New Voices: “Pool People” by Jen Neale
FALL FICTION WINNER! Today, we present the second place winner in our Fall Fiction Contest judged by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer: “Pool People” by Jen Neale. In this astounding story, the water in a community pool turns solid, trapping its swimmers inside. The pool people, as they come to be called, are alive, though no one on the surface knows this. The story goes into the consciousness of each suspended swimmer, as they think about their lives outside of the pool, realities that seem increasingly distant.
One 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.