Frustrating times. Glenn had worked as a junior caretaker at Whittaker Park since he was twenty. That meant lawn-mower or leaf-raker, depending on the season. After ten years he’d persuaded his boss to promote him to caretaker. That meant lawn-mower or leaf-raker, depending on the season.
Frustrating in all ways. It was no surprise when the most eventful month of Glenn’s life started with other people having sex. Even better, while he was at work. Better yet, having to work late on a Friday.
The evenings were cooler and people had stopped lingering in the park after sunset. He thought he was alone as he finished clearing the leaves around the pond when he heard a couple moaning behind the thorn bushes at the water’s edge. He should leave them to it. But it was Friday, he didn’t have anyone important to see and, come on, who wouldn’t want a peek? This was a good one. Walter, his boss, was having sex with the new girl. He’d never seen Walter naked. So, even though the bushes had particularly nasty thorns, he crouched between two leafy ones and watched.
There was a splash in the pond. A fish. They’d just stocked it. That was one of the reasons they’d hired the new girl; or so Walter said. Another splash. It had to be a fish. The pond was still safe, wasn’t it? It wasn’t deep enough for a mermaid. He’d taken down a few unauthorized ‘No Virgins in the Water’ signs. Nobody, virgin or not, was supposed to swim in the park pond. And who said that mermaids only took virgins? There was no official warning. As usual, when nobody knew anything, everybody had an opinion.
Walter grunted. Remember, he was having sex with the new girl. Sex, not mermaids, was the reason Glenn kept hiding in the thorn bushes. Okay, that’s not completely true. His naked boss was the reason. Now, Walter wasn’t a fixation of his, but if he had to be honest, he’d admit that the view was worth the scratches. His boss put a hand on the new girl’s neck.
She stopped him. ‘It’s Dorothy.’
That confused everybody. Glenn heard a loud splash. If that was a fish, they’d stocked the pond with great whites. He looked at the water then back to his boss who was still thrusting away. The new girl spoke, ‘Are you close?’
Walter groaned. ‘Sure as holy fuck, no. Not now.’
He pulled away from her. He could be a real asshole, one that bought Glenn’s drinks on beer pitcher Mondays, but in all other contexts, an asshole. The asshole started dressing, unfortunately.
‘Mood’s dead anyway. Put your clothes on Darleen. I’ll drive you home.’
The new girl didn’t respond. She was looking at the pond.
‘What if something’s out there watching us?’
Walter smirked. ‘Don’t be ignorant. Now I’m not saying we’re degenerates, but they’ve never gone for park-side fornicators before. We’ve got nothing to fear.’
A thorn wormed its barb through Glenn’s sleeve. He flinched. The branches shook. Did they hear it? Walter turned to the new girl.
‘Get dressed. Someone might come.’
She hugged her legs. ‘You’re the first man who’s ever been in a hurry to put my clothes on.’
Walter tossed a pair of underwear to her. ‘First time for everything. Now let’s move.’
Glenn tried to remove the thorn from his arm and two others stuck him. He bit his lip. What was the expression? Thorns for patience. The new girl turned to the pond.
‘What’s the hurry if they’ve never gone for, what was it you said, park-side fornicators?’
Walter looked annoyed. ‘Someone, a person, might come.’
‘Not this person, that’s for sure.’ She huffed. ‘If you always finish so quickly with women, maybe you need something else.’
Walter slapped her legs. ‘Sure, whatever. Stop talking shit and start dressing.’
‘Maybe Mr Walter needs a man.’
Impossible. Glenn blushed even though the new girl wasn’t talking about him. Walter looked towards the parking lot.
‘I’m going in ten seconds.’
The new girl stepped out of the bushes, into the shallow water. ‘How about a swim?’
Glenn surveyed Walter’s face. Was he attracted to her? He didn’t look it now.
The new girl challenged him. ‘We’ve got nothing to fear, right?’
