“Something in the Water” by Thomas Joyce 

I took to swimming like a duck to water. That used to be one of my father’s favourite little jokes, before the divorce. He taught me to swim in a saltwater loch on the west coast of Scotland, near our home, one unnaturally hot summer. Even in the warm weather, there never seemed to be any other families about, either opting for the larger freshwater lochs inland, or going to air-conditioned leisure centres far from the midges. But I loved it. We were happy, once.

When mum finally allowed him to take me and Kim out every other weekend, swimming was still a source of fun. At the loch during increasingly hot summers, in the local swimming pool during the colder months. Just messing about in the shallow end, going down the flumes ten times an hour, or him letting me win in a swimming race.

Then mum met Andrew, and everything changed.

He was ten years her senior and still in the Navy, and she was tending bar. At night, anyway; she was a cleaner in the council buildings during the day, with granny. Granny used to watch us when mum worked in the pub. Before she met him.

The morning after, when she’d been late to pick us up from gran’s flat, granny had been unimpressed. “I thought Tommy was ‘the one’. Or how about Kevin before that? Or the Johnstone boy before that?”

I wasn’t supposed to know how many times mum had been engaged. But gran’s tongue got loose after a couple of gins with her best friend on a Friday night, especially when she let me play bartender. That was how I found out about the two men she’d been engaged to before marrying my dad, Tommy. But I was sworn to secrecy.

The silence was frosty. Even from my gran’s bedroom I could feel the icy particles in the air. Kim still slept cosily beneath the quilt. “I have two daughters to think about, mum. They need a father, someone to provide for them.”

“They have a father.” Said granny.

“No.” Mum would not hear anything nice said about my father, not even acknowledging his existence if she could help it. He left the flat in a bloody mess that last night, after mum found him in bed with her best friend, and we’d hardly been allowed to see him since. Auntie Karen moved down to England soon after.

“We manage okay on our own, Jenny.” Gran was wasting her breath and she knew it. I’d heard her make the same arguments before. “I help you with the girls, you know that.”

“I want a family.” Mum’s voice grew louder. “A man. A house. My girls. Now, where are they? We have to get going; they’re going to meet Andrew later.”

Andrew, the big man with the blue tattoos and beer gut and ‘heroic’ tales of combat in the far-off Falklands. Andrew, tough but fair with a firm hand for two girls used to getting away with murder. Andrew, who liked his victims young, and knew what buttons to push so that I never uttered a word to anyone about the horrible things he’d make me do.


“There’s something in the water.” Kim stood at the edge of the loch, long brown hair sodden, hands wringing in her long My Little Pony t-shirt, more from anxiety than trying to release the water.

“There’s nothing in there but wee, tiny fishes. And they’ll no come near ye.” Andrew replied from his deckchair, a cooler on one side full of ice trays and rum, the radio on the other. He was listening to a football call-in show. When mum had introduced him to us and told him how much I liked football too, he’d laughed and told me it was for boys, and I should stick to looking pretty. And he’d smiled at me. But there was nothing friendly in that smile.

The inappropriate touching began not long after that.

“Something long and slimy touched my leg.” Said Kim, now looking to me for help, to do my part. “Annie saw it.”

Andrew turned his gaze toward me, peering over his thick glasses. He smiled that horrible smile beneath his overgrown moustache and beckoned me to him with his finger. I wanted to run and never look back.

“Go to your dad, Annie.” Mum said, lying on her beach towel on the sand, such as it was in Scotland. She turned her back to us, the latest black eye hidden behind her sunglasses.

“He’s not my dad.” I replied, glaring at her. It had been a bone of contention between us for over a year, since they’d married. She’d insist and I’d refuse, time and again. But his answer was always the same.

“Don’t push her, Jenny,” he said, still calling me with his fingers. “We’re just friends just now. Good friends. Isn’t that right, Annie?”

The bile rose in my throat. I didn’t know how much longer I could pretend everything was okay, ‘keep the peace’ as my granny used to say. I had never spoken about him to anyone, especially not my frail old granny. I never had the chance. We stopped seeing our gran not long after the wedding.

I slowly approached him.

“What did you see?”

I hesitated, suddenly afraid. “I… don’t know.”

Kim pouted. “Yes, you do. It was a monster, remember?”

I turned my head so only she could see my face, my eyes wide. “Shut up, Kim.”

Suddenly, I felt his hand on my back, sliding around my waist like the tentacle of some terrible sea creature. He pulled me close, and I tensed, smelling the rum on his breath. The remnants of the latest ice cubes sloshed around the bottom of his glass. It had been the hottest summer on record for Scotland, the third year in a row, but he always refused to share the ice with us. Said he needed it all for his rum and coke.

