Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

The Book of Drowned Sisters

They lived on the last street that had been constructed before investor money ran out, and behind their row of seven houses was a long unfenced field marked KEEP OUT, within it a little hill and little retaining pond, and a row of three streetlights along an unpaved road that stopped abruptly at the foot of the hill. Trees rimmed the field, and the streetlights still lit up, so there was a touch of Narnia in every evening. Even in the brilliant summer sun, the trees were thick enough to give the woods an inviting fairy tale darkness, though in practice they were full of mosquitoes. They used to play a game there called Princess of the Hill vs. Princess of the Lake. Diamond was older, so she claimed Princess of the Hill, where she’d worn a path to the top through tall grass and waist-high bushes. Her little sister Tyesha got Princess of the Lake, which was full of goldfish and Canada geese and trash.

To play Princess of the Lake vs. Princess of the Hill, you had to come up with reasons why your army would win the war.

“Invasion of acid-spitting frogs,” said Tyesha.

“Earthworms that come out of the dirt and eat the frogs.”

Tyesha shook her head. “Frogs eat worms, not the other way around.”

“Ummmm,” said Diamond, drawing the word out to a ridiculous degree, “frogs do not spit acid, either, but right now we’re making things up.”

“Acid frogs exist exclusively in the freshwater wetlands of eastern Australia,” recited Tyesha, whose intonation at times like these sounded more like an irritable librarian’s than a little girl’s.

Diamond rested her fists against her hips. “We’re not princesses in Australia.”

“Invasion of regular frogs,” said Tyesha. “They eat all your crops and starve out the people of the hill.”

“Invasion of the people of the hill,” said Diamond. “We drink all your water and pee it back out and then the fish die.”

VICTOR: KINGDOM OF THE HILL

But the rules changed every time. A battle plan that didn’t win one day because it was too made-up would other times come out victorious, because making “realistic” battle plans was too boring to keep up for long.

When they were princesses, Diamond stood at the top of the hill, illuminated with golden sunlight, the shimmer of the grass in the wind alive with the drone of cicadas. Tyesha walked on water, and the lake came up in great waves at her command, and her people were mermaids with long nails and sharp teeth and wicked smiles.

Actually, the edge of the pond was covered with sucking mud and the water smelled bad, and the hill was overgrown with thorny bushes. But they were sisters, and the field was theirs, and in the end it never mattered who won the war.

• • • •

It was not exactly Diamond’s fault when Tyesha drowned, but it could never quite be not her fault, either. It happened very quickly; more quickly than she thought drowning would take. She was digging a hole at the top of the hill, watching the ornate patterns made by ants as they fled the tip of her digging stick. The centipedes and woodlice disgusted her in a very pleasant way, and she even scared up a single moth as big as her palm, that she’d taken for a dead leaf until it flew away.

She called out with wonder, wanting Tyesha to see the moth before it was gone, but her little sister didn’t reply. Diamond watched the moth until she couldn’t make it out anymore, then turned, blowing stray hair out of her eyes, to see what had distracted Tyesha from something so beautiful.

Her sister was face down in the water, floating just past the line where the little pond was too deep for a child to stand in. One of her sneakers floated higher than the other.

“Hey!” Diamond yelled. “Hey, don’t do that!”

She scrambled down the hill, through the thorn bushes, each stumble-step leaving her less sure that this was a joke or a game.

By the time Diamond dragged Tyesha out of the water by her ankles, her sister was dead.

By the time Diamond threw herself, screaming, into her mother’s arms, no one believed she’d ever had a sister at all.

• • • •

She learned very quickly not to mention her dead sister. Tyesha was an imaginary friend, a manifestation of psychosis, a trauma Diamond had inflicted on herself for reasons no child psychologist could diagnose. Changing the world back into the thing it used to be was too big for her, too impossible, so Diamond recorded quiet facts and sketches into a notebook, and labeled it, in careful print:

The Book of Drowned Sisters

It took years—not until Diamond was in college—before she finally met someone else with a sister not just dead, but gone entirely.

• • • •

Bana was a white chick, pretty and mannish both at once, with short hair that she wore brushed forward in messy waves and a wide-mouthed smile that she often hid behind her hands. She slouched when she walked, which helped to hide the angle of her breasts and gave her a sense of menace despite her slight stature.

