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“What did you get up to today, Greg?” she’d ask, attempting to catch his eye via the rear-view mirror.
“Lessons, then lunch, then one lesson, then PE,” he said.
“And how was PE?” Alice asked, with affected sympathy, as if inquiring over a coworker’s slipped disk.
“Okay. I don’t get picked last anymore.”
“That’s good!” she said, with too much enthusiasm.
“I don’t get picked at all. I just sit against the fence. Mr. Haddon lets me,” said Greg.
“He lets you?”
“I think we’ve come to an understanding.”
Probably for the best, Alice thought.
“Well that’s no good. I’ll have to have a talk with Mr. Haddon about that.” And then, in the interest of managed expectations, she added, “Or maybe your father can.”
“Did you do anything interesting with your lunch break?” Alice asked.
“I sat against the fence then, too,” Greg replied.
“What do you do when you sit against the fence?”
“I think about my dominoes and more patterns. Sometimes I make notes about dominoes.”
Dominoes (specifically domino runs): Greg’s latest obsession. Hours of planning, measuring, and the painstaking setting up of hundreds of the little white dotted rectangles ready to be set in tumbling motion. The patience, the steady-handed calm, the discipline displayed by her son astounded Alice. Just watching him crouched down over the pieces like a praying monk made her back ache. Recently he’d begun to paint individual ones in vivid multicolor, creating slinking, winding, clickity-clackity runaway rainbow streaks when he eventually set them going. Any time Alice or Chris offered or requested an actual game of dominoes, or any activity that might involve another person in addition to Greg himself, he’d apologetically refuse. “If you and dad want to play with the dominoes you can do it when I’m not using them. Or if you want I could set up a rota?”
Previously it had been jigsaw puzzles, and before that yo-yos. The year before it had been, briefly, magic tricks, performed exclusively to an audience of himself and no one else.
“Do you think he’ll ever run out of these loner-type hobbies?” Chris had asked.
“Don’t use that word about our son, Chris.”
“Do you think he’ll ever grow out of these loner-type pastimes?”
“Hilarious. But by my count there’s still matchstick model-making, Rubik’s Cubes, stamp collecting—any type of collecting really, it’s a whole field all of its own—worm-farming, Lego, and that other Lego that’s metal and has actual screws and stuff—”
“Ikea? No, Wait—Meccano.”
“Yeah. I mean there’re loads, aren’t there? This is Britain—we’ve spent five hundred years making excuses to avoid eye-contact.”
Alice and Chris had set up a Facebook profile for Greg more out of hope than expectation, the hope that socializing might hold more appeal for him in the context of a technological phenomenon and divorced from any organic face-to-face interaction. The meager cache of friends he had accumulated was made up mostly of relatives young and old and the children of family friends whose parents they’d persuaded to add Greg on said child’s behalf. Interactions were minimal if at all, a relief in many ways, considering some of the vileness that polluted Greg’s timeline.
“How does a kid get so racist so quickly?” asked Chris.
“Ask your sister. This little bastard’s your nephew.”
“Is he? He was only born…”
“Twelve years ago.”
“Joshy? Li’l Joshy’s twelve? Fuck.”
“I think he just goes by Josh now,” said Alice.
She scrolled further down Greg’s timeline, adolescent crudities slipping past like zit-pus sliding down a bathroom mirror.
“There’s so much sex,” said Chris.
“So much sexist sex.”
Alice unfriended three of the more vulgar reprobates, closed the laptop, and banged her fist hard against the desk. “He needs real friends.”
Chris rubbed her back.
“Are you the world’s laziest school guidance counselor? You’re going to tell a ten year old to take comfort in an eight–year wait? ‘Don’t worry son, it’ll all be over in a period of time that’s longer than your memory of life so far.’ Just waiting in line at the post office is like an epoch for them. It’s like that bit in Interstellar, with the guy that stays in the ship? You know that bit—fuck it.” Alice squeezed her eyes shut and kneaded her brow. “He needs real friends.”
“That was a good film, and that’s a fair point,” said Chris, rebuked and slightly hurt. He resumed rubbing her back.
The Milly revelation had arrived without warning embedded in yet another of Greg’s domino-themed monologues. For Alice, chopping vegetables and fully engaged in platitude mode, throwing out “uh-huh”s and “yep”s and “I see”s with as much consciousness as a ticking clock, the name hit like a warm punch.
