Fall 2021, Volume 31

Fiction by Austin Adams

Any Pool Forever Deep

The places we have lived are a language lost with disuse. Visiting her hometown after fifteen years abroad, Millie, who no longer called herself Millicent, knew the vanilla-honey musk of poplar buds sweeping in through her cracked car window like she knew the lines around her mother’s mouth, yet she could not remember how to navigate to Aileen’s aunt’s, a place she had been to before, a house just down the road from the places that loomed enormous in her heart, schools, a church, the bed she had cocooned into every night of her girlhood. Forever imprinted on her was the sense of what it meant to be from this place, to be from anyplace from which you are exiled by adulthood. Lost, though, was all useful knowledge: she was native, still, but no longer local. For instance, Millie did not know, really, about the trees, that she had been raised within a slough of blooming poplars: the air now was simply the same as it had been when she was young, which meant that nothing had changed, of course, except herself.

Aileen’s aunt and uncle occupied one room of a yellow-stoned mansion. For Aileen’s twelfth birthday, Millie had visited the home, had found it impossibly fascinating, bright and expensive. Rooms and rooms of toile-upholstery, petal-green and plush tawny carpets, had resonated, unused, the crisp tone of polished marble flooring. However, an adult’s appreciation of the market had conferred onto the Millie the understanding that even a house this size, this lovely, was within the reach of any modestly well-off couple willing to settle permanently in this town. It was a good town but tired from decades of failure. Still, Millie realized, pulling up the circle drive, poplars in florid profusion all around, the house really was still bright, big and fascinating.

She and Aileen were best friends. Aileen had had a baby. Millie had taken two flights and driven an hour to meet the baby. It was neither good nor bad to be home. The word home, the notion of it, rested awkward on her tongue, like stumbling into conversation in a language you have no business using.

Though she had given birth only three weeks before, and though she lived just outside the city, Aileen was at her aunt’s today. Millie hadn’t asked why. Aileen’s husband, Rob, was traveling for work. They were a good couple, would make a happy family. The facts about their happiness were not in dispute.

Distance relieves the responsibilities of friendship. Millie considered Aileen a friend, a best friend, though they hadn’t seen each other in two years, spoke only by text, had seen each other exactly four times since the wedding six and a half years ago. That’s how it is. That’s what happens when you’re thirty-one. The unmarried and childless quarter into their desert of post-baccalaureate concerns, travel some, make a career or else wallow in a job of no particular interest, all looking, eventually, for some person or idea to fully occupy their lives. Somehow it never occurs to reach out to old friends.


Aileen herself lugged open the door, blue-swaddled baby secure in the crook of her stronger arm.


So she would be again.

“In!” she laughed. “Come in!”

Obscene heat bloomed about the doorway, trailed Millicent into the coolness of the entry hall. Aileen looked well and not at all fat.

“How are you!” Aileen cried.

Millie, who for so long had habitually ruminated over the state of her own happiness, no longer asked herself how she was and why. What had she ever intended to accomplish, fretting more over how she was than what she was doing? Five days earlier, Millie had accepted an offer from Sterns and would be moving to London on Monday. She had gone to graduate school for this, had studied to try for a job much like this. How was she? She was that. And she was here. She had come home, finally accomplished. 

“I’m wonderful. Wow. Look at you. Look at her.”

“Just look! I know!”

It was simple. Aileen had a way about her that while highly affected was endlessly pleasant. She was kind but not perfectly kind, yet she so strove for perfection that her failure was obvious. It was a saintly quality, and irritating. Millie was to Aileen steady, sad, unmarried, and now childless. Long friendships are fraught with unnamed grievances. Personalities in contact for decades are bound to abrade. Yet the closeness and the persistence of closeness is what mattered most. Millie loved her friend. And that love is what she felt, principally, as she hugged her friend, as her breast grazed the face of her friend’s bundled daughter.

“It’s so good of you to come all this way! And right before you’re moving!”

It wasn’t, really. Millie had wanted to come. There’s no good in doing what you wanted to do. Isn’t that how kindness should work, both of you doing good by the other only because that’s exactly what you wanted to do? Aileen looked, really, very well. And had said nothing about the offer from Sterns.

