The man in military uniform is wading into the shallow end of the public swimming pool.
The mothers pull their children’s balloon arms, floating them silently to the steps in swim rings like dozens of emergency tugboats. They will not stay to see what happens.
The man absorbs their stares, it has become his speciality. He recognises their fear, saw it in his wife’s eyes when he returned a stranger.
The water seeps ankle-to-thigh through thick green cloth. The man anticipates the steady saturation. He is well-versed in the properties of liquids, knows how they lend themselves to circumstance. Pooling under corpses, rotting flesh from immobile feet, staining tear-splashes onto letters. (He also knows that liquid changes form completely when it evaporates but won’t ever say that word again or even think it).
The man wades deeper though the cloth is heavy and pulls him back. He feels he has been moving this way all his life, through never-ending, quagmire sludge, through darkness real and imagined.
Sometimes, water washes things away. The stench of earth, urine, faeces, death. Sometimes, it washes over things. The tattooed number on his forearm has been scrubbed a thousand times but will not fade.
The pool is empty now. He sees them approaching, clustering shadows in his peripheral vision. They group and converse, whispering strategies. He hopes they’ll keep him longer this time. He hopes the room is small. He hopes they’ll never let him out.
He closes his eyes, lies back. The sounds of humanity are muffled underwater. The liquid soaks across his torso into cloth and skin, sitting inside scars, pooling over pain. For a second, he floats weightless on the surface. For one small moment there is peace.
First published in Second Chance Lit (2 January 2021).