Brenda Peynado’s mesmerizing story follows the seventh-grade class of an unusual town; each year, the community loses some of its youth to a mysterious string of drownings. “The Drownings” is a fantastical story grounded in the real struggles of coming of age and coming to terms with the limitations of life. We are proud to add this smart and powerful piece to our New Voices roster.
The water glimmers in the corners of our eyes. Even if we’re not swimming, the pools are always within sight: in patios behind our houses, reflections on glass doors opening to the kitchens, water waving in the windows of our bedrooms. We all know someone who drowned. We all have our own close calls and scars from slipping and falling in the deep end. Still, we return to the pools daily. The water calls us back, all that blue veined with light. We want to be swallowed: the splash, the blue slipping over our heads, the rush of sinking.
The teachers at school often explain things to us with liquid. When we were little, we saw how the water level rose when we all jumped into the pool, how the blue and white tiles sunk. What did it mean? we asked. Displacement, said the teacher. In sixth grade, our science teacher explained chlorine and how pH balance kills cells and other life. The music teacher explained rhythm as waves or swimmer’s strokes. Why do we float? we asked, and the teacher said, Relative density. Our parents explain nothing. They are the ones who escaped the close calls, who survived the childhood of drownings. When we ask, Why them? they have no answers.
The new girl, Rosa, arrives from somewhere north and cold at the start of seventh grade. Rosa cannot swim. When the homeroom teacher introduces her, Rosa’s dark hair slants over half of her face, and we remember new means depths we do not yet know. In Mr. A’s science class, Zach throws paper airplanes at her, meant to antagonize her into giving up her secrets. The airplanes are badly made; they flail back and forth in the air and do not reach her.
After school, Rosa stays on the edge in her brand new bathing suit, watching us screech and splash. We can see she wants to be one of us. In the water, none of us are awkward. When we plunge our heads under the skin of the water, we watch others’ legs kicking and standing, surrounded by pinprick bubbles of air, the way they glimmer. The muted screams of laughter above. The girls and boys we all want to be are those who slip sharp as knives into the pools, those who dive the deepest, those who hold their breath so long that when they rise back up, they are gasping. Zach can hold his breath past all our fears. At parties, Jocelyn waits until everyone watches her, eyelashes clumped wet and black, smooth ponytail like an eel behind her. Then she jackknifes, plunging straight down beneath the wavering surface, waiting until the last possible moment, until we’re sure she’s hit bottom, before pulling up. She tells us she kissed the mica glimmering down there. We gasp on her behalf. We want the pressure of crushed stone on our lips. All of us are pulled to the depths, tempting the drownings that come every year.
* * *
Mr. A tells us that where there is water, there is life. All those dry planets, dry as deserts, dry as husks, they are meaningless except to describe the motions of the stars. In the lab, we separate H2O molecules into gases that dissipate into the classroom. Zach, who dives the farthest and holds his breath for longest, who never does what he is told to do, tries to inhale as the vapors rise up. His eyes open wide and he dances around the classroom shaking each of our hands. He even pulls at Rosa, Rosa with her strange memories of snow, breaths that froze in front of you, personal space because there were already layers of jackets between you. She gasps at his touch and turns away. Zach says it is the oxygen making him do it. He says it is too much air.
After school, Rosa remains on the edge, splashing us with awkward kicks that throw her body back, pull her slim line into a V like a system of counterweights. Her hair, frizzed in the humidity, is tossed back with the rest of her and slides off her face like glass doors opened. The mysteries that tempt us are many. We think knowing things means growing up. Even Zach calls her to at least come in the shallow end. We wonder if she has her period, which only a few of us already have. We cup our hands and throw water back at her in messy, jagged rainbows. We close our eyes against the chlorine. Momentarily blinded, Rosa accidentally slips into the shallows, the wall edge sharp as glass all the way down her leg. We gather around her: the scraped, white flesh trickling one red river. It looks like life. We all have our scars.
