Very loosely based on Sean's film 'The Surface'. Warning for talk of suicide.
I set out in the Louisa that morning fully intending never to come back.
The experts say that people who are serious about committing suicide can't see any way out of their troubles. That was certainly true of me at the time. By my lights, I had failed at everything: my job, my relationships, my finances, my life. Left myself with no option but to crawl back to my family home in Wisconsin, a home that held little of nostalgia for me but one hell of a lot of bitter memories.
It's difficult now, in retrospect, to believe that I ever reached such a nadir of despair. But the fact remains: I meant never to return. What changed my mind? I suppose you could say it was a miracle. A miracle of blue.
More than one person at the McKinley Marina that day warned me that it was no morning to go out on the lake. But the weather conditions were of no interest to me, so I ignored them and went methodically about the task of launching the Louisa. I backed the trailer down the boat ramp into the water, turned the rusty winch to lower the boat, and tethered her to the dock. Then I got back in my car and parked it in the marina lot. I wondered, without much interest, how long car and trailer would sit there before anyone noticed that no one had ever come to claim them.
I returned to the Louisa, climbed in and cast off, balancing myself instinctively against her rocking motion. I left the engine raised and instead shipped the oars and started to row. My dad had always insisted that I row out of the harbor, to 'toughen me up' as he put it, but what he meant was to 'make me into a real man'. As if gay guys weren't real men, and I suppose to him they weren't.
The oars were smooth under my palms, the wood worn from years of handling. But even so, they soon raised blisters at the base of my fingers. Once I'd had calluses there, thick and tough enough to drive a pin into without feeling so much as a prick as the sharp point penetrated the skin. I'd grown soft during my years in LA.
The click of the oarlocks as I rowed was rhythmic and regular, the oars' blades dipping precisely in and out of the still, glassy water, cutting through it like a hot knife through butter. Muscle memory; my body knew exactly how much pressure to exert through each stroke, even though it had been years since I'd taken the Louisa out on Lake Michigan. But soon enough the rhythm faltered as my over-taxed muscles quivered in protest.
Cursing my softness, I unwillingly imagined my father's reaction to it, and the manner in which he would have expressed his disappointment, the same manner in which he always had when I disappointed him: with crafty blows carefully aimed at spots where no one could see the bruises they raised. The man had been dead for five years, but his baleful influence lingered. No matter; I'd soon be free of it and him forever, I thought, and took up the oars again.
In starts and stops I propelled the Louisa through the misty harbor, rowing until the blisters burst, leaving raw, abraded flesh behind, and my muscles screamed in silent agony. Still I pushed on, only stopping when even one more stroke was simply beyond me. Then I finally shipped the oars and sat hunched over, elbows on my thighs, winded and gasping for breath. Eventually I straightened, shifting uncomfortably, rolling my neck and trying to ease the burning ache between my shoulder blades. I wondered why I bothered.
I rose stiffly to my feet, removing the oars from the locks and placing them in the bottom of the boat before starting the outboard engine. It took several turns of the key to start it, but eventually it sputtered to life and I took the wheel, skirting a sign that read 'SLOW NO WAKE', resisting the urge to gun the engine in a final, pointless act of defiance.
Only when I cleared the stone jetty and reached the open water did I increase my speed and turn the boat's prow east-northeast. It had been years since I'd taken the Louisa out, but once she had been like a second home to me, a refuge in fact, and as I steered her with unconscious expertise, it was like reconnecting with an old and dear friend. My very last friend.
The water beyond the harbor was choppy, and the Louisa's engine whined and her hull slapped hard against the swells. But she dutifully carried me further out into the lake, toward the misty horizon where gray sky and gray sea kissed. I neither heard nor saw any evidence of other boats out on the lake. But then the weather was too miserable for the pleasure seekers - which was precisely why I set out when I did. The last thing I wanted were any witnesses or good Samaritans to try and stop me.
The mist thickened, ghostly tatters shredded by the Louisa's prow hanging around me like cobweb - or widow's weeds. Every breath emerged from my mouth as a small cloud of white that dissolved fast as cotton candy on a child's tongue. I had an almost preternatural awareness of those breaths, of the inflation of my lungs as I inhaled, followed by the slight parting of my lips and the rush of moist air past them as I exhaled. My final breaths, I thought, with a strange sense of detachment. But the very last would be the one to fill my lungs with cold lake water and then... oblivion, or whatever came after oblivion. I was soon to discover the answer to the ultimate mystery. But I felt no dread. I felt... nothing.
Because I didn't fear death. What frightened me was the future: forlorn, lonely, gray as the mist that enshrouded me. 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light,' Dylan Thomas had written, but I had no rage left in me, only the crumbling wick of a candle burned down until it was nothing but a shapeless lump of wax.
Death by drowning was easy, or so I'd read - like falling asleep. But that wasn't why I'd chosen it. All my life I'd had a love-hate relationship with Lake Michigan. To love the lake was easy; some of my happiest hours had been spent on it as a child, when my mother was still alive and we sailed and swam and dreamed. But even more miserable hours had been spent on the lake as a teenager after my mother died, enduring my father's brutal tutelage on his fishing boat. Any leniency or mercy in his heart died with Mother, and he tried his damnedest to make a fisherman out of me and cure me of my homosexuality at the same time. Hard work and harder fists could turn me into a man, he'd believed - the kind of man that he considered acceptable, that is. In the end, he'd cured me of nothing, but he'd surely taught me how to hate. I got to where I couldn't abide the sight of the lake and wanted only to get as far from it as I could. But Lake Michigan had been my father's life's blood, and his father's before him. It struck me as an elegant and suitably ironic end, to drown myself in the water that he'd fished for a living.
If I felt any pang of regret, it was for the Louisa. Probably the only good thing my father ever did was to give her to me when I was fourteen. I'd christened her the Louisa in a fit of rebellion. That was the name of the German gunboat in the movie The African Queen that Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, or rather their characters, torpedoed and sank. I figured my father wouldn't get the reference, and he didn't, but in truth she was a good boat, and deserved a better fate than a watery grave. With luck, someone would find her adrift or she'd eventually wash up on shore. Perhaps my lifeless body would do the same, or it might never be found. I'd left no suicide note behind, there being no one to read it, so it would be as if I'd simply vanished. Perhaps someday an old lover or friend from my LA days would wonder, 'Whatever happened to Sean?' and never know that I'd long since departed this world.
The mournful clanging of a buoy bell echoed through the mist. Bring out your dead, it seemed to call, and an occult shiver ran through me.
