His mother was gone, and she had never been gone before. And now he was in a very big room with a very big woman who was not his mother, and several toys, and a smattering of other kids, and no mother. The walls were white. There were no windows, and no mother. He screamed.
The scream lasted several minutes, until he had run completely out of breath. He rubbed his stubby teeth together while he gathered the oxygen for more.
A pair of woman’s hands—long fingers, chubby knuckles—sandwiched him, his back and his stomach. They rubbed and rubbed, and though he tried to squirm out of their tractor-beam pull and fight the rhythmic alternation of palms and fingertips, those large hands with their pod-like palms, steady and insistent, and their confident beat lulled him into complacency. Just why was he agitated, again? He no longer remembered.
The woman spoke to him, slow and warm. Gradually, he realized that she wasn’t trying to communicate a specific meaning or directive, as his mother did when she spoke, but rather to give a sort of human background noise, like music during his mother’s yoga or television when he was supposed to not talk to her, a meaningless string of syllables as she guided him to an area of the room with one thick oceanic carpet, on top of which sat a gaggle, a small herd, of other humans, small humans.
Each of them was roughly his size and pudge, with bright eyes and wearing bright clothes. Each played with a different vividly colored plastic object. Some toys, others household items. One girl was enamored of a midnight purple rubber band with a knot at the center. Between her marshmallow fingers it opened, stretched, snapped, shrank. Each time she let out a gee! of primal delight, as if the source of her amusement were not the band or the noise it made but the fundamental physics of the universe itself, the fact that each time a rubber band was pulled and snapped in such a way, it would react just so, with that same snapping sound, and it would respond with the exact same behavior each time the task was performed in straight repetition, whether it was purple or not. Her eyes followed each moment, gleaming with a true and utter certainty: It was beautiful.
He empathized with her. Maybe they could be friends.
There was a striped blue train at his home with a pull-back motor that he would pull back and spring forward and let it crash into the wall for hours and hours. He had recently created a dent in that wall, a vestigial bruise in the exact shape of his train’s bumper. The fact that each time it had the same impact, the same result, was one of the true delights of the universe. With any luck, the dent would continue to grow.
The voice of the woman who was not his mother was winding down now, depositing him at a vacant spot near the edge of the carpet. One hand released from his stomach; the other continued to massage his back. The scrape of nails was lighter now, the fingers getting ready to detach. From a pile of unclaimed toys, she plucked a fire truck—ketchup red, almost new, a white ladder crowning it that he had learned from practicing on an identical toy at his cousin’s house slid out and extended to nearly twice its length, and if you broke the ladder in exactly the right way, it separated, came off in your hand. It was just like having a second toy. A good choice. The voice sped up too fast and broke away. The hand and nails released.
He was pacified. He was alone, and absorbed, and pacified. The other kids’ eyes were on him, sharper now—though whether their instinct was defensive or predatory, he could not yet tell.
One of them plodded over, on all fours, pulling more than crawling. She was a baby—a true baby, several inches shorter than he was and apparently unable to walk. She offered up a dopey, lopsided smile, and then she lay one hand on his fire truck.
“My,” he said flatly. He rolled it sharply away.
The truck came fast—the carpet slowed it down not at all—which should have made the girl-baby fall on her face, but no, it didn’t. She lurched forward, her body elongating like that rubber band, but she did not fall, and she did not let go.
He considered extending the truck’s ladder, showing his natural dominance by demonstrating to her that he was already familiar with the toy’s mechanics. He rejected that, deciding that she might seize the ladder and start messing with it herself. Or, worse, suck on it. Her hand snaked over the truck’s ridges and she grasped it, attempting to disentangle his fingers one by one. Hers had wormed between the second and third fingers of his left hand and were now working on his thumb. A crafty one, this girl-baby.
He replied by doubling over and biting her. His teeth sank easily into her skin. We are born with strong gums and soft, pliable flesh. Perhaps this is why. Humans are put on this earth, provided with all the tools we need: parents, shelter, food, weapons. It’s no accident that leaves and berries and edible plants grow on bushes and on low-lying flowers, and that most small animals are either afraid of humans, even small ones, and most others are fuzzy and friendly and grabbable. If lions or tigers or bears were to happen across him, they would more than likely not attack: He was barely a mouthful to them,even if they would notice his presence, even if he didn’t roll up tight right away, the way he did when he hid.