Jocelyn splashes us, annoyed at the attention the new girl has received. We pull our eyes away. Rosa dangles her legs off the edge. We let our eyes slip under. Beneath the water, we watch Rosa’s legs every time they scissor in the shallow end, the one that looks like life and the one that looks like death changing places in front of our eyes.
When we fall asleep at school, we dream of swimming in the air, holding our breaths to tread water above treetops. We start awake, interrupting Mrs. Z’s health lesson on taking our vitamins and the effects of scurvy on sailors lost at sea. Mrs. Z is obsessed with the lost. Her best friend and her two sisters, drowned. We’ve heard this same nostalgia in our parent’s voices, the way they watch us, with our desires and our fears and the way we must chase both. Our parents no longer take the risks we do. Drownings among the adults are rare. The temptations have gone stale for them; they dangle their legs from the steps, recline in lounge chars beside us, but rarely do they let themselves get pulled under. Even car crashes, glorious wrecks, the land-drownings the teenagers tempt by rushing down the highway at a hundred miles per hour, sitting in each other’s laps and covering each other’s eyes, even these are rare for the adults. But still they push us into the pools. They want to remember—through us because through us is the way they can leave the memory aside when they kiss us goodbye, go to work, run the errands—the way they felt when everyone they loved was consumed by water one, by one, by one.
* * *
After school at Javier Aristes’ house, the year’s first drowning. Jocelyn stands on top of a diving board, arms waving. No one notices anyone else, we are so rapt with her performance, her lithe body, the smile she gives us every year at the talent show when she dances ballet to soft music like mermaid dreams. Jocelyn releases the board, cuts into the air, plunges below depths with barely a sound. We hold our breaths for the moment too long, savoring the anticipation she works on us. But she doesn’t come up. Finally we notice each other, we look around. It’s a joke, surely. But Mr. Aristes leaps in to pull her out by her hair, slopping her on the ground like a caught mermaid, breathing into lips none of us have kissed. Rosa watches, pale, horrified. We are sun-brown, our wet bodies trying to hold onto the feeling of being in between life and death, the electrifying high of losing what we love, the moment when our whole world reveals itself to us in the glimmering light of what must end. The puddles growing around our feet, the breeze brushing us with chill, the rare silence of the water except for small slaps against the tile, the wet smacks of Mr. Aristes’ mouth, his gulping breath we can almost taste.
Finally, Jocelyn vomits, coughs and breathes. She holds her chest and her head, where it hurts, she says. You didn’t drown! we exclaim, and use the moment to brush her shoulders softly, to feel the cold still hovering there. It still counts, she says.
At the morning assembly a few days later, Jocelyn speaks into the microphone about living life to its fullest, how we never know when it could all be gone. Although she gives us that brilliant smile, it’s a speech we’ve heard before, the words predictable enough we could sing them. Her dazzle begins to look gaudy; her smile, tired. We would be rapt if she could give us more than this. Instead, we try to stay awake. Afterwards, Mrs. Z shows us CPR. She wants to show us how to save ourselves. We crack doll sternums and press into plastic chests. We pinch noses and count our breaths, count the rocking rhythm of our weight. Rosa breathes long and hard into her doll. Mrs. Z scolds her, You can only exhale if you stop to inhale first. You can only count what ends, she says.
In the school hallways, we ask Jocelyn what drowning was like. Not the stuff she thought afterwards, about appreciating what she had, but the very moment her lungs filled with fluid. When she was one with the water, the moment she was one apart from us. She gives us a secret smile. We wonder about it, the feeling of closing our eyes amid all that light. Would we feel fear? We are very curious about fear. Mrs. Z drones on about the cardiovascular flow in the body, how first the oxygen gets sucked into the lungs, the bronchial sacs. We look over at Jocelyn, eyes bright and open in the classroom fluorescents. We hold our breath. We let it go.
* * *
We dream of what it’s like to die. For a few of us, there is a black nothing we crave. For others, death is heaven: just like living except hardly anyone is lost to the water. For most of us, death remains a mystery that cloaks our desires. Every time we bring our dream selves to the brink of death, we wake up. Sometimes it’s an alarm that stops us, sometimes it’s a parent’s or a sibling’s hand that lifts us out of a dream-hole, sometimes it a classmate’s touch, fingertips like licking waves. Do your homework, Mr. A tells us. Mrs. Z tells us to take our vitamins. We ask them how that will help.
