Then I was here. Don’t know where here is, just that it’s darkness punctuated by these images of my life. They shuffle like an old carousel projector, then stop. One pulls me in, and I relive it—sort of, for a minute. But it always morphs into something darker and surreal. Something I don’t recognize.
I never get to choose the memory.
Colors bloom around me, lighting up my vision. It’s time. Time for the next procession of images.
One: My old ’67 Chevelle, windows down, sunshine winking through a canopy of trees, browning my bent arm.
Two: Jake’s funeral, where it’s raining graveside like a goddamn cliché. I’m clutching the black umbrella Donna forced me to bring. She’s out of tissues again, looking up at me like I should do something about it. All I can do is hold her.
Three: The Idaho State Pen, where Jake did time. Snow floats around the complex at night, illuminated by floodlights. It lands in a whisper on power lines behind me.
That’s where the images pause, forcing me to linger outside the prison in the middle of winter. Of course. No way I’d get a nice summer cruise in the Chevelle.
Something tugs at me like a child leading a balloon on a string, and I slink through barricades, slip between barred and frosted windows. I bypass everything that’s supposed to keep criminals inside. Keep my son inside.
Then I see him. Jake. He’s sitting across the metal table from me. Visiting hours. Orange jumpsuit, rumpled around the collar. Fluorescent lights flicker against concrete walls. He rubs four fingers up and down his stubbled cheek, gazing off to the side, like he’s daydreaming. As if he’s looking out a window in this windowless room. He won’t acknowledge me, won’t meet my eyes. Then he does, but it’s a hard glare, like I said something wrong and he’s angry.
I reach across the table to touch his folded hands, to make this better. He stares at me, blank. Then my little round stool shrinks, pulling me down into polished concrete and through the earth. I don’t want to leave Jake alone, so I grip his hands tighter. My arms stretch like saltwater taffy, but I’m not letting go.
Falling down fast, eventually I land with a hard thud, and my fingers release on impact. My body’s inside an open casket. Crumbles of dirt trickle down, threatening what’s to come. The sky turns to water above me. It’s like a mirror image of a lake. So close, I could touch it if I just reached out a hand. Fish swim upside-down, and dirt accumulates, weighing me down like a heavy quilt. It’s almost covering my face. I kick my legs, flail my arms in panic to loosen them.
Time to wake up. You have a decision to make. Time. Time. Out of time.
That goddamn voice again. I can’t open my mouth to answer because my jaw clenches, my lips won’t part. I reach for the lake above, fingers skimming the surface.
The scene flips, and now the dirt is suspended above the water. Gravity, or whatever the hell it is, kicks in so that I plunk into the lake and sink fast. I immediately kick upward. I reach the point where I should break the surface, but nothing happens. I’m trapped underneath. I beat against the surface with a fist, desperate for breath. The sun blazes with a faint, but inaccessible warmth. Oxygen’s right there, life is right there. I can see it.
Nothing happens, and I’m tired again. So goddamn exhausted. The water’s cold, like needles all over my body, so I stop struggling and let myself sink. When it’s impossible to hold my breath, and my lungs are twin fireballs, I gasp, sucking water in.
I can breathe. Unbelievable! Why bother with surfacing if I can survive underwater? I feel the ocean inviting me into its depths, promising rest. I drop into darkness, going deeper and deeper. Even in this pitch depth, my visibility’s clear. My body is naked, and it pales the farther down I go, like the underbelly of a trout.
Below is something dark. Caves. I swim down and explore, going inside one and then another until I enter the largest one. It gives me a specific sense, different from the others. It’s cozy. Feels like home. Like Donna and my first place together, just an old matchbox on a busy street, but it was ours.
Time must have passed because my skin’s become grotesque, almost translucent, as if I’ve evolved to live underwater. Blood pulses through veins, speeding along capillaries visible like my eyes are microscopes. Loose white skin stretches and hangs off my arms and legs. It’s dermis seaweed, dancing behind as I swim.
This is my cave. It was made for me, so I’ll stay here, and I won’t think about my life with Donna, with my daughter, Kim. Definitely won’t think about Jake.
That’s when I feel a presence nearby. Someone floats, bobbing gently at my cave’s entrance. It’s Jake, but he’s a child. He spins, sails toward the surface. I don’t want to go up there again, but no way I’m letting him get away from me. I follow, kicking hard, wishing I could open my mouth, call out and ask him to wait. When we get to the wiggling sun rays just below the surface, he’s gone.
