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Growing Up, Child, Is Just A Matter Of Time

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When Henry is eight, his mom tells him that he’s adopted, that she wanted a baby so badly, and because she couldn’t have one of her own, she searched and searched and searched for him, until one day she became the luckiest momma in the world. They’re lying in her bed together, after she’s read him the twelfth chapter of The Golden Compass, and he’s got his head on her chest, tapping out the rhythm of her heartbeat, like he’s done every night since he can remember. It’s always been just the two of them, and it’s never been lonely before.

[What makes that thumpthump thumpthump sound, Momma? That’s your heart, baby. Pumping your blood through your body. Sounds like the ocean in the seashells. Is your heart stuck like the sea gets stuck in there? Your heart stays there, yes. But it’s not trapped, honey. Remember when we talked about how the moon pulls on the ocean, and makes it come up on the shore, and then go back out again? Up and down? The tides. That’s right. Well, your heart’s a little bit like your own personal moon. It keeps your blood pumping and pumping through your body; it keeps you alive. And you know what else your heart does? What? It holds all the love you’ve got. See. All the love for everybody else. Your heart sounds pretty strong, Momma. So’s yours, sweetheart. Ours match up. Can you hear? Mhmm. Both strong. Both steady. Both strong. Both steady.]

[He remembers sitting on the floor in the study, looking at the Children’s Encyclopedia with its colorful cross-section of the Earth on the cover. He remembers finding Heart: H for Huh-huh-heart. And he remembers how it didn’t look anything like the Valentine cutouts Mrs. Rosier had them make the month before, and it didn’t really look anything like the moon either.]

She tells him that she loves him, and that she’s never not going to love him, and that he is her Family with a capital F and that’s the way it’s always going to be, no matter what. He hugs her tight and whispers back, love you, too, momma, when he feels tears slip down her cheeks and land in his hair. He’s never, ever seen his mom cry before.

He traces a heart on his chest that night as he’s laying in bed and wonders if ‘Adopted’ with a capital A means they don’t match up, wonders if this means he isn’t really strong or steady after all, wonders what he is instead.

//

They’d gone to the pool together the day before she told him. She let him jump off the diving board fourteen times before it was time to go home. When he took the one lap swim test to show the lifeguards he could go in the deep end, she smiled and smiled and smiled at him, because he was so big and so strong. He liked the way everything felt bigger under the water, and farther away, and kind of empty, like he was nowhere and everywhere all at once. And everything happening above the surface was a different world, and down below, with his eyes squeezed shut and his lungs burning and burning and burning, he was untouchable.

The next day, he holds his wrist up to his nose and thinks maybe he can still smell the chlorine, can still feel the way his body plunged when he cannonballed off the diving board – heavy and weightless all at once. He closes his eyes and holds his breath, hoping, if he just tries hard enough, he can get back to that secret place, to that echo-y, safe world where he could feel his heartbeat in his ears, steady and strong. But the air around him isn’t thick like the water, isn’t smooth against his skin, isn’t just a little bit scary the way the water is: waiting and waiting and waiting to fill up his lungs. Maybe if they just go back to that pool, clean and blue, and with a chemical perfume he’s never smelt anywhere else, maybe he’ll remember what it is to be strong, maybe mom won’t ever stop smiling at him, maybe their hearts will start up again, new and even and just in time, like the three different clocks on the pool deck, all counting up the seconds at the same, steady rate.

At dinner the next day, he asks if they can go back to the pool, quiet and a bit shy. Mom looks at him seriously, like he’s a real adult and not just a little kid, and she says, “You liked swimming?” He did. “Maybe we should see about signing you up for the swim team. Do you think you’d like to try that out?” He would, he thinks, if it means he gets to spend some more time in that secret world. “Alright then,” Mom says. “Alright.”

His first practice is three weeks later. He’s never felt so free.

//

When Henry is thirteen, the Storybrooke Sharks get a new assistant coach. Her name is Emma Swan and she tells them at their first practice of the summer season that she swam at UMass in Boston, that she and Coach Ariel swam together once upon a time, that she’s never lived in Maine before, that she was a breaststroker in college. Henry nods hello when she takes over their lane at practices, but he doesn’t stay after to chat with her like some of his teammates. He puts his head down and works through their sets, and only smiles when he hits the wall 3 seconds faster than his previous hundred at the end of 6000 yards.

Coach Swan is younger than their other coaches. She laughs a lot, but she doesn’t hand out praise very often, and she always has something for everybody to work on. She shows up at practice with only three minutes to spare pretty much every day, always has a cup of coffee in hand, and looks like maybe she just got out of bed, even though they practice from 4 to 6 in the evening. The first time Henry leaves the locker room, freshly showered, tired, and sore from the day’s workout to find her standing in the lifeguard office using their tiny mirror to put her hair up in a tight bun, having changed into her Deputy Sheriff uniform, he’s surprised. Until he remembers that Paige told him Coach Swan was also working at the Police Station, and that the week before, he’d overheard her telling Coach Ariel that night shifts were “absolutely killing her.”

She catches his eye in the little mirror, and calls out for him to wait. “Just a sec.” She joins Henry out in the hallway, smiles and asks him what his favorite stroke is. He scuffs his foot at the old carpeting and mumbles that he likes breaststroke and distance free, [and doesn’t say that he hates the fly, even though Coach Ariel has him do the 100 and the relay every single meet]. When he looks up, she’s got this big, big grin on her face. “Well then, kid,” she says. “Looks like you’re my new star frog kicker.”

She holds out a hand with a solemn smirk, and waits for him to reach out and shake it. “We’re going to work together this season, alright? Work hard. Get in some good distance. Work on your pull.”

He nods questioningly.

“Good,” she says as though he’s signed an invisible, unbreakable contract. And that settles it.

//

Coach Swan lets him do breaststroke during all of the choice sets after that, and she always, always, always lets him know when he’s slacking on his pull. She doesn’t tease him like she does some of his teammates, when they’re rowdy and loud during Friday practices, ready for the weekend. She doesn’t ask him why he’s being so serious like some of the other coaches used to do. And each day, after he’s finished his cool-down, she holds out her hand for him to shake on the way back to the locker room, like they’re reaffirming the pact they’ve made. Strong. And steady.

//

Henry’s favorite part of any day is practice. He loves the way the chlorine smell leaches into everything, that his favorite sweatshirt smells perpetually of the chemical, no matter how many times his mom runs it through the wash. He loves the way he can hear his pulse in his head during a rough set, the way his lungs ache after a hard practice, and the way his arms feel limp and stretched for hours after a solid 6500 yards.

He likes that he doesn’t need to talk during practice; no one expects him to answer questions or make conversation. He’s free to sing whatever song he’d like as he warms up, now and then letting out a word or two in bubbles beneath the surface.

He’s free to make plans and daydream and measure each yard as it passes. No one cares who his mother is once they’re in the pool, and it doesn’t matter that he’s adopted, or that his mom is the mayor and that his classmates at school repeat their parents’ names for her in the hallway: ‘bitch’ and ‘hardass’ and ‘total asshole.’ He doesn't think about the way his classmates at his private school, 98% of whom are white (like him, he knows, which gives them one more thing to whisper about as they pass his locker), talk about his mother, the Mayor - his mom, who makes the best desserts and loves horses and read to him every single night before bed until he was eleven. He doesn’t have to wonder why the other kids in his class always seem to be in on some joke he just doesn’t get. He doesn’t let himself think about their empty house, or what it might be like to be like his classmates with their Families of >2 and their parents – plural – and their loud dinners and full homes and the easy knowledge that all of their hearts are beating in time with one another. He thinks about how much he loves his mom, no matter what, but also about ‘birth parents’ and heart rhythms, and he tries not to think about the way she’d looked angry and then tired and then maybe a little bit sad when he asked about the terms of a ‘closed Adoption’ the month before school let out for the summer. He tries not to think about how she’s started working late practically every day, how her face is paler now than it is in the pictures they’ve got up on the mantle, how there’s a wrinkle in the center of her forehead that never seems to go away.

During practice he focuses on each stroke, every inhale, every exhale, on the rhythm of his kick and the ache in his lungs. He listens intently to Coach Swan, cups the water in his palms, holds his body tight, streamlined, counts his kicks, measures his pace against the clock on the wall, doesn’t smile when Coach Swan nods approvingly after a set. He asks for clarification on the 30-60-90 speeds drill for his breaststroke pull, leads with his chest, remembers the dreams he has where he swims through the air and calls it flying. Tries his best not to think as much as possible, and for two hours a day, he’s absolutely free.

//

On a Wednesday in July, Henry’s taken too long in the locker room, and so he’s rushing out the door of the Athletic Center and down the steps towards his mom’s waiting car, when he hears Coach Swan calling his name.

“Kid! Wait!”

He turns at the bottom of the steps, but glances back over his shoulder when he hears the slam of a car door, and finds his mom coming around onto the curb, heading towards him.

“Hey, Kid.” Coach’s face is a little red, and she’s got her police uniform on, but she’s grinning at him, and he smiles back. Practice is over; he’s not such a serious kid, really.

“Hey Coach,” he looks up when his mom puts her hand on his shoulder, swipes a hand across his forehead where his the water still dripping from his hair is already mixing with the sweat on his brow.

“Henry,” she murmurs, looking from him to Emma Swan. Her brow is furrowed and her lips are pulled into a tight line.

“Mom, this is Coach Emma Swan. Remember, I was telling you about her?” He waits for his mother to nod. “Coach, this is my mom, Regina Mills.”

“At last, the infamous Mayor Mills!” Emma’s bright smile slides slowly off her face when his mother shifts uncomfortably at his side, when she returns the Coach’s handshake less than enthusiastically.

“Deputy Swan,” his mom cuts in smoothly. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” but her voice is hard, like cut glass, and Henry knows, without looking that she’s wearing her Mayor face, the one he watches her slip on every morning on their way out the door, and the one he knows she doesn’t take off until just before he climbs into the Mercedes after practice.

“I mean,” Emma pauses, flicks her eyes from Henry to his mom, and Henry feels his cheeks flush in response. “I’ve heard a lot about you, from the guys at the station,” she clarifies. Because Henry has not said one single word to Coach Swan about his mom the Mayor, or about anything that does not have to do with the number of strokes he should take before breathing, or how to maximize his flip turn speed.

“Yes,” his mom is saying. “I didn’t realize that Henry’s new Coach was also our new Deputy. I should have made the connection. I read your bio of course, in the team newsletter last month, and Sheriff Graham had provided me with your resume before you were hired. Henry speaks very highly of you.”

His mom doesn’t lie, but she does play the perfect politician; Henry only told her that they’d gotten a new coach. They don’t talk about swimming very often; he’s not sure why, but he’s never been able to explain why he likes it so much to his mom, and so he doesn’t share much of it with her at all. He wonders, not for the first time, if this silence hurts her maybe, if it ever feels like some kind of stone sitting between the two of them, heavy and immovable.

“Right,” his coach chews her lower lip for a minute. “He’s a pretty great kid. We’ve been working on his distance technique this week.” Henry takes her easy, open smile, and offers a grateful one of his own at the praise. He feels his mom stiffen slightly beside him.

“Yes, well, Henry is a very hard worker,” his mom agrees, and he does not imagine the note of pride in her voice.

“But, hey. Kid. You forgot this,” Emma hands him the piece of paper she’s been holding. “Your permission slip for Saturdays.”

“Saturdays?” his mom questions. Her hand on his shoulder tightens momentarily before she lets him go and reaches for the paper.

“Saturday morning practices,” his coach clarifies. “Ariel’s been running them with some of the older kids for months, and I thought it might be a good idea for some of our better swimmers in the middle age group to join in. It’s longer than normal because we have the kids swim, plus do some dryland. And it’s early as all get out,” Emma grimaces good-naturedly. “But the kids seem to like it, and some of the parents bring breakfast afterwards: yogurt, bagels, fruit. The basics.”

His mother hums her understanding, reading through the proffered form.

“I thought Henry might like some extra time in the pool. It’s a much smaller crowd so there’s more time for one-on-one instruction, and he’s definitely ready to start increasing the intensity of his training if he wants to. It’s totally optional, and there’s no extra fee or anything.”

Henry wants to go to Saturday morning practices more than anything. He wants to show up on deck at 6:20 in his suit and sweats, wants to lay around and doze off waiting for the coaches to show, wants to stretch out in the water even before his brain’s fully awake, wants the long, hard practice, and the tired, blurry feeling afterward, when his whole body is simultaneously thrumming with energy and crying out for a nap.

But Saturdays have always been for him and his mom. Even now, when she’s busy and he’s busy and they seem to have less and less to talk about over dinner each night, even still: Saturdays are their days. She makes pancakes or French toast or mushroom omelets and they eat while watching Saturday morning cartoons. He gets to leave his homework until Sunday, and she never goes into the office or checks her email or turns on her laptop. They do something outside if it’s nice, or go to the movies or over to Augusta to check out any new exhibits at the Natural History Museum. Sometimes, they’ll even get up extra early and drive south to Boston for the day. It’s their day.

Lately though, even Saturdays have been tense and stilted and he’s escaped to his room as soon as possible, claiming too much homework to wait until Sunday. Henry does not say any of this out loud, but his heart feels heavy in his chest when he thinks about Saturdays with his mom, when he thinks about Saturday mornings in the clear, cool 25-yard pool.

“Well,” his mom tells Coach Swan. “Henry and I will have to discuss it.”

“Of course,” Coach Swan nods as his mom folds the paper, and slips it into her purse. “I’ve gotta run to work,” she says, glancing at the watch on her left wrist. “Henry, great job today.” She reaches out for a handshake, like they do every day, but it’s not for him this time. “Mayor Mills. It was a pleasure meeting you.”

“You as well, Deputy Swan.” They shake once, twice.

But Coach Swan doesn’t let go when she says, “Please, call me Emma, Madame Mayor.” She’s holding eye contact with his mom, and Henry wonders if maybe Coach Swan isn’t just a little bit braver than any other adult he’s ever met. Most of the parents of his teammates and the parents of his classmates and the adults he and his mom run into on the street won’t hardly meet her gaze, let alone shake her hand and look at her so openly, with such honest friendliness.

[Henry’s mom’s eyes are dark brown and smart; she sees pretty much everything, he knows.]

[When he was little, he remembers putting his hands on her cheeks and looking at her very seriously. He remembers how her mouth would curve up under his fierce stare and her eyes would be warm and glowing. You’ve got amber in your eyes, Momma. He’d tell her. Like on those old trees where all the bugs get stuck. You’ve got real pretty eyes, Momma. She’d smile so big his hands would rise on top of her cheeks, and she’d say, Thank you, darling boy. Thank you thank you thank you, before leaning forward to give him butterfly kisses all around his face until he was screaming with laughter and the seriousness had been giggled right out of his tiny body.]

“Thank you, Coach Swan,” his mom replies, emphasis on the title. “I’ll have Henry let you know about Saturdays at practice tomorrow.” They let go of one another’s hands, and Henry watches as his mom twists the bracelet on her wrist five times before folding her hands together in front of her.

