“So. Birthday dare. Something egregious,” Grant said.
“Egregious,” Evan murmured. A fat wasp droned over his chest. Evan swatted it away before it could land on him. “Outlandish.”
“Wild,” Grant said.
“Egregious doesn’t mean crazy.”
“Sure it does.” The wasp came back. Evan picked one of his sneakers off, slashed at it, and connected. The wasp’s body arched high, caught the breeze, and fell into the pool.
And now Grant was looking at the scummy pool, his mismatched eyes glittering. Evan knew that look. He waited for the words.
“I dare you,” Grant said.
“I’ll go get my trunks.” A couple of years ago, Evan had eaten a grasshopper for his birthday dare. No matter how much scum was on the top of the pool, it couldn’t be more disgusting than a grasshopper wriggling and spitting and kicking in his mouth.
“No,” said Grant. “No trunks.”
Evan rolled his eyes. He’d gone skinny dipping in the pond behind Janie Winecke’s house in fourth grade. Three years, a hundred years ago.
“In your underwear.” Grant said.
Somehow, going in wearing his underwear was even more obscene than going in with nothing at all. Evan stared at the water, at the brown and green flotillas of algae, imagined them clinging to his skivvies. “Egregious,” he muttered, and kicked off his other shoe.
Grant whooped and began giving details. “You have to dive all the way in, no panty-waist, tiptoey, dippy dunk. And you have to swim all the way down, in the deep end.”
Dad’s hammer and Uncle Hector’s saw banged and buzzed away up at the house. Evan squatted, listening to their ruckus. A cacophony, that’s what they were making, pounding the deck into repair. If they stopped for more than a couple seconds, that would mean they were done. They’d come down here to see how their boys were getting along, see Evan in his tighty-whities, and Grant grinning, and what? Uncle Hector would laugh, and would probably throw Grant in, tit-for-tat. And Dad would laugh, he’d laugh right now, but later, he’d find an excuse to pull Evan aside, and… question him. And he’d remind Evan about James Van Driekson last year, and the preverts all over the internet, and he’d use his church voice the whole time, and Evan would have to say at least a thousand times, No, I’m fine, it was just the birthday dare, that’s all, same as it’s always been since Grant and I were five years old.
The hammering went on. The saw went on. Evan took a step and a breath, and held onto his briefs with one hand as he dived.
The pool was as warm as sweat. Evan kicked away from the surface, algae shifting and bumping against his bare legs. Even with his mouth squeezed tight, he could taste the foulness of the water, like it had seeped through his ears to touch the back of his throat.
There’d been no squares edging the poolside, advertising the depth. It could be ten feet, twelve feet, a thousand feet deep. Evan couldn’t sense the bottom or the surface. All around him, floaties and foulness and warm water, like piss. He was swimming through a toilet, that’s what, and maybe he’d gotten in the bend without realizing it, and what if someone flushed?
Evan opened his eyes. Light blurred above him, at the end of the angle of his skinny body. And below him, more water, darker and deeper. He stretched his arms, kicked his legs, and pushed on. Pushed in, he thought, through slick, sweaty water.
The water grew cooler the deeper he swam. He kept his eyes open, despite how they burned. The light above dwindled, and then was gone, and the water didn’t end. That wasn’t right — where the pool was dark and deep that was where the bottom had to be. Covered by a layer of muck, maybe; maybe inches of decaying leaves blown into the pool during the winter. But water and quiet surrounded him instead.
Quiet. He couldn’t hear Dad and Uncle Hector banging on the deck. He couldn’t even hear the bubbles when he let some air out of his lungs. Evan swiped at the water, edging deeper. His fingers touched sand. Sand. At the bottom of a pool.
Something touched him back.
Not the soft touch of algae, not the drift of debris against his skin. It caressed his arm, a direct, intentional touch. Evan exhaled, and kicked against the sandy floor, sending him careening, screaming for the surface. He could feel it, whatever it was, reaching for him again, reaching for his bare legs, it was there in the way the water spun away from his feet as he fought for air, for sunlight.
A hand on his thigh. Evan struck out with his other leg, struck nothing, and there was still a hand on him, creeping up toward the elastic leg-band of his briefs, scrabbling on him, slow as a falling leaf.
He burst out of the pool and gasped and grabbed for the concrete. Solid, yes, air, yes, sunlight yes! The hand slipped down his leg, pinched his calf, stroked the bottom of his foot. Evan hauled himself out of the foul water, not caring now that some dripped out of his hair into his mouth. He rolled away from the pool, and coughed and shivered.