He was still small—small for his age. The doctor had laughed, and he had laughed too, at his last checkup, seeing the nervous old man’s face broken out in a sudden labyrinth of wrinkles, but inwardly he burned with shame: the tests his body had been subjected to, reduced to a diaper and skin, stretched out on a rubbery mat, prodded in his ear, his belly, around his head. There were things being written down, measurements being taken, things decided; and he was not being told what to do, not being egged on or complimented or yelled at, nothing after that fleeting laugh. What terrified him most was his mother, an empty bucket of silence, watching the doctor expectantly, unable to speak or act, hypnotized by the power of the old man’s presence. It wasn’t just that he had no control, sprawled out in his diaper, legs pulled taut, squirming on a piece of wax paper that crinkled every time he moved. It was that she had no control over this man either.
Thoughts of his mother made his jaw clench harder. He was at a curious age, already past the uncertain introduction of solids, scarfing down food like it was the last food in existence, the only food that had ever existed: cut-up cubes of bread, bananas, pizza, raw red meat, white fish, yellow potatoes, tiny balls of peas that he spit out of his mouth, way more useful as a projectile than as anything allegedly edible. But he was still also breast-feeding not every day but sometimes, when he asked for it or when his mother wanted him there, late at night, or just when she needed to feel close, to be reminded of the body that so recently was inside her. His latch was still strong, and his grip was tight: still anxious for food, eager to seal his lips around his mother’s areola without letting a single drop fall free.
Which was to say: He had good jaws.
The girl-baby was a screamer. He recognized that. She could dish it out but she couldn’t take it. Her hold on his fire truck would last forever, until bedtime, when they’d have to sever her hands from her wrists and she would still be clenching onto it with her toenails, but stick two tiny teeth into her ballooning skin and she would cry blood and murder.
She tried to pull herself away and his teeth followed her, clamped on tightly, his lips forming a perfect vacuum around her arm. His teeth sank in. This gave him a rush, a tiny feeling of satisfaction, like the first big bite of a muffin, doing conspicuous damage to its evenly distributed dome: success. He bit harder.
The big woman was on him at once. Lifting him into the air by the sides, by the hips, tearing him away from the girl and from the toy. She held him in the air. She held him at eye level, screaming things into his face as if he could understand. When she wound to a stop, he made his body go limp and cast his eyes downward (to Earth, to kid-level, to the carpet, the altitude where he truly felt comfortable and where he longed to be right now) and then he made his eyes go wide, the way he did to make his mother love him again.
He listened carefully. He wanted her to know he honestly cared, he was good, he was trying to be good, he could be depended on to be good. He wanted her to believe him. He wanted to be believed by her, just as his mother would believe in him.
Through shaky, wobbling lips he said, “No,” demurely, because he knew that was what he was supposed to say; that was the answer the woman expected.
She said something back, but he didn’t hear, because now he was thinking about his mother. And he could think of nothing else. His mother was the arbiter of everything that happened to him, his judge and jury, his God. When he did mischievous things, wrong things, he ran to her each time without fail, and she was sometimes cruel but always fair. She scooped him up in her arms and folded her hands around his back, starting at his neck and spooning his bottom with her elbows. Even when she yelled, she would always first cuddle him in this way. Sometimes he was right and sometimes he was wrong, and his mother always knew which was which. He didn’t understand how she could leave him alone like this. He didn’t understand how she could trust this woman—not a grandma or an aunt or his babysitter, even, a girl with tender red hair and large cheekbones who was somewhere between the ages of cousin and adult, and always treated him well, except at bedtime. And he didn’t even know how to tell her that.
The big woman carried him over to a cardboard box the size of a refrigerator. It was not as tall as her, but taller than him, way taller. She lowered him in, and the walls of the box closed around him. He could see the ceiling hovering above—white, the same bland color as the walls of the room.
He pushed against the walls of the box. Cribs, he had no problem escaping from. Even if there were only vertical bars, he could wedge himself between them, use whatever stuffed animals were nearby and propulsive, or simply stick one fat foot between the grates as leverage.
