On the rare occasion that Charon went to find Mr. and Mrs. Naaji, he packed his own dented watering-can and walked the long way to the cemetery. He passed Elm Street where the twin rivers met; past the boarded meadow, overgrown with white dandelions that clung to his leather boots; past the neighborhood that he could not, with a clear conscience, call “home,” but from which he’d fondly recall the towering Victorian houses and motionless collector cars.
The lilies were wilting when he arrived. They crowded the back of the cemetery: shriveled, lifeless things, their stems packed too close together. He placed twigs between them, rubber bands to bind each green stem to a brace. He watered the dried soil and sang a lullaby to block out the widows’ wailing. He had convinced the flowers not to die, but each trip proved only a temporary victory. Each week, the flowers fell upon one other in a tangle of stems; each week, he would find white petals and rubber bands and pock-marked leaves all scattered to the soil, each time drier than the last. The garden had always been small, but as Charon grew older and his legs began to stretch so much higher than his flowers would ever reach, his tiny plot of land seemed to shrink before his eyes.
Charon hated to keep the flowers in such close quarters, for he knew how difficult it was to grow while surrounded on every side. Two years before, when Charon was twelve and in a different home, he and his foster siblings had slept two to a bed, their arms and legs tangled against the cold or sometimes thrashing around in the heat, rolling in puddles of pre-adolescent sweat and pretending it was the above-ground swimming pool they’d seen the neighbors install the day before. And then one day, Charon’s breasts burst into being—nonexistent one night and giant the next: two parasitic mounds of clinging flesh that hurt when he was asleep and hurt when he was awake; but mostly, they bumped against his sleepmate in the night until finally, he was placed in his own bed for big girls.
His foster-mother at the time, a very frilly-haired white woman with glasses too big for her face, had knelt in front of him with a bra in one hand and said, “You’re flowering into a real woman now.” She handed over the bra, along with a sanitary napkin. The package was vagina pink and littered with daisies, but the pad inside was white and cold, and when he slept, the whole bed reeked of his blood.
Mrs. Naaji always drove.
From the moment they found him, the Naajis had placed Charon in the passenger seat and encouraged him to place his head out the window, to trace the wind with his fingers. He had been trapped in the closet so long, he had forgotten how the cool autumn air could make goosebumps travel up his arms like soldiers by the thousands. He touched the bumps one by one. And though the wind stung his eyes, he never closed them. There was too much to experience out the window, sunflowers and orange trees as far as the eye could see.
Mrs. Naaji stopped at a gas station where the paint peeled off the sign in crinkled strips, where morning dew cast rainbows on the pump overheads, and the asphalt ran out. Dirt was overlord: dirt stalls, dirt street, dirt air, puffs of dirt that circled the car and irritated Charon’s lungs, though he did not force his head back inside until Mrs. Naaji tapped his shoulder.
“Look at me,” she cooed. She taught him games where their hands touched, and she helped him to imagine: they were ship captains, sailing away into the great beyond; they were adventurers, seeking treasure chests that overflowed with golden coins. They brushed palms and tangled their fingers, laughed, and spoke the rhymes she’d invented, her own lullaby, not so different from Patty-Cake, which the girls at Charon’s school had often played in neat rows, smacking palms and bubble-gum. She sang, Two coins, two coins, you and me; take them off and you will see. He is death and he is might, but we are chaos sprung from night.
If Charon dared to turn his head, if he tried to look when Mr. Naaji stepped out of the car, when he slipped into the gas station, when the yelling began, Mrs. Naaji would tilt his chin and say, “Look at me, Sweet Boy. Look at me.”
Two nights before his seventh birthday, they took another trip. They drove past the station, through the dirt roads, into the newly paved hills where the houses grew like gods. That night, Mrs. Naaji followed her husband. But before she left the car, she clasped Charon’s hand and placed two one-dollar coins in his palm. It was enough to buy some candy, she said, a soda too. “Just in case. If we get separated, meet us at the cemetery. We’ll find you.” She kissed his cheek and hummed her lullaby as she disappeared into the darkness.
Charon never knew how long they were gone. He only knew the waiting. Without Mrs. Naaji behind the wheel, the front seat seemed to stretch for miles and miles, and the backseat was certainly an abyss: a sea of faded cushions, the discolored leather. The limp seatbelts looked more like vines, gray and decaying. All the while, the rain beat against the car window, fat drops that traced rivers upon the glass.
