"How old is he now?" Veronica inquires, as she sips her cup of hot, black coffee. Her dark-brown eyes stare at Mia, her soon-to-be daughter-in-law, sitting next to her on the couch.
"He's just turned five," Mia answers, fiddling with her engagement ring nervously.
"I see," the older woman replies, nodding slowly. "And he still hasn't spoken a word?"
Mia shakes her head, as she gazes down at her cup of black coffee. There is a resigned expression across her features.
"I've tried my best to seek help for the past few years with little to no result. We went for a speech and hearing screening, and then worked closely with his pediatrician and teachers. We've joined the speech and language intervention program, where he underwent another screening and they gave me a list of activities I should do with him," Mia sighs. She taps the glass table with her nails thoughtfully.
"Those activities were useless, pretty much. I listened to sounds and paid attention to the details in our surroundings, and I described it all to him. We visited various places, hoping for him to learn and socialize with others in a stimulating environment. I read stories with him to develop his attention and listening skills, but he wouldn't even look at the pages. I tried to sing songs and nursery rhymes, but it's something that he's clearly not into. I tried to develop his turn-taking skills by playing games, like rolling a ball back and forth, and taking turns building a tower, but he wouldn't join in. Nothing has worked so far."
Mia's green eyes waver for a moment, hinting at defeat. "I've even hired the best speech-language pathologists for an evaluation! They conducted a six-month examination on Max, when they visited him at home and even observed him during our outside activities. They still couldn't come up with any solutions or possible explanations for why he's the way he is. I've tried to seek help from so many professionals! Some were optimistic, reassuring me that because I was getting early help, we should be able to treat his problem soon. Still, we're stuck at the drawing board, making no real progress."
Veronica takes a long sip of her coffee, her mind processing the information shared with her. After some careful consideration, the older woman speaks up.
"Perhaps, Max is just cautious and he's waiting until he's understood a great deal of what he hears before he actually speaks."
Mia slams her cup down on the glass table, spilling the liquid slightly.
"If that was the case, he would have spoken already. It's been five years! An average kid at this stage should know above two-thousand words - but Max hasn't even said his first word!" Mia clutches onto the side of her head, as if she's trying to prevent it from exploding. "God, can you believe that? I blame myself completely. I've failed as a mother! What if my son grows up not knowing how to speak and interact with others? It'll be all my fault!"
"Why do you say that?" Veronica raises an eyebrow. "You've said it yourself that you've tried your best."
"And my best isn't good enough," Mia huffs. "From my understanding, babies want to communicate with their moms. They want love and attention for positive development. Heck, even for basic survival skills, babies are programmed to interact with others. But my baby doesn't seem interested in communicating with me. If anything, I think I'm putting him off and making things worse. Every time I try to talk to him, he doesn't respond or even listen. Every time I try to hold him, he doesn't let me. He just runs away. He clearly doesn't want to be around me! And I'm left sounding like a broken machine, repeating the same thing to everyone."
"He's unusually reserved," Veronica remarks. She puts her cup down on the glass table and sighs. "Does he behave this way around others?"
Mia nods. "He shuts out everyone. I've hoped he would have made a friend by now but, during preschool, he completely ignored the other kids and practitioners. He did his own thing. Now he's in Reception class, and he's still the same old," the woman runs her fingers through her hair, lost in thought. "I've noticed, however, when my brothers come to visit that he notices only one of them. Zorro. Perhaps, it's because he's so huge that it's almost impossible to ignore him! I've tried to convince Zorro to interact with Max, but he's just a giant fool that doesn't really like being around kids."
"Ahh, Max is much like a cat, isn't he?" Veronica remarks.
"If you constantly fuss over a cat's attention, the cat will most likely ignore you and linger towards those who ignore them," the older woman explains.
"How do you know this?"
"Well, I've been curious about why my old Betsy is attracted to those who don't even like her. It confused me for a while, until I researched more into it," Veronica answers.
"Oh... I never really thought about it like that before, but it does make sense. Zorro barely even looks at Max. Come to think of it, he hasn't even held him once! I tried to get him to, but he pulled a face and said that he feared Max will 'crap' on his hands," Mia clicked her tongue.
"Of course, my baby wouldn't do such a thing. He knows better. He's excellent in many areas - particularly his physical development. Did you know he began walking, running and jumping when he turned one? He could also climb out of his cradle and climb over the baby-proof gates around the house. He climbed up the long, winding stairs like it was nothing. He even climbed up the bookshelf and into the washing machine! My god, did that day terrify me!"
