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Learning to Drown

by Kristi DeMeester

4258 words

Hannah lifts her skirt above her knees, the blue floral print a harsh, discordant pattern against the smooth green lining the rocks she steps over, and wades into the river. Behind her, the fire we built flickers, threatens to die, and I force my hands against my sides. I won’t reach for her. I won’t.

When the water meets the crest between her thighs, she gasps, and I look away. I hate when my sister makes that sound; that sharp intake of breath full of whisper and pain and want, and I clap my hands over my ears and wish the river would wash over her and sweep her away in a torrent of dirty brown water. It doesn’t.

Hannah says something, but she’s talking to the river, not to me. When everything first started, she’d make me cover my ears, but I reckon she doesn’t care anymore if I hear what she says back to the things that move underneath her. Above, the clouds grow thicker, and I glance at them and wet my lips.

“Hurry the fuck up, Hannah,” I say, and she flicks a glance back at me. Her mouth is still open.

“Shut it, Debbie. You don’t know nothing about it,” she says, and her eyes roll up to the sky, the whites threaded with whisper-thin webs of red.

“We have to go. There’s a storm coming,” I say, and she snakes a hand over her belly and then dips her fingers in the water. When they come up, they look silvered, and she smiles.

“It’ll hold off for a bit longer.” Something moves near her waist, and the water changes to a color I’ve never seen. There isn’t a word for it. She cups her hands and lifts some to her lips and tips her head back and drinks. The way she always does.

“Come on.” I mumble because it wouldn’t matter if she heard me. There’s an order to the things she does. The entire world could be on fire, and it wouldn’t fucking matter to Hannah. She’d still stand knee-high in the river, her mouth filled with water and her eyes closed.

When the first droplets of rain hit, they smell of sulfur and the hot copper stink of blood. Only then does Hannah turn back. “Come on. Mama’s going to be mad,” she says.

Her dress is never wet when she comes out of the river. At first, I thought it was a miracle, but now I know better than to think anything so simple. Once, I tried to go into the river myself, but the water was like a thousand razor blades, and I screamed and screamed until Hannah came and pulled me out. She made me promise to never go in again and hugged me to her, and I could feel her heartbeat under her sweatshirt.

“What’d they tell you this time,” I say as she gathers up her shoes. She shakes her head. Every time she comes here I ask her, and she never tells me, and I pretend I don’t care. Because even though I hate her for doing this, hate every sigh that leaks out of her, I want to know what it is that sneaks inside of her and whispers.

Overhead, the sky rumbles, and Hannah looks back at me. “I’m in love,” she says, and then she’s running, her skirt trailing after her like mist. I run, too. There isn’t anything else to do.

The trees provide little cover, and we tear through them, the leaves wet-slick and grasping at our skin as we pass. Hannah laughs, but it doesn’t sound happy.

My lungs ache, but I push myself forward. My legs are longer than hers now.

When the trees break, Hannah slows to a stop and adjusts her dress as she faces the house. It’s a buried thing, set back at least five miles from the road. The front porch sags and the third stair is missing. Mama pried it up last winter to burn in the fireplace because she wanted the living room to feel cozy. Two years ago, we painted it Robin’s egg blue, but the paint had been cheap, and it was already fading into streaks. Striations of toothpaste white against the color of sky. Mama hated it. Said it made us look like trash.

Mama’s in the doorway, and she has her lips pressed together so hard it looks like she’s got no mouth at all.

Hannah stands there like she’s frozen, just looking at the house and at Mama, and it’s as if there’s a glitch in the world. Like nothing’s allowed to move or breathe or blink, and then Hannah twitches, and everything starts up again, and the sky opens above us, and we’re both running onto the porch.

Mama touches our shoulders with the tips of her fingers as we move past her as if she’s trying to remember that we’re real, that the things she sent out into the world earlier that afternoon have returned with their flesh and blood and bone intact.

“Where were y’all?” Mama says, and I look down. She’s asking Hannah. Not me.

