I reversed the propeller and slammed forward on the throttle. While the cruiser came to a halt, I glanced at Shawn then stared again at the spectacle. Yamelda’s sleek body cut the water and disappeared into the frozen murkiness.
Once the ripples from her flawless entry subsided, we looked at one another.
Shawn grinned. “She’s got it bad.”
“I’ve never seen her this way.”
It was all I could do to keep a straight face. The memory of Yamelda, the ice queen, leaping overboard to save someone other than herself made me want to howl with laughter. In deference to our two new passengers, I abstained.
I grabbed Shawn and pulled him closer. “Can’t wait to tell the guys.”
Once I entered the freezing murk, I realized that maybe I’d made a mistake. My muscles were already locking up from the cold. My breath immediately stuck in my chest.
Since I was already under water, I searched the chocolate depths and found nothing except broken sticks and shredded boat parts. Only my Olympic training as a child and my ever-vigilant laps at the pool every day allowed me to stay under much longer than even I expected. It didn’t matter how long I stayed under, I couldn’t find the only man I ever felt anything for other than contempt.
The cold water was clouding my thoughts and brought a deep, guttural whine from my belly, which turned into a full-fledged feline howl. Lucky I was under water and no one could hear.
I wasn’t giving up. I was determined to find him and bring him back from the jaws of death. Other than disgust, or rage, or spite, I couldn’t believe that I, Yamelda Keating, actually had feelings.
“I love him,” I screamed open mouth, in the water.
There was a moment when I forgot I was freezing. I didn’t seem to care. I waved my arms involuntarily, more as an expletive to my inner revelation than any attempt to reach the surface. The realization that I actually cared for someone other than myself was more earth shattering than any potential life-threatening situation. I loved Billy Marlin and I had no idea why. It was apparent he was shifty and without morals. It was obvious he had an alcohol and maybe even a drug problem. He certainly had strange friends. He lived on the wrong side of town. He didn’t seem to have any visible means of support. Considering all of those unsavory traits, I should have walked. Had any other man even had one of those traits, I’d have sent him packing.
Billy Marlin was different. I couldn’t reason out why he was so different, I just knew he was. I was truly in love for the first time.
Eyes open in the murky water, I saw the surface coming into view. It was a good thing too, because I was running out of air.
My hand brushed up against something and it didn’t feel like shattered boat parts. Was it an arm? I grabbed and felt flesh and bone. I had him. With my last bit of breath, I yanked the limp body toward me and stared into the face of my lover.
With a steel grip on his limp arm, I kicked the last few feet to the surface and took in huge gulps of air. I yanked Billy’s head up. I wrapped my arms around his waist and gave him a squeeze. A half-gallon of water expelled past his blue lips. I released, took another gasping breath, yanked hard on his waist and another purge of liquid shot from Billy’s mouth. During my frantic attempts to get Billy breathing, I heard the lumping motors of the cabin cruiser.
I yanked hard on Billy’s mid section one more time. The boat was close. Then I heard one exciting, relieving, life affirming cough and a sputter come up through Billy’s throat. He expelled another incredible amount of water. There was a moment of silence. For a fleeting moment, I thought for sure death was what I was experiencing. Billy drew in another ragged, water-soaked, gurgling breath of air, this time on his own. My chattering teeth and blue lips screamed for joy.
I expelled a yelp as the side of the big cruiser nudged the back of my head. A hand grabbed under my armpit and pulled me around to the back of the boat. My arms had no feeling.
My legs had long ago disappeared. The nipples on the tips of my incredible breasts were numb. Although I could no longer feel my fingers, I had a grip on Billy and I wasn’t letting go.
Someone grabbed for me, though I couldn’t feel them. Voices said something I could not understand. There was only one thing I understood, Billy was coughing and hacking. Thank God he was he was alive. It was all that mattered.
I was yanked onto the platform at the back of the boat, but I couldn’t let go of Billy. I was peeled away and I yelped as the life-affirming contact was lost between my lover and myself.
Without my Billy, I was lost. I lay on the deck with thoughts of nothing except being detached from my other half. Teeth chattering, knees knocking, I was oblivious to anything except my own thoughts of abandonment.
I looked next to me. Tears streamed down my face. It was my Billy lying beside me alive.
“Damn, she dove into the freezing water.”
Henry killed the engine. “She’s got it bad.”
“Maybe she can get my camera at the same time. Who’s this guy she’s chasing, anyhow?”
Henry walked to the side of the boat and looked into the murky water. “We’ll find out in a minute.”
After two long minutes of staring into the water without a ripple, I said, “She’s been down too long.”
Henry laughed. “That woman swims like a fish.”
“She’s still been down a long time.” I looked at my watch. “We’ll give it another minute then draw straws for who goes in after her.”
Henry snorked. “I ain’t going in that frozen soup for nobody, especially that witch.”
I counted the ticking seconds. “It’s three minutes. I don’t care how good a swimmer she is, three minutes is too long for anyone to be under water.”
