This story is by Lisa M. Washburn and won an honorable mention in our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lisa Washburn is an amateur short story writer and aspiring novelist. She has always loved writing and earned her BA in English literature from Brigham Young University (06). Since her college days, she has become the mother of six sweet and energetic children, all of whom love stories.
“S-swim team w-w-wasn’t m-my idea,” Stuart said, his voice muffled by pineapples and pink flamingos.
“Take that towel off your head,” Mom snapped, then she cleared her throat. “You’ll do great, honey.”
“Great,” Benny crowed. He reached over from his car seat and whacked Stuart’s arm with a slimy granola bar. Stuart shuddered and brushed off the crumbs.
“Sorry I can’t stay and watch, but I have to take Benny to visit his new school. I’ll be waiting in the parking lot when the meet is over.”
“O-k-kay.” The fewer people there to watch him the better. And no Mom meant no Benny crying or getting drool on his towel. Stuart gathered up his things and opened the car door.
“Have fun!” Mom called. “Be safe!”
Stuart stayed in the parking lot and watched until Mom’s car was completely out of sight. Then he walked slowly toward the pool. A redhead kid was chaining up his bike as Stuart passed. He snapped the lock shut and looked up.
“Hey. We’re going to torch Lionsgate today, right?” He grinned and made a fist. Stuart nodded, gave the kid a thumbs-up, and kept walking. No matter how hard he tried, Stuart was always one of the slowest kids at practice. But maybe this meet would be different.
A dozen boys were already stretching on the pool deck. Stuart slipped off his flip-flops and dropped his towel on top of them.
“Okay, Creekside swimmers,” Coach Brady said. He wasn’t smiling, as usual. “Today’s the day. Let’s give Lionsgate a spanking they won’t ever forget. First, warmups. One hundred yards; you choose the stroke. Go!”
Swimmer after swimmer dove in. Then it was Stuart’s turn. The water closed in around him, fresh and cool. He finished his hundred and climbed out, anxious not to be the last kid swimming. As Stuart toweled off, he glanced at the baby pool. Coach’s wife was sitting on the edge, dangling her feet in the water. She came to every practice, and she always brought the baby with her. Today, she and the baby were dressed in matching hot-pink swimsuits. The baby squealed as her mom sprayed her with a squirty toy. She reminded Stuart of Benny. Benny had never been swimming, but he would probably like it. Stuart picked up his towel and rubbed it across his head, making his hair stand up straight. He probably wouldn’t want Benny here anyway. Back at home, the “Benny Bomb” ruined everything.
The Lionsgate swimmers were walking onto the deck now, and they looked huge. A couple of the boys were a whole head taller than Stuart. They all wore matching red swim trunks. They would probably blow Creekside out of the water. Like sticks of red dynamite.
Coach blew his whistle. “Everyone out. Lionsgate needs to warm up. Meet me on the concessions deck. Let’s hustle.”
Everyone funneled through the back gate. Stuart pushed through the mob of boys until he was right next to the redhead.
“Hey,” Stuart forced himself to say. The kid nodded and smiled. It was a cool kid kind of smile.
“Circle up,” Coach barked. “Tell us your name, age, and favorite ice cream flavor. Go.”
Stuart’s palms began to sweat. A fat kid started, then three more boys went, then suddenly it was his turn. Stuart squeezed his goggles with both hands.
He heard a soft giggle.
“What’s your favorite ice cream?” A voice called from somewhere in the circle.
Stuart thought fast. “Mint.”
Stuart’s face was hot. He had stuttered in front of everyone. And he hated mint. It reminded him of toothpaste. His real favorite was cookie dough, but mint was one syllable. Cookie dough was three.
When Coach dismissed everyone, Stuart took a deep breath and turned toward the redhead.
“G-g-good luck.” He held out his fist. The kid stared at him, but he didn’t bump.
“What school do you go to?” he asked.
The boy wrinkled his nose. “Me too. I bet you have to meet with that speech lady. What’s her name? Mrs. V?”
