Jacob spoke his first words at the breakfast table, the day after he turned six. On his breakfast plate stood an intricate double-frosted dinosaur made of pop tarts and banana, three dimensional and freestanding, a marvel of breakfast engineering.
“Brontosaurus,” Jacob said to his breakfast sculpture. A moment later he followed with “Tyrannosaurus” and then leaned in to bite the head off his poptartosaurus. Jacob sat back up and looked at his father snarling, his teeth covered in raspberry-flavored pop tart filling.
Higgins felt surprised, relieved, and slightly disgusted. He wanted to ask Jacob where he learned those multisyllabic words, but suddenly Higgins was the one who couldn’t speak. By the time his son turned six, Higgins had given up hope of hearing Jacob say anything and barely spoke himself anymore. He spent hours in silence wondering how his son would make it through life without the use of words.
Jacob always had a fascination with animals, but especially dinosaurs. Whenever he saw one in a picture book he would reach out and touch it with his finger. After his first words that morning Jacob began speaking the names of many other types of dinosaur. His entire spoken vocabulary consisted of nothing but dinosaur names, and eventually his father began to understand what each meant. Tyrannosaurus meant he was hungry. Iguanodon meant he was tired. Triceratops meant he wanted to go play outside. But Brontosaurus seemed to mean nothing and everything at the same time. He said it whenever he was excited or throwing a tantrum. He would walk in circles repeating it over and over like a monk in a trance. Sometimes he would just look at Higgins with sleepy eyes and say Brontosaurus, and Higgins knew it was Jacob’s way of saying I love you.
Things hadn’t always been so quiet in the house. Higgins and his wife Lulu used to speak to Jacob after he was born, baby talk and other types of first-time parental pandering. Higgins’ personal favorite was who’s got a belly button as he poked Jacob like a little marshmallow. They doted and squealed the way most first time parents do, but Jacob barely noticed. They thought he might be deaf or mute, but doctors assured them his hearing was excellent. Perhaps there were other issues doctors told them. Perhaps he was on the spectrum. They soon noticed other complications. Jacob never laughed or smiled, and as soon as he learned to walk he started spending hours pacing in circles. Still Higgins and Lulu were hopeful, and she would sing and read to Jacob and talk to him daily. But one day something broke inside of her and her hope abandoned her.
Higgins often thought back to the night Jacob was born. Lulu’s water broke minutes after they said their I dos, and Jacob entered the world in the lobby of city hall. Lulu’s labor lasted only twenty-three minutes, and Jacob had practically leapt from her womb. But even more surprising, Jacob hadn’t cried at all. Higgins had wrapped his son in a Welcome to Ketchum sweatshirt the presiding judge had provided and stared lovingly into his son’s eyes. Jacob just looked back at him, no tears, no crying, nothing but Jacob’s cloudy blues gazing back at him like a mute little sage. For Higgins this moment was as vivid as if it was still happening.
Later, as the paramedics rolled Lulu and Jacob toward the ambulance, she grabbed Higgins’ hand with desperate strength and told him she would never divorce him. For a moment he mistook this for an impromptu vow, but then she continued. She said she hated long goodbyes, and if there was ever a problem she would just leave.
On a Tuesday about seventeen months ago, Higgins noticed his wife’s luggage and jewelry box were gone. He found her wedding ring sitting on the bedside table with no note. It took a while for the truth of the situation to sink in, and even now it was still sinking. He woke up every morning and looked out his bedroom window with a sad hope, imagining her pulling back into the driveway with a perfect explanation of the entire absence, so their tragic autistic life could continue as if nothing had ever happened.
After she left, the house fell into complete silence. The phone never rang. No vacuum salesmen or Jehovah’s witnesses knocked on the door. All communications between Higgins and his son were done with hand gestures and facial expressions. At times they even approached telepathic communication, a powerful father-son connection beyond mere eye contact and sign language. They concluded each interaction with a silent fist bump, the brief physical contact bridging the unspoken distance between them.
Higgins got a dog, hoping the barking and other dog sounds might break the monastic silence, but the dog was just as quiet as his son. Jacob started calling the dog Brontosaurus, Bronto for short. Bronto was a mutt from the shelter, a fuzzy little teddy bear with a mullet. Jacob bonded with the dog immediately, and the two of them would sit together and silently stare at things, especially Higgins. Higgins feared the dog might be autistic also.
