I. Can’t. Breathe.
Sean’s thoughts floated behind him in the frigid, choppy Saluda River as he plunged beneath the surface one more time.
Whitecaps swirled around his head as the current slammed his body up against the sharp rocks. His arms flailed in a desperate attempt to drive upward. He broke the surface, gasped for air and swallowed a load of water. He struggled to stay afloat, but the swift downstream rush of the turbulence sucked him under again, as he somersaulted up and over, spiraling down between rebar and roots.
Paddling against the undertow and propelling himself up, Sean broke through the surface again, struggling to breathe. Shivering from the inside out, he flapped his arms, trying to buoy himself above the water line. He gulped and choked as water, grass, mud and debris flowed into his mouth, causing him to gag and spit. But the pungent taste sharpened his awareness and kept him fighting to stay afloat. He closed his eyes against the sting of the slapping Saluda as he groped in the darkness, clawing frantically at the rocks in the shoal, trying to hold on to something that wasn’t moving.
Reaching for the edge of a flat rock, Sean felt the mangled ATV chassis crash against him, following him deeper into the river. Boy and machine tumbled together in a slow-motion dance. Snapshots of Sean’s life played before him — Nana in the nursing home the day before she died, his dad showing him boxing moves before he left on the night he was killed, the cemetery and the gun salutes and the folded flag, waiting for Carly on the way to school, his mom kissing him goodnight.
I’m going to die.
Finally, the ATV exhausted itself, pinning Sean’s leg against the rocks. He pushed his body back against the sinking mass in a frenzied attempt to hoist himself up on to the top of the frame. He strained to crane his neck above the water as high as he could, took in a deep breath and powered down. He dived for the leg that was caught in the mangled bumper, grabbing with one hand while paddling with the other. Struggling to breathe, he pushed upward for air, abandoning his effort to free his leg. Reaching for the rocks, he steadied himself for a moment. He felt warm blood spilling down his face from a gash in his temple, dripping into his mouth, then off his face and into the river. The salty, metallic taste of pennies made him retch.
Sean flinched at the tingling, crushing sensation of his trapped leg. Taking in air, he paddled down toward the pain. He wrapped his fingers around the calf and tried to pull. It didn’t budge. He yanked harder. Nothing. Losing air, he struggled back up again to take in an even deeper breath. This time he dived down and forward. Groaning in pain, he forced himself to double over, clutching his thigh with both hands. He gritted his teeth and yanked and pulled until his leg came toward him and followed him back up to the surface, bright-red blood trailing behind him like a crimson snake in the churned-up water.
Sean collapsed on the rocks in the middle of the river, exhausted and unaware of the activity surrounding him. Unaware that the ATV was rapidly sinking into the icy water. Unaware that Andy had been thrown even farther into the turbulence and carried farther downstream.
As Sean faded in and out of consciousness, his legs dangled in the water breaking over the rocks. He tasted the occasional coolness of a wave lapping over him, gradually waking him. His body shifted, then stiffened, as he heard the muffled sounds of someone yelling.
As dusk fell over the city of Columbia, Sean lay on the bank of the Saluda, amid the wail of sirens and flashing blue and red lights. Blood bubbled out of the gash in his head in sync with the counts of the EMT performing CPR. “Twenty-Eight. Twenty-Nine. Thirty.”
People were shouting and screaming. Sean tried to lift his hand to touch where the pain pulsed and throbbed, but he couldn’t move. Through the slit in the eye he could open, he saw red water, red rocks and red dirt. Vague movements of shadowy figures. Muffled sounds.
Suddenly, there was a popping sound in his ear, and the fiery insides of his stomach churned and twisted like a whirlpool, filling his ears and nose and flowing into his mouth. He pictured a bug being flushed down the toilet, watching it spin and sink, spin and sink. He turned his head to the side and puked again and again.
Another paramedic pushed a gurney over to Sean’s side and shouted, “Let’s get him into the ambulance.”
