Everything seems normal when Karl pulls into the almost-empty parking lot of the Capital Heights pool and gets out of his car. It's early but it's already humid enough to make sweat prickle at his hairline and in his armpits as soon as he gets out of his car's air conditioning, and there's heat baking up through the tarry asphalt that he can almost feel through the soles of his sandals. A couple of cars are clustered in the one section of the parking lot that stays shady most of the day: he recognizes John's beat-up station wagon parked next to Ovi's Honda Accord. There's an unfamiliar white van parked in the corner of the lot next to the front gate, and a Good Humor ice cream truck idling right behind it, blocking it in; next to it, two men are having a furious screaming match in what sounds like Russian, while Ovi is standing between them either mediating or escalating, Karl's not sure. Ovi's wearing nothing but a Speedo, and he's holding a live (and unhappy) duck tucked under one arm. Three of Ovi's dogs are tethered by their leashes at the entrance gate of the fence that wraps around the pool, barking their heads off. Nicky looks to have arrived a few minutes earlier and is locking his bike into the rack by the entrance, taking no notice of everything going on nearby. Through the chainlink fence, Karl can see someone who's probably tall and skinny enough to be Burky wandering around the pool deck aimlessly and eating a Rocket Pop.
Most of that's normal. The duck is kind of unexpected.
So is hearing John's voice from distinctly above him.
Karl looks up. John's up on the flat bit of the pool clubhouse entrance roof and leaning over the edge, waving at him from about six feet above Karl's head. He's not sure why John is on the roof. It's hard to tell exactly from the angle, but John looks like he's lounging on one of the poolside recliners, which is also on the roof, for whatever reason.
"Hi," Karl says to John, craning his neck back and squinting into the sun. "How'd you get the recliner up there?" He takes a few steps back for a better view and frowns. "Uh. How'd you get, like, twenty recliners up there? And the ping pong table."
"Thirty three recliners, four umbrella tables, eleven of the regular pool chairs, the ping pong table, the armchair from the office, and a bunch of kickboards," John says, waving an arm behind him.
"Cool, cool," Karl says. "Uh. Why?"
"I didn't put them up here, they were like that when we got here to open," John says.
"So who—oh," Karl says, figuring it out even as he's opening his mouth. "Penn Springs?"
"Those assholes at Penn Springs, probably, yeah," John says. "Guess we're all starting the prank war early this year. Wait'll you get in here and see. What they couldn't fit on the roof, they just dropped in the pool. All the fucking pool chairs are down in the well."
"They need a new shtick. They always just fuck with furniture and think it's so funny," Karl says. "Like, the guys from Columbus Manor, at least they were creative with the crickets in the office last summer. That was pretty good. And gross. But, you know, original."
They'd dealt with that for what felt like forever, afterward; apparently you can buy a lot of live crickets at discount bulk rate online.
Behind him, the Russian yelling reaches a new pitch. Karl risks a glance and sees Nicky's finished chaining up his bike, and he's standing a little behind Ovi, like he's getting ready to back him up in whatever this fight is or just assessing Ovi's Speedo-clad ass. It could be both; Nicky's a multi-tasker.
"So…" Karl says, jerking his head as subtly as possible at the whole shitshow going on. "Like, what's with the duck?"
"We've got ducks," Burky pipes up, wandering up to the gate entrance. His mouth is blue all over from the popsicle.
"I see that. Did I miss a memo?" Karl says. "I mean, I took my CPR certification, and I bought the red trunks and everything. I didn't know I had to bring a duck."
"No, we have ducks," Burky says. "Like, a family. We found them when we first came to the pool yesterday to clean it up for opening day. They built a nest over by the bushes near the grills and the picnic tables. I guess they think the pool is a lake. Willy found them. He got attacked by the mom and dad ducks, it was great."
"So Ovi called animal control to see what we're supposed to do about them," John adds, getting off the recliner chair so that he can come sit down and dangle his legs over the edge of the roof. "They were going to come out and tell us if we had to relocate the ducks and their nest, or just put safety tape around it to get people to leave them alone or what."
"But Ovi brought his dogs today because he wanted to let them swim in the pool before we opened, so the animal guy thought he was supposed to take Ovi's dogs or something," Burky says cheerfully. "So Ovi grabbed one of the ducks to show him, and was, like, trying to throw it at him to get the guy to leave his dogs alone."
"And then Boris the ice cream guy showed up to talk about his schedule for what times he's allowed to show up this summer and he thought the animal control guy was another ice cream guy coming in on his turf, so he pulled in all ready to throw down and he was gonna fight the animal control guy," John says. "He had his baseball bat and everything. Then, Ovi got between them but I think he was still kinda pissed the animal control guy tried to take his dogs so he didn't try that hard to stop Boris from screaming at the animal control guy. And that's when you pulled up."
"Okay," Karl says. "Well. Okay." He turns back to check again, and almost collides with Nicky, who's drifted away from the fight and is headed towards the entrance gate.
"Alzy," he says, nodding his head in polite acknowledgement.
"Hey. Hi. So, should we, like, help?" Karl asks.
"What?" Nicky says absently. "No. There's not enough ducks for all of us to hold one. Tell Ovi I'm going to check the bathrooms to see if we need to power-wash in there, then I'll be in the office."
Karl isn't sure if that's Swedish humor in play, or if Nicky just hasn't had his second coffee of the morning yet. He shifts out of Nicky's way, as Nicky goes in the gate and Burky comes out.
"There's other popsicles in the freezer," Burky announces, licking luridly blue syrup off the back of his hand. "I think they're leftover from last year. Probably last year."
"Ehh," Karl says. He actually would like one because seriously, it's hot as balls for both this early in the morning and this time of May, and Boris looks like he's too busy at the moment to shell out the normal freebies and/or bribery ice cream he'll usually give to the lifeguards. But Karl feels like he has to put up some kind of token attempt of at least looking like he's thinking twice about going freezer-diving for ice cream of dubious age.
"They're fine, freezer pops don't spoil," John says, like he can tell exactly what Karl is thinking. "Like, they're just sugar and water and color."
"Ovi already ate six of them today and he's fine," Burky says.
Ovi is the next thing to naked and holding a duck in the middle of a Russian scream-down, but health-wise he does seem okay, so for a given definition of "fine"… Karl guesses he can roll with that. But something else is on his mind. "Are they from all those bags of popsicles we stole from the Panthers back when they were in the same division as us?"
"Maybe?" John says. "I think so. Was that the time that was payback for them TP-ing the place before divisionals?"
"I mean, they haven't been in our swimming division since, like, years ago," Karl says. "If those are the same ones, those things are ancient."
"Yeah, but they're freezer pops, they don't go bad," John says. "They're like Twinkies. You could eat them after an apocalypse."
"Eat and drink them," Burky says. "They're perfect."
"Yeah, well," Karl says. He should go in and start helping, but he doesn't quite want to turn his back on the screaming.
Most of it is pure self-preservation. This isn't the first fight Boris's ever started in their parking lot; there's a wall in the staff office dedicated to photographic documentation (and a couple of police reports) of his exploits, including but not limited to the time he rammed the Mr. Whippy van with his truck and knocked its bumper off, the time he got caught slashing the tires of the owner of the Carmen's Italian Ice cart, and the time he fought both of the Clayboys Shaved Ice brothers in the parking lot. With a baseball bat. The last one was epic and takes up a full quarter of the wall, complete with the local Gazette's front page coverage of the incident and the paper's picture of Nicky looking serious and heroic as he gave quotes to downplay the whole thing while Ovi and Chimmer are mugging in the background.
Boris is extremely territorial, emotionally fragile, and just aggressively Russian in a way that eclipses even Ovi's occasional weirdness, though Braden has a theory he'll tell anyone who listens to him about that Boris is actually a space alien that's taking all his human behavior cues from 80's-era films with Cold War villains. He's been selling ice cream in the parking lot from his Good Humor truck for as long as anyone who works at Capital Heights can remember, though he occasionally does make vague and unsettling references to a former career that didn't involve being an ice cream man. Bets on what this was range from all over the spectrum, and most of them have to do with the mafia. Karl has ten dollars on "retired hit man attempting to flee from his past" and another ten dollars on straight up "mob boss down on his luck." John favors "semi-disgraced diplomat who turned community service into a frozen confection profiteering racket", last Karl checked.
Ovi refuses to confirm any of the theories, no matter how big the betting pot grows. "He is what he is," is all Ovi will ever say, which is easy for Ovi to say, since he's one of a handful of people that Boris seems to actually like most of the time. "Anyway, Boris isn't his real name. He's actually also Sasha. But, you know, too many. Plus, better for him not to be Alex right now."
Ovi is Ovi because there was apparently a time earlier on when there were three different Alexes working at Capital Heights, plus Boris who was also an Alex or a Sasha or however the hell Russian names work; Karl's never been able to figure them out and he's given up trying. Ovi wasn't fully in charge of managing the pool yet so he couldn't pull rank, and after countless shift mix-ups and petty arguments, none of them were called Alex and they all ended up with nicknames, a compromise that no one was completely satisfied with, and which led to many much worse nicknaming protocols, and apparently Boris's new identity.
(There is, admittedly, the nagging fear they're helping to shelter a criminal under another assumed name, but all things considering, Boris shows up like clockwork every day when it's hot, and he's got a pretty good selection of treats, and he'll give free stuff to the lifeguards as long as whoever goes out to ask him is on reasonably good terms with Boris at the moment, so. Basically, as long as none of them try to sell some kind of ice cream on his turf, no one is really in danger of being hit with the baseball bat Boris keeps prominently displayed on the truck's dashboard. Or so Ovi promises.)
The angry screaming is beginning to wind down into shorter staccato bursts of regular yelling with passionate arm gestures, which Karl decides is a good sign. Ovi's now fully between them, one hand on Boris's shoulder and patting soothingly as he speaks in Russian. After another minute or so of talking, there's a lot of nodding, some back slapping, and then Boris goes to his truck and comes back with a couple cans of Coke, offering one to Ovi and one to the animal control guy. Ovi says a few quick words; there's a complicated handshake exchanged between all three parties, and they all chug from the cans.
And then it's like nothing ever happened at all—the animal control guy points at the duck and says something to Ovi, and then he gets in his van. Boris gets in his own truck, reverses enough to give the animal control van space to back out, and then Boris also drives away. The sudden silence in the parking lot is almost eerie.
Ovi waves to them as they go, and then turns around and walks over to the entrance where Karl and Burky are trying to look casual but probably not fully pulling it off. But Ovi just nods to them, and looks around.
"So," Ovi says. "That's done. Time for work!"
"Nice Speedo," Karl says, unable to keep his mouth shut. Ovi just flexes at him, with a crotch thrust thrown in for good measure. He still has the duck.
"What'd the animal control guy say?" John asks from above them.
Ovi snorts and drops out of his pose. "Ducks have to stay." He sighs, turns, and shoves the duck into Burky's hands; the duck makes a distressed sort of quack and promptly craps on Burky, who in turn makes an even more distressed sound, holding it at arm's length.
"Here," Ovi says. "You get special promotion, ducks now your job. Keep little kids away from the nest, keep baby ducks out of the pool when they hatch. If you do okay, maybe I tell Backy to say you can have a puppy."
Burky perks up, and he clutches the duck to his chest; the duck makes another indignant quack, legs paddling in mid-air. "Really?"
"I said maybe," Ovi says, but Burky has already tucked the duck under one arm like a football and is galloping off in the direction of the staff office.
"Nicke! Ovi says I can have a dog! He said it, I have witnesses!"
"What," Karl hears float out of the staff office in a very flat tone of voice.
"No ducks in the office!" Ovi yells, and then slaps Karl on the shoulder. "Good to see you, Alzy. Gonna be good summer, yeah?"
"For sure," Karl says, and jerks his thumb upwards. "Penn Springs?"
"Shitheads," Ovi says, and then starts untangling his dogs' leashes from the fence. "Don't worry, got big plans for them. I'm work on getting chairs out of water with Holts and Grubi, you can help Carly on the roof. You can drop chairs, kickboards, but don't drop loungers or ping pong table, we gonna need ropes or something to get it down without break it."
"Where're the kids?" Karl asks. "I mean, besides Burky."
"The staff office ceiling leaked over the summer and the couch in there was pretty ruined," John says. Now he's on his stomach, arms dangling over the edge instead of his legs. Karl could reach up and high-five him if he was willing to jump. "Ovi sent them off to get a new one."
"You're letting them pick the couch?" Karl asks. "Bold."
"Yeah, not so much, he gave them fifty bucks and six different Craigslist postings to try," John says. "We're getting a Craigslist couch. Either that, or Willy and Jojo and Schmidty are all getting murdered right now. Hoping for the couch, though."
"You sound just like Backy," Ovi says, not bothering to look up at John. "Anyway, Craigslist only has some murderers. Willy's big, and Schmidty has pickup truck, and Jojo makes a good mean face. They're smart, they get a couch, maybe two couches. No one gets murdered."
John cackles. "Smart! Ha. That's a damn lie and you know it, Ovi."
Ovi shrugs. "Well, I can't sent Dima and Kuzya, they don't speak the English for couch. Plus, they cleaning up the tennis court."
"I can see them from up here, and they're totally lying on the ground and tanning on the tennis court right now," John says.
Ovi stops working on the leashes long enough to throw his arms out to his sides and look dramatically heavenward. "Alzy, you can push chairs off the roof and push Carly off too, if you want. I give you whatever money is left over from couch."
"Hey," John says, at the same time Karl says, "I'll do it for free," and then John says, "Hey."
"I hear lots of Carly talk talk talk, but no chairs getting off roof," Ovi says placidly. He's got all three leashes free at last, and all three of his dogs are straining towards the pool.
"Oh, I got a chair for you," John says, and then his head jerks backwards and there's a sound of scrambling. "Um, Nicky's coming over and he has his murder eyes going."
Karl and Ovi both look over and yep, that's Nicky and that's Nicky's murder face and Karl decides John needs his help on the roof, like, now. Right now. Though he remembers to blurt out, "Nicky was going to check the bathrooms to see if they needed to be power-washed, I'm gonna help John on the roof, okay, cool," before darting through the gate entrance, straight past the front desk and an advancing Nicky, and then veering to the right to circle around behind the bathrooms, out onto the pool deck, and figure out how John got up to the roof.
"Keep going," John's voice calls to him. "Go around the women's bathroom side and come up by the storage shed."
The storage shed is made of cinderblocks and attached to the side of the main building, jutting out awkwardly. It's boxy and its roof is lower than the main roof of the building, a couple feet down. Right now, one of the pool deck loungers is leaning against it, tilted up on its edge like a ladder.
"Did you climb this?" Karl asks, plucking at the rubbery plastic slats on the lounger. "Where's the regular ladder?"
"They dropped that in the pool, too," John says.
Karl eyes the lounger dubiously, but he grabs a handful of the slats near the top and manages to scramble up it without more than a couple ominous creaks. Once he's on top of the storage shed, there's a folding chair sitting there as the next makeshift step, and he steps on that one's seat to hoist himself onto the main roof's edge.
The main roof's slope is extremely shallow, almost flat to the point where there's a lot of surface area to walk around on and hardly any danger in falling off, which apparently worked in Penn Springs' favor in how much of the pool furniture they managed to fit up there. He can see why Ovi left him and John to do this bit while taking on the seemingly harder task of fishing chairs out of the pool; on the roof, there's no shade, and the sun is already beating down pitilessly. Karl picks his way through a tangle of pool chairs, around the ping pong table (there's a discarded shirt on top of it which he assumes is John's), and over to where John is crouched down at the far end of the roof. The sun is in his eyes and he squints as John stands up, turns around, says "hey," and then Karl almost falls off the roof anyway, because in the time since he's last seen him, John's somehow evolved even higher into some state of extreme higher hotness that Karl was not prepared for.
Because John's just—sun-kissed, there's no better word. Glowing and shit, all golden skin and overgrown curls which Karl wants to touch because he's never seen them this long; somehow he's already got a perfect tan and a flattering spray of freckles across his cheeks, which is unfair because it's not even June yet and Karl always has to burn at least twice and go through some unfortunate blotchy redness and peeling episodes before he gets anything close to a base tan. Plus, Karl gets gingery, not golden. There's no getting around that.
And without his shirt on, it's really fucking easy to tell John's been working out, because his chest looks great, and his abs look really great, and even his stupid happy trail is just the right amount of manscaped without looking that way, and what the fuck, why is it Karl's fate to have a hot best friend he feels like he's been hopelessly in love with since forever, and still be surprised by how much he's in love every single time.
"'Sup, buddy," John says. There's a little bead of sweat running down the hollow of his throat.
"Hey," Karl says, a little dazed and for lack of better options.
There's a brief awkward pause where they're sizing each other up for either a handshake or a hug, and then John opens his arms and he's coming in hot for the hug, and Karl has a few terrifying seconds to wonder what his dick is doing and if it's going to betray him on a level unmatched since third period algebra in ninth grade, when he'd been unexpectedly called to the blackboard to do a problem after he'd been more focused on the fact Amanda Markwell two rows over was wearing a short skirt and not crossing her legs for the previous thirty minutes of class.
