"I saw something terrible," says Martin.
He sits in the middle of the dingy little living room, his thin haunches sinking into the slightly moldered red fabric of the chair. His elbows rest on his legs, wrinkling his khakis, and his fingers steeple beneath his chin.
"Did you make coffee?" his mother calls from the kitchen, which is not much more than a little partition separated by a small counter. She's making herself right at him in his abode, as usual.
"Yes," he replies. He stares straight ahead, studying the wall, the little cracks in the plaster. Sometimes he hears his neighbors through those thin, shoddy walls, in the throes of their most intimate moments. He's never even spoken to them, a fact for which he's exceedingly grateful. Hard to look someone in the face when, just the previous night, you checked your watch to gauge how much longer their raucous lovemaking might disturb your reading.
"Would you like some?"
"Yes." Then he catches himself: "No. Thank you."
The sounds of her movements in the kitchen reach his ears, the soft porcelain clank of cups clashing against the faux marble countertop and the click of her black heels. In another moment or two, she emerges from the partition, bearing two small, white cups of steaming coffee.
Elaine wears her blond hair down around her shoulders today, with a small black ribbon to tie it back from her face. She sports a cream sweater over a black dress which ends just below her knees. The smile she flashes her son lights up her face, and the crinkles it creates in the corners of her eyes seem sunny rather than aged. All in all, she's a very pretty woman, and not simply for her years. She seems to know it.
"You take sugar, yes?"
Elaine extends his cup toward him, and he takes it without complaint.
"Thank you," he says quietly, and he holds the rim of the cup up to his lips, not to drink but to inhale the steam. "I've been trying to cut back. Haven't put much effort into it, though."
"Cut back on what?" she asks, seating herself on the loveseat, situated at an angle from the matching chair. "Sugar? Oh, please." She makes a dismissive gesture with her free hand as she tests her coffee. "You're so thin, I think you're wasting away sometimes—you need more sugar, if anything."
It's such a mother thing to say, Martin thinks. He is hardly wasting, though he could do with some bulking up. Leave it to a mother—especially Elaine, of all mothers—to try and put fat on him when he lacks muscle.
"Coffee, actually," he corrects. He tastes his own, now, and the sweet bite stays in his throat several seconds after the drink has disappeared down his esophagus. Elaine always loads the cup with the same amount of sugar, never mind how much coffee it contains. Martin never mentions it—he has a vague memory of his father saying something likewise, and it didn't go over well. She can be so sensitive.
"Coffee never killed anyone," she states.
He shrugs his agreement.
"It's kept a few people up at night," he counters.
The transformation on her face, from nonchalance to maternal concern, could not be more instantaneous were it set into motion via the flicking of a switch. She lowers her coffee to rest on her lap, where her skirt has stretched tight enough across her thighs to fashion a sort of makeshift table, and her expertly tweezed brows draw together.
"Trouble sleeping?" She's giving him her full attention now, which is no doubt meant to be comforting, but Martin rarely finds it so. Inwardly, he has always thought of that expression as her "psychiatrist stare."
"It's just the coffee, like I said," he assures her. Because she's still staring at him, he lowers his eyes and takes another sip, tries to look appreciative. He draws too deeply and feels it scald his tongue.
"Coffee, my foot!" she exclaims in her prim way.
"Hm?" Raising his eyebrows, he looks up at her.
"Caffeine has nothing to do with it," Elaine informs him with the utmost confidence. "It's tension, it's . . . well, it's plain, old-fashioned stress. Well, dear lord, look at the way you're sitting!"
"What's wrong with how I'm sitting?"
"You're all hunched over," she says in agitation, gesturing with her hand. "And your shoulders are inches above where they ought to be. Did you know that? It's a real wonder you don't get headaches. You don't, do you?"
"No, Mom, no headaches," Martin says. He hastily arranges himself into a more comfortable position with his back against the chair, because Elaine has begun to bustle about for somewhere to set down her cup, and he's half afraid she might come over and try to resituate him herself.
"Now, you listen to me," she orders, having deposited her cup on the lamp stand next to her armrest. "Dr. Edwards prescribes these wonderful pills for me—"
"Mom, I don't need any—" he begins, a desperate feeling rising in his chest. It's awfully hard to stop Elaine once she's on a roll.
"That's what everyone says," she sings, holding her palms out to shush him. "But it's all very natural. It has to do with what your body really needs, that's the only sort of medicinal assistance any of us require. You see, darling, Dr. Edwards explained it to me. There are certain chemicals in our brains, and they all have very specific functions, but every now and then our brains fail to regulate them as they should, and when that happens—"
"Mom, that's not . . ." Martin makes a small noise of exasperation in his throat and runs his hand over his brown hair, rumpling it. "Did you even hear what I said?"
