So Odd, A Boy Like This: A Short Story

Rod Serling taught me a few things about the past. How badly we deal with it. Holding on too tight. Or letting go too adamantly. Or both, consciously or subconsciously. And how, inevitably, it all catches up to us one way or another.

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“So Odd, A Boy Like This”

a short story by Pete Hsu

 

Soaking wet, Benjamin Rule [1] is at a near sprint to the last stoplight. It’s a quarter mile away. He can feel his lungs chugging for air. Focusing on his breathing, he pairs each breath to two footsteps.

Breathe in: step. step.

Breathe out: step. step.

He’s running fast. Swinging his arms. But staying in control. It’s not an all out sprint. He’s at “80% effort,” a subjective but generally accurate estimate of how hard his body is working.

When he gets into this zone, an imaginary scene often comes to mind: Ben is running away from someone, a steady and patient stalker. This adversary has the ominous presence of a faceless slasher-movie villain. Plodding along, discarding all impediments, until reaching its victim. Ben has been living with this same imaginary monster for 25 years, ever since his dad shot himself while Ben watched television.

In graduate school, he learned that, as the child of a successful suicide, he has nearly twice the statistical probability of taking his own life as the average person. This monster fantasy, Ben concludes, stems from this fact.

The monster chasing him is the same monster that chased his dad.

At the end of his 4.5-mile run, Ben stands in the downpour, staring up into the sky. The rain pokes at his eyeballs. He doesn’t feel cold at all, and actually, for the first time that day, he feels normal. Normal is what Ben calls it when he doesn’t feel at all like killing himself. [2] It is how he thinks other people feel, normal people.

The rain keeps coming down as he gets back to his apartment building. His street is dark. Even on a clear night, the moon and stars barely shine their luminosity through the large canopies of the area’s coastal oaks. These arbors stretch upwards to 17 feet and blot out whatever light the skies provide.

He approaches what resembles a boxy, art deco mausoleum. Strong and bold vertical lines flank the entryway, fanning out into angelic wings. The crystalite chandelier stands out from behind a tall window. This is where he lives.

As Ben approaches the front steps, he hears faint whistling. The tune is melancholy and familiar, a softly rising melody. On the stoop, he finds a strange and very serious little boy. The boy is handsome, with longish brown hair and oddly old-fashioned clothes. He looks to be about 7 years old, but, Ben wonders, he might be small for his age. His facial expression is mostly blank, except for his red eyes. He sits on the top step, whistling John Denver’s “The Rainbow Connection.” [3]

“Hi, Mr. Rule,” says the boy. “How was your run?”

“It was fine,” Ben replies. “Um, do I know you, kid? You go to RPH Elementary?”

“No,” says the boy. “But I used to.”

“Hm, okay.”

“Did you see anyone out there?” says the boy. “While you were running?”

“No, kid, I didn’t see anyone. Are you waiting for somebody?”

“You didn’t see a woman?”

“Nope,” says Ben. “What, your mom or something?”

“No,” says the kid, contorting his face into a crooked grimace. “She is not my mother.”

Ben starts to walk up the stairs, alarmed by the boy’s expression.

“My name is Marcus,” the boy remarks, returning to his earlier serenity. Ben keeps walking, stepping through the building’s front doors. He looks back at Marcus, not recognizing him. He thinks, it’s gotta be some kid from the building and that he might have some self-regulation issues and probably should not be out in the middle of the night anyway.

The thoughts trail off as Ben slogs into his apartment. “Not your problem,” he says to himself. “Leave it alone.”

He kicks his wet shoes off as he closes his front door. Then peels his wet socks from his feet, throwing them into the corner, near his hamper. He leans against the wall, one leg sticking out behind him, stretching his calf muscle. The rain always seems to make his calf muscles tighten up.

He counts off ten long breaths before switching to the other leg. His thoughts begin to wander around breath number 3, thinking about his students and their troubles, wondering why his work makes him so nervous, wondering if everyone feels this way about work, wondering if he should find a different job, feeling sure that he definitely needs to find a different job.

The 10 count turns to 20, then to 30, then drifts off into eternity. Ben frowns deeply as his eyes go out of focus. A heaviness sets into his chest, tight and achy in his lungs or heart or maybe his bones, his chest plate, that vigilant shield. The cortisol in his muscles gives way to lactic acid and the earliest signs of tomorrow’s soreness set in, along with relief.

