I’d spoken to Nate’s psychologist about the times he’d claim to speak with the ghost of his dead father. The doctor would nod his head and say my son had hold him the same thing.
“Just part of the grieving process, Mrs. Hammond. These things take time. But thank you for bringing it to my attention. I never want you to feel like any detail is too small or unimportant to tell me. If Nate feels like he needs to imagine his father and relive some of their moments together in his own context, you should let him.”
It all made sense to me, but it seemed to happen a whole lot. One morning over breakfast, about a year after his father’s death, Nate told me about how he’d been speaking with him just a few minutes before he’d come downstairs.
“What did he tell you?” I asked, mentally taking notes I’d be sharing with his shrink.
“Just the normal stuff,” Nate replied. “Advice and all that.”
“What kind of advice?”
Nate paused. “Things he’d tell me when he was, you know, still with us.”
He started to get teary eyed. I followed suit.
“He talked about Boy Scout stuff.”
I grinned. Ted had been a beloved scout leader for as long as I’d known him. He got along so well with those kids. All kids, really. He had a way about him that was both disarming and assertive – qualities I’ve found all the best teachers have.
“What kind of scout stuff, Nate?”
Nate shook his head. “He didn’t want me to say too much. He said you might get mad.”
That concerned me. My relationship with Ted never involved secrets. Openness, especially around our son, was something we decided was of paramount importance before Nate was even born. Kids always know when their parents are hiding something. We didn’t want our own to have to deal with that. I didn’t know why Nate would make up a secret between the two of them.
I pressed. “Nate, please. I won’t get mad. I need you to tell me.”
He sighed. “Just, like… tying knots and making birdhouses and starting fires in the woods.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Starting fires?”
“I’m not gonna set stuff on fire, Mom.”
“Is that what you didn’t want to tell me?”
Nate stared at the floor. He didn’t answer.
I figured he’d had enough.
“Okay my love. Just tell me when you and Dad…talk. You don’t need to worry.”
“I will.” He paused, then burst into sobs. “I miss him so much.”
I scooped him into my arms and cried with him. “I do too.”
We held one another for a while.
At the psychologist’s suggestion, I started to set out the craft items Nate would need to use for his next scout badges. I laid everything out in the garage, right on the workbench that had once belonged to his father.
“It’s yours now,” I told him. “I know everything you’ll create will make Dad proud.”
For the most part, I left Nate to his own devices in there. He was almost twelve at that point and I knew kids that age need more privacy than they might have a couple years before.
That didn’t stop me from checking in on him every so often — sometimes without him noticing.
Most of the time he was hammering away at some boards or making some ornate ships’ knots or glueing stuff together. I never caught him trying to set a fire.
“Minor miracles,” I told myself.
I did catch him talking to himself, though. It didn’t happen a lot, and nothing sounded disconcerting. Sad, since I knew he was talking to his father, but not disconcerting.
“Like this, Dad?” he’d ask after measuring a 2×4 but before cutting it.
“It took me a bunch of tries but I kept remembering what you told me and I finally got it!”
A few more months went by, and Nate stopped mentioning talking to his dad’s ghost. I found it strange, since I’d been surreptitiously listening in on his one-sided conversations. Over time, I grew concerned about why he’d stopped telling me about them. I decided to ask.
“Hey Nate, do you still talk to your dad?”
“Every day,” Nate answered.
“We’re working on a project. He’s teaching me how to make something really important. But it’s a secret.”
Another secret. So he’d stopped bringing up his “conversations” with his father until I asked, and he’d also been keeping something from me, even though he knew how I felt about that.
Despite myself, I felt deep unease blooming in my stomach.
When Ted was alive, I never once questioned his love and desire for our son’s wellbeing. I never gave thought to the nasty rumors about boy scout leaders in general. “Just some bad apples,” I’d tell myself. “Ted’s a great guy.”
But now Nate was telling me that his father said to keep secrets.
Why would Nate invent that scenario?
Had Ted actually told him to keep things from me when he was alive?
“Nate, I need you to tell me right now what secret you’re keeping,” I demanded. In retrospect, I think I could have used a tone that wasn’t as angry or harsh as it had been.
“I can’t tell you.”
Images I’d never considered possible entered into my mind. Images of Ted acting like those horrible, abusive scout leaders.
“God damn it Nate, you know we don’t keep secrets in this house. Tell me what you’re doing or you’re not going to be allowed to use your workshop.”
Nate just stared at his plate of food.
“Nate!” I shouted.
“I…I can’t,” he whimpered. “You’ll get too mad.”
“Go upstairs,” I hissed. “Don’t come down until it’s time for school tomorrow.”
Nate obeyed. He left the table in silence.
A few hours later, I walked by his bedroom on the way to my own. I heard him whispering. It was too quiet for me to make out any words.
“Go to bed,” I called through the door. The whispering stopped.
As I undressed and showered, I replayed the scene at dinner in my head. I was horrified at the prospect that Ted had done something to Nate. But my concern seemed flimsy. The scenario was so catastrophized. Did I really think Ted had molested our son? Did I actually believe Nate was exploring the trauma through made-up conversations with his father’s quote-unquote ghost?
After everything was laid out in my mind and analyzed over the course of that long, hot shower, the answer was a definitive no.
I felt guilty for how I’d treated Nate at dinner. It was a while before I was able to sleep.
In the morning, when my alarm went off, I began my daily routine by sitting up in bed and yelling for Nate to get ready for school. I brushed my teeth, got dressed, and while I was leaving my room, saw my son’s door was still closed.
“Nate, come on, let’s go!” I called, and banged on the door on my way down the hall.
Something was peeking out from the door. A sheet of paper.
I sighed and reached down. Nate had a habit of writing me notes when he was angry or upset. His psychologist said it was a great way of articulating words that couldn’t come to mind right away.
I knew that much.
I unfolded the sheet, expecting to read a few paragraphs about how I’d been wrong and unfair the night before.
Instead, there were just a few lines:
“I’m sorry I kept this a secret, but Dad taught me how I could see him again. It took me a long time to learn, but you can use it after me.”
A strange, hollow sensation slid from my feet through my legs.
“Nate, you better be up and dressed,” I called in a shaky voice, and opened his door.
The universe tilted.
Attached to the pull-up bar in his closet was the product of a skilled, learned scout: a perfectly-tied noose.
And my son’s lifeless body.
© Max Lobdell, 2019. May not be reproduced in any format without express written permission.