Then John's in his space, and his hair tickles the side of Karl's face, and John smells like chlorine and sunblock and the clean sweat that's mostly just his deodorant doing work during this humid swamp of a morning. Karl hugs back as quickly as he can and then steps away before he can do anything too stupid. "How the fuck did you get a tan already, it's not even June yet," he asks.
John shrugs as he looks down and runs his hands down his own stomach, and yeah, it's a good thing there are so many chairs up here because Karl really needs to sit down. "Been doing a lot of work outside. You look like you've been living underground with mole people."
"I'm not getting any skin cancer," Karl says. "C'mon, it's hot, let's just get some of this stuff down so we're not stuck up here when it's noon."
"I can't believe you didn't bring me up any popsicles," John says. "What kind of best friend are you?" He licks his lips, and Karl's brain shorts out a little again.
Karl goes over to the other end of the roof and grabs two of the chairs. He functions on auto-pilot for a while, dropping the less breakable pool furniture off the roof while trying to figure out for the millionth time how this keeps going and he can't stop. This is his best friend, who Karl's seen at his grossest, who's won the pool's Fourth of July hot dog eating contest three years running, who's also thrown up in the vents of Karl's car after at least one of the hot dog eating contests, who once stood in a bucket of diluted bleach and Pine Quat to try and cure the ugliest case of athlete foot Karl's ever seen, who shows up to work with bedhead bad enough to lose a comb in at least four out of seven days a week.
Sometimes, Karl thinks it's just weird that he can't seem to kill off his crush. John's always been good-looking—Karl can admit that. He's not blind, he can even see it and acknowledge it in some of the other guys. Braden's probably got his picture in the dictionary next to "ruggedly handsome" and Willy's been hit on by basically every female pool member between the ages of five and seventy five, and the Capital Heights swim team's 13-14 girls age group has a fanclub devoted solely to Nicky's hair. But being able to look at Ovi and notice the fact he has nice cheekbones (despite his hair, and his missing tooth, and the fact his nose has distinctly migrated all over his face during the time Karl's known him) isn't at all the same thing as getting an honest to God, weak-in-the-knees boner for John just because they fucking hugged and John is having a nice ab day. It's undignified. And Karl's not even drunk.
Maybe he has heatstroke, and that's just amping things up. Maybe he has leftover concussion syndromes from the incident at last summer's Fourth of July watermelon-polo showdown. Maybe he has low blood sugar. It's worth considering, anyway.
Karl leans over the edge of the roof on the pool deck side. "Burky!"
A few seconds later, Burky yells back. "What?"
"Get us some freezer pops!" And then, because it's second nature, "Please!"
Burky doesn't respond at first, and Karl's about to try dropping a few chairs to get his attention, when Burky finally comes out on the pool deck. "What flavor?"
"Blue, red, or purple. I only want green if it's lime, not if it's the sour apple shit," John yells from across the roof.
"Anything but green," Karl says to Burky.
"How many?" Burky asks.
"Just, I dunno, throw a strip of them up here."
This takes eight tries to successfully complete, because Burky's ability to throw is terrible at best, and by the time he manages to get them to land where Karl can get to them (in the rain gutter, as it turns out), Braden and Grubi are hooting at him from where they're bobbing around in the deep end of the pool, presumably fishing up chairs from the bottom and occasionally avoiding one of Ovi's dogs paddling by. Ovi and Nicky are nowhere to be seen, so Karl assumes they've taken their dog argument into the office or the bathroom or something.
"Oh my God," John says, when Karl finally retrieves the popsicles and scrambles back up the slope of the roof to where John is sitting under one of the regular round pool tables. He nudges his way in beside John, enjoying the relief of the shade, and tosses John the two reds and a purple one, keeping a red and two blue ones for himself. "What the hell kind of throwing was that?"
"Whatever, I win," Burky says.
"Maybe, but you sure as fuck didn't cover the spread," John says. "Burky, that's just sad. Tell Nicky he fell down on his fatherly duties and didn't spend enough time playing ball with you."
"No one likes playing with balls as much as you do, Carly," Burky says, and disappears again, clearly knowing a good exit line when he hears it.
"Dude, you just go owned by Burky," Karl says, choking on laughter. "By Burky."
John shrugs. "I mean, yeah, but, I do probably know more about it than him," he says, and makes a vaguely obscene flexing motion with his hand, causing Karl's jaws click together as he's using his teeth on the plastic top of the popsicle tube, and he bites his own tongue.
"Ow," he says, and then he sucks out too big of an already slightly melted popsicle chunk from the tube, and gets brain freeze. "Ow."
"Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth," John says. "That helps." He's sucking the first red freezer pop out of the tube slowly, using his thumb and forefinger to push it up from the bottom, lips pursed and cheeks hollowed. Karl glances at John's mouth, and then puts a kickboard on his lap as casually as possible. Karl definitely doesn't have heat stroke.
"How do you think we can get the ping pong table down without breaking it?" he says after a while, because maybe it'll distract and help him to think about more of a challenge he can actually solve.
John frowns, moving the freezer pop up and down in his mouth a little. "I mean, if we can find some decent ropes, that's probably the best thing to try, if we can fold it up and lower it down. We could take it apart up here and move it down in pieces but that's probably a lot of work and then we have to put it together again."
They both suck on their freezer pops for another minute or so.
"This seems like a problem for upper management to solve," Karl finally says.
John gestures lazily. "Upper management apparently has other important things to do."
Below on the pool deck, Ovi is industriously using the water stream from the power washer to carefully draw a giant dick in the grimy concrete he's supposed to be cleaning. He does look like he's putting a lot of thought into it.
They watch him, and they work on the rest of their freezer pops. In the pool, Braden and Grubi have gotten a lot farther than John and Karl have with their furniture removal process. They seem to have a system going, the two of them regularly diving down into the water and then emerging up with either each of them hauling a single chair, or the both of them lifting a lounger or table. It's efficient and reminds him of something but he can't think what at first, until he realizes they look like (what else) ducks, from some kind of Discovery Channel special: up, down, the quick kick of the feet and ass flip for the dive, and then heads popping up again, sleek hair streaming back and gleaming in the sun. Braden looks like he's clean-shaven for the start of summer, but that's not a big deal; Braden has a six o' clock shadow by noon, and can go to bed looking like an entirely different person than the one who woke up in the morning.
Beyond the pool, Kuzy and Orly look like they've stopped sunbathing on the tennis court and are actually working on cleaning up as well now, Orly using the leaf blower to make piles of the dead winter leaves, and Kuzy raking them into garbage bags, yelling at each other in Russian to be heard over the noise of the blower. Karl doesn't see Nicky anywhere, but he's probably in one of the bathrooms, mopping the winter-accumulated dust and grime off the tiles and cataloguing what absolutely needs to be fixed, what can be jury-rigged, and what they can ignore. Bathroom repairs are constantly in process, and Nicky probably has Burky following him around with a roll of duct tape and a wrench as he talks and gestures. He can almost hear it now. "Cap that conduit. Plug that sprinkler. Make it so that sink won't come off the wall if drunk people try to have sex on it."
He could get up and check each of the roof skylights set over the bathrooms until he figures it out, but he's too comfortable right now, legs sticking out in the sun but the rest of him cooled down by the shade of the table and sucking down the popsicle dregs, so sweet and cold they make his teeth hurt. The warmth of John next to him, their shoulders barely brushing.
Karl's about to sneak another sidelong look at John's mouth, which is now stained red in a distracting way, when he hears a car pulling into the parking lot and someone blaring Queen's "We Are The Champions" on the stereo, and either a rowdy troop of howler monkeys in heat or Willy, Jojo, and Schmidty hooting in triumph.
John drops his last empty freezer pop tube, scoots on his ass out from under the table, and stands up, walking a few steps up the slope of the roof so he can see into the parking lot side. "Well, hey. I think we got us a new couch and an armchair." He shades his eyes with his hand. "Goddamn. I can see the floral pattern from here. It looks like the seventies threw up on it."
"Jesus, we're going to get bed bugs," Karl announces. "I'm calling it now."
"It'll be fine," John says. "Summer's just beginning, dude. You gotta relax. Appreciate life, or something." He starts humming something that sounds suspiciously like "Summer Lovin'."
"I'm very relaxed," Karl says. "I'm just also careful."
"You can't always be the stay at home type," John says, and then cups his hands around his mouth and yells down to the pool deck. "Ovi! Backy! The kids are back! No one got murdered!"
Karl twists his freezer pop tubes, ties them in a knot, and throws the crumpled wad of plastic at John as John clomps away toward the side of the roof with the pool shed, jumping down on top of the shed. Karl half-heartedly tries to convince himself to stay and work on clearing the roof, but he's already following John down to see what the kids managed to get. They're supposed to be working, but the couch is important; they'll get back to getting the furniture down in just a sec. He and John do everything together; that's the way it's always been, and Karl's never thought about how it would be any other way.
It's a beautiful day on the cusp of summer, and he's still in love with John at the start of yet another summer, and he'll probably still be in love with John at the end of summer, because some things never change, or at least, Karl doesn't know how to make them and he isn't sure he would if he could anyway.
The unglamorous fact of the matter is that lifeguarding, particularly at a community swimming pool, is much less about the dramatic rescues and slo-mo dives into the water that Baywatch has tricked people into believing, and much more about janitorial work that's either tedious or gross, spiked with the occasional scraped knee or elbowed nose or no-holds-barred ice cream vendor death-match in the parking lot. The closest Karl's ever come to saving someone's life involved stabbing an EpiPen into the parent of one of the kids on the Capital Heights swim team, after she accidentally swallowed a bee while cheering at one of the swim meets.
The staff office at the pool is where they spend at least a third of their time while at the pool, if they're not up in a lifeguard chair, cleaning, or getting someone's stuck bag of chips out of the vending machine for the tenth time of the day. As such, there are rules: some written down, and some more along the lines of unofficial guidelines, but all meant to make everyone's lives a little easier for having a largish number of people moving in and out of a small, un-air-conditioned space.
Like, no heating up weird-smelling shit in the microwave, or no drinks too close to the office laptop, or no bare asses on the couch (armchair is okay), or no stealing anyone's shaved ice out of the staff freezer. Stealing leftover takeout from the fridge, especially pizza, is expected, if not encouraged, and stealing someone's already chilled Gatorade is side-eyed but tolerated because there's a lot of it and drinking room-temperature Gatorade isn't the worst thing. But stealing someone's shaved ice out of the freezer is grounds for punishment, because they're not allowed to eat while up in the lifeguarding chairs, and getting a free round of shaved ice for the staff from Boris means someone's inevitably has to go into the freezer to wait while they keep working. And there's no guarantee that Boris will be in a good enough mood to give them more free ice cream or shaved ice later in the day without a lot of glaring and muttering, so eating someone else's cup of shaved ice is just a dick move.
Ovi is currently breaking, like, eight of the rules at once.
"Oh my God," Karl says in dismay, stopping dead in the office doorway, early on the morning of opening day. "Ovi, what the hell, that's the grossest thing ever."
Ovi is sitting on the couch (violently magenta with turquoise flowers of a color and form not generally seen in nature; the armchair that Willy and Jojo and Schmidty got the Craigslist guy to throw in as well has the same pattern in inverse colors), working on the staff schedule for the upcoming week. He's wearing a pair of jean shorts that are more hole than fabric and a threadbare Tre Kronor t-shirt, while taking alternate bites of some kind of stroganoff out of a Tupperware container, and pink and blue cotton candy out of a plastic bag, with the result that the staff office currently smells like the back room of a shady Eastern European circus.
He just swallows and shrugs at Karl, washing it down with some blue Gatorade from a bottle with an S sharpied on the cap. "Want some? It's good."
"It's inhuman," Karl says.
"Canada stomach, so weak," Ovi says, and then loudly crunches a Funyun for good measure. "Go away, I'm working. Come back in ten minutes for staff meeting."
"You're a barbarian," Karl says. He drops his towel on the counter and goes back outside for fresh air.
Everything's been cleaned and set to rights now. All the pool furniture is back in its usual place; everything's been triple-wiped or sprayed down with the appropriate cleaner; the water is clean and chlorinated to the precise level, not even a single leaf at the bottom of the pool. The Capital Heights swim team schedule is posted on the main bulletin board, everything from time trials, to practice, along with a couple pictures of the coaching staff. Nicky, as usual, is staring back bug-eyed like he thinks the camera is stealing his soul; Ovi is wearing a Batman costume in his pic, from one of last year's swim meets where they had a dress-up theme of superheroes; Stick coaxed his hair to an even more epic fro than usual in his picture, and is doing finger-guns.
TJ looks mostly normal, which hopefully lets the parents think their kids are in the hands of at least one reasonable person. All in all, at least everyone's dressed, which is an accomplishment for a place with a staff that specializes in casual and/or competitive nudity.
The rest of them have their pictures up on a bulletin board closer to the front desk as a Get To Know Your Lifeguarding Staff! feature, and it's an… interesting array. Grubi took all of them a couple days ago with one of his ancient Polaroid cameras, and since he was in an artistic mood, they range from looking like mug shots (Jojo, who doesn't like having his picture taken) to stills from some kind of French arthouse film (Braden, backlit and looking into the middle distance in a distinctly Byronic pose). Someone's already drawn a mustache and goatee on Burky's; Jojo has devil horns on his. There are a couple flyers from local delivery places tacked up as well, some local businesses who've dropped their cards off for free advertising, and the basic rule sheet for all pool patrons.
"Place looks pretty good, huh?" John asks, sidling up behind Karl from out of nowhere.
Karl hums a bit, and bumps his shoulder against John's. "It'll do. What's the staff meeting about?"
John grins. "Revenge. We're gonna hit Islebrook first, and Ovi's gonna brief us on what's going down for that one. Backy and Orpy are also gonna give us assignments and an idea of what order we're doing the rest of the other pools in." He scratched his stomach. "Also, I guess probably some of the regular shit on paychecks and scheduling and making sure we all know how to work the pool vacuum and where to store the skimmers."
"Islebrook, huh," Karl says. "Not Devilwood? I thought they wanted to hit Devilwood first this year."
"Devilwood's boring," John says. He hooks his chin over Karl's shoulder, and Karl manages not to flinch. "Plus, no one's managed to get their gate keys yet, so we're leaving them for later. Islebrook won't be expecting it either, since, you know, they upgraded their whole facility and place two years ago and they have that super tall privacy fence with the pillars you can't see over."
"So how're we getting in?" Karl asks, staring at Jay's picture with more focus than it probably warrants. It's right next to… shit, John's, which is in turn next to Karl's. John has heavy-lidded eyes in his picture, and Grubi got him to do a pose with his chin propped on his hand, making duck lips. He looks sleepy and self-satisfied. Karl has a fake mustache and sunglasses on in his picture, one finger hooking them down so he can peer over their tops. Grubi told him to try for early nineties Hasselhoff in it, but it's a little more Super Troopers than anything.
"Ovi and Chimmer went drinking at the end of last summer, and Ovi got Chimmer's keys off him during it," John says. "He made a copy."
"I miss Chimmer," Karl says. "Place isn't the same without him."
They see him around every now and then—between working substitute shifts at other pools, and the usual clashes between the local swim teams and charity events, there's always a way to catch up with a former co-worker. But there's a core group with each pool, and Chimmer gets the bulk of his time with Islebrook now, the same way Eric Fehr signed on with Penn Springs last year. Fehrsy is probably how Penn Springs got into Capital Heights to pull their prank earlier in the week, which sucks, but it's not unexpected. Karl figures they're probably going to find out what's planned for the counter-prank on Penn Springs at the staff meeting as well.
Karl misses him too, for different reasons. Fehrsy and he and John hung around a lot more when they were younger, even though Fehrsy was older than both of them. They got into a routine together, arranged their shifts around each other so they could work and be off at the same times, even won some shit together. And how he's technically the enemy, so there's much less hanging out, but they still get lunch every now and then to swap stories.
John must be thinking along the same lines, because he huffs a sigh and says, "Fucking Fehrsy, man," and Karl grunts in agreement. People leave; people go on to other things, other places. Time goes by, and sudden he realizes he can't remember the last time he hung out with Matty P, or Greenie, or Wardo, or any of a potential dozens of people he used to spend hours with.
He's about to ask John about that, see if John's been any better about keeping in touch with some of the names that are crowding at his memories when Jay comes skidding around the corner of the front desk, Willy and TJ and Braden in hot pursuit; they see John and Karl at the last second but they're going too fast to stop, and the result is a Three Stooges-esque pileup which mostly ends with everyone on the ground except Willy, unnatural gigantor that he is.
"What the fuck, Beags, ow," John says, and Karl would echo that sentiment except he's at the bottom of the damn pile with his ribs getting crushed and someone's bony knee in his back.
"Sorry, Ovi said the last person at the staff meeting has to take all the top of the hour shifts at the shallow end on opening day," Braden says, muffled and somewhere north of Karl, so he's probably the one on Karl's legs. And that's John draped across his ribs, and all this skin on skin contact is really much less sexier than what Karl's been secretly envisioning.
"You sure? He didn't tell me that," Karl says, and tries to shove someone off, probably TJ from the yelp. "Sorry, Osh. Ugh, come on, you guys weigh a ton and I'm getting fucking crushed."
Everyone untangles themselves from the heap, until it's just John giving Karl his hand and helping him back on his feet. "Sorry, man. But your stomach is super comfortable, not gonna lie."
