PodCastle 744: Double Feature! I Will You Back to Time and Space; The Ocean-Eyed Boy
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License
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I Will You Back to Time and Space
by Dafydd McKimm
You are ten years unborn on the evening of the day that will soon become known as G-day. I am washing dishes in the kitchen of our newly bought terrace, cleaning the residue of dinner from our finest boot-sale porcelain. I bring two glasses of wine over to the sofa, where your mother is yawning contentedly, and touch my glass gently to hers. The clink sings through the stuffy air.
“Cheers, fellow homeowner,” I say.
Your mother grins, takes a sip of her wine. Then her eyes focus on something behind me. Her glass falls; she screams; and I turn to see them for the first time: two hulking things, arms thick as tree trunks, barrel-chested, those beetle-browed primate eyes focused so intensely on us. I shout, curse, push your mother back, my head ringing like the resounding clink of the wine glasses but an alien moment ago.
Soon enough, we find out the gorillas aren’t just there for the two of us. They’re everywhere, following every living person, and they’re here to stay.
Everyone has a different theory about what exactly the gorillas are: outward manifestations of our souls; angels, watching, but forbidden by laws of free will to interact. According to one TV physicist, the gorillas are higher-dimensional beings that manifest for some reason in our time-space continuum as great apes.
Each person’s gorilla is like a fingerprint. Mine, whom I call Gordon, is a smaller-than-average silverback, with a forehead as dark and cracked as a loaf of over-baked sourdough. Your mother’s, Selene, is a pot-bellied female, with warm caramel-coloured eyes and a white moon-shaped patch above her brow-ridge.
Whatever they are, we soon get used to their perpetual presence, their inscrutable stares. After all, what’s one more form of surveillance in this day and age?
For years, life goes on, our joys and sorrows no less intense for being watched over by the hyper-apes. The tears your mother and I cry over not being able to conceive are no less bitter, the toll of fertility treatments no less destructive, almost but not quite tearing us apart. The joy when we finally see those two blue lines is no less wondrous, and the embrace we share, pressing that pregnancy test between us, is no less an outpour of all our pent-up hopes that everything will surely be all right.
It is a Wednesday in the March of G10 when you come into the world, screaming your woeful head off like any other Wednesday’s child. Your mother and I cannot stop grinning like two mad fools, but our grins fade as the realisation seeps through the room, permeating each of us, the nurses, the midwife, in turn. Gordon and Selene are present as always, but a third gorilla, one that should be yours, is nowhere in sight.
They probe your little body as if you’re some thing from another planet, mapping your neural activity, scrutinising your biochemistry. When you’re older, they measure your IQ, ink-blot you until your eyes ache, perform every kind of exam imaginable, hoping to find some glitch in your makeup that will explain why you lack what every other living person has. They find only that you are a sweet, smarter-than-average girl who likes making collages and reading Roald Dahl books. We try to keep prying eyes at bay, but short of locking you indoors, we cannot keep you away from the whispers that follow you wherever you go, your lack of a watcher like a beacon drawing the world’s attention, and its judgement.
When you ask us why you don’t have a gorilla, we give you a plush one instead, and you clutch it to you as if nothing has ever fulfilled you more.
Every day I pray for just one other person to be born without a watcher, but you remain alone, more so with every day that passes. I see it, that swelling loneliness, as you sit by the window clutching Charlie, your toy gorilla, watching everyone walking by accompanied. I see it opening up like a cavern inside of you, and I wonder if you’ll ever feel you belong in this world, and what will happen when that loneliness overcomes you.
It happens on a sunny afternoon in June of G20, the air full of wildflowers and the drone of bees. We’re home-schooling you, but you’re ten now, curious as a naturalist, and curiosity burns so fiercely at your age. When I leave our books to make peanut-butter sandwiches, out you go, sneaking like a fox into the field, Charlie, your gorilla, tucked beneath your arm.
