Fiction from Mialise Carney
When Lagoons Turn Lavender
Lagoon wanted to be a geologist, the weird kind, but I guess all good geologists are. She’d been stuck on Canfield Oceans since I’d known her, and I couldn’t really imagine her without them. All she ever talked about was the process of decay, The Great Dying, the next extinction period. Canfield Oceans were when everything got too hot, stopped and rotted—little hungry bugs turning the waters toxic purple. That’s how most of the last great extinctions happened, even the one with the meteor that got the dinosaurs. It’s how we’re supposed to go too, when global warming really gets going. Lagoon thought there was something pretty about it, but all I could think about was how we were next.
I started to notice Lagoon becoming a Canfield Ocean right about when she got boring. It was the first day of summer break and we were at the pool behind her apartment building. She turned to me and said, “You know, Stevie, I just don’t think I was made for swimming.”
She flopped into the pool, cold droplets splashing up onto my legs. After the first wave, the sunscreen film settled—her whirling had stopped. I yelled at her to come up, but she didn’t until I jumped in on top of her and pulled her up to the surface by the straps of her hot pink swimsuit.
Her light hair stuck in clumps on her face, the blond pieces turned muddy. She gasped and then stared at me and I let go, giggling because I thought maybe it was a game. She didn’t seem to think so though, because she just got out of the pool, knees slipping on the concrete ledge so she nearly fell back in. I waited for her to come back, to dive in and continue the new game, but she just curled up onto a lawn chair with her towel, white white knees poking out, dark eyes glaring out over the water.
Lagoon hadn’t been my friend for that long, but I pretended like we’d know each other forever. I’d never had a friend quite like Lagoon before she moved here last September, dragged by her mom from the dust and rock of Arizona to the dark winters in Maine, swamps and glaciers. She was the first person I’d ever met who always wanted to be in the dirt, who acted like she didn’t mind everything being messy.
Lagoon and I became friends when we met at her apartment tennis courts. I wasn’t supposed to be there because I didn’t live there, but they didn’t really have any way of checking, so I always went and played tennis by myself, hitting the ball over and over again into the net. It got real boring, but it was the least boring thing I could think of before I met Lagoon.
Lagoon walked up and started telling me about Canfield Oceans, watching me hit the ball and then go and get it. She said she could show me one if I wanted.
I’d misheard her and thought she said “canned” oceans, so on the walk to her apartment I kept imagining she had a can full of seawater and somehow it was purple and full of dead things.
Her apartment was almost empty, beaded curtains hanging in front of thin, dark oak windows. They’d only just moved so it hadn’t gotten musty, but the afternoon light still didn’t seem to want to touch anything, not even the sagging velvet couch.
“You ever seen a Canfield Ocean?” she asked. I wondered if it was one of those souvenirs from Myrtle Beach or Cape Cod, and I wasn’t all too surprised that someone was selling saltwater in a can.
“No,” I said, running my fingers over the crumpled velvet arm of the couch. I liked the feeling of her house, all boarded up and old and touchable, like I could spill a soda on it and nobody would notice or care. It looked like the opposite of my house, where Mama always yelled at me if I touched the clean, white couch without washing my hands first.
Lagoon knelt in front of the TV, the super old kind with tin foil bunny ears that my grandma had. She pressed the round buttons, sifting through the channels.
“Get the curtains,” she said. I wanted to see the canned ocean in all of its glory, so I pulled them as wide as I could.
“Closed, closed,” she said. I rushed to close them.
She shuffled back, moving around the coffee table, ashy with off-brand candles and cigarette butts. The tv crinkled, and a hazy image of a man in a boat appeared.
“Are you just gonna stand there?” she asked, almost-white eyebrows raising.
I let go of the beaded string and dropped to the floor.
We sat on our knees side by side while the man explained all about oceans: how without circulation the bottom gets toxic, how in a lake somewhere the top layer is normal but when he sends a tube down, he pulls up colored water, all full of angry bacteria. I spent most of the time looking at Lagoon, her eyes wide like there would never be anything as good as an ocean full of mean things.
