“The Universe is but one vast symbol of God.”
The best sight on the lake was Conner after he slid out of his shirt. I hid behind my Seventeen magazine, an effort to conceal my ogling. His sandy colored hair swept low over his forehead, just a gleam of sweat under his eyelids. His lashes are obnoxiously long, I thought, before I noticed his quizzical stare. He leaned in close to me, lips parted. The scent of his energy drink still lingered on his breath, drawing me closer. I licked my lips, dreaming of our first kiss.
He strained, like he was trying to look around me. “What smut are you reading, Olga?”
Typically, I’m not a Seventeen reader, but the magazine was an impulse buy at the bookstore where I worked. Better study your enemy, since half the girls at school are in love with Conner too.
The breeze blew around us, my hair flying in all directions. After placing the magazine on my lap, I took the hair tie off my wrist and secured my curls in a ponytail before answering. “I just flipped to this month’s featured friendship quiz; it’s about honesty.”
He yanked the pages from between my thighs. “Okay. Number one: Tell me honestly, do you remember how we met?”
Looking upward, I took a deep breath of fresh air, thinking back through all my memories of Conner. “In kindergarten; I hid under the slide every day at recess because some boy would call me Olga Ugly. One day you stopped him. Just like magic, I found my guardian angel to protect me through harsh years of pre-adolescent angst.”
I placed one hand over my heart and pretended to wipe a tear with the other.
He beat his chest. “That’s me, Defender of Justice. Number two: What song reminds you of me?”
At first, I thought about answering with a quip remark; the choices were endless, and I was scared of giving away too much about how I really felt. Then, I remembered the quiz title.
“Easy. Home by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes.” The song spoke of home being wherever I’m with you, one of Conner’s favorites.
“Interesting.” He looked down at the magazine, blushing.
Is my honesty making him nervous?
“Next one. Oh, this ought to be good. What do you hate about me?”
That I’ve been in love with you for almost a dozen years now, and you still haven’t asked me out! “You date too many cheerleaders.”
We both laughed until I gestured with my hand for him to continue.
“Give me a nickname and explain your reason.”
I scratched my head. “Forrest. Because you run fast and act slightly retarded sometimes.”
Crossing his arms over his abs, he laughed deeply. “Not bad, not bad at all. I’ve taught sarcasm to you so well that I think my nickname should be Master Yoda.”
“I’m not calling you anything that involves Master.”
Leaning forward, he delivered the last question with a devilish grin. “Have you ever wanted to tell me anything, but couldn’t?”
I shoved him backwards in the boat. “It does not say that!”
He flung the magazine at me. “See for yourself.”
I glanced at the page. “Well, seeing this is the fifth question, I think I’ll plead the fifth.”
He waggled his finger. “Nuh-uh. Give me the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
“You can’t handle the truth!” I yelled in my best Jack Nicholson impression.
It was my idea to go sailing today. We always took our first spring sail together when the weather got warm enough. Now I curled my arms around my knees as a shiver ran through me, wishing I’d just gone home to study instead. My heart sped up to a million beats per second, telling me I so wasn’t ready to finally tell Conner I was in love with him.
A smile flitted across his face as the sound of thunder rolled across the dark clouds coming in from the north, and a flash lit up the sky. “Guess you’re saved by the bell. We better head back.”
“Wait.” I closed my eyes and felt the cool air whipping across my shoulders and neck, urging me on. “I’ll tell you on prom night.” That gave me one week to gather my courage. I couldn’t hold back forever if I wanted next year, our senior year, to be the best ever.
“Can’t wait.” Conner covered his bare chest with his long-sleeved flannel, buttoning it up all the way. Studying the sky for a moment, he rubbed the wispy soul-patch on his chin and handed me an extra flannel. “It feels like another cold front moving in already.”
“You’re always prepared, aren’t you?”
“It’s the Boy Scout way of life.” Conner held up three fingers.
I nodded toward the threatening clouds. “We probably only have a half-hour before the bad weather hits, don’t ya think?”
Before he answered, the storm descended upon us, raining down ferociously, leaving us nowhere to hide. I searched frantically for the lifejackets, but the rain was blinding. “Conner, where are the—?”
Boom! A sharp, loud crack pierced the sky like a gunshot.
My mouth hung open. Conner gripped the stern; his hair stood on end, and a strong smell I didn’t recognize entered the atmosphere. The sailboat mast made this weird crinkling noise, and a trembling hand flew to my chest, breathing heavily but silently.
“Conner!” My voice was shrill, but before I could properly warn him, lightning struck.
Time moved in slow motion. His hair caught fire, and the force of the bolt sent him flying off the boat. My heart stopped, my eyes burned from the pelting rain. I didn’t even notice my sobbing until I tasted the salty tears.