Elaine ceases her lecture, halting with that wide-eyed, doe-like expression he knows so well.
"I'm sorry," she says. "What did you say, darling?"
"A while ago, when you were in the kitchen," Martin clarifies, "I told you I saw something earlier. And it—it was kind of disturbing."
"What was it? Where was it?"
"In the alley outside," he explains. "I was closing the curtains last week." He shakes his head, resting his coffee on the threadbare arm of the chair. "Seeing it at all was just a fluke. It only lasted about a minute, maybe less. If I hadn't been closing the curtains . . ."
Elaine sighs huffily.
"Well, what was it, Martin?" she demands, and when he shoots her an uncertain, slightly penetrating look—a shifty look, she assesses—she adds in a more coaxing manner, "Tell me."
Martin drums his fingers on the handle of his cup.
"I don't know," he says hesitantly. "I mean, whatever it was, that's not the point, anyway. It's just that—I didn't report it, and I feel like maybe I should have."
"I can't help you if you won't tell me what it was," Elaine says, quietly but firmly, lowering her eyes to express her disapproval.
His laugh is brief and humorless.
"I don't need help," he tells her. "That's not . . . Look, Mom, I know you mean well, but not every little thing I say is a cry for help. I just wanted to tell somebody, and Cork . . . I couldn't tell Cork. You know how he feels about animals."
"I see." Elaine looked off to the side and retrieved her cup, offended at discovering she was runner up to her younger son in Martin's choice of confidants. Then, with a sudden frown, she glances back sharply, unable to stifle her curiosity. "What about animals?"
Wincing slightly at his error, Martin leans forward again, mouth against his fist. Drawing a deep breath, he closes his eyes for a second and decides to spill the short, unpleasant tale.
"It was night, like I said," he begins. "And I went to close the curtains. I thought I—I might read for a while. I had the lights off, except I turned the lamp on, here."
He gestures with his chin toward the lamp on the stand near the loveseat.
"The blinds were down, but open. I lifted one and looked out. I always do. There was never anything out there before. I mean, this is the first time I ever saw anything, much less something that fucked up."
"Martin." Language, language, scolds her tone.
"Sorry, Mom." His voice has gone soft, quiet, and his eyes are frozen wide and reminiscent. "So I raised the blind, and when I looked out, there was a movement below, in the alley. Something shone. So I looked, and I finally found him in the dark—a kid, I think. Anyway, he couldn't have been more than fifteen or so. Scruffy-looking, skinny little punk of a kid. And I found him, 'cause he had something in his hand, and that was what was shining. It was some kind of blade, like maybe something you'd take off a lawnmower. I don't know . . ."
Martin remembers squinting, trying to see by the scant rays from the streetlight leaking into the alley. He remembers how his hand twitched on the blinds when he saw the white cat, how his heart fluttered.
"And there was a cat, too."
"Oh, dear," whispers Elaine, sensing where the tale winds. Her eyes are wide, too, and she hangs on every word, onto the sheer horror of it.
"He was chasing it. It tried to jump over the rim of the dumpster. I guess it thought it could hide down in the garbage. I don't know. But it didn't make it. I heard it hit the side; it made kind of a soft bang."
The cat tried to hang on with its claws, to scramble up the side, but skittered back down. Martin, throat dry, heard the sounds of its claws scraping down the metal like nails over a chalkboard, and even now he didn't know whether he only imagined them. When the boy's figure loomed over it, the cat tried to fall and lunge away . . . but he had already swung back the blade.
"The kid cornered it there by the dumpster and . . . Well, he killed it. I mean, he . . . hacked it to death with the blade . . . basically."
The first few hits caught the cat still against the dumpster, raising a terrible cacophony. Martin wanted to lift his eyes and see if any other lights had come on or any windows opened, but he could not pull his vision from the writhing form of the animal. It flopped like a suffocating fish, and the boy kept swinging, cutting, chopping, for a good minute after the cat was surely dead. And Martin kept watching for several moments after the kid, nearly reeling from his exertion, sauntered out of the alley, tucking the blood-smeared blade into his denim jacket.
"It was so pointless," Martin concludes. "Why would someone want to--?"
Elaine shakes her head, placing her fingers against her lips. They sit in atypical silence for a few seconds, and then she bursts forth:
"Well, it's all to do with the parenting, that's why! Children simply don't behave that way with the proper upbringing." Color rises and settles on her cheekbones. "It's all this talk of nature versus nurture. Well, let me tell you, there's no such thing! Why, you turned out splendidly, and it's not because I lounged around and let genetics do all the work. You look at me, Martin!"
