by Len Rely

The changing surface of the water had no mercy for the likes of me.  To a man terrified of uniformity there dwells the endless possibility that there is no break in the surface, that empty space will continue un-pierced by one ray of hope whether the chance of a single object we can cling to tumbling within the navigable universe or the chance of one thought occurring between you and the nearest empty corner that waits to swallow you whole.  Because, dear friends, the chance is so incredibly remote that we can very well count on the despair.  Whether the brink is an infinite free-fall that awaits us in the end or a single unforgiving line that divides the margin on one side of the paper, all are part of the huge dial that can only lead us to deafening volume or terrifying silence.

The nurse carried my limp body into the bathroom for a routine plunge. He has no understanding whatsoever, or else there would not be so many predators lying in wait (an open magazine near the sink with, of all things, a picture of outer space on the cover staring at me!)  My eyes darted frantically around the room looking for other mind-traps that were inevitably there.  The man was utterly without compassion to think of leaving me alone in such a horrifying place as a lavatory, where you can pick and choose which appliance drowns you.

My clothes were quickly removed with a leer of unconcern and the faucet in that white porcelain coffin was turned on.  The nurse looked at his watch as if he had better things to do. I was moved steadily toward that brimming surface like a torpedo being launched into the deep.  The rising steam permeated what little of my skin can still feel it and for one heart-racing instant I could not see.  He placed me into the rapidly filling tub and propped me up against the back so I could sit.

I struggled to think quickly of everything mentionable before he  disappeared out the door.

 "Now listen carefully..." I said with the maturity of my years and as professionally as I could.  "I want you to turn that magazine over, close the toilet lid, take that picture off the wall, and shake out the waste basket all over the room until every square foot of empty space is gone.  And for God sakes take down that shower curtain!  You want me to suffocate?"

He did everything I asked (except dumping out the trash), painfully slow as if he were humoring some kind of mental patient.  Meanwhile the water was rising uncomfortably high.  The surface was level with my upper chest when he  finally turned it off and made a beeline for the door.

"It's dripping!" I screamed as loud as I could.  "Turn the knob as tight as you can, idiot!  You want me to drown!"

"I'm sorry." he said, turning it.  "Will there be anything else?"

I couldn't help but think he was teasing me.  Having to trust him was so very difficult, but he was the only one around.

"I'm scared." I said desperately.  "I'm living on the edge and I'm afraid for my life."

He stood there and looked at me in silence. "I'll be down the hall.  Cry out if you need anything." he said.  "Just pretend you're at the beach going for a swim."

"Yes, I like the beach." I replied, willing to say anything.

He departed quickly, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

I hate the beach.  Sure I'm attracted to it like everyone else, but that is the irony.

So many people having fun, women wearing ridiculous clothes that are so enticing to us because they incorporate both nakedness and innocence.  But if you remove the social factor what purpose is there for going to the beach?  An empty seashore devoid of human life is a horror.  To stand at the edge of the world that extends beyond what you can comprehend and dare to watch that encompassing gulf sink and swell like the utter absence of everything we hold dear.

So what else is there?  One can say there are fish and seashells, but the last beach I can remember before the accident had no fisherman and no shells!  It was a man-made wasteland where even if you turn away from the shore the sand is just as endless.  And yet the people flocked to this place and made it a paradise by socializing with each other and...what else?  Sunbathing can be done in one's backyard, and people don't really come to the beach to swim as they would in a pool.  They sort of flounder around in the surf that hurts you if you open your eyes or mouth and drowns you if you go far enough to separate yourself from the shore.  Oh why did that white-clad henchman have to mention the beach!

We never notice that we have fallen asleep of course.  I was beginning to dwell on the other things I could do before the accident that I took so much for granted.  In those days I had nothing to fear from sleep or anything else for that matter because the dividing line between me and the endless void was not quite so close.  Now it was literally up to my neck, and my legitimate fear was simply that the paralysis would rise another inch while I slumbered.

I awoke suddenly to the sound of dripping water!  The faucet was steadily drooling by itself and as I gasped to scream my throat filled with soapy liquid.  I choked it out and breathed frantically through my nose but even then I was snorting froth.  The surface had risen to a point directly between my nose and upper lip!  I gave the loudest scream I could muster but the result was a muffled cacophony of bubbles that did not sound human.

