This story is by Theresa Jacobs and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
“I’m going to swim in the sea with the fishes, Ima going to dig in the sand…”
“Shut up!” Jimmy slapped his palm hard on the seat, the old vinyl creaking under pressure.
“Let your sister sing her song, Jimmy. Oh look, look,” Carol tapped the window drawing her kid’s attention away from another unwarranted shouting match. “Can you see the lake?”
Tessa pressed her nose to the glass, she always sat directly behind her mom on the passenger side. As they wound along the bumpy dirt road, the sun sparkled off the lake through the forest of pines, revealing itself one flash at a time. She could see the shimmering blue, dappled with tiny diamonds of bright light, and her heart filled with joy.
Carol turned slightly in her seat to address the kids. “This time you both will help carry stuff down to the beach, understand?”
“Kay,” Tessa replied too busy watching the trees thin out, this view etched in her nine-year-old mind, they had been going to Bear Lake since she was a toddler.
“Yeah, I heard you.” He crossed his arms refusing to look his mother in the eye and stared into the forest.
“And be nice to your sister today, or maybe we won’t come back next weekend.” Dad piped in as he steered expertly into an empty slot that was 100 yards from the water.
Jimmy scowled in Tessa’s direction, he was fourteen and not into hanging out with his baby sister.
Tessa, not paying attention, bounced in her seat, ready to grab some items and get out to the warm sand. It was always chilly under the canopy of pines.
The beach slowly filled with people as the day moved into high noon. Tessa sat in the sand pushing it around, bored while she waited for the allotted “half an hour after eating” rule of “no swimming” to pass. Dad was already napping and their mom deep in a book, when Jimmy jumped up. “I’m going to the dock!” He stated and ran into the water.
Tessa watched forlornly, now she was left alone again. Sometimes she found other girls her age to hang out with, but today there wasn’t anyone appealing around, mostly younger and older kids. She slapped her hands together. “I’m going back in.”
Carol glanced past her pages. “Stay close and don’t go above your neck.”
“Yeah, I know.” Tessa shuffled the soft sand with her feet, creating brown puffs, seeing how far she could shoot it with her toes. As she reached the water’s edge, she stopped and shielded her eyes against the bright sun. Jimmy was already out on the floating dock with a group of older kids. They were hooting, diving, and flipping into the deep water. She looked back at her parents, they were engrossed in their own relaxation. “I can swim that far.” She gauged the distance between herself and the trees at the top of the beach, then back to the distance between herself and the dock. They appeared about the same. “Yeah, it’s not that far. I’ll show them I’m not a baby.”
Tessa strolled into the lake, digging her toes into the smooth sand as it squished around her feet. The water silently accepted her, it enveloped her warmth and slid up her chest to her shoulders. She stopped and turned around. Her parents were in the exact same positions, they weren’t concerned. Tessa felt a twinge of guilt but heard the laughter from the dock and let it go, she was ready.
Pushing off the bottom with her toes, she let her body float out and began to swim. She did it just like they learned in swimming class. Take a breath, turn your head, paddle your arms and kick your feet. Repeat and keep going. As she moved out into the deeper water, she noticed it was colder, and even though her body was in motion, she felt a chill creep into her skin. Tessa stopped to check her distance, letting her feet sink down and dog-paddled. Her heart skipped a beat and a knot formed in her belly. The beach was now as far away as the dock had looked, but the dock itself seemed no closer. How can that be? Her arms were starting to get tired, and she still had a long way to go. Okay, don’t panic. She told herself, knowing to panic now would make the situation worse.
Tessa looked back towards the beach, her parents had still not moved. So, she took a chance. “Jimmy!” She yelled at the dock. There were six or seven teens on the dock, they were pushing each other, screaming and laughing. “Jimmmmy!” She tried again, but it was too far, and the kids were too loud.
No one could hear her.
Tessa gulped, she just wasted more energy. Her arms were burning, and she couldn’t feel her feet. Now she wanted to cry. Why was I so stupid? Why doesn’t anyone notice I’m not around? I just need to rest my arms for a second, she thought and stopped moving. She immediately began to sink. Tessa instinctively held her breath as her head submerged below the surface. She closed her eyes allowing the heaviness of her body drag her under. It felt like a slow fall into nothingness, and it hit her; this was it, she was nine and going to die .
Her heart beat wildly in her chest, and she thought, no I don’t want to die. Ok, be calm . She pulled the water down with her hands and kicked her legs until she felt the air caress her face once again. She gulped a big breath of fresh air. Her arms and legs still ached, but she knew she could not just give up. Her body was cold all over now, and her fingers were beginning to numb. She was so tired, all she wanted was to rest for awhile. Then she felt a cramp in her belly, and her breathing became shallow. With every swirl of her arms, the water eddied and splashed into her mouth. Tessa kicked harder with her feet, now pushing her legs in a back and forth motion to keep her head above the water. She lay her head back, and the sun blinded her. Oh, god don’t let me die .
Her eyes went to her older brother, with his olive tanned skin and sun bleached hair. She watched him bravely take a somersault off the dock and knew she had better do something quick. He was not going to notice her, and she didn’t think she could hold on much longer.
Then Tessa thought, I wonder if lying down will help ? She checked her bearings and turned, so her back was to the beach. Tessa pulled back hard once with her arms until she was floating on her back. She felt a bit of relief as she let her body rest and gently float on the surface, with just the quick paddling of her feet and hands to keep her above the water. Closing her eyes again she felt the sun’s warmth on her face, with her ears just below the water surface all sound was washed away. Though she was sore and tired, she was no longer afraid. The cold had permeated her body, it was numb all over, she felt like a floating head.
Her body undulated as she kicked and waved at the cool water, hoping she was headed in the right direction. She must have been floating for at least fifteen minutes when the tips of her fingers touched something. Tessa pulled up startled, only to discover that she was now waist deep. Her bum hit the sand stopping her motion, and she sat up quickly. Her long brown hair plastered her body, dripping cold water down her arms and back. She shivered, and her teeth chattered. She could see the dock, where the older kids were still playing, unaware. She turned and found that she had washed up at the far-right end of the beach, closer to where the tree line began. Tessa pulled herself to the edge of dry sand and lay back in exhaustion. Now that she was safe she rolled onto her side so she could make out her brother playing off in the distance, and cried.
As the sun finally began to evaporate the chill from her body, Tessa splashed water on her face and stood up. Her legs were wobbly after the arduous swim, but she was comforted to have solid ground under her feet. She ambled back to her family, past toddlers with buckets of sand and kids knee deep in the lake, splashing water and laughing. Reaching her parents, she grabbed her towel, wrapped it tightly around her body and pulled it up over her head.
“Did you have fun sweetie?” Carol spoke around the book laying across her face.
“Yeah, I’m tired now.” Tessa curled up at the bottom of her parents’ feet. She lay on her side staring out at all the kids playing and wondered if she’d ever feel that free again.
She regretted what she had lost to the lake.