"I can't tell if that's an insult to my abs or not," Karl says. John hasn't let go of his hand.
"It's the truth," John says, and then he shoulder-checks Jay into TJ and Willy, yanks Karl hard enough to almost pull his arm out of his socket, and hauls him along bodily while yelling, "We have dibs on the couch, 'cause you losers are doing baby pool shift tomorrow!"
Karl does his best to keep up, and they nearly mow over Burky and Nicky and Orpik in turn when they reach the door, or would have if Nicky doesn't plant himself in the doorway, turn his hip, and neatly body-checks both of them aside with a minimum of fuss and effort.
"No running on the deck. You're setting a bad example for the kids," he says, and then looks into the office and frowns, presumably at Ovi, who is presumably still doing terrible things to his digestive system. "Ovi, is that your breakfast? What's wrong with you?"
"Dude, I said that to him too," Karl says, peeling himself off the wall while at the same time John says, "Backy got back," and starts humming Sir Mixalot. Nicky ignores both of them in favor of trying to make Ovi's breakfast burst into flames with the force of his stare, though God knows that could only add a new layer of horror to the smell.
"There's not going to be enough room in the office for all of us," Orpik says, craning to see around Nicky. "Let's just all sit at the picnic tables in the covered sitting area by the snack bar. Especially if Burky's bringing his… friend."
Burky has been taking his role as Official Duck Wrangler very seriously all week, and has apparently somehow won over both the ducks to the point where he can approach the nest without getting attacked, and the male duck will actively pursue him for treats. Ovi says it's because they think Burky is their baby duckling, and Braden says it's because he's a duck whisperer, and Willy says it's because Burky belongs in a Disney film, and Nicky says it's because Burky is sneaking them too much bread, which is bad for them.
Either way, now it's rare to find Burky without a duck in his immediate vicinity at any given moment, and Burky is actively lobbying for the duck to be the Capital Heights swim team mascot. It's a well-trod argument at this point.
"Duck is not our mascot," Ovi says firmly as he emerges from the office. "We're Capital Heights Eagles. Ordered t-shirts, swim caps, swimsuits, and everything already."
"Ducks swim," Burky argues. "It fits better."
"No. Anyway, there's already a team called Ducks, and their coach doesn't like me because I have better hair, so if we take his team name, then I have to fight him and then Nicky will yell," Ovi says. "Too confusing. Too much trouble. Let's get meeting started."
"C'mon, before the Beagle Boys get there," John says, and starting humming the Duck Tales theme song instead before Karl can put a hand over his mouth or choke him out or some other reasonable reaction because, God. After Burky's assignment, John and TJ started singing the Duck Tales theme song at Burky every chance they got, and after a couple hours on youtube watching old episodes, Burky decided he liked it and also started singing it all the goddamn time as well, though he stumbles through the lyrics and can only reliably remember the "Duck Tales, woo-oo!" bit. So he tends to just warble that over and over, and to make matters worse, Willy and Kuzy and Schmidty got infected as well, and it's a never ending earworm, an inescapable background chorus of "Woo-oos!" drifting from all corners of the pool.
In fact, Burky got so into it that he'd borrowed some posterboard and sharpies, and then there's an elaborate Welcome to Duckburg sign posted on the wall over the bushes where the nest is, and a blank space left after a line with Population:___ since Burky doesn't think they should jinx anything until the eggs hatch.
There's a general rush and some elbowing for the best seats under the covered area by the snack bar, and Karl ends up squashed between John and TJ at a picnic table in prime shade, while Conno clings grimly to the end of the table's bench by one ass cheek. Nicky's got the Swedes sitting nicely in a row (Burky has the duck on his lap; Vee is there too, even though he's too young to work full time shifts, because he's currently starring in a protracted custody battle between Ovi and Nicky over whether he should be given Swede or Russian status), while Kuzy and Orly throw Utz cheese balls pilfered from the giant Costco jar that they've swiped from the staff office at them, and try to land them in either Jojo's hair or in Burky's lap for the duck to eat.
Ovi ambles in when everyone's set, climbs on top of the center picnic table by using Nicky's shoulder as a steadying point, and then waves to everyone. "Okay! Staff meeting now starts, so we can have a good opening day. First up, schedule gonna be taped to wall in office next to door. If you need to change shift, just get sub and then make sure me or Backy or Brooksy knows. If you need to do work on some days and not other days, you gonna need tell me by Sunday morning each week. Me and Stick coach the swim team morning practice, and Backy and Osh gonna do the afternoon practice, so problems in morning go to them and problems in afternoon go to me."
He looks over the group. "Everyone supposed to have CPR cert done. If not, there's class next Thursday. If pool inspector shows up before then, hide in the bathroom until he leaves, or use someone's ID who's already got CPR cert done."
Karl's been in that situation before. John dragged his feet about getting his CPR renewed a couple years ago, not because he didn't know how to do CPR, but because he claimed the practice resuscitation dummies freaked him out, and he ended up pretending to be Karl at least three times over the summer when the inspector came by without warning. In the end, it took all three of Orpik, Nicky, and Karl's combined efforts of pep talks and brute force to bully him into re-attending the class and putting his mouth on the dummies so he could officially finish the damn test.
"Almost everyone working here now knows what to do, but if you have questions, just ask. Also, don't bother the ducks. And don't park in loading space by the gate or Boris will probably gonna fight you." Ovi rubs the back of his neck. Nicky pokes his ankle meaningfully. "Oh! Also, yes, please don't let anyone drown. It's bad look for us. Okay? Good."
He claps his hands together twice. "Yes! Now we talk about top secret prank plans. Everyone listen up, this is most important. First, Backy's got lists, and if you don't have work shift today, you gotta go to store and buy list stuff, because there's gonna be lots of supplies goes with this one. Second, everyone needs to have tetanus shot up to date."
"Drumroll!" Willy shouts, and starts pounding on the tabletop. Burky picks it up, and then Grubi, and eventually everyone is pounding away like madmen. Ovi spreads his arms wide, reveling in the noise, and lets it go on for about thirty seconds, before making a chopping motion. The drumming stops.
"Took a while but we figure out how to do it." He waits a few seconds for maximum drama. "We gonna do… the Jell-O job!"
Surprise, and then cheering. It's an ambitious plan, and something they've never done before. Karl doesn't think it's actually possible to do on the scale that everyone always talks about as an urban legend, not a whole pool anyway. But Nicky's nodding along, and clearly they both think they can pull it off, so what the hell, full speed ahead.
Nicky starts handling out the lists, and Ovi jumps off the table and starts going from table to table, apparently assigning lifeguard shifts or shopping trips, and Orpik is saying something about synchronizing watches, but Karl's getting distracted by John practically being in his lap again as he leans across Karl to talk to TJ. John is proprietary with all of Karl's personal space, and it's frankly a wonder that John's never caught him pitching a tent over John on that basis alone: he's worked next to John for what feels like forever, like, literally right next to him, and usually shirtless to boot.
"Your face is twitching," John says right in his ear, and Karl jumps.
"I was thinking," he says, because he was, and then he looks around at everyone filtering out of the picnic table area. It's almost nine, and the pool's going to open officially any minute. "Do you know when we go up?"
"We've got time, Ovi stacked it by seniority this year," John says. "Burky's sitting the front desk, and the other kids are going up first, and we're getting the bottom of the hour shift at ten. I think it's us and Holts. Wanna play ping pong?"
Of course John paid attention for the both of them. Of course they'll be on the same shift.
"Um, not right now, I gotta check something out first," Karl says, getting up and looking around.
"You need help?" John asks.
"No, I'm fine," Karl says, maybe too quickly because John frowns a little. "I'm just—I gotta go to the bathroom."
John shrugs, and he smiles then. "Okay, but I scrubbed the hell out of that place so try not to do anything too horrible before at least a couple people appreciate it," he says, and gets up as well. "I'm gonna go piss Holts off by starting the crossword before he gets to it."
"Yeah, see you there," Karl says, and heads towards the bathroom.
On the way, he sees Jay and part of him thinks, No, don't do it this year, it won't be any different, and also, Jesus Christ, it won't work, and finally but what if? And so he reaches out and snags Jay's arm on the way. "Hey, I need you for a sec in the bathroom, c'mere."
"My mom told me to find an adult if someone ever said those words to me," Jay says as Karl jerks his head towards the bathroom, but he follows Karl in. The bathroom is cool and dim and quiet; Karl does a quick feet check under the stalls, but no one's there, thank God. John did do a good job on it; it's super clean, he should tell John that when he gets out.
But first. Jay is looking at him expectantly. Karl tries to hold eye contact, but he has to stare over Jay's shoulder in order to actually get the words out. "Can you do something for me? It's going to sound weird. It is kind of weird. But I need help with something."
Jay gives him a side-eye but shrugs. "Okay?"
"Can you take your shirt off and just, like, stand still for a second?" Karl asks. He holds his hands up as Jay's eyebrows shoot skyward. "I'm not gonna do anything! I just need to compare something."
"Is this related to the Ovi and Grubi nipple thing?" Jay asks, but he's already peeling his shirt off over his head. "Because it's kind of cheating, but I won't tell anyone."
"No, it's—what? Wait, what? I'm not cheating." Karl thinks about it, but the words don't make any more sense. "I don't think I'm cheating? I don't know what's going on."
"Well, that's two of us," Jay says. He wraps his shirt around one hand and stands still. "Okay, check me out."
Karl really, really needs to not get derailed here but… "No, I think we have to go back a sec, what's the Ovi and Grubi nipple thing? Why do they have a nipple thing?"
"So you know when Grubi was doing all the staff photos with his camera the other day? The Polaroids? Grubi left the camera in the office while he and Holts were helping Nisky put the diving board back in place, and Ovi found it and, well." Jay shrugs.
"He snapped a picture of his nipples," Karl says.
"He snapped double pictures of everyone's nipples," Jay corrects. "Or, like, almost everyone, since I guess he didn't get you. You should let him."
"Are they going on the wall?" Karl asks.
"No, see, that's what I meant about cheating," Jay says. "You remember how Osh brought in that Guess Who board game for the collection?"
Rainy days do happen at Capital Heights, and when they're forecast to last a while, there's a certain routine: shifts get canceled to get it down to a skeleton crew, everyone halfheartedly talks about organizing the supply closets, no one actually organizes the supply closets, they shove the ping pong table under a sheltered bit of the barbecue area, and they play board games until the rain stops or it's time to go home.
The collection board games vary in targeted age and physical condition, because they're handy for if it's just a short rain closure and they figure on opening up again within an hour, just enough time to keep a bunch of kids distracted and away from the water and not underfoot. But on the days when even the most hardcore pool members have slunk home, and they're just spinning down the hours until closing time, they switch between ping pong and board games. Monopoly and Risk and Trivial Pursuit are staples for the really long days though someone always ends up flipping the board. Checkers and chess for the show-offs, poker and Uno for the card sharks, Jenga, Scrabble (this gets out of hand fast, because of the never-ending fight on whether to stick to English or not, and the board gets flipped almost as often as the Monopoly one), along with the silly ones like Rock 'Em Sock 'Em, Operation, Hungry Hungry Hippos, and (the reigning cause of the single biggest and bloodiest brawl in the history of their rainy day board game tournaments) Candy Land.
Naturally, the board games go through a lot of resultant abuse, and the collection is always getting updated as pieces are lost or damaged or thrown into the deep end of the pool because That's fucking cheating, Stick, I don't care, how the fuck did you get QUIXOTIC on the triple word score, you're CHEATING.
"I haven't played Guess Who in a long time," Karl says.
"Yeah, well, Ovi's made his own version you can play if you want. Just, with nipples," Jay says. "I think Grubi was kind of pissed at first, but then he saw how Ovi lined up all the Polaroids and now he has a vision and he's going to make it into an art project or something later."
That makes no sense, and a lot of sense at the same time, and Karl sometimes wonders how his life got to this point. And now he's automatically thinking about John's nipples, and—no, focus, concentrate.
"But in the meantime, Ovi's made it into a Guess Who game," Jay continues. "And if you're staring at my nips so you can memorize them for later, okay, I admire the commitment to winning, I guess."
"Jesus, we're all going to get arrested if any of the kids see that," Karl says. "He better keep that one in his office."
"Well, duh," Jay says. "Anyway, so I guess this isn't about the game, then?"
"It's not," Karl says. "Okay. Just hang on a sec."
He walks a full circle around Jay and stares at his chest, at the muscles of his back, and yes, at his nipples. He takes his time, tries to absorb every detail, and performs an emotional pat-down on his reactions, trying to figure out what's there and what's not. Jay stands there, with a vaguely put-upon expression on his face, arms loosely crossed. He has nice biceps. They're nice. Karl can see they're nice, the same way he thinks a painting is nice, and that's all he can feel, an acknowledgement but no real spark or attraction beyond the surface. The same way he felt the time when covertly checking out TJ's ass when he bends over to do the chlorine test, or seeing Nicky emerging wet from the shallow end and surrounded by adoring swim team children, or observing Braden doing his shirtless tai chi stretches in the morning, or any of the many times he's seen Ovi naked.
God, if he can't even get into a barechested, sweating Braden Holtby at his most flexible, he really has no chance of being able to train his dick to be interested in anyone other than John.
"Okay," he finally says. "Thanks, Beags."
"What was that all about?" Jay asks.
"Nothing," Karl says. "I was just trying to figure something out. For a bet," he adds hastily, because people will excuse all kinds of weird shit if you say it's for a bet.
"Is this about, like, sex?" Jay asks, looking perplexed. "Did I awaken something in you?"
"Jesus, Beags, no," Karl says. "I can honestly say I do not find you sexy at all."
"Oh man. I think I'm insulted, but, I mean, I'm also kinda flattered you decided to use me as the baseline instead of, like, Holts. Also, this isn't the best lighting for me either," Jay says. "Okay, well. Since you're going to be a dick to me about my raw animal appeal—"
"Ugh," Karl says, kneejerk.
"My raw animal appeal," Jay continues. "I think you owe me at least a little more info on why you just checked me out from head to toe. As your friend."
"You kinda just said it." Karl shrugs. "You're my friend. I was trying an experiment."
"I'm touched." Jay shoves his arms in his shirt and pulls it back over his head. "Okay. Not gonna lie, I'm drawing a few conclusions from this about what I think you're doing, but we're friends and you're not saying much, so it's your business and not mine."
"Thanks—" Karl starts to say, and Jay just bulldozes right back over him.
"—but on the other hand, friends, and so that also absolutely means I get to meddle in your shit. Do you need me to pass a note to somebody to ask them if they like you? With yes, no, maybe boxes for them to check off."
"Please, God, no," Karl says. "Just… I wanted to know if. Like. I've been. There's been like. Feelings. Unexpectedly. And it was a surprise, so I wanted to see if maybe it was a fluke or, like, a situational thing, or hormones, or… look, can I just give you twenty bucks to stop having this conversation now?"
Jay just looks at him for a minute. "I'm here for you and however you want to feel," he finally says. "It's okay that you don't find me sexy. If you did, this would actually be a lot weirder, probably. But it's okay if you do feel that way about someone else who probably has a dick and probably works here and probably shares a first name initial with me. Or if you've felt like that in a really obvious way for, like, seven fucking years. We can talk about it or not talk about it."
"No, no, I'm fine," Karl says, distracted. Maybe he does need to look at Braden as well, to throw them all off the trail. Or maybe he should go look at all the nipple pictures that are apparently floating around somewhere in the office. Or he could just look at John's nipples. God, he's fucked. "Thanks, Beags. Sorry. I know this was weird."
"Okay," Jay says. "In that case, I'm gonna go do the chlorine check. You go be fine out in the office or something. Maybe John needs help with his crossword." Karl must have some kind of tell on his face because Jay immediately snorts. "Ha. Knew it."
"Don't say anything to him," Karl says. "Just. Please."
"I wouldn't. But like I said, I support you and whatever interest you have or don't have in dick right now," Jay says, smoothing down his shirt. "Or John. Or John's dick."
"I'm going now," Karl says. "Goodbye. Possibly forever."
"No way, I'm walking out first, I need to preserve my virtuous reputation," Jay says, and in the distraction of the scrum as they both try and get out the bathroom door, they collide with a passing Ovi and both of them end up getting wrecked. Karl is really not doing so great today at this whole not getting knocked over by people today, on both a physical and metaphorical level.
Ovi just sort of steps over them and keeps going. He's talking on the phone. "Hi, yeah, Sushi Oishii? I want to order special lunch meal for deliver at Capital Heights pool, address 627 Carpenter Lane. So, we gonna need six beef teriyaki lunch special, eight chicken teriyaki, two salmon teriyaki, ten seaweed salad, and four shrimp tempura. And three sushi boat. Three. Money is at front desk with a kid holding a duck, and you gonna need to beat, fight Moko Sushi deliveryman for it." A slight pause. "I don't like fighting either. Probably should get here first. Then we know we should call you all summer for any sushi delivery. We eat lots of sushi."
"Think that's illegal, Ovi," Jay says, on the ground. At least Karl landed on him this time instead of vice versa. "Don't forget, we're not in Russia right now."
