Underground Pool: Animal

By Joel Vernile '14 (Illustration)

Nineteen is like standing on the edge of darkness.

Jonah was on his back, and as every wave crashed, the chemicals coursing through his veins went deeper and deeper.

His wet eyes fixed on the only cloud in the sky, the blotchy shape of a man reaching into the darkness. The winds caught it and ripped it apart as the stars dripped down the black sky, like drops of rain on a crystal ball.

No feelings. God let me disappear. The pills made his stomach swell.

She would be coming. He threw up.

Jonah was curled in a ball on a desolate beach, black night forever to his left, and to his right sharp jagged rocks jutting from the sand. He had always made his escape here, even more so since she left. There weren’t any people, any problems, any questions, and all meaning floated away with the tide.

A harsh light glinted off the sand.

Headlights.

As Jonah staggered to his feet, the lights spun in his head and the dizzy world pushed him over. The choking of the truck’s crusty engine told him it wasn’t her. It was Houston. Son-of-a-fucking-bitch. Jonah crawled to a stand and spit useless curses in the sand as he trudged across the dune. His legs were noodles on the slipping sand and the sky was pulsing purple in his brain as the junk fastened around his nerves.

The door behind the high beams slammed shut and sent his mind reeling. Jonah stepped beyond the glow of the lights and saw Houston, towering over him. Houston slipped both hands in his navel-high pants pockets and grinned an ugly one. His hairline peaked at an unreasonable height.

Where Jonah was a degenerate, Houston was a snooty fuck. Their town was a hellhole beyond a wake-up call and somehow Houston had prevailed. He was perfect and horrible, never touched a thing. Their high school got a visit from the ambulance once a week for some stupid pubescent smack-sniffing asshole, a blue-lipped mama’s boy or unresponsive daddy’s girl. The bullies and the bullied assimilated to form the hell before them. Somehow Houston had stayed away from drugs, but was a leech nonetheless.

“What the hell are you doing here jackoff,” Jonah screamed.

“I know you’re meeting up with Jamie tonight, and I want you to stay away from her and that bastard son of yours.”

Jonah felt weak and shriveled before him. 

“I told her about you,” Houston said. “And you know what, she laughed. You’re pathetic, dude.”

The baby had fucked up their life. No more wasting away in front of the tide together, no more cruising around together, no more together. Those were memories to hold on to. Houston found out and of course came to the rescue, talked her into rehab.

“I talked to her today,” the worm boasted. “She said she’s only coming here to get you off her back. Do us all a favor and rot down there where you belong.” 

Those last three rang in his head.

“What, you think you and her have a thing now? You think she wants a piece of shit like you?” Jonah was desperate. His body was there, but his mind was caught in a rip tide.

“Jonah, take a look at your selfish, disgusting life. Jamie finally has a chance now, to go to school, to be something. If you ever loved her you’d take a hike.”

Jonah stumbled into the car and hit his head on the hood. “Get outta here you little maggot.” The words barely dribbled out of his mouth. He felt like he was imploding, his body steeped in poison. “Get out of here you faggot.” Jonah hit the dirt. “Go aw—”

Jonah rolled over onto his back and spit a wad of sand out of his mouth. It slid sloppily down his chin. His teeth clicked and scratched sand stuck in his molars. He strained his head back. He was back in his spot next to the rocks. Up the dune, Houston was gone.

Damn that little shit.

Wetness glazed his eyes. I’m not supposed to be like this. He was sick of playing the same twisted game that reset every time he came down. Sick. Sick.

The clouds had dissipated to a smoky translucent haze over the beach. Staring into the sky, Jonah felt he was sinking. Down into the sand, buried by the passing of every moment.

He tried to stay alive. He tried to think anything.

Jonah hadn’t seen the baby yet. It had been a shock to everyone when the news came. How a baby could survive the constant dosing was a mystery. But Jamie would not get rid of it. If it weren’t for her mother’s abortions, she would have a younger brother or a baby sister. Jonah had always seen some kind of light in Jamie. Muddled from sight, but it was there. But the thought that a child of his was gestating inside her had disgusted him. Memory to forget.

How could someone who’d been alive just nineteen years be this way? High school had taught him to rip off innocence like a sick bandaid, that’s how.

“Happy Birthday, Mr. Jones.”

Jonah popped up to the familiar voice, sand sifting down his shirt. She was standing there. He felt like he’d just come up out of water and couldn’t find any words. His feverish lips cracked a smile. His small stubs of teeth, swallowed up almost completely by milky pink gums, leaked blood. She flashed a smile back.

“Jamie, you’re the only one who remembered.” She started to come into focus. The short red hair that had once popped and stuck out in a greasy mess was now long and wavy all the way down her shoulders. Her breasts heaved under her tank. And then there it was. Wrapped in a ragged blanket, carried loosely at her stomach. She walked purposefully over to his side and dropped the wretched thing into his lap where it lay silent. She kicked aside a rubber strap and a filthy spoon and took a seat.

Jonah fidgeted. He tried not to look at the thing in his lap. He had become so used to isolation that it took a few moments to find a comfortable spot next to her. He wanted so badly for the two of them to be back to normal. She lit up a cigarette. He gave her a look.

“You can’t quit everything at once,” she said.

“How was it?”

“Rehab? Bullshit.”

“I miss you so much.”

“You look terrible.”

“I’m stoned.”

She didn’t say anything. Jonah’s face was destroyed, pale strips of clammy skin clinging lifelessly to bone. 

“How do I look?” Jamie asked, looking at the red glow of her cigarette.

An incomprehensible belch burst from his mouth. “You look . . . Jamie, you look great.”

