Runner up to our 3rd annual Fiction Contest
Holly was drowning.
She was drowning, but that didn’t bother her very much. Her hands pushed through the water and she half-heartedly tried to go for the surface again, but the hem of her skirt was caught on something, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to rise. Iridescent spots swam in her eyes, the way they did when she stood up too fast after sitting for a long time; they mingled with the sunrays piercing through the surface of the lake, though, and she thought that made them pretty.
Her throat was tight and she coughed, inhaling grimy lake water. A shadow hovered above, frantically waving. There was screaming, and it sounded far-off and tinny, like she was hearing it through an aluminum can-and-string telephone line.
Zach couldn’t swim. He couldn’t save her because he couldn’t swim.
That was okay.
Her mind blanked, shorted out, and all she knew was the bright blue brilliance of the water all around her, and how it was the same color as her bedroom when she was a little girl.
“It’s too bright,” her father said to her in the paint store. “You’ll get sick of it.”
She was eleven, her eyes wide and her hair messy. She resolutely pushed the chip she held into his hand, shaking her head. He sighed deeply.
“Fine,” he muttered. “But you can’t complain when you’re tired of it in two weeks.”
He went to the counter to pay, and she watched him, thinking that her mother would have loved that color. Blue had always been her favorite – light blue.
“Robin’s egg,” she would say as they flipped through her picture books. “Azure. Cornflower. Cerulean.”
They had passed by the Tiffany and Company branch on Fifth Avenue when she was seven, and her mother had pointed at the crisp blue boxes in the window and whispered “Powder blue” in her ear. They had giggled and her father had rolled his eyes impatiently.
In the store, her father paid for the blue paint and looked down at the floor, concentrating hard.
Zach was her next door neighbor, had always been her next door neighbor. Holly couldn’t remember a snowfall without him sliding down her steep Brooklyn driveway on a garbage can lid, or a summer when they weren’t sitting on the porch together, sticky with melted Popsicle. Zach had sky-blue eyes.
The day her father painted the bedroom, he shut himself up in the house and put her outside to play with Zach because he said the fumes would get to her. After he was done, he said that he would go and pick up pizza for them. Walking slowly down their shaded street with his hands in his pockets, her father concentrated and concentrated.
She and Zach slipped inside the house and up the creaky steps to her bedroom. It reeked with the acrid stench of new paint, but Holly breathed it in, deep lungfuls of blue, that light blue.
She sat down carefully on the sheets her father had laid on the floor to protect the wood and stared up at the painter’s tape sealing off the ceiling and baseboard, all around her at the Tiffany box-blue that her mother would have loved.
The sunlight poured through the uncovered window and Zach sat down beside her, because Zach would always be beside her, except when he couldn’t be.
Her father and Zach’s father took them upstate to Lake George for camping the month before they started high school. He was fourteen, she fifteen, and they had never been alone together the way they were when their two dads went off fishing. For all the times she and Zach had played with each other in the street while their fathers drank beer in the backyard, it was nothing like their private isolation up in the Adirondacks.
On a splintery dock hanging over the crystal-clear water, Holly briskly pulled off her top and slid off her shorts. Zach coughed and probably gagged a little; Holly teased him about it later.
“Let’s go swimming,” she announced brightly. “The water’s great.” Perfect Alice blue, her mother would have said.
Zach stared at her silently for a moment before he managed to splutter, “I can’t swim.”
Holly sank back do wn onto the weathered wood and frowned. She kicked her feet out into the water, and it slid over her, cold and refreshing. With it changing colors in the sunlight as it skimmed over her skin, from deepest green to most beautiful blue, Holly changed the plan.
“We could do something else,” she offered.
Afterward, she had splinters in her back that her father had to dig out with a hot needle. He didn’t ask where they came from, but she thought he knew pretty well.
She commuted to Pace University from Brooklyn after campus housing declined her request. That was okay, though, because she had her blue bedroom at home.
Zach went to Fordham and came home nearly every weekend to sit on the floor of her room with her the way they had when she was eleven. She would push back the curtains on the window and stretch out on the hardwood, and most of the time they didn’t talk, because they were really making the whole thing up as they went along. They had since they were children playing games, and when he put his arm experimentally around her shoulders as she sobbed at her mother’s funeral, and when she pulled off her camisole on Lake George.
“Do you miss me when I’m not here?” he asked her one day, half-asleep, dizzy with early spring.
“Not half as much as her,” she whispered, but only because she knew he wasn’t paying attention.
They graduated and she said they should go back up to Lake George to celebrate. They brought red plastic cups and bottles of cheap champagne, laughing and bouncing in his old car on the way up, no seatbelts because it was more fun that way. They pushed aside weeds and overgrowth and found their crappy little dock again, which was even more decayed than it had been, if that were possible. A board was missing and it seemed halfway to hell, but it was still theirs, and so they popped their corks and laid out in the sun with the Alice blue water all around them.
Then, hung over and giddy in the morning, Holly pulled Zach up from his stupor and danced clumsily with him on the dock. He didn’t really understand what was going on, but he liked it – liked that she was only wearing her flowing chiffon skirt and her bra, liked the way the sun shined off the water.
Stumbling and staggering, they lurched around the creaking, cracking jetty among the debris of their celebration from the night before. They weren’t paying attention because it was more fun that way, and Holly tripped over one of the bottles and toppled into the water.
She was a good swimmer and she didn’t think that she’d been hit with enough force to fall as far as she had, but then her skirt was caught and the light was in her eyes and Zach was screaming, screaming, from very far away.
The lake was cold but it warmed up as her vision faded, clouding over like ink diffusing in water. Even through the darkening and the fading, though, she could still see all of that brilliant blue, the color of her bedroom, the color of the Tiffany boxes on Fifth Avenue, the color of Zach’s eyes and the color of her mother.
Check out the other runner-up here.