She walked to where the pond floor dropped and dove in. Glenn’s legs ached. When he tried to shift his weight, another thorn pierced through his clothes. Patience. Walter cursed, left the thorn bush cover and walked towards the parking lot. He didn’t turn around. He really was leaving. The new girl wouldn’t catch up with him unless she ran to his car naked. That was probably what he wanted. He needs a man. Bullshit. Gay? There was and there wasn’t, and Walter wasn’t.
After Walter’s car drove off, there was nothing more to see except the new girl skinny-dipping. Crickets yawned out their chirps from the shadows. Time to go home. He took a last look at the spot where the couple had been. Next to the new girl’s clothes, he saw a pair of socks. Walter’s? They looked male. Maybe he’d take a souvenir. He parted the bushes, inched forward, picked them up and sniffed. How else could he check? He thought about Walter’s legs.
The new girl had reached the center. Her head was bobbing in and out of the water. She probably wasn’t used to swimming. Then, she slowly turned to face him. He dropped the dirty socks from his nose and fell back into the bushes. Thorns needled deep into his back. He swallowed a curse. Patience. Lots of Patience. He didn’t move. Everything was quiet. The new girl was staring at him. Something was wrong. She wasn’t moving. The pond was still. After a silent minute, Glenn crawled out of the bushes. He stared back at her and she held his gaze.
A chill travelled from Glenn’s feet, up his body and through each vein. It trickled out of the thorn pricks and down his skin. Everything slowed down. The park was still. The water was motionless. It had solidified to flat ground, holding the new girl rooted in place. Her eyes – he wasn’t sure – no, he was; they were growing round and black, turning into glittering orbs of pitch. He had to do something.
But – no, he couldn’t budge. His muscles had forgotten the habits of motion. In the pond, the girl’s dark eyes widened. She started sinking. Was she doing it deliberately? He couldn’t tell. Why couldn’t he move?
Glenn directed thoughts of action to his legs. Nothing. Determined hands had gripped his limbs tight. He tried to yell. Impossible. He couldn’t open his mouth. He watched the new girl sink. Her eyes didn’t flinch from him. They didn’t blink. Then her lips moved, as if a dark thread was pulling them, they twitched into a smile. Glenn had to stop this. It had to stop. He couldn’t stop it. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t even shiver as a cold air crept over him. She dropped underwater quietly, grinning at him. In the bushes, the crickets were screaming. The smooth pond glistened, unperturbed.
Then, with the pop of a bubble, he collapsed. He could move again. The crickets’ call rattled out of the bushes in warning. Leave. Leave. Then a splash. He jumped. Was it her? He shouted.
‘Are you there?’
Leave. Leave. No, just a second. God, what was her name again? He had just heard it. What had Walter said? What was the wrong one? Darleen. Yes. That wasn’t it. Was it? Or not? No.
He whispered. As though pronouncing her name was a miracle that could pull her from the water. Of course it didn’t. Leave. Leave. He yelled. Nothing. Again. Nothing. A splash. He couldn’t see the ripples in the water. Maybe it was her, or a fish, or a shark. Something round, like a smooth rock, broke the surface in the pond’s center. It gleamed in the jaundiced park-lights. Leave. Leave.
‘Oh God, let it be a shark. Not a mermaid.’
He didn’t leave. The cricket-shrill ceased and a low note vibrated out of the pond, making little breaths of air tremble around him. He thought of Walter in the bushes. A soft wind, or something like it, fumbled against him clumsily, like a married man. It cupped his face and licked the hairs on his arm. He felt dark eyes watching. They drew him – no, invited him into the water, promising something different, something that he wouldn’t be ashamed of. This wasn’t a wasted hope, it was real, whatever it was. Without questioning, he stepped forward into the pond.
Then it stopped. Glenn gasped. He hadn’t been breathing. Ripples spread from the center of the empty pond. It was gone. Dorothy was gone. Dead? Maybe. He ran.
