An Unfortunate Fear

I wrote this for Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge to write a piece in under 1,000 words about bad parents. It is also set in the universe I’m writing my current novel in. Rollo is a character in the novel, and this explains a little bit about his background.  It’s more of a character piece than a proper short story, but I hope you enjoy it!

Rollo’s pinched little face and enormous, wet eyes swimming behind glasses endeared himself to no one. Masses of dark, unruly hair stood up in bunches even when his mother ripped a comb through it, as she occasionally did, and instead of manners he reacted with blank-eyed stares to everyone who tried to speak to him.  He was short for his age, so the glares came from somewhere around knee height, but were no less angry for that.

“What a…child,” the neighbors said, unable to find an adjective to adequately describe the boy.  ‘Peculiar’ might have fit, had that word still been in circulation, or perhaps, ‘worrying.’ But of course it wasn’t polite to use those words within earshot of Rollo’s parents.

The neighbors couldn’t be blamed for avoiding the child, because after all, he was terrified of the water. He cringed at the sigh of the ocean and went pale when he had to leave his house and saw it roiling greasily all around him. This phobia may have been fine in a child born in the great dry Sahara desert of old, but in a child born in a floating village in the center of a sea, a child who’d never seen land, on a planet so ravaged and polluted that land might not even exist anymore, was – extremely unfortunate. The vast ocean spread around the salt-rotted huts and bobbing boats, around the green patches of floating water plants that could almost be a field solid enough to walk on, like an unctuous, endless disease. And Rollo woke every morning to this never-ending personal nightmare.

“Since you refuse to help with the fishing,” his father said one morning, referring of course to the one time he’d managed to drag Rollo screaming and panicked onto a fishing boat, only to have him vomit into the nets and pass out from terror, “you can stay at home and repair the nets.”

So little six-year old Rollo sat in a corner of the family hut, straining his eyes in the murky light, and he repaired nets. His father said he hoped he’d grow into a man one day, and to assist him in that purpose Rollo was not allowed to use protective gloves. The corrosive water burned his hands, making them red and swollen and cracked. They bled, and left brownish stains on the nets. When this happened, his father would beat him cheerfully, saying, “This will make you into a man, son.”

Rollo would just stand there with his wet pale eyes focused on the wall, or on nothing at all, and though the tears would swim he would never make a sound, which infuriated his father all the more and led to more beatings.

“Can’t you just shout or cry or something?” asked his mother, exasperated, and added, “You’re only making it worse for yourself.” Rollo just shot her an empty, savage glare.

While his parents were out fishing or talking to the neighbors, Rollo liked to poke around their house. Sometimes he moved things, small things: he once hid his mother’s comb in a kitchen cabinet and she didn’t find it for a week while she fumed and went around with frizzy hair. This habit of his frequently led to more beatings – his parents may have been savage, but they weren’t stupid – but Rollo counted it as worth it.

One particular hot, still day as the house rocked gently on the ocean Rollo did his best to ignore, he found a small box hidden under a floorboard. The box was delicate, made of the bones of some large fish intricately knotted together with lines made of kelp fibers. It was a little larger than his hand and was very light.  Rollo opened the simple clasp.

There was a scroll of paper inside, much yellowed with age and crinkling with salt and mildew. Very carefully, he unrolled it and spread it out on the floor, crouching down over it. He tried not to breathe, afraid he’d make the paper disintegrate at his touch.

Most of the paper was colored the same faded greyish-blue of the sky, but here and there were interesting blobs and lines. Rollo could find no particular pattern nor order in this strange picture, but sensed it had some meaning, and crouched, studying it until he heard the clunk of the family’s boat against the front porch of the house. Then with his fingers shaking he hastily rolled up the paper, crammed it back into the box, and replaced it under the floorboards just as the door squeaked open and his parents came in.

That night at dinner he asked, “Mama, is everything the ocean?”

His father stopped with a mouthful of fish half-chewed. His mother looked down and said nothing. He asked again.  “Mama –”

“I heard you,” she snapped. “These en’t questions for you to be asking.  You know it is, the whole world covered in the ocean that gives us life and food.  Now if I hear that question again I think your father will have something to say about it.”

His father flicked a piece of fish off his stubbled chin and glared. “Listen to your mother. We’ll have no more of that kind of absurd talk coming from you, boy.”

The next day, when Rollo looked for the map again, it was gone. But after that day, his father’s beatings and mother’s indifference could do nothing to touch him, because his thoughts were a thousand miles away in a place called Land. A place where you couldn’t even see the ocean! And he clung to that.

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