Water Baby: Fiction

S. Bedford

The world below was thick murk, tangible nothingness, hungry ether that sucked and swallowed. The world above had an elastic hold on me, but I clawed toward the tactile shadows with pale hooked fingers. My ears shrieked like burning kettles and I teased the pain, egging it on as I dove deeper. I stared skywards through rippled puckered jelly to a place I no longer belonged. The water crept into my nostrils and left a greenish taste in my mouth. The ache in my lungs was excruciating as the lake pushed back against the contraband that I smuggled into its dominion. I forced myself to witness the hurt, to comprehend, and accept it. As I hung in the cold static between life and freedom, between torment and tranquility, I heard a raking scream that enveloped me like the water.

Adrenaline propelled me upwards without my permission, and I broke the surface with a rattling gasp. The lake was still and silent and the shore was crowded with shadows falling beyond the trees. The long wooden dock with its blanched peeling stilts radiated in the sun’s final glow, as did the figure seated at its edge.

I dog-paddled over, marring the water’s serene surface with splashes. “Did you scream?” I inquired of the bare feet dangling above me.

“What? Of course not.” Mom chuckled as she loosely braided her tangled tresses. “Have you lost your marbles?”

I imagined a handful of cat’s eye marbles slipping away to the bottom of the lake where they would rest on the tongues of clams, fools’ pearls.

The dock creaked and I swam beneath it to watch Dad walk across the planks overhead. I waited for him to ask after my whereabouts so I could burst from my hideout and snicker at my sneakiness. The dock jerked and groaned as he sat down next to my mother. I heard a squeak and a murmur; the moment became exclusively theirs. I swam hastily to the ladder and hauled myself onto the dock.

The slats were scabrous under my feet and the gaps chomped at my toes. I galloped, bargaining with the Roman Goddess Fortuna that if I reached my parents before the sun vanished, then we would all live happily ever after. Sure enough, I scooched into place just as the final flare burst beneath the coral clouds, with splintery heels and a grin.

“Here you go!” Mom swaddled me playfully in a mustard-colored towel. Its coarse warmth made me quiver with pleasure. I silently willed her to embrace me. She turned back towards the sunset,  so I snuggled against her flank instead.

“How’s the water?” she asked.

I thought back to the alluring netherworld. “Warm,” I replied. “Like soup.”

She nodded and stood up. Her sundress matched the periwinkle sky and clashed with my towel. Blunt hairs protruded from her legs. She spread her arms as a loon screamed. I turned away as the dock quaked. There was a guttural splash.

“Are you okay?!” Dad asked and sprang to his feet.

She surfaced in a bloom of cloth and laughed. “It is like soup!”

With a reluctant smile Dad kicked off his loafers. The dock shook harder this time. Then they were alone again, their giggles rising like soap bubbles that reflected the strawberry-blonde sunset. Mom murmured something and they began to swim away from the shore with long grown-up strides.

They dragged away the fabric of the evening; cold darkness encroached in their wake. Trembling, I pulled the terrycloth tighter around my shoulders and peered at the water below. It was a far drop, and the thought of it made the bottoms of my feet tingle. Still, I would have leaped had they beckoned to me with outstretched arms instead of leaving me to linger in the twilight. Even if I was really brave and jumped anyway, they were too far ahead to catch. If Mom swam off the edge of the earth, would Dad follow? And would I?

The stars mirrored upon the lake in the company of billions. I turned to look behind me and saw that the beach and forest had transformed into the crawling gloom that prowled underwater. I gasped and untwisted and found myself drowning in sky—my ears shrieking and my lungs aching.

This time it was a laugh that roused me, and I realized I’d been holding my breath.

“Are you still there?”

I could barely make out the black orbs that caused the blanket of cosmos to ripple beneath my feet. “Yeah, I’m here.”

“Okay, we’re on our way up!”

As my parents glided towards the ladder, I entertained my own moment—one of raw neglect laid public before the stars. I thought again of the scream and wondered if it had been purposefully intended for my ears somehow.

Back in the cabin Dad made hot cocoa, not the sugary kid kind, but the real kind, sprinkling the homogenized milk with chili flakes. Mom and I curled up on the couch beneath an itchy quilt that smelled like campfire, me watching the moths climb outside the windows and she writing in one of the Moleskine journals I rarely saw her without. She had romantically ornate penmanship that I could never reproduce.

I had been an accidental baby, and Mom’s attitude was unlike those of the apple-crumble-baking sensible-shoe-wearing mothers of my friends. I could see it in her preoccupied gaze that trailed after cigarette smoke as it wafted to faraway places; in her glass of red wine so ubiquitous that I had privately named it Jim; and in her endless succession of Moleskine journals. I’d never been as jealous of an inanimate object as I was of each journal that was privy to the secrets I was denied. Three summers ago, as we watched a sun-shower whimsically sprinkle the tiger-lilies with glitter, I had asked if she was writing fairy tales. She was so seized by laughter that it nearly wrestled her to the floor. “Such sad batty fairies!” she gasped, leaving me bewildered. What was so funny about sad bats and fairies?

“Here we are!” Dad set the steaming mugs, floral stoneware in brown and orange, down on the birch coffeetable.

“Thank you. Cheers!” Mom raised her mug jovially, but my gaze didn’t flicker from the moths. Their furry antennae reminded me of rabbit ears—tiny winged bunnies tapping on the glass. “Why did you leave me on the dock?”

“What are you talking about?” She blew on her cocoa, causing the skin to wrinkle.

“You swam away and left me.”

There was hurt in my voice, and I wanted her to hear it. Maybe she would finally drape her arm around my shoulders and embrace me as though I was a sad bat.

“You cannot break when I leave you,” she replied wryly.

I raised one eyebrow at the moth-bunnies.

“You are a brilliant, imaginative little girl.” She spoke so quietly that I needed to watch her lips to understand. “I see the way you play for hours on end, lost in yourself. You are your own world. You don’t need me.”

It seemed as though she was talking to herself, or perhaps to the journal that had slipped between the armrest and the cushions. I considered explaining that she was what reined me in from my own world—that she was the leash dragging me away from the abyss and into the sunlight—but her eyes were focused somewhere beyond me. I looked around for cigarette smoke. The moment passed.

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