From the first day of kindergarten to the last day of grade nine, I had a best friend. It was an intense, all-consuming friendship — think Heavenly Creatures without the matricide – and it ended as suddenly and intensely and all-consumingly as it began. She befriended a girl who had bullied me so viciously that I had to change schools and I, possessing less than admirable social skills — probably at least partially as the result of being bullied so viciously that I had to change schools — didn’t handle it well. I cut all ties and spent my entire summer vacation sobbing and listening to Bob Mould’s most biting and bitter songs.
I don’t know why I’m writing about this, though. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the subsequent two solid years I spent writing songs about broken friendships, death, guilt, and revenge.
The Drowned is probably my favorite angst-ridden cottage-based psychodrama from that period. It’s inspired by “Water” a deep cut from singer/songwriter Holly McNarland’s gold-selling 1997 debut album, Stuff, in the sense that I listened to the track about 6,000 times and then decided to write a story with water in it. But “Water” is a deeply haunting song that still gets under my skin almost 20 years later and avery worthy follow-up to her groundbreaking debut single, the almost incomparable “Stormy.” And The Drowned is, well, whatever this is.
PART FIVE: THE DROWNED
“How many times can you say good-bye?”
I shrugged and walked away. What was I supposed to say to him? Just this one last time? It would always be just one last time, and every time I completed it, there was another last time waiting for me.
It was starting to get cold already, maybe it was just the lack of bodies. It was so early in September, yet everyone had packed up and left already. Labour Day is the signal for cottagers to leave here, it’s an unwritten rule.
I’d been home again, yet it felt as if I’d become lost instead of found and ready for another year of routines. I convinced Andy to bring me up so I could attempt to try and find what I’d been looking for since the boat tipped over. He helped me, but only because he wanted to find what he’d lost since then, too.
I felt sorry for Andy as I left him behind me, and forgave his anger. He couldn’t have begun to understand the problem. He didn’t even want to know, I’m sure, he just wanted me back. If he’d been more conscious of that longing, he could have reached a little closer to me and helped to pull me out.
I slipped off my shoes and went down to the beach. My skirt blew against my legs as I pulled the metal boat out of the growth that had begun to overtake it and dragged it down the beach towards the lake. It was heavy, I was relieved when I reached the edge of the waves grasp. The boat rocked for a moment before settling into it’s position. I curled up in a ball beside it, resting my back on its side and my chin on my knees.
It was the same position I’d found myself in every night after my metal companion had caused the incident. I knew the exact angle to sit at so that no one could see me crying or just blankly staring at the nothing around me. If they didn’t see me, they wouldn’t try to pull me out of it. No one had tried this more than Andy.
Poor Andy was probably scanning the shore for me as I hid there. He always followed me, trying to pick up my pieces so he could replace the few he’d lost as a result. I’m sure he wore the same empty stare when I wasn’t looking.
I didn’t cry, not because I didn’t feel like it, but because I promised myself I wouldn’t. My throat was tight, I squeezed my fists together to stop the tears from draining out of me. Water of any sort can be so dangerous, even when it comes from you.
Some nights when I sat out alone I could practically hear the splashing of the boat and my struggle to keep afloat. In the early fall daylight, I could almost see the accident occur over and over again. I can only assume I’m seeing it’s an accurate description. I was right in the middle of it, and no one was on the beach to see it, except Andy, and he was with us soon after.
I didn’t hear footsteps behind me, but I wasn’t startled when I felt a hand on my shoulder. You couldn’t hear anyone coming anyway, I was on sand. I didn’t turn around, assuming it was Andy.
“So, you found me. Where else did you think I’d be?”
When Andy didn’t answer, I turned around. I was left breathless by what I saw.
“How soon you forget,” smirked the image.
I couldn’t believe that it was her. Holly was dead, I watched her drown. Yet, in front of me stood someone identical to her in all ways.
“I buried you,” I told her.
