November 24, 2014

A Miracle To Believe In – Chapter 12

Roby sipped on the chamomile tea he had just expertly brewed. His eyebrows lifted comically, giving further evidence of his increased skill. Before coming to New York, he had never heard of herbal teas, nor had he ever imagined himself taking pride in developing domestic capabilities. Despite a lifetime characterized by serious concerns, none more serious than the plight of his young son, Roby began to break his own tradition of somber expressions, allowing the flesh around his eyes and mouth to wrinkle more freely with smiles. Slowly, as he watched others clown and giggle without being self-conscious and without compromising the intent of the program, he experimented. During the previous Wednesday night conference, Roby related an incident about Robertito. His face contorted in perfect imitation of his son’s bizarre and often funny facial gestures. Everyone laughed. Startled, he looked around at his audience. Laura begged him to repeat the story. When he did, the room became engulfed in hysterics. Rather than subdue his pantomime, Roby increased his contortion to his and our delight.

“Bears, I am ready to continue,” he said as he folded a page carefully in his notebook. Charlotte, seemingly distracted, translated his words abruptly. Bryn, who had worked an earlier session with me and Robertito, curled her body comfortably into the corner of the couch and listened.

“I noticed you tend to work with toys on the floor,” I began. “Let’s see … you did it with the puzzles, the insertion box and the colored blocks. I think if you could remember to lift everything up to eye level or use the table as a work area, you’ll increase your chance for more spontaneous eye contact.” He nodded and made notations.

The phone rang. Charlotte bolted from her chair and flew into the kitchen. When she returned, she appeared even more distracted than before.

“Ready?” I asked her. She flashed a curt grin. “Okay. Once, during yesterday morning’s session, Robertito touched the xylophone and another time he picked up the drum. Those are great opportunities to follow his cue, to let him see that he can control his environment and use us. Part of the key is to continually show him how we can help him.”

Roby’s eyes clouded. “I do not know how I missed that. I remember him with the drum. It didn’t register.” He turned away from my eyes.

“You do so many wonderful things for your son, Roby. The idea is not to be concerned with what you missed or we missed, but to use the awareness to help us focus even more sharply. They become opportunities for us to learn … opportunities – that’s all.”

His forehead ruffled with deep creases. “I have much to learn.”

“We all do,” I said as I squeezed his arm gently. He suppressed a little-boy smile. For a moment, I imagined Roby as a child in the fields with his bull. Determined, yet vulnerable. This time, I wanted to be sure he knew he was not alone. I tightened my grip on his arm a second time. He riveted his eyes on mine and nodded.

“Okay,” I said. “Next subject. Let’s talk about Robertito’s hands. I want to not only increase the stimulation, but diversify it. In addition to massaging, tomorrow we introduce sandpaper, brushes, feathers, velvet and a vibrator. Perhaps we can start expanding the dimensions of his sensory intake with his hands. Hot water. Cold water. Mud. Clay. Ice cubes. Maybe you can come up with additional ideas. I somehow know that as his mind initiates more activities, his hands improve. It’s like a complete circle and there are many points of entry. We want to take advantage of all of them.”

“Suppose he doesn’t want to take advantage of them,” Charlotte interjected.

“Then we wait and try again. He has to open the channel if he can and if he wants to,” I replied.

“And if he doesn’t?’ Charlotte probed.

“He doesn’t,” I answered directly. “Please translate that for Roby.” I watched his face as he listened to each word. My answer did not startle him. He smiled a warm, rich, wonderful smile.

“I have learned to love my son for who he is,” he said. “Not for what we can teach him to do.” Charlotte shrugged her shoulders.

Bryn touched Roby’s arm. “Isn’t he wonderful, Daddy?”

When Charlotte interpreted Bryn’s words, Roby dipped his chin self-consciously. Bryn shook her head emphatically, grinning confidently, refusing to accept his modesty. She never felt embarrassed in expressing her protests or her caring. We never held discussions in our home where she, Thea or Raun would be excluded. Whether we spoke about love, hate, death or sex, we never modified our words or camouflaged our ideas in their presence. We never asked them to leave the room. As we had learned to trust ourselves, we had learned to trust the little people who shared our lives. Often their questions and pristine insights enriched our perspective. At twelve years old, Bryn conversed comfortably with five-year-olds and fifty-year-olds. She loved people and ideas, though her outspokenness sometimes alienated her from her friends.

