Gulp!

by Christian Riley

Tommy Nunos charged forward with a tangle of bodies into the leering mouth of the great Lake Superior. He pumped his legs and swung his arms in a frantic appeal to keep up with the rest of the swimmers, hoping at best to establish a good spot within the crowd once the real race began. His custom-made wetsuit stretched over his body like a thin rubber-band. It was the perfect fit. He knew this, as he tested it over and over again at that Olympic-size pool he swam in every other morning. Tommy wanted to be sure there would be no surprises for his first open-water race.

It was his right leg that made the first plunge into that cold water. Like the hungry mouth of some terrible monster, wet with saliva, the lake swallowed his leg near up to his knee. But Tommy just gave a great shout in response, along with a few other people who were feeling the same excitement as he was that moment.

But then some asshole next to him snickered under his breath. It was a sly snicker, but Tommy had heard it all too often enough to recognize it for what it was. How dare you, you son-of-a-bitch! And if it wasn’t for the fact that the cruel gesture didn’t slip him up, break his concentration, and if that cold water, now infuriated from the thrashing of several-hundred kicks to the gut hadn’t retaliated, grabbing his befuddled self and pulling Tommy down into a pathetic face-plant, well…

A strong hand helped pull Tommy up out of the water and onto his feet, his whole body now dripping unintentionally. This wasn’t how it was supposed to begin.

“There you go now, chap,” the man replied with a smile. A genuine smile. “Carry on.”

Tommy stood for a brief second as the man took off into the lake, his mind ricocheting against thoughts like a crazy-ball sent wild down a concrete corridor. What the hell? Was that an Englishman..? Such a polite people, aren’t they? And then Tommy was back in the race.

Seconds later, it was time. Tommy lunged forward with his legs and reached out with his arms, diving into the perfect posture he would need to conquer those two miles of icy water. Ten-thousand strokes and kicks, at least. Ten-thousand and one. A little more than the average swimmer, but Tommy didn’t care about that. He was going to finish this race, no matter what.

Oh, but damn it was cold! Despite the insulation of his wetsuit, the chill of that grey water gripped Tommy’s chest like the tentacles of a giant squid, squeezing and constricting his air, toying with his life as he slapped away at that coldness stroke by stroke. Push hard at first, get your body warm. That’s how you’ll defeat the cold. His coach warned him of this. She told him what to expect once he dove in.

Tommy replayed this advice in his head as he swam like a madman, and a few short minutes later, he discovered that she was right. His body soon warmed up, shielding his lungs from that frigid grasp, sending that strangling kraken of the deep back to where it belonged. Tommy was swimming now, and boy if it didn’t feel good.

In the next five minutes that passed, Tommy got punched in the face once, slapped on the back twice, and kicked in the head more times than he could count. But he knew this was going to happen. Everyone told him to expect it, and that the only thing he should just pray for is that his goggles didn’t get ripped off and thrown to the abyss during all that chaos. Keep your head down, look to the blackness below, protect your face, breath only when you need to, but make it quick, and most of all…don’t lose your goggles! That’s what everyone in the Master Class he swam with told him. Don’t lose your goggles, Tommy. Two miles in a lake with no goggles makes for a shitty race.

But Tommy didn’t lose his goggles, and just as everyone predicted, after about five minutes the swimmers all seemed to spread out into their own little patches of water. Tommy found his own patch off to the side, which couldn’t have made him anymore happier. Nothing but hard work now, as he was finally left alone to focus on his technique, and his endurance, and his breathing, and his undeniable resolve to finish this race.

He knew he wouldn’t win, though. There was no illusion such as that dancing around in his head, urging him to swim faster and kick harder. But that’s not why most swimmers jumped into a cold lake only to torture themselves for two miles anyways. It was the “completion” of the race that was the real trophy. To own the bragging rights, and a T-shirt that announced to everyone that you did it. You swam in Lake Superior. It was the hot bowl of clam chowder waiting for you on the other shore, ready to greet your smiling mouth along with all those spectators. It was the awkward feeling you knew you would have when you came trudging out of the lake, proud and mighty with your accomplishment, yet desperate to remain as cool as that water you just left behind. And for a few people, perhaps, it was the chance to look your dismantled father, the one who never really could accept you for who you were, the one who silently scoffed at all your little accomplishments…to look that man in the eye and say, “Are you happy now, mother-fucker?”

Tommy buried his head into that swim. His arms were sweeping across the surface of the water with a technique he was sure was his best. He had been up real early that morning, his stomach teeming with butterflies swimming their own race through his guts. Nevertheless, Tommy ate damn well, knowing he’d need all the right kinds of energy to keep him going; two bananas, huge bowl of cereal, bagel with cream cheese, two cups of cottage cheese, fruit salad, glass of milk, and a pint of Gatorade spiked with a scoop of carb powder, just to be sure. People always laughed at how much he could put down. Tommy even took a massive dump before the race as well, thank Heavens. He almost choked on a mouthful of water when he thought about that, and all the other things swimmers held glorious to their routine. That’s right…Tommy was a swimmer.

