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The Swimming Pool

Submission for the 3 a.m. challenge

By Daniel BradburyPublished about a month ago Updated about a month ago 10 min read
Top Story - June 2024
The Swimming Pool
Photo by Adheesha Paranagama on Unsplash

Clementine watched the sun swaying like a drunken dancer from the bottom of her parents' swimming pool. It was July: the slow, gold-colored time when the heat felt mean spirited, and the air felt thick with possibility. If she focused, she could hear the neighbor mowing his lawn. She could hear the drone of the cicadas and cars passing her parent's house on Magnolia Avenue, lent an almost otherworldly quality by the chlorinated water filling her ears. Clementine checked her watch. Seven minutes. She should have lost consciousness by now.

Clementine wasn't suicidal. She was a thoughtful, introverted child, but wasn't possessed of a brain built for depression. Neither was she old enough to have been dragged to the bottom of the pool by the weight of some adult sadness. It had started as an experiment. The previous week, she had heard on PBS that the average person could hold their breath for a maximum of five minutes. Half out boredom, half out of curiosity, she decided to see for herself.

She had felt the water envelop her, its initial coolness giving way to a soothing feeling of pressure as her body adjusted. She had felt the gentle current of the pool jets pushing against her, a slight tickle as a strand of her hair drifted across her face. Clementine waited for the familiar burning in her lungs as her circulatory system, the organs and muscles fed by precious oxygen, began to protest her experiment. She kept waiting.

Clementine was aware, in an abstract way, of the idea that time passes differently when you're young. She was used to the hours at school stretching out to impossible lengths, the waits for food at restaurants lasting longer than ancient empires. Even so, the amount of time she had spent at the bottom of her parents' swimming pool began to feel unnatural. She checked her watch. Three minutes. In the moment, all that registered was a feeling of pride. "I'm not even starting to struggle yet!" Maybe her aspirations of becoming a mermaid weren't so ridiculous after all. The most difficult thing about her experiment was the boredom of it: she knew that if she swam around or played with one of her pool toys, her muscles would begin to consume the oxygen that had allowed her to stay submerged, shortening her time and ruining her experiment. Clementine needed to remain absolutely still. She checked her watch again. Five minutes.

Her pride began to give way to curiosity. She may have been young, but Clementine liked to think she wasn't stupid. At least not in the way her younger brother, or that boy Devin from the cul-de-sac were. She didn't still see monsters hiding in closets, and her belief in things like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy had ebbed some years ago now (one and a half years ago, to be exact.) Clementine was a woman of science. As a woman of science, she knew this shouldn't be possible. Her lungs should have started burning at the minute mark. By now she should be desperate to return to the surface, desperate to gulp down the hot summer air... so why wasn't she? She was worldly enough to know that she wasn't really a mutant or a mermaid or something exciting like that, so there had to be a different explanation.

These questions all dissipated as Clementine's attention was drawn to a shadow stretching out along the floor of the pool. Someone was standing at the edge and watching her. She lifted her gaze just in time to see a figure, blurred by its quick motion and the surface of the water, leap into the pool. It started to register, as the bubbles surrounding the figure began to clear, that it was someone she recognized: the old man from down the street. Clementine couldn't remember his name. It was something strange and long with a lot of consonants. She remembered he would wave to her if she and her brother were walking the dog, Roxy, past his house. He had always seemed nice. A new worry began to form in her stomach: what if he thought she was drowning? Firstly, she didn't want to worry the old man. Secondly, she didn't want her experiment ruined and there was no way she would be able to communicate that while underwater. Clementine watched for his arms and legs to begin pushing him towards her, she waited for his misguided rescue attempt to cut her experiment short, but it didn't happen. The old man calmly sank to the floor of the pool and stared at her. Unblinking. Unmoving. Open-mouthed.

Clementine knew, with a certainty she couldn't explain, that he was dead.

Terrified, she swam furiously for the surface of the pool. Visions of his corpse rising from the bottom of the deep end to drag her below plagued her imagination like a thousand little nightmares. She could almost feel the cold, rotting flesh of his hand gripping her ankle. She could almost see the milk-white of his eyes gazing sightlessly into her face as he pulled at her. Clementine broke the surface of the water; she filled her lungs in preparation to scream for help...

Clementine Hawkins sat bolt upright in her bed. It had been a bad dream. Of course it had been a bad dream. The familiar walls of her bedroom wore a dress of bluish dawn, a cool counterpoint to the lingering anxiety of her nightmare. Birds were greeting each other outside her window. There was a distant thud as a newspaper met the front door of her house, soon followed by the mad clatter of claws on hardwood flooring as Roxy sped to investigate the threat. Clementine sighed: the dog would be whining to go out soon, and the responsibility of walking her had been assigned to her as a summer chore.

She may have kicked up a fuss, but Clementine almost always enjoyed the walks once they were in full swing. Roxy was a well-behaved dog (for the most part), and the silence of the walks served as the perfect canvas for Clementine's imagination. On her rambling strolls Clementine could imagine new lives far removed from suburban preadolescence. The endless cycle of school soccer home dinner bed could disappear for an hour or so: replaced with a life working as a marine biologist, or a famous singer, or maybe driving rally cars. Rally cars were the fantasy of choice that morning as she allowed Roxy to lead her through the neighborhood. Clementine could practically feel the g-forces of the car as it whipped around hairpin corners on the Isle of Man. She could almost smell the exhaust and the wet earth. She was so immersed in her fantasy that it took her a few moments to register that the sirens she could hear weren't a part of it.

