“Oh, come on,” Alyssa’s mother scolded her. “I haven’t seen my friends in years. You can spend a little time with their kids while we catch up.”
Gritting her teeth, Alyssa sunk into the backseat of the car, crossing her arms. “I don’t know these kids. And there’s so many of them. Why do you have, like, twenty friends?”
Her mother shook her head. “You’ll appreciate having people around when you’re older.”
Doubt it, Alyssa silently retorted.
She gazed out the windows as palm trees passed by, the structures obviously planted with evenness and rigidity in mind. As they traveled down the road, the houses grew bigger, more opulent. Eventually, they turned into the driveway of one such home, idling to a stop.
“Wow, can you believe this house?” Alyssa’s mom exclaimed.
Alyssa rolled her eyes. “It’s a bit much, isn’t it?”
The massive, three-story building hosted a sharp-edged, cubic design with glass walls encasing most of the top floor. Through the windows, Alyssa could see a dozen children around her age running around in swimwear. She cringed.
“I’m not going to have to go swimming with them, am I?” she asked.
Her mother laughed. “Well, it is a pool party. What’s the point of avoiding the pool?”
Alyssa huffed, grabbed her bag, and exited the car, waiting for her mother to do the same. Together, they walked up the driveway, pressing the doorbell button. Beethoven’s “Für Elise” echoed throughout the interior, audible even from the outside. Alyssa and her mother traded a long glance as the song played.
After about thirty seconds of listening to classical music, a tall, thin, blonde woman with unnaturally tanned skin opened the door in a pink, two-piece swimsuit. When she saw Alyssa’s mother, she grinned, baring bleach-white teeth.
“Karen!” the woman exclaimed, embracing Alyssa’s mother in a tight hug. They stayed that way for a moment before pulling away.
“Hey, Sheryl,” Alyssa’s mother responded, gesturing to Alyssa. “This is my daughter, Alyssa.”
Sheryl turned to gush at Alyssa, but her voice faded away as the echoing chaos of other children’s laughter and screams reached the girl’s ears. She felt her heart beat faster, her mouth drying out. Wiping sweaty hands on her blouse, Alyssa glanced up at the tanned woman.
“I’m so sorry. What did you ask me?”
Sheryl’s eyes flickered to Alyssa’s mother, then back to her. “I was just wondering how old you were. My daughters are seven and eight, but I have a son who’s fourteen. Would that be closer to your age?”
“Yes,” Alyssa sighed. “I’m twelve.”
Sheryl chuckled, glancing at Alyssa’s mother. “They grow up so fast. Come on in.”
Lowering her head, Alyssa trudged after her mother, entering the house. By this point, most of the other children had vacated the interior, opting to return to the backyard swimming pool. Alyssa’s mother nudged her.
“Go play with them, honey.”
Alyssa felt her face grow red. “I don’t want to.”
Sheryl turned to two newcomers. “Alyssa, sweetheart, we’re going to be having adults-only time. I promise, the other kids are friendly.”
Grumbling, Alyssa stomped away, sliding open the glass door to the backyard. She was immediately bombarded with the sounds of shouting and laughter, and felt her adrenaline spike. The other children ran around the yard, jumping and splashing in the pool. She unfolded a pool chair and laid it out as far from the commotion as she possible could.
It didn’t take long, though, before a lanky, acne-covered boy in swim trunks approached her, grinning awkwardly. “H- hey.”
Alyssa looked at him for a second, then closed her eyes, lying back in the pool chair. “Hey.”
“I saw you were still wearing regular clothes. Did you not want to come swim with us?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t know you.”
“Oh, heh. Sorry.” he extended his hand awkwardly. “I’m Ben.”
She nodded. “Alyssa. I don’t want to swim. Not with all the other people.”
“It’s okay, though,” Ben insisted. “It’s not too deep. And we can clear a space so you feel more comfortable.”
Alissa peered warily at the pool. “I don’t know. I just really don’t like crowds.”
“Come on,” Ben said, extending his hand. “No one really wants to be here, but we’re making the best of it. Come have fun with us.”
Alyssa sighed. “Okay. But just for a few minutes.”
She sat up from the pool chair, walking back into the house to change into her swimwear. After a few minutes, she returned in a navy-blue one-piece.
“Make way,” Ben said, stern but not loud. “Give her some room.”
The children swam away from him as he entered the pool, Alyssa close behind. They waded out until the water was up to their necks, shivering as their bodies adjusted from the hot sun to the lukewarm water.
Alyssa held her nose, took a deep breath, and dunked her head beneath the water, surrounding herself with temporary silence. The noise, the stares, the heat, it all faded away in those few moments of underwater bliss. She smiled to herself, resurfacing only once her lungs began to ache. As she returned to the surface, she opened her eyes, and in the blurry calm, she thought she saw a flickering dim, green light.
Then she was back in the open air.
The pool, however, had grown silent.
Alyssa cleared her eyes, looking around. The children surrounded her in the pool now, staring, knowing smiles plastered across their faces. Ben swam up next to her, and she though she saw surgical scars running behind his ear, up into his hair.
“We need to hurry,” Ben said to the other children, his voice colder than before. “It’s almost time for it to open.”
“For what to open?” Alyssa asked, unease settling in her stomach.
Ben turned to her, apathy glazed across his eyes. “Sorry about this.”
Grabbing Alyssa by the shoulders, he thrust her body underwater.
