The Lucky Tree
A garbled car radio welcomed Nate Packard back to reality. His vision blurred, Nate felt intense heat and started to panic. As the world came into view, fire crackled where an engine block once sat, pouring smoke into the cabin of his Ford Pinto. Nate frantically unbuckled himself and reached for the door handle, but the door wouldn’t budge. It had crumpled in half.
“Help!” cried Nate, finally noticing the tree that had sprouted from the center of his hood.
A muffled voice replied outside the car. From the darkness, a fireman coalesced. He appeared to be giving instructions to someone else, but Nate couldn’t hear a word over the ringing in his head. Another fireman approached, and the two sprang into action.
Gloved hands grasped the door, and with a few yanks, the door came free. Nate scrambled out of the car, scattering bits of shattered glass everywhere, but the firemen caught him before he hit the ground. They asked Nate to lie still until the paramedics arrived and stayed with him for a few minutes to make sure he complied. Eventually, the ringing in his ears subsided, and Nate could pick bits and pieces out of their conversation.
As soon as the paramedics arrived, the two firemen vanished, leaving Nate to ponder what those words meant. Nate continued to mull over the conversation as the paramedics hoisted him onto a stretcher, placed a blanket over him, and pulled him away from his blazing car. The slow, bumpy climb toward the road revealed a small crowd of firemen and paramedics that had gathered by the edge of the river, maybe a few dozen feet away. Motionless, they all stared at something in the river. Something that Nate desperately wished to know.
Nate wasn’t getting anywhere with the firemen’s conversation so he tried to piece together the previous night. He remembered the acceptance letter, going to Charlie’s to celebrate, having a beer or two, and that’s it. At some point, he must have tried to drive home, but obviously he didn’t make it. Fortunately, Nate had survived the crash relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, he suspected someone else wasn’t so lucky.
Once they reached a pair of ambulances at the top of the hill, his suspicions were confirmed by a woman lying on a stretcher.
Dead…her skin was pale.
Flooded…her hair was wet.
Window…her right hand held a window crank.
A paramedic began zipping a body bag as he talked with a police officer.
“…driver struck her before crashing into the tree. She must have lost control and landed in the river. Apparently, she tried to climb out the window, but that only flooded the car faster. They tried to resuscitate her, but...”
Time crawled to a stop as the body bag enveloped the woman.
The woman he had killed.
For a few seconds, Nate floated as though his soul had left his body. Then, the blanket constricted, forcing Nate to take short, shallow breaths. The world began rotating with Nate at the axis, and dark spots creeped along the edges of his vision. Darkness threatened to swallow him until he was saved by a paramedic who asked him to count to three. One, two…
Nate leaned over and threw up.
The stretcher paused, and a paramedic knelt to talk with him.
“Ok, ok, take a deep breath. In, out. In, out.”
The lady looked old enough to be his mother if she were still alive. Nate closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing as the lady continued to talk.
“The only reason you’re alive is because of that tree. A few feet either way, and your car would have ended up in the river just like that woman.”
Nate opened his eyes. Plumes of smoke encircled an ancient elm tree. Fire from his car had spread to some low-lying branches, enraging this otherwise tranquil giant.
“Some people might call that luck. Others might call it coincidence. I’d say that God has given you a second chance. The only thing you need to think about right now is what you’re going to do with your second chance. Do you understand?”
Nate nodded, able to breath comfortably once again.
“Good. You’re a young man with a long life ahead of you. You’ll have plenty of time to make amends. Now, lie back, relax, and we’ll have you right as rain in no time.”
Nate wasn’t religious by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, were he in any other situation, he might have laughed in the woman’s face. He knew that she meant well, but she was dead wrong. It wasn’t God that had saved him, it was a tree. In other words, sheer dumb luck.
Before they loaded Nate into the ambulance, another figure appeared, his breath billowing as he stepped forward. The gleaming star on his chest signaled trouble for Nate.
“Sir, have you been drinking?”
Nate’s luck had run out.
Nate hadn’t said a word since he jumped into his father’s buccaneer red Firebird. His father, Henri, wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and Nate was enjoying the comfortable silence for as long as he could. The ride into town would only take fifteen minutes or so, but the walk back would take a few hours. Of course, Nate would have plenty to think about after talking with his lawyer.
