I could feel the whale swaying in the waves, and I worried about not being able to find the opening to the throat again if I stumbled inside the stomach. I took a last gulp of hot air before pushing my head and arms through the slimy opening. It was no bigger than my body but thankfully it was wet. I squirmed and pulled my way through what felt like three feet of tunnel. My hands found the end and as far as I could tell, it was dry. I pushed my head through and opened my eyes but saw only darkness. I was relieved that I was able to breathe on the other side.
I spilled into the bottom of the whale’s mouth. I took a bigger mouthful of air and it was definitely better. I figured my best bet was to crawl straight ahead. If the throat was at the back of the whale’s mouth, then moving straight ahead in the darkness should put me in line with the baleen. I began to move along what must have been the whale’s enormous tongue. It was rough yet did not feel very wet. I found more fleshy terrain on the side and felt pockets of water. I touched something familiar and immediately felt a stinging sensation on my hand. It was a jellyfish and I cautiously felt for the smooth top. I grabbed it carefully by its edges and used my foot to find a pocket filled with seawater. I splashed water on top of it. It soon started to glow, providing some dim light. I moved along the edge of the whale’s mouth in search of more jellyfish and found another. Within a few minutes the second jellyfish started to glow. I felt a little better having some light to help me search for my surfboard leash.
But before I continued, I had to sit down to rest. I was trembling and knew that controlling my breathing was key to keeping calm. Whether it was the lack of oxygen, the swaying movement of the whale, or the horrible smell, I was becoming more nauseous and light-headed.
I tried to breathe as best I could and thought about what was happening on the outside. I pictured my father trying to hold it together and being strong for my mother. And I pictured my mother getting all hysterical. But then I pictured her regaining her focus and becoming calm. Breathing and praying. And relying on her faith. Now, more than ever, as I sat inside the mouth of the whale, I wished for the certainty that fueled my mom’s faith. Hope was not going to get me through this. I needed to believe.
Even with smaller breaths, I began to feel slightly calmer, but it didn’t take long for the incredibly foul odor of the whale’s mouth to overpower me. I started gagging and fought the impulse to breathe through my mouth. I knew that breathing through my mouth could trigger the panicky fight or flight response. Funny how both my mother and therapist were so hung up on teaching me to breathe through difficult situations and now I needed to breathe more than anything else. So, despite the smell, I willed myself to continue breathing through my nose. I desperately needed to stay calm so I could focus on survival.
After about five minutes of breathing, the only thing I found was the urge to vomit. My head was fuzzy and I felt really nauseous. I lay down on the tongue of the whale and moved my hand along the rough damp surface, taking shallow breaths through my mouth. For the most part the whale’s tongue was still, only the loud thumping of its heart reminded me that it was alive and struggling.
After a few minutes, I felt slightly less nauseous and slowly stood up. I tried to walk toward the baleen curtain but I lost it. I began jumping up and down on the tongue, getting angrier and angrier. I yelled, “Let me out! Let me out!” I stomped back and forth on the tongue hoping to make the whale move and open its mouth. After a minute of this I was exhausted and even more sick. I felt powerless and fell to my knees, pounding the tongue with my fists.
I shouted, “I want to live! I want to live!” Then I lay down and sobbed while choking on the toxic air. I cried myself into a troubled sleep.
I mumbled in my sleep, shivering from fear. My mind couldn’t rest and I agonized over how much time I had left. I searched my memory for that day in geometry class when we tried to figure out how long a person could survive if they were buried alive in a casket. I remembered the class coming up with an answer of about five hours…but it depended on the size of the casket, the size of the person, and their breathing rate. After the class had figured out the math, someone raised the issue that the trapped person would most likely lapse into a coma from the build up of carbon dioxide before the five hours was up. But given that the whale’s mouth was far bigger than a casket, I figured I had more than five hours, even with the CO2 build up. My size definitely worked in my favor. And remaining calm and slowing my breathing rate could add valuable minutes, maybe even an hour.
The variable in all of this was the air quality inside the whale. It was obviously not good. Maybe even poisonous. Something told me that I had a lot less than five hours.
Only half asleep, I was aware of my thoughts and slowed my breathing. Once calmer, I slowly drifted into a deeper sleep. Soon I was dreaming that I was with Dr. Evans in his office, but the office was actually a corridor at my high school.
