It was a Tuesday when Jess first had an inkling that all was not well with her adopted son. Tuesday was her laundry day. She was surprised to find that Troy's laundry basket wasn't outside his door; he was usually fastidious about that sort of thing. He was an organized boy, nothing wrong with that. Jess was somewhat ashamed of herself for her excitement at Troy's oversight that morning. She was generous with his privacy. He was a young boy and he needed some modicum of privacy to stay sane, or at least she told herself that. But she was presented with a rare opportunity to explore Troy's domain under the guise of normal parental behavior. She only needed to find his laundry. She could snoop around his room a little and fool herself into believing she was looking for a stray piece of laundry even though she knew very well that his laundry (though he had forgotten to put it outside of his door) would be neatly in his hamper. He was the only boy his age Jess had ever seen who folded his dirty laundry in order to fit more into the basket. Even his socks were folded. He put those on top.
She tried to ignore the tidy laundry basket at her feet when she entered his room. She swept it behind the door and next to Troy's unused shoes (ordered light to dark, left to right). His bed was made and the top left corner was folded back in a triangle, revealing part of his navy blue striped pillow. The shades were drawn tightly closed, and a bauble, the type with metal bearings on the end of fishing string, sat on the window sill. The metal bearings vibrated softly as they were in the direct line of the air conditioning unit. It was not a large space; it had been her workout room before the adoption, although the only working out she could really remember was sprinting downstairs when her fire detector went off. She had been sitting on her elliptical, watching someone sell something while drinking her coffee. She didn't have a sofa, and her elliptical was where she conducted most of her TV watching. She even had a lamp stand that she used as a side/remote table. The smoke alarm had gone off because she had misread the microwave cinnamon roll box. She had been drowsy, and she set the microwave timer for twenty minutes: the correct time to cook the entire box of twelve rolls. They caught on fire.
She couldn't give herself more than a few seconds without feeling guilty, after that her intentions would obviously come to light, to whom she wasn't sure. Jess felt a compulsive loyalty to Troy, and snooping around felt like breaking it, like she didn't trust him. She was almost hoping to find something forbidden, like a half empty cigarette box, or fireworks. She wanted desperately for Troy to be normal, but despite her best efforts she couldn't help like feeling he was anything but. It wasn't anything he actually did. It was more of a feeling she had. Dano always told her that she was only feeling adoptive guilt, like she had taken away someone else's child, and was worried she had ruined his life somehow. He said it was subconscious and that it was important to remember Troy's parents had died, and she was actually doing Troy a great service by being an excellent and caring mother. Dano could be a bit blunt. She couldn't help but smile at a man who could use the word "died" in a speech intended to make her feel better. He would point out to her that Troy had friends. He trotted them through the house and up to his spotless room with the color coordinated line of shoes, never forgetting to introduce them to his mother. He never said adopted mother. He never said Miss Jess, as she had told him he could on their first day together. He had taken to calling her mom very quickly after the incident.
His friends always appeared to be well adjusted young boys and girls. His apparently normal existence only deepened her guilt at rifling through his things. She wasn't actually rifling through anything. She was gently removing things from their places, and putting them back when she was satisfied that they were sufficiently normal. Where was the tin box hidden under the floorboard with playing cards featuring naked women on them? That was the sort of thing she was hoping to find. Surely if his parents hadn't tragically died he would have something like that in his room, and it would look less like a recovering alcoholic's bedroom. Even finding a beer would be nice. It would give her an opportunity to be stern with him and reinforce his normality. But she didn't find any. She had asked him before why his room was so clean. It had been an odd conversation.
"You don't want my room to be clean?" He had looked puzzled by the question, puzzled, but not perturbed.
"Not exactly. I'm not sure what I want to ask really. Have you always been so neat?"
She had really botched the conversation. Beforehand, she had played out the conversation in her head and she had had all the right words; they just weren't there. She couldn't just come out and say that it wasn't normal for him to be so organized. He had looked like he didn't really understand the question.
"I don't know. Sorry mom."
"No, no you don't have to be sorry, it's just—"
That part had killed her. He had apologized. She was the one who should have been apologizing. She couldn't stop herself from imagining that the boy she had adopted was tainted in some way. Was it really her fault? He had been in a horrific accident. Jess felt that he should have scars. What was weird about Troy was that he didn't seem to have any. He was entirely too adjusted.
And so she found herself snooping. She made her way to the closet.
She opened the closet door.
When Jess was in high school she took an anatomy class. It was the type of class she never intended to need (she had no medical ambitions) but it was nonetheless a class that overachievers took, which she definitely was. On the first day of class the teacher, Ms. Marteen, and old crow of a woman who wore stockings every day regardless of the weather, read through the syllabus as blandly as possible. This is to be expected on the first day of class. Jess was familiar with the first day drill. She still dutifully jotted down things she thought might be important. Her handwriting, normally immaculate, was being foiled by all of the crude messages carved into the black topped lab tables. It was then that the teacher asked them to do something wholly unexpected. She drew her head up from the syllabus she was clutching so tightly, (possibly for the first time, Jess wasn't entirely sure) and informed them that they would need to think of the best cat name they could muster. It seemed like an odd request, but Jess dutifully wrote it down underneath all of her scribblings about class requirements. The teacher said nothing more on the subject, and continued to drone on about what was to be expected of them in her class.
The shoe box was out of place, if only slightly. It was tucked in a corner of the closet, and under some stiff button down shirts (he insisted on them being starched) that hung uniformly. It was unassuming, but it was a brand of sneaker that Troy certainly didn't have. She stooped down, picked up the box and walked with it to his bed. The air conditioner shut off but the bearings continued to vibrate on their strings.
Three long weeks had passed since the first day of class. They had been tough weeks. There was a lot to know about the human body, and Jess found that she knew almost nothing going in. With most classes by this point in her academic career, she knew something substantial about the subject already. She was also taking British lit. that semester. She knew the difference between a noun and a verb. That was a start for British lit. She found that she didn't know the difference between a noun and a verb in anatomy, or the difference between a metatarsals and the manubrium. So Jess had been very focused on learning these things in the three week interval. It was a great shock to her when class began and Ms. Marteen asked the class if they remembered the cat name they had chosen. They would need it today. It was then that Jess was able to place the odd smell the classroom had that day. It was formaldehyde.
The dissection of Norman (after Rockwell) sealed her decision not to ever work in the medical field. It was the single most scarring day of high school for her. She wanted to look away, but being a dutiful student required her not to.
She never forgot what the insides of a cat looked like.