Steam played across the water’s surface in lazy swirls, nudged by the breeze and stretching away like cigarette smoke. Behind the hedge, lips pressed to her kneecap’s polished, taut surface, she could taste salt on her skin and, somehow, it mingled with the vision of dragon’s breath steam above luminous water to punch a sudden ache in her throat. Smelling chlorine, she longed for the sea, for sand that grew cool as she dug her feet deeper, and her father’s hand on her bony, eight-year-old spine, walking her towards a quiet tideline.
Alma’s elbow dug into her ribs and she started.
“Come on,” hissed Alma.
The other girls had already moved, gingerly rising along the hedge like cautious fawns. A flash of blonde caught the submarine gleam of lights as Tessa turned her head. Beside her own crouched haunches, Alma was rising to join her, and Tessa was reaching the first sleek foot through the hedge. A silver ankle bracelet caught the light and a tendon flexed delicately as the foot sought purchase on the lawn beyond. Tessa stepped through, a hand before her face to push away leaves, and Alma half-turned to grasp the wrist beside her and drag it with her.
“Come on,” she muttered, her frustration coloured with excitement now as she started to push her own way through the hedge.
One by one, the girls stepped through the hedge onto the silent lawn, and of course Mara was last, leaving her sunburned father and ocean salt behind, on the cracked, pebbly path.
Ahead of her, Tessa, Alma and the others were racing silently across the lawn, feet nimble on spongy turf. The pool sank away below a gentle slope, and the marble steps leading in were still warm from the sun, fleetingly crowded with slender brown ankles and mobile feet, and then quiet and white again, waiting for Mara’s own grubby sole, hardened now by half a summer of sandals.
All froze at the edge of the pool, oddly silent, no giggles or squeals: only a waiting, earnest intake of breath. Only Alma and the little sly one, Carly, looked at Tessa, but they all felt her. Even Mara, hanging back on the cooling marble, felt the way she teetered at the edge, one foot uplifted and silver catching light from the water beneath, before she leapt, and twisted and stretched and snapped up into the air, a muscled flag, both arms over her head, the pale hair around it a filigree halo, white camisole catching the movement and rising above a smooth, brown stomach, before she broke the water and disappeared under the steam.
They did look then, all of them, at her sleek, water-dark head breaking the surface quickly, water streaming away from her cheekbones and uptilted chin as she thrust the white camisole above her head.
“Come on,” she breathed, and steam billowed between white teeth, before she threw the camisole away from her and dived again, wet denim shorts turned briefly upwards, and then just a shape slitting the depths beneath.
The camisole landed loudly, slapping the marble two feet from where Mara stood, and a few drops of water glittered on her shins. The other girls, galvanised by the noise, shed expensive T-shirts and struggled out of their jeans, calling and laughing now as they feinted, parried and pretended to push each other. But each girl made her own leap in the end, each arcing delighted into the air and then, after the warm plunge, each breaking the surface to grin at the sky from amniotic warmth.
Mara crouched again, alone on the steps and silhouetted against the floodlit bulk of the house. She clasped her hands around her own feet and felt soft skin at the base of her toes. She reached and ran a stubby finger along a deep groove in the lawn, to the right of the steps where she sat. She thought of webbing, of amphibious feet paddling dark pools.
A dark head broke the water, a leg’s length from the bottom step. Eyes slid quickly sideways to where the other girls had begun to lounge in the shallow end, mermaids with silver necklaces bright against their collarbones, pendants nestled between their breasts.
Carly looked at Mara, dark eyebrows raised. She smoothed back her hair with both hands, treading water.
“Coming in?” she said, flat and aloof. If it had been Alma or Tessa, Mara might have moved, might have jumped right over her into the warm pool, but Carly’s lip was curled and her hands were strong and determined on the tiled edge of the pool. Mara shook her head.
“Get some towels then, why not?” said Carly, and pushed off with both hands to twist backwards and away towards the shallow end, to claim her place on the step below Tessa.
Mara unfolded herself the way she had practised, one movement with her feet planted steadily, and went back up the steps and across the lawn. Through the hedge to her right she could see their scattered sandals on the path beyond, a jewelled strap glittering quickly as she passed, and she looked for the first time at the house.
She didn’t know who lived there, or even which girl had suggested it this time, had scouted the pool on a babysitting job or a visit with her mother. This was the third pool this summer, and the triumph was still fresh and sweet, stroking their scalps, a sinuous transgression. Usually it was over a fence, Tessa’s long foot in Mara’s hands for an instant before she got hold of the top and slung herself over. The first time, Mara had scraped her calf on the way up, and she could still feel the tight, dry beads of the scar, nearly healed now. At least she had made it, though, hiding her panting breaths behind a gasp of relief and dabbing the sweat from her temples as she straightened her T-shirt. Alma had had to be let in, through the gate, and Tessa had rolled her eyes. If that had been Mara, she would have been left behind. Tessa had worn yellow that night, a loose summer dress that had swung from her narrow shoulders as she sauntered towards the pool.
Now, Mara could see the door of the little pool house, ajar, and even propped open with a lawn ornament, but she hesitated only for a moment before moving past it and closer to the house. She crossed the patio and ran a finger along the back of a wrought iron chair. The parasol was folded like the wings of some giant bird, and a tarpaulin covered a barbeque grill in the shadows against the wall. She breathed in and out quickly, exhaling through her nose before she pressed her forehead to the French doors that gave onto the patio. These houses always had flowers, and she liked to see them in the dark, their bloomy heads still and quiet.
She could only see her own reflection, her forehead large in the glass and her eyes expressionless holes. She cast a glance back at the pool, moving now, with ripples cast by lazy feet that kicked and floated. A laugh drifted up to her, and she recognised Tessa’s four-note arpeggio.
She turned back to the window, cupped her hands around her face to look for the flowers, and stepped back quickly. A hunched shape under blankets.
There had been no cars in the driveway, no lights on all evening. She forced herself to look again. Pillows and tangled bedsheets, a crowded table. Slippers crouched together before an upholstered chair, a dressing gown lying over one of its arms with a sleeve trailing on the carpet. She stepped back again, craned her head to see the three stories and the balcony above her. A breeze stroked the back of her neck. Double garage, heated pool, those marble steps, the heavy, reclining patio furniture…and this bedroom on the ground floor. She pressed her face to the glass once again.
The bed was a single, its ergonomic tilt queering the perspective of the room, and she frowned, felt her forehead move against the glass of the patio door. It was only when she narrowed her eyes that she saw the pill bottles on the nightstand, one white cap missing, and the rim of a wheel beside the chair.
Her gut twisted, and her spine felt suddenly cold. She stumbled backwards, only now seeing the ramp that smoothed the way from the patio to the grass, and her mind leapt ahead of her feet, flying faster than she could to run her stubby finger along the twin grooves in the grass beside the steps.
She turned, suddenly, sick and shaky, and behind her, a light clicked on in the polished hall. She hadn’t heard the car but, as she half fell out of the light onto the shadowed lawn, she caught a glimpse of him, holding a sweep of skirt clear of the front steps as he carried her through. The door to the makeshift bedroom was open, and Mara had a clear line of sight right through the hall to the wrinkled hand cupped around the back of his wife’s head, protecting her from the sharp door jamb in a motion as automatic as putting out a hand to save himself, and Mara ran then, ran back on weak, trembling legs to join the frantic scurry of limbs and slap of wet clothes, because the others had seen the light and pulled themselves from the water, and they laughed breathlessly as they ran, so no one heard the sob that escaped Mara’s dry lips, at the thought of that hand cupping the white head, on which the hair had been braided unevenly.
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