When bathing suits cling to us, we watch each other’s outlines. Some of us are growing breasts, others’ shorts tent at the crotch in bewildering responses. We pull each other under, bathing suits shifting with the current. We brush against skin with our stroking arms. We chase each other in circles outside of the pool, the water at the center, ready to catch us if we fall. We like sharp edges: on the borders of the pool, between bathing suit and tan-line, the startling edge of white skin when a bathing suit shifts. Our parents don’t drain the pools. They know what it is like to crave something and have the thing held back from you, and they don’t dare hold us back. There are unacceptable risks and there are the ones we embrace. We keep diving. We put our dry clothes back on carefully, our cool skin burning with touch.
Rosa avoids puddles after rain, those sudden thunderstorms that send us all shrieking for cover, the lightning that strikes the pools with a clash. She stays dry, a refusal of our daily lives, and an anger we’ve never known before boils up in us. We liken her to our parents, who’ve lost the magnetism toward the water, and we can’t decide if this makes her more adult or more childish. We test her by excluding her from the pools. We see her rollerblading down the sidewalks and the driveways, let our delighted shrieks reach her as she passes. Jocelyn kisses Zach under the patio eaves. Rosa rollerblades harder. The scab on her leg is completely gone. She sits on the outskirts of the lunch tables with girls who pretend she isn’t there. Jocelyn holds court over lunch trays, people guessing what she saw when her eyes closed, and she says, No, not that either.
* * *
Zach tries to get close. He tells his older brother to hold him under for two minutes, just past when he feels his lungs exploding and usually lunges for the surface. His parents see them from the kitchen, the brother pushing down, elbows locked, face already straining with grief. The parents drag them both out. Did you feel it? we ask. Not enough time, Zach says and shakes his head.
Zach tells us he’ll settle for drowning in our eyes. He sets up a station at the picnic tables outside with a pencil cup beside him and a sign that says, Looking Booth. A quarter from lunch money and Zach will take turns looking into each of our eyes for three minutes. The girls do it, even the boys, each person presents a different contest. When it’s over, we blink, we feel like that’s the longest anyone has looked at us in all our years. We want it again. We trip over ourselves for him to look at us in the hallways, even Jocelyn, who whispers into his ear when the alarm sounds. She says she’ll see him, later at her house. All he says is, Next. Rosa sits down last of all. She turns off his alarm and never plunks a quarter into his cup. Look until you don’t want to anymore, she says. Mrs. Z pulls Rosa away when the bell sounds for homeroom. Zach doesn’t move even then.
* * *
Rosa begs her parents to let her throw a pool party for her birthday. Neither you nor your baby brother know how to swim, they remind her. Finally, they accede, setting up the pool with all the precautions, net fences around the edges, tiles that say, No Diving in the Shallows, and calls of No running! at our games. We all agree that they are not throwing a pool party with the right spirit. And yet, despite all of that, when we are singing Happy Birthday shivering wet under the air conditioning before dripping over the tile back to the pool, when we are trying to decide if we like Rosa because we sang her a song, when her parents are cutting the cake, when Zach stares at Rosa across the table to get her to look at him, drinking up more of her eyes, when she lets it happen, when they are almost close enough to kiss, her baby brother goes under, through a gate of the mesh pool fence we had forgotten to close. None of us notice. Jocelyn performs for us, backflipping against Rosa’s parent’s yells. We cannonball back in and splash around, frothing the top of the water opaque. He’s right there under our kicking feet. Zach kisses Rosa in the hallway to the bathroom. She closes her eyes, but he doesn’t, and they only pull away when they hear yells. Rosa’s baby brother drowns in the shallow end. When they pull him out he’s tinged blue, like the water has absorbed him as its own.
