Read The River Online

Authors: Gary Paulsen

Tags: #Adventure, #Children, #Young Adult, #Classic

The River (6 page)


Then the next flash of light and he was on his knees.


Then he was leaning forward and his hand was out, reaching for his briefcase and radio next to the bed, one finger out, his face concentrating; and Brian thought, no, don’t reach, stay low; and he might have yelled it, screamed it, but it didn’t matter. No sound could be loud enough to get over the thunder.

There was a slashing, new, impossibly loud crack as lightning seemed to hit the shelter itself and Brian saw the top of the pine next to the opening suddenly explode and felt/saw the bolt come roaring down the tree, burning and splitting and splintering the wood and bark, and he saw it hit Derek.

Camera image.

, some blueness of heat and light and raw power seemed to jump from the tree to the briefcase and radio and enter Derek’s hand. All in the same part of a second it hit him and his back arched, snapped him erect, and then it seemed to fill the whole shelter and slammed into Brian as well.

He saw the blueness, almost a ball of energy, the crack/flash of color that came from inside his mind, inside his life, and then he was back and down and saw nothing more.


efore his eyes opened there was light through the eyelids, bright light, but they didn’t want to open and focus. He tasted things, smelled things. Something was burned, there was the stink of something burned. Hair. Burned hair.

It smelled awful.

He opened his eyes wide, blinked, forced them to work and saw that he was on his back, looking at the stone-layered ceiling of the overhang.

It was daylight, broad daylight, and he wondered why it was that he would be lying on his back on the dirt, looking at the ceiling in the middle of the day.

Then he remembered.

Parts of it: the sound, the light, the thunder, and the slamming and cracking of it; and he was afraid. He did not know what he was afraid of at first, he was just afraid, and then, finally, he remembered Derek.

It had hit him.

He had seen it hit Derek.

He rolled on his side. His body felt stiff, mashed into the ground, and the sudden movement made his vision blur.


He saw Derek—or the form of Derek. He was facedown on his bed, his right hand out, his left arm back and down his side. Blurred, he was all blurred and asleep—how could he be all blurred? Brian shook his head, tried to focus.

Derek was still asleep. How strange, Brian thought—how strange that Derek should still be asleep in the bright daylight, and he knew then that Derek was not sleeping, but did not want to think of the other thing.

Let’s reason it out
, he thought, his mind as blurred as his vision. Reason it all out. Derek was reaching for the radio and briefcase and the lightning hit the tree next to the shelter and came down the tree and across the air and into Derek and he fell…


He was still asleep.

He wasn’t that other thing. Not that other word.

But Brian’s eyes began to clear then and saw that Derek was lying with his head to the side and that it was facing Brian and the eyes weren’t closed.

They were open.

He was on his side not moving and his eyes were open and Brian thought how strange it was that he would sleep that way—mashed on his stomach.

He knew Derek wasn’t sleeping.

He knew.


He couldn’t be. Couldn’t be . . . dead. Not Derek.

Finally, he accepted it.

Brian rose to his hands and knees, stiff and with great slowness, and crawled across the floor of the shelter to where Derek lay.

The large man lay on his stomach as he’d dropped, his head turned to the left. The eyes were not fully open, but partially lidded, and the pupils stared blankly, unfocused toward the back of the shelter.

Brian touched his cheek. He remembered how when the pilot had his heart attack he had felt cool—the dead skin had felt cool.

Derek’s skin did not have the coolness, it felt warm; and Brian kneeled next to him and saw that he was breathing.

Tiny little breaths, his chest barely rising and falling, but he was breathing, the air going in and out, and he was not the other word—not dead—and Brian leaned over him.


There was no answer, no indication that Derek had heard him.

“Derek. Can you hear anything I’m saying?”

Still no sign, no movement.

So, Brian thought—so he’s what? He’s knocked out. He got hit and he’s knocked out and if I wait and make him comfortable he’ll come out of it.

That was it. Just knocked out.

Derek’s head looked twisted at an uncomfortable angle and Brian moved Derek’s body onto its side and set his head—the neck felt rubbery and loose—on his rolled-up jacket for a pillow. As he did he saw the briefcase and radio.

The radio.

There it was, right there on the briefcase; and if there was ever a need for it, it was now.

He picked it up, turned the switch on.

“Katie One, this is Katie Two, over.”

His mother’s name. It was a small thing, a way to include his mother. They used her name as the call sign and Derek had shown Brian how to use the radio, the correct procedure in case of an emergency.

Like now.

“Katie One, this is Katie Two, over.”

Nothing. He turned the squelch control down and listened for the hiss of static, but there was nothing. Not even noise.


“Katie One, this is Katie Two, over.”

Dead air. He saw, then, that next to where the antenna came out of the case, there was a small discolored spot on the plastic. It was a burn mark. The radio was made to be used outdoors, tough, with a weatherproof case around it, and when he opened the outside case he saw that the lightning had hit the radio as well as Derek and him.

There was a jagged line burned in the plastic on the back and even without opening the case and seeing the inside he knew the radio was blown.

What to do? Think. He couldn’t think right.

He put the radio down and turned back to Derek. There was no change at all—no movement except for the short rise and fall of his chest with his breathing. The eyes were still partially opened, as they had been.


What did he know that could help?

Lightning had hit the tree next to the overhang, come down the side—he saw where the pine bark was burned and literally blown from the tree—and then must have come out on a root or jumped away from the tree somehow.

No, that wasn’t right. He’d read somewhere that lightning struck
, not down—moved from the ground up.

Somehow it had come from the ground, through Derek and the radio and him to the tree, and then up, except that it seemed to come down and Derek shouldn’t have reached out, shouldn’t have risen…

He shook his head. Stupid. None of that mattered.

Electrical shock. What did you do when there was electrical shock?