Ovi just flips him off and keeps talking on the phone. "No, duck doesn't bite, might peck. Thanks, see you soon!" He hangs up, and frowns. "Wait, do duck eat sushi? Ducks eat fish, right? Maybe we need one more sushi boat. I'll ask Backy."
There's a long window that runs the length of one of the walls of the staff office, which lets you see into it all the way from the front entrance at the pool. It's probably specifically designed that way so they can't fuck around too much, everything on display to anyone who walks in. From where he is, Karl can just see John, perched on a stool in the office and hunched over the newspaper as he scribbles on the daily WaPo crossword in pen with extreme prejudice. Wherever Braden is, he's probably feeling an inexplicable burst of rage.
The pool is coming to life for real, patrons trickling in at a steady rate, and Karl can hear people splashing and kids shrieking with joy in the water. He makes his way back to the office, and pushes the door open. John's the only one there, and he doesn't look up but he smiles as Karl walks in. "What's up?" John says, eyes still trained on the crossword.
"Ovi's playing God with the delivery guys and setting them against each other again," Karl replies, and then just for the sheer hell of it, asks, "Real quick, can I see your nipples?"
"Sure, go nuts," John says, still focused on his crossword as he gropes for his own tee's hem, and then yanks his shirt up enough to partially expose his chest and right nipple, and it's only through the strongest of efforts that Karl doesn't reach out and touch it with his thumb or his mouth, the way every part of him wants to.
Karl can't help it. He starts to snort, and then to full-on laugh, and eventually he has to sit down on the couch and wheeze for a while, all while John continues to work on the crossword. He doesn't need to stare at Braden; Karl just knows. He doesn't know why he feels this way, but he also doesn't know why he likes fake green apple flavor but hates actual Granny Smith apples, or why he can wake himself up five minutes before his alarm goes off no matter when it's set, or not being afraid of heights. Some things just are, and apparently John is for him, and at some point Karl's just going to have to decide if he wants to risk spilling everything and possibly losing his best friend, or never having satisfying sex again
"Don't you want to know why?" Karl manages to get out.
"I assume you have a good reason," John says. "Hey, four down, four letters, 'it meant nothing to Edith Piaf' and it starts with R. Isn't she the one who sings the vegan rose song? But rose isn't fitting."
Karl finally gets his laughter under control. "La Vie en Rose, you moron. Yeah, yeah, she is, but that's not her only song, she has the other famous one, it's, um. Hang on, I know this clue, I've seen it before. Um."
He thinks, trying to remember. After a moment, it comes to him.
"Rien," he says, then clear his throat and says it louder. "Rien. R-I-E-N. From her famous song, like, Non, je ne regrette rien. I know you know it; you'd recognize it if you heard it. It's in soundtracks a lot."
"Look at you, all smart and fancy with the French," John says, filling in the letters. "Monsieur Karl Le Alzner and his perfect accent. What does it mean?"
"I don't know French. I just know the song," Karl says. The light is coming in through the window, and John on the stool is edged in gold, almost too bright to look at. "It means, nothing. Like, not nothing, but, you know, nothing. The whole title is 'No, I regret nothing.'"
"No regrets," John says. "Pretty cool. So that's what the song's about, huh?"
"Yeah," Karl says, all his laughter tapped out. Something shifts and turns over in his chest, with edges sharp enough to push straight through him. "I think it's a love song."
"Go big or go home," Ovi says. "Okay. Everyone wearing their breaking-in clothes? Everyone got camouflage face paint? Hats? Good."
Most pranks happen in June, though they can stretch into July. They're starting with Islebrook this summer, the early strike by Penn Springs notwithstanding. Penn Springs can wait. It has to be Islebrook for a couple reasons. They've got the key to get inside for a surprise strike, obviously. And more importantly, if they're going to make waves in this year's prank war, they need to start off with a bang, and that means a big prank, something original and interesting that hasn't been done before, and isn't just a half-assed TP-job on the trees, or saran-wrapping someone else's office, or the usual petty vandalism that all the pool clubs annoy each other with.
And Islebrook, despite all their recent renovations to the main pool area, has a wading pool that's barely been updated in forever. So all things considering, it could really use some decoration.
Nicky's done all the time estimates, and he disappeared earlier in the evening with Orpik, Jojo, and their ill-gotten key to go do mysterious set-up plans. Ovi's in charge of the materials, and he's already loaded up a number of lumpy parcels amongst the car trunks, along with doling out the other accessories obtained from various runs to Home Depot, Costco, CVS, and the Candy World bulk shop. He and Eller are playing Tetris with Eller's car trunk right now, trying to jam three more boxes in, while Orly and Kuzy help. And most of the rest of them are all skulking around in the Capital Heights parking lot after midnight, waiting for another hour or two to pass before they all sneak over to Islebrook. Well. Some of them are skulking. Nisky is definitely skulking, but he's got a resting facial expression that works well for it; same for Holtby. Grubi looks less like he's skulking than just meditating, and Chorns looks like he has a stomachache. TJ and John are definitely lounging, playing cards on the hood of John's car with Jay and Conno. Burky and Willy are wrestling, while Schmidty eggs them on.
And Karl figures he'll just settle for some good old fashioned lurking for himself, drifting from car to car and letting the excitement rise. If he lurks around the card game more than anywhere else, well, that's his business.
At exactly 12:45 AM (Orpik did, in the end, synchronize everyone's watches, as well as set a phone alarm for everyone who didn't wear a watch), Ovi whistled. "Okay. Everyone, let's go. You all know what to do."
They're all grouped up into a couple cars; Nicky insisted they needed to take precautions to go unnoticed, and so everyone's assigned a different place to park and then sneak in with their supplies, rather than parking in Islebrook's lot.
"People will notice," he had said impatiently. "Cars in the parking lot that late? With bumper stickers from our pool? Might as well hang a sign saying 'hey, look at us, we're up to no good'."
"So smart, Backy," Ovi had said. And that's why Karl is half-dozing in the passenger seat of John's car while Jay and Conno and Chorns squeeze into the back, and John plays the radio low. Maybe he should be worried that the earlier adrenaline rush of the evening isn't there, that he's sunk so easily into relaxation. They're going to need the energy, because this is going to take a couple hours. But maybe it's fine; maybe he just needs to stay loose and unworried.
John pulls up a block away and parks in the lot of an all-night McDonalds. Nicky wouldn't even let them all park in the same place; Ovi and everyone else are parking at different and carefully random points all within two blocks of Islebrook. They unload the trunk. Backpacks and dufflebags for everyone, and they walk down the block and into Islebrook's parking lot. No cars there, and Karl wonders where Nicky's ride is.
The lights are off, the gate is closed, but the lock isn't engaged, and someone slips out of the shadows—Jojo, looking freaky with his stripes of face paint on, to motion them in. Once they get inside, they head past the front area, curve around the main area, and then congregate at the wading pool. Orpik and Nicky are already there, just finishing off some prep. The wading pool is shallow and rectangular, and it looks like Nicky and Orpik have taped plastic over the two skimmers and main drain.
Ovi points at everyone with a dufflebag. "Start unloading, get bags out. Need to be fast." He turns to Nicky. "You shut off the filter?"
Nicky nods. "Not connected to the main pool. They just built around it in the pumphouse, put all the new works in there as well. They'll need to rip it out at some point, but whatever."
Ovi nods in satisfaction. "Good. Won't get into the main pool, then" He leans in closer. "No drain?"
"We would lose three hours," Nicky says. "We flushed it with some fresh water to lower the chlorine, but this saves time, to mix it in the pool instead of in the buckets like we maybe thought. Not like they need to eat it."
"What about other thing?" Ovi asks.
Someone pokes him in the side, and Karl turns to see John holding a pair of scissors. "C'mon," he says. Karl stops trying to eavesdrop on them, in favor of snipping off the tops of the bags of—he's not exactly sure what. They're full of something pinkish and powdery and granular, but he doesn't think it's actual gelatin.
"Okay, Alzy, Carly, you bring them over here, we start mixing," Ovi calls in a whisper. "Holts, Stick, Nisky, you in charge of umbrella and stuff. Burky, Willy, Schmidty, start opening fish and don't fucking eat all. Chorns, Beags, Conno, you get the decorations. Kuzma and Dima, get whipped cream."
Karl grabs a double handful of the opened bag pouches and walks over to Ovi and Nicky. Ovi just gestures to the pool. "Pour straight in."
Karl eyes the water, and the bags in his hands dubiously. "You sure?"
Ovi just grins, and Karl can see his teeth flash in the dark. "I do lots of research, Alzy."
Karl pours the crystals in, and there's a bloom of red in the water, almost like a shark attack. Ovi motions. "Keep going. Gotta empty all the bags."
With everyone helping, they empty all the pouches of weird crystals into the wading pool, Nicky directing where to pour so they get an even distribution around. He's brought one of the long handled nets with him, that's he's using almost like a giant spoon. The pool is only about two feet deep, and it's dark as hell without any lights on, but with the flashlights and the moon, Karl can tell the water's already looking kinda… chunky.
"It takes about two hours to properly set up," Nicky says quietly. "But we'll make sure it's all spread around so it'll work."
"How is this even working without, you know, the ice cubes and boiling water and all the other shit?" Jay asks, which Karl's glad about because he was wondering that himself.
Orpik snorts. "It's not real Jell-O. But there are companies that'll manufacture something similar in bulk for, like, Jell-O wrestling. You can order it online. It comes in different colors, but Ovi got red because, you know, theme."
"They also make special mix stuff for slime, pudding, mud anything you want to wrestle in," Ovi adds. "Very good site. I bookmarked it. Probably gonna need it again someday."
"Don't eat it," Nicky says, throwing a sharp look over at Willy and Burky and their group, who are on their knees in a huddle and poking the stiffening water. "It's not supposed to be edible."
Willy has his hands behind his back and looks a little guilty. "Is it poisonous?"
"Deadly," Ovi says cheerfully. "Super bad."
Nicky snorts at him. "It's not poisonous. But it's just supposed to be for show. It won't really taste of anything."
"We would never," Burky says virtuously, and promptly spoils it by splatting a red handful in Willy's hair.
Jojo smacks him in turn. "Don't waste it or fuck around. Get back to doing the fish."
Karl's not sure how many bags of gummy fish they bought, but it's… a lot. It's a mix of the regular red Swedish fish, and a lot of blue gummy sharks. "Good contrast," he says, holding up one of the sharks. "The Swedish fish are just going to disappear otherwise."
"Don't put them in yet," Nicky warns. "I have this all timed. We need to do it in order. And seriously, stop eating so many of them."
Meanwhile, Braden and Stick have liberated one of the umbrellas from a pool table, along with the stand to stick it in, and have brought it over. They're working rapidly on spray painting it with red and blue flowers. It takes a while, but Nicky finally deems the Jell-O semi-solid enough to start working on the next stage. Schmidty and Jojo throw handfuls of gummy fish into the wading pool, letting them sink in partially.
"Okay, Holts and Stick, take the umbrella and the base and put it here," Nicky directs.
They step into the rapidly jelling pool cautiously—"Does this stuff stain?" Stick asks, and Ovi says, "No, but if it do, tell me later, because I can ask for money refund." –and set the umbrella at an angle in the middle of the wading pool.
"Burky, ducks," Ovi commands, and Karl almost expects Burky to produce a live duck again, but instead Burky just unloads a bag of the rubber duck toys for the bath. He places them with care, and every time they drop into the water it's with more of a wet plopping noise than a splash.
"Next stage," Nicky says. "Cream. All around the edge. Everyone take a can. Don't huff it."
Kuzy and Orly have the insulated cooler bags, and they start pulling out the cans of Reddi-Whip and handing them around. Nicky shows them how he wants it done, spraying a thick white border around the pool's edges.
"That's gonna smell bad tomorrow in the heat," John says.
Ovi just shrugs. "We already being nice not letting it get into pump and filters. Otherwise, could be lots of damage. They deal with it."
"Oh, I'm not against it, I think it's great," John says. He squirts a quick glob of Reddi-Whip into his mouth, and flicks his tongue against the top of his lip to get the spillover. Karl accidentally steps in the pool by mistake.
Finally, Nicky deems it time to add finishing touches—some fake flower lei chains fetchingly draped over the umbrella, an inflatable shark, a couple floaties scattered in the pool, and a department store mannequin torso obtained via dubious methods, dressed with a long blonde wig, a blonde beard, a coconut bra, sunglasses, a weird floppy fisherman's hat, a blue raincoat, and a sparkly blue mermaid tail, stuffed with wadded up newspaper to fill it out. Grubi had produced the tail and refused to say anything about where he'd gotten it from.
Nicky fussed with the positioning of the mermaid, propped slightly against the umbrella in a come-hither pose. He tries it with an arm over the shark, moves the shark away on its own, and then re-positions the shark so it's acting as support again. "It should be a seashell bra," he says, frowning.
"I know, I tried. I couldn't get it to stay on," Chorns apologizes. "I had to use coconuts. It's, uh, not a female torso mannequin."
"It's mermanmaid, it looks fine," Ovi says. "Let's go. Everyone got all the trash, all the bags? Don't leave anything behind."
When they all stand back to get a good look, it's impressive. The wading pool looks like a cross between one of those aquarium-sized tropical drinks you can get at fancy sushi places, and something out of the backyard of a sorority party on acid. Burky is sulking because Nicky's forbidden pictures by anyone, even Ovi. Nicky does snap a few shots, but won't let anyone else document it. "No evidence," he says. "I'll save these somewhere safe and delete them."
"How do we make sure they know it's us, though?" Burky asks. "One of the other pools might claim credit."
"We don't. We let them wonder. But I'm pretty sure they'll know," Orpik says. "It's our colors, after all. And if another pool tries to take credit, well. Word gets around. They'll be sorry."
Everything has gone incredibly smoothly, to the point where Karl is just waiting for the other shoe to drop. For spotlights to come on and freeze them in place, for hordes of Islebrook staff to descend angrily on them, for something to go wrong. But it stays quiet and dark as Nicky herds all of them out and locks the gate behind them; John's car is untouched in the McDonalds parking lot; there isn't even any sign their own pool has been visited by mischief-makers while they were away.
That had happened one year—they'd been out at Stormy Knolls, putting lawn flamingos on every square inch of grass they could find, and they'd come back to discover the Rangerford Square lifeguards on their way out after removing and stealing their bathroom doors and the diving board, and it turned into a brawl in the parking lot. In the end, they kept the diving board and the women's bathroom door, but they had to trade the grungy fedora previously stolen from Rangerford Square a year ago, to get the men's bathroom door back.
But they make it back to Capital Heights with no issues and a sense of accomplishment. Karl rides shotgun again, out of virtue of having the best elbowing technique, and when they pull into the lot, everyone starts trickling out to their own cars. Small wonder, given that it's almost five in the morning. Karl doesn't. He stays in John's car, and so does John, and eventually they're the only ones left in the parking lot.
"I don't even know what my shift is," Karl says. "Like I know I'm supposed to be back here in a couple hours, probably, but I'm not sure when."
"It's fine," John says, and then yawns. "We're not on until the afternoon. We can sleep for a while."
"Maybe not in the car," Karl suggests.
John just smiles sleepily. "My car is awesome."
"You won't think that when you wake up with neck strain in a couple hours," Karl says. "Or, like, heat stroke."
"We could get in the back of the car," John suggests, eyes closing all the way as he yawns again. Which is lucky, since he doesn't get to see Karl's eyes bugging out in response. "Or there's the office couch."
"Ovi's done things on that couch," Karl says. "C'mon, get up. Don't fall asleep. Let's watch the sun rise, or some shit."
He's not sure where he's going with this; he just knows he doesn't want to go home yet. In any other state, he thinks John would probably mock him mercilessly; however, when John's sleepy, he's one of the most susceptible people ever. If Karl was a better person, he wouldn't take advantage of this. Usually he just uses it for stealing the last donut or control of the television remote.
John must not be all the way sleepy yet, because he cracks one eye and gives Karl a distinctly incredulous look, but he gets out of the car when Karl does, and he follows Karl obediently through the gate and into the office.
"Couch?" he says hopefully, swaying a little on his feet.
"No," Karl says, poking into the fridge. He takes someone's Gatorade, and grabs a couple of the least mildew-smelling towels out of the lost and found bin. "C'mon. We're going to witness the miracle of sunrise."
"This is stupid," John says, but when Karl starts walking around to the back where the pool deck lounger is still leaning against the tool shed, he comes along as well.
"You go first," Karl says, motioning to the lounger.
"Why?" John asks.
"Because if your dumb ass falls backwards, I can catch you before you break your neck," Karl says.
"Aw, Alzy," John says, hitching one foot into the slats and levering himself up. "That's almost nice enough for me to not be mad at you that you're making me do this in the first place."
"I know, right?" Karl says, and climbs up after him. He doesn't grab his ass, though the temptation is there; he's not sure John won't let himself fall and crush Karl out of spite. John's already on the next chair, though he waits pointedly for Karl to come up behind him.
"You're supposed to be spotting me," he says. "Where's my support?"
"You're a big boy now, Johnny. You can take that next step if you believe in yourself," Karl says.
John snorts and makes a face at the same time, putting one knee up on the roof. "I don't think you've ever called me Johnny before."
"Yeah, I'm not really feeling it either," Karl says. "Let's chalk it up to a youthful experiment and move on."
