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Josephine Aycock’s boy, Jeremiah, was due to start middle school that autumn. In the sun-soaked months spanning summer break, she found herself praying for the thirteen year-old more than usual. He was a good boy, Josephine wanted to believe, and did, most days. But sixth grade was a make-or-break term for an adolescent’s moral fiber. Jeremiah would need all the divine intervention he could get. So too would Josephine.

In May, she prayed for Jeremiah to keep up in his algebra and biology classes — and for the Drifton Board of Education to keep its nose clean (no more tweens trotting home from public school with Egg Monsters from Mars or Animorphs; not on her watch). Come June, Josephine prayed for Jeremiah to clear five feet in height so the black whiskers sprouting from his upper lip didn’t seem quite so perverse, so Pee-Wee Herman. In July, she prayed for him to get along better with Mr. Aycock, who’d been wanting to teach his first and only child how to shoot a crossbow; it would be bobcat season in Florida again before they knew it.

By August, Josephine felt some measure of shame about how repulsed she’d become by her son. It was beyond her control. One moment, she’d glance at him watching television — greasy as a cast iron skillet — and see Ron Jeremy, fresh from a shoot; the next, see him shirtless on a boat ramp, his vertebrae all but visible through his abdomen, and envisage Kurt Cobain lying dead on his floorboards out west. Jeremiah became every vile tabloid cover she’d eyed in the Winn-Dixie check-out line in spite of herself: all packed into an Osterizer and set to blend.

The mother strove to rise above her gnawing, mortal fear. He would need a big boy day planner to help with the transition to a block schedule, Josephine thought one Saturday morning mid-month. Mustering the will to commemorate her son’s approaching educational milestone — and standing to benefit from buying a discounted prayer journal herself — Josephine corralled Jeremiah out of his Space Jam pajamas and into her Ford Escort hatchback, which she piloted towards Tallahassee.

Those hours between twilight and dawn were Josephine’s favorites. No chiggers, no humidity, no traffic; no thighs marinating in a sweat of their own making atop vinyl seats, no fussing with an aluminum dollar store sun shade every time she left the car parked on asphalt. She found covert excitement in treating the world like a ghost town. A blessing, it was, that her son was agreeable to the bone dry silence of early weekend mornings. He had problems, but getting up and out the door were never among them.

Josephine looked at him for as long as she could bear. Knobby elbow atop the passenger side door’s handle, Jeremiah piled his soft cheek into his palm. He seemed to be sleeping, but she knew he wasn’t; he was enjoying the climbing heat of dawn on his eyelids. She knew because she’d done the same when she was a girl. She snapped her gaze back to the highway the second she began to visualize his slight frame being inverted and used to mop the locker room floor by boys twice his size; his Fruit of the Looms concurrently being pulled over his blue eyes from behind.

She knew better than to look at him for too long. It had caused her problems — personal problems — before. God have mercy on this child, she thought, putting a pin in her troubles in order to preserve her Liz Claiborne blouse.

Sermon on the Mount Gifts was tucked between a CVS pharmacy and a Winn-Dixie on the outskirts of Tallahassee. They arrived fifteen minutes before the Christian bookstore opened. Josephine waited with Jeremiah in the Ford until the clerk, an Ecuadorian college girl who led their church’s young adult bible study group, flipped on the fluorescent lights inside. A few minutes after nine am, she thumbed the switches to the two neon signs affixed to the store’s glass front. One was a blue and red “OPEN” sign; the other; a cruciferous crucifix that alternated between green and yellow glows.

 Over the sound system, Michael W. Smith’s “Awesome God” throbbed its titular hard rock chorus. Josephine, clutching a yellow plastic shopping basket with metal handles, forayed down aisle one. She loved the way Sermon sounded and especially how the shop smelled; paperback pulp and Pine-Sol. That fusion of natural and synthetic always seemed to calm her mind and soothe her worries. Jeremiah would be alright.

“Ooh, Jeremiah, look,” Josephine cooed as a pre-kindergarten teacher might while continuing her pilgrimage through Sermon on the Mount, one long row at a time. The boy shuffled along some yards behind her, shrouded in that iconic slouch of pre-pubescence, contorted and amphibian. His eyes remained locked on the toes of his new L.A. Gears in lieu of the spiritual merchandise over which his mother forcefully oohed and aahed.

