Arthur looked up at the clock, then pulled himself out of the water, shaking his head. He’d added two seconds to his best time, and fourth place wasn’t nearly good enough, even if this was the 200 freestyle, not Arthur’s primary event. The coach seemed to see him as generally good enough – good for earning the team some points by getting third or fourth place, good for agreeing to swim the events that no one else wanted to swim, good enough that he didn’t require much coaching other than being told what event to swim and what lane he was in. Arthur wanted to be better than that.
Arthur hurriedly pulled on the ugly maroon and yellow cover-up the school provided for the team, but he was already shivering. He hated how skinny he was. He was the only junior who still shook like a leaf as soon as he left the water of the pool. Arthur felt a heavy hand clap him on the back.
“Hey, good job, Arthur,” Dom Cobb told him. “Was that a personal best time?”
Arthur flushed a little. “No.” Cobb was the team captain by default, basically, since he was the only senior who wasn’t currently on the team due to having been caught drinking alcohol. The baseball players who fucked up in their off-season could loophole the no-competition consequences imposed by the school by taking up a winter sport and missing those competitions instead. Said lunkheads huddled on the bleachers behind Arthur and pretended to do homework so that they didn’t have to cheer for their purported teammates. During practice, they were easily identified by being the only ones who still seemed self-conscious in a speedo. Even skinny Arthur had gotten over any anxiety about his racing suit years before.
“Well, your form looks good,” Dom continued cheerfully. “You’re breathing into your turns, though.”
“Yeah, I know,” Arthur answered. “I don’t in practice, but when we get to the meet…”
“Well, if you can work on that, you can definitely speed up your times.” Dom patted him on the shoulder again and walked away to greet a sophomore whose event had just ended. The best swimmers got their pep talks and advice from the coach, but Arthur didn’t warrant that kind of attention, especially when the coach’s son swam the same events Arthur did.
Robert Fischer was practically swimming since the day he was born, and Arthur wouldn’t have been surprised if toddler Robert wasn’t allowed out of his family’s indoor pool until he could hoist himself out on his own. Real swimmers didn’t use pool ladders. He was Coach Fischer’s favorite champion, and, Arthur had noticed, his favorite target. No matter how many first-place finishes Robert landed, his father would always take him aside after the event, and he was never pleased. It made sense, though. Robert was a lock to get to Division finals and he had a real chance to get to State. He had more to work for than any of the others. Arthur would probably qualify for Division finals in at least the 500 free, but he’d be lucky to beat any of the top swimmers from the other schools.
Robert pushed past Arthur’s shoulder to sit with the meatheads behind him. Arthur would almost feel sorry for Robert, silver water wings notwithstanding, if the guy wasn’t such a colossal asshole. He never spoke to any of the younger swimmers, and he didn’t seem to know the names of any of his teammates who were in his own grade. He interacted with Cobb enough to seem friendly, and otherwise kept to himself. The stupid part was that Robert was guaranteed to be captain next year, despite his lack of leadership skills or interest in the team as a whole. The coach would have probably tried to make Robert captain this year, but it would have looked bad to the other parents with Cobb as an option.
Arthur began to stretch out his shoulders, leaving the cover-up on until the last minute. It hindered his movement, but he needed to keep his muscles as warm as he could for as long as possible. The 100 butterfly was exhausting but generally inoffensive. Unlike most of the other guys, Arthur didn’t have any endurance problems, and his breathing had slightly less of an impact, since he wasn’t the only swimmer who breathed every other stroke. Arthur was decent enough at fly, but he was nothing compared to the current pool record holder, listed as T. Eames. Eames had been a senior during Arthur’s freshman year, and when Robert was being an exceptional asshole, it often comforted Arthur that it was unlikely that Robert would beat any of Eames’ records.
Arthur climbed on the starting block, tensing and waiting for the starting buzzer. At the loud blare, he dove and pushed all other thoughts out of his mind other than stroke, kick, breathe. His first turn was good, a solid double-hand grab on the wall, and he executed a smooth twist and push to continue. His breathing stayed steady, and he pushed himself into his next turn. The roar of the crowd rushed into his ears each time he lifted his head to breathe, and he focused on his kick, snapping his hips and his knees.
His third turn was, fuck, not good. His hands were fine, so he wouldn’t be disqualified, but he was much too slow in turning. He streamlined longer than usual off of the wall, hoping that a strong series of kicks would make up the difference. His hands smacked the timing sensor against the wall, and he climbed out of the pool. He looked up at the clock. Fourth, and over three seconds over his best time. At this point in the year, he should be matching or beating his best times. He scowled.
He pulled on his cover-up, not bothering to sit back down on the bleachers. There was only one event, 100 free, between the 100 fly and his next event, the 500 freestyle. Arthur was the only one on the team to swim both events, and he sometimes wondered if it wasn’t pure masochism that he didn’t tell off the coach and demand that he choose one event or the other for Arthur, but he just gritted his teeth and prepared for twenty lengths of freestyle. Cobb stopped by to confirm that Arthur wanted him to take care of the counter, and Arthur nodded. He knew that Cobb or the coach could have assigned one of the other swimmers to hold the counting board, but Arthur trusted Cobb not to screw it up by losing count or keeping the board underwater too long so that it got in Arthur’s way.
Robert climbed onto the center starting block, and Arthur mounted his own. He adjusted his goggles carefully. They almost always leaked by the end of the 500, but at least he would have fewer distractions for the first part of the race.
Arthur prepared for his dive. The other team’s swimmer in the far lane false started, and Arthur sighed. It was hard to keep in the competition mindset when you had to stand up and wait for the DQed kid to get himself out of the pool. Arthur drew himself back down at the referee’s call, and dove at the sound of the buzzer. The first 50 yards was the easy part. Arthur knew that Robert didn’t take a breath at all for the first 50. Arthur tried to limit his own, but he was mindful of the need to save some of himself and his lungs for the remaining 18 lengths of the pool. He compromised by being sure that he wasn’t breathing into his turns and by rationing his breaths through the first half of the race. The roar of the crowd when he turned to breathe reminded him to get his face back underwater as soon as possible, and he completed his fourth flipturn without taking a breath beforehand. He watched the numbers change on the board Cobb held underwater for him to see. The 500 free was about endurance, and honestly, simply persistence. Arthur had to just keep swimming, and push himself as much as he could. His legs and lungs were starting to burn, and Arthur couldn’t help but take a breath into his next turn. He was approaching Cobb again, and he could see by the counter that he needed to step up in a big way. Do not give up, he told himself. Keep moving. Keep kicking.
At last, he was on his final 100 yards, and he pushed himself harder. He liked to try to convince himself that this was a regular 100 free, and he should be able to swim it just like he usually would. His body protested, and his arms felt sluggish as he pulled himself through the water. Still, now he was on his last 50, and this he could do. Triumphantly, he slammed his hand into the sensor and pulled himself out of the water. For Arthur, this event was more about survival than winning, but he was still grimly pleased to see a third place finish on the board. He could take third with a smile for the 500.
There were two events before Arthur’s final event, and he zipped himself back into his cover-up and sat himself back on the bleachers. He got a few backpats from his younger teammates before he sat down, and Cobb brought him a Gatorade, still cold. Arthur pressed the bottle against his face and thanked Cobb. A lot of the kids got sports drinks from their parents after their events, and they would go up and sit with their parents and discuss their results before their next events. Arthur’s mom couldn’t make most of his meets since she was working, and he wouldn’t want to ask her to bring him anything regardless. He had his own room-temperature water bottle in his bag, but the first sip of the cold Gatorade was like heaven. Cobb was a good guy, really, Arthur knew. He went down to the end of the pool to cheer during Cobb’s 100 backstroke.