We sat at the end of the hallway as students walked by, heading to their next class. A rush of water kept lapping up against me. It was a big black wave that turned to white water halfway down the hall. The students ignored it, trudging and splashing through it as though it was perfectly normal, while I watched it approach with terror. Each time it reached me, it had turned less powerful and smaller and I sighed with relief, until the next wave came. I was fixated on the waves as Dr. Evans spoke. It was a conversation we recently had in a therapy session, but I was now remembering a bizarre version of it in my dream.
“Jonah, let’s talk a little about the cyberbullying.”
I pulled my legs up onto the chair and wrapped my arms around my shins. My chin rested on my knees. Tears filled my eyes.
“Jonah, why didn’t your parents or the principal report the cyberbullying to the school resource officer?”
I took a deep breath and tried to focus on the question. “Because the kids deleted everything,” I answered, sniffing and wiping my eyes.
“So, there was no proof? You didn’t take a screen shot of any of the photos?”
“No. After the first incident, I deleted my only two social media accounts.”
“I see. And no one else came forward with information or evidence?”
“No. The school questioned a lot of kids but none of them would talk.”
“And did any of the bullies confess?”
“Not right away. Mr. Slater threatened to take all their phones and I guess a couple of them admitted that there was a video of me on Patrick’s phone. It was deleted though.”
“The one of you in the boys’ locker room?”
“Yeah,” I whispered, not wanting to relive the incident.
“Jonah, tell me what happened when your dad talked with Brian’s father on his own.”
“It didn’t go very well.”
“Did Mr. Pullman defend his son?”
“Can we talk about this later, Dr. Evans? I’m getting wet. I’m cold. I don’t want to talk about Brian Pullman.”
“I know you don’t Jonah, but lately, I’ve sensed that there is something else you are feeling toward Brian. And it isn’t hatred. I think if we explore this a little, you may find some answers. Tell me about his dad. Is he like your dad? Let’s start there.”
I exhaled loudly and shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “No. He isn’t anything like my dad. He’s a big man and he’s older. He’s worked for the highway department for many years. And every day after work he goes to a bar near his job. That’s where my dad went to meet him.”
“Okay. So, your dad met Brian’s dad at a bar. Was this a bar with music? Or was it a pub or a sport’s bar?” Dr. Evans asked.
“No. What does it matter? It was a bar,” I answered, annoyed.
“Was it a nice place? A friendly environment?” Dr. Evans pushed.
“No! Dad said it wasn’t nice. It was a run-down place. One of ‘those’ bars.”
“I see,” Dr. Evans said. He paused. Then asked, “What do you mean by one of ‘those’ bars?”
I sighed loudly. “You know. It’s a place you go to be alone.”
“Alright. You have established something important. What did your dad and Mr. Pullman talk about?”
“My dad introduced himself and he said Mr. Pullman wouldn’t look at him. My dad explained what had been happening at school.”
“Was this the first Mr. Pullman had heard of the bullying? Did he meet with the principal and your parents?”
I shook my head. “Mr. Pullman didn’t come to the meetings. Some of the other parents did but not Mr. Pullman. And I doubt Brian told his dad about bullying me.”
“Okay, so this may have been the first he was informed of it. What about Mrs. Pullman?”
“I…I don’t know if there is a Mrs. Pullman. I think...she might have died.”
“Okay.” He paused. “Also important. Perhaps the reason that Mr. Pullman goes to a bar every afternoon. Tell me a little more about the conversation between your dad and Mr. Pullman.”
I sighed again. “Well, it wasn’t really a conversation. My dad did all the talking because Mr. Pullman wouldn’t talk. My dad said he just looked down into his drink until my father stopped talking.”
“And what happened then?”
“Mr. Pullman said something like, ‘Sounds like my son needs to be taught a lesson.’”
“And how did your father respond to this Jonah?”
“It worried him.”
“Then what,” Dr. Evans said, pressing on.
“My dad asked him to please talk with his son and to go meet the school counselor.”
“And how did Mr. Pullman react to this?”
“He told my dad he would discipline his kid his own way and to butt out.”
“And do you think Mr. Pullman talked to Brian or took him to the school counselor?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think they saw the school counselor.”
“I see. Did your dad report this conversation back to the school?”
“Yeah he did.”
“The school seems to already know what Brian’s family life is like.”
“Okay, what else, Jonah. What is the story with Brian?”
