When A Body in the Water Hits Your Body

by Kathleen J Woods

Nora jumped from the planter with the rest of the girls, smiling for the camera in their neon swimsuits. She could not stop midair to protect the body beneath her, the girl who had jumped at "two" rather than "three." Nora's thighs slammed against shoulders, her pelvis against the back of a neck. The girl folded. Nora spun away into the water.

She surfaced with the other faces. The body that had crumpled sputtered and thrashed. It was the birthday girl's cousin. Someone yelled, a mother standing poolside. Nora scattered away with the others, darting like minnows.

The cousin turned herself onto her back. She floated and moaned. Another girl pushed her gently to the shallow end. Don't move her. Don't twist her neck. She moaned. A mother dipped into the water, soaking her shirt. They lifted the cousin up.

Nora huddled between two classmates. They wore checkered tankinis. They wore polka dots. Nora's hips vibrated. Her eyes hazed with chlorine. A mother straightened the cousin flat over the adobe tiles circling the pool. Call an ambulance. Girls, get out of the pool.

The birthday girl was crying. Nora looked at her, newly thirteen, round stomach and narrow hips. The birthday girl was not popular, but she was the first in their class to become a teenager. She had this outdoor swimming pool, curved like two eggs, with a yellow waterslide and the rocky planter ledge ten feet above. The adobe tiles burned Nora's feet.

A mother ushered the girls into the shade. They sat on plastic loungers and straw chairs. Nora fidgeted over the weaving. Her thighs hurt.

"No one is in trouble," the birthday girl's mother said. The mother with the hair like Red-Hots. "But we need you girls to be honest."

The group murmured a choral It Wasn't Me. Nora echoed them, her jaw half-stone. I didn't hit her. I couldn't see.

The birthday girl sat in front of Nora, sniffling. No one else was crying. One girl mimicked a sob, a narrow-lunged foghorn. The birthday girl leaned back against Nora's knee. Nora stroked her wet hair. Her fingers formed gutters and ridges. Nora braided. She did not look up. The birthday girl's scalp was white chalk, white frosting.

The ambulance's siren wailed towards them. It silenced at their door. The girls turned to each other and whispered. Two paramedics walked across the adobe with a stretcher. They knelt by the cousin, shelling her in black cloth. They pulled tools from their bags. Bandages spilled towards the pool. The birthday girl's mother paced alongside them, gesturing. Nora tried to hear her. This was the mother that had called out to them. She had said one, two, three, jump. She had taken a picture. Nora dropped the chunks of braid and watched them slide apart.

The birthday girl turned. "I know one of you did this."

Nora's hand hovered over the birthday girl's head. She lowered it to the pain in her thigh. The birthday girl's face was so close.

"She didn't even want to come. She doesn't even know any of you," she said, tears on her round cheeks. She tucked into herself, a nautilus. The other girls whispered. Their plastic seats squeaked beneath the damp undersides of their legs.

Across the pool, the paramedics lifted the cousin onto the stretcher. Plastic and foam covered her neck, held her like a doll in its packaging, so many straps and twist-ties.

The siren sped away from the house, and the girls burst into chatter. Is she paralyzed? Is she dead? The hospital, the hospital. My brother was in the hospital once, they put rods in his spine.

The three mothers stood in the shade, their fingers on their temples and necks.

"Everything's fine. You can all get back in the pool," one said.

"I'm not sure," the birthday girl's mother said.

"It's so hot. What else are they supposed to do?"

The girls looked at each other, looked at the water. I dunno. I don't want to. Nora's skin tightened over her elbows.

"Girls, get back in the pool," the birthday girl's mother said. "I'll call your parents."

She turned to the house, flip-flops smacking against puddles.

The birthday girl did not look up as the others walked back to the water, stepped in one at a time. Nora bent close to her.

"She'll be okay," she said.

The birthday girl shook her head. "You don't know. She looked gray."

Nora straightened and followed the other girls. Her head spun as she approached the pool's edge, the slick tile marked "Three." Come in, the girls called, so bright in the water. Nora split her face into a smile. Her own swimsuit the only green, easy to pick out among the pinks and blues. Nora walked to the stairs. She saw the camera on a pile of towels, where the birthday girl's mother had dropped it. The girls called for her.

The water chilled her calves and cut into her belly. The girls stood in the shallow water.

"Was it you, Nora-Nora?" Polka dots said. "It wasn't me."

"No," Nora said.

Maybe it was nobody. Maybe she's faking. Maybe it was nothing.

Nora ducked under the water. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe she'd imagined. She opened her eyes. Blurry legs kicked and pranced, murky toes spinning on the white pool floor. The familiar limbs of classmates who skipped rope at lunch. They'd jumped for the picture. The cousin had gone too fast. So many feet down to the water, Nora's head blank as she dropped. How could it have been her? What could she say now? This cousin went to a different school Nora would not see her again, not see the neck brace or the wheelchair coming down the hallway. Her stomach turned. She shot to the surface and blew water from nose.

"I bet she was faking," Checkered said. "She's like ten. Little girls fake."

Nora nodded. "She's probably okay. She's definitely okay."

She moved the edge of the pool, away from the games of mermaid, carried herself hand over hand until she hit something soggy. The end of the unrolled bandage. The ambulance had come for her. The ambulance had sped her to the hospital. She'd been so small in her frilly swimsuit. Nora's mother was driving towards them. She would be there soon, to scoop her away, to wonder what happened. An accident.

Nora watched the other girls dip into the water and raise their feet like fins. They tossed their dark heads back and laughed. Nora's neck stiffened. The water lapped at her sides. She pulled herself over the ledge. How could she say anything now? She watched the birthday girl glare from the edge of the house, standing by her mother. They whispered together.

Nora stood, sun hot on her back. She stepped forward, reaching for a towel, trying to look like she was reaching for a towel. No one had retrieved the camera. It was large, its lens long and intricate, switches like a series of bracelets. Nora swept her hair forward. It dripped down her chest, sent waves down her stomach. She leaned.

BIO: Kathleen J. Woods is a writer and M.F.A. candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she teaches and serves as the assistant editor for Timber Journal. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apeiron Review, Paragraphiti, Paper Tape Magazine, Cavalcade Literary Magazine, and others.