Arthur’s last event, 100 breaststroke, was mostly moot at this point in the meet. Like butterfly, he could breathe more easily during breast, and the team pretty much either had their points or they didn’t at this point. Their closest competitors weren’t set to swim against them for another few weeks. Swimming was a strange sport, in that you wanted your team to beat the other team, but most of the swimmers were more focused on their own times than the efforts of the team as a whole. He finished the event with a respectable time and stayed standing to cheer for Cobb’s relay team in the final event.
The final scores were announced, and Totem High had beaten Bay Central. More backpatting ensued, and Arthur gathered his swim bag and his backpack and headed into the locker room. For home meets, Arthur tended to shower back at his house, not out of any embarrassment about public showering, but out of the practical consideration that his own shower was much nicer and didn’t require flip-flops. He was startled when he felt a hand clap his shoulder. He turned, expecting Cobb, only to see T. Eames himself leaning against the lockers in front of him.
“Arthur, yeah?” asked Eames. “Remember me?”
Arthur held back a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sputter. He obviously remembered the best swimmer this school had had in the last twenty years, whose records posted on the pool wall were sometimes the only thing standing between Arthur and complete insanity. Still, he tried to play it cool.
Eames broke into a wide smile. “Hey, good meet.” Arthur shrugged. “Well, we won, anyway, yeah?” Arthur made some gesture which Eames must have interpreted in the affirmative, because he kept talking. Arthur stood awkwardly, wondering if he should start changing into his clothes or wait until Eames… disappeared. “You’ve come a long way since I last saw you swim,” continued Eames, and Arthur must have looked as floored as he felt. “What, you thought I didn’t pay attention to that little freshman kid? What kind of captain would I have been if I didn’t pay attention to my team?”
Arthur didn’t know how to respond. Instead, he pulled off his cover-up and started toweling himself down. He was mostly dry at this point, but it was below freezing outside, and even damp hair could freeze in the icy Michigan winters. He rubbed at his hair. Eames sat down on the bench beside Arthur, adopting the stare into nothingness that guys used when other guys were changing near them.
“Anyway, Arthur, what does Coach have you doing to practice your breathing?” Eames was studiously examining the lockers across from him, but he glanced over to Arthur as he asked the question.
“Uh, nothing, really. I mean, I know I need to stop breathing into my turns, but he hasn’t really talked to me about it.” Arthur looked around, wishing he know which of his teammates were still in the locker room. He didn’t want Robert or any of the other coach’s favorites to hear this conversation. He finished dressing and tied his shoes. “Good to see you, Eames.”
“Do you have to get home?” Eames asked. “We could go for something to eat, and I could give you some tips if you wanted.” He walked with Arthur out to the parking lot. “Or we could just get some food, advice optional.”
Arthur weighed his options. On one hand, he still had homework to do, and he needed to get some sleep tonight if he was going to be able to manage school and practice tomorrow. On the other hand, no one was expecting him at home since his mother’s nursing shift ended at midnight, he was starving, and he had the chance to spend some time with a swimming legend whom Arthur may have had a tiny crush on during his freshman year. In the end, his stomach won out, and Arthur followed Eames’ car in his own.
He and Eames were next to the only people in the Big Boy, and their waitress promptly scribbled down their orders. Arthur ordered a cheeseburger and fries, and Eames asked for a chocolate milkshake.
“I actually already ate, and I can’t eat multiple dinners the way I used to,” Eames grinned a little sheepishly. “But hey, this is on me, so if you want anything else, go ahead.”
“Shouldn’t you be away at school?” Arthur asked, and then cursed himself for his abruptness. “I mean, I thought you were at State.”
“Yeah, I decided to come back and finish school in town, stay with my family.” Eames told him.
“But I thought you had a scholarship. I mean, weren’t you swimming for them?” Arthur was seriously considering gagging himself with his napkin.
“I was. But now I’m not.” Eames answered, and looked a little relieved when his milkshake arrived, along with Arthur’s Coke. “Anyway, did you want some advice on your turns?”
“Yeah, that would be great,” Arthur shrugged. “But, I mean, I know not to breathe into my turns, I know my turns are too slow a lot of the time. I’m not sure what you could tell me.”
“Well, you’re right,” Eames said. “You breathe too often, and your turns could be faster, and you definitely shouldn’t breathe into your turns. It’s one thing to know all that, but what are you doing about it?”
“I don’t breathe into my turns in practice,” Arthur told him, adopting the same tone he’d used with Cobb. “I just get out of breath when I’m racing, and I need to breathe. I can’t help it.”
“You don’t have asthma, do you?” asked Eames. “That could make this a lot easier. Get you an inhaler, get you to use it before the meet, and bang, you can breathe again.” He peered at Arthur, who began to tuck into his burger and fries.
“Nope.” Arthur told him. He knew his mother would have had him diagnosed and medicated by now if there were any chance of that.
“Damn, so much for the easy solution.” Eames smiled at him and stirred his milkshake idly with one hand. “All right, when do you get out of breath?” He held up a hand. “I mean, at what point during the race? Toward the end of the 500, obviously, but it looked like you had an issue during your fly as well.”
“Toward the end of the fly, too.”
“What about your 200 free? I missed the beginning of it, but I saw the end, and I didn’t notice any major issues.”
“I breathed into my last two turns. I was really slow on my fourth turn. And I added two seconds to my usual time.” Arthur took a long drink of his Coke.
“Your usual, or your best?” Eames asked knowingly.
“Best. But look how far we are in the season. I can’t be settling for my usual at this point. We’re going to be at the qualifying rounds of Division soon.”
“If it were up to you, what events would you actually want to swim?” Eames asked.
Thrown off guard by the change in conversation, Arthur had to take a moment to consider. “I like fly. And I don’t mind the breaststroke, I guess. I’d like to see how I would do racing the 50 free. Only one turn to screw me up, and I do okay with breathing when it’s a sprint.”
“What about the 500?” Eames asked.
Arthur scowled. “I hate the 500.” He finished the last of his burger and offered his remaining fries to Eames, who declined, patting his stomach.
“You’re acting like an old man,” Arthur teased him. “Your metabolism can’t have changed that much in the last two years.” He was a little surprised at his own boldness, but Eames hadn’t seemed to mind his other rude comments.
Eames playfully kicked him under the table. “Just wait until you stop swimming two hours every day and stop growing, and see how you look if you keep eating the same way.”
“Ugh, I’m probably done growing already,” Arthur told him. “I’ll be a skinny shrimp at 40 the same way I am now. I’m not even sure it’s possible for me to gain weight.”
“You’ve done plenty of growing in the last two years. You used to look about 12 when you were a freshman.” The waitress brought the bill, which Eames picked up quickly.
“And now what, I look 14?” Arthur asked.
“No, Arthur, you don’t look 14.” Eames sat quietly for a moment.
“You never actually gave me any tips on my turns,” Arthur pointed out.
“Yeah, I know. I think we need to be in the pool for me to really help.” Eames stood, and Arthur followed him to the cash register. Arthur made an attempt to pay, but was happy enough to let Eames treat him. He followed Eames out to the parking lot. Eames leaned against his car.
“Not tomorrow morning; you still probably have homework and you need some rest,” Eames said. Arthur blinked, confused. “For me to help you. We can get you into the pool before school starts, see what we can do about your turns. Will the day after tomorrow work?”
“Um, yeah, I guess,” Arthur answered. Today was Wednesday, so he could get up early on Friday and head to the pool. Eames was probably bored being back in this small town, and he must have been looking for a project to give him something to do.
“I’m picking you up,” Eames told him. “I won’t have you skipping out on me just to get an extra hour of sleep.”
“I can drive myself. It’s fine.” Arthur said. “I mean, I have to go from school to practice and then home anyway, so I’ll need my car.”
“Oh, I should have said,” Eames began. “I’m going to be your assistant coach.” He lightly grasped Arthur’s shoulder. “I’ll take you home from practice, since I’ll be there, too.” He let go, leaving Arthur feeling off balance. “Come on, give me your address. I’ll be there at 5 a.m. Better give me your cell number, too, so I can wake you up without bothering the rest of your family.”
