Finalist of the 2011 Matt Clark Prize in Fiction
I open the door to find my Sammie, standing there looking up at me with his hands behind his back like a miniature Jehovah’s Witness. I’m not surprised because his elephant-gray cowboy shirt—the one his father brought him back from a business trip to Texas—is neatly pressed and tucked into the elastic band of his pants or because the laces of his favorite red shoes are tied into perfectly even bows, when he hasn’t yet learned that skill. He’s only five. I’m surprised because seven months ago, during a visit to the Natural Bridge State Park, he’d fallen off a steep overpass and into the murky river water below. No body was found.
“Hi, Mommy,” he says to me, as though it were just another day ending in Y. It’s a Friday. He looks as expressionless as a department store mannequin; his skin is clear, almost translucent.
“Sammie!” I say, I scream, or maybe I just think—my mind is a junk drawer, and my consciousness emerges like a lost item, found. “Sammie!” I say again, and this time I’m sure I say it, because as I bend down to hug his small frame, he says, “Mommy, not so loud. You’ll wake the neighbors.”
“Sammie! Sammie! Where have you been?” I squeeze him so tightly I think I hear a loosening of joints, a pop or a crackle. He smells of dirt and wind, fresh, in that earthy kind of way.
“I’m back, now, Mommy. Isn’t that the important part?”
It is the important part, but I want to tell him I’ve been sick with worry, devastated. And his father, too. I want to tell him about the massive manhunt, the scuba divers, the infrared heat-detecting machines that were brought in by the state. I want to tell him about the week spent on the muddy river bank hiking through weeds and sludge or about the smell of fishy river water that clung like smoke to our clothes and our hair and reminded us of loss. I want to tell him about the phone calls of condolence, the cards from the mayor, from city council, from strangers who misquoted biblical passages or said the things you’re supposed to say at times like these, like everything happens for a reason or that miracles happen or that sometimes God does things we just don’t understand, and so we shouldn’t try. I want to tell Sammie that I’ve felt a numbness I didn’t think would ever go away, as if my center had been cut right out of me and cement had been used to fill in the hole.
But I don’t tell him any of this. Now’s not the time. “Let’s go find Dad,” I say instead. Sammie brushes past me as he walks inside the house. It feels like my heart is drunk, wobbling on one leg, which must be the feeling of happiness.
Ben is in the bathroom—always in the bathroom, as though he knows I can’t bother him there, a biological excuse. It’s been this way for a while now. And maybe he does have gastrointestinal issues, but I doubt it. I knock on the door, thump, thump, thump. “Ben, it’s Sammie,” I say breathlessly, though the sound of my knocking covers up my voice. I‘m clutching Sammie’s hand, and it feels like a small, cold tangerine. But I don’t let go.
“What’s that?” he says as he opens the door. He wears white shaving cream on his face like a goatee, like Santa Claus’s hipper cousin. He drops his razor, and it bounces twice.
“Holy shit,” he says. “Are you serious? Sammie?”
“Holy shit,” says Sammie, mimicking him, always mimicking. He is smiling, or maybe just bending his lips. I notice they are dry.
“Sammie. Sammie. Sammie,” Ben keeps saying again and again and again as though to speak his name is what ultimately makes him real. He kneels down to examine Sammie’s face, pats it lightly a few times. Then he looks up at me. “Joni,” he says, softly, as though to say my name is an offering of peace, his white flag, makes us close again, makes up for the months we’ve not been speaking, the months we’ve been avoiding each other, living like separate ghosts haunting the same lonely house. When he finally stands up, he kisses me hard and fast on the lips—it’s the first time we’ve touched in months—and a dollop of shaving cream remains on the tip of my nose.
“Let’s all get dressed,” he says with authority, diminished only by the foam on his face. It seems like a good place to start.
“Yes, let’s get dressed,” I say.
And we do. We’re so glad to have Sammie home.
But we’re uneasy, too, like we were as fledgling parents, when Sammie was first born and we’d listen nervously to the fuzzy buzz of the baby monitor at night, together, like we were a 1940s couple sitting around the family-room radio waiting for newsfeeds from the front lines of Normandy. I can see the worry in Ben’s face, too. His crow’s feet are exaggerated because he’s grinding his teeth, straining his face in a forced smile that accentuates his cheekbones. The result is that he looks like an age-enhanced version of himself, like you see on those crime shows, and I can imagine what he’ll look like as an old man. Handsome, still. But old men are wise, have weathered uncertain situations, know how to navigate them. Ben just pokes at me with his eyes, motions to our son now sitting at the kitchen table, then shrugs his shoulders.
