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“Ethan Makkai, freedom is a state of mind.”
Ethan shook his head at his mother’s canned response. It was the same thing she said every time he told her it was time to cut the parental leash.
He dropped his backpack next to the kitchen table and sat down with a loud huff. “Wrong. Freedom is the state of not being imprisoned.”
“Will you please stop saying that?” Keeping an eye on the toaster oven, she poured herself another cup of coffee. “You’re not in prison.”
But Ethan was in prison. Incarcerated for life if she had her way. She wouldn’t let him go anywhere without her. Ever.
The only time she let him out of her sight was during school. He’d contemplated sneaking out. Skipping class. But every time he made a move for the exit, one of his teachers was there. They were always watching.
A few seconds after the timer dinged, Caitríona padded over and playfully pushed his shoulder. “Can’t a mom want to spend time with her son?”
“Not when she makes him look like more of a total reject than he already is.”
The woman had no idea what it was like to walk the halls of Venice High School after the bell rang. A freshman, Ethan was already considered a bottom-feeder. As it was, most of his class was forced to walk invisibly through the halls to avoid persecution. The smart ones paid off the bullies for a modicum of protection. Ethan didn’t have the money for that. He barely had enough to buy lunch most days.
“You’re not a reject. I see your friends. Brock and the other boys always say hi to you.”
Ethan choked on the sip of orange juice he’d just taken. Every morning his mother would stand out front of the school, refusing to leave until he was inside. Stayed until the late bell rang and doors ceremoniously slammed shut. Seriously. And Brock Martin made sure everyone knew about it. Without a stitch of imagination, the idiot’s infuriating diatribe never changed. “Where’s your mommy, Ethan? Did she forget to change your diaper before you left for school? Did you have nightmares again last night?”
The guy lived to make others feel worthless and instill fear. Not that Ethan was afraid of him. Compared to the things that stalked him day and night, Martin was nothing. The thought sent an unforeseen chill down his spine.
“Of all people to bring up … you do know Brock’s an unmitigated asshole, right?”
“Don’t!” He held his hand up, cutting her off. “Why do you always defend him? If you saw how he tortured everyone, including me, you’d stop. Trust me.”
“He’s going through a hard time.” Caitríona Makkai never liked to say anything bad about anyone, not even when they deserved it, and it drove Ethan nuts. “Show a little compassion.”
For him? Ethan snorted. “Whatever.”
“You know I hate that word. It’s dismissive.”
She was right. It was dismissive. He was dismissing this entire conversation because she had no idea what she was talking about.
His mother set a plate of strawberry toaster waffles smothered in maple syrup and powdered sugar in front of him. She waved her hand over the dish, beaming. “Happy birthday. And look, the kitchen is still in one piece.”
Ethan shoveled a huge bite in his mouth and forced a smile. “Mom, you have officially mastered the art of cooking from the frozen food aisle.”
That earned him another punch in the shoulder. “Stop hitting me.”
“Then stop giving me such a hard time this morning. I got up early to make that for you.”
“I’m serious. It’s good,” Ethan insisted. “Thank you.”
“Oh, then you’re welcome.” Caitríona slid into the seat across from his and began sketching on a small piece of paper. Ethan poured her a glass of orange juice, and watched as her pencil swept the page. She was an incredible artist. He never understood why she wasted her time cleaning houses when she could have sold her art, but she said her drawings captured memories, and they were just for them.
The sketches that covered an entire wall in their tiny studio apartment were mostly of Ethan, chronicling his life. Meticulous drawings that she slaved over anytime she wasn’t at work or out somewhere with him. His baby pictures lined the top, and depicted him growing older as they descended halfway down the wall. There was only one of the two of them together. He was two, sitting in her lap, holding up a flower. That was his favorite.
By nineteen, his mom had lost both her parents. After her father died, she had come to the U.S. on a boat, illegally and with nothing. Alone and pregnant. She had no family, no friends. No one but Ethan.
His father, Runyun Cooper, died before he was born. His mother flatly refused to talk about him. There were no pictures, no old clothes, nothing. Ethan Googled his name once a month, but the search never turned up anything. It was like Runyun Cooper had never existed. And judging by the way his mom reacted when Ethan brought him up, the guy must have done something horrible to her, so horrible that it turned her off men forever.
Because of that, Ethan had spent his entire life trying to please her. He didn’t want her to lose faith in him too. But what had it gotten him? She still didn’t trust him.
Caitríona set her pencil down, lifted the paper, and stared at it, wide-eyed.
“What’s the matter?” As Ethan leaned over to see what she had drawn, she tore the picture to shreds.
“Why did you—”
“It was terrible,” she said definitively. Even though the paper was ripped, Ethan could make out the narrowed glaring eye of a bird that looked like it belonged to one of the black crows that had started nesting under the eaves of the building, right above their only window. Since the day the birds moved in, she wouldn’t let him open it. She said they were dangerous. Birds. She’d even moved her bed next to the window to keep an eye on them. Yet another symptom of the perpetual paranoid state she lived in, constantly worrying about his safety. And she worried about him being called crazy.
Ethan checked the clock above the refrigerator and panicked when he saw it was almost eight. He had only a few minutes to get downstairs or he’d miss Sky. He shoveled in the last bite of breakfast and dropped his plate in the sink with a clank. When he lifted the rusted knob on the faucet it popped off in his hand.
