Dad taught me how to swim by throwing me into the water.
Lukewarm and milky-brown from silt, it is like being swallowed on my back into a huge, dirty bathtub. There is the immediate rush as I splash then sink, senses engulfed. My eyes are open, straining, skewed against the dirt-filtered sun that was separated from me by a wall of water but was still blinding.
I try to breathe in. Spasm, choke, cough, air escaping in lazy bubbles. Like this, more suspended than submerged, I can’t feel the water anymore. It is everywhere and nowhere. I stretch my hands so my fingers reach as wide as they can go, but there is nothing to hold onto.
I feel soft, and calm. It is quiet down here.
But then I start to burn on the inside. There is water in my throat, in my nose, something starts to pull at the bottom of my lungs. They are being crushed. I reach out to the surface, am shocked by how pale my arm looks, blurry and webbed in the watery brown shadow. Blood pounds. I trash, churning my legs, but still slip smoothly, horribly, into the thick water. I scream, but the sound is taken away as soon as it leaves my mouth, captured into slow, shimmering bubbles.
As a dark cloud starts to press on the sides of my head, the balloons of my lungs, I feel hands close around my ribcage. I know they are my father’s. I see his pale feet, grotesquely bony, then he starts to kick the both of us up. The water drags at the rest of my body, my hair, my arms. It has wide, heavy fingers that are reluctant to let go.
I surface with my father’s arm around my chest, securing my body to his. I gasp. The relief is intense, uncomfortable, a flood of light all at once.
The river runs through a shallow gulley, with the green, fleshy forest rising steeply on either side. He carries me to the bank, then sets me down on the mud. I lay on my back with my eyes closed, damp skin on damp ground, just breathing, breathing. I let him carry me home. I am not afraid of him.
I was the third of my siblings to get thrown in. He said if we lived so near the river, we had to learn fast or else one day he would come home and one of his kids would have tripped off the bank and drowned without him ever having any say in it. Buoyed by an animal sense of urgency, the three of us learned quickly. Avery never got thrown in, because by the time she was old enough to swim, he’d already left.
* * *
A small, yellow placard says that ground beef is on sale: two dollars, seventy-four cents per pound. The voice coming through the phone into my ear says that someone has died.
The beef is such a lovely color. I suddenly want to sink my teeth into the pink, oily coils, feel a mouthful of cold squish.
“I—I don’t . . .”
The fridge next to the meats holds flowers in cellophane bouquets. They have lovely colors too, behind the frosted glass. Can you eat flowers? I imagine plucking the white skirt of a rose that droops to the ground and tearing deep into the flowery, flesh head of it.
I switch the phone to my other shoulder and open the case of bouquets, hold a tulip in the palm of my hand.
“Are you sure?”
It feels like cold skin.
“Yes. Yes, I know.”
A rod-shaped pistil comes off in my hand, leaving orange crumbles of pollen.
“Okay. No, I—Okay.”
I think of some biology class, years ago, where we learned that pistils were the penis of the flower. This is the only thing I remember.
“Yes. Brit—I know. I know.”
I’ll make spaghetti tonight. I’ll make spaghetti from a cookbook like the ones Momma has and eat it on a nice plate and clean the kitchen so everything will be in its place and everything will be fine.
Across the line, silence.
“Are you crying?”
My sister tells me goodbye. It sounds like she’s whispering. She must be crying. I’m stuck, frozen, on my end, with my palm wrapped around the tulip. Do I tell her I love her? Do I tell her I’m sorry? Do I ask her, if I ate this flower, does she think it would grow inside of me?
She hangs up.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” A fat woman behind the counter in a green, dirty apron looks at me expectantly.
Our eyes are connected across the fluorescent-lit space. Three steps to reach the counter. Two hundred steps to reach the automatic sliding doors, then ten to the parking lot. I’m suspended between the two.
Her kindly look freezes. “Excuse me?”
“I’m sorry.” I am. Of course I’m sorry. My sister died. Of course I am.
I turn on my heel. Boxes and boxes of food things, everything slightly yellow under the lighting. Rows of cans: Tomato, cream of mushroom, baked beans. Celery with white stalks like limbs. Piles of gleaming oranges, lemons, apples. Three checkout stations. One child whose thighs collect the red markings of the plastic shopping-cart seat. Outside it is humid and dark, with storm clouds smothering the sky above the parking lot.
My basket is still in my hand, unpaid for. Two packets of cinnamon gum, detergent, and ground beef. I leave it on the cement.
On the drive home, I don’t cry.