“I’ll be up, I promise,” Arthur said. He rummaged through his backpack until he found a blank sheet of paper and wrote down his address and cell number. “I guess I’ll see you Friday.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, at practice,” Eames smiled. “Coach Fischer’s letting me run it, give me a sense of what works and what doesn’t.”
“Yeah, um, great,” Arthur said. “See you tomorrow.”
Arthur drove home, resisting the urge to slam his head against the steering wheel. After tomorrow, Eames would have more time to see the whole team in action, and he’d lose interest in Arthur after that. It would probably just end up that Robert had two coaches watching his every move instead of one, and Cobb would keep doing his best to keep his eye on the rest of the team. If he was completely honest with himself, the crush he’d had on Eames as a freshman was back with a vengeance, and if possible, had gotten even worse. Having him as a coach was going to be unbearable, even if he didn’t give up on Arthur after tomorrow’s practice.
Arthur arrived home just minutes before his mother, and he greeted her and dutifully headed to bed, ignoring his undone homework. He tossed and turned, thinking about all the ways that Eames coaching him could go wrong, until he forced himself to clear his mind and sleep.
The next day, he drifted through school without paying much attention. He was generally quiet in class, so none of his teachers gave him a hard time, and he worked to finish his late homework at lunch. By the time that practice rolled around, he was resigned that it would be a humiliating disaster, and he felt oddly calm about the prospect.
As expected, Eames stood next to the pool. Unlike the usual routine, none of the swimmers were in the water yet. Arthur gave Cobb a quizzical look.
“Eames is sorting out the lanes first,” Cobb told him. “He thinks it might help for all the swimmers with similar times to be in the same lanes.” The team generally sorted itself by speed anyway, so Arthur didn’t expect much of a change. Lanes three and four were also used by the divers, and there were no lane lines in between. Robert would stay in lane four by himself, and Cobb and maybe one other decent swimmer would take lane three. Arthur generally placed himself in the sixth lane, where he only had to pass other guys every once in a while, and he was fast enough that he didn’t get in anyone else’s way. Arthur stood silently as Eames introduced himself to the team. As expected, he didn’t give Arthur a second glance.
“Right, I’m basing this on your race times plus some ideas based on what I saw at the meet,” Eames told them. He read off a list, assigning each swimmer to a lane. As expected, Robert stayed in lane three by himself, but lane four went to the two baseball players, Bell and Chapel. The other four lanes were more evenly divided, since they didn’t have to work around the divers, and Arthur was surprised to find himself in a lane with Cobb and a few other guys. He and Cobb swam different events, but Arthur was slower than Cobb in general, and he resigned himself to being passed during drills.
Coach Fischer was noticeably absent during the practice, which didn’t make much of a difference to Arthur. The team went through their warm-ups, and then the practice began in earnest. Eames started them out doing drills, and Arthur relaxed into his stroke, feeling the comforting pull of the water against his sculled hands. He focused on the angle of his hands as they entered and exited the water.
“Keep going,” said Eames, and Arthur looked up to see three of the freshmen standing with Eames by the side of the pool. Arthur obeyed, shrugging mentally. The drag-fingertips drill was intended to focus the swimmer on keeping each elbow high and straight during freestyle, and Arthur lifted his elbows and plunged his hands into the water again and again.
“See, look at Arthur’s form,” Arthur heard Eames say as he stopped against the wall. “You all need to work to make your form look like his. You need those fundamentals if you’re going to improve your times.”
Eames led them through some more drills, then set the clock for timed 100s. The rate on the clock was just fast enough that Arthur couldn’t slack, and he had a five-second pause in between each hundred. Eames surveyed them with a gleam in his eyes.
“Now, we’ll get to the real work,” Eames told them. “It’s time for Monsters.” Arthur groaned with the rest of his team, and followed Cobb out of the pool. Eames lined the team up behind lane one. Robert was first, of course, so he wouldn’t have to pass anyone until he lapped them all. This particular Monster consisted of a length of butterfly, at which point each swimmer had to pull themselves out of the pool and complete 10 push-ups, then a length of back in the other direction, 10 sit-ups, a length of breast, 10 press-outs, a length of free, 10 jumping jacks (“Don’t slip and kill yourselves,” Eames warned them), and then back to fly and the same routine over, until Eames told them to stop.
Monsters were so named for a reason, and Arthur was aching by his third journey from the first lane to the sixth. He was happy to see that he wasn’t the one having the most trouble by any means. The slower swimmers took their time doing the exercises at the end of each length, knowing that would give them less time in the water. Cobb was looking a little worse for wear but kept up his standard of being a good example for the rest of the team. He encouraged the other swimmers each time he pulled himself out of the pool to start the exercises. Even Robert was showing signs of flagging.
Eames blew his whistle. “All right, enough. I want to see more effort from most of you the next time we do this. And if I don’t, don’t be surprised if Monsters start to be a regular part of our practice routine.” He clapped his hands. “Good practice, all. Do 200 kick, warm down, and you’re done.”
Cobb gathered enough kickboards for their lane while the other swimmers each got up to get their own. Arthur completed the rest of practice, taking his time with the kicking and warm down. When he went to gather his bag from the benches, Eames gestured him over.
“Good practice, Arthur,” he said. “You’re a hard worker. I’m looking forward to seeing more of that tomorrow morning.” He tilted his head. “We’re still on for tomorrow, yeah?”
“Yeah, I’ll be up,” Arthur told him. He was already beginning to shiver a little, and he dug his towel out of the bag to drape around himself.
The next morning, Arthur peered through the blinds, wanting to be out the door before Eames decided that Arthur didn’t wake up in time and honked or called him. When a pair of headlights swung into the driveway, he quickly went outside and got into Eames’ car. The car was much nicer than Arthur’s, of course, but wasn’t anything special. Arthur smiled at Eames a little nervously.
“Are we picking anyone else up?” Arthur asked. Maybe Eames had offered morning practice time to a bunch of guys, and it would be like any other practice, only earlier and more sleepy.
“Nah, just you and me. Why, did you want anyone else there?” Eames asked.
“No, I mean, whatever, anything’s fine,” Arthur stumbled over his words. Morning really wasn’t his best time, especially when he’d slept restlessly in fear of oversleeping. His dreams had been full of a disappointed Eames as Arthur tried and tried to get to the pool with dozens of obstacles in his way.
“I think some one-on-one time will let me see how we can improve your turns.” Eames pulled into the dark lot of the school. Once inside, Arthur stripped down to his suit and watched, surprised, as Eames pulled off his own shirt and track pants to reveal swimming trunks.
“Not fair,” Arthur said teasingly. “You get to wear a normal person’s swimsuit.”
“Yeah, it’s definitely one of the perks of not competing anymore,” Eames told him, and fished his goggles out of his bag. “Right, let’s warm up. 200 free?”
“You’re the coach,” Arthur smiled. With the other guys around, he had been a little intimidated by Eames in coach mode, but now that they were alone, he just saw the guy who’d bought him a burger and kicked him under the table. Of course, Eames was still a fantastic swimmer, as Arthur was reminded as Eames started his warm-up. Eames was all muscular arms and shoulders, and he pulled himself through the water like he was trying to climb out. Arthur started his warm-up as well, and stretched his arms and legs along with Eames once he was done.
“Right, I’m going to watch your turns. Do another 200 free. I’m going to watch you.”
Arthur did as Eames said. As he approached his turns, he saw Eames watching him, either underwater or from the surface. After his first 100, Arthur found himself fighting for breath, as usual. Don’t breathe, he told himself as he stroked toward his turn. Do not breathe.
