Darkness settled over the camp, the sun sinking low and purple over the western tree line. Inside the waterfront hut, with the campers tucked safely back in their tents, Kirby sat in a chair across from Dex’s desk while the camp director, Ms. Davenport, stomped back and forth. Dex fidgeted in his seat while Kirby swung her leg up and down, her flip-flop dangling off the end of her foot. Her shorts and uniform T-shirt were damp from her bathing suit. She wanted to hold her head up high, be defiant, but Davenport was pissed and Dex was annoyed. All Kirby could do was stare at the floor and tug at the hem of her shorts. In the distance, she could hear the muted sounds of a solitary trumpet student practicing.
“Kirby, Kirby, Kirby. What am I going to do with you?”
She shook her head.
“You’re not a kid—you have responsibilities. If you don’t get this shit in on time, the campers don’t get their certificates on time.” Davenport paused in front of Kirby and waved the uncompleted Red Cross paperwork in her face. “And then their mommies get very upset with me.” Davenport turned to Dex and pursed her lips. “Why do you always make me regret my decisions?”
Dex tipped his chin toward Davenport and narrowed his eyes, but Kirby could not read his expression. He didn’t say anything.
“You were supposed to have this in days ago.” Davenport stopped and perched on the edge of the desk. “So here we are, three weeks left in the summer and you’re still falling short, running behind. Didn’t we have this same conversation two weeks ago?”
Kirby twisted the untucked hem of her shirt in her lap, wringing it like a washcloth. “I know,” she mumbled. Kirby wanted to look at Dex, to promise that she would do better, to promise both of them that they wouldn’t have this conversation again, but all she could do was stare into her lap. The scent of cocoa butter and campfire clung to Dex, filling the room. She wanted more than anything to muster up some kind of smart-ass quip, some witty response. She fought the urge to chew on her hair.
“I know you’re no different than most of the others that come to work here.” Davenport gripped the edges of the desk and leaned back. “Back at college you’re some hot-shot singer. It’s all about the music for you kids, never about the job.” Kirby turned in her chair and made eye contact with Dex for a brief moment. His blond eyelashes seemed to be blinking at her in some kind of secret Morse code. She looked away. “Ms. Davenport, you’ve got me all—.”
Davenport stopped Kirby with a wave of her hand. “I don’t care if you’re the next Beverly Sills. While you’re here, you work for me. Unlike others in your life, I have expectations.”
Kirby snorted. “That’s a good one,” she said, more to herself than to Davenport.
“What?” Davenport leaned in toward her. Kirby stared over her shoulder at the ‘Learn To Swim’ poster tacked to the wall.
“I disappoint everyone,” Kirby said. “Talk to my voice teacher, talk to my father. I’m no hot shot.” She tried not to grind her words as she spoke, feeling her cheeks flush. “I’m nothing but a big blob of unfulfilled potential.”
“Oh, brother, now I’ve heard everything,” Dex said. He shook his head and stood up. “You just need to figure out how to stop being afraid. And you—” He leaned in toward Davenport. “You have made your point. This is my waterfront and I can discipline my own staff.”
Kirby stared at him, blinking hard.
“Look, Kirb, no one wants to be an asshole here.” His face softened as he turned away from Davenport. “Just get your shit done so we don’t have to have another conversation like this, okay?”
She nodded. “Can I go now? I promised my campers some s’mores.”
Davenport motioned for her to leave and Kirby stood up.
“I want you down here early tomorrow,” Dex said as she slid out the door. “We need to talk about your deep dive.”
Kirby let the hut door slam shut behind her. Who did Dex think he was, talking to her about fear? And the way he let Ms. Davenport go on and on. By the time she reached the supply shed she wanted to cry, or better yet, punch someone.
* * *
She was oblivious to the late summer breeze drifting cool off Lake Huron as she stomped back through the woods toward her unit, kicking sticks along the path and mumbling to herself. As the moon rose overhead, illuminating the woods, the leaves shimmered unnoticed and the crickets and tree frogs chirred unheard.
Kirby slowed as she neared the clearing. She stopped just short of the fire pit and rested against a pine tree. She could see them huddled together on a log. She looked down at the bag of marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers she held clutched to her chest: The summer camp cliché she’d promised these three girls for earning first chair in each of their respective ensembles. It hadn’t been so long ago that Kirby had been the one waiting by the fire for the treat, and now, God help them all, she was the one in charge. She pushed herself up from the tree and started toward her campers but stopped when she heard them talking.
