Tara East (University of Southern Queensland, Australia)
The frigid water was refreshing as Catlin leaned over the kitchen sink to splash her face. Another night of terrible sleep, caught in the halfway space between nothingness and wakefulness. How long could this go on? Scrubbing her face with the end of a tea towel, she stared out the kitchen window. The dimly lit yard was a cluster of soft shadows and formless shapes. A desert landscape; a dust bowl. Judging from the light, the sun wouldn’t break for at least another thirty or forty minutes, but really, there was nothing out there worth seeing.
A quick prickling sensation crept along the inside of her foot. Sissy.
‘You’re awake early.’ Catlin looked down at the puff of white fur nestled against her instep: a perilous position for a rat, how easy it would be for her foot to roll, or to lift it and bring it down again in a quick stamp.
You were very restless last night; I was waiting for you to topple out of the bed the way you were swishing from side to side.
Catlin shrugged. ‘Couldn’t get comfortable.’
It’s bad this morning?
‘It’s bad every morning,’ Catlin replied. She needed to roll out her yoga mat and complete the series of exercises designed to rebuild her core without straining the rod and screws that fused her L5-21. No more sit-ups, crunches, leg raises, or flutter kicks. Ever. It was her first morning off in a week, making the early start particularly bitter and the idea of moving through those Pilates-inspired stretches threatened to further her agitation.
Knowing there was no chance for her to return to sleep, she filled the kettle. According to the microwave, the town pool wouldn’t open for another thirty minutes. It was warm in the kitchen, but a chill passed over Catlin regardless. She promised herself that today was the day she’d get back in the pool. The irony that swimming was one of the few exercises she could still do was not lost on her.
‘Are you hungry?’ The question was entirely for show. Sissy was always hungry.
I could eat.
Catlin tried not to roll her eyes as she gathered the rat up, poured some seeds and nuts into a dish, and set both parties down on the bench—Sissy had made it clear that she found it wildly distasteful to eat on the floor.
Catlin made herself an instant coffee, nose wrinkling at the taste, and promised herself she could buy a decent one after as a reward. The only thing she had to do right now was dig out her swimmers, a towel, and a couple of gold coins. The thought of getting ready, stepping into her togs, crossing wet concrete, and plunging into morning-fresh water sparked a mixture of excitement and apprehension. She knew was best to not think on these things too heavily. There was only one way to resolve fear and uncertainty: action. She opened the pantry and dug out a re-useable grocery bag as she tried to remember where she’d stashed her bikini. She was sure she’d seen it just the other day while unpacking.
Where are we going?
‘I’m going for a swim, you’re staying here.’ Catlin swigged another mouthful of coffee before dumping the remains into the sink. The water would wake her up better than any coffee.
I bet I’d be a good swimmer; we should go together.
‘No,’ Catlin sprinkled some extra seeds into the bowl, pushed a chair against the counter so that the rat could jump down when she was ready. ‘I need to be alone.’
It had been a week since she’d drunkenly filled out the personality questionnaire and ordered her Constant Companion online, and Catlin still hadn’t quite gotten used to the fact that her ‘perfect match’ was a rat. She was expecting something grander or at least a species that somehow related to the ocean: a turtle, crab, heck even a seagull would have made more sense. Regardless of the species of her companion, Catlin wouldn’t be caught dead with Sissy out in public. Everybody knew that Constant Companions were essentially Furbies for adults. Without another word, she turned and left the room in search of her swimmers before the rat could offer any further protests.
There were three cars in the lot when she arrived at the New Town Public Pool. The digital clock on the dash winked and became 6.a.m. Her Sunny Coast pals, Becky and James, would be heading out now with their wet suits on, boards waxed, powdered sand squeaking between their feet as they ambled down to the water. Catlin pushed the thought aside, even as her fingers itched to text them. If she was there—and she wasn’t—she’d be parked up on the beach anyway.
