Hours later, just as the sun is starting to crack the sky open with an amber slit, I’m jostling Willie out of bed, my legs and arm aching, telling him we’re gonna go on a hike, that we can slip into the state park under cover of dark and wrap his ears in a large hoodie. We’ll be alone in the big outdoors, enjoying the scent and the crunch of the fallen leaves, and the vibrant crayon colors of the ones still in the trees. He’s so tired, so out of it, sluggishly pulling on his clothes while I jam his pull-ups and a bunch of other things into a backpack, mostly towels and packaged foods like jerky and crackers. I hurry him, help him, he objects and fights, disliking being bossed around and manhandled, no matter how gently or parentally, and eventually we’re ready.

I’m practically dragging him out the door and down the street as the night sky is erased by broad bands of yellow and white. He yelps, and kicks and hits me, and I carry him at times, frantically trying to get to the tree line of the shore before a patrol stops us, but there’s no one around. The streetlamps are still on. My thighs are covered in black bruises and I wince with every step.

We reach the end of the neighborhood and cross the street into Edgewater, the state park, the crumbling white bluffs off to one side, the tree line I need for cover to the other, a blinding ball of fire in front of us dangling over the massive lake, the surface turned so bright it blends seamlessly into the sandy beach. Everything seems enhanced, electric. We scurry into the trees. Cars and trucks begin to whip by in greater numbers on the adjacent road.

We hike for hours. I carry him most of the time on account of the blisters puffing all over his feet. I am sure now my legs are broken, hairline fractures, dozens of them. Eventually, they will crumble beneath me. The sun is high above us. He’s so tired he’s yawning. And this is where I break the news, and for some unbelievably fucking stupid reason tell him how truly caring parents did this same thing in the Late Middle Ages (I think I learned that in college, anyway), like he’d accept the logic of it or even understand to begin with.

If I leave you here, you can go back to the lab or you can stay here, or you can find someone else. But they’ll find you if you stay with me. They’ll kill me for sure.

I start to walk away, and he screams, grabs my leg. He’s stronger than he looks, and it takes great effort to peel him off. And when I do, he just does it again. His tail thrashes sporadically but is mostly wedged between his knees.

And then he fucking bites me. He sinks his big rat buckteeth into my thigh, and I scream louder than he did. I start bashing at the side of his face with my fist, pulling on his ears, tearing one partially free of his head. He unclamps his jaw from my leg, his face frozen in shock.

And I strangle him, all my weight on my thumbs, jammed into his throat, trying to push all the way through to the forest floor beneath him, gasping, choking and gurgling sounds at first, then dead silence, the look of shock and then vacancy in his big saucer eyes, glazed, milky, burst capillaries spreading into plum-colored slicks like spilled oil hugging the shorelines, big jelly tears dripping down his swollen, magenta-colored face. He tries to grab at my face, but his tiny hands barely reach my elbows. His strength and his will are drained quickly, having never had much time to ferment. He finally stops struggling. I’m exhausted, my chest hollow and hot, like a grenade has gone off inside it.

Wheezing, wiping sweat and tears and snot from my face, I examine his tiny body and my thoughts are flooded with the false memories from the dream and my idle thoughts of the dream afterward, the things I manufactured in an apparent hatred of myself, a need to torment myself forever by giving birth to vivid, crystalline memories which shall never die, the chasing him around a park with a rugby ball, the banana seat on the bike he never had and I never taught him to ride, a line of soldier toys which never existed that we never played arctic warfare with out in the December snows, the non-existent little girl across the street who always never waved at him, not causing him to blush even at such a tender age.

All these things that never happened that I’m nevertheless trying to claw back from errant thoughts pissed away into the ether and shove into a body and time that cannot possibly be real, falling to my knees, bawling, biting my tongue to try and stop it, thinking of a sad, popular song played on an acoustic guitar that his mother used to hum into his ears when he was colicky, singing the words in a whisper from time to time, something like I can’t go back again. He would fall asleep and my eyes would well with tears as I imagined him growing and learning to play it on the guitar himself just a handful of years from now. We would set up a little show in the backyard for the neighbors with some white Christmas lights strung up and some candles, a few glasses of wine, and we would glory and beam in the beauty we made who would now make beauty for others. I would dwell on how lithe and delicate his fingers were as he strummed the notes and chords, noting that they’re bigger than yesterday, that they’re growing everyday even though they’re still tiny, and someday they’ll be capable of great force, and he’ll use them to guide the hands of his tiny son as I did with him, through fingerpaint and home repair, and someday soon those slender things will be as large and rough as mine, thick and calloused and nicked; all the things they’ve held; stuffed toys, guitars, first loves, final loves, coiled into fists and hoisting violence and death, caressing the first-born, caressing an automatic rifle, caressing the other woman in a secret life he hides even from me, helping me into my wheelchair, touching my casket lightly when it’s time to leave forever, fingers trailing the brass trim as he’s ushered away by his son’s guiding touch.

I throw handfuls of leaves over his face, already turned blue, and hurl the back pack away, then trudge out, barely able to stand.

It’s blackest night at the edge of the forest when I emerge; I can see down from the crest, what must be my home is engulfed in flames, the smoke column backlit by the city skyline, lights from emergency vehicles dancing around the choked sky in strobes and spasms. Attack helicopters comb the streets with searchlights. It has to be the Mishralli. They’ve finally figured out their mistake and they’ve come to make me answer for it, but it’s too late. I always knew how this ended. I’m grateful for the knowledge it finally did.


For all installments of “The Engineers,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3
  4. Part 4
  5. Part 5