The Deep End
I last swam in Briar Springs Pond Pool - habitat for the endangered Briar Springs Blind Salamander and the not so endangered tourists - in August 2008, just before my Freshman year in an out-of-state college. Like most locals, I typically swam after sundown to avoid the horde of vacationers who, aside from making lap-swimming impossible, treated the pool like an all-natural neighborhood water park. During my friend Daniel Braddock's brief tenor as a lifeguard there, he retrieved an average of twenty-eight thousand plastic bags, twelve-hundred water bottles, eight-hundred swimming goggles, and countless towels and swimwear of all shapes and sizes per every ungrateful brat he rescued. Since the salvaging operation - especially during the busy month of July - could easily last between one and a half hours, I waited until 8:30 for my first return to the pool.
For nostalgic reasons I forwent my compact in favor of the dust-gathering mountain bike hanging in the garage, and pedaled there with goggles on my head and a towel draping over my shoulder. The day was unusually sultry, and my brows were sweat-laden despite having only pedaled two miles under the cover of nightfall. Upon arrival, I walked my bike through the parking lot - vacant but for a rusting, bird-dropping covered pickup truck - and leaned it against the crooked oak tree with a yawning hole in its trunk. I followed the trail of shed leaves and crushed acorns to the ticket office - an oak-wood shack with cracked windows. Inside sat a lanky young man with curly red hair who was nose deep in his Iphone Four.
"Hello." I said as I approached the young man. He didn't respond, so I knocked on the window and raised my voice.
"Hello, anyone there?"
Startled, the young man dropped his phone in haste before picking it up, turning it off, and stuffing it within a bin of lost goggles and swimwear before finally replying.
"Good evening. How may I help you today? Ticket for one?"
"No, that won't be necessary." I smiled and slid my swim-team badge from four years ago under the window. He retrieved it, took a glance, and his brows furrowed.
"Sorry, but I think that one might have expired four years ago." He pointed out the "2008" beneath my name. "Afraid you still need to pay up, sir."
"Well, it was worth a try." My smile didn't falter. "How much is the ticket?"
"Five dollars and sixty-five cents." He opened the window and tossed my badge back to me. I fetched a ten-dollar bill from my wallet and watched on as he struggled to produce a nickel and a dime from the cash register.
"Prices sure went up." I pocketed the change, which was fifteen cents short. "Guess swimming pools are the latest inflation victims?"
The young man chuckled and nodded.
"I suppose. But the main thing is the Briar Springs Salamander. Fifty percent of all admission fees goes to salamander conservation. People kept chucking shit in the water and someone got to take all that shit out, so..."
"Cool, so you guys still get paid next to nothing."
"Actually nothing is more like it in my case." He unlocked the rusty grilled gate with a brass key dangling from his neck. "But…"
"It looks good on the college resume. I know."
The lifeguard smiled and admitted me. I barely stepped inside when he interrupted.
"Oh yes, one more thing. We don't post lifeguards at the deep end anymore. Swim at your own risk. Good night!"
I stopped in my track. How was I supposed to swim laps if the deep end was closed off?
"And why is that? The salamander?" I turned around and asked.
"Nah. Not this time. The water gets too cold at night. Ain't worth the risk, ain't worth the risk..."
"Now hold on a minute." I shook my head in disbelief. "What do you mean by cold? Sixty degrees? Fifty?"
"More like forties and thirties, and I kid you not." said the lifeguard. "We had a couple of drownings in the past year. Doctors from Blanton diagnosed hypothermia induced shock or something like that…"
Now he must be kidding. I thought. Spring fed ponds typically retained the same temperature year-round, and Briar Springs was no exception. During my late October visits the water there was a reasonable seventy degrees, even at the deep-end.
"Forties and thirties, even in this weather?"
"Feel free to try it out if you really want." He added gravely as he returned to his shack. "Just remember that you swim at your own risk out there."
Swim at your own risk, I sneered. Who exactly are you trying to scare here?
A path of roughly hewn limestone blocks meandered between the gnarly oaks and cedars until it ended at a heavily graffitied restroom at the edge of the pool. There were no road lamps, but I needed none for the full, unobstructed moon was bright enough to cast shadows. I took my time walking to the pool, at times stopping to relish the musty scent of shed cedar twigs and the faint chirping of distant crickets - the smell and sound of my youth.
I changed into my swim trunks and left my belongings on a park bench before stepping into the shallow end of the pool. The water felt cool but in a soothing kind of way, especially after the biking workout, and I joined the half-dozen or so teenage stragglers loitering near shore, splashing away my heat and fatigue while the earthy aroma of banked-algae filled my nostrils. While a pair of lifeguard towers loomed over us, only the one on the right was occupied. The sole lifeguard was too busy tapping away at her phone to realize that someone smuggled in a case of beer - half of which was consumed and the other half littered across the grassy foothills at the far-side of the pool.
