Heatstroked

byPuckIt©

"Ok."

I numbly followed Becki's grandmother to the social room. It was as empty as the pool. Becki wasn't coming. She hadn't written me and now she wasn't even coming. What had gone wrong? What had I done wrong?

"Have a seat, John." Eunice patted a chair as she sank into the one beside it. "I know you and Becki are close. This isn't going to be easy for you to hear. You probably knew Becki liked to surf, didn't you?"

"Yes. She loves it. She always talked about it in her letters."

"Well, the biggest problem with surfing has always been the sharks."

"Sharks?" I blinked.

"Sharks," Eunice nodded. "Oh, it doesn't happen so much as you might think. But, it does happen."

"Is Becki dead?!" I blurted out, interrupting.

"No, no. Oh, I'm sorry, John. I didn't mean to scare you. No, Becki is alive."

"Oh, thank God. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt. Go ahead and tell me the rest. As long as she's alive, I think I can handle it."

"Yes, she lived," Eunice said. "She almost didn't. It was a miracle she did. But, she's alive. Why, she's even out of the hospital for, oh, I guess a couple of months now."

"Eunice, I don't mean to be rude. But, you're killing me here. What happened to Becki, please?"

"Well, she was sitting on her board way out one morning in October with her friends. There weren't any shark warnings. Nobody had seen any. They wouldn't have been out there if they had. Any road, I guess Becki was sitting there with her legs hanging down and her hands on her knees and something grabbed her and yanked her down, board and all."

"A shark," I whispered wide-eyed.

"A shark." Eunice nodded. "It got her right leg just below the knee and somehow messed up her right hand too. She's out of the hospital and back at home. But, she missed so much school, she's having to make it up. I'm truly sorry, John. If I had thought, I would have told you sooner."

"That's all right."

"Well, I'd best get back. You think you'll be all right?"

"Sure," I said. "Um, is the pool even open?"

"Oh, sure. We hired David to be our lifeguard for the summer. We're still open for business."

"Ok, thanks. And thank you for telling me about Becki."

Eunice nodded and started to leave, but she turned back.

"Oh, and John? Thank you for writing to her. I know those letters have meant a lot while she's been down and out. More than you can know."

I bit my tongue and nodded. I was angry at Becki for not telling me herself. Not telling me about the shark. Not telling me she wouldn't be coming back for the summer. Maybe she couldn't write yet and we didn't have each other's phone numbers. But, why hadn't she asked someone else to write for her? Why hadn't she asked her grandmother to tell me?

Then again, it hadn't dawned on me to ask Eunice why I hadn't heard back from Becki for eight months. But, I had assumed I would see her soon enough and ask her myself. Becki had known that wouldn't happen.

I don't know how long I sat there in the social room coming to grips with it all. No one bothered me. No one even came in. I went to the front and looked out, but Jan's car was gone. Probably back home so Jan could go back to bed.

In a daze, I walked out to the pool, kicked off my sandals, dropped my towel on top of them, and waded in. The cool water was a balm to my aching heart. As I swam down to the deep end, I closed my eyes and could imagine she was there in the water with me.

Jan came back and picked me up just before closing and was just as startled as I'd been to see the new lifeguard.

"Where's Becki?" Jan asked over the roof of her car.

"Shark got her." I said as I climbed in.

"What?! John! What?!"

"I guess a shark bit off her leg and hand." I said quietly from the passenger seat. "I guess she couldn't come because she's having to make up school or something."

"Oh, my God! Are you serious?! John, if this is a joke, I'm going to kill you!"

"Why would I joke about something like that?" I asked. Something of the pain I felt must have shown on my face because for once Jan wasn't a complete waste of air.

"I'm really sorry, John," was all she said as she drove us home.

That night, I wrote to Becki. It was really short. Just two sentences. "Eunice told me today. Why didn't you make sure I knew before now?" I signed it as I had the last eighteen letters starting from the evening she kissed me, with love.

The next morning, Jan came into my room and found me sitting on the side of my bed looking at Becki's picture with my swimsuit on.

"Did you want to go to the pool today?" Jan asked. "If you don't, I can understand. I won't tell Dad."

