‘Will you please take off that damn thing? It walks into a room ten seconds before you do.’
Grant Barron’s mother, Lisa, hated the worn, lint-speckled black beanie Grant wore everywhere he went, including bed. He’d had such an aversion to hats as a toddler that most never lasted a day before being flung onto the busy main road that ran by their house but somewhere around twelve or thirteen, he’d found the beanie at school, unclaimed in the lost property box, and inexplicably developed an attachment to it.
Lisa had tried burning it, throwing it away, and leaving it at the laundromat, but the damn thing always found its way back onto her son’s unkempt head in the end.
The last morning Lisa ever saw her son, he had been on his way to a youth group meeting. Lisa was given a flyer for the group by Mr Grady, the manger of the group and Grant’s school counselor, who said it would be a great way for Grant to face his social anxieties head on, and hopefully make a few friends.
Mr Grady had taken a special interest in Grant, singling him out over numerous other kids with far more serious issues, and this made Lisa uncomfortable at first, but all it took to put her at ease was one word:
It was an odd word to use in the context of a conversation about her teenaged son’s future, but it hadn’t seemed so at the time and when it sprung up from the recesses of her mind as Grant was saying goodbye on that last Friday in April, it covered Lisa in a warm cloak that blinded her to the tears in his eyes, and numbed her to the desperation in his hug.
When Grant had been missing for two days, Lisa went to the school, demanding to speak with Mr Grady.
‘Who?’ asked the school secretary.
‘Donald Grady…the school counselor? He runs a youth group?’
The secretary and the bursar exchanged a worried look. Lisa couldn’t be certain whether the subject of their concern was Lisa’s missing son, or the great glass marbles she’d apparently misplaced.
Lisa was just about to rush out the door and run to her car before her legs turned to jelly, when a young girl came into the office, practically dragged along by her mother.
‘I don’t want to wear a hat. Hats are stupid.’
‘It drops to single figures here in the winter; you’ll wear a hat and you’ll damn well like it!’
The girl rolled her eyes and reached into the lost property box. The hat she chose was nothing like Grant’s, but the change of expression on the girl’s face after she put it on gave Lisa’s heart a jolt.
Despite Lisa’s best efforts to give him everything he needed and wanted, within reason, Grant had never been a smiler. Streets ahead of his peers in every way but one, he wore on his face the strain of being the smartest person in the room and not being able to share his wisdom with anyone but his mother daily.
But then he put on the hat, and was rarely seen thereafter looking anything other than blissfully contented, suddenly profoundly aware that he did have a place in the world, after all.
Now, when Lisa thought back on their last morning together, she saw the pain in Grant’s eyes, and felt him clinging to her like a three year old who had just found his mother after being lost in a mall for two hours. She also heard that word again.
But it offered her no comfort this time; quite the opposite, actually, because now that she looked back on it, Lisa realised that the word hadn’t come from the back of her mind.
It had come to her by way of a gravelly young voice. Grant’s voice.
Everybody, whether they know it or not, has a comfort word. Lisa found hers at the age of ten, when she’d been playing in her friend’s backyard and a bunch of much older kids came over and started picking on them.
The meanest kid slapped Lisa across the face when she dared stand up to him, and was threatening to do a whole lot more when Lisa’s friend’s brother came outside and scared them away. Seeing she was still terrified, the boy had climbed the tree, picked off a piece of fruit and given it to her.
Lisa had never told anyone about this – not her son and certainly not Donald Grady – but both of them had known precisely when she needed to hear it most. Now that Lisa thought about it, it was hardly a surprise that Grant knew. He’d always seemed to know what people needed before they knew it themselves.
But he’d never been comfortable with it…not until he put on the hat. Had Donald Grady been wearing a hat when Lisa met him? Yes, now she thought about it, he had.
Grant hadn’t been wearing the hat when he said goodbye, only putting it on once he got to the door.
Lisa drove home, stopping outside a newsagents on the way for a pack of cigarettes and a newspaper. She had only intended to buy the cigarettes, but picked up the paper when she noticed the front page.
The picture was of a group of people, sitting on a curb, handcuffed. The headline got straight to the point:
MASSACRE PLOT FOILED.
The article recounted how an anonymous tip led to the capture of the heavily armed men just as they were about to storm a school. The constable who took the tip saId that the tipster sounded young, and spoke with a gravelly voice.
Lisa tore out the article and stuck it on her fridge.