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In Praise of Grotty Juvenilia
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ebear started it: International Embarrass Yourself As An Artist Day.

So I'm going to post the oldest thing I have typed. I wrote it in July 1997. I have older stories -- since I've been writing since third grade -- but the really old stuff is handwritten and buried or simply lost forever. I'd say this still qualifies pretty firmly as juvenilia. A couple of years after this I was writing the occasional decent story ("Annabelle's Alphabet" and "The Tyrant in Love" are from 1999), but this, ahem, is generally lacking in merit.

I resisted the urge to tweak this -- or even re-read it -- so apart from HTML formatting, this is exactly as it was when I wrote it as a sophomore in college.

***
In the Deep End
Tim Pratt

Sarah blames me. Her anger is irrational, and on some level I'm sure she knows that, but the levelheaded woman I married isn't the same as the ruin of motherhood that left me last month. She needed to lash out at someone, and I was the obvious target. Having to suffer her looks and her words was bad enough, but her leaving was worse. Because now I'm alone in this house, the house I bought for my family.

Alone, with the pool.

I came to Dearborne to take an administrative position at the University, working in one of the Dean's offices. Dearborne U. has experienced a boom in enrollment these past few years, and I was hired to help with overwhelming paperwork. Once the job was secured, Sarah and I moved from the Missouri college where I was working to the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. We drove, because despite all evidence to the contrary Sarah still believes planes are more dangerous than cars. Not that she was so concerned about our safety; more about Brody's. Our six-year old son.

Driving was actually a pretty good idea. Brody had never seen anything but Missouri, and fond as I am of the place, there's more to natural splendor in this country than the Mississippi river. When we reached eastern Tennessee, he was absolutely awestruck by the mountains. And when I told him he was going to be living in them, and that we could go hiking sometime, well, you could tell he felt like the whole world was his playground.

The University helped us get a house, and a loan to pay the down payment. We got a nice place, too. Only one story, but it has a two-car garage, a great kitchen, a massive living room, and an extra bedroom that Sarah could use as an office.

We also had a big fenced-in back yard.

I was going to be making enough money for us to live in the very best part of town, the upscale Lights District. Not on Bright or Beacon Street, of course (the homes up there are positively palatial) but at the bottom of the hill on Lantern Street. Still very respectable, even enviable, though Sarah pretended not to care about that. We'd lived in the city before, in an apartment complex. A nice one, true, but not the same as a house. This sort of neighborhood, all quiet and tree-lined streets, was a real treat. The house, a red-brick affair with snow-white trim, had come to us a little cheaper than would be expected. It had belonged to a history professor who left, I understand, in some disgrace. He was eager to sell, and we snatched it up.

We arrived in late summer, so that I could begin work in the fall semester. Sarah loved the house, and went to buy new furniture the first week we were there. The neighbors were friendly, and we enrolled Brody in the elementary school. He loved his big room, and the back yard. When I promised him we'd get him a dog (which he hadn't been allowed in the apartment, in Missouri) he was ecstatic. We liked the town, too. Even after all that's happened, I don't feel like it's a bad place. Just a good place that, for some reason, went all wrong.

Sarah put her office space to good use. She'd been working as a secretary at the college in Missouri, but now that I was making more money she was free to concentrate on the children's book she'd always wanted to write. She was radiant in a way she hadn't been since we'd married, ten years before. She looked so young and beautiful when she bundled up in her scarf and coat against the wind that winter, apple-cheeks flushed, round cornflower-blue eyes with snowflakes in the lashes, dark blonde hair snaking out in wavy curls from under her cap. Brody was enjoying first grade. He was a wiry little boy with his mother's eyes and my straight brown hair, full of energy. He had a laugh like chimes, an incredible curiosity and, like both his mother and I, such an imagination.

But I won't write about that now.

I remember telling Sarah that wonderful winter and the following spring that our life was perfect. We were in a small town now, and though we locked our house at night it was safe to leave our car unlocked, safe to walk out at night. We had our haven.

I wonder now if I called the attention of some dark and mocking god, with my pride and happiness. My grandmother always said that you shouldn't call a child bright or beautiful, because that alerted the evil spirits that there was a prize worth snatching. But how could I do otherwise? My job was good, and if it was stressful at times I always knew that I could come home to a beautiful wife, a vibrant son, and a wonderful house. I had to cry out with joy. I know that reaching the pinnacle isn't prerequisite for a fall; but oh, the fall is so much harder when you have been on high.

