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Peer Work

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By Sophie Verbrugge
Genre: Fiction Level: High School 10-12
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

Wind, soft, gentle, cold, brushed its fingers across his cheeks. The grey-blue eyes, once so full of energy and determination, were dull, dead, focused on the surging surf oh so many feet below him- and, as ever, his goal. Just a different goal now. A simple goal, really. For it to be over. For this suffering, this guilt, this war on the inside, to simply cease to be. How long had he been fighting it, in truth? How long? A few months? A year? Ever since he'd found the letter resting on her pillow two years prior? Or even before that, even before he'd known what would become of her, what would become of him?

This was not the first time he'd asked himself this question. And, as ever, he had no answer.

Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Eyes shut to the press of the wind on his face he moved, smoothly, effortlessly, over the guardrail and started to pick his way down the rocks to the roll of grey blue on the black pebbles below, pulling out, rushing in, then hurriedly drawing back again, as if desperately wanting something on shore but being so completely terrified of ifs and buts to take the chance and go for it, with everything they had.

Funny, he couldn't help but think as the wind tried to pluck him from his perch, that he and those waves had so much in common. Here he was, so close to his goal, so close to getting the voice and power that he'd dreamed of having for so long, yet he held himself back- what for? Some sort of humility that said he didn't deserve it- the same sort of humility that wanted him to come clean, to shout out to the world that he'd been lying, lying to them all? Was it the guilt that never failed to point out that when he spoke, he was speaking against those just like him? Was it fear? Fear of what might happen when he next opened his mouth to the microphone and the thousands of people listening, fear that it might all just come spilling out, that he wouldn't be able to keep it hidden anymore?

He was not the person he pretended to be.

But was he not one of many? Many, many, many who had different personalities on stage than in reality, who kept secrets from their fans the same as he did? Could he take no comfort from them?

Deep down, he knew he could not. Stage personalities were one thing- what he was doing? Worse. Far worse. He was everything he spoke against- or had been. What's the difference between what one was and what one is? What's the difference, once it's damage has already been wrecked? There was no way to undo the done. There was no way to unsay the said. There was no going back in time. He could continue on this path, of pretending not to be the one to blame, of pretending to be the victim, but for how long? How long could he lie to his people in such a way? How long could he keep his dark past hidden? How long would he be able to keep up this charade of a fake, wounded, honorable motivation? How long until the world knew?

There was no way to tell. There was no way to know. He'd just have to wait and see.

Grey, black, tan, white, orange, red; the colors, rough and hard and sharp, passed beneath his toughened, callused palms, fingers seeking out the grips he knew would be there, from so many prior practices. Perched upon a boulder at the bottom of the cliff face, he stripped off his shoes and socks and shirt and rolled his jeans up, shivering at the bite of sea air and staring up at the sky- a sky so blue, so light, light blue, one could've spent hours debating whether it was truly blue or rather white. Blue or white, white or blue, or somewhere in between? Sitting at the edge of the rolling grey blue, staring up at the white blue- beautiful. Beautiful and painful. Beautiful and lost.

Two days. In two days, he would get his first big chance, his first big speech, his first real shot at making a difference. Speaking up, speaking out. For teenagers. For his friends.

For his sister.

Just as always, it was that thought that broke through, the final straw that made the weight too much, the guilt too much. Guilt for lying. Guilt for pretending. Guilt for what he'd done. Grey blue eyes wide open, he stared at the now blurry sky as salt water drops slipped down each cheek, just one on either side- first the right, then the left. "Sorry." The word, meant to be spoken aloud, made not a sound, as if it refused to break the sacrality of this place. Wiping the water from his cheeks with the heel of his palm, he slid forward and dropped off the boulder, standing barefoot in pebbles shiny with that which had claimed his sister. Little sissy. Baby sissy. Sixteen years old then but still the little one from his four year vantage point. Still the little one, two years later, two years too late for him to do what he really wanted to do.

As he stepped forward the waves rushed over his toes, as if sensing a partner in crime and welcoming him home. The cold was a shock, enough that it made him pull in a sharp breath even at the small envelopment of his feet. Cold. Numbing. No wonder she'd chosen here.

No wonder he was here.

Fueled by the press of the guilt and the weight, he plunged forward at a run, to ankles, to shins, knees, thighs. The coldness soaked into his rolled up jeans and stained them a darker blue as he gasped in shock, just in time for his numbed feet to stumble and drop him under the surface. Brown hair turned black at the touch of the glacial water, cold turning to freezing and, slowly, turning to not really quite so bad, some odd combination of cold and warm that wasn't quite comfortable, but was tolerable, and was growing more comfortable. His head broke the surface, strands of black brown hair clinging to cheeks that now had more than just one drop of saltwater each. He hadn't meant it, of course he hadn't. He'd thought he was being constructive, when he'd said those things. He'd thought he'd just been joking, having fun.

