When the boy first said the words, I did not believe him.
“I used to have earrings like that,” he said.
“Did you?” I asked without a thought.
“Yes,” he replied. “Before I was your son.”
I remember catching my own glance in the mirror as I stood modeling my new chandeliers. They were solid silver, with two ovular loops like teardrops, from which pendular diamonds swayed to and fro as I shook my head in nonbelief.
“What are you talking about, Sweetie?”
“Those earrings,” he repeated. “Mine were just like them.”
“I heard that,” I said impatiently. “But that other bit…”
I turned to look at the boy, half expecting a sheepish grin, or a burst of laughter that would expose his silly prank. Instead he was sitting on the floor with his legs crossed, eagerly watching me as I struggled to formulate a response to his strange and bizarre comment.
His deep blue eyes hid nothing, and it was odd to see such a look of absolute certainty on the face of a normally garrulous five-year-old. It was quite ordinary for him to say things that were childish and amusing, in the lightest sense of the word– he was, after all, just a child. But his earnest expression, and the tone of voice that implied his statement was nothing simpler than matter-of-fact, was not especially common in the years I had known the boy– all five of his existence.
Still I could not shake the feeling that just then, as the words passed through the space between us and fell upon my ears, the sounds placidly sinking into my brain and translating into meaning, and eventually understanding, something had suddenly changed. Perhaps it was a slight breeze coursing through the cracked window, or a thought in the back of my mind that had gathered just enough velocity to prod but not penetrate the boundary into conscious thought. I only knew that the small hairs that lined my forearms came to attention, and when I noticed I looked down at them, then back at the boy.
He remained impassive.
“Mommy has to go now,” I said to the boy as I kissed him on the head. “No more nonsense, okay?”
He nodded complicitly to my plea as I turned to leave the apartment and the awkward conversation behind. But that strange feeling stayed with me through the evening, and each time I looked around the restaurant I saw only reminders: flashes of dangling earrings, glimpses and twinkles as women spoke and motioned and nodded and laughed, and reflections of light that danced around the dining room at a much faster pace than the piano at the center.
I reached for my wine and felt the warmth flush through my face, then began to pat the hairs on my arms back down with frenetic attention, paying no mind to the man seated across from me as he politely attempted to ignore my obvious distress and instead elected to continue the discussion of his merits, qualifications, and profound opinions on matters of absolute banality.
When I returned home I rushed past the babysitter and into the bedroom of my son, where I found the boy sleeping deeply and dreaming of things I’d never know.
Mirthful laughter filled the halls as the chain of red, plastic monkeys grew longer and more fragile. One end he had hooked to the barstool, then one-by-one he had removed the apes from the barrel in his pocket and joined each with its predecessor, carefully stepping back and maintaining the tension required to prevent the entire bridge from collapsing. It was growing quite long now, at least by the standards of barrel monkeys, and he was so absorbed in his work that he did not hear me call his name.
“Michael,” I had said at first, and noting the lack of response, I called a second time more loudly and perhaps more aggressive than I had intended.
His head snapped toward me and the chain of monkeys collapsed onto the kitchen floor.
“That’s not my name, you know,” he replied calmly, one hand still holding the last monkey above his head, and otherwise showing no sign of the absolute attention he had been investing in the plastic project.
“Of course it is,” I said to the boy, pushing his arm down and taking him into my own. “I named you myself.”
He did not return my embrace, and I felt his head shaking between my neck and shoulder.
“No,” he said. “I had another name before that. Before I came back.”
Putting the boy at arms length, I took a knee and brought myself to his eye-level.
“Michael,” I said, failing to hide the concern present in my voice. “Before what, Honey?”
“Before I was your son, I had another name,” he said simply. “Another life.”
Confused thoughts rushed through my brain and I felt the eerie feeling return. It had been weeks since its last occurrence, and I had finally begun to feel it nothing more than a harmless symptom of a healthy imagination– his and my own. But at those words I felt it relapse, this time heavier than before and arousing an inexplicable feeling of dread that seemed to form in the pit of my stomach. Not knowing what to say, my voice selected the simplest response.
“What was your name?” I asked.
I regretted the question before I had even finished asking it. My eyes searched his own for a clue, a hint of jest or anger or elemental pathology that I could detect to justify the answer that I was certain was to come. The boy merely blinked twice.
Then an explosion that was the vibration of my cell phone shook me to my feet.
“Hello,” my voice said. “Okay, I’ll be right out.”
I looked back at the boy and he was unmoved and unchanged, with no evident reason to be.
“I’m leaving now, Michael,” I said. “I will see you when I get back, okay?”
The boy did not respond.
For a moment I considered playing along and repeating myself, but the thought of uttering a strange name to a familiar face was uncomfortable and extremely repellant. Rather than confront and dissect the eerie sensation that had indubitably returned, I turned on my heel and walked briskly toward and out the door.
The rapid sound of gunfire followed the yips and yells of the exuberant cowboys, raucously riding their horses through the Western town while terrified patrons quivered behind batwing doors.
