Vincent sat in a cafe by the window. Clara, his wife, wanted to look out over the thick, white ice of the river. The weather had gotten warm in the past two days. Everyone in the area had ventured out. Some folks played on the ice. Others biked or jogged along the paths beside it. By noon, it seemed as if the whole town had decided to go for a stroll by the riverfront.
Shoppers thronged the sidewalks by the water. They bought groceries and luxury items they hadn't considered in months. The warm spell was their opportunity.
"We got here just in time," Clara said. She hung her red purse over the back of her chair. "The hostess is starting to make everyone wait for seats."
"The ice is looking patchy already," observed Vincent. Sections of the whiteness had turned grey.
His wife flipped open the menu. She raised her hand and caught the waiter's eye. As he approached, she launched into her order. Clara was decisive woman. She was efficient. He liked both of those things about her.
After the young man in the apron strolled away with their orders, they settled on their elbows and discussed the folks they'd met. They'd exchanged greetings with a dozen neighbors on the sidewalks, a couple of co-workers apiece, a cousin, a few other relatives, and school friends of their children. Most of the teenagers they'd noticed had been out on the ice. The high-schoolers hung out in clusters of three or four, sometimes as many as eight, always in too few clothes. Clara didn't approve.
"You could see those girls' navels." She rolled her eyes. "It's warm but it's not that warm."
"There's a college student trying to cross the short way." Vincent pointed to the east. Crossing on foot east or west across the ice was always called 'the short way' even if it took longer than by bridge.
"He made it." His wife nodded to the college-aged couple behind the student. "Those two are on a dark patch, though."
"Eh, I guess it's still strong enough." He grabbed the water glass their waiter had left for him and sipped. He gazed across the deeps of the river to where the ice was grey or transparent. It was a relief to see that no one else was trying to cross.
His attention drifted to his wife and hers focused on him. He'd heard a new gardening joke at work. She surprised him by laughing at his re-telling of it. Clara's arms rose. Her hands made chopping and hoeing motions in air as she explored the idea of building an addition to their garden. A smile bloomed on her face. A moment later, someone at the next table stood up and cursed.
Vincent knew immediately that it was about the ice. Everyone did. The heads of the other lunchtime diners turned towards the windows. He stood up to see over them better. It didn't take long to spot the hole where someone had broken through. Other diners started to point at it.
His gaze darted from the jagged, dark circle below to the students nearest to it. He could easily fill in the gaps in the scene he'd missed. He knew that the college couple had crossed safely. They'd strolled to within a few yards of their friend. But from the spacing between the teens near the riverbank and the break over the deeper water, the young man from the couple had separated himself from the crowd. He'd doubled back toward the college and fallen through the weakest part of the surface.
Even as Vincent watched, the young woman below dashed toward the hole. 'No, no, no!" someone with a window seat yelled. Everyone in the cafe knew she was doing it wrong. Vincent stretched out his hand as if he could stop her. Her pounding feet generated a long crack in the ice. Other diners yelled, 'Stop!'
The young woman fell. It looked like she hurt her hip. But she didn't break the ice under her. Everyone sighed with relief.
A moment later, she rolled up and kept going. Everyone's jaws dropped in astonishment.
She got ten strides farther. That's when her left boot hit a grey patch. A sliver of ice popped up. After that, the breakthrough happened slowly, piece by piece, but inevitably. Dark lines appeared around her. The surface cracked into five big sections, each as large as the woman falling through, plus dozens of smaller fragments. Shards floated up as small as a mitten. Others crumbled to white dots or grey swirls of slush in the black water.
The young woman went under. A few seconds later, she bounced to the surface. Her arms flailed against the shards of ice, cracking them into smaller pieces.
Clara grabbed his arm. "Vince, do something!"
Vincent had been on the volunteer firefighter squad. He knew a handful of things he could do. From the fragility of the mid-river ice sheet, though, he ruled out having the teens down there form a human chain. They'd probably think of that themselves and, if they acted, the chain would be a disaster. The rescuers would break more ice and start to drown. What Vince needed to bring into this situation was a rope. There should be a float or a handle at the end of it, too, although he doubted he'd find one. He was sure he could put his hands on a rope, though. He'd seen one lying coiled on top of a milk crate on the back of the restaurant's loading dock.
His legs made him run even as the concept was forming in his mind.
At the back of the restaurant, on the raised concrete slab, he found the coil of shipping cord. He shook it once to knock off scraps of paper. For a second, he judged its length: at least thirty feet, he thought, maybe forty. It was an irregular cut with black tape at one end. His gaze skimmed over the loops to check for cuts or frayed points. There were none. It would do.
Vincent started to jog across the road and down to the river. A man with a pot belly wearing a blue smock dashed out of the shop across from him.
"Hey!" he yelled. He dodged in front of Vincent.
