“Pool People” by Jen Neale

pool people cleanOne moment the pool water at Hillcrest Center was liquid, and the next it was solid. Not ice, but hard, crystalline, warm to the touch. The lifeguard, in the midst of chewing his ragged thumb moon, did not understand at first what had happened—from his perch on the tall chair, the surface of the indoor pool appeared flat and clear—but he did see the girl in the butterfly swimsuit start screaming. The girl, sitting on the pool’s edge with her calves submerged, grasped at her knees. The lifeguard leapt into action, his long-suffering cuticle tearing loose as he jumped down to the tiles.

His whistle sliced the air. He ran toward her with eyes trained on her face. The trick was to determine whether the screamer was victim or witness. Look at their eyes. Are they glazed, turned inward at their own turmoil, or are they trained on a flounderer? Or worse, a body slipped under. The girl’s eyes proved hard to translate. Her irises darted place to place, her focus iced over. The lifeguard scanned the water and saw five swimmers midstroke below the surface. His feet slapped the wet tiles. Two other lifeguards on duty stood dumb at the water’s edge. The third, the one they called Bookie because she organized pots and side pots on every aspect of public pool life—which regulars would come on which days, how many laps overmuscled bros could muster, how many swimmers would try to use pool noodles in the fast lane—sprinted from her post and lifted her arms to dive. The young girl was sobbing now, rubbing her knees and shaking her head. Bookie sprung from her toes and arced in a dive. When her fingers met the surface, they bent back like old carrot sticks. Her elbow crunched against the solidified plane. Bookie’s body slid and crumpled into a heap by the stepladder.

The slap of the lifeguard’s feet slowed. He came to a stop by the girl. The swimmers below the surface hung idle. Their locks of hair were trapped midwave. Their arms stretched still. The young girl yanked her legs again, but they were firmly entrenched. The lifeguard had no Emergency Action Plan to follow for solid pool water.

A festival of sound broke out from the hot tub. The lifeguard looked over to see upper bodies struggling to break free of the overpopulated cauldron. Smugness melted from buttery old men as they clawed to free their legs from the hardened broth.

The lifeguard felt the young girl’s fingers on his arm. My mom.

Incredible that the five swimmers were underwater at once. Four in the lanes and one in the diving area. From their mouths to the open air, trapped bubbles paraded like a family of ducks. A Band-Aid at the bottom—there was always a Band-Aid somewhere—lay like a drowned sidewalk worm. The girl’s mother, the one the girl pointed a trembling finger at, was in the midst of a kick flip, feet against the wall, knees bent, like she was crouching in an Escher sketch. The lifeguard pounded his fist against the enamel just above the mother’s head, but it rebuffed his efforts with a warm bounce. The mother’s cheeks were puffed out, her eyes scrunched into a squint. One of her arms was stretched out, her index finger grazing the index finger of a man in the next lane. Bookie was pushing herself up, cradling her floppy elbow. The lifeguard looked to her for answers. A starburst of vomit parted her lips.

*     *      *

From below, the throw-up spread like an ocean sunset, strata of fruit punch and butter chicken. Min’s gaze rested on the bumbling lifeguards trying to figure out what to do about the little girl and her mother. But what about her? Childless people were stuck too. Min’s body was frozen in a frog kick and the muscles in her ankles were beginning to spasm. Her lungs moved in an imitation of breathing. No fresh air came in, but she wasn’t getting lightheaded either. That would do. She strained her eyes to see the hold-up. Fai dee la! The lifeguards moved over her head, in circles like carp in a bucket. Lost and gasping for ideas. Call somebody, ngong gau. The little chickens ran around above her head, their steps hollow thumps on her ears. OK, she thought, we’ll be here a while. Pain management is all about finding the right memory. All these other swimmers would be panicking about their sore necks and missed appointments, but Min was good at recognizing long waits. You have to settle in, feel your body’s pain and bend it into another shape. Her calves strained with the bent angle of her foot. Min thought back. Heels down. They were always yelling at her during horseback riding, heels down, heels down! It hurt just like this. They had put her on some choppy Welsh pony because, what, beginners should be close to the ground? But everyone knows it’s easier to learn on a horse. Min studied horseback riding books since she was a girl, watched so many DVDs of lessons, but this had only been her fifth time aboard. Except for trail horses, but trail horses do not count. Her teeth clattered as the pony trotted shortcuts around the arena. Sawdust made her sneeze. The instructor yelled again, heels down! And finally she snapped back. How can I get my heels down when I’m on this carnival ride? The instructor made her stop in the center. The other riders, who could be her daughters, rode circles around her on their daddy-longlegs horses. Couches on hooves.