A familiar smoker’s cough ended Nate’s reverie.
“Did they ever track down her family?” asked Henri.
Nate shook his head. “All they have is a name, Helen. Got it from a piece of jewelry. That’s all she had on her.”
As terrible as it sounded, Nate was relieved that there was no funeral. He didn’t have to look someone in the eye and tell them that he had killed their mother, their daughter, or their wife. Nate had expected someone to come looking for her eventually, but months had passed without anyone appearing. Maybe she didn’t have a family, or maybe they didn’t care she was gone. Then again, she had no one to mourn her, and that only added to his guilt.
“A lawyer’s a waste of money. Just be a man and do the time.”
The stench of cheap Bourbon and good weed suffocated Nate.
“I’ve got plenty of friends in there that could show you the ropes.”
That’s exactly what Nate needed: a prison sentence. He had a tough enough time getting accepted to college before the accident. Now, he’d be a top applicant.
“Wouldn’t that be a waste of bail money?” asked Nate.
Henri glared, his bushy eyebrows quivering like blades of grass.
“Don’t be a wiseass. Speaking of money, how are you planning on paying this lawyer?”
Nate’s silence was downright conspicuous.
“That’s what I thought. I hope you didn’t expect me to have the money.”
Nate could have pointed out the fact that his father had enough money to blow on pleasurable company every weekend. Or Nate could have pointed to his father’s expensive recreational habits that included an assortment of narcotics, psychedelics, uppers, downers, and of course, alcohol. But, he didn’t.
“I’m taking extra shifts at the factory. You know I’ll pay you back.”
Henri chortled. “How long will that take? A year? Two years? Now if you want to make some real money…”
“Forget it,” said Nate. “I’ll ask E.J.”
A glimmer appeared in his father’s bloodshot eyes, and a pint of Old Crow appeared in his father’s hand. Henri chugged straight from the bottle before passing it to his son, who declined the offer. Nate had been avoiding alcohol since the accident.
“I guess you haven’t heard then. Mary’s expecting. She’s due in November.”
Dumbfounded, Nate struggled to find the right words. Any words.
“That’s…that’s great news. Really. Last I heard, they were broken up.”
Most kids heard about the birds and the bees from their parents or from a teacher, but Nate had received special tutelage from his older brother E.J., including a long list of dos and don’ts. The man had practically slept with every single woman in town. Of course, there was the occasional married woman.
“You can ask him for the money, but I know what he’ll say.”
Without thinking, Nate blurted out, “What about Lisa? Have you heard from her lately?”
Henri sneered at the mention of his daughter, revealing his one dead tooth. “Not hardly.”
“You think she’d have the money?”
“Of course, she’d have the money.”
Nate sank back into his seat, taking a deep breath. He’d used all his college savings to pay for bail, and working full-time at the factory barely covered rent. His father was right; he needed a better job.
As they rounded a familiar corner in the road, Nate realized that he hadn’t been this way in months. His wounds from the accident had completely healed, but the tree hadn’t fared so well. The car fire had stripped the elm tree clean, leaving it a naked eyesore surrounded by flaunty, spring flora.
“Isn’t that the Lucky Tree?” asked Henri, using the name that E.J. had coined months earlier.
Nate didn’t respond. He hated the name “Lucky Tree.”
As they reached the edge of town, the steady thrum of the engine was replaced by the sounds of people waking from the long, cold sleep of winter. Henri knew practically everyone in that town: half of them hated him and the other half loved him. Either way, Henri’s products were in high demand, and they had to make a few stops here and there before reaching the only lawyer in town. His father knew the man well.
“Here, take this with you,” said Henri, tossing Nate the half-empty pint of Old Crow. “You need it more than me.”
Nate stepped outside the car, leaving the pint on his seat.
“Dad, that’s not going to help.”
“Suit yourself,” said Henri. “It’s going to be a cold walk home though.”
“Fine,” said Nate, swiping the bottle. Nate stood beside the car for what felt like an eternity, waiting for his father to say something, anything.
“Tell that Jew bastard I said hello.”
Before Nate could respond, the Firebird started blasting “Hooked on a Feeling.” Henri peeled out of town, scattering a few pedestrians that dared to get in his way. As Nate watched his father leave, his hands clenched into fists. He could have been angry that, once again, he was on his own. He could have been angry that his father’s idea of emotional support was a bottle of whiskey. He could have been angry that he wanted nothing more than to give in and take a drink, but what good would that do?
