For as long as Andy could remember, the water was home. When he was a year old, his mother took him to mama-baby swim sessions over at the rec center across town. An old Polaroid displayed Andy’s mother with her fresh new baby, rollicking in the chlorine blue, the fluorescent lights sending shaky silver strips cascading over their bodies. Her hair and smile are big and bright, nearly fluorescent like the lights, as she stretches out her fingers to hover just below Andy’s soft, bobbing body, ready to catch him should he sink beneath the surface. In the photo, Andy doesn’t smile; his round, open face is empty and serene, entranced and encompassed by the sensation of cool weightlessness.
“I think maybe the hospital made a mistake and swapped my real son for a mermaid child,” she teased Andy as he got older.
“I know that’s not true, Mom,” he replied, smiling. He ducked away as she reached out to stroke his hair.
At night, lying alone in his bed, Andy sometimes imagined it was true, that his soul ached from being pulled back toward the sea and the wavering world that existed down below. He turned over onto his side and began arching and curving his back like a porpoise propelling itself through the waves. He flexed his hands and imagined webbing growing in between his fingers.
“Can we go to the ocean this summer?” Andy asked his mother as he climbed into the car, sweaty and revved up from his last day of fifth grade. He kicked off his shoes and pressed his feet against the blaring air conditioning.
“I don’t think we can afford that right now, sweetie.”
Her voice was hoarse and distant. Absentmindedly, she ran her fingers in circles over and over her swollen cheekbone as if hoping to wipe it away.
Andy closed his eyes and pretended that the humming air conditioner was actually the roar of the waves. He felt the sting of saltwater on his sunburnt face and breathed in deep. He had never been to the ocean before, but he knew what it was like.
That night Andy and Michael arrived with their mother at the motel well after dark. Andy’s eyes burned with the imprint of headlights from the freeway; he had won the coin flip and was awarded shotgun, leaving Michael to brood and pout alone in the backseat. During the two-hour drive, he had seen the glow of his mother’s cell phone through the fabric of her pocket. When a call came through, her thigh shined long and hard and then faded back to dark again when she didn’t answer. Andy counted twenty-nine slow, deliberate flashes.
After tossing their three duffle bags into a corner of the room, Andy’s mother lowered herself onto the bed and covered her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Your sea is torturing me, Andy,” she’d sometimes say when she got her migraines. “It’s crashing against my skull.”
But she didn’t say that now.
“Michael,” she murmured, speaking quietly to keep the water in her head still. “Take your brother down to the pool. You guys can swim for a bit and burn off some of that energy before bed.”
“We didn’t bring any swim stuff,” Michael said.
A shade of impatience showed through his voice.
“Just wear your basketball shorts,” she replied.
Andy could hear his mother’s voice starting to crumble. Rocks into the sea.
“That’d look stupid.”
“Well, goddamn it, go swim naked then,” Andy’s mother hissed. “Or don’t go swimming at all. Just go away. I can’t deal with you both right now.”
Michael and Andy followed the antiseptic smell down the hallway to the pool, the sound of their bare feet muffled by the worn carpet.
Andy set his towel down on one of the plastic chairs and leaped into the pool, the brisk water closing over his head. Down below the water, silence. The sound of Nothing pressed in on his ears, and he opened his eyes. The yellow-green of the pool lights cut through the water in lazy, flickering waves.
Holding his breath, he struck out with his arms and legs, the way a frog might skim through a pond. He followed the rhythm of the blood pulsing in his ears. Ba-dump, stroke. Ba-dump, stroke.
His head crested the water, and he blinked the burn from his eyes. Water droplets caught in Andy’s eyelashes, glinting like Christmas baubles. He looked over at his brother who sat at the edge of the pool, his legs gently swirling round and round, stirring up a lazy Charybdis. In his hands, he held a yellowed paperback which he cracked open and began reading, his brow furrowed in concentration. He kept the cover folded behind the book, carefully out of sight.
“Aren’t you coming in?” Andy asked.
Michael shook his head. “I want to read for a little bit.”
Andy made a face and dipped his head under the water. He resisted the urge to leap up again with his arms spread, splashing his brother and his stupid book. Andy knew why Michael liked that book so much, why he carried it around with the cover turned toward his body. It was the type of book that you’d only bring out if there weren’t any adults around, of if the adults around were too busy to notice you. The cover, which Michael always made sure to keep hidden, depicted two naked women with chunky, black eyelashes stretched out in bed, touching each other down between their legs.