“It’s an inferno out there!” Aileen led them through the overstuffed dining room, past the polished glass cabinet faces of the butler’s pantry, down the china hallway (a loud but pretty pattern), to the den. Aileen’s daughter’s name was Ruby. Ruby was asleep in her mother’s arms. The click of Millie’s heels room to room resounded more loudly than the cheerful cries of her friend, and how strange that was, as if Millie didn’t know how to properly use the home, was making a foolish spectacle of herself within it.

The house was full of furniture the way a life can be full of experiences. So much furniture happened in every room. Mostly the colors were canary, gold, cream-striped and banker’s green, the contours soft. Can a stool be truly vulnerable? Millie was afraid to touch or bump into anything, lest she shatter or spoil the uncorrupted condition of these appointed set pieces. Gently, she swerved around a lamp-leaden credenza, tucked her arms against her sides to sail through the molded arch of a doorway. Every room was a place to remember from childhood, not a place to sit as an adult.
They sat in the den. High, curve-backed chairs, pillowy sherbet couch, separated by a low glass coffee table, Aileen chose for Millicent—“You sit just there, that’s fine.” They spoke about Millicent’s flights, Aileen’s hospital stay, about sleep. Neither of them got enough. Aileen moved a vase of sticks and flowers to the edge of the table so that they could see one another without craning. Ruby woke and made no sound. Her eyes opened to no more light than they could bear, which was, it seemed, little. Children are swimmy-eyed, Millicent once read. In their early years, they see nothing clearly.

“It’s just—" Millicent began, wanting to say something that might summarize friendship, anticipate the work of motherhood, communicate her true, good wishes, “You’re a mother!”

“Aren’t I?”

Disappointed in her own banality but, also, genuinely interested in the well-being of her childhood best friend, she asked, “How do you feel?”

“Oh, very tired. But happy. Everyone’s well. Very well. Which isn’t a given. But—” she paused indecipherably, “it’s just something we’ve got.”

What have you got, Millicent wondered.

From rooms away came the unmistakable sound of adults being herded inside. Joking dadishly and waving motherly, a group of middle-aged couples turned the corner from the kitchen, shook hands and hugged, some, were introduced—relatives from Aileen’s uncle’s side—and made their way to the veranda to mill about the pool.

“They’re having a reunion of sorts,” Aileen explained once everyone was outside. “I don’t know them well.”

“Is that why you’re here?”


Ruby wiggled, cooed. Her sounds were delightfully inhuman sounds.

“Would you like to hold her?”

Nervousness shot through her limbs insensibly. She had come all this way. Of course she would hold the baby. Of course she wanted to.

Holding her, Millicent thought how it must look to Aileen to see her childhood best friend holding her baby, how faraway from, yet essentially connected to, their girlhood that moment must seem. Aileen was rubbing her eyes, yawning.

Ruby was less fragile, more obviously wonderful than Millicent might have thought.

“Well, ain’t that a sight!”

Aileen’s mother, Ms. Esteros, ambled in from the kitchen, all jangling brass bracelets, white hair, white teeth. Millie broke into a wide and stupid smile. Everyone liked Ms. Esteros.

“I have,” Millie began to speak before thinking, “your baby.”

“My baby is right over there,” Ms. Esteros said, laughing heartily, pointing to Aileen. “Millicent, Millicent, ol’ Millicent, how are you?”

“It’s Millie now, actually.”

“Oh my, how things keep on changing!” she laughed. Aileen said nothing, made no move. “You girls getting older. Being old!” She laughed and laughed. “Not too bad is she?” Ms. Esteros asked, thumbing a finger at Ruby.

“She’s precious.”

“Gems are precious,” she wagged a ringed finger at Millie, flashing tourmaline, sapphire, “What you got there is perfection. My one and only. Don’t drop her, now!”

Millie held on tightly, searched for something in the weight of the child to inform, finally, this moment. We were girls together. We are girls who are women. She’s a mother. You’re a child. Her child. The girl of a girl who’s a woman.

