The Competition

Just in case you’re not sure who this is, it’s the alien at sea, who decided to change her blog title to garlic bagel because she loves garlic and she loves bagels. You’re free to criticize my decision.

There is a distinct hum in the air as I make my way across the pool. Splash. Splash. It’s not a sound that usually bothers me as my feet make contact with the wet surface, but it does today. My eyes are fixed on the water and nothing else. I try mainly to avoid the scoreboard on the other side of the arena. When I approach my lane, seventh in number, I look around to see only serious faces. Determined. Focused. I can’t say the same for myself as I fumble with my goggles. I am all too aware of the thousands of eyes on me, but manage to slip them over my head. The pool is a different shade, greener than it is blue. It is a sight I’m used to. 

But before I can adjust my goggles further, a long whistle pierces through the air. As if in a trance, I climb onto the diving board, the whistle echoing in my ears. My goggles hang on for dear life. I reach for them, but stop as my nerves get the better of me. I can hear my coach in my head, but I cannot make out his words. I look to my right for assistance, the farthest from the crowd. She does not stare back, though. It takes me a second to realize she is crouching as I should be. I scramble to take position and hold onto the textured board. The audience quiets down, but a wail and a shush soon follows. I shake my head and tell myself to focus. But my fingers don’t quite know where to place themselves. I wait as I hear the faint shuffle of the girls around me. I hear the subtle waves in the pool and their rhythmic splashes against the tiles. 

And then I hear a second, shorter whistle.  

I launch myself forwards. As I enter the water, the same fear settles as it has every training session. The water is too dark, its hum too loud, and its pool too deep. Every time I push my head underwater, it’s like I have pressed the resume button of a chase scene, or maybe even a horror film. I don’t know what it is, but I hear it. Something inside me says it’s not really there. But the tug on my legs tells me otherwise. In a moment of panic, I swim back up above the surface. But my vision quickly blurs, my eyes start to burn, and I realize that my goggles have filled with water. Blinded, I try to keep up my pace, but my right shoulder brushes against the right lane line and I am forced to slow down. It is a split second before I dive back under the water, but I hear laughter. Pathetic. I can’t even laugh at myself. Each splash I make seems obnoxiously loud, and each kick uncomfortably conspicuous. 

I try to swing my arms forward, but they are half their usual length. I look down. I am back on a familiar field with seven other children, none of them older than five. A whistle and the race starts with everyone hurtling forward. But somewhere along the line, I decide to cross the white lane to my left and join a bewildered kid, who I just wanted to be a friend. The parents on either side burst into laughter.  

The laughter continues, muffled but audible through the water. I am desperate for air, but I am so close to the other side of the pool. A few more strokes, I tell myself. I push forward, but the thing behind closes the distance: fear personified, illusion turned true. It pulls me down, and I fight back as hard as I can, but it is simply too strong. I start to sink. Laughter turn into gasps. I try to scream, but only half-hearted bubbles rise to the surface. Up ahead, so close, a silhouette of a girl ripples above the water. A cheerful ponytail with clothes only kids would dare to wear. A familiar face tells me it is the girl I was on the field. It’s me. She reaches her hand out and mouths something I can’t hear. But the monster, the shark, the imagination, the nothing, it pulls me further down until everything goes black. 

A hand pulls me out of the water. I gasp for air, and it’s almost comical as disguised tears stream down my face. I grab onto the nearest lane line and open my eyes, temporarily blinded by the fluorescent lights. It’s a differently colored lane, the blue and red ones from the training center. I look up, confused, ready to thank a child. But I only see a towering man and a dangerous smirk that lies upon his face. 

“An entire second behind your record.” I stare at my coach in disbelief, but he continues. “I expect better from you.” 

“I don’t.”

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