I was dimly aware that my hands were going to be bruised, but I kept pumping anyway, long since unable to count out loud due to my lack of breath. I felt like there was no oxygen in the air, which struck me as somehow ironic as I leaned down and force air that I didn’t have out of my lungs. All the sounds of the world around me were muffled, as though my ears were full of cotton, but I could still make out the important ones. Screams, mostly. Someone on a phone finally making that call. A trill in the distance coming to relieve me.
I leaned my head down and listened, straining. With my left hand, I felt desperately for that warm expulsion of air on my damp skin. Nothing. Shit. How long had it been? If I had to ask that, it was probably too late. No, fuck that, I KNEW it was too late. But my hands found their mark and then I was pumping again, the purplish bruises already spreading like fire across my pale skin.
I didn’t stop until the EMTs arrived, but all I’d succeeded in doing was cracking the elderly man’s breastplate. Even with that force – a force that shocked the EMTs – his mouth hung slack and his skin turned gray. Despite my best efforts, there was no saving him.
He was the only swimmer who had ever died on my watch.
I’ve been guarding for about four years now.
I’ve always been a good swimmer, a real natural. I can cut through the water with all the speed and agility of a shark, though I’m markedly less vicious. Although I look thin, I have some lean musculature and pulling even the bulkiest guys out of the water poses no difficulty to me – and, believe me, I’ve had to a few times. I’m attentive and vigilant, able to assess most people’s swimming ability in a few seconds. It’s a valuable skill to have as a lifeguard.
I didn’t lose anybody until I was into my second year of guarding. He was an older man, with wispy white hair combed over his scalp and a mildly impressive beer belly. He was a frequent customer at the pool, so I knew that his name was Gerard Pommier and that he had been married to a petite, mischievous woman named Margaret for over thirty years. They were always kind to me when I came in, and they were both excellent swimmers. That’s why I wasn’t paying them much attention that day.
See, some kids were having a birthday party, ages ranging from about 7-9 years old. Some of them were kids I recognized from swimming lessons, but some I knew had little-to-no experience in the water. Their parents were sitting in the observation deck drinking from thermoses that I suspected contained something a little stronger than water. Grade A parenting right there, the lazy fucks. To top it all off, I was the only guard on duty that shift. There are supposed to be two guards at all times, but one of my shittier coworkers decided not to come in or give notice as to why he wasn’t showing up, leaving me on my own.
So I didn’t notice anything was wrong with Gerard until I heard Margaret shriek. It was a strange sound for her, she was usually a very calm and cavalier person, someone that I wanted to be like when I grew up. But there was no mistaking the sounds of panic and I whipped my head from the startled children to the deep end of the pool, where Gerard was struggling just at the surface of the water, his face red and his mouth hanging open as though gasping for air.
I was in the water in the next second, jumping from my high chair and grasping onto the life preserver. I managed to reach him just before he slipped under the water and I hauled him onto the preserver. By the time I got him to the edge of the pool and out of the water, he had stopped breathing and I could find no pulse.
With Margaret’s screams in the background, I started CPR. I instructed one of the bystanders to call 911, but he didn’t do anything – he just gawked at me as I started hammering away on Gerard’s chest. Finally, someone else took it upon themselves to get the phone and make the call. The EMTs were there in ten minutes.
But it was too late.
The EMTs took me along with Gerard to the hospital, probably because they were worried I would go into shock. I guess I did, because they kept me there for a few hours before they’d let me go home. The doctors who worked on Gerard told me that he’d had a heart attack, and there was really nothing I could have done to help him. It wasn’t my fault. Margaret told me it wasn’t my fault, too, although I noticed that she didn’t come to the pool to see me anymore. The coworker who hadn’t showed up was fired. I was given a six-month vacation in order to recuperate from the shock.
I won’t lie – it was a pretty awful time, getting back on my feet after that. I was only nineteen when it happened, and Gerard was like another grandfather to me. I went through all the typical stages of grief. I blamed myself. I had a few panic attacks. I swore I’d never go near a pool again.
