And now we vote on who lives and who drowns! says the facilitator. You are on a tiny, over-crowded life raft—half of you must climb out so the raft stays afloat!
There are quiet chuckles among the workshop participants, who are sitting in a circle of metal folding chairs. Outside the circle, the facilitator is wearing a lifejacket, a red one with a plastic whistle.(Throughout this three day Self-Discovery Workshop, the facilitator, a kindly man with a well-pruned white beard, has shown a penchant for theater.) The church basement is lit by a few fluorescent panels and a lamp by the door. On a table against the far wall, a coffee maker hisses and gurgles. A box fan whirs in the corner.
A young woman raises her hand.
As a group, the facilitator tells them, they must choose who stays on the raft and who does not. The facilitator runs his hand over his beard. Everyone gets a turn to appeal for a place on the life raft, he says.
The basement's creaks and echoes subside and the space gets a little brighter. The surface beneath the participants' feet slowly undulates.
This is not a game! the facilitator says, sloshing around the circle. This is survival!
The young woman is still raising her hand.
Be sincere! The facilitator says. Be honest. Affirm your will—your right—to live! His khakis are darkening toward his waist. The circle is getting tighter, the survivors pulled closer together until their knees are touching. Shoulders and elbows bump and poke and a few of the participants turn sideways to fit. The sun comes out from behind a cloud to heat the salty air. The facilitator tightens one of the straps on his lifejacket.
The young woman raising her hand lowers it a moment to pull her hair into a ponytail. She raises her hand again. Everyone's clothes are beginning to stick to their bodies. A few of them roll up their sleeves and pant legs. The facilitator's lifejacket lifts and he's pulled away on a separate current.
There are twelve of you! he calls, his words bobbing on the waves. Only six may remain!
The horizon is a vague line in the humid brightness. Someone falls out of the crowded raft and struggles to grasp the slippery side, splashing about.
The facilitator's voice is faint beneath the drifting roar: Defend yourselves! he calls. Tell us why you matter!
The facilitator is a disappearing red dot. The life raft is a confusion of limbs and sweaty, panicked faces. A couple people are softly crying.
I have a family, someone says.
I don't want to die, someone else whimpers. Please.
The young woman with the ponytail is no longer raising her hand.
The man squeezed in next to her whispers, What was her question? What did she want to say?
The young woman doesn't answer. She dips her hand outside the life raft. It's so cool, this water. Cool and gentle, like sleep.
Eric Hawthorn is a native of Philadelphia, where he works as a writer and researcher for a real estate company. His stories have appeared in Oblong Magazine, Thrice Fiction, Spork and other journals. He studied writing at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.