He managed not to take a breath before his turn, but in the process didn’t have enough breath to blow out through his nose during the flipturn. Arthur choked as the water ran up his nose and surfaced, spluttering.
“Shit.” Arthur gasped. “God, I haven’t done that in forever.”
“It always sucks just as much every time, doesn’t it?” Eames smiled sympathetically. “You don’t have to prove anything to me right now, Arthur. I’m trying to figure out your baseline.”
“I don’t want you to watch me sucking,” Arthur told him honestly, and smiled a little when Eames laughed. “You know what I’m saying. Your name is all over the walls. You probably were never as crappy a swimmer as I am.”
“You don’t suck, Arthur,” Eames told him. “Honestly. And I wasn’t born with those times. I worked for them, just like everyone else. I just got to do most of my work in England before my family moved here, so no one got to see it.” He stepped forward, nearer to Arthur. “Move down the lane a little, and just do the turn and then stop. Breathe as much as you like before and after.”
Arthur stood a few strokes’ length away from the wall, then somersaulted into his turn. When he emerged, he looked at Eames.
“You’re twisting a little at the wall, and that’s part of what’s slowing you down,” Eames told him. “You should be flat on your back coming out of the turn, and twist back over after. Show me a backstroke turn.” Arthur obeyed, completing two strokes on his back before he turned facedown to do his flipturn. Coming out of the turn, he stayed on his back and stroked twice before stopping. “Yeah, like that,” Eames said. “You want to be just as much on your back as you would be doing backstroke.”
“I know,” Arthur flushed. He knew how to do his turns, but he just ended up doing them wrong for some reason.
“Here, you need to practice it the right way to get the muscle memory down. Do free again, and I’m going to keep you from twisting.” Eames crouched a little in the water. Arthur headed into his turn, and felt Eames’ strong hands on his hips, keeping him on his back, then pulling him with a sharp motion when it was time to twist back onto his front. He surfaced. “Again,” Eames said. He continued to practice his turns countless times, first guided by Eames, then on his own, before Eames looked at his watch.
“We’d better wrap it up if you’re going to get showered and changed for class,” Eames said. “Do a quick warm down, and I’ll see you this afternoon at practice.”
Coach Fischer was back at practice that afternoon, and things seemed to be back to normal, other than Eames’ continued presence and the swimmers’ new lane assignments. While Coach Fischer focused on Robert with occasional asides to other swimmers, Eames spent time with some of the slower kids and gave them tips on their form. Practice ran as usual for the first hour and a half, but then Eames took over again and led them through another Monster. Whether it was Eames’ threat from the day before or the fear of Coach Fischer, there was a lot less slacking off, and even the baseball players seemed to be pushing themselves.
After practice, Arthur approached Eames awkwardly, his bag slung on his shoulder.
“Arthur, good practice,” Eames greeted him. “I’m giving you a ride home, right?”
“I can get one from one of the other guys, if you’re busy or anything,” Arthur offered.
“No, it’s fine. I should be ready to go by the time you’re dressed.” Eames was focused on the clipboard in his hand, but his eyes flickered up to give Arthur a smile. Arthur dressed at his normal pace, and headed back to the pool area. Coach Fischer was gone, so Eames turned off the lights and locked the doors behind them.
“Are any of the guys giving you a hard time about me giving you rides?” Eames asked abruptly once they were in the car.
“No. I mean, I don’t think anybody even noticed,” Arthur told him. “I just don’t want you to feel like you have to take me home.”
“It’s not a problem for me, but if it is for you, we can meet at the pool in the mornings.” Eames seemed agitated.
“Really, either way is fine,” Arthur said, trying to understand Eames’ sudden shift in mood. “We can take it day-by-day, if you have plans, or if I have anything going on.” He paused. “I’m not really worried about what the other guys think.”
“Apparently, I should be,” said Eames. “I’m not a high school student now, I’m a coach, and people could get the wrong idea.” He sounded like he was quoting someone, and Arthur’s stomach sank.
“That’s what Coach Fischer told you?”
“He doesn’t want anything to interfere with the morale of the team.”
Arthur barked out a short laugh. Eames looked at him questioningly. “Sorry. It’s just that there really isn’t much team morale. Cobb does his best, but everyone is out there swimming for themselves.” He looked down at his knees, unsettled. He was thrown by Fischer’s implications. He had no reason to trust the coach, and he wondered if the other guys would be privately encouraged to have some sort of problem with Eames coaching him if they didn’t come up with it on their own. He also hadn’t needed a reminder that Eames was out of his reach, but it was unpleasant to have his fantasy material revoked before he’d even had a chance to get it off the ground.
“Coach wasn’t like this when I started swimming here,” Eames told him. “He wasn’t so focused on a single swimmer. He worked with everyone.”
“Did he? Or were you the swimmer he focused on?” Arthur asked. Eames looked thoughtful, and was silent as he pulled into Arthur’s driveway.
“At any rate, I don’t plan to coach like him,” Eames said. “You understand that’s why I don’t talk to you much during practice, right?”
“Oh, yeah, no problem,” said Arthur, though he had wondered about it.
“The things you want to work on are more individual, and I know I can work with you in the mornings,” Eames said. “Talking of which, I’ll be here first thing Monday morning. Unless you want to drive yourself.”
Arthur enjoyed being able to talk to Eames while they drove, and he regretted his earlier insistence that he could drive himself. “I’m fine with you driving. You have my number, so you can text me if anything comes up and you want to drive separately.”
“Have a good weekend. Get some rest,” Eames told him. He looked at Arthur shrewdly. “Get caught up on your homework.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Arthur sassed. “See you Monday.”
The weekend passed without incident, and on Monday, Eames had Arthur practicing breathing exercises during their morning practice. He sprinted until he was out of breath, then practiced controlling his breathing, which was easier said than done. Eames’ calm presence helped to steady him, and he managed several turns without needed to breathe beforehand.
“You’re already improving,” Eames said. “Now you just need to keep it up for Wednesday’s meet.”
Arthur nodded and waved to Eames, and headed into the locker room to shower and get dressed for school. After the afternoon practice, he raised his eyebrows at Eames, who nodded slightly, and he again met Eames in the pool area once he was dressed. They followed the same routine the next day.
“No morning practice tomorrow,” Eames said. “I need you rested for the meet.”
“Right, yeah,” said Arthur. “I’ll see you after school, I guess.”
The meet was away, which meant a slow bus ride to the next town over. Arthur usually tried to scope out a seat of his own on bus trips, but he moved his bags to the side as Cobb approached. Cobb smiled at him and sat down. Eames was sitting at the front of the bus by Coach Fischer, with Robert seated just behind them. Arthur made small talk with Cobb for a while, and nodded from time to time when Cobb included him in a conversation with a few of the other guys.
The line-up for who was swimming what event was passed around the bus, and Arthur was surprised to see Chapel listed in Arthur’s usual spot for the 500 free. Between the 200 free and the 100 butterfly, he was scheduled to race the 50 free, and instead of the 100 breast, his name was down for the 100 backstroke.
“Chapel and Bell can compete?” he asked Cobb.
“Yeah, their probation is up,” Cobb told him, and took the list. He chuckled a little as he looked it over. “Hey, you’re swimming the back with me?”
“Yeah,” Arthur answered. “I’ve never actually done it in a race.”
“I’ve seen you in practice, though; your form’s good,” Cobb said. “You know your strokes from the flags, right?” A line of flags was placed above the pool on each end to warn backstrokers that the wall was approaching. Inexperienced swimmers over- or under-shot the number of strokes it took them to near the wall for their turn, and that could cost them time, or even a bump on the head.
“I’ve got it,” Arthur assured him.
Eames called Arthur over once they arrived at the meet.
“I’m not promising that you’ll never have to swim the 500 again,” Eames said. “Or that you’ll always get the 50. But it’s time that Bell and Chapel started pulling their weight, so this works out for today.”
