I totally panicked.
What passage of my story could I possibly read that would measure up to some of the others? I took a piece of advice from another adult and read the scene where the two protagonists first meet.
Not the goosebumps moment I could have hoped for. More like a yawn moment for the group, a bit of down time between two other riveting readers.
If I'd planned better, or been thinking more clearly, I could've read one of my favorite scenes - maybe the bicycle lesson between Shea and the girl he doesn't know (yet) is a mermaid, or where Shea first realizes he can't drown. I mean, up until this point, he's never even been underwater, let alone tumbling in the murky depths of the salty Herring River where the currents rush to pull him out to sea. I loved writing this, and I would've loved reading it out loud - and next time, I will.
Here's the excerpt:
Shea squinted against the glare. The bright sunshine sparkled on the river’s surface as the water rushed back from the ocean, the swift current creating streams of light out of the reflected brilliance.
“I love watching the tide come in,” Hailey said. The pair sat on the edge of the dock mesmerized by the flowing water, bare feet dangling inches above the rising surface. Fishing poles and sandals lay discarded behind them on the wooden walkway. “It’s like the river went out to play in the ocean and is now rushing home for lunch.”
He elbowed her ribs. “You think about food all of the time, you know that?”
She turned and grinned. “I’m food deprived. Have I mentioned my mom can’t cook?”
“Only forty million times. And I’ve only known you about a week!” He paused, watching a seagull wheel overhead. “Finding all those wooden lures this morning made me want to go fishing. You didn’t have to tag along.”
“I wanted to.” She turned her face upward to watch the same gull. “Fishing is a good Cape Cod experience, and it gets me out of the house. Chip has been awful to live with lately.”
“He still doesn’t like it here?”
Hailey shook her head. She stood on the dock and pulled her hot pink shirt over her head, revealing a plain, black one-piece bathing suit. “C’mon, Shea, let’s jump in.” She shimmied out of her shorts, dropped the clothes in a heap on the wooden dock, and cannonballed into the river.
He shielded his face with his arm across to block the splash. “Watch it! And no, I told you I don’t know how to swim. I’ll sit here and watch you drown.”
With an exaggerated pout, she swam toward him. “It’s no fun alone. Pull me onto the dock.” He stood and bent to help her, but she tugged his arm instead.
He toppled into the river beside her. The blue-green coolness swirled as he tumbled through the water, arms and legs flailing. He struggled to hold his breath, his cheeks puffing like a chipmunk. Somehow he managed to right himself, head over kicking feet, but still he sank into the murky depths.
Millions of air bubbles traced the path of his body, the precious oxygen escaping from his clothing and through his nose. He hadn’t been kidding when he told Hailey he couldn’t swim. Suddenly, he realized he was inside a scene from one of his nightmares, except this time it was real.
He was drowning.
Eyes wide with panic, he clawed helplessly at the water. A huge school of minnows parted down the middle to swim around him, surrounding him like walls on either side of his body. Turning his face upward, he saw Hailey’s legs kicking above him as he sank further and further under the water. He had no idea the river was this deep! How would he ever get back to the surface?
His throat and lungs burned from the effort of holding his breath. Darkness pressed hard against his eyes as he sank deeper, swirls of strange colors dancing in front of him as his whole body strained against the sudden lack of oxygen.
I need to breathe, he thought desperately, his whole body feeling like it was on fire. This isn’t a dream. I’m going to die! His flailing limbs slowed their movements when his feet thunked onto the mucky river bottom.
His eyes squeezed shut, an image of his father playing in his mind. Next to his dad, he saw the face from his dreams. The blonde woman, the one he now knew was his mother. The one who looked like a mermaid. If he opened his eyes now, would she be hovering in front of him, like in the dreams? Fear of the unknown shivered down his spine and his eyes stayed closed.
Searing pain ripped through his throat, as if his entire body would explode any second from the effort of holding his breath. Finally he opened his eyes, expecting to see her there by his side. Smiling at him. Reaching for his hand, just like his dream.
Nothing but swaying fronds of seaweed grabbing at him, tangling themselves around his bare shins. There was no mermaid to save him.
He was going to die.
Finally, the pain overwhelmed him. He gave up trying to fight. Shea opened his mouth to exhale the stale air pounding like a jackhammer in his lungs. Large bubbles rushed to the surface in a hurry to escape. Water gushed in, filling his mouth and lungs. He struggled to breathe, but there was no air on the river bottom, only water.
Water that somehow acted like fresh air to his exhausted body.
I can breathe under water?
He took a second deep and satisfying breath. How could it be possible?
I’m breathing water! Maybe this is how drowning feels.
His head pounded and his entire body still felt like it was on fire, burning out of control. But he was breathing. Water. He sucked big mouthfuls in and out, faster and faster, realizing he wasn’t going to die after all.
His eyes rolled backward and he drifted into shocked unconsciousness.