This story begins with an ending, on a beach beneath an orange afternoon sky. It had been my younger brother’s seventh birthday. His name was James; I called him Jimmy. He loved the energy of the water and the texture of the sand, chasing gulls, and leaping heroically off the dunes. He was a master of sandcastle construction and often wore his cartoon-themed swimmers wherever he went. Earlier that day, I’d bought us both ice creams. It’s odd – the only thing I can’t remember is what flavour cone I’d gotten. Jimmy always liked to talk about space. He was fascinated by the stars, and the moon, and all of the planets in the solar system. “I think I want to go to Jupiter,” he told me, after we’d gotten our ice creams. We were heading towards the beach because he wanted to go swimming. “It’s the biggest planet in the solar system and I’ll live there. I’m going to be an astronaut when I grow up.”
“What about earth?” I asked, looking down at him.
Jimmy screwed up his face and shook his head. “I don’t want to stay here. It’s boring, and all of it has already been explored. I want to be king of Jupiter. Then only people I like can live there with me.”
“Can I live there?”
“Yes, and Mum and Dad. And Dodger.” Dodger was our dog. I smiled at my little brother. I was jealous of his naivety. He turned his small face to the sky and sighed. “Where do the stars go when it’s daytime?” he asked.
I raised my eyebrows and followed his gaze. “I’m not sure,” I replied, knowing very well that they were always there. Jimmy pressed his lips together and bowed his head. He seemed disappointed with this response, and I couldn’t blame him. Since he’d learnt to speak, he was forever asking questions about anything and everything his young mind was capable of. It was rare anyone had all of the answers, so he was constantly giving off the impression he was frustrated with people. I couldn’t blame him for that, either.
Upon reflection, I suppose that day had gone rather well. If I’d known what was to come, however, I would’ve cherished the moment more to heart. I might’ve held his hand a little tighter, or honestly answered some of his bizarre questions. I might have swum with him, or taken him elsewhere. Jimmy broke free of my grasp once we reached the sand. He gave a delighted squeal, and with his brightly-coloured bucket and matching spade, hurried as quickly as his small legs could carry him into the cool, shallow water just off the shore.
I turned away only for a moment – a few seconds, at best – but that was all it took. I remember moving to see the sand beneath me, an oblivious, unassuming smile sitting ripe upon my lips, and looking back, to find Jimmy gone. I thought my eyes had failed me – perhaps it was a trick of the light, or of the shadows across the water. My smile faltered. The ocean waited before me, dark and smug. “Jimmy,” his name, no louder than a whisper, escaped between my teeth in the form of a single, fleeting breath. My legs carried me towards the water, yet I have no clear recollection of it. “Jimmy!” My voice rose, higher and louder, anxious and fearful, as I clambered helplessly into the frothy white water. “Jimmy!” I continued on, calling his name, refusing the thoughts. I clawed at the water and attempted to see into its vacuous, muddy depths. Soon I was well-above my waist into the sea, and I knew I could go no further without being lost myself. “Jimmy!” It was a scream now, shrill and desperate. I felt sick, dizzy, afraid – all of the above. My head span and terror seized at my throat. It became difficult to breathe, to stand – but the ocean knew this. My knees buckled beneath me. Salty water filled my lungs and I spluttered, arms flailing towards the now darkened sky. My feet pedalled for a solid surface but found none. My final thought was of my brother – so small and so innocent, his smiling face – before I disappeared beneath the surface.
When I awoke, it was in the company of a man I didn’t know. The first thing I saw were the faraway stars, glittering like jewels forever suspended against velvet space. I wondered the obvious: had I died? Was this heaven? Hell? Limbo? And if it were any of those things, why was I so cold? And wet? My eyes fell to the figure kneeling beside me. In the dim light it was hard to see their face, but it was definitely a man, and he seemed just as startled as I was. His hands lingered over my chest, and it occurred to me suddenly that this stranger had just saved my life. I attempted to sit up, but he eased me back down. “Jimmy,” I said, the panic returning to my body in waves. “Where is he? Did you see him? Where did he go? He was right there and then – and then he wasn’t.” I stopped. The truth was a rock lodged deep in my stomach. The stranger said nothing, and his silence was more tormenting than if he had spoken. A violent convulsion shook my body, and with a start, I leant over to vomit ungracefully onto the sand. I wiped my lips, wiped my face, before finally, I turned to see the stranger. “You saved me,” I said.
“I did,” he replied.
“Why?” My tone was low, and I think he found the question odd. I felt otherwise – I hardly deserved it.
The stranger swallowed. “I don’t know. You’re lucky I saw you. I saw everything.”
And I cried. The tears came without warning – great, heaving sobs which caused me more pain and anxiety than having almost drowned. The sounds from my mouth were beyond human – they were emotions, raw and disconcerting, spilling from the innermost chasms of my heart. I wasn’t aware of the stranger’s arms pulling me into an embrace. We must’ve remained on the beach for some time, because the moon was high in the sky when my parents appeared. The stranger explained. The stranger broke the news to my furious father and my frantic mother, while I, a sobbing heap, lay curled upon the sand. I don’t remember much of what happened after that. I was carried for a short while, placed into the backseat of a car. It smelt like cheap vanilla extract and leather – it was my mother’s car, but she sat with me instead, stroking my hair in silence. My father sat in the passenger seat, face blank, eyes unseeing. The stranger drove our car. He drove it to our house, and helped us inside. When he went to leave us to wallow in our grief, I followed him to the front door. “Who are you?” I demanded, in a voice no louder than a croak. He stopped and turned to see me, surprised I think, even more so by the question. “Sebastian,” he replied simply.
“Why were you there?” I continued, watching him from behind puffy eyes. I was hardly aware of myself. “At the beach. Why were you there, alone?”
“I was up on the cliffs.”
A grimace passed over his lips and sadness clouded his eyes. “I was going to kill myself.” And at my silence, he added, “I have ninety-seven weeks to live.”