Monday, December 19, 2011

Yellowjackets


Zach had scheduled the canoe trip from Monday, August 15th through Thursday the 18th, so that before heading home they could spend the night in a lodge.

Sunday evening, Duncan dropped by Zach’s office to say good-bye and found him sitting on the carpet surrounded by life jackets; whistles; fire starters; sun hats; sun screen; bug repellent; quick-dry clothing; binoculars; washing kits; pocket knives and more.

(Click here for the first episode; here for the previous one.) 

“You look like a kid who’s unwrapped all his Christmas presents.”

“Let me show you something,” Zach said reaching for the First Aid kit.

 Duncan said, “Wow. Guess you really are prepared.”

“Matt and I have canoed this trip before so we know: Flat water, white water—it can get wild, no matter what season.”

Duncan nodded and sighed. “I feel like I’m losing my best friend.”

“Not me,” Zach laughed. “I’ll be back here all the time; two of my kids live here.”

“Well, I’m taking a vacation, too. Just to Fire Island, but it’s my first venture out.”

Zach said, “Have fun. And don’t worry about being different from the next guy. Look at how different we are. I’m seriously gonna miss you in Nebraska.”

Duncan’s face lit up.

“Did I really say that?” Zach chuckled and vigorously shook Duncan’s hand, knowing he wanted a hug. Too bad—Zach wasn’t a hugger.

His friend stepped back as if in acknowledgement. “You have fun, too, Zach. And—good luck.” 

“What the hell. Come here.” Zach gave him a bear hug. For a few seconds, Duncan was too surprised to reciprocate but then he slapped Zach’s back, turned his face to hide its sadness, and  hurried away.

Five a.m. the next morning, Zach honked outside his old home.  Matt staggered to the driveway, carrying a load of Boy Scout camping gear.

“Don’t bother with that stuff,” Zach said. “I’ve packed everything we’ll need.”

Matt admired the new canoe loaded on top of the car.

“Kevlar,” Zach said. “Sixteen and a half feet long and only fifty-four pounds.”

They didn’t talk, driving to Milford landing. Zach turned on old rock and roll they both liked or at least didn’t mind: Nirvana, Clapton, the Rolling Stones.

Almost two hours later, when they stepped from the air-conditioned car into the early morning heat, they both wavered in the soupy air. Zach, who was sensitive to sun and bug bites, had worn special new featherweight clothing, bright yellow pants and a long-sleeved jacket.   But the jacket stuck to him like Saran Wrap. He yanked it off, preferring to risk the elements in a tank top. 

Being heavier and, he assumed, stronger, Zach paddled from the stern. They glided through calm water. Soon, however, Zach itched from the heat. Sweat trickled into his eyes. He calculated the last time he and Matt had canoed and figured it was fifty or sixty pounds ago. Reluctantly, he asked Matt to bank at Minisink Island.

When they stepped out, Zach’s inflamed face startled his son. “Dad, why not give me a chance?”

So after Zach rested for five minutes, Matt took the stern. Yet even when not exerting himself, Zach still sweated in sheets. He concentrated on his stroke and sipped water every other beat. He had intended to go over various employment plans with his son, since Matt wasn’t going to college. But Zach could not paddle, think clearly, and hold himself upright all at once, let alone talk. Periodically, he pulled in his paddle, filled his hat with water, and drenched his head. Whenever he slapped a mosquito, it splattered blood.

Several times, the boat encountered a frill of white water. Matt executed ferries solo and thrilled at the peel-outs.

They had started so early that neither had eaten breakfast. Zach felt faint but waited until Matt suggested lunch. They banked the canoe north of the Sandystorm site. After they settled it high on the shore, Zach sat in the river as if in a soothing bath. Matt laid out lunch on a small tarp. Steak sandwiches with broiled onions that Zach had prepared late last night. They downed bottles of water and polished off a big bag of soft chocolate chip cookies.

Now Zach felt fine. His clothes were already dry, his blood sugar up. Of course, it was blazing hot, but what did he expect in August? “My turn at the stern, okay, Matt?”

“Sure.”

Then Zach’s hat rolled from his hand and the slope carried it towards the shore. Bounding after it, Zach landed hard and dislodged a big, flat rock. A buzzing black funnel of wasps geysered from the earth. Zach stumbled, covered in layers of wasps, and after whirling about in terror, threw himself in the water.

Yellowjackets. Matt tore the First Aid kit from the canoe and remembered that yellowjackets build underground nests along river banks. When his father failed to surface for air, Matt plowed through the cloud of wasps, waded into the river, and dragged him out.

He called 911 and tried to keep his voice level.

His father had ripped off his clothing, still thick with yellowjackets even as they drowned. Matt noticed how swollen Zach’s face was, especially his mouth. He knew badly stung lips were serious, perhaps lethal. Worse than Zach’s mouth, however, were his neck and ears, red as blood and swelling; hives spread over his chest and belly.

“The River Rescue Patrol is on its way, Dad. Hang on.”

Zach rolled to his right and vomited—another serious, possibly deadly, symptom. Matt propped up his father’s feet, grabbed the First Aid kit, and injected adrenaline for ten seconds. He wiped his father's mottled, bloated body with aloe-cleansing tissues. Then he covered him with a Space Blanket. 

Matt put his face close to Zach’s. “Dad? Dad!”

His dad was breathing but probably unconscious.

Within minutes or hours or an entire afternoon shrinking on the horizon, the patrol boat arrived.

Rescue workers asked about allergies. Matt said his father was sensitive to bug bites and sunburn—that’s all.

The volunteer medics asked if the wasps had covered his father in clumps.

“They engulfed him.”

The River Rescue Patrol raced the emergency boat upstream to Milford where an ambulance was waiting. The medics asked Matt to follow in his own car. Zach had suffered so many stings, his blood poisoned by so much venom, they needed to treat him for septic shock.

Matt drove on the ambulance’s tail, its siren clearing the way. Technicians wheeled his father into the trauma room. Through a small, wired window, Matt watched four doctors bend over his father. A curly-haired nurse touched his shoulder. Blinking at her, he said, “I can donate blood if my dad needs a transfusion.”

“I know, honey.” The woman pushed her glasses at the bridge of her nose before issuing him into a small room—two chairs, a side table, and a phone. He’d left his cell at the picnic site. “Make whatever phone calls are necessary, sweetheart. And if your dad can use that transfusion, I’ll tell the doctors you’re a donor.”

The End

3 comments:

Peter Greene said...

Bzzzzz! Enjoyed that - thanks for it.

Dan Leo said...

Very nice and completely unexpected ending. Now, after disliking Zach all the way through, I want him to recover! Maybe all he needed all along was some fresh blood in his veins...

kathleenmaher said...

Thanks, Peter and Dan. In the rough outline of this, written years ago, I wasn't sure whether Zach died or not. This time I figured it out and tried to let the reader know what I thought.