Icewater

The evening before, he runs down to the river with his friends. They all run five or six miles, but eventually, inevitably, they end up at the river. It's hot, and the sun is at just the right angle to shine straight in their eyes as they run west on the sidewalk, blotting everything out except the light and the heat on their skin and the pavement underfoot. They run to the swing, of course, rickety and old and hanging out over the river. He's afraid, but everyone else jumps off, so he has to. The crude ladder, chunks of two-by-four nailed to a leaning tree, is slick under his feet; he climbs with both hands grasping at the bark, unsteady. Then he's at the top, holding the rope, looking down at the water, seeming so very far away. The water is a mirror reflecting the sunlight, a sheet of glass. Jump, someone from the bank shouts, and he does, letting go at the very end of his arc, closing his eyes, floating in the air. There is nothing for an instant, nothing of the people or the swing or the sky or the river, just weightlessness. He hits the water with a tremendous splash and it's freezing, an electric shock, worse than he expected it to be. He surfaces gasping for air, feeling like the cold sucked all the oxygen out of his lungs right through his ribcage. Swimming for shore, the only thought past the rush of adrenaline in his system is to get out of the icy river. A harsh beeping wakes him the next morning, 911 on his pager. The sky is grey and the air is chill, nothing like the lazy heat of the day before, everything brutally real. The river is a jumbled rushing blur, fast cold current. He steps under the yellow tape, past the waiting cameras, down onto the bank, an orange lifevest zipped over his jacket with the colorful Search and Rescue patch on the shoulder. He walks past an ignored ropeswing, similar but different, most of the reason they9re all out here this miserable morning. Two boats are on the river, and divers in the water, moving back and forth, searching it methodically, without haste. There were three of them playing here yesterday evening, he knows, not one over the age of thirteen. Who can guess why they were out playing in the river alone, but the current, quick and harsh, caught them all. The two that lived were just lucky a couple of people happened to be walking by. It takes them just under an hour, and suddenly the divers are coming up with purpose and the media people are scrambling for cameras and a blue bodybag is tossed into the water from the larger boat. Shore personnel stand by, the radio says a moment later, as the boat noses in, to the bank, divers hanging off the side with the bag between them and the boat. He goes out to help, one foot splashing ankle-deep in the water, ice-cold, as they pull the bag ashore. They have to open it up a minute later, to turn her so that her parents can identify her for the medical examiner, and he holds up a tarp so the media and bystanders don't see. God, he thinks, looking at her, white face, soaked blond hair, sodden clothes, absolutely still, and he's in the air again, in that frozen instant of time. The same time, he thinks, yesterday evening, the two of them on different swings, maybe a mile apart on the river, dropping through space, falling angels. God God God, and there's no answer, just the zip of blue vinyl covering her face. Five o'clock in the afternoon, and the TV news is on inside. He9s not watching, saw it all live this morning. He's out on the deck behind his house, leaning on the rail, eyes shut. Soon he'll go in, lots of things to do inside, eating and laughing and reading and talking and living, but for now he simply basks in the sun that finally burned through. The river is a mirror far below him, as he tries to grab the swing back, hanging in the air with the rope just behind him. My God get the rope don't fall, don't fall don't fall ohmigodpleasedon'tfall, he whispers, shivering in the hot July sun.


Copyright (C) 2003 Garth Melnick