Roger Weaver couldn’t understand why he had to meet his son’s principal when his wife, Myung-Jin, would be there too. What could Trevor have done to drag them both out of work? Besides, his wife handled all things related to school. Unless it involved catching or throwing a ball, he didn’t want to be bothered.
Myung-Jin was waiting at the principal’s office when Roger arrived. She was knitting something that matched her green sweater. Most clothes looked big on her because of her slender frame, but this one looked especially large, as if she were trying to hide in its large folds.
“You’re making good progress on that scarf,” he said.
“It’s a hat,” she muttered.
“Oh. It looks nice.”
“Do you know what this is about?” she whispered.
“No. I was hoping you knew.”
“Why would I know anything? You’re the father!”
Startled by the outburst, the secretary glared at them. Fortunately, Principal Martin came out of his office to break the tension. “I see you’ve made it here OK,” he announced in a soothing, almost effeminate voice. He was a tall, thin man with the ravages of teenage acne still scarring his cheeks. Inside of his office were pictures of classic cars on the walls and a model of a Ford Mustang on his desk. Roger wanted to compliment him on his taste in cars—Camaros were the imitators, after all—but he was afraid of further criticism from his wife. Instead, he tried to look serious by rubbing the stubble on his chin while Myung-Jin sat stiff and straight in her seat.
“I want to thank you again for coming so quickly,” began Principal Martin. “I think it certainly shows the kind of commitment and concern you both have toward Trevor. He’s a good kid.”
“Then why are we here?” replied Roger. He immediately felt his wife glaring at him and slumped in his chair.
“I don’t blame you for being frustrated,” replied Principal Martin. “I have a son myself about Trevor’s age. They can be both angels and little devils, can’t they? Like I said, Trevor’s a good kid at heart. Unfortunately, we’re concerned that he may be developing some rather alarming tendencies.” He coughed a few times. “I’ll be blunt. We fear your son may be developing tendencies that may or may not indicate a prevalence toward pyromania.”
“Come again?” asked Roger.
“We think your son likes lighting things on fire.”
Roger wondered what the big deal was. When he was a boy, he would light bugs on fire for fun all the time. Even now, he still enjoyed cooking CDs in the microwave just to watch the sparks fly. There was no harm in it just as he was sure that Trevor’s actions were being exaggerated.
“The problem is that we can’t prove it. There have been three incidences thus far. Two weeks ago, someone unrolled all the toilet paper into a mound in the boy’s bathroom and lit it on fire. We’re not sure who did it, but we know that Trevor was out with a hall pass around this time. Then last week, it was a pile of leaves during recess. And now, just yesterday, it was a backpack. Someone had stuffed an empty toilet paper roll with some newspaper, doused it with some alcohol, and somehow put it in Timmy O’Leary’s backpack just moments before he left for the day. The whole thing caught on fire rather quickly. Fortunately, Timmy wasn’t hurt, but you do see how dangerous this has become?”
“How do you know it was Trevor?” asked Myung-Jin.
“That’s a good question. To be honest, we don’t. We know that he was around for the first two incidences, and he has a motive for the third. The recess guards tell me that Timmy O’Leary often picks on Trevor during recess, calling him names like ‘chink’ or ‘gook.’ No one thought much of it at the time, but in hindsight it certainly presents a motive for revenge.”
“Revenge? Trevor’s twelve! He doesn’t know anything about revenge,” argued Roger.
The principal leaned toward Roger. “Mr. Weaver, children are a lot like cars. You have to regularly check the oil, check the brake fluid, rotate the tires, even in a new one, or else you may learn the hard way that you’ve got a problem.”
Roger wanted to punch him. He had no proof that Trevor had started the fires and no grounds to accuse him of being a bad father. Besides, he knew his own son, and the fact was that Trevor simply wasn’t smart enough to light that boy’s backpack on fire. A pile of leaves, sure, but not a makeshift firecracker secretly stashed in another boy’s backpack. His wife knew this too, and Roger waited anxiously for her to erupt.
“So what do you suggest we do?” she asked.
Roger was stunned.
“Since we don’t have any proof yet, we’re not going to suspend him. But we’ll be watching him very closely, and I suggest you do the same. Give him a tune-up, if you know what I mean.” He winked at the distraught parents.
“Thank you, Principal Martin. We’ll do just that,” replied Myung-Jin. She got up and motioned for Roger to leave.
