by Joseph Austin

Enter Josie. A raven-haired beauty with blue eyes sprinkled with saffron. Barbara knew her kind the moment her son, Darren, brought her through the front door. This girl looked like trouble. Not that she invited it, but that she had invented it. The 15-year old said hello to Barbara as if she was meeting the other woman. It was all Barbara could do to keep from throwing the bitch out of her house.

            She served them tall glasses of iced tea and small plates of homemade potato salad that Barbara immediately regretted sharing with her. She didn’t want her sitting at her kitchen table. She didn’t want this girl to hurt her baby boy.

            Darren, though, seemed so pleased to be bringing a girl home. He had never done it before, and now, at 16, and after only four dates, Barbara knew she couldn’t ruin this for him, so she tried to be kind; Barbara hadn’t gotten this far in this world without being able to see Josie for what she was.

            As they nibbled and sipped and chatted, Josie tried to lure Barbara into conversation.

            “So, what was Darren like when he was little?” she said, giggling.
            Nice Try, Barbara thought. Try and get me to talk about something you think I’ll find charming. Good luck. If you ask for baby pictures, I’m kicking your ass out!
            She answered anyway, for Darren’s sake.
            “He was an average little boy, I guess,” she told Josie, though Darren had been anything but an average little boy.
            “I find that hard to believe,” Josie said, a coquettish tilt to her head and a lift of her shoulder. She looked practiced. Very practiced, Barbara thought. And good at it.
            “Yeah,” Darren affirmed. “Nothing special.”
            Barbara wanted to smack him.
            “Oh, come on. Stop being so modest,” Josie said, and she put her hand on Darren’s arm.
            “Really,” Darren said. “Just your average kid. Right, mom?”

            Barbara had said that, hadn’t she? Was Darren actually calling her on it or agreeing with her?
            Josie lifted a forkful of potato salad to her lips. She turned her head toward Darren, but Barbara felt her eyes were directed at her.

            Barbara gave her the same look back and said, “Well, to be honest, he was the same as now. A nice kid. The nicest kid you’d could ever hope to meet.”
            If anything, Chickie, her older son, was average and Darren always the exception to the rule. Darren had always been introverted and quiet, unlike Chickie and his sister, Franny. She had been exactly what a little girl should be and now, at 19, she was the perfect young lady. Well, Barbara hoped. What Barbara didn’t know was that Franny was somewhere between what she thought she was and Josie.

            But Darren? He always required encouragement. She always had to be careful with Darren. With Chickie, she didn’t have to think about him; Chickie always thought for himself. He had even given himself that ridiculous nickname, short for Charles, in the third grade.

            Barbara attempted to change the subject.
            “Are you new to town?”
            “Yeah,” Josie answered.  “Just moved here two months ago.”

            Did she just wink at me? Barbara wondered. Was that some sort of lie?
It didn’t really matter, though, did it? What mattered was Darren seemed to like her and Barbara knew exactly what sort of boy Darren was and she was sure what kind of girl Josie was. He was shy, but handsome, in a plain way. His brother, Chickie, however, was very handsome. Chickie could be anything he wanted, Barbara knew. He could be an actor, a politician, anything. Darren, she thought, would always be just Darren. She couldn’t ruin this moment for him. He sat so confidently beside Josie, so happy to have such an attractive girl agree to date him. She knew what it meant to Darren to feel as if, finally, someone found him handsome enough to date.

            She let the wink go.
            As much as she disliked even the look of Josie, Barbara tried to smile a bit more for her son’s sake. She thought of her boys and the great differences between them. Chickie, who wore his confidence on his sleeve like a proud, bloody battle scar, put his brother in a shadow, who, if he wore his confidence on his sleeve at all, wore it more like a stain.

            Barbara would never do what her parents did to her; she would never tell her children who to date or who they could befriend. Let them make their own mistakes, let them learn, she thought.

            So, she tried to be more accommodating.
            “Why don’t you two take your plates and iced tea outside to the patio?” she suggested. “I’ll put the radio on for you.”
             Darren smiled, and Josie, who smiled too, stood first and went to the back door. She waited there for Darren to open the door.

            If Josie was what Darren wanted, she would let it happen until it ended. He had to learn, though Barbara knew she was going to hurt her boy. Though it was only 3:00 on a Saturday, and she knew her husband, Eddie, wouldn’t be home from the paper until around 7:00, she decided to start a lasagna. He had a deadline to meet, which always made him intolerable, and Barbara had suggested he go to the paper and work on his article there, rather than rant and rave and scream around the house.

If she was busy cooking, she wouldn’t be tempted to look out the back door every three minutes.

