As a “writer,” one of the biggest obstacles I encounter is motivation. I think loads of us have great ideas, but we can think and research them to death without ever writing a sentence. Last week, I shook off the dust and started to write something that I believe can reach novel (or at least novella) length. In the interest of momentum, and not burying a Word document behind so many windows that I will never look at it again, I’ve decided to share the first chapter, to prove to myself and others that I can do this.
Coming up with a decent working title, however, is a different story…
I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
“Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”
He just grinned and shook my hand, “no” was all he said
Charlotte grimaced through the chorus. The lyrics brought back memories of nights spent at the bottom of a bottle, reaching out to disrupt the vinyl records that had accumulated in her life. James had always been a collector, an impulsive hoarder in her opinion, and one of his greatest pleasures seemed to be playing all the songs that were too old and too corny for her to appreciate. Those were happy times, when frustration and attraction were opposite sides of the same coin. She wanted to forget.
Her fingers fumbled for the controls of the car stereo. At once, she knew two things for sure. The radio wasn’t on. And she was under water.
Her head throbbed as she tried to remember. The night was foggy. She had been upset but not careless. Her mind was clear, and no tears had blurred her vision. She had no destination in mind. She just had to get away from home, and that stupid song seemed to be on every station. She’d snapped down the volume so abruptly that the knob had dropped to the floor. Then? Then there was nothing.
Panic spread from the center of her chest through her bloodstream. She knew she didn’t have much time. Water was already pouring into the car from the lake. She hit the automated button to roll down the window, but the electronics were already dead. Her chest was already burning, but she told herself it was the pressure, not lack of oxygen. She threw her body against the door, but it refused to budge. Waste of precious energy.
Charlotte looked around her compact car, but no tools were in sight. Her eyes resented opening against the cold shock of the water as it drew over her head. She knew she had an emergency kit, but it was in the trunk. She might be able to reach it through the back seat, but could she swim back there and pull down the cushions?
Surrendering would be so easy. Take a breath. Scream. Close her eyes. Wait for the chill to settle in her bones. She thought she had read once that drowning was one of the least painful ways to die, so why did this hurt so much? And would anyone even notice that she was gone?
She pushed herself from her seat and twisted to reach into the back. At once, pain shattered her determination. The front of her left foot was twisted beneath the brake pedal. She pulled on her jeans with both hands, but the limb refused to respond to her commands. It had resigned itself to becoming an anchor.
Her memory went back to a documentary James had made her watch once. Stoned, he giggled his way through the channels until he settled on a nature program. The film crew tracked a fox that had caught itself in a trap. The metal teeth crushed the creature’s ankle through the bone, but it was determined to live. When struggling could not free it, the fox turned on its own limb, willing to sacrifice part of itself in exchange for the mere possibility of survival. Charlotte had left the room, disgusted. “Don’t you want to know how it ends?” James had called out to her, but she didn’t. She wouldn’t.
She wished she had stayed. She could use the hope. People were supposed to be able to do the extraordinary in times of crisis, lift cars and survive head wounds and wake up on a slab right as some poor medical examiner raised a scalpel to make the first incision.
She couldn’t even find a way to leave behind some final words. What would her legacy be? She hadn’t spoken since the last gas station, where she had topped up the tank and asked for a pack of Marlboro Lights. Bashful, she’d returned moments later to request a matchbook. No matches, the teller had told her. They were a waste of money to just give away, and the store hardly needed to advertise when drivers would always be in need of gas. Lighters were cheap though, a mere two dollars with tax. She chose one with a dolphin leaping from the sea at sunset, a ridiculous image for a lighter. The man wished her a good day. She hadn’t replied.
Her chest ached for relief. Holding her breath was a struggle. She could just let the water in, succumb as the car had. What point was there in fighting? She was the fox in the trap, but her suffering had no audience or purpose.
Charlotte closed her eyes and opened her mouth. The lake water was cold and thicker than expected, littered with debris. She tried to cough it out, but there was nowhere for the water to go but in her lungs, sinking within her, claiming her as part of the waterscape. She could picture herself in weeks, discovered by some children swimming or by some fisherman whose line caught the top of her car. It wasn’t fair. But she wouldn’t be around to know her fate regardless.
Life began to slow. She could feel herself succumbing, and she felt dizzy. Giddy, almost. Relief.
When the glass shattered, she didn’t turn her head to look. She was at peace and knew it would be hopeless to move. Hands jostled near her, no doubt trying to force the door open. Fingers moved over her body, trying to get a grasp on her arms, her shoulders. She felt the pull, but her ankle remained stubbornly in place. She hardly noticed the pain.
The stranger released her and was gone. Good, she thought. Pointless.
Charlotte slipped away.
With regret, her body stirred. Her head and leg throbbed, and the water that had settled inside her stomach was determined to come back up. She turned to be sick only to realize that she was already resting on her side. She shuddered and coughed, unable to distinguish between the lake water and the tears of shock that took her by surprise.
“I have a jacket. Let me run to my car and get it for you. I won’t be long.”
The thought of drowning on land panicked her all over again. She rested her forehead against the earth—something solid, something between her and the lake—and reached out to find her rescuer. Her fingers closed around a bony wrist. She wanted to look at the man, but she could barely catch a breath. “Don’t leave me,” she said, her voice a quiet croak.
She felt his body settle next to her. “I don’t have a phone with me, so I can’t call for an ambulance.” His voice was calm, soothing. She didn’t know how he could seem so stable to her, but she was grateful. “We’re pretty far out in the woods anyway. It would take a while for them to find us and longer to get you to the hospital. I should probably just take you there myself, as soon as you’re feeling up to moving.”
The thought of getting to her feet made her tremble. Even breathing hurt. “How did you find me? How did you get me out?”
“I saw the skid marks on the road. They veered off so sharply. There was rain recently, and your tires left deep tracks. It could tell something had gone in the water. I had to stop to be certain. What happened?”
She shook her head and winced from the pain. When she touched her forehead, her fingers came back bloody. Probably a head wound from the steering wheel when she’d gone in the water. “I don’t remember.”
“That’s a nasty gash you have there, though probably not the worst thing that happened to you. I could hardly pull you out. I had to come back up for air. I was worried I’d lost you, but the second time I grabbed you, you didn’t feel stuck at all.”
Because I gave up. She rolled onto her back and raised a hand to block the sun. She felt like she had been trapped for hours. “My ankle.”
“I don’t think it’s broken, but it’s definitely twisted. Probably a good sprain. You shouldn’t put any weight on it, but at least the skin isn’t broken.”
“At least.” She forced herself to smile, as though that would make her feel some relief. “Is your car far?”
“Just off the road. Do you think you’re ready to walk?”
She could stay on her back and watch day turn to night and still not be ready to move. Still, she nodded. She pushed herself up to sit and tried not to wince. She couldn’t even see her car under the lake’s surface. The thought of being lost like that, so close but still concealed, made her feel cold inside.
Charlotte realized that she had not thanked her rescuer yet. How did one find the words to describe being torn from death? She turned to him, determined to find a way.
The words froze in her throat. She was looking at James.