Jacqueline Armstrong only looked at her phone for a second.
Past eleven at night, she had the mountain road to herself. The twin headlights of her beat-to-hell SUV sliced through the gloom. She’d had the window down for a moment, so the bite of the wind could wake her up. The lake — which glittered in the dark, off to her left — wafted an algae perfume into the car. The radio, its lights like demon eyes in the dusk, glowed red. The DJ mumbled to himself and threw on another classic rock track, as the reception fuzzed in and out.
The Nokia buzzed on the dashboard, its lit-up face reflected in the windscreen. Jackie couldn’t see who’d messaged her from here, despite craning her neck. One hand still on the wheel, she reached across and fumbled for the phone. The course of the SUV wavered — a bit — as she grasped the mobile, but she kept the car on the road.
She hit the button and glanced down. Her heart dropped. Another message from Terry. He wanted to know what her answer was. He wanted to know why she had avoided him until now. How could she tell him that she still didn’t know? How could she ask him for even more time to think it over? “I need an answer, damnit.” Those had been his last words to her before she left. “I need an actual answer, here, Jackie.”
How long had it been since his ultimatum? Six days? Their “big talk” had come last Saturday, on their date night. Well, here came midnight on Friday, less than 40 minutes away. A week without returning any of Terry’s texts, without picking up any of his calls. How much more could she continue to dodge him? If she didn’t love him, it might be easier. Then again, if she did love him, it would also be easier. She didn’t know. How could a person ever know such a thing? How could anyone ever make a decision that—
The SUV’s tires snarled as the surface beneath changed. The wheel jerked beneath her flimsy handhold.
Jackie glanced up in time to see the metal guardrail, right in front of her.
Perpendicular to her.
She dropped the mobile and grasped the wheel with both hands. Her foot slammed the brake, hard enough to damn well go through the footwell. Jackie tugged the wheel in the opposite direction. The rear end fishtailed, the tires squealed.
But it wouldn’t be enough, she saw.
The front end tore through the rail, sheared straight through the metal. The back tires scrambled for a hold, even as the front plunged over the edge.
She tensed up and cupped her head in her arms.
Gravity did the rest.
The microseconds tick-tick-ticked away in suspension. The world slowed to an almost stop. Ink-black diamonds shimmered ahead, the crests of the lake’s waves in the moonlight. Its shoreline invisible, its depths incalculable. Somewhere beneath its southern banks, serrated rocks grinned like teeth.
And then Jackie’s whole reality took a violent plunge downwards.
Her stomach lurched within and seemed to smack against the wall of her ribs. Her heart rose to the base of her throat and lodged itself there — fat and throbbing. All the air escaped her mouth, lungs contracted. She didn’t even have the breath to scream.
The SUV dived forward. Its nose dropped, the rear end rose. Like some twisted rollercoaster. All beyond the windshield nothing more than a tenebrous blur. The seatbelt cut into Jackie’s neck.
The tip of the car crunched into something. The airbags flumped in her face, knocked her head back into the headrest with a hollow click. Down became up as the SUV somersaulted. Blood in her mouth from where she’d bitten her tongue. Jackie braced for another impact.
But it never came.
Instead, her neck lurched with a shudder. An explosive splash — somewhere above her head. The sound of an airborne whale as it crashes back down into the ocean. A roar of water — shh, shh.
She’d arrived at the lake.
Jackie gasped and tried to decipher the disorientation, mouth filled with copper. The SUV rocked and bobbed, the most chaotic of its motions now over. The balloon of the airbags filled the front of the car, huge and pillowy. The tug of gravity against her seatbelt told her the SUV had done a complete flip. No doubt its wheels waggled in the air as it dipped into the blackness of the lake. Some great, mechanical tortoise, trapped on its back.
“Oh, god…” She fought the airbag out of her face. Shock punched her in the gut. Small aches and pains started to throb up, here and there. Jackie moved her head, shook her fingers, wiggled her toes. All extremities obeyed their commands — some with a grumble. No broken neck, at least. Everything else was up for debate.
Didn’t they say the first 90 seconds after crashing into the water were the most important? What did they always say to do? Take your seatbelt off? Leave it on? Open the windows and doors? Wait until the pressure is equal and then try to open them? What? What?
Any of the above. All the above. None of the above. Jackie couldn’t remember anything. None of the cautionary advice, none of the instructions she’d heard. It all swarmed around her mind, contradictory snowflakes in a blizzard. She punched the airbag — a little bit deflated, now — away and reached one hand to the door. Her bloodied fingers trembled over the electronic button for the windows.
If she pressed it now, wouldn’t the water rush through? She looked to the windows and saw only blackness. Was the SUV on the surface of the lake? Or had it already started to sink? If water gushed in and it turned out her seatbelt had seized, that would be it for her. No, seatbelt first.
Jackie thought she’d prepared herself for the drop, but she still yelped as she smacked onto the roof. Her skull cracked into the ceiling and her neck bent at an awkward angle. The SUV rocked from side to side with the impact. Deep swishes in the water. No, not underwater yet. At least, not completely.
She flailed, limbs splayed like a newborn calf’s, and scrambled for the door in the darkness. The button for the windows had a glow-in-the-dark symbol painted on it. Jackie searched for that dim greenness like a moth. She found it, searched for the door handle, and pulled.
No thunk-clunk, no noise at all, no sensation of movement.
Jackie felt for the window button and depressed it.
No whirr of a motor.
No rush of water.
The crash had decommissioned both.
A four-legged octopus, she thrashed at the deployed airbags. But the balloons occupied half of the interior. She could not climb over to the passenger side. And even if she’d had space, would her movements have caused the SUV to sink faster? That scene from Jurassic Park loomed in her mind, larger than the reality of the situation.
