Ellie was crying and barely heard her father’s reply. “She drowned.”
At fourteen she’d spend the rest of her life without her mother, who loved the water and was an excellent swimmer. Nobody could explain what happened. They decided it was suicide. “Why would she do it, Dad? Mom had everything she wanted. She was happy.”
“I don’t know, honey. Her friends say she was swimming along fine and then dove under water. She didn’t yell for help or anything. When she didn’t come up Janice went after her.”
“She could’ve had a leg cramp or something. Why are they saying suicide?”
“Because when Janice caught up to her, Mom pushed away and kept going deeper. I don’t understand it either. Janice said she wasn’t in trouble. It wasn’t a cramp.”
She looked up, saw him crying, and yelled without thinking. “How could she be that selfish?” And why was he blaming himself? The bad arguments involved her and Mom.
Ellie wouldn’t talk much about her mother after that, and never with affection. She stopped entirely when old enough to understand the words hurt her father. He stopped mentioning her too, since it always led an unhappy conversation. So, they suffered the loss, guilt and resentment alone. Eventually, her mother inhabited a smaller part of her memory, and the anger softened. She and her father grew very close. However, neither lost the fear they were responsible for the death.
Ellie took her first trip to the coast ten years after the drowning.
She and her fiancé, Dan, sat close to the water, and the waves lapped inches from their towel. She pressed her toes into the sand. It was warm but then cold as the water seeped under her feet. Seagull cries and breaking waves were the only sounds.
A single celled organism swam in the same water, a billion years earlier, before the Atlantic Ocean formed. It was starving and little time remained before it perished, relegated to an evolutionary dead end. Suddenly, it sensed a food source below and dove deeper.
The aroma of pineapple and coconut wafted around Ellie. She raised the drink to her lips and sipped, allowing the sweet and sour mixture to linger.
Its energy replenished, the cell produced offspring. Most were identical to their parent, however some advanced. They could now sense the sun’s energy. While other cells occupied dark and cold ocean levels, they were attracted to light and warmth.
She tilted her head back and allowed the sun to warm her face. The cool morning breeze smelled of salty ocean and decomposing kelp and it chilled her. She turned toward the sun to warm the rest of her body and watched iridescent blue-green waves transform into cascades of white foam as they broke near shore.
Later, these organisms developed a tactile response and bound tightly to each other. They abandoned their single-cell lifestyle and formed the first multicellular animals.
She leaned against Dan and relaxed with the physical contact. He put an arm across her shoulders.
The last of her stress retreated towards the ocean with the undertow.
Cells within these primitive animals eventually started communicating through a simple nervous system. They sensed stimuli within their environment and shared the information with neighboring cells through chemical signals.
“Oh, I love this,” Ellie said. Breathing deeply, she couldn’t recall such a beautiful combination of sensations. Suddenly, the sunlight, sounds, aromas and flavors blended with Dan’s embrace into something different and unexpectedly disturbing. She stood up and searched the beach and water. “I know this sounds crazy, but I’ve been here before. It’s like a huge déjà vu.”
He laughed. “I don’t think so. You love the water, but you’ve never been to the coast. Maybe you’re thinking about your aunt’s place on the lake, but that’s really nothing like this.”
“It’s so real.”
“Don’t worry, it happens to everyone. You probably saw something like this in a movie once or read a description.”
The ancient chemical signals persisted through evolution and leak into human consciousness as déjà vu episodes. Based on an individual’s genetic and psychological makeup, the signals can produce more dramatic effects and induce erratic and dangerous behaviors.
She stared at the water with a troubled expression. “I don’t like things I can’t explain.” Then, without another word, she sprinted into the ocean and swam straight out from the shore. Though a strong swimmer, Dan became concerned when she dove under water and didn’t surface.
After thirty seconds he went after her, his eyes locked on the last spot he saw her.
Ellie descended until the water grew cool and dark. Enveloped by silence, her anxiety disappeared and she lost track of time and depth. Her mind was empty, except for the sensation of cool water against skin. She stopped swimming and rotated weightlessly. Sunlight barely penetrating from the surface reached her face. Unconsciously, her arms and legs moved, initiating a slow ascent toward brighter water. Seconds later a painful muscle contraction racked her chest, demanding a breath. Now fully conscious, she panicked and headed rapidly towards the surface. Her lungs burned as she frantically stroked through the water. The interface of sky and water rippled a few feet above when she lost the hold on her breath.
As water rushed into her mouth, someone grabbed her hand.
“You could’ve died out there,” Dan said, after helping her to shore and dropping to his knees.
“I know.” She was still coughing out water as she turned towards the ocean, uncertain what just happened. “When I was down there, I felt something again. It was a lot stronger this time.”
“What’s going on, Ellie?”
Still breathless, she didn’t answer and stretched out on the sand. It took her several minutes to find words. “You’re gonna think this is weird, but remember back when you were in Iraq and we didn’t see each other for a year?”
Completely surprised, he nodded slowly. “Okay.”
“I sent you a picture on your birthday, the one your brother took. From the weekend we were at his cabin with no phones, no anything, totally off the grid.”
“Of course, I remember. It was great. We agreed it’s when we knew. But what’s your point?”
“You told me something about that picture. How it made you feel over there.”
“Yeah, I told you it brought me home. Every time I looked at it, I was back home again. It was strange but nice.”
She smiled. “Right, so that just happened to me down there. That’s the feeling I had. I was home.”
He watched her closely, worried and now even more confused. “But why? It makes no sense.”
“I don’t know. I can’t explain it.” She looked at the ocean again. “And there’s more.” She opened a backpack and removed her phone. “I figured it out.”
“Figured what out?”
“It makes sense. Mom and I were so alike. People used to kid us that she was my older sister. And my dad would say that’s why we fought so much, because we were the same.”
“You lost me again. And who are you calling?”
“My dad, I know what happened to my mother. It wasn’t suicide, and it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. I need to tell him right away.”
“You mean her drowning?”
“Yes. I’ve been blaming Mom all these years, but she couldn’t control it, just like I couldn’t. Whatever this is, what just happened to me, it must have happened to her too. It’s in my genes. I inherited this.”
“I don’t know, Ellie. If it’s genetic, like some kind of mutation, why would it effect just you two? Seems to me we would’ve heard about other people experiencing it too.”
“I agree, and thousands of people drown in this country every year. Who knows? Some of them might have drowned for this reason. We all differ a lot, genetically. Maybe some of us are just more susceptible to this problem than others.” Her dad answered the call, and she looked toward the ocean. “Hey Dad, everything’s fine here. And I have some amazing news. Sit down.”