by Taylor Wallace
She fights for every lungful of air as the startled river swallows her whole. With her eyes wide open, the murky water wraps around her like a heavy cloak. She thrashes until the edges of her vision blur, until her expanding lungs scorch with pain, until the crushing coldness numbs her limbs. A force compels her head deeper, dread hitting her like a palm. Reaching out with her fingertips she grasps at nothing. Surrendering. Sinking. Her blue lips part, releasing bubbles of air into the darkness.
He’s sitting in the passenger seat, scrutinizing his hands, fingers spread wide, rotating his wrists. He’s been doing this intermittently since they left his apartment. She doesn’t dare
ask why. It’s taken her 24 hours to get him into the car, to convince him he’s not a monster. They’re only halfway into their four-hour journey home.
When he called, his voice was elevated, his sentences choppy. What he told her was inconceivable. Then he hung up.
Once she got there, she held him, rocking him as he cried. She assured him he could never hurt anyone. It must have been a hallucination.
You’re under stress, not eating properly, dehydrated.
He had her search the apartment.
I’m sure I held her underwater.
His dirty laundry piled on top of the washer was bone dry. She held each item to her nose, searched every pocket. Then she went back to his room where he lay on the bed curled into a tight ball.
When’s the last time you got a full night’s sleep?
He raised his head off the mattress. What? His icy-blue eyes seemed fixated on some distant time.
She remembered him gently pushing his baby brother in the cradle.
It wasn’t possible.
But lately he had been calling her more frequently, expressing homesickness, feeling the pressure of finals, hating his roommate. At times he had yelled at her, as if everything wrong with his life was her fault.
She coaxed him into drinking water. Were you drunk?
Nothing. He shook his head.
Could someone have slipped you something?
His pupils expanded slightly. Maybe.
Hours later, once he finally drifted off, she lay on the couch flipping through his textbook, looking out the window at times, staring up at the suspension bridge. Page after page of evidence, gruesome details, brutal crimes. The door rattled open, and she closed the book, sunk down, pretended to be asleep. His roommate walked straight past her, disappearing into his bedroom.
In the morning, she made espresso for herself and a hearty breakfast for them. His face was still pallid as he picked at the omelette. The roommate thanked her for the meal and left for the library with a piece of toast in hand.
Should I go to the police, turn myself in?
And say what?
I drowned a girl in the Detroit River.
In the afternoon, she made an appointment with a doctor back home.
He switched on the cable news channel, turning the volume way up.
After hours of watching the local news on repeat, she became jittery, hitting mute. See, no drownings, no missing person reports.
He closed his eyes, nodded.
After further reassurances she convinced him to email his professor. He seemed relieved that a certificate of illness would allow him to defer the exam. He stretched out on the couch, turning to meet her gaze. Sleep deprivation?
She packed her car with most of his things, promising to drive him back for the rescheduled exam. His eyes were glazed and his hair dishevelled as he slid into the passenger seat. She gave him a pillow hoping he’d sleep most of the way. It was late, but they’d be home before dawn.
He is holding his hands in front of him again, turning them over to examine the palms when the newscaster on the radio says, A woman’s body was pulled from the Detroit River earlier today. Molly Gunnerson, age 80, has been missing since March.
He drops his hands, his body shakes, and he starts screaming, No! No! No!
She grips the wheel, oncoming headlights flash around the bend, but she manages to stay within the lane as she shouts, She was 80!
The screaming stops. 80? He’s out of breath.
She turns her head briefly. His eyes are closed but tears roll down his cheeks.
Her heartbeat rushes to her ears. Yes, an old woman. Missing since last month.
I just heard woman and body.
It never happened.
His face slackens. He opens his eyes and looks back down at his outstretched hands.
She turns the station, finds some easy listening tunes. They drive through the darkest part of the highway not speaking. He sinks into the pillow, falls asleep.
Absorbed in worries, she slips into a hypnotic state until a voice on the radio announces the time. She anticipates the construction about 80 km ahead. Just before New Year’s, a transport truck destroyed the guardrail, careened down the embankment and plummeted into the Grand River. Traffic has been reduced to one lane in each direction for months, but at this hour she hopes to keep moving. The occasional truck whizzes by in the westbound lanes. Her body feels warm, like a pot simmering on the stove. She looks forward to diving into bed, submerging herself in forgetful sleep. Her eyelids grow heavy.
She flutters them open. The room is intensely bright. A monitor beeps rhythmically and she smells antiseptic. You’re awake. A woman in blue scrubs hovers over her, touching her arm, pressing her fingers gently into her skin. You’re lucky that young man pulled you from the river.
Her chest feels heavy as she speaks. Which river? Her voice is raspy.
The woman looks down at her, her brows knitting together. You’re disoriented. She strokes her arm. You nearly drowned.
She grabs her hand. Tell me which river¾the Detroit or the Grand?
Taylor Wallace lives deep in the woods and further into her imagination, thinking of the past, fretting about the future. Having finished her memoir, she realizes it requires the veil of fiction.
Harry Longstreet is retired after twenty-five years as a writer, producer and director of filmed entertainment, primarily for television.