Hair floating upward, hand reaching toward the sunlight that got further and further away, and panic, an indescribable amount of fear and panic, that’s what it felt like to drown. Penelope James knew how drowning felt because the summer after her sister died she almost died herself. She wasn’t trying to commit suicide or anything. She just wanted to see if grief felt similar. If losing a piece of you, someone you gave so much of your heart to, felt like drowning. She needed to know.
She remembered that day clearly. Charlie, Mordechai, Jade, little Danny, his friends, like Zion, Topanga, and Conan, all decided to enjoy the sun and lake. It was one of the last good memories she had with her friends, before they let their demons take control of their lives. Everyone had gotten out of the water to make sandwiches and dry in the sun. Everyone except Poppy.
Poppy wasn’t scared of a little water over her head. She could recall pushing her body down deep enough to where she couldn’t hear the music and chatter from the lake-side where everyone else was. Her hair rose like seaweed, upwards, and the silence became a comforting blanket to her. The water at least in this moment was exactly what she wanted. Isolation and the noise, all that noise, no longer bothering her.
Drowning was quiet, movements ever so subtle. Rarely were they like the movies. One minute Poppy’s head was bobbing above the water, the next… she was gone. When she realized she had stayed down too long, knowing everyone else would see she was missing, with the little energy she had, Poppy tried to swim back up. She didn’t have any fight left in her, but she couldn’t let this be her goodbye. She promised Max she’d live a life for the both of them. She promised Max. She promised.
Unfortunately, Poppy waited too long. She could see all the people that meant the world to her, like they were the oxygen she breathed, and this feeling, this feeling was torturous. Overwhelmed with the sensation of this immense despair, this impending doom just around the corner waiting for her, she couldn’t think. Like grief, drowning took over every part of her. Drowning was all that she could feel. Drowning was like losing someone and that someone became the saddest part of her. Drowning was a feeling.
This feeling, how does one describe it? Like a gun to your head, forced to not even let your heartbeat. But of course it would, your heartbeat needed to go on, and just like the heart, your lungs needed air. When she couldn’t hold her breath anymore, the cold water came rushing in, and all the thoughts she once had were taken away by oxygen deprivation. Poppy hoped no one would be sad when she was gone. She hoped they knew how much she loved them. She hoped they saw that she wasn’t going to be alone. Maxine was waiting for her on the other side. Maxine was waiting for her. Maxine was waiting. Maxine.
Before the current could take her any further, a hand grabbed onto her and forcibly pulled her upwards. Breaking the surface, into safety, Poppy profusely coughed. In Decky’s arms, her eyes barely open, he searched her face frantically to make sure she was still breathing. Since he was only a beginner swimmer, having been taught by Maxine before her passing, he struggled to pull Poppy back to the shore. That is until Charlie came to help. After gently grabbing her from his friend, relieving him from the weight, Charlie tightened his hold on his Poppy, partly out of fear and partly out of anger. He wanted to protect her but he was mad at her, all at the same time.
The boys swam back to the rest of the crew. Charlie was quick to swoop Poppy up in a princess carry and with long strides, he brought her to the park bench. Simultaneously, Jade and Danny rushed to Decky who was struggling to catch his breath and helped him out of the water. The rest of the kids surrounded the group with clear concern and worry written on their faces but they didn’t want to get in anyone's way. No matter how badly they wanted to help.
Poppy couldn’t tell if she was fading or waking up but now that she was laying on a park bench she could see Charlie and only him. Slowly she registered reality and found herself locked in his serious gaze. She didn’t know what to say. Should she say sorry? Was she even sorry? She didn’t know what he wanted her to say.
And she didn’t need to because the boy gingerly sat her up, leaning her against him, and scolded her in a tone she wasn’t used to, “Don’t you ever do that to me again. Don’t you dare leave me. My heart doesn’t beat if you‘re not beside me. What were you thinking, Poppy?”
He was mad. He was big mad.
