Today you’ll fill his prescription. You didn’t see this coming. Which means you did. Eight years ago, you saw him, perfect child, tethered to the whorled purple cord, and immediately began constructing a force field. Brined air and muslin cotton, root vegetables and dirt immunity. It was only a matter of time and equal opportunity before something interfered. This world will only tolerate peddling down hills for so long before it jams a stick in his spokes and laughs maniacally at the vaudeville act of an airborne boy.
Serotonin is a fickle thing. If a body manufactures enough, there is sleep with dreams, eating without gorging, worrying real worries, laughing at only funny things. Not enough of the wonder neurotransmitter, and—how did he say it?
Correction: you do not actually “fill” a prescription. Rather, you “empty” your entire cache of fevered arguments against medicating a child into a deepwater well and watch it drown. After which, you apply a heavy coat of “Love Me Some Red” lipstick and leave to go pick up the bottle—opaque white or the amber of your grandma’s ulcer medicine? You pick up and you pick up and you pick up. Stop.
Why are you leaping so far ahead, projecting, as is the sickness de rigueur of parents with kids like this? Stay right here, today, a Saturday. Picking up bottles.
God forbid a mother should hope the pickups of first dates and first loves come knocking in droves one day, but therein lies a prayer. You want everything for him, anything born from the earth, otherwise it’s possible nothing will be open to him. Except pharmacies. This particular one, open between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Who knew, pharmacy hours are more generous than voting hours. Too young to cast a ballot, to bubble in opinions as inconsequential as rocks, but that didn’t stop him from vetoing your voice.
It’s not speaking up these days anyhow. Tired, glazed, surrendered—your voice has mastered the almost inaudible pitch of orca mothers separated from their calves.
The slow dribble of drip coffee hitting the mug, rising to a steady stream like a grown man pissing in the kitchen. More often lately, your husband’s constant meandering chatter kindly tamps the noise in your head. He the muffler; you the beater Dodge Dart with the shrieking timing belt. But he’s out of town—an inventor, a professional dilettante. It’s hard to remember when you stopped trying to keep up. One day antiperspirant in a protein powder, the next a “smart” straw. No sucking required. “You’re okay with pimping apathy?” you’ve said to him. “Aren’t you where you are because of many unattractive struggles?”
“Time to motor,” you call from the kitchen, hardly loud enough for him to hear. Gargling bubblegum mouthwash, he’s not thinking of kidney damage. Tattered valves. A prepubescent body likely to stop producing serotonin—when a lionfish is dropped into a twenty-gallon reef tank, it forgets how to hunt the kelp forests for ghost shrimp. They’re stripping the wild out of everything. Except you. At night, you dance in fawn skins and rage like the maenads for not taking him to the beach enough, for laying him down in a lacquered crib.
Now you remember. He said, “Will my son have this too?”
“Your son?” you repeated, ashamed.
All this time, you’ve been thinking: My son. My life.
Days ago, third visit with the psychiatrist. She asked what scared you about pills. Why the hesitation? True story: long before you knew him, you knew he’d be a fisherman. Every lake, stream, and pier in San Diego County visited, until the lure of girls ousted the thrill of reeling in lunkers next to Dad. To this day, the agreement is that he lets every one of the fish go. They always taste of the scum water they were conceived in. That’s partly why. But also, you will only eat what other people catch. You cannot be the first to stop a creature’s breathing.
Oval? Circle? Umbilical blue? Milk-tooth white? Every morning, mornings as bleached bright as this one, a pill. From hand to hand, to mouth, to mitigated. What if his mind goes missing, then what will they say?
Sorry, despite our best efforts we were unable to recover it.
And so, he never speaks again about the universe lobbing its hottest hypergiant stars into the eyes of judgers. Never again is he able to sing the haunting frequencies he hears while every other eight-year-old is asleep in flame-resistant polyester, dreaming another rocket-to-the-moon dream. An entire species of squally boy-minds sacrificed to the sweet tickle of lab serotonin.
