The Gift: Penance
Excerpt from Chapter 1
The concrete piers of the Burrard Street Bridge rose up from the False Creek seabed, its steel girders looming eighty feet overhead. My kayak felt inconsequential by comparison. I rested my paddle across the hull and drifted forward into the bridge’s shadow. A weak sun struggled behind the overcast sky.
My breath condensed in white puffs. I loved these crisp, cool mornings alone on the water. It was peaceful. Out here, life seemed simple, uncomplicated. Almost what I imagined normal felt like. A light breeze stirred the chilly air. The kayak rocked gently, its yellow hull reflected in the ripples that lapped quietly against it. I gazed up toward the underside of the bridge deck, where car tires thumped over expansion joints.
In the distance, the rumble of outboard motors drew my attention. Time to get a move on. I tugged my cap down over my ears and blew a warm breath into cupped hands. The dry suit that kept my body warm did nothing for my head or my hands. The temperature hovered around five Celsius and the cold was finally getting to me.
I gripped my paddle and continued seaward, cautious of the potential danger from the boats whose motors were growing louder as they approached from behind. Six strokes later, almost out of the bridge’s shadow, the tandem outboards roared, drowning out all other sound. I darted a wide-eyed glance behind and then hunched my shoulders and braced for the inevitable wake that would follow.
The marine speed limit in False Creek is five knots or dead slow. They had the “dead” part right. They raced by on either side of me with their throttles wide open. I barely got a glimpse of them before I felt the powerful effect of their wake. My kayak rolled dangerously when the first wave hit broadside, but it was the second wave that swamped me. It struck from the opposite direction and lifted the hull, dumping me into the frigid water.
I flailed in the dark, trapped upside down in the seat of my cockpit, groping for the tether to my lost paddle. I’d practiced the Eskimo roll that would right me dozens of times, but all of those self-induced rolls hadn’t prepared me for the real thing. It wasn’t the sting of salt water in my eyes, or the frosty temperature of a February ocean that made holding my breath difficult—it was the clear memory of drowning. My drowning.
It’s not something you ever forget: the desperation that compels you to inhale water into your lungs, the way the weight of that water sinks you more effectively than any anchor. It’s the disquieting euphoria of finally letting go. The panic that should have compelled me to jettison instead froze me in place. A memory flashed by at the watery sight of my outstretched arm. Last summer that same arm reached for a surface that I could see but couldn’t reach.
Precious seconds ticked by.
I felt my cap lift away in the current. It was enough to shake me from the nightmare. Latent terror ignited, and galvanized me into action. I yanked on the paddle’s tether and re-established my grip. In one adrenaline-fed stroke, I swept my paddle in a powerful arc and rode the momentum to the surface. The instant my face cleared the water into a halo of light and oxygen, I heaved a ragged breath then coughed and choked in another gulp of air.
“I’ve got you,” a man’s voice called as his red kayak bumped against my hull. A dark beanie covered his head. I pressed my knuckles against my eyes to clear the stinging water. My rescuer steadied the kayak while I caught my breath.
“Thank you,” I sputtered. The mother of all ice-cream headaches stabbed across my forehead. As I recovered, I took in the man who’d come to my rescue. I put him in his late twenties. A day’s stubble covered cheeks flushed red with the cold. He had the shoulders of a weightlifter and a firm grip on the cleat behind my cockpit. He’d laced his paddle under the bungee cording to steady me.
“That was a lot easier to do in waist-deep water,” I rasped, my throat burning. No wonder the instructor had insisted we repeat the Eskimo roll exercise each time we went out. She’d said I’d likely never use it. Yeah.
“You probably shouldn’t have been out here alone. You did well, considering.” He offered a conciliatory smile.
My natural impulse should have been to claw my way out of the cockpit. “I probably should’ve done a wet exit.” I’d practiced those, too, and would struggle back into the kayak to pump it out. At least the neoprene spray skirt had kept most of the water out of the kayak this time.
“I saw you go under. Luckily, I was just across the channel.”
“Thank you.” I glanced around for his partner but was grateful enough for his help to not mention the fact that I didn’t find one. A wave rocked our hulls, and he held us steady. His upper arms were impressive.
“We need to report those yahoos,” he said with contempt. “They’re going to get someone killed out here.”
“You know who they are?”
“No, but I know where they rented those boats. Where are you headed?”
“Back to my car. I launched at Kitsilano, but now I think I’d better find somewhere to warm up first.” This outing was supposed to help me build the upper-body strength my new kayaking hobby demanded. Perhaps I’d been too ambitious.
“I know a place. Do you know Scuppers?”
“No. Where is it?”
“Not far. It’s where I was headed. Want to follow me?”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, then reached over to offer my hand. “Emelynn Taylor.”
“Owen Cooper,” he said, jutting out his hand to take mine in a fierce grip. “Nice to meet you, Emelynn.” He offered a confident smile that reached up and crinkled the corners of his dark brown eyes.
Owen disentangled his paddle from the bungee webbing and swung around. “This way,” he said, paddling landward back under the Burrard Street Bridge. Within minutes we’d slipped under the grey steel and concrete of the Granville Street Bridge. We passed a small marina with swaying sailboats and pulled alongside a dock parallel to the rip-rap shore of Granville Island.
“You can tie up there,” Owen said, pointing to the end of the slim dock. He continued ahead while I secured my kayak. I unfolded myself from the cockpit and climbed onto the dock. My limbs shook from the effort, or maybe it was from the receding adrenaline. It didn’t help that the cold breath of winter on my sopping wet head was sucking the heat out of me. I needed to get warm and fast. With stiff shoulders, I pulled my dry bag from the rear hatch.
I shivered as I clutched the bag to my chest and scanned the docks for anyone out of place. Constant vigilance was a heavy weight I’d gladly shed if I could. I walked to the far end of the dock to find Owen. I was halfway up the ramp when I spotted him and stopped short to stare like an ill-mannered child. Owen was operating an electric winch, which had just pulled him from his kayak and deposited him in a wheelchair at the top of the ramp.
He looked over and waved me up. I snapped my mouth closed and checked my footwear. I didn’t know the man, but I could have sworn I saw him grin. I swallowed my embarrassment and continued up the ramp, watching him unhook the harness apparatus.
“Sorry for staring. You caught me by surprise,” I said.
“I usually do.” His grin widened into a smile. “Your reaction was stellar. Maybe one of the best. I wish I had it on film.”
“Guess I’m fortunate you didn’t have a camera,” I said, feeling the heat of a blush warm my face. “It was rude. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s cheap entertainment for those of us easily amused. Come on; let’s get warm.”