Elinor Hills

He was drowning; airless, breathless, limitless. The bubbles of carbon dioxide floated up, up and away from his face, expanding, then contracting, then bursting. I knew that from where he was, under the water, everything was shades of blue and green and grey. That his body felt like a balloon weighed down by stones.

My brother and I used to play a game when we were younger, forcing our respective heads underwater and seeing how long we could last before breaking the surface, gasping for air and clutching at each other, our faces a brilliant mosaic of crimson and scarlet and baby-fat cheeks. It was a game only for the hazy afternoons of summer, when tree shadows ensconced our figures in strange semblances of an embrace as we jumped over cracks in the sidewalk on our way to the neighbor’s pool, our parents always close behind us. The days were too hot to just sit outdoors. The pool was all ours — at least until August ended and the Carlsons returned, the two of them complete with sunburned shoulder blades in the shape of crescent moons and the weary burden of travelers’ suitcases filled with stained button-up shirts and pictures of activities they’d forgotten in the time it took them to fly home.

One day when I was 13, my brother eight, we were playing — I was counting, my body resting against a rung of the ladder, he was wordless in the depths of the pool. 15, 20, 25, 30, 35… The air was thick with humidity and I could see the top of his head, brown hair faint and murky in the fragmented light. His arms and legs were spread out like a star. His toes grazed the floor. At that point, my mother screamed and my father jumped in, fully clothed. My mother rushed to the edge. Right before my father reached my brother’s submerged body, he leapt up, as if propelled by a spring, his little face morphed in a gleeful grin. My father let out a breathy sigh, sounding like a cross between a laugh and a sob, water dripping from the frames of his round glasses. My mother shouted something unintelligible. I just stared at him, my little brother, his soaking-wet hair plastered flat to the sides of his head behind too-big ears.

I can’t remember much of what happened immediately after, mainly just the urge to be far away from the water, moving as fast as my cane could take me. When we got back home, my father left his sopping shoes on the generic welcome mat, his fingers grasping at his shirt as if every time the fabric touched his skin it burned. He went upstairs to take a shower and Christian was sent to his room, though not before my mother made him sit on top of one of the kitchen counters and examined him, looking at his pupils with a miniature flashlight, at the irises a shade in between mud and chocolate. Then she used it to check his airway. She touched the side of his face like it was pieced together with shards of glass, painful to hold but too fragile to let go. He tried to pull away. I went to sit in my room because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Later, I wanted to see him. When I tried to enter his room, raising my fist up against his bedroom door, my mother shouted at me from her spot in the shadowed corner of the hallway, telling me that he was resting, that all of this could have been avoided if we weren’t playing that stupid game, or if I’d tried to pull him up out of the water before my father jumped in. Her outburst wasn’t about what happened, not really. It was everything all at once, everything we had been through because of me. No, it was about what I was doing to Christian. And then I was yelling right back, tears on my face and the taste of blood on my chapped lips, screaming how could you say that, don’t you know that I would do anything for him. Anything for my little brother. Shhh. Shhh, she said, and then her arms were around me, pulling me close, comforting me. Her perfume was sweet. You’re too weak, you’re too weak, you’re too weak.

The next morning I watched my father throw away the clothes he’d worn the previous day into the trash, holding them out in an awkward, extended fashion, as if to keep them away from his body. T-shirt, jeans, underwear, all enveloped in folds of black plastic. He didn’t touch the shoes, though. They just waited by the door, dried and cracked with dirt. A few months later they ended up in the coat closet, tucked away behind faded neutrals and fleece and polyester, and the year after they were in my mother’s Goodwill box. The week after New Year’s my father loaded the box into the car, and then it was gone.

When my mother went upstairs after breakfast and my father was out in the backyard with Christian, I headed to the trash can in the kitchen and fished around for the shirt. It smelled of chlorine and sweat and my dad, the fabric snapping and crinkling as I pulled it over my small frame. It was easy to pretend that it fit me, even though it hung off my shoulders like a shroud. For a moment I stood there, unsteady and on tiptoe, as if the added inch or two would make me an adult, and wondered with a clench of my sternum what it would be like to dive into the water, just like my dad. Unable to process or think, just knowing you had to do something, anything. To be my little brother’s savior. To jump in front of a bullet headed his way. To absorb the stab of a knife into my chest cavity before it reached his. To push him out of a speeding car’s path, only to be crushed myself, into a fine, dusty pile of calcified bones.

A part of me had expected to be caught. For my mother to thunder down the stairs, a flurry of smudged mascara and admonishments, and pull the shirt away, hide it somewhere she couldn’t even find it. The house was still, though, hushed. The only sound came from the dust motes swirling in the beams of light shining through the bay windows. I could see Christian, still perched on the old tire swing, unmoving. My father at his side. I didn’t think anyone had sat on that thing for years. Maybe I’d forgotten about it, or just hadn’t ever noticed when Christian did. When they exited out the back door earlier that morning, when the sun had just started to move up into the sky and the air was cool and soft, I almost followed them. But then my father looked at me in a way he never had before — not like he didn’t want me to follow them, more that he didn’t know if I should — so I stopped and just watched them grow smaller and smaller in my vision until they were no bigger than the size of my thumb.

After a few moments my skin burned and I hurried to remove the shirt, my fingernails scratching lifelines on my inflamed forearms. The fabric didn’t look any different. The room around me didn’t look any different. I examined my hands. They shook as I held them in front of my face, expecting to see raw blisters or scorch marks, but all I could see were scraped knuckles and stubby fingers and scarred skin.

We didn’t go back to the pool until the end of the summer, a few days before the Carlsons would return from a faraway, exotic-sounding country, a few days before Christian and I would return to our respective schools and classrooms and homework and teachers and friends. I watched my brother as he grinned, dunking his head under the surface, then wildly shaking it back and forth so water splashed in violent arcs. I didn’t swim. I didn’t bother putting on the bathing suit. I told my mother that I wanted to sit, maybe just stick my feet in, which I never did. I just waited. I would be ready this time. But he was never gone for longer than a few moments. Sometimes, when I thought my heart had beat already a hundred times over, I would struggle to my feet. I would square my shoulders and my eyes would narrow and I would be ready. I would picture myself in a perfect diver’s form, my arms pressed together tight above my head. I wouldn’t survive the depths. But he would always surface, his brown eyes locked on mine, water dripping off his eyelashes and earlobes, and smile at me, like he didn’t know that I’d do anything to save him.