Everyone’s afraid of the woman. She died with her tiny daughter in the swimming pool. No: a man came and drowned her and now her ghost forever searches for her little girl. Or was it that she died pregnant, with a baby swimming inside her? There is a different version for each summer season. Whatever it is, her tears slide down the shower walls, and the campers must stop to count them if they have to use the restroom in the middle of the night. The woman’s tears can sometimes be found on the dishes in the dining hall. Her anguish persists in any unexplained moisture on the campground. Even the morning dew is not safe.
The campers go for what the counselors call a polar bear swim one early morning before breakfast. The swimming pool is freezing cold, but under the bright sun it is easy to forget about the woman and her child. And they do forget, until one of the girls, who is always bossy and loud, tells the others they will see a ghost in the deep end if they can stay down there for ten seconds. They descend as a school of minnows, but it is impossible to keep track of time in the blur of floating hair and colorful bathing suits. One camper, a shy girl with no friends, spots a toddler in a purple one-piece.
Nobody at the camp has a purple one-piece. Nobody has such a tiny body.
The shy girl, who almost never speaks, keeps this story to herself.
She eavesdrops on the counselors’ conversations, but none of them care about ghost stories. Their queen bee, a blond with one long braid, is considering joining her boyfriend in Canada. Another counselor has somehow fractured her wrist and now must go home. She cries as she packs with one hand, but her tears are for herself alone. Everyone watches her leave on an overcast afternoon. One of the older girls, whose mother is a doctor, claims bone pain is the worst pain of all.
This is the shy girl’s first time away from home and everything makes her want to cry, even the games and silly songs. She is calm during arts and crafts, but the rest of the time she is too unhappy and anxious to speak. Her parents promised she only had to get through this one week of camp. They said it would fly by.
When she is suffering through yet another meal with strangers, she realizes she is no longer afraid of the woman and her little girl, not even after dark, when the ghosts are at their most powerful. She is as sad as the weeping woman, perhaps sadder. She cried on the first night at camp, but afterwards she swallowed all her tears. Still, she can never overcome her homesickness and lies awake long after the other girls have fallen asleep.
She wants to explore the camp at night but the counselors are always around. She can hear them talking. They sit for hours in a firepit near the cabins, and from what she can tell, they don’t like this camp at all. This is just a job and most of them can’t wait to leave.
On the last night the girls get to sleep outside. They march out to an open field with their sleeping bags, which they place on the rough tarp the counselors have spread out for them. Then they lie down, a cluster of giddy little girls, as one of the counselors tells stories about the constellations sparkling above them. There are so many stars in this sky far from the city. Right before the shy girl surrenders to the beautiful night, she hides her face inside her sleeping bag. She doesn’t want to be drenched in the woman’s tears come morning.
But there is no morning for her. She wakes in the middle of the night when everyone else is still asleep. She can’t find the counselors anywhere. A great sadness crushes her chest.
Her parents will be here soon, when it is daylight, so she walks to the swimming pool for one last look while nobody else is around. The gate is open but the lights are not on. She shivers under the stars, squats at the edge of the deep end, and peers into the water. The longer she stares, the more she becomes convinced someone is moving down there. It must be the tiny girl, afraid and alone, waiting for her mother to save her.
When the shy girl enters the water, it is as if someone has given her a gentle push. She barely makes a splash. It is hard to swim in pajamas, but she kicks and kicks, forcing herself down, down, searching for the child in the purple one-piece. She surfaces and then plunges again, surfaces and plunges, until she is exhausted but unable to stop, convinced that this time she will find what she’s sure she saw.
JAN STINCHCOMB — Jan is the author of Verushka (JournalStone, 2023), The Kelping (Unnerving), The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). Her stories have appeared in Bourbon Penn, SmokeLong Quarterly and Menacing Hedge, among other places. A Pushcart nominee, she is featured in Best Microfiction 2020 and The Best Small Fictions 2018 & 2021. She lives in Southern California with her family and is a reader for Atticus Review. Find her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.
Art by LAURIE MARSHALL — Laurie is a writer and artist working in Northwest Arkansas. Recent stories have been awarded the 2021 Lascaux Flash Fiction Prize, included in the 2022 Bath Flash Fiction Award anthology, and nominated for Best Small Fictions 2022. She reads for Fractured Lit and Longleaf Review. Words and art have been published in Cloves Literary, Twin Pies Literary, New World Writing, and Flash Frog among others. Connect on Twitter @LaurieMMarshall. Buy her a chai latte on Venmo @LaurieMarshallCreative.