Tic, tic, tic. Like fireworks. Like a shower of hail on a rooftop. Like fingernails parading on glass. Like the sound of tires on gravel. The boy was almost soothed by the sound as his eyelashes flickered in the darkness.
“Shh,” his mother gently assuaged.
Her hands were cool on his forehead. He turned on his side and stuck a consoling thumb into his mouth. The other clutched a small piece of cloth. It was soft, like a whisper of flesh. The feel of it was a comfort, a reminder of something like home.
A blast, followed by a shower of gunfire. His body tensed reflexively.
“It’s alright.” His mother stroked at his fear. “They’re far away, my angel.”
He sensed the bodies stirring around him, beneath the pitch of night. The small haze of moonlight that streaked through the clouds was flame to his fledgling imagination. The air around him was thick with fear, commingling with sweaty desperation. Whispers drifted to him like shadows, familiar and somehow startling. Though the air was cold, he felt hot and sticky as the boat rocked beneath him. The fever that had crept over him at dusk was now slowly climaxing.
He tucked himself into the rhythmic in and out of his mother’s breathing. A counterpoint to the ceaseless thrum of warfare in the distance.
“Sleep,” he heard his mother say. “I’m here. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” As she kissed his lips, soft and sweet, he tasted the lie on her breath.
“Mama,” he croaked. “Are they goodies or badies?”
He heard her inhale deeply. “Both, my love. It’s both out there.”
“Will the goodies win?”
“Yes. Oh, yes.”
He sucked at his thumb, savoring its texture, his brow furrowed with thought. “How do you know, mama?”
“Because, my love. Goodness always wins.”
He settled into the comfort of the thought, though he couldn’t yet fully understand it. At four-years-old he was only starting to outline the shape of human nature. It was all like a puzzle he couldn’t put together. The loss. The fear. The famine. The small piece of blanket he carried as assurance seemed to dwindle in size daily. He had carried it from home and all through this journey his mother called their “adventure”. On the road. In the trucks. By the cover of night. Stifled by the stench of exhaust.
Now, they were drifting on a wide black ocean. To where, he didn’t know. He only knew what his mother fed him. Small bits, like crumbs on a trail. And then, of course, he knew what he knew. The things she couldn’t conceal. The daily distresses of life at war. Reality uncensored. He knew what it was to be hungry. He knew what it was to fear. He knew the feel, the smell of death, the piercing sting of mourning. He knew what it was to lose a home. He knew what it was to be cold. He knew how to hide, how to silence his suffering. He knew what it was to be numb. He knew that one immutable truth. He knew that survival was key. He knew that nothing was certain beyond the steadfastness of uncertainty.
“Daddy?” he started. He had fallen asleep. His mother stroked at his hair.
“I’m here,” she said. “I’m here, my love.”
“I want daddy,” the boy rasped.
“I know, my love.” Her voice was a thread. “I know. So do I.”
He saw her turn away in the dark and reached up to touch her face. His hand swept gently across her cheek, caressing the pool of wet. “It’s ok, mama. I’m here,” he said. He felt her arms tighten around him. Her body shuddered in waves of grief as she pulled him closer to her.
“I know,” she whispered. “I know you are.” Her arms became a vice. “I won’t ever let you go, my love. I’ll never let you go.”
Eventually, he drifted back into sleep, wavering between stillness and agitation. His mother watched over him anxiously, pulling herself back from sleep. From time to time, she kissed his forehead to gauge the fever’s progress. He felt the plastic caress his lips as his mother tipped life down his throat. Cool and liquid, a juxtaposition to the desert behind his tongue. His dreams were plagued by memories far worse than any nightmare. Fragments of life before the war. Faces stained with death. The home he had known engulfed in flames. The hateful ire of neighbors. His father came to him more than once. He stirred with the pain of it.
His mother hummed assurance in his ear. She knew where the fever had come from. She felt herself bitten, felt the pain of regret. But what else could she have done? They hadn’t, any of them, had a choice beyond life or death. There were others downed by the foe of contagion. She could hear them retching around her. But all still alive. There was at least that. And perhaps there would be doctors waiting for them. On the uncertain shores of that land of inopportunity to which they were slowly drifting.
Yes, she knew where the fever had come from. She bit her lip at the thought of it. She cringed at the coppery taste on her tongue as her mouth filled with blood. They had been stranded on the side of the road, gunfire closing in on them. Then, one of them had spotted a septic truck parked alongside the road. The driver had been distracted, relieving himself unawares. They had seized that small blink of opportunity and run towards the truck. They had hoisted themselves up one by one through the opening at the top of the barrel. Like insects stealing through a hole, they had squeezed themselves into hiding.
The odor had thrown her off, but only for a moment. She lowered her son before climbing in and closing the lid behind her. The smell of it, once inside, made her desperate to climb back out. It covered her, strangled her, devoured every sense with a stench as noxious as death. She could feel it seeping into her shoes, pooling between her toes. She stifled the impulse to retch, covering her nose as she gasped for breath.
“No,” she warned. But it was too late. He had already put his thumb in his mouth. “Touch nothing,” she said. “Try to breath through your mouth”. He whimpered his assent on her shoulder. She felt the warmth of his insides as they spilled out over his lips. “It’s ok,” she assured. “It will be ok.” He knew to weep silently.
