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Alas I Cannot Swim
If only I could swim, I think for the thousandth time as I walk into my house. Everything I want is on the other side of the river. On this side there is only a tiny four-room place where my older brother and I live and some trees. The school I've wanted to attend since I was six, the cute dark-haired boy, and the life I should have are all waiting on the far side of the water, but there is no bridge. I can never get there.
"Abigail, is that you?" My brother yells from the kitchen, already sounding annoyed.
"Who else would it be?" I call back sarcastically. "The florist?" I've barely finished speaking when I clap my hand over my mouth in alarm. I spoke without thinking - again. I never mean to, but my temper often gets the best of me, and then all hell breaks loose.
Matt comes around the corner, anger clear in his black eyes. "I'm sorry," I squeak, taking a few steps back. When I'm anything but obedient, he punishes me for it.
"No you aren't," he whispers, and in one short moment closes the distance between us and slaps me hard across the face. I wince and feel tears come to my eyes, but it doesn't stop my brother. He hits me again and again, and every time my skin burns more. I cry out and manage to finally tear of his grip. Before he can grab me again, I run out of the house as fast as I can, and hear him following me.
"Get back here, Abigail!" he bellows, sounding furious. I don't slow down and just keep going, the rocks and sticks of the forest floor cutting into my bare feet. I can tell that he's gaining, even though I'm a better runner, and know that it's simply because he's wearing his favorite thick hiking boots, and nothing on the ground comes close to penetrating them.
It gets increasingly harder to breathe as I run longer and harder than I ever have before, sure that I literally running for my life. If my brother catches me, he will hurt me, and maybe go so far as to kill me this time. He's come close before, but I have never defied him as much as I am right now.
Barely aware of what I'm doing, I jump to the side and begin to climb up one of the many trees. They are my one safe haven, the place I have used to escape Matt all these years, because he has a bad arm and can't climb them. I pull myself up branch by branch, but suddenly there is a hand on my leg. I scream and kick backwards blindly. A moment later I hear a sickening crunch and a yell of pain, and know that I hit his face. I want to feel sorry, to regret hurting the one person I have in the world, but I don't. I can't, not after everything he's done to me.
I reach the highest branch and look down. Matt is glaring up at me, blood gushing from his nose. "You can't stay up there forever!" he calls.
I don't reply to him, but all I can think is, I know. I'll have to go back down sometime, and he will be waiting for me. I wish I could be one of those people in stories who plan out their strategies like soldiers, but I've never been to school. I don't know enough to do anything like that.
Matt stomps off shortly after that, and I lean back against the tree with a sigh. From here I can see across the river to the place I want to be. There's a little house just near the edge, a beautiful red brick one with ivy crawling up the walls. Beyond that is a dirt path that doesn't look like much, but to me it leads to everything. I can see the school in the distance, along with some other buildings that I don't know the name of but would like to.
I scream in frustration, even though no one can hear me. All I want is on the other side of the water. It is so close, but I can never reach it. I think back to when my family first moved here. Back then, my dad was still here, and he kept Matt's rages and mood swings under control. He planned to write a book, and so we moved to the remote side of the river, the side where he could get work done in peace and quiet. The fact that we couldn't get to school didn't matter - I was too young to attend yet and Matt was homeschooled.
We were only supposed to live here a year, two at most, but then my dad died. He supposedly tried to swim across the river and didn't make it. I wouldn't know. I don't remember much about him.
I lean back against the trunk and close my eyes. There is one vivid memory I have of my dad. It's of the day when I first saw the curly-haired boy on the other side. I was only four. So was he, I think. We had both gone to the edge of the deep, running water to say hello. I waved, and we talked for a while, about the nonsense that little kids talk about. After a bit, he called to me, saying "Swim!" and beckoning me to come across.
I almost did; in fact, I was about to jump in when my dad appeared and plucked me up like I weighed nothing. He carried me away without a word, and I waved goodbye over his shoulder to the boy, who watched me sadly.
I was trembling with fear by the time my father had set me down in a part of the woods I'd never been before. I thought he would be angry at me, since we weren't supposed to know anything about the other side, but he wasn't, or if he was he hid it well. All he did was bend down so that his piercing green eyes looked into mine, and then he spoke to me.
I can still recall the exact words he said to me and the almost excruciating calmness with which he said them. "Abigail Molly Green, you are never to try to get across that river again, do you understand?" I nodded. "You can't swim. If you try to make it you will drown. When I am done with my book, we will cross that water, but not until then. Don't try to swim, and don't ever talk to that little boy again. Am I making myself clear?"
I nodded again, too numb to answer him, and he smiled and walked off, with me running as fast as my short legs could carry me to keep up.
After that day, I did try to focus on life on my side of the river, I really did. But something, or maybe everything, on the other side was pulling at me, begging for me to come to it. In the end, it wasn't me that succumbed to that force. It was my dad. He drowned just three months after that, leaving the then nine-year-old Matt in charge.
I sigh. It has been thirteen years since the two of us were left alone without any knowledge or any way to get back to civilization, and things just keep getting worse. I know I should learn to control my smart mouth, but it's not just my fault. Matt's outbursts and moods are becoming more frequent, and he takes out his anger on the one person he can: me.
