As Curtis waits in his blue Chevy Impala, he asks himself the question that’s haunted him for twenty years: How did she drown if her lungs stayed dry?
The smoke from his cigarette drifts out an inch of open window and turns a deeper yellow in the sodium arc lights. It’s close to midnight when the rain stops. He taps his cigarette against the rim of an empty Coke can, listens to the ash fizzle in the bottom. The rain tapers off with only sporadic drips posing a threat.
He closes his eyes and thinks of Anna back home, in bed, several hundred miles away, asleep. He ponders the odds of being caught lurking outside a public swimming pool. He doesn’t think about the consequences of that happening again.
Curtis drops the smoldering butt into the can. He pauses, lights another smoke, and counts the raindrops. Two drops in thirty seconds. He’s good to go. Curtis yanks his black anglers’ hat over his head and cinches the neck chord before cracking the door open. He resists the urge to count again. The raincoat will provide protection against stray drops. He tries not to think of how a drop of water feels slithering down his neck, tickling the fine hairs on his skin as it leaves a moist trail. He shivers, his breath thins. He knows how that one drop could grow, spreading across his back, moving up his armpits and smothering his chest, neck, and head until the weight of all that water crushes the air from his body and forces its wetness inside him. The doctors say it can’t happen that way, but he knows it can. Showers are a rarity and baby wipes work just fine.
Curtis cringes, takes a last drag on his smoke, opens the door, and sprints across the parking lot. He keeps up his momentum and hits the chain-link fence with a stumbling leap. The wire diamonds are slick but a “No Parking” sign gives him leverage. Curtis holds his breath as he swings his leg over the top because he can’t ignore the dampness seeping into his jeans. If he breathes, he’ll scream, so he lets his body drop over and stagger against a wall. He counts down from ten until the flash-fire panic lessens to a smoldering roar.
Waiting to catch his breath, Curtis listens for any sounds – barks, yells, sirens – but the night is silent. His hands shake as he fumbles a Kleenex from his coat pocket. He wipes the rainwater from his hands, fitting the absorbent fibers into the tiniest crevices and folds of his skin. He tries to pat his jeans dry. The small overhang with leaking gutters restricts his movements as he edges towards a window. He rams his elbow into the windowpane. It cracks. He jabs it again, one more time before it breaks. A trail of sodden tissues marks his climb through the window, a sign that a coward surrendered here.
The room is familiar. It has the same musty smell of antiseptic ointment and soggy Band-Aids as it did two decades ago. He lights another cigarette to counteract the dampness. The warmth soothes him and the smoke diffuses the smell. His wife always says that if he can’t quit for her then he should for the kids, but Anna’s not here. She’d asked him to come here and Curtis did because he knew she would leave or stay based on his actions.
Curtis looks around the room. It’s still the first aid office. It still has a thick maroon blanket hugging a too thin mattress on a rusted metal bed. He knows how the deceptive softness of that blanket will scratch the back of your thighs and make them itch. He turns to the side and assesses his reflection in the mottled mirror above the browning sink. His face has aged, lines prematurely furrow his brow, but his eyes are wet with fear. The patter of rain lulls him into the past and he sees a wiry fifteen-year-old in wet shorts, shivering, the grey of shock muting his summer tan just two days before his birthday.
Twenty years ago, his sister drowned. Suffocated under three feet of water, her larynx clenching shut against the chlorinated, piss tainted water of the Charleston Public Swimming Pool. He still remembers the parade of adults that floated through this room that day. Some in uniforms, others in damp t-shirts and swim trunks, those who rushed in from the office sweating through long polyester sleeves. The remembered faces are vague, shadowed by anger and pain. The police officers looked grave and the lifeguards uneasy as they mumbled condolences and squeezed his shoulder. He remembers those details. He remembers the fear. He remembers the wetness of it all, but he can’t remember the sound of his sister’s voice.