"You're way more sassy than usual," John says. "What gives, are you riding the adrenaline rush now, or something? Weren't you supposed to do that a couple hours ago?"
"I think I'm doing that thing where my body's, like, decided that it's supposed to be awake because it's so late it's early now," Karl says. "I missed a cycle somewhere. C'mon. Sun's going to be up soon."
He spreads the towels out on the roof and plunks himself down, not waiting for John. It's not pure dark anymore, but there's not real light either. It's more like the sky is filled with the potential of light, a grey pre-dawn shiver, with a pink line seeping in at the horizon. John lowers himself down, muttering.
"Is this, like a bucket list thing?" he asks Karl. "Is this a substitute for watching the sunrise on the beach or something?"
"Kinda, I dunno," Karl says. "It just feels like something you should do at least once to say you've done it, even if it's not that impressive. Like—" he gropes for a comparison. "Reading books on all those great literature recommendation lists or whatever. Going to museums. Shit that's supposed to improve you or your appreciation of life or whatever."
"I appreciate life just fine when I'm asleep," John says, but he mirrors Karl's position: wraps his arms around his knees, rests his chin there, and stares off at the horizon. "You know what."
Karl opens the Gatorade, takes a swig, and then passes it without looking to John. "What."
"I, I kinda," John says, and Karl can hear the smile in his voice after he gulps the drink down. "Like, I kinda know a bunch more of my great literature shit than I should probably admit through Sesame Street. You know, Monsterpiece Theater."
"Oh my God, you dork." Karl can't help smiling, chin sunk down on top of his arms to hide it. A pause. "Me too," he admits.
"So, I mean, given how many of us probably have this same thing, I have an idea," John says, and starts to giggle. Like, actually giggle, high-pitched and through his nose. "Like, as kids we absorb the great stuff from Sesame Street. If you want to make adults remember? You should do it as a porno."
Karl considers it, and maybe it's the lack of sleep or maybe it's just the fact his and John's combined mental maturity is embarrassingly low, he can't help but think about it and then giggle right along. "Yeah, okay, I think we've found our calling," Karl says, after a minute. "Director of porno parodies of fine literature. I'm in."
"To Drill a Mockingbird," John suggests promptly, which makes Karl think John's probably had that one waiting and just hasn't had a chance to work it into conversation yet.
"Some of them don't even need you to change the real title," Karl says. "Like, Waiting for Godot."
John makes a considering noise next to him. "I don't actually know what happens in that one," he says. "Is there already sex?"
"Me neither, but I figure that's what they'll do while they wait," Karl says. "Until, like, Godot comes."
"Yeah, okay," John says. "I mean, Godot ain't coming any time soon. But when he does…"
"Waiting for Godot: The Porno," Karl says. "Make it a musical too, if you can swing it."
In front of them, the sky is getting lighter and somehow deeper at the same time, the pink line of the horizon brightening and expanding, swelling to red. There are layers of pinkish-gold clouds banding the sky and overlapping each other like fish scales—those are supposed to mean something, he thinks, either rain or good weather, one of those. He's not sure.
"Do you ever think about what happens later?" John says.
"Later as is…?" Karl asks. He can't read John's tone. "Today? This week? Ovi said we'd probably do the hit on Stormy Knolls on Friday night."
"No," John says, and then makes a non-committal grunt. "Like, yes, this summer but also life. What we—you want to do in life. We're not gonna do—this, like forever? Whatever."
"I guess," Karl says. He hunches his back a little. "I mean, I figured—like, they say you should find something you like doing, or you're good at, and do that? And then find something that's both? And I always thought that was kinda stupid but also true."
There's a bird singing in the trees nearby, but he can't see it. He can hear it though, quick little warbling swoops of sound that go higher and higher, like fuck waiting for the dawn, he has to sing now. Karl feels his way around what he wants to say the same way he'd fumble his way through a room with the lights off.
"But I always thought you would just know. Like, they say you know when you're in love," Karl says. "Like, I'd know what I wanted to do with my life."
"You don't?" John asks after a few seconds.
"I know what it feels like when you know something," Karl says.
It's like he's standing right on the edge of something, a tipping point. But neither of them say anything after that. The bird keeps singing, and then there's another bird twittering, and another, and the trees around them erupt in sound, all different notes of birdsong spattering the air like rain, like light, like—sound, the sound of birds.
Sometimes things are what they are, no need to make them into something else.
"Pretty," John finally says distantly, eyes trained on the sky.
If this was a movie, or even one of the young adult fiction books John's not so secretly addicted to, this would be Karl's moment. This is when he'd turn and look at John, and deliberately say, "Yeah." And John would get a little crease-furrow between his eyes, turning that over in his head before glancing at Karl, and their eyes would meet. His mouth would probably be open just a little. The sun would be just coming up, and there would be light and music swelling and a fraught eternal moment of realization and John, John would, John would just—
Karl knows what it feels like to know, but only about one thing. He didn't need a dramatic moment for it. He always just did.
The sun rises; the moment's gone.
Later, Ovi gets a text eight messages long in profanity from Chimmer (and a picture of Chimmer posing in intimate congress with both the mermanmaid and the inflatable shark), so they can safely assume Islebrook knows who to attribute the Jell-O incident to.
Boris tells Karl that the guards at the other pools know as well, and that's it's being regarded with grudging respect for the most part. Karl's not sure of Boris's relationship with pools besides Capital Heights, but he's not going to question the existence of Boris's network of intelligence gathering or its level of quality. Ovi and Nicky are already organizing simultaneous plans for Rangerford Square and Columbus Manor for later in the week, and it sounds like it's going to be another all hands on deck affair.
Meanwhile, though they're not sure how long the ducks were nesting in the bushes before they were discovered at the start of the summer, Burky's been counting off days and regaling everyone with Wikipedia facts. And based on the standard incubation period, he's figured out that they're probably due to hatch any day now, and is guarding the nest whenever he's not in the office or up in the chair. In order to make sure they don't blunder into the pool and drown, he's set up a baby pool just a few feet away from the nest, with a convenient access and exit plywood ramp.
He's also freaking the fuck out about other things.
"They need names," Burky frets, perched up on a stool in the office. He keeps teetering it back and forth precariously on two legs in a way he'd never dare try if Nicky was in the office. Instead, Nicky is giving a private group swim lesson to an adoring and remarkably unbuoyant cluster of five year-olds, and Burky is courting a broken neck.
"French Fry," Ovi suggests from the couch, which Karl figures is because Ovi's just finished giving the male duck a handful of the fries Holtby had to leave behind when he went up in the chair for the shift. (Despite the ban on ducks in the office, Ovi's a frequent violator of the rule. Apparently he's trying to train one of the ducks to carry messages to Nicky when Nicky is coaching, but it's slow going.)
"We can't name them after food," Burky says, appalled.
"Ducks are food," Ovi says, waving an arm from his position on the couch, lying prone across the laps of TJ and Orpik and Jay. None of them react much except for Jay moving his head to the side to avoid getting smacked by Ovi's arm; no one works at Capital Heights unless they can come to terms with Ovi's complete lack of regard for personal space.
"Not all ducks are food," Willy says, from where he's leaning in the doorway near Burky. He's been eyeing the armchair that Karl is in, tensing like he's ready to dash over and claim it the second Karl gets up. Karl keeps shifting forward and then back again, just to fuck with him. "You wouldn't eat, like. Donald Duck. Or, um. Like. Daffy Duck. It's the clothes. If a duck wears clothes, you can't eat them."
"Daffy doesn't wear clothes, though," TJ says, barely looking up from his phone. "I'm pretty sure."
"But he talks," Willy says. "Like, if something talks, you can't eat it."
"I dunno. I can think of things that talk that I would eat. Like, I'd eat a talking parrot if I had to," Jay says, with a vaguely contemplative look.
"I mean, if you had to," Willy says stubbornly. "You don't just go out and eat parrots on a normal basis."
"Remember when McDonalds had the talking food?" Orpik asks, looking slightly nostalgic and slightly annoyed at the same time, the way he usually does when the topic of McDonalds comes up. "Like, the Fry Guys and the McNugget gang. They talked, though I'm not sure if they got eaten or not."
"The Aflac duck talks, but I'd eat the Aflac duck," TJ says, a little breathlessly when Ovi shifts his weight.
"I would eat this duck," Ovi says, and points to the duck still polishing off Holtby's fries. "Especially if it's stupid and won't learn to be smart messenger duck."
Burky looks alarmed and protective, all legs on the stool coming down hard with a thud. "You can't eat him, he's gonna be a dad. The little baby ducks will need him!"
"Eh," Ovi says, and shakes his finger at the duck. "Needs to do his job. If not… well, we see."
"I mean, even a human," Jay says, still looking lost in thought. "Like, come on, we all think about cannibalism sometimes. I think about it whenever I'm in an elevator with someone else. Say we all got locked in here and there was no food. Like, all of us right now."
"Beags, you're a freak," Ovi says comfortably, reaching up to pat his face. "Plus, we eat Brooksy first, duh. Eating Brooksy, you know, like eating health food. And he's big, so we can probably all have a good dinner. You're also healthy, so we'll eat you second. Then Alzy. Willy next because he's big, and then we toss a coin to see if Osh-babe or Burky gets eaten."
"I'm too fast for you," Burky informs the room.
"What the hell," Karl says, feeling like he should be offended about some part of that, though he's not sure if it's that he's not getting picked to be eaten first, last, or whatever. "Why am I like, right in the middle? And why aren't the rookies getting eaten first? Actually, wait, why aren't we eating you first? Isn't it, like, the captain goes down with the ship? You run this place, shouldn't you be the one getting in the oven?"
"Burky's probably tender," Orpik agrees. "But Ovi does eat the most. And Burky's pretty skinny. Not a lot of meat on him. I think Alzy has a point."
"Point about what?" John says, shouldering Willy aside out of the doorway, so he can come stand shirtless in front of one of the fans in the office and hog the breeze, to a general grumble of dissatisfaction from the office and Karl's simultaneous enjoyment and irritation because now he has a sudden boner to hide. At least he has the armchair to himself, and Ovi's not sitting on top of him to discover it and also announce it to the office at large. "Also, Willy or Burky, one of you guys needs to go up in the lanes chair."
"It's Burky's turn," Willy says. "I was up last shift. Also, I dunno who was sitting there before me, but they didn't wipe their back sweat off the chair before I got in, and it was seriously fucking gross."
"Ovi's gonna eat my duck if I leave," Burky says, but he gets up and sulks his way out on the pool deck, with Willy immediately taking the stool he vacates.
"We're discussing cannibalism contingency plans," TJ tells John. "Ovi knows exactly what order he's going to eat all of us in. Alzy thinks we should eat Ovi first."
"Oh, we definitely eat Ovi first," John says, moving away from the fan and sitting down on one of the arms of Karl's chair. "I'm with Karl."
"That's my boy," Karl says, and raises his fist for a bump. "Carlzner for life."
"On the other hand," Orpik says. "I've seen what Ovi eats. We'd probably all get the runs after eating him."
"That's no good, I can't crap here," Jay says. "It's too weird. I have to be at home."
"How does that… work," TJ asks. "Like, do you just drive home every time you have to go? That doesn't seem really efficient."
Jay just shrugs. "I always crap at the same time? I mean, it's not that hard to regulate if you eat salad and drink enough water. Plus, probiotic supplements."
"You sound like old man, Beags," Ovi says.
"You know what they call that? That's losing home field advantage," John says. "That's no way to go through life, Beags."
"I know what I prefer," Jay says stubbornly. "It takes discipline and control. You couldn't do it."
"Fuck no, I'm the opposite," John says. "First thing I do when I walk into a new hotel room is take a shit. I'm, like, marking my territory, even if it's temporary. Making it my own."
"So, Beags can't eat me," Ovi says, and raises both arms in the air to stretch. "No one should eat me. I make you sorry."
"I could handle it," John says. "It wouldn't be my first porcelain rodeo." He immediately turns and points at Willy. "Don't teach Kuzy to say that."
Willy glances up. "Once I had five cheddar habanero quesaritos and a Baja Blast in one sitting, and they weren't so bad. At first. Then I went to practice and when I got home I had to take a shit, and at first I thought it was going to be like normal, but then it wasn't because, like, it felt like I swallowed a hive of hornets, and that sucked, but I figured if I got it out faster it would be okay, but then it was like some sort of William Wallace super-hornet rallied the other hornets and led them to freedom through my butthole. But other than that, like, it wasn't bad."
There is a silence after that for several beats that is both equal parts appalled and impressed.
"You're not allowed to watch Braveheart anymore, Willy," Orpik says. "Or pick the lunch menu. Like, ever."
Willy looks slightly indignant, but has just enough sense not to push back. His issues with McDonalds aside, Orpik also has some kind of blood feud over the lunch orders with their closest burger joint that allows deliveries, so when they do want burgers, they have to use another name and have them delivered a block away at the Shell gas station down the road. It's just better not to mess with him over food; Ovi's the only one who'll do it now, and even he's gotten more cautious about it.
"See," TJ says, "here's my thing. Is cannibalism really the top of the food chain? I mean, we're probably at the top, but in and of itself, I don't think it's cannibalism. I think it goes deeper. Like, I think you need to double up."
"How's that work?" Karl asks.
"I think, like, top of the food chain should be, like, you devour multiple generations at the same time. Like chicken fried rice with the scrambled eggs bits in it, or, like an omelet with chicken in it, or that Japanese chicken thing with the egg on top. You're eating an animal basically garnished with its young. That's hardcore."
"Like, sushi with the little fish eggs on it?" Karl says.
"Yes!" TJ bounces, or as much as he can under Ovi, who appears to be falling asleep. "You're wiping out two generations at once. That's as baller as it comes to being on top of the food chain. Or, say, if you were pregnant—"
Ovi opens one eye at hearing that.
"—and you ate, like the sushi or the chicken thing. Not only are you wiping out their offspring, you're feeding your own offspring with it. That's a double double blow."
"Pregnant women aren't supposed to eat sushi," Orpik says.
"Or if you put ketchup on cherry tomatoes," Willy volunteers, and gets another appalled look from everyone in the room. "What?"
"You don't actually eat that, do you?" Jay asks.
"What's the difference between that and dunking vegetables in ranch dressing?" Willy says.
"Ketchup and ranch aren't the same thing at all," Jay says.
"They're both condiments," Willy says. "Like, they taste different but you use them the same."
"What about squid-ink calamari pasta," Grubi's voice says, and everyone looks around until they find him. He's stretched on one of the backboards stored behind the couch, apparently also napping. "You're eating another animal, and seasoning it with its defense mechanism."
"How long have you been back there?" Orpik asks.
"Ovi was already on the couch," Grubi says. "I think my example is a good one."
"Is Cookie Butter flavor Oreos cannibalism for cookies?" John asks. "Or, like, that thing where you cover a cake with more cake crumbs?"
"I think technically in those cases, it's more like stem cells," Orpik says. "It's more of a benefit thing than one eating the other."
"Anyway, okay, we eat Carly and Alzy first and together because they're too sad without each other so makes more sense to get a big meal out of both and also two less mouth to feed," Ovi says.
"On that note, I think it's my turn to sit," Karl says, glancing at the clock. He grabs a towel and gets up. As he leaves the office, he can just hear the sound of both Willy and John diving for his seat at the same time. John sounds like he managed to fall into it first, but going by the yelling, at least one other person was kicked or stepped on as collateral damage.
Outside the office, the sun glitters off the water and he has to squint before fumbling his sunglasses down off his head. The pool's filled to capacity and all three guard chairs have someone sitting, along with an Schmidty in the extra deck chair pulled up to the children's end for support. Burky has the lap lane chair, and Nisky's in the regular chair by the children's end, and Braden has the chair by the deep end.
The well chair's the best seat—it's the chair that has shade in the hottest part of the afternoon, and while there's both the diving board and the slide to keep an eye on, it's a smaller area of space. During the fifteen minute adult swim break every hour, it tends to be deserted. And it's the only chair they're allowed to jump off of and into the water at the end of a shift, since it’s over deep enough water not to break someone's neck or legs.
Karl heads towards Braden. "Hey Holts," he says, and knocks his knuckles against the ladder. "You’re down."
"Okay, hang on," Braden says. He takes his shirt off, unloops the whistle from around his neck, and reaches for his water bottle; Karl can immediately feel every set of eyes in a fifty meter radius swivel and settle firmly on them. Braden doesn't disappoint; he takes a slug of water, and then pours the rest of the bottle of his head, shaking his wet hair out, and Karl can hear the breathy sigh of lust rippling from at least thirty bored housewives all at once. "Keep an eye on the redheaded kid near the diving board. I've already warned him twice for running. Drew. I think that's his name."
"Yeah, thanks," Karl says.
Braden hands him down the safety buoy, drops his shirt on the concrete, grabs his sunglasses with one hand, and jumps off the end of the chair's platform into the water. He pops up, wet and sleek (another round of sighs), and then swims to the pool edge and climbs out, dripping (there's a woman nearby lying on a pool lounge chair in the grass who may have actually fainted). "I'll watch for a sec if you need to fix the umbrella," he says
"Okay." Karl goes up the short ladder to the chair's platform and fiddles with the umbrella until he can get it to tilt forward and shade his torso at least. Once it's to his liking, he wipes the back of his chair off with the towel, sits down with the buoy across his lap, and puts the whistle around his neck. "All set."
