Here is the boy, drowning.
In these last moments, it’s not the water that’s finally done for him; it’s the cold. It has bled all the energy from his body and contracted his muscles into a painful uselessness, no matter how much he fights to keep himself above the surface. He is strong, and young, nearly seventeen, but the wintry waves keep coming, each one seemingly larger than the last. They spin him round, topple him over, force him deeper down and down. Even when he can catch his breath in the few terrified seconds he manages to push his face into the air, he is shaking so badly he can barely get half a lungful before he’s under again. It isn’t enough, grows less each time, and he feels a terrible yearning in his chest as he aches, fruitlessly, for more.
He is in full panic now. He knows he’s drifted just slightly too far from shore to make it back, the icy tide pulling him out farther and farther with every wave, pushing him toward the rocks that make this bit of coast so treacherous. He also knows there is no one who’ll notice he’s gone in time, no one who’ll raise the alarm before the water defeats him. He won’t be saved by chance, either. There are no beachcombers or tourists to dive in from the shoreline to save him, not this time of year, not in these freezing temperatures.
It is too late for him.
He will die.
And he will die alone.
The sudden, gasping horror of knowing this makes him panic even more. He tries again to break the surface, not daring to think that it might be his last time, not daring to think much at all. He forces his legs to kick, forces his arms to heave himself upward, to at least get his body the right way round, to try and grasp another breath just inches away –
But the current is too strong. It allows him tantalizingly near the surface but spins him upside down before he can get there, dragging him closer to the rocks.
The waves toy with him as he tries again.
Then, without warning, the game the sea seems to have been playing, the cruel game of keeping him just alive enough to think he might make it, that game seems to be over.
The current surges, slamming him into the killingly hard rocks. His right shoulder blade snaps in two so loudly he can hear the crack, even underwater, even in this rush of tide. The mindless intensity of the pain is so great that he calls out, his mouth instantly filling with freezing, briny seawater. He coughs against it, but only drags more into his lungs. He curves into the pain of his shoulder, blinded by it, paralyzed by its intensity. He is unable to even try and swim now, unable to brace himself as the waves turn him over once more.
Please, is all he thinks. Just the one word, echoing through his head.
The current grips him a final time. It rears back as if to throw him, and it dashes him headfirst into the rocks. He slams into them with the full, furious weight of an angry ocean behind him. He is unable to even raise his hands to try and soften the blow.
The impact is just behind his left ear. It fractures his skull, splintering it into his brain, the force of it also crushing his third and fourth vertebrae, severing both his cerebral artery and his spinal cord, an injury from which there is no return, no recovery. No chance.
The first moments after the boy’s death pass for him in a confused and weighty blur. He is dimly aware of pain, but mostly of a tremendous fatigue, as if he has been covered in layer upon layer of impossibly heavy blankets. He struggles against them, blindly, his thrashing increasing as he panics (again) at the invisible ropes that seem to bind him.
His mind isn’t clear. It races and throbs like the worst kind of fever, and he is unaware of even thinking. It’s more some kind of wild, dying instinct, a terror of what’s to come, a terror of what’s happened.
A terror of his death.
As if he can still struggle against it, still outrun it.
He even has a distant sensation of momentum, his body continuing its fight against the waves even though that fight has already been lost. He feels a sudden rushing, a surge of terror hurtling him forward, forward, forward, but he must be free of his body somehow because his shoulder no longer hurts as he struggles blindly through the dark, unable to feel anything, it seems, except a terrified urgency to move –
And then there is a coolness on his face. Almost as of a breeze, though such a thing seems impossible for so many reasons. It’s this coolness that causes his consciousness – His soul? His spirit? Who’s to say? – to pause in its fevered spin.
For an instant, he is still.
There’s a change in the murk before his eyes. A lightness. A lightness he can enter, somehow, and he can feel himself leaning toward it, his body – so weak, so nearly incapable beneath him – reaching for the growing light.
He falls. Falls onto solidity. The coolness rises from it, and he allows himself to sink into it, let it envelop him.
He is still. He gives up his struggle. He lets oblivion overtake him.
Oblivion is purgatorial and gray. He is passably conscious, not asleep but not quite awake either, as if disconnected from everything, unable to move or think or receive input, able only to exist.
An impossible amount of time passes, a day, a year, maybe even an eternity, there is no way he can know. Finally, in the distance, the light begins to slowly, almost imperceptibly change. A grayness emerges, then a lighter grayness, and he starts to come back to himself.
His first thought, more vaguely sensed than actually articulated, is that it feels as though he’s pressed against a cement block. He’s dimly aware of how cool it is under him, how solid it feels, like he’s clinging to it lest he fly off into space. He hovers around the thought for an indeterminate amount of time, letting it clarify, letting it connect to his body, to other thoughts –
The word morgue suddenly flashes somewhere deep inside him – for where else are you laid out on cool, solid blocks – and in rising horror, he opens his eyes, unaware they were even closed. He tries to call out that they must not bury him, they must not cut him open, that there’s been a terrible, terrible mistake. But his throat rebels against the formation of words, as if it hasn’t been used for years, and he’s coughing and sitting up in terror, his eyes muddled and foggy, like he’s looking at the world from behind many thick layers of dirty glass.
He blinks repeatedly, trying to see. The vague shapes around him slowly fall into place. He sees that he is not on the cold slab of a morgue –
He is –
He is –
Where is he?
Confused, he squints painfully into what now seems to be rising daylight. He looks around, trying to take it in, trying to see it, make sense of it all.