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Six Years Ago
Nell woke slowly, her eyes slit, blinded by sunlight. She blinked to clear the gummy substance away. Licked dry, cracked lips. Trees took shape overhead, fall leaves turning gold and red. Blue sky peeked beyond them and puffy clouds floated between. She was lying down. Outside. Lifting a hand, she encountered slithery cloth and held it up. It was her sleeping bag.
She eased an arm out of the bag and braced her elbow on the ground, then pushed. Her arm quivered, so weak it barely lifted her. Slowly, she sat up. The world rocked and whirled, dipping like a class-V rapid. A mallet thumped rhythmically against the inside of her head.
Nausea doubled her over; Nell reeled, retched, grabbing her head. Her pulse pounded. She retched again and again, dry heaves slamming around the pain in her skull, a wrecking ball intent on pulping her brain into mush. Intense thirst ripped at her throat. Her eyes burned, tearless. Shivers caught her. She clutched her head with a hand and the pain over her temple doubled. A pulpy knot rested beneath her palm.
Dehydration. Shock? Yeah, shock. Bump on the head, likely concussion.
Big freaking help, figuring out a diagnosis, she thought. She eased back down and eventually the nausea dissipated. Trees overhead stopped dancing. A bird called. Whitewater roared nearby. The air was cold and damp, the sensory stimulation as familiar as her own skin, yet nothing looked familiar from where she lay.
Beneath the sleeping bag, she fingered polyester fleece, smooth against her hand. Under that, she felt the ultrafine knit of water-wicking syntheticsher cool-weather, stay-warm-even-if-you-get-wet long johns.
Slowly,she turned her head and was rewarded with only a small increase in the rhythm of the hammer beating against her brain. The coals of a long-dead fire were close by. Four full water bottles.
Water. Nell slid an arm out and grabbed a bottle, pulled it back under the sleeping bag. With trembling fingers, she opened it. Managed to drink a few sips without losing much to the cloth of the sleeping bag. After a few minutes, her stomach settled and she drank half of the water. Her body sucked up the fluid, demanding more. But she waited, allowing her system to accept it. If she drank it too fast she might throw it up and lose all the benefit. She remembered that from wilderness first-aid class, or maybe it was the swift water-rescue course. She didn't remember why she was on a riverbank, alone, but if she could remember that much, the rest would surely come back.
Gradually, sip by sip, Nell drank almost all of the twenty ounces and capped the bottle. Slowly she sat up again, holding her head to keep it together, sure it wanted to fly apart. She was lying on a flat space in a tiny clearing, not more than ten feet wide and maybe twelve feet long. A shelter had been built over her, thin boughs of fresh-cut tree branches resting over a single, larger branch. She held her hand over the stone-ringed fire pit. It was as cold as it looked. Deadwood was piled nearby, but hadn't been used to feed the fire. Her kayak was overturned, hull up, resting atop her PFD, paddle, helmet, dry suit and kayak spray skirt. Her rescue rope had been used to secure the pine branches of her shelter in place. Her other rescue equipment, biners, pulleys, prusicks, were all piled together, half in, half out of the rescue-equipment bag. Near them was a cell phone, in pieces, turned on its side as if to dry out.
She reached an arm out of the bag and flipped the dry suit over. Each of the limbs had been sliced and the neck hole had been cut out, the gashes irregular, as if made by a rescue knife, slashing. The chest area was ripped and torn, punctured, as was the abdominal area. A sharp twig, dead pine needles still attached, was rolled into the neoprene fabric over the chest, which should have been protected by her flotation vest. It was twisted and snarled through several holes. A feeling of dread slid between her ribs with all the finesse of an assassin's blade.
She pulled the neck of her fleece shirt out and looked at her chest. Across her neck, ribs, abdomen and along her sides were field dressings, mounds of gauze held in place with elastic cling wrapped around her. Blood had seeped out and dried in the dressing. Her ribs and chest throbbed with each breath, and she had a feeling that if she coughed, she was going to hurt. A lot. She was cold, shivering, the skin of her hands white and puckered.