I pulled off my shoes, socks, pants, and shirt. My exposed skin felt the sting of the frosty morning air. In my patterned boxer shorts, goosebumps standing on top of goosebumps –I hadn’t even come close to the water yet– I stepped on the bench seat and put a foot on the railing. I gave one last look into the water and dove overboard.
The very second I was committed, during the very last part of my leap, just before my feet left the railing and I was pointed at water that less than an hour before had been snow, I saw something rising from the surface. As I reached the frozen muck and my finger breached the surface, Yamelda’s blonde hair rose into the air. The last thing I saw, before my head plunged into the coldest water I’d ever experienced, was Yamelda’s open mouth expelling the turbid water.
I wanted to turn the clock back a moment. What I wouldn’t give to still be standing on the deck, but there was little I could do. There was nothing I could say, mostly because my head was under the surface. My shoulders went under and too soon my entire body would be floating with the debris and melted snow.
The second my chest cut the water, my lungs expelled all of my preciously-saved air.
Once in the murk, I made an immediate about face.
My arms flailed. I was on top of the water all the way back until I grabbed at the boat. I missed and slid back under, spitting and sputtering as my legs and arms churned. What I saw as I came up for another gasp left me with the certainty that I was not going to get much help. Henry’s back was to me as he pulled Yamelda out of the water.
In splashing exuberance, I kicked around the rear of the boat and clambered for the ski platform.
There never had been much meat on my thirty-three-year-old bones, so cold was something I couldn’t tolerate. Why did I jump in the water?
I shook violently as I pulled myself on the landing. I couldn’t stand. My mind was foggy. My teeth were chattering and all I could do was huddle on the eighteen-inch platform, watching Henry unlatch Yamelda’s hand from the collar of that guy.
When he succeeded, he yanked her out of the water and flopped her into the middle of the deck. The guy was much heavier and it took Hank three tries to get his hacking hulk over the rail. All I could think of was my wool shirt, my flannel-lined Levis and those luxuriously thick wool socks. Finally, Henry reached down and pulled me over the rail and carelessly flopping me on the freezing deck. All of us were shivering violently.
I saw my discarded clothes, but couldn’t will my arms to reach out. I couldn’t slide over to reach even those wonderful socks.
As Henry cranked up the engines, I focused my will. My right hand broke its trance and made an arthritic, creaky, movement into the air and toward the pile of clothing. Once my right arm responded, the rest of me reluctantly followed.
When I reached the pile, still warm from when I removed them, I grabbed the socks and tried to slip them on. My body wasn’t bending. Everything was frozen.
The moment everyone was on board, I started the engines revved them and the cruiser lurched forward. I spun a circle and raced for the Stalworth house because it was the closest. I was familiar with hypothermia and it was nothing to mess with. I wasn’t about to have my passengers expire from exposure.
I pushed the boat along the main boulevard toward the center of Tenican Heights. I kept looking back at the guy Yamelda pulled from the drink. He was still hacking water.
Yamelda’s teeth were chattering, but she was getting her color back. The most frightening person of all, sitting on the bench, huddled in his wool jacket, his skinny legs pulled up in a fetal position, was Shawn. His lips were blue. The tips of his fingers were blue. The tip of his nose was blue. The kid didn’t have much circulation in the first place. Add a dip in freezing water and his blood was certain to turn to molasses. I could give a shit about the other three. It was for Shawn that I raced to a warm bathtub. After some fast turning through the quiet neighborhood, the sight of the only house surviving the flood came into view.
I’d been to the Stalworth property many times, though not for five or six years. Back then, I’d cart my buddy Shawn and whatever news anchor was popular at the time to do a story from the borders of the property. There was a time when I ran into six or eight news teams. I was pleased the run-down house was still there and though the beautiful gardens had been swamped, the house was high and dry. I was happy that, after so many years, I was going to have an excuse to go inside.
Tenican Heights was in the planning and running smoothly when the old Stilwalsky woman said those famous words for the second time in history. The first time was Rosa Parks sitting on the bus in Selma, Alabama as a white man stood over her, expecting her to move to the back of the bus.
The second time was when the police showed up and Grandma Stikes’ front door with an eviction notice. “I ain’t movin’” both women said and both women went down in history.
“I ain’t movin’!” What a statement of finality. It took guts to stand alone and say such a thing in the face of overwhelming odds.
I slowed the boat as I approached the little island.
Of course, Rosa Parks sparked off an entire revolution. Ol’ Grandma Stikes faced a litany of legal departments, judicial maneuvering and corporate juggling. She endured negotiating, cajoling and threats. She and her granddaughter faced an army of reporters, TV crews, radio announcers, local and national media, and finally mad dog sensationalists climbing trees and laying traps at grocery stores.
Yes, Rosa Parks was the first. She was the beginning of black America standing up and saying no. She was the forefront of a tidal wave of change. Ol’ grandma Stikes also stood alone. She had no one except her granddaughter. But, like Rosa Parks, her little ten acres also survived.
