Justin was sitting at the kitchen table. His father was across from him, practically hidden behind the newspaper. His mother was bustling around the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator, got out the orange juice, poured a glass, went to a cabinet and pulled out a prescription bottle and shook out a pill. Then she crossed to Justin and held out the OJ in one hand and the pill in the other.
Justin obediently reached out and took the pill, put it in his mouth, then reached for the glass and drank the OJ.
"Show me," his mother said.
Justin opened his mouth and showed her.
Satisfied, Justin's mother turned away, this time to fetch a bowl of cereal and a carton of milk for his breakfast.
"I thought you said your mother doesn’t care about you and ignores you," the voice commented.
"You think checking to see if I take my pills means she cares?" Justin asked silently.
"She still gets you breakfast."
Justin looked up just as his mother carelessly tossed the bowl on the table and put down the carton of milk without even looking at him.
Before the accident, his mother had been an overwhelming presencealways telling Justin to clean up his room or get his feet off the couch or do his homework or to sit up straight when he ate. Despite working full-time, she had always made breakfast in the morning, and they’d always had a sit-down dinner around the dining room table. Dinner was the time when Mark and Justin would be grilled about their day, their grades, their homework, their friends. Behind their mother’s back they called it "The Inquisition."
The only custom that remained from that timeJustin thought of it as the time "before"was the fact that his mother still made him breakfast. But she almost never made dinner anymore. They usually ordered-in and ate in front of the TV. His mother would ask him about his daybut with one eye on the television. He knew she wasn’t really interested. Not in the way she had been before. And on top of that, she’d stopped nagging him about cleaning his room or doing his homework or improving his grades. He never in a million years would have thought he would miss those things. But he did.
"Yeah, she still gets me breakfast," Justin responded to the voice. "She also feeds the cat. And she feeds the cat first. It’s like I’m not even there. She barely talks to me. She only talks to my father."
At that moment, as if in illustration, she turned to Justin’s father. "You’ve got that presentation today, don’t you?" she asked.
"See?" Justin said bitterly. Somehow, sitting at the table with his father and mother, Justin was sure he couldn’t have felt more aloneeven if he were on a desert island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was a piercing, aching feeling. It was like being enclosed in a little personal soundproof chamber so, even if you yelled, no one around you would be able to hear.
Justin’s father didn’t even lower the paper to answer. "Yep," he said to Justin’s mother. "It's today."
"Did you even ask them to reschedule?"
Justin took advantage of the distraction. Carefully, so as not to be seen, he spit the pill out into his hand and tucked it into his pocket. Then he picked up the milk and poured some into his bowl of cereal.
"I would have asked them to reschedule," his mother said.
Justin’s father didn’t respond.
"Do what you want," his mother said.
His father rustled the paper and said, "Thank you. I will."
Justin’s mother turned away, and her gaze fell on Justin. She started to say, "What are you…" then trailed off.
Justin looked up eagerly. "What am I what?"
She shook her head. "Nothing. Nevermind." Then, picking up her cup of coffee, she spoke again to Justin’s father. "I’ve got to run. I’ll meet you this afternoon."
She started toward the door, then paused and said, offhandedly over her shoulder to Justin, "Will you be there?
Justin said uncertainly, "Um, no, I…"
His mother cut him off. "Fine," she said abruptly. "See you later then."
"You’re right. Your mother seems pretty hostile," the voice said.
"Yeah, just a little," Justin replied sarcastically.
"What about your father?"
Justin looked at his father, now that they were alone together. All he could see was the newspaper held up like a barrier between them.
Justin sighed and went back to eating his cereal. He was very aware of the sound of his own chewingthat, and the occasional rustle of the newspaper as his father turned the page, were the only things that saved them from falling into a deep, bottomless well of silence.
Justin almost jumped when his father suddenly spoke from behind the paper.
"I don’t want to hear about you getting into any trouble at school today," his father said. His voice sounded too loud in the quiet.
Justin stared at himor rather at the wall of paper that rose between them.
"But it’s not me," he protested.
At least that got his father to lower the paperbut it was only to glare at him. "I don’t want excuses, Justin. I just don’t want anything happening today. Your mother couldn't take it. I don’t understand why you’re doing it, and I want you to stop."
Justin looked down at his bowl and swirled the spoon, creating a little whirlpool of cereal.
"Do you hear me?" his father demanded.
"Yes, I heard you."
"And do you promise that nothing’s going to happen today?"
"Gimme a break, Dad."
"I want you to promise," his father repeated.
"Jeez. Okay, I promise."
"All right," his father said sternly. Then he raised the paper again and went back to reading.
Justin looked back down into his cereal, but he couldn’t eat. He had the strangest feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"What’s wrong?" the voice asked.
Justin wished that his father had been the one to ask the question instead of the voice.
"It’s not my fault," Justin said sadly.
"What’s going to happen."
"And what’s going to happen?"
"I don’t know," Justin said, suddenly confused. "I don’t know. How could I know what’s going to happen?"
But somehow, he did know. The feeling was like déjà vu, but stronger… and scarier. It told him, without a doubt, that something was going to happen. And it was going to be bad.