Thinking back now, I don’t know why I wasn’t happy to see her. Since the boating accident, I’d thought of nothing else but seeing her again. Facing my wish, however, I was not very impressed. I suppose I didn’t believe it.
“Did you?” She never clarified anything and refused to answer any questions about death.
She was so cold and she terrified me. In life, she’d been so friendly and cheerful. The change in personalities is what must’ve kept me from throwing my arms around my dear departed friend.
“What happened to the boat?” she asked me.
I pointed to it behind me, she shook her head.
“I meant, what happened to make the boat tip over?”
“It was a wave,” I responded. “You should remember that.”
“Should I? How did you escape unscratched?”
I tried to think of an answer. I wasn’t sure. I had asked Andy the same question, he tried to convince me that it was the side of the boat that I was on. I answered with his theory, having not developed one of my own.
“Do you believe that?” she asked, almost violently.
I shrugged. “I don’t know what to believe. In all honesty, I don’t have a clear memory of what happened.”
I thought Holly was going to laugh. She looked at me with a malevolent glare that made me jump to my feet.
“What’s the problem?” she asked. “Do you want to run from me?”
I shook my head, but took a step away from her. I called out for Andy. When I didn’t see him coming for me, I took off. I ran down the beach towards the park at the point. Holly and I had spent many a summer taking trips to that park. The one that fall day was the only one I didn’t find pleasurable.
I could see her behind me, not running, but casually strolling along. She wore a smirk, knowing that she’d catch up to me sooner or later. I ran faster, hoping to lose her. I did put some more distance between us, but I could still see her figure coming towards me.
What was I so afraid of? The dead could do me no harm. I can remember saying that to myself over and over again as I ran. I was gasping when I reached the park.
I had hoped to find someone in the park, but I wasn’t surprised when I found it empty. I ran for a stack of picnic benches in a pavilion, hoping it would provide some cover. I looked around and couldn’t see her. I tried to catch me breath and found myself breathing in a drip of liquid. I realized I’d been crying all the way down the shore.
I choked back the sobs and tried not to breathe, tried not to make a sound so that she couldn’t find me. I wanted to let it all out, but I was too afraid of Holly hearing me. I was convinced she would stumble over me in the end, but I remained silent nonetheless.
I waited for what seemed like an eternity and she didn’t show her face. I pushed my head between my knees and started to cry again. I was terrified, but that was not the only reason I was crying. I was starting to remember falling out of the boat.
I could see a wave coming towards Holly and me. I screamed out, but she seemed to ignore me. I didn’t think the wave was that big, but it was enough to tip the boat over, and for us to spill out. Holly went under, I tried to get to her, she wasn’t wearing her life jacket! I remember now. As I tried to move towards her, I breathed in too much water.
I jumped out of the memory with a choke. I really had inhaled more water, more of my own tears. I let them run down my face, comforted by the fact that they were silent. I thought of Holly again. Why hadn’t she been wearing her jacket? We always did. She knew better than that. Had I told her not to bother? Had I told her we wouldn’t go out too far?
I leaned back on one of the benches and opened my eyes. I saw Holly’s silhouette on the cold sand coming toward me. I crawled through the benches to the other side, where I couldn’t be seen from the beach. I began to think that maybe I hid from everyone, I was always moving so that I couldn’t be seen. I always tested out the angles where I’d be least visible.
This situation was different, though. Holly was offering me none of the comfort that I’d become accustomed to running from. I was terrified and that put me back on track with humanity. At least I was normal in some way: it’s natural to run from fear.
I knew she was coming, I could feel her like a chilling gust of air in a blizzard. It almost came as a relief, though. I knew she was coming sooner or later, and at least I could face it instead of continuing to hide.
“Why did you run?” she asked.
I looked up to see her standing in front of me. I stood up and moved away, never turning my back to her. “I was afraid.”
She laughed at me. “I think you still are.”
I could feel my breathing getting heavier, I just wanted to run. The tears continued to escape from me.
“What happened to make the boat tip over?”
I tried to remember. I could see the wave coming towards us. Wait a minute, it was a clear, calm day! Why was there a wave? Maybe I had made the wave up.
