The last thing I ever wanted to be was a helicopter parent.
If my son went to school and stayed out of trouble, he could try whatever he wanted. I didn’t believe in the idea of sheltering my child; let him experience the world for himself. I would always be there to steer him in the right direction, but I never made him walk anywhere, if that makes any sense.
That isn’t to say I never kept a close eye on him, I loved my boy. I cooked his meals, helped him with his homework, and tried to be the best Mother anyone could ask for, making up for his loser Father running out on him. But like I said, I rarely interfered with what he wanted to do. If he wanted to stay up watching Teen Titans until midnight, I let him, but he’d still have to go to school in the morning. If he didn’t want to floss his teeth, fine, but he couldn’t come crying to me when he got cavities. I’d always warn him, now, but I’d let natural consequences punish him instead of a belt buckle.
Of course, there’s a limit. I’m all for experience being the best teacher, but there are things a child should never have to experience. Don’t drink that or it’ll kill you, don’t go there or you’ll get lost, don’t pet that dog or you’ll lose your hand. That kind of protection is up to the parent.
When my son, Teddy, was nine, we moved from Concord, NC to Monroe, NC, to get Teddy to a better school. We settled into our new house on the corner of Pickens and Crest, smack-dab in the middle of a nice suburban neighborhood. There was a small bridge suspended a few feet above a rocky creek, a small park where dogs could run about, but most importantly, there were plenty of kids Teddy’s age.
All the friends Teddy brought home were your typical milquetoast kids, timid, polite, and perfectly cultivated by their parents. They always said, “Hello, Mrs. Carpenter,” when they came inside, and dutifully sang “Thank you, Mrs. Carpenter,” whenever I brought them something to eat or drink.
Then there was the one who said, “Thanks, Wendy.”
That bizarre greeting came from the mouth of a doughy little boy named Nathan Berhow. He was in Teddy’s class, and he lived two blocks over from our house. Teddy brought him home one day after school, they had met in Mr. So-and-So’s class and wanted to go out back and play Real-Life Pokémon.
I wasn’t fond of the way Nathan played with my son. Sometimes he would grab pine cones off of the ground and toss them at Teddy, who’d dodge them and laugh gleefully, even if a few of them hit him. I’d find a dozen little scratches on his arms and legs when he got out of the bath, but Teddy always said, “It’s no big deal Mom, they only itch a little.”
One Sunday morning, the weekend before Halloween, I was working on some taxes and noticed Nathan coming down the road out of the kitchen window. He was swinging a stick around, tapping it against fence posts as he walked by them and knocking leaves off of the trees. One of the neighborhood cats, a Korat named Luna, was relaxing on the sidewalk. Nathan came up to her and smiled, bending down to scratch her behind the ears, and she rolled around on the pavement to show her gratitude. I looked down to my papers to finish filling in one of the boxes, and out of curiosity, I glanced back up.
Nathan had gotten to his feet and raised the stick above his head. Luna darted out of the way before he brought it down on the sidewalk with a tremendous crack, snapping it in two. He stood there for a couple of seconds, watching the cat disappear into a neighbor’s backyard before shrugging and turning back the way he came.
I went to talk with his parents that afternoon. Taylor and Eva Berhow couldn’t have been older than thirty, and they were absolutely delighted that I would come to visit. They invited me inside, offering me freshly made coffee while they went on and on about how happy they were that Nathan had made a new friend. I began to feel bad about the news I was bringing, so I tried introducing it as delicately as possible.
“I’m really glad Teddy has a friend that’s so nearby, but sometimes I worry about how rough Nathan can be.”
The smiles faded into looks of concern, and I felt my guilt skyrocket. I quickly told them that I didn’t think it was Nathan’s fault at all, it just seems that he doesn’t realize when he might be hurting somebody, and I should have done something about when I saw it. The Berhows insisted that it wasn’t my fault, and that they would have a long talk with Nathan.
I didn’t want to tell them about the cat.
At the time, I thought it was impudent to think that there might be something wrong with Nathan. I knew that some kids played rough, and I wasn’t exactly a saint to my pets when I was a little girl. Nathan’s parents were great people, and I was sure a good, firm talking to would set the kid straight.
The next time I saw Nathan, the change was clear. He stopped the nonsense with the pinecones and actually called me “Mrs. Carpenter.” I let Teddy have him over as often as usual, sometimes inviting him for dinner or to go to the park.
I stayed close, though. When they went out back to play, I sat on the porch with a book. I made sure to accompany them on their walks to the nearby creek. They liked to lean off of the railing and throw stones into the water, the ten foot drop added an extra splash to their stones.
Their friendship lasted through elementary school, and Teddy was ecstatic to learn that Nathan would be going to the same middle school as him. The jump from primary school to secondary school is hard for everybody, and not long into the year, Teddy had a problem. There was a posse of boys who rode Teddy’s bus that got into the habit of picking on him. They labeled him with nasty slurs like ‘faggot’ or ‘retard,’ the typical middle school menu of insults. Teddy and I had a talk about standing up for oneself, but there wasn’t much improvement. Teddy even came home crying one day, claiming that a seventh grader named Ward Freels called him a ‘pathetic cocksucker.’ I called the school counselor that evening, and we arranged a meeting for the next day.
I decided to drive Teddy into school that morning to avoid the dreaded bus. About a block from the bus stop, I screeched to a halt when a small figure darted in front of the CR-V. It was a boy about Teddy’s age, sprinting as fast as he could with a backpack full of books. Teddy pointed, repeating the boy’s name and announcing that he knew him from Math Class. I looked in the direction the boy came from and found a gaggle of pre-teens circled around two thrashing bodies on the sidewalk.
