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Breaking the Surface
I am going to die.
The car sinks into the lake and fills with icy February. She panics but fights to remain calm. He's unconscious in the driver's seat beside her.
Unbuckle the seatbelts. Unlock the door. Take off your shoes. Get ready to pull him out. Take a last breath now. Open the door now. Drag him out of the car. Swim. Come on, Morgan, kick, damnit!
And then she stops talking to herself and just moves, her limbs flailing frantically as she fights to resurface while dragging his dead weight up with her. Her lungs burn, her fingers tremble, and her muscles seize with adrenaline.
She breaks the surface with a gasp that echoes across the water like a scream.
Get out of the water, Morgan.
The battle's only half over; she can breathe, barely, but she has to keep breathing, has to reach the edge of the lake with him in tow.
Make sure his face is above water. Swim.
The shore is right there- right there! - but getting farther and farther away in her eyes.
You could make it if you let go of him.
But she holds on tight, keeps kicking, keeps swimming, as the edges of her vision blur and the images become darker.
She doesn't feel so cold anymore.
And then she can feel the sticky gravel of the lake bottom under her toes and she stands, dragging his limp body behind her. One, two, three steps before she falls to her knees and starts to crawl. Her breath fogs her vision and there's no moonlight to see by. She can feel the blood leaving her body through the shallow cuts inflicted by the stones. There might be more than just those, though. The rocks become mud and she moves sluggishly forward, stooped over to the side as she supports his weight, until the water only ebbs against her toes and she collapses in the mud of the lake shore.
Make sure he's breathing.
She pushes him onto his side so that he faces her. With one arm, she feebly pounds on his chest, and keeps him from falling over with the other. Her hands look foreign to her, a strange medley of white skin and red blood.
There's a sucking noise and a water leaks from his mouth. Maybe he's breathing. She can't tell. Sirens scream in the distance, but they’re too far away, too late.
She curls into a ball to sleep.
* * *
"You're a hero," he says as he walks tentatively into her hospital room. He moves slowly, hindered by the concussion that saps his energy and sense of balance. She's on her side, looking at the Currituck Sound through the window. She doesn't roll over.
"Then you're the villain."
If he didn't feel so crappy about himself, he'd berate her for that, but now he thinks that maybe there's some truth to her words, so he changes the subject. "How are you?" he asks. "How do you feel?"
"I don't know. How am I supposed to feel after a car crash that sent me to the bottom of a lake? How am I supposed to feel after dragging my drunk, unconscious boyfriend, who significantly outweighs me, to safety? How am I supposed to feel after passing out on the shores of a lake just as you were waking up?"
He takes a breath and still feels the edges of the sedated burn in his lungs. He changes the subject again. "You're amazing. God, Morgan, you're incredible."
"I'm breaking up with you."
"You heard me." She turns around now and she sees the bandage on his head, and he gasps at the black and blue bruise on her dislocated shoulder and the scars and IV's that slice her skin, like an insane child's modern all, all angles and contrast. He begins to lose his nerve.
"Why?" he asks. He takes her hand and wishes he were a million miles away from here, a million miles away from her, this living testament to his mistake.
"You know why." Her eyes are unnaturally dull. He wonders if it's the drugs. That can't be because of him.
"I didn't mean to nearly kill you! God, is that what you think?"
She pulls her hands back and hides the bloody spider webs under the sheets. "No, but I do think that I shouldn't stay with a guy who doesn't care about me, a guy who's been cheating on me for at least a month, Thomas."
He curses in his head; she wasn't supposed to know. Delilah was just a dumb girl to him, anyway. "How long have you known?"
"Why the hell does that matter?" She looks at him as sharply as she can, and they're both angry. "Just get out. Tell people that you dumped me, for all I care. This relationship is over. I don't want to see you again."
"You can't do that! That's my job! And if I cheated on you in the first place it's because you're such a damn prude!"
She hits the call button to summon a nurse with so much violence that the delicate scars on her fingers break and ooze red. He stands his ground when the nurse comes in. "Family only," she barks. "It's time for her bath anyway."
He marches out the door and emphatically closes it behind him. Whatever. He doesn't need her anyway.
He's halfway down the hall when he hears her screams. He tenses, stops, freezes. She's screaming about the water, about not drowning. It makes him feel worse than he thinks it should.
* * *
"Wait, you dumped her? Sam is so shocked that he drops the sandwich he was about to eat, the sandwich their mother had made for Thomas.
"Yeah," he says, trying not to be so self-conscious, or at least trying not to show it.
"Wait, so your brainy, sexy, girlfriend hauled you out of the car you crashed and saved your a** anyway, and you dumped her?"
"I just got bored." Lie.
"Are you kidding me?"
