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Friday, December 12, 2003

CHAINS: Fiction and art by Marc Wilkofsky (1970-2012)

CHAINS
By Marc Wilkofsky

*Originally run in Scientific Dinosaur in 2005


 

As she squeezed nine thin, ridged sticks of wax into sugary clouds, Laura
Miller's own laugh shocked her. She had just realized that as brave as her
recent actions might have been, she lacked the courage to open a simple box
in the closet, and it induced a burst of chuckling. A minor explosion she
certainly wasn't used to...one she had almost forgotten.

The newly short-haired, 29-year-old woman had purposefully bought brand-new
candles for the upcoming event, not trusting the assorted personal contents
of the cardboard box she impulsively, and oh so silently, grabbed on that
fateful night. "The way these past few months have gone," she thought,
licking frosting from her almost-as-white skin, "there's no way I'm going to
give him trick candles." So she bussed home with a couple of colorless boxes
of no-frills party candles (tips were light at Keighties, where she waited
tables while wearing a Laura Branigan-like wig over her reddish-blond
locks), keeping them hidden from the walking fire extinguisher-to-be, who
she loved as much as she feared.

The cake was ready. More ready than Laura, but she was pleased that at least
this step had gone smoothly, and that the cozy, wood-and-marble-laden
kitchen she had slaved in showed no war wounds. Chad--no, Adam--was turning
9, and she would do everything in her power to make sure his day was
memorable. And to make absolutely sure he did nothing in his power...the
power she was certain he didn't even realize he had. Because preventing
explosions of any sort was a task she had become extremely used to, from the
moment she had lost her freedom of mind.

"Mom, I'm home."

The teacher's conference! was a thought that slammed into her like the
apartment door. "One sec, sweetie, I'll be right out of the kitchen. Go hang
up your jacket in your room, okay? I'll be right out." Scrambling to find
the bronze cake holder she discovered at The $1.07 Store ("Just wait till
the tax rate changes," she joked to the attractively muscular owner), she
mentally kicked herself five times. How could she forget that the Delray
Beach Elementary kids were being let out early? That's why today was perfect
for the party in the first place!

Laura--back when she was Calla--always found it peculiar but heartening to
be called "Mom" by Adam...back when he was Chad. It didn't necessarily age
her, but it didn't feel right, either. Maybe it was a combination of the
fact that she hadn't given birth to Ron's child--the connection literally
wasn't there--and the fact that the woman who had brought him into the world
left it in an awful, sudden way.

Hurriedly placing the surprise in the back of the refrigerator (That's where
Ron must have found her devastating note...what exactly was she thinking?),
she imagined how Camille felt when she celebrated the child's fourth
birthday...and third...and second... Thoughts of what Chad's first birthday
might have been like melted into much more painful and real thoughts of Ron
and Camille...and then just Ron. Caring, handsome, wonderfully incorrigible
Ron Shane. Who now probably hated her for what she did. For what she had to
do. For saving his life...

"Mom, I got a little..."

"How!"--Laura whirled around, shutting the Westinghouse door--"Was your
day?"

Under a colorful cap with a Marlins logo, a slightly pudgy face at once
beamed and darkened. "Cool, but I was gonna say...I was gonna tell you that
I got some, like, dirt on my jacket when I was playing Crusades with
Thomas."

"Oh, sweetie...that's all right," placated Laura as she opened a cupboard
door and wondered which exact 12th Century year the dirt might be from.

Adam removed his cap, revealing a medium-length mass of reddish-brown curls,
and placed it on top of Laura's sky-blue windbreaker, which she had tossed
on the counter. "So everybody's coming over at 6 o'clock and Evan and Craig
can stay over and we're having cake?"

Cake was always part of the plan, but it was also usually store-bought and
invariably boring. Laura, her back to Adam and considering how Evan Kowell
was sure to make some delighted sound effects while eating it later, rolled
her eyes and poured some milk. "Mmm-hmmm....just don't make a wish, OK?"

"Clem Elwing says that's not bad luck."

"Clem Elwing isn't your mother," replied Laura, hoping Ron's genetic gift of
wisdom didn't manifest itself in a retort akin to "Neither are you." She was
pleased to only see Adam scamper to the kitchen table, where three butter
cookies on a plate and a glass of milk with a large, cartoony pair of red
lips pictured on it awaited him. "Thanks, Mom."