And then it's a half hour of bored people-watching, because seriously, lifeguarding is so fucking dull ninety percent of the time. Karl sits and sweats and occasionally blasts his whistle at kids climbing over the lane-ropes, running on deck, doing stupid shit on the water slide, or any other number of minor offenses. Nicky's finishing up with his group lesson, but he's being trailed by a group of other kids who want his attention.
Karl watches him, and decides that you can tell a lot about a person by their tan lines. The girls from the swim team have the same particular X-shaped lines on their back from the cut of this year's Speedo suit; the boys have tan lines that cut off either sharply at the knee or high on the thigh, from wearing the knee length jammers or the regular short Speedo; they all have a raccoon-eye tan from wearing goggles. The ones with the sharpest X's come to practice the most often and regularly. Burky and Willy might be able to blend in with some of the teenagers from the swim team, their sunglass tans on their faces almost the same as the googles. The children with tans that start at their knees and elbows are the ones who go to soccer camp and come to the pool only in the late afternoon. The teenagers who cut grass for their spare money are self-conscious and leave their shirts on while doing so; most of them have farmer-tans and sunburn on their ears and the backs of their neck.
Two quick whistle blasts split his concentration and he glances up, but it’s for Nisky, not for him. Burky has a freaked look on his face and he's pointing to some old guy floating face-down next to the lap lanes, but Nisky just shakes his head. It's one of their regulars, the older swimmers who like to show up at either the crack of dawn or fifteen minutes before close, and then spend the majority of their time either doing painstakingly slow, heads-up breast stroke down the lap lanes, or floating face-down, motionless, and giving all the appearance of being dead, except to turn their heads to the side every now and then for a breath. John calls them hippos; they give Karl a fucking heart attack
So fucking hot. He moves his towel from behind his back and drapes it over his legs to block the sun. He should have put on more sunblock. He should have brought some water with him. Maybe if he concentrates hard enough, John'll bring some out to him. He checks the clock, still nine minutes to go.
They all have different routines to pass the time. John says he memorized the presidents of the United States (in order), the states and their capitals, the NATO phonetic alphabet, and sixty nine digits of pi while on guard duty, just by singing to himself. "It's easy," he had said. "The Animaniacs have songs that cover almost all of them." Karl's not as much for singing, but he counts things: the lines on the bottom of the pool, the flags, and the chairs lined up along the fence around the perimeter.
There's a scuffle brewing only a few feet away from him: two boys shoving each other near the diving board. Karl gives them a quick warning whistle, which startles them. One of them has red hair; it's the kid Braden warned him about, and he gives Karl the stink-eye, so Karl lowers his sunglasses and stares right back.
"You need to take a timeout, Drew?" he asks.
Drew scuffs his foot and shakes his head. "No."
"Okay," Karl says, and goes back to watching. Three minutes to go. He counts down in his head, and just as he hits zero, he puts his whistle in his mouth but Schmidty beats him to it with two quick blasts and twirling a finger near his head. Karl puts up three fingers, counts, down, and then they all blow the adult swim signal in unison, a long whistle that dips and then rises. When he looks down, Grubi is standing by the chair, ready to relieve him.
"You gonna jump?" Grubi asks him.
"Yeah, hang on," Karl says, and feels for his sunglasses. He wipes the chair, takes off the whistle, and drops the buoy on the ground next to Grubi before he stands up and stretches on the platform.
"Long way down," Grubi says. "Careful."
Karl glances at him while holding his sunglasses in one hand, because it's like five feet, but whatever, it's probably just Grubi's German sense of humor or something, which is unpredictable at the best of times. He jumps, up, then falling down, and he's shooting towards the bottom of the pool; there's the shock of the cold, then the relief, and momentary brush of his feet against the bottom before he kicks back towards the surface.
He spits a stream of water through his teeth when he emerges. Grubi is already climbing into the chair.
"Good form," John says. He must've walked over right as Karl was jumping. He's got two bottles of water in his hands, and he holds one of the bottles up to his mouth like a microphone. "There was some splash on the entry, though. And you didn't point your toes enough. I give it a six and a half."
"This judging is rigged," Karl says. He hauls himself onto the side of the pool. The sound of howling suddenly rings through the air and he almost falls right back in; there's a kid sounding like they're being murdered and he totally knows, even before he stands up and sees the color of the hair. "Goddammit."
Nicky is already there before Karl and John get over. He's leaning over Drew, who's wailing on the ground and clutching his knee. "All right," Nicky says in a calm voice, kneeling down. "You're okay. Let me see."
He somehow pries Drew's fingers away and takes a look. "Just a scrape," he announces. "Come on, we'll let you sit in the office while we put a band-aid on. You can pick either Spiderman or Spongebob. Then, no more running on the concrete, okay?"
"I want Thor," Drew manages to choke out in between his heaving sobs, but Nicky helps him to his feet and guides him in. Before he does, he glances back at Karl.
"One or two?" he asks.
Karl considers. One is the non-stinging disinfectant spray that they give most of the kids. Two is the one that stings like a bastard, which only the repeat troublemakers get. It tends to be pretty effective, and the kid's kind of obnoxious, but he's crying really hard and Karl can't bring himself to do it.
"One," he says, and shrugs. Nicky nods.
"Softie," John says, handing him the water.
"Yeah, well," Karl says. "Did Burky ever decide on a name for his duck? Or is Ovi going to eat it?"
"He's decided we're having a contest," John says. "People get to write their suggestions and put them in a box on the front desk. Stick suggested it."
"That'll work," Karl says. He looks down at the water. "Is this for me? Can I drink it?"
"No, I want you to pour it over my head the way Holts does to himself so I can shake my hair out dramatically," John says. "Of course it's for you, dumbass."
"Just checking," Karl says. "Thanks." He opens it up and drinks half the bottle in three gulps. "Is there anything to eat in the fridge? Did Ovi give all the fries to the duck?"
"There's leftover pizza," John says, and Karl stifles a sigh because of course there is, there's always leftover pizza; it's the most common thing easily delivered to the pool for all the families that want to eat dinner there. They get offered leftover pizza every night, and they're usually all sick of it by the second week of June. There's actually a lot of free food to be had as a side benefit of being a lifeguard, but it's almost solely limited to pizza, half-melted birthday cake with cartoon characters on it, and tortilla chips.
"Okay," he says, without much enthusiasm.
John laughs and hooks an arm around his neck, pulling his head in. "Jesus, your face. Nah, I gotcha covered. Willy went to get stuff from Hunan Taste while you were up in the chair, and I told him to get you that veggie lo mein one you like. He'll be back pretty soon."
"Aw, you know me so well," Karl says. He hesitates. "Did you…?"
"And shrimp toast," John says. "Like I'd forget. I'm hurt you'd think so, Alzy. I'm very hurt."
"Fuck, you're my favorite, I love you," Karl says. The words slip out before he can stop them, just like that, and he laughs to cover it up. "You and Willy and even Boris. He gave me two gummy worms on top of my shaved ice yesterday. I think I'm making serious in-roads with him."
"Yeah?" John says. Karl can't see John's expression with his arm pulling Karl's neck towards him. "Well, you're just giving it away, huh?"
"I try," Karl says. "Hey, let go for a sec."
John pulls his arm away and Karl straightens up. As soon as he does, he dumps the remaining water in the bottle on John's head, and John yells. Karl feels momentarily bad because it really was pretty cold; John must've pulled it from the back of the fridge, but then John fights back with his own bottle of water, and in the subsequent wrestling match, Karl thinks maybe he got away safe.
And they do. Burky makes a sign and a box and everything, and keeps it almost closer than the ducks. After a couple days collecting votes, he dumps them out on a picnic table and goes through them by hand, tallying it up and refusing to let anyone else help.
Donald wins out in the end, despite other cartoon-themed suggestions like Plucky and Daffy, as well as a handful of random votes for names like Mr. Quackers, Ducky McDuck Face, and French Fry (a write-in campaign by Ovi, apparently, as it shows up on no less than twenty seven paper slips). And since Donald is the winner, by default the female duck ends up being named Daisy, with Huey, Dewey, and Louie in reserve for at least three of the ducklings.
"Shouldn't the dad be Scrooge McDuck, though?" John asks, watching Burky proudly update the front desk whiteboard with the chosen names and some renditions that, under the right amount of squinting and extreme artistic license, could maybe interpreted as ducks. "I mean, Scrooge is the one watching after the kids in Duck Tales."
"Canonically, Donald is their uncle because they're his sister's kids," Nisky says. "If you read the Disney wiki, they have this whole backstory and shit about it."
'Donald Duck has a sister?" Karl asks. "Huh."
"So, basically Burky is Scrooge, since he's really the one watching out for them," John says, with no small amount of glee. "Oh shit, Burky, you're a legal guardian."
For the rest of the day, Willy and Kuzy try to make 'Scrooge' stick as a nickname for Burky, but it fails to truly catch on, despite an overabundance of terrible Scottish-Swedish accent attempts. Nicky finally gets annoyed enough to charge all three of them with scrubbing the pool's scum line, by hand, with nothing but Ajax powder and grungy Brillo sponges that he dredges up from the darkest, most spider-y depths of the supply closet.
"You're not allowed back in the office until the whole pool is clean," he says. "And spread out. I don't want you all bunched up together talking when you should be working. Tom, you start at the well. Andre, you start by the lap lanes. And Kuzy starts at the shallow end."
"Oooh, real names. He's serious," Karl says, watching all three of them trudge sadly away. There's something about it that tugs at his memory, something he's been meaning to ask. "Hey, where's Jojo? Haven't seen him all week. Schmidty, too."
"Probably subbing for another pool," John says. "Schedule's been all weird lately. It'll straighten out eventually."
He's right about the schedule, but it doesn't improve. In fact, the end of June is descending on a distinctly downward trend. For one thing, it rains every single day for over a week. For another, Ovi and Nicky have apparently decided to have their annual summer fight during it, and the rain makes it really hard to avoid witnessing or getting roped into their terrifying drama, which is a mix of Nicky's Swedish passive-aggressiveness and Ovi's Russian aggressive-aggressiveness, with occasional unsettling switches by both of them. Nicky and Ovi fighting is a show with a regular but limited release: inevitable but always resolvable. In a way, the sheer dependability of it is perversely comforting; it's the real life equivalent of a complicated two-way emotion that Grubi has a word for in German that none of them can pronounce.
Right now, everyone is treading carefully, mostly all hanging out in the covered picnic area and giving both Ovi and Nicky a wide berth. Ovi and Nicky are giving each other the silent treatment and refusing to be in the office at the same time.
"Usually they don't do this until August," John mutters, slumped across the table from Karl. "What the fuck set it off this time?"
"I'm not even sure," Karl admits. "Kuzy, do you know?"
Kuzy looks up from his phone. "Ovi change the wifi password without telling Backy. So Backy couldn't connect, was late uploading the swim meeting lineup to county server? He drive the papers over the house of official but he's mad, and so he yells at Ovi, and Ovi says Backy say he do the lineup already the night before so he didn't know Backy would work on it here. Right, Snarls?"
Orly is setting up the Jenga tower on one of the picnic tables in the covered area. He looks over and shrugs. "That's story, I guess."
"Ugh," Karl says. He looks around. The rain shows no real sign of stopping completely but every now and then it slows to a sullen drizzle, enough to give them a little bit of hope before getting heavy again. Even Boris has forsaken them; he hasn't been around since Tuesday. Ovi and Nicky are currently feuding through the sound system, the music flipping back and forth on the regular from Ovi's preference for house techno and Nicky changing it to alternative or country, even though Karl knows for a fact Nicky likes a lot of Ovi's house music.
Willy wanders up, looking disappointed. "The Nylanders just called. They canceled the birthday party because of the rain. So, I guess someone should tell Ovi and Backy."
There tends to be a birthday party at least twice a week at the pool, and Willy, already popular with most of the kids, tends to get invited to a lot of them, and he's been gunning for second place on the record for attending the most. No one's ever going to beat Ovi's record of attending nine birthday parties in one day (only four actually being held at the pool) and sixty five birthday parties in a single summer, but there's still considerable cred in getting on the wall of fame.
John puts a finger by the side of his nose, kicks Karl, and Karl immediately catches on and does the same. Hands fly up all over the tables and TJ's the last to catch on.
"Oh, come on," he protests. "I don't want to die. Plus, I have seniority. Willy, you do it."
"Nuh uh," Willy says, finger still firmly pressed to the side of his nose. "You lost fair and square, Osh. Besides, Ovi and Backy love you. They're not going to kill their favorite assistant swim team coach."
"I'll give you five—no, seven dollars," TJ says, digging in the pockets of his shorts. "Seven dollars and… forty two cents. Big money for you, Willy."
"Nope!" Willy says and brushes past the table where Conno and Chorns are playing Guess Whose Nipples, heading towards the ping pong table.
"Conno?" TJ asks, sounding hopeless.
"Nope," Conno says, without looking up. He studies the pictures in front of him. Grubi did a hell of a job mounting the Polaroids in lines on long strips of cardboard, so they can be flipped up and down just like the real board game. "Are you…hairier on the left than the right?"
Chorns makes a disgruntled noise. "Yes," he says, and Conno flips down five of his Polaroids.
TJ sighs. He gets up, and makes his way over to the office where Nicky must currently be, because the sound system is playing Mumford and Sons. He knocks on the office door. "Backy? We don’t need to worry about the birthday party." Nicky must say something, too low to catch, because TJ goes inside.
Karl keeps an eye on the office and drums his hands restlessly on the table. There's nothing he wants to do. Napping's out; he's not going anywhere near the office if he can help it. He could go join the Snarples game in the corner, or get in on the ping pong tournament. He could stare at pictures of nipples when Chorns and Conno finish. He could stare at John.
John's reading and not paying attention to him. Karl nudges him with one foot. "Do you have another book I can borrow?"
"I've got the second in a trilogy but it might not make sense because I don't have the first one with me," John says, not looking up.
"Never mind," Karl says. He gets up and stretches, wandering over to the ping pong table. TJ eventually manages to escape the office and comes over to join Karl.
"I think they're fighting through their texts, too," TJ tells him. "They're fighting on, like, three different platforms at once. You kind of have to admire it, in a way."
Lunch is tense. In yet another way to one-up each other, Ovi orders sushi and Nicky orders Italian, still without talking to each other; it's twice the amount of food they need, and the tables are completely covered with the spread. Ovi retreats to the office (and changes the music to Tiesto) and Nicky sits at the front desk (earbuds in place), both of them pointedly ignoring each other while furiously texting each other at the same time. The rest of them sit at the tables and eat, trying to do equal justice to both sets of lunches and probably setting themselves up to be sick later.
"I hate it when Mom and Dad fight," Willy says sadly, though also around three meatballs in his mouth so it comes out a little more like, "Ihayitwhenmmdeadfii."
"You can go talk to them and tell them to kiss and make up," Braden suggests.
"Oh fuck no," Willy says, and then he hunkers down guiltily when Nicky walks by, shoving another meatball in his mouth. "It's just," Willy says thickly, once Nicky has walked away, and then swallows. "It's just not right."
Grubi murmurs in German and shrugs. "Weltschmerz."
"I was wondering that," TJ says. He has a faintly glazed look on his face. "And wondering why I just ate all that shrimp. It was too much. It was too much shrimp. I didn't need to be a hero."
Karl wonders if he should eat another California roll and pretend to start choking so John can fake-call an ambulance, and give them both a way to escape the situation at hand before someone throws up, or Nicky and Ovi decide to really throw down.
It reaches a climax when Nicky's left the pool to go get something, but apparently still has some shit to get off his chest that can't be expressed only in text medium, and he's called the office phone to yell it because Ovi's not responding to his own phone. Karl's never regretted being on front desk duty more, as he knocks on the office door, phone pressed to his chest.
"Uh, Ovi? Backy's calling about—Backy's calling. You wanna take it in there?" he asks.
"TELL HIM I'M DEAD," Ovi yells from inside the office.
"Uh," Karl says, and then he flinches and juggles the phone when Nicky yells back in a furious tinny crackle of feedback static, "I HEARD HIM TELL YOU TO TELL ME HE'S DEAD," and Karl just helplessly holds the receiver at arm's length away, as far as the spiraled cord will let him because Nicky doesn't yell often but when he does, it's the most terrifying thing in the world, even though it's over a phone and not in person. If this was the office cordless phone, he could hurl it through the door at Ovi like a live grenade; it's just his luck that the front desk phone hasn't been replaced since the early nineties.
John's suddenly there by his side, Burky in tow next to him. He grabs the corded phone from Karl. "Backy, call Burky's phone, he'll give it to Ovi to talk on," he says, and then tosses it back to Karl.
"Are you crazy?" Burky says, trying to squirm away. "Carly, let go! Give me back my phone!"
John's holding a cell phone that suddenly starts ringing, and Burky makes a noise of terror. John manhandles him to the office door. "You'll be fine," John says. He thumbs the answer button, sticks the phone in Burky's shorts' pocket, and shoves him through the door unceremoniously as Burky yelps.
"Not that I'm volunteering to take his place, but what was that?" Karl asks.
