Four year old Keaton gripped a green crayon in his tiny fist, pressing it hard against the paper. His parents fought beneath the sound of the tv in the background. Scribbling in rhythmic circles, he furrowed his brow. His mother came into the room, a dishtowel in her hands.
"What are you drawing, Keaton?" Her voice had the tremble of someone forcing their words to sound happy.
"Money," he said, then glanced up.
She came closer, examining the pages scattered around him from behind. All contained a dollar, done again and again in various sizes.
"You've drawn a lot of it."
"Yeah," he said, "we need a lot, so we can be happy."
She put a hand to her lips, standing there, then bent down beside him. "Money can't make us happy, Keaton."
"I am going to draw so much that you and daddy never fight again."
His mother sighed, putting a hand to her forehead, and was silent for a moment as he continued to color in green bills. Then she reached out and stilled his hand. "Daddy is going to move out, Keaton."
"Because it's better that way. But you'll still get to see him."
"Will you see him?"
She propped her chin on her thumb, fingers curled into a fist around her mouth. "No, not as much as you."
"Because daddy and I just don't work well together."
"But you love him."
"No, Keaton, I don't. But don't worry. Nothing is going to change. You will always be a part of my life, and your dad's life." She stood up, carrying away the scribbles.
- - -
In some ways, his mother was right. Breakfast was still breakfast, school was still school, and buzzlightyear macaroni and cheese still boiled in a pot Keaton wasn't allowed to touch. But there was a hole in Keaton's life, in the space between his mother and father, and he was right in the middle of that hole.
"Keaton! Look what I got for you!" his dad said, holding a buzzlightyear costume up, his face alight.
Keaton looked at it.
"Here! Try it on!" his father laid it on Keaton's lap.
Keaton pushed it off.
I thought Buzzlightyear was your favorite!"
"No." Keaton stood up, and began to stomp on the costume. "No!"
His father stared, eyes wide. "Keaton, stop! If you don't like it, I'll take it back."
Keaton crossed his arms.
- - -
"What do you want? Ironman, Batman, Superman? Or you could be a doctor, they can heal people," his mother explained in the costume aisle at Target.
"Yeah! They have these neat stethoscopes that you can use to listen to other people's hearts." His mother disentangled one from a costume and demonstrated, putting them to her ears and to Keaton's chest.
"Could a doctor fix you and daddy?"
His mother sighed, took off the stethoscope, putting it back on the hanger. "No, Keaton. But they can fix broken bones, tummy-aches, and all kinds of boo-boos."
He stared hard at the costume. "Okay."
- - -
Keaton pushed off the pavement with his foot, sending him shooting down the hill. He was fourteen and the skateboard was last-years Christmas present. He flew down the hill, speed accompanied by the sound of concrete and wheels, chalky and dull, a sound he could feel buzzing inside his legs.
He soared past the bum who always sat on the corner of Eighth street and skidded to a stop at the park, where a little boy stood licking an ice cream cone that dripped all the way down his hands. Keaton strode up to the little boy, knocked the ice cream out of his hands, then gave him a good shove. The little boy tumbled back and landed on his rear, tears already forming in his eyes.
Keaton raced back to his skateboard and pushed off, disappearing around the corner, where he hopped off and peeked through the bushes. A mother and a father rushed towards the little boy, forming a protective circle around him. The father picked him up and the mother cleaned him up, kissing him on the forehead.
Scrunching up his face, Keaton stuffed his hands in his pockets and kicked his skateboard, following it down the street.
An empty building with a window stopped Keaton, the surface reflecting the entire street back on itself. He popped the skateboard up to his hand and caught it without looking, his eyes trained on his reflection in the window. Furrowing his brow, he studied himself, straightening his t-shirt and messing with the direction of his hair.
When he put his board back to the pavement, sneaker scuffing as he pushed off, the frown stayed on his face.
- - -
The bottle of vodka Keaton put to his lips was empty. Disgusted, he tossed it aside, staggering down the sidewalk. The sound of breaking glass followed him as he wove his way down the concrete towards home. A motorcycle puttered around somewhere in the distance, roaring to life and then fading away. He reached his house, suburban plainness shrouded in the darkness, and stumbled inside, feeling his way up to his room, where he collapsed into bed, world-numb.
