UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 08/2012
Charlie was twelve years old when he drowned in the ocean.
A storm loomed off the coast. It was at such a distance that it looked nearly still, a slumbering leviathan whose deep breaths swelled the tide miles from its berth. The breakers rose to heights rarely seen off the Maine coast. The white-capped waves flailed at the sky above. It thrilled Charlie to stand before them on the beach, in the electric air.
He dove in, embracing the cold burst of frothy brine.
Other souls also braved the beach: a few thrill seeking swimmers like himself, surfers, and a handful of tourists who weren't going to let impending rain spoil their vacation, and the others who just came to watch the approaching storm.
Charlie fought his way to where the waves broke, determined to body-surf one into shore. He dove under a crashing wave and resurfaced behind it, beyond where most waves broke. Their din mollified behind him. The endless white-caps flickered. Abeyance, if only for a moment. A giant wave grew before him, the beast challenged him and Charlie swore in his mind to ride it. He swam shoreward with all his might as it neared, trying to gauge and maintain the exact spot necessary to catch it. Too far forward and it would break on him, sending him down into the undertow. Too far back and he would only pop over it like an insignificant piece of driftwood. The closer it loomed the more it tried to pull him backwards, like some spawn of Charybdis sucking him into its maw. He felt himself being drawn into it. Looking over his shoulder and kicking legs he saw the wave cresting, and he was moving into the heart of it. The wave arched over him, and it grew very dark and very quiet before it clapped into the water. He felt the forward thrust of an ocean behind him for an instant, but lost it in the roiling aftermath. He had gotten sucked back too far. Damn. He popped up, out of breath, and rubbing the salt water from his eyes, but ready to swim back and try again.
Unaware of the wave silently cresting behind him, Charlie could only guess at its size when it sucker-punched him. If the last wave was the beast he tried to tame, here was its mother. It plunged him under and flipped him around. His useless limbs flopped like a marionette's relieved of its strings and tossed in the laundry. The cold violence of the impact struck his mouth open and he inhaled the seawater. He gagged and heaved, and lost control of his lungs. His heart palpitated from the overdose of adrenaline pumping through his arteries - "Survive! Survive!" it shouted in his head.
But he couldn't breathe. Desperate for air, his chest hurt from the strain of repressing the urge to gag and vomit up the brine, and breathe. If he was upside-down he couldn't tell. He thought he felt sand, but another breaker tossed him about again. Survive! Breathe! Don't breathe! Swim! Survive! His instincts all yelled conflicting information at him. He felt like his eyes were the only functioning sense he had, but the dim light in the murky ocean grew darker at the edges of his vision.
Pure and absolute fear defined the moment. I am going to die, he thought. I've gone and had an accident. What an unlucky idiot I am. Poor Charlie's gone and had an accident and killed himself. What an idiot. And then the water calmed, or at least seemed to calm, a more accurate description is that it slowed, as if it suddenly transformed to corn syrup and then glass. The panic attack ceased and he could look around and have coherent thoughts.
In his head he didn't know, couldn't figure out, why he had been so afraid a moment ago, seized by terror abyssal. What did he fear? He was angry; he was sad; he was disappointed, not afraid. Afraid of what? Death, dying young, leaving his parents behind, losing his friends, never having a girlfriend, the unknown, that he hadn't accomplished much of anything, being forgotten, missing graduation, family reunions, never having children, grand-children, great grand-children, the fear of something, anything, everything, nothing? How silly.
Peace now. He had said his goodbyes and relinquished a lifetime of fears in a deathly dilated time stretch, and saw stars in the ink-black ocean, the final sparkles of sun reflecting off the bubbles and sand suspended in the water. It looked cosmic. He was curious now. What lay ahead? Oblivion, Heaven (hopefully he wasn't going to the other place), Reincarnation? He promised to do better if he was reincarnated, even if he only came back as a capybara. So long as whatever he came back as was better than being a kohlrabi. Here it comes. Anxiety again.
* * *
At best, there is only a one in four chance a bystander will know CPR in the event of a crisis and be confident enough to put it into action. Unlike the movies, CPR does very little to resuscitate a victim; there is four percent chance of life. It merely gives an ambulance slightly longer to arrive with a defibrillator, which boosts survival chances to thirty percent. After six minutes it is less than a one percent chance the victim will survive, and even less that they will survive without a lasting debilitation.
People said when he was pulled from the water his skin was the glaucous color of gull wings.
