Girl Underwater

Girl Underwater

by Claire Kells
Girl Underwater

Girl Underwater

by Claire Kells


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An adventurous debut novel cutting between a competitive college swimmer's harrowing days in the Rocky Mountains after a major airline disaster, and her recovery supported by the two men who love her—only one of whom knows what really happened in the wilderness.
Nineteen-year-old Avery Delacorte loves the water. A sophomore on her university's nationally ranked swim team, she finally feels popular and accepted — especially by Lee, her kind and outgoing boyfriend.
But everything changes when Avery's red-eye home for Thanksgiving makes a ditch landing in a mountain lake in the Colorado Rockies. There are only five survivors: Avery, three little boys, and Colin Shea— the teammate Avery has been avoiding since the first day of freshman year. Faced with sub-zero temperatures, minimal supplies, and the dangers of a forbidding nowhere, Avery and Colin must rely on their talents, willpower, and each other in ways they never could have imagined.
Yet when Avery emerges from her ordeal alive, terrified of the water, conflicted by her emotions, and evasive of her memories, she must face the harrowing realization that rescue doesn't necessarily mean survival.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101983980
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/16/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.28(w) x 7.94(h) x 0.69(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Claire Kells was born and raised outside Philadelphia. She received a degree in English from Princeton University and a medical degree from the University of California. Currently in residency, she lives and works in the Bay Area. This is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt


I’ve always loved the water. My earliest memory is opening my eyes in my neighbor’s pool and seeing the world through this different state of being. It shocked no one when I begged for swim lessons at the age of three—far younger than my older, more adventuresome brothers. When my mother saw me flying off the high dive the summer before kindergarten, she was horrified but not surprised. She wanted to ban me from the pool for a week, but my dad had a different idea: put her on the swim team.

After the crash, my instincts changed. Even the smallest children know not to breathe underwater, but somehow, my mind railed against everything I’d ever known. I thought it was permanent.

I thought fear was forever.


The security line proceeds in its usual torturous fashion: in stops and starts, other people’s luggage tumbling at my feet. After thirty minutes of halfhearted apologies, one of the TSA checkers waves me over.

He holds up my Massachusetts license and smirks. “You sure this is you?”

“Yep.” I force a smile. That picture isn’t my proudest moment: blond hair wild and windblown, eyes bloodshot, freckled skin paler than a baby’s butt. It was February, the week before midterms. Never get your driver’s license issued in February.

“You’re a brunette now.”

“Yep.” Precious seconds tick by.

“Okay,” he says, handing it over. “You pass.”

I take my license and head for the closest lane. A family of six squeezes in right in front of me, juggling Uggs and Disney backpacks and a whole assembly of umbrellas. A toddler empties his pockets and fifty pennies scatter on the floor. I scoop them up while his parents chase down their other kids.

Five interminable minutes later, I’m through the X-ray machine, awaiting the verdict with my shoes off, arms at my sides. “Clear,” the woman says, with the amount of enthusiasm one would expect from someone who’s said it a thousand times today.

The crowds don’t exactly part for me as I run for the gate, but I’ve gotten good at this. Some people run clumsily: handbags flying, suitcases bobbing behind them on carpeted floors. The business-class folks walk with a practiced, efficient grace. I’m somewhere in between: a little stressed but not crazed. Forget dinner, though. I hurry past the bars and fro-yo stands with a lurch in my stomach.

The thing is, I could have avoided all this; I could have been on time, relaxed, enjoying a decent dinner or at least some packaged sushi before my flight. Phil Markey offered me a ride to the airport after practice this morning, which came as a shock because senior guys don’t often talk to sophomore girls—especially sophomore girls who don’t exactly dominate in the pool. I didn’t wonder about it too much, though. A ride with the co-captain? I said yes.

My excitement dimmed when Phil pulled up to my dorm with Colin Shea in the front seat. Colin Shea: serious and quiet and abundantly talented. Scarily talented. I’d avoided him since the first day of freshman year, and the thought of trying to explain why to Phil . . .

So I bailed. My excuse didn’t even make sense—something about carsickness and country music. Phil didn’t care, but Colin noticed. He always notices.

As if on cue, Colin steps out of line at Starbucks just as I’m rounding the corner. He’s paying for a coffee—a venti, in fact. Who buys coffee right before a red-eye? Not just that, but a supersized coffee. He doesn’t even bother with cream and sugar. He thanks the exhausted barista, stuffs the tip jar while she isn’t looking, and jogs up to the gate.

He’s clearly the last one to board. Well, second to last. Why did he wait so long to board? I hope to God he wasn’t waiting for me to show up. Phil knew we were all booked for the same flight to Boston, and Colin has a strange sense of responsibility about him. He probably thinks I’m late because of him. Which is true, but he will never know that.

I’ll give it a minute and board right before they close the doors. Hopefully he’s sitting way in the back somewhere. Some clever finagling scored me a seat in the emergency exit row, and I’m betting Colin just went for the cheapest option.

The gate agent responds to him the same way the barista did: stunned by his size and slick bald head, softened by his smile. She scans his boarding pass, hands it back to him, and even manages a sincere “Have a nice flight.”