Jennifer was the oldest of the three girls and the top flute player in the entire camp. From what Kirby understood, she had been the best last year, too. This was no small achievement. Camp Blue Note was competitive—the entire camp made up of kids who were all first chair or section leader back at their own high schools. Most kids who were as good as Jennifer were insecure, nail-biting geeks, but not Jennifer. She strutted around camp like a supermodel and the other girls lapped it up.
“Yeah, so I was reading ahead in the diving manual. There’s this thing called nitrogen narcosis which is like,” she paused for a moment and cast a glance over her shoulder. Kirby instinctively took a step back behind the pine tree as Jennifer continued. “It’s totally like getting drunk, only there’s no hangover.”
Kirby knew what it was like to have a friend like Jennifer. The rich girl who knew everything—the girl who seemed to have so much disdain for adults but managed to pass in their company easily enough; the girl who never had to say no to school trips or lessons because her parents didn’t have the money. Jennifer never turned down an opportunity to show off her brand-new platinum-clad Muramatsu. Campers, and a few of the counselors, would occasionally gather around her and touch the flute like it was the Holy Grail.
“You’re making it up,” Rachel said, scooting in close to Jennifer.
“Do you have to sit so close?” Jennifer elbowed Rachel hard. Rachel rubbed her arm but didn’t back away.
“Seriously, Jennifer,” Ashley said. “I didn’t read anything about nitrogen narcolepsy.”
“It’s nitrogen narcosis,” Jennifer said, inching away from Rachel. “And I’m not making it up. It’s in chapter twelve.”
It was in chapter twelve. Kirby had it dog-eared and stashed under her cot. Nitrogen narcosis was one of the reasons why she’d been putting off her final dive. The whole thing made her nervous.
“Narcolepsy, narcosis, what’s the difference? It’s all the same Latin root.” Ashley pulled the scrunchie out of her hair and retied her ponytail.
“How can you know those two words have the same Latin root and still be so stupid?”
“Well, there’s a big difference, Ash,” Jennifer said.
“Whatever.” Ashley twirled the end of her ponytail.
“So before you guys interrupted me,” Jennifer paused and emphasized the words so emphatically that Kirby almost laughed, “Nitrogen narcosis is when you breathe in compressed air. The nitrogen bubbles liquefy in your brain and make you stoned.” Jennifer turned from Rachel to Ashley. “The only thing is you have to dive way deeper than we’re going to for it happen.” She leaned back on the log and almost lost her balance. “The deeper you go, the more stoned you get.”
“Wow, that does sound kind of cool,” Rachel said.
“It must be,” Jennifer said. “They call it rapture of the deep.”
Ashley and Rachel giggled.
“God, how old are you guys anyway?” Jennifer said.
“Sorry,” Rachel said. “Where is Kirby with the marshmallows? I’m getting tired.”
“Screw Kirby,” Jennifer said, giving Rachel an elbow. “Listen. I had this idea—”
“About what?” Ashley said.
That was when Kirby slapped a mosquito on her thigh and muttered, “Oh, shit.” The girls turned around and saw her as she stepped out from behind the tree.
“Hey,” Kirby said, trying to sound nonchalant. “What’s up?”
“Well, congratulations.” Kirby sat down next to Rachel on the log and spread out the s’more’s ingredients in front of them. “You guys’ve had s’mores before, right?” Kirby asked. Even in the dark, she could see Jennifer roll her eyes.
“I love s’mores. Thanks, Kirby,” Rachel said. She smiled when Kirby looked over at her and then skewered a marshmallow with a long thin branch.
“How about you, Jennifer? Do you want some?” Kirby asked.
“Too fattening,” Jennifer said, patting her slender hip.
“She wants to look good for Dex,” Ashley said as she headed into the woods for a marshmallow stick.
“Shut up,” Jennifer said. She crossed her legs and slouched into the log.
“So Kirby, what’s he really like?” Rachel paused for a moment, her attention diverted by a burning marshmallow. “He seems so nice, and he’s so hot. How can you stand to be on the waterfront with him all day?”
Kirby didn’t quite know how to answer Rachel’s question. Dex was her boss, the waterfront director, in charge of all the lifeguards and sailing instructors. He taught the diving classes personally, since he was the only certified diving instructor on site. That’s how the girls knew him—from their scuba lessons and from his daily swings around the waterfront in his speedboat, Blue Momma. She wanted to tell them that he was everything they thought, macho but sensitive, stern but gentle, but she wasn’t sure how much of that was the truth and how much was her own romantic creation.