In the hours that passed—or perhaps just long minutes—Charon climbed every inch of that car: pushed himself beneath the wheel, stood on the chairs, touched the dashboard until his fingertips had polished the plastic clean. And still they did not return. The rain beat down on the roof, and they did not return. A woman screamed from high up in the hills, and they did not return. The thick scent of blood drifted through the window. And they did not return.
When night came, the door opened, and Mr. Naaji fell into the backseat. Mrs. Naaji clambered behind the wheel and held Charon’s face with wet fingers. “Water,” she said. “Just water.” And she sang: two coins, two coins
On his birthday, Mr. Naaji gifted Charon an old, rusted watch and a promise: “No more waiting.” With his big hands, he taught Charon to read time while they sat together on an abandoned sofa in a townhouse down East. It was there in the candlelight, plucking fuzz from a hole in the upholstery, that Charon first touched a man’s beard. Mr. Naji’s was coarse and thick and not at all like the hair on his head. When Charon ran his fingers through the dirty strands, it tickled his skin.
Charon wanted one of his own, and so Mr. Naaji found the bristles of a paint brush and taped them to his chin, and Charon roamed that empty house all day, stroking his beard and checking the time on his wrist. For the clock had hands too, and they spun with each throb of his hurried pulse.
Hours after his mother locked him in the closet, Charon lost control of his bladder. It was impossible to tell what time it was through the thick wooden door, for it let in no light and very little sound, and his mother had told him to stay put no matter what. So he stayed. When his father’s heavy footsteps had echoed across the room, Charon attempted a recital of his ABC’s, but the sounds would not leave his lips. When his mother had begun to cry, when the gunshot had rung out like fireworks on the fourth of July, he had struggled through her favorite lullaby, but he could not remember the words. His ears filled instead with his own heavy breathing, and when the silence was absolute, he could hear his heart beat.
Then the stench of smoke and blood reached his nostrils, and after the second gunshot, he could hear his own sobs too.
By the time Mr. and Mrs. Naaji found him, Charon sat, stomach rumbling, in the drenched remnants of his best Sunday dress, and his church shoes digging into his little feet. They were white and chunky-heeled and a size too small. After the Naajis broke down the door, the shoes were the first to go.
On that first day, Mrs. Naaji wore black leather pants and an oversized white t-shirt, a black beanie. But her lips were purple and her eyes forest green. Her fingernails were painted the brightest of blues. That was how he would always remember her: a bouquet of color. From the very start, she was all he could see.
Behind her, Mr. Naaji was a mountain: tall and sturdy, with a thick beard and very white teeth. But the shadows of the room obscured his expression.
Mrs. Naaji crouched before the closet. “What’s your name, Baby Girl?”
“Karen.” He sniffed. “But I’m a boy.”
“Of course you are, Sweet Boy.”
Years later, he would remember the sound of her voice, like bells on a foggy morning, as the first real sound after the darkness.
“That’s what you said.” The woman introduced herself as Mrs. Naaji and asked if he would like to leave the closet now. When he nodded, Mrs. Naaji scooped him into her arms. She didn’t seem to mind the smell but held him close to her chest and kissed his brow. She said, “I need to cover your eyes now, alright?”
It was not alright, for Charon wanted to see where his parents had gone almost as much as he wished to leave the closet and dispose of his horrible dress. But Mrs. Naaji was insistent. “They’ve gone,” she said. “They’ve gone away.”
This made little sense to Charon. Although his mother often discussed leaving, and though she could be heard telling her husband at least twice a month that she would take Charon and go, they had never lived anywhere else. His father said they never would. Charon tried to explain this to Mrs. Naaji, but she only shook her head.
“They’re in a different home,” she said. “A better one. Now, I don’t want you looking. If we’re going to leave, you must keep those eyes closed.”
The fox was dead. Charon could hardly stand to look at it: the decaying pink flesh, the tufts of fur so infested with maggots, the body appeared to dance along the riverbank. The insects had claimed the fox as their puppet, and they pulled every string. In a week, they would be full, and scavengers would gnaw the creature clean to the bone, but Mr. and Mrs. Naaji would not stay longer than an hour. They led Charon to the water’s edge, but he dug his bare feet into the earth and refused to budge. He would not venture near the beast, would not walk where the body lay.
“It’s time to go. We need to cross before morning.” Mr. Naaji looked to the sky and the low, rising sun. His car waited on the other side of the river, just beyond the trees where the road met the park. By now, the early joggers would have all run home, but the tourists would come soon to snap their first, blurry pictures of the auburn sun. Mr. Naaji pointed the way forward, but Mrs. Naaji crouched beside the boy.