In response, Poppy frowned. She didn’t mean to worry him or scare him to death. She didn’t mean to worry him or their friends. She didn’t mean to be so reckless all because she was sad. Her green eyes went from him to everyone else as she could feel her own grief take surface once more, just like how she felt when she was drowning. They were one in the same. A sensation that washed over you, taking over all your senses, until all that you could see was that feeling. The feeling of drowning. When she didn’t respond to him, Charlie caressed her face, leaned his forehead against hers, and whispered, “Are you okay?”
Poppy’s eyes opened. She found herself no longer by the lake. She wasn’t wet. She was warm. There was no struggle to grasp for air. She could breathe with ease. There was no music playing but it wasn’t silent. She could hear one thing. A heartbeat. The sun was rising, an iris of fire, radiating gold through a window that wasn’t her’s. Her green eyes welcomed a new day. Poppy was here. Still breathing.
Leaning into the chest of the person beside her, she thought to herself, ‘A dream…’
The dream was more vivid than usual because it was a memory put on replay. She hadn’t thought of that incident in years. So strange for it to reappear all of a sudden. As she started to wake up, Poppy took in the oh-so-familiar scent of smoke, leather, and sandalwood that was her friend, Mordechai. Originally, they had their own room but Poppy struggled sleeping. She usually did when she was in unfamiliar territory. Mordechai being the loveable fool that he was didn’t mind them sleeping together. In all honesty, it helped him just as much as it helped her.
Glancing up at him, her head resting on his chest, she watched his soft breathing. His chest lightly moved her in a gradual up-and-down motion. Carefully, she slid off him and crept off the bed. Tiptoeing to the window, with a big, plain white tee and gray pajama shorts on, she peered through it, the curtain half open, and saw serenity. Transitioning from the world of dreams to day, Poppy longingly observed her new environment, the Reservation, and pondered her dream. She wasn’t happy. She wasn’t sad. She was there. In a moment of time that would be another page to her ever growing story.
How could she spin her memory, her dream, into something tangible? Something she could feel? A wandering soul in search of a wish. For wasn’t dreams just that? A wish. If she had dreamt that memory at any other time, she might’ve woken up crying. Instead of feeling sorry for herself or being stuck in a nightmare, she saw the good in it. She saw her friends. She saw her love for her sister. She saw Charlie.
Poppy found herself smiling. Look how much she's changed, for the better. As much sadness as she did have in her, and still does, she could feel peace. Something she hadn’t felt in a long time. This trip was something else. She didn’t know how to put it in words but all that noise that kept her up at night wasn’t on her mind. The dream washed her anxiety away and made her believe that she was okay.
Poppy felt okay.
Mordechai had awoken once Poppy had removed herself from the bed, having felt the loss of her warmth and slight weight. He took his time in the soft bed, stretching his stiff limbs and cracking his joints as needed before he finally rolled over onto his stomach and opened his eyes. He immediately found his petite friend silhouetted by the light of the rising sun peeking through the large window. The sunlight seemed to emit from her, as if knowing she was the unintentional beacon of hope to their lost little trio.“Mornin’ Pops,”
Mordechai called to her as he got up off the bed, his own white t-shirt hanging off his frame, wrinkled not only from sleep but from his careless packing the morning before. He gave out a loud yawn before continuing. “Risin’ with the sun like a psycho?”
Keeping her gaze toward the sunrise, she lightly chuckled and quoted, “I hope you realize that every day is a fresh start for you. That every sunrise is a new chapter in your life waiting to be written.”
She looked over to her friend, the smile still on her gentle face, and added, “Confessions of a Wallflower by Juansen Dizon.”
It was strange.