I put on my goggles and left the frolicking teens behind me with several strokes and kicks. At times I took deeper breaths and dived for minutes at time, schools of sunfish and dinks scattering into the water-grass thickets with my every approach. Moonlight distorted by the ebbing waves above dappled the rock-covered pool floor a shade of shimmering silver that was at places disrupted by water-logged branches or drifting catfish. The water beneath grew deeper and deeper until the floor dropped steeply into a forest of water-glass and algae, the gray-green tips of which swayed gently to the rhythm of underwater currents.
Unable to hold my breath any longer, I resurfaced with a few kicks and greedily inhaled the still night air. Without realizing it, I had already reached the demarcation line between the shallow and deep ends. Before me the pool widened, stretching roughly a hundred feet from bank to bank. Only a rickety water slide and an abandoned lifeguard tower adorned the shores of the deep end, which ended abruptly at the concrete dam that separated the pool from the creek down water. Just in front of the dam, where the water was the widest and deepest, a man was busily dog-paddling from shore to shore.
I wonder if that guy felt cold swimming in that 40 degree water. I thought as I observed the lone swimmer. Despite his awkward swimming posture, he lapped the widest part of the pool with ease and made little to no splashes even as he picked up speed. The longer I watched him swim, the greater my desire to lap the vast expanses of the deep end itched within me.
Upon the swimmer's fifth lap my desire to swim in the deep end overrode the lifeguard's warning and my better judgment. I exercised caution all the same and swam near the pool's eastern shoreline in case of a drastic dip in water temperature. I detected none. The water remained cool and agreeable even after I swam thirty yards passed the bold-orange buoy that marked the deepest point of the pool. Knowing how much lane crossing irked the average swimmer, I stopped fifty feet away from the other swimmer to ensure a wide enough berth. Shortly after, I started swimming, all the while chuckling to myself about the lifeguard's story about forty-degree water. Stories to scare off people so they don't need to post too many lifeguards at night, I told myself. Not that they do any real work at night anyway.
It wasn't until my third lap when I noticed that something was amiss. The other swimmer, who up to this point swam straight as an arrow, deviated from his lane at almost a forty-five degree angle in my direction. To my annoyance, the closer he got to me the faster he swam, and he ran straight into my path before I could finish my fourth lapse. He must not be wearing goggles, I reassured myself as I swerved out of an imminent collision.
Not feeling confrontational, I swam at least twenty feet toward the dam to give my companion more maneuver space. This time, I barely finished half a lap when my peripheral vision gave early warning. It was that swimmer again! In a literal blink of an eye he closed the fifty feet or so gap between us, and headed straight for my head with his flailing limbs. Not in the mood for a concussion, I dove straight beneath him and caught a glimpse of his arm as it brushed against my own. It was long and crooked, pallid as the moonlight and deathly cold to the touch.
A feeling of dread overcame me when I resurface, gasping. The cold spot where the pale swimmer touched failed dissipate and instead spread through my elbow, then my shoulder and chest, and eventually my neck and torso. In a matter of seconds the cold intensified to the point at which I, an otherwise healthy adult, begun shivering uncontrollably in late-July weather. Time to get ashore! I urged myself, but one of my arms was too numb to move.
The swimmer appeared to have deciphered my thoughts during my moment of indecision. Head raised high above the waterline and limbs paddling furiously, he made a beeline for me, making eerily few sounds and splashes despite his vehement movement. Twelve feet, eight feet, five feet… I floated helplessly, literally frozen with fear when he lounged through the air, his arms stretched stiffly before him…
And that's when I saw his face…
There was nothing on it. No nose, no eyes, no mouth, just a blank, featureless surface that seemingly glowed under the bright moonlight.
I made a dash for the dam. Nothing helped a man overcome his fears than even greater fears. The swimmer pursued me relentlessly, but in the end my one-armed freestyle beat his dog-paddle. Fifteen feet, ten feet, eight feet… I could feel the swimmer's icy grip on my feet but kicked it free. Five feet, three feet… The shore was so close that I could touch it with my stretched hand, which I did, but my fingers slipped on the algae encrusted rocks. I took a deep breath and tried again. This time I gripped the crevice between the rocks and with one final push, I made it to shore. But even then I didn't feel safe. As soon as my shaking feet touched solid earth, I ran.
I ran barefoot through the jagged rocks and thorny bushes, ran until my lungs ached for air, ran until I put a solid mile between me and the pool.
Yet I kept running, mainly because I felt warm doing it.