The instructor yanked her heel down and held it. There. Feel that? That’s where it should be.

Min shook her head at him. No. It won’t work.


When I start moving, it won’t stay.

You can do it.

Not on this pony. The Welsh—his name was Flappy, maybe?—pinned his ears when Min pulled the reins. She spoke clear and loud to the instructor. You show me. You get on.

The instructor shrugged his shoulders. Min dismounted and he climbed on. His meat-truck legs looked stupid on the pony. Flappy ran u-neck around the arena, ears so flat they sunk into his mane.

There, Min thought, now I have the center of the ring.

She walked a circle, perseverated her tracks until her route was worn into the wood shavings. The other students cantered around her. Hey, Min yelled at one of them, keep your hands lower. You’re not a T-Rex, OK?

The instructor shot her a look. He fought with the Welsh.

You! Min yelled. With the bay! You want to be a hunter jumper or you dream of being Quasimodo? The girl riding the bay thoroughbred straightened her back. Better. Better. Good!

Dust rose into the air with the cantering parade of horses and ponies. The instructor had the Welsh in a perfect frame, neck arced like a rainbow, using its haunches like a hydraulic lift.

Min gestured at a teenager riding a chestnut that could have been seventeen hands. Come here. I need to show you something. The teenager slowed to a walk and stopped in the center. Min put her hand on the chestnut’s shoulder. Froth lined the leading edges of its sweat. Heat poured from its muscles. This was a real horse. This is what she signed up for. Get off for a minute, Min told the girl. The teen eyed her suspiciously then dismounted. Min put her foot in the stirrup and climbed aboard. This horse’s neck had substance in front of her, not like the slippery eel of the Welsh’s neck.

What are you doing? the instructor asked. Min steered onto the track. She held the left rein slightly tighter, tapped with her right foot to encourage the chestnut into a canter. Rocking horse. Could put her to sleep. Heels down! No problem now! Min yelled.

She passed the instructor and the Welsh on the inside track. She leaned over and whipped the pony’s flank on her way by, sending it on a diagonal of bucks. Tendrils had sprouted from Min’s downturned heels, pain as power, and kept her planted in the arena even as the chestnut pounded out a gallop.

The dull throb of her heels became the heartbeat of the pool—pa-pump, pa-pump—reverberating molecules of the rubber solid, felt by the other swimmers. Another vibration emanated from the surface. A bewildered construction worker pointed his jackhammer down at some boy swimmer’s head. The construction worker hadn’t so much as scratched the substance. Chlorine-scented water pooled around the steel tip of the jackhammer, only to resolidify—flat as sheet metal—when he paused to inspect his progress. His colleagues hollered as they tried to negotiate a backhoe through the change rooms. Parents ushered children out of the way.

After thirty minutes of straight hammering, the construction worker dropped his implement and began to weep. The tendons in his hands rang like banjo strings. Tears dropped on the pool surface mocked him by staying liquid. The construction worker could just make out the face of the boy swimmer’s digital watch, counting minutes on a halted body.