Movement outside the window. Water lapped against the glass. Impossible to tell if half-submerged or worse. If the water hadn’t swallowed the car yet, it would soon.
Jackie screamed and lashed out at the barrier of the driver’s side window. She punched it and yelled again when agony jolted up her arm. She slapped it with her open hands, thumped it with the heel of her palm. But it only shuddered in its frame — a mild inconvenience.
A wasp buzzed above her head. Her Nokia jived across the roof. Another message from Terry. Jackie swore at the little device. “Not now!” If she ever got out of this alive, that’d be her answer for him — not now. Too soon, much too soon. They had fun, he seemed nice. But too fast — he wanted to move too fast.
Not that it’d matter if she drowned here in her car.
Jackie shrieked at the glass as if her piercing voice could shatter it. She pawed at the glovebox and leaflets and letters fell out. No penknives stashed away. No screwdrivers, long since forgotten. Pages and pamphlets. The useless clutter fell around her in rain, and she screamed again in exasperation.
She twisted around in the narrow confines between chair and airbag. Positioned herself feet first and kicked. Kicked. Kicked again. Kicked so hard her ankle hurt and the ball of her foot ached. Why hadn’t she worn heels today? Why? No. Stupid flats. “Goddamnit!”
Her fingers reached across the floor-roof and found the switch for the interior light. She clicked it, expecting it to be dead. To her surprise, it flicked on and blinded her with its brilliance. Her eyes darted to the window — she couldn’t help it. And her heart sank for the second time that night.
The light faded through the glass, dissipated in the murky waters outside.
And, now that she thought about it, weren’t those ice-cold puddles pooled around her hands?
Her heart tripped over itself.
How much time had elapsed?
How much time remained?
How much had she wasted?
Jackie could all but hear the tick of the clock, as it marched towards her doom.
Her wide eyes rolled around the interior of the car, desperate for something sharp and heavy. Droplets of blood, scattered papers. If only she’d kept a messier vehicle. Terry wouldn’t have had this goddamn problem — not with his bombshell of a car.
Her gaze settled on the headrest.
Two metal shafts.
Didn’t they come off?
Jackie would find out. She grabbed the sucker with both hands. She favoured her right, as — she’d come to discover — she’d fractured her left wrist. She grunted, pulled, and twisted. As if it were the head of Mr Fontana, who shamed her in high school for the skirts she wore. How she wished she could have ripped his skull from his spine. She imagined that’s what she had in her hands right now.
The headrest zipped free, and she almost lost hold of it.
By now, the water had begun to leak in through the cracks. She never would have thought this old piece of crap would be watertight, and damn if she didn’t turn out to be right again. How she hated to be right.
Jackie held the headrest by one of the metal poles and swung it at the window — the other shaft pointed outwards. She gritted her teeth and snarled. If she’d looked into a mirror at that moment, Jackie would not have recognised herself. Bloodied, cut, and bruised. With fires of determination ablaze behind her eyes.
The metal shaft of the headrest bounced off the glass.
Not even a scratch left upon its impact.
Jackie screeched. She teetered on the brink of a full-on meltdown, a childlike tantrum. And then the logical engineer in her brain told her to try a different tactic, but the same tool. Leverage whispered the reptilian part of her brain. Leverage.
She jammed the peg down the gap between the window and the door. The window had always been a bit wobbly. She shoved it down as far as it could go — quite a bit, as it turned out. With her jaw set firm, Jackie grabbed the other shaft and pulled. Pulled as hard as she could and angled the headrest to put maximal pressure on the window.
She grunted — teeth bared like a wild animal. Held her breath, tensed every muscle.
The window bent a little in its frame, pushed outward.
And when it could go no further, it cracked.
A split, straight down the middle, raced up the window.
The glass exploded into a million tiny pieces.
Black water raced in.
Jackie had enough time to suck a small mouthful of air in before the icy blackness hit. It rocked her backwards, into the cushion of her airbag. The cold of the water numbed her flesh in seconds, tiny tendrils tingled through her nerves. A cacophony of bubbles in the endless ink. They swarmed and raced towards her, fragments of glass and sheaves of paper caught along for the ride.
She wasted no time. Once the initial shock of the exposure had passed, she fought her way through the space of the window. The ghost of the airbag brushed against her bare skin and she squirmed. Nightmarish visions of eels and sharks and lake snakes. She’d gotten this far without panic. Jackie had earned this one little blip.
And then she was out. Out of the car. Out into the water of the lake. Bubbles all around her, a tornado of air pockets. They all raced in one direction: UP. Jackie followed them, thrashed as if a great white chased her.
Her lungs burned. Her pulse thumped in her temples, louder than a nightclub’s bass thud. She fought and floundered and clawed her way through the water. Sure she’d never make it. Her air would run out before she reached the surface. Cthulhu would grab her ankle before she could escape the lake. They’d find her in a week, it would take a team of rescue divers to recover her body, and by that time she’d—
Jackie exploded through the surface of the lake.
She gulped down a breath of the evening’s chill, the harsh rake of the glacial wind against her face. Cold, cold, cold. And lights. Lights upon her, lights in her face. She grimaced against the glare and trod water. Shouts in the distance. Rough voices — panicked, excited. “Over here!” Movement. “Over here!”
Jackie followed the commotion, doggy paddled through the ice water. A doggy paddle with a slight limp. Now the adrenaline worked its way out of her system, the damage she’d suffered began to make itself clear. But she could breathe. She could swim. She could smash a hole in the window of an SUV. One idea strobed in her mind, clear as a neon sign: IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE.
At the thought of her car, another notion hit her.
She’d left her phone down in the SUV.
What the hell?
Jackie punched aside the worry, her indecisiveness since drowned.
She had an answer for Terry, now.
He could wait one more day to hear it.