by Rebecca Reynolds
Helen should have prayed before they left.
In the morning, toasting waffles and gathering shoes and packing a tote bag with juice boxes and Goldfish and baggies of orange segments she had meticulously cleansed of the bits of pith Anthony hated, there was no time. Rosie wanted to wear her Ariel costume, and it took Gerry half an hour to locate Anthony’s musket in the backyard, where Anthony insisted he hadn’t left it, under the trampoline. In the minivan, Helen belted herself in and then unbelted, remembering that she hadn’t fed the cat, and once inside she crossed herself to see she had left the coffee maker on.
“We’re going to be late,” Helen said, as Gerry began to drive. It was Gerry’s first day off from the restaurant in weeks. Helen closed her eyes and tried to pray that he would get them to the reenactment on time, and also that Anthony’s friends would be real, but she was too scattered, and the flurry of activity had left a pinch of nausea in the back of her throat. Anthony grabbed her headrest.
“Lawdie!” he said. Rosie clapped her hands to her ears. “My kepi cap! Did you get it, Mom?” Anthony was speaking in a Southern accent, as he had been doing recently when he talked about the new group of boys at school who—supposedly–let him sit at their table in the cafeteria. Helen’s heart broke for him a little more every day. What he had gotten himself into today, with this Civil War reenactment meet-up he had found with the help of said new friends, Helen didn’t know, and it didn’t sit right with her.
“I got it, I got it,” Helen said. She rummaged in the tote bag at her feet and pulled out the gray, woolen hat with the black brim and gold buckle that Anthony had ordered from Ebay.
“Oh, thank you Jesus,” Anthony said.
“Alright, shhh,” Helen said, patting her hand down at the air, the way she did to show Anthony he needed to tone it down. Anthony was not good at toning things down. He had no friends, unless you counted Kyler from down the street whose father had a glass eye and probably a drinking problem and who, Helen suspected, was the one who hacked Anthony’s Facebook account and put that disgusting picture on it. Helen had come close to calling Kyler’s father about the picture, but Gerry said to leave it alone. Just go on, as if everything were normal. Helen prayed for that most of all–for Anthony to be normal, to finally achieve the anonymity of fitting in. She imagined it like a magic act, the waving of a wand and some sleight of hand, and then POOF!–Anthony would become so normal that he would disappear.
Now Anthony had the cap on backwards, making the peace sign into his phone, taking selfies. That was the hardest part for Helen, really: the worse things got, the more Anthony enjoyed himself.
Helen’s nausea loosened into the emptiness of a growling stomach. She breathed in for four beats and out for eight, which she had read was a special combination if you wanted to become calm, though it made her lightheaded. Maybe that was the point, Helen thought. In the wooziness, she visualized herself filling with helium and floating away from the children and from Gerry, drifting over the trees. From that distance, Helen could watch her family as if she were watching a family on television, with mild interest and detachment. Anthony’s strange and worrisome behavior would not drive a screw into her heart. But Helen didn’t let herself drift for long. She resumed shallow breaths and organized a prayer list in her head, reanimating her anxiety. The worrying was what kept her feet on the ground. If Helen drifted too far, she didn’t know if she could return.
Helen prayed for her family. She prayed for the restaurant. She said her prayers quickly, out loud but quietly, each morning while Gerry was in the bathroom. Since his second operation, things had been pretty stopped up for him, inside. Helen prayed for that, too.
Helen was specific when she prayed—this was something she considered a little trick-of-the-trade. When Anthony was in elementary school, she jotted bullet points on the back of the mortgage envelope while making dinner so she would not forget to pray for Anthony’s ADHD medication to last through homework time, for his lower case R’s not to look like F’s, for his working memory to strengthen, and his dyslexia to sort itself out, and for him to stop hiding under the table when the tutor came. She prayed for them all to lose five pounds–that would be a start at least–and for Gerry’s blood sugar to stabilize. She prayed that Rosie would stop doing that sassy thing that made the other girls call her Miss Piggie. She prayed that the summer slump at the restaurant wouldn’t last past July, that the new pastry chef would stop showing up drunk. For the most part, Helen’s prayers had been answered, in one way or another, although sometimes, despite her specificity, she wondered if God was toying with her, such as the time she prayed for Gerry to finally take a vacation from the restaurant and he ended up having a mild heart attack while driving home, winding him up in the hospital for three days.