The boy swimmer, Omar, floating on his back, willed the construction worker to pick up the jackhammer. T minus two hours, friend, and I still have to change. His potted plants waited for him in a line that started at the front door, just under the eviction notice, and ran to the front gate. And some of his favorites were still in the ground, waiting to be dug up. The rhubarb, its leaves the size of serving platters this year, couldn’t be pulled out until today, moving day, since there wasn’t a pot big enough to hold its Mr. Universe roots. He wanted to transplant some of the salmonberry too. He planned to dig up the dead grass around the new apartment building and put in the lamb’s ear, the irises, the lilies, the alienesque euphorbia. He would surround the sad cedar tree with hostas, fill its shadow with variegated leaves. But this was possible only if he could get home before 4:00, the hour at which the landlord swore he was calling in the junk removal people. Not a second later, Omar.

As he was thinking about his plants wilting in the sun, Omar’s muscles began to twitch. His bicep tried to find an escape from under his skin. But even the hairs on his arm held their position. I always choose to do things on the worst day.

Besides the plants, Omar had only three boxes he needed to move, containing the cassette tapes and stereo, the bed sheets, his clothes, and his sparse kitchen implements—peeling spatula, spork, knife, bowl, pot. The flower-pattern furniture would reside in the house.

On the day of his eviction, Omar had been coming home from a visit to his family. After trips home, it relieved him to prune the boxwood hedging or deadhead the tulips or slash back the mint. Next living quarters, he would not be releasing the mint from the confines of its pot; it was too greedy.

Omar had opened the front gate, ready to forget the day’s nattering, and there was landlord sitting on the front steps with his knees pressed together. He was chewing the insides of his cheeks. Every time Omar met the landlord, his stomach dropped. The landlord liked to look at the house. It was his first rental property and he liked to orbit the fence perimeter, checking the sturdiness of each post, while Omar sat inside eating breakfast, his eggs beginning to taste of sulfur. The landlord never said anything unkind to him, but every movement said, this is my house, and you are only a temporary parasite. That pays me half your monthly income.

Omar saw the piece of paper in the landlord’s hand. He greeted the landlord with a teeth-flashing smile. He was too slender for people to feel threatened by him, but Omar knew they didn’t like him. He stooped into a bow before he reached the landlord’s polished penny loafers. Hello, Oliver. Hello, Omar.

All Omar wanted that day was for his landlord to be absent. No figures of authority. He would believe he was alone for a moment. The day had already been bad. His mother advertised local girls to him in an endless smartphone slideshow. His mother, during her neighborhood rounds, photographed every eligible bachelorette of Indian descent, or Chinese, if she deemed them sufficiently family-oriented. Her reputation for photographing single women was well known among neighbors. Most believed that Omar’s voracious appetite drove his mother’s actions. And as Omar’s mother showed him the photographs, he had to tell her no, no, no.

Why not? What is wrong with you? His mother considered herself a great curator of potential wives.

He couldn’t tell her that they were all too large for him. Not too tall or too heavy—he liked those things—but just too big. Too much. These people would dwarf him in his own life. Omar wanted a mouse, because that’s what he was. He wanted someone to scurry with. He wanted the woman at Hunters.

He had gone to Hunters to buy blood meal for his spinach. She didn’t hear him when he came in. She was talking to the Miniature Fire Dragons, calling them sweetie, honey pot, silly. Omar fetched his bag of blood meal, and she still had not heard him. She spit on her thumb and wiped some dirt of a pink-striped leaf. The woman gasped when he coughed and she scurried behind the till. She cleared her throat. Her nametag read Claire.

Will that be all?

He nodded at her. She counted his change for him.

He put a hand on the counter. I love my plants too.

Do you?

I do. I talk to them all day.

Her cheeks puffed. He had made a misstep by bringing up the talking. And he sounded like a predator. Mice are particularly sensitive to predators. He left the store fast.

On his to-do list for moving day was a note: stop by Hunters with a pick-up truck full of plants. Say I need some soil. Say I am not a liar.

Surely by now his landlord was shaking his head, talking to the junk removal people. It’s these tenants, you know? They never clear out their things. Slobs. You must get this kind of thing all the time. Omar gazed at the weeping construction worker. Please, he thought, please try again. He felt the junk removal van backing over the rhubarb.

