Maria can feel his voice, the vibration of it, but she cannot hear him over the ringing in her own ears. The ringing is loud, and she isn’t going to try to hear over it because she knows it would be impossible, like trying to see over the top of the horizon.
Her head is on his chest. She feels the hum of his voice through her jawbone, resonant and comforting even though his words are almost certainly panicked. He is probably asking if she is okay, if she is hurt, if she was hit. His hands travel over her body, and it is a deeply intimate moment, even if he does not linger. Even if he is checking, rather than caressing. He is feeling for brokenness, for bones that are in the wrong order, for blood.
Maria could not say if he will find any. She cannot feel any pain, but she is certain that she will, later. She is horizontal, where a moment ago she was vertical, and she is trapped between some unbelievably heavy thing and this man’s body. She must have landed on top of him. The heavy thing pins her there, on top of him, from just below the ribs down. If this was a romantic comedy, they would both be totally uninjured, and they would laugh, and this would be the start of their story-but it isn’t a romantic comedy, and she cannot feel her legs, so “uninjured” is probably not in the cards. All of these thoughts reach her as if from a great distance-satellites blinking in morse code against a dark sky.
Maria remembers floating on the lake, back before her marriage fell apart, her husband on the dock with his feet dangling in the water. She’d floated and looked up at the night sky and tried to find Mars among the lights up there, but she did not know where to look. Everyone had always told her that Mars was the bright red one, but when she looked at the vast array of stars above her, none of them looked red, and all of them looked bright.
The man beneath her is panicking now, shaking her by the shoulders. He probably thinks that there is a corpse on top of him. He must be scared. She lifts her hand and sets it on his chest, next to her face. She pats him, like a mother comforting a crying child, and he stops shaking her. His chest and stomach quake and she thinks he must be crying, now. What feeble comfort she gave him.
The man puts his arms around her. She still cannot hear his words, but the vibrations resonating in his chest have a rhythm. He is repeating something. A name? A prayer? She cannot look up to see if he is still crying.
There is a tickle in Maria’s throat, and she coughs to clear it-but then she can’t stop coughing. She tastes blood and wonders if she knocked out a tooth when she fell. She keeps coughing and the coughing is warm now, liquid, and the man is clutching at her and the ringing is fading from her ears and the words ‘no, no, no’ are drifting to her.
There is blood on the man’s shirt, in front of her face. She coughs and then there is more blood on his shirt.
She had loved floating on the lake at night. When she and her husband-ex-husband-went to the lake, trying to see if a vacation would fix all of the problems that they had at home, she had floated every night. He hated it, thought it was somehow dangerous, as if the water was nocturnal. As if it would come alive at night and swallow her up. They fought about it. She felt bad, at the time, selfish, like it was just a silly thing for her to want to float on the lake and she should have given in to his objections. But now she realizes that it was the most important thing, and that she had been right to fight for it. Because if he wouldn’t let her lie on her back in the water and look up at the stars and count the ones that fell-then what was he for?
The man is talking again. His words are faint, through the ringing, but she can still feel them in his chest. He must have a deep voice, to be so resonant like this. His words have the familiar cadence of the Lord ’s Prayer.
Maria strokes one of the buttons on his shirt with her thumb, smearing some of the blood off of it. It is pearlescent, a snap button, and the surface of it is so smooth that she almost loses herself in it. It is like liquid. It is like snow. Where are these thoughts coming from? How is a button like snow? But it is, it is just like the powdery snow that she used to play in as a child. You could fall into it. Maria did, once, she fell into a snowdrift and her father had to pull her out by the hood of her jacket. She had not felt cold while she was in the snowdrift. It had blanketed her with quiet, and it was not until she was pulled out of it that she felt cold, deep cold, wrapping around her bones and staying there long after she was dry.
Someone is yelling. There is a flashlight beam playing across Maria and the man where they lie, and it hurts her eyes. She closes them against the light, and it feels good to have them closed. She decides that she will keep them that way. The man’s voice has stopped. His hands are on her head, stroking her hair. His breathing is shaky; she thinks he must still be crying. She tries to pat him on the chest again, but her hands don’t move when she asks them to.
She realizes that her fingers are very cold.
With her eyes closed, Maria feels like she is floating on the lake again. Not going anywhere-the lake was always so still-but weightless, buoyed by water that was still just a little sun-warm. Her husband, with his feet in the water, huffy and unwilling to speak to her, insisting that he needed to be there “just in case”. A case study of their marriage: him, miserable but clinging to the idea that she needed him. Her, doing what she wanted and leaving him on dry land.
