Lake Fish

by Cole Bucciaglia

In the summer at the lake, a child goes missing. All those who are tall enough link hands, forming a spine that moves slowly through the lake, feet feeling for the body of a child, until the water is over their chins. My friend Ian and I stand on the shore with the other children. We're both wet and covered with goosebumps. If my sister were with us, her eyes would be huge with worry. I watch, but I don't hear much over the sound of my teeth chattering, something I used to think happened only to cartoon characters.

At nearly fifteen, I am a serious lake-swimmer. I am long-limbed and scrawny, and this makes me goofy and ungainly everywhere but in the water. As frequent as the alerts of missing children are, I have never seen anything bad actually happen to any of them. They are always found. For this reason, I feel a little angry when I have to wait for the adults to walk along the water, feeling for ghosts in the underwater moss. Then I see how worried everyone else is, however practiced this ritual has become, and I feel a little guilty. I'm not worried for the child so much as I am worried for myself, for how awful I'll feel if something bad has truly happened. When I am relieved, it's for the safety of my own soul.

No more than ten minutes pass before someone calls out that this was a false alarm. The child had fallen asleep in a bed of needles under a nearby pine tree. Everyone wades back into the water to resume their afternoon activities. For me, this means trying to talk underwater, teaching my sister Bridget to float, or dueling other girls while perched on Ian's shoulders. A whistle is blown two hours later: same alert, different child.

This happens all too often on days with the best weather for swimming. The lake is overcrowded on most summer days. Parents bring their children to play while they sun on the banks, flipping through a summer read. Sometimes I think all these children must look the same to their parents, at least from enough of a distance, so while the parents' eyes are on the pages of their books, their nondescript children dissolve into a sea of nondescript children. When the parents look up and can't immediately spot their own kids, they panic and fear the worst.

I have built up a lot of resentment for these afternoon crowds. Even without the interruptions, the lake is too packed with people during the day for anyone actually to swim in it. The most you can do is tread water and try not to get hit in the head with a beach ball, and if you play shoulder wars, you have to be very careful not to fall on bystanders if you lose.

To avoid the waiting, the crowds, and the potential tragedies, Ian and I have begun going to the lake at night. This is technically trespassing, as no one is allowed to swim there when a lifeguard is not on duty.

Ian and I have been friends for years, but I'm not sure how we ended up that way. Perhaps it's because we are both odd: "fish out of water," as the saying goes. I am quiet, and I draw portraits of sirens and Caliban during class. I never raise my hand, but teachers usually call on me when no one else volunteers, and I always give the correct answers. At the end of each day, Bridget has free reign over my "notes" from class, and while she colors in a mermaid with pencils, I might tell her stories of how this mermaid fell in love with a shipwrecked sailor—or perhaps how she wickedly lured that sailor to his doom, depending on how I feel about the world that day. I think Bridget is building some misguided enthusiasm for what "big kids" learn in high school.

Ian wears glasses and has a new doctor's note every week excusing him from gym class, though as far as I know, there is nothing physically wrong with him aside from his farsightedness. He changes into his uniform and then walks laps around the outer edge of the court while the rest of us play volleyball. Ian's mother still packs his lunch every morning, though she does it in a paper bag (since it's less embarrassing, albeit less practical, than a nylon lunch bag), inside of which she writes things like "You are loved" in red Sharpie. Most people assume that Ian and I are shy and obedient, and we are. Or, we were, until we started going to the lake after dark. It is the first law I have ever broken.

Bridget sneaks out with me. She thinks I let her because she threatens to tell on me if I don't, and, truthfully, it is harder to make a scene about her tagging along at night than it would be during the day. The real reason I relent, though, is because Ian and I need to have a lookout in case the cops come. Besides, I know that she would never tell on me. It's not that Bridget is especially loyal. She just worries that if she gives me reason not to trust her, I'll never take her anywhere again.

There is a place that is rocky at one end of the lake, and we like to leave our clothes there while we swim. It is also where we leave Bridget. She is eleven, the youngest of the three of us, but sometimes I feel that she is the parent, and we are the dissolving children. I can sense her eyes on the surface of the lake while I am underwater. She always asks if she can swim with us, and I always tell her, "No."

"Why not? It's not fair!"

"Because it's my job to take care of you, and I can't swim and watch you at the same time."

"But I'm watching you now," she whines. "Maybe you can watch for a while, and I'll swim?" she suggests, her voice hopeful.


"Why not?"

"Because you're younger," I answer, as if it explains everything. "You're lucky you're here at all."

Bridget may whine initially, but she never abandons her post once Ian and I are in the water. She is sitting on a rock with her feet dangling over the surface of the lake. She and I look like sisters, but we also look very different. She is still at an age where the awkwardness of puberty has yet to ruin her looks. Her curls are still tinged with gold, and her face is round. She has large, expressive eyes, perfect for observing and responding, for consuming everything Ian and I create. My sister has a limited imagination, but she appreciates imagination in others.

I am wearing a dress. My body, like a boy's, has few curves, and I always wear dresses so that they'll make me look more feminine. This one is a white sundress covered in yellow flowers. I lift it over my head, carefully working my shoulders through it at an angle so that I don't tear the waist. Ian is out of his clothes first. He places his glasses on top of the small pile made by his clothing. When his thumbs slide under the waistband of his boxers I look away quickly.