“Hey, you!” she called to Diamond, the first time they met at the freshmen activities fair. “You look like a woman looking for a queer support group!”

“No I don’t,” said Diamond, too surprised to be offended, though later she would wonder what had made her seem “queer,” exactly.

“Nah, it’s okay,” said the other woman. “You don’t have to know what you’re looking for yet. Here’s our website; it lists all our meeting times and everything, so you can stop by whenever you’re ready.” She thrust a business card into Diamond’s hand, smiling in a rakish way that made Diamond’s heart double beat.

“I’m Bana, by the way,” she said, holding out her other hand so that they were awkwardly mingled, each with one hand shaking and one hand on the brightly-printed Gay-Straight Alliance business card.

“Diamond.” Diamond let go of Bana’s hand but held onto the business card. “I’m actually straight, though.”

“Oh yeah, totally,” said Bana, nodding. “Now that I see you up close, you definitely seem that way. It was just from a distance that you looked gayish.”

Diamond bit her lip, not sure if she was being flirted with or just teased, and not quite up to it either way. She’d actually only showed up to find the Nurses of Character booth, which was supposed to be good for networking. She wanted to find regular friends by chance; having to join a club to meet people seemed vaguely pathetic.

“Um, thanks for the card,” she said, looking down at it rather than meeting Bana’s eyes. “I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, totally,” said Bana again, and when Diamond looked back over her shoulder Bana was still watching her, one fist brought up to cover her smile.

• • • •

The meeting Diamond picked out, using their shared dorm computer only when her roommate was in class, was just called Questioning? and the description on the website read, “Are you experiencing new desires or impulses, and want to talk about them? Do you have questions about your sexual orientation or gender identity? Come talk to other people who are unsure, in a discussion lead by a rotating cast of queers who have been where you are.”

“‘New desires or impulses,’” Diamond read out loud, which made it all seem rather capricious.

But it turned out that finding friends “by chance” was not as easy as she’d thought: maybe if she was prettier or whiter or less weird, or if her idea of a good time included getting wasted at fraternity parties and football games, she’d have settled in as easily as the other girls in her dorm.

But Diamond wasn’t pretty or normal, and if she was sometimes “too ghetto,” she still sometimes talked “too white.” She didn’t like getting drunk surrounded by strangers, where the dangers ranged from embarrassing photos cropping up on the internet to being raped. And if this Gay-Straight Alliance meeting was about questioning your sexuality, surely some people stopped by and concluded that they were straight after all? It was even in the name of the group.

So she’d just be one of those.

Maybe she was a little bit hoping that Bana was in that rotating cast of queers.

• • • •

“Well, you were quiet,” said Bana after the meeting.

Diamond was so pleased to have been singled out and followed into the hall that it took a moment to work the smile off her face. She didn’t want to send the wrong idea, after all.

“I, um, didn’t have much to say.” They walked together slowly. The halls of the diversity center were decorated with student artwork, some of it abstract, some of it rather gratuitously vulgar.

“Yeah, it’s pretty normal to be shy at first. Give it a couple years, and you’ll be braggin’ about how much pussy you crunch with the rest of the dudebros.”

Diamond tried not to look affronted, which didn’t stop Bana from grinning.

“Girl, relax,” she said. “You said you’re straight. I believe you.” She paused. “Mostly.”

“Really, though?” Diamond asked. “Real people throw around phrases like ‘crunching pussy’?”

Bana threw back her head and laughed. Her laugh was so loud that for a moment Diamond thought she was faking it to make fun of her.

“Stop that,” she said. “It’s embarrassing.”

Bana’s laughter wound down in no particular hurry. “Anyway, if you’re so straight, what are you doing at the GSA meet with the rest of us pussy-crunchers?”

Diamond stopped walking and leaned against the wall, tucked in between a water fountain and a fire extinguisher. After a beat, Bana stopped too, forcing other people to go around her.

“It’s been really lonely,” said Diamond, trying to make this statement nonchalant instead of pitiful. “I thought making friends would be easy, but it’s not. You’re like the only person on campus who noticed me.”