The thud of footsteps lumbering down the stairs attracted everyone’s attention.

Rita had observed Laura initially, then stayed to watch Francisca work with Robertito. Her wrists ached from writing continuously. The process more than simply intrigued her. Rita Corwin had taught Option at several universities, had developed her own practice and counseled at a child guidance center. She suspected something crucial might happen here, further validating a vision which encompassed all her activities. Refusing to remain separate, an observer at the sidelines, as she had been with the journey of Raun, she pushed for more. She volunteered to come each month and catalogue her impressions, footnoting them with contrasting data accumulated from her more traditional clinical experiences.

The first visit, more than a month ago, registered ground zero. Robertito’s infantile manners and extreme dysfunctions startled her, for she, too, had never encountered such a low functioning child. He appeared so inaccessible. As she watched him now, during her second visit, the staggering changes during the first six weeks defied her wildest fantasies. Tears streamed down her face as she witnessed eye contact, participation in simple tasks, as well as a real exchange of affection.

When she entered the living room, she stretched her arms out with her palms facing the ceiling. “I’m … I’m speechless.” Suddenly, a loud, jolly, three-second laugh burst from her throat. Rita hugged me, then Roby, Bryn and Charlotte.

“Well?” I asked of the breathless figure.

“Have you any idea what has happened?” She picked up a piece of my carob danish from the coffee table and stuffed it mechanically into her mouth. “I know, in some ways, it’s going slower than the first time when the Sotos were here … but from where you began this time, it’s unbelievable.” She laughed again. “That’s it, you know, nobody will believe this. Do you know what I saw Robertito do with Francisca? When he began to do his hand-over-mouth “ism,” he side-glanced at her, waiting for her to imitate him. When she took too long, he seized her hand and placed it over her mouth, indicating that she mimic him. Someone else might consider that lunacy, but he’s more in touch. I noticed he searched for food on the window sill with his fingers … food he couldn’t see. That’s a giant step from before. He’s made memory connections.” Rita sipped some of my tea, then downed another pastry. “I guess you don’t want to hear all this. I’m just repeating what you already know.”

“When you see it on a day-to-day basis, the changes are inch by inch … no, maybe only a quarter of an inch at a time. Rita, you offer us a different perspective, not to mention forty gallons of enthusiasm.” I asked Charlotte to translate, then I added, “I’m glad for the comfort I see in our little friend as well as for his increased abilities.”

“Increased abilities?” Rita blurted. She shook her head and consulted her list. “He made a twenty-five block tower, used the insertion box with four different shapes, put in eight puzzle pieces instead of just removing them and watched himself in the mirror. He hugged Laura twice, his mother once. He put his head in Francisca’s lap three times. Robertito even gave me a couple of looks.”

“How’d you feel about that?” I asked

Her eyes filled with tears. “Very, very humble.” She hugged me again.

“Thanks for letting us peak through your eyes,” I said. “And thanks for recruiting Paul Goodman for us.”

“I can’t wait to tell Paul,” Rita exclaimed.

“I’d rather you didn’t talk with him about Robertito,” I cautioned. “I want him completely external to the program so that his psychiatric reports remain unbiased.”

She put her arm around Bryn and nodded her agreement.

After Rita left, Bryn and I observed Francisca for the next hour. In the midst of the session, Robertito strolled over to me and played with my hair. Then he collapsed into my lap and stayed there while I rubbed his back. Bryn crawled next to me and stroked his legs. Later, I tried to lift him up with the pole. Though he gripped the bar tightly, he continually opened his hands when I pulled upward. But on the fifth try, with great difficulty and determination, he held on for several seconds. His feet cleared the ground by six inches before his fingers opened. Robertito Soto had supported his own weight.

During the same session, he turned the knob of an infant’s music box without assistance. Francisca still worked on teaching him parts of his face. He almost touched his nose two times on request. He put his hand up to his face, then stopped as if confused about what to do next. I also noted his level of attention elevated dramatically in the presence of food.

Bryn tucked her arm around my waist as we walked toward the truck. I put my hand on her shoulder and tugged her close to me.

“Daddy, the way you guys are isn’t like the real world,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“What do you mean?” I asked, withholding a smile.

