There is an agitation in the Morgans’ swimming pool. The water becomes abruptly more aware, as if nudged from drowsing.
The September sun is edging over the horizon. A flurry of crows crosses the brightening sky. Their squabbling rings out in the morning quiet of this Palm Springs suburb.
The ripples in the pool abate quickly. There isn’t a breath of wind yet, and the pump remains off at this hour. The water lies inert, held down by gravity, walled in by layers of concrete. It appears tranquil but is not. It probes the rows of tile at the waterline. It investigates the grout that holds them in place. It presses against the pebbled coating that covers the bottom and sides of the basin. Its search for fissures is relentless. There are none to discover.
The pool equipment clicks on. The pump begins pushing the water through pipes and valves, affording it a small measure of relief. Movement staves off stagnation, but water cannot initiate motion. It must rely on gravity and weather, or on living things and the machines they develop to do their bidding.
The water flows from the pool, to the pump, to the filter. It travels up to the solar panels on the roof of the house, down to the salt cell, and back out to the pool. The circumscribed migration is enough to prevent these 30,000 gallons of chemically treated liquid from turning green or emitting a foul smell, which is not to say that it’s sufficient.
Lisa Morgan walks down the steps into the eighty-nine-degree water. The warmth is cloying and intrusive, like someone touching her everywhere at once. The backyard, and the pool within it, are laid bare to the desert sun thirteen hours a day. Five royal palms are the only trees. Their fronds shimmer sixty feet overhead, tethered to the property by their slim, silver trunks. They cast their scant shadows on the neighbors’ neighbors’ yard.
Lisa, too, is tall and thin. Her legs and shoulders are sculpted of muscle. People who meet her are never surprised to hear that she was in a professional dance troupe in her twenties. Eight months ago, just after her forty-eighth birthday, a podiatrist diagnosed the ache in her feet as arthritis, one of the unremarkable, incurable ailments that beset a body halfway to obsolescence. She gave up the modern dance class she taught at the community college. For exercise, now, she swims.
She adjusts her goggles, takes a sharp breath, and pushes off for her first lap. As her long limbs churn the water, a voice comes to her through the liquid tumult.
She stands, expecting to see her thirteen-year-old daughter Camille leaning out the sliding glass door, asking for the Netflix password or twenty dollars and a ride to the mall. The door, however, is closed. No one is in the backyard. The only sound is the drone of the air conditioning condenser.
But when Lisa puts her face into the water and begins to swim once more, she hears the voice again, a cascade of inscrutable syllables. It sounds like someone trying to gargle and speak at the same time. She decides it is an auditory mirage, like the sound of her cell phone ringing when she is in the shower, where some tone in the gushing water lends form to her fear of being unreachable when someone needs her.
Sunlight strobes off the pool’s surface, and her goggles intensify the glare. She closes her eyes. She doesn’t need to see to anticipate when her fingertips will brush the wall. There is room enough for four full strokes and an awkward half.
The voice burbles on, incoherent but expressive, like a baby who’s picked up the cadences of language. There’s an unfocused urgency to it that feels familiar. In recent months, an undercurrent runs below all her thoughts, sometimes clamoring for her attention and sometimes barely perceptible. It urges her to get in her car and drive for days to arrive at a distant metropolis, a place where she can change her name and melt into its anonymous mass. She recognizes this is not a realistic possibility, or even a desirable one. But the effort of resisting it consumes more of her energy than she realizes.
Lisa’s stroke is powerful but inefficient. Her hands reach, grab, and pull. Her legs kick with more force than is required to propel her through the foreshortened laps. When she reverses direction, she swims against a current of her own making.
Back and forth, back and forth she goes, her body refusing to release the promised endorphins. The voice keeps pace, demanding but companionable. She grows accustomed to its rhythms. Her arms rise and fall in time.
The water exults in the turmoil the woman’s body introduces. Her feet pummel the surface. Her cupped hands scoop downward, drowning handfuls of air. She drags some of the water along with her and flings some of it away, droplets arcing from her fingers, a wake of spray rising at her heels. The water sloshes ebulliently. It laps at the tiles.
Eric Morgan slides open the patio door, which constitutes one-third of a wall of glass that runs the length of the living and dining room. He steps into the paved rectangle of outdoors that is his backyard. The air temperature is 112 degrees Fahrenheit.