I took a deep breath. “My dad told me that Social Services has been called in the past. There was talk of putting Brian in a foster home. Another reason why nobody really wants any cops or people like that involved. It’s probably why Brian has repeated a grade.”
“This is a difficult situation, Jonah. Did your father ask the school to deal with Brian?”
“My dad wasn’t sure how hard to push with the school. He’s pretty torn on whether he wants to cause more trouble for Brian.”
“And do you agree with your dad’s assessment here?”
I shrugged. “I guess I can see why he doesn’t want to create a big mess for Brian.”
“Yes. Except that it already is a big mess. And it’s affecting your life, Jonah.”
I stared back at the water rushing in and around the legs of his chair. I nodded and wiped away a tear.
Dr. Evans spoke softly. “Many people we meet in life are fighting a battle we know nothing about. Does this change your view of Brian?”
I continued to look away. “It backs up what everyone has been saying about him.” And then I looked directly at Dr. Evans. “But it still doesn’t make it right for him to take out his rotten life on me!”
“No, it certainly doesn’t, Jonah. You’re right. But it sheds some light on why he is behaving this way. And it makes it harder to hate him, doesn’t it?”
“Hell yeah! I actually feel sorry for him,” I snapped back. Then muttered, “Stupid ass bully.”
“Think about what you have that Brian doesn’t,” Dr. Evans said, leaning in from his desk toward me.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you have that he doesn’t? And I’m not talking about your very big brain or material things, like a nicer home.”
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t know. I can tell you what he does have. He has friends. And he has the upper hand.”
“Jonah, tell me what you have that he doesn’t.”
I thought for a moment then answered with attitude. “I have parents who care about me and love me.”
“Well…they spend time with me. And take an interest in my life.”
“Good. What else?”
“I don’t know.”
“Think Jonah. What has helped you get through this difficult year? Something that Brian desperately needs.”
“Oh.” I paused. “Faith. And God.”
Dr. Evans nodded. “Faith. And God.”
“But I’ve been questioning my own faith. My prayers have gone ignored. I’m struggling every day. Because of him!”
“That is precisely why you need to face the source of your doubt, Jonah.”
I sighed. “I know what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to tell me that this isn’t Brian’s fault. And that you want me to try to be his friend. Well, I can’t. He’s made my life absolutely miserable.”
“I know that. But don’t think of it as excusing his behavior, think of it as showing compassion. Remember the class you thought they should teach in school? Compassion for Dummies?”
I mumbled. “Where is my compassion?”
“We’ll get to that. Right now, I need you to understand that we can still be kind without being a door mat. It just means establishing some boundaries. Look, I know this is really hard, you have had an awful year. You would be right to say that this school year has been the worst year of your life. It’s revealed to you a world that seems to have gone cold and mean. But I suspect the world has felt that way for Brian for far longer.”
“I know Dr. Evans, but he is the cause of all my trouble and feeling negative about everything.”
“Well, perhaps he’s looking to drag you down into the darkness with him.”
I sat upright and stared at Dr. Evans.
“What is it Jonah?”
“I just remembered something. Once, Brian had me pinned to the ground after school. He got right in my face and he asked me, ‘Do you think you’re important Runt? Do you think you’re special?’ He kept demanding that I answer him. I finally whispered, ‘Yes.’”
“And what did Brian say?”
“He yelled, ‘Well you’re not!’”
Dr. Evans nodded. “Kids like Brian, who are in a lot of pain or who feel disrespected and are seen as less than fully human, especially by the adults in their lives, often deal with these feelings by bullying others. They’re showing someone who is often smaller or younger how they’ve been treated themselves.”
I said nothing.
Dr. Evans continued. “What did Brian do next?”
I shrugged. “He let me go. But he yanked off my sneakers, tied them together by their laces and threw them way up into a tree. Then he laughed and walked away.”
“Wow.” Dr. Evans shook his head. “Okay, well this will sound crazy but hear me out. I want you to consider something for me, Jonah.”
I shook my head no and thought to myself, please no, don’t ask me to do something nice for Brian. Dr. Evans was on a mission though.
“Jonah, what if you went and watched one of Brian’s baseball games? He’s pretty good, right?”
“Oh my God, no Dr. Evans!”
“Just bear with me, Jonah. He’s a good player, right?”
“Jesus. Yes, starting pitcher.”
