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We waded out through waist-deep water and then swam downstream to get to the big rock. On a hot summer day that rock would be covered by dozens of sunbathers, but on this late-spring day, the three of us were alone. Frank, Clay, and I had been trapped inside by a week of rain. When the sun came out that afternoon we didn't waste any time heading down to the river.

BigRockNewRiverTwenty-five miles upstream from where we sunbathed, the dam at Claytor Lake holds back 4,500 acres of water. That day, our late-spring day twenty years ago, the rain had collected in countless mountain streams and dumped into Claytor Lake, pressing against the face of that dam. When the operators opened the gates to relieve the pressure, a klaxon sounded to warn everyone downstream of the coming flood. Unfortunately, we were too far downstream to hear the alarm. The three of us napped in the sun while the water rose around us.

 

I remember being afraid of the dark when I was a kid. Something always lurked under the bed or at the back of the closet. I knew with absolute certainty that as soon as my bare foot hit the floor a hand would shoot out from under the bed and grab my ankle, pulling me under to die amongst the dust bunnies. The space between the mattress and boxsprings also seemed a likely place for a monster. Just let your hand dangle too far over the edge, and something could slip out of that gap and grip your wrist tight. What happened to those monsters? Did logic drive them away, or did their threat weaken simply because night after night they failed to materialize?

I read 'Salem's Lot by Stephen King for the first time when I was a teenager visiting Maine one summer. I stayed in a second-floor bedroom of a house built in 1856. As I stayed up past midnight, neck craned over my distressed paperback, the house played games with my fright. The old latch on closet door would suddenly spring and the door would creak open half an inch. Or, just as I was reading about the vampire Ralphie Glick showing up at someone's window, the rollup blind would raise six inches and then stop.  I've never been more scared by a book than I was that summer.

 

But all those frights paled in comparison to the fear that built when we realized we were alone on a rock in a rising river, six-hundred feet from shore. The opposite bank was much closer–only about one-hundred-and-fifty feet away–but it lay on the other side of nasty rapids. Also, swimming to the far shore would have left us twenty miles of walking to get back to the car. These are the facts we debated as the water lapped at the edge of the rock. Normally, that rock stood at least six feet out of the water. 

We made a couple of attempts to swim upstream to the shallow part of the river, but we were washed back down to the rock each time. Hundreds of feet closer to the car, two guys sat on the rock closest to the shore. We watched them dive in and head for safety. 

After twenty minutes of panicked debate, we conceded that our rock might be underwater before too long. Floods of ten feet or more weren't unheard of, and the water had only risen half that much. The three of us left together. Just downstream from the rock, the current tumbled over a ridge of rocks, kicking up whitewater. The swirl pulled me under and my ears popped as I was plunged towards the bottom of the river. I fought with flailing arms and legs until I came up, gasping for air. After orienting myself, I poured all my energy into swimming for shore. 

Realizations came in waves. I've always been a strong swimmer, but that day I realized that a cramp or an accidental mouthful of water can prove unrecoverable. Halfway across, I realized that if one of my friends went under, I wouldn't be able to save them. Although I hate to admit it, I realized that if one of them needed help, I probably wouldn't have even tried to save them. Finally, I realized that I could die. I understood for the first time that my life could end on a warm, sunny afternoon. 

When we'd made it within one-hundred feet of shore, we were out of the rapids and the water was swift but smooth. On the road that ran down the edge of the river, police cars, ambulances, and boats on trailers had arrived. We clawed our way up the banks amid a dozen rescue workers who ignored our presence. My body suffered scores of lacerations from tumbling against the rocks, and I was soon covered in blood. One of the paramedics asked if I needed help and I returned his question with my own:

"What are you guys doing here?" I asked.

"That lady saw a kid go under," he said, "right along here."

It was one of the guys from the close-to-shore rock. He and his friend had tried to swim for shore and he hadn't made it. The woman told the police that she'd seen just his arm and then nothing. They found his body the next day, thirteen miles downstream. He had suffered a broken leg and drowned. I read his name two days later in the paper, but I can't remember it now. At the time, I figured it must be a mistake. Even after I read the full story, I couldn't believe that we had lived and another person on those rocks had died.

 Clay and Frank made it to the bank, no worse off than I was. The three of us walked back up the road. We'd been washed about a quarter mile down the river during our swim. It felt like a long trip back to the car. 

I didn't lose my love of scary books and movies that day, but they've had less power over me since. I write scary stories to try to recapture that feeling when one's own mortality first sinks in. For example, in The Vivisectionist I explore that moment of realization with the boy strapped to the murderer's chair. How do you cope with the sudden knowledge that your life will end someday and there's nothing you can do about it? Would you cramp up, or would you swim?