I remember the way the sky looked that day. It was this awfully boring blue-gray color, right when the sun is in the middle of setting. It would usually be fiery and beautiful but that humid June evening was the opposite of anything wonderful. The birds didn’t sing, the insects didn’t buzz, and the wind made no effort in blowing away the terrible heaviness of the sky. It was as if they all held their breath, waiting for something. I was feeling lousy and bored. The depressing sky wasn’t helping. Earlier that day my mother had yelled at me to go take my bike to the pond and pick apples. I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about fulfilling her ‘request,’ but it’s a good thing I did.
As I came over the hill passing by the twisted apple trees in our orchard, I saw something floating in the crystal clear pond. It was unmoving, so I dismissed it as a log, but as I got closer I discovered that it was no log at all, but a young boy. I immediately dropped my bike and sprinted towards him. I ran straight into the shallow water, soaking my shorts and tank top, until I reached him in water up to my chest. I pulled him towards the sandy shore. When my mother was young she lost her little sister to a boat accident where she drowned, so from as far back as I can remember she’s drilled me on what to do if someone is drowning. I used to get annoyed by how psycho she got about it but I sure was glad I knew what to do then.
After I got him to the shore I finally got a good look at him. He was about 9, the same age as me at the time. he had blond, messy, long hair going to about his ears, but of course it was soaked. His eyes were closed and his skin had turned sickly blue though he was still warm. I tried repeating the key phrases my mother had drilled in me but it was as if, out of nowhere, they had been wiped from my memory. I began to panic. Of course the one time I would actually have to revive someone from drowning, I would have no memory of how to do so. Calm down Emma, I told myself, check for a pulse. I reached down and shakily touched his neck, applying pressure to the vein. Still alive, I thought before moving onto the next stage. I began performing CPR, tasting the fresh water left on his lips. At the time I was grossed out, but a girl has to do whatever is necessary, right? I did this for about a minute before he started coughing. I jumped back as the boy leaned over and threw up a ton of water. I looked away in disgust, trying to keep my lunch down. After he finished coughing up water I realized how soaked and sand covered I was, my newly washed blonde hair filled with muck. Mom is gonna kill me. The sun had set, and the insects and birds started chirping again. A breeze had begun to blow, taking with it the thickness of the air. The boy was looking at me with these intense bright green eyes, like a deer in headlights.
“Well aren’t ya gonna say thank you?” He said nothing and I couldn’t tell if he was shocked or just stupid. After a moment he reached up and tapped his lips, then made an ‘x’ with his arms. “Oohh so you’re daft or whatever?” I said. A grumpy frown crossed his face and he looked away from me. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that. So you’re mute or somethin’?” He just shrugged and started drawing in the sand with a stick. “What’s your name?” I asked. He quickly scribbled ‘Tom’ in the sand. “So, Tom, what were ya doin’ in the water if ya couldn’t swim?”
He simply shrugged, then after a moment he scribbled “teach me?” in the sand and pointed to the water. I had debated this for a moment before replying. I’d have to do it in secret,since mother wouldn’t be pleased in knowing that some random mute boy was swimming in our private pond-lake (I’m still debating which one it truly is).
“Sure, why not, its not like I have anything better to do.” A huge smile spread across his face and we both jumped up. “Meet me here tomorrow at 1 and we’ll start our first lesson.” He nodded and began to walk away and I went and picked up my bike. “See ya tomorrow, Tom.”
We both waved goodbye and went our separate ways. For the rest of that adventure filled summer we swam every day and by the end we became such good friends that even now, both of us 17 we still swim every summer and meet up everyday.
Picking flowers in the spring, playing in the leaves in the fall, and having snow ball fights in the winter. Rain or shine we try to meet everyday, even if only for a few minutes.
About 9 months later, in March, Tom and I were picking the newly sprung flowers that finally bloomed after the extremely long winter. I still did not know much about him at all, but I was drawn to him and had this overwhelming need to protect him, and besides I probably had more fun with him than any of my new 4th grade friends. He still hadn’t spoken a word but I never pushed him to. I just continued assuming that he wasn’t right in the head like everyone else did. Yet I still could never truly believe it because he didn’t act like I thought they should. One time the ‘teen terribles’ (as I liked to call them) from the junior high school were at our pond-lake and they started pushing him around and calling him ‘retard.’ They acted relaxed around Tom and said just the right things to hurt him, as if they new everything about him. Tom looked completely petrified, so he must have known them. He looked like a truck was coming straight at him and he was about to be road kill. I got fed up, anger spreading through me like a wildfire, and punched their ‘leader’ in the nose, probably breaking it. The “terribles,” shamed that they were defeated by a 10 year old girl, never came back. I didn’t have such an easy time at school from then on. What I mostly remember is how Tom said thank you with his eyes after they ran off.
