Authors: Sara Vinduska
A Novel by
To Matt. For your love, support, and inspiration on each step of our journey together. You had me at chocolate chip cookies.
Thank you to the early supporters of The Drowning Man: Terry and Cindy Vinduska, Sharon Frazier, James T. Frazier, Tom Dundon, Helen J. Meier, L. Magana, Holly Pennington, Susie Wessel, Hapie Phillips, Karon Luddy, The Stevens Family, and Travis W. Inman.
Trent and Eddie were twelve and ten that summer. School was out. It was the first Monday of their summer break. They splashed each other in the river that ran through the woods behind Trent's house, enjoying the last rays of the late May sun.
Trent laughed as Eddie disappeared beneath the calm surface of the river. He floated on his back, waiting for Eddie to come back up. He closed his eyes, the sun feeling deliciously warm on his skin. No more school. He let his mind drift. Just a few more minutes of peace then they'd head back.
Trent opened his eyes and put his feet into the muddy river bottom. It was quiet. Too quiet. “Eddie,” he called out. No response. “Stop screwing around, we have to go home soon.”
He wasn't worried yet, Eddie hadn't been under that long, and they could both hold their breath a really long time. He was annoyed, though. His dad would kill him if he was late to dinner and it was a twenty minute walk back home. He ducked his head under the surface but was unable to see through the cloudy water. Where was Eddie? He couldn't have just disappeared. Trent surfaced and looked towards the shore, expecting to see his best friend sitting there on the ground laughing at him.
“Eddie, come on. It's not funny anymore.”
There was still no response. He looked around frantically in all directions. He was alone, the surface of the water calm. No ripples. No bubbles.
The first wave of fear rolled through his belly.
Cross Pointe Park, Kansas City, MO
Trent Barlow smiled as the first rumbles of thunder echoed overhead. His feet pounded the trail, and his lungs worked rhythmically as he fixed his eyes on the hill fifty feet ahead. The late summer air was heavy and wet with the coming rain. He figured he had thirty more minutes before the rain started and wanted to make the most of it.
He crested the hill and slowed his pace. A small person was bent over, hands on their knees, just off the main trail. A woman. Maybe she was hurt or needed help. He pulled up and stopped alongside her. “You okay?” he asked, breathing hard.
He recognized her face the instant she stood, though he hadn't seen her in over twenty years. The shock of seeing her now felt like a punch to his gut.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked. He wiped sweat from his forehead and tried to slow down his breathing.
The woman smiled but it didn't reach her eyes. “Waiting for you.”
Trent wasn't sure how to respond to that. “How are you?” he asked, looking down at the ground.
“I haven't been well since Ed died.” Her cold eyes met his.
Trent swallowed hard. “Caroline –”
“Just shut up, Trent.”
Her words hit him like a blast of heat and he took a step back in surprise at the force of her anger.
“I'm going to need you to come with me now,” she said.
“Look, I'm really sorry for whatever you're going through and if I can do anything to help, let me know, but I need to get going.” He looked up at the darkening clouds. “You should get going too. Storm's going to be here soon.”
“It's already here,” she said as a tall, stocky, blond man stepped out from behind a tree. The man held a shotgun in his hands, the barrel aimed squarely at Trent's chest.
The gravity of the situation hit hard. Adrenaline spiked his heart rate and his stomach contracted. But he faced life or death situations every day on his job. He could face this. The situation wasn’t out of control. Yet. He could still diffuse it. He looked from one of them to the other. “Caroline, let’s talk about this,” he said in a steady, calm voice.
“Sorry Trent, I’m all talked out.” She nodded at the line of trees as the man with the gun stepped closer. “Move.”
He didn't have a choice. Even if he took off running as fast as he could, he couldn't outrun a shotgun blast. “You don't have to do this,” he said.
“Yes, I do.”
The man racked the shotgun.
Trent started walking.
Trent lay on his back on the narrow twin bed and stared up at the white ceiling, stared at the window that held no hope of escape, stared at the locked door. Thunder echoed outside. Sleep would not come.
The ride to Caroline’s house from the trails had been spent in silence, Trent in the passenger seat of a Mercedes SUV while she drove, the big blond man in the back with the gun aimed at Trent through the seat. The silence had been maddening. Then they’d stopped, miles outside the city and he’d been ushered through part of a well-furnished house and down a long carpeted hallway. Caroline unlocked a door on the right about halfway down the hallway and without a word, the big, blond bastard with the gun had shoved him inside and he’d heard the lock click into place.
The room he was in was nothing special. Just a regular bedroom. Except for the fact that it contained only a bed. Then there was the bar-covered window and steel door that locked from the outside only. Not good signs.
The window faced the back of the isolated property, offering only views of distant trees and a few hills. No roads. No way to signal anyone. He was alone.
Caroline hadn't killed him, so what did she want? It wasn't like she needed money from a ransom. And Christ, it had been what- twenty years since Eddie died? Why now?
The amount of planning she'd put into this … She'd known his schedule, known where he went running. Whatever she had in mind for him, it had been in the works for a long time.
Who would even think to look for him at Caroline's house? Would they believe he'd just run off? God, his brother would be out of his mind with worry. He hated knowing that he wouldn’t be there to help the guys in his firehouse. Too many questions and no answers. Frustration and rage coursed through his body.
Though he knew it wouldn't do any good, he pounded against the door, he shouted at them to let him go. His efforts were met with silence.
He crossed the room to the barred window. He watched the sun fade as rain streamed down. He pressed his face against the window so he could see the stars as the distant rumbles of thunder faded.
