Hubert laughed out loud, the motion of the train amusing him. He’d been on a train before, years ago, with Mom. He was just a kid when he and Mom had gone to visit Granny and PapPap. Hubert was mesmerized by trains. He even had a train set at home that he played with from time to time. Real trains were more fun than make-believe ones. He looked over at Uncle Ned and grinned. Uncle Ned’s straight face curved into a smile in response, but quickly straightened again, like a line of railroad track bending around a hill, then going as the crow flies once more.
“I like trains,” Hubert said. He laughed excitedly. “By God, I do like trains!”
“Yes, Hubert, I know.” Uncle Ned sighed. “Trains are nice.”
Hubert relaxed his oversized smile, sensing Uncle Ned’s irritation. He let out another, quieter laugh and mumbled, “You bet they are!” He looked out the window. Little houses decorated the distant hills, like the ones in the Monopoly game he and Mom sometimes played. Once, he’d even played with Mom, Uncle Ned, and Aunt Clara all at once—a big game that lasted a long time. Hubert hadn’t won that time. When he and Mom played alone, they usually both won.
They didn’t play Monopoly much anymore. Hubert had taken the little green houses and red hotels and put them around his train set. He wondered whether there would be a train set where he was going. “Maybe I can get mine,” he said out loud. “I don’t mind sharing mine, not one bit. That’s how you make friends.”
His reflection surrounded the houses on the hill, coming back to him in the window like a ghost in a movie with bad special effects. He was nearly bald now—it ran in the family—and he looked a lot like Dad had before Dad left him and Mom some thirty years ago. Hubert didn’t know where Dad was now, but he remembered what Dad had looked like then, like the reflection in the window: shiny, bald head rimmed with a crown of reddish hair, drooping eyes, a plump nose, chubby cheeks, and a chin that hung beneath his head like the ball from the bottom of a train’s bell.
Hubert’s reflection disappeared as he returned his attention to the next set of hills. The leaves had fallen off the trees and the ground looked like it was covered with an orange-brown carpet. He could see the little houses with their smoking chimneys through the wooden skeletons the leaves had left behind.
He liked playing Monopoly with Mom. He wondered if she’d play with him at his new home. He refocused his attention from the distant hills to his own reflection and saw the joy vanishing from his face like the fading vibrations of a cartoon bell. He remembered, and his chin bobbed as he said, “She’s gone.”
For as long as Hubert could remember, Mom had worried about him. “Don’t worry, Mom,” Hubert would say. “You don’t got to worry about me. I’m fine.”
“Of course you are,” she’d said with a peaceful smile, but it was the kind of smile she used when she was saying one thing and meaning another.
Hubert was nineteen when his public school graduated him with a participation certificate. Hubert was proud to receive the certificate—and Mom was proud of him too. But one of the mean kids in school who always called him “retard” told him it was nothing more than a paper that said, yes, he had gone to special classes for mentally challenged children for the past twelve years and, no, they hadn’t taught him to be an ordinary person, to hide his impairment, or to fit in with “normal” people.
The challenge for Mom after he finished school was to find work for him. For more than six months, Mom hunted while he waited. Filling his empty days with things to do—puzzles, games, learning activities—became increasingly difficult.
Living in a large city was a plus, Mom often said. Baltimore and nearby DC offered lots of options for people like Hubert. She’d finally found him a job at a workshop for adults with mental handicaps, making office supplies. Hubert went with Mom to the manager for an interview. Mom gave most of the information before Hubert even had a chance to say anything, but then the manager asked Hubert questions directly, like did he know how to use a pen, how they worked, could he match these colors, put these papers together in a binder and click the metal rings closed without pinching himself. Hubert passed the tests, and two weeks later they offered him a position.
“You’ll like this job,” Mom told him. “It’ll be fun.” Mom drove with Hubert seated next to her, his forehead chilled as it leaned on the cold window.
“I’ll show them what I can do, by God,” he said.
