Shawn W., age 8, was found dead in a closet.
What was I supposed to do? the mother wailed, four other boys rioting through the apartment while they took her statement. She’d been holding three jobs, her mortgage submerged like the Titanic. The father? Disappeared six years ago. Never sent a dime.
Shawn had been a puzzle from the get-go. Closed in on himself. No ears for others. Wouldn’t play. All he wanted was to draw. He’d started with crayons gripped in his toddler fists, making crude stick figures of boys and dogs under starry skies. Souvenirs of those years were still taped cock-eyed, high on the walls of the bedroom.
A quiet boy, as long as you didn’t meddle—for he could turn as fierce as a hyena. Once, when his brother tried to steal his paper, Shawn planted a fork in the thieving hand.
At school, the same story. Once, twice, three times they called in the mother. Shawn didn’t listen, wouldn’t participate, couldn’t fit in. Kids taunted him, making the boy quarrelsome. He grabbed markers from others, pounded out pictures of spaceships and planets, complete with constellations. But he ignored the universe of the class. When sentenced to time-out corners, he smuggled pens with him and drew on the carpet. They imprisoned him in a special room for the slow and disturbed, forcing him to sit with his hands at his side. Strangely, for a while this made him happy. Only later did they discover he’d secretly scratched designs on the bottom of the desk.
The more they tamed him at school, the wilder he grew at home. Neighbors couldn’t help. Babysitters stopped coming. His own brothers kept their distance. The boy colored on walls, in books. He painted on the floor. He’d make shapes out of spaghetti noodles at the dinner table. Mrs. W. pleaded with him, but he wouldn’t stop, or couldn’t. Some days she’d offer him rolls of paper, hoping to exorcise his demon. Others, she’d wrest it all away and belt him to a chair in the center of the room, where he drew outlines with his toe in the nap of the rug.
If she took away the pencils, he painted with ketchup on the walls. When she cleaned the walls, he scraped with a nail on the hardwood floor. Punishments, she tried them all—grounding and spanking, bed without dinner, without breakfast, without lunch. He just had to stop, and all would be well.
And inside the locked closet, the one where he spent the last ten days of his life squatting in his own filth, there were reddish smears—streaks, swooshes, arcs—covering the sheetrock walls. Shapes, really. The kind you might make in the dark, when you can’t properly link the lines. On the door was a circle with dots, a triangle in the middle, a ragged top. It looked like a boy’s face, with hair like Shawn’s. And it was smiling.
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