[New to the story? Perhaps you should take a moment to stare into the hypnotic flames of the previous chapter.]
I clawed at my seat belt as the water poured into the cab of the truck. It covered my waist in a matter of seconds and crawled steadily up my chest as the truck settled down into the dark water. In my panic it seemed I had forgotten how to use my fingers, and I fumbled desperately with the hasp of the buckle. The water was around my neck when it finally let go, and I floated free.
The truck was almost full now, and there was no way I was going to fit through the window, so I took a deep breath just as the water washed up over my face and pulled at the door handle heaving myself against the inside panel. And somehow, miraculously, the door popped open.
I was about to bale when I looked back and saw Angie, blood trailing from her temple, her hands floating gently in front of her in the rushing waters, eyes open, staring at nothing. I reached over and scrabbled for the latch on her seat belt, managed to get it open, fought to get her arms free from the twisted strap.
Red dots swam in my vision and my lungs burned for air, but then, finally, I got her free. With the last vestige of my strength I wrapped my arms around her and kicked hard for the open door.
What happened next…I’m not sure of. I might have blacked out, or maybe my brain just stopped remembering things for a few seconds. All I can say for sure is that the next thing I knew my head was bobbing above the water and my lungs were filled with sweet sweet oxygen. I sucked up the air in huge gasping gulps, my whole body shaking, not from the cold of the water, but from pure unbounded relief at being alive.
But then I realized Angie was no longer in my arms. I looked toward the shore, but it was empty; I ducked my head underwater, but in the black murk of the river it was impossible to see anything more than a few feet away.
I felt a kind of sudden panic then, my heart racing even faster than it already had. Where was she? Maybe I had been out for longer than I remembered. Maybe she had swum ashore and went for help. But no, that didn’t make sense, because she wouldn’t have just left me behind.
I looked toward the closer bank again, and this time I did see someone. It wasn’t Angie though. It was the woman from the hybrid advancing down the steep river bank. And in her hand I could see the gleam of a handgun.
She stopped at the water’s edge and looked at me, head cocked to one side like a dog listening to a high-pitched noise. Then she pointed the gun in my direction and motioned for me to come to shore.
For a moment I considered trying to swim for the opposite side, but there was a look in her eyes, of something…almost annoyance. And I saw in that look that she would not hesitate to shoot me if I made things any more difficult for her. I kicked for the shore.
It wasn’t long before my feet touched the silty bottom, and I was able to walk. As I left the water return of gravity on my bulk seemed to pull my heart down too.
Angie was gone.
I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to have more blood on my hands, that accusing voice saying, It’s your fault. You failed again. First Frog and now her. You’ve got no one left. You’re alone Vinny. You’ll fail everyone you try to love.
I trudged up onto the shore, water pouring off me, feeling more beaten than I have ever felt before. The woman from the hybrid regarded me with that same curious stare and then motioned with the gun for me to walk ahead of her up the embankment. I climbed up through the tall grass that grew on the river bank grasping for hand holds on protruding tree roots, my waterlogged shoes slipping against the slope. When I reached the top I glanced back at the woman with the gun and saw that she walked strangely upright, as if the sharp incline of the river bank were no more difficult to climb than a simple set of stairs.
At the top of the bank the slope leveled out, and here I could see the path of destruction the truck had made as it left the road. Bits of earth were torn up, small saplings snapped in half, tools from the truck bed scattered across the forest floor.
And there was something else from the bed of the truck. John lay there on the ground, limbs twisted, bones splintered and poking through his skin. His arms were still bound by the seat belt but no longer behind his back; instead his shoulders had somehow popped out of socket and his arms had been twisted out and up until they raised above his head. He looked like a doll that had been tossed into a corner and forgotten. And he was still alive.
As I walked past I could see his eyes following mine, his mouth, barely open, making little whimpering sounds. I didn’t realize I’d stopped until I felt the cold circle of the gun barrel pressed into my back. So I kept walking.
I’d like to say my heart was torn by what I saw, but the truth is I was beyond feeling. There was nothing inside me. Just a great hulking void that threatened to swallow everything I was.
Then I heard the gunshot. I looked back and saw that John lay still, his right eye punched out through the back of his skull. The woman stared at me with a hard look that answered none of the questions I knew must be in my own eyes, and so, in the end I kept walking.When we got to her car she didn’t even tie me up. She just made me sit in the seat next to her as she drove back to the RV. Maybe she thought she could handle any disturbance I might try to make, but I think that probably somehow she sensed the truth: that I was beaten. Mentally, emotionally, physically. At that moment I think I would have marched into my own grave without the slightest compunction. Nothing mattered any more.
It wasn’t just that Angie was gone- No, I corrected, Say it. Dead. She’s dead. Dead and floating downstream food for the fish. Everything that’s left of her now is pictures and memories. But no, that wasn’t all of it. It was…well all of it. Everything I had done in my life had been a failure. The things I tried to fix ended up broken worse than before. I was beyond wondering if my life would be remembered. I wanted to be forgotten. If this was the best I had to offer the world, failure after failure, letting down everyone who dared to get close to me, at the very least I could pray for obscurity.
I thought of my father, screaming at me, telling me how worthless I was, and the only thing I could think was, He was right. He was right all along. No wonder he hated me. I never deserved to live. And the worst part was I knew this. Some part of me always knew it. I tried to cover it up; with video games, with jokes, with eating. But none of that stuff could plug the void in my soul, the tiny ever-present certainty that I was wholly and completely worthless.
But now I heard its voice as clearly as any other. Now there was no more covering it up. Now I saw it like I never had before.
Except…that isn’t true. Because I had seen it before. Once.
Once, there had been a night when I saw the truth of what I was, and what I always would be, a night when I had believed that no life could be more empty and worthless than mine.
The night Frog saved my life.