Land Drill

I pressed my face against the chain link fence and took a deep breath. Chlorine. Lightning shaped veins danced on the floor of the pool below its glassy top—beckoning, begging to be disturbed. If I dove in, would my hardened shell soften in the soak? Surely, that’s what the adults were hoping for. More than a babysitter, Summer Synchronized Swim League was perhaps my last chance to see if I could hang with the regular kids. It was pitched to me as an adventure, something for my benefit, but I knew it was babysitting with flair. As my mom directed me toward the gate entrance, I thought about my chances of becoming a mermaid—suspended in the water as a shimmering thing of beauty, locks of hair dancing like anemones. I wanted to be that beautiful. More so, I wanted to distract myself with that beauty. In the water, time stood still and the reality of the messes I’d made blurred into an unrecognizable image.

The deep end slowly came into view and the grate at the bottom glared at me. I pictured a Great White busting through the iron bars and ripping me to shreds—my blood blooming in the water, ruining the big show at the end of camp. My muscles clenched and a shiver ran up my spine, unwelcome, even in the July heat. I prayed the intrusive thoughts would hold off for swim practice.

My mother urged me along—steering me with a tense hand on my shoulder, straight to the pool gates. She was dressed for work: blazer and mid-length skirt, modest heels scuffing on the white hot sidewalk. Once I passed through the gates and made eye contact with an adult, she would turn and run in the opposite direction, back to her Lexus, into the air-conditioned office—happy to forget me and my foibles for a few hours. I didnt used to be a problem. Now, I was passed from adult to adult under constant surveillance.

The air was gauzy and the sidewalk in the distance rippled in the waves of heat. I let my head hang as I watched my foam sandals snap across the pavement, popping against my heels, keeping time, hoping my heart would slow to the rhythm of my shoes. The lining of my bathing suit was already glued to my belly and back with sweat. Stealing a glance ahead, I saw the kids stacked on the bleachers. My heart lurched. I wondered if they knew me and why I was here. I wondered if they were scared of me too.

As we reached the break in the fence, my mom stopped abruptly and dug her nails into my arm. Crouching down to my level, her eyes bore into mine: “I don’t want any phone calls at work today.” I nodded. She meant, play nice. The coach already had her eyes on me and I began to shuffle along, peering into the bright blue of the water’s edge. I let out a sigh. I knew I would not feel relief until I jumped into the pool.

Coach Bev was a handsome woman and built like a Clydesdale. Her voice was gruff and she spoke with the steady determination of a surgeon who could operate in her sleep. She had a confidence in us that we did not yet know how to possess. None of us had even done water ballet before, but in two weeks time, she insisted that we would put on a show to remember. There were seven of us, all girls of varying shapes and heights, and Bogie—Bev’s son. It was clear that we wouldn’t embody any sort of precise or consistent look. We were a group of confused individuals that had little hope of becoming a well-oiled machine. Coach Bev took attendance and at each name, heads spun to find its owner with the eager insecurity of a preteen afraid to lose their own identity due to the presence of another. When my name was called I heard a sharp intake of breath. From the corner of my eye, a hand shot into the air. A round-faced girl named Lila called out, “When do we get our swim caps? I don’t want Gretchen getting anywhere near my hair!” They shrieked and giggled. Coach Bev blushed. I stared at her. They were talking about my run-in with Jenny Cooper.

Everything about Jenny Cooper was nice: her hair, her smile, the way she looked in a leotard. She was polite and inquisitive. She did that thing that adults do: that clever line of questioning that lets you talk about yourself and makes you feel important. In dance class, she picked up choreography quickly without taking up too much space. If you bumped into her, she would say oh, pardon me in a sweet southern lilt that would take all the blame away. Jenny made everyone smile. I hated her.

She moved here from Macon, about an hour and a half away. Her family believed in her dancing and wanted to offer her the best. I heard she didn’t even have to audition for class. She appeared one day and acted as though she had been with us for years. Without discussion, all of us made room, shifting our warm-up lines and spaces at the barre. No one said anything when she became the pivot point in the middle of our combos. It came to be expected for her to nab valuable solos. And as I moved to the side, my name was called less and less. I’d frantically try to catch my teachers’ eyes and they’d look over me, through me. As summer turned into fall, I knew the winter pageant was my chance to reclaim my throne. The Nutcracker approached but the pit in my stomach grew.

The Nutcracker was the yearly reminder of the social hierarchies of a dance company. Despite its annual occurrence, placement was paramount. There was a big difference between a Gum Drop and Flower. From the moment I was given my pointe shoes, I had started practicing the combination that would lead me to my dream role. It was time. During the audition, a sense of calm came over me. Glissade, piqué, first arabesque, pull into retiré en face, repeat, repeat, repeat. I was unshakable, holy even. Holding my head high, I walked out of the studio knowing that the panel had been reminded of who I was. I was the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The cast list told a different story. My face got hot. I felt my whole body being dipped into boiling water. Arabian Dancer?  I scoffed. That role was a string of muscular leans and extensions—girls who weren’t precise fawned over the number because it was the first chance in their young lives to be sexy. Exposing my midriff in sequins and a crop top didn’t appeal to me. I wanted the tutu. I wanted the resume. I wanted the crown. My eyes drifted up, scanning the lines to see who could have possibly toppled me. Surprise, surprise: it was Jenny Cooper.

I languished through rehearsals, slouching against the wall as she twirled. She took her time with the choreographer—laughing and saying how much fun she was having, how grateful she was for the opportunity. Sickening behavior. All the while, her long ponytail swung free. No one minded when Jenny didn’t slick her hair back. “Your hair is your crowning glory,” she said when I asked her about it. That ponytail mocked me. It showed up in my dreams, eating away at me—braggadocious and wavy, swaying and shape shifting like a funhouse mirror. I woke up sweating night after night.

I started packing my mom’s sharpest pair of scissors in my duffel bag. “Good for cutting fabric with real precision,” she said. Wrapped in an extra pair of tights, they waited patiently. As we came closer to the premiere date of The Nutcracker, the ensemble moved to the Convention Center. Our moms dropped us at the studio as usual, then we boarded a yellow bus that took us downtown. I sat alone in the back with my headphones on and duffel next to me, ensuring that I would not have a seat mate. Jenny sat in front of me, staring at her own reflection in the window until her eyes drifted shut. The week before we opened, there was a development.

She started draping her ponytail over the back of the seat. “It’s therapeutic,” she said. This girl was asking for it. I was eager, but I had to let it settle. The newness of this posturing meant she would be hyper aware. I studied her, how long she napped and how deeply she slept for three days. On the fourth, I unpacked my scissors.

Her hair frizzed with static electricity against the brown bus seat and was bound with an elastic that matched her blonde hair, as best a hair-tie could. The strands reached out from the static. I turned the scissors over in my hands. I opened and closed the blades, letting them stretch before biting in.

The blades hissed softly as each golden thread separated from itself, puckering in its new unbridled freedom. I kept checking her eyes to make sure she didn’t wake. As I sawed through, the bundle dangled further and further over the back of the seat until the final snip released it into my hand. I exhaled. The world slowed. A wave of cool drenched me—a release that I had not felt in my whole life. My limbs tingled, my head floated on top of my neck. I was buzzing.

The bus hit a pothole and lurched. I came to and saw my white knuckles clamped over a ball of hair. The strands were already knotting, sticking to the sweat in my palm. They disgusted me. What was left of Jenny’s head appeared jagged and dull. It was an embarrassing look. We pulled up to the curb outside the convention center, the bus sighing to a rest. Jenny sat upright and shot the hood up on her team jacket, unknowingly covering my crime. As we approached the building, I peeled the hair from my hand and tossed it into the trash. Goodbye, Jenny.

Of course, when we got inside she threw a fit and her mom picked her up. Her mom cried too. Jenny appeared two days later in a pixie cut, which everyone agreed was a genius choice for the Sugar Plum Fairy. They were just being nice. She didn’t have the face for it.