“Okay, so go watch a game. With your dad. Or Mr. Chipchaw. When Brian gets up to bat, cheer him on…a little. Nothing crazy. But enough so he knows you’re there. And after the game go up and tell him he played great. With your dad or Mr. Chipchaw. Will he really tell you to fuck off if you have an adult with you?”
“No…I guess he wouldn’t. But he might come after me at school the next day. Come on Dr. Evans, I can’t go to a game and cheer him on. That’s seriously messed up.”
“It’s a repulsive thought right now but I need you to think about it. You may feel quite differently about it after you do it. And maybe after that game, go to another game. And then maybe after that, you could talk to Brian at school, with Mr. Chipchaw at your side, and see if he needs any help with his schoolwork. Perhaps during study hall. I’m assuming there’s an eligibility policy that says he must maintain good grades to play school sports?”
“Yeah…I heard there were games Brian missed during soccer and basketball season because his average went below passing. I think for both math and Spanish.”
I was silent for a minute. I thought it over but was still unsure about what Dr. Evans was suggesting.
“Jonah, do you think Brian’s father has ever gone to one of his games? Or that his dad is helping him with homework? Or has ever attended a parent-teacher conference? Do you think Brian has any adults in his life that are looking out for him?”
I knew the answer and my eyes welled up. “Don’t do this Dr. Evans! Don’t make me feel sorry for him! He’s a bully. He’s ruined everything for me. I hate him!”
“I know, Jonah. He has put you through hell.”
“So why would I ever be nice to him?”
“I think you know the answer to that.”
I stood up, pushing back my chair. It tipped over backward and made a splash. I shouted in Dr. Evans’s face, “Why do I have to be the one to do the right thing?! Why doesn’t Brian?! Why doesn’t anybody at my school do the right thing?! Why does all of this have to fall on my shoulders?! It’s not fair!”
Dr. Evans stood up and walked around his desk. He put his arm around me and began walking me down the hallway. As we walked, the water in the corridor receded, exposing the school’s cement floor. But it suddenly changed before my eyes and became the tongue of the whale. Dr. Evans motioned for me to have a seat on the floor of the whale’s mouth. And then he stood over me and put his hand on top of my head. He spoke softly.
“When I was your age and I was being bullied by those kids on the playground, I used to think about all the things that I would do if I weren’t afraid. I even made a list. Think about it, Jonah. What would you stand for if you knew no one would judge you? If you weren’t afraid. Would you forgive your enemies?
Here inside this whale, it’s kind of like hiding in the nurse’s office when you should be in gym class. And eating your lunch in the art room. And not letting Simone see what is really happening at school. It’s safer, but you’re hiding. It can’t feel good to hide in the nurse’s office during gym class. And it can’t feel good to be trapped inside this whale. Avoiding what you fear won’t free you from your pain or the feelings of anger and hatred. It will eventually suck all the air and life out of you.”
I looked up at Dr. Evans. “So, you’re saying I have to face my fears, I can’t run away and hide. Because avoiding them will still hurt me. Like being swallowed alive.”
Dr. Evans nodded and smiled. “A wise man named Rumi once said, ‘Love is the bridge between you and everything.’ That’s the connection, remember? And that bridge will serve you well, Jonah. Love is our truth, our positive energy force…our God. It’s who we put our faith in. And if you live each day with a very deliberate mindfulness, a purpose and belief that celebrates this connection between you and everything else, you will walk in God’s pure light. But only your faith can get you there, Jonah.
I know your doubt is heavy right now, but your faith is much stronger than you think it is. Even right now, the love in your heart already compels you to keep searching for the light in this darkness. It is scary and exhausting, and it can sting. But we must keep going. Even when we have been swallowed up in pain that has left us alone and in the dark. We cannot give up. And yes, Jonah, it does seem unfair that when we do the right thing, we often stand alone.”
Dr. Evans smiled down on me and then he turned and motioned towards the baleen curtain that hung from the whale’s upper mouth.
“Find the surfboard leash, Jonah. It’s here and it’s your connection to life on the outside. Hold on to it as tight as you can and do not let go.”
I started to stand and when I looked up again, Dr. Evans was gone. Then I realized I was awake and alone. Two jellyfish still radiated a soft and hazy light in the cold dark mouth of the whale. Its pounding heart vibrated through me, just as it had when I rode in the barrel of the wave and glided my hand along it. The thumping was deafening yet gave me hope, like the longer it stayed alive, the longer I did too.