Omar’s pain traveled as a shudder to the other pool prisoners. They couldn’t pinpoint the shudder’s source, but they understood the emotion behind it. As days and nights passed, that shudder stood in for the daily minutiae passing them by. Family dinners they couldn’t cook. Bank transfers they didn’t make on time.

The people trapped in the pool had it bad. Their muscles atrophied and their stomachs settled into a permanent hunger. Their need for food was gone, but hunger is based also on memory. They craved baguettes and brie, chutney and pakora.

*     *      *

The day came for the doctor to amputate the little girl’s legs. The doctor paced for a long time before she began. She wanted to get it below the knee, but this was possible only on the left leg. She weighed in her mind whether symmetry or one-sided functionality was superior. She decided on symmetry, since it would likely make things less expensive for prosthetics. Everything times two, please.

Witnessing this surgery, the pool people’s pain now seemed flimsy by comparison, except for the girl’s mother, Miriam, who will also be referred to as Babe, who gave birth to the girl seven years before and now hung just below her daughter’s toes, feeling every swipe of the bone saw. When it was done, the stumps were bandaged. The legs had to be left in the pool.

What do you expect me to do, the doctor asked, scoop them out?

The buttery old men in the hot tub, their lower halves encased, watched with intent, coveting a medically advanced amputation that would allow them to live with only their upper torsos. The current plan was to set up a sort of communal assisted living for the hot tub people. But they were caught halfway between the worlds of biological need and autonomy. The pain was already settling into their rectums. A nurse came in daily to spoon applesauce and beef puree into the men’s mouths, but even pureed foods have to come out somewhere. Several of the men began to refuse the meals, but their intestines had swelled like balloon animals.

*     *     *

The two swimmers grazing fingers, Babe and Dennis, remained unaware of the pain occurring in the hot tub. At the moment they were stilled, she was dipping under to kick flip, he was languorously doing the breaststroke in the fast lane.

Dennis’s stroke had always been too wide for public lanes. In his ten years swimming, he’d grazed bellies, thighs, once accidentally grabbed a kid’s butt. This was a public pool, though. People understood. You gotta swim your broadest stroke, and if they don’t make the lanes wide enough for your wingspan, well then, you’re gonna grab some parts. People understood. No harm, no foul. The lady in the parallel lane, the one doing the butterfly, her finger shot warmth. Dennis was the one who named her Babe. He sang her a song on loop that went Babe, baby, baby, baby, baaaby. Why your finger so wa-a-arm? followed by a list of dirty reasons for her warm finger.

Through the power of her finger warmth, he was falling in love with Babe. That warmth was his everything. It flooded him with acceptance. He could be himself around her. He could pass gas around her. She never chastised him for his jokes. She just gave that steady glow of warmth. His reliable, tolerant Babe. He could stay in this pool forever.

He knew she was suffering, and still she was able to offer him such love. That kid’s ruined legs dangled in front of her face, freakish incorporeal, sealed at the tops but going green then grey right in front of Babe’s face. Dennis tried to keep Babe’s focus on him. He pulsed extra hot for her. He was doing a good job for her, he knew.

In Dennis’s downtown city life, which comprised an 8:00–4:00 shift before he headed back to the burbs, he never did well with the womenfolk. Times had changed and now women didn’t like being called pretty. He wouldn’t mind if they called him handsome, but they wouldn’t do that, would they? Women didn’t want to be taken care of anymore. Fine by him. He’d stay away if that was what they wanted.

There were now two ladies in his construction crew. They hired them for the quotas. Quotas were a big thing these days. Their names were Lisa and Mandy. Man-Dee. Man Double-D. On their first day, boss man handed them the signs. The ones that say Stop/Slow. Handed them radios and said gab away. They figured it out quick. Dennis would give them that. But then, partway through the afternoon, Dennis was on the steamroller and he saw a car flying at the ladies too fast. Man Double-D started waving her sign. Dennis jumped from the steamroller and darted in front of the car. It squealed to a stop. Dennis pounded on the hood and the wrinkly lady behind the wheel put her arms up like she was under arrest. Take it easy, lady.

