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Middle Child Syndrome
    by Scott M. Roberts

Middle Child Syndrome
Artwork by Tomislav Tikulin

Tara found the first scrap of paper on the running trail. It spiraled out of the trees and landed on the path just in time for her to run over it with Zandy's stroller.

"Trash!" Zandy cooed. "Trash, Mama! Trash!"

"Trash, right," Tara said. And because she'd spent hours lecturing Zandy and the boys about litter, now she'd have to pick it up.

The paper was warm. The top right corner was charred, and when she ran her thumb over it, bits of blackened ash smeared her fingers. It didn't surprise Tara that someone was starting fires out here in the undeveloped areas behind the neighborhood. Teenagers, probably. Lots of dry wood lying around, an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in April--the most natural thing in the world for dumb, hormone-afflicted kids to do was to goof around starting fires in the secluded woods and marshlands.

Now that she stopped and sniffed, there did seem to be a smell of burning in the air. Tara peered through the trees to see if she could see any smoke. Seeing smoke would mean she would have to investigate--like an upstanding, HOA-dues-paying member of civilization. And if she found someone starting fires, she'd have to fuss at them, and probably call their parents if she knew them, and then worry about whether the little arsonists would come after her for revenge, and all she had ever wanted to do was go for a jog with Zandy.

To Tara's relief, there was no sign of smoke. Adult responsibility averted.

The scrap was crowded with writing. Symbols and weird little geometric designs covered both sides. She'd taught Jack's Cub Scout den basic cryptography last year. Simple things like substitution cyphers. The writing on the paper wasn't anything like that. It looked more like Arabic or Hebrew . . . or maybe just really bad cursive. The longer she stared the more . . . dense the symbols seemed to become, as if every dip and peak held more than just a pen-stroke. The ink seemed to itch and crawl, somehow, drawing her vision down into them, to lose her sight in examination, and tangle her mind in . . .

"Go, go!" Zandy sang from her stroller.

Tara blinked. The smell of burning was stronger in the air, and the woods were suddenly quiet. She flicked her hand against the paper. Maybe, just this once, it wouldn't be a bad thing to litter. She looked at the scrap of paper again, but there was no sense of whatever she'd felt before. No dense code, no crawling ink. Just torn notebook paper, and bad handwriting, and a burned corner.

Tara crammed the scrap into her pocket. She took the long way home, bouncing Zandy's stroller in front of her as she jogged. By the time she tossed the scrap in the trash can in the garage, she'd almost forgotten how the symbols had captured her eyes. How they'd made her stand still for a long minute, delving into them.

She was reminded when she walked through the front door.

The house was as quiet as the woods. Even with Zandy streaking in front of Tara, peeling off jacket, shoes and socks, little feet slapping the hardwood floors, a heavy silence pervaded the walls. Tara picked up Zandy's discards and shut the door. Did the sound echo? For the second time in an afternoon, Tara was brought to a standstill, wondering.

The silence was broken by the sound of a bathroom faucet being turned on in the kids' bathroom upstairs. Zandy was playing with something electronic and jangly in the den; it was too early for Tommy to be home from soccer. So . . . Jack. Tara tossed Zandy's shoes and socks into the closet by the front door, hung her jacket on the hook, and started up the stairs.

"Jack," she called. "I'm home."

The faucet kept running, on and on. There was another sound too, a kind of hiccupping breath that hooked upward to a whine. Tara knew all the sounds her three kids could make, and knew when one of them was hurt and trying not to sound hurt.

Jack was bent over the sink, blood dripping from the end of his nose. "It won't stop bleeding, Mom," he said. His voice cracked.

Tara pulled some toilet paper free for his nose. The hurt didn't stop there: a lump bulged on the side of Jack's head, and a bruise had formed around his left eye. She brushed against him, laying a hand against his ribs, and he squeaked with pain. His jeans were soaking wet and covered in dirt and clay and mud.

He smelled like smoke.

Tara got his nose plugged, and fetched a couple small bags of frozen peas for him to hold against his head and his eye. When she came back, Jack was sobbing. She sat on the floor of his room with him, holding him around his thin shoulders as he shook and cried. She had to change out the toilet-paper plugs a couple times, but she didn't try to question him until he'd calmed down.

"I got in a fight," Jack said at last.

"You were fighting? Jonathan Lorenzo Howard . . ." Tara trailed off. "Tell me what happened."

He shrugged. Wariness passed through his eyes. "I don't know. Nothing."

"Nothing" didn't give a ten-year-old a bloody nose. "Nothing" didn't put a lump on his head. "Nothing" didn't make him sob like . . . A hot, powerful anger surged in Tara's gut, demanding answers, demanding reasons. But Jack took a breath and let it out again in a long, pitiful whine. A new sound, unknown to her family's vocabulary. Jack buried his head against Tara's side, crying again as if he'd never stopped.

Let him calm down, let him settle. She'd ask again. Later. It was a weekend, they had Saturday and Sunday to investigate, and Mike would be here, too, and together they could coax the truth from him.

She caressed Jack's neck and back, and kissed the top of his head. There was mud in his hair, of course. She grimaced, squeezed his shoulders, and realized that Zandy was being far too quiet downstairs. Even here, even with Jack bleeding and sobbing, life had to go on. Children to tend, dinner to prepare, all and everything on a mother's daily grind, but what she wanted was here in Jack's room.

She was old enough that her wants couldn't hurt her. Maybe. She held Jack until he caught his breath, and then rubbed his bare arms before standing up. "When your nose stops bleeding you need a shower," she said. "We'll talk later."

Jack mumbled something that sounded like agreement.

"No, Elaine," Mike was saying. He had Randy Holdquist's mom on the phone and was trying to get Zandy's feet into her PJs at the same time. "Jack didn't say anything about Randy. I was just checking to see if you knew anything."

He saw Tara standing there, made a face at her. Zandy chortled and began kicking her feet. Mike caught her legs, pushed them swiftly through the cuffs of her pajama bottoms, and zipped the zipper up to her neck.

"I'll tell Tara," he said into the phone. "Tell Patty hello for us."

He hung up, and dug his fingers into Zandy's ribs. She squealed. "I was on the phone, you little monster," he growled at her. "Don't you know how to get your own pajamas on? When I was four, I was putting on two, three pairs of pajamas every night, and Grandma and Grandpa never had to help me, not even a little."

"Help me, help me!" Zandy shouted through her giggles. "Pajama bottoms! Bottoms, daddy, bottoms!"

"What did Elaine say?" Tara asked.

Mike let Zandy up off the floor. She tore from the room and bumped down the stairs. Mike said, "Randy's been grounded since Wednesday. She had him cleaning up their basement all afternoon."

"That's all the usual boys, then." Tara rubbed the tips of her fingers together against her leg. She could still feel the warmth of the paper if she closed her eyes, the heat of the charred edge against her thumb. She could still smell the smoke in Jack's curly hair and lingering on his clothes.

"We haven't called the Patels yet . . ."

