Content warning: disordered eating
That summer, my best friend was the mosasaur at the Royal Ontario Museum. Back then, you entered the Hall of Paleontology through a stone doorway carved with fancy letters. Come with me through the dioramas and plastic ferns to his small dark room. Turquoise lights ripple over the floor. A waiting quiet settles like dust. Void stretches overhead, the kind that goes on forever, its shadows holding the weight of all oceans.
The mosasaur hovers in the darkness on invisible wires, crocodilian head pointed downwards. But he’s gazing right at us, his eyeless sockets wide. He almost breathes, and then it hits:
Millions and millions of years ago, he swam and fought and killed things. Other mosasaurs and plesiosaurs and maybe even T. Rex. And now he’s here. Meeting his eye sockets makes my chest catch, because he’s real.
“Hello, Mosasaur,” I said, a hundred times.
His long jaws grinned. “Hello, Megan. Hello.”
Neither my sister Rachel nor I went to camp that summer. Our father worked the ROM’s admissions desk and we came along too. “It’s an adventure,” he said. “Won’t it be fun?”
And easier to watch Rachel.
“Most kids would kill to be you two.”
We couldn’t correct our father. My mother had done that often enough. So each morning, under the Rotunda’s mosaicked ceiling, our father passed out our tickets.
“Get something for lunch,” he told Rachel.
She rolled her eyes. She was fourteen, and getting good at it.
“Don’t touch anything,” he told me. “Remember: museum hands.”
I was eight, but even I knew we shouldn’t be dumped in the ROM all day long. But I nodded, already edging towards the marble staircase. Once we were out of sight, Rachel sprinted to the third floor. Between Renaissance furniture and Gothic art, she sulked in hidden corners, pinching her arms, her thighs, her belly.
I went to the mosasaur, who understood me. The hour after opening was our special time: before the tourists came, before summer camps littered the galleries with laughter. He wasn’t that big, really. Not much longer than my father, if my father stretched on tiptoe.
“This is all ocean,” the mosasaur said, teeth clicking. “Vaster than you can imagine.”
But I could imagine. The sea’s bulk enfolded us, ensnared me. I laid my hands flat on the carpet, my sweaty shorts stuck to my legs. Under so much water, no one could find me.
“You’re quiet,” the mosasaur said.
Rachel hadn’t eaten breakfast. Our father had yelled, then pleaded, then cried. Adults weren’t supposed to cry—just kids. My family did everything backwards.
I told the mosasaur this. His narrow skull dipped sympathetically.
“Do mosasaurs have sisters?” I asked. “Or dads?”
“Mosasaurs have the ocean. We have our teeth. We’re not afraid of anything. Not even bones.”
“I’m not scared of bones.”
The mosasaur grinned. “Aren’t you?”
Better not answer. I picked some gum from the carpet’s edge. “I wish I was like you.” Suddenly shy, I stared at my sandals. “Can you…can you teach me? How to be a mosasaur?”
“You won’t like it.”
Footsteps and laughter echoed from the next room. Early-morning tourists. I knew they were tourists because they kept saying either, “Royal Ontario Museum” or “Arr-Oh-Em,” but never “ROM” like a CD-ROM.
“I’ll come back,” I said. “Remember, you promised.”
“So did you,” said the mosasaur.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, our father met us in the Rotunda and we took our packed lunches to Queen’s Park. We ate on benches that faced the horse statue. I left plenty of space between me and Rachel’s cold skin.
After eating, I clambered onto the statue’s plinth and under the horse’s belly. “That’s Prince Albert,” our father said. “Otherwise known as King Edward the Seventh.”
Rachel shrugged, her fingers tapping rapid-fire on her thighs. I’d only heard of Queen Elizabeth the Second, because she was our queen, so I mostly just liked the horse.
Rachel’s tapping stopped. She slouched on the bench, her legs stretched out like she was tripping squirrels. Her sandwich rested beside her, unopened.
“Rachel,” my father said. One word, fathomless water beneath. My sister scowled at the university buildings across the park.
I ran my legs along the horse’s leg. Then I ran my tongue around my teeth, willing them long, sharp, ready to rip and bite and not care about anything. Drew my fingers together like flippers.
Through my shorts, the metal plinth was ocean-cold. Wind rustled like water through the trees. Too many movements; too much spray. Beneath the waves, down in the stillness, I’d swim for a million years and no one would yell at each other.
“You know,” my father said, “the hospital’s close.”
If you sink deep enough, you don’t hear anything. You don’t feel it when no one looks at you.
“Your shift starts soon.” Rachel’s voice was tight, an ichthyosaurcaught on the rocks. “You don’t have time.”
Mosasaurs don’t need anyone. They don’t hide from bones; they crunch them.
I can’t remember how the argument ended. I’d heard it too many times before. However it happened—swear words and charms, hissing and promises—Rachel ate half her sandwich.
