Imagine being lost in the open ocean, frantically bailing water out of a sinking raft which refills exactly as fast you empty it. You will never be found, never be saved. Sooner or later you’ll need to rest and cease your constant vigilance, but you’re still fighting the waves for as long as you can. However hopeless, the terror of that dark water is more real than everything else in your dying world. That’s what being a mother was like to me.
I used to think the worst thing in life was not getting what you want. For me, that was starting a family, something I obsessed over since I was a little girl trying to make sure all my dolls successfully graduated and had families of their own. I fell for every boy that looked at me – always too fast, always the wrong one, wasting so much time imagining weddings and baby showers and these elaborate happy lives that were never lived outside of my head. Then all at once in nursing school I met a handsome neurologist, and within six months I was pregnant.
I finally had what I’d always dreamed about, but the worst thing in life isn’t not getting what you want. The worst thing is getting it, and then realizing how much happier you were before. My first son Prater was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), an incurable genetic disease which left him barely able to move. Every day was an ordeal. Every hour, every minute – constant paranoia that his feeble lungs would give up or he would choke on his own vomit and be too weak to struggle free. I had to drop out of nursing school, but my husband Jeffery took good care of me, leaving me to take care of the child.
My husband switched focus with his work, moving into research designed to strengthen motor neurons and protect them from SMA. It was an impossible dream though. There were a range of potential treatments, but they were years away from even reaching human trials. I begged Jeffery to sneak some experimental medication home anyway, but Prater was so weak that the injections would doubtlessly kill him long before the correct treatment and dosage was discerned.
It wasn’t my decision to have another child. I didn’t think I could bear going through something like this again, but Jeffery insisted. This can’t be the end of your dream, he told me. This can’t be the rest of your life. It wasn’t until after I was pregnant again that he let his ulterior motive slip. It was the middle of the night, and I’d just gotten back in bed after checking on Prater. I don’t think Jeffery was even fully awake, but he nestled in close to me and whispered:
“When the new kid is born, he’ll be healthy enough to test the treatments on. We’ll find something that works, and everything will be okay.”
I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. I don’t know whether it was fear or excitement, but I was so desperate that the two were beginning to taste the same.
When my second healthy baby boy was born, I didn’t give him a name. I just wrote “X” on the form. Jeffery said it would be easier that way. By the time he’d exhausted the full litany of possible treatments, the new boy would likely be dead. I’d carried him for 9 months, suffered for 9 months, and for that sentence I was able to give Prater a whole lifetime of health and happiness. Not a bad trade, not when you’re so tired of bailing water from a sinking ship. Even so, I’ve never cried harder in my life than that first hour when I held him in the hospital.
After that, I couldn’t even look at the new baby. I pretended he didn’t exist. Jeffery took a sabbatical from work so he could continue his research from home. He waited until X was 6 months old before he began the experiments, and during that time X lived in a makeshift nursery in the basement. I didn’t see him, but I’d still hear the crying echo through the house sometimes. Jeffery was diligent and made sure that all the child’s needs were met, and I occupied all of my time with looking after Prater (who was almost 2 by then).
Science – it’s not that “Eureka!” moment you see on TV. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. There was still so much that we didn’t know about the disease, and even with ideal conditions and a proper experiment with control groups and A-B testing, it would have taken years. With a basement laboratory and a single experimental subject, and then later with Jeffery having to return to work part time…
It took a decade before we began to see really promising results. All that time, I didn’t see X once. Sometimes I was convinced that he’d died years ago, and that Jeffery was just putting on a show of bringing food down to the basement to give me hope. All I saw was Prater, everyday a little weaker, a continual mockery of what it should mean to have a childhood and a family.
When at last we were ready to give the final drug to Prater, I wasn’t prepared for the troubling question which accompanied that step.
“If Prater gets better, and everything we ever wanted comes true, what are we going to do with X?” Jeffery asked one morning at the breakfast table.
