so this is hell
As promised, Santo, Reagan, and their posse escort us back to our dinghies. I glare back at the Royals as we row away from it. We keep a wary eye on the shore and we keep our ears pricked for the sounds of gunshots. Eventually, we drift far enough away that our torches only illuminate the water, and the Brooklyn shore is lost in the shadows.
Eitan and I row slower than the other three men in our party. Harvey doesn’t seem to mind so much this time. None of us spoke much on the trek back from Queens Village. I think we’re all a bit numb. And a bit furious. I’m mostly furious. The Royals have killed my father and cut us off from receiving our aid, all in under two weeks. Unbelievable.
Eitan sits next to me, staring out into the abyss, rowing like rowing is what he was programmed to do.
“Are you alright?” I ask him.
He shakes his head. “I don’t know what to do now,” he whispers. “What if someone gets sick? We still need medicine. We still need other food. And we already have runners to Jersey and the Bronx. If any more of us go, it might seem like an attack.”
“You don’t know that,” I say, pulling my oar into my lap and turning to face him.
“Not for certain. But it’s very possible.” He’s shaking. “We’re all going to die. The Royals have sentenced us to death.”
“No.” I shake my head and put a hand on his oar. “Here. Put this down for a second.” He lets go and looks at me, eyes wide in the torchlight. “We are going to be fine,” I say softly. “Listen to me. We. Are going to be fine.”
His teeth chatter. “I... I don’t know if we will.”
I pull him into my arms and he buries his face in my shoulder. “I do know it. We’ll make it through. We’ll be great. You’ll see.”
He quivers and I hug him close. “It’ll be okay,” I tell him. “You can’t worry. Maybe they’ll have a change of heart.” The words leave my mouth, and I want to laugh at them. The Royals? Change their minds? Change their hearts? Ha. That won’t happen.
Eitan sniffles and wriggles out of my arms. “We should get home,” he mumbles. He picks up his oar again and dips it into the water.
“Are you going to be alright?”
He nods. “Eventually. Thanks, Landiss.”
“It’s nothing. Anything for you.” I dip my oar into the water again and we row in silence for a while.
“Landiss,” Eitan says.
“Do you think your Abba is in Heaven?”
I stop rowing and turn to Eitan. He refuses to look at me.
“Do you believe he’s in Heaven?”
“I...” I swallow. “Eitan—”
“I’d like the truth.”
“I don’t know,” I tell him. Because I don’t know.
“Do you think my father is in Heaven? And my mother?”
“Yes,” I say gently, without hesitation.
“Do you really.”
“Yes. From what I hear, they were good people.”
He sniffles. “But you don’t know if your father would be in Heaven.”
I open my mouth to speak, then hesitate. “No. I don’t know where he is now.”
“And my parents either, right?”
“Eitan, what you don’t understand—”
“It’s not just doubt you have, is it?” he asks. “Not like me. You really don’t believe.”
I sigh. “Afraid so. Why did this come up?”
Eitan shrugs. “I was just thinking about it, that’s all.”
“Oh.” I dip my oar into the water. “Well—”
I freeze. I try to move my oar back, but it meets some resistance. I take that back—a lot of resistance. “Eitan, I think I hit something.”
“Like what?” Eitan stops rowing and looks at me. “A fish?”
I shake my head. “Too big to be a fish.” I roll my sleeve further up on my arm and lean out of the dinghy.
“What are you doing?” Eitan sounds alarmed.
“I need to know what I hit.”
“Probably a rock,” he says. “Let’s go. We’re falling behind.”
I frown. “The water’s too deep here. It can’t be a rock.” I lower my hand into the frigid water, hissing as the cold makes the hair stand up on my arms. I move my hand around, looking for whatever my oar crashed into. It touches something, though I’m not sure what it is. I lean further out of the dinghy.
“Landiss!” Eitan grabs my shoulder.
I ignore him and move my hand over the unidentifiable object in the river. I feel something like seaweed drift over my hand. And then—
“I think it’s a person,” I murmur. The solid... thing I’ve felt near the seaweed... it feels like a person’s shoulder. I move my hand down and feel a bicep, a forearm...
My eyes go wide. “Eitan, help me. There’s a person down there.”
“What?” Eitan says. “You can’t be serious.” He leans closer with his torch.
I pull the hand out of the water by the wrist.
He sees the fingers drooping and nearly drops his torch. “Holy shit.”
“Help me,” I say, plunging my other hand into the water.
“Landiss...” Eitan hesitates. “Whoever they are, they’re probably dead.”
“All the more reason not to leave them here.” I find the other arm and pull. “Eitan, please.” Eitan grumbles and reaches into the water. I pass him one of the limp arms and wrap my arm around their waist—slender, a lot like my sisters’. “Come on. We need to get her out of here.”
“Her?” Eitan asks.
“Just trust me.”
We count to three, and yank the girl out of the water and into the dinghy. We fall backwards and she lands on top of us, her sopping hair dripping onto our shirts and freezing our chests. The torch is all but extinguished, but I can see faint outlines in the blackness.
Eitan groans and sits up. We push the girl off of us and lean her against the seat of the boat. Her hair is short, I can feel that.
“S-So,” Eitan stammers. His teeth chatter as he tries to pat his chest dry. “Is she a-alive?”
I feel in the dark for her wrist, and I press two fingers against her skin. I don’t feel anything, so I find her neck. There is a faint throbbing of blood beneath the surface, and I smile. “Yeah. She has a pulse.” I tilt her head to the side. “She probably has water in her lungs. I don’t know how to help her.” Of all the books I’ve read, I’m kicking myself because a lifeguarding manual was not one of them.
“Move,” Eitan says, pushing me back. “Avram taught me what to do. He says it’s called the Heimlich.” He lays the girl on her back and pushes repeatedly on her stomach with his palms. I peer over his shoulder, hoping to learn by example.
I hear a gurgling noise, and Eitan tilts the girl’s head. She vomits a copious amount of water onto the bottom of the dinghy and gasps. Her eyelashes flutter and close, and I can hear her raspy breathing. She shivers and curls up.
“She should be okay,” Eitan says, sitting back on his heels. My shoulders fall in relief.
“Come on.” I reach for my oar. “We should get back home. She could still get sick, and we don’t have the medicine to help her.”
Eitan nods and sits up on his seat. We go to start rowing again when I hear a groan. The girl is stirring.
I crouch next to her and I tap her cheek. “Hey,” I murmur. “It’s okay. We’re not going to hurt you.”
The girl’s eyes shoot open, and they dart around, crazed. She screams, nearly blowing out my eardrums. I have to clap my hands over my ears. I feel a sharp pain in my stomach—she’s kicked me, and her shoes have a pointed heel.
It’s not just her screaming. I hear Eitan’s indignant shouts from behind me. I’m too stunned to say anything until I feel her nails digging into the sides of my neck. I yelp in surprise, and all of us are screaming. The scene must look pretty comical from the outside, but my neck sure isn’t finding it funny.
“Who are you?” she shouts in my face. “Where am I? What are you doing?”
“Eitan—” I call, but she shakes me by the neck.
“Get away from me! Don’t touch me!”
I want to say that I’m not touching her, but she won’t let me speak.
The dinghy is rocking under us, and the girl stumbles to the side. She’s shaking, I feel it in her hands. “Leave me alone!”
I wish I could tell her that it would be so much easier to leave her alone if she wasn’t digging her nails into my neck. She yanks me with her when she scrambles for the side of the dinghy. “E-Eitan!” I gasp. I reach up to grab her wrist, but she wraps one arm around my neck like a boa constrictor. With her other hand, she grips my throat tighter and I gag.
“Landiss!” Eitan is gripping his side of the spasming dinghy, reaching for me.
I extend my hand, but the girl rocks the boat again. Eitan claws at the ancient wood, trying to get a grip on the side. I have no leverage, so when the girl topples overboard, she pulls me along with her.
The water hits me like a block of ice. I gasp involuntarily at the shock to my system, and the East River rushes into my mouth. I choke on it and try to wriggle out of the girl’s grip. Her arm is limp at my neck, and I kick to the surface. I can swim. My mother taught me how when I was young, and my father reinforced it later. I just really don’t like swimming, especially in this water.
My face breaks the surface and I gasp and sputter, spitting out the putrid water (if I can even call it water). I hold the girl’s arm over my shoulder. She’s stopped struggling, and her drooping head implies she’s unconscious again. “E-Eitan?” I call, and my voice sounds muted, even in my own ears.
“I’m here.” I see a tiny light—Eitan’s relit the torch. “Come on, take my hand.” The dinghy is next to me, and Eitan’s hand blocks the light.
“H-Her f-first,” I say through my chattering teeth. He reaches down and pulls the girl off my back, sending me under the water again. I resurface and cough, treading water until Eitan has her settled.
“Here.” Eitan’s hand is level with my face.
I grab his hand. My skin is slippery, so it takes another try to get a grip. But he pulls me into the dinghy, and I lay on my back on the bottom of it, breathing hard. A lot of my hair has come out of my ponytail and sticks to my face. My clothes are weighing down on me, keeping me pinned to the boat. I don’t want to think about peeling them off later.
“You alright?” Eitan asks. He’s rowing with both oars. He holds the torch between his thighs. It illuminates his face from below.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. “Yeah,” I say. “I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah.” We don’t need to confirm that we’re thinking of the same feeling. Some feelings just can’t be put into words, no matter how many books you’ve written or how many speeches you’ve made.
“We did the right thing,” I mumble.
“Mm-hmm.” The sound of Eitan rowing is a relaxant to my nerves.
“We couldn’t have just left her there.”
“Would you have just left her there?” He doesn’t answer me. I open my eyes. “Eitan?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “In all honesty, I don’t know.”
I tilt my head back and look up at him. He’s staring straight ahead. “Eitan. Please tell me you wouldn’t have left her there.”
“I don’t know, Landiss. I’ve never been in this situation before. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I’d found her and you weren’t here, alright?”
I nod. “Right. I get it. Sorry.”
I close my eyes again, content to listen to the sounds of the water lapping the sides of our dinghy and lose myself for a minute. Maybe five. Maybe more.
The first thing I feel is a floor on my face. Splinters jab at me from all contact points—a wooden floor. I smell rotting fish and I feel my nose wrinkle in disgust. My clothes are heavy on my body, and my shoes are full of water. Pain sparks from my forearm, and I feel a dull throb behind my eyes. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know where I am.
The last thing I remember... I was falling.
My wristchip advised me to pierce the water with my feet. I think I listened. I’m pretty sure I listened. If I was dead, I wouldn’t be able to feel pain, would I?
My stomach flips.
Am I dead?
Oh, no, I hope I’m not dead.
I can’t be dead.
I can’t be.
I wrench my eyes open and—
Darkness. Everything is empty and blank and cold. I don’t see anything. I don’t even see the wood floor I’m on.
How did I get out of the water?
Unless somehow I’m still in the water.
But that’s not possible.
I hear a gurgle of a river or a stream near my head. I’m near the water, if nothing else.
Maybe on the water. A boat. I’m on a boat.
I try to lift my head, but my vision swims so I lay back down with a groan. I stare into the blackness, hoping to see something. Anything.
A warm, orange light enters my periphery. I blink and slowly turn my aching head. There’s a fire hovering near my head. I blink at the flame, and I welcome the sight. I then connect the fire to a torch and, in turn, to its holder.
I wish I’d kept my eyes shut.
A ghost holds the torch. My breath catches in my throat. The ghost is deathly pale, as I’ve heard they are. It blinks at me and leans closer. The light grows brighter, and I can see the rise and fall of the ghost’s chest.
Wait, ghosts don’t breathe.
I scrutinize the gaunt face, trying to pick out features. The features... There’s a bit of stubble on the cheeks, like when my father’s beard just barely begins to grow back after he’s shaved it. The ghost boy cocks his head and purses his lips. Stringy, pale hair sticks to his face and falls over his shoulders. Some of it is gathered into a tail, but most of it has fallen out. The hair drips water onto his dark gray shirt. The collar dips and exposes a bit of his chest, and the sleeves are rolled up to his biceps. His shoulders are narrow, not like Nathaniel’s or my father’s.
And his eyes... his irises are strikingly pale in the light. At first glance, I thought he didn’t have irises at all.
The ghost boy is staring at me with those curious eyes. He looks confused, by the furrow of his brow. He’s thinking something over. He glances over my head and looks back at me. He holds the torch closer to my face, and I shy away.
He shakes his head disbelievingly and peers closer.
I try to tell him to back off, but my throat closes up. It’s raw from the screams I’d let loose during my fall.
“Shva-tzah?” he mumbles. He raises an eyebrow curiously.
I don’t know what that means. My hands are shaking madly. I’m soaked to the bone, and my teeth chatter.
He looks over my head and shrugs. “Ick vays nit,” he says. Ick. Is he speaking German? ‘Ich’ means ‘I’ in German, right? I only took a quarter of German in middle school. I don’t remember much of it.
I cough violently, and water dribbles out of the side of my mouth and down my cheek. He turns back to me and reaches for my head. I flinch and slap his hand away.
“Easy,” he says. His voice is gentle, and I can understand him perfectly. “I’m not going to hurt you. You’ll breathe easier if you sit up.” He cups the back of my head in his hand and helps me to a sitting position. “Better now?”
