To Have and to Hold

WRITTEN BY
Brenda Peynado

ILLUSTRATED BY
Tracy J. Lee

The new batch of disaster tourists settle into the Blue Guardian’s dining room in a jumble of laughs and complaints. My family sits in tense silence, the hot food from the boat’s buffet steaming in front of us.  Dad’s hologram crackles with static in the chair we’ve pulled out for his projection.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” my mother says.

I find that rich considering she and my father have just told Hector and me that the family’s getting a divorce. Dad’s “business trip” has actually been a permanent separation, and Hector and I are off the ship at the end of the summer and going with Dad. Not to mention the very boat we’re on caters to people who sail the ocean witnessing how much things are not going to be okay, after the oil spills, the plastics, ocean warming and acidity, overfishing, and a host of other disasters. The oil spill last month has been a big hit with the voluntourists. My mother is chief scientist on board, my dad a business executive who figured out the money behind bringing tourists to fund her and other teams’ research. Though we’ve lived on the ship all my life except for visits to grandparents in Mazatlán and Little Rock, from now on, Dad’ll be doing his job shore-side, where, apparently, my five-year-old brother and I will start “normal childhoods.”

Hector shoves his hands into the mac and cheese in front of him and squeezes, macaroni noodles worming their way between his fingers as he grasps them in his fist. I don’t even know how much he’s registered. It’s everything I can do not to flip the table.

And it started off such a good day. We took the last batch of tourists to a remote island covered in trash. Garbage filled our nets as we dragged long hauls of it from the shore and packed it for the skiffs to pull back to the boat. Mom went to check on the experiments she’d set up across the island, the solar bots she’d left on the other shore picking up twice as much trash as any one of us.  The sun was heavy on our shoulders and our eyes, but I felt like we’d accomplished work, like all of us humans were meant for something good, for fixing, which I guess was the appeal for the tourists too.  They whooped and laughed as they worked, and they clapped when the first skiff pulled the giant bin of trash away. After, they always come to me with handfuls of shells, expecting to take back some memento marking their tasks, keep some beauty untouched for themselves. Part of my job was telling them to put all the shells they gathered back where they found them. Despite their best intentions, they still forget there are billions of us and any one action multiplied can pick the planet clean.

After we were done, we went to the waterfall, spraying pristine rainbows into a gorge, the only water untouched by plastic and oil on the island. I didn’t notice that I was the one that had to holo Dad from my own personal device, something Mom usually did. All of us dangled our legs over the edge while the tourists and some of the other scientists and staff splashed in the center. Dad walked forward, the hologram projecting him into the center of the gorge. “Look, I can walk on water!” he said. I found myself wishing we could have this for ourselves, pushing away the thought that the same wish made people take things they never should have: stuff whales inside aquariums, turn turtle nesting areas into beachfront property, claim all the fish in the waters for ours. But at that moment, sitting next to each other felt like a promise we would never leave. Was that such a terrible thing?

Something jagged poked my palm. Lifting my hand revealed a shell I’d never seen before: flat and fan-shaped, the outside black as tar, rainbow striations wavy across its pale inside. I knew better than to keep shells like the tourists did. But this particular shell was none of the ones my mother had trained me to identify. I turned it over and over, tar side, rainbow side. Every time it flipped, it felt as hopeful as that moment, everything polluted turned into something good. I kept it in my palm, forgot it in my pocket, brought it back. I slipped up. I wanted to slip up. Now I don’t even want to give the shell to my mother, after what she’s just told me.

“I’ll see you every day on hologram,” she says.

Dad crackles next to us in his chair. While the rest of us sway with the rocking of the boat, Dad is uncannily immobile. He always looks like he’s about to tip over from being too stiff. We know him as Dad of the sloppy forehead kisses, Dad of the big warm hugs. But now he’s just Dad of the absurd salutes and amused waves and fuzzy edges. It will soon be Mom on the hologram instead, crystalizing even more into her distant, watching self.

“You know that’s not the same,” I say.

Mom narrows her eyes. She’s analyzing me. “Gabriela, let’s talk later? I know you have a welcome sim to run.”

“We love you,” Dad says, and it reminds me of something Mom said when he was leaving to shore. You don’t need to keep something to love it. But why couldn’t we?