After the video clicked off, she got up and I followed her. She pulled out a shoebox of rocks and plants and cups of water and told me she wanted to make her own Canfield Oceans, and how that’s how we’re gonna die so she wanted to start figuring it out now before it could get us. I’d never seen anyone like that before, all excited even about something sad, and messy, and awful. And I wanted to feel that too.
So I said, “Can we be best friends?”
And she said, “Alright.”
While Lagoon liked geology, the love of rocks and dirt, I liked paint. Not painting, exactly, just paint. I loved the way it smelled, the gloopiness between my fingers, the way it clumped up on paper, making it crumpled and imperfect and soggy. Most times after school Lagoon and I would sit on her brick apartment steps, and I would smear paint in pretty ways. Lagoon used a stick she found underneath a cedar in the front yard to pull up grass blobs and rocks. The cedar tree sticks were all prickly and snappy, so when her archeological tools failed, she ended up using her hands. Then we’d go play tennis, and I’d watch the dirt wiggle underneath her fingernails like little halfmoon worms when she swung.
Lagoon didn’t stay on anything very long besides Canfield Oceans. That’s why I liked her—before Lagoon, I always had to do everything by myself, for hours, like playing tennis or drawing. Or sitting quietly in my room, not making any noise so I wouldn’t wake Mama up when she had to sleep all day after her night shifts at the hospital. But Lagoon didn’t like doing one thing for a long time, she switched faster than I could keep up.
As soon as we got to the little pond behind the school to look for peepers, she decided she didn’t want to anymore, that all along she had wanted to go roller skating. By the time we were thump-thumping around the graveled Walmart parking lot, she decided we were going to see a movie, and it started in five minutes so we’d have to run. Her head churned so fast I wondered if she was trying to be somewhere else.
The week after Lagoon decided she didn’t want to swim anymore, I called her on the phone, slurping my Lucky Charms. It was about then that Lagoon got real boring, when she started to act like she didn’t think she could breathe anymore.
“You wanna do something?” I said into the milk, my top teeth clinking painfully on the metal spoon. The milk bubbled and dripped out the side of my mouth and I wiped it with my back of my hand.
“Maybe later,” she said, “I’m busy.”
“Well alright,” I said, using my spoon to sort the colors. “What’re you doing?”
She didn’t give me a real good answer, just a bit of an “oh I don’t know,” and so I told her to call me back when she figured it out.
I waited three hours, flipping through Mama’s nice copies of Vogue and People that she wouldn’t let me touch when she was home, but she was at the hospital so I did it anyway. When I got bored of the shiny, perfect faces I got up and went over to Lagoon’s apartment.
I rang the doorbell three times, holding it down so it would be really annoying. It was hot and humid and I was sweating into my flipflops. I slid my foot out of the foam to press into the brick, but I could only stand it for a little before it burned.
When no one answered, I went around the side and stood outside Lagoon’s bedroom window. I figured we’d been friends long enough I could just knock on her window and maybe she wouldn’t mind that I was checking, because I just wanted to see all the fun she was having without me.
I knocked on the window four times with my fingernail, just barely able to reach the glass. “Lagoon,” I said loudly, drawing out the “oo” part so she knew I wasn’t a murderer or a robin looking for food.
I tried to lift myself up to see through the window, but my fingers were too small and I couldn’t bear my own weight without slipping. Just as I was going to leave, I heard a soft, “I’m over here.”
I turned around the corner of the building, stepping over dried bushes crushed up against the brick. Lagoon was lying on the brown grass, staring straight at the sky.
I stopped and looked up to see what she was looking at, but all I saw was the sun. Bright, glaring, and angry.
“What’re you doing?” I asked, walking to stand over her. My head blocked out the sun, my shadow like a soft blob of a cloud over her face.
She blinked and said, “Nothing.”
I looked back up towards the sun. “You know, that’s how Ray Charles went blind. ‘Cause when he was little he thought the sun was real pretty and used to stare at it all the time.” I paused and watched a carpenter ant half crawl half tumble towards her spread out hair. “Well, at least that’s what my granddad says.”
She turned her head a little. “You think something that pretty could kill us all one day?”
Green and orange dots floated around my eyes from when I’d looked, so I didn’t turn around again to check if she was right, if it really was that pretty. “I thought it was gonna be that canned ocean.”
