Sooner than Lindsey could have hoped, the surging river shoved her and Hatch against a formation of water-smoothed rocks that rose like a series of worn teeth in the middle of its course, wedging them into a gap sufficiently narrow to prevent them from being swept farther downstream. Water foamed and gurgled around them, but with the rocks behind her, she was able to stop struggling against the deadly undertow.
She felt limp, every muscle soft and unresponsive. She could barely manage to keep Hatch's head from tipping forward into the water, though doing so should have been a simple task now that she no longer needed to fight the river.
Though she was incapable of letting go of him, keeping his head above water was a pointless task: he had drowned. She could not kid herself that he was still alive. And minute by minute he was less likely to be revived with artificial respiration. But she would not give up. Would not. She was astonished by her fierce refusal to relinquish hope, though just before the accident she had thought she was devoid of hope forever.
The chill of the water had thoroughly penetrated Lindsey, numbing mind as well as flesh. When she tried to concentrate on forming a plan that would get her from the middle of the river to the shore, she could not bring her thoughts into focus. She felt drugged. She knew that drowsiness was a companion of hypothermia, that dozing off would invite deeper unconsciousness and ultimately death. She was determined to keep awake and alert at all costs—but suddenly she realized that she had closed her eyes, giving in to the temptation of sleep.
Fear twisted through her. Renewed strength coiled in her muscles.
Blinking feverishly, eyelashes frosted with snow that no longer melted from her body heat, she peered around Hatch and along the line of water-polished boulders. The safety of the bank was only fifteen feet away. If the rocks were close to one another, she might be able to tow Hatch to shore without being sucked through a gap and carried downriver.
Her vision had adapted sufficiently to the gloom, however, for her to see that centuries of patient currents had carved a five-foot-wide hole in the middle of the granite span against which she was wedged. It was halfway between her and the river's edge. Dimly glistening under a lacework shawl of ice, the ebony water quickened as it was funneled toward the gap; no doubt it exploded out the other side with tremendous force.
Lindsey knew she was too weak to propel herself across that powerful affluxion. She and Hatch would be swept through the breach and, at last, to certain death.
Just when surrender to an endless sleep began, again, to look more appealing than continued pointless struggle against nature's hostile power, she saw strange lights at the top of the ravine, a couple of hundred yards upriver. She was so disoriented and her mind so anesthetized by the cold that for a while the pulsing crimson glow seemed eerie, mysterious, supernatural, as if she were staring upward at the wondrous radiance of a hovering, divine presence.
Gradually she realized that she was seeing the throb of police or ambulance beacons on the highway far above, and then she spotted the flashlight beams nearer at hand, like silver swords slashing the darkness. Rescuers had descended the ravine wall. They were maybe a hundred yards upriver, where the car had sunk.
She called to them. Her shout issued as a whisper. She tried again, with greater success, but they must not have heard her above the keening wind, for the flashlights continued to sweep back and forth over the same section of riverbank and turbulent water.
Suddenly she realized that Hatch was slipping out of her grasp again. His face was underwater.
With the abruptness of a switch being thrown, Lindsey's terror became anger again. She was angry with the truck driver for being caught in the mountains during a snowstorm, angry with herself for being so weak, angry with Hatch for reasons she could not define, angry with the cold and insistent river, and enraged at God for the violence and injustice of His universe.
Lindsey found greater strength in anger than in terror. She flexed her half-frozen hands, got a better grip on Hatch, pulled his head out of the water again, and let out a cry for help that was louder than the banshee voice of the wind. Upstream, the flashlight beams, as one, swung searchingly in her direction.
The stranded couple looked dead already. Targeted by the flashlights, their faces floated on the dark water, as white as apparitions—translucent, unreal, lost.
Lee Reedman, a San Bernardino County Deputy Sheriff with emergency rescue training, waded into the water to haul them ashore, bracing himself against a rampart of boulders that extended out to midstream. He was on a half-inch, hawser-laid nylon line with a breaking strength of four thousand pounds, secured to the trunk of a sturdy pine and belayed by two other deputies.
He had taken off his parka but not his uniform or boots. In those fierce currents, swimming was impossible anyway, so he did not have to worry about being hampered by clothes. And even sodden garments would protect him from the worst bite of the frigid water, reducing the rate at which body heat was sucked out of him.
