Authors: Spencer Wolf
Tags: #After, #Mind
“Mistakes, faults, pains, memories, and dreams,
but most of all, lots of imagination is what makes us all human
—Margaret Theresa Madden
NOT A MANGROVE RIVULUS
OUNG PACKET WAS first born when his body was twelve and his mind was little more than a swirl of thoughts rising toward the source of a light. He opened his eyes and lifted his forearm against the painful brightness of an overhead halogen bulb. He glanced around and saw a barren hospital examination room. He was on a bed. It was raised from the floor.
His legs, scrawny knees, and feet were cold. He had no blanket, only a gown as a cover. A curtain hung bunched at his right. He could see no doctors or nurses and there were no windows to the room. There were no familiar faces to greet him. He was alone.
A bedside table was in reach from his supine position. A blue, plastic rectangular basket was close and that was all that mattered in the moment. He rustled his fingers inside. It was empty. His mind raced. The rush of his fingers against the inside walls of the basket dropped it to the floor.
Something was missing. Not in the basket, in him. He had no air in his lungs. Pressure built behind his eyes. His throat seized. His hands gripped the bed. His mind gave in to his body’s muscle reflex, and his lungs sucked in a first true gasp to breathe.
The reddened haze of the room softened to blue, and the rise and fall of his chest under a rested palm was a newfound comfort, the discovery of air. A strong heartbeat had oxygen and more of the room came into focus.
A party-letter “Welcome” sign was hanging by schoolroom yarn across a curtain rail that looped around his bed. On a supply cart against the far wall was a metronome that kept a steady tempo.
He dug his elbows into the bed’s cushion, flexed up at his waist, and swiveled his legs over the edge of the bed. He sat upright. His throat hurt. Eight floor tiles away was a sink with a pitcher on its counter. He lowered his feet onto the chill of the tiles and steadied himself for a walk across the floor.
Once at the counter, he poured a shaky cup of water from the pitcher. He held the cup without drinking and shuffled with it back to his bed. He drew a doctor’s revolving stool with his foot from under a tuck of the curtain, and sat on it, carefully holding the cup. He noticed that his feet could reach all the way to the floor.
He raised the cup to his lips. The water jiggled. It trembled in rings.
The nightmare of water had returned
. He swiveled on his stool shy of a quarter turn back, balanced the cup on the bedside table, and slouched into a sigh. The water’s paper cup was safe and away. He slipped into an anxious whimper.
His hands were clean; their backs looked older. He wiped a finger under his nose. He was far from grown; he was twelve, and even though filled with the hope of a human, he was deathly afraid. The room was a cell.
Then, a knock at the door startled his next breath to a hold.
Packet sat up on the bed. It was raised higher so his bare legs dangled over the edge.
Daniel Madden was close. He wore a blue cap. He shifted his stance at Packet’s front and flicked his penlight on, then off, checking Packet’s eyes for dilation. Then Daniel switched to an otoscope from his coat’s chest pocket and checked Packet’s ears for infection. Daniel didn’t breathe when he leaned in to look or listen, but when he backed away, his lips came together and he made the most elated but restrained and faintest of whistles. Daniel checked Packet out to be fine: He was whole. He could hear. He could see.
He was thirsty. Packet rubbed his neck again and then cracked his parched lips to speak. “My throat is really scratchy,” he said with a forced, fiery swallow.
Daniel slipped his otoscope back into his pocket. He stared.
“Can I have something to drink?” Packet asked.
Daniel smiled and stepped across the tiles to the sink. He didn’t have to look down. He took a paper cup from the cabinet above the sink and dunked it into the pitcher. He held it there and then turned back over his shoulder. “You,” he said, “you can have anything you want.” Then he took a white sugar bowl with a teaspoon in its open top from the cabinet.
“I haven’t had any water to drink in three days,” Packet said.
Daniel scooped a spoonful of blue powder from the bowl and stirred it into the cup of water. “Three days without water? You know, I heard there is a kind of fish that can live outside of water for three days. A mudskipper, I think.”
“A mudskipper is an amphibian,” Packet said.
“It’s actually an amphibious fish,” Daniel said, returning with the cup of blue, thickened water in his hand. “So you’re only half wrong, but that’s a very good sign.” He offered the cup.
“Water makes me burn,” Packet said as he turned his head.
Daniel set the cup aside on a tray at the foot of the bed. “A mangrove rivulus,” he said as his smile disappeared, “now that’s a fish. When its water dries up, it burrows into a grounded wet log. A mangrove rivulus can live out of water for more than two months.”
“Am I a mangrove rivulus?”
Daniel stopped. He didn’t complain. He closed his eyes and exhaled, his shoulders seemed heavy, and his saddened breath no longer whistled. Then he fiddled for a different tool from a kit on the tray at the foot of the bed. “You can be whatever you want to be, but you are definitely not a mangrove rivulus. And from the looks of you, you’re already so much better than last time.”
“Do you know why my neck hurts so much?” Packet asked as he rubbed.
