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In the mirror she sees the boy has covered his eyes, but he’s still giggling. The road straightens out, and way up ahead there’s a stoplight. It’s red, with one waiting car. Mother lets her car slow by itself, just a little. As they get nearer the stopped car, she accelerates again.
Mother doesn’t watch the speedometer anymore, and the stopped car gets closer and closer. Okay, okay, the boy says. Stop now. Stop! Stop! And she does, with one tremendous slam that sends her car skidding. She turns the wheel and misses the stopped car, but they go sliding through the red light and come to a halt in the intersection.
The child screams and Mother proceeds to church, obeying all traffic laws and good driving practices. With her eyes on the road she reaches back to rub her boy’s shin. Oh sweetie, it’s okay, it’s okay. He stops screaming, and whimpers now. We’re just fine, she says. No one’s hurt. But driving too fast isn’t funny is it? It’s dangerous. She rubs his shin all the way to church.
When she drops him off in the nursery, he needs twelve kisses before he’ll let her go, and then Mother heads to the sanctuary feeling serene and ready to listen. She sits in her regular spot and apologizes to God for not taking the money last time. She knows that was a test and she failed. God makes a sound. He forgives her, and Mother is relieved, but then God wonders what she will offer him.
Mother thinks for a while and God is quiet and then she knows: her own son. Her only son. She would give him, if God asked.
Child knows he should be asleep. He went to bed a long time ago, but he’s thinking about Sunday school. This morning the Sunday school teacher asked, What’s Hell? The question bored Child. They talked about Hell all the time at church. He stared at the ceiling while the other children answered: it’s where bad people go. What are bad people? asked the teacher. People who do bad things, like kill and stuff. Wrong, thought Child. Wrong, said the teacher. People who go to Hell are the ones who don’t believe in Jesus. If people do bad things and repent and ask Jesus to come into their hearts, they will go to Heaven.
Child already knows this. Because he believes in Jesus, God forgives his thoughts. When he thinks he hates his mother, or when he thinks about hurting babies, he just says sorry to God. You can say sorry and do anything and it doesn’t matter.
Let’s pray and really, truly ask Jesus to come into our hearts, the teacher said, and all the children held hands, but Child didn’t listen to the prayer because he’d already asked Jesus and Jesus had said yes, which meant Child wouldn’t go to Hell for thinking about the babies.
He doesn’t think about them every night, only sometimes. Like tonight. There are twenty babies in his room, including the babies from the nursery: the quiet baby, and the one whose head he squeezed, and the others. Child picks up the babies one by one and throws them in the air, then stands back and lets them fall.
When the babies hit the floor their heads crack. Some of the babies are quiet, and some of them cry. Child sits down and looks at what he’s done. He sucks his teeth and wishes he had the coffee. He bites on his hand instead, his good hand, and then he bites on his bad one, over the bandage, which tastes salty and sour. Child pulls the bandage off and feels along the ridge of scabs, and he bites again, digging his front teeth into the seam across his palm until it hurts. The flesh resists and yields, and the blood comes out.
Child is tired but relieved. He takes his hand out of his mouth and holds it against his chest. He considers doing his prayers but decides just to say sorry to God later. For not praying and for taking the bandage off again and for hurting all those babies.
The child follows Mother everywhere. He’s unrelenting. She can’t even sit in her dark closet alone or in the bathroom with the door locked because he finds her. She can hear his loud breathing outside the door, like a fat old man or a dragon. He wheezes, and she wants to tell him to blow his nose, but she can’t speak to him; if she does it will be harder to vanish herself.
And she’s not sure she should vanish. She listens to God, but God’s voice is angry and guttural and loud, and she can barely understand him. Vanish, God says. Don’t vanish. Vanish. Don’t. What? she asks. What? But the boy is so insistent she can’t concentrate. After he’s driven her to tears with the wheezing, he’ll knock on the door. Mom? he asks. She never answers. The knocks come from down low, so she knows he’s sitting or even lying down. Mama? Knock knock. Mama, I’m hungry, Mama, I’m scared, Mama, it’s cold. Knock knock knock knock knock. Mama Mama Mama.
Child needs a bath and some dinner. His dirty hair hangs in his eyes, and he holds it back with his good hand. Sometimes he pokes at his wound, stirring pus and blood together to make a sticky pink paste, and there’s hair in the wound and pus and blood in his hair. He wants his mother to come out, but when she does she scares him with her crying. He doesn’t know what’s happening to her in the bathroom and the closet.
Mother cries on the closet floor or on the edge of the tub. God shouts at her, and the boy wants things from her, and meanwhile she’s melting. She takes off her clothes and her body looks the same, but under the skin is all liquid. Mother can hear her insides sloshing. If she sways back and forth she hears the sea, but she’s too small to hold it. She’ll burst and the world will drown. That’s why she’s vanishing herself. Or why she shouldn’t. If she vanishes, the sea will vanish with her and her boy will be safe, but she doesn’t know if God wants him safe. She wants him safe, but she can’t defy God. Not again.
The boy, her baby, pretends he can’t hear the sea inside her. Sometimes in answer to his pleading she stands up and sways for him, from the closet or the bathroom, but he ignores the danger and she cries even harder. She doesn’t want to, but she’s going to drown him.
Child stands in the water, just barely. The waves come up and move around the soles of his shoes, but he steps back before the tops get wet. When the waves recede he moves closer to the water. Back and forth he goes. His mother sits behind him on a piece of driftwood. Careful! she calls when the waves touch his shoes or almost do.
Child dodges waves, then he looks for sea glass and interesting rocks, and then he uses his good hand to dig a hole in the wet sand. His bad hand has another new bandage, and he holds his forearm against his chest. His mother sits on her log and shouts Careful! and Watch out!