It’s a Kool-Aid summer. We’ve gone through grape and cherry and fruit punch and blueberry. Even tried dying our hair with them. And for about three days we had pink and blue and purple strands. Didn’t turn out in Finley’s. Her hair is too dark, but she tried.
The afternoons are sprinklers in the backyard and ice-pops while our sisters and mothers watch flickering soap operas in cold, tomb-like rooms, cold from the AC cranked so low. The nights are sleeping out in the backyard in a tent or a sleeping bag unrolled on porches and decks or even in the grass and looking up at the stars. Listening to the AC click on and hum its silver song through the night.
And late late late sneaking into the pool and swimming with the dead.
There is a rash of them this summer. For some reason they all want water.
At first, the mothers got on the phone during commercials of The Guiding Light and chattered about what to do.
No pool, they said in unison when we walked through our doors.
No creek. No water of any kind.
What would summer be without sunburnt skin? Half-frozen Snickers bars when the life guards blow the whistle for afternoon swim check?
You can set up sprinklers, they said. Because that wasn’t really like being in water.
We met on bikes down at the big empty lot by the post office and each of us reported the same thing.
“Sprinklers,” said Marc and spat in the dirt.
The mothers must have come up with that all together.
Hoses were hooked up in every backyard behind every wooden privacy fence and even in the two trailer parks. We went to each other’s houses and ran through their sprinklers which were much the same as ours — even if that mother had bought a ladybug one at the Dollar General. The water shoots out all the same.
Sprinklers are fun for about five minutes and less fun when they are your only choice. Play in one up at the First National Bank’s yard and that’s fun. It’s dangerous and forbidden. Plus you’re in your regular clothes. Mr. Hahn might come out personally to yell at you. But in your own backyard?
We bike in packs past the pool, slowing down, craning our heads dramatically. We rarely stop.
Once we do. We even hook our fingers into the chain link fence, looking for the dead. Hardly anyone is there.
Nothing in the shallow end.
We follow the sidewalk along to the deeper end with the diving boards. We try to peer into the depths of the water. But Erin Grimley sees us and tells her mother. By nightfall, all the mothers have names of the ones who were down there.
“But Erin Grimley gets to go!” we whine to each of our mothers in each of our kitchens while they fry hamburgers and mix Kool-Aid, toss salads and slice onions.
And are we Erin Grimley’s mother? They say in a chorus that we don’t hear all at once but piece together later in secret calls and porch visits and bike rides.
Eventually, even Erin Grimley isn’t allowed to go.
But she tells us what she saw. And we want to see, too.
We slow pedal bikes as we crane our heads. Lovelorn and despondent over the blue rippling water. Over the summer that is lost but waiting for us over the chain link fence, untouched.
The lifeguards in their matching red one-pieces and trunks twirl silver whistles unblown over the empty pool from up on their stands or while pacing the sides while the dead float underneath.
The city won’t let the pool close.
The mothers won’t let us go.
We drink enough Kool-Aid for rainbow mustaches, the endless pitchers born of the mothers’ guilt even though their rule was non-negotiable and unchangeable.
We ride loops around town, out by the silver water tower and then back again, and always patrolling the pool. Meeting up at the post office. Dashing through sprinklers in each of our backyards when it gets too hot.
Then Finley gets the idea: we could all camp out, meet up.
Then Johnna says: we could go down to the pool.
Then Iris says: we could go swimming in the dark.
We are used to the dead.
They’ve always been with us. They leave messages on the community board down by the pool, sometimes on yellowed paper. We don’t know if the messages are for us. The edges are crumbling and torn. Mostly indecipherable things. Words written out of any kind of order.
We’ve stood in shivering huddles, chilly from evening swims before the mothers forbade it, goosebumps prickling our arms and legs, our hair slicked back or spiked in all directions. Lips blue. The lush green trees turning black with the night all around us. Katydids haunting the air.Trying to make out their words in the last low light of a summer evening. Trying to figure out why they’re suddenly floating in the pool.
“Maybe the dead just like the water,” Derrick finally said. “Maybe it’s just the same as we do.”
But it feels like there’s more to it than that.
Like they’re gathering for something.
Iris thinks their words are secret codes. As far as I can tell they are only lists. Maybe memories. Marc says they look like poems we’ve read at school. There’s a rhythm that seems like it’s supposed to be there but you can’t really understand it.
Sometimes when no one is looking I reach out, touching the fragile paper. My hand tracing the words.
Appleglass. Meanwhile reticent things. Happens over and once a lot.
“What does that mean?” my fingers ask, tracing the crooked lines. “What are you trying to say?”
Maybe they are simply saying, We don’t want to be gone.
They all wear sheets in the afterlife. Or something that looks like that. And we speculate. Is that what we have to look forward to? Sheets? Sheets and floating in the pool?
They are different in death than what they were. The place for eyes is dark, their faces are featureless, smooth flesh so you can’t tell who they were. It’s like if someone were painting a picture and used the same pattern for all of them. Only their height is different and their hair — short or long or brown or bald. Some have tried to guess at who they are. Some have looked for loved ones, but you never can be sure. They are no one and everyone all at once. Sometimes one of them becomes familiar like a casual acquaintance. Then after a while you don’t see them anymore. Maybe they’ve found the thing they were looking for. The thing they wrote on the board. Maybe they’ve moved on. But we don’t know where “on” is or what it looks like or why it’s not good enough for them to go to in the first place.