Bridget is staring at the water, tracing the infinity symbol into the lake with a thin tree branch. It is her turn to ignore us. I carefully fold my dress into a neat envelope and place it on a dry part of the rocks. I see Ian testing the temperature of the water out of the corner of my eye. I turn to look at him, but my eyes go straight to his penis, small and ridged like a mushroom, and I look away again, embarrassed. I quickly step out of my canvas shoes and remove my underwear. I'm not sure if Ian is looking at me, but I pretend he is. I can see my silhouette reflected in the water, encircled by the moon, and I think I look willowy and ethereal, more like a water nymph than a gawkish teenaged girl. I jump, thrusting my arms forward, and I dive into the water which parts easily for me. Underwater, I hear the muffled rush of Ian diving in beside me, and suddenly, we are both fish.

I want to be a whale. When a humpback arcs out of the water, there is a moment when only its tail is visible above the waves like a huge, black butterfly dripping rivulets from the edges of its wings before disappearing. It is really its size and its slowness that make it so magnificent. I want to surge above the water and feel it rushing out of my lungs and into the sky, the opposite of drowning. I want birds to perch on my back while I am resting.

The lake is too small for such big fish, so I am a killifish instead. I am small with red freckles. Ian is a trout. I hide from him in the pondweed, and my smallness is dangerous, so I pretend I am a leviathan to feel safer. I imagine that my body is long and serpentine like a water dragon's. I am covered in rigid but smooth scales, white-blue opals. Around each earhole are three long, narrow bones with a thin membrane of skin stretching between them like a bat's wing, but blue. I can spread them to surround my head and look fearsome. I can pull all of my length above the water and encircle Bridget while she is waiting on the rocks. My body and the water dripping from it can form a protective coil around her, and she can pretend to be a snake-charmer or a dragon-tamer.

I see a familiar mouth, fat-lipped, gross and gaping. Ian moves as if to swallow me, but I dart past him and swim toward the center of the lake. He is a fast swimmer, and he is by my side immediately. He drops behind me to let me think I am winning this race, and then he speeds up until he is next to me again, teasing me. He repeats this as I try to swim away.

I sense an unfamiliar fish floating dumbly below me, dimly lit by the moon, and I become nervous. I quickly swim in the direction of the place where Bridget is waiting, and I wonder if Ian can sense my discomfort because he seems to fall into a more natural, less predatory pace behind me.

Something far ahead of me breaks through the surface of the water, and I stop. My heart panics, and I worry that it is a bird, snatching up fish. I hope Bridget has simply thrown something into the water. Ian floats beside me, and we wait apprehensively as the bubbles clear. The something is pink and white and inanimate. I recognize my sister's sandal. It buckles on the side and shouldn't slide off accidentally, so I wonder if she is having a temper tantrum.

Above us the dull glow of the moon lights the path back to our dull lives, and we break through the surface of the water with heads now human. On the rocks at the side of the lake, Bridget is trying to remove her t-shirt. Her image is poorly defined against the blurry backdrop of dark trees, but I can see the white of her shirt drawn taut between her elbows above her head. The ground must be slippery because her feet kick out behind her, and she falls, head-first into the rocks. My initial reaction is to laugh, but when I see that there is no movement on the rocks anymore, and I don't hear her crying, I worry that something bad may have actually happened to her, and without even thinking to become a fish again, I swim quickly to her side. I don't notice whether or not Ian is following me.

Bridget is lying silent and motionless on the rock with her t-shirt gathered around her neck. I think I see something dark on her forehead, and I don't know whether it is dirt or blood, and I can't really tell by touching it because my hands are wet. Ian is blocking my light and asking, "Is she OK? Is she OK?" I order him to get out of the way, and I see that it is blood on her head, but when I dab it away with her shirt, there is no injury underneath, and I know that it must be trickling down from someplace beneath her hair. I place my fingers against her wrist to check for her pulse, but I don't feel anything. I then place them on my own wrist for comparison, but I don't feel anything there either, and I realize that I have no idea what I'm doing.

"Can you find her pulse?" I ask Ian. Then I say her name, "Bridget? Bridge? Wake up, Bridget."

Ian holds his hand in front of Bridget's nose and says, "I don't think she's breathing. I don't know."

I hoist myself out of the water to crouch beside her, and Ian follows. I place my head against her chest, thinking I might be able to hear her heartbeat, but Ian won't stop asking, "What do you hear? Is she breathing? Is she OK?" and all I can hear is my own heart beating in my head and the sound of air in the cave between my ear and her chest, which is like the ocean inside of a conch shell.

"We should get her into the water," I say, and I don't really know what I'm saying or what I am doing. Rather, I know what I am doing but not why I am doing it. I push against my sister's shoulder and roll her closer to the edge of the rock until her arm dips down and touches the water.

"What are you doing?" Ian asks, but then he sees it too, I'm sure.

There is a nearly sheer webbing of flesh between the fingers that are touching the lake. What at first look like goose bumps in the moonlight become silvery scales, and her arm twitches with life. Her legs kick together. Where they touch they become indistinguishable from one another like two bits of wet clay pressed together. Eyelids flick back, and then they are gone. Her eyes are pools of black and gold jelly that catch the light like disks, and as she opens her mouth toward the sky, I know that she is struggling to breathe. Ian helps me push her into the water, and as soon as she is submerged, the girl is gone. She leaves behind only her clothes floating by the rocks as she swims across the lake, cutting a "V" into the water with her gray back.

Ian and I sink to our bottoms, relieved. We look out onto the lake. We forget that we are naked as we sit there, side-by-side, waiting for her to return.

BIO: Cole Bucciaglia's work has appeared in publications such as West Branch, PodCastle, Timber Journal, and Extract(s). She is the editor-in-chief of Psychopomp Magazine and a former assistant editor of Crab Orchard Review. She graduated from the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.