‘Choke’ short story

When I was younger I had the talent of opening my eyes in the pool; the stinging sensation caused by the chlorine never bothered me. Swimming underwater meant I could escape into the realm of something new. Away from this life. It was the only talent I had, and the only extracurricular sport I enjoyed. I loved the weightlessness and the freedom it provoked. I remember when I used to celebrate after swimming just one length of the pool; getting badges for my achievements and pushing myself to swim further and further until I was invincible.

A few months ago I was selected to be a lifeguard in Chicago, America. This was a dream of mine from a very early age and it was a chance to save lives whilst in the summer sun. I always felt that I was missing a purpose in life, so being held responsible for someone’s breath made me welcome the challenge and consequently fill the hole that I was sinking into.  A hero. A saviour. A reward to myself that I am contributing to society. Of course whilst saving lives I thought about getting a sun kissed tan at the same time. I am a pale ghostly shade that blends into the melancholy feel of England, Essex to be precise. I longed to escape and take my passion with me.

Once I got off the plane, the air was thick with heat; my face red raw as the sun slapped my skin, attacking my foreign body. Beads of sweat slowly, yet aggressively, slid down my face, making me instantly regret wearing makeup. The residue of mascara stuck to my sockets and every time I blinked my eyelashes felt like they were cutting my eyes. I took a gasp of air before I collapsed from the shock. I squinted at the view and my eyes uncontrollably watered, “I need to get used to this” I murmured to myself.

On my first shift, my body trembled as I climbed onto the lifeguard post. As I sat there, I realised that there was no escape from the chair. My body was still. I was afraid to move in case the fragile legs snapped and I pictured myself lying face down in the water, or worse, mangled up on the side. I shook my thoughts away as I concentrated on the water. There was so much of it. So much that could go wrong and too much for me to focus on at the same time. Every particle of my hair was heavy on my neck and I fidgeted until all I wanted to do was to pull it out. I imagined myself tearing each strand out. I could feel the creases in my forehead squeeze together. My face felt tight and my chest taught, like I was suffocating on my own air, unable to taste the sweetness of the breeze. The squawks from the birds pierced my ear-drums and sent an uncomfortable hammering to my brain. I held my chest and then my throat to see if I was dreaming this, or if it was sunstroke… Or maybe I swallowed a fly or something. But no. I am the lifeguard that needs saving. How ironic. How embarrassing.

I saw a boat coming towards me. One of the other lifeguards. “Are you ok?” they shouted across the water, their facial expression growing more concerned when the saw the colour of my skin. “N-n-n-no” I answer. I hated when that happened, whenever I got anxious my mind decided to shut down, to leave my poor mouth to try and decipher what was left of my dignity. And there I was, at the back of a lifeguard’s boat. At least they got to save someone today. Unlucky it was me.

They sat me down on the side and asked what was wrong. I assured them that I lost my breath, making up excuses just to end this psychopathic nightmare. Everyone surrounded me and I felt like the air was going again, I could smell the chlorine on their skin and I smelt the perfume in the mist. I smelled sweat from the lifeguard that saved me on his perfectly toned muscles… It dripped onto my leg and I suddenly stopped being attracted to him. Their eyes looked at me how I would want people to look at my body at my funeral; not after a bloody panic attack, but they are not to know that.

At my next lifeguarding session the other lifeguard’s eyes pressed heavily on my body. I fidgeted in my seat after watching Gemma quickly turn away from me. I rolled my eyes. Everyone was still giving me that hopeless expression that I wanted to slap out of them. I felt like one of the children in the water and I felt like jumping in and joining them.

However, as the lifeguard sessions went on, the others decided to leave me alone and let me do my job. Their eyes no longer trapped me. My body sank peacefully into the chair and I smiled to myself for the first time.

 

*

I’m glad everyone believed my story. Eventually.  I’m good at that. Persuading and convincing people to the point where they forget everything. It’s a matter of survival. A few weeks later I was trusted to be left on my own for an hour watching the children. I felt privileged, sitting on the lifeguard chair made me feel euphoric, like I had a purpose and position in life. Like I mattered. I looked down at the children in the water and a smirk crept onto the corner of my mouth as I flicked my now-golden hair over my fresh coloured skin, whilst the sunlight caressed my face and was no longer an enemy.

I wish I could say that feeling lasted. My eyes became lost, like I was looking through a microscopic lens at a different image, like I was looking at someone else’s life. I looked intently at my hands, staring at the creases indented in my skin and the way the lines joined together to form a fingerprint. Yet I didn’t recognise the marks at all. I looked into the reflection of the water and grabbed my face; unaware that my nails were slicing through my skin. A drop of blood fell delicately onto the water and disappeared with a blink. I felt that I was trapped in a body that I wanted to escape out of and my mind could barely handle the emotions attacking my skull. The colours of the water changed from crisp tranquil blue to an eerie grey. Everything seemed out of reach and suddenly I felt my chair was higher up. I looked down and could feel vomit creeping up my throat and my head throbbed from the stress of over thinking every moment. Over and over again.

Suddenly I spotted a boy, a very young boy, who attempted to swim towards the deep end. He had been told off for this many times before. His small body attacked the water, but his legs barely made a splash. His face was scrunched up; his determination only took him so far until his arms started to flap uncontrollably above his head.  I watched as his panic stricken face turning into a more sinister fear that I have never witnessed before. Suddenly his head flopped into the water like someone had punched him in the stomach. But no one else was around him. I could see his limp body slowly sinking down into the water. The other children screamed for me. But all I could do was watch. As I tried to jump and as I tried to blow the whistle, my body froze. My internal voice cried out but my body was stubborn. My eyes became blurrier, my body became weaker and my mind shut down. And as the last air bubble released itself from the boy. I stopped breathing.

The choking sensation seemed to jolt me and I dived in to help the boy. I swam furiously until I reached him and pulled him towards the outstretched arms of the crowd that had started to gather. I could see the boy was safe and was being revived by them.

My eyes are wide open under the water but I am not breathing. I don’t need to. I am in my own world now. The world out there is fading into a bright light. My weightless body floating. And I am at peace.