The Halloween Project Day 3: Extreme Kayaking
Dedicated to all my friends who love to float, silently and serene, on the river of life.
Bridget’s kayak was about 40 yards ahead of me when I heard the first guttural yelp. We often wandered a bit away from each other investigating whatever caught our individual interests. We’d been doing this for a couple years and just loved being on the river. Her cry sounded a bit like a small dog who had come upon a dead animal or something in the grass that scared them enough to make them skittish. Then it turned into a wail, a wail of anguish and fright. Finally a scream, a scream like a movie scream, a scream that sounded beyond real, beyond theatrical, beyond Bridget.
“Bridget!” I screamed back, not knowing or imagining what could have brought on the reaction so unlike her; a level-headed, middle school science teacher, soon to be my wife. “Bridget!” I yelled again, trying to drag her attention from whatever she saw before her. Her eyes locked away and down. My arms rocketed into scared and furious paddling to close the distance between us.
We were always kayaking, a favorite activity, looking at the far banks, bucking the waves of passing boats and wave runners. We picked up pieces of bark and flotsam, the occasional odd souvenir, a rubber duck here, an ornate twisted branch there. It was calming, weathered, natural. Sometimes we’d bring along a bottle of wine and pour off the deep red into each other’s plastic cups as we made our way upstream on the Housatonic River. The journey back down river, the wine empty, would often be filled with laughter.
But this was different. More different than I ever could have imagined.
As I closed the distance between us I could see the object in the water. At 25 yards a floating log. At 15 yards a piece of cargo, maybe a tanned and broken cooler or slice of tarp. At five yards it was real. A man, floating face down, trunk naked, khaki pants, soaked through with a crimson tinge, plastered to legs that dangled and disappeared into the greenish tinged water. Bridget was still screaming but her hand covered her mouth in a futile attempt at control. Her breath came in rasps and the body, pushed by an unseen current, bumped against her kayak, and turned slowly rotating, face up, eyes gone, features bloated, head lolling backward yet above the waterline. Bridget began to scream again.
I pulled alongside and grabbed her quickly almost tossing our kayaks. With one free hand I pulled in the water and gained a few feet away from the body. Then I noticed the cord around its neck. A tightly knotted piece of normal twine wrapped two, three, four times, barely discernible through the bulging, purpled neck folds. Knots, several, tied with meticulous care, finished the garrote. Bridget’s head was turned into my shoulder.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” she kept repeating.
“O.K., it’s O.K., Bridg, it’s O.K.,” I kept stupidly repeating with nothing else at my command.
“O.K.!? It’s not O.K.! It’s anything but O.K.!” she shouted.
I heard an engine off in the distance moving toward us.
“I know, I’m sorry Bridg, I didn’t mean that this is O.K. It’s…It’s…,” I didn’t really have a word.”
“Did he drown?” she asked no one, asking the world. “Did he fall out of a boat? Or hit his head? Did he drown?”
“I’m sure that’s what happened,” I lied, my assurances worth nothing.
“What are we going to do, Randall? Oh my God, what will we do?!” it was the first time she had used my name. But not the last.
“O.K. listen carefully, here’s exactly what we’re going to do. We can’t leave him here. That would be way wrong. Do you have your cell?”
“No! I was afraid of dropping it in the water. I thought you’d have yours,” she answered.
“No, I’m sorry, I left mine in the car.”
“Oh shit,” she responded starting to turn to look until I grabbed her face in my hand and turned it back to me.
The boat, still off in the distance, was headed on a straight beam to our position, moving slow, but steady.
“Here’s exactly what we’re going to do. I’m going to take that cord that I use to tie the kayak to the car and I’m going to put it through the belt loop on his pants. You’re going to take off before me, just a dozen yards or so. I don’t want you to see this. There’s a boat coming and maybe they can help us.”
“Oh my God,” she said again, “This is really what we’re going to do? Just leave it for the men in the boat. They’ll take care of it. Him.” She corrected herself.
“No, I can’t do that. It’s our job now. We have to do this.”
“Oh my God, Oh shit!” and with that she hefted her paddle and moved off about six feet. It was then she looked back and noticed the taut cord around his neck, the blank eye sockets still reveling at the cool October sky.
“Randall!” she now screamed louder than before, “Randall!!! Do you see that! Do you see that!”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t answer. The boat was 100 yards away and closing, a bit faster now.
“Bridget! Just go! I’ll take care of this. I will. We’ll be fine. Just head back. I’ll catch up in a minute.”
And she did. Bridget, my strong young fiancé, muscled and tan from aerobics and running and workouts and biking, pivoted her kayak and took off for a point down river. I moved back to the floating corpse, gathered my rope, tied it quickly through the man’s belt and turned to move.
That’s when the Bassmaster Classic boat pulled up alongside. Two men in their 40’s, fishing gear awash in the boat, calmed their engine and looked at me, then looked beyond me into the water.
“What the hell happened here?” the taller, grey-haired man asked. He looked rangy and thin like he belonged on horseback in a Wyoming ranch rather than here on a moving river in Connecticut. The other kept silent and just peered down at me, then to the water and the body, then back at me. He kept the boat level, side to side with my kayak. They were a handshake away. Bridget turned, looked back, than paddled on.
“That’s an awful sight. What the hell is it?” the thin man asked, looking even thinner as he leaned across for a better look. The lowering sun was at his back, directly in my eyes.
“It’s a man. At first I thought it was a drowned man, but take a look. Someone tied a rope around his neck. Somebody killed him. Maybe hung him or tortured him, his eyes are missing, or who knows what and then they threw him into the river.”
“Holy Christ! I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. Have you, Tom?” he turned to his friend who continued to stare. “Can we help you out? Our boat here’s a whole lot bigger then that kayak you got there. We can pull him onboard and call the authorities.”
“You got a cell phone?” I asked quickly.
There was just the moment, a single second of hesitation.
“No, I’m sorry. When we come out fishing we don’t want any interruptions so we leave all that stuff in the truck,” he said, then added, “And your girlfriend there,” he gestured toward Bridget as she grew smaller downriver, “She’s paddling like a salmon running upstream. Where’s she headed?”
“Back to our car. We left our cell phones. She’ll call the police and I’ll tow this…this…”
But the next word, whatever I had meant it to be, never escaped my lips. In my peripheral vision I saw the arc coming for my head, almost heard it before it hit me. The sun was in my eyes and maybe that was why I couldn’t duck in time. An axe handle maybe? When it caught my temple it knocked me clear from the kayak, overturning it and plummeting me into the river.
I remember little pieces of the rest. I must have been under that water for some time, at least it felt like a long time. But I wasn’t unconscious. Stunned. Finally, my lungs exploded into life. When I clawed myself to the surface of the river, luck or fate, I bobbed up right underneath my kayak, a bubble of air in the seat pocket above my head. I still held my breath, then eased it out slow and even. I heard the click of a jackknife, a tug on my kayak. The Bassmaster’s engine was already revving and moving slightly away. Bumping and one man’s voice. Grunting, and swear words, but always only one voice. Only one.
I never moved. I should have, but I didn’t. I’ll really never know what happened next and I can’t sleep with the not knowing.
The motor revved strong and the Bassmaster moved away. Sometimes I still think I hear screams off down river.
Calling my name.