The world was too bright when he woke up, stretching, sheets tightening around him. He winced, then wrinkled his nose and opened his eyes. There was dirty laundry on the floor and vomit. His vomit. The stink of it triggered flashes of the party. Pulsing music, pretty girls, and alcohol. He groaned, squeezing his eyes shut, and rolled over, pulling the covers over his head.
Later, when he found his way downstairs, his mother greeted him with, "Well look who decided to sleep the day away."
He rubbed his eyes "Did not, it's still light."
"Did too, it's five. Dinner time! I made a casserole. And there's a letter for you."
"You know I can't eat anything like that when I've just woken up
the letter from dad?"
"Nope, from Harvard."
He yawned. "Really?"
"Yeah!" she grinned, her hands going up and then coming back down, holding the edge of the kitchen counter.
He grabbed some cheerios out of the cupboard, a bowl and spoon, and the milk.
"Well? Aren't you going to open it?"
"Keaton. Open the letter!"
He rolled his eyes, grabbing it, and used the other end of his spoon to slice it open. "Dear Mr. Young, Your application to Harvard University has been accepted."
"Yes!" his mother said, popping into the air like the cork of a wine bottle.
"Cool," Keaton said.
"Keaton! This is your dream! At least act happy!"
"I am happy. I'm also half asleep, and I have a headache."
"It's amazing, it's absolutely amazing. I'm so glad that I can send you there for free, you know they're not doing that for new employees, it got to be too expensive."
"Yeah, I'll be sure to count my lucky stars."
"You better, young man. This is an opportunity people could kill for."
He nodded to his cereal.
- - -
"Excuse me," Keaton said to a girl standing between him and the trashcan. "Excuse me," he said again, holding his lunch tray.
After another moment she turned and saw him. Her eyebrows shot up and she made a gesture of apology, stepping out of the way.
" he said.
She turned and touched the arm of the person she was with, another girl, and point to Keaton. They exchanged what looked like a conversation in sign language, and then the other girl said, "Hello, this is Jess, she's deaf, that's why she didn't respond."
"Oh, that's cool," Keaton said, his eyes on Jess. "Nice to meet you," he said, putting out his hand.
Jess glanced at the other girl, who signed. Jess turned back to Keaton and signed something to him, reaching out her hand.
"She said, 'nice to meet you.'"
- - -
"How's it going?" his mother said after he picked up the phone, plopping down on the couch.
"Well, pretty good, except for the fact that I live on mac and cheese."
"You're in a good mood."
"I met a girl," he said, putting his feet up on the coffee table.
His mother laughed. "That's great, just don't get too distracted
After he hung up, he grabbed a library book that sat on the couch beside him. Learn American Sign Language.
- - -
Keaton opened the front door, carrying his briefcase, and walked into the house. The voice of an opera singer cranked to max volume blared from the kitchen, setting him on edge.
Jess stuck her head out of the kitchen, and broke into a grin, running towards him in an apron that was designed to look like a giant flower. She threw her arms around him and kissed his cheek, then beamed into his face.
Wrinkling his brow, he walked into the kitchen and switched the music off, and without stopping went to his office. He sat in his chair, hands on his face. His wedding band pressed against his cheek. Reaching across his desk, he lifted the phone and punched in a number by memory.
"Gus, it's Keaton."
"Oh, hello Keaton. Something happen since our last session?"
"What kind of deaf woman blares opera music on the radio?" he said.
"Well, that's the only way she can feel it."
"Surely it doesn't have to be that loud."
That night, as her chest rose and fell and he stared at the ceiling, her hand came up and draped itself over his chest. He turned away, closing his eyes.
- - -
I want a divorce, he signed.
A shadow passed over Jess's face, leaving her expression pale and hollow. Why aren't you happy? she signed.
I don't know. I thought our love could be bigger, could make everything okay.
You never let me in.
He didn't know what to say.
I love you, she signed. You are a good husband, you provide for me and take care of me. And you are a good man, strong and honorable. But this is a coward's act. Don't shy away from the possibility of happiness! Embrace it! You fix people for a living, but you're still broken. Leaving this marriage will just make that worse. Look at your own family. Your mom is always so proud of your accomplishments because her life is empty.
Don't talk about my mother.
Jess looked at him, the color in her face again, an emotion bearing down in her eyes. I'm talking about you.
Keaton's face relaxed in stages, releasing the clenched muscles in his forehead until another emotion entirely rose up into him. He fell into her arms, sobbing.
When he pulled away, he signed, I'm afraid.
I'll be here with you.