We sat by the water for a long time after, skipping rocks and trying to catch tadpoles but I had to ask what had been stirring in my mind all day. “Tom, why don’t you talk?” I asked, trying to not push him. I knew how fragile he was, how easily he would panic. When we swam in the summer, the second he realized that he had gotten into deep water and could not touch the rocks at the bottom, he panicked, flailing about and screaming. I hadn’t realized how terribly the accident had affected him until then. Now he can only swim deep if I hold his hand, but even then he’s on edge, ready to panic. It seemed to me that he was always like that, even when he was laughing, so I learned to touch him with kid gloves. It was awhile before he began to write vigorously in the sand. ‘I stopped talking when I was 5, when my mom left me to the state.’That meant he hadn’t spoken for 4 years, and as I know now, he wouldn’t start talking any time soon. ‘It was like I forgot how to speak and I never cared enough to learn again.’ He wiped away the words when he saw how worried I looked, then he smiled at me and began to write again. ‘Besides, I find it much more interesting to listen, to hear others speak than my own voice, and if I stay quiet my other group home mates will leave me alone.’
He had never written that much at one time to me. He was a mystery that I so badly wanted to solve, but I have slowly achieved my goal, however tedious it could be. I was partly shocked and partly flattered when he told me of his history yet I felt no closer to him than before. It was not even the reasons for why he didn’t talk that shocked me. I had always assumed, under the surface of course, that he had no family for he was always kind of dirty and his clothes were too small and he never seemed to ever not be able to come to the meadow unlike me, who has a very pushy mother. It was that he had told me that was shocking.
“How can you possibly do well in school…?” He pointed to his head, smiling smugly and began writing a series of A+’s in the sand. “Well, well I guess we got a genius over here!” I exclaimed, laughing. He pointed to himself and then held up six fingers and wiggled his eyebrows. “Are you trying to tell me that you skipped TWO grades?” he shrugged, still smiling. “Well you may be smarter, but I can still throw better!” I then jumped up, throwing sand into his shaggy hair, and took off running. We spent the rest of that day throwing sand and dirt and flowers at each other. You wouldn’t believe how outraged my mother was, but all I could think was how Tom had no mother to be furious at him.
The snow whirled and skipped about me that Christmas. It was so soft, like if you stepped on it you could kill it. I was in 6th grade then and had made a few more friends, who were hard to keep because I always had to make excuses as to why I could not come over or hang out. I had to see Tom everyday for if I didn’t, he might stay out there all night. I couldn’t bring a friend because he would panic around them and I didn’t think anyone would like him. Under the surface, I felt embarrassed to tell anyone about him. For some reason I thought it would make people not like me or think I was weird. The friends I have now are more accepting.
I was assaulted by the bitter cold air when I stepped outside, my grey eyes stinging at the contact, and my cheeks turned red. I carried a box of tinsel, ornaments, and cookies. I was going to make this the best Christmas Tom had ever had, that I knew he would never get at home. The sun hadn’t started to set yet, but I knew it would soon, so I walked very quickly through the glistening snow, as it got in my boots. The trees around the frozen pond were bare and snow covered, except for the occasional evergreen. They reminded me of skeletons, yet, there was something beautiful about them. Tom was already there, sitting and shivering in the snow. His coat was too big for his lean body and his jeans too thin to keep him warm.
“Hey,” I said, plopping down beside him. He just gave me a shivery smile. His nose was bright red and I laughed because he reminded me of Rudolf. He gave me a quizzical look, asking why. I had learned to read his looks as though they were words.
“Rudolf the red nosed reindeer, had a very shiny nose,” I sang, tapping his nose. He laughed and began sifting through the things I brought. “I brought cookies if you want some, they’re Christmas cookies to be exact.” He took a big bite out of a snowman cookie and smiled at me, nodding his head in approval. “So, shall we begin the festivities?” We both jumped up and scanned the area for a small Christmas tree. When we spotted one that would be accessible for our size, we grabbed the materials and ran as quickly to the tree as the snow would let us. After shaking the tree with all our might to relieve it of the snow we began to decorate. Tom never had really decorated a tree before so I had to show him the ropes. Once we had finished it was dark but we could still see well enough to marvel in our accomplishment.
