She couldn’t wait to get in the water. Then she couldn’t wait to swim. She watched her coach, a dog being dangled a treat, and eagerly waited until was dropped.
“Ready. … Go.” her coach said. And go she did.
Jessica slid through the water in a smooth freestyle, barely pausing at the other end as she flipped and turned. Pushing off, she cut a line in the waves without splashing. Water soothed her. Today of all days she needed to be soothed.
“It’s too cold!” her friend complained, but Jess didn’t notice. The more she moved, the more she felt the contrast of sweat on wet skin. She heard her breath, counted strokes and moved through the water with speed. Moved with the water as if it carried her.
Today it did. The more she swam the less she remembered the tiff with her friend, the subtraction drill she’d failed, or the embarrassment she suffered as she dropped her tray at lunch. It was all gone. In its place were coordinated kicks and measured breaths.
In its place was water.
Her mother watched from the sides, proud and slightly exhausted. She envied her daughter that escape, albeit temporary, from a world too big and harsh for an eight year old.
Her teammates joked. They complained. The others found excuse after excuse to get out. Jess did neither. Instead, she completed her 50, then a hundred, eyes always on her coach, always listening. In the water.
Do you need a break? Her coach asked. She shook her head. More laps. She’d lost a tooth in this water once, it had floated out of her mouth and away before she could catch it for the tooth fairy. They’d left her a note and the tooth fairy had overlooked the omission, supplying her with coins wrapped in glittery blue, the color of water.
As she swam she glanced sideways to ensure her mother was looking. They shared a smile.
It was her final lap when it happened. Turn then breathe became entangled just for a moment. She breathed as she turned opening her mouth and swallowing too much. In shock, she stopped swimming as she started to cough, only to be bumped into by the person behind her. She went under, sputtered, couldn’t breathe.
All around her the usual calming blue of her favorite place swirled with black and dark. She tried to kick and found legs that wouldn’t move. Panic set in as, in front of her, a monster appeared. It was dark, murky and angry and it reached for her. She knew it would hold her at the bottom of the pool forever. Somewhere far above her she saw her mothers face, vaguely wondered why it was so close to the water. She heard a distant splash and the shape of her coach before the monster took over, eliminating the blue entirely.
When she woke up she was in a strange bed in a cold room, a tube in her nose. Her mother sat beside her, holding her hand and brushing her wild brown curls away from her eyes. She felt sticky and heavy. Her feet were dry, her lips glued together.
Her teammates brought her presents and gifts and she tried not to cry as she noted the worry in their eyes. She had her own worries. What monster had dragged her under? What beasts were in the water that she’d never noticed before?
She went home and rested, but the memory of the water stayed nearby. Had she actually felt safe there? Some part of her that didn’t understand loss mourned.
It took three weeks before she returned to the pool. When she did the water looked different. Had she wanted to swim in that? She touched a toe to the foggy surface, felt the chill that used to excite her, and shrank back.
Not today mommy she cried and her mother took her home. Every week they tried. Every day she awoke with nightmares of hands in the cold water ruthlessly dragging her to a hidden depth. She struggled below as her coach and teammates continued to swim, unaware or uncaring that she was dying underneath them.
For three months her mother brought her to the pool. Each week they made the trip. Some days she screamed and kicked and fought. Others she felt stronger. This is the day I swim again she would tell herself. She nearly believed it.
Three months of touching the surface and retreating. Three months of watching her friends swim and laugh and complain about the cold.
They don’t know cold she thought to herself. They don’t know it at all.
She visited a nice lady named Kati who let her play and draw but never asked her about
Then one day she fashioned clay into the monster. She gave it eyes that were large and round. She narrowed its mouth and it had no tongue. She painted it with shades of blue that swirled together like …
Like water. She gave the monster gills. She showed it to Kati.
“Isn’t my monster beautiful?”
Her dreams changed. She was no longer struggling at the bottom but kicking to reach the top. She’d awaken with her hand outstretched, grasping for the hand in her dream that had pulled her to the surface. Her sheets tangled around her legs and her muscles were sore as she realized she was kicking in her sleep.
She longed for it. Each week her mother brought her to the pool and a part of her imagined doing flips, gliding into turns, kicking off into dives. She could do it.
Then her toe would break the surface and the water would blacken as the monster emerged. Not her monster. Not the beautiful one. But the one below. The one down there.
It was cold the day she fell in. She was standing too close, her mother by her side as she reached out to touch a toe to the water. A younger eager swimmer nudged past as she lost her balance, and she thought she felt the gentle pressure of her mother’s hands on her back. Jess went in sideways, flailed as she went under, seeing both monsters.
They fought. Her beautiful blue and the lecherous black. They clawed at one another until their blood filled the water. It was clear she realized. Instinct made her kick. As she made her way to the surface, the black monster grabbed at her leg.
“No” she heard herself say and as she did water filled her mouth once more. “No: she said again as she spit it out. Angry and surprised she turned her face to the black monster, showing her own fangs, baring her own claws. It reared back and as it did she found her way to the surface.
As she broke her way above the surface, she saw her mother sitting in her usual spot watching her. They shared a smile, this one different, more triumphant. Relieved, Jess turned to face the monsters and found none there.
She got out, walked to the edge of the pool and waited on her coach. Her coach nodded.
“Ready. … Go.” her coach said. And go she did.