Fiction by Nathan Willis
The children appeared to be traveling alone. I offered to switch seats, but they declined. They said they would just argue next to each other. I’d be happier if I stayed in the middle.
The girl spent much of the flight acting as an aerial tour guide, pointing out the window and explaining the landmarks below, most notably a lake made from the final footprint of the last giant and the battle site of the war between ballerinas and wizards. When the pilot announced we were going over the Grand Canyon, she said that was a sham but chose not to reveal its true name or origin.
The boy, on the other hand, kept saying we weren’t really that high in the air. It just looked that way because everything below us was miniature. According to him, everything was small until you’d actually been there. That’s why air travel was so much faster than driving.
I couldn’t argue with his logic. I wasn’t sure where home was anymore, but I was getting farther away from it faster than I expected.
The representative from Sunny Harvest Cereals was waiting at baggage claim. He introduced himself as Garrett Belfair, checked my ID, and walked me to a car in the pick-up area. We got inside, and he directed the driver to take us to the beach.
In the backseat, Garrett produced a black leather folder containing two sheets of paper. The first was a copy of a cardboard form I’d filled out as a child, and the second a copy of the ten UPC symbols and five-dollar bill required to process the form. I was amazed that these artifacts had made their way across the country and back into my hands almost twenty years later.
“You’ll find everything from the original agreement intact. Review and sign each page to confirm their validity.”
I compared my signature to that of my ten-year-old self. Somewhere along the way I had replaced formality with sloppy nonchalance. It was nice to see that at one point I was on the right track.
With the paperwork signed and securely back in his folder, Garrett dove into the nitty-gritty about Celine.
“You’re on a pretty tight schedule. I don’t know if you’ve seen what happens when these things are out in the sun for too long, but they bloat up and explode. There are videos online. It’s disgusting. And there’ve already been complaints about the smell from as far away as the Santa Monica Pier. From what I understand, it gets on your skin and you can’t wash it off.
“That being said, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s your plan? And remember, you’re not obligated to tell me, though I’m sure everyone back at the Harvest would be glad to know they can stop worrying and get back to work on their Frosted Dumplings or Slimy Sliders or whatever they might be cooking up next.”
I’d known he would ask, so I’d come up with a list on the plane.
- Drag her back out to the ocean and hope she stays there.
- Dig the tracker out of her body and throw it in the water so it looks like she’s still alive.
- Climb in through the mouth, hollow out a place to sleep, and live on the beach for the rest of my life.
I also knew none of these were acceptable.
“I’ll figure something out.”
Garrett turned to me and folded his hands. “You need to take this matter seriously. The city is ready to impose sanctions. Fines. Jail time. Whatever it takes to get her out of there. And those will all fall on your shoulders. Animal control won’t touch her because she was part of the Angels of Pangea conservation program. We can’t do anything because legally we’d be acting on your behalf, and that’s simply not a liability we’re willing to assume. No offense. What we can do, what we are doing, is facilitate, hence the transportation and my sitting before you now. Ideally, we would not be involved at all, but since Angels of Pangea was forced to disband after all of their internal canoodling, we’re listed as the corporate next of kin.”
I thought about those kids’ movies where the main character’s parents get divorced, so the kid has to change schools and gets picked on by some relentless bully. The kid would forge an unlikely friendship with some kind of animal that would help them believe in themselves. Ultimately, the animal’s wellbeing would be threatened, but the kid, with his newfound confidence, would orchestrate some clever and fun scheme to secure the animal’s future, byproducts of which were usually the kid’s parents getting back together and the bully volunteering at an animal shelter or retirement home.
In the adult-adjusted version of these movies, there are no clever and fun schemes. In the adult-adjusted version, the animal is dead, and the main character has to get rid of it.
The driver pulled into a boardwalk parking lot, and we got out of the car.
“Where is she?”
Garrett pointed to a crowd of people on the beach.
“What are they doing?”
“Watching. Just watching. They’ve been here since she washed up.”
As Garrett moved through the crowd, he used the folder to tap people on the shoulder and clear a path. We reached a sagging line of caution tape, which Garrett lifted over his head so I could join him in the cordoned-off area.
