Authors: A E Rought
“Oh God,” Jason mutters. “Oh my God…”
I’m afraid God’s not listening.
My heart lodges in my throat as Emma’s battered car fishtails toward the river’s mouth.
This can’t be happening. It can’t. I’m watching a horror movie, belted into the theater seat with no escape.
The squeal of brakes rips the night, violent, loud testimony that this is real. Someone hit her car, but this is my fault.
She wouldn’t be on this road if it wasn’t for me. I’m responsible and I can’t save her.
Emma’s front tires catch enough gravel on the edge of the road to launch the car over the embankment. The little vehicle teeters on a back tire snagged on the bridge. I have enough time to regret dancing with Hailey before Em’s face appears in the window. The car rocks and her eyes widen with obvious fear. A freeze-frame image of her burns into my mind, the dashboard lights glowing sickly and pale on her terrified face. Please don’t let this happen, my heart can’t take it.
I slam on the Acura’s brakes, and bury the nose in the snow bank feet from where her car tore through the dune grass. Jason’s screams of “Oh my God!” fill my car, but they’re nothing compared to the slamming of my heart, the pain consuming my chest.
Em’s eyes catch mine, she wails for help and jerks on the door. Her mouth forms my name, and I feel the word clawing my heart. I can’t get out of the car fast enough, as though I’m trapped in a slow-motion scene while everything in me screams to hurry. Outside, the wind keens through the brittle beach grass. Snow pelts my face.
Panicking, Em pounds on the window with her cast. The motion shakes the vehicle loose. My heart clenches.
“No!” I shout.
A glassy crash shatters the night when the nose of the car smashes through the skim of ice over the river. This time, when Em screams, my ears hear it as well as my heart. The hood submerges in an instant. Emma’s frantic, pounding the window, sobbing as the vehicle bobs on the water’s black surface.
My hopes flounder and sink as water splashes inside the cab. She’s going to drown, and I’m to blame. The car door opens behind me. Jason’s shouting, but I’m beyond listening. I can’t lose Emma. Cold air hits my skin, rushing in to replace my shucked leather jacket.
“Emma!” I shout, pausing at the river’s edge to rip off my shoes.
“What are you doing?” Panic makes Jason’s voice edgy in the blizzard night. “Are you crazy?”
Yes, I am. For Emma. I would throw away this false life to keep her alive.
Em tips her face up to avoid the rising water. Tears shine in her eyes, the last thing I see before the water muffles her cries and the roof sinks below the surface.
I don’t think.
Tearing off my shirt, I leap from the bank. Air rushes along my skin before I collide with the frigid water. The river devours me. The cold burns, cutting into me like blades of ice. My jaws lock on a scream – I can’t afford the air. Emma’s everything to me and the tail lights are disappearing below.
Every stroke, every kick brings more pain, renews the water’s icy edge. Instinct rails at me to swim for the surface, to escape the hurt and save myself.
I won’t. There might still be time to save her.
Emma can’t die because of me.
I’m not worthy of her life.
Thought flees and I am nothing more than agony and determination. The car comes into view, sliding down the river’s gullet. I paw at the crumpled trunk with numb hands, searching for a hold. My hand catches on a jagged edge and a fresh hell rips across my palm. Blood laces into the water as I work my way down the car’s body to the dented driver’s door.
The dashboard lights flicker over the limp form strapped to the driver’s seat. She’s motionless, not clawing for freedom. Emma’s face tips my way in time for me to witness the fight and fire leave her eyes. I’ve lost her. Heartache explodes in my chest. Denial floods me in a hot rush. I scream then, raging against my failure and guilt, breath escaping in a bubbling cloud as I slam my fists against the window. The glass holds between me and Emma.
Lungs burning for air, guilt and panic sickening me, I work my multi-tool knife from my pocket and use the pointed end to ram the glass. It spiderwebs, then another punch breaks it.
I yearn to gather Em in my arms, but she’s still belted to her seat, arms floating, eyes fixed and mouth open. A single bubble escapes her nose.
This can’t be. This can’t be. This can’t be.
I’m not sure if my lungs or heart hurt worse. Everything in me that is Daniel seems numb, in shock. I’m not yet. I fumble with my knife and nearly drop it before I can get the seatbelt cutter aligned with Emma’s restraint. With a wrench of my arm, I cut her free.
