This story is by JING Xu DANFORTH and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“The power of belief is that it should change lives not create chains.”
― Johnnie Dent Jr.
Is it on? Should I start now?
Thomas was an accident, a late-in-life baby. I was finishing college when he was born, and Susan was sixteen. Our parents – yes, Jorge and Eden Laramie – were not expecting to have another child, but they were glad for his conception. Until a month before he was born. I guess you could say that’s when things fell apart.
Are you a Retrogradationist? You must be, or I wouldn’t be here. Our father was, too. Our mother was one until Thomas. You see, Susan and I were both premature – me by six weeks, Susan by five. Medical science ensured our health, but for Thomas it was not so simple. They found out that his life would not be easy even before it had started. Adding to that was the fact that his due date was set to be one month post retrograde, which given our mother’s pattern, meant he was highly likely to be born during. Father – and the Retrogradationist doctors as well – pushed for an early C-section. Mother refused. Being born that early meant Thomas’s chance of survival would be near zero.
And I thank her every day for not letting them have their way.
No, my brother was never a formal Retrogradationist, even before Tommy.
I suppose I’m not either.
Our mother dropped her faith when it came to Tommy. She refused to allow him to be born early, but unfortunately her body did what it always did – went into labor weeks ahead of schedule. They kept her in the hospital, pumping her full of drugs in an attempt to stop the birth. She was in agony for days but she held out for as long as she could. In the end, she failed. Tommy was born two days before the end of the retrograde. He was so small. If she went through with the early c-section, he definitely wouldn’t have lived.
Please don’t ask me that. I cannot tell you if his life would’ve been any better, or any different, if he hadn’t been born during the retrograde.
Thomas was a gift.
But Father was angry. He never visited Thomas in the hospital. Not once. And that’s significant, seeing as Thomas never left the hospital. He needed tubes and pumps to live, a lot of them. I could tell you the medical terms, but what do you care? All you need to know is, the beginning of Thomas’s life was the end of our family. Our mother and father were never the same after that.
Our parents fought a lot at first. Then, it turned into a sort of icy indifference. They stopped speaking. Father worked a lot. Mother spent her life at the hospital, at Tommy’s bedside. By the time he was one, it was like they didn’t even exist to each other. The only times they still fought was right before a retrograde, when Father would try to convince Mother not to go visit Thomas. Bad luck, he said, and she had already brought enough bad luck to the family for birthing a retrograde child. They would argue, then they would scream, then mother would go anyway.
I don’t remember all the retrograde rules off the top of my head. I hadn’t followed them since leaving home and I guess it no longer matters now.
No moving houses. No going to new places. No starting major projects. No plane rides or trips of any kinds. Curfew began after dinner. We may not bring home new people or acquire new pieces of furniture. Out of bed at dawn for meditation. Fasting two days a week. Eating raw and unaltered foods only. No speaking after sundown. No loud noise. No horseplay. No electronics.
Shall I go on? The list is long. This was my life until I left home. I remember going to college and being shocked that even most Retrogradationists did not follow such stringent bylaws.
Oh – and no sex. If you think our father hated a child born during the retrograde, you should see him talk about one conceived in retrograde.
I’m sorry, talking about Tommy makes me emotional.
He was such a sweet child. You wouldn’t think someone who looked so perfect on the outside could have so much wrong inside. He was hooked up to tubes every hour of the day. The doctors kept him alive by pushing nutrient mixes and medicine through them. But he smiled so much, our little Tommy. He never complained about pain or being left in the hospital alone. He was always glad to see us and happily waved goodbye when we left. This was his life, and he never knew any different.
Thomas could speak, but he didn’t do it often since his body wasn’t so good at pulling air in and out. He used signs when he could. And he was clever. So clever. I remember coming home from overseas studies and going to visit him. I taught him to read, then I bought him books and swore to take him to see the world when he was older. Little white lies, but they made him happy.
Father had mostly disconnected from the rest of us by then, and Susan and I both noticed that Mother was looking a lot thinner. By the time she finally got around to getting diagnosed, she was stage five. There was no saving her.
Can you really call what my brother did a crime? He has hurt no one.
You know something? Even though I’m as anti-Retrogradationist as you can get, sometimes I still wonder. Sometimes the damnedest things happen during retrograde and you simply can’t explain it. Mother had been ill for so long. She could’ve reached her limit at any time. And yet, when she finally did, it was during another damn retrograde.
Still, she lasted a lot longer than I thought she would, and I think it was because of Thomas.
On the day Mother couldn’t get out of bed, we stayed with her. We told her she would be fine, even though we both knew that was a lie. And Sid and I dreaded telling Tommy.
Turns out we didn’t need to. While we were busy arranging for the funeral and trying to decide how to break the news to him gently, Tommy’s heart failed in his sleep. We were not informed until it was too late to say good-bye. Born during a retrograde, died during a retrograde. What do you know?
Please give me a moment. This is very hard.
We don’t know if our father ever found out about Tommy passing. We hadn’t seen him for years by that point. He disappointed us. All of us. In the end, he couldn’t free himself from the chains of Mercury to meet his youngest son. Tommy was forever a tragedy of the retrograde to him.
Sweet little Thomas. He brought so much life to us, but at the end of his own, he must have been alone and scared, wondering where we were. He was eight.
A planet is not a person. It is a rock. It possessed no life. In fact, all it has ever done for us is limit, and restrict, and bind. When it went into retrograde, lives stopped. We all waited, with bound breath, for it to move again.
My invention? You won’t have it – I’ve already destroyed it. You think I would let the government weaponize it? Something with the power to break a planet should not be kept around. It’s served its purpose. You may prosecute me how you wish. But do not be mistaken that without Mercury, the world is somehow less than.
I cannot say if what my brother did is right or wrong. But I’m glad he did it. There, I said it.
I’m glad. If someone had done it earlier, life would’ve been a lot different for us. For Tommy.
I have freed you. All of you. A rock in the sky controlled how you lived and breathed, and you followed it, afraid to defy it, afraid to change. You were all chained more than Thomas ever was, with his illness and tubes. He is free now, as are you – unrestrained, limitless, boundless.
THOMAS LARAMIE [hospital archive – final recording clip]:
-I’m glad I met you.
-I never knew I had a papa.
-You know now.
-I am very sleepy now. But will you visit me again tomorrow?
-Yes. I will. I will come everyday. I’m so sorry you didn’t know me. I will come everyday, my son. I’m sorry.