But all those years of nonverbal desolation changed the moment Jacob spoke that first word. Brontosaurus.
Jacob found a tabloid in the back of the hallway closet buried under other forgotten and embarrassing items. He repeated Brontosaurus, Brontosaurus, Brontosaurus as he waved the old newsprint in Higgins’ face. Jacob had discovered something exciting inside, wedged between stories of a Chupacabra epidemic and a dog elected mayor of town in Minnesota.
“Brontosaurus,” he repeated, touching a tiny black and white picture of a dinosaur with his finger. It was an ad for Real Live Dinosaur Eggs. There was a photo of an oblong, polka-dot egg, and standing behind was a long-necked dinosaur in a graceful, symmetrical pose. The ad went on about exciting new advances in genetics and authentic Apatosaurus ajax DNA. It claimed now available to public for a limited time. There was a microscopic disclaimer at the bottom of the ad. *Eggs sterile — now guaranteed not to hatch, as if there had been some accidental hatchings in the past.
“Brontosaurus,” Jacob repeated, looking at Higgins with hopeful eyes, sending a telepathic message of desire. Hope and desire were something new for Jacob. It felt promising.
“Yep,” Higgins said, “Brontosaurus.”
Higgins wondered where his son learned those dinosaur names in the first place. He must have heard them watching the Discovery Channel, or remembered them from one of the dinosaur books Lulu had read to him hundreds of times. Jacob never had any formal schooling, and couldn’t read or write as far as Higgins knew. Lulu had plans to home school Jacob, educate him while protecting him from the indecency of public schools and special ed. But after she left, Jacob’s home-schooling plans took a nosedive that mirrored Higgins’ own descent. Higgins’ job in scripts and hypertexts allowed him to work from home, and the daily distraction of work saved him from a total meltdown. He found refuge in the code. But Higgins had been so busy working and feeling sorry for himself that he forgot to register Jacob for kindergarten. After the deadline had passed, Higgins considered homeschooling Jacob himself, but suspected he was the worst teacher in Idaho. Together he and Jacob were less than hopeless, but apart they’d be even lower.
After a moment that felt more silent than normal, Jacob said, “Live dinosaur hatch.” It dawned on Higgins that his son must be reading the words. Not only that, he had spoken a verb and an adjective. Perhaps he and Jacob were not as hopeless as he thought.
The dinosaur eggs arrived eleven days later. They looked smaller than Higgins expected and weren’t even polka-dotted. They were leathery and squishy and reminded him of sea turtle eggs he’d seen in Mexico. He felt swindled, and stupid for buying three just to get free shipping. He wondered if he should even show them to Jacob, if Jacob would be as disappointed as he was. Just as Higgins decided to place them back into their bubble-wrapped box and never mention them again, Jacob walked in. He saw Higgins holding an egg and trying to stuff it back in the box. Jacob raised one eyebrow and gave his father a puzzled look, mimicking perfectly the curious look his father flashed when Higgins wasn’t sure what his son was up to.
Higgins just looked at him and shrugged his shoulders. Finally he said, “Brontosaurus.”
“Brontosaurus?” Jacob asked.
Higgins nodded his head.
“Live egg hatch?” Jacob asked.
Higgins shrugged his shoulders.
Higgins didn’t want to get Jacob’s hopes up, but the look of joy in his son’s eyes was more amazing than Higgins ever imagined. Jacob even displayed a slight upturn at the corners of his mouth that Higgins recognized as a smile despite its repressed and fleeting nature. Higgins decided the eggs were worth every penny whether they hatched or not.
Jacob found purpose in those eggs. He took them to his sandbox and buried them with exaggerated care. He constructed a small protective structure out of twigs and acorns, and guarded and doted over them like he himself had laid them. Higgins knew the eggs would never hatch, and wondered how long Jacob’s focused protection would continue. Would he give up hope? Would his next emotional lesson be disappointment?
About a year after Lulu left, envelopes of cash started appearing in the mailbox. Normally it was $200, twenties and tens double wrapped in plastic. Higgins pretended to wonder who was sending the money. What angel of mercy has blessed us? he asked the universe, looking around like the angel might be lurking nearby. The envelopes never had a return address, and the postmarks came from different locations every time. Once it was Lone Pine, CA, and next it was Salem, OR. Usually they came from Nevada, which convinced Higgins his wife was back in Vegas and dancing again.
