By Walter Ott
‘You. Kyle. Kyle Potter. Stop that.’
Steve Crandall was shouting from his stand at a chubby whey-faced boy who stared up at him. The boy, who might have been all of ten years old, shrugged and turned up his hands.
On the whole, Steve found it hard to distinguish the children one from another. However different they might be in size, shape, or color, he saw them as a single writhing, urinating mass of pre-human humanity. Whether they were called Jennifer, Bobby, Elspeth, Leroy, or even, in one case, Maximillian, they were all screeching turds to him. He knew Kyle Potter, though.
On this first day of August, the sun sailing across an Easter Egg blue sky, Steve was close to losing his temper. He’d graduated high school in June, and he’d been doing this job every summer since he was a sophomore. In three weeks, he’d be at Vermont State, and never, he vowed, would he work as a lifeguard again.
It wasn’t that he minded the grunt work the job entailed. When he first signed up at the New Ireland Memorial Pool, he hadn’t realized the lifeguards do everything: from opening the gate in the morning to emptying the trash cans after closing. Once, Steve had had to fish a pair of dead squirrels from the shallow end; having fallen in, probably from one of the tree limbs that hung over the deep end, there was no way for them to climb out. Worse was the human detritus, only about a quarter of which made it to a trash can: fast food wrappers, soda cans, the occasional used condom in the showers.
None of that really bothered Steve. He loved the pool. He’d always loved to swim, even if he did precious little of that during his workday. Like most teenaged boys, he fantasized about playing the hero: leaping in to save a drowning swimmer before a crowd of admiring witnesses. Once, an especially comely girl his own age, who manifestly could not swim, began to dog paddle her way to the deep end. Steve actually thought for a moment of letting her get into trouble just so he could jump in. In the end, he whistled at her and waved her back. When she got back to where she could stand, she flipped him off. Just another day at the office.
No, it was the Kyle Potters of the world that made him swear never to lifeguard again.
The community center brought in busloads of children every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from ten in the morning till three. By the end of his shift, Steve would be hoarse from yelling: get off the ropes, don’t run, stay out of the lap lanes: over and over. His commands were effective for perhaps three minutes before they needed repeating.
Steve reminded himself he wasn’t dealing with full-fledged adults; they were no more responsible for their actions than boisterous puppies. This strategy worked most of the time, but it fell miserably short when faced with the likes of Kyle Potter.
Kyle was not exuberant, or careless, or selfish, like the other children. Kyle was the sort of kid who would walk behind a crying girl who was scared of the water and push her in. He would convince the other children he had mushed boogers into their ice cream sandwiches. One day, when a light rain kept everyone out of the water, he stood behind Steve’s lifeguard stand and kicked it, over and over.
But it was what Kyle did to Will Dremer that really bothered Steve.
Will Dremer was clearly suffering from some kind of mental issue: a touch of autism, perhaps, or some slight intellectual deficit, or both. Kyle and his buddies had a simpler diagnosis: Will, in his Star Wars swimsuit and oversized goggles, was a ‘tard.’
That’s what Kyle and his goons were calling him now. Will had curled into the fetal position in one of the lawn chairs that lined the pool as the boys chanted the word at him. Steve had been distracted by the toddlers in the Early Swim Program – there was one instructor he didn’t really trust – and he had no idea how long it had been going on before he blew his whistle and yelled at Kyle.
Kyle’s gesture of innocence only infuriated Steve the more. He had approached the chaperones from the community center, even gone to the head of the program, a bearded jolly man called Fisher, about it. He had expected Fisher to give him some version of ‘boys will be boys’ but instead, Fisher had rested a meaty paw on Steve’s shoulder and said, ‘we’re all aware of Kyle’s behavior. We can’t send him home. All we can do is try to watch out for Will.’ Kind words, Steve thought, but that’s about it. And no use to Will, who, for all the watching the lifeguards and counselors could do, would be at Kyle’s mercy in all the manifold gaps of their attention.
‘Get away from him right now. All three of you,’ Steve shouted. They pretended not to hear, so Steve motioned them to the other end of the pool. He whistled again and they moved off.
‘Tough crowd, huh?’ Jennifer Sleigh said. She shaded her eyes with one hand beneath her brown hair and looked up at him.
‘Aren’t they all,’ Steve said. He didn’t make eye contact. She held her gaze a moment longer and walked over to her own stand, by the deep end. Steve watched as Jennifer climbed up the stand, turning away before she could see him staring. This was supposed to be a great summer: they’d get to work together at the pool for the first time; they’d see each other all day and go for ice creams after they locked up in the afternoon. All summer he hadn’t done anything after work but go straight home.
