Flesh and Blood
by Karen Stefano
The boy stands before the mirror, the blankness of his own face a canvas, something to crave, to desecrate. Fingernails scratch, puncture, strip away fragments of flesh. Blood trickles. Pain like a caress.
The bloodied boy types a paper for school. He writes of suicide, how it’s the ultimate relief for some souls. He closes in apology, “Sorry to be a downer, but…”
Meds. Prescribed and swallowed morning, afternoon. Doctors explain: transference, a simple exchange, inner wounds for outer.
This is not my son, the father says.
Oh, but it is, a voice replies. Your creation. But but but, the father stutters.
How do you feel? asks the woman who lives with the boy and his father.
Nothing is good, thinks the woman. The scattering inside that mind is finally quiet. But a shadow crosses the boy’s face, thoughts flit in, bounce, careen inside that skull and it’s done, a spiral of self destruction etched behind those light blue eyes. An animal scurries back down inside its black hole. Silence reigns. Contagious pathology swims through the air. Only a tourniquet of love could stem this blood, save this soul.
The father pours scotch into crystal glass, feels the burn. Likes it. Feels it again. Self-mutilation but on the inside. Like father like son, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, chip off the old block!
The boy once lit a fire in his bedroom. Flames licked the walls while a smoke alarm screamed. The father asked the same useless question always asked. Why?
To warm himself, the boy explained.
The boy wishes only to be something different than what he is. He tumbles down the well into darkness.
The woman knows who pushed him but can’t speak the name.
The boy flips a bottle of water on the counter and it falls with a thud. He flips it again and it falls, again and it falls, flips it again. This could go on all night. The father teeters on the brink as his teeth clench. He thinks of the baby teeth in a velvet pouch upstairs, strings pulled tight to contain them. Those teeth once inside that mouth. What use is love?
Enough! the father yells, grabbing the goddamn bottle, silencing it, and for a moment the relief of quiet settles across the room. But it is just a moment.
A trickle of dried blood weaves a line across the blank page of the boy’s face. Beneath that spot, bone. The father worries. The father continues to ask. Why? A desire to pluck oneself apart, piece by piece? A desire to make himself disappear? A desire for a scrap of himself to hold onto? The father experiments with words, phrases: Tactile exploration. Therapeutic intervention. Triggers. Strategies. Learning to unlearn the compulsion to hurt oneself. He buys a book.
“If you are reading this, you must be the parent of a child obsessively hurting his body. This condition is called excoriation or dermatillomania, a body-focused repetitive behavior. Episodes may be a response to anxiety or depression.”
If you are reading this, you must not sleep. If you are reading this, your hands must shake.
The book says children may lose perspective when it comes to coping with the obsession. The book says some cases may require hospitalization. The book says a family must talk about excoriation.
No one wants to talk about these things.
Yet they must.
All of them.
Even the woman. She’s part of this now too.
The father moves to the window, tilts his head to a painful angle, squints toward the blankness outside, recalling the first dark hour and a feeling comes to his stomach, a wrenching. A black bird flies by, slick as oil. Somewhere in the distance is a cracking sound the woman recognizes as thunder but outside the sun shines. She can’t make sense of anything inside this house. Something heavy moves into her chest, sits itself down, decides to stay awhile.
That dark shadow we call anxiety crosses a face like a cloud blocking the sun. Or is it like a hand tightening around a throat? Or is it like a dog’s teeth puncturing a hand? The boy goes from somber to morose so fast, a dismantling the woman sees happening but she can’t stop it, like she can’t stop a storm. Dissonance swells. Mood spikes. Mood falls. The zig-zagging graph of domestic debacle.
Are you all right? becomes an absurd question. How not all right are you today? This hour? This minute? The crush of concern inside the father’s brow becomes a crater. What do I do? the father asks.
The woman has no answer.
Outside these walls, whispered suspicions, but no one knows. This is their secret, their business, their well-lived lives.
Night falls. Unabated silence fills every room. The father, embalmed in fear. The woman, withering. Each night they wonder if the boy will keep his promise. The woman reminds herself to breathe.
The boy stands in the kitchen wearing white boxers and t-shirt. Unapologetic scabs dot his face and he cries now, remorseful. Shame and squeamishness conspire as syllables spill from his lips, bounce to the floor, disappear. A single blank patch of skin shines smooth as a promise, showing the woman her own reflection.
The boy waits, longing to be saved. The father pulls puffy black work gloves from a drawer, duct tapes their edges to the boy’s wrists for bedtime, mutating him into some feather weight boxer who might float away.
Why does this woman live here with the father and the boy, you ask? Where is the mother, you ask? Mother is an abstraction, an observer, a cardboard figure, absent as an airbrushed kiss.
The father, the boy, and the woman exist together inside their private darkness. Restless, writhing, together yet apart. This is a sad story, a bad story, a true story, a story that must be told.
This is the story of home.
Karen Stefano is the author of the forthcoming true crime memoir, Vigilance: An Autobiography of Fear (Rare Bird Books 2019). She is also the author of the short story collection The Secret Games of Words (1GlimpsePress 2015) and the how-to business writing guide, Before Hitting Send (Dearborn 2011). Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Ms. Magazine, California Lawyer, Psychology Today, The South Carolina Review, Tampa Review, Epiphany, and elsewhere. To learn more about Karen and her writing, please visit http://stefanokaren.com.