Emma’s grin comes out slowly. “Alright then. Henry,” she nods to him. “See you tomorrow, kid. Bring your serious face alright?”

He laughs a little at that, and her grin widens, as though she’s just gotten a surprise present.

“See you, Coach,” he tells her.

“Mayor Mills,” her hand hovers between the three of them, like she’s about to grab his mom’s elbow in goodbye. His mom leans forward. Henry thinks of the moths out on the porch in the summer evenings, drawn to the warmth of the lights glowing out into the descending night. “It was great to meet you.” She sounds as though she really means it.

“You as well,” his mom agrees. And her voice is approximately twenty degrees warmer than when they’d started the conversation. Henry feels like he missed something.

Coach Swan heads left, while the two of them turn to the car, and Henry throws his bag in the backseat before sliding into the passenger side. The car is cool after the evening heat lingering outside, and it smells of leather and his mom's perfume - cinnamon and apples. After he buckles his seatbelt, and looks over, he’s surprised to find that his mom is tapping the gearshift idly, her gaze on the rearview mirror where Coach Swan is still in sight, walking towards her car.

“So… Saturdays?” He breaks the stillness and can’t quite believe it when his mom jumps slightly.

“Right,” she murmurs. “Saturdays.” Her voice cracks part way through the word.

He thinks of Saturday morning cartoons and shared blankets on the couch, of tides, of the clear blue of the pool, of its stillness before practice, of the way his blood pulses through him loudly and far away when he puts his head beneath the surface. When she glances over at him, his face is smooth and steady.

“Saturdays,” she repeats. “6:30? That’s awfully early,” and he nods as she puts the car in gear and pulls away from the curb.

Chapter Text

They don’t talk about Saturday morning practices any more for the rest of the twenty-minute drive home. His mom doesn’t bring up Coach Swan, or permission slips, or the weekend at all over dinner. He asks her about her day, but she simply smiles, tight-lipped, and murmurs, “Oh, you know. It was one of those days: full of paperwork.” They spend the rest of the meal in silence. Henry makes sure not to clink his fork against his plate, and he doesn’t slurp at all while he drinks his milk.

His mom made quiche and sautéed spinach, her concession to ‘breakfast for dinner,’ and when they’ve finished eating, Henry takes the dishes into the kitchen without being asked. His mom follows him in, her heels clicking on the wood floor. She portions the leftovers into Tupperware, labels the top of each one with the date, and makes room for them in the fridge. He rinses his plate, sticks it in the dishwasher, scrapes the half piece of quiche still on his mom’s plate into the trash, and cleans that one, too.

“Thank you, baby,” his mom says softly when he closes the dishwasher for the last time, having put in the soap and started it. It lets off a soft hum, the swishing of the water rushing through it soothing after thirty minutes of quiet.

“Thanks for dinner.”

She’s leaning back against the kitchen island, arms crossed over her chest. He tries to smile at her, but the muscles in his jaw clench.

He wants to ask her about Saturdays, but can’t think of an easy way to bring it up. His mom always looks the most relaxed here at home. The kitchen is lit by the small light above the oven, and the deepening blue of evening outside. His mom’s lipstick has faded from the day, and her eyes are tired in the yellow glow. She still hasn’t taken off her heels, but when she does, he knows they will be almost the same height – the top of his head reaching her forehead.

“I’ve got some work to finish up tonight.” He makes sure not to mouth her words along with her. They are both speaking at a normal volume, but in the kitchen, their words sound loud and close.

“Sure,” he nods, wiping his hands on the dishcloth. “I’m probably going to read a bit before bed.” His swimsuit and towel are already hanging up to dry in his bathroom. He vacuumed his room before Paige and her dad picked him up for practice, dusted the living room, and finished all of his laundry.

She uncrosses her arms, takes two steps back towards the swinging door.

“Mom-“ He pushes off the counter, slips across the tiles in his socks towards her. He wants their weekday dinner routine to feel safe – comforting – like it used to when he was little. Dinner and dishes and then both of them settling in in her study to work and read until bedtime. Brushing teeth together at the sink in his bathroom, giggling when a drop of toothpaste dripped down her chin; a story, and a kiss on the cheek; covers pulled up and smoothed across his chest with strong, steady hands. Goodnight, my little prince, whispered into the darkness of fast approaching sleep, his door squeaking just a bit on its hinges as she pulled it almost all the way closed so only a sliver of light sliced through his room and landed on the foot of his bed; quiet footsteps retreating down the stairs, back to the study. Instead, his shoulders feel tense, like someone’s nailed a board across them to hold him up straight, and the quiet from dinner is hanging over both of them.

“Mom,” he repeats as he approaches. For two seconds, after he wraps his arms around her waist and rests his chin on her shoulder, it feels like he’s still at swim practice, stuck underwater after a misjudged flip turn, searching blindly for the wall so he can push off. But then, she relaxes slightly, hugs him back, turns her head to kiss his cheek.

“Don’t stay up too late,” she whispers.

“Don’t work too hard.” The words escape him before he can pull them back, and then she’s pulling away, patting his cheek with one gentle palm, turning to go. He wants to take the words back, wants to say I love you, Momma instead. Wants to say It’d only be a few hours on Saturdays. Wants to ask her to tuck him in, wants to rest his head against her chest and listen to her heartbeat. He wants to ask for sweet dreams. Wants, most of all, to offer them to her instead.

But she’s already disappearing through the door, off to her corner of the house. He leaves the stove light on, pauses in the front hall to turn the lights off outside. He takes the stairs one at a time, closes his bedroom door firmly against the hall light, changes into clean shorts and a clean sleep shirt, punches his pillow into place, and stares blindly up at the ceiling. She helped him put glow in the dark stars on his ceiling when he was six, and he insisted they be just like the ones in the sky! He doesn’t really remember doing it, but he remembers all the nights afterwards, as she pointed out the constellations they’d stuck up on his ceiling, and the north star, always. His very own compass.

//

[Henry used to make up coded languages, simple things where you’d transpose one letter for another, but he’d call them his ‘secret languages.’ He’d write out two copies of the key on pieces of lined notebook paper, give one to his mom, and keep the other. For the next few days, he and his mom would write notes to each other in the code he’d come up with. She’d leave a sticky note on his bathroom mirror at night for him to find when he woke up in the morning. Good luck on your test today, Sweetheart! See you after school. I love you.

He’d spend an indoor recess writing something out for her. He’d ask his teacher for an envelope, write her name carefully and clearly on the front, and then slide it to her secretary, Ms. Linda when they got to her office after school. Ms. Linda would wink at him, give them ten minutes – enough time for him to get settled on the couch, and for his mom to pick up whatever she’d been working on before she left to get him from school – and then she’d knock and bring the letter in, handing it gently to his mom over his mom’s big marble desk. “This arrived for you today, Mayor Mills,” she’d say, and his mom, ever the professional, would reach solemnly for the envelope. “Thank you, Linda,” his mom’s face smooth like the ocean never was. But when Linda would leave, his mom would open the letter with her silver letter opener, reach down for the briefcase at her side, pop it open, take out a lined piece of paper, slip her glasses on, and pore over the note silently for several minutes, her mouth winking up into a smile, while Henry pretended not to watch over the top of his book.

She’d press a kiss to her first two fingers, and then her fingers to the note, fold it carefully along its creases and slide it back into its envelope. She kept all of the envelopes in a folder in the top drawer of her filing cabinet.]

[He stopped coming up with new codes after a year, but he still has the last key in the top drawer of his dresser.]

//

After an hour, after he’s tried laying on his front, his back, both sides, Henry climbs out of bed, but pauses at the top of the stairs to listen. There’s no sounds from down below, but he tiptoes anyway, holding his breath. He can do sixty yards underwater, breaststroke pullout after breaststroke pullout, without surfacing, but when he reaches the study door, his lungs are aching, and there are dark spots in his vision. He breathes in slowly through his nose. He knocks twice.

“Come in, sweetheart.”

His mom isn’t sitting at her desk, the cherry wood dark and shining in the dim lighting. It’s larger than her desk at the office, heavier, but the corners are rounded with age, and he could trace without looking the scratches on the left side where he took a lost wall tack to it when he was four. There papers spread across its surface: his mom’s version of organized chaos.

“I thought you’d gone to bed.” She offers him a soft smile as he shuffles forward and flops his growing body down onto the sofa beside her.

She has a full glass of red wine in one hand, and her legs are curled up beneath her, her heels kicked off haphazardly to one side. Her glasses are pushed up on the top of her head, and her hair is mussed as though she’s been running a hand through it. There’s a single sheet of paper on the low table in front of her, and he knows, without checking, that it’s the permission slip she took from Coach Swan.

“Couldn’t sleep,” he mutters. He stretches his legs out so his toes are pressing against her thigh, and he lets his head drop back onto the arm of the couch, closing his eyes. “Remember this?” He holds the old piece of notebook paper up in the air, and waits until she takes it from him.

He listens to her unfold it, the paper crinkling. She chuckles. “Of course.”

“Secret languages.”

“Mhmmm.” There is silence again. He hears her swallow a sip of her wine. The room smells of grapes and alcohol. Finally, “You want to talk about this?” He feels her lean forward, hears the clink of the wine glass hitting the ceramic coaster, the muffled click of her nails against the wood.

He takes a deep breath. Lightly, he knows. Carefully. This is his mom. “I know it’s early-“

“After your very first swim practice, do you remember what you said to me?” His mom cuts him off.

He waits.

“You came out of the locker room, and your hair was still dripping, and you were practically vibrating with excitement.” Henry opens his eyes and stares up at the ceiling. There are no stars there, no way to chart a course. His mom’s voice is light, but there’s something in her tone that he can’t place. “I asked you if you had a good time, and you said it was super fun.” It sounds like she’s smiling, but he knows, if he were to raise his head, and look down the length of the couch, she’d be staring at the floor, and her lips would be a straight line. “Then you admitted that it was maybe, just maybe, a little bit hard.” Longing. That’s what he hears. “But the third thing you said to me as we were walking out to car, the third thing you said, was, ‘I think this is going to be my favorite thing ever, momma.’ ” She laughs slightly, uncurls her legs from under her so that his feet are no longer touching her. “Favorite thing ever.”

He blinks, but doesn’t speak. To disagree would be a lie because he’s pretty sure that swimming is his favorite thing ever, and he doesn’t know how to explain that to her. But his mom is his favorite person in the entire world. And this, here – the two of them. Family. Is his favorite thing. Ever. He doesn’t know how to explain that either, so he stays silent.

“I would,” his mom swallows loudly, “I would never want to keep you from doing something you love, Henry.” She puts her hand on his shin, squeezes. “If this is something you really want to do, of course you should.”

Henry pushes himself up into a sitting position, waits patiently for his mom to look over at him, and nods.

“That coach of yours seems to think it would be good for you.”

“Coach Swan. Yeah,” he mutters.

“Yes,” his mother glances towards the paper again, and he follows her gaze, and it’s only then that he notices the pen. “Well, then. Perhaps we could start doing Saturday brunch.”

He looks up at her quickly. “Yeah.” Except this time it’s a question.

“Certainly. I hear Granny’s Diner has some excellent brunch options.”

“Alright.” He kind of wants to clap his hands together. “That’d be cool.”

His mom leans forward, uncaps the pen, and doesn’t bother to skim the form again before signing it swiftly. He thinks maybe she has it memorized. “Here you are then.” She hands it to him, but doesn’t let go when he grabs it. “I won’t set an alarm for you,” she warns, but her voice is soft still. “You’ll be responsible for getting yourself out of bed.”

“Sure,” he agrees, because he knows that even if he did have a problem getting out of bed to head to the pool, she’d never let him sleep through a practice. Swimming is a commitment, and commitments are to be honored; she’s never had to explain that to him before.

“Alright.” She releases the paper to him. “Then give this to your coach tomorrow, and let her know that she can expect you at 6:20 sharp on Saturday.”

“Will do,” he stands, stretching. He turns at the door, “Thanks, Mom.”

She’s turning the bracelet on her wrist. “Sweet dreams, baby.”

He doesn’t realize he’s forgotten the code until he’s back in bed.

//

Practice on Thursday is harder than any they’ve had so far this summer. Coach Swan stands at the end of their lane, her face set in a grim line. She barks at Sam and Jethro when they get into a mini-splash war between sets, which she’s never done before, and when Henry misses the split on the last 200 IM in a five set, she practically glowers at him. He regrets having a peanut butter sandwich for lunch about halfway through, and his shoulders are burning from the fly, but his head feels clearer than it has in weeks, and he forgets all about silent dinners and lost routines and untouched glasses of red wine so dark they look like blood.

Before he starts his cool down, his heart is pounding so hard, he can feel it in the tips of his fingers. He lets everyone else in his lane go in front of him, then he crosses his legs, blows out almost all of his air, and sinks to the bottom in the shallow end. He can hear the murmured splashing of his teammates, and his goggles are still blurry from their last set, so he closes his eyes. He presses one hand to his chest, pretends the pool is the ocean, and his pulse is the crash of the waves on the shore. He imagines what the pool will sound like on Saturdays, only twenty bodies instead of the fifty odd swimmers disrupting the stillness of the water with their constant movement.

“You’ve got to press with your chest,” he hears Coach Swan’s voice echo in his head over the roaring of his blood in his ears. “You’re following your hands – letting your arms lead. There’s no power there. You’ve got to push with your chest and let your body roll through the stroke.”

He’s running out of air, and the water finally feels heavy above him, like he can feel the earth’s constant pulling and pulling and pulling on everything, trying to squeeze itself smaller, tighter. “Lead with your chest.” He comes up for air, and falls into place behind his lane mates for the cool down, already missing the way his blood feels hot under his skin when he’s been swimming hard, already thinking about the next day’s practice and how hard he’ll have to push to feel his heartbeat everywhere at once.

He shakes Coach Swan’s hand with a tight grip and a meets her hard stare, walks on jello-y legs into the locker room. But when he comes back out on deck to give her the signed permission slip for Saturdays, her tired glare breaks into a grin, and he can’t help but grin back. She laughs out loud and claps him on the back.

For three beats, he thinks he can feel his heart beating all throughout his body.

//

On Saturday morning, his mom hands him a banana and a travel mug of orange juice before they pull out of the driveway. The cars headlights cut through the murky gray light of predawn, and they don’t see a single car on the road until they hit Main Street. The Athletic Center is one of the tallest buildings in Storybrooke – four stories, square and imposing brick – and there are only ten other cars in the parking lot when his mom pulls in.

He gulps down the rest of the juice under his mom’s watchful eye. She’s wearing an office blazer and her maroon silk shirt, a dark grey skirt and black nylons, but she hasn’t put on any lipstick, and her hair is up in a short ponytail rather than curling softly at the tops of her shoulders.

“I’ll see you around 9:15,” she tells him.

