Fall 2011, Volume 11

Fiction by Christina Murphy


He played drums in a band that was always trying but never hitting it big. His son was autistic and liked to listen to the drum beats. He let him pound on the drums with his hands and then the sticks, and the kid was pretty good. “Natural rhythm,” he would tell his wife, “and good coordination. And he understands the harmonics, too, the overtones.” His wife would smile and say, “He is your son, after all.”

Their best family times were the summers when they would drive to the beach and spend a week along the Atlantic coast. The father and son would walk along the shore in the early mornings before the sun got too hot. Sometimes the boy would sit on the wet sand and pound out rhythms. His father watched and wondered if the sounds were an imitation of the sea.

One morning they left very early for the beach, the father telling the mother they were going swimming. She was mostly asleep and mumbled something like “nice time” as the boy put on his bright green Speed-o trunks and green sunglasses.  

“You look like a Martian,” the father said.

The boy nodded. “Toast,” he said, meaning he was hungry. It was always “toast” day or night, no matter what food he wanted. “Okay,” the father said, handing him a package of peanut butter crackers.

At the beach, the father put a yellow life jacket on the boy, and they waded into the water until it reached the father’s chest and the boy could float on his own. The boy kicked, and splashed, and smiled, and the father watched. The sunrise was beautiful in orange and light pink colors.

That was the last thing he remembered before the wave hit them both and then a fierce current pulled them away from the shore. He would learn later it was an undertow and that he had done the wrong thing in grabbing his son and trying to swim back to the shore. The current only sucked them further out and exhausted him as he fought and fought against its power. He should have floated parallel to the shore and let the current carry him along at a mid distance until he was out of its grip.

But how was he to know this, as panicked and terrified as he was of losing his son? He had a tight hold of the strap on the life jacket, but he could feel it lifting with each slap of the waves, and he was afraid it would either break open or slide over his son’s head. So he struggled all the more to get them both to shore, but he could see the shore receding into a blurry distance and he knew they were alone.

In the hospital, he heard the nurses speaking before he could see them. His eyes did not want to focus, no matter how hard he tried, and he saw only patches of light and movement before the room finally came into view.

“My son?” he said. His voice seemed an echo in a dark cave, but a nurse said, “He’s here.”

He wanted to know how his son was, but he faded out of consciousness. He dreamed of the sea and finding an island, carrying his son from the water to the dry, warm land. He took his son’s hand and they walked peacefully along the shore. They were alone but happy, and his son smiled up at him.

He felt a sharp pain and opened his eyes slowly.  His chest ached as he tried to breathe. He saw his wife moving toward him. She was crying, then taking his hand. “Thank God,” she said. “Thank God.”

He tried to say his son’s name.

“You both could have died,” she said.

Finally, the name came out as a wail, and he was crying.

She stroked his cheek. “He’s fine, he’s fine!” she said.

He could feel his heart beating so fast it scared him, then it comforted him. It was joy, pure joy.

Then the nurse was giving him a shot and he was drifting asleep.

In the morning, they let him see his son. They helped him into a wheelchair and took him to the elevator and down two floors to the room where his son was sleeping.

The nurse placed his wheelchair close to his son’s bed and let them be alone. He listened to his son’s soft breathing as he slept. A shaft of morning light came through the window, and he watched it move across his son’s small body. Everything was quiet and still in the soft yellow light, and then his son’s hands were moving, playing the drums, a simple song—the one he had first taught him—and in perfect rhythm.

He felt tears running down his face. What dream was holding his son in such a gentle embrace that his hands were alive with the purity of the movements, the rhythms?

He watched those small hands holding imaginary sticks and moving to far-away rhythms that only his son heard. He closed his eyes and listened for the sounds, so gentle, so much like the waves on the island where he walked hand-in-hand with his son, their shadows, like their hearts, merging into one, with separation no longer a possibility.



BIO:  Christina Murphy lives and writes in a 100 year-old Arts and Crafts style house along the Ohio River. Her writing appears in a number of anthologies and journals including, most recently, ABJECTIVE, A cappella Zoo, PANK, Word Riot, Fiction Collective, and LITnIMAGE. Her work has received two Editorís Choice Awards, Special Mention for a Pushcart Prize, and the 2011 Andre Dubus Award for Short Fiction from Words and Images.