Woman at the Bridge
Within seconds after her car hit the water, Caryl realized that she was not panicked. The airbag pressed her against the seat, but her hands were free, so with her left she felt for the window button while her right followed the seat belt down to the button to unlatch. Her car was pitched forward leaning slightly toward the left and sinking. Her fingers found the button, pressed it, and she could hear the hum of the passenger-side window opening. Then the humming stopped. She wriggled out from behind the air bag and reached for the window that was about two thirds of the way down. She had one knee on the seat and pushed her head through the opening and with both hands on the window glass pulled herself through feeling the cold, black water rising against her chest. My hips won't fit through, she thought. I'll be stuck here, and that's the way they'll find me. She arched her back to keep her head above water and pushed against the doorframe. For a second she was caught, but then the water seemed to lubricate the cloth of her jeans, and with a stronger push she was through.
The shore wasn't far, though with soaked clothes and shoes she felt leaden and struggled to keep her head above water. Behind her the car bubbled and gurgled in a kind of rậle and sank. The darkness was nearly total. Only the deeper blackness of the shore and trees told her which way to swim. In a few strokes she reached the shore where the drop off was steep, and she had to grasp a shrub to pull herself up while her feet and knees felt for a purchase. Lifting one leg onto the shelf, she wrenched her body out of the water and lay gasping, feeling as if she had swum an ocean. She had never felt so glad to be alive.
Soon she started to shiver, so she rose and scrambled up the bank to the road. At least it had stopped drizzling. To her right was the bridge where the woman had stood in the road.
"Hello," she called. No response. "Are you here?" Again there was no response. The quiet felt eerie, as if everything was listening. "Hello," she called again. Nothing. She unbuttoned her shirt, took it off and wrung out as much water as she could then put it on. Then she did the same with her jeans and finally her socks. Had she been dry, the night air would have been pleasant, but now she realized that hypothermia was a possibility. She needed to move. Eventually a car would come along, and she hoped it would stop for a woman alone. Yes, there was risk in that, but she was in no position to be cautious. Hadn't she seen a light off the road a ways not too far back?
It was hilly, semi-wooded country along the Ojibway River, and there could have been houses within half a mile, but she might not see their lights until she was almost to them. Why hadn't she thought to grab her purse or at least her cell phone? That would have made it so simple. Because she had needed two hands to save her own life.
Perhaps it was the moving, the careful but solid swinging of her arms and legs, the circulation, but more likely it was her realization that she was alive that gave her a kind of ecstasy. Yes, her situation was not the best--alone on a dark road late at night--but it could have been so much worse. The vista of the black roadside trees was just visible against the lighter sky to give her a sense of where the road ran. The sound of her footfalls on the road confirmed her path. Her steps made one sound when on the tire-beaten path and another when she wandered onto the loose gravel at the side of the road. Soon she found she could find her way by listening. It was as if other senses than her eyes were kicking in. But as her eyes grew accustomed to the dark, she beheld in the landscape a numinosity. Her damp and dirty clothes clung to her but not unpleasantly. The jeans were ones she had come across recently in a box in the basement, ones she had worn in high school. How many women her age could fit into their high school jeans? Staying slim had always been a vanity of hers. Now that vanity had probably saved her life.
Then she remembered something else. The woman in the road had been wearing pants. It had all happened so fast she couldn't be sure of details, but Caryl thought that as the woman stepped out into the road, right into her headlights that she had been wearing pants of some kind. What had happened to her? Caryl was sure that she hadn't hit her. Realizing that she had no time to stop, she had swerved instead. And the woman didn't even stick around to help or to thank her. Gratitude for you. Maybe Caryl would know better next time.
Eric showed gratitude. From the first time Penny had brought him home for a barbeque, he was always so polite, so kind and grateful for the hospitality. She didn't know how he should have expected them to treat their daughter's boyfriend, but he made it seem like their big sacrifice having him around. Caryl began to wonder how he would respond to something really worth all that praise. From the beginning, he had seemed too much for little Penny. Maybe in a few years she would know how to treat him and his blue-gray eyes and sand castle hair. That's what it reminded her of--sand castles. The color, the waves. She couldn't help wondering how it would feel against her breasts. It wasn't fair, of course, Penny's youthful awkwardness versus her mother's experience and confidence. And she wouldn't hurt Penny for the world. That was why they were so careful, Caryl and Eric, meeting only when Penny was away at school, only where they wouldn't be recognized by anyone she knew. That was why she met him in Baxter, a neutral site. And that was why she didn't drive the highway, where someone might recognize her car. Eric was training to be an emergency responder, and after they had made love he pretended that she was the victim of an accident and he practiced his life-saving techniques on her. They didn't get halfway through his lesson before they were embracing again as if their lives depended upon it. Yes, he was grateful.
