Ms. Luntz blows her whistle. The white whistle she wears on a black string around her neck like a talisman. The squeal of it screams in your ears. It’s higher pitched than most whistles. It’s more grating. More piercing. There are rumors she had it specially made by Hungarian gypsies, whittled out of a human femur. And it’s been said that each screech of her whistle is like a curse. I don’t know who started the rumor, but I believe it.
“Let’s go, people. Out of the pool,” Ms. Luntz howls, her voice hoarse from all the yelling she’s been doing during practice. She sounds her whistle again.
I hoist myself out of the pool and hurry over to my towel. Coop and Sean are close behind me.
“If she ever takes that whistle off, I’m going to steal it, tie it to an M80, and blow it the hell up.” Sean says this a little louder than he should because his fingers are jammed in his ears.
My skin had adjusted to the temperature of the pool water and now the air feels icy. I wrap my dark green towel tight around my hunched body. The towel is old and frayed. I catch one of the loose, wet threads in my mouth. I clamp down with my teeth and pull. The string doesn’t snap, just unravels a bit more off the end.
“Over here, people. Come on, come on, come on,” Ms. Luntz bellows, rapping her clipboard against the fence. “Before the next eclipse.”
Kelly is only six people away. She pats her beautiful face, her smooth forehead, her little swooped nose, with her powder pink towel. I can’t help but stare. It’s like there’s Kelly in crystal clear focus and then there’s the rest of the world, fuzzy and pointless.
I feel a smack on the back of my head. It’s Cooper.
“Dude. Keep gawking like that and you’ll be tenting your Speedo.”
I shake myself out of the trance and follow Sean and Coop into the herd surrounding Ms. Luntz.
“Your effort today was pathetic,” Ms. Luntz says. “Disgusting and completely unsatisfactory. Week one, I can excuse the apathy. But we’re in week two, people. Continue on this way and we won’t be able to beat a team of amputees.”
Coop, Sean, and me share a look of disbelief.
“I expect everyone to step it up tomorrow,” she says. “The workout I put on that board should not pose a problem.” Ms. Luntz points to a chalkboard leaned up against the back wall, the words smeared and streaky. “You should be able to finish it with time to spare.” Ms. Luntz fixes on us with her shark eyes. “I don’t think three people got halfway through this morning.”
I feel Kelly before I see her. Stepping up near me. Just behind my right shoulder. It’s like she causes a wake in the air, warm and cool at the same time. My skin reacts. Tingling. Goosebumps. I have to catch my breath. It takes everything I have, every ounce of willpower, not to turn and look.
I can just see her out of the corner of my eye. She’s right there. Wet hair tousled, cheeks rosy. I swallow the lump in my throat. I inhale, my lungs shaky, my head spinning.
“Now, to add insult to injury,” Ms. Luntz says, “I just got a call from Mrs. Porter. Apparently, her brilliant son Steven chose to go dirt biking yesterday and broke both his legs and his right arm.”
“Ouch,” Sean says.
“Good thing Stevie’s a lefty,” Coop says as he mimes jerking off with his left hand.
Sean laughs but I pretend not to notice. I don’t want Kelly thinking I find that kind of thing funny.
“I won’t go into how idiotic it is to go dirt biking in the first place,” Ms. Luntz says. “Or how selfish it was for him to do this during swim season. All I will say is that his moronic actions have left me with a big, gaping hole.”
Cooper is about to say something disgusting, but I surreptitiously whack him with my left hand before he can get it out.
“The hell?” Coop says, giving me a look.
I shake my head quickly and motion furtively toward Kelly.
Coop cranes his neck and looks past me. He groans and rolls his eyes. “Traitor,” he whispers.
I shoot him a death stare but he just starts chuckling.
“So then, I need to put this out to the team,” Ms. Luntz says. “Who’s going to step up and fill that hole?”
I clench my jaw and glare at Coop.
He bites his lip, trembling with stifled laughter. “Don’t look at me, Fun Police.” He holds his hands up in surrender.
I dart my eyes to the side. Kelly unwraps a Grape Tootsie Pop and slides it into her mouth. The slick, sticky lollipop rolls around on her tongue.
I’ll never look at a Tootsie Pop the same way again.
“We all know that over the past five seasons Steven has finished second only to Tony Grillo in every butterfly event they’ve competed in,” Ms. Luntz says. “And we’re all aware that the Boy’s Fifteen and Over, One Hundred Yard Butterfly is the hardest event there is. But these are important points for our team to get. I know it’s a lot to ask, but with the addition of Kelly to our team I really think we have a shot of taking gold in championships this year.”
Nobody moves. Nobody volunteers. A few guys shift their weight from one leg to the other. A few clear their throats. Most just look away, not wanting Ms. Luntz to catch their eyes.
A one-legged crow lands on the fence and squawks loudly.
“Well?” Ms. Luntz says, machine gunning her pen on her clip board. “We don’t need you to win. We just need you to place. Most of the teams don’t bother entering a swimmer in the butterfly, so all it really amounts to is finishing. Otherwise we don’t get a single point from the event.”
I see Sean shaking his head. “It’s a suicide mission,” he mutters.
I stare down at the concrete. I need to cut my toenails. I curl my toes under my feet.
Without thinking, I look over at Kelly. She turns and our eyes connect. She pulls the lollipop from her mouth and smiles. I smile back. Her eyes are so clear, so green. They’re the color of the water you see in those travel pictures. Where the man and woman are snorkeling and they’re holding hands, and it’s like they’re the only two people in the world.
Kelly looks away, like she’s shy or something. Still smiling. Her neck flushes slightly.
“Come on, people,” Ms. Luntz says. “Who is the hero here? Who is going to challenge themselves? Who is going to swim the fly?”
And it’s like some force outside of me suddenly grabs my right arm and thrusts my hand high into the air, and the words tumble out of my mouth before I know what’s going on.
“I’ll do it.”
The entire team turns and looks at me. I feel my face get hot.
“Matt Gratton?” Ms. Luntz coughs like she’s got a fleck of popcorn stuck in her throat. “Well. That’s… unexpected. But I guess… we don’t have any other option.” She sighs, clicks her pen, and scratches something on her clipboard. Presumably my name.
I look over at Kelly, who nods and says, “Way to go,” before she walks off.
Coop turns to me, blinking hard. “Holy crap, dude. Are you nuts?”