I was swiftly banned from the Atlanta Competitive Dance Circuit. My mom told me I was lucky no one pressed charges. I felt lucky I never had to put on the sequined crop top. Havenwood Academy for Girls, a secondary school for teens with behavioral problems opened up space for me and quickly began the daunting task of ironing out my emotional wrinkles. Unfortunately, they didn’t have summer programs, and word of my unwanted haircut got around town.


We didn’t swim our first day, or for many days after that. Our education came via land drills, where we could hear and see one another trying to grasp the elegance of the water on concrete. Days passed without relief from the constant scrutinizing, the haircut jokes, the side eyes. I never got too close. I kept my head down and hands to myself, focused on the new shapes of the sport—obtuse swirls meant to keep us afloat, comical in the dry air. On day five, the group hit a groove. We started to do things at the same pace and a collective breath was taken. There’s something so satisfying about unison movement. A combination would begin and I would feel a sense of peace swell in my chest, cradling the chaotic rattling of my normally anxious heart. Achieving a basic level of cohesion prompted Coach Bev to let us get in the pool.

The cool of the water filled me with a rush so intense it broke my heart. I wanted to float to the middle and be forgotten in an endless cycle of wet caress from the soak and warm gaze from the sun. My daydream was shaken by a scuttle. Bev had called out for partners and suddenly, a girl was by my side, surely blushing from the prospect of being in the hands of a wild card such as myself. Her name was Sam. She said, “Hi,” and I said it back. And that changed everything.

Sam was my height, with a narrow face and sun-streaked hair. She had an effortless air about her—a girl who didn’t get uncomfortable or upset. She was cool. And she became my partner for everything. When she grabbed my shoulders and playfully jostled me, my heart moved faster and slower at the same time. My guts turned to warm tea. We nuzzled into one another while we waited for instruction or for our moms to pick us up at the end of the day. Her head fell into the space between my chin and shoulder, my nose into hair. The coppered smell of sweat and apple shampoo twisted my face into a small smile. I couldn’t remember the last time I did that without forcing it through my brain first. We slowly became a unit. Her younger sister Bea, a bubbly fairy of a child, was also in camp with us and would play sidekick. Together, they swallowed me into their circle. They never questioned my motives or talked about hair or what my life was before meeting them. This, I thought, is what home must feel like.

In our second week, the impending recital brought stress to our bodies and minds. We would learn something on land and quickly jump in the water—our brains scrambling to translate the shapes and gravity into the weightless curves of wet, our skin shocked by the vast differences in temperature. Bev called on me often to demonstrate—the only part of my old life that existed anymore was a hint of ballet in my posture. The kids rolled their eyes but they didn’t call out. My new friends had validated my presence. I felt protected by our inside jokes and the feelings of our shoulders touching during lunch. Just as swiftly as we fell into sink, I could feel us start to shift out of it.

The problem with threes is that someone is always left out. The base of the triangle is equal, steady. The point sticks out awkwardly and alone. While it had been Sam and I throughout camp, Bea had been assigned as my double in the recital routine. We’d break off into groups, Sam being forced away. I’d look at her apologetically before turning to shiny, little Bea and breaking into instant laughter as we tried to figure out the land dweller version of flamingo position. Sam would shoot over a glance and I’d try to volley one back. I’ll tell you later!  But I guess sometimes I’d forget.

“It’s kind of weird that you like my sister,” she offered after practice.


“She’s younger.”

“Only by a grade.”

“Who’s your favorite?”

“I guess you are,” I said.

“You guess? You’ll have to choose. You can’t have two favorites.” She nudged me with her bag on the way out the gate. She didn’t look back once.

The next day was worse. Whatever Sam had thought of me the day before had doubled down. Her looks were daggers that I couldn’t dodge. Bea didn’t seem to notice. I was suffocating under her venomous scrutiny across the parking lot, across the pool. By lunch, I had it.

“Can we just settle this? Whatever it is?” I was exasperated. I needed my friend back.