It was unusually direct. Jeffery would always allude to his experiments without directly mentioning the test subject. Even when it was unavoidable, he understood that I wasn’t comfortable acknowledging the boy. I tried to change the subject, but he was insistent this time.
“We can’t just let him out. You understand that, right? It’s too late for him to lead a normal, functional life. Even if he could psychologically acclimate one day, the years of trials have…”
“Do whatever you think is best,” I cut him off.
“Are you telling me to -”
“I’m not telling you anything. I just want you to do whatever is necessary.”
He nodded glumly, looking down at his coffee. The icy tension mounted as we listened to Prater cackling at his cartoons in the other room.
“He looks like me,” Jeffery said, not looking up from his coffee. It took me a second to realize he wasn’t talking about Prater.
“Why would you even tell me that?”
“He calls me dad,” Jeffery added. He was finally looking, but I was the one who couldn’t meet his gaze.
“You shouldn’t have taught it to talk,” was all I could say. “That’s even worse than giving it a name.”
The experiment was otherwise a success. Within a week of Prater’s first injection, his voluntary movements were becoming smooth and controlled. By the end of the first month he was able to walk on his own. Listening to his breathing become steady, seeing his radiant smile as he took his first steps, the squeals of his excitement when I drove him by the school he would enroll in next semester – it was sublime, almost surreal in its fantastic impossibility. When we got back home Prater was so full of vitality that he even outpaced me from the car to the house. Entering first, he turned around to ask:
“Why is this door open? It’s never open.” I stopped cold on the doorstep.
“Is there anything… anyone else there?”
“Nope. What’s down here?”
A flight of empty steps going down. The lights were off. The room empty.
“Mom, why is there a bedroom under the house?”
I closed the door to the basement. The padlock was gone.
“It’s just a guest room. There’s no-one visiting though, so we don’t use it. Do you know where dad is?”
“Can I go see? I want to see the other room!” Prater insisted. I was never any good at saying no to him. That must be why he looked so surprised when I shouted:
“Get out of here! Go find your dad, right now!”
Jeffery didn’t come home that night. Calls went straight to voice-mail. Three options continued to surface in my mind. 1: Jeffery is bringing X to live somewhere else. 2: Jeffery is taking X somewhere to kill him.
Neither of those explained why he would leave the door open.
Option 3: X has escaped, and something has happened to my husband. I strained to remember all the vague mentions of X that I’d intentionally blocked out at the time. Something had happened to him during the trials. Something besides the psychological effect, that’s what Jeffery had said. What exactly had he endured down there? The thought had crossed my mind innumerable times before, but it had been so repressed that I’d never taken the time to really think about it. What would life be for someone like that? Alone except for those few hours a day that Jeffery spent experimenting on him. The chemicals he must have ingested. The lies he must have been fed to justify his pitiful existence. What would someone like that do if their world was ripped away overnight?
I didn’t let Prater leave my sight. I sat in a chair in his room, reading him stories until he fell asleep, and then just sitting and watching him. Maybe I should have gone to a motel or something, but he was so worn down from his outings that day and the medication was still so new that I didn’t want to push him. Instead, I just sat and waited. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but I’d know it when I saw it.
Or heard it, as it turned out.
I must have fallen asleep in the chair sometime during the night.
“Yes Prater?” I mumbled, not quite awake.
“No, not Prater.” My eyes flew open. It was dark, but I could still make out the outline of Prater sleeping in his bed. Someone else… something else was standing in the room. I couldn’t see anything but the silhouette, but the shape was unrecognizable. Gnarled, bulbous, utterly grotesque, cut into the night like the darkness itself had reared to life. All I could really see were the eyes, great pools of white without iris or cornea.
“Jeffery? Jeffery!” I shouted.
I couldn’t even stand. Not with it so close, peering down at me like some sort of specimen.
