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Cathy McKinnon’s chosen instrument of torture is the ultimate sports-coach weapon: the stopwatch. For each round, she picks two of us leftovers, seemingly at random, but I suspect there is some scheme behind all the madness. Then she lines us up, tells us what stroke to use and how many lanes, and sends us on our way. It's tiresome. My first pairing is with the white-haired boy with the tattoo--tattoo versus tattoo, huh. We do just two lanes, and I decide to slack a little extra. My opponent easily beats me but instead of being dismissed, I’m told to wait. And so must he. He shrugs, and I wonder what his mother thought of his tattoo. It's an impressive piece of work and he doesn't hide it. Perhaps there's a lesson in there somewhere...

After that Camelia beats David.

Lug goes next. He faces the Jennifer, and does have to put in some effort to keep up--though it's all for show. Halfway lap four she starts to slow down and he easily catches up, then pulls away with strong and steady strokes.

“Five more!” McKinnon yells.

And they keep swimming. McKinnon adds another five. Then another. I'm watching the pair fighting the water when the dark-skinned boy walks up to me, his green eyes studying me before he offers his hand. On his left hip he has a long, old scar that stands out.

“Hey,” he says, “I’m Aaron. You must be the girl my brother keeps gushing about. It's true, you've got striking green eyes, almost as nice as mine.”

I eye him carefully. Is he hitting on me? He smiles, and I can’t help but smile back. He didn't mention the color of my hair. Boys often do, and I don't like that. I feel my face heat up a little when we shake hands.

Cathy McKinnon throws us an annoyed look, then starts yelling at the poor Jennifer who’s about to sink.

“Poor girl,” Aaron says.

“It’s sink or swim,” I reply.

It’s not that funny but Aaron laughs. “Oh, she’ll swim. She’s one of the better swimmers, and McKinnon knows it. Suey is not going to be let off the hook that easily. I hope she realizes that, 'cause if she doesn't McKinnon’s gonna’ let her swim until her legs fall off.”

“Come on, Suey!” he yells at the girl, then turns back to me. “Suey's not that much into the whole sporting thing.” He shrugs, then bends over and whispers confidentially. “She doesn’t need the extra points that badly, but I do.”

I don’t know what to say, so I go for something obvious. “You’re William’s brother."

"Yeah. He's the only one who calls himself William, we all call him Will. I’m the handsome one of the two of us, by the way.” He stands on his toes and stretches and waves to catch his brother’s attention.

William, one of the first drop-outs, waves back.

“Great,” Aaron says smugly, “now I can pester him for the next three weeks.”

“Because…”

“Isn’t that obvious? Will's sweet on you. It’s the hair, I guess. Is it real? Can I touch it?”

“What?… No!” I'm reddening, embarrassed and angry. Aaron just lost his ten points.

“You’re even prettier when you blush. Ah, I can see you've heard that before." Aaron grins. "My brother has good taste. I’d be tempted but alas…” His grin widens. He makes sure William is watching before he blows me a kiss. “You’re just not my type. He knows, but he can't help himself.”

He winks before walking over to the pool to help the panting Suey out of the water. He holds her steady as she limps away. Aaron looks over his shoulder at me and adds, “It would help if you could look a little jealous.”

As if that is ever going to happen. Then McKinnon calls my name and my opponents'. It’s me versus David. I smile at David ever so sweetly as we take up our positions.

"Ready?"

“Don’t make me look bad,” he says softly, throwing Camelia a fearful glance.

Well, if slacking doesn’t help I better put in some effort. “Too bad,” I reply.

"Set…"

I might be bad at math and most sports, pretty much everything which does not involve bullets, but swim, that I can. Go! As we dive in I still find the time to ponder, in that endless moment before I hit the water. Science has proven that big muscled types like Sweets are the better swimmers. Yet I'm way better than she is. And David, he doesn’t even come close. Yeah, I’m pretty good when it comes to swimming. I’m even better when it comes to killing small and furry things that squeak in the death of night. But I'm not entirely sure that's the kind of discipline Nuttley's High competes in...

"Go!"

I give it all I got.

When I’m done and climb out Aaron is back, offering a helping hand which I ignore. I'm too tired, but the adrenaline is keeping me upright and shaking. Once it's gone I will crash.

“Can I have a hug instead then? Please?” he asks.

I shake my head. I don't want to talk and certainly don’t want to hug. My head hurts, my legs and arms weigh fifty pounds each. Every stroke and every step burns. The crawling around the cabin this morning has left me battered and bruised, and all I want to do is lie down on something soft and flat, and switch off for the next three weeks.

