The hard, malevolent rain slammed into the river like so many stones freed from their mountainous moorings. Illuminated only by the distant light of a sun struggling beyond a carpet of clouds, the black water swelled beneath this late Summer tempest. Far from being discouraged by the storm, the river rejoiced in its newfound source, crying out with an inexhaustible energy after being oppressed for months by a demagogic sun. The shackles of the season were being loosed, and the bold currents sought to be the first to escape. No longer could the town's children free from school dive off of her cliffs into mild, temperate pools; no longer could picnicking families row their boats to the other side in search of Sunday idleness. The river embraced the approaching change, and smiled furiously as she rushed to nowhere in particular.
Michael Leitner, however, was not smiling, nor was he furious. What characterized his expression as he watched the river drive endlessly on was closer to a despairing grimace -a pained, empty, lost grimace that denoted slow, passive suffering rather than open agony or torment. It was the face of nothingness, a lively soul given over to a nervous disquiet and a waste of unfeeling. It was not a mask, but a direct image of what really was within him. It was moreover demarcated by that unmistakable mark of heartless derision, that cool perception of his surroundings with blank yet keenly observant eyes. For though he could not claim to receive power from an abundance of life, he could very well receive it from an absence of life - a greater, more malignant power, seemingly, for life is vulnerable where death is invincible.
This is not to say that Michael despised life, that he stood there with hate in his eyes and his lips creased by scorn; he was not predisposed to hatred, for he was not predisposed to feeling at all. Life had given him nothing, so he felt obliged to give nothing in return. The world before him was a blank space, a wilderness of meaning, a collision of colours and shapes and ideas, but it was still just a place, some strange place little identity and less order. If there were some architect on high, his design must be inspired by indifference, or created through malice; there could be no other reason for this reality if not a fundamental boredom or wicked sadism on the part of its maker. For why else manufacture a universe where the only constant is change, where sentience is its own torture, where violence is rewarded while peace is so terribly finite? The only good, it often occurred to Michael Leitner, is that life itself is finite, that we are mercifully relieved of our duty here in time - if we can bear the time.
The rain and the thick, ghostly fog rising from the water conspired to obscure the one shore from the other, but it was not a very wide river and the outline of a troop of trees could be vaguely made out on the other side. They towered imperiously over the landscape, great, stern evergreens looking sagely across the river. Between their trunks dwelled softer undergrowth, lowly leafy minions, all manner of subordinates to the forest; upon their strong, extended limbs several legions of underlings made their homes, raising their children and storing food for the future. To what end?
Michael's unkempt chestnut hair was now thoroughly blackened, sticking to his scalp; torrents of water streamed down his cheeks. He quietly reveled in this, inwardly welcoming the assault as he was smothered by the rain. This is where he came to be alone, to retreat from the perpetual barrage of questions, complaints, exhortations, and well-wishes of whoever it was that claimed to know him. He usually walked here in the middle of the night, stumbling along beneath the moonlight, but this storm served him just as well; nobody would be here in this weather; he was alone. He experienced a kind of dark euphoria, an ecstatic release from previous pains and responsibilities that weighed on him.
He had already been enrolled in post-secondary education for four years, but Michael had completed not even a half of his program in all that time - a program that is supposed to be completed within four years, or at least five. Between dropping classes, failing classes, and simply not going to classes, his student life suffered accordingly, and he barely managed to sustain a sufficient GPA to to remain in school. His few scholarships having dried up long ago, Michael's schooling was provided for by his affluent family, who fortunately knew little of the extent of his mediocre academic efforts. By this point, however, Michael no longer cared much about the success or lack thereof of his education; he was resolutely and irredeemably bored, and thought next to nothing of what happened to him next.