Glenn told the police everything. When he talked about Dorothy, he felt an awful jealousy.
It was beer pitcher Monday, a football night. But Glenn and Walter were the only regulars at the bar, so the bartender let them watch the report on the disappearances. Walter emptied their pitcher. The bartender smiled.
‘Tackle another one?’
Glenn nodded. It was good to be out. All weekend he’d heard the pond’s note droning in his mind. So he’d stayed at home thinking about dark, underwater eyes.
Walter was watching the TV. The show’s host reappeared.
‘Welcome back to Your State Debates. Today: Are mermaids an argument for more sex education in Oklahoma schools?’
None of those Channel 23 pricks had a clue. Nobody, not even the police, believed Glenn’s story. Nobody listened. The first guest on the debate was a woman: a red-headed doctor representing HI-SEAS (Health Institutions for Sexual Education Against Sirens). She looked at the host.
‘Since the first sirenian attack, our state government has issued no official warning. But we have to face the facts. Rumor travels. Kids aren’t stupid–’
‘Teenage pregnancies have tripled,’ the host interrupted.
‘Exactly. And if you look at the most recent victims, the reason is–’
‘Same old saw. Don’t you liberals watch the news anymore?’ a reedy man in a suit jumped in the discussion. He was the chief minister of the Oklahoma Gospel Organization for Democracy (OK-GOD). He turned directly to the camera and winked, like he was sharing a joke with the audience. It made Glenn feel helpless.
The preacher continued. ‘I hate to cut in on such a lovely lady, but this past week has shown – pardon the expression – a sea-change in mermaid behavior. Look at the most recent victim, a Miss Darleen Gautier–’
‘Dorothy,’ the doctor interrupted. The host held out a hand.
‘Yes ma’am, let the reverend finish.’
Walter slapped the bar top and cursed. Glenn slapped the bar top in agreement. Was Walter angry or sad? Either way, Glenn agreed. On the TV, reverend OK-GOD beamed.
‘As I was saying, this Miss Gautier, a virgin? The lady doth undress too much, methinks.’
He smiled at the doctor. ‘That’s Shakespeare. You remember Shakespeare, don’t you doc?’
Walter called the bartender. ‘Turn that shit off. I’ve had enough.’
He turned to Glenn. ‘Seriously, here in America. Fucking mermaids. Thanks, Obama.’
Glenn patted Walter’s shoulder, letting his hand rest there for an extra second. No reaction. The bartender put the game on and brought them a fresh pitcher. Walter raised his glass.
‘Drink up. Drink the county dry. Those underwater witches can swim in our piss.’
He took a long drink then thumped Glenn’s arm when he saw Glenn sipping his beer.
‘Don’t stunt your thirst today buddy. Down it. We deserve it after that weekend.’
The police had interrogated Walter too. They’d questioned him for a long time. He must have figured out that Glenn had watched him with Dorothy. But he hadn’t mentioned it.
‘I’m fine, boss.’
‘I’d sure be drinking if I’d seen her go.’
‘I’ll drink,’ Glenn raised his glass, ‘to us keeping safe. At least we’re okay.’
Glenn didn’t feel safe, but he had to say something. Walter snorted.
‘I’m not okay, sure as shit. I’m losing a hell of an egg, what with damage payments to our girl’s family. So, the next pitcher’s on you buddy. If we drain the bank, I’ll have to hire illegals.’
Walter’s eyes squinted like he was looking at a floating idea, or a mosquito.
‘What do you reckon those mermaids come from Mexico?’
Another idea, or mosquito.
‘And why are they calling them sirens?’
Glenn answered seriously, ‘Have you ever seen one? What if they’re men?’
His boss cocked an eyebrow.
‘Buddy, I understand you. Really. But the name says it. Mermaids are maids, women. Ugly ones. Bunch of old crones with trout tails. You can’t homo that shit up. Trust me, you don’t want to.’
