Rebecca takes a sip from her wine glass. It’s just palatable enough to swallow, which is fine, because the entire bottle cost her less than two dollars. She isn’t the type to care about whether the wine is actually good or not. She just drinks it for the alcohol.
She swirls the rest of the wine around, because that makes her feel fancy for a moment. She is sitting on the couch, with the television on in front of her, but she’s not watching it. Rebecca is watching her son, Evrett, who’s sitting at the kitchen table. He’s supposed to be working on his math homework before dinner.
Even from this angle and distance, Rebecca can see he’s not doing his work. He’s doing something on his phone. From experience, she would guess he’s either texting one of his friends or playing a game. Rebecca sighs. She hates being the bad guy. She likes to leave that job to her husband.
Rebecca gulps the rest of her wine down in one swallow. That’s how she normally drinks, when’s she’s not trying to feel fancy. She imagines it coursing through her veins, giving her a jolt of liquid courage. Leaving the television on her favorite home improvement show, Rebecca stands and moves into the kitchen to confront her son.
As her footsteps approach, he slides his phone under his textbook and smoothly picks up a pencil. If not for her careful observation, Rebecca might not have noticed. Yet she does. She also sees, as she passes him, that not a single one of the answers to his math problems has been filled out.
She takes a seat in the chair across from him. He looks up at her over the rim of his glasses, keeping his face downward, as though that would somehow prevent her from realizing he’s not looking at his homework. He’s young enough that he might actually believe that: he’s in his first few months of his first year in middle school.
Rebecca smiles. “Evrett, we have to talk.”
“I’m working on it,” he says, with just a hint of a whine to his already-squeaky voice.
Rebecca holds out her hands. With great drama, Evrett sighs, slumps his shoulders, and retrieves his phone from beneath the cover of his textbook. Rebecca takes it, her long, fake nails clacking against the hard case.
“I wasn’t even using it,” he protests. “I mean, I need it. For the calculator.
“Which is it?” she asks. “You weren’t using it, or you need it?”
“You have a calculator,” she says. “We bought you one last month because we realized, as a team, that you can’t concentrate if you have your phone during your homework.”
With even more drama, Evrett makes a noise of disgust. He rolls his eyes. Rebecca taps her nails on the phone, raising one eyebrow. Evrett glares at her, then leans over to reach into his backpack. He makes a grumbling sound as he does it — no actual words, just a sound, like something he’s heard in a cartoon. Rebecca holds back a laugh.
“You can have your phone back when you’re done with your homework,” Rebecca says. “Maybe.”
“Maybe?” Evrett whines. “But I’ve gotta talk to my friends.”
“You’ll have plenty of time for that after dinner.”
“After dinner? You just said I could have it back after my homework is done.”
“Is your homework going to be done before dinner?” Rebecca asked, raising her painted eyebrow once more.
“Yeah,” Evrett says defensively. “Probably.”
Rebecca shrugs. “I think it would be nice to be without a distraction during dinner, too.”
Evrett makes his angry, pouty face, the one he used to get his way all through elementary school. At one time, it always anticipated him throwing a fit. His father has, by now, trained that out of him. Rebecca never liked his methods, but she appreciates the results.
“But I want it.”
“You can have it back until bedtime after we’re done with dinner and after you’re done with your homework.” This is a firmer stance than Rebecca normally takes with him. She maintains a firm facade, but inwardly, she hopes he doesn’t resist much more.
“Until bedtime!?” Evrett exclaims. “That’s, like, barely any time.”
“It’s hours, Evrett,” Rebecca says. “Hours. That’s enough time. You’ve been staying up way too late at night. Your teachers have told me you’re tired in the morning.”
“Everyone’s tired in the morning,” Evrett counters.
“Everyone is up to late at night on their phones,” Rebecca says. “That’s no excuse for you to do it, too.”
“Yes it is,” Evrett mutters. “Hey wait, what do you mean, my teachers told you? Why have you been talking to my teachers?”
“Because I’m your mother,” Rebecca says. “They tell me things they think are important.”
“Like the fact that you don’t turn in your homework,” Rebecca says. “Or that when you do, it’s not done.”
“Maybe, but the answer isn’t not doing it,” Rebecca says. “The answer is still trying, even though it’s hard.”
“You say that again and you’re not getting your phone back until next week.”
“What? That’s not fair!”
Rebecca’s hand tightens on the phone. “We’re having a serious conversation. I won’t have you dismissing me like that.”
“You can’t just take my phone away. It’s mine.”
“I gave it to you,” she says, “and I pay for it. If it’s detrimental to you, hell yes I can take it away.”
“You didn’t give it to me, and you don’t pay for it. Dad does.”
Rebecca closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, because there are things she’s tempted to say that she refuses to say to her son. “I’ve been talking to your teachers, Evrett. This isn’t just about your phone or your homework.”
“What, then?” He sits back in his chair, arms crossed. Defiant, like his father.
