The Boy Behind the Wall – by Beth Kerring

Gabrielle splashed through the water’s surface and breathed new air into her lungs.

As the waves around her settled, she sunk lower, the ripples lapping at her chin, her lips almost submerged. Her legs and arms treaded at her sides as the early summer sun beat down on her scalp.

Something smooth and hard poked her back, and she grinned, flipping onto her belly. Another face broke the surface, this one with a long bottle-like nose and soft gray skin.

“Silkie,” she whispered, and Silkie laughed and dove under to nuzzle Gabrielle’s side. Gabrielle giggled.

She kicked, waves crashing on her legs, pushing her toward the edge of her ocean. The cool water soaked her hair, and even when she closed her eyes she could feel her ocean shifting as Silkie zoomed away toward the faint scent of leftover fish.

Gabrielle floated near the shore and stared at the pale sky. That cloud looked like a goldfish. And on the right, a couple of clownfish. The big one was a dolphin, and the really little one was—

“Brendan! Come on, honey, time to get started!”

Gabrielle tensed.

She made her last few kicks under the surface, propelling her forward to grab hold of her ocean’s stone edge. It scratched her pruned hands, but she clutched it and ducked down so she could see beyond the wire wall that barred her ocean from the world.

She could see the pond on the other side. Fresh water instead of salt, with the big white tablets the employee people put in that made it smell bad. By the edge of the pond, she could see Jenna, the lady that looked young even though she was tall and always wore what Daddy called an “old-fashioned one-piece.”

And she could see a new person walk up to Jenna, gripping his arms, eyeing the smelly fresh water like poison.

Gabrielle peered closer. He was a small person, almost as small as her. Skin deep brown, but paler at his shoulders. Black hair falling dry and messy over his face.

He would have fit a crown very well, she thought. And old-style clothes with a cape. But he didn’t wear a cape. He wore green swim trunks and a nervous frown. He scrunched up his face when Jenna called him again.

A wet nose touched Gabrielle’s shoulder, and she pet Silkie’s head without turning around. Silkie nudged her again. She still didn’t turn.

“Brendan!” A new voice. There was another person by the glass door of the building Daddy worked in. A woman. Older than Jenna. Same black hair as the boy, but longer, thicker. She was waving. “Go on in, you’ll be fine! Miss Williams, his swimbag’s inside, and I left my number with the receptionist if you need it!”

“Thanks, Mrs. Jones!” Jenna called back.

The woman left. The boy stayed. Jenna stepped into the fresh water up to her waist and waved to him.

“Come on, Brendan, we don’t have all day! First lesson, let’s go!”

The boy wrinkled his nose and walked over.

Jenna smiled, then turned toward Gabrielle’s ocean. She looked at Gabrielle. Her smile stretched wider.

“Gabby!”

Gabrielle’s chest tightened.

Jenna waved again, and the boy looked over, too. “Come on over, Gabby, help me teach!”

Gabrielle looked at Jenna, and she looked at the boy. He stood on his toes to see her, his eyes blinking and wide. They both stood by the fresh water pond, watching her, breaking into the world only she knew.

She pushed off the shore and dove back into the water.

#

A few hours after the boy left, Daddy came to get her.

She gripped the shore, but kept her head low so the water still swept her hair back and forth. Silkie touched Gabrielle’s foot with her nose. Daddy smiled down at her.

“Time to go home, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle didn’t want to go home. Daddy told her that since her tutor was away for the summer, she could stay as long as she wanted. But Daddy’s eyebrows lowered when she didn’t move. Gabrielle pushed up and swung her legs onto the stone that was still hot from the sun and burned her when she touched it.

Daddy held out his big tan hand. She took it, and they walked along the edge of her ocean toward the wall. She looked back and saw Silkie swimming laps. She saw her rippling reflection in the water. She saw her two legs and wished she could trade them for a tail like Silkie’s.

She saw her orange hair that fell wet on her back, and for a second, she thought she saw Mommy.

Daddy pushed open the gate that no one ever locked, and she followed him around the bad-smelling pond. She covered her nose with her free hand. Daddy didn’t notice.

“Who …” Her voice shook. Daddy looked at her. She stared at the stone under her feet, but she didn’t let go of his hand. “Who … was the boy?”

Daddy didn’t say anything for a long time. He squeezed her hand tighter.

“Brendan Jones,” Daddy muttered. “He’s Jenna’s new student.”

Gabrielle looked at the ground, and she thought she could see the boy’s face.

She walked faster to keep up with Daddy after they went into the building with the offices and the smooth, slippery floor. Her hair and skin dripped and her bare feet squeaked. “Jenna … wanted me to play … with him.”

