The slimy algae was so thick that year I could smell the rot long before we reached the edge of the pond. Dad lined us up at the top of the bank and pointed his arm across the water. The old diving dock lay in the distance, decaying among stalks of reed rush.
“Don’t ever play on that side. The water is too deep. Promise?”
I was ten years old, and knew the lecture by heart, but my three younger brothers nodded their blond heads like synchronized swimmers.
We took off our shoes, squelching black mud through our toes as we waded into the shallows. Dad passed out paper cups and taught us to catch little spotted brown tadpoles. “Dip slowly. Hold perfectly still and . . . snatch!”
Once we had the hang of it, he retreated to the top of the bank, took out his pocket knife, and shaved curly strips of silver bark from a long stick.
I squatted in ankle-deep scum, peering at metamorphosis in a cup. Tiny tadpoles freshly hatched, larger ones with long tails, some sprouting stumpy legs. In the next few weeks they would grow lungs beneath their slippery skin, and leap from the algae to feast on water-striders and gnats. But until their tails disappeared, water was their air.
Lance, the youngest, cried. His three-year-old legs had betrayed him on his climb up the rocks to show Dad his tadpoles. He’d slipped, and dropped his cup. I propped my own cup between two rocks, and went to him. Tears had washed streaks down his dirty cheeks, but I kissed them anyway.
Dad called from his perch, “Is he hurt?” Mom would have run straight down, but if there wasn’t blood, Dad tended not to fuss.
“He’s fine. He spilled his tadpoles.”
Dozens of tiny brown blobs lay splattered over the ground, wriggling. Lance pointed a muddy finger and whimpered, “My fishies.”
Dad grunted, smoothed down his moustache, then went back to his whittling.
I looked at Michael and Brian, still hunting in the shallows. “Guys! Help me put them back! They’re . . . drowning!”
Brian’s freckles bounced as he laughed, “They’re eating my toes!” Michael looked at me and glared. “Tadpoles can’t drown.”
I made a face. “You know what I mean.” The tadpoles writhed. “It’s the same as us being trapped under the water. They can’t breathe.”
Drowning, only . . . backward.
Michael made a face back and ignored my plea for help.
“Come on, Buddy.” I knelt in the mud and handed Lance his cup. “Help me pick them up.”
Lance and I tried to rescue the tadpoles, but their bodies were too fragile, squishing between our well-intended fingers. There was no other choice but to keep vigil over the remaining struggle. I didn’t want to watch them die. But I couldn’t leave them alone.
If I was trapped underwater, I bet I’d squirm just like that.
A newfound fear speared my chest as, one by one, their frantic twisting bodies slowed to desperate trembling, then all fell still.
I didn’t want to catch tadpoles anymore.
I retrieved my abandoned cup and poured it back into the pond.
“Hmmm.” He didn’t look up.
“I want to go back to camp.”
“You know the way on your own?”
“Tell Mom we won’t be long.”
As soon as I cleared the edge of the trees, I ran. Away from drowning. Away from death. Down the dirt path until I spotted our family-sized tent pitched near Grandma and Grandpa’s motorhome. Mom was washing vegetables in a metal pot near the fire. Grandma had spread a yellow cloth over the picnic table and set rocks on stacks of paper plates and napkins so they wouldn’t be lost in the wind.
“Krista. Perfect timing.” Mom handed me a vegetable peeler. “Could you peel the potatoes and carrots while I wash a few dishes?”
I nodded. “Dad says they’ll be back soon.”
Thankfully she didn’t ask why I’d come alone, or I might have cried.
Only babies cry ’cause they’re scared.
But the sick twisting in my stomach persisted. And hours later, when dinner was served, I picked at my bowl of Dad’s famous dutch oven stew—beef chunks and veggies in a thick brown sauce—and tried not to think of wriggly things dying in the mud.
Early the next morning Grandpa shook the tent and growled like a bear. I smiled from deep inside my warm sleeping bag.
“Krista, would you like to do the rounds with me?”