Another hand on his leg, but this was a large hand, warm and callused with work. Dad’s hand, and that big hand gripped his leg and his bare shoulder, tightly, and when Evan looked, there Dad was, fear etched all over his face.
Uncle Hector and Grant were both in the pool, waist deep in water, the same fear on their faces. Their hair, and Dad’s, was wet. A dark leaf stuck against Dad’s face; he didn’t seem to notice it.
Evan coughed. He said, “Something grabbed my leg.”
Dad’s hand tightened on Evan’s shoulder. Uncle Hector said, “You were under there for…”
“Three minutes, forty-two seconds,” Grant said. His mismatched eyes were unblinking and clear. He wiped his nose, leaving a grimy streak across his face. “I counted.”
The Big House sat by itself at the end of a long gravel drive. That was what Uncle Hector had called it, Big House, like it was one word. Bighouse. Pig house, Grant had said, when Dad and Hector had given them the tour. Everything was damp and muddy, even the few rooms where Mr. Valadanov had lived. It’d had a real name once — the Moldau.
The Moldy, Grant had said.
Mr. Valadanov had only used three rooms in the Big House: the kitchen, the bedroom, and the bathroom. The kitchen took up half of the first floor, with its cavernous brick oven built right into the chimney, and its black iron woodstove. It smelled sour. The only electrical thing in it was a microwave. The bedroom and bathroom were as small as closets.
The upstairs was a warren of messy bedrooms. None of the mess was the least bit interesting: nails and fusty clothes and broken light bulbs. Dust and air as dead as old Carmen Valadanov himself, that was what was upstairs.
But outside, the world was alive. Blackberries and wild grapes tangled the fence that ran down to the old pool-house, sealing wrought-iron posts behind green cascades. The yard sloped away from the pool, a long, smooth sledding hill if ever Evan had seen one. From the pool-house, all the way down to the woods at the far end of the field, there was nothing but grass.
Grass and wind and sunlight. And June, that was outside, and the storms and brightness of a long summer stretching out forever for three months, and it stuck in Evan’s nose, it lodged in his throat, it itched him, until he was so full of it, not all the chores and sweating Dad and Uncle Hector laid on him could drain it.
But the pool did.
Three minutes, forty-two seconds beneath scummy water with some kind of pervy pool mermaid? And was he fine, yessir, he was. Except he wasn’t, because the hand that had touched his legs had drawn summer out of his bones. The mad June-buzz he’d been infected with was gone, gone gone.
So quiet, so dark.
So lovely. Not even standing under the shower Dad had rigged up against the garage, not even the taste of Uncle Hector’s chili, not even the birthday cake Grant had smeared in his face, in his nostrils, could get the smell, the feel, out of his skin, or the taste of the pool out his mouth.
In the dryness of the tent he shared with Grant, Evan dug his fingers into his sleeping bag and felt wet sand gritting beneath his fingernails. And thinking of the water, and the darkness beneath the water, and the sand, he thought of the Edgar Allen Poe poem Uncle Hector had taught them last summer:
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling — my darling — my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
“Annabel Lee,” Evan whispered, and the wind breaching the tent flap brushed his mouth. He licked his lips and tasted salt.
Grant snored on.
Evan stretched and wriggled out of his sleeping bag. Damp grass licked his bare feet and calves as he stepped away from the tent. The house hulked sixty feet away from him, the front porch lights glowing around the corner. No saws, no hammers — but he could hear Dad and Uncle Hector talking, and the clink of bottles being laid down on the porch’s steps. Evan turned away from the house, toward the darkness at the end of the fence.
Was the water in the pool darker than the night sky? It wasn’t possible; but the water was darker, and the pool wasn’t a pool, it was a cave, and it was deeper than the Earth was wide, darker than the butt-backside of the moon. Evan curled his toes against the concrete surrounding the pool.
If he touched the water; if he dipped into it, let it swirl over his head; if, if, if! The water was cold on the tips of his fingers, cold up to his elbows as he leaned over. He was hot, he was flaming, flaring, roasting, and the pool was dark and lovely and cool. Cool pool, I’m a fool on a stool, she’s a jewel by the sea, my Annabel Lee.
Evan kissed the surface, and his eyelashes brushed drops of water into his eyes. Fingers, hands, elbows, arms, face, now for his shoulders, then his back, his hips, his legs and feet and toes, all in, all within the beautiful, foul water, drifting downward forever, to the end of the world.
