Free short story: Breathe


by Sarah Kay Moll

In my dream, it surrounds me. Insidious, it does not break or bend despite my frantic struggle. I swallow it, I breathe it.

In relentless silence, it consumes me.

I wake, tangled in my sheets. Even the air, chill on my sweaty skin, plentiful in my gulping breaths, doesn’t soothe me.

“Did you dream?” Her sleepy murmur floats towards me as I sit up.

“Yes,” I say.

Her eyes open. “The same one?”

“Maybe.” I bend to press a kiss to her forehead, my steady, constant shore. Her lips turn down, full and dark as wine in the moonlight. I run a hand over her stomach, just starting to swell with the evidence of new life. “Go back to sleep. You need your rest.”

Her laugh has a lower pitch than her voice, as though it comes from a deeper, truer place. “I’ll be fine.” She presses a hand to her stomach. “He will too. I’m more worried about you.”

“There’s nothing to worry about. They’re just dreams.”

“They mean something. Your dreams always do.”

For a second I feel it again, fully awake. The cold, fluid caress, the frantic, futile fight with limbs made of lead.

“Not these ones,” I say.

When she’s asleep again, I get up. Green numbers by our hotel bed glow the time: 2:07. The hallway smells faintly of ham, the carpet a heavy blue, scratching like whiskers beneath my bare feet.

The room I enter is silent, devoid of the damp echoes of laughing children and parents with solemn warnings about running near the pool. The stink of chlorine is thick enough to choke. I take small steps over moist concrete, draw closer to the cliff, the aqua depths bottoming out at a death-defying twelve feet.

“You want to go swimming?” My wife stands in the doorway in a white T-shirt through which I can see dark nipples on breasts already growing larger in anticipation of a child.

“No,” I say. “I don’t even want you in here.”

She smiles, the curve of her full lips as sensual as her breasts. She takes two large steps and dives headfirst into the pool. For a paralyzing, panicking second she’s completely submerged.

She breaks the surface, wet hair clinging to her face.

“That wasn’t funny,” I say. “Get out.”

She moves towards the shallow end, to stand with the water at her waist. “Get in. It feels nice.”

“Get out. It’s not good for you.”

“I’ll get out if you get in first. Just for a few minutes. Just walk into the shallow end.”

I stand at the edge of the stairs descending into the blue. She waits, out of my reach. Waits with uncharacteristic patience, drawn out, perhaps, by impending motherhood.

I settle my left foot on the grainy concrete stair, an inch below the waterline. She moves forward to meet me, the water appearing to recede as she strides to the shallows, until it hugs her thighs. Her shirt is soaked through, clinging translucent to the swell of her chest, the curve of her stomach. Wet hair falls over her shoulders, heavy and dark.

I make my way towards her. Just as I reach for her she steps back. The curve of her luscious mouth tells me she’s playing a game, but gently. She lures me into the depths, a single step at a time.

My siren stops when the water covers her shoulders. I place tentative hands on her waist, then tighten my fingers as though holding to driftwood in a storm.

She puts a hand over my racing heart. “You’re afraid.”

“I’m not afraid. I don’t know what the hell we’re doing here.” Harsh words made harsher by the eerie echo of a pool room.

She slips from my grasp again, floating to tread water in the deep end. A wet droplet sparkles on her cheek.

I follow slowly, panic rising as the water creeps upward past my throat to lap at my face.

I lift my feet from the security of the steady floor to keep myself afloat, upsetting the deep around me with steady kicks.

She wraps her legs around my waist, wet arms to circle my neck, as though I am now the driftwood and she the drowner. The world rises sickeningly as I sink. But as her head dips beneath the surface I force heavy limbs to move, techniques unforgotten despite the years that have passed since my father ran drills.

She smiles, head leaned back, hair floating like an arc of fine seaweed.

“I wanted you to see that you could do this,” she says. “If you have to, you’ll be able to protect him.”

“That’s not what I’m afraid of.” I lean my forehead against hers, the cold water pulling at me like the slip of chill satin except where she holds me tightly. “It wasn’t that I thought I was going to die. It was that I thought he would let me die. Every time.”

“You’re not your father,” she says, her fiery words subdued by the choking damp of the room. “You’d never do that to your son. You’re going to love him too much.”

“I know,” I say. “It’s cold. Let’s get you out of here.”

In dry clothes, lying in the too soft hotel bed, she breathes easily beside me. I put a hand over the swell of her stomach, and let it overwhelm me like a drizzle become a summer rain heavy enough to sweep away a city. But love is a storm, not a promise. Everything my father did, he did because he loved me.

I lay back and close my eyes, listen to my wife breathe enough air for two fragile lives.