Stuart just shrugged. Her name was Mrs. V, and she was his favorite teacher ever. He talked to her more than he talked to anyone else, even his mom.
The boy shook his head and turned to walk away. “Good luck,” he said. But Stuart didn’t think he was talking about the meet. He slowly lowered his fist.
Stuart walked over to the heat assignments and found his name. It was near the end, as usual. He sat down with his back against the fence, closed his eyes, and lowered his head into his hands. What was the point? He just wanted to go home.
Nearby, a baby laughed. Stuart looked up. Coach’s wife was up on her tip-toes at the far end of the kiddie area, leaning against the fence and shouting. Coach’s older son must be in the water now. He’d probably go home with five blue ribbons. Then Stuart saw the baby. She was sitting on a towel and chewing on a plastic fish. Suddenly she got to her feet and toddled over to the shallow water. Very slowly she squatted down and held the toy out until the fish’s lips kissed the surface. For a moment the baby seemed frozen, with one hand on the fish and the other stretched straight out to the side for balance. And then she fell. She tumbled head-first into the water. Stuart expected to hear a splash, but he didn’t. She just slipped quietly under. And then she was gone.
Stuart stood up. He looked at Coach’s wife. She was still yelling into the crowd. Stuart looked back at the baby. He could see her arms and legs working below the surface, but she didn’t stand up. Why didn’t she stand up? Stuart knew he had to do something. But when he tried to yell, no sound came out. He licked his lips. He swallowed. And then he ran. He shoved past a group of swimmers and opened the gate that separated the kiddie area from the main deck. He splashed into the baby pool. The baby was face-up now. Her eyes were wide and round and her lips were tinted blue. Stuart reached down, put both hands under her armpits, and lifted her out.
The rest of the world went silent. The baby squirmed. She spit water into Stuart’s face. And then she drew a long, shuttering breath and wailed. Stuart didn’t let go. He felt like the monkey from The Lion King, only Simba hadn’t been bawling. Suddenly Coach’s wife was there, screaming. She scooped the baby into her arms. A moment later, Coach Brady was in the water, gripping his wife’s shoulders. He had a look on his face that Stuart had never seen before.
“I p-p-pulled her out,” Stuart started to explain, but his mouth was suddenly muffled by a hot-pink swimsuit. Coach’s wife was hugging him. No, she was kissing him!
Coach Brady wiped his eyes with one hand and pulled Stuart into an awkward hug with the other. A murmur rippled across the silent pool deck.
“He saved that baby. Did you see that?”
“No one else saw her go in.”
“Good one, kid!”
Coach Brady cleared his throat several times and held up a hand.
“Swimmers,” Coach Brady said, his voice wavering. “Thanks to Stuart, y’all get ice cream bars next practice.” He glanced over at Stuart. “Mint ice cream bars.”
Cheers erupted. Stuart saw a pair of goggles fly into the air. Then another and another. The fat kid flipped his towel in circles and whooped. Stuart saw the redhead leaning against the fence. He gave Stuart a thumbs-up, and Stuart grinned back.
The rest of the meet was a blur. Stuart didn’t ever place first, but he wasn’t last either. When he went up to the ribbon lady after his first race, she handed him a blue ribbon. He tried to explain that he hadn’t won, but she insisted he keep it. By the end of the meet, he had five blue ribbons.
Stuart’s shoulders were red and sore. But it wasn’t from the sun or from swimming. He had been slapped, patted, and punched by two dozen teammates on his way out to the parking lot. Even the tallest Lionsgate kid had tousled his hair and said, “Future guard here. Nice work, kid.”
Mom’s car pulled up and Stuart climbed into the back seat.
“Actually, you can sit up front,” Mom said. “I cleared off the seat so you won’t have to sit by Benny.”
Stuart looked over at Benny. He was driving a Hot Wheels car across the window. Stuart grinned.
“No thanks.” He held his goggles out for his little brother to grab. Benny’s face lit up, and Stuart laughed as Benny tried to put them on.
“So how’d it go?” Mom asked.
“Good. It was really good.”