It’d begun drizzling and rain droplets freckled the windows of my car, slowly covering my windshield and hindering sight of anything outside. I sat in the driver’s seat, taking slow sips of the black coffee I bought an hour ago and stared at the sixth-grade classroom door. I’d gotten here earlier when the forecast showed high chances of a thunderstorm today and parked in the spot across the classroom that other parents usually got to first.
I exhaled an espresso-filled breath when the door opened. Kids streamed out and ran to their cars, their small hands clutching the colorful umbrellas that almost toppled over in the wind. Aztec emerged from the horde of students and rushed towards my normal spot under the west wing oak tree until I stuck my head out of the window and called his name.
The air outside nipped my ears and made my eyes well up. I cranked up the heat one more notch and used the napkin that'd held my now finished scone to blot my damp cheeks. Aztec slammed the door shut and strapped in his seat belt.
I turned to smile at him. He’d insisted on wearing the puffiest jacket he could find in his closet, a big gray and blue thing that swaddled him like a newborn. “How was school?” I crossed my fingers around the cup and hoped for something different.
“They called me short again.”
The office clerk knew what I’d come in for every time she saw me pull the door handle and walk inside the stuffy room. I always sat in the squat and uncomfortable chair under the overhead fan, rehearsing what I'd say to principal. He gave us the redundant we don’t tolerate bullying at this school and it won’t happen again, but it always did. A few months ago, the parents came in and gave us a half-hearted apology in the name of reputation and we were sent home, only for the problem to relapse the next Monday.
“I’m sorry, bud. You want to talk about it?”
He exhaled and stared at the roof of the car, his fingers twisting and twirling over each other in his lap. “They asked me how the weather was down here and called me a little midget.”
It stung like ice on hot hands coming up with a response that would make him feel better. Half involved insulting the other students and half was the kind of useless advice to help him cope but not get rid of the problem. I heard his soft sigh and from the rear view mirror, watched him lean against his backpack on the next seat.
The drive home was slow, like I was sixteen again and taking my behind-the-wheel test, maneuvering around cars like I’d hit them despite the distance, and letting others pass me when I could go. Drizzling had turned into heavy rain, the windshield wipers were going, and I’d given up on finishing the coffee.
I pulled up at my place, a small boxy house that we spent all day last week decorating with strings of lights and inflatable reindeers. “Let’s go in through the garage,” I told him. “It’s too cold to park out here.”
Once inside, Aztec got out and ran in the house, leaving his backpack hanging limp off the seat. I picked it up and followed him.
The house was warm from the heater I’d left on and still smelled of hot apple cider and brownies. Aztec’s eyes brightened and he washed his hands so fast he forgot soap. I smiled and reached for a brownie, savoring the way the melted chocolate chips oozed onto my tongue and stuck to the roof of my mouth. We ate until nothing was left in the sheet pan and flaky crumbs remained on our fingers. I wiped them down with a napkin and handed one to Aztec, who was staring at the kitchen calendar.
I had it memorized. Every six months, Aztec and I headed to the wall near the laundry room, where he backed himself and stood straight to get his height measured. He’d get excited even if he’d grown a measly millimeter. I often caught him walking past the marks and glancing at where he stood whenever he passed the wall, even when it wasn't the sixth month mark.
“Dad, remember what day it is?”
I smiled at him and wiped my mouth with the napkin. “Of course, I remember.”
He turned and walked to the wall with hope in his gait. On the small stool next to the laundry room sat the black pallet marker and ruler. Aztec grabbed it and handed it to me, adjusting himself so he was firmly pressed against the wall.
I hoped that he’d grown at least an inch, anything different than his usual rate. Something that would’ve made him scream for joy and wake up the next morning wearing something other than puffy layered clothes to make him seem bigger.
I looked at his feet to check for tiptoeing and then peered at his growth, not missing the way his eyes swam with longing. It was a gentle pierce, in the way you wished for the best but expected the worst. I uncapped the marker and made a line over the one from six months ago. “I’m sorry, bud.”
