Drowners

By Lauren Wiser

Image © Zack Bernardin (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nstochasticity/4994240168)

Image © Zack Bernardin (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nstochasticity/4994240168)

The summer I turned seventeen was my second year lifeguarding at the Village Pool in Millstadt, Illinois, and I still hadn’t saved anyone. Kurt Zoller claimed he saved someone, once— a young girl trying to reach the bottom of the twelve-foot—but Kurt was in college and had worked there much longer. I mostly just sat around on the stand, blowing my whistle at kids running for the diving board and feeling the sun burn my nose and the skin of my forearms, my upper arms still pale and tender under the t-shirt I wore over my one-piece.

I wanted to save someone, though. That’s why I took the job. Swim team members got first run of available spots, and Dave, the manager, practically handed me one after I broke the state record for the 100 meter back at regionals. That whole first summer, I was knotted up with anticipation, waiting for little sun-tinted heads to disappear below the surface, counting the seconds until they reemerged giggling and oblivious. It was overwhelming, trying to keep up with all the splashing, trying to separate adolescent boasting—bet I can hold my breath longer than you can—from the actual drowners. I spent entire shifts hunched forward, my feet curled and cramping, waiting for the moment I could spring off my toes, dive from the stand in a long arc, and feel the jolt of cold water when I hit the surface. At home after work, I could barely eat dinner, I was so tangled inside.

“I bet you could work at that pool twenty years,” my mom would say, “and not have to save a single person. So calm down.”

And by the beginning of my second summer, I did calm down. Kurt kept me distracted— if Dave wasn’t around, we’d toss one of those squishy water balls between our stands, glancing down every so often to make sure everything was in order. But by mid-July, the summer was hotter, stickier, the heavy kind of heat that makes it hard to move. Kurt got restless, eager to return to school. I got bored.

So I started hoping people would drown a little. Not die, obviously, but wander out of their depth, inhale a mouthful of water, lose a pool baton in the twelve-foot and chase it too far, too long. I wanted to wrap my arms around someone’s stomach, squeeze him, drag him to the concrete and rub solid circles on his back while he belched chlorine. I didn’t want to give anyone CPR, though. I had taken the classes, but I wasn’t very good at it.

Tucker and Kyle McPherson showed up one Friday while I was watching for air bubbles. The thin sound of music from the snack bar radio had nearly put me to sleep, in spite of my itch to be in the water, and I almost toppled off the stand when I felt someone tap my ankle.

“Whoa, Andi,” Tucker said, one hand up by his face in an awkward wave. He was wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses, so I couldn’t see his eyes, but the crease between his eyebrows suggested he was uncertain about approaching me. “All right, there?”

“Yeah, of course,” I said. Tucker came to southern Illinois from some magnet school in Indiana midway through our sophomore year, though I didn’t know much about him except that he moved up a grade in math and science. I hadn’t even realized he knew my name. He didn’t seem to travel in any certain circle of friends; he played soccer, but didn’t go to parties with the rest of his teammates. I’d never been invited to those parties, because the soccer players and their friends seemed to be afraid of anyone who used their brain for things other than sports. Tucker was smarter than me, but that didn’t mean I didn’t think about things. I thought about everything, noticed things and analyzed things until I got that faraway look, the squinted eyes and the slack jaw, that made people uncomfortable. Tucker’s brand of thinking was an acceptable kind; mine wasn’t.

Tucker had a mess of shaggy brown hair that made him look both wild and casual—not at all how I’d imagine someone that smart to look. Because he didn’t fit the stereotype, the smart kids seemed as wary of him as the soccer players. That made him interesting to me: even outsiders typically had a group of their own. I wanted to say something teasing and fun, something I could giggle along with that would make Tucker grin, but I didn’t have the air of effortless flirtation so many of the girls at school seemed to have, the ability to touch or smile and know exactly what kind of effect it had, and I knew if I faked it, it would sound just as forced as it felt. So, instead, I focused on the pale, skinny kid next to Tucker. He was maybe thirteen, and stood with his arms folded against his chest, his toes curling against the hot concrete. He looked more uncomfortable in his swimsuit than anyone I’d seen all summer.

“Who’s this?” I asked.

“My brother, Kyle,” Tucker said. He put his hand on top of Kyle’s head. “We’re just a pair of wanderers, looking for adventure.”