During the school year Grandpa was a high school music teacher. But in the summers he painted houses and hung wallpaper to make extra money. He was from the generation that never wasted anything, so my birthday presents were always wrapped in wallpaper scraps. But no matter how busy he got with work, he always made time to volunteer as a Treasure Mountain Camp Caretaker. And helping him with his duties was one of my favorite parts of our summer camping trips.
I quickly dressed . . . and forgot all about the pond.
Grandpa and I spent the morning adding fresh coats of paint to the red fire boxes and the eagle-crested totem pole. We checked the locks on the kitchen doors of the main pavilion, and lit the stoves to be sure they all worked. Then it was time to visit Sister Kersey, the burly camp host who lived in a log cabin on the mountain year-round. She kept wild chipmunks in metal cages and crocheted plastic bread bags into sun hats. Grandpa saved bags from home and made sure Sister Kersey always had a fresh supply. I still wore the orange hat she’d given me when I was six.
We finished the usual rounds by mid-day. I held Grandpa’s pinky finger, and we sang our way back to our campsite in time for lunch. Between bites of ham sandwich and potato chips, Grandpa said, “There’s one more thing I want to do today. After we eat, let’s all go to the pond so I can have a look at that old diving platform. It either needs to be fixed up or torn down.”
Michael yelped, “Tadpoles!” Brian and Lance cheered.
I set my sandwich aside and decided I’d rather hunt wildflowers.
Back at the pond, the adults found a shady spot at the top of the bank and the boys headed down the slope to the murky shallows. I turned my back on them all, searching the edge of the woods for my favorite yellow buds. The solitude was pleasant. My bouquet of flowers grew so thick it strained my hand. I didn’t notice how far I’d wandered.
Until my mother screamed.
The sound echoed through the clearing. I spun around. The entire length of the pond lay between me and my parents.
“David! Get him! Get him!” She screamed again and covered her face with her hands.
Dad barreled down the banks, boots hammering the slick stones. But the boys were no longer near him in the shallows. I took a step out of the trees. Michael and Brian stood frozen at the edge of the water just below me, near the diving platform. Exactly where Dad had always warned us not to go.
But where’s Lance?
I don’t remember dropping my flowers, or deciding to run. I don’t remember the sharp rocks that cut my bare feet. Or the sting of the belly flop that marked my skin. Didn’t taste the mouthfuls of algae that later made me sick. All I knew was that Lance was face down in the water, thrashing with all his strength, and that Dad would never make it in time. But I could.
I grabbed Lance around his middle and pulled him upright. He gasped and sputtered, then held my neck, crying, as I struggled toward the shore. Dad ran in up to his knees and grasped my wrist. He lifted us both and carried us the rest of the way to the bank. Lance wailed. Dad checked him over once, then hugged me so hard I had to hold my breath. I shivered from cold and shock, hardly aware of what I’d done.
Mom met us on the way back to the shallow side of the pond. She walked slowly as if every ounce of energy had been poured into her screams. Dad delivered Lance into her waiting arms. She pressed him tightly to her body, pulled my forehead to her lips and whispered, “Our hero,” through her tears.
The rest of the day Grandpa told the story to every person we saw, touting me as a “girl without fear.” I knew it wasn’t true, but his confidence made me proud. Lance was alive, and I had saved him.
Mom and Dad rearranged the sleeping bags that night so I could sleep next to Lance. I held his chubby little hand, and though I was happy, I couldn’t shut off my mind. I lay awake for a long time watching his chest rise and fall. Breath that had almost been snatched from him forever.
He must have been so scared. I would have been if it was me.
Moonlight stretched the shadows long while I tried to imagine how drowning would feel. Images swirled through my mind like a whirlpool I couldn’t escape until fear succumbed to exhaustion. I fell into a troubled sleep, but a sly, irrational fear had already curled its cold fingers around my heart. And somewhere between the afterglow of heroism and the morning sunrise, a nightmare pulled me beneath the surface of a scummy pond. Dragging me down into murky darkness. Wild for breath. Thrashing, kicking, writhing.
Like a tadpole.