It was like waking those first nights they brought him home, when she listened for the sound of him breathing in the bassinet. The silence panicked her. Then the relief, the breath that allowed her to stop imagining a tiny blue face, the shift that returned her own breath to her body.
Just like on those nights before she left her sleeping husband and climbed from bed to find him. Her son was hunched over his phone in the kitchen. He wore an old tank top and his shoulders were bare, new muscles hiding the boy wings she used to fold between her palms as she smeared sunscreen across his skin.
“How long have you been home?”
She remained standing in the doorway. He felt like an intruder, every part of him pushing at her. He was an elbow in her ribcage, a heel pressing until her chest was on fire. He had told them he would only stay for a while. Of course, they had said, and braced themselves.
“What are you looking at?”
He didn’t reply. His thumb rolled across the screen. This was the moment, she knew, to step back, to retreat towards the bedroom. She almost did.
The first time they’d taken him to the ocean he had run straight into the waves. She had been struggling with the new baby and the towels and if she hadn’t glanced up just then she would have missed it. His face pulled tight in shock. A small wave crested and slapped against his chest and cheeks. She knew it was cold. She could still remember the first time she had tasted the salt, so raw and different from the warm lakes of her childhood. She thought he would run back to her. She would hand over the baby and pull his wet weight into her lap. “I’m sorry,” she would say, “I should have warned you.” She had seen him glance back at her.
He didn’t. Instead he had turned towards the water. There was another wave. He let it hit him. The third time he jumped to meet it. In the story they told, in the Myth of Adam, he was fearless. He had spent all day in the waves. His sunscreen washed off and the pink blooms across his back lasted for weeks, but the next morning he begged to join the surfing lesson down the beach.
He tossed the phone across the table. It kicked against the wall. “The world is going to shit.”
He took a deep breath. She watched his chest rise and fall.
“I know,” she said.
Before that day at the ocean there had been the first summer at the cabin. His unsteady legs took him toward the dock’s edge. She watched him crouch down, put his stomach against the old wood, and hang his head over the edge. The images came unbidden and automatically: His body could tumble forward. The water could sink him, rush into his mouth, fill his lungs.
So she scooped him up. He clung to her neck, and she hugged him around her hip as they swung in gentle circles.
“Mom, these fucking corporations are plundering our environment. And no one cares!” He stood and walked to the fridge. He took out a beer. “There is an island of trash in the Pacific! It’s the size of Texas! Texas, Mom. And everyone just sits around in their big suburban houses, driving their big cars” — here he gestured toward the garage door as he flipped off the bottle cap — “and we’re all just supposed to accept it.”
“We don’t have to accept it,” she said. It was the wrong thing.
“Why aren’t you angry?” he demanded.
Was there a right thing to say? That summer oil was pouring into the sea she turned off the news each time he came into the room. She did not let him watch the breathless coverage of the missing boys or the dead women or the (unthinkable) babies drowned in a bathtub. Instead she sat with him on the floor offering fictions of defeated dragons and wrongs that could be made right.
Why wasn’t she angry? She did know, after all, and had known it was going to shit from the beginning. Yet, here he was, taking up all the air in the room.
Before the lake there was the small wading pool in the yard. She’d stood in the ankle-deep water and lowered him, his feet hitting the water with a squeal. He sat between her knees, hitting the water over and over with his palms and laughing each time.
Her husband had come into the yard. “He loves it!” she said, holding up her wrinkled fingertips as proof. Sun had filtered through leaves overhead. She had been overcome. “Isn’t the world such a beautiful place?” she whispered into the top of her son’s head.
She crossed the kitchen and sat down across from him. Her anger might consume her. Or maybe she didn’t feel it at all.
His chest still rose and fell.
Margaret LaFleur lives, teaches, and writes in Minneapolis, MN.
This story is featured today for Every Day Fiction’s 12th birthday,
and marks the beginning of our thirteenth year of publication.