He came to a halt at the end of the slatted wooden walkway. Dunes rose waist high on each side of him, extending far into the distance. Stirred by a mild cool breeze, tall beach grass danced to and fro in cadence with the ocean. The breeze stirred goosebumps on exposed skin and Jon just barely resisted the urge to burrow deeper into his worn black hoodie, soft from many washings.
Intense blue eyes full of immeasurable pain calculated the distance between the wide strip of light-colored sand to the ocean beyond.
The rhythmic motion of the waves was mesmerizing. They played a serenade for his ears alone, a sweet siren’s call meant to lure. It wrapped lovingly around him. Unconsciously, he swayed towards it, the dangers of the beautiful melody unheeded.
The walk had become a nightly ritual, always ending where wood met the sand, toes curling over the edge. Every night he found the magical pull of the ocean and its harmonies harder to resist. He'd lost everything, which had ever mattered to him. Why not just succumb to the pull?
Tonight, he would dare to cross a barrier he’d set for himself.
Gaze dropping to his side, anger and bitterness flared white hot inside of him. His hand, nerves damaged and only recently able to make a loose fist, held an ugly black cane, an artificial means to steady him. He hated walking with a cane. No, hate was too mild a word. He despised being so weak he had to rely on a bit of cheap plastic to help him get around, to know he was no longer whole, to have a constant reminder of how his life had irrevocably changed -- it was hard to face.
The truth was, he couldn’t face it, didn't even want to try. No amount of therapy could fix that.
He’d nearly died from a bomb blast in service to his country. A bomb which killed his whole platoon. They’d been handpicked by Captain Anderson, only the best of the best, and now every one of them was gone - Anderson, Wrex, Grunt, Jenkins and more, many of whom he'd planned to get to know better - and the best friend anyone could ask for, the only true friend he’d ever had - Ashley Williams. Ashley would kick anyone’s ass if they were out of line, be there when they needed a shoulder. Hell, she’d laughed at all his lame jokes, got in his face when he was wrong and loved him like a sister. She lived life to the fullest.
Every day since then, he'd wished the bomb had taken him too. The laughter, the smiles, the tears and bitching, fighting side by side...he heard it all, ghostly whispers at the edge of his mind. Jon swore he could feel their presence at times. They were the only family he’d ever truly known. It was their memories keeping him on the walkway night after night. Like they were holding him back from the water's abyss.
Those memories were fading like the colors of a paper flower left out in the sun. He’d waited for a vibrancy to come back to his life once again -- was still waiting.
Life held no meaning for him anymore. Becoming a civilian again, trying to be human, was filled with endless bouts of pain, frustration and anger rippling under the surface, always close to erupting.
Doctors cycled in and out of his life, told him he would never walk without a limp, the scars covering his body would mark him forever. Plastic surgery couldn’t erase them and he’d finally made the decision to refuse any more surgeries, of any type. There’d been enough to last a lifetime already.
By some twist of fate, his face was unmarred, an illusion of symmetry against the ugliness of the rest of his body. He supposed he should be grateful he didn't scare little children -- or grownups for that matter. People looked away from anything less than perfection, preferring to live in an illusion. The scars covering his body were easily concealed by long sleeves and jeans. Never again would he wear shorts, walk shirtless on the beach, or make love with someone.
Determination lit his features. Tonight, the harmony of the sea was a spell enveloping him and he closed his eyes, letting it seep into his soul, beckoning him to come closer. The despair he carried with him always was dampened by the melody. In its place was the beginnings of emptiness, the feeling of nothing. And wasn’t that a balm to his soul - to feel nothing. He wished for the feeling to last forever.
With no more thought than to reach the water now, he stepped off the walkway. One painful, stiff-legged step after another, bare feet sank ankle deep into soft sand. The cane fell forgotten from his hand.
After what felt like an eternity, Jon Shepard, former Commander in the US Navy, reached the waves.
A fine spray of cold salt water sprinkled his face and bare forearms. He blinked against the sting of it in his eyes. The ebb and flow of the waves tantalized him. Chilled water lapped at his bare toes before it ever so slowly reached further to grasp at his ankles. The effect of the cold water was numbing, better even than whiskey. Fighting to keep his balance, Jon took careful steps deeper into the ocean. The rolled up hem of his jeans became soaked, cold against his calves. Sea foam reached even higher, clinging at the knees.
This was what he’d wanted since moving here - to let go. At first he'd fought savagely against those feelings - to him it was just another sign of weakness. But tonight, he'd walk into the water and let the sea take him away, guide him to a release.
Already imagining how the peace he longed for would feel, Jon was unprepared for the solid wave rushing in. Bad leg buckling beneath him, he stumbled, tumbling down onto his knees. He bit his lip hard to keep from crying out in pain, the copper taste of blood filling his mouth. Water splashed upwards, into his eyes and nose. Momentarily blinded, nose burning painfully, he lost his bearings. The coldness of the water stole his ability to think, robbed him of breath.
