by Adam Decker
The words snap me out of sleep. They are not my words but the voice sounds very familiar. So dark. I’ve never been anywhere that it was this black. Wait a minute. Are my eyes open? I blink to make sure, but there is no difference between the blackness in front of me and the blackness under my eyelids. I take a deep breath to make sure I’m not dreaming. The air is cold down the back of my throat
Cold air, unlike that of a crisp winter evening or the chilly breeze of an open freezer. There is something different about it, something heavy and almost sinister. Where in the hell am I? Wait, back up, who in the hell am I?
Bill Parsons. That’s my name. I’m thirty years old, married, have two kids and a beautiful wife. Okay that’s a start. I just woke up so that means I’ve been asleep. I’m sitting in a chair. I try to raise up but something holds me to the seat. Someone has tied me down. My fingers, then my hands, put this irrational idea to rest as they slide down the strap that crosses my body from my left shoulder to my waist. I press the button next to my hip, releasing the belt. I am in a vehicle.
My own vehicle actually. I still cannot see two inches in front of my face but I know it is my vehicle because of the distance between the steering wheel and the gearshift, the height of the dashboard, and the location of the console on my right. A Dodge Durango. It is less than two months old, but there is no illumination from the dashboard, no life humming from under the hood.
Immediately I try to open the door. It won’t budge. Maybe it’s locked. I push up the door lock and tug on the handle again. The lever comes forward but the door does not open. Something is blocking it. Where the hell am I?
I can hear something dripping from under the dash. I hope it is not gas. I listen more closely and hear dripping from all around the interior of the vehicle. I reach toward the ignition hoping to switch on the engine if only for some light. I turn the key. Nothing.
I feel sharp little pains in my feet, like a million hot needles piercing every inch of my skin. But it isn’t really a hot sensation, it’s so cold it feels hot. I breathe into the darkness. I cannot see the steam from my breath in front of me, but I know it is there.
I reach into my jeans pocket and push my fingers to the bottom. I retrieve the lighter. I have a lighter because I smoke. Actually, I did smoke; I quit a year ago but sneak a cig or two when nobody’s looking, like during the holidays. Suddenly it hits me. It’s Christmas. That’s right, we spent the day at Jen’s folks. I drove separately. What the hell happened?
I roll my thumb over the little wheel on the back of the lighter. On the second stroke there is spark and then a flame. Bingo. Just as I thought, I’m in the Durango. I move the flame in front of me, turning my head at the same rate as the lighter, as if they’re connected somehow. The seat beside me is empty.
I hold the flame to the windshield and then to my window. There is nothing but blackness beyond the glass. The needles stab me in the feet again. This time I try to wiggle my toes inside my shoes and then move my feet. I hear a splash. I angle the light down to the floor and see there is water up to my ankles. A chill of realization shoots up my spine. Somehow I am underwater. The lighter slips from my fingers and drops into the growing pool of water covering my floorboard.
In a flash, I remember every detail of my life: the good times and the bad, the happy and the sad. The thoughts come to an abrupt halt. I can’t think of a more terrible situation to be in. I’ve woken up trapped in a pitch-black tomb of metal that is sinking slowly to the bottom of some dark lake, taking me down to my final resting place.
I draw in three deep breaths in a row, not because the water has risen that high—although it will—but because I am panicking. Somewhere deep inside I am aware of a steady voice repeating the words “stay” calm.” That voice however is being drowned out by my own screaming “get out, you’re never going to see your kids again, you’re going to drown, you’re not ready to die.”
Stop. That first voice again, then silence, except for the dripping water. It now occurs to me why I cannot open my door. It has something to do with the pressure of the water surrounding the Durango. There is air in the interior. The door will open easily once the cab has filled with water. I’m not sure how I know this, but I do. It could have something to do with the Discovery Channel. It could be because of physics class back in high school.
The water is getting higher, reaching almost to my knees now. I am oddly calm, taking comfort in the idea of letting the Durango fill up with water. Once it has, I will push open the door and swim to freedom. Sounds simple. I wonder how long I will have to hold my breath. I wonder how deep I have sunk. Am I still sinking? If I do manage to escape, will I know which way is up? It is so dark. It is night and there is no light from above.