Floating in the shallows, I see movement. People. I hear the whomping of their voices. Why did Jake bring me up? Why didn’t he stay with me? I can’t reach the people, and it’s hard to tread, hard to breathe. My lungs are unsatisfied here, like the water is thicker, poisonous. I’ll try one last time.
I’m shocked when my hand breaks the surface. But once my fingers reach the air above, they burn, like I stuck them into a campfire. I pull my hand back down.
My wife’s voice. I hear Donna clearly. She’s leaning over the surface, looking into the water. Feels like she’s watching me, although she’s just a rippled smear of color.
“Vince? Did you just move your hand, honey?”
I’m exhausted from treading water, and my feet are heavy. I don’t want to reach up again. The burning pain felt so real. But that’s Donna. She’s right there. Knowing that, it’s impossible not to try.
I reach up again, and she clasps my hand. It feels like fire lighting along my arm. Then, I’m standing on the surface like Jesus Christ himself, but silently screaming in pain. My mouth won’t open. Donna’s face is swollen; she’s been crying a lot. She looks at me, but it’s like she doesn’t really see me. There’s an ear-splitting beep that keeps banging inside my head.
My whole body ignites, and flames lick my eyes, shriveling all visibility until it’s dark.
I let go of Donna’s hand, so I don’t burn her. I can’t see her anymore. Can’t see anything. The rhythm of her sobs echoes all around, until they melt into silence.
Memories shuffle in my mind’s eye again.
One: Kim is born. Pink pinched face bawling, but Donna’s glowing, pushing back sweat-soaked strands of hair.
Two: Jake’s in his room, the door open. The last time he ever sat on that bed. He looks up at me like it’s an invitation, but I’m running late for work.
Three: A ship. The cruise Donna and I took to celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary. It’s out at sea.
That’s where the images pause, where I go. Oh, God, finally, a happy memory!
I’m on the ship’s veranda, surrounded by a creamsicle sky. Donna stands next to me. She’s young, radiant, watching the light bed down on the horizon, and I’m watching her. The heat of her skin beams against me, and my heart clenches. It feels so real. Donna lays her head on my shoulder, turns her face to kiss my neck. Then she rears back in a laugh at something I must have said, but I still can’t speak. Silver tooth-fillings catch light, and her throat throbs with deep sounds of laughter, eyes gleaming. Her wine sloshes in the glass, where slender fingers grip the stem. The glass reflects the last dregs of sunlight into my eyes. It’s so bright, I have to turn away. When I look back in her direction, she’s gone.
Standing in her place is Jake, little brown head in line with the metal railing, eyes peering out into endless water.
“Daddy, where’s Kim?”
“I don’t know,” I say, finding that it’s easy to speak now.
I take Jake’s hand, determined not to let go. He won’t get out of my sight this time, and I don’t care what it costs.
I smell smoke. Dirty burning plastic and rubber. The ship creaks and wobbles. It’s on fire, columns of black stretch into the sunset.
God, this feels so real.
“Look!” Jake points a kid-sized finger out to the expanse of water.
Boats. Little rafts, lifeboats, so many pieces of salvation floating in the ocean. The smoke is so thick now that I cough and squeeze Jake’s hand to make sure he won’t disappear again. This feels different from the other experiences I’ve had tonight, more immersive. What if it’s really happening?
“I see Mommy,” Jake shouts. “She’s out there with Kim. She wants you to join them.”
The ship lurches under my feet, disorienting me for a breath. I still have Jake’s hand, thank God. Then, he cries. I have to get him off this ship. Have to save him.
I lean over the railing to see a ladder leading straight down the side of the ship to a public deck. Good, good. Maybe there’s another lifeboat down there, and we can take it, meet up with Donna and Kim. The ship moans so loud I want to cover my ears, but I don’t. It would mean letting go of my baby boy. Jake tries to release my hand to cover his ears, but I refuse and pull him close to me instead. We have to get off now.
“Climb down this ladder.” I lift his little body and place him onto the first rung. His brown eyes lock onto my face, like he needs something from me. I don’t know what it is, I’ve never known. He was so difficult as a child. So many bad decisions over the years. I was so hard-headed. I couldn’t fix our relationship even when I’d realized what an asshole I’d been. By then, it was much too late. His rage had already fused with my decades of disappointment. My guilt fused with his sadness to form an impenetrable, unscalable wall.
And then he was just gone.
That’s when I know this is real. This is fucking real.
“I’m here,” I say. “I won’t leave you alone.”
Jake nods once and moves slowly down a few rungs, sobbing.
Smoke fills my eyes, so they water, and I can’t see him anymore. Why did I send him down ahead of me? Idiot! I should have gone first or cradled his body beneath mine, like a shelter.
