SWIMMING LESSON • by Andria Kennedy

The water’s cloudy. The countless blue tiles of the center lane markers — I did the math walking the outside of the pool last Saturday — disappear into a murky haze. Even where I stand in the shallow end. My eyes and nose burn from the extra shot of chlorine. I feel the persistent itch of parched skin along my arms and legs.

I hate swimming on cleaning day.

Mark claps his hands, startling me. The sound echoes from the high ceiling like a starting pistol. He kneels on the side, pressing a hand over mine on the swim step. “Test day. Time to prove you’re ready to master the deep end of the pool.”

“My eyes hurt,” I mumble, the words lost in bubbles as my lips hover at the surface.

He sighs, tapping the goggles perched on my forehead. “That’s what these are for.” Standing, he crosses his arms, frowning at me. “Tick, tock. Pool’s about to close.”

I slide the goggles over my eyes. Some of the chemical irritation stays trapped, stinging my vision. I turn and stare down the length of the swim lane. Buoys drift in the gentle current from the jets where they cross the deep end. Twelve feet. Impossible to see the bottom, even when it isn’t cleaning day. Nothing except an expanse of blue shadows. Only the big kids venture there.

I glance at the lap lanes to my left. Mark catches me.

“No, this is a test. You can’t cheat and use a lane where you can see the bottom.” His voice is hard, uncompromising. “You have to swim one length of the pool’s deep end without help. No stopping.”

Mark blows his whistle, and I jerk forward. After six weeks under his teaching, I’m conditioned to respond. My toes scrape the wall, barely propelling me forward. I should have pushed off properly. Gulping a breath, I lower my face into the water and push my hands out. My heartbeat thuds loudly in my ears.

The tiles fade in and out between clouds of chlorine. Within three pulls, they vanish completely, the depth too great. I can barely see the wall on my right.

A glaring eye appears, and I choke down water with my breath. Coughing, I blunder into the lane line. My arms and legs thrash until I realize it isn’t an eye. It’s a pool light, switched on for the evening — twenty ring the pool walls. My cheeks flush in embarrassment. I spit water under the surface and kick hard to regain my momentum.

I refuse to lift my head and check for Mark’s disapproving stare.

Another eye looms from the murk. I try to ignore it — it’s a light — but my hand slaps the water in a stutter. It stares at me.

I can’t see the other end of the pool. But I see the looming darkness of the deep end. A wall of shadow growing closer; all the darker for the presence of a light — an eye — before the final ledge. Saturdays, I hang from the swim step, peeking around the corner and speculating what lurks in the depths where the big kids swim. The forbidden territory must belong to horrible creatures. Braved by only strong swimmers. Held in check by the line of buoys.

The movement of my arms and legs — reach, pull, kick — sounds shockingly loud through the amplification of the water. A signal beacon.

My heart pounds against my chest.

I see the end of the wall approaching. A clean line between safety and danger. Water goes up my nose as I forget to breathe through my mouth. I sputter. I can’t see around the bend. The terror of my imagination populates the deep end: monsters, sharks, water-bound ghosts. My breath rattles as I turn my head to the side.

 I bump the lane line, scraping my shoulder against the unyielding plastic. My arms carry me further and further to the left, as far from the yawning deep as possible. The slap of my hands on the water makes me cringe. I’m making too much noise. I sound like a fish in distress.

Reach, pull, kick, and I’m exposed to the deep end.

Darkness. A wall of nothing. Clouds of chlorine disguising the home of the lurking monsters of my nightmares.

My back scrapes the lane line as I turn sideways in a frantic attempt to watch the dismal water for signs of movement. The burble of water trapped in my lungs echoes throughout the pool. A fingernail catches in the lane line and tears away. The blossom of red turns purple in so much blue.

Something shifts near the base of the wall.

I hiccup water down my throat.

My arms flail, my practiced coordination lost in the panic. Buoyancy abandons me, my legs sinking as my feet smack together. Tears blind me. I choke, water rushing into my mouth. My fingers scramble for the cheery promise of the yellow lane line. Frantic grasping pulls the goggles from my head, blinding me. I scream with my last breath of air.

My hand spasms around the coarse rope between the buoys. I sputter, coughing and gasping. My body huddles inches from the swirling darkness of the deep end. Chlorine sloshes in my lungs.

“You were almost there, you know.” Mark’s words echo around me.

I let go of the rope, circling my arms and legs to tread water as he taught me. Rubbing water from my eyes — tears? — I search for him on the deck. I can’t keep my gaze from straying to the dark waters before me. “I saw…”

“What is it with you kids and the deep end?” His sigh dissolves into the rush of water through the filter at the corner of the deep end.

 “But I saw…” I whisper.

“Sure, kid.”

The overhead lights vanish. A sickly yellow glow fills the pool from the underwater eyes. I hear the unmistakable sound of churning water.

Andria Kennedy is happily living her life-long dream of writing full-time — something her four cats (one is a suspected flerken) and greyhound approve of. Her stories have appeared in EXISTENTIAL HOLOGRAM (Starry Eyed Press) and SONG OF THE SIREN (Dragon Soul Press). She lives with her husband in Virginia.

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Every Day Fiction