The Real Boy

Dessie waited behind the curtain while the audience clapped. They cheered loudly, erratically, and some members sobbed. She smiled. Preschool audiences always made her smile.

She threw open the curtain and had her puppets bow one by one. When she herself finally stood, the children swarmed her. They asked questions, told her their favorite kind of construction equipment, and asked to play with her puppets…all except one boy in the corner. He sat alone, poking at a graphing calculator. It was Dessie’s own four-year old son, Beckett. Her smile vanished.

“Becket, sweetie,” she said after the other children had left and her traveling puppet theater was packed, “Did you like the puppet show?”

“No.” Dessie knew he’d say that. His voice sounded, as usual, mechanical.

“What didn’t you like, sweetie?” She already knew his answer.

“The story doesn’t go that way. Not the REAL story.”

Today’s show was a parody version of Hansel and Gretel where the witch hadn’t been shoved into an oven, but instead started an Iron Chef-like cooking show. Becket didn’t like variations. He didn’t like imagining period.

“You can change any story you want to. Your imagination can be powerful!” She said in a cheerful voice that masked the futility of it all.

“It wouldn’t be the right story,” he said. Mechanical. Sometimes she imagined he was a walking puppet and not a real boy, like in Pinocchio, and she’d wake up one day and Beckett would be normal. Imaginative, cuddly. Like the child she’d thought she would have.

“It would be a new story,” she said.

“You shouldn’t change the story!” Beckett was shouting and covering his ears. Whenever he displayed emotion it was always and only the emotion of being overwhelmed with the world.

“Listen you…” Dessie started to hiss under her breath. But a stage hand walked up.

“Hey, I loaded the set. You guys okay here?” He asked.

“Oh yes,” Dessie said quickly. “Beckett likes to learn things once and have them nailed down in his head. He doesn’t like to be troubled by revisions or parodies or new information. You know how kids are,” She laughed. It’s not how kids are, she thought. It’s just how Beckett is.

“Oh,” said the stage hand absently. “I meant about the set and props. Yeah. Ha. Kids.” He walked away without a second glance.

Dessie turned back to her son, flustered. Total strangers assumed things were fine between parents and their kids. She didn’t have to give that guy her whole life story. It probably wouldn’t dawn on the random stage hand that Dessie had blurted the core conflict of her whole life at him. Stupid woman, she told herself. No one cares.

“Come on Beckett. Let’s go home for dinner. At least you can make food with me. It’s the only thing creative you can do.” She felt awful after it came out of her mouth. She tried not to take her frustration out on him. But she knew she failed a lot.

Beckett pulled up short, jerking Dessie’s arm in its socket.

“I make dinosaur models.”

It was true. He did. Dozens of them, meticulously built following the directions from kits and accurate skeletal diagrams from his dinosaur books.

“You always build them exactly like the box says to. That’s not creative.” Dessie hated nattering at him. But she also hated the way his mind worked and she couldn’t seem to stop herself when she got going.

“This time I used different clay to make their skin,” he said in his mechanical voice. “I think you might like them.”

Dessie stared. Beckett never tried new ways of doing things. He always bought the same kind of model, used the same kind of glue, and covered their bones with the same kind of clay. She couldn’t recall having made a different purchase at the hobby store last time.

“Did your dad buy you the new clay?” She’d tried to keep the suspicion out of her voice, but Beckett looked suddenly distant.

Craig liked to one-up her in the gift-giving department. Gifts to say sorry for leaving. He could afford the iPads and video game consoles that Dessie could not. Because I stayed in the trenches with our son and the therapists and the IEPs while Craig started over. But electronics weren’t good for kids. She told herself that was the reason Beckett had to keep them at his dad’s house for alternate weekends only.

“Never mind, sweetie. Let’s go home for dinner and you can show me the models.”

Dessie pushed down a lump of guilt. She tried very hard not to force Beckett into divided loyalties between parents. Not that Beckett appeared outwardly loyal to either herself or Craig…

Come on Dessie, she chided herself as the pair walked out the stage door of the Arts Center. Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.

She repeated the feel-good Einstein quote. It was supposedly inspirational. But it did nothing to ease the ache in Dessie’s heart. Her whole life and soul was emotion and imagination, and those were the two trees her little fish just couldn’t seem to swim up into.

***

After dinner, Dessie sprayed their dinner plates in the kitchen sink. Spaghetti with red sauce for her, boxed mac ‘n’ cheese for Beckett. His favorite comfort food. Every night

“Okay sweetie. You want to show me the new dinosaurs?” Usually she let him go play in his room with his models and worked on her next show. The ones she put on for the normal children.

Beckett looked up from his graphing calculator. Plotting parabolas was his second favorite hobby after building model dinosaurs. His eyes looked—frightened. Not his usual ‘overwhelmed’ emotion. But frightened.

“First promise I can keep them.” His voice sounded frightened too. Not mechanical.

“Sure, honey,” she said.

It had been over a year since she’d threatened to throw his dinosaur kits out if he couldn’t look up from them in time to go potty. Not her finest moment. A moment she regretted whenever she thought of it. Beckett still looked hesitant.

“No really,” he said. “I can keep them no matter what. Promise.”

“Yes, honey.” What had gotten into this kid? She wondered.

