There is no doubt the boy got the short end of the stick every single time. They lived in a little stone cottage on a small farm. The farm had horses and dogs and cats and bunnies. There was a barn and a hayloft and an above ground pool with a deck two steps out the kitchen door. It had a greenhouse full of light and tack room that smelled of leather and fly spray. There was a paddock with a hand pump for water, and a run-in shed. The cottage had a kitchen with an old fashioned sink, a mudroom, a living room, and a bathroom. It had two close bedrooms and a half finished attic, and a basement with a door to a breezeway with three doors for going anywhere.
Just before his sister was born his parents turned the half finished attic into half an attic with a fully finished bedroom. It had a single casement window behind the bed, but there was a skylight that lit up the white floorboards in the day and filled the room with stars when he was sleeping. The walls were painted white, but there was border of trains that went all the way around the room. His mother said it was 'Hunter Green' just like the banister and his very own stairs. The door was just brown.
He loved his room but he did not like being so far away from his parents. His father drew a picture called a floor plan and showed him that his new room was right over his old room, but bigger. He knew his bed was still just six feet from his parents, but he had to go all the way down and around to find them. He hated using the bathroom at night but he did it anyway. Mostly.
When he was eight, he lit his room on fire. It was an accident. His mother was very sick and didn't manage to stay awake. His father was away. He took his sister upstairs to play on the rug covered with school papers and tissues and other flammable things. He had a rocket kit for his birthday, back when rocket kits were still made for little kids. He wasn't very good at reading yet, but he was very good at puzzles. The rocket was just a puzzle.
When the rocket was assembled, he ran downstairs and found the matches. The rocket took off as advertised, and the papers on the floor burned as expected, by an adult, and suddenly his room was on fire. After the fact, his three and a half year old sister indicated that no one should be mad because Mikie knew what to do. He did not want his mother to wake up and so downstairs he went, straight to the recycling bin. He filled every can and bottle in the bin. He brought the water upstairs, three or four cans at a time, and emptied them onto the fire but the fire was spreading. Still, he did not want to wake his mother. He carried water and carried water and carried water until the fire was out.
It was dark and his mother was still asleep. He put his sister to bed and then put himself to bed, and hoped his mother would keep sleeping. His daddy came home under the light of a full moon and a clear starry night. The house smelled of smoke and damp ash. His wife was asleep and the baby in bed. He went upstairs to check his boy, fairly certain that somebody would tell him an almost funny story in the morning.
This is what Mike's daddy saw when he reached the top of the stairs:
There was a soot covered boy in a half burned bed with a used to be white floor charred from the middle all the way to what used to the foot of the bed. There wasn't much left of the rug. The acrid smoke hit his father's eyes and nose at the exact moment he saw the boy in the bed. He opened his mouth to take air and let loose a scream that broke the night. He pulled his boy from the bed, very much alive and startled. He carried his first born down the stairs like a baby, holding him so close Mikie thought he might drown in his father's tears.
In the morning, his mother lost her mind.
The room was fixed, a new bed acquired, and Mikie's mother subsequently left home. The hardening that started when he was four or five, or maybe six began again in earnest. He was a heartbreak bobbing up and down in a very lonely ocean.
It took a few years for Mikie's mom to figure out how to support and care for them by herself. The inevitable guilt and shame and sorrow made her cold sometimes, and distant. Mothers do not leave their children. Fathers leave their children, but mothers absolutely never, ever, ever. Society shames the mother, but the mother does far more damage to herself.
When Mike and Lucia were thirteen and eight, their living arrangements swapped. They lived with their daddy on weekends and with their momma during the week. They went to new schools and made new friends and their momma got married again. They got to be in the wedding, even if it was a small wedding. Their daddy brought his girlfriend and he cried. Mike wore a blue blazer and khaki trousers, just like his daddy who laughed a lot, and people loved him but Mike was his momma's son. He had to work a little harder. His momma and his daddy both had very tender hearts. He didn't stand a chance. A tender heart can become a walking wound in a single beat.
Lucia was a pissant but Momma loved her anyway, no matter what she did. He loved Lucia too, no matter what she did, but secretly wished her disappeared. He was persistently vocal with his disapproval. The first time Lucia bit Mikie, she was two years old. The second time, she was still two years old. The third time she bit him, she left purple welts and she was two years old. At no point, no matter what it looks like in the moment, has Lucia ever backed down. He has the bite marks to show for it. He was never sure if he should kill her or just run like hell. Eventually he discovered how much he needed her.
Their momma's apartment was full of light. It had a kitchen, a dining room, a living room with a fire place and two bedrooms. Both bedrooms were very small, but the second bedroom was tiny. They tried to make it work. They got a small scale bunkbed from Ikea and that lasted exactly two weeks. The property manager installed a sliding partition and Lucia was moved to the dining room. It wasn't optimal, but at least he had his own door.
Just about a year later, they bought a house across town. It was a big house. It had a kitchen, a dining room, a front room that was mostly useless, and a very, very big living room with a cathedral ceiling. It also had three bedrooms. That would have been perfect except Elizabeth was on the way. Just off the original basement was the lower level of the 600 square foot addition. There were windows for light and it wasn't damp. There wasn't a door, but it was off the basement. Eventually there were doors, and one year his momma painted his room in hunter green and orange and it looked very much like the bunny's room in Good Night Moon. Mikie would not, in a million years, have admitted to wanting the bunny's room, but he did.
Green and orange it may have been, big enough for all his engineering experiments, with a large flat table for the massive lego kits he got each Christmas. All these things it may have been, but it was still cut off from the family.
A few years later they bought another house which was beautiful and also in the Forest. It was perfect. It even had four bedrooms. Sort of. The fourth was legally a bedroom because it had a door, a window, and closet. It also had another door that opened into the furnace room. There was a half bath just outside his room and easy access to the garage. For a while there was a giant pool table. There was a couch and a television. He was a young man with a great deal of privacy.
He was a boy on the edge, living in isolation.
Elizabeth couldn't find her brother. When she asked, people were vague. They won't tell me, but I know where he lives.
She went down the stairs and stood outside Mike's room. The door was open a few inches and shaft of light came through the window. The shaft of light went right through where the bed should have been. She turned around, went back upstairs, down the hall, and into her room. She shut the door and sat on her bed. By the time she saw him again, they were both very different people.
With the same tender heart.