They tickle, those tiny bubbles, skimming up her skin. She imagines little pearls, escaping the closed shell of her mouth, through the smallest fissures. She never opens her eyes underwater. She doesn’t trust it. But she likes to lie under the bathwater, like this, for as long as she can hold her breath. She can remember being in the womb. She’ll never tell anyone, but she’s sure she can.
This is as close as she can get to that feeling. Completely submerged, suspended, safe. Warm, slow. She can sense light, dark, colour. All she can hear is the gentle, low rumble of her own body and the water. Her heartbeat, her blood vessels, the passages and corridors relaxing, letting it all pass through. The dull creak of her bones if she chooses to flex a joint or stretch a limb. She has to surface soon. Her lungs ache. The familiar tight panic in her throat begins to rise. She breaks up and out of the water, gasping, into the cold, empty air.
She will only open her eyes once she’s swept away the soft slick of hair from them and swiped the excess water from the lids.
Eyes open. Empty. There is nothing for you here. You are alone in this house.
Bed. Time for bed. She squeezes as much water from her hair into the towel as it will take. Hanging it over the rack at the foot of the bed, she looks up.
Something fell on her.
It felt like a raindrop, on her arm. She can’t see anything coming from the ceiling. It stares back at her, blank. She runs her fingers over the skin on her arm. It’s dry. She tells herself it must have been her hair, somehow, even though it isn’t dripping any more.
‘It’s stuffy in here,’ she says, walking over to the window. It’s a heavy sash, with a brass catch that slides open, reluctantly. She hauls up the panel and lets the night in. The air is warm, with a strong breeze. Your hair will be dry in no time.
She’s wearing a thin cotton dressing gown, her light summer one. The edges flutter in the wind, enough to make her re-wrap herself and tighten up the belt.
Outside, the garden sways. The tree canopy, the swaggering flowers, the long grass – they ripple together and whirl round, like the sea. Black, dark green, deep blue in the moonlight. She watches the ocean rise and fall, swell with the tide under its moon.
She grips her belt and leans, letting her forehead rest against the edge of the sash, as she strains to see the flags directly underneath. Would it kill her, if she fell from this height? Probably not. Maybe, if she hit her head first. She imagines what the blood would look like, how far it would spread. She decides it would look like oil. It would be black, glossy. It would creep across the concrete in the same way.
She hears something and turns to look around the room. Tap-tap-tap. A necklace sways, dangling from her jewellery stand. She drags the sash down and pulls the catch back into place. No. It will be stifling. She opens it up again but only leaves an inch free this time – just enough to let the air swim in and out.
Tick-tick-tick. It sounds wet, like rain coming through the window, or a tap, dripping slowly. She watches the necklace. Tick-tap-tick. It doesn’t move. There’s no rain on the sill. Besides, it hasn’t been raining. It isn’t raining. The sky is clear.
She walks to the bathroom and pulls the light cord, illuminating the last of the steam. None of the taps let anything go. She tightens them all, nonetheless.
A line from a favourite song runs through her head: you’re tender and you’re tired.
She sighs and walks back into the bedroom, rubbing her eyelids. She draws the curtains, knowing they’ll spend most of the night reaching into the room, letting a ripple of light flash from under them, then they’ll pull back again and take it away. Over and over. She knows she’ll watch them do this, for hours.
When sleep comes to her it is fractured, shallow, unsatisfying. Barely discernible from lying awake, too hot and too still. She remembers her mother’s voice. Just relax. Don’t try too hard. It doesn’t matter if you don’t sleep, your body is getting the rest it needs if you just lie and relax.
She doesn’t dream anymore, or at least, she doesn’t remember her dreams. She misses them. They used to keep her company. There’s nothing to look forward to, without them. That’s one of the reasons she stopped the tablets, just a couple of weeks ago. She doesn’t want it, anymore, that numbing grey where she feels nothing, remembers nothing, wants nothing, thinks nothing. You’re safe, though. Especially now, living alone. The colour, the memories, the things you wanted, the things you did – left alone, where would it end? She thought of the drop between her window and the concrete. The blood-slick, black in the moonlight.
Somewhere between watching the curtain edges and the swaying cobweb on the ceiling, she falls into a deeper sleep. She dreams, for the first time in months. A swimming dream.
What mass of water is it? She has no idea. She’s under, several feet below the surface, swimming, as though she’s looking for something. Breathing isn’t a problem. It’s happening, somehow, through the water. The ground is too murky to see, as though sand or mud has been kicked up. It isn’t seawater. It isn’t freshwater. It tastes of nothing, except perhaps faintly of her skin. It’s warm. Bathwater warm. That sound, the sound of the inside of her body, fills her ears. Whatever she’s looking for, she’s in no rush to find it. She wants to stay.
