An inventor oversees the first test run of a new, innovative whitewater raft design. Safety is of utmost importance in this Challenge #2 Story for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2018 (Action/Adventure, A River, A Child Safety Seat).
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I’m watching the river, lost in thought, when Andrea appears at my side.
“All teams ready,” she says, “as are the kayakers.”
“Great, I’ll check on Randy.”
Andrea is my Rescue Team Commander. The launch crew is with Randy, conducting the final assessment. Safety is a top priority today. I ask him how he’s feeling.
“Nervous…and a little excited,” he offers a smile. “Ask again at the checkpoint.”
Randy is strapped into my life’s work: the GyroRaft. It’s a raft that will allow young children, even infants, to whitewater raft safely with their families, creating a new opportunity for family bonding, and potentially building life-saving confidence for the youngest of our adventurers.
Though Randy is an adult, he happens to be about the size of a large child, making him the perfect candidate to provide an in-depth review of the GyroRaft rider experience. If the raft overturns in rough water today, as we are hoping, Randy won’t. The gyroscope rotates such that the rider always remains “heads up.” Flatwater tests have proven it works. “If you can recover the raft, you can recover the kid,” I like to say to potential investors.
To minimize the number of people in potential danger, Randy will ride alone. The gyroscope doesn’t allow him to use a paddle, so kayakers will paddle alongside him to guide the raft. They’ll also be there for the inevitable flip, in addition to the rescue teams. Safety, again, is a top priority.
We haven’t had the greatest start today; our first launch failed immediately. Someone forgot to disengage the lock used to keep the gyroscope stationary during transport. We’d sent Randy out on the water, and immediately pulled him back when the gyroscope refused to, well, gyrate. It wasn’t funny at the time.
Now Andrea is conducting a “second final” radio check. With a nod, she gives the signal to launch. Scattered applause breaks out as the teeter-tottering raft moves around Randy’s upright body. I can’t help but smile as he drifts downriver. The GyroRaft is working.
The first checkpoint is about a ten-minute ride away. Andrea and I get in my car and drive to an overlook to watch Randy’s progress through binoculars. Though the river here is wide and slow, there are still risks, like submerged rocks. The kayakers are alert and attentive, dislodging Randy occasionally, staying near to ease his helplessness. He reaches the checkpoint, and reports that he is comfortable continuing. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
They re-launch him…straight into an eddy. The raft spins comically in place, Randy unable to stop it. Frustratingly, the kayakers seem to be laughing at the situation, moving too slowly toward him.
“Kayakers, let’s get him out of there,” Andrea radios her team. They’re trying now, but fighting the spinning eddy themselves.
“We need a little help here,” they radio back. Andrea rolls her eyes.
“Send in David,” she replies. Almost immediately, a rescuer moves towards the eddy and scans it before slipping into water. He ducks underneath the raft, and pushes it hard from below. With a lurch, Randy resumes his trip.
“Great job,” Andrea radios. “Back to stations, let’s keep this smooth.”
I head towards the car, but Andrea stays behind, listening to something on the radio I’ve walked too far away to hear. I trust her to handle it – that’s what I’m paying her for, after all. I can’t miss Randy’s approach to the treacherous Double Z.
As I drive, I think about everything that’s led up to this point. Meeting Randy at a bar, knowing he’d be the perfect person to test my prototype. What were the odds? I wouldn’t have been at that bar if Jordan hadn’t left me, blaming me for Bethany’s death. I was only trying to get Bethany outside for once, out of her chess club bubble, get her using her muscles. If Jordan had let me start taking Bethany on the river from a younger age, perhaps she wouldn’t have panicked when she fell out that day. Perhaps she would have remembered the guide’s instructions, and not swum straight for that undercut rock despite our yelling. The current took her under as it took us flying past her, and there was nothing we could do until it was too late.
We’d never recovered from that, Jordan and I. Since then, all my energy goes into the GyroRaft and the hope that it will save lives.
I pull up to the second lookout point and join the watch team there. Urgent radio chatter fills the air.
“Searching for a swimmer,” a young woman explains, looking through binoculars.
“That’s unfortunate,” I reply. “But let’s not lose focus. No need for two emergencies.”
She nods, eyes still on the water. I join her. We wait.
The river is much rougher here; narrower and faster. The Double Z’s zig-zagging current is where we expect the raft to flip. Rescue teams are ready on both steep sides. Twenty minutes drag by, then the raft finally appears. Its ends alternately soar dramatically up then down over gushing whitewater.
“He’s approaching!” I yell, “Everybody get ready! This is it!” Everyone has been ready, but the tension is now tangible. Muscles tighten, teeth grit. The radio chatter keeps going. Through my binoculars, I can see the nervous excitement on Randy’s face.
We hold our breath. A drop, a bump, a spin off a rock, then a surprisingly unceremonious tumble-flop at the bottom of a fall leaves the raft overturned. Randy’s head and hands appear, poking up through the center of the raft’s exposed underside, cheering and celebrating.
At first, he doesn’t realize why the rescue teams aren’t cheering along with him. Then he sees it: the body behind him, draped across the raft, a hand trapped in the mechanism of the gyroscope. I watch Randy’s distant scream through my lenses as the current takes him further away.
“We’ve got eyes on David!” the radio screeches, “He’s with the raft!”