Just so we all know, this is a first draft. I haven't edited it at all. Not even once . . . okay, I'm done warning you now.
The air tasted faintly like exhaust from the steady stream of cars headed in the canyon. The finger freezing wind picked up again, tugging my hair in its ponytail. I shivered, feeling like my heavy parka was only as thick as a t-shirt. I shoved my chin deeper into my coat.
“Why are we here again?” a girl standing nearby asked her friend.
“We have to mark the river in two places, put a stick in, and measure how fast the stick moves.”
“And why aren’t we doing that in the spring?” the girl asked again.
The friend rolled her eyes. “Because our teacher wants us to compare the river speed before and after the melt.”
The two moved away from me.
A young man handed me the end of a string. “Professor Uddy wants us to get another measurement a little further down. He jutted his chin further down the river.
I followed the gesture. Hunching angrily beneath their snowy loads, thick bushes crowded the bank. I looked back at the guy. I hadn’t seen him before in class. For some reason this bothered me. My paranoia required that I become familiar with all the faces in my classes. “I haven’t seen you around before?”
He smiled easily. “I’m Professor Uddy’s TA. I’ll tie this end up here; you take the other end and secure it by the bank. Remember, it has to be by the water. If not, it’ll throw our reading off.”
I reached for the premeasured string. My hand hesitated and I looked at the man again.
He rolled his eyes. “It’s cold. I’d like to get this done.”
Taking a deep breath, I grabbed the string and started down the edge of the river. The bushes started crowding me. One seemed to reach out and tangle its bony fingers in my hair. Suppressing a yelp of pain, I stopped and tugged my hair free.
Loose strands hanging in my now sweaty face, I ducked and tried to push the reaching branches out of the way, but it kept forcing me closer and closer to the water’s edge. I glanced down at the string. I still had another thirty yards to go.
Taking a deep breath, I evaluated the terrain. The black water shot obliviously past me, but a layer of ice crusted the edges. I eased my foot out onto it. It wasn’t thick, but it was right next to the bank. If I fell through, the worst I’d get was a wet foot.
Pushing my toe cautiously forward, I slid across the ice. One foot forward, chased by the other. I did my best to keep my weight evenly distributed. I suddenly noticed that I no longer heard the cars, or the other students for that matter.
Perfect place for an ambush, I thought. I looked around, using all my senses to evaluate my surroundings. My unease was strong. I didn’t like being here. I had no proof to explain my unease, but I couldn’t suppress my alarm.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I looked back down at the string. Almost there. I edged toward the bank, squatted down, and started tying the string to a branch.
Some warning started ringing in my head, so strong that I didn’t think, I just stood up and started to swing around.
The branches in my peripheral vision jerked with a sudden movement. My body reacted instantly. Knowing the danger behind me far outweighed the danger of the river, I dove. But I wasn’t fast enough. An explosion detonated inside my skull, all white light and pain. With a dull roar, the cold water opened its mouth and swallowed me whole.
The shock of the water jolted my body. I tried to blink away the flashes of light that kept blurring my vision. My coat instantly swelled tight with water, like blistered hands, making it hard to move. My shoes were heavy, pulling me down. A deep-set, instinctual warning sounded in my head. Have to get out.
I bent down and kicked my shoes off. My lungs started to burn, my body burning for air. Ice all around me, fire inside. Keeping my panic inside a bubble of calm, I forced my clumsy, frozen fingers to unzip my coat.
But it clung wetly to me.
Air! my body demanded. I finally managed to get my coat off. Rising, it floated gently past me. I tried to kick to the surface, but my muscles and joints were freezing up.
Don’t fight water. Embrace it. I stopped struggling, forcing my taut muscles to relax. I started floating toward the surface. The bright flashes of before were being replaced by a hazy dimness. My body screamed so loudly for air that I had to fight to keep from drawing in water. I finally broke the surface and took a deep gulping breath. Life instantly spread from my lungs outward. The dimness flashed away.
I felt gravel and rocks beneath my feet. I struggled toward the shore.
“Help!” I called, but my voice was as weak as the rest of my body.
Have to get wet clothes off.
I shook so hard and my hands were so stiff, I could barely grip my shirt. Struggling to keep my balance with my arms over my head, I finally got it off. It landed with a wet splat on a rock. My jeans clung stubbornly to me. My skin was so numb I couldn’t feel them. In an effort to create warmth, all my muscles were clenched tight and I shivered so hard I thought my teeth might come out of my mouth.
I couldn’t bare to part with my bra and panties yet. The ground was some unknown beneath me, my head ached, and my balance was off. I kept stumbling and swaying. The branches that had annoyed me before now scratched me mercilessly.
Unconcerned, I studied the welts and blood they clawed from my skin. I couldn’t feel them. I could no longer remember why I had to keep going. I wanted to lay down, just for a minute. Maybe pile up a bunch of leaves and huddle inside them for warmth.
But whatever surviving part of my logic new that would mean death.
And I still didn’t want to die
I wasn’t sure that determination would last much longer.
I heard the unmistakable sound of someone or something crashing through the trees. “Amanda! Amanda!”
I was too tired to answer. I looked up, waiting for the owner of the voice to break through the brush and see me. A blonde woman splashed around the bend.
