We meet at the foot of the path that leads up to the archery range. It’s probably my imagination, but he seems taller every time I see him. I frown and examine my legs. Maybe I’m getting shorter. There’s always an awkward second or so where we assess each other’s current mood and decide if we should hug. Like usual, that moment lasts too long for a hug to feel natural.
It’s never been one of our things.
My son grins as I hand him his old duffel, packed with his bow and arrows-- the same ones we’ve been practicing with at this field for fifteen years.
“Hey look, it’s my old bag!” he exclaims, pointing at me, and then back at the duffel, “Get it?! Get it?!”
“Oh, hahaha, you’re stupid.”
I take an upward swing at him, and he ducks away, howling as he runs up the trail. I try to chase him, but he’s got those long deer legs, so I just start chucking small rocks in his direction.
“You’re my least favorite child!” I yell after him. He’s my only child. I tag him on the back of his ankle with a tiny pebble and he screams like he’s been shot.
“This is child abuse!” he hollers, rubbing his foot and scowling. I catch up to him, and he whips out his squirt bottle to shoot a stream of water at me before scurrying up the path again, screaming “Help, child abuser!”
This is kind of more our thing.
“One time I wanted this kitten they had at the shelter, remember?”
He strings up an arrow with expert quickness and lets it fly.
I wait for the familiar thwack as the arrow hits the target, but I don’t hear it. Did he miss? I squint at the target. I can barely see it. Weird. He doesn’t miss.
“You said I couldn’t have a kitten because it would die and I’d be sad,” he shakes his head and chuckles, “Real motherly stuff.”
I nod, unapologetic. “Also, you stunk enough, we didn’t need to add an animal to the apartment.”
He was born a raw, open nerve. Of course that’d be my kid. I haven’t felt an emotion since 1996, save for burning rage over anything that caused pain to my child. Every party he wasn’t invited to. Every girl who laughed at his Valentine card. I’d pick him up from the floor he inevitably fell to, shrieking as if death were upon him, and I’d give him a shake. I’d wipe his tears and tip his chin up.
“Enough of this nonsense, son,” I’d bark, “Forward, with purpose.”
I aim toward the target and let a dusty arrow fly. My eyes blur, and I can’t see where it’s landed on the target across the field. I rub my eyes and squint across the dry, patchy grass. The sun is soft and low, and my vision is flooded with glowing, yolky bobbles. Why can’t I see anything? The kid’s random musings interrupt my eyesight struggles.
“I had a kitten in college, you know.”
I stop mid-reload and cock my head at him. I didn’t know. “What happened to it?
“Girl I dated gave him to me.” He grimaces. “But she took him back. His name was Charles.”
“Dickens or Bukowski?” I try to joke.
“Barkley,” he gives me a weak laugh.
I search my son’s features for a glimpse of my little boy. Who painted watercolor trees on his bedroom wall and loved to visit the pet store to wonder at the birds and fish. But his brow is so firmly set now, and he’s calm as a clear blue sky. Somehow he’s grown wiser than me.
I choke on my breath. Something unsettles in my chest and hardens in my stomach.
“I just wasn’t okay, mom,” his voice is thick and my heart sinks to my knees, “Everything hurt, you know? Everything. Always.” He drops his bow on the rocky dirt and looks down at his scuffed sneakers.
He whispers, “Do you remember”
Suddenly, I feel all the breath knocked out of me and knives pierce my skull. I remember now. The phone call. The cold, bright hospital room. The apologizing doctors.
“I can’t let you leave, son.” Panic rages and burns in my chest. I try desperately to hold his gaze, but he’s fading away.
There’s a shadow in his face, like sadness, but he lifts his chin and gives me an encouraging nod. We lock eyes for a second so small, I only know it existed from the feeling it leaves in my chest. Just long enough so I know he knows.
“I love you,” I whisper, shaking and unsteady. I don’t know how to do this. “I miss you.”
“Enough of this nonsense, mom,” he laughs, “Forward, with purpose.”
His voice is hoarse. He looks away and swallows hard.
And then he’s gone.
The wind picks up and I feel like it’s the right time. I take the urn from my backpack. He never would have stood for being put in a box. Away on the breeze he goes. My soul leaves my body to race after him, grasping at ashes. I feel the absence of both and know that neither will ever return.
My body is a hard shell. My shoulders are not wracked with sobs. My eyes sting with tears that I am sure will never fall. My heart is numb, and I’m confused to feel it still beating normally- as if it doesn’t know anything. I wonder but don’t care much when it will ever stop. The sun burns the back of my neck but I don’t feel it. Begrudgingly, I breathe. My lungs fill and empty with useless air.
The tall evergreens have long since been cut down and our little range is overgrown with dry brush. The ground is covered in rocky dirt and dead grass. I pick up a dusty arrow. My muscles move without thought. Memory drives my actions on autopilot. Numbly, I load the bow and take aim, over and over again.
But the targets are all gone. The arrows shoot forward, steady and strong, on meaningless paths into nothing. Into the weeds.