She pushed her long, dark brown hair behind her head and rubbed her index finger between her lips. Her eyes twinkled as she processed my question. “Well, you know we talk about being open and trusting. Last week my friend Cynthia got mad at me for some crazy reason and told all my friends the secrets I told her. Now about six people are mad at me.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“Not too good. I didn’t mean to do anything to hurt anybody. And when I apologized, they all called me names. How do you love somebody that’s busy calling you names?”

“You know, Bryn, I once worked with a man who beat his wife and children. Now you’d think he was an awful person … this big man hitting a woman and little kids, even to the point of sending his daughter to the hospital with a broken leg. Yet, when he talked during one of our sessions and I asked him questions without judging him, he cried and explained how he was trying to control his family, to make them be good. From his point of view, he thought he had lots of good reasons for his actions, but his unhappiness and fears had blinded him. Whether you love your friends or not when they call you names is your decision, but you certainly don’t have to hate them. Cynthia and the others, like the man who hit his wife and children, are telling you how unhappy they are by their actions.”

“Yeah, when I see it that way, I don’t feel mad at anybody … only sometimes, I forget they’re unhappy.” She smiled. “Well, I’ll work on it.”

“Any time you want, we can work on it, together.”

“I think I have your phone number,” she replied, feigning an imperfect English accent.

As I drove toward, our home, Bryn flipped through her schoolbooks before piling them on the seat beside her.

“Bears,” she said, tapping my arm, “could I take tennis lessons with Jerri?”

“I don’t think so, hutch.” I scanned her expectant face. “We’re a little tight for money right now.”

Bryn scratched her head. “Maybe I could get a job after school.”

“No,” I said abruptly, feeling a touch self-conscious about Bryn’s offer. “You sound like your brother. The other day Raun asked me to buy him a cello. Could you imagine … not a guitar, not a piano, not a set of drums. He chooses the cello. I thought his choice was fabulous, but I asked him why. Would you believe that little guy wanted to be a street musician and use one of my hats to collect money so he could help us.”

“Oh, Daddy,” Bryn sighed. Like Thea, she would always be motherly to Raun. A deep caring and appreciation for him had blossomed during the three years that she worked with us in facilitating his rebirth.

“We’ll do all right,” I said. “And if we don’t that’ll be a sign for us to do something else. I spent all my life, Bryn, learning to hold on real tight. Now, I’m learning how to let go.”

“Suppose…” She stopped herself.

“Suppose what?”

“Suppose it doesn’t work out.”

“Then we all sit down together and talk about it. We didn’t choose to do this forever. We only chose it for now. We can always make a different choice.” I felt clearer, having again put the old money demon to rest.

“Brynny-babes … thanks.”

She peered at me quizzically. “I didn’t do anything, Daddy.”

“Yes you did. You gave me the gift of your questions.”

During the next three days, Robertito withdrew or, perhaps, more accurately, returned to the home inside of himself. His “isms” escalated. As his rituals intensified, the rhythms frantically peaked, forcing his body to stiffen. He banged his chest in a style reminiscent of his earlier days in Mexico. Eye contact diminished. With the exception of a growing fascination with himself in the mirror, his behavior duplicated that of the first week of his arrival. Like the hiker who paused many times on his journey up the mountain, perhaps Robertito found the only way he knew to rest. The energy, the push and the tremendous concentration required to overcome his dysfunctions taxed every last resource in himself. Unlike most children, who would find building with blocks or playing with a puzzle to be an easy affair, Robertito had to move along unplowed roads to do the simplest task. The psychic fatigue involved had to be enormous.

For no apparent reason, on the fourth day, the little boy resumed climbing the mountain.

My brother, Steve, a psychologist, and his wife, Laurie, visited us on the following weekend. We took them to meet the Sotos. We let them observe Robertito separately. Steve found himself fascinated with the insistent repetitive motions and internalized focus of the little boy. “The intensity of the one-to-one format is mind-boggling,” he said pensively as he stroked his beard.

The highly charged energy mixed with periods of intense calm left Laurie drained. The beauty of this child combined with his bizarre motions created an incomprehensible portrait. In one respect, he reminded her of her own sons. In another way, he scared her as Raun had scared her years before. “I’m not used to this,” she mumbled to herself. The stark reality threatened her equilibrium. Images of a young Raun haunted her. The door opened to an era she had left behind. Initially, her nephew’s problem had seemed so insurmountable that whenever she would see him, she viewed him through a soft lens, in her attempt to see him as a healthy child. It will go away. It will disappear and he’ll be all right. As she watched Robertito, old questions flooded her mind. What would she have done? What would she do? She knew she did not have to answer either question. Her children had been born fully equipped.

