The Reed Queen — Part Four

By Liam Callanan

“The water’s so high,” Esther said as Sam paddled, not sure if she was being mean or if she was terrified. Chimneys and antennas and decabled telephone poles teetered here and there like the last guests in an empty ballroom. Bunny stared into the dark water, as though she’d be able to spot the ring amid the reflected stars and shards of moon.

“At least your home was near the top of its street,” Sam said. “The water can’t be as deep.”

“No, no, it can’t be,” Bunny said. “And I kept it in the medicine cabinet”—Esther avoided a glance from Bunny—“in a tin, on the second floor, and there was a window right there. A Band-Aid tin. I don’t remember if I left—I think I did, I think I did leave the window open!” She turned again to Esther. “It’s so silly, but I remember thinking, ‘oh, the water’s going to come in all over the floor and make a mess, and won’t that be a bother’.”

“Hush now, Bunny,” Sam whispered, so tenderly that Esther shivered. Then Esther saw the shortwave antenna that had been atop the neighbor’s house.

“That’s it, next door,” Esther said, and gripped Bunny’s hand because she couldn’t not.

They floated closer. Sam poked his paddle down and found the roof. “That’s good. The water’s not too high, not yet.” He had Bunny tell him again where the ring was, and then stood and began to undress. Even in the moonlight, they could see the goose bumps rise across his skin. He started to undo his pants, but stopped. “I, uh—oh, I’ll just be a second.” He paddled to the neighbor’s antenna and tied a triple knot. “No drifting,” he mock-scolded. He had a crooked tooth, just the one, only apparent if he smiled at you, or if you kissed him back.

They all studied the water. It was scarier at night, but it was also better at night. During the daytime, you saw things. Oily slicks. Discordant colors, orange, electric green and blue. The occasional turtle. Once, Esther was certain, a snake. And toys: worst of all were the dolls.

At night, though, you could see almost nothing. “I’m just going to swim back over there,” Sam said, “dive down, into the window, open the cabinet, then—back here.”

“It’s so dark,” Esther said, still uncertain how she was going to stop this.

Sam spoke quickly. “We’ve got the moonlight. And if the cabinet is close to the window, maybe I can just reach in.”

“You can!” Bunny said. “The bathroom wasn’t big. The medicine cabinet was right there.”

Sam carefully left the boat. “Okay,” he said. He turned and swam over to the submerged house. He found the roof with his feet and waved back at them, still grinning. Then he slid beneath the water.

“Sam!” Esther screamed, but it was too late.

He popped up a moment later, sputtering. “Wrong window!” he shouted. Down again. A longer minute this time, and he splashed back to the surface. “I can’t reach it from outside. But the window’s open! I’m going to swim inside.”

“Don’t!” Bunny cried. “Be careful!”

Esther felt sick; what happened when he didn’t find the ring? What if something worse happened? “Watch out!” she yelled, but he was already underwater. A longer minute this time, followed by another one, followed by nothing.

Bunny screamed, on and on. Esther held on to her with all her strength, while trying to keep the canoe from rocking. Give up, give up, Esther kept willing Sam, but she knew he wouldn’t, and a small part of her hoped he wouldn’t, because that was another reason why Esther loved him. Sam was right, better than right, even when he was wrong.

“Untie the rope!” Bunny shouted. “Untie it! Untie it!” She crawled over Esther and scrabbled at Sam’s knot, but it wouldn’t give. “Esther!” Bunny cried. “Help me! Please, please.”

It wasn’t until Esther fiddled with the knot that it came to her—what was happening, what had happened. Bunny was in the opposite end of the canoe, keening for Sam. Esther finally got a loop loose, and when she did, she thought, wait till I tell Sam I beat his knot! and then realized she’d never be able to tell him and began to weep. Frantic, Bunny finished the knot for her.

Bunny paddled with her hands and Esther with the paddle, but once they’d reached the spot, they could only stare. There were no bubbles, no debris, nothing at all. Just the moon. They waited another moment, another, and Bunny said, it hasn’t been that long—and it hadn’t, not in human time, maybe fifteen minutes, but forever underwater.

“Bunny!” Esther hissed or shouted or shrieked, she wasn’t sure, only that the voice sounded nothing like hers. She was furious. With Sam, with Bunny, with herself. If Esther had learned to swim, she’d be over the side now. Why wasn’t Bunny? “Go!” Esther shouted.

Bunny put two hands on the gunwale. “Esther, I—”

“Save him!”

“Esther,” Bunny said. “It’s—it’s too late.”

“You can swim,” Esther said. “It wasn’t magic, it wasn’t a story, he taught you how to swim. I would go, but I can’t swim. Bunny, get in the water, get in now. Swim to him. Brunhilde!”

“I’m not good enough! You saw, you know. I could only swim when he was—when I was with him!”

Teach me,” Esther said. Again, the other voice. Who said the things Esther said? Who did what she did? “Teach me how to swim. I’ll save him.”

“Esther.” Bunny’s voice was thin; she was hardly breathing. “It’s too late. And you can’t—you can’t just learn to swim, just like that.”

“You—did.”

And so they fought, punching and kicking and pulling, the canoe rocking, but never tipping. Bunny stopped Esther from throwing herself into the water, once, twice, and then settled her down, only to catch her a final time. At that point, the twins collapsed into the boat and drifted, smothered between lake and sky.