I bent to untie my running shoes with aching, abraded fingers, but stopped as the utter absurdity of my action hit me. You only removed your shoes if you were hoping not to drown. A flicker of uncertainty rippled the surface of my calm facade, the first to trouble me since I'd left the house. But I'd come too far to sustain any doubts now.
It was time.
I was about to cut the engine when something struck the Louisa with enough force to topple me to my knees. I let out a startled 'fuck' and, reaching up, turned the key. The engine fell silent, but a metallic screeching replaced it as the boat's hull passed over whatever had struck it. Abruptly the boat was free, but with who knew what damage? I climbed unsteadily to my feet and peered around me. The water was littered with detritus bobbing in the water. I began to make out the shapes and with horror realized that they were pieces of a plane. Another fuck escaped me. I'd stumbled over a plane wreck.
I can honestly state that from that moment on I didn't give a single thought to my reason for being there. My only concern was the fate of whomever had been in the plane. It didn't look good, but I had to try and discover if there were any survivors.
I cupped my throbbing hands around my mouth and shouted, "Is anyone out there? Can you hear me?" The words died quickly away, deadened by the mist.
I repeated the call many times, but no one answered. I strained my ears, but heard only the slap of water against the Louisa’s hull as she rocked, and an occasional loud thump when another piece of wreckage bumped into her. The mist was so heavy that my clothes were sodden and rivulets of water trickling down my cheeks. All the better to help me sink swiftly and finally beneath the surface, but I couldn’t jump yet, not until I knew for certain that no one had survived.
You may think this odd of me. Why should I care? After all, who had cared about me? I can’t explain it, but in retrospect I suppose that I was clinging to the dregs of self-respect: to take my own life at the possible expense of someone else’s seemed cowardly beyond belief. Or perhaps, like my instinctive move to unlace my sneakers, it was another sign of uncertainty about my decision. I like to believe it was the former rather than the latter, however.
I don’t know how much time had passed when an object loomed up in the mist, about twenty yards ahead and to starboard. As the Louisa drifted nearer, I saw that it was the fuselage of a small engine float plane, the tail pointing straight up from the water. It was by far the largest piece of wreckage I’d yet seen. Floating near it was one of the wings and a dark shape was draped across it. A human shape. The person was face down and absolutely motionless, legs trailing into the water, one arm flung across the curve of metal, a red backpack resting beside him. Whoever it was might be dead, probably was dead. I had an irrational, superstitious terror that I was looking at myself.
Grabbing one of the oars, I stood in the bow and paddled furiously toward the wing. “Hey,” I shouted. “Hey, are you okay?”
I paddled as close as I dared. “Hey, c’mon, wake up,” I pleaded. “Can you hear me? Wake up!” With inexpressible relief I heard a low moan and the dark head slowly turned. I saw a face, livid and bruised, but clearly that of a man. “Grab the oar,” I said, leaning over the side of the boat and extending it to him. I hoped he wasn't too badly hurt to move, because I didn’t want to risk leaving the safety of the Louisa and possibly dooming us both. "Do you understand me?"
He nodded, hooked his arm into the strap of the backpack and let himself slide into the water. He floundered, but somehow swam a few feeble strokes and looped an arm over the oar. I hauled him toward the boat, reached down to grab his sodden shirt. When I had him in a secure grip, I let the oar fall so I could use both hands and pull him by main force into the boat. He cried out in pain as I gripped his left arm, but I had no choice. The boat was listing dangerously to starboard and time was of the essence.
"Lift your leg," I shouted. He managed to hook his ankle over the gunwale, and with all my strength I heaved him up and over. I staggered back as he fell into the boat, recovered my balance in time to help him onto the seat at the rear, where he collapsed, gasping as if he'd just finished running a marathon. I took his backpack and dropped it carelessly behind the seat then knelt beside him.
"Fuck. Fuck," he said, cradling his left arm against his chest. "It hurts." And no wonder. He was wearing a short-sleeved tee shirt, so the damage to his forearm was plain to see. Massive bruising surrounded an ominously large lump. "I think it's broken," he said.
"It's definitely broken," I replied, getting to my feet. I went to the storage area along one side of the Louisa, hoping my memory served me correctly. It did. In it I found the makings for a splint: an piece of wood, a towel, and a length of thin rope. They were all worn and dirty, but would suffice. I snapped the wood in two over my knee, carried everything over to the injured man and set to work.
I wasn't rough, but I wasn't gentle either. A palpable sense of injustice crept over me as I ripped the towel in two then splinted the broken arm with brisk, efficient movements. Why had fate interfered with my plan? I didn't want to be drawn back into a world on which I'd finally given up. I didn't want responsibility. I didn't want to care, goddammit. I knotted the rope holding the splint in place with an angry jerk, sat back on my heels and resentfully contemplated the stranger.
Considering the level of pain he must be enduring, he'd borne my ministrations with almost heroic stoicism. Not a sound had he uttered, but his lower lip was bloodied from biting into it. Now he lay back, exhausted, with his eyes closed, unaware of my resentment.
A second ugly bruise disfigured the right side of his face, extending from his ear to his cheekbone; it contrasted starkly with his overall pallor. Already his dark hair was nearly dry, sticking out in tufts that gave him a kittenish look against which I had to harden my heart. I didn't want to feel anything for this young man, and he was young, in his early twenties, I judged. He has his whole life ahead of him, I thought with another surge of resentment. At thirty-five, I considered my own life over.
Then he opened his eyes, and for the space of a few seconds I was blinded by the most intense blue I'd ever seen, a blue more vivid even than the sky over Lake Michigan on a tranquil summer day. Their effect on me was both physical and psychological. I can't explain it better than to say that his eyes had a quality I'd never experienced before. They met mine with almost startling directness and seemed to see straight inside me, whether I wanted them to or not - and I didn't, not when that space held no residents save an unholy trinity of depression, despair and hopelessness.
"Thank you," he said. "If you hadn't found me..."
"Don't think about it," I replied gruffly. "What's your name? I'm Sean Astin."
"Elijah, was there anyone else in the plane with you?"
"The pilot, Kelly. But he - he's dead."
Those unsettling eyes briefly closed. "Yes," he whispered. "I'm sure."
"Then let's make tracks for Milwaukee. You need a hospital." And I needed to be rid of him, before he connected with any vestige of life that might be left inside me, stirred up emotions I no longer wanted to feel. "I only hope there's enough gas in the tank," I muttered aloud to myself as I'd gotten in the habit of doing, there being no one else to talk to.