It sounded like Tucker was quoting something, some sophisticated piece of literature, but I couldn’t figure out what. “Not much adventure here,” I said, and though my response sounded horribly inadequate to my own ears, Tucker smiled. “How’s it going, Kyle?” I asked. Kyle jerked his head, dislodging Tucker’s hand, and glared up at me. I squirmed in my chair. His anger was radiating off of him in waves.

“Hey, knock it off,” Tucker said, spinning Kyle around by the shoulders and giving him a shove. “Go get us a spot, you little weirdo.” He took the towel from under his arm and threw it to Kyle, but it unrolled in the air and floated a few feet to the right, spreading out and landing softly in the water. Kyle stared at it, then glared at Tucker as if daring him, Go ahead. Ask me to get it. Some kid in the pool swam over and balled the towel up in his hands, tossing it into the air and yelling, “Catch!” The sopping towel dropped at Kyle’s feet.

“Friendly,” I said as Kyle kicked the towel around to the other side of the pool.

“Jesus.” Tucker rubbed a hand against the back of his neck. “That kid’s gonna kill me.”

“Is he alright?”

“He’s just pissed at me. He’s been pissed at everything since we moved here, but me especially.”

“What’d you do?”

“It’s always something. I’m either ignoring him, or I’m bothering him. Can’t do anything right by him these days.” Tucker smiled, tried to play it off as a joke, but I could hear the concern in his voice. “Today? I took him to a pool, and he can’t swim. He hates me a little extra for that.”

I tried to think of something clever, but all I could manage to do was swallow and say, “That sucks.”

“Yeah,” Tucker said. “I’ve offered to teach him how, but he doesn’t want anything to do with that. I don’t get it. He’s been invited to pool parties, and I want him to be able to go. I don’t want to him to have to deal with the teasing and shit. I don’t want him to end up…” Tucker shrugged. “I’ll get out of your hair, though, let you get back to work.”e’He’

“Oh, okay,” I said. A bead of sweat slid from the back of my neck, down my spine into the waistband of my shorts. Tucker was staring at the ground, and I couldn’t help but feel like he’d come to me for a specific response that I’d failed to provide.

“See you around,” he said, scratching at his lower back as he made his way over to his brother. Kyle was standing at the edge of the pool, watching the water, and as Tucker got closer, he inched forward, bending his toes over the lip. He looked over his shoulder at Tucker, his chin tipped up, defiant, clearly ready to jump, and a sick wave of adrenaline rose into my throat. I tensed, coiled to leap out of my chair, until Tucker yanked Kyle back so hard, he might’ve fallen and cracked his head open if not for Tucker’s fingers pressing into his shoulder. Kyle stumbled, his chest heaving as he reeled from the edge. He looked so furious, I thought he might hit Tucker, but he lowered himself against the chain-link fence surrounding the pool and pulled his knees to his chest. Tucker clenched his fists before grabbing the wet towel and spreading it out, a dark shadow of water seeping from its edges.

A long, low beep sounded from the speakers on either side of the bathrooms, signaling a rotation change for the lifeguards, and I exhaled a shaky breath. Kurt, who I knew had been watching my exchange with Tucker, flicked his sunglasses from the top of his head down over his eyes and slid off the stand gracefully, noiselessly, as only someone with practice could. When he got to my stand, he nudged me, his damp elbow sliding against my knee.

“Got yourself a boyfriend there?”

“Shut up,” I said.

“Gonna ask you to prom?”

“He was just being friendly. It’s not like that.”

“Oh, Russell,” Kurt said, shaking his head. “So naïve.”

Kurt was the only one who called me by my last name, and though I usually liked the nickname, the familiarity between us, I suddenly felt young, teased and condescended to. Tucker had brought an awkwardness that wedged itself between me and Kurt. I always saw the way Kurt interacted with people, how he treated everything like a transaction, how his favorite line to use when he flirted was, What’s in it for me? But I never thought he’d wanted anything from me, always figured I was the exception. There was nothing I could give him. There was nothing I could give Tucker, either, but the thought of him expecting something sent a hum of jittery anticipation through my limbs like a current. I crossed my arms over my chest, my skin tight and red, my hair stinking of suntan lotion. I closed my eyes and listened to the pool noises, the splashing and squealing, the slap of bare feet, but I still felt them watching me – Tucker, and Kurt, the other lifeguards, everyone. It was suffocating, like the humidity. They were all waiting for me to do something. Anything.