Thirty seconds later and he and Jennifer whistled in unison to signal adult swim. Steve felt dangerously close to tears so he put on his sunglasses. Diamonds formed and dissolved in the roiled waters, shaded gray-black. Soon all the kids were out and one middle-aged woman had the pool to herself. Steve stared at the deep end, the rich indigo water gathered there under the shade of the massive, doomed elm tree. He thought he could make out a rectangular shape cut into the bottom of the pool.
It looked like a door. What the hell kind of sense did that make? It must be an optical illusion. He had half a mind to dive down there, all fifteen feet to accommodate the big diving boards, and see for himself. Then it would be Jennifer’s turn to whistle at him: swim on your own time, buddy.
The voices of the grownups from the concession stand and its adjunct patio got louder. Steve had come to think of the adults who showed up regularly as the mirror images of the afternoon drunks at the Old Ivy Inn and Bar out on Route 89: like them, these people had nothing better to do during the summer days. Sometimes they came with their children, but more often with their buddies. And of course there was some overlap between the two constituencies: the concession stand didn’t serve booze, but the loud slurred voices had given Steve occasion more than once to wonder what was in the giant, opaque water bottles they carried everywhere, as if they were setting out across the Sahara.
It couldn’t be a door. Any Olympic sized pool like this one, Steve knew, contained about 660,000 gallons of water. That was better than five million pounds. If the chamber beyond it was dry, that would mean that door was standing up to an equal amount of pressure. Unless it was made of unobtainium, no door could hold up for five minutes, let alone a whole summertime. For pressure, he imagined, didn’t have all its effects at once; it built them up exponentially.
Steve was engrossed in these thoughts as one of the men detached himself from the others on the patio and walked down to Steve’s stand. The kids were lined up at the edge of the pool waiting out the ten minutes of adult swim. At first they had their backs to the man but with nothing of interest happening in the pool, first one, then a dozen, then the rest turned to watch what the man would do.
What would be the point of such a door, Steve wondered. All that pressure meant there would be no way to open it while the pool had even a foot or two of water in it. Well, not without some heavy machinery. Was it some kind of storage area? For what? It was like a riddle: what would someone want to store at the bottom of a pool for a whole summer at a stretch?
‘Hello, son,’ the man said.
Steve didn’t respond. Kyle and his friends were crowded again around Will Dremer. He couldn’t say for sure, but they seemed to be pointing to the door at the bottom of the pool.
A big hairy arm shook one of the stand’s supports and Steve came to.
At the start of the summer, he’d given this year’s crop of middle-aged dads and senior citizens the names of James Bond villains. There was Scaramanga, a tall, emaciated and patrician-looking man of perhaps seventy; Hugo Drax, a paunchy dad with a dark goatee; Blofeld, an incandescently bald man who, Steve was distressed to learn one night at closing, in fact drove a battered Ford Fiesta.
This one was Emilio Largo, from Thunderball, minus the eye patch: a full head of close-cropped silver hair against a face coppered with years of sun.
‘If I see you talking to my son again like that.’ He paused. ‘Take off those glasses.’
‘I’m sorry, which one is your son?’
‘You’re sorry. Huh. Well, you’re gonna be sorry.’
The audience of kids was now rapt with attention. Closely attuned to the liminal status someone like Steve had, they could not predict the outcome: full-grown adult vs. teenager invested with the authority of a lifeguard. Fascinating.
‘I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know which child you’re speaking about.’
‘I don’t speak, I talk.
‘I’m talking about Kyle.’ The man Steve couldn’t help but think of as Largo pointed to the diminutive excrescence he had fathered.
‘Maybe you ought to stop him harassing Will.’
‘Will.’ Now it was Steve’s turn to point. ‘Will Dremer. The kid your son and his’ – Steve stopped himself from saying goons – ‘friends are having fun with right now.’
Largo didn’t bother to look. ‘I don’t care what Kyle did. He’s a good boy. I’m telling you, son, if I ever hear...’
Just then, Jennifer blew her whistle. Whatever threat Potter senior came up with was lost in a frenzy of screeching and the slapping of water with little bodies. Steve loved her again, all at once, for he knew she had done it on purpose.
The next day, Steve chained his bike to the rack by the entrance twenty minutes before opening. His mind had seized on the door at the bottom of the pool and would not let loose its grip, as if in thought he could wrench it open and spill out its secrets.