Nate hurled the pint of Old Crow against the brick wall of the lawyer’s office, shattering the bottle into a thousand pieces. It was going to be a cold walk home.
Nate didn’t know which made him more uncomfortable: his hearing today, his sister Lisa sitting beside him, or the leather seats in her ‘74 Buick Riviera. The digital clock on the dashboard read 3:05 pm, which left them only twenty-five minutes to make it to court. Reaching inside his suit, Nate found a silver flask, filled to the brim with Old Crow. He unscrewed the top, tilted his head back, and prepared to take a sip.
“What do you think you’re doing?” asked Lisa.
Nate stared at her chiseled nose, the dark bags under her eyes, and the awful red lipstick that she thought made her look sophisticated. She looked nothing like the girl that he remembered from eight years ago, before she left for Albany. Lisa was the first person in his family to attend a college, and it’s a fact that she never let them forget. He would have been the second.
“C’mon Lisa. It’s just one sip.”
Her eyes quickly darted from the flask back to him.
“One sip. And roll the window down. I don’t want the car stinking of cheap whiskey.”
The second Nate cracked open the window, heat blasted him in the face. He took a quick chug and rolled the window back up. If not for Mary’s friends in Albany, Nate would have been walking in this abysmal heat. Lisa would never have even known about the accident, the hearing, any of it. With one phone call from his sister, Nate’s prayers had been answered. The only downside was having to see his sister.
“You really didn’t have to come, Lisa. Could’ve just sent a check.”
“Not hardly,” she replied. “Besides, I’m not sticking around. I agreed to pay the lawyer, but I’m not helping with anything after that. You need to learn how to take care of yourself, like I did.”
Nate knew the rumors about his sister, about the things that she had done to pay for college, but he didn’t dare bring them up now. It would be a long walk to the court house if he pissed her off.
“Is this where it happened?” Lisa asked.
They approached a familiar curve in the road, and much to Nate’s chagrin, the tree was still standing. Blackened from the fire and bleached by the sun, the Lucky Tree was a blight upon the lush, vibrant riverside. Nate felt unsettled by the gnarled and twisted branches that seemed to point at him in an accusatory fashion as they drove past.
“You’re lucky you didn’t end up in the river like that woman.”
“Helen,” muttered Nate. “Her name was Helen.”
“No last name?”
“Nope. As far as we know, she has no family.”
Lisa’s mouth curled into a horrible smirk.
“Maybe she was the lucky one after all.”
Nate caught himself before he said anything too cruel.
As they turned onto the highway, Nate checked the clock again: 3:18 p.m. They would need a miracle to make it in time, but thanks to his sister’s lead foot, they reached their exit with minutes to spare. Compared to his hometown, this was a booming metropolis. This city had a hospital, several banks, a library, a radio station, and of course, the college. In his town, there was the factory and little else. As they passed by the college, Nate couldn’t help but picture himself rushing to classes, chasing girls, and getting blitzed on the weekends.
Nate jumped a little as the car came to a stop.
“We’re here,” said Lisa.
The clock read 3:27 p.m.
Nate left the car and waited for his sister to follow.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“You think I’m that stupid? I know Henri and E.J. are here, and I know that you aren’t supposed to tell me. You find that lawyer of yours, bring him outside to me, and then I’ll pay him. Understood?”
“Yes,” muttered Nate, starting to walk away. So much for a family reunion.
“Oh, and another thing,” continued his sister. “Don’t bother to let me know how this all ends. I’m moving to Miami in the Fall, so you’ll have to beg someone else for money the next time you’re in trouble.”
Nate couldn’t help himself this time.
“Or I could whore myself out like you did.”
For the first time in Nate’s life, his sister was speechless. Without a word, Lisa hopped in her car and sped off. Nate was going to need a public defender after all.
“Lookin’ good man!”
Nate shut the door of his brother’s Chrysler Newport, taking one last look at the state prison, his home for the past three years. Even from the outside, it looked like a shithole.
“You too,” said Nate, although he didn’t quite mean it. Flush cheeks and bloodshot eyes meant that E.J. hadn’t been wasting any time with his various habits. Those same habits had killed their father.
