Learning to Swim
It was early in the afternoon and Ella Taylor was terribly bored. Through her bedroom window, across the street, and over three lawns, she could see the pool in Jenny's backyard, crowded with most of her friends. She watched them practice their dives and handstands, cheering each other on. They took a short break to play with the dog on the grass, and they snacked on potato chips and peanut butter birthday cake. Then, abandoning their half-finished plates on picnic tables and lounge chairs, they jumped back into the pool.
Ella had begged Jenny to have a peanut-free cake, but to no success. "It's my birthday," Jenny had explained, "so I decide what the cake is. You'll just have to sit this one out. There are other parties with other cakes, so what's the problem?"
"Yeah, I guess," Ella had replied. Anyway, she was a little afraid of swimming, so maybe it was better that she had to stay home.
The palm of her hand began to slip down the window, and she noticed that her face was damp with sweat as well. That's the downside of living upstairs. The house's heat rose directly into her bedroom. She glanced one more time toward Jenny's party before taking off, two stairs at a time, all the way down to the basement.
Mr. Taylor was in his workshop, which meant that Ella was allowed to enter. She tapped him on the back and asked, "Can you please turn on the air conditioning?"
"It's on," he answered without turning around, since both of his arms were inside the twenty-gallon vivarium. A vivarium, usually, is a tank containing water and land, but right now, it had no water at all. Mr. Taylor had pumped all the water into the sink, leaving some large puddles on the concrete floor, in order to clean the tank's rocks, vegetation, and clear glass walls. Isaac, the fire belly newt who called this tank home, was temporarily stuck in a water-filled tupperware hardly big enough for one night of leftovers. He didn't look very happy.
"Upstairs, I mean," said Ella. "I'm melting."
Her father continued to scrape away at the tank with what looked like a miniature hair brush. He muttered, "What do you need the AC for anyway? Go to the park and play."
"I can't," Ella answered. "My friends are all busy."
At this, Mr. Taylor swiveled his neck around to face his daughter. He growled, "Friends? When I was your age, my only friends were Ninja Turtles. And I turned out fine!"
Satisfied with this latest pearl of fatherly advice, he leaned back into the tank and scrubbed the spot he'd just cleaned with renewed purpose and zeal.
It was the middle of the day and the streets were all empty. The sun was directly overhead, meaning that even Ella's shadow had abandoned her.
She was aware that she needed new friends, ones that would be nicer to her and accommodate her allergies, but where was she supposed to find them? She was too old for imaginary friends, and the ones from her dreams disappeared as soon as she woke up. The snowmen melted in the spring, ghosts only showed up when she was scared, and when she got to the park, the kids playing frisbee and volleyball were already in groups. Ella did not have the courage to walk over and interrupt them.
Instead, she went to an empty bench beneath a little tree, all on their own at the edge of the park. Well, at least they seemed alone. When she got closer, she saw that someone had rudely left behind an empty pack of Oreos, and a swarm of pigeons were crowded around the bench, fighting over the crumbs. Ella tried to shoo them off, but they cooed at her and she ran away. She decided to head for a safer bench at the top of the hill. Though there was no shade up there, it had a prime view for watching everyone.
On her way up, she caught a glint of sunlight reflected on the dirt beneath the bench. There was something down there, half-buried. It looked plasticky at first, but as she got closer, she could make out a dull green screen, the size of a pack of gum.
Worried for a second that it was part of some mysterious game, she made sure that no one was around. Then, acting like she'd tripped on a loose pebble, she plopped onto her hands and knees and dug the device out of the dirt with her fingers.
It looked like it could be a thousand years old, like it was her great great grandfather's cellphone. It had only five buttons, and a short rubber antenna poking out of the top. Ella knew that she wasn't supposed to take things that weren't hers, but this thing could have been stuck in the dirt since before she was born, waiting to be discovered in this exact way. The antenna pointed at her like a finger, as if to say, "I choose you." Taking her first uncharacteristic move in a day that would end up with a lot of them, she slipped it into her pocket and headed back home.