I mount the ladder and begin my descent. Maybe I can catch up and pull him to me. But the ship lurches more forcefully than before. I squeeze metal rungs until my fingers hurt. Looking down, I strain to see Jake, but there’s too much smoke.
“You make it down all right?” I shout.
Sounds like he’s close, so I rush down. My boot lands on something soft, definitely not metal rungs. There’s a crunch. Jake’s scream pierces and then decrescendos.
A loud clang makes the ladder shudder. Then there’s a dull thud far below.
No! Not Jake. Not again.
I want to retch at the thought of losing him a second time. I extend my hand to feel around in the smoke for my boy, but there’s nothing. I rush all the way down. When my feet are planted on the deck, water rises along the side of the ship. It’s close, so close. We’re running out of time.
Jake’s little body is sprawled like a discarded doll on the polished wood below.
I don’t bother feeling for a pulse. The halo of blood is so broad, so vast, his eyes so empty, glassy.
Just like that morning I found him on his bedroom floor.
There’s a toolbox next to his head and for some reason, I’m relieved that he didn’t hit it. Like it matters. Smoke burns my eyes and throat. It stings to cry. Water folds up slowly over the wooden deck.
Jake’s dead again. I couldn’t save him. Again.
The words rumble through my bones, and my mind spins all topsy-turvy.
“Vince, please come back to us,” Donna shouts from one of the boats way out there. But I can’t see her. “Let me know you can hear me. Can you move your hand again?”
She must want me to wave to her, but I can’t give her false hope or make her think I’m coming. How could I leave Jake? How could I leave his dead body to become fish food? I imagine pieces of him decomposing, bloating over years, decades, centuries, until his tiny bones nestle beneath sand, never to be remembered. I can’t leave him. Must hold on for as long as I can.
Yes, yes. I’ll hold him as the ship goes down. Then, he won’t be alone.
“Please,” Donna cries, the one word so desperate that I feel her aching inside my chest. “I need you here. Please, wake up! Don’t leave me.”
I want to shout. I want to tell Donna that Jake is here. But my mouth is closed again, unable to form words.
The water dilutes Jake’s blood and carries it away, just like it intends to do with his little body. I get on my knees and pull him onto my lap, squeeze him. That’s when it hits me.
Even if I drown holding him with all my strength, eventually I will die, and my own lifeless fingers will give up. My corpse will release his body to the sea, and he’ll be lost. It’s inevitable. I’m doomed to fail him over and over and over again.
This is too much to bear. Even in death, I’m a shitty father.
The toolbox. I set Jake down and rummage through the box. My hand grips a roll of duct tape, which gives me an idea.
“Vince, they say it’s time for us to decide,” Donna cries, but her voice is more muffled than before. Barely distinguishable.
My heart aches for her, for Kim. But I’ve already decided.
The duct tape makes a screeching sound when I yank it. I put the sticky end in my mouth. The roll hangs loose as I pull Jake up into a hug against my warm chest. He’s already drenched from rising water, already cold. I work the tape out of my mouth and into my free hand. Squeezing Jake and the tape’s sticky end with one arm, I wrap the roll around our backs, binding us together. Around and around, a forever-circle. My promise.
I’m here for you, buddy. You’ll never be alone again.
The water is up to my thighs now, and I have to secure the tape before everything’s wet.
I bite it off and pat the end down repeatedly to make sure it’ll stick. Then I stand, holding Jake in a hug. I put my cheek against his wet hair. It’s bloody, but smells like honey.
Jake’s head lolls. Dead eyes look up at me.
His face blinks through stages of growth, a new visage, a new iteration surfacing each time. It reminds me of a Magic 8 Ball, the way the triangle answer floats to the top. First, he’s a little boy, then it’s Jake as a teenager, then an adult, then he’s older than me, the Jake I never met. And finally, it’s his corpse. Teeth protrude from pulled-back gray flesh, and maggots push out of his eye sockets like live rice, dropping onto my chest.
I scream, pull at the tape, try to get away from this monster. But then I stop.
What’s wrong with me? I can’t believe that even now, I long to push him away. To combat my fear, I hug him tighter. The water reaches for us. Hungry, greedy. It covers Jake’s head, and maggots float to the surface. My feet lose contact with the ship’s deck, and I swim one-handed, kick my legs out of instinct, but it’s no use. My head goes under, and we start to drop. Thoughts jumble.
I’m dying. But at least Jake won’t ever be alone again. At least our bones will rest together.
And who knows? Maybe I can breathe underwater again. Maybe Jake can too. Maybe we’ll both wake up.
Copyright © 2023 Steph Nelson