“You liar. I know I look awful,” E.J. smiled a wide toothy grin, “but I feel great. Business is booming, the kid’s doing well, and…Mary’s pregnant again!”
“Another kid? I thought one was enough,” teased Nate.
Nate had yet to meet his nephew, Sam, but he had seen plenty of photos and heard plenty of stories. The kid was a troublemaker just like his father.
“Speaking of Sam, you’re coming to his birthday party, right? It’s next Saturday. We’re doing a Star Wars party.”
Nate had heard a lot about Star Wars, but he didn’t see the appeal. He also didn’t see the appeal of spending a whole day surrounded by rugrats.
“I don’t know, man. You really want an ex-con hanging out with all your friends?”
E.J. chuckled. Nate had missed that wheezing, contagious laugh.
“Who do you think most of my friends are? C’mon man. It’ll be fun. Plus, there’ll be plenty of tail there.”
Nate rolled his eyes. How Mary had convinced E.J. to settle down was a mystery to everyone except her.
“You should have seen Dad at the last birthday party, man. I caught him on the front porch, lighting one up next to his oxygen tank. Damn near blew himself up. Of course, he only lived a few more days so it wouldn’t have mattered much anyways.”
E.J. shook his head.
“What?” asked Nate.
Their sister Lisa hadn’t spoken to anyone in the family for three years, ever since Nate’s hearing. After their father’s death, E.J. had expected her to at least send a card, but Nate knew better.
“She’s got her life. We’ve got ours.”
“Indeed, we do, little brother. Speaking of, why don’t you open that glovebox there and see what’s inside.”
Nate carefully opened the glovebox, peeking inside as though there might be something poisonous lurking. Instead, he found a plastic bag filled with white powder.
Nate shook his head. “No. I’m out.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve heard about this shit in prison. It kills people.”
“It also makes people filthy rich. Do you know much that bag will go for?”
“No, and I don’t care. I’ve already got enough on my conscience.”
Three years in prison hadn’t dulled Nate’s guilt one bit. If anything, his guilt swelled as he had more time to consider the terrible price Helen paid. Nate knew he could never repay Helen, but he could make her a promise. He was going to find her family, no matter what.
“This isn’t about your past, man. You made a mistake, and you paid for it. This is about your future. Dad made me promise to help you back on your feet once you got out, and it’s not a promise that I take lightly.”
“Then help me get a job. Hell, help me get my old job back.”
E.J. paused. “You didn’t hear? They’re closing the plant. Just told everyone last Friday. I’m telling you, man. It’s almost as bad out here as it is in there,” E.J. gestured in the general direction of the prison. “Besides, how many people you think want to hire an ex-con? You’re not exactly white-collar material.”
For a few seconds, Nate found himself too distracted to respond to his brother. They had reached the infamous curve in the road, and an old friend was waiting for him. Marred by a huge crack at the base of its trunk, the Lucky Tree was a gangly corpse backlit by bright fall hues of orange, yellow, and red.
“Trust me, little brother. I won’t let you down.”
Despite having a plan, Nate hadn’t considered exactly how he was going to find Helen’s family. The first step was to buy a car, but he had no money. Of course, he could always help his brother for a few months, just to get on his feet, and then find something more respectable. Something that wouldn’t lead him right back to prison.
Nate swallowed hard, “I’ll think about it.”
E.J. smiled from ear to ear.
“That’s all I need to hear. Now let’s celebrate, little brother.”
His brother pulled a fifth of Old Crow from the backseat and handed it to Nate. Nate just stared at the bottle.
“Well?” asked E.J.
Nate pulled the flask from inside his coat and started to pour.
Just a few months, and then he would find Helen’s family.
Nate sat in his beat-up Ford Pinto, enjoying the last few moments of Bing Crosby and David Bowie on the radio. Outside, a blizzard raged. All in all, this was not a bad way to spend Christmas Eve: alone in a car with a handle of Old Crow. Nate took a drink, turned the keys, and the engine whined to a stop. Whiskey in hand, Nate stepped outside into the darkness.