Hector asks if he’ll make friends at the school in Mexico, if he can see Abuela and Abuelo all the time now.

“Sure,” Dad says, “and we’ll be on the coast where you’ll be able to see the ocean every day.”

“Will I still have to clean it up?” Hector asks.

My mom makes an uncomfortable hum and no one says anything. Cleaning up our mess is a job that will take lifetimes, a job that will never end. At five years old, he’s already tired.

“Can you take your brother with you to the sim?” Dad says. “Your mother and I have some things to discuss.”

“I’ll find you later?” Mom says.

“Let’s go,” I say, pulling Hector by one cheesy, squishy hand to where some of the tourists have lined up in front of the buffet for me to lead them.

I corral everyone towards the simulation room, and I try to think of nothing else. I can see Hector smearing macaroni residue on the walls as he passes. The tourist kids chatter and giggle and shriek.

I bring the tourists into the welcome room, every surface black and ready for holograms. The watery light in the room paints us all blue-toned. Hector has found a boy his age and is showing him something in his pocket. Families hold their young children’s hands. They look at me eagerly. They need someone to tell them what we’re saving and how we’re going to do it. But what do I know? I used to feel the way they did, that every action we took in penance could keep us whole, that if we were just so careful, we could avoid the worst of our natures. But there are just so many of us.

In Spanish and English, I remind everyone to keep their hands to themselves, enjoy the show, and behold the wonders of the deep. Then I press start on the remote. For them, it’s a welcome. For me, it’s a goodbye.

The hologram projector whirs, and a glimmer appears in front of us, expanding to one bright purple coral in the center of the room. Then it multiplies into a hundred colors, a thousand living things, and the whole room is a bright coral reef, one I once swam over with my mom on a research diving trip. In the simulation, we’re sitting right in the middle of it on the ocean floor, the waving structures rising above our heads. The hologram even simulates bubbles rising from our mouths as if we were using respirators. Everyone gasps in delight. They reach out their hands. They want to touch, to hold, but their hands fizzle through the projections.

I lean back against the wall and let the underwater sea-scape pass over me. This was the coral reef before the oil spill. Bright and alive, tempting all of us to come closer with its branches waving slowly. An anemone snaps shut in my face. The glow drifts over me, and a whale swims by, one I know is already extinct.

My mother’s voice croons through the speakers, Study, observe what’s in front of you. This is what we’re saving. My mom’s mantra. I remember the day she recorded the voice-over, remember playing at her feet while she worked with the documentary team on the script. Even at Hector’s age, I was so worried about causing harm that I didn’t want to play with the wooden rolling clownfish that was my favorite, in case the rough ship floor pocked the wheels. Instead I hid around under her chair and stared at the white, orange, and black stripes on the wooden face until they blurred.  My father’s voice repeats everything she says in Spanish.

Now I put the simulation into play mode, letting the fish darting through the coral respond to the kids’ movements, dodge out of their hands just when the kids think they’ve caught them. Of course, they have to imagine the feeling of the fish sliding out of their hands, the currents of water threading between their fingers as the fish kick. They have so much want, and I imagine the kids in here multiplied by a billion and doing this all over the earth.

After some minutes of letting everyone get comfortable, I switch the simulation into death mode.  The corals shrivel and grow stiff, the fish dart off into the darkness. This is the coral reef after the spill, my parents say: the corals bleached white, branches broken, most of it covered in floc, a greasy residue from the oil spill clumping up dead things. The water is cloudy like there’s ash floating around us. The fish are gone. The noise of respirators fill the room, and we’re the only living things left.

An older woman starts crying. “It’s terrible,” she whispers, “all we keep doing.”

I’ve seen these holograms hundreds of times before. I don’t know why, but I’m weeping too. I wipe my eyes, and the woman holds my hand.

The video continues with its welcome message and assurances that everyone here will be helping in the cleanup efforts, aiding scientists. The message is mostly show. It’s not the paltry volunteer efforts that will affect cleanup, but the money they spend for the experience that gets put into research by people like my mother.

I put the sim back into play mode, letting everyone “delete” trash projected on the floor by stomping on it. Even the adults get into it, the horror of what they’ve seen and the easy catharsis of erasing it. Then everything fades.