“Kirby?” Rachel said, nudging her. “So what’s he like?”
“He’s okay.” She bit into her s’more.
“Don’t you think he’s hot?” Rachel stuck another marshmallow on the end of her stick. “I mean, my god, he’s so ripped.”
“Yeah, and he wears that stupid little bathing suit. You can totally see his package,” Ashley said. She sat down next to Rachel and loaded her own roasting stick with a marshmallow.
“Yeah, we know someone who totally wants to unwrap his package.” Rachel shot a sideward glance at Jennifer.
Kirby tried not to laugh. Everyone on the waterfront got a pretty good view of Dex’s package when he emerged from his morning swim in his tiny Speedo. It had become a running joke down on the waterfront.
“Why don’t you have another marshmallow, Rach,” Jennifer said, glaring into the fire.
“Jennifer totally has a thing for him,” Rachel said. She licked marshmallow residue from her fingers. “Even though he’s like thirty-five or something.”
“So?” Ashley said.
“So, he’d probably go for someone like Kirby, you know, closer to his age.”
“Hey, I’m not anywhere near thirty-five,” Kirby said, raising her hands. “And I have no interest in Dex, or his package.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Jennifer said.
“What? That I’m not thirty-five?”
“Ha. Ha.” Jennifer folded her arms across her chest. “I heard some of the other counselors talking behind the dining hall. They said that you and Dex were going at it at the last Blue Villa night.”
“That’s a good one,” Kirby said, throwing a handful of twigs onto the fire. “How do you even know what Blue Villa night is?”
“Yeah, what is it?” Rachel said.
“It’s when all the counselors get together, after we’re asleep, and make-out and get drunk and go skinny-dipping.”
“I wish,” Kirby said, sticking an unroasted marshmallow in her mouth. “Once a week some of the counselors watch the campers while the rest of us get to take a couple of hours off. We hang out, sing ‘Kum bah yah’, and talk about how awesome the campers are.” She stared into the fire. “We do not get drunk.”
“Whatever,” Jennifer said.
“I think it’s time you guys go to bed.” Kirby gathered what was left of the s’mores and stood up. “I’m sure Dex can tell you all you want to know about l’ivresse des grandes profoundeurs at your dive class tomorrow.”
“What’s that?” Ashley said
“Never mind,” Kirby said, brushing the dirt off the seat of her shorts.
“It’s only 10:30,” Rachel said.
“Come on, you guys.” Kirby kicked dirt onto the fire. “I’ve already let you stay up later than everyone else. If Ms. Davenport sees this fire, she’s going to kick my ass.”
“You think you’re so cool when you swear,” Jennifer said, smoothing her shorts as she stood up.
“Go to bed, Jennifer.”
Kirby could hear Jennifer mocking her as the girls walked away. She knew Jennifer had a crush on Dex. Half of Camp Blue Note had a crush on Dex, counselors and campers, and it wasn’t just the way he looked. It was hard to resist his long lean swimmer’s body, but it was his confidence, the way he took charge and put everyone else at ease that was the hardest to resist—that and his damn boat. Kirby had heard some rumors about Dex and Ms. Davenport having had a fling when they were in the Coast Guard together. People said Davenport had been a captain of an ice cutter and she was the one who’d brought Dex to Camp Blue Note in the first place. Kirby couldn’t see it. Ms. Davenport seemed too bitter to be attractive to a guy like Dex—not that she wasn’t attractive in her own sun-hardened way. And she did run the camp with military-style determination. Kirby could see how those qualities might appeal to a man like Dex.
Dex could be a hard-ass, but sometimes he was really nice. He had helped her with her stroke mechanics, taught her two-person CPR. Sometimes, between sessions or at a Blue Villa night, he would listen to her sing as everyone sat around the campfire drinking beer and roasting hotdogs. She wasn’t the only singer at these campfires, but she was usually the only one who managed to stay sober enough to remember the words to the songs. She often joked that if Puccini had heard O Mio babbino caro sung to a guitar accompaniment, he might have written it like that in the first place. At those times, Dex would look at her with soft eyes. One night he even told her that she was pretty—though she knew the compliment was completely beer-fueled. The next morning down at the waterfront it was business as usual. As a senior lifeguard, she had to be at the dock early to volunteer for extra duty, and if she didn’t she always got an I can’t believe you keep letting me down this way look. Then there was the whole diving thing. Dex wanted the senior guards to have some scuba training and they had to learn to sail. Kirby had been skimming around inland lakes on her brother’s Sunfish since she was eight. Sailing had been a snap. The diving had been more of a struggle.