“That’s right,” Mom said. “You’ll be a regular working man.”
“You bet I will! Just like Dad!”
Mom coughed, even though it didn’t sound like she needed to. “Better than him,” she said with a big smile.
Mom walked Hubert into the warehouse. She stayed with him as he got to know the place. Hubert was led to a table where he sat with a pile of pen pieces. It was his job to assemble them: to put the little circular caps on one end and the regular pointy lids on the other end. Mom watched him as he went about his work. It reminded Hubert of when Mom watched him go after jigsaw puzzles, ready to help, but allowing him to show what he could do first. Halfway through the pile, he smiled at Mom. “I’m sure good at this, right?”
“You bet you are.” Mom’s smile beamed. Hubert could tell she felt better. She’d been worried he wouldn’t make it here, wouldn’t fit in. And if not here, then where? But he labored happily, doing something productive and feeling good about it. He showed her he could do it. There was a place in the world for people like Hubert. “You sure are good at this,” Mom repeated.
Over the years, Hubert became one of the best employees at the workshop. He had a sturdy reputation and was even selected as the Employee of the Month once. He could assemble all sorts of pens: the kind that clicked, the kind that twisted, and—his favorite—the stick pens with pointy caps at one end and circular caps at the other. Those ones were like the wooden pegs of his toy tool bench; they fit neatly together.
“My favorites are the green ones,” he’d told his manager once. “They’re pretty. And they’re like trees, or grass, or green beans.”
“Well then, we’ll be sure to give you all the green ones,” Mrs. Dennison had promised. She hovered in the distance as Hubert worked, always in view, her short, stout body and feathery hair making Hubert think of a cartoon mother hen watching over her young. Sure enough, she made sure Hubert got all the green pens. He’d heard Mrs. Dennison tell Mom that the workshop was as much about helping challenged individuals, after all, as it was about making office supplies. She called Hubert their senior green pen expert.
But Hubert loathed the red ones. The first time Mrs. Dennison waddled over with a case of red pens to put together, Hubert stood and turned away from the sight of them.
“Got any green ones, Mrs. Dennison? I’m good at the green ones.”
Mrs. Dennison appeared startled at his reaction, something she hadn’t seen in him before. “No, Hubert. I’m afraid I don’t. How about blue? I have some blue pens that need to be assembled.”
“I can do blue ones, too,” Hubert said. “Not red ones.” Those red circles on the butts of the pens frightened him. They reminded him of a dragonfly’s eyes.
Mom didn’t like Hubert to talk about Dad. But sometimes he forgot until he’d already mentioned him. He’d seen an old picture of Dad before, from the file box of photographs in the office. In the picture, Dad was younger and he had reddish-brown hair and red eyes. In real life, Hubert remembered Dad’s bald head. But he couldn’t remember the color of his eyes. Had they really been red, like a dragonfly’s?
What he remembered most clearly about Dad was the day he’d left them. Hubert had been eight at the time.
“I just can’t deal with it, by God!” Dad had yelled. “I just can’t! That’s all there is to it!”
“But Hughie, he’s your son! He can’t help it.”
“I didn’t say it was his fault, or yours. It is what it is. I’m just not gonna deal with it anymore. It’s not in me.”
“You can’t just abandon us!” Mom had shrieked. “Abandon your son!”
Hubert had never seen a grown-up cry before. But in the entranceway, he watched Mom lose control. When Dad didn’t say anything, Mom asked, “You’ll send money? Child support?”
Dad had turned and smiled at Hubert. Had that been a red twinkle in his eye? Then he looked back at Mom. “You bet I will,” he said. Then he left and never came back.
After Hubert started at the workshop, after he knew what it meant to be a working man, he asked Mom—again—whether Dad was ever coming back.
“Oh, Hubert,” Mom said with a sigh. “I don’t know.” She seemed to be searching for the right answer. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh,” Hubert responded.
“But I do know one thing,” Mom said with spring in her voice.