I wish my dad was still here, or that the people who live on the opposite bank of the river would come and rescue us. They think we're stupid and wild homeless kids, though, and are kind of afraid of us, so they won't be helpful any time soon.
Suddenly I'm jerked out of my daydream by the sound of a thud, followed by the tree shaking. I grab onto the branch as tightly as I can to keep from falling to the ground. Another thud, another violent movement. Panic spreads through my body as I look down and see that Matt is chopping down the tree, a bandage covering half of his face.
"You're going to kill me!" I cry out in terror as the tree lurches to the side again. He stops to glare at me, something close to hatred in his eyes.
"You should have thought of that before you went acting like a brat and trying to make me look stupid again!" he accuses, continuing to swing his axe into the tree.
"I wasn't just trying, I succeeded! You looked pretty stupid!" I regret the words as soon as I've said them and groan. "Matt, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, just stop, please, you know I say things without thinking-"
"You did mean it," he growls, and the tree gives a giant shudder and begins to teeter. It's going to fall.
Me and my big mouth.
Without thinking, I jump off the branch and into open air. It seems to take forever until I make contact with the ground, and when I do the pain is terrible. I did leap a good ten or fifteen feet down. At least it's better than being crushed when the tree falls.
I moan and hold my shoulder. I landed on it hard and it hurts like hell. I want to just lay here motionless and wait for the pain to go away, but I can't. Matt, even though he's around the other side of the tree, will soon realize I'm not in it anymore. Breathing hard, I struggle to my feet and take off running, one hand clutching my useless left arm.
I've actually made it a considerable distance when I hear a scream of rage followed by my name. "ABIGAIL!" My heart feels ready to explode but I push harder. For all I know, he could have guessed which direction I went correctly and is now in hot pursuit.
My lungs beg me to stop, and a cramp is steadily growing in my side. If I keep up the pace, I'm going to collapse. Finally, I have no choice, and I slow down just as I reach the edge of the forest. Panting, I look up and realize that I have come all the way to the riverbank, and am directly across from the lovely brick house where the boy lives.
I sit down on the grassy shore and look over the river. It's so wide I doubt I could throw a rock and hit the other bank, and the water looks much deeper, blacker, and faster than usual. It rained last night, so the river is extra dangerous today.
My breathing eventually returns to normal, and my eyes automatically drift to the house they have gazed upon so many times before. Occasionally, I will see the dark-haired boy, but most of the time nothing happens. I watch for a while, and then sigh. I guess he's not coming out right now.
I've just begun to play with a particulary long piece of grass when I hear a door slam. I look up excitedly to see the boy sitting down on the bank opposite me. When he realizes I've noticed him, he waves and smiles. Since that day when we were little, we've talked more then we should. Every few weeks or so, we have a conversation, and even though I don't know the exact definition of love, I think I'm falling in love with him.
The one thing I regret is that I still don't know his name. We've always had to end our talks abruptly, with him having to go to school or me having to get back to Matt, and we've never gotten around to asking names.
I wave back. "It's been a while!" he yells over the sound of running water. His voice is perfect, so melodious. It's gotten deeper over the years, too.
"I know!" I call. "Too long!"
He nods and glances down at my arm, and his eyes, which I think are blue, widen in shock. "What happened to you? Are you okay?"
I smile weakly. "I'm fine."
He shakes his head. "No, you're not. Was it your brother again?"
All I've ever told him about Matt is that he has anger problems and sometimes hurts me without meaning to. "No!"
"It was, wasn't it? I'm going to get a group of people, and we can come over there and rescue you!" he yells. "You've been over there your whole life! You may be my special forest girl, but that doesn't mean you should stay there!"
I giggle when he uses his nickname for me. He's always called me his "forest girl." I have to say I like it. "They won't come, you know that. It's never worked when you've tried before!"
"They don't know you like I do!" he calls. "They haven't seen your beautiful face or talked to you! Maybe I can try harder this time to convince them!"
A tear finds its way down my cheek. He really does want to help me. "It won't work. Besides, I've told you before, I like it over here." A bigger lie has never been told.
He stares at me for a moment, and his expression is impossible to read. Finally he yells, "You know, I never learned your name."
"Abigail!" I call. "What's yours?"
He grins. "Abigail fits you. My name is Henry!" Henry. Henry. I turn the name over and over in my mind. It seems so weird to have a name for him after all these years of calling him the dark- or curly-haired boy.
"I like it!" I tell him. He laughs, but then looks serious. "What's wrong?" I call.
He doesn't reply, but instead gets to his feet. "Abigail, my forest girl, I've watched you come here with bruises and cuts and scrapes, and no matter what you tell me I know they're from your brother. He's abusing you, and I can't watch that happen to the girl I love."
"You love me?" I scream, also standing up, keeping a hand on my injured arm.
He smiles at me. "How could I not? You've always been that gorgeous, mysterious girl just out of reach, and you're so fun to talk to! I've loved you since we were fourteen!"