The heat of the concrete permeates the soles of his flip-flops. Visible above his neighbors’ rooftops are the blue peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains, where it is no doubt twenty or thirty degrees cooler. Eric sees Palm Springs, and the Coachella Valley in general, as all but unfit for human habitation. Six months a year, a person can get second-degree burns from walking barefoot on the pavement. The water supply is dredged up from deep underground. The animals are venomous; the plants bristle with spines and thorns. The San Andreas Fault bisects neighborhoods and open spaces, and where it has not been paved over, it puckers the ground like a surgical scar. But Eric is an electrical engineer who specializes in renewable energy, and two things that this desert valley has in abundance are sunlight and wind.
He slides out of his shoes and steps into the shallow end. It feels like bathwater. His intention was to join Lisa in the pool, but he has missed her by twenty-five minutes, having spent longer than he realized squinting at his company laptop, scanning the incoming data on their wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass.
Eric is making an effort to work less on weekends. Lisa has stopped mentioning it, but he knows better than to interpret this as a good sign. In fact, she hasn’t been talkative for months. To his comments and questions, she furnishes responses that are appropriate, informative, and blandly pleasant but leave him feeling slightly foolish, as if he were trying to gin up conversation with someone compelled by circumstances to tolerate him. An employee on his team, for instance, or a cashier or waiter. He has the sense that the greater part of his wife has sunk under the surface, and it is his responsibility to pull her out, but he doesn’t know how to go about it.
He stands in the shallow end. He can’t recall what there is to do in a pool. He remembers throwing his small, squealing child up into the air, and he remembers sitting on the steps with a cold beer in a plastic cup, but at the moment he has neither. He walks along the interior perimeter, rubbing his thumb along the ring of calcium that has built up at the waterline. It doesn’t work. He needs vinegar and a scrub brush, at a minimum. A power washer may be required.
He reminds himself he is here to relax. At the deep end, he tips his face to the sky and stretches back to float. As the water covers his ears, he feels himself overtaken by a memory. As teenagers, he and his friends would jump into the cold, swift Klamath River that ran alongside his hometown in the Oregon mountains and let it sweep them along for miles. The river gulped air and exhaled spray, hurling their bodies downstream as they yelped with joy and the fear that heightened it. They glanced off boulders and submerged logs. When his head was pulled below the surface, he would hold his breath and listen to the roil and roar of the river. Why he should remember that now, in this tepid, static pool—and recall it so vividly that he would swear that he actually hears the river’s chaotic, exuberant babble—is a mystery he doesn’t try to fathom.
He floats on his back, listening, letting the sun sear his skin.
The water is impatient with this human flotsam. The man bobs with his belly to the sky, drifting like a desiccated leaf. Motion is the only language water understands. It feels him breathe, his body buoyed by each inhalation.
Camille Morgan sprawls on a unicorn floaty in the deep end, gazing at her cell phone. She’s not allowed to use her phone in the pool, but her mother is in bed with the blinds drawn and her father is tinkering in the garage. He doesn’t know the rules, anyway, let alone enforce them.
Camille watches a YouTuber walk down Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. People flow all around him. Everyone is on their way somewhere. The advancing crowd eddies around obstacles—a lamppost, a mailbox, a falafel cart. Camille has been invited to go to New York with a friend’s family for Thanksgiving break, and she’s been pouring over travel videos all weekend. She has absorbed guidance on how to eat and shop like a local and paid virtual visits to the Empire State building, the Apollo Theater, and Coney Island.
The YouTuber approaches a subway entrance and goes down the stairs. The station, flooded with fluorescent light, saxophone music, and passengers, is like a grimy subterranean magic portal. The trains that trundle through it connect all the places Camille wants to go. Hidden below the surface of the city, they circulate endlessly, day and night.
The YouTuber boards the 6 train, bound for lower Manhattan. At the last stop, he remains in his seat as the other passengers exit. He explains, in a hushed voice, that the 6 changes direction to head uptown by looping through an underground station that has been closed since 1945. Through the windows, Camille sees the abandoned station, beautiful and ghostly. The train passes under a leaded glass skylight. Arches tiled in emerald green and bone white glide by.
Camille’s screen goes black. Her phone battery has died.
She blinks. She looks around. Boredom, undammed, rushes in. The pool is less entertaining than it once was. Last year, when she was twelve, she spent Sunday afternoons swimming with the twin boys who live next door, the three of them throwing themselves into the pool with increasingly competitive abandon. Cannonball. Front flip. Aerial cartwheel. Back tuck. But Camille has grown three inches since then, and her command of her newly lengthened body is imprecise. In June she attempted a backflip and was shocked to land flat on her stomach. She came up, sputtering and gagging, to hear the boys laughing. They haven’t been invited back.
