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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Breathing Underwater

Sarah Allen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)



Underwear: check.

Toothpaste and toothbrush: check.

Murphy, my stuffed killer whale, who Ruth has already made fun of me for packing: check.

I tried to keep him tucked under my clothes so Ruth wouldn’t spot him if she came into my room. I didn’t want her to see that I was bringing him and say, Geez, Olivia, are you thirteen or three? But she did come in, and she did see him, and she did say it, so I guess there’s nothing I can do about that. That’s just Ruth being Ruth, not one of the bad signs I need to watch out for.

Most important, I have my new underwater camera in its own special case, a purple case with a long black strap. It took me four months and extra chores to save up for this camera, but it was more than worth it.

I’m sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor next to my mostly packed luggage when Ruth pokes her head through my doorway. As quickly as I can, I slide the four old pictures I’m looking at under my suitcase. This time Ruth doesn’t notice. “Mom and Dad want us downstairs,” she says.

“Mmkay, coming,” I say. Ruth steps out of view. “Hey, Ruth?”

Her head pops back into frame. “What.”

“Um…” Now I’m hesitant, but I say, “What do you remember most from last time?”

“Last time?”


She shrugs. “I dunno. It was years ago.”

Only three years ago, I think. “Do you remember what’s in our secret box?”

“I dunno,” she says again.

I nod. Ruth disappears from my doorway.

It’s not like our secret box is huge or special or anything. It’s just a box. A simple wooden box about the size for shoes. Ruth and I thought it looked like a treasure chest when we were younger, so we put a few of our most treasured things inside, like Polaroid pictures and key chains and plastic bracelets and shells we’d collected. We buried it in a cave at Sunset Cliffs, San Diego, before we moved away three years ago. Not even a cave, really, more an open room in the cliffs along the beach half a mile away from our old house. We walked there all the time, played there, and left our treasure there when I was ten and Ruth was thirteen.

And now? Now we’re going back.

Only for a visit, true, but a visit where Ruth and I get to dig up our box of memories. Together.

There’s another secret too. A secret plan I came up with as soon as this trip was scheduled. I haven’t even told Ruth about it.

I slide the four pictures back out in front of me. Each one is from that first drive across the country, our big move. The first three are of Ruth: In one, she’s jumping in front of a mural with the word NEW written on a banner across the top. The second photo shows her standing next to an old tyrannosaurus skeleton at a dinosaur museum, a matching tooth-baring grimace on her face. I remember we were both laughing so hard I could hardly take the picture. The third shot is more distant, showing Ruth on a bridge with railings covered in metal locks. She’s got a hand on the railing and is looking out over the water, and she’s wearing the green pants she used to wear when we played pirates.

When Ruth and I were little, we used to play pirates the way most people play the floor is lava, jumping around couch cushions on the floor, making each other walk the plank off the edge of the couch, battling with empty paper towel tubes. When we found small treasures we could keep, we used our special wooden box as the treasure chest.

The pictures make me grin even though I’ve seen them thousands of times before. I want to take them with me on the trip, but would rather not risk damaging them or Ruth seeing them. They might spoil my surprise.

The fourth and last picture is from the very end of that trip. It’s of both of us, each with a moving box in our arms, standing in front of our new house for the first time. In the photo, the sunset makes the walls and windows glow. I wonder if Ruth would see what I see when I look at these pictures. Would she remember what she was thinking? Would she recognize the same story as me, or would it be different? Would she see happy leaps into the air and golden, glistening walls?

Mom’s voice calls from downstairs. “Olivia!”

Mom, Dad, and Ruth are already seated at the kitchen table when I come down. Ruth is in her big black hoodie. She wears hoodies even on hot summer days, and in Tennessee that is something. Usually she goes for black or dark blue, her favorite colors since forever. The colors of the deepest ocean, she says.

“How’s packing?” Mom asks. She’s got ridged worry lines at the corners of her eyes, but the most elegant smile and cheekbones. Her eyes are clear and smart, like she notices and understands everything, which fits with her job as a college professor.

“Basically done,” I say. Ruth leans back in her chair, quiet, and lets my answer stand for both of us.

“Ellie and Eddie are going to be here at eight forty-five so you can load your stuff and be on the road by nine, okay?”

“Awesome!” I say.

Eddie is my mom’s cousin. Her favorite cousin, who she’s been close with basically her whole life, so he and Ellie have been more like an uncle and aunt to us. When they mentioned that they were renting an RV and taking a cross-country trip, my parents agreed to let Ruth and me go along. My parents both have to work this week, but they’ll meet us at the end of the road in California.

Ruth stays quiet. She’s not allowed to bring her iPod to the table, but I swear most of the time it’s like she’s got music coming through invisible earbuds anyway. And yes, Ruth still uses an iPod. A big, old 80-gig one because she says it fits all her music, the battery lasts longer, and she never has to worry about losing service or taking up space on her phone.

Her iPod—her music—used to be part of our favorite game. Ruth came up with it when we were little, and the game grew and grew until it became what we called Treasure Hunt. Ruth would pick a word—purple, heavy, flying, imaginary. Then we would play as our favorite pirates. She would be Anne Bonny, I’d be Mary Read, and off we’d go to collect our treasure: purple treasure, or heavy treasure, or flying treasure, or imaginary treasure. I’d go off with my camera (the small point-and-shoot one I had back then), Ruth with her notebook and iPod. When we got back together, Ruth would have a music playlist written down and ready to go, filled with songs inspired by the specific treasure. Me? I’d have photographs. Then we’d listen to her playlist and I’d show her all my treasure photos. We did the purple Treasure Hunt at Mom’s old university in California, and when we were back home, we listened to “Purple Rain” by Prince and I showed Ruth pictures of a jacaranda tree with purple flowers, their petals flittering to the ground.