“Yeah, it’s fine,” said Arthur. “Why backstroke, though?”
“Call it a hunch,” said Eames. “Remember to focus on your breathing and your turns, and you’ll be fine. We’ll talk more after your 200.”
Arthur nodded and got into the pool with the rest of the team to warm up. The 200 free was the second event, after the 200 medley relay. Cobb was swimming a 50 of backstroke for the relay, and Arthur cheered him on from his place waiting behind the blocks. He kept his cover-up on until the last minute, and shed it as the freestylers finished the relay. He adjusted his goggles and prepared for his race. Instead of his usual apprehension before a race, he felt oddly calm. He glanced over at Eames, who gave him a nod. Arthur tensed for his dive.
Since he didn’t have to swim the 500, the eight lengths of the 200 were Arthur’s longest distance race at the meet, and he held back less than usual. That meant he was out of breath before he was used to, but he focused on controlling his breathing and completed his fourth turn without incident. The roar of the crowd broke into his ears each time he turned his head to breathe, and his muscles burned while he moved through the water. He had to breathe into his last turn, but he mentally shrugged it off. Arthur made a strong finish into the wall, and climbed out of the pool to see his time. He had earned third place. It still wasn’t his best time, but he had improved enough from the last meet that he couldn’t help but smile, and the opposing team was challenging enough that he was happy with third. He retrieved his cover-up from where he had discarded it, and went over to talk to Eames.
“Attaboy, Arthur,” said Eames, smiling. “Much improved. Sit down somewhere and breathe for a while, and I’ll see you after your 50.” He looked to the next swimmer who was waiting for his comments.
Arthur laughed at Eames’ advice, but did as he suggested. There was one event, the 200 individual medley, in between the 200 free and the 50 free, and he sat calmly and watched as Robert completed 50s of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle in succession. Arthur supposed he was lucky that he’d never been asked to swim the IM. Coach Fischer’s face was grim as he watched his son, and Arthur shook his head. Robert was beating the other five swimmers by a considerable margin, but nothing seemed to be good enough for Robert to please his father. Robert was expected to swim the 50 free, as well, so he would be swimming back to back events, and he would be expected to give the sprint his all, even after an event that required some stamina.
Arthur stood to prepare for his next race. He was in the far lane for this race, meaning he was expected to place fifth or sixth, but he didn’t let it bother him. He wouldn’t beat Robert or the other swimmer from his team, but he had a good chance to beat more than one of the other team’s swimmers.
The 50 free was practically over before it started, and Arthur’s turn was clean and smooth. He kept himself from breathing as much as he could, and he was happy to see that he had finished fourth. His time was acceptable enough for his first time swimming the event competitively, and he again headed toward Eames.
“Not bad,” Eames told him. “What do you think of the 50?”
“I like it,” said Arthur honestly. “It felt good.” He took a seat next to Cobb for the diving events. He worked on his homework and smiled as the crowd gasped at the divers’ jumps and twists. When he was a freshman, the diving coach had approached Arthur to ask him to dive, but he had declined. He had been self-conscious about his size, and even more wary of the stunts the divers performed. The crowd gasped for a reason. Some of the dives could easily result in head and neck injury if performed incorrectly. Arthur had lost some of his fear in the last couple of years, and he sometimes wondered if he would give a different answer if he was asked today. Still, he had made enough of a place for himself among the swimmers that it was doubtful that anyone would ask him to attempt diving now.
Arthur’s next event, the 100 butterfly, was after diving, and he swung his arms to warm up. He hadn’t realized how much of a pall the 500 had cast over his meets overall, but he felt lighter today, knowing that he didn’t have to dread his next event. He dove and really enjoyed swimming the four lengths of butterfly. He may not have arms and shoulders like Eames’ to pull him along, but he made up for it with a strong kick and less bulk for the water to resist against. He finished with a respectable time with third place and settled back to watch the 500.
Chapel was a decent enough swimmer, but he had never competed before, and he must have been half-assing his practices, because he was already slowing down after his first 50. Arthur cringed. This was a close enough meet that a sixth place finish could hurt them. Even though it was doubtful that Eames had had complete control of the line-up, Arthur worried about what Coach Fischer would think of Eames’ decisions. The race continued, and to Arthur’s surprise, Chapel managed to pull off a very close fifth place.
Arthur’s final event was the 100 backstroke, and Cobb gave him a pat on the back as they headed for the blocks.
“Good luck,” Cobb said. “I’m expecting to have some competition out there.”
“Good luck,” Arthur echoed, and got into position for his start with his feet placed on the edge of the pool wall and his body hunched over the starting block. At the buzzer, he arched his back and pushed off the wall, then plunged backward into the water. The flags appeared above him, and he carefully counted three strokes before he flipped over for his turn. Coming out of his turn, Arthur was able to breathe as much as he liked, since his face was out of the water. He focused on kicking hard and pulling the water beneath him in an elongated S shape with his hands. The flags appeared for his next turn, and he took a long breath before he turned. He gave his last length everything he had, and counted his strokes again to hit the sensor to complete the race. He turned to climb out of the pool and stood, stunned. He had earned second place. Only Cobb had beaten him. He pulled on his cover-up and walked over to Eames in a daze.
“All right, Arthur!” Eames cheered and clapped him on the back. Eames’ backslap was echoed by the other members of his team, including Cobb.
“Arthur, that was an awesome time,” Cobb told him, and smiled genuinely. “It looks like I’m going to have to step it up to keep my spot.”
“I don’t know about that,” Arthur managed to say, but he was grinning ear to ear. He cheered for his team as they completed the rest of the meet, and waited in anticipation to hear the final scores. By a close margin, the Totem High Minotaurs had won, and they cheered as they made their way into the locker room.
A few weeks passed, and Arthur became used to his new routine of practice, school, practice, homework, and sleep. He knew that Eames had class while he was in school, and he entertained himself from time to time imagining Eames crammed into a desk or a seat in a lecture hall. He and Eames skipped their morning practices on the days before and after the meets, and he found he missed the sleepy early morning car rides, and even the jar of cold water against his skin first thing in the morning.
The morning practices were becoming more intense as Arthur improved his times and needed less help with his breathing and turns. The qualifying rounds for the Division championship were fast approaching, and Eames spent a lot of their practices timing Arthur as he sprinted, but he still jumped into the water with Arthur each morning.
During his warm down one morning, Arthur asked impulsively, “Why are you here, anyway?”
“Back in town, you mean, instead of at State?” Eames guessed, and Arthur nodded. “The short version of the story is, I fucked up.” He sighed. “The longer version started with me spending plenty of time and money at casinos in the time when I wasn’t practicing. I had a fake ID, so I would have a few drinks as well, make it a full night.
“Then, when I found I didn’t have time to finish my assignments, some other guys turned me on to a kid who would write papers for cash. Only it turned out that he didn’t really write me a whole new paper, just sent me an old one of his. The professor ran the paper through anti-plagiarism software, and it got flagged. So while the school was investigating me, I decided that I was going to get my money back. I broke into this kid’s dorm room and helped myself to some of his things, and his roommate came home in the middle of it and caught me there.” Eames shook his head ruefully. “Even if they’d been willing to turn their heads to the cheating, adding stealing to my case was enough to cement the decision to kick me out.” He looked at Arthur. “Have I shocked you?”
Arthur thought for a moment. “That was incredibly stupid, Eames,” he said. “Though, honestly, I’m most surprised that you were dumb enough to get caught.”
Eames laughed. “The errors of an amateur, to be sure.” He splashed Arthur playfully. “No moral pronouncements to share?” Arthur splashed back.
“I never admired you for your morals,” Arthur teased. “Or your brain, for that matter.” The splashing devolved into an underwater wrestling match, and Arthur surfaced, gasping, with both hands clutching at Eames’ biceps. Water was dripping from Eames’ hair, and Arthur gave into impulse and lifted himself to press his lips against Eames’. After a moment, Eames pushed him away.