Michael's work experience looked equally bleak. Unable to persevere for more than a few months at any which job, his resume was littered with numerous employments, none of which had paid him much more than minimum wage, and none of which proved satisfying on any level other than procuring a bit of pocket money. They consisted either of retail positions, which he could not abide for their orientation around dealing with irate, fastidious, and generally unsavoury customers, or menial labour, which invariably dulled him to the point of walking out of a job in the middle of a shift. Michael often pondered entering a life of criminal activity; it seemed to offer at least a glimpse of something exciting, though he had no idea how to get into it given that what few friends he had were nowhere near those circles prone to acting outside the law. This was probably for the best, too, as Michael doubted he possessed the necessarily qualities for such a life. The same applied to applying to the military, whenever he considered doing so at any length.
There was a wooden rowboat docked on a small pier below where Michael stood. It was used to bear families to the other side of the river on clear Summer days. There had been several occasions, however, when it was taken by inebriated or otherwise impetuous teens and returned in a state of dramatic disrepair, if it was returned at all. Nevertheless, this neighborhood was under the stewardship of perhaps a dozen men who belonged to a fading genteel class, and they obstinately ensured by their own hands that there was always a boat available in the Spring and Summer months. They were working men, that was clear, and yet they exuded a sense of nobility that belied their blue-collar mannerisms and dress.
Michael admired that. Michael admired that because he envied them. He had grown up here, in this rural community; he had served as a farm hand, had made his best friends playing street hockey, had nursed a crush on the pastor's daughter that lasted almost throughout grade school. He knew everyone here, and everyone knew him, but when he looked at the men of his father's generation he felt that he did not know them at all. They possessed something that he did not, something that divided him from them. While Michael did not know exactly what that was, he knew that he suffered from its absence, and yearned for it to be fulfilled.
Nobody inspired Michael's admiration and envy more than his own father, Richard Leitner. While he was certainly one of the wealthier people in their town, nobody questioned that Richard had earned his position; he had been a plumber his whole life and now owned the most successful company in that field outside of the city. He had worked for his wealth; he was an honest man, a respected man who had no want for friends either at home or abroad. In a word, Richard epitomized the American ideal of the self-made man: strong, charitable, financially independent, and the owner of a hardy work ethic. He seemed to step right out of a family film made in the 50's, except that his qualities of self-assurance and communal fealty were not the products of a parochial cinematic idealization demanded by popular opinion; they were real.
There was one memory that was indelibly imprinted upon his consciousness. It was from when he was ten or eleven years old, and his father was picking him up from school On the way home, however, they passed a friend who was putting up a fence around his property in an effort to protect a new garden he was planting. Richard knew the man, of course, but they were not particularly close; it would infact be nearer to the truth to say that they were acquaintances rather than friends. This did not stop him from pulling over and insisting on helping to finish the job, despite Michael's open agitations to go home. Instead, Richard gave Michael the option of helping as well, or taking some money to go get a pop from down the road. Michael took the bill, and hated himself for it ever since.
So far as he could tell, then, this division between himself and those whom he most admired consisted in his more acute sense of self, or possibly his more avaricious sense of self. Whereas a man like Richard Leitner can find it in him to go out of his way to perform an act of service on some selfless whim, his son, who at heart wants nothing more than to follow suit, is at a loss to so much as embrace a fellow human being. Michael felt so immersed in his own psyche that he sometimes figured that there was nothing outside of it; his understanding of the world beyond was filtered through a twisted lens which distorted the image into something that no longer had autonomy of its own because its entire meaning consisted in how it related to himself alone.
Reality seemed to be one magnificent dream, alive with a splendour of symbols and images that transmitted messages to him, but which he could never relay in return, which he could never respond to. He wondered what it was like to step beyond himself, to extend a hand and help someone to his feet. A sharp wave of terror passed over Michael; he shivered beneath the warm Summer rain. He thought abstractly of the sun high above, of its failure to pierce through the canopy of clouds that hid him from its great heat. He thought of the sunless sky as one limitless expanse, a field at war with itself in its twisted overgrowth; he thought of the sun's death.
