It’s amazing how clear your mind becomes when you know you only have two minutes left to live. My first thought, as I found my car careering down the steep side of a reservoir, was how unjust it was, that I should lose my life to a crazy lorry driver. My second was my lifetime fear of drowning, of gasping and choking and sucking freezing water into my nose, mouth, and lungs. My third was to brace myself in case the airbags inflated.
I gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands as panic hovered in the wings. There was a jolt as the car hit the water, but the airbags didn’t deploy, thank God. Then creaking and gurgling as water rose over the windscreen and the car began to sink down and down and it grew darker and darker. The floor of the vehicle began to flood, soaking my shoes and tights with icy water. There was a smell like the drain in my backyard.
I guess my pancreas was pumping adrenalin into my bloodstream like nobody’s business. Time seemed to stop. Do I open a door or a window? Then the car jerked, there was a sucking sound, and the water was halfway to my knees, and I was back in the moment. Through the windscreen, I could see shafts of light through the water but nothing tangible. Nothing that resembled the bottom, anyway. I felt a hot sensation between my legs and realised I was peeing in my panties.
The day, Tuesday in fact, had started like any other. I’d showered, turning the water to cold after five minutes, then after acclimatising to it, to mains water cold – just a few degrees – after a further five minutes. “Ohmygod, ohmygod!” Even rubbing my breasts and belly furiously, it felt like ice. I’d rinsed my hair, having read that cold water made it shinier. Then after as much as I could stand, perhaps three minutes, yanked the control back to hot and breathed a sigh of relief. I wished I was made of stronger stuff, but, hey, I wasn’t planning on joining the marines, just seeing three clients to give Tarot readings, then motoring on to meet my friend, Sandy, for a leisurely lunch – or so I thought.
After my shower, twenty minutes of Zhan Zhuang, warming up my knees by rotating from left to right fifty times, and my shoulders, by raising my arms vertically above my head, then slowly down to my sides, again fifty times.
Then five minutes of Tan Tien breathing – standing and breathing from the belly, pushing it out on the in-breath, and pulling it in on the out-breath, finding from time to time I was doing it the other way around. I tried to be patient. There was no hurry, it didn’t have to be perfect I told myself.
Five minutes of standing still, with knees slightly bent – wu chi, then the pièce de résistance, again standing still but this time with my arms raised, as if holding a large beach ball. ‘Standing like a tree.’ The idea was to reach twenty minutes, but my arms seemed to turn to jelly after just eight minutes. All that was supposed to be filling my body with Chi – universal energy – but I still seemed to feel knackered most of the time. Still, I’d been told it would take time, to give it another year ….
The readings had initially gone pretty well. All regular clients. Sally, a giggly friend and neighbour, Dolores, a forty-something owner of a beautician’s, always wanting insight on her latest beau. Was he ‘Mister Right,’ finally? Then the third reading had been odd. Miranda, a lady in her sixties, always well dressed and hair coiffured. She played golf with her husband, Maurice, a taxidermist, and a pleasant fellow, though he always seemed to smell of pickled onions, and seemingly at peace with her two daughters and four young grandchildren.
Well, if truth be told, I don’t necessarily go by the cards at all, rather by ‘intuition,’ just using them as signposts where they coincide with my gut feeling. With Miranda, I sensed nothing untoward, yet I turned some surprising cards. Using my usual ten-card spread, six of the cards were from the ‘major arcana’ or twenty-two trumps, with just four from the fifty-six cards of the minor arcana, or suits of rods, cups, swords, and wands.
That told me that powerful forces were at work. The Devil, The Hanged Man, Death, The Hermit, Judgement, and most ominously, The Tower, struck by lightning – sudden change, disruption, adversity. Little made sense, not that they were necessarily all bad, but The Tower was hard to play down. Perhaps she would injure her wrist and be unable to play golf for a couple of weeks, I ventured.