An even stronger wave followed the first. It flipped him onto his back, disorienting him further. Reaching out blindly, he was unable to grasp anything more substantial than the waves. Even they eluded him, dancing through his fingers.
The melancholy siren song of the ocean encompassed him, swelling in volume. A lyrical harmony to drown out all thoughts. The waves stole his fears, sweeping them away on the current swirling out to sea. The ocean formed a cradle around him, rocking him like a baby in its mother’s arms. Slowly, ever so slowly, he let it soothe him. The frigid water soon became a cocoon, an illusion of warmth.
Life had lost all meaning and he’d lost all hope. No one would miss him or mourn him and everything he’d been fighting since the day his life had changed wouldn’t matter anymore.
He emptied his mind of everything - pain, anger, the bitter feeling of not being whole. No longer able to be the man the world expected, to fit in anywhere, all of those feelings flowed out from him, joining the tug and pull of the waves. For the first time in his life, he felt free. Nothing mattered anymore. It was time to let go…
Tears fell unchecked from the corners of his eyes to mingle with the ocean - salt to salt. It would keep his secret forevermore.
Time lost all meaning drifting weightlessly, buoyed by waves. His eyes drifted closed, shutting out the starlight shining down from the canopy above. He was utterly and completely alone now. The sensation of his body sailing out to sea was the only thing sustaining him. The current strengthened, waves tugging at him, the briny salt water insistent on taking him further and further away from shore.
His clothes became heavy, soaked with water, the current tugging at him from below. I’m yours, come take me…give me peace.
Thunder echoed around him.
Breathing slowly, in and then out, Jon struggled to calm his racing heart, to quiet the thundering echo in his ears. He was ready and his mind was calm, yet his heart continued to thunder - louder and louder. Odd...
Even so, Jon felt at peace...weightless, drifting...
From out of nowhere, a violent rogue wave slammed into him, harsh and unforgiving. It ripped the breath from his lungs, hurling him into fight or flight mode. One after another powerful waves rolled in, pushing and tugging at his body before flinging him end over end.
The decision of letting go forgotten, Jon battled to stay afloat. Fighting was the only thing he knew when faced with a threat.
Thrashing in the water blindly, he fought to see, to face the danger head on. Icy fingers wiped at his eyes, desperate to sweep away the water. He closed them against another onslaught of waves.
Heart pounding, survival instincts kicked in. Overhead, thunder crashed and rolled across the sky. A flash of light burned against his eyelids. Opening them again, the sky was illuminated by another dazzling flash of light. Lightning. A storm was rolling in across the sea.
The thunder he’d heard...it hadn’t been his heart after all.
Intently focused on the sky, Jon was again taken by surprise. An immense wave crashed against him, spinning him around. It pushed him back towards shore. A light winked on and off in the distance.
For a brief moment, he wondered if it could be his porch light. A beacon in the night from the house Anderson left him in the will, a place of retreat. A place he could be alone and try to come to grips with a life he’d never imagined, never wanted. A life he’d so far failed at miserably.
Even being swept away at sea, he couldn’t manage to get right.
Frustrated and angry at the stolen chance at tranquility he’d wanted so desperately, Jon screamed his rage at the heavens. Instead of drifting away to an endless sleep, he now fought against the waves, insistent on reversing his direction. There was no point in struggling. They’d held him so gently before, lulling him into a sense of quietude. Now they rejected him, pushing him relentlessly back to a life holding no meaning for him beyond pain and disillusionment.
The swell and surge around him was brutal and relentless. He stopped struggling, too tired to fight anymore. The waves pushed him onto the shore and Jon lay there...physically, emotionally and mentally drained, no strength left to even move or form a coherent thought.
A spattering of cold wet drops hit his face. It was a catalyst, hot tears, a contrast to icy skin, pouring out to mix with the wet sand. How long he stayed there, emptying his soul into the waves and sand he wasn't sure.
Water was all around him, tugging at his feet, falling on him from above. He could only hope by some miracle the tide would pull him back in. But his hope was for naught as the skies opened up and rain battered his abused body. The ocean was done, even it didn’t want him.
Worn and tired beyond all reason, yet realizing the peace he craved would not be found tonight, Jon struggled to pull himself up, merely able to crawl across the sand towards his house. It felt like the longest journey of his life.
Fighting every inch of the way, his hand finally came to rest on the walkway. From nearby, the plain black cane he’d dropped earlier mocked him. It felt like a lifetime ago. The cane was a reminder he couldn’t do this alone. Painfully hauling himself up, he wobbled unsteadily. Glancing down the walk, his house felt like another endless trek. Glancing at the cane again, he resolutely took a weary step, hands tight around the railing. Fuck that.
One achingly painful step after another, he made it, collapsing against the screen door. The roof of the porch sheltered him from the rain but Jon hardly cared as he sat there watching the storm rage at sea.
Stiff and in pain, he struggled inside, collapsing as his leg buckled again. Darkness closed in on him and he surrendered without a fight.
Tomorrow was another day and night would fall over the beach once again.