It was just a little kiddie pool in the backyard, unlovely pink-and-yellow plastic under the hot summer sun. But on those nights when Mom came home from the swing shift tired and met Daddy sitting in the kitchen angry, it was Amy’s only sanctuary.
She wasn’t a sound sleeper. Her parents still talked about how it had taken her infant self six months to sleep more than two or three hours at a time. During the school year, when her life was full of classes and friends and sports, it was easier to drop off, but summer nights were always more difficult. They were hotter, for one thing, and the long, indolent, inactive days often left her feeling too tired to sleep.
But mostly, it was because her parents had their arguments at night, right when Mom got back from the station. Daddy would send Amy to bed -- or at least her room, to pretend to sleep -- hours before. Then he would wait, sitting at the kitchen table and facing the door like a judge, hands folded in front of him, his massive shoulders and big, bald head stretching a hunched shadow across the wood. He always sat this way, when he waited.
Some nights Amy managed to drop off in the silent space of her father’s waiting, accompanied by the light from the fixture over the sink that shone beneath her door. Some nights Daddy gave up waiting for Mom to get home, and left the light on while he went to bed himself at ten or eleven.
But most nights her father and Amy were both awake for her mother’s return.
There was a pattern to it. The sound of car tires on the gravel driveway down the side of the house; the glance of headlights across the back fence, a flash of light visible through Amy’s open window. After she killed the engine Mom would sit in the car, sometimes just for a few minutes, sometimes for ten or fifteen. The longer the silence, the worse Amy knew the coming storm would be. Then the car door would open and shut, and then screen door, and finally the house door. And then the voices would start.
Tonight Mom had sat in her patrol car for at least twenty minutes. And Daddy had told Amy to get ready for bed a whole hour earlier than usual. It was obviously going to be bad. So she was ready.
At the first rumble of her father’s voice, Amy threw off her blankets and put her bare feet on the floor. She used her toes to find her suit, hidden under the bed. She shucked her thin cotton pajamas and pulled on the suit. Then she crept to the end of her bed, put one foot on the windowsill, and stepped through.
Amy landed in a dirt-filled flowerbed. All the flowerbeds around their house were barren and dry. Daddy watered the lawn, but Mom didn’t like gardening and Daddy didn’t want to pay for landscapers. One of Amy’s chores was to make sure that the stringy green weeds that popped up and somehow flourished in the dirt were pulled, bagged in big black plastic bags, and thrown in the green garbage can. She had to wheel the can out to curb, too, every Tuesday morning. It was almost as tall as she was, but she’d learned to handle its bulk. She hadn’t accidentally tipped it over in months.
Under her bare feet the dirt was a curiously neutral temperature -- not warm from the summer sun, not at this time of the night, but not cold yet, either. The grass was cold, though, stiff and prickly as she crossed the yard to the pool, in a clear spot by the back fence between the yard’s two small trees.
A rectangle of light on the patio marked the kitchen window. Amy glanced over, saw her mother standing with her back to the sink, peeling her hair out of its tight bun. She had taken off her blue uniform shirt, and the white tank top she wore underneath only accentuated the hard muscle of her biceps, the solid strength of her torso. Daddy was big, but Mom was strong. Amy had seen her parents through this lens ever since the day that Daddy had joked about Mom never needing him to open a jar. Amy had been smaller, then, and so had the anger between her parents. Something to joke about instead of something to stay up because of, something to spend ugly words on, something to disturb the night with.
Amy slipped into the kiddie pool with barely a ripple. She was always careful, had never slipped on the slimy, uneven plastic bottom. She knelt in the shallow water, feeling its coolness creep up the fabric of her suit. Then she laid back. The coolness covered her, washed over her sweat-sticky body and her hot face. It turned her thin hair into a cloud of gently waving seaweed.
She bobbed up, her limbs floating to the surface, her bottom sinking. Amy arched her back and raised her arms over her head, skimming the water. The pool was big enough that she could almost do a full spread-eagle without touching its sides.
In her ears the sound of the water sloshing within the little square of the pool was magnified, modified. It was like the waves on a beach at low tide, gently sliding over the sand, frothing and bubbling, and gliding back to rejoin the sea. She combed her wet bangs out her eyes and blinked water out of her eyelashes. The night sky quivered above her and around. Darkness pricked with light, like a backlit canopy with holes punched in it.
Pull it away, Amy thought, that layer of darkness, and the universe was full of light. Full of stars, and glowing planets, and spinning galaxies which had nothing to do with little things like graveyard shifts, or anger, or shallow water on sleepless nights.