“Why’d you gotta ruin everything, Stevie?” she asked, sitting up a little. Grass stuck to the sweaty backs of her arms like it’d just been mowed.
“What?” I said. I stepped back and squinted at her face. I wasn’t the one ruining everything, she was the one lying in the grass when we could’ve been skating.
She flopped back down, and I almost felt the pain of my own spine flopping heavily against rock solid ground. She didn’t seem bothered though. She just closed her eyes.
“You’re gonna burn,” I said, nudging her arm with my toe. But she didn’t open her eyes again.
“Lagoon, I’m bored. You’re no fun,” I said.
She rolled onto her stomach and planted her face in the grass. She looked like she was sinking into the earth. Maybe she was hoping to.
That summer I kept trying but Lagoon seemed to have turned stagnant, unmoving, unwanting, or maybe I just couldn’t figure out what it was that she wanted. When I went to her apartment or called her on the phone, she had nothing to say and she didn’t fidget like she had before. Her brown eyes used to zoom around the room like she’d miss something if they didn’t, but when I talked, she just stared straight ahead like there was nothing good about talking to me.
Even the Canfield Oceans couldn’t seem to cheer her up. I thought maybe if I could prove we weren’t all going to die by acid rain and mean bacteria then maybe she’d be fun again. I never really liked Canfield Oceans, but I went to the library and checked out all the geology books they had. Most of them didn’t even reference Canfield Oceans, but I learned a lot of things Lagoon had already told me but I’d forgotten to remember, like about CO2 or the Precambrian period. I still found it pretty boring, but Lagoon thought they were going to kill her, so it was worth doing all that homework on my summer vacation to help unscare her.
After all my research, I called her on a morning in late July. Slurping my Cheerios, I said, “You know, I read that if we start carpooling and turn off the lights when we’re not in the room, then we won’t have as much CO2.”
“Okay,” she said.
I held the phone close to my bowl and let my spoon drop heavily into it so she could hear the clink, like I was so annoyed I’d just dropped it naturally. “Less CO2, then no Canfield,” I explained slowly, because she obviously wasn’t getting that I was just trying to help.
“I gotta go,” she said.
“Why?” I said, but she had already hung up. I slammed the phone against the cold tile table. No matter what I did, Lagoon didn’t care anymore, and I didn’t know how to make her.
Mr. Wilder never really talked about geology much, mostly because his main subject was biology. But after nearly a year of Lagoon asking questions about acid rain or whirlpools, or begging to do her science fair project on anoxic oceans instead of her assigned parts of the frog, Mr. Wilder decided to make May 21st Canfield Ocean Day. He did just about half of the lesson on the process of decay.
After Mr. Wilder talked about sediments and dead things, Lagoon and I sat on the prickly grass beside the ant-filled gray picnic bench in front of the school. She stood eating a tuna sandwich while I nibbled the edge of a Lorna Doone cookie. Lagoon twirled, bare feet sliding on the grass and curling around her long toes, bits of tuna spewing while she repeated all the things Mr. Wilder had said, like I hadn’t been there.
I watched her but didn’t butt in. I hated that I couldn’t have it. I hated that I couldn’t have some of the fun that she had. I felt like a leech, the kind that got stuck to my ankles when I fell into the pond out the back of my granddad’s house last summer. Like I wasn’t really having any fun, I was just watching Lagoon have it all. I didn’t think it was fair that she got to have all of it; I wanted to stamp it out.
“Why’d you like those canned oceans?” I asked.
She stared at me, her dark eyes crumpling in at the eyebrows, hand hesitating over another piece of Wonder Bread.
“They’re purple oceans,” she said, her voice like warm, soft gravel beneath my foot.
“Yeah, but they’re gonna kill us all in an ugly way,” I said. “I think they’re really stupid.”
Lagoon sat down, pressing her fingers deep into the grass and pulling out a fistful. She sprinkled the pieces across her legs, a soft breeze carrying dry dirt across and into my tapioca pudding cup. She fell onto her back, staring up at the tree above us, and she breathed out real deep until her stomach caved in like a sink hole.
