I took a deep breath and tried to picture it.
Quiet, solid darkness. A darkness so thick that nothing could ever penetrate it. Neither sound, nor light, nor cumbersome emotions.
Everything you tried to carry to the other side would just fall off of you like droplets of water, until you were naked and wandering the nothingness just the same way you were when you came into this world.
Darkness so perfectly black and calm and still, that nothing could ever find me. Not even Mom's ghost. It wouldn't matter if she was angry at me, if she blamed me for not doing enough for her, because she wouldn't exist anymore; and I wouldn't, either.
Nothing could ever bother me again.
They could call my phone and yell my name all they wanted. I wasn't coming back.
As much as I tried to picture it, I could see the darkness coming into existence as I slipped out of it. My own beating heart was starting to slow down, preparing itself to be quiet for the rest of eternity, to not disturb my sleep. The constant hum in my ears was also starting to fade.
I let myself sink down, becoming one with the ground, waiting to be an eternal sleeping beauty. It would be nice to melt into the ground, until my bones were indistinguishable from the floor, until there was nothing left but a few hazy memories and the letters of my name strewn across the floor like playing cards, leaving behind just enough for others to decipher what it was.
It was like drowning. A wave of water came and crashed over me, and instead of struggling, this time I let it pull me under like what it was meant to be. I let it drag me to those dark depths as I laid down in the living room, quietly awaiting the moment where I would fall to the very bottom of the ocean. Then, when I finally reached it, the trenches would open up like a giant's mouth and swallow me whole, burying me where nobody would be able to dig me up and force me into existence again.
I was no longer my problem.
I opened my eyes and the cold ocean water stung them like aspic. I immediately shut them again and coughed, trying to clear my lungs of fluid.
"I don't believe you really want to kill yourself like that. Not after everything we've been through," He growled in my ear. "We're not going down to the trenches today."
I wanted to whine but I needed to kept my mouth shut to stop the water from going in. My limbs flailed helplessly, too weighed down by the mass of water above us to even make headway.
"After everything we survived? You're just going to throw it all away like this?"
I didn't know how I could hear him. But the voice wasn't coming from next to me...it was from within, somewhere. Some door had just unlocked itself and allowed access to a part of me I couldn't hear before. His voice sounded familiar. Dad? No, certainly not. It sounded too familiar, and yet strange to me. Devon? Please.
"I know you're low on energy but I need you to move yourself! Move your legs! Start struggling against the current! If you don't act quick, we're really going to drown!"
My waterlogged brain didn't want to believe Him.
Are you God? I wondered. Is this the experience that other people keep describing? When you hear voices in your mind? Am I a prophet?
"You can call me whatever you want. If you REALLY want to make me happy though, I suggest you get those limbs moving! Swim UPWARDS! There's no time like the present, and we don't have much left!"
Reluctantly, I closed and opened one hand, trying to test the muscles. Although feeble, the signalling pathways were still intact, just barely able to send the message. I kicked with one leg and, finding sensation returning to it, tried to move its numb twin.
I don't need to live anymore, though, I remembered and stopped. Besides, it's just a waste of my energy. Might as well accept it than die painfully.
"You don't need that much!" He panted, as if he was also feeling overexerted. But from what? And why was he fighting so hard? Fighting like I no longer had the ability to? "Even if you've accepted a premature death as your fate, I don't! And I think we deserve better than this after what we've survived!"
I marveled at his spirit, truly. I doubted it would be enough to rouse me, but it was admirable. A penultimate wonder before my timely demise.
Some part of him seemed to influence me, however, as my leg continued to kick ildly. It propelled me a little upwards, though clearly not enough. The dark waters rushed across my body, covering me like a thick black tar, entirely impenetrable and unyielding.
"Stop talking like a dead man!" He screamed. "You still have so much time! If only you can get up and fight."
Oh, but I have been fighting, I wanted to remind him. Swimming and swimming all my life. But that hasn't gotten me much of anywhere. At best, my head has only ever been slightly above water.
"Above water is GOOD!" he roared angrily. "Some people cannot even see above the water they are swimming in! If you can get so high as to BREATHE, your fighting is not worthless! I am not asking you to leave the ocean - I simply want you to bring your head back there, again! To where we can breathe!"
