TO GERDA. FOREVER.
O, WHAT MAY MAN WITHIN HIM HIDE,
THOUGH ANGEL ON THE OUTWARD SIDE!
JUST SECONDS FROM A CLEAN GETAWAY
Life is a gift that must be given back,
and joy should arise from its possession.
It’s too damned short, and that’s a fact.
Hard to accept, this earthly procession
to final darkness is a journey done,
circle completed, work of art sublime,
a sweet melodic rhyme, a battle won.
—THE BOOK OF COUNTED SORROWS
An entire world hummed and bustled beyond the dark ramparts of the mountains, yet to Lindsey Harrison the night seemed empty, as hollow as the vacant chambers of a cold, dead heart. Shivering, she slumped deeper in the passenger seat of the Honda.
Serried ranks of ancient evergreens receded up the slopes that flanked the highway, parting occasionally to accommodate sparse stands of winter-stripped maples and birches that poked at the sky with jagged black branches. However, that vast forest and the formidable rock formations to which it clung did not reduce the emptiness of the bitter March night. As the Honda descended the winding blacktop, the trees and stony out-croppings seemed to float past as if they were only dream images without real substance.
Harried by fierce wind, fine dry snow slanted through the headlight beams. But the storm could not fill the void, either.
The emptiness that Lindsey perceived was internal, not external. The night was brimming, as ever, with the chaos of creation. Her own soul was the only hollow thing.
She glanced at Hatch. He was leaning forward, hunched slightly over the steering wheel, peering ahead with an expression which might be flat and inscrutable to anyone else but which, after twelve years of marriage, Lindsey could easily read. An excellent driver, Hatch was not daunted by poor road conditions. His thoughts, like hers, were no doubt on the long weekend they had just spent at Big Bear Lake.
Yet again they had tried to recapture the easiness with each other that they had once known. And again they had failed.
The chains of the past still bound them.
The death of a five-year-old son had incalculable emotional weight. It pressed on the mind, quickly deflating every moment of buoyancy, crushing each new blossom of joy. Jimmy had been dead for more than four and a half years, nearly as long as he had lived, yet his death weighed as heavily on them now as on the day they had lost him, like some colossal moon looming in a low orbit overhead.
Squinting through the smeared windshield, past snow-caked wiper blades that stuttered across the glass, Hatch sighed softly. He glanced at Lindsey and smiled. It was a pale smile, just a ghost of the real thing, barren of amusement, tired and melancholy. He seemed about to say something, changed his mind, and returned his attention to the highway.
The three lanes of blacktop—one descending, two ascending—were disappearing under a shifting shroud of snow. The road slipped to the bottom of the slope and entered a short straightaway leading into a wide, blind curve. In spite of that flat stretch of pavement, they were not out of the San Bernardino Mountains yet. The state route eventually would turn steeply downward once more.
As they followed the curve, the land changed around them: the slope to their right angled upward more sharply than before, while on the far side of the road, a black ravine yawned. White metal guardrails marked that precipice, but they were barely visible in the sheeting snow.
A second or two before they came out of the curve, Lindsey had a premonition of danger. She said, “Hatch ...”
Perhaps Hatch sensed trouble, too, for even as Lindsey spoke, he gently applied the brakes, cutting their speed slightly.
A downgrade straightaway lay beyond the bend, and a beer distributor’s large truck was halted at an angle across two lanes, just fifty or sixty feet in front of them.
Lindsey tried to say, oh God, but her voice was locked within her.
While making a delivery to one of the area ski resorts, the trucker evidently had been surprised by the blizzard, which had set in only a short while ago but half a day ahead of the forecasters’ predictions. Without benefit of snow chains, the big truck tires churned ineffectively on the icy pavement as the driver struggled desperately to bring his rig around and get it moving again.
Cursing under his breath but otherwise as controlled as ever, Hatch eased his foot down on the brake pedal. He dared not jam it to the floor and risk sending the Honda into a deadly spin.
In response to the glare of the car headlights, the trucker looked through his side window. Across the rapidly closing gap of night and snow, Lindsey saw nothing of the man’s face but a pallid oval and twin charry holes where the eyes should have been, a ghostly countenance, as if some malign spirit was at the wheel of that vehicle. Or Death himself.
