Fiction: Drowning in Air

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By Rebecca Rahne

Mama had been resisting the call for as long as I could remember.

It was the middle of summer, and she lay in the tub, trying to keep her skin damp. Maybe trying to keep herself cool, too, but like I said, it was the middle of summer. Even if you only turn on the cold water faucet, the water’s still gonna come out at ‘inferno’ temperatures.

Daddy went to sea before I was born. I’m told he looked even moreso than me and Mama do, which was saying something. Me and Mama were the only ones in the family still around who showed our blood so much.

‘Course, the family’s pretty much dying out. Used to be, Mama said, people would marry in. But being part of the family meant being part of the religion and going out to sea without ever coming back. Not a lot of call for that kind of stuff these days, not without something really showy.

The stars being all wrong, we couldn’t do ‘showy’ anymore.

So, Mama was in the tub and I was in the kitchen, because I’d just come in from the garden and I wanted a swig of something cold.

“Moni!” Mama called, her voice low and barely-there. “Moni! I’m hungry!”

“Monique, Mama!” I snapped. “Monique! Pronounce the last damn syllable!”

I opened up the fridge and grabbed a box of grocery-store sashimi. Mama hardly ate anything but fish since I had turned sixteen.

I eyed the contents of the fridge critically. I could maybe manage dinner tonight if Daniel down the road had some fish he’d give me. Otherwise, I needed to run into town.

Great.

Mama looked pretty bad when I brought her the sashimi – bald, with the same weird, narrow, flat, bulgy-eyed face I had. The lights were off, but she had some candles lit. Good enough to manage by, I guess, but they made the bathroom stink.

She fished out the sashimi slices carefully with her strange hands and gobbled them down. I sat on the toilet and waited, ’cause sure as shooting, she wasn’t going to throw away the box.

“Mama,” I said, “You ought to go to sea. I’m old enough to manage on my own now.”

Mama hissed at me. Sometimes, she forgot about using words, herself.

“I am,” I protested. “I’m almost nineteen. I graduated from high school. This ol’ place doesn’t need a lot of upkeep.”

Heck, maybe if Mama weren’t around needing me to take care of her, I could pack my stuff in the car and go somewhere else for a while. Not sell the property, never sell the property, but it’d be nice to see the world before I left it.

“Not until you get a husband, Moni,” she gabbled out. Words sounded weird when Mama said them, like they didn’t quite sit right in her mouth.

“‘Monique’,” I muttered. I slouched on the toilet lid. A husband? Not going to happen. Not with everything else that came with having a husband in this family. Besides, I was eighteen, still! Who got married at eighteen?

Well, besides one of my classmates, but she loved her guy and they’d been planning it since her sophomore year. Me, I hadn’t met a guy yet I could stand to touch, much less have kids with. Who went and decided guys should be all hot and dry, anyway?

Mama finished eating without saying another word to me and I threw out the box and wandered back into the kitchen. It was a dim-grey now and the trees were whipping around outside. The afternoon thundershower was blowing in.

I dashed outside to gather up my gardening tools before they got rained on. Got that done just ahead of the rain, so I flopped on the back porch to watch everything come down.

I loved thunderstorms. They were wild and wet, and they were best enjoyed from someplace dry. When I was younger, I used to run out and dance in them, and maybe I’d do that again when I was older and need the water on my skin. Right now, though, I could get away with not, so I just sat under a roof to watch them. It was a good sort of feeling, not needing to be wet.

***

Daniel down the road hadn’t been too successful with his fishing, so I told Mama I was going to make some groceries. The air was cool in the dusk, still a little wet from the thundershower this afternoon.

I cranked up the radio in the peeling-blue car, rolled all the windows down, pulled out on the gravel road, and headed for town. It’d take me about forty-five minutes to get there on the interstate. I had a list of stuff and a cooler in the back for perishables, because this car had long ago stopped believing in air-conditioning.

