A distant memory scratches at the back of my brain. Something so distant I can’t remember if it was real or if I had just imagined it. I remember Lucy beckoning me from the community inground pool. I remember the feeling of the sun on my burning skin. Behind her stood Aunt Silva with her handheld camera, capturing a mundane moment in late august. Aunt Silva was not actually our aunt. But we were young enough to not know the difference between love and familial bonds. And she was the closest Lucy and I had to a real family. “Fly, Aiden! Fly!” she shouted from over the lens. And Lucy tried to get me wet as I trembled at the edge, afraid of the body of water below me, but more afraid to show it. I took a breath and-
“Fly, Aiden! Fly!”
Water rushes around my ears, around my mouth, over my eyes and head. My bones are made of liquid as I thrash around, bubbles from my own mouth clouding my vision. As a child I was submerged in water to give myself to God. How could something so merciless be a symbol of salvation? I’m no longer a child, but I’ve hated the water ever since.
I thrash more, trying to fight with all the oxygen I have left. My hands behind me burn against the rope. I can’t untie it. I can’t do anything. Just before panic completely suffocates me, arms grab me and the chair I’m tied to, lifting me out of the water.
I cough, my burning lungs taking in both water and oxygen. I cough again, sputtering until I’m red in the face, gasping until I can breathe again. I look at the set of arms that rescued me. They were the same ones that pushed me under. Men on each side of me held the head of the chair I was sitting on, ready to submerge me again. And again. And again.
“Are you ready to talk?”
I avoid his eyes, look anywhere but his eyes as I choke out an elegant, “Fuck you. I already told you I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.” The man looked at me with an apathetic, almost bored look on his face. Like my life was just as expendable as that of a fly’s. To him it probably was. To anyone…
“I’ll ask again, Aiden. And I’d watch your tone around me if I were you-”
“I don’t know shit about shit! I'm innocent, man,” I plead. It’s the truth. Not a very convincing one apparently. All I know is I shouldn’t have gone to work today. I shouldn’t have taken Jordan’s shift and I shouldn’t have followed that mysterious customer out just to give him his change. Maybe if I called in sick. Maybe if I biked to work instead of walking. Maybe if I worked a kitchen shift instead of the counter shift.
The man sighs and rises from the chair he was perched on. He examines the gun in his gloved hand. He walks closer. Closer. Until I could feel his breath on my face. I shudder. His expression remains bored but there is something in his eyes. Something I can only describe as bloodlust. My heart slams against my throat. Before I can blink, he slams the body of the gun against the side of my head, hard enough for me to feel warmth on my face as blood trickles from my right temple. My vision blacks out for a moment. I’m still recovering from the recoil when he gathers a fistful of my work uniform and yanks me closer. His eyes are thirsty for blood but besides that they’re cold. Astute. My head feels just about to split but he doesn’t relent. I can barely breathe as he grins, his bored voice crawling into my ears.
“What do you know about Atlas?”
I don’t recall much about my mother but I do remember that she had a beautiful voice. I was always captivated by her singing. Even by her scolding. I remember her arms hoisting me in the air like a bird. “Higher, higher!” I’d beg, as high as her small frame could reach. Fly, Aiden. Fly.
“Any higher and you’ll get burned by the sun,” she laughed. I remember the frown in my cheeks, the defiance in my eyes as I replied,
“The sun won’t burn me! It’ll make me stronger!”
Well maybe I could have learned a thing or two from Icarus. Because I sure as hell am eating those words now. I’ve definitely flown too close to the sun this time.
Three Hours Earlier
“Aiden what the hell are you doing in there? I have to pee so fucking bad.”
“Oh boo hoo Charlotte!” I yell through the bathroom door. I’m crouching beside the toilet, trying not to puke. An ugly reminder of just how much I drank last night at that stupid frat party. Fuck Matthew for inviting me. Piece of shit. Ugh. I’m going to be sick again.
“There’s a whole line out there and I have to pee! Go deal with them. I’ve been ringing up orders for the past hour alone.”
I groan and pull myself to my feet. I wash my hands before swinging open the door before muttering a curse to my coworker as I stumble out.
“Finally,” she groans and runs in behind me. I step out into the restaurant, still in agony, to find that Charlotte wasn’t kidding. Lunch hour rush. I say a silent prayer to whatever God is listening before I suck in a breath and stride over behind the counter.
“Welcome to the Curbside Cafe, what can I get for you?”
I’ve been working this shit job for the past two years. I told myself I would only do it until I graduate with my bachelors and then find bigger and better things. Well I graduated almost exactly a year ago. And I’m still here.
I almost make it through the whole line before Charlotte returns to save me.
“Alright I’m back, you can go back to puking in the bathroom and leave me to do all the actual work for the rest of your shift.”
“You’re an angel, Char.”
“Just shut up and take this next customer. I gotta grab my apron.”
I nod with a sigh and turn back toward the register. “Welcome to the Curbside Cafe, what can I-”
“Black coffee please. Hot. Make it a small.”
I frown and look the man over. He looks loaded, much like the rest of our clientele here at this stupid-ass hip coffee joint. He’s definitely living comfortably. He has designer clothes on and fashionable shades resting on the bridge of his nose. Lucy would love this outfit. She’s a fashion nerd.
I look him over once more. He’s a handsome man, sure. But something about him feels off. I mean who comes to a place like this and waits in a line as long as that for a black coffee? Oh well, whatever. Not my place to judge.
