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The First Drowning

Alex Sobel lives in Toledo, Ohio where he is a therapist for children with autism. His writing has appeared in publications such as Electric Literature, The Saturday Evening Post Online, and Dark Matter Magazine. This is his third story featured in Daily Science Fiction.

"Do the drownings get better?" I ask Amber.
She weaves her fingers together, shakes her head down toward her hands. "It fades a little, you know? Becomes routine, just another part of everything."
At sixteen, I'm old to be having my first drowning. I've been sheltered so far by my dad, his pure blood and resulting high rank allowing for some pull with the K'Cha elite.
"We'll always be needed here," I remember Dad whispering in my ear when I was young, maybe ten or eleven, the first time he had ever taken me to watch the drownings. I remember faces in the distance, blurring, like thumb prints. There, then gone. "We're useful to them."
It was a few years before I began asking questions. Why are things this way? Why don't the K'Cha have to suffer through the drownings?
"Because they won," Dad said without thinking about it, an answer given many times.
He didn't elaborate, didn't need to.
"What does it feel like?" I ask Amber.
"It's like... it hurts for a bit, but then it changes," she says. "When the air leaves, you feel a pressure, your soul or something pushing out through your skin. It's like you trying to escape another you."
"And... then you die?" She hesitates, then kisses me.
It's a long time before we come up for air.
When we go downstairs, Dad is sitting at the kitchen table. He looks like he wants to cry, but doesn't. Publicly, he supports the drownings, even when it's his own daughter. It's important for his political career that he doesn't seem to be weak or sentimental.
"She's coming," Dad says referring to Mom. She was only eight when she experienced her first drowning and the fact that I held out this long made her as proud of me as she's ever been.
"We can't wait much longer," I say.
"She's coming," Dad says. "She promised."
It bothers me that it's this, something I have no control over, that Mom finally noticed. Not my schooling, not my painting. Not even the amount of K'Cha suitors I have, each one not only taking rejection well, but seemingly honored just to be acknowledged.
"It's your long arms and fingers," Mom told me once at some K'Cha party when a high ranking K'Cha cackled its jaws near my ear, but refused to look at me, a K'Cha mating practice. "Tricks them into thinking you have a couple of extra limbs."
I put a hand on Dad's shoulder, like I'm the one comforting him.
"Are you sure you don't..." he begins, but trails off. Whatever he was going to say, even if we did, he couldn't. Mom, at very least, acknowledged the inevitability of the drownings. I know somewhere inside Dad thinks there's a way out, that it won't happen to me, that I'll be spared at the last second. It's an optimism you can only have when the outcome doesn't affect you, when you don't have to be afraid because no matter what you think or do, it'll never dare touch you.
He hugs me, then hugs Amber, holds her for even longer. He's scared of something happening to her, of her leaving me here alone.
"We'll wait for Mom as long as we can," I say.
And we do.
The water is close, but I never see it, never walk this way to school. I understand how easy it is to ignore, to let this go on. I understand why Mom couldn't come, couldn't see me off.
I realize that we can run, that there's nothing stopping us right now. But then, that's their power. They're so sure. So sure that I'll be weak, so sure that my fear will keep me moving, one foot after another.
When my foot touches the water, I feel Amber's hand on mine, holding me down, holding me here. I can feel people watching us. "Is this okay?" she asks, nodding toward our hands, still together. She means: is it okay for us to be public, for people to see?
I respond by squeezing even tighter.
The K'Cha look at me longingly. Despite what's about to happen, they still find me beautiful. Does that make it harder to drown me? It never seemed to be that way for anyone else. It almost feels like beauty somehow makes the drowning easier, makes it feel like we really earned it.
A bulky K'Cha grabs at Amber, trying to pull us apart. "Can't we stay like this?" she says. "Does it matter?"
The K'Cha lets out a sound, harsh and breathy, a garbage disposal trying to whisper. It shrugs, one of the few gestures of ours that they've adapted, and grabs us by the wrists and moves us both into position.
Amber and I look at each other, waiting. "If you're back first, wait," she says.
"I will," I say, leaning in so our foreheads touch. Just over Amber's shoulder I can see a face looking at me, a half-smile, proud, sad. It's my mother, waiting her turn. She nods, like we've had the talk we need to have, like we understand each other. I see now that it's ongoing, that for her this is life, that this is just a part of everything.
"Ready?" Amber asks. Before I can answer I feel a claw behind my head and then the impact of the surface of the water being broken by my forehead. I try to keep my eyes open while underneath, see only a dark impression of Amber's face
She was right before. After the air is gone, I feel it, the pressure against my skin, the weight of my soul. It feels like it wants to fight, to push back, to be freed. Maybe we lose a soul during the drownings, but we also get a new one. Maybe my new one will be braver or smarter. Maybe my new soul will know what to do.
When Amber's face fades I don't panic, because I know that there are things beyond this, there's more for me. I know that even though I can't see her right now, Amber isn't far, and when I wake up, whenever that is, wherever that is, I'll open my eyes.
And she'll be there.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 17th, 2021

Author Comments

To me, to experience daily, systemic injustice is like drowning, like having your head underwater as you struggle to pull yourself out. Even if you want to give in and stop fighting, you can't, you're not allowed. Because you don't have any air, because even that's something you need to fight for.

- Alex Sobel
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