Today, we are proud to present “The Deca-life Crisis” by Jessi Lewis as the latest installment in our New Voices series. In this story, hundreds of children each year mysteriously turn into pieces of coral by their tenth birthdays. Along with this comes an irrepressible urge for these children to find new homes in the sea. This piece is told from the point of view of a mother whose son, Luca, is slowly hardening.
“We didn’t have much time left together on land. He would soon lose his voice, then his comfort on asphalt, and then he’d walk into the Atlantic and sink. I knew this, but I was holding out. Denial is the finest feeling—confident, ignorant, deliciously stubborn. Hardening.”
I was buckling my seatbelt in the station wagon when I said to Luca, “I wish you hadn’t hardened yourself.” Really, I meant this in two ways, but he was nine and only understood the calcium carbonate that was developing across his skin and what that meant. My son’s physical mutation was now obvious. A harsh, cracking crust stretched from his brow to his neck and tightened his spine. His skin was losing flexibility, and the edges of his nostrils and eyelids were sharp.
Luca held his breath for a few seconds, looked out the window slowly, then said, “Mama, Laura wouldn’t give me one of the sandwiches because she’s a bitch. It’s okay that I said that because she is one.”
We were leaving a birthday party early because of the scuffle. Laura, the unblinking girl in oversized shorts, had called him “ocean trash” and then “coral freak” in the same breath. The parents in the room held their breath, probably afraid to agree that my son was resembling coral more every day. There in the car, I couldn’t help but think that the Laura-girl did deserve Luca’s label for her.
“You want to be better than the worst person at the party,” I said, anyway, wondering if this could sink in, or if it even mattered that I said it given the circumstances. Our circumstances.
Yellow balloons tangled on the mailbox next to my driver’s door and Luca watched them, mesmerized. I turned over the engine to leave for home.
“But,” I added, “she wasn’t right to call you that.”
“She’s like her parents, right? They say mean things probably. Kids are like their parents.”
My son nodded at his own words, still staring. I drove us away from the balloons.
Luca would not discuss the change in his body and skin. At the time, it didn’t seem healthy to force it, though I’ll never know if that was true. I didn’t like to talk about it either, so I guess he had a point there about parents.
I watched my son in the rearview mirror and the hard disc that had formed over his forehead. He had a gravel quality now. The skin tone that we shared was now covered, as though someone had closed the screen door on him and it stuck.
We didn’t have much time left together on land. He would soon lose his voice, then his comfort on asphalt, and then he’d walk into the Atlantic and sink. I knew this, but I was holding out. Denial is the finest feeling—confident, ignorant, deliciously stubborn. Hardening.
I was hardening too.
He wouldn’t be able to fully open his jaw the next day.