“I know that I’ll never leave you. Not as long as I live.” She gave him a big hug.
But now, on the train, she was as out of the picture as Dad. Mom was so much more a part of Hubert than the man he barely knew, but when he looked at his reflection in the train’s window again, he saw Dad.
Uncle Ned touched Hubert’s shoulder to draw him away from the window. “How about some juice?” he asked. “Let’s go to the lounge car and get some juice.”
“I like juice,” Hubert confirmed. “But you know what? Soda pop’s even better. I love pop.”
Uncle Ned sighed. “All right, then.” He smiled. “You can get a soda.”
The two men stood and made their way to the lounge car. The lounge was full of people: an older man scratched notes in a planning calendar like the ones Hubert’s workshop made; a man about Uncle Ned’s age in a blue blazer and red tie was rubbing at his neck; an old couple drinking iced tea talked about their kids, and that made him think back to when he had both a Mom and Dad. And that made him remember again. “She’s gone.”
“Here’s your soda,” Uncle Ned said with a forced smile. “That is, if you still want it.”
Instantly, Hubert bubbled back to an excited eagerness. “You bet I do,” he said, taking the beverage. “I sure do like pop!”
“It’s even better on a train ride, isn’t it?” Uncle Ned asked in a sing-song voice.
Hubert giggled. “By God it is, Uncle Ned!” He took an excited gulp. “You bet it is!”
Uncle Ned was Mom’s brother. He and Aunt Clara lived in Chicago. They’d flown to Baltimore for Mom’s funeral. Aunt Clara had to work, so she’d returned after four days. Uncle Ned had work too, but he stayed behind to take care of things. Things like the house and Mom’s stuff. Things like Hubert.
“Juice is pretty good on a train, too,” Uncle Ned said, putting the bottle to his lips. Uncle Ned used to be as bald as Hubert, but now he had a little bit of hair that a doctor had put there. Uncle Ned was bigger than Hubert—a little shorter, but a lot wider. He wore a button-down shirt, open at the collar, and a tan blazer that matched his Dockers. “And juice is good for you.”
Regret pulled Hubert down as the bubbles fizzed out of his drink. “Pop’s bad for you.”
Uncle Ned smiled slightly. “It’s all right to drink it once in a while. It sure does taste good. Especially on a train.”
“You got that right, Uncle Ned!” Hubert laughed out loud and took another gulp.
Uncle Ned had been the nicest of his family members since Mom had died almost two weeks ago. He stayed with Hubert when everyone else went back to their own lives. Uncle Ned talked with Hubert, cried with him, hugged him. He took care of the house and the things, all the paperwork and business of the grown-up world that Hubert never could understand. Hubert could make the pens and planners that kept the world in motion, but he could not use them himself. He knew he was an important part of the system, but he didn’t understand how the system worked or how he fit in.
He didn’t have to tell Uncle Ned that he was afraid of airplanes or that he loved trains; his uncle already knew it and had arranged for their trip from Baltimore to Chicago. “He needs all the comfort he can get right now,” Uncle Ned had told Aunt Clara on the phone when she began to gripe that the train took too long.
Hubert was comfortable now as he looked at the people around them in the lounge car. He spotted a pretty woman with a big tattoo on her back. “I like her tattoo,” he said excitedly, pointing to it and smiling. Uncle Ned looked too.
The woman frowned at Hubert and Uncle Ned. Uncle Ned said in a soft voice, “I know it’s pretty, but it’s not nice to point.”
Hubert gulped his soda. He looked around. He saw a man writing notes with a pencil in a spiral notebook and wondered if one of the pens he made at the workshop might be easier for the writer to use. Then he spotted something else of interest. “A really old lady,” he said softly. Then he pointed and said in a loud voice, “Look! She got old!”
The woman looked startled, short of breath. Uncle Ned hushed Hubert. Hubert asked, “Why didn’t Mom get old, like her?”
