he had just displayed.  I’d seen that fear before, more than once.  When he was nine, he broke his dad’s beloved recliner playing with the lever repeatedly until the stress of the persistent back-and-forth wore on its aging mechanical parts and the back just flopped into the down position permanently.  The old, ugly chair had unnaturally possessed my husband since before we were married.  I secretly cheered its ignominious death, but my son became inconsolable once he realized what he had done.  His father had warned him several times to leave it alone, and my son had ignored him.  I tried my best to assure him that his father would be fine once he got over the initial anger, but Tommy ran to his room and hid there waiting fearfully for his father to return home from work.

I couldn’t get him to come out of his room.  He’d talk to me from behind his bedroom door, which he cracked open only enough to allow my voice to pass through, but he had the look in his eyes of a trapped animal left for a certain death.  I’m sure if he could have gnawed his way out of the situation, he would have.  When my husband finally came home, the sight of his favorite chair limply askew in the den incensed him to the point of irrationality.  I tried to calm him down and lay the blame at the fact that the chair had outlived its useful life, but my husband, always in pursuit of reasons to punish Tommy for being born, remained angry beyond reason.  He stormed Tommy’s room and gave him a beating that still makes me cringe to this day.  All of that over a damn chair.  I hated that man for his ridiculous emotions, but the chair fiasco would pale in comparison to what he did to Tommy later.

I looked away from my son for a moment trying to shake the ugly memory from my mind.  His father was so brutal to him.  My husband never treated our other children that way, and Tommy noticed it, knew it to be true.  Maybe that was what put him on the wrong path.  Maybe my husband’s neglect and abuse led him astray because he so desperately sought the attention that every son should get from his father.

I’d been silent for longer than usual, and Tommy looked at me expectantly, wondering what I would say next to make him feel better or wondering why I hadn’t said anything at all.

“Mom, are you okay?” he asked.  His question didn’t bear a trace of curiosity but conveyed a need for reassurance.

A grim look formed on my face.  “Yes, I’m fine.  I just wish you weren’t here.  I wish I could take you home with me.”  My eyes suddenly swelled with tears, but I willed them to stay put.  I didn’t want Tommy to see me cry yet again.  He needed me to be strong, determined, not awash in emotion.

“Me, too.  I’m scared, Mom.”

“I know, honey.  I know.  I’m going to talk to Mr. Lawson tomorrow and see what he plans to do for an appeal.  He told me that he would appeal when we were leaving the courtroom the other day, but he didn’t say much more than that.”

“Does he think I will get out of here?”

“He didn’t say, but he’s a good lawyer.  If anyone can get you out of here, he can.”  I tried to sound hopeful, but my knees wobbled on shaky ground.  I really didn’t know Mr. Lawson too well, certainly not well enough to discern if he were a good lawyer or not.  I had picked him out of a long list of lawyers I had found online and called him on a whim.  He sounded sure of himself and willing to take on Tommy’s case, so I went with him.  He’d been nothing but professional and fearless since he began defending Tommy.  Nothing had deterred him, not even the publicity and the public outrage had cowed him away from defending my son.  He was the only one other than me that believed that Tommy was innocent.  I desperately needed someone else to believe in us even if I had to pay for that privilege.

Tommy frowned at me as unconvinced as the judge who presided over his trial.  More words pressed against his lips, but he refused to let them loose.  His fingernails were chewed close to the quick, and the edges of some of his fingers were blood red from where he had pulled the skin away.  The sight made me wince in pain.  He’d always messed with his nails.  I used to get after him when he was a kid about chewing his nails.  He could just never shake that disgusting, nervous habit.

“Please leave your nails alone, Tommy,” I said shaking my head at him.  I looked down knowingly at his hands.

He met my disapproving expression and clasped his hands together trying to hide the evidence.  “I can’t help it,” he said in a whiny voice just like when he was a young boy.  For a moment, I imagined he was nine again.  He wasn’t like most nine-year-olds.  He loved his mother more than most boys his age.  He wanted to be with me rather than run outside and play with the neighborhood kids.  We’d sit on the couch and watch my favorite shows together and he’d cuddle up next to me.  I would hold his warm little body next to mine and feel the love emanate from him.  He’d fall asleep on me and I’d just sit and watch him sleep.  I had wanted him to be like that forever.  He was my baby.  My last chance to be a mother who was needed.

My older kids stopped cuddling with me by the time they were five or six years old.  After my daughter grew out of it, I wanted another baby just so I could hold it in my arms and feel needed again.  My husband and I never planned on having a third child, but my carelessness led to a surprise one morning that confirmed we’d be welcoming another baby to our family.  While I was excited, my husband was not.  He lamented the thought of going through bottles and diapers again and questioned whether or not we should go through with the pregnancy.  I would not entertain any such options and told him we were having the baby whether he wanted it or not.  Despite the sickness and the endless sleep deprivation, I cherished my youngest child.