And then, six months later, I went back to my job. I never lost another person after that. Sure, I had to jump in and save a few people a week, but nobody got in serious danger with me around.
I protected them all with my life, if only for the sake of my own sanity.
About three months ago, I had to jump in and save an eight-year-old girl.
I’ll be frank: the situation was unexpected, and it gave me a scare. When you’re learning to guard, you’re trained to recognize the signs of drowning. See, you might expect that there’d be shouting and screaming. That’s what it looks like in the movies, doesn’t it? In actuality, drowning is… quiet. By the time people are struggling to stay above water, their body is in survival mode. They don’t scream because they need all their air to keep breathing, or to hold in their lungs whenever they fall beneath the surface. When looking for a distressed swimmer – someone in danger of drowning – you look for frantic splashing movements accompanied by absolute silence.
I am excellent at reading these signs. I’ve said that before. I knew what to look for. Which is why finding a drowner who didn’t exhibit any of these signs was… disconcerting.
Another thing we look for as we watch the pool are people who sit at the bottom. People like to do that, of course, but we have to check to make sure no one’s down there too long, because sometimes it’s actually a distressed swimmer that’s succumbed to the water. Granted, if you’re vigilant for distressed swimmers, it shouldn’t get to that point. But, hey, we all make our mistakes.
Well, that day, I was scanning the pool when I noticed a young girl sitting at the bottom of the deep end. I waited for about twenty seconds before I jumped in, feeling a little paranoid. Something about the way she was sitting hit me wrong. I was probably being overly cautious, but that’s not such a bad thing to be. I got into the water and made a surface dive above her, plunging down to the bottom as quickly as I could. I almost gasped when I saw her – I just barely managed to hold on to my air.
She was sitting completely immobile at the bottom of the pool, her legs crossed under her, her mouth hanging open. I could tell that she was inhaling water, but she wasn’t showing any signs of panic or distress. And the worst part was that she didn’t have her eyes closed. They were wide open in spite of the chlorine, and they just… stared. She was staring straight ahead, never taking her eyes off of something that I couldn’t see.
I moved behind her and grabbed her underneath the armpits, propelling us towards the surface. That seemed to break whatever hypnosis she was under and she began to struggle, making the trip all the more difficult. Once I got her to the surface, she choked and screamed, and I could hear her mother screaming at us from across the pool. Great, I thought as I placed her on the life preserver and began to soothe her in a low, even voice. I managed to get her to calm down even as she coughed and spat up the bitter water. As soon as I got her out of the pool, she threw up the rest of the water she’d ingested. Her mother thanked me and I gave the girl a once-over before the EMTs arrived.
As I was checking her, I kept talking, trying to keep her calm and out of shock. At one point, I heard myself ask, “Why were you at the bottom of the pool, sweetie?” I mentally kicked myself for that question, referencing her trauma could provoke a reaction, but instead she looked at me with clear eyes and answered,
Her words sent a shard of ice into my stomach as I stared at her. I didn’t have a chance to question her further because the ambulance arrived at that moment and her mother took her away, profusely thanking me for saving her daughter. I wasn’t in the mood to really appreciate it.
I hoped that one incident would be the end of it. I guess the fact that I’m writing an account here proves that it wasn’t.
After that, I found myself entering the water a lot more than usual. It wasn’t as though I had a rash of new swimmers to deal with – no, many of the people I saved were experienced swimmers that I’d known for years. Just like Gerard. But their skills didn’t save them.
I began to notice a pattern. I noticed that, when children went under, they didn’t struggle – they showed no signs of drowning. However, the adolescents and adults showed signs of distressed swimming, but not at the surface of the water.They were always under water, usually about halfway to the bottom when they started struggling.
One of the first guys I pulled up after the little girl was a twenty-year-old named Jack, who typically sported spiked hair and an array of painful-looking piercings (one or two of which I was sure were infected). He was a real tough-guy sort but when I got him to the edge of the pool, he yanked himself out and started shouting as soon as he had enough breath in his lungs to make substantial noise.
