The front of the car did not rise in the currents, as it had done previously. It was settling deeper than before, so there was less river under it to provide lift. The water continued to pour in, quickly rising past Lindsey's ankles to mid-calf. They were sinking.
“Hatch!” She was shouting now, shaking him hard, heedless of his injuries.
The river gushed inside, rising to seat level, churning up foam that refracted the amber light from the instrument panel and looked like garlands of golden Christmas tinsel.
Lindsey pulled her feet out of the water, knelt on her seat, and splashed Hatch's face, desperately hoping to bring him around.
But he was sunk in deeper levels of unconsciousness than mere concussive sleep, perhaps in a coma as plumbless as a mid-ocean trench.
Swirling water rose to the bottom of the steering wheel.
Frantically Lindsey ripped at Hatch's safety harness, trying to strip it away from him, only half aware of the hot flashes of pain when she tore a couple of fingernails.
“Hatch, damn it!”
The water was halfway up the steering wheel, and the Honda all but ceased its forward movement. It was too heavy now to be budged by the persistent pressure of the river behind it.
Hatch was five-feet-ten, a hundred and sixty pounds, only average in size, but he might as well have been a giant. As dead weight, resistant to her every effort, he was virtually immovable. Tugging, shoving, wrenching, clawing, Lindsey struggled to free him, and by the time she finally managed to disentangle him from the straps, the water had risen over the top of the dashboard, more than halfway up her chest. It was even higher on Hatch, just under his chin, because he was slumped in his seat.
The river was unbelievably icy, and Lindsey felt the warmth pumping out of her body as if it were blood gushing from a severed artery. As body heat bled from her, the cold bled in, and her muscles began to ache.
Nevertheless, she welcomed the rising flood because it would make Hatch buoyant and therefore easier to maneuver out from under the wheel and through the shattered windshield. That was her theory, anyway, but when she tugged on him, he seemed heavier than ever, and now the water was at his lips.
“Come on, come on,” she said furiously, “you're gonna drown, damn it!”
Finally pulling his beer truck off the road, Bill Cooper broadcast a Mayday on his CB radio. Another trucker responded and, equipped with a cellular telephone as well as a CB, promised to call the authorities in nearby Big Bear.
Bill hung up the citizen's-band handset, took a long-handled six-battery flashlight from under the driver's seat, and stepped out into the storm. The frigid wind cut through even his fleece-lined denim jacket, but the bitterness of the winter night was not half as icy as his stomach, which had turned sour and cold as he had watched the Honda spin its luckless occupants down the highway and over the brink of the chasm.
He hurried across the slippery pavement and along the shoulder to the missing section of guardrail. He hoped to see the Honda close below, caught up against the trunk of a tree. But there were no trees on that slope—just a smooth mantle of snow from previous storms, scarred by the passage of the car, disappearing beyond the reach of his flashlight beam.
An almost disabling pang of guilt stabbed through him. He'd been drinking again. Not much. A few shots out of the flask he carried. He had been certain he was sober when he'd started up the mountain. Now he wasn't so sure. He felt… fuzzy. And suddenly it seemed stupid to have tried to make a delivery with the weather turning ugly so fast.
Below him, the abyss appeared supernaturally bottomless, and the apparent extreme depth engendered in Bill the feeling that he was gazing into the damnation to which he'd be delivered when his own life ended. He was paralyzed by that sense of futility that sometimes overcame even the best of men—though usually when they were alone in a bedroom, staring at the meaningless patterns of shadows on the ceiling at three o'clock in the morning.
Then the curtains of snow parted for a moment, and he saw the floor of the ravine about a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet below, not as deep as he had feared. He stepped through the gap in the guardrail, intending to crab down the treacherous hillside and assist the survivors if there were any. Instead he hesitated on the narrow shelf of flat earth at the brink of the slope because he was whiskey-dizzy but also because he could not see where the car had come to rest.
A serpentine black band, like satin ribbon, curved through the snow down there, intersecting the tracks the car had made. Bill blinked at it uncomprehendingly, as if staring at an abstract painting, until he remembered that a river lay below.
The car had gone into that ebony ribbon of water.
Following a winter of freakishly heavy snow, the weather had turned warmer a couple of weeks ago, triggering a premature spring melt. The runoff continued, for winter had returned too recently to have locked the river in ice again. The temperature of the water would be only a few degrees above freezing. Any occupant of the car, having survived both the wreck and death by drowning, would perish swiftly from exposure.
