It’s funny, isn’t it, how the universe works? How fate and chance and coincidence can all feel the same, yet be completely different? The night I met Sebastian Smith was the night my life changed forever. Not only did I lose something dear to me, but I also gained something new – something exciting and something subconsciously beyond my control. He left my family that night in a state of disarray, disappearing down our street into the bleak night without further word. He left me on the doorstep to contemplate his words, to imagine it all, and yet, be expected to accept the sudden, profound, shattering alterations made to my nineteen year-old life. I returned inside to find my mother huddled in my father’s arm as she wept thick tears of grief. My father sat stony-faced and vacant, struggling to understand that he’d never see his son again. I moved silently to my bedroom, my solitude, my haven. On a normal night, one might hear tinny songs playing from my less-than quality computer speakers, or find me gazing hopelessly to the image of Johnny Depp above my desk, or come to appreciate the many trivial, superfluous objects my bedroom had accumulated since I first moved into it. Tonight, one would find none of these things. My room was dark and cold when I entered it, and that was how it stayed. I climbed into my bed and sought refuge beneath its covers. I lay there for what felt to be hours, staring at the material covering my face, and counting my breaths. Nothing felt real. Was I really lying here? Had I really almost drowned? Was Jimmy actually asleep across the hallway, tucked snugly away and dreaming about adventures in faraway lands splashed in technicolour and drowned in the merry melodies of show tunes and whatever else seven year-olds dreamt about? I sat up and walked to my door. I pushed it open and realised several hours must’ve passed – the house was silent, and the lights of the living room were dark and shrouded in shadow. Jimmy’s bedroom sat less than two feet away. I approached it timidly as if afraid it might vanish before my very eyes. My hand found the cold doorknob, and jaw taut, I twisted it. His door edged inwards to reveal a messy room and an empty bed. It smelt of his shampoo and I hurt my foot on a stray piece of Lego. A Spiderman poster sat slightly askew above his wardrobe, and beneath it were various school sporting trophies – soccer, tennis, and athletics – alongside standard family portraits. His bookshelf was in a chaotic state, and numerous items of clothing lay scattered over the beige carpet. His computer had been left on, its light blinking green every so often. Without knowing it, I’d moved into the centre of the room and now stood on the circular red, white and blue mat which he’d received on the day of his birth. I remember helping Mum choose it in the home décor section at Kmart. Grimacing, I crouched to touch it, and as I moved my fingers over its soft surface, I saw his teddy lying at the side of his bed. I picked it up. He’d called it Neil, after Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon – and the only man Jimmy had looked up to. I bit my lip so as to stop myself from casting it angrily to the side. How horrible the world was. How twisted and sick and wretched this place was which we called home, this planet, this galaxy, this universe. How dare it snatch something from us, like a toy being taken from a child. Jimmy had been more than toy. He was a human being, an object not able to be so easily replaced. Swiftly, I placed the teddy down and rose to observe the room. It was me and my thoughts which presently inhabited it, and nothing more. I considered his bed, the blue quilt with geometric patterns and gingerly, I made my way towards it. If sleep had been an option for me that night then I suppose I would’ve slept there too, but instead, I lay like I had in my own bed, angry and upset with the world, but most of all, with myself. I remained this way until early dawn, when Mum appeared in the doorway, eyes puffy and red from crying, face drawn and sullen with despondency. I made no movement. I didn’t even acknowledge her. She’d wanted to see her son in this bed, not me. She went away after a minute or two – I don’t know how long, I hadn’t been counting. The metallic clangs of pots and the low grumble of the electric kettle heralded the beginning of a new day, but I didn’t want to accept it. How could I be expected to? How could I return to work and a normal life after this? And what’s more, how could my parents? What was life now, other than a muddling pile of doubt and grief? I rose from Jimmy’s bed and silently walked into the kitchen.
Mum put it to us at breakfast. None of us had eaten. Dad was contemplating the idea of having scotch at seven o’clock in the morning. I simply felt sick. Together, we were all painfully aware of the empty seat at the table, and the body which’d never appear in it ever again. “What if that man had something to do with it,” she said hoarsely. “We didn’t know him. He could’ve been mad. We should tell the police.”
“He saved my life,” I heard myself reply, bluntly. Mum looked to me sharply.
“How do you know?” she hissed. “You were unconscious. What if he’s one of those predators? What if Jimmy is still alive?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” muttered Dad.
