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Did you wash these dishes?

Did you wash these dishes?

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He’d been snared, so the best he could muster was awkward silence, staring at the floor through blurred vision. He felt his step-mother’s eyes boring into the top of his head and could hear his dad groan and lean against the counter.


“Did you wash these dishes?”

“I rinsed a little bit off those two plates.”

“Which ones? These all have food all over them.”

The boy’s face flushed and betraying tears moved swiftly behind his eyes. He hated crying, felt weak and exposed, but could not stop their flow in these moments of tension.

She repeated her original question, this time with vinegar thrown in the interrogation. “Did you wash these dishes?”

He had not washed the dishes. At the commercial break between Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, he gathered up his and his parents’ plates, scraping the remnants of taco salad to the topmost plate, stagger-stacking the forks together, draping the whole pile underneath the used napkins, like a magician covers his caged dove. Not wanting to miss Wheel of Fortune and the uncommon good humour and relaxed atmosphere of the living room, the boy made haste, chucking the scraps and napkins, stacking the plates on the counter next to the sink, fully intending to wash the dishes by hand after the show finished.

But the boy failed to share his intentions with his parents and when questioned, he panicked. He lied. His step-mother in all likeliness only wanted to know if the dishes still needed to be washed, but the boy’d been chastised, admonished regularly, and he soon fell to quick lies with hopes of later fixes for a defence. Despite its lack of efficacy, supported by hard data, the boy maintained this line of defence, blindly choosing to believe, to hope that it might work someday.

He’d been snared, so the best he could muster was awkward silence, staring at the floor through blurred vision. He felt his step-mother’s eyes boring into the top of his head and could hear his dad groan and lean against the counter.

“Why do you keep pulling this shit?” his step-mother asked.

“I. . .” The boy began to stutter, but before the words could crawl from his throat to escape his mouth in a plea of absolution, sobs shouldered their way past, and he began to cry. Everything came pouring out: tears, snot, and an attempt at an explanation wrapped in thick layer of high-pitched, nasal utterances. He looked up, registering the disgust on his parents’ faces – his dad looking away in embarrassment and his step-mother rolling her eyes.

“You’re not going to get out of this by crying, so don’t even try!”

“I-I’m not!” he tried to counter. “I-I mean, I know. I didn’t even. . .” But then he lost it all again. Whatever ground he’d gained reverted in a fresh round of sobs.

“Why do you lie? Why couldn’t you just say that you hadn’t done the dishes yet? What are you trying to do?”

The boy steeled himself against the tears, preparing a retort.

“N-nothing. I-I’m sorry that I l-lied. I just th-thought that you’d be mad if I said I didn’t do the dishes,” he managed to squeeze out between hitches.

“Well, you should’ve done the dishes. Why would you just leave them there?” The boy didn’t know how to say what he wanted to say. He wanted to tell her that he’d been enjoying the evening, passing the time between the two of them, guessing at puzzles he had no way of solving, enjoying the encouragement they’d offered, relishing the respite from the typical tension. He only looked back, pleading, then shifted his attention to his dad, seeking aid.

“Your dad and I aren’t splitting up, if that’s what you’re trying to do. He’s not getting back together with your mom.”

This caught him off guard, a sucker punch to his chest. The thought had never crossed his mind. Sure, during more tumultuous weekends, he’d considered, daydreamed what life might be like if his father and step-mother weren’t together, but never thought to slide his own mother into the vacancy.

His parents had divorced before he even knew of marriage and divorce. His schema only consisted of them not together. This accusation also hurt because as much as he butted heads with his step-mom, as awkward as every other weekend became, the boy never thought to attempt a break-up. What the fuck, or the 10-year-old boy equivalent of the phrase (he didn’t quite have this kind of language as an option yet) floated across his brain.

“I’m not trying to do that.”


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“Can I please go to my room?”

“Yes. Go to bed.”

The boy looked to his father one last time, then left the kitchen, walking down the hall to the bathroom. He brushed his teeth, thinking about the awful scene, replaying it over and over in his head. He thought about what he should have said. Brilliant and biting retorts came to him now, and he beat himself up for not having the wit or courage to say them in the heat of it all. On his way to his room, the boy registered the low tones of his dad and step-mom talking about him in the kitchen, angry.

He closed the door softly behind him, changed into his pajamas, and climbed into bed. Switching on the bedside lamp, the boy opened his copy of Brian Jacques’ Salamandastron.

The book was well worn, the cover frayed, and most of the pages bent after years of dog-earing. The boy always had one book or another going, but this one was his longest standing favorite. He’d picked this novel up at his school’s book fair and had hidden a copy of the book, along with the other boys in his class, behind other books after seeing the cover. The title splashed bold across the top, a ceiling for a badger garbed for war, clutching a spear and holding a helmet, while all manner of rats, stoats, and weasels converged below him. This book and all books really, offered the boy solace at this house. He knew that by burying his nose in a book, he could steer clear of trouble, provided he managed to complete his chores as well.

Muffled murmurs, less angry now, forced their way underneath the boy’s door. It wasn’t really his door, nor his room. In all fairness, it was a guest room. There were beds and tables, but nothing in the room belonged to the boy, save for the canvas blue duffel bag on the floor. He bore no grudge because he wasn’t sure if he necessarily wanted a room in this house, but all the same, this lack of place echoed a feeling nestled in his heart: that this was not his home.

Thumbing through the pages of the novel, the boy fell back into the story, rejoining his companions on their journey, staying with them until his eyelids drooped consistently, staying down longer and longer each time. The boy switched off the light and before sleep and dreaming could find him, he whispered his bedtime prayer:

Tender Shepherd, be thou near me,
Bless thy little lamb tonight.
And through the darkness, be thou near me.
Keep me safe ’til morning’s light.

After the recitation, the boy offered his extras.

“God, thank you for everything. Please be with my mom, and my sister, and my grandparents, and all the rest of my family. Be with my dad and stepmom. Forgive me for the things I did wrong. I’m sorry that I lied. Please help me with her. Help her be nice to me. Maybe she could go away. Nothing bad. Just gone. I’m sorry for that. Please help. I love you. Amen.” He rolled over toward the wall and began breathing deeply.


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