She couldn’t remember how long they had been forced to endure that torturous journey. Hours. Days. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they were living. She would do it again, she told herself, though the guilt of it ripped through her. She suspected the feeling would plague her regardless of how this night ended. She was the one charged to protect him. There was no one else. She was his mother, ordained to defend. The need ran through her blood. She looked at her son, inhaled every feature. His eyes. His lips. His hands. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to save him. Even hide in a barrel of sewage.
She remembered the day her son was born, how happy she had been. In spite of the pain, in spite of the drugs, she had bathed in a delirium of joy. It had been like nothing she had felt before, an unanticipated discovery. Like being reunited with someone you had loved and somehow unwittingly forgotten. There he had been, tucked in her arms, new and yet so familiar. He was every question resolved. She had felt her duty in an instant. The weeks of depression hadn’t dampened it, nor the months of struggle to feed. The sleepless nights. The anxious days. The immutable feelings of failure. Motherhood hadn’t been what she had expected. It was far from a fairytale. But an overthrowing romance nonetheless. He was the love of her life.
“Mama?” he rasped.
“Yes, my love?”
His eyes were ablaze with fever. “Don’t feel good, mama.”
“I know, my love. Hold on for me, ok?”
She looked to the water with desperation and saw the whisper of shoreline. The guns in the distance were a worrisome welcome, but not yet the closest foe. The threat of death was all around her, black, and deep, and endless. She let her hand rest on the rubber beneath her and prayed that it stay true. There were far too many bodies on board. She had known it from the start. But what could they do? They had paid their passage, and most had nothing left. Packed like sardines, but worse. Far worse. Alive and aware of the dangers. They had all seen the headlines, the pictures online. The women. The men. The children. They had seen the shorelines stained with the blood, the beaches riddled with bodies. She stroked at her son’s sweat-stained brow and vowed to be his lifeline.
Around them, the sky was starting to lighten, the seagulls hailing the dawn. She began to feel a comfort in the impending warmth of sunlight. The sun was a constant. One of the few. The only thing she could count on. Even when forced into darkness, she always knew it was there.
“Mama?” he said. “Is it daytime now?”
“Almost.” She looked to the horizon. The blistering glow of that powerful star drew a line around the ocean. “The sun’s coming up. Can you see it?”
He lifted his head to see. And just for a moment his small wan face was colored in hues of gold. “It looks like a fire, mama,” he said. “Is that where God lives?”
“God?” The question surprised her. They had never been religious. “Maybe,” she whispered. “What do you think?”
He furrowed his brow as he pondered. “Nope,” he said. “I don’t think so. I think God goed away.”
“Why, my love? Why do you think so?”
“He doesn’t like it here anymore.”
She held him tight and kissed his forehead, watching the sun slowly rise. “I think God has gone into hiding.”
“Just like us, my love.”
He thought. “Is he scared of the badies too?”
“He must be. Don’t you think?”
The sun showered the sky in pinks as it rose to its throne above the ocean. Ahead of them, the gunfire ceased. For a moment, the world was peaceful. She held her son and watched the world beyond alight with promise. Maybe they would be ok. She let her eyes fall shut. She listened to the lapping waves, the sound of seagulls cawing. She drifted to the fishing trips they took before the war. She felt her son relax into the ease of her embrace. Yes, they would be ok. He would be ok.
She stilled as something cold bit at the flesh around her toes, her reverie disrupted by the prickle of suspicion. Furrowing her brows, she cast her eyes down to her feet, where water black as night was drinking in the space around them. A wave of fear rang out behind a chorus of inhalations. She felt the boat begin to sway as panicked bodies shifted.
“No!” she gasped. “Stay calm! Stay calm!” But none of them were listening. “The boat!” she cried. “You’ll make it capsize!” She felt the water rising.
The boy clutched at her side, his eyes igniting with fresh fear. Bodies crashed into them like a swell of human panic. They weren’t wearing life vests. There hadn’t been enough. She looked around for something – anything to save her son. Then, suddenly, they were on him, burying him beneath their terror. “No!!” she yelled. “Get off!” She felt blood scream behind her ears.
Then, down to the bottom of the black he plunged like a raging comet. He felt the wind forced from his lungs as the ocean devoured him. His arms. His legs. His face. His stomach. The cold was an army of knives. He felt it pulsing over him as it pulled him ever deeper. All around him, bodies flailed. A terrible kind of ballet. He battled for air until there was none. Then, he breathed it all in with a shudder. Above him, daylight pierced the dark before fading to a poisonous black. “Mommy,” his final heartbeat called out. Then, suddenly she was there. She held him as they plunged further down, just as she had always promised.
I won’t ever let you go, her eyes said. I’ll never let you go.
Originally hailing from Ensenada, Mexico, Monica Mancillas is a music educator, singer/songwriter, and mother currently residing in Burbank, California. She authors short stories, novels, and picture books. Her work has been featured in the online litzine Beautiful Losers and has received first place in the Pacific Sun Flash Fiction Contest and Honorary Mention in Glimmertrain’s prestigious New Writer’s Award Contest. She is also the winner of the 2018 SCBWI-LA Andrea J. Loney Mentorship Contest. Connect with her online and on Twitter: @MonicaMancillas