He fumbled for my hand, but when he finally got a good hold, I wasn’t prepared for how heavy he’d be, and I started skidding forward on my belly, dragged closer to the edge. Dirt and grass and rocks gouged into my belly and arms.
“You’re sliding,” he yelled. “No. Let go!”
But no way in hell was I letting go of him. I kicked off my sandals and dug my bare toes into the earth, digging them in and slowing my forward progress, but Oren was still so heavy and my arms screamed in agony.
In the distance, I heard Noel shouting my name. He was coming, running our way. Help was almost there. “Just a few more...” I couldn’t finish the sentence, too strained and out of breath to finish.
Oren gritted his teeth and tried to climb his way up, but each time his shoes dug into the soil, it crumbled away under him.
His face was red with strain, his eyes crazy with panic. Through clenched teeth, he shouted “You’re not falling in with me.”
I just smiled at him, even though tears of exhaustion and fear filled my eyes. “You jump, I jump, right, Jack?”
Grief filled his face. I thought he was going to cry, but he just shook his head, and an emotion that let me know just how he felt about me filled his face.
“God, I love you,” he said. Then he let go of my hand.
Even though I didn’t fall into the water, my stomach plummeted into my knees, and it felt as if everything in my entire world sank and drowned.
“No!” I lunged after Oren, trying to dive into the rushing river with him. But an arm wrapped around my waist and jerked me back to the safe part of the bank. I fought it, struggling to get back to Oren.
I’d seen him hit the white, frothy water and watched it swallow him whole. I didn’t get to see him resurface; I had to get back to the edge and see if he was okay, if he’d gotten his head back above water, if he could raise his hand, give me a thumbs-up.
But no, the damn arm around my waist was keeping me from my Oren. So I fought it. Noel’s voice called my name into my ear as he fought to keep me from plunging forward, but I kept struggling against him. Finally, I broke free enough to stand and peer back into the water, but Oren still hadn’t come up, so I looked farther downstream, and then a little farther down. A scream of denial ripped from my lungs when I spotted him. What looked like a log from its immobility, but was clearly human-shaped swished through the currents, momentarily sucked under and then reappearing at the surface again, right before it slammed into a boulder and then was pulled along until I couldn’t see him anymore.
“Oh my God. Oh my God.”
My limbs went numb as my head went dizzy. I started to hyperventilate.
I wanted to race after him on my rubbery numb legs, but Noel caught my arm. “We can’t reach him from here.” He already had his phone pressed to his ear. As he spoke to a 911 operator in a calm, level voice, explaining what had happened, I burrowed into my big brother and hugged him hard. My head swam and my body shook. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
He hugged me back and kissed my hair. “It’s going to be okay,” he murmured into my hair, but the shock told me this could in no way be okay.
Noel continued to console me. I might’ve checked out for a while. All I knew was that Noel was there, always right there, holding on to me and staying strong. I clung to him, gripping his shirt and desperately needing his clarity, because I had none.
At one point, I remember Aspen, and Brandt, and Colton, so we must’ve returned to the picnic, or maybe they’d come to the banks of the water. Colton sobbed hysterically all over Aspen, and Brandt looked as if he’d peed his pants. I just wanted to get back to the river and look for Oren. We had to find Oren.
I grew disoriented. Though everyone seemed to rush around me, everything moved way too slow for my taste. I must’ve tried to return to the waterfall, the last place I’d seen Oren—where he’d looked into my eyes and told me he loved me before letting go of my hand to save me. And I must’ve tried more than once, because Noel finally grasped my shoulders and gave me a hard shake as he yelled my name into my face.
“We can’t go back yet. We need help finding him.”
That’s when I finally heard the distant wail of sirens. It still took the freaking police, ambulance, and rescue workers way too long to arrive. And then it took an extra inordinate amount of time to organize everyone and set them loose on their tasks.
Noel and I ascended on the first police cruiser that pulled into the park. We confused the hell out of the poor guy, both talking and trying to lead him to the place where Oren had fallen in. Finally, he stopped in his tracks, lifted his hands and said, “Now stop. One at a time. First of all, what’s the name of the victim?”