Breathe? I tried to picture it, and my chest began to close in on itself, my lungs compressing and folding into a narrow compartment. I cannot see myself breathing again. We will probably die and remain here, in the abyss forever.
"Well we have already risen from the depths of the abyss like the monster of Babylon before! We have done it MANY times! Why stop now? Remember when you thought you would never leave the riptide, and then you found out you only needed to reorient yourself! If you had given up then, imagine how much you would have missed out that you now have, for lack of persistence!"
My, my, I sighed, letting trails of bubbles flow from my mouth...beautiful, ephemeral vessels for my very last breaths. And to think that now, a dead man like me can envy the times when I was at riptide, struggling for air...at least back then, my head was still in the game. Now I am buried in a watery grave, too deep to ever dream of rising so high as to be caught in the riptide's clutches again.
"We can rise! We will rise!" He screamed. "Rise now! Rise because you wish!"
Then suddenly, I heard screaming and splashing from above me. I opened my eyes again, risking the stinging waters, and looked up.
"You are not even in the Abyss yet, Steven. You are in the Midnight Zone. There is still hope."
Above me, I could see someone screaming and splashing. But it was not an adult man, like me, or an old man like Mr. Jameson...it was a child. I immediately began to kick my legs, propelling myself upwards.
He's not as far gone as me, I thought to myself wildly. He's still in the shallow...there's still time to save him.
"No, Steven, let him go." I looked around me, wildly, but I couldn't see anyone else except for the child drowning above me. "It's fine, Steven. It doesn't matter anymore. None of this is your problem."
Just then, something grabbed onto my good leg and I yelled, trying to kick at it with the numb one. Their grip tightened, and one of their hands grabbed onto my waist as well. I stared into their eyes.
"It's fine, Steven," Mom said. "Come down with me. You know this is what you were meant to do."
I screamed, forgetting we were underwater, and kicked her off of me. She grabbed my hand again and tried to yank me down to her but I started kicking again, trying to gain some purchase...on anything, really. There was nothing to grab onto, but I looked around wildly, ignoring the biting acidity of the water that was flooding my eyes and my mouth.
"This is what people like us deserve," Mom mumbled, and I felt the hypnotic power of her words begin to weigh down my eyelids. The water hurt them, anyway...why not close them for a little while? "You are your mother's son. Wherever I go, you must go too. You know you cannot escape our fate. Come with me."
"Leave her!" He screamed, as if he'd been struck, and some part of me snapped loose. She acted as if she couldn't hear the screams of the child above me, but I still could, and they ran through my blood like a stream of adrenaline. I yanked myself free of her grip and started kicking as hard and fast as I could. I'd never learned how to properly do a breast stroke, but I didn't let that stop me as I continued to crawl upwards clumsily, working against a fluid matrix that flung me sideways and turned my upside down and refused to let me catch onto it. But I continued to resist, refusing to let a mere wall of water stand in my way.
Barely noticeably, the periphery began to change...perhaps a little lighter, a little softer. I could still her Mom's screams from below me, but for now I only focused on the child.
He's been struggling for a while, I thought to myself. Normally people don't survive this long, and yet he's still screaming and kicking for all its worth. He can't even see me coming for him, there's no way of him knowing that his struggling will be all worth it. He must be quite strong for his age.
"We're in the Twilight Zone!" He yelled loudly, trying to catch my attention. "It's not such a long way to go from here! The surface is less than a mile away."
Finally, the water was less thick and was easier for me to push aside. For a child, maybe it would seem like viscous quicksand, an impossible trap...but my adult body was big enough and strong enough to push it aside. I could definitely notice a difference from the depths of the midnight zone. Some part of me began to feel relieved, as my bones relaxed and decompressed, free of the crushing weight of water above me.
The child, however, had no way of knowing how close we were. He continued to kick and scream as always, though he was less loud than before. I thought briefly about how to best approach him without scaring him. After all, lifeguards prefer to work with incapacitated people, for fear of being dragged down together.
"Don't overthink it so much! Just listen to your body and GO!" He screamed, and in that moment, I obeyed without thinking. I grabbed in front of me, and then kicked with both legs, forcing my numb lefty into gear.
Immediately, the child stopped struggling and relaxed, as if he didn't care where I was taking him, whether I was a lifeguard or the grim reaper...but he was a child, after all. He'd already done his part.