"Can't wait." Vincent shook his head.
"I have these." The man held up plastic hoops as he huffed. Even a few feet of running had winded him. "I was just looking for a rope."
"What are they?" Vincent almost pushed past him. But as he put a hand on the fellow's shoulder, he took a closer look at what was being offered. The rings seemed sturdy.
"Hula hoop knock-offs, kid size." The guy held up his other hand in a gesture of apology. "I know. But these are tough. Kids come to my store all the time, bite them, sit on them, and hit each other. They don't break. Put one on your rope."
Vincent grabbed one and resumed running. The guy behind him shouted something. Vincent didn't listen. He struggled to tie a clove hitch as he moved.
He kept bumping into people. After half a minute of making his way like that, trotting downhill, watching mostly the rope and trying not to fall, he heard his wife. She yelled from behind for everyone to move out of his way. She must have put on her coat to head out. But he didn't turn around to see because he'd reached the shore.
He hovered at the edge of the ice for a moment as he tested the knot. After two tugs, it tightened and felt strong. He added a couple of extra hitches and tugged again.
"All right!" a teenaged boy said as he made way for Vincent on the ice. "Someone found a rope, man. She's drowning or something."
"I don't think they can reach her," someone added.
"Do you need a coat?" his wife asked from behind his right shoulder.
"No." He shook his head. Then he gave her a smile. A flash of worry showed in her eyes. He conceded, "Maybe after."
Whether this worked or not, he was going to have to lie down on the ice. There was no way he'd run all the way to where the two college students fell in. He wasn't going to repeat their mistake.
He took a few slide-steps. He nearly fell. The surface was slipperier than he'd expected. Of course, part of the reason that teens took to the ice was to show how cool they were. Mostly they stood around and talked. If they did much, they'd fall and embarrass themselves. Vincent didn't have to worry about that. He set a steady pace. After a few seconds, his stride lengthened. He gazed farther ahead to see the college girl in the dark water, her head barely above the surface. She looked tired.
He forced his gaze lower. It wouldn't do any good if he rushed and made mistakes. He focused on his path. A half-dozen teens saw him coming and stepped aside. He sighed with relief when they didn't argue. A handful of others came into view. They were lying down. He grimaced to see that they were organizing into a human chain. The ice sheet under them wavered under the stress of so many bodies.
Vincent knew they couldn't make the rescue but they were still trying as sensibly as they could. None of them seemed panicked. About a half-inch of water had swept up to them as the river current, freed by the breakup, pushed itself over the top. The tallest boy at the front end of the chain had gotten wet and maybe one or two others behind him. But he didn't kick away from his friends. He let them hold his ankles.
"Don't go any farther," Vincent said as he approached. "I've got a rope."
A few of the boys, although at least two of them turned out to be girls, turned their heads. They gave him determined grins. He carefully sank to his knees and crawled on all fours for the length of their chain. They shifted to make room. He felt the ice waver under them. He stopped. Even after the tremor passed, he laid on his belly.
"You can go farther," said the tall, thin teen.
"I don't know," Vincent said honestly. It felt as if they were about to sink through, all of them together. "If you guys can move back and hold my ankles, I'd appreciate it. I'm going to have to go up on my knees again to make the throw."
The teens slithered across the slime and frost. They swapped places with hardly a word spoken. They seemed to have no fear. A patch of ice had grown translucent under the front of the chain. Did they know how close they were to breaking through?
Ahead of them, maybe fifteen yards away, the woman stared blindly at Vincent. The expression on her face was so strange that it took him a second to understand that she was crying from exhaustion. Her arms slapped the water around her.
"Crap," he muttered to himself. In only a few minutes, the accident victim had worn herself out. One of the teens grabbed his left ankle. The grip felt firm.
"There!" he heard Clara's voice. He dared to glance back. He spotted his wife on the ice about ten yards behind the last teenager in the human chain. She was pointing to something in the water. "See the other?"
He spun his head toward the gap of water in the breakthrough. He found what his wife had noticed. The man who had first gone under had reappeared. His body had come up, though, floating face down. He must have surfaced after his girlfriend had busted the ice around them.
"Get the drowning one first!" Clara said.
The fellow's dark blue coat had turned the color of the water. That made him hard to see. He was at least ten yards farther away than the girl. Vincent wasn't sure he could throw the rope well enough. On top of it, the poor fellow wasn't moving on his own. He had to be unconscious.
Vincent wondered if he should tell the freezing, nearly drowning girl to turn around. Maybe she could grab her boyfriend's body. Could she keep swimming after she did it? Her face kept dropping into the water. She couldn't keep her head above the current.
Vincent watched her go under. It only took a few seconds before she surfaced again. But he held his breath the whole time. She started to cry again. Her hair froze. The air just above the ice was colder than everywhere else. Her dark locks turned grey for a moment. They shed crystalline flakes as she flung herself against the nearest, half-solid ice sheet.
