“A Congenital Life” is a fictional story from the collection called Holidays: Stories by Darcy Rhyno
“Never. But that’s not why we’re here, please. We know there’s nothing we can do about that, don’t we Car?” The mother smiled at her son.
Judith placed the palms of her hands on her knees as if it was the deck of a ship at sea. “So you’re here because…” she invited Joy to complete the sentence.
Carson looked on, his face a placid lake.
“Because Carson is in some kind of distress.”
“And I don’t know what it means. We were referred to you because you’re a pain specialist, and distress is the closest he gets to pain. Oh, and we’re not from here.” Joy smiled.
Her years of experience in the field, the research she and her colleagues had carried out and published, her lecture notes, especially in the area of non-verbal indicators, all warned her not to say what she said next.
“He doesn’t look like he’s distressed.”
Joy continued to smile. She blinked, then stirred in the chair and said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have come. It was silly to even hope.”
Judith recovered. “I’m sorry. You’re his mother. Of course you know when he’s distressed.” And quickly, “What signs do you see?”
Joy settled. Smiled. “His heart rate is up. He’s sweating. Restless. Moody.”
“Uh huh. These can certainly be signs of physical pain, but you’re telling me that’s impossible.”
“Yes. My side of the family.”
“Well then, there’s no question. This is just extraordinary, I must say. You’re the first I’ve met.”
Judith realized she looked far too pleased that two cases of extremely rare congenital analgesia had just walked into her office. With a professional smile, she reset the tone.
“Carson, good morning to you.” Another contraction of the smile muscles to put the patient at ease. “How are you today?”
The boy’s expression didn’t change.
Shy. Boys more so than girls, of course, especially in unfamiliar territory. If Carson was a girl, Judith could easily have made a connection. With girls, she used a strategic set of questions about pets and clothing and crushes, but with boys, she often found herself at sea. Wishing Carson were a girl uncovered an ugly bias. She was no better than Richard being secretly disappointed at Emily’s birth, as it turned out.
Okay, talk to the boy. School was the best ice breaker she could come up with.
“What grade are you in, Carson?”
Into the pools she sank. They gave nothing back. She dove deeper and discovered only herself, searching inside an infinitely expanding ocean.
“Seven,” came his mother’s disembodied voice. “Carson is a man of few words,” said Joy as if the boy had spoken of himself in the third person through his closed mouth.
A long swim to the surface and Judith could respond.
“So he’s non-verbal as well? Is there a developmental delay?”
“Oh no. He speaks. And he’s a very clever boy, too. Aren’t you, Car? He just doesn’t speak very often and not for very long.” She smiled. “He hasn’t since Labour Day.”
“What’s special about Labour Day?”
“His grandfather shot himself through the mouth.”
“My God!” The exclamation was pure reflex, as much for Joy’s choice of words and in front of her child as for the act itself. Judith believed in straight talk with kids—they need to know, for example, what kind of pain to expect and how long it’s going to last in order to self-manage—but how many parents would come right out and give such graphic life to a memory?
Carson looked on, expressionless.
“He wasn’t there, was he? When it happened?” Judith asked.
“Oh, no. No one was there.” Joy smiled. “We all gathered in his grandparent’s house right after, the whole family arriving throughout the day. And it’s a big family.”
“Then you know why Carson’s distressed.”
“Yes, it was the first time he’d ever seen anything like it. It was like Christmas—you know, all the joking around and hugging and small talk, lots of food—except everything was sad. His grandmother’s bloodshot eyes were a bit of a mystery to him. And all that hushed talking in corners about the suicide note and the phone calls he’d made…” She stopped as if someone had pressed a pause button. “I don’t want to betray family secrets.”
At last, a handle to grab.
“I understand, but this is a traumatic event in a child’s life. Frankly, I would expect the impact to be significant and long-lasting.”
“Sure, but this was two months ago,” Joy reasoned. “Why is he just now showing signs of distress?”
“Certainly, distress of this kind can be a delayed reaction to a traumatic event such as the one Carson has experienced. Not speaking since the event links the two for sure.”
The knotted muscle at the corner of the mother’s mouth told Judith that Joy didn’t buy it. Judith didn’t either. The suicide had tripped a trap set long ago, but Judith hadn’t the background to say what had set the trap in the first place. She needed time and information. First things first, she needed to confirm the mother’s observations.
“Let me just make a record of his pulse.”
The boy didn’t flinch when she placed the cold steel on the warm, rice paper flesh of his arm, surprisingly damp against her fingertips. She counted. Calculated. One-twenty. Racing.
“It’s a little high. Listen, I’d like to make a suggestion. Why don’t you give me some time to look into this? Because of its rarity, I’m sure I’m not familiar with the latest research in the field. I’ll track down any contemporary case studies I can find, do a little digging. See what I can come up with.”
She looked at the boy. “How’s that sound, Carson? Would you mind coming back in a few days to see me again?”
“We can do that.” Joy smiled. She rose and Carson slid from his chair at the signal. Joy held Judith’s hand again as Judith explained that the receptionist would set up the next appointment on their way out. Joy opened the door, sent her son into the waiting area, turned to face Judith and closed the door again.
“Watching him for thirteen years…” Joy shook her head slowly.
Judith reached an open hand to Joy’s face and held it there without touching. “And you?” Judith asked.
Joy traced the stub of her index finger along her scarred jaw and tapped at it.
“I finger painted when I was a toddler.”
Judith knit her eyebrows, cocked her head.
“I chewed the ends off my fingers and used the blood to make pictures on my sheets. I wouldn’t stop, so my parents removed my teeth. My jaw failed to develop properly. Look, Doctor, can you… can you determine, I mean look into the possibility before our next visit… if the distress Carson is experiencing is a sign that he might, even in some small way, recover?”
~ End part 3 of 5 ~
Mouth by Darcy Rhyno
“A Congenital Life” is a story in the collection called Holidays: Stories by Darcy Rhyno
To purchase the collection, visit darcyrhyno.com