I remember the first breath of fresh air with painful accuracy.
Water erupted from my lungs and each new gasp for air set fire to my chest. Then, life flowed into my lungs and rejuvenated my brain, my eyes, my fingers.
The world around me slowly came into focus. For a brief moment, I saw a man staring down at me. He laughed in anxious relief while he shined a light into my eyes.
I reached up to touch his bearded cheek and then the world went black.
I did not recognize the room I woke in—or the woman keeping watch by my bed. For a time, she didn't notice I was awake. So, she continued to hum quietly to herself while she knitted with remarkable speed.
Instinctively, my eyes followed the threads. They led to the cozy blanket keeping me warm. I now felt the cool breeze coming in through the open window and saw the last bit of orange steal across the sky.
"Sam!" Her face was alight with excitement when my eyes met hers. "Sam, she's awake!"
In the distance, I heard the loud stomping of hurried feet in the rooms below. The two-legged stampede then came up a staircase and down the hallway.
"Sam," I said his name as he entered the room. I remembered the same face that had hovered over mine when I took my first breath. That breath that had wiped all else from memory.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked me.
"You are Sam."
My answer pained him. "I'm your husband, Cara."
"My husband," I repeated. I closed my eyes and tried to remember. A boat swam into view as strong arms pulled me toward it. "The Black Maria."
He squeezed my hand. "Yes," he said. "That's our boat."
"Was," his mother said, disapprovingly. "Was your boat. You should have never sold it."
"How could I not?" Sam said with obvious exasperation. "Look what it almost cost me, Ma!"
"How long have I been asleep?" I asked him.
"Almost a week," he said. "Let me call the nurse."
I shut my eyes again and tried to remember. His face once again came into view and then he seemed to slip away from me as I fell deeper and deeper into foggy waters.
"Cara!" I could feel him shaking me.
I opened my eyes and tried to process the panic I saw in his own. "I'm tired, Sam."
"No, no. Stay with me, Cara. Let me call the nurse. It will only take a second."
I woke to the scent of blueberry pancakes and the warmth of the sun. The smell of coffee now made its way into the room. In the dark recesses of my mind, I seemed to remember that his mother always made the best brews.
"Miss Haddad," her name floated into memory.
Sam covered my hand in his and pressed it to his lips. "You're remembering, Cara. The nurse says you're doing well."
I laid my head against the pillows and saw the panic return to his eyes. "I'm not going to pass out again. How long did I sleep for this time?"
"Three days," he answered. "But, I knew you would wake up again, soon. The nurse stayed here with us." After a pause, he added, "Maybe in a few days you'll be well enough for a walk."
I was well enough by the following afternoon. Sam was away on business. He was as disappointed as he was relieved when Miss Haddad called to inform him we would be taking my first walk without him.
She fussed over me as if I were a mere child. It was a delightful feeling. I sat quietly and let her fix a hat on my head, wrap me in furs, and put shoes on my feet. Then, she took my hand and we walked outside for the first time.
Our home was no ordinary house. It was a beautiful log cabin set atop a hill. It overlooked a vast forest lit aflame by autumn colors. Beyond the trees, a lake reflected the celestial flames that had now begun to color the wisp of clouds overhead.
"This land has been in my family for a century," Miss Haddad said, taking my hand. "But, it was Sam's father who built this cabin with his own two hands. My father hired him for the job and I fell in love the second I laid eyes on him. But, Father did not approve."
The trees around us seemed to stretch upwards forever. Indeed, at times, the sky was all but lost to us as we crossed beneath the laden branches that had not yet dumped their autumn gold. In the distance, I could see the lake opening up before us.
I felt a prick of pain in my chest at the sight. It grew worse and worse as we grew closer. Miss Haddad tightened her grip on my hand as though to reassure me. My knees began to buckle, but she propped me up and we continued our walk onto the dock.
"He should have never sold the boat," she said of the empty spot where The Black Maria once proudly floated. "His father restored that. It was the last gift he gave us before Father finally chased him away."
She continued to speak, but I could not hear the words. The sunset colors had disappeared from the sky and the lake had gone black.
"Do you hear that?" I asked. "It almost sounds like the ocean. Doesn't it?"
"Cara!" Startled, I spun around to face the angry voice on the deck. In my haste, I lost my balance and into the foggy waters, I fell.
Hitting the water felt like hitting a concrete slab. I could almost hear my bones cracking against the force. Immobilized, I sank further and further, while The Black Maria floated overhead. And beyond that—was that a bridge?