The latest double-wrapped stack of cash arrived sealed in a blank envelope with no visible marks on the outside. No address, no stamp, no bar codes or tracking numbers. His wife was close, probably watching in the bushes with binoculars and a cigarette. This just fueled Higgins’ delusions of her eventual return.
Soon after the first envelopes arrived they also had a visitor from the Idaho Coalition of Home Educators, a social worker whose glasses and haircut made her resemble a female Harry Potter. She’d come to investigate a complaint of inadequate homeschooling curriculum. Higgins asked who filed the complaint, but his question was ignored. She instead asked to speak to Jacob. Higgins took her to the backyard where Jacob hunkered down in the sandbox, protecting his eggs.
“Hello, Jacob,” she said. “My name is Marcy. I’m here to ask some questions about what you’re learning at homeschool.”
Higgins looked at Jacob guarding his eggs, wondering what Marcy must think. Jacob’s T-shirt was filthy, and he wasn’t wearing any pants, only saggy, old underwear. He started every day wearing pants and then somewhere along the line, no pants. Higgins also noticed how long it had been since Jacob’s last haircut, and his son’s tangled blond mop made him look feral and untamed. Jacob squatted over his nest in his underwear and looked at Higgins and the social worker like they were lunch. He jumped up and let out a high-pitched noise that sounded like Godzilla on helium.
“We bought some dinosaur eggs,” Higgins said. “He’s very protective.”
“Do you like dinosaurs?” she asked. Marcy took a couple steps toward Jacob, and he coiled back like a serpent preparing to strike. “What’s your favorite dinosaur?”
“Brontosaurus!” he said, followed this time by a series of noises that sounded like the mating call of some large, possibly extinct species of bird.
What were the chances she would ask Jacob the only question he could actually answer? Higgins decided to say something before things turned even more awkward.
“You know he’s autistic, right?”
Marcy turned and looked at Higgins for a moment like she didn’t understand. She scribbled something in her notebook and then turned back toward Jacob.
“What else have you been studying besides dinosaurs, Jacob?”
“Are you learning any math, Jacob? Numbers?”
“Brontosaurus, brontosaurus, brontosaurus!”
“That’s how he counts to three,” Higgins said. This wasn’t true, but it sounded good.
Marcy turned and gave Higgins another look, and scribbled into her notebook again, only this time she wrote more. “How old are you, Jacob?”
“Brontosaurus, brontosaurus, brontosaurus, brontosaurus, brontosaurus, brontosaurus.” Even though he could barely speak, Jacob always seemed to understand.
Marcy looked back to Higgins like she needed a translation. “I was told he was seven. Is he actually six?” Higgins decided he should just keep his mouth shut and nodded like a bobblehead.
Higgins learned the state of Idaho didn’t require either home or public schooling until the age of seven, which gave him six months before it officially became a case of child negligence. Marcy gave him the brochure for an academy in Boise for autistic children. She left information about the rights of students with learning disabilities and an outline of curriculum expected for home-schooled children. As Jacob walked in circles around his sandbox squawking like a bird, Marcy promised to return in six months to check on his progress.
Higgins knew something was amiss. He first heard Bronto barking, induced into a surprisingly loud barking fit by some sort of evil presence in the backyard. Then Higgins heard laughing. The joyous laughter of a child, in particular his child, which was more shocking than the barks of little Bronto.
Higgins hurried into the backyard to investigate. He noticed the eggs in the sand box, the leathery shell left behind like wads of crumpled tissue. He followed the barking and laughing to the back corner of the yard, where Bronto had something pinned against the fence while Jacob laughed and clapped his hands hysterically.
His son and the dog both turned and looked at Higgins, cocking their heads to the side in unison. He wanted to take a picture of that moment, put it on a postcard and send it to his wife, wherever she was. “Brontosaurus!” Jacob yelled, between his squeals of rapture.
“Live egg hatch?” Higgins asked.
“Live egg hatch!”
“Brontosaurus!” Jacob smiled. He squealed. He raised his hands above his head like he had won a prize.
Crowded into the rear corner of the yard, atop pine needles and pollen cones, stood three miniature brontosauruses, each about twelve inches tall, dark brown and slightly iridescent, shining like oily little mud puddles. They bleated like lambs in eerie unison.
The scruff on Bronto’s neck stood up as he approached the little dinosaurs with canine caution. He craned his head toward the dinos, inching his nose closer for an olfactory inspection. The little dinos reached their necks forward and met Bronto’s sniffing directly, and the four touched noses in a momentary huddle, like a team coming together before a play.
