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The video image of a young girl, wrapped in a blanket and shivering, flickered upon the silent computer monitor. Her dark hair was soaked—long tendrils trailing across her face and shoulders and hanging down her back. Her equally dark eyes, prominent in her face, were wide with shock. A woman hovered next to her, her fingers wrapped around the child's thin arm as both watched the flurry of activity that was taking place a short distance away.
The footage then focused on the source of the activity, the camera's jerky movements and poor focus the sign of an unprofessional hand. Blobs evolved into members of a rescue team. Their bodies taut, their expressions intent, the group of men and women tried desperately to revive a man lying on the sand. When it became apparent that life could not be forced back into the flaccid form, all but one person gave up and turned away. The one person continued to try until he, too, was forced to admit defeat.
The camera edged closer, the lens peering over the shoulder of the determined rescuer. The shot provided an excellent view of the victim. Even in repose his middle-aged body looked lean and athletic, his rugged features vital. A white long-sleeved shirt was plastered wetly to his skin, revealing the undershirt beneath. Gray pants clung to his legs; a dark sock covered one foot. A tiny gold medal, dangling from a chain on his neck, was partially lost in his thick, silver blond hair.
The image jiggled and swerved, as if the camera had been pushed away by an angry hand. An expanse of overcast sky, the same shade of gray as the Pacific, fought with shadows before the picture settled back onto the woman and the girl. In a close-up, the woman was shown biting her lip, while the girl, seemingly unable to take in what had happened, continued to stare straight ahead.
Abruptly the picture changed, gaining color and professionalism. The shot was of a large family huddled on and around a wide couch in a nicely appointed living room. The group ranged in age from toddler to early twenties. One child, a boy of about eight, started to sob as he reached for his oldest brother, the only adult on camera.
As always, the piteous sound tore into Robin's heart, and she groped for the mouse to cut off the boy's sobs. But a simple click couldn't stop the sound in her head. The echo went on and on
Robin covered her ears in a vain attempt to muffle the noise, just as she tried to erase the picture emblazoned on her brain—the sight of the man lying motionless on the sand. The man whose strong arms had once encircled her, dragging her to safety. She remembered the warm, reassuring look in his pale blue eyes as he said, "You're fine. Relax. I've got you now. I won't let anything bad happen to you."
His last words. Said with a smile.
She began to rock back and forth. She could almost feel his strength again as he fought against the pounding waves, carrying her with him, preventing her slight body from crashing against the vicious rocks by offering himself instead.
Time stopped as he battled the elements. The water was so cold Robin could barely feel her hands and feet, could barely move her legs. But she gamely tried to help. She tried, because he had lent her some of his courage.
The undercurrents worked against them, dragging them farther from shore, teasing them by letting them get close again. She remembered slipping below the surface, and then, them both going under. She remembered bursting into the air and being tumbled onto the rocks. She remembered feeling panic when his arms no longer held her. She remembered seeing him struggle toward her then another huge wave hit.
After that she didn't remember much. She didn't remember the people who had found them or the rescue team that rushed to the scene. Her only memory of that time came from this film. She was like a person standing outside herself, viewing what had happened as if she were a third party, uninvolved.
She drew a trembling breath and clicked the play icon again. The child's sobs resumed, but this time Robin didn't flinch.
A reporter pushed a microphone into the eldest son's face. "You all must be very proud of your father," she said with forced good cheer, a style so evident among even some of today's reporters. Sixteen years hadn't changed much. "He's a hero to people all over the country."
The son, who looked a younger version of the man Robin remembered so clearly, tightened his lips as he glanced sharply at someone off camera. "We are," he agreed.
"I understand the governor is planning to call to offer his condolences."
"We hadn't heard."
"Yes! I'm surprised he hasn't contacted you yet. Our sources at the Capitol tell us the call could come at any moment." She aimed the mike at another of the children, a girl of about ten. "What do you think, Allison?"
"Her name is Barbara," the oldest brother rasped, leaning forward. "And I'd really appreciate ending this right—"
The reporter stood up, cutting him off. "Yes," she said, smoothing over the difficulty by pretending to talk to the anchorman at the distant television station. "Yes, we'll be standing by, Frank. When the governor calls, we'll be sure to listen in. This is Jade Patrick for Channel 8 News, from the home of Martin Marshall, a true hero of our time. A man, who only this morning, sacrificed himself in order to save the life of a young stranger, and in the process left his own six children orphaned. Back to you, Frank."
The camera panned from the reporter to the faces of the children. Most of them looked stunned, as if they, too, were having a hard time grasping the significance of what had occurred.
There had been no other interviews. The oldest brother must have followed through with his determination to end any further intrusions into the family's grief. If there had been other interviews, Robin would have had them. Her father had searched high and low for everything concerning her rescue. Years ago he'd converted all the old snippets of film onto one CD.
Robin played the rest of the files. She saw vignettes from the man's well-attended funeral, from the ceremony a week later in which the governor declared that day Martin Marshall Day, from the ceremonial presentation in the White House Rose Garden when the president awarded the man a posthumous medal for heroism and presented it to his children. She watched as the story was revisited years later when a child lost his life along the same stretch of rugged coastline after a rogue wave washed ashore to pluck him from the beach, just as one had done with her. That child hadn't had a guardian angel watching over him. A guardian angel named Martin Marshall.
Silence reclaimed the apartment when the last clip ended. Robin sat motionless. At times it seemed as if it all had happened to someone else. She wasn't the bedraggled twelve-year-old girl on the beach, shaken and afraid, shocked by what had occurred, watching as her rescuer's life seeped into the sand. She was someone else: the person who had "gone on with her life," as the psychologist her mother had insisted upon sending her to had encouraged her to do. Who had gone back to school, laughed and played with her friends. Who had graduated from high school and attended college for a year before deciding that she wasn't cut out for academia and enrolled instead in a culinary institute. San Francisco, Paris, New York she'd studied with some of the best chefs in the world.
But all the time this film was witness to the fact that she wasn't fully what she pretended. Particularly the section shot by an amateur who'd just happened to be on the beach that day. She played it often. Too often, her mother criticized. She didn't think it healthy for her only child to dwell upon the past.
While growing up, Robin had run the clips in secret when her parents were away from the house. After her father's death, as her mother prepared for a move back to her childhood home in Vancouver, Robin had promised faithfully to destroy all the files. She'd even taken the CD outside, dropped it in a container and lit a match. But she couldn't bring herself to follow through. She retrieved the CD and hid it, as if it were a guilty secret to be reclaimed whenever she felt the urge.
She clicked on the first file and played it again, this time concentrating on the faces of the children. She knew their features as well her as own. Press clippings had told her their names: Allison, Barbara, Samantha Eric,
Benjamin, David. She'd never met them. Neither her parents nor the psychologist thought it a good idea. And later, she'd hesitated to make contact herself. What could she say? Hello, I'm the person your father lost his life to save and I'm sorry. She doubted that would go over very well.
She moved to the window that overlooked San Francisco Bay. On a clear day, the fabled city shone like a jewel on the jut of land across the water. Today the view from her apartment, nestled high in the Berkeley hills, was obscured by fog. Great gray fingers had crept inside the Golden Gate and covered the area like a blanket.
She knew she shouldn't feel guilty. The wave that had tried to wash her out to sea was a freak of nature. It was known to happen where she'd been playing, but with such rarity that she couldn't be blamed. She had been walking along the beach, innocently searching for sand dollars, when.
She spun away from the window, from her memories both real and on film. A decision needed to be made. A decision she had been putting off.
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