The Water Boils

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June 22, 2017 by The Citron Review

by Abigail Hancher


It was in the newspaper this morning. What Mr. Hammond did, and all anyone could whisper about in between periods was Danni Hammond, his daughter.

I haven’t said anything to anybody. Ignore the “Danni was your friend, right?” and the “Did you have any clue?”

I haven’t spoken to Danni in years. Not since we were thirteen. Not since she moved.

So, no, I didn’t have a clue…

I slam my locker shut. Maybe it is too loud in the empty hall, but I am already forgetting the noise as I shoulder my swimming bag and walk to the school’s natatorium.

The water breaks like glass when I dive in. I always do this: dive, touch the floor of the pool, turn on my back, exhale hard through my nose so I can feel weighted down long enough to stare up through the rippling water and bubbles at the ceiling of the natatorium. The white I-beams wrinkle like paper. I float to the surface.

Then I swim laps.

I focus on the rotation of my torso. The key is for the head to remain perfectly still. My coaches don’t care how I do it. Whether I fix my eyes to a point on the wall, or I brace my neck with a stick and scotch tape.

I breathe.

My rotation is always a little not-enough on my left side when I breathe, so my head will jerk and my arm will swing too far out of my neat little streamline. My rhythm will falter. This split-second hesitation is why I will not be a great swimmer.

One stroke. Two stroke. Three stroke. Four stroke. Breathe.

If this were a sprint, I would not breathe. I would go twenty-five yards, a flip-turn, and three or four strokes into the second lap before gulping at the air like water in a desert. Once. Like I am dying, but in sprints, breathing is a luxury.

Danni screamed a lot those last couple years we were friends. Would work herself into a rage—purple, blotched cheeks and thin, heaving chest. And she would scream. It would echo all around the white-washed walls of the natatorium. Nobody knew why, and me? I would just wish to God she would shut up so the other kids on our team would stop staring at us.

One stroke. Two stroke. Three stroke. Four stroke. Flip-turn. Streamline. Break-out stroke. Breathe.

Laps are monotonous. Even when I am in a lane with ten other girls I am alone with everything in my head.

We all find ways to deal with it.

This one girl I knew used to sing. She had lots of different tunes that rattled around in her head. Her favorite was “Me and Bobby McGee”. I’ve tried it. It’s a good swimming song. Good repetitive rhythm like the turning of a bicycle wheel. Good four-four time. Good speed: not too slow, not too fast, and it is easy to settle in to the too-rightness of the speed and forget anything but the thumping of the heart like a tambourine and the words.

I shared this trick with Danni for her 200-yard freestyle. I don’t know if she ever used it.

I force my brain into autopilot, and I think hard about nothing and counting my strokes.

Flip-turn. Streamline. Breakout stroke. Breathe.

Poor Danni.

I had no idea.

I bet that is why she left this school.

I keep learning that in your head, the sound of your scream is as loud, is as quiet as your whisper, so how well can anybody really drown anything out?

On the morning news, details of the “Hammond Trial”—the video camera and the tapes and what the videos of swim meets covered up—were discussed casually over the newscasters coffee. Like it was no big deal.

But really, I hate the question How did we not know? that everyone keeps asking.

My feet are cramping as I strain to hold them curved like half-moons. I focus on the bunching of muscles in the center of my foot. Let it take me over…

Because I really don’t want to think about Danni and what I saw in the hallway on the way to the locker room when I was twelve, when me and Mr. Hammond were alone. Mr. Hammond standing outside the doors. His half-smile as he looked down at his video camera.

One stroke. Two stroke. Three stroke. Breathe. Four stroke. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

I thought he was watching mine and Danni’s last race, and I tried to peek over his elbow to watch me and Danni speed neck-and-neck into the wall. If I hadn’t taken a breath at the flags I would have won that race.

But that is not what I saw.

One stroke. Two stroke.

I saw the glowing moon of a night light, a blue frog with red polka-dots that Mr. Hammond had bought for Danni at a meet, and a triangle of moles on the upper shoulder of a child’s naked back. Instinctively, I knew that this was something I shouldn’t be seeing. Mr. Hammond snapped the small screen on the camcorder closed.

We stared at each other. I was waiting for him to start yelling, but his face was pale and sweaty like he was scared of me.

“Sorry, I thought you were watching the race.”

The fear passed in him, and he smiled like candy, “Could you get Danni for me? That was her last race. We have to go home now.

In the locker room, Danni was facing the wall, and while she wriggled out of her competition suit, I noticed the three moles on her back wave a kind of flag on her shoulder.

There is the one thing that the movies get wrong about swimming. It is the kicking. They thrash like wounded animals. If they knew anything, they would move like boiling water. Just little bubbles breaking the surface.


Abigail Hancher is a Pittsburgh writer and a recent graduate of the MFA at EWU. Her work has appeared in The Vestal Review.


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