Josephine couldn’t keep her taffy pink manicure to herself: clutching the new Olivia Newton John CD and petting pink and blue plush toys shaped like anthropomorphic church hymnals; flipping through a Holy Bible embossed with Precious Moments nubiles and shaking a snow globe of the crucifixion scene. Complete with crosses for Jesus, Dismas, and Gestas, the globe’s snowflakes were dyed crimson. Eventually, Josephine came to the wall-length bookcases at the back of the shop. Christian Marriage Sacrament of Abiding Friendship occupied her attention for a significant spell.

Alone for a moment, Jeremiah sat on Sermon’s gray lino-tile floor and picked at a motion sensor in his back-to-school kicks with a long, dirty thumbnail until the small bundle of microchips, batteries, and bulbs came loose from the rubber sole, tumbling into his palm. Grinning, he slipped the mechanism into his back pocket and rose from the floor.

Josephine closed Abiding Friendship and returned it to the shelf before spotting The Young Christian’s Academic Calendar. Just what we came for, she murmured, dropping a copy of the spiral-bound agenda in her basket before making her way to the lucite check-out counter.

“Come on, Jeremiah, I need to run into the Winn-Dixie to get some paper bags to cover your school books,” she called while withdrawing her checkbook from her pocketbook.

“Jeremiah, we’re leaving,” Josephine urged.

Emotionlessly, the mother looked up and locked eyes with Luciana, as though she were nothing more than a rear-view mirror.

“S-something in apparel seems to have caught his eye,” Luciana feebly offered, nodding her chin upwards and over, towards a circular chrome rack of t-shirts near the entrance.

Josephine walked over and gently placed her hands on her son’s shoulders — not so much to let him down gently, but to keep him facing front. It would be easier if she did not look at him. He couldn’t help that he looked that way; the way all little boys looked as they neared the end of little boy road.

From behind Jeremiah, she examined the unremarkable white Hanes t-shirt that had gotten him so transfixed. It was an interesting piece of merchandise for Sermon on the Mount, she considered. The store usually stuck to slogans, Jesus fish, and Bible verses on their graphic apparel selections. But this one bore a color caricature of Goliath, adorned in gold armor and red plumage, dagger between his sharp, oversized teeth. Searching for a discreet cartoon of David that Josephine felt certain would be there, somewhere, she spun the shirt over. Nothing. With her thumb and index finger, she lifted the sleeves to examine the armpits, just to make sure she hadn’t missed him.

Josephine and Mr. Aycock had tried their best to keep Jeremiah away from cartoons and superheroes. False idols and the like. As the PTA moms often said, she “drew the line at R.L. Stein.” Josephine and Mr. Aycock continued to keep an eye on what his eyes were taking in as he grew older. The boy seemed so at odds with reality.

Occasionally, they would break even with him. Mr. Aycock had taken Jeremiah to see Space Jam at the megaplex the day it opened.

Maybe it was her turn to bend, Josephine thought.

“Alright,” she said, mustering a smile as she pulled the appalling shirt from the rack in Jeremiah’s size before returning to her checkbook.

As they exited Sermon on the Mount, the boy began to search for his mother’s eyes. He could never quite catch them; she was a south pole and so was he, in turn repelling him away.

 “Thank you,” Jeremiah said, so simply, but with gratitude.

Josephine, vanishing through the Winn-Dixie’s automatic entrance, had not heard him.


As Josephine waited on a bag boy to fetch her some fresh paper bags for the stockroom, she stared at the reporter on the cover of The National Enquirer. She was right about Josephine’s age, the mother figured. JOAN LUNDEN'S GAY PAL DIED IN TWA CRASH, the caption hollered before softening to a whisper: News turns her into an emotional wreck.


It had happened, for the first time in well over a decade, at Jeremiah’s fifth grade graduation. The occasion got the best of her; she wound up needing to borrow her husband’s pocket square to blow her nose. She’d met his eye as he accepted his diploma from Superintendent Dieter. Initially, she had mistaken the clammy sensation spreading across the front of her dress as pride and overwhelm paired with perspiration; the elementary school gymnasium where the graduation exercises were held had been a heat trap. Jeremiah had been the only one who noticed, and between the photos being taken of him shaking Dieter’s hand, he alerted her with a quick trace of his eyes from Josphine’s forehead to her bosom. After looking down, she fled to the toilets in the women’s locker room to clean herself up.


