You will rise to the top.
Victor had lost count of how many times his mother had told him that. It was just a dumb fortune cookie. But to her, it was stone-written prophecy. The very name Victor was chosen with that in mind.
Victor of what? He doesn't get it. He's never been victorious at anything. Vindictive, but never victorious. Does anyone else really know what it's like to be a complete failure? Everyone's good at something, so they say. And everyone is, except for Victor.
Like swimming upstream, with everything you've always wanted racing past your eyes going the opposite direction.
The afternoon heat beats down on dark skin as he sits perched high above the lake's crystal blue water. The sandstone boulder's gritty surface is burning to the touch, but he's learned to welcome that feeling. It's a sensation that helps redirect his thoughts every time he comes here. The contrast between blinding infernal torment above and icy, midnight hell below is therapy to him. The shock factor works. It's all that matters.
He stands, young heart beating with anticipation. The heights always make him wobble, struggling to keep balance. The rush begins. A southeastern summer breeze teases, nudging at his tie-dye swimsuit-clad body like a seasoned skydiver trying to help a rookie make their first jump.
Right when the pain from the burning rock becomes unbearable. That's his cue to make the leap. For now, he gazes. Amazing how insignificant the precariousness becomes when he looks straight ahead. The jet ski off in the distance almost seems within arm's reach. Its insect whine tickles his eardrums. A faint smell of freshwater seeps into his nostrils, either from out beyond or down below.
Random, unwelcome thoughts intrude in micro flashes. They always do during this moment. Mother has always been one of those types who would believe the sky is falling if someone said so. Terrified of ladders and black cats, the number thirteen. Firm believer in magnets, salt lamps, astrological signs, and especially fortune cookies.
It wasn't even my cookie!
He'd tried to reason with her when he was old enough to understand the story surrounding his birth, all-the-while
feeling ridiculous for having to use such technicalities as arguing points. The whole idea of a damn cookie that isn't even a cookie being able to predict the future was even more ridiculous. Everything about "fortune" "cookies" was ridiculous. She had eaten the crunchy, crumbly, tasteless, odd-shaped staple of Cantonese cuisine for him, since he'd had no teeth to eat it with yet. Could have waited until he was older and gotten him another one, but that would have "defeated the whole purpose". After all, fortunes are only "valid" for forecasting destiny if read within twenty-four hours of a person's birth. What book had washed that idea into her brain, he had no clue and didn't want to know.
Yeah I'm an Aquarius alright.
He frowns more over the fact the searing pain in his skin isn't working this time than the pain itself. He smiles at the rippling, rock-lined water beneath him, backs a few steps, then runs and hurls himself like a human arrow at his sparkling, sky-colored target.
Wind wraps around his skinny body, chilling it in mockery of the shimmering mid-day air. At least he can fly, albeit straight down. His clasped hands and forward-stretched arms are the wings. His eyes sting as he battles to keep them open. He tingles, hoping to clear the boulders again this time. At least that's what his body hopes. But his heart isn't so sure.
A thudding splash bounces off the rocks, but in the head-first landing, he doesn't hear it. Only muffled bubbles. The gravity-propelled descent into the depths of this blue Hades feels like a one-way baptism, with no prospect of emergence. A familiar panic feeds the rush as his eyes pop open to a world of murky silence interrupted only by dim outlines of submerged sandstone. His chest tightens as he waits for the momentum of the plunge to slow and reverse. This time, it doesn't.
His still-clasped hands are wedged. Caught beneath a large rock that must have lost its delicate balance somehow and rolled on top of another. One hand may be broken, either from the crushing weight or his fitful struggle to break free. The throbbing pain is there, but at this point he doesn't care if he leaves this watery dungeon with both hands missing. A tug-of-war between conserving vital energy for the swim back up and expending it to wriggle free chastises his adrenalized mind - which he can already sense is about to turn foggy.
He would sell his soul for air. The pressure from holding in breath tears at the walls of his lungs. He can't do it anymore. His drum-tight lips begin to jitter, and the cruel, fishy-tasting liquid in which he's encased starts to pour through them. On top of being starved for oxygen, on top of being injured and trapped, and most of all, in addition to the impending prospect of leaving the world having never accomplished anything, he's choking.
He's a dishwasher at a local restaurant. This isn't what he wants in his obituary. He wants to at least go to college first. Make his mother proud, even if it also enables her absurd convictions about the nature of fate.
Two short, simple words. Only two syllables. Hidden deep within this liquid night time, twenty feet down. Deep within this diminishing mind which speaks them in silence.
He thinks he's hallucinating. So close to death, it should come as no surprise. Before a swirling, mud-colored cloud blinds him completely, one of the rocks moves again. He senses his clasped hands lighten. His clammy, limp figure feels as though it's ascending.
A familiar warmth tickles him inside-out. He opens his eyes to behold the healing rays that are cascading into - and melding with - this malleable mirror to the sky from which he's about to emerge.
In-between vomits of water, he inhales. He realizes how food-like air itself is. The scent of nearby cedar reminds him of grade school field trips to this lake. That, in turn, reminds him of the picnics.
As Victor clamors to the top of the first boulder and sprawls out upon it to breathe and regain strength, a subtle boom and a sharp jolt sends waves through both the stone and he, shocking him back to full alertness. At first, he thinks he really is hallucinating this time. Then, sitting upright with a bleeding, swollen hand over his heart, begins to laugh.
"Frack quakes," he mutters with alleviation.
Had the nearby oil-drilling saved him, or was it...
Though shaking his head with a "nah" and another laugh, he can't stop thinking about that fortune cookie.
You will rise to the top.
Being so skilled at pin-pointing the technicalities from years of arguing over that cookie, he's quick to ascertain that the fortune had never said how he would rise. Another laugh, then a straight face.
Victor never thought about fortune cookies much after that. "Fortunes are only valid if read within twenty-four hours of a person's birth," after all. But he did develop a habit of keeping a four-leaf clover in his wallet at all times for the remainder of his years.