Coming Home

by Louis Rakovich

june 2015 story of the month

They call us names we don't recognize. Mr. Altman, Jacob, Fat Jack. They chuckle when they say the latter, and look at their shoes. "Can't really call you that anymore, eh?" It's been a long time since the man was fat. We try to smile, a reluctant people-smile, faint, close-mouthed.

The first time they see us they holler and laugh, hug us with their ten arms. We try not to step on any of their ten feet. The laughter fades. They say, "Your mother. Oh, God, your mother." They let us call her, and on the other side of the telephone a voice—high pitched, not like ours, but like one of the five people around us—says, "Jack, no, you can't be Jack. Jack's dead." We try to explain to her what we've explained to the people, but our tongue gets heavy and unmovable in our mouth, and the sounds don't come out right. Someone takes the phone from our hand.

"Mrs. Altman," someone says. "We found Jack. He's here, he's fine."

We stop listening. We try to gather ourselves, recall everything we found in the man. We remember many things. We remember the word telephone. We don't remember his mother's face. We move our tongue inside our mouth in many small loops, practicing. We whisper Mom, I'm here. I'm fine. I came back.

Someone says, "We're so sorry. His jacket, his shoes, you know. That's what they said. No chance." There's a pause. "We don't know. But he's fine. He really is."

We don't remember him from the outside. We imagine him as he was when his shadow floated over Mother, when she swam toward him and pulled him deeper, a big, warm nest for us to hatch. Mother, too, is a shadow in this image—by the time we opened his eyes she was gone, and we swung his arms alone in the darkness of the cocoon she'd made us, and ripped it open to let the water in. We don't remember how long it took us to swim to the surface.

Someone places a hand on our shoulder. A little different from the rest, with long, red fingernails. The one with the high pitched voice. The young woman. "Get some sleep," she says. "You'll see her soon. Come on, I'll walk you to your room."

We remember the room, the yellow bed frame, the deep blue of the carpet.

At night we dream of a small town we've never seen before. The gray of the sky hangs low above the grass; doors squeak somewhere, opening and closing; a child is holding a turtle.

* * *

"You're not my son," says the old woman. She's tall and strong, almost as tall and strong as we are, but a softness in her cheeks makes her look like an overgrown child, and the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes deepen as she speaks, forming creases that connect to the outlines of the bags below them.

"Mom," we say. "I'm fine. I came back."

"You don't look like Jack. Jack's body is somewhere far away."

"I'm here. I'm me."

The young woman speaks. She's called Rebecca. "He's thinner now, Mrs. Altman."

The old woman flinches at the sound of the young woman's voice.

"I know he looks different," the young woman continues. "We weren't sure either the first few seconds. But it's him, of course it's him. Who else? Look closer, Mrs. Altman. Put on your glasses."

The old woman scoffs. "I'm not blind. I can see whether someone's my son or not."

"Well?" asks the young woman.

The old woman waits, then sighs. "Come here. Come closer."

We approach. She takes us by the hand and opens her mouth, but instead of words a weak cackling comes out; her voice breaks before she has a chance to speak. She brushes our hand against her cheek. She clears her throat. She says, "Thank you for coming back."

We follow the women to the kitchen. The old woman pours tea for the young woman and us. For a while we drink in silence, and we get the sense that the old woman is waiting for the young woman to leave.

"Are you going back?" she asks.

"Not yet. Taking a week off." The young woman locks eyes with the old one. "I don't remember where I left my coat."

The young woman kisses us on the cheek, and the two women get up and head to the hallway. We hear them whispering, but we can't distinguish the words. The front door closes. The old woman comes back.

She passes her fingers through our hair. It's short ever since the man on the rig cut it. "Rebecca says they won't let you back until you tell them where you've been those six months."

We've prepared for this. I don't remember.

"I don't remember."

"What are you going to do?"

I'll get another job.

She doesn't give us time to answer. "It doesn't matter," she says. "Forget about it, it doesn't matter. What nonsense. You'll find something." She sits down by our side and wraps her arm around our back. Her head falls on our shoulder. "Thank you for coming back."

* * *

The water in the bathtub is warm. Except for a few quick showers, we haven't been this warm since we left the cocoon. Our knees are peeking out of the water, like mountains half-hidden in the mist. We think about our home, wherever that is. We don't know where Mother is but we know she's gone. Raindrops are beating against the small fogged-up window in the upper corner of the bathroom.