This time Gabrielle looked up. Daddy was looking ahead, but his face wrinkled. “You can’t play with him, Gabrielle. You know that.” Daddy kept walking, faster now.

“He’s …” Gabrielle felt heavy and cold. “He’s … not like me?”

Daddy closed his eyes.

“No.”

Gabrielle didn’t talk as they crossed the parking lot to the big metal machine that took them to Daddy’s house. Gabrielle didn’t like the metal machines. The men in white told her that it was the bad man in the metal machine that killed Mommy. But Daddy didn’t like to talk about it.

She got into her seat in the back of the machine, and Daddy got into the front seat with the wheel. He looked at her in the little mirror and smiled. She did not smile back. Daddy put in the key, and the machine began to hum.

Gabrielle put her face to the window and thought about Silkie and her friends. She thought about her only day of kindergarten, when she had people friends, but then her people friends laughed at her and made her hide in the corner, and Daddy took her away and never let her go back. She wondered if any other people didn’t talk much and hummed in the silence and liked water more than land, and if maybe if she found them, Daddy would let her play.

She wondered if Mommy would have liked the boy.

#

The boy came on Wednesdays.

It fit with her schedule. The people came on Mondays and Tuesdays and Fridays, when Daddy opened up Gabrielle’s ocean to everyone so they could pay Daddy to swim with her friends. Then she got out and sat in the smallest stall in the bathroom until they left, hoping these people were nicer than the ones who laughed at her.

On Wednesdays she was the only person in her ocean, and Silkie and Valerie and Roberto would come up to play, and she could run in on the shore and sneak them extra fish when the employee people weren’t looking.

The boy came for two hours when the sun was high. She ate early the second Wednesday so she wouldn’t have to leave her ocean, and by the third week, she had already found her spot by the shore when he arrived. All her other friends left while she watched the boy, but Silkie always stayed, nudging her on the arm every once in a while, but mostly watching along with her.

On the fourth Wednesday, Silkie left to swim on her own. Gabrielle stayed.

“Okay, Brendan, I’m gonna let go in—”

“No!”

Jenna stopped. She held her hands under the boy’s middle in the shallows. She blinked and her mouth hung open. The boy looked at the water.

“Not … yet,” he muttered, and he moved his head to check that she was still holding onto him. “Don’t let go yet.”

Jenna sighed. “Look, Brendan, I don’t want to push you, but … if you just keep telling me not to let go, I never will, and you’ll be stuck for the whole summer.”

The boy didn’t say anything.

“You start third grade this year, right? Well, all your friends will want you to come swim with them. Are you just not gonna go? Don’t you want to learn?”

He shifted, then grabbed Jenna’s hands so he could stand on the bottom of the shallows again. He still didn’t look at her. He shrugged. “I dunno. I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Okay, yeah. I do.”

She put a hand on his shoulder. “Brendan, I promise you can do this. Now come on, do your strokes. Even when I let go, I’ll be right here to grab you before you go under.”

The boy was silent.

But Gabrielle gripped the shore a little harder as he scrunched his face, pushed off the ground and flailed his limbs while Jenna kept a gentle hold under him. His arms slowed into a steady rhythm. Silkie splashed her tail, and Gabrielle wanted to turn around and ask her to be quiet, but she didn’t move. She watched.

The boy closed his eyes.

Jenna let go.

The boy stayed up.

Gabrielle had to bite her lip to keep from shouting.

“You’re doing it, Brendan!” Jenna squealed. “You’re doing it! You’re swimming!”

The boy opened his eyes and scrambled back to his feet, water splashing around him. He caught his balance and stared up at Jenna.

“I was?”

“You did!”

Silkie splashed again, and Gabrielle imagined she was clapping.

Gabrielle put her arms up on the shore and rested her chin on them. Her lips curled into a smile, and her eyes grew soft.

The boy smiled up at Jenna, and Jenna cheered.

#

The week after that, the boy was swimming through the shallows almost as well as Silkie.

He didn’t like going under the surface, and Gabrielle didn’t blame him. She had been in the fresh water once, and it smelled so bad she could barely breathe, and her eyes burned when she tried to swim under it. She was very glad her friends didn’t have to use the pond.

The boy was learning, though, and the whole time he practiced with Jenna, she stayed at the side of her ocean, watching.

That week, when he took his ten-minute break to go inside, Jenna turned and saw her.

Gabrielle ducked under the surface and swam down deep.

It was a long time afterward, when her heart stopped pounding and she was running out of air, that she pushed up on the bottom to break the surface again. Quiet. Careful. She glided to the edge and poked her head up to see past the wall.

Daddy and Jenna were talking by the pond.

“—would be a really good idea to introduce them.” Jenna clasped her hands behind her back.