Hatch was heading for the outermost of the two ascending lanes, the only part of the highway not blocked.
Lindsey wondered if other traffic was coming uphill, hidden from them by the truck. Even at reduced speed, if they collided head-on, they would not survive.
In spite of Hatch’s best efforts, the Honda began to slide. The tail end came around to the left, and Lindsey found herself swinging away from the stranded truck. The smooth, greasy, out-of-control motion was like the transition between scenes in a bad dream. Her stomach twisted with nausea, and although she was restrained by a safety harness, she instinctively pressed her right hand against the door and her left against the dashboard, bracing herself.
“Hang on,” Hatch said, turning the wheel where the car wanted to go, which was his only hope of regaining control.
But the slide became a sickening spin, and the Honda rotated three hundred and sixty degrees, as if it were a carousel without calliope: around ... around ... until the truck began to come into view again. For an instant, as they glided downhill, still turning, Lindsey was certain the car would slip safely past the other vehicle. She could see beyond the big rig now, and the road below was free of traffic.
Then the front bumper on Hatch’s side caught the back of the truck. Tortured metal shrieked.
The Honda shuddered and seemed to explode away from the point of collision, slamming backward into the guardrail. Lindsey’s teeth clacked together hard enough to ignite sparks of pain in her jaws, all the way into her temples, and the hand braced against the dashboard bent painfully at the wrist. Simultaneously, the strap of the shoulder harness, which stretched diagonally across her chest from right shoulder to left hip, abruptly cinched so tight that her breath burst from her.
The car rebounded from the guardrail, not with sufficient momentum to reconnect with the truck but with so much torque that it pivoted three hundred and sixty degrees again. As they spun-glided past the truck, Hatch fought for control, but the steering wheel jerked erratically back and forth, tearing through his hands so violently that he cried out as his palms were abraded.
Suddenly the moderate gradient appeared precipitously steep, like the water-greased spillway of an amusement-park flume ride. Lindsey would have screamed if she could have drawn breath. But although the safety strap had loosened, a diagonal line of pain still cut across her chest, making it impossible to inhale. Then she was rattled by a vision of the Honda skating in a long glissade to the next bend in the road, crashing through the guardrail, tumbling out into the void—and the image was so horrifying that it was like a blow, knocking breath back into her.
As the Honda came out of the second rotation, the entire driver’s side slammed into the guardrail, and they slid thirty or forty feet without losing contact. To the accompaniment of a grinding-screeching-scraping of metal against metal, showers of yellow sp
arks plumed up, mingling with the falling snow, like swarms of summer fireflies that had flown through a time warp into the wrong season.
The car shuddered to a halt, canted up slightly at the front left comer, evidently hooked on a guard post. For an instant the resultant silence was so deep that Lindsey was half stunned by it; she shattered it with an explosive exhalation.
She had never before experienced such an overwhelming sense of relief.
Then the car moved again.
It began to tilt to the left. The guardrail was giving way, perhaps weakened by corrosion or by the erosion of the highway shoulder beneath it.
“Out!” Hatch shouted, frantically fumbling with the release on his safety harness.
In a jangle of detached posts and railings, the Honda slid sideways along the ice-crusted slope, then flipped over as the embankment grew steeper. Gasping for breath, heart pounding, wrenched painfully from side to side in her harness, Lindsey hoped for a tree, a rock outcropping, anything that would halt their fall, but the embankment seemed clear. She was not sure how often the car rolled—maybe only twice—because up and down and left and right lost all meaning. Her head banged into the ceiling almost hard enough to knock her out. She didn’t know if she’d been thrown upward or if the roof had caved in to meet her, so she tried to slump in her seat, afraid the roof might crumple further on the next roll and crush her skull. The headlights slashed at the night, and from the wounds spouted torrents of snow. Then the windshield burst, showering her with minutely fragmented safety glass, and abruptly she was plunged into total darkness. Apparently the headlights blinked off, and the dashboard lights, reflected in Hatch’s sweat-slicked face. The car rolled onto its roof again and stayed there. In that inverted posture it sledded farther into the seemingly bottomless ravine, with the thunderous noise of a thousand tons of coal pouring down a steel chute.