I turn the key backwards in the ignition and for a brief instant the power comes on—the radio blares, the speedometer and odometer glow green, the clock reads 9:55, and hanging from the ceiling the temperature gauge displays the number 34. How long can a person last in 34-degree water? My Discovery Channel knowledge fails to answer this time. I refuse to be negative. I have a wife and two kids. Survival is the only option. Once again it is dark.
I reach into my back pocket and retrieve my wallet. I flip it open and thumb to where my favorite picture of the kids should be. Although I can’t see the picture with my eyes, I can see it with my mind. Little Rachel is on the couch holding Ryan. She is two and a half. He is four months old. Rachel has blond hair and blue, almost silver eyes. She goes to dance classes, can count to ten, and thinks that I am Superman. Ryan smiles all the time. He watches his big sister run and play, and seems to be taking it all in so when the time is right he will know exactly what to do. For an infant he cries very little and he has a laugh that can melt my heart. I kiss the picture and smile.
My smile is erased a split second later when I hear a sound behind me. It is a small cough. All at once my memory is restored. Christmas. Dinner at the in-law’s. Jen and I drove separately. I left first and…I took the kids with me. My head snaps around but there is the same blanket of darkness covering the back of the Durango. I think about the lighter floating in the water down by my feet. A small voice says “daddy.” My worst nightmare has come true. It takes everything I’ve got to hold down the vomit in my stomach.
“Yes baby,” I say a heartbeat later, with the confident voice a child expects from her father. But deep down my mind is racing. Swimming to freedom through freezing water by myself is one thing—but with two young kids? Ryan can’t even crawl yet. How can I get him to hold his breath? How far down are we?
My last question is answered as the tires of the Durango hit rock bottom and a dull thud jars its way through the metallic skeleton of the vehicle. We’re at the bottom of the lake. An even scarier thought occurs to me. If the temperature of the water is 34 degrees down here, what could it be like at the surface? What if the top of the lake is frozen? My head drops into my hands. Dear lord, I have to remember how we got here. There is a bump on my forehead and I rub it absently, as if it will give me a clue. I touch the steering wheel in front of me. There is a piece of raised plastic molding in the middle of the wheel. It is a ram head, the standard logo for all Dodge vehicles. I make a mental note that if I survive this, I’ll have to bitch at the dealer because the air bag failed to deploy. Funny, the things you think about in a time of crisis.
Now I remember everything. Jen and I drove separately because of all the presents, pies, and food we had to get over to her parents' house. At the end of the day I took the kids with me and drove the usual route home, which takes us over Collingston Lake Bridge, a low bridge about ten feet above the water. I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas was playing on the radio. I looked down for a split second to turn the volume higher. When I looked up headlights were coming straight at me—in my lane. I swerved to the left but it was too late. The other car plowed into me in the front passenger-side wheel well. The Durango spun around twice and then sailed through the flimsy metal guardrail. That must be when I hit my head and the lights went out.
A small voice from behind brings me back to the present.
“Daddy, I’m scared. Where we going?”
“We’re going home baby.” There was the faintest hint of visibility—had the moon come out, or had my eyes adjusted to the murk? “Can you see your baby brother next to you? Is he sleeping?”
“Yeah…he’s sleepin’. I’m cold daddy.”
“I know baby. We’ll be home soon. . Why don’t you try to go back to sleep?”
I hate lying to her about anything, but in this case it’s a necessity. Rachel is as smart as a whip. It won’t be long until the water rises to the small feet dangling from her car seat, and then she’ll know something is definitely wrong. Better to have the panic later than now. I’ve still got to come up with some sort of plan before I take on dealing with the mind of a two-year old in these circumstances.
Cell phone. I quit carrying mine five years ago when I realized that the only thing it really does is take time away from you. I’m sure its intended use was the exact opposite, but it’s never the person you want it to be ringing from the other end, it’s always someone wanting something from you: a favor, money, your time. The smarter part of me did however tuck the phone away in the glove compartment of my Honda Civic and more recently, the Durango.
I lean over, press the latch and my hand fumbles blindly over insurance papers and owner’s manuals, then my fingers wrap around the cell phone. The charging cord dangles from its end. I only hope that it’s the ignition or engine that was failing and not the battery. I plug the cylinder-shaped connecter into the outlet, press the power button on the cell phone once, and then again. On the third try the display lights up and immediately reads: LOW BATTERY. I don’t know if this is because the phone is currently charging or if the car battery is dead and this is just the last pulsing beats of a technology housed in plastic. I dial 9-1-1.