“What the FUCK was that?!” he shrieked. I couldn’t manage to keep him calm, so, although he hadn’t ingested much water, the EMTs were called once again. They were beginning to think something was wrong with our pool, no doubt. Maybe something with me specifically because they gave me funny looks when they saw that I was the one standing with the victim again.
In the course of that week, I saved twenty people, which is an unheard of amount for our pool. Some of them were too panicked when they came up to explain what happened, but a few of them, mostly the kids, were able to give accounts.
“There was a man down there, an old man, and he was trying to talk to me.”
“I felt someone grab my foot and start dragging me down – when I looked, there was this old fucker just staring up at me. I tried to shake him off but he wouldn’t let go.”
“It was an old man, grabbing me, trying to pin me to the bottom. I swear I don’t know him, but… he did look familiar.”
“He just wanted to play. He seemed nice.”
By the time the weekend rolled around, I had a pretty good idea as to who was down there. And because he had died on my watch, I felt that it was my responsibility to fix things.
That Saturday, I had a morning shift. My manager knows that I like to warm up on my own in the mornings, so I have my own set of keys to get in the pool early before anyone else gets there. It’s not exactly protocol, but she trusts my swimming ability enough to let me swim alone. Probably not the best idea, all things considered. But it was absolutely necessary that day, and I was grateful.
After checking the temperature and chlorine levels, I slipped into the cool water, plunging into the deep end with a firm resolve. I took a deep breath and let myself drift underwater for a while, waiting.
I’d been down for about a minute when I figured that nothing was going to happen. I was probably being paranoid, anyway, or maybe I’d just gone crazy. I was just beginning to stretch towards the surface when I felt something cold and bony close around my ankle and yank me down.
I released my breath in shock, an action that I immediately regretted. I found myself yanked down to the bottom of the pool and managed to twist myself around enough to see my attacker.
It was Gerard, there was no doubt in my mind. After all, he was one of our best customers, I’d know him anywhere. But he looked different now. He was thinner, his face sallow with the skin hanging off the bone. His eyes were milky as though besieged by cataracts. The light and laughter was gone from his face as he stared at me with the intensity of the damned.
For a moment, we just stared at each other. I searched for signs of blame or anger in his eyes, but there were none. They reminded me of dead fish eyes, actually. I thought about trying to swim away, but his grip was now on my shoulders and he held me there, immovable as stone. Oddly enough, my lungs didn’t burn with suffocation. I didn’t feel like I was drowning at all. I felt suspended in some sort of impossible limbo as we stared each other down.
Finally, he spoke. His voice wasn’t muffled by the water. It rang out as clear as day.
I suppose I could have asked what he meant by that, but I didn’t. The answer, after all, was intuitive. Once I nodded my head, acknowledged that I understood his instructions, he released me. Suddenly, I felt water exploding into my lungs and my legs began to kick powerfully, bringing me back to the surface on instinct.
I hauled myself out of the pool, choking on water, gasping for air. I looked back down, half expecting him to come out of the water with me, but there was nobody there.
I was alone, albeit not as much as I wanted to be.
What’s the hardest choice you’ve ever had to make?
I’ve had to make some difficult choices in my life. Where to go to college, what degree to get, all that kind of stuff. For the most part, though, the hardest decision I make in a day is whether to get one scoop of ice cream or two.
Well. I had to make a decision that day, the kind of decision that nobody should have to make.
It was torture. But as I saved nine other people at work that day, three of them speaking about the old man at the bottom of the pool, I knew what I had to do.
Is it, after all, so wrong to sacrifice one for the sake of many?
I requested the morning shift that Monday, and my manager gave it to me. She basically gave me free reign after all the people I’d saved. Another poor decision on her part. But it did wonders for my plan.
