[Short Story] Going Under
“I’m going to drown.”
This thought repeated itself over and over in his brain as the shimmering membrane that had just closed over his head receded further beyond the reach of his grasping fingers. He could feel himself being pulled downwards, his ankle caught in an invisible grip from which he could not break free. As his lungs exploded and the last of his breath was lost in a burst of air bubbles cascading upwards, he ceased his futile struggles and accepted his fate as a sudden sense of calm and relief swept over him. Indeed, he had been living on the surface and drifting among the random currents of experience for so long that when the cold fingers of the undertow ensnared his ankle it seemed as if the entire world had simply dropped out from under his feet, plunging him downward into depths unimaginable. The cold, metallic taste of the water filled his mouth and throat and his vision began to darken. Suddenly, in stark contrast to the shimmering, rippling sky, he saw a silhouetted form as of someone standing right within arm’s reach looking down, watching him through the surface of the water. Instinctively, without thinking he reached out, his weakened fingers grasping at any last hope for salvation. He seemed to hear a muffled cry followed by a splash.
Then the darkness engulfed him and he awoke.
The waking world solidified and he gasped in breath, the sheets cocooned tightly around him, his body soaked in sweat. The metallic taste of the water going down his throat stayed with him even as he fought and thrashed his way free, tossing the disheveled, sweat soaked sheets off to the side and onto the floor. He pulled himself up to a sitting position, remaining motionless, head in hands, eyes closed, massaging his temples until his breathing became regular again and his heart rate had slowed back to normal.
Finally, he managed to drag himself out of bed and prepare to go through the motions of another wasted day. There had been a lot of those lately.
The dreams had started innocently enough, calling up early memories of young, carefree summer afternoons with Donny at the swimming hole, but they grew increasingly more intense and unnerving. A blend of memories along with images and emotions that carried with them a strange and surreal sense of remembering events that had not even occurred. He had long pondered on their significance and was convinced that these were not random, jumbled images placed in some semblance of order by everyday stress and anxieties, but instead, subconscious, visual clues meant to be closely studied and analyzed. A road map into a parallel reality where the laws of time and space no longer apply as we know them. He did not often remember his dreams, but lately these nightly sojourns had become extremely vivid and lucid, digging up repressed memories of a past thought long buried. Like the backhoes and excavation equipment dredging out the bottom of the lake during the search that effectively ended his childhood later that infamous summer. Memories of the day when he felt the cold touch of a ghost from the future setting his tangent destiny in motion.
When the swimming hole became the pit.
The swimming hole was located in a small wooded alcove area of a larger lake on the far side of town from where he and Donny grew up with their mother. They only got to visit on occasions when mom made the drive across town to visit Katherine, with whom she had been friends since high school. Katherine’s two boys were about the same age and sometimes on their visits, she would pack a cooler full of sandwiches and the four kids would spend their afternoons together swimming and hanging out at the dock talking about the many worlds they would conquer as adults. It had been one of his favorite spots and he had always cherished the memories of these special summer outings, but just like everything else in life, even these innocent childhood treasures became forever tainted by loss and death. He had repressed the events of that day completely until the dreams opened up the floodgates and brought it all back, demanding his full attention. His fear soon overcome by intrigue and curiosity.
His mother had forbidden them to go back there after news of the body that was found broke. He and Donny were watching TV when a special news bulletin came on showing several police cars and medical personnel at the dock area surrounded by what seemed to be miles of yellow police tape. Mom was in the kitchen making dinner but stuck her head in when she heard Donny shout.
“Hey, that’s the swimming hole!”
The details were sketchy. The body of an adult male had been pulled from the water. He was not known in the local community and no family or acquaintances had come forward. The victim was fully clothed except for bared feet and appeared to have no physical injuries or trauma. An investigation followed, yet curiously, authorities were unable to establish an identification. There was speculation of foul play and excavation equipment was brought in to dredge out the bottom of the lake, but no further evidence was found. It was ruled a tragic accident. The investigation went nowhere and the world moved on as it always does. He remembered feeling an almost overwhelming sadness upon hearing the news and he silently mourned this nameless stranger and the future that had been lost. Almost as if he had lost a part of himself.