“Michael, will you turn that down?” I called from the kitchen. The boy was perched unnecessarily close to the screen and in danger of damaging both his eyes and his ears.
He did not respond; in this situation, this was typical.
I moved from the kitchen to the television and adjusted the volume to a reasonable level. Still he sat glued in place, too intent on the moving pictures to complain or object, and I returned to the kitchen to resume chopping vegetables. When the story broke for commercial he began to flip through the channels.
Fragments of dialogue and advertising reached my ears, but I paid no mind as I moved the sliced vegetables to the pot on the stove. The knob turned and the burner emitted some gas and sparks but did not immediately light. I tried again, then again, and still received nothing but clicking and the faint smell of methane. I paused for a moment to silently curse, then tried once more. The pilot caught and a burst of flames ignited past the borders of the range and startled me, causing me to jump back and nearly land on the boy, who had crept up behind me and now stood with a very solemn expression.
“Please be careful,” he said sternly.
“Michael,” I said, still recovering from the sequence of events that had just transpired. “How did you…”
My sentence trailed off as I looked from the boy to the place he had just been sitting in front of the TV, now broadcasting to an empty room.
The news was on.
“A southside apartment fire today took the lives of thirteen individuals, including the landlord that reported the blaze initially,” the newsman said. The images were of firemen in black and yellow suits climbing ladders and cooing the victims to safety. Some residents were flailing wildly out of their windows, billows of smoke emitting from behind their heads, while others had made it outside and were shimmying across the narrow ledge in the direction of their rescuers. “At this point it is unknown what caused the fire, but investigators are actively pursuing leads and clues recovered from the scene.”
I looked back at the boy; he had not moved from my side, nor had his glance left the spot on my face that I felt burning with his gaze.
“Michael, did you put this on?” I asked, unable to conceal the creeping dread that was crawling up my arms and spreading from my core to the tips of my extremities.
“Isn’t there a baseball game on, or something you might–“
“That’s how I died, you know.”
The silence hung in the air like the smell of rotten meat, invisible to the eye but detectable to the other senses, some especially more than others. I knew his sentence to be nonsense, for here he stood before me, alive and breathing. But I could feel my anxiety returning, the inexplicable fear of something hideous coming to light, unable to be defined but undoubtedly present, and now more than ever before.
“Michael,” I started, but no other words came to me. My voice cracked and I knew that the feeling was back.
So did he.
Silently he took his hands and placed them together near his chest, then removed one in a gentle arc down, pursing his lips as if to whistle– and forgetting that he did not know how to do so– all while one hand fell slowly to his waist until clapping together again with a forceful smack.
Then he walked away as quietly as he had come, back toward the television and past the open window that I no longer implicated in the chilling effects of these recurring episodes. He paused, however, just in front of the ledge to look down at the ground below, then back at me, before resuming his spot, dubiously close to the screen and to the images of the destructive inferno that it still portrayed.
The body hit the pavement with such force that it took days to find dental fragments large enough to identify. The flesh, of course, was charred beyond recognition, and bystanders had described the scene as a dark cloud of smoke that fell from the sky and hit the ground with a sickening thud, then continued to blacken as it smoldered on the sidewalk. At that point no one knew her name, nor the type of earrings she liked to wear on Saturday nights. No one even knew her scorched and broken form to be the remnants of a human. She was only discovered because a fireman had tripped and nearly fallen over what he mistook as ash and soot.
But that was the death of Pamela Washington, thirty-two years ago in a city hundreds of miles away.
And now, finding a story I already knew in the antique newspaper of a city I had never visited, I came to understand the change that I had felt taking place in myself, and in the boy, from the moment he had first mentioned the ornate earrings.
He had told me so– the boy that had been my son.
The world was full of people and beliefs and mysteries and coincidences and I knew it was impossible for one person to express with any certainty a knowledge of how it all worked. The only truth came from experience, for you could not believe things you had never known, and you certainly could not disbelief things you had witnessed with your own eyes.
If no one else believed me, that would be fine and quite honestly was to be expected.
But they did not share in my experiences. They did not draw from the same occurrences and memories; they did not start with the same set of beliefs and see them confirmed or debunked; they did not have the same upbringing; they did not live the same lives.
That they would not understand was no longer any concern.
The body hit the pavement with a sickening thud, and a crack like a car-crash that echoed off the cement walls of the apartment complex. Bypassers shrieked in horror at the sight on the ground and tenants immediately began to pour from their rooms to witness the commotion out front. Though the form was mangled and torn and bent in ways that seemed impossible to the laws of physics, identification was relatively simple, and when I descended from my floor the neighbors turned to me in shock.
“Come quick!” They urged. “There has been an accident!”
I was pulled through the crowd, while behind me the terror spread, a woman fainted, and somewhere a man was calling for an ambulance.
“What has happened?” They cried in disbelief. “The boy! Your son!”
They led me to the crumpled heap on the sidewalk but I only shook my head.
“No,” I said with a steady voice and a tone that was nothing less than matter-of-fact.
“That boy was not my son.”