Daddy’s eyebrows went down. “What?”

“I think it would be … good,” Jenna went on, her voice quieter. Her hands fell to her sides. “I mean, she’s seven and he’s eight, and Gabby seems so …”

“No.”

Jenna looked up. “No?”

“No,” Daddy said again. Gabrielle clutched the shore and ducked down. “No, it … Jenna, you know we can’t do that.”

“But, sir, it’s … it’s just another kid! Just talking to him couldn’t hu—”

“It could hurt a great deal!”

Jenna stepped back. Daddy sighed.

Miss Williams, I explained to you when you first starting working here. Gabrielle is free to swim in the dolphins’ tank, but she cannot interact with your students. You know that.”

“But—!”

“No buts!” Daddy snapped. Gabrielle flinched. “She’ll be just fine over there, she always has been. I’ve seen her with other children, and … I can’t let that happen again.”

Jenna didn’t say anything. Daddy turned around and went back inside.

She stood there until the boy came back. She smiled and patted his shoulder and led him into the pond.

Gabrielle stayed by the edge for a long time. Then she pushed off into the water and let herself float under the sun.

#

Gabrielle didn’t watch the boy the Wednesday after that. Instead she played with Silkie, diving under the water and seeing who could swim the fastest to the other side of their ocean. Silkie always won, and she seemed happy that they were together. Gabrielle heard the boy practice his swimming and Jenna talk to him, and she tried to ignore them.

It felt nice to be in the water. It felt good to be away from the people again.

Daddy was right. She wasn’t like them. She didn’t belong with them. She belonged here, where she was safe. It didn’t matter here if she was different. Here she was Gabrielle, and she had her friends. That was all she needed.

She came up for air on the side of her ocean closest to the wall. She treaded water a few feet away from the shore. She didn’t look at the fresh water pond. She would not look at the fresh water pond. She was not going to look at the fresh water pond.

She turned her head and looked at the fresh water pond.

And she saw Jenna get out.

This time there was no stopping herself, and even though she heard Silkie splashing behind her, she didn’t turn. She pulled herself up to the side.

Jenna was getting out, and so was the boy. He sat on the edge of the shallows, his cheeks in his palms and his elbows on his knees, and Jenna walked through the glass door. She looked back at the boy and the boy stayed where he was. Then she went inside.

And it was just Gabrielle and the boy.

Gabrielle wished she had not looked at the fresh water pond.

The boy sighed so loud she could hear it from her side of the wall. She bent down more. She clung to the shore, her heart racing. She waited, and she watched.

He kicked his legs in the water, but he didn’t move. Jenna didn’t come back.

Gabrielle kicked her own legs. She could not feel Silkie behind her. She was alone. And so was he.

And Daddy wasn’t there.

The boy looked up, and it took her a second to realize he was looking at her.

Something in Gabrielle moved, like she had been caught in a whirlpool and was being swept around, faster and faster. The boy tilted his head. He put one of his hands on the stone by the pond and pushed himself to his feet. Gabrielle didn’t move, even though she told herself she wanted to.

She clung to the shore as the boy walked along the edge of the pond. He paused at the gate. He pushed it with two fingers and it squeaked open. He stepped onto the land around her ocean, and he walked until he stood just close enough to see her floating by the surface. Then he stopped.

She could hear all the tiny splashes of water as her friends kicked on the other side of her ocean. Her fingers scraped against the stone. She gripped tighter. She swallowed.

She lifted one hand and waved it toward herself.

The boy tensed and stared, and for the first time she noticed how out of place he looked, dripping and awkward on the shore. She tried to smile, but her mouth wouldn’t let her.

She waved again. She pulled the air toward her like that would make him move.

The boy stepped forward. She waved again. Another step. Another wave. Another step.

He stood on the edge of her ocean. She could see his feet and his carefully-clipped toenails. She could see his lime green shorts that were almost too big, and she could see his dark brown eyes, like Daddy’s hair on those rare days he swam with her.

She waved one more time, and he knelt down on the stone. He paused. Then he reached his hand toward her, and she felt something inside her, afraid.

He placed his hand in her tanned palm. She grasped it, and the feeling of someone not-Daddy holding her hand was new, but it was good.

She only looked into his big blinking eyes for a moment before she squeezed his hand and pulled.

And the boy tumbled after her as she dove into the familiar depths of her ocean.

With someone new.

She felt the boy struggle against her. Her eyebrows lowered. No. No, it was okay. He could come with her. He could play with her, and with her friends. His eyes closed, hers blinked. She felt him moving, she felt him kicking, but she held on.

He yanked her hand, and that only made her hold tighter. He had to stay with her. Daddy was wrong. She could have a friend. She could play with him, just like all the other children. But he kept on pulling. She let them sink down, into her home, into her sanctuary. Where they would always be safe.