In May of the following year (we celebrated Brody's seventh birthday the next month), Sarah asked me if we could get a pool.

"Oh, Tom," she said, "I've always wanted one, a big below-ground pool with a slide. Can we afford it? Is the back yard big enough? If we can't, I understand, but it would be so wonderful."

I thought it over. Where I come from, having a pool means you've arrived, that you're a success. We didn't exactly have more money that we knew what to do with, but my job was going well and the car was paid for. "If you're willing to watch Brody this summer instead of putting him in daycare, I guess we can manage it." The smile she gave me was worth any amount of money, and after she'd secured a promise from me to help with housework so that she could finish up the illustrations in her book, it was agreed.

We told Brody, and he literally jumped up and down in delight. We'd taken him to the YMCA in Missouri for swimming lessons, and the idea of having a pool in his own back yard was nothing short of magical. I made the necessary phone calls, and the next week the work crew came and put an enormous hole in the back yard. I was busy with end-of-term reports, but I was home when the workmen cleaned up the last of the debris and left our new pool, pristine and clean, ready for swimming. All three of us suited up and dove in, putting the dozen floats and pool toys we'd bought for the occasion to good use. We played until dark that day, Brody jumping off my shoulders, diving for pennies in the deep end (he swam like a fish), tossing a ball with his mother and me. Brody was fearless in the water. He didn't even want to get out when night fell; I think he would have lived there if we'd let him. I put him to bed, he was exhausted and smiling even in his sleep.

The next day was Sunday. Sarah and I were relaxing, reading in the living room after lunch, when Brody ran in. He was wearing nothing but his trunks, and his narrow white chest was heaving. His eyes were big as dinner plates. "Dad," he said urgently, "You gotta come look at the pool."

Visions of drowned squirrels and sinking water levels filled my mind, and I followed him out the sliding glass door, down the steps from the deck to the long rectangle of the pool. I walked up to the edge and looked down through the water to the white floor, with the black stripe marking where the deep end began. I looked at the pool chairs, the floats, and the equipment (we had to clean it ourselves, not well enough off yet to hire someone). I didn't see anything wrong.

"What is it, Brody man? What did you want me to see?" He'd been hovering a few feet behind me, and now he came forward hesitantly, bare-chest and shorts. He looked even younger than his seven years, like an infant struggling to stand up by holding the edge of a table. He stepped to the edge of the pool, one hand creeping to clench the fabric of my shorts, and looked into the water. He looked up at me, bright eyes wide and bewildered, and said "Daddy, there was a sea monster in there."

I scowled at him to show that I didn't appreciate being dragged outside for such nonsense, but the mingled look of fear and confusion on his face convinced me of his sincerity. I even looked back into the pool, but the water was clear and empty.

I knelt to meet his eyes. "Brody," I said seriously, holding his hands, "I don't know what you saw, but it wasn't a sea monster. Maybe a shadow, a cloud going over the sun, but not--"

He shook his head. "Not a cloud, daddy, it had a fat black body and a long snaky neck and a head full of teeth--"

I shushed him. "Brody, there's no such thing as sea monsters." He seemed unconvinced. A little more gently, trying to sound light, I said "Even if there were, how could one get in our pool? There's no lakes or big rivers for miles around. And our pool is way too small for a sea monster. And even if one could get in--" I played my trump card, "--the chlorine would kill it."

He looked a little relieved. At least, I told myself he did. "Okay?"

"Okay," he said, and we went back into the house. He went to his room, and I went back to the living room.

"What did he want?" Sarah asked.

I shook my head. "Nothing." No sense worrying her. I thought.

But that afternoon, when it was sweltering (the heat that summer was incredible; which contributed, perhaps, to the way I lost my temper later) Brody didn't want to swim. His mother and I were both going in for a dip, but Brody said he didn't want to, just sat on the floor and pushed his trucks around in a desultory way.

