In the dark, musty kitchen of our tiny apartment, I measure my seven-year-old son Anthony—he has grown three and a half inches in the last week.
“You’ve grown so much, sweetie!” I say as he keeps his head pressed against the wall. I pray that he doesn’t hear the tremor in my voice. He struggles to hold his smile in, trying so hard to be serious. He’s always such a serious boy. But the smile breaks through, and he grins up at me, his mouse-brown hair obscuring his eyes. I bite my lip. He turns and looks at all the tick marks going up the wall, looks at their even spacing at the bottom, looks at the gaps that grow wider and wider over first years, then months, and now weeks.
“I’m so, so tall for my age, right mom?” he says, and I laugh through this thing in my throat that threatens to devour me, and I nod, and I hug him tight, and I press his head against my chest, and I whisper, “Yes baby. So, so tall. My tall, beautiful boy. Go play on your Xbox, tall boy,” and he squirms in my arms, and his muffled voice is filled with exasperation when he says, “Mom, I can’t play if you’re hugging me like this!” and I let him go, and he runs into the even tinier living room, and I yell, “Shoes off mister!” and I wipe at my eyes, and I walk out onto our little thirtieth-floor balcony, San Diego spread before me in waves of steel and concrete, and I put my shaking hands on the golden metal railing as gusts of wind roar and push, and I stare out into the ocean that’s so close and seems so far away, and I imagine that I can almost see the ruins of SeaWorld that I know are hiding somewhere behind the dozens of apartment buildings that tower between us and the sea, and a seagull flaps past me a dozen feet away, crying and searching for food, and the smell of saltwater whips me in the face on the wind I promised myself wouldn’t scare me so that Anthony could have a home by the ocean, and I won’t look down the unthinkable distance to the honking cars below, and I pull out my phone and call Anthony’s doctor, and I scratch at my hair in a fit of anxiety while the phone rings and rings, and a bored woman answers the phone, and I speak.
“I need to make an appointment with Dr. Geist– no! No it has to be this week. Listen, it’s an emergency, I—no I will not call 911, it’s not that kind of emergency! Please—”
I am wearing my sunglasses against the harsh fluorescent lighting of the too-white waiting room, pretending to read Time while looking from face to face, daring someone to stare—everyone in the room is careful to look at their phones. Anthony sits in the chair next to me, the wood creaking as he rocks back and forth, his hairless legs bent, his knees almost up to his chest. He puts an arm that must weigh fifteen pounds on my shoulder, and the weight of it feels so much like his father’s that I jump a little—he pulls his arm back fast, puts hands bigger than my face in between his legs, seems to fold in on himself, putting his massive head down.
“Sorry mom,” he says in that little boy voice that causes three of the women on the other side of the room to look up from their phones. I glare at them over my glasses—they all pretend to be looking at something else.
I get a text and pull my phone out of my purse—it’s Darryl from work.
“Do you think you’ll have the Harrah’s blueprints done this week? Diane is starting to get annoyed at all the days you’re taking off….”
“Jesus, Darryl,” I reply. “My son is sick! Yes I’ll have them done this week. Have I ever not delivered? Ever?”
It takes him a moment to respond. Anthony is just sitting in his creaking chair and staring at his hands. I can’t even get him to play on his Switch these days. He says he doesn’t like it anymore, but I know it’s because it scares him to see how small the little game system is in his hands.
“Sorry, Bria. You’re right—you always deliver :)”
I close my phone and turn it on airplane mode. I don’t need this.
The physician’s assistant walks into the waiting room.
“Mrs. Derringer?” he says, and we stand up—Anthony bows his head to keep from hitting the thick, white foam ceiling tiles that I couldn’t reach if I jumped. His hand engulfs mine as he stumbles a little, his legs still convinced they’re the size of a seven-year-old’s. He has to drop to his knees to scoot through the doorway, and he grunts with the pain of it. When I have to let go of his hand, I bite so hard on my cheek I taste blood. He crawls into the doctor’s office and sits on the floor. His face is lined and dark—I haven’t seen him smile in two months. I tousle a lock of that beautiful brown hair on his head and smile big.
“It’s okay, baby,” I say to him, but he only stares at the corner.