It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. It's all fun and games until someone dies. It's all fun and games until someone kills themself.

Back under. Woosh- the water rushed over his head, frigid again, but this time it was a mystery whether or not he went down accidentally. Everything he said, everything he did, every step he'd taken, had been a desperate attempt to ease the terrible fire that had been consuming him, an attempt to apologize and take back what he'd done. But he couldn't. He'd bullied her and she'd died and she was never coming back.

No longer could his feet find the bottom. No longer could he keep his eyes open. No longer was there any cold- just the warmth, and the gentle pulse and pull and push, the breath, of the whatever it was that surrounded him. This wasn't so bad, he supposed. Could certainly be worse.

Birds called. The waves pulsed. A boat revved, somewhere off in the distance.

He rested there, slowly releasing the tension from all his muscles and sinking back into the breathing substance surrounding him, the warm cold, the caw of the birds, the buzz of the boat engine. The warm cold enveloped him, and he tried to breathe for just a moment- just long enough to realize that he couldn't. Dull, foggy, he tried to search for the air, but his limbs wouldn't respond. He sunk back.

Pulse. Pulse.

Cawww, cawww!

Rrrrrrvvvv . . . .


* * *

A smooth, quiet rumble hovered at the edge of his consciousness. At first just a slight sound, it became more solid, until he could almost feel it- the barest of bare vibrations. Beneath his cheek was something soft, another something smooth- leather. Eyes still closed, he blinked. His arm twitched, involuntarily, hand brushing against the fuzz of something laid over him. Where was he? What had happened? He tried to summon the strength to search his foggy memory for events leading up to here, an explanation for why and how and really even where in general- but it was too dense, too far buried, and he gave up, sinking back against the whatever it was he was lying on.

For a while longer, though he couldn't tell how much a while was, his consciousness drifted, sometimes present, sometimes not, and sometimes in between- and the whole time, that gentle rumble stayed, just in the back of his mind. It wasn't until that rumble stopped that he finally started to gather himself. Forehead dipping down into a small frown, he moved, trying to force gummed shut eyelids open, drawing deeper under the fuzzy something that had been placed over him.

"You awake back there, lad?"

The voice, pleasant and friendly and slightly accented with Irish, gave him the final push to get his eyes open. From where he was, and what he could see, he figured he was in a car- the face that belonged to the voice peered back at him from the driver's seat, blue eyes bright and vivid and mouth tilted in a smile. Still fighting the fogginess, he tried to push himself up, but the young man- he couldn't have been much older than himself, only a year or two, really- reached back and coaxed him down. "Careful, lad. Just take it easy and rest up. You're lucky it wasn't any worse- bloody stupid idea that was, you know, swimming out there ages away from everythin'. Coulda been seriously hurt, you know."

Slowly, he blinked, letting his eyes stay closed for a moment before opening them again to the strange, sideways picture. "Where . . ?"

"Saw you climbing down the rocks and get in the water, just a few miles back, I imagine. Saw you go under, too, figured I'd better give you a hand. Boatin' out there all the time, I've learned to be prepared for anyone who falls in- got a ton of emergency med stuff for people the likes a you. Like I said, it coulda been a lot worse. You were cold, but not seriously so- fainted from shock or stress be my guess, not hypothermia. What's your name, lad?"

"Ben." Swallowing past a thick throat, he forced his name out but kept his eyes turned down. The likelihood of this man knowing him? Not that high. He was mainly a local speaker, didn't have that much influence outside his own little city. Until, hopefully, two days from now. But just because the likelihood wasn't high didn't mean it was impossible.

Across from him, still turning back in his driver's seat to look at him, his savior smiled. "Like that name- Marcas is mine. Do you want some tea, Ben? It doesn't taste the best, you ask me, but it'll help you warm up and that's the important thing." Shifting in his seat so his body was turned to face him rather than just his head, he held out a stainless steel travel mug, and when Ben tried to push himself up this time he didn't stop him. Of course, he only made it so far- just to propping himself up on his elbow- before Marcas figured it was enough. "Take it easy." Cautiously, he pressed the cup into Ben's hand and withdrew his own, but not too much- it hovered near him as if prepared to help him if he needed it. "How are you feeling?"

Around the lip of the cup, Ben mumbled, "Fine." Warm tea flooded his palate a second later and he, unlike Marcas, liked tea so the taste of steeped chamomile and mint and a hint of sugar was a godsend. For a moment he let it rest on his tongue, eyes closed to the welcome warmth and flavor, before swallowing it and reluctantly bringing himself back to his current situation. This one was going to be a hard one to get out of. What was he supposed to do, what was he supposed to say? He couldn't risk anyone finding out about this and taking it the wrong way, not so close to such a big speech- the potential hypocrisy could ruin him. He made such a big deal about not getting swamped, about not pushing one's own biggest assets away . . . if people thought he'd walked into that water with the intention of dying . . .