Mr. Taylor was too excited by the device to ask where Ella had found it. He took it out of her hands and said, "Wow, it's been a while since I've seen one of these. When I was your age, I used to sit around and just scan through the channels looking for people. That's how we made friends, you know, back in the day."
"It works like a car radio," he continued, because Ella had suddenly perked up, excited by thoughts of kids hidden in rooms across the neighborhood, chatting on these antique cell phones, a secret social media network for which she'd just found the key.
"You push the button on the side to talk, and the walkie-talkie captures the vibrations in the air from your voice and shifts it up into much faster vibrations. These are so high pitched that we can't hear them, but they travel pretty well. Then, any walkie-talkie nearby can slow these vibrations back down to hear what you said, as long as they're on the right channel."
"It's a shame though," Mr. Taylor went on, even though Ella had already rushed to the other side of the room to rummage in the cabinet for AA batteries. "Everyone's busy with their smartphones nowadays. The analog world is dead."
As soon as the second battery touched the metal flaps, the screen bathed Ella's hand in a neon glow. She turned the walkie-talkie over and saw the number 15. There were 22 channels to scroll through using the plus and minus buttons, and Ella excitedly tried them all, with the volume knob turned to max. There was a soft hiss on number 2, and a thunder-like rumble on number 10, but that turned out to be a plane passing overhead.
She tried going upstairs, wondering if it needed better reception. She tried going down to the basement, as though sound waves vibrated through the ground like earthquakes.
"Hello!" she yelled into the walkie-talkie. "Is anyone there?" When no one answered for the thousandth time, she dropped the device to the floor in frustration.
There was a loud crack as it hit the concrete. Then, a few seconds of silence. Then, a long whistle.
It was a soft and relaxed whistle, like the breathing noise that comes out of your nose when you have a cold, rather than the harsh whine of a broken earbud. The screen blinked twice, then showed the number 492. Apparently, it had jumped almost five hundred channels in just a few seconds.
Even though Ella was nervous, she couldn't think of anything else to do except carefully pick the thing off the floor, push the button on the side, and say, "Hello?"
The whistling stopped. A crackle came through the walkie-talkie, along with two distinct croaking noises.
What was that? she thought, raising the device to her lips again. She pushed the button and repeated, "Hello?"
The noise was soft and low, but it sounded almost like a voice. Through the crackling, Ella heard the word: "Help."
It was waiting for her to answer, taking short panicked breaths, but Ella said nothing. After a minute of uncomfortable silence, it said, "Come through the door. Please."
She stood frozen, looking at the metal sign reading Do Not Enter, hanging a few steps away on the door to her father's workshop. Some of her friends would've raced in immediately, eager for whatever adventure awaited on the other side. But Ella was conflicted. On one hand, she hated breaking the rules, and on the other hand, she didn't want to ignore a plea for help. Especially when it had been given so politely.
She decided on a compromise. She would stand in the door frame and take a quick look around, without actually entering. If there was no one inside, if it was all some type of mean prank, she'd just close the door and pretend nothing happened. What was the harm in that? Her father would never have to know a thing.
The room was as still as a picture. The workbench was pushed in beneath the desk, and there was not a stray tool in sight. Everything was in its proper place, as her father liked it. Ella let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding and began to turn around. Then she saw it.
His tiny black arms against the wall of the tank. His beady reptilian eyes aimed directly at her. His orange belly panting up and down, in perfect time with the breaths coming through the walkie-talkie.
It was impossible, but there he was. As she watched his jaws open, she heard another whisper through the walkie-talkie. It said: "Ella."
"I was only ten days old when your father found me by the riverside. Don't you remember?"
