LONG AND GRACEFUL • by Michael P. Boettcher Jr.

Trey looked out the windshield and saw a deserted boat ramp. He was confused as to why his mother had driven them here instead of to swim class. Trey wouldn’t have minded really, Violet was the one who loved to swim, but something was wrong. In the mirror, Trey could see his mother staring blankly out at the water. Violet looked as apprehensive as he felt. Their mother had been strange ever since they left the house. She had cried and muttered to herself the whole drive.

Violet struggled against her booster seat to be set free and Trey calmed her with a reassuring hand. Every muscle in his body was tense and eager to get him out of this car but he dared not move. Maybe his mother would just sit here until she snapped out of it or fell asleep or changed her mind about whatever she was planning.

Trey’s mind raced. She must have stopped taking her pills. He had heard her complain they made her feel strange. His father would say something like, “I know, baby, but it’s better than the way you can get without them.”

Trey had vague memories of nights where his mother would cry uncontrollably and then laugh hysterically off and on. He remembered being so scared; he would wet himself. He remembered watching his bedroom door in terror, hoping it would remain closed. After she got the pills, outside of some occasional nightmares those nights had been all but forgotten. He looked down at his shaking hands and tried to make himself be brave.

He reached down as slowly as he could to unlatch his buckle, never taking his eyes from the rearview mirror. With a soft snick his belt fell away. He reached over, his searching hand grasping Violet’s belt release when his mother’s eyes locked on his in the mirror. She let out a resigned sigh, and then stomped on the gas.

Trey floated there, one hand grasping Violet’s belt release, the other pressed into the ceiling. One excruciating instant later, he was ripped free of his tenuous moorings and hurled over the seats and into the front of the car. He smashed back first into the passenger side airbag, knocking the wind out of him. He tried in vain to draw air back into his lungs but he seemed to have forgotten how. He fell into the foot well and when he was finally able to pull air into his stubborn lungs a large gulp of icy, brackish water came along as well.

Violet began to scream as he climbed up into the passenger seat. His mother stared out the windshield and seemed unaware her own airbag had left her face bruised and bloody or that she sat up to her waist in murky water. Violet was still struggling against the booster seat. Trey dove into the back and fought her hands away from the release so he could free her. She seemed unhurt and immediately started tearing at the door.

Trey watched her and had two simultaneous realizations. The doors and windows wouldn’t open until the car was completely full of water. Also, with the child safety locks engaged, they needed to go out the front doors. She was still struggling with the door and he had to yell at her and smack her head to get her to look at him.

“We have to wait until the car is all the way full, then we have to go out the front,” he said.

Violet just looked at him and nodded. Trey never ceased to be amazed at the power of a big brother. The car was sinking nose down. His mother was already up to her neck. As the car sank and everything began to get quiet, Trey could hear his mother softly humming. It sounded vaguely familiar, a lullaby he thought, but before he could identify the song the water rose over her head and there was silence. He wanted to get her up into the rapidly shrinking air pocket but he dare not leave Violet. They had their faces pressed up against the back window and the water was rising up over their shoulders.

“This is it, Violet; big breath.”

The water rose over them. The car leveled as it settled onto the bottom. He swam up into the front seat and unlocked the door. He dug his feet into the passenger seat and pushed with his shoulder until the door began to open enough that they could escape. His lungs were already screaming at him to breathe and he had to fight the urge to swim out. He turned and found Violet there behind him waiting with a panicked expression on her face. He grabbed her arm, intending to pull her out the partially open door with him, but couldn’t budge her. He pulled futilely, until he saw why. His mother, still staring blankly out the windshield, had an arm about Violet’s waist and was holding her in place.

Trey tried to pull her arm away from Violet but she was too strong. With his arms around his sister, he kicked his mother as hard as he could in the face. Violet came free and he pushed her out the open door. His mother appeared unconscious, probably drowning. He wanted to save her, pull her out with him, but his air was depleted. He felt on the verge of passing out. Weakly he pulled himself toward the opening. Just as his head cleared the door frame and he saw the surface rippling impossibly far above, he was yanked by his ankle, back into the car and into his mother’s embrace. She held him tight and with his head near her chest; he thought he could feel her humming. He had nothing left.

Trey turned his head to see Violet through the windshield. She was swimming up towards the distant daylight. Her long and graceful strokes were beautiful.

Michael P. Boettcher Jr. is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He is currently stationed in Norfolk, VA where he flies helicopters for the Navy. He is married with two children. He writes part time and is an active member of critique groups and online critique forums.

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