Outside, in the water, I told Sarah what he'd told me about the pool monster. She frowned. "It's all those books of yours, Tom." My taste in reading runs to the horrific, monsters and crawling things, and I could see how they might give a kid scary ideas, but I doubted Brody had been reading them. He'd learned how to read before kindergarten, but he wasn't reading novels for God's sake. I didn't mention to Sarah that the book she was writing, about a friendly sea serpent, seemed a more likely inspiration. Then again, her monster was a giant anthropomorphic snake, not the Pleistocene monstrosity that Brody had described. I made murmuring contrite noises.

She had a talk with him, I guess, probably reiterating the points I'd made. She came out of his bedroom looking satisfied. Never send a father to do a mom's job, I guess.

The next day was Brody's last day of school. Also, coincidentally, his birthday. We had a cherry cheesecake for him, a new computer program, and some pool toys. I got off work early to pick up the grand finale: A puppy.

I'd found him at the local animal shelter. The woman who ran the place, Gwen Helm, said he was a foundling. Someone had brought him in and he'd been bottle-fed to health. He had some lab in him, and who knew what else. He was a dark grey in color with big floppy ears, oversize paws, and chocolate colored eyes. I knew Brody would love him.

When I brought him in, Brody lit up. The cloud that had been hanging over him since the day before was gone. "A puppy!" he shouted, and took him from my arms.

"Don't squeeze him," I cautioned, and Sarah said "What will you name him?"

"I get to name him?" Brody said, eyes wide and marveling, puppy squirming in his arms, and Sarah and I laughed.

It was a good night, just us. We had bacon cheeseburgers and fries, Brody's favorite, and cake after. He played with the frisky puppy all afternoon, and when the pooch was tuckered out and sleeping (in the garage; we never did get a chance to housetrain him), he played with his computer game. It was a beautiful day, but none of us thought to go swimming.

The next day I got home from work, and Sarah met me with a grin and a kiss. It was an overcast day, and the sunshine of her disposition was a pleasure. "The dog has a name," she told me solemnly.

"Really?" I took off my coat and tie.

"This morning Brody was eating his oatmeal, and he got the puppy in his lap while he was eating. The dog stuck his nose right in the bowl, and then yipped. I heard Brody laughing and went into the kitchen. The dog had oatmeal all over his muzzle, looking bewildered, and Brody was laughing so hard I thought he was going to fall off the chair. They were both too cute for me to fuss at them. Brody said the dog's name was Oatmeal, and I said that sounded just fine."

Well, I was charmed. I won't say I loved that dog like Brody and Sarah did, but I was fond of it. I wasn't as broken up as they were about what happened, but I was sad. Whatever Sarah says to the contrary.

The next couple of days were overcast and cool, too, with no talk of swimming from any of us. On Friday, though, someone got into the pool anyway.

When I came in, Sarah clutched me tight. Her face was red from crying, her hair disheveled. Brody was on the couch, sitting motionless and staring at nothing. "Oh, Tom," Sarah said, "Oatmeal died."

"What? What happened?"

She shook her head, letting me go and wiping her eyes with her sleeve. "I must have left the sliding glass door open. It was cool out, and I just wanted to let some air in. And you haven't put the screen in yet." See? Already, she tried to blame me. "Oatmeal got out, and he fell into the pool. Brody found him. Floating."

"Oh, no." I went over to Brody and took his tiny hand, patting him on the shoulder. "You okay, Brody man?"

He turned his head and looked at me, eyes frighteningly vacant. "The sea monster ate Oatmeal," he whispered.

I couldn't think of anything to say. Sarah put her hand on my shoulder. "That's the other thing. Brody says he saw a monster eat Oatmeal, and that's when he ran out and found him." Her voice was more accusatory than concerned.

"Jesus." I stood up and drew Sarah aside. Brody returned his empty gaze to the wall. "Where's the body?"

She shivered. "Out in the garage, wrapped in a towel."

"I'll go bury it, I guess. Then I'll talk to Brody."

She nodded, and I could see the worry lines around her eyes.

I carried Oatmeal's tiny light form, all wrapped up in a pink towel, to the back yard. I dug a hole in the far back corner, a deep one. But before I laid Oatmeal to rest, I opened up the towel and looked at the body.

It was a sad, forlorn thing, wet and stiff. There wasn't a mark on him, nothing had bitten or scratched. I hadn't expected anything, of course, but I needed to check. I wanted to show Brody that nothing had attacked Oatmeal, but I knew seeing the body would only tear him up more.