“I know what happened,” I said, considering my untouched plate of toast and beans. “It was my fault.”
“It damn well was.” Mum gripped the edges of the table and leant across it viciously. “You were supposed to be watching him.”
“I was,” I answered through grit teeth. “I looked away for a second – not even that. The tide must’ve been higher than we thought. I tried to save him.”
“And where did that get you? Where did that get any of us? What do we have now because of your mistake?”
“Elspeth –” Dad began.
“Of course it’s your fault!” Saliva flew from between her teeth, her voice now animated with blind fury. “It is all your fault and I will never forgive you for it.”
I should’ve known better – that this was simply mum’s way of grieving – yet it happened all the same. I stood suddenly and without warning, flipping my plate in the process and ruining the tablecloth. Dad cursed irritably and my mother stopped, eyes wide, as if having realised what she’d said. I glowered at them both yet did not speak, and I think that was what tormented them most. I stormed from the house after that, ignoring their calls and threats to have me grounded, arrested, whatever – I didn’t care. I crossed our pathetic excuse for a front garden and strode angrily into the street, where one of our neighbours, the elderly Mrs Nunn, paused from her hedge-trimming to watch me pass by. I didn’t look at her. I didn’t look at anything. I walked with my arms crossed tightly over my chest, with an expression so murderous everyone appeared to move out of my way whenever I approached them.
At first I had no idea where I was going. The place in which we lived was larger than a town but smaller than a city, and had only three sets of traffic lights, two banks, three supermarkets forever claiming to have the cheapest prices over one another, a mall, a theatre (which was hardly used anymore for actual theatrical pieces, but instead had become a community hall for AA meetings and church groups), two primary schools and two high schools, an endless number of boutiques and organic cafes, a Starbucks on the corner of Warren and Hoover, a Chinese takeout with the best Szechuan chicken, a Thai takeout with even better Penang curry, a Mexican takeout, an Indian takeout, a KFC, a laundromat conjoined with a “true Italian” pizza parlour (complete with bright, neon lights aptly the same colours as the Italian flag), a hairdressing salon owned by a homosexual couple, two chemists, four pubs and beyond all of this, houses and backyards inhabited by families, students, lonesome individuals, dogs, cats, birds, and the occasional mouse. My legs carried me into a street which was overly familiar, and I realised I was heading towards my friend Alex’s house. Alex was character. Her real name was Alexis, but she hated it, and people had been calling her by the masculine substitute since the ninth grade. She was known as an aspiring feminist, who smoked Winfield cigarettes and listened to alternative bands nobody had even heard of before. She liked women and men, black and white, dark red lipstick, and Doc Martens. Her diet consisted steadily of alcohol, MDMA, and quesadillas. “I also like long walks on the beach and onion on my hot dogs,” she’d laugh, “So long as the walk doesn’t involve you telling me how to be a ‘conventional’ woman by getting married and bearing children by the time I’m thirty.” She studied art history – “I once did a shit-tonne of cocaine and painted a self-portrait Picasso would’ve been jealous of,” – and politics – “Man, fuck the conservatives.” Despite being bisexual there was a guy named Roman she had sex with a lot. He was half-Indian and also her dealer. He was tall and weedy (pun intended) and never said much. I wasn’t surprised when I found them both in her house at the other end of the street, doped out on Xanax or some shit, watching one of the state’s many news programmes. Alex acknowledged me with a wave. “Hey man,” she said, before gesturing to the television. “Have you seen this shit? The Nazis (she meant the Liberals) have been voted in. I mean for fuck’s sake, I can’t believe it. How stupid is this country? Lizard people. All of them.”
“My brother is dead.” The words dropped from my lips and fell at my feet like heavy stones.
“What?” Alex’s tone rose as her drug-infused mind comprehended what I’d just said. She moved from the lounge she had been sharing with Roman to stand before me. I’d never seen her so concerned before. “Are you … serious?” she asked.
“Yes.” I didn’t look at her, not directly. I gazed over her shoulder instead, at some politician standing behind a podium making a speech on the telly. “He drowned. Yesterday. In the bay.”
“Dude.” Alex’s brow furrowed. “What the fuck. I’m so sorry, man. That’s …” she exhaled in an air of disbelief. “That’s pretty hectic. Do you need to sit down or something?”
“No it’s okay,” I replied.