Of course Elijah picked up on it. "Why would you head out on the lake without checking the fuel level first? Isn't that kind of risky?"
I ignored him and instead turned the key. The engine started but I knew immediately from the sound of it that something was seriously fucked up. I shut it down, went to the stern, and raised the engine. "Fuck. Fuck."
"What's wrong?" Elijah asked.
"The prop's gone. I hit a piece of the wreckage and it must've torn it off. Fuck."
"Why are you apologizing? You didn't do it." I was pissed off and ungracious, but I didn't care.
"I might as well have." Elijah shifted, grimaced in pain. "I'm the one who asked Kelly to fly lower. I wanted to see the lake up close. But he misjudged the distance and hit the water."
"Sounds like pilot error to me."
"But I -"
I cut him off. "Look, what's done is done. You can't go back and change the past, however fucked up it's made the present."
He stared at me. "Are we talking about me or you?" he asked slowly.
I ignored him again. "I'm going to row us." That's when I remembered that I'd dropped one of the oars to pull Elijah into the boat. I searched the water around the boat, but we'd already drifted away from the wreckage where I'd found Elijah. The oar was well and truly gone. I snatched up the remaining oar, went forward to the bow and started rowing like a madman, letting every ounce of my pent-up frustration act as fuel.
"Sean," Elijah said. I kept rowing. "Sean." He coughed, the sort of cough a climber at high altitude would make, as if air was in short supply.
Reluctantly I stopped and turned around. Elijah was a pathetic sight, and pity stirred in my heart despite myself - and fear. My medical knowledge was limited to what I'd retained from a first-aid course taken years earlier. If Elijah had internal injuries, which seemed very likely, he was likely fucked. "What?"
"Do you even know which direction you're headed?" He spoke in measured tones, pausing every other word to gather his breath.
I didn't, of course. I'd behaved blindly, impulsively. I checked the compass above the steering wheel. East. I'd been rowing us east, further out into the lake. I returned to the prow and brought the Louisa about to the southwest. I rowed more slowly, well aware of the futility of my actions. I could never make it all the way back to Milwaukee.
"Can't you call for help?" Elijah asked.
"I don't have a phone or a marine radio." I'd left both behind, for obvious reasons.
"You seem to have done very little preparation for a boat trip." It was less statement than question, a quiet and thoughtful question, one laced with curiosity.
"You're wrong," I snapped. Hadn't I been preparing for this particular trip for months? "And I don't see where it's any of your business."
"I can't agree, Sean. Considering that I'm now a passenger on your trip, I think it is my business."
"Would you rather I left you where I found you? I can take you back to your airplane wing if you want."
My behavior was beyond shameful. But I couldn't seem to tamp down the anger rising inside me. I was feeling things again, losing the blissful numbness that deadened me to emotion, and I hated it, and by extension Elijah, for dragging me back to life.
He fell silent, but I refused to look at him. I faced forward into the mist, rowing with a grim determination. After a few minutes Elijah said, "My cellphone is in my backpack."
"It'll be ruined," I said.
"No, it's in a waterproof case."
Without a word I set down the oar and went to retrieve the backpack. I lifted it by a heavily padded strap, surprised by its weight. I hadn't noticed that earlier, being occupied with more important matters. And although I wanted to remain incurious, I did wonder what inside it was so important to Elijah that he'd held onto it throughout his ordeal.
Crouching beside Elijah, I asked, "Which pocket?" He pointed to a zippered side pocket. I removed the iPhone, safe and dry inside its clear waterproof case, pressed the home button to wake it. My attention was diverted by his lock screen wallpaper, a portrait of three people, an older woman and a younger man and woman. It was shot in black and white, and though I knew little about photography, clearly was the work of a talented artist. "Who are they?" I asked, allowing my curiosity to get the better of me.
"My family. My mom, my brother Zach and my sister Hannah." He added, "They'll be wondering why I haven't been in touch."
At least you have someone to wonder, I thought. "No father?"
"He ran out on us when I was a kid."
I wish my father had done that. "It's a beautiful photograph, Elijah."
"You took it?"
"Yes, I'm a professional photographer. I was flying from Chicago to Ludington on assignment for a travel magazine." That surprised me. He must be older than he looked.
"You're a very good photographer if this is anything to go by." I transferred my attention from the photo to the status bar. "No signal," I said. "Lake Michigan is notorious."
"Try it anyway. It's worth a shot."
I shrugged, typed in the pass code he gave me, and tried calling 9-1-1. "Nothing. But keep the phone handy in case we do luck out and pick up a signal." I held it out to Elijah. His fingertips as they brushed mine were icy cold. "How are you doing?" I asked.
"Not too good. My left hand's gone numb and my chest hurts. It's hard to breathe."
I tried not to let the alarm I felt show on my face. A punctured or collapsed lung? It seemed all too likely. His complexion was probably naturally pale, but there was a chalky quality to it that wasn't natural. I reached for his wrist, found the pulse, counted. Fifty bpm. Not weak, but not strong, either.
"Try to save your breath and rest," I said, more gently than I'd yet spoken to him. "I'll keep paddling." I stood, looked down at him, surprised myself by asking, "What's in the backpack?"
"A wet bag with my camera," Elijah replied. "It might seem silly not to leave it behind, but, well, that camera is like an extension of myself."
"Not silly," I said. "That's how I feel about the Louisa." But unlike Elijah, I'd been prepared to abandon her to her fate and would've, if I hadn't come across the plane wreck.
"This boat. Louisa is her name."
"From The African Queen?"
I was reluctantly impressed. Rarely had anyone made the connection. "That's right."
"The Louisa was the German boat Rose and Charlie blew up, wasn't it? Why didn't you call her The African Queen instead?"
"Irony," I replied curtly. "My father gave her to me. I'll let you draw your own conclusions." Immediately I wished I hadn't said anything. I never talked about my father. Never.
Then I went forward, picked up the oar and started to row again. As I did, I noticed something. "The mist is breaking up," I said. "We'll be able to signal a passing boat or plane." I actually felt a lift of my spirits, imagining how welcome the sun's brightness and warmth would be. For Elijah, that is.
I kept paddling, ignoring the discomfort from my blistered palms and sore muscles. I tried to ignore Elijah as well, but it proved impossible. I finally gave in and looked back, expecting him to be drowsing, but he was watching me with those disconcerting, luminous eyes. I wondered what he was thinking. Don't wonder, I scolded myself, turning forward again. Wondering is bad.
