Walking would have been quicker, easier and safer, but someone suggested swimming home instead. And when that same someone said it would be an adventure, we pounced on the idea like kittens on catnip.No one could remember a parental decree saying we could not swim home through the neighbourhood pools, so technically, we weren’t, strictly speaking, breaking any rules. Wayne said any decent lawyer would back us up on that and we believed him. Besides, adults were always calling kids lazy. Here at last was proof to the contrary. Rock-solid evidence that would disprove that ageist slur once and for all.
At twelve years old, our definition of the word adventure didn’t include synonyms like dangerous, prolonged or private property. Nor did the word, police enter into our discussion. On a hot August night, the last week of summer before going back to school, adventure was an urgent necessity.
Our plan was simple: Hop the fence, dive in one end of the pool, swim to the other end, and hop the fence into the next yard, leap-frogging our way home pool by pool through the Land of Lawns – the backyards of Wishing Well Park.
The first few houses were easy, too easy, boring, well below the dreams of adventure we’d imagined. Until . . . we arrived at a pool with a diving board.
With all the gravitas he could conjure, Wayne stood on the board like an Olympic diver – arms outstretched, head up, eyes focused inwardly on a gold-medal performance. Raising up on his toes he said, “One small dive for man,” – took three steps and launched skyward – “one giant splash for mankind.” His cannonball echoed between the brick houses. Crickets went silent, dogs started barking, a baby began to cry upstairs and the back porch light turned on. Unquestionably, a world-class cannonball destined for the history books, but whoever owned the pool probably wouldn’t agree and we didn’t wait to find out.
We encountered hostile resistance in the backyard at 48 Meadowacres.
Aroused by the sight of Rosie’s fluorescent pink shorts, a snarling dachshund with delusions of being a Doberman clamped onto her rear end and wasn’t letting go. She wiggled her behind, shaking der Schnitzelmutt left and right until her back pocket came off in its jaws. Savagely, the hound shook the lifeless flap of denim holding it to the ground and tearing at it. Where is that pocket now, I wonder? Buried in the back yard with its bone collection? Perhaps hanging on the doghouse wall or stretched out on the floor in front of its basket the way big game hunters display their snarling bear skin rugs in front of a fireplace?
In spite of her near-death experience, Rosie hopped the fence and slipped quietly into the next pool. Treading water in the deep end we listened to the homeowner come outside and threaten to call the cops. Then he hollered at der Schnitzelmutt to shut-up. We heard it yelp. It took both of us to keep Rosie from climbing back over the fence to defend the pooch and kick the owner.
Seconds after our feet hit the ground at 36 Meadowacres, a strange chill fell over us. That feeling you get when a cloud covers the sun, the temperature drops, the wind goes still and the low growl of thunder rumbles in the distance.
Rosie folded her arms over her chest, teeth chattering. Wayne said it was a side-effect of evaporation. “The process of liquid turning into a gas – air – cools the wet surface; i.e., skin–”
“Shut up, Wayne.” She held a finger to her lips.
Voices were coming from the house – loud and angry. The words were muffled but the tone was unmistakable. We watched Mrs. Todd walk slowly past the dining room window. Head down. Hands covering her face. Then we lost sight of her. Seconds later the kitchen light came on. She was crying. Her face contorted in a tight-lipped grimace. We couldn’t see Mr. Todd through any of the windows, but we could hear him. Half the neighbourhood could have heard him. Finally, he appeared in the upstairs window running down the stairs, his face all red and sweaty, screaming something that ended with the word, bitch. He spun around the support post at the bottom and charged down the hall through the kitchen door where Mrs. Todd hit him flat in the face with a frying pan.
If she’d swung a bat instead of a frying pan his head would’ve been an out-of-the-park, bases-loaded, grand-slam, game-over, break-out-the-champagne-we’re-going-to-the-World-Series home run.
When old man Todd hit the floor Rosie pumped her fists in the air and cheered.
Wayne acquitted Mrs. Todd on the grounds of self-defence. “Family violence is the number one killer in North America,” he announced – a startling piece of information for a twelve-year-old to have at his fingertips.
We raced through a half dozen yards – bounding over fences, tripping over toys, trampling gardens, racing through curtains of sheets and towels hanging on clotheslines, half expecting to see Mr. Todd’s head perched on a rooftop staring down at us over his flattened nose. A block later, we scrambled over a high wooden fence and dropped to the ground to catch our breath.
