Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
I told her it was a bad idea.
Like drugs and alcohol – acrophobia and thalassophobia do not go together.
“Two negatives make a positive,” she said. Yeah right. This wasn’t eighth grade math, okay? This was real life. And in real life two negatives make a bigger negative… But I didn’t say that – I couldn’t.
I was too afraid.
It took me six months just to ask her out. Six months of awkward waves building up to awkward “hey’s”. Passing in the hallway I’d turn beat red, shining so bright I’d put Rudolph out of business.
And you wanna know the funny thing? I never actually asked her out. Nope, too afraid – add that to my list of phobias. It’s just that Kelly was a 10/10, and I know when you’re that pretty you probably get guys all the time, right? I mean, that’s what I thought anyway. So the last thing she probably wanted was to be hit on by another dude – much less me.
But life’s got a funny way of throwing you curveballs. Sometimes you strike, but sometimes you hit.
Kelly asked me out.
We were leaving school one day, when in the parking lot we bumped into each other. “H- hey!” I said. Luckily it was cold, so the tremors in my voice could have been mistaken for hypothermia, “I didn’t know you drive to school.”
On the list of stupid things to say, this was up there. But Kelly laughed, nodded, and somehow (miraculously) turned my chitchat non-starter into a real conversation. Two minutes later, and she asked me out. Uh, not like a “date” or anything – she said she and her friends were going to hang out this weekend and that I should come along.
Of course, I said yes… only afterwards asking what they had planned. And luckily it was cold, because what Kelly said next, made my face go white as snow.
They were going Ice Skating…
Everyone’s got their thing, alright? That one thing that they just can’t stand – bugs, clowns, eyes, I don’t know, maybe it’s candles or dripping water! Whatever. But for me, it’s ice. Not like “ice cubes” or “ice sculptures” but… a frozen lake.
Like stomping on frozen quicksand, I don’t know how anyone can stand that – can literally stand on that. And skating?! Chipping and scratching at the thin layer that keeps you breathing? Who on earth thought this was a fun idea?! Probably the same person who thought of skydiving or crocodile wrestling or, or-
… It freaks me out, okay?
It freaks me out so bad, I almost canceled. Seriously. I almost bailed on a date with the girl I had been trying to get with for half a year. But technically it wasn’t a date. It was a hangout – with her friends. So, “It would be fine!” I thought. “I’ll just… say I’m sick!”
We traded numbers after we met. And I wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote the message I would send. “Hey Kelly, I really want to hang out, but I think I’m picking up pneumonia so I’m gonna have to raincheck. Thanks though.”
Was pneumonia too serious of a fake-out? I wasn’t sure, but it felt less serious than tangoing with my worst fear.
I almost hit send. Then she texted me.
“Hey! So, my friends can’t actually make it this weekend, but I still want to go ice skating! You down?”
She had the ice skates and two eyes emoji attached to the end. It was too late. I already made up my mind.
I sent my reply. “Of course!”
So it was a date. And carefully planned. Dammit now I really was in trouble.
“Just breath,” I told myself, “Think, you’re going on a date with Kelly Davenport. Right now, you’re the luckiest guy on earth!”
“Yeah,” I thought back, “and I feel like I’m gonna puke…”
At first I was afraid of telling the truth. I was afraid Kelly and her friends would think I was weird. But now, if I came out, it would sound like an excuse. Worse than pneumonia or cancer or “my grandma died” – It sounded like a rejection; “Oh! Sorry Kelly, I can’t go out with you because I’m afraid of ice.”
Yeah, that’ll go over smooth.
“C’mon, it’s just for a few hours.” A few hours. Plural. Now that thought got me shaking. “Okay, redo – It’s just for a single hour. After that we can find something else to do.”
It was hardly reassuring, but it was all I had to go on…
❄ ❄ ❄
People often say that trauma sticks. More than the day-to-day worries and stress, my trauma comes up whenever I’m feeling especially anxious. You could check the boxes on that – a date with Kelly plus ice skating, double-check. And so it’s no surprise that that night I would have The Dream.
It was the same dream I’ve had since I was six. But it wasn’t just a dream, it was a memory – the memory of when I’d almost died…
It was late, just before sundown, and it was snowing.
Back then we lived in Minnesota, but in my dream it could have been the North Pole. The snow was heavy and the weather was cold, but I knew – in a less lucid sense – that it wasn’t always like that. For a few weeks it was off and on: warm and then cold and then warm and then cold. Nothing stayed frozen for long.
Not even the nearby lake…
The ice was buried under a field of snow. You couldn’t see it. But my mom could see me – standing in the center of what would be the lake. She ran out screaming so loud that my dad came around.
I was stranded.
In my dream I was stranded upon miles and miles of endless white. In truth it was more like 200 feet – Two hundred chances to die.