“Aw, shit,” said Bana, turning just red enough that Diamond wasn’t sure if she was imagining it. “That’s like, my job. I’m the dyke who notices all the hot new girls. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Oh.” Diamond stooped her shoulders. She wanted to walk away, but the water fountain and fire extinguisher that had made her feel snugly hidden a moment ago now trapped her so she would have to push past Bana to leave.

“No,” said Bana quickly. “Not like that, either. Just, like, the hitting on you part. I don’t mean anything by it. If you want me to stop, I will, whether you’re gay or straight or whatthefuckever. But if you want a friend, I do that too. Yeah?”

“Yeah,” said Diamond, without trying to parse out exactly what in that statement she was agreeing with.

“Man,” said Bana. “You gotta stand up, though. Quit lookin’ so sad. I’m not going to, I dunno, hit you for being lonely.”

Diamond straightened up immediately. She was prone to flinching unnecessarily, to hunching up against loud noises, and more than once, people had taken this for a symptom of abuse, looking into her past for tragedies that didn’t exist.

Really, she had just the one tragedy, and she hadn’t said Tyesha’s name out loud for years.

“So, what are you doing tonight?” Bana continued. “Because if your answer is ‘hanging out with you,’ I will try my damndest to not make it a date.”

Diamond felt something inside her unclench.

“Yeah,” she said. “Let’s hang out.”

• • • •

“So, what are you into?” Bana asked, over two cups of cappuccino so doctored with flavored syrups that Diamond doubted there was any room left for caffeine. Bana slurped hers down quickly, until there was enough room in the cup for her to take a flask out of her pocket and discreetly raise the level of liquid back up.

“I’m studying to be a nurse,” said Diamond, maybe a little more primly than she’d intended. When Bana held the flask out to her under the table, she shook her head.

“Yeah yeah yeah,” said Bana, “but what are you into?”

“Scrapbooking.”

“Scrapbooking? That is some serious old lady shit. No offense,” Bana added quickly. “I know all of a sudden everybody’s knitting and quilting and cross-stitching again and that’s supposed to be punk rock or whatever, so I guess this is the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing.” Diamond sipped her cappuccino, which tasted more like a toasted marshmallow than a cup of coffee. Around them, the coffee shop was everything she’d have listed in an effort to make fun of white people: doleful indie music, earnest hipsters with nautical tattoos, lamps shaded with richly-colored cloths that weren’t meant to look mass-produced. Diamond swallowed, wanting to make it clear that sitting here didn’t mean she was of here, and said carefully,

“Actually, it’s a scrapbook for my dead sister. I was eleven when she drowned.”

Bana put her coffee down. “No way,” she said. “I had a sister who drowned when I was eleven, too.”

For a moment, Diamond just blinked. “What?” she asked finally.

“My little sister, Lauren. We grew up out in Morgan County, you know, super rural, and there were ponds out in the fields that we used to play in. And, uh, she drowned there.” Bana paused, her surprise a mirror to the expression that Diamond was trying to hide. “Did somebody tell you that?” she asked. “Like, you’re not making fun of me. I don’t talk about Lauren much.”

“I was eleven, and Tyesha was seven,” said Diamond. “We were playing in the dirt next to the pond, and I was watching a moth fly away. It was an Imperial Moth, I looked it up later. And when the moth was gone, my sister was dead. They’re very big, Imperial Moths. They can have wingspans of almost six inches. I have a few pages about them, in the scrapbook.” She forced herself to quiet; words were building up in her throat, piling in no particular order, fragments of memories that she realized she was desperate to share. She’d been fourteen when she learned that acid frogs were called that because they occupied unusually acidic habitats, not because they could spit acid, and by then there was no one tell.

“That’s what I was seeing back at the GSA booth,” said Bana. “I thought you looked familiar because you were gay. But you looked familiar because of your sister.”

You didn’t look familiar at all to me, Diamond thought. I was just lonely. “What’s in that flask, anyway?” she asked.

“Just vodka.” Bana held it out over the table. “Goes with anything. Beer, soft drinks, coffee. Whatever other people are drinking, you can make it better, just like that.”