A pleasant warmness heats his fingertips as the filter of his cigarette smolders. He lets it linger. Sometimes he wonders what it would be like to burn to death. He heard a story once about a woman who’d caught on fire at a circus and imagined how delicately dry the charred corpse was. He throws it in an empty trashcan and opens the door. Curtis steps into the hall; he takes a left towards the main desk, then another left, choosing the men’s room out of a sense of duty. The door squeaks, every sight and sound bringing him closer to the past. Two drains squat in the bare concrete floor, wooden benches line three walls and fours cubicles clutter the fourth. Puddles from the day stain the floor and Curtis can almost hear the slap of wet, fleshy feet. He crosses the room, skirting puddles and damp spots. He smirks at the “Shower Before You Swim” sign, then suddenly he’s at the door, closer to a real swimming pool than he’s been in years.
He pauses and lights another smoke with jittery hands. He looks at the ceiling, the walls, anything but the light coming from around the corner. He listens for rain, yearns for an excuse not to go outside, but hears nothing. He steps through the door into thick silence. There’s the pool, waiting, shrouded in sound muting mist. He sucks chlorine deep into his lungs to cleanse the dampness inside. He looks up at the diving board, forward at the pump house, down at his cigarette. Finally, Curtis looks at the water.
The hypnotic effect of the wetness fills his body. His muscles clench as they did two weeks ago when Anna came home and found him frozen in the garden. He didn’t want to get a pool, but she bought a small inflatable one for their toddlers. The babysitter left when Curtis came home, she was new, she didn’t know better. She’d left his three-year-old daughter in the pool because daddy was home to play with his girls. His baby girl had cried for him to take her out, her chubby arms and legs unable to pull her body weight over the slippery edge, her wails hurt his ears but couldn’t break through his panic. Anna got home an hour later, she didn’t yell, she didn’t scream, instead she wept quietly as she treated their daughter’s sunburned skin. Curtis cried too. He’d tried to hug his daughter, felt heat radiate from her angry-pink skin when he got close, but she wouldn’t let him touch her. He’d known then something had to change.
The silver surface reflects mist diffused lights, but it’s dark beneath that shimmer. He can sense movement in the water, a million drops swarming into one. He thinks of all the bodies that have been in the pool, all the skin cells and hairs swirling beneath the surface. The filters can’t get it all. He wants to give up, to run, to get back inside his car with the heater cranked up high all the way home. It’s too much. All that water. Water in the pool, water in the pumps, swirling and gurgling beneath his feet. Water in pipes that flows into drains that connect to sewers that run under roads and link every house and business and store. Water running up walls, under floors, through roofs. Water in basins and bottles and cups and cookers. Water that he can’t escape. The wind stirs the surface into gentle lapping sounds like muffled giggles.
Panic curdles in Curtis’s chest. For years he’s been haunted by the image of his former self, the boy who lost his sister. She was younger than him, he was responsible. He puffs on his smoke, ignores his tremor. After years of searching, of wondering, of trying to understand, he’s finally back where it ended, where it began.
Curtis unbuttons his raincoat and loosens the cord on his hat. He takes a step towards the pool, hesitates, lights another smoke off the butt of the last. His lungs burn and eyes clench as he forces the smoke deep into his lungs and exhales through his nose, relishing the smell, the warmth, as it clears out the dampness moldering inside.
His sister was the one that wanted to go. His parents made him promise he’d watch her. He lied because she asked him. His friends were there, and so were the girls. He’d met them at the pool, eager to show off his skills on the diving board in front of the girls and their unfamiliar pubescent beauty. Curtis’s skin tingles in summer sun and he can smell suntan lotion and candy and sweat.
As he floats in the past, he removes his clothes, dropping them in a heap around his feet.
Curtis stands on the edge of the pool; he remembers the anticipation, the crisp chill of water that would linger on his swim trunks. For the first time in years, he wants to feel his body glide through water, feel carefree and fearless as he did as a child. He hadn’t been in a pool since his sister drowned, hadn’t dealt with the increasing fear. By twenty, it was a phobia. By thirty, it was debilitating.
