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Wet Meat

Entered this flash fiction contest. Came a couple points shy of making the finals. Below is my submission for the second round. I was given the location the genre SciFi, location Rooftop Pool, object Almond Milk. Here it is:


That last summer of Swim Camp on the roof of the Alleghany Arms was also, it turned out, the last summer of everything else, pretty much.

Gregory was like eleven. The previous year, he’d thrashed around gamely in the pool with the other Campers; this year, though, he was terrified of the water.

Calling it Swim Camp was a stretch. It was just kids who lived in the building, in the late morning hours of Open Swim, which was when most of them would have been up on the roof horsing around in the pool anyway. This was my third year as a lifeguard up there. We lived on sixteen. I was supposed to be headed to Penn in the fall, so this would have been my last season lazily presiding over the pool, and Director, supposedly, of Swim Camp. That was back when there was college, still.

Gregory was one of these lactose kids. So at snack time, there was always almond milk. But Gretchen had moved into the building that year, and had a really bad nut allergy, so snack time was really vigilant and stressful for me. Gretchen knew to steer clear of Gregory and his almond milk, but he was not great with impulse control, and was always nearby her, sloshing his cup around.

I’d be there in my tall lifeguard chair, fingers flexing around Gretchen’s Epi-Pen.

Gretchen’s mom, obviously, asked if we could make Swim Camp a nut-free environment. Which we tried to do, for like two days.

Gregory cried for the whole time. The whole two days. Hours and hours and hours of bawling, which gave way to dry-eyed and hoarse wailing. So we caved. Gretchen, who was cool and smart and non-spazzy, took her life in Gregory’s dumb, sticky hands every snack time for three weeks.

Gregory was one of these rail thin, twitchy kids, looked like he slept maybe a half hour a night, with sunken green eyes big around as coffee cups – we all thought he was just naturally skittish and scared. Turns out his terror was justified and totally sensible. Because before we’d all decided on a name for them, before we knew to stay clear of bathtubs and toilets and pools, lakes and rivers and the sea, Gregory had seen the silvery tentacles of what we came later to call the Waterborne, straining out of the sucking intake on the floor of the deep end of our pool up on the roof of the Alleghany Arms. And it had wrecked him. And none of the grownups would believe his terror, which he tried to explain in faltering gasps between blasts off his inhaler.

That summer was the last season of anything. If we’d heeded Gregory, and other petrified kids, probably, we could maybe have stopped them. This was before the Waterborne had found their way into the sewers and the plumbing pipes, back when there was just this freak series of kids getting sucked into pool drains. In cities all over the Northeast. But instead of these kids just being drowned, when they’d shut down the filtration systems and crews would recover the bodies, they’d find their little legs stripped to the bone – fleshless, scalded off up past the knee.

I should have seen them. Those tentacles. Maybe I did. But mistook them for the wavery silver refractions of pool water in the sun. I wonder about this all the time, wonder if I saw but failed to believe.

In the last week of Pool Camp, Gregory gathered his proof. It was pretty cunning, actually – brutal, sure, but really smart of him to bait the pool that way.

That Tuesday, at snack time, he guzzles a big mouthful of his almond milk and squats down by Gretchen at the edge of the pool. She laughs a little, and he spits it in her open mouth. She starts seizing up, eyes rolling back. I scramble down from my lifeguard chair, Epi-pen in my sweating fist.

Gregory kicks her hard in the back. She hits the deep-end water with a sound like a flat stone, and sinks, convulsing on the way down.

I dive in from the opposite side of the pool, where my chair is. I slice down through the water, diving toward the point she’ll sink to.

I got to her. But she was at the bottom already, at the domed grate over the slurping intake. I remember there was a Band-Aid suspended in the water above her, waving like a grimy flag.

When I grabbed her arm to haul her up and jab her with the Epi-pen – up to air and safety – she was already anchored. Locked. I yanked on her forearm, harder and harder. I was pretty strong, then, and my lungs were full, and it felt like I was pulling on her skinny arm for an hour, watching the bubbles rise from her mouth. As my air gave out and stars were strobing at the edges of my vision, chest aching in pre-blackout, I felt the bones of her arm break inside my fist with a distant-sounding click. And I saw the silvery tentacles, wrapped around Gretchen’s leg, taut as bowstrings, tethering her to the darkness behind the grate.

I let go. I had to. I’d have died down there.

When I burst up gasping, Gregory was there, leaning over the edge of pool, aiming his phone down past me, at the silvery tentacles pulling Gretchen down, flaying the meager flesh off her twiggy leg.

Gregory’s video made the news, obviously. And was all over the Internet.

A team out of CalTech, where astrobiology was a thing, put it together that the Waterborne had traveled to us on meteors. Ashen carcasses turned up here and there where they’d touched down on land. But this world is covered with so much water, teeming with meat.

And like any well-adapted invasive species, the Waterborne have been able to find abundant food. And to reproduce. And to displace us.

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