Underground Pool: Sunshine-Flowers and Happiness

By Carlos Rios '14 (Writing for Film & Television)

“I'm all sunflowers and happiness,” Emilie muttered with more breath than voice, as she stared despondently at herself in the foggy bathroom mirror. Her heavy eyeliner challenged her light grey eyes, and sparsely scattered freckles barely interrupted the otherwise unremitting smoothness of her naturally pale face. 

The arguing downstairs reached a crescendo and, even muffled by a wooden door, the shouting made Emilie's stomach tighten. She closed her eyes, focusing on the sound of steaming hot water avalanching from the faucet. She grabbed the loose razor sitting at the edge of the sink, ran it under the water for as long as her fingers could stand the heat. Rolled up her sleeve. Light scars and fresh cuts patterned her left forearm from her wrist to her elbow. She rotated her arm in search of fresh real estate. Too crowded. She pushed up her sleeve further, all the way to her shoulder. Her bicep was fresh fallen snow. She dragged the blade a short distance across her arm, leaving a shallow, bloodless trail. The stinging pain persisted as long as the blade was moving, so she made sure to cut slowly. It gave her a feeling that she once described as similar to stretching: it hurt, but at the same time, she felt a warmth coursing through her body that could hardly be matched.

It was pouring dark, heavy rain the next night. In the card shop, Emilie sat opposite a fat, sweaty 16-year-old boy. She watched thick droplets break puddles outside as the boy flicked rapidly between the five cards in his hand. Trading cards sat on the table before them. The two were doing battle. Each one of the boy's cards was dressed up in a protective plastic sleeve. Emilie held up three cards before her, scrutinizing them.

“Go,” she sighed eventually. The boy drew a card, then dropped it onto the table. Emilie frowned. “Shit.”

“What can I say? Grave Titans win games,” the boy replied. 

“Where do people get the money?” she thought aloud in her dispirited monotone.

“I babysit. Well . . . I don't babysit. My sister does. I just steal her money. Do you have a sister?”

“Yeah,” Emilie replied. “She's seven.”

“Ah, too bad.” He pushed his card up and turned it sideways. “Attack for ten.” 

Around them were several other tables at which sat other players, battling each other. Emilie drew her card, barely glanced at it, then pointed at the boy.

The boy drew a card. Stared at Emilie. “Your freckles look like they can't decide whether they want to be there or not,” he observed. 

“Sounds kinda like the rest of me.”

The boy pushed his cards up. “Fourteen damage to your face.”

Emilie nodded sadly. The boy collected his cards, stood up and walked away. “Two-oh!” Emilie heard him yell to the scorekeeper.

Brigid walked over, carrying her bookbag full of cards. “That looked like it hurt.” She ran her fingers through her boyishly short blond hair and scratched her scalp.

“I'm tired of my shitty deck,” Emilie complained. “Good cards are so stupidly expensive.”

“Get a boyfriend,” Brigid reasoned. “Dave buys me most of my cards. He thinks it's nice that me and him share a hobby.”

“I'm off boyfriends for a while.” Emilie collected her cards.

“Don't let Paul ruin boys for you forever. Sixteen is the perfect year to start getting dick on the regular, and dick is great. It's probs what you need right now, actually.”

“What I need is money to buy good cards.” Emilie stood up languidly, put her hood over her head. “And soundproof walls so I don't have to listen to my dad complain about the electric bill.” She put her deck of cards in her hoodie pocket. “Alright, time to GTFO.” 

Brigid lingered. “I'm actually going to stay for a bit and look through people's trade binders. You're still coming over tomorrow, though, right?”

“Sure,” Emilie said, pulling a pack of cigarettes from her jeans pocket.