That was the final word. Mermaids weren’t gay. Glenn considered that as he watched a bubble break the smooth surface of his beer. He remembered the sound it had made at the pond, like a long note from a heavy guitar. He imagined plucking a string, dark eyes snapping open. He felt a chill.
‘Don’t you think they’d look pure?’
Where did that come from?
‘Pure?’ Walter said. ‘First queer, now pure. Do you even know what you mean? Fuck pure. Trust me, they’re hags. Everyone can ditch the dreams about a school of tasty fish bitches.’
He took another drink.
Glenn looked at him, imagining that his eyes were dark and round. He hummed softly and thought about water. No, stop. He had to stop. He finished his drink. Walter shook his head.
‘Do you know what I think, buddy?’ He patted Glenn’s leg. ‘You need to get laid.’
His hand rested long enough to mean something. But it didn’t. There was and there wasn’t, and this wasn’t. The bartender took their pitcher.
‘Tackle another one?’
Crime scene tape had quivered around the pond for two weeks. Two weeks of leaves to rake. When the police abandoned the search for Dorothy’s body, they called it a typical sirenian abduction. A memorial service was to be held on Saturday, probably a mannequin in a coffin. That was how they did it now. Unsurprisingly, nobody came to the pond anymore. Especially at night. Nobody except Glenn; he’d given in and returned. For two weeks he’d tried to mute the note that Dorothy or the pond or a mermaid or siren or whatever – the fucking crickets maybe – had strung into his mind. It was becoming more insistent daily. If he concentrated, he could silence it. But eventually he’d relax and a dark-eyed demon would pluck the string again, bringing his thoughts back to the water’s edge. So he’d come back. He had to. He didn’t know how far he’d have to go, but he wasn’t leaving until he could quiet the music in his head. He stood on the bank and stared. It had to be there. How could he bring it out?
Nothing. Like he’d expected. He’d known that calling from the bank like some fairytale princess wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t release him that easily. Fine, he’d go to it.
He kept his clothes on and stepped into the shallow water. His shoes would protect him from broken bottles. He waded to the point where the pond floor dropped. He heard nothing. He had to go in. No, he’d stay a few more minutes. Typical. Instead of sitting and waiting for nothing to happen, why couldn’t he just go in? Walter would just go for it. Okay-okay, he’d swim to it. He felt a shard of glass in the silt underfoot. It had been smart to wear shoes. Safety first. For Christ’s sake, would he dive in or not?
He kicked his shoes off. His clothes made swimming almost impossible. They pulled him back to the bank as he struggled to the center. Fish nipped his socks and darted away. They’d overstocked the pond. Fish were everywhere, sliding along him then escaping. He reached the place where Dorothy had drowned. No, he couldn’t say drowned. Disappeared. She was fine. She’d even smiled. He imagined her, on the pond floor, her arms reaching for the surface, algae growing in her lungs, tiny fish slipping in and out of her smiling mouth – No. No. She wasn’t there. She’d gone somewhere else, become something else – he’d seen her eyes – something better.
So where was this stupid mermaid? What else did it want him to do? His jeans made it difficult to tread water. Nothing was happening. Was it ignoring him now? His arms ached. The night was so silent, it seemed like nothing could shake the quiet. Except him; he could. He knew what to do. He imagined tightening a string and plucking a horrid note. The sound came from his throat.
He felt it.
From behind, a chill caressed him, a breath cooled his neck then slid like ice down his back. What was that? He couldn’t turn. He opened his mouth to speak. Nothing. He couldn’t move, but he didn’t sink. The pond held him up. But for how long? Something touched his legs. Some things. He would drown, drown like Dorothy, Dorothy grinning on the pond floor, on the pond floor with her arms reaching up, reaching up to trap him. It would happen to him too. His heartbeat rose. No. A finger – what else could it be? – a finger touched his chest and slowed his pulse to an even tempo. This was how Dorothy had died. It was, wasn’t it? Her mind panicking as her heart tapped the beats to a dull tune. He’d been an idiot to come here. Typical. Stupid. Stupid. Tears formed in his eyes but he couldn’t blink. He gave up.