Panicking, Alyssa tried to kick, to pull away, but she couldn’t escape the boy’s grasp. Despite his lean frame, he was inhumanly strong. Alyssa screamed for help, forcing air bubbles from her mouth, but through the haze, she saw the other children standing still, watching her assault.
She also saw a flickering dim, green light again.
A few seconds later, she felt Ben release her, and she hurried back to the pool’s surface. “Help! Help!”
No response from the house.
She spun to face Ben. “Stay away from me.”
He ignored her, his face twisted with curiosity, as he waded over to one of the rectangular pool filters built into the side of the pool. “That’s not supposed to be there.”
Following his gaze, Alyssa saw a pink, baseball-sized jellyfish floating near the filter, bobbing up and down with the disturbed water. The other children murmured to each other, interest and concern seemingly distracting them from Alyssa.
Suddenly, a second jellyfish emerged, twice as big as the first, this one light green.
Cries of surprise from behind Alyssa drew her attention to a third jellyfish, purple this time, floating out of a different filter. The children began to back away from the sides of the pool, crowding around Alyssa, suffocating her as more jellyfish drifted into the pool from the filters, surrounding them.
“They were waiting for us,” one of the children said to Ben, who grimaced in response. “We’re not going to be able to get her over there right now.”
The jellyfish began to sink to the bottom of the pool, their colors blurring together beneath the water. The moment they touched the concrete, Ben gestured to the other children. “Let’s get out. Slowly.”
One of the children closest to the pool stairs lifted her legs, gently gliding across the surface of the water. The moment she passed above the nearest jellyfish, it pushed itself from the bottom of the pool, rocketing upwards. With a soft plop, it breached the surface of the water with enough force to launch into the air, like a beach ball that had been submerged and then released. The jellyfish struck the girl in the center of her face, its body covering her eyes, nose and mouth while its dangling stingers wrapped around her head like a net.
The girl clawed at her face, her screams muffled by the jellyfish’s underbelly. Through the creature’s translucent body, Alyssa saw the girl’s eyes widen with terror. The attacked girl began to writhe, seemingly in pain, as she continued to try to pull the jellyfish off her face. Muffled cries formed repeating words, and Alyssa strained to make them out.
“It’s stinging me!” Alyssa finally heard. “Oh God, it’s stinging me!”
Another jellyfish shot upwards from the bottom of the pool, this time flying above everyone’s heads. The angle at which it fell landed it squarely on the face at a young boy on the other edge of the pool. The moment it connected, the stingers wrapped around his head, and be began to struggle.
Plop. Plop. Plop.
One by one, the other jellyfish followed suit, jettisoning out of the pool and onto the faces of the children surrounding Alyssa. Small, gelatinous bodies flew left and right, and Alyssa pushed away from the children as they fell, squirming, into the water. Her shoulder brushed against a distended child floating face-down and still in the pool, and she shuddered.
Suddenly, a jellyfish struck the top of her head, and she screamed. It did not, however, latch onto her, opting instead to bounce harmlessly away and sink back into the water. Alyssa looked around, confused, at the other children, who were covered in the creatures.
Why aren’t they attacking me? she wondered.
Whatever the reason, Alyssa was grateful to avoid such a grisly end.
She reached the stairs, and decided to scream again. “Mom! Help!”
Something moved beyond the glass door, but no one came to her rescue.
Someone grabbed her wrist, yanking her back toward the pool. She turned to see Ben, swollen and clearly in tremendous pain, his chest and arms covered in multicolored jellyfish.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Ben snarled. “We have a job to-”
He jerked below the water, pulled by his legs back toward the center of the pool. As he released Alyssa, she saw what had attacked him: A gigantic blue man-o’-war, at least a third of the pool’s size, its ten-foot stingers tangled around Ben’s feet. Alyssa watched Ben struggle for a moment before growing still, his lifeless eyes staring up from the bottom of the pool.
As Ben sank, Alyssa realized that, for the first time since she’d arrived, the backyard was completely quiet. Despite the horror she’d witnessed, she felt relief, the weight of other people off her shoulders. Still, she was frightened, confused, and she needed to get help. She turned to call for her mother again, but realized that the woman was already standing behind the glass door, staring from within the house.
“M- mom?” Alyssa stammered.
Her mother grinned, waving, baring her teeth in the same way that Sheryl had done when she’d answered the door. As Alyssa watched, more adults joined her mother, watching the backyard.
Something was wrong.
The woman at the door wasn’t the one she’d come to the pool party with.
Alyssa glanced back at the pool, where the jellyfish had detached from the floating corpses and were drifting back into the pool filters. The filters began to flicker with a dim, green light, tinting the pool water. The sound of the back door opening attracted Alyssa’s attention to the house again, and she saw the adults entering the backyard, inching toward the pool.
“Shh, shh, it’s okay,” the thing pretending to be her mother whispered to her.
The yard was surrounded by a thick fence. The house was filled with sinister imposters. Alyssa couldn’t even drive her mother’s car, even if she reached it.
No, she had only one option: Follow her new allies.
Without hesitating another second, Alyssa dove back into the pool, hurrying toward the filters. She was a small girl, but it would still be a tight fit. A solitary pink jellyfish waited by the closest filter, as if beckoning her to join it. The flickering green light drew the girl in, and, as if by instinct, she grabbed the creature, carrying it with her as she dove head-first into the tiny, dark, concrete hole.
Whatever waited for her on the other side, she hoped she’d be able to at least get a little bit of goddamn peace and quiet.
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