Assuaged of my concerns about scaring the child and him fighting me, I began to carry us both upwards, watching the dark water transform into a dazzling blue as light rays began to reach through. I almost started to enjoy myself, reminded of when I was a child and used to swim by the beach on my own, pretending I was a mermaid princess who lived underwater. The joy and the freedom and the weightlessness, and the beautiful blue water that surrounded me like liquid glass, serene and holding me up whenever I wanted to lie still.
"This is the Sunlight Zone," the voice reminded me. "You can see the light from here now. That's how much closer we are to the sun."
The child opened his eyes too. A ray of sunlight fell into his eyes and I stared into them, amazed. I'd never seen another person who also had heterochromia...and even the same colors as me, too. I started to wonder if maybe, I had a brother I didn't know about. I tried to think, hard, if Dad had other children. But the faces of my stepbrothers looked nothing like me...in the baby pictures, they were all red-headed, like Dad. This boy was gangly and had sandy hair, the color of straw.
"You'll be fine, Steven," the voice in my head told me, reassuringly. "You're almost near the surface."
I wanted to laugh...why was he reassuring me? I felt perfectly fine. If anything, he should be talking to the child.
"Just go, Steven. You can leave now."
My head began to hurt, but I simply shut my eyes and continued to carry the boy upwards. I still had a mission. He was light. I was strong. I could carry us both, just like when I used to hold up Mom. I mean, I no longer did, but that didn't mean I couldn't still save a poor boy now. I resolved to continue, even if my legs gave out, even if my lungs burst and imploded. As long as the boy made it back, I'd be fine.
"You made it Steven. We're surface now."
I felt the top of my head break the surface, and suddenly there wasn't any water left to hold me down. I opened my eyes again, feeling my arms empty, and looked around for the boy. Maybe I dropped him. I immediately looked down, seeing nothing but my own distorted toes, and got ready to dive down again and search for the boy.
"It's fine now, Steven. It's just you."
"STEVEN?" Someone screamed.
I cringed and brought my hands to my ears, but my left one was obstructed by some weird plastic tubing connecting to it. Confused, I opened my eyes and tried to look around. Everything was blurry and far too intense, after spending so much time in the dark.
"Are you awake?" a woman's voice asked gently, but I still wished she would back away and talk a little softer. Now that there was no water shielding me, everything felt all too bright and hard again.
"Where am I?" someone asked, and I realized the voice was coming from my own throat. There was no water filling my lungs anymore.
"Oh my God, I am so glad you're conscious now," the woman in front of me panted. She looked like...like a nurse. Wearing scrubs. Something like that.
"What happened?" I asked again. "Did...am I in a hospital?"
"You've been out of it for a long time, Steven," the nurse replied, as if she'd known me all my life. "Just now you kept murmuring something about water and swimming, we thought you were delirious. Do you know what day it is? Could you tell that I was calling your name?"
"Oh," I blushed. "I...used to work as a lifeguard," I offered as a mediocre explanation. However, I had no intention of addressing the reason I was here. "Did anyone come to visit me?" I asked, looking around for signs of Mom, or Devon, or maybe even Dad. Oh wait, Mom would not be coming. Never mind. Dad, maybe? Mr. Jameson? Haha, yeah right.
I stared at the IV drip connected to my left hand.
"Don't try to yank it out," the nurse warned.
"I won't, I promise," I replied, but she eyed me warily with the knowledge of an experienced nurse who has dealt with suicidal patients...or at least, patients admitted because of a suicide attempt. "I'll leave it in," I insisted. "Did anyone come for me?"
"Well, you were in CPR for a while," she replied. "We had to force your heart to keep on working. You're quite tough, you know...not a lot of people could have survived. Our man is good, but even he wasn't confident you could make it. You're lucky you're so young and strong.' I felt my ears grow warm. "Now that you're looking better AND awake, we can start admitting people."
I smiled, trying not to let my unfaithful heart betray me. The nurse glanced at the EKG and glared at me and I laughed nervously.
"Now, promise me you won't do that again," she said sternly. "I don't want to see your heart fluctuate anymore. James is tired from keeping your pump functional for so long."
"Can I see him?" I asked. "To thank him, of course."
She shook her head. "Absolutely not. I'm not even supposed to tell you the name of your paramedic," she admitted drearily, "But the fact you're actually awake right now is a shock in itself. Stay like this, please!" I chuckled. "I'm serious, young man."