“Some people just live longer than others,” Uncle Ned said, placing a hand on Hubert’s shoulder. “It was Mom’s time.”
Uncle Ned looked uncomfortably at the old woman’s back as she walked away. “Nobody can really explain it, Hubert. Your mom just had a different path.”
Hubert and Ned stood quietly for a while, sipping their drinks. Hubert looked out the window and watched the fields of farmland flying by. Then he noticed another figure, seated near one of the windows. “Look, a soldier! Just like my army men!”
The young man in uniform looked over at them, his rigid face hardening.
Uncle Ned led Hubert to another part of the lounge car, away from the man in uniform, the woman with the tattoo and the woman who had been lucky enough to grow old.
The conductor, who’d punched their tickets earlier, was here. “Hello there,” he said, greeting them with a cheery smile. He reminded Hubert of the conductor from The Polar Express, only he had black skin instead of white and no big, broom-like mustache.
“You have a nice train,” Hubert said.
The conductor smiled. “You enjoying the ride?”
“You bet I am!” Hubert laughed out loud.
“Are you and your dad on vacation?”
Hubert looked around the car for Dad, confused.
“I’m his uncle,” Uncle Ned explained.
Hubert looked at Uncle Ned, then back at the conductor. “Me and Uncle Ned are going to my new home.”
The conductor smiled, but he looked like he needed to get away, like he was busy. “Well, that sounds great. You gentlemen have a nice trip.” He left for another corner of the lounge to talk with the lady who was old.
Hubert spotted a lady sitting with a big, yellow-brown piece of paper. The woman looked up from the paper with teary eyes. Hubert offered her a big grin, wishing he could take her tears away. When she responded by turning and gazing out the window, Hubert noticed the decorative pin on her breast. Long and silver, the pin spread mother-of-pearl wings and peered out from her chest with red-hot eyes. It was a dragonfly. Its eyes stared into him, just like the ones on the lamp. He turned to face Uncle Ned.
“Can we go now?”
“Let’s just finish our drinks first, all right?”
“No, I want to go now.” He felt the redness brighten his face and neck. “Can we please go now?”
Uncle Ned sighed. “All right, Hubert, we’ll go.” They exited the lounge car, Hubert hurrying in front, and returned to their seats.
Back in his place, Hubert looked out the window at the autumn landscape but could not get the dragonflies to stop buzzing in his head. The dragonfly lamp was gone, too. The lamp was gone, but the dragonflies remained in his mind and in the things that reminded him of them, just as his mother was with him even though she was in heaven. Mom still watched over him, but the dragonflies hovered there too.
Mom had a lot of unusual collectables in the house. She was a collector of odds and ends, “but mostly odds,” Aunt Clara had once joked. Mom called her display pieces her own personal museum. The things she put on exhibit pleased her and caught the attention of visitors, but they sometimes scared Hubert.
There was the gray stone carving of elephants, four of them, each standing on the other’s back. The elephants had netted skin and you could see a smaller elephant inside each one. The smaller elephants were caged inside the bigger ones; the bigger ones were carved open to display the smaller ones. Hubert couldn’t decide who had it worse.
In the corner stood the wooden statue of men sitting one atop the other, elbows on knees and heads on hands. It had been as tall as Hubert when Mom had bought it, although he had grown and it had not.
The mask collection hung on one wall, more than a dozen masks from Africa, New Orleans, and Asia—Mom had them all labeled. The monkey figurines, the naked man and woman, the Native American tomahawk, headdress, and peace pipe—they didn’t seem very peaceful to him. The devil carved from black wood reminded him of an ancient carving on an old Brady Bunch episode that put a curse on the family during their island vacation. The chest of coins from around the world reminded him of an old Saturday afternoon movie where people who dug up the treasure were haunted by a dead mummy wrapped in sheets. The Chinese statue reminded him of the smoky basement shop of a scary movie. These terrifying treasures stayed in the formal room—Mom’s personal museum—and he stayed out.