"It's okay, I've got a plan. Ovi won't yell at Burky, because Burky's like, the baby and shit, plus he can fake-cry on command if we need him to," John says.
"How the fuck does that help," Karl asks, still staring at the ominously quiet office door.
"Because if Nicky thinks Ovi made Burky cry, he'll actually come down here to scream at Ovi in person, and then we can trick them into getting locked in the janitor's closet together and make them rom-com their shit out," John says.
Karl considers it and decides it's as good as plan as any. "We could just lock them in the office. That seems easier."
"No way," John says. "Then they'll do it on the couch, and we all have to sit on that couch for the rest of the summer. Also, the door's pretty shoddy. I'm pretty sure Ovi would just kick it down."
"Okay, point," Karl says. "The pump room has a sturdier door."
"Yeah, but there's spiders in there," John says. "Plus, the snake that one time. It's harder to get your bone on if you have to worry about spiders."
"Maybe we should put a tarp down first," Karl says. "Or some of the nicer towels from the lost and found."
"I mean, if we're trying to get them to bone it out, I dunno, I think they might feel weird doing it on top of Finding Nemo towels," TJ says, and in the heated debate over ranking which cartoon characters were the biggest boner-killers, no one actually notices a dripping-wet Nicky arriving (presumably with murder eyes) and stalking into the office until the shouting starts and Burky's shooting out of the office like he's been fired from a cannon, running like hell. Everyone panics, scatters, and flees the immediate area en mass; by group consensus, they all end up huddled by the diving board in the pouring rain with their windbreakers pulled over their heads because potential death by lightning and getting soaked is better than being within range of an angry Backstrom-Ovechkin argument that's escalated to yelling. Hell, Karl would take his chances with Boris over that.
"They're gonna kill each other," Willy whines. "And then we're all gonna be orphans."
Karl snorts. "No, they're not."
"They're not," John agrees with him, and huddles up close to him. John left his jacket back in the picnic area, and he's trying to get a piece of Karl's. His hair is plastered all over his forehead; the curls are making a valiant attempt to stand up but it's just not happening. "They're gonna yell a little while more, and then they'll bone in the office, and we're gonna need a new couch. Goddammit, Burky. You were supposed to lure Ovi out of the office so we could get them into the closet. I hope Craigslist has some good shit going on."
"Besides, I'll adopt you, Willy," Orpik says.
"Would you let me eat my burgers with an actual bun or will you make me eat them with, like, a kale wrap like you do?" Willy asks cautiously. Orpik makes a non-committal noise.
"This happens every summer, huh?" Eller asks.
"Just about," Karl says. "Last summer, they had this fight over the brand of toilet paper we were stocking. It's always something ridiculous."
"The year before that it was the wifi again," John volunteers. "Ovi named the network NoTerryFuckers, and Backy thought it was unprofessional."
"The year before that—" Braden starts to say.
"Hey, I haven’t heard them shouting in a while," Eller interrupts him.
He's right. It’s been quiet for at least a couple minutes. They all looked at each other while carefully not meeting each other's eyes, which Karl wouldn't have thought was something that was possible, but here they all are, trying to decide if it's worth risking life and limb to save their couch or if they just need to accept the inevitable.
"Goddammit," Braden eventually sighs. "I think I have an old slipcover somewhere I can bring in tomorrow for the couch."
They give it a good thirty minutes, because the only thing worse than knowing Nicky and Ovi are make-up boning on the couch is the idea of interrupting Ovi and Nicky in the middle of make-up boning on the couch, ruining their make-up boning, and accidentally starting their fight all over again. Eventually, after several rounds of unsuccessful double-elimination rock-paper-scissors to see who goes and knocks on the office door, they all shuffle back towards the office cautiously, figuring that if things go wrong, there's a limit on the number of them Ovi and Nicky can kill at once, and at least some of the group is likely to escape.
Before anyone can knock, the door opens, and they both come out. Ovi is absolutely wrecked and beaming shamelessly; he has sex-hair, along with noticeable hickeys on his neck. Nicky looks unruffled and put together, but has the good taste to look embarrassed, in that barely perceptible Swedish way that Karl can only really notice if he's actively concentrating hard on all the ways Nicky's face isn't moving. It usually comes down to several slightly different inscrutable eyebrow positions than his normal expression.
Ovi looks at all of them, huddled and dripping, and furrows his brow. "Why are you are all outside in rain?" he asks.
No one says anything, and then it's like someone just reaches into the sky and turns a faucet off: the rain stops, and there's actual sunlight and a break in the clouds for the first time in a week.
"Oh," Nicky says, craning his head to look around Ovi and up at the sky. "Look. It's going to be nice out. I'm going to get the blower out to clean the deck up a little. We'll probably have people showing up soon, if the sun holds."
When he steps around all of them, Karl notices his shirt is on inside out.
And the sky finally clears, and it's incredibly, vividly blue for a little while. Standing at the edge of the pool, the water reflects it back, and falling in feels like tumbling into the sky. Nicky is right, and a couple pool members show up within the hour and start trickling in. Even Boris shows up. They've already cleared away all the games, and gone back to their usual guarding routine. The afternoon slides sweetly into the evening, and clouds roll back in, but they're not the same thunderheads as before. The sunset turns all the clouds into a layered mass of rose and gold, and then the sky goes lavender, and it's just… nice. The day had started so gray and colorless, and now they're drowning in color.
The cicadas are just beginning, but there's enough of them to make a racket in the trees, and Ovi turns the underwater lights in the pool on when it's dark enough. Karl watches them bloom to life and light up the pool, and wonders how things can change so fast, how the day started out one way and ends another.
Karl gets the evening's trash together and wheels it out to the dumpster in the far corner of the parking lot in the Sports Authority shopping cart they stole years ago and never gave back. When he gets back from stowing the cart away in the back store room again, John is emerging from the bathroom. He waves Karl over.
"Hey, Boris is still in the parking lot. I want some shaved ice, who's on good terms with him right now? Will he give you free stuff?"
"He gave me arson advice last week," Karl says. "I think it was arson advice, anyway. He was a little bit vague. So, I dunno? Does that mean good terms?"
"Good enough," John says, and they head back towards the parking lot. There's an elderly man fumbling for his keys at the front gate and about to drop everything he's holding; Karl takes two quick steps forward to catch the man's book, towel, glasses, and bag before they all hit the ground, though he doesn't get everything.
"Sorry, here, let me, sorry," he says, trying to remember what the guy's name is. He's one of the hippos, shows up every night at quarter to nine and insists on swimming for the fifteen minutes before the pool closes. "Do you want me to carry this for you to the car?"
"Here you go, Mr. Cobb," John says, plucking the keys up from the ground. Cobb, that's it.
"I'm fine, I'm fine." Mr. Cobb looks at them, squinting. "You boys," he says, and then frowns. "It's very late. You're out here late."
He's making them late, because they're not allowed to start cleaning with the blower or the vacuum until all the patrons are gone—Ovi's favorite trick is to simply wheel them out on deck and turn them on, but not use them—but Karl's not going to say that. He carefully hands each item back to Mr. Cobb. "It's okay, we're used to it."
Mr. Cobb scowls. "No. Best not to make a habit of it. Too deep, and you'll never get out of it."
Karl slides a glance over at John, who looks just as bemused as Karl feels. "Well, we'll try?" Karl says. "Um. Sorry?"
Mr. Cobb sighs, and nearly drops his keys again. "You’re too young. Best to get out."
"We'll be leaving soon," John says soothingly. He and Karl watch the old man grumble and walk off into the parking lot.
"Well, that was kinda weird," Karl says, shaking his head.
"No kidding," John says, and then looks out into the parking lot. "Oh, goddammit, no, Boris left. Fuck. Fuck!" He slams his hand down on the front desk, hard. Burky's whiteboard actually jolts from the impact and falls over.
Karl pokes his shoulder. "Jesus, calm down."
John just groans. "Dude. I've had to open up the vending machine eleven times this afternoon because the stupid C9 and N5 coils keep getting jammed. I racked my shin open on the pool vacuum a little while ago when I was cleaning up all the leaves from the storm that were in the well. I stepped in duck shit in my bare feet. And I got six mosquito bites. Getting a cherry vanilla flavored shaved ice with a fucking gummy worm stuck in the top was the only thing I wanted in the entire world."
"Entire world, huh," Karl says as they go back into the main pool area and cut through the office. "You're a cheap date, dude."
"You know what, I'd give it up for fucking free if you'd just get it together and ask me the fuck out," John says crossly. "Do I have to actually get naked and climb into your fucking lap before you'll pick up on a hint?"
Karl, smooth operator that he is, walks directly into a wall.
"Owfuckngh," he says, and before he gets anything else out, Ovi comes crashing in, because Karl is reasonably certain Ovi is incapable of entering any place any other way, and yells, "Alzy, Carly, get your asses in here, with rain stop we gonna go hit Penn Springs and Flying Valley at same time tonight!"
"Think about it," John says, and walks away.
Karl gapes at his retreating back and can't think about a single other thing.
Several hours later, Karl's hunkered down in a dark corner of Flying Valley's pool and unscrewing his twenty ninth pool chair, and he still hasn't managed to concentrate successfully on anything other than ask me the fuck out and get naked and climb into your fucking lap. Oddly, this has a positive overall effect on the whole prank thing, because his hands are on auto-pilot and he's at least five chairs ahead of everyone else.
"We're never going to finish in time if we have to do all of them," Willy had said when Ovi and Nicky had split everyone into two groups in the parking lot.
"You don't have to do all of them," Nicky had said. "In fact, don't do all of them. Just do most of them, because then they won't know which are loose and which are fine. Watch."
Nicky had had one of the pool chairs and one of the pool recliners out in the parking. "You don't even have to do all the screws. There're ten screws altogether in the reclining loungers, but loosening these six screws—" he pointed out each one carefully, tapping them with his screwdriver and then loosening. "—those will make it collapse if anyone sits on it or just jolts it. Same for the chair, but even less. Eight screws altogether, but you only have to do five of them."
When he was finished, the recliner was still together, but as soon as he sat down on it, it collapsed in a clatter of aluminum frame and rubbery plastic straps. "There."
"But not just tables, chairs, recliners," Ovi had said. "Half of you in Flying Valley group work on chairs, other half set mousetraps."
"Don't start any fires," Nicky had said. He'd looked them over, considered, and then reevaluated to, "Don't start any large fires."
In its own way, tonight is just as, if not even more ambitious than the Islebrook Jell-O opening caper and the double hit on Rangerford Square and Columbus Manor. The double hit had been standard prank work, and the same measures taken on both pools. Mostly bathroom material: saran-wrapping the toilets, bouillon cubes in the shower head, ketchup in half the soap dispensers and egg whites in the other half, baby powder in the hand blowers, tape on the sink faucets, and they'd left the costume head of Sparky, the Islebrook mascot, in the staff office of Rangerford Square, and a pan of brownies with the label "Eat Me" in the staff office of Columbus Manor.
("Did you do anything to the brownies?" Karl had asked.
Stick had shrugged. "No. I was going to Ex-Lax them, but they're normal brownies."
"So what's the prank?" John had asked.
"It just adds a confusing factor," Stick had said. "Trust me, they'll overthink it, same way you guys are.")
Nicky had a much more general blueprint of what he wanted done for Flying Valley and Penn Springs as opposed to Islebrook, but he'd still been very specific on parts of the set up. So Karl's working on unscrewing chairs and recliners along with a bunch of the others, while the other half of their group are carefully covering the floor of the Flying Valley staff office with the old fashioned kind of snap mouse traps. Karl's glad he's not in that group because he's pretty sure he'd have lost all his fingers by now. Setting mouse traps by auto-pilot isn't quite the same thing.
John's not unscrewing chairs or setting mouse traps. John's with the group that went to Penn Springs, and the last Karl had seen him, he'd been avoiding eye contact with Karl and carrying a box full of thirty five live mice. Karl's not sure of the exact final number they clocked in at, but he knows there were a lot of boxes after Ovi sent everyone out to all the PetCos in a fifty mile radius, as well as some sketchy exotic pet breeder that Boris had hooked them up with (Karl's trying not think too hard about why Boris is on such good terms with an exotic pet breeder or where Ovi's been keeping hundreds of feeder mice, which isn't too difficult because, well, ask me the fuck out and get naked and climb into your fucking lap is still rattling around his brain nonstop) and the upshot is they left with a hell of a lot of live mice.
He's not even sure what Ovi has planned with all those mice. He probably should have asked more questions about what was with all the cans of red and blue spray paint, too. There's a vandalism line all of them tiptoe up to, but try not to cross. But Nicky probably has it all under control.
You know what, I'd give it up for fucking free if you'd just get it together and ask me the fuck out.
Do I have to actually get naked and climb into your fucking lap before you'll pick up on a hint?
He'd cornered Jay while Willy was gingerly picking his way over the barbed wire fence to get into Flying Valley—the trick is to use a big strip of carpet remnant as a barrier, Nicky had informed them, and then provided such a piece—and hissed at him while trying to hold back his panic. "Did you tell Carly?"
Jay had frowned. "What?"
"Did you tell him about—you know. Me. And how I—you know, him."
"Your big gay feelings for him that can be seen from space?" Jay had asked. "No. Weirdly enough, I think other people at this pool might've noticed you thirsting over him for the last couple years. Or maybe he picked up on it himself. Carly's not an idiot, even if he has resting stoner face."
"You didn't tell him," Karl had repeated.
"I said I wouldn't, and I don't break promises," Jay had said. "What's going on, why are you so freaked?"
"We were talking, like, earlier," Karl had said. "Like… right before Ovi got us all together. And he was mad about something and I. I was just ribbing him a little and he said, like."
You know what, I'd give it up for fucking free if you'd just get it together and ask me the fuck out.
Do I have to actually get naked and climb into your fucking lap before you'll pick up on a hint?
He knows; he's repeated it to himself over and over. The words chase each other around and around in his head; he holds the shape of them in his mouth, but he can't give them to Jay, no matter what. He's afraid to.
Willy had picked that exact minute to unlock the gate from the inside, after managing to get over the fence without tearing a hole in any part of him. "Guys, c'mon."
"We'll talk inside," Jay had said, but he'd gone to set mouse traps and Karl had bee-lined for the screwdrivers, and he's gotten a lot done, but he's no closer to figuring out what he's feeling than before.
Footsteps quietly padding towards him. Karl looks up, and speak of the devil, here comes Jay after all.
"So," Jays says. "You were saying."
Karl digs his screwdriver into the fourth screw of the recliner. "It's not important."
"Did he shoot you down?" Jay asks, crouching down next to him. He sounds—sympathetic. And Karl realizes that Jay thinks he's probably been sitting there in the dark, nursing a rejection. "I can switch shifts if you want, if tomorrow's going to be awkward. If… look, whatever he said, I can talk to him—"
"No," Karl says, cutting him off before he can go further. "I mean. No, not exactly. He said something about asking him out and picking up on hints. He seemed kinda mad at me."
"What the fuck." Jay sits back on his heels and looks supremely annoyed. "Alzy, I'm mad at you. I thought you were sitting here trying to figure out how to remove your broken heart with a screwdriver. Sounds like he wants your dick and he's just mad you haven't made a move. Which I could have told you because, like I said, you guys are super not subtle and we have a betting pool on when you're going to get your heads out of your asses about each other."
"You have a betting pool on us?" Karl asks. "Wait. How much?"
"It's been accumulating for a while," Jay says. "Ovi thought he'd won that time you guys showed up in matching shirts with a fucking portmanteau of your name on it, like, what the fuck, a portmanteau. I think that's why he gave you two weeks of 8-8 shifts after that, because he was annoyed he hadn't won. And you're sitting here all bummed out because, what? What is the goddamn problem? Why aren't you guys together, like, right now? Do we need to lock you guys in the pump room?"
"No, I think the janitor's closet is the designated spot," Karl says. He closes his eyes, breathes in deep. "He just. He seemed angry. And he's my best friend and I, Beags, I didn't think I had a chance. No, shut up. I really didn't. And I don't want to lose… what I have. I don't know what's going to happen if things change."
Jay doesn’t say anything at first. He scrubs a hand over his face. "Okay. This is where I should be a supportive friend and make the speech about it being scary but not being afraid of change, and that we all just watched Ovi and Nicky prove that friends can get together and no relationship is without its ups and downs but almost everything can be fixed, and that ever since I started working at Capital Heights you two have been like those freaky fish they sometimes show on the Discovery Channel that actually, like, fuse with each other because they're so close—"
"This, uh, kinda sounds like that speech," Karl says.
"Shut up," Jay says. "Dude. I don't make speeches, that's Stick or Ovi's job. You like Carly a lot. Seems like he feels the same way. Man up, apologize to each other for being stupid, and go hang out in the janitor's closet for a while."
"Yeah, okay," Karl says. "Seriously, how much is the betting pool?"
"I'll cut you in for half if you actually go hook up with Carly on the Fourth of July," Jays says. He stands up. "I think if we put in another hour or so, we'll be done with the chairs. All the mousetraps are set."
"I wish I knew the whole plan for what they're doing over at Penn Springs," Karl said. Along with all the boxes of live mice, there'd been several other bags and boxes he hadn't been able to check out. He saw a jar of peanut butter sticking out the top of one, and a bunch of traffic cones. It was weird Nicky hadn't told him everything, when he'd been so detailed about what he wanted done at Flying Valley, but apparently a post-coital Nicky was more reckless than usual.
