The boat felt smaller this year. It was a ferry, the boy knew, but he preferred to think of it as a boat. A boat was more impressive. It was a big ferry objectively, but the boy was bigger now. He was growing like a weed. His grandmother had told him so.
They were in the underbelly of the ferry. They were waiting for the lights to turn from red to green. This was the signal that they could go up onto the deck. It meant that the ferry would start moving. It reminded him of the spaceships and submarines he saw pictured in his favorite books, with its white knobs and barred doors. He wished he had his astronaut costume. He would pretend it was zero gravity. He would eat space food for lunch.
The boy’s eyes had adjusted to the low light, but it was stuffy inside the car. Exhaust leaked from other cars, from passengers who kept their engines on for the air conditioning. His father had turned theirs off right away. It was bad for the engine to keep it on, and it was new. The exhaust burned the back of the boy’s throat. He wanted to crack the door to let in some fresh air. There was no fresh air, but it would be fresh to him. The cars were lined up like sardines. He could hear other families talking. His own was silent.
The men sat in the front, his father in the driver’s seat, his grandfather in the passenger’s seat. In the back, the boy was in between his mother and grandmother. His grandmother was still in her seat aside from her hands. They were busy. She pulled at her wedding ring, gripping the diamond and twisting, pausing, then shifting the ring up and down until it caught in the wrinkles at her knuckles. Her whole finger was slightly swollen, and the skin was red and irritated.
That morning, his grandmother had struggled to put the ring back on. She had to lather her hand in the lotion she usually only used in the wintertime. It had taken a year of marriage for it to feel natural. She had worn it every day for thirty years. After a month without wearing it, it felt new again.
The lights flashed green, and the boy yelped. His mother shushed him before the sound was fully out.
“Let’s wait a minute,” his father said, “Let the rush die down.” His grandfather scoffed, the boy could see in the mirror, but he did not say anything. His mother started collecting bags, riffling through her purse for sunscreen. She squeezed out a large blob and rubbed it over the boy until he was pale and sticky. The artificial coconut mixed with the exhaust fumes making the car smell like a smoker’s perfume.
“I want you to stay in the shade when we get up there,” she said to the boy through pursed lips. “You’ve had enough sun for a whole summer already!”
“He’ll be fine. A sunburn won’t kill him,” his father responded.
“It won’t kill him,” his mother said, “but why risk it when it can easily be avoided?”
His grandmother laughed generously, nodding along in agreement. His mother always turned up her attentiveness in front of her in-laws. She balanced this with a relaxed facade whenever they bought the boy ice cream before dinner or an expensive toy she had already said no to. It was important to seem both competent and relaxed.
The other passengers pulled open the doors, flooding outside in hoards, relieved by the air. The father unbuckled his seatbelt. This was more of a signal than the green light had been.
The boy ran up the stairs, shoes slapping. He tried to make as much noise as possible. He always did. This made little things, that would otherwise be dull, seem interesting. His mother followed him, holding herself up straight so it seemed like she wasn’t chasing. She wished he would wear a life jacket, but this was a ferry, not a boat.
His father moved slowly, in step with the grandfather, and they talked about a new coffee machine they were both considering. When they reached the top of the stairs, they split off from the others to buy coffees from the kiosk inside. They would complain about the quality but drink two each.
The others surveyed the deck until they found an empty bench. It was shaded and faced the sea, but there was no place outside that provided real shelter from the wind. It caught on the boy’s hat, which was shark-printed and flimsy. It billowed, puckering around his head, until the wind had it, and it was flying. It flew high above the ferry until it was far enough away that the boy couldn’t make out the sharks, and it was gone. Now, the boy had only thick white streaks of sunscreen to protect his face.
His mother and grandmother did not notice. The boy did not say anything. He grinned, like he had masterminded the runaway hat, like it was a trick he intended to play. His mother would be furious when she realized.
She shifted down the bench until she was several feet away. She crossed her legs so that her bag splayed open on her lap.
“Can you keep an eye on him?” she asked his grandmother, shouting to be heard against the wind. “I just need to check on a few things.”