"I love you too!" I yell to him, my words ringing loud and clear even with the sound of the river. He blows me a kiss, and then we're silent for a minute, thinking over this strange love, and wondering how we could ever make this work.
Suddenly my brother bursts through the bushes, his eyes wild. He sees me right away and advances towards me, looking ready to murder with a knife in his hand. I screech as loudly as I can and back up to the very edge of the river. On the other side, Henry looks back and forth from me to Matt as understanding dawns on his face.
I glance back at him, wanting to see his handsome face in the last few moments before Matt reaches me. He catches my eye and yells, "Swim!" beckoning towards himself. I rememeber the day all those years ago when he did the same thing. He probably doesn't even recall the event, but I do. It is one of my most vivid memories.
I frantically look to my brother, who is almost upon me and whispers, "You're dead this time, Abigail Green." Then I look at the swirling water, dark and sinister and ready to suck me under. Two ways to die. Which one should I chance? My brother's mercy, or the water's strength?
I smile at Henry one more time before taking a deep breath and leaping into the river. Immediately, it's pulling at my clothes, pushing me below the surface, filling my mouth with water. I start to move my arms, hoping that I can defeat it, but one of them is hurt, and the river is too strong.
It seems like forever before I've finally bobbed up again, and I can see that I'm much farther down the river than I was before. Henry is running alongside me, yelling for me to swim, that I can make it. It's a good thing he doesn't know I can't swim, or he'd be panicking like I am.
"I can't!" I manage to call, choking on river water.
"Yes you can!" He yells back. "You can do it! I love you!"
His words fill me with renewed energy, and I begin paddling more than I did before. It's just liquid; I can get across. All you want is on the other side, I tell myself. All you have to do is make it to the bank, and then you'll have everything. The house, the school, the boy. Everything you've been dreaming of the past thirteen years. All you have to do is swim.
The black, merciless water surrounds me as I go under again. I can't see anything, and I don't want to. I struggle harder and I think I've almost reached the top, but then a new wave of water hits me and I flip over, spinning and spinning. Up, down, left, right, nothing is making sense anymore. I feel lost in the darkness, stranded, alone.
My lungs begin to burn for more air, and even though I know that there is none here, I automatically take a breath. I regret doing this instantly, because right away cold water fills my chest and there is nothing I can do to stop it. After a few moments, I feel dizzy, and something behind my eyes begins to pound. Oh God. After all this, I'm going to drown.
I try to beat it, but as the water pushes me side to side and fills my lungs, all the fight in me disappears. I can't do this anymore. My father always told me not to try to make the swim, and I should have listened. I close my eyes and begin to let the darkness take me....
And suddenly I'm above the surface again, flailing desperately and gasping for air. I spit up water, feeling my lungs empty, and look to the bank to see Henry ripping off his shirt. "I'm coming, Abigail!" he yells. "I'm going to save you!"
"Don't jump in!" I manage to choke out around mouthfuls of water.
"I can swim!" he calls. "Don't worry, baby, you'll be fine!" I slip back under just before he leaps in after me.
Hold on, I tell myself. Henry is coming. Move your legs, stay near the top. He'll see you. But even as I command my body to paddle, to struggle, it doesn't listen. Exhaustion covers me like a blanket, and suddenly I can't move a muscle. I can only lay limp and float farther down in the blackness, trying to hold my breath.
I vaguely hear shouts above the water, and know that he is looking for me, but I can't respond. Move, I scream inside my head, wanting to swim to meet Henry, to have him pull me onto the bank of the other side, to laugh and put my arms around him, to have him bring me into his brick house and kiss me for the first time. Move! Move! I silently yell, but my body is too tired and too defeated to. I have been fighting for too long. This river has always been my enemy, and now it wants to take my life.
I can't hold my breath any longer, and almost unwillingly my mouth opens. Black water comes rushing in immediately, filling my burning lungs. The cold feels soothing for a moment, but then reality catches up and it stabs me like needles. I think I see a dark shape swimming above me, near the surface, looking like it is actually holding its own, and I wish that I could swim like that. But then my vision, or what little vision I have in the darkness, goes blurry as the river mixes with my streaming tears.
I hadn't even realized I was crying.
I want to yell for help, but I can't. It wouldn't do me any good. I know that I'm too deep for Henry to find me, and that he will eventually have to give up and get out of the river. He will move on with his life, probably forget about the girl in the forest, and my life, I finally accept, is about to end.
I make one last effort to move, to swim upwards, but I have no energy left. Struggling has exhausted me. I go light-headed and can hear my heart slowing down as it gets no air. Stars begin to dance in front of my eyes as I get pushed farther down the river, away from Matt, away from Henry. Away from the life I had and the life I wanted.
I think of my dad. I am going to die the same way he did. I will never get to step foot on the other side, all because I can't swim.
I gasp for oxygen on instinct, and more water floods into my body. Blood is pounding in my head, and my heart slows even more, to the point where it's barely beating. I close my eyes and feel myself beginning to go unconscious as the darkness takes me.
All I wanted was the freedom across the river, but alas, I cannot swim.