Isaac stood in the dark of his cousin’s closet, waiting to be called downstairs for lunch. Through a slit in the sliding mirrored door he could see a green shirt flattened to the white carpet, the foot of the unmade bed on which a small stuffed horse lay with its face to the sheets, and a portion of the window in the opposite wall. From time to time bright bursts of adult laughter were carried up through the window from the yard below, causing Isaac’s knees and heart to flinch.
He had been standing inside the closet for what felt like a painfully long time, long enough to wonder whether he was in fact hiding from those he could hear outside. A while ago he had peed in his jeans without realizing he needed to, and he now wore a pair of pajama bottoms he’d found folded on a shelf at his back.
The sunlit bedroom before him was one of a vast many rooms on the upper floor of his uncle Roger’s house. This was the main reason young Isaac always looked forward to visiting uncle Roger’s. It wasn’t his relatives he liked seeing so much as the house itself, a place too big for boredom to be possible. His own house had five rooms, four if you counted the connected kitchen and living room as one.
And yet Avery somehow saw it differently. When Isaac and his parents had arrived earlier that afternoon, his cousin had clung to her mother’s waist like a monstrous growth as the adults greeted each other in loud, laughing voices. Not even when Isaac tugged her by the arm did she dislodge herself, and when he tried to pull harder he was given a hateful look from his aunt Melinda, who’d told him to use his words before his hands.
Then he was following the tall bodies through the wide rooms of the ground floor and out to the back yard, where, past the enormous garden, a long glass table stood at the end of a gravel path overlooking the sea.
But it was too hot to be outside, and there was nothing to do in the back yard but listen to uncle Roger’s booming voice and explosive laughter; the rocky bluff down to the ocean was inaccessible past a newly erected deer fence, and only the gardener and aunt Melinda herself were permitted to approach the many manicured plants arrayed between the table and the back of the house.
So Isaac seated himself in the warm grass beside where his family gathered. Reclining on his elbows so that his head entered the shadow cast by the umbrella spread above the table, he looked out across the blinding ocean to the wide range of mountains beyond, huge and hazy in the heat-blurred distance. The brightness of everything made his eyes ache.
“What are you doing?”
Isaac craned his neck back and saw the upside-down features of his cousin, dark ringlets dangling halfway to his head. “Nothing,” he said, rubbing the feel of her gaze from his face. “Just looking.”
Avery, feet planted to either side of his shoulders, shielded her eyes as she raised them to the water and to the rising Cascades, snow-coated despite the merciless heat. “But there’s nothing to look at,” she said tiredly.
Isaac rolled onto his stomach. From between his cousin’s legs he could see uncle Roger pouring from a green bottle a golden stream into the narrow glasses placed before each adult at the table, the top of his bald head gleaming like the metallic parts of a car.
“Mom says I have to play with you,” came Avery’s voice from above.
The four at the table raised their glasses into the space between them, laughing, then delicately brought the rims to their lips.
“What do you want to do?” Isaac asked.
Avery lowered herself to a squat, blocking his view of the table. “Nothing,” she said. Still neither she nor Isaac had looked at the other.
Isaac sat up and shut his eyes to the sun’s glare. He needed to move into the shade but wanted to keep his distance from the ones who sat there. “Do you want to go inside?” he said, squinting into the sunlight that lay atop the ocean. “Do you want to go in the swimming pool?”
“We can’t,” Avery said defiantly.
Isaac turned. His cousin sat cross-legged behind him, her head down, fingers gliding over the tips of the trimmed grass. “Why can’t we?” he asked.
“Because,” said Avery, without looking up, “it isn’t full.”
“What do you mean it isn’t full?”
Avery frowned. “That’s what I mean,” she said. “It’s nearly empty. There isn’t enough water to swim.”
They fell quiet while Isaac thought about this. He had never seen a swimming pool that wasn’t filled with water.
“Well do you want to go inside?” he asked hopefully. But it seemed Avery hadn’t heard him; she had pulled a blade of grass from the ground and held it up to her eyes as though it were unordinary. Then, flicking it aside, she rose to her feet and led the way back toward the house.
The coolness in the kitchen was like a different world. Leaning against a counter, they stood passing a carton of juice back and forth, still not looking at each other. Isaac felt the sweat on his forehead turn cold. He pushed it back through his hair.
“Aren’t you bored?” he said, restless. “What should we do now?”
