The Little Thing in the Bottle

The light in the ship’s dining room was low, and I suppose the empty bottle of red wine also had something to do with it. But when I looked into your eyes, and you smiled and bit your lip, I just knew it was the perfect time to say it: “I wish Mark had never been born.”

For a moment all the beauty drained from you, the way it sometimes does when we fight and you become possessed by your sulky, eight-year old counterpart. But then you raised your eyebrows and, although you still looked doubtful, you smiled again.

“Really?” you asked, swirling the wine in your glass and smelling it – just like we had seen them do in that film with Paul Giamatti.

“I suppose I just meant… We don’t do this enough.”

“Well, I know that. But I thought for a second you meant… Something else.” And then you dropped your eyes to the table, giving me the space to make the confession. But now I knew you were thinking it too, I wanted you to say it first.

“What did you think I meant?” I asked.

“I thought you were going to say you wished we’d never had him because he’s a little stroppy shit.”

We both laughed then. Laughed because we still weren’t there yet but now it was out there, it was free: the little thing that had been trapped in the bottle for five years.

“It’s my fault,” I said. “I think of how lovely Abigail is: so good natured and optimistic. She never cries, never shouts. Just like you. I mean, God, what was he going on about earlier with all that fire truck nonsense? I hate it when he’s like that because he’s just like me. That desire to be the centre of attention all the time, be heard or be—”

“Will you shut up? It’s no more your fault than it is mine. He sulks when he can’t get his way. You don’t sulk.”

“No, I just get my way.”

“Exactly – but I sulk. So does he. Therefore he’s my devil’s spawn as much as he’s yours. Afraid we’re in this together, my darling.”

And to that, we toasted.

I remember thinking we should talk more quietly because people were staring from nearby tables, but part of me wanted all the other parent-robots to know how cool we still were. How we hadn’t lost our edge just because we’d had two kids and took boat cruises around the Western Mediterranean. We still breathed and fucked and got angry.

“I just felt like we’d done it right before, with Abigail,” I said. “That we could be parents and still have our lives. But now… He is all consuming.”

You were nodding along with me which hadn’t happened for a long time. This wasn’t the dog-nodding of doctor’s appointments and shopping lists; this felt meaningful and important. How it used to be a long time ago.

“Do you think we’ve become everything we hated?” you asked.

I shrugged. “What can we do though?”

Without missing a beat, you said: “Do you think we could get away with throwing him over the side?”


Another bottle of wine later we stumbled down the stairs. Before going back to the cabin we split up to go to the bathroom. You went to the left and I went to the right. The corridor swayed from side to side with the roll of the ocean and I bashed my shoulder against a wall. Later, they asked me how I got that bruise, and at first I couldn’t remember.

When I got back to the cabin the door was open. I was surprised when you weren’t inside. I guessed that perhaps the door had come open by itself, maybe the result of a broken lock. I walked past the children’s bunks without even looking and fell face down on the bed.

When I woke up you were shaking me.

“Jeff. Jeff. Where’s Mark?”

The connection between his name and being jerked awake sent a sobering flare of anger through me.

Together we searched the room but despite my threats he didn’t come out of hiding. We made so much noise, yet the whole time Abigail – bless her – just stayed in bed. Perhaps she was like us and thought it was one of his games.

It was about half an hour later when we asked the first member of the crew to keep an eye out for a blond little boy with brown eyes wearing Aston Villa pyjamas. He suggested they make an announcement over the public address system but we didn’t want to wake anyone. Not for the sake of that little—

They would find that strange too. Especially on the internet: on the blogs and the forums. But they didn’t know what he was like. How many times we’d been through the same sort of thing before.

Word spread on the ship and our frantic searching became infectious. Most of those still awake were even more drunk that we were – not that I felt drunk as I stomped through the ship’s labyrinth of corridors ready to tan some backside – but they helped search anyway.

Some of those still awake in their quarters came out and joined in too.

I saw [Jeff] outside our room. He didn’t seem concerned, really, he just looked angry which I found unsettling.