“Time’s up,” a guard said walking up behind Tommy.  I didn’t see him there at first and his deep voice startled me.  Tommy clinched at the table in front of him and looked at me fearfully.  His eyes welled quickly and the tears rolled down his cheeks.

“Mommy, please get me out of here,” he said frantically.  His chest heaved heavy breaths and the panic made his body tense up.  The guard tried unsuccessfully to pull him away, so another guard came around the partition to help get Tommy back to his cell.  Most of the time, he went away with the guard without incident, but occasionally, he’d have these emotional breakdowns.  I could never predict when they’d happen, but they always surprised me and left me on edge.  Images of him as a petulant nine-year-old temporarily juxtaposed with the grown man who flailed before me in drab prison clothes.  My heart wrenched.

“Don’t leave me, mommy!” Tommy screamed as they dragged him away.  He was cuffed and chained, so his efforts were futile, but I could see the tension in the chains and the fear in his body.  He wanted to fight and get away, and in my deepest heart, I wanted him to get away and come back to me.  I wanted him to be that little nine-year-old boy that loved to cuddle with his mother again.  I wanted to hold him close to me and take him back home where he belonged, but instead, I sat there in front of an empty booth with smudged glass perforated by tiny concentric circles holding my face in my hands and crying silently.  I cried for Tommy and the injustice of it all.  I couldn’t let this happen to my son.

I finally gathered myself enough to get up from my seat and leave the room, but the image of Tommy crying for me as he was dragged away haunted me.  The raw and uninhibited fear in his voice rattled in my head.  He didn’t belong there.  He was not a hardened criminal.  If the other inmates ever got around him, they would surely hurt him.  The thought scared me.  I hoped the guards protected him.  Mr. Lawson had assured me that they would keep him isolated from the others given the nature and notoriety of his case.  I had to believe him.

Tommy’s reaction reminded me of Jillian.  I didn’t want to think of her, but I did.  Tommy had that same look when Warren accused him of hurting Jillian.  Tommy swore he didn’t, and I believed him, but Warren just couldn’t let it go.  He insisted that Tommy was lying.  Warren had always been jealous of Tommy because I gave Tommy so much attention, but Tommy was the baby in our family, and unlike Warren, Tommy was frail and small.  Warren could be intimidating like his father, and he used that advantage to scare Tommy.  I’d never forgiven him for the way he treated Tommy after Jillian’s baseless accusations.  You couldn’t believe everything a little girl said.  They made up stuff and lied.  Little girls could be just as manipulative as grown women.

I didn’t want to think about Warren.  It angered me that he hadn’t supported his brother at all.  He hadn’t called me to check on him or even make any overtures that he cared in the least.  I didn’t know if he had reached out to my husband, but I doubted it.  Frank would have told me.  He would have made it a point to tell me just so he could hurt me more.  He would have used Warren as a dagger to thrust into my broken heart.  Never mind that he had abandoned his youngest son when he needed him most.  It was all about who was right and who was wrong with Frank.  I wondered if our marriage had always been a sham.  It pained me to think that I gave the best years of my life to that man.

I trudged out to my car beyond the pale steel fence topped with razor wire that engulfed the ugly low-slung buildings on the prison grounds.  I shuddered as I fought the cold wind and sat down on my icy seats.  The gray skies promised more snow as the wind whistled around my car.  The engine rattled to life fighting the cold itself as it mustered the energy to pull out of the parking spot.  With Tommy locked away, despair lingered over me like the clouds that blanketed the sky, and the seemingly endless, godforsaken winter drained every last ounce of hope that I had.

I pulled out of the parking lot and headed down the road to the Interstate, but I watched the garish, angry prison with its barbed wire and high chain-linked fence get smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror.  The distance that grew between me and my son made my heart ache.  Leaving him there seemed so wrong, yet I could do nothing to help him at that moment.  He was at the mercy of the system until Mr. Lawson could make his appeal and hopefully the truth would prevail and he would be free again.  The truth would prevail.  It had to.  My son was just a young man who had been wrongly accused.  I couldn’t let this happen to him.  I wanted my son back home with me.

As I turned onto the Interstate on-ramp, it started to snow again.  My wipers groaned and scraped away the snow that clung to the remnants of the ice from earlier in the morning.  The wipers didn’t help my view as the dirt and grime from the road simply smeared across the windshield.  I pulled the lever for my wiper fluid and nothing came out.  I could barely see, but I moved forward anyway peering through the small clean spot near my line of sight.  Once my car heated up, I was able to get the ice off my windshield, but the snow came down harder, and I wondered out loud when the long, awful winter would end.

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