To get them breathing again, you had to give them C.P.R.—except that Derek was breathing already.

Heart. He should check the heart.

He put his fingers on Derek’s wrist, but couldn’t find the pulse—but when he checked his own he couldn’t find that either. He put his ear to Derek’s chest and heard the heart thumping. He tried to time it, but couldn’t transpose the number of beats per minute measured on his digital watch into a pulse rate because he couldn’t think.


The lightning came, took the tree, then Derek, the radio, him—and they were all knocked down and out.

There it was—maybe Derek was just knocked out and would come to in a little while.

Somehow he knew that wasn’t true. Something in the way Derek looked made the condition look like more than just being knocked out. Yet Brian wanted it to be, wanted it to be so much that he forced himself to believe it.

Derek was breathing evenly—short breaths, but even—and his heart was beating regularly.

He was just knocked out.

Brian would make him comfortable and then wait next to him. Wait for him to come to.

He would wait.


he rest of that day and through the night, he kneeled next to Derek.


He only moved to get a drink and eat some berries and go to the bathroom, the rest of the time he kneeled next to Derek, putting a piece of wood on the fire now and then to keep it going, waiting. Waiting.

And he knew.

He knew that Derek was not just unconscious, was more seriously hurt than that, and still he did not know what to do.

Or if he could do anything.

The radio was gone. They had made a schedule that said they would check in once a week or so—it was very loose—and that they would call if there was an emergency. Derek had just done the weekly check-in the afternoon before, so they wouldn’t think it odd that there were no calls. The bush-plane headquarters said they would keep their radio on around the clock, but not necessarily manned all the time, so even if he had a radio, Brian might not be able to get them right away. Of course, he could call any other airplane and report the emergency.

If he had a radio.

So he could not call for help, and they would not worry for another week or so, when Derek did not call in. There they were, where they sat.

Derek was down, unconscious.

In a coma.

word came. He had been afraid of the word
before and now this word,
. He’d have to stop that, have to face things better than he was facing them. He knew almost nothing of medical terms or what happened to people with severe shock, and knew less than nothing about comas.

He’d seen movies about people in comas for months and months or years and years and then they would suddenly snap out of it and wonder how long they’d been asleep.

In the night, next to Derek, he tried to will him awake.
Snap awake now and ask how long you’ve been sleeping. Now. And we’ll laugh and talk about how close the lightning came.

But it did not work.

Derek did not awaken, made no change of any kind. Somewhere just before dawn, when the first light of false dawn was making the western side of the lake come into view, Brian finally accepted it.

Derek was in a coma and was apparently not going to snap out of it. At least not soon.

That left everything, everything on Brian, and for a moment he felt a touch of anger and resentment.

The woods.

The damn woods.

Last time he’d almost died, would have died, except for luck, and now this—this again. All this dumped on him just because he tried to do the right thing, and he didn’t even want to do it. Anyway, Derek was so dumb that he raised up and reached out when he should have stayed low and . . . and . . . and. . .

Listen to me
, he thought.
If I were talking out loud, I’d be whining.

Derek gets hit and I act like I’m the one getting messed up.

It was this way, he thought. Derek was unconscious and it seemed to be a coma—or something like a coma.

He did not seem to be coming out of it.

The radio did not work and Brian could not call for help.

So, then what?

They might come looking in a week or ten days. Could he stay here with Derek for a week or ten days and wait for them?

Could he
stay? What choices did he have?

If he stayed and Derek didn’t regain consciousness, how long would he . . . last? If he didn’t get food and water, could he stay alive?

They never talked about that in movies or on television. They never said what they did with people in a coma. Fed them through tubes, probably.

But he couldn’t do that.

He had to try to put food and water down Derek’s throat, and if he did that he might choke him and kill him.

So he couldn’t really do that, either.

“So, then,” he said aloud, speaking to and not to Derek at the same time. “What can I do?”

He had kneeled next to Derek almost all night, and when he tried to stand, his knees almost buckled. He rolled sideways and flexed his legs, and while he was rolled to the side he smelled it.

Oh, yes—I’d forgotten that kind of thing—the bathroom. Derek would, of course, have to go to the bathroom—his body functions would keep going. Or would they? Yes, apparently they would.

There was that too. To take care of Derek, truly take care of him—he’d never had to do anything like it before, take care of someone.

Himself, sure, but he’d never been really responsible for some other person, and he wondered what to do—what a person did.

The anger had passed, but he felt immense frustration at his helplessness.

It had to be done. He had to clean Derek, take care of him, take care of another human being. Look at it that way, he thought—not Derek, but another person. He had to clean this helpless person—if he kept it detached, maybe he could do it.

Why would it be so hard anyway?

He unfastened Derek’s pants and the smell grew stronger.

“Oh, God.”

He fought the nausea down, controlled it, turned Derek over and held his breath and used grass to clean him. Then he pulled the pants up and put him on his side again.

Parents—how did parents do it? It was horrible—how could they do it? He used sticks to carry it and the grass to the hole they had dug for a bathroom and covered it with dirt, then went down to the lake and washed his hands again and again until he could hold them to his face and not smell anything. When they were clean and he could breathe normally without choking, he went back to Derek.

Comfort—he could do what he could to make Derek more comfortable. Brian moved him and rearranged the pine boughs to make a softer bed.

Then he pulled Derek onto his back on the new boughs, but was alarmed when Derek seemed to begin to choke or breathe strangely, and he put him back on his side.

So, nothing.

Nothing he could do, not really.

It was full light now, warm, with the sun drying the rain off the grass. A warm summer morning with birds singing, Brian thought, looking across the mirrored surface of the lake—a beautiful summer morning with birds singing and fish jumping on the lake and everything perfect, except for this one thing. This one little thing.

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