The lights from the pier pulled him closer to shore. His legs grew numb, his arms heavy. His ears rang from the wind and the slap of freezing waves. He knew he had to stay focused, keep moving. He heard a buoy clang in unison with the mournful sound of an offshore foghorn. He pushed on, stroke by stroke.
It wouldn’t be long before the guards discovered his absence, sounded the alarms. He’d seen it all before from his cell. The Coastguard cutters streaming into the bay, their searchlights scanning the water, covering every inch of spray from “the Rock” to the mainland. Thank God, tonight the fog was on his side.
His thoughts flashed to a day in early December, before he’d planned his escape through the metal shop and up into the air duct leading to the roof. He sat on his bunk in freshly washed denims, the number AZ 714 stenciled in black on his shirt pocket. As he read the letter, the scent of her perfume seeped into his books, his clothes, his soul.
“Darling,” she wrote, “may the new year bring you peace. Please know I still love you.”
He glanced over his shoulder to the middle of the bay, to the place called Alcatraz, its yellow eyes blinking through the fog, then he turned back to the pier, his thoughts on Roe. Her skin so white and pale even the slightest pressure left its mark. “The fair Rowena,” he’d call her, and then he’d touch her face and smile as the redness began a journey up her neck to the spot just below her jaw he loved most.
His fingers grew numb. He feared the advent of cramps, the death knell of hypothermia, but he kept on, his hands chopping through the foam, the pier moving toward him, its orange lights bobbing in the mist.
Out of breath, he aimed for a piling and slipped, unable to get a grip. He tried again, this time he willed his arms up and around the post. He stayed there hugging his lifeline.
The clock at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory chimed eleven, the last hour of the old year, two hours since he’d made his escape. With renewed strength, he pulled himself up the ladder, rung by rung, and onto the pier. He lay there under the stars. Exhausted.
Suddenly, there it was above him. Their constellation, “the Jeweled Crown.” Not an official formation noted in astronomy textbooks but their own made-up cluster. “We’ll draw comfort from the stars,” Roe had said. “At night, we’ll always be together.”
He imagined a ball of thread unwinding from the heavens. He forced himself up, took hold of the celestial string and continued on.
A fog bank drifted in, and he thought he was lost, but only for a moment. Coit Tower loomed above him, and he knew where he was, thankful for a beacon that focused his quest.
Climbing Telegraph Hill, he could almost hear the sound of her laughter, feel her joy. He stopped, closed his eyes and envisioned her sitting in their breakfast nook overlooking the Embarcadero, the sun pouring in though the bay window. She was writing him a letter.
“I’ve tried, darling, really I have, but you still have so long. I’ve met someone new who is kind and gentle. Isn’t that what you’d want for me? I know you’ll understand. Someday.”
At her porch, he let go of the thread. It had done its work. He was home now.
He rang the bell.
“Coming,” Roe called, her voice competing with the grandfather clock striking twelve.
Who could she be expecting at this late hour, Mr. Kind and Gentle? He laughed.
Roe opened the door. Her lips moved, yet he heard no sound.
He saw the blood rush up her neck as she stepped backward, and he followed her inside.
His icy fingers reached out for the spot he loved most, then they closed around her.
“Happy New Year, darling.”