When Mom first brought the lamp home and put it on the living room end table, it had appeared frightening enough. Then, she plugged it in and turned it on. It cast a twisted, shadowy light of dark blue with accents of blood red across her face. The glow of the lamp made Hubert shudder.
“I don’t like it, Mom,” he said. “Not one bit.”
“Nonsense, Hubert,” she said, admiring it. “It’s a Tiffany lamp. And it’s beautiful.”
Two feet tall, the base was a blackened-silver metal, colorless dragonflies molded on the foot. Two balls hung on silver chains from the fixture. And on top of it all, the awful umbrella of stained glass. Uneven cuts of glass tainted the ugliest of colors pressed together in a metal web, oozing down from the pointed, metal cap. First, cuts of dull blue-green, then purple-brown, then amber. Jewels of green, red, purple, and yellow peeked out from the dripping shards. Along the bottom half of the stained-glass shade danced the dragonflies, their ivory wings touching one another like paper cut-out children holding hands. They had green bodies that ran up the center of the shade, cutting through the colored glass like knives. Worst of all, their beady scarlet eyes stared out in every direction. They peered into Hubert and they knew he was a slow learner. The dragonflies weren’t fooled by his encouraging mother or his good job; they made him think of the kids in school who called him “Hubert the half-wit.”
No matter where in the living room Hubert went, he could not escape their creepy eyes. He even began to hear them buzzing. He feared they might fly right off the edge of the stained-glass shade and surround his own bald head in the same formation.
“Please, Mom!” A few minutes of staring at the lamp—of the dragonflies staring at him—had Hubert hysterical. “Please take it to the bad room! It scares me!”
“Hubert?” Mom’s happy face grew sad when she turned from the lamp to see Hubert’s fit. “Oh, Hubert.” She hugged him, patted his back. “It’s okay, Hubert. It’s just a lamp.”
“But I don’t like them!”
Mom looked at the lamp and it seemed she saw the dragonflies for the first time. “We’ll just move it to the museum room.” She took his hands and held them tightly. “Why don’t you go wash your face and I’ll make you a nice bowl of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Does that sound good?”
“Yes,” he said, unsure. “But you’re gonna move the lamp first, right?”
“Of course I will. You go on and wash up. The room will look a lot better when you come back down.”
Hubert brightened. “You bet it will!” He went to the staircase. “Don’t forget the pickle!”
“I won’t,” she said. She smiled at him and turned to unplug the lamp. When Hubert saw her coil the cord and lift the lamp, he felt relieved and bounded up the stairs.
A few weeks after Mom got the dragonfly lamp, Uncle Ned and Aunt Clara paid a visit. When they came, they always enjoyed a tour of Mom’s museum room, expecting a new piece or two to be there.
“Oh, you finally got it!” Aunt Clara cheered when she saw the lamp on the table. “It’s wonderful.”
“It is a nice lamp,” Uncle Ned agreed.
“Oh, I’d love one like this.” Aunt Clara put her hands around it, feeling its heat. “It really looks good in here.” Aunt Clara thought everything looked good in Mom and Hubert’s house.
“Maybe someday,” Uncle Ned said, feeling the web-like covering of the dragonfly wings. “When you give up your baskets and figurines.”
“I’ll never give up my Longabergers and Hummels.” She looked around the room. “But I’d almost consider it to take up something eclectic like this.”
Hubert had wished they would take the lamp back with them when they left. When Uncle Ned and Aunt Clara flew back to Chicago at the end of their visit, the dragonflies could fly right along with them. But the dragonflies stayed behind. After a week, Mom and Hubert drove Uncle Ned and Aunt Clara to the airport and bid their farewells until the next visit. When Mom and Hubert returned home in the dark, their guests were gone, but the dragonfly lamp remained on the museum room’s end table, hot, red eyes burning.