“Okay,” said Diamond. “I’ll try a little bit.” She’d had vodka exactly once, mixed with Kool-Aid, and the whole concoction had been so disgusting she hadn’t even had enough to get drunk. But if ever there was a moment when drinking was appropriate, it was before she said the thing she was about to say.

“Would you like to see my scrapbook?” she asked.

“Yeah,” said Bana. “Totally.”

They poured their coffees into to-go cups, Bana topping them off with vodka, and then Diamond led the older girl back to her freshmen-only dorm. It was a beautiful September night, chilly enough to make Diamond wish for a hoodie, and overhead the stars were brilliant. Bana wore a slouchy wrap jacket printed with a southwestern pattern, unbuttoned despite the cold. She looked to Diamond like a model, someone too cool for color coordination.

“Shit,” said Bana. “I don’t think I’ve been to Dandridge Hall since I was a freshman.”

“It’s not bad. The nice thing is, everybody hates being there, so it’s kind of quiet on a Friday. Nobody wants to be the loser with nothing better to do than hang around the freshmen dorm.”

Bana laughed, and it took Diamond a moment to realize why what she’d said was funny. Then she turned around and smiled.

“You’re awfully pretty when you smile,” said Bana. “For someone who says she doesn’t have any friends.”

Diamond’s smile died. “I’m not pretty,” she said. “And you said you wouldn’t hit on me.”

“I wasn’t hitting on you!” Bana sipped her coffee and kept walking. “You can have a nice smile, like, platonically.”

She followed Diamond up to her room, which was mercifully empty of her short, bubbly blonde roommate, and Diamond pulled the Book of Drowned Sisters out from a box tucked carefully into the drawer she’d jammed full of socks and underwear.

“Here,” she said, holding it out. “I want you to read it.”

• • • •

Two days later Bana emailed Diamond a few sad lines:

Lauren M. Cabana, 9, passed away July 24, 2004, at home. She was born March 23, 1995 in McConnelsville, OH. Lauren is survived by her older sister, Rachel Cabana; and parents, Christopher and Kelly (Richards) Cabana. A private service will be held for family only at MILLER-HUCK FUNERAL HOME, McConnelsville. Graveside services will be held FRIDAY, July 28 at 11 a.m. at Malta Cemetery. Friends are asked to meet at cemetery.

It wasn’t a scan of a newspaper obituary, only copied text, but it almost made Diamond’s throat close up. She wanted desperately for there to be some outside record of her dead sister, as if the acknowledgment of others would provide her with the semi-mythical state of closure she’d been longing after for years.

“Your scrapbook surprised me,” Bana said the next time they met up, on the stone steps that lead to the library. “I was expecting, I dunno, pictures and shit.”

“Your obituary surprised me,” said Diamond. “It was so . . . short.”

Bana shrugged, offering the Book of Drowned Sisters back to her. “What can you say about a dead kid? Nothing will make her less dead, or make death less sad. Plus, there’s no fucking work history, and no list of kids and ex-husbands, which is basically half of what an obituary is anyway.”

“Your real name is Rachel?” Diamond asked.

“Yeah. There’ve been like four Rachels in every class I’ve ever been in in my life, but I’m the only Bana.” She looked up, a wrinkle between her eyes that made her look more adult. “Don’t call me Rachel though, okay?”

Diamond shook her head. “I wouldn’t.” Autumn had come on fast and heavy, and the sky above them was blue and bright and hard, but the air carried a bite despite the sunshine. Bana was wearing the same jacket as last time, and the colors were vibrant now that Diamond could see it in the sun, though it was rumpled, with a long damp spot along one arm.

“To be honest, I could use a drink,” said Bana.

Diamond blinked at her. “It’s two pm.” Around them campus was busy with groups of chattering students interspersed with loners rushing from class to class.

“Don’t I know it. Go with me to Lucky’s?”

“I’m not twenty-one.”

“Right, right.” Bana shuffled along the steps—up one, down two, never going far enough that she had to raise her voice to continue the conversation. “Look, though, I seriously need a drink if we’re going to talk dead sisters. Why didn’t you have any pictures of yours?” She stopped. “And you ask me a question, too. Ask me, ‘Why didn’t Lauren’s obituary ever run in a newspaper?’”

