“I’ve got you! Just hold on! Hold on!”
He pushed the water with one arm, and prayed it’d propel them to the riverbank a little faster than possible. The woman in his other arm coughed and struggled to breathe as water spilled over her face. He thought he could feel her kicking, occasionally–trying to help, he hoped–as they approached the muddy ledge.
“Here,” he panted, when they finally reached the bank, “hold on… Can you?” He pressed her hands to the cool grass and held onto her until her feet found purchase in the slippery mudbank. He pushed her forward as she fought against the river’s tug and crawled onto solid ground. He followed, wanting to collapse, but instead turned the woman onto her side as her lungs and stomach fought to expel the water they’d taken on. He closed his eyes and fought down the bile rising in his own throat as she lurched in a series of shuddering wretches.
Finally, still catching her breath, she held up a hand and he helped her ease back to sit upright.
“I have to move further up,” he said, his voice thick, head turned away from the woman.
He glanced back to meet her stare, and nodded to where she’d been sick. In the pale light of the moon she was sallow and obviously shaking, but she accepted his help as they scooted farther from the offending spot.
“How are you?” he asked, after they stopped.
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice strangled as she fought her coughs.
“What’s your name?”
His head bobbed in quick acknowledgement.
“What happened? How’d you end up in the river at this time of night?”
“Would you believe I was looking for God?” Her eyes swung to him and held until she jerked in another bout of coughing.
“Yes,” he said as her breathing steadied, his gaze hard on her. “People do a lot of dumb stuff ‘looking for God.’”
She scowled back at him, but dropped her stare to the ground as he continued.
"So, you believe there's a God, huh?"
"Yeah. With... everything--" she gestured around her with open palms, then returned to a slouch, "it just makes more sense to me, that someone or something made it and keeps it all going."
She glanced up at his tight-mouthed expression and unmoving eyes.
"I never said that." He put his hands into the wet pocket at the front of his shirt, then pulled them back with a grimace. He settled for folding his arms across his chest.
“Well,” he asked, “did you find Him?”
“...Maybe.” Her scowl softened into something more enigmatic as she stared at him.
“It’s not me!” He shivered and stood up. Dripping, he rubbed his hands together and began to pace.
“I know that,” she said, flatly, though her cheeks burned. She folded her legs before her chest and clutched them. Her lips compressed into a thin line, as she closed her eyes. “I asked God to let me know if He was there, and whether he wanted me… He didn’t. I waited, but I didn’t hear anything, didn’t see any signs.
“My life isn’t horrible…” her voice wobbled, “but I just couldn’t see much point in it, if there’s no God, you know? Like, why bother with anything if we’re just here and we die and that’s it? I was walking, thinking, and–I don’t know–I was just like, ‘There’s the river. What’s it matter if I walk in and never walk back out?’”
She looked up at him, his face pale, a stark contrast to the eyes trained intently on her. Their dark, piercing blue shone even in the half-light.
He’d stopped walking and stood a few paces from her, fighting an apparent habit to keep his hands from his soggy pockets.
“So, I didn’t help you; I interrupted,” he said quietly.
“No. You saved me. ...I chickened out.”
His eyebrows rose as she buried her face in her knees. When she raised it, he saw her face wet, again.
“I got in, about up to my waist, and…I don’t know,” she shook her head and sniffed, “realized what I was doing. I stood there, in shock, I guess; but when I tried to turn around, my foot sank and got stuck. I tried to pull it out; and when I did, I lost my balance--and my shoe--and got caught in the current. The water’s not super fast, here; but I went under and kept getting pulled farther out, toward the middle. Every time I got a breath I’d get pulled down, again, and I thought ‘I really am gonna die.’
“I don’t remember thinking anything after that, except that it kinda hurt–not being able to breathe, that way–and that if a boat came, I’d be dead in a second.”
The June night was warm, but both shivered in their sopping clothes as the silence stretched.
“Thank you, by the way,” Eliza said. “I never said thank you.”
A muscle in his jaw jumped, and he allowed a tight nod, turning his heavy gaze from her.
“So, how’d you think God was going to ‘let you know’ something?”
“I don’t know…A sign or something! But there wasn’t anything. Nothing kept me from getting in the river, I didn’t see anything unusual, didn’t hear any voices–not even a whisper.” She clenched her teeth against the cold and tears that threatened.