Rosa is not seen at school for the next week. In consolation, Mrs. Z tells us about our reproductive systems, something that’s been withheld from us until now. She describes the baby floating in placenta, the dark depths inside. She shows us horrifying videos of births, mothers screaming, wet purple heads crowning from mothers’ vaginas. We lean forward in our school desks. We imagine ourselves before we were ripped from the floating darkness, spilled out into this world of land and air. The violence of our first breath. How our warm, unknowing silence chained itself to hollow sounds, words, questions and their infinite answers. Could drowning reverse it? Afterwards, would we be grown up?
Jocelyn wants us to look at her, chugging soda at lunch, raising her hand for Mr. A, tossing a quarter in Zach’s cup. But we ask after Rosa. When we don’t pay attention to Jocelyn, she threatens to abandon us. This is something we understand, appreciating something only for the moment when it ends. We pass her notes again in class. But among the rest of us, we ask, Should we have been watching for Rosa’s baby brother? Should we have invited her to our own parties? Did we remember anything about him, other a blur of flushed cheeks, his toddler coos? If we had remembered to close the gate, would he have gone down another way? What is it about looking—Zach’s eyes, Rosa’s eyes—that turns our heads away at the exact right moment? In our dreams, why do we always lose all the treasure we find, our pirate selves desperate and searching on the sea? Why are the voices we hear muted like we are all still dreaming?
These are the questions we always ask, but we feel a new thrill, like turning a diamond over in our hands, the light glinting in sharp waves on its facets. A newly found diamond so heavy we want to hurl it in the air, we want to eat it, we want to name it.
* * *
Jocelyn realizes we look most of all toward what we cannot see. When Rosa returns to school, Jocelyn is absent. Instead, she holds court from her bedroom window. She shouts down to us that her parents might be sending her to a special school. Do we long for her to return yet? In Mr. A’s class, we use a system of weights to measure our chemicals, not the electric ones, but old difference scales with two sides. When one side sinks, the other rises.
When Rosa passes in the hallway, we all turn to look her way, the veins in her arms blue and mesmerizing, her sadness something that draws us. We crowd her with condolences. Already, our own thoughts of sadness are drying out, the grief we can squeeze out of each death diminishing.
Zach brings Rosa lunch every day since the accident. She pushes it away. She can’t eat. She would glare at him, but this is exactly what he wants. We hold hands under the lunch tables and the teachers hover over us. Rosa wrings her own hands. At the lunch table, Rosa tells us her brother is still alive in her dreams, and when he’s underwater, he’s smiling at the lines of light playing over him. We nod. Our fear is a thing we caress and invite into our arms.
We are told Jocelyn isn’t coming back to school. She’s touring the country as a motivational speaker. Our parents call us over to watch Jocelyn on late night TV, bright lights of stages illuminating her. She’s somewhere that looks like a desert, everyone dry, bone straight, moving stiffly. She talks softly about of out-of-body experiences, how right before you die, you can know everything about your life. She’s always smiling.
Mrs. Z moves on to the dangers of drunk driving. We want to know more about out of body experiences, we say. That’s not science, she says. Fine, we say, then tell us about sex and how it burns through us. Mrs. Z throws the health book at us. We want to ask her more questions, but we don’t have the words. Our fear is something we cannot name. Rosa’s brother was baptized Tico. He joins the pantheon of the drowned.
* * *
Mr. A shows us how most things can be transformed back into carbon. We throw bones in the fire, we toss in twigs until they glow like coal. We see how things can transform, how we can use the husks. Now on to the dangers of smoking, says Mrs. Z. Her voice turns into an underwater gurgle as our heads hit the desks in sleep. TV Jocelyn tells us on a wooden stage with wavering curtains about how she could see herself from above. Her body was sunk below, under the ripples. She watched all of us, our breaths of anticipation, our startled gasps of grief, how we were transformed. She put her hand on Mr. Aristes’ back as he gave her body CPR. But the feeling of it, this is something she can’t describe. As she says this, she walks down into the audience, puts a hand on a woman’s back, and leads her up to the stage. The woman is taken behind a curtain. The show always ends before we see what happens to her. We do not sleep at night. We are trying not to dream of drowning in the very air we breathe.
