Gentle lapping roused me from sleep like a freight train. As my eyes fluttered open, I was greeted by the usual dreadful sight: palm trees overhead, warm white sand under my skin and a puddle of blue sunk in the center of all. I had long ago made peace with the fact that the shadows changed positions throughout the day, yet the source of sunlight would never be apparent. The sky was pitch black, just like any and all space just beyond the tropical greenery framing my little oasis.
How strange and pleasurable it was to hear, well, any sound. For as long as I could remember, there was no wind to rustle the palm fronds. No current to pull the tide up onto shore's edge and to usher it back home again. But today was different. Today, a bottle had washed up at my feet.
Moving through molasses after a nap that had lasted longer than I could recount, my hands fumbled for the cool glass. It was frosted, rough to the touch and when I held it high, it cast a shadow from within that made it clear something had been placed inside.
My first thought was, "Where did it come from?" The body of water before me was finite, no larger than a swimming pool. The vessel itself was pristine and unmarred, which struck me as odd considering it must've been caught on the floor of the pond for some time and just now found its way to the surface. That was the only explanation that made sense because any other implication turned my blood cold. As far as I had been aware until that moment, I was completely alone.
I sunk my teeth into the spongy cork and yanked it from the bottle with a satisfying thunk. The scrolled parchment inside had uncoiled, so I had to work my finger inside to free it from its prison, careful not to crumble it in the process. I delicately unfurled it, one of the brittle corners flecked off as I did. In deep-red calligraphy were two sentences. Unsigned.
"Didn't want to wake you. Come find me."
I wish I could say excitement was my first response to learning I was not alone. Fear crept up my throat and squeezed my brain as I wondered how long I'd been observed from that pitch darkness beyond the shrubs and sand. I questioned my new neighbor's intent. Why didn't they want to wake me? Why not let me know I'm not alone?
I left the oasis several times, in all directions. Walking on flat blackness against a sky of equal dark never got any less disorienting. After a few hours of putting one foot in front of the other, the only way I could tell how far I'd gotten was to look back to see how much tinier the smattering of palm trees appeared against the great, big nothingness. The smaller it looked, the further I'd gone. However, I never found the courage to descend so far into the dark that I lost sight of it. Only once, sometime before my last nap, had I walked for so long that it became an infinitesimal blue pinprick against nothing. One foot further and I would have been lost in blackness forever.
It had been an eternity since I'd known hunger, thirst, or any discomfort. The hundred or so times I'd tried to drown myself resulted in my waking from yet another nap. Even were I to have been lost in that eternal void, there was no threat of death. But I never took that last step. As much as I had come to hate this place, it was familiar. The idea of being completely alone, feeling in the dark for something, anything, with no way to define up, down, left or right, horrified me.
I picked a direction that felt right and stared into the blackness beyond the palm fronds. If I was wrong, I'd be doomed to wander in the inky nothingness from the start.
"It must be a test," I thought to myself.
My new friend was trying to see if I was capable of following their breadcrumbs. Then and only then, I decided, would I be worthy of their presence. Maybe if I found them, I'd get some kind of answer to what it all meant: this place, this void, my presence in it.
As much as I had come to know this place, it was time to move on. Paradise though it may have been by some definition, it offered me nothing new. I decided today would be the day I took that extra step.
My brain went haywire. Yes, there was the possibility that whoever wrote the message was long dead. Once I was out in it there would be no way back to safety. The more I thought about, the more I came to the conclusion that progress began at the end of comfort, even if that meant never being able to return.
With a deep breath, I crossed onto the flat back. Dregs of white sand trailed me for a few yards before thinning out. I told myself that this time I would hold off as long as possible before looking back.
It took the whole day of trudging through that disorienting blackness with no reference point in front of me to see how much or little ground I covered. After what was probably the thousandth time I told myself I’d look back after the next ten steps, I caved. My home had become a pinhead of light in the pitch dark. I drank in my one last look. In that pinhead was all I had ever known.
I turned my back on it and continued into nothingness.