“The Deca-life Crisis” by Jessi Lewis

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.

*     *     *

When I gave birth to Luca, he was just a baby tearing out of me. I was alone in the hospital with no typical husband or boyfriend figure holding my hand, and Luca was leaving my tank of water to be bound to oxygen.

I only thought of it this way because the very first group of Deca-life Crises migrations had just occurred and there were couples and single parents walking the beaches of Florida, the Carolinas, California, Virginia, and a few scattered elsewhere on Maryland, Texas and Oregon coasts. On television, they each shielded their eyes, looking to the horizon line. Every news outlet was covering it—ponytails in the wind and desperate, fatherly eye crinkles. I was watching them watch the ocean on the television when my water broke, and a slurry of myself soaked into the carpet.

When I nursed Luca the morning after the birth, a news segment update was on the crappy television bolted to the corner of my hospital room. It was all about those missing children and their creative ways of breaking away to the ocean. Luca desperately sucked my breast and I tried to convince myself he’d already learned to latch and was drinking me now easily.

“You belong on land, my boy. You belong here with me,” I said when he pulled back midway through the news coverage of mothers walking beaches. I could not see that after meeting the oxygen of the environment, Luca was already starting to harden at the small of his back—a little plastic-like disc probably no larger than a pinhead.

*     *     *

Luca wasn’t like every baby. He constantly watched the sky through the windows when he was flat on his back. I tried distracting him with the little mirror toy, but he’d just ignore its visions. If you took away the toy, he didn’t mind. If you closed the blinds, he’d scream.

He’d spend too much time in the baby bath and holler if I tried to take him out. The last time, he gripped so hard, the whole portable bathtub came with him and rolled sideways. After that, we took showers together, him clasping my shoulders and gripping chunks of my hair. He loved showers only a little less than baths.

I should have realized the things that nobody wants to realize, like my son’s preference for somewhere else.

*     *     *

When it seemed like the first group of ten-year-old kids, about one-hundred and twenty, had ended their parade to the water, and when psychologists were just beginning to analyze their data with the help of marine biologists and ecologists, another set of children experiencing the Deca-life Crisis emerged. This was the same number of kids, with the same symptoms and determination.

There was a slow, desperate panic now as everyone—politicians, the Pope, daycares and pediatric associations—tried to understand the migration of a small group of children. Teachers were asked to lock the doors and windows of the elementary schools. At one elementary in our state, they even started nailing the ducts shut too. Two Deca-lifers had worked together to unscrew them.

At ten years old, the transition was complete. The children gathered hard casings across their shoulders and the peaks of their foreheads. Their mouths formed over and joints became stiff.

A few mothers in New Jersey showed up across the interview circuit displaying a series of seven and eight-years-olds with their mouths slowly sealing shut. A father and university professor out of Texas was jailed for attempting to remove his nine-year-old son’s facial features with a scalpel. A woman in Palo Alto killed her own kid. She simply wrapped her daughter in a net and trapped her on the roof of their apartment building to “dry out.” While everyone knew this was wrong, it was hard for many people to say so out loud. Though, I shuddered when I saw that news. Every sane mother shuddered.

Into his toddler years and beyond, Luca watched the news with me, and I didn’t even think about the darkness of it, how deeply he considered every story.

*     *     *

On the morning when my Luca was just beginning to have his earlobes crystallize, I saw Yoli Thompson pulling her kid behind the neighborhood fence. There was a little alley back there behind the townhouses where people stored trash cans or parked their kid’s bikes. You could travel the whole neighborhood using that path, like being backstage during a play.

My nursing hours commonly got confused on my days off, so insomnia was not rare. That little back alley kept my attention when I drank tea and listened for the morning crickets, or drank a vodka tonic and tried to ignore the bats in our faux chimney. Back then, I often saw people sliding past our backyard using the alleyway—mostly Sara Thomas and Wally Gardner avoiding the city curfew for teens. Eric Rennet would often use this path to sneak out of Carrie Shaw’s house because somehow nobody knew they were sleeping together. Except me. It wasn’t subtle.

