Mother watches him from a stand of poplars growing out of the dunes. She’s kept still for five minutes already, and the boy hasn’t turned around. Mother is wearing dark clothes and will be hard to see among the trees, she knows. She is as skinny as a poplar, and the hollows in her face darken with the dusk.

“Mother gave him a red plastic shovel and a matching sandcastle mold and sat behind him. When the child was engrossed, she eased herself up and backed away from him, listening as his voice grew fainter.”

Mother gave him a red plastic shovel and a matching sandcastle mold and sat behind him. She watched the water and felt it pour into her, moving through her limbs and torso. When the child was engrossed, she eased herself up and backed away from him, listening as his voice grew fainter. Jesus loves me thisIknow, he sang, for the Bible tellsmeso. Little onesto himbe long. They are weakbut he isstrong. He still sings. She can almost hear him.

No one else is around. It’s a Monday in October and she can look to the right and see the empty parking lot several hundred yards away and the pier beyond that. Looking left, she sees nothing but sand for what seems like forever. She could walk along the beach for what would seem like forever. But if she moves he will look up and stop her. Mom! he will say, and she will say, I’m right here, I’m right here. Baby, I’m right here. Baby, she calls him, though he protests when she does: I’m five, he says, not a baby. She won’t say it yet, though. She will keep still. She can do that. She can dissolve into these trees and vanish.

Child turns. Mom? he says. Mom? He abandons the toys and stands up. He blinks and looks around, waiting in the almost-dark for the boundaries between earth and water and sky to emerge.

Mother inhales and goes rigid while he looks up and down the sand for her. For a moment she considers backing up farther into the trees and climbing the tallest dune, away from him. But she doesn’t because the sweetest part is coming. Mom! Mom! He runs now, in wide loops, getting nowhere, and then he stops and crumples to the sand. Mama! The old terror. Child knows he has to cry because crying is what makes her come back, but every time he’s afraid she won’t.

Mother counts to sixty, then steps out from the trees. The water evaporates from her body. She wonders how she looks, unvanishing herself like this, if it seems as though a part of nature itself is coming forward. She calls to him, and here, here—here is the purest instant. It’s only a flash, when he looks up and sees her smiling with her arms out and knows he is saved. She craves that wild relief on his face, and when he runs at her and she picks him up, soothing—Shh, shh, baby, I’m here, I’m here—already the instant has passed.

Where were you? he accuses. He wants to kiss her and hit her and yank her head around by its ponytail, but he doesn’t; he doesn’t move while she strokes his hair. I was only looking at the trees, she tells him. They’re turning color, see? I was here all along, baby. I was just looking at the trees.

Child lies in bed, at night or during his nap, and thinks about hurting babies. It makes his teeth feel funny, so sometimes he gets up and eats handfuls of coffee, right from the big can, but only when his mother is away. He scoops his fingers in and bites and crunches, not with his back teeth, like normal eating, but with the fronts. He pretends he is a beaver. He pretends he is a beaver eating a baby’s head that tastes like coffee. He’s heard babies have soft heads, and he wonders what that means, if they’re soft like a ripe nectarine or soft like a kitten or soft like other things that are soft. Sometimes it’s not his teeth that feel funny but his throat or his chest, like something’s there, touching him. Maybe it’s a baby. He wants to hold the baby that might be touching him. He would be careful. He wouldn’t hurt it, not really, but he would hold it by one arm and swing it lightly while he sang: Je sus lovesthe little chil dren, allthe children oftheworld. Then he would swing it rougher. It would be hard not to, even though his teeth would feel like they were floating in his head. He would swing it in a circle and let go. He wouldn’t be able to help it; the baby would slip. Down would come baby. Down, but first up.

He pushes in the babies’ eyes and yanks on arms and legs so they’ll hang loose. He steps on fat squishy tummies and bends back fingers and stretches mouths from their corners until they rip. He bites to bleeding where he can: noses and toes and ears, and he twists necks around as far as they’ll go. He pulls hair out and sits on rib cages and presses his thumb into throats.

