Elijah Stone knelt at the back of his closet and waited for his mom to go away.
All afternoon the thunder had rattled and shook the sky outside. Saturday was his favorite day of the week -no summer school, no day camps, no vacation bible school, just one whole day to hang out and do nothing before Sunday came and the whole boring week started over again – but the building clouds and the thunder had kept him inside. Rather, it had made his mom keep him inside.
Elijah loved his mom, he really did, but sometimes she drove him crazy. Like lately. He had just turned eleven a week ago. He was practically a teenager, for Chri- for crying out loud! All his friends, like Max and Sandy and Tricia, had their own phones and tablets and later bedtimes and even went to the big swimming pool without their moms! But if he even tried to bring it up with his mom, you’d think he’d cursed out loud in church or something.
He knew the story by heart now. His dad had died when Elijah was only a baby, killed by a cop for no reason except he was black and in the wrong neighborhood, his mom had told him. He didn’t even remember his dad. Mom had never remarried, never had any other children. “How could I disgrace Ephraim’s memory like that?” Mom had said, the one time Elijah had brought up the fact that other kids had daddies – sometimes even two daddies! – and he didn’t. “The Lord brought us together, and our love was stronger than anything in the world.” Mom had paused, and stroked a soft hand down his face. “You look so much like your father, Elijah. You’re gonna set the world on fire one day. Make the entire world a better place, like Ephraim wanted to do.”
His mom loved him – but he was her only child, and the living link to her husband. She kept Elijah close, did her best to keep him safe and out of trouble, and tried not to notice that he was growing, arcing away from her like a planet trying to find its own orbit.
Elijah shifted on the hard wood of his closet floor. Mom had kept him in all afternoon. “I don’t want you out in the rain.” she’d said right after lunch. “Tomorrow’s your big day – singing in front of the whole church! You go outside in that weather and the next thing you know you’ll catch a cold.”
Elijah had groaned and leaned out the living-room window of their fourth-floor apartment. “Mom, come on. It’s not raining at all! Let me go down to the playground, at least!” The playground, on the west side of their apartment block, was a sad little grouping of rusted swings and weathered plastic climbing things, but at least it would get him out of the house.
“No sir! I’ve seen those hoodlums hanging around the playground, playing their music too loud and dancing like the Devil’s gotten to them.” Mom had said from the kitchen, where she was washing up the lunch dishes. “Next thing you know, they’ll be dealing drugs down there.”
He had started to reply, then had sighed and given up. Mom sometimes acted like their neighborhood was straight out of a crime show. Sure, it wasn’t the fanciest part of town, but the people were nice, the streets were clean, and the ‘hoodlums’ she was worried about had been about three or four teens who’d moved on when the super, Mr. Montanez, had asked them to. He’d leaned further out the window, the concrete sill pressing against his stomach. There was a breeze this high up and it felt good on his skin.
Overhead thick slabs of gray-green clouds moved slowly across the sky. They were moving against the wind, Elijah had realized. How weird. The clouds on the horizon had been very dark. Thunder was almost constant, the noise so loud that he’d winced at the largest booms. No lightning, though. And no rain – he’d squinted. Something had caught his attention. He’d narrowed his eyes in focus and peered harder at the sky over the buildings about four blocks away.
“Mom! Hey, Mom, come look at this! It’s snowing.” Elijah’d shouted over his shoulder.
“What did you say?”
“Boy, what kind of foolishness – Elijah!”
He’d flinched at his mother’s shriek.
“Get back in here! What in the good Lord’s name do you think you’re doing, leaning out the window like that?” Mom had pulled him back in from the window by a firm hand on his shoulder and Elijah had braced himself for the firm lecture, but his mother’s glance moved from his face to the scene outside. As he’d watched, her own face had grown worried. “What is that?” she’d said, softly, almost to herself.
“I told you.”
Mom had pushed him aside and stepped up to the window. Outside, now about three blocks away, a steady sheet of white was falling from the sky. It looked like a curtain, a lacy curtain that hung straight as a board from the clouds. “That’s not snow, Elijah. It’s hail, or maybe just dust. Or something.” She’d said, but Elijah had heard the uncertainty in her voice. “Tell you what. Go play with my tablet – only the Bird game, and stay off the web! – and I’m gonna go outside. Check this out.”
And then Mom had gone outside to check it out and come back in all different.
Elijah pressed his forehead against his knees and squinched his eyes shut tight. Mom had stood in the doorway, white dust sprinkled on her head and t-shirt. Her eyes had been blood-shot, like Mr. Montanez’ were some early mornings. She had looked at Elijah like she didn’t know him, didn’t know who he was or even where she was. He’d started forward, calling her, but Mom had only turned and walked slowly into the kitchen, where she’d pulled open the cabinet doors and stared into their depths.
Elijah had stood in the door to the small kitchen, watching as his mother seemed to go plum-crazy. She started with the glasses, grabbing one at a time and dropping it to the floor where it smashed into a pile of jagged pieces. When the glasses were done the plates were next. His mom stood in an ankle-deep heap of broken things. Elijah had watched all of this with his mouth open, shocked into silence, until Mom reached for one of the Good Plates.