“Do you remember what happened to your neck?”
“Do you know your name?” Daniel asked.
Daniel lifted Packet’s right arm at the elbow and tapped its soft inner bend with two fingers. Then he tore open a small, square packet and pinched out a wet towelette. He used it to swab over a tender vein.
“Packet. My name is Packet.” And with that, Packet, the boy, met Daniel’s warmest of smiles.
“No, it’s not, but it’s close enough for now,” Daniel said. He pulled a tall metal stand closer to the bed.
“I saw a wild boar. Hyenas ate it,” Packet said. “They killed it and ate it.”
The stand had wheels, and up at its top was a watery bag.
“Where did you see a wild boar?” Daniel asked. “Never mind, you don’t have to answer. I think maybe the water I fixed and put in this pouch will help you be you.”
“I don’t remember where I saw it,” Packet said as Daniel pulled a needle from its wrapper.
“Does 448 Treeline Drive mean anything to you?” Daniel asked.
“No.” Packet looked away. He winced from the stick of the needle.
Daniel used a piece of tape to hold down a tube. The tube ran up from the back of the needle to the bag on the pole. “Then think of it as a key,” Daniel said. “If you can think of nothing else, then 448 Treeline Drive is what I want you to look for. A key. Your key.” The water started to drip from the bag. It ran into the tube and disappeared through the needle. Daniel rested the back of Packet’s hand onto the bed, his elbow exposed.
“Can we play computer now?” Packet asked.
Daniel stepped away from the bed. “You want to play computer?” he asked as he ground the thumb knuckle of his fist back and forth across the bite of his teeth. “How do you know we’re not already?”
Packet dropped into a deep, curled slouch and threw open his arms. “Dad, come on! You know I like to play. Stop kidding around.” The tube nearly pulled loose from his arm.
Daniel stumbled back over the wheeled legs of the stool. “You recognize me?”
Packet tacked the tape back down onto his elbow as the water continued its drip. “I do now,” he said.
“Stay here!” Daniel said. He rushed for the wooden door on the left.
“When will you be back?”
Daniel slipped off his blue doctor’s cap. “One minute?”
Packet’s bare feet dangled off the edge of the bed and he tapped them against the pole. “One little one?”
The heavy door clicked shut and Daniel was gone. But that was okay. He was always working on something, or trying to. He was strong and smart. And he was good. Maybe when Packet got bigger, he could be strong and smart like his dad, too.
But for now, Packet’s gown barely helped with the return of the chills. He was alone again, and his stomach rumbled. He was hungry. But the pain in his throat remained. As the water dripped, he looked around and filled in more of the details of the rather full room. Most of all, there was the color of blue. The walls, the supply cart with its metronome, the water flowing in the tube, the fine, pixilated tint of the air. . . .
He could tolerate a nagging dry cough, and he did. But a minute to wait seemed too long when his scratchy throat kept him thirsty for more than just water, and he was left tethered to a half-empty bag on a pole. But most of all, he was afraid to be on his own.
Meg could take care of him, he thought. Where was she?
Water filled the anvil-shaped and colored cumulonimbus clouds that blanketed the Tasmanian island sky, but the blackest of storms wouldn’t rain over the island’s flattened mountain peak. As if with the whispered call of a name, a cool autumn wind descended on the day. A gust of air whisked down from the mountain’s peak over waist-high Fagus trees turned from green to bronze to gold. The lower foothill forest awoke with a cacophony of birds and hidden waterfalls. Single homes of the hills melded into the fingers of a city and a modern palm of greater concrete and steel at the bay. Hobart was a gateway that connected the people of a distant shore to the rest of the modern world.
Margaret Teresa Madden raced on foot across View Street with the wind at her back. At twenty-two, she had stayed fit through diet and care, and could run, but never too fast. She went only by the name of Terri.
She turned southwest along the bay’s Grosvenor Crescent to the main university campus. She shunned to her far left the abandoned and dilapidated Marine and Antarctic Studies building whose presence was a constant reminder of loss. The institute was rebuilt next to the pier at the harbor for Antarctic-bound ships. Once, she had been set to sail from there for an ornithology field study on the flight range of Antarctic Prions nesting on the distant Macquarie Island. But at the time, lost as she was, she’d backed away from the plank at the dock before her ship left port. She ran from her trip with nothing but a 3D-lenticular picture of a bird in her bag and the lingering despair of a thousand more places she would never go. So she waited.
She broke into a sprint through a parking lot on campus. There was only one thing that kept her going—the memory of her not-quite-brother.
Ages before and half a globe away from where she was now, the two of them had been stuffed in the car for the five-hour drive north from their old suburban home in Minnesota to the chilly northern lakes in the Boundary Waters’ wilderness along the Canadian border. The trip was tolerable only through her obsession with Sea Turtle Rescue, a repetitive virtual swirl of a game that she played incessantly on an antiquated, hand-me-down, digital tablet. That game was hers alone.