That afternoon, I stood in my tiny front yard waiting for the school bus. It was one of those warm days you get in March, the moist air signaling rain, and I was thinking about perennials, whether it was too soon to plant, and not about Owen. I didn’t pay attention to his school bus, grinding up the hill and easing to its usual huffy stop, or the hydraulic hiss of the bus door. But a sudden shriek of brakes and skidding tires woke me up; I saw a little black car stopped in the street facing the bus, and then Owen, right in front of the car. Head down, hands covering his ears, Owen ran full speed towards the yard and banged into our beat-up split-rail fence. He tumbled over the fence and lay face-up in the grass, his arms flung wide.
I ran and curled down over him for a second, then sat back to look him over. He squinted up at me through his sweaty dark bangs. “My foot,” he whispered. The bus driver stood over us, and so did a young man who had his hands pressed to his thighs like he’d just finished running a race.
“I’m so sorry,” the young man said. “Is he okay?” The young man wore skinny pants and a narrow black tie, as if he’d popped out of the eighties. With his big, scared eyes, he looked like a kid himself.
“Don’t move him,” the bus driver said. “He might have broken something.”
Now the young man put his hands to his face, and I could see where his hairline was receding. “I’m not that kind of a person,” he said. “I mean, reckless like that. I was just late for my trumpet lesson; I know that’s no excuse.” He lifted his head and reached into his jacket. “Here.” He handed me a business card. “I teach guitar at the music school downtown. And trumpet.” Willard Spaulding, musician, the card read; there was a tiny photo of him in his skinny tie, a sparkly gold guitar on his lap. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice shaky.
I handed the card back. It’s really not your fault, I wanted to tell the young man; Owen couldn’t do anything right. I reached to smooth the sweaty hair out of Owen’s eyes. He hated having his hair cut, so it was always too long. Those everyday school bus sounds, followed by the harsh squeal of Owen almost getting hit by the car, echoed in my head. One awful thought after another piled up around those sounds, and I couldn’t banish the worst of them. Being Owen’s mom was like swimming through mud, but I was a terrible mother for wishing him away, and I prayed that he sensed nothing of that through my touch.
In the emergency room an hour later, Dr. Aronson gave Owen a shot of Valium because he shrieked and shook his head when anyone in scrubs approached him.
“What’s your favorite dessert?” Dr. Aronson asked, then tilted his head to listen to Owen’s Valium-loopy answer about brownie sundaes. “Thought so,” Dr. Aronson said, smiling at me like this was an ordinary day. He gently lifted Owen’s left arm, then the right; left leg, then the right. “Left ankle, just a sprain,” he said. “But we’ll get some X-rays, check everything else out.” He picked up the chart and asked the same questions a nurse had just asked, about the accident, Owen’s medications, his history.
I could see a thick black X next to “autism spectrum” on the cognitive section, and I spoke up. “It’s not autism.”
Dr. Aronson looked at me, his pen in the air.
“We’ve been through this a bunch of times. With the pediatrician and the occupational therapist when Owen was younger. It’s like he has a touch of autism, a little of this and a little of that. But he doesn’t meet the criteria for any one thing. He’s”—I looked at the floor, then the ceiling, wondering whether to say more. “I think Owen may be an Indigo Child.”
Dr. Aronson frowned at the chart. “There’s a lot of stuff out there these days”—he stopped and pressed his lips together, so all the color left them. “But let’s just stick to the diagnoses that we know how to make, okay? We can get Owen some help. Or you, if you need—”
“Thank you,” I said, interrupting him. I’d heard it all before, about diagnoses and help and everything else.
