Fantastic Atlas ~ Spencer Fleury

 

Zachary drew his first map at age six. Drawn in a single sitting and completely from
memory, it was a flawless depiction of the bus route between his grandmother’s home and his own. The streets were unlabeled, but each turn and run of roadway was precisely scaled and plotted, all drafted with the free-flowing confidence of a master cartographer.

Julia didn’t know what to make of it, even though she instantly recognized it. She’d
been riding the 33 back and forth between her mother’s Presidio Heights apartment and her own flat in Potrero Hill several times a week for ten years now. The route was as familiar to her as the sound of her own breathing.

Did you make this yourself? she asked him, but of course he said nothing, replying only with a facial expression that Julia thought seemed vaguely insulted. Of course I drew it, she heard in her head, in a voice that very well could have been his. Who else would have?

Well, it’s lovely, she said. He smiled, and she silently chided herself for expecting
anything more.

*

Julia showed the map to the therapist, who said it was a good sign.

It is?

He held the map up to the light, as if he was looking for a watermark. Then he took his glasses and polished a lens with the hem of his sweater.

Oh yes. Very promising. Don’t you think so?

I don’t know anymore. At this point, I don’t trust my own judgment.

I think we are getting close. Give him some encouragement. Maybe he’ll start
talking soon.

Encouragement. As if that was anything new, she thought.

She was tired of encouraging. She was tired of a lot of things.

But on the way home, she stopped at a CVS and bought a ruler, a box of colored
pencils, and a thick pad of the cheapest drawing paper they had, the slick gray newsprint kind that Julia hated when she was a child. She was not optimistic—she’d been encouraging him for the last three years—but she did it anyway, because even though it probably wouldn’t be, even though she knew it wouldn’t be, what if this was finally the thing that worked, that made everything click back into place?
What if she gave up and turned out to be wrong?

I’d never know the difference, she thought as she waited in the checkout line.
Everything would just go on exactly how it is. And would that really be so bad?

Next, called out the cashier, and Julia stepped over to the register.

*

Zachary was lingering at the kitchen table after dinner that evening, looking out the
window, his legs swinging in a lazy opposite kicking rhythm, when Julia presented him with the gift she’d picked up on the way home.

I like the map you drew the other day. Will you draw more of them?

His eyes gleamed, and he gave a smile Julia had not seen for years: full and broad,
given without hesitation or a sense of obligation.

And over the next couple of weeks, he did draw more: a map of their Sunday
afternoon route through Golden Gate Park; a map of his school, including rooms he
shouldn’t have known about; an unlabeled map of a city she didn’t recognize. It took
several hours of research before she was able to determine that it was Cincinnati, Ohio.

Maybe he copied it from an atlas at school, the therapist suggested.

That doesn’t make any sense, she said.

On the contrary. It’s the only thing that does make any sense.

Copying isn’t his style. And even if it was, why would he pick Cincinnati? He’s
never been there.

The therapist shrugged. —With any luck, you can ask him that soon.

Julia had had her doubts about the efficacy of this particular program of therapy for
at least a couple of months, but they’d started to crystallize lately, ever since this
business with the maps had started. On her way home, she realized just how reliant on platitudes therapy actually was. It’s a good sign. Give it some time. It’s about the
journey, not the destination. He’ll talk when he’s ready.

What a load of horseshit, she thought. How’s that for a platitude?

But Zachary was communicating, in his way. She couldn’t deny that. Understanding
would come. Words would follow. She was sure of it.

For now, though, it was maps, each one meticulous and rendered with detail that
should have been out of reach for someone his age. Some she knew, like the
unmistakable shapes of Manhattan Island or the San Francisco peninsula. But most of them were just strange spiderwebs of streets, occasionally bisected by the oxbows of twisting waterways, or the contours of ranges and crests of ridges she would never see, that may not even exist.

Where is this? she would ask whenever he handed her a new one. What is this
place? How did you know to draw it? He never answered. Not that she expected him to. She hadn’t completely given up, not exactly. But she’d learned not to hope too much.

