“Dad, there’s something in the pool.”
John stopped. He turned to look at his daughter. Little wet footprints on the white tile floor trailed her. She shivered.
“What is it?” He set a wine glass in the sink and turned the faucet off. “What’s in the pool?”
“I don’t know, dad.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” He tore a piece of paper towel and dried his hands.
His daughter shrugged. She looked cold, her face pale and worried.
“Why were you in the pool?”
His daughter said nothing.
“You’re not allowed to go in the pool by yourself.”
“Dad, I’m sorry —”
“Stay out of the pool,” he cut her off. “I’ve told you before, you know this.”
She stood still.
“You’re nine years old. You know better.” He looked down. “Are you listening to me?”
The girl nodded.
John’s brow furrowed and he rubbed his hands together. They were still damp, clammy. He tore another piece of paper.
John sighed and frowned. “What did you see in the pool?”
The little girl swallowed and bit her lip.
“Lizzie, tell me.”
She looked up at him.
“It — It told me to bring you to the pool.”
When Lizzie was five, during a stormy afternoon in September, John gave her a bath.
Her first day of kindergarten had been earlier in the week. John had packed her bag with everything she’d need for the day — a notebook, a snack, a little bottle of water. He’d waken up earlier than normal to get her dressed and ready. This is the day I’ll start being a better dad, he thought. This is the day things will change. On the car ride there, he decided to play something orchestral, something that might make Lizzie cultured, a tip that he’d briefly skimmed over in a magazine once. He put on Neptune, from the Planets.
When they got to school, he watched as she stepped out, away from him, to join the flood of children, and his stomach churned. Unlike Lizzie, he felt out of place in his own flood — the crowd of suburban moms standing with him on the sidewalk, tossing side glances at him and whispering among each other. John felt uncomfortable. It’s like they know, he thought. But at least Lizzie did made it to kindergarten. That was good.
By the end of the week, John had stopped remembering to pack Lizzie’s snack and water, or wake up early enough to get her ready and to school on time, but they still played Neptune in the car.
Then, that rainy Sunday afternoon, as Lizzie stepped into the filled tub and John sat watching his daughter’s smile, she began to tell him about her new friends.
“There’s Mary, and she’s nice, but not as nice as Dan.”
“Yeah. Sometimes we have contests, like…” She picked up a toy that had sunk to the bottom of the tub, “like, who can hold their breath the longest.”
“Yeah, and usually Dan wins, but I won last time. Wait!” She beamed at him. “Lemme show you! I can hold my breath underwater for a really long time.” And she held her nose and sank under the water.
John watched her, but his half-smile faded after five seconds, and after ten seconds he felt his breath quickening and his throat closing and his stomach churned just like it had earlier that week, just like it had when he had looked at the swimming pool four years before.
“Lizzie!” he grabbed her shoulders and yanked her up. “Lizzie!”
The girl coughed, shocked, “What? What daddy?”
He hugged her. “Don’t do that again, Lizzie. Please don’t do that again.”
Once, in the middle of a summer day, John woke up from a nap on his couch. Lizzie was two at the time.
The living room was dark, the curtains were drawn. The TV, muted and playing the weather forecast, cast its dim glow on the furniture. This room had been twice as furnished not too long ago, John thought. He frowned and sat up. A beer can half finished tipped over and spilled on the carpet. John picked it up and finished what was left of it.
He rubbed his eyes and looked down at the coffee table. A little statuette of St. John of Nepomuk stared back at him, head tilted sideways in a pleading pose, a gift from his late Polish grandma. Next to it were picture frames and empty beer cans. There was one picture he must have turned down before he fell asleep. Which one was it? He picked up the family portrait and looked at it. Then he put it back down. He felt queasy.
A living room half-furnished, fit for half a family.
]He looked down at the couch. The cushion was wet. He could have taken a nap out in the midday sun, out by the poolside. But that would have made him sick. This couch was comfier.
Should he go check on Lizzie? That’s how it had happened, wasn’t it? It’ll be okay, John thought, one nap isn’t child neglect, and the back door’s closed anyway.
