The being who appeared before us in the river that night was radiant with stars. Around her, the air prickled with the sound of distant oceans, and she moved and circled restlessly in the way water won’t keep still.
But it was her eyes that made me catch my breath. They were a wild wind – buffeting, disorienting, giving us nowhere to look and nothing to hold on to.
Before I could even glance over to see my best friend’s reaction, the air all around us folded into water. The trees we’d been camped under, the bushes, the grass beneath our feet – all were underwater as though it was how the world had always been.
We were breathing water. It ran through our veins. Our very beings exulted, and it was how we were born to be! The world of air retreated to memory – vanquished, heavy, discarded.
We floated, folded, rippled, stretched and kicked in the water. It was speckled with starlight. We could see everything in sparkling clarity. We laughed as joy and disbelief washed around us. We spun, arced, floated.
The being smiled a smile of another place.
Her eyes fathomless, she beckoned us to follow.
We paused. In the way you do when you suddenly doubt the treasure before you – ice cream, the high grade on a maths test, when your crush smiles at you.
The being tilted her head and her hair full of star specks swirled around her. The movement somehow suddenly reminded of my little brother – a thought which slipped unexpectedly towards me as though he had again missed his footing on a canal. My heart lurched with him and like I did on that day by the canal, I lunged towards the thought of him with both hands.
The being beckoned again.
I held the thought of my little brother tight. The feel of his hand clutching mine with all his strength. Dragging him to safety. Keeping him safe.
I didn’t want to, but I had to. I shook my head. Just once.
Beside me, my best friend laughed. And nodded joyfully.
Suddenly the world was air and sound again. The trees dripping wet in the moonlight, birds chittering indignantly to each other, my clothes sodden on my skin, our camping gear all soaked, the grass soggy underfoot.
I gulped in a breath and got slowly to my feet, my movements heavy and clumsy. I inhaled again. And again, and again. Forgetting to exhale. Trying to make the world be upright again.
I wiped a cold, shaking wrist across my forehead to get my hair out of my eyes. I didn’t have to look around to know that I was alone.
My best friend was gone.
I never saw him again.
Backstory: More of a start of story, but still a stand-alone (pun unintended ;-)) I wrote a Twitter version of this a couple of years ago, and the illustration is one of my painting collaborations with LittleOne that I pushed through my Photoshop Express app a few dozen times.
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