BY SIERRA LINDSAY
When it starts growing on the lip of the Harrisons’ pool, me and Amber and Colton take bets on what it is, all crouched around the pool’s edge, half-clothed and half-sunscreened under the heavy summer sun. Colton has decided the prize for the best guess is the pack of gum that he finds wadded in the back pocket of his jeans. The real prize is Colton’s shirtless body this close to me, running its own kind of heat.
“It’s just mold,” Amber says, squinting at the little black dots that seem to quiver with the lapping of the pool water below. “But does mold grow out in the open?”
“Maybe a fungus,” I say, sliding my eyes sideways at Colton, who crunches in half with his arms slung around his knees. “Animal shit?” I suggest then, and Colton smirks, unwinds his body, reaches back to pick up one of his shoes, Nike, size 13, from the unmowed lawn.
“You’re both wrong,” he says. “It’s actually just gone.”
He hefts the shoe and slaps it across the smattering of greyish slime as me and Amber scream.
“You’re the worst,” I tell him, and he grins, tossing the shoe to the side, and waves a stick of rubbery gum at me before folding it into his pink mouth. The mold isn’t gone, just slapped stupid, but the sound of Colton’s chewing follows me into the house, where Amber spins me a soda across the counter and turns up the radio, and I think, not for the first time, about how Colton’s mouth might feel, or taste, a sticky heat with a trace of stale peppermint.
Things grow in the summer. It’s unspoken, but summer flings are summer for a reason—it’s the heat, that sweat that lingers, an itch that drives deep into your belly. You look at people different. Especially outside of school, things start to melt, turn sideways. I hadn’t even thought Colton was that cute until the days got long, long enough that when I was over at the Harrisons’ in the evening I could still see Colton through Amber’s upstairs window, out by the darkening pool, stretching corded arms over his head on the pool deck before diving in and turning lap over lap in the water.
“Like he doesn’t train enough at practice,” Amber laughed. A worksheet from Colton’s kindergarten days, yellowed and crinkling from age, still lives on the fridge, announcing in heavy-handed, wobbly script his dreams to become an Olympic swimmer.
It isn’t that I don’t think he could do it. But the Harrison pool looked very small in that rosy summer light, and Colton so impossibly long in those months before his senior year, all grown up and lanky and kick-turning over and over just to start again.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Amber teased me, hitting my shins with the strap of her purse, but it was too late. I was just stopping by, picking Amber up for an end-of-school shopping trip, but the idea was in me, tumbling like Colton’s underwater somersaults—him glistening and wet and lean, cutting through that water again, again, swimming the length of the small pool in one breath, his chin turning up to the sky dotted with orange clouds, a mouth open for one precise gasp.
I think about that wet open mouth. I start thinking about sex. About sex with Colton. It’s tunnel vision down to the Harrison pool and Colton inside of it and no boy exists in the world besides Colton. I do not, of course, share this with Amber, who’s already had sex. A fling last summer; a boy who was visiting from out of town and got a job at the country club in the foothills too rich for our blood. Amber’s boy was eighteen, and he wore polo shirts and chinos to work, and I drove Amber to meet up with him once, both of us giggling nervously at the way the road twisted, and at every turn there was a bigger house with a bigger pool, and solar panels and everything green, green and lush, until the final bend and finally the country club, sprawling and two-story with a gabled roof and bright low-riding cars puncturing all the white and steely grey. Amber’s boy walked around one of those cars as we idled, my engine rattling, and hooked an older woman’s car keys around his finger as she exited. He nodded at the woman, polite, and glanced to the side, seeing us. The smile widened and then suddenly it was all teeth, a different boy than just a moment ago. Sharper. A boy all Amber’s. Amber squeezed my hand and jumped out of the car, jogging across the wide driveway in the flats that I’d helped her pick out three summers ago. Her boy ushered her into the yellow sports car and they took off, rushing towards the next bend. I waited until the expensive roaring of the engine settled into the clunk and whine of my own before leaving the country club in my rearview like an oil painting made to be hung in someone’s bathroom.
By the end, when the days started getting shorter and the evenings had enough bite for us to reach for jackets, Amber said she knew it was over.
“I never would have done it over winter break,” she told me over the straw of a milkshake, the two of us lounged in my car in the parking lot of the shopping mall. “I think it’s the heat. It gets in you. Makes you go a little crazy.”
