"Look," she said, "I don't want you to think I don't want you here, or that you're somehow second best, but I have to think of Nathan first. Always."
Joe nodded. "I know that," he said. "And I know you're probably nervous and it would make you a whole lot more comfortable if I just go now. So I will. Go, I mean. I just hate being hidden like I'm something to be ashamed of."
"That's not it and you know it!" Emily said, hurt.
"I do know it, Em," he said. "I do. But us fragile male egos need to be reassured sometimes too, okay?"
He went to her, touched her shoulder, and she turned into his touch and took him into a full embrace.
"Okay," she said, holding herself against him, her head on his broad chest. "Okay."
Then she pushed him away, a smile on her face, and drawled, "Now get out of here before I throw you out on your ass. I've got dinner to cook and I don't need you hanging all over me while I do it."
"I think you do," Joe said, also smiling, "but I won't argue about it."
He kissed her, and a moment later, the door closed behind him. Joe left Emily with a smile on her face, but in her heart, she was terribly anxious. She knew it was important, for all of them, that she tell Thomas she was seeing someone. Emily suspected that somewhere inside him, Thomas didn't really believe it was over, that he held out some fantasy of their reconciliation.
It wasn't going to happen. Her dating again might be the best thing for Thomas, in the long run. For them both, as far as moving on with their lives was concerned.
How it would impact Nathan was something else entirely. Emily didn't plan to let Nathan know about Joe right away, not until she was fairly confident he would be around a while. But she had to tell Thomas. The last few years had been difficult for them, but she still cared for her ex-husband deeply. He deserved to hear it from her before someone else told him they'd seen her out with another man.
Yeah, she had to tell him.
But thinking about that conversation was starting to give her a splitting headache.
"Why didn't you tell me all this when you first got here?" Emily asked in an accusatory tone that was all too familiar to both of them.
"Geez, Emily, I don't know," he said with a sarcasm he couldn't control, another symptom of the relationship disease that had led to their divorce. "Maybe it was because we had to do all the fun awkward stuff first."
Thomas glanced over at Nathan, who was teaching himself architecture using green beans and mashed potatoes, then back at his ex-wife. She got the point.
"Nathan, why don't you go get ready for bed, okay? Daddy and I will come in and kiss you good night in a few minutes," she promised.
The boy brightened at her words, so familiar. Thomas winced. Daddy and I, it was almost unfair to make it sound so much like a real family, he thought. To all of them. But that was going to be life from now on. He wondered if he would ever get used to it, or if he ever should.
"Sure, Mommy," Nathan said with a smile.
He pushed off his chair, grinned at them both, and said, "Daddy, water my garden okay?"
Thomas was already agreeing before he realized that Nathan was talking about his bean and potato construction. It wasn't architecture at all, but a bean orchard or something.
"Sure, buddy," he said, and poked Nathan in the belly. "Now go on, pajamas and brush your teeth."
He looked over at Nathan's dish again and smiled to himself. Imagination was an extraordinary thing. It was impossible to know what children were thinking, and almost always amazing when they told you.
"I'm worried, Thomas," Emily said when Nathan was gone. "I'm not going to overreact or anything, but please keep me up to date. Maybe you should take Nathan away next weekend or something?"
Thomas thought about it. He didn't like the idea of running away from whoever was harassing him, but giving his stalker — or whatever — a week off might disappoint them enough to spoil their fun.
"I'll think about it," he answered. "Play it by ear."
They were silent again, together. And Thomas had a moment to remember a time when silence between them never felt as though it were pushing them apart. Quite the opposite in fact. But silence now was heavy with the weight of pain and mistrust.
It was always that way between them now. Whenever they saw one another, particularly when he brought Nathan home on Sundays, there was the awkwardness of their greeting, the guarded quality of their inquiries into each other's welfare. It had been getting better, but Thomas suspected it would never completely disappear. Still, tonight the tension was worse than usual. There was something on Emily's mind. He wished she would just tell him what it was and relieve them both of the anxiety it created.
Of course, there was something on his mind as well, even more than the maybe-stalker.
"Sounds like you had a nice weekend, all things considered," she said finally.