“Dad doesn’t know I came back,” X said. “I wanted some time alone with you. Are you my mom?” The words slurred into each other, but the hot whisper was so close I seemed to feel their meaning more than hear it.
“No, she’s not. She’s my mom!” Prater was awake now too, sitting up and clutching his blankets to his chin.
I managed to turn my phone’s flashlight on, regretting it immediately. X’s face was devastated with ruptured boils and deep-pitted lines. His features sloped jaggedly toward the left as though he’d suffered multiple strokes, his pale eyes twisting in agony at the sudden light. In his hand he held a syringe filled with a thick, black syrup. It wasn’t Prater’s medicine.
“Turn it off, turn it off!” X shrieked, blindly swiping the syringe through the air. I jumped out of the chair and toppled it, brandishing my light like a weapon.
“Prater follow me!” I shouted. My son began to clamber out of bed, but he was still too weak. He was shaking so badly that he fell straight onto the floor in a crumpled heap.
“The light burns! Turn it off, mom!”
Mom. That word was a dagger. I kept the light on X’s face while I made my way around the edge of the room to where Prater fell. I fumbled the phone while trying to lift him off the ground. The light veered away from X’s face. I could feel him charging toward me through the sudden dark, but I had Prater around my shoulders now.
I was running, flinging myself down the familiar halls of my house which shadows had twisted into an alien nightmare. I could hear X limping and lurching behind me, pursuing with incredible haste despite his disfigurement. The basement – it was the only safe place I could think of. I leapt headfirst toward the stairwell, grabbing the door and slamming it behind me. I put my back against the smooth metal, feeling it vibrate as X slammed into the door again and again from the other side.
The force of the impacts – it was like trying to stop a car. My bones were rattling against each other in harmony with the blows. Human tissue should pulverize under an impact like that, if X even was human anymore.
“Honey? Are you in there?” It was Jeffery. Somewhere above.
“Help us! We’re in the basement! X is trying to kill us!”
Shouting. Running. A high-pitched scream, so pitiful and desperate that it still felt like my whole body was vibrating, even while the door stood still. Then a gunshot, and everything went quiet.
I opened the door to see Jeffery clutching a gun in both hands. X was kneeling on the ground before him, those pale eyes lancing through my body. Now that they were side-by-side, even the savage snarl further torturing the boy’s face couldn’t disguise how closely X resembled his father.
The boy was already fading into the shadows, vanishing almost immediately except for the white orbs which lingered in accusation. I held my breath, waiting for Jeffery to take the killing shot. It never came. X was gone.
I was still holding my breath when Jeffery came down the stairs and hugged me, then hugging Prater. I shook so badly that I couldn’t even form words, but Jeffery did the talking for me.
“I’m so sorry, honey. I never would have let him out if I thought -”
But the words were all rushing together and I couldn’t make sense of them anymore. Especially when he flipped on the light-switch and I saw the basement for the first time.
The laboratory section was much smaller than I expected. It was just a computer and a locked glass case full of chemicals. The rest of the space looked like you’d expect a boy’s room to be. There were toys all over the floor, and a TV in the corner. There were cartoon posters on the wall, a shelf full of books, and even a nightstand with a framed picture on it.
I was in the picture, holding X for the first and last time in the hospital room. Next to it was a stack of drawings, all of me, all so young and beautiful – so much better than I really was.
“I just don’t understand why he would try to hurt you. He talked about you all the time,” Jeffery said. “He always wanted to meet you, but I guess he was just too far gone.”
Jeffery’s face grew tighter. “Let’s all go back upstairs. Prater shouldn’t see this.”
“I need to know. What was in the syringe?” But the look he gave me told me everything I needed to know. X was still trying to help, even after all this time. And the look Prater gave me, I think he understood that too. Now that the secret is out, I don’t think he’ll ever be able to love me like he used to.
Not like X loved me anyway. My husband and I have created a monster and set it loose upon the world, but it isn’t X. We’re the only monsters here.