"The white-clad bastard has killed me!" was the only thought racing through my brain at that moment.  Why did he not thrust my head into the toilet and get it over with!

He had been planning this from the start, leaving innocently beforehand to remove himself from the equation.  This was revenge for some mild inconvenience I had caused him. Oh he is a villain!  A villain of Iagoan enmity.  He is a crooked man, and as they say dear friends he walks a crooked mile.

As the waterline rose steadily I could do nothing but produce deathly bubbles that might have been blood-red had they shown the pain.  Each gasp was more difficult as the froth rushed in and out of my sinus barely separating from the air.

Finally the surface had passed my nose and was approaching the eyes.  My pupils were half-moons against the lower eyelid staring downward in horror.  I had held my breath for over a minute which is more than the paralysis would allow.  I made no sound. The next thing I noticed was a dull pain in the back of my head, and a deadening of the senses.

I was barely aware, my eyes would not close and I fully realized it was the point of no return.  The surface of the water had risen to the middle of the pupil and  then stopped, or perhaps was it I myself that stopped?  I could see the meniscus.  I stared at that blurry, unforgiving line, devoid of any ripple because even the eyes were motionless. It divided my world in half.

There was a shock to the system, more intense than I should be able to feel. The waterline exploded into a wide meridian that engulfed my senses and spread from one extreme to the other like a rift in space.  I hurtled forward at breathless speed or else it was the universe streaming around me by itself, a supernova.  And what were the intangible objects rushing past?  It was not uniform there were violent streams of blue- grey and floating pools, momentary flecks of violet all emanating from the... horizon?  My eyes were fixed upon it as if I were only the conscious mind traveling and not a tumbling body.

The rush seemed eternal until I suddenly realized I had stopped, and probably had been so for a while.  I had utterly lost my grasp of time.  I tried to think of whether mine had run out or if I had an immeasurable excess, whichever was the more frightening.  For all I know the journey was instantaneous and it took me an hour to realize it.  Or perhaps we're not talking about hours, perhaps it was eons.

"We?" a voice asked suddenly.  "You and me?"

I blinked, looked around and became aware of the surroundings.  Everything was a blue-grey blur, the color the bath water had been, and it had infinite substance like a fog.

The meridian was still there in front of me, and as I walked slowly toward it I finally had a scope of what it really was.  It was an endless shoreline, dividing ethereal land from ethereal water that was the same shade of blue-grey.  It divided one endless expanse from another.  And there were celestial beings frolicking in the surf, about twenty or so.  They were the same color themselves as a light source shone from immeasurable distance overhead like the moon on a cloudless night at the beach.  The water sparkled, and for one reason or another I looked down at my feet to avoid looking at it.

 "I can walk!!" I suddenly exclaimed, almost falling over.  I had not realized that I could even turn my head all the way around.  I stepped with uncertainty to the left and right, making sure of my footing on the preternatural ground.  It was not hard, but then it was not really there at all from what I could tell.  I stretched my arms, I clenched and unclenched my fingers.  I made a turn and walked several paces as if I had done it yesterday.  

"Are you enjoying yourself?" the voice returned to me.

I stopped and looked around for the speaker.

"I suppose so." I responded after a pause.  "To whom am I speaking?"

"You already know the answer to that." it said.

"I do?"    

"Yes.  When you are addressing your 'dear friends', what friends would  that be?"

 "I'm talking to myself." I replied.  "But that is not like this.  It's not a dialogue."   

"From now on it will be." the voice changed direction as if the speaker were floating. 

"Think of this as a place where your mind can spread itself out into its many parts, unhindered by worldly obstacles.  I am the part of you that knows what is going on."

 "And what part am I?"

 "Yourself, as you have been for years.  You are the unknowing ignoramus that's left over."

My mouth hung open as if to invite a fly.  My instinct was to shout a furious rebuttal but nothing happened.  It was because the realization, his realization, was also mine and I understood the futility.

"I've been waiting to talk some sense into you for some time." the voice continued.