"Well, besides being spied on by the Peanut Butter General," he said with a laugh, "yeah, not a bad weekend at all. We had fun. But . . . look, Emily, obviously you've got something to say, and I want to hear it," he added, tired of the silence. "But there's something I want to talk to you about as well."
He told her about what Sister Margaret had said, about Nathan acting strangely, and that he thought it might have to do with their divorce. He told her about Crabapple, and Nathan's nightmare, and finally, that he thought they should put their little boy, their only child, back in counseling.
Emily looked at Thomas, and he could see it coming the way he'd always been able to. She began to cry. Not loud sobbing heaves, but a gentle, sorrowful weeping.
Thomas held his ex-wife, whom he still loved dearly and imagined he always would. After a moment or two, she sniffled a bit, pulled away, and studied him as if she were verifying that he was, indeed, Thomas Randall, a man she'd loved once and whose son she had borne. She was searching for something. Maybe the past, Thomas thought.
"I hate that we've done this to him," she said finally.
"We can't turn back the clock, Emily," Thomas said. “The only thing we can do is love him the best we can, and work together to see that he always knows it."
"So, counseling?" she asked.
"Dr. Morrissey, again, I think," Thomas replied. “She already knows the situation, so . . .”
"There's more to this conversation, though, isn't there?" Thomas asked. "You had something on your mind."
"Oh, Thomas, I don't know if . . .” Emily began, but he cut her off.
"We don't have to play games with each other, Emily," Thomas told her. "We've got too much at stake to do that. What is it? You seeing someone?"
Emily blanched, wide-eyed, and looked at him a moment before looking away.
So there it was. His wife . . . ex-wife had herself a new boyfriend. Thomas wanted to say, Good for you, Emily. Have a life. Start again. Be happy. He really did.
But he couldn't.
"Well, I guess we're sending Nathan back to counseling at just the right time, then, aren't we?" Thomas said before he could stop himself. "I'm sure that's just what he needs, his mother running around with some guy."
She glared at him.
"Jesus, Emily, the corpse isn't even cool yet. And the boy's only five years old, for God's sake, give him a break!" Thomas said, wishing he could just shut up but overwhelmed by the pressure on his temples, the shortness of breath, the ice cube in his gut.
He loved her. And he could see in her eyes that he'd hurt her. Again. They'd hurt each other a lot, and saving Nathan from that was the whole point of the divorce.
"You done?" she growled.
Thomas looked away and sighed, ashamed of himself, but unwilling to let go of the pain.
"Nathan doesn't know I'm seeing anyone, and he won't until I think the time is right. I'd give my life for that kid, just like I know you would. But I have to build a future for myself, too. You should be doing the same," Emily said sternly. "Now, if you are done, why don't you fuck off home and see if you can't find the asshole who smeared peanut butter on your window," she added.
Emily rose from her chair and went to the sink to angrily bang pots and dishes around. Thomas waited for the sound of a dish breaking, but none did. It always amazed him, when she did that, that the dishes didn't shatter.
"Why don't you go kiss your son good night?" she said gruffly, without turning. "Tell him I'll be right in."
Thomas slid his chair back and rose slowly. He walked over to where Emily stood, still with her back to him. He kissed her on the top of the head and whispered an apology, which she ignored. Thomas knew she felt guilty, and he'd used her guilt and her love for Nathan against her. His apology was genuine.
Leaving her to the dishes, he walked down the hallway of the large raised ranch home and into his son's bedroom.
"Okay, buster, time for kisses from Daddy!" he announced as he crossed the threshold.
Nathan wasn't there. Thomas raised an eyebrow. Faintly, in the back of his mind, he recalled his alarm in the backyard that morning. But the thought was gone as soon as it came. They were at home now. Nathan had nothing to fear here, especially with both his parents right down the hall.
Must be in the bathroom, Thomas thought. As he stepped into the hall, he heard the water running in the sink. Thomas smiled. Nathan was a good kid. Brushed his teeth all by himself, morning and night. Sure, he could be bratty and selfish and cranky, but all kids were those things once in a while. In so many other ways, the important ways, Nathan was every parent's dream child.
