“It’s going to be cold,” laughed Riley. “I’m warning you, when I took the swim test, I almost froze. They had to defrost me.”
“Thank you for sharing that wonderful piece of moral support with me,” I snapped. Riley had been coming to Camp Walton’s Grizzly Lodge for seven years now, since she was five. It was my first year. All the first-year campers had to take the swim test, to be able to swim outside the four-feet line and to go waterskiing and wakeboarding. I definitely had to take that swim test.
I had no worries about the test until I met Riley (actually, only twenty minutes ago). I was on the swim team at my school, so the four laps would be a piece of cake. (So I’m in the slowest lane; I can still swim, can’t I?) And treading water for thirty seconds would be no problem, since I was a goalie for my school’s water polo team. (It was my first year, making me the worst goalie, so I had to have more training, but everyone at Walton’s doesn’t know that, do they?)
We walked down to the edge of the lake, along with Riley’s little sister, Quinn. Riley was silent because she knew she’d scared me about the whole swim test thing. Pools were heated. Lakes weren’t. Finally, as we neared the opening to the sandy beach near the lake’s edge, I said, “Riley, it can’t be that bad. I mean, they wouldn’t make us swim in forty-degree water. Your memory must be malfunctioning.”
“Then take it from me,” said Quinn, talking for Riley “I only took it four years ago. The lake is cold. You’ll die as soon as . . .”
“Quinn, we are here for moral support,” interrupted Riley, shushing her sister. “Do not frighten her to death.”
“No, that’s what you’re here for,” grumbled Quinn irritably, but Riley didn’t answer as we entered through the small gate between the overgrown bushes. Everything looked normal; the sand was fine-grained, yellow, and easily got between your flip-flop and your foot. The lifeguard, Brian, and another bored-looking boy of about fifteen were manning the swim area. Brian was sitting cross-legged on the diving board. And beyond him, the water looked anything but deadly. It was deep azure and sparkling as the sun’s rays danced on it. Everything looked fine to me.
Upon seeing us, Brian jumped up and exclaimed, “Finally, people are here! What are your names?”
I said, “Samantha, or Sam.”
Riley answered, “We are here to hold Sam’s towel and attempt to save her when she dies of hypothermia.”
“Moral support?” muttered Quinn.
Brian smiled. “Don’t listen to them. Just swim four laps, there, back, there, back,” he indicated with his clipboard, “and then tread water for thirty seconds.”
“Good luck!” said Riley. “We’ll cheer you on if you start to develop swimming difficulties.”
“I told you, I was on swim team, and a water polo goalie,” I said, stepping out of my shorts and T-shirt to reveal a blue bathing suit with hibiscuses all over it. “How hard can this be?”
If only I knew. My first step into the water wasn’t that bad. My toes kind of curled back, like when you step into the shower and the water isn’t quite warm yet. Then my next step brought me underwater to my knees. My calves tensed. That was kind of cold. A shiver ran up my spine. Then I stepped further, up to my waist. My legs were cold. Oh, they were cold. The next step brought me considerable shock and pain. I was all the way up to my collar. It was as if a giant eel wrapped around me and shocked cold waves all through my body. I was frozen. My breath came out short and ragged. I could feel my blood temperature dropping rapidly.
I turned around and mouthed soundlessly to Riley and Quinn. What I meant to say is, “How did you survive this? I’m going to freeze! Pull me out now, before it’s too late!” but I guess my voice box wasn’t connected to my lips.
“I can’t help you now,” said Riley, as if she understood me perfectly. “Just get it over with is the best advice I can give you. Go on.”
I nodded, turned around, kicked my feet out from the muck I was standing in, and was off.
I have swum in swim meets before. You dive off a diving board and keep your head underwater. You move your arms and legs as fast as you can to get to the other side. That was not how I swam in the lake. I kept my head above water, swinging my arms in front of me as if to grab the water and pull myself along. I tried kicking like in freestyle, but it ended up being a cross between a scissor kick and a breaststroke kick, a sort of jab at the water that I repeated again and again to get myself to the other side.