"Geez, if you love her so much, you go out with her, Sam," although Thomas doesn't mean it in the slightest, because Sam might not even survive to the first date if he asked Morgan out. "Anyway, I've got a new girl, Delilah."
Sam just looks at his younger brother with a look of growing disdain. "You are an idiot," he tells him simply.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"You cheated on her, didn't you? And she broke up with you in the hospital because of it."
Thomas shifts into damage-control mode, now that denial and lies have failed. "Yeah I cheated on her, but it didn't mean anything. And breaking up was more of a mutual thing."
"You are an a**."
Sam gets up and starts to leave the room, but Thomas grabs the sleeve of his jacket and yanks him back. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"You're just like him."
"Just like who?"
"Shut up, Sam! Dad left because mom kicked him out and he didn't want to put up with that bull from her."
"You have no idea what the hell you are talking about. Do you know the kind of crap he did to her?"
"Dad was fine!"
"Dad was an emotionally abusive man-w**** Dad brought women over all the time, and dad called mom every derogatory term he could think of, and dad slapped her. Is he still your hero?"
"You're delusional. Anyway, where do you get off being so damn self-righteous, like you never slept around on your girls or occasionally got plastered and wailed on them!"
"Yeah, and look where I am now! I finally found a girl I really like and she thinks I'm a jerk and I am, just like dad was a crappy husband, just like you're going to be too! You don't even realize how much Morgan means to you because you act like such a complete a****** to her. So congrats, little bro, on being a member of the club!"
"Just shut up and get the hell out of my room!"
"Gladly, jerk. When Delilah leaves you to because she deserves better, I hope you can't find a replacement!"
The door slams behind Sam, then there's the thud of his duffel back being kicked down the stairs, the bang of the front door, and the screech of the tires against the pavement as he tears down the street, gone back to college.
Thomas had seen his father slap his mother once.
It had been nothing, hadn't it? That's what his father had said. Except now, Thomas isn't so sure.
* * *
He mulls over it for two days. Three days after his brother left, he comes home and finds his mother chopping tomatoes for dinner, and decides to ask.
"Mom?" he says.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Sure," she tries to hide her shock as she puts down the knife and turns around. Thomas never has questions. "What it is?"
He can't look at her. "Mom, your marriage to dad… it… it was really bad, wasn't it?"
He can feel her eyes, her shock, her sorrow, on him. "Yes," she says. A cold, sick horror sinks into him as his mouth grows dry.
"Mom?" he says after a very dense pause.
"Was… was I like that to Morgan?"
He can hear the thud of the knife falling to the cutting board and his mother's soft footsteps as she crosses the linoleum. Her warm, unbroken fingers push his bangs from his eyes. "No, sweetheart. You father hated a lot of people, including himself, and did his best to make everyone hurt like he did. You, though- you have a hard time letting yourself care about people." But he thinks that's prettier than the real truth, because his mother still doesn't know a lot of what he did to Morgan.
What if Sam had been right?
* * *
Thomas is on the dock of Julia's parent's beach house when Morgan leaves the group by the bonfire. Even though it's Delilah whose arm around him and talks animatedly in his ear, it's Morgan he watches as she walks across the sand to the edge of the dock.
Even though it's May, she's wearing jeans and long-sleeved t-shirt. She has been since January. He feels guilty just looking at her, and doesn't like it.
She's already in the middle of the dock when their eyes meet, and then she turns around, and he knows that she hates him. In her haste, though, she bumps into some drunken kid, who bumps back, and there's a moment of panic where she fights to control her balance, but then she loses and plummets head-first into the water.
Thomas jumps in even before she starts to thrash and scream. While everyone else stares, he grabs her around her shoulders and under her knees and swims, supporting both their weight.
"It's okay," he promises. "You're okay. I won't let you drown," he repeats it over and over as he treads water and tries to hold her still as she panics. He manages to push her out of the water and back onto the dock before hauling himself back over as well. She's coughing and sputtering, and looks terrified. He did that to her.
He gave her that fear of water.
* * *
He had been an okay boyfriend to Delilah, he concludes later that night, after it's over, after her drunken brawl about how he never paid enough attention to her. He even makes a list, because, according to the counselor his mother made him see after the accident, it helps to break things down logically. He had thought the counselor was useless, because all he remembered was freaking out on Morgan after she tried to take his keys, then waking up in the mud beside her; she was the one who was terrified of water now, not him.
He'd slapped her that night. That goes on the list, after all the names he called her.
Delilah's list is shorter. He'd tried to be more aware of how he'd acted with her. He'd tried to censor himself. He'd tried to make himself care. It hadn't worked very well. He wasn't sure if that was his fault or not. Sam had said it wasn't.