The more she healed, the more like Charlie she became and she didn’t even realize it. All the things Charlie once loved were now part of her. All the things Charlie hoped for, she held close to her heart with the desire to hope for the both of them now. No matter how much hurt she carried, she saw the best in people and for every life she lost, she continued to remember them openly, tenderly, and oh so fiercely. All does beautiful departed, she felt deeply, like she was the heart of the town, and Edenridge was the body. She valued and saw others for who they were. And still, she still found room to love them. No matter how many tears she had left to cry. She loved them. Turning on her bare heels, she put her hands behind her back and intertwined her fingers. “‘Side for risin’ with the sun like a psycho, did you sleep okay?”
she playfully grinned.
Mordechai looked away from the new day dawning through the window to smile softly down at her and nod. “Never sleep better than when I feel safe,”
He said honestly. And it was true, when he slept with someone that he trusted it was the only time he truly relaxed in his sleep. The first time he slept well, really slept well, was the first time that he and Danny had passed out with Charlie, Jade, Max and Poppy after a game night at Beau’s. Even with Sonny, the risk of their parents loomed over their heads until they became serpents, and even then some. As a Serpent in the dorms there was always a chance of being woken at the drop of a dime for a job or a fight. But as a kid, just a kid, that had just spent hours playing games with his friends and brother under the protective roof of a community staple, that was when he and Danny both first learned what it meant to sleep in safety.
That was what he had been dreaming about before he woke up, a time of light and warmth that he’s slowly been finding his way back to more and more, even with the people now missing from the picture. Poppy had been a big part in that, so had Badger, Legs and the kids. Now, Jade was back and Mordechai was on the mend in more ways than one.“How ‘bout you? Ya sleep well?”“Sorta,”
she shrugged, not knowing if she did or not but at least she didn’t feel tired. Leaving her friend’s side, Poppy went to the bed and out of habit, started making it. This was her way of decreeing they were up and they would not go back to the land of dreams. They could get breakfast and enjoy the reservation with no rush, Bask in the fresh air. The sun was awake and so were they. As she removed the blankets and pillows, placing them on a nearby storage bench, she asked out of the blue, “Do you remember the day I drowned?” “How could I forget,”
Mordechai laughed, not as uncomfortable as he thought he’d be remembering that day. “My dumbass tried ta play lifeguard and almost let us both drown. I know ya weren’t tryin’a drown that day but ya still gave us all a hell of a scare. Why?”“I dreamt about it,”
she admitted, walking to the sheets and straightening them on the bed. “I spent the past two years numb. Didn’t do much. Like clockwork. Woke up. Went to work. Came back home. Laid on my floor. Repeat.”
Gliding her hand on the sheets, making sure they were limited in the wrinkle department, she continued to reminisce of a chapter long gone, “I remember that day so vividly and I remember at the time I wanted to feel something that wasn’t this… sensation.”
She placed her hand on her chest, her way of displaying her grief, her pain, “I wanted to compare it to something real. I wanted to see how drowning felt.”“Okay,”
He replied, head tilted. She was able to tell him the meaning behind that day, which is an answer to a question that up until now he had just gone without, the memory coming back to him occasionally through the years and making him wonder again. Now that he did have a bit of an answer though…well it didn’t sound too different from his reasoning for his first needle. It didn’t leave him worried for his friend as it once might have, because he knew she was simply reminiscing to sort out her thoughts. “I’m the last person you’ll catch judgin’ about tryin’a feel different from your constant mood. Not exactly the way I went about it, but we all do shit differently.”
She simply nodded at his compassion and understanding as she reached for the quilt and waved it over the bed. “I got so numb before the whole Allison thing that I started breaking mirrors to feel. I don’t know if you noticed yet but all the mirrors in my family’s house have been removed. That’s because of me.”
It was oddly relieving to tell someone all this that wasn’t her parents or Shannon. She didn’t know if she was weird or not for doing half the shit she did, but what she did know was feeling was good. Feeling meant she was alive. Even if it was drowning. She wanted to feel. “Before everything that was high school happened, I’ve been so… inward. Selfish. I was too focused on myself to notice that you didn’t hesitate to save me, even if you only just learned how to swim. I didn’t notice how much everyone was freaking, solely because Poppy James decided to do a little experiment. Charlie too…”
When she was done putting the blankets on, she paused to look at Mordechai, “I’m quite the lucky girl to be loved by you guys and now, now I finally feel it. Now I see it.”