The phone rings only once.
“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”
“I’ve been in an accident. My car was hit by another vehicle on Collingston Lake Bridge and crashed over the edge. I’ve sunk to the bottom of the lake and my SUV is filling with water. I have two small children with…”
“Nine one-one, what is your emergency?”
I speak louder. “I’m at the bottom of Collingston Lake. I need help. My children are going to drown.”
“Hello, is anyone there?”
I can hear the operator perfectly, but she cannot hear me.
There is a whining sound from the back seat. It is Rachel discovering that there is freezing cold water almost lapping at her feet. The whine escalates into crying.
“Hello,” the operator says again. “Can you pick up the phone darling?”
I look at the phone and then toward the silvery eyes in the back seat. Somehow she can hear Rachel but not me. A thousand stupid explanations race through my head. I settle on the theory that the cell phone is picking up higher-pitched tones, maybe because we are underwater. It doesn’t sound right, but I have to go with it
The water is over my knees now.
“Rachel, you have to help daddy, okay? Just repeat what I say. Like Simon Says.”
Rachel often says verbatim what comes out of my mouth. I turn around in my seat, lean over it, and with one hand unbuckle the strap on Rachel’s car seat. With the other I hold out the cell phone. The charging cord stretches with no problem. The cell phone display lights up the tears on Rachel’s face. I love that face.
“We are in a car at the bottom of Collingston Lake,” Rachel repeats after me. “We need help. We are at the bottom.”
“Is your daddy there honey?”
Rachel answers immediately, “Yeah. But he can’t talk.”
That’s my girl. At times she utterly amazes me with her intelligence. She knows there’s something wrong with the phone and doesn’t waste time making the conversation longer. My proud moment is cut short as the cell phone goes dead. I unplug and re-plug the power cord into the lighter socket. Nothing. I hit the power button on top of the phone. There is a brief glimmer of illumination that fades to a black screen. Again I push the button, hoping to myself that there is some life, some remnant of power that can overcome a short circuit in the complex bit of technology first built in some oriental land and now held in the palm of my hand. My second attempt is futile.
I’m snapped back from a place called wishful thinking by the small voice behind me. “Daddy, I’m cold. There’s wawa.”
“I know baby. We’re going to get out of here in just a minute.” I look down at my legs to see that the water is totally covering my thighs. Oddly, the sharp stabs of cold are gone. I guess my legs are numb. A thought pops into my head that my brain rejects. That thought is in bold letters and states: You are running out of time.
The dashboard of the Durango is larger than in most vehicles. There is a good two and a half feet from the steering wheel to the windshield. I turn around, pick Rachel up, and lay her on the dash between the wheel and the glass. She curls up into a ball, tucks her hands under her chin, and shrugs her shoulders under her coat. The heat was on full blast before our accident and the leftover warmth on the dash tricks Rachel into thinking of fireplaces and heated blankets. She closes her eyes and smiles.
I have to get busy thinking about the moment. Wasted seconds means wasted lives. Collingston Lake is fifty feet at its deepest point. I know this because we boat here every so often in the summer. There are free pamphlets about the lake at the concession stand. I can’t help but scan one over when we put the boat in and I’m standing in line there, even though I’ve read it countless times.
Fifty feet. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you factor in ice-cold water, two kids under the age of three that will have to hold their breath for an extended amount of time, and probably a sheet of ice at the top, fifty feet sounds damn near unconquerable. Ryan starts to cry in the seat behind me. I refuse to be negative.
Again I turn around and then kneel, my knees splashing on the water-covered seat. I click the belt on Ryan’s car seat, find the bottle in the bag next to him, and hoist my son into the front seat. He is dressed in one of those one-piece winter blanket things. It is thick and blue and Ryan seems unaware of the chilling forces around him. I stick the bottle in his mouth and the crying stops immediately. His eyes squint then roll back under his lids like a drug addict that finally found a fix.