We’re in the blackness of deep ocean. Whistles, whale song, and fish cries tremble with reverb. Out of nowhere, a giant squid aglow with bioluminescence swims forward from the darkness. It pierces the water like a bullet before spreading its arms to attack another glowing squid on the other side of the room.  The two squids come together in frightening clashes of arms and tentacles and jet-fast dives above our heads, their simulated cries of rage piercing because I’ve turned up the sound, haunting when followed with the deep booms of their bodies connecting. We can protect even what terrifies us. Even what we don’t understand, my mother’s voice continues.

As the two squids battle around us, I can’t help but see my mother and father in their last argument before he went on his supposed business trip. My brother and I were both in our bunks, me doing homework, my brother letting his pet crabs walk over his arms. Our parents were getting ready for a private dinner with donors who were onboard, my mother in a glittering dress, my dad in a tux. In the bathroom as they dressed, our father begged our mother to move back to shore in a hushed voice. He could start a new business, he said, and she could send her research data back to a land lab he’d build for her.

“But I’m not happy there,” she’d said.

“Haven’t you discovered enough? Protected enough? Let someone else take over.”

She studied him, the way she does when a tourist says something particularly ignorant, the way she does when coming across a vulnerable ecosystem and she’s trying to find out how to cause the least harm just by observing. Finally, she said, “It’s never going to be enough,” and waited for him to understand.

I know now this was an argument they’d had before, my mother watching my father like he was behind aquarium glass. That, for him too, would never be enough. “I want to keep you,” he said.

“Love isn’t about keeping,” she said. But then she leaned back into him, and he kissed her, and they closed the bathroom door.

I should have known then.

The squids swirl around each other, warring, trying to defend what they have. Once the simulation is done, the last squid conquered by a giant whale, the lights turn on.

“Bienvenidos. Welcome to the Blue Guardian, where you’ll make a difference,” I say as they blink at the lights, and just yesterday, I would have believed my words—not their cleanup, but how the many sims explaining the effect of plastic, the poison of the sunscreen they’d surely packed, how the very clothes they were wearing in celebration of the trip could affect the ocean, all that training could send out a ripple of awareness and change. I hold the door open, hoping they’ll exit quickly and not mention my red eyes. But Hector doesn’t come out. I look back into the room. Hector is gone.

I can see residue on the floor where Hector was sitting, and a cheesy handprint on the wall. I follow the handprints down the hallway past the living quarters, past the school rooms, past the science labs and the observation stations, calling his name. Finally, I hear a babbling child voice in the observation tube, the clear room protruding below the ship. When you lower yourself via ladder into the clear plexi cylinder, you’re surrounded on all sides by ocean except for the ship above, the plexi protecting you from animals, water, and oil. If you listen to your breathing and pretend you’re floating, it’s almost like you’re scuba diving, like there’s only one of you in the world and nothing you do can possibly tip the balance. It’s where my brother and I have always gone when we wanted calm.

I look down. Hector is there, his two pet crabs, Carlos and Carla, crawling at his feet on the plexi. He must have hidden them in his pockets for hours. He’s still at the age where he thinks he can just grab and keep anything that fascinates him, all the wonder of having and holding. Below him is just blue and blue and hazy blue, pocked here and there by gobs of brown and swarms of the small robots my mother invented to filter the oily muck and tag sealife unobtrusively.

“What’s going on?” I say.

“They’re getting married,” Hector says in triumph, facing the two crabs towards each other. “You’re here, so you can fishy-ate.”

“Officiate?”

He nods. He’s helpless and naïve, like he got the best of both our parents—or the worst—all of the hope of our mother, all of the living in the moment of our father, none of the awareness of how bad things actually are and how tiny we are in comparison.

But who am I to tell him what he’s doing is meaningless? I fishy-ate. “Dearly beloved…” I begin.

Above us, I can hear footsteps. Then my mom’s voice, just like the voice-over. “There you are!” Her head pokes over the lip of the boat opening above us, her hair crowning her in auburn.

“Mom,” Hector says, “they’re married. Now they have to be together forever.” He puts Carlos and Carla gently back into his pockets.