"They moved out a couple weeks ago." Tara leaned against Mike, and he put his arms around her and held her. Below them, around them, their home breathed: the thrum of the ceiling fan, the shush of a toilet tank refilling, Zandy singing some inane song to herself, Tommy's tapping on the computer in the den. Mike's breathing, breezing the top of her head. Her own breathing, against his heartbeat.

And Jack?

"You think he's ready to talk?" Mike asked.

Jack's door was closed. No sound from there, no singing, no playing, nothing. "He was distraught, Mike. He sounded broken."

Mike took a breath. He was going to say something flippant. Something about boys being boys, or to wonder if Jack had gotten any good punches in.

He closed his mouth and stroked her back instead, finding the tense spots in her shoulders and neck. He said at last, "We've got all weekend to pry the truth from him."

"I was hoping you'd insist on fussing at him," Tara said. "Then I could shout at you for being unreasonable. I need to . . . I need to fight something."

"Tommy's calculus grade slipped again," Mike murmured. "You can go fight with him."

"No. Angela's coming over to help him study." Angela Heggins was the girl next door. Tommy had grown up with her as an on-again-off-again girlfriend through grade school and junior high. They hadn't seen much of each other since starting high school. Different paths, despite how close they'd been as little kids. Tommy's path led mostly toward team sports; Angela Heggins's path, as far as Tara could determine from the late night shouting matches with her grandmother, led toward drinking, partying and team sports of a different kind.

"Maybe that will get Jack out of his room," Mike said. "He's always had a crush on Angela. He'll tell her what happened, and then she can tell us."

But Jack didn't come down all evening, not even to say goodnight. After Zandy was put in bed, after Angela left, after Tommy had turned off Sports Center and gone to his room, Tara stood in the hallway by Jack's door, listening. She could hear him snoring a little, and cracked the door open. A stripe of light painted his bed. He was curled under the blankets, knees up to his chest. Only the top of his head poked out of the sheets. Tara paused a moment, watching his shoulders rise and fall with his breathing under the blankets. Breathing in time with her home's breathing after all. She closed the door and went to her own bed.

Mike held her in the darkness, and the breathing of her home--the banality, the simplicity, the silliness--coaxed her eventually to sleep.

Tara dreamed of a storm, and her boys fighting. She woke up and found both were true.

Wind pushed against the walls of the house, but the boys were even louder, shouting over each other. At this rate, they'd wake up Zandy. Maybe Mike, even. Tara pulled her bathrobe on and stormed into the hallway, shushing them.

The ruckus came from Tommy's bedroom. Tommy held Jack down on the floor as Jack kicked and struggled. Tara bulled into the room and pushed Tommy off.

"Thomas Michael Howard, what are you doing?" There was rage in her voice. It scared and thrilled her, this naming-of-full-names voice, this mother-goddess voice.

Tommy reeled backwards, banging an elbow against the wall. There was something on him. A scratch? Long and scarlet, it extended from just above his temple, down his cheek and neck, reaching his bare abdomen and lower. The room wasn't bright enough to see it well.

"He wrote on me, Mom!" Tommy said.

Jack scooted toward the wall. Tara let him go. She took a step backwards, and fumbled for the light switch.

"I woke up," Tommy said. His voice hitched. His face reddened. He looked away from her. "He was writing on me, and I woke up. He was trying to pull down my underwear."

Tara swallowed. The wind pushed and howled outside. Where was the mother-goddess now? Gone, gone . . . "Let me see," Tara said, and turned Tommy's face toward her.

It was not a solid line of red. The marks weren't marks--they were symbols. Symbols she knew. Things she'd read on a burned piece of paper, that had brought silence to her world, and now strangeness, now dread.

Jack held a red marker. His eyes were huge, dark, and wet with fear and wonder.

"What is this, Jack?" Tara asked.

He just stared.

"Jack!" she screamed.

He flinched like she'd slapped him and clutched the marker tightly to his chest.

Mike's heavy steps drummed in the hallway. "Tara, what--?"

He stopped in the room. Tara saw his eyes take them in. Herself; Tommy; Jack. His eyes found the red line on Tommy's face. They followed it until it disappeared into Tommy's boxers. She saw his eyes latch on to the red marker in Jack's hand.

"Boys, explain this," he said.

Tommy started to answer. Tara didn't hear him. She was looking at Mike, and so her eyes were on the hallway. There was movement by Mike's leg. There was a sound from behind him, a soft sigh. The wind howling, Tommy explaining, and why was it amidst all that noise, that she heard a sigh as soft as a breath?

Because it was Zandy's sigh, and before today, she had known all the noises her children could make.

Zandy was standing there by Mike's leg.

Standing there naked, her little body covered in those red symbols, in Jack's symbols, so they crossed her like ropes or veins.

Inside, the house fell silent.

Outside, the wind chuckled and roared.

The second piece of paper was a prescription for risperdone. It had Jack's full name on it and it was as difficult to read as the scrap of paper Tara had picked off the ground two weeks ago. A scrawl in blue ink that made no sense to Tara.

But it didn't devour her eyesight.

Jack slipped into the backseat. That's how he moved everywhere these days--slipping. Sliding. Not sneaking, exactly, but he'd been so noisy before. Elbows, feet, knees flying everywhere. Banging into everything.

"How was Dr. Loeb?" Tara asked.

"Okay," Jack said. "She's off next week."

Yes, but what did you talk about? What did you tell her? What did she tell you? What are you talking about with her that you can't talk about with me? I knew all your sounds, Jack, I knew them, all but one, and now, I don't know anything so it's no wonder you won't talk to me.

Tara started the car, keeping the prescription in her hand. The pharmacy wasn't far away.

"I want to sleep in my own room tonight," Jack said.

Tara caught his gaze in the mirror. The skin under his eyes was dark--though the black eye had disappeared. A bruise of a different type. Jack was exhausted. Thin, and getting thinner; pale, getting paler. Mike had insisted that he sleep in their room on an air mattress and a sleeping bag. Jack hadn't argued--hadn't even rolled his eyes, not then, and not in the two weeks since. Tara would wake up in the middle of the night, sit up to look over at him, and every time, he was lying with eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, or the wall, or the window.

The prescription paper rustled against the wheel. Maybe with this, things would get better.

"All right," she said.

She wanted to say other things. Rules, restrictions, cautions--but the look in his eyes took her breath away. Surprise, that was there. His surprise transformed to gratitude. And from gratitude to happiness. All in an instant, a blink. No secrets between them at that instant. In that moment, her Jack came to life, and Tara felt a warm thrill in her heart. Hope. After two weeks of worry and fear, hope--even the suspicion that there might be hope--was sweet and welcome.

Tara bought them milkshakes after they visited the pharmacy and gave Jack his medicine. He took a last, long sip of his shake, tilted his head back, opened wide, and dropped the single orange pill into his mouth. She watched him swallow, once, twice.

"Ugh. It's gross," he said.

"They probably didn't mean it to be taken with cookies-and-cream milkshakes."

He wagged his tongue and wiped it off with a napkin. "It's really really gross," he said.

She bought him a soda, too, to wash the taste out of his mouth, and they shared it on the ride home. He took a couple swallows, sighed, and leaned back against the seat. At a stoplight, Tara watched him. His eyelids drooped. He closed his eyes, and she saw a subtle shift in his body. Drowsing.

