Thomas Darwin, his cheeks stained with tears and his body quivering, slowly marched farther into the frigid Delaware Bay. The crowd gathered on the beach shouted for Thomas to stop, to turn around, to return to the shore. Eventually he did stop but not until the water lapped at his bare chest.
“I’m gonna do it!” Thomas shouted without turning around. “I’m gonna do it!”
A dozen voices rose up to answer him, but none of them was intelligible from the rabble of onlookers and emergency personnel.
Eric Wheeler, the Dagsboro chief of police, ordered the spotlight to remain on Thomas in the fading sunlight reflecting off the surface of the water.
“I’m not paying for those spotlights!” Angela Baskins shouted at the chief. “That better be coming out of your budget!”
Angela was the operating manager of Ellis Point, a private gated community on the bay. When she got the call about a man threatening to drown himself from Garrett Shaner, Ellis Point’s head of security, she drove out to see the hullaballoo in person and was horrified to find a mob of weekenders and residents gathered on the beach gawking at the distraught man. The water had only been up to his knees at that point, but his screaming and crying had attracted quite a crowd.
Angela desperately wanted the whole ordeal to be over and forgotten. Ellis Point depended on the weekenders and the pricey clubhouse fees to stay afloat amidst a sea of identical gated communities in the area. A body in the bay would be bad for business. She dreaded the headlines in the morning’s paper if Thomas Darwin ended up floating face-down in the water. Luckily, he didn’t seem too anxious to follow through with his threats. He’d been in the water for nearly a half hour working on killing himself.
Garrett stomped over to Angela chewing tobacco. He was always chewing tobacco. Angela was surprised his jaw hadn’t rotted off yet.
“Chased off all them looky-loos,” Garrett told her from behind his aviator sunglasses. “I know how you like to keep things quiet.”
Angela saw that the crowd that had gathered on the shore was gone, but she quickly caught sight of them hidden by a patch of reeds. They were already starting to migrate back to their original spot and still more were wandering over to join the show. A brass band started playing between her ears. She closed her eyes and tried to wait out the migraine.
“Want me to pull that sorry sack out of the water yet?” Garrett asked.
“Absolutely not,” Angela said. “We can’t risk the lawsuit. Let the police handle it.”
“Oooookay. Just seems like the whole thing’s gone on long enough already but you’re the boss.”
“You’re right about that.”
Angela stomped through the pack of police officers sipping coffee from paper cups until she found Chief Wheeler, who had been chief of police for as long as she had been alive. He had dyed his salt-and-pepper hair a dark brown since the last time Angela had seen him and somehow looked even older. He was discussing the results of the latest UFC pay-per-view with some of the other officers, none of whom looked like they were ready to storm the bay for the big rescue. Angela pushed into their circle and pulled the chief aside, spilling his coffee in the process.
“Why the hell haven’t you pulled that putz out of the water yet? He’s ruining my business!”
Wheeler finished what was left of his coffee and tossed the paper cup onto the ground. “’Fraid there’s not much we can do, Angie. Gotta wait for the Coast Guard.”
“What? Just have one of your goons walk out there and drag him back.”
“Can’t do that. We lost our cold water training in the last budget cuts and we ain’t got no gear. Like I said, gotta wait for the Coast Guard.”
“Training?! Just grab the bastard and drag ‘im to shore!”
“Not that simple. Guy could be crazy. Could be on drugs. Could be dangerous. Can’t risk any of my boys being dragged down with ‘im. Gotta wait.”
A cry rose up from the crowd that had regathered on the shore. Thomas was inching deeper into the bay. The water moved over his quivering shoulders until only his head stuck out from the water. He turned and glanced back to the shore as if to make sure everyone was still watching.
“I’m gonna do it!” he yelled toward the shore. “Don’t try to stop me!” His mouth sunk down below the waterline. He choked and frantically lifted his face out of the water. His head seemed to drift a few inches closer to shore and then turn so he was facing out into the bay again.
“Flippin’ A!” Angela yelled at no one in particular. “Where is the damn coast guard?!”