It’s not unusual to forget, by the way. The self-help books told me so. Eventually, you learn to dive beneath the storms. You learn to shoulder the weight pressing from above. You learn to become a mosasaur.
Recently, my father asked, “Did you ever wish you’d been at camp, or up at the cottage, or…?”
Or. That’s always the kicker, isn’t it?
Or at the pool, without people staring?
Or building pillow forts, in the old house?
Or finding frogs and turtles in the park?
I never know how to answer him, so I don’t. My therapist and the self-help books say that’s Okay.
The mosasaur knew about bones. More than a hundred vertebrae rippled all down his spine. Spindly ribs, shorter than you’d expect; he was a serpent with dolphin flippers. I knew about bones too. Spiking collarbones. Hipbones like fists. Scraped cheekbones.
“If you can name something,” the mosasaur said, “you needn’t fear it.”
The oldest magic. Why do you think little kids conquer names like Parasaurolophus, Psittacosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus?
“Do you know my real name?” he asked.
“Platecarpus coryphaeus.” Though it was too dark to read, I squinted at the book in my lap. “You’ve got orbital sockets.”
“Do you know what eats your sister?”
I never liked the word: harsh, ugly, the x cracking like a broken spine in the middle.
“You have intermediate caudals,” I told the mosasaur. “And a quadrate bone.”
“And teeth. Teeth for grasping.” His disappointment stung. “Not for tearing.”
“Hold them steady.” He opened his mouth extra-wide. A second ring of teeth gleamed in his gullet like a crown. “Toss the head back. Gulp.”
Suddenly, the mosasaur’s jaws snapped shut. “Listen.”
Mimicking the mosasaur, I tilted my head. Footsteps whispered down the carpet, and then Rachel stepped into the gloom. She shuffled like a mummy from the Ancient Egypt collection upstairs.
I shrank against the wall. It was fake stone: plenty of plaster bumps and ridges to hide behind. Especially if it was dark. Especially if you were small. She didn’t say anything. With a shudder, she raised one finger to her pulse. Her lips moved. Counting.
A metal taste rose over my tongue. Rachel sagged against the railing. She looked littler than me, a half-eaten fish, drifting along the ocean bottom.
“Grasp,” the mosasaur said.
I took a deep breath. Stepped forward. Grabbed Rachel’s arm. Every bone pressed hard against my fingers: ridge and sinew and whatever inner steel kept her upright. I screamed, dropped her arm, and fled to the Bat Cave.
How telling, that I never thought to find my father.
“I did the best I could,” my father says now, turning a beer in his hands. Around and around and around we go. “It’s just—well, you know—”
No, I don’t.
“You seemed fine, and she—”
Dead skin pressed against mine.
“It really looked like you were handling it.”
Mosasaurs never show fear. Mosasaurs roar with full-throated self-sufficiency. Mosasaurs grasp and grasp, and they promise never to let go.
That night, I dreamed about skeletons and black ice. I woke drenched in sweat, blankets twisted at my feet. Gulping tears, I padded to my father’s room.
He wasn’t there. Panic seized me like the mosasaur’s second set of teeth. “Daddy?”
My body forgot how to move. A steady tick-tick-tick came from the clock in the living room. The refrigerator hummed. Normal sounds, but they couldn’t fill the silence. Taking little breaths, I edged towards Rachel’s room. A tall shape leaned over her bed, a shadow in the strip of moonlight. A scream caught in my throat, but he turned.
“Honey.” He sounded old. “What are you doing up?”
“I had a bad dream.” What was Rachel doing? “Can you sit with me?”
“In a bit.”
“In a few minutes, okay?”
So I went to my room. I brought my dinosaur books into bed with me, arranged the blankets, and waited like it was my job.
My father never came. I woke with a book’s spine squished into my cheek. At breakfast, I wouldn’t look at him. He’d lied. He hadn’t been there. I chomped my banana.
Grasp. Hold it steady. Toss the head back.
Now, I picture my father beside Rachel’s bed. Holding a finger under her nose. Monitoring her chest’s rise and fall. One man, adrift. It must have hurt, when I turned my back too.
In August, heat bakes ivy from stone façades, splinters across glass condos. In such heat, you don’t walk, you wade. Dampness clings to the skin—sweat, spilled garbage, bodies packed tight on the subway. My stomach hurt a lot, those last weeks.
By then, my father ate lunch with Rachel every day: in Queen’s Park, or at the McDonald’s across the street. They returned in silence, Rachel’s jaw clenched and my father’s eyes watering. I got money for the ROM’s deli; his co-worker Clarice checked on me. She had grey hair and jangling bracelets and she never bought anything.
I wasn’t lonely, because mosasaurs don’t need anyone.