When I opened my eyes, Kyle was staring at a group of boys his age dunking each other in the middle of the pool, his whole body curled toward them, his shoulders hunched up around his ears. I wondered if he would try and jump again. I watched him, and I waited.
 


 
Image © Glen Bowman (https://www.flickr.com/photos/glenbowman/2886128942)

Image © Glen Bowman (https://www.flickr.com/photos/glenbowman/2886128942)

The next Friday, when I hopped off the stand at noon for my break, Tucker was there, sitting at one of the snack bar tables with two slushies. He was balanced on the back two legs of his chair, his fingers drumming an erratic rhythm on his stomach. He wasn’t looking at me, but he was tense, alert, and I could tell he knew exactly where I was and what I was doing. I snuck past him into the snack bar, his nervousness repelling me like the matched ends of a magnet.

“Chicken,” Kurt said as he loaded a new box of push-pops into the freezer.

“No,” I said, leaning against the wall so I could look out the ordering window without being seen. “Just not interested.”

“Bullshit. You’re sixteen. Of course you’re interested.”

“Seventeen.” Kyle was sitting in the same corner as the week before, but closer to the pool, one leg pulled against his chest and the other dangling in the water, submerged to the knee. Tucker had his chin in his hands, picking chunks of Styrofoam off the top of his cup, the other cup sweating across the table, poised like a bartering chip. I pushed myself off the wall.

“There you go,” Kurt said. “Go get him, kiddo.”

I sat across the table from Tucker, who stayed perfectly still, his focus somewhere out near the kiddie pool. “For me?” I asked, bumping the slushie cup with my knuckles.

“If you want it.”

I grabbed the drink and sucked hard on the straw. The frigid liquid hurt my back teeth. “What’s it for?”

Tucker finally looked at me, his face pinched with confusion. “What do you mean? It’s not for anything.” He glanced out toward water again. “Just being friendly.”

His ambiguity sent a shock of irritation through me. I got a little bold. “Well, you’re not very good at it.” I pushed my chair back.

“Okay, wait,” he said. He was staring down at his hands, chewing on his bottom lip. I wondered what would make anyone nervous around me, what Tucker could want that was so hard to ask for. A date? A friend? Not help with homework, certainly. Or did he want what every other soccer player wanted after games on Friday nights, in the woods behind the field when the crowds left, in a ring of truck headlights and swarming summer moths, alcohol soaked and frantic and secret?

“I saw that you offer swim lessons on the weekends,” Tucker said.

Surprisingly, disappointment dropped heavy on my shoulders. I might’ve been wary, but I’d felt the thrill of it, a little, the tingle of bloodrush and the churn in my stomach that mixed anxiety and excitement. “Yeah,” I said, grabbing the cup and taking another drink, desperate for something to do with my hands. Heat tickled the tips of my ears.

“It’s just, Kyle’s having a rough time with the move,” Tucker said. “It’s hard enough being the new kid, you know? The swimming thing just makes him stand out even more.”

“They’re not asking him to join the swim team.”

“But I’m sure you know how kids get when they find out shit like this. They’re brutal.”

I tried not to flinch. “And you can’t do it?”

“He won’t let me. I keep offering, but he doesn’t want me showing him anything anymore. So I thought if I brought him here, he’d get so uncomfortable he’d have to learn.” Tucker laughed weakly.

“That’s really mean.” I stood, my chair nearly tipping over behind me. “Classes are thirty-five dollars. Dave can sign you up at the window.”

“Wait.” Tucker reached out for my hand, then pulled his arm back into his chest. He looked as humiliated as I felt. “That’s why I wanted to talk to you first. He won’t take a class. Not with the little kids. He wants to teach himself.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, then.”

“Could you talk to him, maybe? See if he’ll sign up?”

“What would I say to him?” I looked at Kyle, who had both legs in the water now, kicking slowly, mesmerized by his own wake. “I don’t even know him.”

Tucker shrugged. “That makes two of us.”

Something like pity lumped up in my throat, and I walked away from Tucker, afraid he might start begging, might say “please,” and I’d never be able to look at him again. I shuffled over to where Kyle was sitting, the hot concrete scorching the pads of my feet. Kyle reached back and pulled a towel around his shoulders as I approached, and I lowered myself next to him, slipping my burning feet in the water and shuddering with relief.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said, and I realized it was the first time I’d heard him speak. His voice was lower than I expected, stronger, jarring when compared to his scrawny frame and the way the towel swallowed him in soft fabric. He had a brush of freckles across his nose, same as Tucker.