Now, as the car finally hit the bottom and air bubbles poured past the windows in the gloom, I realised those cards were a warning – to myself. I tugged on the door handle and pushed to no avail. The water pressure outside was too great. I pressed the window switches, but nothing happened. How ironic, if I’d been in the back seats, I could have wound the windows down, they weren’t electric. I instinctively knew that banging on the window would be a total waste of time and energy, then I suddenly remembered reading that you could detach a headrest and use the metal posts to smash a window. With the freezing water now numbing my thighs, I managed to undo my seatbelt and tugged frantically at the passenger headrest in vain.
I thought of Toni, my four-year-old daughter and her first picture of me she’d brought home the other day. A blue circle for a face with one too many dots in it, and long squiggles of red for my hair, though it was blonde. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to hold my little girl again. I felt my eyes stinging with tears. Although I wasn’t religious, I was in the habit of wearing a cross on a chain. I held it and started to pray, “Dear Jesus, please save me. Save me for Toni. Please, Jesus, God, please!”
All was quiet now in this strange, dark world, apart from occasional gurgling sounds as air continued to escape from the car. The water was rising slowly and steadily and had now reached my breasts. I had no feeling in the bottom two-thirds of my body. I wondered if those daily cold showers were somehow helping me? I wanted to scream, but what would that achieve? My mind was whirring, frantically trying to think of a way to escape. Maybe I could kick out the windscreen? I clenched my eyes shut and started to count. “One, two, three—”
“Susie, you must remain calm.”
I opened my eyes and there was my dad in the passenger seat! He was just as I remembered him, tall and thin with receding grey hair, jade-green eyes, and a prominent nose. He wore a casual grey jacket and a royal blue shirt. He smiled.
“Dad, dad, you’re dead, you’re buried!”
“Never mind all that, just listen. Do you want to see Toni again?”
I couldn’t speak, just nod frantically, my eyes once again full of tears.
“Right, listen, you don’t have the strength to kick out windows, you’d need a glass hammer, and you haven’t got one.”
The water was nearly at my neck now, gradually and evenly rising and I began to shake uncontrollably.
“Listen, sweetheart, you must remain calm, understand, it’s your only hope.”
“Put your head back and breath in and out as slowly and as deeply as you can. When the water’s almost to the roof, the pressure will be equal, and the door should open. I’ll open it for you. OK?”
“Yes, yes, thank you, dad, Thank you.”
“Shh, deep breaths to calm yourself and oxygenate your blood. Understand. And tilt your head right back.”
I did as he suggested, feeling sick with fear as the icy water reached my chin.
“Three seconds, Susie, get ready. Take four quick deep breaths then hold it.”
Those were the three slowest seconds of my life. I found I was hyperventilating and, breathing deeply through my mouth, tried to calm myself down. Afraid of getting water in my mouth, I put my head back as far as I could until my nose was brushing the roof. The water was tickling my earlobes with its frigid tendrils. I felt claustrophobic, my head crushed into that tiny space where there was the only remaining air. Was this the end? What would it feel like to drown? To die in the way I’d spent my whole life in fear of? With utter dread, I waited to take that first in-breath of freezing water.
Then I felt dad reaching across me for the door handle. The door must have opened as my head was instantly submerged and everything blurred. I saw dad had gone and I was alone once more, but I knew now there was hope.
With my lungs full from that last deep breath, I pushed hard and the door opened further against the pressure of the water. Frantically, I pulled myself out of the car and began to swim upwards. Up, up towards the light, feeling a burning pain in my chest, but determined to live.
Then, unbelievably, I was at the surface, gasping furiously but alive. I’d never felt so alive! The shore wasn’t far away. Despite my heavy sodden clothes, I swam with renewed vigour, able to breathe freely now. I was vaguely aware of vehicles at the top of the slope and voices. I pulled myself out onto the steep muddy bank, and lay, shivering violently and gulping precious oxygen, looking up into the blue sky at fluffy white clouds, clouds that I could never remember looking so beautiful.
As the voices came closer, I knew I’d be seeing Toni again and my heart filled with love and gratitude. I clasped the cross that still hung around my neck. ‘Thank you, dad, thank you. If it wasn’t for you ….’
Taken from the book, The Window Cracked and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Horror and the Supranatural
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