Summer mornings in New Town weren’t cool; the sun had only just risen and the air was already temped. She was used to heat, but the desert lacked the moisture she was accustomed to.
‘Five dollars,’ the teenage boy behind the open counter informed her when she approached the kiosk.
Catlin quirked her eyebrow, ‘The last time I went to a public pool it costs fifty cents.’ She made the complaint lightly, as she slid a couple of goldies onto the counter. Her expenses had been slashed by relocating to the middle of nowhere, but she was still working to a budget. Five dollars could buy a medium flat white, an avocado (sometimes two), three hours parking, or a scratchy. Corrective back surgery wasn’t cheap. Every coin saved drew her that fraction closer to the dream that was her former life. She gave the kid a nod and passed through the turnstile. A calamity of white plastic chairs and tables surrounded a kiddie’s pool just beyond the entryway, behind it was the standard twenty-five-metre lap pool. Given the hour, the kiddie pool was dry and uninhabited by screaming children; however, there were three people in the lap pool. Catlin crossed the cement pathway and set her things down on the bottom step of the grandstand. She tucked her valuables into the rumpled towel inside the re-usable bag. A small sense of security.
Lane seven was free. She finger-combed her wiry brown hair into a bun and stood beside the starting block, aware that her preference for diving in headfirst was now an impossibility. Instead, she tossed up whether it was better to drop into the deep end or enter via the steps in the shallow end, but going slow had never been her style. She willed herself to lift her leg, to curl her foot away from the wet concrete, raise her knee skyward, and drop in off the edge. None of these things happened. These simple, micro-movements had transformed into herculean efforts. Her heartbeat picked up pace, the echoing memory of searing pain pulsed the length of her spine inspiring a wordless knowing that something was very, very wrong—how quickly desire turned punitive.
Are you okay?
Catlin jolted at the sound of Sissy’s voice in her head. ‘What are you doing here?’ she spat as the white rat clambered up onto the starting block beside her. ‘How are you here?’ For one ludicrous moment, she wondered if Companions could teleport.
Sissy’s whiskers twitched in a way Catlin had taken to mean she was amused. Your bag, obviously. It really wasn’t that difficult.
‘Well … get back in there, you’re distracting me.’
Distracting you from standing beside a pool, too terrified to get in?
Catlin’s jaw tightened. The rat may not be able to teleport, but her ability to perceive Catlin’s inner thoughts and feelings was unnerving.
‘I need to be alone right now, thanks.’
Sissy didn’t move. You don’t swim in pools.
‘What?’ Catlin barked, not bothering to hide her annoyance.
You didn’t swim in pools before—
‘I broke my back?’ She rolled her shoulders at the mention of the injury. Persistence, determination, and masochism had earned her a top ten ranking; mindset is everything, except if you have a debilitating injury. These qualities had helped as she weened herself off painkillers and suffered the torture of rehab, but they could not deliver her old body back.
That’s true, but what I was going to say is that you swam in oceans. This pool won’t do. You need to swim in natural water sources—a lake! That’s what we need!
Catlin stole a glance at the stagnate pool, cheeks warming with the knowledge that anyone could listen in on her end of the conversation. Fortunately, the other swimmers were too preoccupied with their morning exercise to care about the strange girl standing next to the starting blocks, speaking to a rat. She doubted Sissy’s theory, yet she was relieved by the opportunity it presented: a slither of time, the delay of an important task. Here was an excuse to move away from the pool and all that it represented. One foot stepped back off the platform, the other remained planted beside the block. Would another location really be any different? She knew she had to try. If she couldn’t get back into the water, there was little point in following through with the surgery or remaining in this lucrative but dull town, exiled from the remaining scraps of her dream life.
Catlin took the highway north out of town and released a jaw cracking yawn. Determination leads to success, but it rarely leads to sleep. Surfing was a little like sleep, Catlin thought as she waved at a passing Ute, in some ways, you ceased to exist. Years ago, a mate on the big island had bragged about how much he liked catching zees, said it was like being dead but without the commitment. In Catlin’s opinion, oblivion was underrated, the nothingness that could be found on a wave or in a dreamless sleep brought a type of relief she’d not experienced anywhere else.