When the final boarding announcement sounds overhead, I make my move. The terminal feels more subdued now, almost quiet. Tomorrow, the day before Thanksgiving, the chaos will bloom all over again. A janitor empties huge recycling bins. Two Asian women scrub the countertops of a Panda Express. A bearded man in a tweed jacket sits in one of those massage chairs with his cell phone to his ear, rubbing his temples as the clock creeps toward midnight.

The gate agent offers me an empty customer-service grin, the kind that isn’t meant to be returned. “Have a nice flight,” she says. She’s tired; I’m tired. I’ve averted disaster with Colin Shea and now I just want to get there.

As I round the corner, the cabin door gapes at me. A flight attendant mediates the transition from ramp to plane, where she greets me with a chipper “Welcome!” She doesn’t seem perturbed that I’ve boarded precariously late, but the first-class passengers are. They wring out their hot towels and glare at me like I peed in the complimentary champagne.

I rush past those coveted rows and enter the cramped, dingy quarters known as coach. The scene is familiar: tired parents and wailing babies, old men with canes, college kids sending a few last texts. Personal space doesn’t mean zip in coach. People are leaning on each other, into each other, all over each other. Phil has one of the bulkhead seats. Lucky bastard. He winks because that’s just kind of what he does, and I smile back.

“You made it,” he says.


“Hell, isn’t it?” He gestures vaguely to the chaos brewing behind him.

“A special kind,” I say, trying hard to sell the joke.

He nods and goes back to SportsCenter streaming on his iPad. Not the best of interactions, but not the worst, either. At least he acknowledged me. I was worried he might never talk to me again after the whole carpool fiasco.

After a brief survey of unfamiliar faces, I drop my gaze and power forward. Up ahead, a generously sized man pours into the aisle. He catches me with an elbow, then a knee. No apology. It’s fine. This is just how it goes on one of the busiest travel days of the year. Most people are wrestling with the overhead bins, but a few stare at me as I make my way down the center aisle. One brave-faced teenager actually swivels his head for a greedy look at my butt.

Ten . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . 12F. Window seat. It’s not first class, but it’s not 32B, either. I stop and look up. First order of business is to identify kids in the vicinity: Infants are bad, toddlers a nightmare. There are two of the latter sitting in the rows directly behind me. The little boy in 13E sports a baseball jersey, and 14F is swimming in a pint-size Indian kurta. All four parents flash me the same tentative grin, as if a positive attitude might just be the key to a seamless, whine-free flight. Another boy, maybe six or seven, sits in row 15, but he’s all tuned in to his dad’s electronics. This is a good sign. I just hope the younger boys skipped their naps today so they sleep through the flight.

The only other person in my row is a fortyish guy in an ill-fitting suit. He’s on his cell phone, ordering some poor intern to finalize the paperwork before the holiday. The man looks like he hasn’t cracked a smile since the eighties. I’m glad we’re together, though. He doesn’t seem like the chatty type.

I maneuver past his legs and settle into my coveted window seat. The shade is already up, revealing the nighttime extravagance of SFO and the Oakland skyline in the distance. Yellow lights pepper the hills to the east, disappearing in the hazy divide between sky and headlands. To the west, San Francisco sits in a steepening wall of fog.

“Excuse me.”

The flight attendant leans into my row, pursing her lips with practiced professionalism. But my gaze doesn’t linger on her for very long; it shifts to the six-foot-four, broad-shouldered kid next to her.


I swallow hard. “Yeah?”

“This gentleman will be joining you in the emergency exit row.”

The next seat over, Cheap Suit groans. Colin murmurs a thank-you to the flight attendant and shifts awkwardly into the dreaded middle seat. His legs are long and cumbersome, and he probably used them to barter for a seat in the roomier section. A wave of irritation surges through me. He definitely planned this—saw me walk down the aisle and take my seat, then concocted an excuse about his legs being too long for 32B or wherever he’s supposed to be.

As Colin gets settled in, I make a point of rummaging through my bag. Laptop, e-reader, pens, a ripped swim cap. Some coins and other things I can’t identify just by touch. I continue searching.

Laptop. Perfect. I put my earbuds in and power it up, but the battery’s dead. How did that happen? I go for my phone instead. There’s only one song stored on the hard drive, and it’s a sampler from the phone company, but it will have to do.

So far, so good. Colin straightens his long legs and pulls his elbows in toward his body. For a tall person, he occupies amazingly little space. Most people his size park their elbows on the armrests the second they sit down, obliterating any sense of personal space. A good number of them proceed to nod off and snore or, worse, end up on my shoulder. At least Colin has some awareness of his surroundings. That or he’s trying too hard.

He skims his massive hand over his bald head as he reaches for a dog-eared copy of Great Expectations. Although I’m doing my best to look elsewhere, I can’t help but notice the handwritten plea to return the book if found, with Colin’s name and Dorchester address scrawled on the inside cover. I resist the sudden, inexplicable urge to ask him about this: You’re from Dorchester? When we met over a year ago, he told me he was from Boston. Which isn’t exactly a lie, but Boston makes you think country clubs and old money; Dorchester means you probably learned to swim in a community pool behind a chain-link fence.

I suppose the details don’t really matter. Best to act uninterested, to close my eyes and will the hours to pass. Because they will, and when we land, we’ll go our separate ways.