Dr. Geist comes in quickly, glances at Anthony sitting on the floor, adjusts her circular glasses, and looks at me.
“May I speak with you a moment outside, Mrs. Derringer?”
I frown. “Whatever you have to say to me—” I begin, but she cuts me off.
“Mrs. Derringer, please.”
I sigh and shake my head, lean over and plant a kiss on Anthony’s thick forehead, whisper, “I’ll be right back, sweetie,” and walk into the hallway. I squint and put my glasses back on, and Dr. Geist raises her thin little eyebrows, and says to me, “What are you doing here?”
I knew she would do this. I knew she would make it difficult.
I bite my lip.
Why is this so hard?
Is it the thought of the knives they’re going to stick in him? The drugs they’re going to pump into his veins? The pain that’s just going to be the start because it’s the first surgery and—oh god I know it won’t be the last one.
But I have to do it.
I have to.
“I want to do the surgery,” I say, setting my jaw. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and—”
She sweeps her hand through the air, cutting off my words.
“Bria, it is far too late for that,” she says.
It takes me a full three seconds to respond. I blink, gulp, trying to get the words out.
“What… what do you mean?”
She opens her mouth to speak, but then the words tumble out of me, faster and faster. I shove my finger in her stupid face.
“You said the surgery would save him. You said it was the only option.” I’m inches from her now. People are coming into the hallway and staring, and I just don’t care. “You said that I was being stubborn. And now you’re—you’re—you’re—”
I can’t even finish the sentence. I cannot believe the audacity of this woman.
I take a deep breath.
“You have to perform this surgery,” I say, controlling my voice as the people in the hall watch us whisper.
She folds her arms.
“I can’t,” she says. “It’s far too dangerous now. No one is going to perform surgery on this boy, Bria. Do you understand that? You—”
“Come on, Anthony. We’re leaving,” I say, turning toward him, my beautiful baby boy. I stop for a second, and I feel myself soften just looking at him. Such a handsome boy. So smart.
Well, his mommy is smart too.
And this doctor isn’t nearly as smart as she thinks she is.
Anthony crawls out of the room. I take his huge hand in mine and lead him out of the office.
It doesn’t matter if she isn’t willing to help.
I know someone who will.
The ruins of Seaworld tower above us, the sun harsh and the air humid, and seagulls waddle around and croak on the cracked cement. The rusted bleachers are filled with men and women in white coats, staring shamelessly at Anthony sitting in the middle of the refilled orca tank, knees to chest, arms around his legs, looking like exactly what he is—a scared little boy. A woman in a wetsuit stands on Anthony’s upper lip, maneuvering a three-foot-long mucous swab around in Anthony’s nostril. Anthony takes a slow breath, inhaling for seconds, then minutes, and the woman’s wet hair almost dries, then begins to flutter as she struggles to stay standing under the force of Anthony’s inhale.
I screamed at them the first time they did this, but as the months passed, I’ve stopped screaming.
Through the scratched, cloudy glass, I can see Anthony’s hand—now larger than my car—almost scraping the bottom of the tank, magnified even worse by the terrible glass. I press my hand against the cold glass, and wipe at my eyes, and I turn to the crowd, and I see that they are all in white coats, that there is not a brown-haired man in slacks and a nice button-down, or jeans and a collared shirt, or even workout shorts and a goddamn T-shirt, ready to speak to his son one last time, before his son loses the ability to speak for good.
Cassius—more of a man than Anthony’s bastard of a father will ever be—steps away from the podium where his notes are stored. I glance at his tanned skin and easy smile and lean into this man who looks nothing like what a cutting-edge materials scientist should look like. He rubs my back, and I grab his other hand and squeeze it.
“Did Anthony speak today?” I ask, and he looks away, scratching at his thinning black hair.
“You know he hasn’t spoken in months, Bria. I don’t even know if he can—”
“You don’t know? You stab him with all those goddamn needles every day and watch his every move, and you don’t know?” I whisper, my words a growl. I glare at him and shrug his hand off my back.
“You’re taking away his ability to talk, and you don’t even know if he can or not!” I say, my voice rising.