Two facts enter my mind, both positive in nature. Babies hold their breath underwater on their own. It’s a built-in instinct that either God or evolution put there. I’ve seen on TV where babies are taken underwater and seem to love it. Babies also have brown fat, which to make a long story short, gives them the ability to almost hibernate. They can withstand harsh periods of cold and last a good deal longer in it than adults. I remember watching a National Geographic piece about a family who had car problems in a blizzard. After a couple of days they decided to brave the elements and go for help. The baby was wrapped up well and placed on a makeshift sled. Halfway through the journey they discovered the baby was not breathing and believed it to be dead. The family ended up finding help but frostbite cost the father his feet and the mother a couple of fingers. The baby was unharmed and woke up from hibernation as soon as it was exposed to warm air. While these thoughts are encouraging, I still feel sick to my stomach that I will have to put them to the test.
Though I try to stay focused on the task at hand—the survival of my children—my mind rewinds to events earlier in the day. I can’t imagine a more ideal place to have Christmas than Jen’s parents’ house. It’s like a visit to the North Pole. There are thousands of brightly colored bulbs strung everywhere a strand can be draped. Life-like figures of Santa and Mrs. Claus waving from the front yard are surrounded by elves, snowmen, candy canes, and reindeer, and there’s an especially nice nativity scene with baby Jesus. There’s even a train the grandkids can ride in that goes around the house and into the backyard where more lighted decorations stand ready to impress. It feels like home there. My parents died when I was in my twenties—my father of a heart attack and then my mother of a broken heart—but I still have this haven away from home
There are probably fifty people at Christmas dinner. The dining room table only holds ten so every room in the house is filled with tables and chairs. After eight years in the family I’ve not made it to the main table in the dining room, nor do I want to—that would mean that someone had passed on. Jen’s mother cooks most of the meal although everyone is asked to bring something. If there are fifty people at dinner, there is enough food for two hundred. Jen’s father reads Christmas tales after dinner for the numerous grandkids (Jen has six sisters), but if
you look around there are just as many adults as children with smiles on their faces.
Jen will stay at her parents’ well into the night. She does every year. It is the only day of the year that her whole family is together. Jen is the only one of the sisters that lives in town. They all talk and drink wine and reminisce, telling the same stories that never get old.
Someone sober will drive Jen home, her father maybe. She will wake me and we’ll do it for as long as I can hold on. I’ll ask her if it was all right for her just like I always do, and whether telling the truth or not she will say yes just like she always does. She will make me go get leftover pumpkin pie and whipped cream and bring them upstairs to bed. She’ll tell me the stories she and her sisters talked about and laugh like it’s the first time she’s ever heard them. I just watch and smile and look at her as she eats.
What I enjoy most is the talking. The talks about our kids. The conversations in the kitchen on Sunday mornings before church, as we try to read the newspaper and drink coffee. Watching her read to Rachel and Ryan. I loved her so much after three months of dating that I thought it was too good to be true. That love has matured from a coveting of beauty to something science can’t explain, a bond that makes two people one. A bond that says not only are you my lover and my best friend, but you are an irreplaceable part of me. I want to touch her just one more time. To run my fingers through her hair as she eats pumpkin pie…pumpkin pie!
My head snaps around to look at the cargo area in the back. It is useless of course; the murk almost completely obscures it from my eyes. I climb over the seat holding Ryan close to my shoulder. I place him in his car seat and he stays asleep. I lean over the second row of seats and my hand feels around the cargo area. After nothing but carpet for several seconds my arm bangs against the object that popped into my head at the thought of pumpkin pie.
Jen had cooked several pies for dinner and wanted to keep them warm in transit. She insisted we take my big cooler, the one with wheels and a long handle. I never thought it would be used for anything other than keeping my beer cold. Now it might save my children.
I open the lid and feel around the edges. There is more than enough area to hold both children. I don’t know how long they can breathe in there, but it has to be better than the alternative. I close the cooler again.
I hear a few snapping noises from around me. I can’t really see them but I know the windows are cracking. I put my hands on the glass closest to Ryan, and trace the cruel spider-web breaks up the window. There is no water leaking from them, but it will only be a matter of time.
I haul the cooler and myself into the front seat, open it and dump out the dishes and empty pie pans, then again push the top down. I’m not sure if the cooler lid will stay shut once we are swimming for the surface. Kneeling in the water, I take my belt off and wrap it around the plastic box, but it is well short of connecting. Without thinking I shove the belt through the opening on the steering wheel. Seatbelts and car seat fabric cross my mind. Both are materials that need to be cut and I am fresh out of survival knives. I grab the phone charging cord that is still dangling from the lighter outlet and wedge it underneath the cooler. It stretches around it but will be hard to tie off. There is no other solution. The spiral cord will have to do.