These days, Helen prayed for Anthony to fit in at junior high, and yet it seemed he was sticking out more and more. At orientation, touring the technology lab, Anthony would not stop pestering her for an Altoid, going so far as to snatch her purse away and hold it up, out of her reach. She stood on her tiptoes and batted at it several times before giving up. Anthony wore her purse on his shoulder, swaying as he walked in front of her, and offering Altoids to anyone who would glance his way, which was almost nobody. The more people ignored him, and the more embarrassed Helen got, the happier Anthony appeared to be. It was something Helen found incomprehensible; her entire life was built around the organizing principle of do not draw attention. She saw what happened to the people who singled themselves out, whether it was that poor red-headed boy from her elementary school whom all the kids laughed at for wearing his Boy Scout uniform every day of the week, and who died—horribly–at nineteen, of an undiagnosed case of strep throat, or that mom on her Facebook group who posted too many times about how fluoride is a neurotoxin and was blocked, so the other moms could trade insults about her. Helen saw herself as ordinary, and absolutely not special, and she conducted her affairs accordingly. And while, in her heart, she did believe her children were unique, amazing creatures, she was in no way compelled to thrust this belief on anyone else, which would have been an act of hubris, and punishable in all the ways hubris was routinely and mercilessly punished.
When the teacher asked if there were any questions, Anthony raised his hand.
“Do you have any Grey Poupon?” he asked.
Helen wanted to vanish. And, more than that, as guilty as it made her feel, she wanted Anthony to vanish.
“Excuse me?” the teacher said. Parents stared. Students stared.
Antony giggled. “I say, sir, do you have any—”
“Anthony,” Helen said. She waved a hand at the teacher, motioning for her to move on. “It’s nothing, a joke,” Helen said.
When Anthony came home the day after the Facebook debacle, saying that he hadn’t sat with Kyler at lunch and had, instead, eaten with a new group of boys, Helen sensed something off about it, and felt herself wanting to drift off, into that quiet place. She did not want to imagine all the ways this could play out for Anthony. Perhaps, God had finally answered her prayers, but just in case she checked Anthony’s phone after he went to bed. Most of the texts were nonsensical jokes he had sent to her and she had ignored, such as the one that said “Guess what? Chicken-butt!” The rest, also unanswered, were sent to names she didn’t know, some of them just saying “HEYYY,” the blue captions floating hopeful and alone at the top of the screen.
Anthony cried “Bully!” at the sight of white tents in the field. They turned into Blackrock Senior Center, which the Junior Regiment registration form said marked the plot of land—nearly fourteen acres of field and forest—where the 28th Volunteer Infantry staged its annual reenactment. Gerry drove slowly down a gravel path, toward a roped off section of grass where cars were parked, while Anthony cracked his knuckles.
Helen scanned the field. There were dozens of adult soldiers in blue uniforms, some around small fire pits and others talking and gesturing with gloved hands, and also women in old fashioned dresses with cinched waists and their breasts heaved up over the top of their bodices, which made Helen quickly look away. Soldiers took turns holding their rifles up to their eyes and aiming into the distance, firing shots that popped like firecrackers. There were civilians, too, other parents she guessed, lined up along the edge of the field with folding chairs and coolers as if they were at a soccer game, which was modestly reassuring to Helen, that this was an activity which followed norms Helen was at least somewhat familiar with.
Rosie, who had fallen asleep on the drive, woke and began to whine. Her Ariel dress twisted around her leggings. “Now I’m hungry.”
“Shut up, Rosie,” Anthony said, poking her in her shoulder with his gun.
“Do not hit your sister!” Gerry shot back. He rubbed his hands together and looked at Helen. “You alright?”
Helen pulled Goldfish from the tote at her feet and handed them back to Rosie. She met Gerry’s eyes and tried to smile but it came out wrong, her lips sticking to her teeth. She was nervous for Anthony, and she had that feeling of remoteness, as if she were still drifting a bit, pulling away from the emotional consequences that were soon to unfold. Let go and let God, she thought, picturing the flowery wooden plaque in the kitchen of the church basement, and yet she knew that required a level of trust in God that she did not quite have. God didn’t take down the profile picture of two slick, nude men with Anthony’s school photo Photoshopped over the bent over man’s face. God didn’t smite Kyler, or even delay one of his father’s disability checks. Helen steadied herself.