“Bria, we’re helping him breathe—”
I walk away and sit on the rusty benches. He walks back over to his precious podium, adjusts the microphone, shuffles his papers. An engineer in a wetsuit walks up to him and whispers in his ear, and he nods.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Cassius says into the microphone. “The surgical implements are finally in place—we will begin in a few moments! As I’m sure you can see, the gill arches are constructed of flowmetal that will expand with Anthony as his growth continues—”
“Is there any projection on his ultimate size?” a balding man in a white coat shouts from the audience. I shake my head, furious at how they treat him like a science experiment. Like a freak. “Is it possible he will one day grow too large even for the ocean?” the idiot says.
The crowd begins laughing, and I see Cassius suppress a smile, and I glare at him, and his stupid smirk fades away. I stand and walk over to the stairs that lead up into the tank, pushing past more engineers in wetsuits as they work with fast, vile hands to fit giant knives and saws onto the aquatic robots that are going to cut my beautiful boy open and take his voice away from me forever. I kneel at the top of the steps, my shorts soaking up the saltwater that keeps Anthony afloat, and I reach and reach, but though his head towers over me and blocks out the sun like a hill rising from the tank, I can’t touch him.
I can’t touch my baby boy.
“Anthony, baby,” I say, but I can’t tell if he sees me or hears me, and I feel a lump rising in my throat, but then his head turns, slow and steady, and one beautiful green eye locks onto me, an eye as big as God, and I suppress a gasp that comes, and I shake my head to clear it of the horrible images that come—whales and giant squids staring at me in the deep—and his poor sunburned, waterlogged skin sags even as he floats on the water, and he sighs, the air sending three-foot-high waves crashing over the edge of the tank, dousing a handful of nearby reporters, and his face wrinkles in pain, but he does not close his eye, only looks at me.
“Baby, baby,” I say. “My sweet baby. I love you so much Anthony,” I say.
And I swear that his lips curl, just a little, in a smile, and eyelids like theater curtains creep across those big, beautiful eyes, and a filthy seagull flies down and perches on one of his long lashes, and he turns his head back to the sky as I shout and fling my phone at the seagull, and the horrid thing flaps away as I scream and scream at it, screaming Anthony’s name over and over, but he won’t turn back to me, and I jump into the water, and there are people in wetsuits all around me, and they are pulling me away from my son, pulling me away from Anthony, stealing his voice and silencing him and taking from me my beautiful baby boy.
The apartment is so empty, even with Cassius here, but I can’t leave it. He comes around the corner, sits on the couch with me, but I cannot be here with him right now, cannot feel his arms around me, can only stare at Anthony’s drawings all over the bare white walls—whales and starfish and dolphins and all the beautiful things of the sea that have become so ugly to me.
He pulls me into a hug, his arms gentle and firm. He plays with a lock of my hair, kissing my forehead.
“It’s okay,” he says, rubbing my back. “I know this is hard. So hard.”
“Yeah,” I say, wiping at my eyes, trying to smile. “Thank you, Cassius, for everything you did.” He smiles and nods, but then he gets that far-away look in his eyes, and I know he’s about to say something that’s going to break this fragile moment and make me hate him.
“Look, Bria… I know he’s your son. Your baby. I know that. And that’s never going to change,” he says, and then I hear it, hear it in his voice, the same thing I hear in everyone’s voice the first time they see him now that he’s… the way he is.
They all think of him as something more than a person.
Like some kind of god.
And saying he’s more than a person is just the same as saying he’s less than one.
“Just think what he’ll be now, Bria,” he says, and I curl my hands into fists. “His brain will become larger than anything the planet has ever seen! Ten times larger than a blue whale’s, or a hundred! Can you imagine what that means? What he might be able to do? He might develop psychic—”
“Stop it!” I shout at him, pushing him back onto the couch. He stumbles and sits hard, looking at me with confusion, then regret. “Just stop talking about him like he’s some kind of science experiment!”
“Bria, I’m—I’m sorry!” he says, standing again. “I just… I know you love him so much, but I just can’t help but think what he means to all of us, to humanity, to—”
I glare at him so hard that he shuts his stupid mouth. He scratches the back of his head, looks at the balcony like he wants to walk out, but I shake my head—he should know better than to go out there, to open that door and make me look out at the sea that swallowed my son.