“Here she is.”
Finally, I was face to face with Celine. She was bigger than I had imagined. Her skin was covered in a complicated array of wrinkles and scars, a giant fingerprint displaying things about her we would never understand. She was beautiful.
I took a deep breath and almost threw up.
“I told you the smell was bad.”
It wasn’t because of the smell. But the smell was horrendous.
Cookie Crumbs were my cereal of choice. In addition to being made of three different kinds of cookies, it had the Cookie Crook, a harmless criminal whose antics were portrayed in comic strips on the back of each box. But Cookie Crumbs were made by Standard’s Nutrition, a triple A cereal manufacturer. They didn’t go on sale very often, and as the child of a single mother drowning in medical bills my meal options were dictated by coupons and sales.
The cereals made by Sunny Harvest, a lesser manufacturer specializing in bland, thinly veiled knockoffs, went on sale all the time—the only reason I ate its Sampson’s Sprockets. Its cartoon mascot was an afterthought, absent of personality and appearing on the box only once. The back of the box typically featured profiles of Sunny Harvest factory employees, such as Stan and Mandy. I had read their profiles so many times I practically had them memorized.
Stan only worked there to supplement his retirement income so he could fund his passion for homemade wine. Mandy punched out whole-wheat letters for AlphaBettaBelieveIts! and would sometimes, when having a bad day, punch out curse words one letter at a time to relieve her frustrations.
Even at my young age I could see they were miserable. I hated Stan and Mandy so much I stopped checking the backs of the boxes.
Mom’s illness wasn’t something any doctor had been able to diagnose, but she was certain that eventually, probably sooner rather than later, it was going to kill her. She thought the only way her life would have meaning was if her disease could be identified. Every morning she would inform me of her current symptoms. She said I needed to remember every detail in order to give the doctors an accurate report when she was gone. Usually I didn’t mind, but one morning they were particularly gruesome. I was desperate for a distraction. Any distraction.
I turned the box of Sampson’s Sprockets around and saw that Stan and Mandy had been replaced with a promotion to adopt a whale. A real, live whale.
There was a card on the box that needed to be signed and mailed in with five dollars and ten UPC symbols.
I poured myself a second bowl and told Mom, “We need more of these.”
“I didn’t think you liked it. You made such a fuss in the store.”
“Can you just get some more? Please?”
“Have you been listening to anything I’ve told you? This is important. My stool was especially loose last night. A nine on a scale of ten.”
“The sale ends this weekend.”
No matter how sick she might have been, she couldn’t pass up a good deal.
A few weeks later Cookie Crumbs went on sale. Mom was still alive, and there were still five boxes of Sprockets. She kept them at the front of the pantry to remind me they were going to waste, and for the longest time it seemed like she was right. Then finally, six to eight weeks later, a large envelope arrived from Angels of Pangea.
It was a picture of a breaching whale with a list of facts printed on the back.
Her name was Celine. She was a humpback last seen off the coast of Melbourne, Australia. She was approximately five years old and originally tagged two years prior off the coast of Los Angeles. She was both playful and shy.
I hung the picture on my bedroom wall with tacks, careful not to pierce the paper.
I used my allowance to buy a map of the world and hung it next to Celine. I put a tack off the coast of Los Angeles and another off of Melbourne. I would lie in bed at night and imagine where Celine might be going next. Wherever it was, I would put a tack in the map. Every once in a while she spent time in the middle of the biggest part of the ocean, between Oregon and Japan, where things go or get put to be forgotten. Other times she would be adventurous and go to Spain or Alaska.
Mom asked what the tacks were supposed to mean. I said they were places I wanted to go when I grew up. She didn’t say anything about none of them being on land, just that I needed to stay focused on what was important—her symptoms. I was old enough that it wasn’t just for her own good anymore. I needed to be able to recognize them in case they started happening to me, as well.
That night Celine swam around the world over and over as fast as she could, and when she was so tired she had to stop, she didn’t care where she was and neither did I. I put a tack in Ohio where our house would be.