His grandmother nodded absently. His mother began typing. Her phone dinged obnoxiously with each letter, as she drafted an email to the boy’s gym teacher. He wouldn’t participate in activities with other children. He didn’t like being told what to do, even if the direction was simply the rules of a game. In the words of this teacher, he was disruptive and problematic. Every email started and ended with an apology. She was sorry for her son. She was so sorry.
The grandmother sat with her body turned slightly towards the boy, away from his mother. Her eyes were closed under her sunglasses, which were bigger than her face. They left shadows around their edges, making them seem even bigger. She let out a soft snore.
“Grandma, Grandma–” the boy said quietly.
He did not want to wake her. If he woke her, she would tell him what he could not do. But he knew he had to be able to say he had tried. She did not respond. He ran to the railings and flung his little body as far over the edge as he could. He snaked his legs through the bars and settled into a twisted configuration.
Below him, the sea churned, spitting white foam. He saw jellyfish floating in groups, stark against the white. Purple, clear, and blue. The purple ones looked the most poisonous. He imagined they had the power of a box jellyfish which kills its victim in minutes.
His grandmother was not asleep. She liked to pretend. No one would bother her. She could have some peace. She watched him, tangled and content. He was too big to fit through the bars fully and too small to climb over and jump. He was not strong enough to fall.
The boy fished a rock out of his pocket. He had brought it from home. He collected them, not for their shape or markings, but for their power to do damage. This one had a sharp edge that the boy thought could draw blood. He looked back at the jellyfish. There were six visible in the wake of the ferry. What was inside of them? He squinted, taking aim at the largest purple one, and launched the rock at it, creating a large splash. He craned his neck to see the aftermath. But they were gone. He had driven them deeper into the sea.
Inside, the father and grandfather stood in front of the kiosk cradling their coffees close to their chests. They had drunk their first cups in quick succession and now nursed their seconds, lingering in the safety of small talk. In front of them, a young woman ordered an orange juice. The father leaned forward to get a better view, ogling what her shorts failed to cover. She wore a high ponytail that revealed a dolphin tattoo on the back of her neck. Drink in hand, she turned around. He met her eye and winked.
“Seriously?” the grandfather said.
“It’s just a bit of fun,” said the father.
“She looked about fifteen.”
“I didn’t even talk to her. It was a friendly wink.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“What the hell do you mean by that?” said the grandfather.
“You know what I mean,” the father said.
That shut him up. They stood in silence. As minutes passed, the grandfather’s left eye began to twitch. He was squirming now. It made the father feel powerful. He relished it. It was a feeling he chased in all areas of his life. At work, he loved walking into a conference room full of chatter, just to hear it go quiet.
The grandfather found a spot above his son’s head to focus his attention on. He would not be the one to break the silence. When he finished his coffee, he would motion towards the deck, and he would be released from this purgatory. His son’s hairline was receding. Black hair thinned on both sides of a widow’s peak. The grandfather still had a full head. People always say the balding gene is passed on by the mother.
The father finished his coffee first. He did not give any warning before he strode off towards the deck. The grandfather had to hurry to keep up, and his breath caught in his throat. The double door almost hit him in the face; the father did not bother holding it for him.
It was desolate aside from the family. There had been a few people in the kiosk, but the ferry had four levels, and they were the only ones on the third. The toilets were on the third level too, and the wind wafted the scent of aging sewage generously. It stank.
The boy left his spot on the railings. He was no longer visible on the deck. His grandfather was the first to notice. He did not want anyone to panic. Kids ran off, that’s what they did. Very slowly, he peered over the railings but didn’t see him in the water. He scanned the decks above and below. Nothing. He walked the length of the ferry. Underneath the bench furthest from where they sat, he spotted his grandson’s crocs. The fluorescent rubber shoes stuck out from the bench without any sign of the body they were attached to.
The boy was lying face down. His tongue was sticking halfway out of his mouth. He wanted to feel the rough texture of the ground. He wanted to taste it. His grandfather tugged on one of the crocs. The boy shrieked.