The lights dim, the tires lurch, and the plane rumbles backward. The grump in the suit barks a final set of commands into his cell phone, while the gentleman in front of me is already snoring. It sounds like his throat is wrestling with his vocal cords, a real battle to the death. I blast the sample music. Slowly, peacefully, the sounds of air travel fade to a muffled drone.

I close my eyes. In six hours, I’ll be there.

I’ll be home.

A gray shore unfolds before me, cast under shadowy gray skies. The scene stretches on forever, sand and sky, two hulking ghosts in a lonesome embrace. The sea laps the shore, oblivious. It washes over my toes, my ankles, my knees. And then it recedes.

A wave is cresting in the distance—black, shapeless, inevitable. Although my mind processes the threat, my body refuses to respond. Muscles won’t contract. Lungs refuse to inflate. Paralyzed, I stare at the wall of water as it swells before me, gathering strength before swallowing me whole—

The wave is not water but sound: human sounds. Crying, screaming. The distant echo of people’s voices pitched with panic.

Gasping, I snap my eyes open and find that I’m not alone on some vast gray shore. I’m in my seat. Plastic tubes dangle from the ceiling. Serving trays rattle in place. The cabin pulses with light, though the sky beyond my window is a grim, starless black.

The man next to Colin has dropped something, and he’s on all fours, crawling toward the front. The plane dips in that direction, pitching all of us forward, like an unbalanced seesaw. I blink a few times, focusing the images, praying they simply disappear—but the sound makes it real. God, the sound . . .

I cover my ears, only to feel the resistance of earbuds. The cord has no weight on the end of it, and in some distant corner of my mind, I consider the consequences of a lost cell phone. Then the plane goes into a dive, and my attention veers to the window.

The shade is still open, providing a pristine view of a great, mocking nothingness. We could be at the bottom of the sea or a million miles out in space—it’s impossible to tell. I press my forehead to the glass, straining for a view of something. Anything. Lights, people, houses, cars. Or maybe a runway beckoning us to land.

But there is nothing out there. I’ve never seen darkness so absolute. We could be anywhere; we could be nowhere.

Oxygen masks bounce on seats like coiled springs. Someone’s leopard-print luggage lands in the doorway between first class and coach. Lights are flickering. Alarms blaring. The whoosh of air threatens to burst my eardrums, even with my earbuds in. I pull them out to face the onslaught of what’s happening.

It occurs to me then, finally, that we’re going down. There are other people sharing this nightmare, two hundred of them, seeing the same horrors and experiencing the same despair and hearing the same staccato beat of air and engines. Our paths were supposed to diverge again in Boston, but they didn’t. We’re here. We’re ending. Together.

I don’t know these people. I don’t love them or care about them or even know their names. Would it be easier if I did? Or would we cry even harder, holding on to the ones we love?

The plane jerks, and my neck snaps back against the seat. A sharp pain rockets through my chest, then fades. I feel a hand on my arm: warm, smooth, steady. And in that moment, everything goes quiet. Calm.

“Are you okay?” Colin.

His voice is smoother than I remember, and it takes me a moment to realize why: The uncertainty is gone. The shyness, too. The facade he uses to navigate our stilted interactions has been stripped away, replaced by a different, stronger, truer person.

In that moment, a single question floats to the front of my mind: Why?

Why is Colin Shea here with me now when he should have been sitting somewhere else? Why isn’t he trying to save himself, as so many others are doing? Why isn’t he calling his mom or dad or someone else he actually cares about?

Why does it suddenly feel like I’ve known him all my life?

My vision clears. I can see his eyes very clearly now: a pulsing, turbulent blue, the color of the sky just before dawn. Dark, but somehow comforting.

“I’m okay,” I say.

He puts the armrest up and grasps my hand, and the panic tickling the back of my throat sinks back down. “I don’t want to die.” I say it more to myself than him, but he must hear me because he squeezes my hand even harder.

“You won’t.” He tightens our seat belts and hands me a pillow that he must have salvaged from the now-empty seat next to him.

“This isn’t mine—”

“I know,” Colin says. “Just try and support your neck.”

The screams rise and fall with the dip of the plane; somewhere, a door slams against something else, and the drink cart tumbles down the aisle. Through all of this, Colin doesn’t just keep his cool; he creates it. The hysteria surrounding us doesn’t touch him.

He thinks we actually have a chance.

“Do you have a phone?” I start ransacking the seat-back pocket, tossing out magazines and life jacket instructions. My hands are shaking and everything looks blurred. “We should try to call someone—”

“We’re not going to die.” He positions the pillow under my neck and places a strong, steady hand in the groove between my shoulder blades. It’s a small gesture, but significant in a world that feels like it’s shrinking. He’s so warm. So steady, too, like he was built for this. Built to be here, in this moment, for reasons I will never understand.

Together, we crouch down as much as our bodies and space will allow. Time stalls, then stands still. Oxygen masks skitter over my back like confused birds. Screams turn to sobs. The plane heaves up, down, sideways. I desperately want to look out the window, to get my bearings. To see one last thing—a star, a house, or maybe just the sky—before I die. Before everything ceases to be.

