“Let’s swim over to the cliffs,” Briana said.
Kyle opened his eyes. The gentle rocking of the boat had almost lulled him to sleep. He looked across the water at the shore opposite them. The cliffs appeared to rise up out of the water like the back of some long, gray dinosaur. They were at least a half-mile swim from the boat, maybe more. Kyle said nothing and closed his eyes, hoping she might drop the idea.
After a few seconds, one of her tanned feet jabbed him in the side. “Come on, Kyle. Don’t be a major snooze.”
“I’m not being a snooze. I’m just not sure it’s a good idea, that’s all.”
“It’s too far.”
“No it’s not. Not for a person who’s in good shape, anyway.”
Kyle sat up. “I’m in good shape,” he said defensively. He gazed back at the dead-still expanse of water she wanted to swim across. It was a typical wild-ass Briana Fox idea, the type of thing that could get you killed. He groped for another excuse. “What if another boat comes along? They might not see us.”
Briana laughed and pretended to choke on the beer she was sipping.
“Get real, Kyle,” she said, motioning to the deserted lake with the beer can. “Who do you think’s gonna come?” She finished off the beer and tossed the empty can into the stern of the boat, where it rattled around with the others. She looked back at Kyle and, raising one of her sun-bleached eyebrows, said, “I think you’re chicken.”
Kyle sighed. “I’m not chicken, Brie.” He glanced up the lake towards the dam, then back in the other direction, where it split into a series of smaller and smaller coves. She was probably right about there not being any other boats around. It was a Tuesday and they had come out to the lake at noon, right after Kyle’s last class had ended, and they hadn’t seen a single boat since. Now, it was almost three, and it would be at least another couple of hours before the after-work fishing crowd began to arrive. But he didn’t like her pushing him into going along with another one of her crazy stunts.
“We can’t just leave the boat out here in the middle of the lake,” he said. “If my dad found out, I’d be in big trouble.”
“Your dad,” she said with mock gravity, imitating Kyle’s deep voice.
“That’s right, Brie. It’s his boat, not mine.”
She considered this, then gazed past Kyle and out across the water. He could almost see the devious machinery turning behind her pale blue eyes. “We’ll take the key with us. What could happen then?”
Kyle smiled and patted the sides of his swimsuit. “No pockets.”
“I’ve got a pocket,” she said. Her face took on a mischievous expression. She stood up and lowered one side of her bikini bottom, revealing a small pocket that was sewn into its mesh. In the process, she also revealed a lot of skin, which drew Kyle’s eyes like a magnet. But he resisted the temptation to look. He had long grown tired of that routine.
Briana snapped her bathing suit back into place, clearly disappointed that he hadn’t taken an eyeful. “So you’re out of excuses,” she said, holding out her hand for the boat key.
Kyle sighed and pulled the key out of the ignition. He knew this was one of those times that she wouldn’t leave him alone until he gave in. Besides, if she could swim across, he could. He handed the key to her and she put it into her bikini pocket, turning her body to the side this time, as if he didn’t deserve to see anything.
“Race ya!” she said, then dove into the water and started swimming. Kyle made a quick check of the boat’s interior, making sure nothing valuable was in sight—both their cellphones were locked in the glove compartment—then dove in after her. By the time he started swimming, she was already twenty yards ahead of him, doing a hard American crawl. But he had no intention of “racing” her anywhere—he knew that for this particular journey, he had to swim at a steady pace and conserve energy for the long haul.
After a few strokes, he decided to roll over and swim on his back. As he kicked, he made a conscious effort to keep both his feet near the surface. It was only mid-September and the water was still relatively warm, but every now and then, he passed through a cold spot. This kept reminding him of how deep the lake was (ninety feet where they were swimming, according to the boat’s depth finder), which in turn would remind him of all the decaying junk that was down at the bottom of it. Lake Carlton was a man-made body of water. The Army Corps of Engineers had dammed up the Stones River about thirty years before to both control flooding and generate hydroelectric power, and the resulting body of water covered acres and acres of developed farmland. Somewhere at the bottom of its murky depths lay algae-covered barns and rusting cattle fences and dilapidated cars, all of which made Kyle uneasy. It was like swimming over an underwater ghost town. Of course, the water was so deep that you wouldn’t ever come into physical contact with any of it (in theory, anyway), but knowing it was all down there bothered him, just the same. And rumor had it that down at the very bottom, in the center of the main channel where the river had once been, there were catfish big enough to bite your leg off at the knee.
