Jobs were scarce, so I took a nanny job on the other side of a fourteen-mile bridge for a young boy who spent all his time building model wombs.
On my first day, I met Elliot in his bedroom. It wasn't so much an introduction, but a first question and answer session. He was sitting on the shag carpet, creating a sort of cone-like object out of papier-mâché. He didn't look up when I came in, focusing instead on smoothing strip of gooey paper over strip of gooey paper.
I squatted opposite him and asked what he was doing. We stayed like that in silence for five minutes. I thought to myself that this is why I didn't like to be around kids.
"Bye, Dad," he said. I turned around and saw a man in the door—Elliot's father (presumably), who had been on the phone when he let me into their house a couple minutes ago.
"Hi, I'm Anita." I stood up and reached out my hand. He didn't adjust his briefcase and folder to free a hand and shake mine. "Is there anything in particular that you'd like me to know about Elliot?" I glanced down at Elliot's craft. "Or that we should do today?"
"What?" he asked.
"Bye, Dad," Elliot repeated. Elliot's dad made eye contact with me once and then left.
I got back down on the floor by Elliot and again asked him what he was making.
"A womb," he said.
"A wooomb." Elliot leaned into the sound. "A uterus."
"Because I want to know what it's like to grow a baby," he said.
At the time, I thought it was the cutest thing that Elliot wanted to grow a baby. It was the kind of thing that I wanted to tell my husband after work, except he might get the wrong idea and think that I want a baby, but I do notwant him to get me pregnant. I've said that exact phrase to him many times: I do not want you to get me pregnant.Every time he's responded with: what?
Elliot's womb on the first day wasn't a one-off. It was a daily ritual. He built model uteruses from Styrofoam, broken plastic shards. From an old fried chicken box. When each was finished, he would take it outside, pick up a magnolia seed pod that had fallen to the ground, and then place the pod inside of the uterus.
He would march the uterus down to the river that ran next to his house. Elliot would place the uterus at the edge of the riverbank and smear slick black mud up and down the sides of his model. The one time I asked him why he did that he replied that it would help it stick to the ground.
Each day when we returned, the uterus from the day before would be gone. I knew that I should stop him from littering, but it was so cute the way he would pat the uterus and whisper something to it that I couldn't hear. It made it hard to care that there was likely a large dam of uteruses somewhere downstream.
At home, I finally told my husband that the boy I babysat for made model uteruses. He didn't like that I travelled so far for work. I thought that maybe this would placate him. Or maybe he'd think that I wanted to have a baby. I did not want to have a baby.
"What?" he asked. He was sitting up in bed, reading a magazine, another article about another failed mission to Mars.
"He takes any materials in the house and builds them into a model uterus. I tell you, it's the cutest thing." I paused, shook my head. "Weirdest. It's the weirdest thing."
"What?" he said again. He reached out and touched my leg. I slowly pulled it away from him. He didn't seem offended. He never looked up from his reading.
I asked Elliot where the wombs went. He said that he couldn't tell me. I asked what grew in the wombs. He said that he couldn't tell me. I asked if he'd ever met one of the babies born from his wombs. He said: "No, but I will when one's ready. Maybe soon. And it's not babies that are born from the wombs."
Once on a Thursday I suggested to Elliot that we do something besides build a womb.
"No!" Elliot yelled. "I'll do what I want!" He took his craft box and threw it to the ground. He screamed as loud as he could. When he finished, I asked him what he was doing.
"My dad told me that I'm your boss, like he is, and that I should treat you like I'm the boss." Elliot wiped his hands across the front of his shorts and looked away.
I asked him if it was true that his dad said this and he said yes. I asked him how it felt to act that way.
"It doesn't make any sense," said Elliot. "If I'm the boss, then why are you here?"
I said that this was true.
He picked up his craft box and added: "I don't like to yell. Not at all. But sometimes it seems like I'm supposed to."
At home that same day, I asked my husband when the last time he yelled was.
"What?" he said, then went back to eating his butternut squash soup, even though it's been too hot to eat soup for years now. I told him that I think it was when we first got married, and I kept having dreams about disappearing out of my clothes, rapture-style, and floating away into nothing. That he would get angry and say if I wanted to leave him, I should just leave. I would tell him that's not what the dream meant at all, but he wouldn't believe me.
My husband took his soup bowl, left it in the sink, and went to go read in our bedroom.