The gloom was utterly tenebrous, seamless, as if she and Hatch were not outdoors but in some windowless funhouse, rocketing down a roller-coaster track. Even the snow, which usually had a natural phosphorescence, was suddenly invisible. Cold flakes stung her face as the freezing wind drove them through the empty windshield frame, but she could not see them even as they frosted her lashes. Struggling to quell a rising panic, she wondered if she had been blinded by the imploding glass.
That was her special fear. She was an artist. Her talent took inspiration from what her eyes observed, and her wonderfully dexterous hands rendered inspiration into art with the critical judgment of those eyes to guide them. What did a blind painter paint? What could she hope to create if suddenly deprived of the sense that she relied upon the most?
Just as she started to scream, the car hit bottom and rolled back onto its wheels, landing upright with less impact than she had anticipated. It came to a halt almost gently, as if on an immense pillow.
“Hatch?” Her voice was hoarse.
After the cacophonous roar of their plunge down the ravine wall, she felt half deaf, not sure if the preternatural silence around her was real or only perceived.
She looked to her left, where he ought to have been, but she could not see him—or anything else.
She was blind.
“Oh, God, no. Please.”
She was dizzy, too. The car seemed to be turning, wallowing like an airborne kite dipping and rising in the thermal currents of a summer sky.
Her lightheadedness increased. The car rocked and wallowed worse than ever. Lindsey was afraid she would faint. If Hatch was injured, he might bleed to death while she was unconscious and unable to help him.
She reached out blindly and found him crumpled in the driver’s seat. His head was bent toward her, resting against his own shoulder. She touched his face, and he did not move. Something warm and sticky covered his right cheek and temple. Blood. From a head injury. With trembling fingers, she touched his mouth and sobbed with relief when she felt the hot exhalation of his breath between his slightly parted lips.
He was unconscious, not dead.
Fumbling in frustration with the release mechanism on her safety harness, Lindsey heard new sounds that she could not identify. A soft slapping. Hungry licking. An eerie, liquid chuckling. For a moment she froze, straining to identify the source of those unnerving noises.
Without warning the Honda tipped forward, admitting a cascade of icy water through the broken windshield onto Lindsey’s lap. She gasped in surprise as the arctic bath chilled her to the marrow, and realized she was not lightheaded after all. The car was moving. It was afloat. They had landed in a lake or river. Probably a river. The placid surface of a lake would not have been so active.
The shock of the cold water briefly paralyzed her and made her wince with pain, but when she opened her eyes, she could see again. The Honda’s headlights were, indeed, extinguished, but the dials and gauges in the dashboard still glowed. She must have been suffering from hysterical blindness rather than genuine physical damage.
She couldn’t see much, but there was not much to see at the bottom of the night-draped ravine. Splinters of dimly glimmering glass rimmed the broken-out windshield. Outside, the oily water was revealed only by a sinuous, silvery phosphorescence that highlighted its purling surface and imparted a dark obsidian sparkle to the jewels of ice that floated in tangled necklaces atop it. The riverbanks would have been lost in absolute blackness but for the ghostly raiments of snow that cloaked the otherwise naked rocks, earth, and brush. The Honda appeared to be motoring through the river: water poured halfway up its hood before parting in a “V” and streaming away to either side as it might from the prow of a ship, lapping at the sills of the side windows. They were being swept downstream, where eventually the currents were certain to turn more turbulent, bringing them to rapids or rocks or worse. At a glance, Lindsey grasped the extremity of their situation, but she was still so relieved by the remission of her blindness that she was grateful for the sight of anything, even of trouble this serious.
Shivering, she freed herself from the entangling straps of the safety harness, and touched Hatch again. His face was ghastly in the queer backsplash of the instrument lights: sunken eyes, waxen skin, colorless lips, blood oozing—but, thank God, not spurting—from the gash on the right side of his head. She shook him gently, then a little harder, calling his name.
They wouldn’t be able to get out of the car easily, if at all, while it was being borne down the river—especially as it now began to move faster. But at least they had to be prepared to scramble out if it came up against a rock or caught for a moment against one of the banks. The opportunity to escape might be short-lived.
Hatch could not be awakened.
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.