Suddenly, she felt relieved and incredibly blessed by so many things she had experienced as casual, everyday occurrences. Laurie wanted to run home and hug her children. When she kissed Francisca good-by, she squeezed her tightly and avoided her eyes. She wanted to leave only her love, not her fear, with this lady. Deep within, she heard herself say: “If there were miracles, Francisca Soto, I’d give them to you.”

When Suzi and I later returned to the Soto house, Francisca was standing alone on the front steps. Her hands covered her face.

“Francisca,” Suzi shouted, “are you okay?”

Francisca walked briskly away from us down the driveway.

“C’mon,” I said to Suzi as we pursued her. By the time we came alongside of Francisca, she had wiped her tearstained face, straightened her blouse and jerked her head in that funny way, throwing her hair off her forehead.

“Do you want to talk?” Suzi asked in perfect Spanish. Francisca shook her head.

“Okay,” I said, “then we’ll stay with you. We don’t have to talk.”

Francisca avoided our eyes. The muscles around her mouth quivered as she tried desperately to control herself, to be dignified, to fulfill the expectation of her upbringing. At the same time, she choked on her impulse to fight herself.

I wanted to hug her, but stopped myself. Like her son, she, too, had to find her way. “Francisca, there’s nothing wrong with being unhappy.” She pressed her hands against her mouth.

“It’s okay to cry, my girl friend,” Suzi whispered.

Francisca turned away, held her chest as if it were going to burst and coughed uncontrollably, finally giving in to her body and sobbing heavily. When we tried to touch her, she moved away. We stood there, apart, but together, for almost five minutes until she finished and her breathing returned to a more normal rhythm.

“How about a walk?” I suggested.

The three of us moved slowly down Thelma Street. This time, Francisca did not hide her tears. She did not fix her hair or her rumpled blouse. At the end of the block, we turned around and retraced our steps.

“I feel stupid,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, look at me! I should be stronger”

“You’re allowed to cry. And crying doesn’t mean you’re weak,” Suzi countered. “You have to see me when I cry … much more dramatic than you.”

Francisca managed a smile. She related her growing discomfort with Charlotte. The young woman’s recent preoccupation with dating dominated her to such an extent that Francisca felt it affected her sessions with Robertito. He’s lethargic with her. But all this did not have the impact of her most recent experience.

Since the house had been heated through a forced hot-air system, ducts connected room to room. Francisca’s bedroom duct fastened into the same pathway as the kitchen duct. When Charlotte spoke boisterously on the phone with one of her men friends, Francisca heard every word.

“What did she say that’s so upsetting.?” I asked, fumbling in Spanish.

Tears cascaded down her face again. “Charlotte cursed all of us, called me and Roby all kinds of names. I didn’t understand them all, but I knew she used bad words.” When I asked her to recall some of the words, she rattled off several unmistakable phrases. “I don’t understand. We treat her like part of the family,” Francisca said. “Yesterday, she told me I was a tyrant because I asked her not to stop working with Robertito if the phone rang.” She paused. “We need her.”

“We don’t need anyone,” Suzi asserted. “A translator is important, but Charlotte’s not the only bilingual person in the world. And I’m getting pretty good at Spanish.”

“I know that … but the others need a translator. Suzi, where do we find someone else?” Francisca asked.

“New York has a huge Hispanic community,” I assured her. “We can call schools, churches, community centers.”

“Maybe we should wait,” Francisca said.

“Why?” Suzi asked.

“It’s very important to have someone here who can interpret for us. I don’t know about somebody new,” she said.

“Francisca, you can’t give Charlotte what she doesn’t want. If she wants to go out, if she feels annoyed with you and us, then all that will, unfortunately, affect Robertito. He knows. From what you described, you know that he knows.” She nodded her head. “She’s not a bad person,” I continued. “She’s simply not ready to do this. We’ll be okay for a couple of days or, if need be, a couple of weeks, without a translator.”

“I have to be able to communicate for my son’s sake. We have to keep her.

Maybe we could look; then if we find somebody, we can ask her to leave.”

“Does that really feel right to you, Francisca?” Suzi asked.

She never answered the question.