She walked briskly, the rhythms of her arms and legs climbing and descending the flow of the road as if she could walk all night. Those rhythms seemed to catch the sounds of the crickets and frogs as the spirit of the living carried her on. She was going the other way. Home was miles behind her, but if she didn't spot that yard light soon, she would turn and walk all the way home if she had to. Finley would be back from his golf tournament by now, finding her note saying not to wait up--which he wouldn't do anyway. High school sweethearts, they had been. How many times had friends wondered how they had stayed together through all those years and changes? People are so sucked in by surfaces. Finley, with his golf and bowling leagues, his Elks and Rotarians, was still in high school. When he learned about this accident, he would steam a while about the lost car and rising insurance rates, and then he would play a round of golf and come home sunburned and mellow.
But tonight even Finley got a mulligan. Tonight she was just glad to be where she was, way the hell-and-gone down some country road looking for somebody to take her home or pull her car out of the river or both. She felt as if her life were a large, plastic bag with just a little bit of air so that in its full size it seems almost empty. But then you fold the bag, and you fold it again, and you keep folding it until it is a small bag, and that little air fills the folded bag almost to bursting. That was how she felt--as if she could burst with vitality.
Cresting one of the rolling hills, she saw the yard light off to her right. A few minutes farther on, her night eyes saw a mailbox across from a driveway. She turned up the lane. Almost immediately a chorus of dogs began to bark. She stopped and listened. There were three dogs, each with its own distinct voice. One--she guessed maybe the smallest--seemed to say, "I'm afraid of you. Don't come near." The second said, "I'm afraid, but with my friends beside me I will pretend to be brave." The third said, "I'm not afraid." He would be the one to run down the driveway to face her. She walked on a little farther, thinking that if she could get close enough, she could call out and be heard.
Then she noticed a shape just off to the side of the lane. A car. She approached it and ran her hands along the side until she felt a door handle. It was unlocked but no interior light came on when she opened it. Leaning in, she reached around the steering column and felt a key in the ignition. Sliding in behind the wheel, she turned the key and the car started. She would drive it up to the place, be safe from the dogs, and honk the horn until someone came out. Then she could explain and use the phone to call Finley. But what if the people weren't friendly and didn't like being disturbed? What if it was just a man? Or two men? As she eased out into the lane, another idea came to her. Why not drive home, get Finley to follow her back in his car, gas up this car on the way and leave it where she had found it? Nobody was going to use the car this late at night. No need to bother anybody. There was nothing to do with her car until tomorrow anyway. With a couple of tries and the parking lights on, she managed to turn the car around, drive back to the road and turn toward the bridge.
She had the headlights on now. A drizzle of rain began to fall on the windshield as she picked up speed. Caryl marveled at her own good fortune. A few minutes ago she was lucky to survive an accident. Now everything seemed to be going her way. She sat up straight, scanning the road. It occurred to her that if anyone had been around to report her accident, Eric might have been among the first responders dispatched to the scene. It was a salacious thought, him doing for real what he had done in play just a few hours ago. She imagined winking at him between groans.
As she approached the scene of her accident, she shuddered, her neck began to ache; she was not even sure how it had happened, as if it was all out of her hands. The woman at the bridge, her swerving, the tires catching the loose gravel, then the swift descent into the river. She was gripped between two impulses: to step on the gas and speed by; or to slow down as if to relive it all again and try to figure out how it happened. So she did neither and approached the bridge without slowing down. The road turned slightly to the left just before the bridge, and as the car's headlights swung around someone appeared on the right side of the road. At first she seemed to be walking on, but then without glancing back she turned into the road and faced the oncoming car. Suddenly as the form had appeared, Caryl remained calm, expectant. But then she was angry. This time she was not going to sacrifice the car and herself for this woman. Closer, she recognized the face. "Penny!" she cried out and turned the wheel sharply to her right. The slide, the fall, the crash into the water all happened at once. Caryl pitched forward until the air bag deployed and caught her just before the steering column could crush her sternum. Pressed against the seat, she felt something in her neck. When she regained her senses, the glow from the dash lights told her water was rising fast outside the passenger window. She reached with her left hand to the control panel on the door. But this time her finger did not go directly to the window button. Instead there were several buttons, and she pressed each one, but nothing happened. The dash lights went out. With her right hand she followed the seat belt down to the buckle and pressed the release button. The belt had released but was not unbinding, being caught between Caryl and the air bag. She tried to push herself up and away from the bag, but her feet kept slipping in the water. She leaned as far to her right as she could. Her neck hurt more when she tried to turn her head, so without turning she reached for and pressed the window button on the passenger side. Nothing.
If she could find something to break the window, she could hold her breath until all the water rushed in, and then she could pull herself through the window, like last time, and rise to the surface. Twisting free of the air bag, holding her head still as she could she groped under the front seat, on the floor in the back seat for a wrench, an umbrella, a flashlight--anything with some substance. She knew she could hold her breath that long. She knew it. Her fingers searched the floor on the passenger side and felt something on the floor on the passengers' side--woven cloth with braided straps. Her fingers closed on it then picked her purse out of the water and set it on the seat.
About the author:
Loren Sundlee's fiction has appeared in Border Crossing, Crab Creek Review, Raven Chronicles, StringTown and other literary magazines. Raised in the Upper Midwest, where many of his stories are set, he now lives in Central Washington.