Did you read that one? An interview on

I remember coming to the end of one corridor and opening a door to some stairs that led down into the bowels of the ship. There was the smell of oil and an intense heat. I remember thinking how strange it was that there was no lock on such a place. It was just so easy to move around the ship. And that made me wonder how easy it would have been for Mark to have left the room and wander about without being noticed.


You were the first to ask me, but you wouldn’t be the last: “Why did we leave him alone?”

And the answer I gave you, as you sat crying on the white bench on the top deck – Abigail sleeping in your arms – was the same I always give. “Because it was safe. Everyone else was doing it.”

Hours went by. The ship alerted the Spanish mainland and we had to make an unscheduled stop.

Two days later the boat left Spain without us.


I remember them telling us in that stuffy little room that smelled of citronella and coffee. Telling us they’d found his tiny fingerprints on the door to the cabin. They also found his fingerprints in the corridor leading to the stairs on the top deck, and some more on one of the safety bars that overlooked the ocean. I remember the soft little grunting sound that your throat made when they told us the last part.

The theory was that he’d woken up and come looking for us, somehow managing to get out of the room and up the stairs onto the deck. There he’d seen the safety bars that would have been only a few feet in front of him.

“Was he an adventurous child?” the police asked. And you told them how much he loved to clamber. “He might have thought the bars looked like a climbing frame,” they said. “They would have been damp with sea-spray and he probably slipped and lost his balance.”

You and I both asked the same questions that would later turn up on all the websites: How did Mark “fall” across the two metres of deck between the bars and the edge of the boat? How did he then fall nearly fifty feet and not either land in one of the lifeboats, or hit them on the way down? Where was the blood?

You didn’t say “blood”, though. You just said “evidence.”

The police thought that he had hit his head and then stumbled the wrong way in confusion. He could have fallen off the boat anywhere after that, including between the boats.

If they could only find a body, they would be able to know more. But that never happened.

* said that the investigation into Mark’s disappearance was hampered by having occurred somewhere between Spain and Portugal. Because the jurisdiction in that area was “as murky as the ocean waters”, both countries had allowed the case to slip into oblivion, “just like Mark did.”

Of course other things slipped into oblivion that night too.

I hope it wasn’t lost on you that our closest moment together turned out to be the very thing that pulled us apart. That in that dreadful intimacy we ensured we could never be intimate again. Funny, after all that talk of ridding ourselves of Mark to be free, it was his very absence that trapped us.

But can you imagine what all those people on the internet would make of the things we said to each other in the hours before Mark vanished? The conspiracy theorists and the concerned parents and the bored teenagers? And the newspapers? And the police?

What would Lucy from Arkansas think? Did you see what she wrote about you?

I hate them. Especially the woman. Leaving those kids alone and then slapping her smug face all over the television, begging us to let her know if we’ve seen him.

It’s good that we don’t see each other any more, Ellie. I miss you and Abigail, but even if we know in our hearts that what happened that night was an accident, I can’t ever forget the things we said. And eventually there would come a time when I wouldn’t be able to hold it in any more. There would come a low-lit evening with red wine and your beautiful face. And I would ask: Why did it take you so long to come back to the room that night? Where were you while I slept?

And I know you would have things to ask me: What were you doing all that time I was gone? Why didn’t you notice his empty bed? Why didn’t you check on them?

I don’t want that conversation with you because I’m scared of where it will lead. I’m scared you will tell me why it took you so long, tell me where you were while I slept. And I’m scared of how I would answer your questions. Scared I’ll remember what I was doing all that time you were gone. Scared I’ll remember why I didn’t check on them.

There are too many memories from that night that may have slipped into oblivion along with Mark. They can stay there, for all I care.

But Ellie, I still smile when I remember that final dinner: how close we were again for just a moment. It was just like being young again. Like when we first met, a long time ago. Before Mark.


S.R. Mastrantone lives and writes in Oxford, UK. His other short stories have appeared or are coming soon in The Fiction Desk, Lamplight, and Stupefying Stories. He blogs at