He begins to cry, tears and clear snot consoling him as he eases onto the floor.

He says, “Oh, dad.”

#

For several moments, Ben is lost in an in-between world, talking to his father, but also to himself and to God and to the countless, faceless residents of his inner world. His tears and snot mix with the sweat and rain on his shirt. He lets out a long and shivering exhale, pushing himself off the ground and back on to his feet.

As he rises, there is a gentle but confident knock at the door. Wiping his face with the short-sleeves of his shirt, he opens his door to find a woman standing at his entryway, perfectly still and clutching a large handbag.

“Hello, Benjamin,” she says. “My name is Tracey Ballard.”

He’s puzzled that she knows his name. He doesn’t recognize her. A tall wiry woman with delicate features, she is older than him by ten years, maybe more. Her eyes are pale green and, Ben thinks, kind. She wears her hair long and loose. If it’s dyed, it’s done so with precision and artistry. She is beautiful.

She places a soft hand on his face, caressing his cheek. He leans into her touch. He wonders if she can tell he’s been crying, mildly wishing that she can.

“I worked for your father,” she says. “When you were little. Do you remember?”

“Really,” says Ben. “Wow, okay, Um. I’m sorry but I don’t remember. But to be honest, I don’t remember much of anything from that time.”

She takes his left hand into hers. Keeping eye contact, even as Ben looks away, Ms. Ballard’s steady gaze holds.

“It’s alright,” she says. “You were so devastated. No one knew what to do. You were just so quiet for so long. We worried.”

Ben smiles, but his mouth is strained. It’s taking some effort to keep smiling. He begins to think about how he looks to her, if she thinks something is wrong with him. This discomfort and self-consciousness is familiar to him. He’s often uncomfortable and self-conscious when people bring up his dad’s death, especially when he has himself been ruminating on his loss.

On top of that, he’s soaking wet and in his track shorts. He can practically feel his semi-nudity. [4]

“So, Tracey, is there something I can help you with?”

“Benjamin, I’m old enough to be your mother. I’d prefer you call me Ms. Ballard,” she says, smiling gently, her eyes squinting into pleasantly down-turned crescent moons. “You are about your father’s age, when…”

“I always kept in mind,” she continues. “That I should come see you, to check in on you. But then I went away and time passed.”

“It’s all right, Ms. Ballard. I appreciate the thought.”

“Well, thank you. That’s kind of you.” She says. “There’s more though. I have something of his that I’ve kept for you…”

Ben cuts her off, “It’s probably not anything I need to be involved with. You’re better off talking to my mom.”

“You’re right,” she says. “Maybe I should have gone to her first. But it’s something I think he would have wanted you to have.”

She looks at him, holding her eye contact. She’s concerned. She reaches into her handbag and takes out a gun. It’s a shiny brass and steel revolver. It looks old and worn, not unlike what you’d see on the hip of Clint Eastwood in a 1970’s western. [5]

She pulls it out of its holster.

“This,” she says. “Was your dad’s gun.”

Ben backs away, unconsciously. His eyes grow wide as a twinge of panic races through his mind. He lifts his left hand, using it as a barrier between himself and the weapon. As he backs into the sideboard, he presses his right hand against its edge.

“I’m not sure what you’re thinking,” he says. “But I really don’t think I want that.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” she says. “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.”

She holds the weapon loosely in her right hand. Ben imagines her spinning it on the tip of her index finger like Michael Jordan in a Gatorade commercial. Her gentle smile turns crooked. Her eyebrows rise into the middle of her forehead. For a second she steadies the weapon at him, finger on the trigger. She presses her tongue into the backs of her front teeth, exhaling through her nostrils.

There is a loud knock at the door.

She relaxes her grip on the gun. Ben shakes his head almost imperceptibly.

“Excuse me,” he says. “I don’t usually get so many visitors. But, really, maybe we’ll continue this some other time?”

“Of course,” she says.

Ben rights himself and opens the door. No one is there.

Ms. Ballard composes herself to depart. Again she rests her hand on his cheek. Her touch is warm and tender. She caresses his face and his bottom lip, her eyes still tethered to his.

“You look just like him. Right down to this,” she says, pressing her pinky into the dimple on his left cheek. He can feel her fingernail scratch at his facial hair. She subtly arches her fingertip, going against the grain of his undeveloped beard. Leaning down, her nose brushes the side of his face as she kisses his ear. She whispers something to him, but he doesn’t understand. It sounds like, it’s time.

