Starjet Commander Cody Ferguson, six, turned the gears, adjusted the knobs, and jammed the joystick into hyperdrive. Starship Galaxy went into a steep climb, super thrusters whining at top speed.
Back on earth, Daddy looked angry. Mommy cried. The doctor rolled his chair over, put his head close to theirs, and smiled the sour little smile that grown-ups smile when there is nothing in the world to smile about.
Commander Cody turned his back to the people and the machines and the charts with arrows pointing to drawings of the insides of sick ears, braced his feet against the big blue plastic box in the middle of the room, and held on to the joystick with both hands. Galaxy shook and rolled. Would it fly apart? In seconds, the starship left earth and grown-ups and doctors’ offices far behind.
After clearing the spaceport traffic tower, it blasted out of earth’s atmosphere and just clipped the surface of the moon with its starboard tail wing, on the way to Planet Trickster. Trailing crumbs of green cheese, it streaked onward a gabillion light years to a perfect landing on Trickster and a party thrown by clowns and magicians and a pretty teacher in pink named Miss Clark.
He loved pretend.
He sang. He danced. He laughed at the funny clowns in their funny hats. And most of all he smiled, because on Planet Trickster there was everything in the world to smile about.
That picture went away, and God drew another one in his mind. Miss Clark came to the back of the room to see him. He didn’t want her to. As long as she stayed up in front of the classroom, she smiled and everything was fine. Her voice was happy and filled with so much he needed to know. Wanted to know.
But the last time when she came down to where he sat with his storybooks and drawing paper, she forgot to bring her happy voice. She told him something he didn’t want to know. She told him in a loud voice that scared him. He could barely hear it, but he knew it was loud because she opened her mouth big and leaned close and smelled like toothpaste.
The other kids turned in their seats and stared.
“I’m sorry, Cody. Something is the matter with your hearing. You have to go to another school where they can help you. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. I — I will miss you. We will miss you.”
She said a bunch of other stuff he couldn’t remember — or maybe hadn’t heard — but after he saw the tear slide down her cheek, he couldn’t hear another thing she said anyway. She took him to the office where his parents waited. She hugged him goodbye and disappeared like the rabbit from the magician’s hat.
It’s genetic, yes, and irreversible. In a matter of time, he will be totally deaf.”
Dr. Haskert handed Cody’s parents printed material about sensorineural hearing loss. “But as bright as Cody is, he’s an excellent candidate for speech and hearing therapy. He’ll get a lot of that at the new school. Despite everyone’s best efforts, though, he will be completely deaf. It’s a mountain he has to climb, but you are his support team, his base camp. With your love and consistent support, he can live a relatively normal life. There’s a vibrant deaf community out there that can give him plenty of reinforcement and enable him to lead a successful life.”
Sheila Ferguson sat hard onto an office chair. “He reverses some of his printed letters — b and d — but he can count to two hundred. I never thought — ”
“Mrs. Ferguson, you mustn’t confuse Cody’s hearing condition with normal cognitive development in a six-year-old. They commonly reverse some letters. That’s more a function of not fully developed perceptual motor skills than an — ”
“He can be reckless at times and is more finicky in what he eats than when he was two.”
“Please, Mrs. Ferguson, I assure you that you’re not describing anything out of the ordinary for a child Cody’s age.”
Andy crouched beside his wife’s chair and took her hand.
“We’ll get through this, honey. We will.”
She looked past him at Cody, who made buzzing sounds and squeezed the bulb on a bicycle horn attached to the play console.
“My poor baby. Oh, Andrew! What have we done to him?”
Dr. Haskert pulled up a chair and leaned toward them.
“Sheila, Andy. You listen to me. This is a rare condition. There’s usually no way to predict these things. What you have to do now is find out all you can about deafness and how best to help Cody cope with this condition. At first, he’ll be afraid and bewildered by it, but he’s young and will adapt. The question is, will you?”
Sheila began to weep. “Oh, we’ll be just fine. Just great. Some day our son will just stop hearing the sound of the ocean or a cat purr or us telling him we love him, but so what? We can always write it down on a slate around his neck!”
She stood and went to Cody. She pulled him to his feet and hurried to the door. “Thank you, Doctor, thank you so much for the worst news of our lives!” With a sob, she was gone.
The hard ball in Cody’s stomach seemed to take up all of the room. They went from the doctor’s office to the hamburger place with the jungle gym. He didn’t want to eat. He didn’t want to climb on the monkey bars.
He wanted to hear.
He didn’t know if he imagined the roaring between his ears or if it was really there. Who could he ask about the ball? His parents were too sad. Dr. Haskert only knew about ears. Miss Clark had disappeared.
The roaring got worse when Mommy and Daddy fought. They fought a lot more once they found out he couldn’t hear much and was going deaf. He didn’t like that word. It sounded an awful lot like death.
Had he been bad? Was that why they stopped going to church? He was bad and God was mad and the whole thing stank like the dead opossum under Dickie Braden’s house. Mom started to say something, then stopped when she saw him watching her.
“Mom? Tell me the six poem?”
She ran to the ladies’ bathroom.
The ball in his belly got harder and bigger.
He took a drink of his pop. Dad ruffled his hair, then took a pen out of his pocket and wrote on a napkin in block letters. When he finished, he held Cody close and read the verse slow and loud, pointing to each word. “But now I am six, I’m as clever as clever. So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.”
He watched Dad’s lips and mouth and imagined every word as it had sounded on his sixth birthday when he could still hear it clear as could be. Now Dad pressed his freckled nose flat with his pointer finger, something that usually made Cody giggle.
He didn’t want to giggle.
He wanted his mom back.
His stomach hurt.
The server lady brought him crayons and a black-and-white picture of three turtles to color. He stuck a french fry in catsup and made the turtle eyes red. He took the pickle chips out of his hamburger and made the feet of the biggest turtle into wheels. Dad handed him his double hamburger. He took a small bite and handed it back. When he looked away, he tucked the bite under his tongue.
Mom came back, eyes and nose red. He wished someone would laugh. That the big yellow and orange plastic clown would come down off the wall and spray them with a trick flower. That Dad would stuff a whole hamburger in his mouth, bug out his eyes, and stare around like one of the blowfish at the aquarium. They would laugh as hard as that time at the fair and go back to church and pray and God would fix his ears.
But someone else had to be first. He didn’t want to laugh, because what if that was the exact second he stopped hearing anything at all?
He might not laugh again.