Zachary’s maps went up on his bedroom walls, starting with the map of San
Francisco, which he hung next to his blue dresser and directly above his Adventure Time nightlight, on the wall opposite his bed. So he can look at it when he goes to sleep, Julia thought. She didn’t know why she found it comforting that he’d chosen that particular map to honor with pride of place. Maybe it was a sign that Zachary understood where he was from, that he recognized the place where his people had made their lives for four generations. But before long, it was surrounded by other maps of less-familiar locales, slowly creeping across the entire wall in silent homage to the very patterns of urban sprawl they depicted. With each new map, the display’s center of gravity shifted, gradually dragging itself toward the doorway, and soon home wasn’t at the center of anything anymore.

*

The egg Julia found in Zachary’s dresser looked ceramic but wasn’t. It was a real egg
that had been hollowed out through a tiny hole in the bottom and then painted with a fine-tipped brush in an intricate pattern of crimson, gold and black enamel. Zachary had placed it carefully in the back corner of his underwear and sock drawer, where it was protected by a soft blockade of sock rolls.

For a moment Julia considered the possibility that Zachary had made it at school
and forgotten to show it to her. But no, that was impossible. The egg was too delicate, too technically perfect for a small child’s clumsy hands. Even if the child is one who can draw flawless maps from memory.

Suddenly she remembered how, a week or so earlier, she had found what appeared
to be a bus transfer from Buenos Aires in the pockets of one of his pairs of jeans. The transfer was three days old; she had assumed he picked it up off the street. —Do you have any idea how filthy this city is? she lectured him. —I don’t care if it’s a twenty dollar bill. If you find it on the ground, leave it there. How many times do I have to tell you that? She unconsciously waved the transfer around while she spoke; Zachary’s eyes did not leave the thin paper strip, homing in on it like a mongoose tracking a bird, until it was close enough for him to snatch out of her hand. He darted into his room and slammed the door before she’d had a chance to react.

Now she set the egg back in its hiding place and closed the drawer. She had to think
about this before doing anything.

What she ended up doing was putting the entire thing out of her mind until nearly a month later, when she found in his room seven small coins stamped in a language she could not read, with the faces of statesmen she did not know. Zachary had lined them up neatly on his windowsill, right next to the headboard of his bed. They were clearly quite old; the edges were nicked and unevenly worn, and the almost imperious dignity of the buffed metal was undone here and there with tiny pinpoints of oxidation.

She had nearly forgotten about the bus transfer by then. The egg—was it still there?
She checked his dresser again but it was gone; she might have convinced herself that she’d imagined it if she hadn’t happened across these coins.

Julia returned to the window. The scene outside was a drab one, everything muted
by that particular San Francisco gray so typical for the time of year. She remembered all those nights when Zachary was two or three, long nights spent in front of this very same window, watching the fog ruffle and shimmer under the streetlights and listening to Zachary toss and turn for an hour or so in his tiny bed until he would finally sink into a deep, still sleep. His restlessness worried her; she was certain it was somehow her fault. Then, once he was silent, her thoughts would inevitably turn to the one subject she couldn’t let alone, which was How Things Used To Be, back when he was still around. Nothing good ever came of these ruminations—she was well aware of that—yet she felt compelled to return to them, to work them like a garden that would never give her anything back but dandelion greens and kudzu.

He never talked much either, she thought. Just enough to let her know how badly
she’d failed.

She had often wondered back then if Zachary would get the chance to know his
father after all. After a while that shifted, and she would wonder instead if Zachary
would remember him. These days, when she thought about it at all, she hoped he
wouldn’t think to ask about the man when he got older.

She looked down at the coins and realized that she had been mindlessly sliding
them around with her index finger until she had, without meaning to or knowing why, arranged them, from top to bottom, in ascending order of size. They reminded her of a road receding toward the horizon, or maybe a runway, and she scattered them again with a quick pass of her hand.

*

—I think Zachary’s started stealing, Julia told the therapist at their next meeting. —
Maybe from a teacher at his school. I can’t think of anyone else. He doesn’t go
anywhere else without me.

—That is not unusual for children his age. He wrote something down in his
notebook. Julia was suddenly certain that instead of taking notes, he’d actually been
doodling all these months. —What makes you think that is what he has been up to?

