Therese Mills peeled the white gloves off her sweaty hands as soon as she and her parents were in the car. Now that her mother’s thing was over, she could finally get home and out of this blue dress. It was like being in a straightjacket.
Anything for Mom, of course.
A man glared at her through her backseat window. She jumped up, sat back, blinked. The man vanished, but when she blinked again, she could still see the eerie face behind her lids: the scruffy black beard and dark, haunting eyes.
“Thanks again for making tonight so special,” her mother, apparently not seeing the man, said from the passenger seat as her father started the engine. “You two being there meant a lot to me.”
“Did you see that man?” Therese peered through her window for the face.
“What?” Her mother also looked. “What man?”
“What man, Therese?” her father asked.
Therese did not find it unusual that her mother hadn’t noticed the man. Although her mother was a brilliant scientist, she wasn’t the most observant person.
Just last spring after all the snow had finally melted around their house in the Colorado mountains, and Therese and her mother had been able to enjoy their wooden deck with the melted lake spread out in front of them and the forest rising up the mountains behind them, Therese had spotted the wild horse and foal she had seen just before winter. They both had reddish brown coats with a white stripe between their eyes, the foal nestled beside its mother’s legs, staring intently at Therese without moving. The animals stood beneath one of two magnificent elm trees ten feet from their back door—the tree her mother said had gotten the Dutch elm disease. Therese relaxed with her mother at the wooden table on the deck, each of them with a mug of coffee in the bright Sunday morning. Her mother had the paper but wasn’t reading it. She had that look on her face when she was thinking of a scientific formula or method that she planned to try in her lab. Therese stared again at the horse and didn’t move. She whispered, “Mom.”
Her mother hadn’t heard.
“Mom, the wild horses,” she whispered again.
Therese looked from the beautiful creatures to her mother, who sat staring in space, transfixed, like a person hypnotized.
“Mom, are you deaf?” she blurted out, and then she heard the horses flee back up the mountain into the tall pines. She caught a glimpse of the foal’s reddish-brown rump, and that was that.
As Therese strapped on her seatbelt, she also considered the possibility that she had only imagined the man in the window. She was, after all, prone to use her imagination and fully capable of making daydreams as real as reality, as she had, just now, with her memory of the horses.
Her phone vibrated. A text from Jen read, “Heat sheets r n call me when u get home.” Awesome, she thought. Therese was anxious to see who would share her heat in tomorrow’s championship meet. She hoped she would be swimming breaststroke in the top heat against Lacey Holzmann from Pagosa Springs. She wanted to beat her this time.
She searched outside her window for the scruffy face but saw only a line of headlights as others, like they, exited the parking lot of the concert hall. Maybe she had only imagined the man. It was getting dark. The mountains across campus were barely visible as dusk turned into night.
“We’re both so proud of you, Honey,” Therese’s dad said from behind the wheel.
Therese probably got her imaginative talent from her father, who was a successful crime fiction writer. As soon as his first book made the New York Times bestsellers list, he moved his family out into their big log cabin in the San Juan Mountains.
Therese saw her father eyeing her in the rearview mirror. “Aren’t we, sweetie pie?”
She wondered at her father’s need to praise her mother all the time. Didn’t her mother already know she was brilliant and that her husband and daughter looked up to her? “Absolutely. You’re awesome, Mom.”
Therese’s phone vibrated again. A text from Paul read, “Wat r u waring?”
She cringed and murmured, “Oooh. How gross.” She couldn’t believe he had got her number. He had been stalking her around campus just before school let out for the summer.
Before she had a chance to delete the text, Therese heard the rear window behind her head explode. “What the…” Glass shards pricked at her neck and bare shoulders. The car swerved left and right. She looked back to see the window behind her busted. The line of headlights had dispersed into chaos, horns blasting, people shouting.
“What the hell was that?” her father yelled. “Oh my God! Linda! Linda!”
“Dad, what’s wrong? Is Mom…”
Another explosion rang out, and something zipped just past Therese’s head.
“Therese? Are you okay? Get down!”
“What’s happening? What’s going on?” Therese cowered in the back seat as a third explosion sounded, this time near the windshield. Therese could barely breathe. She gasped for air, her heart about to explode.
“Stay down! Someone’s shooting at us!” her father shouted.
The car swerved, slowed, and turned. The smell of burned rubber permeated the air. Therese’s head whipped back as her father gunned the accelerator. Her fingers trembled so wildly, she was barely able to punch the correct numbers on her phone. She messed up twice and had to start over. Finally she pressed them in slow motion: 911. It seemed an eternity before a woman answered on the other end.