There’s something ahead of her. A shadow, behind the silt. Getting bigger. A face, a pale face with dark eyes and an open mouth. It lunges towards her, through the murk. She shoots backwards and gasps, screaming awake.
Breathe. You’re awake. Breathe.
Maybe she doesn’t miss dreams, after all. She sighs and rubs her eyelids, pushes her hair back from her face.
Tick-tick-tick. Tip-tap-tak. The noise is there again. She sees something glistening in the corner of the room, in the direction of the sound. She lunges to grab the stem of the bedside lamp and switch it on. Water is trickling down the wall, dripping to the floorboards. She frowns, squinting to see the origin of the leak. It hasn’t rained in weeks. There are no pipes up there, as far as she knows. You must be wrong.
It has to be pipes, on a circuitous route to the bathroom, maybe.
She sighs and peels back the bedclothes, grabbing her dressing gown and shivering as she draws it over her clammy skin. Shove some towels in the corner, deal with it tomorrow.
She stands up and pulls back the curtain. The sea has calmed. The canopy is sleeping, the flowers, grass, resting. Just breathing, gently. She should find it comforting, but it worries her, somehow. Makes her feel more alone.
A flash of something makes her step back. A streak of silver, cutting down the black in front of her. It lands on the windowsill, splashing into a pool that threatens to spread over the edge, onto the floor. Above her, she can see the water starts at the crack between the ceiling and the wall, silently running down to the edge of the border before falling to the sill below.
Something is broken, somewhere. Her foot twitches off the floor, in reflex at a touch. She looks down as the touch reaches her other foot.
The water is creeping across the floor, from under the bed. She swallows, trying to slow her breathing. The hem of her dressing gown pulses in time with her heartbeat. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Her eyes flicker as she forces them to take in the scene around her.
She puts her hand to her mouth, as if to muffle a scream, but she can’t seem to make a sound.
The walls are moving, rippling, sliding with streams pouring down from the ceiling. All across the wall behind her wardrobe, the wall behind the bed, the other where her dressing table stands and the one with the window – all suddenly alive with little rivers, running to the floor. A creak, a groan from the eaves makes her stagger backwards but she slips and falls, landing in the rising pool. It’s warm. She scrambles to her feet, clinging to the bed. The back of her gown is wet. Her legs are dripping.
The phone is downstairs. She practices what she will say, to convey the urgency. It’s not a leak. It’s a flood. The house is flooded. Flooding – flooding. The water keeps coming and it’s warm. The roof will collapse. The walls will cave in. You have to come out. I don’t know where it’s coming from. Hot water pipes, maybe. It’s not safe.
Don’t fall and hit your head, she says to herself. If you panic, you’ll make things worse. Tread carefully. Slowly. She breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth, taking each step through the water, just up to her ankles, as precisely as her shaking legs will allow.
The water sweeps back as she opens the door in on it, then it reaches out onto the landing after her. She switches on the light. It’s dripping from the ceiling there, too. Especially around the hatch for the attic. A curtain of water, like a garden fountain, falls from the frame surrounding it, where the hatch door pulls down.
The day before, she’d been up in the attic, searching through boxes. The ladder still stands against the wall, next to her. She pictures the room. It was dry. Dusty. Hot. There are no pipes up there, she says to herself, remembering the bare floorboards and the gaps between them, showing nothing except dust and flakes of plasterboard. Nothing.
She looks down the stairs, to where she should be going, to call for help. You miss the colour, though, don’t you? The light. She grabs the ladder. It slices through the curtain of water, making it slippery as she puts her foot on the first step.
The water pours directly down her front as she ascends. First her knees, then her chest, then her face. It skims her back and bottom, then as she reaches the top, directly under the hatch, she’s inside the curtain. She blinks and smooths away the soaked tendrils of hair from her face, examining the hatch. The perimeter, the gap between the frame and the door itself, is glowing. She watches the silver ribbons cascade down from the blue-white light, immediately losing colour as they leave the edge.
Did I leave the light on? It was never that colour. Never that bright.
She struggles with the catch that releases the door, as she did every time. Finally, it flicks sideways. She holds the door in place, suddenly realising what will happen. All that water is going to gush out all at once and knock you off this ladder.