I found some things in his room. Things that I don’t know where they came
from. And she told him about the egg and the coins and the bus transfer.

I expect he will grow out of this, he said when she was finished.

Julia gave him a hard, appraising stare. Should she tell him about how she found  Zachary in bed the other morning with mud caked in his hair and gravel in his pajama pockets? About the dirt that was streaked and ground into his sheets, but conspicuous in its absence from the alabaster cream-colored rug in the middle of the room? About how different Zachary had seemed in that moment, and the certainty she’d had that he was looking at her differently now too, as if he saw her not as omnipotent protector and provider but instead as a fraud, a weakling, a coward?

No. She’d keep that to herself. Instead she just rolled her eyes. —That seems to be
your answer for everything lately.

Nevertheless. He wrote something else, just three or four strokes of his pen. Julia
imagined him sketching a simple line drawing: maybe a dog, or a sailboat, or a penis. —I still would not worry too much. He is definitely trying to say something. See if he’s ready to draw something else.

Drawing isn’t talking, she shot back. —Neither is stealing.

—They are both means of communication, in their own ways. One step at a time.

—More platitudes. How very zen of you. She got up to leave.

—Our session is not over yet.

—I don’t think this is helping anymore. And to be blunt, I don’t know if it ever
helped. 

—Of course it is. You may not see it, but I do.

Julia sighed. —When will I be able to stop taking your word for it?

*

The maps were all beginning to blur together now. There had been so many of them, and now they came in such quick succession, often several original maps each day. How does he keep this up? she wondered as she glanced over his latest effort before setting it aside.

It’s been eight months of this, she thought. The maps no longer represented hope to Julia. As far as she was concerned, they were a taunt, the cruelest of teases. They were his way of mocking her, of withholding from her what he knew she needed most and shoving that fact right in her face.

That was the moment Julia decided that she had seen the last map Zachary would
ever draw.

She took his hand in hers. —Honey, maybe it’s time to draw something else.

Zachary looked at her with an expression she couldn’t quite read. Expectant, maybe, like he was waiting for her to explain an unfamiliar idiom she’d just used.

Why don’t you draw a picture of Mister Troiano’s house? She gently pulled him
toward the picture window in the living room and pointed at the fuchsia, lavender and mustard Victorian directly across the street. —Look at all those colors. Wouldn’t that be a beautiful picture? His expression had changed, now not quite worried, exactly, more … apprehensive? Yes. That was it. Julia was asking for something different, something outside the current comfortable routine. But he knew what she wanted. She could tell. He understood.

When he came out of his bedroom half an hour later, he handed her another map.

Or rather, it was the same map he had given her earlier. Julia examined it closely. It
was definitely the same one; the only reason she knew he’d actually drawn it a second time is that this time it was in purple instead of green.

What is this? No. Come on, Zachary. You’ve done enough maps. Don’t you want
to do something else?

He looked at the floor and rolled his shoulders back and upward, just a millimeter
or two, but it was more than enough for Julia to notice the unusual defiant gesture.

She put her fingers under his chin and tilted his face upward; his mouth was set in a
taut line and his eyes were alight. Julia leaned forward until the tips of their noses were almost touching. —Now listen to me. I want you to go back to your room and I want you to draw me a picture of Mister Troiano’s house. Or a car parked outside. Or a dog. I don’t really care. Anything you can actually see. But not—absolutely not—another map. No. More. Maps. Understand? And she crumpled the new purple map into a ball and dropped it on the floor.

When he came out of his room, he brought her another map. The same one again,
but in orange this time.

And suddenly the weight of it all, the weight of Julia’s entire thwarted uphill life,
was too much for her to carry even one more step, and something in her broke.
She sprung out of her chair and down the hall toward Zachary’s room, and before
she could stop herself she was reaching for the maps on his wall, grasping and clawing at them, ripping them down until there were none left, nothing left on the walls except random corners held fast by tape or pushpins.

I! Can’t! Take! It! Anymore! she yelled over and over again as his fantastic atlas
fluttered around her in tatters and shreds.

