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His thick hands gnarled with old age clench the steering wheel with a timeless strength. Skin of deep brown stretches over his prominent knuckles. The fingernails are chipped, worn and torn with careless wear. Calluses upon the palms are slick with sweat against the new leather.

Hiding under bushy eyebrows and a folded brow are hazel eyes, watching from their shadowed sockets. Although wrinkles enclose the cataract-riddled orbs, light still flickers through the murky green. As the man drives with utmost precaution down the road, riddled with ruts and breaks, he glances out of the car window to find the river that lurks just below the leafy slopes.

His eyes spark with recognition of the familiar picture. It is a lost memory that meets his eyes. Gray water snakes around muddy banks and runs swiftly through scattered debris, churning recklessly where the rocks block the natural flow. Wet logs gleam in the luminescence of rainclouds and their branches spike into the sky, untouched by the torrent of the river below. The air is quiet apart from the roar of the water, leaving the man alone to pull his car over and roll to a stop, open a window, stick his head outside, and listen...

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The rumble of the raging torrent falls far behind him as he dips the paddles into the swirling depths, surging forward with every sure stroke. The spray of white foam on stone sprinkles his face and arms. His tanned skin gleams from a mingling of mist and sweat; corded muscles work in a fluid unison to navigate around fallen limbs and ragged rocks--seemingly benign obstacles to an amateur eye, yet deadly to those that live in the sleek dance of rapid and kayak. A single branch is all that it could take for a man to meet his doom, fading into the embrace of the river gods. Only years of experience aid his craft as he dodges and swings around the debris.

Finally the rapids end and he’s drifting on a smooth surface, the water deep and so clear that the twinkling granite is visible far below. There’s an eddy just before the water foams on the horizon and he follows the stream of water that curls gently around into the sheltered rocks. His kayak begins to twirl gently with the current, so he sticks out his paddle and uses a boulder to anchor himself to land. As he looks back and sees no sign of his partner, he allows his eyes to wander, taking in the green of the fluttering leaves and the yellow of awakening spring buds. He figures it will be a long wait, but doesn’t mind on a day so beautiful. He is home.

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A piercing scream cut across the still air, and the old man stiffened. The high, shrill note hung in uncertainty. His joints creaking and stiff leg protesting, the man opened the door, stepped out of the car, and headed down to the river at the fastest walk he could manage.

And there it was again--a sound of pure terror arcing in the sky. This time, however, it was cut off abruptly, leaving silence in its wake. The man looked around desperately for help, and cursed when he realized that the peaceful solitude he had appreciated moments before was now the cause for dread. His hips flared with pain from awakening arthritis as he sped his walk into a lumbering run.

The ground was slick with wet grass down by the river banks and mud squelched into his open sandals. When the cold touched his toes, a shiver racked his bulky frame. He stopped at the end of the bank and looked upriver. At first he didn’t see anything. Then, just peeping through the branches of a fallen spruce, was a flash of red.

Action came quickly, even after so many years of inactivity. He ran up towards the site of the accident, his brain working at an extreme pace. He had seen this situation before, where a kayaker is swept into an overturned tree and caught underwater in the branches. The situation could easily prove fatal--

He suddenly stops dead in his tracks. All he can do is stare and the red jacket sleeve torn on the branch, the capsized yellow boat wedged under the sweeper...

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Almost a full two minutes pass and he begins to worry. Although he is considerably more skilled at whitewater than Tess, the section of river that he just finished is not very long or difficult; she should have surely rounded the corner by now. The only explanation was that she had gotten into trouble.

The flow of water is too fast for him to paddle upriver, so he extracts himself from the vessel and hauls it onto the rocks. When it is far enough from the water so that it cannot slide back in, he grabs his paddle and starts to scramble up the rocks towards the whitewater.

The footing is treacherous and he slips on a boulder, his shin cracking against the hard granite. A grunt of pain escapes his gritted teeth but he staggers to his feet and clambers over it painfully. A dotted trail of red blood clashes against the white surface, leaving behind him a sign to the world so that they will know of his suffering. He does not notice.

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“Tess...” the word barely escaped his trembling lips. There was no way for him to reach across the river to the kayak, caught underneath the branches of the fallen tree. It would likewise prove suicidal to attempt to cross the river. A sense of helplessness breached his thoughts, the exact same emotion that had plagued his mind so many years ago, when his was youth and innocence, his running with the naiads, his playing with the whirling spirits, was curtailed to an abrupt stop.

The gray waters still surged past over the rocks and the blue sky hung empty above his head. Jays swooped aimlessly between the leaves of the trees. The roar of the river resounded in his ears as a steady monotone. Surreality settled in. After all, nothing in particular was strange about the scene. It was a peaceful day, the type that most use to go on a trek over a mountain or a bike through the shaded woods. The only anomaly in this setting of serenity was the life-or-death struggle taking place before his eyes--the struggle that he was powerless to influence.

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The waters tugs at his ankles and knees, threatening to pull him into the river’s flood. Every step takes enormous effort and his muscles burn from the effort it requires to stand against the swift current. Sharp gravel pricks his numb feet, but he hardly notices. All that encompasses his thoughts is one step after another, bringing him closer to the overturned kayak.

He reaches the sweeper and reaches out to grab onto a branch to steady himself. As he bends forwards, his left foot suddenly is on slick stone and drops out from under him. In a desperate effort, he grabs out for the branch and snatches the end. It breaks with a sharp snap, and he finds himself plummeting into the cascading steam. Icy water closes over his head and now he finds himself in a fight for his life.

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His vision blurred with tears, it takes several attempts for the man to hit the three small numbers on his cell phone. 9... 1... 1.. An operator was already answering before the shaking phone reached his ear. He answered their questions on his location with a barely audible voice, and when it was over, he snapped his phone shut and placed his hand on a boulder to steady himself, breathing as if he had just finished an exhausting run. His eyes refused to leave the outline of the overturned boat, and guilt refused to leave his frame. Standing as he was, doing nothing, was surely a crime. Murder.

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There are too many bubbles for him to see where he is going, and all sense of up and down distorts into a world of boundless water. His arms flounder to hit hard rock, but there is no purchase on its smooth surface. When his face slams suddenly into gravel, he tastes blood.
Pain, a flash, and then blackness.

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His legs were burning and could no longer hold him. They folded under him and sent his heavy frame crashing to the ground. The ground under him was so soft, the mud soothing to his skin. His hands clenched in fists and his body curled into the fetal position. Involuntarily, he began to shake with unsuppressed rage. A scream tore from his lips--the scream of an animal. Feral. Deranged. Wrenched out of his throat, it broke off into sobs.
It was like this that the police found him.

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When he wakes up, the room is a sterile white. Masked faces surround him. His lungs burn, and the air that he breathes seems stale. A machine above his head emits a beep, and he realizes that voices are talking to him. “Do you know where you are?” “What’s your name?” “Can you talk?” Dozens of question fly through his head, but he can only think of one word. After a hacking cough, he manages to choke out a name. “T--Tess?”
They fall quiet. Their masks conceal all of their humanity. “I’m sorry...” one finally says.

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When he woke up, the room was a sterile white. A single vase of bright flowers was nestled in the corner. The nurse told him the police that rescued him brought them. He didn’t hear. He knew they were a gift. She was with him.
He was no longer alone.



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