The Comfort Boy (Part One) by Carlene Love Flores

Sanden’s mother had just finished cleaning the house.  With the room straightened, things looked odd and out of place.  The large, clear vase that had been used as a deposit for stray coins or buttons or anything small enough to toss in until they found a better place for it was now empty.  Sanden shrugged and plopped two artificial flowers and a handful of loosened dirt she had brought in from the backyard into the vase.  Thinking better of it, she tucked the marble she was about to toss in with them into her pocket instead.  She looked up and caught her mother frowning.

The silky, once white peonies, covered in a light shadow of dirt and yellowed by the sun, were the only things that looked right in the room at the moment.  It was clear her mother was on a mission to wipe Gram’s memory clean from the house.  Sanden stood nearby the junk vase and waited for her mother to toss the sopping sponge she was wringing into the sink.  Miraculously, she didn’t mention the fake flowers.

“Well, that’s that.”  Mother paused, inspected the sink as if looking for Gram’s reflection, wiped at the stainless steel basin, and then continued on with a doubtful kink knitted into her brow.  “The boys’ packs are in the trunk like I asked you?”

Sanden didn’t care for the condescending tone her once empathetic mother used on her now.

“Sanden, did you put Alec and Andrew’s backpacks in my trunk?” she asked again.

Of course she had.

What kind of mom would send her twin sons off for a weekend with Grandma and not also send their packs she’d stayed up all night filling?  Alec’s favorite ghost stories book about an inch too thick that poked out from the zipper and Andrew’s Snoopy stuffed animal Sanden knew her more sensitive eight year old couldn’t sleep without.  Obviously her own mother thought that little of her.

“They’re in the trunk.  Here are your keys.”  Sanden fished out the heavy silver ring laced with assorted house, office and vehicle keys from her deep cardigan pocket and handed them over.  “When will you be back?”  Sanden’s voice sounded unsure—she heard its hollow effort a moment too late.  Four sleepless nights in a row had left Sanden both in need of her mother’s help but fearful of it.

Her mother would bring the boys back, wouldn’t she?

Of course she would.

Last week’s threat had been idle, a tough love rouse to scare Sanden into a good night’s sleep.  Right?  Hadn’t she masked the dark circles haunting beneath her eyes and made sure to drag a proper comb through her hair before their impromptu early morning cleaning session?  Sanden found the marble in her pocket and squeezed it in her knitted fist.

“You told the school I’d be picking the boys up today?” her mother asked again, framing her statement into a doubting question.

Sanden’s nerves stood alert despite the fatigue she felt weighing down her every limb and thought.  Had she forgotten that part?  No, she remembered making the call the day before to the school attendance secretary.  This was just her mother being unsure of Sanden’s ability to follow through where her boys were concerned.  No need to panic.  But the lack of sleep seemed conducive to the irrational emotion.

Sanden breathed deeply and tried to sound sure, adding details to bolster her attempt at being convincing.  “I spoke with Mrs. Derry yesterday, around…” Tell her a time, Sanden.  Be sure of yourself.  Don’t give her any reason to doubt you. “At…I spoke with her at 12:30.  She has your name on her list and you can either pick them up from Mrs. Duncan’s classroom or meet them at the kiss ‘n’ ride.”

Why did that simple task feel like it had depleted her very last molecule of energy?  Sanden pulled out a seat and tried to ease herself steadily down onto the sturdy wooden dining room chair.  She wanted desperately to lay her head down and devote the next month to sleep.  But that wouldn’t help her cause any.  She knew it when she looked into her mother’s eyes and saw regret spoiling any chance that Sanden had convinced her she was fine.

“Sanden, the boys are staying with me for a while.”

“No, just for the weekend.  That’s what you said…” Sanden stuttered out.  “Back in time for Christmas Eve lights and hot cocoa.  That’s what we agreed on.”

“You need more than just this one weekend to get your head on straight.  You need rest.  It’s best they stay with me during winter break.  How in the world do you think you will manage with them home every day from school?”

An uncontrollable twitch started in Sanden’s lower lip and she smelled the smoky burnt vanilla scent of a candle that had been blown out.  Her mother absolutely did not trust her.  It was plainly obvious but now she was overstepping her grandparental boundaries.  “Mother, I’m fine. I can take care of my children.”  Memories of loss—first her husband and then Gram—collided with her exhaustion.

“Sanden, when was the last time you slept through the night?”  Mother didn’t budge.

She wanted to lie.  To say that it had been just last night.  But her mother would see through that and if not, she could just as easily ask Alec or Andrew.  With one night owl and one early riser, the boys had wandered out from their room on plenty occasions to find Mommy sitting quilted and tucked into the recliner, the television muted, and her eyes dry from the lack of closure.

“Fine.  What do you want me to do?  I’ll do it,” Sanden said, her head hanging in her hands.

Mother didn’t falter, her words spilled out undeterred.  “A young man will be coming by the house this afternoon to speak with you.  His name is Alice.  He’s a friend.  Let him in, Sanden.  I think he’ll be able to help.”

Cold words and frigid insinuations stabbed at Sanden’s heart.  Her mother wanted her to allow some stranger into the house, Gram’s house, and do what?  Open her heart up to him?  Tell him there was a good reason she was the basket case she was thought to be?  That she wouldn’t leave the house Delilah Grant had worked so hard to pay for—to have for the family—all those years ago?  What kind of mother did that to her only daughter?