Andy imagined grabbing his brother’s dirty book and flinging it into the deep end of the pool. Instead, he turned around, let his body descend below the surface, pressed the soles of his feet against the pool wall, and shot off toward the other side. He imagined himself a torpedo launching from a submarine.
Andy tilted his head upward and burst forth from the water. It wasn’t a big splash, but Michael still turned to the side to shield his book. Michael flashed his middle finger.
“I should tell Mom that you have that sex book,” Andy threatened.
Michael didn’t reply, just turned his eyes back to his book. He held the book in one hand, the other hand a fist pressed into his lap.
Walking along the bottom of the pool Andy leapt up and down, bobbing up just to sink back down again. He wondered if this was how astronauts felt as they were bouncing on the moon.
“Remember when Dad took us fishing that one time?” Andy asked.
“You mean the only time.”
“Yeah, the only time.”
Michael shrugged one shoulder up and lowered it.
“Yeah, I guess. Why?”
Before Michael could say anything else, Andy sank his head back down. He opened his eyes wide and moved his mouth open and closed, like the fish he caught that summer with his dad.
“Not a bad catfish there, sport,” his dad had said. “Let’s celebrate. Open up that cooler and hand me another beer.”
The three of them stayed out on that boat way into the dark, long after the sun had sunk past the trees that shrouded the pond from the view of the highway, and more importantly from the view of the big house on the hill where the property owner lived.
“It’s our secret, boys,” he had said. He put one shaky index finger up to his face and tapped the side of his fleshy nose three times.
His father never used the word trespass, but Andy knew that’s what they were doing as they drifted up and down the pond in the twilight, occasionally pulling out a fat, sleek catfish. Andy’s father would then bash the catfish’s head against the side of the boat to stun it before slicing it open around the gills and leaving it to bleed out on the floor of the boat.
Andy jumped the first time that happened, the first time the catfish whump, whump, whumped on the metal rim of the boat. He couldn’t stop staring, wide-eyed and disgusted, at the catfish as it oozed sickly green blood over the baseboards, gills flicking uselessly. His father saw him looking at the blood, horrified. Reaching down into the pond, he splashed three handfuls of water into the boat. His father frowned at him as he scrubbed the blood away with the heel of his boot.
The last catfish of the day was hauled fighting out of the water by Michael, the tip of the pole dipping precariously down.
“Hold on! Hold on!” their father said, laughing. “Let me get the net.”
Slowly, each move carefully measured, Andy’s father leaned over the edge of the boat and wrangled the fish in with the net. The precision of each movement, the obvious focus on remaining in control of his body, was how Andy knew that his father was drunk.
“Well, boys,” his father said, “I’d call that a successful day of fishing.”
The last catfish lay seeping blood on the floor of the boat. Its mouth opened and closed, searching. Andy looked away.
“Hey, Mike.” Andy’s father leaned back against the edge of the boat, propping himself up on his elbows. The summer light shed purple shadows as it faded. “Grab you and your brother a beer, would ya? And one for me, too.”
Michael shrugged, pretending to be indifferent to breaking the rules. He grabbed the second six pack of Budweiser and pulled two out of the plastic rings that held them all together. In a slow, deliberate moment, he tossed one of the beers to Andy who reached out to catch it. The wet can slipped through his fingers and landed with a heavy clunk on the floor of the boat.
“Don’t open that one,” his father snapped. Even in the low light, Andy could see his father’s face glowing red, impatient. “Mike, get him another one. And don’t throw it this time.”
Michael avoided Andy’s eyes as he plucked another beer from the pack, easy as picking a ripe piece of fruit from a tree. Looking down at the swirls and whorls in the scuffed floor, Michael handed his little brother the beer.
Andy turned the slick can over and over in his hands as he watched his father and brother crack open their beers and take big swigs. Michael grimaced at the taste; their father laughed.
“Don’t like it? You’ll get used to it, don’t worry. Beer’s an acquired taste. Takes a refined palate to really appreciate it.”
Using one finger, Andy traced the logo on the can. Without looking up, he could feel his father studying him with bleary eyes.
