Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Underwater Breathing (Full Story)

I almost drowned when I was ten. It was out on Willow Lake. Cody Detwiller was daring everyone to jump off the end of the old dock to see who could jump the farthest.

We weren’t supposed to be out that far. The lake was deep and there were no lifeguards, but we always watched the big kids out there with their stereo and their cooler of stuff we were pretty sure wasn’t just pop, and that day they were gone, so we figured it was ours for the taking. Everyone was stoked but me.

I couldn’t swim, but I could fake it pretty good. We mostly stayed in the shallows at the lake, or floated around in inner tubes. I was okay as long as I didn’t drift out to far. When that happened, I would try to ignore the pounding in my chest, and take deep breaths like my dad taught me. I learned to wear a mask of calm, to deflect with humor, but the truth was I was terrified. And I hated it.

So when Cody announced that anyone who didn’t jump was a girl, I jumped. And then, I panicked.

Fear, real fear, is paralyzing. I knew I needed to move my arms, or kick, but in my mind I was already drowning even though I still had a chest full of air. In my mind I was dead as soon as the water covered my head.

I watched the sunlight dim as I sank. I thought, I hate Cody Detwiller. I felt the slick rocks and rough sand when I hit bottom. My lungs burned and as my thoughts became a jumble, and the world grew dark, I heard a song. It seemed somehow solid, moving straight at me with force in the midst of all that liquid. The voice was so beautiful and sad I thought maybe it was the angels, coming to take me.

Hands gripped my head and I looked up into the face of a girl about my age, with hair the color of seaweed streaming behind her. She was smiling at me, and even though her mouth was closed, I was sure the melody was coming from her.

Don’t be afraid. The words echoed inside my head, soft and high. Her mouth still hadn’t moved, but I knew it was her voice I’d heard. And just like that, I wasn’t scared anymore. She leaned forward and pressed her mouth to mine. In that moment, I forgot everything. There was just me, the music, and the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen kissing me.

When she pulled away, I reached for her and she giggled, the sound tinkled like bells inside my head. You have to swim now Ryan, it won’t last long.

Why? I thought back to her, my fear of the water already a distant memory. I want to stay with you.

She shook her head. You don’t belong here.

What’s your name?

My name can't be said with your language.

I didn’t understand. Does it have a meaning?

She thought it over. If I tell you do you promise to go?

Okay. I nodded my head, careful not to let her hear the thought that I'd be right back.

It’s Summer. Now, please, go! You’re running out of time and I can’t save you again. She pointed up with her hand, her eyes pleading with me. Kick.

She turned and swam away, flicking a tail as green as her hair behind her. I watched her until she was gone and it was only then that I realized I could breathe.

I kicked my way to the surface where a frantic crowd waited. Strong arms pulled me to shore, and the next thing I saw was my dad’s worried face. “I want to take swimming lessons,” I told him, and then I passed out.

As soon as my parents let me go near the lake again, I spent hours out there diving as deep as I could, waiting, calling to her, but she never came.

I pretty much chalked it up as an oxygen-deprived hallucination until today, when whispers started going around about a strange new girl with bright green hair and skin so pale it was like she’d never seen the sun.

I was in the hallway outside the gym when I heard it. The song that saved me all those years ago. It pushed it’s way to me through the crowd, over the chattering voices, inside my head.

I searched out the source until I spotted a flash of bright green. The closer I got to her, the louder the song became, but the pounding of my heart threatened to drown it out. She had her back to me, as she arranged books in her locker.

Summer? I said, using the voice she’d shown me in my head.

All the books in her hands crashed to the floor.

She bent to collect them and I crouched to help her. “Summer?” I said again, thinking maybe she couldn’t hear me now that she wasn’t underwater.

“I’m sorry, my name is Lorelei.” She snatched her Biology book from my hands and pushed past me down the hall.

I didn’t see her again until lunch. Her green hair and pale skin was a beacon in the cafeteria painted in the school colors, blue and gold. The melody played softer now, sadder than before, but still definitely there in the creases of my mind.

I paid for my lunch and slid into the bench seat beside her at her empty table. “Sum—Lorelei? Hey. I’m Ryan.” How do you tell a girl you think she’s the mermaid who saved your life, and not sound crazy? How do you tell her you hear her song inside your head?

“Hi.” She smiled at me and even though I knew it was fake it was the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen. She picked at the fish sticks on her tray like she couldn’t figure out what they were, or maybe she was disgusted by them.

“The fish sticks are pretty bad. Try this.” She stared at the hoagie I put on her tray. “There’s no meat in it. Strictly veg.”

She smiled again and this time it was real. “Thanks.” She studied my face until her smile fell forming a tiny frown on her pale lips. The song changed too. The melody shifted into something more real, like words that were just out of reach. “Listen, Ryan, it isn’t safe for—”

“Sup, loser?” Cody Detwiller dropped into the seat on Lorelei’s other side and four of his friends sat opposite us, all with heaping trays of fish sticks and tater tots. “This homo isn’t bothering you, is he, Pretty Girl?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” she said. “Ryan, thank you for the sandwich.” Lorelei gathered her bag and took off leaving me and my sandwich behind.