I gave Margaret a call asking her to come down before the pool opened that morning. I want to talk to you, I said. I could hear her hesitate for a moment, but in the end she agreed.
That’s how we found ourselves walking around the pool in an uncomfortable silence, both of us wondering what to say first.
“Well, Miss Addie, why did you call me down today?” she asked, trying to affect a playful air.
It wasn’t working.
“Um… I know it’s been a while, but I… I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay,” I said. I stared at the deep end of the pool nervously, wondering how I was going to do what I had to do.
“It’s been… difficult, as I’m sure you can imagine,” she said with a sigh. She stopped walking and turned towards the water, a pensive look on her face. We were less than a foot from the edge.
“Gerard was very important to me. I loved him very much. Some days, I wish that I could have gone with him. It would be less lonely, I think.”
My heart skipped a little hearing that, and I gained some courage. Until she continued, “But I still have our family, our kids and grandkids. And I can’t abandon them now. Gerard wouldn’t want that. He’d want me to take all the love I have left for him and give it to them while there’s still time.”
Oh, Margaret. You’re so very wrong about that, I thought with a shudder.
As if to prove my point, my hands shot out and connected hard with her back. She stumbled forward, her wrinkled mouth in an ‘o’ of shock as she fell into the water. She wasn’t wearing a swimsuit, of course, just a pink sundress that billowed around her like a cloud as she broke the surface, sputtering.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” she hissed at me, and for a moment, I was afraid that maybe I was crazy, or that I had misunderstood him, because nothing was happening.
And then, suddenly, she stopped yelling at me. She looked down into the water, her eyes wide. I thought maybe it was shock, but no, it wasn’t, it was fear.
She started to scream, but she didn’t get much out before she was sucked under the water so fast that if I’d blinked I would have missed it. She was dragged, kicking and thrashing to the bottom of the pool.
My instincts kicked in and I thought about going down to save her. But I kept a tight control over my body. I could see her still struggling down in the water, reaching up for me.
Closing my eyes to her, I turned and walked away.
An unfortunate accident, though beautiful in a poetic sort of way.
That’s how the papers described it. I’d called the police in a fit of affected tears, begging them to come help me because a woman had just drowned in the pool. By the time they got there, I had her corpse laying at the edge of the pool waiting for them.
I hadn’t gone down to get her until I was sure she was dead. Once she’d lay there unmoving for about ten minutes, I glided into the water, securing her already-cooling body and dragging it to the surface. It’s a strange feeling, lugging someone’s dead body around in your arms. But sometimes it has to be done.
When I heard the ambulance outside, I started CPR. I knew it was too late, so I didn’t hold back, my hands pumping hard against her breastbone as I remembered giving the same treatment to her husband. How insincere this seemed by comparison.
The police determined that there was no evidence of foul play. The pool doesn’t have cameras, so there was no proof of what I did. They had to go by my story, and, considering that I was in hysterics, I was pretty believable. I’d invited her for a talk, I said, just to see how she was. She fell in the water and I was too late to save her, I said. I didn’t make it in time, I said.
We believe you, they said.
The pool ended up closing down after that. Word got out of the husband and wife who had drowned there only a few years apart and, suddenly, nobody wanted to go there anymore. I laughed a little at that – they were fine going when it was haunted, but now that the ghosts were at rest, they wouldn’t set foot in the place. Well, I guess I can’t say for sure that they’re at rest. Margaret didn’t exactly go peacefully. I wonder if she resents me. I never got back in the water to see.
I gave up guarding, even though my manager offered to write me an excellent recommendation if I decided to continue with it. I declined, stating that I’d had enough drowners in my time. She couldn’t know, of course, that I could never forgive myself for shirking my duty that day. Even if it was my only real option.
I moved out of town last month, but I can’t escape the memories. Every night, I dream about Gerard dragging Margaret down to her grave in that bitter water. Every night, she reproaches me for what I’ve done. Every night, she swears revenge.
I wonder if there will come a day when I don’t wake up screaming for her forgiveness.