Josephine’s summertime prayers, it seemed, had been answered. The school year began without a hitch. Jeremiah came home with As and Bs, even in gym class. A few times that September, Josephine caught him leering at her. She’d be washing dishes and he’d be at the kitchen table finishing his arithmetic homework. She’d look over in preparation to ask what Jeremiah might like for lunch the next day, and Jeremiah would be honed onto her, as though attempting to identify the square root of maternity. Otherwise, it was becoming easier to look at him. Jeremiah’s father taught him how to shoot a big cat with a crossbow and — to Josephine’s immense relief — shave his upper lip.


Her defenses were down when the Drifton County Sheriff rang that first Wednesday in October, a little after one o’clock in the afternoon. It wasn’t anything too serious, Baxley attempted to reassure her, but if she could get over to Principal Mattison’s office before school was dismissed for the day, it would be most appreciated.

Josephine hung up, and contemplated whether she should change clothes. She knew how the boy could upset her; maybe she should change into a sports brasserie, or bring the yellow raincoat Mr. Aycock had given her during Hurricane Rita. She banished the premonition of herself taking a spill in the administrative offices at Drifton Middle School in a puddle of her own milk and furiously scooped up her car keys.


The boy, Baxley, and Mattison heard Josephine before they saw her as she rat-a-tat-ed into the school’s quadruple doors in her beige pumps. She made a right-face down the administrative wing and charged through Mattison’s door. Surveying the scene, Josephine took inventory. There was Baxley, in his little brown summer patrol uniform and self-serious mustache, his arms crossed over his chest around a familiar crossbow. Mattison stood to his left, a sweater vest beneath his tweed hacking jacket despite the mercury still pushing one hundred. Behind the adults on the floor sat Jeremiah in his Goliath t-shirt, his legs akimbo beside his hunter green L.L. Bean backpack.

“There was an incident involving Jeremiah at the Scholastic book fair today,” Mattison said as Josephine steadied herself against the wall, taking comfort in the knowledge that the bottoms of her heels were still bone dry.

“Look familiar?” Baxley probed, lifting the crossbow that belonged to Mr. Aycock.

“He didn’t… was anyone hurt? Did he…?”

Baxley shrugged unhelpfully. “The bookseller, this nice lady from Iowa, had a bit of conniption after Jeremiah pointed this thing at her, but Mrs. Trenton offered to take her to the county line for some medication. The lunchtime custodian was injured and we called EMS, but that was his own doing. Poked himself clear through here once he got the arrows away from your boy,” Baxley added, pulling at the web of skin between his right thumb and fingers.


Jeremiah looked to her, bottom lip caught between a quiver and smirk. Josephine stood her ground, her hazel eyes affixed to his blues like briars. It was beyond her how she was still dry.

Mattison strolled over to the boy’s backpack and nudged it onto its side with his penny loafer to reveal the young pirate’s booty. Several school books wrapped in Winn-Dixie bags slid out, unleashing a slick cascade of a dozen and some iridescent paperback books, their spines still unbroken. Josephine leaned in to take in the macabre three-dimensional cover art and the titles: The Headless Ghost, How I Got My Shrunken Head, Night of the Living Dummy 1, Night of the Living Dummy 2, and Night of the Living Dummy 3

“Now look at what you’ve gone and done,” Josephine snarled in Principal Mattison’s direction. If the PTA had told him once, they’d tried to tell him a hundred times: those books were nothing but trouble.

“Jeremiah here told us to ask you why he did it,” Baxley murmured as he chewed back a fingernail.

“I would not know. Jeremiah does not own books like those,” Josephine huffed.

The boy tilted his face up through the curtain of his shoulder-length hair, Jeremiah smiled, holding his mother’s gaze.

“Well, Jeremiah?” Mattison asked.

“My mommy asked me to do it,” he said bravely, before breaking his mother’s gaze and returning to admire the trove of iridescent books beside him. 

When Baxley threaded Josephine’s delicate wrists through his handcuffs that afternoon, the woman began to cry. Discovering how relieved she was to be shedding tears and tears alone, she cried harder, louder, wetter. Finally. She felt nothing for the boy.