“What kind of nonsense was that?” cried Roger to his wife when they returned home. He sat down and propped his feet on the kitchen table. “A kid ain’t a car, and Trevor sure doesn’t need no tune-up.”
Myung-Jin stared at a swing set in the neighboring yard. The seat was uneven, dangling a few links lower on one side.
“You agree with that quack, don’t you?” he asked.
She tilted her head away from the window. Usually, Myung-Jin looked pretty at this angle with the light catching the smooth slope of her face. But this time, she just looked gloomy and haggard like wallpaper dulled with grime and age. He was shocked to see her in such a state. Surely, there must be something else behind her mood, something that he couldn’t see or understand.
“He admitted that he had no proof,” pleaded Roger.
“It all adds up. The fact that he was there, the teasing he got from the other boy, and the way he’s been acting around here.”
“I haven’t noticed any difference.”
“Of course you wouldn’t.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Sighing, she turned on the kitchen sink only to turn it off again without filling any cup or pot. “I don’t want to start a fight. I just meant that you see him differently than I do,” she said.
Roger had learned by now not to press his wife when she was agitated. It was better just to let her calm down and forget about it. “So how has Trevor been acting around here?” he asked.
“He’s been moody. He doesn’t want to talk or spend time with friends after school. He just goes to his room until supper, playing video games or watching TV. I just assumed it was a phase. You should talk to him. You’re his father, after all.”
“What am I going to say?”
She slapped her hand on the table. “Damn it, just figure it out!”
Roger almost fell off his seat. “OK, honey. I’ll talk to him when he gets home from school. Why don’t you lie down? You look tired.”
“I can’t. I have to make dinner.”
“I’ll cook something. Like old times,” he said and grinned.
“You mean when I was pregnant with Christiana?”
“Yeah, when you had to be in bed the last few weeks, and I did all the cooking and cleaning.”
Myung-Jin smiled—the first note of happiness he had seen from her all day—and ran her hands through his bushy hair. “I’ve never tasted such awful food,” she said and giggled.
“Neither have I,” he replied. “How about I just pick up some McDonald’s instead?”
“That would be great.” She kissed him on the forehead. “And talk to Trevor, please?”
She went upstairs, and a minute later, their bedroom TV was blasting her favorite Korean soap opera. Although he was relieved that things were better between them, Roger still didn’t know what to do about Trevor. What was Roger supposed to say? Hey, son, I hear you tried to light another boy on fire. Want a hug?
Parenting wasn’t supposed to be this hard. At least it had never seemed that way for his father. There had been no talks, no heart-to-hearts. There had been just the rules. When Roger broke one, which he often did, he would get the belt. In fact he had hardly ever spoken at great length to his father except for once, after he announced his plan to marry Myung-Jin. His father had said he supported it but then added a word of caution. Things would be harder because of her race. Not in any mean-spirited or racist way. Just in the normal things that one takes for granted throughout the course of a marriage.
Roger grew to realize the wisdom of his father’s words. He hated spending time with his wife’s family. The fact that they couldn’t speak English even after living here for over twenty years made get-togethers torturous. Between hello and goodbye were long, uncomfortable stretches in which Roger understood not one word. Even worse, they didn’t even have alcohol to kill the boredom.
It was their fault that the Irish boy was picking on Trevor. If he could just be normal like his dad and blend in with the rest of the school kids, then they wouldn’t have to do this talk. But no, there was nothing he could about that now. You had to play the hand you were dealt. That’s what his father had told him after his marriage advice. “These are your cards. You gotta play them now.” Roger didn’t understand what his father had meant at the time—what did poker have to do with marriage?—but he thought he had an inkling of what to do now.
Roger was waiting at the kitchen table, eating handfuls of candy corn from a bowl, when Trevor sprinted through the back door. Flinging his backpack onto the counter, he darted past his father without saying hello.
“Whoa, where are you going?”
“Oh, hey Dad.”
“What’s so important?”
“Pokemon. The bus was late and it’s already started.”
“That can wait. I need to talk to you about something.”
“But Dad! Pikachu is lost!”
Roger had no clue what his son was babbling about. Was this some new language Trevor had learned at school?
“I don’t care. Sit down, son, Peek-a-boo be damned.”
Trevor slumped onto a chair while Roger stuffed candy corn into his mouth. “Dad, do you want to tell me something?”
