CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: THE WATER
My head is pounding.
Sunlight weaves through the spaces between the trees, peppering my eyelids with light as limbs and leaves shift in the morning wind. I’m afraid to open my eyes. I press my cheek into the cool, familiar rock and lower my arm, dangling my hand in the river water as I breathe deep. I am dreaming, but I’m not sure I’m asleep.
My body is coiled like a snake, swaddled in warmth, weightless. I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed, but there is nothing except darkness and the rhythmic pulse of a heartbeat. Somehow I know this is not the sound of a single person’s heart beating; it is the sound of life itself. I sense light outside my body as I slip slowly into the warm sea, dropping nearly to its floor. I hover effortlessly, the heavy saltwater supporting my body as I open my eyes and scan the ocean floor. Nothing. A deep blue fog surrounds me…nothing to see, nothing to feel.
A high-pitched whine and persistent licking of my hand return me above sea level. I tighten my wrist and raise my hand firmly. The licking stops. I move in slow motion until I am seated on the rock, rubbing my blurry, burning eyes. I can see Kala’s rock ahead of me, partially covered in bright leaves. I can’t be seeing what I think I am. I run to the rock, suddenly wide awake, Wolf’s steps crunching the leaves behind mine like an echo. I brush the leaves away with my foot and count the lines scratched into the rock beside my beautiful dead son’s name: Fifty-seven. It takes me too long to understand that today is October first. It takes me too long to realize that I have not visited the grave of my son in nearly two months. Where have I been?
Wolf is whining louder, pacing quickly behind me. I place my hand in the air, a half-hearted attempt to tell him to wait, just before I lean against a tree and vomit. I clutch my side and wait for the next wave of nausea, my eyes softly focused on the ground. I see a single, tiny white light rise from the leaves and disappear. I blink hard, and when I open my eyes again a swarm of lights escapes the puddle below me, dancing to the beat of my throbbing head before disappearing into the mountains.
Time stands still, and I remember.
I remember crying, searching the woods for days for another person, before finally staring at my own reflection in the river for hours just so I could see a face. Finding the pocket watch by the river and feeling anger bubble to my surface. Dreaming every night of hunting Tok through the woods, Wolf tracking his scent as I sharpened Kala’s knives. Trying to scream out for someone only to find that my voice had died with my son. And the lights…I remember eating the lights.
The same lights that had temporarily transformed Bodhi have been transforming me, too, and apparently playing tricks with time. The first light I ate turned me into a beautiful, happy seven-year-old girl named Mary Jo. Grief was replaced with wonder as I gathered berries in the forest, staining the world around me with their brilliant jewel-toned dye. The next night I was S.G., and I danced around the fire and wrote pages and pages of absurd, brilliant stories in a journal I hadn’t touched in months. As Annette, I cleaned and repaired my broken cabin, brightening the walls with berry dye paint. Cindy bathed and calmed Wolf, combing his matted hair as he dried by the fire. Tiffany packed my things and traveled deeper into the woods than I ever went without her. The night I was Jenn, I felt true peace. My body and mind calmed, and I slept for what felt like a thousand years.
Last night I must have eaten a hundred lights, triggering a lifetime of darkness unlike anything I have ever experienced. It could overshadow a thousand nights of joy in a split second.
I am done with them, Kala. I won’t leave you again.
Tears sting down my cheeks as I stare at the scratches on his rock. I nearly crawl back to the big, flat rock and lie down, Wolf curling up right beside me. I hold him close, sobbing into his silky fur until I fall asleep.