His eyes are bleary in the early morning; he couldn’t fall asleep the night before, tossing and turning in his bed, thinking about all the possible sets they could do at practice. Coach Swan had warned him they’d be focusing on individual choice strokes and distance sets. It feels a little bit like first-day of school jitters.

“Thanks for the ride,” he yawns midway through his sentence, and she taps the gearshift and hides a smirk.

“Love you, Mom,” he leans across the center console, kisses her cheek quickly just in case anyone’s coming, and then hops out, grabbing his bag as he goes. The sound of the door slamming is loud in the empty lot, and he jogs across the parking lot and up the front steps, his feet smacking the pavement.

//

It only takes four hundred yards for the chlorine to overwhelm the lingering taste of orange juice on his tongue, and then its as though he’s never tasted or smelled anything else in his life. There are only two other people in his lane – Sebby Holness, a rising eighth grader like him, and Anna Colum, an upcoming seventh grader – and Coach Swan works solely with the three of them for the entirety of practice. Coach Swan seems more awake than anyone else on deck, and Henry wonders how she can be so cheerful when everyone else shuffles out of the locker room looking like the walking dead.

When he first jumps in, the chill of the water causes the breath to stutter in his chest, and he crosses his arms reflexively, but by the time nine o’clock rolls around, the water feels like bathwater against his warm skin, and his face feels warm and red, like he’s been out running in the winter.

He gets changed in the locker room quickly, forgetting for a few minutes that he won’t spend all of brunch telling his mom all about the sets they did and the advice Coach Swan gave him on his stroke, and the new drill she had him try for his backstroke kick. He won’t tell her about how none of the coaches showed up until 6:33, so they all laid out on the deck, heads propped up on kickboards, half of them slipping right back into sleep. He won’t explain how Sebby only waits three seconds before following off the wall, or that Anna laughed so hard at Coach Swan’s straight-faced delivery of one of Coach Eric’s truly horrible swimming jokes that she snorted water out her nose. What kind of fish can’t swim? A dead one. He forgets for ten minutes that he and his mom don’t talk about swimming, and when he remembers, the space between his ribs aches.

//

He also forgets that Coach Swan mentioned that some of the parents bring breakfast stuff, so when he exits the locker room to find two long tables set up in the lobby, loaded with bagels and cream cheese, yogurt, and juice, enough bananas to feed a small army, three kinds of granola, and even a toaster plugged in with an extension cord, he freezes in the doorway. For a minute, it reminds him of the team sleepovers they used to have once a month.

[A kid in his age group would host on a Saturday night when they didn’t have an away meet, and their coach would come for a few hours, before leaving the kids to make t-shirts or play some teambuilding games while eating a ridiculous amount of healthy snacks. They’d all lay out their sleeping bags on the living room floor and one or two kids would giggle and laugh late into the night, keeping everyone else awake. Henry would lay in his sleeping bag, tapping out a silent rhythm on his chest. Steady and strong, he’d whisper to himself because his mom wasn’t there to do it for him. Steady and strong.

None of the other kids ever seemed to want to go home, but his mom would pick him up in the morning, smelling of apples, and smiling gently at him, and Henry could almost feel home just from hugging her. She’d thank the host parents tightly, and they’d shake hands briskly, and then off the two of them would go.

He likes sleepovers well enough, especially when there are just one or two other kids. But Henry only went to four with the team before he stopped telling his mom about them.]

He scans the room, trying to plot the easiest way around all of the milling people. Some of his teammates are out already, loading up paper plates and chatting with the parents, but Henry puts his head down and skirts around the edge, staying close to the wall. The smell of the bagels makes his stomach growl, but his mom is waiting outside.

He’s almost made it out without attracting the attention of any of the parents offering food to their tired children, when Coach Swan catches up to him, bumping her shoulder against his. “Not hungry?” She asks.

“My mom’s waiting,” he shrugs a shoulder towards the door. “We’re getting brunch.” He knows he should take some food, say thank you to the parents who have set up such a nice spread, be gracious and grateful.

“Cool,” Coach Swan doesn’t appear at all put out that he’s apparently trying to sneak out of a potential team bonding opportunity. “Mind if I walk out with you?”

He shakes his head.

“Soooo…” Coach Swan keeps her arms tight to her sides when she walks, as though she’s trying to take up as little space as possible. “First Saturday practice.”

“Hmm.”

“Like it?” She glances at him out of the corner of her eye.

“Yeah.” He shrugs. He is a teenager after all.

“Yeah? Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why’d you like it?”

Henry mulls over the question. He’s not really used to adults being so curious, except for maybe his mom. Normally he can get away with a yeah or a sure or a maybe or even a whatever now and then. But Coach Swan is silent next to him as they push open the front doors, like she’s actually waiting for an answer.

“I –“ But he stops before he can get anything else out, because his mom is sitting on the bench at the foot of the concrete steps, waiting for him. He looks instinctively for the car and finds it in the same parking space she’d pulled into when she dropped him off. His bites his bottom lip. She’s holding something in her hand, but her head is tilted back, eyes closed, as though she’s soaking up the morning sun. The air tastes like salt from the ocean, only two blocks away, and he remembers that his mom used to take him to the beach in the summer, just the two of them, and while he dug in the sand and ran screaming from the waves, she’d sit on the towel, just like she is now, leaning back on her hands, face up towards the sky.

“Is that - ?” Coach Swan begins, but then she’s raising her hand and waving at his mom. “Hey, Madame Mayor!” She calls down the steps.

There’s a moment where his mom doesn’t move at all. Then he sees her shake herself slightly, and look over at them, blinking in the sunlight. She raises a hand in response. His mom – the Mayor – dressed for a day at the office, is waving at the two of them, and then she’s rising to greet them, folding a piece of paper and sliding it into her blazer pocket.

“Coach Swan,” she holds out a hand as they approach. “It’s nice to see you again.” Henry squints at her, not sure if she’s playing the politician or if she actually means it.

Coach Swan must decide she does though, because she smiles at his mom, light and easy, like she smiles at everyone, “Emma, please.”

“How was it?”

“It was good,” he says, while his mom turns her eyes on him, tracking down his thin frame and then back up again, checking for any physical evidence to the contrary.

“There’s only two other people in my lane,” he tells her, for something to say, because she’s still looking at him.

“Well that’s good.”

“Mhmm,” he shifts his bag from his left hand to his right.

“You know, Madame Mayor,” Emma offers, “Parents are more than welcome at practice.”

Henry doesn’t turn to stare at Coach Swan, but he wants to. His mom brings home a pile of paperwork from the office everyday. She never turns her laptop off, and he once averaged out that she checked her phone when she wasn’t at the office every seven and a half minutes. But their car is in the same place as when he left, and her purse is nowhere in sight.

“You can come in and watch if you’re here for Henry, or if you’re just hanging out,” Emma continues, her body relaxed at his side. She’s got her hands in the pockets of her jeans, but she keeps rolling forward onto her toes.

“I’m not sure if Henry would,” his mom breaks off, but she isn’t looking at him anymore. “That is, I’m fairly busy.”

“Sure,” Emma nods, agreeable. “Although I don’t know how you can get work done so early,” she laughs a little bit. “I’m pretty much hopeless until after ten.”

“Isn’t this work?” his mom indicates the Athletic Center.

Henry is still stuck on if Henry would…

“I mean, not really,” Emma pulls one hand out of her pocket and rubs the back of her neck. “I kind of love being on deck, and working with the kids. It’s almost as good as actually being in the water. After sherriffing,” his mom raises one eyebrow; he’s pretty sure that’s not a word, “coaching’s like a really sweet two hour break. Swimming’s pretty much been my favorite thing for, like, ever,” Coach Swan explains.

“I see.” His mom finally faces him again, and her eyes are dark and sorry, sorry, sorry. “I see.” She puts a hand to her chest. “Well, perhaps I’ll consider it sometime. Coming in to watch. If Henry wouldn’t mind his mother being there.”

He doesn’t even try to pretend like some of his friends at school do when their parents are around. “I wouldn’t,” he promises. “That’d be cool, mom.” Sometimes, when his mom smiles at him, it looks like she’s being careful not to smile too wide, like she’s holding some of it back. He makes sure he doesn’t smile at her that way now.

“Well,” Coach Swan’s still there. “Henry skipped out on the bagels this morning, because he tells me you guys are going out for brunch.”

“Yes. Granny’s Diner,” His mom agrees.

“Oh!” Emma exclaims. “Best. Hot chocolate. Ever.”

“Oh? We’ve never tried it.” His mom’s eyebrow is up again, but she’s reached one arm out and wrapped it around Henry’s shoulders, pulling him over to stand with her so they’re both facing Coach Swan. He leans into her side.

“I swear,” Coach Swan’s face is serious. “You have to try it. It’s really, really good.”

Henry bites back a grin. Coach Swan is simultaneously the least professional coach he’s ever had, and the coolest.

“Maybe we will then,” his mom is careful not to promise.

//

When they get home from brunch, Henry bounds up the stairs to put away his swim bag. He hangs his suit up, and drapes his towel over the shower rail. When he turns to leave the bathroom, a white envelope taped to the mirror catches his eye. It has his name on it.

“Mom?” he calls. “What’s this?”

“What, dear?” he hears faintly from downstairs.

But he’s already slipped a finger beneath the seam and popped open the envelope. There’s his copy of his last secret language. And a yellow sticky note with a single line written in his mom’s even script. He decodes it quickly, right there at the bathroom sink.

Strong and steady, my sweet boy.

Chapter Text

July slips into August silently, and before Henry knows it, the new school year, and the start of the fall swim season, are only three weeks away. He starts mowing the lawn every other day, taking any excuse to be outdoors in the wet, still heat of late summer. His mom leaves him a short chore list on the kitchen counter every morning, and she must notice that the entire house smells of chopped grass because she asks him to power wash the back deck. She comes home with fresh cans of white paint for the shed in the back yard, brand new paintbrushes and rollers, and a small can of forest green for the trim. He paints in an old pair of shorts, and ratty t-shirt, and when Paige and her dad pick him up for practice, he still has some paint in his hair. His mom asks him to weed the flower garden, wash all the outside windowpanes on the first floor, but forbids him from getting out the tall ladder and washing the upper story’s, too. She buys a new pair of hedge trimmers for the front yard, buys fresh potting soil, which he spreads in all of the pots on the back patio, has him install new light bulbs in all of the outdoor lights.

He does everything she asks without once complaining, instead reveling in the feelings of the sun hot on his skin, the sweat slick on his arms, and the way his body doesn’t seem to cool down until he jumps in the pool at four o’clock. He rises sometime around eleven, grabs a banana from the fruit bowl, and puts away the untouched cereal bowl his mom leaves out for him every morning, and then he tackles the chores she’s left for him, or he mows the lawn, until Paige and her dad show up. He is tan and lean from hours of yard work and hours in the pool, and his brain feels delightfully light and empty after summer vacation.

His mom picks him up from practice every night, unless she has a late work meeting, and, as soon as they walk in the front door, he watches as the lines across her forehead ease. She slips out of her heels almost immediately, cooks dinner with the kitchen windows open, while Henry sets the table out on the back patio with cloth napkins, their everyday dishes, fresh glasses of milk that start to sweat as soon as he places them down on the glass table. She smiles at him across the table, her expression soft in the glow from the kitchen windows, and most nights, after they’ve eaten, and he’s almost finished with the dishes, she comes into the kitchen with a glass of red wine, tilts her head towards the back door, and waits. He fills a glass with lemonade, adds three ice cubes, lets her lead the way back outside.

She pretends she hasn’t brought home a mountain of work from the office. He pretends not to notice her pretending.

They sit, often in silence, listening to the crickets out beyond the edge of the yard, leaning back in their chairs, racing to be the first to point out the evening star as it appears in the purple twilight sky. They take turns retelling the myths of the constellations, mixing them up, making up their own.

The scent of the sea reaches them faintly, overpowered by freshly cut grass, the roses his mother tends to so gently, the “endless summer” hydrangeas planted on either side of the house. The air between them is lighter than it has been in months, despite the silences they both continue to carry around with them. His mom laughs lightly now and then, and for moments at a time, they are suspended there together in the backyard, suspended in the neverending summer ending.

//

On a Thursday night, when it’s humid enough that his neck is damp with sweat, even after the sun has disappeared beneath the horizon and the sky has burned itself up and faded away, swallowing its oranges and reds and yellows, Henry’s entire body has relaxed into the deck chair. He speaks without conscious effort, the long nights of ease having made him both brave and stupid. Before he quite understands it, he shatters the stillness they’ve been gathering.

“Do you ever regret it?” He asks.

“Regret what?” His mom’s eyes are closed. She’s leaning her head back against her chair; he feels a tug in his stomach when he remembers that his mom never relaxes this way around anyone but him.

“Coming back here to Storybrooke after college?”

There’s the sound of a car firing to a start from several blocks away, but the rest of the neighborhood is quiet.

“No,” she replies finally, as though she’s been turning the question around in her mind. “Why do you ask?”

He doesn’t shrug, but his body has tensed slightly in his chair. He leans forward to set his lemonade down on the table.

“You used to talk about Ithaca a lot. It sounded like you liked it there. And the year you lived in New York. I still remember how you used to tell me about it sometimes.”

“I did,” she agrees. “But Ithaca was very similar to Storybrooke in some ways. And New York was … loud in ways I’m not sure I ever understood.”

“You could have gone anywhere once you had your degree,” he points out. He may only be thirteen, but Henry’s had a list of colleges pinned to his bedroom wall since he was nine. Next to that list there is a world map, with red pins stuck in all of the places he wants to visit someday. There are many more red pins than there are colleges on the list.

“Perhaps,” his mother murmurs. She’s holding her glass of merlot so loosely in her hand that he imagines it sliding from her fingers to shatter on the patio tile. He closes his eyes and remembers the tinkling sound of hail hitting the windshield last winter when they got an ice storm halfway through February that shut down the town for three days in a row.

“I just don’t really get why you came back here.” He doesn’t add when this place seems to make you so unhappy because that would be a question. The past few weeks have been easy in a way he’s unaccustomed to, but the weight on his mom’s shoulders never fully disappeared. It’s a lot of responsibility, he knows, being the mayor, even of a small town like Storybrooke. And it’s a lot of responsibility, he can imagine, being a mom. He wonders, sometimes, how she doesn’t buckle under all of that weight. Wonders if that’s her strong and steady heart, there for all the world to see if only the world was paying attention: strong and steady in the set of his mom’s shoulders, and her straight spine, and the rise of her chin.

“Your grandfather was ill.” She’s answering the question he did ask. “And your grandmother needed my help caring for him. Even after she gave up her post on the city council, she needed an extra set of hands around the house.”

He knows this. Knows they live in the house his grandparents used to own. Knows that his grandmother’s name is still whispered by the people of the town. Knows his Papa Henry passed away two years before he was born, and that his Grandma followed less than a year later of a sudden heart attack.

[If you repeat something enough times, maybe that’ll make it true.