Briana yelled something and pulled Kyle out of his thoughts. He stopped swimming and spotted her. She was a good fifty yards ahead of him.
“What?” he called back.
“Can’t you keep up?” she said, laughing.
“I’m not trying to keep up,” he said irritably. He rolled over and started swimming his backstroke again, this time at a leisurely pace to emphasize his point. She loved proving again and again that she was the better swimmer—she had been doing it ever since they had taken scuba diving lessons together in the tenth grade, which was how they first met. The teacher had divided the class in half, and he and Briana had ended up becoming “breathing partners” and had learned to share a single air regulator, swapping the black rubber device between each other’s mouths. At first they could hardly stand each other, but they soon became close friends, and later, lovers...almost.
Kyle heard another sound and he immediately stopped swimming. This time, it wasn’t Briana yelling. It was a faint buzzing sound that you could not only hear, but feel a little bit in your throat. He knew it well. It was the sound a boat’s propeller makes in the water. On weekends during the summer, you could always hear a whole chorus of them whenever your head was under water.
He spun around in a circle, scanning the lake. He saw nothing but his dad’s ski boat, which was now about 100 yards behind him, and a lot of flat, still water. He let his ears dip under the waterline again.
There was no doubt in his mind—a boat was somewhere nearby, maybe not within sight just yet, but close...
He spotted it. A speedboat, barely visible on the other side and to the left of his dad’s ski boat. The sleek yellow and black craft was moving fast, zipping across the water, its bow sticking up aggressively.
He spun around towards Briana. “Brie!” he yelled. “There’s a boat!”
She was swimming as mechanically as a robot and didn’t seem to hear him.
“Brie!” he yelled again. “Brie!”
She just kept swimming.
The speedboat was rapidly approaching, and he spun back around towards it and started to wildly wave his hands. It was making a wide turn to the left side of his dad’s boat. Two boys were standing behind the windshield, peering curiously at the abandoned ski boat, probably thinking the occupants were having sex, hoping to glimpse a little skin.
“Hey!” Kyle screamed, waving his arms, splashing. “Hey! Watch out! There’s somebody out there! Heyyyyyyy!”
They didn’t see or hear him. The boat seemed to streak across the water like a low-flying jet fighter. He mentally predicted its trajectory and his eyes widened—it appeared to be heading directly towards Briana.
“HEY! HEY! HEYYYYYY!” he yelled at the boat. But it did no good. He turned back towards Briana, hoping she might have heard his yelling or the sound of the propeller, but she was still swimming steadily towards the cliffs, oblivious to any possible danger. Kyle started swimming frantically towards her for a few seconds, then realized the futility of it. In that fleeting moment, he had never felt so helpless in his life. He began to scream again, this time at Briana. “BRIE! THERE’S A BOAT! THERE’S A BOAT COMING, THERE’S A BOAT!!! BRIEEEEEEEE!”
In the middle of his scream, she finally stopped swimming. She turned her head towards the oncoming boat. It was bearing down on her so fast it would hit her—or at least come close to hitting her—in a matter of two or three more seconds.
“DIVE!” Kyle screamed.
She either heard him or saw the boat coming, or perhaps both. Her head disappeared beneath the surface. Not more than a half-second later, the speedboat whipped across the water in what looked like exactly the same spot.
Kyle threw his hands over his face, uttering an agonized wail, afraid he would hear a thump or the sound of the motor wavering as the propeller made contact with...
But he heard nothing except the drone of the speedboat as it moved away from him.