“Do I have a choice?” Sanden asked.

“No.  I’m sorry.  I’ll have the boys call you when we get to my house.”  Not even an inflection of pity came through in those words.

“Which one exactly?”  There was the newly purchased single story in the neighboring suburb which is where Sanden thought her boys would be visiting or the one she now feared they’d be staying at—the cabin Uncle Stu had just finished painting in the San Bernardino Mountains, a good three hour drive from where she sat, planted and stunned.

“We’ll be in the mountains.  The boys will enjoy the snow.  They’ll be fine.  It won’t do you any good to worry about them.  Please, Sanden.  Be reasonable.  I don’t want to have to do this but I’m getting to the point of looking into my rights as a grandparent…speak with Alice.  Whatever you say to him will be confidential.  We just want to help you so you can be your best for the boys.”

Feeling completely rational and sane, albeit irate and betrayed, Sanden mustered up the words to prove she was thinking clearly.  “Okay, I guess they could use some fun time.  The boys will love the snow.  Please make sure they stay bundled up and give them hugs for me.  Tell them Mommy will see them in a few days.  I’ll speak with this Alice.”

Her mother nodded and then stepped forward to pat Sanden on the shoulder.  It was all Sanden could do not to jerk away.  Instead, she stood there and leaned her head down to rest for a moment on her mother’s shoulder.  Then they parted and Sanden watched as the woman she had once trusted now walked out the front door of Gram’s house, carrying with her the uncertainty of whether she’d get her boys back in time for Christmas.

***

Apologies at how awkward she felt and her lack of hospitality couldn’t find their way past the anger Sanden felt at her mother.  Alice had arrived promptly at three p.m., parked his dark green Audi alongside Gram’s curb and strolled up to the front porch, a composition notebook in one hand and a large backpack slung over the opposite arm.  Sanden hoped he hadn’t seen her spying through the faded yellow curtains at his approach.  She’d been too nervous awaiting his arrival to do anything but hole up like a peeping Tom in her own home.  No, instead she’d remained stationed on the recliner butted up against the large draped double-wide windows of the front room, trying desperately to think through what in the world she might say to this complete stranger.

After goofing on the handshake she’d meant to deliver with courage, Sanden let Alice know where he could sit.

“Aren’t you going to have a seat?” he asked politely in return.

“I’m fine here,” she said with just enough brevity to sound in control.  The truth was she wanted to succumb to her body’s need for sleep.  Even in this stranger’s company.  Her legs felt weak and one knee buckled, making her snap up in an unnatural pose.  “But I guess if we’re going to talk, it would be easier if I sat down.”

Alice tapped his thumb against the open page of his notebook but hadn’t gone for his pen yet.  Sanden thought he looked about as comfortable as she felt, like he wasn’t quite sure where to start either.  Who had her mother sent to her?  Was this guy licensed or was he just a friend?

“Sanden, you probably have questions for me.  Feel free to ask.  Otherwise I’ll just get started with some I have for you.”

So he had picked up on her mistrust.  That was fine.  She was filled with it.  And wasn’t in the mood to stick her foot in her mouth by being the first one to open up.  If he had questions, he could ask them and she would make sure he heard what he needed to.  The audacity of her mother, she shook her head at the thought.

“Umm, okay, so I understand you’ve been having trouble sleeping.  Would you say that’s accurate?” he asked, taking turns looking down at his pad and then clearly into her eyes.

He’d made enough eye contact in the first fifteen minutes to assume correctly.  Maybe she wouldn’t have to speak that much after all, except for she’d found herself manufacturing a slew of questions she’d like answered.  Alice the stranger sat across the small dining room table, waiting for her to answer.  He blinked and rested a knuckle against the corner of his mouth.

Something about the action set her off.  “Look, I don’t know you and I don’t really know why you’re even here.”  How could he be so darned patient when she could barely sit still in her own skin?

“It’s okay, Sanden, I understand.  It doesn’t sound like Audrey explained our session to you so let me do that first.  Okay?”

Session.  Great.  Her mother had sent over a shrink.  Not just a friend.  And with the backpack undoubtedly filled with notebooks, how could anything she’d say be off the record?  Sanden felt like the victim of a cruel trick.  Her mother had set her up to fall, knowing Sanden’s anger over keeping the boys would spill out into anything she shared with the unproven man across from her now.  Scenarios began pouring out from Sanden’s mind like whistling hot water from Gram’s old kettle.  Mother would use whatever she said to this friend, Alice, to have her deemed incapable of caring for her children.  And once proven incompetent of that, it wouldn’t take much to have her removed from Gram’s house.  The house Mother had wanted to sell after Gram died—but that Sanden had begged to keep in the family.

She might be wrought with exhaustion, but Sanden was not incompetent.  She was a loving mom, a good mom.  Like her mother had been before Gram got so sick and the stress had erased that part of her.  And there was no way Sanden was going to say anything that might aid in losing her precious kids.  They needed each other.

Wiping at a stray piece of bang that had fallen over her dark eyes, Sanden held back the bite she refused to let get the best of her.  “I’m sorry, Alice.  What is the plan?”

***

Come back tomorrow for part two of The Comfort Boy by Carlene Love Flores.