He presses two fingers to the pulse point on his left wrist, and counts the beats. He isn’t wearing his watch, so he can’t really be taking his pulse.

They learned about irony in English last year.]

But he also knows there are photo albums in his mom’s study of her years at college. That there are people she calls once a year, on their birthdays mainly, who live in New York and California and a place called Gateway, Colorado. He knows there is a picture in the top drawer of his mom’s bedroom nightstand of her and a man with brown hair and blue eyes, and the man has his arm around his mom’s waist. On the back of the photograph, in red ink and his mom’s handwriting, it says, D and R, Ithaca Falls, Sophomore Year. He doesn’t know D’s full name. He also cannot remember ever seeing his mom smile the way she is in that picture, wide and bright, and maybe a little bit shy.

“But after,” he points out. “You could have left after.”

“By then, I’d gotten my first position in the mayor’s office,” she reminds him. “And I was settled here.” She opens her eyes, blinks as they adjust to the evening light. The gnats are crowding the single porch light that comes on automatically as dusk falls. She looks over at him. He can just make out the slight upturn of her lips. “And besides, I was waiting for you by then. Storybrooke wa-is small and safe, with a good school system. Although I may not have originally planned on raising a family here,” she grins at him. “as I don’t know many young people who want to live in the same tiny town they grew up when they’re in their early twenties, it turned out to be just what I was looking for in the end.”

Henry is not an adult, but sometimes he tries to pretend he is one, tries to pretend that he understands this strange language adults speak, the one in which they leave out important information in every single sentence.

Henry’s mom seems to understand this difficulty, because she continues, “It was familiar, and, after your grandparents passed away, I found that familiar could be comforting.”

Henry understands familiar. In the way he can count on his mom to leave out breakfast for him in the mornings; in how, after returning to school, it never really feels like there was a vacation at all, like he’s been getting up for an 8:05 start since forever; in the fact that it’s always four strokes from the flags to the point where he turns onto his stomach for the flip turn when he’s doing backstroke.

“Do you like living here?”

Henry stares out into the backyard. There’s a row of pine trees less than fifty feet from where he sits, but in the gathering night, they’re nothing more than a lumpy row of darker blue shadows in the dark blue of the sky. He nods carefully. He does like living in Storybrooke. He likes that Granny’s Diner has had the same menu since before he was born; that he can recognize the faces of everyone he goes to school with; that Archie always lets him pet Pongo when they’re walking by; that Coach Ariel babysat him once upon a time; and that it’s only a ten minute walk from his school to his mom’s office. But he sometimes he thinks about what it would be like if they lived in a different town, maybe a bigger one. He thinks of the names his classmates call his mom in the hallway at school, the names he knows their parents must use. He thinks of the way the townspeople talk about his grandparents. The way his mom only ever says your grandparents and never my mom and dad. He thinks of his mom’s spine, so straight, so heavy.

“Will you tell me about them?” He tries to change the subject.

“About who, sweetheart?”

“Papa Henry and Grandma Cora?”

His mother stiffens in her chair.

[Maybe if they lived in a place where no one knew their names, it wouldn’t be like being invisible, it would be a little bit like being free.]

“Perhaps another time, Henry.” Once his mom sets her mind to something, she does it. He’s seen her stare down pretty much the whole town at a town hall meeting, and take on the principal of his school about anti-bullying policies, and he knows she’s stood up to Mr. Gold, the slimiest man in town. But, right now, out here, just the two of them, she’s asking him – in the hitch of her breathing, the set of her jaw, the way her hands have curled tightly around the stem of her wine glass – she is asking him.

He bites down on his lower lip, and then he lets out a large breath. “Did you know,” he could be about to comment on the weather, “that Coach Swan is an orphan?”

//

[Henry is focused at swim practice. He keeps his head down and gets the workout done, and he tries not to get annoyed when his lanemates goof off, or miss their splits because they’re catching each other’s feet underwater, or cracking jokes, or sharing the latest bit of gossip. But he does listen to them. In the pool, and in the locker room, and while they’re all milling around in the lobby, waiting for their parents to pick them up.

After a particularly grueling practice last week, when everyone’s tempers were short, including Coach Swan’s, she’d made Sebby redo five hundreds in a row because he messed up the breathing pattern. In the locker room, after practice, towel wrapped around his skinny waist and hair sticking up in all directions, Sebby told Sam that his mom heard from the Sheriff that Coach Swan didn’t have a family. “She grew up in foster care, and she got in lots of trouble when she was a kid. My mom said she even went to juvie! She’s an orphan.” His voice had been loud and proud, as if these secrets were some juicy detail to be shared and spread and slobbered over. He said orphan with all the pride of a young teenage boy saying a dirty word for the first time.

Henry’s heart had jolted into his throat, and he’d slammed his locker shut louder than he meant to. Sebby had caught his eye while he was leaving, but Henry hadn’t felt at all pleased when the other boy’s face flushed slightly, and he glanced away. “Anyway,” he heard Sebby mutter as the locker room door swung shut behind him, “That’s what my mom told me.”]

//

“That’s what Sebby said anyway. An orphan.” He repeats it. As if trying to pronounce it in a way that makes more sense, in a way that does not cause his stomach to burn with guilt and fear and hurt. As if, in saying it again, he can hide the way it first sounded like the crack of a gun going off, as if he can muffle the shattering of his mother’s wine glass, which is now lying in shards on the patio tile. He repeats it, and then he studies the refraction of the porch light off the glass. The pieces are smaller than he’d imagined they would be, and they look harmless lying there. Some slivers are so thin they seem to disappear into the grout between the tiles.

His mom is standing. “Don’t move,” she orders, heading for the door and returning seconds later with a broom and dustpan. She flicks a switch before coming back outside, and suddenly the patio is bathed in yellow light. He’s drawn his bare feet up onto the chair. The sweat on the back of his neck is dry, and he shivers at the chill. That’s what Sebby said anyway. An orphan.

“We’ve talked about this before, Henry,” his mom is saying, facing the glass. “About repeating things you hear. About gossip. I thought you understood that other people’s personal lives are no concern of yours. And that people’s histories are certainly no concern of yours.”

“I wasn’t gossiping,” he protests. “Sebby sai-“

“I don’t care what that boy said or did not say. He had no right to share such information with you or anyone else, whether or not it is true. And you certainly had no right to repeat it.” His mom’s words are clipped, like they are sometimes when she makes work phone calls.

“It’s not like it’s such a secret if Sebby knows,” he argues, unsure why he’s suddenly raising his voice when his mom is still speaking at a normal level. “Not if her boss knows and is telling people. Maybe she didn’t tell me, but just because I heard it from someone else doesn’t mean Coach Swan cares if people know…” He should stop talking. He probably should have stopped talking before he even started. As much as he likes Coach Swan – and he really does – he knows practically nothing about her other than what she does for a living and where she went to college and what her favorite drills are. And, he knows that none of his teammates know anything more about her either.

“Not everyone who keeps personal information about their family personal is an orphan, Henry. That is Coach Swan’s business. And hers alone. What she chooses to share with her coworkers may differ from what she chooses to share with her teenage swimmers.”

“I’m not trying to invade her privacy or anything,” he insists, crossing his arms across his chest. His mom is kneeling, picking up the largest pieces of the wine glass and placing them in the dustpan. “It’s not like I went up to her afterwards and asked if it was true or anything. But apparently, there’s a newspaper article about her. She was abandoned as a baby really close to Storybrooke!”

“That’s enough!” His mom never yells at, and she isn’t yelling now, but her voice is shaking, and she still hasn’t looked at him. “This is disrespectful of your Coach, Henry. I expected more from you.”

Henry thinks about how the people in their town had whispered his mother’s name just after she’d vetoed an expensive renovation for City Hall, citing infrastructure needs as a better outlet for the funds, rather than “A facelift for a perfectly functional building. ” “Just like Cora,” he’d heard Leroy telling the pharmacist one day. “A heart as cold as her mothers.” He thinks about how his mom avoids any mention of who said what when she talks about work meetings. He remembers the way kids in his sixth grade class had teased him when they found out through a class assignment that he was Adopted. Or the way it had been news for weeks when Brenna Mason’s parents got a divorce in the second grade.

“You can’t go around repeating everything you hear about people, Henry. If Coach Swan wanted you to know such a private piece of information, I feel quite certain she’d share it with you directly. And if she did grow up in the foster system, that is not a fact to be used for ridicule in any way. Many children who grow up in the system have a much harder life than you or your friends can possibly imagine, and I imagine Coach Swan has worked very hard to get where she is today. There are also quite a few children who get placed in the foster system because their biological parents are not the best option for the child’s safety or healthy. Her personal life is none of your business, nor is it the business of anyone else except Coach Swan.”

“I just –“

“Henry!” She raises her voice to cut him off, but hisses immediately afterward, bringing her right hand up to her chest. She’s grabbed a large piece of glass too tightly, and there is blood dripping down her thumb and off her wrist onto the patio tiles.

He stares at where the blood is mixing with the wine. When he tears his eyes away, he meets his mom’s gaze. She isn’t crying, but he finds that this lack of tears surprises him.

“Do you think of yourself that way?” She’s whispering now, but the echo of his name rings in his ears, and there’s a lump in his throat that won’t go away. The air is thick and stifling, and, for the first time in his life, he realizes, that if he could choose any superpower, he would pick the ability to turn back time. He only wants to be away, to go back maybe, to reverse the clock twenty minutes and go on sitting in comfortable silence with his mom. His wonderful, smart, kind, serious mom. “Do you think of yourself as-as a-an orphan?”

He tries to swallow. The word doesn’t sound at all dirty when his mom says it. Just sad maybe. Heavy, like the invisible weight on her shoulders. And Henry doesn’t feel that way. Not really. He has a family. He has grandparents he’s never met, and he has his mom. His mom, who used to read Owl Moon three times in a row before bed just because he’d ask, and the third time they’d read it together, “The owl’s call came closer, from high up in the trees on the edge of the meadow. Nothing in the meadow moved. All of a sudden an owl shadow lifted off and flew right over us. We watched silently with heat in our mouths, the heat of all those words we had not spoken.” His mom, who wakes him up at 12:01am every birthday with a cupcake and a single candle and sings Happy Birthday quietly and off key, and then tells him to make a wish, and never, ever asks him what he wished for. His mom, who taught him to ride a bike. And how to tie his shoes. And how to drive the lawn mower. And where to find the biggest blackberries in the bushes out beyond the back yard.

But he also has Adopted with a capital A, and a heart he doesn’t understand, and a whole host of questions he’s not sure he’s ever going to get the answers to, a whole host of questions that make this heavy sloshing noise where they sit in his lungs.

Henry has never, not once, not before last week, thought of the word orphan in any way connected to himself. And he loves his mom. Loves her so much that sometimes he has no idea how to tell her. Not even in secret languages or in strong and steady or by following the maps of the constellations on his ceiling.

So, he opens his mouth to tell her no. or of course not. or let’s clean out your cut and i’ll get you one of those green lantern band aids from the medicine cabinet. and i’ll clean up the rest of the glass in the morning. but especially please momma, let’s just read a bedtime story and you can tuck me in and we’ll both make wishes for sweet dreams always. because i love you i love you i love you.

But instead, Henry Mills can barely breathe, and he says, “Yeah. Sometimes, I guess.”

//

He wonders what it is that holds a person together, instead of letting them shatter across the ground, what it is that keeps all of their sharp edges pressed so tightly together that they end up cutting themselves on their tiny, hidden pieces.

Chapter Text

[One spring, when Henry is still little enough to be picked up every now and then, when he still has trouble with the “-ing” sound, he tells his mom that fall is his favorite season because that’s when the gooses come. The geese, sweetheart. The plural of goose is geese. Right. Well, fall’s when the geese come. Is it almost fall, Momma? Not yet. But the geese are here now, love. They’ve migrated here for the warmer months. But I like ‘em best in the fall, Momma. When they’re all flyin’ and honkin’ way up in the sky. They all take such good turns being in front so none of ‘em get too tired and get left behind. Mr. Archie told me that. Did he? Yup. And they all stick together. The whole way to North Carolina. All the way while they’re migr-mi-migratin’. Migrating. That’s right. They do all stick together in their flock. Flock. Like that’s their family, right? Mhmm. All together, all the way. Cool. Very cool.]

[Six months later, his mom packs up a big picnic basket one Saturday. She dresses him in a long sleeve and a sweatshirt and a coat, pulls a hat down snug over his ears because it’s only October but all the leaves have changed and the air is sharp with early winter frost already. She kisses him on the tip of his nose before swinging open the front door and leading the way to the car. He sings “Wheels on the Bus” while they drive because he’s just started taking the bus to school in the mornings, and it is one of his favorite things. His Momma doesn’t sing along, but she’s smiling at him in the rearview mirror.

She spreads a blanket down when they get to the beach while he runs along the shore, picking up the smoothest rocks he can find, and hauling back handful after handful to be passed into her waiting bag. After lunch, they’re resting on the blanket. He’s got his head on his Momma’s stomach – listening to her tummy talk – when she lifts her arm and points up. There they are, sweetheart. See? The geese! Momma, it’s the geese! It is.

Henry’s whole body starts to wriggle with excitement, and his voice goes quiet with wonder. How do they fly so straight? Without bumping into each other even a little bit? I don’t know, tiny love. They must talk to each other while they fly. I wonder if the diff’ernt families have their own languages. Can all the geese talk to each other, Momma? I expect so. Just like humans can speak to one another. Someday, when I get big, I’m gonna be a goose, Momma. Is that so?

Henry scoots up to rest his head on his mom’s shoulder without taking his eyes from the flying birds. She wraps one arm around his little body and holds him close.

It’s chilly in the wind, and no one else is in sight on the beach. Mhmm. And you’ll be a goose, too. Really? Duh, Momma. If I’m gonna be flying all over the world, you’ll have to come, too. Family’s migrate together. ‘Member. Yes, dear. I remember.

Henry’s too busy tracking the birds to hear the hitch in his Momma’s breathing.]

//

He hears her leave for the office the next morning, but he doesn’t get out of bed to say goodbye. She pauses outside his bedroom door on her way downstairs; he can see her shadow under the doorframe. He holds his breath, counts to fifty, waits for her to turn and leave. When he hears the creak of the seventh stair, he lets out all of the stale air in his lungs in a whoosh. The next breath he takes feels forced, and his lungs burn. He turns over onto his stomach, flips his pillow, and pulls it closer to him, closing his eyes tight enough to see the pink and green and yellow dots that remind him of the kaleidoscope he got for his birthday when he was seven.

He rolls out of bed once he’s sure she’s gone. Once he’s heard the beep of the coffee pot to signal it’s finished brewing, once he’s heard the click of the front door, and the rumble of her car starting in the driveway. The whole house feels heavier once she’s gone, and the quiet fills up all the rooms, pressing on him. He swallows several times, as though to get his ears to pop after a sudden change in air pressure. It’s only eight, and he’s tired from a restless night, but he rolls out of bed anyway.