No dare, this time. This time, he’d go in on his own, go in to stay, forget the summer that no longer buzzed in his bones. Suck in water and scum, meet Annabel Lee, or whoever, beneath the waves, the water, and give up, give in.
Evan opened his eyes. There was only darkness beneath his face. But he could feel movement down there; the water trembled, and in the darkness, in the deepness, his lips and cheeks knew that the movement had the shape of a hand, a lovely, long-fingered, hand, soft as algae, sweet as…
“No,” Evan whispered, and withdrew. His head and shoulders and arms were wet, but the rest of his body stretched out long on the concrete, toes pointing toward the pool-house.
The end of the world lay beneath the water, waiting. Something damp and light hung between his upper lip and nose; Evan reached for it, plucked it away. A light, brittle body, even after hours in the pool. A dead wasp.
Evan fled. The water chuckled after him, touching, touching the sides of the pool.
The pool-house was full of dead wasps. Their bodies crunched under Evan’s feet as he crossed to the windows, gagging on the stink of the bug bombs they’d set off. Grant followed him with a push broom, clearing swaths of concrete of the hard red and black bodies. The windows were jammed; Evan hammered on them to get them to rise, and by the time they did, his head was spinning and his nose was burning. He stuck his head out of the pool-house and sucked in the fresh air.
And refused to look at the black, blank pool.
Grant had swept the dead wasps into a pile, and was flicking them one by one into an open drain on the floor. “Maybe it doesn’t want to drown you. Maybe it wants a… consort.”
“Boy-toy.” Grant used the toe of his flip-flop to kick some of the wasps into the drain hole. “What if it’s a merman?”
And then they were quiet. Grant brushed the rest of the pile of wasps into the drain, and Evan brought in another broom to knock the nests down from the corners of the room. The open windows didn’t let in much air, and the room was hot and sticky. They cleaned the walls and the floor, the lockers and shower stall. All the grit, and the spiders, and the remaining wasps, all were swept into the drain and washed down with the garden hose. The drain gurgled and bubbled, then the mess disappeared down its throat.
“Folderol,” Evan said, staring at the drain as the mess of dirt and cobwebs and dead wasps throbbed and chuckled at him.
Grant said automatically, “Balderdash.”
Deep foulness, stinking, lovely water, whispering, and what did it whisper for him? The end of the world, the end of Dad, of Uncle Hector and Grant, and summer, and everything; the end of Evan, within the warm water.
Grant turned the hose on him, holding his thumb over the end so it sprayed out hard. It caught Evan on the side of the head. “Wakey, wakey, Evie.”
Evan wrestled the hose away from Grant, and chased him out of the pool house. They horsed around until Dad came from the porch and yelled at them to quit wasting water. Grant sprinted to the faucet and turned it off. He thumped the side of his head with his palm to dislodge the water in his ears, grinning at Evan all the while.
But Evan knew there was plenty of water, a world of it, within that pool. And at the very deepest, sand all the way to the bottom of the universe.
“There’s sand at the bottom,” Evan blurted. “Why would anyone put sand at the bottom of a pool? It can’t drain, it can’t…”
“We should go look,” Grant said. He stretched his arms above his head like he was reaching for the sun.
“No. It’s dark down there, anyway. The deeper I went, the darker it got, until I couldn’t even see the surface.”
“We could wrap our flashlights in duct tape.”
“No.” But yes, into the dark again, into the quiet, yes, lovely fingers reaching for my face, reaching for me. Drain hole by the sea, my Annabel Lee, burbling, gurgling forever in the dark. He sucked in and held the air until his lungs burned. He let it out in a whoosh. Expel the pool, purge the darkness, poof! Fill the end of the world pool with a gutful of summer breath.
“I’m going,” Grant said.
Evan caught up with him at the tent. Grant was shucking off his shoes and jeans. He was wearing his swimming trunks underneath. He’d been planning this, planning to dive into the pool all along. Grant found his flashlight, flicked it on, off, on again. Off at last.
“That water is really disgusting,” Evan ventured.
“I’ll keep my mouth closed.”
It wouldn’t matter. Evan knew. The water would creep into Grant through his ears, through the ends of his blonde hair, through his skin. It would seep and creep into Grant, and when whatever-it-was touched him, it would steal summer out of him, too. And how could there be another birthday dare if there was no summer ever again, in either of them?
Evan stood in front of the tent flap. “No.”
“Get out of the way,” said Grant. The tent was too small for him to stand up in, but he moved forward, pushing his arms against Evan’s chest.
Evan shoved him back into the tent.