Holly became impatient and drew her own conclusions. “There was no wave. There was no wind that day.”
It was horrible. I was watching a ghost or some sort of image of one of my closest friends talking about her own death. She did it so bluntly, though, as if she were detached from the whole situation. I pictured her watching someone else and doing a play-by-play of their passing at the sidelines.
“I wasn’t wearing a life jacket. Did someone tell me I didn’t need one? That wouldn’t have been very nice. Imagine the guilt that someone would have to go through for the rest of their lives. They caused a death.”
“No, Holly. They wouldn’t have caused it. It was your final decision not to wear it, don’t blame it on me.”
Holly smiled as if she’d torn a confession from me. “I never said that it was you. You came to that conclusion on your own. Funny how you’d jump to that idea..”
“I never told you not to wear your life jacket,” I interrupted her.
She continued to smirk and laugh at me. “Do you feel the need to defend yourself? Why? You must feel as if you’ve done something.”
“I haven’t done anything!” I screamed. “But I can never convince you of that! I can’t win! In no way did I cause your death!”
With that, I turned and ran. I had no idea where I was going. I just wanted to get away. I went in a complete circle, too confused to devise a route of escape. When I stopped and caught my breath I looked back to the stack of benches. Holly was still there, watching me with a keen eye, the same grin across her face. I then knew there was no getting away.
I walked to the edge of the park, and sat down on a cement platform that overlooked the lake. I looked back to see Holly behind me, but I wasn’t as afraid anymore. It wasn’t her that was making my body tremble.
The water crashed on the rocks down below, there was wind that day. I don’t remember any wind when Holly was killed, but there were many other boats that day. Maybe a boat had caused the wave. Still, she should have been wearing her jacket, no matter what the weather.
I saw us in the boat again. Who had the oars? I couldn’t remember.Why couldn’t I remember? I seemed to have all the answers when it came to the effects of the incident, but the actual accident itself was still a mystery.
I hadn’t come to that conclusion on my own, it was Andy who helped me to figure it out. I could always find some kind of response as to why I should feel a certain way and why I should still grieve. He found this frustrating. I’m glad he hadn’t decided that it was an act of self-preservation, even though that’s the truth. Maybe my lack of answers concerning Holly’s death was for the same reason. This concept sent shivers up my spine. I wanted to forget about it.
Holly silently sat down beside me. Without words, she started to remind me of my lost friend. I wanted to put my arms around her and in between sobs tell her how much she’d always mean to me. I couldn’t do it, though. I struggled to do it, but my arms wouldn’t move.
I thought of Andy more with each second that passed. It was hard to think of much else with his voice reverberating in my head. Something he’d said to me on the way up was pounding at my brain, repeating over and over again.
“You know, she’s gone, but I miss you more.” He didn’t even look at me, just looked straight ahead, focusing on the road, his vision blurred by same liquid that had started our whole problem.
I hoped the car would go off the road, leaving him with only a few scrapes, leaving me fatally injured. He could understand then, I thought. If that happened, he would know the feeling.
How else could he understand that there’s more than one way to drown. Holly suffered from the conventional form, with her water-soaked lungs. My soul, on the other hand, had been drenched in guilt. The end effect was the same, if not worse for me. I knew Andy was still thrashing about in his losses, both Holly and I, but I had no way of rescuing him. How can the drowned rescue the living?
“If you tell me what you did to cause the accident, I’m sure you’ll feel better.”
I expected a lot of horrible things from the image of Holly. but I never expected her to say that. “I didn’t cause your death, Holly. It was an accident, we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time!”
“I was in the wrong place. You’re not going to admit to anything, not even some small fault?”
“I did nothing to cause the death, intentionally or otherwise.”
She leaned over me, forcing me into direct eye contact. “Nothing?” she breathed. “You know, you can drown in denial as well.”
I wasn’t sure if she was simply referring to her own death, or if she’d read my thoughts of mere moments before. Did she know what was passing through my mind?