Within a minute of entering the river, however, when he was only halfway toward the stranded couple, Lee felt as if a refrigerant had been injected into his bloodstream. He couldn't believe that he would have been any colder had he dived na*ed into those icy currents.
He would have preferred to wait for the Winter Rescue Team that was on its way, men who had experience pulling skiers out of avalanches and retrieving careless skaters who had fallen through thin ice. They would have insulated wetsuits and all the necessary gear. But the situation was too desperate to delay; the people in the river would not last until the specialists arrived.
He came to a five-foot-wide gap in the rocks, where the river gushed through as if being drawn forward by a huge suction pump. He was knocked off his feet, but the men on the bank kept the line taut, paying it out precisely at the rate he was moving, so he was not swept into the breach. He flailed forward through the surging river, swallowing a mouthful of water so bitterly cold that it made his teeth ache, but he got a grip on the rock at the far side of the gap and pulled himself across.
A minute later, gasping for breath and shivering violently, Lee reached the couple. The man was unconscious, but the woman was alert. Their faces bobbled in and out of the overlapping flashlight beams directed from shore, and they both looked in terrible shape. The woman's flesh seemed to have both shriveled and blanched of all color, so the natural phosphorescence of bone shone like a light within, revealing the skull beneath her skin. Her lips were as white as her teeth; other than her sodden black hair, only her eyes were dark, as sunken as the eyes of a corpse and bleak with the pain of dying. Under the circumstances he could not guess her age within fifteen years and could not tell if she was ugly or attractive, but he could see, at once, that she was at the limit of her resources, holding on to life by willpower alone.
“Take my husband first,” she said, pushing the unconscious man into Lee's arms. Her shrill voice cracked repeatedly. “He's got a head injury, needs help, hurry up, go on, go on, damn you!”
Her anger didn't offend Lee. He knew it was not directed against him, really, and that it gave her the strength to endure.
“Hold on, and we'll all go together.” He raised his voice above the roar of the wind and the racing river. “Don't fight it, don't try to grab on to the rocks or keep your feet on the bottom. They'll have an easier time reeling us in if we let the water buoy us.”
She seemed to understand.
Lee glanced back toward shore. A light focused on his face, and he shouted, “Ready! Now!”
The team on the riverbank began to reel him in, with the unconscious man and the exhausted woman in tow.
After Lindsey was hauled out of the water, she drifted in and out of consciousness. For a while life seemed to be a videotape being fast-forwarded from one randomly chosen scene to another, with gray-white static in between.
As she lay gasping on the ground at the river's edge, a young paramedic with a snow-caked beard knelt at her side and directed a penlight at her eyes, checking her pupils for uneven dilation. He said, “Can you hear me?”
“Of course. Where's Hatch?”
“Do you know your name?”
“Where's my husband? He needs … CPR.”
“We're taking care of him. Now, do you know your name?”
“Good. Are you cold?”
That seemed like a stupid question, but then she realized she was no longer freezing. In fact, a mildly unpleasant heat had arisen in her extremities. It was not the sharp, painful heat of flames. Instead, she felt as if her feet and hands had been dipped in a caustic fluid that was gradually dissolving her skin and leaving raw nerve ends exposed. She knew, without having to be told, that her inability to feel the bitter night air was an indication of physical deterioration.
Fast forward …
She was being moved on a stretcher. They were heading along the riverbank. With her head toward the front of the litter, she could look back at the man who was carrying the rear of it. The snow-covered ground reflected the flashlight beams, but that soft eerie glow was only bright enough to reveal the basic contours of the stranger's face and add a disquieting glimmer to his iron-hard eyes.
As colorless as a charcoal drawing, strangely silent, full of dreamlike motion and mystery, that place and moment had the quality of a nightmare. She felt her heartbeat accelerate as she squinted back and up at the almost faceless man. The illogic of a dream shaped her fear, and suddenly she was certain that she was dead and that the shadowy men carrying her stretcher were not men at all but carrion-bearers delivering her to the boat that would convey her across the Styx to the land of the dead and damned.
Fast forward …
Lashed to the stretcher now, tilted almost into a standing position, she was being pulled along the snow-covered slope of the ravine wall by unseen men reeling in a pair of ropes from above. Two other men accompanied her, one on each side of the stretcher, struggling up through the knee-deep drifts, guiding her and making sure she didn't flip over.