* * *
It rained almost every day that summer.
Momma would shoo us out of the house after lunchtime so that she could have some peace. We would file out the screened back door, past our little porch-grey, peeling porch, then lean our separate ways. Brittney, two years my senior, would go to a friend’s house where they put on garishly blue eyeshadow and, I assume, talked about bras and boys. Dylan, the boy, did boyish things; I couldn’t tell you, but he always came back sweaty with scrapes on his skinny knees. Did Avery, one-year-old, stay with Momma, or did she eat dirt in the backyard? I don’t know. I always went down to the river. I liked the water.
But one by one, muddy or bloody or lipsticked, when the first heavy drops started to cut through the thick, humid air, we would return back to the house. Back through the porch-grey porch and the screened-in door. The storm clouds filtered the light so our kitchen’s linoleum floor, which dipped when you stepped on it, looked downy. There was rot somewhere; Momma swore it, pressing her foot onto the soft spots. Usually she’d be at the stove, stirring chili or chowder or spaghetti sauce. That was what we ate. Chili, chowder, spaghetti, sometimes white cake. The steam added to the water in the air, making the kitchen so hot it was like breathing in whatever was simmering in the big silver pot on the oven.
We would all pad into Momma’s room, onto her big blue bed, with its big blue sheets like sails. Dylan laid on his back and crashed action figures in the air, making noises with his mouth, spitting every time there was a particularly violent collision. I would lay on top of Brittney, our legs tangled, then she would squeal and lay on me, pressing the air out of my chest, and we would wrestle until we were tired.
Sometimes Momma would lift Avery up onto the bed. I think she liked having all of her babies in one room. I would hear Avery’s snuffly breathing next to my ear and feel her cold feet on my thighs as she crawled into my lap, and I would rock from side to side, careening on an imaginary ocean.
Sometimes there was lightning, and it would illuminate the room in shocking intervals, on-then-off, like a blink, or a light switch. I would sit Avery down on the bed where she would grab the blankets in wads with her tiny, reaching hands. Then I would lie on my side, watching the lightning flash out the window. Brittney lay down next to me, her hair tickling my neck, then Dylan, his warm body pressing close on the other side. We could turn our heads and look right at each other. Brown hair, brown eyes. Each of our faces was the warped mirror-image of one another. We were made from pieces of our mother in the steamy kitchen and pieces of our father, gone forever from our linoleum-floored house, all of us tied together by bonds we had no words for.
* * *
A pulmonary embolism is a blockage of an artery in the lungs. This means, as far as I could tell, that Avery, without warning that anyone caught, had a blood clot in her lung. This means, as far as I can tell, that the blood couldn’t get to the rest of her body, that her oxygen-deprived lungs couldn’t take in breath. This means, as far as I can tell, that sometime in the afternoon she drowned in her blood, somewhere in the white-walled, rotted rooms of our house, while Momma was taking her clothes, soft and warm, out of the dryer. I don’t know if she felt pain. I don’t know if she was alone, or if she knew what was happening, when her blood rammed frozen in her veins.
There is a funeral, of course. It draws us kids back, one by one, to our house and to Momma, though we come in the front-door this time. Brittney is fatter. She has a baby of her own, who she left home with someone else. She hugs me, hard and fast. Momma is thinner, but other than that just the same. When I arrive, legs stiff from the drive in a borrowed car, she holds my face in her calloused hands, thumbs scratchy against my temples. “Amy. Amy,” she says, over and over, like she is calling to me, though I’m right in front of her. Sometimes, in the days before the funeral, I notice her pressing a fist to her chest, hard, like it will stop her from flying into the shrapnel of a thousand pieces.
I run my hands over the walls of our house, walk the familiar outskirts of our backyard, and do math on my fingers. I hadn’t seen Avery since I moved out, and I thought she was nine, then. But she was five years younger than Dylan, who moved out after me, I thought when he was seventeen. I confuse myself, jumble our ages, forget, start over.
She had started middle school. What did she do, alone in the house all day, save for Momma puttering around the kitchen? Did she go down to the river? Did she think of me more than I thought of her?
Brittney tells me: Avery was twelve. Twelve years old when she died.
The funeral is in a small church, twenty miles down the road. The casket is smaller than I expected. No one says much of anything.
