Six Years Old
By Aaron Maltz
“Claire Bethany, Claire Bethany, Claire Bethany…”
He muttered the words an inch above a whisper, reciting the syllables identically each go-around like a servant on an errand run. The message had to be exact. Claire Bethany, Claire Bethany….
He mediated on them while packing his bag but felt no shame in their pronouncement. He didn’t intend to keep these two critical words a secret but rather could not afford to forget them amongst the surrounding clamor. While the other students of his class celebrated the end-of-day school bell, he understood that he existed outside of their world at this moment. His revelry lived in a place untouched by typical schoolyard dynamics and once acknowledged, couldn’t be persuaded to participate. He left the classroom without making eye-contact with anyone.
Even from a distance, his mother could detect a change the moment he stepped through the school doors. He didn’t race outside with friends, excited to be both free from learning and to see family. Instead, he scanned the ground solo while he walked briskly towards the car. He also appeared to be talking to himself.
“Hey honey, how was–”
He entered the car in mid-talk.
“I can’t talk right now. I have to remember something. Claire Bethany, Claire Bethany…”
His tone was one of final dictation; there would be no say on the matter. She stared at him with at first confusion and then concern while he continued to repeat the name. He looked straight ahead through the windshield, refuting her presence.
“O..kay,” she stuttered before shifting the car to drive and maneuvering her way out of the parking lot.
The following fifteen minutes did not waver in dynamic. There was no conversation about the day or discussion about dinner; no talk of lessons or snacks or games or relatives; nothing but his mantra on an endless loop. She tempered her concern knowing that his behavior would eventually make sense but she couldn’t control her imagination. Who was this person and why is my son repeating her name like a cult member? She glanced over several times and saw no change in his behavior. She longed to ask him so many questions, reach over and feel his head to make sure he wasn’t running a fever, but decided to give him space.
They pulled into their driveway and he bounded from the car before the engine was killed. He barrelled through the front door, dropped his backpack in the hallway, scooted past the barking dog in the hallway, and entered the kitchen before his mom had time to unbuckle her seatbelt. Once there, he slowed his pace and laser-beamed toward the phone receiver on the wall outside of the cooking space. A small table rested below the phone, on top of which sat a thick book of yellow and grey pages. Still muttering the name, he walked toward the book and momentarily noticed how the “6” of “1986” on the cover had been smudged from repeated use before opening it to a random page in the grey section.
“CAMERON-CEDERSONS,” he read and flipped back towards the B’s.
“Bethany, Bethany, Bethany…”
He grasped at the name like the most important clue in a crime investigation. His fingers and eyes scanned furiously, processing at a fourth-grade level until they skidded to a stop and his pupils widened. His finger then moved back-and-forth at a glacial speed, his mouth now mumbling numbers, before he picked up the phone and punched out the digits. It rung and his breath decelerated; his exhausted mind emptied of memory. The third ring was interrupted.
“Hello,” came the gentle voice on the other end.
“Hi, is this Claire?” he asked.
“Yes it is, who may I ask is calling?”
“This is James. I go to school with Melanie. Is she there?”
He had unknowingly blurted this out in a haste.
“Um…She is. Can you hold on a second?”
He heard the clunk of the phone being put down and some shuffling in the background. It’s unsure how much time passed but James would have settled on “forever.” Someone picked up the phone.
“Hello?” came the angelic voice on the other end.
“Hi Melanie. It’s James.”
The two then sat listening to each-other breathe for about thirty seconds.
“Um, did you just get home?” he asked.
“Um, are you gonna be at school tomorrow?” he asked.
“Yeah, I think so.”
They paused again.
“K. I’ll see you then.”
He hung up the phone and then took stock of the world around him, specifically his mom who had been watching from the doorway.
He ran towards her and once there wrapped his arms around her waist. Her mouth quivered along with her eyes and she was unable to respond.