“Look, Kirb,” he’d said to her the first week of camp. “It’s just something I think you should know how to do.” He’d patted her on the shoulder and she’d smiled. Kirby had worked so hard to please him that, in a few weeks, she had her shallow water certification. But the deep dives freaked her out. She wasn’t sure if it was claustrophobia or agoraphobia, but whatever it was, the fear was real. She couldn’t tell Dex that the thought of diving so deep that she might lose control was more than she could handle. For weeks, she’d been telling Dex that she was ready and then she would back out, make up an excuse. He had been right tonight when he’d said she was afraid.
* * *
With the girls gone back to the tent, she stood on top of the dirt-covered coals and gave the fire one last stamp, then turned her eyes skyward. The night was crisp and clear and the dark sky was heavy with stars. She couldn’t help thinking about “Ain’t it a Pretty Night,” from Floyd’s Susannah. She sang a line, full voice, the one about the sky being “dark and velvet like,” not caring who heard her. She stopped for a moment and pictured herself as she had been at her recital earlier in the spring. Her long brown hair piled high on top of her head in an elaborate contrivance, held in place with sparkly bobby pins and luck. Her father had insisted on a designer gown that they couldn’t afford. He wanted her to not only sing the part but look it, too. Everyone had told her how wonderful her performance had been. Even her teacher, Dr. Evans, had been begrudgingly complimentary, but she knew it hadn’t been right. When she’d finished there had been no sense of accomplishment or exhilaration. When she should have been basking in triumph, she’d felt hollow. She had realized then she’d been faking the whole thing.
Kirby was still for a moment, listening to the crickets, feeling the warmth of the extinguished fire seep through her sneakers. Burned pine and chocolate hung in the air. Why couldn’t it be like this at school? Why did the city lights have to obliterate the stars? Why couldn’t the bus smell like campfires and marshmallows? Eventually, she was going to have to tell her parents that she’d opted out of the performance program and was getting a teaching certificate. Her mom would be okay with it, she was always okay with anything, but her father would not. She frowned. Davenport had said she’d had expectations. Well she would just have to get in line. Her father, now he had expectations. He wouldn’t be satisfied until she was singing at the Met.
She shook her head as she walked toward the tent. By next summer she’d be finished with school and she’d have to find a real job. No more watching the sun rise over Lake Huron, no more joy rides on Blue Momma, no more skinny-dipping on Blue Villa night, and no more chances to slip into that wetsuit and take that deep dive.
When Kirby reached the tent, she found Rachel waiting outside. She had on a bathrobe and flip-flops, her toothbrush and a plastic cup in her hand.
“Kirby, can I talk to you?” Rachel whispered.
Kirby nodded and led her over to a picnic table not far from the tent. They sat down across from each other. Kirby hoped it was nothing. She was tired, wanted to go to bed. There was all that paperwork to do in the morning—no more procrastinating.
“What did you want to talk about?”
Rachel looked down at the tabletop. “I know you were listening to us earlier tonight.”
“What do you mean?” Kirby laid her hands out flat on the cold surface of the picnic table; her fingernails glowed in the moonlight.
“I know you heard us talking about that nitrogen thingy.”
“Oh, that.” Kirby shook her head. “Dex says that some divers get hooked.”
“You do have a thing for Dex,” Rachel said.
Kirby laughed. “He’s my boss, Rachel.”
“So it’s true then, Jennifer wasn’t lying.”
“Nitrogen narcosis? Sure. It happens once you dive below anywhere from sixty to one hundred feet. The deeper you dive, the more intoxicated you feel.”
“What’s this all about?” She leaned in, trying to read Rachel’s face in the darkness. “Please tell me that you guys are not seriously thinking about doing an unsupervised deep dive.”
Rachel played with her toothbrush.
“Rachel, people die every year from this. They start to feel euphoric and then they take off their regulators. They think they can breathe like a fish. Or they get disoriented and ascend too quickly and get the bends.”
Rachel flipped her hair over her shoulder. “You know Jennifer. She does what she wants.”
Kirby gripped Rachel’s arm. “I’m not kidding around here. Do you want to spend three days in a hyperbaric chamber because you have the bends?” She squeezed Rachel’s hand. “Promise me you won’t do anything stupid.”
Rachel looked up at Kirby like she was trying to remember something and laughed a little. “Don’t be such a mom. Rapture of the deep, it sounds so retarded.”
