We had no idea what to think the day Otto started living backward. We might have had a clue if we’d noticed he woke up all cranky and sleepy when he’d always been a morning person. It’s hard to spot subtle things like that, though, when your bright, happy ten-year-old wakes up unable to form a coherent sentence and unable to understand anything you say. I thought he was having a seizure, or had developed some god-awful disorder. I had Aidan call for an ambulance while I ran around the apartment like a madwoman: grabbing a change of clothes, our insurance cards, and a couple of Otto’s favorite toys.
The doctors could find no physical cause for his sudden incoherence and no indication his life was in danger, so they sent us to a local neurologist. I’m the one who actually figured out what was going on, though. Or really Otto did, but I helped him express it.
He listened to the doctor’s questions, his eyes wide and flipping back and forth between Aidan and me, his head shaking with incomprehension, his answers incoherent. As at the emergency room, his answers were all gibberish. I suspected he’d suffered an injury to the part of the brain responsible for speech, but might be otherwise able to communicate—he seemed too alert, too aware of what was going on. So I pulled a pen and an old receipt from my handbag. He grabbed the pen with no sign of any particular cognitive difficulty, positioned the tip against the paper, and pressed down fruitlessly. His father went and found a pencil, but somehow it wouldn’t write either. The point was freshly sharpened and I wrote with no difficulty, but in Otto’s hand, nothing.
Giving up, I reached for the pencil, but before I took it he flipped it over and started erasing a blank area of the sheet. The skin up and down my back and neck tingled as letters began to appear: first what looked like an ‘i’ on the right side of the page, drawn upside-down for my benefit, since I was kneeling across from him. Then he erased some more and I realized it was an exclamation point, followed by a ‘D,’ and then another letter and another, until he had un-erased the message, “I’M BACKWARD!”
He met my eyes and then, seeing that I’d read the message, proceeded to trace over it from right to left. As the tip of the pencil touched each letter, it disappeared.
We got better at communicating as we learned to deal with this thing, but whenever we reached an impasse, out came the pencil and notepad–and a pack of fresh erasers.
Some things don’t change a great deal when your boy is living backward. Hugs are still pretty much the same. Kisses feel a little funny, but they still work.
We only went to a couple appointments with the neurologist before we figured she didn’t know any more than we did. We didn’t want to end up like those families in bad sci-fi movies, having our boy taken away to be experimented on and never seeing him again, so we stopped going to her office.
School was out of the question, so we tried homeschooling. I had to quit my job, but we tightened our belts and made do.
We had our challenges, of course. I won’t pretend otherwise. Mealtime was pretty gross. And it was unsettling having your kid get cleaner and cleaner throughout the day, right up until bath time, after which he came out dirty and sweaty.
Basically what I’m saying is we tried to make our peace with this. Something crazy happens in your life, like you lose a limb or your hearing starts to go, you learn to accommodate, to live around it. This didn’t change how much we loved our beautiful boy. We still played, even if our play was filled with constant little moments of weird.
But then during our homeschooling sessions, I started to realize he was losing skills, facts–his reasoning itself became more basic before my eyes. His father and I would think back and say, “Oh yeah, that’s about how old he was when he learned long division,” or we’d remember how old he was when he . . . when he . . . I’m sorry. How old he was when he learned to read.
That’s when we grasped where this was headed.
Do you realize that when he cries, the tears roll up his face and get sucked into his eyes, like some kind of poison? I dab at them to no effect; it’s like I’m squeezing the moisture onto his face myself.
In the end, fear forward and fear backward are more or less indistinguishable.
His father couldn’t handle the inevitable. “Let’s let the scientists have him,” he said. “They might be able to figure something out.”
“Absolutely not,” I replied. “Of course they can’t ‘figure something out.’ Have you ever heard of anything like this? All they will do is take away what little time we have left.”
When he couldn’t convince me, he tried another tack. “Nadia, we can’t take care of him,” he said. “We should find a facility to deal with him, so we can have our lives back.”
He wanted his life back, so I let him have it. I didn’t want my life back. Still don’t. I want every moment with my boy that I can get.
Going out with Otto is easier now. Nobody points or asks if he is retarded. If you don’t get too close, babies act about the same forward as they do in reverse.
I’m not sure what’s going to . . . how this will work . . . at the end. I don’t expect miracles. I don’t count on having more than a few more months with him.
I try to look on the bright side, because what else can I do? I’m not the first mother to lose a child, but other parents don’t know when the end is coming. Perhaps they spend years regretting a harsh word or a moment of inattentiveness on that fateful last day. Or they spend their last few months watching a beloved child suffer in anguish. I don’t think Otto can even remember being a big boy anymore. He doesn’t seem to be suffering.
“It’s okay,” I say as I wiggle him playfully on my lap. “Mommy has her sweet baby boy back. Isn’t that right, Otto?”
He smiles toothlessly and reaches up a hand toward my face, babbling.
He said his last word three months ago.
It was “Mom.”
© 2017 by José Pablo Iriarte
Author’s Note: This story was originally written for a short fiction contest for the Codex Writers Group. The prompt was to write about two people who could no longer communicate through the means that had previously worked for them. I seized upon the idea of somebody suddenly switched into living backward, and had fun playing with the notion of symmetry in life and in language. Before long, though, I started to be intrigued by the other ramifications of having a child who was living backward, and by the parallels between this concept and having a child with a terminal illness.
José Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer and high school math teacher living in EPCOT with his wife Lisa and their two teenage kids. His fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, and other venues. Learn more at his website: http://www.labyrinthrat.com.