A few extraordinary coincidences occurred after Charlie went unconscious. An Olympic swimmer, also tempted by the Maine ocean that day, was watching him. He admired the young boy's gusto and wondered if he might pursue swimming in the future. Then Charlie was slapped under by the rogue wave like he was made of piss and didn't come back up. One minute. The Olympian yelled to the beach that someone was drowning. No lifeguard was on duty that day. Rescue-mode clicked on; he sprinted into the water. He dove under the waves, spreading his arms out, feeling for anything like flesh. He brushed a foot. Four minutes.
The next uncanny stroke of luck: a husband and wife paramedic team were vacationing on the beach, sipping an afternoon drink while the storm approached, determined to enjoy whatever face mother nature decided to show them on their anniversary. Drowning victims need more breaths than compressions. Their blood has depleted its oxygen supply, circulating it would do no good. As the Olympian battled through the surf to bring Charlie in they rushed to help. First rescue breath: seven minutes. The ambulance arrived ten minutes after that, another thirty seconds and the team was next to him on the beach.
Twenty-five minutes is a long time to be unconscious. At least that's what Charlie says he was, unconscious. He forgets what, if anything happened when he passed out, when they say he was dead. There were no voices, dead relatives, long tunnel, no St. Peter at the pearly gates with two cartoonish levers operating the trapdoor to the Pit and the door to the Eternal Kingdom, no Kali telling him he had lived a pathetic life and would be reincarnated as a kohlrabi (he didn't know if it even worked like that either, or if coming back as a root vegetable was an option). Nothing. He was unconscious.
They informed him at the hospital the cold waters the storm churned up from the deep cooled his body temperature well below hypothermic levels, and in effect preserved his cells from any damage. It was all fascinatingly scientific, but he couldn't help but picture himself as a human pickle. They continued to talk. His eyes glazed over, shock maybe. Autopilot engaged.
His parents were more emotionally distraught than he. They scolded him, hugged him, cried, forbade him to swim alone again. He didn't dare. He didn't feel like swimming anymore.
* * *
They say near-death experiences truly change a person's character forever, whoever "They" are: a panel of experts, guests on Oprah, journalists, all spinning yarns about death and the afterlife to sell a book to the daytime audiences perhaps. Not to be trusted. For Charlie there was no change, at least not initially. Yes, he was happy to be alive, and was grateful for his friends, family, beautiful women, life in general, etc... However, by the time he was eighteen, a senior in high school, it started, like a delayed chain reaction. The inexorable alteration built, gradual at first, and gained momentum over time, and Charlie lived blissfully unaware of what percolated inside his head.
It started with T.V. He could no longer sit still and watch T.V. He coordinated his workout routine with the few shows he still watched. His weights found a home next to the remote. If the program was really mindless he would grab a magazine to read in between sets of push-ups or curls, but he began watching only the Discovery or National Geographic channels. Video games phased out of his life. He tired of the shoot-'em-ups that all blended together, and tired of paying virtual money to feed virtual pigs.
Impulse drew him to the library where he checked out a book on Einstein. They had talked about him in school, obviously, but it was a Discovery show about quantum physics that triggered the curiosity. After reading all material the library had on Einstein he branched out to others: Bohr, Heisenberg, Feinman. The scope grew and grew: relativity, entanglement, multiverse. When he was bored he'd find online articles on quantum physics to read. It was a hobby, not an obsession. Everything seemed bound by Einstein's special relativity theory.
In the spring of his senior year he grew anxious. But like most of his classmates, it seemed normal to everyone. School was almost over, students were either in college or not going. Everyone felt stuck and exhibited the frustrated impatience of hormonal teenagers who want to be treated square, like adults. Charlie wanted to move on to bigger and better things in college.
Summer came and went. He never swam.
In college he noticed he walked faster than his classmates, taking strides longer and with more spring than them. They probably thought he had restless legs. He rarely went anywhere without his iPod, connected to a growing audio book collection, and popped on his headphones to get a chapter in between class, or wasn't occupied with an activity that demanded full attention. The courses challenged him more, and unlike high school he could pick and choose the best ones. He signed up for extracurriculars, more than he could handle, but instead of dropping one he took up another: coffee drinking. He had never dreamed much, at least since he was a kid, so sleep to him was a recharging pleasure, or need rather, and he figured he would be much more productive if he could acclimate his body to a shorter sleep cycle if it didn't affect his performance. He developed an experiment. Every three days he would decrease his alarm clock one minute, starting at eight hours, though he rarely slept longer than seven. Five hours, forty-three minutes became the magic number. He calculated that over the course of a year he was essentially alive roughly thirty-eight days longer per year than if he slept eight hours a night.
