Bruno watches Lucas, his son, climb up the slide—a slick, winding contraption built to injure. The boy lets his jacket swing open and tugs at his hoodie. Ellie jogs on the boardwalk as if spring has arrived, but Bruno won’t be duped. He insists that Lucas wear all his layers. Just under the surface is a scathing ocean wind. Lucas holds his arms out for balance. When he trips, each muscle in Bruno’s body tenses and readies. Lucas catches himself and knuckles the rim to the jungle gym platform. Then, as if summoned by an invisible force, he skids down the ladder and bounds across the playground to the giant, blood-red replica of an old fashioned fire truck, scaling the side to land in the driver’s seat with a high-pitched, perfect whoop. A small boy with glasses straddles the truck’s gleaming hood. “Sound the alarm!” Lucas says. The boy, clad in a t-shirt despite the chill, silently regards Lucas. “You have to sit in the back,” Lucas points behind him. “There are firemen in the back sometimes.” “Wee-oo. Wee-oo,” the bespectacled boy says and bounces on the hood. He holds up two fists to maneuver a pretend steering wheel. “Man the hoses!” Lucas calls out. “There’s a blaze in Galactica!” The boy stops his sirening to consider this. “Where is Galactica?” “There. Over there!” Lucas says, stabbing the air in the direction of the swings. “Can’t you see it?” The boy blinks at Lucas and turns his attention back to his wheel. Bruno wishes that the boy would play along. Just do it, goddamn it. What does it matter? He reminds himself that the boy is a child, small and barely there, but this does little to temper his frustration. The boy continues his vehicular noises and angles his chin toward the sky to keep his smudged glasses from slipping down his nose. Lucas jumps to his feet; arms stretch out like a star. “This is a spaceship fire fighter!” He stamps his foot and then clambers over the windshield to crawl out to the hood. “I am driving an engine, not a spaceship,” the boy says. Lucas grunts before scissoring his legs over the side of the truck. “Careful, buddy!” Bruno calls out. His son glances at him and jumps down anyway, kicking up dirt.
At the hospital that morning, Lucas’s vomit splattered across the radiation room, pale orange flecks dotting Bruno’s shoes. Minutes later, the useless family counselor that Pediatrics assigned them urged Bruno not to lose sight of what’s important. “And what the fuck is that?” Bruno asked. The counselor, a man of 30 with no children, bobbed his head like a doll’s on a spring. Ellie would say he’s looking at it—Lucas atop a giant vintage fire truck, hooded and indestructible. Ellie chooses to guard the truth close to her and takes comfort in anonymity, pretending that the perpetual hood over Lucas’s bald head is akin to the fashion quirks of other 6-year-olds. A tangle of rubber bracelets. Mismatched socks. Ellie rarely tells others about how a visit to the pediatrician over a seemingly innocuous infection turned into specialists and tests, then more specialists and tests, accompanied by explanations simplified for lay people. That Lucas is missing specific tumor suppressor genes, the ones that cause cells to die at the right time. Or what the oncologist explained, as if in stupid wonder, “His cells are simply living too long.” This morning, Ellie told the counselor about how strong their boy seems. Tall and broad shouldered, chest solid and filled out, like a thick rope. How Lucas curls into himself after treatments with hardly a whimper. For Bruno, these are negligible comforts. He joins online communities and tracks research studies, combs through medical journals at night while Ellie sleeps beside Lucas in his twin bed. Bruno memorizes each new treatment and angle and probability and then holds it up to the light to scour for imperfections. He wants to scroll through one particular article now, a trial on treating supra-renal masses. He longs to go home, to wash Lucas’s hands with anti-bacterial soap, let him rest in front of an educational video, and prepare a lunch of antioxidant-rich smoothies and kale pasta, but Ellie insists that they “have normal things,” like parks and exercise and friends. Bruno tracks her narrow frame in the distance as she jogs along the water, the bright blue soles of her sneakers flashing behind her. Bruno combs his fingers through his thinning brown hair then buries his fisted hands in the pockets of his fleece. He scans the perimeter of the teeming playground: nannies scroll through phone displays; a grandmother yawns; toddlers pushed too high in swings, mouths agape. So much taken for granted. If he could, Bruno would crush the day between his palms, transform all of it into a fine, powdery dust. A crow, black and sleek as water in a well, perches on the hood of the fire truck and Bruno rushes over to shoo it away. It caws and drifts overhead before retreating to a gnarled branch. A woman who must be the mother of the boy with glasses points her phone at the fire truck and then smiles as she checks the picture. She is tall, with dark hair snarled from the wind and a round, fragile face, the kind Bruno can easily overwhelm if he wants to. The woman watches her son closely but is careful not to draw too near and risk the appearance of hovering. Bruno places himself in her line of vision and nods his head in greeting. “Boys love their trucks,” he