Here now, inside this box, there was nothing that could be of use. There were no doors. There was no gap. He threw his body against its side and tried to make the box tip over. It would not. He threw himself again, and again.
He started to cry. With nothing else to do, his body unequal to the task of escape, and nobody watching him, he cried freely. His esophagus throttled, his lungs exploded against the narrow rib cage that contained them. He let it all out, conserving nothing, mouth pulled into a vertical O. He cried. And, G-d, it felt so good.
He quieted down, furor expended, his back against the wall, and slid into a sort of slump in the corner. The box’s bottom was uneven, four flaps interfolded, tucked beneath and atop each other, a wonderful paradox. He was just starting to contemplate whether he could pull up the floor flaps and escape that way when a smiling doughy face materialized between the box’s horizon and the floating ceiling above and reached down to grab him.
“So we’ve had a good cry now, have we?” she asked him, her bland expression unyielding to his impervious reaction.
He scowled. He hoped she could feel the rigorous heat of his projected anger, but she only smiled theatrically and gazed at her own reflection in the black of his eyes.
It was time for a snack. They were seated at the table, four of them around a scratched-up blue picnic table that felt like it should be a toy but was way too big and useless. The two smallest kids sat nearby in high chairs. He noted that the snively, toy-thieving girl had been seated as far from him as was possible.
They ate milk and sandwiches and graham crackers, the milk thick and pasty but too cold, drops beading on the side of the cup. He tried with his fingers to snake around the drops, but it was impossible, and his hands became wet. He wiped them on his shirt when the woman wasn’t looking. The sandwiches were cut into squares, not triangles, and had slabs of cream cheese pressed into the bread. It was all wrong.
After snack they were lowered onto the floor, one at a time, spread strategically over the carpet. The mound of toys sat in the corner of the room. There were animals, dinosaurs, donut rings, random incomplete pieces of a kitchen set, a doctor’s set, and a toolbox. He selected an airplane, dragged it to its own spot, and swished it back and forth on the carpet between his legs. One knee was home. The other was here. The distance between them was unmeasurable.
That was when he saw her. The same girl-baby from before, and she was holding his ball.
The ball had been a present from his father. He brought it with him one of those times after he had been away for a period, but before he left this final time. After nearly a week of unrest, with a succession of babysitters and pizza cut into cubes almost every night, his father returned home, late, way after bedtime, but he was still awake in his crib. His father knew he would be.
“Hey there, little guy,” the father said. It was always the same words, but he loved them. He repeated the words back to the father now, even though he had some idea he wasn’t pronouncing them entirely right.
That was as far as their conversation usually got. His father pulled open the blackout curtains of his room to let slivers of moonlight creep in, playing across the soft, furry objects of his crib, erasing the drowsy pink glow of the nightlight, rounding out the soft features of his face. His father got down so they were on the same level, separated only by the wood trellis of the crib, and smiled at him sad as death. He smiled back, echoing the smile but not the sadness, and his father said, “Give us a hug.”
He did. He was a good hugger. He knew because his father said so: “You’re a good hugger,” or, “Mm, that’s a good hug.” Those were the best moments, all clarity and no choice, trapped in that protective grasp, nothing in the world he could do except squeeze back.
His father was a magician. He surprised his son with feints and sleights of hand, misdirection, making shiny new coins and slices of apple slide out from between fingers or from behind his ear. His mother took this in with a barely tolerating grimace: Just as long as he doesn’t make himself disappear, she would comment dryly to him, once the father had gone.
They released. Between them, where nothing had been before, tonight something was made manifest under the fabric of his father’s shirt. It was spherical and protrusive and bouncy. It was a ball.
It was, in fact, the same ball that his adversary was now squeezing, a loose flab between fingers and palm. It had lost some air, but it was the same ball. He knew that. It was his ball. That first night, he had let loose squeals of glee, grabbed and released his fingers over his father’s stomach. It was a part of his father and it wasn’t. His father had entered the room with the ball tucked roundly inside his shirt, swollen like a mother’s belly. He had risen from half sleep, that confused post-slumber where things both are and are not and reality has skipped a step, tripped on some forgotten crack. His father’s belly was not like that the last time. Was this a new thing, or only temporary? Was it a joke?