I buried Oatmeal and shoveled in the dirt. I stopped by the pool, holding the shovel and looking in. There was still plenty of light, despite the clouds, but there was nothing to see. The pool was just a pool, a yellow inflatable ring floating in the deep end. I trudged up to the house and put away the shovel.

Sarah was in a chair, chewing her nails, on the phone with her mother. Spreading the bad news. I went in to Brody, still dazed on the couch. I sat next to him, cradled him against my shoulder. "I looked at little Oatmeal, and nothing bit him. I don't think he hurt a bit, either." That was a lie. I've always had a vivid imagination (that's what makes horror stories so effective for me) and I could clearly see the little grey pup sniffing at the water and tumbling in, doggy paddling frantically, trying to keep his head out of the water. Trying to climb out and slipping back, over and over, claws scraping on the concrete, and finally sinking under the surface with a whimper.

Brody looked at me with those wide eyes. "No, Daddy. The sea monster ate Oatmeal up. Ate him up and swam away. I saw."

I didn't argue, just said "We'll get you another dog."

He shrugged, and I didn't press the issue. He didn't mention the monster again that night, which was enough for his mom and me.

Well, call me an insensitive bastard, but when it was sunny again on Sunday, two days later, I asked if anyone wanted to swim.

Sarah glared at me venomously, and I sighed. "Listen, it's a shame about Oatmeal, but it's still a nice pool."

"It's too soon," she said firmly.

I didn't give up. "Brody, you want to go? I bet the water feels good."

He shook his head.

"I know you still feel bad about Oatmeal, but--"

He shook his head again. "No. I just don't want the monster to eat me."

I didn't fuss, or argue. There would be time enough to show him that the monster wasn't real, when Oatmeal's death was a little less fresh. "All right. I'll just go by myself."

I can hardly describe Brody's reaction when I said that. Sarah screamed. I think she thought he was having a seizure. He jumped up off the couch and grabbed around my neck, scrambling up my body like a monkey. "No, Daddy!" he screamed, right in my ear, and I pulled him off of me, tossing him onto the couch. He was sobbing and wailing, Sarah was looking at me like I'd just beaten him with a strap and hovering over him, and I was a little shaken up myself. "Damn it, Brody," said, more shocked than angry, "What's wrong with you?"

Through his blubbering and Sarah's fluttery ministrations, I finally heard "I love you Daddy and he'll eat you if you go in by yourself, I don't want him to eat you like he ate oatmeal."

"Oh, Brody, if it means so much to you I won't swim. Not a bit, not my myself." I was a little irritated, but he seemed comforted. He got up off the couch and hugged me around my legs, and I fluffed his hair. "It's all right, Brody man."

The next week I was on vacation. There's a saying I learned: "If you don't like the weather in Dearborne, wait fifteen minutes." It was steady that week, though. Clear, sunny, and hot. I would sit on the deck, drinking sweet iced tea and trying to read in the shade of the umbrella, but really looking at the pool. Scowling, simmering, and finally boiling. I had this enormous pool, and no one would swim in it. I'd had it built at Sarah's suggestion and to Brody's delight. Now Sarah wouldn't swim because Brody was afraid, and I couldn't even suggest getting in there alone without my son having a conniption. I was not pleased. The last straw came that Thursday night.

Brody came into the living room where I was reading a magazine, looking like an absurd canary in his bright yellow pajamas, and said "Daddy, will you take away the pool?"

"What?"

"It scares me. What if the monster gets hungry, and climbs out? Can you... take the pool away?"

I slammed my magazine down against the arm of the chair. Brody and Sarah both jumped. "Tom," she said warningly, but I ignored her.

"Brody, you love swimming. We couldn't keep you out of the water before. And now you want me to take away the pool? I've never heard of such a thing! You want me to dig it back up? Fill it in with dirt? Because your puppy died, because you're afraid of monsters? No! We have the pool, we're keeping the pool, and I'm going to use it if no one else does. Tomorrow, first thing, in fact. You two can come or not, I don't care, but I paid for it and I'm going to use it!"

Sarah was shocked speechless. I don't lose my temper, ever, and she'd never seen me shout that way. I can't explain why I was so angry, either; it must have been the heat.