“What’s that tell you, then?”
“That there’s a God who made everything, but I don’t really matter to Him.” Heavy tears slogged from her eyes, and she sniffed powerfully.
“And, yet, here you are,” he said, with a flinch, the corners of his mouth turned down.
“Yeah,” she said softly, “and God didn’t notice, one way or the other.” Her chin quivered, and for a long moment she looked back at the river.
“Who is God to you?”
“Where did you come from?”
The questions fell on each other. He and Eliza blinked, brows drawn toward their noses.
“You first,” Eliza said. “Where did you come from? How did you see me out here?”
“I was just walking,” he said, shrugging a little too nonchalantly. “The moon’s bright and there weren’t any boats around. I heard you before I saw you.”
I was only in the river a minute before you got there. How did I not know you were behind me? Eliza thought. Before she could voice her questions, he continued.
“Your turn: who is God to you? What’s he like?”
“I don’t know. Big?” she half-shrugged.
His lips compressed to a hard line, again, and he crossed his arms. He stood, a physical barrier she somehow knew she wouldn’t cross without a better answer.
“I don’t know,” she protested. “I thought He was…nice, and cuddly. Always saying ‘I love you’ and giving us what we asked for. Unless He was mad, then He’d punish whoever’d done something wrong. I think He’s strong, knows everything, sees everything, hears everything. I think He knows the future.”
“Which is it?” The arms locked more tightly.
“What do you mean?”
“You said God knows everything and sees everything, but a few minutes ago you said He didn’t notice you. Which is it?”
She cocked her head to the side and her brow lowered.
“Okay. He saw me and didn’t care, then.”
“That doesn’t seem like your ‘nice, cuddly’ God, either.”
“So, maybe I was wrong!” She stood up, throwing her hands out to the side. She was still cold, but warming under his goading. “Maybe God’s not nice and maybe He doesn’t love me!”
“It sounds like you thought He did. So, if you already believed God existed and that He loved you, why’d you ask Him to show you?”
“Because–” she took one squishing, stomping step toward him with the shoe still on her foot. She blinked, scowl still firmly in place. “Because…” she softened, “because I can’t see Him or hear Him. And I believe He’s there, but sometimes it’s hard. …I just wanted to know– …I just wanted to know–”
Hot tears welled in her eyes, again.
“And you’re still here.”
His voice was softer, and the crossed arms loosened. He took off his hoodie and twisted it, the escaping water making its way down the sloping bank to rejoin the river.
“Here, you’ve got to be cold,” he said as he handed it to her.
“Thank you,” she said quietly and took the shirt. It was much drier than her clothes, now, and mercifully warm.
“Why were you wearing a hoodie in June?” she asked.
“Because if the woman I pulled out of the river was still alive, she’d need it,” his shoulders twitched up. “Let’s get you back to civilization.”
Without looking at Eliza, he began to walk along the river bank.
She joined him.
“You rescue drowning people often, then?” she smiled faintly and looked at him from the corners of her eyes.
“No, thankfully. And I’d prefer not to do it, again.” He spoke flatly, and returned her side-long glance.
They talked about nothing in particular as they made their way back to the lights of the small town Eliza had started from hours ago. She carried her remaining shoe, after a while, and smiled as they spoke. He spoke less, smiled less, but his presence reassured her, just the same.
“Thank you, again,” Eliza said as they entered the nearly empty parking lot where she’d left her car. “You saved my life…I really don’t know how to ever repay you.”
“Do you know the answers to your questions, now?”
She squinted and shook her head at his deflection.
“I don’t–” she sighed. “No, not really. But I feel better, somehow.”
He stopped and faced her.
“You were pulled out of the river. You’re still here. You’ve been comforted.” His eyes bore into hers.
Eliza huffed a slight laugh and slid her eyes from the invisible cords tethering them to his.
“What’s your –?” It was as far as she got with her question.
He was gone.
Eliza stared at the empty place where he’d stood. Her brows gathered over the bridge of her nose as she scanned the parking lot for his retreating figure, but there was no trace of him. He was gone.
Warmth pulsed lightly over her. She glanced down, her breath hitching as she saw herself still embraced in his hoodie. She trembled, bringing the collar to her lips, and closed her eyes on spilling tears as she breathed a prayer of thanks.