Knothole



Excerpt from Prenatal GenReport, Issued to Anne Talarico on 10.3.12:

“Subsequent tests revealed, with a high degree of certainty, the existence of the Hallman Sequence. This sequence manifests itself in a small percentage of tested subjects and has been strongly correlated with aggressive and violent behavior. Seventy-two percent of carriers exhibit signs of violent tendencies by the age of thirteen, and 53.5% go on to obtain criminal records…

“It is important to recognize that such analysis is limited in its capacity to predict the subject’s future actions, and as such should be treated strictly as a tool. Regardless, experiential evidence suggests a high risk factor for this subject, and we recommend discussing appropriate courses of action including preemptive therapy and possible termination of the pregnancy…

“By accepting this report, you agree not to hold IntelliGene responsible for any and all consequences, physical or emotional, which may result from this information.”

* * *

Anne dreams.

She is sitting on a stone bench in her grandparents’ backyard. Planted all around her in clay pots are various exotic cacti from her grandfather’s collection. Her sweater is pulled up and she is breast-feeding Ben, her newborn son.

The cacti suddenly begin to swell and warp. Anne feels weak.

She starts to look down at Ben, and she is already horrified, she already knows what she is going to see before she sees it.

The end of her breast is covered in blood. Ben looks up at her and grins. More blood is smeared around the outside of his mouth.

Anne tries to scream but she is too weak. She feels her body collapse into a pile on the bench. As she lies there, she is just conscious enough to feel Ben crawling on top of her, crawling toward her neck…

She wakes up with a start.

She looks around and realizes she has fallen asleep on the living room couch. Rain draws silvery lines down the sliding glass doors. The flatscreen is on, but the sound is down. Images of people showering and vehicles driving on mountain roads flicker into each other.

Anne sits up. A blast of lightning colors the windows yellow and then black again. Thunder growls outside. Anne turns her head and hears cries coming from the bedroom.

She gets up and rushes past the kitchenette, down the hall, and finally stops in the bedroom doorway.

The bedroom is dark except for a single bedside lamp. She walks over to the crib and looks down at little Ben. The light from the lamp draws a jagged shadow across his face.

Anne watches her baby cry but does not move to pick him up.

Suddenly lightning flashes again. For a brief moment, the shadows disappear and Ben’s face, which should be scrunched up in fear and terror, appears to Anne to be calm and collected. For a brief moment, it appears as if Ben is grinning.

She hurries out of the room and shuts the door behind her.

* * *

Anne and six-year-old Ben play cards on the kitchen table. Anne straightens the piles, obsessed with keeping them symmetrical.

Ben takes a card out of his hand and lays it down.

“Oh my God, Ben, that’s a terrible move.” Anne picks up the card and hands it back to him.

“But it’s a triple,” Ben says.

“Yeah, but it’s still a bad move. If I have to tell you why then you really are a lost cause.”

Ben squirms in his seat. “But I thought…”

“What did we talk about ten minutes ago?”

Ben stares at her blankly.

Anne sighs and starts to collect the cards. “Did you at least remember to feed the fish?”

Ben sits up straight. “Oh no!” He runs into the next room.

 

Ben points a trembling finger at the fishbowl. “She’s not eating. She’s not even moving.”

The fish floats on top of the water like a soggy corn flake.

Anne shakes her head. “She’s just dead.” She stands there for a moment, deciding what to do. Suddenly, her face goes pale.

“What’s dead?” Ben says.

Anne looks down at Ben and then over at the fish. “You’ve been feeding her, right?”

“Yes.” Ben taps the glass anxiously. “I’m only an hour late. Did I do something?”

“Did you?” Anne says.

“I came in here and she was like this. What happened? What’s dead?”

“She was already like this?”

“Yes!”

Anne looks at the fish and frowns.

* * *

Anne curses as the metal curtain rod slips out of her grasp and falls to the ground. She steps down from her stool and bends over to pick it up.

In the next room, Ben shouts and makes excited noises.

Anne grips the rod with both hands and steps back onto the stool. In her impatience, she steps too quickly, and the stool rocks back and forth slightly, threatening to fall over. She regains her balance, letting out an uneasy breath.