“What are you scared of?” she asked.
Charon pointed to the fox. “It’s dead.”
“Yes,” she said. “It doesn’t smell so good, does it?”
He shook his head. It smelled worse than the closet, worse than the stale whiskey on his father’s breath, worse even than the maid’s burned cooking the day she was sent away. Mrs. Naaji plucked a flower from the forest floor. “This smells much better, doesn’t it?” She placed the flower in his hand. The stem was fuzzy and warm, and the white petals slouched over his sweaty fingers. It smelled like spring time and his mother’s perfume. Charon nodded.
“But this flower is dead too. A beautiful death, but still death. Death doesn’t have to be so scary, does it? When these flowers die, they will go back into the earth, and they will feed the soil for the next flower. Really, they’re just going home.”
Charon thought of the home he had just left, which was frightening, and the home where his parents had gone, which was not. He rubbed his knuckles over his eyes, blurring his vision while Mr. Naaji crossed the river. By the time Charon had blinked away the fog, Mr. Naaji stood safely on the other side, shaking water droplets from his boots and retying the laces. He looked very tall, with the early morning sun streaming through the tree branches and lighting up his broad shoulders. He could have carried Charon across, but the Naajis waited for the boy to take his first step on his own.
On his side of the river, Mrs. Naaji touched Charon’s hair. “This is dead. Death that sticks to us, but it makes us look very nice, doesn’t it?” She twirled his thick curls through her fingers. Behind her, Mr. Naaji shook out his own, long brown hair and retied it with a rubber band. Charon watched him until Mrs. Naaji pressed their fingertips together. “And our nails,” she said. “Dead too. But you can paint them any color you want—or none. And they’re still very nice.”
But Charon watched the water flow over the fox’s head, watched the glossed, beady eyes, and still, he would not budge.
Mrs. Naaji held his palm flat and traced her fingers across his life-line. “Have you heard the story of Charon?” she asked. He shook his head. “He was a boy, with a name just like yours. Only he spelled it C-H-A-R-O-N.” She wrote the letters across his skin, one by one, each curve just slow enough to combat Charon’s pounding pulse. “Do you know what he did?” Again, the boy shook his head.
“There is a river between life and death, and he was the Ferryman. Pay him two coins, and he would take you from one side to the other.” Mrs. Naaji raised Charon’s hand until the two touched, palm-to-palm. “He brought the souls to peace, brought them to the Lord of Death, himself. Hades. Charon was very brave. And very wise.” She kissed Charon’s hand, and all the places inside him that had once been cold burned suddenly with springtime—blooming warmth from the tip of his ears, down to his toes.
“Are my parents dead?” he asked.
Mrs. Naaji looked to her husband. The man nodded. “Yes,” she said.
Charon wanted to cry then, to beat his fists against the riverbank. If only he had remembered his mother’s lullaby, then he might have opened the door and saved her in time. He could remember her song now and his ABC’s too. But beyond him, the river rushed on and on, louder than his ragged breathing, and it had tears enough for them both.
He stepped into the water.
When they reached the other side, Mrs. Naaji took his hand and said, “Now, let me show you a game. Let me teach you a song.”
Across the river, in the drug store behind his old Victorian house, Mr. and Mrs. Naaji brought Charon to the t-shirt rack and told him to pick his favorites. He chose two: a Micky Mouse and an I ❤ California. When the cashier looked away, Mrs. Naaji slipped both into her purse along with a pair of boys’ blue flip-flops.
Charon waited beside the swimwear, all too aware of his bare feet on the linoleum floor and the eyes of the cashier that bored deep into his skull. He listened to the sound of the doorbell and the shuffling of shoes and the soft chinking of coins in the tip jar. He thought of his parents, of his mother’s blueberry muffins and his father’s sharp cologne and wondered if, in their new home, they might keep the doors open.
Mr. Naaji appeared around the corner then, and, with a sound like an engine’s roar, he lifted Charon onto his shoulders. It was like flying. It was like being full grown: a seed to an elm tree in one exhale, and never a sapling. He yipped and laughed and tugged on Mr. Naaji’s horse reign hair until the cashier cleared his throat. Mr. Naaji set Charon back on the ground and pointed to a clock on the wall. “You keep an eye on that for us,” he said. “When the big hand hits the twelve, it’s our time to go.”