The mist continued to dissipate, watery sunlight filtering through, until at last a genuine ray of sunshine pierced the gloom. Moments later, almost like magic, the mist was gone, revealing an unbroken stretch of dazzling, sparkling water all around us - with not a sign of land to be seen. My spirits sank again. However far I'd paddled, it wasn't nearly far enough.
I rested, leaning on the oar while my body swayed back and forth with the rocking motion of the boat. I glanced at Elijah, but he wasn't watching me now. He was looking around him and I didn't need to be a mind reader to know what he was thinking, because I was thinking the same thing: we were, in a word, fucked.
Elijah was the first to break the silence. "I'm thirsty," he said.
"I didn't bring anything to drink or eat," I replied. "But thankfully what Coleridge wrote, 'Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink', isn't the case on Lake Michigan. The water's potable, even if it's not recommended to drink it."
The question was what I could find to put the water in, but I noticed an empty plastic Coke bottle rolling back and forth under the captain's chair. How many years it had been there I had no idea, but it would do in a pinch.
Bottle in hand, I leaned over the Louisa's side and plunged it into the water. The cool wet was soothing to my blisters, so I added my other hand, leaving them there for a good few minutes while I sloshed the Coke bottle around to clean it.
A dim buzzing sound caught my attention and I raised my head. It rapidly grew louder, and Elijah exclaimed, "Sean, it's a plane!"
I could see the plane now, a float plane similar to the one that had crashed, approaching at an angle from the southwest. Aware that time was of the essence if I was going to set off a flare to catch the pilot's attention, I jerked my hands up, tried to scramble to my feet. But I moved too precipitately and the boat rocked violently. I staggered, tried to regain my balance, but instead lost it completely and took a header directly over the side and into the lake. By the time I pulled myself back into the boat, dripping wet and shoeless but still holding onto the Coke bottle, the plane was gone, dwindling into the distance, the opportunity lost. Perhaps our only opportunity and I'd blown it. Well, what else was new?
"Here's your water," I said, grim-faced. "Drink up."
"I'm sorry," Elijah said, taking the bottle from me. He looked ashen.
His contrition, completely unwarranted, infuriated me. "Do you always blame yourself for other people's mistakes?"
"You were getting the water for me."
"Trust me, I'd have found some other way to fuck things up. Now drink the goddamn water."
A subdued Elijah obediently raised the bottle to his lips and drank. I'd just swallowed a few mouthfuls of lake water myself and it wasn't exactly like drinking Poland Spring, but his expression didn't change.
"Easy does it," I cautioned. "Not too much at once." I sat back on my heels, wiped my streaming face with my fingers, and exhaled deeply. "Look," I went on, "I'm sorry for snapping at you. But I know this lake. I've been fishing and boating on it since I was a kid. The odds of another plane flying that close are remote to none. Same with a boat passing by. Maybe we'll get lucky, or maybe your phone will pick up a signal. Or maybe not. I'm not trying to scare you, Elijah, but... if you're the praying sort, now is the time for some prayers."
"I'm not scared," he replied, and I could see that it was so. His expression was perfectly calm. "I was scared after the crash, when I saw that Kelly was dead and I thought I'd die, too, all alone. But I'm not alone now and," Elijah actually smiled, "snapping aside, you're a nice man. I could be worse off."
I snorted derisively. "You must have very low standards then." I got up, went back to my ridiculous, futile rowing. But I admit it: Elijah's words had had an effect on me. Like it or not, I was being pulled back to the land of the living. As I wielded the oar, I could no longer rouse much indignation over the fact. Elijah had called me a nice man. I couldn't remember the last time anyone had called me nice. Hell, I couldn't remember the last time I'd called me nice.
But my predominate emotion was worry. Not for myself - I came out here to die, after all - but for Elijah. He needed medical help, and soon. I imagined having to tell his mother, brother and sister how he died in a small fishing boat in the middle of Lake Michigan, in the company of a suicidally depressed man who didn't have a simple radio to call for the help that might have saved him. I'd fucked up so many things in my life. I couldn't fuck this up. I could not let Elijah die. If I had to row all afternoon and into the night, I would get him to safety, somehow. Redeem myself a little in my own eyes, if not God's.
"Sean." Elijah's soft voice broke into my thoughts.
I looked around and found myself staring into the lens of a large camera. With an ease that showed he was no stranger to shooting it one-handed, Elijah depressed the shutter release. Click.
"What the fuck are you doing?" I demanded.
Elijah lowered the camera to his lap. "Taking your picture."
"Why?" I felt more off balance than when I'd fallen into the lake.
"To help me figure you out." He pressed a button on the back of the camera, looked at the photo came up on the viewfinder. A photo of me. "And this helps."
"I don't want you to figure me out."
"It's too late, Sean. I understand now."
My heart started to thud sickeningly in my chest. "Understand what?"
"Why you'd be in the middle of Lake Michigan in a boat running low on gas, with no phone or radio, and no food or water."
I took refuge in sarcasm. "Oh really? And what conclusion have you reached?"
His eyes were filled with sorrow and pity. "That you meant never to come back, and if you hadn't stumbled over the plane wreck, you wouldn't have."
My defenses, never very robust at the best of times, crumbled away. I dropped my eyes, unable to bear the sympathy in his own. "That was my intention, yes," I admitted.
I expected him to recoil with horror or revulsion, to ask me why on earth I wanted to kill myself, but he did none of those things. Instead he said, "I'm not going to apologize this time, Sean, even if it's my fault that your plan was ruined. Because I think that, deep down, you don't really want to do it."
That brought my gaze rocketing back to him. "What did you say?"
"That you don't really want to take your own life."
"How can you tell that from a photo?" I demanded. My heart was thudding again.
For answer, he held out the camera. "Will you look? I think you should."
I hopped down from the bow, took the camera from Elijah. Stared at my image. My hair, overlong and unruly at the best of times, had been sculpted by wind and water into a rat's nest. My clothes were a disgrace, wrinkled and soiled. The bottom two buttons of my shirt had come undone, revealing my naked belly and the sagging waistline of my baggy cargo shorts. I looked like a homeless derelict. I hadn't showered in days, couldn't remember the last time I'd done a load of laundry. But it was my expression that drew me up short. The despair, the pain, the anger, were shockingly clear to see.
"If you push that button," Elijah pointed to one on the left with a magnifying glass symbol, "you can zoom in."
