By Ronan Keenan
The boy sits on his bed in the buttoned shirt and trousers he last wore at his Communion. The clothes feel stiff and are a bit short on the arms and legs. Hearing a car, he turns his head to look out the window. He recognizes Aunty’s car immediately because Ma and Dad talked about it a lot. The car is newer and bigger than Dad’s car.
The boy sees Aunty carrying shopping bags. A blast of hard winter air nips at his face when he opens the front door, but Aunty’s deep fur coat offers protection when she wraps her arm around his head, pushing him into her stomach. There is a moment of warm silence. Then it is broken.
“Let Aunty Clare come in,” shouts Ma from the kitchen. “The heat is getting out!”
After Aunty closes the door, she holds the boy’s face with her leather gloves.
“Look how tall you’re getting!” she gasps. “You’re becoming a big, strong lad.”
He senses his cheeks turning red. It is unusual to receive such compliments; Ma often says he’s growing too fast. He helps Aunty haul the bags and her overnight case into the kitchen. Ma is at the counter looking down at a pile of parsnips.
“Is Paul home?” says Aunty to Ma.
“Working late,” answers Ma.
Dad often gets home when the boy is asleep.
“Shame you couldn’t come into town,” says Aunty to Ma.
Ma goes to say something, then pauses. Ma couldn’t go into town because she was in bed all afternoon. The boy thinks that Ma still looks tired; her eyes are puffy and a bit wet, like that time he saw cigarette smoke blown into her face.
“I wish I could’ve,” says Ma. “It’s just that weather. And the car has been acting up lately. Because of the weather. It’s a great car. That’s a nice manicure you got. Shellac?”
“It is, thanks.”
Aunty holds out her fingers. Her long red nails look like shiny talons. The boy looks at Ma’s nails. They are bare and bitten short. He then studies Aunty’s bags. Last time, Aunty arrived with two Batman action figures.
When Ma starts cutting parsnips, Aunty approaches the bags. “Now, what do we have in here?” she says to the boy. “Close your eyes and see what the fairies give you.”
Eyes squeezed shut, the boy stands with hands behind his back, swaying gently. He hears Ma let out a sigh. It sounds like she’s stabbing the parsnips into the chopping board.
Something unexpectedly light drops into the boy’s hands. He opens his eyes to a bag of cola bottle gummies.
“Isn’t that a nice surprise?” says Aunty.
He stares blankly at his hands, letting Aunty’s words drift over him.
“Clare, what did I tell you about bringing him presents?” says Ma.
“Ah, they’re only sweets.”
“I don’t want sweets,” says the boy.
Aunty takes a sharp breath.
“Mark! Don’t be ungrateful,” says Ma. “Have some manners.”
“I wanted toys.”
“You’ve plenty of toys,” snaps Ma.
“I don’t, and you said I won’t get more unless we win the lottery.”
“What? You got new toys,” Ma says.
Ma and the boy stare at each other. He can see Ma clenching her teeth. When she steps toward him, he pivots and runs upstairs. Slamming his bedroom door, he pulls off the Communion clothes. He looks at Trunky, a large pale-blue stuffed elephant sitting on the bed’s pillows. The boy readies to swing his arm at Trunky. Then he sees Trunky’s wide eyes look at him with a familiar sympathy. The boy slouches to the floor.
He has been sitting on the floor for a long time. He spends a long time in this small room most days, playing with action figures while Trunky watches. He hears footsteps on the stairs. The door creaks open. Ma enters, putting a plate of food beside him before walking out. The boy hears Aunty’s voice whispering outside, but the door closes, and the footsteps go downstairs.
It is dark in the bedroom. Trunky is in the bed, snuggled within the boy’s arm. A bang shatters the stillness. The door rattles on its hinges, bringing in a burst of light. The boy’s eyes jolt open, desperately trying to process the image of Dad’s face. Dad’s words are incomprehensible growls. There is the familiar smell of working late, the same smell as when Dad drinks his beer. The boy feels a fist held to his jaw. Out in the hallway, the light stings his eyes.
He is marched downstairs and into the living room. The television screen goes blank. Dad’s hand releases the boy. The boy sees Ma sitting on the couch, her arms folded tightly. Standing directly in front of Aunty, he glances at her and then down at the floor as his face crumples and tears begin to fall. Aunty shifts uneasily in her seat, drawing her hand to her chest.
“Apologize!” Dad’s voice tells the boy.
The boy’s spindly arms look even longer in the Batman pajamas that are too small. Tears and snot choke his attempted words. Then he is grabbed and can’t hear anything. His head nestles against Aunty’s chest.
“He has to learn,” says Dad, swaying slightly in the doorway. “We have manners in this house. No one’s dragged up here.” There is the sound of a vainly-suppressed belch as Dad leaves the room.
“Let him go back to bed,” says Ma to Aunty. “He’s overtired.”
The boy remains enveloped in Aunty’s arms.
Back in bed,the room is too dark. The boy’s eyes feel raw, as if rubbed by sandpaper. He wants to turn on the light so he can see Trunky’s face. Sometimes he thinks he is asleep, but then he hears something. All night he hears footsteps and whispers approaching his room. They always stop outside.