I continued to churn out horror stories while in college. Some better than others. Most stuck to the familiar themes I had established as a novice and continue to explore as an adult: loss of innocence, descent into madness, torture, magic and ritual. I attempted a couple of revenge stories. One about a rape victim who hangs her assailant by the wrists in the basement of their apartment building until he's eaten by rats. Another about a mentally retarded boy (can't recall whether or not I continued to use that politically incorrect term by then) who conjures the devil in a barn to seek vengeance on a tormenting neighbor. I also wrote a disturbing story about a man who locks himself in his room when he figures out the baby his wife is carrying is the result of an affair she's had with a coworker.
One major life event shaped my writing while in college: I saved a two-year-old girl from drowning. I attended a wedding near the outskirts of Phoenix with a girl I'd been friends with for a couple of years. She had the same skinny boyfriend for as long as I knew her. He always listened to Bob Dylan records, chain-smoked Parliaments (I still remember his blue soft packs), and probably had anorexia, but I never interfered. She and I hung out and studied but were never more than friends. In fact, they broke up the week before the wedding, so I was his last minute replacement. I often wonder what would've happened to that little girl if my friend hadn't broken things off. I'm also glad we'll never know. Anyway, she was a bridesmaid, and while the wedding party was taking pictures, I wandered off to the swimming pool because I heard some kids making noise. Pools are everywhere in Phoenix, by the way. It's the Valley of the Sunburn. I didn't know it at the time, but the little girl was meant to be the flower girl. I'm not sure how she snuck away or who was supposed to be watching her, but as soon as I made it to the pool, I saw her slip off the deck and into the water. She went straight down like a sack of bricks. The other kids fooling around hadn't noticed a thing. I jumped in after her, wearing a suit I had borrowed from my dad of all people, and pulled her to the surface. She kicked and screamed and nearly beat the crap out of me, but she was safe in my arms.
I was a hero for a day. Kind of a remarkable feeling, actually. I now know, as a parent and a teacher, that I'd give my life for a child, but I don't think I knew it until then. The incident stuck with me. Often times, I see that girl when I'm writing. She's a ghost haunting an alcoholic whose baby died in her crib in a novel I wrote about eight years ago called The Last Bitter Hour. Although you never see her, I thought of her when I wrote "Gentle Hands," the story I published in a literary magazine last summer about a teacher who defends his school against militants. She's also in Crow Creek, in Sheriff Gleason's memories of his dead daughter. I never knew her name. Never really knew who she was. But she's there. She reminds me of how fragile life is and of how much courage it takes to conquer fear.
The funny thing is, by the way, that one of the groomsmen had a pair of jeans shorts (way too big for me) and a Paul McCartney T-shirt (from his '89-'90 World Tour, I believe) in the back seat of his car. That's what I wore to the wedding. Not sure my friend cared. I won't say she threw herself at me after the wedding because she didn't. But being a hero has its advantages, ain't gonna lie.