I hear more cracks from the windows. The noise is like the popping of the rice cereal in the bottom of Rachel’s breakfast bowl. We are out of time. Rachel starts crying. The sound is different than usual. These are sobs of hopelessness. Although she is too young to know exactly what’s going on, she is smart enough to know we are in dire circumstances. She knows we might not make it.
I hold out my arms to Rachel and pick her up, bringing her face just inches from my own.
“Listen to me baby.”
She stops crying the instant she hears my voice.
“We’re going to see mommy, okay? But it’s going to take a few minutes.”
“We’ve been in accident. We have to get to the top of the lake.”
Rachel looks around at the windows, as if only now realizing we are underwater. She does not cry. The tears from before are already drying on her cheeks. I open the lid of the cooler as it floats in the water next to me, the water almost halfway to its top.
“You have to get in this cooler, baby, okay? You and Ryan have to stay in there for a while.”
“We go hide, daddy? You come find us?”
“That’s right baby, just like hide and seek. Only you can’t open that lid. No matter what, stay in there until I get you out.” I squeeze her shoulders. “Promise me no matter what you won’t open the lid.”
“I won’t, daddy.”
“That’s a good girl. Now you have to be a good big sister and hold onto Ryan. Keep the bottle in his mouth okay? You know you’re daddy’s favorite girl, right?”
I look into those metallic eyes of hers. Somehow in the darkness they still reflect some light. Those smart but helpless eyes. I see her first day of kindergarten, softball games, high school graduation, and her wedding. I see my grandkids. I feel my eyes burn but no tears will come. I smile anyway. I know that I will do everything I can to make it to the surface.
I lay Rachel in the cooler, keeping it as steady as I can, tucking her coat around her.
Then I turn and reach for Ryan, plucking him from his car seat and holding him up in front of me. He is awake now and chewing his fingers. “Hi, big boy.” I kiss his cheek hard. He smiles at me. It’s like looking in the mirror. I kid with Jen that he’s my clone. I lay him on top of Rachel in the cooler. She wiggles a bit to get comfortable but does not complain. Ryan begins to scream. I put his bottle in Rachel’s right hand. Without a word she slips it into his lips and the crying stops.
“Good job baby.”
“Thank you daddy.
“Remember, when I shut this lid, don’t try and open it. We’ll be with mommy in a few minutes. Do you understand?”
“Yes baby.” My voice sounds high-pitched and wavering.
“I love you daddy.”
“I love you baby.”
I shut the lid, grab the ends of the coiled cord and stretch it around the cooler as fast as I can. If I don’t, I will never be able to. I pull it hard and double knot it at the top. I grab my belt from where I hung it on the steering wheel and slide it around my waist through the loops in my jeans. As I get to the right side of my waist I run the belt through the handle of the cooler and then back to the remaining loops in my jeans. I pull the leather tight—tighter than usual. The cooler will be uncomfortable and cumbersome against my hip but it is the only way I can free my arms and legs for the journey upward. My eyes are blurry but the tears still don’t come. There is more snapping and popping. The water is over my shoulders now and the cooler floats next to me, the top of it almost touching the ceiling. For whatever reason I am still not cold. Chilly, but not cold.
My mouth and nose are against the ceiling now, and I’m gasping hard for air. I have to get one really deep breath that will last…it will have to last until the kids are safe.
I say the Lord’s Prayer quickly in my head. At the end of it I add: Please let us get to Jen. I can’t remember the last time I prayed. It was probably another time when I thought I couldn’t do it by myself—my back against the wall. I wish that everything I ever prayed for—money, jobs, cars, homes—I wish I could take them all back. I didn’t mean any of it. This is what I want. Please Lord.
I take my last breath.
The water covers my face.
Total darkness. Total silence. Only the slight movement of the water. I run my hand along my belt to make sure it is still secured to the handle of the cooler. I pull on the door handle with my left hand. It opens with ease. I flow out of the Durango towing the red plastic box beside me. I can tell by the feel of the handle being horizontal that the cooler is floating next to me, almost trying to ascend. I kick my legs and pull hard with my arms. I open my eyes to see nothing but the murky blackness around me. Above, the water is a lighter shade of black. I feel like I am at the bottom of a deep hole looking up. My legs kick harder. My arms pull faster. The most precious treasure chest in the world clings to my belt and follows beside me.