She barely noticed the splash in the water above her. But suddenly the tug on her hand grew, and almost like she had appeared out of the water itself, Gabrielle saw Jenna’s face.

And after only a second of staring into Jenna’s wide, frightened green eyes, Gabrielle let the boy’s hand go.

She floated to the surface while Jenna kicked. They burst out with a splash, and she emerged with scarcely a breath.

She barely registered the sounds. Jenna shouting for help, the boy’s gasps and sobs as Gabrielle kicked further into her own safe ocean with Silkie and her friends.

Gabrielle submerged herself once again, not coming up for air for a long time. Every time she closed her eyes she saw Jenna looking back at her. She saw the boy, and felt his warm hand struggling against her grasp.

#

For two weeks after that, the boy did not come.

Jenna didn’t come either, and until the following Monday, Daddy wouldn’t let her go back to see her friends. She had to stay in his house, and the whole time, she curled up on the squishy bed and covered herself with her sheets, and she pretended the covers were water and her pillow was Silkie’s head.

When she went back, she did not try to talk to anyone. She slipped into her ocean, and her friends played around her, but she stayed still and quiet by the shore. Daddy gave her funny looks when he walked by. Something in her felt heavy every time he did.

Every day she came to her ocean. She did not even pretend to splash or smile. She floated on her back, looking up at the sun, and she thought about many things. She thought about Daddy, and Mommy. She thought about Jenna, and she thought about the boy. But even when Daddy tried to talk to her at dinner the next Wednesday, she did not speak at all.

But the Wednesday after that, at midday, she heard the familiar creak of the glass door.

She poked her head over the surface, and she heard people talking. She heard Daddy, and she heard the woman that had been with the boy, and the woman’s voice was loud and harsh. At last she heard Jenna, and Jenna’s voice was timid and edged with guilt. Gabrielle didn’t like to hear her that way.

Then she heard the glass door close, and for a long time there was silence. She pulled herself up near the shore, and past the wall, by the pond, she saw the boy. In the same green shorts, with the same dry, black hair.

He and Jenna got in the fresh water and began their lesson. Gabrielle stayed on the edge of her ocean, watching. Waiting.

Her heart pounded. She put a hand on the center of her chest, and it felt like Silkie was inside her, beating with her tail. It hurt. But she did not move from the shore.

She watched for the whole two hours. She watched the boy go through his lesson, Jenna eying him with a more cautious gaze. She watched him smile when he learned a new trick, as the sun shone on the water and his hair and shimmered in his eyes. She watched his world go on, and hers stay still.

Two hours was a very long time that day.

Jenna was the first to get out. She turned her head back every few seconds, watching the boy as he followed her up the steps and onto the shore. Gabrielle gripped her ocean’s edge.

“How about I run in and get your mom and you can show her your swimming before we go, hm?” she asked. The boy nodded. Jenna looked up, and gave him one more uncertain look before she walked back inside, leaving the boy standing far from the fresh water pond.

Gabrielle moved.

Her limbs trembled as she gripped the shore, pulling up one leg at a time, feeling the water drip from her feet and her skin. Heavy. The hot stone burned her bare feet. The sun beat on her head. And the boy stood still, unseeing, unknowing.

It took her a long time to reach the wall. She touched the gate and she pushed. But the gate did not move. She pushed again. It stuck, and when she looked up, she could see a lock hanging there. A lock that had never been there before. She stood on her toes to reach it.

But Gabrielle froze when the glass door opened again and Jenna walked out. With the woman.

And a girl.

Jenna was smiling. “Brendan, I thought you might like to meet my new student. This is Heather. She’ll be taking lessons after you.”

The girl had brown hair pulled into tiny pigtails. Her suit was pale pink and had bows on the shoulders. Her smile was pretty. She raised a hand to wave.

Gabrielle waited. The boy smiled.

“Hi, Heather.”

“Hi … Brendan.”

Gabrielle’s heart felt like it had stopped.

Her feet moved without her permission. They stepped back, away from the gate, away from Jenna, away from the girl, away from the boy. Further and further. Away, away.

She did not feel the rough, curved edge of the shore until her heel caught under it. She did not feel herself losing her balance. She saw the world turn around her, fish-like clouds in the big blue sky as she fell, silent, back into the deep and familiar waters of her ocean.

***

bethkerring

Beth Kerring was born and raised in Texas, and has been creating stories since before she learned to read. She spent her childhood writing plays and short stories and completed her first novel at age thirteen. She received her B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas in 2011. When she isn’t writing, she draws portraits, studies foreign languages, and takes long walks around her neighborhood.

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Categories: FICTION

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