“Your brother wants me to give you swim lessons,” I said. His legs looked elastic in the water, soft around the edges, and I kicked mine in time with them.

Kyle snorted. “I know he does.”

“Look,” I said. “It’s not that bad. A lot of people don’t know how to swim. It’s not something you should be ashamed of.” I nudged my foot against his, wanted to tuck it around his ankle, to placate him, but he shrugged away from me, his foot skittering behind his calf.

Kyle locked his elbows and scooted himself to the very edge of the concrete, his grip white-knuckled on the lip.

“It wouldn’t take more than a couple of weeks,” I said.

“I don’t need you to teach me.” He balanced forward on his arms. His neck looked hot to the touch, though I couldn’t tell if it was from sunburn or a blush. “I can teach myself.”

“No, you can’t,” I said, but I had the urge to put a hand on his back, to push him into the water and see if he could. I sucked in a breath, guilt seizing my lungs. I knew what would happen if Kyle tried to swim. I remembered, vividly, the first time my dad took me swimming, how he dropped me in the water and I sank straight to the bottom, arms flailing as I sputtered and gasped. My head had felt ready to pop, my legs useless, too slow, my chest tightening against the fear and the lack of oxygen and the struggle to remember what, exactly, I was supposed to be doing. I was shivery and weak when my father pulled me above the surface, and when he whispered, low and close to my ear, “You have to swim,” shame spread warm through my veins.

The beep signaled the end of my break, and I pulled my legs from the pool silently, shaken. I didn’t want Kyle to feel that sort of panic. “It’s your call,” I said to him as I got to my feet, remnants of childhood fear a feverish buzz under my skin.

Back at my stand, I slumped low in the chair and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to will Tucker and Kyle away, to forget they had ever been there, wanting just me and Kurt and the pool, the summer as it had been.

“Hey.” Kurt’s hand tugged at my ankle. “What was all that about?”

“Go away,” I said. My voice was a warning. I shook my leg free.

Kurt was silent, and I imagined his face contorting into an annoyed scowl. After a moment, though, he patted my leg and said, “Fine, fine. Don’t bite my head off,” sounding more amused than exasperated. I relaxed a little, and when I opened my eyes a few minutes later, Kyle and Tucker were gone. For a moment, I could pretend they hadn’t existed at all.
 


 
When neither McPherson showed up the next Friday, or the Friday after that, I started to settle down a little. School was only two weeks away, and I soaked in the warmth of the late-summer sun, tipping my head back into it, occasionally stripping off my t-shirt and reveling in the sheen of sweat on my arms and legs. It was the perfect place to be, balanced in those last moments of freedom. I breathed easy.

But on the second Friday in August, Kyle McPherson came slinking out of the bathroom, alone. I tried to ignore him, focused instead on the moms in tankinis holding their toddlers in the kiddie pool, the elderly man in the red Speedo with his Men’s Fitness, Kurt and the girl in the strapless bikini he was chatting up next to his stand. I couldn’t help but watch Kyle, though, who was spreading out his towel and gazing at the swimmers with familiar dejection. I was guarded with him around. I wondered , if the water made him as uneasy as Tucker claimed, why he would be there without his brother. I wondered if I had anything to do with it.

A few boys Kyle’s age snuck over to him. I couldn’t hear their conversation, but Kyle’s lower lip was tucked between his teeth, and he was rubbing his hands up and down his legs, watching the boys’ feet as they laughed and nudged each other. They’re brutal, I remembered Tucker saying, and felt myself tense and still. When they finally walked away, Kyle kept staring at the patch of concrete they’d occupied. He sat motionless for a few long moments, then pushed himself to his feet, marched over to the side of the pool, and, with the posture of a sharpened pencil, jumped straight into the twelve-foot.

Image © Iris Aldeguer (https://www.flickr.com/photos/irisux/6537800629/in/set-72157632312195253/)

Image © Iris Aldeguer (https://www.flickr.com/photos/irisux/6537800629/in/set-72157632312195253/)

I curved forward, focused, unblinking, on the rippling patch of water where Kyle disappeared. I watched for an air bubble or a glimpse of hair, but another kid moved into my line of sight and Kyle was gone. With the forced calm of my lifeguard training, I grabbed the whistle around my neck and blew. The shrill, dying-bird sound echoed in my ears, startling me, and I toppled into the pool, hitting the surface knees-first and inhaling a nose full of water. My sinuses felt near to bursting, my eyes stinging, but I pushed downward to get to Kyle, whose head was tilted back, his eyes shut in painful-looking slits. His legs were still, but his hands were frantic, clawing at the water like a dog digging at a patch of parched dirt. I reached out and grabbed his arm, and his glassy eyes opened.