I pushed the button. The image quality was superb, bringing the photo details, though small, into vivid relief. I gasped aloud. Yes, there was despair in my eyes. Yes, there was pain. And yes, there was anger. But there was also, incongruously, hope. Elijah was right: it wasn't the face of a man determined to die. It was the face of a man desperate to live.
"What do you see?" Elijah softly asked.
"A future," I replied, bewildered. And then I laughed, for the first in a very long time not in bitterness. "You know, I saw this quote in a magazine a few weeks ago. It said, Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying 'I will try again tomorrow.' I thought it was total crap. But now... I'm not so sure."
"I'm so glad, Sean."
I regarded him dubiously, voiced my doubt. "Why? Why should you care? I'm just a chance-met stranger."
"A chance-met stranger who didn't hesitate to put aside his own plan in order to save someone else's life. Sean, you didn't have to search for survivors. You didn't have to rescue me. But you did. I owe you my life. Of course I care."
He owed me his life and I owed him perfect honesty. "Elijah, the odds are against us right now. Maybe I didn't do you any favors by rescuing you."
Elijah shrugged. "I already told you, I'm not scared and I could be much worse off than to be sharing a boat with you. You're not only a nice guy, you're also very attractive. Not that I'm in any shape to do anything about it, but if I were, I would totally put the moves on you."
I actually blushed. "You can't be serious," I said. "Don't forget, I've seen this." I held up the camera then bent and returned it to the wet bag in his backpack. "I should keep rowing."
But Elijah stopped me, taking a gentle hold of my hand. "No, no more rowing, Sean. Look at your palms. They've been rubbed raw. Sit."
I sat beside him and he didn't release my hand nor did I want him to. Had Elijah given up, I wondered. Was he prepared to wait out the inevitable end? The fingers of his right hand were grotesquely swollen now, any residual effect from the cold water dissipated, and his pulse was noticeably weaker. His breathing was shallow, his words halting. He was fading.
I was terrified. Elijah was the first good thing that had happened to me in so long. He'd drawn me back - kicking and screaming, it's true - to the world of the living, given me a reason to go on. I wanted him to survive, I needed him to survive. Even if we never saw each other again when our ordeal was over, he'd sparked something inside me: hope.
"Talk to me," Elijah said. "Take my mind off my arm."
"What would you like me to talk about?" I asked.
"Your past. What drove you to the brink."
"The light stuff, huh? Are you a shrink as well as a photographer?"
Elijah squeezed my hand. "No, just someone who cares. You don't have to tell me if you don't want to, Sean. You can talk about the weather, if you prefer. Just talk. I like your voice."
I discovered that I did want to tell him, though. Which was weird, because my forays into talk therapy had been abysmal failures, while the meds I'd been prescribed had, perversely, worsened my depression and I'd dumped them in the toilet. But Elijah said he cared, and I believed him. Which was beyond weird, because unlike that song on Glee, I'd long since stopped believing.
"The weather is for strangers," I said, squeezing his hand in return. "I don't want to talk about the weather."
I settled back, letting the current carry the Louisa, and talked. It was a rambling narrative, disjointed and occasionally incoherent. Elijah stayed with me, though, as I told him about my homophobic, abusive, alcoholic fisherman father. About my librarian mother, whose untimely death from a pulmonary embolism removed the only buffer between me and my dad's fists. About fleeing to LA when I finished college at UW Madison. About the financial crisis in '08 that not only robbed me of my home, my savings and my job as a school librarian, but led to my breakup with the man with whom I'd foolishly thought I'd spend the rest of my life. Finally, I told him about the years since, a steady downward spiral of unemployment and depression, ending with my reluctant return to Milwaukee, to the rundown house I'd inherited only because my dad had never made a will. I'd been determined to make it without his help or his money, and the humiliation bit deep, my failure seeming complete.
"I managed to land a job as a warehouse supervisor, but I quit a couple of months ago. I would have been fired eventually. My heart wasn't in it. I was finding it harder and harder to climb out of bed in the morning and get dressed. After I quit working, I pretty much stopped leaving the house completely, except when I ran out of food." I huffed a laugh. "I suppose being in that house with all its memories hasn't exactly been...healthy for my state of mind."
Elijah finally spoke, in a tone of aching tenderness. "Oh Sean. But didn't anyone reach out to you?"
"A few people did. I cut them off and eventually they stopped trying. I don't blame them. It was my fault."
"Well, I blame them," Elijah said. "Surely they saw how depressed you were. Surely someone could have stood by you, offered you a helping hand instead of leaving you to believe that you had no other choice than suicide."
To my surprise I saw a glistening tear slip free and run down his too-pale cheek. "Don't cry, Elijah. I'm not worth crying over."
"But you are." His fingers tightened on mine. "I've never met anyone more worth crying over."
Like a sleepwalker awakening, I saw the world around me clearly now, in all its beauty and promise. And in Elijah's tear-filled eyes, I saw a future that only this morning had appeared forever out of reach. Moved by an impulse I couldn't deny, I bent my head and kissed his hand. "Thank you," I whispered.
I rose like a man resurrected, filled the water bottle again, returned to Elijah. I held the faded plastic to his lips and he managed a few swallows. I capped the bottle and set it aside. He was cold despite the warmth of the sun, so I dug out the extra life preservers and an old blue tarp and layered them on top of him.
"Better?" I asked, and he nodded. I checked his phone. Still no signal, but the battery charge was fortunately at eighty-five percent, so we were okay there. It was nearly two o'clock, and sunset was at around eight. We had six hours of daylight left. The boat had running lights and two emergency flares, so a nighttime rescue wasn't out of the question. But would Elijah last that long? His eyes were closed, his breathing shallow and rapid. His lips now had an ominous bluish tinge. Lack of oxygen, I thought.
Kneeling, I opened Elijah's backpack and searched carefully through it, discovering two granola bars tucked into a side pocket. Not much, but better than nothing. No medicines, though, and I'd been hoping to find a pain reliever to give him. I put one of the granola bars back, tore open an end of the other, and stood.
"Elijah, I found a granola bar in your pack. Are you hungry?" I asked.
"No... not hungry. You eat it."
My stomach rumbled, reminding me that I hadn't eaten anything since dinner the night before - my last meal, as I'd called it with mordant humor. But it seemed wrong to eat Elijah's food.
"Please," he added, obviously seeing my reluctance, so I broke off a small piece and ate it, chewing slowly to make it last. I washed it down with a swig of water then gave Elijah a few more sips.