Instead of grabbing the skimmer to pull out the first leaves of fall, singed from their branches by the heatwave, Steve pulled off his shirt and dove into the asphalt dark of the shaded diving well.
The water met his face and he awoke for the second time that day: now he was really awake, more awake than any of his parents or even friends. The true water rushed past his face, into his ears and nose, and he kicked hard.
Soon he felt the slimy tiles of the pool bottom and forced his eyes open. Chlorine tried to force them shut but he persevered.
He could feel no gap or seam where he knew there must be one. He kicked harder, fighting his own buoyancy. Damnit. It must be here.
He went up for air and tried again.
The third time he swam to the surface, a blurry red and white image came into view. It was Don McGee, his boss.
‘Crandall. What the Christ are you doing?’
They were taunting Will Dremer again.
Kyle was jabbing a finger at the child’s sunken chest: ‘get in there and find it.’
This day was not like its neighbor: it was cool and dark, light rain coming in gentle waves that lapped against the end of summer. Steve and Jennifer, like lifeguards all over the United States, hoped for thunder: a mandatory evacuation of the pool for no fewer than thirty minutes from the last clap. They could drink sodas under the patio umbrellas like the patrons for once. But it was only light rain and the buses kept coming.
‘Find it. Dive down there and see what it is.’
Will just looked at Kyle, helpless.
‘Do it. Dumbass. What is wrong with you?’
Steve had been over there twice already, and the second time Will glared at him. ‘F-f-f-f-f-uck off.’
And that’s what Steve did. In his way, Will had made himself clear: Steve’s meddling was only making things worse. Though not an adult, Steve was far enough outside the social world of Kyle, Will, and the goons to have no effect other than to attract violence and mockery. Let the adults have their fantasies: anti-bullying seminars, how to build self-esteem in the growing child, all that shit. Just as clearly, if not as keenly, as Will, Steve knew it was Lord of the Flies all the way down.
‘Can’t you see it?’ Kyle said. ‘There’s a door down there.’
Steve might have imagined it, but he thought Kyle’s toadies looked mystified for just a moment before they chorused their agreement: heads still too big for their bodies nodding a second too late in the afternoon half-light.
‘Do it. Do it and we’ll stop.’
Steve saw Will’s face slacken with hope.
‘Really. Just go see.’
‘OK,’ Will said. ‘In a minute.’
Steve had never seen Will get anywhere near the water. Jennifer told him that years ago, Will’s mother had tried to get him swimming lessons. The instructors couldn’t even get him to put his feet in the water. Now Will’s parents didn’t come to the pool; during the day, at least, they let Will fare as he would in the common froth and bubble. Steve blamed them for this, even as he knew he had no idea what life with Will was like the rest of the time.
Will stood at the edge of the pool, his too-long toes curling over the curb. Steve expected Kyle to push the boy in, but Kyle folded his arms and leaned back to watch.
A sharp, quick sound jerked Steve’s head away. Someone set off a fire cracker in the parking lot. Bored with a rainy day.
Steve thought he heard a splash. Whether he did or not, a millisecond later he and everyone else heard a cacophony of splashes, the amplified roar of locusts in their covering tide. Jennifer’s whistle had brought every child into the pool at once. Will was gone.
Without thinking, Steve ran to the deep end. He knew he could cover more ground on foot than in the water. He aimed for the spot where he’d imagined the door and dove. For he was sure that was what Kyle had been goading Will to find.
By the time the police left, Steve had been through his story half a dozen times. No, he hadn’t seen Will Dremer dive into the pool. No, he hadn’t found anybody or anything at the bottom of the pool. No, he didn’t know where Will might have gone.
Don McGee had scowled at him. That was the worst of it: this man who had taken him on, trusted him at least to keep the aquatic center out of lawsuits; now this man doubted him. Steve sat under one of the umbrellas and shivered against the August heat.
All of the kids and most of the parents were gone. There was police tape around the fence and Steve wondered if he would have to scale the fence to leave it intact. Or maybe it meant that he, and he alone, was supposed to stay here. Indefinitely.
The clouds had cleared and a daylight moon swung out over the elm trees. Steve felt himself sliding into the lawn chair, one of the ones Don McGee had bought over at the Central Tractor at four a pop. The adrenaline had left his body and he was completely drained. He closed his eyes and slept.
The gray afternoon became charcoal. Hugo Drax emerged from the umbrellas of the concession area. The big goateed head nodded at Steve. It seemed to take forever for the big man to get to Steve’s table.