Instead, I stare at my shoes. A weathered pair of old Nikes, chlorine-bleached from all those hours on the pool deck. One of the laces is untied, but I can’t tie them with my arms locked around my legs. So I just sit there, gazing at the faded Nike swoosh, watching my tears stain the industrial blue carpet. What an awful thing to see right before you die. Soda stains, dust, a dead spider. But I’m too afraid to look at anything else. I’m afraid to even move until Colin says my name and that awful terror recedes again.

We’re only six inches apart, our faces so close I can taste the whisper of peppermint on his breath. He must’ve brushed his teeth after that coffee, which I know is a weird thing to think right now, but it streaks across my mind anyway, a grain of comfort in the chaos.

I’m glad he’s here—someone familiar, if only in the loosest sense of the word. He must be thinking about his actual family: his parents, his siblings if he has any. The people who raised him, their alarms set for five o’clock on Wednesday morning, waiting for him to come home.

The question comes to my lips, unbidden. “Won’t you miss your family?”

He looks at me for a long moment. A pained expression colors his face, then fades. “We’re going to make it, Avery.”

Something about the way he says my name makes me forget the hurtling luggage and blinking lights, even as the plane lurches forward, then dips with a violent shudder. A renewed chorus of screaming goes up. Something hits the ceiling, then drops, limply, onto the floor. I catch a glimpse of someone’s head and close my eyes hard enough to hurt.

An announcement rolls over the speakers, as if it even means anything anymore: “This is your captain. Brace for impact.”

This time the view out the window shows dark pines flitting past us like an accelerated movie reel. A lake glistens in the distance, reflecting the pale light of the moon. This isn’t so bad, I think. To see something so magnificent, so natural, right before we die. I always loved the water: lakes, oceans, pools. I always felt at home there.

Then, I let it all go, finding Colin’s gaze instead. It’s only us now, our paths converging in a spiraling nowhere. As I try to process what it means to be with this familiar stranger, a strange serenity floats over me. It’s as if all the thousands of horrible moments before this one have distilled themselves into something meaningful, something almost like fate. “You have the bluest eyes,” I say.

A lone tear rolls down his cheek, the kind that comes without warning or expectation. I want to touch it. I want to make things right again.

Then, a roar. It sounds like the fingers of God scraping the belly of the plane, a gritty screech that makes my blood hum.

“Don’t be afraid,” he breathes.

And then we hit.


The date screams at me from the hospital white-board: WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 10.

How did it get to be December tenth?

As I consider this, my nurse bustles in, tells me it’s time for breakfast. She sets the tray on the table, and the stench of processed eggs fills the room. Unlike yesterday, or the days before that, there is no lunch menu this time.

No lunch menu because today I’m going home.

A pile of spare blankets sits in the corner. On the opposite wall, an electrical cord dangles from an unplugged flat-screen TV. I stare at the blank screen for hours on end, picturing the rabid faces of reporters and their sensationalist headlines. The same dated photos of those desolate mountains, recycled over and over again, like an overplayed commercial. I tried to watch different channels. Tried to read books or magazines. And even now, with the hulking thing disconnected, I hear the news and see their faces and wish it all away.

A lady with fire-red hair came by a few days ago to interview me. They brushed my hair and coated my face in makeup, covering the windburn as best they could. Someone handed me a bright red sweater to wear over my hospital gown; someone else helped me button it up.

Up until that point, everything felt almost normal, sitting in this room with my TV on and blue skies out the window and my parents perched on the foot of the bed. Nights were long and dreamless, the sleep of the sedated. Days had become a cycle of breakfast trays and lunch trays and naps. I’d been living in a haze—a warm, hollow, wonderful haze.

Then the lady with red hair started asking me questions.

What was it like when the plane was going down?

How did you make it to shore?

Were you afraid?

And, of course: What happened out there?

In the end, I threw the remote clean through the open window, which her hipster cameraman caught on tape. Two nurses ushered them out of the room. The haze, though, had cleared. After that, I dreamed in biting reds and oily blues. I saw pale, frozen faces, their mouths moving soundlessly, like dead fish. I saw belts with no buckles, and flames with no source, and a lake with no bottom. I saw three little boys, all dead in my arms. And I saw Colin saving someone else.

The doctors tell me this is to be expected. They say forgetting is the brain’s best defense against the psychological devastation of traumatic events, and I’ll be better off if I don’t remember. Maybe the media doesn’t think so, but they don’t have the dreams. They don’t wake up in the dead of night, gripping the sheets and wondering if tonight will be the night we freeze to death. The dreams make me wish I had died in the crash along with so many others. Then there would be no media, no lady with red hair, no questions. There would only be a bleak, logical narrative. A blitz of photos and sad stories. Instead, I’m an asterisk. A question mark. And for all those who celebrate my good fortune, there are others who must be asking, Why her?

My dad walks into the room as I’m wiggling my toes. It’s become a habit, a daily check to make sure they still work.

“Sleep well?” He hands me a steaming cup of coffee. Black, a little weak. I usually take it with cream and sugar, but right now, all I want is warmth. The hot liquid courses through me, makes me feel human again.

“Not really.”