Roby followed his son around the room, tapping the wall in the same cadence as Robertito. They jumped together. They danced together. Each move brought father and child into a closer harmony. When Roby introduced the insertion box, his son took the red cube and turned the box until he located the correct slot. He repeated this minor miracle with a triangle shape and a star shape. Then he laid his head into his father’s lap. Roby stroked his son’s back and arms. He walked his fingers like little feet to the underside of Robertito’s body and tickled his abdomen. The little boy giggled and hunched himself into a ball.

The reinforcement of contact became most pronounced during meals. Robertito watched his father’s mouth chew in the same cadence as his own. Yet he still maintained side-glancing as his format for visually ingesting his environment. After finishing the last morsel of food, Robertito climbed on his father and flopped over his shoulder. Roby stood up and spun him around. Robertito did not grab onto his father’s body. He did not support himself or secure his own safety. But he laughed … not the self-stimulating laughter often seen in sessions, but a deep and hearty cackle. Each time his father embraced him, he pulled him close, then pushed him away … somehow trying to decide. Roby molded to his son’s cues. He knew, though the touching might be pleasurable and alluring, it could not be as safe for Robertito as his internal world. He did not want to scare him. Sensing Robertito’s alternate relaxing and tightening, he backed off and lessened the bombardment of activity.

“Bien, papito,” he said softly, often calling him “the little papa” in Spanish. He stood up and surveyed the room. Just as he turned toward the tape recorder, he felt a tugging on his loose shirt. Roby looked at his son’s little hand. Awed and flattered in the most profound way, Roberto Soto sat by his son. When the boy began to rock, he let his body trust his child’s rhythm.

At the same time that Roberto Soto worked with his son, John Stringer, according to newspaper reports, paced the rain-swept street of another American city. His sandy blond hair darkened from the little pellets of rain. He dug his right hand deeply into his raincoat pocket and fondled the metal instrument which had been a gift from his father. As he dodged puddles in crossing the street, he gawked enviously at a young family exiting their parked station wagon. A little boy accompanied by his sister waited politely on the sidewalk until their parents ushered them into a nearby store.

“So simple,” John Stringer muttered to himself. “A family … it was supposed to be so simple.”

His car waited in the parking lot, but instead of driving home, he trudged four miles in the rain, having left his office at precisely five o’clock. He could always change his mind. Stringer thought about his wife. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t! Yet the doctors had inferred that their child’s withdrawal was caused by a cold and hostile environment. They had leveled their sights on both parents, placing the blame squarely on their shoulders.

He remembered his son’s first birthday vividly. His wife, Sally, had invited all their relatives and half the neighborhood. Toys, music, laughter and love cluttered every room in the house, landmarks of a happy, thriving young family. Two months later, Tommy started to act very peculiar. He ignored his parents and developed a complex repertoire of rocking and spinning motions. At first the word autism meant nothing to him. Except for cancer, he thought most diseases could be cured. Even when he heard the prognosis, he would not believe it. “What do they know?” he argued with himself. “They sit in their offices with secretaries and assistants, telling you your son won’t get better and you’re responsible. What do they know? We love our son … more than most.”

After a second and third consultation, his optimism faded. Institutionalize him, one physician suggested with considerable pathos. “Frankly, Mr. Stringer, if Tommy was mine, that’s what I would do.” How could he institutionalize his son, his own flesh and blood? The Stringers requested assistance from the social services department, but the social workers refused to deal with their dilemma. No existing programs suited their son’s profound dysfunction. All the doors closed. Finally, one clinic offered to incorporate them into a therapy series which provided thirty minutes of service per week. Tommy drifted further away.

Two years later, Jamie was born. She didn’t become autistic, didn’t reject the supposedly cold and hostile environment. John wanted to love his daughter more, but his son demanded increased attention as he became increasingly unmanageable. He never wanted to hit the boy, but he lost his patience when Tommy destroyed all their dishes.

John Stringer saw himself as a decent human being with all the normal sensibilities. Now, in a less than normal situation, his ability to cope and survive became threatened. Anger polluted the love. Self-pity compromised the confidence. The confusion of dealing with his son kept his life buried under a dark cloud. He hated going home after work. He hated listening to his wife cry on the phone every day. He hated the alarm clock beside his bed. The dreams had crumbled. No more vacations. No more weekend trips into the mountains. Their life revolved around Tommy, because Tommy rampaged through the house on a daily basis. They had tried to love him, but did not know how.