I wouldn’t come back, I couldn’t without putting myself at further risk. In an attempt to save me my dad got some rope from the garage, gave one end to my mom, and crawled on the lake, towards me.
But the rope was too short. He hardly got halfway before he reached the end. He couldn’t let go of the rope. He couldn’t get any closer. He was over four times my weight and the ice around him was starting to crack.
He spoke to me, calmly, yet I could hear real fear in his voice, a sort of radiating terror that melted the ice and made me freeze. From far away my mom was shouting, begging me to come back.
But I couldn’t. I was stuck there, looking down.
Under the imprint of my boot, some of the snow had brushed away. I was staring through the ice, staring at nothing but a black hole that only went down.
I knew how to swim, but I also knew that if I fell in there, I would keep falling. I wasn’t just stuck on icy water – I was hanging over death, over a space of darkness that stretched infinitely further and which was impossibly black. It was a pit so deep and dark that it might as well have been outer space.
Slowly, one creaking-cracking step at a time, I pulled myself across the ice. In my dream (and in reality) it felt like I was in one of those skyscrapers with a glass floor, except the glass was shattered and getting weaker with every step. Worse, it felt like I was jumping on it, that I had heavy lead boots stitched to my feet.
The whole time, I tried only looking at my dad. Yet the whole time, I could only look down. Down at the spreading net of ice ready to snap. Down below the ice, where it was so black I thought I saw stars…
Eventually, maybe hours or years later, I had gotten far enough for my dad to reel us in. Once we got to shore my mom cried. Dad prayed. We all hugged.
That’s how I survived…
But in my dream, that’s not the case…
In my dream, I don’t get out. The lake stretches on and on, like it never ends. I keep my head down, counting two-hundred, three-hundred, four-hundred feet. But when I look up, the shore is miles away.
In my dream, the cracks grow wider, so wide that there are more fissures than ice. At times, it feels like I’m standing on air, just waiting for gravity to suck me down.
And sometimes, in my dream, I hear The Voice.
It’s deep, and it’s huge – too massive to even be real. And it’s calling to me, commanding me from below the ice, from down there…
It tells me to drown…
I try to ignore the Voice – but that night I heard it again, and this time when it spoke the distant stars began to rise. They rose like one galaxy-woven hand, stretching out of that impossible pit and reaching up to grab me. They rose faster and higher, bigger and brighter, and just before they could come crashing through the ice I saw, for the first time, a face… frozen beneath the ice and under my reflection…
That’s when I woke up…
I’ve had that dream more times than I can count, but never has it felt so real. Maybe it was the added image of the human face, trapped underwater, or maybe it was the dizzying spell cast on by those swirling comets. More likely the extra layer of sweat I wore in bed was due to my overloaded first-date nerves.
Art by Boris Groh
God, how did I think I would ever go on this date? I can’t even do roller coasters or water parks. I for sure can’t do ice skating. A fear of heights and a fear of deep water. There’s no sneaking around those two giants.
“But that was the past,” I told myself (my hype man was really working overtime), “If you want a future with Kelly Davenport, you’re gonna have to grow up.” But that’s not what I heard. My anxiety made the translation: “If you want a future with Kelly Davenport, you’re gonna have to drown.”
❄ ❄ ❄
We met up outside of Hawkin’s Park.
The nearby mall was closed – had been for as long as I could remember. But the outdoor park was still popular. At least, during the day.
Post 11 PM all of the silly ghost stories surrounding the place took on a little more weight. I half expected one of the shadows to be a real human, maybe a night guard or serial killer. But as far I could tell, we were alone.
Even the ice rink was empty.
I had asked Kelly if it was okay. I mean, the ice rink closed at 10 and it was 11:30. Wasn’t this… trespassing?
But she said it was fine; she and her friends would sneak into this place every year. No one’s keeping watch.
“Yeah,” I thought, “that’s the problem.”
The only other construction around the pop-up rink was a small ticket booth. The door was locked, but it was a lazy attempt meant only to deter lazy thieves. The ticket window was wide open.
With more confidence then I could ever muster, Kelly climbed over the counter. Inside was a digital register, so the only thing worth stealing were ratty old ice skates. Kelly asked for my size.
I stood there, mute, eyes stuck on the skates and feeling like, suddenly, everything was becoming way too real. I was going from Looney Toons to Live Action or Barbie to Oppenheimer, in a single second.
“C’mon,” she said, “I promise I won’t judge.”
She smiled and I think if it weren’t for that smile I would have ran from that park and never looked back.
She tossed me a pair and found her own. Mine were a faded neon-purple. Hers, a slightly-less-faded (but just as vaporwave) neon-pink.
I had never worn ice skates before, and it was obvious. Using the chain link fence as my crutch, I pulled myself up. I got about halfway, half-standing and half-clinging-for-dear-life when I froze. I was looking through the fence, at the icy coliseum, feeling as I’m sure how the gladiators felt in face of a lion.