The tree glistened now, like the moon amongst the sea of stars. The red and silver tinsel sparkled in the moonlight and the ornaments swayed with the breeze. “I’d say we did a pretty good job.” He looked up at the tree with such amazement in his eyes, like a child in front of a candy shop, his eyes were glistening and I could tell he held back tears. “Hey, I have a great idea! Lets build a snowman.” We quickly got to work on building our plump snowman and in the process got covered in snow. We spent the rest of the evening making snow angels and dodging each other’s snowballs. That night I went to bed thinking of snow and how it was probably the best Christmas either of us had had.
I was running late to the pond that evening, and ran as fast as I could, I remember how the air burned my nose. It was towards the end of 8th grade and I was swamped with work and was just barely able to make it. But when I got there, positive I was late, Tom was nowhere to be seen. That had never happened. He was always early. But I brushed it off and sat down in the dirt, checking the area for ticks. About ten minutes later I heard him coming, I began to smile before seeing his face. He looked outraged, his cheeks tear stained, his face red, and he walked as though he was walking away form an awful fight. I looked at him, my mouth agape and tried to bring word of comfort but they would not come. I had seen him distressed, depressed, psychotic, and happy but have never seen furious. He marched right into the water and began kicking it like he was trying to beat the crap out of someone and he was screaming as though they refused to die.
“Tom! Hey its OK-“ but I was cut off by a woman who came storming after him.
“I’m not done talking to you, Thomas!” The woman wore glasses and a grey suit, her skin was pale and flaky and her brown hair was tied in a far too tight bun. “You can’t just run off when things get tough, Thomas, you hear me?!” She screamed in response. I jumped up, blocking her path.
“Stop it! Stop yelling at him, he doesn’t understand, alright? Anything you have to say goes through me.” By the look on her face I knew she could tell I was not letting her pass and that her best option was to do what I said.
“Who are you?” I said, trying to not spit the words out at her.
“I am his group home-mom, and you are?” she said with spite, obviously upset that she had to listen to a ‘child’.
“Well, ‘friend,’ you can tell Thomas that if he behaves like this again, I’ll make sure he gets thrown in the nuthouse where he belongs!” she said, almost yelling, obviously not trying to keep Tom out of it at all. I had an intense urge to slap her then, but I resisted.
“Oh, please, don’t be so overdramatic.” I said. I wanted to scream at her, that if she ever implied that he was nuts again, I would hurt her. But I knew that would only make things worse.
“You call being upset that your psycho friend, after simply requesting for him to not run off and do his work around the house, tore my house apart, broke a window, broke many irreplaceable objects, and punching one of his fellow house mates overdramatic?!” Her face had turned red and her eyes looked as if they would pop from her skull. I couldn’t defend him then for I could not form the words. Would he really do something like that? I had thought. I knew he could get scared and kind of crazy but not violent. Deep down I knew he could do something like that, and as much as I tried to ignore it, from then on it was always on my mind, reminding me to be wary around him. “I am warning you,” she said, directing her words at me, but I knew they were meant for Tom, who was sitting by the lake, crying. “If something like this happens again he will no longer be a resident in my home. This is the last straw, I am done with his behavior.” She had started to walk off but then she turned. “Be home in an hour, Thomas, and you will clean everything up yourself.” She said to Tom. She sounded tired then and I could tell it was the same tiredness that I often felt.
I walked over to Tom and sat beside him. The sun was setting, and it casted this warm hazy glow on the meadow. I felt like the warmth would absorb me, that the sun would reach out its, long, warm hands and lift me gently into its embrace. Tom’s tears had dried and his eyes where bright red. He sniffled and rocked back and forth. A few tears escaped then, and I put my arms around him, his head on my shoulders, our bodies rocking back and forth, my hand stroking his blond, wavy hair. I realized then that I was the sun, embracing him, warming him. I would always be the sun, the sun who would rather burn herself than harm the one she embraced.
It was 2 years ago when my mother told me that she and my father were separating. My father was always out of town on work trips but when he was around he always devoted as much time as he could to me. I had never noticed much but small quarrels between them, nor much exchange of anything. Maybe that’s why it happened, there was just nothing left between them, neither love nor hatred. But they have to love each other. That’s what parents are supposed to do, I thought at the time, but I guess that’s not meant for every family. It took awhile for the words to sink in, like I couldn’t even hear her. For a moment I thought she was joking but when I looked up at her tired, sad face I knew she wasn’t.