She’d had sex with that boy, doing it for the first time in someone else’s car, someone else’s keys turned in the ignition, and she seemed now like she was a part of two worlds: one where we flipped through magazines in the grocery store to do all the stupid quizzes so Cosmo could tell us the answer to our love lives, and this new world—this new Amber, confident and sexy, a confidence I could almost touch. If it was still hot enough to sweat through your underwear, Amber’s boy would have been here to lick the smear of vanilla shake off her top lip. But it was only me, and I hadn’t gotten it, then, having had my first kiss only a few months earlier, with Parker Glenn, who was, if we’re being honest, a little bit shorter than me. It had felt almost maternal, that kiss—a chaste, closed-mouth before the first bell because we were both more curious than anything else. But this summer, the summer that Amber and Colton’s pool starts to cover with a strange skin, Colton grows darker and darker in the sun and every time his mouth comes up for air, I feel a punch in my own weak lungs, like something he’s taking, something I am more and more happy to give.
Despite the impact of Colton’s sneaker, the mold returns. It starts small, sprinkling over the bumps in the concrete. Then it darkens, a bruise-green, tendrils snaking out from the center like nervous fingers. Amber takes photos of it with her Polaroid, water rising to her thighs on the second step. The photos don’t develop, come out all white, overexposed. The sun is too bright, and even trying to get a good look at the mold makes my eyes feel funny and crossed—like trying to track something underwater, when the surface bloats and distorts. Colton throws the shoes away.
“I think they got too wet,” he says to me, chucking the sneakers into the trash bin, where I catch one glimpse of a festered green, a spark of red, but it’s all motion and then the bin slams and there is only Colton, the trace of a sunburn on his shoulders.
“What’re you doing tomorrow?” he asks.
I breathe in deep and slow. He has his eyes on me and I think I know what he might be asking, and my heart leaps and jolts and takes off running.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” I throw back, crossing my arms. I’m wearing a swimsuit top that my sister left behind when she went to college and maybe it’s a little big on my boobs, maybe I have to tie it so tight that it leaves a shallow red line on my skin for hours. Maybe I want Colton’s tongue on it. When me and my mom and sister moved into the cul-de-sac a few streets down, Colton was loud, and annoying, and fourteen, and announced his presence with knuckles and fists against every doorframe, wandered around me and Amber acne-kissed and sun-scarred, his whole body always seeming to beg for water, to be submerged and shielded from the sun. He’d asked for a pool for his birthday every year and the summer it finally happened, I’d worried, just for a second, tying the strings of my bikini tightly across my back, about what Colton would think of me. He’d never looked at me besides as Amber’s friend, an extension of Amber that wasn’t off-limits so much as sexless, unimportant. I was non-threatening, with my small boobs and pimply upper lip. Nothing like the Victoria’s Secret models in the catalogues that me and Amber flipped through, penning in tiny stars next to the swimsuits we liked and would never fit into. And it didn’t matter—Colton was just a boy, slammed his door too loud every time he passed by, always earning a warning shout up the stairs from their mom, who once kindly pressed an acne wash into my hand as she passed by.
I’d never wanted to be behind the sound of Colton’s closing door, didn’t care to know what posters left sun-shadows on the wall long after Colton had taken them down, what swimming trophies and medals he displayed and which he left hidden in his closet, what his closet looked like, his dirty hamper, how a crumpled t-shirt might smell, of sweat, no sunscreen, chlorine. But now—now, Colton’s looking at me. I drop my arms to my sides. Colton grins and it’s a question with teeth, one I’d been hoping with my whole aching new body he might ask.
“No one will be home,” he says. I think, for the hot flash of a second, about Amber. What it would mean for me to enter the house when she’s not there and not turn left at the top of the stairs but turn right, into Colton’s room, and move into that uncharted space knowing exactly, explicitly what I’m doing. The door has been, for years, a boundary. And then Colton is closer, and he’s saying “Think about it,” but Amber got to have the country club and the sports car and the boy, and she had it no strings attached, thrilling and warm and she has that now, forever. I want it. I don’t have to think about it. He’s asking, and I want, and he licks his bottom lip and puts on this smile that is suddenly just mine, and it doesn’t matter. The world rolls away from us, all the cracked streets and the thrum of crickets, the smell of heat, and there is Colton, and that is all there is.
Not enough trucks for trash day and the cul-de-sac sits sweaty and fuming in the sun. I dump a trash bag next to the overflowing bin and watch liquid seep down to the pavement, wipe my hand on my shorts. I drive past bags along the street that have started to swell, black and straining in patches of wet asphalt. I open the car windows so the wind can blow me clean. I pull up to the Harrison house and sit there for a minute, just looking, running my sweaty hands up and down the steering wheel. The house doesn’t look different. It’s the same house, same rusted numbers, same driveway with the oil stain. Same off-tune chime of the doorbell, same creak of the door, same Colton answering.
“Hey, Deja,” he says, and that’s where it turns.
It starts going sideways. Me in his room. The walls are light blue—darker in the places where he’d once had posters. He has swimming medals strung above the bed. A few trophies on the dresser. I walk my fingers across the dusty lip of the dresser and stop at the oldest trophy. Colton closes the door behind me and I feel the latch’s soft click land in my sternum and spread.
“Okay,” I say, lifting one finger to point at a tee-ball trophy. “What’s the story here? I didn’t know you played baseball.”
He laughs behind me and I cut my eyes to the side so I see him the moment he unfolds in my vision, crooked canine teeth never fitted with braces, though Amber’s had them. Colton’s teeth hit the wrong angles, catching on his lip when he smiles big enough. He picks up the trophy and blows dust from the surface.
“You think I remember being seven?” he asks with a laugh in his voice. He shrugs and sets the trophy back down. I trace my nail over the pattern in the wood, press in. My heart feels new and shaky, but I keep my face still. “I mean, I do remember, kind of. It was just for a season, you know, my mom was like—just get him out of the house.”
“Familiar,” I say, smiling. “You must have been good, though.” I tap the top of the little bronze tee-ball player’s bat.
“Eh, I mean, how good are seven-year-olds at baseball? Or anything, really?”
“Okay, fair.” The row of swimming trophies stretches out past the one under my hand. “So you chose swimming, then? After that?”
“I guess so. I don’t really remember tee-ball, but I definitely remember getting in the water that first time.” He shifts his hand to the next trophy. “It was easy for me to swim. I remember when I was little how it felt almost easier to swim than to walk. And I realized if it wasn’t easy and didn’t feel right, then I didn’t want it.” He looks sideways at me. “Does that make sense?”
“It’s a big realization to come to at seven,” I say, and he laughs in his familiar loud burst.
“You’re the worst,” he says, but here I am. And it’s all been easy. My eyes on him that first day in the pool, when he took on that new shape, that was easy. Following him to the trash cans, watching the way his long fingers hooked his sneakers, making the decision to come here—easy.
Colton swipes the edge of another dusty trophy and then settles with one arm across his chest, elbow resting on top of his wrist. The hand drifts around his face, shadowing his mouth before sliding under his chin, something so restless I want to trap it, put it against my own lips. I take in the rest of the room, all new to me. Bed, unmade. Two pairs of shoes on the floor. A stuffed animal drapes an arm out of the sliding closet door. It’s a room that’s Colton’s, all stages of him. It’s not that I think I don’t belong here—just that I wouldn’t have fit before now. Until I was someone who he wanted inside.
He watches me look around, bringing the hand again to brush against his mouth. I can’t decide if I want him to be smiling behind that hand. If he would be. The strangest thing is that I know Colton well. I know how his voice sounds when he’s angry, and not just that, when he’s angry over something specific, like homework or the news. How he talks big with his hands, especially with his mom. His shoe size. His favorite animal, which was a crocodile when he was fifteen, because of the death rolls, but now is a giraffe, for the way they look made by someone who wasn’t sure about animals but wanted them to see the horizon. I know Colton by the season. But this Colton, summer Colton, tee-ball Colton, knocking his knuckles against his parted lips and inviting me inside, I am thrilled not to know him. I want him to be unfamiliar. For my heart to jump. To feel the door close in my chest again, again, again.
“Something’s different about you,” Colton says. He eases backwards until he sinks onto the bed, legs spread, shorts riding up his dark-haired thighs. I follow, letting my leg swing out and carry me towards him.