From then on, the swimming hole was known as the pit.
The currents shifted again years later when mom decided to move away with her childhood sweetheart and get married in pursuit of a new life several states away, a short lived fantasy that took a turn for the worst when her new husband contracted a debilitating illness soon afterwards, slowly wasting away over the next thirteen years only to die in a hospital wearing a diaper, unable to speak and drooling on himself. So much for new beginnings.
He had stayed behind after mom left, moving into an apartment, getting a job, determined to make something of life, distracting himself with floating carrots, sticks and an occasional vice or emotional crutch. Always in sight but just out of reach. To give credit where due, he managed to maintain some semblance of a decent, humble and honest life, despite the cruel weight of circumstances. He never really thought of his life as being extraordinary. Quite the opposite, he had come to think of life in general to be rather tedious and mundane, filled only with the promise of disappointment.
The suffering of strangers.
The agony of friends.
Donny’s sudden death had been the first real shock to his sensibilities, altering the course of his life profoundly and calling into question his blind acceptance of everyday events, hinting at his lack of purpose in the greater scheme of random astrological conflict between order and chaos.
Donny had been killed in a drunken hit and run while walking along the road in the early hours of a warm June morning. The driver of the car made a u turn and drove off in the opposite direction, leaving Donny to die alone on the side of the road. A witness reported the incident and it was revealed later that the driver had multiple infractions and alcohol related offenses going back many years. Deep pockets, however, tend to condone and reward irresponsible and malicious behavior and the entire matter was swept under the rug with no repercussions or accountability.
And the world moved on as it always does.
Some wounds can never be cleaned out, they just fester like barnacles encrusting the psyche. The emotional weight so unbearable it was all he could do to get out of bed in the morning and stay afloat.
Every day became a constant barrage of new personal dramas with which he found himself unable to cope.
Heartache, death, abuse, addiction, love lost, and love betrayed. Some were random, some deliberate, some through his own shortcomings and fault of action, some more or less personal and devastating than others, yet all contributing to remove any shred of doubt that his life was an endless cycle of seemingly random events falling back upon themselves in constant repetition. When he wasn’t feeling paralyzed with fear and self doubt, he was plagued with self imposed guilt and feelings of inadequacy when confronted with the daily tragedies and hardships in the world around him.
Potential opportunities merely teasers which served false hopes and self delusion.
Floating carrots. Always in sight but just out of reach.
Everyone has their cross to bear, the cross of mere existence amidst a universe of constantly shifting disharmony.
Yet, the human mind has an amazing capacity for denial.
Freewill is the great deception.
Like the rat in a maze who says “watch me choose my own destiny”. Like a stone in a boot, corrupting any stride taken.
As a child, we are born tethered to the solid ground, confined to this mortal coil, naive in our innocence and fully trusting in what the world has to offer. Then the wellspring of experience begins to fill up around us. At first we wade about, happily chasing our perceived destinies, splashing in the puddles and tide pools forming around our feet, setting our sights on imaginary destinations and fruitless endeavors. As time passes, we drift from the shallow waters into the deeper oceans and the churning tides become more perilous. We suddenly find ourselves in the vast ocean of experience, buoyed up by the surface tension, unaware of the expansive gulf that has formed beneath our feet. What was once so easy to ignore, suddenly becomes impossible to face. With no life preserver and no means of navigation, we are merely flotsam. Insignificant floating debris tossed about carelessly on indifferent waves. Our feeble attempts to swim against the undertow are for naught. We tread water in the wake of an endless flood desperately struggling to feel the familiar solid ground now so far beneath us.
The waves of the future come rushing in to bury the world, washing away the past and all that one holds dear. Then the tether constricts around our ankles, pulling us back down to the bottom again. Back to the beginning.
The pivotal moment, of course, had been that day at the lake so many years ago, though he couldn’t have known it then, so it was only fitting that every step forward would lead him here. Back to the beginning.
He had lived in a variety of locations over the years, but it was the lake and the surrounding area that always felt like home, and it was to the lake that he would inevitably return years later when he moved into the small cottage situated just off the water’s edge, and away from a potentially disastrous cocaine habit to find new artistic motivations and a renewed inspiration for life.
