Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Odd Ones

The Odd Ones
By Jason J Sergi

     To keep my cousins and I from the deep end of her pool, my Aunt Patty used to tell us that, during thunderstorms, those kids who hadn’t heeded the warnings to avoid the deep end risked having their skeletons yanked from their bodies whenever lightning flashed.
     “What happens to the kids and their skeletons after?” we would ask her.
     “The kids are just blobs, stuck in their parents’ houses, unable to move or play video games,” she would answer, a Merit Light smoldering in her crooked fingers. “Their parents have to feed them water-soaked bread since that’s all they can eat with no bones in their jaws. As for their skeletons…they end up in the deep end, waiting to snatch down the other kids who don’t listen to the warnings of adults.”
     Aunt Patty’s warning had worked. My cousins and I had avoided the deep end like the plague. Not that it’d been hard to do anyways. The deep end of Aunt Patty’s pool had always been covered in shade—no matter how far back Uncle Tony cut the bushes back from the pool’s edge—the water beneath the surface murky and swirling with shadows.
     In contrast, the shallow end had always been bathed in sunny warmth, and you could see right down to the blue bottom.
     I breathed in deep, taking in the flowery scents of the funeral parlor. A few family members were sniffling and weeping about. Aunt Patty was lying in her polished casket, looking smaller than she had when she’d been lying in the hospital bed a few days ago, gasping for air and balder than a cue ball.
     Maybe it was the wig that made her look smaller, I don’t know.
     The flowery scent was making my nose run, causing me to sniff constantly. Same thing happened to me at Uncle Tony’s wake, two years ago. Back then there’d been more people present, and they’d asked me nonstop if I’d been okay. Of course I had been. Before his sudden death I hadn’t seen Uncle Tony in about ten years. I’d been somewhat sad that he was dead but not devastatingly so, same as now. Last time I’d seen Aunt Patty before the hospital had been at Uncle Tony’s funeral. Before that, ten years, give or take.
     No one was asking me if I was okay this time around though.
     A sign of the times, I supposed. Back when I was five and terrified that lightning would cause my skeleton to jump from my skin, my family had been close: aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, family friends. Good times. And the focal point of those times had been summers at Aunt Patty’s, swimming in the pool, eating food off the grill, and dodging the large hornets that would swarm from the supply shed whenever someone would get too close.
     Then time took over; people died, fought, held grudges and so on, the family shrinking and spreading apart like grain in water, each year the grains drifting farther apart.
     I wondered how far that separation would ultimately grow in the end. Until we were each all alone? Would I still even have Heidi and kids? Would anybody come to my funeral?
     I didn’t want to think about it.
     Heidi and the kids were at home. They’d never met Aunt Patty and the kids had school early the next day. No point in making them sit through this dismal business if they didn’t have to.
     Next to me sat my cousins, those who weren’t currently in prison or rehab. Most here now had done time, and Laura, at least, was facing time for assaulting her boyfriend’s ex with a crowbar. I was the oddball of the group. No habit, no record. I was just a boring family man who drove a forklift for a living.
     My cousin Mike grabbed my arm, “Hey, Tommy, listen to this: a ninja walks into a bar…”
     I listened politely as he went on with the dumb joke.
     “…so the gunslinger says, ‘Oh yeah? Look at your feet.’ The ninja does and his head falls off!” he finished, blowing out a series of loud, inappropriate guffaws.
     I smiled and looked away, hoping the wake would end soon so my nose would stop dripping and I could get back to Heidi and the kids.
* * *
     Early the next morning, with the sun just barely up, I parked the Jeep in front of Aunt Patty’s house. As with my family, time has not been kind to the house. As a child I remember bright green lawns, the perfectly trimmed bushes out front, the bright yellow siding, and the front doors and windows that had always looked like a surprised robot face to me.
     But now the For Sale sign hanging from its post next to the mailbox was nearly obscured by the too-tall grass of the front yard, and the overgrown bushes hid most of the surprised robot’s peeling skin.
     Sad really.
     Nothing lasts forever, I know, but happiness is one of those things that should.
     I opened the door and stepped from the Jeep. It was warm out, even this early, the mosquitoes rushing in, seeking my blood, nature’s summer vampires.
     I made my way down a side walkway, down the proverbial memory lane to where a tall wooden fence separated the front yard from the old magic of the back. I paused before reaching for the door latch.