A man in a blue uniform stepped out from the crowd of officers and first responders. “Here we are.”
Angela glanced from Chief Wheeler to the man in uniform and back to Wheeler, who somehow had a fresh cup of coffee in his hand.
“Did you—did you just say you’re from the Coast Guard?” Angela asked the man.
“Steve Boehner. U.S. Coast Guard.”
He offered her a small solute and nearly knocked the cap off his head.
“How long have you been here?” she asked.
Boehner casually checked the time on his phone. “Oh…’bout ten minutes or so. Crazy the crowd that came out to see this bullshit, eh?”
“What are you doing here?”
He pointed back to the man in the water. “I’m here to—to get this jabroni out of the drink. Why? You don’t want him out?”
“No! Not here. Why are you here on the land? Get out there and save the guy!”
“Oh. Doesn’t work like that. Need to get the boat out there to pick the guy up. Procedure.”
There were shouts from the shoreline and a loud splash. One of the onlookers was looking to play hero and splashing out into the bay, a young guy in his mid-twenties wearing a vintage Nirvana t-shirt.
Angela caught Garrett’s eye and motioned toward the water. “Get ‘im!” she shouted over the crowd. Garrett seemed confused by the order. “Get that guy back before he drowns!”
“Which one?” Garrett shouted back.
“The new one! With the t-shirt. Get him back!”
Garrett didn’t seem thrilled about stomping out into the frigid water, but he did it anyway. He went out to the bay up to his knees and caught the young guy’s attention. A short conversation followed and eventually the young would-be-hero turned and returned to shore. Garrett walked him out of the water to a round of applause from the onlookers who seemed to have forgotten the young man was not the subject of the rescue.
“Thank God,” Angela said. “That’s the last thing I need. The headlines are going to be bad enough with one idiot in the water. We certainly don’t need two.” She turned her attention back to Boehner. “Now you were saying something about a boat?”
“Ah—yes. The boat. It’s not coming.”
“What do you mean it’s not coming?!”
“Water’s too shallow. Not safe for the boat. See?” He motioned out to the bay where Thomas’ head was just sticking out of the water. “The guy’s still standing all the way out there. It’d rip the bottom of the boat right out.”
Angela cradled her head in her hands. She could feel her cranium pulsing against her fingertips. “Sooo…how are we going to get him out of there?”
“Chopper. Pull ‘im right out.”
She closed her eyes and nodded. Then she motioned to the sky and sighed at the complete lack of a helicopter overhead.
“Oh—right,” Boehner said. “Yeah, the chopper was out on a call. Someone claimed they seen a dog on a raft a mile out, but it turned out to be a dead seagull in a trash bag.”
“So it’s on the way then?”
“Yup. Yup yup yup. Right after it refuels. Then it’ll be right over.”
Angela nodded. “Whatever. Just make sure it gets here in time before—”
She glanced out into the bay. Thomas was gone. A few bubbles rose to the surface and then the water was calm. No one on the shoreline moved. They just continued to stare out into the bay and listen to the cries of the seagulls as the sun disappeared below the horizon.
Banner Image: Pixabay.com
6 thoughts on “Modern-Day Heroes by Douglas James Troxell”
Great ending! I can just imagine this is exactly what would happen while everyone talks about what to do while not actually doing anything.
Ah, bureaucracy. It’s a killer. This time, literally.
Thanks for reading the story, everyone. It’s based off of a real-life event back in 2011 when the same thing happened in San Francisco. It sickened me at the time and I knew I had to write about it. Here’s a link to the article if you’re interested: http://abc7news.com/archive/8161285/
Very good story, Douglas. Put me right on the beach. Send more!
It has the ring of a story too real to be fiction and too fictional to be true. And too sad to be real too. Good job writing the ethical reaction into the story. It simmers beautifully.
If we did everything that manual handling / health and safety protocol stated, nothing would ever get done Your story emphasised the madness of all of this.
A really enjoyable tale and some thing that we can all recognise.