“Didn’t it?”

“No. Ask me why.” Bana licked her lips. “But not yet. First come with me so we can get a drink. I’ll drive us to the 7-11, and you can wait in the car.”

“I don’t really want a drink,” said Diamond, though she’d liked the vodka in her coffee more than she’d liked the Kool-Aid mix of her junior year of high school. After the burn on its way down her throat she’d liked the way it hit her stomach, the way it made her not care if she was cold. “I’ll go with you to the 7-11, though.”

She followed Bana off-campus, to a battered rental at the fringes of student housing with a brand new Jeep Wrangler parked outside.

“Wow,” said Diamond, running a hand along the fender. “This is nice.”

“It belongs to one of my roommates. But he’s still asleep, and usually he’s pretty happy to lend it out for beer runs.” She shrugged. “And if he wasn’t, he should probably put his keys away in his room instead of leaving them out on the countertop.”

For a moment Diamond marveled at this: what would it be like, to literally steal a car, and still not worry about the police pulling you over? Even if it was a temporary theft. Even if Bana had the best of intentions.

Probably “beer run” did not count as “the best of intentions.”

“What do you like to drink, anyway?” Bana asked, as Diamond slid into the passenger seat. “I’ll pick out something nice, something you’ll like, instead of just tolerating it.”

“I don’t know what I like to drink.” Diamond looked down at her hands. “I haven’t been drinking that many times, yet.”

Bana tapped her fingers along the steering wheel as she pulled up at a stop sign. “Man,” she said. “I can’t even remember what being new to drinking was like. I was fifteen, and working too hard to impress the older kids to care whether I liked the taste or not.”

“And now . . . you’re worried about alcoholism?” Diamond hazarded.

Bana laughed. “I’m a college student! If I drink this way in another ten years, then I can worry about alcoholism.”

Diamond ignored her and tried to think about Tyesha the way she’d mostly stopped trying to think about Tyesha: as if she could hold together every detail, make them into something bigger than Tyesha herself. Every year, there were more gaps in her memories. Things she’d thought burned into her brain slowly slipped away. The Book of Drowned Sisters could only record the memories she could put into words; smells and sounds seemed to disappear the most. Sometimes, flipping through the scrapbook, she would come across details forgotten so completely that it was as if she were reading them for the first time:

Winter, sixth grade: One time, mom hit Tyesha in the face with a snowball, and Tyesha cried so hard that mom wouldn’t let us play snowball fight for the rest of the winter.

Tyesha deconstructs her Oreos: she licks all the cream filling out, then eats both chocolate wafers at once.

2001 (maybe): Tyesha pulled the teddy bear charm off my charm bracelet and ate it.

She’d never found a way to write down the sound of Tyesha’s laughter, and she was pretty sure she still knew what it was, but not sure enough.

She could never be sure enough.

“Stay here,” said Bana, as she parked. “If you even touch the alcohol on the way to the counter, they’ll refuse to sell it to us because you’re under twenty-one. Total douchebags, these guys.”

“Wow,” said Diamond. “Harsh.” But really, she was glad they were harsh, glad rules still existed that could be enforced.

Bana came back with a six-pack of Yuengling and a six-pack of lime-a-ritas.

“Here,” said Bana, passing the latter over to her as she climbed into the driver’s seat. “This was basically designed for freshmen who haven’t learned to like beer yet. Welcome to college.”

She twisted off the top of a Yuengling as she pulled out of the parking lot and started driving away from campus.

“Um,” said Diamond. “I’m not really comfortable—”

“This is a one-time thing,” said Bana. “Whine about it all you want, but crack open a can and drink while you whine.

“I don’t think—”

Bana turned up the radio to drown out the rest of her sentence. Indie folk turned out to be even more unbearable at maximum volume. Diamond cracked the lime-a-rita open and took a cautious sip. It was acidic and effervescent, and sweeter than a Coke, but with a bitter aftertaste. Bana glanced over at her, then turned the music back down as Diamond grimaced.

“Where are we going?” she asked. While drinking and driving, she thought. In this “borrowed” car.

“I’m taking you to the woods,” said Bana. “I want you to see a pond. It’s not the pond my sister died in. But it’s close. It’s so close, Diamond. And I don’t think this is something I can show anyone but you.”