“So, you’re in, where, now?” Ms. Esteros asked.

“I...I’ve lived in Cambridge. This last decade.”

“Now, is that the New England Cambridge or ye ol’ country?”

“Ye old.”

“She’s moving to London next week,” Aileen said, leaning forward. “She came all this way even though she’s moving in a week.”

“Well aren’t you an English peach! Do they have peaches in England?”

“Meat peaches.”

Everyone laughed, though, certainly, no one knew what was meant by this quip. Millie was only talking. She hadn’t expected to feel anything particular, anything at all, holding Ruby. But there she was feeling very much and very particular.

A young girl’s voice carried through the kitchen, “Hey, what’s going on in there!”

“We got one of your countrywomen in here!” Ms. Esteros shouted back.

A stunningly lanky, extraordinarily tan young girl trailed by a pale puff of a child tromped into the den. They looked, each in her way, bizarrely out of place in the room, in that home.

“I said, Hey! What’s all going on in here right now!” the lanky one shouted.

“This is my friend Millie,” Aileen explained. “She came all the way from England to meet Ruby.”

“England! We’re from England!”

The girl’s American accent would seem to have betrayed her. But Ms. Esteros had said. Ms. Esteros who was—yes, Millie confirmed—gone now. Where had she gone so suddenly?

“You certainly are,” Aileen agreed. “Millie, these are my cousins Judith and Riley.”

“Second cousins!” Riley corrected.

“Yes, but I love you like firsts!”

Judith, the lacey creampuff of a girl, said nothing, scooted her baby-fat feet across the carpet, met and clung to Aileen’s skirted knees.

“How old are you!” Riley asked Millie, literally leaping into the air, irrepressibly ecstatic over the genius of her own question.

“I’m...” Millie had to think, “thirty-one.”

“Wow, you’re tall!”

Unaware, Millie had risen from her seat when answering the girl. But then where was...? Peering over Aileen’s knees, Judith stole sweet, shy glances at Ruby, asleep again on her mother’s lap. The mother had anticipated, had taken the daughter so swiftly.

“Oh, no, I’m,” Millie said, “not that tall.”

“Do you draw?”

"No, not very well, no. Why?” she turned back to face the girl. “Do you draw?”

“Yeah, I can draw a star. Here, I’ll show you.”

Riley led Millie around the back of the couch where a scribble-rich notebook lay open on a table.

“I just did it earlier.”

“Tell Millie how old you are,” Aileen suggested, cradling Ruby between her legs, petting Judith’s head.

“I’m seven point two months and Judy’s three!” Riley stared directly into Millie’s eyes when she spoke, bore down into them as if offering her own eyes as playthings to be shared. Not being good with colors, Millie couldn’t say whether the girl’s eyes were chestnut or maple or anything, but they were gleaming, brown, and big.

“Look! So, a star has seven points! No wait,” she tore her gaze from Millie’s eyes back to the notebook, “five! I said seven because I said I was seven! A start has five points! I’ll show you, look!”

Unsteadily, she scratched out a lopsided, five-pointed star.


“I do. It’s very good.”

“You try!”

Millie was under the impression that girls Riley’s age were selfish with their things. It touching how eagerly the girl shared her pen and paper, literally urging them onto Millie as if to sketch a star were a once in a lifetime opportunity not to be missed.

“Seven’s a very good age,” Millie speculated, trying to recall any distinct memory from that year. “You and your sister live in England?”

“Yes, we live in London, England.”

Millie looked to Aileen for confirmation. Aileen was tending to Judith, who was now holding Ruby, both of them sat on Aileen’s lap.

“You know, I’m going to be moving to London soon.”

“London’s great!” Riley said, inscribing scribbles around Millie’s fresh, strong star.

“Are you visiting for the reunion?”

“What’s the reunion? Look!” Riley scratched out a blue triangle. “It’s not a perfect shape, but it’s still my favorite. Hey, Judy! What are you doing?”

