If you're impatient to read more about Clay Dillon, click on "Books" above for ordering information for Nothing is Right, the prequel to this story.
Clay was liking Ender's Game so far. Not only did it move quickly and assume children to be capable intellectual beings, but it also played with a lot of ethical questions. Ender seemed to constantly weigh his choices and actions against the expectations of his teachers and parents, and while it seemed odd that every moral choice he made resulted in his being permitted to be violent, it was very easy to see how the boy drew his conclusions.
After all, it did seem like everyone in his life was banding together to tell him that what he was doing was the right thing. They constantly rewarded his behavior, referred to him as strong and ingenious, and talked about his ability to decide to kill as a gift. It was not hard to see how it was that those things would help him to accept his own nature, to find a way to explain to himself why he was right for what he did.
It was much harder to find a way to identify with him, though. Clay was not, by nature, one to pick fights. He much preferred to retreat, so that he could pursue his own projects without being encumbered by the expectations of others. Fighting was a protracted waste of time an energy that simply made one miss out on the opportunity to accomplish his goals.
At least, that was what he had always thought before. Ender helped him to see why it was that he needed to fight sometimes. Through the boy's story, Clay was able to accept that there would be times when he could not run, when his ability to live as he wanted to live would be threatened. At those times, the book warned, he would need to be prepared to set aside his normal rules of conduct in order to do what was necessary to preserve himself and his goals.
Ender also taught Clay how to know when those times were happening. Unfortunately, it seemed like they were nearly always happening.
Clay did not notice as he read that Ender's criteria for determining the application of force were all extroverted. Not once did he truly reflect on the choices he made unless he was forced to. Nor did the question of proportionality ever arise. It completely eluded Clay that Ender viewed force as the end of diplomacy and not a part of it.
The concept of overwhelming force was just too logical to be ignored. If one's obligation was only to his own side in a battle, then the most moral use of force had to be the one that minimized damage to your side. You couldn't think about the other side. Clay could tell that was true because his metal body woke up and made him feel strong and warm when he thought about it. The more he tempered his anxiety in its molten glee, the easier it became to keep his words.
He would warm himself with Ender's embers.
Clay let himself repeat “Ender's embers” out loud a few times. He liked it, so he started singing it to a tune he made up as he went along. The song and the syllables made time go away, and Clay let himself drift in the narrative.
The next thing he knew, his mother's voice was laughing nearby. He looked up and saw her in the open doorway. She held herself up against the theshold, to keep herself from being knocked over by her own guffaws.
Clay felt his metal body harden then.
“I don't laugh at you when you repeat the lines to Little House on the Prairie,” he said, “even though you get them wrong.”
Kitty Dillon stopped laughing then.
“I can laugh at you all I want, I had to clean your shit for two years,” she said. “When I get old and you have to change my adult diaper, then you can laugh at me all you want. Until that day, you remember who's who.”
Her words glanced sideways and rang hollow when his metal body deflected them, and Clay could see that she truly did fear getting old because she assumed that he would do something horrible to her. When he replied to his mother, daggers shot from the end of Clay's tongue and he could feel razor blades in his throat.
“Don't you ever assume that I would stoop to doing something just because you would,” he said. “That's not right.”
Kitty stormed over to him and stood above his bed, staring down at her son. Looking up at her, Clay could not see anything but her distant face and the frame of her hair at the end of her long body.
“Don't you forget who the parent is, either. I'm still big enough to put you under that faucet and wash you out,” she said.
Clay heard himself speak without knowing in advance what he was going to say.
“Do it then!” he screeched. “Just fucking do it! You won't change me because you can't wash out what's already clean. Someday I'll get that chance to abuse you back because you will be old.”
Clay grabbed himself by the throat when he finished speaking. For a moment, he thought he might have cut himself. Then he noticed that his mother was staggering away from the bed and turning back toward the door.
As Kitty Dillon ran away, she listed to one side like a wounded animal.
For some reason, as Clay watched her go, he was reminded not of Ender's Game and its philosophical rationalization of force, but of The Joy Luck Club and its winds and hidden daggers.
“Lindo,” he said to himself.
“Ender Lindo,” he sang. Then he started to mix it up. “Ender's embers. Lindo's windows. Linder's winders. Endo's embos…”
He kept going as he picked his book back up.
* * *
Kitty Dillon stormed down the stairs and into the kitchen, cursing under her breath. Almost as soon as she started sputtering obscenities, though, she started chastising herself for doing so. Kitty did not want to be the kind of person who would curse at her own son, even under her breath. Parenthood required more than that. Still, between Clay's uncanny, fixed glare and his brother's rampaging temper tantrums, she felt like nothing she did made any difference.
Kitty stopped everything and forced herself to breathe. She knew she made a difference, and she took a moment to tell herself so.
Her chest tightened against her resolve.
Kitty felt like she was lying to herself, but she knew that she was not. Without a thought, she dropped to her knees. The cold tile hurt her shins, but it also drew the frustration and anger out of her limbs, leaving a chilling tranquility. She said a “Hail Mary” prayer.
The anxiety receded a little.
She said it exactly eight more times, followed by an “Our Father.”