I cringe as my mother climbs down into the cylinder with us.

“Hector, a marriage just means you hope you’ll love each other until you die. You don’t know the future.”

“Neither did you,” I say. And that, that, is what has been devastating me. That they didn’t know the future. That the future they’d planned out for us hadn’t come to pass. That I had ignored the signs. The oceans could keep dying all around us, the home we’d thought was ours split by continents, oceans, and ecosystems, each dying in its own way.

She gasps, and I think it’s because I’ve hurt her sufficiently with what I said. But then she says, “Look,” and points down.

I hadn’t noticed, but we’re standing in a garden of whales. All around us is a pod of whales sleeping vertically some thirty meters down. Sperm whales, their huge bodies eerily motionless as they hover. Each of them has one eye open, one eye shut. They look like the closed bulbs of giant, gray flowers waiting in the dusk to bloom.

But I was just getting started. “It’s not going to be the same.” I feel this terrible rage that everything we love keeps breaking despite our best intentions—the ocean, our family. I start pounding on the plexi, wanting the family of whales to process that we’re right above them, the danger we pose. I want them to disappear with swift kicks, righting themselves then diving down in a synchronized pod. “Wake up!” I’m yelling.

My mother grabs me in a hug that knocks the breath out of me, a force rare for the both of us so careful of causing harm. Normally we circle each other, watching. “Hush,” she says. “It won’t be the same. We’ll evolve.”

I exhale. Hector pushes his back against us, holding his crabs in his pockets with his sticky hands, the garden of whales underneath us, rays of blue striking all around, the shadow of the ship covering a plume of oil rising to the top where it will form a slick.

And on one of the whale’s backs I see movement. First one black-crusted tendril I think looks like a snake. Then another, but as the bottom of the next tendril reaches up, a ray of light catches its underside and I see flashes of rainbow.  The whole thing rises up on the back of a whale: a large head with eight arms, covered in scales of black that articulate around it, each one like the shell I found earlier, still in my pocket. A new species of armored octopus I’ve never seen before. It’s sliding into the oil, greasing the whale’s back, eating it.

Hector moves, arms outstretched, to put his hands on the plexi. He wants, of course, to keep it. He leaves a grimy handprint in front of his face. The plexi barrier holds no matter how much he pushes—all the tech we dedicate to saving the world from ourselves.

My mother points at the octopus. “That’s what I’ve been tracking this summer. I think its stomach lining has co-evolved with bacteria that feeds on oil, and it’s mostly found under the sea floor where it tries to find natural seepage. If I can figure out where it lives, I can get that area protected as a wildlife sanctuary.” She tucks my hair around my ear so we can both see better. “I want it to still be here for you.”

I can feel myself struggling between knowing what to protect, what to claim, what to let go. How to let go of the future I thought we would have and protect the one we do.

My mother’s robots shoal between the whales, moving together like liquid silver, eating the globs of oil. The ship is already moving past the whales, who are stirring as my mother’s robots tag them, each of them flipping around to dive towards the depths, the calves following. The octopus is left behind, attaching to an oil plume, and the robots back off, giving it space.

I know this is what love is, each trying to give the gifts you can, evolving, inventing, and forging new futures. Letting go of the old ones. I watch the whales disappear to nothing.

I take a deep breath. I hold out the octopus’ armor shell that I’d picked up on the island, feeling both expectant and ashamed.

My mom’s personal device rings. Dad calling. Suddenly he’s projecting himself ten feet in front of us, which is on the other side of the glass, and he mimes like he’s swimming out there in the blue. Mom projects herself next to him, and even while I feel her arms around Hector and me, smell the seawater scent of the crabs in Hector’s pockets, Mom and Dad are floating out there, each of them dancing with robots, waving to us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brenda Peynado's stories have won an O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Prize, the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award, a Dana Award, a Fulbright Grant to the Dominican Republic, and other prizes. Her work appears in journals such as Tor.com, The Georgia Review, The Sun, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review Online, and The Threepenny Review. She received her MFA at Florida State University and her PhD at the University of Cincinnati. She's currently writing a novel about the 1965 civil war in the Dominican Republic and a girl who can tell all possible futures. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida along with her husband, author Micah Dean Hicks.