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The Boy in the Red Flip-Flops
The chlorine was palpable, floating like a dense fog above the pool. The water for a brief time remained still, untouched by the clumsy arm strokes of preschoolers enrolled in swim lessons. For once, the wailing of toddlers and the persistent shushes from parents were absent, at least for a few minutes and a few lifeguards walked aimlessly on the deck waiting for class to begin. One picked up a blue kickboard and placed it on the stack of kickboards residing at the end of the pool. Another turned on the faucet and began hosing down the concrete deck.
To pass the time, Ana picked up an Us Weekly and plopped down on a chair outside of the pool office. She had only been at work for four hours and could not believe that she had signed up to work a twelve-hour day. The door to the locker room creaked and she peered over her left shoulder, glancing down the long white hallway where she could make out the familiar face of a boy in red flip-flops. With a smile on his face, he scurried on the white tile, hands flailing in the air. As she smirked, she closed her magazine and tossed it on the table.
“Ryan! What’s up, bud?” greeted Ana. He patted her on the shoulder and motioned for her to stand. As she stood from her chair, he threw his arms around her and grasped her hand. Grinning, he brought it to his lips and softly kissed her hand. “Aw, thank you Ryan. You swimming today?” asked Ana.
Ryan nodded his head, jumping on the wet concrete. “Ye-uh. I swim,” he grunted using his hands to communicate. He ran over to the stereo and switched the station to his favorite music, 99.5 USA Country. The lifeguards groaned under their breaths with this change of music; however, Ryan picked up his feet and began to dance sending laughter throughout the pool. Amidst the laughs, the door creaked and a small toddler pranced in, backpack securely on her shoulders, weighing down her tiny frame.
“Ryan, you forgot your towel! If you need it I am putting it on this chair right here. Okay Ryan?” the young girl assured him. “Ryan! Listen!” she said with a lisp trying to get his attention. Although Alyssa was only four years old, she had the wisdom and maturity of a seventy-year-old woman. Holding his hand, she walked him to the other side of the pool deck, put her backpack on a chair, and told him to sit on the edge of the pool. Within seconds, Ryan kicked his feet sending splashes in every direction disturbing the otherwise tranquil water. He clapped his hands and screeched, a shriek that soon turned into a laugh.
Despite the nine year age difference between Ryan and Alyssa, she was a motherly figure to him. It wasn’t uncommon to see her teaching Ryan how to swim butterfly or reminding him to wear his sunscreen before going outside in the summer. In a mere four years, she had learned sign language better than most adults who had studied it their entire lives and relied on it everyday to communicate with her older brother.
“Ana! Can we get into the pool now, please! I know lessons haven’t started yet, but just watch us, okay?” yelled Alyssa from across the pool.
Knowing that they weren’t allowed to swim without parental supervision, Ana initially thought it was a bad idea. However, knowing that they were both members of the swim team, she didn’t doubt their swimming abilities and allowed them to get in regardless.
“Go ahead, you guys. That’s fine,” Ana reassured them and motioned for Ryan to get into the water. Immediately, Ryan dipped his torso into the pool and began bobbing up and down on the tile floor. He leapt from lane to lane, splashing his younger sister who was diligently trying to teach herself how to perform the perfect flip-turn.
As more and more toddlers pranced in from the locker room, screams echoed in the rafters above the pool and tears from frightened children splashed on the deck. Soon, the deck was running with thirty four-year-olds, some anxious and some dreading the thought of swim lessons. Alyssa and Ryan, now experienced swimmers, didn’t need to participate in lessons for they had passed through every level the previous summer. They continued swimming in the corner of the pool, which was now filled with children doggy paddling their way to the other side with the help of five instructors. Ana, being one of them, watched Ryan out of the corner of her eye swim underwater until he got halfway down the pool without taking a single breath. She congratulated him and continued teaching.
Ryan continued his underwater swimming lap after lap, and with each lap, he got farther down the pool than the time before. Before he knew it, he was almost making it the entire length without breathing and was not going to stop until he could make it the entire way down the pool. He gasped for as much air as his lungs could fill and submerged himself beneath the water before pushing off the wall. His arms propelled him through the water and his legs followed. Before long, he was halfway down the pool and each tile that he saw on the pool floor was farther and farther away. Spots of yellow and green flashed before his eyes. Soon the yellow and green spots became black and his lungs winced for air. His arms couldn’t move fast enough. He kicked harder. He could barely move. His heart raced. And there, just three feet before he reached the wall, he fell limp on the cool tile floor.
“Okay kids, hop out of the water!” Ana told her class. “You guys get to do one jump and then Miss Megan can give you a sticker.” Her back turned to the pool, she could still hear the splashes from the corner where she knew Ryan and Alyssa had been reassuring her that they were safe.
She held the hands of one young girl as she stood on the edge of the water. “Pretty soon you are going to be swimming as well as Ryan and Alysssa over there, bud,” Ana mentioned to a young student before they jumped in. She looked over her shoulder to point them out to him.
“See, there’s Alyssa right over there and then Ryan right…” Ana trailed off. She could make out a figure underwater at the end of the pool. She sprinted over the lane lines and underneath kickboards to find Ryan lying motionless beneath the surface, his face ash blue and his incessant smile erased from his face. She grabbed him by the armpits, forgetting all proper life-guarding rescue techniques and laid him on the side of the pool. “SOMEONE HELP! IT’S RYAN, ANYONE! KELLY! DAN! MICHELLE! ANYONE! CALL AN AMBULANCE!” she shrieked until all of the air fled from her lungs.
She shook his shoulders. “Come on! Wake up!” cried Ana and as she kneeled bending over Ryan, his mother entered the pool noticing a crowd of lifeguards congregating on the poolside. Knowledgeable of CPR, she rushed over to help with the commotion and let out a wail at the sight of her teenaged son lying frozen on the pool deck.
“Okay, calm down. Check for a pulse,” assured one of the lifeguards.
“Got one. Okay, rescue breaths,” Ana said to herself. She watched the breath fill up his chest as it rose up and down. “One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand…” Ana took a deep breath and performed another rescue breath. After six minutes of rescue breathing, paramedics sprinted down the stairs of the park district and threw the locker room doors. Running to meet the lifeguards, they took over, keeping him monitored to an oxygen system.
In minutes, Ryan regained his color, but for precautions they took him to the hospital for close monitoring. As he sat on the stretcher, his smile now glued to his face, he stared at Ana and put his hand to his chin, signing the phrase “thank you”. She smiled back with a tear streaming down her face and she watched him get rolled down the long white hallway that she had watched him enter in just an hour before.
She walked back over to the chair that she once sat on reading her Us Weekly. She stared at the stereo, listening to the banjo of Dierk’s Bentley and slowly turned up the volume remembering the smiles that he had put on so many faces.
Tenafly, New Jersey
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