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Saturday, March 12, 2005

Some Hero

The last embers of the fireworks display fluttered down to the broad, swift river. The crowd, which stretched from the downtown esplanade all the way upriver to the waterworks plant, was beginning to break up. Scattered pops of firecrackers echoed along the gloomy banks and blended with the rattle of folding chairs and the muffled shouts of children. At first, the commotion by the waterworks seemed only to be horseplay, and Victor hardly noticed. He had been giving only slightly more attention to the conversation he was having with Joe, just enough to show a polite interest. Only when Joe stopped in mid-sentence did Victor become fully aware that he had been speaking. Victor's eyes automatically flicked towards the spot that Joe was now suddenly facing. They both stared through the murk at a small clutch of people hollering and waving their arms by the river's edge. Several swayed rather drunkenly, and it was impossible to make out what they were yelling, or to whom. Most of the spectators were now gone from the grassy ridge where Victor and his friends still sat. Victor was certain that whatever was going on at the shore was best ignored. He was about to communicate this wise counsel when he realized that the rest of his group were stumbling down the rocky levee towards the commotion. Reluctantly, he followed.

Keith and Joe's brother Jerry were already at the scene and had joined in the hollering and waving. In a flash, the whole group was running downstream along the muddy bank. Victor was still unable to make out what the panic was about, but Joe filled him in. "I think that someone fell in the river and can't get back to shore." Victor squinted past Joe's pointing finger to a white blob several yards from shore. The only lights on the river came from a handful of small boats along the opposite bank and from the distant esplanade. The wriggling blob was speeding downriver. Victor heard a dull splash, then a yell. "Jerry!" Joe vanished in an instant. Victor grabbed a large blanket that lay at his feet and tried to catch up with the other runners far ahead.

Running along this steep embankment would have been difficult even in daylight. As it was, the moonlight, filtered through thick clouds, only barely illuminated the large rocks, weeds, and flotsam. Several runners discovered that running close to the water's muddy, weed-choked edge was nearly impossible. Victor stayed towards the rockier middle. His bobbing head tried to follow the white blob. He could scarcely believe how swiftly the river was moving. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a flailing dark blob approaching the white blob. Another one appeared nearer the shore. Victor knew at once that the dark blobs were Jerry and Joe.

The crowd of runners began to thin out as the rocks and debris tripped them one by one. Victor somehow managed to leap and dodge the obstacles as if by radar. He had never been athletic, and his newfound grace surprised him. Even Keith, who was in far better physical shape, stumbled several times. Victor was puffing hard, unused to such a burst of activity, but at least he remained on his feet. In fact, as he now realized, he was out in front of the pack. Still, the three blobs continued to pull farther away.

A pang of guilt shot through Victor's stomach. Jerry and Joe were in real danger. What good was dodging stones and broken bottles? But the only swimming stroke he knew was a rather half-assed dogpaddle. He would drown if he leapt in; a brave but foolish act. Victor suddenly felt the blanket clutched in his fingers as if it had just been handed to him. He would use it as a lifeline. Now, he alone could bring them back to shore. Whether by reason or rationalization, Victor began to feel better. The exact details of his bold plan remained hazy, but Victor was sure that they would soon make themselves evident. Still, the three blobs continued to pull even farther away.

The bright lights of the esplanade grew closer. If Jerry, Joe, and the victim could make it there, surely there would still be plenty of people who could help. They'd see them in the light, and they'd figure out some way to pull them to shore. But the esplanade still seemed a long way off. Victor felt a wave of panic wash over him as he continued to weave his way around the jutting rocks.

As he ran, Victor's eyes frantically skimmed the river's gray-black expanse. The blobs were gone. Victor could see only weird ripples cutting across the glassy surface. He stared harder. Still, nothing. A jolt of pain in his right toe barely registered, but his legs flew from under him as he toppled forward. Victor fell hard, but the blanket he held in front of him cushioned the impact somewhat. A rustle and shout to his left caught his ear, and he scrambled to his feet. A small, scraggly tree reached out over the rushing water. Its leaves rustled again, and Victor could see and hear splashes. He could make out Joe's silhouette clinging to a low-hanging branch about five feet from shore. A couple of feet further out, at the very end of the branch, Jerry desperately gripped the branch with one arm and a sobbing young woman with the other. Water swirled angrily around them.

Victor sprang into action. Holding one end of the blanket as tightly as he could, he tossed the other end towards Joe. It became tangled in the branches. Victor yanked it free and tried again. This time the blanket hit the water and quickly pointed downstream, far from Joe's reach. By the time Victor reeled it back in for a third attempt, Joe had already drug himself to shore and was yelling encouragement to Jerry. With considerable effort, Jerry pulled himself and the woman along the branch. While Victor was still fiddling with the muddy, soaked blanket, Joe waded back out to Jerry. Victor gave up on the blanket heroics and carefully followed Joe into the water. Here, the river was not deep, but the current made it difficult to walk. Joe managed to grab Jerry by the shirt and towed him and the woman to shore. Victor grabbed Joe and helped him out of the water.

Jerry and the woman sat in a couple of inches of water and mud. The woman bawled uncontrollably in between gurgly coughs. Jerry rested his head on his knees and vomited gray water. Everything smelled like rotting wood and feces. Joe tried to calm the woman, and Victor sat in the water beside Jerry. Keith and the rest of the runners now arrived. The young woman's friends crowded around her, cooing sympathetically.

From out of the gloom came a booming voice. "GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WATER!" A police officer stomped towards the little crowd. A confused chorus of voices rose up in response. "I SAID, QUIT F*****G AROUND AND GET OUT OF THE WATER!" Victor stood up and began to tell the tale. The excited shouts all around him made an impenetrable din. The bleary-eyed cop was in no mood. With a weary but firm gesture, he motioned everyone away from the river. Before Victor knew what was happening, the crowd was dispersed and order restored. The young woman was ushered away, and Victor, Keith, Joe, and Jerry were admonished to head home. Wet, bleeding, and bewildered, the heroes walked silently to their car.

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