Then I know the fight is truly over. Cold truth floods in to snuff any attempt at disbelief. Emma doesn’t kick off from the dashboard and reach for me. Her body slumps toward the floor.
Choking on sobs and the last of my held breath, I hook my hand under her arm and guide her body through the broken window. There’s no life in her when I clutch Em to my chest, no heartbeat, no tension in her muscles.
For a bleak, desperate moment I think of taking in the river and dying with her. I deserve death after driving Emma to hers. Carefully, I turn her body to face mine. She’s pale, lips blue, an icy angel hanging limp in my grip. Heartbroken, I tuck her face to my chest.
It would be so easy. We could be together forever. Just open my mouth and inhale…
Frigid water trickles down my nose. I fight the life instinct to gag and swim for the surface. I earned this end.
Her hair drifts on the river’s current, brushes my face as bubbles from the car push it toward the surface as if waving goodbye to life. Then a beam of light pierces the depths, and breaks through my black thoughts. It’s a path to follow, a way to ascend this loss.
Maybe Emma doesn’t have to stay dead.
Maybe I can bring her back to the surface, back to life with CPR.
Because I can’t let her go.
Using the bumper to push for the surface, I cling to my love and swim for the air, the muddy bank and hopefully my salvation. Her breath, her heartbeat. My life narrows to resuscitating her.
Jason’s on the river bank when I crest the water’s surface.
“Holy shit, man!” He’s fidgeting, panicky, pulling at his spikey hair. “Emma! Is she…”
I shake my head. She’s gone.
“Oh fuck.” Instead of helping pull Emma from the river, the flashlight drops from his hand and he sinks to his butt.
Sand and snow mix in the wet ribbons of Emma’s hair when I push her up the bank. The water washes by, tugging on her dress, stubbornly refusing to let her go. My dad beat Mother Nature, so can I. Em hasn’t been gone that long.
Something rips the knee of my pants when I scramble out of the water. Hot blood rushes down my shin. I use the protruding edge to wedge my foot and drag Emma farther out. Jason’s voice matches the wind though the grass, keening and wordless. He’s as gone as Em. He jerks a foot away when I tip Em to the side. She’s a broken doll, and I have to open her mouth to let water pour from her throat. The killer liquid gushes down the bank, shiny and insidious, taking out snow in its passing.
Inside, I’m dying, everything fractured and clinging to denial.
Outside, I’m all business. I ease her body back, tip her head to clear her airway. I can’t fall apart now. Eyes on her open, blank ones, I start CPR. My stomach rolls at the wet sounds coming from her chest, but I don’t stop. Thirty compressions and two breaths. Thirty and two.
Jason’s crying peters out. I hear him behind me, muttering about Bree, Em’s parents, “Em can’t be dead,” and back through the cycle. Then, he says, “Someone needs to call the authorities.”
The words flash through me, rattle something savage. I don’t know I’ve snapped until I see the shock in Jason’s eyes, only inches from mine.
“Do not call anyone!” I yell, then lunge back to continue breaths and chest compressions.
Thirty and two. Burbling sounds. Thirty and two. Bubbles.
“Come on!” I shout at her. “You are not dead!”
If she is, then I am.
Thirty and two.
A hand touches my shoulder. I keep up with CPR, ignoring Jason’s attempts to reach me.
Pump the blood. Breathe for her. It will work. I won’t have to stoop to my father’s sins.
His grip tightens. “Alex,” he says.
Em blurs in my vision.
“Alex.” Jason’s voice is soft and strong at the same time. “She’s gone.”
Drawing in a breath, I rock back on my heels and rage at the night until I can’t scream, can’t cry, can hardly breathe.
Dead inside, I collapse to the mud beside Em’s body and curl her to me.
“Alex,” Jason says again. “We have to report this. There’s procedures to follow.” His voice trails off, and he slumps down beside me.
Who gives a damn about their procedures?
They can take their rules and–
. My father may have sinned, but his process worked a miracle. So can I. Em deserves to live.
“Jason, open the back door.”
“What?” He whips his head to look at the car, then back at me. “Why?”
“Just. Do. It.”
Blinking, he rises from the sand, and scrambles for the car. Water gushes everywhere when I ease my arms under Emma’s body and lift her to my chest. I cradle her to me, like she’s sleeping and, in a way, that’s all she’s doing. Sleeping until I wake her up.