“I do, son. I do.” He took a deep breath. “Are you a pyrotechniac?”
“A pyro—no. What I mean is, did you light Timmy O’Leary on fire?”
Trevor burst out laughing. “No, Dad. That’s stupid.”
“I met your principal today, and he seems to think that you may have done it out of revenge for getting teased on the playground.”
“I hate Timmy’s guts, sure. He’s a real jerk. But I couldn’t light his backpack on fire. I sit totally away from him.”
Of course, the seating arrangement! There’s no way his son could have snuck a firecracker inside the other boy’s backpack from halfway across the room. If only he had thought to point this out to the principal at the time.
“Can I go now?” asked Trevor.
Roger remembered what his wife had said to him. Their daughter Christina was already in high school and would be out of the house soon, and Trevor would quickly follow. Roger ate another handful of candy corn, savoring the sweet, chewy treat, when he thought of something.
“Sure, Trevor. But on one condition.”
“This Saturday, you and me, we’re going to the corn maze.”
* * *
In his youth, Roger had visited the corn maze with his father every year around Halloween. His father would never show Roger the way out, and inevitably, he would get lost even though the maze had never changed from year to year. Tight-lipped, chiseled, his broad shoulders filling the narrow path like a plow, Roger’s father had followed the wayward child for the hour or so that they were lost until Roger would break down in frustration and cry. Then he would be stricken with panic, fearing that the towering stalks would grab him with their golden-green leaves and swallow him into the thicket. Hyperventilating, young Roger would try to see overtop the corn, trying to fixate on some faraway cloud like the Three Wise Men did with their star, but it wouldn’t help. It was only when would his father take his hand and lead him out of the maze that Roger would finally calm down.
“Better luck next year,” his father would say.
Despite the panic attacks, these were great times, simply for the fact that he had spent them with his father, and the act showed that he had cared, or at least had tried to care. It was also true that at this point on the father-son scorecard he was beating Roger, who had failed to do a single, comparable act with Trevor. Taking him to the corn maze would only bring them even. To get ahead, Roger would have to make it truly memorable.
They set out that Saturday morning much later than Roger had wanted because he had a hard time getting out of bed. When he finally did get up, he found Trevor in the kitchen, dressed as if they were hiking. He wore blue jeans, hiking boots, a fleece, and a backpack fully stuffed with trail mix and water.
“We’re not going to Alaska.”
“What if we get lost? We’re going to need food and water to stay alive.”
“It’s not that kind of a maze. There’ll be guards in there to point the way if we need it.”
“Really? Are they everywhere? Because, like, that won’t be fun.”
“No, not everywhere. But around if we need them.”
“Good,” he said as he strapped on his backpack. “Because we won’t need them.”
They embarked on their trip and promptly got lost. Roger had forgotten where Old Man Strousburg’s farm was. He had to stop at a gas station to ask for directions. After several more wrong turns, they finally came upon the farm where cornfields stretched for miles in Lancaster County, dotted with silos and church crosses in the distance. Horse-and-buggies hugged the tiny road where a row of cars lined the shoulders. Sitting in a rocking chair on the porch was Old Man Strousburg. He had a long, gray-striped beard like the tail of a raccoon and his eyes were small and bunched under his eyebrows, as if his bulbous forehead had crushed his eyes from its weight.
“He looks like he’s dead,” whispered Trevor.
“Now you pay this man some respect.”
“You boys here for the maze?” shouted the farmer in a thick Pennsylvania Dutch accent.
“Yes sir. It’s my son’s first time.”
“I used to come here with my dad.”
“What’s the name?”
“He was a good man. And a fine carpenter. I still have some of his stuff. You’re his boy, Roger, aren’t you? I remember you crying every time you left the maze.”
Roger blushed. “That was a long time ago. I’m surprised you remember.”
“Time has nothing to do with it, not if it’s worth remembering.”
Roger didn’t understand what the old man meant. He’d forgotten lots of important things like his wife’s birthday and his dad’s gravesite, always blaming time. It was the easiest thing to accuse since it didn’t fight back.
“Is the maze out back?” asked Roger. It was a stupid question, but he wanted get away from the old man’s gaze.
“It is. Twenty bucks for the two of you.”
Roger paid the man and started to walk around the house.
“Don’t get lost in there!” he shouted.