"I should keep rowing," I said. He didn't argue as I returned to the bow. The current had been carrying us more or less in the right direction, but we needed to turn further west. I corrected our course, pointing the Louisa's prow to port, and paddled with renewed energy. Periodically I paused, pulled Elijah's phone out of my pocket, and checked for a signal. Nothing.
Minutes crawled past. A few times I thought I could discern an outline on the horizon, but it always proved to be an optical illusion. Besides a few seagulls and an osprey, we encountered no other living creatures. My glance turned constantly to Elijah in fear and anxiety. He seemed to have used up what remaining strength he had. I would have welcomed his gaze on me as it had been earlier, but his eyes stayed closed.
"Sean." His voice, panic-stricken, broke the silence. "I... can't... breathe..."
"Shit." I let the oar fall and scrambled to his side. His face was contorted and scary wheezing sounds came from his throat. I slid an arm behind his shoulders, raised him. "Easy," I soothed. "Easy. Don't fight it, Elijah. Try to relax."
With an effort he did, and gradually the wheezing subsided. He slumped against me, exhausted. "Scared now," he whispered. "Don't want to die."
I stroked his brow. "I know," I said. "I'm scared, too. I don't want to lose you."
"If I don't make it, promise me..."
"Promise you what?" I prodded gently when he didn't go on.
"To try again tomorrow."
"I promise." Tears were running down my cheeks.
I realized that this might be my one and only chance to hold Elijah, so I remained where I was. He turned his face into me and I prayed. I'd stopped praying years ago, and it wasn't much of a prayer, just a fervent repetition of a single word: Please.
Chimes suddenly rang out, a series of musical notes so incongruous that I thought I was hearing things.
"My phone," Elijah said. "Sean, it's got a signal."
"Hallelujah," I exulted, pulling the phone from my pocket. Sure enough, it showed two bars and 3G, along with a string of texts from Mom, Hannah, Zach, and others whose names I didn't recognize, but proved how many people he had to care about his fate. I pressed the Emergency link, held my breath as the phone started to ring and then, like the answer to my prayer, a woman's voice said, "Milwaukee 9-1-1. What's your emergency?"
The words came out in a rush, tumbling over each other in my desperation to get them out in case the call got dropped. "I'm in a boat on Lake Michigan, north-northeast of Milwaukee. I have a badly injured man on board, rescued from a float plane crash. He needs immediate medical attention."
"Okay, can you tell me your name?"
"Mr. Astin, what is your phone number?"
"I don't know. This isn't my phone. Look, just send someone right away. I'm pretty sure he has a collapsed lung and he's having trouble breathing. He needs help."
"Okay. We'll send the Coast Guard out right away. But can you pinpoint your location more closely?"
"I'm sorry, I can't. It's a small boat, a twenty-footer, north-northeast of Milwaukee. Did you get that? North-northeast..." A beep interrupted me as the call failed.
"Sean?" Elijah said weakly.
"Lost the signal. But it's okay, Elijah. They have our location and they're sending help. You just have to hang in there a little longer."
I got the flares out and ready to light, stood scanning the sky in the direction of Milwaukee with anxious eyes.
The minutes that followed were, perversely, the most agonizing of the entire day. What if I was wrong about our relative location? What if the Coast Guard couldn't find the Louisa? Worse, what if the Coast Guard found the Louisa, but too late?
Just when I was convinced that I had, inevitably, blown it, the distinctive sound of an approaching helicopter came to my straining ears.
"Elijah, do you hear that? Rescue is coming. You're going to be okay, you hear me? You're going to be okay!" He was so far gone that he could barely summon the energy to open his eyes and smile, but it was enough.
I was jittery with anticipation, but I had to school myself to patience until I could see the red and green nav lights of the helicopter, a large rust-orange bird with a white band on its tail. As soon as the colored lights winked into view, I lit the flare, holding it up as if I were Lady Liberty in New York harbor. Smoke and red light poured from it. The helicopter was flying at an angle to the boat, but within seconds of the flare igniting, it altered course, heading straight toward the Louisa.
We were saved.
The helicopter hovered at a distance, the power of its rotating blades so great that it might have swamped the boat otherwise. A door opened in its right side; a figure in an orange wetsuit with a yellow helmet and black flippers appeared. He dropped feet first into the water, and swam toward the Louisa with strong, sure strokes.
"Elijah, you've got to get up," I shouted over the noise of the chopper. I removed his makeshift blankets, helped him to his feet. He could never have managed to stand on his own, much less walk. I got a life preserver on him carefully as I could, clipped it shut and maneuvered him to the starboard side, ready to transfer him to the competent hands of the Coast Guard rescue team. He leaned heavily against me, alternately moaning and wheezing for breath. I placed my lips against his ear. "I'll look after your camera. Bring it to you at the hospital, okay?"
"You...come, too?" I had to strain to hear him.
"I can't. I have to stay with the Louisa. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine." The rescue swimmer reached the boat and started treading water. "His left arm is broken," I said to him. He nodded, and I hoisted Elijah up and over the gunwale, adrenaline fueling my strength, and lowered him into the man's waiting arms.
"A Coast Guard cutter is on the way," he told me as he secured Elijah. "They have your exact coordinates. They'll take you and your boat back to Milwaukee." Then he set off without waiting for a thank-you, back to the chopper. Elijah's eyes clung to me as he was towed through the swells.
"I'll try again tomorrow, I promise," I shouted, but I'm not sure if he heard me or not.
I watched as they lowered the rescue basket, loaded Elijah into it with stunning speed and efficiency. The entire rescue from start to finish couldn't have taken more than ten minutes. Then the helicopter was off, speeding away toward Milwaukee. It dwindled into the distance and disappeared. I was alone again.
And yet I didn't feel alone, for the first time in a very long time. How was it possible, I wondered, that in the course of a single day a life could change so completely?
The only answer I have, as I said at the beginning, is that it was a miracle. A miracle of blue.
I rode back to Milwaukee in the Coast Guard cutter, the Louisa being towed behind. They couldn't have been kinder to me, those Coast Guard sailors. They wrapped me in a blanket, brought me a hot cup of coffee and a sandwich - even found me some sneakers. I told them what had happened, the approximate location of the plane crash, and they radioed headquarters so that the search and recovery could get underway. They were able to provide me the name of the hospital Elijah had been taken to, Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center, and reassure me that he would get the absolute best of care. Needless to say, anxiety over Elijah was my predominant emotion. I held his backpack on my lap, taking comfort from its presence and the palpable reason it gave me to visit him at the hospital.