I couldn’t see him anywhere. The realization made my heart restart, pounding faster and harder than ever.
“Conner!” I threw a floatation device overboard, took a deep breath, then dove into the freezing water. Once, I dove to the bottom of an almost frozen swimming pool to look for a ring I lost. The cold sucked really bad but didn’t have anything on what I suffered through now. Cold worse than the dead of winter. Titanic cold. But I knew I had only twenty seconds to rescue him before he’d be floating face up, twenty seconds before I’d never see him again, twenty seconds before he died.
CPR training covered that.
I found him drifting away from the boat. Unconscious. A feeling of despair swelled in my belly. I reached under his armpits and hooked my hands together around his chest. Leaning back, I kicked toward the surface, but he bogged me down. Kick, kick, kick, I chanted in my head over and over while struggling to hold onto his body. Under any other circumstance, my efforts would’ve been futile. I’d have an easier time hauling a sack of bricks. But pure adrenaline pumped through my veins, my legs propelling me like a motorboat. With each kick, my body wavered between burning and feeling numb, but I gritted my teeth and stayed focused on my task.
His shirt buttons dug into my hands, but I didn’t dare loosen my grip. The pain became distant as a part of my mind played the what if game: what if Conner died? What if I died? What if we both died?
The black void of the storm eclipsed my senses of time and space, but I knew the surface couldn’t be much farther now. I kept my eyes on the red blur floating just above my head and gripped him tighter, reaching. In a frenzy of gasping, splashing, and screaming, I scrambled to pull him up. Draping Conner over the lifebuoy, I pushed and swam.
The wind cut steadily at my arms and face. The blue-gray froth lapped at my head, constantly covering Conner’s body. My throat grew thick from trying not to cry. Tears streamed in my vision as I lost the battle, and I gripped Conner tighter around the lifebuoy. The realization this might be the last time I ever held Conner threatened to drown us both, but the task of saving him was mine alone. I would save Conner.
I had to.
Nothing but darkness stretched across the horizon as my numb limbs moved through the water toward our boat. I wasn’t just fighting the current now but myself too. My arms were so stiff they wouldn’t move. The lake was a black hole into which every sound, every sight, every feeling had been sucked.
Only two kicks away, I kept telling myself, until it was finally true. I reached out and placed a hand against the smooth wood of our sailboat, an anchor in this storm.
I climbed aboard, clutching the string attached to the buoy so Conner wouldn’t float away. The wind howled like a pack of wolves, and I turned my back to it. I retrieved his phone out of his backpack, then punched 9-1-1. The call took three attempts, my fingers fumbling as my body rocked violently with shivers. Cold so intense I wished I was the one knocked unconscious.
Barely able to form words, I forced myself to shout to the operator over the pounding rain. My teeth chattered uncontrollably, and my hearing was muffled as though I was still underwater. I tried deciphering the woman’s response over the line and dug in the backpack for my inhaler, coughing and wheezing. When I couldn’t find it, I laughed deliriously, imagining the stupid headline. “Girl Survives Lightning Strike and Near Drowning but Dies From Asthma Attack.”
I glanced at Conner and noticed he wasn’t breathing.
I dropped the phone inside the backpack and risked flipping the boat by pulling him up. The fourteen-footer tilted and swayed and almost dumped me. Breath floated around me as I panted from exertion. My mind flashed to when Conner and I were kids, obsessed with seeing our own air in winter. We’d down hot chocolate and run outside, blowing ‘smoke’ out of our mouths. Now, I couldn’t believe I had any warmth left in me to cause this phenomenon. One arm clung to the boat, the other to Conner as I hauled him up, falling backwards. His body collapsed on top of me. His face was chalk colored as if he was dead.
I flipped him over. His flannel shredded, I briskly rubbed my knuckles over his chest, trying to wake him as my heart pounded.
I checked for a pulse on his neck . . . faint but there. I opened his airway, tilted his head, and put my ear to his mouth.
No chest movement.
I pinched his nose and administered a rescue breath—big enough to make his chest rise. Watched his chest fall. Repeated.
His lips were blue. Each breath of my own was agony. I couldn’t feel a good portion of my body as I repositioned his head and repeated. The rain stopped as suddenly as it came. The only sound was water lapping against the boat. I knew this sound would haunt me the rest of my life.
Despite my shortness of breath, I repeatedly blew into his mouth. I heard voices. Maybe I was hallucinating from lack of oxygen. I struggled again to draw in breath, but I valued his life more than mine. So I repeated. Every five seconds, like clockwork.
This is not how I imagined our lips touching for the first time. Something knocked me hard in the back of the head, and I faded away into darkness as horizon gave way to light. I didn’t know if it was Heaven or our rescue.