Between the blizzard and the new moon, Nate could barely see his own feet so it was a good thing he knew exactly where to go. The wind buffeted Nate as he trudged down the hillside in a winter jacket and snow pants. Thankfully, he’d prepared for the cold with several shots of whiskey. As Nate made the painfully slow descent to the river, he could only hope his friend would still be waiting for him. His worries dissolved as the imposing figure of the Lucky Tree emerged from the pitch-dark background.
The Lucky Tree looked almost as Nate remembered: grotesque, enormous, and a little eerie. On the other hand, Nate had changed quite a bit. He now sported a few missing teeth, a broken nose that hadn’t healed correctly, and a beard that hadn’t been washed in weeks. By comparison, the tree was doing well.
Since they were old friends, Nate felt comfortable plopping down, Old Crow in hand, beside the enormous crack in the tree. The crack, now a few feet wide, traveled from the roots to some of the lower-lying branches. Nate pretended it was the tree’s mouth.
“Hello old friend, it’s been a while” he said to the tree. The tree didn’t reply, but the howling wind and the rushing river decided to raise their voices so Nate had to speak louder.
“I hope you can forgive this impromptu visit, but I don’t really have anyone else to talk to. All my friends have died, moved, or stopped answering the phone. Besides, you’re the reason that I’m here today. That night that you saved me, my whole life changed. I had the grades for college, and I had some money.”
Nate took a long gulp from the bottle of Old Crow.
“Instead of college, I served three years in prison where I got a different kind of education. A more practical education some would say. After that, I entered a promising career with my brother. I was always good with numbers, but now I had something to count. Shipments, payments, pounds, you name it. That lasted for a while until somebody screwed up, and then we lost everything. And I mean everything.”
A passing car interrupted Nate.
“Where was I? Ah, yes. Things between Mary and E.J. got rough, and once Mary left with the kids, E.J. decided that he’d had enough. I told him to see a shrink, but I had no idea things were that bad. I should have…”
Tears welled in Nate’s eyes.
“Things haven’t been so great for me either, but I’ve been scraping by. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s easier to destroy a life than it is to build one. At the moment, my whole life fits inside a Ford Pinto so there’s definitely room for improvement.”
Nate took another swig from the bottle, hoping to find some courage.
“You probably have things to do, so this is really what I came to say. I think you made a mistake that night, when you saved me instead of her. I don’t know who she was, but I would be willing to bet she had better plans for her life than this.”
The lump in his throat almost choked him.
“I don’t mean to seem ungrateful. You’ve given me a second chance, and for that I owe you my eternal thanks. After all, it’s not your fault that I wasted that chance.”
Nate stood and brushed the snow off himself.
“Still, the next time you save a life, make sure it’s the right one.”
As Nate headed back to his car, a tall shadow rose before him. Beams of light on either side of the shadow carved arms and legs from the darkness. Nate swiveled to face the source of the light just as something collided with the Lucky Tree. Bracing himself, Nate fell backwards as he heard the familiar sounds of twisting metal and breaking glass.
The world went black.
The cacophony subsided.
Snowflakes melted and ran down his cheeks like tears. Trees murmured, creaked, and groaned, clearly upset by the disturbance. The intoxicating scent of Old Crow wafted from the handle clutched to his chest. Nate opened his eyes slowly.
A blinding light emanated from the crack in the Lucky Tree like a lighthouse in the middle of the forest. Curiosity gnawed at Nate so he stepped closer to the tree until he could make out some shapes through the crack. When his eyes finally adjusted to the light, he spotted several characters arranged horizontally on a rectangular shape. It was a license plate that read: 57-TRB. That was the license plate on his old Ford Pinto. The one he’d lost in the crash.
An uneasiness grew in the pit of Nate’s stomach as he tried to rationalize the situation. The feeling defied description, but it was the same feeling children have watching monsters creep across their bedroom at night. The feeling that maybe our world was bigger and stranger than anyone could guess. Over time, this feeling tended to fade, replaced by cold, hard reality. Nate’s reality started to unravel as the smallest seed of an idea suddenly took root.
What if the Lucky Tree had been listening? And what if this was the tree’s response?
If Nate walked away now, this would be a tall tale to share at the bar after one too many drinks. Or maybe he could frighten his grandchildren with the tales of the haunted tree, that is if he ever got around to starting a family. Or maybe he could find one of those supernatural experts like the ones on “In Search Of…” to investigate the tree for paranormal activity. Or maybe…
Nate took one last swig and set the handle of whiskey beside the tree.
