The Drowning Kind - Jennifer McMahon
July 18, 2000
The dead have nothing to fear,” Lexie said.
The two of us treaded water, lips blue, teeth chattering.
My sister wore her new light-blue bikini, the color of the sky, and I had on one of her hand-me-downs, the fabric so worn that it was sheer in places.
“So when we play the Dead Game, we keep our eyes open, no matter what.” Her face was as serious as serious got. “Swear it? Swear you’ll keep them open?”
“Even if you see Rita?” she asked.
“Shut up, Lex.”
“She’s down there, you know. She’s waiting for us.”
“Shut up!” I swam away from her, closer to the edge of the pool.
She laughed, shook her head. “Don’t be such a chicken.” Then she seemed to feel bad, to take pity on me maybe; to remember I was only nine. She put out her hand, pointer finger extended. “Come on,” she called. I swam back to her, reached out, crossed her finger with my own. “The X girls,” she said.
“Now and forever,” I finished. Then we hooked our fingers together, squeezed, and let go.
“If she comes for one of us, she’ll have to take us both,” Lexie said.
“On three,” she said. “One. Two. Keep your eyes open, Jax. I’ll know if you cheat.”
I took the deepest breath I could.
We put our faces under and floated, suspended in the dark water like twins in the womb.
* * *
Our grandmother’s pool was twenty by forty-five feet and surrounded by carved granite. Moss grew in the cracks between the damp, gray stones; the sides were stained green with algae. Because it was spring fed, there was no pump, only an outlet at the far end that drained into a stone-lined canal that made its way across the yard and down to the brook below, which led, eventually, to the river. Weeds grew along the edges, clinging to the stone, floating with Lexie and me. When they got too thick, Gram would scoop them out; for a time, she kept a trout, saying the fish helped keep the water clean and free of insects. My sister loved the pool. I hated it; the water was black—so dark that you couldn’t see your feet when you treaded water. It stank of rot and sulphur, tasted like burnt matches and rust, and was colder than the ice bath my mother plunged me in once when my fever got too high. It sucked the breath out of you; numbed your limbs, left your skin red and your lips blue. Each time we came out of the water, we really did look like the dead girls we were pretending to be.
Lexie and I spent every summer at Sparrow Crest with Gram, in the tiny village of Brandenburg, Vermont. It was a three-hour drive (yet felt worlds away) from our dull ranch house in the suburbs of Massachusetts, part of a huge grid of equally dull houses with postage-stamp yards and a garage if you were lucky. Sparrow Crest was a dark, damp, sprawling place, made of stone and huge hand-hewn beams, covered in decades of ivy. There was a half-round window in the front like an eye. Behind the house were two immense hills, thick with trees. Mom and Ted would stay with us for a long weekend here and there, but mostly it was the three of us. Gram looked forward to our visits all year. She was “lonely in her big old house all by herself.” That’s what Mom said.
So our summer lives centered around visiting our grandmother—and the pool. Gram had a lot of rules about swimming: We couldn’t go in the pool unless she was home. We were never to go in alone. We had to take breaks and warm up after half an hour at most. And we were never, ever to swim at night. “Too dangerous,” she pronounced. As if she’d needed to warn us—the knowledge of what had happened to our aunt Rita, our mother’s baby sister, who drowned when she was only seven years old, should have been enough.
I let myself picture it as I held my breath beside my sister playing the Dead Game: a little girl floating, hair fanned around her, tangled with weeds. A girl who would never grow up. I knew Rita was the reason we could never let Gram see us playing the Dead Game. The one time she’d caught us floating facedown together, she’d ordered us out of the water, shaking, terrified. Lexie explained it was a breath-holding game, but Gram