"It'll be fine," Jay says. He looks past Karl into the dark. "I'm going to go help Jojo."
"Jojo went with the Penn Springs group," Karl said. "Burky came with us."
"Uh, no, Burky's with Penn Springs and Jojo came with us," Jay says. "He rode in the car with Stick, remember? Man, don't mix your Swedes, that's a recipe for disaster."
"I could have sworn it was Burky," Karl says. He tries to remember. "We were in the car, and, um, you were driving and he and… Schmidty? Weren't they in the back seat? Didn't Burky make the joke about, um, the bear or something?"
Jay scoffs. "I think you can't think straight when you're in love," he says. "Get it together, Alzy."
If only it were that easy. Karl focuses on what he's doing. He's got a job to do right now, and messing that up by looking ahead to something else isn't going to help anything. Another hour, he can do that.
Get it together and ask me the fuck out.
Get naked and climb into your fucking lap?
Maybe Jay has a point about him not being able to think clearly. Karl suspects a lot of the blood that should be going to his brain has been stubbornly remaining somewhere much more south of that. He grits his teeth and adjusts himself again, glad it had been too dark for Jay to call attention to that.
By the time they leave, Karl's wrists ache. They'd done the same as last time, parked two blocks away, and when he gets in the car with Jay, he closes his eyes and pretends to fall asleep so he doesn't have to make conversation with anyone. Jay's got the windows down and the radio on, some classic rock station, and Karl eventually does drowse away for real to Bruce Springsteen singing about dancing in the dark.
He doesn't know how long he dozes off for, but the car's not moving when he wakes up, and someone's opening the car door for him and helping him out. John, of course. Who else would it be?
"I told Ovi we'd stick around for a while to make sure no one tried to come tag us tonight," John says. "I have the keys to lock up with."
"Okay," Karl says. He feels disoriented, like waking up from an afternoon nap in the evening. He didn't think he'd actually fallen asleep-asleep, but maybe he's just been too tired to realize it. "What time is it?"
"It's late," John says.
"What did you guys do at Penn Springs?" Karl asks.
John makes an aimless gesture with his hands. "We divided up the mice and spray painted, like, two thirds of them," he says.
"You can… do that?" Karl asks. "You can paint mice?"
"Well, to a point. They move around a lot," John says, and frowns. "We did half of the painted ones red, and the other half blue. We kept the others, you know, white."
"Patriotic," Karl says.
"I guess," John says. "As a Canadian, I realize you're not up to date on the greatest holiday in the world, but it's the Fourth of July tomorrow. But, um. More importantly, Nisky got a tip that Penns Springs has their inspection tomorrow."
"Oh man," Karl says. He thinks that over a little more. "Oh man," he repeats.
"And we didn't just put them in the office," John says. He's beginning to smile despite himself. "Like, anywhere we could fill up most of the cracks or places they could escape, we put them. I mean, I'm sure some will get out anyway, but most of them will be where they need to be."
Karl can see it now. Red, white, and blue mice all over the pool, in the bathrooms, in their office and snack area and storage, and probably ending up in the pool skimmers. And that's if Ovi and Nicky picked up non-toxic paint, which—Karl's not a scientist, but he's pretty sure that paint in general's not good for mice in the long run, so the idea of a bunch of dying painted mice staggering all over the Penn Springs pool is a uniquely compelling one.
"I didn't know what the whole plan was for them," Karl says. "Did they tell you all about what we were doing over at Flying Valley?"
"Sorta," John says. "C'mon, we gotta go talk. This is important."
"Okay," Karl says. He can do this. It might not go like it does in the movies, but Jay's right, he just needs to man up and take the next step. Speaking of— "Where's Beags?" he asks. "He's not, um. Sticking around to wait with us, is he?"
John hesitates. "No. He's not here."
This feels like a too convenient set-up, but as long as Karl's sure the entire staff isn't eavesdropping on him and John, he can deal. He and John walk side by side towards the office, but John doesn’t go inside. Instead, he keeps walking and heads out onto the pool deck, taking off his paint-stained shirt as he goes and pulling on another. Karl manages not to trip over his own feet or collide with anything this time, but it’s a near thing.
John heads over to the deep end. All the underwater lights are still on in the pool, but the tall floodlights mounted on the clubhouse roof corners and on the fencing perimeter are turned off. It's eerie to see. Karl picks up his pace to catch up with John, who's headed towards the lifeguard chair that overlooks the deep end, but John doesn't make a move towards the ladder portion of the chair. He just looks at it, and then walks a few feet away and sits down on the edge of the pool, dropping his feet into the water. After a few seconds of hesitation, Karl kicks off his sandals and does too.
"You know, I once saw this pool at a fancy hotel that was, like, black?" John says, leaning back on his hands and looking up. "It was in this indoor atrium thing inside the hotel, almost like a giant greenhouse, with all these potted trees and plants there. It had black tiles and a bunch of lights hung in this particular way so that the trees reflected into the water. So if you were swimming in it, it was supposed to look like you swimming around in an underground forest. There was this other lighting thing they could do, like, fake constellations they could light up overhead to reflect stars into the water the same way they did the branches, so it was like swimming in the sky. It was really elaborate."
"Mm," Karl says. He wishes he had brought the bug spray with him. Every now and then he hears the telltale whine in his ear and he slaps out blindly. "Where was it?"
"I can't remember," John says. He sighs, a long and low exhale, and then pushes up with his wrists so he's not leaning back as hard on his arms. "So, you wanna go first or you want me to?"
"Okay," Karl says, and the angle is bad; he has to twist on his hip and brace himself, but he does anyway, keeping his left hand on the concrete to anchor, and reaching out with his right hand to cup John's cheek and kiss him. He keeps his eyes open because he doesn't know what to expect, and even in the dark, he can see John's eyes are blue, a wide startled blue, before he relaxes and his lashes sweep down as his eyes close. John has the most ridiculous eyelashes ever, long as a girl's, and Karl wants to have both hands free, to cup John's face like something precious and trace each closed eyelid with his thumbs.
He keeps leaning in and John tilts his head. The angle is still bad and his hip strains from it; they shift a little to adjust, and it's a slow descent down to the concrete, both of them on their sides but mirroring each other.
"Okay," Karl says again, and it's awkward but he pulls his legs out of the water and pushes back from the lip of the pool. John does the same thing, a few beats behind him. They're lying full length on the concrete deck now, hip to hip, and this is going to be uncomfortable soon but the idea of stopping, of getting up and getting a towel to lie on, or going to the couch in the office or the car or anywhere just doesn't seem like an option. If he stops kissing John, this whole moment will break and he'll wake up to find himself alone; it'll all be a dream. They're hard against each other, and Karl wants to press and feel but he just works with what he can, shifting his hand from cupping John's face so he can run his fingers through John's hair at his temples, stroke down and touch the bare skin of his neck.
John's lips are soft and a little chapped; Karl loves his mouth, has hundreds of sneaked looks and fantasies about it. Pink and wet and full, he wants to bite at it like a piece of fruit, so he does, and John makes a breathy little sigh that's almost a whimper at the end. It goes straight to Karl's dick. John's tongue is slick and slow, and the inside of his mouth is warm and tastes a little sour. John leans over into it, putting his hand down on Karl's hip, and one of them needs to move on top to make this really work.
Karl sits up and pulls at John. "You said you'd climb into my lap naked," he says, curving his hand around the back of John's neck, pulling them together, and John gets what he wants to do and is scrambling to sit on top of Karl's spread legs so they're face to face. Karl puts his hands around John's waist, runs his fingers up and down his sides to make John hiss and squirm. "I've been, like, do you know, I couldn't think about anything else while I was working on the stuff at the other pool?"
"Good, you deserved it," John says and with his leverage, he bounces on Karl's lap a little, grinding against his dick, and it's Karl's turn to clench his teeth on a very embarrassing noise. "I can't believe you've been missing all the goddamn hints I've been dropping for years."
"The rest of the guys have a betting pool on us," Karl tells him.
"I know, I've got money in," John says, and peppers three light kisses on him in a row, just a brush of lips on each corner of his mouth and one in the middle. "Technically, I had to get Osh to put it in for me, but he knows, if it ever actually happened, he said he'd hand it over to me."
"Osh knows?" Karl says, reaching for some emotion that he's not sure of—embarrassment, or maybe jealousy, because John and TJ have shit together that John and Karl don't, even if it's not as much.
"Everyone knows, idiot. Everyone except you, I guess," John says, and bounces again, adding some deliberate rocking to the end of it. "Even Burky's fucking ducks probably know. Fuck, Burky told me a bunch of people told him to name the ducks after us. Burky offered to, in case it would help tip you off. You—" Bounce. "—Fucking." Bounce. "Idiot—ah, ow."
Karl's snaked his hands up under John's shirt and pinches both his nipples in retaliation. Then he thumbs at them gently, feeling the way they resist and tighten. He scratches his fingernails against the light hair he can feel on John's chest.
"I only won, like, two games ever of the Guess Whose Nipples thing," he offers. "And both of those were you. I got distracted every time I played it."
"Alzy, you idiot," John says and fits his mouth against Karl's again. And it goes on like that for a while, one deep, lazy kiss after another, like floating in the ocean on waves that keep rising and bearing him up. Or maybe not quite like that, because he's not being carried away, not letting it happen all around him; kissing John is something he's doing. It feels more like skating, maybe, down a perfect sheet of ice, the swish of blades and the long swooping glide.
Funny to remember ice skating right now, he thinks to himself vaguely. It's summer time, warm and muggy, and ice skating doesn’t fit in with that.
John finally sits back, and then he eases himself up and off Karl's legs. "C'mon. Your ass is going to go numb sitting there."
"I don't mind," Karl says. "I'm fine. Better than fine." He can't stop smiling. His legs and ass are kinda numb; he probably has over twenty mosquito bites; his dick is so hard, it's practically throbbing in his pants, and he's never felt better in his life.
"Yeah, well, I was in your lap but I wasn't naked so we've still got some adjustments to do," John says. He hesitates. "Actually—I kinda have an idea."
"A naked idea?" Karl asks.
"Maybe," John says.
"Are we going skinny dipping?" Karl says, and he means it to be a joke, he really does, but he can hear the eager tone in his own voice and he wants to maybe go drown himself instead.
"I'm down for that some time, but not right now," John says. "No, there was some weirdo I knew who once dragged me on top of a roof to watch the sun rise. I thought he was going to make a super romantic move on me, but instead he just talked about classic literature and stuff. I tried to get him to talk about porn, but he missed the point by a mile."
"Sounds like a freak," Karl says. "Better lose his number and block him."
"Eh, it's good to have back up options," John says. "You know, in case things don't go okay with the guy I'm seeing now. Who still hasn't really asked me out, but I think it's coming."
"He sounds like you could do better," Karl says. He grabs the hand John offers to help pull him up, and once he's levered himself onto his feet, he pulls John up against him and cups a hand around the back of his neck. "Leave this dude and run away with me. We'll never be apart, and I'll buy you all the shaved ice your heart desires."
John presses his head down against Karl's shoulder and makes a little noise. Then he surges upward and nearly clonks Karl in the nose with how hard he kisses him, just barely correcting in time. Karl lets him set the pace and the pressure the way John had let him when they were on the ground, opens his mouth, grabs a double handful of John's ass, and just hangs on for the ride.
"I need to get something out of the office," John says breathlessly, when he finally pulls back. "Go up to the roof and meet me there. I'll be there in just a sec."
"Okay," Karl says, mouth tingling, whole body tingling, and he walks away around the side of the building with his hand cupped over his mouth and still trying to hold in the smile. He climbs the reclining lounger (still never replaced with the real ladder) as well as he can in the dark and with a hard-on that's seriously going to kill him if he doesn't do something with it soon.
When he's up on the roof, there's no wind. The trees are swarming with fireflies, little gold sparks flickering all over the place, and the night itself is alive with the sounds of crickets and cicadas making their racket. He stretches his arms up and out to the sky in triumph and dizzy with happiness, like he's going to just take off and fly, like he's won the goddamn Stanley Cup, the way he dreamed of doing when he was a kid.
He wants John, and John wants him; he loves John and… He said it to John earlier, and then he covered it with a joke. Thinking it to himself now in the quiet of her own head, it echoes out and Karl can't stop thinking it, can't stop the way the words form themselves perfectly in his mouth and push against his skin. He's fucking blushing, thinking them. John will know, he must be able to tell; Karl can't think that he has it written any plainer across his face.
Karl hears the scrape of the recliner against the tool shed's walls He turns around and waits for John to emerge, and he sees John's head and shoulders rising in silhouette against the sky.
"Did you need to get towels for us to sit on or something?" Karl asks. To sit on, or to do something else too, maybe. If he's lucky, anyway.
"I need you to listen to me," John says, and something inside Karl pricks up in curiosity. John doesn't sound like he did just a few minutes ago. "No, it's not bad. I just. I need you to listen to me for a sec."
"I'm listening," Karl says. "Are you gonna stay over there or…?"
John walks over to him. "Sit down, spread your legs," he says. Once Karl's sitting, John sits down in front of him, getting between his legs and shifting until he's got his back pressed up against Karl's chest. Karl wraps his arms around John's waist and waits a few seconds.
"You gonna tell me what it is now?" he asks.
John breathes out. Karl can feel it against him, and he tries to match his breathing to John's.
"In the morning," John starts, "we'd be down in the office. Like, asleep on the couch. We were supposed to lock the office door but we didn't because we were comfortable and we fell asleep. We'd wake up because Ovi would be taking pictures on his phone and we'd hear him snickering or something, and he'd start laughing for real and yelling to Backy about how we finally did it, check the sheet to see who had this day, who won the betting pool.
"You'd say something kinda mean but also polite, because that's what you do, that whole Canadian thing. And we'd kinda sit up, and Backy would come in and punch Ovi, and he would kinda smile at us when he pulled Ovi out of here, and we'd just… sit there for a few minutes and smile, and then I'd tell you I have morning breath but I'm going to kiss you anyway, and I would."
"Sounds good so far," Karl says. He squeezes his hands a little, then reaches up to stroke the curls back from John's forehead because he's always wanted to and now he can.
"Then Burky would start shrieking, like, oh my God, come quick, the baby ducks have hatched, and we'd all get dragged out to go see them, and he'd be taking a million pictures of that with his phone, and something dumb probably happens, like, they end up imprinting on him or following him around. Or maybe they imprint on someone else and make him mad. Like, I dunno, Nisky. Or Chorns. Chorns deserves something nice."
"Sure," Karl says. He's not entirely sure where this is going right now, but hey, he thinks he knows where it's going to end. If John's having fun with it, why not.
"We'd have the usual Fourth of July stuff going on. You know, all the games, and the ice cream, and the barbecue shit. At some point, one of the guys from Penn Springs or something shows up in the parking lot and probably wants to fight about all the mice and all the other stuff. They failed their inspection and they got closed down for the day. And maybe one of the guys from Flying Valley shows up too, and they end up thinking that each other did it, and so they get into a whole fist fight."
"And then Boris shows up and thinks they're competition and tries to run both of them down," Karl adds, and John chuckles a little bit.
"Yeah, that would work. That would be okay. And the weather would be perfect, and people would be talking about how it's going to be great for the fireworks and asking where we're all going to go to watch them, and… like, I'd say we were doing something on our own. And you'd smile, and all the guys would do their stupid 'Ohhhhhh' thing and, and…"
"Are we actually watching the fireworks up here on this roof for, like, symbolic completeness?" Karl asks.
"Yeah," John says. "Sure. There's fireworks we can see from this roof and we watch them up here. And we go skinny dipping afterwards, because the fireworks are always over by ten, and it's not so late yet. So we fuck around in the pool for a while, and then…"
He trails off. Karl rests his chin on John's shoulder. "What happens then?" he asks.
"Then we go home," John says. "Together." His voice is quiet, and Karl has to strain to hear him. "Alzy. Karl. Listen to me. If you laugh at me right now, I might punch you, but I love you."
"I love you too," Karl says, and the words shoot straight out, no hesitation. "Also, please go out with me, I know I was supposed to say it earlier, but I got caught up in the moment."
"Yeah?" John says. "Good. Well, I guess I can forgive you."
"And if at some point, we both want to get naked and be in the vicinity of each other's laps—" Karl adds.
"It was seriously coming to that point," John says. "I mean, last summer, I was spilling stuff all over myself all the time and you never noticed. Granted, it's hard to notice when Holts is doing the same thing and he's anywhere nearby, but seriously."
"Maybe you should have actually imitated Ovi or something," Karl says. "I might've picked up on it then. With nakedness. Or whatever."
"You're kinda stuck on this specific topic of nakedness," John says.
"I can't help it," Karl says. "Hey. Do you remember, like when we were talking up here last time about what we were gonna do, where we were gonna go when summer ends and all that?"
"Even though I was kinda dying of frustration at the time, yeah, I do remember," John says dryly.
"Anyway," Karl says. "I figured you might want to know that I think I know. Like, I know-know."
"Oh," John says, and Karl can hear John's smile before he sees it in the rising sun's light, before John turns his head and presses it to Karl's mouth. "Good. Me too."