“Please, no!” he said, his hands still over his face, treading water with only his legs. His stomach seemed to turn inside out. He slowly uncovered his eyes, afraid of what he would see.
There was the boat’s wake. But Kyle could see nothing else.
“BRIE!” he yelled again, his voice cracking. He waited a few seconds, hoping to see her head surface somewhere around the wake, but he saw only the churned up water. He started swimming madly towards the spot where she had been, swimming the most intense American crawl he had ever swam in his life. When he finally neared the place where he thought he had seen her disappear, the sick feeling in his gut had turned into sheer horror—he was afraid he would bump into one of her severed limbs or … worse. He stopped swimming and looked around at the water, half-expecting to see blood or clumps of her yellow-blonde hair floating on the surface. But there was just lake water. He swam to the direct center of the wake, which was fading rapidly, and slowly swam around in a circle, looking for any sign of her.
After a few more seconds, the water became still and quiet as it had been a few moments earlier. Only there was no Briana.
Surely if she was hit, she would float to the surface, Kyle thought, as he treaded water. Wouldn’t she? And if she wasn’t hit, where is she?
He looked over towards the cliffs, wondering if she might be swimming in that direction, injured and disoriented. But there was nothing in sight save a few gently rolling waves from the wake of the speedboat. His arms and legs felt rubbery. He accidentally inhaled some water and started coughing. This isn’t happening, he thought, coughing and choking. This can’t be happening.
But it was definitely happening. And he knew that if he wasn’t careful, he might drown. He had to get hold of himself—he had to think rationally and decide what to do next.
He decided it was best to swim on his back to help him remain calm and conserve energy. He made a U-turn and started swimming in the direction of the ski boat. Yes, that was the smart thing to do now. He would return to the boat and bring it back to look for her. If he didn’t find her within a couple of minutes, he could go back to the marina and call...
“No!” he croaked up at the sky. Panicking, he rolled over, and started dog-paddling frantically, then checked himself and spun around onto his back again.
Just stay calm, Kyle. You have to go back to the boat or you’ll drown.
Ten long minutes later, Kyle dragged himself up the ski ladder attached to the boat’s stern and collapsed on the carpeted deck, trembling and queasy. He lay there for a few seconds. The sky seemed to be spinning and spinning. He jumped back up and leaned over the starboard side of the boat. His lunch—a Big Mac and one of his dad’s Bud Lights—gushed into the lake water.
“Brie,” he uttered in a hoarse whisper, fighting tears. He thought he might fall apart right there in the middle of the lake. Keep it together, Kyle. Keep moving. You have to get the boat started so you can look for her.
“Get the boat started,” he repeated aloud. His voice sounded hollow and far away, like his ears were stuffed with cotton. He turned and blankly looked at the ignition switch on the dashboard. There were no tools on board now. Being a college professor, his father rarely found time to use the boat once school started and always took the toolbox home for the winter. But Kyle would have to make do.
He laid down on his back and wriggled around in front of the driver’s seat until his head was positioned directly underneath the dashboard. The back of the ignition switch had three wires connected to it—red, black, and green. He wasn’t sure which was which, and he didn’t have time to find out. He would just yank all three of them free and try different combinations until the engine turned over.
Just as he took hold of the red wire, there was a thump from somewhere underneath the boat.
It sounded like something had bumped against the boat’s hull, not far from his head. He stayed still for a few seconds, but heard nothing more. He started to yank the red wire loose, but stopped again. He thought he heard another thump.
There was definitely something moving around underneath the boat.
Probably just a fish...
He lay there for a few more seconds, completely motionless, listening. He heard the unmistakable sound of the ski ladder banging against the stern. Somebody was pulling down the ladder.
It had to be Briana.
He swallowed. Didn’t it?
He slid out from under the dashboard and sat upright, his eyes wide, watching the stern of the boat.
There was a splash.
“Brie?” he said in a hush. He swallowed again, terrified of what he might see.
There was another splash. The boat rocked towards the back, the way it did when someone grabbed hold of the ladder and started climbing. His eyes grew wider and wider.
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