Because the truth was, I wanted to keep ignoring the signs. The temptation to look the other way, to pretend I didn’t recognize him, was overwhelmingly strong. Even as I stared him in the eye, I just wanted to disappear. I wanted to return home, pretend like none of this had ever happened, and wait for my normal friend M, the friend who wasn’t too busy inventing conspiracy theories to remember to bathe, showed back up in my life. It’s not fair, I know. I wasn’t being fair at all. Especially since I didn’t even manage to hide my shock. His face became a self-conscious mask, reflecting the horror and shock on my own, and it was immediately clear I had blown my chance at helping M before I was even aware that help was needed. I felt like an ass, but we held a conversation anyway. I spent most of it babbling like a distracted 8 year old, plucking details from miscellaneous anecdotes and weaving them haphazardly together in an attempt to fill the heavy air between us.
When I was finally brave enough to ask M about his life, his answers left me speechless. Maybe it was because the internet smoke screen had vanished, or maybe it was a sign that he had progressed to a level beyond shame, but his answers displayed a level of honesty I was beginning to realize he had been withholding for months. The academic way with which he spoke about mermaids made it clear he had brazenly crossed the line of reality and into fantasy. He candidly shared his struggles to be accepted within the academic circles to which he clearly felt entitled, and shared about his plans to take his research more seriously. It was this last point that triggered the loudest alarm bells. The way he discussed his theories connecting ocean life with immortality, human pollution to declining life cycle rates, and a way to reach the hidden mer-culture through some type of Leap of Faith–none of it made any sense. In a flash, my friend had somehow transformed from the recognizable character I played Halo with on my days off and into a person I typically cross the street to avoid. I had no clue what to do.
So I left. Granted, I left because of an extremely important and unavoidable phone call, but still. I burn with shame at the memory, but even still I don’t know if I would have done anything differently. I tell myself I would, but only to give me comfort. I left him with the understanding that I would return within the hour to continue our conversation. I lied. The phone call was over within minutes, and wasn’t ever crucial enough to warrant my disappearance. But I needed to leave, I convinced myself. I planned to spend the hour alone researching options for M–finding support and answers on how to best proceed in these uncharted waters. I knew I was in over my head. Overwhelmed with obligation, I spent the hour in denial, sitting mutely in a coffee shop. I spent the following hour in my car, racked with waves of guilt. By the time I returned to the beach, I was begging a God I didn’t even believe in to fix the problem for me. That turned into the most painful lesson about proceeding with caution towards what you wish for.
When I returned to the beach, M was nowhere to be seen. It was nearing sunset and the beach was deserted, save one soul apart from myself. An old man, clearly homeless and accustomed to rough living, was standing at the water’s edge, peering with an unexpectedly focused expression. He looked like the sort that M would blend in with, I remembered thinking cynically. For that reason I approached him, hoping he might remember when M left, and possibly even in what direction. When I asked the man, he seemed to ignore me completely and continued to stare almost aggressively out across the water. Thinking maybe he hadn’t heard me, I raised my voice and started over. Still immobile, the old man flicked his eyes towards me judgmentally, and successfully silenced me. I felt like a fool. He raised his arm and pointed towards the ocean, at what looked like a log. My heart dropped to my knees in what was the most singularly horrific sensation, one I would never wish on anyone. The man opened his mouth to speak, and I visibly winced in equal parts anticipation for the inevitable and sympathy for his dry lips, cracked and bleeding with ever word. He told me in the practiced yet garbled slur of the perpetually drunk that my friend was about to prove us all wrong. That he was going to find the proof, I suppose in the form of immortality, and return from this Leap of Faith to show us all up.
My heart hadn’t yet moved from within the confines of my quivering knees before I was undressing, abandoning my shoes and coat in preparation of my swim. I may be a fairly confident swimmer, but have no doubts that I was petrified. I may feel intolerable levels of guilt and shame regarding my behavior to M over the past months, and, more specifically, the past few hours, but I will hold firm on this one point. Despite the fear, the cold, and the panic that drummed heavily through my body, not once did I hesitate. I ran into the ocean without a second thought and swam like mad through the burning cold water towards my friend.
He was out further than I had originally estimated, and by the time I reached him I was losing confidence in my ability to return at all, much less towing him alongside me. Madness spurred him on with inhuman force. When I reached him, his face was enflamed with electric energy. He turned to face me, his expression alit with manic joy at my presence. M rambled, mostly incoherently, and I was too exhausted to listen. I grabbed his hand to begin to guide him back to shore, but he pulled back with greater force, taking me with him towards his suicidal Leap. I was too numb from the cold and exertion to exercise my jaw in protest, weakly pulling him again towards the direction of land. It was useless, though, and all my shame and guilt turned to rage as this insane shell of my former friend carried me further into the deadly blue waters. Rage turned to adrenaline turned to terror in a matter of seconds, burning through my body and leaving a charred, hollow mess behind, one far too exhausted to struggle as together, we drowned.