Watching that alleyway, I saw everyone move between everywhere, and they usually never noticed me. Wally always waved because we shared a penchant for early mornings. But, Yoli, the paralegal who took yoga classes, was different. That morning, she was running along the walk as she pulled her daughter, Tasha, along.

I said, “Yoli, you all right, girl?”

It was, after all, three in the morning. Yoli stammered, worried, and looked from her kid to me. I didn’t have much shame out there in my short cotton robe as I leaned on my backdoor. Then, Yoli’s anger just swept in. The kind of anger that you’re really not supposed to show in public. She tightened her hand on her daughter and I could see her jaw tense in the white blare of my security light.

When Tasha turned toward me, I saw that her face had become something else altogether. The hand that Yoli held had hardened between the fingers.

They never did say anything. Yoli’s anger dripped off of her as she ran faster with Tasha’s arm dragging through the air in an awkward wave.

“Good luck,” I called, but I doubt Yoli heard me, and if she had, I bet it didn’t matter. Whether they were headed to a doctor, priest or shaman, it didn’t matter.

I’d wonder over her anger the next day, only because I didn’t grasp it yet. Not quite yet.

*     *     *

It was important that when Luca did finally lose the ability to speak, that I not act ashamed. We went to the food court at the mall, and already he was starting to eat through the tube the doctor inserted into the side of his belly. They used a drill to get through the thin exoskeleton cleanly, and every night I cleaned it with supplies filched from work.

So, at the mall, Luca got to have a milkshake, which brought him some kind of satiety even without the taste. We stood there on the off-white tile as I funneled it into his tube and he nodded, with splintering sounds along his spine.

I saw Wally then, across the way, by the pizza place. He was with a series of high school kids all gangly, but different heights.

Wally was always just a good kid in the neighborhood. He waved, said Hi to me and even Luca, while most people at this point pretended my kid was an inanimate object. Then one of Wally’s friends stopped, gaping at us.

“What does that coral nugget have, like, two weeks left on land? Jesus Christ. Look at his fucking shoulders. You could cut salami on that edge,” he said. He had on a black t-shirt and tight jeans, a shaved head.

I turned to Luca and closed up his feeding tube carefully. Adjusted his shirt. Willed the teenager to keep walking onward to the movie theatre or to go steal something from the Dollar Store.

“C’mon man, leave them alone,” Wally said, and while I appreciated this, his tone was meek.

“Seriously. Are you seeing this? This kid is just a walking Jell-O mold.”

“Move on,” I said, and I straightened myself. Luca straightened himself too. I heard his waist crack like an ice-cube tray.

“Seriously, lady, you think you can take that monster into public and not get some stares? Be good to him and let that sea cucumber watch television the rest of his human life.”

I lunged.

It seemed like the right thing to do.

With the neck of his t-shirt in my fist, I walked him to the wall. He laughed uncomfortably, until my forearm was against his throat and his head knocked on the text advertising the new shop addition, Coming Soon!

“How do you want him to enjoy his last trip to the mall, you ignorant son of a bitch?” I said, and he shrunk, though my forearm kept the pressure on his trachea. I smiled at the squeeze of his throat. There were running footsteps toward us.

Security told me not to come back to the mall after that, but I didn’t have plans to anyway.

Malls were dying and my son was never going to be a teenager.

When we drove away, with Luca silent, of course, I tried not to think about the fact that my boy would actually, someday, be even less animate than a sea cucumber. He leaned on my shins later that night as I did laundry. I took this notion as a thank you, somehow, or maybe warmth for me there while I cried into dirty socks. Though, it was difficult to interpret Luca at that point—his voice had left him weeks before. I was just getting used to the quiet.

*     *     *

When he was three, I found Luca’s first little gathering of calcium carbonate—that section along his spine. Though, I didn’t take him to the doctor. There was no need. They gave us additional training at work to recognize the hardening of the skin. While at first, they thought the issue was stone skin, an excess of collagen, the spread of the tendency in the population and the makeup of the skin itself did not fit the disease. Eventually, doctors simply called it the Deca-life Crisis based on the kids’ ages when the hardening was complete. So, I already knew what was happening, though I did not want anyone to say it out loud just yet. That was the day I called in sick for my night shift and slept with my Luca in the tub instead, both of us encircled in soap scum and skin cells.