The audience scattered like a flock of pigeons when I got out of the car, the only remaining kids being the ones on the ground. One sat on top of the other clutching something white, and looked up at me when I demanded to know what was going on. I immediately recognized the doughy face of Nathan Berhow, a proud look in his eyes. The other boy was a stranger, who cowered and held his hands over his face. Teddy came up behind me and pointed to the boy Nathan was sitting on.
“That’s Ward, Mom! He’s the one who picks on me!”
I snatched the object from Nathan’s hand and stood him up, Ward beginning to bawl uncontrollably. The object Nathan was holding was a sock, weighed down by something inside. Turning it over, a bent and now useless combination lock fell out onto the pavement.
I knelt down to help Ward up, and gasped at the state of his swollen, purple face. His nose was practically mashed back into his skull with blood dribbling from the nostrils. One of his front teeth was broken into a fang, the other was missing entirely. He must have been hit over a dozen times.
Nathan looked from the lock to the wailing boy on the ground and muttered something.
“Say you’re sorry, Ward.”
There was a hearing the next day. Ward’s parents ultimately didn’t press charges on the Berhows when they found out how their son had treated Teddy, but they demanded that Nathan be expelled and sent to another school, which the principal agreed to.
After that incident, I made Teddy cut off all ties with Nathan. He couldn’t return his phone calls, and only I answered the door whenever he came over. Teddy was very upset that he couldn’t hang out with Nathan any more, claiming that Ward deserved what he got and that Nathan was only trying to protect him. I remember asking him, “if someone makes you or someone you love feel terrible, does that make it right to do terrible things?”
Part of me felt bad for Teddy losing one of his favorite friends, but another felt relief that he was no longer associating with Nathan. The whole debacle on the sidewalk sharpened my previously dulled fears about that boy. There really was something wrong with him. He seemed to have absolutely no problem hurting others, and he always did it with an air of pride or indifference.
The Berhows kept calling and apologizing, asking if we needed anything or if I wanted to come over for a talk again. I accepted their apologies, but politely declined the offers, saying that we needed to wait for some wounds to heal before we saw each other again.
A few nights later, I was watching television when I noticed a small bit of paper that someone had slid under the door. It was a small message written on an index card.
“Why are you not talking to me? I thought you were my friend.”
I looked out the window, finding the streets deserted. I called the Berhows immediately, but the infuriating mechanical voice claimed that their line had been disconnected. I thought about marching over there right now and demanding what was going on, but I decided against it. I could go over there in the morning when I was calm, and that way I wouldn’t arouse Teddy’s suspicion while he was off at school. I tucked the note into my bathrobe pocket.
The next morning, I made Teddy’s lunch, kissed him on the forehead and sent him off to the bus stop. I couldn’t help but watch as he walked by the Berhow place. While I observed him, I tucked my hands into my bathrobe pockets idly, feeling the card from the night before prod my hand. I took it out, re-reading the message on there, before groaning and placing the card face down on the table. There were more words written on the back.
You’ll regret this.
I felt a finger of ice trail up my spine and glanced out the window once again.
Teddy was gone.
It’s true what they say about time slowing down during an adrenaline rush. I dropped the index card, and it seemed to hover in the air as I ran out of the room, pushing my way out the front door onto the lawn. I must have screamed Teddy’s name, I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember is hearing the terrified thirteen year old voice echo across the street. I rushed towards the source, ignoring the car traveling down the road, ignoring the screech of its brakes, ignoring the fact that the right headlight just barely missed me as I dashed in front of it.
Teddy was on the bridge, he had fallen and was hiding his face from his assailant. Nathan held an object above his head, and it glinted in the orange Southern sunrise. I must have yelled or screamed, because Nathan turned to look at me with wild eyes. I ran faster than I ever remember being able to travel, grabbing Nathan and forcing him away from my son with all the force I could muster.
Nathan stumbled backwards and fell over the railing. He didn’t scream, exclaim, or even gasp. He just fell, his eyes wide and mouth open a bit in shock. A drop like that should have broken a bone, maybe damaged some nerves at worst. But Nathan fell headfirst, landing with a dry crack onto a collection of rocks poking out from under the water’s service. Blood ran from the rocks into the water, the buck knife floating down the current and making lazy circles. He didn’t close his eyes. He didn’t move.
The blood finally stopped roaring in my ears, just in time for me to hear the distraught wail of Eva Berhow. The woman fell to her knees as Taylor pushed me out of the way and climbed down into the creek-bed to get his son. He rolled the boy over, his broken skull leaking its contents into the shimmering water. Eva collapsed, screaming her son’s name over and over again.
“NATHAN! NATHAN! NATHAN!”
It wasn’t your fault, the policeman said. You had every right to defend your child.
I held Teddy as the policemen asked us more questions. A news van pulled up to the scene as paramedics carried the small body away.
Taylor held his weeping wife, crying silent tears of his own. Cameras flashed, people yelled, dogs barked.
We moved away once it was all over. How could we stay there? All of those eyes staring at us, whispering behind our backs. Teddy was terrified of going to school for fear of what his peers would say to him, so I simply allowed him to stay home. Neither of us got out of bed the day after it happened.
Nathan Berhow was declared insane five days after his death. There was a private funeral for family members and friends only. We weren’t invited.