Where are you, God? Am I dead? His lips parted. He tried to speak, but couldn’t. What’s wrong with my mouth? Why can’t I talk? My leg. What’s happening to me? He imagined his body sinking. His head floating. His mind drifting. Dreaming about his mom. He thought he heard her call his name.
Here I am, Mom! I’m over here.
Ruth Gray was sitting by her son’s bedside when Sergeant Marcy Frank knocked on the door and entered the room. “Sean, honey, wake up.” She softly shook his shoulder.
Sean gradually opened his eyes, but the concussion had left him disoriented. He blinked. He stared at the ceiling, searching for something recognizable.
Where am I?
“Sorry to intrude, Mrs. Gray. But the doctor said Sean had come to and might be able to answer a few questions.”
Ruth gently cupped Sean’s head in her hand and raised the straw to his lips as she gave him a sip of water. “Are you awake enough to talk, honey?”
Sean stared at the deputy, her long, blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. He didn’t think she looked like a cop. She was pretty, dressed in a black suit and high heels. Where’s her gun? Stifling a yawn, he mustered, “Okay.”
“Tell me what happened right before the accident, Sean,” the deputy asked.
Sean stared into the detective’s face as if the answers were somehow there. A sudden, sharp pain throbbed in his right temple. A whirring in his head. A flashback of flying through the air. He searched for words. None came.
Sergeant Frank repeated the question. “Sean, do you remember anything about the collision? Anything at all you can tell us about the crash could help.”
Accident. Collision. Crash. What happened before? Helpful?
Sean’s thoughts were like a mirage in the desert, shimmering and shifting. Clarity was elusive. He felt disconnected. Hot, salty tears filled his eyes and welled up in the corners. He clamped his eyes shut, squeezing the hot water back inside. Why can’t I remember anything?
“Please, I don’t think he can even talk yet, let alone remember anything,” Ruth Gray said. “He’s still recovering from a concussion and internal injuries. And the pain medication for his leg and head makes him really groggy.” As Sean’s mother stood and stepped in between the deputy and Sean’s bed, the lines of stress deepened on her face. “I thought maybe he was ready, but can this wait?”
“Of course, Mrs. Gray,” Sergeant Frank said as she nodded and moved toward the door. “You both get some rest. I can come back later.” She flipped the top of her notebook shut, pulled out a card from the cover and handed it to Ruth. “Take my card. If Sean thinks of anything before we come back, please give me a call.”
“Thank you, Sergeant Frank.”
The deputy left, pulling the door shut behind her. Ruth went back to the bed and gingerly sat beside her son. She took his hand in hers and whispered, “It’s okay, honey. You rest. Thank God you are going to be okay.”
“Andy, slow down!” Sean screamed.
With no sign that he had heard Sean, Andy throttled the ATV up to 35 mph and slid off the path and on to the gravel as they skidded around a sharp curve. He revved the engine and raced down toward the botanical gardens. Dusk was falling, and visibility was at a premium.
Sean leaned closer to Andy’s ear and shouted, “We better head back to the end-of-summer party. My mom’s coming soon.”
Andy cocked his head to one side and yelled, “Sit tight, Badge Boy. I’ll get you back in time.” Then he throttled up to 40 mph, racing past the gardens, closer to the river’s edge. Sean fell back onto the rear rack, white knuckles grabbing the sides of the frame.
Sergeant Frank opened the door to Sean’s room and walked in. A tall black man, muscles bulging as if his uniform had been painted on, walked in behind her.
“This is Deputy Michael Stone, Mrs. Gray. He’s assisting me with the investigation.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Gray.” Deputy Stone smiled but stayed back by the door.
Ruth Gray’s face was tight, her expression grim. The skin around her eyes drooped, slightly purple from lack of sleep. She straightened up, smoothed out her clothes and finger-combed her long hair.
Sergeant Frank walked over to Sean’s bedside. “Is this a good time, Mrs. Gray?”
“I think so.” She touched Sean’s arm, waking him. “Sean, can you talk to the deputies now?”
Sean opened his eyes and looked at his mom. “Okay.”
Sergeant Frank pulled up a chair, sat down and pulled out her notepad. “Okay, Sean. Have you remembered anything about the accident?” She scribbled something down and nodded without looking up.
