Josh Michaels took liberties with the speed limit on the quiet, two-lane highway. And why shouldn’t he? He was celebrating. His meeting with the supplier had proved worth the overnight stay in Bakersfield. He was looking forward to his performance bonus when the drinking water plant came online.
He rewarded himself by taking the winding highways instead of I-5 back to Sacramento. He enjoyed the challenge of the sharper bends and shorter straights that he couldn’t experience outside of a racetrack. The lack of patrolling police cars on the back roads gave him the opportunity to bend the law as much as he wanted. And Goddamn it, the reason he used the highways and not the freeway was because it was fun.
One hand on the wheel, Josh removed his cell phone from his shirt pocket. He selected a speed dial number and the phone chirped in his ear as it dialed.
“Hello, the Michaels’ Residence,” a young girl’s voice said.
“Hi, can I speak to the lady of the house, please?” Josh said pleasantly.
“My darling wife, how are you? It’s good to hear your voice. I’ve missed you so much. How is everything? Have you sent the adoption papers off so we will be free of our troublesome daughter?”
“Is that you, daddy?”
“Oh no! You found me out,” Josh said smiling.
“I knew it was you when you started speaking.” His daughter sounded unimpressed with Josh’s poor attempt at deception.
“I wouldn’t make a very good superhero would I?” Josh said, now grinning.
“No,” she said disapprovingly.
Josh heard his wife speaking to his daughter in the background.
“Yes, it’s daddy and he’s talking about giving me away again,” she said to her mother before returning her attention to Josh, “Here’s mommy.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say that stuff to her,” Kate said. “She’ll believe you one day.”
“Abby knows I’m playing.”
“I hope she does because if she doesn’t, you can pay for her therapy. Anyway, where are you?”
“I’m about thirty minutes away.”
“Are you going back to the office?”
“No, I’ll give them call in a minute, but I’ll go in tomorrow.”
“Okay then, see you later.”
“See you about four.”
Josh hung up and punched in his office’s number. He filled in the project manager on the site visit, the quality assessment and the new contract price. Josh promised to give him a full update in the morning. He hung up and put the phone on the seat next to him.
The calls out of the way, he settled into the final part of his drive. He slowed for another of the small towns that littered the seldom-used highway. These once vibrant townships were now forgotten, squeezed out by all-powerful cities. These tiny places with forgettable names and a few hundred residents relied on passing trade for survival and barely received it. Storefronts displayed the names of the proprietors who ran them. No national chains here. There weren’t enough consumers to warrant a franchise. Leaving the town, he accelerated up to seventy-five. The road unraveled before him, snaking across the land like an asphalt carpet.
Cresting the hill, the road fell away towards the Sacramento River some two miles ahead. The Ford gathered speed on the descent. Josh glanced over at the rearview mirror and spotted a black SUV in the distance. The vehicle not only barreled along at the same speed as Josh, but exceeded it. It was reeling in Josh’s Ford in short order. He checked his speedometer. The needle nudged seventy.
“Someone’s in a bigger hurry than I am,” he murmured to himself.
Over the next quarter mile, Josh watched the SUV in his mirrors close in on his tail, until its large, chrome radiator grill blotted out his view. Instead of passing, the black sports utility clung to the Contour’s bumper.
“Pass me, damn it,” Josh shouted at the tailgater.
As if answering Josh’s request, the SUV darted out from behind him onto the left-hand side of the road. Side by side, both vehicles charged towards the steel truss bridge spanning the Sacramento River like it was a finish line. The SUV’s chunky tires whined on the road and their sound droned in Josh’s ears. The vehicle eased past Josh without effort, but Josh backed off the gas to help the tailgater on his way. The SUV’s rear was just ahead of the Ford’s hood, when without warning it swerved back into his lane.
Josh stamped on the brakes and yanked on the steering wheel. The power steering exaggerated his intentions, jerking the car violently to the right. The vehicles missed each other by a distance that couldn’t be measured in inches. Josh’s car left the road for the dirt shoulder. The Ford slithered on the slippery surface, fishtailing and kicking up plumes of dust as the tires fought for traction. Cursing, Josh struggled to get the car under control, his actions as frantic as the vehicle’s motions.
The bridge was ahead and the river loomed. Josh’s Ford raced past the guardrail dividing the road from the shoulder. There was no getting back on the road. There was no stopping the car in time.
“Jesus Christ,” he screamed. Did the tailgater know what he’d done?
He squeezed the brake pedal even harder. Man and machine working in perfect harmony failed to stop the car in time.