“God, Arthur, no; I can’t,” Eames said, and backed away.
“Sorry,” Arthur said, his cheeks flushed. “I’m really sorry.” Eames moved closer, cautiously, and took hold of Arthur’s elbow.
“Arthur, listen,” Eames said. “I think you’re brilliant, I do. But you’re only seventeen, and you’re still in high school.” He ran a hand through his wet hair. “And it’s been made very clear that if I’m going to be a coach, I can’t get into any more trouble.”
“I’m trouble,” Arthur echoed. He felt numb with humiliation.
“You know that’s not what I’m saying. We just can’t do this,” Eames gestured between them.
“The age of consent is sixteen in Michigan,” replied Arthur, and at Eames’ raised eyebrow, “They told us that in sex ed. And you’re only twenty; Eames, it’s hardly a big difference!”
“I’m telling you, we can’t do this now, even if it’s what we both want. Not while I’m coaching. I really do enjoy it, Arthur. I miss getting into the pool, and I like to think that I’m helping some of the guys. That I’m helping you.”
“You are,” said Arthur, moving closer. “It’s not fair.”
“Not for you, but it is, a bit for me,” Eames told him. “I have some penance to complete before I can go back to doing whatever I please.” He lifted himself out of the pool and turned around to sit on the edge. “I hope you know that this has nothing to do with the way I feel about you.”
Arthur nodded. He still felt numb. “Is this going to change things? Can we still practice in the mornings? Can you still pick me up?”
“As far as I’m concerned, nothing has to change,” Eames said. “But it’s up to you.”
Arthur jumped as his phone buzzed next to him. It was almost time for Eames to pick him up, and his bag was slung over his shoulder. He was still soft and unfocused with sleep.
“Arthur, we have to cancel practice this morning,” Eames told him, and continued before Arthur could respond. “Arthur, listen. Coach Fischer died last night.”
Robert sat motionless, alone on the team bench, in jeans and a sweatshirt. The incongruity of Robert Fischer wearing anything other than a racing suit near a pool was strange to Arthur’s eyes. Hesistantly, he walked up to place a hand on Robert’s shoulder.
“Hey, I’m really sorry about your dad,” Arthur said, and wished that there was something better for him to say.
“Thanks,” Robert said as he turned to look at him with an intense stare. “I know that you didn’t have much of a relationship with him.” Robert held up a quelling hand to stop Arthur from interrupting. “So you’re the only one that I can tell that I’m actually kind of happy.” He looked at Arthur with tears brimming in his eyes. “That’s terrible, isn’t it? It’s just that all I can think about is that I’m free.” He looked fiercely toward the pool. Arthur moved to sit beside him. “No one ever asked me if I wanted to swim. For the longest time, I didn’t even let myself think about it, because it was the only option. Fischers swim, and they win.” Tears ran freely down Robert’s face, and he continued to stare at the pool without wiping them away. “My mother died, too, you know, when I was little.”
Arthur nodded. “Yeah, God, Robert, I’m so sorry.” Arthur had never known his dad, but he couldn’t imagine growing up without his mom. “What will—“
“My godfather gets guardianship until I’m eighteen,” said Robert. “But that doesn’t matter. From now on, I get to choose what to do with my life. I can choose where to go to college, and what to study, and what I want to do for the rest of my life.” He turned to Arthur and smiled, still ignoring the tearstains on his cheeks. “I’m quitting the team.”
Arthur looked back at him, stunned as much by Robert’s smile as his announcement. He wondered if he had ever seen Robert smile before now. “You’re our best swimmer,” he started feebly.
“I hate it, Arthur,” Robert told him. “I hate every minute of it. I talked to Eames, and he said I could come back next season if I wanted, but I won’t.” He stood, and impulsively, Arthur stood and pulled him into a hug.
“We’ll miss you,” Arthur said softly. “And I am sorry about your dad.”
“Me, too,” said Robert. “I wish we could have loved each other as much as he loved winning.” He pulled away, wiped his face, and squared his shoulders. “Maybe I can find something that I love that much, too.”
“Or someone,” Arthur said, and flushed. Robert nodded thoughtfully.
“You understand that people are more important than anything else,” Robert said. “That’s something that you and Cobb have in common. It’s what makes him a good captain. You’ll be a good captain, too, Arthur. The guys look up to you.”
“Thanks,” Arthur said. The rest of the team was filtering in to the pool area and greeting Robert with shoulder pats and manly, back-slapping hugs. Robert nodded to them and excused himself, and Eames emerged from the timer room.
The team sat on the bench as Eames laid out the situation. Coach Fischer had died of a heart attack, as most of them knew, and Eames handed out information about the funeral. Eames would be taking over as coach for the remainder of the season. Robert had quit. Eames held up his hands against the volley of shocked comments and complaints at the news. “I told him that he is welcome back at any time, but this is his decision. I don’t want any of you trying to pressure him to come back.” He clapped his hands. “Qualifying rounds for Division are next week, so we have a lot of work to do. If you feel like you need to talk to someone about Coach Fischer, make an appointment with the school counselor. We’ll need some people to fill in for Robert’s events. Other than that, we continue on as always.”
The pool area swarmed with guys in various colors of racing suits. The championship preliminary round and the finals were held at Totem this year, and Arthur was happy to not have another bus trip to look forward to after prelims.
Arthur shifted uncomfortably. He had thought that he was beyond any self-consciousness about his uniform, but Eames had given him, Cobb, and a few of the other fast swimmers knee-length sharkskin-style suits. Despite the greater amount of fabric in the suit, Arthur couldn’t get over how tight this one was against his skin. He knew that the suit could give him enough of an advantage that it was necessary. Even a tenth of a second could be the difference between qualifying for Division and losing out. He reluctantly pulled a swim cap out of his bag for the same reason.
Surreptitiously, Arthur went behind the bleacher area to get oiled down. Some of the guys’ girlfriends and the off-season female swimmers held bottles of suspiciously green liquid. Cobb’s girlfriend, Mal, gestured to Arthur impatiently, and he moved beside her. He hissed as she rubbed the—whatever it was—over his freshly shaved calves. She blotted him quickly with a towel. If any swimmers were visibly shiny, the refs would make them towel off, but they were otherwise willing to look the other way as the pool water got progressively cloudier with each coach’s secret recipe.
Cobb walked up behind Arthur and gave him a clap on the shoulder, then grimaced at the oil on his palm. He retrieved the towel from Mal and wiped himself off, then turned so she could begin with his arms and chest. Arthur winced in sympathy at the razor burn that was spread across Cobb’s chest.
“Mal, you know Arthur, right?” asked Cobb.
“We are intimately acquainted,” Mal told him, deadpan. The lilt of her French accent made the words seem more romantic. “Once you have oiled a man’s chest, he is yours.”
Cobb smiled wryly at Arthur, and then turned back to Mal. “And if the man is already yours?”
“Then, he will be mine until the end of time,” she said seriously, and they kissed softly. Arthur fought the urge to roll his eyes and turned away to prepare for his events.
Since every swimmer in the division attempted to earn their best times in the preliminary heats and qualify for the final Division championship, there were several heats of each race. With Robert gone, Arthur was signed up to take his place in the 200 individual medley, since he was at least competent in each of the strokes. Other than that, he was swimming the 50 free, the 100 butterfly, and the 100 backstroke. Arthur was swimming in the second heat of the 200 IM, and he swung his arms to keep warm while the first heat finished.
