When the meet announcer called the race to the blocks, I lowered my goggles. I jounced my shoulders and cranked my neck from side to side — a move Jeremy Woodley, my best friend, and I had learned from watching Jean-Claude Van Damme. I was in lane two; Jeremy was two lanes to my left, in four. Between us, a skinny boy in a blue speedo from the opposing school bounced on the balls of his feet. I had no idea if I could beat him and I didn't care either way. After the meet, he'd disappear with the rest of his team into the yellow school bus parked outside. Jeremy I had to see everyday. I didn't care if he and I came in last, so long as I touched the wall before him. Beating him was the only thing that mattered.
Our coach stood beside the pool in a shirt and tie, damp beneath the collar and armpits from the dank, chlorinated air inside the natatorium, and from the lather he worked himself into while running alongside the lanes. His tan forehead glistened and his thinning hair stuck out like the bristles of an old broom. He looked at me and clenched his fist, his gold state championship ring a judging eye in the center of his hand. The rest of the team filled the bleachers behind him. The girls' hair bulged, oblong, in their silver caps and the boys stood together in a line on the uppermost bleacher, beneath the snarling maroon-and-white bobcat painted on the cement wall. Trey Smith's head fit perfectly between the cat's teeth. "Here we go, Woodley!" they shouted in unison as they clapped their hands. "Let's go, McGlynn!" Curt Wood, on the far end, clanged a big copper cowbell.
The starter blew the whistle and the natatorium fell silent. Water gurgled through the gutter drains, and for a moment the pool stood so still that the surface appeared to swell above the coping. "Step up, boys," the starter said into the microphone. His Texas drawl echoed through the room and sounded as though it had been piped in from far away.
I looked down the lanes as I mounted the block. Jeremy stood with his back straight and his chest puffed out, his eyes fixed on the other side of the pool, as if getting there were his only concern. He filled his cheeks and let out a long stream of air. He turned his head toward me. His goggles were mirrored, his jaw set. He didn't nod, so I didn't either. He'd finished our freshman year with a faster time in the two-hundred freestyle, had trained hard all summer while I was visiting my father and stepmother in California, and now, in the first meet of our sophomore season he had every intention of putting this race, and me, to bed.
No way, I whispered as I curled my toes over the edge of the block. Not this time.
"Two-hundred yee-ard freestyle," the announced said. "Take your marks."
I bent and gripped the edge. My stomach rose into my throat, the muscles in my back and arms beginning to twitch and spasm. I felt the horn coming before I heard it, that insidious simulated gunshot that I'd begun to hear in my dreams.
When the sound came at last, I lunged.
An hour later, Jeremy and I stood in the locker room. Water lay in puddles on the floor and mold crept up the walls, turning from green to black as it saturated the grout. The tight space between the lockers, where he and I and the rest of the team peeled off our suits after coming out of the showers, smelled of chlorine and shampoo, the bloodlike perfume of rusting metal. They were talking about the boy who'd been shot and killed the previous weekend. The story had made the news because the boy had been a top prospect to play college ball, and because he was the second football player killed since school had started, only three weeks before. The shooting had happened at a high school inside the 610 Loop, the highway dividing the city of Houston from its suburbs. Far enough away to feel safe, close enough to warrant comment.
"I heard he was in line in the cafeteria, waiting for breakfast," Trey Smith, the senior captain, said. ?He made fun of some girl's shirt or something and she pulled a gun from her backpack and shot him."
Trey made a gun with his thumb and forefinger, turned it sideways, and pointed it at Mike Collins. "Bam!"
"You bitch!" Mike said, clutching his chest and falling backwards against the lockers. The rattle reverberated down the row. "You skanky punk-ass slut."
"I'm gonna get you, sucker!" Allen Swift shouted.
A cheap way to get laughs, but it worked. The meet had come down to the final relay, and we'd won it, and Trey's anchor split was his fastest in-season time to date. The head coach of the University of Arizona had already come to watch him practice. The coach from the University of Texas would be visiting in a few weeks. Trey's future spread before him like a buffet table: senior year, college, the Olympics hovering on the far horizon. Even the dumbest jokes made us laugh.
"Now the whole team's going to wear those lame black armbands," Jeremy piped in. Though we'd been on the varsity squad since our freshman year, we'd had to wait until we were sophomores to earn lockers among the upperclassmen. For weeks we'd tried, and failed, to participate in their conversations. Jeremy's win tonight had earned him the right to do exactly that.
I carried my shoes to the far end of the bench and sat with one foot propped on the pine, forcing my wet feet down inside my socks. Even though I told myself it didn't matter, and made a show of laughing at Trey's joke, I couldn't help feeling sullen and embarrassed: Jeremy had looked at me like he knew he could beat me, and I'd proved him right. I'd finished fourth, a full second behind.