His eyes snap up to her, startled, to find her sitting poker-straight, one index finger extended toward him.
"You make babies," she informs him in a warning tone. "You raise children."
"I don't plan on having kids, Mom," he mumbles.
"Oh, no one does," she shoots back. "That's just it. People make babies by accident every day, and so they think that's all there is to creating a human life, but they're wrong! It's work. It's a craft."
There is a hard look on her oval face. It gives him a squirmy, somehow guilty feeling, as if he owes her more than he is for all her hard work.
"Right," he agrees, nodding. "I know. You're right." It's best to agree with Elaine in most instances. Besides, he's certain there is some truth in her words. He simply doesn't care at present. Martin has trouble grasping that lax parenting alone could cause someone to treat a living thing with such enthusiastic cruelty.
"Anyway," he says, because the last thing he wishes to discuss with his mother is the accidental creation of babies, "I shut the blinds, closed the curtains. I sat there on the loveseat and tried to read, but the words just . . . I just kept on reading the same lines over and over. I just couldn't focus, knowing it was out there, lying in the alley. So I got some gloves from the kitchen, went outside—"
"Martin . . ." Elaine shuts her eyes and turns her face aside.
It was in pieces. The discoloration—striking even in the darkness—of the formerly white fur made it hard to spot, and he almost stepped on it once or twice. The head had lodged halfway under the edge of the dumpster. He had to hook his fingers around to get it loose.
"I picked it up and threw it away. That's all I did."
The slightly self-accusatory tone of his last statement is not lost on his mother.
"Darling," soothes Elaine, "that's all you could do."
She reaches out to touch his face, but he pushes her hand aside gently with his own.
"Don't you think I should have reported it?" he asks, his face pained. "Or at least tried to stop it?"
"Tried to stop it!" she echoes incredulously, taking her hand back. "How, exactly? By running out into the night after some psychotic, hatchet-wielding hooligan? Oh, yes, that's the sort of thing I want my son doing—honestly, Martin."
"He was just a kid."
"A kid with a hatchet."
"Wasn't a hatchet, Mom."
"Don't be difficult, Martin." Huffing, she sits back. "I can't imagine why you'd want me to worry about you doing such a silly thing as that. You were always the level-headed one, always so . . ."
"Easily managed?" he suggests with a lift of his eyebrow.
She gives him a look.
"I'm joking," he says, even though he's not. "Anyway—never mind. You know I'd never do something so risky. I'm just . . . shaken, I guess, still. I shouldn't have even told you."
"Sweetheart, you can tell me anything. Everything." Why does it sound like a command?
He can't, though, not really. His mother knows so much about him—more than any other person in the world, male or female, sad as that strikes him—and yet she knows so little.
Martin didn't want to report the boy, and deep down he realizes this. What he wanted—wants—is for the boy to suffer and writhe as the helpless cat suffered and writhed. He wants the boy to come back to the alley chasing further prey, and then he wants to hack him into a thousand pieces with his own damned blade. To hide him in the dumpster—the bits he can scrape up, anyway.
Which, of course, will never happen, not even if the kid does come back (a doubtful occurrence in itself). Martin isn't a fool. He doesn't want to rot in prison for dismembering an adolescent, however sociopathic. You might get away for killing a cat in a quiet alley . . . but not a kid.
All the same, he takes a grim satisfaction in the violent fantasy, and this troubles him. He supposes that's why he told Elaine. He wants some sort of reassurance, but he can't tell her the whole truth, and so he only feels worse.
Elaine senses Martin drifting away, so she leans forward and places one delicate hand upon his knee. His brown eyes meet hers.
Suddenly—dreadfully—he wants her to go home.
"I—" His voice seems to click, and he stops, swallowing, shifting in his seat. Her hand falls away with the movement.
"Your coffee is cold." She doesn't ask. She tells him. Standing gracefully with her back so straight one might suspect her of hiding a board beneath her blouse, she takes his cup from him in the same way she might remove a toy from the grasp of a submissive child.
"I don't want it," he says truthfully. "You can have it."
No—damn it. Now she'll have to stay and drink it.
"Just take it with you if you want," he adds quickly as a hint. "I'll get the cup next time I visit."
"Which had better be soon!" she warns as she rounds the partition once more. He hears her opening the microwave door, heating the coffee, and knows instinctually that she's going to give it back to him and expect him to swallow every last drop. "It's been weeks since I've seen you around. Mrs. Ashby's always asking about you, you know . . . It's so embarrassing that sometimes I barely know what to tell her about my own son. Sometimes I barely know what's happening to you, Martin."
He can relate.