“Not sure. Have you had sex?”
My leg comes down hard. I sputter-laugh. “Why, am I glowing?” And then, settling into the question, the sound of the word, more serious, quieter: “No.”
His tongue edges to the corner of his mouth. “I like that.”
I breathe in. The shadows along his wall shiver, stain darker. The sound of the sprinklers turning on. I am very aware of the taste of my saliva. I wish I’d looked closer in the mirror before I left, searched long and hard for what Colton would see. I know I missed the top of my knee shaving two days ago, and sweat prickles in the stubble. My skin always oils in the humidity. I’ve never worn makeup around him, always just thrown myself underwater and come up gasping and half-drowned, Amber gasping and half-drowned next to me. If I know Colton, he knows me. He knows what my body looks like in a swimsuit, has watched Amber rub coconut oil into the stretchmarks on the sides of my boobs. But being here transforms me in front of him, makes me a girl who has never been naked in front of a boy, has never opened her legs to put one between them. If Colton is the first one to see me naked, does that make my body in some way his? I breathe out. The idea of putting his name on me. Colton stays very still, holding his smile, and I realize what he sees now is the change, my readiness to want. To act on it.
I step between his legs, into the heat of his body. He keeps his weight in his hands but tilts his head back, looking at me like he’s touching me. He wants to be the first. I want him to be. I want to open his mouth and put myself inside of it. The vein in his neck pumps fast and if I leaned in and put my tongue there I imagine how it would taste—not like sun. Like laundry, almost dry. Colton catches my elbow in one hand and my chin in the other and pulls me down to his mouth.
In some ways, kissing Colton is exactly like how I imagined kissing Colton. Loud, over-eager, teeth. But his hand on my arm, sliding to my hips. But his thumb on my chin, pulling my mouth open wider. When he takes off my clothes, it is quick like I’ve seen him strip by the pool, all fast hands and rapid jerks, the urgency to dive in. I’m on my back on his bed, and he is above me, very tall from where I am, the skin of his face warm and flushed. He spits between my legs, a run of saliva quivering on his lower lip. His shoulders bear his weight when he settles around me, coiled and bruised purple, a burn going tender. A different body than the swimmer’s body—a body becoming mine.
“Come here,” I say, and even when he is close, painful close, I keep asking, keep pulling, asking closer, closer. I want every part of him folded small within me, his breath to gasp out in my mouth, to give that breath back to him. I want him to put his name on me and rename me, so when I introduce myself I will say Deja but somewhere behind the word I will remember how Colton felt inside of me. I kiss the tops of the blistered shoulders. Open my mouth to test my teeth against his fevered skin and he moans.
“Colton,” I say, and he shakes like the first part of his name, four-legged and fresh to the world, gasping that first razored breath.
When I come back not from sleeping but drifting, somewhere dark and not all the way here, I twist in the sheets and smell like Colton, feel like Colton, touch the wetness between my thighs and it’s Colton.
He’s not in the bed with me. I crawl up, grasping onto the windowsill to look out. In the warm night, Colton swims. His wet shoulders stick with the moon’s hazy glow. He reaches the pool’s edge and turns, flipping languidly underwater so he’s just a shimmering mess of skin and dark before his head crests again and the arm swings out, arcing water, and his body is so long that before I can hardly draw a breath he’s at the other end, slipping under and turning again.
I fall back to the bed and sit, running my palm over my prickly knee. My body is one tense and throbbing heartbeat. My hand to the cooling sheet beneath me is not the same hand as it was an hour ago—my fingers, dry now, but wet, before, from being inside Colton’s mouth.
The house is still and dark, not even breathing, when I find my clothes and go downstairs. The walls drip with the sound of the pool, of Colton, cutting miles through the water. I scrape open the sliding glass door and walk outside into a muggy dampness. The sound of water is all around me—the wide open night could all be Colton’s pool, brimming over to the whole seeping neighborhood.
“Hey,” I say, stepping to the edge of the pool. The water is thick and dark and it rolls over Colton as he stops mid-stroke and turns to float on the surface.
“Hey,” he says breathlessly. “That was fun.”
The moon’s reflection on the water craters his face until I see only his slippery mouth and my thighs shiver.
“It was,” I say. It was. He gestures to the pool.
