He opened the textbook and, holding back tears, copied the first problem. On his walls hung posters of astronauts, rockets, and galaxies. The space-suited astronauts held helmets at their sides, ready to embark. The rockets pushed upward from towers of blinding fire. The boy dreamed he might someday travel with them, the sooner the better.
All he had to do, his father said, was be first in his class in math and science and develop his physique. It was too much for a small twelve-year-old who couldn’t see numbers the way other kids did.
Dismayed by x on both sides of the equation, he tried to remember the necessary steps. Get all x’s on the same side, but which? The effort caused his heart to race and his mouth to dry. “You can’t give up when it gets hard,” his father would say. So he tried harder, staring at problems until his pencil printed “KILL ME.”
How could he convince his father he had no aptitude for these complicated problems? His father just closed his ears. “The world is based on mathematical principles,” the chemistry professor would say. “It’s the same logic for all of life’s problems.” His mother, an accountant whose hobby was painting, wouldn’t intervene. She might sit nearby, sketching, but would remain silent.
Professor Charles Stein ruled home as he did his classroom. “Do you want to become an astronaut?” The voice bridled with impatience.
“I guess isn’t good enough.” His mother frowned at his father, who lightened his tone slightly. “You need a goal to be successful. Don’t you want to be successful?”
His father sighed. “Now, go and try again. I’ll check on you soon. Keep working until you get it.”
Alan, only eight, was his parents’ favorite, obvious since they’d brought him home from the hospital. He had everything Ezra lacked. Alan could play piano, whereas Ezra couldn’t get past the first few lessons. Alan could throw a baseball as far as Ezra and easily catch many Ezra would miss. And Alan could calculate the Mets batting averages in seconds. More than once, in admonishing Ezra to improve his schoolwork, their father used Alan’s name. “You know, Alan was up at ten last night studying. Didn’t you see his light on?” His father would pretend the remark had nothing to do with his expectations of Ezra, and the hypocrisy bothered Ezra as much as the comparison.
It occurred to Ezra that he wanted to hurt Alan and his father, both at the same time, badly, because they deserved it. Imagining such a thing frightened him.
Standing before his father, he knew he was in danger. He’d failed math.
“I ought to strap you, like in the old days when children disobeyed.”
“But I didn’t disobey. I tried as hard as I could.”
“Stop sniveling.” His father’s eyes surveyed the room, then reached for a plastic model of the Titan II that Ezra had built just that year with great attention to detail.
His father dropped the model to the floor and crushed it, then picked up the misshapen mess and disposed of it in Ezra’s trash basket.
“That hurt me more than it hurt you, but you needed a lesson. You can’t dream about space when you screw up simple algebra. Astronauts need quick minds, to be able to see quantitative relationships immediately. Get it?”
As tears coursed down his son’s face, his father looked around for something else to break.
Ezra didn’t know where the idea came from, but that night he woke from a dream in which all records of his existence had been erased. The people around him all shook their heads when asked if they knew Ezra Stein. His math teacher looked down a list, reading “Michael Smith, Paul Sunshine,” and said, “No Ezra Stein, has ever been in my class.”
Yet, there he was, his parents and brother sleeping nearby without a care. It wasn’t only that they didn’t understand. It was that they had contrived to render him powerless. What did it matter that he wasn’t the brightest kid?
He thought again about how he should hurt everyone, including his mother, who’d done nothing to help. He looked around, wondering. Then his eyes focused on his posters and the obliterating, raging brilliance of the fires lifting the rockets into space.
The house was still as he inched his way to the basement in his stocking feet. Quietly, he entered his mother’s studio and took newspapers from her worktable. He found turpentine. His father’s lighter in hand, he arranged the papers into a small mountain on the old sofa, poured on the liquid, and started the blaze.
The whoosh of heat comforted him at first, and he imagined he’d let the pile burn out, that maybe the house and his family wouldn’t be destroyed. For seconds he was mesmerized by the flames, but they spread quickly, greedily devouring the upholstery, curtains, and walls.
He screamed …
… and heard two voices, one recognized immediately.
“What drove him to do that?” The unknown voice inquired.
“No clue, Dr. Weiss.” His father, tense.
Ezra kept his eyes closed. As he lay in his hospital bed, an oxygen mask strapped over his face, he felt satisfied by his intense pain. He’d tied himself to the world through pain. He might never explore space, but at least now he knew who he was. He hoped never to see again the posters, with their false promise of adventure.
“Your boy is very sick, Mr. Stein.”
“He’s going to need special care, long term, physical and mental. Residential. Let’s talk outside.”
Two sets of footsteps. A slamming door.
Bruce J. Berger received his MFA in Creative Writing from American University in Washington, DC. He now teaches College Writing and Creative Writing at American. His first novel, The Flight of the Veil, was published in 2020 by Black Rose Writing and won an Illumination Bronze Award in General Fiction.