"Or if it's easier to grasp, you have wanted it.  It all started with the car accident.  Oh you were decent at first, but over the years the paralysis turned you into a cowardly miser. You are obsessed with every tiny thing that frightens you.  You repel everyone around you with constant bickering, even the harmless nurse who doted on you with such selflessness.  You are a pitiful excuse for a human being, and the worst part is, all this time you have known it.  You are not compulsive because of insanity.  I am telling you now ergo you must have known."

I had nothing to say to this.  I felt like the numbness was taking effect again or else a weight was pulling me into the mist below.  There was a sigh from the voice above.

"It is of no concern." it said wearily.  "Do not worry yourself."  

"Are you sure?" I inquired.   

"Think nothing more of it.  We are not here to talk about your life, miserable as it was.  For all things concerned, your slate is clean."

I closed my eyes, lowered my head in relief and breathed out the strongest gust of air I had ever expelled.

"Thank you." I said quietly.   

"Don't thank me." the voice replied.    

I looked up toward the transparent beings playing in the surf.  They were absorbed in perfect bliss from what it seemed.  As I neared the shoreline I could see tiny objects like a school of minnows moving about beneath the surface.  The sea air blew across my face and through my hair.  

"What is this place?" I asked directly.  "Do you know?"

"It's a dividing line between one infinite realm and another, as perceived by you and a handful of others.  It's a point along the path that will lead you to what lies beyond."    

"I'm afraid." I said, shuddering.  "It's the one thing I'm most afraid of. Infinity."   

"Is it only that, or is it this beach that troubles you?"

"It's not the beach." I retorted.

"Are you sure?  Look at them, absorbed in bliss as you put it.  Have you figured it out yet?"   

"I don't see them doing anything that people don't do on Earth." I said skeptically.   

"Look closer." the voice implored.  "Get in there yourself and see what happens."  

I walked the rest of the way to the shoreline some distance from the others, and stopped at its lapping edge.  I held my breath and took a step into the surf, followed by another until I was quickly up to my knees.

"How does it feel?" the voice inquired.    

"Good." I said.  "Unworldly I suppose.  Doesn't feel like water."   

"And now look at the others.  What exactly are they doing?"    

"Communicating with each other and laughing."    

"Yes but you disqualified that, remember?  You said that socializing can be done anywhere, regardless of the beach."   

"Spoken like a true antisocial?" I asked.  

"Look at what they are really doing.  I tell you it is the same on Earth."

I squinted, trying to observe them from an analytical standpoint.  I  focused on one being in particular for a minute or so.  A child, or at least he seemed childlike, frolicked in the waves spilling the liquid over his head by the handful.  He did not submerse himself, just splashed around. 

The talking and overlapping actions only disguised this peculiar schedule.

 "They are going in and out because they enjoy the difference." I stated.  

"It's not enough to have one or the other, there must be a variety." 

"More eloquently they rejoice in the separation." the voice replied. 

"You see, it is not infinite despair that awaits everyone, it is infinite possibilities.  The universe is divided by limitless overlapping paths, strands of light if you will.  The beginning of each ocean begets the end of another island."

I watched the swirling water around me.  The ripples seemed to move in slow motion.  I could swear there were tiny points reflected in the darker surface or perhaps suspended like a liquid cosmos within. A school of tiny, shimmering fish darted past my legs and I reached in to grab one. I opened the palm of my hand, but the tiny creature within was not of the world I know. It was a little rectangular simplicity about an inch long with no eyes, limbs or anything else.  I set the wriggling animal free and as it vanished to join the others a larger denizen that was something like a shaft of light and something like an eel swam quickly by.

"Are you ready to move on?" the voice asked of me.

I thought about it for a few seconds.

"What awaits me out there?" I inquired.  "What is my final destination."

"How am I supposed to know?" it said coyly.  "I'm you, remember?"

I stood there in the waves and looked across as far as I could see.  I looked back toward where I think I came from.  I looked back at my life and, before the urge to deny or circumvent something or to gripe came to mind, I knew that I could cut it short and be at peace.  I was capable of an absolute truth.   

"I choose to stay." I replied.  "I want to play in the surf with the others."

The voice gave no response but returned immediately to me and let me feel  the sensation. I reached down, and grabbing the biggest handful of water I could let it splash over me, and once it had run down my face and trickled back into the sea I did it again and again ad infinitum.

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