The sign women chewed their gum and looked at him. He asked Lisa out later that night and she said no. Fucking no. She didn’t think she even owed him a beer.

Now he got it. As the weeks passed by, Babe was teaching him. I am here because I am here. I am near you because I am near you. I am not here because you are here. Not near you because you are near me. At least, that’s what he heard through the finger heat. Who knows how precisely finger heat translates.

*     *     *

In the hot tub, an old man with a square jaw suffered a perforated rectum and succumbed to sepsis. In order to save the rest, a Boston doctor with a halting stride arrived to perform nine experimental surgeries. With the help of wide-eyed nurses in white coats and snake-like robots, the doctor fed tubes through the men’s torsos and into their intestines, created a silicone seal to keep their gastric juices contained, and hooked them to a pump that would in perpetuity take their shits for them. Of the man who had already died, whose head slumped onto his hairy pectorals, the Boston doctor said, We’ll have to scoop him out.

*     *     *

In the deep diving side of the pool, the fifth swimmer hung lower than the other four, curled into a ball. At the moment of her capture in resin, her Han Solo carbonite moment, Rana had reached maximum depth for her cannonball. Lifeguards had escorted her out before for doing cannonballs, so she’d tricked them by warming up with a few graceful swans, then sprung as high as she could, until she could see into the upper observation deck, bored parents gazing at smartphones. Rana launched forward, hugged her knees, and splash. A time capsule sinking in a lake, water smoothing her skin to a sandstone finish. Slowing to that moment of pause, the zenith of her descent, when she was briefly the possessor of a swim bladder, able to choose an ocean strata and stick to it. A sea turtle coasting on an underwater current. She waited for that moment when buoyancy would win over velocity. She waited to float up and triumph her way back into the human world. Trade that tail for legs and stride back to the springboard. But that swim bladder moment stretched on. The pinprick goose bumps faded back into her skin. For a moment she believed she’d finally broken time. Her need to breathe gone. Bliss. But the minutes slid by and Rana was still stuck at the base of the cannonball, forever hugging knees, ponytail an anglerfish’s lure over her head.

The itch began in the arches of her feet. She yearned to rub her soles on a doormat and to massage the hardened edges of her heels. The itch tacked up her tendons and stayed in the meat of her thighs. Her fingertips twitched and beat, tiny pulsars imploring for attention. She launched an imaginary throng of wire brushes to scour the sites.

But the itch spread. Her stomach itched. Not her abdomen, though that itched too. The stomach lining twitched and burned.

Chlorine is bad for eczema. The walk-in doctor said that on her last visit. She’d snapped on latex gloves and ran a finger over the patch of red on Rana’s knuckles. I can give you some steroid cream, you can wear gloves when you do the dishes, but the chlorine is going to have its way. Medical doctors never considered the consequences of their cures. Sure, I stop swimming, the eczema goes away. But my spine recurls, nerve damage in my arms reinflames, inactivity resumes, heart disease awaits. Quacks.

She ingested the itch, took it into one throbbing ball, chewed and swallowed. The gastric juices tore it apart, but the itch tunneled new tracks through her core, finally reached her heart and shot to every remaining nerve. Itch. Itch. Itch.

*     *     *

The drills and crane arrived one day to move the nine surviving hot tub men to the care home. Workers blasted tile and concrete away until the solid water was freed. The crane lifted the free-swinging amulet of old men and the operator proclaimed it as his strangest-ever cargo. He drove them to the care home, where they would be consigned to face one another every day until their hearts stopped. They would hold joint family meals and celebrations so they didn’t have to sit through someone else’s in-law productions every day of the year. They wouldn’t start speaking in one voice, but they would share a lot of the same thoughts toward the end. Life is long, yes it is. Yes it is.