If I'd been sober, he thought, I would've turned back in this weather. I'm a pathetic joke, a tanked-up beer deliveryman who didn't even have enough loyalty to get plastered on beer. Christ.
A joke, but people were dying because of him. He tasted vomit in the back of his throat, choked it down.
Frantically he surveyed the murky ravine until he spotted an eerie radiance, like an otherworldly presence, drifting spectrally with the river to the right of him. Soft amber, it faded in and out through the falling snow. He figured it must be the interior lights of the Honda, which was being borne downriver.
Hunched for protection against the biting wind, holding on to the guardrail in case he slipped and fell over the edge, Bill scuttled along the top of the slope, in the same direction as the waterswept car below, trying to keep it in sight. The Honda drifted swiftly at first, then slower, slower. Finally it came to a complete halt, perhaps stopped by rocks in the watercourse or by a projection of the river bank.
The light was slowly fading, as if the car's battery was running out of juice.
Though Hatch was freed from the safety harness, Lindsey could not budge him, maybe because his clothes were caught on something she could not see, maybe because his foot was wedged under the brake pedal or bent back and trapped under his own seat.
The water rose over Hatch's nose. Lindsey could not hold his head any higher. He was breathing the river now.
She let go of him because she hoped that the loss of his air supply would finally bring him around, coughing and spluttering and splashing up from his seat, but also because she did not have the energy to continue struggling with him. The intense cold of the water sapped her strength. With frightening rapidity, her extremities were growing numb. Her exhaled breath seemed just as cold as every inhalation, as if her body had no heat left to impart to the used air.
The car had stopped moving. It was resting on the bottom of the river, completely filled and weighed down with water, except for a bubble of air under the shallow dome of the roof. Into that space she pressed her face, gasping for breath.
She was making horrid little sounds of terror, like the bleats of an animal. She tried to silence herself but could not.
The queer, water-filtered light from the instrument panel began to fade from amber to muddy yellow.
A dark part of her wanted to give up, let go of this world, and move on to someplace better. It had a small quiet voice of its own: Don't fight, there's nothing left to live for anyway, Jimmy has been dead for so long, so very long, now Hatch is dead or dying, just let go, surrender, maybe you'll wake up in Heaven with them … The voice possessed a lulling, hypnotic appeal.
The remaining air could last only a few minutes, if that long, and she would die in the car if she did not escape immediately.
Hatch is dead, lungs full of water, only waiting to be fish food, so let go, surrender, what's the point, Hatch is dead …
She gulped air that was swiftly acquiring a tart, metallic taste. She was able to draw only small breaths, as if her lungs had shriveled.
If any body heat was left in her, she was not aware of it. In reaction to the cold, her stomach knotted with nausea, and even the vomit that kept rising into her throat was icy; each time she choked it down, she felt as if she had swallowed a vile slush of dirty snow.
Hatch is dead, Hatch is dead …
“No,” she said in a harsh, angry whisper. “No. No.”
Denial raged through her with the fury of a storm: Hatch could not be dead. Unthinkable. Not Hatch, who never forgot a birthday or an anniversary, who bought her flowers for no reason at all, who never lost his temper and rarely raised his voice. Not Hatch, who always had time to listen to the troubles of others and sympathize with them, who never failed to have an open wallet for a friend in need, whose greatest fault was that he was too damn much of a soft touch. He could not be, must not be, would not be dead. He ran five miles a day, ate a low-fat diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, avoided caffeine and decaffeinated beverages. Didn't that count for something, damn it? He lathered on sunscreen in the summer, did not smoke, never drank more than two beers or two glasses of wine in a single evening, and was too easy-going ever to develop heart disease due to stress. Didn't self-denial and self-control count for anything? Was creation so screwed up that there was no justice any more? Okay, all right, they said the good died young, which sure had been true of Jimmy, and Hatch was not yet forty, young by any standard, okay, agreed, but they also said that virtue was its own reward, and there was plenty of virtue here, damn it, a whole shitload of virtue, which ought to count for something, unless God wasn't listening, unless He didn't care, unless the world was an even crueler place than she had believed.
She refused to accept it.
Hatch. Was. Not. Dead.