“Your teachers say that you’ve been saying some things to another student.” Rebecca swallows. She doesn’t want to talk to Evrett about this, because she doesn’t want it to be true. She’s told his teachers it can’t be true, because he’s a good boy. He would never say things like that.
She knows Tim, though. Evrett’s father would say those things.
“I say lots of things to lots of people,” Evrett says, arms still crossed across his chest. He turns his head to one side so that he doesn’t have to meet her eyes.
“I think you know what I’m talking about,” Rebecca presses. “They didn’t want to tell me the boy’s name, but you’ve said some nasty, nasty things to him, Evrett. Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“If you try to lie to me, you might never get your damn phone back,” Rebecca snaps. “You can forget about your video games, too, for a while.”
“You won’t believe me, but you’ll believe my teachers? I thought you loved me.”
“I do love you. That’s exactly why I’m talking to you about this. I’m not going to let someone I love go through life thinking the things you’ve said are okay.”
“What did I say, then?”
“You told that other little boy that he’s worthless. You called him some vile names. Slurs, Evrett. They’re called slurs, and they are not acceptable. Not in this house, not in your school, and not in this world.”
“I mean, he deserved them.”
It takes every bit of willpower Rebecca possess not to reach across the table and slap her son. She clenches her fist, her nails cutting into her palm as she shakes it at him, one finger pointed toward the dead center of his head. “No. No child deserves to have those things said to him.”
“He’s a fag.”
“Evrett Lee Curtis,” Rebecca says, her voice a harsh, hard whisper that reminds her, suddenly, of her own mother, how the woman used to speak with such anger that it felt like it was cutting right into Rebecca’s skin. “You had better hope I never hear you use that word again in your life. You better hope I never hear about you using it, either.” She holds up his phone. “Consider your phone privileges lost.”
“Why? What?” Evrett whines. He unfolds his arms, finally. They drop to his sides as anger and confusion dance across his face. “Other kids know it, too. I’m not the only one who makes fun of him.”
“I don’t know those other kids. They’re not my sons. I don’t care what they think is okay. That word is not. Look at me. I better here you promise to start being nice to that boy.”
“What are you going to do about it? You already took my phone.”
“You think there’s not more I can take from you?” Rebecca says. “Think about your video games and all the toys in your room. Think about the fact that you have a lock on your door. Think about the fact that you’re talking to me, and not your father, about this. Your father would have a lot worse in store for you.”
Evrett scoffs. “Dad wouldn’t care.”
“You really want to test that theory? Because we can talk about this with dad when he gets home.”
“Come one. Dad would agree with me. He’d take one look at Cory and call him the same things.”
Rebecca shook her head. “No he wouldn’t.”
“Yes, he would!” Evrett argues. “I’ve heard him and the guys on the site. They say that kind of stuff all the time”
“That doesn’t make it okay.”
“Cory is weak, and he sucks at sports. He’s really skinny. Plus he’s in choir.”
“And? Why do you even care? It’s not your place to make fun of him for any of those things.”
“But Dad would.”
“When he gets home, we’ll ask him if he would. How about that?”
“Fine. But he will. I know he will. He says that stuff to me.”
Rebecca closes her eyes for a moment. She gives her head a sharp shake. “What?”
“He tells me, you know. Not to be one.”
“Not to be what?” Rebecca leans forward to look at Evrett more closely. He’s still looking off to one side, out of the window. The white light of the cloudy day makes him look even paler than normal. His light blue eyes look grey. Rebecca blinks, because his eyes are glistening with unfallen tears.
“You told me not to say the word,” Evrett says. “So I’m not going to. But Dad tells me not to be one. He says I am one, when I strike out in baseball, or like, when I didn’t want to try out for the soccer team. Why does Dad get to say it, but I don’t? That’s not fair.”
Rebecca feels something warm and wet on the palm of her hand, the one which she has gripped tightly into a fist. She pulls it back beneath the table and unfurls it, her knuckles stiff and complaining. On her palm is an arc of red where her nails have pierced her skin.
“You’re right. That’s not fair.” Rebecca stands up. She looks down at her son, who sniffles and tries to wipe at his eye in a way she won’t notice. But she does. She wishes she had noticed a little bit more, because as many things as she does notice, it’s the things she misses that end up mattering. “I’ll talk to him.”
Now Evrett looks at her, and for the first time, it’s not defiance or annoyance in his eyes, but fear. “Please don’t make him mad at me.”
“Do your homework, Evrett.” In her unbloodied hand, she’s still holding his phone. “Maybe you can have this back tomorrow. Okay? We’ll figure this out.”
“You have to promise,” Evrett says, turning sideways in his chair so that his whole body faces her. “Don’t make him mad at me. I dont’ want him to be mad.”
“It will be fine,” Rebecca promises, though it’s outside of her power to assure that. “Alright? We’ll fix this. Just do your homework.”
Evrett doesn’t look like he believes her. She doesn’t believe herself, so that doesn’t help. Still, he goes back to his homework, leaving her to figure out how to fix not only her son, but her husband. She’s going to need more wine.