“Nine-one-one, is this an emergency?”
“Someone’s shooting at us! You’ve got to help us. We’re leaving Fort Lewis College. Dad, where are we?”
“Heading toward Huck Finn Pond.”
“Huck Finn Pond!” Therese screamed into the phone as the car swerved, her seatbelt digging into her hip. Then she noticed the blood dripping down the back of her mother’s neck and onto her mother’s silk scarf. “Oh, my God! Mom? Mom, are you okay?”
“She’ll be okay, Therese!” her father shouted.
“Oh my God! I think my mom’s been shot! You’ve got to do something! You’ve got to help us!”
A crushing sound shot through the car, and Therese felt herself jolted hard to the right. She hit her head on the window and dropped the cell phone. When she bent over and tried to pick it up, the back end of the car lurched upward like a seesaw, and her head hit the back of her mother’s seat in front of her. She sat up and saw they were sailing through the air over the lake. The front end of the car hit the water, causing her head to flop forward and back. She heard the air hissing through the airbags as they inflated in the front end. She was so stunned, she couldn’t speak. She watched in silent shock as water crept into the front end of the car, up to her father’s neck, the untied bowtie of his tuxedo floating around him. The front airbags pressed against her father’s cheek, her mother’s face. Water spilled over the front seat and onto the floorboard in back where she sat elevated higher than her parents.
She unfastened her seatbelt and leaned over and looked down at her mother in horror. A bullet had put a hole in the back of her neck, and blood rushed from it. Her head lay against the airbag turned to one side, toward Therese’s father. Her eyes were open and she was gasping for air, but blood was pouring from her mouth and choking her.
“Mom! Oh my God! Mom!” Therese’s teeth chattered uncontrollably as her mother strained to look at her. She reached down and caressed her mother’s hair. “Mom! Oh my God!”
She realized her father had been shouting her name for several seconds. “Listen to me, Therese! Therese! Try to open your window. Therese! Try to get out of the car!”
His voice sounded like it did when he was cheering her on from the deck of the pool at her swim meets. “Keep going, Therese! You’re looking good! Kick! Pull!”
Except now it was tinged with desperation.
“I’m not leaving without you and Mom! I’m scared! Dad, please! Can’t you get out?” Her teeth continued to chatter.
The water level rose to his mouth. He shook his head. “I’m stuck!” He shouted through the water. His eyes widened as the water crept to his nose. He was drowning right in front of her.
In a state of frenzy, he turned from side to side, only the top of his head visible.
Therese watched in silent shock.
She looked at her mother. Her mother’s eyes met hers briefly, then closed as the water washed over all but her red hair. Unlike her father, her mother didn’t move, but simply relinquished herself to the water. Her hair danced like seaweed, like long veins of blood. Therese became aware of the coldness of the water that had been sucking her down. Its cold fingers crept up to her shoulders. Her white gloves floated beside her, pointing at her. You! Do something!
She took a deep breath and went underwater toward her father. She couldn’t see in the dark, so she pushed against the airbag and felt around for the harness. The belt was undone, but the steering shaft was crushed across her father’s lap. She pulled with all her might on the steering wheel. It didn’t move. She tried to puncture the airbag but without luck. Then she yanked on her father’s lifeless arm. She couldn’t lift him from the seat.
Another memory shot through her mind: She was pulling her father’s arm, coaxing him from his recliner. “Come see the deer,” she was saying. She was small—maybe six. “Come on, Dad. Come see.” He had laughed and made a comment about her chipmunk cheeks and dimples, that he’d do anything to see those dimples. She pulled at his arm and he laughed and climbed out of his chair to follow her outside.
But now she could not get her father to follow her.
She felt her mother’s hand and flinched. She found it again. It was as cold as the water and as limp as a dead fish. She hugged her mother, held on to her for dear life till her brain hurt and she needed air.
Therese popped back up near the top of the car for air, but there was none. She hitched her body up and hit her head on the roof of the car. She then noticed a bright light shine on her through her backseat window. She thought she saw someone swimming toward her. She heard another crash and a surge of water, but she needed air! Panic overtook her like a wild beast, and she opened her eyes as far as they would open, writhed her body against every molecule in reach, and strained her mouth wide open. Her lungs filled with burning water, the cold water burning her like fire. She gagged on the water, gagged, kicked, went wild with fear, and then stopped and gave in to the darkness.