We pulled into McKinley Marina at sunset, and I bid my rescuers farewell with heartfelt thanks. A pair of detectives from the Milwaukee Police Department were waiting to meet me. I repeated my story, they took notes, and then asked me if I'd like a ride home.
"That's kind of you, but I have to take care of my boat," I said, gesturing at the Louisa, tied up to the dock.
To my surprise, they offered to help me get her on the trailer and I wasn't too proud to accept. I was bone-weary. When I say 'offered to help', I mean that they made me stand to one side while they did all the work. I was flabbergasted. Even more flabbergasted when my attempt to thank them was greeted with, "Hey, you're a hero, Mr. Astin. You saved a life today. It's the least we could do."
A hero? Me? I was still blushing as I drove away.
It was a weird feeling, going home. Not so much because I hadn't expected ever to return there, but because I could no longer recapture the frame of mind I'd been in when I left. That Sean Astin had become like a stranger.
The real change came after I backed the Louisa into the garage, parked the car, and let myself into the still, silent house. The smell hit me like a blow: mustiness mixed with rotting garbage. I was appalled at how far I'd let myself and the house go. Empty fast food containers and dirty dishes littered the living room, and as for the kitchen...
But first things first. I took a very long, very hot shower, miraculously unearthed a clean tee shirt and jeans, and resembled a human once more. Then I got to work. I opened all the windows, letting in a cleansing breeze. I bagged up the trash and lugged it outside, loaded up the dishwasher and turned it on, and did the first of several loads of laundry. I vacuumed and mopped and dusted, cleaned out the refrigerator (which granted was nearly empty), and even turned the mattress on my bed. Crazy, maybe, but necessary for my soul. Try again tomorrow? Perhaps, but I meant to make substantial progress tonight. By the time I tumbled, beyond exhausted, into a freshly made up bed, it was nearly two o'clock. I was out like a light almost before my head hit the pillow.
I'd done one other thing, in the midst of the cleaning frenzy. I'd called the hospital to check on Elijah's condition. I was told, "Mr. Wood is stable and resting comfortably." I relaxed my white-knuckled grip on my phone and bowed my head in silent relief for a few minutes before returning, with renewed energy, to my house cleaning.
I slept until nine and woke refreshed. It was a beautiful morning, although I suspect I would have thought so even if it had been thick with mist like yesterday instead of sunny and clear. I made a large pot of coffee and drank several cups. Good thing I liked my coffee black, because I had nothing to put in it. A trip to the supermarket was high on my list of things to do that day, but not at the top. Two things were above it. The first was to get a haircut. I couldn't do anything about the excess pounds I'd gained during the past months of inactivity, at least not today. But as the second thing on my list was to visit Elijah, I'd damn well do what I could in the little time I had to look presentable.
When I arrived at the hospital shortly after eleven, I was sporting a new haircut, shirt and slacks that were freshly washed and ironed, and a splash of expensive cologne.
"I'm here to visit a patient, Elijah Wood. He's in room 512 east," I said at the reception desk.
"Your name?" the receptionist asked me.
She smiled at me. "Mr. Astin, I have a note here that you're allowed to visit at any time." She scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to me. "The east elevators are to your left. When you get off at the fifth floor, turn left and go through the double doors."
I took the visitor's pass, thanked her, and set off, wearing a no doubt foolish grin. Elijah had made certain that I'd know I was welcome and it warmed my heart. The hall to the east elevators went past the hospital gift shop. I hesitated. Should I buy Elijah some flowers? Fuck it, I thought, I'm going to do it, and detoured into the gift shop.
Flowers in hand, Elijah's backpack slung over my shoulder, I hovered in the doorway of his hospital room. Although I couldn't see Elijah from my vantage point, he wasn't alone. A woman I recognized from Elijah's iPhone wallpaper was arranging a vase of flowers on the desktop, one of several bouquets adorning it. His mother. Sensing my presence, she looked up. Immediately a smile overspread her face, and she hurried to me.
"Oh, you must be Sean," she said, and before I could even open my mouth to reply, swept me into a tight hug. When she drew back, her eyes - prominent blue eyes a shade paler than Elijah's - were filled with tears. "Thank you for saving my son."
"Mrs. Wood," I said seriously, "it's your son who saved me."
She studied me for a moment and I seemed to pass some internal litmus test for she smiled and said, "My name's Debbie."
I smiled back, relieved. "How is Elijah doing?" I asked.
"The doctors say he's doing as well as can be expected with the injuries he has. But the fracture in his arm needs surgery and they can't do that until the tear in his collapsed lung heals. Thankfully it's a small tear and they're hopeful it will close on its own in about a week, less if we're lucky. Then they can do the surgery and he'll be able to go home. Until then he's got a chest tube, a temporary cast and a lot of pain meds." She slipped her hand into the crook of my arm. "Now come in, Sean. Elijah will be so glad to see you."
The room was a double, but Elijah was alone, occupying the bed nearest the window, which had a view, distant but unobstructed, of the lake. But I had no interest in the view, only the young man lying with closed eyes and his left arm confined to a pristine white sling. Quite a contrast to my crude splint, and I recalled how unnecessarily rough I'd been putting it on him and felt ashamed. The bruise on the side of his face had become a colorful medley of reds, blues and purples. But his breathing was no longer labored, but slow and easy, and to be honest, I was glad of the plethora of IV lines and leads hooked up to drips and monitors. They were keeping him safe.
"Elijah, sweetheart," Debbie said. "Look who's here to see you. It's Sean."
His eyes opened, blinked, and once again I was blinded by the most intense blue I'd ever seen. "Sean! You came."
"I told you I would." I hefted the backpack. "For one thing, I have to give you back your camera." I set it on a chair. Then I held out the bouquet of flowers from the gift shop. "I brought you these, too."
"They're beautiful," Elijah said, his eyes glowing. "Thank you."
I wanted to go to him, but Debbie's presence inhibited me. I stood there awkwardly at the end of the bed until she said, "I'll take those flowers, Sean. But goodness, we're all out of vases. I'll have to see if I can rustle one up." Flowers in hand, she bustled out of the room, leaving us alone - and clearly on purpose. There was an empty vase sitting in plain view on the counter.
Elijah held out his right hand and I took it between both of mine. It was warm again. I bent in and, carefully avoiding the IV lines and leads, hugged him. God, did it feel good.
"You smell nice," Elijah remarked when I drew back. "You look nice, too. New haircut?"