     As a kid, I can remember jumping from my mother’s car, towel in hand and bathing suit already on, happy as a clam since I knew I had the entire day ahead of me. I would run down this very walkway, my flip-flops squishing on the stones, and I’d burst through the fence to see the sunbeams sparkling on the pool’s shallow end, my cousins already there, splashing away, my aunts, uncles, and grandparents already seated around on the black patio furniture that was situated a few feet from the pool’s edge, where they’d be basking in the shade of the table umbrellas, drinking wine coolers and Budweiser, and Aunt Patty would be yelling from her chair, a Merit Light between her fingers, “Michael! Jimmy! Get away from that deep end! Those skeletons are waiting down by the drain for ya! Mark my words!” , and Uncle Tony would be walking around with a pool net, cleaning out all the hornets and helicopter leaves that constantly found themselves in the water for their final resting place.
     I’d doff my shirt, kick off my flip-flops, and then toss my towel down on a lounge chair before diving in without a pause, the shock of the cold water and burn of the chlorine heralding in the official start of an awesome day.
     Good times, always…except for that one time.
     I reached down and opened the fence door, surprised how light it was. As a kid, the thing had weighed a ton.
     I continued on to the backyard.
* * *
     It was all there, just how I remembered, if all a bit smaller than memory: the rectangle of the in-ground pool, the white gumstick of the diving board jutting above the deep end, the supply shed on the far side, the plastic blue slide in front of it, the patio furniture off to the right in the tall grass, the umbrellas closed, and the towering maples that rose up above the surrounding fence for privacy against the neighbors.
     I made my way to the pool. The water was dark, murky, with the deep end even more so, a carpet of helicopter leaves floating on the surface, but it wasn’t green and slimy like I pictured it would be. After Uncle Tony died, I doubted anyone had given a shit about its cleanliness, but it seemed to have held up nevertheless.
     Sighing, I looked around at the rest of the yard, the elevated porch, the crumbling house, memories flooding back to me, bringing a lump to my throat.
     Why did I really come back here? But I already knew the answer. I turned back around to peer at the deep end. That was why. Perhaps my one last chance to bury the fear which stemmed from that one damned incident, and had then taken control of my life.
* * *
     It’d been two days after my ninth birthday; my cousins and I were in the pool, in the midst of mean game of ring toss. “I gotta go help with lunch,” Aunt Patty called to us from the patio furniture, breathing out a cloud of Merit smoke. “I don’t wanna see any of you near that deep end. Capeesh?”
     “Yes, Aunt Patty,” we called up in well-rehearsed unison. We then watched her walk over to where the other adults were already under the raised porch, grilling and setting up for lunch.
     My cousins and I continued our game of ring toss.
     At some point I saw Kevin wading by the demarcation line separating deep from shallow end.
     “What’re you doin, Kev?” I asked.
     With water dripping from his whiffle—-the boy cousins all had whiffles back then—he nodded towards the deep end. “Dare me to swim across real quick?” 
     Kevin was the most rebellious of the cousins. Perhaps it was because he was adopted and wanted to fit in, I don’t know. Aside from being adopted, he’d always been the oddball of the group, always the one taking the most risks, always the one picked last whenever we had to pick teams for something. But, if anything, his behavior proved to be a detriment to himself, since if any of us wanted a laugh or to play a practical joke on someone, Kevin was almost always the target. And despite his forced participation in these events, it did nothing to improve his standing within our juvenile caste system. 
     Patrick, Mike, Laura and Jimmy all swam over to see what we were about. “What’s goin on?” Jimmy asked. “Kev, it’s your turn to throw.”
     “He wants to swim across the deep end,” I said. Then, to Kevin, “What’re the stakes?” 
     “Your desserts. No matter what it is. Deal?”
     “Deal,” I said, and the others echoed it. “But you better do it quick. Lunch is almost done and if the adults catch you you’ll be out of the pool for the rest of the day.”
     “I’m not worried,” he said. “So there and back, right?”
     “Right,” I said.
     He spared one quick glance over to the adults and was then splashing across the murky shadows of the deep end. It took him all of six seconds, kicking off the far side once he reached it and then swimming back over to us without being detected.
     “You guys owe me dessert!” he cried triumphantly.
     “I don’t think so,” Jimmy said. “That was nothing; definitely not enough for my dessert anyways.”
     The others voiced their agreement. I did as well a second later. After all, I wasn’t too enthused with giving up my dessert for just that little bit. Unless it was Italian Ice, then I could’ve cared less. But on the chance that it was something else like cake or banana splits, then I was gonna need something more.
     “That’s bull shit!” Kevin cried, slapping the water before him. “Back and forth; that was the deal.”
     “Yeah, but any of us could’ve done that,” I said. “You gotta do something really crazy…like diving to the bottom.”
     “Forget it. I already did what I said I would.”
     “Then you don’t get our desserts. I think it might be Boston Cream Pie today, your favorite. You could have six of them all to yourself for two seconds of work. It would be a shame to pass it up.”  
     “All right, fine. I’ll dive down and up. But this is it, right? I do it, I get your desserts, no funny shit.”
     “You got it,” I said. “No funny shit.”      