“The river. Looking for fish.”

“Did you get in the water?”

“Of course not,” Hannah says, and I keep my eyes down because I don’t want Mama to read the lie there.

Mama left the door open after we came inside, and a fine mist pearls against our skin. My mouth tastes of water, and I swallow down all of that nothing and wonder what it would be like if it was river water instead of rain.

Mama sighs. “Go on and change out of your clothes. Looks like it’s going to be a nasty storm.”

“My clothes aren’t wet,” Hannah says.

“Then don’t change. But if you catch a cold because you were out running around in a damned rainstorm, it’s your own fault.”

Mama turns away from us, and Hannah heads down the hallway to our bedrooms, and I pause between them and look back at Mama. She stares out into the storm, her mouth turning down at the corners, and then she closes the front door and leans her forehead against it.

Down the hallway, Hannah closes her door, too.

“I’m going to change,” I whisper, and Mama looks up at me and gives a kind of half smile.

“Okay. Dinner will be soon.”

My feet stick against the slats of the wood floors, and I let myself into my bedroom and close the door. My t-shirt makes a sucking sound as I peel it off, and I drop it on the floor in a wet heap.

The air from the vent is cold, and I shiver and rub my hands against my arms, but it doesn’t warm me up from the bones outward the way I want it to. Hannah is in her bedroom, and she’s humming something high and sweet. I think I might be sick.

I pull a pair of sweat pants and another T-shirt out of my dresser and yank it over my head. I don’t bother with a bra because it’s just me and Mama and Hannah here, and we’ve all seen boobs before, and it’s more comfortable this way.

Mama’s in the kitchen clanging around, throwing pots and pans down on the stove to tell us she’s angry. I don’t know why it is she doesn’t want us in the river, why every time we come back she asks if we stepped into it. I’ve asked hundreds of time, but she only shakes her head and tells me that she’s my Mama, and it’s for my own good.

I try to read my faded copy of Jane Eyre, but I can’t concentrate, not even on the good parts where Jane and Mr. Rochester finally admit they love each other. Normally my skin would feel like it’s on fire, and something would be fluttering away in my gut, but tonight the words look all jumbled together, and all I feel is cold.

When Mama calls that supper’s ready, Hannah doesn’t come out of her room. Mama and I eat in silence, our bites small and careful, and look everywhere but at each other. I poke at the limp pasta on my plate and when enough time has passed, scrape the noodles into the garbage. I’m fairly certain Mama didn’t eat either, but she leaves the kitchen, and then I hear her bedroom door close, and it’s dead quiet in the house. I want to scream until my throat feels shredded just so I can hear something, but instead, I go to my bedroom and pull back the quilt on my bed and crawl beneath it.

I count to three hundred before I hear my door open.

“I told you to stop coming in here,” I say, but Hannah slips inside, closes the door behind her, and shuffles forward.

“I can’t sleep,” she says, and I turn over and face the wall.

“So don’t sleep in your own room.”

She sits on the edge of my bed, but I can’t feel the weight of her. “I can still taste it,” she says.

“Taste what?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

My skin flames. “Then stop coming in here. I don’t want to hear another fucking word about it, Hannah. You come in my bedroom, and you say this shit, and then you tell me I can’t know about it. Get out of my room.”

Hannah reaches for me, and I squirm away. “Why do you think she doesn’t want us getting in the water?” She’s leaned close, and her breath streams warm over my face. “Where do you think we come from, Debbie?”

“I don’t know. Here?”

Hannah flicks her eyes to the window and then back to me. “Here,” she says.

I kick out so that my legs connect with her leaning frame. “Jesus. Just get out,” I say.

She brings her fingers to her lips and then stands. “She fell in love, too. Once. A long time ago. The first time, she loved him. The second time, she didn’t. It won’t be like that for me. It won’t,” she says and then her hair billows out behind her as if it’s caught underwater, and she’s gone.