Inside the Lucky Tree, a luminous tunnel extended for a few yards before spilling out on the other side. As Nate entered the constrictive tunnel, he dropped to his belly and wormed through the wet dirt. The stagnant air reeked of detritus like a fresh compost pile on a hot day. Claustrophobia overtook Nate as he clawed his way to the other side of the tunnel, finding a gap between his old car and the crack in the tree. Despite the tight fit, Nate managed to break free and was greeted by a familiar scene.
Someone or something had made a carbon copy of the night of his accident. From “The Way We Were” garbled on the car radio to the scent of a snowstorm waiting to happen to the smoke billowing from his car engine, everything was as Nate remembered it. Well, almost everything.
The driver’s seat was empty. In fact, there was no sign of any driver at all. There wasn’t a body thrown from the car. There weren’t any footprints in the snow. Cars didn’t just crash on their own, so where was the driver? Where was eighteen-year-old Nate? Surveying the scene, Nate felt more and more like an intruder, like a child that had wandered behind the curtain at a play.
A voice called out in the distance, shattering his déjà vu. It sounded small, almost like a child’s voice, and it came from the river. Nate rushed to investigate.
Standing at the edge of the riverbank, Nate peered down at a Lincoln halfway submerged in the freezing cold river. A woman in the backseat was desperately trying to break the rear window. It took him a few moments to recognize the woman. After all, the last time he had seen her, she was dead. It was Helen, the woman on the stretcher.
The Lucky Tree had been listening after all.
What that meant, Nate didn’t fully understand, but he did understand that Helen was still trapped in a sinking car.
Dead…flooded…window. Not this time.
Shielding himself from the smoke, Nate approached the crushed driver’s side door and reached through the broken window. As his fingers probed for the latch beside his seat, shattered glass bit into his arm. Nate gritted his teeth and leaned in further. Finally, the trunk popped open. Nate circled the car, expecting to find his toolbox, but it was gone.
Nate spewed a stream of curses as he remembered that E.J. had borrowed some tools the day before. Technically, years before, but thinking about it made Nate’s head hurt. Of course, he had plenty of tools in his new Ford Pinto, but that meant crawling back through the Lucky Tree. Time was short so Nate stripped off his outerwear to improve his mobility, and a silver flask tumbled out of his coat and onto the snow. Nate told himself this wasn’t the right moment for a drink, but he didn’t listen.
As Nate took a quick swig from the flask, he saw two glaring problems with his plan. First, the growing fire in his engine block made reaching the Lucky Tree difficult. Second, and the bigger problem by far, the crack had sealed without a trace. He was stuck, and what’s more, he had no way of saving Helen. Nate hurled the flask at the Lucky Tree, and screamed at his tormentor. What was the point of bringing him here so he could watch Helen die again?
Sap oozed from the spot where the flask had hit the tree. Good. Nate picked up the flask, and hit the tree again. More sap poured out. He wasn’t sure if the tree could feel pain, but the thought delighted him so he continued striking the Lucky Tree until the bark chipped away revealing the cambium. Nate rested for a moment as Helen’s cries grew more desperate and distant. How could he be so stupid?
The answer was literally in his hands.
Sliding down the riverbank, Nate dropped some dozen feet or so and landed on top of the Lincoln. Nate warned Helen to stay back as he brought the flask down on the rear window. He tried to ignore the searing pain in his arm as he hammered on the window over and over. The water level had reached her shoulders.
Blow after blow, the glass held without a scratch. For a few seconds, Helen disappeared completely, but eventually she returned with a window crank in her hand. The water had reached Helen’s neck.
“My daughter! Meredith!” she shouted between gasps. “Please! You have to save my daughter!”
“Stop! Please…save…her!” The water completely engulfed Helen.
Before Nate could start hammering again, the car shifted violently, throwing him backward into the river. Icy knives stabbed him repeatedly, and for a few terrifying seconds, Nate couldn’t breathe. Once instinct finally kicked in, Nate swam to the riverbank, pulled himself up, and lay on the ground, wheezing.