She let him sleep, and circled their block a couple times to let him get as much rest as he could. Hope. Hope sounded like a ten year old sleeping in the backseat.

Mike rattled the bottle of risperdone. "Jack gets drugs, plus a milkshake, plus a soda, and what do you bring home for me?"

Tara slipped beneath the covers and scooted over to be next to him. He was warm--Mike was always warm.

"A salad," he finished. He rattled the bottle again.

Tara kissed him, laughing. "I thought you wanted to eat healthier," she said against his mouth.

"Rawr." Mike put his arms around her neck, and kissed her back. "I'll tell you what I want to eat: lady-flesh. The succulent meat of . . ."

She kissed him again and he stopped talking.

They didn't speak for a long time.

After, Tara held Mike and whispered to him the hope she'd found in the day: milkshakes, and sodas, and risperdone, and Jack drowsing in the back seat. He listened, his fingers tracing warm tracks along her bare back. This is what I want for Jack, and for Tommy, and for Zandy, Tara thought. A loving bed, someone to face the surprises of life with, to trace warm fingers over, to lie crazy and naked with in the dark and quiet, to exchange breath with. Someone with listening ears. Marriage. Home. Commitment. Loyalty . . . all that.

She laughed at herself, the banality of it, the base suburban-ness of it all. She inhaled Mike's scent. Inhaled her scent. Our scent, she thought, and it was more than the bedroom, it was the whole night-time house. We made this from our own bodies: these walls, these rooms, these children. Every good-and-strong inch. Strange; sometimes warped. Sometimes off-kilter, so things might be jumbled around. Our weird, convoluted architecture, spackled in sweat, and love, and hope.

Our goodness.

"You got quiet," Mike said. His fingers trailed dangerously.

"I'm thinking bourgeois thoughts," she said. And kissed him again so that he wouldn't start speaking with his ridiculous French accent.

He tried anyway.

Tara dreamed something heavy was treading the stairs. She awoke and found it was true.

She thought it was Zandy at first, sliding on her bottom. But it was too slow. Tara untangled herself from Mike's limbs, fighting for wakefulness as the sound thumped downward.

Mike woke up, too, heard it, said groggily, "One of the kids?"

"I don't know," Tara whispered. But she didn't think any of them--not even Jack lately--had such a heavy, labored pace. Why now, why, after the peace of earlier? After hope, after . . .

Mike eased off the mattress, and reached under the bed for the softball bat he kept there. Tara followed him to the bedroom door, and out to the hallway. The house was dark, quiet, still. She turned on the light and the thumping on the stairs stopped.

There were symbols on the wall--Jack's symbols, scrawled large. One continuous string of senselessness, starting at his door, down the hallway toward the stairs. Red marker, the same color he'd used before, but this time, he was painting their home.

"Jack," Mike croaked. "Son, son . . ."

Jack stood at the bottom of the steps, marker in hand, half-raised to the wall. "I was sleepy," he said. His voice was dull, murzy. "I couldn't stay awake. I couldn't and so I had to . . . I had to . . ."

He looked at Mike, at Tara. Blinked his eyes, blinked so slowly, Tara thought he must be about to collapse on the stairs. He put his forehead against the wall, and swiped the marker in a wide, elaborate shape above his head.

"Dry, dry, dry," he said. "It's dry, but I have to . . ."

Tara rushed down the steps to gather him in her arms. He was so thin, he was so light . . . his skin felt like onion-skin, dry and crackling. Mike came after her frowning. He'd dropped the bat at the top of the stairs. Tara tried to pry the marker out of Jack's fingers, but he kept pushing her hands away.

"Stop," he said. "Stop, Ma, there isn't much more, I have to finish, I have to complete it . . ."

"Jonathan Lorenzo, no . . ." Something was wrong with him. More wrong then before. Tara gripped his arms, but they were full of a wild, wiry strength. He snaked easily out of her reach, scratched the marker along the wall.

Mike picked him up bodily, lifting him off his feet. One arm wrapped around Jack's midsection and lifted. The other found Jack's fingers, and the marker.

Jack struggled and whined, "Letmego, letmego!" He got both feet against the wall, and pushed.

Mike stumbled. He tripped over Tara, and for a moment, all three of them teetered off-balance. Tara caught herself on the railing. Jack kept kicking--one of his feet snapped against Tara's chin. Mike managed to turn himself so that he fell on his back, holding Jack against his chest. Tara heard the crack of her husband's head against the floor, but Jack jumped to his feet.

He tested the marker against his thumb. "It's dry," he said. "It's no good."

Tara's eyes swam with stars. She slid down the stairs toward her son, and her husband. "Jack you're sick."

He met her gaze. The same look--alive and loving--she'd seen in the car. Just hours ago. "Mama," he said. A little lost. A little warped. But it was him. "I . . ."

He shook his head, blinked again. Looked at the marker, and the wall. Then he lifted his left hand to his mouth and bit down on the meaty place between his thumb and palm. Dark blood welled out of the corners of his mouth as he sunk his teeth in deeply and his eyes shot open in pain.

Tara shrieked and closed him up in her arms. He smeared his blood along the wall, his good hand flailing with the marker.

"Okay," he said, over and over as he sobbed and struck out at the wall. "It's okay, it's okay, it's okay."

But Tara was sure, now, that it would never be okay again.

The third piece of paper was a business card: white, with black lettering. Legible. An official-looking seal was stamped into one of the corners--Department of Child Services. Below the stamp was a woman's name, a phone number, and an email address. And a title--"Case Worker."

Tara took the card from Dr. Loeb, and read over it again.

"Ms. Cassidy is great," Dr. Loeb said, tucking a pencil behind her ear. "She works very closely with the psychiatric hospital, and she has already met Jack."

Cassidy. The name on the card. Tara handed the card to Mike. He glanced at it and put it in his shirt pocket.

"How often will she come by?" he asked Dr. Loeb.

"Twice a week, at first. More often if he needs it." Dr. Loeb leaned forward in her chair. "Michael, Tara: Jack is a sweet kid. I know you're worried, and frankly, I was too the first couple days after he was admitted. We've made a lot of progress, though. He's not fixating on his symbols, and he's not sleep-walking or harming himself any more. We could keep him longer, but . . ."

"We want him to come home," Tara said.

Mike was quiet. He slipped his hand into hers. Dark circles framed the uncertainty in his eyes. We want our boy, yes, we want Jack . . . but are we ready for him? Can we care for him after all this?

You're never ready for a child, Tara thought. From the moment they squirm into the world they're a trial and a surprise, a joyful disaster.

Dr. Loeb said, "Let me caution you again that he shouldn't be left alone. From what we've observed, that's when his anxiety tends to increase. Someone will need to sleep in the same room with him."

Mike rolled his shoulders. "We moved his bed into his older brother's room. Tommy said he'd watch over him."

Dr. Loeb paused, considering. "That's actually a good idea. Jack seems pretty concerned with what Tommy thinks about him. I have to say that given what Jack did to Tommy, that shows an incredible amount of trust. I think it should help Jack a lot."