She realizes that she must have drifted off, because she is immersed in the memory of the lake. Oh, she thinks, I am dreaming now. Because she is not just reminiscing anymore-she is there. She is looking up at the sea of stars.
She decides to enjoy the dream, and lets her head fall back into the water so that it covers her ears. Faint rumblings reach her from somewhere, and she thinks, when I wake back up, that man will be talking again. Maria has never had a lucid dream before, but if this is one, it is very nice-being able to enjoy herself while knowing that it is a dream.
There are so many stars. They look different from what she remembers-all of them are falling stars, roaring across the endless sky, leaving trails across her vision. And they are brighter than she remembers.
The water is getting colder. She decides that it is time to either wake up or swim back to the dock. Maybe in this dream, her husband will be happy, and they will enjoy each other’s company. Those kinds of dreams always leave her feeling shaken upon waking, but that does not seem important now.
She turns in the water. The lake is so still, so silent, that her splashes echo. She begins swimming toward the dock. There he is, feet in the water. But he looks different.
It is not her husband.
Maria pulls up short, treading water a few meters away from the man on the dock. He is not looking at her-he is looking up at the stars, which have stopped falling. They are in a new configuration. There is no big dipper here-the only constellation she could ever recognize.
“So, this is your place?” The man’s voice vibrates to her through the water, so she feels it at the same time as she hears it. It is not the voice of anyone she knows, but it is somehow familiar to a piece of her that has never recognized anything before. She cannot see his face by the light of the moon and stars.
“Yes.” Her response surprises her-it is commanding, regal. Imperious. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The man laughs. “You’re right, I shouldn’t be here. Not if this is your place. I just wanted to make sure that this was where you wanted to stay.”
She swims the rest of the way to the dock, hauls herself up onto the wood. She looks down at the man, whose feet splash in the lake. “This is my place. But I don’t know that I want to stay here. I’ll leave once it’s time to wake up.”
The man turns his head-she thinks he is looking at her, but she still cannot quite see his face. The rest of him is moonlit, silvery, but his face stays in shadow.
“Well, you can’t go back. But I can take you somewhere else, where the rest of them are. Even your friend, with the cowboy shirt. Mr. Snap Buttons.”
“What do you mean, I can’t go back?”
It doesn’t take the man long to explain.
“But-if I’m dreaming, I can’t be dead.”
The man shakes his head. “Of course you can.”
She stands on the edge of the dock, her toes hanging off the wood. She looks down into the still water, which is a mirror of the stars. Her face is not reflected in it.
“So,” says the man, “would you like me to take you to the other place?” His tone is casual, like he’s asking where she wants to go for dinner rather than where she wants to spend eternity.
She doesn’t answer him. Instead, she sucks in a deep breath and jumps into the water. She swims down and down and down, hands outstretched. She wants to find the bottom. She wants to know what’s below the water that she’s only ever floated on.
It gets colder as she swims deeper. The water seems to get thicker. Her ears start to hurt from the pressure. She feels the voice of the man on the dock vibrating through the water-probably telling her to come back.
But she will not go back. Not until she’s touched the bottom.
Her lungs are burning. She is running out of air. But what, she wonders, could possibly happen if she drowns here? She opens her mouth to take a lungful of water, and a hand wraps around her wrist. She is yanked up, hard, onto the dock.
The man is not angry, but he is not happy, either. “Don’t do that.”
She must have been a mile down in the water. How did he reach her to pull her out? She wrings out her hair onto the dock and stares at him, frowning.
He holds out a hand, impatient. “Well? Come on, we need to go.”
She considers his hand. It is smooth, like he has never worked outside or held a baseball bat or thrown a grenade into a coffee shop.
She shakes her head, sits on the edge of the dock, and lets her feet splash in the water. “No.”
He sighs. “Are you sure?”
She shakes her head again, and looks up at the stars. “I’m sure. I’ll stay here. You go deal with whoever else you need to escort.”
She expects him to vanish in a puff of smoke, but he doesn’t. He sits down beside her.
“Okay.” Their hands are beside each other on the dock, and their pinky fingers overlap a little. She doesn’t move her hand away, and neither does he. “Let’s stay.”
And they stay, and watch the stars until, as the sun comes up and the sky turns grey, they wink out, one by one.
Sarah Gailey is a Bay Area native and an unabashed bibliophile, living and working in beautiful Oakland, California. She enjoys painting, baking, vulgar embroidery, and writing stories about murder and monsters. Her short speculative fiction has appeared in Colored Lens and Mothership Zeta, among other publications. You can find links to her work at www.sarah-gailey-writes-stuff.squarespace.com. She tweets @gaileyfrey.