I swim upwards as fast and desperately as I can, the cooler tugging on my waist. I can tell that I am moving only because the darkness above me is getting lighter—moving from coal to tar and then almost to the gray of dirty dishwater. I feel constantly to make sure the cooler is attached to my belt. How badly I want to open the lid and make sure they’re all right. How badly I want to make sure they are still breathing. But that’s why I must keep moving. And that’s why I do.
I see faces in the void around me, like the scary shadows in the corners of your room when you were a kid trying to go to sleep. Some of the faces are familiar. Some are not. What could only be Satan leers at me and reaches out a helping hand. I know better than to take it and instead look up toward my destination. In a blink the deceiver is gone. My father takes his place, but only looks on as a spectator. His lips do not move and his eyes seem to know something I don’t. With a stroke of my hands the water erases him. Jen looks at me with her arms folded. She is smiling because she knows I will never stop. I will never quit until our babies are safe.
I am an accountant. That’s how I spend much of my time. It is my job, the way I make a living, but it does not define me as a man. Right now and always I am a father—swimming through freezing water to save my life and the lives of my children. The water should be freezing me but it is only chilly. My lungs should be burning from lack of oxygen but I feel no need to breathe. I am on full adrenaline, have to be. People lift cars off of loved ones when they have no other choice. I have only one choice. Keep going up.
The water at the top of the lake looks the color of dirty snow—frozen powder tinted with the grease and grime of the streets. It won’t be long now, thirty seconds, maybe less. I can still feel the cooler dragging from my waist. I wonder how much oxygen they have left. I hope the water cannot get in. They’ll be fine.
My limbs work even harder. I’m on the last stretch of a short marathon. I feel no pain. My muscles do not burn. It will be only seconds until I see those precious faces. I smile…until I hit the frozen ice on top of the lake. It is some cruel joke. With both hands I push on it but my body is only propelled downward. I rise upwards again, this time feeling along the bottom of the ice barrier, searching for a break, a crack, anything. Rachel and Ryan are suffocating. In the frigid waters of Collingston Lake I suddenly feel like my hands are sweating with panic. I have come so far from the unlocked tomb. I am only two inches from freedom. I can even glimpse through the ice a faint circle—the moon hanging low in the December sky.
I refuse to be defeated. I swim quicker, using my legs as both propeller and rudder. My hands slide across the cold blurry lid of ice above me, hoping to find a chink in its armor. I am a mime trapped in an invisible box. I punch frantically as I slide along just under the ice, like a boxer nearing the end of a final round. I am out of time. We are out of time. .
There is a soft spot in the ice and my hand goes through it. I grip the edge, pull up my legs, and kick with all my strength. . The spot opens up and moonlight pierces the gloom. I see lights on the bridge—car beams and the revolving reds and blues of police cars. I stick my head through the ice and suck in a quick breath. I don’t want to pass out even though I feel remarkably fine. I let the cooler float up into the hole I’ve made. I unbuckle it from my belt and shove it as hard as I can through stubborn small hole. I kick with my feet, and the cooler slides onto the frozen top of the lake. I reach out, untie the knot in the cell phone cord, and push the cooler farther from the hole. I grab the ice and pull on it with my arms. I skid forward on my belly.
The air is not as cold as I thought it would be.
I reach two feet to the cooler beside me and open the lid. There is no movement, no sound. I figured on hearing two screaming kids.
“Daddy?” a quivering voice calls.
I get to my knees and look in. Rachel is shivering. Some lake water seeped into the cooler and filled to about one-fourth of the way up. Ryan’s lips are blue. I put my hand on his chest, but it does not move. He is not breathing.
“Don’t move,” a voice yells.
Two men in wet suits are inching their way across the ice. They carry medical cases. The bridge is fifty yards away, packed with emergency vehicles. The people of Collingston occupy about every inch of the bridge, like ants hunkered down on a floating stick. Someone must have witnessed our accident first hand. Or Rachel’s cell call got through.
The divers are at us in seconds. One of them lifts Ryan out of the cooler and wraps him in a towel. The other reaches for Rachel, covers her, and scoots off with her back toward the bridge.
“Daddy!” Rachel screams. She is scared and confused.
