While watching her brother, Darci pressed her fist to her chin. "Stop him," she said.
"The doctor said to let him," Michael replied in a voice wearied into resignation. He pulled his daughter closer, liking the nudge of her slim shoulder against his side. "You're definitely getting taller." He rested his hand on her head, then tickled the back of her neck in the way that sometimes made her laugh but now got no response.
She looked up at him and whispered, proud and astounded, "I'm almost taller than grandma."
His wife, Julia, carried dishes into the dining room while humming to herself. Her curly auburn hair was pulled back with a barrette, a chartreuse wooden parrot from Guatemala, a birthday present from Darci. "Get Kevin," she told Michael. "Let's try him at the table again." A battered optimism quickened the corners of her mouth.
Darci rolled her eyes and twisted her lips.
Julia's expression sparked a half smile in Michael's; he patted her arm while staring at Kevin. With a long exhalation he took off his glasses, set them on the credenza, and approached him, thinking back to those terrible months when they'd gradually realized he wasn't just slow in learning to talk but hardly knew they were there.
Michael knelt in front of Kevin, reached out, and touched his temple. Somewhere beneath that wavy chestnut hair and white skin, his son's mind writhed in solitary. Aching to be able to free him, Michael rolled up his shirt sleeves until they bunched above his elbows. When the lid stopped spinning, before the child could begin again, he hoisted him. "Let's go, partner."
Kevin whimpered to see his toy shrinking, but his blue-veined arms hung limply and his head bobbled. He drooled into his father's shoulder. Michael stroked him, thinking he didn't seem to rock his head into the wall so much anymore, maybe he was getting a little better.
Seeing his grandmother at the dining-room table, the boy grew animated. He squirmed and reached, wriggled out of Michael's grasp, and ran to her. Wordlessly he scrambled onto Peggy's lap and knelt, staring at her crystal pendant. "Hi. Aren't you strong," she said and shifted under his weight. To gaze at the sparkles from an angle, he pressed his face against her silk blouse. Its smoothness attracted him and, as she reached up to pat his head, he rubbed his hands down her chest, then slid squealing from her lap to the floor.
"Quite an acrobat." She righted her bifocals on her nose, pushed back her roan hair, and braced for a fresh attack.
Michael caught him as he was clambering up again. "OK, champ, let's eat. Your grandma's not a sliding board." Michael and his mother-in-law shared looks of commiseration, then he turned away as he wondered again if the gene had been hers.
In his chair Kevin grew still, staring at his shiny round plate. He reached out to spin it, but his mother covered the shine with a spoonful of macaroni and cheese. Kevin drew back to refocus, plopped his hand into the hot food, squeezed through it for a moment, then wailed.
With a moan Julia dipped her napkin into her glass and swabbed his red fingers.
Darci snapped two taunting fingers in front of Kevin. "Snap out of it, spacer."
"Don't be mean to your brother!" Michael pointed at her until she lowered her flushed face and ate in silence. When he looked at Kevin, he couldn't help wanting to smear his snuffling face into his plate. He bit his lip to block the thought.
Julia spooned up some of Kevin's food, blew on it to cool it, and helped it into his mouth. He let himself be fed, but would pull the food back out and roll it around in his fingers or suck the cheese from elbow macaronis and stuff them into his pocket.
Peggy mopped the spills. Darci dangled her espadrille from her toes, teeth clenched.
Kevin allowed some string beans to enter his mouth but promptly ejected them. His mother tried again and met a locked jaw. "Come on, just a little bite," she coaxed. At her next attempt, he went slack, slipped off his chair, and disappeared beneath the table.
Julia glanced away from Michael's trying-him-at-the-table-was-your-idea look.
They waited to see if he would emerge, then Michael lifted the tablecloth. Amid legs and shoes the boy sat on the hardwood floor, mouth open, fingers fluttering in front of his glazed, dark eyes.
"Hey, we got ice cream for dessert." When Michael's words went unregistered, he got down on his knees and began hauling the child out, wondering what he was going to do when he was too big to lift. He saw himself stuffing Kevin into a trash bag and cinching it shut. He shuddered and tossed his head to drive out the image, then silently repeated his most-used verse of scripture: "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." He held the boy to him and kissed his pale cheek.
Kevin's arm jerked at the elbow, his head snapped back, jaw jutted as a spasm shook him. A moan built to a bellow. He bolted from his father, careened off a table leg, and fled around the room, knocking the fireplace poker from its rack, toppling and shattering a floor lamp. Peggy clutched her chest. Darci held her ears and glared at her plate. Julia grabbed for him but missed, and he crashed full speed into the couch, sat down with a thud, and rocked back and forth. The arteries of his neck swelled with blood surging to his head, and his skin changed from milky to crimson.
"The bottle, quick," Julia said.
Michael gave her the baby bottle of apple juice, and she guided the nipple into her son's mouth. He took it voraciously but couldn't grasp it. Julia rocked with him, holding the bottle, her chestnut curls blending with his. Gradually his spasms eased and the blood faded from his skin. He sat very still on the rug while his mother stroked him and his father cleaned up, cheek twitching, lips drawn flat over his teeth. Michael cupped his hand behind his son's head and closed his eyes, trying to soothe them both. Hundreds of times before, thousands to come.
Darci grimaced at Kevin. With a sneer that pinched her freckles, she lifted her plate and spun it. While it wobbled, she rocked back and forth, moaning and pretending to drool.
"Stop it!" Michael shouted at her, baring his teeth. "Don't do that to him!" His face turned as pink as Kevin's. Arms quivering, he grabbed the fireplace poker and brandished it at her. Its jagged tip traced loops in the air.
Darci looked up at her father and cringed.
"No!" Julia cried to him, standing with her son in her arms.
Michael's eyes followed theirs to stare at the iron rod he was waving. With a groan he dropped the poker. His chin trembled and his eyes squeezed shut. He tried to say, "Sorry," but a knot blocked his speech. A spasm like Kevin's shook his body as he sank into a chair.
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