Flash Fiction: Biggest, Deepest Breath

This piece of flash fiction was written for Writer’s Digest’s 2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge Day 15. I spent two hours on this story; this is the third draft. The prompt: “Write someone who needs to take a deep breath.”

Image from geograph.org.uk

Biggest, Deepest Breath

“Irene. It’s going to be okay, sweetie,” Shirley says, far too calm for someone trapped in a car filling with water. 

My jaw doesn’t want to work, so I just nod.

The car has just settled at the bottom. Water whooshes by outside and leaks into the car through a dozen different places. 

The water creeps higher and higher.

I’m shaking all over. My throat is sore from screaming when we first crashed into the river. I want to cry, but I can’t. I’m too afraid. I didn’t know you could be too afraid to cry.

Shirley scrambles out of the driver’s seat and into the back with me, splashing water everywhere. She unbuckles my seatbelt and lifts me up to stand on the seat. 

The water claws at the edge of the seat. 

“It’s just like Mythbusters, yeah? When they put the car in the pool. You remember that episode?”

I nod. Mythbusters was my favorite show ever of all time. Shirley really liked it too. When she began coming around more often, she and I started watching it together. It made Dad really happy. He said it was good bonding time for us. Mommy wasn’t really happy about it.

“And remember what they learned? We just need to stay calm and wait for the water to fill the car, and then we can easily swim out to safety. It’ll be just like springing up from the bottom of a pool.”

The water’s freezing grip wraps around my ankles.

“B-but the river’s r-running really f-f-fast,” I say.

“I know,” she says, smiling. She does it to make me feel better. It works a teeny, tiny bit.

“W-w-what if it’s t-t-too fast for the d-door to open?”

She keeps smiling. “I’ll worry about that, okay.”

The water crawls up our waists.

Shirley wedges herself between the back of the front seat and the backseat, maneuvering me to stand in front of her. She wipes both sides of my face. Then she gets that look on her face that adults get when they’re about to tell you a lie.

“We’ll be just fine, sweetie. I promise.”

I nod. Shirley is very brave. Even though Mommy doesn’t think much of Shirley, especially after Shirley married Dad and moved in full time, she’d probably appreciate Shirley’s bravery.

The water bites our necks.

Shirley grabs my waist, and I wrap my arms tightly around her neck. She pushes us up until our faces scrunch against the car’s ceiling. 

“Okay, sweetie. When I say, I need you to take the biggest, deepest breath ever and hold it in as long as possible.”

I try to nod, but the ceiling’s in the way. 

The water nips my chin. 

“Now!” Shirley says. 

Closing my eyes, I take the biggest, deepest breath I’ve ever taken and clamp my mouth shut. Shirley does the same. Then we are under the water.

Shirley shuffles us to the door. I know it’s open when the water starts to swirl around us faster. Her body is jerking back and forth. I think she’s struggling to open the door all the way. 

We float sideways and suddenly the water around us whooshes by faster. Shirley holds me tighter and I squeeze my arms more. 

Shirley stumbles, and we glide downwards. I peek through my eyes, looking behind Shirley and through the open door’s window.

A hulking shadow with many arms swims towards us. 

I pull back, not even meaning to. The shadow slams into the door and the door smacks into Shirley’s back. A deep, muffled scream echoes through the water. I’m suddenly floating away from Shirley, her arms no longer around me. I claw to grab hold of her. Shirley scrambles for me, her fingertips brushing mine. 

The water drags me away.

The world spins, dark greens and browns swirling together. My lungs are burning, but I keep my mouth shut. My feet skid along the riverbed.

“Just like springing up from the bottom of a pool,” Shirley’s voice says in my head. 

I push hard against the ground and spring through the water. I doggy paddle over and over and over and over and—

Cold air smacks my face and a stormy sky swirls above me. I gasp, sucking in a lungful of air and a noseful of water. Then suddenly I’m under water again. I doggy paddle until I break the surface again. 

Someone screams, multiple someones, somewhere to my left. I glance over. A cluster of people has gathered on the side of the raging river, some of them wading into the water. Their yelling at the top of their lungs and gesturing at me with flailing arms. Just like I learned in swim class, I start breast stroking to them. 

The water is very strong and pulls me further down the river. The people on the bank run, trying to keep up. 

I keep stroking, over and over and over. I’m so tired. More tired then I’ve ever been. But I’m nearly there. I stroke and stroke and—plunge under the water. My arms and legs are jelly and they stop working. 

I feel something grab hold of me, but I tumble away. Then my chest slams into something huge and hard that then drags me out of the water. 

I’m crushed against someone’s chest. I look up into the brown eyes of a giant black bear of a man “I got you!” the black bear yells. 

I wrap my arms around his thick neck and bury my head in his shoulder.

“Pull me back!” he shouts.

One moment I’m in the water and then I’m not. The black bear scrambles up the side of the bank and onto the road. 

The howling wind is freezing. Goosebumps spring up all over my body. The black bear keeps a hold of me, saying, “It’s okay,” over and over again. 

I twist around, looking back at the road where a small thicket of bushes and saplings lay crumbled in the mud, run over by Shirley’s car swerving to avoid another swerving car. 

Panic expands in my belly, then my chest, and then through my limbs. Where’s Shirley?

I whip my head back and forth, looking for her. There are people and cars and rushing water and swaying trees and sirens. I don’t see Shirley anywhere. 

“Where is she?” I say. No one answers.

“Where is she!” I yell and struggle against the black bear. I glare at the river, trying to find Shirley.

My heart pounds in my chest and it feels like I’m being squeezed from every direction. I want to cry, but I’m still too afraid. 

“SHIRLEY! SHIRLEY!”

I shout for her over and over and over. She doesn’t answer.

The people try to calm me, comfort me, tell me it’s going to be okay when they should be looking for Shirley.

“SHIRLEY!”

Again and again I shout for her. She still doesn’t answer.

“Shirle-e-e—” my voice crackles out, my throat filled with fire. The tears finally burst, the dam of fear broken by raging waters of despair. I collapse against the black bear. The people fall silent around us. The wind dies down. The water continues to rage . . .

“IRENE!”

I jerk towards the voice. 

“IRENE!”

Through the tears, I peer across the river. There on the opposite bank is a waterlogged Shirley trailed by two dripping wet strangers.

“s-s-s—” 

I take the biggest, deepest breath, and shout, “MOM!”

Shirley collapses to the ground, cupping her hands over her mouth. No longer need to be brave, she starts sobbing too.

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