For a long time, I keep my eyes closed and hope for sleep, but my eyelids feel like sandpaper, and so I open them and trace the shadows over the ceiling instead. They shift and bloat like the throat of a frog, and I flex my toes under my quilt and wish again that I was an only daughter.

Mama never talks about our father, but she says we look like him. Eyes the color of the night sky and hair that kinks and frizzes even when it isn’t humid out. For as long as I can remember, it’s been just us, living among the trees and sky, and I didn’t want anything different until last year, when Hannah found the water. Now, I only want her to stop, to go back to telling me scary stories whenever Mama has to work late, or making cookies on Saturday nights and watching old black and white movies because it would make us more cultured, or catching fireflies in the early summer evenings, our faces lit up green as we chased each other through the dark. If she won’t go back to who she was, I just want her to go away.

When I fall asleep, I don’t dream.

• • •

In the morning, Hannah is already gone, and Mama’s car isn’t in the driveway, so I make myself four slices of peanut butter toast and gobble them down while watching MTV. The Verve Pipe sings that Freshman song that always makes me cry, so I change the channel, but there’s nothing on except for judge shows or Jerry Springer or infomercials. I turn the television off and wait for Hannah to come back.

The light has gone late summer morning golden when Hannah walks up the drive, and I jump away from the window so she won’t know I was watching for her. My hands are heavy in my lap, and I trace the tip of my thumb over the lifeline inside my right palm. It feathers in too many places, and I press my hands together and watch my sister come through the door.

She pauses when she sees me, and her head twitches like she’s trying to shake water from her hair, but she’s dry as a bone.

“You went to the river,” I say, but it isn’t a question. I can smell it on her. That deep, earthy scent of rot and ancient things brought to the surface. I wrinkle my nose and breathe through my mouth, but it doesn’t help.

“I needed to see him. Needed to know.”

“Know what?”

She threads her fingers together, and I can see her knuckles are scraped, and there’s blood on her mouth. “If he loves me, too.”

Inside of this moment, I hate my sister. Hate her for her delicate, doll mouth twisted up in the corners, the blood staining her lips berry red. Hate her for the deep flush running across her chest and the salt stain of tears on her cheeks. Hate her because she’s found something that makes her beautiful and whole, and I hate her because I don’t understand it.

“Shut up,” I say. She looks past me and out the window, and I know she isn’t seeing me, isn’t hearing me. She’s inside the river, the roiling water closing over her legs and belly, her mouth full of the things that move through the dark underneath.

“I can make him forget about her. I can make him forget.”

Anger blossoms hard as granite in my chest. “You don’t even know what you’re talking about. It’s just water. You’re making things up.”

Before I can draw another breath, my sister is on top of me, her hand pulled back, and then she brings her palm shuddering down against my jaw. The room lights up in tiny white stars, and I bring my hand to my cheek, but it does nothing to ease the stinging heat.

“He’ll forget her. Forget the feel of her in the water, the taste of her skin when she drew her inside of him. He will forget.” Hannah’s words are sharp, and she hurls them at me like stones. I shrink back, and she shakes her head. She blinks, and then she’s out the door again. I watch her through the window until her dark form is a faded smear. When she disappears, I sink to the floor, but I keep my eyes trained on the horizon. I want to see her when she comes trudging back, and once she does, I’ll tell Mama everything. Open my mouth and spill out all of the secrets I’ve stuffed into places I try not to look.

• • •

I wait, and the afternoon slips in and colors the room amber. Mama will be home soon, and Hannah still isn’t back. Maybe it’s better this way. To tell Mama and then let Hannah find out later. I watch the trees, and for a moment, it looks like something dark moves behind the canopy of leaves, some hunched form creeping on all fours like a leviathan set loose among flora, but when I squint my eyes and press my face against the glass, there’s nothing but the trees dancing in the wind.

By the time Mama pulls into the gravel drive, the sun has begun to set and shadows have sneaked into the corners of the yard. I don’t move even though my legs hurt from sitting so still for so long.

