What the Children Left Behind
Lesley Mahoney O’Connell
The children gathered by the shore at midnight in a quiet row along the high-tide mark, a crooked picket fence with heads of varying heights. They wore ripped and mud-splattered clothes, dug up from their parents’ attics: proof that they used to run free beyond their ecto-green lawns, sheared with such precision so as to create one continuous landscape.
The big announcement came the night before: The community would build an impervious gate around its perimeters. Freeze this moment in time, bind together the perfect neighborhood. Champagne corks flew in a collective pop.
It was all because of the boy who disappeared. He wanted something better. Less! he wrote in a note to his parents, shaming them for their excess and lineless smiles. Before he left, he gathered up enough crushed oyster shells from his driveway to fill the front foyer of his house. The stink was so penetrating and raw that no amount of scrubbing could erase. And to his sister he gifted his collection of skipping rocks that glowed a curious shade of blue with the rise of the moon.
There was outrage that a boy would do such a thing. But what about the adults, their transgressions tiny fissures in the retaining walls zigzagging alongside the hydrangea bushes. Look over there, at the man in the Victorian who sucks his thumb in front of his TV since getting fired for bilking clients out of millions. See the couple in the old farmhouse who role-play with their neighbors, dressing as night creatures, scampering along their decks under canopies of strung-up lights. And what about the mother in the bungalow whose son’s report card praised his artistic acumen but questioned his grasp of math. She shook their backyard lemon tree so hard that all the fruit fell, then threw it at the side of the house, leaving a yellow pulpy mess.
Yet, they skirted under the radar: quiet infractions, easily overlooked yet containable amid the finely manicured topiaries. It was only the boy who drew focus and ire. So the parents committed to preventing another defection, tamping down the threat to their core.
The parents began building in earnest, stacking weather-beaten beams on the periphery of the neighborhood, enlisting the handiest to architect and engineer. But their champagne buzz soon overtook and they traded building for lounging under the waxing gibbous moon, reminiscing about the days when the children played tag until the light faded.
On this night, the children didn’t play but instead watched their parents’ maniacal laughs change the shape of their faces as they tried to salvage what was already lost. The children grew exhausted and hopeless and went to bed early, only to awaken at the same time in a communal gasp. They stumbled out of their houses while their parents thrashed through fitful half-dreams, filling their bedrooms with stale alcohol breath, and marched toward the shore to corroborate the vision that had come to all of them: a nearby island, overgrown and wild with beach grass and sand dunes as high as houses. The shared dream meant they were to follow in the boy’s footsteps before it was too late.
Backlit by the star-dotted sky, the beach plums’ swollen berries glowed like tiny purple bulbs. Their leaves fluttered and waved, beckoning the children to shore, where the boy’s sister gave them each one of her brother’s skipping stones.
The water shimmered like fish skin, and the actual fish danced dizzily underneath, until they rose and flipped mid-air, howling with their mouths wide open before tucking back underwater to muffle their screams.
Light playing tricks on space, space on light, signaling it was time.
Without a word, the children rowed in the direction of the dream island. Cool water lapped over the bows of their family dinghies and coated their bodies with a blue luminescence—the same shade as the skipping stones in their pockets that lit the way. Their small arms soon tired, but they kept moving, instinctively knowing the way. One girl broke the silence after she couldn’t resist glancing back at the shore. “Look!” she cried. The first lawn was ablaze as a streak of orange ripped through the grass. All the children gasped, and some of the younger ones started to cry. The tallest of the bunch, a wiry boy with tortoise shell glasses, wept the hardest, for he’d been certain the small brush fire he’d set to destroy his expensive clothes was completely extinguished.
The other children tried to calm him with tales of happiness and comfort yet to occur on the island. Soon enough, as they got farther away, the fire faded along with their old memories.
A small stretch of light, an identical shade to the blue encasing them all, bloomed in the distance.
As they got closer, they saw the boy who’d left, haloed by the glow. He had the same face but a sturdier, stronger body. The boy helped the other children dock their boats and instructed them to dig holes in the sand like they did when they were much younger or like when their parents did when they were children; they didn’t know which.
“Waist-deep, girls and boys. Waist-deep,” he said as he pitched piles of sand out of his own hole. At his command, they undressed and into the holes they tossed their old selves and buried them. Unzipped from their molten skin, still glowing blue and having grown broader and taller, the children ran alongside the boy like wild things through the long beach grass, shrieking and cawing and whooping.
When they finally grew tired they rolled around in the sand, coating themselves in the fine, cool grains. They stretched across the high tide line from head to toe and watched the dawning sky tinged with black ash. It brought on the idea of a bad memory they couldn’t place. Their new skin was thick with possibility, tingling even as their bodies slept.
Lesley Mahoney O’Connell is a writer and editor living on the South Coast of Massachusetts. Her fiction has appeared in Post Road and Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, and has received honorable mention recognition from Glimmer Train and Carve. She is at work on a short story collection.