While not at all surprised by her honesty, Mordechai was slightly taken aback by the actual words. He had never once thought that Poppy had been selfish. Even back when it all first happened all he cared about after catching his own breath had been making sure she was alright. He had swam out to her and pulled her above water while stupidly trying to ask her questions, which in turn had caused him to almost go under with her until Charlie had taken over. At the time the only thoughts he had were for her safety and health, and he never expected any worry for him outside Danny and their friends fretting over him. Thinking of Poppy James as having been selfish, especially after everything she’s done for him since the very first day they met…it just didn’t compute.“Pops…I left town when Danny died. Immediately, literally less than twenty four hours after the fact. Ya sat in your grief for months and then one day tried somethin’ for a little longer than ya planned,”
Mordechai looked into those green eyes filled with thousands of stories waiting to be told, trying to pick out where their’s will go based on where they’ve already been. “I’m not sayin’ any’a this ta discount what you’re tellin’ me, let’s be clear on that. I’m glad you’re seein’ and feelin’ the love you’ve always deserved,”
He took her pause in making the bed to put his hands on her shoulders, keeping them grounded together. “But I think ya need ta be a little kinder on yourself, especially your past self. It’s real easy for me ta look back at shit I did and judge it even while knowin’ full well how I was feelin’ at the time, but the truth is I don’t know how much I’d have done differently. ‘Cause Pops, time dulls all the emotion driven moments and thoughts that we had back then. It makes us forget just how much seemed outta our hands and how big and cold the world felt at that age. Ya gotta remember that when you’re lookin’ at things ya did in the past, you’re just judgin’ a kid that was tryin’a figure out life.”“Maybe you should take your own advice, Mordechai,”
Penelope teased, casually reaching up to move some of his hair out of his face. It was getting long. “I get what you’re saying. Believe me, I do. But this isn’t just an age thing, you know?”
She rested her hands on his, while he still held her, to show he meant what he said, “Just a month ago all I could think about was me. That’s the thing about drowning. All your thoughts kind of disappear. All you can think about is fear, panic… your grief.”
Poppy removed his hands from her shoulders so that she could hold them, feel them. He was here and she was with him. This wasn’t a dream. He was back and they were changing for the better. “That day I really didn’t give a fuck that Charlie went dark and likely shot the majority of people that were there. All I cared about was: they don’t know the Charlie I know. Selfish because I couldn’t accept the man he became and the mistakes we all made. I couldn’t accept that I took part in my misery because I just stood there and waited. Just how I did when I was drowning. I stood there and waited to be saved. I gave up before I even tried. You get what I’m trying to say?” “I do,”
Mordechai assured, squeezing her hands as they held each other. “I think…I think we’ve all been forced ta do some reflection and introspection this last month or so. Shit, this last night alone,”
He laughed lightly and refused to look away from her eyes. “And you’ve definitely seen somethin’ about yourself that ya needed ta in order ta set ya on the path ta heal, so I’m grateful for that, and that you’re sharin’ it with me. You’re realizin’ that ya gotta be the hero in your own story, but just know I’ll always be there as the Robin ta your Batman if ya need it. Savin’ yourself doesn’t mean ya gotta do it all alone, it just means ya gotta take the lead, yeah?” “Speaking of taking the lead!”
Poppy abruptly changed the tone of voice, pulling Decky ever so closer, “You do know Rye’s back in town, right? When you going to talk to him?”
Her beautiful green eyes narrowed, expectantly waiting for Decky to do the right thing.