Avery took a long pull from the carton, drawing her tongue over her top lip afterwards. “Do you want to see what’s on TV?” she said.
Isaac considered this. He had a TV at home, but the one at uncle Roger’s was much bigger and had more things to watch. His eyes searched for some diversion and finally fell on a pair of closed double doors at the other end of a large room adjacent to the kitchen. “Let’s go to the pool room,” he said, “and look at the swimming pool.”
Avery shook her head. “I told you before – it doesn’t have enough water.”
“But can’t we just look at it?” said Isaac, almost desperately.
The distant voices of the adults traveled lightly through the door they’d left open, and for a moment they stood listening, staring into the kitchen floor. Then Avery let out a forceful sigh and broke from the counter. Isaac, unsure as to whether he’d gotten his way, was quick to follow.
It was exactly as strange and as ordinary as he’d suspected, he supposed. More like a pit than a pool. Water about waist-deep.
“See?” said Avery. “There’s nothing to see.”
They were standing at the shallow end looking down it lengthwise. The pool stretched to a wall of clear, thick glass in a back corner of the house, past which was a straight drop to the sea not far below. To Isaac, and to everybody who stood where he was standing, it looked as though the pool ended where the ocean began. Or at least it usually did.
“Why’s it like that?” he asked.
“Like what?” said Avery.
“Why doesn’t it have enough water to swim? Where’d it go?”
Avery stepped to the edge and gazed into the shallow, stagnant pool. “I think it’s being cleaned,” she said. “They need to change the water. To clean it.”
Isaac watched the back of his cousin, the twirly ropes of her long black hair, her light dress spattered with tiny yellow stars. The thought inside his head was that he could surprise her. He could take three quick steps before she knew he’d moved at all.
As if sensing his impulse, Avery began to turn just as Isaac reached for her shoulders. Grabbing and spinning her around to face him, he shook her like a stuffed animal, laughing harder as he felt her arms squirm beneath his fingers.
“Don’t do that!” Avery shouted, and gave him a shove.
Isaac shambled back, giddy with excitement. He saw the anger in his cousin’s face, but the smile was still stuck to his own.
“Stop,” said Avery, deadly serious. “I said stop it. We’re not even allowed to—” She hit Isaac’s arms away when he lifted them again to grab her. “Isaac!”
The sound of his own name thrown against the walls of the room thrilled him. It was a game he wasn’t yet finished with. Once more he reached for his cousin’s flailing arms and watched as she tried to step back but found herself on the pool’s edge, her eyes finally finding his own the instant before she was gone.
Isaac froze as the splash filled his ears, filled everything, and was followed by a dull thud, like wood hitting wood. He looked down and saw her hair in the water, floating, thin wet ropes reaching out from her head. Then her head itself, her face to the pool’s pale blue floor.
“Avery, come out,” he said. The sight of her soaked dress and her stillness in the water made his head dizzy. “Avery,” he said again, watching her drift further from where he stood. He looked to the steps that led to the pool and forced his legs to carry him down to the water near the bottom. But her feet were barely out of reach. “Come back, Avery,” he called.
A faint redness clouded the water near her head, expanding out and disappearing in the clear blue. The juice, he guessed. It was the juice they’d been drinking in the kitchen. Cranberry. “Why won’t you come out?” he called from the steps. “I’ll tell aunt Melinda you won’t play with me.”
But Avery, now nearly midway to the glass wall, made no reply. Without taking his eyes from her, Isaac backed up the steps and moved toward the door. “You should come out,” he said, too quietly to be heard by anyone but himself, and left.
The main room on the ground floor was larger than Isaac’s home. He felt small inside of it. There was a central sitting area – four couches facing each other to make a square – that he had never seen anybody occupy, and as he walked past on his way to the kitchen he looked up through the high glass ceiling and had his eyes stung by the sun.
All he’d wanted was to explore the rooms of the house, to see the pool without water. How what had happened had happened was beyond him, the real gravity as yet a small hole in his belly that he mistook for hunger.
Now he stood on the threshold of the door to the back garden. The door they’d left open before. He’d stopped when he realized he was on his way to the voices he could hear past the plants. What would he tell them? He tried to think about what had happened and heard his mother’s laughter beckon him outside.
The sun’s heat was in the pulse of his blood. Why was he wearing pants? he wondered as he walked through the garden, his eyes half shut and down to the path. If he’d been wearing shorts and no shoes then he could have gone in the water. But he was wearing pants.