Jonah couldn’t help but think of the first time he saw her. She had just finished screwing some jock in the gym showers and he was bumping a line of something or other off a bench when she came out and brushed up against him. She had smelled like flowers and sex. Her bright blue eyes had fixed on his. That was a memory to keep. Now her eyes were big black stains in the center of such a beautiful face.

Jonah tried his best to keep balanced on his elbows, to keep from nodding away. Took too much. His eyes were in and out of focus. He had to tell himself to keep breathing. His heart felt like it might just stop.

He reached a cold hand over and touched her back.

“God this place is disgusting,” she said, glancing at him. “I, um, I came here to tell you something.”

“Yeah?” He was trying to swim out of this haze, to reach the surface, to come back to her.

Her face contorted and then relaxed. She was digging her bare feet into the sand.

“Houston,” he said. “Is this about that dumbshit?”

“No! God, no.”

“Houston came over here and acted like you and him were on your way to Vegas.”

“I hate that piece of shit.” She chuckled softly and scratched the tip of her button nose. “Listen Jonah, I’m different—than I used to be.”

“I know, I know. And I’m all about that.”

“I’ve been in the program, steps and all that, and it’s really about getting out of your old life. Leaving it behind where you last saw it and never turning back.”

Jonah flipped onto his stomach and stared up at her with his face in his hands. She looked toward the waves.

“Well, I can’t do it with that.” She pointed with her cigarette to Jonah’s side. He looked and remembered the baby. The goddamn baby. He had placed it in the sand next to them. Its tiny hands poked out of the blanket. Jamie whimpered. “I can’t do this with a child, Jonah. I can’t move forward with a ball and chain around my ankle.” She looked him in the eyes. “I need to be selfish. I have to think about me.”

“So get rid of it.”

“What?”

“I mean, get rid of it. You could do it right now, no one comes here but us.”

She sat up quickly, with a false surprise that betrayed her thoughts of doing the very same thing. Jonah gazed at her. He was anxious to have her back, to hold her as he nodded off. The sand blew into his eyes.

She said nothing, but a sick smirk flashed across her face, then evaporated just as quickly. “I couldn’t do that. You would have to do it.” She paused a moment to catch Jonah’s reaction, but he had none. She pressed on, “It’s half yours.”

He slid up onto his side and plopped back on his butt with the baby in his lap again. It had not made a single sound. Jamie continued to talk but he shut her out for the moment. Jonah thought back to when his parents had first brought his baby sister Emily home, how he had held her for hours, how he was back then. He lifted a corner of the dirty blanket, curious to see his so-called child. Beneath the rag he saw a precious little bean of a person, quiet as a mouse, looking up at him adoringly. Its cheeks were soft and squishy, rosy red, and eyes dazzlingly blue in the darkness.

He wrapped it up quickly.

“ . . . so what do you think?”

Jonah was fighting himself to have some sort of thought. Words were not coming to him anymore, only feelings in the pit of his gut. He took off his shirt and stood up with the thing in his arms and stumbled to the side, but Jamie caught him. She always caught him. He loved her.

“My mom couldn’t stand taking care of it all this time.”

“Mmhm.” Took too much.

“God what a beautiful night,” she sighed, her arms crossed across her chest as she tried to look at anything but him.

They made their way toward the waves. The soft white powder had become razorblades in his brain. All of it was rushing to his head. He shook his head to get rid of the buzzing in his ears. “Hey, maybe after this we can go get some Maddogs or something.”

“Yeah.” She turned to him and stopped him with her tiny hand. “What I came here to tell you,” she said, “is that I have a job back in Florida. I’m home to get my things and say goodbye.” Jonah took a step back. “Jonah, I don’t want to waste away on this shitty beach with you anymore, watching you pick your scabs.” She took a breath and looked him in the eye. “You’re a creature. Jonah. Maybe someday you’ll see that baboon on your back is eating you alive from both ends.”

“Okay. Kay.” Then Jonah didn’t say anything. They started walking again. His heart was in shards but his feet kept shifting forward into the water. The icy May ocean rushed up his ankles and sent shivers up to his ears. “I understand.” They had run out into this ocean so many times before, blasted out of their minds. Memories to save.

“I hope you do, Jonah. And this doesn’t take away all the times we had. It’s just putting it behind us.” 

He said nothing to that. They walked out to where the water crashed at their waists. The baby still was silent, wrapped up in its rag. Jonah was fixated on the waves, being pulled back and forth with them, trying to answer the call of the buzzing in his ears. He was just going to do it. Shove it under water for half a minute and then let it go or throw it in the rocks.

Jamie was going to leave him. He looked into her face. She was getting nervous he would back out. He pushed the baby toward her. “Hold it one more time.” She looked toward the beach where they had been, then back at him with an expression that said just sink that worm already

Jonah held the package away from his body and over the waves. Splashes of salt water flecked the blanket, and a gust of freezing wind blew the blanket away. Jamie gasped. He stood there wavering in the tossing waves, staring at the creature in his pale wet hands. It was beautiful.

Jonah pulled the baby to his goose-bumped chest and with the other hand he swung at her. He gripped her horrible face.

Jamie collapsed under the force of his arm and dropped beneath the waves. He held the baby with one arm as best he could while the other stiffened to keep the beast underwater, letting water rush into her lungs. If he couldn’t have her, he would keep the only piece of her left.

Jonah’s mind, bloated with chemicals, had peaked. He was running on instinct. His arms pulsed with thick veins. Her arms flicked and flailed at the surface of the water as she weakened beneath the frigid waves that tossed above her face. Finally, the energy left her body and she went limp. He released her. Memory to forget. He pulled his hand out of the water. She had torn the skin completely off three fingers. He embraced his son with both hands, getting blood all over him, and waded, shivering, back to the sand.