For some time, I drafted poems and essays in several failed attempts to depict a struggle that I, and many couples, currently face. It wasn’t until I experimented with speculative fiction that I could give voice to this experience in a way that felt authentic. To all those readers in similar puddles, I am rooting for you.
Nora watched from the safety of the surf shop as the tourists fled. Soon they packed in tightly beside her, the smell of sweat and damp towels nearly unbearable. Nora and Lucas had hoped if they waited out the storm, it would clear, yet the sky grew darker with each crack of thunder.
Four more beachgoers darted into the shop, and the group of soggy strangers lurched closer to the window. The air felt thin, and Nora’s chest grew tighter; her mind flashed to a fatal crush at a soccer game.
“Any luck?” Nora turned to her husband who was refreshing his weather app.
“Storming for the next two hours,” he said.
“I think we should make a run for it.”
The boardwalk shops were only five blocks from their Airbnb bungalow, meaning it was a twelve-minute walk and faster if they booked it. So they ran, and ran, and ran, and the rain drenched them like they were nothing but specks of broken seashells. Nora and Lucas kept running, flip-flops drowned in rising puddles. Lucas was a few yards ahead of her, his t-shirt clinging to his back, his muscular calves sloshing through the growing river that was once Main Street, and she thought, How I love this man. She was buzzing like the sky. Nora hadn’t felt this joyful—this exhilarated since before—
Something grabbed her ankle.
Nora’s hands and knees slapped the asphalt.
“Lucas!” she cried.
He turned to her on all fours in a ten-inch puddle, and he doubled back.
“You okay?” He was yelling over the drilling rain.
All Nora could do was nod. She dared a glance behind her, yet there was nothing but water water everywhere. They had to get out of these puddles where Nora had felt five small fingers press into her ankle, felt the crescents of fingernails dig into her skin.
They ran the last block to the bungalow hand in hand.
Back at the house, Lucas grabbed towels as Nora sat in a patio chair inspecting her ankle. Five small bruises were already starting to form.
“Quite the digger you took out there,” Lucas said, tossing her a striped towel.
“I didn’t fall,” Nora said. She knew as soon as she spoke it the day would shift, but the words bubbled up all the same. “Someone grabbed me.”
“What?” Lucas didn’t meet her gaze. “Let me get you some peroxide.”
“Wait, please,” she called him back. “Just look at this.” She showed him the marks on her ankle. “Someone grabbed me.”
Lucas lightly touched her leg, slanted his brow. “At the surf shop?”
“Are you listening? When I fell.”
“You mean you were pushed?”
“No,” Nora’s stomach squeezed. “I mean—I don’t know.”
She had landed in less than a foot of water. If anyone had been lying there, she would have seen them. But she had felt a hand around her ankle, felt it pull her down, felt it only release its grip when Lucas approached.
Nora’s frustration burned wet in the corners of her eyes. “It sounds weird, but I’m sure of it. I didn’t trip—it was a hand.”
“Nora,” Lucas’s cheeks slackened. “How could that happen?”
And then Nora’s eyes went wide. “A sewer grate—I must have stepped on a sewer grate. Someone was down there and grabbed me.”
“Like a clown?” he said with a smirk.
Nora’s heart rose with the pitch of her voice. “Maybe someone fell down the sewer—maybe they were reaching for help.” If someone was down there, they were in danger, probably drowning as all that water washed in from the storm. In the moment, she had panicked thinking it was a monster when she should have tried to help. “It felt like a small hand—it could have been a kid!”
“Okay, okay,” Lucas said. Nora watched his face turn serious. “Let’s go look then,” he said, glancing out the window. “The rain’s clearing.”
They headed back down Main Street, this time, instead of the sky, their eyes were on the ground. Nora and Lucas inspected each sewer grate for signs of life, but every one they passed was just four slotted bars through which they could see to the bottom.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Nora said. “How can a person fit down there?”
“Probably built so a person can’t fit down there, ya know?”
Nora turned to her husband, chest blazing. “So you don’t believe me?”