What happens next I can only guess. I imagine a crowd, children who have grown up always knowing their gorillas, knowing only that you were a freak for not having one. I see them tearing away Charlie, ripping his head off and laughing as you scream, imagine how intensely you must have yearned to disappear.
And then, in a flash that fried every device for half a mile around, you were gone, leaving behind a tear in the universe, the shape of a scared little girl.
Your mother trawls the news every day, quietly hoping to find an extinction-level disaster — an asteroid hurtling unstoppable towards the Earth, a supervolcano dead set on blowing us all to smithereens, so we’re forced to go through that portal, forced to take that leap into the unknown, into some utopia where we can all live happily ever after, all thanks to you, our misunderstood saviour.
Maybe it’s the plan those apes — who, when you disappeared, vanished too — had in mind all along.
Well I say fuck that. Fuck all of it.
I won’t resign your fate to hope and hunches.
Because, you see, there is one thing I do know for sure: that in a world where gorillas can appear out of nowhere and a little girl can will herself out of time and space, I, her father, can sure as hell will her back.
The Ocean-Eyed Boy
by Timothy Mudie
His parents don’t name him the Ocean-Eyed Boy on the day he’s born, but they could. When the mucus clears from his lungs, he squalls in chittering singsong squeaks like a dolphin greeting a pod mate. Shell fragments appear in the meconium that stains his first diaper.
His parents hold him and whisper sweet tones, stroking his downy head and kissing his wrinkled fingers. In his unfocused eyes, they see eddying currents, flickers of silver fins, the languid ripple of an octopus’s tentacle. Mother and father murmur confusion to each other, which is quickly buried by the tidal wave of love and devotion that washes over them.
While the mother sleeps and recovers from her labor, the father balances his son’s head on his bare chest and makes him promises.
I love you more than anything in this life, he says. And: I will never let anything bad happen to you. And: You are my son, and you are perfection.
The Ocean-Eyed Boy opens his toothless mouth, and the sound that comes out is waves rushing across a pebbly seafloor.
Graciously, the doctors allow the Ocean-Eyed Boy’s parents the night with their son before they collect him for tests. It’s understandable that they would need to examine the boy — by all appearances, there seems to be an ocean where his brain should be; it would be inconceivable not to examine him.
Clad in the same papery surgical scrubs that they wore while the baby was delivered, mother and father watch doctors poke and prod their son. The doctors shine lights into his eyes and peer at them, then repeat the process with mouth and nostrils. They draw blood from his rubber-band-thick arms, swab saliva from a mouth emitting mournful whale song. They curl his body into a tiny C and insert a long needle between two vertebrae so they can draw spinal fluid. The boy’s father and mother sob and gasp throughout the process, but neither reflects on the fact that their tears, too, are composed of saltwater.
For the first months of his life, the Ocean-Eyed Boy lives in a series of hospitals. While his parents should be welcoming their son home in a sleep-deprived haze, changing diapers and checking the baby’s breathing twenty times a night and subsisting on dropped-off casseroles, they instead live in the hospital, eating bland cafeteria food and sleeping on a pull-out couch in a converted waiting room. They never wake feeling rested. They spend every minute they can watching their son, sitting next to his plastic bassinet and watching his little chest rise and fall. They hold him whenever they are allowed. They cringe at every invasive procedure that is performed until the boy’s mother can’t take it anymore and begins to leave the room when the research doctors enter. The Ocean-Eyed Boy’s father refuses to leave, demands that he be allowed to bear witness to every indignity imposed upon his son.
Eventually, the boy’s parents push back enough and demand an end to the testing enough times that the researchers throw up their collective hands. The boy’s head contains an ocean. Seemingly boundless, utterly inexplicable. Talented as the scientists are, they reach the limits of their exploratory abilities.
When he is three months old, the Ocean-Eyed Boy smiles for the first time. When he is three months old, his overjoyed and fearful parents finally bring him home.