It hardly mattered that the rosary her mother had given her at confirmation was upstairs in its leather pouch. Kitty held it in her mind, and her fingers recalled the well-worn texture of its pearl beads.
At the end of the second decade, she felt like herself again.
When the anxiety and the vulgar thoughts caught up with her, Kitty Dillon always relied on the rosary to set things right in her mind. No matter the problem, it was always there for her: When her father made her drive him to the liquor store because he was too drunk (she had been twelve); when her friend Samantha had talked her into chewing a hunk of Red Man tobacco and she had accidentally swallowed it while trying to hide it from the teacher (third grade); when her period had not come and she had made the lonely trip to the drug store, knowing the truth all the while and dreading it anyway—that she would be pregnant and it would result in a son (at the age of sixteen)…
She could see, in Clay's behavior, a dangerous tendency that she had always felt in herself as well, and she wished he would realize her guidance and her religious instruction were meant to help him manage it. She made it, she married the father of her firstborn son, and their small family lived in one of the more genteel blue collar suburbs that ringed Grand Rapids. The rosary worked. Trust in God worked.
Even if they didn't, repetitive behavior and quiet time alone worked. It was just a matter of helping Clay to see that. The hard part was trying to convince him to listen, because he was right. He was a temperamental, rude little shithead, but…
Kitty took a deep breath and said another decade.
Clay's dignity was right to be wounded, she told herself. She had done something that belittled him. And when it came to the books, he had lived up to his side of their deal. He even made sure that he was choosing a positive, moral kind of story to read for himself, and she had overreacted because she did not trust him.
Or he thought she did not trust him.
Kitty chastized herself for slipping into Clay's frame of reference. Mark always pointed out that she did that, and that it didn't do the kids any good for their parents to indulge them in the short-term. She needed to worry less about whether her son had a point and more about how she was going to recover enough credibility to convince him that she really did know what was right for him.
When Kitty asked about what The Joy Luck Club was, the librarian suggested that they read it together. Kitty could not even keep up with the progress that the boy was making in his Bible, though, let alone keep pace with his appetite for other literature. Nor did she totally understand his interests—space and robots one day, but then family dramas and folklore the next. It all seemed so scattered, and when she managed to ask him about what he was reading and why, he always seemed so sure of his choices and so offended at having them scrutinized; it was hard not to think that he was up to something.
She hoped that some day he would figure out how to exercise his need for privacy without…
Without what? she asked herself. Without acting like...
Kitty Dillon did not like any of the suggestions her brain was giving her for the rest of that sentence, so she refused to finish it. Instead, she prayed another decade and tried not to think of anything but the stained glass image of the blessed heart in the memorial windows on the west side of St. Jude's.
* * *
Ender was just getting to know his squad when Kitty Dillon walked back into Clay's room, and for just a moment as Clay heard and smelled his mother's presence, but before he turned to look at her, it seemed almost as if she was striding through Ender's barracks on the space station.
The weird overlap in Clay's perception blipped out of existence when he closed the book and looked up.
“I've decided that I was unfair,” Kitty Dillon started.
She held up a finger at him. Then she continued.
“I have been nervous about keeping my end of the bargain, because it wasn't really my end. Your father was the one who said you should be able to read whatever you want if you also read the Bible. I want you to enjoy your reading, but I believe that you should be talking through the things you read and comparing your thoughts to someone else's. This is what we do in Bible study, and it's what you need to do when you read books above your grade.
“To help you with this, I've decided to read an adult book with you. It's one I've already read, so we can talk about it as you go. It is called The Screwtape Letters, and it is a book that was very important to me as a teenager.”
“What's it about?” Clay asked. He liked the idea that he was going to be able to read something that his own mother had not understood until she was a teenager.
“It's about sin and temptation, and the difference between good and evil. The main characters are demons.”
Clay's eyes went wide when she said that last bit. Somehow, she had a hard time with nice aliens who looked like demons (in Childhood's End), but she did not see anything wrong with reading a book whose main characters were actual demons. She hated the idea of his reading a book about Chinese families (The Joy Luck Club), but she totally ignored the science fiction book that was all about how and when to commit yourself to exterminating your enemies (Ender's Game).
He had no idea what motivated his mother, but he was excited by the idea that she wanted to read something that seemed so… fun… after trying to stick him with the Little House books for so long.
* * *
Kitty Dillon's smile warmed as she watched her son's appreciation and excitement break in waves across his face. He would see—he would come to understand the forces she was working to protect him from, because now he was going to start to read about them, and she would be there to guide him. Mark was wrong about turning the boy loose in the library to fend for himself. All that did was lead to his reading novels that no one else had read, which would isolate him. The only way to make sure he was understanding what he was reading was to guide him through it, and that meant that you had to be able to commit to reading what he read.
That was why it only made sense to have Clay reading things that she had already read and understood. The librarian had meant well, when she suggested that the two of them debate the books he read, but the idea that the debate should not have a predetermined course was unsettling, and Kitty suspected it could be morally hazardous.
No, she told herself as she hugged her son, this is better. Infinitely better.
Next Friday: Pig Pen is Happier Than Linus (Part I)
Interested in supporting Shaping Clay? Click here for subscription information.