     We gathered around with our goggles strapped to our faces, Kevin wading on the border of light and dark, his own goggles strapped to his face.
     “Do it quick,” I said, looking to the adults. “They’re setting the tables.”  
     With a nod Kevin swam to the middle of the deep end, bobbed up, then dove under, my cousins and I going under as well with breaths held.
     Even with goggles and the sun at my back, it was hard to see anything in the deep end. I watched as Kevin dropped like a stone, feet first, the shadows seeming to swirl around him. He appeared to sink forever, his arms waving, his legs straight as a board beneath his torso. At some point I ran out of breath and had to go back up for air.
     My head broke the surface and I released the spent breath, gulping in a fresh one, Mike doing the same next to me, Patrick just re-submerging.
     Lungs filled with fresh life-giving air, I quickly ducked back under. Kevin was completely obscured by the swirling shadows now. One of the shadows suddenly broke away from the rest. At first I thought it was Kevin but right away I knew I was wrong. Kevin was short and stocky and less than graceful, even underwater. The shadow I was looking at was longer-limbed, slender, and very agile in its movements…like a fish…or a mermaid.
     Confused as to what I was seeing, I went back up for air. My other cousins were already there.
     “He hasn’t come up yet?” I asked them.
     “Not yet,” Jimmy said. “What the hell is he doin down there?”
     “Out of the pool, you guys,” Aunt Patty called from beneath the porch. “Time to eat.”
     A flurry of bubbles broke the surface of the deep end, and then Kevin’s goggles floated up. But still no Kevin.
     “What do we do?” Mike asked.
     “We eat,” Patrick said, swimming for the pool steps.
     “What about Kev?” I asked. What the hell is he doing down there? “Hey!” But the others were all making their ways to the steps that led up from the shallow end.
     I was tempted to join them. I was hungry but, while I’d never been as close to Kevin as I was to the rest of my cousins, I didn’t want to leave him behind if he was in trouble. And if he was just messing around, I didn’t want him getting into trouble once he found we left him. He could hold a grudge, and his paybacks were often painful.
     I turned back to see the floating goggles, the bubbles gone now. Steeling my nerve, I held my breath and went back under, swimming for the swirling shadows, crossing the forbidden threshold between deep and shallow end, dark and light.
     When I saw the shadow figure again, I reached out to grab what I thought had to be Kevin’s arm, but my hand wrapped around thin cold hardness, the cold running up my hand and into my chest, freezing it.
     I let go right away and made my frantic way to the surface, but not before the shadow figure spun around, its gruesome, skeletal face staring up at me hatefully, though instead of the hollow pits of a normal skull, it had wide-staring human eyes that paralyzed me with stark white terror.
     I blacked out then, coming to on the grass beside the pool, Uncle Tony standing over me with water dripping from his short black curls. I sat up, my goggles still on my face, Kevin’s goggles in my right hand.
     “Where’s Kevin?” Aunt Cheryl cried for her son. She was running frantically around the pool. “Where is he? What did you little shits do to him now? Call 911!”
     The other adults were all rushing towards the pool. Uncle Tony got the pool net from the supply shed and began probing the deep end. I wanted to shout out for him to be careful but my chest was still frozen tight and I couldn’t speak.
     The other adults were swarming around the pool, splashing across the shallow end towards the deep, all but Aunt Patty, who was staring at me with utter disappointment, the ash on her Merit Light hanging halfway down from the filter.
     I then looked over to where my cousins were standing, all of them wrapped in towels, dripping wet as they shook violently…and they each looked just as stunned as I felt.
* * *
     Inexplicably, Kevin was never found. There weren’t many places he could’ve disappeared to so it’d been a naggingly infinite mystery to all. And while my other cousins couldn’t account for what had happened to Kevin either, neither did they believe what I told them I’d seen beneath the waters of the deep end.
     Truth be told, neither did I.
     That fateful day was the last we’d all been together. From there on out, we only saw each other at funerals or the rare partial get-togethers.
* * *
     Now I looked down at the swirling shadows of the pool. Looking back on all those things we did to Kevin with adult eyes always filled me with some kind of guilt. But even now I don’t blame myself for what happened that day. Kids could be cruel and Kevin had been the oddity of the group, having been adopted and a constant troublemaker to boot—-he’d even smoked his mother’s cigarettes once—and I had tried to save him, after all.
     This was simply about me facing my fear. Since that day, I’ve not set foot in a body of water, even when my kids have begged me to do so. Even simple showers were filled with panic attacks and foreboding. Baths were avoided like the plague.
     It was time to put this baby to rest, and this may be my last opportunity to do it, with Aunt Patty’s house on the market as it was. I needed to prove to myself that water wasn’t dangerous, that what I had experienced that day so long ago was the result of a child’s over-terrified imagination.
