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OPEN TO AN OCEAN by Tommy Dean

He circles the fountain like an animal pushed out of his habitat. The heat smothers his body. It’s the tenth day above ninety, and still they—the powerful men he imagines sitting in a tall building chewing on ice and swiveling in office chairs whose leather seats cool these men’s backs as they laugh at the little boys like him—won’t open up the water tower reserves. He flaps his hands at the sun, but it trains its unforgiving eye on his narrow shoulders. He’s heard about invisible rays, but today they punch and slap, making his skin as tight as the tops of conga drums.

His mother calls to him from their lofty apartment until her voice breaks. It’s even hotter in the room he shares with his Uncle and older brother. They pass a cigarette back and forth, argue about politics that they are too poor to change, their words pouting in the rising smoke.

“Go play,” they say. “Be a kid, Damian.”

He wants to ask them why he can’t be a kid in his room, one who colors or reads books, who gets to lay in the bed for once and not the pile of blankets on the floor. Why must he have to run and jump, and be the plaything of gnats and wasps?

But they bully him with their bodies, their sloping shoulders, and cantaloupe necks, their voices chasing him out the door and into the street, where though he mingles with trash and dust, there is space to twirl, to hoot, and cry behind the grocer’s dumpster’s because he can’t reach the lids.

The alleys offer shadows, the closest he can come to sunblock, but there are noises of machines and of ghouls, legends of harm that take him back to the fountain. He scuffs his feet along the brick, wishing they were wedges of cheese or sliced watermelon. He bends his head over his knees and sniffs. He waits for the birds, but they no longer linger or scuttle across the stone path, no longer squawk for a piece of bread. They hide somewhere not so far away, but still, they remain unreachable. Like the river of his mother’s eyes where the happiness has receded away from the banks, making everything dull with cracked dirt.

And still, she calls for him, because even without water, even with the searing heat, her instinct is to love him, and so he begins to dance. Soft humming from the well of his lungs gives him rhythm, round and round the spigot buried beneath the brick. Faster his body lurches, arms raised toward the sky in a toddler’s desperation, until the people gather around him, air springing from their lips. The ground shakes beneath his feet, soles of his shoes clopping, echoing, calling for his mother to join him. Two, three days, he keeps watch for his mother, the people babbling her name, though he’s never spoken it out loud. They are connected like a string between tin cans, vibrations from his dance catching on the wind, sound so pungent, his mother almost falls from her window as she leans toward him ready to receive the pieces of him he’s willing to sacrifice for these first drops of rain, her tears running rustily down her cheek. The people shouting, “Now, boy, you’ve done it,” and “Don’t stop!” and “They won’t ignore us now.”

But they do, these men in their towers, lazing in their pools, watching with frozen grins until the boy collapses. Only then do they relent, a swipe of a hand, and their machines come alive sending a streaking signal toward the ground, quick as lightning, but soundless, as the pipes gurgle and then gush, the fountain erupting. The mother wades through the crowd, women parting, children hiccuping as they are held back until this mother touches her child near his neck, water seething around his nose and mouth. His eyes open to an ocean.

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