The Only Child

It was five in the morning when they heard him coughing again. They were so used to it that at first the father sunk his face deeper into the pillow and prayed it would stop, not a prayer of healing but a prayer of self-preservation. But the coughs became ragged and accompanied by little shrieks and sobs, and they knew something was different this time. The mother pushed his arm and they rolled off opposite sides of the bed and ran into his room where he was curled, wracked and sobbing, a pig tail of limbs and snot and wet hair.

The father carried him into the bathroom and turned the red knob. While the room filled with steam he shifted the boy to one arm and unscrewed all but one of the light bulbs over the mirror, but when he turned it on the boy whimpered in even that dim sudden light so the father turned it off and sat on the toilet and held the boy in the steam and the dark. The mother tried to make the boy drink from a bottle of iced orange juice but he just rasped and buried his sweat-soaked head into his father’s arm, and by noon he was comatose, and by midnight he was dead.

The mother did not hear the words. The doctor said them again. The father stood between the mother and doctor and took the words and stared them back at the doctor, and stared them at the ground, and stared them around the room, looking for the seams that would reveal the illusion and collapse the dream. But the doctor was still making new words, his mask pulled down and bobbing like an idiotic wattle beneath his chin. His eyes were watery and sincere but the things he said were compressed and mathematically designed to move the family through the stages without appearing to move the family through the stages, and he seemed a little inconvenienced when the mother didn’t beg him frantically to change his words and also did not fall to her knees like an empty bellows, choking on the fire in the air, the way parents do when their five year old child is a dumb lifeless shell in the next room. She stared away at a painting on the wall and the father clutched her arm and her eyes were glassy beads and her mouth was a rigid horrible flat line.

The funeral was very short. The father said a few words but the mother only sat by the casket and watched the people. Before they lowered the lid she kissed the boy on the forehead and she did not cry.

  1. I made an appointment.
  2. You what?
  3. I called. They were very understanding and I made an appointment.
  4. You should have consulted me.
  5. I did consult you, and you said I shouldn’t, and I disagreed.
  6. This is madness.
  7. Listen to me. Charles.
  8. This is a goddamn madness.
  9. Charles! Let’s just hear what they have to say. There might be a cha—
  10. Don’t say a chance.
  11. There might be. One. A chance to have him—
  12. Goddammit! (He threw his laptop and it skidded across the floor.)
  13. That was a really destructive thing you just did.

They would have to move. The thing wouldn’t make sense to anyone outside of them, and besides, they would only need themselves. The edges of their wholeness, the definition of their boundaries, the space that made up who they were and just as importantly the negative space that made up who they weren’t and was itself another type of definition, were all so clear to her now. Elated, she planned, and loving, he helped, though a concern burned deep inside him.

He arranged things with his job and she told a story to their family and friends. Even the people who advised against change during such a delicate time knew to let grief express itself in its own voice. If they needed to move away for a while, even if that was a really bad idea, then they wanted to support them.

They used his hair. He had been buried whole but they had a lock from his first haircut, and the quiet scientist dressed as a doctor said that would be enough. They took half and dropped it into a vial and whisked it away to be liquified and centrifuged and studied under microscopes and generally made magic.

She took hormone pills, and there was a terrifying period where they had to talk about candidates and survival rates, but in the end it was a textbook case, had there been a textbook. They injected her one morning while she stared up exposed at the buzzing fluorescence and within two months they heard the immaculate heart beat from within her.

They made the due date the same. Not that the boy had been born on his, but so the development would be the same when they induced her. She did all things again, as best she could remember. She played the same music and went for the same runs and ate the same foods. The new house had a different geography than the old and this worried her, but they arranged it closely using memories and manifest recordings.

One night they stood in the doorway of the nursery and he held her pulsing stomach, and her eyes shone at the reliving.

On the appointed day, the boy was born again. They gave him the name bequeathed to him, and stared at him and at each other and the bellows filled with clean air. The boy grasped her finger and her eyes thawed and ran and she looked at him deeply and said “My son, my son. My son, my son.” The father wept and clutched them both and kissed him and kissed her, and the burning was for this moment suppressed by reuniting.