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The Kingdom of Childhood

Vivienne Heath called me on Friday night to inform me that Zach wanted to use the workshop over the weekend. Could I come in to unlock it for him and to supervise?

"For a few hours," I conceded, already resentful of giving up even that much of my Saturday. "In the morning, because I have plans later. Can he be there at eight?"

To my surprise he was. When I arrived he was already sitting on the workshop steps, backpack slung over his shoulders, headphones on his ears. He said nothing when I let him in and got right to work, moving around the shop with a familiarity that made him look like a very young professional. I sat on a stool with my newspaper and coffee, and read.

As he worked, he sang to himself. It seemed almost unconscious, and when I stole a glance at him, I saw him briskly measuring and marking as he sang. Apart from the rest of the madrigal choir, I was struck by the beauty of his individual voice. It had the pure, clear-spring quality of a child in a boys' choir, partnered with the faintly raspy undertone of a voice only recently changed. It wasn't the voice of a rock star, even if rock was what he was singing --- a sad song, bittersweet and mournful.

"That's a very depressing song you were singing," I said when he pulled the headphones down, letting them rest around his neck. He sat down at the adjacent side of the table from me and hoisted up his backpack.

He smiled. "It's Ben Folds Five. I didn't realize you were listening."

"Is that the name of the song, or the band?"

"The band. 'Brick' is the name of the song." He unzipped his backpack and pulled out a notebook, a bottle of green tea, and an organic granola bar. Flipping the notebook to a schematic drawing of the playhouse, he examined it while swigging from the tea bottle. He unwrapped the bar and took a bite. It was no wonder he was in such good shape. When Scott was younger I had fed him exclusively out of natural-foods stores, but since adolescence he would only eat like that if the pantry offered him no alternative. Maybe Zach was in the same boat.

I pointed to the initials on the front pocket of his backpack. "What's the X for?"

He grinned and took a drink of his tea. "I'm not telling you that."

"Why not?"

He shrugged. "Why should I?"

"It's probably for Xavier."

"It's not Xavier."

"That's the only boy's name that starts with X."

He bit into the granola bar. With his voice muffled by granola he replied, "No, it's not."

"Well, what is it, then?"

I waited until he swallowed for my answer. Then with a sly expression he asked, "If you're so curious, why don't you just look it up in my file? You're a teacher, aren't you?"

"Because I don't want to go nosing around in your business."

"Nose around all you want. I'm an open book."

I sipped my coffee. "I don't know any teenager that's true for."

"You do now."

"Come on, just tell me."

"What's in it for me?"

I considered the question. In his eyes and at the corners of his smile I could see a hint of the mischievousness that, for him, had always preceded an off-color remark. Before he could crack a joke in that vein I replied, "Coffee."

"What kind of coffee?"

"Whatever you want. Starbucks."

He wrinkled his nose in distaste. "Starbucks is corporate."

"Well, it's what we've got around here. This is the 'burbs, not New Hampshire."

"Tell me about it," he said. "What about with a black-and-white cookie? I love their black-and-white cookies."

"I don't know about that." I took a drink of my own corporate latte. "Steiner might not approve."

He laughed. "Seriously, are you buying me off?"

I nodded. He gauged my seriousness and replied, "It stands for Xiang."

"That starts with a C."

"No. In Chinese, the X can make a c-h sound. It means 'arising.' Or 'spreading his wings to fly.'"

"I gave him an admiring look. "Does it really?"

He nodded. He looked a little proud. "Zachary Xiang Patterson," I said, carefully pronouncing each crisp word.

"I have the coolest initials on the planet."

I gazed at the black-markered initials again, a code I could suddenly read. Then I admitted, "I probably wouldn't have guessed you were part Chinese if I hadn't met your mother."

"I am, though," he insisted. "Feel my hair."

With a short laugh, I declined the offer. "That's okay,"

"Seriously, feel it." He bent his head toward me. Reluctantly I stroked it, as if he were a puppy. The choppy edges of his haircut belied the texture, which was silky, slippery. "It's the same as my mother's," he said.