After I moved out, I didn’t go back until I had to get the house ready for the estate sale. In all that time, she didn’t take down the picture or map. It wasn’t until I saw her picture in the empty house that it occurred to me Celine might not even exist. If the Angels of Pangea were smart, they would have just taken a stock image of a whale, printed a stack of photos and peppered the backs with fabricated stats and histories.
I threw the map in the trash, put the picture in a box with everything else that made me feel naïve, and taped it up to be moved to my apartment, then to the apartment Gina and I shared, then to our house, where it was now in a pile with other boxes in the garage. That’s where I was when I got the phone call—standing in the garage, staring at everything in the world that was mine, trying to figure out where it would go next.
The man on the phone explained that a whale had died and that I was legally responsible for disposing of the corpse in a timely manner.
That night I was on my way to California.
“This whole area, everything staked off with caution tape, is yours.” It was a horseshoe that opened to the ocean. “The crowd knows to stay out. As you requested, we have left you with a small tent and sleeping bag.”
I sat on the sand facing the water and put my hand against Celine.
“I want you to know, in hindsight we recognize the promotion was a mistake. We didn’t foresee the consequences, and it’s not something we’ll do again. Now, if there is nothing else, I’ll leave you to it.”
I was making another list when I heard the creaking. I climbed out of the tent and realized it was coming from Celine. It was her skin. She was getting bigger. She was telling me that I needed to hurry.
The list was of all the reasons Gina and I were splitting up. It was a list I’d started before we even sat down and decided it was over. There are a hundred more things that could be added, but I don’t remember what they are anymore. The only ones that matter are these:
- Because we lost the baby.
- Because I didn’t hurt enough.
- Because she didn’t hurt enough.
What’s on the list never changes, just the order in which they appear.
The crowd didn’t leave. Not even at night. It wasn’t hard to ignore them, though. They weren’t interested in me. They were only interested in what was going to happen to Celine. They wanted to see her destroyed. They wanted to see her pulled apart. Occasionally, they would take pictures and post them to various social media outlets. I know this because I received text messages from people back home saying, “Oh my god, this guy in California looks just like you. Btw where have you been. No one can get ahold of you.”
I didn’t reply.
The next morning I made my way through the crowd and up to a restaurant on the boardwalk. I ordered a sandwich and beer and sat at the ocean-facing bar so I could keep an eye on Celine.
I could still hear the creaking as I ate.
I pulled out a pen and drew a crude map of the world on a napkin, marking everywhere I thought she had gone. When it was done, I held it up to the sun, certain I’d gotten it wrong.
Before he’d left, I’d asked Garrett how she had died. He’d said there were no signs of trauma. It was probably natural. She just happened to wash up here. That’s how it usually happens. I should consider myself lucky she didn’t wash up in some faraway country. I would have had to deal with this no matter where she was.
It wasn’t luck. This is where we started watching her, and this is where she wanted to die. She wanted us to know she was gone even though no one had paid attention to her for a very long time. She spent so many years swimming around the world, never knowing who it was for. Now, more than ever, I wanted her to know it was for me.
I had to do something. Leaving her out there for all of these people waiting to see her destroyed felt like a betrayal.
I revised my list of solutions.
- The obvious answer might be the right answer.
- Accept that I can’t stay in the biggest part of the ocean forever.
- Figure out where home is.
I emptied my tray in the trashcan and started walking.
I didn’t have to go far before I found a store called Finders Keepers. It catered to people who spend their free time combing the earth for valuables others have lost. It sold plaid shorts, khaki vests, hats that would never be in fashion, metal detectors, and, most importantly, shovels.
I moved the caution tape farther out on one side to give myself room and began to dig.
Ten minutes in, it was obvious this was going to take forever. I didn’t know if I’d get done in time, but maybe if Celine knew I was working on it, that the end was in sight, she might not get any bigger.
The only sound I could hear was sand moving from one place to another.
I got a text from Gina. She wanted to know when I was going to get my things.
I kept digging.
The crowd began to disperse.
Sooner or later I would get us underground.