By Kayla Rutledge
The pool had been dry for years, ever since the landlord decided it wasn’t worth the maintenance. The revolving group of college boys that lived in the house always went down to the beach on good weather days anyways, burning their shoulders and watching the sun sparkle off the water and their white, solid teeth. Truth be told, the landlord was tired of the house. He was tired of the boys calling from their large bedrooms that they paid too little for, fixing the messes they created day in and day out, fielding noise complaints from the neighbors. He let the salt and chlorine dry in long, wispy streaks on the concrete, and the pool sunk deeper and deeper into the backyard. The college boys mostly ignored it. Sometimes they put lawn chairs in the empty hole and sat all day, falling into a swollen, dreamless sleep in the sky-blue womb.
In October a hurricane blew in and the college boys took a trip to the mountains for a week, leaving the pool to shudder and howl all alone in the rain, sinking deeper into the soggy ground like a sore. The storm filled the pool with everything wanted by no one, battered palm leaves and broken deck chairs, dead birds and roofing tiles. Then it turned on its heel and left.
The week after the hurricane, the floodwaters shrank back into the sea, the college boys’ SUVs came careening back into the driveway, and the pool smoked and broiled in the beaming sunlight. The leader of the college boys called the landlord. The landlord promised that he was coming soon and never came, and the debris coagulated into a sludgy, sooty potion that stank all through the fall. The leader of the college boys, who lived in the room overlooking the backyard, drew his curtains and tried his best to ignore the pool. It was his senior year, and everyone agreed he had a very bright future. He was going to propose to his girlfriend in February.
By November, the smell of the pool had begun to invade the house. Something at the bottom was rotting, and the boys all agreed they should call the landlord again, but they didn’t. The temperature dropped, and still the house smelled like mildew and bathwater. The leader of the boys had exams to think about, and had gotten used to keeping his curtains closed. He bought his girlfriend an expensive purse for Christmas. He stopped worrying about the pool. He had other things to be responsible for.
On New Year’s Eve, the boys threw a party on their back porch, and all of their friends came over to sing and toast to the New Year, to the leader of the boys, to his impending engagement, to everything that made them young and invincible. The pool hissed in the moonlight, blurring the reflection of the party into something unrecognizable. The boys dared the smallest of the bunch to jump into the pool. He looked nervously over the balcony at the water, which stunk of bacteria, glinted metallic under the surface, hinting at something that could snuff out his fearsome life. He closed his eyes and plugged his nose. He thought about his mother. The leader of the boys stopped him. He waved a hand at the others, grinned, shouted at the moon. His whole life stood in front of him, like something to be grasped.
In February, the leader of the college boys proposed to his girlfriend. There were string lights and a string quartet. The ring could cut your heart out. He was very proud of himself. His girlfriend had eyes like stone, shrugged, and said No, Thank You, she wanted Something More. Something More! Than the boy and his bright future! He couldn’t imagine what. The leader of the college boys went home. He told the friends waiting for the surprise party to go home. He went out to sit on his deck, alone. The sun was setting hot and orange over the landscape. The pool stunk like cabbage. He was struck by a sudden desire to jump in, to immerse himself in the syrupy darkness of it. He knew that he would sink like a stone until he rested at the bottom. There would be a small pocket of air there. Among all those transient, discarded things, he would glow and glow. He would be the brightest thing in the world.
Kayla Rutledge is from Charlotte, North Carolina. Her story “The Pool” earned an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Shorter Fiction Prize from NC State University. She is also the recipient of the 2019 James Hurst Prize for Fiction from NC State and the 2020 Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Prize in Creative Writing from UNC-Chapel Hill. She has work published and forthcoming in Cellar Door and To the Well and is an incoming graduate student in the MFA program at NC State University.