CW: Child loss
My husband had warned me Josh Carter was back. Still when I came out of the supermarket and saw him, the shock of it stopped me.
I stood frozen with a bag hanging from each hand, people parting around me. He was almost exactly as I remembered him. The same dark hair, the same swinging stride.
I knew without having to think how old he was. Twenty-two next month. Just like Ryan would have been. Their birthdays were three weeks apart and I always used to make a cake for Josh too, because I knew his own mother wouldn’t.
He didn’t see me. He had his phone to his ear and was talking as he walked. As he got closer, I saw the broadness of his shoulders, the stubble shadowing his jaw. He had become a man as I would never see my son become a man.
I heard a snatch of his conversation. “Pity she’s crazy then,” he said, and he laughed.
The sound hit me like he had thrown a handful of rocks, raining down on me. He was doing exactly what I had said he should, when I wrote to him as he sat in prison at the start of a three-year sentence. He was going on with his life. I never imagined it would hurt so much to see.
He passed straight by me, just meters away, and then he veered toward the liquor shop. Walked in through the grilled door as if he wasn’t even sorry at all.
The evening before, I’d made pasta for dinner. It had a tomato and garlic sauce and not much else because I’d forgotten to get the chicken out to defrost.
“It’s a bit boring,” I’d said to my husband, apologetically.
“This is fine, it’s good,” he said. He shoved mouthfuls down his throat mechanically. He ate on the couch with the TV on, our youngest son sat at the breakfast bar watching something on his phone. We didn’t eat at the table anymore. It felt too big for how small we’d become.
I stood in the kitchen and picked bits of pasta out of the pot with a fork. Once I never would have allowed this. The parenting books said it was important to have family meals, at the table, to come together and talk. So that was what we did. Back then I believed if I did everything right, I would get the end result every mother desires. Happy and healthy children.
Sean finished his plate and loaded it into the dishwasher before heading back to his bedroom and the x-box. He was seventeen but still hadn’t shown any inclination for parties and cars and drinking. I never worried though as he sat there in his bedroom, headphones on. Safe in there.
Craig came into the kitchen and rinsed his plate. I moved aside for him to load it into the dishwasher.
“Thanks for dinner,” he said. Our marriage carried on in an imitation of what it had been.
He opened the dishwasher and paused there, bent over it. “Josh Carters back in town this weekend,” he said, not looking at me. “One of the girls at work told me, she knows his mother.”
I stood holding my second glass of wine. His words washing over me. I’d heard he was living up North with his grandad since he got out, but I’d always known it was likely he would come back. It was where he’d grown up. His mother still lived here.
“To stay?” I asked.
“Only the weekend, his mother’s birthday, apparently. Maybe prison brought them closer.”
He made a harsh sound. As if he were choking on something. I stood there feeling numb, waiting to see what would come next. I had learned this in the last three years, feelings change. In five minutes or a month or a year, eventually one would give way to another. Not necessarily better, but it would be different.
“Anyway,” Craig said. “I don’t know why she told me. I don’t even want to hear his name.” He slammed the dishwasher closed. My husband’s feelings changed too. He wasn’t always angry, but a lot of the time he was.
I finished my wine and looked out the kitchen window at the road, the streetlights strung along it shining in the dark. I was thinking of the long-ago afternoon when I heard the laughter of my son outside. I looked out to see him barrelling up the street on his bike, another boy beside him, both of them going too fast, both of them laughing. Ryan had never brought a friend home before. I didn’t call out to them to be more careful, though I wanted to.
When they walked in the door Josh was ahead, even though it was Ryan’s house. He cemented himself as the ringleader then, and it was how I always saw him. Walked right in and looked at me and smiled.
“Hi, Ryan’s mum,” he said. Only ten then. He won me over in all ways. I look back at her now, that hopeful woman, and wish she’d known what to keep out. Wish she hadn’t welcomed him in, fed him so often she jokingly referred to him as her third son, the boy who would one day kill her real son.
I put my shopping bags in the boot of the car and got in behind the wheel. For a minute I only sat there, clenching my hands, trying to slow my breathing. The last time I had seen Josh was in a courtroom. Guilty, he’d said. His eyes meeting mine. My heart hammering in my chest then the same way it did now.
I started the car, jumping as a radio ad blared at me. Swore and shut my eyes and opened them again and there he was. Coming back out of the liquor shop, bag in his hand.
He walked back past my car. I twisted in my seat, unable to stop watching him. He walked to a car parked the row over from mine and got into the driver’s seat. When he pulled out, I pulled out. He headed for the same exit I was going to.
I was going to go home and prepare a meal to take to my neighbour whose husband had just been diagnosed with cancer. They were an older couple and their only child, a daughter, lived far away.
“People should always have more than one child, just for this reason,” she had said to me once when lamenting her daughter’s distance, and then a look of horror crossed her face as she remembered. I just waved my hand at her, its ok, I’m ok. I had learned to be forgiving of the thoughtless things people said. The hurt they didn’t mean to cause.
Josh stopped for an orange light, a cautious driver now it seemed, and I realized I’d carried on past the turn off to my own house, going instead a direction I hadn’t travelled in years and yet knew so well. Toward Josh’s mother’s house.
I delivered him home countless times when he was young, when it was dark or wet or both, because his mother would never pick him up. He’s got two legs, she used to say, he can walk. But he was my son’s best friend, his first friend, the one who drew in other friends until my lonely boy wasn’t lonely anymore. I didn’t mind the extra trips, liked it even. It made me feel like a good mother, keeping another woman’s son safe.