At that I tore off, screaming at her to leave me alone, and made my way, tripping through the apple orchard to the pond. The wind felt cool on my pale skin and blew my long hair all about. It was as if the wind was singing to me as it rushed past my ears. My eyes filled with tears, blurring my vision. I stopped for a moment, resting my hands on my knees. It felt like I had been running for hours even though I know it was only minutes. Mixing with my heavy breathing I let out a sob before wiping away the tears and taking off again. I wasn’t incredibly attached to my parents so I didn’t understand why it hurt so terribly. But it wasn’t just the divorce, it felt as if everything I had bottled up and pushed aside for Tom, for myself, for everyone had all come tumbling down on me at once. I finally made it to the meadow when the tears swelled in my eyes again and fell.
“Tom!!” I shouted, sounding like a strangled cat. I ran towards where he sat looking at me. “Tom!” I yelled again. And then he was there in front of me, searching my tear stained eyes and reached a hand to my face, wiping away my tears. My breathing was heavy with sobs and tiredness so he sat me down in the grass. “My-my parents are splitting up.” I managed to say. My lip quivered and I burst into tears again. He wrapped his arms around me, pressing my head to his chest. We sat there for what seemed like hours. He kissed my head as we rocked lightly back and forth together, my tears staining his shirt. I thought, just for a moment, after my sobs had calmed to a gentle cry, that he said that everything would be fine. I was too bewildered to consider it to be anything besides my imagination. Now I am not so sure. It felt nice to be wrapped in his arms this time, to be the one who cried into his shirt, to rely on him, even if only for a moment.
I walked among the green apple trees that lead to the meadow, my stomach growing tight with nervousness. I want to dash back to my room and to never face this day. But I have to tell him. I cannot put it off any longer. Meeting up with Tom has gotten harder and harder with this being my last year of high school, college applications, and having actual friends besides Tom. Some days when I am just too busy I have to try to explain to Tom that I won’t be able to come the next day. And every time that I tell him, the look in his eyes breaks my heart. I can’t even comprehend how it will hurt when I tell him that I am going off to college next year. Tom has been having a very rough time lately, but when we are together he was happy. You’re being selfish for leaving him, I tell myself almost everyday but I think maybe it is time that I was. Even though the spring wind is warm, it causes me to shiver.
When I reach the meadow, I see Tom sitting by the pond-lake. He does not notice me yet, and I take a moment to observe, to see him happy before I come in and ruin it. He has grown very tall over the years, and is very lean. His shaggy hair still hangs in his eyes though. I have changed too, in so many ways that nine year old me would probably not even recognize the exhausted, some-what girly, 17 year old me. I am no longer a tomboy with crazy tangled hair. He finally notices me and waves. I take a deep breath and walk towards him.
“Hey,” I say, sitting besides him. “So… uh, how are you?” he shrugs in response and starts to play with the sand. “Tell me.” All I want to do is take care of him, and the fact that maybe things are not great for him makes it worse. Things are fine, really, he writes. Its just I’m 17, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I almost say he could get a job, but you have to talk to be able to do that. “I got accepted to Brown University.” I blurt out, not being able to hold it in. He smiles at me with pride, obviously not fully understanding what that means yet. “I start in the fall. I plan on taking psychology. I haven’t decided what else though.” I stare at him trying to force the words into his head. “It’s in Rhode Island, Tom. I’m leaving Connecticut.” I know it is too late to be gentle now, for I cannot stop the words from slipping out my mouth.
“Do you know what that means? I won’t be able to come able to come here anymore and I probably wont see you for a few weeks at a time. Do you understand?!” I do not know why I said it like that, with anger. I do not look in his eyes, for my heart already stings with guilt. But when I do look at him I do not expect what I see. He has stood up and paces along the bank. His face is filled with a jumble of emotions, anger, sadness, and confusion all flooding his eyes. His lips are moving and he is mumbling, as if trying to say something. “What, Tom, what is it?” Part of me is trying so hard to not let this turn into a fight. The other part yearns for it to, for him to push back at me, to yell at me. I stand and quickly walk over to him. He presses his hands to his and lets out a pathetic scream through clenched teeth. “Say it, Tom! I want you to say something.” I demand, but immediately regret it. I had never done that.
“N-no, no! You… c-cant leave me!!” he shouts at me, sounding strangled, with tears in his eyes. “I CANT BE ALONE AGAIN! PLEASE!!” He drops to his knees and I stand there, unmoving. I had not actually expected him to say something. I thought I would feel happy in this moment, that it would be progress, but looking at the state he is in, this was an outburst that probably would never happen again, and he is still as broken as ever.
