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Featured Story • December 2017

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The Water and the World

 

Premee Mohamed

 
 

“Hey! Goddammit, I told you not to look at those.” I slapped the tabloid from Auggie’s hands, then recovered it gingerly from the flooded floor, still open to the page that had frozen him in place, a lurid hot-pink headline over his photo: ug-ustus does it again. “What do we say?”

“Concentration is my great strength. Focus is my great strength. Don’t break focus. The world doesn’t matter. Only the water matters.”

“Only the water.” I tossed the sodden thing into the changeroom trash can. He curled around himself in misery, still grayish-pink and slick from his most recent submersion, like a shrimp. “Auggie, don’t touch those things, OK? They’re garbage. They’re fulla lies.”

“It said I was ugly. That’s not a lie.”

“Well, so what,” I said, patting his wet back. “There’s a lotta ugly folks in the world. Look at me, eh? In our senior yearbook, y’know, they voted me Least Likely To Kiss A Girl. They didn’t vote me Most Likely To Coach The World’s Fastest Swimmer.”

He laughed and looked up from his bloodless, tightly-wrung hands. “And you kissed a girl anyway.”

“Sure did.” I tossed him a robe, then his pool shoes. “Come on. We got an appointment at the lab.”

“Again?”

“Doping tests come with being the best, kiddo,” I told him. “Think of it as a compliment.”

We left the changeroom into the usual sea of flashbulbs. I grabbed Auggie’s elbow and steered him smoothly down the packed hallway through the leaping bodies of photographers trying to get a good angle, like flying fish.

“Coach! Coach Vinsky! COACH!”

“MISTER VINSKY!”

“Auggie! Hey, look this way!”

I nudged the kid. “They sound like circus seals, eh? Oorp oorp oorp!” He chuckled, and then we were free of the gauntlet and through the double doors into the nice new administrative wing, still smelling of drywall mud and carpet glue.

Although our assigned lab tech had obviously been drilled in the limited English she’d need for the Olympics, she resorted to a kind of starstruck, sputtering Esperanto as she guided Auggie through his paces. Patient silence, as always—piss sucked away in the sterile funnel, far from human hands; blood taken with a phlebutton, richly filling the clear sphere; the automatic square thing that zoomed around his mouth, scraping off enough goo to check for gene doping. He’d been tested five times before even stepping on the plane, and this was his third since arriving in town. One for each medal, one for each world record broken: I wondered if they were doing it deliberately. Maybe we’d find out this afternoon, when the kid won the two-hundred semis and then the final.

I had no doubt he’d win.

* * *

“Hey, Pete.”

Something over the din of the crowd? I unplugged my earbuds and smiled at one of the women’s coaches heading my way, all fluffy green hair and piercings. A camera guy trailed her, but that was par for the course; I knew I wouldn’t even see him in a moment or two. This wasn’t our first rodeo. “Hi, Lori. All set for the relay tonight?”

“As set as we’re gonna be.” She pointed at the stands, where her school of swimmers was just visible in their roped-off section. The girls were waving a big Canadian flag and an even bigger sign, in purple glitter, reading AUGGIE W-INNS GO AUG. “Mind you, two of ’em are supposed to be in massage right now. And they were all supposed to eat, and nobody did. ‘We’ll go later, we promise!’ I never seen anything like it, Pete, not in forty years of this.”

I nodded. Whatever ‘it’ was, I knew what she meant. There was something about the kid—yes, that grotesque face, but also that stunned, grateful sweetness, the way he mumbled and slurred when he spoke—that made you both want to protect him and look away, make him invisible, the way he so often, so clearly, desired to be. And yet no one could look away. No one could look away. In the water he was more than a swimmer, he was . . . barracuda, dolphin, swordfish. When I’d first got him in a real pool, he was beating the records by full seconds and still holding back, gearing down. “Don’t do that when we get to Paris, kid,” I’d tell him. “Promise me. I won’t be able to tell; but you gotta promise me.”

“Look at him,” Lori said. “Like the water isn’t even there.”

“I know.” The stands, crammed elbow to elbow, grew even louder. Phone camera flashes made disco reflections all over the arena. And there he was, visible from a mile away—the huge, graceful body, hairless under the lights, reflecting dim rainbows from the LEDs as if he were some iridescent deep-sea creature. He glanced back at me, the big rubbery mouth an ear-to-ear grin, and gave me a thumbs-up.

I nodded at him; and then there was the beep, and they were off. I held my breath.

He soared for endless moments, serene and taut, and touched the water as gently as if he were meeting his own reflection. The sound of the crowd faded as I watched, feeling the same awe I’d felt that first day, the same crackling yearning that earthed through you at the opening bars of the anthem.

I had just enough time to think: I was a fool to believe I made him one whit faster than the day we met. The kid is a fish. He’s just a fish.

And then it was over and he was up out of the pool, popping his goggles off, straightening his trunks, trotting to me for his robe, before the second-place swimmer had even fingertipped the cement. His mouth was moving; I couldn’t hear him, but I yelled, “What do we say?”

“Only the water!”

“Attaboy.”

* * *

Someone knocked a moment before I opened the door; I quickly eased into the hallway and shut it before they woke the kid up. “Sorry,” I said without even looking. “He’s napping. Coach’s orders. No interviews.”

“Oh, we were hoping to just do a few minutes with you, Coach Vinsky?” A hand thrust into mine, cold and muscular, and I looked up at Seline Charbonneau, of all people. She was dressed in one of those nanoceramic suits all the reporters were wearing this year, with a prominent CBC badge on a beaded lanyard. I stared for just a second before recovering.

“How could I say no?” I said, letting her precede me down the hall ahead of a gaggle of young sound guys and cameramen, as if we were leading ducklings across a highway. The Sharkbonneau herself! She’d won three medals at the previous Olympics, four before that. I still had a pair of her branded hightops from those ones, embarrassingly young for me even then; my swimmers had mocked me and put photos up on Twitter, ‘Granddad with his new kicks,’ the little bastards. I found myself unsurprised she’d gone into media after she was done. She’d given great interviews back in the day, icy and poised, while her teenaged teammates giggled and threw peace signs. She looked about the same—razor cheekbones, the straight, black eyebrows over gray eyes, like a picture frame.

“Am I gonna get any makeup for this?” I asked as we found some free seats in the athletes’ common area.

She chuckled. “That’s all live digital now, Mr. Vinsky; did you not notice the extra techs in all the interviews you have done this week?”

“They’re all background noise now, to be honest.”

“So they’re saying this is the year of the Olymp-Inns,” she said, gesturing to her sound guy; I took that to mean the interview had started. “Is Auggie sick of the puns yet?”

“I don’t think he’s noticed. And good for him. I’m tryin’ to keep him focused on the swimming.”

“Like any good coach! I suppose it helps—for focus, I mean—that he’s a little older, too?”

“I suppose it does.”

“Now that’s something people are talking about on social media,” she said, leaning closer. Her smile was chiseled and fake, a good reporter’s smile. “Auggie is . . . what, twenty-six? That’s unusual for a first Olympics. How did he come to swimming so late?”

I hesitated. That was more the kid’s story to tell than anyone else’s, but he didn’t like to tell it, and we’d already gotten some tetchy emails from his sponsors. That old saw about one bad interview costing you a million dollars. “Well, most folks, you’d hear about them starting in another sport and falling in love with swimming after an injury, you know, doing physio in a lap pool or what have you. Gary Karpscyk comes to mind—started at twenty-two. Or Sofia Adjubo.”

“But that wasn’t the case with Auggie?”

“Nope. I came across him while I was walkin’ my dog, actually. Swimming in the ocean not a hundred yards from my front door. You think to yourself: How long has he been coming out there to swim every morning, and we just kept missing each other? How much time had he wasted outside of a real training regime? But you know, I stood there with my mouth open for a while, and then I don’t know what came over me. I ran over and just hauled him up outta the surf like a fish, and he’s staring at me, and I says, “Kid,” I says, “let me train you. I’ll give you anything you want. We’re going to the Olympics next year, you and me.”

And I laughed along with Seline, but there was just no way to describe that morning—Cassie ranging along the damp sand, our muffled footsteps in the fog, the strange heaviness of the bluish air, everything still, no wind. Whoever heard of a day by the sea with no sea breeze? But it was so, and in the stillness and silence there came a far-off roar, or a hum, but rhythmic, like the idling engine of an unimaginably big cruise ship, or—more disconcertingly—the heartbeat of some huge sea creature, bigger than any whale, so big no one knew it was under there. Cassie had been avoiding even the touch of the water, staying well in the sand and the grass, and I think I knew which one she thought it was.

The sun had been rising, just visible as a thick pink glow through the mist, and then we heard it, the familiar sound of a front crawl, a pleasant slap-slap-slap in time to that throbbing roar. As the fog lifted there he was, the hideous young man cutting through the water as if it simply were not there, his form so beautiful, his timing so precise, I felt my hand rise to my chest and stay there as if to hold my heart in. And when he slowed, I dropped Cassie’s leash and waded waist-deep into the icy water, snatching at him as he went by. I remembered the look on his face—shy, dawning amazement, and then embarrassment, as if I’d caught him singing to himself in an empty room.

