Paul didn’t panic. He swung his legs downstream and turned his attention to unbuckling his hipbelt so he could shrug his heavy pack off. He took a deep breath and let his head sink below the water so he could better grapple the buckle with cold fingers. Got it! He pulled his arms free and raised his head—just in time to see he was heading straight for a tree lying in the river. There was no way to avoid it. The current sucked him under, and he came to a sudden, painful stop; he felt like he’d been stabbed in the arm, chest, stomach, and both legs. He was pinned against the tree’s branches, trapped underwater.
Amy raced frantically along the bank. But even as she searched for Paul, she replayed the scene in her mind. Had she caused him to fall in? Had Paul been so repelled by her news that he had to step away from her? “Paul!” she shouted again, forcing the thought from her mind. Surely his head would appear downstream, bobbing in the swirling water with that silly grin he’d flashed this morning when he’d accidently poured coffee into his cereal while rushing to pack.
But Paul didn’t surface. He struggled to push his way through the pine’s branches, but they were too close and dense. He couldn’t move an inch upstream. The river was running at 1,500 cubic feet per second. After 30 seconds, Paul felt his chest tighten, but he knew he could hold his breath longer than a minute. He continued to push against the branches, though his arms were weaker now, his muscles deprived of oxygen. Push, he told himself, push.
After 90 seconds, all he could do was fight the urge to breathe. Then his body rebelled. He involuntarily gasped, filling his lungs with icy water and searing pain. The water roared in his ears. Where was the peaceful silence of drowning everyone talks about?
With one last effort, he forced his hand down through the water, where it came to rest on the ring in his pocket.