When Mama opens the door, her eyes go straight to me like she already knew that I’d be waiting, like she’s been waiting for this moment.

“Where is she?” Mama says, and I point. Mama nods. There isn’t anything else to say, and so Mama comes in the house, kicking her shoes off next to the door, and sinks into the couch. Together we watch the window until it goes dark.

When the moon glazes over our skins, I finally speak. “She’s not coming back, is she?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. You should sleep.”

“I’m not tired,” I say.

“Go to bed, Deborah,” Mama says, and her voice scrapes over me, sharp as glass, and I do as she says.

I lie on top of the quilt, and listen to my mother breathing in the next room. In and out. Jagged rhythms that paint the muted colors of her memories that lie thick and bitter on her tongue. It’s a strange thought, but it’s what I think all the same. I should write it down before I forget.

I fall asleep to the sound of her crying.

• • •

When I wake up, everything’s dark. My mouth is wet, and I swipe my hand across my lips, and it tastes clean. Like spring. Like water. I swallow. Hold my breath.

I whisper, but the sound is too quiet. Even if she could hear me, she’s probably fallen asleep waiting for Hannah to come home, her body curled into itself as if she can keep everything soft and delicate from falling out.

The floor is cold beneath my feet, and I have to thrust my hands in front of me so I don’t trip and fall, but I find my way to the door and open it. The hallway stretches impossibly, the color bled from the walls and floor, and there is only dark, only the vague shapes of our furniture beyond. I move slowly, my hands against my throat as if my thin fingers could ward off whatever teeth come hunting meat in the night.

Mama isn’t in the living room, and the front door stands open. The air here is humid and thick, and I go to the door and close it. My hands tremble, but I throw the lock, too.

I know I should go looking for them, know I should go to the river, but everything inside of me has turned breakable, and I think if I saw them there, the dark water flowing around them, I would start screaming and never stop.

Instead, I tuck myself next to the window and wait for the sun to come up.

• • •

Mama and Hannah don’t come back. The whole day, I watch the trees, my eyes playing tricks on me and making eyes and mouths out of things they’re not. My stomach hurts but I can’t eat. I try to drink some water, but the feeling of it in my throat makes me gag, so I pour what’s left in my glass down the sink.

When the sun begins to set, I go to the front door and open it. From my spot on the front porch, I watch the trees and wonder if Mama and Hannah are behind them. If they can see me from wherever they’ve hidden themselves. But then I think of them in the river, their bloated, pale faces staring up at me from under the water. I go inside. I lock the door again.

I’m sorry,” I whisper because I think my sister’s drowned, and I didn’t want it to be like this. I only wanted her to stop. And now Mama’s drowned, too, and I’m alone in this house in the middle of these terrible trees. I bite down on a sob. What if whatever’s in the trees were to hear?

I fall asleep, but it’s uneasy. I dream of Hannah, her eyes leaking river water as she writhes against the bank, her back arched toward the sky, and her fingers between her legs.

It’s the sound that wakes me up. A flutter of breath and then a small sigh. Hannah, I think, but there’s no footsteps clattering up the stairs. Just that one, small sigh. My heart pumps heavy in my chest, and I force myself up, force myself to look out the window.

Something moves fast over the grass, a dark shape crawling on all fours. Before it disappears, it turns back. Its eyes reflect yellow and blue and green — the colors of water in the sunlight — and then it’s gone.

I don’t sleep for the rest of the night.

• • •

In the morning, I stumble outside. Heat is already rising off the land, and it hurts to breathe.

There are streaks of dirt against the door as if someone had pressed a hand there. I glance at the trees, but nothing moves beyond them. They are only trees. Only leaves and wind and earth. I swallow, and then I’m stepping off the porch and forcing myself to move.

If Mama and Hannah are at the river, I’ll find them. I’ll pull them out and bring them home, and we’ll leave this place. Leave everything behind and find somewhere else to be.