After breaking from my shocked daze, I swoop down to him, taking his head in my hands and wiping away his tears. “Shhh, Tom, its okay. I’m sorry for yelling, I didn’t mean it.” I bring him into a hug, his head fitting in the crook of my neck and I rub his back. “We will still see each other you know, I’ll visit all the time, and hey, maybe you can visit me.” He lets out a low, grumbling sob and I know I’ll have to do better. “Maybe you can even come live with me! Come, and hell, even get a job!” I try so hard to believe the words I say, but it is more important hat he does. Do you really want that? A voice asks me. Of course you do! Tom is your best friend! I don’t know whether I truly want that. It would never work, and as much as I want to believe he will get better I have a hard time believing it. “Everything’s gonna be okay, Tom. It really is.” I lie. I pull away from the hug and Tom’s tears have dried, leaving his face red and puffy. “I’ve gotta get home. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I kiss his cheek and get up and begin walking away. I leave the meadow with an uneasy feeling eating away at my body.
When I make my way to the pond today I walk with determination, I cannot leave things the way I did. I plan on getting Tom help while I am gone so he won’t be alone. I called many different therapists in my town, making sure that I found the best one. The lady I chose is named Doctor Stevenson. She seemed very nice. I know Tom will probably never have a truly happy life for there are too many things in him that are unfixable, but I can try to make it manageable. The air is heavy with silence and an awful stillness. For some reason it brings me comfort and makes that uneasy feeling I had been having since yesterday worse, all at once.
I notice a commotion up ahead behind the trees and I see flashing lights. They oddly remind me of the tinsel that Tom and I strung up that Christmas many years ago. Did I go the wrong way? I don’t even consider that something bad has happened. I round the corner and what I see confuses me. My mother stands by the pond and there is DO NOT CROSS TAPE strung up around it. The flashing lights come from an ambulance and people rush all about. There are a few onlookers, none of whom I recognize and my mother talks to a cop. “Mom?” I shout and run towards her. When we meet she brings her hands to my shoulders. There are tears in her eyes. Fear spreads through me, like I have never known. “Mom, what’s going on?”
“I came down here looking for you when I…” That’s when I saw him. He is being pulled from the water. A man begins to cover him with a tarp but stops when another man comes up to talk to him. “I’m so sorry baby.” My mother says, sympathetically. I feel sick, like I could throw up. My feet run quickly towards him, but the rest of me is stuck in slow motion. I duck under the police tape but am held back by a burly policeman. “LET ME GO!!” I yell. A sob escaped my mouth, tearing at my throat in the process. I did not even realize that I was crying. My heartbeat pounds against my skull like a hammer hitting an anvil and I feel as though my heart will explode with anguish.
The policeman lets me go and I practically trip over Tom. I bring my hand to his head, feeling the soft, wet curls. I begin performing CPR and bring my lips to his, trying to breathe the life back into him. But this time it is not the same, his lips are too cold, and he does not cough up the water in his lungs.
“Someone help him!” I scream, a wild sob filling my throat. My mother wraps her arms around me, pulling me away. “No!! Let me go!!” I sob. My cries are constant now, and my head pounds. “He can’t be dead!! He’s not. He can’t!! ” I sob into my mothers chest, my own heaving uncontrollably. I never knew that my heart could hurt like this, like some monster was sucking the life from it. “He’s dead!” I don’t even realize that those unspeakable words came from my mouth. “And I wasn’t there! I wasn’t there! I wasn’t there!! I wasn’t there to save him!”
“Honey, this wasn’t your fault. You saved that boy everyday.” I know she means well but the words wash through me. Because I wasn’t there.
It has been 3 months since Tom died. He had gone for a swim, and tried to swim in the deep part but panicked and drowned. His funeral was terribly depressing. It was too small, me being the only one who actually knew him. My mother took care of me for the first month. I had to go to school for a while, but my days always resulted in tears. I probably stayed in bed for two weeks mourning him. Everything felt like a blur after he died, like I was watching my body do things, but did not remember wanting to do them. It did not feel like me, I felt like my body was someone else’s. My friends tried to help, but all I could think was that Tom would have made me feel better.
A peaceful calm falls over the meadow as the sun sets. I stick my feet in the pond-lake, the water bites at my toes at first, then becomes refreshingly cool. This is the first time I have been back here without crying. I stand and walk into the water, not bothering to remove my clothes. I feel like Tom is going to swim up beside me, splash me and wiggle his eyebrows. The thought spreads warmness through my body and I smile. I swim to the deep end and float, looking up at the color-streaked sky, like a painting. “I miss you, Tom.” I whisper. The wind begins to blow in response and I shiver in the cool water. I know now that no matter how hard I would have tried, I never would have been able to save him. He was too far gone, but at least I made him happy. I would finally be able to spend time on myself now, to rebuild myself. In a way I am glad he went the way he did. Our relationship started with the water, it was supposed to end with the water, too.