Backing away, Ms. Ballard brushes imaginary dust off of Ben’s shoulders before turning to leave. As she makes her way down the steps she says, without looking back. “Take good care now, Marcus.”

Ben’s eyebrows scrunch up, tilting his head. He goes to the door and mutters, “Wait…” But when he pokes his head out, she’s already gone. He jogs down the hall. “Ms. Ballard!” he calls out, but she’s gone.

As he gets to the top of the stairs, he sees Marcus, still standing by the front entryway.

“Hey! Marcus! Come up here, I want to talk to you!”

Marcus walks up the steps. “I saw her again,” he says. “I hid when she walked out.”

“Who? Tracey Ballard?” asks Ben. “No, she’s not anyone to be afraid of. She’s a family friend of mine.”

“Of ours,” says Marcus. “And she’s not a friend.”

Ben stands up straight and shifts his feet.

“She was there when dad died,” says Marcus. “She killed him.”

#

Ben is, once again, taken aback. The evening’s events play through his mind in snippets, lingering at strange moments, like Tracey Ballard’s hand on his face, gentle and warm. And Marcus, so odd, a boy like that, calm and alone. And the gun, of course, how beautiful and familiar the gun appeared.

As Ben starts to ask Marcus what he meant, Ms. Ballard quietly returns into the foyer. She moves quick and fluid towards the stairs, across the floor, as if she were gliding on ice. Or hovering over a deep, dark canyon.

“Benjamin,” she says. “I forgot to tell you something very important.”

Ben looks around, but little Marcus is gone.

Ms. Ballard continues up the stairs, nimble and quick. “You see,” she says. “I loved your father.”

Ben backs up. “What are you talking about?”

“I never meant to hurt him or you, either of you,” she says, reaching into her bag. “I took his gun – this gun – and I threatened to kill you. But I never meant, Marcus, I never meant it.”

Ben backs up, scurrying towards his apartment. He continues to ask “what?” and “why?” as his heart races. But it doesn’t matter, she has caught up to him.

Ms. Ballard brings out the long barreled gun that she had shown Ben earlier. It is steady in her grip. She raises it to his head, leveling and cocking it. “I’m sorry,” she says. “You’d forgotten and nothing could make you remember. But you remember now.”

She exhales, frowning and swallowing a mouthful of spittle. “I’m so sorry.”

As her apology sinks in, Ben closes his eyes and slowly rests his forehead on the barrel of the revolver. He breathes. He notices how quiet the world has become. The constant rattle of concerns and questions in his head abate. He hears the hum of the fluorescent lights. His mind floats above the scene disconnectedly watching a river of images and emotions flow underneath him. A small whirlpool gathers as he embraces the events around his father’s death. “It’s okay,” he says.

Meanwhile, running as fast as he can up the stairs, little Marcus lunges at Ms. Ballard’s left leg, the leg she is putting her weight on. As she pulls the trigger, the boy twists and pulls with all his strength, letting out a loud and guttural scream.

The gun goes off. Ben hears a “pop” and then ringing. The bullet grazes his forehead. His eyes and face burn from the flash of light and the hot gunpowder.

Ms. Ballard staggers for a moment, steadies herself and swiftly turns the weapon on the child. He is facing her, chest out, defiant.

“You,” She says.

“No more,” he replies.

Ben opens his eyes. It seems to take an eternity. His mind, in a fog, registers what is happening as he cocks his fist. Squeezing his eyes tightly shut, he throws a left hook hard and fast into the back of the woman’s skull. The force of the punch throws her body, head first, over the bannister. She screams out, “no!” Her voice echoes in Ben’s ears for far longer than it should. They are 12 feet from the ground. She impacts the marble floor with a crack.

Ben stumbles to the bannister, still dazed, he stares down at her motionless body. He looks into her eyes. They are pale and fixed. She blinks. He fumbles to his feet, balanced briefly, he wipes at his bloody forehead. He looks at his hands, confused by how red they are, wondering if this is a dream. He faints.

#

Hours later, the clouds have cleared and a luminescent haze of moonlight is cast over the treetops. Ben’s neighbors have all returned to their units, some of them still chatting amongst themselves about what they think they heard and what they think they know.

Ben finishes talking to the last of the authorities. He’s still in his running clothes, which are mostly dry now. He’s also wearing a blanket the paramedics gave him.

