Chapter Nineteen: Forever and Five Seconds
Some of the big kids had medals, but Gar didn't care because he had a trophy. Well, okay, so he wasn't the only one who had a trophy, but the medals weren't worth it. You had to go to an extra swim meet, for a whole day, like Divisionals except worse because it was a really big pool and inside and it smelled really bad and it was hot and there weren't even any good snacks there. Gar knew. Terra was telling him.
"And there's this thing on the wall that has moving, yellow numbers, and it counts out your time for you, and if you don't hit the black pad when you finish, it won't even stop!" She had her feet on Gar's lounge chair, propped up on her elbows in the chair next to his, a dark bronze medal on her lap with an American-flag-colored ribbon attached.
"So they don't have the guys with the stopwatches there?"
"Oh yeah, they have them," said Terra. She wrinkled her forehead. "They just mostly use the thing on the wall."
"Then why do they have them in the first place?" he asked.
Terra blinked, forehead wrinkling a little bit more. "I…dunno."
"They're for backup in case something goes wrong with the touchpad," said a familiar voice above him. Gar leaned his head back to stare up at Robin, who was fully dressed, wearing a blue shirt that wasn't quite as blue as his eyes.
"You're not swimming?" Gar asked, wondering if he could lean back far enough so his hair touched the ground. He thought about pointing to Robin's shirt, but that would have probably made him fall over, since he needed both his hands to hold himself up.
Robin shook his head. "There's no practice; why would I do that?"
Gar rolled his eyes—which probably looked really weird from upside-down. Robin didn't know how to swim for fun: he'd never been in the water to do anything else but practice, not all season, at least not that Gar had seen. "You're insane. In a smart way," he announced.
Robin had three medals. He just didn't seem to really care about them because he'd shoved them in the lifeguard's room with Coach Bruce's stuff right after everybody had gotten their awards. Maybe it was because he didn't break any records. Wally had broken a record in the short free; Coach Bruce had told everybody. Gar didn't really know what that meant, but figured it must make him pretty much the fastest boy ever (which made him about the fastest kid ever, since boys were faster than girls).
"I'm not insane!" Robin snapped, glaring at Gar and crossing his arms. "You can't just—"
Sitting up straight again, Gar spun around so he could see Robin; being upside-down was starting to make his head hurt. "Hey, I said it was in a smart way!"
Robin's eyes shrunk into narrow slits. "You cannot be insane in a smart way."
"Maybe I can't, but you—"
But the rest of what he was going to say got swallowed by a laugh because the way Robin's face looked when Starfire snuck up behind him and planted two hands on his shoulders was just too funny to keep talking. He jumped about six feet. Or maybe sixty.
Starfire didn't seem like she minded at all when he jerked away. "Who would like to play Minnows and Sharks?" she asked, looking from Robin to Terra to Gar with big, hopeful eyes.
"Ooo! Me!" Terra raised her hand, waving it around in the air. Then, her arm went limp like a piece of cooked spaghetti as she lowered her voice and pleaded, "Just don't make me be the shark, okay?"
Starfire shrugged. "I can be the shark."
A black braid swung back and forth in front of Starfire's face as Jade stepped in front of her. "No, I'll be the shark," she said, a grin gleaming in the middle of her face that reminded Gar of that pink cat from Alice in Wonderland. It looked like she might disappear any minute, braid and dark eyes and green suit vanishing into nothing, leaving just her smile behind.
Sharks had lots of sharp teeth. And Gar had played enough games of Sharks and Minnows to know that you should never let Jade be the shark. But Starfire let her anyway.
"No, I'm safe; the drain is base!"
"We never said that, Kitten."
"Well, I said it! And that's how you're supposed to play; it's the rules!"
Jade rolled her eyes, reaching out to bop Kitten on the side of her face. "Well, anyway, now I got you, so there."
Mouth dropping open, the muscles in Kitten's throat tightened, and she looked like she wanted to shove Jade underwater and count to a million. "You are such a cheater," she growled, aiming a gigantic splash her way that ended up catching Gar in the eye instead.
He was a shark, but that was okay because he was always one of the first ones to become a shark. Except for that one time when they'd all forgotten that he was playing. That had been really funny.
"Minnows in!" Jade demanded, as soon as the last person that they hadn't tagged yet had climbed out of the pool. "Kitten, go to the other side."
"You can take that other side, and shove it up your—"
"I will kick you," said Jade, eyes round and serious.
Kitten heaved an enormous sigh and pushed off the wall, sprinting freestyle to the other end. If she touched the wall, everybody still on the pool deck would be out. It was the best way to make people jump in.
By the time she got close to the end, everybody had already left the side except for Wally, who was just smirking down at her like he dared her to touch. At the last second, he vaulted right over her head and into the water, not going all the way down like a lot of people tried to do. He was just too fast. Nobody would catch him. Except maybe Robin, but Robin was sitting cross-legged on one of the starting blocks with his hands folded in his lap.