The best Treasure Hunt we ever did was the one Ruth planned for our big move three years ago. Four Treasure Hunt words spread across the country. Four words, with four perfect pictures, pictures that capture the music and smells and feel of that time, a happy time.

Now we’re driving across the country again.

Hence, my secret plan.

“Ruth, you packed your medicine?” Mom asks.

“Yeah.” Ruth absently reaches for the bowl of grapes in the middle of the table, and Dad scooches it toward her. His eyes blink, a little tired under his bushy eyebrows. Apparently when I was a baby, I used to try to catch those eyebrows in my hands like they were caterpillars.

“You know the Instagram rules,” he says.

“Yep,” I say. “No direct messaging and no pictures of my face.”

Ruth looks at the table and stays silent. I catch both Mom and Dad glancing at her.

I’m pretty sure Ruth is excited about this trip like I am, and excited about finding our box again, even if she doesn’t show it as much. That’s what I think, anyway. Because who wouldn’t be excited about a cross-country road trip in an RV? Digging up buried treasure? And pirate ships?

That’s right, pirate ships.

Okay, so the ships at Wreck Alley aren’t exactly real pirate ships; they were built to be sunk for the coral and scuba-diving tourists like us, with professional guides to keep us in the safe zones. Still, though. Pirate ships. And the ships are only about a mile or so off the beach from that cave at Sunset Cliffs, where our box is buried. After we get to the beach and dig up our treasure box, it will be like those Mary Read/Anne Bonny days all over again. But even more real this time.

And of course there’s my plan for this trip. If I told Ruth outright that I’ve researched and strategized a reverse version of the Treasure Hunt we did on our first drive across the country, she might shoot it down or roll her eyes or just say she’s too tired, but I’ve got something more stealthy in mind.

Ruth knows about our box, how we’re going to dig it up together. But she doesn’t know that the box is the treasure at the end of a cross-country Treasure Hunt, the way unboxing our stuff in our new house was last time. She doesn’t know about my plan for secret pictures, secret replica images from our first trip, and when she sees them, she’ll understand. She’ll see how much the good things—our treasure—mean. She’s got to.

Even though nobody has specifically said out loud that this trip is for her, it is, a little bit. Her doctor said getting out and experiencing new adventures would probably be a good thing for her. Plus connecting with past happy memories. Memories of us playing loud music and jumping around the couches wearing billowy T-shirts and eye patches after counting our treasures. This trip checks both those boxes perfectly.

“Okay,” Mom says. She gives the okay sign. We all tend to use that sign, the thumb and pointer finger together making a circle, instead of the thumbs-up. It’s a leftover habit from learning some signs when we were getting scuba certified. In scuba-speak, a thumbs-up means Heading to the surface right NOW, we need to end the dive! Not exactly the same as okay. Mom says, “I’m just going to go over the calendar one more time.”

Mom is super good at planning trips like this. She’s brilliant at seeing all the little puzzle pieces and logistics and fitting it all together and taking care of all the details. We’re going over the plan again, though, because she’s also a worrier. I think I get that from her.

Here’s the plan:

Ruth and I will be driving from our home here in Knoxville to San Diego in Ellie and Eddie’s RV. Mom’s giving a lecture about women in the Tang dynasty at a summer conference at the university, Dad will present his graphic designs to a new client for their website, and then in about a week they will fly out and meet us in San Diego, where we will all visit familiar places and explore pirate ships.

And Ruth and I will find our secret box.

And I will reveal my secret pictures, our old and new memories.

And Ruth will have real treasure again.

I’ve tried to remember what we put in that box. I can remember most of it. At the time, my favorite possession was an old Polaroid camera, the kind of camera that printed out the pictures right as you took them, and you waved the photo in the air until the image appeared. Like magic. When I could get film, that’s the camera I used on our Treasure Hunts. Pretty sure there’s half a dozen Polar-oids of a random smattering of purple things in that treasure box. I’m excited to compare those to my more recent photos to see how much my photographic composition skills have improved in the last few years.

I put in lots of other pictures too, some from the Polaroid, some printed from other cameras. Pictures of our boxer dog, Ramses. Pictures of Mom and Dad working at the kitchen table. Pictures of Ruth riding her bike, holding her old stuffed animal, listening to music, or wearing the baggy old white T-shirt she used to pretend was her pirate blouse. I remember those pictures. I remember her being happy in those pictures.

“You guys really going to be okay?” Mom says.

“You can call us every night,” Dad says.

I spread my arms out wide at my sides. “It’s gonna be incredible!”

I watch Ruth trace a finger across the wood grain of the table, and I wonder what’s going on behind her tired eyes. I know there have got to be happy memories in there. The Ruth from those pictures is in there somewhere. My plan for the next week—my plan for this trip—will be to remind her. And tomorrow, the plan begins.

Tomorrow, we go on a Treasure Hunt.

Text copyright © 2021 by Sarah Allen