I shrug my shoulders back at him. I’m not sure what to do, either, I try to tell him by repeatedly widening my eyes. Night after night, I’d prayed for just this—for Sammie to simply show up, no questions asked. I’d imagine Sammie diving in reverse, feet first, out of the river and onto the land, and they’d find him and bring him home. But, at some point, I’d given up. At some point, the prayers were just words that were placeholders for emotions, words that soothed me, my mantra, my lullaby.
“Where have you been, Sammie?” I ask him again over breakfast. I pour him a bowl of stale Froot Loops, but he doesn’t eat it, only pokes at the colored flotsam in his milk.
“Were you with someone?” Ben asks in the soft voice he uses to talk to Sammie.
“Do you feel okay?” I ask. “Did someone bring you here, sweetie?” I have so many questions. Sammie sits still, taps his spoon lightly on the table. He’s different; I can sense it. Sure, he looks the same—his hair is parted in the middle and still falls over his eyes in a way that makes him look like an old-fashioned cartoon character, older than his age, earnest yet comical. But his voice is different, for one. And, for two, now he can spell.
“Maybe we should take him to a P-S-Y-C-H-O-L-O-G-I-S-T,” Ben suggests. He’s trying now, and I’m thankful.
“Why don’t you or mommy go to a psychologist?” Sammie says, and we all sit in silence for a moment that’s one beat past comfortable. He’s scratching at his arms, leaving white marks on his skin that look like the trail an airplane leaves in the sky.
“Well,” Ben says slowly, “because we don’t need to see one.” I kick him under the table, and he shoots me a look.
The truth is, in the months following Sammie’s disappearance, we had gone to a therapist. But it made things worse. We’d sit in two chairs facing Dr. Fruth—he was in our insurance network—speaking about our fears, our sorrows. “Take me to that dark place,” Dr. Fruth would say, and he’d eat red apples and nod his head at points in the conversation where I felt no head nod was needed. We made excuses to cancel appointments, then stopped going altogether. At night, Ben migrated to the other side of the bed, then to the couch. It was as if Sammie was the only thing that had held us together. The dark place was life without him.
Dr. Fruth with his apples never got us talking much, especially not about the few hazy moments before Sammie went missing, how we were arguing on the trail path in that adult-like way, spelling out words we didn’t want Sammie to hear. “S-L-U-T” is what I’d been saying about his co-worker, who was always inviting him out for beers after work, after extra hours at the firm, extra hours that weren’t spent at home, with me, with us. I could get a job again, too, you know. I could go back to my work, which I’d quit when we learned we were having Sammie. It’s not always fun being a stay-at-home blob, which is what it feels like sometimes when there’s nobody to talk to except a five-year-old.
“S-E-P-A-R-A-T-I-O-N” is what I’d been spelling when we’d heard Sammie’s high-pitched yelp, which sounded like a dog’s, and turned around just in time to see the soles of his shoes fly down past our line of sight like two rubber birds in a graceful dive.
We ran to the edge of the overpass. “Sammie! Sammie!” I’d screamed so long and loudly I felt each individual octave burst in my throat. We didn’t hear a splash or a clunk, just saw the calm river gliding east, silently, as it had been doing for thousands of years. Sammie’s round little head bobbed downstream, then disappeared completely. Ben and I stood silently at the top of the precipice, blinking our eyes like we had sand in them, like we’d always have sand in them.
But now Sammie’s back.
“Sammie, do you want to play dance party?” I ask to distract him, and I walk to the sink to dump out his uneaten cereal. This had been his favorite game, the one where we’d dim the lights, put on the old Saturday Night Fever record and dance wildly—all three of us—in that seventies kind of way, gyrating and pointing and laughing until we were all breathless. Sometimes we’d form a conga line, and hop, hop, hop through the foyer, down the hallway, around through the kitchen, then back to where we started—the family room rug, our homemade dance floor. It was one of the few things we did together, and maybe I was the one who liked it best.
“I don’t think so, Mommy,” he says. I try to read his deep-set eyes, the same eyes as his father. When I was pregnant with Sammie, I’d never felt closer to any human being. To feel Ben’s hand on my swollen stomach while Sammie kicked inside me made it feel like we were a complete electrical circuit, like those models I’d built in school—light bulb, battery, switch—and I was the conduit that created that dim, dull light.
“I feel like my brain has been swapped with my heart,” I say to Ben that night when we’re finally alone. I’m speaking in metaphor, like I used to do when I was in advertising, and he hates when I do this, but my head feels like it’s beating; my heart feels calm and dazed, uncertain. Ben’s sleeping in our room again—didn’t say a word, just brushed his teeth and climbed into bed as if he’s be doing it all along.
“Sammie’s home,” Ben says.
“Yes, I know,” I say, “But where was he? Where has he been?”
It seems as though I’m asking empty air. I can’t help but to let my mind go there.
“He’s home, and that’s the important part,” Ben says. He places his hand on my stomach, and I like how warm it feels, delivering equal portions of heat to all my nerve endings.
“I’m so happy,” I say, though I’m aware even as I utter these words that if you really are happy, you don’t actually say it, that sometimes you say “I’m so happy” to convince yourself it’s true. It’s not that I’m unhappy–I’m just afraid that today didn’t exist, is just another one of my dreams of Sammie jumping out of the river with a great splash, or Sammie being spit like Jonah from the belly of a whale, covered in bile, but safe all the same. I’m afraid that Sammie really didn’t ring the doorbell, that he didn’t come inside, that we didn’t watch cartoons and color and sit Indian-style on the window seat and watch raindrop race raindrop down the window glass. I’m afraid I’ve put Sammie to bed in his room, only to wake up and find the room empty again, a heavy, sagging room of full of colored blocks and toy trucks and a bed the shape of a racecar and sadness the shape of my heart.
“I’m so happy, too,” is all Ben says.
That night we have sex for the first time in seven months, since the week Sammie went missing. It is quick, but not methodical, not unlike the last time we had sex when afterward we lay with our limbs over top each other, like hot cross buns, or a pretzel, or another tangled food product, a tiger tail donut, maybe, and made promises to each other—big ones. The kind of promises you make in times like these, half-lie and half-truth, a verbal Centaur birthed from good intention and wishful thinking. Like my laundry list of new year’s resolutions. Like the first day of my grapefruit diet that was supposed to help me lose the baby weight. Like that time I went to the scrapbooking store and bought supplies to make Sammie’s baby book; I’ve never been crafty. Or like the moment that Sammie was born and there was this blinking hope for a perfectly shaped us.
We had promised if we found Sammie, we’d get our act together. We’d get counseling. We’d become better, more attentive parents. We’d sign him up for the neighborhood soccer team, and we’d go to all the games. Together. On time. We’d be more patient with Sammie. We wouldn’t sit him in front of the television all the time or yell at him to go to his room every time we were fighting or when he’d intentionally drop his dinner on his shirt to stop us from arguing (“Ut oh” he’d say, though it was not an ut oh, not an ut oh at all) or when he’d mimic the words he heard us using. “Where the fuck is my football?” Sammie had said once. “That’s an adult word, Sammie. An adult word, understand?” I’d scolded, though I knew it was our fault, Ben’s and mine.
Tonight, we don’t make promises. Only blink in the dark and hold hands beneath the covers. “Do you think Sammie will be okay?” I ask Ben after a while. I’m afraid to say what I say next, but I do: “He’s different now.”
“Sammie’s home. We’re going to be fine,” he says.
“We need to talk about this,” I say.
“We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
But we don’t talk about it in the morning, just shuffle Sammie from appointment to appointment. By nine o’clock, Sammie sits between us in the waiting room of his pediatrician’s office. By ten o’clock, he’s declared physically healthy, test results pending. By noon, he’s playing on the floor of the child psychiatrist’s office. By two, she tells us, all things considered, Sammie seems sound of mind. She says he’ll talk when he’s ready to talk, that parents need to be guided by the needs and intuitions of their children, that lots of parents tend to ignore these needs, that we shouldn’t be like those parents, who are bad parents. It feels like she’s scolding us, and perhaps we deserve it.
“Could he be . . . psychologically damaged?” I ask her. It’s a serious question. When I checked in on Sammie last night he was groaning in his sleep, flapping his arms at his side. I touched his shoulder, and he woke with a gasp, like he was sucking poison out of the air.
“We’re all psychologically damaged,” the doctor says. She’s stern with dark, tight curls. “It happens at birth.”
But at birth, Sammie was a bald, smiling, toothless thing. At his birth, I’m the one who should have been psychologically damaged. Ben was still at work—I’d called him twenty-five times on his cell phone—and there I was, delivering without him. The nurse handed Sammie to me; he looked like a wilted hotdog sticking out of a fluffy bun. Ben arrived minutes later, sweating through his oxford shirt, his tie crooked. He kissed me first, then said the things you say to your wife and baby, whose birth you just missed by minutes. He said, “sorry,” and “hello.” Then Sammie hiccupped, but in our collective memory it is a laugh, and I said: “I am so happy.” And Ben said, “I’m so happy, too.”
But no laughing for Sammie since he’s been home, at least not that I’ve seen. Once upon a time, seven months ago and beyond, he’d laugh at anything, a funny face, a funny word, a funny smell. Now he seems to have outgrown all his toys—trains, remote controlled cars, anything with a plastic engine—that are piled high in his playroom in the basement, and he spends much of his time just staring out windows, or into space, looking up to his left and right, as though he’s trying to catch a glimpse of the inside of his eyelids.
He no longer wants his sugary cereals or sweet gummy snacks or cheesy cheese puffs that make the tips of his fingers look as though they’re wearing pilled sweaters. He hardly eats at all. Instead, he’s always thirsty, so thirsty.
“Do you want a pop? Or some milk?” I offer him in the next afternoon. Something with calories for his small frame. He looks so thin.
“Just water, please,” he says. He drinks water by the cupful. By the liter, by the gallon. Strange gurgling noises rise from the back of his throat, like he is congested or gargling, then he says breathlessly, “More, please.” He drinks more and more. His tiny olive hands clasp the cup tightly, as though he’s afraid that if he lets go, I’ll take it away from him.
“Where were you, Sammie? What happened to you?” I ask once more, though I know I’m not supposed to force the point. Until seven months ago, I knew everything about Sammie, how much and when he ate, what time he took a nap, what toys he played with, what TV shows he liked, how often he visited the bathroom, and what each visit yielded. It was my job; it grounded me; it shellacked my life with the thin veneer of order, of purpose. And now it doesn’t. Now I need to know where he’s been, what he’s done, who took care of him, if anyone hurt him. I need to know how it came to be that he was back, how he survived the fall and the water, what he had eaten, why he hadn’t called or gotten someone to call for him. I need to know, had I been a bad mother? Had I been good at anything? Anything at all?
“I found you,” he says, nothing more.
“But you were the one who was lost, Sammie, not me,” I say.
I wake that night to find him fully immersed in a tubful of bath water. His mouth is closed, but his eyes are open and unblinking, strange aquatic eyes. “Sweetie, Sammie!” I scream, but he just stares at me through the glassy surface with a look of longing I’ve only seen on the wounded, the widowed, or something theatrically undead. I sit him up in the tub. He’s soaked; his pajamas are a second skin clinging to him.
“It’s okay,” Sammie says, “I’m here now.”
But that’s what I am afraid of, and I’m afraid of this being afraid. When he was gone the world had shifted hues—to blacks and dirty whites and grays. All I wanted was Sammie back. Sammie back, Sammie back, Sammie back. I didn’t know how the world worked without him.
In the morning, I tell Ben about the bathtub episode. I tell him I’m uncomfortable with Sammie’s strange behavior—he eats dirt from the potted plants; he pours table salt into his small hands and rubs it into his skin; he places his ear to the floor as though he is listening for a heartbeat. His scent is now noticeable, even after his bath where I wash his dry, flaking skin. He smells like a mildew and boursin cheese and overripe produce; he smells like the smell of the river. Ben tells me that it’s fine. It’s all fine. All fine. Just fine.
I step outside to get some fresh air, and that’s when I see Sally Obermeyer, our neighbor from up the street.
“You must be thrilled,” she says as she drags her dog on its doggie behind down the sidewalk.
“Oh, my,” I say. “Yes.”
“Congratulations,” she says nervously. I don’t think she knows what to say, but the fact that she says anything at all means something.
She’s a gentle woman that Sally, with big round eyes and a face to match. She has four kids, three girls and a boy, and I want to sit her down right then and there on the sidewalk and ask her: How do you do it? What are the answers? Instead, I just look at her blankly, say nothing.
“Well, I won’t keep you,” she says. The sun’s coming up behind the hills, and it’s so pretty, yet looks artificial, like a logo for breakfast food.
“Wait,” I say, before she has the chance to leave. I want to tell her that I don’t want to go back inside, that I’m frightened of Sammie, that I don’t know what to do—that in my five years of being a mother, even in those first years of nervous fitfulness, I’d never felt so scared. “Thank you,” I say.
People from all over have started sending balloons and flowers and cards; they’re sending rectangular and square-shaped dinner casseroles that we immediately put in the freezer. This morning I woke up to find a large decorative boulder in our yard that is etched with the word Miracle, which is what people call instances such as these, ones that can’t be explained, that seem hopeful to the hopeful. But it’s like wishing a cancer patient stays alive just to suffer longer—miracles are sometimes more about the observer than the observed. I want to ask the anonymous boulder-etcher if it is a miracle that Sammie wakes in the night choking on air, or that his skin looks mottled and shriveled, that light yellow scales are forming on his back, the color of tobacco stains, and I find them in the drain after his bath. I want to ask if it is a miracle that every day—though I don’t want to admit it—Sammie is beginning more and more to resemble an animal or some creature from the sea. He’s shrinking, too; each day he grows smaller.