Gar tried to get Wally when he came close, but he'd slipped past in what seemed like no time at all, leaving Gar disoriented and empty handed—and he had both hands on the wall before Gar figured out what direction he was supposed to be looking in.
"Nice try, no cigar," said Wally, practically leaping out of the pool.
"I don't even know what that means." Gar made a face.
Wally grinned disarmingly. "Means better luck next time. I think your side of the pool is that way." He pointed to the other end, to which the others were already headed. Next to him on the deck, Starfire nodded, mimicking the motion. Somehow, she hadn't been tagged yet. They were the only two.
"Alright," said Jade. "Kitten, you're gonna go fast to the other side again. We've got to get Wally out; he's the fastest, so everybody else go after him except…umm…Terra, you get Starfire."
Terra bit her lip. "But I don't want to get her—do I have to, like, hurt her and stuff?"
Jade flipped her braid back over her shoulder. "I don't care how you get her, just get her." Taking a deep breath, she raised her voice to a yell. "Minnows in!" And Kitten went flying over to the other side.
Next to him, Raven tapped Gar's shoulder with one finger. "Who died and made her Shark Queen?"
Gar made a face. "I told you before: never let Jade be the shark." He paused for a second, thinking about it. "Or Robin, either, I guess; he'd be an even worse shark."
Raven snorted as she pushed off the wall with her head still out of the water. "Yeah, right. Like Robin would play games."
Then she took a breath, closed her eyes, and dove down to swim under Gar's feet. She was smiling when she came up again. "C'mon, Shark Queen has spoken. Let's get Wally."
Wally was really fast, fast enough to break that record, whatever it was, but when there were twenty other people trying to catch you, you needed to be more than really fast. It took awhile, but finally Raven and Karen cornered him while Vic grabbed him from behind.
"Gotcha!" He was a lot bigger than Wally, so he could hold him easily. But Wally was faster.
"Yeah, yeah," said Wally, squirming out of Vic's grip and dropping underwater, dragging the other boy with him by the elbows. A few seconds later, they surfaced at the same time, Wally laughing and Vic sputtering.
"You're evil, you know that?"
Wally splashed him. "Just trying to be a good safety hazard." He glanced over at the starting block where Robin was sitting, some kind of sparkle in his eyes that Gar didn't really understand.
Robin didn't exactly smile, but he was having a fight against smiling, and he was kind of losing.
Nobody noticed what was going on at the other end of the pool until a delighted shriek made them all spin around to look. In the middle of the deck, dripping wet and breathing hard, was Starfire, her impossibly long hair clinging all down her back, some of it hanging like a curtain over her shoulders. Her cheeks stood out from the rest of her face as she beamed at them, waving with one tanned hand.
"I won!" she screamed. "Now I will be the new shark!"
Jade threw a scandalized glare at Terra. "You were supposed to get her!"
Terra's eyes got huge and round. "I didn't want to hurt her, so I just swam close to her, and she asked nicely if she could go around me, so I just let her a little bit, I promise!"
"You're a moron," moaned Kitten.
"But she said please!"
Starfire cleared her throat, getting everyone's attention again. "I believe that I am supposed to say 'Minnows in!', yes?"
Jade scowled. "Robin, tell her this isn't fair!"
Robin, who had found his way off the starting blocks and had been watching Starfire like he'd maybe wanted to join in. Robin, who wasn't watching Starfire for much longer because Wally somehow appeared behind him and, in one swift motion, shoved him into the pool.
It was really quiet for the two seconds that his head was under water. Then, it wasn't so quiet. Robin started yelling at him, and from the way he was glaring, it looked like he wasn't going to stop for a long, long time—
Or at least not until Wally cut him off with a wave of his hand and a laugh. "You wanted to play; you just wouldn't let yourself. So I helped." Then, he pointed to Starfire as if she were the president. "You guys heard her! Minnows in!"
Somehow, they were at the pool for forever and five seconds, all at once. Forever because it was definitely almost dark by the time most of the kids had gotten out of the water (usually because somebody made them); five seconds because it didn't seem like dark should ever come this soon. Today wasn't a real swim practice—just when everybody got awards and stuff. It was also the last day of swim team. Forever. Or at least till next summer, which might as well be forever. Forever until he could see Vic and Roy and Wally—and Terra even though she was a girl. And Robin even though he was insane.
Gar didn't know if he could wait that long.
In fact, he decided that he wouldn't wait that long.
"So you guys, can we do stuff together before swim team starts again?" he asked the circle of kids at the table.
Raven scooted her chair a little closer to the table, eyes wide, and in the dimming light they looked almost bright purple. "We can do that?"
