by Madeline Graham
It is ninety-five degrees in July and the pool is packed. He stands on the staircase leading into the shallow end, no arm floaties on. We hope that he will be the next to join us.
There is the fat backside of an old man in trunks, popping through a too-small innertube floating by on our eternal ceiling. There are painted toenails dancing up and down in slow motion as teenage girls weightlessly prance in the shallow end. There are aqua-tinted faces and goggled eyes, spewing bubbles in a stream as they front-crawl across our sky. We float ever in a wide circular current, sometimes clockwise, sometimes counterclockwise, like a never-ending lazy river, below and around and between them. We can catch snatches of their thoughts, but we cannot feel what they feel.
This one we are watching, he is small like us, arms and elbows still chubby, wearing
orange swim trunks with a camouflage pattern. We could catch him so easily. He takes a big step forward, but the stairs are narrower than he realizes. He pitches forward, now no longer
anchored, but bobbing free in the water.
We all surge forward, eyes bulging as we watch his feet fluttering furiously, our hair—
permanently pool-bleached—floating above our heads. In suits and goggles and trunks and baby bikinis with the frill at the back and swim diapers and water shoes, we watch. Waiting to
We hope for the rush that comes when a new soul joins the pool. When our swirling
briefly accelerates. When his memories and senses are still in the process of crossing from living to dead and so we all collectively feel—briefly—a snapshot, a memory, of breathing, of shame shrinking the stomach, of a gritty eyelash in our eye, of the smell of sunscreen, of ice cream stinging a sensitive part of our teeth, of the way joy can rise through the throat, of skin that is warm, of living.
Sun waving over our see-through faces, piercing the clear water above us, we watch. We
can see he is afraid, but soon he will not be alone. We watch his hands flapping underwater. He
is no more than three years old. There are plenty of children nearby. Pressing, pushing, backing
into him as he struggles. He is already too far gone to scream, only the tiniest moon of his face
still protruding above the water.
We watch for the final float. When it happened to us the lifeguard was on the phone, we
stumbled into the water when the pool was closed, our mother was yelling at our brother for
running on the deck and not watching us, we chased a ball onto the pool cover and plummeted
under, we got stuck under a crowd of kids on a busy day, we all struggled in the water, no one
was there to save us. We were scared. But at the end of the dark tunnel, we caught us.
We watch and wait for him, squeezing one another’s hands in the chlorine. Ready to
reach out our transparent arms. Ready to catch him, too. Ready to hold him.
Whispering to ourselves, he will be with us, he will be with us, he will be with us.
Madeline Graham is a writer and Minnesotan. Her work is available in HAD, Southern Humanities
Review, Forge Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @madelineRgraham and on
Bluesky at madeline-graham.bsky.social.