The stillness of the room was shattered when he awoke. He twitched upright, clawing at his chest, eyes wide and blank, breath coming in shallow heaves. His hands slammed down on the blanket and clawed at the surface. Inches of blanket gathered in his twisted fingers. The frantic breathing slowed. His eyes found their focus once more. Wearily, he stared around his room, taking inventory of its features. His shoulders slumped and he buried his face in his hands. Not for the first time, he wept alone.
He flinched as he felt the sun's warmth hit his back. Sighing, he fell back onto his pillows. He reached out and felt around his nightstand, snatched the alarm clock, and examined it. 6 AM. He shook his head and looked again. 6 AM. He slammed it back down, sat back up. No time to waste.
His reflection studied him impassively as he brushed his teeth. Had it moved? His reflection's eyes widened, showing him his fear. He sneered and spat into the sink. He kept his eyes on the floor. He didn't want to see its response.
Another room, another mirror. His uniform was on now. Appropriately respectable, bit dissheveled around the belt, but that was what the apron was for. He looked to his reflection for approval. Its naked hope disgusted him. He reached into his pockets, retrieved his badge, studied it. Kyle. It was his name. He gave it a place of honor on his chest.
Something moved behind him. He felt the breeze on the backs of his arms. His flesh stiffened, cold, prepared for fight or flight. He glanced in the mirror. The sheets of his bed rustled. Something had disturbed them. His jaw twitched and he left, choosing flight.
The bus was crowded. The woman next to him seemed weak, dazed. Every bump in the road, every stop, every go, every disturbance she was snapped back and forth, giving no resistance. She slammed into his shoulder. He shoved back. A disdainful glance at her and he was paralyzed. Her tangled blonde hair flew through the air and he was underwater, the bus gone, only her hair in a void of deep, wet cold.
He was back on the bus. It was his stop. He snapped up his backpack and marched to the door. On the war path. He glanced back at the woman. She watched him with dead, cloudy eyes. Her lips moved rapidly, the words unheard. He swallowed bile and made his exit.
The moment he stepped into the kitchen he felt more alive. He was only a fry cook, but in his mind's eye he was twenty years older, the master of his own kitchen. His spatula conducted an imaginary symphony of food and business. His supervisor scolded him.
He jumped. He hadn't heard her coming. He fought to keep his disgust off of his face and pretended to listen as she berated him. She was old and her loose skin trembled with rage with every venomous word. His vision blurred. He registered the forest green of her polo shirt, the movement of her jowls. Seaweed.
He swallowed hard, averted his eyes. Stacks of raw hamburger next to his grill station wavered in the steam and smoke of the kitchen. Underwater. Their surfaces were bloated and shining. Rotten. He began to shake. His supervisor loomed over him. Her tone was different now, concerned. He watched her with wide eyes, mouth working like a fish without air.
Her skin seemed tighter now, like her mass had expanded to fill the standard it set. Her eyes were white and blank, her skin slick and fungal. She leaned in towards him. Her jaw fell open.
"Drown you. Drag you down. Never alone," she said, her words echoed by a moist rattle in her chest. He recoiled, struck out, turned tail and fled before she hit the ground. His coworkers ran to her side, turned to stare at him, their voices echoed: "Never alone."
It was twilight in the park. He didn't know how long he had been on the run. Every time he stopped he was found. Sometimes he would see them for what they were, sometimes he was toyed with. A friendly jogger's concerned face would explode with algae. The helpful policewoman was drowning. Everyone was drowning, and there was no water in sight.
He struggled to his feet. Nobody had seen him in the hedges, but he knew it was unsafe. He staggered for the treeline. The chill in his bones deepened. He stopped. He felt the cold tug at him, fidget with the edges of his mind. In the stillness he could hear its message: into the forest.
The longer he marched the colder he became. His teeth chattered and his skin turned blue. He sweat excessively, soon becoming soaked. Tears blurred his eyes, covering the world around him with a watery filter. The trees ceased their swaying in the breeze and seemed instead to undulate as though they were submerged in deep water.
The vision cleared. He stopped, blinked in confusion. For the first time all day he dared to smile. He had found the lake. He fell to his knees, weeping with joy, the crickets providing procussion for his grateful song.
"It makes sense, of course it does," he whispered to himself. He smiled, noting that his teeth no longer chattered. "I'm being haunted by water."
He crawled forward on his hands and knees. Hesitantly, he dipped his hand in the frozen water. He flinched, prepared for the worst, but there was no retaliation, no danger.
"It must have wanted me here. It must have wanted me to know how it died. But why?" he said, a puzzled frown knitting his brow. "Why me?"
The surface of the lake began to froth. He tensed, prepared to flee, and shook his head. He laughed nervously. The water stilled.
"I guess you just wanted me to know that you knew I was here, huh?" he asked. The water frothed, solidified, rose up, crashed into him. The force of the blow knocked him back. He was completely soaked. The cold rushed through his body like an invading force and he was struck immobile, frozen.
He shook his head and turned back to the lake. A pillar of water jutted out of the lake, water cascading down like a fountain. It approached. He dug his fingers into the sand, tried to get up and run, but found himself incapable. As though a tap had been cut off, the water ceased to froth, receded into the lake. She came for him.
She leaned over him, her slick hand caressed his cheek. A smile split her face, her lips cracked and her bloated flesh compressed by its joyful invasion. She leaned in, her face so close to his, so dangerously close. Her lips brushed his. "Remember."
His arms snapped to his sides, his spine stiffened, his head jerked back. He stared at the sky, not seeing it, seeing nothing but his memories. He had known her name once. No, he hadn't just known her name, he had loved her. She had shared his bed. Tears streamed down his face. What had happened to her?
He worked hard. She knew he did. Why didn't she? She spent her days down by the lake, collecting shit. Worthless shit. Pinecones with funny shapes, rocks with pretty colors. She seemed so different. Gone. She wasn't who he had fallen in love with. She lived in worlds with gilded gates, gates she would never give him the keys to.
It hadn't been a good day. He just wanted to come home and relax. He worked so hard. She cost so much, he had to. The apartment was empty. A note on the fridge: "It's my time. I need to go." He grabbed it, read it, crumpled it up. He threw it at the door and followed its path, headed to his car, to the lake.
She hadn't wanted to die, she told him. Not really. She just wanted to know he cared. He saw red. He heard his voice, distorted, twisted, asking her if she was sure. She looked as though she had been slapped. Asked him why. He didn't answer, not with his words. He snatched a fistful of her hair, hauled her to her feet, dragged her to the water. She told him she was sure, that he didn't have to do this, that she wouldn't do it again. He shoved her under the water, held her down until she didn't move anymore.
"No," he wailed, the sound of his voice startling him. He flexed his hands experimentally. He was free. She watched him in silence. He rose to his feet, rubbed his arms, warmed himself up.
"So that's it then? That's what all this was about? Your hurt feelings?"
She remained still, didn't respond. He stumbled towards her, gaining grace as his frozen limbs found warmth again. He smiled at her, opening his arms for an embrace. She didn't move. He held her and stroked her hair. He looked into her cold, dead eyes, tilted her chin up with his hand.
"Do you forgive me?" he asked. The surface of the lake whipped up behind her. Frigid tendrils of water reached out tentatively, patting his shoulders. They wrapped him up in their cold embrace.
"Never alone," she said. The water dragged them down, taking them home.