On the way home, the rain stopped, and Emilie cut through a wooded area she loved to visit. The dead silence, save for a few sounds of nature, gave her no way to block out her stresses, her concerns. This made her smoke more cigarettes, which is why she liked coming here so much. The toxic burn, the taste of ash, and the flood of menthol she got in the last third of each cigarette combined to form a cerebral haze, an enveloping warmth, which was the only thing that satisfied her body more than cutting. In the moonlight, she walked along the sloped bank beside a shallow creek. She took one last, long drag from her dying cigarette, then dropped it onto the moist ground, watching it roll down into the creek a few feet down. As she pulled out her pack for one more, the box fell out of her hands and followed the path of the discarded butt. “No!” Emilie gasped. She looked down the slope, trying to identify a stable route to the water's edge. She took one step, then slipped and fell onto her back, sliding down and coming perilously close to getting her feet wet. She stood back up, disregarding her muddy clothes, and bent over to look into the creek. As she did, the deck of cards spilled out from her hoodie pocket and into the water. “Fucker!” she yelled. “Godammit!” The cards floated on the surface. She started fishing out the ones closest to the bank, then decided the cigarettes might have a better chance of survival. She plunged her hand into the half-foot deep abyss, feeling around desperately for a stick she could use to reach out to the floating box and pull it back in. The frigid water numbed her hand until she could no longer feel the silt suspended in the creek. She used her other hand to take out her phone, using the backlight to illuminate as much as possible. As she shone light over the water, a glint at the bottom of the creek caught her eye. She pulled out the shiny object. It was round, about the diameter of a dime, and three times as thick. It was a small nugget of gold.

She carefully unwrapped the tissue, exposing the nugget inside, and placed it on the countertop. Sid, the proprietor of the cramped pawnshop, looked at it for a few seconds. He grabbed a scale, placed the gold onto it without the tissue. It read six grams. “I'll give you one-twenty,” he said, after a few moments' consideration.

Emilie was appalled, although her facial expression didn't stray from its default look of melancholy boredom. “This is at least forty-five per gram. I checked online last night.”

“Yeah, but I'm not no prospector or nothing,” Sid said. “Look, I'll give you one-eighty.”

“No way, this is worth two-seventy. At least.”

“I can't go past two.”

“I could just sell this on eBay for way more.”

“I guess you could.”

Emilie stared at the gold nugget. The allure of the cash-right-now was doing a number on her. She sighed. “What about two-fifty?”

“I told you, can't go past two hundred,” Sid repeated. He studied Emilie's perpetually defeated face. “Look, I'll give you two hundred cash and then anything in here worth twenty or less. How about that?” 

Emilie looked around at the overcrowded shelves full of dust-covered items she couldn't imagine herself ever needing. “You got any cigarettes?” she asked eventually.

“Well . . . I just bought myself a carton of Crushes,” Sid admitted.

“That's what I smoke. Give me three packs, then.” Sid thought this over, then nodded once and went into the back.

As Emilie stepped out of Sid's Pawn Shop, she counted her money one more time and put it in her pocket. Then, climbing onto her bike with a cigarette between her lips, she pedaled to Brigid's house.

“When the fuck does that ever happen?” Brigid yelled in excited disbelief, after Emilie told her about finding the gold nugget in the creek. The two were sitting on the floor of a tree house built only five feet off the ground, in Brigid's backyard, smoking. Between the two teenage girls, there was hardly any space, yet they both were comfortable there. “So what are you doing with that money?”

“What do you think?” Emilie said, using the end of a butt to light the next cigarette. “A carton. And the rest is buying me a couple cards.”

“Sick,” said Brigid, before taking a casual pull from her cigarette. She exhaled through her nose. “If I had two hundred, I'd buy an eighth from Caleb and get snakebites.” She used both hands to pinch the spots on her lower lip where the piercings would go. 

“I wanted those. But my mom got mad at my dad for being okay with it. Once I move out, though . . . ”

“What kind of deck are you building?”

“I dunno. Probably Solar Flare,” Emilie mused. “But the one-forty I have left would probably only buy me the four copies of Snapcaster Mage.” She took a long, sustained drag, eyes closed, then let out a thick miasma with a moany sigh. “Just seventy-one more cards after that,” she added with a dark sarcasm.

“Shit,” Brigid responded. “You need more gold.”

When Emilie walked into her house later that night, her mother was setting plastic dishes on the table, and her little sister Lacey was in her pajamas playing Mario Kart on their Nintendo Wii—a gift from an uncle who had forgotten a few birthdays in a row. Emilie's mother looked up at her. “Did you have fun at Brigid's?”

“Yeah,” Emilie said, more an exhalation than a word.

“You okay?”