* * *
That night, Dylan knocks on my door, two inches ajar, yellow light filtering in from the kitchen. I am lying on my childhood bed with all the lights on, with one hand grasping a wad of my worn sheets and my other hand pressed onto the wall. It is raining, and I listen to it hit the roof in waves. I can see the heel marks next to my window where I would press my feet, letting my head dangle off the edge of the bed in the dusky hours when Momma made us go to sleep long before we were tired. Brittney would do the same and we made faces at each other until our faces got tomato-red from being upside down. Her bed opposite mine, with purple sheets untouched since the day she left, is empty. She left right after the funeral.
“Come in,” I tell him. I sit up. He shuffles in, slouched over, then pauses, unsure, and sits opposite me on Brittney’s bed. He took off his belt and wears a white t-shirt and his dress pants so low on his skinny hips that I can see the pale skin in the hollow of his pelvis. The muddy cacophony of rain and crickets and the moving forest comes in through the screened window. I wish the lights were off, so we wouldn’t have to see each other so clearly.
“Can I talk to you about something?”
“Yes.” I consider acting like the time apart has changed me, turned me into someone mature and caring like a mother should be, who might reach across the gap between our beds and touch his knee, or his hand, maybe.
“I was there, when she died.” He talks into his lap. All I can see is the top of his head, strands of greasy brown hair. It’s so humid I can barely breathe.
“I’m sorry, Dylan,” I say, soft enough that I wonder if it reaches him across the space between us. He told me when I asked him that he works as an auto mechanic, just like dad, in a town fifty miles from here.
“It happened so fast.”
I am looking at him and I can feel my heart start to beat hard, shaking my whole body. I am sorry. I am sorry about Avery and I am sorry for him. What does he want from me?
“I came in the house.” I can hear him breathing. Labored, measured. “And she was on the ground, in the kitchen.” Harder, now, thick intakes of breath. “And, Amy, she—” He jerks his head to the side, eyes squinting, looking intensely out the window even though it’s dark and there’s nothing to see. “She was looking—looking all wide-eyed, crazy, like she was seeing something, and I thought she was looking at me—”
“Dylan,” I interrupt, panicked, trying to stop him. I can hear his voice starting to quiver in the space between us. It’s so much lower than I remembered, but now he sounds like a child. He doesn’t seem to hear me.
“And by the time I—I . . .” He reaches out, holds something in the air that isn’t there. “I reached her, she was dead.”
“Dylan I’m sorry,” I whisper. I look around the room, frantic, at the walls, the door, anything but him. “I’m really sorry. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how this could’ve happened.”
“She—she had blood coming out of her mouth.”
He starts to cry.
“Dylan, I can’t—I’m sorry, I’m sorry I just—”
He grits his teeth, presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. No. No. There is already too much water in this room.
I stand up and leave him crying in my room. Linoleum floor. Momma is in her room but she is also here, standing in steam, with Avery on her hip. Dad is here too, dipping a spoon into the soup. I leave them. Screen door. Porch-grey porch. I can feel the first rain drops soak into my scalp and run down my neck, cold, and then there are so many I can’t feel them anymore.
I imagine Avery, nestled like a baby animal, in her coffin. There is blood in her mouth, bloomed red like a rose from the inside of her. I wonder if the rain reaches her, where she is.
“Oh, God. My sister, my sister.” I say it over and over, to the forest, to the crickets, to the rain. She is everywhere and nowhere, in the water and the steam and the sheets and my body, her feet my feet, her face my face.
* * *
Months after, they taught me in nursing school that most of the water in a body is contained in the bloodstream. The blood, without water, would be a plasmic substance that could not race through the veins. Too much water, and the blood grows thin, and I imagine, milky-pink. Too little, and sometimes it clots.
The trick to swimming, as we quickly learned, was not to get in the way of your body. Perhaps because the blood contains so much water, it knows how to float without you trying. If, after he threw me, my father hadn’t pulled me back to surface, I would have thrashed, then gone still, and only then would I have gently floated to the surface.
Before I left, I visited the river one last time, where the three of us gasped for breath. I expected to see a small, brown head break the surface of the water, two flashing eyes that would find my face. Now that her lungs knew how it felt to drown, Avery’s body would quickly learn to swim. Like the rest of us, it was desperate instinct; she didn’t really have to try.
We would each go our separate ways, like we always had. Brittney to her baby, me to the city, Dylan to his grease and cars, and Avery down the river. But when it stormed we would return, one by one, in through the back door. Even when we forgot the way, our bodies would remember. Gasping for breath, looking into each other’s faces, each of us a piece of the other, bound together like water, like blood.
Katie Concannon is a sixteen-year-old student who lives in North Carolina. When she isn't writing, she is dancing or reading. One of her favorite quotes is from William Wordsworth: "What we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how." She hopes you love her writing.