"He would know," I said, standing. "I'd better go."

Jan drove me out. But, instead of dropping me off and leaving, she shut off the engine and came in.

"What are you doing?"

"I thought I would stay awhile," Jan said. "I haven't gotten any sun in forever. And, besides, you might decide you want to leave early."

"Thanks." I said.

With nothing else to do, I swam laps from noon until six. Jan laid on her towel wearing that same bikini from three years earlier. David sat up on his perch.

A family of four came in about two, but the little girl took one look at David and started screaming, so they left. When that happened, I paused in my swimming and looked at David. He just stared at me for a long moment and then shrugged. I shrugged back and continued on.

It wasn't until the fourth day that David spoke to me for the first time.

"Not bad, kid. You've got the basics down. Want me to show you some stuff?"

I glanced up at David to see he was standing.

"Sure." I shrugged.

I guess I expected him to call out directions or something. Whatever I expected, it wasn't for him to peel off his eyepatch, take off his leg, and dive in the water. I watched as he swam along the bottom, much faster than I could have, and touched the shallow end.

But, David didn't stop there. He wheeled around, without breaking the surface, and swam all the way down to touch the wall at the deep end. Still he didn't stop!

"Oh, my God!"

I glanced back to see Jan sitting up staring wide-eyed at David with her hand over her mouth. She'd pretty much spoken for me as well and I looked back to see David coasting along until he almost reached me.

All that on one breath? And in the time it would have taken me to swim half the length of the pool?

"How the hell...?" I gaped as David slowly stuck his head up out of the water.

It turned out that David was in the Navy. He never did tell me what he did or how he got so messed up, although I have my suspicions. But, I will say, whatever he did, the Navy sure taught him to swim. And, man, could David teach!

By the end of the day, David had me swimming down, picking up the metal drain cover, bringing it to the surface, and holding it over my head for him to see before taking it back down to replace. David also taught me exercises to make me a stronger swimmer I could do on dry land.

I still missed Becki. And I sort of missed all the people that had been there the first two years. But, having the pool almost to myself while working with David was kind of cool.

I wrote to Becki again that night and told her about the day training with David. At the very end, I apologized for the last note being so abrupt.

"It was because I miss you," I wrote. "I'd been looking forward all year to seeing you and you weren't here. And I was hurt. I still miss you, but I guess I kind of understand. Just so you know, I'm going to keep training with David so next time I see you, I can swim circles around you. I love you."

Two days after I sent it, before Becki could have gotten it, I received an envelope with her address. Inside was a piece of paper with two words of almost illegible writing that looked like a kindergartner's first attempt.

"I'm sorry."

I sat down at my desk and wrote back.

"Thank you for writing. Don't be sorry. Just don't scare me like that again. I still miss you. I still love you. P.S. Where was my picture?"

I did the exercises David taught me every morning when I got up and every night before I went to sleep as well as in front of him at noon so he could check I was doing them right. The length of time David had me hold that drain cover over my head with both hands, only my kicking feet keeping me afloat, grew longer and longer. By the end of June, David had me swimming the length of the pool in one breath using only one arm or one leg. Or swimming the length of the pool and back underwater using only my legs, clutching that drain grate across my chest.

I didn't write Becki every night, but I did write her two or three times a week. Often enough that she couldn't have received the last before I sent the next. I told her what David had me doing. I told her I missed her and wished she was with me. And I signed each letter with love.

Becki sent me an envelope. Inside was a picture. She wasn't smiling. She was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Her skin was pale and there were dark circles under her eyes. Her hair was a mess. The picture framed her completely and I could see where her right leg ended just below the knee as well as the stump at her right wrist. On the back, she had scrawled a message not much more legible than her first.

"I understand if you don't write anymore."

What the hell did that mean?

Maybe I should have gone ahead and written that night, but I was so confused I couldn't. Or for the two nights after. I guess it's a mark of how close I felt to David that I took the picture out to show him.

"Pretty girl," he said, handing it back.

"Read the back."

David flipped it over and his eyebrows rose, then he studied me with his one clear blue eye.

"I take it this is the first you've seen her since whatever happened."

"Yeah."