The pond turned warm. Was this it? If it could just be painless. Under him, bubbles rose. His clothes slid off him, down into the muck. If it could just be painless. Underwater fingers drew ticklish lines down his arms. What was it doing? Why wouldn’t it just finish? Then a hand against his back. A warm surge rose to his head. This wasn’t what he’d thought. Black, unblinking eyes were watching him underwater. A note vibrated off the water’s surface, off his skin, around his skin, unrestrained. He closed his eyes. He could close them now. He had been wrong to worry. Everyone had been wrong. Something warm slid up to his waist then down his leg. It didn’t stop. Walter had been wrong too. Wrong about this. Wrong about Dorothy, with Dorothy. Wrong about him, in the bar, the bushes – naked. This was better. Warm. Right. Glenn’s heartbeat spiked. He doubled over and spasmed.
When it finished, the pond was still. Back on the shore, Glenn found his clothes, soaked and neatly folded. There were no abductions, just escapes. His foot stung. It was bleeding.
Glenn was alone at the bar. Walter had said to meet him half an hour ago. First his boss was desperate for company, now he was late. He was probably still at Dorothy’s funeral service. Hell, the whole town was there. Hopefully one of them would remember her name. Glenn thought about the pond. He’d admit it, he was fixated. He didn’t want to be. Whatever was in there was too good to be good. But it wanted him and, good or too good, he wanted it too. He might go underwater next time. What was down there? He imagined what they looked like, variations of Walter. Go figure.
‘Tackle another one?’
The bartender woke him from his daydream.
What was he thinking? He wouldn’t risk drowning for some underwater Walter. Dry-land Walter was bad enough. On cue, the doors opened and his boss came in. Glenn signaled the bartender.
‘Make that two.’
It looked like Walter had been running. He was flushed and had scuff marks on his suit. His suit! Glenn had never seen him in one. He wore it like a kid in an itchy Halloween costume.
‘What a steaming, solid fuck of a day.’
A sweary kid. The bartender set their beers down. Glenn smiled.
‘That should help, boss.’
Walter pushed the glass aside and signaled the bartender.
‘Double whiskey.’ He scratched his chest. ‘I’m not fuckin’ around with kiddie drinks today. And stop calling me boss.’
Glenn shrugged. He’d keep cool. What an asshole. Why had he even come? He shrugged again. Walter watched him and muttered.
‘Jesus Christ. Fine.’
Had Glenn said anything out loud? Walter took the beer.
‘First, it’s a shittier funeral than my grandma’s. Then, my car breaks down. Now, you look like your dick’ll fall off if I don’t take your drink.’
The service must have made him extra sensitive. Glenn fought back another shrug and reached for the beer. ‘If you don’t want it then I’ll drink it.’
Walter shook his head and held the glass to his chest. ‘Tell you what, after that funeral–’ He finished his sentence by draining half the glass. Glenn felt bad.
‘Was it really worse than your grandma’s?’
‘Nah, she’s alive.’
Asshole. They drank for a moment then Glenn had a curious thought. ‘Did they use a mannequin?’
Walter finished his beer. ‘Jesus, I wish.’
His whiskey arrived. He downed it and signaled for another.
‘They hired an actress. An actual, live person in the coffin. They had her all made up like our girl with her lipsticks and a special-made wig. Only they greyed her face so she’d look dead. Turned it into a God-damn zombie show.’
Did the actress hold her breath for the viewing? A swimmer could do the job better. Walter’s second whiskey arrived. He sipped this one. He was starting to look relaxed. He’d even grown into the suit.
‘Then, in the middle of the mother’s speech, the rent-a-corpse sneezes.’