Just then, an arm circled my waist, and I gasped, all the air expelled from my chest. I was yanked above the surface, and I tried to take a deep breath, but the air was stuck in my throat, no room for it with all the water in my lungs.

“Nice rescue,” Kurt said close to my ear, and I gagged. “Whoa, hey,” he said, and squeezed me around the middle, dragging me to the side of the pool where I coughed and hacked, water dripping from my lips. “Breathe.”

“Where,” I croaked, and Kurt gave me a few pats on the back. “Kyle.”

“There,” Kurt said, and I saw Kyle a couple of feet down the side, his head buried in his arms, another lifeguard’s hand on his hitching back.

“Is he . . . ?”

“He’s fine. Come on.”

Kurt heaved me out of the water and pushed me toward the supply hut, both hands on my shoulders like he thought I might make a run for it. I wouldn’t have gotten far, had I tried. My knees felt loose, like someone had removed the strings that tied me together.

In the hut, Kurt grabbed a towel from a shelf and shoved me down on a crate of lifejackets. “Sit,” he said.

“I’m fine,” I said, gripping the edges of the towel with shaking fingers.

“Okay,” Kurt said. “Catch your breath.”

“Is Kyle alright?”

“He’s fine, I told you. Jesus, Russell, calm down. Give yourself a minute, would you?”

“I’m fine.”

“Then humor me.” Kurt sat on a milk crate next to me.

“You didn’t have to save me,” I said. “I didn’t need to be saved.”

“You took a nosedive right off the stand. What was I supposed to do?”

“I had everything under control.”

“Didn’t look like it.” Kurt sighed. “I was just worried, alright? You were down there a while.”

I rubbed my nose on my knee. “Now everyone thinks I fucked that up.”

“Hey, kiddo.” Kurt cupped a hand around the back of my head. “You blew the whistle.”

But this was my job, the one I was trained for, the one I nearly went crazy wanting. And in front of Kurt, and Kyle, and everyone, I’d frozen. I’d screwed it up. I needed to talk to Kyle to set this right, so I shook Kurt off, ignored his murmured, “Goddamnit,” as I pushed the door open. A brief scan of the still-tittering crowd, and Kyle was nowhere to be found.

The lifeguard who rescued Kyle – a girl Kurt’s age, named Jenny – was in the snack bar, filling out an incident report, her dripping hair pulled back in tight, unruffled perfection.

“Jenny,” I said. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine,” Jenny said. “A little spooked, is all. He’s sitting out front. We called his mom and she’s coming to pick him up.” She looked up at me and smiled like a receptionist, professionally friendly. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” I said. “Sorry. About all that. I really did have him.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “We’re all a little unsteady our first year.”

I pulled the towel tighter around my shoulders and went into the bathroom, stopping to look at my reflection in the mirror, at my red-rimmed eyes and the tangle of blonde hair matted to my head. I looked like a child, wandering into her parents’ room after a nightmare, searching for comfort. With a growl, I dropped the towel and ran my fingers through my hair, pulling the knots loose and smoothing them over my scalp. When I was satisfied enough with the result, I tucked the towel around my waist and went out to the front of the building, where Kyle was sitting. I sat on the bench next to him.

“Sorry,” he said.

“For what?”

“Drowning.”

I laughed. “You did a pretty awful job of it,” I said, and Kyle smiled. “Although I did a pretty awful job of saving you, didn’t I?”

Kyle laughed, his voice hoarse. “You did alright.”

“Those boys,” I said, tucking a knee up beside me on the bench and scooting toward Kyle. His smile disappeared, and he wrapped an arm around his stomach.

“They didn’t think I would jump,” Kyle said. “I’m not some loser, you know. I have friends. My friend Ross lives right over there. I go to his house all the time.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You think I’m a loser.”

“I don’t.”

“You’re in love with my brother.”

I laughed again. “Definitely not.”

“I bet you are. Everyone’s in love with my brother.”