Sean pushed himself up onto his elbows so he could talk, wincing as he bumped the IV needle in his hand. “I was just dreaming about it.”
“You and Andy had been at the zoo with some of your friends, right? Why did you leave? Where did you get the ATV?”
“We had been at the zoo all day, and then everybody was at the picnic area. The adults were fixing dinner. Andy came up to me and said that his dad had gotten him an ATV for his birthday. He could only ride it when he was visiting his dad. His dad called him and said that he would bring it over to the river if he wanted to ride tonight.” He added, “His dad lives right next to the gardens at the zoo.”
“So you agreed to go with him to meet his dad?”
Before he gave the answer that he knew would get him into more trouble, Sean glanced over at his mom. “Go on, Sean. Tell the detective exactly what happened.”
“Well, at first I told him that I couldn’t. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to leave the party.” Sean added, “Especially to do something like that, without Mom’s permission.”
“Can you tell us what happened while you were riding along the river path?”
“I remember riding along the footpath. We passed a few people. I wanted to go back. But Andy wouldn’t listen. He just kept going faster and faster. It’s kind of fuzzy. I don’t know what happened right before.” He turned his face toward the wall. “It’s hard.”
“Take your time, Sean.” His mother took his hand in hers. “It’s okay. This is important.”
“This other ATV came up behind us, like, out of nowhere. Andy tried to pull over. But the path was really narrow. I heard the sound of their engine racing up alongside of us. I turned to see who it was just as they rammed our left rear. Andy’s ATV spun out of control, hitting some rocks and flipping over and over toward the river.”
Sergeant Frank asked, “Did you see who was riding the other ATV?”
Still staring at the wall, Sean squinted and furrowed his brows, as if trying to see the other ATV. Finally, he answered, “No. I couldn’t see them. I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay, Sean. Maybe you will remember something about them later. What happened next?” Sergeant Frank jotted something on her pad.
“It was like they were trying to hit us.” Sean shuddered at the memory of flying through the air, through the trees, toward the river. “Next thing I remember is, I felt the ATV swerve, throwing me off.”
“What happened next, Sean?” asked Deputy Stone.
Sweat beaded across Sean’s forehead. He clenched his fists and trembled at the terrifying flashback of being dragged down into the icy river and struggling to stay alive. “The next thing I can remember, I was trying to climb up on these rocks. But the current kept pulling me under. I couldn’t breathe.” Sean started hyperventilating. “I-I just tried to call for help. B-but I c-couldn’t stay above the water.” He sank into the pillows, spent.
Sergeant Frank closed her notepad and stood up. “I think that’s all we need for now, Sean. We may have more questions for you on down the road.”
Sean studied Sergeant Frank’s eyes before asking, “Well, what does Andy say? Maybe he remembers something I don’t.”
Averting Sean’s eyes, the two deputies exchanged a quick glance and walked toward the door. “We’ll let you know if we need anything else, Sean. Feel better, now.”
Ruth stood and followed them. The color had drained from her face, and her jaw pulsed as she clenched her teeth. “Do you have any ideas? Any leads on who the other driver was?”
Sergeant Frank turned to face Sean’s mom. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say, Mrs. Gray. It’s an ongoing investigation. There are still a lot of unanswered questions. We’ll be in touch.”
The deputies left the room. Ruth went back to Sean’s bedside. Careful not to disturb his IV, she wrapped her arms around him. “You did well, son. Real well.”
Sean pulled away and studied her face. The corners of her mouth turned down as she drew in a long breath and let out a deep, heavy sigh.
“What’s going on, Mom?” Sean pulled himself up again. “Mom, where’s Andy?
Is he here?”
Ruth closed her eyes and drew in a slow, deep breath. “Yes, Sean. Andy is here.”
“Is he hurt bad? Can I see him?” He tried to sit up too quickly. The room started spinning, and he fell back against the pillows.
Ruth Gray spoke softly. Measured. As though she was afraid to hear her own voice. “Sean, we don’t know if Andy will ever wake up again.”