The large elms guarding the entrance to his street no longer generated a sense of comfort in him. Sally would barely greet him. At twenty-seven, she looked like a forty-year-old woman, her face lined, her eyes puffed, her lips shriveled from the insidious tension. He did not blame her, though some others viewed them accusingly. John Stringer couldn’t stand it any more, not for himself, not for his wife, not for his daughter, not for Tommy. His son’s staring eyes frightened him. What demon possessed this child? What happened to his brain to have made him so crazy? Yes, he could admit to himself. His son, named after his favorite grandfather, was mentally disturbed without any hope for a cure. He felt profoundly sorry for the little boy who could not talk or dress himself or keep his pants clean. What a miserable life his son had been cursed with … miserable! The word echoed in his brain as he stopped at the stoop in front of his house. He could change his mind. He could.

John Stringer entered nervously.

“What happened to you?” Sally asked, putting her hands on her hips. “My God, Johnny, you’re a sight.”

“The car,” he mumbled. “The car wouldn’t start so I had to walk home.” She snapped her head back and marched off to the kitchen. Though they had been married for less than eight years, she no longer greeted him with a kiss or even a light embrace. She wanted to be affectionate, but his escape to the office each morning annoyed her. She had to be the jailer. Sally tried to help her son for years, finally giving up, locking him in his room for short periods in an effort to maintain her own sanity. He had been put in his room today, especially today, after he rubbed his feces all over the living room wall. It had not always been like this. Once, although strange and withdrawn, he exuded an awesome calm. They wanted more co-operation from him so they instituted some standard methods of discipline, sometimes in the form of a reprimand, sometimes in the form of a whack on his hand or buttocks. Tommy changed.

When the doctors hinted at her responsibility for her son’s autism, John became the inquisitioner, questioning every move she made with the child every day. He never accused her, but his suspicions became transparent. She would never forgive him … never.

The television blared in his ears. “Damn,” he muttered. When he tapped his daughter on the head, she did not even look up. Her eyes remained glued to the action on the set. He meandered through the dining room before entering the short hallway. His feet moved slowly. His hands perspired. He kept reminding himself he could choose differently. He could change his mind.

John Stringer removed the keys off the nail and opened the locked door to his son’s bedroom. Tommy lay on the orange carpet, his feet tucked under the bed. He hummed in a high-pitched voice and twirled his fingers in front of his eyes. They had requested a homeworker, but the county said it could not provide one in these types of cases because of a limited budget. John had even tried to hire a babysitter to free his wife at least one afternoon a week. Nobody wanted to say with Tommy Stringer.

“Hello, Tommy,” he said in a voice so soft and gentle that he surprised himself. The little boy continued his self-stimulating ritual without interruption. John Stringer knelt down. Water dripped from his hair and coat. He petted his son like he would pet a dog. He began to cry for the first time in four years. He could change his mind. He could.

He removed his coat and put it on the chair. He sat beside Tommy. When you left him alone, he thought to himself, his son always seemed so calm and peaceful. But you couldn’t leave him alone.

“C’mon, Tommy, do you want to look at your daddy?” he said in a child-like voice. He no longer knew how to address him. “C’mon, Tommy, look at Daddy.” His son stared at his own fingers. John Stringer wanted a sign, any sign. “Damn it, look at me!” The boy held his Buddha-like concentration, never once turning his head.

John scraped his finger along the edge of his teeth until it hurt. He rattled his toes, trying to distract himself. Finally, he dug deep into his raincoat and withdrew the metal instrument, a chrome-plated target pistol. Its menacing barrel loomed at him. John Stringer stared at Tommy. He knew he would never have another son. He wanted to do this for his wife, for his daughter … most of all, for Tommy.

As he lowered the gun toward his son, his hand trembled. The light bouncing off the silver barrel attracted Tommy’s attention. The boy looked at the gun the same way he looked at a doorknob. He touched it with his hand and felt its smooth surface. He smiled a peculiar smile, pulling the pistol toward him. John Stringer watched his own hand through a fog. Tommy tried to flap the metal instrument, but his father’s grip held it steady.

The gun had been lowered to the side of his son’s temple. John Stringer began to talk to God. He would understand. He would know he loved his son. His fingers felt paralyzed. Tommy began humming a tune he heard on the radio. “That’s something,” a voice inside said. “A tune from the radio. He hummed a tune from the radio.” His trembling fingers removed the safety. He could change his mind. He could. John Stringer screamed at the exact moment he pulled the trigger.

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