She finished her first beer with alarming speed, then belched and tossed the bottle out the window. Diamond took another sip of lime-a-rita. The taste had not improved.

Bana turned off the main road, which was poorly maintained but at least still paved with asphalt, and onto an unmarked dirt track through the woods. The leaves overhead were mostly green with touches of gold, and the afternoon light that made its way through them carried that color with it. It was sinister and beautiful both, and an uneasiness began to creep into Diamond’s stomach, from Bana’s reckless driving or the lime-a-rita or the otherworldly light.

“How far is it?” Diamond asked, as Bana lifted another bottle out of the carton.

“Not far,” said Bana.

But she kept driving for some time, the trees arcing overhead to make the road into a tunnel so that the sun and the sky were never quite visible, but everything was tinted green and gold, with dark trunks and branches like veins. An advertisement came on the radio, and Bana flipped it off, so the only sound was the thrum of the motor and the crunch of twigs and leaves under the tires. The road came to an abrupt end, and Bana performed an awkward three-point turn between trees to park the car facing back the way they’d come.

“We’re almost there,” said Bana, snagging the remaining Yuenglings, but letting Diamond leave her undrunk lima-a-ritas behind.

She led Diamond over a hillock, and at the foot of it was a lake.

It wasn’t the clearing of Diamond’s childhood; the trees here were close and tight, and it felt like twilight though sunset was hours away. But she felt the same way she had as a little girl, as if there were possibilities inherent to this place that didn’t exist in the rest of the world.

“See?” said Bana. “It’s not the place, but it almost is.”

Diamond trailed past her, towards the still surface of the pond. In the dim light it was opaque, and utterly black.

“I ran home screaming after my sister died,” said Bana, still standing on the hill. “And when I explained what happened, my father sprinted back to the pond. He was so fast, and I couldn’t keep up. By the time I got back, he was cradling my sister, and his whole body shook with sobs. I’d never seen my father cry. We were . . . not the kind of people who did that. I kept trying to say I was sorry, but my dad didn’t answer, so I just stood there until he got up and carried Lauren home.”

Bana finished her beer and crouched down, setting it carefully in the brush at her feet.

“It was the longest walk,” she said. “The longest walk.”

Diamond leaned over the edge of the pond, and thought she could see movement deep below. She remembered her sister’s loyal subjects, the people of the lake, whom Tyesha had explained once as “nightmare mermaids,” but with a tone that implied they were on friendly terms, nightmares or not.

“We got as far as calling the funeral home before my sister started to disappear,” Bana continued. “It was like nobody could hold in the memory of her but me. The police never came. The funeral home never came. Her body just stopped being, and I never saw my father cry again.”

Something broke the calm surface of the pond, making a big enough splash that little droplets of cold water hit Diamond’s face. Behind her, Bana wound up again, and threw a second empty into the pond. The sound of the splash seemed muffled, and the ripples quickly stilled.

“My parents never even saw the body,” said Diamond. “By the time I got home, it was like she’d never been born. And then there weren’t any pictures of her, and there wasn’t anybody who believed me about her, and then everyone thought I was crazy.” She paused. “Sometimes, I thought I was crazy.”

“But you weren’t,” said Bana. Drunk Bana, swaying slightly at the top of the hill, who did not seem like much of an authority on sanity at the moment.

“It’s probably still more likely that we’re both crazy than that two people disappeared,” said Diamond quietly, stepping right up to the edge of the pond until her shoes were wet.

“Nothing is likely anymore,” said Bana. “If people can just disappear, then the world isn’t the world we knew.”

Diamond didn’t know what to say. She leaned over the pond. Her reflection was dim but clear, and she looked the same as she always did: a little bit careful, a little confused.

“Maybe they aren’t dead,” said Diamond finally. “Maybe disappearing is different from drowning.”

She thought, as she often had, about the people who drowned in icy water and stayed dead for minutes, even hours, before they were warmed up and brought back to life. Hundreds of nights lying in bed, she’d imagined that her sister woke in the interval between her drowning and Diamond telling their mother, and that in that time she’d run away, erased herself for reasons that no one but a little girl could know.