Nell looked around. First rule of white waternever paddle alone. But she was alone, and had been for a while, it seemed. Second rule of white wateryou can only depend on yourself. It looked like she would have to.
Moving like an eighty-year-old instead of with her usual vigor, Nell peeled out of the sleeping bag. First things first, and the most urgent was the call of nature. Too weak to bend properly, she held on to a branch to rearrange her clothes, using the moment to inspect herself more thoroughly. She was covered with lacerations, punctures and bruises, sure evidence of being caught in a strainer. The feeling of dread increased. Finished, Nell pulled her clothes back in place and caught sight of her left hand. The plain gold ring brought her up short. Memories flickered. The feeling of alarm increased.
Where was Joe? She looked around the clearing. Joe had been here. It was his phone in pieces. His way of stacking firewood, with a package of corn chips nearby. Joe would never have left her alone.
Nell hobbled to the stacked firewood and bark. Kneeling, working by instinct, she positioned the bark, leaves and fibers in a cone, placed the kindling over it and took two Fritos corn chips from the opened pack. With the lighter she found beneath the chip bag, she lit the corn chips and set them to either side of the cone. The oil in the chips burned a long time and was a time-honored way of getting and keeping a fire started. The leaves and bark ignited and Nell fed the small flame with kindling until it could support itself on the deadwood. The blaze felt unbearably hot on her face and hands, testament to hypothermia.
Joe would be impressed at her recall of medical terms. He used them fluently, while she more often stumbled over them. She held her hands over the fire, warming herself, rubbing them gently together. They were bruised and cut, nails broken with filth crusted beneath them. She leaned into the smoke, holding her breath, letting the warmth seep around her head, through her snarled hair. Her face was chapped and raw, and the warmth felt wonderful. Rocking back on her heels, she took in fresh air for several breaths, then bent back into the smoky heat. And again. And again. Thawing herself.
When she was warmer, Nell rolled to a sitting position and slid her feet into her lightweight, neoprene river shoes with tough rubber bottoms, constructed to be worn by paddlers in cold water, and stood. The shoes were dry and warmer than her feet. Joe had left them beside the sleeping bag, which, when she looked it over, was both bags, Joe's and hers, one inside the other.
Nausea flirted with vertigo, and a cough threatened but held off. She crossed the clearing to the pile of supplies, strength returning more quickly now that she was moving, but pain bid for attention. Her head injury made the world sway drunkenly.
Beneath the cell-phone parts were two itemsher rash-guard shirt, which Joe had somehow pulled off her body, and the Ziploc baggies that Joe used to keep sensitive electronics dry. They looked as punctured as her chest. Inside was a piece of paper, a letter with her name at the top. A shiver trembled through her, teeth chattering.
Shaking, Nell opened the ruined bag and let the plastic fall to the ground as she read her husband's neat, block writing.
Don't know what you'll remember about the accident. Water went up fast just before we reached the Double Falls. The class IIIs looked and sounded like class Vs. Big water. You were out of position river-left, and elected to take the cheat. I was too far right and had to take the crapid.
Nell smiled at the river runner's term for a crappy rapida difficult and dangerous rapid, but one without a hoohaah component, without joy at the bottom. She touched the paper, her fingers sliding over the word.
I was scared shitless when you weren't at the bottom, in the pool. The end of the cheat was blocked by a dead pine and you got caught in the strainer. Force of the water had lifted your boat up enough so you could breathe, but the tree was shifting, dragging you down. I did a hairy ferry and took to the rocks, climbed to get to you. By the time I did, you were bleeding pretty badly and starting to slip under.