Glenn was watching him turn his glass. A spot of engine oil had stained his hand.
‘No shocker there. They had her so painted up, it’s a wonder she didn’t suffocate.’
Glenn chuckled. ‘It doesn’t sound too bad.’
Walter eyed him darkly. ‘The mother didn’t take it very well.’
She wouldn’t, would she.
‘What’d she say?’
‘Nothing. After the sneeze, the old lady stops her speech, walks over to the coffin and slams it shut.’
Another sip of whiskey. Walter’s throat moved slowly as he swallowed.
‘Turns out the actress is a claustrophobe. Yeah, a claustrophobe fucked tight up inside a closed coffin. So she knocks on the lid, keeping cool for all of two seconds. Then she’s yelling, then screaming.’
‘Nobody let her out?’
‘Can’t. There’s some fancy lock on the lid, God knows why. So when we try to force it open, we almost flip the whole box. Man, then the wailing really comes, the kind that freezes the hairs on your arm. Gets so bad, the mother faints. Then out of the blue, here comes the brother who’s been sitting in his pew all this time like a broken tool. Useless cocksucker remembers that he has the key.’
Walter turned, waiting for a response. Glenn spoke automatically.
‘Nothing sadder than a useless cocksucker.’
A grin twitched onto Walter’s face. He sipped his whiskey. Glenn blushed. The silence was embarrassing.
‘Did you stay?’
Walter scoffed. ‘Hell no. Once that coffin was open, I was out of there. No body, no funeral. That’s my rule now.’
A pause. He reached over and squeezed Glenn’s arm. Glenn flinched.
‘Thanks for waiting for me buddy. I’m hardly worth it.’
Glenn wanted to touch his hand. He almost did but the bartender snuck up on them.
‘Tackle another one?’
They ordered another round. Glenn felt he should say something.
‘If I wasn’t here, you’d always have the barman.’
Walter shook his head. ‘I’m a baseball man.’
Did that mean something? Glenn thought about it until their drinks came. He gave up. ‘What about your car?’
‘It broke down by the park.’
They’d drink until the bar closed. It wouldn’t be hard.
To the park, the park. No, they weren’t done drinking. It was just down the road and Walter had a bottle in his car. A bottle of what? Who cares? Glenn had booze at home but Walter was set on the park. To tell the truth, his boss wasn’t such an asshole. And he kept draping his arm, a heavy arm, over Glenn’s shoulders and talking really close to his face, saying things like, ‘We’ll drink in that hiding place in the bushes.’ Quickly, to the park. He smelled like whiskey. When he spoke, really close, the words vibrated through that arm of his, and Glenn thought about the bushes and other things they could do. And then walking was uncomfortable because he had an erection. Of course he did. He was thinking about sex in the thorn bushes. Thorns for patience. No, it wouldn’t be good or anything. There was and there wasn’t, and we all know Walter wasn’t. But one thing he was, was really drunk. And that arm was still draped over Glenn’s shoulder, God he had heavy arms, and his breath was on Glenn’s face when he talked, and he kept talking about something, but Glenn was thinking about that arm and sex and the whiskey on his breath and sex and the bushes and – patience – sex. And as they settled down in the hiding place, Walter kept his arm, the heavy one, around him. There was and there wasn’t be damned. Much more of this and Glenn’s crotch would pounce from his lap and all over Walter, Walter, Walter, Walter.
Then Walter let go to take a swig from the bottle. The place where his arm had been cooled immediately. Glenn deflated. He had to sober up. Walter was staring at the pond. Had he heard the mermaids singing?
‘You know what I’d like, buddy?’
He needs a man. Dorothy’s words bubbled out of the water.
‘Stop calling me boss.’
Well, what was he then? Walter pointed at the pond.
‘I’d like to drain that hole and harpoon every merbitch flopping in the mud.’
The pond went silent, still. Glenn hoped they weren’t listening. Walter swayed onto him. He was having trouble sitting up.