Mia shudders as chills shoot through her body involuntarily. "Oh god, I don't even want to think about it. If I hadn't noticed sooner, I would've turned the machine on. And he's so quiet, so I wouldn't have known. I'm just glad that I have a strong intuition, something that I've relied on throughout these years when it comes to my little Max."
She takes a deep breath and continues, "He's a very smart boy, too. Once I hid his entire collection of zombie toys, I wasn't pleased that Josh got them for him, so I stored them away into the basement secretly. The next day, I find that the basement door is wide open and there's Max, sitting in front of the box of toys, engaged in his usual solitary play. He's an interesting little guy - and he's very creative too."
The woman rises to her feet as she claps her hands eagerly. "Oh! That reminds me! He's such a talented little artist! Come and have a look."
Veronica stands up straight. "If you insist."
She follows Mia into the kitchen. They are greeted by a silver fridge on their left as soon as they enter the room. Stuck to the fridge is a watercolor painting of a three-dimensional zombie with blood splattered everywhere on him.
The older woman strokes her chin. "Max did this all by himself?"
Mia nods proudly, staring at the piece in awe. "Isn't it wonderful?"
"That's... remarkable! It's something that I don't think any ordinary five-year-old can produce. Honestly, Max has the artistic skills of someone twice - no triple, quadruple even - his age...."
"Yes, his fine motor skills are excellent. I think God has made him very advanced in other areas of his development to compensate for the fact that he hasn't uttered a single word," Mia replies, as she strokes the painting fondly. Then she heaves a heavy sigh.
"The best noise I've heard from him are some grunts," she carries on, absorbed in thought. "Especially when I hold him in my arms and he's thrashing around, desperately wanting to escape. Oh, he's such a delicious little muffin! And those grunts are such adorable noises from him! They provide my heart with such warmth to know that he's capable of producing vocal sounds. So, of course, I try to hold him as much as I can... but it's only making him resent me in the long run."
There is a moment of silence in the atmosphere. Veronica wants to comfort her future daughter-in-law, but it goes against her serious nature. Instead, she hopes to lighten up the topic.
"So, why did you decide to name him Max?"
Mia blinks in surprise. Then she rubs her arms awkwardly.
"Well... I've been looking after my brothers, all six of them, from a young age. I raised these boys and I was not only a sister, but also a motherly figure to them. Growing up, our parents were traveling abroad on their many business trips together, leaving me alone with my brothers. For a while, we had Grandpa Max supervising us, but eventually he passed away and the sole responsibility fell on me," Mia sighs, as she looks down at her feet, blinking back her tears.
"I loved Grandpa so much. He always brightened my day. He was a funny man who could see the best in a bad situation. At times when I felt I couldn't cope with my reckless brothers, I could feel my grandpa's spirit besides me, and his kind words guided me throughout the storm. So, of course I named my baby after the man I looked up to most."
"That's nice," Veronica replies sharply. Her snappish tone has almost become second nature for her. She realizes this and softens her voice. "Don't be too disheartened, Mia. If I'm being honest, I didn't like you at first. I didn't want my son marrying you since I believed he could do better. It's nothing personal against you - it's just a vibe that I got. Most of the time, my intuition is right, you see."
Mia bites her bottom lip anxiously, as a pang of guilt hits her. Her engagement ring sparkles in her blurry vision.
"But I've gotten to know you better and I admit... I quite like what I see. Personally, I think you're a wonderful mother. You're just like me. You want the best for your son and you think the world of him. I can see it in your eyes the amount of love you hold. I can sense that you have a heart of gold. Perhaps I was too quick to have judged you," Veronica says. "I believe Max will eventually talk. We just have to be patient and believe in him and have faith in God."
Mia nods feebly, wiping away her tears as she forces a small smile. "Thank you."
"No, thank you for sharing all this with me," the older woman replies. "I just have one more question."
"Oh, what is it?"
"It's something that I've asked multiple times and you've avoided it," Veronica answers with a stern expression.
Mia's heartbeat races quickly. A knowing feeling of dread takes over her. "Mmh?"
"Who is Max's father and when's the last time you've seen him?"
"Oh! Would you look at the time!" Mia exclaims, as she purposely eyes her wrist watch. "I have to fetch Max from school."
"Of course," Veronica replies drily.
"I'm sorry," Mia chokes out, as she rushes out of the kitchen.
For a moment, she sees a familiar translucent figure lurking near the corner.
"Come and find me."