His order is simple enough. I pour his cup of coffee before ringing him out. I slide his small black coffee over the counter. He slides some cash over to me before I even tell him his total. Inked fingers wrap around the cup with ease. For a moment I’m distracted by them, distracted by the designs on his fingers. They look like runes. I wonder what they mean. The man is gone in an instant and I look down at the cash he gave me. It was a twenty dollar bill. “Does he not know how much a fucking black coffee costs?” I mutter in almost awe. How rich do you have to be to completely lose track of average costs?
I shake myself out of it and snatch seventeen dollars from the register. “Sorry, I’ll be right with you!” I yell to the next person in line before jumping the counter and bolting out the door.
I look left and then right. Shit. Where did he go? Is it even worth giving him his change? I wonder. But then I might be fired if I don’t. I sigh and decide to go right, then make a left down an empty block. But there was no one there. Shit. Maybe he went left after all.
I turn to leave but suddenly something is thrown over my head, like a bag. And suddenly someone grabs me, someone strong. I shout in protest, thrashing around violently but I can’t so much as budge the hands that hold me. Oh my god. What is happening? Oh my god. Am I getting robbed? Am I going to die? But I haven’t even paid off my student loans.
A cloth muffles my mouth through the bag. Something potent singes the hair in my nostrils. My head spins. Don’t breathe in, I tell myself. But my bodily need gives out. And I take in a breath of chloroform. I can feel my body grow as heavy as lead, my mind flooding with black.
“Put him in the trunk,” someone says. It’s the last thing I hear before I knock out.
And now we’re here, with me getting waterlogged while tied to a chair. And I don’t even have the slightest clue why. I’m scared and frustrated and hungry and still remarkably hungover. I want to punch something.
“What do you know about Atlas?” he repeats. I groan.
“Dude. Use a lie detector test or something on me. I swear. I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.” The man clicks his teeth, running a hand along the stubble on his face. He slaps me. Hard. Hard enough for me to see stars. I know I should cooperate more, especially because he has a gun and a few lackeys who I could also assume are armed. But I’m tired. And angry. And right now those emotions are much stronger than my fear. I cough and taste blood pooling in my mouth. I spit, aiming right at his feet. His eyes flair beneath those shades, burning bright enough to catch fire. He grips my chin roughly and yanks my head closer to him.
“They told me a boy with green eyes and red hair, the Son of Fire, will overthrow my position and dismantle Atlas entirely. I cannot risk that, do you understand? Do you understand what position I’m in? What power I hold?”
“Yo I don’t know what you’re talking about but don’t you think it’s ridiculous that you are literally torturing me right now just because I have green eyes or something? I have never heard of that thing, Atlas, before in my life, besides Greek Literature II in my junior year of Cuny. You gotta believe me.”
The man smiles a wicked grin that cuts into his cheeks. I shudder, looking away. His eyes make me uncomfortable. They feel like black holes if I look in them too long; like empty pits, devoid of life.
“Let’s see how long that spark of yours will burn, shall we? You may think yourself brave, boy. But it is your bravery that will get you killed. Dump him.”
The large hands grip my chair and move to resubmerge me in the pit of water. I jolt and yell, trying to break free of my restraints. Water quickly envelopes me. I whimper and shut my eyes tight, clutching my fists and my breath for as long as I can.
My chest burns, my eyes burn. I have to calm down. I don’t know what’s happening but panicking will only make this worse. I feel the water on my skin, distracting myself from the burning in my lungs. I try to remember that memory I was trying so desperately to grab hold of. I try to remember that feeling, the reassurance that, wherever I was in the water, it was never too far for Lucy to save me.
I was almost able to calm down. Almost. But then the panic washed over me twice as hard. I hate the water. I hate it. I’m going to drown here. I’m drowning. I’m drowning. I can’t swim. I can’t do anything. I’m going to die.
I yell under the water, watching as the last of my air leaves me in giant bubbles. Help me, I beg. Someone. Anyone. Help me. Help.
I shut my eyes again and feel my body shake with a lack of oxygen. I realize no one is coming for me. I’m alone. I’m going to die.
And then the panic dissipates instantly. A strange peace washes over me instead. I’m going to die. No more student loans. No more lonely nights spent drinking until I can’t stand. No more reliving the same day over and over. No more worrying about the future. It’ll all end soon. Like going to sleep. It’s just like taking a nap. Just a little pain and it’ll all be over.
I open my mouth, trying to suck in water to end it quicker. But I am a coward. I don’t let water fill my lungs. But I know it’ll be any second now. Any second.
As my vision starts to fray, I hear what sounds like gunshots. And screaming. But it all sounds so far away. I almost laugh. And then I feel arms around my shoulder, freeing me from my chair and my underwater incarceration. This must be death. Am I in heaven?
There are long moments of stretched out silence and darkness. And then I am immersed in white light. It hurts. Everything hurts. Am I dead?
My eyes pry open and I turn on my side, coughing water violently out of my lungs. I gasp and cough and cough even though my lungs feel heavy and like there is too much water to ever breathe again. But I have enough air to cough and so I focus on exerting all my energy on trying to breathe.
“That’s it,” a voice says. “Just a little more.” A gentle hand rubs my back in circular motions, like Aunt Silva did when we would feed the birds in her backyard.
I gag and choke up the rest of the water, wheezing in air until it no longer burns as bad. I look at what must be an angel, a man with blond hair and wide brown eyes and freckles on his nose. His whole body glows with warm golden light in my hazy vision.
“Well done, Aiden. You did a good job. You can rest now.”
I am so tired, too tired to keep my eyes open. Suddenly I no longer care if I am dead or alive, if I am anything at all. You can rest now. That voice sounded safe. Warm. I can rest now.
My heavy eyelids flutter shut. I feel protected in this stranger’s arms.
I can finally rest.