"What about school?" Tara asked.

"Touch base with his teachers and the school nurse. You don't need to go into details. Ms. Cassidy will as well. Any other questions?"

She had a dozen, at least. None of which Dr. Loeb could answer. Tara wasn't sure there were answers. She wasn't sure she could even articulate her questions in a way that would make sense to another human being.

"He still hasn't . . . he didn't say what happened to cause all this?" Mike blurted. "You've had him for two weeks. A kid doesn't just go from . . . I don't know, baseball and piano lessons to . . . to biting off half of his own thumb."

Dr. Loeb's eyes were full and sympathetic. Which was different than pitying, Tara thought. Pity . . . they could do without that. "He hasn't told me, Michael. Sometimes there isn't any one element that identifies the fulcrum of the psychosis. I wish there were, and I wish I had a better answer for you. We can treat him, though. Jack can have a fairly normal life. Baseball, piano . . . happiness. None of that is out of the picture. Jack's just taking a kind of roundabout way to get there."

Mike was silent.

Tara sucked a breath and nodded. Her hands were sweaty--so were Mike's. She wiped hers on her jeans and nodded at Dr. Loeb. "He's probably bouncing off the walls, wondering what's taking so long. I guess we're ready."

Dr. Loeb smiled. "I'll fetch him."

Jack wasn't bouncing, but he didn't look as exhausted and beaten as he had when they'd brought him into the hospital. He dropped his duffel bag and Tara stooped to embrace him. He hugged her back, the bandage on his hand chafing her shirt. Oh, but it was so good to hold him again! To put hands on him, wrap arms around his torso, smell the shampoo in his hair, feel the soft, smooth press of his cheek. It was G-O-O-D, good.

Mike took his turn with Jack. Tentative, at first, both of them. Then Mike swooped Jack off his feet and swung him around. Ten years old--Jack was young enough for bear-hug-dancing. Young enough to be hugged and kissed by Mom and Dad, still, and not be completely embarrassed by it. Tara wrapped her arms around them both, and they swayed together in the little room in the psychiatric hospital, breathing in, breathing out.

Until Jack finally did get embarrassed about their attention and demanded that they let him go. They teased him a little, holding to him more tightly, squeezing him, until he said the magic words, "Goodbye, guts!" and then they let him drop to the floor.

Magic words, and bear hugs, and breath, Tara thought. That's what we're going to heal Jack with. A ridiculous thought. She wasn't that naive. But it was a nice way to think about it--amid therapy, and medications, and mental health professionals, surely they could fit those things in as well.

In the car, he chattered about his stay in the hospital. Mostly, he talked about how awful the food was, and how the school day at hospital was only six hours long, and why couldn't regular school be like that?

When Tara told him about moving into Tommy's room, he got quiet. He asked, "Tommy doesn't hate me?"

"No, of course not," Tara said. "Families don't hate each other."

Jack said, "That's not true. I met these two boys, Bobby and Niels, they're twins. Their mom's boyfriend used to beat her a lot, and so they, one night when he was asleep, they stuck a screwdriver in his belly to keep him from doing it ever again, only he woke up, and he beat them instead, and so did their mom. She beat Niels so hard he can't talk right, and now they hate her."

Fear crawled up Tara's spine on caterpillar feet. What else had Jack learned in these two weeks? She swallowed, said, "Jack, I guess that's true. Sometimes, families do terrible things to each other. Some families hate each other. Abuse each other.

"But that's not us, Jack. Dad and I would never hurt you, or abandon you." Tara turned around to face him. "Jonathon Lorenzo Howard, there is nothing that exists--nothing you can do--that can make us stop loving you."

Jack looked out the window, shivering a little. He finally said, "I love you, too."

It wasn't a miracle, love. It wouldn't cure everything. But it got them through the ride home, and the rest of the day. Those three words--we love you--got the boys laughing and teasing one another again.

It got them all past the first week, and then the first month. And the next.

Tara was almost asleep when the phone rang. It took her a moment to identify the sound of it--it wasn't her cellphone, but the landline. The clock on the dresser read ten-thirty. Mike's side of the bed was empty. She remembered he was returning from a conference, and would be late getting in.

The house around her was still, except for the jangling phone. Boys asleep, Zandy asleep. Tara, almost asleep. She scrubbed her palms over her face, debating whether she should let it go to the machine

But she slipped off the bed and picked it up. Responsible. Adult-like. "Hello?"

An older voice said, "Tara? This is Veronica Heggins. I'm so sorry . . ."

Babbling. Heggins . . . did Tara know a Heggins? She racked her brain. Oh, yes, Veronica Heggins. Next door neighbor, had moved in a couple years ago after Angela Heggins's parents split. Angela, Tommy's gal pal; Veronica, her grandmother.

Veronica Heggins wasn't just babbling now, she was full on sobbing. Tara could hardly understand her. "Tara, I'm sorry to bother you so late, I know your husband works all hours, and you have your hands full, but . . . Oh, it's Angela, Tara, it's awful . . ."

Tara flipped on a light and tried to sort through the old woman's story. Usually, Veronica was prone to exaggeration--everything was the end of the world with Mrs. Heggins. Every small inconvenience was developed into proof-positive of a malicious, vindictive, bitter universe.

But as Tara listened, she thought that this once, Veronica Heggins might not be exaggerating. Angela had been out with some friends. They'd borrowed someone's pickup, stolen some liquor from a parent's stash, and managed to almost kill themselves on the back roads. One of the kids--Tara didn't recognize the name--was in the hospital. Angela and a couple others were at the police station, awaiting their parents.

Mike had come home by the time Tara got it all sorted out. She told him, "Mrs. Heggins can't drive at night, so I'm going to go get Angela out of holding and bring her home."

"You look exhausted," Mike said. "You want me to go?"

"No. I could use someone to yell at. Someone who won't remember I yelled at them in the morning."

"That's what Tommy's for," Mike said. "I'll wait up for you."

The streets were empty. Of course they were--ten thirty on a Thursday evening? Who went carousing on Thursday? No one . . . except Angela Heggins and her stupid teenage cronies. The more she thought about it, the angrier she got. Idiot children could have killed someone. Mike was driving the same roads--what if they'd rammed into him rather than some tree out in the boonies? Someone's husband, someone's child, someone's lover, gone because a bunch of thoughtless teenaged brats.

The police station was as empty as the streets. Angela sat alone on a metal bench in the holding cell, staring at her hands. A cut ran along her forehead; someone had plastered a couple strips of medical tape over it.

"Mrs. Howard," she said to Tara. "You're not Grandma."

Tara wanted to be angry with her. She struggled to keep the heat in her guts, the sharpness in her throat. Drunk driving on a Thursday night, a school night! But she could smell Angela from outside the cell, sour and sick. Her hair was matted with blood, grime, and vomit. The front of her shirt and her shorts were foul, too. Her eyes were puffy and red.

"Your grandmother asked me to pick you up."

"Real nice of you. Real Christian," Angela said, and giggled. The giggle turned into a guffaw, and she slapped the metal bench. "Tommy hates going to church, but I say, I say . . ."