Stumbling once as she ran, Riley hurried over to the chair Judy, Aileen and Ruby were curled up into. Climbing onto the padded arm, leaning over her sister, looking at Ruby with as much love, Millie figured, as any seven point two year old could ever muster for a newborn, she took up the very same actions as Aileen, petting her sister’s hair with one hand, caressing the baby’s cheek with the other. Millie realized only in that instant that she had been certain the older sister must have hated the younger one.

Riley’s face mashed against Aileen’s, Judy purring over Ruby, hands petting heads half the size of the palms that did the petting, the four of them were a picture of awkward and remarkable serenity.

You’re a family, Millie made to say before stopping herself. I’m here watching you. No, she would not say.

A woman of perhaps sixty entered the room.

“Where are you two going?” Aileen asked automatically.

“Pots,” Judy pipped.

“Yesterday,” the older woman said, “we went to the pottery store. We painted pottery. It’s ready today. It’s been cooked.”

“We’re going to get our pottery!” Riley agreed.

“That sounds wonderful!” Aileen encouraged.

“Come, girls.”

In a flutter, Riley bounced and leapt her way towards the woman, pausing to throw her arms and neck around Millie’s waist as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Her sister bunny hopped behind.

After watching them go, Millie retook her seat on the couch.

“Is that, was she, the grandmother?”

“Nanny. The nurse.”

“Ah,” Millie said. “Well, anyway, if that’s what daughters are like, I think I might just be able to handle one. What sweet girls.”

“Yes,” Aileen said in a tone, depressing with a thumb the fat left cheek of her silent daughter.

“So they’re really from England?”

“They are.”

“What are they doing here?”

Aileen looked up from her daughter. She looked at Millie.

“Four weeks ago, their parents learned that Riley has X-linked myotubular myopathy, a disease, a sort of, a genetic, muscular-degenerative disease. They came here for additional testing.”

Millie didn’t know what that meant, whether serious, or what to say.

“By twelve,” Aileen said, turning her head again towards her daughter’s, “she’ll be partially paralyzed. Fully wheelchair-bound by fifteen. She’ll go blind. Deaf. She’ll die.”

Millie made a sound like a throat punctured.

“There’s no treatment. There’s nothing. Except testing. They came here for more tests.”

Millie coughed soft, spoke.

“What—did they learn?”

“They learned that it kills baby boys. The boys only live a few years.”

Aileen slid her hand under Ruby’s back, rotated her a quarter turn, attending to some complaint the child could not voice and that Millie could not see.

“Both parents have to be carriers. Otherwise, the girls live.”

Your child has been ripped apart by wild animals. Your baby has been stolen, sold, and raped to death. It was as cruel, crueler. A death breeding inside your child worse than the worst torture life can inflict with the limitless breadth of its cruelty. You have given your child its death. You have lavished death on her. She inherits your rot.

There was no more profound annihilation.

“They also learned that Judy has it too.”


Later, Aileen suggested they go for coffee. Ruby could come along, would sleep the whole afternoon away. Back for the first time in more than fifteen years at the coffee shop where she had irritably passed her adolescence, Millie asked about Ruby, asked about Rob, about work to which Aileen would return in six weeks. Aileen was an education administrator, working for, but not with, children.

There was then another short exchange about the circumstances, the nightmare of it, the absolute nightmare of it, that mirrored in detail what had been said at the house an hour earlier. The girls did not know. The parents could not tell them. Strategy sessions limping late into the night about how, when, about life and its cruelty.

Millie asks how they first learned of it, why they ever suspected?

“Riley suddenly stopped drawing straight lines.”

Like a sack of rice slumped over her shoulder, Ruby slept, sweet breath blowing weakly into the crook of Millie’s neck. To squeeze, some, but not too tightly, felt right.

Talk of work, of pumping. Millie talked but no longer listened to her friend or herself.

She was thinking. One-hundred-billion variables determine a single outcome in the market. It’s a truism but regrettably accurate. Millie, it may bear to say, was an economist. Sperm and ovum. Sex once. And then. This thing, a crucible of you and the man you most love, a tragically random amalgamation of you, your ancestors, the full stretch of your blood, who is prey and needy, adorable, we say, awful. So weak. It must be protected. It is supposed to be.