“You should be nicer to your little sister, Annie.” My name was little more than an alcoholic hiss as it left his mouth, and I felt the bile again. He pulled me closer: “You’re the mature one, you’re a big girl. And someday soon she’ll be a big girl, too.”

Any of his actions could have triggered me; the squeeze of the flesh below my waist, the wink as he finished speaking, the leering smile. Even the unintended line of drool that escaped his attention and the corner of his mouth. Or perhaps it was the sum-total of the past year. But the slap sent the glasses flying from his face and into the sand.

That was probably what gave me a head start. That or the tainted ice cubes.

He tried to catch the glasses with one hand and tried to snatch my retreating body with the other. His fingernails clawed at the bare flesh at my side, exposed by my bathing costume. But he failed to do more than scratch as I raced toward the water.

“Come back here, you little bitch.” He shouted as he staggered from his fallen deckchair and scrambled in the sand for his glasses. Kim stood frozen as if she were a doll someone had left standing at the edge of the loch, shocked into stillness and silence that I had done it.

My mother was sitting up, her mouth a thin line, her eyes still hidden behind her sunglasses. Andrew was breathing heavily through his nose as he swivelled between me and mum, the impression of my hand still visible on his stubbly cheek.

“Jenny, get my belt.”

As my mum slowly stood on unsteady legs and turned toward the car, I knew I had to get away. If he caught me, I didn’t know what he would do. And I didn’t want to think about it. If I did, my legs would turn to jelly, and I’d be done for. And so would Kim and mum, eventually.

I fled the only way I could: into the loch. Some might say mum got the loch in the divorce, but it wasn’t until she told Andrew about it that it again became a place for swimming during the summer. Or for drinking and watching, for Andrew. He was polluting every part of our lives, like an oil spill destroys an ocean.

I leapt into the cold, clear water and kicked my feet and pushed my body forward, letting the salt sting of my new scratches spur me on. When I resurfaced to catch my breath, I looked behind to see how far I had swum. But that was a mistake. He wasn’t waiting for his belt; he’d taken off after me straight away, probably intending to drag me by my hair back to the shore before beating me with the belt. Or worse; he would settle for holding my head under the water until my lungs filled with salt water and I sank to the bottom. To sleep with the wee, tiny fishes.

I swam until my lungs were on fire, further than I’d ever swam before. If I went any further, I didn’t know if I’d be able to make it back when it was all done. I stopped and felt the hand close around my ankle.

“You… wee… bitch.” I could see his bloodshot eyes, the veins throbbing on his bald head, the heavy panting. Then I could feel his grip falter as his breathing grew heavier. “Jenny, help.” He called back over his shoulder, his hands now clutching at his chest, his throat. “I think I’m having a heart attack.”

“No, dear.” My mother’s voice was so close it startled him, her sunglasses discarded, the skin around her eye faded to a dull green. But her presence didn’t startle me; I had improvised getting him in the water, but this was part of the plan. My plan.

As he turned to face her, I threw myself onto his shoulders and pushed down with all my strength, fuelled by every inappropriate touch, every wink, every comment about how much bigger my little sister was getting. His red face bobbed just above the surface and mum thrashed at him with the belt she held so tightly in her hand, before wrapping it around his throat and pulling him down, fuelled by her own experiences at the mercy of our abuser. This hadn’t been a part of the plan. The police would buy our story about our poor inebriated stepfather and husband taking a leisurely swim and getting into difficulties. They’d be slightly more suspicious if they pulled him from the loch and he had cuts and bruises all over his face and neck.

That was a concern for later.

When the water calmed, Mum and I pulled the body back toward where Kim stood waiting on the shore. She wasn’t crying, didn’t even look afraid. I hoped she’d never be afraid again, that maybe deep down she knew we had to do it. She didn’t look at the body, only came to meet us at the water’s edge and hug us tightly. “Did I do good, Annie?”

I kissed her on both cheeks and on her forehead and made her look at mum. “You did so good, Kimmy. You helped me save mummy.”

Tears of relief rather than sadness fell from mum’s eyes as she scooped her little girl up in her arms and showered her face with kisses. “Mummy is so proud of both of her girls.” She pulled me into a tight embrace, and we hugged as a family, just the three of us. “Now, who wants to play a game?” She made sure Andrew’s glass, and all the ice cube trays, empty or not, went into the cooler. “Who can find the biggest, heaviest rocks? We need an anchor for the sailor.”


Thomas Joyce lives in his hometown near Glasgow, Scotland with his wife and daughter. He has had short stories published in Unnerving Magazine, Lost Films (an anthology published by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing) and Daughter of Sarpedon (published by Brigids Gate Press), to name a few. He has read a scientific study which states that people who read all the way to the author bios at the end of books are infinitely more attractive and interesting than those people who don’t, and thinks that you – yes, you – are awesome.


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