“Hey there, young man!”
It was uncle Roger, facing the garden with his back to the sea, who first noticed Isaac’s approach. His parents turned in their chairs.
“Come out of the sun, love,” his mother said, waving him over with her empty glass.
Isaac did as he was told.
They were all smiling at him, waiting for him to say something. But the attention made it hard to remember what it was he wanted to say. His eyes fixed themselves to the wet bucket that held the bottle. His father’s hand squeezed his shoulder.
“Are you and Avery behaving yourselves in there?” Aunt Melinda tilted her head far back to see him, her face above the mouth hidden by the brim of her lampshade hat.
Isaac nodded automatically. He kept his eyes on the drops dripping down the bucket and said, “We had juice.”
The four at the table kept smiling, easy and comfortable in their chairs. Uncle Roger leaned back and laced his fingers behind his smooth head.
“Doesn’t that sound nice,” said aunt Melinda, taking the last sip at the bottom of her glass. “And where’s that cousin of yours now?”
Isaac felt his feet impaled to the ground, the hole in his stomach widening. His mouth opened then closed.
“Are you all right, love?” his mother asked with concern.
Again his head nodded compulsively. “Me and Avery were playing a game,” he began, and was about to continue when aunt Melinda leaned over the table and lifted the green bottle from its container.
“Well you go on and play a little while longer,” she said, refilling Isaac’s mother’s glass. “We’ll all come inside in a bit and call you both for lunch.”
Isaac looked back to the house. “Okay,” he said.
“And afterwards it’ll be time we headed on home,” said his mother, raising her glass as if in congratulations.
There followed a moment of quiet during which Isaac got the sense he was supposed to leave. His feet still felt funny, but he managed to back out of the shade and turn around.
“And help yourself to more juice,” uncle Roger called from where he sat.
Isaac kept walking. He was halfway back to the house before he realized he’d moved at all. He imagined her waiting for him, standing in front of the open fridge for the coolness, waiting to offer him something to drink. And he wouldn’t want to look at the water in the pool this time. There was nothing there to see after all, just as she’d said.
But the kitchen was empty, the carton of juice still standing on the counter where they’d left it. Isaac surveyed the room in fearful silence and at last found himself looking again through the doorway to his right, past the square of neglected couches in the sunlit foyer, and into the open double doors that led to the pool room. There was something nauseating about the uneven way they stood ajar, about the nothing he could see of the room between them.
He’d been told that when you died at the end of life you went somewhere else, but knew in his flesh that if he looked past those doors he would see her in the pool.
And of course he looked. The water had settled and she lay atop it like some forgotten inflatable toy, her head pointing to a far corner, dark hair a tangled mess. More than a minute he looked, his body wrapped around one of the doors and only his head in the room. Then, carefully and as quietly as possible, he closed the doors and walked away.
The house was far too big to be inside by oneself, the rooms too wide and open. He needed to find somewhere small, somewhere enclosed. Slowly and thoughtlessly, he made his way to the staircase by the front door and took the steps one at a time.
It was strange to see her bedroom so silent. Isaac’s eyes moved from wall to wall and found her everywhere. Her clothes on the floor, her body’s imprint on the bed’s mattress, her dead hairs trapped in the teeth of a brush that sat atop the dresser. Toys and pictures. His mother’s shrill laughter reached him through the open window and he started, stumbling further into the room.
The wide mirror along the wall to his right drew him and, sliding one half to the side, he stepped behind the glass where it was cool and dark. All he could hear once he was still were the small sounds inside himself.
Rubbing at his clammy face, he pushed away the images in his head. Only what he could see was real: a shirt on the carpet; the bottom of the bed; one end of the window in the opposite wall, the pale shade of the blue sky so like the floor of the pool where Avery—
His eyes dropped to a sudden wet warmth spreading down his thigh. It was too surprising to try to stop, and then it was too late. He stood still and waited for himself to finish, his jeans clinging coldly to his leg, his nose filled with the tangy, humid stink. There was no leaving the closet now, he told himself. Not until it was time for lunch, and then to go home.
Rory Say is a Canadian fiction writer from British Columbia. Having completed a bachelor's degree in English at the University of Victoria, he now lives and writes in Vancouver. Stories of his have recently appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Pandemic Publications, and on the podcasts NoSleep and Nocturnal Transmissions.