At first, there was only numb horror.

He couldn’t move his arms, couldn’t catch his breath. Everything was black. The thick stench of mildew, of rust and minerals, coagulated in his nose and throat. Steaming water spilled over his forehead, rained into his eyes, seeped between his lips. Brackish, foul water, full of chemicals.

It seemed to go on forever.
He tried to move. But he was confined, his limbs pressed tightly against his body.

When the water stopped, he heard dull, heavy thumping, like the machinations of an enormous water-logged engine.

The air was thick with steam. The foul water collected around his eyes, spilled into his nostrils, packed his sinuses.

There, in the wet darkness, he tried to drown himself. He inhaled the water. Tried to hold his breath — that breath he’d been instinctively fighting to catch when he came to — and found that he could hold it and hold it and hold it, and nothing happened.

I want to die.

Of course he did. He had for years. But dying, as far as he knew, was a one time thing. Once done, you just had to endure anything that came after.

*     *     *

The bad-smelling blackness went on and on. The crippled hours inched by. Ten, it seemed, for every one that passed.

It felt like days before the water came again, spilling down from above. Cold at first, then near boiling and stinging with chemicals. Hellish.

With all his will power, he wriggled and squirmed and fought.

And he noticed, as the water rushed over him, pooled in the hollows of his ears, as the steam clung to his eyeballs like a layer of hot dead skin, that a faint, ethereal light came from above, with the water. He tensed the muscles in his neck, in his shoulders. He tilted his face upward.

His neck gave just a little, and the blackness spun before him. Tremendous pain shot through him like claws raking his bones. It was the most he’d moved since coming to.

The water stopped. There was heavy, scattershot thumping.

The darkness pressed down.

After a while, he tried again to look up.

The pain was milder, this time. Not so much claws raking his bones as chisels chipping at them. It was still sickening, but not as bad as before.

*     *     *

Nine more times the water came. The instances were separated by what seemed like immense spans of time.

Dirty water, and time, and more dirty water, and more time. It wasn’t so much that he adjusted to it as he had other things to keep him occupied.

Moving. Or trying to move. That was his primary diversion.

Sometime after the last time the water came — the attendant light floating at the edge of his field of vision like a lonely halo — he lost consciousness.

The dream he had took him back to his life, the way he’d known it.

He’d thought it was the most terrible life anyone could endure. His crushing debt, and his personal failures, and his depression, and all that. He’d clutch those things to himself like stuffed toys now, if he could go back.

He couldn’t tell if the dream was really a memory.

It didn’t matter. It seemed real enough.

He was in his house, in the sunken living room. Blair was in the front hall, at the top of the three steps that led up. Thunder cracked outside, and she cringed. Laughed. She pulled her sopping raincoat over her head and shook her hair out.

When he awoke, he wanted to cry. He wanted to scream and sob and rage. But he’d left the balm of tears behind him, with his life.

*     *     *

When it came time for the water again, he was waiting. Waiting, and looking up.

Before it came, he heard the pounding of the machinery, like the sound of heavy thumping in a sealed vault. Then, above him, the circle of light appeared, like a window superimposed on the darkness.

At first, he couldn’t tell what he was seeing. There were patterns of white squares. A shining silver obelisk cut into the top of his screen of vision, and there was a billowing white curtain, white light coming through it, washing over the rest of the scene.

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