SHORT STORY | SWIMMING HOME
Won semi-finalist award in Adirondack Review Annual Short Story Contest
Published in Adirondack Review, http://adirondackreview.homestead.com/
Hope is over there on her side of the bed plastered up against the wall, thrashing around in her sleep like some smack-happy, pill-popping Ahab, firing harpoons at imaginary whales and ignoring the bloody school of sharks rumbling against the bottom of her rapidly sinking ship. The bed is shaking and I know I'm losing her, but all I can do is watch helplessly as the last of her tears freeze and she shakes her fist at the wind. Then without warning, she dives head first into the churning sea, smiling as she goes under. At peace at last.
I lay there beside her, night after night and curse the imaginary waves that rip at her nightgown and tear away at what's left of her fragile sanity. My greatest fear is that someday she won't come back, and I'll have to leave her there to fight against the raging storm and watch in horror as the sharks suck her down into the mysterious whirlpool that lies lost somewhere deep beneath that treacherous sea, a whirlpool that only she can see. If I knew how to kill all those monsters in her head I would but she won't let me. "I'm on my own now," she says, but that's not true. We're both trapped here together in this evil storm, like two stranded pirates whose boats have all been burned.
Suddenly she stirs in her sleep and whispers in a tiny voice I can barely hear, "You can't save me now, go save yourself," and then slips back into the shimmering depths like a mermaid I can only wonder at and worry about, slipping away through the gleaming foam, swimming home alone.
Not yet a woman, but certainly no girl, she lives in the netherland somewhere in between, a magical place in a far country no one has ever seen or even imagined. She promised me once that she'll take me there someday but she seems to be in no hurry to go. "I need more time," she says. "there's so much left for me to do." Like she knows it's coming. And then off she goes, hurling her body into battle just like in the fairytales she treasures more than oxygen, her face glowing gold in the savage moonlight. She, the brave ghost, and I, haunted, marooned on the widow's walk.
I'd wait for her forever if I could, but I know someday she won't be back. It's only a matter of time they say. As it turns out, it's not just the one monster that has her by the throat but a malignant legion of demons. "Some kind of mental aberration", the doctors tell me. "An anomaly or perhaps a genetic malady of the mind," refusing to give it a name. But what do any of them really know? They don't know Hope.
It's more than I can take sometimes, seeing how happy she is, in spite of everything, watching her flopping around like a jellyfish, making snow angels in the rolling white drifts that gather menacingly along the fence behind our barn. Too old to believe in magic, but too young to know how not to, my shy little rock and roll angel stumbles in and shakes off the snow, and then sits down in front of the fireplace in the far corner of her other world and begins singing and playing "Silent Night" on her air guitar. Her fingers flutter like drunk honey bees and the soft, sweet words of the song nestle up tight inside her mouth, but nothing escapes. "It's 'Silent Night', silly," she says, smiling her crooked little angel smile, "you're not supposed to hear it."
Hope turned twenty-one today. The storm has calmed, but I'm not buying it. I can still hear the wind rumbling off in the distance, the sound of it hissing up from beneath the fault line that runs between the two of us now. I can only watch in wonder as she wavers hesitantly in the salty breeze that drifts in out of nowhere, and when it suddenly blows out all the candles on her birthday cake, her hands fly to her face in mock horror and the child in her beams, the look on her face an elegant study in bewildering grace. I reach out for her but she's not there. I fight until my heart breaks and my fingers bleed, but it does no good. I know in time I'll lose. But the only place I'm going is down with the ship, just like I promised her I would. What else can I do? That's what loving Hope does to people.