Second place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2019.
"Laps" by Anna Montgomery Patton
It was a dry summer heat. I was twelve and I didn’t sweat the way a woman does, but my skin felt uncomfortable, too tight. I sprawled in the grass, looking at my best friend, Grace. Grace is the name of a girl you fall in love with.
Grace lay beside me, her wild curls tickled my shoulder. I could feel the warmth of her, clad in a one-piece bathing suit. Her arms were raised and she squinted against the sun as she made a daisy-chain crown, tearing flowers from the earth. We were surrounded by towels, Seventeen magazines, melting tubes of lip gloss, and unused sunscreen. I pulled a piece of sour grass and stuck the end in my mouth, chewing, puckering over the tartness.
“An animal probably peed on that,” Grace said, but I just shrugged. The cry of Marco! and Polo! came from the public pool.
Grace sat up and gazed at me, the sky a blue ceiling above her. Sunburn colored her cheeks. I abandoned the sour grass. Reverently, she placed the crown on my head and I imagined myself a beautiful corpse. Grace flopped to her stomach and leaned on her elbows. I picked at the nail polish Grace had applied to my fingertips.
“So. Who do you like?” she asked. We said this when there was a lull in conversation—on the phone in between hours of speaking, at dawn during sleepovers. It was a rhetorical question and we both would laugh in response. I did that now, as I felt myself blush. Redness that had nothing to do with sunburns.
“Let’s swim,” I said, sitting up. Grace jumped up. Grass marks crisscrossed her thighs.
Grace had breasts, where my own chest remained flat. I tried not to notice as they bounced with her stride to the pool, her arm linked through mine.
When we arrived poolside and unlinked, I lowered myself into the deep end. Grace sashayed to the diving board line. She balanced on the balls of her feet while flirting with Charlie MacPherson who was ahead of her. Charlie was older, a teenager. His face had faint stubble where he’d recently started shaving but his chest was hairless. Grace was as tall as him, and with the length of her legs would surpass him soon and always. I gulped air before letting go of the railing and jackknifing to the bottom of the pool. I opened my eyes in the muted aqua world and found myself face-to-face with Grace’s little brother Brad. He wore snorkel goggles and was fetching weighted rings from the pool floor. I recognized his subterfuge as he stared at my belly button, exposed by my two-piece suit, and then my crotch. I blew bubbles out my nose and pushed to the surface as Charlie broke through from above in what I am sure he thought was an impressive cannonball. Brad’s breathing tube popped up and I watched it creep through Charlie’s waves.
Charlie tossed his head like a Labrador retriever and began to backstroke towards me. When he arrived he raised his pruney palm for a high five, and I was forced to give it to him. We turned our attention to the diving board as Grace climbed the stairs. She paused at the top, posture perfect, arms at her sides, serious. The pool went silent as everyone watched. With the calm of an Olympian, Grace took three steps to the end, bouncing once, her right leg raised in passé, toes pointed, arms up. On the second bounce she sprang into the air before arching into a dive, slicing through the water.
When Grace resurfaced everyone erupted in applause. The old women swimming laps paused to clap over kickboards. Charlie let out a hoot and slammed his fists into the water. I jerked to avoid the spray. Grace swam to us, pleased with herself.
“10 out of 10!” I said.
“20 out of 10!” Charlie said. I rolled my eyes. But Grace just cocked an eyebrow.
“Beat that, Charles,” she said.
Charlie laughed and swung over the side of the pool, biceps glistening as he pushed onto the paved ground. “Game on.”
They went at it for a few rounds, board to pool and back. Charlie executed outrageous flips and Grace perched on the edge in handstands before twisting into dives. I watched, reclining with my arms spread on the cement, the rest of my body submerged. Finally, I grew bored and got out.
After wrapping my towel around my waist I walked to Grace and Charlie, who stood waiting for their next turns on the board.
“I’m gonna get ice cream,” I said to Grace, interrupting. I pictured cold strawberry sliding down my throat.
“One last jump, then I’ll come with you, k?”
“You should jump,” said Charlie. He didn’t know my name.
“Naw, that’s okay.”
“Don’t be a chicken! You don’t have to do anything, just jump in,” he pressed.
“She doesn’t want to, it’s cool,” Grace said and I wanted to hug her, grab her hand and run. Charlie ignored her and kept it up. His arm came up to poke me. Reflexively, I twisted away. His other arm shot out, and I dodged him again, jogging away.
The lifeguard shouted, “Walk. WALK!” but I had to get away from Charlie. Charlie chased me to the shallow end of the pool where babies floated with moms, back to the deep end. He suddenly caught me from behind and used both hands to grab the towel around my waist, giving a violent downward tug.
The air was startling on my naked skin.
Time stood still, and so did I, nude from the waist down. Charlie had pulled the my bathing suit with the towel in his urgency. I was drowning. Grace’s face was etched in horror. Brad floated, eyes saucers, snorkel dangling from his mouth. My butt was exposed to Charlie while my not-yet-womanly vagina faced the rest of the world.
I grabbed at the bottoms swimming around my knees. Everything blurred as tears poured from my face. I ran, the echo of “WALK! WALK!” following me like a catcall.
I lurched into to the locker room. Rows of naked women pulled on bathing suits, ran combs through wet hair, applied lotion, oblivious. I kept going until I was inside a bathroom stall. Snapping the lid on the toilet, I sat down and buried my face in my palms.
There was a tap on the door. “Imogen open up.” I could see her feet under the door, toenails painted the same blue as my own.
I didn’t wipe the snot dripping from my nose before I slid the lock back. Grace pushed her way in, closing the door behind her. She dropped to her knees between my legs and wrapped her arms around my middle. I clung to her, buried my face in her shoulder, inhaling chlorine.
She held me for a while, until I got it all out. She let me pull away first. Then she wiped my face and said, “You look pretty when you cry. Nobody looks pretty when they cry.” She smiled her smile. “Wanna go get ice cream?”
Anna Montgomery Patton is a fiction writer, originally from the East Bay. She earned her undergraduate degree from UCLA, and graduated from UNC Wilmington in 2018 with an MFA in Creative Writing. An excerpt from her novel, Inhabit, is forthcoming in Sinister Wisdom. Patton resides in Aptos, CA. For more information visit www.annamontgomerypatton.com.