She began to brown some ground beef when Chickie came in through the front door. He stood in the kitchen doorway and said nothing, but just stared at his mother.

            “Can I help you?” she said.
            “Watchya cooking?”
            “I’m not gonna be home,” he told her.
He seemed to get taller everyday, she thought, noticing him leaning more out of the kitchen than into it.
            “And where do you think you’ll be?” Barbara said.
            “And where do you think you’ll be?” she said simply, as if she hadn’t heard him, letting him know she didn’t appreciate the first answer.
            “I’ve got to go out tonight. Just out,” Chickie said.

He was nearly 18, Barbara knew, and there had to come a time when she stopped insisting that she know where her children were at all times. She also knew that Chickie would never tell her the truth anyway. He was a lot like his father; that frightened her sometimes. She often looked at him, listened to his gruffness, watched his cocky attitude in the way he walked, even in the way he sat and she wished there had been something she could have done years ago to change it.

Barbara knew better than that, though. She knew there was nothing more she could have done about Darren growing into an insecure, nervous man, or Chickie growing up to mimic his father’s behavior and grumpiness, or Franny from growing up almost too happy, too cheery. Though she loved all of her children, they were all so different that she wondered if they all had different fathers and somehow, she had never been the wiser.

            “You can’t tell your mother where you’ll be?” she asked him.

“I could,” Chickie said, and finally entered the kitchen. He took a spoon from the drawer and tasted the potato salad, dipping the spoon back into the bowl. Barbara swatted his hand with a dish towel.
“Make yourself a dish,” she said. Chickie just threw the spoon into the sink. It clattered against the porcelain. He looked out the back door.

“Who’s out there with Darren?”
“His girlfriend.”

Before Barbara could do anything, Chickie was through the back door. She immediately knew it was over for Darren. This girl would see Chickie and know, without a doubt, she had chosen the wrong Doyle brother.

Barbara stood there, her hands on her hips wondering what, if anything, she could do. Maybe this time, she thought, things would be different. Maybe, with a pretty girl at his side, Darren would muster enough confidence to not disappear into Chickie’s shadow.

She moved closer to the door. She heard that tramp Josie giggling. When she looked out at them, Josie was running a hand through her hair. Jesus Christ. Barbara never hated a girl as much as she hated Josie right then. She was also afraid to admit that a little of that hate spilled over onto Chickie.

            Two weeks later, around midnight, Barbara watched from her bedroom window as Chickie leaned against his father’s Buick. Josie was also in the driveway, her hands snugly in the back pockets of her cut-off shorts. Chickie was smoking a cigarette and she thought she saw, in the glow of the street light, tears on the girl’s face. He had taken her from Darren almost immediately. Darren never heard from her again after that afternoon, and Chickie began to talk about her almost incessantly. Every time he said her name, Barbara looked for something she could hurl at Chickie. The pain on Darren’s face, the abject humiliation of losing to his brother once again was far too much for Barbara to bear. And now, Chickie, was breaking up with her.

Barbara leaned closer to the window, trying to hear anything at all, but the two teenagers just stood there, staring at each other. Then Josie turned and began to walk away. She crossed the street and turned back to look at Chickie again. He just waved at her and then flicked his cigarette into the street in her direction.

“Christ, he’s horrible”, Barbara said, as she watched Josie turn and walk away. She never turned around again, and Chickie just looked up at the house and waved. Barbara knew he couldn’t see her. It was Darren he was waving at in his bedroom window. The poor bastard must have been watching the whole episode, too.

She wanted to go into Darren’s room and console him.

She wanted to go down to the driveway with a baseball bat and knock some common decency into her son.

She wanted to shout out that he was no longer welcome in her home. He should just stay away. That he was a monster.

Barbara did none of those things. She just turned away from the window and went down the stairs to the basement where she couldn’t be seen or heard. Eddie was asleep in the chair in the living room. Franny was in her room with a girlfriend named Georgia who was spending the night.

Barbara turned on the light and sat down on the old sofa that used to be in her mother’s living room. She drew her legs up and wrapped her arms around her knees. She thought she was going to cry. Honestly and hysterically cry. Instead, she found she was too angry to cry. She wasn’t angry at Chickie or sad for Darren. She was angry for letting herself, for even one moment, feel nothing but hatred for one of her children.

She didn’t know how to forgive herself for that.

About the Author:

Joseph Austin lives in Forest HIlls, Queens, NYC. His fiction has appeared in Christopher Street Magazine, The First Line, Fleas On the Dog, Newtown Literary, and Every Day Fiction, and works as a middle school English teacher.