He stepped forward, despair written in the crinkles of his mouth and the furrow of his brows. “But I’ve been drinking so much milk and I don’t ask for coffee or soda anymore.” He looked up at me. “Why won’t I grow?”
Doctors hadn’t helped, nutritionist’s meal-for-growth food plans hadn’t worked, and genetics didn’t do much for us. I was a short 5’5 and wished there was a way I could take a foot of my height and give it to Aztec. His question had me staring at him in silence, willing an answer to come into my head and then out of my mouth.
“Aztec, you’re four feet of greatness.”
He smiled, the kind you gave someone when they talked too much and you had somewhere to be. “You didn’t answer my question.” He didn’t give me a chance to respond before he turned towards his room.
The marks stayed on the wall and every six months we checked the progress. Some had been scrawled a centimeter above the last, but most were layered, and Aztec’s confidence only spiraled downwards despite my unwavering efforts.
We went to a doctor when he was in eighth grade, where he stood at four feet four inches. I’d picked him up from school that morning after he punched a kind that called him an elf and an unhealthy number of expletives. I reprimanded him, the way all parents do their child that fought another, but I couldn’t ignore the pride that sat deep in my chest.
He rested his head against the backseat that he grew to hate, saying at thirteen he should’ve been able to ride shotgun. The drive was quiet; it was achy and I wanted to say something but couldn’t, so I let the sounds of my car on the road and the whir of the engine do the talking for me.
The smell of sickness and antiseptic followed us through reception, curving hallways, and receiving the news that if Aztec’s height progressed like this, he would be diagnosed with dwarfism. The doctor told Aztec to keep being healthy and active and that hopefully his body would get the memo, a report that had him staring at the poster on the door, not a single shred of hope in his eyes.
The summer break before high school was the worst I’d seen him. He cried that he couldn’t enter high school as a guy who stood at four feet five inches. I talked to the doctor at one of the appointments we’d gone to and asked for growth hormones for him, suggesting anything that could've been even remotely helpful. The doctor said it was a possibility if he was growth hormone deficient and that though she didn’t think it was the best option, she’d look into it.
“We’re going to help you out. I- we’ll find a way,” I told him over breakfast in mid-July. It was pushing 95 percent heat, but he dressed like there were icicles hanging down the roofs of our neighborhood houses and mountains adorned with thick layers of snow.
He nodded and nibbled bacon, looking past my shoulder and at the fridge, his concentration no doubt on the plethora of thoughts swarming his head.
High school ill-treated him. When I drove what was supposed to be fifteen minutes but was instead forty minutes of midday traffic to pick him up, he was either crying or staring blankly ahead, not a single word being uttered. I ached for the days where he’d open the car door with a huge toothy grin plastered on his face, cheeks rosy and nonstop talking until I began to miss the quiet.
On June 4 of his freshman year, the sixth month arrived again. We walked to the wall and I picked up the marker. A dark smudge lined the most recent height check, an ugly symbol showing his stagnation. I watched as he backed himself against the wall and took a deep breath. My heart thumped a little faster looking at where he stood. I uncapped the marker and drew a line next to his head a centimeter above the previous one. “Half an inch, Aztec.”
He gasped and swiveled around. “Wait, really?” His answer stared back at him and I laughed, seeing the way his eyebrows shot up and his lips curve into a smile so bright, it would've glinted in a mirror.
I made brownies again that day, along with pasta and garlic bread and I added that to my collection of days to remember.
Not many people noticed; he still had those days where opened the car door and didn’t talk the whole ride. But I was the one who crossed the fourth tally next to the height check, and with lots of googling and talks with the doctor, promoted him to the passenger seat, two cushions under him.