“How’s Andy?” she asked, and then proceeded to answer my question. “I hear he misses you more, huh?”
I stood up, and backed away. Holly got up, with her back to the large plummet waiting behind her. In desperation I moved forward,and put my hands out, ready to send her over.
“Go ahead. I know you want to push me, but could you really live with killing me twice?”
“I didn’t kill you, Holly!” I screamed. “Whatever happened out there was not something I wanted to happen. I didn’t plan for it and I didn’t send us into that wave on purpose…”
“There were no waves. You’ve already said that.”
“What?” I was still screaming. “Do you think I pushed it over myself?! Look at me. I don’t have the strength.”
“Well,” she said, quietly prodding me. “What could have made the boat tip over? Something did.”
I could hear a voice from the beach. I looked over the edge of the platform to see Andy below us. He was calling for me.
I was in the boat again. It was calm and placid. Holly took her life jacket off, saying that she was going to jump into the water for a quick swim in a few minutes. I heard a noise, the sound of motors. I spun around to see the neighbors’ two kids on their wave runners. They were showing off for some friends on shore, doing some dangerous stunts and, oh my God, getting close to us!
“Go in! I’m scared!” one of us is screaming in the boat.
“Why do I know your thoughts, you ask. There could be a million explanations. Try this one on for size: I’m not really Holly. I’m something your own mind has created. Maybe I’m what your guilt has brought to you, do you think?”
Who was it screaming? The other wasn’t listening. The boat didn’t move. The wave runners were circling around us and getting closer. The boat should have been going in to shore. It was too dangerous.
If the boat wasn’t moving, then the person who didn’t want to go in was the one in control. It would be so easy, but I can’t remember who had the oars?
“Maybe I’m just the image you’ve created to help you exercise your demons. Do you suppose?”
Holly and I would take turns rowing the boat. We went out often, but we didn’t have a system of alternating rowing chores. I racked my brain, but couldn’t clearly picture who was in control of the boat.
“Go in! Please, I’m scared. I have a bad feeling about all of this. I don’t trust them!”
The voice kept yelling in my mind, replacing anything Andy had said to me. It could have been either of us who said it. We spoke alike. I clenched my fists, begging the voice to stop.
“Or maybe I’m just paying a friendly visit from the afterlife. But, then again, you don’t remember Holly being like this, do you?”
The voice kept yelling, and continued to be ignored, the boat remained in its position in the water. I couldn’t visualize the hands that held the oars! The machines moved closer and closer, and then, the younger boy slipped. He fell off and his wave runner came toward us. The engine stopped, but not soon enough. It had made enough motion in the water for the wave to pull it towards our boat and tip us.
Water splashed everywhere, I breathed some in. I saw Holly, tried to move closer to her, and then things went black. I woke up to Andy’s face hovering over me. I was laying down on the beach. He told me what had happened to Holly and I can remember screaming out.
“The water wasn’t that deep!”
I woke from the memory to see Andy on the beach. He’d promised to always be there and I always seemed to awake from the nightmare to his face. I wished he could wake me from the real nightmare, but I knew it was impossible.
I ran down the stairs found beside the large concrete block, right into Andy’s arms. He answered to my scream the same way he had the first time I’d said it.
“People drown in bathtubs.”
Holly stood behind Andy, with that same horrible smile in her face.
“Why do you run from me? I can’t even touch you.”
I started to cry again.
“We’ll get over this together,” Andy comforted me. I wanted to believe him.
“You can’t see her, can you?”
Andy looked around, and turned so that he was facing Holly.
“See who?” he asked.
When he turned back, he found me knee deep in the water. I hadn’t even swam once since our accident. Water had scared me, but now I knew that was the least of my fears.
I stood frozen, just looking at the frail creature I’d left on the sand. We were very similar before the accident, but after we’d become almost one in the same, both so fragile and broken. There was nothing that could fix me, but he could be helped. Unfortunately, the only thing that could repair him was me. I had a very hard choice to make.