“Stop it,” Grant said. A bit of a whine flickered in his voice. He tried to stand, but Evan grabbed him by his shoulders and pushed him back.
And this time Grant didn’t try to stand. He crouched, and lunged at Evan, catching him around the midsection. Evan wheeled back and lost his balance. Grant fell with him, and, in a moment, they were scraping and scratching at each other, rolling in the grass and hot sun. Grant slammed the butt of the flashlight into the small of Evan’s back once, twice, before Evan clipped the side of Grant’s face with his elbow. But somehow, Evan wound up beneath Grant, covering his face while Grant aimed punches at him.
Grant stopped trying to hit him. He got up, and Evan uncovered his face. A dark bruise was forming beneath Grant’s left eye. He wiped some grit off his face and turned to the pool. Like that was all, like this was over, and in the past it would have been. That’s the way it was, and sometimes in the past, it had been Evan on top, to get up and walk off silently. In a couple of hours, Grant would come back and apologize, and…
Not this time. There’d be no apology if Grant kissed that water. So Evan didn’t let him walk off. He rushed forward and tackled Grant from behind. Evan ploughed forward, squeezing with his arms, pushing with his legs, jerking Grant viciously to the side to try and throw him off his feet.
Grant cried out as he fell. The sound of it broke across Evan’s ears — he was hurting Grant; Grant his best friend since they’d been babies, Grant his cousin, Grant who knew about the cigar he’d stolen from Dad’s boss, Grant who meant summer to Evan. Grant who had never cried like this before. And yet, and yet, if Evan didn’t stop him, the water, the darkness, and the end of the world!
Evan had jumped Grant from behind, and now he was going to betray him worse, as he brought up his knee like a girl would, right between Grant’s legs. It was the end of the world already, this fighting with Grant, hurting him like this, but at least Grant wouldn’t breathe that water through his ears, through his skin.
Evan’s knee caught Grant’s thigh. Grant slipped back, pushing with his arms and digging with his feet to get away from him. Evan scrambled after, trying to pin him, but he was too fast. Evan saw Grant’s fist curl, and the hard glint in his eyes. Pain exploded in Evan’s groin. He sagged to the ground.
Grant panted, “Stay down this time.” His flip-flops popped and smacked as he turned and walked away from Evan. Toward the pool.
Evan wanted to stay down. The pain between his legs crept slowly into his stomach and lower back. Stay down, stay down, three minutes and forty two seconds is all it should take to satisfy Grant’s curiosity. Evan held his crotch and rolled and watched the ground dip away to blue sky and clouds and gnats wheeling above him.
He heard a splash from the direction of the pool. Start counting now, he thought, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three…
Evan got to his knees. His balls felt as big as grapefruits as he walked, as he waddled, to the stinking hole, the end-of-the-world pool. Sepulchre by the sea, Annabel Lee.
Without bothering to strip, Evan dropped through the scum on the top of the pool. The water was as slick and warm as it had been yesterday. Darkness was just beyond his fingertips, and somewhere below that, Grant.
And something else, something with fingers, and lips, and if it touched him, he’d scream his lungs out.
It was harder to swim down this time. He couldn’t kick at all, and had to rely on his arms. He was tired from fighting Grant, and from working all morning long in the pool-house. The darkness seemed always out of reach, and the taste of the pool was in his mouth this time, really there, not just somehow-seeped through his ears. Down, and down, and down!
Something hard bumped against his fingertips and spun away. Grant’s flashlight. Evan chased after it, caught it. Its beam seemed diffuse and weak — but still. Hope against the darkness. Evan swung the beam toward the bottom of the pool.
The darkness no longer moved away. It surged up and over him in a rush. The flashlight’s beam guttered and ceased. Nothing, nothing but deepness and darkness and silence, and no wonder Grant had let go of it, it was so useless. Worse, it was like the bait that those deep sea fish used to lure other fish into their mouths, a little bit of hope, a little bit of bouncing light, hello, goodbye!
A hand on his chest, soft and cool. It slid upward, to his throat, and though Evan screamed like he’d known he would, he never ran out of air, and those fingers traced his open lips, his eyes, his ears, and the back of his neck.
The voice thumped through the pool, and as it spoke, Evan felt the fingers on the back of his neck give a little stroke, teasing the hair there.
Evan wasn’t floating any longer. He wasn’t buoyant. He was sinking. He flailed and kicked, but the hand drew him down delicately, softly, until he felt sand. But it wasn’t sand, couldn’t be, because his toes were passing through it too easily.