The Naajis always knew when a family was out of town. Mr. Naaji taught Charon new words like: loitering, squatting, and breaking-and-entering, though he said this was not what they were doing, for they did not break anything when they entered. The empty Victorian houses were always left untouched by the time the Naajis and Charon had finished with them. They ate all the food in the fridge and burned most of the candles, but to enter, Mrs. Naaji used bobby pins, not force, to open the doors. Though Charon desperately wished to learn how it was done, Mrs. Naaji told him they were magical pins and would not let him watch. Instead, she placed him on lookout. So he watched for passing cars or lingering eyes, for the telltale signs of what Mr. Naaji called “snitches.”
Only once did they take a trophy: a dented, baby-blue watering can, decorated with hand painted flowers of white and red, which Mrs. Naaji handed to Charon with the promise that, when they had their own house and garden, he would tend to it. Charon swore he would, and every day, he carried his watch and his watering-can and poured river-water onto the flowers that all Victorian homes seemed to grow.
It was outside the fifth house, three weeks after the Naajis had found Charon, that sirens broke the air.
Charon had forgotten to watch the street and was playing instead with a ladybug that had crawled onto his shoe. Mr. Naaji stopped his wife in the middle of the pin-trick and pushed Charon into her arms. His movement knocked the ladybug into a nearby rose bush. With it, Charon’s watering-can fell from his grip and rolled under the porch steps. “Take the boy.” Red and blue lights danced on Mr. Naaji’s cheek bones.
Mrs. Naaji bundled Charon close to her breast and cried to her husband. They could not lose the boy, could not allow him to be swayed by the stories bitter men would tell. But Mr. Naaji had stopped listening. He raised his hands, for at that moment, the policemen stepped from their cars and yelled with their guns all raised. One brandished a wanted poster, the other a smirk.
Later, the social service officer would tell Charon that he was in shock, that the arrests had been quick and expedient, but he remembered the moment lasting much longer. He remembered counting his heart beats and clinging to Mrs. Naaji. He remembered wiggling from her grasp and tugging on Mr. Naaji’s pant leg. The man wore giant work boots, the laces muddied and frayed, and he had promised that Charon could wear them when he was older. Unlike his father, who upon learning of Charon’s desire for boy’s clothes, had shoved him back into his mother’s closet, Mr. Naaji had promised that in a week’s time, they’d have enough money to buy him boots of his own.
The officers wore boots too, but theirs were dark and clunky, and they echoed horribly on the sidewalk as they removed Charon, kicking and screaming, from Mr. Naaji’s side. The man was dragged promptly into the back of a police car, but Mrs. Naaji was permitted a goodbye. She knelt in front of Charon and straightened his too-big, tourist t-shirt. “You’re a good boy, Charon,” she said. “A sweet boy. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.” She kissed his forehead. “We never took anything that did not want to be taken, do you understand? We only came when it was their time to go. Do you understand?”
What Charon understood was that Mrs. Naaji needed his agreement, and so he nodded, and hugged her, and when she was placed in a second car, he watched the ladybug crawl back onto the sidewalk. He stomped twice with his drug-store sandals until its wings fell off.
When he ran back to the house and picked up his watering-can, a single, glittering wing clung to the toe of his shoe and wouldn’t fall off no matter how hard he kicked.
Charon’s newest parents were not the worst he’d endured. They enforced a strict bedtime, took a hands-on approach with his homework, and always expected him home promptly at seven o’clock. But they also made vegetable dinners and bought him new shoes whenever his soles began to crack. The only problem now was that Charon’s watch was broken, and the maker at the corner store charged more for repairs than the two coins he kept in his pocket.
He might not know when seven o’clock was approaching, but as he rubbed the coin metal clean in his pocket and watched for the sunset, Charon knew to be home before the last rays dipped beneath the horizon.
He knelt by the lilies, straightening their stems and packing in the soil around the roots. Their white had faded to gray, and their leaves were stripped by the teeth of hungry caterpillars. The tulips fared no better, and if a passerby stopped and smelled his roses, they would find only the buds, fallen from the bush.
Charon watered until the can was empty, sang until the sun was low in the sky. But no matter how hard he tried, the flowers drooped and fell. And he knew, if only the watch worked, he would never have to wonder if it was their time to go.
Alexander Casey is a PhD candidate at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, specializing in queer children’s literatures and mythological adaptations. His work has been published in the Indiana Review, the Hawai‘i Review, and the journal Dzieciństwo. Literatura i Kultura (Childhood: Literature and Culture), with a forthcoming story in An Ocean of Wonder: The Fantastic in the Pacific.