This story is by Ginny B. Nescott and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He smiled. My small son actually smiled.
Holding his mitten-covered hand in my own, I nearly shook with a wash of relief. My breath caught, only managing to hide the flood of emotions at such at the simple gesture of his smile.
We walked further down our block, half expecting to see our breath on this cool autumn morning. The pavement of the sidewalk, darker where leaves stuck from now dried wet patches, left obstacles to jump over or sometimes in Will’s case, to be kicked through.
I stole a glance at Will’s face. It had a glow, as he hopped past a raked pile of leaves at curbside. Another tug of hope. We walked further. Carefully I followed his gaze to a maple tree and the few leaves floating down. Most of the leaves under it were brown and dew matted to the lawn. The ones remaining were glistening red tipping to burnt sienna and oranges. He tugged his hand out of mine and ran to catch a particularly bright one. I allowed for the intrusion onto a neighbor’s property.
“You got a good one, didn’t you, Will?” I asked at his return.
He twirled the multicolored sugar maple leaf. No answer came but a nod of his head. No sound. Still.
I hid my disappointment, as all mothers do, and with an inhale, reminded myself of his smile just moments ago. The therapist said that things take time. Healing can happen. The crisp autumn air filled my lungs. Please let it be so. Oh, how I hated not letting him go to preschool. How it cut into me seeing my once vibrant four-year-old tuck deep inside himself.
We were nearly there. His tug at my hand, pulled me out of those morose thoughts. He knew the way to my friend,Lynn’s home. She was the first mom I met at the playground. She was the first mom of the neighborhood in other ways.
He raced across her front yard kicking up the leaves. Did I hear a giggle? Lynn’s round face and rosy cheeks appeared at the front door. Her familiar beaming smile and splattered apron greeted us both, waving us inside. “Come on in, Will and bring your Mom with you.”
With only a precursory wiping of our shoes, she ushered us to the kitchen, and waved aside my apology for the leaf scattering Will had accomplished.
“Nonsense. We still have a tree or two half-filled with leaves, then I’m having my son’s cub scouts come and attempt to rake. That’ll be a sight won’t it, Will?”
My son eagerly nodded, climbing up onto a familiar bar stool at the kitchen counter. His mittens tossed aside. Another smile. I could tell Lynn noticed but she only returned his smile with the slightest raise to her eyebrow.
“Well now, Mr. Will, what’ll you be having? Coffee or milk?” She put both on the counter, making sure the mug had just the right amount of cream to it- exactly the way I liked it.
Will’s eyes widen. He pointed to the milk.
“Good choice. It goes with the molasses cookies I just got out of the oven.” Without a mention to the fact we just spoke to arrange the coffee date, she continued, “you two always have excellent timing, don’t you?”
Will nodded so vigorously and I swore I could almost hear a squeak of a whispered giggle. Lynn paid no attention and put two small cookies on each of our plates. Maybe I imagined a squeak as I had yesterday. Keep hoping I told myself. Lynn’s nod seemed to hold encouragement and sweetness to it; a reflection of the warmth her baking always held.
Will made short work of his snack and jumped off the stool, hurrying to the window overlooking their fenced backyard. He pressed his hands and nose to the glass, his breath condensing.
“Sorry Buddy, but Sam’s in school and Kate’s in pre-school.”
His shoulders drooped.
“But there’s lots of pretty leaves out back. Want to go out back to play while we finish our snacks inside?”
He nodded, and without hesitation, reached up for the backdoor handle, letting the storm door slam behind him, mittens lost to the floor. I could see him pick up leaves and send them flying. I exhaled, my own shoulders sagging with the released tension.
“He’s improving just about every day, isn’t he?”
“Yes. I suppose so. He backtracked so badly in pre-school, hiding in corners, refusing to talk or play. I hated to pull him but know he was being teased. He’s missing so much,” I confessed my anxiety to her.
“You didn’t really say that, did you? It’s pre-school not even school-school. He saw his Grandpa die of a heart attack right in front of him. That’s quite a shock to a little guy. You’re still grappling with it and he was your father-in-law not your favorite PawPaw.” Lynn took a breath and her voice quieted. “It’ll be okay. Give it time.”
I knew she was right. Will had seen his grandfather crumble to the ground, gasping right outside his home. I wasn’t there. They told me he screamed relentlessly and suddenly went still. I knew I needed to give it more time. He had smiled today. It was a start. The doctors all said for me to keep being patient but it was hard to hide how much I wished Will to be that rambunctious little boy again. It was nearly two months since he was my talkative, little trouble maker.
“So, how’s our little Claire liking Mrs. Tillersbean for first grade?” Lynn asked.
Our conversation drifted, coffees refilled and cookies stored away. My gaze would glace to the backyard. I watched Will climbed up a few branches of the red maple, pulled a leaf from it, and jump down. He twirled the leaf in his fingers. Then, I saw a shadow sprint across the corner. I moved closer to the window. Lynn joined.
“Don’t tell me that cat is back. Neighbors tell me it’s a stray. My Kate is allergic to the dear sneaky thing. I need to shoo it away.”
“Wait, look.” I saw Will ease himself onto the picnic bench near the cat. He sat twirling a leaf. The rust colored stray cat brushed up against his leg, knocking off bits of broken dried leaves, some sticking to its matted, muddied, fur.
We both watched in amazement as he softly picked it up. It was hard to tell, with the back of his hooded sweatshirt to us, but he seemed to cuddling the cat. The cat’s tail swished and then curled up.
“Well, I think you might be needing a new member to your family,” she chuckled.
“That thing?” I asked, assessing the less than perfect condition of the mangy cat.
“Who knows? It might clean up pretty. And if you don’t want that scrawny thing, uh… I mean adorable, orphaned cat, would you do me a favor and bring it to the SPCA? I tried to catch it several times without any luck.”
I would have told her “you owe me” but it was far from the truth. Instead I said, “I’ll see what I can do. Thanks for the coffee break. I needed it.”
We hugged. She pressed a bag, holding a handful of cookies, into my pocket. “We both did.” In a move that was both loving and hurrying, she held open the back door for me and ushered me out.
I walked up to Will as quietly as I could and then I stopped. I heard it. His voice. Will was talking to the cat he held. He explained his Grandpa went to heaven and how they used to collect leaves together.
“See? PawPaw said the leaves fall so the trees can sleep in the winter. We get new ones in ‘springs. They color up and dance so we won’t miss ‘em too much.” He noticed me. “Mom, this is Rusty. He’s kind of cold and needs milk and cookies. Can I keep him?”
My body froze. My lips refused to move. I stood and stared, unbelieving. This was no smile, no near giggle. He spoke! Try as hard as I could to be calm, all I could do was sink to my knees and tuck them both to my arms, nodding in response.
Will reached out and touched my face. “C’mon Mom. Don’t cry. Maybe PawPaw will send you your own cat to love.”
We walked home only this time the silence came from my lips. My son was back and all it took was a mangy, broken-tailed cat. A wonderful, sweet cat.