Dessie followed Beckett up the stairs of their duplex and to his bedroom door. She hadn’t been in his room in weeks. Beckett had started refusing the bedtime stories and lullabies he used to suffer Dessie to perform. She was suddenly suspicious of the sudden refusal. What was different about these models now?

Beckett opened his door.

There on his floor, a herd of six stegosauruses, each about a foot long, were eating lettuce and canned green beans out of one of her missing cereal bowls.

In the corner a kitten-sized allosaurus roared from underneath an overturned laundry basket. Raisin-sized, brown spheres littered the floor. Mini dino droppings.

Wordlessly, Beckett grabbed a hand broom and dust bin from his night stand and dropped to his knees to sweep them up. It was a practiced motion. He’d been doing this for a while.

“What on earth!” Dessie managed to get out.

“You promised,” Beckett said. The mechanical voice was back.

“But how?!

“Craig didn’t get me the clay. I made it with store clay you got me. And then also with my brain.”

Dessie’s mind reeled. Geppetto mastery. It was sometimes discussed at puppeteering conventions by the older, stranger puppeteers. Especially after they’d had a few cocktails. Dessie almost got the feeling that a few of them believed they’d brought their puppets to life. Like really. To. Life.

She’d written it off as puppeteering weirdness (of which there was plenty). But here was her own son. And she could no longer deny.

The stegosauruses bellowed tiny bellows and scampered to Beckett’s feet. He petted each one and his face beamed pure joy. Innocence. Beckett still looked the way he always had, but Dessie recognized it now as his own look of play. Six spiky tails wagged as Beckett scratched between the little back plates. She’d never seen living dinosaurs before, large or miniature, but she could tell that these dinosaurs were happy and well cared for.

“Of course you can keep them,” she smiled.

Dessie’s heart began to soar as it had not since she’d first suspected her son was a different sort of baby. Her Beckett, it turned out, was wildly and boundlessly creative.

Sudden guilt hit her as she watched him petting his living wonders. Four years. Her son had been this amazing person all along. Creative, loving, and gentle. But she’d wasted his whole life feeling sorry for herself because she didn’t understand. He’d had to show her who he was because she hadn’t bothered to look. What could have been for him if his own mother had paid closer attention…

“But it ends next month,” his voice was suddenly sorrowful.

“Why next month?”

Beckett gestured to his modeling desk. Skeletal T-Rexes, Pteranodons, and Parasaurolophuses sat atop it, awaiting their life-giving clay.

“Tomorrow I make the Creataceous creatures. And then…” Tears! Tears came down Beckett’s face. He seldom cried.

“Then what?

“You know how the story ends.”

“The asteroid!?”

Beckett nodded and more tears poured from his eyes. Dessie rushed to him and tried to hold him. He stiffened and she backed off, as usual. Behind him, she saw a box of cat litter with several conical depressions. Inside were eggs—they were nests! Eggs! His creations created life of their own. The asteroid could not come this time.

“Beckett, you can change any story you want to.”

“No. Then it isn’t real.” The mechanical voice was back, but the tears still streamed.

Suddenly Dessie realized something about how his magical mind worked.

“And if it’s not real,” she said, “then these dinosaurs go back to being just models?”

He nodded. It was terrible. He was bound to destroy these little animals because it honored their story. It kept them real. Destroy them eventually or they lose their aliveness.

Dessie felt ashamed. Four years, she’d let him feel her disappointment and hurt. She had to fix this for him now. No more wishing Beckett were the child she’d expected. She had to become the parent her real son had needed since he was born. The failure of imagination has been mine—not his—all along, she thought.

“Okay, that’s how their story ends. But sweetie, your time scale is off. Give me your calculator.”

Beckett handed it to her. It had buttons with things like ‘cos’ and ‘log’ and ‘ln’ and ‘tan’ on it and she handed it right back to him.

“Oh hell. You do the numbers. Okay. So how big is a normal stegosaurus?”

“Thirty feet long, nine feet tall, 6,800 pounds,” he said automatically the way some people say ‘the car is red.’

“Okay, and your stegosauruses are about one foot long. So that’s 30 times smaller. How long was the Mesozoic era?”

“120 million years.”

“Okay divide that by 30 million years.”

“Well that’s four million years,” he said. “But we’re in the middle of the Jurassic period.”

“But don’t you see? The orders of magnitude don’t match. You’ve got to give your dinosaurs at least as many million years to live as their body size warrants. You don’t have to end the Mesozoic so soon after you started it!”

“Oh! You mean I didn’t account for scale!” He seemed excited.

“Yes?” Sure. Fine. He could correct her math terminology. She didn’t know what she was talking about anyway.

“So I’ve got at least a couple of million years? Of real time?” he asked.

“That’s what I’ve been saying.” She said.

He sighed. A look of peace came over him.

“I’ll be long dead by then.” Beckett nodded, smiling contentedly.

He reached for Dessie’s hand. She took it and she felt him squeeze. Dessie was in awe. Beckett’s forgiveness came so easily. His trust as well. Children were like that, Dessie knew. She silently vowed to earn Beckett’s trust each day of her life from this one on. She closed her eyes and squeezed Beckett’s hand back while the stegosauruses bellowed in the cat box.


[Inspired by the title “The Gift of Flesh” by Jack Campbell]

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