|The Mysterious Girl at the Pool
By Juanita Havill
Summer days are all alike. They melt into one another, and all you remember is going to the pool, doing chores, or sitting around reading. But one day last summer stands out crystal clear. I even remember the date: August 11.
I rode my bike to the pool. When I got there, I didn’t see anyone I knew except some goofy boys from school. I wasn’t about to play with them.
I plopped my towel down on the cement and went right to the deep water. I’m short for my age but swim better than most eleven-year-olds, so the lifeguards never hassle me about being in the deep.
I dived in. The cold water felt great. I swam laps to warm up, then found a popsicle stick by the ledge and decided to play chop-chop. It’s a game I usually play with my friends. One of us dives in with the stick, takes it to the bottom, lets it go, and hurries back to the ledge to climb out. Whoever spots the stick screams “chop-chop” and goes for it. I’m pretty good. I can even find it when I’m the one who took it down. Then I get another turn. When I play alone, I take the stick down and see how fast I can find it.
I was starting at the water waiting for the stick to surface when I saw a girl I didn’t recognize. She swam across the pool, then climbed out and sat on the ledge beside me. She wore a strange-looking orange bathing suit. It wasn’t cut high on the leg like my suit. Instead, it hung down like shorts.
She held up my stick and said, “Can I play chop-chop with you?”
“Sure,” I said.
She dived in with the stick. I strained to see where she went. She must have been able to hold her breathe for a long time because she swam back to the ledge underwater. She climbed out and shouted, “Chop-chop,” and had the stick before I even saw it.
Again and again she took the stick down and sighted it. She moved through the water like a dolphin. She was tiny and thin and had long brown hair and blue eyes. Her hair was so long I wondered why the guards didn’t make her wear a cap. They didn’t seem to notice.
Finally I won, but I couldn’t help feeling that she had let me win.
“I’m hungry,” I said, instead of taking the stick down. “Want to get a snack with me?”
“I’ll come,” she said, “but I’m not hungry.”
Sitting on a bench outside the pool, I peeled the paper from my ice cream and offered her the first bite. She shook her head. “That’s why you’re so skinny,” I said. I was curious to know who she was. “I’m Jackie Peterson. What’s your name?”
“Roxanne Mainz,” she said. “My folks have the flower shop downtown.”
Maybe that’s why I didn’t know her. In our town we have two schools, kindergarten through eighth grade. Downtown goes to Edison School. I go to Jefferson.
“I haven’t seen you here before. Don’t you swim much?” I asked.
“I love to swim,” she said, but her blue eyes darkened the way the sky does when clouds blow in front of the sun.
I shivered despite the hot afternoon. “Who’s your teacher this year?”
“Mrs. Johns,” she said. “I had Mrs. Wade last year.”
I knew some of the teachers at Edison, but not either of them. I finished my ice cream and threw the sticky wrapper in the garbage. “Do you like to dive off the board, Roxanne?”
Roxanne looked a little uneasy. She didn’t answer. “Let’s go.” I jumped up and ran toward the dressing room. I could feel Roxanne following me without actually hearing her bare feet spank the cement walk. I was thinking about our chop-chop game. I’m pretty good at diving. This would be a chance to make up for my lousy chop-chop score.
I stood in line at the diving board in front of Roxanne. I could feel her watching me as I did a simple dive. Roxanne didn’t take her turn. “Go ahead,” she said in a tone that kept me from coaxing her. Next, I did a jackknife and almost touched my ankles.
You’re good” was all she said. When I climbed out, she motioned for me to go ahead again. I decided to try a forward flip and go in feet first. I have to concentrate on flips because I have trouble getting enough oomph. I approached the end of the board and rose lightly into the air. I dived with my eyes closed tight.
Then I heard a loud noise. At the same time something clobbered me on the back of the head. It hurt so much I scrunched my shoulders. I knew I was sinking in the water, but I couldn’t get my arms to move, and my legs felt heavy. I stared through the blue-green water, not even minding the sting of chlorine. I opened my mouth to cry out and choked on the rush of water. I was scared, more scared than I’ve ever been in my life.
Then Roxanne’s face was right in front of mine. She grabbed my wrists and pulled me upward. I think I must have closed my eyes because I didn’t see her after that.
When I opened my eyes again, I saw the lifeguard. Two of those goofy boys were standing beside him. The lifeguard wouldn’t let me talk or move. “Stay still,” he told me. “Your mom is on her way. She’s going to take you to the doctor.”
I listened to his blurred words, trying to put together what had happened. I began to feel better and sat up. “Roxanne.” I looked around. “Where’s Roxanne?”
“Who?” The lifeguard was staring at me.
“Roxanne. The girl with the orange suit. We were swimming together.”
One of the boys pointed to his head and made little circles with his index finger. “She’s been swimming alone,” he said. “And talking to herself the whole time.”
“I thought you were playing some kind of game,” the lifeguard said.
“Roxanne and I were playing.” I was going to tell him where she went to school, but he put his hand on my shoulder.
“Calm down. You hit your head pretty hard on the board.”
Mom took me to Dr. Shepard’s. I was all right, but Mom said I couldn’t go swimming for two days. She told me no more flips off the board for a while. I told her about Roxanne. “The Mainzes?” she said. “I don’t think they have a girl your age. They’re a bit old. Maybe a granddaughter is visiting.”
“Roxanne told me she went to Edison School. She had Mrs. Wade last year.”
“Betsy Wade?” Mom shook her head. “She retired years ago.”
The next day Mom took me downtown with her to run an errand. While she went to the drugstore, I walked up the street to Mainz Flower Shop. I wanted to thank Roxanne for saving me.
“Excuse me,” I said to the woman behind the counter. “Are you Mrs. Mainz?”
“No, I’m her sister. I work here in August when Helen goes on vacation with her husband.” The woman had curly white hair and a thin, wrinkled face. She looked old to be Roxanne’s aunt. Roxanne must have gone with them, I decided. That’s why she left so quickly. She had to get ready for vacation. “Did they leave yesterday afternoon?”
“They left last week. They always leave well before the eleventh.”
Something in the woman’s voice made me uncomfortable, but I had to ask about Roxanne. “Didn’t Roxanne go with them?”
“Roxanne?” The woman looked annoyed, as if she had to explain something all over again for the umpteenth time.
“Roxanne Mainz, ” I said. “I met her at the pool yesterday. She told me she lived here.”
The woman stared at the bouquet of daisies on the counter. “Roxanne Mainz drowned thirty years ago,” she said.
That didn’t make sense. Why was she telling me about a Roxanne who had drowned thirty years ago? Roxanne had saved my life at the pool yesterday.
“She was an excellent swimmer,” the woman said. “It was an accident. She slipped and hit her head on the diving board.” The woman picked up the flowers and turned to go into the back room. She looked over her shoulder at me as if she’d just remembered I was there. “It’s not the first time she’s come back.”
Suddenly I felt cold, as if I had dived into icy water. My whole body was one big goose bump. I bolted outside and ran down the street to the drugstore. The sight of my mom stepping onto the sidewalk made me fell safe and warm.
“Did you see Roxanne?” Mom asked.
“No, she doesn’t live there,” I said. Then I added, “Anymore.”