The kitchen tiles are cold on his bare feet. He steps lightly. She’s left him a note as usual. It reads:

Will you please mow the lawn before practice? Have a good day, and call if you need anything.

Don’t forget about breakfast!
- Mom

There’s a cereal bowl on the counter, with a napkin and a spoon and an empty glass. He crosses his arms, leans down on the counter and stares at the unoffending cutlery. There are Honey Nut Cheerios in the cupboard. A new gallon of 2% in the fridge. He glances back at the note. There are goosebumps rising on his arms, and the kitchen still smells faintly of his mom’s perfume. He swallows a sudden lump in his throat, picks up the bowl and spoon, but at the last second turns to put them in the dishwasher, unused. He grabs the detergent from under the sink, fills the soap dish, and presses start. The resulting hum is immediate, rising to fill the kitchen.

They learned about sound in science class: about longitudinal waves, frequency, amplitude, wavelength. About speed of sound and sound pressure and direction. The relationship between density and pressure. Sound cannot travel through a vacuum, he knows. It’s not a physical substance in and of itself. It requires some kind of medium through which to travel. He listens to the dishwasher with relief, takes a deep, deep breath, and smiles when the air doesn’t catch in his throat.

He grabs a banana off the rack, and heads back upstairs to dress.

//

“Henry, look!” Paige turns around in the front seat to gain his attention. She rolls down her window and sticks her hand out, pointing up towards the sky. He rests his forehead against his own window to look up. There’s a V of Canadian geese above them, pointing south.

“They’re early,” Henry murmurs, watching them fly.

Paige’s dad glances at his watch before looking back at the road, “Kind of early for them to be going already, isn’t it,” he says.

“I’ve always liked them.” Henry can hear Paige’s smile in her voice.

“They can be nasty birds,” her dad argues.

Henry frowns.

“Maybe we should head south for the winter like them,” Paige suggests, laughing. “Winter in South Carolina. That’d be nice.” She glances back to where Henry’s sitting in the backseat. “We could have swim practice in an outdoor pool.”

“That’d be sweet,” he agrees. But when they pull up outside of the Athletic Center, he’s still thinking about migration patterns and V formations and flocks. He’d done a project on Canadian Geese in fifth grade. Most flocks end up in the same places year after year, and many make their nests in the same spots their parents did – hatching their young where they, too, once hatched. Scientists still aren’t entirely sure how the birds know where to fly, whether it’s an internal compass based on the earth’s magnetic field, or some kind of geographical mapping, or even if the birds navigate using the star’s positions. He presses his left hand to his chest, as though he might be able to reach beneath his skin and pull out his heart, just to check. Would there be directions written there in some invisible ink only his family could read?

Paige is already out of the car when she turns to call for him. “We’re going to be late! And I’m not doing any pushups!”

The birds are long gone. He opens the door, slides out into the still heat of August, and thanks Jefferson for the ride.

//

Coach Swan’s gone because of a work meeting, and Henry is almost grateful he doesn’t have to face her. She can’t possibly know anything about last night or the things he’d said about her. She doesn’t know about shattered wine glasses, and the blood on the patio tiles, and she doesn’t know anything about the way his mom’s face looked – frozen and white and exhausted – when he’d pushed himself out of his chair and practically sprinted for his room. She doesn’t know anything, but his stomach has been churning all day, and he’s relieved when he realizes he won’t have to look her in the eye. At least not yet.

He doesn’t look at Sebby either, and when they finally start their first set, Henry goes first, pushing off the wall as forcefully as he can, knowing he only has five seconds until the next person follows. He’s no longer a little kid; humans can’t grow up to be birds. This is as close to flying as he’s ever going to get. He repeats that thought to himself over and over and over until he can’t think anything else. This – cupped hands and fast feet, aching muscles, straining lungs, the jolt of the wall on every flip turn – this is as close to flying as he is ever going to get.

//

His mom sent him a text at 5:45. Last minute, late meeting. Mr. Hatter will drive you home. Will you be okay for dinner? At 5:47: There’s leftover chicken casserole. I’ll probably be home late. Please don’t play your Gameboy all night.

He texts her back at 6:35, after he’s showered and changed, and climbed into Paige’s car. I haven’t had a Gameboy since I was nine; it’s a PSP. Don’t work too hard.

It’s all perfectly normal. He turns his phone on silent, slips it back into his swim bag, and tries to pay attention to the argument Paige and her Dad are having about the proper way to eat pizza.

“You’re welcome for dinner, Henry,” Mr. Hatter tells him when he pulls up outside his house. “I can drive you back afterwards.”

“Thanks,” he smiles at both Paige and her dad. “But I’m good. Thanks so much for the ride.”

“Anytime,” Mr. Hatter nods. “It’s no trouble.”

He waves to them after unlocking the front door, and waits until their car turns the corner to go inside. The house has only been empty for a little over three hours, but already the silence has taken hold. He drops his swim bag with a loud thud in the front hall, takes in the closed study door, the empty bowl where his mom leaves her keys, the pair of tennis shoes he kicked off and left next to the stairs a few days ago, now sitting straight and neat on the first step, ready for him to take up to his room. “I’m home,” he can’t resist calling. The words don’t echo back to him, but he waits a few extra seconds there in the entryway just in case.

//

He’s still awake at eleven. And 11:30. And midnight. The stars on his ceiling have lost their glow, but he doesn’t want to turn the light on to recharge them because if his mom gets home to find him still awake, she’ll be upset.

By 1:00, his eyes have started to burn, but he still can’t fall asleep. He reaches out to touch the photograph sitting framed on his bedside table. He can picture it clearly in his mind: his mom, in black sweater and jeans, him in a red polo and khakis. He’s no more than three, and she’s holding him on her hip. He’s grinning at the camera, but his mom’s looking at him, her hair pulled back away from her face, and her lips upturned just slightly. He’s never asked who took the picture, and he finds, suddenly, that not knowing is making him feel a bit sick. He closes his eyes against the darkness in his room, but he can’t get the picture out of his head.

//

[What’s the matter, sweetheart? His mom’s sitting up in bed, illuminated only by the soft light of her bedside lamp. She’s wearing her glasses, holding a book. There are dark circles under her eyes, but her smile is even and easy.

My brain won’t shut off, Momma.

Come lay by me. She pats the covers next to her. I’ll read to you.

He snuggles down next to her, humming with contentment when she pulls him closer. She’s reading something about fairytales and adaptations. He’s asleep before the third page, and in the morning, he wakes up in his own bed, unsure how he arrived there.]

//

He hears her car first. He squints blearily at his alarm clock. 2:07 blinks mercilessly back at him in red. He throws back his covers, tiptoes over to his door, and opens it a crack. She’s almost silent coming in, but he hears the flick of the lock on the front door. She must have taken off her heels, because there’s no clicking as she crosses the hall. He’d avoided the casserole and made himself pancakes instead, ignored the voice in his head – his mom’s voice – saying, “Breakfast for dinner! Comfort food!” But all he hears from the kitchen is the tap running for several seconds, and then she flicks off the hall light. He closes his door carefully, jumps back into bed, rolls over onto his side and pulls the covers up to his chin.

He forces himself to relax, to slow his breathing. He has not seen his mom in over twenty-four hours. Once again, she stops outside his bedroom door. Except this time, he hears her turn the knob and push the door open. A crack of light falls across his bed. He closes his eyes tightly, and starts to count. He’s almost at one hundred before there’s a rustle from the doorway. As the light disappears, he hears her, voice hoarse, “Sweet dreams, my sweet boy.”

When he’s sure she’s gone to her own room, he tucks his head, brings his knees up and wraps his arms around them. He pretends he can smell her perfume, like apples and spring, pretends he isn’t thirteen, but still just a little boy and cuddled up in his mom’s bed. Henry doesn’t remember falling asleep.

//

“Henry. Honey. It’s time to get up.”

He groans.

“It’s almost 6. We have to get going.”

His hands are heavy when he lifts them to rub at the sand in his eyes. He blinks once. Twice. And his mom comes into focus. She’s sitting on the very edge of his bed, one hand hovering over him as though she’s unsure whether to shake him awake or not.

“Good morning.” She’s done her make up this morning. Fresh lipstick. And mascara. And eye shadow. But her voice is low and scratchy as though she’s getting a cold, and her eyes are red rimmed. “Time to wake up,” she repeats.

“I’m ‘wake,” he mumbles. He’s pretty sure that if she’d let him be, he could maybe get up in time for practice on Monday. His body already wants to protest the idea of sitting up, let alone getting into the pool.

“I’ll be downstairs,” his mom says as she stands.

He reaches out to stop her, and she pauses, looking at him. He has a few things to say, he realizes, about Thursday and from his many hours of sleeplessness last night, but he sees her eyes track to the clock and back to him, and he swallows instead. “Thanks for waking me up,” he manages.

“You don’t want to be late,” and then she’s gone.

He stands, changes into his sweats, stretches, standing on his tiptoes and raising his arms above his head. He takes as much time as he can getting ready in the bathroom, brushing his teeth and packing up his swim bag. His movements are clumsy, and his body feels unwieldy. His mom meets him at the bottom of the staircase, hands him a cup of orange juice and a banana without speaking. He slips into his tennis shoes, and follows her out the door, shivering in the cool morning air. The sun has only just risen, and is just starting to burn off the morning fog. His mom turns the heat on low in the car, keeps the radio off.

Henry eats the banana, drinks his juice, tries not to make a face at the orange juice-toothpaste combination. He drums his right hand on the door, and is very, very careful not to look over at his mom. He opens his mouth to speak a few times, but each time, he just takes another sip of juice. Maybe at brunch, he thinks. Maybe then.

His mom’s shoulders are straight, he can tell from the corner of his eye. She’s dressed for the office, a silk shirt and fitted pants, her black heels. He knows she’d gotten less sleep than him, and he can hardly hold his head up, but his mom looks as put together as ever. He wonders idly if that is a skill all adults learn somewhere, the ability to pull oneself together. On second thought, he thinks of everything he knows about his mom, it might just be her own special power.

“I’m sorry about last night.” His mom finally breaks the silence. She clears her throat. “About having to work late.”

“No problem.” And before his brain can catch up to his mouth, he says, “I’m used to it.” He didn’t mean it like that, but his mom flinches.

She brings one hand up to smooth her hair. He turns to stare out the window. “Mr. Gold had some pressing concerns about – “

“It’s cool, Mom. Really.” His voice cracks on the last word. He’s just so tired. And all he can see is that picture on his nightstand, and his mom’s blood mixing with the wine, and the V of the geese, all so in tune with each other. He glances over in time to see her nod, her mouth set in a straight line. He reaches forward and turns on the radio, sets it to the classic rock station.

Neither of them speak again until she’s parked outside the Athletic Center and turned off the ignition. He’s got one foot out the door when she leans across the center console and places her hand gently on his elbow.

“Henry.”

Matt Rickman and Roger List are crossing the parking lot together, but they’re too far away to hear anything she might say.

“Henry,” she repeats.

He steps out fully and turns to face her, one arm on the door, the other resting across the top of the car. Her hand has come to rest on his vacated seat, and she’s staring up at him, like maybe she can understand exactly what he’s thinking.

“Have a good practice,” she says. He nods.

“I love you.” He nods again, sharper this time.

She smiles at him, but her hand is shaking slightly when she holds it up to him. He reaches out to take it, almost like they’re going to shake on it. Instead, she squeezes his fingers once, and he’s surprised to find that his hand is larger than hers now. “Love you,” her voice is steady.

He lets go first. “You, too.” He shuts the door, and heads for the pool, not looking back. Matt and Roger have already disappeared through the front doors, but Henry walks quickly after them, trying to catch up. His chest is tight, and he closes his hand into a fist, squeezing tighter and tighter, until it feels as though his nails will break through his skin.

//

He lays on the pool deck, having changed into his suit and then slipped back into his sweats. His teammates are lying next to him, and he’s pretty sure Roger’s started snoring on his left while they wait for their coaches. He’s exhausted, but he stares resolutely upward, counting the ceiling panels while he waits. He tilts his head back when he hears Coach Swan’s laugh, booming out over the pool. She’s got a cup of coffee in one hand, and a piece of paper – the day’s workout – in the other, walking next to Coach Ariel.

He hears Sebby’s voice in his head, remembers what his mom said that night, “Coach Swan’s personal life has nothing to do with you,” and looks back up to the ceiling. He closes his eyes, so he doesn’t have to smile at her when she walks past and nudges his foot with her own. He waits until Coach Ariel claps and orders cheerfully, “Come on layabouts. We’ve got some laps to do,” to sit up. He sheds his sweats, leaving them on the bleachers, and follows along as Nila counts out the stretches. He feels Coach Swan’s eyes on him once or twice, but he bites his lip and doesn’t look up.

His mom’s I love you is sitting heavily on his spine. The word Orphan is ringing in his ears.

[Are we at all the same? He wants to ask Coach Swan.]

[Will you tell me about it?]

[Do you know where your heart belongs?]

“Five. Six. Seven…” He counts along dutifully, and breathes through his nose.

//

“We missed you at practice yesterday, Coach,” Anna’s saying. Henry’s clearing his goggles after warm-up.

“I missed you guys, too,” Coach Swan’s slapped the paper onto a kickboard and is dunking it quickly in the pool to help it stick. “But don’t worry,” she says, “I wrote up an extra special few sets just to make up for it.”

Sebby groans, and Anna grins, but Henry simply picks up the board and studies the workout. 3 x (1 x 400, 2 x 300, 3 x 200, 4 x 100) at set pace per 100 per set. It’s 6000 yards, he knows, and they’ll be lucky to finish in time. When he passes the board to Sebby and looks up, Coach Swan is watching him.

“What’d’you think, Kid?” She asks.

He shrugs. “Looks good, Coach.”

“You going to rock it out?” She’s teasing him a little bit, but he can hardly meet her eye.

He shrugs again.

She doesn’t frown, but her face tightens, and for a minute, he’s reminded of his mom. “I’m thinking we’ll start at 1:40 pace for the first set, and go from there.”

Thankful that she’s turned her attention back to the whole lane, Henry nods along easily.

“Henry, you’ll lead. It’s all free,” Coach Swan’s voice is overly cheerful for the morning hour. Henry’s head has started to ache a little bit from tiredness. He shakes it away.

“On the top,” she tells them.

He sets his goggles, turns to face the clock, and pushes any extraneous thoughts away. Sets like this one are good. He can focus on each piece as it comes. 57…58…59… He takes a breath and lets his body sink below the surface, pushes from the balls of his feet, extending into a tight streamline, arms up, hands together, head down. One four hundred. That’s all he has to remember right now. He starts counting.

//

“You’re about two seconds off, Henry,” Coach Swan tells him when he hits the wall after the third 200 in the second set. He’s breathing hard, and he knows his face is probably red, but he’d insisted on dropping the full ten seconds from his pace.