Back when Owen turned three, my husband Jay lost his job at a medical software start-up. I had good benefits at the hospital, where I was assistant p.r manager, and Owen was about to get kicked out of his child-care center for biting, failure to talk, and other non-sociable behavior. So I kept working, while Jay stayed home with Owen. Jay ran the house like an engineer, plowing through piles of paper and our messy rooms, and making big batches of soup for the freezer. He found a parent-run preschool for Owen, and slowly Owen began to talk a little, and then, at three-and-a-half, to read, a surprise to both Jay and me. Best of all, at least from Jay’s perspective, Owen could catch almost any ball you threw him. He couldn’t throw, but boy, could he catch—it was uncanny.
After three years of relative smoothness, someone from Jay’s old company called and asked him to join another start-up, this one in New Jersey. We thought we could make it work, with Jay driving home to Charlottesville on weekends. But everything unraveled: Owen couldn’t tolerate Jay’s part-time presence and went back to his old tantrums, and Jay met someone, an improvement over me—younger, smarter, prettier, and unencumbered—and now we were divorced. There was little I could hope for, except that Jay’s new girlfriend would get pregnant and have a son just as difficult as Owen.
Almost every afternoon, I would get another e-mail from Owen’s teacher, Ms. Kimball: Owen had freaked out at lunch and whacked another boy with his milk carton; Owen couldn’t stop crying about the smell of the erasable markers; Owen had been unwilling to take off his snow pants after recess; Owen had refused to stop working in his Wordly Wise book.
“Isn’t that good that he wants to keep working?” I’d asked, after that last one. It was November, an early-release day, and I stood in the classroom doorway with Ms. Kimball.
She’d let out a breath. “I’ve taught boys for twenty-eight years, and while I’ve seen these behaviors before, I’ve never seen them all together in one little person like this.” She looked away, down the hall toward the back door, then leaned closer to me. “How are things at home? Sometimes kids pick up on strife at home and act out because they don’t know what else to do.”
“Things are fine at home.” But even as I spoke, as I tried not to take offense, I started to wonder if Owen might be so sensitive that he could pick up on other people’s conflicts—and maybe not just my stress, not just the long-distance arguments Jay and I continued to have, but everyone else’s, too. Every little transition made Owen scream or suck his thumb, or go lay out his Matchbox cars in a sunburst pattern, or page obsessively through his favorite book, Treasury of Antique American Houses. Maybe he reflected the strife of the world with his odd behavior.
At home that night, I Googled “child sensitive strife,” and the first three results all featured “Indigo Children” in their names. Indigo Children have difficulty with rules and authority, I read; “they seem antisocial unless they’re with their own kind. School is extremely difficult, and they may turn inward, feeling like no other human understands them. They are often misdiagnosed with ADD. I read on. It all sounded familiar. And then came this: These children are unusually bright, and we believe that we are seeing something new and different. This may, in fact, be human evolution in action. My heart did a funny flop. What if Owen was an Indigo Child? Instead of just difficult, what if he was something else, maybe even something better? That night, I’d registered myself with the Indigo Society’s online support group and read some more. Don’t be alarmed if your Indigo Child occasionally exhibits a faint blue or purple aura. The silliness of that last bit made me blink, and then snap off the computer. But later that night, I got out of bed and sat for a while on Owen’s floor. I turned off his praying-child nightlight and leaned against the wall, where I could just make out the outline of his dark, sleeping body, his husky breathing marking the time. Maybe if I stayed here awhile, I could catch a glimpse of something. I kept watching because maybe an aura wasn’t the strangest thing in the world.
When Owen and I got home from the hospital after the accident, there was an envelope stuck in our side door. It was from Willard, the bad driver. I brought the envelope inside and put Owen to bed. For once, he fell asleep immediately; it made me wish for Valium every day.
Jay called from New Jersey while I was reading the note, and I told him about the sprained ankle, leaving out the way Dr. Aronson had frowned when I’d mentioned Indigo Children. “We’re lucky it wasn’t worse, Ellie,” Jay said. I hated the way Jay used the word “we” these days: Sometimes “we” meant our family—Jay, me, Owen—and sometimes “we” meant Jay and Trina, the new, improved couple. “We just have to keep a closer eye on him, keep his routine consistent.”