A daughter. There was no one else found at the scene, but she clearly made it out of the flooded car. Maybe the police didn’t do a thorough search of the riverbank, or maybe the daughter never reached the riverbank. This ran all the way to the Hudson so she could have ended up anywhere. Springing to his feet, Nate started running. He had a lot of ground to cover.
His voice scratchy, Nate called Meredith’s name even though the air burned in his lungs. The snow coagulated on his boots until each one weighed a hundred pounds. Tears blinded Nate as he searched for Meredith, and every rock, log, or floating branch made his heart leap. The wind taunted him with whispers, the trees mocked him with groans and creaks, and the river shouted at him to give up this foolish journey.
Without warning, Nate collapsed and fell face-first into the snow. He rolled over, surprised to find that his fingers were dark blue, like a blueberry. Was he scared? Was he angry? Was he…? His thoughts disappeared, replaced by nothingness.
Nothing but cold and snow and wind and darkness. Nothing but pain and guilt and fear and sadness. Nothing. He had nothing.
A small, shrill voice cut through Nate like a razor-blade. It was the voice from earlier. Not Helen’s voice, Meredith’s.
Nate was on his feet before she replied.
A red speck in the middle of the river, Meredith clung to a rock surrounded by rapids. For a second time, Nate climbed down the riverbank and leapt into the water upstream from Meredith. This time, he barely noticed the icy knives attacking his body as he navigated between, and in some cases into, rocks, branches, and fallen trees. The dark, swirling water tossed him around like a ragdoll, and just before he reached Meredith, something caught his foot. He managed to twist free, but in the process, felt a snap. His leg had broken, but that didn’t matter. When Nate reached the surface, the freckled face of Meredith looked down at him.
“Merrdith, Merrdith, don’ worry!” Nate cried as he reached his hand toward the frightened girl. “Yer mom. She send me. She send me.”
Meredith hesitated for a moment, her brown eyes looking anxiously at the rapids surrounding them. Nate’s hand caught her red winter coat, but she didn’t pull back.
Meredith slid into the water and wrapped her arms around his chest like a vice. Her teeth chattered in his ears as they set off.
The trip back to the riverbank proved rough, especially with Nate’s broken foot. Every time they plunged under the roiling water, Nate feared that he might lose Meredith, but she never let go, not for a second, even as they crashed into rock after rock. The terrifying ride ended as they entered a relatively calm portion of the river. Nate paused for a second to catch his breath, and Meredith climbed off his back. She was shivering uncontrollably as they swam together toward the riverbank.
As they reached the edge of the river, Meredith asked Nate about her mother, but he pretended not to hear her. Nate could now touch the river bottom with both feet. Undeterred, Meredith asked again about her mother. Before Nate could think of an appropriate response, a new sound emerged from the roar of the river. Sirens.
“Up!” shouted Nate, using his good leg to prop himself against the riverbank. Within seconds, Meredith had scrambled up the bank, but Nate struggled to follow. Hindered by a broken leg, Nate kept losing his grip as though his hands were made of rubber. The sirens grew louder.
“Go!” shouted Nate.
“But what about you?” Meredith asked.
Nate shook his head. “Is fine.”
She extended her hand. “I’ll help you up.”
The road was only a few hundred feet from the river, but would the ambulances see her? There was no way Meredith could make it back to the scene of the accident, and she wasn’t going to leave without him so that left Nate with one choice.
Nate pushed off the riverbank, letting the river carry him away.
“No!” screamed Meredith.
“Go!” shouted Nate. “Now!”
One ambulance had already passed them, but there was another on the way.
As Meredith’s shrinking figure turned away, Nate breathed a sigh of relief. The sirens reached a crescendo. Then he heard the screech of tires, and the sirens cut off.
They had found her.
Broken leg be damned, Nate could make it to the ambulances before they left. To his relief, he spotted a dip in the riverbank that would make a perfect exit. As Nate tried to paddle to the shore, his arms and legs moved like rusted levers, and his body trembled like a leaf. Exhausted, Nate drifted on his back and rested for a little while. This river would carry him all the way to the Hudson if he let it.
As Nate watched the snow-covered branches pass overhead, he realized this was probably the happiest moment of his life. He had fulfilled a promise. He had saved a life. He had done something with his second chance.
Sleep beckoned as voices called in the distance. Nate closed his eyes, and a luminous tunnel formed from the void.
The Lucky Tree was inviting Nate home.
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