“It won’t change anything.” Outside my bedroom, the clock in the hall struck one. “I’m running out of time.”
“Hey, it’s tomorrow,” Mo piped up.
“It is,” my dad agreed.
“Happy birthday, Tempest.”
My throat swelled shut. “Thanks, bud,” I choked out.
“What do you want for your birthday?” he asked as my dad steered him down the stairs.
I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t. Because I wanted too much and was deathly afraid that I didn’t have a chance of getting any of it.
After my dad left with Mo, I flopped on my bed and tried to block out his words. Tried to block out everything but the sound of the ocean. It didn’t work. I listened as the two made their way back up a few minutes later. I heard my dad get Mo into bed, then tensed when his footfalls hesitated outside my room.
But he didn’t knock this time, didn’t come in, and I figured he was giving me a break. I was grateful; I knew that anything more would send me into emotional overload.
I had no idea how long I lay there, minutes ticking into hours while I watched the stars through the skylight in my bedroom ceiling. I counted them again and again, as I had any number of times in my life when I couldn’t sleep.
Looked for constellations.
Made my own pictures.
Did anything and everything but think about the fact that my time was slowly winding down.
When I couldn’t count the same stars one more time, I climbed out of bed. I glanced at my clock—it was almost four a.m. and the house was quiet. I thought about painting, but for the first time in my life couldn’t work up the energy to put brush to canvas.
As I let myself into the hallway, the only sound was the ticking of my mother’s grandfather clock. The rhythmic clicking grated on my nerves as I walked past it, and not for the first time I thought about how good it would feel to smash something into it. To break the glass and the gong and everything else—until there was nothing left of it.
Maybe then, my dad could move on.
Maybe then, we all could.
For years, the stupid clock had gonged at fifteen-minute intervals, ticking off the time my mom had been gone until I’d given up counting it in minutes or hours or days—eventually even weeks and months became too short to measure by.
Six years. My mother had walked out six years ago today and now things were coming full circle. Now I might end up just like her after all—no matter what choice I wanted to make.
I thought about raiding my father’s medicine cabinet—and his supply of Ambien—but the idea of climbing back into bed and staring at the same stars for another three hours literally made me sick.
Instead, I took the stairs two at a time, grabbed a sweatshirt from the coat closet near the front door. Then I slipped out of the house and into the night.
Crossing the grass on bare feet, I absorbed the utter silence of my street. It was too early for the lawyers and doctors to be heading into the office, too early even for their spouses to be out for their three-mile jogs. Instead, the houses were locked up tight—heaters blaring and security systems engaged.
Up in the sky a full moon the color of a pure, sweet tropical pearl cast a glow over the trees, the only light besides the lone streetlamp at the end of the cul-de-sac. For a moment, I felt like the only person on earth.
Crossing the street, I ignored the gravel and small rocks that bit into my toes and heels until I could sink my feet into the blessed relief of cold winter sand.
I walked along the beach for a long time—right where the tide met the sand—unaware of time passing as the water tickled my toes. I played tag with the waves, tried to avoid the never-ending cycle of tides as they rolled in. I lost more times than I won.
I didn’t have any firm destination in mind as I walked, but when I ended up a mile or so down the beach at my thinking rock, I wasn’t surprised. I’d been coming here for six years, whenever life got to be too much for me and, jeez, did this week ever qualify as too much.
I climbed the craggy rock swiftly, my hands and feet finding familiar footholds in the rough crevices. Though I was fast, I was also careful—my legs and hips, even the back of my right hand bore numerous scars from the mistakes I’d made while climbing here in the past.
As I settled myself at the top of the rock, the ocean rumbled in a crazed cacophony, a perfect reflection of my mood. I looked out over the water I both loved and despised, praying for just a little bit of the peace I usually got when I was out here alone.
But there was no peace tonight. How could there be? The ocean throbbed and pulsed while the very air itself crackled with electricity.
I gazed out over the waves as I searched my very limited knowledge base, trying to figure out how the hell to get out of the mess I was currently in. Things were happening so quickly that I couldn’t find a way to stop them.
I didn’t know how to stop them.
“No!” I screamed so loudly that my throat hurt. “No, no, no!” Again and again until my voice was hoarse and my throat raw.
The ocean seemed to pulse in and out in time with my screams, and I watched, fascinated, as wave after wave pounded the shore, each one bigger and harder than the one before.
It was great surfing weather. Dangerous, sure, if you didn’t know what you were doing, but good nonetheless. For a minute, I longed for my board, the call of the ocean so strong that it was painful.
You don’t need a board. The thought slipped in slyly. You’re a strong swimmer. Go on out there and see what you’re really made of.
Overhead, lightning crackled, followed closely by a burst of thunder that shook my rock and the ground beneath it.
Go ahead, the little voice at the back of my head whispered again. You know you want to.
And I did want to, so badly that I could almost taste it. That was the kicker in all of this—a part of me longed to give myself over to the violent water, a part that was getting harder and harder to deny.
What would it hurt? the voice urged. A midnight swim, a chance to—
I was off the rock before I knew what I was doing, heading toward the ocean with a single-minded purpose I couldn’t imagine denying.
My gills ached. My lungs burned, blistered. My skin stung, itched, like a thousand wasps had gotten to me.
Yes, go. The voice was louder now, more insistent. Triumphant even. And I gave myself to it. Let it pull me to where I wanted to be anyway.
I walked a few steps closer to the water, the sand squishing beneath my toes.
You belong there. You need to be in the water, to feel it around you. Beneath you.
The water lapped at my ankles, my calves. I took another step, then another. Felt it on my knees, my thighs. The cold sting of it penetrated my near-trancelike state and I stopped, confused.
Just a little more, a few more steps. The voice was clearer now—ringing in my head, in my ears. Flowing through me until it was a drumbeat in my blood. Until it was all I could think about. All I could feel.
I took another step. Then another and another and another. The water was around my chest now and I was only going deep enough to—
“No!” Another voice, fainter and more frantic than the first. “Tempest, stop!”
Ignore him, said the first voice. You’ve wasted enough time. Come to me. Come to your home.
“Damn it, Tempest! I said stop!”