Because he was formula-fed for the first months of his life, the Ocean-Eyed Boy does not breastfeed now. His parents take turns giving him his bottle every three hours. Sharks glide across his eyeballs as he suckles. Sperm whales battle giant squid in such intense displays that the boy’s father gets distracted and lets the nipple fall from the boy’s lips. Formula spills down his cheeks and onto the father’s pants. The father mutters something that has the inflection of a curse but is not a word as he readjusts the bottle. When he looks back into his son’s eyes, orcas sway by.
What do these animals breathe? he wonders. Is there a surface to this ocean inside his son’s head where the sea mammals breach and replenish their oxygen? Will he ever get any answers? Will the Ocean-Eyed Boy ever explain what he feels, what he sees, what he is? Will he ever be able to?
Every time the Ocean-Eyed Boy tries to coo at his father, the sound that comes out is bubbles popping.
I don’t think I’m bonding with him the way I should be, the Ocean-Eyed Boy’s mother says.
There’s no should be to it, his father replies. Parenthood is like love or faith in God — there’s no set of rules to how it unfolds.
I don’t think I’m bonding like I should be, the Ocean-Eyed Boy’s mother says.
Two years later, the Ocean-Eyed Boy doesn’t speak, at least not human words. If meaning resides behind his dolphin squeals and scuttling-claw babbles, his father can’t comprehend it. His mother no longer lives with them, rarely visits, and so doesn’t have to worry about understanding or not.
Every day, his father commutes to a large financial services company. His father can’t leave him home alone while he works, and so a succession of nurses spend their days caring for the boy, while his father drafts and proofreads all company emails about health insurance benefits and reminders of changes to vacation-time policy. During his lunch breaks, he jots novel ideas and character sketches into a spiral notebook. None of his premises are as interesting as a boy born with an entire ocean inside his skull.
Back home, he feeds his son, talks to him about his day. During the hours alone together, the Ocean-Eyed Boy’s father performs a running monologue where he outlines his dreams of writing a book about a boy like his son and outlines his fears about the mounting medical and home-care costs. When his father returns home, he often finds the various nurses staring into his son’s eyes, mouths agape as they observe coelacanths and anglerfish and myriad bizarrely glowing deep-sea species. The spectacle is beautiful, but sometimes his father wishes the Ocean-Eyed Boy’s eyes were white and brown like his own.
Every few months there are emails or phone calls or the occasional front-step visitor offering his father a large cut of the profits they could make by displaying the boy to the public. For a very reasonable fee, gawkers would surely pay to gaze into the boy’s eyes and view the wonders of the seas in close-up miniature. His father deletes the emails, hangs up the telephone, closes the front door in their faces.
Bills mount. The Ocean-Eyed Boy’s medical concerns and complications are not the sort that health insurance covers. His father writes a book about the boy, about their life together. The triumphs and tribulations. How they communicate without words. How he truly believes that his son understands and loves him. Many of the literary agents that he submits it to don’t respond. One does, willing to take it on, though he argues it should be fully illustrated.
It’s really more of a visual story, don’t you think? he says.
His father says that to put his son on display like that would be exploitative.
One publishing house makes an offer on the book. The advance covers three months of medical bills. The book fails to sell. His father never earns back his advance, and soon the book appears on discount tables.
His father takes a second job. A third. He sells every one of his possessions that doesn’t directly contribute to keeping his son’s well-being. Weighs salaries against what he spends on home care for the Ocean-Eyed Boy while he’s working. The scales continue to tilt more dramatically, and never the way he wishes they would.
When the next wave of emails and phone calls and visitors arrive, his father doesn’t reject them out of hand. He’ll hear what they have to say, he tells the Ocean-Eyed Boy. Just to keep his options open. They need the money, and as long as it’s handled with dignity, it won’t be so bad. Right?
Popcorn and flashing lights and clanging bells. A carnival sprouts up inside a strip-mall storefront that once housed a nail salon. Forever, it will smell faintly of astringent polish remover.