“Couldn’t hurt to ask,” he says. He turns toward the boy with the tribal tattoo. “See Carl? I told you so. She’s no fun.”

Carl says nothing, just smiles dreamily. I guess he's still not over Lug's abs.

McKinnon checks her stopwatch twice, before scribbling down something on her damaged clipboard. Suey, the remaining Jennifer, appears jealous. The first graders seem impressed. Camelia and Lug both look contemplative. When David climbs out he simply looks defeated.

I shrug. “Sorry.” Not that I feel guilty.

“Beaten by a girl,” Lug muses, then his face lights up and he slams David on the back. “Beaten by a girl! Twice!” He and David start a debate which includes the words 'unfair', 'girls', 'going easy on them' and 'you lost anyway'. It doesn't hold my interest.

One of the teachers walks up to Cathy McKinnon, and points with his thumb over his shoulder at the non-competitors. “Hey Cathy, are we done yet? The natives are getting restless.”

She laughs. “Two more, and then we’ll finish with this pair…” she points at me, then at Camelia.

“Ah!” he says, eyeing me for a while. “Well well… Care to take a bet?”

“I guess… I'll take the purple one. The usual?”

“The usual. And I say your protege is going to lose.”

“She ain't my protege, and yes, you have a deal." When he turns and walks away she calls his name. “Hey, Dan? Line up the audience. And make it a double. The purple one's mine, remember?"

He waves his hand but doesn’t look back. “Living dangerously, hey? She looks tired, but whatever you say, boss.”

 

And that’s how I find myself in a swimming pool in Hellhole facing a stranger who claims I’m hers, whilst classmates and other students cheer and leer. I’m not entirely sure who they cheer for, who they leer at, or what McKinnon’s bet is all about. And all of that for the glorious yet doubtful honor of participating in a school sports team. My fellow comrade swimmers have abandoned me and joined the crowd, leaving me and Camelia to our battle. Traitors.

This time, I’m going to make damn sure I’ll lose.

The water looks cold and forbidden in the sweltering heat. I know it's tropical warm, and I know I'm afraid. Streams of cold and hot sweat run over my back. Not the alternating kind you hear so much about, but simultaneously, hot from the heat and cold from fear. Now I have to make a decision, should I win, or should I lose? Should I reap McKinnon's wrath but escape Camelia's revengeful claws, or disappoint this merry band of sport-loving people who I will leave behind anyway? Does Camelia care? Do I care?

I look to my left and watch the crowd gathering: a bunch of students, three teachers, and some of the pool's staff. The old couple and the small kids have wandered over to join the commotion, adding their voices to the ruckus. I swallow and look to my right. Long tight swimming pants, bare midriff, red surf top. My gaze travels further up, expecting to meet Camelia's grey-flecked eyes staring back at me.

No such thing.

McKinnon blows her whistle and calls again. “Ready…”

Camelia isn't looking at the crowd, nor at the water, nor at me. She is looking… at what? The crowd gets noisier in anticipation. Camelia throws them an annoyed glance, then turns her head to face the world outside again. I follow her gaze upward. The glass is a bit dirty that high up and some of the arty objects are in the way, but I can still make out a small spot, barely visible against the clear blue sky. A dark spot that wiggles, moves, and gets rapidly bigger. It's not a bird.

“Set…" McKinnon says. Her voice trails off.

It's a plane. I wonder if it's the same airplane we spotted before. The spot twists and turns on its way towards us. I recognize wings. The sun reflects on what must be its propeller.

“Shit”, Camelia whispers. She turns to me, her mouth open as if to say something, but no sound comes out.

Other people must have seen the plane as well, yelling and shrieking in panic as they start to run. This is a silver bird of prey, coming in fast. I imagine the roar of the engine, as the plane dives towards the swimming pool. In my mind, I see the pilot's wild maniacal grin as she guides her wavering plane towards a violent end. I imagine her blood-red eyes and her cackling laugh.

I should move. I should jump. I should dive for cover before pieces of airplane and building smash through the crowd causing death and destruction. I should be yelling and screaming but I do no such thing. My feet are rooted at the edge of the swimming pool, my eyes are stuck to the sight of the incoming airplane. And so I may be the only one who sees the streak of light jumping up from the ground. It slams into the plane which turns into a ball of fire. Flaming debris hits the building, blows the windows inwards. I fall forward, hit the water and go under, hunted by shrapnel and glass.

 

That's when the rest of the building decides to drop down on top of me.

 

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About the author

The Real Angel Jay

Bio: I write bad fiction. In poor English. In all other aspects I'm just like a normal person. Please note that I'm a not a native English speaker (so any help is welcome).

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