Bronto’s little tail started wagging back and forth, and so did the dinos’. Bronto barked once and the little dinos bleated back. Bronto took off running across the yard, and the tiny brontosauruses followed behind in a scuttling pack, surprisingly nimble despite their recent hatching.
Meanwhile Jacob never stopped laughing and squealing. He started clapping when the little dinos took off running behind Bronto, and chased after them himself. Eventually Bronto began chasing Jacob, with the little dino pack following Bronto, and of course Jacob following the dinos. They spent many minutes chasing each other in circles around the backyard. Finally Jacob stopped running and looked at his father.
“Thanks, dad. Brontosaurus.” Jacob smiled.
Higgins felt a jolt of something in his chest, a surge of pride zapping life back into the numb collection of muscle tissue formerly known as his heart.
Within a month the little sauropods towered over Bronto. With their long necks they stood as tall as Jacob, but still Bronto was the top dog, the one in charge. The dinos proved gentle and affectionate, rubbing their heads up against Higgins and Jacob, nuzzling in like cats. They romped across the lawn like typical baby animals exploring the coordination of their limbs. Higgins thought they would be lumbering and plodding, their enormity causing them to move in slow motion and shake the ground with each step. Instead they were nimble and athletic, jumping and running with the dexterity of a horse or antelope. They began developing plumage, a fine, yellow fuzz that grew fuller and more vibrant with each day. They seemed happy consuming rabbit pellets and grazing on the lawn, and every day Jacob’s spoken vocabulary grew more expansive and impressive, growing just as fast as these creatures hatched from the strange marriage of genetic engineering and tabloid classifieds.
To Higgins the dinos looked identical, but Jacob learned to discern their uniqueness and provided them names. Bolstered by his expanding vocabulary he named them PopTart, Macaroni, and Potato. They eventually added monikers to describe each one’s personality — PopTart the shy, Macaroni the loving, and Potato the brave.
Those first two months were magical. Every day the dinosaurs grew a little more, and so did Jacob. Higgins wondered if the dinosaurs were imaginary, or if it might just be a long, complicated dream. When would the dream end?
The trouble started with a broken latch on the dinos’ makeshift pen. They wandered out because they were hungry, their growing appetites sending them in search of more and more food. They had stripped the plum and apple trees completely, and trimmed the giant oak as far as their long slender necks would reach. They didn’t like pine needles and the turf and rabbit pellets weren’t enough anymore. Potato had reached for the blooms of the neighbor’s rose bushes and leaned too hard into the fence, sending it toppling like a pile of toothpicks. Before long all three wandered into Mrs. Maccabee’s garden as if it were a salad bar buffet.
Mrs. Maccabee was washing dishes and looking out toward her garden, and almost fainted when she saw her prize peonies and roses getting gobbled up by monsters. After she caught her breath she dialed 911. The operator wasn’t sure whether to inform animal control or the police, so she called both just to be safe. The call from the police dispatch got picked up by a local news crew that used a scanner to gather leads on slow news days. The News7 News Van was the first to arrive on the scene, and they were already readying their equipment when the deputy pulled up.
But Higgins knew none of this. He had slumped out of bed and stepped to his window, hoping to see his wife like he did every morning. What a surprise to see the News7 News Van and Sheriff’s patrol car blocking his driveway. He saw his neighbor, upset and serious and standing on her porch in a flowery apron. She waved at the deputy to get his attention. The deputy waved back at the woman, which upset her even more.
“Deputy, I got a monster in my garden eating my peonies.”
Outside the News7 News Van a cameraman balanced a large camera on his shoulder while reporter Dan Dandy straightened his tie and cleaned his teeth with a finger. Hearing the woman’s plea they looked at each other, and the cameraman started shooting. Higgins got an empty feeling in his gut and decided he better go out to the backyard and investigate.
Higgins discovered the open pen and followed the trail of bare vegetation to the hole in the fence. Pop Tart and Macaroni lingered near the opening, and the path of destruction lead him deep into Mrs. Maccabee’s garden.
“No Potato, no!” Jacob said. Bronto barked and ran in circles, nipping at Potato’s front toes, trying to herd him back home. Perturbed, Potato reared up on his back legs and let out a roar like an angry sheep.
Mrs. Maccabee and her entourage appeared in the back doorway. “See, I told you there was a monster,” she said.