Camille’s scalp prickles. The heat is more oppressive than when the sun was directly overhead. The pimple on her chin feels like it is aflame. She paddles to the edge of the pool to tuck the lifeless phone into the shadow of a planter. Then she slides off the floaty.
As soon as her head is underwater, she hears someone speaking to her, making some demand, she assumes, telling her to do her homework or wash her gym clothes. She exhales and sinks to the bottom, pretending not to hear. Daily, the universe offers up a hundred minor assaults on her dignity. Her body bleeds without warning. Unexpected emotions bombard her. She exacts small retributions when she can.
She listens to the garbled voice until her lungs burn. Then she comes up for a breath. The sound stops. She glances around the yard and finds it empty. Gratified that whoever it was has given up on her, she plunges back under.
And hears the voice again.
Experimentation reveals that she can hear it whenever her ears are submerged. She prowls the pool’s depths and shallows. The voice seems to come from everywhere and from nowhere. With the aid of a patio chair stacked with cushions, she peers over the fence. There is not a human being in sight in any of the surrounding yards.
Having established these truths, she dives to the bottom of the pool and gives herself over to listening, anchored to the drain’s grate by one finger. The voice is, by turns, a mumble, a lilt, and a roar. Its meaning is beyond reach, like poetry in a language she doesn’t understand. But she recognizes its restless energy, feels it in her body.
“Hello,” she says. “Hello?” Each syllable is a wavering bubble that glints in the sun.
The bubbles rise, pulled toward the sky. The water feels the knocking of the girl’s heart in her chest, the tremor of her pulse at her wrists and neck. Through the semipermeable barrier of her skin, it senses the liquid coursing through her bloodstream, just as it senses, through layers of gravel and stone, a spring far below, winding through crevices of its own making to join forces with a river that rushes to the ocean.
Lisa has been lying on the bed motionless, eyes closed, for fifty minutes, in the hopes that if she acts like she’s asleep, her body will come around to the suggestion and lose consciousness. This morning she woke at 4:30 when Eric got up to go to the bathroom. She had just fallen back to sleep when she bolted upright at 6:32 for reasons she wasn’t able to identify.
After another ten minutes, she pulls the remote control from a drawer in the nightstand. She never watches TV during the day, but she is too weary to get up and too tense to sleep. She flicks from channel to channel with the sound muted.
There’s a close-up of a familiar face. It’s Gene Kelly, and he is singing in the rain. The movie is an old favorite of hers. It’s been years since she’s seen it. She turns up the sound. Kelly snaps his umbrella shut and grins up into a downpour that drenches his suit. He croons and glides and spins, fluid and effervescent, kicking up spray, and her brain automatically supplies the name of every dance step. Shuffle. Scuff. Stamp. Ball change. Pull back. She registers the perfection of his timing, his consummate, loose-limbed artistry.
And yet she finds herself unmoved by this scene that she has always loved. As Kelly tap dances along a wet gutter, springing up and down off the curb, nothing within her springs in response. Her body feels leaden. Her skin is clammy and too warm. Damp hair clings to her temples.
A sheepish Kelly mugs at a policeman, who crosses his arms in disapproval. The movie hasn’t aged well, she makes a point of thinking. But she doesn’t believe it. The deficit is within her.
This is a loss, she knows, but it’s not one she feels acutely. Her sense of regret is indistinct, like a conversation overheard from two rooms away. And so she is surprised when she puts her hand to her face to push back her hair and finds that she is crying.
A sensor checks the pool’s water level. During the arid days bridging summer and fall, evaporation spirits away half an inch a day.
The water contemplates the cloudless sky. The trickle from the autofill valve is welcome, but the water longs for a thunderstorm or, better yet, a flash flood. Water seeks out water. The world’s oceans and lakes, its creeks and its ponds, the rivers that fan out over its surface and those that find their way through rock underground, are a fragmented whole forever trying, and failing, to coalesce. The pool is less a body of water than an amputated extremity.
The Morgans cluster at one end of their oak dining table, a monumental furnishing chosen more to fit the expansive open-plan living and dining area than the needs of a one-child family. “It would be a learning experience,” Camille continues. She ticks off sites of potential cultural enrichment. “The Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island.”
Eric extracts a bone from his salmon fillet. “Do we know this family, Lisa?”
“Sort of.” She has asked herself the same question.
Camille pries open another dinner roll. On her plate is a meatless patty drizzled with citrus caper sauce. It rests there, pristine, topped by a twist of lemon rind. She has recently declared herself a vegetarian. “The Met.” She levels her gaze at her dad. “Central Park.”