Somewhere new where there isn’t a river.

The ground is damp, and it pulls at my feet, tries to drag me down into the earth. I wonder if that’s where Mama and Hannah went. Under the water and back into the dirt like Persephone who we read about in school.

When I come through the trees, the river is the same as it always is. I’m not sure what I expected. Perhaps for it to be roiling, white caps churned into foam, or the water bloodied and coated with a slick of grease. It’s only blue sky and a bright haze of sun and the river curling toward some end I’ll never see. No Mama. No Hannah.

I don’t go into the river. Even though it looks so cool, and the sun beats against my shoulders. I remember the feeling of all those little mouths pushing against my skin, their teeth looking for the love Hannah offers. I’m not sure what it is Mama offered.

Instead, I sit on the bank and pull up handfuls of grass. Toss them into the air and watch them flutter down like blades of emeralds. A locust moves jerkily across the bank and then disappears into the water. I wonder if before whatever is beneath snatched him away, if he fell in love, too.

I push myself onto my belly and scoot forward so that I can see over the lip of the bank and into the water. My reflection is distorted. My eyes are too large and my mouth twists into a grimace. Overhead, the trees dip toward the earth, and for a moment it’s as if they are in the water instead of above it, and I scrub a hand across my face.

“Hannah,” I whisper to the water. “Mama.” The faces of my mother and my sister don’t materialize, and I push my hands into the dirt and squeeze and squeeze until my fingers go numb.

“Fuck you,” I say and spit into the water. Nothing happens.

Something cries out from the trees. A bird or an animal. I can’t be sure which. It isn’t human.

I spend the rest of the day laid flat next to the river, staring up at the sky, and ignoring the click in my throat every time I swallow.

“You’re waiting for when it’s dark,” I mumble into the sky.

• • •

The sun sets, and it isn’t beautiful. No flaming oranges or pinked clouds dying into the dark. There is only a moment when it is light, and then the moment when it isn’t.

When Mama comes, she doesn’t come out of the water, but out of the trees. “I was in love with him, too. A long time ago. I’d go into the water and he’d pour every beautiful thing inside of me, and I’d forget there was a world beyond the veil he’d torn. That there were people and an entire life waiting somewhere else that didn’t taste of water.”

She draws a ragged breath. “I still loved him when Hannah came. Still thought he’d take us away, but he didn’t. And then the second time.” Her voice trails off, and I turn to look at her. Her eyes glint back at me. “I never went back into the water after that.”

I don’t ask her what he is. It doesn’t matter.

Mama comes on hands and knees, and she touches my hair, my face. She presses cold lips to my cheek and speaks. I don’t know what it is she says.

When she slips into the water, she doesn’t cry out, but she looks back at me, and her eyelids flutter, and her mouth drops open, and I know she doesn’t see me anymore.

I reach a hand for her, but then let it drop. Like a dream, Mama moves away from me, and the river rises to meet her thighs, her breasts, her neck.

She turns back. “You were never supposed to be mine. Not truly. But I never knew how to do anything but love you. My girls. Born of the water,” she says, and then the river covers her mouth, her nose, and she’s gone.

I think the river will make some small sound when I rise, but it doesn’t call out for me as I walk away.

I go back to the house. I leave the door open behind me and lie down on the couch.

In the morning, Hannah will be home.

In the morning, we’ll leave this place, and we’ll forget the sound of the river.

Kristi DeMeester is the author of Beneath, a novel published by Word Horde Publications, and Everything That’s Underneath, a short fiction collection from Apex Books. Her short fiction has appeared in approximately forty magazines, including Ellen Datlow's The Year's Best Horror Volume 9, Stephen Jones' Best New Horror, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volumes 1 and 3 in addition to publications such as Black Static, The Dark, and several others. In her spare time, she alternates between telling people how to pronounce herlast name and how to spell her first. Find her online at www.kristidemeester.com

Issue 29

May 2018

3LBE 29

Front & Back cover art by Rew X