The maze was about a hundred feet behind the house. A wooden sign pointed to the entrance where two bales of hay lined the path, etched with shoe prints crisscrossed like dozens of hastily played tic-tac-toe games. Roger felt nostalgic. He wanted to tear off a cob and chuck it into the distance as far as he could like in his younger days. There would be no point to his tosses except to see its flight, arcing into the sun and then tumbling, end over end, back to the cornfields where the outstretched leaves were like hands ready to catch the orphaned cob.
And where was his father back then? Not with Roger. He was as impenetrable a man as the maze. Try as he might—and Roger did, bringing baseballs and homework and mundane questions to him while he sandpapered his latest project, only to find his responses as fleeting as the mist of wood falling to the floor—theirs had not been a relationship based on words.
In fact, the only time that Roger had ever felt he had earned his father’s respect was when he fought back during a beating. A few years older than Trevor at the time, Roger and a friend had taken a farmer’s tractor for a joyride and smashed it into a telephone pole. It was the worst beating Roger had ever received. When he could take no more, when his rear was raw and damp with blood, Roger turned around and punched his father. He only grazed his chin, but it was enough to make him stop the beatings altogether. Even now Roger could remember the distinct sound of his father’s grunt, like the sound he made when loosening a pesky bolt, and then his father walked away.
Roger and Trevor approached the first turn. The choice was either straight or left. Roger let his son choose. After deliberating, the boy declared that they would go left.
“Are you sure?” asked Roger.
“No. Let’s go straight instead.”
Onward they ambled, following no particular order or course, instead led by the impromptu inspiration of Trevor’s sense of direction. When one of the teenage guides would ask if they needed help, Roger would defer to his son, and the answer was always the same, always no.
Roger couldn’t tell if Trevor was having fun. Although excited at first, now he lumbered through the turns without thought, unfazed by the inevitable dead-ends that greeted them, as if the very act of walking—and not exiting—was the object of the maze.
Myung-Jin was right. He was different. There was a time when his son had been so simple to understand. He was happy, he was tired, he was hungry, he was sad. Now Roger had no clue. Like last year. Trevor had been playing by himself in the back yard, crouched over what Roger had thought were some toys. When he came closer, he realized that it was a nest of baby birds. The four gray chicks were motionless and quiet.
“What are you doing there?” asked Roger.
“They’re dead, aren’t they?”
“You shouldn’t be doing that. Your mother would be very upset.” He grabbed Trevor’s wrist and stood him up. “You better go inside and wash your hands now. Wash them real good. With soap and hot water. And then I don’t want you ever doing this sort of thing again.”
Roger had decided not to upset Myung-Jin by telling her, and soon he had forgotten the episode altogether. In the intervening years, he had never thought that maybe Trevor had killed the chicks, Trevor snapping their necks to silence their sad, lonely squawking. It made Roger ill to think it, but it was there now, in his mind, unable to be erased.
As they came upon another dead end, someone dressed as a ghost suddenly leapt from the corn, startling Roger and another father and son. They all jumped back, gasping, before realizing the trick and laughed.
“I had forgotten about that!” exclaimed Roger.
“Yeah, that really caught me off guard,” said the other father. “Wasn’t that fun, Stevie?”
“That totally scared me!” shouted the little boy.
It was then that Roger noticed Trevor’s absence. Had he even come down this way or had he run off in another direction while Roger was childishly lost in his thoughts? He frantically retraced his path, shouting Trevor’s name every ten or fifteen steps. He even asked a guide if he had seen him, but it was no use. Trevor had disappeared, and the same childhood fear of being swallowed by the corn gripped him now. Although he wanted to keep looking, he couldn’t move and he could barely breathe. All he could do was stare overtop the corn at a trail of black smoke nearby.
“Fire! Fire!” someone suddenly shouted, followed by a stampede of people through the corn.
“Mister, you got to get out now!” shouted a guide at Roger. But he wasn’t listening. His son was somewhere still in the maze, and he had to go find him. But the guide grabbed Roger’s shirt and dragged him through the maze. Roger was sprinting to keep up, gasping as the black smoke grew into a towering plume. At the exit, a crowd stood panting and nervous. No one knew who was left inside.
Old Man Strousburg came running from his house, ordering the crowd to back away from the entrance while swinging a mop back and forth, its spidery strands still wet and soapy, as if he were threatening to mop up the fire. His antics worked, however, for the stunned crowd crept away and huddled around the back porch of the house. At first following them, Roger kept walking, past the porch, past the house, and to his car, while he tried to think of what to say to his wife as the grief swelled in his chest and tears and smoke stung his eyes. But there, standing on the side of the road, kicking pebbles across the shoulder, was Trevor, unharmed by the fire. Roger ran to him.
