“See that lady dancing?” asked a woman at the front of the bus.
Neil looked up. He could see through the dirty window a very old lady in a bright green housedress using a wooden cane to shift her weight from foot to foot.
“She dances here every morning.”
“Mom” Neil whispered, tugging on her sweater. “Mom!” louder this time. “Who’s that lady? Why’s she dancing at McDonald’s? Mom, can I have a cane? Where are we going? Can we get off now? Mom I’m hungry. My stomach hurts.”
“Shush!” hissed his mother, distracted. Neil held his stomach and sulked in his seat. Mom had been in a bad mood lately. He heard her, late at night after he was in bed, arguing with someone on the telephone. The tone in her voice made his stomach hurt, and then he couldn’t sleep.
His teacher complained that Neil didn’t pay attention in class. Neil didn’t see why he should have to copy words off a stupid chalkboard every morning. The teacher never let him write on the chalkboard. Neil loved to make to chalk squeak as he wrote. He loved feeling the chalk snap under his fingers when he pressed hard. Aaron Carson copied the Good Morning essay onto the chalkboard every Tuesday. Aaron Carson never broke chalk. Aaron Carson owned new blue gym shoes. Aaron Carson made Neil’s stomach hurt.
The bus groaned into action as the light changed. Bump. Bump bump. “Pothole” Neil whispered to himself, liking the sound of the word. “Pot. Hole. Pothole. Hole coal bowl mole. Pot tot rot. Lot.” Before, when she didn’t argue late at night on the telephone, Neil’s mother used to brag about Neil’s reading. She’d stroke his hair and tell the ladies at work that he could read when he was three. She’d swing him up on her hip and he’d grab her tight around the neck. Sometimes he’d read to himself in the corner. “The. Mouse. In. The. House.” “The. Bear. In. The. Chair.”
“Mom,” tentatively, “Mom, where are we going? Do I have to go to school tomorrow? Mom, am I going to see Daddy now? Is that where we’re going?” He saw Mom’s lips clamp down tight over her teeth. She stared fixedly out the window, but Neil didn’t think she was really seeing anything. “Mom, I’m hungry.”
Screeching to a halt in front of a white office building, the bus belched a cloud of exhaust. “Come on,” said Neil’s mom, “we’re here now.” As they stepped off the bus, Neil breathed in fumes. They made his throat itch, and he wanted to tell Mom, but she was already halfway down the sidewalk, so he raced to catch up.
“We have a 10:30 appointment with Dr. Zielinski,” his mom told the lady at the counter.
“Have a seat and the Nurse will call you in a few minutes.”
Neil wiggled in his chair. His butt had fallen asleep on the bus, and he could still feel it tingle. In the corner with the toys, he spotted a pink and green striped plastic cane. It rattled when he shook it. Neil leaned on the cane and shifted his weight carefully from foot to foot. “I’m dancing,” he said to himself quietly. “I’m old.” He pretended he couldn’t move his knees.
In the doctor’s office, the nurse made Neil take off his shoes and socks, striped shirt and blue jeans, and put on a paper gown that didn’t cover his butt. He was cold sitting on the table. His mom sat in the chair, staring off into space. Neil watched her chest rise and fall as she breathed. He tried to make his breathing match hers, but his stomach hurt too much.
The doctor’s hands smelled like soap. The stethoscope was cold against Neil’s chest. “Breathe deep.” Neil sucked in a huge amount of air and held it. “Let it out.” Woosh. “Again.”
Then the doctor made Neil drink some pink liquid. Neil pinched his nose shut as he swallowed. With bare feet on the cold tile, Neil walked down the hall into the X-Ray room, where another nurse put a heavy apron over every part of him but his belly. “Squeeze your eyes shut,” she told him, “Don’t open them.
Neil squeezed his eyes tight enough to make his cheeks hurt. He imagined that each X-Ray kicked a little air out of his lungs.
As Neil put his clothes back on, Dr. Zielinski talked to Neil’s mom. “No obvious physical cause,” said the doctor. “I’ll write you a referral to a good child psychologist. Has his father been in contact at all?”
“No,” said Neil’s mother so quietly that Neil wouldn’t have heard her if he hadn’t been listening hard.
The doctor patted Neil’s head and handed him a purple sucker with a looped stem. Neil sucked on the sucker the whole way home until the paper stem came apart in his mouth.
The gray light of early afternoon came through the kitchen window. Neil’s mom prepared lunch. Milk and apple juice. Sliced carrots. Neil crunched softly on a carrot stick as he watched his mother stand over the stove, staring out the window.
“Mom, I think the bread is burning.” “Mom, don’t you smell smoke?” Her eyes were glassy and her hand shook as she handed Neil his blackened grilled cheese.
“Eat your sandwich, baby.”