I avoided it now, the same way I avoided the road where Josh had crashed as he drove with Ryan in the passenger seat.
Josh parked outside his mother’s house, slotting in behind a car at the curb. I drove past a little way then stopped. Memories pressing in me. My son in the front seat beside me, Josh in the back. Leaning back in before closing the door. “Thanks, Ryan’s mum,” he’d say sometimes, long after he knew my name. A joke between us.
Cars were up the driveway, over the grass of the front lawn. He was here for her birthday party. I felt something pulsing in me. Sadness or anger or envy.
Josh got out and walked up to the house, the bag in his hand. A man smoking outside on the porch raised a beer bottle toward him in greeting.
I forgive you, I had written to him, as he began his sentence. Something about the nearness of my son’s death to me then leant itself to a great tenderness. The pain swelling inside me felt like an aching benevolence I wanted to bestow on him.
But three years on that bright pain had faded to something dark. Had I forgiven him if the sight of him smiling twisted me with anger? Had I forgiven him because I didn’t push my foot down on the accelerator as he walked ahead of me, bottle in hand?
I sat in the car as the evening darkened and the ice cream melted in the boot, and I remembered picking Ryan up from here once when he was fifteen with the smell of alcohol clinging to him as he staggered out.
It was hard to remember those bad days but they were a part of him. And some of the bad days were good too. Like that night as he slept and I sat beside him awake, worried he would vomit in his sleep, angry he had done this to himself. Now I remembered the feel of my son beside me, the night turning to dawn as I stroked his hair.
The day was gone now, the streetlights on, shadows cast on the road. Josh’s mothers house looked full of life, the dark shapes of people inside, music spilling from it. So many nights Josh slept at ours rather than here.
The door opened again and he came back out alone. Hours had passed. I watched his steady walk to his car. My phone was in my hand still, and I considered calling the police. Reporting a suspected drunk driver. Or maybe this was only the beginning of his night.
I pulled out onto the road a minute after he did. Followed the red glow of his tail lights. We drove through the quiet streets of the suburbs, the houses lit up. Inside each one a world. The world I was in, travelling in my car, felt impossibly removed from any of them.
Josh turned onto the highway which led out of town, and I felt my stomach tighten. That night three years ago this was the route he had taken. He had left his mother’s house, he and my son, gotten onto this road.
I went after him, following that road into the past. How many times I had wished I could travel back down the path of time.
I had stopped bothering to keep my distance and sat right behind him. He was sticking to the speed limit. That night he had been going too fast, he had drunk too much. That night he missed the corner he now slowed for.
He pulled off the side of the road and so did I. The streetlight above illuminated him sat there in his car, hands on the wheel. Before him the tree he had once driven into. His door opened and he got out, turned toward my car. I could see his t shirt white in the darkness, his hands held slightly up in readiness.
I got out too then, let him see who had followed him here. He knew me now. I saw the pain in his expression, before he smoothed it over. It was a look I had seen before.
One night he turned up late at our door with a bruise under his eye. I sat on the couch with him while he held an ice pack to his face and tried to coax out of him what happened.
“Ryan said you and your stepdad argue a lot,” I said, to give him an opening. For a minute he wavered, then he blinked, set his jaw. The older he got the deeper he buried the bright boy who once bounced into my house.
“It’s from a fight I had at school,” he said, and nothing more. He slept in the spare bed in Ryan’s room that night, safe in our house.
Now he faced me here on the road, and I wanted to say something to be worthy of all inside me.
“Josh,” was all that came out.
He looked at me, hands down by his sides now. “You followed me?”
I looked around, this last place my son saw. The white bulb of a streetlamp hanging below the moon. The trees silvery in the light of it. His eyes had closed to it, out here on this quiet road.
“Why did you come here?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said. He looked around like I had. “I just felt like I had to. Trying to understand it, what happened.”
“You were drunk, that’s what happened.”
He nodded, looked back at me. “Yeah,” he said.
In court his lawyer had read out a letter to us on his behalf. I bet he didn’t even write it himself, my husband said after. But it was so stilted I never doubted he really had. It read like he’d remembered every sentence he’d ever seen on a condolence card and strung them together. Yet in the clichés of it I felt a sincerity, something so immense he had no words of his own for it.
“I followed you here from the liquor shop,” I said. I knew it sounded like I was accusing him of something. I was.
“It was for my mum,” he said. “It’s her birthday.”
“You get on with her now?” I asked. I didn’t know why I poked at that wound. She had been so careless with her son and yet never lost him.
“Not really. Few hours there was long enough.”
He sucked in a breath and I saw the bracing in him. Preparing himself to say something. I put a hand up to stop him.
“Don’t say sorry,” I said. “You don’t have to keep saying it.”
He looked at me and I saw again the lost boy on my doorstep in the night, tears in his eyes. The boy I should have shut the door to and never could have.
I knew him and I knew my son. They had both been drinking that night, they had both decided to go out. They debated who should drive. It could have been my own son home safe and another woman’s son dead and I could wish it was so but it never would be.
He was crumpling before me, dropping his head, pressing a hand over his eyes. I stepped forward and put my arms up and around him. Holding him against me, feeling for a moment the nearness of my son again.
Feelings change. I would forgive him a hundred times more, and I would never forgive him.