I waited for her to keep going, to start at the beginning and tell me all about the things I didn’t understand. But she didn’t, she just lay there like a dead fish, eyes bubbling up like she’d just seen the end of the world that had been there all along, but she just hadn’t noticed, or maybe she didn’t want to.
Toward the end of August, right before school started again, I sat on the steps of Lagoon’s apartment building while she sat in the dirt. I had a new tube of dark purple that I was about to squeeze out on to my yellow legal pad when Lagoon said, “Wait.”
I looked up. “Yeah?”
She got up from the dirt and sat on the ground two steps below me, turning her back. “Dye my hair,” she said.
I looked at the bottle of craft store acrylic. I didn’t know much about hair, but I knew acrylic was washable, so it was probably alright. “Really?” I said.
I squeezed out all the dark plum worms on her head. I combed through the knots with my fingers like it was shampoo, pulling too hard so her head snapped back, and I said sorry at least seven times. It didn’t feel smooth or soft, which I didn’t mind. It felt matted and heavy and dead.
After she looked in the mirror in her bathroom and I wiped my hands on the grass, we decided to go to the pool. Lagoon walked before me, pushing the short creaking metal gate open.
It wasn’t very sunny out; it was a brisk kind of August that reminded me of pumpkins and November rains. A soft gray cloud cover melted over, and the pool looked cool and still, like a thin sheet of ice I wanted to break.
I was itching to say that I missed her and I didn’t want her to be sad anymore, but I didn’t know how to without sounding like a baby so I said, “You know your canned ocean won’t actually happen while we’re alive. We’ll be really dead before. I asked Mr. Wilder ‘cause I saw him working at the 99-cent store last week, and he said it wouldn’t be until we’re all dead.”
“I know,” she said.
I leaned forward, dipping my toes in because I wanted to break the stillness. I swooshed it a little, breaking the pool with a couple of throwing-stone-worthy kind of ripples. The ripple puddled out gently with a light plop noise.
“Don’t do that,” she said, her left arm sticking out to stop me from going in.
“Why not,” I said.
“You’re ruining it.”
A cool rain prickled down, soft, in clumps on my arms. Drops that I couldn’t see yet but could feel. The hair on my arms stood up like little umbrellas to hold up the cold. “Ruining what?” I said.
Her jaw was slack and all the acrylic she had in her hair was still wet, heavy in clumps, an almost black kind of purple, but I could still see some blond sticking through.
“My Canfield Ocean,” she said bluntly. I looked back across it, the water gray from the clouds. I thought maybe the part I’d been missing all along was that she wanted a Canfield Ocean, it was me that didn’t.
I got mad. Mad because Lagoon was always blaming me for ruining everything. Like before she met me, those Canfield Oceans had been her everything and I’d tainted them. Like I was the one that made her boring, that I stole the thing that made her special, and she knew it.
So I pushed Lagoon. I took a step back to get a good aim, pressing my palms into her tense shoulders. She yelped, a quiet noise that rung against the rusting chain link fence. She went in without grace, a soft belly flop, knees bending, limbs twisting trying to right herself before impact. Maybe I imagined it, the color in her hair bleeding out around her where she hit, turning the water a soft purple. It splashed up onto my bare legs and I flinched like it burned.
I stepped forward, toes curling around the ledge, peering to see if she’d sink. I wanted to make her angry, I wanted to make her swim to the surface and pull me in too.
And she did sink for a little. The rain pattered against my head, echoing and I watched her white t-shirt suck her down. A stray flipflop popped up to the surface, green like a lily pad. The pool went still, waves splashing heavily against the grimy side tiles. Then the water started to churn, and she was kicking. She came up, hair dripping lavender streaks all down her face, sputtering, and angry, and alive.
“What was that for?” Lagoon yelled, treading water in the deep end.
I didn’t know how to tell her I was bored and lonely without her, that I needed her and her Canfield Ocean, that she couldn’t have it all to herself. But I didn’t know how to. So instead, I jumped into the pool, a heavy cannonball so that all of the purple water splashed up and out of the pool, soaking everything it touched.
Mialise Carney is a Boston-based writer whose work has also appeared in Menacing Hedge, Sagebrush Review, and The Bridge.