He nods to show he’s heard.

“Your left hand is slipping. Make sure to keep your fingers tight.”

He grips the wall in response, and sinks to ready himself for the four one hundreds. She’s giving them fifteen seconds between groups, just enough time to grab a sip of water or to clear their goggles. Coach Swan has crouched down next to him. “If you need to, we can slow the pace,” she mutters. Sebby and Anna are swimming five seconds slower than him.

He shakes his head. He’s been in the water for over an hour, and he’s been doing his best to swim as hard as he can so he doesn’t have to think about his mom or Coach Swan or Canadian Geese or anything that doesn’t have to do with a three count breathing pattern and hundred split times. It’s not working all that well, but if he keeps pushing he’s sure, eventually, he won’t have enough energy to think at all.

“Alright.” Coach Swan taps him once on the shoulder. “Pick it up then, Kid. In three, two, on-“

He’s gone.

In the first hundred, he vaguely remembers yesterday’s practice. It was slower, more drill based. He’d had plenty of time to feel his way through the pool. To simply feel all the water resting above him, to gather each stroke, pull it in, and push it away. It bears almost no resemblance to today’s practice, and if anyone asked, he’d say today’s practice was basically a different sport entirely. His lungs are burning, and every third stroke, when he turns for air, it comes in sharp. This is nothing like flying. But on his third flip turn, he remembers sitting out on the patio two weeks before, and his mom retelling him the myth of the boy Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with wings his father Daedalus created for him. The wax holding his wings together melted and Icarus fell to his death in the sea. Perhaps, Henry thinks, as he hits the wall and glances at the clock – right on time – today’s swim is more like Icarus’ flight, and he’s simply burning himself up until the water can claim him.

//

Henry hasn’t pushed this hard in practice in months. By midway through the third set, he feels a little dizzy, off balance in the water. His mouth is dry, his tongue thick with the taste of chlorine, and the muscles in his upper arms ache.

“On to your 300s, Henry,” Coach Swan says. “Last time through. Keep it up.”

His hands shake when he clears his goggles, and he shakes his head to get the water out of his ears. He glances once around the pool deck with his few extra seconds, and he freezes when he sees her. His mom is sitting on the metal bleachers against the far wall. Her purse is next to her, untouched, and she’s sitting with her legs tightly together, hands in her lap, watching them swim. She must see him glance over because she lifts her hand in a half wave. He doesn’t have time to wave back, but he looks over at Coach Swan before he leaves again. She’s smiling at his mom.

Henry feels as though he’s been punched in the stomach, and he forgets to hold onto some of his air as he pushes off. His mom has never come to one of his Saturday morning practices before, despite the fact that Coach Swan has dropped not-so-subtle hints that parents are welcome every time she’s seen her after practice. Anna’s dad sits in the stands each weekend. And some of the older kids’ parents show up early, before they’re finished, to watch for a few minutes. But his mom has never once stayed.

He blinks fiercely as he swims, his eyes stinging.

[And you know what else your heart does? What? It holds all the love you’ve got, and all the love you’ve got to give. Just stores it up. And keeps it safe. You must have lots of love, Momma, ‘cause your heart sounds pretty strong. You must have the most love outta anybody in the whole world. ]

[Mom? How come it’s just you and me? Like most of my friends at school have two parents. Or, like a brother and a sister or something. But it’s just us. Oh, Henry. How could I ever need anyone but you?]

[So the moon makes the ocean move? Mhmm. Isn’t it real far away? Very far. But that’s how strong it is. Strong enough to move the wholeeee ocean. Because of gravity, but yes, silly boy. Strong enough to move all of the oceans.]

[Happy birthday, my sweet boy. Make a wish! I’m wishing for a big heart, Momma. So I can hold more love, just like you. … Momma? Isn’t that a good wish? It’s a wonderful wish, sweetheart. It really, really is.]

Henry’s lost count of where he’s at in his 300. But his goggles are full of water, and they aren’t leaking. He can’t get his breathing under control. His heart is pounding and pounding and pounding in his ears, and he thinks maybe he can hear the ocean all the way from here, the waves pounding on the shore as the moon pulls in and pushes out even from 200,000 miles away.

He does a flip turn, but misjudges his distance from the wall, and when his feet hit only water, he nearly panics; coming to such a sudden halt is jarring. He sweeps his arms up above his head to move feet first back to the wall and regain his balance. He puts his hand to his chest and pushes hard, like he can force his heart to cooperate, like it is a foreign body trying to escape. His streamline is shaky, but he kicks hard off the wall, blinking rapidly. The black line alone the bottom of the pool is wavy and distorted, and when he comes out of streamline for his first breath, he sucks in a mouthful of water instead. He thinks of Icarus, just a boy. And of his mom sitting there, dressed for the office, back ramrod straight. He thinks of Coach Swan’s easy slouch, and her handshake at the end of every practice – all that trust. He thinks of shattered glass, of careful I love you’s, of the weight of silence, and the weight of all of the gallons of seawater on earth, and the weight of a single human heart.

This is nothing like flying, he thinks. Nothing like the seeming weightlessness of a flock of geese hanging in the crisp blue of a fall sky. Nothing like peace.

He is gasping as he swims, turning his head every other stroke for whatever air his tattered lungs can bear.

[Coach Swan doesn’t have a family! ]

[Adopted.]

[I am always going to love you, my sweet boy.]

When he touches the wall, he stands, shaky on his feet, but he puts his forehead down onto the edge of the pool deck, his goggles still on. He has no idea where he is in the set, or where the rest of his lanemates are. He puts his hands palms down on the deck, and struggles to breathe. This isn’t right. This isn’t at all right. If he could just focus. Focus on the set. Focus on the pool. His whole body feels light.

But then Coach Swan’s voice is there, right next to his ear, “Henry. Henry. Hey.” She’s saying his name. Over and over again. “You’re alright, Henry. Come on. Lift your head up. Henry. Come on.”

He raises his head at her prompting, feels her lift his goggles gently off his face. She’s crouched down right in front of him, but he still can’t really breathe, and he’s starting to panic, his chest heaving.

“Hey. Hey, Henry. You’re okay. Come on. Can you get out? Let’s get you out of the water. Come on.”

He thinks he’s crying, but he’s not sure. Coach Swan’s face is coming in and out of focus.

“I need you to breathe, Henry. Breathe. You can do it.” She might be smiling at him. He shakes his head no. “You can,” she urges him. “You can do it. Come on.”

He pushes shakily with his arms, manages to lift himself out and onto the deck, where he tries to pull his knees up to his chest.

“Henry,” Coach Swan’s voice isn’t sharp, but she’s got one hand gripping his shoulder tightly. He doesn’t see her wave the other hand behind her back as though to keep someone away. “I need you to breathe with me.” She takes a deep breath, holds it, and lets it out. “Like this. With me.” She demonstrates again. “Stand up.” This is an order, and he struggles to obey, rising carefully to his feet. She steadies him. “Now, hands on your head, Henry. Here.” Obediently, he raises both hands and puts them on top of his head, stretching out his torso. It helps a little bit. Her voice is calm. He listens closely to her, tries to focus only on her.

But his mom is here. His mom, he remembers, and everything’s sharp again, and he goes to drop his hands to his knees, to bend over, to hide. Everyone else can see him right now. Crying. But all he can think about is his mom, here, to watch him swim.

[Do you think of yourself that way? As an orphan?]

“Hey, Henry. Keep standing up. That’s it. Good job, Henry. You’re doing great. Now breathe with me.” Coach Swan is standing directly in front of him, one hand on either of his arms. “In,” she orders. “And out.” He tries. He does. “Again. Good job. In. Out.” She repeats it over, and over, holding eye contact with him.

“I’m sorry,” he tries to say, in between gasping breaths.

“In.” She ignores him. “Out.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He can’t stop saying it.

“You’re alright, Henry.” She says it so fiercely that he wants nothing more than to believe it. “You’re gonna be fine, Kid. In. And out.”

He mimics her, feels the air going into his lungs, feels it flowing out, like breathing. Like the automatic action his body does every single day. In and out. “I’m sorry,” he’s whispering it. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s alright.” She tells him. “Just keep breathing. You’re okay. You’re okay, Henry.”

Chapter Text

He makes a list:

- My name is Henry Mills.
- I am in the locker room at the Storybrooke Athletic Center.
- I am thirteen years old.
- I am at swim practice.
- I am here.
- I am here.
- I am here.

He’s spent the past ten minutes throwing up. His throat feels raw and tight, like he’s been screaming at the top of his lungs. His head is heavy. He cried while he vomited. He isn’t crying anymore; he’s not sure he has any water left in his body at all.

- The pool is 25 yards long.
- The Atlantic Ocean is anywhere from 3.3 to 3.7 percent salt.
- You cry saltwater and drink freshwater and it’s entirely possible to die of dehydration while surrounded by the sea.

He takes his phone out of his locker, sets it face up in his shaking palm. Presses play on the music, and turns it up as loud as it will go. The speaker is just above his wrist, and he can feel the vibrations of the sound waves through his skin.

- The human body contains over 60,000 miles of blood vessels.
- Deoxygenated blood from the head and the arms enters the heart through the Superior Vena Cava.
- On average, the heart will expand and contract over 100,000 times a day.

With his free hand, he makes a fist, puts it up to his chest, over where his heart is. It’s beating. If his heart weren’t beating he’d be dead. He wonders if his heart can feel the vibrations from the music.

- Ulnar Vein.
- Brachial Vein.
- Axillary.
- Subclavian.
- Brachiocephalic.
- Superior Vena Cava.
- Heart. Heart. Heart.

Lists are easy. Easier than breathing. His eyes are red and scratchy. His legs won’t hold him up. His hands are still shaking. Lists, though. Lists he can do.

- In fifth grade, his teacher drew a giant heart on white butcher paper, labeled the major parts, and had each of them walk through it, naming the atriums and ventricles, veins and arteries as they went.
- He memorized the parts of the heart in one fifty minute lesson.
- When he was six, his favorite Disney movie was Peter Pan. He had a pirate themed birthday party that year, and he dressed up as a shadow for Halloween. And on New Years Eve, he whispered into his momma’s ear his resolution: “I am never. Ever. Going to grow up.”
- He believes resolutions are promises. He hasn’t made a New Years Resolution since that year, because that year, he still turned eight on his birthday, and he’d still grown an inch and a half when his mom measured him on the door frame.
- Just because you say something, doesn’t make it true.

The metal of the locker is cold on his back. He shivers. He gags, but there’s nothing left in his stomach to come up. He sees himself miss the flip turn, flail in the water, searching for the wall. He sees Coach Swan with her arms on his shoulders, her voice in his ear. Her breath smells like coffee, and her face is white and close and worried. He sees his mom on the bleachers, his mom standing up, his mom -

- Coach Swan promised him he’d be alright. And yes, here he is.
- Alright is, perhaps, a relative term.
- His mom promised to love him, always.
- Always is forever. No matter what.
- He promised he’d never grow up.
- If this is growing up, he’d much rather keep his promise.

//

It takes ten minutes for his body to stop trembling. Another five for his breathing to even out, and for his legs to stop feeling like jelly. The music echoes off the hard tiled floor, and the tiled walls, and the metal lockers. He puts the phone down on the bench, stands carefully, and starts pulling out his clothes. Everyone else will be finishing their cool downs soon. They’ll come tumbling into the locker room, loud and boisterous and finally awake after six thousand yards.

“Take a few minutes,” Coach Swan had said, walking him to the locker room door. “Take a few minutes, and then we’ll talk.”

He’s taken twenty. Twenty is more than a few. He slides his sweat pants over his swimsuit, and then pulls on his sweatshirt. Socks onto still wet feet. Tennis shoes. This is methodical, routine. Mindless. He pulls out his headphones, slips them into his ears, and then plugs them in. The sound stops echoing, but it’s closer this way. There is less distance from the head to the heart after all.

He leans forward, pressing his forehead hard enough against the locker to leave a diamond shaped pattern in his skin.

He doesn’t want to talk. He doesn’t want to cry anymore or throw up anymore, or do anything but sleep. But ten boys are about to come trooping in from the pool deck, and there are thirty parents out the other way, and his body feels stretched and loose, and he has to move.

“You’re going to be alright, Henry,” Coach Swan had said, as he’d tried and tried and tried to get his breathing under control.

He pulls open the door leading into the lobby. The tables with breakfast have been set up on the far wall. Parents are milling about. A glance towards the pool deck shows everyone just hopping out, returning kick boards and pull buoys to their bins, rinsing out the team water bottles they use, gathering shoes and goggles and caps.

She’d walked him almost to the door, because he was still a little wobbly on his feet, like he’d been on board a ship for weeks and had only just returned to dry land. Everything in front of him had been blurry, but he’d kept his gaze focused firmly on the white tiled floor, and put one foot in front of the other. “Drink some water,” she’d said. “Sit down for a few minutes. Relax a little bit.”

Henry slips out the door, head down. He doesn’t look to the left or to the right, but heads straight for the doors leading outside. He doesn’t see the woman waiting at the corner of the pool. He doesn’t see Coach Swan approach her, arms crossed across her chest, face set in a thin line. He doesn’t see them nod hello. Or Coach Swan’s right arm fall, hover, and then come to rest on the other woman’s elbow. He doesn’t see them, and they don’t see him.

He’d nodded. He had cleared his throat once, twice, and just as she was turning away, headed back to his lanemates who were still working through the set, he found his voice. “I’m sorry,” he’d said. She’d turned back to him, smiled gently, shook her head no. “I am,” he’d tried again. “I am sorry.” “Henry,” she’d sighed then, and for the first time, he realized that she and his mom were just about the same height. He straightened his spine. He looked at his feet, back to her. “I’m Adopted,” he said. “And I’m sorry.” She stared at him. Her eyes were green and open, and nothing like his mom’s. He pivoted on one heel, pushed through the door, and just barely made it to the toilet before he started throwing up.

He’s out the door and walking down the front steps of the Athletic Center before he even registers how chilly it is outside, grey and overcast. He hops the last stair, takes three steps, starts to jog, his swim bag thumping his back with every stride. He’s running by the time he gets to the corner. The ocean is three blocks away.

- Real hearts are messy and fragile and not all of them work the way they should.
- If he were to see a 2D model of his heart, blown up 1000x times, on white butcher paper, with its Superior Vena Cava, its Aorta, its Left and Right Ventricles, its Right Atrium, its Left Atrium, its Inferior Vena Cava, would he recognize it?
- Would he be able to understand its moving pieces and curved edges and stuttering rhythm?
- Would anyone else?

His stomach is empty, and his body practically floats along as he runs, elbows in, head up, lungs burning. He can hear the blood rushing in his ears, and it sounds like the crash of the ocean waves on the shore. He can smell the salt in the air, but he doesn’t feel the twin tear tracks on his cheeks until he tastes the salt on his lips. The human body is more than 50% water. “Second star on the right and straight on ‘til morning” is a terrible set of directions. He didn’t realize you could feel like you were drowning on dry land.