"Softer than it looks."

"Yeah. I have Asian earwax, too."

I grinned. "What's the difference?"

"It's flaky instead of goopy. And I don't stink when I sweat."

Bemused, I considered whether I could remember evidence to the contrary. "Is that supposed to be an Asian characteristic? That sounds like a myth."

"It's not true for everyone, but it is for me. And it's a good thing, too, because you ought to smell my dad sometime, when he gets working. He's like an NFL locker room after a game."

I raised my eyebrows. "Thanks for the warning."

"So when do I get my coffee?"

"I'll take you and Scott out after Madrigals on Monday."

"What about tomorrow? My mom told you I'm working here all weekend, right?"

I sighed. "No, she didn't tell me that. Does that mean I'm babysitting you tomorrow, too?"

He shrugged with unconcern. "I thought you were."

"Then I guess I am," I told him ruefully. "But the coffee will still be Monday."

"I can live with that." He hiked his headphones back onto his ears and hopped off the stool, heading back toward the playhouse with the bottle of tea in his hand. Today he wore a black T-shirt, almost outgrown, with no thermal beneath it. When he reached for the trim pieces on an upper shelf he revealed a stomach that was smooth and faintly muscular, divided, below his navel, by a narrow line of black hair.

I looked away.

Even the Style section of the newspaper was crammed with items about the repercussions of the Starr Report. Zach was right --- it was unavoidable. I turned the offending sections over so he would not be inspired to perform another comedy routine. Instead, I picked up the Travel section.

Escape from D.C., it said.

I rolled my eyes and glanced at Zach. He squatted by the jigsaw and twirled the smallest plywood pieces past its blade, his fingers hovering just at the edge of the plastic guard. The neat muscles of his biceps leaped and danced.

I turned my attention back to the escape from D.C.

* * *

That night I had a dream.

In it I was a child, walking out to the garden to pick blueberries. The trees on either side of the path were green and full; straight ahead, the fallow field unfurled like a moonscape of brown earth. At the blueberry bush I squatted and began plucking berries from the bottom branches, where they ripened first, eating greedily. The juice left purple splotches on my fingertips and the hem of my dress.

Suddenly I heard a voice, a man's voice speaking German in a friendly way. I looked up and there stood Zach Patterson on the other side of the bush, smiling and talking to me. I understood him perfectly, and even as I dreamed some small part of my mind marveled at my understanding. Instead of answering I kept eating, gorging myself on berries, letting the overripe ones fall onto the toes of my sandals.

You're getting very messy, Judy, he said, a teasing reproof, still speaking in German.

I glanced at him carelessly and said nothing.

He came around the bush and squatted beside me. He wore the clothes of a farm boy, boots and stonewashed jeans, a ratty green t-shirt. When I felt his fingers beneath my chin, I swallowed. He brought his face to mine and kissed me on the mouth, soft-lipped, sensuously. But I was only a child.

I squatted still, let him kiss me like a man kisses a woman, and felt the doom of knowing I would be in trouble. Beside him I felt so small.

He parted my lips with his tongue. I understood English and, miraculously, German, but I had no word for this feeling in my belly, the hidden warmth in hidden cells awakening, this current coming to life along a skipping path. And yet, fused with the warmth was a pattering fear. Fear that crammed down into my stomach just above where the current swirled and roiled. Fear that trembled my mouth but did not close it, welcoming the surety and heat that his brought, the way his hard jaw steadied mine.

To taste another's mouth is to enter their body.

And so into my belly he went, where the blueberries lay hidden away: the cave child fruit, made by nature, devoured by fantasy.

Excerpted from THE KINGDOM OF CHILDHOOD © Copyright 2011 by Rebecca Coleman. Reprinted with permission by Mira. All rights reserved.

The Kingdom of Childhood
by by Rebecca Coleman

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Mira
  • ISBN-10: 077831278X
  • ISBN-13: 9780778312789