Crowds wind through roped lines to gawp at the ocean behind the Ocean-Eyed Boy’s eyelids. All day, he stands stock still, eyes wide, while strangers pass by, each allotted five minutes per ticket. Two at a time, one at each eye. Rarely, they speak to him, giggling if he answers in sea-robin barks or the clatter of lobster shells.
His father observes all of this from a remove. He doesn’t let himself think about what his son might be feeling as the endless customers parade by, oohing and aahing about blue whales and great whites and manta rays and loggerhead turtles. At home, feeding his son, giving him baths, brushing his teeth, reading him stories, tucking him into bed, his father tries to avoid looking into his son’s eyes. When he does, the magic seems diminished somehow. Polluted.
The Ocean-Eyed Boy can’t see into his own eyes. His father wonders what the boy sees when he glimpses them in a mirror, if he sees the same thing as everyone else, but it doesn’t surprise or excite or baffle him. An ocean exists inside his head. Does the Ocean-Eyed Boy understand what the big deal is?
Eventually, no matter how astounding an attraction may be, its novelty and appeal fade. His father watches their savings dwindle. No matter how many extra hours he works, even when he takes a second job, the money flows out of his account as quickly as he can replenish it.
Normally, a child of the Ocean-Eyed Boy’s age would be in kindergarten by now. Daycare costs would subside, but the Ocean-Eyed Boy can’t go to a traditional school, and when his father calls alternative and specialty schools and attempts to enroll him, they all make excuses for why they can’t accommodate him.
You don’t need school anyway, his father says to him while spoon-feeding him applesauce. What with all the schools swimming around in your head.
It’s not often that his father jokes these days, and his father’s sudden laughter surprises them both. His father puts down the spoon and holds the Ocean-Eyed Boy’s hands in his own. He kisses his son’s palms. He cries and contemplates overdraft fees and credit limits. You are my son, and you are perfection, he says. And: I love you more than anything in this life. And: I will never let anything bad happen to you. I will never let anything bad happen.
It won’t hurt, his father tells the Ocean-Eyed Boy. All the doctors I’ve talked to promise me that it won’t hurt.
He doesn’t mention that all of those doctors are on the payroll of the oil company that has licensed speculation and drilling rights in the boy’s head. It pays more than the book sale and all the ticket sales combined by several orders of magnitude.
There’s an entire ocean inside that head of his, they say. A thriving ecosystem. Think of the untapped resources, all the potential bottled up in that reality-defying skull. Why, there must be a floor to that ocean, and who knows what lies below that. Maybe it will even help him. Maybe the water and seaweed and countless fish will all drain out. Maybe, after this, the Ocean-Eyed Boy will be normal.
The Ocean-Eyed Boy doesn’t know whether there is a floor or if the ocean goes on forever. Neither does his father. All the hours he’s spent staring at his son and he’s never seen anything that implies there’s a limit to the water inside the boy’s head. It seems to him that he’s never spotted the same fish or whale twice.
A jellyfish floats through the boy’s right pupil, trailing tentacles like crepe birthday-party streamers.
Hey, where’s the peanut-butter fish? his father jokes, his voice straining not to crack. The Ocean-Eyed Boy doesn’t groan at the terrible pun because he can’t. His father breathes slowly so he won’t cry. Soon, the doctors will come into the surgical theater, flanked by speculators and geologists and men whose specialties lie not in medicine but in sniffing out profit. His father’s cut will provide for the Ocean-Eyed Boy to live out his life as happily and comfortably as possible, even when his father is no longer around to take care of him. The Ocean-Eyed Boy’s father swears he will do anything for his son. Apparently, this sometimes means going against every instinct in his body. Sometimes it means shattering his own heart.
His father has the option of watching the procedure, and he fully intends to do so. They won’t let him stand with his son and hold his hand, but he can observe from outside the room as doctors insert a thin, flexible carbon-silicone tube through the Ocean-Eyed Boy’s tear duct and plumb the depths of his skull.