The higher-ups of city government decided to kill the lights at Hillcrest pool. They slated those large metal disks to go dark and thus save the year’s budget. The job of switching off the lights went to the janitor. She arrived at the pool wearing her blue coveralls. No one made her wear coveralls, but the whole job felt more agreeable with them on. That way people didn’t wonder who gave the business lady a mop. The janitor hadn’t been allowed to do her job in the Hillcrest community center for months. The place was surrounded by police tape. But now that they were locking up for good, they wanted her to give it one last clean.

A centimeter-thick layer of dust clouded the pool surface. The janitor used her sleeve to wipe an area clean. She was in the camp that believed the pool people were still alive. People who snuck into the Hillcrest pool at night claimed to feel a presence. They said that if you shone a flashlight into the boy Omar’s eyes, the one who was facing up, his pupils shrank. Some of the visitors said they heard whispers, though the janitor didn’t believe that. Presences, however, she could get behind. She put her hand on the solid water and felt it too. She felt the thhhhpp, thhhhpp, thhhpp of life. She shivered.

Below her, the suspended swimmers had their thoughts and fears under the guise of calm recreation. The janitor took a step back.

By the entrance of the change rooms, she spotted movement. Her heart jumped. There was a little girl on crutches, a set of neon pink legs keeping her upright.

Jesus, child. How long have you been there?

The child shrugged. Here and there.

They’re locking this place up for good, you know. You gotta get out of here.

The girl shook her head.

The identity of the girl dawned on the janitor as she swung one of her artificial legs. Damn my stupid brain, she thought.

Honey, the janitor said, let me show you this secret way in. It was the one the janitor had used a few times when she’d misplaced her work keys and was afraid of telling the bosses. One of those dusty windows had the lock removed. The janitor showed the girl how to push the window out and roll her body through. The girl balanced her crutches on one side and gave the janitor a hug. The janitor hugged back.

Once the girl had swung away, the janitor put her finger on the light switch. She supposed it didn’t make much difference if it were light or dark. Maybe the dark was better. Still, she told them sorry as she flicked it off.

*     *     *

At the moment the light disappeared, Rana’s itch went ballistic. It twisted her muscles into coils. She pushed against the epoxy. Her molars ached. She begged the itch gods, make it stop, make it stop. She pleaded to the pool gods to let her go. Rana would do anything. She pledged her liver to them. I will cut it from my body if you just let me go. Before I even bandage my wound, I will hand it to you on a Wedgwood platter. Sure, I’ll take a bite, if that’s what you want, you sick fucks. Whatever you want, you sick fucks.

Her lungs shrunk to the size of golf balls as she screamed against the itch. As time passed, she pleaded instead to the death gods.

*     *     *

As the building gave way to dilapidation, water leaked through the roof. With the dependability of the city’s rain, a small pond formed over the solid-state pool. Algae, in their way, migrated to the pond and fringed it green. Omar talked to these single-cellular plants like they were his children. Honey. Sweetie pie. Silly. He watched them grow and change.

On a windy day, gusts came through a newly formed hole in the wall and rippled the surface of the pond. The gusts swirled within the pool area, coming at the water from different angles and forming peaks and valleys. In slow motion, Omar realized, this was just like the development of land formations. Mountains rose up, valleys spread, both were beaten down by the next surge of energy. Sometimes, miniature whitecaps would form. These wobbly configurations paralleled unsteady geological formations—rockslides, sand on the beach, cliff hangs. These were the frothy edges of waves on the Earth’s crust. The planet’s surface was a supercool liquid. And the algae, and the rest of life, really, were just surfing. Omar let himself be a surfer. A silent surfer. It suited him fine.

*     *     *

On occasion, a teenager with neon green legs came to visit. The pool people all greeted her like she was their own, but if they remembered back, she was only Babe’s. Babe being Miriam on her birth certificate, but stuck with her moniker in the pool.