“Anthony, come with me,” she said.
The clouds blocked the sun from providing any warmth, and Helen tried to step over the wet places in the field, going as quickly as she could, though she could not keep up with Anthony who was several paces ahead, heading for the registration table.
The soldier standing behind the registration table saluted Anthony, his palm facing forward, and Anthony did the same. Helen’s hands shook as she searched her purse for the slip of paper.
“He’s supposed to be in the Junior Regiment,” Helen said. She unfolded the permission slip and worked out the creases against her chest. “There’s a group of them? Is this the right place?”
“Affirmative,” the soldier said, winking in Anthony’s direction. The soldier turned to Helen, and she could see he had a kind, average face, probably a banker in his other life, or a dentist. The man held the permission slip up in front of him as if checking to see if it were counterfeit, turning it one way and then the other, which made Helen nervous though she had printed out the form, herself, and had triple checked that she had filled it out correctly. He made a mark on a clipboard and nodded to himself, then pointed to a tent across the field. “Head on over,” he said. “They’ll be waiting for you.”
Helen looked to the tent, and it was true—she could make out several other boys. And they were in gray uniforms!
“Those are your friends, then?” she asked Anthony. “Those boys over there?”
Anthony put a hand to his forehead and peered toward the tent. “Yep, that’s them,” he said. He dropped his hand and grinned, facing Helen, and she began to fiddle with the brass buttons on his shirt.
“What are their names?”
“Are they in your grade?”
“They’re going to start without me,” Anthony said, trying to pull away. Helen held on to his collar with one hand and rubbed away traces of breakfast from his cheek with the other. Was she sending him to the wolves?
“And you know what to do? They’ll give you instructions?”
“Uh huh,” he said, his eyes on the tent. “I mean, we already figured it all out. I wrote the script myself.” He grunted what sounded to Helen like a dismissive laugh. “So, yeah, I guess I know what to do.”
“There’s a script?”
“Sure. I mean not with words and stuff, just like, the positions. And who dies. You know?”
Helen wished he’d let her see the script, in case there were errors or typos. Anthony was terrible at typing. But the idea of a script comforted her greatly; there was a plan, and all Anthony had to do was follow it.
“I didn’t know you were doing all that.”
“That’s why they need me. They wanted me to do it.”
Helen considered this, and realized it made sense. Anthony had prepared the script in exchange for his place in it. She could see the social logic.
“Come on, Mom. I’ve got to get over there. It’s going to start.”
Helen let go of his collar and stepped back, taking him in. His uniform appeared real when you weren’t up close. “Okay,” she said, though she reached out again, touching his arm.
Anthony rolled his eyes. “You know this is pretend, Mom. Right?”
Helen laughed, suddenly, and a huge tightness released in her. She let it come, the laughter. Her eyes watered. She thought how silly she had been, how worried over nothing. Though it wasn’t nothing—it was always something with Anthony—but maybe the something wasn’t as heart-stoppingly bad as she had worried it would be. Anthony stared. “Go,” she said, finally, taking a breath and wiping her face. She made a motion pretending to push him away. “Don’t make them wait.”
Anthony loped off toward the Junior Regiment tent, where the boys were forming themselves into lines and pretending to shoot each other with their cheap guns. “My brothers!” Anthony was shouting, as he ran, and one boy in a gray uniform turned and waved in his direction. Helen closed her eyes and felt the clouds part and let the sun through, as if someone had flicked on a light. She turned and walked to the edge of the field where Gerry stood, holding Rosie on his shoulders.
“He found his group,” Helen said, making tiny, celebratory claps. Gerry nodded, and Helen saw that he had never doubted that there was a group, and so was not as unduly pleased as she was. For several moments they stood together in their own space, another pack in a line of family packs, the three of them gazing out over the muddy field. The soldiers had retreated to their tents and corners of the field, and the Junior Regiment was not visible. In the lull, Rosie crunched Goldfish, Gerry rubbed the shins of her leggings, the skirt of her dress bunched up behind his neck, and Helen prayed silently, trying not let her lips move. It was quick and rote, not much more than a list of complaints, truly, but when she prayed for Anthony she asked only that today would be a good day. She would leave the other items for another day so as not to distract God from the situation at hand. After amen, she added thank you.
Rosie dropped her bag of fish to point. “Tony!” she squealed.