Shouting continues from the next room.

Anne manages to insert the left end of the curtain rod. She moves the right end into position, but her muscles shake involuntarily. She focusses intently, trying to will them back under her control. At last the pole clicks into place, and she breathes a sigh of relief. She steps down, trying to remember what she was going to do next.

Suddenly she focuses on the shouting—“Bang! Bang, bang!” Frowning, she hurries into the living room.

Ben jumps up and down on the couch. In his hand he clutches the remote, which he aims at the television like a gun. On the flatscreen, the camera moves through a coal mine on a runaway rail cart. Men with white face masks leap out from the darkness and attack the screen. As Ben aims and clicks the men explode and fall away. In the lower left, a bear with a space helmet narrates excitedly, but the sound is off, so his voice cannot be heard.

Anne strides over and snatches the remote out of Ben’s hand. “What did I say about watching this?”

Ben freezes awkwardly on the couch.

Anne waves the remote wildly and then chucks it aside. “This is it!” she says. “This is finally it!”

Ben watches silently as she peels the flatscreen off the wall, rolls it up into a tight tube and storms out of the room.

* * *

The first day of school. Ben stands awkwardly inside the door of the classroom. Mrs. Bicke and all the students stare at him.

“Go ahead,” Mrs. Bicke says. “It’s just down the hall to the right.”

Ben steps outside, and the heavy door clicks shut behind him. The school is quiet except for a slight buzzing sound. He walks across the cobblestone courtyard, toward the entrance to the hallway.

Several yards in front of him, a remote control toy car suddenly whizzes into view and crashes into a wall. Ben looks at it, awestruck. He rushes up and leans over to get a closer look. He doesn’t see the other boy, Samuel, approaching from behind.

“That’s mine!”

Ben is slammed hard in the side. In another second, he is lying on the ground. He pulls his face up off the cobblestones and sees a pool of blood where his nose was. He feels the weight of someone on his back, holding him down.

Ben struggles to free himself, throwing his arms and legs out in every direction. Samuel falls off to the side and then Ben is on top, punching wildly, planting his knee in Samuel’s ribcage. Samuel begins to cry.

Seconds later, when a firm hand grabs Ben by the collar and pulls him up, there is no longer only one pool of blood on the cobblestone surface of the lower school courtyard.

 

Ben gags on the metallic taste in the back of his throat. He leans back against the car seat and holds his nose with a kleenex.

The car comes to a stop in a large parking lot. Ben tilts his head so that he can look out the window. “I thought we were going home,” he says.

“Where are we?”

Anne opens the car door and begins to step out. “Somewhere we can sell your textbooks.”

The door slams shut.

* * *

Anne covers Ben’s eyes. “Are you ready?” she says.

Ben opens his eyes to discover a large ice cream cake on the table in front of him. Across the top, cursive letters spell “Happy 2nd Grade Graduation.”

“Already?” Ben says.

“It’s been a year.”

Ben looks up at his mom. “But what did I get?”

“Fives in history and math. A four in science. The only thing I haven’t figured is your reading score. Which reminds me…” Anne leaves the kitchen for a second, and then comes back with a poster. “We haven’t been keeping up with this at all.” She points to one corner. “There’s still only two stars on here.”

Ben shifts in his seat.

Anne opens a drawer by the phone and takes out a sheet of star stickers. “Let’s correct this right now,” she says. “Do you know how many you read, or do you have to go check in your room?”

Ben looks down at the cake.

“Ben? What’s wrong?”

Ben says nothing.

“Are you crying?” Anne combs his hair back so she can see his eyes.

“I didn’t read any!” Ben suddenly blurts out. He begins to cry outright, his little body spasming.

“What are you talking about? But you checked out all those books from me.”

“I tried…” Ben struggles to speak between sobs. “But it was so hard and I forgot and I couldn’t…”

“But I thought you loved the—” Anne stops. “Oh.” Pausing.  “I see.” Her face hardens. “Well then you can’t expect to graduate now, can you?”