“Down here,” the mosasaur said, “it is still, beyond hurting.”
I wanted to believe him, so I did.
As I hung over the guardrail, a boy jostled me. A scrawny boy with baseball cap and Power Rangers tee-shirt. “Whoa!” he yelled. “Look at that one!”
He shoved me. I stumbled. Then I caught the mosasaur’s eye, and without thinking, I grabbed the boy’s arm.
Grasp. Hold him steady.
My teeth sank into his shoulder, my grip tightening as he wailed and thrashed.
Toss the head back. The salt taste of blood sang to the heart of me. Dark currents hugged me close. A roar of victory ripped from my mouth.
Lights flashed on: harsh white ones that yanked me from the ocean’s depths. The boy screamed, clutching at his mother. I remember a beet-faced man shouting, security guards running.
But most of all, I remember the mosasaur’s grin. On dry land, under the naked lightbulbs, his teeth had never seemed so large.
“Do you remember why you did it?” my therapist asked, a few weeks ago.
If I said, “Yes,” I couldn’t predict the subsequent line of questioning, so I said, “I’m not sure.”
“Were you angry with your father? Your sister?”
“Was it attention-seeking?”
“Maybe you wanted to be the bad kid, to take pressure off Rachel?”
Well, I’d never considered that, but maybe. Good kids don’t try to become extinct monsters.
“What do you think, Megan?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Kids are weird, aren’t they?”
Museum employees’ children can’t bite guests—it’s unwelcoming. In the security guards’ office, my father crumbled all at once. His shoulders slumped and his knees wobbled until the museum director slipped a chair beneath him.
“Oh,” my father said. “Oh.”
And then, “I can’t do this anymore.”
In the end, we moved to Ottawa. At first, we lived in my grandparents’ basement, and then eventually we got our own apartment. On the drive up, Rachel turned to me, her bony hands splayed like the mosasaur’s flippers. “Why did you do it?”
I couldn’t answer.
Don’t worry. There’s a good inpatient program at the children’s hospital up there. Rachel did relatively well, all things considered. And it was a long time ago, now.
There is also a mosasaur at the Canadian Museum of Nature. After a few months, I convinced my grandpa to let me see it. It hangs suspended in the Fossil Gallery, too high for me to count its vertebrae or peer into its eyes.
It never spoke to me. Not once.
I passed through Toronto on business last week. Sounds so official—really, I was travelling from Ottawa to Stratford, and my trains connected at Union Station. But it was the first time I’d returned since that last summer.
A steel-and-glass crystal explodes from the ROM’s Edwardian masonry like a sharp-edged tumour. You could cut yourself on those corners; they slice the sky to ribbons. Inside, the Rotunda stands opulent as ever, but the admissions desks have moved into the new monstrosity. The dinosaurs are in the Crystal, too.
You trudge through a plain doorway and up the “Stairs of Wonder,” which are curiously empty and smell of forgotten lunchboxes. Past seasick walls, the dinosaurs wait.
Light floods the Crystal’s tall windows. It leaves nothing to chance or mystery; the stark walls hold no secrets. Touchscreen tablets gleam like scars. My old friends stand self-consciously, their bones naked and exposed.
Children still gasp and shout. That is something, I suppose.
My mosasaur lives in the second room. Same pose: I’d recognize him anywhere. His tail curves behind him; his long jaws grin wide. But I see the wires holding him up. He stares at nothing. There is no story now, only a pile of bones suspended in air. There is not space enough here for the ocean’s dreaming.
Please, try to see it. See it the way I do.
If you look up, there is only whiteness, the kind that stops abruptly. Dodging selfie sticks, we gaze at the blank ceiling—please, look—and we know there is nothing there.
We can remember, while memory lasts. We can share photos and discuss amongst ourselves. We can even try to write our way home, reconstructing wonder and rippling blue darkness in a handful of words.
But you can’t return to something that no longer exists. I think Rachel realized that long before I did. I think she realized it that last summer.
“Hello, Mosasaur,” I said, for the last time.
Only silence answered.
Story copyright © 2022 by KT Bryski
Artwork copyright © 2022 by Richard Wagner
KT Bryski is a Canadian fantasy author. Her short fiction has appeared in various places, including CatsCast, The Deadlands, Nightmare, Lightspeed, PodCastle, and Augur (among others). She has been a finalist for the Sunburst, Eugie, and Aurora Awards. KT also co-chairs ephemera, a monthly reading series centring diverse and emerging authors. When not writing, she frolics about Toronto enjoying craft beer and choral music.
Richard Wagner is a graphic designer and illustrator living in the United States. His academic schooling consists of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with an emphasis in painting and drawing as well as training in graphic design and illustration. For seventeen years he taught college-level graphic design and photo- illustration classes while also freelancing. He now works on his own and enjoys focusing solely on being a designer/illustrator.