“Well I’m not.”

“He does everything right and I just….” Kyle turned toward me so his knee bumped mine. “I can do stuff right, too, but it’s not the same. Tucker gets all the credit for teaching me how to do things, instead of when I actually do them.”

I felt a pang of sympathy for Kyle. “Let me give you lessons, then,” I said.

Kyle shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“It won’t even have to be during pool hours. I have a key.”

“You’ll get in trouble.

“No one will know. You’ll impress everyone when they think you taught yourself.”

A large, red van pulled up in front of the pool building. “I gotta go,” Kyle said.

“Think about it, please,” I said, and Kyle nodded before climbing into the van. I watched them drive away, and the knot in my stomach tugged taut. I knew I could help him if I got a second chance. I could get in the water and do it right, this time. I could.
 


 
At close the next evening, while I was in the supply hut shrugging back into my shirt, Kurt came to the doorway and said, “You have a visitor,” and I saw Kyle’s brown hair peeking over Kurt’s arm. My eagerness must’ve shown on my face, because Kurt raised his eyebrows.

“Alright?” he asked, and I nodded. “You sure?”

“Stop asking me that,” I said. “That’s about all you’ve asked me lately, you know that?”

“As long as you know what you’re doing,” he said.

“I’m just helping out, okay?” I rolled the hem of my t-shirt between two fingers. “I can do that, can’t I?” I hadn’t meant it to sound like a question, but my voice hitched at the end.

“Andi,” Kurt said softly.

“See you tomorrow,” I said without looking up, certain I’d see pity in his eyes.

Kurt bumped my shoulder with his. “Bye,” he said, and left me alone with Kyle.

“Hey,” Kyle said. He was wearing a hoodie, though it was still in the 70s, and his hands were buried deep in its pockets.

“Change your mind?” I asked.

Kyle shrugged. “Tucker thinks I’m at Ross’s. He’s coming back in an hour, so it’s gotta be quick.”

“Sure,” I said. “Little stuff, today. How about just getting in the water?”

Kyle’s whole body stiffened, but he said, “Okay.”

“You might want to take the hoodie off, first,” I said with a smile, and Kyle smiled back, pulling one arm out of his sleeve. I pulled my shirt off and watched Kyle struggle with the sweatshirt, clumsily tugging it over his head and emerging with ruffled hair and pink cheeks. A wave of fondness swept over me, and I wondered if this was what I should’ve felt for Tucker, what made girls confident enough to touch boys whenever they wanted. Maybe the secret to it all was just to know you were better at something than someone, and have them know it, too.

“Come on,” I said, grabbing Kyle’s hand and pulling him to the edge of the pool. He resisted a little, so I let him go and dove into the six-foot. I floated underwater for a moment, running my hands through the hair fanned out around my head, relaxing into the cocoon of cooling water. When I popped back above the surface, Kyle was still standing at the edge of the pool, staring at me. “Just sit on the edge,” I said, and he lowered himself to the ground, slipping his legs into the water, shivering at the cold bite of it. “It’s better if you jump in fast, get it over with. You did it before,” I said, but he shook his head, his teeth chattering. “Okay then. Just watch for a minute. Watch how I do it.”

I started swimming laps around the pool, my strokes long and fluid. My body felt lean and tireless, exhilarated by the pair of eyes I knew tracked my every move. At that moment, I was extraordinary, something elegant and admired. A surge of joy swelled outward through my limbs, propelling me forward. I lapped the pool again and again, and when I finally stopped to catch my breath, I saw Kyle in the shallow end, arms stretched outward for balance, slowly and carefully making his way toward me.

I laughed and met him halfway, cupping his elbows in my palms, my thoughts pattering to the surface like a hard rain: he was fearless. We would learn how to tread first. I would slowly pull him to where his feet couldn’t touch, and he would trust me. He already trusted me. And we would start small, just learning how to keep yourself afloat, because, really, once you could hold your head above water, there was nothing you couldn’t do.

“Kick your legs,” I said as I pulled him into the six-foot, his eyes widening, his hands vice-like on my upper arms. “Relax. I got you.”

He jerked his legs, his big toe catching the side of my shin. “Slower,” I said. “You’re not trying to go anywhere, just floating.” I tugged him toward the twelve-foot.

“Wait,” he said, pulling back.