Arthur dove and swam the IM with little fanfare. As he’d expected, he had a decent time and placed third in his heat. It was unlikely, but there was still a possibility that someone from the first heat would beat his time. Although each swimmer could swim a maximum of four events per meet, the majority of the swimmers would not qualify for finals in all of their events. The 50 free would be the heaviest competition, since there were six heats scheduled. Arthur was seeded in the final heat with the fastest swimmers, but he was likely to lose to some of the swimmers from the other teams. His best bet for this race was to hope for fifth or sixth in his heat and a low enough time to qualify. He glanced at the walls. Eames held at least one pool record at most of the pools in their division, and sure enough, Eames’ pool record for the 50 free was displayed on the wall as just under 21 seconds. All of the oil and fancy suits in the world wouldn’t get him to Eames’ time, but he readied for his dive and focused. With Eames’ coaching, he had mastered his breathing enough that he could go without for the first 25 yards, and he flipped into his turn without taking a breath. He managed two more strokes before breathing, and he pushed himself the rest of the way until his fingers collided with the wall. He looked up at the clock. Fifth place and a decent time, and he was as satisfied as he was going to be.
The diving competition would be held the next day, so Arthur didn’t have much of a break before his 100 fly. He pulled off another third in his heat, then wandered to the top of the bleachers, where some of the guys were gathered to wait for their turn to swim. He had a long enough wait between the fly and the backstroke that he begrudgingly pulled on the cover-up before he took a seat next to Cobb. Cobb was consoling one of the freshman, who had watery eyes and a clenched jaw, clearly putting all of his effort into keeping himself from crying.
“Listen, Eric, you have a lot of time left to get to finals; don’t worry,” Cobb was saying, and Arthur nodded his head encouragingly.
“Seriously,” Arthur added. “I didn’t qualify for finals in any of my events when I was a freshman.” He looked out toward the pool area, where Eames paced along the edge and watched Ray swim the 500. “You just have to give it time, and keep working, and you’ll get what you want.”
Cobb patted Eric’s back, and he nodded and moved to where the other freshman sat. He still looked mournful, but he had stopped looking as though he would burst into tears.
“You qualified for finals when you were a freshman, Arthur,” Cobb said, confidentially.
“Yeah, but only in one event,” Arthur smiled. “He’ll get there, too.”
“Have you started to think about next year?” Cobb asked. “You’re pretty much a lock for captain, and I hear that they’ve asked Eames to stay on as coach.”
Arthur nodded. “Yeah, it seems crazy, though. I always thought Robert would be captain, and I wouldn’t have a chance.” He didn’t want to think too carefully about the thought of Eames coaching him for another year. Arthur would be eighteen in December, but if Eames was still coach… He changed the subject. “Hey, what are your plans for next year? Do you have a school picked out?”
“I’m going to study architecture in Paris,” Cobb said. “Mal’s exchange program is over at the end of the school year, so it made sense for me to go, too.”
“Do you even speak French?” Arthur asked, and Cobb laughed.
“Not well. Mal said that she would teach me. The things we do for love, right?” He nudged Arthur’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s get ready for the back.”
They got re-greased, with more focus on the backs of their arms and legs. Arthur rinsed his swim cap and put it back on, and adjusted his goggles. This was his last race and his last shot to get his best time for the season. He tensed above the block and smoothly entered the water at the sound of the buzzer. The noise and the chaos of the pool area faded away, and Arthur’s only thoughts were stroke, stroke, kick, turn. His arms and legs burned, but he pushed himself still harder. When he approached the flags for his finish, he was almost surprised that the race was over. He made a strong finish and turned to see his time.
For the final heat of the 100 backstroke, Cobb had won first place. One hundredth of a second slower, Arthur had taken second. Arthur got out of the pool and was pulled into a hug by a grinning (and still dripping) Cobb.
“Damn, Arthur!” Cobb exclaimed. “I knew you were creeping up on me, but I had no idea it would be that close!” Eames crowded in behind Cobb.
“Arthur, Dom, that was amazing!” Eames grinned from ear to ear. “With those times, we’re going to hold our own at finals!”
In the end, Arthur had qualified for finals in the 200 IM, the 100 butterfly, and the 100 backstroke. The final championship meet took place the next day, and would be more like a regular meet, with one heat in each event.
Arthur changed and helped his teammates pull the timing sensors out of the pool and clean up the pool area, and lingered until most everyone had headed for home. Eames was still shuffling papers, and Arthur walked over to him.
“Arthur, well done today,” Eames said, not looking up from his papers.
“Can we talk?” Arthur asked. Eames looked up. He must have seen the seriousness in Arthur’s expression, and Eames’ mouth twisted slightly.
“All right,” Eames said.
“Can we go somewhere else?” Arthur asked. This was the first time he had felt awkward around Eames in a long while, but Eames didn’t seem to be interested in easing the tension.
In the end, they sat on a bench in front of the school, and though Arthur had hoped for somewhere more private, he accepted that this would have to do.
“Cobb told me that you were offered the coaching position next year,” Arthur started bluntly. “Are you going to take it?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Eames answered, and held up a hand. “Please don’t read more into this than I’m saying, Arthur. I really just haven’t made up my mind.”
Anger flared suddenly in Arthur’s body. “Oh, I’m not allowed to read anything into this? God, Eames, if you aren’t interested in me, that’s one thing, but that’s not the issue, is it?”
Eames looked angry, too. “You are not thinking this through, Arthur. I looked up those consent laws you were talking about. The age of consent is 18 when the other person is an authority figure. Like a coach.” He stood and began to pace restlessly. “I’m not convinced that you even feel the way you think you do. Have you even dated anyone before?”
“I’m sorry that mid-Michigan isn’t a gay mecca, Eames,” Arthur said through gritted teeth. “Would you prefer that I go find a few guys to fuck, make sure I’m really gay?”
“You’re acting like a child.” Eames’ words were sharp. “The consequences would be much worse for me than you. Whether or not I coach next year, nothing is going to happen between us. I need you to accept that.”
Arthur stood and ran for his car, and hoped that Eames hadn’t seen the tears welling in his eyes. He should have been happy about his performance today, but all he could think about was Eames. He pressed his hands over his eyes and drove home.
Arthur’s mother was waiting for him in the kitchen, and she gave him a hug and a peanut butter sandwich.
“I feel like I never see you anymore,” she smiled at him. “I switched my shift for tomorrow so I could come to your meet.”
“You didn’t have to—“ Arthur began, then stopped. “Thanks. I’d like it if you were there.” His mother ruffled his hair and sat at the table beside him. “Hey, mom?” Arthur asked, with his eyes on the table. “You know I’m gay, right?”
“I didn’t want to assume anything until you told me,” she said, “But I guess I knew that.” She peered at him. “Is there a reason you’re telling me this now? A boy, or…”
“Yeah, I guess. There’s this guy I like, but he’s older.” Arthur looked up to see his mother’s calm face. Privately, Arthur called this her “nurse-face,” the face that she used to reassure patients that it was okay to tell the truth about what brought them to the ER at four in the morning.
“How much older?” she asked.
“How did you meet him?”
“He’s helping out with the team this year. He used to swim for Totem.” Arthur skipped the part where he was the current coach.
“Well, honey, it might not seem like three years is a long time to you, but at this stage, it’s a big difference. You only got your driver’s license last year, and he… I assume he’s in college?” Arthur nodded. “Dating is different when you’re in college. Expectations are different.” Arthur made a face at her. “Well, they are. I know you want to pretend that I don’t know about sex, but are you ready to discuss it with this man?” She stopped suddenly. “Or is that… has that happened already?”
“God, mom, no,” Arthur said, his face flushed. “He says the same thing, that I’m too young.”
“I like him better already,” his mother said wryly. “Babe, sometimes it’s hard to get the timing right with relationships. Just because it might not work out right now doesn’t mean that it never will. But it’s not healthy to sit and wait around forever, either. There could be other options, other boys, you haven’t considered.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Get some sleep; you’ve got a big day tomorrow.” Arthur nodded and made his way to bed.