Afterward, the babies lie around his room, crying, and this is when he wants the coffee. If he can’t have it he chews on the corner of his sheet instead, or his own wrist, like a trapped animal, a feral boy all bony and matted. He prefers the coffee’s crunchiness, though, and the way it makes him feel—fast and tingly and relieved. Coffee is for grown-ups, but it’s not hard for him to get. He climbs up on the counter and stands to reach the high shelf. It’s easy.

After the coffee he does his prayers, even if it’s just for a nap. NowI layme, rockabye baby, downto sleep my soulto keep, ifI should die before I wake, my soulto take whenthe bough breaks.

Mother lets him help her cook. They chop vegetables for a big pot of soup: celery and carrots and tomatoes and peppers and onions. She gives him the wooden pig cutting board, some stalks of celery, and a serrated knife as long as his forearm. With a matching knife she dices a pepper while he watches. Don’t put your fingers in the way of the knife, she says, sliding the blade ever so lightly across the tops of her knuckles. Touch only the handle, she says, as she runs the pad of her forefinger along the blade. Don’t do this, she says, and holds a strip of pepper over the pot on the stove while she brings the knife toward herself, stopping when the blade reaches her thumb and a small piece of pepper falls into the pot. Okay, she says, and points at the wooden pig with her knife. Go ahead.

Child takes his own knife and very slowly cuts the brown shriveled tip off a stalk of celery. She watches him pick up the tip, place it in the palm of his other hand, and lick it off and chew. Then he chops off another tiny piece, and another, leaving them on the pig, and Mother moves her cutting board and her pepper to the kitchen table behind the counter, where she can see him but he can’t see her. Remember, she says, be careful. Don’t touch the knife to your hand. Don’t ever handle the blade. He nods.

They chop. Child likes how the celery feels under his knife, the way it resists and then yields, and he likes the snapping sound it makes when he cuts through.

Mother gets up and scrapes her pepper into the pot, selects another pepper and two onions, and sets them on the table. Then she scoops into her palm the handful of celery bits the boy has produced and drops those in the pot too. Child peers in after his celery. He liked the pile he was making and is sad to see it go.

Mother isn’t careful but she’s fast, and she manages not to cut herself even while keeping one eye on her child. She has to watch. She doesn’t want him to hurt himself. When he stops his slow cutting and studies the knife she lowers her head, but she can see him turn around to look at her. Oh, I forgot something, she says, and gets up. She heads toward the bathroom but stops just outside the kitchen. Mom? she hears him ask. Mother counts thirty seconds and peeks around the corner. She can see him only from the back, but it’s clear he’s still holding the knife and that his other hand is raised to chest level. He looks around once more, and she ducks back into the hallway. She can feel her pulse all over her body.

Child wants to do it. He’s scared, but he’s going to do it. He wants to know if skin is like celery, if it resists and yields and snaps, if it feels good to cut it up and make it into a pile. He positions the tip beneath his pointer finger and pulls down diagonally. It doesn’t hurt.

Mother steps back into the kitchen. He hears her and wheels around, his palm out with a gash across it, dripping blood into his sleeve. He wants to show her he isn’t crying, and for the smallest moment she thinks he means the lesion as an offering. For an even smaller moment her stomach turns, but then he does cry and she rushes to him. It hurts now, and he shouts at her: You did it! She takes his hand and pulls him over to the sink. You did it! When the water hits his wound he tries to pull away, but she holds him. It’s okay, it’s okay, baby, she says, shh, it’s okay.

A clean towel is lying on the counter and she presses it to his palm and wraps it around his hand. She picks him up and he clings to her, sobbing. You did it! You did it!

Every Sunday Mother goes to church. She wears her blue dress or her beige one and sits in the back. She stands up with the people and sits down with them and holds the hymnal while they sing, and even shakes hands when the preacher says it’s time. Good morning, she says. Peace of Christ, she says. But while the people have their service, Mother listens only to God.

God makes noises and Mother translates. Sometimes he tells her about colors or sounds. Green and yellow, God says. Black and red. Birdsong and lawnmowers and dripping water. Car horns. And sometimes he gives her reminders: hair teeth feet, underpants shirt shoes, refrigerator pillow front door.