That was definitely too loud. Walter didn’t seem to care.
‘Help me up.’
He calmed as quickly as he’d raged. That arm, still heavy, returned to its place on Glenn’s shoulders. He held it. Why wouldn’t he? He was helping. The hairs on Walter’s hand were softer than he’d imagined. Well, hello erection number two. Or was it twenty? At least they were sitting. Stop. He was helping. Walter took a long swig of the bottle and swayed. One of his feet splashed in the edge of the water. He didn’t notice. Glenn’s heart doubled its pace. They should call it a night. They could take the bottle to his place. It wasn’t far.
‘You know boss-’
‘Hey boss, sure boss, you know boss – Buddy, you sound like a mobster’s sidekick.’
What the hell? He was trying to help. He let go of that arm.
‘Fine, how does asshole sound instead?’
Walter jerked back. Glenn could see his eyes refocusing. What was he doing?
‘So how about it? Asshole? You like it? Asshole.’
Walter had been looking at him like he was a puzzle. His mouth was twitching. Then, as if a thread had snapped, a smile bounced up on his face.
‘Uh-oh. I got buddy-boy mad.’
He started to snigger. This was ridiculous.
‘Bosshole – boss, we should go.’
Walter squeezed Glenn’s shoulder and lifted the bottle with his other hand.
‘Sure, buddy, let’s just finish what we started.’
A splash in the water. Glenn looked at the pond. It was flat.
‘Boss, did you hear that? Look at–’
He stopped. Walter wasn’t listening. He was drinking. He’d black out if he didn’t slow down. Glenn took the bottle and helped him sit up, humming a deep note. The sound might help. Help what? He wasn’t sure. He could feel each breath rise and fall in Walter’s chest. It was too much. Glenn slipped an almost imperceptible finger under Walter’s belt. No reaction. Did that mean something? Next, would those heavy arms go limp; would he lie down, say he was trashed and start snoring too quickly? A signal. If he did, Glenn would take it.
No. Walter jolted up and spoke.
‘Wait. What are we looking at?’
He reached for the bottle and missed. His hand fell inside Glenn’s thigh, Glenn’s now very tense thigh. Was it going to happen? It was so close. Walter smirked, rubbed Glenn’s leg, so close, and leaned in.
‘Sorry, buddy, must be the whiskey.’
His lips touched Glenn’s ear. It was going to happen. The whiskey fumes numbed his mind in a warm fog. He slid a hand under Walter’s shirt. It was happening. He turned. They were so close.
No. Walter laughed, right in his face. His breath was saccharine from the whiskey. He slapped the thigh he’d been rubbing and pushed away. Glenn gasped. Gasped? How ridiculous. This, no, he was ridiculous. He felt like he should apologize but Walter was still chuckling. It was all a big joke, wasn’t it? Was it? Walter had known what he was doing. He didn’t look annoyed.
‘Oh buddy, buddy.’
What did that mean? Glenn reached over to touch his leg. Walter batted his hand away and snorted.
‘You can’t–, You can’t–, You–’
Spasms of laughter killed each sentence he tried to make. Glenn wanted to punch him. He couldn’t. He felt like apologizing again. He blushed. He wanted to vomit.
That was enough. He stood up. Fuck this. He knew what to do. He’d give Walter just what he wanted: the merbitches he hadn’t shut up about for weeks. Would he be laughing then?
‘Let me show you something, boss.’
Walter looked up at him and chortled.
‘Bud, if you’re talking about your dick. Then, no.’
No, he was being stupid. They should go. Forget it or apologize tomorrow. Walter had a vicious smile.
‘But you want to see mine, I’ll bet.’
He had the arrogance of an armed poacher.
‘You do, don’t you? Maybe, I’ll show you.’
Glenn’s heart skipped like a bruised animal. Walter unbuttoned his trousers. He stretched his face into a parody of seduction.
