Evan sat on his bed with his back against the pillow. The light was so low that the room was bathed in shadows. They fell from the clutter, making dark shapes on the worn hardwood floor. But Evan was so used to the darkness that he saw the shapes making the shadows, even the paint peeling off the once-white walls.
He saw shelves lined with books and toys and model airplane kits. Action figures sat here and there, discarded. On a rolling cart at the edge of the bed was a television. It was small and old and attached to an antenna that sat somewhere far away, on the roof of this weathered, tipping house.
His mother had boarded over the room’s single window and covered the boards with a framed painting. It showed a broad meadow with tall grass, a blue sky, and sunshine his mother said was "so bright it might jump off the canvas and light up the room." Evan tried not to look at it. He would rather just have the plain brown boards.
Evan knew what was outside. It was not a brilliant meadow with tall grass. It was an unkempt front lawn, covered in dandelions. The grass was patchy, and cracked dirt showed through. Beyond the front yard was a potholed street and beyond that, the train tracks. One large oak tree broke the boredom. Its large green leaves would have just returned for the beginning of spring.
He remembered the last time he had seen it, more than a year ago. It had been winter then. The leaves had been gone, but his rope ladder had still hung from the tree trunk. He used to climb that ladder to the first fork, then climb the branches up. From there he could see more houses, more of the road, more of the train tracks. That winter he had watched the ladder through the window, straining to catch the last glimmer of sunshine, even though it hurt his eyes.
"Don’t look, honey," his mother had said, placing the first board over the glass. But he had.
Evan flexed his fingers, used them to push himself up further, to a full sitting position. Moving them was like pulling a rubber band. They wanted to curl back on themselves, roll into a ball, and stay there. He flexed them more, pressed his nails against the membrane. It hurt, but he ignored the pain, flexing his fingers even harder. Then, slowly, he let them curl back, feeling the membrane relax onto itself. It felt strangely good, like poking a healing bruise.
He sucked in his breath. It came roughly, and he rubbed his nose with his fingers, upsetting the sticky membranes that had started to cover the nostrils. Rubbing them would help him breathe for a while, until they got in the way again. Without planning to, he rubbed his feet together under the blankets. The webs of the right foot grated the toes of the left. Then he rubbed the other way. It felt oddly calming and was his habit when thinking unpleasant thoughts.
He stared at the television. Inside it were a thousand worlds. Real streets, real buildings, trees, oceans, and sunshine. All that background, used to tell a story, showed Evan what was out there. Where he could be standing if he could stand at all. The TV was blank. He could watch it with the brightness turned down to almost nothing, but right now he didn’t want to turn it on.
A familiar soft knock invaded the silence. Evan said nothing but stared down at his hands. He heard the creaking as the knob turned and the door slowly opened, revealing the small, partially gray head of his mother, peering in from the darkness.
The hallway was black. No light could come in from outside the room. His mother had learned to navigate the staircase and the hallway in the dark. She was carrying a wooden tray made with feet on it, for serving breakfast in bed. But breakfast was gone and this was dinner, steaming up from the plates and filling the room with its inviting smell.
Evan’s stomach gurgled, and he was lifted a little from his sadness.
"Hi, Mom," he said. "What did you bring me?" He could see her smile, but he was sure that she could not see his. The room was too dark.
"Beef stew," she said, "with lots of potatoes. And biscuits!" His mother knew how much he loved her biscuits. She walked into the room, her feet tracing the path they always took, which Evan kept free of clutter just for her. She leaned over the bed and set the tray over his legs. Then she sat down herself and closed her hand over his calf, which was underneath the blankets.
"I’m sorry it’s late, honey. I had to work overtime again." Her voice sounded tired.
"That’s okay," Evan said. "It’s worth the wait." He bit into one of the biscuits and felt the sweet jam meld with the fluffy bread.
His mother smiled wanly. "It’s Roy again," she went on. "I’m lucky he shows up at all." Roy was the person who was supposed to relieve her so she could come home and be with Evan. But he was always late.
"They should fire him," said Evan with his mouth full.
"I can always use the extra hours," she said, smiling bigger, like she wanted to change the subject. She got up and went to a shelf along the wall. She pushed her face in closely, trying to get a good look at what was on it.
"How’s that model airplane coming?" she asked. She had bought him a new one, one that was supposed to be for littler kids, easier to do with his degrading fingers. His mother didn’t know they were so bad now, he couldn’t even do the kiddie kit.
"Oh, I didn’t get to it today," he said. He shoveled the food in, hoping she wouldn’t see him struggling to grip the spoon. "There were some good movies on TV."
The sad smile on her face made him unsure whether she believed the lie. He knew that there was just enough light in the room for her to see his face after her eyes had adjusted. She sighed but didn’t ask about it any further.
She sat down on the bed again and started telling him about her day. The crazy customers, the stupid boss. She always injected as much humor as she could, but it still sounded sad. Evan knew that the crazy customers were mean and the stupid boss was nasty.
He knew his mother only worked there for the health insurance, so a doctor could come to Evan’s room once a month, look at him, shake his head, and go away again. They had long since passed any hope of a doctor figuring this out, but the doctor kept coming.
"Dr. Allen is the best. If anyone can figure this out, he can." His mother had said this after he had returned from the hospital, after the specialists and the scientists had given up.
Evan liked the old man. He gave Evan candy and told funny stories, just like he had when Evan was very little. But Evan knew that Dr. Allen couldn’t help. It was just his mother’s way of hanging on to hope.
His mother stayed with Evan for a while. They talked about the movies Evan had watched on TV that week and the books he had read. With his single tiny lamp, covered so it barely glowed, Evan could still make out all the words. Now that reading was one of the few things he could do, he was starting to like it. Finally, she left the room with his dinner tray.
"Good night, honey," she said, forcing a smile as she opened the door into the blackness.
"Good night, Mom," Evan replied. As she closed the door behind her, he felt as if the darkness from the hallway sucked out what light he had left inside, even though he could still see as sharply as a cat. He felt so sorry every time she left. Sorry she had to go through having a son like this. Sorry she had to work at that awful store. Sorry she had to live alone and never get married and never have a normal child all because of him.
Evan was about to turn out the re...