I’m standing on a pier. Directly below me is a concrete sidewalk running parallel to the wooden planks under my feet. Where the rail I lean on lines up with the edge of that sidewalk, the concrete gives way to a salty sea. I look out over the bay. It stretches out for miles under a partly-cloudy sky, and the sun reflects off the clear, still water; a dark, natural green that hints at its impressive depth.
There are people on the sidewalk, all standing around and chatting, and there are several more, mostly men in their fifties, swimming in the bay by the concrete edge. They too, hold conversations while they gently move their arms and feet, keeping their heads and shoulders above water.
One man catches my attention. His appearance is ordinary by any standard. A bit younger than the others, he is in his early forties, if I had to guess. I don’t know him, and initially I barely glance at his face. Instead, he has caught my attention because in his arms he holds a young boy who looks to be no more than two-years-old. Like the father, I don’t know the boy. There are no other children in or around the water, but it’s not the fact that he’s the only child there, or even his unfamiliarity that grabs my attention. Instead, it’s the expression on his tiny face.
I see sadness. Not the overdramatic emotion of a toddler, though. It’s a calm sadness – a devastating sadness – as if his very spirit has been extinguished. His features are soft, smooth and so childlike. The expression though, is anything but. He rests his small head on his father’s collar bone, his small face turned inward toward his father’s heart.
Concern for him has me glancing back up at the father, who had seemed entirely at ease when I first noticed him. Now though, his gaze is shifty. Suspicious. No one else seems to be paying any attention to him or his son. After a moment of glancing around, he seems certain no one is watching him. I see him though, and I’m intrigued.
I’m not sure what I expect, but I’m not prepared for what comes next.
Leaning on the railing of the pier from several feet above, I watch as the man gently opens his arms… away from his cradling hold. Away from his son’s body. It is a gentle move, meant to draw as little attention as possible. It almost looks elegant in the sparkling water. Graceful. No one looks. No one sees… except me, of course. I watch, horrified as the little boy begins to sink, and my heart feels as though it has stopped beating all together. It squeezes as if the harshness of what I see is enough to extinguish my spirit too. This can’t be happening.
My eyes fixate on the boy’s face. I see a realization – an understanding – of what’s happening flash in his eyes as his heads goes under, but there’s no fear or surprise in the expression. In fact, what little I see in his eyes is the only proof I have, that the boy is alive and conscious. The rest of his face doesn’t change. It is soft lines and sadness.
Like his face, his body doesn’t fight this fate. He doesn’t kick out in an attempt to stay afloat. He doesn’t reach for the surface. Just as he had been leaning against his father moments earlier, his now-alone body gently drifts down. It’s as if he expected this to happen. As if he is ready for this to happen.
Defeated. It is the only emotion that fits him. To me, the sorrow in this very small boy breaks my heart as much as what is happening.
I don’t move; my eyes glued to the sweet young face as he goes still deeper. For ten or so feet, the greenly-tinted water is clear, cruelly allowing me to watch this gut-wrenching decent and I can’t seem to move. Then the depth takes over, darkening the water inch by inch. The boy fades from sight. No bubbles come up. The water doesn’t move. He’s just gone. Defeated.
At first, I’m filled with outrage. My gaze shifts and I stare at the man, who only moments ago had been ordinary at best. Now, my hate for him – for what he has just done – all but consumes me. I focus hard on his face, memorizing every detail. I think, almost boastfully, that at least I was here to witness what this nameless man has done. I will not let him get away with this.
Then, just as suddenly as the rage had filled me, I am suddenly swarmed with guilt. It hits me. If the man had seen me watching him, he never would have let the boy go. If I had moved, made a noise, done anything, if the man had just looked up, the sad little boy would not be gone… A final realization hits and my stomach rolls. I think I might be sick.
I still might be able to save the boy.
So why am I still standing here? How could I have not thought of this before? The questions fly through my mind as I use the railing to hoist myself up and over. Berating myself, I fall toward the water and wonder how far the precious boy sank during every second I foolishly stood on that god-forsaken pier studying the face of his father – wasting precious time. I wonder how deep the water goes. How I will possibly find him now? If I do, will it be too late? How much time has passed? I have so many questions but know none of the answers.
No one pays me any mind when I submerge. The father has moved. He is getting out of the water at the nearest ladder. Not because he is running. His movements are casual. He shows no guilt. He doesn’t even know I am there or that I saw. I want to chase him so badly; to yell, scream, and shout the unjustice to everyone around, but there’s no time.
Panicked, I look up to find where I had been standing on the pier. Without the man in the water, the exact location of where he had been moments before suddenly seems like the one thing I should havebeen paying attention to. The location. Not the face of the man. I’m breathing too fast. Finally, I spot it and move to position myself where he had been – where the boy had been. It takes less than a few seconds to do from the time I hit the water, but feels like an eternity.
I take a deep breath and swim down hard, ignoring the pressure on my ears and the desire to take a breath. My lungs, not used to swimming, already feel like they will burst. Still, my legs and arms propel me. It is not long before the sunlight fades in the depth.
Fear consumes me at the thought of crashing into jagged rocks or getting tangled up in whatever lies at the bottom, but I don’t stop looking. I can’t. I reach out blindly, desperately hoping to find him. Over and over, my hands feel nothing but empty water. My eyes see nothing but darkness.