"So, have you written her back yet?"

"No. I'm not sure she wants me to. I mean, why would she say that?"

"Because she knows she isn't what she was and she's giving you a way out."

"Well, that's just dumb." I said. "She's the same girl who was kind to me. She's the same girl that was my first best friend. She's the same girl I fell in love with. The fact she's missing a hand and a foot don't mean a damn thing. You taught me that. I just thought she wanted rid of me for some reason. Thanks, David."

David opened his mouth several times, but closed it without saying anything. He frowned at me as he handed me back her picture.

Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned how David being so messed up had affected my world view. It seemed like something pissed him off at any rate since he worked my ass harder that day and the next than he had before.

Sore as I was when I made it home, it didn't stop me from writing to Becki.

"Dearest Becki. If you don't want me to write, you're going to have to be clearer. I don't understand hints, as you should know. Thanks for the picture, but there were three things that bothered me. 1) You weren't in a bikini. 2) You weren't smiling. 3) You're there and I'm not. David worked my ass off today..."

The third day after I'd shown him Becki's picture, David had a present for me. Maybe I should have been proud. After all, how many seventeen year old guys get their very own two hundred pound Cabbage Patch doll.

"Um, thanks," I wheezed as I struggled to hold the thing up.

"I figured we'd leave the grate alone to do it's job," David grinned. "From here on, you'll drag that from one end of the pool to the other. Now, get in there and show me the rescue drag your girlfriend taught you."

Dragging a two hundred pound deadweight crash test dummy reject through the water wasn't near as much fun as pretending to drag Becki to safety the year before. I was a whole hell of a lot more interested in just keeping my head above water. I'm ashamed to admit it because of what came later, but there were days I hated that doll. And David.

Becki finally wrote me back after I'd sent her three more letters.

"Thank you. I was scared."

The letters of the words weren't even as clear as the first note she'd sent that summer. There were places, like the o, where it looked smeared for some reason.

One evening just two weeks before the pool would close marking the end of summer for me, Dad came in my room where I was writing a letter to Becki to tell me I had visitors. It was David with just about the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. Yes, including Becki. She was almost too beautiful to believe she was an actual real person. I mean, whoever heard of a redhead with dark red hair and a golden tan?

She was also David's previously estranged wife. And she was extremely grateful to me for getting them back in contact. Extremely grateful! I wasn't too clear on just how I might have done any such thing, but Kate and David both thanked me several times. And I had my head pressed into breasts that were so firm they were almost hard, repeatedly, between having my forehead and cheeks and nose kissed.

David broke the news he was leaving. The two of them were going to give their relationship one more shot. Jan seemed to take the news harder than I did, which was just strange. I mean, David was my friend. I'd been the one in the pool hanging out with him. All Jan had done was lie around in the sun in that bikini all summer and watch us. But, whatever.

David gave me two gifts before he drove off into the sunset with Kate behind the wheel of a convertible corvette and I'm not sure which meant more to me; his old motorcycle which he claimed he couldn't use anymore or the paper he'd signed certifying I'd passed the swim portion of lifeguard training.

I never saw or heard from David or Kate after that August evening. I like to think it's because they have been too busy being in love with each other.

The pool was closed since Willard and Eunice didn't have a lifeguard anymore, but I was probably about the only person in town that noticed. And I didn't have time to miss getting to swim since I took two classes those two weeks. One to add motorcycle operation to my license. The other, a refresher for first aid and CPR to renew my certifications first taken in a freshman health class when I hadn't really taken it any more seriously than that stupid grammar class.

I hadn't really paid much attention, but lugging that two hundred pound Cabbage Patch doll around both in the water and out for most of July and August had finished my physical transformation. At the risk of sounding immodest, I could probably have stood in a picture with Chaz and the other model types Becki had sent me pictures of and not looked out of place. I dare say I cut a pretty dashing image riding up to the school on that motorcycle to begin my senior year.

Apparently I wasn't the only one who thought so. For the first time in my life, girls other than Becki paid attention to me. But, that was only fun for about the first month or so.

