I cupped my hands and filled them with seawater. I tried to cover the jellyfish with more water to keep them alive and glowing. My head throbbed. I had to fight to stay alert. All I wanted to do was sleep. I splashed water on my face to wake myself up. Then I realized that the whale had stopped moving. The swaying had stopped. I thought, maybe it’s beached itself? But remembered that wasn’t possible, the whale would be crushed under its own weight once beached. And it couldn’t have drifted out to calmer water, the wind and waves were moving against it. It must have been towed out to calmer water!
This realization inspired me to move quickly and get as close as I could to the opening of the whale’s mouth. I pushed through the baleen curtain and pressed my ear directly against the blubber and listened. I heard something out there but it wasn’t the water. It sounded like the motor of a boat, but muffled. And did I hear voices? Maybe I was imagining it? I started to yell for help but stopped. I was afraid to yell because I knew it would use up more oxygen if I got excited and started panting. I already felt really sick from the thin toxic air.
I decided to move along the seam of the mouth and search for the surfboard leash. As I felt my way along, I closed my eyes and pictured my family, Dr. Evans, Mr. Chipchaw, and Simone and her family. Even Jesse Williams. I tried to stay calm without slipping into sleep. I saw them all in the black behind my eyes and smiled a little. I thought of the song that Simone sang in church. The same song from my nightmare. A nightmare that had haunted me for so long but now seemed silly. If I had the strength and knew it wouldn’t waste air, I would have laughed out loud. And as fuzzy as my mind was, the song was clear.
As I moved along the ridge of the whale’s mouth with the song in my head and the image of the people who mattered most to me, my fingers finally found the leash. I followed it to the whale’s lips and tugged hard on it. It barely moved. Then I tried to shove my arm in between her lips to reach the outside but I couldn’t get very far, just up to my forearm. I followed the leash to the strap. I thought for a moment whether to strap the leash to my wrist or my leg. My head bobbed a couple of times and I fought to think things through. I was nodding off. I focused on what Dr. Evans had said. I needed to hold on tight, this leash was my bridge to the outside. My only connection to my life and everyone else.
I took the leash and wrapped it twice around my waist and then attached the Velcro strap to my wrist. Next, I curled up under the lower lip of the whale, right underneath where the leash entered the whale’s mouth. I lay there in a little ball and tried to hum the song against the constant beating of the whale’s heart. I fell asleep within seconds.
I had no idea how much time had passed but suddenly I was awake. The whale was moving. My stomach did flips with the motion of the whale’s head going up and down. I tried to hold on to the leash and baleen plates and stay in the same spot but it wasn’t easy. I felt weak and sick. I even thought I heard someone shouting my name, but I couldn’t be sure. Then after a few minutes it all stopped and the whale was calm. It was now completely dark inside its mouth. The bouncing and thrashing had tossed the jellyfish around and they no longer glowed in their small puddles of seawater. Shivering and unsure what to expect next, I hung on to the leash and waited. And then I sensed that the whale was actually swimming. The motion was soothing and I started to drift off again.
I fought to stay awake but it was getting harder. I tried to concentrate on what was happening. I guessed that the whale must have gotten free or been cut free from the net. But when tangled in the net, the winds must have pushed the whale toward the Point, where I'd been surfing. And now somehow free, it must be headed back out to sea and would definitely need to lunge feed. I wondered how long it would take before the whale found the dense balls of krill by San Miguel Island. What if the whale had to swim an hour or more? Could I last that long? And if it sensed krill sooner and dove, even a shallow dive, what would happen to me?
I knew the answer and it terrified me. Because it meant a tsunami of water would rush in once the whale opened its mouth. And that seemed impossible to survive. But this was my only escape! I had to stay conscious and fling myself out, right as the whale opened its mouth. And I needed my surfboard leash to help me do it.
I told myself this, over and over again. And then I passed out and sleep carried me back to another dream where I was meeting with Dr. Evans. Once more, we were in his office which was strangely in the middle of an empty school corridor.
The floors were filled with sea water rushing in all around us. We had stopped playing Aquasphere and had moved onto a new game suggested by Dr. Evans. It was called Knight’s Quest. It was a complicated game with many pieces. I wasn’t really into the medieval figurines and war but tried to give it a chance, planning out my attacks. Dr. Evans took out my paladin and grinned. He stood up and walked around to me.