"You're welcome, Adam. Happy..."

"...birthday! I hope you like it."

Time had soared by and the pair's modest home was ravaged by six of what had
to be Florida's most rambunctious children. Laura was able to unroll her
eyes for 90 seconds as she admiringly watched the seventh guest, ever-polite
and sedate Chuck Wolfson, help a thrilled Adam remove the rest of the paper
covering a sizable sci-fi action figure. Since Chuck's sole drawback was
A.D.D., Laura suddenly had another 60 seconds with Adam. She placed her
hands on his giddy shoulders as the wide-open eyes under her furrowed brow
surveyed the crowd of 8- and 9-year-olds running around the living/dining
room's central, royal blue leather futon and other
10%-off-with-your-new-credit-card purchases. A pink-flooded, auburn-haired
girl Laura adored was repeatedly performing a fairly simple ballet step for
a bemused, football jersey-sporting Clem as he rocked the dark blue suede
recliner without sitting in it. Another girl, Karen Towers, was dangling her
chain of imitation pearls in front of little undershirt-wearing (but
well-groomed) Craig Raskin. Furniture wasn't in danger...yet.

"Isn't this greater than great, Mom?"

"I would have to say yes, sweetie...as long as you're hap--" She stopped
herself. "Adam, hon? What's that bruise on your arm?"

Adam tried to cover the reddened area with his new gift, but to no avail. He
sighed for just a second and then revealed, "I just got punched by a mean
bully"--as if some bullies are kind--"but it wasn't a big, bad deal."

Having heard several other parents intone, "Drop the act," and other
handed-down phrases to their prevaricating progeny, Laura found bliss in
this blunt statement. If there was one aspect Laura appreciated in her
stepson, it was his honesty. Thanks, Ron. "So that's why your jacket is so
dirty, huh?" was her matter-of-fact return to his serve. Resting her 5'8"
frame on its denim-covered knees to be able to peer into Adam's soft sepia
eyes, she shoved aside her worry about what happened to his opponent to
quietly add, "Why do these older kids bother you?"

Staring back at Laura as if she had just asked why all the kids like Mrs.
Kudler, Adam choked down a whimper and shot back, "Because I'm small. I'm
smaller than they are. They're the big kids, and I'm...I'm not."

Did she want to tell him to stand up for himself? No. Suggest that he take
each blow as it came? No way. Promise that she would inform his principal of
the recess rumbles? Never. Her best answer: "Oh, sweetie, that's...so not
fair." Bruised by his surface pain and the hidden anguish no other mother
knew, she had missed his most important words.

"They're the big kids, and I'm...I'm not."

And her minute was absolutely up. As the chain reaction which had begun on
the playground blacktop dominoed on...and on. One second after chubbyish
Evan, two-thirds of an apple-cinnamon muffin in hand, the rest in mouth,
walked over and inquired, "Adam, what are you wishing for?" Laura shot up
from her crouched position, placed her hands on Adam's ears and said, "He's
not wishing for anything...he has what he needs." Evan would later remember
Laura's snacks more than her unsettling words. As Adam pulled away to play
with his best and biggest friend, Laura fidgeted with her solid turquoise
blouse's scoopneck, warmly smiled and softly sighed. 

Half an hour slid by and brought no peculiar events. Helping the temporarily
unfrazzled Laura set the oval cherrywood table, Evan's strikingly beautiful,
svelte and gorgeously coiffed mother, Jillian, commented, "These
plaid-patterned placemats are darling, Laura," as ultrawilling volunteer
Rodrigo Ortiz waited--patiently, to both women's grinning astonishment--to
turn down the dining/living room lights. Soon all were seated in the dimly
lit, narrow room--all but Laura, whose immense pride burned brighter than
the top of the luscious-looking cake she carried in. It was Adam's strong
sense of smell--thanks, Camille--and his impressive memory that gave away
the evening's biggest gift: one of love. "Mom! Mom! Mom! You made that!"

"I made it."

"You made it." Adam's brief, elated run from the far end of the table to
embrace the most important woman in his life was made more brief by a
ringing sound from around the corner. "Is that another guest?" he joyfully
asked.