Mom went for a run every morning. She always told Hubert, still in bed, that she was going and she’d be back in half an hour. She got back in time to help him get ready, have breakfast with him, and drive him to work on the way to her job at the American Visionary Art Museum. It was her job at the museum that started her collecting unusual pieces.
At first, Hubert didn’t notice Mom had stopped running. After a couple weeks, when he saw her blue sneakers in the basement one afternoon, it occurred to him. “Did you get too tired?”
“Tired?” she asked, stirring curry in a pot.
“Too tired to run? You don’t run anymore.”
“Oh,” she sighed. “Well, I just haven’t felt like running lately.” She looked tired, now that he noticed: bags under her eyes, a slouched posture, the wooden spoon heavy in her hand. “Yes, I guess I’m a little tired.”
She was so tired, in fact, that after giving up running altogether, she gave up working, too. Mrs. Dennison began picking up Hubert in the mornings and driving him home in the evenings. Mom remained in bed until the doctors said she needed to go to the hospital.
Uncle Ned and Aunt Clara came from Chicago to visit. They usually came a couple times a year, but this wasn’t one of their regular visits. Aunt Clara said they were happy to see Hubert, but they looked awfully sad for happy people. They went into Mom’s room while Hubert waited on a bench in the hospital’s white hall. Soon, Aunt Clara came out and left Uncle Ned in the room with Mom.
“How are you doing, Hubert?” Aunt Clara asked, her eyes red from crying.
“I’m doing a-okay.” He looked up at the ceiling, down at the floor, then around at the sterile walls. “I like hospitals,” he said. “They’re nice and clean and don’t have so many decorations. And you don’t need lamps ‘cause all the lights are right in the ceiling.” He laughed, but he sensed something was wrong. Aunt Clara said nothing, nodding but not really listening.
The door opened and Uncle Ned stepped out. “Hubert,” he said. “Your mother wants to talk to you.”
“Good! My turn!” Hubert jumped from his seat and laughed as though this were a sort of game. But he sensed that something was out of place—after all, hospitals were for sick people. He created his own cheer, wanting to make Mom feel less tired. He entered Mom’s room and when he saw her with tubes in her nose and arm, he could feel the smile spill from his face.
“Come here, Hubert,” she said. A nearby machine pinged.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” Hubert asked. The room smelled funny, like the smell in a dentist’s chair right before the sound of the drill.
“How are you, Hubert?”
“Okay, Mom, but what’s wrong? What are they doing to you? Does it hurt?”
“No, Hubert. Don’t worry. You know I love you.”
“Yes.” Hubert looked down the way he did when he was ashamed, but he didn’t recognize the helpless feeling welling up inside him now. He wanted to scream and thrash his arms, but he wanted to roll up and be still at the same time. Confused, he simply looked at Mom.
Mom placed her hand on his. “Uncle Ned and Aunt Clara love you too.”
He looked down at his lap, embarrassed again. “I know.”
“They’re going to take you to Chicago. There’s a nice place there—like the workshop—where you can stay with new friends, people like you, where nice people will take care of you and help you.”
Hubert looked up from his lap and into Mom’s deep, blue eyes. “I don’t want to go there! I want to stay here with you and work for Mrs. Dennison and make pens and stay with you. You can just sleep if you’re tired. I’ll work harder. I’ll even try to do the red ones.”
“It’s a nice place, Hubert,” Mom repeated. “You’ll have your own apartment. And they’ll fix nice meals for you. You’ll have games and activities. And if you want, you can get a job like the one you have here. Or if you’d prefer they have things you can do, like games and field trips, movies and activities and—”
“Are you coming too?”
As the tears welled up in her crystal blue eyes, they shone like jewels. “No, Hubert. I’m going away.”
“I’m going to a nice place too…to heaven.”
“No, Mom! I want you to stay here. I want us to go back home! I like our home. By God, I do! Let’s go home, Mom!”
Mom placed a shaky finger on Hubert’s lips and hushed him. “Don’t worry, Hubert. You’ll like your new home. And I’ll always be with you, even when I’m in heaven.”
Hubert cried out loud. In time, his crying stopped and the two of them shared their final moments together. The tears would return, and leave again, and it would happen over and over until all that was left was the memory of her smile and her blue eyes.
Mom didn’t want to die, but more than that, Hubert knew she didn’t want to leave him alone in the world. “Don’t worry, Mom,” he said. “You don’t got to worry about me. I’m gonna be fine.”
But Mom wasn’t worrying anymore. Her eyes were closed, her chest still, and a peaceful smile covered her lips. The machines around her began to make loud noises and the nurses and doctor rushed in and brushed Hubert aside. They put irons on her chest and made her jump, stuck big balloons on her face and squeezed them, but she didn’t open her eyes. A nurse noticed Hubert still in the room, watching with wide, confused eyes; she put an arm around him and escorted him to the door.
“I don’t want to leave,” he yelled.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said. “You can wait with your family outside.”
“I don’t want to leave!” Hubert screamed and thrashed his arms. But the nurse sent him out and closed the door to Mom’s room. When he saw Uncle Ned and Aunt Clara standing in the bright hall, Hubert lay on the floor, rolled up into a ball, and cried.
The day after the funeral, Uncle Ned and Aunt Clara went back to Hubert’s home. There was lots of food from people—friends, neighbors, coworkers—and even more flowers. Uncle Ned sat on the couch in the living room while Aunt Clara went to the museum room and admired Mom’s collection. Hubert brought his army men to the living room and played with them on the rug, one killing another and then bringing them back to life. He could bring the plastic men back to life, but not Mom.
Aunt Clara came to the living room with the dragonfly lamp and put it on the table.
“That doesn’t go in here,” Hubert insisted. “It goes in the museum room.”
Aunt Clara smiled. “We’ll just see how it looks in here.” She plugged it in, turned it on, and sat next to Uncle Ned.
“But it goes in there!” Hubert pointed to the museum room.
Aunt Clara ignored him. “She sure built up a fine collection,” she said, admiring the lamp. “Very nice legacy.”
“Yes,” Uncle Ned said, not really paying attention. “Everything belongs to Hubert now.”
Army men still in hand, Hubert looked at him. “To me?”
“Yup,” he said, staring blankly into space.
“We’ll want to keep some of your mom’s nicer things,” Aunt Clara said. “To remember her by.” From her seat, she put her hand on the dragonfly lamp.
Hubert stared directly at the lamp. The dragonflies stared back. They knew he was slow and weren’t fooled by the fact that he owned them now or that he was moving to that nice place in Chicago. Hubert looked away from the lamp and back at Uncle Ned. “It’s all mine now?”
“That’s right,” Uncle Ned answered. He remained somewhere else, distant.
“It’s all mine now!” Hubert giggled. “I can do whatever I want with it now!”
Hubert’s outburst woke Uncle Ned momentarily from his daze; Uncle Ned and Aunt Clara gave Hubert wide-awake looks in response to his reaction. So did the dragonflies. His army men were still in his hands.
“We’ll sell the house,” Uncle Ned said. “And most of her things. You can’t take all this with you to Chicago. But the money’s yours. It’ll pay for your new home.”
“And we’ll keep some of your mom’s collection at our place, so you can visit it.” Aunt Clara reminded him.
“All mine now,” he muttered. “I’ll do whatever I want with it, by God!” He glared at the lamp.
Aunt Clara leaned into Uncle Ned on the sofa. “She had wonderful taste.”
Hubert’s action figures had finished their battle, killing one another off. He stood and dropped them to the floor. He walked to the end table and faced the blood-red eyes of the dragonflies. “I hate you.” He started soft, then built into a yell, a confident scream. “I hate you, by God! I hate you!”
Uncle Ned looked as though he thought Hubert were talking about him. “It’s okay to be angry, Hubert. It’s not easy.”