“Willard Spaulding is offering him free guitar or trumpet lessons,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, an edge in his voice. “Who the hell is Willard?”
“Willard is the guy who almost ran into Owen today. He’s a musician.”
“A musician, Jesus Christ,” he said. “Probably on drugs, and that’s why—”
“No, Jay. Owen was racing around the bus, like he always does, and Willard was late for a trumpet lesson, so—”
“I hope he got a reckless driving ticket, if not some jail time,” he said.
“But music lessons. He’s offering free private lessons to Owen.”
“As if that has anything to do with what happened,” Jay said. “Owen’s lucky to be alive.”
The bad thoughts entered my head again, and I pushed them away.
“Instrument lessons might be good for Owen.” I knew better than to add that Indigo Children tended to be unusually musical, that Indigo Children around the world communicated with one another through music.
“Ellie,” Jay said, his voice quiet and tender, like it used to be.“Think.” I knew that Jay was imagining Owen in a music lesson, the hundred ways it could go wrong.
“I know,” I said. “But maybe it’s worth a try.”
After my first encounter with the Indigo Society, I spent a few minutes each day with the society’s online support group. My first question was about the daily routine, whether I needed to bring back the strict routine that Jay had going when he’d stayed home with Owen.
“It’s not just about the routine, about those arbitrary rules that WE impose on THEM,” said one mom, whose screen name was Blue Aura.
“But wait, sometimes it is about the routine,” another mom, who called herself Dark Blue Ocean of Love, posted.
“Follow the child,” Blue Aura responded; “our Indigo Children will know what to do. We have to do a better job adapting the world to them.”
“And what if your son is eight and he only wants to read one book, a grownup book?” I posted, not mentioning that the book was Treasury of Antique American Houses, the big reference book that Owen kept on his bedside table.
Let him! they all answered.
One part of me found the Indigo Society moms funny. If Jay and I had still been together, I might have read some of the posts out loud, especially the posts about auras, to make him laugh. But another part of me wanted to be them, to believe that the universe was working through our kids. As I followed their Internet conversations, these moms started to feel like friends. I liked thinking about Indigo Children all over the world tuned to some higher frequency, their purple-blue auras vibrating softly around them, and their parents fumbling along. The online group felt like a soft, stretchy net, maybe something crocheted out of angora yarn, connecting us all, and keeping Owen and me from falling into some endless dark hole. I summoned thoughts of the supportive net at night when I couldn’t sleep and the bad thoughts came too close.
The next Monday, as Owen and I moved through the music school’s hallways on our way to find Willard Spaulding, we heard scraps of music—the sawing of violins, a liquid-sounding “Claire de Lune”—coming from the practice rooms. Owen, on his crutches, was quiet as he took in the unfamiliar sounds, but he didn’t shake his head from side to side or cover his ears, as he usually did in strange situations. We found Willard’s practice room downstairs, in the basement jazz department. His door and walls were covered with posters of unfamiliar bands: Ice Blue Maidens, The Legendary Pink Dots, Venomous Mammals. Willard stood next to his open door talking to a mini-skirted young woman with long, shiny brown hair, and he smiled and waved us inside.
“Interviewing vocalists for one of my bands,” Willard said, gesturing down the hall, where the young woman had just gone. He crouched down to Owen’s eye level. “How are those crutches working out, buddy?”
“Okay,” Owen said. “They hurt my armpits.”
“He’s still getting the hang of them,” I said. “It’s just a sprain.”
“It’s almost a broken bone, Mom,” Owen said. “It swelled up like a watermelon.”
Willard nodded—he seemed different today, more confident—and pulled a chair out for Owen, scooting another out for the sprained ankle. “For what it’s worth, I broke my collar bone three times,” Willard said. “Also, my leg. It drove my mom crazy, how breakable I was. We spent a lot of time at the orthopedist’s office.” His ease with Owen surprised me. He opened an instrument case and held up a shiny trumpet in one hand, a red guitar in the other. “So what’ll it be, buddy?”