The Good Plates. Thin-edged, delicate, painted with tiny flowers, they had come from Mom’s mom’s mom, and Elijah wasn’t allowed to even think about looking at one, much less touch one. They only came down for super-special occasions – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the once-a-month Northside Baptist Church Ladies’ Bible Study Group dinner. Mom was dropping the Good Plates as casually as she’d dropped the plain old everyday plates, and this sight had finally spurred Elijah to say something.
“Mom?” he’d said.
Mom had frozen, as if she’d forgotten she wasn’t alone. Then she had whirled to face him, and Elijah had felt the edges of his world turn brittle and unreal. Mom’s eyes were red. Bloody tears ran in thick streams down her face. She had looked at Elijah, not like a mom but like a cat seeing a helpless mouse, and she had snarled. Her teeth were streaked with red, and blood dripped from her lips. She’d raised her hands, hooked claws, and lunged for him.
Elijah loved his mother. She could drive him crazy, but she was the most important person in his young life, always there for him, always supportive and caring and loving. But Elijah was also smart. He was smarter than his mother knew, smarter than his friends knew, and while some of his teachers suspected, he’d managed to hide his intelligence from them. He’d learned at an early age that smart kids got picked on in school.
So no matter how much he loved his mother he also knew that if she got her hands on him right now it would be very ba.
Elijah’d turned on his heel and darted from the kitchen. Straight ahead was the living room. To his right was the hallway that led to his bedroom, his mom’s room, and the bathroom. In the living room was Mom’s phone, but there was no place to hide. He turned to the right and fled down the hallway.
From the kitchen came a loud thump, and then a grunt from Mom and the sound of glass sliding across tile. Mom had fallen, and while part of Elijah’s mind worried that Mom was hurt another part, small but growing, calculated that this gave him a few extra seconds to get to someplace safe.
He’d turned right again, into his bedroom, stumbling over toys and clothes and hurtling headfirst into his closet, pulling the door closed behind him. And there he’d sat, in the almost-total darkness broken only by the line of pale light at the bottom of the door.
Elijah raised his head. For a while now, he wasn’t sure how long but it felt like hours, his mother had been moving through the apartment breaking things. Was she looking for him? If his real mom was out there, she’d know where to find him soon enough. There weren’t that many hiding places in the apartment. But, instead, she’d been wandering from room to room, smashing stuff up, by the sound of it. He couldn’t believe she hadn’t found him already. Unless she hadn’t seen him run into his room. Was that important? Could that help him get out of the apartment and find help for his mother? That, if she didn’t see him, he was-
The sneeze seemed to bounce off the walls of the closet, growing bigger and louder. Elijah tensed at the expulsion of noise, thinking that if only he’d cleaned his room as thoroughly as his mother had wanted him to this wouldn’t have happened. The sounds of his mother moving through the apartment stopped. He held his breath.
The closet door ripped open so violently that it smashed into the wall and then tore free from its hinges. Elijah’s mother stood in the opening, the wan light from the cloudy sky outlining her body. He stared up into her bloody eyes, and his voice left him. His senses tried to follow, his mind desperately retreating from this strange new world where your mother looked like a horror-movie monster, but the small, hard part of his brain wouldn’t let him flee reality entirely. Look, it seemed to say. Look, and remember.
Mom had always been tall but skinny, working too hard, he’d thought, at her work and church and bible study and charities to ever take time for herself. Now her body, in its familiar uniform of blue-flowered-pink nurse scrubs, looked even thinner. The bones of her face looked ready to slice through the warm brown skin. Her collarbones rose in stark relief above the scoop neck of her top. Her eyes were solid pools of red, and bloody tears ran down her face to spatter against the floor. Worse, worst of all, her mouth was open in a wide, insane grin of red teeth.
For all his intelligence, for all the part of his brain that was calm and calculating, for all the part of him that, in another time, would have blossomed into a great intellect that would go on to solve some of the world’s worst problems, Elijah was, at that moment, still a child.
“Mommy?” he said.
His mother snorted like a mad dog and reached for him. She sank a hand into his hair, latching deep into the wild curls that, just yesterday, she’d threatened to shave down to the scalp if he didn’t start taking better care of them, and yanked him out of the closet.
“Mom! Mommy! Mommy, stop, please, stop!” Elijah’s screams fell on indifferent ears. With sure precision Mom dragged him across the floor and down the hall. He kicked, and bucked his body, and wrapped his hands around his mother’s wrist, and still he was pulled inexorably forward. They were in the living room now, the sound of thunder loud and constant, a cold breeze filling the space. He twisted his head around and saw, with a sense of horror that drowned every other horrible thing of this long afternoon, that Mom was dragging him to the open window.
Adrenaline fired his nerves. In a burst of fear-fueled strength Elijah tore his head free of his mother’s grasp, leaving her holding only a handful of black curls. There was no time to celebrate. Before he could do more than start to roll away Mom grabbed his neck.