“Oh, we’ll settle it. Tonight. At the pool.” She drew a line in the sand and beckoned me to step up to it. Surely it was too late to back down.


The air was so dry that if a match was lit it would incinerate the world. Even though the sun had set hours ago, the heat didn’t let up much. The sour florescence of the nighttime pool seemed like a mirage, an untouchable oasis. I kicked off my shoes and hung my toes over the edge, gripping tightly, and hovered forward. How far could I go before I lost it?

A rustle in the bushes jolted me straight. Sam came after all. I was half-hoping her demands to meet would be all talk. The other half of me was on fire. For months I’d had to do the work with therapists, teachers, and parents—ironing the bitterness out of my system—teaching myself how to be nice and kind and open. One thing no one tells you is that the bitterness doesn’t go away. It gets quiet and slinks around the dark edges of your mind, waiting for its turn to shine again. You can’t iron it out, it’s always inside you. I slid my sandals back on and held my ground.

Her face appeared, pale and wide-eyed. Maybe she didn’t want to be here either. I swallowed hard and tried to mask my own fear. She approached with a small hi—slanted and snide, feeling out how this was going to go.

“Hi,” I sneered. It came out meaner than I meant it, but I couldn’t hear my own thoughts over the pounding of blood in my ears. “I’m surprised you showed up.”

She stiffened. “Of course I showed up. I’m not a little bitch.”


The generator of the pool house hummed, crickets vibrated—filling the space between us. I hadn’t heard her swear before. The word fell out of her mouth like a diamond, sharp and bright, waiting to be picked up and examined. Was she insinuating that I  was the little bitch?

Sam shook her head, quelling whatever nonsense was running through her own mind. “You know, you can’t just walk in here like you’re better than all of us. You think you deserve everything, Little Miss Private-School-Ballerina. You may have Coach Bev wrapped around your finger, but I can see right through you.”

“What are you, mad because your own siblings like me more than you?”

“I’m mad  because you’re a fucking cunt that’s trying to turn my sister into a little dyke.”

Her words pierced me like nails. I didn’t know what they all meant, but I knew they didn’t sit right with me. I wondered if she knew what they meant either. They moved as a spade, a shovel, sharp and angular digging into me trying to uncover something I couldn’t see myself. With each retort, we inched closer together and yet our voices climbed higher. My face was hot and my eyes bore into her.

The moon hung over us, a spotlight, holding its breath for my next move. This was the moment I should have said, “I’m sorry. I love you. I don’t know how to handle love. Or fear. Or intimidation. Or competition. I love your sister like my own because I have never felt sisterhood. She brings me closer to you. When you both smile at me it is a warmth and kindness I have never felt before. And I fear I never will again.”

At that confession, Sam would soften and smile. She would say, “It’s ok. Come here.” And we would hug and it would  be ok. She would say, “I take back those words. I didn’t mean them. I said them only to lash out. I don’t want to hurt you. I’m sorry.” And our friendship would remain frozen in time. I play this over and over in my mind, wishing to rewrite history, hoping that this time, these words of kindness will be the version that stick.

But that didn’t happen. Instead she kept going, her voice reaching new heights, taking my power. My head was swimming but I needed her to stop. Please STOP.  I felt my arms rush forward to grab her shoulders and shake silence into her. She jerked back and flew sideways with force, eyes widening as we realized she was going into the water. It swallowed her whole and in an instant her head kissed the tile below.

Never before had I seen blood so bright and so red.

I ran. It was all I could do. The world had warped into something I didn’t know how to handle. Too bright to look in the face. I made it home without a sound and slipped into my room, unnoticed, for the sleepless night ahead.

The next morning was our recital. Our group was visibly smaller—no Sam or Bea. Unmentioned, it was as if they never existed. No concerns were raised about the performance of our shrunken group. Coach Bev simply said, “Have fun!” I was too afraid to press further. I put on my sequined suit and cap, and stepped out of the locker room and into the light.