She was ascending into the red glow of the emergency beacons. As that crimson radiance completely surrounded her, she began to hear the urgent voices of the rescuers above and the crackle of police-band radios. When she could smell the pungent exhaust fumes of their vehicles, she knew that she was going to survive.
Just seconds from a clean getaway, she thought.
Though in the grip of a delirium born of exhaustion, confused and fuzzy-minded, Lindsey was alert enough to be unnerved by that thought and the subconscious longing it represented. Just seconds from a clean getaway? The only thing she had been seconds away from was death. Was she still so depressed from the loss of Jimmy that, even after five years, her own death was an acceptable release from the burden of her grief?
Then why didn't I surrender to the river? she wondered. Why not just let go?
Hatch, of course. Hatch had needed her. She'd been ready to step out of this world in hope of setting foot into a better one. But she had not been able to make that decision for Hatch, and to surrender her own life under those circumstances would have meant forfeiting his as well.
With a clatter and a jolt, the stretcher was pulled over the brink of the ravine and lowered flat onto the shoulder of the mountain highway beside an ambulance. Red snow swirled into her face.
A paramedic with a weather-beaten face and beautiful blue eyes leaned over her. “You're going to be all right.”
“I didn't want to die,” she said.
She was not really speaking to the man. She was aruging with herself, trying to deny that her despair over the loss of her son had become such a chronic emotional infection that she had been secretly longing to join him in death. Her self-image did not include the word “suicidal,” and she was shocked and repulsed to discover, under extreme stress, that such an impulse might be a part of her.
Just seconds from a clean getaway …
She said, “Did I want to die?”
“You aren't going to die,” the paramedic assured her as he and another man untied the ropes from the handles of the litter, preparatory to loading her into the ambulance. “The worst is over now. The worst is over.”
Half a dozen police and emergency vehicles were parked across two lanes of the mountain highway. Uphill and downhill traffic shared the third lane, regulated by uniformed deputies. Lindsey was aware of people gawking at her from a Jeep Wagoneer, but they vanished beyond shatters of snow and heavy plumes of crystallized exhaust fumes.
The ambulance van could accommodate two patients. They loaded Lindsey onto a wheeled gurney that was fixed to the left wall by two spring clamps to prevent it from rolling while the vehicle was in motion. They put Hatch on another identical gurney along the right wall.
Two paramedics crowded into the rear of the ambulance and pulled the wide door shut behind them. As they moved, their white, insulated nylon pants and jackets produced continuous frictional sounds, a series of soft whistles that seemed to be electronically amplified in those close quarters.
With a short burst of its siren, the ambulance started to move. The paramedics swayed easily with the rocking motion. Experience had made them surefooted.
Side by side in the narrow aisle between the gurneys, both men turned to Lindsey. Their names were stitched on the breast pockets of their jackets: David O'Malley and Jerry Epstein. With a curious combination of professional detachment and concerned attentiveness, they began to work on her, exchanging medical information with each other in crisp emotionless voices but speaking to her in soft, sympathetic, encouraging tones.
That dichotomy in their behavior alarmed rather than soothed Lindsey, but she was too weak and disoriented to express her fear. She felt infuriatingly delicate. Shaky. She was reminded of a surrealistic painting titled This World and the Next, which she had done last year, because the central figure in that piece had been a wire-walking circus acrobat plagued by uncertainty. Right now consciousness was a high wire on which she was precariously perched. Any effort to speak to the paramedics, if sustained for more than a word or two, might unbalance her and send her into a long, dark fall.
Although her mind was too clouded to find any sense in most of what the two men were saying, she understood enough to know that she was suffering from hypothermia, possibly frostbite, and that they were worried about her. Blood pressure too low. Heartbeat slow and irregular. Slow and shallow respiration.
Maybe that clean getaway was still possible.
If she really wanted it.
She was ambivalent. If she actually had hungered for death on a subconscious level since Jimmy's funeral, she had no special appetite for it now—though neither did she find it particularly unappealing. Whatever happened to her would happen, and in her current condition, with her emotions as numb as her five senses, she did not much care about her fate. Hypothermia switched off the survival instinct with a narcotizing pall as effective as that produced by an alcoholic binge.