We find them everywhere. Drifting along the highway. Hovering in the frozen food section at the store. In the winter they blend in with the snow. In the summer they sometimes stand in night windows. They are at the school in the trees and behind the library and now at the pool.
When I was little I thought they’d scrape at my window. Try to get in.
But all they ever do is drift.
We pedal hard right in the middle of the road, in and out of puddles of street lights full of leaf shadow. We ride silent. ACs pop on all around us as we pass, singing their silver hum. Cocooning all the sleepers inside. The outside air smells like earth and sky. Our breath is Kool-Aid sweet. We are coasting down hills, some of us riding no-handed, our arms folded over our chests as we glide. We are in and out of formation. Single lines and clusters. No one watching over us. No one telling us no. The whir of pedals and speed and night air rushing past.
We are free.
We are floating in the air.
From the chain link fence, we see them hovering underneath. From here it looks like the greenish pool is a stormy sky and they are wispy clouds floating through it. The city has kept the underwater lights on all night. For us? For them? We already know about the lights from our twilight patrols. We’ve already seen the ghoulish water lit from below.
We stand looking, our fingers hooked in the chains like the day when Erin Grimley caught us and told her mother.
We don’t make a move to climb over, not yet.
We’re not afraid exactly.
The dead won’t hurt you.
Everyone says that.
They’ve never done anything to any one of us.
But still, the mothers don’t like us near them.
It’s not that what they have is catching. It is and it isn’t. We’re all going the way they went. But we won’t get there by being near them. Still it’s not right, the mothers say. Not yet.
We spread out all over the pool.
Finley by the slippery slide.
Marc wading in the shallow end.
Iris waist-high, walking across the lap lanes.
I swim to the deep end to scare myself.
Because I like the shiver of not being able to see all the way down. Of knowing there are shadows there.
Underwater, they’re all flowy, like the ragged edge of a tattered sail fluttering in slow motion in an invisible wind. The underwater glass globes of pool light mixed with the blue water make an eerie green. Graveyard light. A strange Kool-Aid flavor.
The one I find is beautiful. Or so she looks, emerging from the deep. She was huddled in the corner underneath the high dive where it’s murky and with the light this low you can’t see the bottom. She was a jagged outline that glided toward me.
I can’t say why she’s beautiful.
Maybe because she’s my age, I think, though it’s hard to tell. She seems smaller than the other ones. Both of us hover in the water, lit by a glass globe like moonlight on a green water night. Our hair undulating. Her sheet flowing. Regarding one another.
She is a mystery, hovering there. And maybe I am, too.
And maybe that’s why they like the water.
Maybe in the water, we are all floating.
Maybe in the water, we all look the same.
I run out of air and kick to the surface.
“I’m sorry,” I say after I burst back up, gulping air, water falling from my lips. “But I have to breathe.”
We emerge dripping wet, one by one. Leaving the dead like they are clouds floating in the glass moon water.
Silent. Because any words would break this.
We pedal slowly home to backyards and porches and grass-stained sleeping bags.
This night is the story we’ll tell over and over to ourselves and to each other. Huddled down into sleeping bags. Around a campfire when we’re old enough for stolen beers and sneaking out in cars. When we light our fathers’ Marlboros and pass them all around.
When we’re older still.
Passing each other in the grocery store, pushing silver carts, our eyes purple-stained, tired. Worn. Older.
We’ll nod at one another. Stop in front of rows of canned peaches. We’ll remember:
The way the underwater looked like a night sky with ten full moons shining in.
The way you could feel the creek water running past outside the fence, dank and murky and full of dark things.
The way we could feel the mothers wishing us still young and asleep in backyards under stars and not out looking for anything. Not out wanting.
The story will get told and retold, sitting on barstools, standing in frozen food aisles. Over the years it will get shortened down into the barest possible words. That night, the dead, how we floated.
We’ll say, Remember when there was nothing between us and them?
Then it’ll all get cut down to just: Remember? And a nod, nod, nod will be the answer.
And that one bare word will conjure the whole night.
We’ll wish it back. All together and one by one.
Maybe one day we’ll scrawl it on a yellowing piece of fragile paper, tack it up on the community board:
Glass moon water. Kool-Aid summer. Floating. Floating. Floating.
And someone else will trace the words and wonder what we mean.
© 2023 by Linda Niehoff
Author’s Note: Years ago I was walking through the East Village in New York and saw a community board along a side walk. I was instantly smitten with it – how the notes left on it had yellowed and were curling at the edges. Nothing about it seemed modern or even current. I snapped a photo and took the memory home with me. For several years I wondered on and off about a strange community board in a small town and what might be on it besides the usual babysitting offers with pull tabs and the notices for lost cats. Community boards seem mysterious, almost sinister, to me. Anyone can walk out of the shadows and leave any kind of message to anyone else. Both the sender and the receiver are invisible to each other. And so, for me anyway, the next natural question is: what if you could leave a message after you’d died? What would you say? What memory would haunt you so much that you needed to write it down? To say it to someone, to anyone? Somehow that morphed into a small town where the dead live right alongside the living. And how one strange summer they come together at the pool, right next to that community board and its offbeat words.
Linda Niehoff is a writer and photographer living in a small Kansas town. She loves ghost stories, severe weather, and is an accidental collector of vintage cameras. Her short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Weird Horror, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter: @lindaniehoff