She drew as deep a breath as she could manage. Just as the last of the light faded, plunging her into blindness again, she sank into the water, pushed across the dashboard, and went through the missing windshield onto the hood of the car.
Now she was not merely blind but deprived of virtually all five senses. She could hear nothing but the wild thumping of her own heart, for the water effectively muffled sound. She could smell and speak only at the penalty of death by drowning. The anesthetizing effect of the glacial river left her with a fraction of her sense of touch, so she felt as if she were a disembodied spirit suspended in whatever medium composed Purgatory, awaiting final judgment.
Assuming that the river was not much deeper than the car and that she would not need to hold her breath long before she reached the surface, she made another attempt to free Hatch. Lying on the hood of the car, holding fast to the edge of the windshield frame with one numb hand, straining against her body's natural buoyancy, she reached back inside, groped in the blackness until she located the steering wheel and then her husband.
Heat rose in her again, at last, but it was not a sustaining warmth. Her lungs were beginning to burn with the need for air.
Gripping a fistful of Hatch's jacket, she pulled with all her might—and to her surprise he floated out of his seat, no longer immovable, suddenly buoyant and unfettered. He caught on the steering wheel, but only briefly, then bobbled out through the windshield as Lindsey slid backward across the hood to make way for him.
A hot, pulsing pain filled her chest. The urge to breathe grew overpowering, but she resisted it.
When Hatch was out of the car, Lindsey embraced him and kicked for the surface. He was surely drowned, and she was clinging to a corpse, but she was not repulsed by that macabre thought. If she could get him ashore, she would be able to administer artificial respiration. Although the chance of reviving him was slim, at least some hope remained. He was not truly dead, not really a corpse, until all hope had been exhausted.
She burst through the surface into a howling wind that made the marrow-freezing water seem almost warm by comparison. When that air hit her burning lungs, her heart stuttered, her chest clenched with pain, and the second breath was harder to draw than the first.
Treading water, holding tight to Hatch, Lindsey swallowed mouthfuls of the river as it splashed her face. Cursing, she spat it out. Nature seemed alive, like a great hostile beast, and she found herself irrationally angry with the river and the storm, as if they were conscious entities willfully aligned against her.
She tried to orient herself, but it was not easy in the darkness and shrieking wind, without solid ground beneath her. When she saw the riverbank, vaguely luminous in its coat of snow, she attempted a one-arm sidestroke toward it with Hatch in tow, but the current was too strong to be resisted, even if she'd been able to swim with both arms. She and Hatch were swept downstream, repeatedly dragged beneath the surface by an undertow, repeatedly thrust back into the wintry air, battered by fragments of tree branches and chunks of ice that were also caught up in the current, moving helplessly and inexorably toward whatever sudden fall or deadly phalanx of rapids marked the river's descent from the mountains.
He had started drinking when Myra left him. He never could handle being womanless. Yeah, and wouldn't God Almighty treat that excuse with contempt when it came time for judgment?
Still holding the guardrail, Bill Cooper crouched indecisively on the brink of the slope and stared intently down at the river. Beyond the screen of falling snow, the lights of the Honda had gone out.
He didn't dare take his eyes off the obscured scene below to check the highway for the ambulance. He was afraid that when he looked back into the ravine again, he would misremember the exact spot where the light had disappeared and would send the rescuers to the wrong point along the riverbank. The dim black-and-white world below offered few prominent landmarks.
“Come on, hurry up,” he muttered.
The wind—which stung his face, made his eyes water, and pasted snow in his mustache—was keening so loudly that it masked the approaching sirens of the emergency vehicles until they rounded the bend uphill, enlivening the night with their headlights and red flashers. Bill rose, waving his arms to draw their attention, but he still did not look away from the river.
Behind him, they pulled to the side of the road. Because one of their sirens wound down to silence faster than the other, he knew there were two vehicles, probably an ambulance and a police cruiser.
They would smell the whiskey on his breath. No, maybe not in all that wind and cold. He felt that he deserved to die for what he'd done—but if he wasn't going to die, then he didn't think he deserved to lose his job. These were hard times. A recession. Good jobs weren't easy to find.
Reflections of the revolving emergency beacons lent a stroboscopic quality to the night. Real life had become a choppy and technically inept piece of stop-motion animation, with the scarlet snow like a spray of blood falling haltingly from the wounded sky.