The lake was choppy, with the tops of waves and swells turned white by the sharp wind rolling off the mountains, but our small boat cut through them with ease. I leaned back and stretched my arms, having just ceded the steering wheel to a friend. Her life jacket was far too big on her, I thought idly, imagining how cross she’d be at the pictures we took during our ride.

I lost track of time, looking out over the waters, watching birds skim the waves and our aggressive wake. The sky was the color of a too-old band t-shirt, its once jet black having given way to muted grey after too many washes. The stinging spray of our boat made me think of the rain that was sure to come, and I briefly considered whether or not we should turn back to the dock if the storm worsened. Seeing the smiles on my friends’ faces though quickly settled the momentary debate. We rarely had the opportunity to enjoy time together as we got older, and the lake trip had been too long in planning to cut it short.

A wrenching jolt brought my attention back to the bolt, as the third and final member of our little outing took the helm. She, normally the most prudent among us, had waved off the protection of a life-jacket, and was quickly trying to get her bearings behind the wheel. I started to voice my concern but was cut off as she over-corrected for an oncoming wave and slammed the boat broad-side into it.

The frigid mountain lake leapt at the opportunity to punish the small craft, and we three who were haughty enough to challenge it on the cusp of a storm. It clamped down on the boat’s back corner, wresting me out of my seat with teeth of ice, stealing the breath from my lungs and paralyzing me with shock. The world went black and I couldn’t make sense of the sensations wracking my body—the force of the wave pulling and twisting me every which way, the piercing stabs of the cold, and the confusion of the suddenness of it all.

Fighting the burning in my lungs yearning for breath, I remembered the advice of a dive coach many years prior: “if you don’t know which way is up, stop moving and let yourself float.” Giving myself a beat to go limp, I felt my body begin to rise—almost backwards from the way I thought I was facing—and I fought my way to the air above, coughing and sputtering as I broke the surface, fighting to tread water beneath the weight of my winter clothes and the unforgiving waves, buoyed only by my life vest.

I espied the neon yellow of my friend’s jacket bobbing in the roiling waves and laboriously made my way to her, even as the cold began seeping into my very bones. My fear was that she was unconscious—or worse—but as soon as I touched her shoulder she jerked her head out of the water, fixing me with a wild-eyed stare. “Where’s Penny?”

The pit in my stomach grew, threatening to consume me.

The constant chop and spray churned up from intensifying winds made it impossible to quickly scan for our third friend across the surface. I was a strong swimmer but even with the life vest I was struggling to keep my head above water; our friend who opted out of any safety equipment would have almost no chance.

Spotting the overturned hull of our boat, I pointed my friend at it and told her to swim as hard as she could. With any luck someone saw the capsize and help would soon be on the way, but I knew our arms and legs would tire long before they arrived. Taking a big breath, I slipped under the water and wriggled out of both my life vest and my zip-up sweater, kicking off my shoes as well. Cradling the vest under my arm for buoyancy I stripped out of my jeans as well, letting them sink into the deep darkness beneath.

Much freed from the weight and constraints of bulky clothing, I let go of the floating life preserver and dove beneath the black waves, scouring the darkness for any sign of our missing friend, even as the cold water stole the strength from my muscles and breath from my lungs.

This brief story was inspired by a terrible dream I had last night.

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