Babe had watched her daughter see her mother die. And now she was watching her daughter grow up motherless. She was doing fine, it seemed. Betsy had black hair now, the underside shaved. Betsy stripped down to her low-backed onesie and unhooked her legs. She lowered herself into the pond and floated on her back above the pool people. A shaft of sunlight from the roof hole caught her skin. Babe admired the intricate octopus tattoo covering her back. Each of its tentacles cradled another sea creature. A minnow, an eel, a starfish. To Babe, it seemed like the octopus was the brains behind the ocean—its bulbous head responsible for creating and maintaining all of the ocean’s designs. It was just like Betsy to embrace water instead of fearing it. When she was a kid, a terrier bit her at the playground and the next day, she was asking to take dog-training classes.

You can’t take those unless you have a dog.

Pause. Then I would like a dog, please.

How about volunteering at the SPCA?

Betsy flipped to her stomach and stared down at Babe, as she did each time she visited. She waved. In her mind, Babe waved back. Babe wished her health, smarts and love, like she always had. While Betsy was toweling off, Babe felt the finger pulse of Dennis—Manboy to her.

She hated Manboy at the beginning. Grief filled her epoxy sarcophagus, and Manboy’s heat was a persistent intrusion to this pure state. The heat insisted there was life outside of grief. Something beyond the two pickled legs of her daughter. Babe had not been ready to hear that. She cursed Manboy for being so shallow. But he kept at it. Pulse, heat, pulse, heat. I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

The day she fell in love with him, rain was pummeling through the ceiling hole. A flash of lightning lit up Manboy’s steady finger. The storm raged and Manboy didn’t flinch. Babe filled with trust. He would always be there.

All she could remember from the freezing day, when she was swimming laps parallel to him, was that he had dark hair and wore blue reflective goggles. Babe filled in the rest of his life details. He adopted a three-legged cat from the SPCA and declined social invitations for two weeks to make sure the little guy settled in OK. The cat ate fish off a plate on the kitchen table while Manboy ate his cereal. He read the cat human-interest stories from the newspaper. Manboy was a volunteer firefighter. He carried a pager with him always, except when he was training in the community pool. He was a slow swimmer—slower than her by a long shot—but point to any island off the coast and he could get there eventually. Manboy was pokey but persistent. Manboy was reliable. Babe fell into his projected embrace. She nestled in.

*      *     *

The algae sludge spread its arms over the entirety of the pool. With the drains clogged by plant matter, rainwater crept ever higher. The climate was changing too. It snowed in the winter. Glowed 40 degrees Celsius in summer. The pool people cooked in their plastic vessels.

*     *     *

Rana’s itch churned within her abdomen, shooting tendrils to lick her joints. But on the hottest day on record, it underwent a miraculous conversion. It gathered its strength in her pulmonary trunk, flexed and pumped down the last untouched veins, moved her nerves like violin strings, coursed sonatas through her membranes, the tempo kept by her pulse, and pain became euphoria. Decades of torture were lost in Rana’s blank state mind as language broke into syllables and guttural bursts, and her body’s shape became indefinite, merging with transparent epoxy and rogue beams of light, at once energy, longing, acceptance. This energy radiated out to the other pool people, who sighed knowing the fifth point on their star was no longer a pocket of pain.

*     *     *

The pool people were all buzzing in their own worlds when Betsy visited for the last time, an old woman with a long gray braid, swinging forward one of her baby blue legs with each push of the walker. She sloshed through the rainwater carrying a rake. Slowly, she raked back the algae, creating mountains by the sidelines. Betsy returned with a Wet Vac and a spray bottle. What had been Betsy’s live legs were now tubes of sludge, returning to dirt in their own time. She pried the seal loose and emptied the tubes, reached her arm in and scrubbed till the casing was clean.

Then, she undressed and laid herself across the epoxy, leaving her legs on. Babe smiled to herself. Betsy had painted neon varicose veins on her prosthesis. In some ways, she was grateful to be able to see her daughter grow old. Betsy kissed her hand and pressed it against the pool surface, directly above her mother. Babe understood. Betsy left carrying the Wet Vac, carrying away all of herself.