And there Anthony was, marching with his group out of the far corner of the field. Though they were far off, Helen could tell which one was Anthony because his steps were exaggerated and he was the only one swinging his arm in time with the marching. The others were already falling out of placement. They were four across and four deep, and an adult soldier trailed off to one side. Anthony was in the front row, and when the adult yelled a command, Anthony and the other three boys in front held their rifles to their eyes and pretended to shoot, though their guns, per the rules, were non-firing unlike those belonging to the adults. She could hear them yell “bang!”
Closer to Helen, near the front of the field, a group of blue soldiers shouted and marched forward, and several guns went off loudly, releasing authentic smoke into the air, and just like that, the battle had begun. Gerry squinted at the field. The blue soldiers were everywhere, now, so many of them. The boys were screaming and laughing and running; the formation had scattered. More gunshots, and puffs of smoke hung like smudges in the air.
“You see him?” Gerry asked.
Helen strained to see, and realized she could not find Anthony, though she could see the gray of the Junior Regiment members and the figures themselves, now darting and running in the grass. Which one was Anthony? Helen could not be sure, except to know that he was one of those frantic figures, retreating from the line of blue soldiers. She caught on one and then jumped to another, but she lost him in the action or the glare. He was a part of the group, momentarily indistinguishable to Helen, which was something she had not experienced before. It was both disorienting and thrilling. Helen tried to relax into the sensation, as if giving in to the effects of a glass of wine. For once, she was not pulling Anthony back or shushing him; she could not even pick him out from the crowd.
Then, a scream. Helen’s reverie pricked at the sound of Anthony’s voice rising from the thicket of boys. “They’re after me!” he shouted, in his unmistakable Southern accent, and Helen zeroed in, her brief tipsiness gone. There he was, in front of a stump that had a kettle on it, arms raised with his musket, which he held by the barrel, dangling by his head. The blue soldiers were surrounding him. “Save me Jesus!” He dropped to his knees in prayer position. The blue soldiers, some of them full grown men, circled.
Where were the other boys? Helen stepped over the white line and held her hand to her eyes. Behind her, Gerry was blowing his nose, and Rosie was pointing at her dropped Goldfish. Helen took another step, flattening the bag of fish under her sneaker. Rosie shrieked. A blue soldier put a hand on Anthony’s shoulder and pushed him to the ground.
“Let me go!” Anthony yelled. “Help me brothers!” His voice sounded higher than before, genuine. This didn’t seem to be right; was this in the script that Anthony wrote? Why would he have chosen this ending for himself? The blue soldiers were closing in–one snatched Anthony’s gun, another held Anthony’s arms behind his back, and one was kneeling, funneling powder into his gun, which was not plastic.
She wanted to run to him, but that was wrong, she knew. Everyone would stare at her as if she were a loon, as if she didn’t know that a reenactment was only acting, playing around. But Anthony’s screams wrenched her. She hugged herself and looked down, away from the action. She was going there, to the quiet place. Her breath slowed and her body relaxed and she felt the tightness in her chest, that painful, impossible need to control everything and to hold it all in her hands, loosen as if she were rising up from the water and taking a breath. Let go and let God. Just, let Him deal with this for a while. She was so tired. She wanted to sit down on the grass like a child and put her head in her hands.
Then she heard the cry. Anthony’s cry—not a scream but a sob, a real sob: the whine and then choppy bawling. “Oh, mama!” he cried.
“Did you hear that?” she said to Gerry.
“What?” Gerry was trying to refold his hanky without letting go of Rosie’s legs.
“Oh,” Helen sighed. “It’s him. Something’s wrong.”
Gerry shrugged. “It’s war, hon,” but Helen was already jogging into the field. The other parents had to be staring, she could feel their stares. She hated jogging in front of people, the horrible heft of her body. She hated stares. The battle moved on, spreading out across the grass, some of the soldiers running past her close enough for her to hear their breaths, and Helen hoped she would blend in to the movement, though she acknowledged the silliness of this thought as she had it.
“Mercy, men! Mama, oh mama!” Anthony cried. Three blue soldiers had stayed behind with him. They were laughing at him, two of them small but one tall enough to be a father, and even he was laughing. Helen ran, flushing hot with the pulse of her blood. She was running as she did when Anthony was small and would fall and hurt himself, even though he would push her away, would slap at her as comforted him. She was running and as she did when he was in first grade and thought it was hilarious to lie face down in the street when she could hear a car coming, and as she did just weeks before when she had chased him down and pried the phone from his hands to see what had happened to his Facebook profile picture. She would always be running after Anthony. A blue soldier fired a smoky shot and Anthony clutched at his chest and screamed sharply as if he were in real pain, not pretend, but genuine and sorrowful pain. Then he fell on his face in the mud. The blue soldiers scattered.
When Helen reached him, Anthony lay on his stomach, his face away from her. He was moaning and grunting, in the death throes. The game had moved on, and nobody was coming back for her son. Not his friends, or brothers, or whatever they were, if they were anything at all. What Helen knew was that she had momentarily given the wheel to God, and He had driven them off a cliff. God was there, perhaps, but He was not merciful. That was left to the mothers.
“Anthony!” she said. “Get up! Are you hurt?”
Anthony rolled onto his back and Helen saw his face was smeared with dirt. “Oh my,” Helen said. She reached for him. He was silent now, his breath coming in pants, and as he turned to her, Helen saw his eyes were moist and reddened, but the grin on his face was ecstatic.
“Did you see it?” he whispered.
“Of course,” Helen said. “You died!”
“I got to be the first one.”
There were others lying dead on the field, now, Helen saw them accumulating with each pop and puff of gun powder. “You scared me,” she said. “I thought they were hurting you.”
“Nah,” Anthony said.
Boys and men crumpled over each other, some lying on their backs with gruesome expressions on their faces, one draped over a pile of firewood. Some were screaming. None of their mothers had run to them. What had Helen been thinking? She had really made a fool of herself this time. She didn’t want to turn around and face Gerry, and the others.
Anthony wiped his nose with his sleeve. “Mom,” he said, his ecstasy fading into irritation. “You have to go back, now. What if they see you?”
Helen knew it was too late to worry about that. “You were crying for me,” she said.
“I was acting.”
“But I believed you.”
Anthony grinned, mud drying on his chin. “I thought it was good. I bit my cheek hard to get real tears.” To prove his point, Anthony spit a wad of bloody saliva on the grass next to Helen. “See?” he said, furtively, as if revealing a magic trick.
Helen nodded absently, finding it hard to assimilate this information. “So, you’re really alright?”
Helen began to drift. She had been certain, so very certain, that Anthony needed her, and he did not. She was wrong. And here she was, attracting attention for all the wrong reasons and ruining Anthony’s special day. Anthony was okay, which she would have not thought possible a few minutes before. He was more than okay, she saw this now. Though she was mortified and sweaty and had no idea how she would stand up and walk back to her family with any dignity at all, Anthony was completely and perfectly himself, and he was fine. She did not need to save him; she did not need to do anything. This, suddenly, felt wondrous to her, as if she could let go of her worries and become lighter than air, as if she really could float up and away from the scene. It was so freeing, the lightness, so hard to fight. She knew she shouldn’t give in to it, because what would happen then, what would happen if she floated too far?
Anthony rolled his head to glance at the other soldiers. “I’m supposed to be dead.”
“I know,” she said, giving his arm a squeeze that did not loosen. The ground had made her knee cold and wet, though she barely noticed. She wanted to stay close to Anthony, but she was starting to lift off, as if she were filled with helium. Inside, where she once held her own fears and emotions along with everyone else’s fears and emotions, there was now only an inert, colorless gas that was making it difficult for her to remain on the ground. Gravity was failing her. What would her family think when they saw her sailing in the wind like a kite? Would they miss her? Would they?
Anthony rolled back onto his stomach and stretched his arms out in front of his head. “You better go back,” he said, twitching his arm to shake her off.
“I will,” Helen said. She gripped harder. “I promise, I will.” But she didn’t move. She didn’t dare make any motion at all. She tethered herself there, holding tight to her son, waiting for a break in the battle.
Read the Backstory
Rebecca Reynolds received her MFA from Emerson College, where she won the Emerson Department of Literature Fiction contest and was awarded a creative writing scholarship. Her stories have appeared in journals such as Redivider, Copper Nickel, The Boiler, The MacGuffin, Superstition Review, and The Cumberland River Review, and her story “The Principle” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives outside Boston with her husband, three boys, and flock of chickens. She is currently working on a short story collection.