She’d woken with a start earlier that morning, tired hands tracing the lengths of her arms, certain the skin would be tacky with the residue of saltwater. Every night she dreamt of catching perfect barrels; how her fingers would drag through the inner wet wall until the tunnel closed and the wave collapsed around her. In waking, the emotional high of the dream evaporated leaving behind the residue of disappointment. A part of her relished this nightly imagining as it alleviated the deeper longing she spent most days smothering. Snippets of familiar faces blazed behind her retina alongside memories of a former life: professional success, her ex-girlfriend Keira, having a powerful, pain-free body. The problem with time-bending dreams is that they end, and the dreamer is snapped back to the present; the present they were attempting to escape.
She did have some control, however, and she was determined to make it happen: she would return to the water.
‘Not far, I don’t think.’ It hadn’t rained once since Catlin arrived in New Town, and according to customers at the hotel, not for a good long while before that, but a quick search online provided a shortlist of hopeful locations. The town damn was her best bet, but far too public, the second best was Jila Creek, fifteen minutes out of town.
Taking a left-hand turn at the speed sign, Catlin hit a dirt road. Teeth clenching; she hoped that this was the right track and that her four-cylinder would be enough to carry her all the way through the bush. She cut around a few ditches, and spotted a random cow that had escaped from a nearby property, until eventually the trees parted and the track transformed into a clearing.
Unsurprisingly, the waterhole was low, its contents the colour of the surrounding soil, its surface a ghostly reflection of the clouds and thin canopy overhead. Despite the lack of water, there was a pleasant grey-green to many of the plants surrounding the area. Most she had no name for, but there were some she recognised, like wattle and bottle brush.
‘This is ridiculous, we should just go home.’ Cool shame passed through her chest at the seeking tone in her voice. She sounded like a five-year-old looking for permission. When Sissy failed to respond, Catlin straightened. ‘Well, alright then. Are you coming too or staying here?’
What kind of question is that?
‘Right,’ Catlin extended her hand and Sissy scurried aboard.
It was cooler here than it had been at the pool. The brown watering hole was surrounded by a sparse line of gum trees and shrubs. To the far left was an awning that covered a peeling picnic table and BBQ area. When she stepped out of the car, she nearly landed in the ashy remains of a previous camper’s fire. To the right was a sweeping rise with a trodden path that weaved between the scrub. The path lead to an overhang that hovered ten meters above the water and a hanging rope from the widest established tree. Catlin stepped back, edging closer to the car, her breath thin and reedy. She’d paddled over surfaces of unknown depths and ridden twenty-foot waves, now she braced against the idea of a ten-metre drop.
Damn this new body and how much everything had changed.
Are you going to jump?
Catlin unhooked her gaze from the rope. As always, Sissy’s flat eyes gave nothing away.
Are you going to get in?
‘Right,’ Catlin repeated herself. ‘Hold on, my arm is falling asleep.’
Oh, put me down. I want to smell it.
This place, of course!
Catlin lowered the rat to the ground and watched as Sissy’s soft white form scurried over the dry debris in the direction of the bank. Catlin flicked off her thongs and took a step forward. The crisp, sharp edges of the dry grass, leaves, and twigs did not give way as she crossed the clearing, but bit into the underside of her foot. The sky had lightened since leaving the town pool, but the tree line that encircled the watering hole kept the place in shadows. A small tingle danced across her lower back as she neared the water’s edge; her breath became shallow and quick.
Sissy entered the water before her, sending a small ripple that ended as quickly as it began. If I were you, I’d build a damn and catch all the fish. Sissy’s body bobbed, her head barely above the waterline as she swam a little further out. Come here fish, swim into my trap! We could eat fish forever then, Catlin, and never go hungry.