It took over twenty years to track him down again, but the past is not always so easily laid to rest and even the best laid plans in life are meaningless and hollow when the currents of life flow against you and the undertow begins to pull you down.
Strange that it should come to this.
He stood at the edge of the pit, gazing into the abyss and saw his own reflection looking back.
Just like in the dream.
Where worlds collide, the currents of past and future flow both ways simultaneously, the present only a momentary blink in the eye of a cosmic maelstrom, setting the stage to begin again.
The way out is the way in.
The cycle repeats itself.
History resists change
He gazed across and saw the dock on the other side just as it had always been and except for a few more houses in his line of vision, everything looked almost identical to the way he remembered it as a boy. A mirror image of his past.
The past is never really gone, and it can never be corrected. All we can do is push it to the back of our minds and try to manipulate the future by moving on, but until we confront the ugly truths of the past, it will always catch up to us and we are forced to go through it all again. The past will become our future.
Except of course, it was much deeper now. The longer you live the deeper it gets.
He heard distant voices and glanced up. There were four kids making their way down the path on the far hillside towards the dock. He could hear bits of their laughter and conversation. The distance was too great for him to make out the words being said but they were becoming clearer and more distinct.
He never had any children of his own, and he came to think of this as a blessing. This was a conscious choice that he was often criticized for in outside circles and it always troubled him greatly when this happened. The world was not a favorable place for raising children and he always felt it selfish to impose the physical curse of the human condition onto a divine, spiritual being and then try to mold it to our own likeness while ignoring and repressing the pure, universal wisdom they have to offer. He could no longer relate to the innocent, trusting nature of children and it saddened him to know they would eventually be drowning in the floodgates of time, never allowed to splash in the bliss of shallow innocence again.
His own childhood was long gone, and he often felt as if it had never actually existed.
As if it was something he just dreamed up.
Splashing in the tide pools of a dream within a dream.
He removed his shoes and took a few tentative steps forward past the water’s edge and hesitated.
He was acutely aware of the soft mud squishing between his toes. The water was warm and felt pleasant as it sloshed around his ankles.
He stomped his feet up and down a few times, but it felt awkward and unnatural. He took several more steps further into the water until it was up to his waist. He held both hands flat against the surface, just barely touching and felt the subtle crackle of electricity, making the hairs on his arm stand up and his skin tingle. He hesitated at the edge of where the bottom dropped away and stood silently, listening. His senses were strangely acute, yet the air quality had a surreal, inexplicable feel, as if he was experiencing everything through a veil of undulating mist. The sounds of the nearby traffic and the environment around him almost seemed to be receding. Not like of the volume being turned down, but more as if the source of the sound was being carried further away into the distance. Or as if he was being carried away. Back to the beginning.
He glanced back over towards the dock. The four kids had reached the water and were goofing about as boys often do, One of them stood by a small cooler that had been placed on the ground near the dock, but well away from the water’s edge, so there was no chance of the contents getting wet. One of the other boys had removed his T shirt and hung it over a nearby tree branch, along with several towels they had draped there. He had removed his shoes and waded out waist deep in the water towards the end of the dock. The sound of their chatter was now crystal clear, with no sound of distant echo. He might have been standing right next to them. The dialogue was frighteningly familiar.
A feeling of Deja vu came over him and he noticed an almost imperceptible ripple spread across his field of vision. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
Standing silent, waist deep on the edge of understanding, time passed and the revelation manifested itself in a timeless moment of clarity.
His entire life was a struggle for self preservation when there is no self to preserve.
Is everything predestined?
Will the cycle remain unbroken?
Does cause effect?
Can a simple selfless act, untainted by human desire, strip away the illusion of a false destiny and offer the possibility of a second chance?
Perhaps hope is to just stop the fight and embrace the inevitable.
Can the unconditional and willing sacrifice of a corrupted future provide an escape from an obdurate past?
Surrender to the chaos and suspend disbelief.
Make it real.
…or it’s all self delusion, and wishing otherwise will not make it so.
Hope or futility?
He slowly exhaled and took another step over the edge of the pit, leaving the shallow waters and slipped under, immersing himself. He felt himself sinking deeper.
A sense of calm and relief swept over him and he opened his eyes.