Hours passed. He did sit-ups, pushups, stretched, anything he could think of to do in the confined space. The physical movements helped to take the edge off as well as pass time
Exhausted, but mind still racing, he sank down into the corner facing the door and waited.
She came for him in the middle of the night. Trent scrambled to his feet as soon as the door swung open. The big man pointed the gun at him from the doorway while Caroline pulled a blindfold out of her pocket.
“I have a surprise for you,” she whispered in his ear as she tied it tight around his eyes.
His heart rate kicked up, but he fought to not show any visible reaction until he knew what the hell she had in mind.
“Move,” she ordered.
Trent followed as she led him out of the room and down the hallway. Heavy footsteps of the man with the gun echoed a short distance behind. They came to a stop and he heard the click of a door being unlocked. The room they entered had the echo and feel of a large empty space and the air inside was several degrees colder than the hallway. Caroline took his hand, her touch gentle, and led him a few steps inside then up a short flight of metal stairs, the man with the shotgun right behind, the muzzle pressed hard into Trent’s spine.
The blindfold was jerked off and Trent blinked, momentarily blinded. When his eyes adjusted, his mouth went dry and he was unable to speak. He was standing next to Caroline on an eight-by-eight foot grated metal scaffolding with a small opening cut into the center. Inches below the opening was a clear tank full of water.
“I'm sorry Trent, it's the only way,” she said, her face expressionless.
Trent looked at the man with the shotgun, who stood one step down from them and met cold eyes. No help there. He turned back to Caroline. “Killing me is not going to bring Eddie back.”
She slapped his face. “Of course not. Nothing will ever bring him back. But I can't live anymore knowing that you're out there walking around, living a life you've stolen. A life that should have been his. You were older. You should have taken care of him.” The last words were a whisper.
Trent looked down into the tank of clear water. There was no way out. She'd built this thing for him. To kill him.
“It's time,” she said, calm again, her voice like ice, smooth and cold.
There was nothing in her eyes. No emotion. There was nothing he could say to change her mind. Her decision had been made a long time ago. Even knowing this, he couldn't bring himself to do what she asked. He was not ready to die.
“No,” he said. He grabbed her arm, pulling her body in front of him. He looked down at the man with the gun. “I go, she goes.”
Caroline didn't struggle against him. “Don't make this more difficult than it has to be, Trent. Just let go,” she said.
Trent knew he was doing nothing but buying a few more precious minutes of life. The man with the gun was coming up onto the platform. Nowhere to go. His arm tightened around Caroline’s body.
“Drowning is much more peaceful than getting shot, I assure you,” she said.
The man and the gun were a foot in front of him now. The man snaked out a hand, pulling Caroline towards him at the same time he kicked Trent in the chest, sending him backwards into the tank.
The water was unexpectedly warm, just like that summer day. Trent opened his eyes, saw Caroline sliding the glass panel closed above him. He kicked upwards. There wasn't enough room at the top for him to get any air. Caroline was alone on the platform now, looking down at him through the glass.
him. He pounded his fists against the top, inches from her head, willing her to change her mind. She continued to watch him, not moving.
He'd nearly drowned too on that spring day twenty years ago, swimming along the bottom of the river searching for Eddie until a neighbor who'd overheard his shouts and screams pulled his exhausted body from the water. Eddie had not been so lucky. Rescuers found his body three days later, four miles from where they'd been swimming.
Trent barely left the house until school started back up. It was another year before he hung out with the other kids again. He never went back to the river. There were still moments to this day that he'd become paralyzed with guilt and sadness, wishing it had been him that had died instead of Eddie.
He wondered if he could still hold his breath as long as he'd been able to that summer.
His lungs spasmed and his vision darkened. He wouldn't last much longer. He swam to the farthest edge of the tank and turned towards the bottom. He would not give her the satisfaction of watching his face as he died. He could at least deny her that. His mouth opened involuntarily and water rushed down his throat.
I'll see you soon Eddie
, he thought just before the darkness swallowed him.
Consciousness slammed back into Trent with a forceful push on his chest. He coughed, sputtered, and sucked in air. What the hell? Breathing hard, he pushed himself to a sitting position. He fought through the confusion and waited for his vision to clear. Caroline was kneeling on the floor next to him. She'd changed her mind, thank God.
“Tell me what it was like?” she asked. “Did Ed suffer? Is it like going to sleep?”
Trent studied her face, so calm and serious. It was almost comical. If he answered her questions, would she let him go? He looked at the tank of water and shuddered. “Caroline, I don't know what Eddie felt.”
“Were you afraid, Trent?”
“Angry.” He coughed out the last of the water in his lungs.
He glared at her in answer, as he caught his breath again.
“Did you see your life? Did you think of those who loved you?” she asked.
“I thought of Eddie.”
Her eyes closed briefly. “I need more, Trent.”
He saw it in her eyes when she opened them. She was going to do it again. “No,” he said.
She stood and nodded at the big blond man standing in the doorway. He took a step closer to them.
Trent scrambled to his feet, water still dripping steadily off his body and onto the floor.
Trent was losing track of time. He'd lost count of the number of times he'd drowned. He probably should be dead already.
He didn't know which was worse, the actual drowning or the not knowing when Caroline and the silent man she called Simon would come for him. There was no clock in the room but he didn't need one to tell him that there was no pattern to the torture. At times, it seemed she'd barely left him alone before she was back. Other times, the waiting was endless. Then again, maybe it just seemed that way to him.