We were both students at the George Washington Middle School in a small town in Massachusetts. It was a hot September, and the windows were open all along the far wall of the classroom from where I sat. Outside, the sun was shining, turning the air a brilliant gold as it shone through the green leaves. I was staring out the windows, dreaming of playing baseball, when it happened.
A pencil hit the tiled floor beside me.
I turned and saw the girl that always sat next to me absently twirling her red hair around her finger. Claire Lawson.
I bent down and picked up the number two pencil from the tile and put it on her desk by her elbow.
She looked at me.
Her eyes were so green that it would've made the grass envious.
"Wow," I breathed.
In that instant, I wanted nothing else in the entire world more than to be with Claire Lawson forever.
In the front of the classroom, Mrs. Reynolds lumbered on.
"I'm Claire." She sounded like doves cooing.
"I'm Nick," I answered.
"I knew, too," I said.
She smiled and picked the pencil up from the edge of her desk and looked it over. "Thank you," she said.
"You're welcome," I answered.
"And what city, Nick, was our first president on his way to ambush when he made his historic crossing of the Delaware River?" Mrs. Reynold's piggy voice was sharp, challenging. She knew I'd been distracted.
Luckily, I knew this one.
I looked up at Mrs. Reynolds confidently.
She looked surprised, but turned and continued with the lesson just the same. Claire, too, looked impressed. She smiled, and I turned back in my seat to face forward.
I was sitting with my adoptive family on the sand of the beach two days later. My mother, a kind woman named Laura, was unpacking a basket she'd filled with bologna sandwiches and Zarex. My sisters, Wendy and Madeline, were being lathered with sunscreen by my father, a man named Dennis.
Their numbers, all long, were my constant vigilance. I loved my family. I've loved all my families. But for once, I was distracted from them and the numbers that they bore, ever changing as they made choices and decisions that effected the future and the amount of time that they would live.
I was usually extra cautious on days when danger could arise at any moment, like at the beach - especially with Wendy and Madeline.
But across the beach, Claire was laying on a towel with a friend, clad in a polka dotted bathing suit and flipping through a school textbook, chatting. She had her hair pulled back into a pony tail. I couldn't keep my eyes away from her.
"Are you hungry?" Laura asked, holding a sandwich out to me.
"No thank you," I answered, waving it away.
Laura followed my gaze across the water to Claire. "Is she a friend of yours?"
"I picked up her pencil," I answered.
I watched Claire while I helped Wendy and Madeline make a sand castle, and while we were splashing around in knee-deep ocean water. She finished her assigned reading and had played in the water, too, and volleyball. But she never said a word to me, despite several stolen glances in my direction.
In the afternoon, while my family was sitting together eating the last of the bologna sandwiches, when Claire's brother, an upperclassman with large, muscular arms, came running across the sand toward the water. Claire was following several paces behind, laughing, pretending to chase him. Richie, Claire's brother, was a football player, and destined to have great things happen to him.
I watched as they ran, laughing, through the sand. At first the numbers were okay. He'd had forty some-odd years, which sounds low until you consider that he was sixteen already, putting him nearly into his 60s before he was scheduled to die. But then, suddenly, as he bolted toward the water, they changed.
Richie reached the water, Claire right behind him.
"Come back here," she cried, laughing so hard she was scarcely breathing.
"Come get me," he shouted, teasingly.
My feet began trotting toward the water's edge.
"Nick?" Laura called after me, "Nick?"
Richie was about waist deep now.
"Come on Claire, are you afraid of the water?"
Claire was to her knees and seemed to be hesitating going any further, despite her brother's taunts. I looked at her numbers.
Laura was now on her feet behind me. "Nick, get back here."
"Richie, come on, you're too far," called Claire.
Another wave broke on his back and he laughed, backing further away.
My feet reached the water's edge as the wave hit Richie squarely in the back, sending him forward into the water.
"Richie!" she yelled, scoldingly.
But this time no fearless laughter followed.
