Georgie is twelve and doesn’t give a fuck. His tantrums extended from the terrible twos, and I stopped counting when I realized it only depressed me further to keep track of how long this has gone on, realized it wasn’t a phase but a personality. When I see other dads at the grocery store and tell them how I’m struggling, they like to remind me of those preschool co-op days when all the parents took shifts for daycare, and Georgie would stand in the corner, look unflinching into the eyes of whoever was in the room, and slowly shit his pants. They think it’s hilarious to remind me of this. There’s this one dad from the co-op, Michael, who is completely gorgeous, I have to admit. His whole family is gorgeous. His kids are perfectly put together; they get good grades and do extra-curricular activities that people actually admire, like swim team and cross country. And their twinkly-eyed smiles that seem so genuine. Don’t get me started.

My wife says it is no good to compare one’s insides to other people’s outsides, that you can never know of what another person or family is really like, regardless of what you see on the surface, at a party or a PTA meeting. I know she’s right but I can’t help feeling that somehow we got it all wrong. Samuel is our other kid though. He’s younger than Georgie and has a relaxed air about him, moving through the world with a lopsided grin. He’ll be fine, I know that.

Once when Samuel was two and Georgie was four, we sat in our backyard under this ancient oak tree that was the main reason I wanted to scrape the money together to buy this ramshackle house. I am a conservationist at my core and couldn’t bear the thought of rich assholes buying this place and taking down that tree. My wife liked the neighborhood and the school nearby, so it just worked out. Anyways, I was in the yard blowing bubbles for the kids. It was one of those unusually warm spring days, and everything was that new green, fresh buds and small leaves emerging. Samuel was giggling his hearty baby laugh, sitting there like a little fatso, all wobbly and perfectly alive. The bubbles would float over and his face would light up even more. It was like one of those impossibly cute things that you see your own kid doing and think for a split second that you’re part of something worthwhile after all. But then slowly pan the camera over, and you’ll see Georgie stiff-faced and flat on his back, like maybe the bubbles made him angry somehow, offended his sensibilities. He’s digging his filthy little hands into the spring dirt, coming up with mud and pebbles, looking me in the eye mercilessly and shoving it all in his mouth. With the unflinching stare that kid has always had, he tears up grass roots, and a little worm writhes in his grip. I know this isn’t that abnormal or anything, kid stuff, right? But I can’t take my eyes away from his eyes, and I am frozen like a damn idiot. In that moment in the deepest part of myself, I know for certain that if Samuel’s joyous laughter is a part of me, Georgie’s darkness absolutely is also, maybe even more so. Most parents would pull the kid’s hands out of his mouth, give a little laugh and tussle his hair with a light-hearted, Why are you eating dirt? But I don’t do that. I let him eat that dirt and those rocks. I imagine them solidifying in his throat and stomach like potter’s clay, turning him back into earth, and his whole body sinking down into the muck, far away from us. I look up into the oak tree, its knobby arms reaching out in all directions. I wonder if the tree has observed my parenting, and what it thinks about the state of things, and what other moments it has witnessed in its hundreds of years here, and if the tree thinks that this moment of ours, of mine, is the worst. I don’t remember cleaning Georgie off, but I must have. We must have gone inside and I must have made the kids something to eat. Maybe we read a story, maybe they took a nap. Maybe I felt terrified for the future, like I was missing something important, something innate that I just can’t seem to access in spite the parenting books I pore over, the community forums I visit online late at night when I can’t sleep, the hours with my therapist, who is also raising sons, but seemingly more successfully. Don’t compare yourself to your therapist! my wife says. I know she’s right but I don’t know how to stop.

Here’s twelve year old Georgie coming through the front door now. He grimaces like a rabid wolverine, the front teeth he refuses to brush are yellowed already, like those of a hardened tobacco smoker. He’s slamming his backpack down at the entrance to the house where we’ve asked him not to leave it a thousand times, and heading for his video games where he can shoot and kill with abandon. He’s an angry drunk in a prepubescent body, weaving around the room, knocking things over. I want to grab him and shake him until he snaps out of it, shake him as hard as I can until he becomes reasonable. But it’s too late for anything a good shake could accomplish now. His neck is far too strong for shaken baby syndrome, so I could maybe get away with it, but what’s the point? I can’t admit it outloud to my wife, but even she must know somewhere deep inside herself that I gave up on him turning out alright so many years ago. A good shake won’t help any of us now. It’s just far too late for that.


© Charlie Stephens
[This piece was the winner of the 2018 Forge Flash Fiction Competition]