‘Sit down buddy. Maybe, I’ll let you touch it.’
This wasn’t what Glenn wanted.
‘How bad do you want it, faggot?’
Glenn’s throat twisted. He heard a note. Was he making it? It sounded like a long fingernail scratching a guitar string. It swelled from his throat to his head. He turned. The pond was trembling. Air throbbed out from it. It was calling, hard. It wanted them. No. Him. Glenn. Was that what he wanted? He knew the answer. He whispered, ‘Yes.’
How much time passed before Walter’s hand touched his shoulder?
‘Look bud, I’m–’
Glenn didn’t let him finish. He walked into the shallow bank. The water was already warm. Walter fell into the bushes.
‘Shit – buddy, wait. It was – fuck – It was a joke. I’m sorry. I was just playing. Really, I’m sorry. Fuck.’
‘We’ve got nothing to fear.’
He dove into the water and swam. The vibrations increased, filling the whole pond. He heard a splash. Walter had dived in after him. His boss, even drunk, was a faster swimmer. He reached Glenn before they arrived at the center. It was waiting. They could both tell. Walter looked panicked.
‘Glenn, we’ve got to get out of here.’
‘Boss, I don’t–’
Walter’s eyes rolled up and he gasped. He thrust his arms into the water, trying to push himself into the air and out of the pond. But just once. Then his eyes closed and he quieted. Glenn’s mouth was half open from the unfinished sentence. He watched Walter’s muscles go still. His face emptied of tension. What was happening? His eyelids were quivering. Were his eyes spinning behind them?
The lids snapped open. The whites and irises had darkened and shone like black pearls, still wet. Without making a sound, he swam towards Glenn and slid his arms around him. Then other arms slid around them. Then others. They felt strong, dangerous perhaps. His heart thumped wildly. He felt powerful. Walter stared silently at him with round, black eyes. Glenn wasn’t afraid. He was in control. He held Walter tightly. No reaction. He could feel Walter’s hands pressing though his shirt. No, their shirts dissolved. Then their shoes, their pants, their underwear. This was happening. It was. Their clothes weren’t folded in neat piles by the thorn bushes this time. Thorns for – Bullshit. He was done with patience. This was why he’d come here. No, why they’d both come here. They’d started this long before tonight: in the bar, in the bushes, in secret spots, with secret gestures. This wasn’t going to stop. It wasn’t.
Glenn kissed Walter. No response.
The vibrations doubled. A hundred hands pressed them together. Gentle strokes guided them underwater. This was why he’d come here. Their hold tightened. It was fine. He’d be fine. He was here for this. He’d wanted this. A splash sent water in his mouth. He coughed before the pond swallowed them. Walter’s eyes didn’t blink. Their heads submerged. He was here for this. He was. He couldn’t have doubts now.
Clouds of grey silt drifted around them. Through the murk, Walter’s face was still. A bubble was forming on the side of his lips. It didn’t rise. He wasn’t breathing. Glenn’s lungs ached, but he’d stay. This was why he’d come.
Walter moved. His head dropped then bounced back in place. There was a slant to his mouth. It was new, unfamiliar. He jerked. His lips stretched wide into a sharpened, mischievous rictus.
Glenn hiccupped water into his nose. It dripped into his throat and chest, burning. He could hardly keep from coughing more water into his lungs. He’d die here. He would.
Walter’s smile cut long mocking creases along his face. This wasn’t. No, it wasn’t. He hadn’t. No.
Glenn kicked. It was awful how quickly the hands darted away when he pushed free, like frightened minnows. Walter didn’t react. He hung, suspended just under the surface. Glenn could grab him and pull him out of the water. He could. He just had to do it.
Walter looked up, raised his arms and sank to the pond floor.
This time the police held Glenn longer for questioning. When he thought of Walter, he felt a horrible jealousy.
Finished and want more? Have a look at Neal Mason’s humorous story Stocktaking.