“It’ll get better.” Spoken like a true physician. My dad isn’t my doctor here, of course, but my being in a hospital blurs the lines between patient and daughter. He doesn’t say anything to the staff, but he grumbles about my discharge planning to anyone who will listen. Except me. With me, it’s a constant barrage of rehabilitation commands: You should eat more. I want you out of that bed. Being in bed makes people feel even sicker than they are. Do five laps around the unit today. Six tomorrow. And so on. No wonder why I’m so exhausted.

“Where’s Mom?” I ask.



He looks me in the eye as he says, “Avery, I think it’s time—”

“No.” Coffee sloshes over the cup and pricks my thighs. Dad steals it away from me, noting the little red marks on my skin with a practiced eye. When he decides it’s no big deal, he crosses his arms and glares at me.

“This is your last chance to see those boys before we leave.”

“I’ll see them in Boston.”


“I don’t want to see them.” I turn toward the window, hating the tremor in my voice. “The doctors said they don’t remember much anyway.”

If I were one of the patients in his ER, he’d get up and leave. My father doesn’t argue with people. If you don’t give a shit, he doesn’t give a shit. But I’m his daughter, and so he stands there in silence, waiting me out.

“Fine,” he says.


“You don’t want to deal with what happened, that’s your choice. But you’ve got to give them something.”

He walks out to the nurses’ station and returns a minute later with his hands full. He’s alone, thank God, but he has that doctorly, no-nonsense look in his eyes.

“What are you doing?”

“Giving you options.” He lays out an assembly of items: his cell phone, a pen, several sheets of blank paper, three envelopes, car keys, and his iPad. He writes down an address and, beneath it, a phone number.

“That there is all the information you need to contact those boys.”


“I don’t care how you do it. I really don’t. But dammit, Avery, you are not going to leave here like nothing happened. You’re stronger than that.”

The truth is, I’m not strong. A stronger person would have answered the media’s questions in details, and layers, and harsh truths; a stronger person would have found some way to cope. Instead, I told the world a story rooted in denial and self-preservation. Survival. What a magnificent lie.

He nudges the tray table in my direction. “I’ll be back in an hour.”

Right on time, my parents return with my discharge papers. Dad watches me crawl out of bed, a pathetic effort that humiliates me to the core. Mom knows better than to say anything. The wheelchair disappeared days ago, never to be seen again. I suspect he may have hurled it out the window while I was asleep.

“You can walk, right?” he asks.

Not Can you walk? The expectation is clear. He hands me a cardigan and watches me fumble with the sleeves. He doesn’t hurry me, but he doesn’t help me, either.

When the ordeal of getting dressed is over, I tuck three envelopes in my back pocket. Dad gestures to the door. My mother does her best to set the pace, which is slow. Painfully, therapeutically slow. An octogenarian on oxygen passes us in the hallway.

Together, we make our way toward the elevators. I’m about to push the button when my father starts walking toward the stairwell. He just won’t quit.

The stairs, as it turns out, are good therapy. My legs feel stronger with each stride, as if my muscles are finally figuring out how to work again. The cold had made everything so stiff: bones, muscles, joints. My body was starting to shut down.

“Good,” Dad says. “Looking stronger.”

I refuse to acknowledge the veiled compliment as we approach the sliding doors. It’s a long walk to the parking lot, but we take our time. Dad allows breaks—just not very many. He opens the door to the backseat and helps me inside.

“You know the address,” I say.

It’s a twelve-minute drive across town to Children’s. Like most hospitals built for pediatric patients, this one boasts a bright and welcoming facade, with windows so sprawling they shimmer with the reflecting sun. Parents and children and babies and doctors flood the grounds, the kind of chaos that breeds hope.

Dad pulls up to the main entrance; he must have decided I’ve walked enough for one day.

“We’ll park and meet you inside,” he says, leaving no room for an argument.

They drive off toward the lot. My first steps are almost mindless, a battle against nerves and impending doom. I shudder at the whooshing of the front doors, which sound different now that I’ve spent so many hours behind ones just like them.

The waiting room next to the ER pulses with the frenetic fear of the sick and injured. Babies wail. Parents wait with bated breath as the triage nurses call out names.

The letters in my back pocket rustle with each step, a constant reminder of what I’m about to do. It was never supposed to happen this way. I promised it would never happen this way. And yet it has, and it will.

What would Colin think of me now?

I make it to the main desk before the walls start to spin. A woman with an eighties haircut and purple glasses beams at me.

“Hello there, welcome to Children’s. How may I help you?”

I want to say their names: Tim. Liam. Aayu. I can picture myself doing it; I can almost see their faces, their tiny hands, their little bodies swallowed by the duck-themed hospital gowns they put on kids.


“I . . .”

As I stand there, fumbling with the contents of my back pocket, an alarm sounds. It is nothing like the steady patter of heart monitors. This is a shrill, desperate shriek, signaling impending doom.

“Code Blue, room 438. Code Blue, room 438.”

This is your captain. Brace for impact.

And then it’s not just the low drone of a standard announcement but a cruel, suffocating embrace. I’m so cold everywhere, a chill that starts in my feet and rises up, settling at the base of my spine. It feels almost feverish, like ice in my veins.

