Stella’s next breath was a slow, audible inhalation through her nose. She blew the air out through her clenched teeth.
He opened the dashboard vents, directed the air toward her face, and continued, “There was this one time when we practiced water rescue drills.”
As he told the story, the memory was so clear, he could feel the cold of the water on his skin, the weight of his wet clothes dragging him down . . .
He barely heard his father’s speech. Treading water in jeans, boots, and a backpack took all his concentration. When he tried to look up at the Colonel, the spotlight shining off the back of the house caught him in the eyes.
The Colonel’s super-light wheelchair rolled past. “Time.”
Mac swam for the edge of the pool. Grant hauled him out as easily as if he were a puppy that had fallen in.
“Well done,” the Colonel said. “Catch your breath, Mac.”
Mac’s shoulder muscles quivered under his wet T-shirt as he took his place in line. As the youngest of the Barrett siblings, he was the last to participate in every drill.
The Colonel spun his chair to the edge. Except for the spotlight, the water rippled dark in the September night. The pool was a standard thirty-six-by-eighteen backyard size, built long before the Colonel’s injury, when backyard parties were part of summer vacation. Now the pool was used for conditioning and for the Colonel’s aquatic physical therapy sessions. In the winter, he used an indoor hydrotherapy.
Mac shivered. Hannah stood next to him, and he could hear her teeth chattering. At the end of the week, the pool would be closed for the winter. The weather had just turned, and though the water remained in the seventies, the air was much cooler.
“Next up, rescue drills. Grant, you’re first. Lee, you’re timekeeper.” Before any of the four kids could blink, the Colonel tossed a stopwatch to Lee then used his jacked arms and shoulders to push himself from the chair over the edge. His body hit the water like a bag of powdered cement. From the waist down, his body was sheer deadweight. Instead of attempting to keep himself afloat, the Colonel hugged his torso, expelled the air from his lungs with a trail of bubbles, and let himself sink.
Grant jumped in the water before their father hit the bottom. Using brute strength, he hauled him up with little difficulty. They broke the surface and gasped for air. Grant towed the Colonel to the side.
“Hannah, you’re up,” the Colonel said. “Push me back out to the middle, Grant.”
No. The Colonel couldn’t expect Mac to do this drill. That was insane.
Hannah took her turn. No fear crossed her face, only a little disappointment when her time was seconds slower than Grant’s. Lee, whose swimming was significantly better than his wilderness survival skills, managed to beat Hannah, something that didn’t happen very often. Lee’s arms trembled as he guided the Colonel to the edge.
Mac’s entire frame shook; his muscles went slack with exhaustion and terror. His heart flailed in his chest. Grant and Lee were both well over six feet tall. Even Hannah, at fourteen, had reached five-ten. But at twelve, Mac hadn’t experienced his promised growth spurt yet. He was short and scrawny, and the Colonel, even after his legs had atrophied, was still a large man. With a full meal in his belly and pockets full of rocks, Mac might be half his father’s weight.
How could he possibly pull the Colonel from the water before he drowned? How could he not? Grant moved toward the water, ready to assist.
The Colonel raised a hand. “Stand back. Mac can do this. Lee, out of the water. Get some towels.
Mac swallowed. The cold air vanished as fear heated his body. Clammy sweat broke out under his arms.
“Ready?” Holding his head up with one arm on the side of the pool, complete confidence shone from the Colonel’s eyes. “Remember, being smart is just as important as being strong. Stay calm and think. Panic is your worst enemy, especially in the water. Panic will get you killed.”
Mesmerized by the piercing blue of his father’s eyes, Mac nodded.
The Colonel pushed away from the edge and began to sink.
Mac jumped into the water, the cold not even registering on his skin. He dove to intercept the Colonel before he hit bottom. Water closed over his head and filled his ears, deafening him. He grabbed the back of his father’s shirt and pulled, kicking with his feet and paddling with his free hand. But they didn’t move. Mac couldn’t propel them both toward the surface. His lungs burned. His brain scrambled. His mouth opened, emitting a stream of air and filling with water.