Kirby rose from the picnic table and put her arm around Rachel’s shoulder as they walked back to the tent. “I’m glad you came to me and told me what was going on. I would feel terrible if anything happened to any of you.” She gave Rachel a pat. “Even Jennifer.”
* * *
Kirby’s alarm clock clanged and she rolled over on her cot and hit the snooze. Usually she could hear the girls who shared the tent with her moving about, shuffling in their flip-flops across the wooden platform, but this morning, for once, they were silent. When the clock went off again ten minutes later, Kirby opened her eyes and looked around. The flaps were down, but the early morning light filtered through the gaps in the walls and illuminated the interior enough for her to know that the girls were gone—all three of them. Their beds were made. Their robes hung on hooks next to their bunks and their flippers, usually laid out on the floor, were missing too—as were their masks and snorkels.
“This is not happening,” Kirby muttered to herself as she pulled off her underwear and pulled on her swimsuit. She grabbed a sweatshirt, pulled her hair into a ponytail, and stepped into her sneakers. Then she ran to the bathhouse. Other girls from her unit were there, brushing their teeth, stepping into the showers.
“Hey!” She stood on the long bench that ran the length of the bathhouse. “Has anyone seen Ashley Roberts, Jenn Wilson, or Rachel Zimmerman?” The motion in the bathhouse came to a halt as the girls looked around.
“No one’s seen them?” Kirby said again.
“They’re not in the showers, Kirby,” a voice answered from the back of the bathhouse.
“If anybody does see them, please come find me.” Kirby jumped down off the bench and headed for the tent of the other counselor who shared the unit with her.
“Mary, wake up,” Kirby said, pushing open the tent flap.
“What’s the matter?” Mary said, blinking.
“Jennifer, Rachel, and Ashley are M. I. A. and their scuba gear is gone.”
Mary sat up in her bunk and the other girls in her tent mumbled for them to be quiet. “Their gear is gone? That’s weird.”
Kirby nodded. She needed to get down to the waterfront.
“Okay, I’ll send somebody over to Davenport’s,” Mary said.
Kirby tugged on the bottom of her sweatshirt Her legs were cold in the early morning damp and she wished that she’d thought to put on some pants.
Mary stepped out of the tent, her hair a frizzy halo. “Just do me a favor,” she said, pulling her nightgown close around herself. Kirby could see crease marks on her face from her pillow. “Check the bathrooms before you sound the general alarm.”
“Already did that,” Kirby said, moving away. “No one’s seen them.”
“Don’t freak out, Kirby,” Mary called after her. “They’re probably off messing around with some guys.”
Kirby didn’t turn around. She knew Mary was probably right, those little shits were most likely behind the Band Shell with some guys from Ed’s unit, the ones they’d had pizza with two nights ago. When she found them, she was going to ring their entitled little necks. She would insist that Dex kick them out of the scuba class or maybe even out of camp.
By the time she reached the waterfront, she was out of breath and sweating.
“Kirb, what’s up?” Dex stood on the end of the dock, glistening from his early morning swim. “I didn’t expect you down here this early.”
Kirby looked away for a moment, tried to catch her breath.
“Are all the tanks here?” she asked.
“I don’t know, haven’t checked this morning. Why?” He moved off the end of the dock toward the bungalow next to the boathouse. He stopped for a moment and stood so close to Kirby that she could smell the lake on him.
“Three of my girls have gone missing this morning, three girls from your dive class who were having a very interesting discussion about nitrogen narcosis last night.”
“Christ,” Dex said, moving away. “There’s one every summer. Next year, I’m just going to rip that chapter right out of the manual.”
Kirby followed him to the beach chair he had set up outside the bungalow. She tried to concentrate on why she’d come down there as she watched him slip on his T-shirt.
“Let’s go check the tanks,” he said.
They walked around the side of the boathouse to the padlocked cage where all the camp’s scuba tanks were stored.
“Idiots,” he said.
The lock looked like it had been broken off with a crowbar. Dex pulled it off the cage and threw it into the sand. “They’d have to go about three quarters of a mile out before it gets deep enough for their little experiment.” Dex made finger quotes as he said experiment. He frowned as he squinted out over the pink horizon.
“Do you think they’re okay?” Kirby’s skin felt clammy, her throat dry.
He shook his head. “We’d better sound the alarm.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “I’ll go out in Blue Momma. If they’re out there, I should be able to find them. You stay here and run point. We’ll need to sweep the waterfront. One thing I learned in the Coast Guard was to always cover your ass.”