The Ford leapt off the riverbank, trimming the tops of the scrub bushes as it went. Airborne, the car’s nose pitched forward and it arced downwards. The dark waters rushing up towards Josh filled his vision. Fear grabbed him when he saw his fate. His hands gripped tightly onto the wheel and his fingernails cut grooves into his palms. He continued to jam his feet on the brake pedal in the vain hope it would prevent the car from ever hitting water. The weightless feeling in his stomach made him nauseous. He wanted to slam his eyes shut, but morbid curiosity kept them open.
The car’s engine tone died in time with the slowing wheel revolutions. The Contour sounded as if it was sighing—resigned to the thought of its impending fate.
The Ford struck the sledgehammer hard water. Inside the car a dull thud reverberated in conjunction with the roar of a thousand gallons of water being displaced around the vehicle. Water hissed on the hot exhaust and engine block.
The shock resistant bumper, unable to resist the shock, was ripped off and dragged under the car and the hood buckled in sympathy. The side panels splayed and the trunk popped open, casting its contents into the river like a fisherman casting live bait. Clutter of the modern car owner—pens, CDs, gas receipts, the phone and other diverse junk clattered against the back of Josh’s head and the windshield.
Josh didn’t get to witness the impact. A billowing cloud mushroomed before him in an instant and his vision turned silver-white. He felt a jolt of pain across his chest and his right side tingled. For a moment, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven.
Josh wasn’t in heaven. The seatbelt had locked, pinning him in place and the driver’s airbag had detonated, exploding into his face. The chilling water seeping into his shoes told him he wasn’t dead and his ordeal wasn’t over. The car was in the water and sinking.
He smashed his fists into the deflating air bag. He had to see how bad it was—and it was bad. The nose heavy Ford tilted forward at an angle, the heavy engine forcing the crumpled hood under water. Small waves lapped the windshield, showing him glimpses of the depths of the river. Water leaked in from the door seals and from somewhere under the dashboard bulkhead.
The car bobbed halfway between both shores—about a hundred feet from safety. A hundred feet, it was less than the length of a swimming pool and an easy distance to swim. Except, Josh had never learned how to swim.
He had taken lessons as a kid, but had scared the shit out of himself when he went down a water slide and found himself at the bottom of the deep end. Since then, he had never been in water any deeper than his chest. The water slapped the windows at his shoulders.
It took a moment for him to realize his feet were still on the brake pedal. He wanted to open the windows and cry for help but knew it would let the river in. He looked at the bridge for someone who might have seen him go off the road. The tailgater stood on the bridge in front of his SUV leaning against the safety railing. The driver was watching him, watching his car sink, watching him drown. Josh screamed at him to help, to do something. The driver did nothing.
Josh couldn’t see the man well enough to distinguish his features. Sunglasses and a baseball cap obscured the man’s face, but he could make out the driver’s movements. The driver removed a cell phone and started punching in a number.
“Thank God,” Josh said aloud and let his head drop. Emergency services would be on their way. He hoped they would get to him before the car sank. It was going to be okay.
The driver put the phone away, then did something Josh didn’t understand. He held out his right arm perpendicular to his body and put his thumb up as if he was thumbing a ride. Slowly, the driver twisted his arm around until his thumb pointed down, like a Roman Emperor giving the thumbs down to a vanquished gladiator.
Open-mouthed, Josh stared at the man. He couldn’t believe it. What is he doing? Does this guy want me to die? It had never occurred to him that malice had been intended. He’d assumed it was no more than an accident born from reckless stupidity. The gesture was bizarre. It didn’t make sense. The only person who could help him didn’t want to. Josh just couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Hands against the window, he murmured, “Help.”
The tailgater lowered his arm, got into his vehicle and accelerated off the bridge.
Shock galvanized Josh into action. He reassessed his position. Water circulated around his ankles. He had a submariner’s view of the murky depths of the river. Even with most of the windshield submerged, the bottom was not revealed. Silt mingled in the water, blocking a clear view. River debris slid past, dragged along by the current that also dragged Josh’s sinking car along with it.
He needed his cell phone. Why hadn’t he thought of that first? He unsnapped his seatbelt and searched for it. He found it wedged between the windshield and the dashboard. The LCD display was cracked, but it looked operable. He powered it up, but couldn’t get a dial tone. The shock of the collision had broken it. Josh cursed and threw the phone into the rapidly filling foot well.
The car continued to sink. The windshield was totally underwater now and the driver’s side door was three quarters submerged. The water tugged at Josh’s knees.
He could do only one thing. He could swim for it and hope for the best. He knew the techniques. He just lacked the confidence.