"Richie!" panic was yanking at the edges of her cry now.
I dashed past her.
"Nick?" she asked in surprise.
People were standing up all along the shore now, watching, gathering closer to the edge.
Richie had not yet resurfaced.
Time was running out. I could feel the cold, creeping sensations surrounding me, chills that had nothing to do with the frigid water.
"RICHIE!" Claire's scream was piercing. It shattered me. I could not bear the thought that she could feel the ache of loss that I had felt so many times before.
It was the sound of her panic, her pleading cry, that propelled me.
I dove beneath the waves and forced my eyes open, despite the sting of the ocean water against them. The roar under water, deafening as a thunderous waterfall, filled my senses for a moment. The rocking of the tide throwing off my perception. I felt disoriented, dizzy, uncertain which direction was up. I was mildly aware that, even considering my height for fourteen year old, I would never be able to 'touch' here. I was over my head.
The water darkened the deeper it got, turning shades of indigo that I knew eventually would give way to black in its very depth. Sunlight filtered in from above, but only barely, even as close to the shore as we were. The tide's current was strong, and the term I'd read on the information board on the way in echoed in my mind: riptide, a strong undercurrent.
Air burned in my lungs. Where was he? I could see him no where. I wanted to cry out for him, but opening my mouth would release the oxygen, fill my lungs with water, and ... well, I didn't know what would happen. But shouting would do no good. No matter how loud I cried out, there would be no way Richie would hear me over the thunder that struck with each rolling wave.
Then, I saw it.
The red numbers, glowing, in the distance, even further out than I had already dove.
Time was oblivious to the roar of the water, it was not sympathetic for the resistance that water pressure showed me. It did not slow, as everything else does underwater, but ticked steadily onward.
The water swelled suddenly, shoving me backwards, impeding my goal. Richie's body hung limply, probably five feet away from me, his feet just above the ocean floor.
I pulled myself closer to Richie, grabbing him by the wrists, pulling his arms around my neck and shoulders, backing into him so that he was slung over me. My strength was leaving, too, and I wondered what would happen to me if I did not get out. Would I be suspended in this place forever? Unable to die, yet unable to go on living, either? Like the wraith kings in the Lord of the Rings?
My feet felt the mush of earth beneath them, and I kicked desperately away from it, trying to keep my aim true for the ceiling of the water, for the expanse of oxygen and sky that I knew awaited us.
"No!" I shouted into the water, the last of my air escaping from my mouth in great, warbling bubbles. I followed them. Kicking hard against the water, fighting, struggling. I cannot lose, I demanded of myself, pushing me onward, So.. close...
And then I felt it. The water broke around my hand, the air cold against my wet skin. My elbow, my shoulder. Richie's arms, my head. I gasped in the air in great gulps as I felt Richie's head break the surface also.
On the shore, several guys, including Dennis, were barreling through the water towards Richie and I. I saw Dennis dive forward, swimming expertly towards us. Claire stood, her eyes covered with her hands, held by her mother, whose face was panic struck.
The water pushed me under again, but I held onto Richie's arms, trying to keep him above the wave that had submerged me.
Dennis reached us first.
He pulled me up by the back of my shirt, bringing Richie with me.
"Is he --" Dennis couldn't utter the word.
"I don't know," I answered honestly. I couldn't see the numbers from the angle I was at. My eyes were burning from the air after the salt water. Everything was blurry.
"Richie!" screamed Claire as Dennis dragged me and Richie toward the shore. "Oh Richie!" Mrs. Lawson and Claire both ran through the water to us. Dennis pulled us right to the sand before I let go of Richie's arms, allowing myself to be pulled from him.
Mrs. Lawson dropped to her knees beside her son, and Claire stood a foot behind, horror struck. I noticed her numbers had returned to normal.
I struggled to a sitting position, Dennis standing beside me. A guy I recognized as a doctor from the hospital came running across the sand. I looked at Richie, afraid of what I might see.