“What’s the matter.” It didn’t sound like a question.
Andy shrugged and shook his head.
His father looked at him hard, silent for a long moment.
“Then open it up and take a drink.”
“I don’t think Mom would like it.”
“Yeah, well, we’re not going to tell Mom about this, are we?”
Andy raised his eyes to his father’s face; his heart, his lungs, his stomach felt like they had turned to stone as his father glared at him, long and hard.
An eternity seemed to pass. Andy could almost feel the Earth inch around its axis, second by endless second.
Blinking away the burning in his eyes, Andy popped open the can of beer, raised it to his lips, and took a sip.
His father’s mouth smiled, but his eyes stayed stony.
In the pool, Andy flipped onto his belly and floated, facedown, arms and legs spread. He closed his eyes and pretended that he was dead, pretended that he could feel the coolness of the water chill his body as the blood stopped pumping through his veins.
Water splashed against Andy’s back, and he turned over. He took a big, sharp breath; his lungs ached as the air rushed back in.
Michael stood at the edge of the pool, arms crossed and frowning. The book was tucked into his chest, the cover pressing against his bare skin, hidden.
“Quit doing that,” he said. “You’re creeping me out.”
“Sorry,” Andy replied. “Are you going to get in now or what?”
Michael shrugged, emulating indifference. Then, surprising Andy, he tossed the book onto one of the flimsy, white beach chairs and cannonballed into the pool.
Andy laughed and closed his eyes as the water splashed across his face. He dove down underneath the surface and swam down, down, down toward the deep end of the pool, planning on swinging around behind Michael, grabbing his foot, and pulling him under, too.
As Andy glided in the cool silence, he let his limbs move as if separate from his body, buoyed along by the weightlessness. He cupped his hands and pressed them down and back, pressing himself further down. His hands brushed against something soft and ethereal, flowy, like the gossamer, green algae he used to collect in a plastic pail when his family used to go swimming at the lake during summer vacation.
Andy pushed himself up and out of the water. On the clean, glassy surface, Michael floated on his back, eyes closed. He opened one eye and looked at Andy.
“This is nice,” he said. “I almost don’t mind having to stay at a shitty motel.”
“There’s something at the bottom of the pool,” said Andy.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. It feels like seaweed.”
Andy didn’t say anything for a long moment. He could feel his chest beginning to constrict as a steely sense of panic descended into his stomach. Uncertain as to why, Andy felt a sudden urge to get out of the pool, to run back to their motel room, and crawl into bed beside his mother, cocooned inside the blankets.
As slowly and nonchalantly as he could, Andy swam to the edge of the pool and pulled himself out. He banged his knee hard against the concrete edge and hissed through his teeth at the sharp, unexpected pain.
“Where you going?” Michael asked.
“I think I’m done swimming.”
Andy shrugged. Grabbing the worn, slightly stained white towel they had brought with them from the motel room, he rubbed away the droplets of water that clung to his body.
Michael turned his head to the side and peered at him, the wheels whirring and clicking into place inside his mind.
“You’re done swimming because there’s something nasty at the bottom of the pool?” Michael scoffed up at the quavering fluorescent lights that hung down above them. “Want me to get it out for you, little bro?”
Andy scowled at Michael. Just for a moment, he hated him more than anyone, including his father.
“No, I’ll get it out,” he heard himself say. As soon as the words had left his mouth, Andy regretted having set them free. But he still caught himself lowering his body, feet first, back into the pool.
Fuck you, Michael, he thought as he submerged his head underwater and propelled himself down to the bottom of the pool where the soft, filmy thing had brushed against his hand. He opened his eyes and felt the stinging pressure of the water on his eyeballs. Andy pulled himself down to the bottom of the pool until he was face to face with the body, hovering just inches above the cement floor.
She was little, probably no more than five or six years old. Her skin looked waxy and iridescent-green in the hushed underwater light, and her long hair floated in a swaying mass around her face. The little girl’s eyes and mouth were open, as if she died in the middle of telling a story or more likely crying out. Without knowing why, Andy reached out and brushed the curve of her opaline face with the back of his hand.
When Andy broke through the surface, he took a moment to catch his breath. Michael stared at him, his eyes narrowed.