Catlin clenched her hands into fists, jaw tight with the effort of ignoring the impulse to sprint back to the car. She wouldn’t leave, only she couldn’t move forward either.
I think we should take some of these plants home. You love native plants.
‘How do you know what I love?’ She whispered.
Because your girlfriend gave you a bunch when you won the WSL championship. You’re so pretty when you cry.
Catlin’s breath hitched. She’d lost count of how many times she’d watched that twelve-second reel online. Her stepping off the stage having accepted the bar-fridge sized trophy, trembling hands smeared the tears across her cheeks, Keira peppering her with kisses, screaming, laughing, a purple and blue scarf slung around her neck.
‘I don’t have—look, just be quiet okay? I am trying to concentrate.’
The rat turned around; her tiny pink nose leading the way as she swam towards the bank. I’ve never swum in the open before. Actually, I’ve never swum. I can see why you love it so much. Do you know, I sunk every time I stopped? Bit exhausting moving my legs all the time. It’s made me rather hungry. Shame we couldn’t build that damn, I’ve never eaten fish before either.
Catlin’s gaze drifted out to the middle of the water. It was so still, so unmoving: such lifeless water. What good could come from entering it? She jolted; wet fur brushing against her ankle.
Put your feet in. Sissy clambered up onto Catlin’s foot. Go on, I’m right here. I’ll make sure none of those nasty fish get you.
‘I can’t…’ Catlin chocked on the words, her throat thick.
Rubbish. Look at these feet, they’ve been walking for years. You know exactly what to do.
Fear gave way to shame, but Catlin did as Sissy said. Her toes were the first thing to disappear beneath the water’s surface, then the ball, arch, and heel of her foot. Then Sissy disappeared too. The next foot followed so that Catlin was now ankle-deep in the murky water.
Sissy popped up a metre away. Do it again, do it again! Come on, Catlin. Get in here.
Catlin moved forward, noting the water’s weak resistance, how quickly it gave way to her movements. When the water was above her knees, she plonked down quickly, the cool of the water stealing her breath, surrounding her most vulnerable places. Sissy paddled towards her and scampered up onto Catlin’s bent knee.
Not to speak too soon, but I dare say that was a success. And wouldn’t you know it, nothing bad happened.
Catlin nodded woodenly.
Put your head under, it’s such a wonderful feeling.
‘I remember.’ Catlin inhaled and she rolled her spine down into the water until the surface closed overhead, disrupting her vision, consuming her entirely, holding her in place. She was charged with this new body, but at last here, hidden below the false sky, she found the support she needed.
She broke the surface with a gasp, grinning with her efforts.
Let’s go further out. Sissy bounced off Catlin’s knee and into the water. She was halfway out when she heard Catlin call her name, but when she spun around, the water behind her was empty.
Catlin? Sissy stirred the water, checking for signs of her companion. She’d been right behind her, how had she disappeared so quickly? She started back toward the bank, tiny feet pushing against the muddled water. Then a new current cycled beneath her and she screamed as the hand of a wicked river demon gripped her tail.
‘Got you.’ Catlin tugged to emphasis her point before releasing her hold.
It’s you! Sissy paddled towards her companion and scampered up onto her shoulder.
I thought you were someone else.
‘Good.’ Catlin pushed forward, her hands enlarged and indistinct as they glided beneath the surface like wings.
I think we should stay a little longer. We might catch some fish yet.
‘I don’t think there are any fish.’
Maybe, but it’s best to be sure.
Tara East is a doctoral candidate and sessional academic at University of Southern Queensland. Her long form fiction includes the mystery novel, Every Time He Dies, and the time travelling novella, When Bell Met Bowie. Her short fiction has appeared in TEXT Journal and October Hill Magazine, and her non-fiction articles have appeared in Writing From Below, Queensland Writers Centre, The Huffington Post, and The Artifice, among others. She publishes weekly writing advice blogs and videos on her website.