“Do you want some molly or something?”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” I shoved my hands into the pockets of my bomber jacket. “I just don’t want to be in my house at the moment. Mum’s convinced it’s my fault.”
“Heavy,” said Alex.
“But was it?” Roman’s voice interrupted us both. We turned our heads to see him, impassive and oddly nonchalant about the topic. I assumed it was the drugs making him appear an insensitive, detached prick, and it wasn’t simply his nature. I frowned. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Was it actually your fault?”
“Don’t be a cunt Roman,” snapped Alex.
“It’s a genuine question,” he replied, finally looking at us. “Your mum must have some reason to think that otherwise she … well, she wouldn’t.”
“Ugh, don’t listen to him,” Alex sighed. She placed both hands upon my shoulders. We stared silently at each other for a moment until she inhaled deeply and asked, “Are you actually okay?”
“Right. Come on then.” She turned me around and steered me towards the door which I’d entered through only minutes before. “Let’s go somewhere. I don’t know about you but I’m hungry as fuck.”
We stepped outside into the sunlight and the warmth. The sky was blue and the colours of the street were cheery: pastel blues and yellows and greens reminded me of chalk and children. The thought of children brought me to Jimmy, and I deflated like a sad balloon. My shoulders sagged as Alex and I began to walk, and for a moment I wondered why neither of us was speaking. It took me another second to realise she’d already asked me a question – I simply hadn’t heard it.
“Sorry, what?” I asked.
“Have you slept?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“I’m really sorry about this.” She stared hard at the pavement beneath our feet. “I don’t really know what to say.”
“Me either,” I answered. “It’s all happened so quickly. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Alex pursed her lips. “Your parents aren’t coping, yeah?”
“I don’t know. Mum went crazy this morning, but I think we’re all going crazy. We were eating breakfast this morning – well, I wasn’t … actually, none of us were eating. We were just sitting there, trying to think of something to say, while Jimmy’s chair was just empty. I mean, how did it even come to this? This time yesterday everything was really fucking normal and now I don’t know what to think anymore.” Subconsciously, I placed a hand to my forehead. It was hot and my palm was cool and for a brief second, it was the nicest feeling in the world. “And it gets weirder. It gets worse,” I continued, words short and tone erratic. “I was fucking there. He was down at the edge and then he just wasn’t. I tried to save him and everything. There must’ve been a rip or something … I don’t know. I almost died too. I nearly drowned.”
“What? Dude, that’s messed up. What happened?” asked Alex, her eyes widening.
“Some guy saved me, right? Some guy that tells me later the only reason he was able to because he was about to jump off the fucking cliffs. You know, the cliffs down at the bay? Yeah – he was standing up there and he was going to kill himself, and then he must’ve seen me in the water and I –” I stopped, mouth agape, staring at the nothing. “I don’t even know. I wake up on the beach and he’s there. And I’m alive, and Jimmy isn’t. And it’s my fault.”
“Woah, come on now, don’t be thinking like that.”
“But it is,” I said. “I looked away. I looked away for a second and that was all it took.”
“What happened to the guy?”
Alex frowned. “The guy who saved your life? What happened to him? Who was he?”
“I don’t know … Sebastian or something, I think.” I shook my head. “It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours yet and what, am I supposed to understand what’s going on?”
Alex didn’t respond. I didn’t particularly want her to, either. So we walked on, past suburban lots and nondescript cars, plastic gardens and painted fences. The day was merry, and I hated it. How dare life continue so nonplussed and carefree? The world I’d known had been replaced by an ugly landscape of deceit and injustice. I didn’t know what to believe, or what to think. I walked with Alex until we reached the shabby Mexican joint on the other side of town. She explained she needed her daily quesadilla fix, while I ordered nothing. We sat at a booth as she ate, and I watched her consume the oily mess with a pang of worry. How could she eat when my world was falling apart? How could she be so blasé? What was more, why couldn’t I eat? I’d never been so hungry in my life, but the very thought of food repulsed me. Alex continued to chew her way through spicy beef, cheese, and lettuce until she asked;
“So what happens now?”
I looked at her. “I don’t know.”
She swallowed and frowned. “Have you spoken to the police? Like, doesn’t someone need to know about what happened?”
