This is the second installment of my little fictional piece called Jacob's Ladder. If you are just checking this out look at my last post for part 1.
Pressure. Silence. An ache in his chest. Pounding temples. The need for air. Green light. Swirling. Salty taste in his mouth. He opened his eyes and all the world was a blur. Underwater! Panic. He was out of breath and submerged deep in a world of water. The ocean!
Air! If he did not have air his lungs would implode. He needed to reach the surface within a few moments or he would drown. But which way was up? He was so disoriented that he couldn’t be certain. Were his head and shoulders already pointed in the right direction? No time for thought. He needed to act. He reached up and out with his arms, closed his fingers into fins and scissor-kicked. He prayed he was moving toward the surface.
Steel bands squeezed around his chest. He kicked and stroked again. In a few moments it would be over. In seconds he would have to breath in. He kicked once more with all his strength. He could see faint gray light above. He sensed he was near the surface. If he just hold on. Stars filled his vision. His ears rang. He was blacking out. If he did, he knew it would be over. He reached out one final time, pushed his fingers together for a greater hold on the water…
He burst through the surface with an explosion of exhaled air and a gasp of inward breath. The man sucked in air so violently that he simultaneously breathed in salt water spray. Coughing violently, he nearly put his head underwater again. Treading carefully, he deliberately calmed his aching, searing lungs. He closed his eyes and forced himself to breath slower. To relax.
It took a minute but he gradually got a hold of himself and his panic slowly eased away. Opening his eyes, he rotated his body in a complete circle, scanning the horizon. Water and sky were all he could see. Not land, not a boat, not a seagull or pelican. Only water and sky.
Dazed and confused, he knew he had to move forward. If not, he would surely drown. How long could he last out here treading water? An hour? A day? If he didn’t swim forward, he would simply lose strength and sink. Sink. Like a stone. Which direction should he swim? The sun was directly overhead so he could get no bearing from it. It didn’t matter. He simply had to swim.
Getting horizontal on the water, he reached forward and kicked. His stroke was not strong. He could not move very fast. That wasn’t the point. He just needed to move. He needed something to do; he needed to act, to survive. Even if he didn’t spot land before his strength left him, he might be seen by a craft. No matter. There was no choice. His will to survive was the one single thing he had. To try to survive was his only option. He would not give up. No surrender.
Time slipped into uncertainty. It washed over him like salty waves. Eyes stinging, throat burning, arms and legs aching, stroke after stroke after stroke.
After a while, he didn’t know how long, the burning and aching in his limbs became numbness. His shoulders tingled as if someone were jabbing them with needles. Then his knees, his neck from turning side to side. He knew that he didn’t have much strength left. He knew he didn’t have much time. He kept looking up instinctively monitoring his progress but that was impossible of course. He had nothing to mark where he’d been, how far he’d gone.
Still no land, no boat, no seabird. He swam on until his head was buzzing from exhaustion. His arms and legs felt as heavy as lead. He had so little strength left. Another hundred yards? Another fifty? Another ten strokes. One more stroke. That was it. That was all he had. He stopped pulling himself along in the water and became upright. He could no longer move himself forward but he could keep himself upright.
Again, the seconds turned to minutes and the minutes flowed by endlessly. His strength gradually and completely drained away until he thought he was too weak to even breathe. He knew that he only had moments left but he clung to them tenaciously.
His vision blurred, became fuzzy and gray, as gray as the clouds above. He was about to stop kicking and just let go, sink into the deep. How bad could it be? At least it would be rest. How he longed for rest. Peace. Maybe there would be peace.
He stilled his arms and legs and sank slowly, slowly, still holding his breath. He was still very much afraid but faced the inevitable.
Then a sudden sickening, stinging, scraping sensation against his feet, smashing his toes and tearing his skin, ripping back his toenails. Sandpaper against soft flesh. He woke with a start, came out of his sleep-like trance with a shriek. He burst to the surface gasping once again, coughing. His skin was covered in goose flesh, his hairs stood out on his neck. He wasn’t certain but all he could think was… shark. Was it below, waiting, sensing him, smelling his blood? Was it closing in on him, jaws open, sharp triangular teeth exposed, shooting toward him like a missile? Is this how it would end?
He swam with renewed energy. He was aimless. He was frantic. Knowing that his motions were probably giving the shark a clear target, knowing full well that the end was near. He had to do something. Swimming was all he had left; it was all he could do.
The sky was darkening, he could not see the sun behind the thick, dark, low clouds but it had to be near the horizon. They seemed to be rushing across the late afternoon sky. The brush with the shark had given him a kind of paranoid energy. His swim strokes were erratic and uneven. But he was in no danger of dozing or sinking. Not now.
Then he saw it. It may have been fifty meters away but he could make out the gray triangular form slicing through the surface of the water toward him. It wasn’t moving incredibly fast but its course was directly at him. It was the dorsal fin of a very large shark. It was moving on a slow curving course.
Oddly, he was not afraid now. He would almost embrace the end. He couldn’t hold out much longer anyway. There was no land in sight. He was doomed. As the fin approached, he sucked in a final lung full of air, pulled himself into a tight ball and awaited the end. He hoped it wouldn’t hurt, but he was ready. He hung suspended at the surface of the sea waiting for the jaws that would surely end his life. He waited.
Finally, he could hold his breath no more. His pulse was pounding in his temples and eyes. His lungs were burning. When would the shark attack? Just when he could hold his breath no more he felt something brush his face. It was not the sharp, toothy attack he expected, but light, feathery, tickly…