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It was only an observation, but she felt the need to refute it in some way, so she put her hand on the knob and gave it a twist.
The door drooped inward, and Briar leaned her lantern into the cave-black darkness.
A bed with a flat, familiar-looking headboard was pushed into the corner. It was the one she’d slept in as a child, and it was long enough to hold a grown man, but only half as wide as her own. The slats were covered with an old feather mattress that had been flattened until it was barely an inch or two thick. A heavy comforter flopped atop it, folded backward and tangled around in a dirty sheet.
Beside the window at the foot of the bed there lurked a blocky brown chest of drawers and a pile of dirty clothes that was pocked with stray and unmatched boots.
“I need to wash his clothes,” she mumbled, knowing that it would have to wait until Sunday unless she planned to do laundry at night—and knowing also that Zeke was likely to get fed up and do his own before then. She’d never heard of a boy who performed so much of his own upkeep, but things were different for families all over since the Blight. Things were different for everyone, yes. But things were especially different for Briar and Zeke.
She liked to think that he understood, at least a little bit, why she saw him as infrequently as she did. And she preferred to assume that he didn’t blame her too badly. Boys wanted freedom, didn’t they? They valued their independence, and wore it as a sign of maturity; and if she thought about it that way, then her son was a lucky fellow indeed.
A bump and a fumble rattled the front door. Briar jumped, and closed the bedroom door, and walked quickly down the hall.
From behind the safety of her own bedroom door she finished peeling away her work clothes, and when she heard the stomp of her son’s shoes in the front room, she called out, “Zeke, you home?” She felt silly for asking, but it was as good a greeting as any.
“I said, you’re home, aren’t you?”
“I’m home,” he hollered. “Where are you?”
“I’ll be out in a second,” she told him. More like a minute later she emerged wearing something that smelled less like industrial lubricant and coal dust. “Where have you been?” she asked.
“Out. ” He had already removed his coat and left it to hang on the rack by the door.
“Did you eat?” she asked, trying not to notice how thin he looked. “I got paid yesterday. I know we’re low on cupboard fixings, but I can change that soon. And we’ve still got a little something left around here. ”
“No, I already ate. ” He always said that. She never knew if he was telling the truth. He deflected any follow-up questions by asking, “Did you get home late tonight? It’s cold in here. I take it the fire hasn’t been up very long. ”
She nodded, and went to the pantry. She was starving, but she was so often hungry that she’d learned to think around it. “I took an extra shift. We had somebody out sick. ” On the top shelf of the pantry there was a mixture of dried beans and corn that cooked up into a light stew. Briar pulled it down and wished she had meat to go with it, but she didn’t wish very long or hard.
She set a pot of water to boil and reached under a towel for a bit of bread that was almost too stale to eat anymore, but she stuffed it into her mouth and chewed it fast.
Ezekiel took the seat that Hale had borrowed and dragged it over to the fire to toast some of the frigid stiffness out of his hands. “I saw that man leaving,” he said, loud enough that she would hear him around the corner.
“You did, did you?”
“What did he want?”
A rattling dump of poured soup mix splashed into the pot. “To talk. It’s late, I know. I guess it looks bad, but what would the neighbors do about it—talk nasty behind our backs?”
She heard a grin in her son’s voice when he asked, “What did he want to talk about?”
She didn’t answer him. She finished chewing the bread and asked,
“Are you sure you don’t want any of this? There’s plenty for two, and you should see yourself. You’re skin and bones. ”
“I told you, I ate already. You fill up. You’re skinnier than me. ”
“Am not,” she fussed back.
“Are too. But what did that man want?” he asked again.
She came around the corner and leaned against the wall, her arms folded and her hair more fallen down than pinned up. She said, “He’s writing a book about your grandfather. Or he says he is. ”
“You think maybe he’s not?”
Briar stared intently at her son, trying to figure out who he looked like when he made that carefully emotionless, innocent face. Not his father, certainly, though the poor child had inherited the preposterous hair. Neither as dark as hers, nor as light as his father’s, the mop could not be combed nor oiled into decent behavior. It was exactly the sort of hair that, when it occurred on a baby, old ladies would fondly disturb while making cooing noises. But the older Zeke grew, the more ridiculous it looked.