It was a cloudy night and the wind was picking up as I drove. I hoped I could beat the storm home. Rain always made people forget how to drive around here and I didn’t look forward to an hour on the road in a storm. Most of the drive between home and town was over a swamp. You’re stuck on a bridge with barely any shoulders for miles and miles. Yeah, let’s drive that in the rain with drivers I couldn’t trust.

The drive out went as quick as it could.

Seafood selection at the counter wasn’t too bad, so I grabbed what I needed and paid for it. Got the usual amount of not-looking from people. No one liked to look at an ugly girl.

My face was narrow, like real narrow, like I could probably have stuck it through the bars of a jail cell narrow. My nose was so flat, it looked like it was trying to sink into my face. My eyes bulged out, and I didn’t need to blink much, so people told me I stared. My skin was so pale, I glowed in the dark and my hair was this wispy dirty-blonde, too thin to really style. If my mother was any example, it would all fall out by the time I was forty.

If I didn’t go to sea by then.

There was one guy who stared at me in a way that made my shoulders itch. That happened sometimes, but nothing ever came of it. Sometimes, guys were just creepy.

I had popped the trunk of my car and opened the ice-box when he caught up with me in the parking lot. Great, a mega-creep.

“You’re one of them,” he said.

From his accent, he definitely wasn’t from around here. It sounded nothing like the soft drawls of anyone who’d grown up here. All hard and weird and wrong, and I hadn’t the slightest clue where it meant he was from.

I glared at him. “What the heck are you talking about?”

“You’re one of them, the abominations – ”

“You’re being a major creep. I don’t know what the hell you think I am,” I snapped, “but you had better back the fuck off and leave me alone.”

He backed off, but he didn’t leave altogether. I could sense him at the edge of my vision, hanging back and watching. My bulging eyes were good for one thing, at least.

The wind was really gusting as I closed my trunk. It kept trying to steal my cart and I let it as soon as the thing was empty. Rain started to come down, in a drizzle at first, but soon slashing down hard enough to almost hurt.

And the guy was still watching me. Creep.

I climbed inside my car and locked it, then tried to start the engine. The guy finally left, then, going back inside the grocery store.

My engine wouldn’t catch.

I stared at the steering wheel in perplexity then tried again. Another grinding attempt at catching then it gave up entirely. The third time I twisted my key in the ignition, it wouldn’t even try to catch.

Great. Could tonight get any worse?

Evidently, the Great One of the Deeps heard me, because when I pulled out my cellphone to call Daniel for a ride, I was out of minutes. I cursed hell and high water then slumped back against the seat.

I could have gone back into the grocery store and explained to the manager about the problem. I’m sure she would have let me use the phones in there. Except that guy was in there. Something about him scared me.

The grocery store sat on a not-minor road, and I knew there was a gas station at the next major intersection. I could get a phonecard there and give Daniel a call. It’d be miserable to walk, but I was okay with being miserable if it meant I could get the hell home. Town hadn’t felt this unsafe since I was a little girl taking swimming lessons.

I was way too good at swimming lessons.

I grabbed a jacket from the back seat and pulled it on. Stuffed my keys in my pocket, pulled the hood up to maybe keep me a little bit dry, and got out of the car.

Then I started walking. The jacket helped some with the rain, so it took until I got across the parking lot for me to get well and truly soaked. After that, I was miserably cold as my wet clothes clung to me and the rain kept coming down. I wrapped my arms around myself as I walked, trying to generate a little more body heat.

I kept blinking my eyes and wanting to rub them dry, but it was just too wet. Everything was too wet. I hopped across puddles and some of them were bigger than I thought. My shoes got soaked. My socks got soaked.

It was hard to see in the rain, too. Besides it being dark, the rain caught the light of the streetlights and just kind of blurred everything out. I knew I was going in the right direction because I’d been here before, but if my route hadn’t been a straight line, I’d have turned back.

At least I didn’t have to worry about getting sick. I’d never gotten sick for as long as I could remember, even when everyone else in my classes was hacking and coughing and dripping disgusting fluids.

I stopped at the corner of the parking lot and waited for the cars on the road to pass on by so I could cross. I huddled sodden and miserable in my clothes, but either no one saw me or they figured I knew what I was doing to be out in this kind of weather.

I held onto the thought that if I just kept walking, I’d get to the gas station and get a phone card. I still wouldn’t be home, but I’d be a lot closer to home than I was now. Comparatively speaking.

Cars stopped whizzing by and I trudged across the street. Then I was confronted with the fact that the blocks in front of me, nice neighborhood suburban blocks, weren’t made with sidewalks right next to this particular road. The sidewalk under my feet went down the street instead.

I could go that way. There had to be another road through. But it was dark and raining and I didn’t know this neighborhood at all.

I looked over my shoulder to see if I saw any headlights heading my way then sloshed down the shoulder of the main road. My feet felt like ice blocks and I wiggled my toes to maybe get a little more warmth down there.

It didn’t work. So, I kept walking and checking over my shoulder. Sometimes, I’d jump back on the thin strip of swamped grass between the fence and the road, waiting for a car to pass.

Was this what drowning felt like? Wet and cold and miserable, water hitting so hard against your body that you could hardly think? Or maybe it was just a level of hell. Surely, they couldn’t all be fire.

Headlights caught my eyes as I turned to look over my shoulder, blinding bright in the darkness. I squinted and hopped over into the grass again, huddling up against the fence. Grass squished around my feet.

The headlights stayed in my eyes. The car swerved – I barely had time to think, It’s going to hit me, before I took off running. Instincts, those of a bullied kid and older ones still, screamed at me to find a place to hide, to run, to get out of this straight line. Cars were faster than me!

I heard the car accelerate behind me and bit my lip to keep from looking. I scrambled and slipped, threw myself to the side as soon as the fence was gone. I tumbled to the grass on someone’s lawn, scrambled to my feet and up against the house as the car drove onto the lawn after me. Prickly bushes tore at my clothes and I nearly fell on a ceramic pot, and there was a car after me, on the lawn after me, why the hell –

I stumbled on the slick driveway, half-threw myself forward between two cars, and tried not to cry out as the car chasing me crashed into the car next to me. I lay on the ground, dazed, my head clipped. I could smell iron. The rain was coming down red in front of me.

“I knew you were one of them,” someone snarled over the sound of the rain. “Another fish-blooded abomination, just like those people in -”

The porch lights snapped on in a blaze of yellow, and the front door of the house was thrown open. “What the hell – ?”

I took advantage of the distraction and crawled forward, pressing myself underneath the other car. I heard people yelling behind me, knew the cops would be called. I had to get away. Not because of the cops, but because anyone who knew enough to call me ‘fish-blooded’ knew enough that getting locked up wouldn’t bother him. If he had a gun he wanted to use….

I wasn’t bulletproof. Or carproof.

I slid out on the other side of the car then worked my way across the neighbour’s lawn. The rain and darkness felt like a blessing now – still miserable, but they’d keep other people from seeing me too well.

I took off into the night, scrambling over grass to the sidewalk. ‘Fish-blooded,’ he’d called me. I slipped on the sidewalk, came down hard on my knees, and I gulped back a cry of pain. I was crying; I was pretty sure I was crying, or maybe it was just the rain on my face. Or the blood.

I sat there for a long moment then forced myself to my feet. I couldn’t go back the way I’d come. I needed to go this way and find a cross-street then head down it until I reached the road with the gas station.

He wouldn’t keep chasing me. He wouldn’t. He’d already wrecked his car and someone else’s. I’d be fine. Just miserable and hurt. I could handle this.

I had to handle this.

***

No cars had come down this road since I got on it. Of course, it was a dark and miserably stormy night. Anyone with sense was inside. So, when the darkness around me brightened, I glanced over my shoulder. A pair of car headlights was way at the end of the road.

There was no reason it had to be that guy.

There was no reason it couldn’t be, either.

I scrambled into the yard of the house I was walking by and dropped down behind their shrubbery. Don’t let them have seen me. Please. I don’t care who they are, or what they want, but don’t let them see me. I couldn’t take it if they did.

I clenched and unclenched my fists. Lying down like this felt…Well, better than being up and walking. Like I could just fall asleep right here if I was an ounce more exhausted. So, I thought about the ocean, about being cold, about fish. I thought about going fishing with Daniel, and the way watching a fish flop around inside the bottom of our boat did something to my head.

I tried not to breathe rainwater.

The rain was coming down in a steady pour, but my clothes and skin were already so soaked, I might as well be a fish. Or a dolphin, because I needed still needed air to breathe. With the air so full of spray and heavy droplets, it felt even more oppressively wet than just being soaked did.

The car rumbled past. In the dark and rain, I couldn’t tell if it had run into anything, recently. Still, I lay there behind the shrubs and waited, counting slowly to sixty five times. Then I stood up and stumbled my way back onto the sidewalk.

My eyes felt weird. Like I’d started crying again.

When I get home, I thought, I’m going to strip all these clothes off, make myself a mug of hot chocolate and wrap myself up in as many blankets as I can. Okay, maybe I’d take a quick shower to rinse the feeling of ick off my skin. Mama could have sashimi again for dinner, and I could have some, too, because I so wasn’t cooking after all of this.

I paused, listening. Something didn’t feel right. Like…I don’t know what like. But my heart was pounding, and something just felt wrong.

There was a fence next to me, so I took off running instead of trying to hide. I had no idea what I was running from, if I was even running away from it or toward it in the rainy darkness.

I slipped, fell, cracking my knees again and skinning my hands on the sidewalk. I panted, staring as the puddle turned pinkish in the streetlight. Get up. Get up and go. Go and go and go until I get there, run. Don’t stop, never stop, be a shark and die if I stop.

Get up.

I stood, bones aching, and looked around, trying to see something. Nothing. Just rain glowing around streetlights and a whole lot of night.

There was a stoplight a few blocks ahead. I must have been near the main crossroad the gas station was on and I started walking faster, passing a stop sign. Down two blocks and across two streets. That’s all it would take.

I found a break in the sidewalk the hard way, tripped and fell. My palms felt skinned and my knees felt like they were on fire. I just groaned and waited for some of the pain to diminish.

Something out in the darkness was moving. I blinked rain out of my eyes and raised a hand to shield them. From the faint light of the streetlights, I could just make out a car rolling down the street without its headlights on.

I sat very, very still. My throat felt tight and my brain was bleating at me to run-run-RUN as fast as I could, but a deeper part of me refused to let my body move.

The car drove slowly forward, the front looking pretty bashed-in. The puddle I was sitting in was soaking my underwear uncomfortably, but I just sat and tried not to cry in frustration. I don’t think I succeeded, but in all the wet, who really cared?

I dreaded when the driver would realize I was sitting there, frozen, and climb up on the sidewalk after me. I didn’t think I could run this time. Too exhausted, too miserable. It’d be pretty easy to lie down and not get up again, just let him drive right over me. Some part of me didn’t want to make it easy, but a whole lot more of me just wanted this to be over one way or another.

Light blazed for a moment as the car tapped its brakes.

My fingers clawed at my legs, and I almost lurched up to run. It didn’t matter how useless it was, it’d end things quicker than this waiting.

But I didn’t. I was cold, wet, miserable, and exhausted, so I just sat there because running was too much work.

The car rolled slowly past. Very slowly, I turned my head to follow it.

The brakes tapped again, blinding red this close. The car came to a stop.

Run. Run as fast I can. I stared, frozen, rain smashing into me and the night so damn dark it hurt. Run, run, run. My fingers dug into my legs and my spine creaked as I shifted in preparation to lunge forward. My knees complained at the shift in weight, but I was past the point of caring what my body thought about anything.

My body still had veto rights, though, and I couldn’t run. I couldn’t move at all except to breathe the too-wet air that felt like suffocation.

The car rolled around the corner, turning to the right. If the driver turned his head, surely he’d see me, huddled there on the wet sidewalk. Surely. But the car didn’t stop again; it just drove out of sight.

I gulped and slowly, creakingly, rose to my feet. It hurt and I wanted to start walking again, almost as much as I wanted to just lie down and never get up again. Instead, I turned to stare up the street the way I’d come.

A stop sign stared back at me.

I started laughing. It was just…Too funny. Just too funny. My laughter got a little too hysterical somewhere in there and then maybe, it wasn’t laughter at all, anymore.

Still not-laughing, I turned away and hobbled towards the stoplight two blocks away. The rain let up some, still pouring down but not so hard anymore. Maybe the storm was finally moving on. I tilted my head up to see if I could see any stars at either horizon, but I just got rain in my eyes.

Every step of those last two blocks felt like my legs would give out. If I’d fallen again, I don’t think I would have gotten back up. I stumbled several times, swayed like a drunk, had to push myself off someone’s fence so hard I almost toppled over the other way. But I kept walking and that was the most important part.

I didn’t stop when I reached the light. I was too tired to risk it, too sore and miserable. If I stopped, I wouldn’t move again.

Across the T-intersection was a canal, grass running from the curb all the way down into the water. It looked like there was enough room for me to walk alongside the canal and I knew there’d be a crossover somewhere ahead in whichever direction I went. So, I plodded across the street towards the grass.

A car with no headlights hit me.

***

I woke up half-sprawled on grass and concrete. Breathing felt like agony and I wormed forward, stupidly thinking I still needed to get away, still could get away. The pain as my hip moved made me black out again. I came to with my hands in the canal water. It felt scummy and vaguely, I noticed it was covered in duckweed. Something from my arm was jabbing into my neck and hot rain oozed across my face and down my arm.

Except the rain on my back had faded to a drizzle.

I didn’t worry too hard about it. I just lay there and hurt.

Hurt and hated.

My hands were in the water and dimly, so dim it felt like part of the pain at first, I felt a connection to the sea.

I clenched my hands into fists, and dark blood rolled down my wrists and into the canal. There were words. There were words that blood and seawater could use to call old things, great things.

Words burbled and slobbered from my mouth, words that tasted of saltwater and rot, words that felt like drowning. Maybe I was drowning, because breathing still hurt so damn much. I heard someone crunching down the embankment.

The water grew cold. The scummy feeling faded away. It wasn’t a canal anymore and I knew if I tumbled in, I’d sink down a long, long way. If the things in the water let me get that far.

“Still alive? Not surprised. You fish-bloods are nasty tough.” He sounded pleased by it.

I couldn’t turn my head to look at him. I didn’t even want to. “Die.”

“It’s not going to be me – ”

There were things in the sea, old things, great things. Things with teeth and long beaks to pull in animals that came down to the shore. Things that didn’t live in this world anymore, but did live in the seas where blood and the words could call them back.

It was over very quickly.

I stared into the water that wasn’t canal water, and I wanted to go home.

***

Mama came later, when I didn’t come back to the house and Daniel found my empty car. Daddy was so happy to see her and I took off before she could get hold of me to scold me for being stupid.

I liked chasing fish up to Daniel’s boat.

THE END

Bio: Rebecca Rahne lives in a swamp. Below sea-level. That masquerades as a city with an awesome music scene. (She also thinks she’s clever. She LIES.) She writes fantasy and horror, and pokes at science-fiction with a stick. This is her first published short story. You can find her on Twitter.

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IFPFiction: Drowning in Air