Without the wicked laughter and yelling to unnerve him, Matt sat on the bank and watched the flames burn themselves out. The center section of the bridge had collapsed into the water, leaving one train car dangling off the edge. The silence and isolation, brought on by the return of the fog, made him feel inadequate and alone for the first time in his life.
Where are my friends? he wondered. Do I even have any friends? I’ve been so self-centered all my life. Sure, I’m always the jokester – fun to be around – but not someone that many people would call a good friend. It was all just an act – a phasod – an effort to cover up the real me. If no one really knows me then they can’t hurt me, right?
No wonder Anna never liked me. Now I wonder why Jackson ever wanted to be my friend. When it really mattered, what did I do? I swam out of the train car without even a thought about Jackson or Anna. Then when that woman told me to go back for Jackson, I was too scared to get back in the water.
Jackson, you wouldn’t have left me behind, would you? I won’t leave you behind either. Maybe it’s not too late. “Hang in there my friend. I’m coming,” he said out loud.
Matt slid down the muddy bank, back into the water. When it got too deep to walk he started swimming back to the train car. There was a strong smell of diesel fuel in the water, even though the flames were only burning at the engines. The flames in the passenger car had died down.
The barge sitting in the water nearby illuminated the passenger car, showing darkened areas above each window where the flames had been. If it had not been for the barge’s lights, the area around the passenger car would have been pitch black. The fog completely obscured any light the moon might have given, and the flames were no longer high enough to provide much light.
He reached the end of the train car that was half submerged. His feet rested on the top of the other car that was completely submerged in the water. The seats that he shared with Jackson had been on the lower level of the half-submerged car, not far from the stairs in the center. In order to escape, he remembered swimming up the stairs, sloshing through the upstairs hallway, then exiting the end of the car. He decided to retrace those directions to get back to the room, rather than try to find the submerged side door.
The end of the train car was still accessible above the water. As he entered, no flames were visible, although diesel fumes were thick inside the hallway. He ducked down, planning to dive below the surface quickly if the fumes should suddenly reignite. In the center of the long hallway, he saw the sign for stairs, with an arrow pointing down.
Willing himself to disregard his own fears, he took a deep breath and pulled himself down the stairs by the handrail. Below the water in the stairs it was completely dark – he couldn’t see anything. Fortunately he quickly found what he thought would have been the seats he and Jackson shared. His lungs were starting to need oxygen.
He bumped into several objects – either bodies or suitcases floating along the ceiling. He was starting to panic again. He lungs couldn’t wait any longer, so he quickly pulled himself up the stairs and back to the water’s surface.
Determined to try again, he got another big breath and dove below the surface one more time. This time he was more familiar with what he would find at the bottom of the stairs. Once he went into the seating area it was not as dark. He could see shadowy forms between himself and the window, where the barge’s light was still shining above the water’s surface.
He saw the outline of a human body wedged under the edge of a collapsed table. He pulled up on the table, and the body floated free. Without hesitating or wasting another moment, he pulled the body out of the seating area and up the stairs. The body did not move or offer any resistance. His lungs again screamed for air as he negotiated the limp body up the narrow stairs. Once his hand slipped. He grabbed what felt like a shirt to continue the rescue journey up the stairs toward the surface.
Back in the dimly lit, fume-filled upper aisle way, he got his breath and rolled the body over to look at the face. His worst fears were confirmed. It was indeed Jackson. He tried to administer CPR in the half-flooded train car, but Jackson’s head kept sinking below the surface.
“Hang in there Jackson. I’ll get you out of here,” he assured the still figure.
Putting the larger man on his shoulder, he sloshed to the end of the hallway and exited the train. He tried to stand on the submerged passenger car again, but his foot slipped and he dropped Jackson into the water. He quickly righted him with his face out of the water. He pulled his silent friend toward the shore.
The older man was still on the muddy bank helping pull people up. Between the two of them, they were able to get Jackson out of the water and lying on his back on the shore.
“Is he alive,” the older man asked.
Without answering, Matt tried again to administer CPR. He pushed on Jackson’s chest to get the water out of his lungs, and try to get his heart restarted. He breathed into Jackson’s mouth. There was no response. No water even came up from Jackson’s lungs. His skin was cold and pale. There was no heartbeat that Matt could hear or feel. He kept on with the CPR for what seemed like hours, until he was totally exhausted, with still no response.
“Jackson, come on. You can make it. Breathe,” he pleaded to his friend’s still body.
The older man came over to Matt. Matt looked up into his face, hoping for some magical answer. No answer came. “He won’t breathe,” Matt told the man.
The older man put a hand on Matt’s weary shoulder, as he said, “You’ve done all you can do, son. I guess he must have been under water too long. He’s gone. He’s in God’s hands now.”
“No!” Matt screamed. “No!” he pleaded. “No!” he cried, burying his face in Jackson’s wet shirt. “You were the best friend I ever had. You’ve got to make it.”
“There’s nothing more you can do,” the older man said, putting both of his hands on Matt’s shoulders.
“No, he can’t be gone,” Matt declared. He resumed the CPR, knowing in his heart that the older man’s words were true. “Why didn’t I listen to the woman and go sooner?” he asked himself. “Why? Two years in medical school, and I just let my friend die in this train wreck.”
The guilt, coupled with exhaustion, was more than Matt’s weary body and mind could cope with. Lying on the ground beside Jackson’s still body, he sobbed until sleep overcame him.
A few hours later, as dawn started to lighten the foggy bayou, Matt woke up to the sound of a boat motor close by. The Coast Guard boat pulled up to the muddy bank where he had been lying undisturbed for several hours. As he opened his eyes, he saw a snake slither down the bank into the water.
Was it all just an awful nightmare? he wondered, as his mind tried to make sense of the memories during the night. But looking over at the empty shell of Jackson’s body to his side, he was grimly reminded of the truth of what had transpired during the night. It was real. It had all happened. It truly was a nightmare, but a nightmare in which he was living, not simply dreaming in his sleep.