underwater

Sirens
by Brenna Ehrlich

The ice was just thick enough for skipping stones, so Rose chucked a rock at the sheet of cold. It skittered across the surface, making a pleasing “plink plink plink” sound — until it reached a hole and splashed down. The moon shimmered in the circle of water like an opal in a pile of quartz.

Kids in the neighborhood called this little stretch of land “Dead Dude Delta” on account of the fact that so many boys had drowned here. No one knew why. But every now and then, one of them bobbed to the surface like a macabre boat and the news people came with cameras flashing. Tonight, though, it was just Rose and the smell of far-off woodsmoke; she felt like the only person for miles in a teeming city, alone with her frozen breath and the chilly dewdrop tears on her cheeks.

Only an hour ago, Rose had been flocking around the neighborhood with a gang of carolers from school, intoning “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “The Holly and the Ivy” as car alarms shrieked and the corner meth head muttered for cigarettes and someone fought with her husband at the bus stop about whether or not all the coffee she drank was making her teeth brown.

 

Rose’s ex-boyfriend, John, had sidled up to her — his neck wrapped up in a scarf festooned with musical notes that defied logic — and muttered: “Babe, you’re really off-key…” He winked. “…Just so you know. Oh, and you’re singing way too loud.” Then he had pranced up ahead and slung his arm around Bill the tuba player’s neck and laughed up at the moon and the church spires. Rose didn’t know what he had to laugh about; his brother had been the most recent victim of the Delta, and ever since the cops found Tommy bobbing there all cold and blue, John’s mother had kept him inside most nights locked in a room covered in crosses.

Rose picked up another rock and aimed it at the ice, trying to slow down her breathing, but it was too late — she was crying again, and each tear felt like frostbite. She threw and threw and threw until her arms ached. Until she was almost out of rocks. Then she grabbed a particularly hefty stone, bit her lip and took aim — and a sharp pain erupted just above her sternum and loosened her hand and the rock fell onto the dirty snow. Frigid water splashed her jacket and she stood, sad, blinking and shocked at the river.

“Excuse me!” a blue girl rose from the hole in the ice, her hands planted on her hips. “Can you not? With the rocks?” Her hair tangled down to her waist and her eyes were purple. Rose thought she could see webs between her fingers. She tried not to stare but she just couldn’t. It was too strange — a live girl like a shipwreck rising from the ice.

“What are you doing out there?” Rose asked, forgetting, momentarily, her bruised bones and soaked jacket. She wondered if she should call someone. If, perhaps, the girl was so blue because she had frostbite. She wondered if it was too late; if the Delta was about to claim a girl in lieu of a dude. Still, the blue girl didn’t seem particularly cold. She wasn’t shivering like Rose herself, or blowing on her webbed fingers. She mostly just seemed pissed.

 

“What are you doing throwing rocks at me?” The blue girl pointed to her chest and Rose could just make out a red welt on her collarbone.

It was then that Rose noticed that the other girl wasn’t wearing a puffer jacket like she was; she was, instead, wrapped in seaweed. “What… are you?” she gaped.

The blue girl’s eyes opened so wide it looked like they were going to pop out and roll across the ice like marbles. “I mean,” sputtered Rose, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to throw rocks at you. I didn’t mean to throw rocks at anyone. I’m just… sad.”

“Why?” the girl leaned an elbow on the ice and thrummed her fingers.

“Because… I dunno.” Rose scuffed a boot in the yellowing snow. “I can’t sing?”

“Who told you that?” the blue girl seemed more interested now. She was bobbing up and down in the frigid water and playing with her long, long hair. A crab skittered down her hairline.

“This boy—” Rose began.

“Well!” the blue girl interrupted. “There’s your problem. Listening to them. Let’s hear it then!”

Rose blinked at the creature in the ice, wondering if perhaps she was dreaming. Maybe her body was resting somewhere out in the night in a pile of feather pillows. Maybe she was actually a housecat, dozing near the ear of her owner who was, in turn, dreaming of being a mouse. “Hear what?”

“Let’s hear you sing!” the blue girl practically yelled. She sounded kind of like a whale singing —or icebergs rubbing together somewhere out in the arctic.

 

Rose swallowed then shrugged. She liked to sing. She sang all day at home to the walls and the ceiling and her cat Devo. She could certainly sing while dreaming — or whatever she was doing. She opened her mouth and started crooning, “Silent night… holy night…”

The blue girl cut her off again, “Just as I thought. This is all wrong.”

Rose felt her tears pricking anew and raised her hand to brush them away.

“No, no,” the blue girl cried. “Stop leaking. Listen to me.” She crooked a finger at Rose, who tentatively stepped out onto the ice, inching nearer and nearer to the creature in the cold. “The problem isn’t you, it’s this. The air.” The girl waved her arms about like deep-dwelling eels. “I want to show you something. Something that will change everything.”

The girl took Rose’s hand and both their hands were cold but the blue girl’s were colder. And then the blue girl’s arms were wrapped around Rose and they were in the water and the cold bit Rose’s toes and her calves and her thighs and her torso and before she could protest or scream or wonder too much about how the Delta got its name, the pair sunk underwater, sinking deep-down, deep-down, deep, deep-down.

Through the murky water, the moon reached out to Rose and she reached back, opened her mouth to scream — and then realized that that was a foolish idea. She waited for the flood of water into her gullet, braced herself for icy death, but instead she found herself breathing easy. Easier, in fact, than on land. So she stretched, suspended, for a few moments, letting the water flow in and out and in and out, until she found herself standing on the river’s bed, the blue girl beside her. Now that they were both in the water, Rose could see that the girl was a girl just like her, but with blue bare legs and seaweed clothes. Underwater, their hair streamed upward like strange plants.

 

“Now,” the blue girl said, and her voice was deeper and richer down in the deep. “Try again. But don’t sing that dreadful song this time.”

Rose looked down at the sand beneath her feet, at the crabs dancing and jellyfish bobbing, then opened her mouth. The sound that came out was not music — at least not the music they learned at school or she heard on the radio. It was… it was just her. Think of the songs you write in your sleep or the music you think the waves would sing and that’s what she was singing. And it was easy. And it was good.

Rose stood singing for what seemed like hour under the ice, until the blue girl took her hand and pointed back up at the surface.

“Do I have to go?” Rose asked, looking around the vast world of shadowy plants and hunched creatures and thinking that there was so much more to see.

The blue girl nodded. “But now you know,” she said, towing Rose along behind her to the surface to bob through the hole in the ice and into the frigid air.

 

Brenna Ehrlich is the founder of small label/press, All Ages Press, author of the YA novel PLACID GIRL, and Director of Content and Culture (indie and rock) at TIDAL. She also plays drums and sings in the band Medium Mystic.

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