Here he is. Standing in the kitchen where you stir-fry kale in avocado oil and research foods said to stimulate serotonin production, where you think so hard about what goes into his body, you’re too tired to feed yours. Honey-skinned with busy hands stuffed and dimpled like an upholstered divan, you wait for him to talk in dizzying circles about dead animals or hold a steak knife to his throat one more time, threatening to cut out the voices. “Is that the necklace Daddy gave you when I was born?” he says, staring at your neck.
“Yes.” You turn away, thinking he’d also catch you if you fell. So much about him is perfectly right and that, the doctor said, is the danger. Kids like him activate a form of amnesia; it’s easy to forget why you’re crying.
“I have a question.” He sips the mud-colored smoothie you’ve choked with chia seeds. “Isn’t it Saturday?”
“Why are you dressed for work?”
With medicine, there are certainties, of course. One day, he’ll certainly have to stop games he’s playing, pause lectures he’s leading, shorten strides he’s taking, pull away from lips he’s kissing, to think, “Did I take it?” And if he ever goes missing for real, you’ll certainly find yourself pleading on live TV, “He can’t go without his medication.” Pandering to his illness in front of the nation, you’ll concede to the fact that you’ve exhausted your scarce resources and sent him forth into the medicated mob with the same miserable story scrawled across his forehead: We are pill-powered. When you breastfed him, you marveled daily at the built-in convenience: what you had was precisely what he needed. Along with antibodies and gut microbes and brain fat, there was also bulletproof self-sufficiency passing from you to him. Heartened and full yourself , you watched the gift distend his belly and spill out his lips, until finally you whispered: Everything you have will be precisely what you need.
“If you could do anything today,” you begin, pleased that the coffee is doing its job of kick-starting your ambition.
“The pier,” he squeals, his pinking face not that of a child who could possibly need anything more than clean water, a night-light.
“How about a day trip fishing at the Catalina’s?” This is a first. Your husband does the fishing with him, you do the watching and the divvying of cheese sandwiches.
He drops his face into his hands and cries, “How did you know that that’s the dream of my entire life?”
Quickly, you slip off your pumps, unclasp your diamond “push prize.” You unzip and unbutton and decommission the extraordinary efforts undertaken to ensure that nobody in the pick-up line at the pharmacy silently accuses you of neglect, self or otherwise.
“What am I afraid of?” you repeated to the psychiatrist who attempted a discreet visual sweep of the Victorian desk clock. The hour waned. In the adjacent waiting room your son talked grade-school politics with the receptionist. “That I’m driving the getaway car.”
Studies say we’re living in a bright-light deprived society. Luckily, that and exercise are available in quick-dissolving tablets or easy-to-swallow capsules. Hunters and gatherers, they had it easy: sunlight by default, running a marathon for a meal, a free-range, paleo diet maintained on a single income and with negligible forethought. There was no blue light syndrome or carpal tunnel or boys dependent on prescriptions. Serotonin roamed wild and if you weren’t getting enough nobody knew, nobody cared. Studies say part of the problem is too many studies. A saturation of sketchy hypotheses. This is why we no longer bother to ask the right kinds of questions. Yours being, “If you catch and release with the hook still cinched to his lip, wouldn’t he rather just die on the stringer?”
You’ve undressed down to your maudlin bra and underwear and he’s staring like you’re the one out of her mind.
“What?” you say. “You’ve never seen your mom excited about fishing?”
“It’s Yonder, Mom. He’s back.” His eyes—the wise, brown eyes of the son you were about to take fishing—are gone. Two options: A. play along or B. pick up your coffee mug and dash it at your dumbass, jaunty reflection in the stainless steel fridge.
“Oh boy, hon, help me out. I always get Yonder and Tessup confused.”
“Tessup is the girl at the top of the Ferris wheel. Stuck way up there,” he waves maniacally out the window at the blue sky sashed by a contrail, “calling down help me help me to all the people eating nachos.”
