a short story by Jerry Zinn
“You’re afraid of water? How is that even possible? You mean you never like take a shower?” Maddox joked to the amusement of the boys huddled around.
“I told you, I’m not afraid of water; I just can’t go near chlorine,” David answered defensively with cheeks reddening.
“Sounds like you’re just scared to take your shirt off in front of the girls,” Andrew added.
“Maddox, Andrew, leave David alone,” warned Victoria.
“Oh, David looks like you have a bodyguard, and it’s a girl!” Maddox said, getting a rise out of the audience once more.
“David, don’t listen to him. He’s just being a jerk.” Victoria added before returning to the girls clumped on the other side of the pool. Keeping with long-standing tradition, as the kids trickled in, dropped off by lucky parents to leave under the attention of the unlucky ones, the boys and girls self divided. Bridging the gap between the two gender-specific camps were the plastic tables covered in a hodgepodge of nachos, cookies, pretzels, sodas, and an optimistic bowl of salad. A large yellow cake sat in the center, prepared and decorated by the local grocery store in blue Crisco frosting which read, “Congratulations to the 3rd Grade Class of 2010!”
Though neither the parents nor the children believed that completing the 3rd grade was a monumental accomplishment, it was proper procedure to hold an end of the year pool party. It suited both the children and their parents. On the one hand, the boys looked forward to showing off what a week of push-ups could do to their physiques, and the girls enjoyed wearing new swimsuits and beating the boys at virtually every game. On the other hand, the parents who stayed could gripe about the struggles with teachers and administration from that year, and the parents who left could enjoy time without their kids. The adults watched the group of forty or so by delegating control to the lifeguards, grabbing a few beers, and eating the children’s snacks.
Each year there was one boy more eager than the rest who would tear off his shirt and cannonball into the pool, encouraging the others to join. Inevitably they would, moving in units of friend groups, until nearly everyone was splashing in the water like an excited gaggle of geese. As he was the previous summer, the year’s attention grabber was Eric Jackson, a slightly hefty, moppy-headed boy who was more goofball than cannonball as he jumped into the water.
“Let’s go! Come on guys!” he said flailing his arms around. He spoke only to the boys, playing the game of tactful disregard for the other half of the grade. The actions of 3rd grade boys and girls were chess-like, only each side was blind to the moves of the other. As a result, laughably awkward moments were the rule of every day.
It took a quarter of an hour for the boys to make it into the pool, every boy except David, and Freddy, who didn’t have a problem with chlorine he was just more interested in talking about the recent actions of the Fed with George’s dad. A few outspoken girls threw themselves into the mix early on, but the rest laid out on lounge chairs to tan with indifference.
Victoria laid back with her mother’s sunglasses, too big for her face, but stylish, which made her confident. On either side of her were the class’s second and third most popular girls, collectively forming a power clique. While she did enjoy the attention that came with her position, Victoria was a kind person and wasn’t afraid to let her true colors shine. She turned her head out of the direct sunlight and saw David sitting by himself, watching his classmates engaged in every manner of boisterous nonsense.
“I’ll be back,” she said to her companions who continued to readjust uncomfortably in chairs engineered for adult-sized bodies.
“OK,” they responded in unison.
Victoria pried herself away, plastic strips clinging to her legs. David didn’t notice her traveling in his direction. He was lost in thought. It had not been an easy transition for David, coming to a new school where everyone else had been together since kindergarten. It was especially difficult to make that jump into 3rd grade, when hormones were starting to play games with young minds and bodies, and low self-confidence was often medicated with teasing and practical jokes.
“Hey David,” Victoria said.
David looked up to see her, and blood involuntarily shot back up into his cheeks.
“Oh, hey Victoria,” he responded unsteadily.
“Can I sit with you?”
Victoria took a seat, and the two sat quietly. David searched for something clever to say, while Victoria waited for him to say it. Time passed slowly, and Victoria could sense his discomfort.
“So, have you ever been in a pool?” she asked, breaking the stalemate.
“Once, when I was a lot younger, but I don’t remember it. My mom says I’m allergic to chlorine. I’ve been in the ocean a lot though. I do like swimming.”
“That sucks. What are you going to do here?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t even want to come, but my mom had some work thing, and she said it was better if I went to this party than to her office.”
“My parents work a lot too, but it wasn’t as bad before they got divorced. Do you like it here?” she asked with the kind of abrupt transition unachievable in adulthood.