“Not again,” Ethan said, disgusted.
“Why are you in such a hurry? I’m not even dressed yet.”
No. She wasn’t. She was still in her yellow bathrobe, her long brown hair clipped to the top of her head like a Japanese anime character. And that was all part of his plan. But he had to time this perfectly. “No reason.”
Caitríona reached into the cabinet under the sink, pulled out a small wrench, and passed it to him.
The loose knob was nothing. If one of them flushed the toilet with the shower running, water erupted like a geyser from the bowl and sprayed the ceiling. But it wasn’t like they were ever moving. No one left a rent-controlled apartment on the west side of Los Angeles, even if it was a dump. It was the only way they could afford the neighborhood.
“Hey, um…” Ethan set the wrench on the counter and turned to face her. “I know what I want for my birthday.”
Caitríona winced. “Sweet, I lost two houses this month. We’ll barely make rent. Can it … you know…?”
“Wait? No.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “But good news! It won’t cost you a cent,” Ethan said in his best game-show-host voice, then sobered. “Let me go to school alone.”
Groaning, she twisted out of his grasp. “Ethan, we can’t keep having this conversation,” she scolded, unleashing her Irish accent.
“I’m fourteen. In most religions I’ve been considered an adult for more than a year. I don’t understand why this is such a big deal!”
“Rúini na chroí.” Caitríona rubbed her hand over the braided Celtic-knot tattoo that wrapped around her wrist like a bracelet. On the underside, below her palm, was a symbol, three connected spirals stacked like a triangle. She made that move whenever she said those words to him.
“I know the rule. I promise I’ll be careful.” Ethan stared at her with pleading eyes. “Come on. It’s my birthday. I’m begging you, if you love me, let me go.”
When she didn’t answer, Ethan threw on his backpack and started for the door, but she was too fast. She slid past, coming between him and his only escape route.
“Ethan, give me a moment to think.”
Shocked, he didn’t move. He didn’t even breathe. She’d never even contemplated saying yes before. Ever. This was finally going to happen. He could feel it. Inside his head, he’d already started a victory dance as he hurried to the window and looked down. Sky was still there, waiting for him on the sidewalk.
“Mom?” He rushed back, but she still didn’t answer. Every second that ticked by felt like an eternity. How long does it take to say the word “yes”? Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore. He reached for the doorknob, but she leaned her back against the door, making it impossible for him to open it.
Frowning, Caitríona fingered her silver unicorn necklace with one hand and pointed to his unmade bed, which doubled as the living room couch. “Make your bed.”
Ethan rushed over, and in one move lifted the metal frame and glided it into the sofa. As soon as he’d tossed on the pillows, he started for the door, but she still hadn’t moved.
“I’m going to be late,” he insisted.
“Ethan.” She placed her hand firmly against the door.
“Mom!” He pulled her hand down.
“Ethan!” She put it back. “I can’t let you do this.”
“You’ve got your first day cleaning the new place in Beverly Hills, right? That’s a long bus ride.”
“Yes. And I know you’re old enough, and you can take care of yourself. Most days you take care of me. But the answer is still no.”
Unlike in the past, Ethan wasn’t giving up. He’d had enough. He reached for the doorknob again. This time, Caitríona placed her hands firmly against his shoulders, holding him back. Unfortunately, at five foot eight, she had a good four inches on him and could still wrestle him to the ground if he tried to escape.
She looked down at him with a sympathetic frown. “I know what it’s like to want something so much it hurts.” Her eyes closed on the word “hurts.” “But we can’t always get what we want in life, Ethan.” As she opened her eyes, she cupped his cheek with the palm of her hand. “We have to look to the future, never the past. I truly wish I could give you your freedom, but I can’t.”
“Can’t or won’t?” He knew he was pushing it. But what kind of future was he going to have if he couldn’t even set one foot out the door without constant supervision? Teachers called him distracted. They even hovered during lunch and free period like he was some kind of a delinquent. Kids had other choice names like mental case mama’s boy.
“Clíodhna give me strength,” Caitríona whispered under her breath, and met Ethan’s scowl with a stern glare. “I know you think you know everything, but you don’t. Your ability is a gift, but there are dangers in this world because of it.”
Barely able to contain his temper, Ethan stepped away from her. “It’s not a gift. It’s a curse.” He knew what she was afraid of. If anyone ever found out, they’d lock him up and do experiments on him, but was that worse than hiding behind a bunch of lies that made everyone think he was crazy?
“Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course!” she shouted, exasperated. “I trust you more than anyone in this entire world. But the answer is still no.”
“This isn’t fair.”
“Life isn’t fair.” She paused between each word for emphasis. “Wait here. I’ll get changed.” She stormed into the bathroom and slammed the door shut.
What would she do when he left for college? Go with him? Perish the thought. He’d never get a girlfriend. Never have a life at all. He loved his mother more than anything, but it was time for her to let go. There was only one thing left to do.
Ethan swung the door open.
There it was, the empty hallway, and his shot at freedom. He tiptoed across the threshold and quietly closed the door behind him.
Sprinting, he raced down the hallway and into the stairwell that perpetually smelled of stale urine. Taking three steps at a time, Ethan found himself repeating the same Irish phrase his mother spoke. Rúini na chroí. Secrets of the heart. A reminder to never tell anyone he saw ghosts.
Copyright © 2017 by Erika Lewis