When we’d wake in the tub, I’d run more hot water and drain the cold. He’d hold his hands against me to know my face. I wondered, there in that tub, if he already knew that soon he would not require anything from land. I believed, even then, he did know, and the knowing would change his childhood. He was solemn and would laugh rarely. He was secretive.

*     *     *

It is most disconcerting when the fingers meet and then form together almost overnight.

When Luca was nearly ten, he finally lost the ability to put on his shoes and zip my purse when I asked him to. He held his hands up to me, and I realized that they had become crystalline. His right hand was a rocky fist while the left extended in a permanent wave. I took him to Stephen, the doc who often ran my shift, just to ask if my son could still feel. It was both of our days off, so I pulled Luca up onto Stephen’s chopping block in his green kitchen.

There, Stephen knocked on Luca’s elbows, palms, fingers and forearms to no nerve response. Stephen ran his hand through his beard and squinted at each of Luca’s joints. He said he couldn’t tell me what Luca felt. But, I was pretty certain that I already knew. In his new voiceless, hardened state, when Luca had a scratch at his shoulder, or moved to wipe his nose on his arm, there was frustration. He would try two or three times to turn a shoulder or lift a forearm, until it was just easier to give in to just being itchy.

Stephen did tell me my boy would be more comfortable if he took salt-water baths. Something to soften the exterior. The introduction of salt was a scary prospect. It was like offering up some kind of a negotiation I couldn’t believe in, so, instead, I held off for too long. I told his babysitter, the older retiree three houses down who watched him during my shift, to give him no salt at all.

“Doctors’ orders,” I said.

*     *     *

There was one night that last year when Luca was trying to get his bedroom window open at five in the morning. I was awake, of course, and heard the scraping of his claws on the window frame. I could see a thin smile under his exoskeleton, just a line between the lips, when I tucked him back in and locked the window tight. Luca knew more than I did in his new silence. He smiled even the next day when each of our windows featured a new padlock. It was just another challenge.

He started sneaking Morton’s salt in his last week on land, holding the canister up between hardened hands and pouring it over his face where his nose and mouth each held only a centimeter or two of cavity. He was pouring it into his feeding tube as well. I found him in the kitchen in a storm. And that did it. I knew it. Luca was ten. He was done with me. With walls. With padlocks. With people.

*     *     *

I took four days off. We traveled six hours to the soft North Carolina coast and rented a hotel room on the ocean-side. Each morning at six, I carried him to the water because his knees were locking up now. He didn’t decide to approach the surf as fast as I thought he might. Luca would stand there and let waves come up to his shins. Every morning I took him out farther and farther.

On the third day, there was a cameraman there, following a group of ponytail moms looking for their kids in the surf. Luca and I avoided them by walking north up to a quiet spot and that day, he went in up to his waist. When he took two more steps deeper, I pulled him up out of the water.

“One more night,” I said, “Just wait. Just one more night.”

*     *     *

On our last day, they actually recorded us, me in my blue suit—the only one I had from before Luca was born—and Luca in a pair of swim trunks with the crotch cut. I had struggled to get them on him that morning because his thighs had formed solid together. The fabric ripped easily when I pulled with a little force and Luca didn’t even feel it, or at least he didn’t react.

That morning, we walked way out beyond the breakers, my hand around his hip. When a set came in, I’d tread water and struggle to keep our heads above. Every time Luca met a wave, he softened a little, leaned further out to sea, and watched me as he did. Eventually he gave one hard push to my chest. A wave passed us by, and I watched him glide out of my arms.

As he did, his body took on a buoyancy that let him slowly drift and sink at the same time. He was more coral now than child. I couldn’t see the dark line of smile anymore as he drifted. It was hard to keep my eyes on him, to watch his turning, bobbing form. I called out, “Luca, good luck, baby,” and I didn’t know if he could hear me, or if he could hear me if it even mattered.

My lungs took on a lot of salt water that morning.

Ocean water hides tears so well since they are so similar. Losing your son and nearly drowning feel much the same too.

