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[Fiction] Hypoxia

by Jake Dean

The wave lands a meter in front of her and she’s thankful the lip doesn’t detonate on her back or on her surfboard, which she’s pushed as far away as possible. But now she’s underwater, cold and spinning in a sea of turbulent white. Her mouth’s sealed tight. Her lungs, half empty, already ache from having tried to outrun the fucking thing. She’s strong, she tells herself. But she’s not sure she believes it.

The first lesson her father taught her was to let waves have their way with you. Conserve energy. Don’t fight it. But she’s being pushed deeper and deeper into the drink. How many waves are behind this one, she wonders, her eyes shut tight.

Upside-down, she cradles her head with her arms in case she’s hurtling towards the rocky shoreline. If she has been pushed towards the grey-black slabs of granite, she wonders hopefully, at least she might be able to grab hold of one when she re-emerges in the overcast air. She’s not sure, however, whether this is even possible amid the deep gutter and fast-moving rip, which has ferried surfers out the back—and the occasional fisherman to their death—for decades. Briefly, ridiculously, she imagines being chomped by a waiting shark who senses an easy feed. She sees ripples of light amid the churning water above, and she pulls herself up from her leg rope, chest and muscles burning.

She breaches the surface, glimpsing foam, the ancient headland, a red towel perched on a shrub-lined boulder, and the sky. She sucks another greedy half-lungful of air before the next wave lands on her head with a powerful slap, driving her back into the depths. Relief—brilliant yet fleeting—gives way to fear.

Eyes shut, she thinks of her father again, perhaps because he introduced her to surfing—his parting gift. What would his sun-worn face look like today? She thinks how disappointing it is (disappointing’s a devastatingly inept word) that he’ll never meet the child inside her. Her app told her today it was now the size of a pomegranate seed, should she decide to keep it. Should it survive. Should they survive. Her leg rope stretches and then snaps. Two hearts beat fast.

She sees the futility of her half-breath when the water enters her throat. Then, her lungs. The panic she’d done so well to stave off has arrived. She thrashes, primal, like a fish on a hook. There’s a fire inside her, followed by an incredible calm. Don’t fight it. But don’t give up. She opens her eyes and doesn’t know which way is up, but she sees the light now, refracted and shimmering, so she moves towards it, unbound and unafraid.

Jake Dean writes stories and rides waves on Kaurna Country in South Australia. His fiction has been recognized in journals, anthologies and contests across Australia and abroad. He lives alongside a nude beach with his wife, two sons and kelpies. You can read more of his work at


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