I turn toward the door, but I’m not fast enough. My legs give out, and the vibrant lights of the hospital turn to shadow. I decide to let it happen because this is who I am now. Damaged. Traumatized. Lost.

Sometimes I wonder if I really survived anything.



It hits me like demon’s breath, angry and sharp. I wasn’t sure what the actual dying part would be like, but this feels all wrong. Everything is too dark. Too noisy. And the cold isn’t a dull passing-over from one place to the next; it bites.

I take a breath, my ribs splintering with the effort. Oxygen finds my lungs.

I’m not dead. I’m not dead.

Icy water is rushing in from somewhere, and it’s already past my knees. My toes are numb, and my fingers are getting there. I try to move them, but my pinkie is broken and the others are damn near frozen solid.

Colin. His fingers are still intertwined with mine, his knuckles whiter than the tray table. I pry them open, but it takes some serious effort. He’s got me in a viselike grip.

“Colin.” I shake him hard. “Colin!”

His size made him an easier target for flying debris, but he seems to have avoided a mortal injury: no obvious head trauma, no penetrating wounds. His shirt, though, is spattered with a decent amount of blood. Selfishly, I hope it’s someone else’s because I want Colin to make it. He needs to make it.

“Colin, wake up—”

“Avery?” His eyes drift open. He’s conscious; he’s alive; he even remembers my name. I squeeze his hand again.

“You were right,” I say, smiling in spite of it all.

He manages a weak grin. “Told you so.”

The whooshing reaches a fever pitch, which spurs me on. I unbuckle Colin’s seat belt and help him to his feet. The shift in gravity seems to rouse him. He grips the seat in front of him, straining for balance as the water swirls around our knees and the ceiling bends toward our heads. Our emergency exit row is horribly compressed, from seat to seat and ceiling to floor. A small fire has broken out nearby, consuming the unfortunate souls in the rows in front of us. The cabin looks like it’s been put through a meat grinder.

We’re barely into the aisle when a soft sob penetrates the chaos. It takes a second for my memory to catch up, to sort through everything that’s happened, before recalling the little boys from earlier: the sleepy Indian boy, the toddler in baseball gear, the six-year-old playing on his dad’s iPad. The younger two are crying as they cling to their mothers’ lifeless bodies. The older boy peers over the seats, his dad’s iPad still clutched in his hand. He meets my gaze with startling intensity, his eyes pleading with me to do something.

“Can you get the boys?” Colin’s voice pierces the roar of rushing water.

The boys. How can I possibly just “get the boys”? They don’t know me, let alone trust me. I will have to physically tear them away from their parents.

“Yes,” I hear myself saying. “Yes, I’ll get them.”

Colin twists out of the row, grimacing as he puts weight on his left leg. “I’ll check the back. See if anyone’s alive back there.”

I nod, too dazed to argue. As Colin heads for the rear, I dodge beams and wires and other debris in an effort to reach the boys. The younger ones tug on their mothers’ shirts as I unbuckle their belts and scoop them up. The older boy comes with less resistance, but he refuses to abandon his shattered iPad. I gather them together in the emergency exit row, as far from the rushing water as possible. It’s a losing battle. The rear of the plane is almost underwater, the aisle lights flickering into oblivion. We’re going to sink—not like the Titanic, nose up, but like a giant car, dragged down flat and fast, weighed down by its undercarriage.

“Stay here a minute,” I say to the oldest one.

His eyes widen, the iPad forgotten as it plunks into the water. “No, please!” He grabs my arm, his hand small but strong.

I don’t have any experience with little kids. I’m the youngest of four, an afterthought in a family of boys. Babysitting was never my thing. Preschools terrify me; elementary schools give me nightmares. Just looking at this boy makes me feel adrift.

“I’m sorry, but . . .” I try to meet the boy’s gaze. “I have to help him.”

With a sigh, he lets his hand fall. “Okay,” he whispers.

He watches me as I head toward the rear, bypassing a dozen decimated rows. The vast majority of passengers are dead. Some are unconscious. A doomed few are trapped, and they scream at me as I try to cut their seat belts or move a piece of debris. Their raw desperation roars in my ears. I can’t bear to apologize; I just move on to the next person, hoping his or her luck was somehow better. Because really, the random placement of glass and metal and broken parts feels like nothing more than luck—good luck, bad luck, no luck at all. I know I was lucky. Not because I managed to evade a hulking beam of steel, but because I was sitting next to Colin.

The younger boys are wailing by the time I make my way back to the emergency exit row. The littlest one climbs over the seat, trying to reach his mother. I pluck him out of harm’s way and hold him close to my chest.

“Colin, we have to go—”

“Just a few more,” he says, and dives into each row, yanking on seat belts and calling out to unconscious strangers. He pushes aside glass and debris and toys and magazines. Luggage and purses bob in the water like candy apples.

“Colin!” I scream until my throat is raw. The water swirls around my knees, rising at a fervent pace. With every passing minute, it gains on us.

At what feels like the last possible moment, Colin surfaces in the region of row 20. He’s got a pregnant woman under his left arm, but she doesn’t look conscious. As he lumbers up the aisle to reach us, I fight my way to the front, hoping to God there’s a way out up there.

Suddenly, the splashing behind me stops. I turn around and see Colin studying the seats in what used to be the bulkhead, but the front wall has collapsed on top of them. The first row of coach is completely gone.

It hits me at the same time: Phil.

Together, we move aside as much debris as we can. The skeleton of the plane is exposed, wires sparking overhead. The bulkhead weighs more than a block of cement, but somehow, Colin gets it to move.

Phil is clearly dead. The left side of his skull has a sunken look, his hair matted with blood. His eyes, at least, are closed. Maybe he was asleep when it happened; maybe he died instantly. It’s a small comfort, but better than the alternative.

“Jesus,” Colin murmurs. For the first time, he looks shaken. He lets the bulkhead wall shift gently back into place, turning away at the last possible second as Phil’s face disappears.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

He nods, dazed. I want to say something else, something more substantive than a standard apology, but there is nothing to be done. Colin knows this as well as I do. And so we move on, toward the front. Toward salvation, if there is any.

The first-class cabin looks like a war zone. In some places, the ceiling has been compressed to almost floor level. Windows cracked, glass floating on the surface. The luxurious first-class seats are almost submerged, along with the passengers strapped into them. Blond hair floats up and around us like jellyfish tentacles. I cover the boys’ eyes and push them past the bodies.

Overhead, a series of lights flicker, then die. A low rumble echoes beneath our feet. “Do you think there’s a way out up there?” Colin points toward the cockpit.

I don’t know. But if I’ve learned anything from the last twenty minutes with Colin Shea, it’s that you have to sound like you do know. “This way.” I point to the left. It’s impossible to see much of anything in any direction, but up there, the windows look broken and the currents are calm. We’re going to need both to swim out of here.

I hand one of the boys to Colin and hold on to the other two. It’s much harder exploring the situation with my hands full, but Colin already has the pregnant woman to worry about, and he can only manage so much.

The water continues to rise. Chest, collarbone, neck. I hold the boys above the waterline so they can breathe. One of them cries again for his mom, and I try not to think of my own mother, asleep in her bed. Oblivious.

“Avery, hurry . . .” Colin calls out behind me.

Something in the paneling gives way as the water churns behind us. I kick hard against what remains, expanding a small opening just wide enough for us to swim through. Colin gives a nod, which I take to mean, You lead. I follow.

The boys, though, are more reluctant, their tiny bodies tensing in my arms. I try to convince them this is a game, something all the polar bears do. With some gentle coaching, they take a deep breath. Please let it be enough.

As soon as we’re under, I kick harder than I ever have, a powerful dolphin kick followed by a frantic fluttering of my legs and ankles. The boys squirm in my arms. I push off the paneling and rocket upward, though there is no light to guide me, no real sense of up or down. Just instinct.

My lungs are bursting, chest aching. The water is ice, a cold fire that digs in and doesn’t let go.


One final kick, and the surface gives way to a sprawling sky. Oxygen fills my lungs. The boys surface a split second later—one of them gasping for air, the other silent and still. I think on this for only a moment before focusing my attention on Colin, on the quiet, black waters where he should be.

“Come on, Colin,” I whisper, willing him to hear me. The moon has passed behind the clouds, shrouding our surroundings in absolute darkness. The air is cold and raw, the shore cast in shadows. There are no lights peppering the distant horizon, no signs of civilization at all. We could be anywhere.

We could be nowhere.

As this thought bleeds through me, Colin finally surfaces. It takes a moment to decide he’s real, to accept that we made it out of that plane. He waves at me, affirming the same thing, and we swim for land, side by side, holding on to other people’s children. Only when the clouds part again and the moon filters through the haze do I see the trees up ahead, yawning over the lake like ghosts.

On the brink of total exhaustion, my foot hits something. Rocks, pebbles.


Colin reaches dry land first, then runs back into the water to help me. He hoists the boys out of my arms, and one of them starts wailing. But the other boy, the one in the vibrant, torn kurta, doesn’t so much as stir in Colin’s arms.

“Breathe,” Colin says, as he lays him down. “You gotta breathe.” He gets down on his knees and gives the boy a gentle breath, careful not to damage his tiny lungs. I pump his chest with one hand as my father taught me—up and down, up and down—while Colin breathes for him. After two minutes, we switch. The older boy has stopped crying, but he watches us with naked horror.

Then, a shudder. A wet, feeble cough. I scoop him up, stroking his face as his mother would have done. The color returns to his cheeks.

“You’re okay,” I whisper. “You’re okay.” I rock him for a long time, telling myself that we saved him and three others and that should be enough. But the truth is, it’s not enough. Not even close. As the wing sinks beneath the surface, releasing a slow gurgle as it disappears, I can’t help but think about the two hundred souls we left behind.

Colin gives my shoulder a gentle shake. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I say, dazed. “Are you?”

He nods, though I’m not entirely convinced this is the truth.

With the boys watching, Colin reaches into his pocket and pulls out a penlight. A surprisingly robust white beam scatters across the water, finally coming to rest on the face of the oldest boy, tall and thin with pale green eyes. He allows the tiniest of smiles.

“Is that a . . .”

Colin nods. “Penlight. Found it in a seat-back pocket.”


Colin hands it to me, and I shine the light on each of the boys again, just to triple-check they’re okay. Then I flash it on Colin, and the air leaves my lungs.