“No…”

“No, of course not.” Forks and knives clank together as Anne collects them from the table. “Didn’t read any at all. None at all.” Anne opens and shuts the silverware drawer loudly. She walks onto the back porch and grabs the big trash can, which she drags inside. She slides it across the tile floor and over to the kitchen table. “Just checked them out, took them into your room—did god knows what in there all the time.”

She picks up the cake. “This is really too bad, Ben.”

Ben sniffles softly.

“Really a shame.” She tosses the cake into the trash, where it lands, face up, smashed against the side.

Ben watches, able to read the phrase, “Happy 2nd Grade Graduation!” one last time.

* * *

Ben, now eight years old, sits on the lawn in the sun.    Behind him, a black cat with a white tail, slinks over the neighbor’s wall, and drops onto the driveway. It creeps past the old basketball hoop, and onto the lawn, where it stops at the base of a tree and begins to draw its claws across the bark.

Ben turns at the sound. He sees the cat and his eyes narrow.

The cat continues scratching the tree, periodically looking around, but unaware of Ben’s presence.

A couple yards away, a broken plastic pipe, once part of a sun umbrella, lies exposed on the grass. Ben rolls on his stomach, and as quietly as possible, crawls the short distance over to the pipe. He picks it up.

The cat continues scratching.

Ben stands up, crunching blades of grass under his sneakers.

The cat turns and looks at Ben, tail twitching.

Ben doesn’t move; he hardly breathes. The two of them stand there like that for while. The cat’s green eyes reflect the sunlight.
At last, satisfied that all is well, the cat turns back to the tree and resumes scratching.

Ben lingers, still not moving.

Then, without warning, he leaps forward, raises the pipe high and brings it down as hard as he can on the cat’s back.

Squealing, the cat sprints away and up the side of the wall, where it stops and looks back at Ben, eyes frightened and defiant at the same time.

 

Two hours later, Ben stands in the driveway. Ants pour out of a crack in a steady stream. As they emerge, Ben stomps repeatedly, turning his sneaker and grinding them into the concrete. Ant corpses litter the ground.

Suddenly, a larger ant with wings crawls out of the crack and starts making its way toward Ben. “Is that all you have?” Ben says. He crushes the winged ant with his shoe.

A female voice speaks from out of nowhere. “I asked you what you were doing.”

Ben starts. He spins around, ashamed.

“Over here.” The voice emanates from behind a wooden fence running along one side of the yard.

“Hello?” Ben creeps forward.

“Look through the knothole.”

Ben notices a hole in the fence. He stops in front of it, looking uneasy.

“Or fine, don’t,” the voice says. “I’m only your neighbor.”

Ben brings his eye up to the knothole and looks through. On the other side, Phoebe, a girl about Ben’s age, sits in a wheelchair. She has stringy blond hair and thick glasses.

“What are you stepping on?” she says.

Ben looks at the driveway, and then back at Phoebe. “Ants,” he says.

Phoebe makes a face. “Boys like to kill things, don’t they?”

 

A telephone wire hangs across the backyard. Two dark birds try to land in the same place. After colliding with each other in a flutter of wings, they dance backward until they are both perched comfortably.

In the yard below, Ben and Phoebe continue their conversation.

“You’re always back here,” Phoebe says. “Don’t you go to school?”

“I’m home schooled,” Ben says.

Phoebe takes off her glasses and cleans them with her shirt. Ben notices something wrong with her eyes.

“You’re lucky,” Phoebe says. She puts her glasses back on. “Will you play with me?”

Ben nods.

“We can be partners.”

“Partners?”

“Here,” Phoebe says. “Stick your finger through.” She points to the knothole.

Ben extends his index finger through the hole.

Phoebe opens her mouth and bites down hard.

“Ow!” Ben yanks his finger back.

Phoebe giggles hysterically.

Ben lashes out, punching the fence in anger. Immediately, he pulls back his fist in pain. A splinter is lodged between two of his knuckles.

Phoebe only laughs harder.

 

Ben pokes at the splinter with his fork. He sits at the kitchen table, while Anne stands in front of the stove, scrambling some eggs.

“So,” Anne says. “What’d you do while I was gone today?”