I stayed late one evening because Elliot's father went out on a date. I told my husband that I would be back late because of this and that maybe we should go on a date sometime. My husband said: what?
As Elliot placed his daily uterus on the riverbank a little before sunset, I noticed his whispers had become more fervent. I asked him if everything was okay.
He smacked his hand over his mouth like he'd been surprised.
"What?" I asked back.
Elliot stood up and started pacing back and forth. He told me not to say that. He told me that he was running out of time.
"They're never going to come back," said Elliot, wiping his hands on the front of his shorts as he continued to pace, looking much older than eight.
I told him that we could go find them.
"Let's walk downstream to where the river runs into the ocean," I said, taking his hand in mine.
"They're upstream," Elliot snatched his hand away from me, holding it tight to his chest.
I started to walk upstream: "Let's go that way, then."
"I do notwant to do that," he said.
"Why's that?" I asked.
"My dad'll be home soon."
"No, he won't."
"I have to go to the bathroom."
"You went before we left."
"I'm sick. I feel sick."
"Oh, come on."
"My hamster is drowning. Clothes are rotting in the washing machine. I broke a glass and forgot to clean it up." He spoke louder and faster with each excuse. "The river might dry up. I'll forget how to walk. The leaves are falling. I don't want to know what my father is thinking."
"Okay, okay," I said. "Let's go inside."
I went upriver two weeks later, when Elliot's dad was on another date. Elliot asked why I was going out the back door, leaving him alone.
"To go upriver," I said.
He told me that he was my boss and that be forbade me from leaving him alone.
"Remember, you're not my boss," I said.
"What?" Elliot said.
"Do you want to come?" I asked.
"No," he said, his voice back to a non-bossy normal. "But tell me what you find."
I walked along the river, under the bridge that held the road that Elliot's house stood on. I walked further inland and the sun set more. I slipped as I went, the mud slick under my feet. I went until it was dark outside. I looked up at the sky and clouds blocked the moon and stars, which would've been masked by light pollution and regular pollution anyway, I suppose. I thought of Elliot, pacing, wiping his hands on the front of his pants.
The clouds looked like a mirror image of the steady river, blending into the tree line, as if they were really touching the trees.
"Oh my god." I heard Elliot's voice behind me.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"Can you see it? Do you see it?"
I scanned the river, looking for what I assumed would be a pile of wombs. I saw a few light shapes move among the dark plants.
"Are those your wombs?" I asked.
I stepped closer to the edge of the river and squinted my eyes. Elliot tugged at the back of my shirt.
"They'll get you. They'll get you," he said.
"What will get me?"
I took another step forward. A man, naked and completely coated in river mud was crouched in a few inches of water. He looked up. It was my husband. But when he met my eyes, I saw that I was wrong—it was Elliot's father.
"What?" he said.
I blinked and then I didn't recognize the man at all.
The man shifted his weight back and forth and other figures started to appear out of the woods and river. A small crowd of men stood hunched, staring at me. The one closest to me picked up a broken shell of the papier-mâché model Elliot built the first day I met him. He held it out to me. I reached my hand out and then realized he was looking past me at Elliot.
"We're coming for you," the man's voice cracked. The other men started repeating the same phrase over and over, a discordant chorus: we're coming for you we're coming for you we're coming for you.
Then, they started to run in all directions. Or what seemed like all directions. Like they were everywhere at once. Their voices still hung in the air: we're coming for you.
Elliot took off and I chased after him.
I sprinted back towards the house, hearing fast feet running along and through the river and low-growing shrubbery, following me. I tripped and landed face first in a palmetto.
When I looked up, Elliot was out of sight. I couldn't even hear his feet running. I couldn't hear any movement at all.
Back at the house, I found Elliot in his bedroom, hiding under his covers.
"Get in my car," I told him.
"Will it be forever?" he asked.
"But I don't want to have to choose," said Elliot, as he reached under his bed, sliding out his craft box.
Elliot brought that box, and I brought nothing. We drove inland, over the fourteen-mile bridge and then even more inland to where the rivers had dried up. Then we drove north where the land wasn't flat. Elliot sat in my passenger seat, craft box on the floor between his feet. He spent hours pulling supplies out of the box, building small, palm-sized babies, which he'd then carefully place in the backseat.
"These are my children now," said Elliot, collecting sticks and leaves for his box while we were at a rest stop.
"I know," I said.