Lucas looked at her kindly, took her hands in his. “You didn’t see a kid or anything—you felt something. Maybe some seaweed got washed up from the drain, or a jellyfish or—”
“But I’m bruised,” Nora said motioning to her ankle.
“You could have landed on something—”
Nora felt a familiar tension seize her chest. “Or maybe I’m just crazy?” she asked. She pushed his hands away.
Lucas appeared struck. “You know I don’t think that.”
After all her mood swings the last few years, after all the ways her unruly body heeded no one, did she know anything for sure?
“Then help me,” she said, the edge in her voice gone. She looked down the road as the crowds returned. There was no time to waste. They’d have to call the beach police. Then the police would call a team to search the sewers, and Nora was sure as hell Lucas didn’t want to have anything to do with that. Nora wanted to call him out on this, tell him his perfect beach trip wasn’t worth a child’s life; but now, a group of teens were skateboarding across Main Street; now, families were flip-flopping down the sidewalk carrying inflatable tubes and beach chairs. Now, as the sun peeked through the clouds, it was hard to believe a kid could be trapped inches below their feet. Her resolve was receding with the flood water. It was true she hadn’t actually seen a child or even a hand, and now from her new angle, it seemed to Nora that maybe she’d been running in the middle of the road, not in reaching distance of the sewers at all.
“Maybe something did grab your leg,” Lucas said, “but maybe it wasn’t a kid drowning in the sewer. Maybe it isn’t anything that needs our help.”
She looked at her husband, his reassuring face masking his desperation to go back to sand, skee-ball, and strawberry ice cream, but really wanting to go back to last year. When life hadn’t been so cruel to them.
“Okay,” she said. She bit the inside of her cheek. “Let’s forget it.” And they headed back to the bungalow to grill hotdogs.
A week later, Nora and Lucas returned from the beach, falling back into their normal routine of work and home life. But Nora hadn’t forgotten about the incident. Sometimes she’d think back to those fingers clasped around her ankle, then glance at her husband watching TV or cooking dinner and feel so monstrously lonely.
It was another ordeal that Nora shared alone.
That morning, Nora watched the summer rain pelt the window of her home office, but by her lunch break, the skies cleared, and she leashed up their dog for a walk. She and Fozzie headed down the driveway, puddles of water dotting the road. She felt her hair frizz in the spongy air as Fozzie’s collar jingled like silver bells, and the whole neighborhood glistened as if given a power washing. Nora felt a surprising tickle of hopefulness.
It wasn’t long before she stepped in one of the puddles, a puddle much deeper than she’d expected, felt the shock of water seeping through her sneaker, and when she drew it out, something—someone had hold of her ankle.
She screeched and pitched forward. Fozzie darted ahead. Again, her body crashed into the asphalt, but she didn’t let go of the leash as Fozzie tugged her forward—as fingers—tiny strong fingers—gripped her shoe. With a sharp kick, she freed herself and jumped back to her feet.
Trembling, she peered into the puddle. A horrified face stared back, but it was only her own. She grabbed a stick and with a shaking hand, dipped it in the puddle, waited for a gremlin to grab its jagged edge. But nothing happened, and all she felt was the road.
She walked Fozzie home, giving a wide berth to any puddles. As soon as she got in the door, she reached for her phone to call Lucas at work. He’d be sitting in his office with his six co-workers, maybe even his boss. Of course, he’d try to rationalize it—of course he wouldn’t believe a monster was in a puddle. Her lip quivered imagining his reassuring words that she already knew she’d interpret as condescending. Instead, she headed to the medicine cabinet and with shaking hands, typed the names of her prescriptions into her phone with the word “side effects.”
The results flooded the screen.
Hot flashes. Mood swings. Headaches. Upset stomach. Weight gain.
All to be expected.
Drowsiness. Bloating. Pain at the injection site.
Nothing about hallucinations.
She found some posts on Reddit. Women stating that their medication gave them such severe anxiety and depression that they quit their jobs and still couldn’t function properly years later. Nora’s mouth went dry. Instead of stepping into a puddle, Nora was barreling down a dangerous rabbit hole, her eyes unblinking, tab after tab open, bookmarked. She shut off her screen and told herself to calm the fuck down.