We listened for any sound of pursuit. Nothing – no sirens, no baying hounds, no stampede of footsteps on our tail, just chirring crickets and the faint hum of highway traffic.
Up to this point, every backyard was pretty much like every other – evenly trimmed lawns, perfectly edged gardens, a fringe of shrubs and flowers, all carefully arranged in manicured rectangles with the precision of a Mondrian painting. Not this one.
“We’re at George the Greek’s,” I said.
George was a nice old guy. Sinewy, with skin like aged leather, hairy knuckles and a puff of wispy white hair. Quick to smile, friendly with everyone and an accent so thick I often found myself staring at his chest waiting for subtitles.
His pool wasn’t big enough to be called a pool, more like a large bathtub with a bare-breasted mermaid fountain at one end. Huge fern fronds arched over the stream of water tumbling over moss-covered rocks into the pool. Vines heavy with clusters of grapes clung to a trellis on one side of his garage. The air was thick with the fragrance of rosemary, basil and thyme. Fruit trees grew everywhere. Pears and plums in the ground, lemons and figs in large ceramic urns.
I bit into a peach, still warm from the afternoon sun. Juice exploded into my mouth, rolled off my chin, dribbling down my chest and belly onto my legs. Every cell in my body quivered with a burst of sweetness. If nature made anything better, she kept it for herself.
We slipped into George’s pond and pushed off. Two seconds later we were climbing out beside the fountain. Wayne cupped his hands underneath the mermaid’s breasts and grinned at Rosie. She shot him a look that could freeze molten lava. “Don’t even think of it!”
Without a ladder, there was no way we could scale the fence surrounding George’s garden so we went through the gate and across Norbert Street to Pamela’s house.
A faint, meandering piano melody drifted into the yard from the basement window.
We peered through the glass and saw Pamela’s mom sitting at the piano. A long ash hung from the tip of her cigarette. Her other hand plunked the keys with barely enough force to coax out a sound.
Pamela played piano in our school band. Last Christmas, when we performed Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, she played a long solo of Poor Little Buttercup – the highlight of our performance. Sitting at the piano under the auditorium spotlight she glowed. Thin and delicate, her chalky white skin like a milky glaze on a porcelain figurine, almost transparent with the faintest tracing of blue veins below . . . Poor little Buttercup. Poor little Buttercup . . .
In June, our teacher told us that Pamela had died. She didn’t explain what leukemia was, just that it took her. The school put a plaque with her name on it on the wall opposite the Principal’s office.
“I saw a dead crow in our back yard,” Rosie whispered to me.
“Everybody dies,” I said, sounding more knowledgeable about the subject than I was.
“Old people, yeah,” she continued.
“Pamela wasn’t old.”
“So what’d she do wrong?”
I didn’t have an answer.
Mrs. Mills stubbed out her cigarette. Rosie said, “We shouldn’t be here.”
Several fences later we were in a pool on Dobbin Street. Wayne climbed the ladder out of the deep end, dragged a towel off the clothesline and started to dry his hair. He said, “When I die, I’m comin’ back to haunt you guys.”
The towel hung limply over his head and I guess he thought he looked like a ghost. He lurched around in circles, moaning like a TV zombie, arms outstretched, peg-legged and flat-footed and walked right off the deck into the pool. When he surfaced the towel had wrapped tightly around his head and arms. It dragged him down like an anchor. He kicked and thrashed up to the surface again, desperately trying to shake the towel off his head. I heard his muffled cry for help before he went down for the third time. I dove in, swam around behind him and peeled off the towel. He hit the surface gasping for breath, sputtering and coughing. As Rosie helped him out, a second-floor light turned on. A figure pushed the curtains aside.
“Shit!” I said. “We gotta go.”
We helped Wayne across the lawn – still dazed and spitting up long, stringy lines of snot. The back door opened just as we dropped over the fence and ran down the driveway onto Farmcrest Drive.
Halfway across the street, a police car rounded the corner. We froze. He stopped. We stared at each other like two gunfighters on Main Street at high noon, each waiting for the other to make the first move. We ran. He hit the accelerator and peeled after us.
