| By Susan Lyn McCombs
HE’D SWUM nearly a quarter mile before he noticed the woman. She was sitting on a ledge above the lake trail, her red sweatshirt an intrusion in the landscape of granite and forest. The way she leaned back on one hand, legs dangling over the rock, made him think she’d probably sat there every summer of her life.
He noticed her, but she didn’t notice him. Something else held her attention. From her perch, though, she might have seen the splash when he first dove off the boat. Watched him pull himself across the lake, one strong stroke after another. Even appreciated how his right then left elbow bent at nearly perfect 90-degree angles before following his hands into the gray-green water. Why wasn’t she watching him now?
He wasn’t the athlete he’d been in college but was surprised he’d needed to catch his breath after swimming such a short distance. Back in the day, he’d swim 10 miles a week and think little of it. As he tread water, he curled and flexed his right foot, working out a cramp in his big toe. His family was somewhere among the handful of rental boats anchored near the mouth of the river where his brother had said fishing was best. An orange smudge moved inside one of the skiffs—the life jacket he’d strapped around his 7-year-old nephew.
“Hey!” he’d called. “Hey!” He raised his arm. The movement sent a ripple against his chin and a noseful of lake burned his throat. Kicking against the cold darkness beneath him, he rose chest-high out of the water, waved and called again. But the sun had risen with him, clearing the tops of the pine trees, and just like that, the silvery boats vanished into shards of light.
That’s when he saw her. His head had jerked sideways and his eyes had clamped shut against the blinding glare. When he’d opened them again, he was facing the shore, only 75 yards or so from him, and above it, the woman in red. What was she doing there? Below her, a small boat tilted half out of the water.
An uneasy rhythm floated over him as he swam, pressing his arms and legs slowly, slowly through the water: Rat-a-tat-tat-half-a-way- there. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-half-a-way-there. He imagined the stuttering cadence floating over the woman, too, as he swam toward her. And then it stopped. He stopped. The woman, who was looking up at the moss-covered tree beside her, froze. Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat. A woodpecker adding its death blows to the tree. He understood at last. The bird flew off, freeing them.
She saw him now, didn’t she? Saw him grab his foot, sink, sputter back up, sink and bob up again? He called to her when his lips found air, he thought he heard her call back to him. He couldn’t see the woman anymore, but beneath the water he heard the whine of a boat motor. She was watching him now. He’d been almost certain of it.
Susan Lyn McCombs is an independent editor, writer, and creative writing instructor in the East Bay. She lives in Kensington.
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