Short story: Of ropes and balances

It was the rope. That’s what he was thinking while the car tumbled down the hill like a tossed coin, the night sky going in circles with the ground over the dashboard.

The rope.

Someone ‘d told him that just before you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes – well, all he could see was the sky and the ground spinning, the cold air sucking and hurling through the broken windows, and he was pretty sure he was about to buy it – so no, scratch that theory. Too bad he wouldn’t be going back to tell them.

It was a long drop down the hill, a long drop to the rocks with the frothy waves, a long drop until the car filled up with water, a long till it sank to the bottom. A long drop and too much time to think about it, too much time to work it out, analyse it, whatever, too much time to change his mind.

But he had changed his mind, hadn’t he? Yeah, just like a second ago. Or not? Everything happened so fast that he hadn’t had any time to play catch up – but that thought got lodged there inside his mind that was tumbling like the car, it got stuck and, well, it wasn’t his whole life but it would have to do.

So his brain hit one of those rewind buttons and started flying back fast, fast enough to match the car’s fall, fast enough to play catch-up.

And there he was, he saw himself some half an hour ago, on his way out of “The Peel”, the last local bar that’d let him in for happy hour. He’d drank his twelve shots one after the other and he remembered thinking that Stoli didn’t do it for him anymore – well, nothing seemed to do it for him anymore; not Stoli, not pot, not sex, not gambling, not even that smack he’d scored from the French guy yesterday. And that’s when he’d figured it out. That’s how he knew.

See, he wasn’t no great philosopher or anything, but the way he saw it, life was like a rope; a stretched rope you held on to walk through the dark – that line always turned the ladies soft. And he believed it too, which made selling it easier. Anyway, you walked along in the dark, holding onto the rope, and either of two things happened: Sometimes you got all the way to end of it, and sometimes the rope broke, snap! and you were left standing in the dark with a loose end. Now if that happened, you could do three things: First, you could sit there like an idiot. Second, you could stumble along in the dark and try to find your way out. Or, three, you could try to find the other end, and tie the pieces back together.

As far as he could tell, he’d tried the first two.

The car came to a sudden stop on the rocks at the bottom, on its side like a dying animal. It stood there for a while, and he could hear the angry waves lapping on the hood, the wind hurling and making it teeter on the rocks like a cradle, pushing it to the sea, the sea pushing it towards the shore. Teeter-totter, between life and death.

One, two, three…

…four, five, si-

– the wind won.

The car tilted, metal screeching on the rocks, some more glass shattering, and it began to turn – to pivot, so that instead of the deafening splash he had expected, the car just slid quietly into the water, trunk first. Anticlimax. He laughed a little – story of my life.

… so when he’d finished throwing up after doing the Frenchman’s smack, he sat there with his face hung over the toilet, staring into his yellow thin vomit – hadn’t eaten anything real in weeks – and that’s when it first hit him, although his first thought had been that he needed his twelve shots to make it through the night.

So there he was, at “The Peel”, staring into his twelfth empty glass and it might as well have been the toilet, and that’s when he knew that his rope had come one way or the other to the end. It was like Harry the barman told him, all the booze in the world isn’t going to bring her back.

Darkness covered him, cold and salty, and then the water – icy, January, Atlantic black wet killer, it started from his back as the car sank backwards and slowly moved over his shoulders, his waist and started up his chest. He shivered and swore – had to be dramatic about it; a bullet through the brain wasn’t enough, had to be a tough guy. Too bad the Stoli was keeping him from freezing to death.

Won’t be long now, he thought, and that thought from before came back, colder than the water.

Had he changed his mind?

Did it matter?

He didn’t know if it did, but it beat watching reruns of his entire life.

He’d sat outside the bar, behind the steering wheel, his stomach doing hula-hoops from the smack, the vomiting, the Stoli and now from the idea he’d just gotten.