“Where do you live? What’s your name? Let me train you. I’ll give you anything you want . . .” I had reached for his hand to shake, touched something hard, looked down to see him cupping a tiny clay figurine, so ugly as to be almost laughable, as if a child had been asked to make the most monstrous monster it could think of, green-glazed white clay. We both looked at it for a moment, and then he gently disengaged his hand and put the figurine in the pocket of his swim trunks. I hadn’t seen it since, though I’d wondered, even asked him about it. “Something I found in the ocean, while I was swimming,” he’d said. When? I wanted to know. “I don’t know. I can’t remember.”

And that was how he looked at everything, as if it were the first time he was seeing it, the very first day. Photographers and reporters liked that look of wonder, never shut up about it. “So endearing!” So that, despite his awful, stretched-out face with its lipless mouth and smashed nose and watery, colourless eyes, everybody loved him. I had followed him back to his house, already half-mad with medal fever—I knew it, I called it, every part of me knew it—and we drank tea and ate tuna sandwiches alone in the clapboard shack, soaked with salt water. “You live alone out here? Where’s your family?”

“I’m alone. I don’t have any parents.”

“They died?”

“. . . Yes.”

The hesitation told me they hadn’t, I thought. They’d left him. Or he them. I wondered how long he’d been on his own. But it didn’t matter; he was mine now, and soon he would be the world’s; and after that, he would belong not to us but to the history books, for no one would ever beat those records, not in the next Olympics, not for a thousand Olympics to come. Not when they were eventually lighting the torch on goddamn Mars would there be another Augustus Inns.

* * *

After the interview was done and I made sure everything was turned off, I wheedled a signed postcard from Seline to surprise the kid with when he woke up, and padded back to our rooms. Silence from his half; I carefully cracked the door so as not to wake him, then reeled back as if I had been slapped—a bluish mist, a leaden fog, the roar of the waves, smell of the wrack and foam, a shining, silver sword leaping for joy in the darkness.

No. Nothing.

I lowered my arm from my face and looked again, more cautiously, but Auggie was there, asleep, kinked slightly to fit the mattress, his fridge-sized chest smoothly rising and falling, hand a fist by his mouth. Was that a gleam of green and white between his fingers? No matter. I watched him for a minute, trying not to let him hear me gasp for air, then shut the door.

Well. We’re all getting older. You should expect these senior moments, I read all the articles about it, I know. I even read the tabloids I forbid Auggie to touch—the ones that say he’s too old, I’m too old, we’re taking away from the younger swimmers. But I got a thicker skin than him, I don’t care. And if there’s something weird about him, well then hell, there may as well be something weird about me, too. I wouldn’t let the bastards lay a finger on him.

They kept asking him: What’s your hometown? We need to put it at the bottom of the screen. Tell us! And he’d mumble and scrape and I’d give them mine. Because we both knew his hometown was the water.

* * *

They howled for him as he stepped off the podium, the new gold clanking against the zipper at his chest, cameras and phones swarming him like bees. “Auggie! Auggie!” I towed him through the scrum, hand palm-out like a football tackle.

“Stay with me, kid,” I yelled over the endless shriek of the crowd.

“I can’t see!”

“Hang onto me, keep going.” I glanced back just in time to see a camera clock him square in the back of his head; not expecting it, he fell to his knees, and the bees descended. I heard him wail as the black plastic casings closed in, some actually slapping against his face. “Outta the way, you sonsabitches! Jesus!” I cried as I fended them off, the side of my hand connecting with fleet young flesh.

Auggie was trying gamely to get up; I saw a familiar face and reached for it, and somehow Lori and I hauled the kid out of the scrum and back into the hall. A Sharpie marker sailed out of the crowd and bounced off his shoulder. I briefly wondered how much it would sell for later on eBay.

“Oh my God, we can’t stop here,” Lori yelled. “Come on, let’s get him back to the village. Did you drop your roses, honey? It’s OK, you got lots by now. Stick that medal in your shirt and let’s hustle!”

The bartender at the athletes’ quarters, bless his heart, ‘accidentally’ locked the doors behind us as we came into the common room at half a run. “Bonjour hello Mister Vinsky, Mister Ogg!” he called, winking. “I put bottle of wine in your room. Go quick, I will help keep them out!”

“Thanks!”

Finally safe, Lori parked him on the bed and got us some sparkling water from the mini-fridge, ignoring the wine in the ice bucket.