Ella didn't answer. She was busy looking away, pretending that this wasn't happening. She could just throw out the batteries, re-bury the walkie-talkie, go up to her room, and take a nap. By the time she'd wake up, Isaac's voice will have blended in with the rest of her dreams. She'd forget everything after a few minutes.
"I need to go back. That's where I belong. Won't you help me?"
Ella disagreed. Going back to the river would be difficult, and staying here was easy, especially for Isaac. Mr. Taylor fed him, cleaned up after him, loved him more than his own child. She wanted to say, "No," but that would've meant breaking her silent treatment, and who knew what that might lead to?
This was not something that Ella could do. When you start wondering about all the best people to smuggle a newt to the river outside town, I doubt you would even think of Ella Taylor. But still, through the walkie-talkie, Isaac said, "Ella, please."
These invisible sound waves hit her like shock waves, and she accidentally turned to look at him. Perhaps she had been absorbing the noise all of her life without even realizing it. She had finally heard the thing that she wasn't supposed to hear. She had seen the thing she wasn't supposed to see. So maybe, just maybe, she should try doing the thing she wasn't supposed to do? Surprising herself, she tiptoed to the tank, stuck her arm inside, and let Isaac wriggle up to her wrist. He felt slimy and warm.
Isaac told her to fill his tupperware with water, like her father had this morning. He asked her to put a piece of tree bark inside, so he could float on it and continue to speak to her. He also recommended bringing a bunch of earthworms in case they got hungry on the road.
"Ew," Ella whimpered, but then she stuck her hand in the jar and grabbed a handful.
As they snuck out the back door, undetected by Mr. Taylor, Isaac asked, "What's the plan?"
"I don't know," answered Ella. She'd expected that Isaac would be the one with the plan, since she wasn't much of a leader. In her class, that was usually the job of her friends, especially Jenny. Coming up with plans was the type of thing that Jenny was best at. Besides, this was all starting to get a bit overwhelming and she really needed some help.
The moment Ella slipped through the gate, Jenny's mother spotted her and ran over. "Ella!" she squawked. "What—I—" She took a few seconds to process everything. Ella wasn't wearing a swimsuit. Instead of a towel, a change of clothes, and a gift, the girl had brought a tupperware of water, with a lizard inside! No way was that thing going in her pool! And, as if that wasn't enough, there was the whole peanut allergy problem. Doing some quick math in her head, she suggested, "Let me bring you home. I don't want to be responsible for anything, you know, happening."
"No," Ella replied. "This is important."
But Jenny's mother had made up her mind. She grabbed Ella's arm and tightened her lips into a mean smile.
"I need to speak to Jenny," Ella insisted, as she was being dragged away. Everything was starting to go wrong. Her plan was failing and she didn't know what to do.
Isaac squirmed uncomfortably as his tupperware shook in the struggle. All the kids at the party stared in their direction, with mild curiosity, as though they were watching TV. And when Ella finally spotted Jenny in the distance, her heart dropped. Her friend was just standing there with everyone else, looking on and doing nothing. No one was coming to their rescue. If anything was going to happen, it would have to be Ella that did it... So she took a deep breath, dug her feet into the ground, and wailed, "Stooop!" Then, she yanked her arm, ready for the biggest tug-of-war of her life.
To her surprise, Jenny's mother let go instantly and took a step back. Ella had forgotten that you can often get what you want just by yelling for it.
Taking advantage of this short timeout and forgetting that she'd come to ask for advice, Ella sprinted to the street and didn't stop for three whole blocks, even though no one was following her.
She came up with the new plan all on her own. It was the adrenaline, probably, that convinced her that anything was now possible.
First, she went to the park and found the pack of pigeons. They cooed at her, and she growled back. "Trust me," she said to Isaac, whose nostrils were quivering with worry. She sat down beside the closest bird, and began to fiddle with the walkie talkie. After no more than a minute, Ella heard the breathing. It was a deep voice, moaning, "Food. Food. Food."