“Time to surrender,” he said. And then suddenly an army of knights stood with him shoulder to shoulder. They were the students at my school, I didn’t know what was happening. I stood up and took a step backward, but they advanced on me. I turned and began to run, splashing through the hallways. I heard them charging after me and Dr. Evans calling for me to stop. Why had he sided with the army of kids at school?!
I turned down the next hallway but was blocked by another army of knights! This one led by Simone and Jesse! The group behind me caught up and suddenly I was surrounded. I backed up against the wall, now waist deep in water. And then the biggest knight of all came toward me. He was laughing and I immediately recognized it was Brian Pullman. My heart pounded out of my chest. The water receded and I crouched down, cowering and trembling, waiting for the first blow from Brian. I held my arms up in front of my face and cried, “Please, please don’t!”
But the blow didn’t come. I dared to raise my eyes over my arms and looked up at Brian. He towered over me but had stopped his advance. He just stood there. I tried to look closer, to see through his armored mask. His eyes were wild with anger, but he still didn’t come for me.
I lowered my arms and sat up a little straighter. Brian just stood there. I stopped cringing and my face softened. Brian’s shoulders sank. He dropped his sword and I heard him sigh through the mask. Wobbly, I stood up, my back against the school wall. But Brian just stood there. I took a step closer and reached up, lifting his mask. His eyes were red, he looked tired and no longer determined to beat me to a pulp.
Without thinking, I heard myself say, “It’s exhausting being mad all the time, isn’t it?”
He nodded and sniffed, looking down.
I looked past Brian towards everyone who had been surrounding me. Dr. Evans, Simone, Jesse, Mr. Chipchaw, and everyone else at school. Their armor and weapons started to melt off and bleed onto the floor. They stood there dressed in their normal clothes and they were smiling at me. Then they began to fade away, blending into the walls, which turned from school gray into the glorious colors of a sunrise - something that I had watched countless times with my dad, every time we got up for dawn patrol. It was my favorite time to surf. Sometimes we didn’t even ride, we just sat on our boards rolling over waves, as the sky miraculously changed into a new day.
But standing there with Brian was like seeing a sunrise for the first time. I finally saw those colors, but not as a distant beautiful picture far from my reach. Those colors were now part of my world. The sunrise before me was a composition of every person in my life, it held every experience I had ever lived, good and bad. Maybe this was real and all those other sunrises had been distorted, because until now, I had never really seen things as they are.
I had seen a playful and happy Simone, until she shared her sadness over her family. I saw an angry and mean Brian, until removing his mask revealed a boy who was hurting badly. And then me. I wasn’t sure I recognized myself. I tried to pretend things were okay, but they weren’t. We were all carrying a secret pain and going it alone. But it didn’t have to be that way. Suddenly dark storm clouds covered my amazing sunrise that had spread across the school walls. They rapidly filled the space all around us. I looked at Brian and his shoulders began to shake as he started to sob. I reached out and touched his arm. I didn’t fear him anymore, I only felt compassion and an incredible need to forgive this bully crying before me.
“Brian, we need to go,” I said, the dark clouds thundering loudly around us.
He shook his head no.
“I’m staying here. I’m tired of fighting. Tired of being mad.”
“Brian, it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling. Even if it’s being mad at the world. And mad at God. Mad because your mom is gone. Mad because your father takes it out on you.”
His eyes, full of pain, finally met mine. “I miss her so much,” he whispered.
“I know. But you don’t have to go through this alone. There are people who care about you and will help you through this. I’ll help you through this.”
“You would do that for me, Jonah? After what I did to you?”
He gave me a small smile. I smiled back.
And then the storm clouds hardened into the dark purple inside of the whale’s mouth. The thundering returned to the whale’s beating heart. The light was fading fast. I looked down and saw the whale’s enormous tongue under my feet. Brian looked at me and smiled even wider.
“I’ll see you on the surface,” he said.
“What? Wait! Wait for me!” I yelled.
I frantically grabbed him by his arms, but he disintegrated into a million tiny water bubbles. I heard an incredibly loud but low-frequency rumbling. And a repetitive whistle. It sounded like a jet engine right in my ears.
I felt the whale moving. The whale’s calls had jarred me awake. I fought to concentrate on what I needed to do. Suddenly, the significance of this whale crossing paths with me was undeniable! This very hard and awful part of my life, that I had spent so many months running from, and almost gave into that day on the window ledge and again in the surf, I was facing it, and I knew what I had to do. And I fought to stay conscious.
The whale’s movement felt calmer but I struggled to understand what was happening in a haze of rising carbon dioxide. I settled in more firmly under the ridge of the whale’s lower lip. Although it was hard to stay awake, I believed that as soon as the whale began to feed, I would be awakened by the enormous rush of water into its mouth. I kept telling myself it would all work out as I started to pass out again. And then suddenly, I felt a powerful tug on the leash and my head began to pound with even greater intensity.
The whale’s momentum shifted, and its mouth started to open! Water poured in at a ferocious rate! I took my last breath and slid my arm up towards the whale’s bottom lip. I had zero strength. I couldn’t even feel my arms. It would have been easier to hide underneath the whale’s lip and disappear forever, but I knew now that my life was worth fighting for. I wanted to live and join my family and the rest of the world, as hard as that may be. I reached my arm up farther and tried to hold on. It took every ounce of strength I had to try to pull myself up towards the top of the lower lip.
The force of the water was working against me, and the power of the whale’s dive was even stronger than I imagined. But I couldn’t give up! And as I fought to escape, I was suddenly yanked out of the mouth and flung underneath the body of the whale!
I held onto my surfboard leash, with both hands and all my might. My surfboard took me with it as the whale sped past. We flew under and along the whale’s body, rushing past the grooves of its throat and belly at a frantic rate of speed. The whale’s body went on forever! I squeezed my eyes tightly and tried not to let go as we raced towards its enormous tail. And then in an instant, the fluke swished by us. My surfboard spun around and around after the whale left us in its wake.
My body felt paralyzed. My lungs screamed for air and every cell felt like it was being crushed. I hung there in the ocean for a couple of seconds as my surfboard seemed to forget that it could float. A moment later my board finally began to rise toward the surface, pulling me with it. As I tried to see, I recognized this scene from my nightmare. I could still hear the whale’s heart beat but also a low rumble. It grew louder and louder, changing to a beautiful whale call. And then I heard the song in my head. It was from my dream. The one Simone sang.
But unlike my dream, I wasn’t hanging by my clothes from a bully, I was holding onto my surfboard leash. My connection to the surface, to my flawed but beautiful life. I wasn’t going to let go, just like Dr. Evans said, I was rising up from my despair. And I no longer felt scared and powerless. I believed I would make it, I had faith now. And my faith told me to hold on and not give up.
I couldn’t move my limbs to kick so I just concentrated on holding my breath and hanging onto the leash. The board gained speed as it floated upward. I could finally see sunlight through the water as the surface grew closer. Just like I had in my dream. The song stayed with me as the world above came within my reach. I thought I could even make out the shape of the whale off in the distance but I wanted to look up. And just as I thought the journey to the top would never end, I broke through the surface. I took a giant gulp of fresh air. Followed by another breath and then another.
I was too weak to tread water, but with a tug on the leash I was able to pull the surfboard within reach. I couldn’t get up on my board, I had no strength left. So I lifted my head and rested my chin on my board until I was able to get my arms up. Then I rested my head and just kept breathing. The fresh salt air never tasted and smelled so good. I also kept my eyes open and watched for the whale. Half a minute later it surfaced nearby! I watched it spout through its blow hole and float at the top.
After a few seconds, I slowly tried kicking my legs, moving toward the whale. It felt like forever, but the whale seemed to wait patiently for me. I could see that this magnificent creature was, in fact, a blue whale. As I reached the whale, I held onto my board with one arm while daring to touch the beautiful blue with my free hand. Its giant eye followed me as my hand rested on the magnificent animal. I felt its heart beat vibrate through me again, like when I was inside. The whale exhaled loudly through its blowhole.
“You really are the heartbeat of the ocean,” I whispered. And I knew the whale had helped me to find the heart to keep fighting for my life. The heart to trust and believe. And also, to forgive.
I took a deep breath, finally feeling a little stronger.
“Now we’re both free…I’ll never forget you,” I whispered. And I touched my forehead to the whale’s skin and held it there for a long moment. Then I gently pushed myself away from the whale and finally got up onto my board. The whale kept its eye on me for a few seconds more and then swam off. I could feel its heart beat still humming through the water.