She stopped, and dry heaved. When she finished, she wiped her nose and mouth on the back of her hand. She didn't finish her thought.

"Come on, Angela, honey," Tara said. Once upon a time, this shamble of vomit and stink had been a little girl who had played kickball with Tommy, who had babysat Zandy and Jack, who had given Tara ridiculous little presents for her birthdays and Christmas.

The officer on duty opened the cell door. Angela wobbled to her feet and walked with Tara to her car. Tara kept the windows down as they drove, and Angela leaned her head back against the seat. Her shoulders shook and her chin trembled but she didn't cry. Tara tried to think of something to say . . . an adult thing. Advice. Consolation. Criticism, even. When was the last time an adult had cared enough to say something of value to Angela Heggins?

Tara didn't think of anything until she pulled onto their street. "Angela, why don't you come over to my house? Let's get you cleaned up before you go home, okay?"

"I'm tired," Angela said. "I just want to sleep."

Tara squeezed her hand. "You'll feel better after you get clean. I promise."

"Clean, clean," Angela repeated, singing a little. "All right."

Tara set her up in the kitchen, sitting on a low stool, leaning her head back into the sink as it filled with water.

"You used to give Tommy and Jack haircuts on this stool," Angela said. Too loud--her voice echoed in the kitchen.

"That's right. Let me go get some shampoo. Don't move," Tara said.

Mike met Tara in the hallway. "Uh . . . what?" he asked.

"She's a mess. I just . . . I just want to get her hair clean. That's the worst thing, to wake up with vomit in your hair."

"If you say so," Mike said. "See if you can convince her to keep it down."

But Angela didn't say anything else as Tara lathered up her hair. She was so quiet and still, Tara thought she must have fallen asleep. She glanced at her face--Angela's eyes were closed. But there were tracks of tears down her cheeks. Tara finished scrubbing and rinsed out her long hair with the sprayer. She draped a towel around Angela's shoulders, and then lifted her head so she sat up straight.

Angela caught her hand and pressed it to her cheek, "Thank you," she said. Her voice was soft, sober. "Thank you, Mrs. Howard, you don't know what . . . you don't know what you've done, but . . ." She kissed the back of Tara's hand, swiftly, clutching her fingers like a little child. Her eyes were still damp, still puffy, blinking back tears . . . and something more. Despondency, fear, anger . . .

She's as young as Tommy, Tara thought. She's as old as me. Older. Tara dabbed Angela's tears with the towel. "You're welcome, Angela."


Jack's voice from the entry-way to the kitchen. Tara turned, fearing . . . fearing another midnight of blood and savagery. Another bout of insanity. But it was nothing like that--just her Jack. He was dressed down for bed, standing in his underwear and t-shirt, leaning against the wall, watching her.

"Little man Jack," Angela said. Her voice was drunken again. "Hey, little man."

Jack straightened. Tara had expected him to duck back into the den--what ten-year-old wants to be seen in his briefs? But Jack took a couple steps into the kitchen, blinking. "What are you doing here?" he asked Angela.

"Go back to bed, Jack," Tara said, shooing him out of the kitchen.

"Nighty night, little man Jack," Angela sang after them, as Tara guided Jack out of the kitchen and gave him a gentle push to get him going toward the stairs. "Sleepy tighty, don't let the bedbugs bitey-whitey. Tighty-whities . . ."

Something in her voice made Tara's stomach churn. Angela's eyes followed Jack's footsteps above them as he padded down the second-floor hallway to his room. A smile played over her lips.

Tara snapped her fingers in front of Angela's face. "Hey. Quiet down."

Angela's smile widened. "Sure," she said. Then whispered, "Sure. Wouldn't want to wake them. Wouldn't want to wake him." She nodded like she'd revealed something profound.

Tara took the towel from around Angela's shoulders, "You're done. I'll walk you home."

The smile disappeared. "I'm tired. Can I sleep here? Grandma won't mind."

Tara minded. She minded quite a lot, now, after hearing the way Angela spoke to Jack, after watching her watch him. Something, something was wrong. Something as bad as scribbled ink on a burned sheet of paper. Seemingly innocent, secretly strange, and deeply wrong. "No," Tara said. She wrapped a hand around Angela's shoulders helped her stand.

Angela went, shuffling. Tara helped her to the door, and across their lawns, and waited with her until her grandmother opened the door. Now, Tara's anger was coming back; now, when it would do no good at all, when everything was finished, when the heat in her belly, and the scratching, terrible sharpness in her throat couldn't do anything.

Veronica Heggins smelled like gin and cigarette smoke. "Come inside, Angela," she said. "You've bothered poor Mrs. Howard enough tonight. Come on."

Angela teetered on the step up to the doorway. "I know something," she said to Tara, "about Jonathan Lorenzo Howard."

Mrs. Heggins put her hand around Angela's arm; Angela pulled out of her grasp with a snort. She smiled at Tara, that wide, drunken smile, showing all her teeth. "I know when a boy has seen a witch."

Tara started, unsure of what to say. She managed, "O-kay . . . what does that mean?"

Veronica pulled at Angela's arm, but Angela pushed her away. The old woman banged into a lamp by the door, toppling it. She squawked, righted herself, and slapped Angela across the face. The slap was loud enough to echo down the street, into the cul-de-sac and the woods beyond. Angela didn't scream, didn't yelp; her only reaction was to fall silent, and look away from Tara.

"I am so sorry," Veronica said. Not to Angela--to Tara. "We won't bother you again."

"Wait--" Tara said, her anger pushing her forward toward the door. "Angela, what--?"

Mrs. Heggins closed the door. Tara heard the lock fall in place. For a moment, she stood in the silence of their street, confused. She knocked on the door but there was no answer. Knocked again: only silence inside the Heggins household. A deeper silence than had ever been in hers, she thought. Tara backed away from the door, letting the silence push her off the porch, back across her lawn, to her own door, her own quiet-but-not-silent home.

She dreamed of a girl crying. She woke, listening, stretching ears for the sound. But the sounds in her home covered the noise. Mike murmured something--half asleep himself--and put his warm hands on her arms. She fell asleep again, hunting that crying girl in her dreams.

Tara found the last scrap of paper in Tommy's jeans as she sorted through his laundry, checking for change and loose dollar bills. She found it in the little pocket on the right, just above the main pocket. The pocket no one ever used because it was too small to hold anything. A meaningless little pocket of nothing.

It was big enough to hold a slip of paper folded over and over again. Tara's hands trembled as she opened it. Four inches long, three fingers wide. Covered in Jack's symbols.

Tara collapsed against the laundry-room wall. The ink was rust-colored, smudged and smeared along the paper, and oh, Jack! It didn't look like ink at all. She knew what it was, and it made her heart seize, made her hands lift to her mouth to hold back the wail of despair and fear. Because if she cried, Zandy would hear it, and then she would cry too, and the last thing she needed right at this moment was a four-year-old wailing in her ears as she tried to solve this puzzle, this boy, this Jack!