It wasn’t hard; for once there was something simple and easy. Just turn the engine on, head off toward the coast, up that turn that overlooks the ocean, build up some speed – his Ford could probably make sixty-seventy if he pushed it – and dive. Fly over the hill, clear the rocks below, hit the water and just let nature take its course.

So why’d he tumble down the hill instead?

In the cold water, he remembered something. Because at the last moment, heading at fifty-seven for the cliff, he’d baulked. His body kind of took over, his foot hit the break, his arms turned the wheel, and his right hand pulled on the handbrake.

He’d stopped, right on the edge.

Why?

Now, under the creeping black waters, shivers running through his body, he knew: It was what Harry had said, that short phrase he’d spat out at him like he’d done to hordes of other deadbeats, burnouts and screwups that came to “The Peel” to drink the pain away, it was that little cliché he’d said, all the booze in the world isn’t going to bring her back.

Somewhere between racing up the road and the cliff, maybe somewhere there the Stoli gave him a break and he’d realised the thin little wisdom of those words, he’d realised that if booze wasn’t going to bring his wife back, well, drowning in the Atlantic sure wasn’t going to do the trick either. And then he got another little zen thing, one that cleared his brain up.

Dying is bad enough, but dying for nothing, well, that really sucks.

His left hand groping for the door handle, his right for the seatbelt buckle – why’d he put that on anyway? – they both found their targets together, but only the belt came loose. The car had almost completely sunk beneath the surface and the water pressed on the door – equilibrium, they called it – and now that the icy wetness covered his nostrils, he began to feel the first pangs of panic. Given that he hadn’t felt anything except misery since his wife’s funeral, the sensation cut him like broken glass –

Glass. The window.

For a moment his heart calmed, though it could just be hypothermia.

Get out the window.

Huh.

Easier thought than done, but it wasn’t like he had many options – or time. He couldn’t see the stars above anymore; hell, he couldn’t see anything anymore except the narrow white light from the headlights ahead, and that didn’t seem to go very far, it couldn’t penetrate the darkness of –

– that’s what got him going. That idea of the car sunk and stuck at bottom of the pitch-black, and him trapped inside, freezing, drowning, gasping his last bubble breaths at the bottom, alone in the dark, only the crabs and fish and whatever else lived down there feasting on his bloated corpse – all that send a jolt through his spine and his faculties all came to life, Stoli and smack be damned.

Pushing with his legs, he managed to lift his body against the crushing weight of the water just as he sucked the last inches of air that’d gotten trapped underneath the roof. Pushing and pushing – his foot hit the gas and he heard the engine rev, even down here – he finally got off the seat, hit his head on the sealing, re-positioned himself, forcing down his breath so much that it made his lungs hurt, and he slid out the window.

Out of the car now, he felt disoriented. His chest hurt, his body demanding oxygen for all the muscle work he’d put in and he knew he wasn’t exactly a fit Coast Guard anymore – if he got out of this alive, he swore he’d quit smoking and hit the gym like a pop star. But he knew that sea water will lift you up – elevation, they called it – and half-instinctively he kicked and kicked like a frog, feeling like he was going to explode any moment.

All around him darkness and – his oxygen-starved brain still registered – an awful silence. Just a hum and a thump, probably the water and his heart.

The trapped air from his lungs began to push upwards now, filling up his cheeks, struggling to come out from his clenched lips. As he continued to kick, he knew that the carbon dioxide build-up from his exercising muscles would just keep on growing and growing until he wouldn’t be able to hold it down any more. And once it came out, it’d be a split second before passive inhalation caused him to suck in and drown. A vicious circle: The faster he swam to the surface, the faster his body would kill him.

All this was academic of course – training remnants of a lifetime in the Coast Guard.

He just kept kicking and kicking, and now he managed to put his arms into it. Upwards, always upwards, that haunting sensation of drowning like cement in his lungs, his chest heavy, his cheeks about to rip, his sight blurring – he felt like his eyes were going to pop out – just as his lips parted and he blew froth up his face, the water suddenly got thinner, lighter, and that split second before sucking in was enough to let him stick his face out in the air.