“It’s ok, but there isn’t a lot to do if you can’t get in the pool.”
“Oh no, I meant like here in town and at St. Andrew’s. Is it better than where you used to go?”
“Oh,” David said with a hint of embarrassment. “It’s fine. We move around a lot. It’s just my mom and I. It’s usually just easier if I don’t make friends.”
“That’s sad. Life is a lot better when you have friends to be with.”
“You’re lucky. Everyone likes you.”
“Well that’s true. The part about me being lucky. I don’t think everyone likes me. They just act like it. Sometimes I think being like you is better.”
“What? Why would you want to be like me?”
“Actually, to be honest that isn’t what I meant. It’s that I sort of, well, I like you David. You’re a good guy.” Now it was Victoria who blushed and turned her head toward the concrete deck. David smiled lopsidedly as her words sunk in. They both stayed that way, looking at the ground for a few seconds before Victoria gave him a quick peck on the cheek.
“Thanks,” David said and immediately questioned himself for doing so.
“You’re welcome,” Victoria answered with equal discomfort.
At the deep end of the pool, where the rest of their class was engaged in a heated game of sharks and minnows, Maddox looked up just in time to see Victoria and David’s poolside exchange. He’d been keeping an eye on Victoria since he arrived at the party, and for most of the year leading up to it. His strategy had been one of shock and awe, using every chance he got to show off and appear superior to the other boys. Maddox’s hope was that Victoria would come after him. His theory was based on the mid-century principle that the tough guy was never supposed to go after the girl. He had to make her come to him. But it hadn’t worked, and as he watched her with David that realization finally started to set in.
“Maddox, what are you doing? They’re all making it across!” Alex cried out.
Maddox ignored him and climbed up the ladder, being sure to flex his microscopic biceps as he pulled himself out. He made a decision, then and there, that if Victoria didn’t want to be with him, he didn’t want her to be with anyone. Hormones hit Maddox like a breakfast tidal wave, early and hard.
“Allergic to chlorine… ha!” Maddox mumbled as he neared David and Victoria, his body still dripping wet. “Get up!” he commanded.
“No Victoria. I’m talking to your boyfriend. Come on, get up David! I want to race you to the other end of the pool.”
“I told you, Maddox; I can’t go in.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re allergic to chlorine. You know what I think? I think you just made that up. Who ever heard of someone that’s allergic to chlorine?”
“You know, bullying me isn’t going to get people to respect you,” David said matter-of-factly with unappreciated maturity.
“What do you know? You don’t have any friends!” Maddox barked back. By now the entire class was watching the exchange with great interest. Maddox could feel the spotlight on him, and he used the opportunity to seize David’s arm and pull him to his feet. “Alright, we’ll do this the hard way then!”
“Maddox, please stop,” David pleaded. “You’re going to regret this.”
But Maddox didn’t relent. He dragged David with him to the edge of the deep end.
“First one to the other side wins! Here I’ll give you a head start!” he said pushing David over the edge with a shove at his back. Maddox jumped in a split second after and started to swim toward the other end. He was so focused on winning that he didn’t pay attention to what was going on around him. By the time he got to the other wall and turned around, everyone else had cleared out. They were all huddled by the poolside in shock. Some of the kids even covered their faces, peeking through gaps in their fingers.
“Maddox, get out of the pool!” yelled a boy frantically. “Get out, hurry!” But Maddox was too caught up in his victory to understand what all the excitement was about. He just hung onto the side and looked confused as he scanned the pool for David. Maddox couldn’t find him anywhere, but something caught his eye a few yards away. There was a fin cutting through the water and moving fast in his direction. He didn’t have enough time to react, let alone get to safety.
“He turned into a shark!” someone screeched.
All Maddox could do was close his eyes and let out a shrill scream as he braced for impact. Every part of his body tensed up in anticipation, but nothing happened. Maddox listened but all he could hear was heavy laughter in surround sound, and he slowly peeled his eyes open to see David wading in the water with a plastic shark fin strapped to his head, grinning ear to ear.
“I guess I outgrew my chlorine allergy. Found this at the bottom of the pool,” David said pulling the fin off. “I didn’t know you were afraid of sharks. I also didn’t know you scream like a baby, but I guess everyone knows now. Bullies don’t win.”
Maddox was shaking with shame. He took a deep breath and dipped his head under, hoping that everyone would be gone by the time he resurfaced.