Last Halloween, when Owen was six, his mother sighed heavily as she stopped making dinner to sit and break the news that they couldn’t afford to buy him a new superhero costume this year. Look, she had at least decorated the house with crinkled red and yellow streamers, a string of multi-colored blinking lights, recycled convenience store bags turned inside out to look like ghosts, and the spooky pictures Owen had drawn her were scattered around the kitchen walls. But he could not get a new costume. Not this year.
“I’ll still take you trick-or-treating, Aquaman,” Dale, his mother’s boyfriend said, but Owen knew they’d only go around a few streets in the town one-over before retreating home. All the good chocolate in Dale’s tan, hairy belly. Owen’s mother said nothing, just looked over at her boiling pot on the stove. Her eyes pitch black.
Owen believed in that moment that his mother’s stare could see beyond her pot, those walls, even down beyond the block. Could see through his very soul. All its needs and misgivings.
Owen believed he could walk right in front of her and take on her stare, holding the gaze until her piercing reflection was mirrored back at her from his own diluted pupils. That way, she’d see how pretty she looked with frizzy dark hair haloing her dampened, sweaty face. Yes, even then.
Just the other day, Owen had peered through the kitchen doorway and watched his mother budget out their week. How? Owen watched as his mother counted, and recounted, what was leftover from her last paycheck. How would they make it through the week? Owen watched his mother try over and again to come up with a different total sum. It never changed.
Just like in any of her other battles with the darkness, Dale would saunter in at just the right moment with his healing touch. He’d start at her shoulders and rub all the way down to her feet. He would massage her feet until she had relaxed enough to laugh. Sending them all into a fit of giggles on the floor.
While he laughed, Owen saw their separate pieces come together as a whole in another world, playing on a beach as the waves rolled in. Falling and crashing. Enclosure and suffocation. Expensive tourist traps. Tidal waves.
“Tea,” Owen’s mother would declare. “I could use a glass of iced tea.”
Dale always had a cooler full of the sweetest drinks in this world. The tanned older kids who seemed to live on the beach would always be playing and singing classic songs on their guitar, not that Owen could sing along with them, but he knew his mother recognized the sunshiny tunes. In this world, everyone was happy.
But then this world was swallowed in sadness and Dales’s endless cooler would run out of drinks, the strings of the guitar would snap, the sand burn. Waves would rise so high you thought they might never crash back down to Earth. When the sadness came, Owen’s feet brought him steps closer, one-by-one, to the tide’s edge.
When the sadness came, back in his own world, Owen would nudge and pull at his mother’s arm without her responding. Tug her hair, pinch her cheek. Owen could feel her skin turn to concrete and was afraid that if he kept knocking at her she might fall out of her chair and disappear into a great black smoky cloud of ashes as she hit the floor. What if it was like the waves finally crashing back to Earth? What if it was like an undertow pulling you down and under again? What if it was like those tall buildings on 9/11? What if it was like all of that? What if? But after the stillness passed, Owen’s mother’s eyes would start to pace around the kitchen again and she’d exhale deeply, slowly rolling her shoulders back.While she exhaled, Owen’s mother wasn’t made of stone. She seemed much more like sweet tea.