“You’re mine now. You don’t belong to Mom no more! You’re all mine!” He grabbed the lamp by its base.
“Be careful, Hubert,” Aunt Clara warned.
“It’s mine!” he reminded her. He yanked the cord from the outlet and the two bulbs flickered out.
“Stop it!” Uncle Ned stood and put his hands on the base of the lamp. But Hubert held his ground, yanked the lamp from Uncle Ned, and ran out of his reach. Then, with all his strength, Hubert threw the Tiffany lamp across the living room and into the museum room where it belonged.
“Oh my God!” Aunt Clara gasped.
“Hubert, no!” Uncle Ned yelled. But it was too late. The lamp—dragonflies and all—crashed into the glass shelves that held so many of Mom’s collectibles. The dragonfly lamp, the glass shelves and the collectibles crashed down to the hardwood floor. Hubert went to the heap and looked down at what he had done. He laughed at the jeweled eyes, no longer connected to the wings or the knife-like bodies. The dragonflies no longer belonged to Mom. Without her to protect them, he’d exterminated them.
Hubert went back to the living room as Uncle Ned and Aunt Clara went to pick through the remains. Hubert picked up his army men. They’d all killed one another, but he brought them back to life.
On the train, Hubert peered out the window. Cows grazed on a grassy hill. He turned to tell Mom—she loved to look at cows too, and to mimic their sounds with him—but when he saw Uncle Ned looking back at him, he remembered. “She’s gone,” he whispered, looking back to the window.
Uncle Ned put a hand on Hubert’s knee. “You’re really going to like your new home at the center. Your very own apartment. All kinds of foods you like: steak, mashed potatoes, green beans. And games, field trips, all kinds of activities.”
“And a job if I want it,” Hubert added.
“That’s right. And, of course, Aunt Clara and I will visit you every week. And you can visit our house sometimes.”
“And we’ll go to the Brookfield Zoo.” Hubert remembered promises, even though some of them were broken. I know that I’ll never leave you. Mom’s long-ago words echoed in his mind.
“That’s right.” Uncle Ned smiled. “We’re close to the zoo.”
Hubert turned back to the cows. “I wish I could have a cow,” he said.
Uncle Ned laughed. “Cows are too big. Maybe a fish.”
“Oh, yeah, a fish,” he said excitedly. “A goldfish, by God! And I can take care of it—I had a goldfish once, before it died. But I won’t let this one die, no way!”
“Maybe we’ll get you a goldfish,” Uncle Ned said, “after you’re settled in. Amazing how much joy and excitement a quarter can still buy.”
“And I’ll name it Mom.”
Uncle Ned looked confused. “That’s…nice.”
Hubert heard a buzzing in the window. He turned to see a horsefly there, hovering against the inside of the glass, trying to fly out through the transparent wall. The fly buzzed just the way he’d heard the dragonflies buzz—in a laughter that mocked him. Hubert saw the dragonflies in his head, staring at him. He’d killed the dragonflies on the lamp, but still they haunted him sometimes, in the things that reminded him of them. His mother had gone to heaven, but part of her remained in his heart and made him want to be strong, to be good. He thought of Mom’s deep, comforting eyes and ignored the irritating buzz in the window. A moment later, the horsefly flew away.
“She’s Gone” was originally published in Tracks: A Novel in Stories (Atticus Books, 2011, copyright Eric D. Goodman, 2011).
About the Author
Eric is a full-time writer and award-winning author of literary fiction. His short fiction and travel stories have been published more than a hundred periodicals, including The Baltimore Review, The Pedestal Magazine, The Potomac, JMWW, Barrelhouse, Scribble, Grub Street, Syndic, and New Lines from the Old Line State: An Anthology of Maryland Writers. Eric reads regularly from his fiction on radio, at book festivals and events, and he curates and hosts the popular Lit and Art Reading Series, today’s longest-running literary salon in Baltimore. Learn more about Eric and his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com, where you can listen to radio readings, read excerpts and stories, and more.