Laura glanced at Jillian, who had reflexively turned up the lights but
seemed to have no idea who could possibly be at the door. As Laura flew into
the kitchen and flew back toward the front door while wiping her
frosting-besmirched hands with some Brawny, Adam deftly approached the
table. And his chair. And the cake.

"Make a wish..." whispered Clem from his nearby perch. Of course it was
Clem, and of course he whispered it.

"But they're bad...they don't happen...I can't speak it out loud...my
Mom..." Mom was conversing at the door with Cecilia's father, Matthew
Fountain, who made it clear he wasn't pleased about the "emergency" ballet
lesson, either.

"That's why you think it, not say it," offered Cecilia through her "Precious
Pink" lips.

"Oh..." Fourteen tiny eyes, and Jillian's terrific ones, were fixed on
Adam's firelit face. "OK."

The thought only had to swirl around his mind for five seconds--one, two,
three, four, five seconds--and it took form, as the words seemingly,
strangely, completely engulfed the top half of his head. "I wish...I wish I
was a big kid."

Something told Laura to immediately turn around. And look at Adam in his
chair, leaning over his cake, mouthing some short words and readying his
lips. Her eyes widened like never before as if they, too, were filling with
air. No. Her arms stretched out as if she actually became the airplane that
helped Ron to feed a younger, stubborn Adam. No. Her legs would not move as
if they were attempting to stand firm in a foundation of logic and reality.
And from her choking throat: "Nooooooo!"

Adam's blow of air was on target.

Only Laura noticed it...and only Laura experienced it: the flash. No camera
had been operated, no in-house fireworks set off. The room-filling flash
felt...yes, felt...pure and solid, like a tangible, and quickly intangible,
peace.

The nine flames she had created were gone. And the one wish he had made
granted. Adam was now the big kid. But Adam--wild-minded, 9-year-old
Adam--should have listened to his now unbelievably frantic stepmother. For
his seven young guests were now his seven considerably younger guests.
Rodrigo and Craig, both 8 just half a minute ago, could barely hold their
3-year-old eyes above the table. The two girls' dresses were excellent fits
for their 3 1z2-year-old bodies. And the 9-year-old cute countenances of the
three remaining youngsters gave way to adorable grins that had taken four
years to produce.

Laura's mind didn't have time to get its own wish, as its desired collapse
was precluded by Matt's hefty but concerned "Laura? You okay?"

"Matt...d-do you...I'm sorry, I...Adam didn't...I tried to..."

"Laura, dear"--his enormous hands blanketing her quaking shoulders--"what is
the matter? I'm sure I can wait 10 minutes while Cecilia enjoys some cake.
Don't worry...the kindergarten interview isn't for an hour."

The kindergarten interview?!?

It couldn't be...but it was, she realized. It so very much was. No one had
noticed. Because...because this was what everything became. Adam changed it
all.

Laura's second sight, after she witnessed Cecilia place both hands around
her pigtails, was Jillian playing patty-cake with an enchanted Evan. Craig
had managed to climb out of his extremely high seat. And Adam...Adam looked
like he was about to burst. To explode. She had to stop his tears...stop all
of it.

"Change it back," she said as plainly as possible to the mentally shivering
boy whose world had suddenly folded like a napkin. "Take...back...the wish."
No punishment mentioned, none needed. "Please. Adam. Now."

A glance at his mother, another look at his party guests, and a long stare
at the cake preceded another flash. Laura was afraid to open her eyes this
time, even more than she was at heart afraid to ask Adam to use his power
again, and so soon. Was she empowering him or gradually destroying him?

Slowly opening one eye, she soon realized she needn't have worried...the
kids she knew and cleaned up after were all "normal" again. All of
them...Craig, Rodrigo, Karen...all of them...except one.

Adam stared at her, smiling in his charming way, but with his eyes more
piercing than she had ever seen on a fellow human being. Curly bangs of
light brown hair fell over one of the dark brown eyes as the firm,
hard-edged jaw beneath it slightly lowered. "How's that, Mom?" questioned a
just-as-unfamiliar, lake-deep voice.

The voice...of a teenager.

14 candles brought a subtle glow to his face, but Laura didn't see that.
Let's just say it was a good thing the apartment came with plush carpeting.
And that Matt was a doctor.

Welcome to puberty, Adam Miller.

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