The sun beat down, bouncing off the cement and into my eyes. The coconut-y stench of sunscreen was inescapable. I tried to quiet my senses which all seemed to be on overdrive this morning. In my stress management classes at Havenwood, they always emphasized the importance of breath as the way to steer your internal ship. You have the capacity to control the wind steering the sails!  I always hated their gentle analogies, the poetic ways to capture wellness. But now, I could feel my fingernails digging into my thighs. Making sure no one was watching, I tried square breathing. In-two-three-four, hold-two-three-four, out-two-three-four. Nothing. The bell tolled, signaling the next group. We were up.

Like cheery circus seals, we lifted our heads in unison and bounded onto the platform. One two three four, right left right left. At our mark we posed, waiting for the music to begin. I scanned the crowd as quickly as I could. No Sam. Why was no one talking about her? How did she get out without a trace? Did I—?

The thudding bass interrupted my thoughts and my body reacted accordingly. Our little electric limbs began winding up. One thing I could never shake from dance class were the faces. The little ooh and ahh shapes I mouthed to the music. It heightened the joy. After all, that’s all these people wanted.

We dove in. The icy water wiped my mind for a moment—in these seconds I experienced serene nothingness. I let the water carry me to my mark, as a beautiful mermaid would, sparkling for the land dwellers above. When I opened my eyes, my stomach began to churn. I remembered where I was. Each kick of the water sent reverberations down my limbs, threatening the contents of my stomach. The water was so blue, it didn’t make sense. But last night there was blood, I saw the blood. Pulling myself deeper, I scanned the floor for a scuff or a stain where her head kissed the tiles. No trace. Still counting, unable to stay and search as long as I’d like, I launched myself upward, smiling.

The audience sighed in delight. We grabbed each other’s hips, treading backwards—a little train of spangled children, determined to finish the routine and make their parents proud. And then, at the end, there was me.

I feared I had crossed a line that couldn’t be uncrossed. That fear bubbled from my pelvis up to my throat, threatening to expose itself to the crowd. I swallowed hard, but it was relentless. When I blinked, all I could see were Sam’s limbs sinking further and further into the blue, entering a new dimension, her face frozen in terror. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. Tears moved from my eyes to the water, tainting it with salt.

Bend and flex and up and down. Hit, hit, hit, hit. Five, six, seven, eight, and POSE.

Applause rained down from the stands. I heaved from the sudden stop. The water around me felt warm. Looking down, I realized I had puked down the front of my costume and the acidic bile was bleeding into the pool.

There were gasps and I felt myself yanked from the water by my armpits. A voice over the loudspeaker droned, “Ladies and Gentlemen, please exit the pool. We need to shock it due to vomit.” A towel snapped around my shoulders and I could smell my mother’s perfume.

“Jesus, Gretchen. You never fail to make a statement, do you?” she said. She collected a participation medal from Bev and placed my flip flops in front of me—my feet instinctively knowing to climb inside. A jolt from her hand placed the rest of me in motion. Just like that, it was over.

My mom and I walked toward the break in the fence one last time. The wind was picking up, a dark thunderstorm rolling in to break the heat, stirring the domesticated water into little waves. Closing my eyes, I breathed deep and tried to imprint the rank smell of the sanitizing chemicals on my brain. The stench of some kind of home curled up inside my nostrils. When I opened my eyes, the water lurched toward me, reaching for my ankle, begging me not to go. Sam? Is that you? As we inched out of the deck, my eyes clawed the face of every person I passed. I need to know where she is. Sam? Have you seen my friend? I blinked and it flashed once more: her face sinking below the surface, the bloom of blood. Now, the water was just blue. No veins. Dead. The depths held the answers of what really happened last night, but the pool wasn’t talking back and I had to go. I felt heavier with each wet thud of my sandals. In the end, she was the mermaid and I was the shark.


Dylan Brown is a writer and actor based in Brooklyn, NY. She received her BFA in Drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and her MFA in Creative Writing from Drexel University. Her short fiction has been published by Free Spirit and by Short Édition. For more information, visit