Only Peter stayed where he was. He was balanced on a low rock, alert and motionless, giving off a chilling silence. Rebecca called, "Sweetie? Aren't you coming?"
Again he shook his head. The other children veered around her and plowed on toward the playing field, but Rebecca gathered her skirt higher and pressed forward. Long, cool grasses tickled her bare calves. A cloud of startled white butterflies fluttered around her knees. She reached the first rock, took a giant step up, and leapt to the next rock just beyond, teetering for a second before she found her footing on the slick, mossy surface. (She was wearing rope-soled espadrilles that gave her almost no traction.) So far she was still on dry land, but most of the other rocks--Peter's included--turned out to be partly submerged. This meant that the children had been disobeying instructions. They'd been warned to stay away from the river, which was unpredictably deep in some spots and wider than a two-lane highway, not to mention icy cold so early in the season.
Peter kept as still as a cornered deer; Rebecca sensed that even though she wasn't looking at him. For the moment, she was looking at the scenery. Oh, didn't a river rest your eyes! She sank into a peaceful trance, watching how the water seemed to gather itself as it traveled toward a sharp bend. It swelled up in loose, silky tangles and then it smoothed and flowed on, transparent at the edges but nearly opaque at the center, as yellow-green and sunlit as a bottle in a window. She drifted with it, dreaming. It could have been a hundred years ago. The line of dark trees on the opposite shore would have looked the same; she'd have heard the same soft, curly lapping close by, the same rushing sound farther off.
Well. Enough of this. She tore her gaze away and turned again to Peter. "I've got you now!" she told him gaily.
He took another step backward and disappeared.
For a moment, she couldn't believe what had happened. She just stood there with her mouth open. Then she looked down and saw a turmoil in the water. A small, white, big-eyed face gulping air and choking. A frantic snarl of thin, bare, flailing arms.
She jumped onto the rock he'd been standing on, skidding slightly and bruising an ankle. She plunged in waist deep and gasped. (The water was so cold it burned.) First she grabbed Peter's wrist but lost it. Then she clutched blue denim. She hitched him up by the seat of his jeans and found the time, somehow, to consider how absurd this must look: a middle-aged woman plucking a boy from a river like a sack of laundry, hoisting him aloft for one split second before her muscles registered his weight and they both went under. But she still had hold of him. She kept her grip. She fought to thrust him above the surface even while she was half sitting on the bottom. Then she was up and struggling shoreward, stumbling and falling and rising and staggering on, hauling him by his armpits. (A good thing he was so undersized or she never could have managed, adrenaline or no.) Between his coughs now he was drawing huge, rough, scraping breaths, and once or twice he gagged. She dragged him in a bobbling way across the rocks to the grass, where she dropped him. She bent double to clear her head and noticed, in that position, how her skirt was streaming with water; so she collected a handful of hem and wrung it out.
Excerpted from Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler Copyright 2001 by Anne Tyler. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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