John lay back down and fell asleep.
John remembers the day Lizzie started Catechism classes. She was six then and had almost outgrown the last few hand-me-downs left over. They drove to the church after school. John parked by the parish center and walked with Lizzie towards the building.
By the door, children played around a large stone terrace. Lizzie ran to join them.
“I’ll be back to pick you up,” he shouted after her, but she didn’t look back and joined the torrent of running children.
John felt nervous. The afternoon sky was grey and overcast and John could feel the first drops of a light drizzle. He walked over to the church and stepped into the dim confessional booth.
John sat and started, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit —”
“Amen,” the priest echoed. John recognized his voice. It was the same priest that had baptized Lizzie.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been about four months since my last confession, and since that time—” John hesitated a moment. This is the day, he thought. This is the day I’ll say it directly. “Since that time, I’ve lied, and cursed —” He’d just get the small ones out of the way first.“I’ve drunk too much —” He could see the silhouette of the priest nodding on the other side. “And —” he paused. He remembered the pool. He felt sick, he felt his throat closing. He had been coming to confession for five years, but if he’d never said it directly, had he ever really confessed it? “And I’ve been neglectful. I’ve been lazy.” He couldn’t do it.
“Is there anything else you’d like to confess?”
“And are you sorry for these sins?”
John listened to the priest’s bit of counsel, a few phrases of theology thrown together, talking about being proactive in life and asking God for the gift of “decisive zeal.” John pursed his lips and nodded. Father’s always right. He recited an act of contrition and the priest sent him off with two Hail Mary’s for penance and absolution.
God should damn me to hell if He hasn’t already, John thought. He dipped his fingers in a bowl of holy water, crossed himself, and stepped out of the church into the drizzling rain.
John could feel a pain growing in his chest.
“It wants to talk to you,” said Lizzie.
John swallowed. It made sense, he thought. He did deserve this.
“Lizzie, what did you see?”
“Nothing, dad —”
“Nothing? What spoke to you?”
“It was small and like — like a shadow, but pale,” she spoke in a quiet voice. “I was in the pool and it was standing on the water, and then it smiled.”
John’s brow furrowed. He squatted down to face Lizzie. He hated to see her frowning like this. She looked scared.
“Lizzie,” she looked up at him, “It’s okay, Lizzie,” he rubbed her shoulder. “What else did you hear it say?”
Lizzie shook her head. “Nothing.”
John sighed. “It’s okay, Lizzie.” He stood back up. “Come, let’s go to the pool.”
Lizzie looked up at him. Tears ran down her cheeks.
“It’s nothing, Lizzie,” he said. He didn’t like lying to his daughter. Miracle or not, it must be something. Maybe God had waited seven years for him to come to terms with it, and this was His sign, His was of saying time was up. “Come, let’s go. I’ll show you that it’s nothing.”
The two stepped out of the kitchen into the dimly lit living room. Streaks of summer daylight filtered in around the edges of closed window drapes. They passed around the coffee table. Only the statuette of the saint and a portrait of him and Lizzie stood on it. John could hear the sounds of birds and leaves rustling in the breeze coming from outside. A cicada droned in the background.
“You all right, Lizzie?”
The girl nodded.
They neared the sliding door to the back yard. John listened. There was another sound coming from the poolside. The sound of a child’s laughter. Was this the day? John felt a sinking feeling.
“Lizzie, do you hear that?”
John rubbed his hands and noticed they were still wet. He stepped forward and crossed himself. Lizzie stayed behind. The child’s laughter faded, and John looked out the glass door at the poolside. Sunlight gleamed on the pool water. Nobody was in sight.
The girl came next to him.
“See, there’s nothing.”
She remained silent.
“Nothing to worry about,” he said, and breathed. He took the girl’s hand.
“Yeah.” She rubbed her eyes.
He smiled at her. “Hey Lizzie.”
The girl looked up at him.
“It’s a nice day out. Want me to teach you how to swim?”
She smiled back at him and nodded.
This is the day, John thought. This is it.