I guess for most people their senior year in high school is a wonderful experience. Mine, I remember feeling vaguely hunted as I maneuvered my way through the halls from pointless class to pointless class trying to dodge girls that suddenly seemed to want to corner me and ask me to escort them to any number of pointless functions I'd never been invited to before and didn't really have any interest in attending then. Or their jealous on again/off again boyfriends of long standing who wanted me to stay away from their girl and couldn't seem to understand that; a) I was trying to or b) "their girl" had broken up with them.

Jan flunked out of college that fall semester. She wasn't smart enough to make the grades in fashion design, but she was smart enough not move home? Instead she went to school to learn how to do hair and nails, which was just weird. I mean, is there really all that much involved they have to have classes? Then again, I hadn't really understood how fashion design could be her major in real college or how she could flunk out of it. So, whatever.

But, with Jan out of reach, I got a nightly earful about wasting money on college if I didn't have a plan. Is it any wonder I loathed my sister as much as I loved her? She fucked up and I caught hell for it.

In fairness, though, I had only one plan and college was irrelevant to it. As soon as school was over, I wanted to see Becki, damn it. I didn't really want to wait, but I'd made it that long. By the time I turned eighteen, I only had to make it another month and a half.

I suppose my letters that spring were largely redundant. Almost all I could seem to find to write about came down to two questions.

"Are you coming back? Should I start packing for a trip there instead?"

--Summer 1987--

It wasn't until halfway through May that Becki sent me an answer.

"I will be there in June."

Those last two weeks of school seemed longer than my previous twelve years!

But, there was a problem. Someone had gotten the bright idea to build a full water park in Lubbock. Rumors had it that Willard and Eunice weren't going to open their pool at all. Three days before I graduated, I rode out to get the word straight from those two.

"Well, hello John!" Eunice greeted me with a noisy bus on the cheek. "Are you taking up golf now?"

"Ah, no. Sorry, Eunice." I smiled. "I'm afraid playing golf still wouldn't be good for me."

"Well then, I guess you must be all the way out here looking for Becki," Eunice smiled slyly. "Sorry to tell you, John. But, she won't actually be here until next week."

"I had wondered." I admitted, feeling my cheeks heat. "But, no. I came because I wanted to ask about the pool."

"What about the pool?" Eunice blinked at me.

"I heard a rumor it may not open."

"No, probably not. Your family is the only one that still has a membership. Your father should get a letter any time, if he hasn't already, that we won't be a membership club anymore. We considered opening up the pool on a pay by the day plan, but with that new Water Rampage place in Lubbock and us not being able to find a lifeguard..." Eunice trailed off with a shrug.

"Becki's a lifeguard," I pointed out. "Or did her certification lapse?"

Eunice froze for a moment and looked at me strangely. "Why, I expect it's probably lapsed."

"Well, I'm certified." I shrugged. "I could cover for her until she gets hers back."

"Don't matter none." Willard spat a streamer of tobacco juice at his spittoon. "Can't even pay you what we paid David last year."

"I'm sorry?"

"David worked for us for ten dollars a day plus room and board," Eunice said. "We haven't had a single solitary soul besides you out here since that new course opened up on the north side of Lubbock."

"I don't need room and board," I shrugged. "If you're going to open for pay by the day anyway, then just give me a percentage of the door. No one comes, you don't pay me."

"Foolishness." Willard spat at his spittoon again.

Dad agreed with him whole heartedly that night at dinner.

"No."

"Thomas!"

"No, Stephanie! It's time he learned what being an adult means. I won't make the same mistakes twice. I've managed to get him a job in my office for the summer."

"But, I'm not an accountant!"

"I know that, John. You'll do some filing and mailing and whatever else we find for you to do. You're going to learn what is expected of a grown man. You're going to make a little money. And that's the end of it."

"No, it isn't."

"What did you say?!" Dad turned his attention from the television to pin me in my chair with his glare.

"No, that is not the end of it. I am trained and certified to be a lifeguard. They need a lifeguard. Part of being an adult is making my own decisions. I'm making this one. Tell whomever thanks, but no thanks. I won't be going with you."

"You will if you want to stay under my roof and eat food I pay for!"

"Excuse me?! Who's roof, Thomas?"

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