The people smile at the strange skinny woman who sits in the back, but mostly they’ve stopped asking her to Bible studies and potlucks. She always says no, and sometimes she doesn’t answer at all, just smiles back at them and shakes her head, as though she doesn’t know their language. Some people thought she was an Eastern European refugee at first, with her shadowed eyes and teeth and that wolf baby, her son, who makes their children uneasy.

This morning Mother is wearing her beige dress. The preacher is praying, and Mother prays too. Dear God, she says, dear God dear God dear God dear God. God waits a minute and Mother waits too and then God says something and it means: take the money.

When the collection basket gets to her, Mother puts in her five dollars. She spots a twenty and touches it. She pretends to fold the twenty into her palm and passes the basket to the next person, who believes he has just seen the woman wrestle with Satan and win. He is proud of her, but after the service he will warn the preacher.

Mother sits with her fist in her lap, but God stops talking—he knows she didn’t take it. She wants to cry, but no one cries in church, so she bites the insides of her cheeks to stop the tears.

After church she goes into the hall and drinks coffee because everyone has to. A man stands next to Mother and drinks his coffee and says Good morning, how are you? He is being Christian; there but for the grace of God go I, he thinks. Mother means to say Good morning, how are you? but she’s still upset and so she says Peace of Christ instead. The man laughs and pats her on the shoulder and Mother knows she’s turning red inside her beige dress. I mean, she says, and the man pats her again and shouts across the hall to another man and leaves her to empty her foam cup alone.

The coffee is very hot and it takes her a long time to finish. When she finally does she can go get her boy from the nursery. She hopes he’ll still be there. She hopes God hasn’t already taken him.

Child is the only big kid in the nursery today. He tells his mother he hates that, but secretly he’s glad. He likes to be the tallest and the oldest, and he likes to be left alone by the teachers, who will be too busy with the babies and toddlers to bother him.

Child sets himself up in a corner with the tub of painted blocks. For most of the hour he builds towers and looks out for encroachments from three toddlers who chase each other in circles. Child puts a leg out as a barrier, and the children tighten their orbit. Sometimes when their parents drop them off in the nursery and he’s there, they don’t want to be left. He’s a big kid, they know, but they don’t want to be big like him.

Besides the toddlers, there are three babies asleep in cribs against the far wall, and the teacher holds two other babies. Child doesn’t know the word ratio, but he understands the concept: the lady is outnumbered. There should be another lady here.

Two of the toddlers miscalculate a turn and smack heads. They scream, and the third toddler screams, and then some of the babies wake up and scream. The teacher puts the babies she’s holding in two empty cribs and tries to comfort the crying toddlers. The lady looks to Child as though she will start crying too, so he gets up and walks to the cribs, which are stacked like tiny bunk beds. He can’t see over the top bunks, but he reaches with his good hand—the one without the bandage, the one that didn’t get cut when he was making soup—into one of the bottom ones and caresses the baby inside on the arm. He tickles her hand and she grasps his finger, but she doesn’t stop crying. He jiggles his finger a little inside her grip. Hey, hey, he says. It’s all right. Don’t cry. Baby, don’t cry. Shh, it’s all right.

The two babies the lady put down are also crying, but there’s another one who’s stayed quiet. Sitting up in his crib, the quiet baby stares at Child.

Rockabye baby inthe treetop, he sings to the little girl holding his finger. Whenthe wind blowsthe cradlewill rock. He extricates the finger and pats her on the tummy, gently, in time with his singing. Anddown willcome baby, cradleandall.

Child looks over his shoulder, and the lady is still fussing with the toddlers, so he moves his hand up to the baby’s head. He strokes her on the temple and tells her it’s all right. He rests his palm on her forehead and spreads his fingers. Her head doesn’t feel soft to him. It feels like his own head, only smaller. He presses his fingertips against her skull, lightly, and then harder, and then as hard as he can. Child knows the quiet baby can see him do this through the bars between the cribs, but it’s all right because babies can’t talk. Child grits his teeth and keeps pressing, but he can’t do it very long because his arm gets tired, so he lets go. The girl baby is still crying, but not any louder than before.

When the teacher gets the toddlers calmed down, she comes over to relieve Child. Oh thank you, she says. That’s so helpful of you to check on the babies. She’s only a college student, an early-education major, and this kid makes her so uncomfortable she wonders if she should switch to business. He slips past her and goes back to sit in the corner, where he waits to see if he’ll want to eat coffee.