Jen breaks the grip of some policeman and runs out on the ice. The diver hands my bundled Rachel over to her mother. Jen kisses her and, hugging Rachel tightly, tries to continue on toward Ryan and me. The diver stops her.
The other man in the wet suit is blowing into Ryan’s mouth. My son is not breathing. He has no heartbeat.
I stand there and want to cry, but the tears will still not come. “Is there anything I can do?” I plead.
The man in the wet suit does not answer. He is too busy breathing for my son, and pressing his small chest. I hear Jen screaming.
Other emergency medical professionals run across the ice. They form a circle around my son. They throw out numbers and terminology I am not familiar with. They are calm but tense. Let him live.
I hear a gurgle of water followed by a cry. Ryan starts to breathe.
They lift him off the ice and wrap him in more blankets. I reach out my arms but the EMT carrying him passes me by and heads for the bridge. The rest of the rescuers follow. I realize I’m being left behind and start to walk toward the bridge myself.
Ryan is whisked around Jen and placed into a waiting ambulance on the bridge. Rachel is taken out of her mother’s arms and placed in another ambulance. Jen lets her go reluctantly. She looks out at the lake and crosses her arms. She is worried about me.
“Go with them,” I yell. “I’m fine.”
Jen just stands there staring.
I pick up my pace to meet her. Though the ice looks thin under my feet, it shows no signs of breaking or giving out. I can’t believe how warm I am.
Forty yards from me divers are swimming down the hole the Durango created. They swim pulling a cable. It is connected to the winch of a tow truck that sits on the bridge.
As I reach the point where Jen is standing, her father walks up and puts his arms around her. They continue to watch the divers rescue our vehicle. They must be in shock because they say nothing to me as I stand next to them.
“Forget the Durango. Let’s go with kids.”
She does not answer.
“Jen?” I tap her on the shoulder.
She snuggles closer her to her father as if chilled by a cold gust of wind.
“To hell with the damn car. Our babies are in the hospital.”
“I’m not leaving without him,” she says.
“Leaving without who?” I ask.
“Oh my god.” Jen covers her mouth, breaks her father’s hug, and runs across the ice toward the now car-sized hole. The divers have come up; the cable has brought the Durango to the surface and holds it steady. I follow Jen, still baffled at her interest in a replaceable, fully insured vehicle.
“No!” Jen screams. The sound sends shivers down my spine. I follow her line of sight to the divers. The have the door open. They are dragging a man out from behind the steering wheel and laying him on the ice. I swallow hard. Jen tries to get to the man, but there is a gap of freezing cold water separating them. Two police officers and her father form a blockade.
I walk toward the circle of emergency personnel and the man lying on the ice. I am three steps away from the chaos when I look down at my feet. I am standing on water. Scared, I jump to the ice just a yard away. There is no cracking. No sound of my shoes landing on the ice.
They are performing CPR on the man. One of them says it does not look good. Another says try it one more time. They press on his chest. They breathe into his mouth.
I look back at the water. I feel my face and realize it is neither cold nor warm. Several times I’d had the urge to cry but could not. I remember the 9-1-1 call. The operator could not hear me. I swam in freezing cold water. My lungs never hurt for lack of oxygen. Jen does not acknowledge me. Jen cannot hear me. She cannot see me.
I look down at the EMT as he rises from the body lying on the ice. I put my hand to the gash on my forehead and see it on the man in front of me at the same time. He is blue and wet and cold. He does not look human. He is not alive. They cover him with a blanket and two of the men pick him up.
Jen follows him to the last waiting ambulance, tears streaming down her face, her father close behind her.
The crowd disperses from the bridge. People walk back to their cars like the crowd of a movie theater that just let out. The ambulance pulls away. The police cars turn off their lights and disappear into the night. Jen’s father tucks her into his truck and her sobbing is muffled when the door shuts. The Durango is back on the bridge, being pulled behind the tow truck.
I am alone. I don’t know where to go.
“You did real good, son. I’m proud of you.” Someone puts a hand on my shoulder.
It is the same voice that told me to wake up at the bottom of the lake. It is a familiar voice. I turn to see that it is my father.
“Rachel and Ryan are going to be just fine,” he says and smiles.
We begin to walk.
Did you like this short story? Email Adam Decker and tell him what you thought. Or get to the main course and read the fan favorite novel The Janitor.