She took one look at me, and her face went from pale to bone white. “Holy shit, he’s gonna kill me.”
Running toward me, she stripped off her coat and threw it around me. I shivered under the alien warmth. “Arms through,” she commanded.
I shoved my arms in the holes while she zipped it. Then she turned and squatted down. “Get on. It’ll be faster.”
Seriously doubting her ability to carry me, I jumped on her back. She started forward, plowing unconcernedly along the river’s bank. She surprised me. Not only was she surefooted, she was strong. Even after what felt like a full five minutes of running, she was barely breathing hard.
We exploded into the mass of my classmates. Shouts of surprise and concern followed us. The woman ignored them all, heading for a shiny silver sports car. She shoved me inside, slammed the door, and started to get in the other side. Professor Uddy came running over, and when I say running I mean running. The woman’s favorite pastime is triathlons.
I was shivering too much to answer.
My rescuer waved the woman away with her hand. “She fell in. I’m taking her back.”
“We should call an ambulance.”
The woman smiled. “I’m faster than any ambulance.”
She threw it into reverse, spraying mud, gravel, and clods of snow over everyone as it squealed around. She shoved it into gear and started down the road. My hands huddled over the heater, I stared at her.
“Your not in my class.” It wasn’t a question.
She smiled. “Haven’t forgotten to be observant I see.”
Something was going on. “Who are you?”
She spared me a glance as she careened off the muddy side road and onto the main road. A furious driver slammed on his breaks, honked, and flipped us off.
She grinned happily. “Names Liz.”
I hunched down, trying to keep warm. Sweat started on Liz’s temples. I felt the heat, but it didn’t penetrate the deep, permeating cold that went down to my bones.
“I want to know what’s going on?”
“What do you mean?” she asked innocently.
“You know what I mean,” I whispered.
Her face snapped around, her eyes soft with compassion. But then an iron hardness filled it back out before she looked away. “You’re experiencing moderate to severe hypothermia. You’re shivering, which is a good sign. You can also interact, also another good sign. But you’re a little confused. Later, you might not remember things accurately.”
I reached back to feel the bump on the back of my skull. My head throbbed so bad my eyes hurt. “Why are you trying to make me rationalize what happened?”
A beep sounded from a contraption on her dash. She slammed on the breaks, checked her speed, and started forward again. A half second later, a cop rounded the bend. She waited for him to disappear before punching it again. The sports car leapt forward like a sparrow from a snake’s mouth.
We started up the last rise and into the city. Without looking, she reached in front of me and popped open the jockybox. She withdrew a prescription bottle. Driving with her knees, she opened the lid and spilled a white pill onto her hand.
“Could you drive with your hands?”
“Hm?” She seemed to realize what I’d said and rolled her eyes. “Don’t you start too." She shoved the pill in front of my face. “Take this.”
“I don’t take stuff from people I don’t know.”
She shrugged. “It’ll help with the pain.”
“I’m alright.” Though in reality, full feeling had started to return to my body. I hurt everywhere. From the minor cuts and welts, to the bone deep ache, to the white hot needles seeming to prick my skin.
She dropped the pill and bottle into the cup holder. “It’s going to get worse.”
She pulled into my apartment and threw open the door. “Come on. Time to get warmed up.
I managed to get the door open, but my muscles seemed to have frozen up. I couldn’t stand.
She grabbed my hand and heaved. My muscles stung and seemed to catch on each other.
Leaning heavily on Liz, I shuffled and stumbled toward my apartment. A couple guys passed us, taking in my panties and state with grins.
“Must have been some party.”
The other guy whistled. “Wanna start it back up at our place?”
Liz turned, her eyes on fire. “She’s hurt you idiots. Help me get her inside.”
“What if they try something?” I asked.
She grunted. “I can handle them.”
Looking abashed, one of them swung me up with a grunt. They got me up the stairs. Liz pounded on the door until Lisa answered it. She glanced in confusion at me half naked and in the arms of a strange man. She opened her mouth to comment, but Liz pushed past her.
She went right to the bathroom and started the tub. “Put her inside.” She pointed at Lisa. “You, drunk girl, get her something hot.”
The man put me in the water. I gritted my teeth as the pins and needles redoubled their stinging assault.
“Told you it was going to get worse.”
She gestured to the men. “You can go now.”
Both of them practically fled. Lisa came in with a cup of hot water.
Liz looked in the cup. “You got her hot water?”
“You said to get her something hot?” Lisa protested.
“I can get hot water from the tap, you idiot!” She handed me the cup. “You need warmed up on the inside too.”
She shot a glare at Lisa. “Coffee, hot chocolate, tea, figure it out!”
Lisa hustled out the door.
I sipped the hot water as Liz started tugging off her sopping coat. “How did you know to come looking for me?” I asked.
She wrung out a sleeve over the sink. “I saw your coat floating down the river and knew something was wrong. How’d you fall in?”
I unconsciously touched the back of my head. “Someone hit me. Would have been worse, but I sensed it coming and dove.”
Liz nodded grimly. “You’ve got good instincts.” She seemed to hesitate. “Keep putting in hot water. Get out when you start to sweat—sweat. Then eat something, wrap up, and go to bed. You understand?”
I nodded. She left a little white pill on the side of the tub. “It’ll help you sleep, in case you change your mind.”