Nell smoothed the paper. Badly Joe with his perfect grammar
She considered the description of the rapids. The double falls, the cheatthe easier drop taken by novices or wimpsthe mention of a pool. She remembered the trip. Joe had planned it as a delayed honeymoon, kayaking on the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. Not a bad run, but not easy, and not one they could paddle without a lot of rain. The South Fork had notoriously unpredictable water levels. Not a dam-fed river, rather, a rain-fed one, it was usually dry this time of year, but the remnants of a late hurricane had stalled over the Tennessee plateau and dumped a lot of rain. The South Fork had been running big waternearly 2500 cubic feet per second, or CFS.
Her headache eased as she began to put it together, and as the water she had drunk entered her bloodstream.
I got you out of the boat but we had to swim the last of the cheat to the pool. The water took a squirrelly curl and it knocked you into a rock. You went out. Concussion. Shock. I'm so sorry, baby. I couldn't hold you. I banged up my knee, getting you to shore.
Nell looked around. They were river-right. Joe had gotten them across the river in big water. Swimming. With a bad knee.
I got us up the shore to a flat spot and set up camp, made a fire, got you warm. I watched for other boaters, but the weather must have turned nasty upstream and no one was taking the river. It's morning now, and you're still out and I'm getting worried. The water is still too high to hike back, and my knee is swollen up like a grapefruit. I'd never be able to make it up the trail at the confluence and then the two miles to the nearest house. So I'm paddling to the takeout for help. I knownever boat alone. But I'll be careful. And I'll get back to you. I love you.
Monday, 0800, Oct. 22
Nell carefully folded the paper back into the uncertain protection of the ripped baggies. She glanced at her watch. It was 2:00 p.m.fourteen hundred according to military time, Joe's preference. The date displayed was 10-23.
Nell's legs gave way as her puny strength leached out. She sat, landing hard, the baggies and her watch face all she could see. It had been over twenty-four hours. Joe had been gone more than a day. If she was where she thought, then his rescue trip should have taken half the previous morning. Help should have reached her this morning at the latest. It was now afternoon, and no help had arrived. She looked out at the water, still running high, perhaps 2000 CFS. There was a large X made of tree branchesan emergency signal to any passing boatersonly feet away on the shore. Joe's handiwork.
Joe had gone out on the water alone.
Fear spiraled up, her heart beat at a painful, irregular pace.
Her short fall had dislodged something in her lungs and she started coughing, low, wet racking coughs that seared her chest. Nell clutched her torso with one hand, her head with the other. She had taken in water. Probably had pneumonia to go with the concussion. She stared into the tree trunks, oak, poplar and sycamore branches, wavering for a moment with thin tears. She was too dehydrated to truly cry. Not that she had cried in years. Not that she would cry now. She closed her eyes, the world swirling, sucking her down.
When Nell woke again, her skin was hot and she was shivering. Only half an hour had passed, but her lips felt like sandpaper and her body ached. When she could sit up again, Nell scanned the clearing and her equipment. She was sick. There was no way she should go on the water. But Joe was out there He hadn't come back. He was in trouble. Had to be.
Shoving the bag with the precious letter into her pocket, she pushed to her knees and stood, fighting the need to cough. She could cough later, be sore later, be sick to death later. After she found Joe. She focused on that one thing. Find Joe.
The most important element in finding her husband wasn't the state of her health, but whether her boat was still usable. She ran her hand along the hull, noting a few new scratches, but nothing major. Using her own body weight to test for cracks, she stepped up on the overturned boat and walked along it. It was sound. Forced to use both hands to flip the lightweight, forty-five-pound kayak over, she reeled and nearly fell as the boat rocked lazily upright.
She was weak. Too weak to be contemplating what she was planning.
In her memory, she could hear Joe's threat when he gifted her with the Pyrahna Micro Bat. "You ever boat alone and I'll kick your pretty little butt," he'd said, giving her that grin. Oh, God, that grin. Devil-may-care, skirting the edge of reckless but never giving in, so full of untamed life. She pressed the pads of her fingers against her burning eyes.
"I'll help you kick my butt," she whispered, "when I find you. After I kick yours for scaring me like this." Her voice was hoarse, weak.