But the next day when it was time for Fozzie’s walk and drops battered the windows, Nora looked at her dog’s brown bear eyes, brushed off her niggling guilt, and headed back to her home office. Fozzie whined at the door for an hour but eventually fell asleep on the couch he wasn’t allowed on while Nora pretended not to notice.
When Lucas got home from work, Fozzie greeted him with wild joy.
“Whoa, buddy. You’re all riled up.” And then to Nora. “Did he get his walk today?”
“Work was too busy,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “I’m thinking maybe we hire a dog walker as a backup.”
But Nora couldn’t escape the puddles.
Not after a downpour while grocery shopping speckled tide pools all over the parking lot. Not after a tropical storm off the coast left them with a sopping wet weekend and a river for a driveway. Not after the newly hired dog walker got the stomach bug and called out sick. Each walk, Nora bounded over puddles like she was navigating a gasoline leak, a sewage spill, a tide of lava. Every now and again, she’d feel a pull on her pant cuff, a fingernail on her ankle, but she was ready, she was fast, she pulled away, she kept up her deranged bunny hop.
“What’s your deal?” Lucas finally asked after a few weeks of her bobbing around like a jack-in-the box. She had just leapt over a tiny puddle in their driveway as if hurdling in the 100-meter race.
She could tell him about the thing in the puddles. How they hadn’t left it at the beach. How it kept reaching for her.
And then he could respond with some form of You’re overstressed or It’s all in your head. She wouldn’t blame him this time. It did seem crazy.
Then there was also the possibility he’d be really concerned.
He’d want to put their cycle on hold.
They’d just started trying to make a baby again, not the fun old-fashioned way, but the way with needles. Long ones, short ones, ones shaped like epi-pens, ones shaped like nightmares. So many needles she could imagine their baby born in the shape of one of those tomato pincushions from her grandmother’s sewing box.
And through every ultrasound, every injection, every small success and failure, Lucas was there rubbing her back, icing her belly, cracking jokes to distract her as he stuck her again and again. He was a partner in every way. But in the end, it had been her body that had failed, her fertility that was “unexplained.” He was a partner by choice, but she was the one who felt each pinprick, she was the one getting poked with syringes and prodded with ultrasound wands, she was the one whose body needed to adapt to the medicine, to learn to have a baby, she was the one feeling things that couldn’t be. So, when he asked her again if something was wrong, she responded, “I just don’t want to get my shoes wet.”
She heard Fozzie whining at the front door as she tucked herself into bed, claiming the medicine was making her drowsy.
It was 5 pm and she hadn’t walked Fozzie in days.
Lucas knocked gently on the bedroom door.
“If you’re going to nap,” he said, “we should do the shots now, before we forget.” He was holding a box filled with syringes. This was the routine every night before dinner: set the table, feed Fozzie, stick two needles in her belly.
Over one year ago, after four IVF cycles, after one embryo transfer, after ten more weeks of shots, there was one pregnant Nora. The last good memory she had before everything went to hell was when she felt the dripping between her legs, saw the fluid below her feet, yelled to Lucas that it was time though it was far too early.
The last time there was a puddle beneath her feet, she had sworn a baby would come out of it.
And now here she was, likely experiencing vivid delusions. She could see a psychiatrist who’d probably want to prescribe her some medication that couldn’t mix with her current IVF protocol. The psychiatrist would recommend she pause the cycle, wait until she was feeling better. Wait until the delusions subsided. But after all this time and all these tries, Nora was certain that was no option.
Lucas handed her an alcohol swab to wipe down her belly as he prepared the needles on their dresser. While he filled each with medicine, he sang Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” like he usually did to lighten the mood. Nora couldn’t muster a smile. She clutched the fat of her belly and pressed a piece of ice to it, bracing herself for the pinch of the first needle.
“You’re doing great, babe,” Lucas said as he pierced her tender skin. She took a shallow breath as she felt the burn of the medicine crawl through her insides. He withdrew the needle and the tiniest smudge of red bloomed on her stomach.
“You okay?” he said, handing her a cotton ball. She nodded even though it still hurt.
