And Something Else by Mary Kate Flannery
She didn’t scream. Nobody screamed, or even had to tell the swimmers to come in. Children didn’t cry for mothers, even after the wrong ones grabbed them by the wrists. Husbands didn’t splash in after wives. They knew before the lifeguard’s whistle pierced their ears. They moved so fast it felt like they were moving slow. They moved so fast they didn’t see the faces of the two men fighting them and the waves so they could get to the girl. They didn’t care when their hands got caught in hair, when their elbows struck noses, when their feet kicked teeth. They became a blur of thrashing limbs, because they had felt it in their Atlantic-chilled bones and in the sinewy pink meat that contracted around those bones in response to the cold, and something else: get out of the water get out now move you can’t run swim breathe don’t breathe breathe don’t breathe swim live walk breathe.
Nobody blamed the lifeguard, because she was young and bronze-brown and sleek, the way lifeguards are supposed to be, with long, long legs that never ended and made her father watch other men and her mother squirm because she didn’t know where they had come from (no other woman in the family had those legs), and because the water was dark and full of shadows that were just shadows. She ran out into the water, the waves lapping up at her like cold tongues, till she was thigh deep, and then waved her arms over her head, signaling for the two men bringing the girl in to bring her right there. But the men weren’t looking at the lifeguard. The men were silently invoking Christ and asking themselves what the fuck they were doing out there, because the girl’s teeth were chattering in their ears and her arms were trying to pull them down into the water, which was warm all around them with the blood she was losing and kept washing up into their noses and mouths. Both of them were wearing white tee shirts, which were less white now and more pinkish, and which, when they finally dragged themselves and her out of the water, clung to them and hung from them like wet dead skin. They dragged her up to where the sand turned white, and then a little farther. Then they laid her flat on her stomach and backed away. They sank to their knees, spat the taste of ocean and blood into the sand, and waited to feel hands on their backs, arms around their necks.
The girl could’ve been a tall twelve or a short fourteen and was wearing a pink bikini with thousands of the tiniest white polka dots on it—and where her upper left thigh and buttock should have been there was a red crater of carved flesh instead and a wink of white bone. The training (or something else) does take over. Years from now, the lifeguard will remember this. She’ll be sitting at home, tender arthritic legs lodged under the kitchen table, hands warmed pink by a cup of tea, her grandchildren thumping around upstairs, and then, suddenly, she’ll be thinking about it. How fast she had made decisions. How she had moved with the speed and grace of a dumb animal. Memories that will feel wonderfully like the bones of legends. Yes, she had already radioed for the paramedics. Yes, she had already screamed for towels and more towels. And she already had her kit, though she never opened it, not even for the gloves. Nothing in there would be enough. But the wound was too big for just her hands, so she called over a man and woman with color still in their cheeks. Pressure, she told them. Pressure. One towel after another. They had to put their weight into it. Harder. They couldn’t be afraid of hurting her. And her voice was as big and steady as the ocean in their ears. Her voice was a roaring thing they could trust. And their hands stayed right there with hers, overlapping hers and each other’s, sticky with blood and itchy with sand and now the warmest parts of their bodies, because the wound was a warm and pulsing thing. The wound was the most alive thing they had ever touched, and they would keep their hands there for longer than they needed to. They would keep their hands there until the gloved hands of the paramedics took them away, and somebody above and behind them said, It’s okay, it’s okay.
A lot of people were standing around. The women kept their throats in one hand and their children’s faces in the other. The women were thinking about how in God’s name they were supposed put them to bed that night, how they were supposed to wake them up in the morning. And the children pulled, pinched, and clawed at those hands. They refused to give up, because their eyes were like everybody else’s. Their eyes were starving things. And none of the men knew what to do with their hands. Not until another man approached the scene. He was saying how how how what happened I’m her father how wait let me see that’s my kid how how my kid wait. The men held him back. They gripped his shoulders, and pushed back against his chest, where his heart beat against their hands, wild and strong, as if it were trying to pound its way out.
And, every once in a while, the lifeguard would touch the girl’s wrist (so lightly it was like she wasn’t touching her at all), bending over as she did so to bring the edge of her ear to the girl’s lips. Then the girl would taste everything that the lifeguard was, and would be someday: the salt on her skin from the ocean and her sweat, something fruity from her shampoo, the smoke from her parents’ cigarettes, the beer she would drink in college, the necks she would bite, the tears of the children whose wounds she would clean, the dirt she would be buried in. And, suddenly, she’d have so much to tell the lifeguard, but not enough breath to say any of it. She wouldn’t want to die. She’d have a whole lifetime of beautiful, stupid, and dangerous things to say, and that she would keep with her when something like a warm current began pulling her deeper and deeper into herself. Maybe, she’d think, somewhere inside the black space at the center of her blue eyes. She’d have no way of knowing that they were less blue now, and bigger. Her eyes were big and round and lightless now. Her eyes looked like the eyes of the creature she had met and fought in the water that nobody else had seen, eyes she had twisted her fingernails into with one hand while sticking the other into the gills (the cold, thriving insides) and pulling. Pulling. Twisting. Even after the teeth had already torn away. She would have killed it if she’d been able to, if she’d had more strength, or time. Instead, floating under the sky. Instead, cold water, rocking, waiting. Until, unbelievably, breath in her ears, hands beneath her, the promises of shore and a steady voice.
“And Something Else” first appeared in apt‘s third print annual, now available for purchase.
Mary Kate Flannery is an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University. “And Something Else” is her first published work.