It was bad timing that Manboy died soon afterward. For the years after Betsy left, Babe had drifted in a black ocean, in the hold of some ocean-exploring coconut, in the steady tide of the finger pulse. Love, love, love. But then the pulse became confused. It beat too hard. It softened to a breath. Babe gripped the string that tied her to Manboy, even as it bit her skin. Then the pulse stopped. Babe waited for it to restart. She counted seconds and minutes. She strained to look sideways to see Manboy for the first time, as though it would answer what happened. Making up the false details of Manboy’s life was easy, but for this she wanted truth. Was this forever.

He was the only one of them to die, so far, but his sacrifice failed to answer the question of the pool people’s mortality. One of them was vanished, but that was no promise they all would. None of the others, as far as they could tell from their limited vantage, had aged. They just knew that one of them had stopped sending pulses out into their shared ether. Babe, of course, felt this most acutely.

A vacuum opened within Babe. It inverted her body so she wore her organs on the outside and her flaky chlorine-bleached skin formed her insides.

*     *     *

The last joyous event to recount is the arrival of the sulfur-crested cockatoos. As the world grew hotter, vines tumbled through the ceiling hole. Species unfamiliar to the pool people began exploring the premises. Butterflies with blue-rimmed transparent wings. A reddish raccoon-like creature. No humans, though. No humans had come in some time. One day, the sulfur-crested cockatoos swooped in through the hole and decided they liked the layout. They swooped flashes of yellow through the chamber. Talked excitedly about the day’s happenings. They had babies, taught them to fly. They died elsewhere, but the mood was always more somber when someone didn’t come home. One of the cockatoos—Omar thought of her as Claire—always dropped her fruit waste algae soil that formed the perimeter of the pool area. It was rich and plants thrived. Young trees threw their arms up to the ceiling hole and gathered enough sunlight to bear fruit. The community center now a perfect biome.

It would be nice, probably, to take a few steps back and have Omar’s crush visit the pool on the day before her wedding, having heard from someone what happened to that boy from the plant shop. Perhaps she marries him instead of her overbearing fiancé. A tuxedo is laid on the epoxy over Omar, and his bride and the pastor look straight down so the suit lines up perfectly with his limbs. When his bride kisses the plastic above Omar’s lips, he appears in front of her. Or would some prefer to hear that the pool eventually melted? And that the pool people are the last humans on Earth and must do their part to repopulate (or see that the world is better off without humankind, and let it be through celibacy, choosing instead to say fond adieu to the world, consumers to the last, by ingesting copious amounts of tropical fruit and fish). Or, Rana becomes the first human in history to achieve perpetual orgasm, which is akin to being God, giving her the power to reverse time and call in a bomb threat to the pool on Freezing Day. And people would be like, Whoa, what kind of bomb turns a pool solid? But of course this story doesn’t call for time travel paradoxes, and you don’t get to decide what happens next.

You get Min, the bookend.

Min is now master manipulator of her situation. In her epoxy cell she’s had the time and space to get it right. You control your situation so it doesn’t control you. Min gallops far beyond the confines of her body and remains Min for our purposes only. She gulps a purple and red nebula and pushes it through the sieve of her lungs, propelling her forward to grasp a black bend of sky that she folds over herself, barreling down to splatter onto hot rock, sizzling on stone and rising soft, each droplet of her grasping a point of light in the dark sky, and each of these stars coaxed to grasp the edge of the universe, which bends back to its hot center, collapsing and coalescing, and she is that courageous dot, that crumb gasping to again release it all. Except that this round, she wants the plants chestnut and the horses green. Just to see what that will do.

Jen NealeJen Neale is a writer from Vancouver, British Columbia. Her work can be found in The Impressment Gang, Little Fiction, OCW Magazine, as well as the collections of short fiction Writing Without Direction and Joke Time. She was the winner of the 2012 Bronwen Wallace Award for her short story “The Elk-Headed Man.”


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

Follow Us On Social

Masters Review, 2024 © All Rights Reserved