Now, Mordechai averted his eyes for the first time since their conversation started, gently removing his hands from her suddenly vice-like grip, a nervous chuckle finding its way past his lips as he backed up. “I didn’t know he ever left?”
he tried, his voice straining for casual. “He probably needs time ta settle back in then.”“I think he had to take care of his Savta if I remember correctly. I could be wrong since I haven’t seen him in awhile but I’ve kept up with his snap,”
Poppy answered, watching his behavior carefully for a moment or two. Sighing to herself, she grabbed the pillows off the storage bench and finished making the bed. “I’m not going to force you to do anything, you’re a grown ass man but you know better than anyone that Rye is blaming himself and beating himself up more than Legs does to you on a daily. That kid’s anxiety is worse than mine and that’s saying something. I just…”
she patted the pillows down and then dropped on the nicely made bed, laying on her stomach. “... don’t want you to have any more regrets.”
She rolled on her back and fixed her gaze on the ceiling. “It wasn’t his fault,”
Mordechai stated firmly. It was mine. “I’m the one that sat Danny down with him and walked away, I’m the one that told him to look after Danny. I’m the one…I’m the one Charlie was focused on until Danny tried ta run ta me. I don’t wanna do that to him, Pops, I don’t wanna make him relieve that shit again just so I can get some peace’a mind. I’ll talk ta him if we run into each other but I can’t…I can’t barge in on his life like I used ta, I don’t deserve it anymore.”
He finally looked back over to her to see her staring at the ceiling. None of what he said was said with an air of regret, or even defense, he just felt that as the person that caused the most pain in the situation it would be wrong to try and fix things on his schedule, Rye deserved the chance to come to him in his own time, when he was ready to see the face of the man that shared his trauma but left everything, everyone, behind. “When I heard his voice yesterday at Scott Street, it just made me realize I’d be scratching at a wound that never healed in the first place. If he wants ta talk, fine, but I don’t have a right ta demand his time.”“Time dulls all the emotion driven moments and thoughts that we had back then. We forget just how much seemed out of our hands, how big and cold the world felt. Remember, when you’re looking at things you did in the past, you’re judging a kid that was trying to figure out life. Mordechai Boaz. Today.”
Penelope reiterated his own words back at him. She didn’t get them verbatim but she got most of it. Shifting her body to face him, resting her cheek in the palm of her hand, she motioned with her other hand for him to join her. It was too early for them to go in the kitchen. No one else was up. They probably should wait until they hear movement outside before raiding Adora’s fridge. “You do you. Like I said, you’re your own man. I’m just telling you my perspective, don’t assume how he feels. Don’t assume you know what he wants. You don’t. Not until you talk to him. Now come here, I need an arm pillow.”
Mordechai gave out a heavy sigh, properly chastised in the way only Poppy knew how to do. Quoting his own advice from a mere few minutes ago was kind of dirty play, but the fact that it fit so well with this situation as well had him biting his tongue any further on the matter. She was right, he didn’t
know how Rye felt about him, or about anything from the last day they truly saw each other until now. The moment he was faced with confronting another part of his past he went right back to assuming. And everyone knows what they say about that.
Trudging over to the bed and collapsing beside Poppy, he rolled onto his back and threw his arm underneath her head when she raised it. A few moments passed in comfortable silence before, vulnerably, he asked, “Really think he won’t hate me? That we can be chill again?”“I wouldn't have brought it up if I didn’t,”
Penelope answered without any hesitation. Snuggling close to her friend, she glanced up at him once more and kissed his cheek, “I think the one that’s not ready is you. Not him.” “Yeah,”
Mordechai sighed, squeezing her close to him as he absorbed her honest words. “I guess you’re right. Thanks for always sayin’ the shit I need ta hear even when I don’t know it, Angel,”
He rested his cheek on her head and took a deep breath. “Y’always know how ta keep me from drownin’ in my own thoughts.”'Same.'
Penelope thought to herself.
Like that day by the lake, they were both keeping each other afloat. Sure, they were struggling to break the surface but they did have their head above water and that’s all that mattered.
Neither would die drowning.
Not as long as they had each other.