“Milly?” she said.
She turned from the worktop to face her son. Greg was seated at the kitchen table, paint pots and dominoes strewn across scrap newspaper. He stared back at his mother for a moment, his paintbrush stalled between a pink domino in one hand and a large jug of rinsing water.
“Yes,” he said, “she said she’d help me with some new designs and patterns and such like. She’s a painter so she’s got an artistic eye.” He frowned. “Have you not been listening, mom?”
Alice had almost daren’t reply for fear that, like a precious artifact, too much tampering might cause the moment to crumble back into unreality.
“Of course. I just… forgot. Remind me again who Milly is?”
“She’s a friend on Facebook.”
“Yes. She saw my dominoes on Instagram.”
“It’s a website for photos.”
“I didn’t know you had an account. Tell me more about Milly.”
Along with Milly came Simon, Valentine, Alicia, Ricardo, Ryan, Robert, John-Paul and Jimmy and Brian and Deacon and Roger and Freddy, all chit-chatting, gossiping, quipping, squabbling, and backbiting at each other over ever-expanding threads of posts.
“God they’re a loquacious lot for a bunch of adolescents,” said Chris, scrolling through the posts.
“That Alicia seems like she might be trouble,” said Alice.
“You can’t blame her when you see the shit she gets from Ryan and Valentine, who are obviously into each other, by the way. It’s quite a vast web of intrigue they’ve got going here—it’s so engaging. I wish my social life was this exciting, on or offline.”
“You’re forty. Your social life is an illusionary sham.”
“Some of these diatribes are bloody brilliant. I should show the guys at work.”
“It’s bad enough we’re snooping on him, let alone your creepy publishing friends.”
“We’re not snooping—we’re keeping an eye on things like responsible parents, like we always do. Honestly, it’s like some postmodern improv play type thing. Has anyone done anything like that? A whole play or novel that plays out just on social media like some kind of twenty-first century Beat….”
Alice reached across the bed and slammed the laptop lid closed.
“Goodnight,” she said.
“And then Valentine said she’s got some pictures of John-Paul looking daft, naked even, Ryan reckons, and that she’ll publish them if he doesn’t give it back.” Greg was breathless with excitement, the last words coming out as a labored squeak as his lungs puttered out.
“And this is all just over a missing bike pump?”
“No, mom! That’s Andy and Jimmy!”
“Yes, he joined our group yesterday.”
“Well, I’m just glad you’re making so many friends.”
“I know. I make a new one every day.”
Things eventually came to a head with Ryan’s death threat to Simon, who, in turn, for reasons Alice couldn’t remember, swore an unspecified but “merciless” revenge on Deacon. Deacon had always seemed quite aloof and diplomatic in her opinion, although you never could trust the quiet ones in affairs such as these. Regardless, nudey photos were one thing, pet mutilation quite another (Brian to Robert), and actual threats to actual bodily life beyond the pale. Two days later she’d phoned the police.
“Did you ever interact with any of these characters yourself, Mrs. O’Neil?”
“No. Well—should I have tried to meet them, maybe? We were just excited he was making any friends. We didn’t want to, I don’t know, jinx it.”
Alice shifted uneasily in the flimsy plastic chair and bit her lip.
“So you didn’t speak to them at all?”
“Actually, I did a couple of times, on some posts.”
“Innocuous things. They seemed quite dull when they spoke to me, boring even. I kind of killed some of the threads, I think.”
“That figures,” replied the cop, a young blue-eyed child of a man with an apologetic tone of voice. “And did you ever try and contact their parents?”
Alice flushed and fiddled with the zipper on her anorak. “No. But I couldn’t say why. I thought that might make things worse.”
“Unlikely in this case.”
“I didn’t want some irate man turning up on my doorstep accusing me of harassing his kid. My partner’s no good in those situations, he works with books, he’s….”
“I understand,” said the cop.
“Although could that still be a possibility? Would we get some kind of protection?”
“That won’t be necessary, Mrs. Neil.”
“I know it looks like I may have taken things a bit far calling the police and such, but you see these things on TV about cyber-bullying and things escalating, not just on Channel Five either, on the BBC, and I thought better safe than sorry….” Alice trailed off.