As her husband prepared the second syringe, her mind sailed. She turned to him, blinking back tears. “Do you think Sam was the only chance we had?”
Sam was the little boy who had been growing inside of Nora. The one who had a lifetime of hopes and dreams attached to him before they’d even met him. He’d play the trumpet like his father, be good at math like his mother, maybe go to law school, volunteer at a non-profit, but then there was just a splash of amniotic fluid at her feet, and now Nora dreamed for him no more.
A genetic abnormality, the doctors had said. Next time, they’d pay thousands on extra tests—if there was a next time.
“No,” Lucas said. “I don’t think Sam was our only chance.” He was now holding the bright red sharps container like an infant. “We’re going to get a baby one way or the other.” Lucas was thinking surrogacy, adoption, any of the alternative options thrown around when IVF complications seemed an insurmountable hurdle.
“Maybe…” her voice trailed off and her eyes turned away from him.
“You know I’m with you no matter what. We’re a team.”
But she barely heard him. All she could think about was that it was going to storm tomorrow.
The next morning, Nora and Fozzie watched the rain pelt the windows from the living room couch. She stroked his chocolate fur and wondered if she’d ever feel safe to walk him again, then wondered if she’d ever care for anyone other than her own dog. Could Fozzie’s licks and nuzzles be enough love for a lifetime? Since last night’s conversation, every time she looked at Lucas, a well of tears drowned her words. She was coming apart. Her old therapist’s number was cued up on her phone, but instead she watched the rain accumulate in little swimming pools along her street.
If she wasn’t going to get psych meds, then the only chance she had of ever leaving her couch would be to confront the fear—see it till its nearest end. What was that called? Exposure therapy? So what if the supposed puddle dweller grabbed her? She couldn’t drown in a puddle, could she? Even if she could drown, couldn’t the opposite happen, as well? Couldn’t there actually be someone in the puddle, and couldn’t she pull them out?
Couldn’t it be a child?
The rain was now a roar, her phone blared the alarm for flash flooding, and Nora decided to go for a walk.
She put on her rain jacket, searched the bowels of the closet for her galoshes.
“What are you doing?” Lucas asked.
“Going for a walk.”
“You don’t have to come,” she said, pulling on her rubbers. “Fozzie’s not.”
“You haven’t wanted to walk in weeks,” he said, his face growing more distraught. He flung a desperate hand to the window as lightning lit up the foyer. “And now you want to go?”
Lucas reached for her arm, but she batted it away. His face looked like a cracked mirror but what did it matter? She flung open the front door and took off.
The rain was a chainsaw. Lucas screamed her name, but Nora ran. The street was already starting to flood. Her eyes searched and searched and then she found it. The widest, deepest one.
She stepped in—
Felt the cool water lap against her galoshes—
She stepped deeper and deeper into the puddle on the street—
The puddle that swaddled her like a knitted blanket until the rain and wind were just an echo. The puddle, the one that could bring her to Sam.
And this time, she’d reach back to him. She’d pull him up. Or he would pull her under. Either would do. Or maybe it wasn’t him at all, but another baby. A new one. The one she was meant to have. The one she could birth into the world from this watery womb. She reached and she reached into the depth, waiting to feel the brush of fingertips.
And then a shadow cast upon her and her eyes turned up to the light.
He hovered above her, calling her name, eyes searching the puddle.
Fear gripped her, instead. Lucas would try to rescue her. He would drag her up, and all would be lost. He couldn’t possibly understand. He couldn’t possibly see.
Our baby, Nora willed him to know, it’s on its way.
And then a splash, a flurry of bubbles.
A hand. But not a baby’s hand.
One large and calloused and familiar. A hand that had rubbed her back, hugged her shoulders, brushed her cheek—this warm hand cradled her own.
Instead of pulling her out, Lucas had jumped in.
She held tighter, squeezed back, felt his silver ring click against her own.
And so they waited there together, floating in the inky black, for ten tiny fingers to greet their own.
Mattea Heller is a high school English teacher and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Western Connecticut State University. Her work appears in several literary magazines, the horror podcast Thirteen, and an upcoming episode of the podcast Creepy. You can find her at matteaheller.com.
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