“Bria,” he says, his voice quiet now. “Maybe we should just go to bed. Maybe… maybe it might be time to think about going back to work? No pressure…”
I think about work, think about my unfinished blueprints that almost certainly have been given to someone else by now, think about my boss’ last email telling me they’d have to consider hiring another architect if I didn’t come back this month, think about sitting at my beautiful, stupid oak desk in that horrible corner office I used to love so much, think about how only a year ago, when things were normal, when Anthony was just my baby and we were happy and it didn’t matter that his father flaunted the money he hid during the divorce when Anthony went to visit him or that he had new pictures of new women on his Instagram page every time I broke down and checked or… none of it had mattered, because I had Anthony, and I had work that mattered to me, and I had….
I had my baby.
Why is everything so dark without him?
I look at Cassius and shake my head. “I don’t think so,” I mutter, and he opens his stupid mouth and starts to argue with me, and I just can’t take it, and I cut him off and repeat, “I. Don’t. Think. So.”
He shakes his head and walks into the bedroom. And I curl up on the couch and cry myself to sleep.
The wind whips my hair, the beginnings of a storm that’s sure to catch me eventually. Waves crash against the hull of the boat, strong enough to make me want to puke out whatever is left of my guts. I stare out into the glittering expanse of the sea as it stretches on and on in all directions, a great desert of emptiness that swallowed my baby. I know the shore is close, but in the falling dark and the unending plain of watery nothing, I feel so small, so lost, so far from home, a speck of dust falling through a hole in the universe.
Is this how Anthony feels?
The captain walks over to me, squints up at the dark clouds, at the falling sun, and looks at me. His voice is like gravel and tar.
“Even with the signed release, ma’am… don’t feel right leavin’ you out here at night,” he says.
“He’s my son,” I say to him, and he has the decency not to shake his head, not to ask me why I always insist on coming at night, not to force me to say that I can’t bear to see what he looks like anymore—I am only grateful that there is at least one man left in this world who won’t tell me what my son is or isn’t. Cassius had not been so kind, but Cassius is an asshole, his mind so linear, so black and white.
“He’s not your son anymore!” Cassius had screamed at me over his half-packed bags. I’d slapped him hard then, and he’d grabbed my wrists, and I shook him away and said, “If he’s not my son then what is he? You did that to him! You ruined him!”
“I set him free!” he’d shouted, but I’d already run out of the room. I heard the door slam shut, and that’s when I’d started drinking.
The captain squints at me, scratches at his massive red beard, spits into the ocean. I look at the little orange raft he has prepared, the cooler filled with water and food, the electric lantern. It feels horrible and inadequate.
I loved the ocean once, before it took my boy from me.
“You’re sure this is the spot the Navy said he was spotted at last?” I ask. He nods, and a big wave hits and rocks the boat, and my guts heave, and I retch, but only yellow bile comes out. He pats me on the back as I lean far over the edge.
“Ma’am,” he says. “Gonna have to be the last time this week I can come out here. I can’t—”
“If your daughters were out here,” I say to him, staring into the black water, “would you come?” I turn and look at him. “Would you keep coming, Jeff?”
He squints, reaches into his pocket, pulls out his harsh Marlborough Red cigarettes, lights one. I stick out my hand, and he gives me a cigarette and a lighter. I cough horribly, and it makes my stomach worse, and I puke again, but then the nicotine hits, and my hands stop shaking. He takes a couple puffs, then looks away.
“I would,” he says finally. “Storm’ll be through in four hours. You really think me leavin’ will make him come?”
I nod. I’d become convinced that Anthony didn’t like the sound of motors. He always disappeared when the Navy got too close, and he never came when I visited and Jeff kept his stupid boat in the water. He’d always been such a sensitive little boy, had always hated loud noises.
“Best get movin’ then, ma’am. You get caught in that storm in that little raft, well…” He trails off.
I climb into the raft, my neon orange poncho billowing around me. He lowers me down into the water. I throw out the drift anchor. He hands me the portable sonar and emergency beacon and tips his hat.