“It’s certainly a problem Mrs. O’Neil, but the thing is there are no parents to call or angry men to protect your emasculated husband from or anyone to do anything, in fact. All these accounts lead back to one IP address.”
“Yes. Quite an imagination your son’s got there, Mrs. O’Neil. I’ve dabbled in some creative writing myself and I have to say….”
“Is this… has an actual crime been committed here?”
“Not that I can see. At worst it’s a prank, a victimless prank,” said the cop, regretting his words almost instantly, as Alice, holding back tears, tried her best to bury her face in her polystyrene cup of tea.
“Well, maybe not entirely victimless,” he added.
“Christ,” said Chris, “Jesus piss-drinking crucified Christ.”
“I know,” said Alice, sitting at the kitchen table and cupping a glass of something stronger than tea in her hands.
“He made the whole thing up?” Chris gasped.
“Chris! This is our son. Our loner son that we thought was making friends, but was just… making friends.”
“I thought we weren’t saying loner?”
“Yep, yep, right, this is serious,” said Chris, “But, on the bright side, that stuff was really electric, Al, really fucking outstanding writing. The plot, the intrigue, the characters—are you sure don’t want me to show it to the guys in the office?”
“I’m just saying there’s a potentially very lucrative silver lining to all this,” said Chris. “Our son is very publishable.”
“Our son is a person, Chris, not a commodity. He’s not a stock, he’s not… wheat.”
“Yes, he’s not those things, but, also, they’re crying out for actual, genuine talent. I mean, if that Morrissey novel….”
“Don’t be rash, Alice.”
“Fuck Morrissey and get out.”
Chris stood up.
“Just to clarify: is this a ‘get out’ as in ‘I’ll see you in an hour,’” he began, “or ‘get out’ as in ‘pack a bag and stay with your brother for a month’?”
“You’re the book prick—read between the lines.”
“Okay, but just to say, there’s other ways to look at this and I don’t think being like he is is such a bad thing when other people are like they are. I can’t verbalize it now while you’re being scary but—yeah.”
Five minutes later Alice heard the front door shut.
Alice pushed several dominos off the bed, crawled across the Doctor Who bedsheets, and enveloped her son.
“Am I going to a kids’ prison?”
“Are you going to prison for parental negligée?”
“I’m sorry I lied.”
They lay on the bed in silence for a moment. Alice hugging Greg’s body like an exercise ball, feeling his heartbeat pulse gently through his back and into her chest.
“Actually, I don’t understand,” she said.
“Everyone says you need them. You were happy when I had them.”
“But they weren’t real, Greg.”
“But they were better than the real ones.”
“They were. You’re right.”
“A lot of the kids at school are stupid. And mean as well.”
“That’s called causality.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
It doesn’t matter.”
“He likes Lauren Laverne. A lot of dads like Lauren Laverne. And they’re both right; he was very beloved by all.”
“And he wasn’t always real about some big things, too.”
More moments passed in silence.
“Mom, you’re making my collar all wet.”
It was dark when Alice woke up, with congealed snot in her hair and Greg nowhere to be seen. She switched on the nightlight and heard in the distance the sound of a cast iron bath being dragged across concrete.
“It’s the hardest puzzle I could think of. Plus, it’s unfinishable,” said Chris, pink-faced from the winter air and hanging his scarf over the bannister. “It’ll be hell for a couple of weeks, but when he gets his hands round some chords it might be tolerable, nice even.”
Alice looked from one blank, scared face to the next, saw a lot of questions, years survived, and many still to endure. She let her eyes rest on the guitar that covered completely the top half of her son.
“I thought we were going to wait ‘til his thirteenth for one of those,” she said.
“It’s just a Squire,” said Chris.
“I can see that,” said Alice.
She took that last step and threaded her fingers around his waist.
“I can teach him those chords,” she said. “And eight years isn’t that long, I’ve decided—things could even ease out in between.”
Greg strummed a hideous mutation of something that wasn’t a G chord.
“Can you teach him some now?” said Chris.
John Miskelly lives in Valencia, Spain. They sell chickpeas and spinach together in the same jar here. That’s pretty cool. You’re never alone with spinach and chickpeas. More stories both alike and different than this can be found on this site. John tweets from @JohnMisk