Stand Silent in the Current

Stand Silent in the Current

Stand Silent in the Current 1920 1070 Maggie Slepian

“I can’t get it out of my head,” Natalie says. She’s lying on the couch, brushing her fingertips across the carpet like she’s dragging them through water. “We should go. We should finally go.” The abandoned aquarium has hovered on her periphery for years. She’ll bring it up on afternoons like this, a dull Saturday in the dead of summer. None of us enrolled in summer classes, the days stretching long and languid in front of us.

We are heat stunned, watching the fan turn the stifling air and the water condense down the sides of sweating pint glasses. Erin is draped over a chair with her head in front of the fan. She kicks her feet over and lands in a pile on the floor. “Let’s do it.”

We pile into Natalie’s car. Erin chatters from the front seat, and Natalie doesn’t say a word. She holds her hand out the open window and glides it through the air.

Thirty minutes across town, the restaurants and hotels have transitioned to empty storefronts and a shuttered mill. This side of town feels like an impatient ghost, trapped near the living but unable to pass into the next realm. We climb out of the car and step across dry mounds of dirt, scattered with broken glass and clumps of crabgrass. Even the demolition project was abandoned.

The old aquarium looms across the partially demolished parking lot, its crumbling facade stretching for blocks. The blue stucco is faded, and the arched entrance is dominated by the distinct geometric lines of the mid-80s.

The last time I was here was in elementary school, inhaling exhaust from the school bus as we walked in pairs towards the arch with its family of concrete sea turtles welcoming us. Tinny music through the outdoor speakers, groups of shrieking children from other schools. I remember clutching Natalie’s soft hand, damp with sweat. Erin’s red pigtails under a pink ball cap one row in front of us. The announcement of the first dolphin show of the day.

Today, the building is dark and empty, and the air is the kind of hot that feels less like a temperature and more like a physical touch. Natalie pulls further ahead. I want to call out, but my words are choked by dust kicked up from our shoes. Our car is the size of a thumbnail, wavering behind a mirage of heat.

When I turn back, Natalie is a shadow against the faded blue stucco, running her hand along the bumpy surface. Erin glances at me and falters. She doesn’t have to speak for me to know she’s asking, again, what do we do?

As children we’d be side by side all day, inseparable until the final bell. We twisted our fingers together in secret handshakes and passed snacks back and forth from our lunch boxes. Until three o’clock, when we’d say goodbye to Natalie by the bike racks, avoiding her eyes but knowing they were darting between us and the parking lot. Waiting for the click of our bike locks, the appearance of the boxy minivan.

In my mind, her brother is little more than a spectral, spidery hand tugging her towards the car. He is a faint moustache, angry pockmarks scattered across pale cheeks. Natalie as a child is even more ephemeral, a conglomeration of shadowed eyes, a pale wrist clasped in her brother’s palm, floral leggings sagging at the knees.

In the hallways, we’d hear whispers about her brother. The reasons no one was allowed to sleep over at their house. Our moms said it wasn’t nice to gossip, but the stories ran like a current through town. We all stood in the moving water and no one said a thing. I kicked my sneakers against the guidance counselor’s carpet, looked at the floor instead of at her owl glasses and big bangs. Did I ever go to Natalie’s house? Did I know her brother? I stood against the current and shook my head. No, I don’t go to Natalie’s house. I don’t think anything’s wrong. Can I go back to class now?

Erin’s bravado from our living room has vanished. “Natalie’s acting weird again,” she whispers, watching Natalie run her fingers along the wall. “We should just bring her home.” I remain silent, like I always do.

Natalie mantles onto a windowsill and peers through the broken glass before flipping onto her stomach and slithering backwards over the ledge. I see her fingers gripping the cracked concrete before they vanish. I’m jogging before I realize I’m moving, climbing onto the pile of concrete blocks, kicking my leg over exposed rebar, scrambling onto the sill as pieces crumble under my bare knees.

It’s dark through the window. I can’t make anything out beneath me. A waft of putrid air hits me from beyond the broken glass and I feel like I’m gagging on my tongue. Erin heaves onto the sill next to me, calling out for Natalie.

Natalie, with her wide eyes and soft voice, the blank stares when her mind takes her somewhere we can’t reach, the type of sadness we don’t know. She’s inside somewhere, and she doesn’t respond.

I kick my feet over and stretch to my full length before dropping the last few feet into waist-deep water. I hear a strangled scream and look wildly around before realizing it’s me. The animalistic horror of an unseen space unspooling into the black. It is a fear I’ve never felt, but I’ve spent all of my time in the light. I’ve never followed Natalie into the dark.

I breathe through my mouth at the rancid air. The footing is slippery and the water is oily. I hold my arms out at shoulder height to keep them out of the water and breathe as shallowly as possible. Erin is a dark blot against the window above me. I’ll find Natalie, then I’ll find a way out. Erin can go get help. I fight to control rising panic. I tell myself I have a plan.

The water swirls around my waist and I slap a hand over my mouth to stifle a scream. It’s Natalie, just her head above the water, swimming towards me out of the black.

“It drops off quickly,” she says, like we’re at the public pool. Her hair is in ropy strands around her face; she flashes her teeth in what looks like a grimace.

I wish I had a light, something to shine over the slippery walls and to the unseen ceiling. I can just make out the whites of Natalie’s eyes, the pattern of mildewed tiles behind her. Beyond that, nothing but a dark expanse. We’re in a tank. It’s a holding tank. I can barely dredge up the memory of the dolphin show, but somewhere across this pool, there’s a gate that slid up and released the trained dolphins with their static smiles into the arena.

Natalie’s eyes are shining, almost reverent. A ripple trembles across the surface of the water.

“What was that?” I hiss. A flash of white moves in front of us, the water disturbed into a v-shape. I stifle a scream, more useless noise. I can hear Natalie’s breaths, slower and more controlled than my shallow gasps. My toes are gripping the edge of the drop off under the filmy surface, and I clench them so hard my calves cramp.

The patch of pale movement appears like a developing photo, slowly becoming clearer until it’s so close I could reach out and touch it. It looks like something that was once a dolphin, but one you’d pull out of an underwater cave miles beneath the surface—translucent rotting flesh and yellow eyes covered in a milky film. I think of fetal skin stretched over egg yolks and retch, swiping at the string of drool dropping from my mouth.

It drifts between us, bumping against my leg. I want to release the feeling building inside of me: a scream louder than I’ve ever screamed, but I bite down on my lip instead, panic and tears and the feeling of being captive in this space compressing any sound. My teeth are clenched so tight my jaw stabs.

With slow pumps of its tail, it circles behind Natalie. She’s breathing hard and staring straight ahead, but she doesn’t seem scared. The creature brushes its head under Natalie’s hand at the surface of the water and I see the texture of its skin, porous and rotting. With a slow pulse of its tail it drops away from the ledge.

“I’m going to see where it went.” Natalie’s hoarse whisper shocks air into my lungs and I realize I’ve been holding my breath. Here we are, and again I have no words.

There were days after school when Natalie would ask if one of us wanted to come over. I’d tell her sorry, I wasn’t allowed. I’d see her the next day at our lockers. I was sorry, though, really sorry. I’d look right at her when I said it, trying to tell her without words just how sorry I was.

Natalie bends her knees and sinks beneath the surface. She pushes off the ledge, her slim, pale figure wavering beneath the oily slick. The ripples take less than three breaths before they’ve faded back to stillness. The darkness ahead of me feels alive like a vibration. Erin is gone from the punched-out pane, and the window is so far above. I’ve never been able to follow Natalie where she goes, and I’ve always been sorry.

Header photograph © Barren Magazine.

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