Roy nodded. "Sure, why not? Even when it's cold and stuff. Hey, any of you skate? We can go ice skating!"
Robin jerked his head around like there had been a false start and the starter had just fired the gun right next to his ear. Then, whatever strange look had been on his face faded away as he leaned back against his seat, offering a careful, "Maybe."
Coach Bruce hadn't been very happy with Wally for pushing Robin in the pool (even though Robin wasn't all that upset after he'd finished yelling at everyone) because it wasn't really cold outside, but Robin's lips had turned blue anyway. He'd made Robin change clothes—a long-sleeved shirt this time—and wrapped him in two huge towels. After he dried his hair. Robin hadn't complained.
Jade placed both elbows on the table, settling her chin gracefully on her palms. "Watch out, Harper. I skate."
Roy made a noise a lot like the sound Gar's cat had made the time he'd accidentally sprayed her with a garden hose.
Starfire didn't seem to notice, her words starting to slur together like they did whenever she was excited, so it was kind of hard to understand. "I have never skated on ice before! We did not have very much ice in Africa, and I would like to see how it works!"
"We'll show you," said Vic. "And you'll find out how a lot of other things work, once school starts."
Gar reached over to shove him in the shoulder. "Ugh, don't remind me. I don't want to get up early."
Raising one eyebrow, Vic looked down at him and shook his head. "Umm, Gar? I hate to break it to you, but you've been getting up early all summer."
Well. He sort of had a point—but it wasn't the same thing, so Gar stuck out his tongue to make sure Vic knew he was wrong.
A huge shadow fell over Gar's chair, and half of Raven's chair, too. "Hi, Coach," Gar said, even before he turned around to look. There was only one person at the pool who was that big. Besides, the shadow looked like him.
"Hi," said Coach Bruce, smiling a little. "It's been a great season with you guys."
"You can't leave, you know," Kitten announced, features drawn into her mean-face, except this was a fake one. "You aren't allowed."
"I'm not?" he asked with the same smile. It made Gar happy. "Well, it's a good thing I'm not leaving, then."
Everybody was quiet for a few seconds. Finally, Starfire spoke up, "You mean that swim team is not really over?"
Gar didn't think that that was what he'd meant, though he kind of hoped that maybe it was. But Coach Bruce shook his head. "Swim team's over for the season." He paused as Starfire pouted and looked down at her toes.
"…But I'll be back next year."
Terra had shot up before anybody else could react, toppling her chair over as she skirted around the table and latched onto Coach Bruce. He looked a little surprised, and kind of stumbled, but one of his hands slowly came to rest on the back of her head.
She looked up at him, beaming, not letting him go. "We love you, Coach Bruce."
Gar had never seen the man not know the answer to something before, but he definitely didn't know what to say after that. But then he didn't have to because Starfire got up and wriggled under his other arm, her smile a little more peaceful and a little less excited. And there didn't need to be an answer.
"Girls are disgusting," Roy observed, wrinkling his nose.
"Be quiet," said Jade.
Gar agreed with Roy, of course, but he didn't want to make Jade mad so he didn't say so.
Raven had been twisted her fingers together in her lap, biting her lip, and finally she took a deep breath and asked slowly, "Are you gonna leave now?"
There was something in Coach Bruce's face that Gar hadn't seen before. Or, if he had, he hadn't realized it was there. But anyway, it was there now. It took him awhile to answer, like maybe he couldn't remember the words, until he said, "I don't have to be anywhere if you don't," dragging one of the plastic chairs over next to Robin and sitting.
Robin looked at him, face a little unsure—like when the teacher asked Gar a question in school, and he didn't want to say because he thought it might be wrong. But he didn't end up saying anything, just pretended to be annoyed when Coach Bruce messed up his hair.
It wasn't over, not really. It could never be because swim team was friends and laughing and burning your feet on the pool deck, and the ribbons that Gar had hung up over his bed, and the green all over his dad's car that still hadn't come off, and the chlorine smell that he'd never get out of his towels. And the funny, fluttery feeling just under his chest that reminded him of Christmas and birthdays and candy all mixed together.
The feeling that made him think it would be a good idea to draw the strap back on his goggles and launch them straight at Jade's neck.
He hoped that the same feeling would help him run fast enough.
One more time, I really want to thank everybody who's read and enjoyed this story, and those who've taken the time to comment. I was very hesitant to post this, and it's really helped me with "lonely coach who misses her kids too much" syndrome. I've had a lot of fun with it, and might possibly do some side stories if I have the urge to play with the kids again—though at the moment, I'm a few chapters into the sequel, so that'll be up soon. Till next time, y'all have seriously been great, and I'm grateful to have shared this story with such a wonderful audience. But for now, I think there's only one more thing I'd like to say: