Note: I just wanted to preface this and say that I’ve capitalized certain pronouns for a reason. However, I didn’t want to explain to remove the effect until after it’s been read.
I’m Not Afraid of Water
“I’m not afraid of water,” I whisper to myself and bend my knees. There aren’t any bugs or leaves in the water, that I can see, and yet I search and search. Procrastinating, as usual. I’m afraid, even though I know that The Sky’s the Limit summer camp is one of the safest places for me to be. I know that no one will hurt me here. They would have no reason to come here.
They, the caseworkers, always came too late anyway, I felt. They always showed up after I’d already been hit, or kicked, or burned. They always wanted a status update after someone had already pushed me or pulled a knife or held me in a grip so tight, I couldn’t breathe. You might feel like my anger was misplaced. They could save me. They could use their pen as a weapon and fire it in my defense. I’d be able to leave the wandering hands, the wandering eyes, and I would be safe.
Yes, you might come to that conclusion, but I didn’t. It’d been so long since I was able to trust anyone, if I ever could, and I know I would rather they be as far away as possible than to have them near with their false promises. Even I, at twelve years old, knew what weight someone’s word carried. There, standing at the edge of the pool, I wondered why no one ever gave their word to me and kept it.
As the boat pulled us through the water, I stare up at clouds shaped like animals and flowers. The sun winks at me from behind them and I smile in return. Even at six, I know the sun brought happiness, healing and warmth to the soul. I close my eyes and let the serotonin roll over my skin.
The wind is heavy, here in the back of the boat, and I think if only a bigger gust would just take me away. I think maybe if I step up on the small boat seat, the plastic rocking beneath my tiny feet, the wind might hear my thoughts and whip me up into its arms, taking me away from Them.
“Hey,” His voice exclaims behind me, as if He read my thoughts. She yanks me away from the edge and my eyes fly open. The hardness in Her eyes, devoid of love, makes me flinch and shrivel into the small life jacket strapped too tightly around my tiny waist.
“Do you want to go back?” She spat the words out through tight lips. I stare up at her, imagining fangs emerging from behind them. Venom dripping from their tips as She would bare Her teeth at me. She gives me a hard shake, “Do you?” I move my chin slightly and She nods. “Good, now sit down and stay there until I tell you, you can get up.”
I scramble across the boat on unsteady legs and climb into my plastic chair, it’s one of those seats that holds a storage area beneath it for valuables or things that need to stay dry. Wallets and the like. It’s supposed to lock in place, but He’d messed it up somehow and it never closes quite right.
I peek a glance at my brother and his face is turned from me, I could see from the set of his shoulders that he was angry at me. That I almost ruined our day. Either that or he was desperately trying not to look at me in case he gets roped into my disobedience and They make him ‘sit down and shut up’, too. Any thoughts of him wanting to protect his little sister, went out the window. I’m not ‘little sister’ today.
I stay there, in the chair, using my peripherals to look at the lake around us. I know I can turn my head and look but I’m afraid. I’m a heathen, They say. An animal unable to resist my instincts, and I know it’s true. Sometimes I get so angry I slam my hands down on my thighs until they sting. Sometimes, I’m so mad, I scratch at them until they bleed.
So, I know if I turn my head to look, I won’t be able to help myself. I’ll get up, wishing the water of the lake would take me up and drown me – not really but my imagination is vast, and I could see it the water filling my mouth and pulling me down, down, down into its dark arms. I know She’ll just stop me again, grabbing me tight until her nails dig deep, breaking the skin. Little beads of blood would appear at the punctured skin. It wouldn’t because She loves me. She would stop me because my death would be hard to explain away as “You know foster kids, they’re just so reckless.”
I’m standing in front of the pool again, having moved closer to the shallow end, taking a deep breath in and expelling it out through my open mouth. ‘I’m not afraid of water,” I whisper again. Duh, I’ve gone camping. “But that doesn’t mean I can swim, stupid.” I know it’s dumb, pretending I can talk to myself, but it comforts me. I am, after all, the only one that cares what I have to say.
“Just get…in,” the last word is yelled as I’m picked up and I feel tight arms wrap around my waist, I see it drawing near, the deep end. Ten feet of deep blue water. I shake my head and thrash, elbows and knees bending and jerking spastically. I’m small, although I’m twelve, and my brother is so much bigger than I. Long lanky arms and long lanky legs to match, he’s pretty enough to be a model, everyone says so. I don’t care about that, I just want him to put me down, and he does.
My head whips so fast as he catapults me into the air. As I’m falling down, down, down, I look up at the sky but it is not a friend to me. It’s clouds do not pillow my fall and I slip away from them. My legs pull in tight, not into a cannonball, into fear. I hit the surface of the water, but I don’t not see the pool. I see the lake.
We’ve released the anchor and the boat is rocking in place. My brother has removed his shirt and his small bird chest peeks out from between the straps of his life jacket. He’s turned away, back to the scenery around us, or maybe just away from me. I want to get up from my seat, to lean over the edge and feel the water on my fingertips, but She hasn’t said so yet.
Him, Her, and my brother are getting the fishing poles ready. A small white bucket of squirming worms sits at my feet. Hooking the bait is my job, my punishment, but what they don’t know is that I love fishing. I like to see that worm fly in the air and bring me back a nice little fishy. I like to see the pulse of the gills as it sucks in air instead of water. I just don’t realize how morbid it all is.
One after another I’m handed the poles until I receive mine. I don’t put a worm on the hook, just tap, tap, tap at the sharp edge with a fingertip.
“You can get up, just stand there for a bit, let us get going first,” He says, His voice quiet as to not disturb the fish.
I hide my excitement and turn to the water. Lifting my pole, I pretend to fish, whipping it back and forth with my hands. It was made specifically for a small child. It’s tiny pink reel and lever fit perfectly in my hand. The pole’s long rod is pink with extended silver eyelets that held the line in place. I swing it back and forth with gusto. It snaps silently, thin line slicing against the air and this time it snags. I yank it forward a split second later without thinking.
A howl fills the air and I turn around so fast the pole almost smacks against the lip of the boat. My brother is doubled over, grasping at the fleshy space between his neck and shoulder. My eyes fill with tears when I see the blood between his fingers. The red against his soft brown skin is a stark contrast and I’m confused. I look quickly to the line hanging from the end of my pole. There, just at the tip of the large hook is a small piece of bloody flesh.
Everything seemed to move at once. She went to my brother, snatching up at towel on Her way. Venom once again spewed from Her lips. The man came to me, hatred in His eyes. He speaks but I do not hear what He says. I can only feel the fear building in my chest, freezing me in place. With one hand, He snatches the pole, with its fleshing prize, from my hands. With the other He grabs me under one shoulder. His meaty fingers dig into my underarm, His thumb pressing against my clavicle and I’m off my feet. He tosses me, like a rag doll, into the air and my jaw snaps shut.
For a moment I wonder if the wind has finally granted my wish, if I’d float away on pillows of clouds. Then I’m falling down, down, down until the water breaks my descent.
I go under, as you initially do, the life jacket unable to win the battle against gravity. My arms and legs flap as I’m helplessly trying to right myself. The emptiness beneath me threatens to pull me under. I wonder if my brother would mind, if I let it take me. My fight against water ceases and I go down and down. Then I feel something, a fallen branch maybe, scratch against my leg and I panic, kicking at it, at anything. The life jacket finally does its job and my head is propelled above water. I sputter, expelling murky lake water, my eyes burning from the strain to stay open and alert underneath it. I bow my back, anything to keep from tipping side to side.
I open my eyes under the pool water, the chlorine stinging at the corners. I try to stay calm. I’ve been here before, but I thrash a bit, unable to control my limbs. Remembering what I’d seen the other campers do, I make like a frog. Kicking my legs out and bending at the knee. With my arms, I push the water down, down, down hoping the momentum will keep my head above water. It does.
I take a deep breath and dive my head under. I move like I’d seen swimmers do in the movies, pushing my arms in front of me and then back to my hips, kicking my legs up and down. I felt the air on my heels as I kicked, though I was sure all of me was supposed to be under water. My chest burned as I tried to hold the air in. Finally, there it was, the side of the pool. I grasp it like a life line and pull myself up.
My brother’s there, whooping and hollering, excited he taught me to swim, I’m sure. “You did it,” he yelled. I’m angry. How had he forgotten? How could he forget?I’d never forgotten, I think. I will never, ever, ever forget the lake.
I sat, bent at the waist, with my chest touching my knees. Taking in small breaths so as not to bend further, I pray to the sun, ‘Bring back the warmth’. My teeth chatter so hard I think I might grind them to dust. My feet are starting to go numb, if this is numbness, as the circulation is being drawn from my legs. Sharp knife like stabs run up and down my legs and I wish I could rub them away. My fingers twitch but I’m afraid They’ll see me.
After reaching in and effortlessly yanking me from the water, the man had thrown open the plastic seat. He’d revealed the small storage space beneath it and gestured to me. “Sit. Now.” He growled the words out, barely contained wrath seething just beneath the surface. Small for my age, at six, I was able to fold myself down. My heels brushed the bottom of the boat, the seat of the plastic chair drug into the back of my head. The metal top of the storage box dug grooves into my lower back, causing bruises that will one day save me, us. He’d thrown something on top of the seat. I can’t see what it is but it’s heavy, with every rock of the boat, as we sped toward the dock, the seat digs deeper and deeper into my back.
Later, no one fetches me from the boat. The ride back to Their home is spent alone, in the wild of the wind, at the mercy of the highway. I wonder if other cars can see me. If they would save me or if they would point with stubby fingers and laugh at the poor little black girl with no hair and a funny accent. If they would say ‘ha-ha, ha-ha, no-body wants-you’ in the singsong voice I often heard on the playground once kids found out I was a foster kid. If they would turn their head away and so as not to see me, just like my brother did.
Even once we reached Their house, a small off-white building with red borders, no one came to get me. They get out of the truck and escape without me. I had possibly gone to sleep, or maybe I passed out, because it didn’t feel like I’d been in the boat that long. My legs did though. The sharp pricks had come and gone. From the knee down they hung like logs and I couldn’t feel my toes. I tried wiggling them but it was like trudging through mud. I couldn’t tell if they were actually doing anything.
My brother comes to get me. I hear him clambering into the boat with his bony limbs. He lifts the seat from the clutches of my back, and I look up at him. He had put his shirt back on, it hung just two inches below his belly button and I wanted to laugh. I didn’t know much but I knew that his skin wasn’t supposed to show. He was a boy. Boys didn’t wear cropped tops, their shirts hung like sheets almost to their knees. I stifle the laughter, seeing the way his eyebrows were drawn up and together. His mouth was tight. I’ve seen that face before.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” I say, or whisper, and he nods. Then he sighs. Now, I can’t tell if it’s pity there, or anger, or frustration. I take in a full breath for the first time in what felt like days and flinch. It hurts to breathe, hurts to move, hurts to think. The marks on my legs hurt, I can’t see them, but I feel them burn as I unfold myself. As I put my feet down on the boat and then my little girl weight down on my feet I hiss. My toes won’t move and, as I shuffle across the boat’s floor, I roll my feet from out to in, careful not to add pressure.
“I’m sorry,” I say as my eyes tear up due to the pain. We carefully climb down from the boat. He nods again but doesn’t turn back to look at me. He leads the way to the house, and I trail behind him on fawn’s legs.
The door is there before us, the hinges rusted and crooked, the dilapidated wood covered in a chipped bright red paint. I think of the blood from my brother’s back, the blood I’d seen on his fingertips, the blood on my fishing pole’s fleshy prize. It’s an ode to pain, mine, his and Theirs. I wonder if I’ve received my full punishment or if the other side of the door holds more pain. I wonder if the bruises will ever heal or if I will have a permanent mark. I wonder if Rosa, our caseworker, will come to save us this time. If she would come in time. I look at the back of my brother’s head as he slows his gait but stays before me. I wonder if this is when he starts hating me, because I know he will, just like everyone else.