Michael blundered his way in the horrifying half-light down to the rowboat. The seats were soaked, naturally, but so was he; his clothes clung to him heavily, weighing him down. He worried at the knots, his grip almost futile against the slimy cords which adhered to one another in a dark, damp conspiracy to hold tight. Michael eventually managed to loosen them, cursing out loud all the while; his mood was steadily declining after his earlier euphoria in the deluge. His grimace grew deeper, his eyes seeming to sink further inside their sockets, burrowing away from the world beyond.
The boat was soon free of the knots, however, and Michael pushed off from the pier. At first he did not bother rowing; he simply sat there, absent-mindedly holding the roars aloft, allowing the river to take him wherever it would. Michael listened to the thunder roaring distantly, ferociously, as though threatening to devour the earth. He submitted idly to its power, closing his eyes as he visualized the sound as some pagan god's ravenous growling. He sat there listening, supposing that if he were too weak to pray, to talk to God, perhaps God would talk to him.
Michael finally pushed the oars into the water and started to row back upstream. Thinking of God always troubled him. The idea of an omnipotent, benevolent being seemed at once tremendously ridiculous and the most logical idea of all. All matter, all human and animal behaviour, all apparent reality pointed at both God's truth and his farce; surely a being that massive, that important would communicate more intelligibly and more directly the fact of his existence than this treasure hunt he's left our meagre humanity. But then, what else could reside at the depths of this beautiful, bountiful, broken cosmos than a divine fount? What else could sustain these sights, these sounds, these thoughts if not an almighty God? Should our image be of ourselves rather than of God, what else would we be if not isolated, wandering deserters floating vaguely upon some random rock?
The cold seared through Michael, who shivered mercilessly. Somehow the idea of God's existence frightened him more than the supposition that he was a complete counterfeit. For if God were infact a fact, that would only confirm Michael's utter separation from him; he would be singularly estranged from something which ought to be the thing to which he is nearest. Moreover, if God did not exist, at least Michael could find consolation that he was no further away from God than anyone else; he could find comfort in solidarity with his fellow tragic brothers, with a godless mankind that really has no fundamental right to be here. Michael considered the possibility of an absolute good to be of infinitely greater horror than of no good at all, for good is necessarily accompanied by evil, and to be evil frightened Michael more than anything else he could ever imagine.
The current was stronger than it was normally at this time of year, but Michael managed to row his way back with some effort. By the time he returned to the point where he was once again in line with the pier, however, he was as drenched as could be and exhausted besides; he debated with himself whether to approach the other side or admit defeat and go home. Furiously, Michael decided the latter, and reclined into a renewed despair of bitter self-contempt. Nothing scarred him more than failing to accomplish what he had set out to accomplish - he was concealed beneath more of these scars than he could count, hiding his humanity like the tattoos of a muscle-bound prison fiend. He pitied himself, which only bolstered his contempt.
This world will be engulfed by the sea, and I will be the first to drown.
Michael pulled up alongside the dock and hauled himself ashore. He started to tie the cords again, fidgeting angrily with them, but it was no use; his best knot would hold the boat there for no more than a couple hours. Michael kicked at his wooden vessel, allowing it to slip away down the river. He looked after it longingly, watching it fall away in the miserable mist as though it were his own soul abandoning him. Anguish, hate, hopelessness, envy and malice vied competitively with one another for domination: whichever won out, Michael was the loser. Where he had earlier been stranded by a total lack of feeling, presently Michael was overwhelmed by the entire arsenal of feeling that his beleaguered, tortured psyche had unleashed upon him.
Michael crawled his way up the slope, slipping wildly in the fresh mud. The rain continued to pour down; the thunder continued to shout. He wondered cynically where the lightning was: would it be too much to have any light at all, even for an instant? The evening sky only proceeded to darken, compelled by the fleeing sun, the dying sun. Michael gained solid ground above the river bank, and headed home. Feeling more pathetic and wretched than he had ever remembered, Michael made the following resolution to himself:
If by the end of this school year, by the end of April, I have not made something of myself, if I have only entrenched my despair rather than alleviating it, if I have not found a home in this world, if I have not determined who I am, and finally if I have not created a meaning to live by I will have found one to die by. If I fail I will kill myself.