Eric holds up his palms. “I’m going to leave this decision up to your mother.” This deference is intended to please his wife.
Lisa closes her eyes. Mentally, she tosses the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, The Met, and Central Park on the mounting pile of reasons to yield to her daughter’s unrelenting entreaty, now in its third day. The pile’s negative counterpart is less well defined, a shadowy jumble of mishaps and calamities of varying specificity and likelihood.
When Lisa opens her eyes, her daughter is holding up fingers, the better to track her progress through the elements of her argument. “The UN Headquarters,” Camille says. Lisa’s mind counters with plane crashes and food poisoning. “Carnegie Hall.” Homesickness. Child abduction. “The Guggenheim.”
Eric whistles. “Well, well. Somebody spent all day on the internet.” He raises an eyebrow toward Lisa, inviting her to join him in being impressed or amused by their thirteen-year-old child’s precocious itinerary, but he finds her expression unreadable. She looks at his empty plate and slides the platter of salmon toward him.
Camille leans forward to place herself in Lisa’s direct line of sight. “Broadway.” She has never known her mother to be able to resist a musical. She name-drops three current productions.
Lisa understands what is expected of her. She smiles broadly, repeating the first two titles. “I haven’t heard of that last one.”
“It’s about that singer from the eighties. Michael Jackson.”
Lisa pauses with her fork midway to her mouth. She does not know how to categorize the unfamiliar Michael Jackson musical. It could be a candidate for either pile.
“He was a great dancer,” Camille adds.
The pool light comes on, its illumination reaching through the wall of glass into the room. The three of them each look out at the pool. Their faces are bathed in its pale blue glow. They drift for a moment, alone in their thoughts, which have more in common than they imagine.
Then they turn their attention back to the dinner table. For a few seconds, no one remembers why Camille is holding up eight fingers.
Then she puts up another. “The, uh, Met.”
“Yes, you said that one.” Lisa nods toward Camille’s plate. “Eat your dinner, please.”
Eric forks another fillet onto his plate. “I was thinking maybe we could all go up to Oregon for Thanksgiving week.”
Camille looks stricken. She chews her bread.
Eric describes his hometown in the fall, the crisp air and rushing river, the red and gold leaves on the trees. “And maybe we’d get a little rain.”
“If we’re lucky,” Lisa says. “Freezing rain, if we’re not.” Her light laugh is belated and misleads no one. She gathers the empty bread basket and half-full water pitcher and hastens to the kitchen, where she stands at the sink, mechanically taking inventory of her blessings. Then she refills the containers and returns to the table.
“Well, I guess I could go to Oregon,” Eric says.
The pool equipment shuts down. The water’s momentum ebbs. The day has not fulfilled its promise.
The stillness is stultifying. The water seethes.
Gradually, torpor overtakes it.
Lisa awakens as her husband shifts in his sleep. She inches away from the heat that radiates from his skin. Unbidden, the New York question comes to mind. Her thoughts circle it doggedly. The possibility of sleep recedes.
The house’s quiet, ever-present noises are audible. A fan whirs inside the AV cabinet on the wall opposite their bed. Three rooms distant, the refrigerator hums. Forty minutes pass.
Abruptly, the sounds cease. The power has gone out. Lisa gets up and pulls on a T-shirt and shorts. The house is dark, every glowing thing eclipsed—the nightlight in the hall, the digital clock on the stove, the modem under the TV in the family room. She navigates the rooms effortlessly, sliding past furniture and appliances and potted plants. She knows the locations of all the obstacles. She placed them there herself.
She looks in on Camille. From the doorway, she listens to her daughter breathe. In. Out. The sound is a balm. With her family asleep, needing nothing from her, it is not possible for her to fall short. The burden of loving them feels lighter.
Lisa slips out the back door and slides it closed behind her. Beyond the fence, the surrounding houses hunker black and silent, but the sky burns with stars. She can see their gradations in color—white, ice blue, pinkish, yellow. The pool reflects and animates their illumination. She watches it glimmer for a moment, then steals along the side of the house and lets herself out the front gate. The streetlights are all out, but the stars are bright enough to walk by. She shivers in her light T-shirt as she wanders the empty streets. The breeze lifts her hair from her neck.
The blinking digital clock on the stove reveals that the power has been back on for three hours. Lisa sets a plate of eggs and toast on the table in front of Eric.
He doesn’t need her to make his breakfast, but he understands she needs to make it. He hasn’t realized it’s because she requires a reason to get out of bed, and this one will do.