Ben puts the fork back down on the table.

“Mostly science,” he says.

* * *

Ben and Phoebe talk through the knothole again.

“Here,” Phoebe says. “I’ll name a book, and you try and guess who the author is.”

“The author?”

“Yeah. I’ll give you the book title. Like Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”

Ben stares at Phoebe blankly. He studies her eyes. The part of her eyes that normally should be white is a grey-blue color.

“Well?” Phoebe says.

“What?”

“Guess.”

Ben scratches his leg. The grass is starting to make him itch. “I don’t know,” he says.

“You’re bad at games.”

“Yeah.”

Phoebe leans her head against her hand. “This is boring,” she says. “You should climb over.”

“The fence?”

“Yeah, what else?”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“My mom.”

“Who cares about your mom? I don’t care about my parents.”

Ben looks uncomfortable. “Why do I have to go over there?” he says. “You come over here.”

Phoebe stares at Ben with a hurt expression.

“What?” Ben says.

“What?” Phoebe says. “I’m in a wheelchair!”

“Well…” Ben looks confused. “Can’t you just get up?”

“No!” Phoebe pulls her face away from the knothole. “You’re such an idiot.” She grabs the wheels of her chair, and starts to turn around. “I don’t want to talk to you any more.”

Ben watches her start to roll away across the yard. “Wait!” he says. He leaps up and grabs the fence. The top is jagged, creating difficult angles for his hands. His legs flail, kicking against the side of the fence as he pulls himself up. He manages to get one leg over, and sits there awkwardly, one of the sharp points dangerously close to his groin. He looks down at Phoebe, who is still rolling away. “I’m stuck!” he says.

Phoebe ignores him.

Ben pulls his other leg over the fence and shoves off. He tumbles into Phoebe’s yard and lands on his side.

Phoebe turns around in time to see him fall. She laughs.

Ben gets up, unscathed. He looks around the backyard, which is much better maintained than his own. Near the house, nice tables and chairs are arranged on a red brick porch. Across the lawn, a bright blue pool shimmers in the sun.

Phoebe rolls up to him. “Will you stay and play with me?” she says.

Ben nods.

Phoebe reaches out a hand and grabs Ben’s crotch.

He jumps back, pushing her hand away.

“What are you doing?” he says.

“We’re partners, remember?” She rolls toward him, and sticks out her hand again, this time more gently.

“Stop it,” Ben says, but he doesn’t do anything.

“I thought you wanted to play?” Phoebe says. She moves her hand in a massaging motion.

“I do…” Ben says.

Phoebe pulls her hand back, suddenly annoyed. “You have to try and stop me!”

She reaches out again, and this time Ben swats her hand away. Phoebe smiles. She tries again, and again is deflected. On the third time, she does a pump fake, distracting Ben while reaching around with her other hand and grabbing firmly.

“Hey!” Ben says.

They both laugh.

Phoebe squeezes and twists.

Ben screams, grabbing her hand and tearing it off. “Stop it!” He shoves her backward.

Phoebe loses control and rolls across the patio. One of her wheels catches on a crack and the whole wheelchair tilts and topples over on its side. Phoebe tumbles out, hitting her head on the brick with a loud thud.

Ben charges forward, arms swinging. “Stop it!” he cries. “Stop it, stop it, stop it!”

 

Ben and Anne sit at the kitchen table playing cards.

“It’s your turn,” Anne says.

Ben sighs.

“What?” Anne says. “What’s the problem?”

Ben finally places a card down.

“You can win this one easily,” she says. “You ought to be happy. You’re gonna clean up on extra credit points.”

“I don’t care…” Ben says softly.

“What?” Anne says. “What don’t you care about?”

“Stupid extra credit.” Ben looks down at the table.

Anne’s face contorts. “I don’t even—”

The doorbell rings.

“I’m gonna get the door,” she says, standing up. “But we’ll talk in a minute.”

Ben looks down at the cards. He thinks about what move he should make next, what move would make the most sense. He looks down at the cards, and he starts to think that the best move, the best move of all, would be to simply take his arm and sweep all the cards right off the table.