He’d never drawn breath like that before; he felt like he would never stop. But the powerful intake filled his lungs so fast that it almost seemed unfair compared to how long he’d held his breath for. His chest still hurt, and some salt water got in there and caused him to cough hard, breathing in, coughing out, he twitched like that on the surface for a while until his own equilibrium set it.

When it did, he felt exhausted. Hardly any strength to do anything now. But he got his bearings and he realised that he had drifted away from the rocks, so he pulled up what strength he had left and began to swim.

It felt like a small eternity until he covered the hundred yards to the rocks – the same sharp rocks that seemed so dangerous before now welcomed him like a mother… well, maybe not exactly, but his intoxicated, drug-struck, air-starved brain couldn’t come up with a better metaphor. Who cared? The balance was tipped again, death was now life and blah blah blah.

Get to the rocks. His shoulders ached, his back ached, his chest was on fire – but he still found it in there to laugh at himself, Mr Suicide, Mr Broken Down, Mr Stoli paddling for dear life like a sewage rat. And if anyone ’d seen the whole charade, that’s what they’d think, they’d think he’d chickened out, not enough booze, not enough smack – hell, not enough pain to carry through. Maybe check to see if he was leaving a brown trail behind him… but he knew. He knew, and he didn’t care what anyone ’d think of him and his pathetic Attempt To End It All.

Maybe it was a second chance – didn’t much feel like it, but maybe he’d just been delivered from himself. Heck, he could have hit those rocks on the way down – engine was still running, could have lit up the night sky. Or the car could’ve gone down head first. The seatbelt could have stuck. It could have been deeper; his lungs might’ve given in; a shark could’ve chewed a piece off his ass for all he knew, but no, he was still there, half dead but half alive too, and he could see the rocks a couple of yards ahead, and one, two, three, he was riding the waves like a surfer and he let them ease him onto a smooth flat top at the bottom of the hill, and he grabbed hold and wasn’t going to let go, no sir, not after he’d seen what was on the deep end of the abyss.

And as he clung there, breathing, laughing, thanking, crying – that’s when it hit him. It was the question he’d left unanswered on account of trying to save his life. But it was still there, and it was still foggy and as if his mortal coil didn’t have another thousand natural shocks to deal with, it began to gnaw on the back of his mind, call it professional instinct, call it crazy, call it whatever, but it was still there:

Why had his car gone down?

He’d stopped at the top of the hill. He’d hit the breaks hard and pulled the handbrake. He’d had second thoughts – he was clear on that. So what, (ha ha), pushed him over the edge?

The answer came to him as the headlights of the other car, the car that had crashed into his own shone on him from the top of the hill. The lights teetered there for a while and he looked at them dumbly, like a frog staring into a flashlight.

And then the lights moved.

It wasn’t that though, it was the sound of gravel that made him jump. The headlights began moving now, faster and faster towards him, and suddenly something surged through his veins and his aching muscles came back to life. Panic and irony biting at him, he looked around quickly but there wasn’t much space – or time – so three seconds before the car hit him, he just kind of stood up and jumped backwards into the water and swam away as fast he could.

He saw the whole thing: The car cleared the rocks and went seamlessly into the water, the driver’s head bobbing along unconsciously – or dead. But the passenger, a woman, suddenly sprang to life – must’ve been the water, and started to struggle as the car sank, she banged on the glass, tugged on the seatbelt, screamed and then disappeared beneath the surface.

In the moment of silence that followed, he only had one thought: The rope. The damn rope that gets cut and tangled and broken and whatever, his rope that he couldn’t find the other end, well, his thought was that maybe he – he, a drunk, burnout, wasted – well, maybe he could hold someone else’s rope together, keep it from snapping. Maybe that was his own lost end.

He was already swimming underwater, kicking hard, following the sinking headlights. Maybe he could get there in time. Maybe he could get her out in time. Maybe he could save her and himself. Maybe he could tip the balance.

He didn’t see it, but above him, dawn began to break.

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