The Deep End

by Berit Brink

February 15, 2023

A draft swept underneath the door and tickled my toes, which meant Dad had left for the day. He always tried to leave as unobtrusively as possible, but even he could not stop the wind from entering the house.

Like every morning, I had to pee very badly, and like every morning, I tried to postpone the need to get up for as long as possible. I crawled deeper underneath the duvet, tangling my legs in the sheets and resting my cheek against the cold part of the pillow. Then I just waited.

I liked to tell myself this was part of my morning routine, just like watching crime shows with Dad was part of our evening ritual: Dad would come home, throw his jacket over a kitchen chair, shove a meal into the microwave, drop into his La-Z-Boy, and pop open a Budweiser. “Time for crime,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows at me, reaching for the remote.

It was the most consistent part of our days, those evenings filled with various crime drama reruns, and perhaps that’s why it was my favorite.

Since Ella had stopped coming, the hours had lengthened, and the days started to drag. It shouldn’t have made a difference—she’d only ever come on Fridays.

But it did.

All my activities had been angled towards her, like furniture towards the TV.

The shells I found on the beach, I saved to show her. The funny things Dad said, I filed away to tell her. The dead warbler I found by the window one day—well, I put that in the freezer so we could bury it together.

Without her, my entire day felt like working Dad’s old camera: you’d press buttons and adjust the lens, but no matter what you did, the picture wouldn’t focus.

My bladder was ready to burst. I kicked off the sheet and tiptoed across the sandy floors to the bathroom. The wind whistled through the vent, making its cap rattle and bang shut.

The weather had been just like this one of the last times Ella visited. The house had been cold and drafty even with all the windows closed; the wind whipping white caps onto the waves and tearing branches from the poplars. In hindsight, things were already shifting, then.

I’d taken her to my room to show her my collection of sea glass. She’d seen it before, but I’d found some new ones that were a smooth aquamarine.

“Aren’t you coming in?” I asked, flipping on the desk lamp and reaching for the jar in which I kept the pieces.

She remained on the threshold, picking at a splinter in the doorframe. She wasn’t looking at me.

“I don’t know,” she said, “what if we go down to the beach instead?” I frowned and glanced out the window at the darkening sky.

I opened my mouth to say she was crazy. Then her phone buzzed, and she turned away. “Sorry,” she muttered. I could hear her voice disappearing down the hall, light and buoyant, growing fainter as she moved into the kitchen.

I’d only seen her once more after that. The word “boarding school” conjured images of straight-toothed girls horseback riding and high-ceilinged dorm rooms. But she didn’t board, she was just a day student, so the only thing she rode was the bus—for about an hour every day.

It was hard to picture her there.

My own school experience ended with kindergarten—a weeks-long nightmare of scream-laughing kids, sticky sandwiches, and the overpowering smell of thirty little bodies in an airless room.

Overwhelmed, I just slipped out of the gates one day, playing in the park until it was time to go home. At that point, Dad was already there, red-faced and wild-eyed. He took me by the shoulders and told me to never do that again.

I promised.

The next day, I slipped out again.

The meetings that followed made Dad gruff and mumbly. Eventually, some woman came to visit our home, which I remember because we had to tidy the living room for her. In our case, that meant organizing all the books into a series of small Jenga towers by the TV, and sweeping the floors even though sand blew right back in as soon as you opened the door.

The woman sat on the sofa not touching her cup of tea.

Dad perched at the very edge of the La-Z-Boy with his hands clasped between his knees. “I’m just trying to do right by her, you know,” he said, rubbing his eyes. The woman nodded, shifted, clicked her pen without writing anything down. A few weeks later, I started school from home.

The only thing I missed, then, was Ella—her uneven bangs and her clean smell, like laundry detergent and tangerines. She’d share those with me during recess—the tangerines, I mean—picking off the white parts with her fingernails so I could swallow the parts without gagging.

If I could have, I would have stayed, for her.

Instead, she stayed with me.

She’d come on Fridays, and we’d play in my room or on the little hill at the forest’s edge where Dad chopped firewood. Some nights she’d sleep over, and we’d sit on my bed looking out the window overlooking the valley and guess which one of those barely visible houses was hers.

She sent me cards soaked in glitter glue for Christmas and ones with dried flowers for my birthday. When we got older, the cards were replaced by goofy selfies and GIFs of bunnies nibbling on raspberries.