But Ben won’t admit it.
“He’s changing,” I say. I don’t mention specifics; I don’t need to. He sees it. He must.
“He’ll outgrow this,” Ben says, but I don’t believe that he really thinks this.
“But Ben, I don’t know what to do,” I say.
“Just remember how it felt when he was gone, is all. Just remember that. That was worse, Joni. That was worse.”
And he’s right. They say a parent should never have to face the loss of a child. It’s not the natural ordering of things, and maybe it’s because you give to so much of yourself to them that when they’re gone there is nothing left of you. Nothing to give away and nothing to keep. That’s what Ben is talking about; I understand it.
Later in the afternoon, Sammie sits on the grass in the back yard, aiming the garden hose over his head. I feel like I am watching an animal exhibit from behind the glass of the kitchen window. His body is morphing now, taking on a different shape altogether—thick through the middle, blown like glass. He is scaly, and the sun reflects off his skin in a gleam of phosphorescent gold. He sits in the sun wriggling around uncomfortably until he splashes himself with the hose again. At one point, he looks up at me, and his eyes are almost embarrassed to meet mine, as though his body is betraying him, an accident he can’t help. “Ut oh,” I can almost hear him say.
I walk outside, and I say, “Where were you Sammie? Please won’t you tell me?” I know I’ve asked this of him so many times, and I know I’m supposed to let the mystery unravel naturally, but I can’t. He sits there, unmoving, looking up at me with the remorseful look he’d give me if he smudged a wall with dirty fingerprints or took the candlesticks off the coffee table to use as mallets for his drum set.
“I need to know, Sammie. Please,” I say.
“The river,” Sammie says quietly and just then I see a great gold fin growing out the back of his neck like the sail. I imagine if he had a pool of water he’d swim gracefully from end to end, which from above would appear to be a formless, gliding reflection.
I look at him and feel love bubbling like indigestion in my stomach, like acid reflux that rises up through my throat. And then I know what is a mother’s instinct to know, what I’ve known all along. He’s not my Sammie.
“Why’d you come back?” I ask, but I already know the answer.
The sun’s getting to him, and I kneel down above Sammie to give him some shade. His face has narrowed; it’s orange, but I can still see his eyes, deep-set. They’re not his father’s eyes; they’re mine, and I feel like I’m looking at myself somehow. He makes a wheezing noise, which sounds like a kiss. It’s difficult for him to speak.
“You don’t have to talk,” I say. “You don’t have to say a word.”
It’s been two weeks now since Sammie’s come back, and the smell of the river pervades the house. I wash the sheets, sprinkle the carpet with odor-fighting powders, spray air fresheners toward the ceiling, then feel the thin mist tickle my skin as it falls. We keep Sammie in a glass bowl on our dresser, next to the baby monitor we never put away. It’s the best I could find: wide enough so he can swim, deep enough so he can dive.
“He’s fine,” Ben says. “It’s a stage.” But I know it’s not.
Can you want something too much? Can you pray too hard? Those nights I wished beyond wishing for the return of the one thing that had given my life meaning, I should have been praying for something else. I tried to tell Ben, I did. I tried. But he couldn’t see it.
If you love something, they say to let it go. That never held meaning until now. I know what I must do. I don’t return to the river; I can’t and I won’t. Instead, I cup my sweet Sammie in my hands and walk to the bathroom with my palms to the air, like I’m taking communion. But there is no body of Christ—just Sammie’s slippery body pressed against my fingers. I try to look Sammie in the eyes, but he’s averting my gaze. Or maybe he’s scared. He still has a tiny tuft of hair on his shiny orange forehead, and I think maybe I’ll clip it off and save it, but I don’t. I gently dip him into the toilet bowl like I’m placing an egg into a boiling pot, trying not to crack it, and before my fingers touch the cold, silver handle, Sammie’s already dived down toward the bottom, zipping his tail back and forth. I look at my son, and I can see through his translucent flesh, past his scales and thin bones. I can see his tiny heart, not a human one. It’s shaped like a dumbbell, deep-red, and beating—just as it did inside of me, just as mine will continue to do, too. Sammie disappears for a moment into the siphon, but then he reappears, doing back flips and swimming sideways. And for a moment I smile: I admit, he’s the happiest fish I’ve ever seen.