After church his mother comes to get him, and the words are there: I squeezed a baby’s head, but he doesn’t say them.

Mother takes her child to the mall to buy new shoes. Mother loves the mall. It is cool and bright and full of glass. It makes her feel calm and very, very clean. Pretty salesgirls smile at her and ask if they can help, and she always says yes, yes they can. Where might I find curtains, she asks, or lingerie, or jeans size four, or menswear, or children’s shoes? This entire trip to the mall she doesn’t ask for anything she’s really looking for except the children’s shoes, and she already knows where those are. But she likes to make the pretty girls happy, so she lets them lead her around stores to browse new, sweet-smelling, well-organized items she doesn’t need.

They’ve already bought the shoes. Can we please go home? her boy asks. We’ve been here all day. We have not, she answers, but we’ll look at just one more big store and then we can go. Inside the store, she asks a handsome boy for the jewelry counter, and he walks her over to costume jewelry and says his name is Sean and that he’d be happy to help if she needs further assistance.

Jewelry is near handbags, and while Mother looks at earrings and watches, Child wanders to a display of bags shaped like animals—Scottie dogs and cats and even birds. Mother keeps one eye on him, and Sean keeps an eye on both of them. She’s kind of cute, he thinks, but awfully skinny. She doesn’t look old enough, but the skinny kid must be hers.

Honey, don’t go too far, Mother calls, but not loudly. Child doesn’t nod or say okay. She watches him play with the animals for a minute, then she backs up a few feet to fondle long beaded necklaces hanging on a circular rack. The beads are translucent and smooth, like colored bits of ice, and she presses a handful to her forehead. Sean watches her and wonders if this is a shoplifting operation: she leaves the kid alone as a distraction so no one will pay attention to her.

Behind the necklaces are brooches, which don’t interest Mother, and then a rack of hats, with veils and feathers and wide floppy brims. Church hats. She tries on a pink woven one with a thick black ribbon and a veil of dotted tulle, which she pulls down and tucks under her chin. She can see her boy through the veil, but she vanishes a little behind it. Mother lifts the hat off her head and puts it back. Behind the hats are umbrellas and scarves and light gloves for fall, and behind those is a huge makeup counter. Sean follows her as she walks slowly to the makeup, but before the pretty smiling girl in a white lab coat can ask if she needs help, Mother zips around the other side of the counter and the boy is lost to her and she is lost to Sean.

Mother vanishes. She is fast now, and pleasantly breathless. She passes rack after rack of skirts and blouses and jackets, then moves into the juniors’ section, where everything sparkles. She speeds through girls’ and boys’ and men’s and stops in housewares to finger an ironstone bowl and ask an old woman whose nametag says Frann about wineglasses.

In housewares Mother feels safe. She is in her grandmother’s beautiful home. She is just a girl, and she can take a nap when she wants, on a bed whose quilt and sheets and pillows all match, and she can sit at a dining table set with crystal and china in Grandma Frann’s pattern. She can stay here until she hears her name over the loudspeaker, when she will rush off to wherever she is summoned. For now, though, she can relax because everyone is safe.

Mother sits on a sofa and turns on the lamp behind it to inspect the upholstery. It is a soft textured green, so lovely she could cry, and the lamp’s base is all soldered vines and rosebuds. Oh, she breathes, running her hand over the sofa’s back and arm. Oh, she says again, trailing her fingertips down the lamp’s metal greenery.

Her grandmother approaches the sofa, smiling, and Mother smiles back. The old woman leans over and says in a low voice, Ma’am, they found your son. Oh, Mother says. Oh, oh yes. She jumps up and looks around. But he was right here! I thought he was right here. Oh my heavens! Yes, well, Frann says, come with me. Mother tries to get excited about seeing her boy; she tries to anticipate his relief at seeing her, but there was supposed to be a loudspeaker.

