Elijah would be having a fit.
I’m not sure where the thought comes from, but it’s not welcome. It makes me clutch my stomach on a childish sob. His reaction when I told him I went kayaking in the sunshine springs to mind. He didn’t even like that. If he knew I was about to paddle across the Cooper River during a thunderstorm, he would…throw another mattress out the window.
Stop. I have to stop thinking about the one thing making it hardest to leave. Elijah genuinely cares about me. Enough to care for me when I’m sick. Enough to introduce me to his friends, his parents. Enough to split open a headboard with an axe.
If only it was enough.
He’s probably with Naomi right now, I remind myself. I brought them back together. And it’s that horrible mental jolt that has me climbing into the kayak.
The tide has risen so high that it takes almost no effort to push back from shore with my paddle. I’m on the river and turning, turning, heading in the right direction. Yes, the water is a lot bumpier than usual, but I’m not thinking about that. I can’t think about it, because the rain turns violent. It slashes horizontal, pummeled by the wind, hurting my eyes and making it impossible to see in more than a squint. But I have to get across the river, there’s no choice, so I aim my kayak toward the outcropping where the launch is located and I paddle with everything I’m worth. Every few seconds a thick swell pushes me off course, but I work double time to get back on the watery path and I push. I push.
Until the lights across the river blink—and they go out. They go out.
Did they lose power? I can’t see the distant, reassuring glow of the rental hut anymore.
Far off to my right, the white lights of the bridge are nothing more than a blur. Maybe I can judge my location based on the landmark, though? Yes, I know the correct distance and as long as I keep the bridge to my right, I’m bound to hit land—
A wave slams into the kayak and I gasp.
Just like that the bridge is behind me. Which way was forward?
My legs turn freezing and I realize the wave has filled the kayak with water.
“No, no, no.” My words come out in a chatter of teeth. “Keep paddling.”
It takes me some time, but I manage to get the bridge back on the correct side of me and begin paddling again, harder than before. I’m going to make it. I will make it.
I don’t expect a second, bigger wave.
I make it to the police docks just in time, which is a relief and a curse, because I want them out on the river finding Addison. Now. I want her safe now. My mind is caving in on itself, rejecting any kind of hope, projecting worst-case scenarios instead. I’ve never been swimming with her, so I have no idea how well she’d handle rough water. In this petrified state in which I’m currently living, all I can do is berate myself for never taking her swimming. All that wasted time, blind to the fact that I loved her, I could have been taking her to Isle of Palms to swim in the ocean. Could have taken her on vacations or hell, just gone kayaking with her, like I said I would. What have I been doing? Everything is a fucking blur, except for her face. I have failed. I have failed at the only thing that matters. Her.
We’re in the police watercraft, speeding toward the section of the river where Addison should be. We’re not the only ones, either. It’s possible I threatened the chief of police’s job if he didn’t get every available unit on the goddamn river. Despite the storm, there’s a police chopper bringing up the rear of our search party, his spotlight moving in patterns on the water. There’s a second helicopter, too, belonging to a news station, but I’m willing to take all the help we can get.
God, it’s so damn dark. I hate knowing she could be out here alone.
“This is it.” Chris turns and nods to me from his position at the wheel and I grab hold of a metal overhead bar and lunge to my feet, looking out over the water, praying like a madman for some sign of her. Please. Please. She’s such a fierce, beautiful girl and I wish like hell I could muster some faith in her ability to survive this, but I’m too terrified. I’m too aware that I’ve fucked up so badly that the universe might just deal me this final blow out of sheer disgust.
Rain lashes my face in razor-sharp sheets, the boat lifting and falling beneath me in angry swells. I can’t see. How can I find her if I can’t see?