She swallowed. Run point. That would mean organizing all the other lifeguards once they got down to the beach. It also meant diving under the dock and the stationary raft. It was dark under the raft and there were weeds. Lots of long, easy-to-get-tangled-in, weeds.
“You’re up for it aren’t you, Kirb?” He squeezed her shoulder. She nodded. They’d done this twice before, earlier in the summer, and both times the missing campers had turned up on dry land. But those kids hadn’t stolen air tanks.
“Well, let’s get this show on the road.” Dex grabbed his keys from the beach chair and unlocked a small metal box attached to the side of the boathouse. He lifted the lid and turned on the alarm. It sounded like an old-fashioned air-raid siren. Without thinking, Kirby covered her ears. Dex smiled as he threw her his goggles.
“It’s going to be okay,” he shouted. “Don’t wait too long to get started.”
She nodded and watched as he climbed aboard Blue Momma, started the engine, and lowered the boat into the water. In a moment, he was gone, the breeze blowing over his blond buzz-cut.
Dex could afford to be cavalier, she thought. He’d been through this so many times, but she’d only been in two live drills before. She kicked off her sneakers and flung her sweatshirt to the sand.
Seconds later, other lifeguards started to appear on the beach. Kirby turned off the alarm, started barking orders. Everyone knew what to do. Dex made them practice the drill once a week, made them take turns running point. Kirby got them lined up on the beach, an arm’s length apart. There weren’t enough bodies to sweep the entire length of the waterfront area at once, so they started at one side, then moved to the middle and then to the other side. The guards stood with their arms linked, sweeping the ground with their feet, side to side in an arc. Kirby thought they looked like ballet dancers. Once the water got too deep, they would each surface dive, swim along the bottom for three strokes then surface, skull backwards for a space, then dive again. Kirby’s job was to check under the dock and under the raft. She could feel her pulse throbbing in her neck. The last thing she wanted to do was hyperventilate, so she took a deep breath, blew it out slowly, and shook her arms and legs.
Kirby spit into her goggles and kneeled down to rinse them. Once she was in the water, she strapped them around her face and made her descent.
Even on the brightest days, it was murky under the dock. She couldn’t surface dive because there wasn’t enough room between the underside of the dock and the water. Taking a deep breath, she fully submerged herself. She would have to rely on her hands as well as her eyes.
The weeds weren’t too bad, she thought, and there was enough light so that she could see straight down to the bottom. At least they were on the big lake. The smaller inland lakes were really tough. Kirby had worked at camps like that, where the bottom was nothing but muck, swimmer’s itch, and leeches. She surfaced with her hand up above her head so she wouldn’t crack her skull on the bottom of the dock. Now for the part of the dock that ran parallel to the shore. This, she knew, would be harder. The entire area was close to twenty feet deep. Free diving to this depth wasn’t easy for her. She had a hard time equalizing the pressure in her ears, and the deeper she swam, the more she felt like her head was going to explode.
On her second dive, her eyes sweeping left and right and her hands feeling along the bottom, she saw a flash of white moving in the shadows. It looked like it was stuck under the raft.
She surfaced. “Hey! Hey, I think there’s something down here!” she shouted. She didn’t wait for a response. Her temples pounded as she dived again. It was under the raft. She could see it clearly now. It was a hand, the fingers splayed, like it was reaching up for something. If she could have screamed she would have, and she fought hard against the instinct to go for air. The weeds were long and ropy and she knew she had to be careful not to get tangled up in them. Her lungs burned as she grabbed the wrist and pulled. It felt cold and rigid in her hand, stiff and heavy. A body shouldn’t be this heavy, shouldn’t be this hard to pull up. She pushed these thoughts aside and didn’t look down, but up, kicking her legs as hard as she could. As her head broke the surface, she pulled the arm alongside her, looking for the face underneath the mass of long brown hair, preparing herself to pry open the jaw and attempt open-water mouth-to-mouth until she could get the body to the dock.
That was when she heard the shouting from the beach, heard the siren sounding the all clear. How could there be an all clear? She had a body in her hands. She looked down at the waxy face and realized it wasn’t a body. It was a mannequin, its hard plastic lips frozen in a mocking smile.
“You little bitches!” Kirby shouted, her legs thrashing and pushing her toward the shore, her hand still gripping the dummy’s arm. Once the water became shallow enough, she stood up, twisted the plastic arm out of its socket, and swung it like a baseball bat.