Tara forced herself to put the paper on the linoleum floor of the laundry room and smooth her hands over it. And stare at it, like she could decipher it; decipher her son and all his oddness, just by looking. Just like the first scrap of paper she'd found, the symbols seemed to draw her eyesight closer to them. The closer she looked, the more they seemed to convey. Fractal writing in her little boy's blood.

No. No. Tara slapped her palm over the symbols. Smacked them again and again, until her palm burned and the paper ripped. When she dared to look again, the symbols were still. Blood writing, but no code, no mystical cypher. Tara folded the paper, stuffed it into her back pocket.

A thought occurred to her. She picked up one of Zandy's overalls, and hunted through it.

Another paper, folded into the loop of the tag. Just a few symbols on this one.

And then she went through all the dirty clothes, all the miscellaneous pockets on Zandy's dresses and playsuits, and in Tommy's boxer shorts and dress shirts. A scrap of paper in each one, hidden away in the unused, secret spots. There was nothing in her or Mike's laundry. None in Jack's own pile.

When Tara finished with the dirty laundry, she went upstairs and tore through their drawers, their closets, under their beds. She had five handfuls of paper when she was done. An armful of rustling scraps, painted in rusty symbols. Jack's blood. His sickness.

Some of the writing looked fresh.

Tara put Jack's papers in a plastic grocery bag and cinched the handles together viciously, as if the scraps might fold their way out. Scatter around the house again. Infect everyone's eyeballs with blood fractals. She gathered a shuddering breath. In the den, Zandy was singing and clattering her toys together. Tara pushed her attention into that sweet nonsense noise until she could catch herself, until she could recover a little.

She called Mike. He came home early and together they called Dr. Loeb, who, after explanations were made, sounded just as despondent and disappointed as they felt.

"I am so sorry," Dr. Loeb said. "I thought things were going so well. The past couple months . . ."

End of the school year, Tara thought. Fourth-graders lining up to play Little League baseball, Pee Wee soccer, signing up for summer camps. Vacation about to burst onto the world, and where would Jack be? In a psychiatric hospital. Learning . . . what? How broken, how destructive the world was, screwdrivers and belts and abuse; stories that weren't his stories, but what if he thought they were?

"Say something flippant," she whispered to Mike. Something to cure the heaviness pressing on her guts.

He just stared at his hands, listening to Dr. Loeb. He said, "We'll go get him now."

"I'm sorry," Dr. Loeb said again. "We are going to get through this." She hung up.

Tara nudged the bag full of Jack's scraps toward Mike. "Lousy penmanship," she said. Her voice hitched. She was no good at flippancy. That was Mike's job, but he wasn't going to do it.

He looked at her, lost. But he swallowed, and managed, "Bloody terrible."

Mike left to pick up Tommy from school as Tara sat at the table in the kitchen, listening to Zandy play, listening to the house breathe. Watching the scraps of paper in the bag, making sure none escaped. Mike wasn't gone long, and both he and Tommy looked sober and cautious. Tommy dropped a scrap of paper into Tara's hand.

"Found it in my jeans," he said.

She nodded, and jammed it into the bag with the rest of the paper.

"That's not ink," Tommy said.

"No," Mike said. "Tommy, we need you to watch Zandy. We have to . . . we have to take Jack . . ."

He broke off, swallowing and looking away. Tommy reached out to Mike, wrapped his arms around him, kissed him on his cheek. Mike sobbed once, coughed, and hugged him back. How long since their hugs had turned to handshakes, pats on the back? They stood like that, father and son, leaning into each other's embrace, faces buried into each other's shoulders.

Of the two boys, Jack was the more emotionally expressive one. How long before he could hold them like this? When all this was through, would he even want to?

"You ready for this?" Mike asked as they headed out the door.

Tara didn't know how to answer him. You're never ready for a child.

She wasn't ready for her cellphone to ring either. Or the voice on the other end of the line telling her that Jack had been picked up by the police.

Jack was sitting on a chair thumbing through what looked like an old science fiction magazine as the police station bustled around him. Tara saw him all the way across the room. He didn't see her, or Mike, or the detective that escorted them through the station, so Tara got a chance to just watch him. There was something different about Jack. It was subtle--in the curve of his cheek, somehow, or the way he held his shoulders. Or in the rhythm of his sneakers as he swung his feet back and forth in his chair, skipping the sole of his shoe against the carpet.

She pushed through the crowd to get to her boy. Mike paced her. Jack looked up at the last moment before they reached him. His face brightened and then they were on top of him, wrapping arms around him.

His shirt and jeans were soaking wet. He smelled foul. Like he'd been crawling in a drainage ditch, or something. Tara put her hands all over him, alternating between squeezing him and just . . . touching him. Pressing fingers against his cheeks, stroking the back of his skull, rubbing his shoulders, feeling his spine. If she held him long enough, she'd figure out what it was that had changed.

And this whole thing--the symbols, the strange nights, the terrifying everything--would make sense.

She wondered if she would love or despise the world when it made sense again.

"We should talk," the detective said.

He led them to a room marked "Interrogation Rm C." Another man joined them, carrying a couple cardboard boxes. He smiled at them--Tara noticed the dark circles under his eyes. An officer in uniform followed them in and closed the door behind them all. Interrogation Rm. C was small and dingy, with windowless cinderblock walls and a fussy halogen ceiling light. A blocky table was bolted to the floor. Six chairs surrounded it.

The detective motioned for them to sit. Tara and Mike took seats on either side of Jack; the men sat facing them across the table. The fellow with the boxes rummaged through them as the detective spoke.

"I am Detective Cartwright. This is Officer Meadows. That is Andrew Dowser." Detective Cartwright waved at the man going through the boxes.

Not "detective." Not "officer." What was he, then?

"Pleased to meet you," Andrew Dowser said without looking up. He extracted a grimy-looking spiral-bound notebook from the box, and put it in the center of the table.

Detective Cartwright slipped a couple mug shots onto the table. One was of Angela Heggins; the other was a middle-aged man. "Do you recognize these two?" he asked.

"I know the girl," Tara said. "Angela Heggins. I've never seen the man."

She was sitting close to Jack, their arms brushing together, and felt a tremble shudder through his whole body.

"When was the last time you saw Angela?" Detective Cartwright asked.

She told them about picking her up from the police station after her accident. "I haven't seen her since then."

"Did Angela mention anything about Greg Olson?" Andrew Dowser asked. He nodded toward the man's mugshot.


"What is this about?" Mike asked. "I'm guessing it's more serious than a DWI."

Detective Cartwright said, "Greg Olson is wanted in a string of home invasions as far south as Oklahoma. We think he was targeting your neighborhood."

"Not the neighborhood," Jack said. His voice was soft but insistent. "I told you already, he wants the kids." He gestured toward the grimy notebook. "I showed you his journal."

Andrew Dowser smiled briefly at Jack. Officer Meadows and Detective Cartwright frowned. But all Tara could think was that her son, her boy, her Jack knew something about this man. And a thousand thousand terrible thoughts ran through her mind. A criminal and her son, a grown man and her little boy, a man who wanted children. O God, O God, she was going to break under the heat and flash of her own thoughts, O God save me, save him, save us.