“What are you doing?” Jason says. “We have to leave her. The cops…”
“The cops aren’t coming.” My voice is dark, full of angst.
“Jason, open the damn door and get in! I need your help!”
“Help with what?” he wails, his confusion coming out in one sentence.
One look from me silences the “But she’s dead,” on his lips. Jason’s expression changes from panic to questioning to something I can’t read. He snatches up my jacket and shoes, then yanks open the back door of the Acura and settles into the seat. He spreads my jacket over the back seat. His arms are up and waiting. With a kiss on her cold, cold cheek, I ease her onto his lap, and guide her feet in as he slides over.
I close the door, and race around the car.
This will work, I tell myself.
I can redeem myself.
I can save her.
Time barrels down with the force of a blizzard. The longer she’s gone, the harder it will be to bring her back. My nerves are on overdrive, the stress putting more electricity in the air, affecting the dash lights. They keep pace with my pounding heart.
I recreate the accident in my mind. The car I didn’t recognize. Driver with a hood up. The crash. Emma drowning. Pulling her from the river. How many minutes have elapsed? Who would do this to her?
Ascension Labs materializes in the squall, square, brooding and somehow calling me. Poisonous promises, but I can’t shut them out. It worked for me. It has to work from Em.
“What are we doing here?” Jason mutters. “This is your dad’s lab, right?”
Yes. And I hated it once. I still do. The crazy relief blooming in my chest feels strange and wrong. People died here. Animals still suffer. Too many laws were broken to count. But this is where diseases are conquered, broken things are fixed, this is where my father manipulated life and death.
Gates span the drive, locking us out. A ghost of a thought whispers: it’s not too late. Don’t do this to her…
It can’t be Daniel. He wouldn’t let Em go.
This is a deep, personal argument.
Don’t become your father.
I’m not listening to this anymore. I punch my Bluetooth connection on the dashboard and voice command, “Call Paul.”
Financial controller, and in charge of Ascension, he’s the only person who is in a place to help us. Or blow my hopes to hell. The wait between rings seems to drag forever. Finally, on the third ring, Paul picks up. “Merry Christmas, Alex.”
“No, it isn’t.” Paul sucks in a breath at my harsh tone. “I need to get into the lab, and the gates are down. I don’t have a computer to key in the remote code.”
“Just a second.” Clacking sounds come through the speakers. Ahead, the gates groan and swing forward. Then he asks, “What is this all about?”
Would he accept what I’m about to do? Would he call the cops? He didn’t before…
Jaw clamped, I gun the Acura toward the front doors. Stamping the brakes, I pull the steering wheel to the left. The car skids to a stop parallel to the front doors, the rear passenger window lined up with the security camera. I can imagine what he sees: Emma, pale, lifeless, wrapped in my jacket, clutched in Jason’s arms.
A gasp is all Paul can manage. The red light above the lens on the security camera dies.
“Deleting that footage,” he says, his voice sliding into a taking-care-of-it tone. “Fudging timeline as well. I’ll buzz you in. Turn on the intercom.”
Without responding, I kill the engine. How many other people will I drag down? How many people will drown in my sins tonight? First Emma. I forced Jason to help, now Paul. Friends and allies ruined for me.
Snow whips in the opening door, the force of the blizzard wind shoving me back. I bend into it and hoist myself out. Em’s face lies beneath me, held in the crook of Jason’s arm, lights from the parking lot barely reaching her. My mind insists she’s just sleeping. My heart knows she’s dead.
Not for long.
Jason nearly tumbles out when I tug open his door. Wordlessly, he guides Emma’s body through the aperture and into my arms. No tension in her muscles, no life in her. I step away. Jason slams the door after he crawls out, eyes averted, refusing to look at Emma or me. At the building door, he pushes it open for me to pass through with Em. The familiar sense of wrong crawls over my skin, but I press through toward the black heart of the building.
“Where’s the intercom?” Jason asks, then follows me into the lab. When I jerk my chin at the intercom panel in the wall, he strides over and hits the on-switch.
I’ve hated this room since I woke up here. Is that what I’m dooming Emma to?
No. She’ll be fine. I have to believe it. She hasn’t sustained much physical damage. Just drowning. I’m only rebooting her system, waking her up, is all.