Ms. Ballard is gone. The police have searched the area but she hasn’t turned up. Neither has Marcus. [6]

As the last of the emergency responders leave, Ben walks back up the stairs to his apartment, holding a small packet’s worth of papers and referrals. Absent mindedly he mumbles, “why are there so many…” Behind him, he hears someone finish the melody, “…songs about rainbows.” [7]

Turning around, Ben sees a little boy with his back turned.

“Hey, Marcus!” he says, excitedly but without yelling.

The boy turns around, but it’s not Marcus. This boy smiles happily, like how kids look in television commercials or advertising pictures. Like how normal kids are supposed to look. Ben lets out a breath that he didn’t realize he’d been holding.

“I’m sorry, kid,” he says. “I thought you were someone else.” The kid just smiles even bigger and then goes back to whistling his song.

#

——————————-

NOTES

[0] Based on the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare as a Child”

[1] Benjamin M. Rule is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He works at Richard Patrick Henry Elementary School, specializing in children with Oppositional Defiance Disorder. He generally prefers working with grade school children, believing in their potential for dramatic and lasting change. At one point, budget constraints forced RPH to eliminate Benjamin’s position. So, for three years, he took a job at Hesperian College, counseling young men and women on the stresses of sex, college and living up to their parents’ expectations. He found those years exceedingly tedious.

[2] Since his youth, Benjamin has frequently been under the care and observation of various mental health professionals. With a family history of suicide, it was a matter of course that each clinician would assess for his level of threat to himself (and sometimes to others). The most common test administered to him is called the Beck Scale for Suicide Ideation (BSSI). This simple test is generally regarded as valid and reliable for detecting clinically significant suicidality. Scores on the BSSI can range from 0 to 38. Benjamin was particularly alarmed when he learned that any score above 9 is considered clinically significant. He has never scored below 13.

[3] Benjamin is aware of a contemporary remake of “The Rainbow Connection” by Jason Mraz. He is not a fan, though he has not always been categorically disapproving of the singer either. In fact, Benjamin found Mraz’s hit songs “Lucky” and “I’m Yours” so appealing that he bought the album that they’re on. Unfortunately, Benjamin found the rest of the effort uneven. That experience soured him on the artist, especially since he went against a basic adage of the information age: listen before you buy. But, recently, Mraz’s earnest rendition of “Rainbow Connection” began to melt the ice of Benjamin’s frosty consumerist resentment.

[4] Track shorts are a bit of fashion statement for Benjamin. Although he is simply a hobbiest runner, he insists on wearing the shortest, lightest, most professional grade shorts available. He does this not out of vanity, for it’s not that his legs are so amazingly muscled that he cannot resist the opportunity to show them off. He wears them more as a way to indulge in the fantasy that he is among the running elite. Benjamin follows the sport, as a participant and as a fan. So, for him, wearing professional track shorts is akin to an NBA fan wearing an authentic game issued Kobe Bryant Jersey.

[5] The gun is a Colt Single Action Army revolver, the archetypical gunslinger’s sidearm. It’s no surprise that this weapon is actually very similar to the weapons featured prominently in many of Eastwood’s western films. This gun in particular is the Calvary model, noted for its slightly elongated barrel. Eastwood used a Calvary in Joe Kidd, where he played the lead character, a reluctant hero with an irresistible urge towards justice.

[6] In the days to come, Benjamin will inquire with his mother about Tracey Ballard. It appears that no such person ever worked for his father. The only Tracey Ballard that Benjamin can find is the fictional television reporter in the film Futureworld. He recalls seeing the movie as a young boy and being pleased with the ending, where the hero kisses Tracey Ballard (played by the exquisite Blythe Danner) in order to determine if she is a real person or a robot.

[7] “The Rainbow Connection” is a popular song from the children’s television series, The Muppet Show. It cannot be verified, but Benjamin has sometimes believed that he was watching The Muppet Show when his father died. It is, however, equally likely that the song’s surprisingly dark lyrical content closely resembles Benjamin’s internal psychological experience. The final lines in particular describe hearing “voices” and being unable “to ignore” something that he is “supposed to be.” An outsider, a psychoanalyst perhaps, might interpret this fixation as another sign of suicidality. But Benjamin, despite his pervasive death wish, has always experienced the voices in his head as positive and comforting, gently nudging him towards compassion and forgiveness and, of course, life.

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