One hand remains propping up the door, the other moves to hold the ladder tight. She leans, trying to keep her feet firmly gripped to the step as she angles her body as far out of the line of fire as she can. She closes her eyes as her face passes under the curtain of water again, then shakes the excess off once she’s through to the other side. Her chest and arms are now under the waterfall, but it doesn’t matter. Her head is beyond the line of fire. She can see. She can stand firm.
‘Okay,’ she says, focussing on her hand that’s holding the door in the frame. The blue-white glow glimmers through the cracks above her. She counts herself down, gripping the ladder.
‘3, 2, 1—’
She snaps her arm back and lets the door swing open, her face turned away, eyes screwed tightly closed, braced for impact. The shower from the edge spurts sideways as the door disturbs it, but nothing else happens. She opens her eyes and squints into the dazzling glow that bears down the ladder. The water slows to a trickle, then a drip. The sound of fountains stops. The light softens. She leans back under the hatch, a single drop falling on her face as she passes under the edge. Her eyes begin to adjust to the light.
She doesn’t understand what she’s looking at.
Above her, she can see into the attic. Right up to the eaves. Up to the skylight and the darkness outside, clashing against the brightness within. She isn’t seeing it as she ever has before, though. She’s seeing it through water, as though she’s standing under a swimming pool with a glass bottom, staring up through the gently undulating liquid.
She reaches out her hand, slowly, to the floor of water above her. As her fingers near the surface she snaps them back, sure she’s seen something move above. Her eyes search the space. Nothing. She sticks her fingers straight through the surface, braced.
Gravity has left this house, a voice says. You’ve lost your mind, again.
It’s like dipping her hand into a bath. A warm pool. But it’s above her, and there’s nothing holding it up. She feels tears spring out and trail down her face. What does it mean? What does it mean this time?
She knows she has to see it out. The attic is full. There is no surface to break on the other side. It’s like a flooded chamber of a ship. The water is pushing against the ceiling. She can feel it.
She knows what she has to do. She undoes the belt of her dressing gown and lets it fall to the floor. She plunges her hands and arms up, reaching across on either side, feeling through the water for the edges of the frame. Breathe in, breathe out. In, out.
In, and hold. She pulls herself up and her head breaks the surface. The warm wet envelops her entirely as she hauls herself up, getting lighter, easier, the more of her is through the other side. Her weightless frame perches on the edge of the hatch, with only her lower legs and feet left dangling over the edge, into the air.
It’s darker than she thought. From below the water, it looked clear and bright, but now she’s in it, the light has dimmed. It’s still there, on the other side of her eyelids, but it’s dialled down. Subdued. You have to open your eyes. She fights it, sitting still, gripping the edges of the wood by her leg, feeling her bones creak. The tiny bubbles tickle again. Escaping her nose, running up the side to the inner corner of her eye, then up again, caught in the net of her eyebrow. The pearls escaping the shell of her mouth rolled, fast, smashing into her eyelashes, shattering out.
You can’t do it.
She feels something. Pressure, movement in the water, a rush against her arm. She turns, instinctively opening her eyes.
A shadow disappears. The skylight, which had been a black oblong when she viewed it through the neon blue, is now the only source of light in the murk. The moon is right above it, half obscured by clouds, casting rays throughout the attic. She’s aware of movement all around and wills the light to strengthen. Shadows, everywhere. The room seems to go on forever – she can’t see the walls on any side. It’s vast.
She doesn’t feel the need to breathe. The reflex has gone. There’s no lack, no strain. None of the dizzy panic she feels when she holds her breath under the bathwater. She pulls her feet in from the air and brings her knees up to her chin, hugging her legs to her chest. This is the place, she tells herself. This is the place you have brought yourself to. Face it.
She looks up at the skylight as the cloud drifts away from the moon, letting its whole face show. The light disperses through the blackness. Her eyes widen. The shadows are alive. They are swimming. They are everywhere. Fish. Sharp, streamlined, soaring. Sharks. Some smaller than her arm. Others half her size, some much bigger. Swimming through the space all around her. A huge shape, a solid block with a slight sweep of a curve, passes between her and the light above. She sees it taper in, back to the body that slides past her into the dark. Hammerhead. The corner of her mouth lifts. She can’t help but smile. It is beautiful, all of it. She could stay here.
She lets go of her knees and lets her arms spread. She slowly stands, her legs stretching out under her, pushing her higher into the space. She kicks her legs and sweeps her arms round to the side, turning in the water until she has seen right around her. Her hair sways in and out of her vision. She looks at her hands, then down at her body, almost glowing in the moonlight. Weightless.