“Mary Mother of,” said the deputy, stepping onto the rear porch. He pulled his gun and pointed it at Potato, trembling like he had never fired it before. Still standing upright with his front legs flexed slightly outward, it looked like the deputy was getting ready to arrest the dinosaur.
An animal control agent walked up behind the Deputy, holding what looked like a large butterfly net. The patch on his shirt read Troy. “Holy shit, is that a dinosaur?”
“I don’t know, Troy. I thought you were the expert.”
“Well Deputy, aren’t you going to do something?” Mrs. Maccabee asked.
“I got some tranquilizer darts in my truck,” Troy said, and he hustled off to retrieve them.
Higgins felt sluggish from lack of coffee, and paralyzed by the velocity of events and the chaotic blossoming of thoughts in his head. What legal ramifications were involved in the ownership of dinosaurs? Were they livestock or exotic pets? Was the neighborhood zoned for sauropods? Could dinosaurs be considered assets, and could this impact his home owners’ insurance?
More importantly, would this incident affect the ICHE’s view of proper homeschooling curriculum? And who had registered that complaint with the ICHE in the first place? He imagined his wife and Marcy were in cahoots, hiding in the bushes together, snapping photos and documenting child neglect. Higgins knew that one of these days he would look into his driveway and see Lulu standing there like a sad apparition of past failures. With his son’s help he finally realized that they didn’t need her after all. Higgins just wanted a chance at closure, a chance to tell her they didn’t need her. He didn’t need her.
Meanwhile, Jacob approached the deputy with his hands up like he was surrendering, and for a moment it appeared both Jacob and the dinosaur were getting arrested. That was when the cameraman arrived, live broadcasting the entire scene to the viewers of the News7 Wake Up Ketchum Show.
“Mister policeman,” Jacob said, “Don’t hurt Potato.”
Jacob then proceeded to direct Potato through a series of maneuvers with the confidence of a seasoned animal trainer, starting with a 180-degree twirl while still balanced on his back legs. Jacob used hand motions, a twirl of his finger, a clawing motion, a repeated pointing gesture toward the hole in the fence. Jacob was, after all, a master in the art of nonverbal communication. Bronto tried to help out by barking and nipping at Potato’s tail. Together they had him sauntering back toward home in no time.
“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” the deputy said, putting his gun away.
“What did I miss?” asked Troy, holding a large plastic tackle box.
“We have just witnessed something remarkable, folks,” Dan Dandy reported.
Mrs. Maccabee just fanned herself on the back porch and didn’t say anything.
Jacob approached his father, flashing a smile and shrugging his shoulders. Higgins held up his fist and the two shared a bump. Higgins couldn’t speak, so proud of his son in that moment his speech centers felt overwhelmed. Luckily Higgins didn’t have a clue about how quickly his life would change, with the viral YouTube video, the Good Morning America interview, and the endless calls pouring in from scientists, movie producers, and various legal entities. Instead he had this silent, peaceful moment to enjoy to himself, his pride swelling to proportions beyond any attempts of verbalization. Some feelings were so big they couldn’t be placed into words. Sometimes when he felt this way Higgins wondered if autism was contagious.
Before crossing the threshold to join Macaroni and Pop Tart, Potato reached back to grab one last snack for the road, a large, perfectly sculpted rose that could have won a blue ribbon at the county fair. Having witnessed the final indignity she could stand, Mrs. Maccabee fainted, but the deputy was able to catch her before she hit the deck.
The cameraman followed Potato back to the fence line, finding Higgins standing there dumbfounded in his house slippers and bathrobe. He hadn’t shaved in days, and his robe had no belt or fastener around the middle, revealing a chasm of bony, white chest and black hair descending to striped boxers.
“Excuse me sir, can you explain what we just saw?” Dan Dandy stepped toward Higgins with his microphone.
The cameraman pressed forward also, pinning Higgins against a rose bush, which caught hold of his robe, tugging on the fabric and biting into his skin.
Higgins pulled his robe a little tighter and looked into the camera, clearing his throat. How could he possibly sum up the emotion, surprise, and pride he felt? He took a deep breath.
J.D. HAGER lives in Northern California with his wife, his dogs, and a small collection of farm animals. He spends his days working undercover as a middle school science teacher and school garden coordinator. His fiction has appeared in the Porter Gulch Review, Bartleby Snopes, Cease Cows, East of the Web, and is forthcoming in many other places.