When I reached the other side, I was shivering uncontrollably. I was afraid to go back across, but it seemed I had no other alternative. Halfway across the second lap, my chest started to seize. I felt like the giant eel was back again, squeezing my ribs together and allowing no air to come out. I had to stop dead. I gasped for air. Panic was filling me, taking the place of all my energy. It weighed in my stomach like a cold lump of steel, dragging down not only my physical body but my sanity and chances to get to the other side. Fear was coining in now, filling my mind with horrible possibilities, and taking over that part of my brain that makes decisions. Fear was the blackness growing at the edges of my brain, eating me away. My body was growing numb. The world started to spin. Vaguely, I heard girls’ voices shouting, but I couldn’t really pay attention. My brain was having a seizure and my heart was going to explode.
It was at that point that somewhere, deep inside my body, a little passage opened. That passage held the only energy left in my body. I spurred myself on, throwing myself at the water and hurling myself forward. My brain cleared. The world stopped spinning. I gulped down air the best that I could. When I reached the other side, I quickly stood up in the muck that was the lake’s bottom. The giant eel disappeared. I gasped and choked, and spit out water. Riley, Quinn, and Brian were cheering. Brian said, “You’re halfway there. Good job. I bet it’s cold.”
“You don’t even know,” I murmured, and dove back in.
Gasp, choke, thrust legs, pull with arms. Gasp, choke, thrust legs, pull with arms. I moved like a frog with a broken leg. But if I kept breathing evenly, the giant eel couldn’t get me. I still vaguely felt my chest being squeezed, and air was definitely harder to breathe, but I just endured. If I made it through, I never had to do this again. If I didn’t—well, let’s just say the giant eel would take me.
After the third lap, I think part of me knew I was on the final stretch. I looked up one time and saw about a dozen kids, along with Brian, Quinn, and Riley, cheering me on. Four other kids, wrapped in towels, watched me intently, to see whether I was dead yet. No doubt Riley gave them a great dose of her famous moral support. At this point, I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of this Arctic wasteland and erase it from my memory. I actually kicked my legs. I moved my arms more syncopated, instead of flailing them together. When I reached the diving board Brian was crouching on, he smiled at my shuddery breaths and odd swim stroke—part freestyle, part breaststroke, part doggy paddle. He said, “Good job. You’re done with the laps. How’re you feeling?”
It may be a standard question, but did he notice that my face was practically blue? “Cold,” I squeaked.
“Well, just tread water for me and you’ll be out of the cold.”
I had never been so glad for the hours of grueling training I went through. Because it was my first year as goalie in water polo, I had to adjust to something called an eggbeater, a fancier way of treading water. You pretend like you’re sitting in a chair and move each leg in a circle and at a different time, like an eggbeater. I spent practice after practice with Nikki, the best water polo goalie in high school water polo that year, and she had me practice and perfect my eggbeater. Now here, in the freezing lake, when Brian said the words “tread water,” I began eggbeatering. Just like that. I didn’t even know what I was doing at first, because it had become so natural to me during water polo season. It gave me enough time to look around at the other kids, who were eyeing the water rather apprehensively. I didn’t blame them one bit.
“All right, Miss Sam, 3-2-1, done! You passed,” Brian informed me. “I liked the eggbeatering. It was done well.”
“After hours of it every day, it would become natural to you too,” I snapped, trying to communicate to my muscles that I could get out of this melted ice trap.
When I finally managed to get out of the lake, Riley handed me my towel, grinning. The air was actually burning my skin, and I remember it being rather chilly down by that lake. “You passed that when you were five?” I asked, massaging my goosebump-sprinlded arms. “I almost froze. I was afraid you were going to have to chip me out of a block of ice!”
“It took me about forty minutes to pass,” Riley replied. She took my hand and pressed it against her cheek. “Oh my goodness that’s cold!” she screamed. “I forgot exactly how cold it was!” She led me over to a reluctant-looking little girl by the water’s edge. “This is how cold you’ll be after you get in there,” she said, pulling my hand to the girl’s cheek. I yanked it away.
“Remember, Riley,” I teased. “You’re supposed to be here for moral support.”