“Umm. Tired. I guess.” Emilie sank down into the stained beige sofa to watch Lacey's race, which she was currently winning by a wide margin. She propped her feet up on the coffee table and stared absently at the television. Then Emilie's father walked in, back from work, pulling Emilie's attention away. He wore a cheap grey suit and carried a decrepit leather bag that was begging for retirement. He gave the two a quick “Hey, girls” and a flicker of a half-smile, then strode into the kitchen, tossing his bag on the table and loosening his tie on the way. Emilie's mother eyed him bitterly as he walked past her. Emilie's whole body tensed, expecting a shouting match any minute. She heard her father opening up a bag of cereal. The flakes tinked loudly into a ceramic bowl, the plastic bag crinkled like static as it was stuffed back into the box, and the glass bottles on the refrigerator door clinked against each other as her father opened it up.

“Dammit, Gina!” he shouted from the kitchen. “I thought you were going out to buy more milk. If I knew you were going to piss around and forget about it, I would have stopped at Genuardi's on the way back. Christ’s sake!”

“I didn't forget, Richard, you just didn't leave any money for me to buy it,” Emilie's mother snapped back.

Emilie’s father stepped out of the kitchen and looked incredulously at her mother. “What the hell happened to the money I left you on Tuesday?”

Lacey was watching their parents argue too. On the TV, Yoshi was accelerating his vehicle into a wall. Emilie stood up. “You're gonna lose,” she told Lacey, who turned back to the TV. Emilie raised the volume on the outdated, boxy television, an attempt to drown out the argument, then went upstairs to the bathroom as the crash of a bowl thrown into the sink reverberated through the house. She turned on the faucet and stood at the sink. Closed her eyes. When she opened the medicine cabinet, her razor was not there. She rifled past expired prescriptions and travel-size generic mouthwash, looked through the cabinet under the leaky sink, even peered behind the toilet. Desperately, she went into her pocket, pulling out nothing but her train pass. She thought about it for a moment, then rolled up her left sleeve and sawed slowly into her skin with the thin plastic pass, the movements of a somber fiddler playing legato. 

The next morning, back by the creek in the woods, Emilie pulled orgastically on her cigarette. This amount of smoke made her as happy as she was capable of being. Her hair, still wet from her scalding, foggy morning shower, clung arbitrarily to her face, but she let it obscure her. With her free hand, she reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out four cards, all copies of the same one. She studied them, thinking of all the ways she could play them. Reaching awkwardly into her right pocket with her left hand, she fished out two crumpled bills. Eleven dollars. There were a few coins among them. She tossed the change into the creek, then stuffed the bills back into her pocket, finished the cigarette and flicked the butt into the creek, following it with her eyes. As it landed, she noticed a speck of gold in the water. She bent down to examine it, then reached her hand in to get it out. Her fingers slipped as she pulled, not expecting it to be so smooth. She pulled harder and kept at it until the rest of it emerged from the creek bed. It was another gold nugget, roughly the diameter of a half-dollar, although not exactly spherical in shape. The water had worn down its jagged edges, making it look like a melted wax figure. Emilie stared at it blankly.

Emilie opened the front door silently and poked her head in. Lacey was in front of the TV. “Is Mom home?” Emilie whisper-shouted. Lacey, not looking away from the TV for a second, shook her head no. Cautiously, Emilie stepped inside, carrying several plastic bags full of cigarette cartons. After they were safely stowed under her bed, she went back downstairs and pulled a large pile of cards out of her bookbag, then began the task of deciding which ones would go into her deck. A few hours passed. Her mother arrived home from the bank, her father from work, and her mother stormed out again. When the deck was finally made, there were dozens of loose cards scattered all over the coffee table. Emilie dug through her bag for a pack of protective sleeves, then started slipping her cards into them one by one as she watched Lacey play Lego Harry Potter on the Wii.

Suddenly, the lights went out. The TV cut off. “Nooo! I didn't save!” Lacey lamented. Emilie's father came downstairs wearing a worn robe and shabby slippers. Stood on the last stair, looked around. “Shit,” he said. He looked at Emilie. “Your fucking mother skipped the electric bill instead of the cable bill. What kind of sense does that make? Why do I even let her handle these things when I'm the one making the money here?” 

Emilie said nothing. 

“Godammit.” He marched back up. A door slammed.

Emilie and Brigid sat Indian style in Brigid's tree house. They passed a joint back and forth. On the floor beside them sat a plastic sandwich bag holding three more pre-rolled joints, and a half-empty bottle of green-apple vodka. They were partway to shit-faced. Emilie took the joint. 