“Mother?” he tried again. “You think maybe that man was lying?”
She shook her head quickly, not in answer but to clear it. “Oh. Well, I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. ”
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I was just… I was looking at you, that’s all. I don’t see you enough, I don’t think. We should, I don’t know… We should do something together, sometime. ”
He squirmed. “Like what?”
His squirming did not go unnoticed. She tried to back away from the suggestion. “I didn’t have anything in mind. And maybe it’s a bad idea. It’s probably… well. ” She turned and went back into the kitchen so she could talk to him without having to watch his discomfort while she confessed the truth. “It’s probably easier for you anyway, that I keep my distance. I imagine you have a hard enough time living it down, being my boy. Sometimes I think the kindest thing I can do is let you pretend I don’t exist. ”
No argument came from the fireplace until he said, “It’s not so bad being yours. I’m not ashamed of you or anything, you know. ” But he didn’t leave the fire to come and say it to her face.
“Thanks. ” She wound a wooden spoon around in the pot and made swirling designs in the frothing mixture.
“Well, I’m really not. And for that matter, it’s not so bad being Maynard’s, either. In some circles, it works out pretty good,” he added, and Briar heard a quick cutting off in his voice, as if he was afraid that he’d said too much.
As if she weren’t already aware.
“I wish you’d keep a better circle of company,” she told him, though even as she said it, she guessed more than she wanted to know. Where else could a child of hers seek friends? Who else would have anything to do with him, except for the quarters where Maynard Wilkes was a folk hero—and not a fortunate crook who died before he could be judged?
“No, listen to me. ” She abandoned the pot and stood again by the edge of the wall. “If you’re ever going to have any hope of a normal life, you’ve got to stay out of trouble, and that means staying out of those places, away from those people. ”
“Normal life? How’s that going to happen, do you think? I could spend my whole life being poor-but-honest, if that’s what you want, but—”
“I know you’re young and you don’t believe me, but you have to trust me—it’s better than the alternative. Stay poor-but-honest, if that’s what keeps a roof over your head and keeps you out of prison. There’s nothing so good out there that it’s worth…” She wasn’t sure how to finish, but she felt she’d made her point, so she stopped talking. She turned on her heel and went back to the stove.
Ezekiel left the fireplace and followed her. He stood at the end of the kitchen, blocking her exit and forcing her to look at him.
“That it’s worth what? What do I have to lose, Mother? All this
?” With a sweeping, sarcastic gesture he indicated the dark gray home in which they squatted. “All the friends and money?”
She smacked the spoon down on the edge of the basin and grabbed a bowl to dish herself some half-cooked supper, and so she could stop gazing at the child she’d made. He looked nothing like her, but every day he looked a little more like one man, then the other. Depending on the light and depending on his mood he could’ve been her father, or her husband.
She poured herself a bowl of bland stew and struggled to keep from spilling it as she stalked past him.
“You’d rather escape? I understand that. There’s not much keeping you here, and maybe when you’re a grown man you’ll up and leave,” she said, dropping the stoneware bowl onto the table and inserting herself into the chair beside it. “I realize that I don’t make an honest day’s work look very appealing; and I realize too that you think you’ve been cheated out of a better life, and I don’t blame you. But here we are, and this is what we have. The circumstances have damned us both. ”
She took a deep swallow of the stew and tried not to look at him. She said, “All right, circumstances and me. You can blame me if you want, just like I can blame your father, or my father if I want—it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change anything. Your future was broken before you were born, and there’s no one left living for you to pin that on except for me. ”
From the corner of her eye, she watched Ezekiel clench and unclench his fists. She waited for it. Any moment, and his control would slip, and that wild, wicked look would fill his face with the ghost of his father, and she’d have to close her eyes to shut him out.
But the snap didn’t occur, and the madness didn’t cover him with a terrible veil. Instead, he said, in a deadpan voice that matched the empty gaze he’d given her earlier, “But that’s the most unfair part of all: You didn’t do anything. ”