"I still think the left front tire is getting worn, but of course your father insists that it's fine. We'll see what he says when he gets a flat on the highway. I'm sure he'll have some excuse, as usual."
Gregory let the stream of gentle noise wash past him. He knew his mother wasn't really talking to him; it was more like talking around him, filling up the space that his silence left. He glanced over at her and couldn't help smiling a little. They were an odd pair. Mom was not a large woman, so she always looked out of place driving her enormous SUV, like a child playing on a tractor. She had auburn hair framing a plump, kind face, and usually her mouth was either smiling, talking, or laughing. Gregory was, of course, everything else. Even the truck was barely big enough to hold him. Where his mother filled up the space around her with her personality, Gregory just took up space the old fashioned way. His face was hard, like a slab of granite, and he only smiled when he meant it. His hair was a dark chestnut, on the edge of black, with eyes to match. More than that, he loomed; just by standing in a room, Gregory seemed to cast a shadow over it. And then there was his total silence. Naturally, his mother had more friends than he did. But then, Gregory liked to think that he had better ones.
His gaze drifted out the window, watching the familiar route to school roll by. Gregory was in no hurry to get there. Most of his daily routine was an exhausting ordeal; between trying to make himself understood to his teachers and enduring the bullies, there was little at school to look forward to. When the day ended, though, there was the game. If it weren't for that, Gregory wasn't sure he could even get out of bed each day. It still amazed him that he had been so lucky as to meet Stephen and Val, that he had found people who understood him. Stephen, in particular, was a godsend.
They had met three years ago, when Gregory first moved here. Not that they spoke at first, of course. Gregory spent the first months in the new school trying to be invisible, as futile as that was. The faculty all knew what to expect, since Gregory's parents had met with them before he was enrolled. Still, some teachers took longer than others to get used to the silence. Gregory did his best to make up for it by working for excellent grades, though his class participation scores remained dismal. Whenever he got the chance to do a problem on the board or answer a question with a nod or shake of his head, he took it, even though it inevitably drew uncomfortable attention. The whole process drained him, though. He spent each day totally alone in his thoughts, and feared that it was slowly driving him crazy. In fact, that was how he had met Stephen.
Gregory had been standing against a wall during recess, staring at nothing, doing nothing, wondering how many days of this he could take before his mind finally collapsed. And then a thin boy in a grey cloak had walked over, looked up at him, and said, "You're not crazy. You're just lonely. That's an easier problem to solve." It wasn't a difficult thing to strike Gregory speechless, since he never spoke anyway, but the offhand comment had knocked even the thoughts out of him. He had stared down at the boy, baffled. And Stephen had smiled and held out his hand. "Yes," he had said. "I tend to have that effect. Sorry. I'm Stephen. I'm sure I'll see you around." With that, he had walked off, leaving Gregory to try to put his mind back in order. That had been the beginning, the lifeline Gregory had needed to keep going. Little about school or home had improved since then, but as it turned out, two good friends were enough to counteract the weight of an otherwise unbearable life.
"Gregory?" He turned to look into his mother's hazel eyes. The truck was stopped; apparently Gregory had been too caught up in memory to notice when they'd arrived at the school. Mom was smiling, but her eyes were nervous. “Before you go, honey, I was hoping I could talk to you,” she said. Gregory kept his expression neutral, but he sighed inwardly. So she'd decided to try again. Maybe this would finally be the last time.
“It's about... well, I suppose you know,” Mom continued. “You know I worry.”
“And it's been so long.” Mom's smile began to shake a little. “Jeffrey's birthday is coming up,” she said. “His tenth. I was hoping we could mark the occasion with a little family gathering.” Her tone was cheerful, but it quavered underneath. There were tears in her eyes now. “I hoped you would say something for us. It wouldn't have to be much. Just... something.”
It tore at him to see her this way. Gregory's mother was very like him in one way: they were both very adept at hiding their pain. Sometimes Mom let it slip out, though, and it only served to remind Gregory of what he still kept hidden. There was no way to explain to her, no real way to comfort her. Slowly, he shook his head. Then he leaned over, reaching out with one huge arm.
It would have been easy to miss her reaction, the slight twitch at his movement. Gregory always noticed, though. Even when he put his arm around her, and felt her gratefully return the hug, he could not forget her first instinct. Gently, he wiped away her tears, and she smiled at him. With a small wave, Gregory got out of the SUV, the suspension creaking as his weight left it. He began trudging over to the school building, never looking back, his mind replaying that moment when his mother's guard was down. As he had reached for her, he had seen her flinch. He was her son, and he knew she loved him as much as her heart could love anyone. But that didn't change anything.
She was still afraid of him.