Brody just said, in a pleading voice, "Please, Daddy, no. The monster--"

"Go to your room," I said coldly. "And I swear to God if I ever hear another thing about monsters from you you'll be sorry. There's no such thing."

His lip quivered, but he didn't cry. He was being brave, I guess. He was a very brave little boy. He went to his room like I told him, he was always obedient, and shut the door.

Sarah and I had such a fight, it shook the rafters, but she didn't put me on the couch. We slept in the same bed, facing away from one another, but together. If she'd made me sleep in the living room, I'd have heard Brody get up, and then-- But no. I won't lay blame. Sarah's done enough of that.

She found him in the morning, barefoot and face down in his pajamas, floating a few feet from the yellow ring in the deep end. Her screaming woke me, and half the neighbors, one of whom called the police. I saw his body and pulled him out, tried to resuscitate him while Sarah beat on my back with her fists and cried. I can still feel his small, cold lips on mine. But he'd been out there for hours, and there was no life in him to bring back.

It was one of the neighbors who saw the big butcher knife, taken from our kitchen, resting nine feet down at the bottom of the deep end.

There were police. Family, eventually. A funeral, a tiny white coffin. My wife, sometimes sedated, sometimes hating me, blaming me for not filling in the pool, draining it, for yelling at Brody. All true, but how could I have known what would happen? There were calls to work, serious men saying "Mr. Jenkins, are you sure that--" over and over. A blur. As I said, Sarah left a month ago. We're still married, technically, but I don't think it will last. I haven't been to work, at the request of the University. They didn't want any involvement in a possible child-neglect case. Sarah and I were just this week cleared of any charges of negligence, and Brody's death was ruled an accident. The knife remains a mystery, but Brody was uncut, and no one doubts that he took it out there himself, even if they don't know why.

I know why. Sarah should, but drugs and willingness help her forget. She's back in Missouri, with her mother, and has the luxury of forgetting.

But I live with this pool.

Brody took the knife to save his Daddy. He went down to the water, in the dark, to do battle with the sea monster he thought was living there. He knew that if he didn't kill it, his Daddy would go swimming in the morning, all alone, and be eaten up. Brody leaned over the pool, fell in, and drowned. I can see it as clearly as I can see Oatmeal's drowning, thought I witnessed neither.

But I can't really believe it. Because Brody was a good swimmer, a natural. I can't believe he just drowned, forgot everything he knew and drowned. But what else could it have been?

I can see another way, too. A different vision. A neck like a snake, curving up swanlike from a fat black body, rubbery and glistening. Round green eyes in a football-shaped head, and a mouth full of triangular razor teeth. Brody striking out with the knife, trying to tread water, and that neck lashing down and the jaws closing. Swallowing Brody up. Just swallowing him up.

I was sitting out on the deck tonight, looking down at the pool, as I do every night, and I thought I saw a ripple in the deep end. I thought I saw a dark shape break the surface. I rushed to the pool and looked down. Nothing, but it was dark and the deep end was full of shadows. It looked like it went down forever, full of black depths. I walked back to the deck.

Since then I've been writing this, and thinking about happiness. How it slips. And about what life means when happiness, any chance for happiness, is swallowed up. I've been thinking about the depths of my pool, and about how brave my only son was.

I tell myself to hold on. I tell myself there was no ripple, no shape in the water. I tell myself I wouldn't be happier in the deep end, with the monsters. But I have this knife, a big black-handled one from the kitchen, and I could take it with me. I'm as good a swimmer as Brody was, and I'm bigger, too. Stronger. And even if there's no monster, nothing to strike out against, wouldn't it be better in there? I tell myself it wouldn't.

Most of all I tell myself I won't slip into that water. No matter how deep it is, or how inviting those depths seem.

But if that were true, I wouldn't be writing this, would I?

End

***

Well, okay, I read over it a little just now... I guess I must like the name Sarah when it comes to stories of watery monsters, because I used basically the same name for the dead girlfriend in "Jubilee". I seem to recall that this story was inspired by playing in the pool with my cousin Cody, though in retrospect it was a pretty gruesome sort of homage to give the dead kid in the story a variation on his name. And check out those one-sentence paragraphs! I was like teh horrah m@ster!



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