Mother follows Frann into a hidden room behind menswear, and there is her child, sitting in an office chair and holding a Scottie bag with his bandaged hand, and two of Sean’s fingers with his good one. Her boy wails when he sees her: Mama! Oh honey, she says, and picks him up. It’s okay, it’s okay, I’m here. I thought you were right behind me! She holds him and rubs his back, then she tries to set him down but he won’t let go.

There’s another man in the room. Mother turns to him. He’s very handsome. Thank you, she says. I thought he was right behind me. Yes, the man says. Right. That happens. The man and Sean and Frann all wonder if they should call someone, the police or child protective services.

Mother feels the Scottie bag pressing against her neck, and she reaches up and pries it out of her boy’s hands. She tries to offer it to the man, but Child screams. No! He said I could have it. Oh no, Mother says, shaking her head. No. The man takes it, but holds it away from himself. He doesn’t want to touch the bag the kid had pressed to his face. It’s okay, the man says. I did say he could have it. No, Mother says. No. It’s not ours. Ma’am, just take it. I can’t sell it like this. He wants to punish her a little. He knows he’s not going to call anyone. He lifts up the bag and she can see it’s wet and the leather is stained. We’ll just write it off. I’ll pay for it then, Mother says. The man sighs. Ma’am, it’s a hundred and fifty dollars. Mother works her jaw, unsure of what to do, and her child screams. He said I could have it! The handsome man and the old woman and the boy Sean stare at her. Finally, she nods at them. Thank you all the same, she says and walks out of the room. No! No! the child cries. It’s mine! He said I could have it. It is mine! She walks through the store while he screams at her. It’s mine! I hate you! People turn at the sound of the screaming, and she ignores them. She marches outside, but then she must go halfway around the mall to find her parking spot. He screams all the way.

When they get to the car he calms down and lets her strap him into his car seat. No you don’t, she says. What? he asks. You don’t hate me. Child looks out the window. Sometimes he does hate her. Hey, she says, grabbing him by the chin. You don’t hate me. You love me. She grips him harder. That dog was mine, he says, and starts to cry again. I loved it. She digs in to his jaw with her thumb and forefinger so his teeth part and his lips open. I love you, he says, and it’s true. Okay, good, Mother responds and lets go. I love you too.

They are quiet for the ride home, but when they pull into the driveway, Child says, Hey, what about my new shoes? Mother doesn’t know where in the mall she left them so she puts her head on the steering wheel and cries.

Child hasn’t forgotten about the dog bag. His mother told him he would, but he hasn’t and it’s been two days. The man said he couldn’t sell the dog since Child cried on it and got it wet, and that probably meant it was thrown away. This makes Child so sad he can’t stand it. He didn’t care about the wet spot.

He knows the dog isn’t real, but he can’t help thinking about The Velveteen Rabbit, a book he had to hide because it made him so sad. He still won’t let himself remember where he put that book. If his mother had let him keep the dog bag he never would have thrown it away like the velveteen rabbit got thrown away. He would have kept it forever and put only his best toys in it, and he would have given it to his own boy some day.

Earlier in the afternoon, he pleaded with his mother again to go back to the store and get the dog bag, but she looked at him without smiling and said, We’re done talking about the dog bag. I don’t want to hear another word about it, do you understand me? A little part of Mother regrets not letting him keep it, but she can’t admit that to the boy.

Child doesn’t know why she asks if he understands. She always asks that. But all he said was It’s not fair! and ran outside to the swing that hangs from the tree in the front yard, where he’s been sitting by himself for a long time now. I loved that dog, he whispers, while he twists and untwists the swing’s chains. I loved him.

A few of their neighbors have noticed him all alone in that yard that’s not really a yard, just a strip of weeds with a half-dead tree and a swing too close to the road. They notice and when it gets dark enough they close their blinds.

What makes Child saddest about The Velveteen Rabbit is not that the rabbit got thrown away but that the boy never found out his old toy turned into a real rabbit and lived happily ever after. This causes Child such anguish that he puts his head on his knee and cries, right there in the front yard, though no one’s watching anymore. If he knew that the man at the store took the dog home for his own kids or cleaned it up and put it back out to be sold, he would feel okay. But he’ll never know, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever stop wondering.