When he woke, he was filled with a new determination. Forget Eames. Arthur was going to make this the best championship of his life. The key to racing was to erase everything else from your mind. Coach Fischer used to get in kids’ faces and accuse them of spending their energy on girl trouble if he thought they weren’t putting enough into their strokes. Today was about swimming, and Arthur was going to swim like there was nothing else in the world but him and the water.
He nodded to Dom as he entered the pool area. He didn’t look toward Eames, who was chatting with the other coaches. The majority of their team, who hadn’t qualified for finals, were clustered together in the bleachers. None of the teams had their whole team swimming today. Today was about individual times, records, and qualifying for State.
Arthur cheered Dom’s medley relay team as he started them out with the backstroke, but he ignored the 200 free to get into his racing mindset. It didn’t matter that the 200 IM had been Robert’s event, not his. It was his event now. He was seeded in the middle, as usual, and he was filled with determination. He was tired of being a middle-class swimmer. No one could change his times but him.
Arthur climbed onto the starting block and readied for the race. The referees were using starting pistols instead of the regular buzzer, but Arthur had had two events to accustom himself to the sound. He wasn’t going to let anything affect him today.
The shot echoed in the pool area, and Arthur was in the water. He focused on his butterfly, and pushed himself hard. His two-armed strokes were quick and strong, and he kicked solidly into his two-handed turn. He couldn’t even hear the roar of the crowd above his own thoughts: stronger, harder, faster. He transitioned smoothly into backstroke, then breaststroke, and finally, freestyle. Though he had already completed six lengths at a dead sprint, he ignored any urge to breathe during his final 50. He could breathe when the race was over. With a grunt, he slammed his fingertips into the sensor to finish the race.
He had earned second place, and what was easily his best time for the 200 IM. He nodded to his teammates who came up to pat his back, but was still deep in his racing mindset. With a start, he remembered that his mother was in the stands. He scanned the crowd until he saw her, and climbed up to sit beside her for a moment. She pressed a shoulder against his, heedless of the dampness that soaked through Arthur’s cover-up.
“Good job, kid. It looked like you gave that your all.” His mother held a line-up that the booster parents must have printed off, with everyone’s best times for their events. She had penciled in his IM time and had drawn a little smile next to it. She smiled, and leaned down to pull a bottle out of her bag. She handed him a Gatorade, which was already sweating against the warm, humid air of the pool.
“Thanks, mom,” he said. He took a drink and leaned back against her shoulder.
“You don’t need to stay up here,” she said. “I know that you have to get ready for your events.”
“I’m okay for a minute,” he said, and sat quietly. His mother nodded and sat in comfortable silence next to him. He felt some of the hardness he had taken on for his race drift away. He was still determined to do his absolute best today, but he felt lighter somehow. He could even look down at Eames at the poolside without feeling the low ache in his gut that he had felt last night.
As the diving events wound down, he leaned to kiss his mother’s cheek and headed back down to the pool area to prep for his butterfly.
His entry into the water was smooth, and where his IM had been all hard determination, he now felt a sense of calm optimism. He could do this, and he could do it well. He pushed himself much as he had before, but his thoughts were less punishing. Suddenly, the race was over, and he had earned another second place finish. He turned and grinned up at his mother in the stands. Eames walked over to him.
“You’re doing brilliantly today, Arthur,” he said, and his eyes looked apologetic.
“Thanks,” said Arthur shortly. He held up a hand. “I can’t really talk to you right now, but I’d like to talk to you later.”
“That can be arranged,” said Eames, seemingly unoffended, and he walked away.
The events between Arthur’s butterfly and his backstroke went by quickly as he prepared for his final event. Dom wrapped an arm around him companionably before the race.
“Whoever wins, I’m glad it will be one of us,” Dom said conspiratorially. Arthur laughed.
“Yeah, me too.”
He and Dom had been placed in the middle two lanes, and it was the first time they would be swimming side by side. Arthur ordinarily never paid much attention to the swimmers in the lanes next to him, but it was strange to know that his teammate would be beside him. And if their last race was anything like this one, they would be neck and neck for the entire race.
Arthur hunched over for his backstroke start and leapt at the sound of the pistol. He forced himself to ignore Dom in the lane beside him, putting all of his attention into his stroke. His first turn was perfect, and he pushed himself away from the wall with a strong press of his legs. He kicked his legs as fast as he could and kept the rhythm of his arm strokes consistent. His next turn was good, and he sprinted into his final turn. Again, the turn was good, and he was elated with the possibility that he could actually win. If Dom’s time was consistent with yesterday, Arthur might… actually… His hand hit the sensor and he turned to look at Dom, who was grinning back at him. They had tied for first place, and their matching times blinked on the scoreboard.
Arthur went back up into the stands to sit beside his mother.
“Hey, champ,” she said, bumping shoulders with him. “I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Arthur said. “That was my last event, so you don’t have to stay if you don’t want.”
“I’ll probably go in a minute,” she said. “I’m happy that I could come and see you win.” She looked down at the pool area. “Your new coach is a handsome man.” She looked at Arthur, and he saw the knowing look in her eyes. “You know I want you to be happy.” She put an arm around him. “But you’re still my baby, and if you aren’t home within an hour after this meet is over, I’m coming after you.”
Arthur shook his head and smiled. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”
He went back down to the pool area and cheered for Dom as he completed his final 400 free relay. His relay team took second, and Arthur saw that Dom was pleased. It must be bittersweet, Arthur thought, to be a senior and know that you were leaving all of this behind. Arthur wouldn’t be sad to see most of his high school life in the past, but he thought he would miss this, the rush of water in his ears, and even the smell of chlorine on his skin.
He helped the team clean up the pool area and changed his clothes. He wasn’t sure if Eames would have waited, but he poked his head back into the pool area to see. Everyone else had left, but Eames was still there, beginning to lock the doors. Arthur strode up to him purposefully, and some of the confidence that had imbued him during his races came rushing back.
“I can be patient,” Arthur told Eames. “You were right. I was acting like a little kid. You’re the best coach I’ve ever had, and if we can’t be together while you’re coaching, I can deal with that. And even if we can never be together…” He met Eames’ gaze. “I wouldn’t like it, but I would eventually get over it.” He let out a breath and started to turn away. “That’s all I wanted to say.”
“Arthur.” Eames’ voice stopped him, and he turned back around. “I didn’t take the coaching job.” He took a deep breath. “I’m still not sure about any of the rest of it, though. I’ve been trying to convince myself that my decision had nothing to do with you, but I’m not sure that it’s true.”
Arthur took a step toward him. “It’s okay,” he said, calmly. “Like I said, even if you don’t want to date me, it’s okay.”
“’Want’ is a relative term,” Eames said. “I do want you. I’m just not sure that I should be dating a seventeen-year-old. And I am quite certain that I won’t be sleeping with one.”
“We don’t have to make any decisions right now,” Arthur said. He took another step toward him. “I’m going to be okay, either way.” Eames looked at him, his head angled down to meet Arthur’s eyes.
“You are, aren’t you,” he said wonderingly.
“I do have a condition,” said Arthur, and he smiled as Eames huffed out a breath. “One kiss, a real one. And then I’ll leave you alone, and if you want to call me later, or once I’m eighteen, or whatever, that’s fine. And if you don’t, that’s okay, too.”
“You make a persuasive argument,” said Eames, and pulled Arthur close. Arthur closed his eyes in anticipation. Their lips met, lightly at first, and then more insistently. Arthur groaned as he felt Eames’ tongue slip into his mouth, and then Eames pulled away.
“That’s as much of a proper kiss as you’re getting,” Eames told him, and Arthur smiled again.
“That was perfect,” he said, and turned to walk out the door. He gave Eames a wave. “See you later,” he said, “Or not.” He drove home, still smiling. As he pulled into the driveway, his phone buzzed. Arthur looked at it, and saw a text message from Eames.
Arthur, it read, When is your birthday?