Ella spoke slowly and deliberately, sensing that this pigeon might not be as smart as her father's pet newt. She said, "I have earthworms."
The pigeon looked up. "Food?"
She took one out of her pocket and wiggled it in the air before throwing it at him. He swallowed it whole. "Bring me to the river," she said, "and I'll give you more."
"Yeah," she said.
The pigeon looked around, jerking its neck. Then, with one swift motion, it nodded and took flight.
They had walked for at least half an hour, and Ella's legs were sorer than they'd ever been. The pigeon circled above them, almost fifty feet ahead, refusing to give her a rest. Every ten minutes, he'd pop down, demanding another snack for the next leg of their journey, farther and farther away from Ella's home.
Ella was down to her last two worms. She began to worry about what would happen if they didn't get there soon. Maybe the pigeon would fly away, realizing that he had taken everything worth anything from his two companions. She'd be left alone in the middle of nowhere with no food and only the water that Isaac lived in. That was the best case scenario, thought Ella. It was also possible that the bird would stay and demand more. Something larger, perhaps. Something amphibious.
But then she spotted it. The river that Ella had visited with her father two years ago, when she was just a kid. When she didn't know enough to suggest that maybe the little tadpole was happy where he was. That maybe he didn't want to be taken home as a pet.
"That's it," Isaac said, his tiny fingers timidly tapping the tupperware. "My home is on the other side."
The river was deeper than the deep end of a pool, and flowed way too fast for a newt to swim across. Isaac looked up and asked, "What's your plan?"
At first, Ella wondered why he was asking her, almost expecting her to take charge. After all, she wasn't much of a leader. But then she realized that she did have a plan. Had she become like this all in one day? She said to the pigeon, "I have two worms left and they're both gonna be yours if you carry Isaac across the river and let him down on the other side."
The bird hesitated, thinking. Faced with no other ideas for dinner, he jerked his head in agreement.
"And you promise not to eat him?" added Ella.
He nodded again and Ella let out a happy giggle. She had figured it out. She had solved the final puzzle. She had saved the day, all without having to get herself wet. Turning to her amphibious friend, she said, "How about that?"
For some reason, Isaac didn't seem as excited. He was squirming his body like a fish, and his jaw was bobbing up and down. He was trying to say something, but Ella was not on the right frequency.
"You've come this far!" she whined, after clicking back to channel 492. "Can't you trust me?"
"It has to be you," he answered, making some sort of anxious chirp. Newts can be quite stubborn at times.
It was Ella's turn to shake her head. Their fears were pitted against each other, like fighters in a video game. Ella was afraid of the water, and Isaac was afraid of being in the bird's mouth. She wanted more than anything to be the one whose fear won out, to announce as if it was the law: "I don't care. I will never swim across that river, no matter what."
But if you really think about it, she hadn't been allowed in her father's workshop, no matter what. She wasn't supposed to touch the newt or the earthworms either, but she had done that too. She had screamed at Jenny's mother and growled at pigeons and walked all the way to the river without any supervision. "No matter what" was starting to seem like a dare.
Ella was not a great swimmer, but once she got in the water, she realized that she wasn't terrible at it. She kicked and flailed and paddled and reached the other side before she had time to get out of breath. The water isn't so terrifying after all, she thought, looking back at the river, amazed how far she'd come.
She looked down at Isaac, who waited patiently in the tupperware. His front two legs tapped the piece of bark victoriously and his jaw moved silently in excitement. She realized that he was trying to say something, but again, she couldn't hear him.
The walkie-talkie came out of her pocket with a stream of muddy river water. The screen was a dull blank green. The buttons did nothing. It was unmistakably dead. The only thing that Ella could hear was the flowing river and the distant birds and cars.
Before Isaac crawled off her hand and onto the ground, he nodded his head, and she nodded hers. There was nothing more to say, and there was no way to say it. He nestled himself into the mud. She waded back into the river. No longer afraid of the water, she dove her head under and began to swim home.