The first time I drown, I am five and brave with the confidence of never knowing failure. I fly from rock to rock along the edges of my grandmother’s goldfish pond, slime filled fissures dark beneath me, the water clear and bright on this spring day. The wind chills my skin, but it doesn’t slow me as I leap skip dart along. Suddenly I’m airborne for a moment of weightless flight. The world slips sideways upside down inside out. I open my mouth to shout, but the water closes over my head, roughly dragging me under.
I try to hold my breath, watching the bubbles twirl like dancers above my head. My vision spins with them, and I hang there for an eternity.
I let the air go, sucking in water, my body knowing before I do what’s going on. It feels funny, like being tickled from the inside. Maybe I swallowed a goldfish.
I wait for an eternity as fire burns through me, not my lungs like I expect, but everywhere else. My legs are the worst. A scream bursts out with the last of the air leaving my lungs. My legs pull together. I glance down, thinking I’m caught in something, and see a flash of green.
Arms pull me and lift me and the world is a whirlwind of sudden feelings that don’t make sense.
My mom tells me I was under for less than thirty seconds, that she was watching me the whole time.
She tells me there’s no way I had a tail. I know better.
The second time I drown, I am nine and foolish with pride, the jeers of the other children stinging my ears. I perch at the edge of the sun-bleached diving board, my knees liquifying, my stomach hard as the concrete of the pool.
Hands shove me before I’m ready, and I hear their laughter even beneath the churning water. Even if I could swim, I wouldn’t want to surface now. I suck in a lungful of the over-chlorinated pool water. It burns, but my legs burn more, almost as much as my eyes. This time I look through my tears to watch my legs grow scales and fuse. Hands grab me and force me back into the cold air just when I’m expecting fins to sprout at the tips of my toes.
They said I must have hit my head when I was pushed in the pool, but Missy Jenkins avoided me for a month after that, calling me fish breath.
I know what I saw.
The third time I drown, I am fifteen and needing to escape, this small town nothing more than a jail cell with fields for bars. All my questions hang unasked on my lips. I stopped answering them for others, their fears and questions expressed in glances and whispers that cut through my heart every night. If I don’t get any answers, neither do they.
Waves wash sand from my bare feet in the ruby ends of sunlight, as I walk until I’m far enough out to swim, having learned just for this. Everything-just for this. My bathing suit peels off easily. I leave it to wash back to shore. Maybe my mom can bury it when they declare me dead. She can hardly tell them I’m a… whatever I am.
I swim until I can’t see the shore, until my legs assure me humans aren’t meant to keep going. When the waves push me down, I let them. For a moment, I hesitate. What if I’m wrong, if it’s nothing more than childish fantasies, I don’t want to die…
My lungs decide for me, and the burning consumes me as the sun finishes setting and the moon rises.