says. “Like they’re wired for it,” she responds and points at Lucas. “Your boy?” Bruno swallows the warm, hard stone in his throat. “Yup.” “How old?” “Lucas? Six.” “Tall for six.” She studies Lucas approvingly. “Henry’s four.” “Hmm.” Lucas takes aim at aliens and shields himself with his free hand. “We need back up.” He approaches Henry again, who is lining up rocks on the wheel’s rim. When one falls off he patiently replaces it. Lucas considers him. “What are you doing?” “These are my ants.” “Ants?” “I have an ant farm at home.” “These aren’t ants.” Henry looks back at his stones. “I know that.” “Ants are stupid, anyway,” Lucas says before again taking aim. Bruno expects a reproach from Henry’s mother, a “let’s play nice” sort of gentle, but clear, scold. Something she’d feel guilty about later. Instead, she smiles. “It’s best to let them work it out,” she says and then extends her hand. “I’m Patricia.” “Bruno,” he says, taking her hand. He turns to the boys. “Henry, maybe you and Lucas can combine games? How about it?” The boys glance at him, and Lucas climbs back onto the truck. Patricia smiles apologetically. “Not ones to be controlled, are they?” “I suppose not.” “I wish someone told me when Henry was a baby that it would get harder. I would have held him closer.” Bruno is silent but nods his head. “First grade?” Patricia asks. “We don’t send Lucas to school.” From the corner of his eye, Bruno sees Patricia turn her head sharply. “Oh?” “Home school.” Her eyes light up. “We’re bleeding ourselves dry paying for private pre-K.” Bruno waits, thinking Patricia will ask a question that burrows toward the truth, an opportunity to tell a stranger. She smiles blithely at her son. Henry, tired of his rock ants, climbs into the passenger seat next to Lucas. Lucas spreads his elbows out wide, forcing Henry to either push him or back out of the seat. “Not for kids with glasses,” Lucas says. The boy backs out. “He’s being mean,” Henry calls out. Patricia’s smile hardens, and she steps forward. Bruno knows she expects him to join her, but he stays where he is and squints at the jostled ocean, each wave fighting back the next. Patricia makes a visor with her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “I’m sure he doesn’t mean it, sweetie,” she finally says. Lucas twists the steering wheel back and forth, and Bruno grins at him. “Lucas, let’s not be difficult. Let the little boy have his way.” Wrinkles forms around Patricia’s mouth, a grimace. “Or maybe you boys can combine games. Like before,” she offers. Lucas puffs out his cheeks and releases the air slowly through his nostrils. He shifts to make room for Henry. Patricia eyes the two boys with her arms bent at her sides, as if preparing to make a catch. A flutter of satisfaction takes flight in Bruno’s belly. “Henry’s always liked older kids. I just don’t want him to be self-conscious about his glasses. He really can’t see without them. His ophthalmologist says the prescription’s off the charts.” Patricia holds up a hand four inches in front of her face. “This is as far as he can see.” Henry presses imaginary buttons on the dashboard as Lucas continues to steer. “Huh,” Bruno says and bites his bottom lip with pretend concern. “It’s going to affect his reading. That’s what they’ve told us.” She inspects a hangnail on her thumb and then adjusts her mouth into a brave smile, “But luckily Henry loves his glasses.” Lucas relinquishes the driver’s seat to Henry and begins spraying the trees with either a large hose or a machine gun, sound effects combined with spit. Bruno searches the boardwalk but can no longer differentiate Ellie from the other runners and walkers. He wishes he could explain to her that he does not want to go to therapy or take up jogging and track his progress in an app. That he has no desire to make friends with other parents as the counselor advises. He hates that he and Ellie complained about Lucas as a baby, his latching issues and animal cries piercing the night. That he did not meticulously catalogue every frank statement of warmth the boy offered them. That he can’t even recall that thing Lucas once said about love and outer space. Each forgotten moment its own wasted death. In the top drawer of his desk, a rosewood antique gifted to them by Ellie parents, Bruno keeps relics from Ellie’s 20-week ultrasound. Lucas’s cereal bowl head, mouth gulping black fluid, a small hand scratching his transparent face, heart beating desperately. His belly arched with gelatinous mayhem one moment, then disappearing into the deep dark the next, an object in quicksand. The technician called out body parts with the clipped efficiency of a busy waitress. “We have to get the right pictures. Document, document, document,” she’d said, before shuffling them out into the harsh light of the hospital hallway. Had it been there then, invisibly present? Through his own research, Bruno can identify organs like a technician himself. He scours the images for signs – ventricles of the heart, lobes of the lungs, the stomach versus the kidneys. Kidneys, two lumps of pea-sized tissue huddled around the spine. Such submissive, little organs. That they would cause sizable harm, become hospitable to vicious, rogue cells, how could anyone have known? Bruno assumes that he is most responsible, the one who failed to provide Lucas with the necessary genes. But such conclusions do nothing