*     *     *

They tried to interview me when I came out of the surf. I was the only mother they had ever seen voluntarily give their son to the sea. Most Deca-life Crisis kids slipped away in the night through a window and somehow managed to climb into the backs of trucks headed to the coast. Some even managed to drive their mother’s sedans along highways. Some walked slow, but sure, over state lines. Families followed, put trackers on their coral children, trailed awkward dragging footprints in the sand, and often plucked their kid out of the sea right before the waves came in. The kids seemed so powerless in the solid quality of their bodies, but were so capable in following instinct.

When I walked back through the breaking waves, swimsuit full of broken shells, hair gone wild across my face, the cameraman was waiting for me with a reporter in raincoat and shorts.

“Ma’am, can you please answer some questions?”

I hardened my lips and thought of my Luca.

“What will you do now?” the reporter called over the froth.

I walked past them, holding my silence, though really, I wondered what I would do now. No solution came to mind, not really. Luca’s bobbing form played in my head over and over. I would take a shower in the hotel. I would pack up Luca’s clothes to hold onto the rest of my life. I would go back to work and throw myself further into it, focus everything on the hospital.

Even as I decided this, I felt Luca pushing off my chest again. The hardness of his wrist against my breast.

They ran the recording that evening without my permission. My face was blurred out. Luca’s was too, though they hadn’t needed to do so.

When I watched us on the local news, I realized that as far as anyone could tell, I was simply taking a large piece of hard coral out to sea.

*     *     *

In some ways, Luca’s slow move into silence prepared me for the years after this. I could pretend that he was there, in his harsh, coral skin, watching me come in and make dinner, or watching television at my side. But, eventually, even your own mind doesn’t let you pretend anymore.

I found Luca again, though, once, four years later. The government started the snorkel-training program to support the mental health of all of those mothers who gathered on beaches in waves and waves of worry. I was one of the first to be taken out in the boats because of the television coverage. Ever since Luca’s release was televised, I had become one of the more controversial mothers in the States. But, like the lady who had dried out her daughter, most people were unsure if what I had done was wrong. Somehow, I knew that it was wrong to let the ocean take my son with the tide. Or at least, I had been fated to fail at motherhood all along.

After I strapped on gear and dropped backward off a touring boat, cameramen followed me. They were always dark silhouettes in diving gear, cropping up in the corner of my eye. I tried to ignore them as I searched coral shelves, all fresh and new, replacements for old skeletal shelves that had long since died in heating water. My boy sat in for the very creatures that were killed through deoxygenation and changing algae patterns. Somehow the climate had pulled one over on us, for once.

This dive was during the coral mating season. At the time, I hadn’t realized that I would be snorkeling through a fog of coral eggs, and while it was odd to know that something so intimate was expelled in open water, it didn’t bother me that much. The water was softer in the coral field because of it. I watched their particles pass between my fingers, up my arms, along the fabric of my suit. When I looked up to the reflective surface under the water, I realized that I was surrounded.

I tried not to let the cameras know when I spotted him, my Luca in deep blues and sea greens. My life had been enough television fodder already.

I wasn’t allowed to touch any coral anyway, so I stayed reserved and cautious, keeping my distance. But I knew without any kind of question, that Luca was now an orange hard coral, surrounded by a thousand other still coral children, all holding tight against the tide, all embracing each other, letting loose their clouds of eggs and semen into the salt.

I’m sure my son had lost his voice, his heart, his awareness of me, but I had found him even as he became something else. In the middle of an ocean, somehow, I could know my son clearly.

In the middle of silence.

When the water moved with the tide, Luca’s nodules seemed to breathe. Outside of my hurt, the water was so calm, so soft. A ray passed over Luca’s new shoulders, leaving a shadow.

Jessi Lewis grew up on a blueberry farm and now teaches writing in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Her novel manuscript, She Spoke Wire, was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.  Jessi’s short story, “False Morels,” was chosen as the Oxford American‘s 2018 debut fiction winner. In addition, her writing has been published in Carve Magazine, The Pinch, Gulf Stream, Yemassee, and Appalachian Heritage, among others.


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