The Suicide Hotline shift ends early enough that Ian gets home at five in the morning, and Zack is waiting, t-shirt on backwards. He is three; every five in the morning is Zack time.
"Catch," he says, reaching up. Ian puts him on top of the fridge and Zack flings himself off and giggles when he's caught like a soccer ball.
The November sidewalk is frosty. A block away, the bakery opens, their ritual.
"Two," Zack says. The doughnuts are so new that they sag. They melt in their mouths.
At the park Zack burrows beneath maple leaves. Ian runs in circles, "Where's he gone?" until he bursts upward like a firecracker, victorious, cackling at his father's astonishment, knows it's pretended.
Then the stupid red fire truck in the park, which Zack loves, despite steering wheel and levers and switches welded frozen, immovable. Whoever had done that had no kids.
Finally, the newspaper box, half a block from the house. Zack is fascinated with the box. Ian takes out change; Zack reaches for it with tiny hands.
"Let me," he says. "I'll do it."
They listen to the satisfying gargle of coins swallowed by the slots one at a time, but Ian stares at his son's perfect little hands. The woman on the suicide phone had cried for an hour. "Moles on my hands," she'd said. "Everywhere. Some are longer than my fingers."
The door to the newspaper box is spring-loaded and Zack likes feeling strong enough to pull it down himself with one arm. With the other, he reaches into the box for a paper and turns to hand it to his father, who is thinking of moles everywhere and how he could do nothing.
But the door swings up into locked position, trapping Zack's arm in the narrow gap.
Zack cries. Ian goes cold inside, pats his pockets for change—no change—and tries to rip the box open with his bare hands. It's frosty, slippery, his fingers catch on something, there's blood. Ian pulls at cold steel around the small arm, looks up: no one, it's winter, it's too early. He calls, loud; tries the box again.
He can't do it. Zack's hurting and Ian can't make it stop and something grabs him by the throat, no no no.
"Zack, I have to get the crowbar. I'll be right back."
Zack cries louder and Ian runs away from him and would rather have had his legs cut off than do that. His eyes flood at the house door as he works the key. He crashes into the closet, the toolbox, grabs the crowbar—it feels like five seconds since he left Zack; it could be five minutes; time is a twisted black ribbon.
He's breathless back at the newspaper box. Pushes through a few people by then in bathrobes and pajamas trying to comfort a screaming little boy. As he inserts the crowbar and wills the door to snap open, sirens shriek in stereo pain, fire trucks arrive from two directions. He can feel the vibration of men in rubber boots running.
Everyone breathes the same sharp winter air as Ian pulls Zack into his arms and the relief is like death. Zack's fine, and it's over.
Ian pushes the words through like a bullfrog, “Thank you, all.”
He carries Zack home snuggled under his chin in milky silence. Ian smells his hair and thinks of bee stings, bike falls, girl troubles, moles, deaths—how he can do nothing to protect his son from what's coming, what's folded into the tapestry ahead like a bright red thread.
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First appeared in "Loss," a Wordrunner echapbook. Gawd. Still can't read this thing without breaking up. This writing gig thing is lethal....
Some tough kid moments are harder on the parent than the kid....