"Jonathan Lorenzo Howard," Mike said quietly. Naming names. "Tell us what is going on, son."

"I found a tower in the woods," Jack said. His hand rested on Tara's knee. She could feel his warmth through her jeans. "I was just . . . wandering around, I guess."

"How long ago?" Tara asked. Remembering the scent of smoke. Remembering a fluttering page. She couldn't keep the anxiousness out of her voice.

Jack said, "January."

January. Ages ago. Forever ago.

Jack continued. "The tower was a bunch of patio furniture stacked up high against a broken tree. It was . . . weird. I can't . . . I don't know. It's like how you can sometimes tell you're going to get sick without feeling sick. Like, your whole body gets hot and prickly, but this was in my brain, and I knew I should get away, but I was already on my knees looking inside. Everything inside the tower was marked up, especially the tree. All these symbols."

He glanced at Tara, at Mike. Neither of them spoke.

"It made my head swirl," he said, "and my eyeballs itch. There were drawings . . ." Here he stopped. Swallowed. Jack looked down at his lap. "He had drawings of the faces of kids I knew, all in symbols, climbing all over the patio furniture, up and up along the tree. I didn't know until later, I . . . I thought it was cool. I didn't tell anyone, I just thought it was someone's art project. I came back a couple times, and I never saw anyone, ever at all, but someone was adding faces to the symbols. Then a couple months ago, I saw a man there."

His hand fluttered toward the photo of Greg Olson. "And he was with Angie. They were . . . uh . . . naked, and he was on top of her, and he just kept telling her, 'Say the names, say all their names,' and she did, and I couldn't look away, Mom, I just couldn't, even though I . . . just like the tower, I couldn't. He made her say Zandy and Tommy's names, and I couldn't look away, even though I knew what he was thinking, and what he wanted to do to them. I could see it in the shadows of the tower, like in the shadows cast by the symbols he'd carved into the tree. I just wanted to run away, but I couldn't even look away from them."

The room was thick with silence. Five adults, spellbound by a ten-year-old boy.

Jack wiped his nose on his sleeve. "They . . . uh . . . finished, I guess, and he got off her, and they smoked a cigarette, and all the time, he's laughing, and she's giggling, and I can't run or anything. They got dressed and walked off into the woods. And I could move finally. I wanted to run, but I didn't. They'd left matches and cigarettes on the ground. Other things- notebooks. Full of his symbols. I ripped them up, and I burned them, but they . . . those symbols crawled into my hands.

"He came back," Jack said, and sobbed a little. "He found me as I stuck a burning notebook inside his tower. He held me on the ground and put his hand over my mouth and hit me and hit me. But I had his symbols and he couldn't . . . he couldn't do what he wanted. So he said that if I told anyone, he'd eat Zandy, and he'd make Tommy cut her up. And he'd make me watch, and there was nothing I could do to stop him, except shut my mouth, and he'd know if I said anything, he'd know.

"He sent reminders--the wind that night, remember? So I had to get up. I had to . . . I had to protect Zandy and Tommy, and his symbols showed me how, only I don't know if I ever got it right, because they didn't sway, like his did. Not until I figured out that ink wasn't enough."

Tara's fingers were just over the rough scar tissue between Jack's thumb and forefinger. An imprint of his teeth. A crescent moon, my son Jack has the moon on his hands, carries it wherever he goes . . .

Madness. Jack had taken the world in his crescent-moon-hands and made it incomprehensible. But Tara looked into his eyes. No madness there. There was fear. Shame. Anger. And fierceness, oh, the fierceness in her little boy's eyes! What to say against that?

Say it's insane. Say, "You need stronger medication, Jonathon Lorenzo." Say something to stop the craziness pouring from his lips. Clap hands over that mouth, keep him quiet.

Someone else had wanted a quiet, obedient little boy. Tara sucked a breath, kindling the anger in her guts like a furnace pulling in air. This Greg Olsen had put his hands on Jack and had hurt him. It didn't matter how insane Jack thought the world was. She'd seen the bruises. He hadn't gotten that black eye in some nightmare, or through some concoction of brain chemistry and environment. A man had thrown her son to the ground, had mashed his hands over Jack's mouth, had held him down and beaten him.

"We found your papers," Tara said. Her voice cracked.

"I had to keep Tommy and Zandy safe," Jack said. "I couldn't do anything else, I'm sorry. I know what it looks like, but I couldn't think of another way to protect them. Angela was always watching me. Until you washed her hair, Mom. Then . . . I don't know, it did something to her, and she stopped. So I thought that maybe it was time to finish it one way or another . . . and that meant tearing down his tower and burning his books. I was scared, because he was already so angry. But today I did it. I pulled down his tower and burned all his books but one."

"This one," Andrew Dowser said, his voice as soft as Jack's. His fingers lingered over the cover of the notebook. He looked for a moment as if he feared to open it, but then he did. Tara watched him flip through the pages, and saw what was written, and drawn, there. Symbols, and pictures of children surrounded by symbols. Symbols skewering, maiming, suffocating children.

"You brought this to the police?" Mike asked.

Office Meadows answered. "Not exactly. I spied your son slipping away from school. He lost me in the woods, but I followed the smell of burning paper and caught up to him. He's not lying about the tower, or the tree, or the symbols. It was weird."

"He's there," Jack blurted suddenly. "He knows what I did."

"You're safe here, son," Detective Cartwright said.

Jack shook his head. "You have to kill him."

Officer Meadows and Detective Cartwright looked at him uncomfortably. Officer Meadows offered, "We'll keep your family safe. Don't worry. We've already posted a couple of men on your street, watching your home."

Jack said bluntly, looking directly at Andrew Dowser, "He's a witch. You have to kill him, or . . ."

Andrew Dowser's mouth was a straight line. He prodded the notebook with his finger. "This is old. The pictures aren't pictures of kids you know, are they?"

"You have to kill him," Jack said again. Whining now. "You have to or . . ."

But he didn't say what would happen if they didn't. He sagged back in his chair, chewing on his lip. "Kill him," Jack said. "Please."

"We need to find these other children, Jack," Andrew Dowser said. His right hand lingered over a page written in rusty ink-that-was-not-ink. A picture of girl with a line of symbols stringing from her nose, the teeth in her open mouth dissolving into scratches and stripes. "They deserve justice just as much as you and your family."

"They want him dead," Jack said.

"I do too," Andrew Dowser answered. Tara thought he was going to say something else--he opened his mouth, and then closed it again. He gave Jack a thin smile, and closed the notebook.

"What do we do now?" Mike asked.

They went home.

Jack fell asleep almost as soon as he buckled himself in.

Mike and Tara held hands and spoke softly to each other of secrets, and little boys, and monsters. They cried together in the quiet, in their car.

Jack didn't wake up when they pulled into the driveway. His breathing was deep and steady when Mike pulled him out of the seat. It never wavered when they took him up the stairs and laid him out on the bed. His eyes fluttered open once when Tara took off his filthy t-shirt and jeans, but even then, it wasn't to wake. He moved just enough to allow her to manipulate his arms and legs out of his clothes, and then he collapsed on his pillow.