“Did you ever—” she began, but Bana cut her off.

“They didn’t disappear, you know. They were taken.” A harsh half-smile passed over her lips. “If only we had a Liam Neeson to bring them back.”

Diamond didn’t laugh. Bana stumble-stepped down the hill, stopping at the edge of the water next to Diamond.

“Can I kiss you?” she asked.

“No,” said Diamond.

Bana leaned over and kissed her cheek anyway. Her breath was beery, like a father’s kiss, and her lips were soft, like a sister’s.

“I miss Lauren,” she whispered. “I’ve missed Lauren for years.”

Diamond shrugged. “Like I miss Tyesha,” she said. “Like we’re the only people in the world who knew they ever were.”

She squatted to trail her fingers in the water, and was relieved when Bana didn’t follow her down.

“We used to play a game,” she explained, more to the water than Bana. “Called Princess of the Hill vs. Princess of the Lake. It was a war game, and I was Princess of the Hill. I wonder, sometimes, if I’d been Princess of the Lake, maybe Tyesha would still be alive. Maybe I’d have drowned instead, or nobody would’ve.”

“Well, let’s try it,” slurred Bana. “You be Princess of the Lake, and I’ll be King of the Hill.”

Diamond frowned. “It’s not like that. It’s a princess game.”

“I’m not a princess.”

“You’re not a king, either.”

“I’m king of this hill!” Bana staggered to the top of it and threw her arms wide. The green-gold light was fading, but it haloed her now, so that she cast a long shadow down to the pond. Diamond understood only now the appeal of being drunk: she did not want to be herself here, nor to take responsibility for their actions. But it felt inappropriate to return to the car for the lime-a-ritas, and they tasted disgusting anyway. Instead she bent to untie her shoes and slip them off, tucking her socks neatly inside.

“How do we play?” Bana called.

“Our people go to war,” Diamond murmured. She stepped into the pond, curling her toes in the cold, soft mud.

“How do we play?” Bana repeated, louder.

“The people of the lake assault the people of the hill!” Diamond yelled, stepping cautiously until the water was up to her knees.

“Um . . . The people of the hill repel your assault,” Bana decided. “Then use their downward momentum to charge the lake!”

The water moved around Diamond’s legs. It felt alive with current, though the surface was still.

“The lake overflows its bounds in a giant wave and decimates the people of the hill,” said Diamond. “Your army drowns, and its corpses are dragged into the water and never seen again.”

“Shit,” said Bana, sitting down hard on the top of the hill. “That’s brutal.”

VICTOR: KINGDOM OF THE LAKE

“Come attack me!” yelled Diamond. “Come be the people of the hill.”

“Like, actually attack you?” asked Bana. She stood up again, swaying slightly with the breeze.

Diamond imagined that she could see the glint of teeth underwater, one of her little sister’s nightmare mermaids smiling from the depths.

“Come attack me,” she said again, just barely loud enough to be heard. Bana raised both her hands over her head, posing for a moment like an Olympic champion, then lowered her head and charged down the little hill, laughing as she stumbled. Diamond didn’t know whether she should set herself against a tackle or throw her arms open for a hug. She felt unalone, the way she had when she was a child and Tyesha dogged her every step.

Bana crashed into her and they tumbled into the water, which thrashed around them, alive as if with vast schools of fish. Diamond closed her eyes as Bana pulled her underwater, and for a minute she was only struggling playfully. Then the moment passed, and she was desperate for air.

When Bana finally let her up, she took ragged and hungry breaths, and Bana came up after her, gasping.

“What the fuck!” yelled Diamond. “What the actual fuck!” She looked to the shore, but didn’t move towards it, and Bana pulled her close.

“Stay with me,” said Bana, voice quiet and worn. “This is how sisters disappear, isn’t it? Come find out where they go.”

For just a moment, under that green and gold canopy, Diamond was still. Then she slipped her hand into Bana’s and followed her into the water.

Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray is a used car salesman who has previously worked as a funeral director’s apprentice, a pet nutritionist, an English teacher in Japan, a Japanese teacher in America, and a crystal healing “expert” in a head shop. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares a home with a tall man and a tall toddler.