“It’s just me,” said the grandfather, “It’s Grandpa.”
The boy slid his body out from under the bench. “I was busy, Grandpa,” he said, “I was really busy.” He sounded wistful.
“No one could see you though buddy. You scared me.”
The boy scoffed. “That was the point.”
They walked back to the rest of the family. The boy began running laps. The mother dug a yogurt and spoon out of her bag. She peeled open the cover and licked it clean. Then, she intercepted the boy, wrapping her arms around him and spooning a bite into his mouth. From behind, her aim was imperfect, and it smeared. He wriggled free, but she continued, trapping him again and again, until the container was empty.
“You really shouldn’t do that. You’re babying him,” the father said, “He’s almost seven. He needs to be able to sit and eat.”
“If I don’t do it, he won’t eat at all. You know that,” the mother said, “You should know that.”
“I had to do that with you when you were little, you know,” the grandmother said to the father.
“Well, look how he turned out,” the grandfather said.
Before the father could respond, the boy ran past, bumping him lightly, and landed straight in his mother’s lap. He crawled closer, placed his head under her chin, and closed his eyes. She kissed his downy hair. His grandfather sat beside them and started whistling. His father rolled his eyes.
“Dad, would you stop with the whistling?” he said.
“What, I’m not allowed to whistle now?” He was still holding his half full coffee cup. The boy opened his eyes. He looked up at his father and grandfather. In their animated states, they looked cartoonish. His father was red in the face, while his grandfather gestured, his tune growing louder. The boy wondered what pattern the coffee would create on his grandfather’s shirt.
“It’s irritating,” the father said.
“It’s music,” replied the grandfather, “Why can’t you just lighten up?”
The boy lunged. The coffee cup flew out of his grandfather’s hand, landing on the ferry floor. The coffee, now cold and curdled, covered his shirt in splatters. The boy stood in awe of his handiwork. His father grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
“What were you thinking?” he asked in horror.
“It was an accident,” his mother answered for him, “He was trying to hug his grandpa.”
The grandfather took off his soiled shirt, unbuttoning it methodically. Now he was in his undershirt. The grandmother blushed and looked down at her hands. Her ring sparkled in the sunlight. The mother and father both stared.
Silver hairs peaked through the undershirt, and sun spots and scars from years past dappled his arms. His neck was jowled and raw from shaving. Above his right clavicle, next to his adams apple, was a purpling blemish the size of a quarter. It stood out against his yellowing skin.
“You have a hickey!” the father said, pointing, unable to contain his excitement at his father’s humiliation. The grandmother let out a strangled sound.
“Stop it!” the mother said, placing her hand on her husband’s forearm and squeezing. She could not meet her in-laws’ eyes.
The grandfather turned the same purple. He wordlessly put his stained shirt back on, adjusting the collar to cover it.
“To the happy couple!” Cheers erupted from the deck above. Corks burst. Cameras flashed. The family looked up in unison. Near the railings, a man and woman embraced, the man still on one knee.
“Look!” the grandfather said to his son, “It’s your friend from earlier.” It was the woman from the kiosk. The mother grimaced.
“Nice try Dad. You can’t get out of this that easily. Mom, you too! You’re pervs. God,” the father said, “You’re parents. You’re grandparents for God sakes. You’re old! The last time I got a hickey, I was in high school.”
“That’s presumptuous,” said the grandmother, “that’s assuming it’s from me.”
“Why would you say that?” the grandfather said.
“Honey,” the mother said, “what does he mean your friend from earlier?”
“I promise,” said the grandmother, “you don’t want to know. I stopped asking years ago.”
“I didn’t even know old people could get hickeys,” the father said.
“What’s a hickey?” the boy asked.
Glasses clinked from above. The couple showed the ring off to anyone who would look. They posed for photos, kissing and wiping away happy tears. The staff of the ferry handed out complimentary cookies. Below, the mother cried. The father laughed. The horns sounded– it was time to return to their car. They had arrived.