“You sure know how to impress a girl, Gallagher,” Cody said, snorting and shoving fish sticks down his gullet.

She’s not just a girl, I thought, hoping she could hear me.

Her song played in my mind all afternoon making it easy to know where she was. But every time I saw her--at her locker, at the water fountain, going into the girl’s bathroom--she was surrounded by guys. Usually Cody and company.

I had to get her alone. I had to get her to talk to me, to remember. To admit that she was the girl I saw in the lake. But when the last bell rang and I rushed out into the hallway, the only sound I heard over the rising voices as more people filed out of classrooms, were squeaking sneakers and slamming lockers. She was gone.

Lorelei didn’t come to school at all the next day. Neither did Cody Detwiller.

Somehow I just knew he’d gotten to her. Cody was like that. He could talk to girls, any girl. He was just one of those guys. I’d really thought Lorelei wasn’t one of those girls.

I got up late for school the day after and ran into my mom in the kitchen. She wanted to talk, but I needed to go. I had to find Lorelei. I had to try to talk to her again. It didn’t matter if she was with Cody, because it was my life that she’d saved. Because I could hear her song. But Mom told me school was cancelled because something bad had happened.

Cody Detwiller drowned in Willow Lake.

I didn’t know I had the capacity for sympathetic feelings where Cody was concerned. I’d only ever hated the guy, so it was strange and awkward to think kind thoughts about him. He might have been an ass of epic proportions, but he didn’t deserve die. At least, not like that.

The news ran the story on an infinite loop that day. I kept flipping the TV on just to see if they mentioned a girl, but it was the same thing over and over again. Pictures of Cody looking like the wholesome, mild-mannered, home-grown boy he wasn’t, home video of him swimming like a fearless shark, a few shots of the treacherous lake flashing blue and red, and then Channel Seven reporter Cherise McMannis promising details for services and the like as soon as she had them. The words she used echoed my own feelings on the subject: shocking, unbelievable, tragic. And then, scrolling across the bottom, ‘police suspect foul play.’

There wasn’t a good reason to think Lorelei had been at the lake when Cody drowned, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was somehow connected. What if she were in trouble and no one was looking for her?

First chance I got, I broke out of the house and raced to the lake. I was halfway there before I realized I was speeding, but with all the cops suspecting foul play on behalf of Cody, all the usual speed traps were empty. I didn’t worry with slowing down. Now that I was on the road, all I could think about were the many things Cody might have done to Lorelei, which only made the road seem that much longer.

By the time the turn off to the lake appeared, my hands were sweaty on the wheel and I was going double the limit. I eased off the gas and turned onto the dusty road that circled the lake. The first parking lot was already clogged with half the cars in town. It was the lot for the main pier and already it was covered in flowers and candles and who knows what else. Must have been where they found his body, but it’s not where I was heading.

The road slid in and out of tall clusters of elm and maple trees, all of them glowing yellow-green in the late afternoon sun. I lowered my window and drove as slowly as I could bear, watching the shoreline through the tree trunks for any sign of her.

I didn’t see her, though. I heard her.

Her mournful melody teased its way through the wind to me. I stopped the car, pulled off to the side where there was just enough room to park and left it there to follow that song down to the shore.

I found her in the water. She stood with her back to me, the bottom of her skirt pillowed on top of the water around her thighs, her pale green hair distressed and reaching out like budding leaves. The light was playful on the little waves around her and she held her hands out as if she wanted to touch the water, but didn’t.

“Summer?” My feet sank in the wet sand. “Lorelei, I mean. Are you okay?”

Her fingers fluttered and I saw a shiver trip over her shoulders. She didn’t speak though, only stared out over the water.

“Did – did Cody hurt you?” I took another step. Water sloshed up over the toe of my sneaker, soaking my foot.

She made a sound that might have been laughter, but was probably a cry and wrapped her arms around herself. I took another step soaking both feet and saw her flinch, so I stopped and waited for some other sign of what I should do.

None came and the water was becoming more and more choppy as if a boat had passed and sent its wake crashing toward us. But there were no boats on the water today, only a few sad flowers and the sinking billows of Lorelei’s skirt as the lake slowly tugged them down and held them under.

“I know who you are.” I said as waves licked at my ankles. “I’ve been waiting for you for – for years.” And when she didn’t turn, I added, “Summer.”

“No.” She said in a voice so full of voice I almost didn’t recognize it as hers. “I can’t do this anymore.”

She turned toward me and that melody was suddenly loud and full in my head. I took three more steps until my jeans were soaked and the lake was getting way too friendly with my crotch. I didn’t care. All I cared about was staying with Summer. I let her music pull me closer until I was near enough to touch her.

“I never should have saved you.” Her eyes were sad, but also something else I couldn’t peg. “You’re a distraction and have been nothing but trouble.”

She regarded me in a distant way, like I were a bug or gum on the bottom of her shoe. And I knew. “You killed him.”

“You make me want to be something other than what I am.” It was an accusation. The melody climbed even higher and I wanted to give her the world.

“I’m sorry.” I said and meant it.

“I’m sorry, too, Ryan.”

Her eyes were full of tears when she pressed her mouth to mine and flooded my lungs with water.

photo via della stock

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