They ignore her, only altering their course if she’s in their way. Their pale undersides are broken only by black slashes, cracks in chalk rock, their motionless mouths. She finds their eyes unsettling, but then, she finds her own eyes unsettling when she sees them in the mirror. You could stay here.
She swims away from the window, into the darkness, losing the moonlight, ray by ray. She looks back at the teeming scene under the skylight and shakes her head, smiling, turning back to explore the black.
There’s a shape ahead, barely lit but just about visible in the dark. She squints. It has the same kind of movement as the others. The glide that snakes from side to side, the front always at a slight angle to the back. She moves a few strokes backwards, willing it to come into the light. For the first time since entering the water, she becomes aware of her heartbeat. The sounds that usually dominate her submerged world had been overtaken, to this point, by the sounds of motion all around her. Now she hears her heartbeat, the blood rushing through her veins, and her teeth, grinding together, as she watches the mass move closer.
The light hits its nose. The grey tip comes closer, getting wider. She uses one arm to propel her backwards, still watching. It sways towards her, then away, as more of it enters the light. Two black gashes, either side, look like nostrils, maybe. It turns to face her, dead on. The eyes appear, bigger, deeper than anything. What she can see of it is bigger than her. Adrenaline. She turns, swimming away as fast as the water lets her. She’s screaming, but making no sound.
She turns for a fraction of a second to judge how far from her it is, then carries on swimming towards the skylight. What she saw was in her head now. There was no getting it out. The mouth. Wider, taller than the house, teeth like jagged rocks – and the blackness beyond them – she’ll never escape it. She has to try.
Her limbs burn. She focuses on the square of light ahead and tries to sprint. It’s like the dream where she’s running from the killer but she’s so, so slow. Swimming through tar. Don’t look back. The skylight is getting closer, but she feels a rush, a pressure, pulling her back, as though it has its own gravitational pull that’s drawing her in. Don’t look back.
Her hands are on the catch, she’s there. Something is just behind her foot, though, she feels the force of it rising up under her. The catch rattles as her shaking hands force it. She glances back as she pushes the window open, enough to see teeth, bigger than her, bearing down, closing in, as the water gushes out and takes her with it.
She’s rolling down the roof, scrabbling at the slate tiles to stop herself, but they’re slippery with the water that sweeps over them. Her foot jams against something and she manages to cling to a dry tile with one hand. She’s stopped on the edge of the roof, on her back, her foot in the gutter. Her skin stings. There are grazes, bruises, tiny cuts all over her body from the friction against her bare skin. She’s filthy, too. She manages to use her jammed foot to turn herself over to lie on her front, clinging to the tiles, panting into the dampness.
Dawn is breaking.
She rests her face against the roof, turned slightly so that one eye can watch the horizon. The sun is coming up behind the skyline, with its towers and trees and hills. It throws rays out across the fields, the farm buildings, the rows of terraced houses and the grander streets with their semi-detached, bay-windowed ones. The sky is pale orange, with a hint of champagne pink and a touch of indigo still, from the retreating night. She lifts her head and turns to look at the open skylight.
The water has stopped spilling out. She pushes herself up, leaning on her elbows, straining to see. Her joints ache. Her hands are bleeding, her nails broken off. Breathe. Breathe deep. She does, and gets to her knees, crawling up to the skylight, grasping the tiles, staying low to the roof beneath her. When her face is level with the opening, she stops. The dark tracks left by the water are gone. She looks back, down beside herself, where the torrent had tipped over the edge. Nothing.
She leans over the skylight. The attic is empty. Dry. She lowers her head down so she can see each of the four walls, back to the border they occupied before. All she can see is the same dust, cardboard boxes and fragments of plasterboard that had always been there.
She sits upright, then peers over the edge of the roof, to the garden below. Dew sits on the grass. Nothing more. A blackbird perches in the tree and begins singing, clear and sharp. The flowers are just opening, colours beginning to burst. She sits back, pulls her knees to her chest and hugs them. Her skin, her hair, is completely dry. She feels a whisper of wind skim over her.
She smiles, watching the sunrise, letting her tears roll down to water the garden.
Amy Stone lives and works in Sheffield. Her first novel, The Raven Wheel, was longlisted for the Arnold Bennett Literary Award 2020. Amy has also been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in the short story category and her first piece of flash fiction was nominated for a Puschart Prize last year, by Janus Literary. Find Amy on Twitter @amy_fleur_stone
photo by Jonas Allert, Dmitry Ant and Cristian Palmer (via unsplash)