“I’ll be back before this storm hits,” he says, and starts the motor. It takes ages for him to disappear. The boat is so small for so long, even in the dark, and then it’s just me, the growing roar of the wind, and the crashing sounds of the ocean, this beast that stretches from horizon to horizon and could swallow me whole and not even notice. I feel like an insect, a bacteria, an atom lost in space, flying for a billion years without once seeing the stars move in the unending emptiness that fills my soul and takes whatever is left of me.
I pull my coat tighter, turn on my little lantern, but I can’t stop shaking—I might not get out here for another week, or even longer, and any day he might disappear, or the Navy might decide a giant freak boy who never hurt anyone in his life isn’t worth following with an aircraft carrier, or…
I don’t want to think about “or.”
The sea is so massive, so calm, so fake. I know what a monster it is. I wish it would boil away. I wish I could have built him a spaceship and flown him to the stars. I used to love the world. I used to tell people that they should look at the bright side of things, that there was love and decency in people. I used to believe it. I never trusted in a god, but I believed in the inherent goodness of the world. And yet it’s the world that’s breaking me just by its existence, cracking my heart and sucking my son down to its bones.
I turn on the sonar, watch it for an hour. Something big pops up, but it’s only a sunfish. Then I see a little light off to the west, like a firefly dancing on the horizon, and after a while it resolves into many tiny lights, and I realize that tiny little swarm is the aircraft carrier that keeps track of Anthony, that it could sail for a thousand miles and never find my tiny little raft, and I swallow hard and hope that Jeff doesn’t forget me.
I feel my eyes drooping. I grab hot coffee out of the cooler and chug it, but it doesn’t do any good, and I feel myself drifting.
I wake up to the sonar beeping rapidly. Then it’s one long beep. I hear something that sounds like waves and doesn’t, a swelling, and I peek over the edge of my raft, and he’s there, a darkness rising from the water that swallows the meager starlight dancing on the edges of the waves around me, like a building rising out of the sea—three stories high, five, seven. I cannot crane my neck back far enough to see the bulk of him. I see a wall of mottled, wrinkled flesh and quickly turn out my lantern. He is like an island of emptiness, and some stupid, horrible part of me wonders if he will open his gigantic mouth and swallow me whole, if my little raft will sail past teeth like houses and fall into an even deeper darkness. I shake my head and feel the blush coming over my face at what an awful mother I must be to think such things.
My baby would never do that.
“Anthony?” I whisper to the waves, my voice so small in the stillness that spreads over the water like a layer of stone. “Anthony, is that you?”
I flinch at the voice in my skull, but this was something Cassius had talked about.
Oh God, is that him? I think.
Mother I hear again in my head. The voice isn’t the little boy’s voice I remember, but it’s not a man’s voice either. It’s something else, something deep and expansive and…
My boy, my little boy.
Mother, please. Anthony says, and I can feel his pain, a wave roiling in my heart. I gasp at the sensation, tears coming to my face unbidden at this emotion that is not my own.
Anthony, stop it! I think, and the pain intensifies, making me gasp and stumble.
What have I done?
Anthony, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t—I mean—don’t go! Oh mommy is so, so sorry baby! I think, digging my nails into my hand for being so stupid, so stupid to hurt him like that. The pain subsides, and I almost fall over as it washes away, shaking at the idea that I might do it again. The ocean whispers in the darkness around me, and I am so worried that he is going to just leave, and I almost turn on the lantern, but I can’t—I can’t do it, can’t look at what’s become of him, what all that water for all these months has done to him.
I want to remember him how he was. My little baby boy.
The raft sways as the shadow of his enormous skull—I think it’s his skull—moves closer, like a building collapsing onto me. I sense something near the edges of the raft and look over to see a dark protrusion the size of a car rising out of the water. I gulp. The water must be deeper than our little apartment was tall. How far would I sink? How slow must Anthony be? Could he catch me and save me if I fell?
I gulp again, lean over the edge of the raft to touch this thing like a sunken ship rising from the water, this thing larger than my little raft, that could crush me in an instant. It is warm, and it gives a little when I push on it. I run my hands over it, each ridge as wide as my outspread fingers. I close my eyes, feel the wetness running down my face as I trace the whorls and loops that I felt so many hundreds of times when he was just a little thing in my arms, reaching for the world but only grasping my fingers, and not knowing why he couldn’t touch the things he wanted, why he could only touch me.