Owen ducked his head and pointed to the guitar. He slouched back into his chair, shy after his unlikely burst of talking.
Willard smiled and set the guitar on Owen’s lap. “I think electric, buddy, so you can sound like a real rock star.” Then to me: “Electric’s easier to learn on,” he said. “He’ll progress more quickly this way.”
“He’s a little delayed in his fine-motor skills,” I said. This was probably a bad idea, and stupid Jay was going to turn out to be right, yet again.
“No problem,” Willard said. “We’ll go slowly.”
By the end of the lesson, Owen had learned one chord, and he accompanied Willard on a song called “Basin Street Blues,” Willard tapping Owen’s shoulder when it was time for him to play his chord.
“I want to do this, Mom,” Owen said from the backseat, on the way home, instead of his usual monotone narration of Charlottesville landmarks—Mr. Jefferson’s serpentine walls, the bagel place, the park with the curly slide, the aqua and pink split-level house that meant we were almost home.
“I’m glad, Owen.” I was also glad he couldn’t see my tears. Owen never wanted to do anything. Maybe we were going to have a good life after all. Thank you, Willard, I thought.
We got into a new routine—after school, I’d run Owen around in the backyard, and let him catch a softball two hundred times, while he counted. After that, he’d practice his guitar, then do ten minutes of homework, and then back to more guitar practice. Finally, Owen and I were doing something right together: An entire week passed without an accusatory e-mail from Ms. Kimball.
After a month, Owen could play three chords and part of a scale. He and I began to spend more time at the music school—we’d arrive early, and then hang around after the lesson, listening to the other students playing for their teachers. Owen would sit in one of the threadbare armchairs in the hallway, eyes closed, rocking side to side. I hoped that he was doing what any other Indigo Child might do. But sometimes I’d see another mom, let’s say a mom with four children, who probably home-schooled all her kids and never yelled, never had the bad thoughts that I did. I’d see that mom staring at Owen and I’d want to rush across the room and throttle her. That’s when I would close my eyes too, and think about the Indigo Children, their moms, and the stretchy net. It helped a little.
Dr. Aronson’s recommendation slowly made its way through the system, and his nurse called, saying we could make an appointment with a neurologist and a psychologist at the rehab hospital south of town. We’d get a decent diagnosis, the nurse said, get Owen properly coded, the way he should have been years ago. And we’d be able to get him good treatment with specialists. Preferably daily.
I made the appointment, then called back an hour later to cancel it. Then I went online and asked whether I should take Owen to these doctors.
No more specialists! Blue Aura answered.
That’s right, Dark Blue Ocean of Love added. And no more systematic drugging of our children!
You can do it, Ellie, Blue Aura wrote in a private e-mail. I thought of Blue Aura as a friend, even though I knew only the barest outline of her life: She lived in Salt Lake City, with two kids, Sam and Nina, both of them Indigo Children. I didn’t even know her real name. You and Owen will find the way without resorting to our disease-care system. Follow his light. Namaste.
I had no idea how to follow Owen’s light, but I appreciated her faith in me and in Owen. And Owen seemed to be getting better; maybe that was enough.
After Owen’s guitar lesson the next week, when Owen had gone to spy on the percussion class next door, I asked Willard how Owen was doing.
“He seems okay to me,” Willard said. “He seems like a good kid.” Willard was so young, and he had no idea whether Owen needed special treatment. Still, his answer felt like cool water, so straightforward: “He seems okay to me.”
Right then I told Willard all about Indigo Children, how I thought Owen might be one, too. I even mentioned the blue auras. “Although I haven’t exactly seen an aura around Owen,” I said. “In some kids, the auras are very faint, and in others they radiate like a halo. Also, they come and go.”
