Fiction by Tess Melvin
“Sometimes I don’t want to come back up,” she says.
I look up from the water. My legs are pale and white beneath the surface; hers are burnished and lanky and dotted with freckles. She moves them back and forth, stirring up unseen currents that buffet my ankles. Her eyes are trained on the other side of the pool.
“I think it’d be nice,” she says. Sunlight catches in her eyelashes when she blinks. “Just to go under and stay there.”
We came here when we were kids and practiced holding our breath underwater. My record was 40 seconds; hers was 63. She claims she can’t do it anymore, and today she came up for air before the twenty-fourth second was up. Now, rivulets of water roll off her skin and soak the bleached concrete beneath us. I’m shivering a little, but she hasn’t moved at all.
“You’d drown,” I say.
She shrugs, and droplets buried in her shoulders glitter and catch my eye. “So?”
“So,” I say dumbly. Sugar slicks the back of my throat from my Cornetto’s, now bitten to a stub. “We couldn’t get ice cream together if you drowned.”
“Yeah,” she says, “I guess that’s true. But I think it’d be really pretty under there.” A tiny wave breaks against my calf. “Quiet.”
“You hate the quiet,” I say.
“You hate the quiet. If you just sank underwater, closed your eyes, and floated down to the bottom…I don’t think it’d be that bad.”
I kick a little tsunami to life, and it rolls and ripples toward the far side. She still hasn’t looked at me. We went to the canyon once and stood at the edge, and she had that same look in her eye: distant and dreamless.
“You could be a mermaid.”
She smiles a little. “Then I definitely couldn’t get ice cream with you.”
“Mermaids can eat Cornetto’s.”
“Doesn’t seem like they’d like ’em.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I don’t want to be a mermaid,” she says. “It feels better to hold your breath.”
I watch her as she pushes forward and off the rim. The water parts silently around her, lapping at her shoulders. She tips her head back and the chlorine dissolves her stringy, drying strands into something sleek and lustrous.
“Will you time me?” she says.
I swing my foot beneath the surface. “Again?”
“I think I can do better.”
“You know, on second thought,” I say hastily, “I wouldn’t want to be a mermaid. I’d get lonely. I’d miss people, y’know?”
She lets go of the wall to float on her back. “You could come with me.”
“Yeah, but like—I’d miss other people.”
“I wouldn’t,” she says. The water slips shallowly over her face before she bobs back to the surface. “Just you.”
The waves slip behind my knees, into the rut and the filters, and meet the wall, glk-glk-glk. She looks as colorless under the water as I do in the sun.
“Come on. Time me.”
I sigh and reach for the stopwatch melting next to my thigh. She pushes herself a little farther out, and as I squint into the light, her eyes shine at me just over the surface. The watch chirps in my palm. I look down and up again, and she’s underwater, gone.