The scariest thing, the reason he wasn't sure if he'd be able to effectively deflect any accusations of such, was that he wasn't one hundred percent sure that he hadn't.

"Listen, lad, you're not the first person I've seen get caught in that water, but you are the first I've seen go in purposefully. What were you doin' out there? Are you local? Do you know how dangerous it is?"

The blue eyes sought his out, not a trace of accusation or suspicion in them, just curiosity- slightly concerned curiosity. Meeting them was like holding the like sides of two magnets together. No matter how hard he tried to hold his gaze, his own eyes kept dropping away. "I'm not local here, but I live in Alaska. I know that it's cold, I know that it's dangerous. It's just that I've done this sort of thing before and I was fine so I figured-"

"Lad, if you were fine from jumping in that water before you got lucky. That's not something to mess around with. People have died from stunts like that."

"I know. I just-"

"It's not just. It's a lot more than just. It's your life, Ben. All the possibilities you have for your future mean a bloody lot more than anythin' else. How old are you?"

Uncomfortable and guilty under the pressure of how much his savior seemed to be affected by this, Ben wilted slightly under Marcas's words and unwavering stare. He shrugged, turning his face to the side to keep his expression hidden and mumbling around the mouth of the travel mug again, "Twenty two."

"The age of potential. Young adulthood. So much passion, so much power, without the cynicism of years of failure- lad, look at me."

He didn't want to. He could feel now, for real, the pressure finally building up and pushing at him, pushing at the edges of his tolerance, pushing hard enough that he felt like he was going to break. Who was to stay he hadn't suffered through years of failure already? He'd suffered through middle school in a family deep in debt. He'd suffered through losing his sister. He'd suffered from doubts from everyone around him, from his parents, from his friends, from himself- he'd suffered. Why wasn't he allowed to be cynical? Why did he have to keep at it, just because he was young?

"Ben, I'm serious. You, me- we're in the same boat here. Life isn't easy, lad. We've made our mistakes, both of us, but that's not to say that we can't move past ‘em and learn to be more than the limitations we give ourselves. Mistakes are in the past, and nothin' we do is ever gonna change that place, but dwellin' on it will only paint your future the same shade. Trust me. You might've suffered through failure and loss before, but the point is that we still have the chance to turn it around. We have the chance to break bad habits before we even make them. Don't make your past your future. I've seen it destroy people before and I don't want that to happen to you too."

Thoughts tumbled inside Ben's head, thoughts of despair and guilt but also of hope and the want to believe him, to accept that there might be a way for him to know that there was no going back to save his sister but being okay with it- being okay with simply saving others like her. He wanted to. He wanted that to be enough. But how could it be? He shut his eyes and dropped his forehead to the rim of the travel mug, the heat of the tea working through the ceramic to gently kiss his skin. "It's not easy, Marcas. It might be harder if I were older but that doesn't make it easy now."

"I know." Gently, he rested his hand on Ben's back, a physical support to back up his words. "I know."

Neither said anything more for a long while, the silence filled with the gentle crash of waves on the shoreline of the road, and the birds still cawing and every once in awhile the rev of a boat engine as it passed. As the young men sat there in the small blue car parked at one of many bathroom posts along the stretch of roadway, one lying in the back while the other gave his support from the front, the world continued to turn, time continued to pass, and life continued on, for both of them, and for every person they were affiliated with. For the suspended moment that they sat there in the car, people died, people were born, people cried, people laughed, and people did everything in between, all in that small little moment forever suspended in their time. Ben recognized it, then, how much was out there and how much could happen all at once and how many lives there were out there, all living in and breathing in this very moment. For how many of them would this be their last one? How many of them were happy with what they were doing? How many of them were letting their past control them?

Ever since his sister had died, he'd let his past control him. Didn't he have the proof at hand that he wasn't who he had been before? He was about to speak to an audience of hundreds, and even more would be watching on TV. This was his biggest chance to make a difference in the world but his own fear had been holding him back. What for? She'd have wanted him to help those like her. And he'd want to help those who were like him to understand that it's completely possible to change, before things get out of hand.

He turned his head to the side, meeting Marcas's blue eyes straight on for the first time. "Thank you."

He smiled. It was a genuine look, that smile- one that really didn't have an explanation, but when one thought of what a smile is supposed to be and look like and make one feel, that would be exactly what they'd picture. "Don't mention it, lad. We all need to be rekindled every once in awhile."


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