He emerged slimy and sticky. They wiped him off and held him up, like a curious, unexpected artifact.
At six weeks old, he clenched his fists and his eyes sprung open, wide and startled. He felt like he was falling. That’s what the doctors said. All babies experienced it. It was part of the acclimation from the tight, warm, weightlessness of his mother’s womb. His mother let him wrap his miniscule, soft hand around her index finger. He would squeeze as tightly as he could, his weak grip not leaving a trace on his mother. He held on until sleep prevailed and dreams loosened his fist.
At six, he learned to swim. He flailed and spit water. His parents threw a red plastic ring into the water and told him to jump after the ring. He said he couldn’t. The water felt like it grabbed and yanked at his tiny body, dragging him downwards to the menacing mouth of the drain. Letting the water swarm around him felt like falling. He screamed and shook, until his father coaxed him into the warm, cobalt water. It smelled of chlorine and sunscreen. His father told him he would keep him safe. He would stand by his side, protecting him. The boy grabbed his father, clinging with desperation to his chest, pulling out a few hairs, inching away, trying to instill his body with buoyancy. Despite the pulling of hair and scratching of fingernails as they burrowed into the father’s skin, his father only smiled, saying nothing.
At twelve, he played soccer. At first, he was tentative and unsteady. His shin guards swallowed his slender frame. When he ran, it appeared there were feet skimming across the grass, hovering unattached to a torso and head. But he was quick, his feet a blur of kinetic energy, synchronized and precise. He gracefully dashed from one end of the field to the other, surging past helpless defenders, welcoming the rising choruses of parents chanting with either anticipation or dread.
One day during a game he fell, stumbling over his own feet. His face was red and splotchy from skidding across the dirt, rocks, and grass. His parents emerged from the bleachers, urgently marching on to the field. He said he was fine. He was just clumsy.
The next game he fell twice more. At school, he lost his balance standing up from his desk.
His father took him to the doctor. They scanned and poked and probed. Doctors and nurses slid cold, gloveless hands on to his body. They looked puzzlingly at him and at hieroglyphic test results, whispering and murmuring.
They sat down around him. He was perched on a hospital bed in the typical discomfiting, well-worn fibers of a hospital gown. Muscular dystrophy, they said. He couldn’t command or control his own muscles. He was disintegrating from within. His own cells rebelling, defective and malfunctioning. They told him he would be in a wheelchair in a matter of months. They could treat the symptoms, but there was no cure. His body was unwinding from within, razing the towns and villages that were his muscle tissues and fibers. They told him one day he’d need help breathing. He wouldn’t be able to eat without the aid of a tube, shoved down his throat and invading his esophagus. He would disintegrate into a feeble, frail mass of cells. He would be indelicate and broken, a failed experiment.
His parents tried to be normal, feigning amazement at simple tasks. Celebrating walking to the car or descending stairs. His parents bore false smiles, cloaks to hide fear and to brace for the inevitable. They started celebrating his half birthdays. They bought him a wheelchair. First, one he could manually guide. When he could no longer do that, they purchased an electric one, its humming movement controlled by his erratic, trembling pushes of a joystick. They hired a nurse to accompany him to school so he could see his classmates and teachers for however long remained.
He was a rolling, macabre warning of mortality. The gazes fell upon him, quickly diverted because no one wanted to look too long. No one wanted to see. He was the Grim Reaper with electric wheels. He only needed a scythe, but he lacked the strength to hold it.
The only time he had alone was lunch. His nurse sat outside of the school, sitting on a bench, the sun warming her able legs.
He drove his wheelchair in fits and starts to the third floor of the parking garage, his flicks of the joystick quivering and wobbling. He ate, warmed by the baking asphalt, away from the pitying eyes. The breeze embraced his failing limbs. He knew these trips would end soon. They would heave him on to the operating room table like a slab of meat, and insert the feeding tube; the little freedom he retained would vanish.
It was a balmy August day when his wheels edged to the precipice, looking down the three stories of the concrete structure to the faculty surface lot below. He muttered a silent incantation, akin to a prayer, and summoned the power of every nerve, neuron, and muscle to fire, hurling himself over the edge. He fell forty feet, his useless limbs suspended in air, moving at the whim of the wind. He closed his eyes and experienced the rushing air. The fall granted him freedom, a feeling of unrestrained joy that he had forgotten was possible.
His parents buried him on a hill, in a small cemetery on the north side of town. His parents sat there, waiting, falling into a chasm of grief, simultaneously but separated.
They did not know if they could stand up. They could not walk away. They waited there next to the gravestone, smelling the fresh, chalky dirt, praying either that their son fall back into existence or that they tumble into the void.
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