//

[For his tenth birthday, Henry gets an iPod, and a card that reads: “Music is the most important part of any road trip. That, and a good set of directions.” There’s a map of the US, which, when he unfolds it across the kitchen table, has a route in thick black permanent marker from Maine to Arizona, from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Really? He asks, practically jumping up and down with excitement. Really, his mom says, with her soft, soft smile and her hands clasped in front of her. We leave on the twentieth of June. Better get going on that playlist.

They make it together: Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Rusted Root, Ingrid Michaelson. Santana and The Eagles, The Who, The Beatles, The Oh Hellos. Mumford and Sons. Adele. And Aretha Franklin. The Temptations. Van Morrison. Elvis. The entire Wicked OST.

They sing along to U2 in New York. And Norah Jones in Ohio. And “Defying Gravity” while they cross the Mississippi River. In New Mexico, they turn off the air conditioning and roll down the windows; Henry sticks his hand out, and tries to hold his palm as flat as possible, laughing as it flies up and down in the air currents. His mom wears her hair in a ponytail, and pushes her sunglasses high on her head and looks younger than he’s ever seen her. She knows all the words to the Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” but they listen to it seven times in a row until he can make it through the whole thing without dissolving into giggles.]

[Where’s Phoenix? He asks as the “Welcome to Arizona” sign disappears behind them. Sometimes he does that: ask questions without thinking about them first. His mom makes a lane change, doesn’t look at him. Further South. That’s where I was born, right? It says it on my birth certificate. Yes. She turns the radio off after that, and they drive the next two hours in silence.]

[But when they stand on the observation deck, overlooking the Colorado River almost a mile below, he wraps his arm around his mom’s waist, and she loosens her death grip on the back of his t-shirt slightly. We’re like birds all the way up here. Mhmmm. You’d fall for just about forever. Her grip tightens again. If you fell, he murmurs, still looking down, I’d come after you.

He hadn’t said it in months, but on their way back to the car that evening, he wraps his arms around her tightly, and whispers into her shirt, I love you. She hugs back, but not too tight. His mom hugs carefully, like she’s afraid he’s going to slip away; she’d open her arms and he’d have disappeared. He squeezes her extra tight. Just in case. I am always going to love you, my beautiful, wonderful boy.]

[He’s never asked about Phoenix again.]

//

He lays on his back, the wooden boards scratchy and hard through his sweatshirt, his feet flat and his shoes left behind on the sand below. It’s just past nine, so the rest of the park is empty. The loud screeching cry of a seagull comes from above him, but his eyes are closed, his hands tucked into the pocket of his sweatshirt, and he doesn’t turn his head to look for the bird.

He’s turned his phone off and stuck it in the pocket of his bag. He doesn’t need the music here, not when each wave sends a crash reverberating up the shore. Not when the breeze is cool against his skin, and he can feel his pulse all the way down to his feet.

The slam of a car door echoes across the playground, and Henry tenses. He’s not sure how much time has passed – enough so that his breathing has evened out again, and his hair is almost dry. He squints despite the cloud cover as he opens his eyes, props himself up on his elbows and peers through the slatted boards. He’s expecting a family, braving the grey day, or someone come to run the beach, or wander along its sandy shores searching for shells.

But it’s Coach Swan. She’s standing next to her car – that bright yellow bug his mom had completely insulted the first time Coach Swan pointed it out to them in the parking lot after swim practice.

[“That is the ugliest car I’ve ever seen,” his mom says, and Coach Swan glares at her for half a second before glancing fondly back at her car.

“Maybe,” she agrees. “But that car’s seen me through some tight spots.”

“It’s an eye sore.” His mom persists, but she’s smiling. And then she’s laughing and Coach Swan is shrugging and laughing too, and Henry feels the sound bouncing between the three of them until it comes to rest in his chest, warm and glowing like fireflies in summer evenings and bonfires on the beach in the spring.]

When she sees his head tilt in her direction, she slips off her shoes and heads towards him, tying her long blonde hair up in a ponytail to keep it from tangling in the wind

“I texted your mom,” she calls, once she’s a bit closer. “Let her know where we are. She’ll be here any minute.”

Henry pushes himself up into a sitting position, and dangles his legs over the open edge of the platform, but he doesn’t speak. He’s not sure how to respond, or how to ask just what she’s doing here. Or how she found him. Or why she isn’t yelling at him or dragging him back to the athletic center or reprimanding him about taking off.

“Pretty sweet castle you’ve got here,” she says when she’s reached him, one hand coming out to knock against the wood.

“I used to play here all the time when I was little,” he manages.

“I was pretty partial to pirate ships myself, but castles are cool, too. Can I come up?”

Henry blinks at her.

She nods like this is some kind of answer and skirts around the slide to climb the steps and sprawl out beside him. Henry’s never seen her outside of practice before. But she seems completely relaxed lounging on a play structure built for children. They sit in silence for a minute, long enough that Henry starts to regulate his breathing so they aren’t in sync.

“Pretty obvious place to run away to, kid,” Coach Swan’s voice is teasing, but the words fall heavy into the small space between them. “When I said take a few minutes, I didn’t necessarily mean take a mile.”

Henry shakes his head and glances down to where he’s started turning his watch around and around on his wrist. His mom does the same thing when she’s anxious. It’s getting windier the longer they sit, and he thinks he might have seen something about a big storm heading their way on tv the night before. “I wasn’t trying to run away,” he mutters finally.

“Well that’s good to hear,” his coach says lightly, “Because I just happen to be an expert at running away.” Henry glances up at her, and her face is serious. “I can offer you some pointers if you need them. Like,” she leans out over the opening to peer down at his swim bay lying in the sand, “I think you forgot to pack a few of the essentials. Toothbrush. Change of clothes. Underwear.”

He feels a blush rise on his cheeks, and suddenly there’s a tightening in his chest, and he wants to jump up, spin around and face her. He clenches the edge of the level they’re on. “I wasn’t running away,” he repeats, but the words come out choked and short, and they scratch his raw throat.

“I’m just trying to make sure you do running away the right way.” She sounds almost amused at her own pun.

“I didn’t ask for your help,” Henry bites out. His knuckles are white against the wood, and his back is almost perfectly straight. He glares out at the sand. He feels stronger than he has in the past hour, more in control. And it’s kind of soothing to feel so something so strongly that isn’t fear or worry or hurt. Solidifying.

“No,” Coach Swan agrees easily. Like they’re talking about the weather. Or his two hundred split times. “No you didn’t.”

“Practice today,” she starts after another moment of quiet.

“Panic attack.”

“Right.”

Henry huffs out an annoyed breath. He checks his watch. His mom will be arriving any minute, and, despite how nice it is to be blanketed in his anger, he knows she’ll probably be angry enough for the both of them. Angry because of what happened at the pool. Angry that he left. Angry that he turned his phone off. “Is she pissed?” he asks finally, for something to say.

“Your mom?” But it’s not a question.

He nods.

“I don’t think so,” she sounds thoughtful. “I’ve seen your mom angry before. It’s kind of terrifying.”

He nods again. He’s seen her mad, too, usually when someone on the city council does something stupid. Her spine straightens, and she suddenly seems a whole foot taller; her face whitens and her voice gets smooth and crisp and deadly.

“Pretty damn scary.” Coach Swan lets out a low hum.

Henry feels his lips twitch at the swear, especially because she doesn’t even seem to have noticed she’s said it. He forces himself to glare harder at the ground.

“But no,” she says finally. “I don’t think she’s angry. She stayed at the pool in case you came back, and I said I’d drive around a bit. This was the second place I looked. I’m also kind of an expert at finding people. It was sort of my job for awhile there.”

He frowns. He can feel his anger fading, settling into the base of his spine now that she isn’t yelling at him or picking a fight or trying to make him feel guilty for taking off. He licks his lips; they’re chapped from the wind and salt. “What did you mean,” he asks finally, unable to stop the question from forming, “you’re an expert at running away?”

“I did kind of a lot of running away in my day,” she admits.

Henry looks over at her, and then away before she can catch his eye. “Because you’re an orphan?” He can hear his mom’s voice in his head, This is none of your business. But he can’t keep himself from asking. It feels as though he needs to know. As though this whole morning has been messed up and somehow off balance, and if he can just get the answers to his questions, the earth will tilt back into place on its axis, and things will make sense again.

Before she can answer though, there’s the sound of tires on gravel and they both look up to see his mom’s car pulling into the parking lot. They watch silently as she pulls into the space next to Coach Swan’s car, and the sudden quiet when the engine cuts out seems overwhelmingly loud. When the door swings open, Henry glances away. He counts to ten, then twenty. He hears Coach Swan’s arm come up to wave, but there’s no swish of feet over sand, and at forty, he chances another look.

His mom is walking away from them, down the beach, and towards a bench set up right on the edge of the grass and the sand. Far enough away that he’d have to shout to get her attention. She settles herself carefully, one leg crossed over the other, arms folded in her lap. She must be cold, but she doesn’t move once she’s seated. She’s facing the ocean, so he can only see her profile from his spot on the castle, and from this distance, he can’t make out the set of her mouth or the tightness in her forehead. Henry watches her, but she never looks over at them, and eventually he curls in on himself, rests his head on his knees.

“I am an orphan, Henry.”

He’d almost forgotten Coach Swan was there.

“There was a family that was planning to adopt me when I was three, but – “ she swallows, “they had a kid of their own, and sent me back.”

“Back where?” he interrupts, the words muffled against his knees.

“The orphanage. That’s where I ran away from.”

He feels her shudder next to him, and he’s not sure if it’s because of the cold.

“I wasn’t running away,” he says again when the silence drags on.

“I know that,” she murmurs, and her voice is raspy. “Your mom told me – she said you’ve maybe been having a rough time.”

He turns his head, and looks up at her. Coach Swan’s eyes are red rimmed, and she lifts her sleeve up to wipe her nose.

“I guess,” he agrees. It is not a lie. But it’s not entirely the truth either.

“She’s worried about you.” Coach Swan is holding herself very still.

“I’m worried about her,” Henry rebuts. This is also not a lie. If he had held on to his anger, he might ask what Coach Swan thinks she knows about any of this. But he hasn’t, and he wouldn’t.

“You’re a kid,” she points out.

“She’s my mom.”

“Exactly.”

They stare at one another. Henry’s started shivering in the wind. He wonders if this is one of those grown up conversations; one where they say one thing and it means a hundred different things. He remembers that New Year’s Resolution. He’d take it back. If he could, he’d take it back.

“Your mom seems like a … tricky … person to get to know,” Coach Swan speaks slowly, like she’s choosing her words carefully.

Henry almost laughs.

“But she also seems to care. A lot. About this town. About her home. About you.

Henry shrugs. “She’s my mom.”

“Is she?”

The words are light, simple. They seem to float in the air between them. But Henry sits up suddenly, turns to face her head on, doesn’t even hesitate. “She’s my mom.”

Coach Swan doesn’t flinch. “When you’re in the pool, what does it feel like?”

“What?”

“When you’re swimming, when you’re underwater, when you’re pushing as hard as you can and it almost feels like your lungs are going to burst and your legs are going to fall off, and you can’t even really remember what solid land feels like under your feet, how do you feel?”

He doesn’t understand this sudden shift in topic. He stands, because just sitting here, he’s almost forgotten what it feels like to be on solid ground. He leans back against the top of the slide. A quick glance over his shoulder shows his mom is still there, apparently unmoved.

//

[Will you be here when I wake up? He’s home sick with the flu, running a fever, tired and heavy. His mom has read him three different books, and even made the funny voices. And he got to watch Peter Pan in bed, but he’s about to fall asleep, and she’s not laying down with him.

Of course, my little prince. Where else would I go?

Neverland?

Not without you, my darling boy. Never without you.]

//

“When did you stop running?” he asks instead of answering he question, but he’s staring down the beach.

“I never had a family, Henry. Not really.” She is an adult. She shouldn’t be sharing this with him. It’s secret. Private. She is an adult.

“I’m just a kid.” He doesn’t understand.

She sighs, rubs a hand over her face. “I don’t know,” she tells him, sounding tired and maybe a little bit sad. “I found friends. And got a job. And found a place that felt,” she pauses, waves her hand in the air, “safe. Went to college. Swam. I swam all the time.”

“I’ve never been able to talk to her about swimming,” he admits.

“Have you ever tried?” It’s an innocent enough question.

He and his mom don’t talk about swimming. They don’t. Because he’s never known how to explain what it is to sink to the bottom, to feel the pressure gathering all around him, to sink and sink and sink and always know he’ll be able to kick back up to the surface when he needs to. He’s never known how to explain that his heart only feels steady, only feels strong, when it’s beating so hard it might beat right out of his chest. Doesn’t know how to tell her about the moment when he slips into the perfect rhythm of pull and kick and breathing. How it is seamless and smooth and fluid. But has he ever tried?

“Henry,” Coach Swan’s watching him.

[If you fell off, I’d fly after you. ]

“I think I messed it up,” Henry whispers. “I think I messed everything up.”

[I’ve never been on a road trip either, Henry. This will be a first for both of us.]

[Her dark brown eyes shining with excitement as they pore over the map together.]

She stands, too then, but she doesn’t step closer to him. “No,” she shakes her head. “You’re a kid.”

[I love you. ]

“And she’s my mom.” He can’t remember when he’s said it last. This morning in the car? But did he mean it? Did he really?

- His mom promised to love him, always.
- Always is forever.
- No matter what.

“How do I fix it?” he asks her. Because he’s just a kid. And she’s the adult. He puts his hand on his chest and pushes. “How do I fix it?”

Coach Swan’s eyes are tight, and her face is pale. “I don’t know, kid.”

She’s the adult.

She holds out a hand, but this isn’t swim practice. He hasn’t just finished a hard set. He hasn’t just gotten stronger or put in the maximum amount of effort or slammed his hand onto the wall and pulled his eyes up to clock to find he’s come in five seconds ahead of his previous split. He’s floundering.

“C’mon,” she says. “C’mon, Henry.” She moves her hand towards him a little bit more.

When he glances over his shoulder, he sees that his mom is standing now, still by the bench, but she’s watching the two of them. He can’t make out her expression from here.

“You have to stop running, kid. At some point. You just have to stop.”

His mom is walking towards them, but she’s far enough away that if he shouted for her, his words might get carried away on the wind.

“Is she mad?”

“No, kid,” Coach Swan’s nose is red, and her hands are chapped. “She isn’t mad.”

“I ran away.”

She shrugs. “Maybe.”

“You’re the strangest adult I’ve ever met,” he tells her, because he’s afraid.

But she snorts. And then covers her mouth with her hand.

She’s different here, away from the pool, but also the same. Kind of like how his mom is the mayor when she’s at her office, or when they’re walking around downtown, but she’s also always his mom. She holds herself a little differently and smiles a little less wide and never laughs when she’s the mayor. But she looks at him the same way and says his name the same way and she is always his mom. Always.