I responded in kind, forwarding videos of cats batting at water fountains and dogs playing the piano.

I was grateful she gave me a shared language.

But the news about her far-away school—she told me that in person, on the beach. She’d be too busy to visit, she’d said. I probably wouldn’t see her for a while. I looked at the ocean, which was just a shade darker than the sky.

“Are you mad?” She asked, sucking in her lips.

I bent over to pick up a shell and turned away from her, not knowing how to answer. Instead, I concentrated on the shell and tried to brush off the wet sand. It was a painted top shell, shaped like a tuft of whipped cream on a birthday cake.

Without saying anything, I zipped it into my jacket pocket and started walking again. I’d wanted to show her, but felt like she didn’t deserve to see it anymore.

And now there was just me and the shore and a day’s worth of hours to get through. Between the rush of the water and the hum of the wind, the silence seemed to sing with static.

In the kitchen I pulled a bowl from a cabinet, slammed it onto the counter, and filled it up with Cheerios and milk. Then I dropped down into a chair and started slurping it noisily, milk dribbling down my chin, steel clinking against my teeth.

Somewhere outside a gull mewed.

The clock moved its hand with a quiet click.

The waves crashed ashore.

I started tapping my foot.

Then I stood up so abruptly that my chair clattered to the floor. At the back of the house, I stepped into my rain boots, opened the door, and clomped over to the shed. The inside was dark and familiar, smelling of sweet grass and musty old corn. I found what I was looking for almost immediately. There, in the corner by the window, half-hidden behind a ladder, was Simon. The scarecrow.

His face was a square of hay-filled burlap, his eyes two shiny black buttons. His mouth was awkwardly drawn-on with a marker, lending him a somewhat puzzled expression. He was dressed in a red-and-black plaid shirt I recognized as Dad’s, and a frayed, floppy black hat adorned his head. He smelled of salt and moldy hay. Creepy, Ella had said, when she’d spied him in the corner once.

As I carried him back to the house, the stake bearing his torso bumped against me, bruising my knees with each step.

Inside, at the table, Simon watched me finish my cereal. Later, he stood in a corner by the bathroom sink as I showered and joined me up in the attic as I searched for something to do.

In a dresser drawer, I found a pack of cards and held it up triumphantly. “Play ‘Go Fish’ with me?”

Simon smiled.

Gulls squawked outside, and as we played game after game the wind seemed to subside a little. The window casings stopped rattling, and poplars didn’t swipe the sky as aggressively as before.

When we got tired of ‘Go Fish,’ I carried Simon back downstairs. It was kind of an undertaking with those narrow steps and his unwieldy body, but I managed. Then, on the final step, I tripped.

I pitched forward as if in slow motion. My shoulder slammed against the floorboards, while the other side of my body crashed on top of him. There was a sickening splintering sound.

I sat up slowly. “Simon?”

His stake had snapped like a popsicle stick. The splintered half stuck out from his plaid shirt like an amputated leg, and his hat had rolled off. I rushed to pick him up. “I’m sorry,” I sniffled, my face in his musty shirt. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Straw poked out from under his collar and scratched my cheeks, my chin, and it felt like penance. Trying to make amends, I rushed him to my bedroom and laid him in bed. Then I draped the duvet over his body, careful to tuck in the edges. When his hat slid back again, I took it off and placed it on the window sill.

I shivered, watching him. No one but Ella had ever shared my bed. “Are you comfortable, Simon?” I asked, softly. “Do you want some company?” I stepped forward, then hesitated. “Would that be OK?”

Simon smiled.

I climbed into bed next to him and held onto his prickly body, inhaling his homey, earthy smell. We lay in the darkening room watching the white sky turn to dusk, waiting for the front door to slam.

Maybe Dad would bring home some takeout. And maybe he would share what he’d seen that day—the cab drivers who liked to smoke on the sidewalk by the construction site, the school children careening across the old school yard, the jack-o’-lanterns lining the library entrance.

And maybe he’d tell us whether he had seen Ella that day as she waited for the bus, how she looked as she mounted the steps, how she turned her head one last time, and left.

About Berit Brink

Berit Brink is a college English professor living and working in Amsterdam. Earlier publications in Dutch have appeared in Palmares (Palmslag 2021), Boekenkrant, and on Roergebied, an online platform by Belgian literary magazine Kluger Hans. In her spare time she likes to go for long walks, dream, and read as much as possible