“You can have a glass of that later,” she said, her flat Manitoba twang making it sound like ‘lighter.’ “Some first Olympics, huh kid?”

“Only,” he said with a smile, taking the cup.

Her smile faltered. And me I felt…as if something had brushed against my face, the wing of a large insect perhaps, and my ears rang, a deafening whine. When I started to see black dots, I lowered myself carefully into the visitor’s chair and made myself sip the metallic water. Don’t faint, Pete, don’t faint in front of the kid.

“Well, it’s four years, you got a lot of time to decide,” she said diplomatically, ruffling his damp, pale hair. “I’ll catch you guys later,” she added as she slunk out, raising her eyebrows briefly just as the door closed.

I looked at Auggie, the woeful curve of his thin eyebrows, the gloss of his eyes that never went pink from chlorine or salt. “Listen, I know you got rattled back there,” I said. “But they’re just, you know, they’re just excited. It’s exciting to see someone who’s the fastest and the best. It makes people feel hope. Hope is so strong, it takes over common sense. That’s all.”

“No, that wasn’t it,” he said quietly, rolling the cup in his hands, the bubbles spitting into his lowered face. “I was going to tell you earlier. But it never seemed like the right time.”

“But—”

“I . . . I just can’t,” he said. “One Olympics. That’s all I asked for. And that’s all I’ll get. I guess it’s hard to understand, Coach. I’m sorry.”

I couldn’t reply to that. Something pushed relentlessly against my chest at his words, crushing ribs, heart, lungs. Arguments leapt to mind, somersaulting over each other in desperation: You’re young, you’ll reconsider; what about your sponsors, what if they find out about this decision of yours?; and the young swimmers you’re inspiring, the schools that asked you to give talks; measurements for your own custom sneakers, for God’s sake, we have to do that next week, what will we do?

But I knew that he wouldn’t change his mind.

* * *

The night we returned, something pushed me out of bed in the dark, a hiss and call that spoke well over the lapping waves. I shrugged into a robe, my wife muttering sleepily from the warm duvet, and half ran to the front door, stumbling across the boardwalk and then the cold sand in my bare feet. Well, you can have wet feet in dreams, I thought. But that ain’t what this is. Cassie yipped behind me as I left, but stayed in the doorway; I turned to see her curious, black-and-white head retreat into the house.

It was easier to move on the hard-packed sand of the beach, and I sped up just in time to see the kid step nude from the beach grass, no swim trunks or goggles or nothing, and head towards the surf. His skin glowed in the thinnest, grayest hint of dawn, stars still visible above us all the way down to the horizon. He watched as I wheezed and stumbled to a stop, my arm out as if I could stop him, though I meant nothing of the sort.

“What you were going to tell me earlier,” I finally managed. “Auggie. Who . . . who are you really?”

“I . . . there aren’t a lot of us left anymore,” he said softly. “And there’s even fewer who recognize what we are just by looking. Part man, part god. And the part that’s god . . .”

“Goes back,” I said.

He nodded, smiled his beatific, ugly smile at me, and held out his free hand; I didn’t need to look at the other one as we shook. I knew what he held. The gods of the deep liked to stay close; you didn’t need to know anything else about them to know that.

“Goodbye, Auggie,” I said, feeling the tears start. “You know, you were the best I ever trained. The best I ever saw. The best in the world, really. The whole world and the whole ocean.”

“Thanks, Coach.”

He waded a little way into the surf and dove, just the gleam of his back arching for a moment in the strengthening dawn, and then he submerged. I knew he wouldn’t come back up, but I watched till the sun cleared the water, everything gold and blue, like his medals. Finally the chanting faded and I began to walk again, my wet robe slapping against my calves.

There would be questions. I didn’t have answers. All I knew was that he’d made a deal that I had really been no part of, and a man has to honour his deals, or what kind of world would it be?

Through my tears, just as I reached the boardwalk, I saw something gleaming in the sand—white and green, tumbling a little in the surf, burying itself a bit more with every wave. I stared at it for a long time.

Then I turned and went back to the house.

 
 

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Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and spec fic writer based in Canada. Her work has been published by Innsmouth Free Press and in Pseudopod, Nightmare, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @premeesaurus.

She tells us, “I wrote ‘The Water and the World’ during last year’s Olympics, partly in response to my mother repeating ‘Aren’t they amazing? It’s like they’re not human!’ about athletes in several sports. Well, what if some of them weren’t? And if they weren’t, then I started wondering how and why they were in the Olympics and whether any of their coaches knew, or chose not to know, and how they had been scouted. Everyone loves a prodigy, but who knows how prodigies happen?”

 

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