Kelly must have seen me pause, because that’s when she asked, “Is this your first time?”
I nodded – hard enough for my head to fall off. But stealing the momentum I swung one clumsy leg over the edge and into the rink. As soon as I was in, my foot found and lost the ice. Peddling the ground like some cartoon villain, I clung to the fence, steadying myself both body & nerves.
“Are you okay?” I could only spare Kelly a glance. I was hyper-focused on my two-inch stilts, and on the icy scars I laid below.
“Y- yeah, just finding my balance.”
Kelly knew I was lying – it was obvious – but she mistook my very real fear for being nervous. She slid up to me and stole one of my hands.
“It’s okay,” she said, “I’ll help you.”
Kelly meant to guide me, but I wouldn’t budge. “Actually, I uh- I have this minor case of acrophobia-and-thalassophobia-and-I-don’t-think-I-really-should.”
The end of my sentence blurred into gibberish. Kelly blinked once, then twice. I tried again.
“It’s just, when I was kid I had this problem with oceans and stuff. Like I was afraid I might fall in.” I laughed, pretending like it was no big deal.
Her expression became a tilted smile.
“You know there’s no water under here, right? The ice is solid. Besides, I think that’s bathophobia.”
Batha-what? I mouthed the new clinical diagnosis like I was trying it on. While I was distracted, Kelly grabbed my other hand. Suddenly, we were drifting.
“Don’t worry! It’s like they say, two negatives make a positive!”
Oh no no no no no! I couldn’t go on the ice! I was gonna get stuck! I was gonna fall! I WAS-! I WAS-!
… doing okay.
I mean, I wasn’t okay – my heart was thumping louder than I could hear – but I was still standing. I was moving.
Towing me along, Kelly laughed. I laughed too, but it was more out of relief. I found nothing comical in this situation.
The whole time, I tried only looking at Kelly. Yet the whole time, I could only look down. Down at my feet, at the razor thin streaks cutting into the floor. I studied the ice for any cracks. I tried looking through it, at what was below…
But Kelly was right; The ice was solid.
“There’s no water under there,” I realized. And this time, I believed it.
The weight of my mind was sliding off. With another kick, Kelly cut the turn and built up speed. My left arm was surfing for balance like a broken antenna, my legs buckled once and then twice but held in line. In a weird way, my right side felt steadier than the left. I looked down at my unshaking hand and found that it still held with Kelly’s.
“Woah!” I thought, “We’re holding hands!”
A little late, I know. But at the time I was so paranoid over the ice that I had forgotten everything else. I laughed – a real laugh this time – and took in the moment for what it was. A date.
No, not a death sentence, this was a date. The only thing I had to fear was whether this girl liked me. The only thing I had to worry about was what I’d say next. And somehow, none of that scared me.
I was enjoying this. I was enjoying this night, the cool air, the darkness and streetlamps and stars up above. And reflected on the ice was that very same moment; the two of us, skating side by side… and… stars-?
The world went uneven – Kelly let go!
“You got this! WOOO!”
NO! She was drifting away, cheering from behind as I stumbled and wavered and felt overwhelmingly like I was going to-!
“. . . D R O W N . . .”
FALL! The sky was falling!
I had no idea what I was looking at and so I can only describe what I saw in the fury of a moment – reflecting off the ice, glowing orbs spun around the ground like a meteor storm. Illusion or not, the light was literally crushing, pulling me down and straining the ice with a groaning, growing CRACK-ing – it was the sound of a skyscraper before it falls!
I swung on a tightrope, losing balance. More and more shimmers of light spun under the ice, almost like they were rising, and at the same time the surface of the ice was beginning to change, spreading from cracks and turning a shade of night, transforming the rink into a giant sinkhole!
Like a funnel or whirlpool the world was slipping! Gravity and darkness were pulling me back. The fence – the edge of this crater and freedom above was sliding higher and higher yet I was getting closer and closer but slower and slower, slowing to the point where soon my momentum would fail and I would fall back and-!
“. . . D R O W N . . .”
The air cut at my throat…
I was breathing so fast and it was so cold that for a moment it felt like I had swallowed freezing cold water. I was still shaking…
My hands clung to the fence and at first the rattling was all I could hear. In fact, it was all I could hear. The breaking and snapping, the grinding, melting voice in my head… was gone. The stars were gone. The black, endless void was gone.
I laughed – a manic laugh this time – and spun around, free from my fear and hallucination only to see that… Kelly was gone…
I looked around, sure she must have gone outside. Ran to get help? Maybe I was out of it – I was sure I was screaming. But it was all in my head, right?
Then I looked down…
The ice was frozen solid…
And so was the terror on her face…