Camille is at the opposite end of the table on her last spoonful of cereal, her backpack slung on her shoulder. Her first class doesn’t start for almost an hour, but on school mornings she cycles off to meet her friends as early as her parents will let her.
Lisa fills Eric’s cup with coffee and then stands by the table. The three or four minutes in the morning when they are all in the same place is the time for announcements and arrangements. But her mind feels foggy, unable to focus on today’s schedule.
She pours herself a cup of coffee and looks into it, as if the information she seeks is there. Another thought comes to her instead. With Camille in New York and Eric in Oregon, she would be alone for a little while here—or, honestly—anywhere she wants. She envisions the solitude. She feels the quiet. She feels the space. It is peaceful, beguiling, annihilating. It’s like being a liquid spilled from its container. “Okay,” she says.
Eric looks up. “What?”
But she doesn’t get a chance to respond.
The water in the pool is jolted from lassitude. Seventeen miles away, the edge of a slab of rock deep underground has succumbed to pressure and crumbled, and two tectonic plates, at an impasse for years, have begun to grind past each other. The ground moves in waves.
A cluster of crows explodes from the royal palms. Their squawking is riotous.
Energy surges through the pool.
The Morgans crouch under the dining table as the floor beneath them rolls like the deck of a boat. The dishes on the table slide. A sideboard door yawns open and bangs shut.
They grip each other’s hands, surrounded by expanses of glass. The home’s architect used only enough wood and steel to hold the structure together, but the oak table, ringed by a fortification of dining chairs, is a house within a house. Eric braces himself against one of its sturdy legs as his wife and daughter lean against him. A plate crashes to the floor, swiftly followed by Camille’s bowl, which splatters them with milk.
They peer out between the chair legs. The pool churns, awash in chop. Peaks rise and collapse.
Water rushes toward the shallow end, collides with the steps, and shoots eighteen inches into the air. “Ooooh,” they say with one voice, as they do when they are watching fireworks together.
A swell builds. It travels the length of the pool, crests at the edge, and breaks over the side. It fans out on the concrete, reaching toward them. The sheet of water shivers. It stops short of the door.
A wave broadsides the unicorn floaty, which rears and spins and bucks. Through clenched teeth, they laugh.
When the shaking has stopped, Lisa pulls the chair cushions onto the floor for them to sit on. They watch the pool’s surface gradually grow still as their heartbeats slow. The crows continue to wheel in the air, cawing fitfully.
Camille digs her phone from her backpack, but there is no cell service. They do not know if it was a big earthquake far away or small earthquake close by. They do not know whether highways or buildings have collapsed. For the moment, they know only that the three of them are together and unhurt.
Eric sits behind Lisa, and she leans against him with her knees pulled to her chest. Her head rests in the indentation between his shoulder and collar bone. Camille props herself against her mother’s shins. The previously agreed upon course of action is to remain under the table until the danger of aftershocks has passed. But this plan, they now realize, is less specific than it seemed when they made it. Aftershocks can happen for days.
Lisa gathers Camille’s hair into her hands, separates it into three smooth rivulets, and weaves them together, her fingers moving with thoughtless surety. She holds the end of the braid, and then, having no elastic band to secure it, she lets it go, combs through it with her fingers, and starts again.
Slow minutes drip by as the family shelters in their low-ceilinged, ten-by-four-foot refuge. They will each return to this time and place again and again in memory, separately and together.
One by one, the crows return to the palms.
When Lisa has braided her daughter’s hair twelve times, Camille’s cell phone pings, its signal restored. In flows news of the world, mostly intact. The marquee of an old theater downtown has collapsed. A brush fire from a downed power line is already partially under control.
The pool’s surface is as still as glass. But the water is less contained than it appears.
A hairline crack runs almost the full length of the basin, meandering from the drain to the steps at the shallow end. Below it, in the pool’s concrete shell, a wider crevice has opened. The water seeps through the crack and drips down into the crevice, where it passes into the soil below, seeking out groundwater.
The water’s escape is incremental. The Morgans will never notice the leak. The bottom’s rough, pebbly texture and the blurring effect of the water make the crack invisible to the eye. Replenished by the autofill valve and infrequent rains, the pool will remain full. But all the while, the water will slip out little by little, finding its way to the sea.
_________________________________________________________________________________________ Denise Heyl McEvoy lives in Southern California. Her fiction has appeared in the Iowa Review and Santa Monica Review. She is an alumna of the Community Writing Workshop at Chapman University, the Community of Writers Fiction Workshop in the Olympic Valley, and Amherst College.