about the author

Kato McMahon is an American preschool teacher living in Vietnam with her wife and dog. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, Menacing Hedge, and Wyvern Lit, among others. Follow her on Twitter @katoscope.

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Ocean Boy  

Kato McMahon

After the Humboldt squid dribbles out of Jeremy’s left nostril he is taken to the doctor for fear of a sinus infection. He sits on the examination table while the doctor swabbing his nose fishes out a blue-ringed octopus. “Cephalopods,” he says, “Are incongruous with sinus infections.”

His mother pushes. “Oh, just give him something.”

He is dosed with antibiotics and returned to school where he sneezes mollusks onto his geometry quiz. He is, of course, teased for this and for hacking out a sea urchin during an asthma attack induced by the Presidential Physical Fitness Test.

Alone in his room, he decides the white-spotted jellyfish were the worst thing that day because their tentacles had stung his lip raw until he’d cried in front of the whole cafeteria. Now everyone will see him, see how he bows his head and walks hunched over with the ocean crushing inside. Alone in his room, he tells a future where the surface is tranquil, the sun always high.

He develops a cold. If he weren’t such a germaphobe, he would pick his nose in secret, but he’s pretty sure lobster spawn count as something to be ashamed of. He leaves trashcans full with tissues of tuna and cod and his father yells at him for the fishing shortages. Sea creatures smeared all over his face, Jeremy retreats to the kitchen where his grandmother, who claims to be senile, says, “If only you would turn those tears into lemon juice, we could feast on your suffering.”

His mother takes him to a specialist who prescribes a nebulizer. Jeremy thinks of galaxies. Will a universe bloom within him? Then his mother says to herself, “How like the French to want to purge one’s orifices.”

Jeremy, scandalized and giggling at orifices, is curious. What would it feel like to be clean on the inside?

Water is supposed to be clean, but when he reads about pelagic zones, he learns of marine snow, the prey-crumbs that fall to bottom dwellers in the cycle responsible for life. What is responsible for him? He memorizes species, desperate to name all that is crowded inside.

More specialists see him. “Just give him something.” His mother doesn’t even whisper it now. Therapists. “Do something.” To him.

Jeremy blinks back what he would call anger, but feels like shark bites, and his eyelashes snag. The prehensile tail of a seahorse. He pencils a graphic story on the last page of his English notebook and somehow keeps it dry. “Paper Boy and His Magic Scissors.” One time an eraser smudged him gray. One time a craft knife split his lips. One time a hole-punch left him with voids for eyes. His parents took him to an origamist to unfold, but he remained rolled, crumpled, stapled together. He grips the scissors. It will only hurt for a moment.

It feels good to chop up his secrets and Jeremy cuts the comic into actual strips, then into confetti. He does not try to eat it to make it disappear, he only thinks of doing so. He dumps the waste in the toilet and pees on it so it’s as soggy as him. In the mirror, a conger eel investigates his septum. He is so disgusting, how can anyone look at him?

He tells his parents he does not wish to celebrate his birthday. They do. After all, how many times do you turn fourteen? “Family-only, then.” He blows out the candles on the chocolate cake, ruins it with wax and jetsam. In the living room, his big brother holds him down and shoves birthday cake up his nose to snapping leatherback turtles and an uncle’s applause. Then Jeremy opens cards for old men about fishing expeditions, then gifts, including a tackle kit from an aunt who suggests he use it to pierce his nose. No one laughs.

Jeremy interrupts her next joke, about sushi, and says to his family (as there is no one else to talk to), “I want to go to the beach.” It is the only time they look at him afraid.

His sister volunteers to take him. She is sixteen and they were close before she became a deviant. Delinquent? He can’t remember what their father calls her. His mother offers her two twenties and, frowning, kisses him with love and disapproval. When his sister lifts a few extras from her wallet, he knows she just wants to miss school. An hour on the bus and they are at the boardwalk. Everything is winter-shut, so she stands with him at the shore.

He sticks his fingers down his throat and brushes the prow of a skiff. Gags. Scoffing, his sister gives him just enough change for the bus ride back and walks up the steps to where a boy watches, a boy who doesn’t look up from his ball cap when he hands her something small, dirty, and raft-like in its own way.

Jeremy swallows his hand and grabs the boat. He drags it out between his teeth, drags it out to the water. A starfish wriggles out of his nose, jumping ship for the ocean.

In the boat there are no oars. There is no sail, not even a mast. A nautilus clatters to the floorboards and he heaves it over. An elephant seal butts the port, a harbor porpoise, the stern. Waves catch the skiff. But the waves that catch the skiff understand the stratagems of dodge ball. They aim everything they have starboard.

Jeremy has no boat. His sister has left. He has no friends. He has a headache. This dry land is not so dry. His tears sting like jellyfish, like lemon.

Out of his nose dives a pygmy blue whale that rolls down the beach into the waves. Its tail pauses for him. A fluke. He runs, grabs it, and does not let go.

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