The girl kept trying to grab the cracked edge. She couldn't find a grip.
"Throw it!" said a teenaged girl behind him.
"The drowning one, Vince!" called his wife.
Behind the girl in the water, the current swirled. It pushed her boyfriend's unconsious body under the shelf of ice on the opposite side. He was the most in need, true. In a few seconds, he'd be gone. But Vincent couldn't reach him.
He threw. His knees ached as he did it. As he leaned forward, his kneecaps dig into the water-soaked ice. His arm felt heavy. The hoop hardly left his hand before it fell back down, a terrible attempt.
Of course, he'd forgotten how the weight of the rope would drag on the hoop. He'd been taught how to hurl a coil of rope along with it but, in his haste, he'd forgotten. He cursed himself for needing the reminder as he pulled back the errant toss.
When he recovered, his hands flew through the motions. He twisted a few, fast loops of the rope in preparation for the next try. He bunched the coils together with the red, rubber hula hoop in his right hand.
This time when he heaved the line, he pushed forward with his entire body. His arm felt strong. The rope dragged on the hoop but not too much. The throw didn't make it all the way to the drowning girl before it hit the ice but the hoop and the cord kept sliding. Together, rope unraveling, they skidded all the way to the water right in front of the girl.
She opened her mouth in surprise. A high-pitched gasp escaped her.
Her first lunge at the hoop missed. Her second knocked it sideways. She almost hit herself in the jaw with it. On her next try, she aimed with her whole body, willing to risk going under. Her right arm jabbed through the band. Her left hand snuck in along the edge of the circle. She tugged the rope close to her body and yelled.
"Pull!" Her teeth audible chattered. Her voice wavered.
"Pull!" all of the teens behind Vincent answered. They yanked on his ankles. He fell from his knees to his chest and his face. He tasted dirty ice chips. Fortunately, he'd tied the end of the rope around his left arm. In a second, he got both of his hands on it and started reeling in the girl. The human chain behind him slithered and backed up. He could feel the combined power through his arms.
There was a frightening moment when the group started to lift the victim over the lip of half-frozen ice and slush. The girl made a noise like the edge had hurt her. But she kept her grip. The crowd kept pulling. Vince felt the cord burn his fingers.
A few seconds later, the girl flopped onto solid ice. Something fell from her hair, a beret or a flake of ice. Other hands stretched out to help Vince with the rope. In a moment, he had the gang pulling with him. The soaked young woman glided up to their feet.
Two of the teen girls stood with their coats off, ready to warm up the victim. Clara, behind them, wore a strange smile on her face, half elation and half grimace. Her eyes darted back to the dark water. Vince followed her gaze. He knew what she was thinking.
As he watched for the other body, hoping it might resurface, he heard a siren. An red and white ambulance had arrived. It was making its way down to the nearest river path. The teenagers wrapped up their college-aged friend. Everyone headed toward the whirling lights.
Later, on the asphalt path next to the ambulance, shop keepers gave everyone who'd gotten wet some hot cocoa and blankets. Throngs of witnesses to the incident milled around, commenting on what had happened. Clara apologized for not giving Vincent her coat.
"But I wish you could have saved the drowning man," she said.
She sipped her paper cup of hot chocolate. One of the rescue workers from the ambulance, a sturdy, short-haired woman in a uniform, tilted her head as she overheard Clara. She turned away from the stretcher and marched back to them.
"Have you ever visited a homeless shelter?" she asked Clara.
"What does that have to do with this?" Vincent's wife lowered her cup.
"I volunteer in one," the paramedic said. "After you've been there for a while, you realize that you can't rescue everyone."
"The man drowning was the one most in need." Clara stated it as a plain fact.
"That's not who should get help. I know it's something people don't like to hear. But you've got choose the right folks to rescue. Otherwise, hospitals would only serve the most in need, the dying."
"Triage," Vince muttered to himself. The paramedic's eyes opened wider.
"Yeah." She nodded to him. "It's important and you did it right. That guy under the water never came back up. He couldn't be saved. Probably."
"Are you still looking for him?" Clara asked.
"Yeah. But from what the dispatcher and the eyewitnesses told us, there was no way throwing a line to him would help the guy."
"What would have been the harm in trying?"
"The woman who got the hoop, she couldn't grab it with her fingers." The paramedic curled her hands as if to show them how the girl's had locked up in that position. "They were frozen and numb. In a few minutes, if your husband had gone after the drowning man, she wouldn't have been able to grab the rescue line."
"We'll never know, will we?"
"Sir," the paramedic turned to Vincent, hand outstretched to shake. "That young woman is passed out now. But I'm darned sure she's going to live. You made the right decision. You helped someone who could reach back to you."