He couldn’t do it. They were both going to drown. He was a split second away from letting go and summoning Grant when his father tugged on his arm. His eyes were open and still full of confidence, even though his lungs must have been screaming. Mac’s were. The Colonel pointed toward the shallow end of the pool.
And Mac understood. Renewed purpose lent him strength.
He planted his boots on the concrete bottom and walked up the incline, using the muscles of his legs to pull his father behind him. The entire incident took less than ninety seconds, but Mac felt as if he’d aged ten years when their heads broke the surface. The cold air that filled his lungs felt like a thousand needle pricks. Lightheaded, Mac rolled the Colonel onto his back and pulled him toward the steps. Grant and Lee waded into the water and helped lift the Colonel out onto the concrete. They wrapped him in a blanket. Hannah grabbed Mac’s hand and guided him up the steps. She wrapped a thick towel around his shoulders and patted him on the back, her best effort at comforting him.
Numb and weak-legged with relief, Mac sank onto the patio. The adrenaline that had fueled the rescue drill left him high and dry. Nausea flooded him. He scrambled for the flowerbed and hurled pool water into the shrubs.
“I knew you could do it,” the Colonel said. “There’s no shame in puking after you get the job done.” The Colonel laughed and reached over to slap him on the shoulder.
“My father was a crazy bastard,” Mac said.
He could still picture the Colonel’s face, his raw determination, his complete confidence in Mac. As a kid he didn’t realize what was happening, how the Colonel had been manipulating his emotions. But now Mac understood how the Colonel had lead his troops. His sheer force of will had been contagious, and just as his soldiers had followed his orders in battle without question, his children had followed his lead into insanity.
But he’d taught Mac a few things about determination and faith.
“No kidding,” Stella agreed.
“The next day he shoved us into a pool, blindfolded and with our hands bound.”
“What?” Stella stared at him. “That’s crazy.”
“It was OK. We lived. He taught us not to panic.”
“Sounds like your father took his water drills seriously.”
“The Colonel took everything seriously.”
Two hours later, Stella climbed out of the car in front of her house. Local flooding had forced them to take a long detour. Her still-damp clothes clung to her body. She couldn’t wait to shower and change. “We can lock the rifle in the trunk.”
“Without cleaning it?” Mac’s tone disapproved.
“You’re right. I’m sure there’s moisture in the barrel.”
The storm had passed, and the yard smelled wet and fresh. Still carrying the rifle, Mac followed her up the walk. “Big house.”
“After my dad was killed, Mom couldn’t wait to get us all out of the city.” She led him toward the front door. “She was tired of being crammed in a tiny house with four kids.” And her husband’s memory.
“I couldn’t live in the city,” Mac said. “Too many people. Not enough trees. It always feels like it’s short on oxygen.”
The door wasn’t locked. She opened it and walked into the empty kitchen. Stella scanned the family room. Where was everyone? “My mother did everything she could to get us out of the city and away from the police force. She didn’t want any more Danes in law enforcement.”
“Since you’re a cop, I assume that didn’t work out for her.”
“Not at all. My brother is NYPD SWAT. My sister, Peyton, is a forensic psychiatrist. She’s been working in California for the past couple of years. Morgan lives here with her kids. She was an assistant prosecutor in Albany before her husband died in Iraq.”
“What does she do now?”
“Not much, if you don’t count arts-and-crafts projects with the girls. “The first year after John’s death was awful. Morgan quit her job and moved in here with her girls. But lately, the local district attorney has been cozying up to her. He wants her to work for him.” Stella hoped Morgan was ready to work or date again, or take up a hobby—anything to get her out of the house.
“Morgan is the one you asked to pick up Gianna?”
“Yes.” Knowing she wouldn’t get to the dialysis center in time, Stella had called her sister as soon as her phone had picked up service. Gianna would never get into a cop car, so she couldn’t send a uniformed officer, but the girl had met Morgan a couple of times when Stella had brought her back to the house for dinner. Gianna would go to the station with Morgan.
“Is that you, Stella?” Grandpa’s voice came from the back of the house. “I have the kids outside. They’ve been cooped up too much with all this rain.”
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