“And who is Yonder?”
“The superhero who keeps wanting to kill you.” He’s crying. “I hate my head. I hate this so much. Who gave this to me?”
You were never going to be this kind of mother raising this kind of child. Never did you pass a test to drive the getaway car. Nor can you see the road. Is there even a road? They say yes. They say it doesn’t really take four to six weeks for the magic to kick in. Once his serotonin-starved body catches little more than a secondhand whiff, you can almost see the cells cast open their carp mouths and swallow the manufactured hormone cocktail. Hook, line, and sinker. There’s a joke, they say, at the end of this road.
He follows you to the backyard and crouches hipside as you pull the few palsied weeds in the planters. They come up so satisfyingly easy with the entire root system intact because your husband, the planner, the one who has already purchased a day-of-the-week pill dispenser, he also tacked down a weed barrier.
“Can we still go?” he says. Whatever descended on him moments ago is poof, gone. “You can wear your work clothes. I don’t care.”
“The suffering. I can’t anymore.” Another weed up, a roly-poly and clod of loam dangle from the mother root.
“It’s fine, Mommy. I can let the fish go,” he says. “Real fisherman can’t keep everything they catch.”
And you think of those reflection pictures: the snowy mountain range and blue-sky panorama recreated in the lake like a Rorschach. The trick is deciphering which is the real deal.
“Well then?” you say.
“We get a fishing license first.” You stand too quickly. A black haze nearly crumples you back to the ground. While everything else is elevated— fatigue, fears, the speed at which you’re acclimating to kid behavior you previously sneered at in public—your blood pressure remains dangerously low. Because you’re thin, thin to the point that in the grocery store when he rips cereal boxes off shelves to find the people whispering “kill, kill,” behind them, you’re not sure if the security guard is staring at you or your son. Eating sates you to an unfair advantage. As long as you have to, you’ll remain his depleted equal.
“Did you forget? I already have my license.”
“I need one. And some clothes.”
He leaps across the lawn, scattering a cloud of hovering gnats, and into the house, where you watch his silhouette at the fridge presumably packing food. And you wince, you wince and wince at your surprise. He’s taking care to eat. His will to survive outdoes yours.
Can estuaries be salvaged when seas are rising? The little stuff, is what you mean, is it worth the effort anymore? Pants hemmed, sulfate-free shampoo, Schubert with breakfast, petting zoos, beet-dyed sprinkles. Does it all add up to one futile, conciliatory effort or is it real progress towards a feat the prescription can’t touch? Of course, you’re not worried even a little bit that a pill will assume all your duties, as nets have gutted oceans and left no fish for men.
“Don’t let me forget seasick pills,” you say. In the car. Driving west when the pharmacy is east.
“I’m not sick,” he says.
“Me,” you say. “I’m a first-timer fisherman.”
“A fishermom,” he corrects. The window is open, his eyes squinted against the speed as his hand rides the wind wave, up and down, up and down, like a porpoise. A mammal, a human, a child, a double helix of DNA and roving leucocyte clusters that you’ll never in your right mind know how to keep off the eroding cliffs. Other than by standing in line tomorrow, or the next day when you grab hold of the loud, white bag, a remedy inside. When you stare at his name on the bottle and notice it’s the same font typed on his birth bracelet. Eight years ago. When survival was milk and sleep. When you were sure shortcomings could be tweaked with a tutor, maybe eyeglasses. When the joke was no joke at all, but unprompted laughter born in the lightless hadal zone where innocence still swims in shoals, uncatchable.
Tori Malcangio’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Literary Review, Chattahoochee Review,Â Cream City Review, Glimmer Train, Mississippi Review, Passages North, River Styx, Ruminate Magazine, Tampa Review, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. She has won the William Van Dyke Fiction Prize, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and Waasmode Fiction Prize. Raised in Arizona, she now lives in San Diego, where she is working on a novel. (updated 9/2017)