"Dad was an astronaut."
Matt used to have dreams. Matt used to have big dreams.
"Daddy was a cowboy."
Now, he barely had a life.
"Daddy's my hero."
"Mail! Mail, where are you?"
Stifling his giggles,
young Mail Jeevas failed to answer his mother. Though he often
enjoyed staring at her and fathoming what his real dad looked like too, he more often took pleasure in hiding from her and making her scour the huge house for such a small boy. Never, though, did she put a maid on the job—she learned that this painstaking task was hers and hers alone after she'd sent one once; Mail had only dashed out the door when he saw her coming.
Mail was cramped into a closet, attempting to blow a mop out of his eyes when the door opened. He cringed at the light, having grown used to the darkness. "Mail, come out." His mother commanded him in her gentle but stern voice. Obediently, he pulled his orange-tinted goggles down over his photosensitive eyes again and tripped out of the utilities closet.
His mother's slender hands brushed the dust from his red hair, and he found his own attracted to hers. His child fingers toyed with the fine ends of her crimson hair, managing to tug slightly before she batted his hands away from her waist. "Mail, it's time for dinner," she told him, taking his hand before he could protest and pulling him to the dining room. Mail followed her without much protest, not saying a word; he was a generally quiet boy until he got to talking. Then, he'd never shut up.
For the time being, he was contented with gazing up at his mother, admiring her youthful, smooth features. He often likened his mother to a princess, fair and delicate with long, flowing hair. Just like in his video games. In his video games, his mother—the princess—and his father—the knight—always rode around the countryside together in perfect harmony.
Matt used to have dreams.
Mail had always been a clever boy. By the time he was about four or five, he'd put together the words 'bastard', 'hussy', and 'mistake' to figure out his origins. That, and his father wasn't an astronaut.
Or a cowboy.
Or a hero.
In fact, Mail's father was some guy out in the world who smoke, drank, and wasted his life away with a different woman every night. When Mail asked his mother what his father was like, all she would say was: "He smoked." Then, she'd grimace and put her hand on his shoulder and change the subject.
"Mom?" he ventured after one said occasion, looking carefully at the woman as though he could discern an answer to his question before he even asked it.
"What's a hussy?"
She stared at him for a long, long time before she enclosed him safely into her arms. She was silent for even a moment longer, squeezing him against her bosom before she spoke softly against his hair. "Don't worry about it. Worrying just makes trouble you don't need," she told him. He was safely encased in her soft embrace and despite his curiosity, the world slowly started to melt away. Mail decided then and there that he didn't need to ask the final and most important of his questions.
He wasn't a mistake.
Matt used to have big dreams.
When Mail was about five, he found a half-smoked cigarette lying in the gutter outside of his big, green yard. He'd been playing with numerous toys until he'd gotten bored and had taken to drawing with sidewalk chalk on the street. Now, he was messing around with a crushed carton of cigarettes and a battered, used one. He got up and tossed the stub aside, peering into the carton with one eye squinting shut behind his goggles. He smiled.
Precariously, Mail looked around the yard to make sure no one was watching him before he thrust the tattered packet into the pocket of his jeans and trotted off to his room. There, he procured a pack of matches that he had nicked from the kitchen. The smoke curling from the embers dancing on the match heads never failed to entertain him. This afternoon was no different.
Safely hidden behind the door of his bedroom and tucked underneath the bed just in case, Mail laid flat on his back and rummaged in his pocket for the crushed cigarette packet. Triumphantly, he retrieved the box and pulled out the only remaining cigarette. It was slightly battered and dirty, but it was otherwise unharmed. Mail struck the match and lit the cigarette.
He barely managed to snuff it out before coughing on it—his first breath had sent his lungs into a disagreeable fit that caused him immediate pain. More ensued when he instinctively crushed the cigarette into his fist, throwing it across the room like he did with candy that tasted awful. Coughing, he crawled out from under his bed, his eyes watering and his throat burning.
The maids heard him screaming for his mother; though a few of them had enough common sense to actually send for the lady of the household, Mail soon had a congregation of women he didn't want crowding around him. They pet his hair and held his shaking body despite his feeble attempts to ward them off between all his wheezing. If he had known that the cigarette was that potent he really wouldn't have done it—but he had figured… If his father smoked, why couldn't he? Every boy wanted to be like his daddy, even if he never knew him. Even if his mother looked pained every time his daddy was mentioned. Even if his daddy smoked.
