After Marcellus died, his mother showed up at my apartment wearing rubber gloves and carrying a plastic bag.
She pushed past me, through the door and into my living room. Her plastic bag swished as she walked. “Where is it?”
“Where is Marcellus’s retainer? He left it here, didn’t he?”
“Right. Last week.” I led her into the kitchen. “It’s still here. I didn’t really want to touch it.”
She picked up the retainer case in her gloved hand and put it into her plastic bag. “Thank you.”
“It’s the least I can do.”
“You know I’ll keep paying you.”
“You know that’s not necessary. I still have my school salary, and I’m tutoring three other—”
“I won’t be paying you for nothing. I want you to keep his slot open.”
“For his tutoring—in your schedule. Keep it open.”
“For how long?”
“Six years. Do you think you can do that?”
I couldn’t tell if Marcellus’s brother—Augustus, after his father—ever liked me.
“How did you feel the exam went?” I’d ask him, and he’d respond with something like, “I’ll know my grade in a week. Why do you care how I felt?” Or I’d suggest he come over to my home for tutoring, and we could have dinner afterward, just like I used to do with Marcellus, and he would say, “We have a chef. Why would I want to eat your food?”
It’s true, I’m not a good cook. And it’s true, his chef is very good. And his house might have felt safer, more familiar than my apartment. Sometimes, when he got distracted between assignments, he’d get up and walk around, running his hands over the ceramic elephants perched on the mantle or peering into the elaborate model ships lining the sideboard.
Marcellus had been the same way, but as he’d grown older, he’d also become more self-conscious. We’d started having the tutoring sessions at my home, a tidy white-walled apartment with four barely furnished rooms, at his request. After long days at school, where my two post-grad degrees and expertise in mid-century philosophical developments—the more obscure the better—were useless, even detrimental, in comparison to my efforts to cultivate my “teacher” voice, my dull little home was what I wanted most. Marcellus’s home was full of his parents’, especially his father’s, extensive souvenirs and genealogical memorabilia curated over generations of tourism, hunting, and missionary work—though which venture led to which artifact, I never knew. Regardless, as much as he had struggled with school and the work associated with it, Marcellus had wanted to learn, and the fewer the distractions, the better.
Augustus wasn’t as self-aware—yet. And I was beginning to feel I had been wrong to push him, to suggest studying elsewhere, and to ask about the emotional side of his studies. I wouldn’t have asked Marcellus those questions at that age—I wouldn’t have known to do so. And now Augustus would be different. Maybe more resistant to the same words because they were spoken too early.
Sometimes he would say to me, opening his wooden chess set and putting the pieces in place, “I don’t want to play, I just want to move the pieces. It helps me think.”
Marcellus had never done this.
Or maybe he’d go up to the stuffed bear killed by his father on a hunting trip and start to pluck its hairs.
“I don’t think your mother would like you doing that, Gus.”
And he’d turn to face me, suddenly furious. “What do you know about my mother?”
Marcellus would never have spoken to me in this way. I had never seen Marcellus angry before, ever. Only distracted. Anxious. Of course, Augustus was these things as well.
A few weeks before his fifteenth birthday, when he was in a particularly bad mood, Augustus picked up one of his father’s big model ships and carried it over to the table where my finger was going numb holding open his history textbook. He banged the ship down onto the table so hard I thought he might have broken it—the table and the ship.
“It’s mine. Dad let me pick it out, so it’s mine.”
I hesitated, not wanting to upset him further. “Okay. But if it’s yours, don’t you want to take good care of it?”
“Maybe I do—and maybe I don’t.”
“Imagine if it were a real ship. Lots of lives on it. You’re the captain. Isn’t that an important responsibility?”
He stared at me for a moment, and then pulled out his pocket-knife. He flicked it open, bent down, and drove it into the underside of the model ship.
“It’s not a real ship.”
“Of course it’s real—it’s sitting right there. Just because it’s not an original—”
He bent down so that he was eye-level with the ship, like he was really on it. “I see something. Something in this distance.”
“A destination?” I couldn’t tell if he was serious.
He sat up, slamming closed his pocket-knife and stuffing it into his pocket. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t even see the hole. No one will notice that it’s there.” Then he raised one hand, running it through his hair backward before stopping and cradling his own head. He grinned at me.
“I said, what?”
“That’s exactly what Marcellus did.” I mimicked the motion—raising one hand, running it through my hair backward before stopping and cradling my own head. “He did the same exact thing.”
He frowned at me. “The way Mom talks sometimes—you might think we were the same person.”
Not for the first time, I wondered how much he knew. “That must be annoying.”
Sometime the next morning, as I was packing my bag for work, his mother called my cell. “Did you tell him?” There was no need to ask what she was referring to.
“I didn’t tell him anything.”
“He—he said—” She broke off. “But we haven’t said anything!”
I wanted to know what he’d said, but instead I heard myself asking, “Then maybe—at this point—don’t you think it would be best to tell him?”
“Don’t tell me what to do!”
I searched for a response.
“You told him, didn’t you!”
“I didn’t say anything!”
“Well—maybe you should have, then,” she spat.
Of all the responses I expected, this was not one of them. “Why?”
“You’d say it better than me.”
“Have a good week.”
My phone hung limp in my hand. She had hung up.
That night Augustus called me. A school night, I was already in bed, but wide awake—I saw the screen of my muted phone flashing from the bedside table. I wouldn’t have picked up if it had been anyone else.
“So, you knew all along.”
I felt cold all over. “Yes.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It wasn’t my place.”
“Are we the same? The exact same?”
“Are you sure?”
I could hear him breathing heavily into the phone. “I want to know. I want to know the truth.”
“What else is there to know?”
I tried to summon my teacher voice. “I’m going to need you to be more specific.”
“Why did Marcellus do it?”
I hesitated. “I don’t think anyone but Marcellus knows the answer to that question.”
“But you knew him.”
“I just think he—there was too much pressure.”
“Too much pressure?”
“But I’m different from him.”
He was still breathing heavily into the phone. “I don’t have to turn in my Franklin essay tomorrow, do I?”
This was a conversation we’d had before. “You know you don’t have to do anything—”
I thought I heard him make a sound, but then I realized he’d only hung up.
When I answered his mother’s call the next morning, she started talking before I could explain I was driving.
“Gus is gone.”
I changed lanes and was convinced I’d misheard. “Did you say he’s gone?”
“He’s not in the house. His pillow is still fluffed. The burglar alarm wasn’t on when I woke up this morning. Is he with you?”
She was panting audibly, her words almost indistinguishable from the static. “Do you have any idea where he could be?”
“I’ve looked everywhere!”
I hesitated. “Have you checked the docks?”
“But he’s not even fifteen! Marcellus was sev—!”
If we had been in the same room, I would have had to restrain myself from slapping her. Instead, I put on my indicator. “I’m getting off the highway. I’ll be at the docks in fifteen.”
It sounded painful, but I heard her mutter, “Thank you.”
After she hung up, I took the first exit and headed toward the coast.
All I could think was that if I drove fast enough, maybe it would be I, not his mother, who identified the body.