“If you can float in the six-foot, you can float in the twelve-foot,” I said, and he nodded. He closed his eyes, loosening his arms, and it hit me hard, the realization that he would let me pull him anywhere, put himself in my hands and trusted me to keep him safe. The weight of it, the responsibility I’d always wanted, hit me hard in the chest, knocked the air from my lungs. I tilted forward, lightheaded, my forehead resting against his.

“Andi,” he said, his nails digging into my shoulder blades.

Suddenly, my knees locked, my chin starting to sink into the water, and I accidentally released Kyle’s arms, a knee-jerk reaction, throwing my hands out to push my head back above the surface. Kyle disappeared below the water, his own arms flailing, and I grabbed for his hand, yanked him up and over towards the side of the pool. He yelped, a terrified sound, before gagging and scrambling up my arm. I swam him over to the ledge, and he crawled up the ladder and dropped to his knees on the concrete, coughing and trembling.

I climbed out and put a hand on his back, but he rolled away from me and sat hard on the ground, dropping his head between his legs. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You just lost your balance. Everyone gets a mouthful or two of water. Get your breath, and we’ll try again.”

“No,” Kyle said, still inhaling air like it was hard to come by. “I don’t want to.”

“It’s alright. It won’t happen again.”

“Yes it will.” Kyle scratched his fingers over his scalp. “I almost drowned yesterday, too.”

“No you didn’t. You weren’t going to drown. I was there.”

“You didn’t do anything,” Kyle said. “Someone had to save you, too.”

And that was the truth, and I knew it, though everyone had been telling me otherwise. Kyle took a deep breath, exhaling slowly through his nose, steadying himself. He looked at me in a way that made me feel very small and foolish to think there was anything I could teach him.

Image © Ingo Meironke (https://www.flickr.com/photos/meironke/4469054485)

Image © Ingo Meironke (https://www.flickr.com/photos/meironke/4469054485)

Kyle dried himself off, put his hoodie back on, called Tucker from my cell phone, and waited for him on the bench out front. I sat on the edge of the pool, staring at the reflection of the streetlamps on the water, rubbing my palms against the concrete until they felt raw. I heard Tucker pull up, the crunch of gravel under tires, car doors slamming and murmured voices, and a minute later, Tucker was standing next to me, arms crossed over his chest.

“He almost drowned?” Tucker’s voice was low with anger. “Again?”

“No,” I said. “He just panicked a little. I had him. He’s not going to want any more lessons, though. Not after today and yesterday.”

“Jesus, Andi.” Tucker ran his hands through his hair. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“You wanted me to give him swim lessons.”

“This screwed everything up, you know? He’s not gonna go anywhere near the water, now.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

Tucker shook his head, swallowed. “See you around,” he said, and I knew we would probably never speak to each other again.

I waited until they drove away before pushing myself up and swaying to my feet by the side of the pool. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, kicked my shoes off, and jumped in, my arms stiff and legs straight, the way Kyle had jumped the day before.

I sank quickly to the bottom, and opened my eyes to nothing but blue, borderless water, no walls as far as I could see. I thought, then, that if I stayed down there long enough, held my breath long enough, the water would expand, flow outward over everything and wipe it clean. I could lose myself for a while, and when I returned, I could start over, go back to that first summer and be ready to save someone. But the longer I stayed below the surface, the darkness pressing in on every side, the more I felt like the young girl of my first swim lesson, floundering, my father’s breath hot on the side of my face – “You have to swim.” So I closed my eyes and breathed out through my nose and pushed my feet against the bottom of the pool, propelling myself upward. I extended my arms and let myself float up, and up, and when my head breached the surface, I filled my lungs with as much air as I could manage.

 
 


Lauren WiserLauren Wiser lives in St. Louis, Missouri. She received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois, and was published in Conifers undergraduate literary journal. She received her M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Missouri St. Louis, where she received the 2013 Graduate Prize in Fiction. She is the former Managing Editor of Natural Bridge literary journal, and currently works as Marketing and Publicity Manager at Left Bank Books. This is her first professional publication.

 

 

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2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Don Clark says:

    I enjoyed this very much! Although I was sad it didn’t work out for her in the end… I suppose life-guarding just isn’t her calling. Looking forward to more in the future!

  2. Sofia dlP says:

    I really enjoyed your story – especially the part about her learning how to swim. The characters were super dynamic and I loved Andi. I was sorry it didn’t work out but it made the story better somehow, I think, more true.

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