He can’t do it.
While the doctors prep the Ocean-Eyed Boy for surgery, his father paces the hallway. He hasn’t heard from the boy’s mother in years, but he wishes she were there with him now. Wishes that the boy had doting grandparents or a kindly uncle or someone, anyone, who could be there for support. All these years, it has only ever been the Ocean-Eyed Boy and his father.
What comes next? After this, what will his father allow people to do to the Ocean-Eyed Boy? What compromises will he make with his conscience? How much must he betray his son? What promises will he have to break next?
He can’t do it.
The Ocean-Eyed Boy lies strapped to a surgical table when his father bursts into the operating theater, loudly demanding that the oil-company-paid doctors and spectating surgical residents and everyone else cease what they’re doing. That he’s changed his mind. That he is taking his son, and they are going home.
The doctors ignore him and plunge the thin, flexible carbon-silicone tube into the boy’s head.
A drop of water squirts out. A trickle. A stream. A deluge. An ocean.
It never stops. When the doctors puncture the Ocean-Eyed Boy’s eye, it releases the ocean inside his head, and everything inside spills out. Humpback whales and hammerhead sharks, catfish and dogfish, plankton and krill, aholehole and zebra fish. They gush from his skull and expand to their full size, swimming away in the water that flows out the door. His father holds the Ocean-Eyed Boy close as the water rises over them, as the boy’s ocean enfolds them both.
The Ocean-Eyed Boy’s father whispers to his son. I love you more than anything in this life. I am sorry for the bad things that I brought to you. I will never let anything bad happen to you ever again. You are my son, and you are perfection.
In the ocean that spans the globe, there are countless sea creatures. More species of fish than there are names for them. There is one Ocean-Eyed Boy. There is one father. Floating together in the middle of a warm and boundless ocean.
About the Authors
Timothy Mudie is a speculative fiction writer and an editor of all sorts of genres. His fiction has appeared in various magazines, anthologies, and podcasts, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Wastelands: The New Apocalypse, and LeVar Burton Reads. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and two sons. Find him online at timothymudie.com or on Twitter @timothy_mudie.
Dafydd McKimm is a speculative fiction writer producing mainly short and flash-length stories. His work has appeared in Deep Magic, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, The Best of British Fantasy, and elsewhere. He was born and grew up in Wales but now lives in Taipei, Taiwan. You can find him online at www.dafyddmckimm.com.
About the Narrators
Kyle Akers is a voice actor from Kansas City, Missouri. He has contributed to The NoSleep Podcast, Pseudopod, Escape Pod and Chilling Tales for Dark Nights among many others. Prior to voice acting, Kyle toured the country as a professional musician, singing and playing bass guitar for the electro-pop band Antennas Up, which enjoyed success through several national television show placements and commercials. Since then, Kyle has dabbled in long-form improv and audio production while performing weekend gigs with Kansas City cover band The Magnetics.
Alasdair Stuart is a professional enthusiast, pop culture analyst, writer and voice actor. He co-owns the Escape Artists podcasts and co-hosts both Escape Pod and PseudoPod.
Alasdair is an Audioverse Award winner, a multiple award finalist including the Hugo, the Ignyte, and the BFA, and has won the Karl Edward Wagner award twice. He writes the multiple-award nominated weekly pop culture newsletter THE FULL LID.
Alasdair’s latest non-fiction is Through the Valley of Shadows, a deep-dive into the origins of Star Trek’s Captain Pike from Obverse Books. His game writing includes ENie-nominated work on the Doctor Who RPG and After The War from Genesis of Legend.
A frequent podcast guest, Alasdair also co-hosts Caring Into the Void with Brock Wilbur and Jordan Shiveley. His voice acting credits include the multiple-award winning The Magnus Archives, The Secret of St. Kilda, and many more.
Visit alasdairstuart.com for all the places he blogs, writes, streams, acts, and tweets.