A wellspring of people followed in her footsteps. They said no corporate takeover, and many won.
I was kind of giddy about stepping onto the property that started it all.
I slipped the cruiser into a muddy shore and lept out coaxing the shivering passengers to follow with promises of a warm house and hot shower.
CHAPTER 10 BULLETS FROM A CANNON
The punchy passengers groggily climbed over the side and reluctantly jumped back into knee-high water, slogging their way onto the only dry land for ten miles.
Once I got them moving toward the house, I raced ahead and pounded on the front door. When Stalworth opened, I pointed at the line of people behind me. “Most of us took a swim. We’re going to need to use your shower and some warm blankets.”
She looked over my shoulder. “Oh my.”
I sensed her reluctance. My ‘Nam jungle training kicked in. Something was out of kilter, but there was no time to consider. I ignored my intuition. “Some of these people are going into hypothermic shock if they don’t get warmed up soon.”
She stood blocking the door. I pushed, forcing her back as the first of the shivering group stepped over the threshold.
I turned to Stalworth. “Where’s your bathroom? We’ve got to get these people warm.”
She pointed. “Back and to the left.”
I grabbed a stumbling Shawn and pulled him toward the bathroom. “Can you get the rest of them to a warm room and get them some blankets?”
I got three steps into the living room and suddenly a chrome barrel the size of a jet engine loomed in my face.
“You ain’t going nowhere.”
I don’t know why I did it, but I was frantic. My buddy was fading. There was no time to talk. A burst of rage rolled up from some deep reserve. It blasted out of me. My right hand snapped up and I slapped the chrome revolver. The gun flipped end over end and hit the wall.
I didn’t care where the gun had gone. I wasn’t watching. All I wanted was to get Shawn warmed up. I’d deal with the idiot later.
I rushed down the short hall and to the left. While Shawn sat on the toilet, I opened both taps in the tub and dropped the drain plug into place.
There wasn’t time to undress him. There wasn’t time to do much of anything except usher him over to the filling tub.
Shawn was seated, still shaking, teeth chattering, mumbling to himself, as someone pushed open the door.
“Okay, the two of you out of here.”
I pointed without looking back. “This guy is going into convulsions if he doesn’t get warmed up. We’ll leave him here.”
“I want both of you in the living room, now!”
“Well, you’re going to have to help me pick him up. I can’t handle him on my own.”
“Pick him up!”
I heard the crazed tension in the gunman’s voice. I sensed he was on the edge of sanity, but I didn’t care. Shawn was staying in the tub until he stopped shivering.
“I’m going to need some help.”
The gunman turned and faced up the hall. “You, Blondie. Get in here.”
The assailant turned his face, allowing me a profile as heavy footsteps clunked down the hall.
“Trunk, what the fuck are you doing here?”
Harry spun, as if stung by a bee and glared at me.
“What’s with the gun?”
“I got my reasons. All you gotta’ do is get the skinny little bastard out of the tub.” He pulled back and a tall, thin guy stepped into the bathroom.
He put out his hand to shake. “I’m Sam.”
I shook hands for as long as possible. I’ll stall until the cows come in.
“Where’d you come from?”
He pointed toward the front door. “Volkswagen.”
“The car floats?”
“Stop your gabbing and pull Skinny out of the tub.”
“Geez Harry, can’t you give the kid a little more time? He needs to get warmed up.”
Trunk pointed the gun menacingly at my face and casually pulled the hammer back. The report of the huge gun in such a small room blew my ears out. The feel of the bullet passing inches from my ear got my attention.
“You going to get him out of there or am I going to have to aim this thing more carefully?”
My heart was playing jump rope in my chest. I was enraged.
“Harry, you’re acting like a fucking lunatic.”
Trunk raised the gun and pointed at me.
“Geez Harry, have you thought this thing out?”
“I’ve done enough thinking about Stalworth for ten men. I’m tired of this crap and I’m putting an end to it today.”
“Put an end to what? Because if you’re going to put an end to what I think you’re going to do, then your life is going to be a mess from here on out.”
“I don’t need any lectures from you.”
“Just some obvious facts.” I raised one hand and counted off my fingers. “Number one; if you harm anyone here, you’ll have more lawsuits than you can handle. Number two; You’re already in big trouble for kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. Do you want to add murder to the list?”
Harry scrunched up his face. I thought he was going to pull the trigger. I actually saw Harry’s finger squeeze, and I talked faster.
“Harry, we play poker every Thursday night. You do this, there’s no more poker games, at least not outside of prison. Hell man, you aren’t going to shoot one of your fellow poker players are you?”
Harry’s index finger relaxed and I sighed with relief.
Trunk spun, pointed the gun into the living room and yelled, “It’s not you, it’s that Stalworth bitch.”
Before I could even think of the next word, another blinding flash of light burnt my retinas. Another deafening explosion blew out my ears.