For the next ten minutes, we toyed with the cop letting him get close enough to see us, then hiding behind a hedge or up a tree. By the time he’d stopped where he’d last seen us we’d reappear in his rearview mirror crossing the street half a block away. Those backyards were our backyards. We knew every fence and bush, every shortcut, every hiding spot. He soon gave up and drove away.
We were sitting on the lawn between two houses still laughing at the hapless cop when Wayne stood up and said, “I’m goin’ home.”
We watched him wander up the street, looking down at his feet, kicking stones as he walked from one pool of light to the next until he turned the corner at the top of the street.
I was sitting on the grass tying my shoelaces when Rosie jumped up and said, “Four pools to go. Race you.” She was over the first fence before I was on my feet. By the time I dove into the deep end of the Wynn’s pool she was climbing out the opposite end. I saw her pink pocketless shorts disappear over the fence as I ran out of the pool.
From the top of the fence, I saw her bounce off the diving board. I followed her lead and used the board to narrow the distance between us. At the peak of my arc into the pool, she was running up the stairs in the shallow end, barely half a length ahead.
We scrambled over the next fence together and dropped into the middle of a garden party at the Klein’s. Simultaneously, eight adults stopped what they were doing and stared at us speechless, their mouths open in little Os, drinks poised in midair as we ran across the lawn and dove into the pool.
On the deck at the far end, I glanced back over my shoulder and waved at the group still standing silent and motionless as if captured in a photograph.
We dove into Rosie’s pool shoulder to shoulder. Suddenly I was completely tangled in arms and legs, Rosie clinging to me. We squirmed and twisted underwater until she broke loose, sprang ahead and touched the wall at the shallow end. “I win,” she yelled, hands in the air, bouncing up and down, “I win I win I win.”
She took a towel off the line wrapped it over her shoulders said, “See you tomorrow,” and went in her back door.
I cut through the hedge between her house and mine and slipped into our pool. Floating on my back, suspended in warm water, weightless, timeless, a full moon staring down me with one eye. I thought of Pamela again. I’d lost something that night. And for reasons I couldn’t explain I knew that what was lost would never return.
A few minutes later my Mom appeared at the back door. “What are you doing out here?”
“Swimming.” When all else fails, tell the truth, that’s my motto. Mom had an infallible bullshit detector. She could smell a lie through concrete.
“Well, get in here,” she said. “It’s late.”
That was Friday. Monday was a school day.
In one way teachers are just like students: both need a week to get back up to speed after a two-month vacation. That’s why they always ask for a What I did on my summer vacation composition on the first day back. But this year, instead of a mere composition, our teacher introduced us to Public Speaking. Rumour on the playground was that Mr. Barton was a tyrant and “three minutes without notes” proved it.
Due to a heavy dose of bad karma, Barton called me first. I had no time to concoct a stretcher, the clock was ticking, the class waiting. So I told the truth. When all else fails, et cetera et cetera . . .
Omitting Wayne’s and Rosie’s names, I told the class about our pool-hopping adventure trying to slant my story away from the mundane reality of bored mischief and frame it as a psychological study of suburban lifestyles complete with concrete gnomes, one Schnitzelmutt, a fully stocked bar trolley, third-base snogging on the basement sofa, George the Greek’s Garden of Eden and the heavenly peach . . .
My classmates all leaned forward, chins cupped in their hands, not one pair of eyes strayed out the window.
Mr. Barton listened from the back of the class, fidgeting, shifting from foot to foot, his face flushed, temples throbbing, a faint glow of perspiration on his upper lip. Mrs. Todd’s grand-slam home run was his breaking point.
“Stop right there,” he yelled, pointing to the open door with a trembling finger. “Principal’s Office, now!”
The class groaned in unison.
As I rounded the corner to the Office I stopped in front of Pamela’s plaque. Stared at her name for a long time. Her birthday, her deathday. Did the subtraction in my head. Eleven years old. Poor Little Buttercup.
I didn’t notice the Principal was behind me until he called my name. I looked up over my shoulder and asked, “Do you think she watches us?”
— THE END —
COLIN THORNTON will attempt to control his penchant for writing fiction and stick to the facts for the next 50 words. He’s been writing short stories and audio dramas for six years. His work has appeared in the Globe and Mail (x5), in Pulp Literature, Blank Spaces, Galleon, the Dime Store Review and The Jewish Literary Journal. Chapel Street Editions will be printing a collection of his short stories in 2022.
Photo by form PxHere