Millie had found what she had all along intended to say, the perfect and final summary of friendship and motherhood, but instead of proclaiming or pleading its case, she asked a question about maternity leave pay, shifted Ruby’s weight, and burnt her tongue on weak, hot tea.

Please, she would have said, screamed, a pathetic, powerless threnody, don’t let her die.


One arm of the star reached much farther than the others, striving ridiculous into blank space, shapes and artless scribbles.

Back at the house, more relatives had arrived. Aileen knew none of them, and they were all out back on the veranda, milling about a gigantic grill, no alcohol in hand or sight.

“Where’d you girls get off to?” Ms. Esteros asked, dragonfly sunglasses shrouding her eyes. It was, impossibly, hotter than it had been that morning. Heat like this was visited upon the world only as vengeance. Ms. Esteros walked right by, not waiting for an answer.

In the yard, just beyond the family, the undisturbed surface of a pool glittered obscenely. Cut into concrete, a perfect, small rectangle, it was starkly modern, at odds with the shambolic classicism of the rest of the house. It was threatening, somehow, recalled something dangerous, was entirely alien and wrong.

“I know about you.”

Ms. Esteros appeared again, leading a woman maybe a few years older than Millie. The woman’s hand was extended and she was speaking.

“You’re Millicent, aren’t you? Aileen’s old friend?”

“I am. Hi, yes.”

“I’m Courtney, hi, Aileen’s cousin.”

“Oh, hello. Nice to meet you.”

“You too, you too. I understand you’re going to be moving to London next week. Well! Maybe we’ll run into you!”


“You’re a stockbroker, is that right? Or no, I don’t think that’s right. I’m sorry, I can’t remember. I know Aileen told me, but I just can’t remember. What is it you’re going to be doing in London?”

It would be horror, selfishness incarnate, to hug her.

“We just love London. It’s been so great for the family.”

When Millie was seventeen, her parents moved from their hometown to San Diego. Millie did not go with them. Instead, she stayed behind, lived with her elderly neighbors, who had no children of their own and so spent their time tending to the children of others. Stripped of her parents, stripped, prematurely, of adolescence, she had learned earlier than her friends how to care for herself—how to cook and clean and how to think of herself as an autonomous person rather than as her parent’s child. It was a useful year. Yet the resignation of staying behind had instilled in her the thrill of disappearing to a far-off place, of belonging more completely to no one, nothing. Cambridge, when it presented itself, was farther than forever, stranger than the moon. It was a fairy tale, live, on earth. This, she learned, was the most embarrassing opinion an American could hold of Cambridge, and so she suppressed her awe, came in time to glide entitled under carved archways more ancient than her country. Undergraduate, Graduate, PhD, postgrad. Yet there, every day, always, in her courses, in the library, sitting for her triposes, in the pub, in bed, alone or with a man, she had secretly been a princess, born in far far faraway land. No king nor queen need justify her entitlement to the throne. No one else need know. No one knew—what she was.

She loved them, parents, friends, but, God, how it feels to run.

“Where are your girls?”

“Oh, that’s right. You met them earlier, didn’t you? They’re, hmm, I think—yep, right over there.”

Back turned, feet dangling over the edge of the pool, a man, her father, presumably, was talking to Judy, was resting his hand over the whole of her back. Obscured by fiery scintillation, nearly too bright to make out, Riley had waded far into the pool, was loping happy from one end to the deep. Water rose to the heights of her smile.

“You should come by the house sometime,” Courtney said, wiping her brow with a perspiring can of soda. “I’m sure the girls would love to see you again.”

It smelled so strongly of this place. Of a time. As if nothing had changed or ever could.

“I’ll visit,” Millie said. “I’ll come, and I’ll be with you.”





BIO: Austin Adams is a writer from Tennessee. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Prelude, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Offing, Hamilton Stone Review, Adelaide, The Millions, Poor Yorick and more. He was a finalist for The Sewanee Review's Fiction Contest.