It is better. I nod, and cough once more to clear my lungs. “Y-You speak English,” I stammer.
The ghost boy smiles softly at me. “Yes.”
“I th-thought you were speaking German or something.”
He smiles, and his teeth are as blinding white as his skin. “Sort of. You have an ear for language, then?”
I shake my head, and my vision swims. I groan and close my eyes.
“We’ll be off the water soon. You’ll be alright.” I hear a shifting of fabrics. “Eitan,” he says, and it sounds like he’s addressing someone. “How long do you think?”
“Eh. Not long. Five, ten minutes at most.” Another voice, a boy’s voice. My eyes snap open and I curl up my legs. I grip my knees and my toes curl, ready to kick out.
The ghost boy is staring at me. “Are you hurt?” he asks.
I glare back at him. “That’s what I’d like to know. What did you do to me?” The anger warms me up a little.
The disembodied voice laughs a little.
The ghost boy glares over my head, then looks back at me, confounded. “I pulled you out of the water,” he says slowly. “You were drowning.”
“And only that?”
“I pulled you out of the river,” he says. “Nothing more.” His eyes look sincere, but, then again, I’m sure other boys have had sincere eyes and done terrible things.
I set my jaw and glance down at myself. My clothes are intact, nothing torn, only soaking wet. “Alright.” I relax and lean against the side of the tiny boat. “I believe you. But that doesn’t mean I trust you.”
“Alright.” He shrugs one shoulder and rubs the side of his neck. It looks red in the torchlight.
“What happened there?” I ask.
“Hm?” He realizes where his hand is and rolls his eyes, a slight smile on his mouth. “Oh. Someone dug her nails into my neck, tried to choke me to death, and pulled me out of my dinghy. Nothing too terrible, really.”
The other voice, Eitan’s voice, laughs. “You should have seen the look on his face though.”
“Don’t say another word, doom-koff,” the ghost boy says, sticking out his tongue.
“Not to mention the bruise on your stomach,” Eitan says.
The boy rolls his eyes.
I glance at the fabric covering his stomach, and I see the imprint of the heel of a high-heeled shoe. Or boot, I think, and glance down at my shoes. My eyes widen. “I did that?” I ask.
The boy shrugs. “You were in shock. It’s alright.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. It looks like it must have hurt. Even though I’m still shivering, I feel myself blush. I’ve never hurt anyone in my life.
“Don’t be sorry.” The boy grins, but then he frowns. “You’re shivering. A lot. I’m sorry, we don’t have anything to wrap you in until we get home.”
“It’s alright,” I mumble, wrapping my arms around myself. My arms are throbbing, and I’m twitching with cold. Something shocks my stomach. I wince and look at my forearm.
I gasp—my wristchip is sparking. “Oh, no,” I whine. “No, no, this isn’t good.”
The ghost boy takes my hand. “Are you hurt?” he asks again, running a calloused hand over my arm.
I shake my head, tears prickling my eyes. If my wristchip is broken, I can’t call home. I can’t find my way out of... wherever I am. No maps, no phone, no messenger app... “My c- computer,” I sniffle. I try to turn it on, and my eyes throb and the monitor glitches, so I turn it off.
“What?” The boy looks behind me and on either side of me. “I don’t see a computer.”
I sniffle again and tap my forearm. “My wristchip,” I say. “It’s a computer.”
He stares at my forearm, brow furrowed. He glances at Eitan and shrugs, as if to say Well, if she thinks it’s a computer, I’ll humor her. Maybe she hit her head.
“You think I’m crazy,” I say.
“No, of course not,” he says gently. “I just think you might be confused.”
I glare at him. “I’m not confused!” I say. “This is my wristchip. My computer, phone, and wallet.” I hold out my forearm. “It must have gotten busted when I...” My words catch in my throat.
“Um...” The ghost boy is blinking at me.
“When I... hit... the water,” I mumble. My stomach rises in my throat, and my vision swims. The back of my mouth burns, and my shoulders heave.
“Hey now!” The boy seizes me by the shoulders and turns me toward the side of the boat. I vomit the contents of my stomach into the water.
A rough-skinned hand rubs my back as I retch. “Okay. Okay. You’re okay. You’re okay.”
I keep vomiting even though nothing more is coming out of my throat. I feel hot water on my face, and soon my retching becomes full-fledged sobbing.
“Hey,” the ghost boy says, and holds my shoulder. “Come on, if you lean any further out, you’re going to fall in. Don’t make me jump in after you. I’ve had enough of this river for one day, thanks.”
My teeth are chattering and I gasp for air. The boy pulls me back and hesitates before wrapping his arms around me.
I freeze up, trembling in his grip. I glance back to the light. The other boy, Eitan, holds the torch. He’s stopped rowing, and he stares at me with sympathy in his face. It’s my first look at the owner of the disembodied voice. His hair is darker than the ghost boy’s, but not by much. And he’s just as pale.
Eitan looks at me, then at the ghost boy. “We’re just off Battery Park. Can you take this?”
The boy nods and releases me to take the torch. I sigh in relief, but I’m still freezing, and I find I’m colder than before, when the boy was holding me. He was trying to keep me warm. Why didn’t I realize that sooner? I wrap my arms around my knees and try to stop shaking for two milliseconds.
“We’re going to get off soon,” the boy says softly. He holds the torch close. “Here, warm your hands.”
I hold my palms up, and the warmth sinks into my skin.
The boat crashes into something—a wall?—and Eitan leaps out. He grabs a rope and tethers the boat to the wall. At least, from what I can tell. The torch is our only light.
“Miss,” Eitan says, and a hand is extended, just as calloused as the ghost boy’s. I take his hand and step onto the shore, stumbling in my soggy heels. Eitan catches me before I hit the ground.
The ghost boy is next to me again. The torchlight sends his face into shadow, so that his face looks eerily like a skull. “It’s going to be a bit of a walk to where we live,” he says. “Do you think you can walk?”
“How long is ‘a bit of a walk’?” I ask.
The boys glance at each other, and I realize they’re barely older than I am. “About an hour and a half?” Eitan says with a shrug. “I’ve never timed it.”
An hour and a half. Just the thought of walking that far makes my knees hurt.
“Do you think you could manage it?” the ghost boy repeats. He’s rubbing his arm with his free hand. I notice there are scattered holes in the legs of his pants, close to the bottoms. They’re shorter than they should be, falling just beneath his knees. He wears dripping boots that squish when he stamps his feet to try and warm them. He’s shivering, almost as badly as I am. His lips are dark in the light of his torch. Probably blue from the cold.
I want to tell him yes, I could manage the walk. Yes, I can do it. But I find myself shaking my head and refusing to meet his eye. “N-No,” I mumble. “I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about.” He snakes an arm around my back and tells me to put my arm around his shoulders. Eitan does the same on my other side. I’m supported between them, my feet barely skimming the ground. They walk along, and my feet drag along concrete, catching every so often on a cracked piece. I hold my tongue. It doesn’t hurt, and I really shouldn’t complain.
“It might take a little longer than normal,” Eitan says apologetically.
I shake my head, ignoring the dizziness the motion brings. “S’alright,” I say. “You two saved my life. I can’t complain about how long a walk you have to take. I don’t think I’ve even thanked you both yet. So...” I find myself smiling. God has answered my prayers. God has let me survive. Wherever I am... I’m alive. That’s what matters. And these two are the ones who pulled me from the water. “So thank you. Thank you, Eitan. And thank you...” I fumble for a name for the ghost boy. He hasn’t given it, and I haven’t heard Eitan address him. “Umm...”
“Landiss,” the ghost boy supplies. I see a slight smile illuminated by the torch.
“She said my name first,” Eitan says, sticking out his tongue. “She likes me better.”
Landiss wrinkles his nose at him and I feel him dig his nails into Eitan’s arm. I would smile if I wasn’t so exhausted.
“In any case... Thank you, Landiss,” I say. The name is odd. It’s foreign on my tongue, and I wonder what its origin is.
“Can’t have been your pleasure getting dunked in the East River,” Eitan teases him. Landiss rolls his eyes.
“I’m glad I was there to help her,” he says. “Because you might have let her stay and drown had you been alone.”
“What!” Eitan cries, jolting my arm with his motion. His lip is curled, from what I can see. “Gaiy plotz, Landiss!”
I open my mouth to ask what the words mean, but my head droops.
“Get some rest if you can,” Landiss says. His voice sounds like it’s projecting through maple syrup.
“Mm-hm.” I struggle to stay awake, unsure of what these boys will do to me once we get to... wherever they’re taking me. But I’m too tired to fight. I’m too cold. I wish I was more cognisant. All I can think is that Eitan’s hands are very warm, and Landiss’s voice is very gentle towards me, and it doesn’t sound like fake gentility. The world is dark, but I’m still aware of my feet scraping along the pavement. The scratching noise and the steady footfalls of Landiss and Eitan become a sort of static lullaby.