"Okay, buddy, I've got to go," he said as he pushed open the bathroom door.
Nathan wore mismatched pajamas, Mickey Mouse on top and airplanes on the bottoms. He stood on a small stool Thomas had bought for him when he was three, and Nathan held his toothpaste-foamed toothbrush to his front teeth, lips curled back in a bizarre rictus. Toothpaste dripped down his chin. Water ran in the sink.
But Nathan wasn't brushing.
The boy stared into the mirror, unblinking, tooth-brushing hand frozen in place.
"Nathan?" Thomas asked weakly.
His son didn't turn, didn't respond — his eyes didn't even flicker over to glance at Thomas. Shock became horror. Curiosity became desperate fear, triphammer-slamming into his chest.
Thomas moved quickly to his son and grabbed Nathan by the shoulders, shaking him, gently at first. Any other day, he might have waited to see what the joke was. But he knew there was no fakery involved just by looking at the boy.
"Nathan!" he shouted and turned his son's body so he could stare into Nathan's eyes, get his attention.
He could hear, dimly, somewhere in another world, the voice of his ex-wife, Nathan's mother, shouting to him, asking what was wrong. He could hear her running down the hall toward the bathroom. But Thomas wasn't really registering those things. All he could focus on in that moment was the saliva and toothpaste running down his son's chin in a greenish white rivulet of foamy drool.
"Jesus!" Emily cried behind him. "What's wrong with him?"
She cried her son's name and went to him; pulled him from his father's grasp. Emily called to Nathan again and again, each plaintive query more helpless than the last. After a few moments, she noticed Thomas again, and turned to roar at him in blind panic.
"What the fuck's the matter with you?" she cried. "Call an ambulance for God's sake! He's gone into shock or something!"
As he sprinted to the phone, Thomas felt numb, as if it had been he who had gone into some kind of shock.
After he'd hung up the phone, he could barely recall having spoken to someone at 911. He hoped he'd said the right things, but couldn't really remember. He couldn't get Nathan's eyes out of his mind. The look in his eyes. Or, more accurately, the lack of any discernible consciousness there. His eyes had looked . . . vacant. The lights were on; nobody home.
Somehow, his son was gone.
* * * * *
Nathan drifted for a long time. Floated along, as though he were lying on a raft on a gently rolling river. Several times, he heard sounds, grunts and labored breathing and the chirping of birds. There was a smell, too. Like smoke.
His eyelids began to flutter.
Nathan woke up in the dark, thrashing against rough cloth that had been tied around his wrists and ankles. He screamed for his parents, Mommy and Daddy both, because even though they weren't together, they'd been together when he went in to brush his teeth. Before . . .
"Mommmmaaaaaaaa!" he screamed, and tears sprang to his eyes, sliding down his cheeks quickly to make room for more.
He struggled against his bonds and banged his head with a clang against the metal whatever-it-was that he was laying in. Metal, smooth and cool. He sniffled, looked up at the dark sky where huge orange stars glittered, at tall trees, brown and withered, stooped as if to look at him passing beneath. They looked like they were in pain, those trees.
Somewhere, Nathan smelled a fire burning.
He screamed for his mother again.
"Ssssshut up, you little brat," a low voice growled.
Nathan craned his neck to look behind the metal container inside of which he was being sped along under the stars. In the dark, green eyes twinkled. Cat eyes. Orange starlight gleamed off long, razor sharp tusks.
"You're not real," Nathan whispered.
Instantly, he stopped moving, and his metal carriage — a wheelbarrow, he realized — clanked to the ground. The green eyes moved closer, and Nathan could really see him now, the huge saber-toothed tiger man he'd always feared in his father's stories. But not clever and soft, like in the stories. Cruel, instead of clever. Filthy and matted, instead of soft.
Nathan closed his eyes and began to cry harder. Trying to push it away. It wasn't real. He knew it wasn't because his Daddy had always told him, promised him, that the stories weren't real. Just made up for kids, for boys and girls like him.
"Hear that, Cragssssskull?" Bob Longtooth said in the dark beyond Nathan's compressed eyelids. "The brat ssssays we're not real."