The sand sucked at Evan’s waist, climbing his lower back now, colder than the water, slick and gritty all at once. The hand on his neck drifted up to play with the hair on the top of his head, and to press him ever-so-gently deeper in. Evan struck and writhed in the silence.
And felt his open palm slap someone. Flesh! His fingers knew what flesh felt like. Evan could feel Grant’s short hair, soft as rabbit fur in the water. He was up to his chest in the sand.
Two boys! Sweet playmates, for me, for me, under the waves, under the sea!
The voice giggled and rhymed as Evan struggled. Be, sea, me, lee, free, on and on. Evan locked his arms around Grant’s chest and pulled. He didn’t succeed in doing anything but forcing himself farther down. And Grant didn’t move, he just hung limp and placid in the sand. Evan tugged on him again, kicking his legs in the sand for purchase, yanking on Grant’s torso until his back burned with the effort.
He wouldn’t hush. This wasn’t the ocean, this wasn’t a cave, this was a scummy pool filled with algae and stagnant water and mosquito larva, and there were no waves, and Annabel Lee was dead in Poe’s poem. She didn’t hunt after the boy she’d loved in childhood, she didn’t try to drown him, and anyway, what girl had Grant or Evan ever loved?
The hand on Evan’s head withdrew, and with it, the darkness. For a moment, Evan caught sight of something swimming in the water. A long, naked body; a slender woman with pale hair that spread over Evan and threatened to touch his face. A bulbous mass hung beneath her waist, something obscenely chubby and… clutching. She was gone in a flicker of whiteness, down to the sand.
And Evan was drowning in the murk, buried up to his ribs. All the aches of the day, his crotch and lungs, doubled into him. Evan gagged and surged, struggling out of the gripping, greedy sand. Grant’s limbs were as limp as ever, jouncing idly at Evan’s movements. A little, clear bubble of air hung in Grant’s open mouth. Evan watched it, even as he fought up, fought against the burning in his chest, the ominous pop-pop-pop in his brain. That bubble of air, that was Grant’s soul, and if it fled into this foul water, Grant would be gone, deader than dead, with no more sense or will than a blob of green algae.
The bubble trembled against the edge of Grant’s teeth. It was slipping, slipping…
Evan did the only thing he could think of. He put his mouth over Grant’s, and held it there. Grant’s soul would be safe, summer would be safe, closed up in the space between their mouths, protected against the end of the world, and the hostile water.
Sand churned around them, but now Grant’s legs were coming free. Evan strained and lifted and drew him up, drew him out, and sucked a piece of his soul into his throat. It tasted like rain and woodsmoke, heavy, vibrant, and Evan breathed it back forcefully. Ram it down, that was the idea, push it so deep into Grant’s chest that it would never come free, never, never.
It wasn’t as far as he remembered to the surface. Lights glared through the water — one, two, three suns, burning through the scum. Evan dragged himself and Grant toward them.
Shadows loomed over them suddenly, and thick hands plunged through the algae to tear Grant out of Evan’s arms. Then more hands were grasping at Evan. Not Dad’s hands — not this time. A tall stranger pulled him out of the water and hauled him over to the edge. The smell of burning diesel choked the air.
Grant! Evan tried to say, but vomited dark water instead. Grant gurgled and barfed to his left, and someone murmured words of comfort and amazement. Evan heard the stomp of Uncle Hector’s heavy boots, and the pop and smack of Dad’s sandals, and then they were there, grabbing them, huddling them together so tight that Evan had to struggle to get to the edge of the pool to vomit again. Grant, too.
“We couldn’t find you under there,” Dad was babbling. He scrubbed his hands through Evan’s hair. “We heard you go in, and then…”
Uncle Hector said, “Next year, no pools. No water at all, I swear, it’s the Mojave Desert for us. We’ll camp at the salt flats for the whole summer.”
The pool was shallow now. A fat hose draped over the other side, drawing the water down steadily, to the thrum and buzz of a pump. Evan could see the black water gushing out of the back of the pump in a furious stream.
Someone came and put a blanket over Evan, and shined a tiny flashlight in his eyes, and coaxed them all away from the edge of the pool. And then Grant was next to him, and they sat shoulder to shoulder, sniffling, until Grant put his arm around Evan, and it was an apology, it was gratitude. It was more. It was summer. Evan had held Grant’s breath in his throat, he’d pushed life back into him, and here it came around again, warm and sweet. Straight from Grant’s skin, through Evan’s, right to his own very bloodstream, buzzing directly to his bones.
And behind them the pump droned on, sucking the black water in and spitting it out, out, out. Out into the darker night.
This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.