“Did you get it out?” he asked, still floating languidly on his back.
“There’s a body down there. A girl. She’s dead.”
Michael, his head turned sharply to the side, gaped at his little brother for a long moment before orienting himself right-side-up again, feet pressed hard against the bumpy pool floor.
“Yeah right,” he said. His voice came out clear and confident, but his eyes looked less certain.
“I’m serious, Michael. We need to go tell somebody. Like right now,” Andy said. He pulled himself out of the pool and grabbed his towel from the beach chair. Frantically, he rubbed the water from his skin.
Michael laughed, but it was a laugh that sounded thin and forced, like air pushed through a dented whistle.
“I don’t believe you. You’re fucking with me.”
Andy felt hot tears spring from the corners of his eyes. He wiped them away furiously with the back of his hand.
“Then go fucking look for yourself,” he spat. His voice quavered, and he hated himself for it. He hated himself and his brother and his mom for bringing them to this stupid motel in the middle of the night in the first place, and he hated his father for driving everyone away from home and out into the dark.
Andy’s brother glowered at him.
“Fine,” he said, but he didn’t move for a good long moment.
Andy watched as his brother, resigned, took a deep breath and sank beneath the surface. He wrapped the towel around his shoulders, shivering as the pinpricks of moisture evaporated from his skin. A dark, shapeless blob signified where Michael was, diving deeper and deeper, all the way down to the bottom of the pool. The darkness that was Michael seemed to hover down at the bottom forever. Andy felt his lungs constrict again, felt the skin of his scalp begin to prickle.
When Michael’s head broke the smooth surface of the water again, he looked at Andy.
“Alright,” he said. His voice was low and hushed. “Let’s go.”
Michael swam to the edge of the pool and pulled his body out of the water, his muscles twitching like fish beneath his skin. Andy picked up Michael’s towel and handed it to him.
“Now do you believe me?”
“Of course I believe you, goddammit,” Michael snapped. He snatched his towel from his brother’s hand, and, in silence, rubbed himself dry.
They didn’t let Andy and Michael into the pool area as they pulled the girl’s limp body from the water. Instead, in the motel lobby, if one could call it that, Andy and Michael sat on an old sofa on either side of their mother, who was methodically weeping and shredding a tissue with her hands. Every couple of minutes their mother said in a rattling voice, “That poor girl. That poor little thing.”
Andy didn’t cry; nothing felt real, none of it: the police filtering through the door interspersed with EMTs; the sparse overnight motel staff trucking steaming pots of oily coffee to the people at the pool; the frazzled man with bags under his eyes at the reception desk, frantically tapping away at the computer to find what room the girl’s parents had booked, whomever they were.
Michael sat with one leg crossed over the other. He jiggled his foot. Andy watched it wobble up and down, mesmerized by the mindless movement. Michael stared straight ahead at some unknown spot on the wall, his jaw clenched.
Andy was the first to see his father’s ruddy, flushed face as he ambled through the door. He had been drinking, but he looked timid and ashamed, like an old beaten dog. When Andy saw him, his father smiled sheepishly and waved; Andy dipped his head at him, but he didn’t smile back.
When Andy’s mother saw him, she rose to her feet as if pulled upward. Mechanically, she walked over to her husband and wound her arms around his neck. She buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed, her body quaking viciously. Andy watched his parents with a heart sinking deep into his stomach, watched for what seemed like hours. Finally, his father gently eased her out of his embraced, kissed her on the forehead, and took her hand, leading her back to the sofa, back to her sons.
“Come on, boys,” his father said in a thick voice. “Let’s go get your stuff and go home.”
Together, Andy and his brother pushed themselves to their feet. They walked in silence through the lobby, down the hallway, past the pool, their mother sobbing behind them. Andy looked up at the ceiling, cracked and uneven like swirling white waves. He imagined a gray beach, extending to nowhere, and a little girl with green skin picking up a seashell, holding it to her ear, and laughing.
Jen Corrigan is a graduate student and instructor at the University of Northern Iowa, and former editorial intern at the North American Review. Her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Heather; Apocrypha and Abstractions; The Gambler; Change Seven Magazine; Hypertext Magazine; Cease, Cows; and elsewhere. She is currently a jury member for Mash Stories. Visit her at jencorrigan.wordpress.com.