“Alright.” He bites his lip, rubs his hands together. His mom is almost close enough to call out to. “Alright.”

Chapter Text

[He is not quite six years old when he learns the definition of his favorite word. He doesn’t realize it’s his favorite word until later, but he realizes right away that if there were one word to describe his Momma, this would be the one.]

[He’s trying to color in a picture of Peter Pan in art class, except Greta has the green marker and she won’t share. He grabs it from her hand, and then she starts to cry, which is a crybaby thing to do, but they both have to make the big, long, scary walk to the Principal’s Office. Henry cries, sitting in the chair, which is also a crybaby thing to do. He swings his legs back and forth because they’re too little to reach the ground. Greta’s daddy shows up first, and the look he gives Henry as he walks into Principal Sinna’s office is not very nice. He cries a little bit harder – hard enough that his nose has run all down his cheeks, and his throat hurts.

When his Momma comes through the door, he’s scared for almost a second before he realizes it’s her. She has her work face on. But the minute she sees him, her whole face changes and there’s his Mom, smiling and kissing his snotty cheeks, and tucking his shirt back in. She goes in to the Principal’s Office, too, and when she comes back out whole minutes later, she doesn’t look mad or sad or even a little bit tired like she sometimes does. She looks strong. He straightens up in the too tall chair, because he’s strong, too.

She flattens his hair and takes his hand, and leads him to the bathroom where he rinses his face and takes deep, deep breaths. And then she leads him back to class, and hugs him tight just outside the door, off to the side where no one could see if they peaked out the window. He buries his face in her shoulder, squeezes her waist. I love you so much, my little prince. I love you, too. No more crying now. He shakes his head no.

She pulls back to look him straight in the eye. That’s when he knows it’s time to listen. Eye contact. They’ve practiced.

You will argue sometimes with your friends, like you did with Greta today. Sometimes people will want be mean, and you won’t know why. Or they will be angry with you, or rude with you, and you will get upset. He nods. You must never back down, Henry. Not ever. But you must know when you are in the right, and when you are in the wrong. And if you are in the wrong, if you take a marker from your friend without asking, if you are rude, you must admit to it. What is that called? Honesty.

He’d learned honesty the week before.

Yes, and then you must apologize. Hold your head up high, but be sincere in your regret. Do you know what that’s called? When you apologize for your wrongdoing with your head held high? Do you know what it’s called when you strive to be the best that you can be, even if you’ve made a mistake along the way? Henry licks his lips, presses his hands palms together. No, Momma. That is called grace, my sweet boy. Grace.]

//

He slips when he steps onto the sand, the ground not as solid as he’d thought it would be, but Coach Swan places a steadying hand on his elbow, taking the last step down behind him. “You’ve got it, kid.”

He turns to glance at her. “Thank you.” He’s not sure he has ever meant it more, but Coach Swan just shrugs, shoving her hands in her jean pockets. He studies her for a moment, wondering, once again, why it is she’s come to Storybrooke. How it is that she is here with him right now. With him, and also with his mom. “Thanks, Coach.” He nods once, steps away from the castle. “I’ll see you on Monday.”

“Last week of practice before school starts up again.”

“Yeah.” He’s stalling.

“Go.” She reaches for him, gives a gentle shove on his back. “I’ll see you in the pool.”

He’s five feet away from her, five feet closer to where his mom has stopped, at the edge of the grass and the beach, when she says his name softly. He doesn’t look back at her, but he hears her just the same, “She’s always going to love you. No matter what.”

//

“Can we walk?” He can’t look up at her, can’t meet her gaze, so he stares at her boots instead, boots completely unsuited for a walk along the beach. She is an arm’s length away from him; he could reach out his hand and take hers, but he doesn’t. He scuffs one foot along the sand, hears the swoosh it makes as the particles rub together. She hasn’t answered, but he can feel her eyes on him. “I want to walk,” he says it more firmly this time, and drops his swim bag on the grass at his side.

“Alright.” Her voice is hoarse. Henry can count the number of times he has seen his mother cry on one hand, but he can tell, simply by the sound of her voice, that she has been crying this morning. He stares more firmly at the sand, guilt inching its way up his spine. “Let’s walk.”

He lets her move away first, heading back towards the bench where she’d been sitting before. He follows a half a pace behind, a bit surprised when he has to consciously try not to catch up to her. He’s grown taller without even realizing it.

The beach is still empty, the gray clouds heavier now than they were an hour ago. Soon they will empty themselves across the land, out over the sea, dumping their rain back into the giant bowl of water, enough to change the salinity of the entire ocean, if only by a miniscule amount.

Henry stares out at the waves coming in, blinking only when his eyes start to burn from the salt in the air and the stiff breeze. He doesn’t know the ocean, not the way he knows the pool. It has no boundaries, no sides, no evenly spaced lanes or clearly marked depths. When he floats on his back in the Atlantic on warm August days, picking out cloud shapes in the sky above, he feels even lighter than he does in the pool, the salt buoying him up. As though the pool is Earth and the ocean is the Moon, and gravity is no longer the force he has known all his life. He can never seem to float as long in the ocean, easier though it may be – he starts to feel as though he might float away, forever out to sea, or up and up into the sky, until he’s no more than a speck of dust lost in space.

[They did a unit on Bible stories in English the year before in order to understand the prevalent themes found throughout literature. Henry was assigned Jonah and the Whale. He’d put the assignment off until the last minute, never having been to church or raised with religion. They own a bible though, as well as a Quran, and a book on Taoism. He’d pulled the bible down the night before the assignment was due, read through the story, did the assignment, and spent the next two weeks, thinking about how a man could lose himself out to sea, dreaming about how a man could survive such an encounter. He read the similar story in the Quran. Dreamed again.]

The ocean is as broad to him as the night sky above. He has never known how to love it without feeling as though he’s being swallowed whole.

//

“Who taught me how to swim?” There is no silence at the beach, but his voice breaks the stillness that has built up between them step by step.

His mom clears her throat, doesn’t break her stride. “I did.”

“You did?” He remembers snatches of a red bathing suit, the sound of little kids screaming and yelling and giggling in delight. He remembers a hand beneath his head and another beneath his hips as he’d learned to float, but he cannot remember those hands as his mother’s. He’d assumed he was taught in a lesson, by a lifeguard, some high school student teaching swim lessons at the pool as a part time job.

“I enrolled you in swim lessons – the Guppies – and we went several times. You refused to get in the pool each time.”

“What?”

“You refused. You screamed the first few times, even after watching the other children play. The man teaching the class insisted I simply put you in the water, insisted that you’d become accustomed to it eventually. I only forced you to go in once – the third lesson. You stopped screaming, yes - as soon as your feet touched the water. But instead you went silent, and you tightened all the muscles in your tiny body. Your face was white.” She pauses, and he glances out at the water again, forever going in and out and in and out. “We did not return for the fourth lesson.”

“But I love to swim.” He cannot help but glance up at her back when he says it. She doesn’t flinch, doesn’t slow, doesn’t show any indication that she’s heard him.

“You do now. And you did. Once it was just the two of us.”

“I don’t understand.”

His mom stops walking and swings around so quickly, he doesn’t have time to look away, to avoid her gaze. She does not have her Mayor Mills face on. She is not wearing the fierce expression he remembers from the one time he got sent to the Principal’s office in elementary school. Her eyes are red-rimmed and soft, so soft, as she looks at him.

He straightens his back, does not look away. Takes her in, as she does him. They are almost at eye level.

“We went back. The lessons were on Saturdays, so I took you to the pool on a Thursday morning. There were several older people swimming, but the pool was quiet, still. We sat on the side for a long time. You were so curious about the people swimming. They weren’t splashing around like the little kids you were used to. You loved the flip turns they did.” She has hardly paused to take a breath, as though if she does not explain this to him quickly enough, she will lose him. “Finally, I got in, swam a lap or two while you were still on the side. You wanted to get in; you were practically vibrating with excitement.”

“I remember.” Because he does remember now. He remembers the screaming – all the little kids jumping into the pool. And he remembers the stillness of the pool on that morning. He remembers because every Saturday morning for the past eight weeks, the pool has been just as a still, just as empty, just as ready for swimmers to find themselves in the repetition and the peace of its marked lanes as it was so many years ago. “You picked me up and held me first.”

“Yes.”

“You were wearing a red swim suit.”

“It was the only one they had at the store.”

“Yeah,” but he’s hardly registered her gentle interruption, doesn’t even recognize the slight embarrassment in her voice. He’s turned his body so they are no longer facing one another. Instead, he’s facing the ocean head on. “You held me.”

“Yes.”

This time, he notes the catch in her voice. He blinks.

“We went a few times. By the third time, you were begging to go again as soon as we got out. You floated for the first time on the fourth visit. I’d never seen you smile so wide.”

He grins reflexively.

“You were swimming on your own in just a few weeks. Kicking and pulling. The regulars started to recognize you; they’d tease me about you – say you were going to be lapping them in no time. Pretty soon, you wanted to race them.”

He reaches out his hand without looking, and she takes it, squeezing his fingers. Hers are cold to the touch, so he squeezes back. “You taught me?” It is posed as a question, but it isn’t one.

“I – yes. Yes, I did. But sometimes it felt like I hadn’t, not really. You took to the water immediately, once you moved past your initial hesitation. I think I knew, even then, watching you paddle around –“ She breaks off.

Here is his mother, his Momma, his strong and steady, forever and always, standing with him on one edge of the neverending ocean, holding his hand, and crying. She is crying. Tears running down her cheeks, one after the other. He wonders, briefly, how long it will take for each one of those tears to reach the ocean, if the mass of all that salt water will pull his mom’s tears home.

“Knew what?” He prods. He pushes. He can’t help it.

She lets go of his hand to reach up and swipe the saltwater off her cheeks. “Henry.” She is the one to turn away now.

“Knew what?” He asks again. He is asking too much, he knows. It is not fair to ask anything of her, not when she has been so patient with him.

“I knew if there was ever something you’d leave me for, it would be that. The water. Swimming. I knew.”

“Leave you?” He doesn’t understand. He swallows. “Leave?”

“You know what I mean,” she snaps. He takes a step back as though she’s reached out a hand and struck him. And immediately, ashamed, steps back to his place at her side.

His mom takes several deep breaths, places her hand on her chest, curls the other into a fist before relaxing each finger one by one. Henry thinks he can hear his heart beating in his chest, before he realizes it’s the waves crashing on the shore. He counts the beats anyway. Forty-five. Forty-six. “I’m sorry.” She stands up tall, drops both hands down to her side, and looks him in the eye. “I’m sorry, Henry. I should not have spoken to you that way.”

He shrugs.

“I knew,” she sighs, “I knew you’d leave me for the water. Not like I knew you’d go to high school and then college and eventually meet someone and fall in love. Not like I knew you’d get a job and perhaps leave Storybrook forever. Those things – I am prepared for those things. I am excited for your life, for all of the good you can someday do.” She reaches out questioningly. He takes her hand again. “I knew, even when you were just a tiny baby, that someday you’d leave this tiny town and start your own life. But I didn’t know, not until you learned to swim, that you could leave even before you were grown. That I could lose you to something I don’t eve- something I don’t under- something I am not familiar with.”

“Something you don’t understand.”

She reaches up with her other hand to brush his cheek. “Yes, my darling boy. Something I do not understand.” Honesty.

He nods, gazing back out at the sea, at the gulls dipping and gliding on the thermals rising from the surface. The ocean is immense. Too huge for him to comprehend. He prefers 25 yards. Lanes seven feet wide. Not too buoyant. No whales lurking beneath the surface. But the ocean is also strong, pounding and pounding on its shores, year after year. Drawn ever forward and back by the moon – a body lost in its own immensity out in space. You can chart the tides. They have a pattern. They are steady in their own, unassailing way. Strong and steady. He steps into his mom’s arms without thought, holds her tight tight tight around the waist. “You haven’t lost me,” he murmurs into her shoulder.

“You love the water,” she whispers back. “And I do not understand.”

He pulls away, needing to see her, needing to trace the still visible tracks down her cheeks, needing the eye contact. “I love you,” he does not hesitate. “I love you.”

“Sweet boy.” She cups his cheek. “I know that. Of course I know that.”

“You’re my mom,” his voice is shaking; his throat feels as though it’s tearing in two. He taps his own chest, just above his heart, twice. “You’re my mom.”

“Henry.” She’s trying to soothe him, to pull him closer again, but he resists.

“Swimming. God, Mom, swimming is like breathing.” His chest is heaving. He’s choking, but he needs to explain. Finally needs to try and explain. He clasps his hands together. “Swimming is like silence. Under the surface. Even when you’re pushing so hard. It’s like silence stretching all around you, holding you. It’s invincibility. It’s armor. The water is armor. The strength it takes to do a set, that’s armor.” She’s biting her lip, holding back a sob. He’s going to lose her. Right now, he’s going to lose her. “Lik-like-lik-“ How do you feel? Coach Swan asked him. When you can’t even really remember what solid ground feels like, how do you feel?

“It’s freedom,” he exhales, pushing all of the air out of his lungs. “It’s knowing you’re strong enough to escape Jonah’s whale, no matter what. It’s terrifying and thrilling and freeing. It’s strong and steady, Mom. It’s strong and steady. It’s grace.”

She nods. She’s smiling at him, and nodding, and she understands. He can see it in her face; open and so full of love he isn’t sure how he’s missed it for so long.

If he were in the pool, he would not feel the tears stinging his cheeks, he would stretch himself into a perfect streamline, tight and controlled, and he would swim even as his goggles filled with his own body’s water. He would be graceful. He would be free.

Henry stands with his mom, stands tall and true and looks her right in the eye, even as her face blurs through his tears. “I’m sorry.” He clears his throat. Tries again. “I am your son, and I am so, so sorry.”

“Henry. Henry. Henry, Henry, Henry.” This time, he does not resist when she pulls him towards her. He folds himself into her arms; holds on tight even as his body - his body that is still growing, still learning, so much younger than the ocean, but maybe just as capable of being strong, of being steady - holds on tight even as his body shakes in his mother’s arms.

“I’m sorry.” He says it again, into her shirt, pulls away to find her dark brown eyes, to say it once more. “I’m sorry.”

“Swimming,” he rests his head on her shoulder, doesn’t try to stop the words from coming, but simply lets them float up and out of him, all the way up until they are specks of dust on their way to the moon, “swimming is the best of me.”

He learned to swim when he was four. He didn’t learn from some stranger; no one threw him into the deep end and watched him struggle. He was taught to swim, by his mother, by the woman who loves him, who sat with him on the side of the pool until he was ready, who writes secret messages, and comes to his Saturday morning practices, and always knows when to admit she’s been wrong. He’s been searching for this definition for years, for this truth for years in the lanes of a chlorinated pool, and it’s been staring him in the face since he was four years old, terrified of the water, since he was six years old and fighting over markers in the first grade. “Swimming, Mom,” Henry says, “is everything I’ve ever learned from you.”