His leg is a bloody, mangled mess, the pant leg shredded below the knee. I lean over it, inhaling a whiff of blood and lake water. He tries to shrug it off, but this is no minor scrape. No wonder he was so dazed after impact. He’s lost a lot of blood.

“Can I have a look?” I ask.

“It’s fine. I can walk on it.”

“If it makes you feel better, I have a little bit of training in, uh, this kind of stuff.”

“Plane crash injuries?” His wince betrays the hint of a smirk.

“Sort of.” I try to sound as nonthreatening as possible. “Just a quick look.”

He reluctantly offers his leg, which looks like a ragged piece of meat under the light. It’s a mess of blood, gristle, and muscle, probably the result of a stray piece of debris. At least the bones look intact—nothing broken, at least not from what I can see. And he didn’t nick an artery: no spurts of blood, no high-velocity gushes. I’ve seen arterial wounds on Take Your Daughter to Work Day—which for me was Traumatize Your Daughter at Work Day. Now I’m starting to understand why my father made me watch all those gruesome trauma activations.

“I can’t see how you can walk on this—”

“I can,” he says. “I just did.”

The look on his face ends the discussion. We round up the crowd, encouraging the boys to walk if they can. The pregnant woman, who looks even more pregnant on dry land, is still unconscious. Colin drapes her over his shoulder like he’s carrying a heavy burlap sack. He tries hard not to limp, but it’s a struggle. With blood oozing from the wound, he finally agrees to let me dress it. I use a scarf that washed up on shore and pray it holds.

The air, at least, is oddly still. The only signs of wind are the rustling of leaves and small waves lapping the shore. The temperature, too, is mild for November, although that can change. I don’t know where we are, but I hope it’s a small state park a few short miles from suburbia. I hope to God it isn’t the Rockies.

“Here okay?” Colin stops and looks up. The brush is tangled and thick, overgrown with moss and spidery vines. The trees beyond it seem to stretch toward an infinite sky. If it rains—or, worse, snows—we might at least avoid the brunt of the storm.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Girl Underwater

"Skillfully interspersing flashbacks with current events, debut novelist Kells has written an absorbing tale that will grip anyone who enjoys survival stories or psychological dramas." - Library Journal (starred review)

"Kells's visceral story is quite memorable and eminently readable." — Publishers Weekly

"With its subzero temperatures that will make you reach for a blanket and a wounded but never weakened heroine, Kells' assured debut is a winner." — Kirkus

"What if the most devastating moment of your life was also the beginning of something beautiful?  Girl Underwater is a compelling coming-of-age love story that will have you rooting for its teen narrator, a girl who survives a disaster, and finds herself trapped between a traumatic past and a fragile future. Trust me—dive in!" –Jodi Picoult, New York Times Bestselling author of The Storyteller and Between the Lines
“A powerful love story embedded in an action-packed tale of survival. Even as the characters are fighting for their lives, it’s impossible to turn away from the breathtaking range of emotion they reveal.” –Tracey Garvis-Graves, author of On the Island and Covet

Reading Group Guide

Book Club Discussion Questions

1. When Avery meets Colin, they immediately clash: Colin thinks Avery should push to swim distance, the event she loves best, but Avery is willing to swim an event she isn’t passionate about for the sake of the team. Who do you think is correct? How do their stances affect how the other sees them? What helps them change that initial impression of each other?

2. Avery intentionally tries to change when she goes away to college, and is irrevocably and unintentionally changed after the crash. In what ways is she different and the same in her hometown and at school, and before and the crash? Who is the “real” Avery?

3. One of the themes in Girl Underwater is family. How does Avery’s concept of family change over the course of the novel? How does Colin’s?

4. Do the characters’ decisions seem real and believable? Can you relate to their predicaments in the wilderness? What would you have done in their situation?

5. Avery’s father and her brother Edward play significant roles in the book, but her mother and other brothers less so. Do you think this was an intentional choice on the part of the author? How did this narrowed view of Avery’s family affect your perception of her? Of the family as a whole?

6. How did the alternating present-past framework affect your reading experience? Did knowing that Avery survived her ordeal compromise the suspense or enhance it?

7. Why does Avery lie about what happened in the wilderness? Do you agree or disagree with her choice? What do you think would have been different if she’d been honest from the outset?

8. Avery’s story is as much about her psychological recovery as it is her physical recovery. Who do you think played the most important role in Avery’s battle with PTSD? Why? In what ways was Avery forced to overcome her ordeal on her own?

9. Avery is an elite college swimmer raised by a tough-nosed father, but her survival and recovery are fraught with setbacks. Did you perceive Avery as a strong or weak protagonist? Did your view of her change over the course of the novel?

10. What do you think about Lee? Why do you think Avery was drawn to him? If her plane hadn’t crashed, do you think she and Lee would have made it as a couple?

11. What do you think about Colin’s relationship with his family, particularly his mother? Do you think her illness helped him to cope with the possibility of death out in the wilderness, or did it make him fight harder to survive?

12. What role does guilt play in this novel?

13. How would you characterize Avery’s relationship with swimming? What role do you think swimming plays thematically in the book?

14. Were you satisfied with the book’s ending? Why or why not?

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