“I can do this, right?” he said to himself. He pulled on the door handle to open the door before he could disagree with himself, but the force of the water and the buckled panels kept the door closed. He tried the passenger door, but got the same story. He pressed the power window buttons but the electrical system had crapped out.
His exit points were blocked in the front but he had the rear passenger doors to try. He clambered into the car’s rear; his every clumsy move made the car rock and roll in the water. Frantically, he tried the doors, kicking and banging them, but they were stuck just like the front ones. The windows were his last chance. Josh had not been able to afford power windows all around at the time of purchase and had cursed the inconvenience. He blessed his good fortune now.
He leaned on the handle. The mechanism strained against the damaged door. He looked into the dirty, green water pressed up against the window. Flotsam nudged the glass. He didn’t relish the prospect of the river and its crap gushing into the car with him but he had no choice. He leaned harder on the handle and felt the mechanism shift under his weight.
Slowly, the window retracted into the body of the door and he smelled the air on the river. He breathed in the pleasantly earthy freshness. He continued to wind the window down as the river broke over the level of the receding glass.
An arc of water flooded into the car with him. Christ, it’s cold, he thought, as the water drenched his thighs and groin, taking his breath away. Struggling with the overwhelming chill of the river forced him to suck in sharp, hurried breaths. The invading water dragged the car down at an accelerated rate. It left Josh with a disorientating sense of falling.
He had opened the window, but not enough to get his athletic five foot ten body through. He forced the window open as the water climbed up his chest. Water swept through the Ford as swiftly as his fear. Knowing his head would be under the surface at any moment, he took deep breaths to fill his lungs.
For a moment, a long moment, he hesitated. His body seized and he held his head against the roof of the sinking vehicle, sucking at the diminishing pockets of air. I can’t do this. I don’t wanna do this. Someone will save me, won’t they? Realizing doing nothing wouldn’t help him and action would do everything, he gripped the window frame against the force of the incoming water.
Josh took a final breath and held it. He threw himself through the open window but the river forced him back into the car. He tumbled back into the vehicle and swallowed water before he thrashed his way above the surface. He took refreshing gulps of the remaining air.
The car disappeared below the level of the river and Josh was subjected to a view he didn’t want to see. The pressure equalized in the car as it dropped to the riverbed allowing Josh to squeeze himself through the aperture and out of his watery would-be coffin. He made inefficient mauling motions with his arms and legs, but his natural buoyancy carried him upward. He lost most of his air on the way to the surface and gulped mouthfuls of the dirty river. He surfaced with a froth of effervescent bubbles spiraling up from the car.
Coughing and spluttering, Josh took lungs full of life preserving air. Concentrating on breathing and not on swimming, he sank below the water. He reemerged, thrashing in some semblance of a crawl crossbred with a doggy paddle.
Josh looked towards the safety of the shore and nothing else. Fighting for breath, he took mouthful-sized bites out of the water and smashed at the river with his arms and legs as if he were beating off an attacker. His motions took him slowly towards the shore, but he had the added problem of the river current to contend with. The Sacramento River was a powerful creature that had consumed many a good swimmer. He would be damned if he would lose to the river. Not now that he’d come so far. He fought on.
His heart pounded against his ribcage making his chest hurt. Water filled his ears and gurgled inside his head. His limbs were tired from kicking and punching at the water and he felt the energy drain from them. His head started sinking below the surface every few strokes and he still had fifty feet to swim.
Josh didn’t know where the strength or the ability to swim came from but they were getting him to shore. He kept his eyes on the riverbank coming closer and closer. He wanted to make it. He had to make it. Invisible hands continued to tug at him, dragging him further down river, and robbing him of his landing point on solid ground. The shore wasn’t far now. Or was it just an illusion?
Fearing he would be lost to the river, Josh lunged with his hands for the shore and a hand struck the ground. Silt compacted under his fingernails and he stopped swimming. His knees sank and touched down on the riverbed. To his relief, his head was still above water. He crawled like a babe on all fours and collapsed at the river’s edge, his head barely clear of the water. He expelled air from his chest in sharp, short breaths. Stars twinkled in his blurred vision and remained there even when he closed his eyes. He wanted the sour taste in his mouth to go away. He was happy to be safe but too tired to show it. Now that he had done what was necessary, his body relaxed and his bladder emptied its contents into the river.
“Yeah, piss on you,” he murmured hoarsely to the river, smiling.
A buzzing rang in his head. The noise continued to get louder and he closed his eyes to put it out of his mind, but it increased in volume and voices joined it. He felt the water swell and shunt his body along the shore. He listened to the voices as he fell into the welcoming arms of unconsciousness. He was safe.