Vernal Fall Edward Ashton
He’s only a few steps behind her on the rock bridge when it happens—creeping along, cautious, watching his footing. A yard, that’s all, maybe less, but Garrett doesn’t see the slip, doesn’t see Mara’s foot fly out and her knee buckle, doesn’t realize what’s happening until he hears her one bright cry, until he looks up to see her falling. He lunges for her then, reaches for her outstretched hand, manages to just brush her fingertips as he drops to his knees on the rocks—but he’s too late, too late, and she’s in the river, in the grip of the current, surging toward the falls. What now? What now? Before he can even complete the thought, he’s leapt after her, and the current has him as well.
The water is glacial runoff, smooth and clear and icy, and the first shock of it drives the air from his lungs—but he was a swimmer once, a champion, and the body remembers what the mind forgets. He surges to the surface and chases after her, reaches her in four quick strokes, catches her by the shoulder and pulls her into him. She wraps her arms around his neck and she’s sobbing, gasping out one word, Daddy, again and again, and she’s twenty-two years old, for God’s sake, hasn’t called him Daddy in a decade or more, and again he thinks what now?
There are watchers on the banks, other tourists, the ones sensible enough to stay off the rocks. He sees their mouths moving, knows they must be screaming or praying or calling to him, but he can’t hear them. All he can hear is that one word, Daddy, and above that, the roar of the falls, and he knows they can’t help him. It’s twenty yards to the nearest bank, and the falls are close now, close enough that even if he were nineteen years old again, strong and lithe and fearless, he wouldn’t be able to save her. He can feel the current strengthening, can see the sharp edge where the river ends. He presses against her, brings his mouth to her ear. I’m here, Mara. I’m here. The river falls silent. The world falls away.
* * *
He looks down at his hands where they rest on the table.
“She was my daughter.”
His skin is spotted and wrinkled, years older than he remembers.
“You could not help her.”
He closes his eyes, breathes in deep and lets it out.
He looks up. The light is blinding.
“I couldn’t let her die alone.”
* * *
And again, the slip, the lunge, that brush of fingertips, and he’s watching his daughter as she’s carried away. This time, though, he doesn’t leap. He clings frozen to the rock, his stomach knotted, his mind a howling void. Daddy! Just before Mara disappears, he reaches out to her—one arm raised, as if in farewell. She reaches back, and for just a moment, their eyes meet. Just a moment, and she’s gone.
* * *
His hands twist in his lap now. He closes his eyes.
“Your choice was correct. You could not help her.”
He drops his forehead to the table.
“Please. Help us understand.”
* * *
He’s watching a baseball game when the call comes, half-asleep on his couch in the heat of the late afternoon. The ring snaps him awake. He fumbles for the receiver, drops it twice before he manages to bring it to his ear.
There’s a hesitation on the other end of the line. His stomach clenches.
He nods, swallows, finally manages to croak out a yes.
“My name is Michael Burke, sir. I’m a ranger at Yosemite. Your daughter—there’s been an accident. You need to come out here as soon as you can.”
Garrett opens his mouth to speak—is she?—but no, of course she is. Burke would have said if she were still alive. Garret drops the phone into his lap, and Burke’s voice fades to a tinny whine. The Pirates are up by a run. Manny Ramirez steps to the plate.
Put me back.
* * *
“You could not have helped her. You were a thousand miles away.”
Garrett opens his eyes.
“Put me back.”
“Please. It serves no purpose.”
His hands curl into fists.
“Put me back.”
His fists slam down on the table. The light flickers.
“Put me back!”
The lights are gone now. He tries to strike the table again, but that’s gone as well.
“Put me back! Put me back! Put me back! Put me back!”
* * *
And he hangs suspended in mist like a fly in amber, arms around Mara, trapped half-way between earth and sky. The sun is high and bright, just over the rim of the falls. Mara’s face is pressed against his neck and her hair trails into his mouth and he knows the rocks are close now, close, and I’m here, and Daddy and he thinks this, this is enough.
The world slides into motion.
He closes his eyes.
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