Jennifer, Rachel, and Ashley were fully dressed and dry, standing on the beach, surrounded by a phalanx of dripping lifeguards. Ms. Davenport was behind them, hands on her hips, staring at Kirby.
Kirby stalked onto the beach with the plastic arm raised over her head, her mirrored goggles still suctioned to her face.
“Why?” She shook the arm at them and several guards stepped in between her and the girls. “Why would you do something like this?”
Jennifer flipped her hair back over her shoulder. “We thought you would think it was funny.”
“Yeah,” Ashley said. “We really had you going with that rapture of the deep stuff, didn’t we?” She elbowed Jennifer.
“What?” Kirby peeled off her goggles, let them fall to the sand. “Rachel?” Kirby asked.
She stood apart from the others and stared out over the water.
“Dex’s coming back. Do you think he’ll be mad?”
Kirby stepped in toward her. “What do you think?”
“Are we going to have to go home?” Rachel looked at her, eyes blinking. “It was just a joke.”
“I really don’t know what everyone is freaking out about,” Jennifer said, shoving her hands deep into her pockets. She started to laugh and Ms. Davenport smacked her on the back of the head.
“Hey!” Jennifer said, rubbing her head. “My mother’s a lawyer.”
Ms. Davenport folded her arms. “Of course she is.”
Kirby stepped in. “I still don’t understand.”
“We took the mannequin from the costume shop,” Ashley said. “Jenn used a clove hitch, just like Dex taught us, and tied it to the anchor of the raft, so that whoever found it would be able to get it off the bottom. We were really counting on it being you.” She looked back out over Kirby’s shoulder at the water. “We didn’t think it would be this big of a deal, honest.”
Jennifer laughed nervously. “It’s got my bathing suit on. Looks good on her don’t you think?”
“I would hate to think, Miss Michaels,” Ms. Davenport said in her clipped military style, “that these girls got this idea from you.” She crossed her arms and glared at Kirby.
Kirby still clutched the plastic arm, but it drooped down at her side. She stood on the beach, staring at all of them, unable to speak.
Rachel had tears in her eyes. “That’s not fair, Ms. Davenport. It was all Jennifer’s idea.”
“Shut up, Rachel.”
“You shut up, Jenn.” Rachel stamped her foot. “Really, Ms. Davenport, Kirby is super nice.”
Kirby turned and walked toward the water.
“When my mother comes to pick me up,” Jennifer said, “I’m going to tell her that it was all Kirby’s idea. That she wanted to look cool in front of Dex.”
“That’s not true!” Rachel said, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “Kirby, I’m really sorry.”
Kirby did not turn around.
“Miss Michaels, we’re not done,” Ms. Davenport called after her. “Kirby Michaels, get back here!”
Kirby dragged the plastic arm behind her on the sand and then back into the water. She saw Dex as he ran up the dock and onto the beach. He was shouting, angry—not at her, as far as she could tell, but it didn’t matter. She didn’t care.
She took a deep breath and dipped under the water. She didn’t surface until she reached the raft. Then she hoisted the mannequin’s arm onto it with a loud smack. The voices on the beach were a fading jumble and Lake Huron stretched out in front of her for one hundred and eighty-three miles. The horizon was a pale blue as the sun rose before her, casting a golden shimmer onto the surface of the lake. She put her face into the water, pulled hard against its resistance, her stroke clean and efficient, and her breath regular and even. The water glided over and under her as she concentrated on the pure mechanics of the stroke, gave herself over to the hypnotic rhythm of the motion. Images flashed through her mind as she swam: Jennifer’s contemptuous smile; Davenport’s angry, shaking fist; her father, turning his back on her in disbelief as she tells him her decision. Eventually, though, these pictures melted into the nothingness of her body and its movement through the water, the angle of her elbows as they rose up and over her head, the beat of her kick, and the balance and rotation of her hips. Slowly, she became aware of a boat pulling up alongside her—Blue Momma.
“Kirb, come on now.” She could see Dex leaning over the side of the boat, one hand on the wheel. “I can tell you’ve really been working on your crawl. Clearly, long distance anger swimming is your event.”
She could hear him, sort of, and see the boat rocking from side to side, but she didn’t slow down.
“I have to tell you that no one has actually ever swum all the way across Lake Huron. It’s too cold and I hear the Canadians are assholes.”
She flipped over onto her back and stared straight up into the clear cloudless sky. She would have to get back somehow. She couldn’t swim all the way to Canada, and Dex was not going to leave her out in open water this far from shore. She righted herself and began treading water. Was it a trick of the sunlight on the water or did Dex really look concerned?