Beneath his left armpit was a wide, padded bandage. Tara hesitated, then moved his arm out of the way. She pried up the edge of the bandage to see the tiny, deep cut it hid. Jack's inkwell, she thought. His pain, his misery . . . his magic, if anything he said was true.

Magic and witches. Spells and enchantments, and tall towers, and danger, and madness.

How could such big things, such terrible things, fit into the heart of a boy?

She pulled a sheet over him and let him sleep.

When she turned to the hallway, Mike was there holding his cell phone. He mouthed, "They found him."

Tara dreamed of a storm again. And upon waking, she found it was true.

Lightning strobed. The wind tore at the trees in the front yard, making them creak and rattle. Jack stood at her bedroom window, looking out at the world. His shoulders were hunched forward, tight; one hand played over the window pane.

"Jack?" Tara said.

He started a little. "Mom. Thunder woke me up."

Mike stirred next to her, and sat up. "Everything ok, buddy?" he asked.

"Yeah," Jack said, shifting. "No. I don't know."

Tara knew how he felt. She patted the bed, and he came to sit on the edge of it. Still looking out the window. She draped an arm around him, and tugged him backwards, so he was lifted off his feet, rolling over her body to land in the center of the bed, between her and Mike. Mike scooped the blankets over him, over all three of them. In the storm's flash, Tara caught Jack's smile--his own dazzle, his own boy-sized lightning bolt--before the sheets drifted over his face.

"It's been a rough couple months," Tara said.

Jack didn't try to wriggle out of the blankets. Tara watched the covers rise and fall as he breathed.

"Rough," Jack echoed.

"They caught Greg Olsen," Mike said.

"I know," Jack said.

Neither of them asked how he knew. They put their hands over the blankets that covered him, joining fingers above his chest. Tara could feel his heart-beat through the comforter, the sheet, through his ribs and muscles, thumping quick and steady.

The wind screamed. The three of them listened to it, listened to their own breathing. Listened to the house all around them. All these hidden noises, I know them, I've learned them again. I know them all.

For now.

She heard Tommy's door open, and heard him pad down the hallway. A moment later, he stood in their room. "Mom?" he asked softly. "Is Jack . . .?"

"He's here," Tara said.

"Ok," Tommy said. "Good. He wasn't in his bunk, so . . ."

The storm beat at the house, covering Tommy's voice. He shifted at the doorway, half in their room, half out. They didn't tease him about being afraid of the storm; they welcomed him into the bed with them. To no one's surprise, a moment after he was settled, Zandy started squalling.

"She's going to drool and snore," Tommy said when Mike went to get her.

"It's a good thing we have a king-sized mattress," Tara said.

There was a lot of wiggling and a few complaints about being squished. But in the end, Tara and Mike stretched their arms across their children, joining fingers in the middle. Tara named them in her mind as the wind drove the night on--Jonathan Lorenzo, Alessandra Teresa, Thomas Michael and Michael Gray.

Jack, Zandy, Tommy, Mike.

Tara, Jack, Zandy, Tommy, Mike.

Over and over again, a litany. A chant. A prayer, my prayer, the truest one I've ever prayed, because what are these children, this family, if not the sum of my deepest thoughts, my beliefs, all my hopes? All of everything I wish, dream, and fear, wrapped in these bodies.

She felt Mike's hand loosen its grip on hers. Tommy's breathing slowed, and his long limbs relaxed. Zandy began to snore. All of them asleep, except her, and Jack--she could feel the tenseness in his body against her own.

The wind roared. Lightning flared. Thunder cracked.

"It's him," Jack said. "They didn't kill him, and now he's here, and I can't do anything. I used up all my blood against his tower, and why didn't they kill him, why isn't he dead . . ."

He took a breath, and let it out in a long whine. Tara knew the sound, now. She let it curl in her ears, didn't try to hush him. Didn't try to silence him. She stroked his hair in the darkness and let him push out his terror.

She wanted to tell him that things would be all right. That this was just a storm. That nothing was out there in the wide, dark world except wind and rain. But after seeing those symbols crawling over paper, after watching Jack's blood stretch and scratch against the scraps he'd made to protect his brother and sister . . . She had no faith in the illusion of a sane world, now.

She had faith in Jack. And in Mike, and Zandy, and Tommy. And herself.

Jack gathered another deep, mournful breath. Tara touched his lips, lightly. His wide eyes found her.

"There are always going to be storms, Jack," she said. "Darkness, lightning, thunder, wind, rain. And fear. And maybe witches. Maybe every terrible thing you can imagine is really real, somewhere, lurking out there in the world."

"Ma, mommy, mommy," he moaned. His eyes skittered to the window, toward the bursting storm, the clattering trees.

She pushed her own fear away. "Those horrible things don't fill the world. There are shadows, but storms pass. Nights turn into dawns."

A hundred platitudes tripped on the back of her throat. You can do hard things. The right thing isn't always the easy thing. What doesn't kill you can only make you stronger. Tara gathered Jack in her arms, squeezing him close to her, and uttered none of them. "Jack, Jack. My little middle."

An old, family joke. The storm rattled the windows, but Jack's eyes lost a splinter of their fear. Because this--this was Tara's tower. This room, this home. And her symbols? Spread out on the bed before her. Let the old witch have his notebooks of whirling fractals, his dancing runes. None of them could stretch limbs like Tommy, or sing like Zandy. None of them could protect as fiercely as Jack.

The witch, and poor Jack, they thought to find power in pain and blood. Holding her son to her, listening to her family breathing, sleeping around her, Tara found better magic. She'd poured her knowledge, her love, her everything into this home, into these warm, living people.

Witch? Tara felt a laugh bubbling in her chest as she nuzzled Jack's curls.

Tara was a goddess.

Absurd. Here she was, in sweat-pants and t-shirt, stretching arms over a bunch of snoring kids in their underclothes, touching fingers to a man in his boxer shorts. But . . . maybe, yes. Maybe that was what a goddess really was--embracing those who loved her, who followed her, in their weak, frightened moments. This moment in their room, intimate, vulnerable, this was the expression of every good thing she and Mike believed. The children trusted they could find refuge here; and she and Mike welcomed them in.

How could the witch's bloody dribbles compare with that?

She whispered to Jack--her faith in him, her love for him--and her memories of him. Remember when you were six and tried to put sunscreen on the Patel's dog? Remember when you broke your toe sliding into third base, but pretended it wasn't, so that you could finish the game, and we had to cut off your cleats because your foot was so swollen? Remember when you made a spaghetti picnic?

Remember when you pulled down a witch's tower to protect us.

The storm raged. But the longer Tara spoke to Jack, the softer his eyes became. The wind squalled; he settled against her. Thunder pounded the sky; Jack blinked and yawned. Lightning burned in the clouds, but his eyes were already closed. Tara continued whispering to him until she felt his body ease into sleep, and his breathing slow.

Sometime in the night, the wind broke against Jack's dreaming breath. Tara woke to hear the storm's echoes squealing, rumbling, off in the distance. But the noises of her tower shushed her back to sleep.

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