He types Morgan's list, and prints it. He scribbles 'I'm sorry', at the top, but doesn't sign it. She'll know who it was.
Bereft of a car and with a revoked license, he walks the blocks to her house and steals flowers from people's lawns on the way over. The tulips and irises weigh down the paper on her front door step. Her bedroom light is off, just like he expected. It's late, and she always goes to bed early. He had hated that before.
On the way back to home, he goes the long way, the way that takes him to the city limits, to the sign that sign 'Leaving Windsor'. The best view of the lake is from the designated scenic spot by the sign. He stands on the edge of the stone wall on the shore of the lake and just looks at the water, feeling insignificant.
The waves undulate on the shore. The wind whistles in his ears, and the sounds take him back to mere hours before, when she'd nearly drowned because the water took her back to the time she nearly did nearly drown, when he nearly drowned, and the water terrified her.
She had been a lifeguard before.
* * *
It hadn't been enough.
It isn't until a week later, when he walks back to the lake, this time to the spot his car had gone in, that he realizes he wants to teach her how to swim again, how to tolerate the water.
He doesn't question his revelation, just walks back to her house. Her window is open, and he can hear her music playing in her room. He used to tease her about her music, stuff like Ben Lee and Phish, and call it stupid crap. Once he even broke one of her CD's. That should have gone on the list, but he had forgotten, until now. What else had he done that he had forgotten?
He rings the doorbell and waits, counting his breaths until the door creaks open, and then, there she is. She stares at him and just stands in the doorway, but doesn't slam the door. That's a good sign.
"Did you get the note?" He asks. Her eyes still have that slightly sedated look, and he can't look.
"Yeah. Yeah, I did. Why?"
"Morgan, do you think… was I emotionally abusive to you?" He shouldn’t ask it with such little introduction, he knows, but he can’t take the take to segue.
She doesn't say anything, and he glances up to make sure that she's still there, that she hasn't shut the door. "My counselor thinks so," she says after a while.
"But what do you think?" he persists, even though he thinks he probably already knows the answer.
"You were, at least a little, Thomas." The guilt, which he used to be able to pretend didn't exist, is no longer deniable. "But I let you," she adds, and he can hear the self-deprecation, and that makes it worse.
"It wasn't your fault," he mutters.
"Maybe," she answers vaguely, followed by a somewhat nervous, "why are you here?"
"Can I teach you how to swim again?"
"I want to help you learn how to trust the water again, because it's my fault you're petrified by the water in the first place."
"You have no idea what it was like under the water… thinking I was going to die… fighting to breathe."
And then he looks at her, and takes her hand. It's smoother now, now that the scars have begun to heal and fade. "I know. I'm sorry."
"Anyway, my mom's helping me with the water thing," she pulls away.
"I did this to you; let me fix it," he says, and adds, "please. I owe you that much, at least." Except he thinks that he probably owes her so much more.
She considers it a moment. "Okay," she says slowly. "But I reserve the right to quit."
She looks into his eyes, and the brick of guilt that weighs down his internal organs loses some mass.
It's a start.
* * *
She doesn't quit, and the start becomes a middle, and then an end, where Morgan swan dives off Julia's dock at the End-of-Summer party, and she resurfaces perfectly; the battle is over.
"You want to know something funny?" She asks, later that night, back on the dock, after kidnapping him from his bunk in the guy's room of the beach house. He knows it's a rhetorical question, because she'll tell him what's funny even if he doesn't want to know, and even if it isn't really funny.
"Sure," he says anyway.
"When we were dating, I had plenty of reasons not to love you, but I did; I loved you, until almost the end. And now I have plenty of reasons to love you, but I don't." He steals a look at her, but she's not looking at him, and he wonders, briefly, if she isn't a still a little bit afraid of what his reaction may be, despite herself.
He takes her hand and stops her. She turns and they stare at each other momentarily. "I loved you, too," he says, even though he never said so before.
She stops looking at him and he counts the seconds as they pass. She runs her fingers through his bangs and traces his hairline. "Don't do this to me, Thomas," she whispers finally.
"What are you talking about?"
She sighs. "I think you cared about me the best way you could."
"But you don't think it was love."
She hesitates. "No."
He turns away and looks at the water glittering in the light of the full moon. "Yeah, fair enough. I tried to, though."
"I know." It sounds like forgiveness.
She gets up from the dock. "Swim with me?" she asks as she pulls off her swim-suit cover-up. He looks at the scars she's exposing, and every slice bothers him even though he's seen them all a dozen times before, because each one was his fault.
He stops examining her healed wounds and gets to his feet. "Sure."
He steps back to watch her dive, but she takes his hand again. They stand together on the edge of the dock, precariously suspended between the sky and water, and leap.