“Huh,” Willard said. He looked at the chair where Owen had sat a few minutes before. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can see it. I’m not so sure it’s dark blue, but it definitely sets Owen apart, no doubt about it.”
I wanted to keep asking about the aura, but I knew better. “Do you…do you think Owen is unusually musical?” I asked.
“Unusually?” Willard’s window faced a little park, but from down here in the basement, you could only see gravel and a strip of grass. “Owen’s musical, sure. But everyone is musical if they’ll only let themselves go. And, of course, if they practice.” Then he leaned over an acoustic guitar and played a few measures of something classical and complicated. I wanted Willard to keep teaching Owen, so I could keep curling up in his chair, listening to Willard play his guitar. If I could just stay here forever, everything would be fine.
One afternoon in May, Willard handed me a flyer announcing his new band’s concert at the Orpheum downtown. “The band doesn’t have a name yet,” he said. “We’re still working on that part.”
I nodded, not sure what to say. Lately the words flew out of my head when I saw Willard—I got tongue-tied and felt my thoughts colliding, and could only talk about the weather.
“We should get a pretty good turnout because my last band had a decent following,” he said.
“I’ll be there,” I managed to say, and Willard tilted his head, then smiled like he was seeing me for the first time. Of course I’d go to the concert—Willard had asked me to go. Jay wouldn’t approve, but what had he done? Jay had escaped, and he’d trapped me and Owen in our little house.
I got Ms. Kimball’s assistant to babysit Owen the night of the concert, and fled the house, driving too fast and fishtailing through a heavy late-spring rain. I got to the Orpheum an hour early. The bar was open, and I ordered a beer, then another, and watched the other concert-goers filter in—young women in short, floaty dresses, running their hands through their long, wet hair, and young men dressed the way Willard had the day of the accident—skinny ties, boxy jackets. Someone had put a mix of old REM and U2 songs on the sound system, which made me feel a little less ancient.
The lights went down, leaving the bar in darkness, until blue spotlights focused on the stage. The crowd whistled and cheered as Willard and his band jogged onto the stage. Willard had gelled his thinning hair, so it was spikier than usual, and his guitar hung over one shoulder like a tote bag.
“Hey,” Willard said into a microphone. “Thanks for coming out.” He turned and looked at the other band members, who nodded at him. “Okay! So we’re ready.” He backed away and started to count, then moved forward, leaning into the microphone again. “We’re Blue Aura, by the way.” They launched into the first beats of their set. Now I felt shivery and cold; I didn’t know whether Willard was emphasizing his special connection with me and Owen, or making fun of us. But Willard’s music pulled me in, his guitar sounding shimmery and ringing, then jarring and spiky. Familiar and unfamiliar.
“This next tune is another new one,” Willard said, a few songs later. “It’s about a new friend.” He spoke into the microphone as he tuned a new guitar. “It’s called ‘Lonely Monster.’” The opening chords of the song flowed out like liquid—Willard had put a filter on this guitar—and the chorus went like this: “Lonely monster, indigo child, friend of no one, friend of mine. Dark aura all around him, keeps him apart from everyone.” Like the earlier song, this one went from shimmery and calm to spiky and chaotic.
The shock of those lyrics propelled me through the crowd toward Willard. Up close, the spotlights gave Willard’s face a bluish cast. Willard looked down, not recognizing me. But a moment later, he smiled and nodded, and my blurry thoughts of climbing up onto the stage faded. Because what would I have done—shove him? Embrace him? March around the stage bawling? Instead, I waited. I stayed close to the stage, letting myself sway a little, moving back and forth as all those younger, happier people pressed in around me. I wondered whether Willard would look down again and apologize with his eyes for borrowing our lives, or at least acknowledge our special bond. But he didn’t look at me; he just played his guitar and sang, then closed his eyes as his band-mates launched into solos. “Lonely Monster” seemed to go on and on. I didn’t think I could endure much more, but still I stood there, listening.