Zach invites Rosa to his house, and to our surprise, she comes. She sits on the edge, kicking her legs listlessly, barely splashing those who pass. Zach swims closer and closer to Rosa in our games in the pool. He is lithe as a shark. Come in, Zach says. Rosa says, I didn’t bring my bathing suit. We tell her one of us brought an extra one. Rosa says, I’m not going to change. The rest of us can feel ourselves transforming, forgetting. Our bodies feel full of light, buoyed up, rising. Every sensation electrifies us: currents dragging across our skin, sun evaporating droplets, towels rubbed across us, even a stare we can feel on our skins.
Mrs. Z tells us about sex, something we are to never have. She has decided it is better for us to know. But what does it feel like? the boys ask her. She turns red. The girls ask among themselves, dragging fingertips on each other’s arms, giving each other burns by twisting skin. Zach slips Rosa a secret note in Mrs. Z’s class. I can show you how to swim, it says, at night when no one is watching. Rosa throws the note in the trash. Her eyes are red and puffy. If only you could feel what I felt, says TV Jocelyn with her secret smile.
* * *
A month later, Tyler hits his head on the steps and drowns in the deep end. It happens at night when he is alone. The principal announces our loss at the morning assembly. Tyler, we say, gone. We roll the words around our tongues like jawbreakers, the sweet terror. Live life to the fullest and with no regrets, we sing with the principal, who gives this speech often. For a week we dive from higher, run faster, punch ourselves in the chest in his honor. A month after that, we barely remember him, his death only a condition of our life.
Rosa, though, she repeats his name. Down the halls, she mumbles a litany against forgetting: Tico, Tyler, Tico, Tyler. We’ve forgotten our first drowning, even our second, but seeing Rosa this way kindles in us a new fascination. Why can’t she let go? It’s so easy for us, to toss aside memories, release fear and love, like when we first jump in the pools, the resistance and then the weightlessness.
Zach waves at Rosa with pruned fingers when she bikes past his house. He watches her at the lunch table, slides her a carton of milk. She ignores the milk. She says she wants to go home. You’re stuck here, says Zach, I get that. Rosa says, Besides, what would it mean, if now I could swim, if now I could control how deep I could go? Zach says, Don’t you want living to be a choice?
Rosa is surprised; her eyebrows rise. Choice is not something she’s heard us talk about before. Tempting the drownings is about coming close to what you fear, letting the thrill of transformation wash over you. At school, we are drawn to Rosa. At night, Jocelyn’s show flickers blue in our living rooms.
We play games of rooster, boys hanging on to the legs of the girls, who try to push each other off the boys’ shoulders. The boys feel legs smooth as dolphins, catch glimpses when bathing suit tops are mistakenly yanked down. In the water, everyone pays more attention. When we call out Marco, our hands reaching out in our imposed blindness, Zach never calls Polo, waiting silently while our fingertips grasp his body, run lightly over his skin. Come in, Zach says, splashing Rosa. The other boys grab Rosa by the arms and legs, throwing her in the deep end. She screams, and the boys remember she can’t swim. Zach dives in after her. He pulls her into the shallow end, hands under her armpits. Rosa splutters and coughs. She bikes home sopping wet. After she leaves, Zach’s chest feels tight and his breathing rasps. All we wanted was for her to feel our thrill; we wanted to push her to get over her sadness. Vitamin A the lungs vitamin E your hearts, Mrs. Z drones.
* * *
Two nights later, a pebble cracks against Zach’s bedroom window. Come in, Zach says. Upstairs, Zach’s parent’s snore heavily. Zach’s brother plays music to cover the noise. On TV, Jocelyn tells sleepless people that near-death experiences bring us all together, to live your life as if you are always on the verge of dying, to imagine your own out-of-body experience, watching yourself like in a dream. We are all living dreams.
