Daniel stared at her from across the dining room table, his fingers twitching one after another. She refused to offer him the help he craved. A teenage boy whose birth mother called him once a week and acted like that was enough—to make up for neglect, negligence, and neonatal meth.
“How many chickens are there, Daniel?” she asked again.
“Three in the hen house and four in the run,” he replied.
“And that makes…”
His fingers twitched. One, two, three…
There were eight chickens.
“You just trim these few,” she had told Daniel last week. “That’s all it takes for the bird not to be able to fly.”
“Do the other wing,” he’d replied, jamming the little hen between his knees and stretching out her wing. She’d had to remind him time and again to treat the animals, the smaller things, nicely.
“No, you only clip one side,” she told him. “When she tries to fly, she’ll feel off balance and give up.”
Now, in the dining room, Daniel’s knotted hands on the table, now between his knees, now pushing his hair behind his ear, it was again about the chickens.
“This is my dream home,” he had said the moment the social worker deposited him, their latest in a string of foster boys. “I always dreamed of living on a farm.” They had tried to teach him how to handle the horses, to feed the goats, to lock up the chickens at night. But the chicken run had two doors, plus a ramp to lift and lock. Too many things to add together.
“How many chickens are there?” she repeated.
“Three in the hen-house and four in the run.”
“And that makes…”
“Can I have a piece of paper?” His head jerked left and right, searching for an implement.
“No, you can work this out.”
“Ten?” he asked, a random guess.
She didn’t respond. He worked his fingers again.
“No, seven,” he corrected himself.
“Are you sure there are seven chickens?” she asked.
He shrugged and his eyes dropped to the table.
“Did you see a hen somewhere other than the hen-house or the run?” she asked, knowing full well he often forgot to count the yard or the barn or look under the truck, knowing he might see five and convince himself five was so much like four, knowing for them both this was a mathematical torture, the addition of this plus that until it all amounted to nothing. What would he do when the next two years added to his sixteen and he was on his own?
He looked up, as if reading her mind. “Dad said I could go to the career fair.”
He’d never asked to call them Mom or Dad; he’d just done it.
“We can talk about that later,” she said, imagining the other teenagers filling out college applications, studying for SATs, and discussing the pros and cons of law school. While here, in the dining room, they went over for the hundredth time how to add his left hand to his right.
“Where did you see the hen, Daniel?”
He pulled at his thumbnail.
“I heard her making noises in the barn,” he said after a while.
She rested her hands over his, dampening his fidgets, his tics that began shortly after his morning medication and subsided somewhere after midnight, once the pills for depression and ADHD and lack of connection and delayed development and failure to thrive all kicked in.
“Then?” she asked.
“She kept clucking.”
She waited. “Did you go in the barn? Should we count her as eight?”
He pulled his hands away. “Have you seen my cowboy hat?” He rose from the table and darted toward the door, so awkward for a nearly six-foot boy, so soft and pale.
She didn’t rise. The front door was locked and he’d never figure it out. She had the key in her pocket. Everything here locked inside and out. An institution with the barbed points of the fences turned inward.
“Mom,” he said in a tone that might make another mother think he was just another teenager. “I can’t count that chicken.”
“Why not?” She rose from the table. He stood with his back to the door.
“She kept clucking,” he said. “I told her to stop.”
She didn’t have to ask the next question, though she knew the social services people would. What did he do? Why would he do that? What did you do about it? We’ll have to tell his biological mother. We’ll have to tell the judge.
As if any of them cared.
“You should come to the career fair with me, Mom. You might find a job you like better.”
“Oh, really?” she asked, momentarily succumbing to his distraction, choosing to believe it was empathy, wishing they could all float along the rapids of his thoughts, the rocks passing quickly as long as they managed to stay in the boat.
“You’re a lot better at math than me. Somebody would hire you,” he said, absently fiddling with the doorknob.
“Daniel,” she said as she brushed his hair from his forehead. Last week he’d thought he’d become a hairdresser and had trimmed it himself; he’d thought he’d become a blacksmith and had sharpened all the knives in the house; he’d thought he’d become a logger and had climbed to the top of their tallest tree while she and her husband ate their dinner at the base of it waiting for him to come down from the clouds.
He’d thought he’d become a lawyer and had tried to make himself presentable by wearing three of his father’s dress shirts. “Will they like me like this?” he’d asked, his crooked bangs touching his ear on the left.
“How could they not?” she’d replied.
Daniel rattled the doorknob and she whispered as she managed to lodge his hair behind his ear. “The chicken…”
“Her name was Butterscotch,” he whispered back. “Did I ever tell you that?”