It was a joke. With his father, most things were. His father rubbed the newfound protrusion all around, his too-big mittens of hands in orbit around this second belly. They finally manipulated the bulge downward and then out, freeing it from the catch of his shirt’s bottom hem in a firmly founded plop. The ball was drawn down and then upward, and rolled along the wooden bar of the crib, straight into waiting, beating, tensing and untensing hands. His fingers twitched, ready for it; and the ball was soft, pliable, with significant give, allowing his fingers to sink into the ball almost like chewing it. He could hold its side like a handle. He could squeeze it against himself like a weak puppy. He hugged it against his chest as his glance bounced back and forth between his father and the ball, attempting to memorize the gesture of the gift with repetition, replaying it already, and again, attempting to keep his vision excited and active even as his mind fought to stay awake...
In the morning he woke with the sun. It poured in unfiltered through the window, and he peered out to the tranquil, unawake world. Pulling himself over bars, tumbling down one step after the other, he found that his father had gone again.
But the ball was still in his hands.
He ripped the ball from the girl-baby’s hands. He grabbed it tighter than she was grabbing it; his righteous fingers sunk in deeper, puffing the ball fatter on her end. Her fingers recoiled. She was less able to grip it. In one fluid grab, he whipped it out of her personal space and into his own. “Aaa!” he cried as he pulled the ball to his chest, wrapping both arms around it, and clasped its skin between his bared teeth. He felt the ball start to lose form. He didn’t care. The reunion was complete.
The altercation, and its ensuing result, elicited screams and commotion from the far side of the room. The adult woman noticed them. One squashed and compact form was huddled in a self-defensive ball, another flung upon the rug, screaming.
Hands inserted themselves between arms and tummy, and he found himself being lifted into the air, suspended. The ball dropping, dropping, rolling.
His legs kicked but there was nowhere for them to land. He swatted at her, knocking fat Jheri curls of her tight-sprung hair, and saw them flop uselessly back into position. “You,” she said. “You are the problem.”
“Ball,” he said.
It was impossibly far away, having dropped onto the rug—the girl-baby had lost interest in it now, and was rocking back and forth with her hands tucked between her knees, hypnotically focused on what was going on between the woman and him.
She was talking to him. She was pitching a fit, a vast torrent of words, and so was he, both their mouths running but nothing intelligible coming out of either of them. She was saying, The Box, the Box and he was sobbing, No Box, no Box. The girl on the floor was laughing, as if they were a video put on to keep busy while parents did their parent things, as though he weren’t even real, just some picture that moved that was supposed to entertain her. Laughter came from everywhere. They weren’t supposed to laugh at him! The ball was his! She was supposed to stop them, to make them not laugh. She was yelling, yelling and babbling, holding him so close to her face that he could smell the potato chips and coffee on her breath.
He wasn’t a joke. He was more than a joke. One day he would grow to be bigger than all of them, a major player, able to charm crowds or ignite fear by the words that he would say or by his very gestures; he would know the secrets of commanding attention with the flick of a wrist, hold people’s attention hostage with a single sharp intake of breath, kill a man with no action of his own, only the right word to the right person, looked up to by women like the girl-baby would one day be, feared by men like his father and like the woman who held him now.
But now this woman who was not his mother could not believe him. The wanton act of theft! Destruction! And to a pretty girl, at that! What kind of a man do you think you are?
That question echoed through him. All the words simple enough to understand, but the combination obscured them into babble. They bounced around in his head for a while, never completely making sense. He opened his mouth and closed his mouth and bit, stubby teeth closing on her nose. Blood spurted from it like an explosion of milk.
The woman’s eyes shot wide and round, and she started screaming. Screaming as though the scream itself was pouring from her eye sockets. He pressed into them, one thumb each, and squeezed. His mouth was full of it now, full of the sticky congealing stuff that did not taste a bit like milk, but he kept squeezing, and he kept biting, knowing that, one way or another, after this she would not take away his ball. She would never put him away again.
Matthue Roth’s work has appeared in Ploughshares and Tin House. He wrote the novel Rules of My Best Friend's Body, and his picture book My First Kafka was called "eerie and imaginative" by the New Yorker. He's written for Sesame Street and helped create the personality of the Google Assistant. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a secret diary at matthue.com.