Child’s palm itches and he sits up and picks at the tape holding the bandage to his hand. He peers in, but it smells bad and he can’t see, so he pulls the bandage off, even though his mother told him to leave it alone. In a line across his palm is a series of small scabs. He scratches one and it doesn’t bleed, so he scratches another. That one bleeds a little, but the one after that doesn’t bleed at all. He plays a guessing game: will it bleed or won’t it? If a scab bleeds, that means the dog got thrown away; if it doesn’t, it didn’t.

The last scab Child scratches doesn’t bleed, but it hardly matters. A line of red is trickling down his arm. Child moans and stamps his feet. It was mine! he yells and jumps off the swing to whip its chains against the tree. He wipes his bloody hand over his face and hair and flings himself to the ground and kicks his legs in the rhythm of his speech. It was mine! Kick, kick, kick. Over and over.

Child is out of breath and getting cold. He rolls over and picks up the bandage, then changes his mind and drops it. He stands up and purposely does not brush himself off, and on his way inside he watches the faint trail the blood makes on the fallen leaves. In the entryway he stands on the linoleum and calls to his mother, and as she comes down the hall with a pile of folded laundry he holds his hand over the beige carpet, the one he’s not supposed to walk on with shoes.

She dumps the laundry on a chair, all except for a white T-shirt, which she ties around his hand. Oh honey, what did you do! Why didn’t you leave that alone? she says, and leads him into the bathroom. She notices the blood on the floor but doesn’t mention it. She’ll take care of him, then she’ll scrub the carpet after he goes to bed.

In the bathroom Mother washes his hand in the sink, and he flinches when the soap gets into the cut. Oh my baby, she keeps saying, my sweet baby, what happened? But he doesn’t answer her. She wraps a washcloth around his hand, and then she draws a bath and undresses him and makes him get in.

She cleans him with another washcloth and kisses him and sings to him and calls him honey and baby, but he is silent because she doesn’t say anything about the dog bag. When she turns from the tub to look in the cupboard for a new bottle of shampoo, he says, almost in a whisper, I hate you. He knows she hears him because he can see her face in the mirror.

Mother doesn’t respond. She comes back to the tub and lathers his hair and finishes his bath, and he is still her honey and her baby. She dries him off and puts ointment on his wound and attaches another bandage.

Later, in bed, it occurs to Child that if the dog bag were lying in a wastebasket, the person who cleans the store at night might find it and take it home. This makes him feel better, but even so: he might hate his mother. He also might love her. It’s hard to tell.

On the way to church, Mother slams on the brakes at the end of their street. From the back seat her child giggles. Do it again, he says. I thought I saw a squirrel, she tells him, and turns right.

A semi is in the opposing lane. It would be so easy to jerk the wheel to the left. It would be as easy as stomping on the brake pedal. She won’t do it of course, but as the truck passes she swerves, only slightly, toward it. She glances in the rearview mirror, but the boy is looking out the window.

Mother takes a shortcut through a construction zone, dormant on the weekend. There are orange cones along the shoulder and between the lanes, and the speed limit is 45. She accelerates to 45, slows back down to 40, then speeds up and up and up again, to 70. The child laughs and claps his hands. Faster! he shouts. Mother presses the gas pedal until the speedometer reads 75, then she takes a curve without braking. Her stomach flips and she wants to move her foot to the brake pedal, but she doesn’t do it.

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!

For a while, the waves collapse the front of his shallow hole, but he learns to dig when they recede so that soon he’s in up to the elbow; he’s pushed up his sleeve as far as it will go, and his arm is numb from working in the cold water. He concentrates on widening the sides, and then he measures the opening: it’s one and a half times as wide as his shoe is long.

His mother has stopped telling him to be careful, and he glances back to make sure she’s still there. She is, staring out beyond him. She feels herself slowly filling back up with the sea as she listens and waits for God. Child follows her gaze and watches the orange sun slip into the water and go out. He’s seen that a million times.

He goes back to his widening, and the sky darkens and his hole darkens and the water inside it looks black. He measures again: it’s two shoe lengths wide now.

He’s studying his hole, crouched above it with his nose six inches from the water, when he hears his mother come up behind him. She puts her hand on his head, and he raises his eyes to the horizon all streaked and purple. Isn’t it beautiful? she says.

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