The pool looks different at night, Rosa says. So electric, like glass, like if you went under, it would suddenly harden and you couldn’t get back out. She knows Zach’s tried to drown before. I’m afraid too, says Zach. Of me, Rosa says. Her hands rest on Zach’s chest. He is jolted and he has to close his eyes. Across town, Mrs. Z plans the next day’s lesson about addictions. It only takes once, she practices. In our beds, we dream of sharks and long slippery trees we can climb by holding our breaths.
Zach holds Rosa’s hand down the pool steps. Lights glow from underneath. Rosa lies on her back. Breathe in, Zach says, and hold it. She floats. Now kick, Zach says. His hands, warm in the chill of the pool, hover under the small of her back. Zach’s wrinkled fingers drag over Rosa’s stomach. She feels like she’s deep underwater. Are you going to try to drown again? she asks. Not while you’re watching, Zach says. Rosa’s eyes burn. Her head slips under.
Zach holds her up higher. Rosa says, I would watch all the time. I’m trying to hold on to all of this. Tico, Tyler. I have to pay attention to this moment.
Zach shakes his head. Don’t beat yourself up. You can’t ever watch something enough. Even if you do, it changes. I bet you’re forgetting what Tico laughed at, how he smelled. The moment’s already over.
My sadness isn’t over, she says. I can hold onto something. My parents are getting divorced. Each of them thinks the other should have been watching.
Would you have loved him this much, if he weren’t gone? Zack asks. How can we look out our whole lives?
Why do we have to change? Rosa asks.
Zach holds Rosa up. Extend your arm and stroke, he says. She extends her arm, pulls the string of her bathing suit top, now pilled from the wash like the rest of ours. It floats away from them. Her skin is tender with newness. Zach’s lips are warm on her mouth. In the water, none of us are awkward. Nets of light tremble over their bodies as they move together. They try to look at each other as they start the new forbidden thing, but their eyes keep slipping, the air never seems enough.
Remember this, Rosa says. We’re already changing, Zach says.
Afterward, when they pull up out of the pool, elbows locked to push up against the ledges, the rush of chlorine and water off them, their sudden weight feels like returning to the land of the living, and only in that moment do they know what it is like to drown. Out of the water, they are both awkward. You have to come back, Zach says. I haven’t learned yet how to swim, Rosa says. In our dreams, we are heavy. We roll over in our beds.
* * *
Rosa calls him for two days, but he does not answer. She throws pebbles at his windows the next night, but he doesn’t come to the door. At the morning assembly, we learn Zach has drowned himself hugging his father’s free weights. We look to Rosa, who confesses she was the last to see him. Rosa teaches us to say his name, over and over. Zach Zach Zach. For a moment, the name feels new on our tongues, like the first time we called him over, like the teacher introducing him to the class. We remember his goofy antics, when he took all the science frogs home and let them loose in his pool, when he looked into our eyes for quarters, how much braver he was than the rest of us, the sound of his gasping when he would come up for air.
Rosa wonders most of all, Did he only hug the weights thinking that the moment he lost consciousness, he would release the weights and float? Why did he have to try again? What was living for? We seek the answers. We retrace his steps that last night; a few of us pass our fingers over Rosa’s stomach just like he did, but we don’t get very far. We touch each other in forbidden places. We pretend to show each other how to swim.
When we say his name the way Rosa does, we can taste on our tongues our first drowning, how new it all was, how we clung to our sadness and thought it would never escape us. But then we kiss each other and the newness of one taste replaces the other. Metallic braces, school lunches, mint gum. If only we could preserve each moment and live in it forever. If only naming our lives could be bottling them up instead of looking back across unreachable chasms, our own out-of-body experiences. But if we could name our fear, we would use the wrong words, like Sex, and We’re burning up, and Love. And soon, Zach Zach Zach, even Rosa forgets.
Brenda Peynado’s stories have been selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories 2015, the Chicago Tribune‘s Nelson Algren Award, the Dana Award, and the Glimmer Train Fiction Open Contest. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review Online, The Threepenny Review, Ecotone, EPOCH, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, and others. She received her MFA from Florida State University, lived in the Dominican Republic on a Fulbright Grant, and is currently a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati.