by C. Wait
They are making fun of him. All of them, the other students. They are pointing and laughing, whispering about him from the doorway of the high school but he can’t make himself move.
The puddle that blocks him is enormous. It is at least six feet long and four feet wide and growing. It obscures the entire area around the front steps of his school. He stares at it, gnawing on the side of his lip as his science teacher curses at him to come inside.
The puddle is murky. He can see bits of grass floating inside, longer strands like arms and that is why he can’t make himself step over it, even though rain pours down around him and his shirt is soaked through, flapping with the gusts of wind that batter his body.
He hates rainstorms. He hates the water. The puddle reminds him of the lake by his house and the black ink water and the way his foot got tangled in a strand of slimy lake vine when was ten and he couldn’t get back to the surface.
His teacher screams again. Her mouth is like the yawning jaws of a circus clown; big bloody lips and liquid gold makeup that crease into pale freckled skin around her nostrils. The end of days! She caws. Standing out in the rain when it’s the end of days, and she shakes her heavy clown head.
Thunder roars in his ears. The seaweed thing with its skinny arms hovers near the surface, waving at him. Right here, Johnny. Just where you belong. In the water, in the dark, Johnnyyyyyy.
He imagines himself stepping over it. He imagines his sneaker made heavy by mud, taking just a moment too long and the monster reaches out to grab his ankle. He sees himself sinking. He sees the droplets of rain pounding against his forehead as he claws at the puddle’s edges, his fingers scraping at rocks and uneven pavement. His nails ripping off. Blood soaking his arms from his stump fingers and still having the puddle-thing pull him down, down, down.
His mouth is full of water. He bends over, coughing, and holds onto his knees as another clap of thunder cracks through the sky.
I let you go once, Johnny. I’m not gonna let you go ever again.
His teacher is far away now. It is as if she is moving slowly beyond his grasp, and if he waits any longer he’ll be stuck forever with the puddle and the seaweed monster. He will drown standing up. His fists clench. Several feet away from him a branch is struck by a bolt of lightning and crashes to the pavement. Pieces of burnt wood shatter across the ground.
He looks up. The other students are still whispering but now their voices have lowered. They boast half smiles, lips bared back like wolves, eyes wide. They are so removed from him, close but far away at the same time. Like dots on the horizon. Their hushed jeers floats around him.
His cheeks flame. He rights himself, steps forward on a trembling knee.
His sneakers scuff the pavement. He closes his eyes; the puddle is the lake is the seaweed arm is the vine. He opens his eyes and inches towards the rim. His teacher continues to yell. The air smells of thick, musty earth, saturated topsoil and humidity.
Stop laughing! He wants to scream. He wants to clamp his palm down over his teacher’s stupid clown mouth and silence her once and for all. They’re all stupid. They’re all weak and dense and superficial. They don’t know what it’s like to linger at the bottom of a lake with the mud obscuring the light, fish invading, darting in and out, tasting. They don’t know what it’s like to see death in the green, flaccid arm of a plant vine.
He clenches his fists. Jumps.
Midair, he is safe from the seaweed arms and the warmth of the soggy ground. He crosses the thickest part of the puddle. Feels the wind on his face. He prepares to march up the dilapidated school steps and laugh and stomp on everyone’s face.
But then something goes wrong. It’s hard to tell when exactly it happens, but he starts to come down and realizes that his body is not far enough forward. He’s tilted awkwardly. His back is tight, his arms behind him instead of in front.
His sneaker hits a patch of slick pavement on the other side of the puddle. He lurches backward. His feet shoot up and he is suddenly looking up at the storm clouds, horizontal.
His body crashes into the heat of the puddle. Warm water sloshes around him. It grabs hold of his t-shirt and pulls him down into the guck. Seaweed arms strangle him. He hits his head on the bottom and for a moment he is completely underwater. Then he bobs to the top, scooping in air as fast as he can.
The puddle thing’s arms latch onto his body, sticky like suction cup mouths. Ears submerged, he can barely hear the sounds of the thunder and the frolicking wind. He can barely hear the tree branches cracking and falling, the tinny tinkle of rain. All he can hear is the sound of distant laughter.
Sure stuck it to them, didn’t you, Johnny? You showed them real good.
He lies on his back with his hands stretched out, the rainwater slowly filling his open mouth, and they laugh and they laugh and they laugh.
C. Wait is a Vermonter currently living in New Jersey. Sources of inspiration include Hugh B Cave and Basil Copper. When she is not writing, she enjoys traveling, hiking, working with kids, and someday hopes to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.