The momentum of his obsessions increased year after year. Everything seemed too slow, too inefficient, a waste of time - the most valuable yet intangible thing in the universe, which oddly enough, can be found everywhere. It's just running out. Move faster: gain time. He told people to call him Chuck, not Charlie.
When he turned twenty-eight he moved to Germany, birthplace of the many great physicists he admired years ago, and a model country of efficiency. They understood! Efficiency is the conservation of time. When he didn't drive he biked. If he didn't bike he jogged. Walking was reserved for indoors. Time lurked behind him like a reaper he hoped to endlessly outfox. He earned doctorates in both biomedical and chemical engineering in Berlin. "Save the world!" college told him. He hoped to cure genetic diseases, to give people time.
* * *
Then his mother died. Chuck was thirty-two. It was 11:21pm when his father called. It felt like getting hit by the wave again, only there was no violence this time, just silence.
Thirteen hours later he stood in Boston. Two hours after that, Portland. It was a sudden and horrific car wreck. The highway was icy, there may have been alcohol involved with the other driver. The investigation continued.
She was cremated. She wanted to be cremated, but not put up on a shelf anywhere, which she found horribly morbid. She wanted a proper resting place, a small one, on the family plot. Friends and family said the most spectacular things about her at the funeral, but it was the most tragic moment of Chuck's life.
Drowning victims sometimes walk-away from their near-deaths. They go home, put on the tube, watch some porn, go to school, go to work, go to church, and two or three days later drop dead. Drowned on dry land because there was too much residual water in their lungs, which prevented the uptake of oxygen by the blood. That's how Chuck felt. Two decades had passed since he had tasted salt water like he did that day, and now, at his mother's funeral, it choked him again.
He cried hardest in private. Crippled on the floor of his old room. He eventually composed himself and joined everyone for the repast. Others drowned in alcohol, some in memories, and occasional blubbering. Though painful, the celebration of life radiated smiles and laughter.
He left the crowd. He wanted what the wintry night offered: quiet, cold, convalescence. They lived near the beach, which he walked towards. He had no smartphone with him, no laptop, no headset. The bell buoy tolled, frozen tree branches rattled, waves - the only sounds. He stood on the beach, lunar from ice and moonlight, and swigged from the beer he brought along.
A banshee would have cowered at the throat-ripping scream of rage that tore from deep within him as he chucked the bottle into the ocean. It shattered on a boulder that stuck above the surf, placed by a glacier eons ago. He dropped to his knees from utter exhaustion. A blur, a lonely blur. Always moving faster, doing faster, than everyone else; finding time, spending time, never wasting time because time flies faster and faster despite not having a mass, it passes by, defines us, supposedly can heal us, and it gets on our hands in messy ways that are hard to wipe off, and all time and time again, round and round, because maybe time is not linear but cyclic, and people preach the end of time, like they can actually kill time, funny, because in the end it always gets us. Ha!
Like his mother's. Gone forever, too soon. He kicked off his shoes and marched into the Atlantic up to his knees, cursing the cruelty of such an entropic Creation. He had no legs anymore. It felt like he hovered above the surf. His veins pulsed full of fury and alcohol, impossible to freeze, but it was hard to move; his joints were locking. He refused to leave the ocean, and wondered if his mother found answers to questions he asked twenty years ago in that exact spot. He grunted and swore through chattering teeth. What a wretched, neurotic, and detached life his had become. He remained far too long in the water, standing there as all feeling seeped from his body. He managed only to sputter through his clenched teeth now, and scrunched into himself. The last thought he had was that it was a stupid impulse to stand in the February ocean at night, and finally the cold reached his brain, turning off the overwhelming flow of thought that he had known for his whole life.
It felt like an age before words came back into his head. Fuck was the first one, one big one. The next three were three he had forgotten long ago - Time is relative. He shuddered with Einstein's revelation. He willed his hips to turn his legs around, and spasmed out of the water, eyes in focus, mind back in phase with reality. He felt a deep cavity in his chest, physically felt it in between his guts, a sinkhole formed over twenty years. It felt massive. Twenty years massive. But there was also the feeling that it might be satiable, like there was a little man with a bucket on the edge now, saluting, ready to find things to fill it up. He managed to return home and sneak in the back. His digits were intact, no trip to the hospital necessary. Lucky Chucky.
Charlie changed and rejoined his family. They smiled. The ocean had destroyed his wristwatch. He threw it out. There are things more fleeting. He thought about the beer bottle he tossed into the ocean. He hoped in years to come a small child on the beach would find the sea glass and smile at the treasure.
© 2004-2012 Underground Voices