"Thank you, I will," I smiled. "Say, ma'am, do you got any kids?"
She ignored me and reached over for the pager. I stared at her. She looked over at me again and smiled wryly.
"Okay, I lied," she said, and I looked back up at her. "You do have a visitor, but I told him to wait outside because I still wasn't sure if you recovered from the operation. I'll call him in now."
"Operation?" I felt myself falter. "I don't have medical insurance for that..."
"You'll figure it out!" The nurse replied darkly. "I've had enough of people waking up and being mad about money today. We've saved your life! Try to be a little grateful."
Yes, but medical debt is very real, I thought to myself. Oh, well. I suppose I'll just have to take out another loan. Still, I suppose you can't really take out a loan if you're dead.
"That's the spirit," the nurse replied, and I realized I'd said that out loud. I blushed again and looked away. The nurse opened the door and called out to someone.
I shut my eyes.
What if it was Devon? Did I want it to be him? And what if he'd brought his girlfriend?
I wasn't exactly ready to meet her, and my heart definitely wasn't in any state to survive any more breakage.
Oh well, now I could only still myself-
"Hey, sonny?" Dad called to me softly.
I sighed and opened my eyes, accepting disappointment in place of heartbreak. "You can come closer." I sat up a little higher.
Dad walked over nervously, as if he was treading on a broken bridge of glass. A mostly burnt bridge, but one he'd made himself. "I heard you were having some trouble lately," he stammered. I wanted to roll my eyes at how incompetent he was at this. "You must be beating yourself up over what happened to Mom, I imagine...and college is so stressful, you know, you shouldn't be exerting yourself so much."
I almost laughed, but he was kind of right. If it wasn't for Mom and for college, I wouldn't have tried to kill myself. "So, are you paying for the surgery?" I asked, and he flinched. Still afraid of commitments, even to this day.
"Yes, yes of course," Dad said firmly, as if he'd suddenly grown a spine. I stared at him, confused. "You're my son, Steven. My flesh and blood. I'm not going to just let you die," he said. "You know, you can call me...I don't know if, if you tried to die because I wasn't there, but I'm still your father, you know. Mom wasn't your only parent."
She kind of was, after the mess you left us in, I wanted to say, but that part of me had drowned in the ocean a while ago. Now there was nothing left of me, except for the bare bones. "What does a guy have to do to get some help around here?" I chuckled. "Try to kill myself?"
Dad didn't appreciate that.
"Steven, I want you to meet your brothers," he said firmly. Well, my stepbrothers really, but I decided not to correct him. "You need to live for them. Come on...come here," he said, and beckoned to someone around the corner. With some difficulty, I turned my head so I could see them.
Slowly, they entered my range of vision. A nine year old and a seven year old, at most, the tops of their heads as gingery as Dad's carrot hair. I studied their faces as intently as I knew they were studying mine, but I couldn't see much of myself in them. Their eyes were the same color, both blue. I was the only one in the room with split colors. I bet they weren't gay, either. Growing bored, I looked back at Dad and stared at him.
"This is Nick," he said firmly, "And this is Craig. They're your younger brothers, you know. You have to live for them, to be their model. Stay alive for us."
If I was in a darker place, I would have started cussing at him, but the ocean has a funny way of washing away those parts of yourself you don't expect. The barnacles and weeds that had grown inside of my bones had been scraped away, clean. Of maybe it was the drugs in the IV drip, I don't know. "I see," I said coolly. "So, what do you want me to do?"
"What I want? I want, I want-" Dad stammered, and then realized he didn't even have the rest of his speech planned out. Just like always, he didn't really have a purpose or know what he was supposed to do. He was just here because hey, he realized he couldn't really skip this commitment, but he wasn't wired to automatically act out the role he had taken on. I decided to forgive him, just as I had to let go of Mom and let her ghost slip into the abyss where she wouldn't cause me any more grief. Dad was by no means a real father, but that was no longer my problem. If I needed, I now knew I could swim myself to safety. I'd forgotten about my own strength, but it hadn't yet left me.