“Where have you been?”
He hugged him. “I thought you had died!”
“No, I was here.”
“Why did you leave the maze without telling me?”
Then Roger thought he smelled it: a faint trace of gasoline on his son’s clothes.
“What were you doing this whole time?”
Roger looked around for some evidence. “Where’s your backpack?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I guess I must have left it in the maze.”
He grabbed Trevor by his shoulders. “Tell me the truth, son. What were you doing?”
Roger studied his son for some facial clue that would give him away. “Tell me the truth. You did it, didn’t you? You set the cornfield on fire!”
“No, it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me!”
He couldn’t believe him. The coincidences were too great. Four fires, all with his son around and unable to prove that he hadn’t done it. Only a fool would continue to deny the truth.
“You’re a liar!” He smacked Trevor across the face. The boy fell down, but Roger continued to hit him, across his back and head, kicking dust and pebbles onto his son, while his temper and humiliation raged. He finally stopped when fire sirens rang off in the distance.
Trevor was crying on the ground, curled into a ball with his hands covering his head and a ring of dirt caked to his lips like the painted mouth of a clown.
Roger picked him off the ground. “I’m sorry,” he pleaded. “I’m sorry.” He kissed Trevor’s face several times. But the boy didn’t respond except for the heaving of his chest as he sobbed. He had hurt him. More than Roger’s father ever had him. As he carried his son to the car, Roger thought again of the corn cobs he had tossed blindly into the air as a child, tumbling back through the countless rows of corn, rustling against the outstretched leaves, only to fall to the ground, forgotten and alone.
* * *
Roger drove for an hour before Trevor stopped crying. Then he took him to Dairy Queen. He didn’t have much money left from the corn maze but spent what he had on a Blizzard. Trevor didn’t touch it. Roger held up a spoonful.
“Come on, Trev. It’s got M&M’s in it.”
“My face hurts, Dad.”
It did look bad. Trevor’s cheek had swelled to twice its size, and it was black and blue.
“Look, son. What I did back there was wrong. And if you are telling me that you didn’t light that fire, then I believe you. I will always believe you. I promise you that. And I promise I won’t ever hit you again. I promise. The thing is, my dad—your grandpa—he hit me real good too. Now that’s no excuse for what I did. I’m just saying that I know what you’re feeling. You’re confused. You want to know why your old man would do something like that. I honestly don’t know, and I’m the one doing the hitting.”
Trevor started to cry again, so Roger gave up and drove home. Myung-Jin was doing laundry when they arrived and didn’t hear them come in. She walked up the basement steps to find Roger sitting at the kitchen table, stirring his melted ice cream. Trevor had already gone to his room.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I messed up real bad, honey.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s Trevor. I hurt him. We were at the corn maze and he got lost. Then it caught fire, and I thought he had done it. That’s when I hit him. I hit him hard.”
“Is he alright? Was anyone hurt?”
“No. Everyone was fine. Trevor’s OK too, I guess. He’s got a swollen cheek but I put some ice on it and sent him to bed.”
“Did he … did he do it?”
“I thought he did. That’s why I hit him. But he swore to me that he didn’t. It was my fault anyway. I wasn’t watching him like I should have.”
Myung-Jin paced around the kitchen table. “My god, Roger, what good are you?”
“We were in the maze together. It’s not like I just let him wander off.”
“Then what the hell did you do?”
He shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure? I ask you to do one thing—one thing!—and you wind up beating up our boy and letting him set a corn field on fire. He could have killed people. Do you realize that or are you too useless to comprehend even that?”
Stirring the melted ice cream, he remembered what he had promised Trevor. “Maybe I am a useless,” he said, “but I know this. I know our son didn’t set that corn field on fire. And he didn’t do any of the other things that Principal Martin accused him of. You can say all you want about me, but don’t say that stuff about Trevor. He’s a good boy and doesn’t deserve any of this crap!”
Roger was surprised at his anger. He had stood up to shout at his wife, and his face was hot with rage. As Myung-Jin glared back at him, he prepared for the oncoming fight. No matter how vicious it would become or what threats would be made, he would defend his boy to the end. This much, he knew he had to do.