He saw a shimmering, silhouetted form as of someone standing right within arm’s reach looking down, watching him through the surface of the water. Instinctively, without thinking, he reached out.
He seemed to hear a muffled cry followed by a splash.
Davey’s yell jolted him from his thoughts and he began to turn just as his friend hit the water about four feet to his right in a full on cannonball dive off the end of the dock. Startled, he staggered back a few steps in the water as Davey resurfaced from his dive, wiping water from his eyes, “Watch it you doofus, you almost hit me”
“Did not. Why are you standing so close to the dock anyway? You’re right in the line of fire. Quit daydreaming and get out of the way…. Doofus.”
Davey laughed and splashed water in his direction then dove back underneath the surface.
He turned towards shore where Davey’s younger brother Michael was splashing barefoot in the mud while cheerfully slapping at the surface of the water with a long, slender tree branch he had discovered in the underbrush. Donny stood nearby, finishing off the last sandwich from the cooler and moving to gather up the towels.
“Come on you guys, we have to go. Mom said we could only stay for a little while and I’m not getting in trouble because of your lame butt.”
“Aw, come on Donny, we haven’t been here that long. Mom won’t mind. Just a couple more minutes.”
Donny finished packing up their belongings and was moving to collect Michael from the mud, who was now using his stick to poke at some half submerged object that had gotten his attention.
“I mean it. Let’s get going. I’m not messing around with you.”
“Just one more quick dive. Please?”
“C’mon, hurry up.”
He half turned back towards the dock while Donny busied himself with Michael and started over toward the small hand ladder attached to the end. The water was just deep enough that his toes brushed the bottom as he reached for the lower rung.
A hand brushed his ankle.
“Jeeeez.” Cut it out, Davey. That’s not funny.”
“Cut what out? I’m not doing anything, you moron.”
He turned and saw Davey standing on shore by the opposite side of the dock, a puzzled look on his face.
He hesitated, confused, one hand on the lower rung of the ladder, bobbing lightly in the water. He first thought Davey had snuck up on him from behind for an underwater ambush, but if Davey was on shore…
He felt it again.
The first time had been brief and the feeling uncertain, perhaps a small piece of debris caught in a swirling underwater current.
This time he felt the distinct soft, yet firm grip of a hand encircling and gripping his left ankle. The fingers cold, the grip deliberate, yet feeble and weak, even now slipping away as he jerked back instinctively, pulling himself up the ladder and scrambling onto the dock.
“Holy crap. There’s something out here.”
“What’s your problem now? C’mon, quit screwing around and let’s go.” Donny’s voice sounded agitated.
“I’m telling you, there’s something out here. I felt it in the water.”
“It’s probably just a rock or something. Let’s go. Don’t make me say it again.”
He was kneeling on the dock, peering down into the water, straining to catch a glimpse. His own distorted reflection was looking back at him from the surface, and just underneath…another face.
For the briefest of moments, he glimpsed another face blending with, then separating from his own reflected features, it drifted with the current, appearing to descend as it faded into the depths.
Then it was gone. Had he really even seen it?
This thought came into his head with such force and intensity that it seemed less a thought than a command. He had an impulsive, sudden urge to plunge his hand into the water as if his very life depended on it. Then, like the face, it was gone.
He didn’t want to swim anymore.
He stood up and walked back the length of the dock, toward shore. “OK. Let’s get out of here. I want to go.”
Davey hopped back up onto the dock.
“You guys go ahead. I’m going to take one last quick dive.”
And with that, he ran full speed down the dock, launching himself into the water with a splash, ignoring Donny’s protests.
“C’mon. He can catch up. I’m not waiting around anymore”
All three of them began walking back up the path that led out of the woods towards the main road.
“Hey you guys, wait up.”
Davey was back on shore and running up the path toward them.
“He’s right. There’s something out there, something weird.”
“See, I told you I felt something. It felt like somebody trying to grab my leg.”
Donny kept walking.
“I told you, it was just a rock or something. There’s nothing out there, you boneheads. Forget it. Let’s get moving.”
He continued following Donny up the path, glancing back silently at the still surface of the water.
Davey turned towards him.
“It definitely was not a rock.”