to quell the rising tide of his anger. So fucking unfair. Such impossible love. Bruno gazes at Patricia now and is filled with rage. To assume he has sympathy to offer. “It must be nice,” he says, startling Patricia from her thoughts. “I’m sorry?” “Being lucky.” Bruno registers the confusion on her face. “You are so very lucky.” “Yes,” Patricia says slowly. “We are.” “Lucas is undergoing radiation treatment. Daily.” Patricia appears confused, but then, as comprehension hits her, she visibly jerks back. As she turns to Lucas and takes him in, Bruno lets a heady excitement rush through. “Radiation?” “He was diagnosed with kidney cancer a year ago.” Bruno clears his throat. “Three months clean and now they find cells under his eye.” He observes her face - one hand over her parted mouth. “My god.” “I like seeing him play like this.” “Of course.” “They can’t operate on this one because of the location. So we’re back to radiation.” Patricia stares at the ground and Bruno can tell she is searching for the right words. “I’m sorry” would assume a death. “Wow” would seem flippant. “My goodness,” she whispers and audibly exhales, as if drawn back from the edge of a precipice. “They told us that this time around it’s wait and see. Even though his eyebrows are growing back. These doctors,” Bruno pauses for effect, “and their pronouncements.” “A tough kid.” “Very tough kid.” Now, Bruno thinks. Now you should say how foolish you are, for feeling you are strong, that your suffering matters to anyone. But Patricia just nods her head in understanding, and Bruno laughs. “To think,” he spits out, “I should give a fuck about your son and his glasses.” She shudders and her hand moves to her belly. “I didn’t mean to imply-“ Bruno waves her away. “Of course you didn’t.” Patricia worries a stone with her foot, hands pushing through pockets like they’ve been captured. When she looks up, her eyes round in horror. The boys face one another on the hood of the truck, their bodies shifting from one foot to the other, as if dancing. Bruno can’t tell what’s the matter until he sees Lucas’s hands wrapped around Henry’s neck. The smaller boy grips Lucas’s wrists and his mouth moves but no sound escapes. “It’s not your game!” Lucas yells and then releases his hold. Henry teeters and falls backward to the rubber blacktop. When he stands up, he clutches his blue frames in two hands, his body trembling with each sob. A scrape glows above his cheekbone, and tears smear pink lines down his face. Patricia kneels next to him and tries to gather him to her. But the boy pulls away to gaze at Lucas standing on the truck. Bruno watches the heave of his son’s chest and the inscrutable expression on his face, his mouth a taut line, neither angry nor mocking. A jolt of electricity courses through Bruno’s body. “Lucas, buddy, let’s come down,” he says. “I don’t want to come down.” Bruno cannot remember a time when Lucas has refused to do something. Not the medicine or the treatments or the gritty shakes meant to boost his immune system. He imagines that the boy can, if he wants, sprout wings and fly into the trees with the crows. That such a thing would be no less spectacular. Bruno turns to Henry. “He just wants you to play his game.” His voice sounds pleading, and he stands with his palms out as if requesting a double high five. But the boy takes a step back and buries his face in his mother’s hair. Patricia tries to mask her expression, but Bruno catches it: a flash of pity mixed with disgust. The din of children continues uninterrupted, tunneling their silence. The truth is, there is Bruno and there is Lucas and then everyone else: no allies, just witnesses. “It’s okay, Lucas,” Patricia finally says. “You didn’t mean it.” Though Bruno knows the words are a lie, he nods. “See, buddy. It’s okay.” But Lucas will not come down. He swings one leg back and forth like a pendulum and then shakes out of his jacket, letting it slide to the blacktop. Bruno stares at the limp sleeves and then at his son’s bare head reflecting back the sun. Bruno senses a hush fall over the park, but when he looks around nothing has changed. He wants to call out to Patricia but she is already walking away with Henry shivering in her arms. He hopes she will think of him and Lucas for the rest of the day, if not the next, as he gently nudges his child awake, earlier than he wants to and ferries him to the next round. With one arm, Bruno pulls himself onto the truck and over the hood. He takes a deep breath, lets the sharp air smack his lungs, and does his best to sound hopeful. “Take me to Galactica.”
-- Reena Shah is a writer, dancer, and educator. She is the winner of the 2019 Third Coast Fiction prize and the 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Award. She was a finalist for this year’s Sustainable Arts Foundation fellowship and was awarded a Crossfields scholarship at the Cuttyhunk Island Residency in 2018. Her work has appeared in the Texas Review, Chalkbeat, DNA India, Jet Fuel Review, and Origins Journal among others. She is the author of the biography, Movement in Stills: the Dance and Life of Kumudini Lakhia (MapinLit) and holds an MFA from New York University. As an educator, she worked in public schools in both New York and India for over a decade, teaching writing, history, and literature and leading schools. She can be reached via her website reenadshah.com.