     I was sick of being scared.
     I took the goggles from my back pocket. They were brand new—-I’d thrown out the ones I had as a kid in Aunt Patty’s trash that very day, Kevin’s too—-bought at NAMCO after I’d left the wake last night. I then stripped down to my tighty-whiteys, folding my clothes and placing them neatly on a rusted patio table. Then, strapping the goggles to my face, I made my way to the steps leading down to the shallow end.
     Memories came flooding in as I waded into the frigid water, my bare feet touching the smoothness of the steps and then the bottom of the shallow end itself, the water rising to my waist when last time I was here it nearly reached up to my shoulders.
     My heart pounded in my chest as I made my way towards the swirling shadows of the deep end, stopping just at the threshold.
     What the hell was I so afraid of? Water? Kevin disappeared in it, so what? Who knows what really happened? Kids’ memories are warped at best over time, especially when connected to a traumatic event, like your cousin drowning after you dared him to do something.   
     I was gonna prove to myself once and for all that I had nothing to fear. I was determined to get into the water with my kids the next time we were at the beach or a pool. I was gonna take normal showers without panicking. My life was going to start anew today.
     Holding my breath, I crossed the threshold into the deep end for the second time in my life. And it felt…terrific. I was facing down my fear, bettering my life, and I couldn’t be more proud of myself.
     I stopped to wade in the middle of the deep end for a few seconds, savoring my victory. I thought about swimming back and leaving it as it was, but then, I held my breath and went under.
     In order to do this thing right, I had to go all the way.
* * *
     It was dark, as I expected it was gonna be, and much colder than the shallow end had been, though that last could just be in my mind.
     I looked up to see the sunbeams dancing along the surface in a shimmering curtain, the patches of helicopter leaves floating above looking like shadow clouds in a watery sky. I felt alone, like the last person in the world, yearning for life and light, for breath, wanting to break free of the nightmare shadows swirling around me, but I continued to push my way down. Soon it would be over. If I quit now, during this, my only opportunity, it would haunt me for life, the unfinishedness of it.
     And then my toes touched the bottom and I allowed myself to kick up towards the light, total victory just seconds away, and I couldn’t be happier in this moment.
     But in the next instant my vision was suddenly seared by a flash of blue light and the water around me rippled with a sonorous rumble. When the light dissipated, my vision was filled with oily spots, and I became completely disoriented.
     I looked up to try and see the light-covered surface but saw only darkness and spots. I’d watched a survival show once where they said if you were ever underwater and didn’t know which way was up, to blow bubbles out of your mouth and then follow them up. I tried that but still couldn’t see them.
     Thoroughly panic-stricken, the sensation intensified when something grabbed my ankle hard and began pulling me in that direction with an icy grip. I looked at my feet to see a skeletal face looking up at me from the darkness.
     I kept my part of the deal, Tommy, a voice hissed in my head.
     I needed air. I needed to wake up!
     Whatever it was that had a hold of me was dragging me further into darkness. I opened my mouth and screamed silently, cold iciness filling my throat as I fought to swim away, to break free of my captor.
     Something cold nudged my side, something else my back, another shoved my head hard to the side, wrenching my neck. I looked frantically around to find that I was surrounded by dozens of short grayish figures, their bodies emaciated, skeletal heads mounted above thin collarbones, their all-too-fleshy, lidless eyes staring at me with hatred.
     As my vision dimmed from lack of air, one came to float before me, its lipless mouth moving, white waterlogged flesh peeling from its cheeks.  You’re the odd one out now, Tommy, the voice in my head hissed. And now I want my dessert.
     It lifted a bony hand and drove it painfully into my chest, and then the world exploded in a cacophony of blue light, the cries of sad laughter, and the sound of thunder booming all around.
* * *
     “It’s crazy, man,” Mike said, leaning over to Jimmy. “He was sitting right here with us just two weeks ago at Aunt Patty’s wake. Now he’s dead too.”
     “I know, crazy,” Jimmy said, looking down at his phone.
     Mike looked back to where Tommy was lying in the casket, Heidi and the kids standing over him, crying their eyes out. “I wonder who did it,” he said. “Gotta be a sicko to cut his heart out like that.”
     “Yeah,” Jimmy said. “And it wasn’t no robbery either. The police said that all his stuff was stacked neatly on a patio table: his wallet, money, everything. Why the hell was he at Aunt Patty’s anyway? He had to have driven there; they found his Jeep out front.”
     “No idea, man. Maybe he was having an affair? Went to go meet her there because he knew no one would be there. Maybe it went bad.”
     “Real bad,” Jimmy said. “Hell of a thing having two cousins die in the same pool. Well, one real cousin, anyways.”
     “Damn straight. Hey, Jimmy, listen to this; a ninja walks into a bar...”

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