We get out of the tub, hit our toe on the edge. For a moment our arms are shaking in the air. We retain balance. Jack Altman is looking back at us from the lid of the medicine cabinet. We know him. We don't know whether we've killed him or he's still alive somewhere here with us. Jack Altman's face is our face now. In the mirror our face is red, yellow crescents below our eyes.

A knock on the door.

The voice of Jack Altman's mother asks, "Jack, you still in there?"


"There's a man here, wants to speak with you. I told him it's early, but he said, if you're already up, what's the difference? I suppose he's right. He's a doctor, the people from your job sent him. He showed me his card. Do you want to see him?"

"Yes. I'll be out in a minute."

We get dressed. We forget to dry our neck, and the collar of our shirt is cold and wet now. We'll remember next time. In the mirror Jack Altman is us. We will find a job and a house, as Jack Altman would have done. We repeat in our head, Assimilation is survival. New words for an old thought. And in our mouth we repeat, without sound, My name is Jack Altman.

The doctor is older than us, but not as old as Jack Altman's mother. He reaches out his hand and we shake it.

"Is there anywhere we'll have some privacy?" he asks.

We take him to the room where Jack Altman grew up. We slept here last night.

He asks us to sit on the bed. He shines a light into our eyes, our ears, our mouth. He presses his thumbs into the sides of our neck. He asks us to stand up and undress, and we comply. There's a gentleness in the way he touches us now, as though he wants us to feel as little of his touch as possible. He says we can get dressed again.

He writes something in a notepad.

"What do you remember," he asks, "starting with the moment you fell in the water?"

"I don't remember."

"Nothing at all?"


"How did you return?"

"I don't remember."

"Do you remember where you returned from?"


He pauses. "What's the first thing you remember?"

"Rebecca looking at me from the rig."

"That was when you were in the water," he looks down at his notepad, "twenty feet west of the platform?"

"I suppose."

"And before that?"

"I don't remember."

He writes more, then puts the notepad in his pocket and stands up. We shake hands again.

* * *

Jack Altman's mother approaches the front porch. Two old people carrying a basket follow her, a man and a woman. The man's hair is gray like Jack's mother, and the woman's is a dirty golden yellow. They're smiling. The grass behind them is gray now, and the sky black, no cloud in sight.

"Jack," the golden woman says. "Oh my Lord, Jack. Jack, honey." She comes closer.

"Least they won't call you Fat Jack anymore," the man says, then looks at the back of the golden woman's head.

We get up from the porch swing. "Hello."

The golden woman's smile fades and she looks back to the man and Jack's mother, and asks, "Does he recognize me?"

"Sure he does," says Jack's mother. "He's just a little fuzzy. Jack?"

"Of course," we say. "Hello. I'm sorry. Yes, I'm still a little fuzzy."

"I understand," says the golden woman. She's smiling again.

She's talking fast and we can't keep up with her words. We nod, and she continues, and the man behind her—suddenly we realize he is her husband, and the realization soothes a pestering uneasiness inside us—joins in sometimes with a small remark.

They hug us.

They leave, and Jack's mother shows us the thing they've brought us—a basket full of bags of sweet little things. Chocolates and small waffles. We sit back on the swing. Jack's mother hands us the basket before sitting beside us.

Above us white dots are shining on a boundless black slate. We know that this is outer space, and we don't know whether we know it because of us or because of Jack Altman. We put our head on Mother's shoulder. We feel the contractions in her neck as she chews one waffle after the other. The weight of her head is lowered onto our ear.

"What do you want for breakfast tomorrow?"

"I don't know," I say.

"Rebecca will come by with her dog," she says. "I figured you can walk it together, will do you some good to go for a walk. But I can call her and say some other time if you want."

"No, don't. It'll be nice."

In the distance of the black sky one dot is flickering red. An airplane. Maybe there was something like that once before, similar but not quite, a long time ago. I close my eyes. In the darkness beneath my eyelids I'm drifting away somewhere, invisible waves rocking me back and forth. Through the round bone of my head I can feel Mother finishing the waffles, one by one.

BIO: Louis Rakovich writes sometimes-fantastical literary fiction. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Fiction Desk, Spark: A Creative Anthology, Goldfish Grimm and other places. He grew up in Jerusalem, Israel, and currently lives in NYC, where he's working on his first novel—a psychological thriller. You can find more fiction by him at louisrakovich.com, or follow him on Twitter at @LouisRakovich.