Oh sweetie, I think. Sweetie, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I let them do this to you.
You didn’t, he says in my head. I don’t know what he means.
Are you… baby I’m so worried about you down there. It’s so dark and cold.
I am the warmth, he says.
Baby, I think. Anthony, I don’t know what you mean baby.
You will have known, he says. My mouth is dust and emptiness. I reach into the cooler and pull out a water, gulping desperately.
I’ll come out as often as I can, baby. I’ll visit you every—
No, he says, and I feel like I’ve finally fallen off that terrible balcony, that I’m plummeting a thousand miles an hour to frozen concrete.
There are others, he says, and I shiver as shapes appear in my mind—fleshy mountains that coil and ache.
Whales baby, I think, my heart pounding, clinging desperately to his towering finger. Baby they’re called whales. Don’t you remember from your first-grade class? I gasp for air. Don’t you remember learning about whales, Anthony? They’re so beautiful, Anthony, so beautiful and kind. They’ll take care of you.
He doesn’t reply. I can feel his smile in my mind. I let go of him and lie on my back in the little raft. I was so stupid not to get another cigarette from Jeff. I would do anything for a cigarette right now.
And I remember, suddenly, that this old jacket had a pack in it once upon a time, that I found it years ago in the secret pocket and decided to leave it, that I left the little lighter in the pack with the two Camel Lights I thought I would save for a rainy day, and I reach into the pocket, and there they are, these cigarettes I never would have felt or remembered in this big, puffy jacket, and when the smoke hits my lungs, I feel it again—Anthony’s smile.
I hate you being down there, sweetie, I think, then sigh out loud, wipe at my eyes. You’ll never see the world. You’ll never see St. Basil’s Cathedral or explore the outback or—
I feel the stars, Mother, he says.
“Anthony, I don’t understand!” I shout into the frigid air.
I feel the deep coils that bind them together, that blaze over and through their hearts. I swim in the fabric that cannot be seen. I taste the worlds. I starve, and I am fed. I am not, and I become. I empty, and the dark is filled.
I shake my head, taking deeper and deeper drags.
“Sweetie, I—just—are you okay, baby? I just need to know that you’re okay.”
I feel it then—his little arms around me, looping over my neck, his little legs clasping me tight as some ghost hugs me in that way that he did, his entire body abandoning itself to the embrace, his whole being tied up in mine when it was just me and him and that shitty little apartment and no one to bother us and his grades were fine and he was growing just fine goddamn it I never should have taken him to that goddamn doctor I never should have let that bastard Cassius talk me into—
Go home, Mother.
The raft starts spinning, the water where he must have been spiraling, a massive, sucking vortex dragging him away from me, because it must be that the ocean is taking him from me. It can’t be that he’s leaving. It can’t be. It can’t.
“I won’t go anywhere until I know you’re going to be okay Anthony–please!” I scream into the night, and something in me crumbles as I curl into a ball and cry harder than I’ve ever cried before, and the raft spins and spins, and my body shakes and twists in this godforsaken little raft in the middle of this awful ocean, and I wish that I would just sink and fall and drown in the icy dark, and then—
And then a massive wave splashes across me. Thunder roars. I’m lying in the bottom of the raft. I fell asleep. Oh god oh god I fell asleep without saying goodbye.
“Anthony!” I yell, standing on the raft and stumbling as massive gusts of wind push me to my knees, the rough, frothing waves smacking into me, almost driving me into the water, the sea rising to meet the black, lightning-streaked storm clouds that boil toward me and swallow the horizon.
“Anthony!” I scream, and a bolt of lightning hits the sea in the distance, and rain bursts from the sky and begins to fill my little raft, and Jeff and his boat are nowhere in sight because I slept too long, oh god I slept too long, and I try to scoop the water out with my hands, but the raft is filling faster and faster, and a massive wave hits the raft and almost capsizes me, and I’m already starting to shiver, but I won’t turn on the emergency beacon yet, I won’t, I won’t, not until I say goodbye.