You tear and claw at the water, fighting to pull yourself up and out, a fight countless others have lost, a fight you know you must win. The sea holds an irresistible grip on you, invisible tendrils wrapping around you and pulling you deeper and deeper – or so your instinct tells you, your brain incapable of telling you where up and down are. If being washed overboard wasn’t enough to disorient you, the impact of something dangerously close to your temple as you crashed over the railing – cargo? A loose line? The railing itself? – ensures it. Your lungs protest, crying out for oxygen; your head throbs and burns almost as much as your shrieking muscles do; your mouth wretches at the taste of the ocean; your entire body feels the crushing weight of the sea grow heavier as you sink.
Suddenly, a current surges beneath you, launching you in what you believe and hope is an upward direction. Seconds later, you crash through the surface and into the sweet, sweet air, where your lungs, on the verge of bursting, begin to work double time to make up for the time – seconds? Minutes? – you just spent under.
Gasp in. The wind whistles around you. Gasp out. A wave crashes close by, the spray drumming on the churning sea. Gasp in. Seawater splashes your face. Cough. Sloshing around you. Breath in. A rumble in the air. Breath out. Rain spatters your face. Breath in. Breath out. You recover a semblance of your regular breathing, the best you can do under the circumstances. Your arms and legs are working on their own, treading water. You survey your surroundings.
You find only ocean around you, though you see at most twenty or thirty feet in any direction. You bob up and down with the smaller waves, waves you thought of as large during your childhood summers, but which now pale in comparison to the twenty-, thirty- and forty-foot tall masses that make up the seascape tonight. It is these towering monsters that confine your vision as you find yourself in the trough between two.
You swim towards one, well aware that you’re now fighting against time: the first minute or two after falling overboard in such weather are the crucial ones, the ones that will likely determine your fate. You’re clueless about how long you spent underwater, but you hope it was for less than it felt.
The wave you’re swimming towards rushes up to meet you and you glide up to its crest, where you have but a few precious seconds to get your bearings and grab the attention of those on the boat. In the sharp moonlight haze sifting through the clouds, you find the sea in a terrible turmoil, writhing and slithering slickly like the skin of some gargantuan snake. You scan the waves closest to you, and the ones after them, and the next ones along, and – there! What is that? Is it the boat? Its shape, its size, they don’t quite… no, it isn’t the boat, only flotsam – a barrel or a box of some sorts (the cause of your headache, perhaps?).
The debris disappears behind the waves as you slide down yours, back to the wide trough separating it from the next one. The clock keeps ticking. How long now? A minute? More?
As if washed away by the wave, the adrenaline escapes your body. In its wake, your body flashes warnings to your brain, alerting it of more immediate concerns: the gelid water is painting the tips of your fingers blue, while your toes feel like stubs; the muscles in your arms and legs burn with exhaustion, threatening to give in; your panting is raspy, the foggy breath escaping in short bursts as your lungs struggle to keep up.
Before you can even ponder on how to address any of these problems, though, the next wave arrives and lifts you to its crest, and with it the adrenaline streams back in as you comb the rolling hills of dark water before you. The clouds have thickened to hide the moon, making your scanning nigh impossible. The waves’ profiles are barely visible against the gloomy backdrop of the night sky and you are unable to distinguish anything other than coiling strings of foam sluicing around. In the few frantic seconds you spend scanning the dimness, all you notice is a smell. Something… metallic?
Confused, you squint your eyes, hoping to find the cause, but this soon becomes unnecessary as it reveals itself: a sudden white flash lights up everything as a bolt of lightning crashes down on the next wave along, an umbilical cord connecting it to the coal-black belly of the cloud above. Immediately, the crack of thunder, deafening, bone-rattling. You stare up in awe, distractedly wasting your last instants atop the crest of the wave. Only as the light disappears does it register – there! – out of the corner of your eye (was that…?), but before you can turn to face it you slide back down the wave.
As you reach the bottom again, exhaustion joins gravity in pulling you down. Your limbs renew their protests, refuse to tread more water, and you fight for every kick, for every stroke, barely managing to stay above. Your chest pounds louder than thunder, pumping ever-colder blood through your body, slowly giving up on your raw hands and feet, now a lost cause. You groan, jaw clenched, the taste of blood and sea on your swollen tongue. The warm rain falls harder, beating down on your head.
How long now? A minute and a half? Or have the two minutes expired? Will they still be looking?
You’re lifted once again and you know this will be your last chance. You reach the crest, looking in the direction of that glimmer you saw – there! The boat! It’s there! You see it! You see…! You see its stern as it sails away, no sign of a lookout. A choked cry escapes you, a cry for attention, for help, for anything, but the wind and the rain and the sea and the sky all cry louder to drown your voice out. Another lightning bolt, this one further out, lights up the boat, gives you one last teasing look as it disappears behind a wave.
Two minutes. Your time is over.
You float back down to the next trough, your remaining hope sinking with you. The last drop of adrenaline leaves your body, making way for the calm indifference which takes over. No point in fretting now, in stressing out. Funny: you’d always thought you’d be the kind to panic, to lose control, scream in desperation, perhaps even mumble childhood prayers. You’d pictured hot tears streaming out, rolling down your cheeks and filling your mouth with the sour taste of impending doom. No panic comes, though; only serenity. No hot tears roll down your cheeks; only warm rain. Your lips taste no sourness; only sea.
Your mind turns inwards. Gradually, the sounds around you fade away, the rumbling first, then the wind, finally the sloshing and gurgling, until you hear only silence, the silence of an empty room which has replaced the sea around you. It is as simple as an empty room can get: immaculate white walls, a single door behind you painted the colour of the walls, no furniture, no fittings, nothing. Nothing? No. There’s you.
Your lips curve up at the sight of his. He smiles back. You melt inside. How did you survive for so many years without knowing that smile? How could you ever let it – him – go? You draw closer, only inches away. That smell, that hair-rising musk, fills your nostrils. How could you ever let him go? You reach out with your hand, tentative, hoping he won’t pull back. He doesn’t, and your hand lands on his chest, the gentle, rhythmic thumps seeping out of his skin and into your fingertips. How could you ever let him go? You eliminate the few inches of air still between you and wrap your arms around him, holding him tight, pressing his body to yours and wondering why the damn you ever let him go. His arms reach up to hold you…
Lightning flashes. Thunder roars. The illusion is dispelled. The icy cold floods back in, bringing with it the salt and the slosh. The moonlight has disappeared, hidden behind the clouds. The rain is also gone as a clearing in the sky scuds above. Your strength – that too has left. You kick one last time. Tread water once more.
As the sea takes you under, you stare up through the clearing in the clouds and into the sky. You feel grateful to be granted this last look at the stars.