‘Hard day, huh, son?’
Steve put on his sunglasses for no good reason. ‘Don’t call me that.’
They were silent as the wind spun fresh clouds in the sunset.
‘Sometimes things happen for a reason.’
Steve waited for more wisdom. Not hearing any, he said, ‘And other times?’
After a while, Steve said, ‘How do you tell the difference?’
‘Maybe he wasn’t meant for this world.’
A massive vulture whirled overhead. Steve watched its shadow in the cobalt of the diving well. The wind stirred gentle tides there.
Hugo Drax shrugged. ‘You’ll figure it out.’
When Steve woke up, it was full dark. He was alone. Don McGee had switched on the underwater lights for some reason and forgotten to turn them off. Steve felt the imprint of the lawn chair’s tubing in his back when he got up and stretched.
Where the hell had Will Dremer gone? There had been no time for him to run out of the aquatic center without being seen by at least someone, and in particular, by Steve himself: to get out, Will would have had to run right by him on his way to the main gate. The adults must have thought that’s exactly what happened. And maybe that was why Don McGee had scowled at him: he believed Steve was daydreaming as Will vanished.
Steve pulled on his shirt and flip flops. He would take one last turn around the pool area. If Will had been hiding among the kickboards piled in one corner, or under the bleachers that were folded back into another, he would’ve been found already. Still.
Steve crouched to see under the picnic tables; he flipped over the lounge chairs with his toes. He walked the perimeter of the fence looking for gaps. His mind turned from Will to Jennifer: why would she have dumped him in their last summer together? If she wanted to break up, she could just have waited till they went off to their separate colleges and time did the work for her. Steve didn’t have a lot of friends he could pose this question to; well, he admitted, he didn’t really have any friend close enough for a question like that.
The moon went behind a cloud and the sudden dark brought him back to himself. His legs ached and trembled. How long had he been standing there, staring into the diving well? Five minutes? Half an hour?
He’d been staring at a broad rectangle in the floor of the pool, neatly but faintly edged by the underwater lights. He found himself taking deep, long breaths of the damp night air.
He knifed his body into the water, barely raising a splash. The water was still warm with the heat of the day. In a moment, his hands searched the pool floor just after it completed its slope to the deep end. His fingers searched the slime for any seam or hinge. Nothing.
Steve was not about to give up. This was the last time he would search for the door, and he would do it thoroughly. He moved methodically, trying to account for the refraction that would have distorted the door’s position. He didn’t believe Will Dremer had run past him: Kyle Potter, for one, would have seen that, even if Steve himself somehow hadn’t. No, Will had been trying to impress Kyle, to get him off his back once and for all. And somehow, Will had gotten through the door.
A black patch appeared at the edge of Steve’s vision. He would have to surface soon. Not until he found something. His lips ached from the effort of pressing them closed against the tons of water trying to fight their way in. The water was a living thing; it wanted to assimilate him to itself, to permeate every chamber of his body.
And then, miraculously, his fingers lit on a seam. He had to stop himself from gasping. His flattened palms ran over the tiles until they found a steel ring, recessed into the door. He got a finger around it and it opened effortlessly, an unnatural green light flooding the water, as if an entirely different kind of liquid streamed up from beneath the pool.
Steve swam down into the light.
It was only eight and already Don McGee was having a hell of a day. The Dremers had called him before dawn, asking what he was going to do about the search for Will. It was a police matter now, he’d said; to himself, he wondered what the hell they expected him to do about it. The kid had been weird from the start. And the Crandall kid had said Kyle Potter and his gang had been tormenting him. Big surprise, the geek ran off. He’d turn up sometime today, probably at his parents’ doorstep, hungry and crying.
As Don closed the gate, he saw the pool lights were still on. Damn that Crandall kid. He hadn’t even scooped out the night’s debris: a big patch of leaves was floating in the deep end. McGee could fire him, but the thought of training a new lifeguard so late in the summer gave him pause. Damnit.
'Have to do everything myself,’ Don muttered, and unlocked the office so he could turn off the lights. ‘Still, it’s a beautiful day.’ And it was: that same Easter Egg blue sky, a cool wind out of the west, and the scent of the azaleas.
By the time Don McGee got close enough to the pool to retrieve the skimmer from its rack on the fence, he’d started to realize there was something odd about that mess of leaves. Only a few seconds later, he was on the phone to the police. No, he hadn’t found Will Dremer. Yes, he would calm down. They’d better get out here. He wasn’t strong enough to lift Steve Crandall’s body out of the pool by himself.