Strong arms closed about me and pulled me from the water. My heart played the beat of panic in my chest. Sam removed the furs and wrapped me in the jacket he had thrown off before jumping in. He gently lifted me from the sand and brought me home, while Miss Haddad followed quietly behind us.
The gentleness he reserved for me was not passed on to his mother. When I had gone to bed, I could hear them arguing in the rooms below. Sam was furious that she had brought me back to the lake.
"You can't keep her here forever, Sam!" His mother shot back at him. "Sooner or later, she'll discover what's beneath those foggy waters. Let her go. There is life—real life—beyond them."
When I awoke the following morning, I felt certain I had misheard the conversation. Surely, there was nothing in the water but fish and sand. Was someone buried in its depth? Was Sam even my husband? What if I had been kidnapped and this story Sam concocted was all a lie?
"What's beneath the foggy waters?" I asked him when he brought me breakfast that morning.
He looked genuinely puzzled. "What do you mean? The boat? It's not wrecked. I sold it."
"I think I saw it when I was under the water—and a bridge."
He touched the back of his hand to my forehead. "Cara, the boat is gone and there is no bridge here. Just promise me you'll stay away from the water."
When he left for work, Miss Haddad returned to my room with coffee and her knitting gear. "He was very upset last night, but don't you mind him. If the lake summons you, you must answer it. I will go back with you in the evening if you like."
I shuddered at the thought. "He'll be furious with us."
"He doesn't want you to discover what's beneath the foggy waters," she said. "I'm grateful he saved you from certain death. He always did have a way with the dolphins. But, there is life beyond this threshold. Face your fears and go back."
Her words confused me, but I was now desperate for answers. "How did I fall into the water—the first time?"
"You didn't fall," she answered. "You jumped. If you want to find the answer, you'll have to jump again."
That evening, Sam called to say he would return later than expected. It was as though the universe had confirmed I should, indeed, betray my promise to him. It was time to seek the truth that lay beneath the foggy waters.
The lake seemed to have crept closer to the house overnight. A crisp breeze swept over the surface, causing ripples in its fiery-colored depths. That familiar prick of pain took hold of me again. My palms sweated so much that I tried to let go of Miss Haddad's hand, but she only held me tighter.
"Not yet, darling," she told me, her voice breaking. "How easy it would have been to keep you here with me, forever. What a beautiful little family we could have had. And, yet, I know I should not."
She hugged me as though this was our last goodbye. "Go home," she said, "because unlike us, you can."
Her words confused me even more than they had in the morning. Yet, already I could hear the steady roar of the ocean. I shut my eyes and listened.
Was it the memory of my forgotten life? Had Sam hurt me? Was that the secret the lake held in its dark depths?
As I listened, the roar of the ocean turned into something far more familiar. How deceivingly similar highway traffic was to the sound of waves crashing against the shore. I now felt the wind against my face and the tears down my cheek.
The traffic and the ocean roared as if in anguish and then meshed into one. Then, 746 feet disappeared beneath me and I plunged into the ocean below.
I thought of the parents who had abandoned me and the households I had trespassed in since then. I had moved to San Francisco with high hopes and big ambitions, but it had all come to naught—and now, so had I.
I was filled at once with instant regret and complacency—a combination I had fought against since I was three years old. How ironic that in my final moments, it should all become clear to me.
I had punished everyone around me for the rejection of parents I could not even remember. Fear had starved me of the love and affection I sought and could have had, if I had only opened myself up to the possibility of healing.
It all made sense now. But, it was much too late.
Above me, the water seemed to ripple and explode. I felt myself going up and up and up toward the surface. I gasped for air and bolted upright.
I looked around at the machines humming quietly, keeping me alive. Next to my bed was the man whose imagined likeness I had left behind in another world. "Sam Haddad?" I greeted him. "What are you doing here?"
"You remember me." He smiled.
"Yes, you're the nice stranger who rescued me on your boat. I think I was dreaming and I met your mother. She helped me wake up. Is she—is she dead?"
Sam reached over and flipped a switch on the machines monitoring my heart rate. "I was a paramedic in a former life," he said in explanation. "You seem well enough and I'd like to talk to you before the nurses come running, if that's alright."
"Only if you tell me what happened to your mother," I bargained.
"She's been dead for 10 years." Just when I thought I might have to press, he continued. "My grandfather objected to my parents' marriage. Grandpa was a wealthy Jew and my father was a Black, middle-class contractor.
"Whether it was race, wealth, or both, my grandfather was intent on separating them. Eventually, he succeeded. One day, we woke up, and Dad was gone.
"Ma spent most of my childhood trying to find him. His family wouldn't tell her anything and Grandpa swore he had nothing to do with it, even on his deathbed.
"Then, ten years ago, Ma found him. She was so nervous, she didn't call until the following afternoon. When she called, a nurse answered the phone. He had passed away an hour earlier.
"In his will, he left everything to both of us, including the $500,000 Grandpa had paid him off with to stay away. He had known where we were all along, but Grandpa had sufficiently convinced him that he would have been nothing but a burden in our lives.
"Mom was hysterical when she called me. Stupidly, I offered to take her out on the boat Dad restored years ago, for a quiet evening. I thought it might soothe her nerves. But, while I was down in the kitchen getting her the water she had sent me for, she jumped overboard. I jumped in to save her, but it was too late.
"I don't think I understood my parents' attachment to each other until that day. It took me a long time to truly grieve and find forgiveness. The day I found you was the 10-year anniversary of my mom ending her life."
I took a moment to process everything he had said, unsure of how to offer him comfort. I didn't know what it was like to love or to be loved. I understood only what it was like to be deserted.
So, I told him what everyone had always told me. "I'm sure your mother loved you very much."
"She did. I don't doubt that," he replied. "But, what she discovered was more than she could bear."
After a moment, it dawned on me that none of this explained why he was in my room. "But, why did you come to see me, tonight?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
The loud clatter of a pen and clipboard on the tiled floors startled me. Sam and I looked toward the door. "You're awake!" the nurse exclaimed. "Let me get the doctor."
"I think it's time for you to go back to sleep," Sam said, gently touching my arm. "They'll only trouble you unnecessarily."
"Oh, no! I'm terrified that if I go back to sleep, I'll wake up on the other side of the universe again." I shut my eyes and leaned back into my pillows. "I know I'm a long way from recovery, but I feel I've been given a second chance to open myself up to truly living for the first time."
I breathed deeply, grateful for life and the fresh air. Then, a great weight pressed against my face. I reached up to remove it and felt the strong arms that had rescued me from the depths of the ocean.
"Go back to sleep, Cara," he said, his voice breaking.
I kicked and screamed and fought like I had never fought before in all my life. Pain shot through my broken body, but it was better than certain death. I knew that now.
"Cara!" I recognized the nurse's voice. She ripped the pillow from my face and then began to check the room for the intruder. Another nurse attempted to calm me and offered to give me something to soothe me or put me to sleep. I refused.
When the police arrived, their confusion was apparent. "Vanished without a trace," the detective said. "Like a ghost, the way the nurses describe it."
I had sat quietly for the past half an hour, but I had to know. "Officer, the day I jumped from the bridge, what was the name of the man who rescued me and pulled me onto his boat?"
He looked at me with some concern. "Is that what you remember?"
"Yes, a gentleman on a boat called The Black Maria."
The officer looked disturbed by this revelation. He took the seat next to my bed and studied me for a moment, as if weighing the pros and cons of telling me what he knew.
"Cara, you were rescued by a dolphin. It swam up right under you and floated you to shore, but that was a nasty fall. Doctors thought you might not even wake up. Locals launched a GoFundMe to keep you on the machine and it's been paying for it all this time."
He fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat. "As for The Black Maria, I worked on that case. It was tragic. Happened ten years ago. Mom and son go out for a quiet evening on the bay.
"The Mom jumps—or falls, no one knows for sure—off the boat. Son realizes a few minutes later and jumps in to save her, but drowns in the process.
"Samuel Hajid? No Samuel Haddad—his name was. Now that I think about it, the day you jumped off that bridge was the 10-year anniversary." He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "And...the man you described tonight sounds an awful lot like him."
After the police officer left that night, a nurse and a security guard kept watch in my room. I refused to sleep or let them medicate me, for fear that I might wake in the arms of the man who had been willing to murder me in this life to have me forever in the other.
By midnight, my eyelids felt like bits of lead over my eyes. My body hurt and my head began to spin. I asked the nurses for stimulants, anything to keep me awake. But, they refused the request.
And so, inevitably, I drifted back into the arms of sleep and woke to the gentle caressing of my head. The scent of coffee and blueberry pancakes assaulted my senses.
Sam pressed a kiss to the top of my head while tears rolled down my cheeks.
"Welcome back, Cara. I've missed you."