“I dunno … authorities and stuff. Don’t you want to find the –” and she stopped herself, having realised what she was about to say. Alex’s eyes met mine and together, we were depressed at the thought. I knew she was correct – that eventually, Jimmy’s death would need to be reported and a funeral or memorial service would have to take place and reality would hit all over again like a solid slap to the face. She never finished her sentence. I sat in silence as she resumed eating, hands clasped together, mind adrift.
When we returned to her house, Roman had left. “Thank god,” Alex murmured, switching off the television which he’d left on. “Fucking arsehole. I don’t know why I bother, really.” By this time she’d sobered up somewhat, and I raised my eyebrows as I watched her slump into the lounge.
“I don’t know either,” I told her, honestly. She grimaced at me and I ignored it, as Roman was usually a disputed topic. I sat down beside her and sighed.
“Do you want to watch a movie?” she asked. “I’m going through this Christian Bale phase at the moment, and oh my god, have you seen –”
“I don’t want to watch movies,” I replied.
“Okay … do you want some –?”
“I don’t want drugs, either.”
“Oka-ay,’ she grunted, dragging out the word. ‘I’m sorry, man. I’m just tryna make you feel better.”
I wanted to tell her I know, but I didn’t. I simply sat there, transfixed by the empty, grey television screen. I remembered a time when somebody vomited on it during one of Alex’s raves, and how the one before it had been smashed by Roman when he decided to kick it after snorting too much cocaine and almost OD’ing half an hour afterwards. Again, I realised Alex is talking to me but I’ve misheard everything. I looked at her. She hadn’t seemed to have noticed my lack of interest in whatever she was saying. She continued anyway, in a haze, staring wondrously to the plaster ceiling above us and scratching absent-mindedly at her neck. I pressed my lips together and continued with my silence.
“… I mean, I obviously have no idea how to handle these sorts of things and it’s a little unfair that you’re just putting me on the spot, man, like seriously – I dunno what else I can offer you. Jimmy was such a rad little dude. He liked space and shit, right? Wanted to be an astronaut? I don’t blame him. Earth is a hole. It has been since humans fuckin’ … inhabited it. I mean, we’re such a destructive species. We cut shit down and blow stuff up. Everything’s just this massive competition against one another and … it’s disgusting. Everybody’s so concerned about their image and how much money they make and where they can go on their holidays … fuck. I hate humanity. I hate it all. It’s just so disappointing. Too many people are abusing the right of being human by becoming fat and fucked up and utter wastes of – what’s that word? What we’re made of? Eco … echo … fuckin’ – ectoplasm – that sometimes, I really, really, really wish natural selection would speed up by about one trillion percent and completely wipe out everyone who isn’t actively contributing to society. I pay my taxes, but for what? To feed other people’s smoking habits? Fuck people, man.”
“I don’t think you should become a politician,” I murmured.
“What?” Alex squinted up at me.
“I think you’re absolutely right,” I said, louder this time. I looked to her and forced a thin smile. “Fuck people, right?”
“Right! And that’s why,” – she reached over and touched my arm sympathetically, a sentiment alien to her being – “you should remember the good things about Jimmy, yeah? Like space and stuff.”
“Space and stuff.”
“That’s right.” Alex then relaxed, letting her head fall backwards onto the arm of the lounge. “Space …” Her voice disappeared, and the unfinished sentence lapsed into soft snores. Sighing, I pushed her legs off my lap and headed home.
There, it was no better. Mum has consumed the two aged bottles of port and lay unconscious on top of our navy sofa. The TV is on – Bear Grylls was talking to me. I switched it off, not wanting to hear about the taste of pasteurised deer blood, and moved silently into the kitchen. I tried to eat. I made a PB and J sandwich only to toss it into the bin. I nibbled on the end of a cracker and ended up crushing it instead. I poured a glass of water. The glass overflowed, and I watched it. It bubbled and spilt onto my hand, running momentarily towards my wrist before letting go to land in the gleaming sink below. Goodbye water, I thought, as I continued to watch it seep down the drain. I smiled as I considered it, escaping into the depths. I was almost envious of it, how it could just disappear without being missed. Goodbye, I thought again, and the glass slipped from my grasp. It smashed into the sink, breaking into thick, ugly pieces with a sharp, startling sound. Goodbye, I thought, and I realised, as the tears swelled from beneath my eyes and proceeded to roll down my cheeks, that the glass represented my world, and the water, my life – trickling and oozing, seeping and running, towards the ominous underground.