He strips down to his underwear.
At his sister’s funeral, Curtis heard their whispers. Aunts and uncles nattered about the pain and strangeness of it all. The tragedy. The doctors said it was shock, but Curtis knew it wasn’t. He couldn’t wrap his mind around it, couldn’t understand how his sister drowned if her lungs stayed dry.
He edges towards the water, the forgotten cigarette smoldering in his hand, his breath shallow. Curtis watches the water lap the gentle incline of the shallow end, a gust of wind ripples the surface and the water suckles at his toes. Curtis ignores the dank panic. The water reaches for him and he’s no longer standing in the shallow end, he’s up on the diving board feeling the heat of the sun.
He’s twelve again. Happy, ignorant, and jostling his friends as they pretend they don’t see the girls watching them. He flicks his eyes towards his sister. She’s laying on her towel, leaning on her elbows while she plows through yet another book. She’s nine, with dirty blonde hair covering her shoulders where her modest blue swimsuit doesn’t, a bag of books beside her. He looks at the girls, they’re rubbing lotion on each other, giggling, looking back at him. Curtis hollers as he launches himself off the board. He tucks his knees to his chin and relishes that brief moment of free fall before gravity kicks in. He’s feeling this memory, feeling the splash, as his body wades deeper into the water. There’s a tickling behind his knees as his shivers stir the water. The mist cools his sweat and fogs his breath.
In the past, he comes up from under the water, smoothing back his hair and flexing his arms as he climbs the ladder. He pushes his chest out as he dries off next to the girls. He takes Mary Vorhees behind the pump house because she asked him. His ego flares. He struts a little, confident that she noticed him looking at her, knowing what he was in for. But Mary just wanted to talk to him. She wanted to ask him if Greg liked her because she’d heard from Sally that Greg liked her but she needed to be sure. Curtis carries his bruised ego to the top of the diving board and passes on the message. He smiles and jokes and fights the urge to just go home. Then the whistle blows for the adult free swim.
His feet keep moving. He knows where the memory is going but he’s helpless as that maddening thought drives him forward. He wants to know what it’s like; he wants to understand.
Young Curtis waits on the diving board, watching Mary talking to Greg as the water glistens on her skin and her bikini clings to her curves. Curtis doesn’t know there’s a problem until a scream pierces his jealous haze. He watches a lifeguard dive towards a listless figure on the bottom of the pool. He recognizes the swimsuit.
Inch by inch the water climbs his thighs. It pulls him in like a receding tide, drawing him closer in waves. His feet and knees strain against the pull. He’s transfixed by the shifting, shimmering water. He barely recognizes his pale reflection.
Curtis wades in deeper still, hating the wet slither against his body. His skin prickles as he thinks of Anna. He knew she was going to leave him, and she would take the girls. He couldn’t bath the girls, couldn’t wash the dishes, he couldn’t even fetch his wife a glass of water. He’d come here to confront the past because she’d asked him to try. Curtis tries hard to think of Anna, of their children, but he can only see his sister, hear her garbled laugh as she waits at the bottom of the pool.
He realizes there’s something in the water with him. He finally hears the sirens’ call that been sounding for twenty years, the sirens’ call that’s now reeling him in.
Curtis sinks to his knees and flails forward to meet the gush of reaching water. There’s something calling him. Something calling, calling, luring, yearning, laughing. Curtis glimpses his sister at the bottom of the pool. Her dirty blonde hair sways like seaweed across her face and shoulders, it hides and reveals her eyes, the straps of her blue swimsuit, her smile. But that smile is hungry as it mouths words he can’t understand. Then her body turns and swims deeper under water. Curtis opens his mouth to call her back but only the water fills him.
H R Green lives and writes in the Midwest with work appearing in publications such as Pank, The Rumpus, and Glassworks.