“Tomorrow's another tournament, and I'm all sunflowers and happiness,” she said, not disingenuously, but still without a smile and in her low, sad monotone. She took a long drag, accustomed to smoking cigarettes, and started coughing furiously. She settled down with the help of one big wheeze and a swig of vodka. “I've got a good deck,” she continued. “Fuck those nerds.”

“Look at you!” sang Brigid. “All sunshine-flowers and happiness.”

“Sunshine flowers?” asked Emilie. “I wonder what those would look like.”

“Just light. Don't think too much about it. It's obvious. Just light, emanating from a stem made of . . . gold, probably.”

“Gold is alright.” Emilie unzipped her hoodie and took it off.

Brigid stared at the fresh cuts on her friend's upper arm. “So, what are the 'rents arguing about these days?” she slurred.

“I guess money shit. The stresses of being poor or something. My mom should get a job.”

“Word. I wish I had a job. The lens on my Nikon broke.”

“I'll get rich playing Magic and I'll buy you one.” She handed Brigid the joint with a look that said she was done with it. Then she pulled out a pack of cigarettes and started smacking it against her palm. “I want a job, too,” she continued somewhat slowly, as the alcohol in her blood kicked in. “I could be doing that instead of watching my parents fall apart like charcoal after a shitty family barbeque.” She lit a cigarette and her eyelids drifted shut as she inhaled the warm smoke.

Friday night again. Emilie was back at the card shop. Sitting opposite her was the same fat, sweaty boy from before. He drew a card, dropped it onto the table. “Grave Titan,” he said. “Go ahead.” 

Emilie drew her card. She placed one on the table. “Kill your guy,” she said. She put another card down. “Then play my own Titan.” 

The boy was surprised. He looked nervous as he drew his card. He passed the turn without making a play. For a moment, Emilie presaged her victory, and as she glimpsed this, she absentmindedly scrunched her sleeves up and adjusted her sitting position. 

“Whoa,” the boy let out, when he noticed the scars and cuts on her wrist and forearm. Her expressionless face betrayed embarrassment, and she quickly pulled down the sleeves. “Oh,” the boy said. 

She drew, then played two cards. “Kill both your zombies and attack for ten.” Her phone began to vibrate and she pressed a button to ignore the call.

It was the boy's turn again, and his aura was bereft of confidence as he played his card. “Pass turn.”

Emilie drew, then let out a short staccato exhalation that might have qualified as a laugh had the noise been made by anyone else. “Kill him,” she said, showing the boy one more card. “Then fourteen to—” Her phone started vibrating again. She answered it impatiently. “What is it, Mom?”

“Hey, Em,” her mother began. “I just wanted to let you know that I'm at Aunt Karleigh's tonight.”

“Okay.”

“I'm probably going to be there for the rest of the week. Lacey's with your father for now, but . . . well, I assume you understand what I'm getting at.” 

“Is this gonna be like two weeks ago?”

“No.”

Emilie thought about that. “Oh.” She put her hood up. “Okay.”

“I just wanted to tell you now myself before your dad can put his spin on it. Like he always does. Do you have any questions, sweetie?”

Emilie was focusing on the cards. “I gotta go, Mom.” She hung up and rested her phone on the table. “Fourteen to the face,” she said to the boy, who then scooped up his cards and walked away.

Brigid came over, flipping her deck box in her hands. “Did you just go four-oh?”

Emily nodded as she put her cards away.

“Fuck yeah, you did!” Brigid shouted to the whole little store, although the other players were far too busy with their own games to give even the pretense of a shit. “That's even better than me,” she continued with a smile. 

Emilie heard the boy talking to his friends a few tables down. “ . . . all these cuts all over the fucking place. I was afraid she'd kill herself if she lost, so I let her have that one.” She packed up her cards and pocketed them.

“Who was on the phone?” Brigid asked.

“My mom.”

“Oh, yeah? What's up? She find out about Sunday?”

“She's at my aunt's,” she replied, zipping up her hoodie. 

“For the night?”

“For the night, or for good.”

“Like two weeks ago?”

Emilie shook her head, no.

Brigid couldn't come up with a response. 

Emilie shrugged. “I'm having a smoke.”

“Count me in,” said Brigid.

The two walked outside into the night. Standing under the awning, they weaved gossamer strands of hazy grey, expanding into thick plumes, absorbing into skin and cloth, hovering, like stubborn geists. They stared at the ground as they smoked. There was nothing to see.