Tommy popped his head up to steal a look at the horizon. He caught a glimpse of the orange buoy up ahead, and the kayaker looming off to the side of it. He had been swimming for close to an hour now, and was approaching the half-way marker, along with that particular point of an exercise referred to as the “second-wind”.

But this was going to be one beautiful second-wind, Tommy knew. There were no lane lines in this lake he could snag his fingers on. No wall up ahead in which to negotiate a flip-turn at, risking a break in his rhythm. There was nobody right behind him now either, poking at his feet, silently telling him how slow he was; how much of an inconvenience they all thought him to be, hoping they didn’t have to share their lane with him, but always smiling and laughing when they did. Nobody loving him, high-fiving him, grimly cheering him on during those Friday relay-races, being his friend because it was only the right thing to do…

None of those fuckers now! Tommy cruised past that buoy and that gawking hayseed of a kayaker feeling like he had only just begun this race. He felt the energetic surge of his “second-wind” course through his arms, along his torso, and down his legs, feeding his body and mind with a power like none other.

Tommy was the lord of this lake, bringing up the rear for all those other swimmers as if he were Poseidon himself guarding his children from the dangers of the deep. He was stretching and kicking his way through all that cold water without a care in the world, owning the lake, owning the moment, owning the whole fucking day when suddenly…

Who said there would be something like that? Nobody. Certainly not his coach, or any of his swim-mates. Tommy thought it must of have been some fishing-line hung-up on a submerged tree branch which caught his toe. A brief snag, pull and yank as he trudged along the surface.

But there it was again! With a quick flip of his body Tommy looked behind him, staring with disbelief. There wasn’t another swimmer around him for yards, and that dumb kayaker was way off in the distance now, looking every which way except into the direction the entire race was heading. Baffled, Tommy submerged his head as he sat there treading water. He looked into the swelling darkness of Lake Superior below, scanning for whatever it was that groped him like that. But Tommy saw nothing. He saw the kind of nothing as only the bottom of a very cold and deep lake would offer.

Time to get the fuck out. Those were his thoughts certainly, but his only choice was to keep going. Keep swimming. Finish the race. As there were no other swimmers around Tommy to hassle him, there was also nobody around him period. It was like the boats and kayakers all seemed to forget about him, as if he were too small and slow of a swimmer to even be noticed.

Tommy kicked his body up and lurched forward, back into swim mode. His mind felt foggy and weak after being punched like that from the uncertainty of whatever it was that tugged…Oh no, what the fuck!

This time Tommy was pulled under the water and sucked into that black hell below him by some great vacuum. A vacuum with a massive vise at the end of it, clamping onto his legs, clutching Tommy really damn hard as it swiftly dragged his choking body down, down, way on down…until the last thing Tommy felt was the painful crush in his ears from the weight of all that water, and the horrifying squeeze upon his already broken body from those gigantic jaws. Until the last thing Tommy saw through his goggles was a blackness favored only by Death itself…and perhaps also by that of a humungous fish too large, too strong, and way too smart to ever find itself on the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records.

***

When Tommy never showed up at the end of the race, there were a lot of people wandering around on the banks of that shore whispering amongst themselves in silent suspense. His team-mates were all gathered around the edge of the water staring out into it, their feelings about their friend now finally sincere. They were sad for Tommy, almost as grief-stricken as their coach was, but not quite.

All the boats and kayakers involved with the race immediately began to search the outlining area for Tommy. The hopes was that perhaps Tommy got off course, and that maybe he was still out there somewhere, swimming in the lake. But once the Coast Guard arrived, and shortly after that, the local search and rescue, the media, more spectators, and of course, Tommy’s parents…well, those hopes quickly turned to fears with the biggest concern at that point now being if they’ll ever find the body?

“Poor little bugger,” replied that Englishman, with a shake of his head. The man walked up to Tommy’s parents and apologized for their loss. It had been hours past since the race ended and people were becoming restless, giving up to the cold of the impending evening, leaving the scene as it were.

Tommy’s mother was still grieving, but one would hardly notice. She was a tiny woman with a tiny voice, buried within the enormous embrace of her son’s father. Very much unlike his wife, this man was a giant of a man. He had a full beard surrounding a huge strawberry nose, wore a camouflaged-bandana on his head, and an olive military jacket patched with the bragging rights of anything and everything expected from a retired Navy Seal. As strong as he was sure to be, he managed to hold the full weight of his wife’s grief with one hand, and a lidless 7-11 Big Gulp cup with the other.

The reporter who finally approached the couple seemed to be clueless to the man’s cold eyes, or his mammoth size, or his monstrous, able-to-crush-the-life-out-of-you-woman-with-one-stroke hands. But she did notice the smell of whiskey lingering over him.

“I told the boy not to do it. I told him, the fool.”

Tommy was twenty-seven years old, or so the reporter thought.

“I know how old my son is lady. Still makes no difference…was a dumb-ass thing to do.” He took a large gulp of whatever it was there in his cup before continuing. “Midgets can’t swim! They never could, and they never will.”

With that, Tommy’s father spat a chunk of ice down into the sand and turned away from the reporter, hauling his sobbing wife down to the water’s edge to steal one last look before the sun went down.

The End