"Thanks for coming," I cut him off, blowing hair out of my eyes. It was starting to get long...long, dirty blond hair that had once been the color of sand and straw. I guess I had been procrastinating getting a haircut, but now that I was no longer going to be dead for the rest of eternity, I might as well take care of it. "If you're gonna pay the bill, I would really appreciate that, Dad. That's really all I need. I won't try to kill myself again."
Dad stiffened, but then relaxed. I had dangled the word "Dad" in front of him like a shiny bait, and like a swollen walleye, he had taken it. Understanding that I'd given him the opportunity to redeem himself and make a quick exit, he thanked the nurse and made his way to go pay for the operation. I sighed and settled down into the stiff hospital pillows, never knowing greater relief or comfort. Maybe it was the drugs.
"That's quite a father you have," the nurse said. "I'll leave you alone now, you should actually be sleeping. I'm glad to see you awake, though. Very cool of you to wake up like that. Promise you'll do it again and won't stay down forever."
"I promise," I told her. She raised an eyebrow. "I'll come back," I promised, "It's just a quick nap. To lower my stress cortisol levels." The corner of her mouth quirked up, and she turned off the lights and closed the curtain. I sighed and laid back, allowing myself to drift into a relaxing sleep. For the first time, I let myself lie back, and I could feel myself hit the warm sand, sinking into it comfortably. I smiled, letting the water lap at my toes, idly floating in a comfortable pond.
The next nurse came and woke me up the next morning. She wasn't quite as edgy and rule-breaking as the nurse before her, but to her credit, she was probably in less shock. "Breakfast is served at 7," she reminded me, and my stomach suddenly growled, remembering what it was like to have appetite and a hunger for life. Normally waking up this early was something I abhorred, but now I felt more alive than before. "You also have a visitor, by the way."
I could hear his soft footsteps, and I wanted to laugh from the euphoria that was pooling in my stomach. Or maybe it was just the drugs.
Either way, I knew exactly who he was and greeted him with relief. The bitterness that threatened to consume me from within was completely absent, and so was the obsessive infatuation that wanted to claim his for myself. Now, there was nothing but the love a man had for the best friend who'd come to see him.
"Devon," I smiled, and the curtain parted aside to reveal his surprised face. "You came."
"Yeah," he said, and slowly, carefully, he sat down on my bed. I leaned forward and let himself hug me, minding the IV drip. "You look good."
"It's the drugs," I laughed, and he stared at me quizzically.
"I thought I would never see you again," he said, letting go and sitting up. One of his eyes was welling up.
"Oh, you don't need to worry about me like that," I replied. "I was born with both hands full of luck," I grinned. "Things always turn out somehow."
He shook his head. "You're not the lucky one," he replied, then all of a sudden his voice took on a shaky tone. "I am."
He grabbed me again and, for a moment, I let myself pretend that he was hugging me so tightly because I was his boyfriend. Then I let it the waves wash it away.
"Even if I'm not lucky, I still am strong," I reminded him. "One little blip like this can't wash me away that easily. I'm almost six feet tall, you know." He cry-laughed at my lame joke, and I wiped the salt from his face. We weren't in the ocean anymore, though. This water was from within. "It's okay," I said softly, as he laughed and continued to cry into my shoulder, still hugging me tightly as if he was afraid I would sink below.
"I'm sorry," I said, lying back and letting him hug me as tightly as he wanted. "Your girlfriend must be really pissed...even now, I keep relying on you for dumb stuff. I'm such a needy little piece of shit," I laughed, finally being honest.
"I don't give a shit," he replied, his voice muffled by my shoulder. The nurse started to give him the stinkeye and I smiled at her reassuringly to let her know Devon was not about to suffocate her patient. "If anything, I'm the needy one." He sat up and looked me in the eye again. "Don't leave me like that. I need you here, you got it? For my sanity." I smiled.
All this time I thought I was the only one reaching for a lifesaver. It was a relief to know that, all this time, we were reaching for each other.
"It's okay, Devon. You needn't worry." He hadn't stopped sobbing, so I leaned down to kiss him. On the forehead.
When he looked at me, I just ruffled his hair affectionately. "I won't leave, for real. I promise."
He closed his eyes, and then opened them very, very slowly. The tide was coming in. I steadied myself, preparing to speak.
"I'm a good swimmer. I won this time."
He stared at me, confused.
I grinned, then lowered my voice just enough so he could hear it, maybe if he was listening hard enough.
And I love you too.
"I always win."