"They're all going to wear his number on their helmets," Mike echoed. "Take a knee in his honor after every game."
"Bullshit," Trey said. "Such complete bullshit."
Operation Desert Storm's brief, lopsided domination of the news eight months earlier had made the symbolism of paying tribute — the yellow ribbons tied around the magnolia trees along the farm-to-market roads, the proliferation of American flags — ridiculous. But at fifteen, what wasn't ridiculous? Jeremy and I could barely get through The Pledge of Allegiance without cracking up.
Curt Wood sprayed a stream of Right Guard into his armpit until the wisps of hair turned white. Trey waved the cloud away and coughed. "Got enough on, sport?"
"It doesn't work right if I don't spray it close," Curt said.
"Man, nothing can help that," Jeremy said. He sauntered down to me. He wore his towel draped over his shoulder. "Cheer up," he said. "You were gone for most of the summer."
"I swam in California," I said. I'd taken the county bus each morning at five, from my father and stepmother's house Laguna Beach to the high school in Corona del Mar. Remembering those early mornings, the coastline drowned in a hazy grapelight, gave me another reason to tell myself my loss didn't matter: I'd be back in California, for good, before the season was over. Even so, I'd expected more from myself.
"Your time wasn't bad," he said. "It's only September."
I concentrated on tying my shoes. Magnanimity felt like yet another spoil of victory.
Jeremy stepped past me, past the end of the bench and stood beneath the last illuminated fluorescent tube in the ceiling. The locker room beyond hunkered in darkness. He unfolded his big white towel and turned his back to me. "Ready, Dave? Watch, watch." He swiped the towel back and forth across his back and wiggled his rear end. "I'm Zestfully clean!" he sang. A reminder that despite the hair under his arms and the fuzz on his lip, he was still a boy. As was I.
I've scoured my memory of this day a thousand times in search of clues. At first, I hoped to discover the motive and perpetrator of the crime, but later I began to wonder if Jeremy sensed the doom gathering around him, the subtle shift in the weather. Did God?as my stepmother proclaimed during the summer?post signs visible only to those with the eyes to see? Had I missed them because I was young or because I was blind? For example, I remember the white T-shirt screened with an anchor logo he wore that night: he'd gotten it for free with a pair of Dockers. He hated it, but wore it because it was his only white T-shirt and it looked good beneath his polos.
This afternoon is also one of the last in which I'd see my old self. One of the last moments in which I'd find horsing around in a locker room after swim practice an uncomplicated pleasure, one of the rites of being in tenth grade and on the varsity team. My ability to laugh about a boy shot inside his school was proof of my immunity from the sprockets of the universe. It was the last time ordinariness would feel, well, ordinary. My parents' divorce and my father's immediate exit from Texas three years earlier, though painful, had felt more or less ordinary. I wasn't the only person I knew with a parent in a different state. When I remember myself on that late September afternoon — the boy lacing up his sneakers, his foot propped on the bench — I wonder whether my own future self already exists there.
Jeremy zipped up his bag and we headed outside. Autumn had officially begun, but the air was still as hot as summer. A herd of silver nimbus clouds lumbered across the sky, and mosquitoes buzzed around the dim yellow bulb above the door. My mother's red Ford idled in the lot. I could hear Annie Lennox on the radio even through the closed windows. My mother had dropped off Jeremy's sister Bekki and my sister Devin at their own swim practice, at a different pool, on her way to pick us up. Jeremy's mother would pick up the girls after workout. My mother's perfume wafted out when I opened the passenger-side door. "How'd it go?" she asked. I shrugged and pulled the seat forward so Jeremy could climb in back. I sank into the front seat, held my hand to the air conditioner vent until my fingertips turned numb. In the side-view mirror, I saw Jeremy lean his head against the back of the seat. I turned the radio to Power 104 and cranked the volume.
The phrase "best friend" suggests an unadulterated loyalty Jeremy and I never enjoyed. It wasn't only swimming; we spent more time together than we did apart. In addition to the four hours a day we swam in the moldy six-lane pool appended to the back of our high school, we carpooled to and from workout each morning and afternoon. During the school day, we had four of our six classes together, plus lunch. He was a lean, handsome boy, a favorite among his teachers, not above ribbing me for my slower split in the relay, my double chin, my flat-footed run. He poked his finger in my stomach and giggled like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. It made the girls on the team laugh, and I hated him for that.
From A Door in the Ocean by David McGlynn. Copyright 2012 by David McGlynn. Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint Press.