“I’m sorry I’m such a fuck-up,” she said.
“Kirby, come on.”
“No really. I suck.”
“Would you just shut up and get in the boat?”
She nodded. Dex swung Blue Momma around in a shallow arc and picked her up. He helped her over the side of the boat and wrapped her in a beach towel. “I closed the waterfront today and brought some gear with me. We could anchor Blue Momma right here and take a dive if you want.”
She looked up into his sun-creased face so close to her own.
“I was worried about you,” he said. “I know how your adrenaline gets going during those drills. And then to actually find something.” He wrapped a second towel around her shoulders. “I’m really proud of the way you held it together and ran the drill.”
She stared down at the white fiberglass deck of the boat. “I want to take that dive now,” she said. “I’m ready.”
He sat her down on a cushioned bench, the boat rocking beneath them. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. You’ve got nothing to prove to me.”
“Please, Dex.” She pulled the towel around her shoulders a little tighter. “I really feel like I need to accomplish something. You’re the one who said I needed to stop being afraid.”
“What the hell do I know?” He brushed a stray lock of wet hair out of her face. “There’s not much here to see. No shipwrecks, no big schools of fish.”
“I don’t care.”
He dropped the anchor and then helped her on with her wetsuit. She pulled on her mask and adjusted the straps of her air tank. Her regulator hung down over her shoulder and between her breasts. Her mouth felt dry and she licked her lips.
Dex touched her shoulder. “I know we talked about this in class, but it’s normal for people to get a little anxious on their first deep dive. Just remember, once we go below thirty feet, you can’t just hightail it to the surface. You have to take your time.”
“The important thing is not to panic.”
She shook her head and looked directly at him. “Are you trying to freak me out? Because I’m starting to feel a little freaked out and we’re still on the boat.”
Dex laughed. “Christ Kirb, just focus on me,” he said as he hoisted his air tank over his shoulders. “We’ll go down about 100 feet. Once we get down there just enjoy yourself, but don’t do anything crazy. I’ll give you the up sign when it’s time to ascend.”
“Okay.” Kirby moved to the transom of the rocking boat and looked back toward the shore. She’d only been in the water for twenty minutes or so but had swum over half a mile. From her vantage point now, the waterfront seemed like alien territory, a faraway place that she no longer recognized. Dex tapped her shoulder and she jumped into the lake, her legs splayed, her arms out in front of her. Dex followed her. Once in the water Kirby looked up at the sun, now high in the sky, then down at the blackness below her.
“You sure you’re ready?” Dex asked.
She nodded and submerged herself in the water, swimming slowly. She swallowed hard, and gradually the pressure in her ears began to lessen. There was a moment of panic when she reached forty feet and knew that there would be no easy escape. As the deep gathered around her, she felt something inside her collapse and release. Below a profound blackness stretched out before her, and above the light filtered through the water in sharp flashes, like icicles or moonbeams. Dex kept a steady pace with her but let her lead the way. When she felt a tug on her flipper, she stopped and swam over to him. The darkness felt comforting and a giddy eagerness bubbled up from inside her. Now she understood why everyone drank so much beer on those Blue Villa Nights. She wished she could touch Dex, feel the warmth of his skin under her hands, his breath on her face. The water was cold against her skin but she felt her body flush and fill with exhilaration, heat. Had she been on dry land she would have sung, loud and high, not caring about whether or not every note was perfect, or what she was wearing, or if her hair looked just so. She would have sung for the pure joy of filling her throat with sound, of hearing that sound reverberate off the walls, the floor, the grass-covered hills and leafy trees of campus. Dex pointed to his watch, then up toward the surface. She wanted to stay. She wasn’t ready for the sunlight and the sand dunes, but Dex was insistent.
She closed her eyes and let her arms and legs relax, dangle free. She wouldn’t leave this feeling behind. Then she felt herself ascending. Dex tugged her upward and tapped his watch again. He reached for her hand, but she waved it away and slowly headed for the surface under her own speed.
C.J. Spataro is the MFA program director at Rosemont College in suburban Philadelphia and the editorial director of Philadelphia Stories and PS Books. She is a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant winner for fiction and her short fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in Iron Horse Literary Review, Permafrost, The Baltimore Review, XConnect, Mason’s Road, Painted Bride Quarterly, and others. She lives in S. Philadelphia where her cat treats her like a human hammock and she kind of likes it.