"Yeah, well, I didn't want to come here looking like I did yesterday. Your mom would have barred the door."
His smile told me that he knew damn well it had nothing to do with his mother. I would've been embarrassed, except that he appeared so pleased that I'd made the effort. And that made it all worthwhile.
"How are you?" I asked, turning to more serious matters. "Your mom filled me in on the basics, but I want to hear from you how you're doing."
"I'm okay," Elijah replied. "It sucks that I have to wait for the surgery, but..." His expression grew sad. "I'm alive. Poor Kelly isn't. I hope they can recover his body, for the sake of his family."
My heart smote me. "I wasn't very sympathetic yesterday. I'm sorry, Elijah, about Kelly and about how I treated you."
"You don't have to apologize, Sean; I know you weren’t yourself," he said softly. "Tell me what happened after I left. I was so worried about you."
I pulled up another chair close to the bed and sat down. I filled him in on my trip back to Milwaukee and my interview with the police, leaving out only the part about them calling me a hero.
"What about the Louisa? How is she?"
"Perfect. She's lived to launch another day."
"That's wonderful. I like her, Sean." He regarded me with that penetrating gaze. "And what about you? How are you?"
I huffed a rueful laugh. "Wondering who that man was who set out in the Louisa yesterday. The new me has a lot of work to do, Elijah, don't get me wrong, but I've made a start at clearing up the mess, inside and out."
Elijah was about to reply when a nurse came into the room. I got up and moved so she could do her job, checking his chest tube and his oxygen level and his vital signs. I was relieved when she smiled and told him, "Everything looks good, Elijah."
After she left I said, "I should probably go and let you get some rest."
"So soon?" Elijah's face fell.
"I don't want to be in the way."
"Oh Sean, as if you could be. I owe you my life."
"Not as much as I owe you mine. And the thing is..." I cleared my throat, grabbed my courage in both hands. Yes, the signs were there, but I had to know for sure because I'd fallen for Elijah, hard. "I don't want that to be all there is between us, Elijah. So...unless you feel the same, maybe it would be better if I left."
Elijah reached out, pulled me to him with surprising strength and kissed me, not a quick kiss, but a long and lingering one. "Does that answer your question?" He sounded breathless, but not because of his collapsed lung.
"Completely," I replied, smiling.
The Louisa was shipshape, sporting a fresh coat of paint, refinished chrome and a new 100 hp Evinrude. I felt a justifiable sense of pride as I cast off from the dock and hopped down to join Elijah on board.
"Full tank of gas, marine radio, cooler filled with food and beer...I guess we're good to go," I announced.
She started on the first turn of the key, the perfectly tuned engine instantly responsive.
"Ready?" I asked Elijah, settling the ridiculous captain's hat he'd given me at Christmas firmly on my head.
"Aye, aye, Captain," he responded cheekily, giving me a salute, and I laughed and put the Louisa in low gear. In a sense this was her maiden voyage, for not only had she been completely overhauled during the winter, but it was the first time I'd taken her out on Lake Michigan since the events of the previous August. I suppose you could say I'd had a complete overhaul myself during the same time.
As I steered the boat slowly out of the marina, I couldn't help but compare my current life with the old. In the past nine months so much had changed, and all of it for the better.
Elijah's recovery had taken several months, but I'd stayed with him every step of the way, and with his family's blessing. They were my family now, too, hard as it sometimes was to believe, and we loved each other as family. I'd gained a mother, a brother and a sister as well as a partner.
The surgery on Elijah's broken arm went well, and proved an easier recovery for him than the mental effects of the plane crash. He had nightmares about it sometimes, and his guilt over Kelly's death was probably always going to be with him. I did what I could to comfort him, but I knew better than anyone about the scars that lay beneath the surface.
I was employed again, as a children's librarian at the same branch library where my mom had worked. There were still a few people there who remembered her, and their welcome and kindness to me, her son, went a long way toward easing the pain of her loss. The job was hectic and demanding, but I'd missed working with kids more than I realized. Introducing them to the wonders of books and reading was truly my calling, and every day I left for work eagerly and with a smile on my face.
My parents' house had been sold five months earlier. However much progress I'd made in coming to terms with the past, the house still held too many sad and brutal memories. Once, I'd run as far and as fast from Milwaukee as I could, but it wasn't really the city I'd been fleeing. I discovered, after living with Elijah in Chicago, that I wanted to go back to Milwaukee and for us to build a life together there. His career as a photographer gave him the flexibility to live where he wanted, so two months earlier we'd moved back, into a small, perfectly maintained Craftsman style cottage overlooking the lake. We'd fallen in love with the house, but maybe even more with its breathtaking view of Lake Michigan.
We cleared the harbor and I increased our speed. The Louisa fairly flew across the sparkling lake, the wind in my face fresh and filled with promise, and I laughed aloud for sheer joy.
"Sean," Elijah said.
I turned my head and with a click of the shutter he took my picture. "Not another photo of me," I said with a mock groan. "How many is this?"
"There can never be too many photos of the most gorgeous guy on planet Earth," Elijah said. He was always saying things like that. Ego? Not a problem so much these days. "But as it happens, I had a particular reason for taking this shot." He fiddled with the camera for a minute then got up and brought it to me. "Look."
I did. Two photos showed on the viewfinder, side by side. One was the new photo: me in my ridiculous captain's hat, laughter still lingering on my face, in my eyes. The other was of me as well, but it wasn't new. It was in fact the first photo Elijah had ever taken of me, nine months earlier on the Louisa.
"I didn't realize you kept that photo," I said, and fell silent. The contrast between the old and new me was startling and sobering.
"What are you thinking?" Elijah asked quietly after a time.
"How close I came to giving up. How grateful I am to God or Fate or whatever it was that caused the Louisa to hit that piece of wreckage." I looked into his eyes, into that miracle of blue that had saved me from myself, and added, "But most of all I'm thinking how very much I love you, Elijah Wood."
We embraced, and then he said, "Do you want me to delete it?"
I didn't have to think twice. "Please. The Sean in that photo meant never to return and I suppose in a sense he didn't. Let him rest in peace, Elijah."
Elijah pushed a couple of buttons. "Done," he said, and I swear I felt a new sense of lightness, as if the shackles of the past had completely fallen away, finally and forever.
"Break out the beer," I said. "I’d like to make a toast."
He got us two bottles of Milwaukee’s finest that we’d brought in honor of the occasion. I raised my bottle in the air. “To trying again tomorrow,” I said.