The height checking and the tally crossing continued, through the tears and smiles of freshman and sophomore year, the milk runs and puffy clothes shopping, the happiness of being part of the upperclassmen but the despair of being heads shorter than classmates. And it still kept going, through buying him a children’s tuxedo for prom and choking back tears as he walked down the stage on the football field, picking up his diploma and leaving high school grounds.
“Now that high school’s over, what do you think about it when you look back?” I asked him at the restaurant across town during his graduation dinner.
He narrowed his eyes and shrugged. “I still don’t like it but I eventually realized not everyone was out to get me.”
I picked up a shrimp and took a bite, smiling as I chewed. He’d made friends, one who had even spent the night in the air mattress I set up next to Aztec’s bed.
The black pallet marker was last used on the sixth month mark before Aztec went to college. He decided to commute but from an apartment that he and his friends rented out together closer to the school. It was bittersweet; I knew he had to go but seeing him packing his bags threw me back to the time when his mother packed her things and disappeared like a blown out flame when he was a few months old.
“I’m not going to cry,” he laughed, when we were parked and in front of the apartment door. “You have no idea how much I’ll miss you.”
I let the tears fall and wet his hair as we embraced. He walked away, standing at four feet ten inches, rolling his suitcases on either side of him and entering his place.
The drive back home was silent, thinking of what he was doing in his apartment and remembering him seated next to me in the passenger seat one hour ago. I turned on the news channel, an insufficient attempt to fill the void.
Me and the marks. The marks and me. That’s the way life was at my house, passing the wall where I used to measure Aztec’s height, and exhaling a slow breath. Things were lonely but hanging out with coworkers on occasion and thinking about the fun Aztec could’ve been having was enough to get me through.
I tried to ignore the increasing missed calls and passed it off as being a paranoid father. I eventually stopped calling and respected the few Hey dad. How’ve you been texts I received from him, brightening every time I heard a ping and saw his name on my phone screen.
On the eighth month of Aztec’s sophomore year in college, I got tired of the marks, the steps of my bare feet on the hardwood floor ringing out in the quiet, and the small reminder of his hair every time I drank coffee. Keys and umbrella in hand, I left the house, boots squishing in the sidewalk puddles.
I went to grocery store and stayed in the milk aisle longer than I needed to, staring at the jugs I used to fill my cart with when Aztec was younger and followed the doctor’s advice religiously. An old lady with hair the color of cement and a voice like melting honey walked up to me and asked if I was okay. A while had passed with me standing there like a statue and gazing at the milk fridge. I thanked her and told her I was fine and got four jugs, knowing some might pass the expiration date without being opened.
Cart filled with several things that served mostly as memory and items paid for, I walked out of the store, forgetting to open my umbrella and getting my hair wet in the March rain.
I drove back home with the heater on and parked my car in the garage. The difference in temperature sent goosebumps prickling up my arms and I gathered all the groceries and stumbled inside the house, setting them on the floor.
The house was cold enough to make my atoms shiver, so I rushed to turn on the thermostat. I saw the blank wall the second I turned the corner. Where tallies of the inches Aztec had grown and where marks lined his height were faded black smudges. The marker left smears and the wall was peeling, but it was on the same stool it’d always been on and my heart was thrashing madly – I didn’t want to believe it.
“I’m sorry. I knew it’d be the first thing you noticed.”
The rumble started light in the pits of my stomach, a small gurgling that traveled upwards through my chest and made my head tingle. Time had slowed and I almost didn’t want to turn around, like I feared the son I saw take his first steps across the nursery room that was now an office and then the senior stage.
I rotated my body an inch, and then another inch until I was face to face with Aztec, in blue jeans and a long sleeve.
“I got prescribed growth hormones. I wanted to surprise you.”
And he did, because I’d memorized where the last line was, and the gap between where Aztec was now and where he’d been the last time made my words stick inside my throat like gum. I let my arms do the talking and threw them around him, clutching at his shirt like it’d help me control the tears that were streaming down my face. I held him and didn’t miss how my chin now rested on his shoulder and not the top of his head.