“Do you want to get in?”
I crouch, trailing my pointer finger through the water. It’s warm, almost hot. I think of Amber, then, in my car, brushing the straw of a milkshake across her lower lip, and how I felt watching her, and I want that to be me, now. If I wanted Amber to know, I could come back tomorrow when she’s home, up the stairs and to the left, and she would only have to look at me and she would know—I, too, have a boy who smiles only for me, with all his teeth.
Colton isn’t smiling but watches me with his hands floating like small birds on the water’s surface. His eyes flit away. He’s come to drag me into the water before, when I screamed about it being too cold, or hadn’t taken my shorts off yet, and he cut the water like a crocodile and yanked me in, rolled me underwater until I just had to float to find the surface. I’d be easily captured, crouched here at the water’s edge. He could pull me in, put our bodies together again. If he wanted. He stays where he is. Something dangerous and sharp blooms in my chest. I brace my balance on the pool’s edge and my palms slip in the water, come up streaked with flecks of black and grey.
I follow Colton’s eyes, away from me. I can’t see where the mold first bloomed in this darkness. But I know it’s there, that first spot by the stairs, a spreading, seeping into the water and into Colton, whose face glistens. And then, like a drain being pulled, I see Colton there in front of me and his shoulders so dark and bruised that if I touched them again, bit down, they might soften and break like an overripe plum, and I suddenly am very inside my body, a body that Colton, held up by this inky water, has been inside. He is so in shadow, but I imagine long tendrils of infection wrapping his skin, something that will press into him and change him and if he changes, then so will I, or I am already changing, the moment my wetness became both me and him. The world rolls again, and it is Colton, really, just Colton, in his pool, this water that is dirty, maybe, or it’s this rot so heavy in the air—Colton, who I have known. Colton, who I know. But something feels all at once so terrible and strange that all I want is to move backwards, through the darkened, empty house to the moment Colton’s door started swinging shut and if I’d leaned, if I’d stretched, I could have caught it. Standing on that border, I was just Deja, a girl who hadn’t been fucked, and Colton was just Colton, not this Colton floating on a surface of the night sky that I could slip into if I wanted. Not the Colton beyond this border, who could easily pull me beyond with him, if he wanted.
I stand. Moving makes my crotch go tender and hot and my legs shake, my pulse flares, nothing has changed but everything, everything at the same time has turned upside-down and shaken itself out of its skin. My hands start burning.
Colton squints at me and his eyes are tinged red with the softest blood that swims across the whites of his eyes. “You leaving?”
“Yeah, I should get home,” I say. If he comes closer, breaks the shadow, reaches out for me then I’ll know that this was real. If he asks me to stay. If he comes closer, I’ll touch him again.
“Okay,” he says, and skates his arms over the water and then pumps down, surging himself backwards and knocking water over the pool’s edge onto my legs. He smiles at me quick, one side-flash of his teeth, and turns like an astronaut suspended in easy space before plunging down. I can’t see the bottom, and his lungs are so strong, so trained that he only comes up for air when I’m at the sliding door, listening for the sound of his breath, the wettest gasp painful in my own lungs, before I’m walking shakily back through the house like these are my first steps, like I have just been born, and this house is the first thing I see, the light from Colton’s room running down the stairs like the brightest liquid.
Even with my car windows rolled tight the smell seeps in, the thick odor of garbage, piled high on the curb all through the neighborhood’s winding streets. The back-of-the-tongue scent of spoiling. Of rot. A hole dug just deep enough to smell what the earth is: decomposition. I drive faster and my ears rush with the sound of filling water. I picture Colton so clearly, imagine the mold growing filmy over the pool that Colton keeps breaking with his contorting body, that keeps creeping back, no matter how fast or how hard he swims through it. The smell grows stronger. Water sloshes. I press my foot harder to the gas, fly through the quiet streets and their trash runoff, that dark wet juice that stains the pavement below. It will grow over him, soon. Even the water will rot. Maybe it should.
Sierra Rose Lindsay is an MFA candidate in fiction and Adjunct Professor at Adelphi University. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Bad Pony Magazine, Pretty Owl Poetry, and Parhelion Literary Magazine. You can find Sierra on her third-floor rooftop in Brooklyn, NY or on Twitter @sierra__lindsay.
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