When she was done she whirled around, as if looking for another wall to vandalize.
She was breathing fast and heavy. Zachary stood in the doorway, watching. His face was impassive and expressionless, just like it had been the morning she’d found him covered in mud and dirt, but this time there was something else behind his eyes, something Julia recognized right away.

Defeat. She had seen it in herself, in her own face in the bathroom mirror, countless
times. And now she had put it on his as well.

What have you done? she thought. Why did you do this?

Not knowing what else to do, she bent down and began gathering the pieces and
fragments together into a pile. She could fix this, of course she could, she could tape them back together and he could put them back up where they had been and they could pretend that this never happened. All it would take was some tape and some time. Her hands quivered with adrenaline and shame. A little tape and time can fix anything, she thought, and for a second—not even a second, really—she almost believed it herself.

*

—He hasn’t drawn anything for an entire week. I don’t remember the last time he
went without drawing for that long.

—It’s just an adjustment period.

—I really wish I hadn’t done that. God, I feel horrible.

—He’ll come around. Don’t worry.

*

The following Tuesday morning, when Julia went to wake him for school, Zachary
was gone.

In his place, Julia found a roomful of brand new maps, hand-drawn in crayon and
covering every square centimeter of wall space. In some spots they were tacked on three or four deep. Roads and rivers from one map would abruptly connect with features on its neighbor, a pattern that repeated over and over until they formed a vast multicolored fractal of sharp turns and dead ends, a hallucinogenic snowflake of cartographic impossibility.

She froze at the sight of it. At first she assumed he had recovered the cache of maps she had taken down and, in a rare act of provocation, repaired and rehung them during the night. But no, these were new maps, every single one, all exact copies of the one he had drawn for her that night over a week ago. It must have taken him days to draw them all.

Or maybe he did it all last night.

Where was this place supposed to be? She’d been getting quite good at identifying
the unlabeled maps Zachary had drawn for her over the last eight months, to the point where she considered herself a bit of a reluctant cartophile. Here and there were elements that seemed familiar to her on their own, but together they were topographic gibberish.

Well. She would ask him when she saw him.

But where was Zachary?

Had he run away during the night, still angry over the incident from last week? His
orange backpack, which he usually dropped next to the dresser when he got home from school, was gone. So, maybe.

Okay, she thought. Let’s take a pause and think a moment. A seven-year-old
runaway couldn’t get far. He might be sitting at the bus shelter at the end of the block, waiting to be discovered and returned home like a lost pet. He might even still be in the house somewhere.

She called out for him and checked the entire house. Finding nothing, she came
back to his bedroom and went to the window. She didn’t really expect to see him sitting on Gus Troiano’s front steps or waiting for the bus or anything, not really, but she felt compelled to look all the same.

The street was empty.

She turned to the wall of maps again.

What was it the therapist had said? It’s all communication of one sort of another?
And suddenly something in the plexus of boundaries and conduits and colors jarred
loose a few neurons in her brain, and Julia recognized this new atlas for what it was: a goodbye note.

No, wait. It was his itinerary, a puzzle left for her to decipher, but one that, even
when answered, would still tell her nothing.

No. It was both.

She didn’t know how she knew that. She just did.

Julia ran to the front door and went out onto the front steps. She stood there,
halfway down to the street and feeling like an idiot, a helpless goddamn idiot. She would never find him. She knew this too. She couldn’t go wherever he was. She couldn’t read the map. She could only wait for him to come back to her.

She sat down near the bottom of the steps and wrapped herself in her arms. A man
walking a golden retriever and reading something on his phone passed by. A woman
wearing a gray pantsuit and a bulbous red motorcycle helmet puttered along on a
motorscooter in the opposite direction. The street, the city, was waking up.

It was almost time for school.

She drew a long breath, stood and went back inside. In a moment, she would make
the calls she would be expected to make in a time like this, to the police, the school, her mother. She felt a tiny dread at the prospect of pushing through those conversations, but she knew that skipping them would make things infinitely worse. Her child was missing now, after all. There were certain expectations in play.

Besides, none of those people would be able to figure out the map any more than
she could. They’d never find him either.

Zachary would be fine. She knew this.

He would come back on his own, when he was ready. Of course he would.

And she wondered what he would bring her when he did.