When I was young, I was never brave enough to go swimming over thick patches of seaweed. Maybe it’s because my older sister told me that you can drown if you get your feet caught in the green tendrils. Or maybe it’s because I was always terrified of what could be hiding underneath it all. I could think of an endless amount of horrible things waiting to pull me under the water.
But I grew out of that phobia, along with all of the others: the monster waiting under my bed, or the jackal hiding in my closet. I just realized one day that the only thing I’m afraid of is my own overactive imagination. Anything unseen is a thing potentially dangerous.
Because of my past, I wasn’t surprised when my son faltered at the river’s edge one day. The sun was setting over the California state line, and the Colorado river was losing the yellow shimmer on its surface. It was a darker shade of navy blue, which lent an ominous black color to the patches of seaweed swaying beneath the waterline.
“I saw something moving in the seaweed, dad,” Jasper whimpered.
His face reddened as his older sister called him a sissy. Victoria didn’t need a life jacket, like Jasper did. This was also something she made sure to impress upon him whenever she got the opportunity. Now, she was treading water directly over the patch of seaweed. With a last grin, she flopped back under water and grabbed a piece of seaweed in her hand.
“See,” she said, holding the green stuff up in her hand. “You’re just being a baby for no reason.”
“It’s not babyish to be legitimately concerned about things that are hidden,” I said to her, giving Jasper’s shoulder a little rub.
My sister, Paula, laughed cruelly from beneath her umbrella.
“He’s just saying that because he’s scared too,” she said to Victoria.
The two of them shared a knowing, triumphant kind of glance. Meanwhile, I got up and took Jasper by the hand, leading him back to the water’s edge. I told him to unbuckle his life jacket, and he did so with a curious look around.
“I’ll go with you,” I said to him. “They aren’t entirely wrong. It’s best to get these kinds of things over with. The sooner, the better.”
I knelt down in the hot sand and helped hoist Jasper up onto my back. He locked his arms around my neck, and tucked his little legs into my sides as tight as he could. With one last warning, I waded out into the water and dove in.
I’ve taken my kids to the river all the time since summer started, but I never usually get into the water. As I swam out, checking to make sure Jasper was in a good position to breathe, I remembered how good it felt to have the cool water rushing past.
But as I approached the place where the seaweed was growing beneath the water, I felt Jasper’s arms tighten around my neck. He was still afraid, even with me there. That was the first time I got legitimately worried. Countless times I had taken his hand and explored the caverns of his dark closet space, and the attic. My presence alone would reassure him in almost any other instance. But right then, I could feel his little heart beating faster against my back.
“It’s still there,” he whimpered. “It’s not afraid of you, dad.”
“I don’t know what it is.”
“I’ll come too,” called Paula. “I’m more intimidating than your dad anyways.”
“I can handle it, Paula,” I said to her.
I know all she wants to do is help me with the kids, because their mother is no longer with us. But sometimes she could be so overbearing, almost like she was taking the mom role too seriously. So before she could come all the way out, I told Jasper to hold his breath, and I dove down.
As I kicked my way down, and spun a little bit to let Jasper feel the touch of the seaweed, something happened to his position on my back. All of his weight shifted, like he had been jerked down. Suddenly, a flurry of air-bubbles were flowing up, coming from him. He was falling. No, he was being yanked down into the dark mass of the seaweed.
For a split second, I felt as if every irrational childhood fear I had ever had, resurfaced inside of me in one colossal wave of nausea, panic, and terror. Were they tiny little hands shooting up from the seaweed? Or were they simply tendrils? I felt the oxygen leave me as I screamed out in futility into the water. Jasper’s little body was submerged completely beneath the seaweed.
But I needed air. My vision was going black and all I could think was that if I was running out of air, then there was no way my son could keep conscious much longer. I needed to take a breath so I could come back down with more force and untangle him.
I kicked around to swim back up, but then something wrapped around my ankle too. I was being dragged down too. So I turned with the force pulling me, back down into the tangle of seaweed. I thought maybe I could kick off the ground for a burst of speed fast enough to break free.
But as I dove down into the mass of slimy, waving seaweed, I felt more little hands grasping around my arms and my neck. There must have been a dozen latching on with an iron grip and yanking me down, harder. The last thing I remembered seeing was Jasper’s face poking through the seaweed, some inches away from my face.
His eyes were wide open, staring with a dark kind of fullness. He looked awake, despite the fact that he was no longer putting out air-bubbles. Even his mouth was moving in a wordless kind of speech. Then, just for a moment, his mouth almost twitched up in a small kind of smile, and I remember thinking, for that split second in time, that my boy no longer belongs to me.
Then, I lost consciousness.
I awoke into the chilly night suddenly and painfully. A paramedic was pumping so hard on my chest, I thought I felt a couple bones snap somewhere like twigs. But the paramedic was happy to see me open my eyes, and so was Victoria, kneeling beside me.
“He’s okay!” she called to someone else. “Daddy’s okay, guys.”
“Jasper,” I croaked out, instantly remembering. “Where is he?”
I tried to sit up, but the paramedic stopped me. He told me I needed to lie down because I was worse than my son was.
“How is that possible?” I asked. “My lungs are twice his size.”
“I don’t know,” he said, earnestly, shaking his head. “But he’s perfectly okay. Your sister dove down and pried you away. Apparently your ankle got caught in the seaweed or something,” he didn’t sound like he believed it, even as he said it to me. “But your son just swam up next to you guys, like nothing even happened.”
“Let me see him,” I said, filled with a sudden chill in my chest. “I want to see his face.”
“You need to lie down for now,” he said again, holding me still.
From a ways away, I heard tiny footsteps in the sand, making their way towards me. Then, looking over the paramedic’s shoulder, was Jasper, with that same empty grin on his face. His eyes were blacker than I had ever remembered.
“You’re alive?” he asked, sounding too incredulous to be a 10-year-old boy. “How?”
“How are you?” I asked him.
Before I even realized what I was saying, I felt as if I was asking this question not of my son, but of a stranger whom I met on the beach that day. And still, I feel that way, even days later. I can’t help but get this strange feeling like my son drowned that day, and he still remains hidden in the seaweed under the river.
I can’t help but feel like I’m 12 years old again, filled with all of these irrational fears. Except that I am used to being afraid of the dark and the water and the unknown, because of before. But I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being terrified of my own son.