Discouraged, he closed his blue-green eyes and waited, paying no attention to his heaving chest now that the coughing had subsided. It was long after his breathing evened out that he noticed no one was petting his hair anymore. The arms around him weren't gone, though—but now, they felt different. Mail opened his eyes.
A cough cracked his feeble words as he spoke them, eliciting a saddened smile from his mother. Her slender fingers held up a crunched cigarette between rose-painted nails. "Mail, what were you doing?" she questioned him, not in scorn or in that scolding parental way, but in genuine concern. It made him flush a furious red and look away to keep from embarrassing himself, but it was too late. She'd seen. "Mail… please, tell me what you were doing."
He shifted uncomfortably in her arms before he answered, but perhaps not as straight as she'd like him to. "Dad smoked, right?"
Slowly, she was putting this together. "Yes, he smoked," she admitted to him with so much shame that it was like it was her very own confession.
Mail sat up and looked at his mother carefully, blinking at her behind his tinted goggles and admiring how fair she looked even with the orange film his world was covered in. "I had to be better," he slowly started to explain. "You say that like he's bad 'cause he smoked… I wanted to be like him but good instead."
His mother said nothing. She ran her hands through his hair and took his hand, gently stroking the inside of his palm. When he flinched, she brought it out to show him the burns he'd inflicted when he crushed the cigarette in his bare hands. "Look, Mail," she told him softly, running her thumb down the side of his small hand. "Your father's not even here and he's hurting you. Promise me you won't do this again?"
"Promise." Mail curled his hand and stuck out his pinky, smiling just ever so slightly when his mother hooked her little finger with his and shook. "I pinky swear."
Now, he barely had a life.
Mail's safe, sound world was hammered apart when he was seven years old. Even though he was content and never asked for a thing more than he was given, even though he ate all his vegetables, even though he never mouthed back to the maids and butlers, someone decided to punish him.
When he was seven years old, Mail's mother succumbed to a dormant sickness in her body.
Her voice was weak. "Hmn?"
"What's… what's a hussy?"
He couldn't ask her anything else on her deathbed. He couldn't ask her how the weather was; he couldn't ask why his father wasn't a cowboy. He had to ask her the thing that hurt her.
"Never mind, Mom, it's okay. I looked it up."
She laughed at him then. He smiled, thinking that he'd done something good for her, but she only coughed heavily in response. He squeezed her hand. Mail didn't want her to talk about it now, even if he didn't really understand what the dictionary had told him.
"Mail, a hussy is a woman with no respect."
"But Mom, you have respect."
At this, she only quieted and closed her blue-green eyes. Mail followed suit. He waited, and waited, and waited, but his mother didn't ever return to the subject. Instead, she leaned up and kissed his forehead, adjusted his goggles, and went to sleep.
"Daddy's a knight, and he saves all the princesses in the world."
Mail was given to an orphanage after the funeral. Even before his mother's death, he'd been a relatively quiet boy; he now said next to nothing. He would nod if he was greeted, he would shake his head if he was offered something. He wandered through the orphanage without playing with the other kids, without arguing over vegetables, without asking for anything at all.
His studies were the only thing that he seemed to care more than an iota about. It wasn't true, though—books and video games were just really easy things to get distracted by. It was odd to see the red-headed boy hiding behind a novel, but everyone accepted it. It was easy to realize that all he ever did was listen to the material or read it once, and then he would leave everyone else to eat his dust. He often fell asleep in his classes, but eventually, the teachers gave up on ever getting him to pay attention for more than ten minutes at a time.
On his eighth birthday, though, someone came trudging through the snow and asked for him.
Mail had never been considered for adoption before—he'd always made a point of looking like the most boring, crude kid in the orphanage when unfinished families came to look. He didn't want to be adopted. He wanted to grow up and then leave the orphanage. He wanted to go out into the world and hope that his mother was being a princess up in heaven, and that his dad was riding up to see her some day.
However, this man didn't care that he was crude or boring. He didn't care that Mail didn't talk too much. He just smiled and introduced himself as Roger, laughing even when Mail called him an old windbag. He extended his hand to Mail, taking the child's own when he didn't do anything. "Mail," he stated slowly, in a low voice that enticed Mail to listen. He'd always liked secrets. "I'm going to take you somewhere special, is that okay with you?"
It was okay with him. Since Mom had died, he hadn't had a home anyway.