2022 Fiction Second Prize Winner



by Theresa Allen


Sitting in the doctor’s office the other day, I had to fill out one of those health questionnaires. You know the type. Have you fallen in the past six months? Do you ever have trouble paying the rent? Do you have difficulty obtaining food? Do you feel safe in your own home?

Do you feel safe in your own home?

It’s like a trick question for suburban mothers. I’m pretty sure no one reads the answers to these questions so I put a check next to “No.” I’ve been leaving hints about my situation like little breadcrumbs leading the way home, but no one seems to notice.  Certainly, not Dr. Melenchuck, my primary caregiver who will spend only fifteen minutes with me today, ignoring my complaint about my racing heart, but referring me to a specialist for a misshapen mole on my back. Or my mother who says this afternoon that she can’t chat too long because she has a dulcimer lesson. Nor my husband, Jon, who is intently planning another fly-fishing trip in Wyoming with his friends.

The whole thing is my fault, or that’s what Jon will say when he hears about this. We banned guns from the house after Matt’s first breakdown, so how could I have let them back in? Even I’m astounded at my own stupidity. You know, Matt must have asked about buying the gun parts when I wasn’t feeling well back in August.

Matt is a good boy. As a child, he had a gentle nature. Once he saved a duck that had a six-pack ring tangled around its neck when he and Jon were out fly-fishing on the Rappahannock River. We affectionately call Matt “the duck whisperer.” He’s raising a mother duck and her ducklings in the backyard right now and it’s quite something to see him pick up the babies with both hands and gently carry them around inside his canvas jacket. That tenderness gives me hope about our situation.

After his hospitalization, Matt retreated to his bedroom. For a while, we had teachers and tutors from James Munroe High School coming to the house to help with his schoolwork, but Matt resisted. Not in a physical way or anything. He just didn’t participate. He said it felt like the world was a stage, and he was in the audience, just watching. Over time, the teachers left, the tutors packed up their books, and Matt withdrew from life altogether.

We’ve wondered where all this could have come from. Certainly not from Jon’s side of the family, and you know me, right? Nothing odd there.

I was surprised when the first gun was assembled. The parts arrived over a matter of weeks, and at the time, I thought nothing of it. I didn’t even say anything to Jon. I figured there was no way Matt could build a gun on his own. And yet, one night as I was settling into bed with a glass of white wine and a book, I could hear the hammer going click. Click. CLICK.

Well, he has no bullets. Where would a kid who can’t even leave his bedroom get bullets? That’s when the Maker-Do arrived. I was in the kitchen, fanning a smoking pan of burnt bacon with a towel like a smoke signal when FedEx delivered the 3D-printer. Matt came out of his room for that one. Consider the words Maker-Do. Isn’t that just bad grammar? Or it sounds like something that a kindly old grandmother would use to make a cookie cutter, a craft box, or a Star Wars figure for her grandson. By that evening, I could hear the silent whirring of the Maker-Do at work.

After all this speculation about what was going on in Matt’s bedroom, I decided I had to gather intelligence. Rocking the boat without reason is one thing we don’t do in this house. I had to find some evidence so I could talk to Jon about the gun without sounding like a crazy woman. Unfortunately, there aren’t many moments when Matt isn’t in his room.

How could we just let Matt just retreat from the world, you might ask. I suppose I learned to avoid uncomfortable conversations. It’s just easier that way.

I entered Matt’s bedroom the next day with a set of new towels while he was outside feeding the ducks. The thing that always pains me about being in that room are the signs of our old life: the soccer trophies, a poster of the 2011 Washington Nationals baseball team, a carefully constructed plastic model of a 1970s Dodge Challenger. Things were different in there too. Matt’s computer was open to a Reddit page for gun enthusiasts. Small boxes were being filled with little plastic parts that made no sense to me. Blueprints on every surface with names like the Liberator, the Reprringer, the Red Rocket shotgun slug. Then there was the receipt from the garden store for stump remover, charcoal, and elemental sulfur. I took a few photos on my iPhone for Jon.

Listen, I know nothing about guns. I don’t even know if any of this is possible. Maybe Matt is in his bedroom harmlessly spinning his wheels. Here’s the thing you need to know about Jon though. He’s going to blame someone for all this. He might seem like a nice guy with his interests in bob-house ice fishing or snowmobiling, but he can bully you with his silence.

When the kids were young, Jon was in the field for months on end. He’d come back from Afghanistan or Iraq, and just sit in his chair. Detached from all of us. The kids and I would be busy painting and drawing in the soft glow of the kitchen, or practicing piano, or creating a play on the porch and Jon would be sitting in the darkened living room crushing back a six-pack, having a smoke, his mind off in some other world far, far from us. All I’ve ever wanted was to keep our little ship afloat.

I have a photo of Matt and I at his eighth grade graduation. He has brown hair, baby blue eyes, and wearing a white shirt and one of his father’s navy ties. That was a great day, just a year before the breakdown almost to the day. Jon was in the field that month, so I was managing things like any single mother. I gave my camera to another parent and they took the picture. Matt and I are standing together, smiling, my hand touching his shoulder. If I didn’t have this photo, I’m afraid it would be as if this life had never happened.

The thing I really hate doing is reframing Matt’s life for other people. Take today for instance when I ran into Sheila, the mother of one of Matt’s old friends in Wegmans. She told me about how well her kids are doing, this one is going to Georgetown, that one is heading off to a gap year in New York City, the other one is an outstanding member of the debating team in high school. As she ticks off the achievements in her kids’ lives, I can feel my eyes blinking too much like I’m a hostage or something. When she asks about Matt, what do I say? I just stupidly blink, blink, blink. Then, I miraculously come up with a totally new perspective on what’s happening in our house. I say Matt’s started his own business and laugh that it’s so successful the FedEx guy personally knows his name. I don’t speak a word about the gun parts.

Talking to Sheila rattled me, I’ll say that. I head home as fast as I can. As I get out of the car, I step on a baby grass snake crossing the stone patio. Its black and yellow tail is soft as it wraps around my sandal and slides across my toe. As I recoil, a cantaloupe rolls out of my plastic bag and thumps to the ground slowly rolling lopsidedly up the patio flagstone. The baby snake slithers back into the grass unharmed. As I bend down and reach out for the melon, I hear the wild chirping of the ducklings.

My heart feels like it’s leaping out of my chest as I approach the duck coop. Jesus, I should have insisted the doctor take a look at that the other day. Matt’s bedroom window is open and I can hear the whir of the Maker-Do. I take a step towards the enclosed run of the coop and it’s empty. I open the door to the nesting box and decide that tonight I’ll say something to Jon about Matt. I figure time is still on my side, isn’t it?

It’s warm, dark and tight in the coop, and the smell of ammonia hits me as I get to the nesting box, which is lined with fresh wooden shavings. As my eyes slowly adjust to the darkness, I see the little ducklings, still furry in their little yellow and black suits, running furiously over the still, red body of the mother duck.