She cocked her head to one side, confused: she had heard sirens on the highway before, she had seen emergency vehicles with their lights on, but never in her neighborhood. This was not a spectacle she wanted to miss. She tugged on Roxy's leash, eliciting a curious grunt from the aging German shepherd. "I know you like to be in charge, girl, but come on. Let's go see!" Clementine didn't often pay very close attention to where she was going on her walks: Roxy would drag her wherever she wanted to go and make her way home whenever she got tired. She was a smart dog. That is why, when the sirens shook Clementine from her reverie, that where she was came as a total shock. She was in front of the old man's house.

The scene before her came into focus slowly, shapes and colors developing edges and shadows like she was dialing in the focus on a camera. The reddish brown transformed into a ranch house, purple and green blurs became bushes and coneflowers. Finally, the flickering shapes in the center of the grass revealed themselves: three adults she vaguely recognized surrounding another figure lying face-up on the ground. One of the adults, a woman with long reddish hair, was holding a phone to her ear and signaling to someone behind Clementine. The source of the sirens, probably. Another, a tall and muscular man who she remembered from the grocery store, was standing to the side; his eyes wide with an emotion that looked like worry. The third adult, a younger dark-haired man, was straddling the figure on the ground and applying chest compressions. Clementine's hands shook as she willed her gaze to travel down from the face of the woman on the phone and onto the body lying before her. Without meaning to, she made eye contact with it and was transported to her nightmare in a flash of hellish memory. The old man's milky, dead eyes stared into hers, his mouth open as if to say "I told you." Bile rose in her throat, hot and fast. Clementine was sick all over her new shoes.


Sleep became a battle for Clementine in the weeks that followed. She didn't tell her parents about the dream, of course. She barely believed it herself. Or maybe more accurately, she didn't want to believe it. Her parents worried over her, thinking she had been traumatized by her first encounter with death. Her mother suggested a child psychiatrist. Her father suggested the family rediscover their relationship with god. Neither plan ever came to fruition. After about a month, Clementine started sleeping normally again. She never spoke to anyone about the swimming pool dream, choosing instead to allow it to fade into the dark corners of her psyche. The memory would rear its head once every few years, sometimes in conjunction with late July, other times it was drawn out of hiding by an article or tv show related to the supernatural. The memory never lingered very long.

Clementine went to middle school. She discovered theater, video games, and the piano. Soccer was still a constant in her life. The boys failed to interest her. Some of them looked nice enough, but she found their personalities wanting. All edgy jokes and bad music. High school passed in a similar manner. She wouldn't have referred to herself as a loner, she just preferred to spend time on her hobbies. There was a boy she liked, but he failed to reciprocate her interests. The realization didn't feel as dramatic as TV and books had made it sound.

In Clementine's sophomore year of college, her father got sick.

Clementine sat on the stoop of her dormitory, her phone held to her ear, an unlit cigarette between the fingers of her right hand. She had heard they were supposed to help with anxiety. The dial tone rang: its digital crackle settling uncomfortably in her left ear. Once, twice, three times, then there was a click as the call was answered.

"Hey, little bug. How are things in the great state of Alabama?" She could hear the smile in her father's voice as he spoke. He relished these phone calls.

"Things are... well, things. My coding class is pretty rough right now, I feel like I'm spending eighty percent of my life staring at a computer screen. there's been some kind of issue with the company that supplies the food for the cafeteria, did I tell you about that?"

"No, that's news to me. What's going on?"

"Nobody's saying anything specific, just that there are 'issues with the supply chain'. What that means for me practically is a lot of burgers and ramen for dinner." Clementine laughed humorlessly. Her father recognized her mood immediately.

"I'm okay, bug." Ironically, the sentence was punctuated by a wet-sounding cough and a rattling inhale.

"You sure?"

"Yes. The doctors are optimistic, and more than that I feel fantastic. Better than I have in months! Your old man has another couple of decades in him, I promise."

"Thanks for telling me, dad. I just worry, you know?"

"You're your mother's daughter." Clementine could hear the smile in his voice returning. Another cough.

"I hate how easily you read me!" Clementine laughed, genuinely this time.

Clementine left the phone call with a sense of hope: maybe her mind was playing tricks on her, but he had sounded better. Not just healthier but in better spirits, too. She considered the cigarette between her fingers for a moment before tossing it into a nearby garbage can. She didn't need it. She called out a greeting to the desk attendant in the dormitory, and was acknowledged with a smile and a wave. Somewhere above her, she heard the sound of feet pounding at the thin ceiling, dissipating towards the end of the hallway in a dead sprint. Clementine rolled her eyes. She was pretty sure she knew who the feet belonged to. Her roommate, Amber, called out a greeting followed by an invitation to board game night as Clementine passed by the lounge. She gave a noncommittal reply and headed towards their room.

Clementine sighed as she sat down at her desk. She regretted throwing the cigarette away. Not because she particularly needed one, but because accompanying the drudgery of homework with some tobacco felt right somehow. She saw an image of herself, looking slightly more put together and worldly, gracefully inhaling from the cigarette before placing it in an ashtray and effortlessly banging out a paragraph on marketing strategies. Oh well. Maybe she could dip into the bottle of rum hidden in her closet as a reward for managing her homework.

Around ten p.m., she hung up the homework and poured herself some of the rum anyway, choosing instead to lie in bed and scroll through the internet. After an hour or so, the effects of the rum and the hypnotic effect of a video on ancient Ethiopia began to lull her to sleep. Clementine felt her eyelids getting steadily heavier. Her blanket felt so comfortable, the voice of the video's narrator was so flat and soothing...

Clementine watched the sun as it fluttered like a wounded bird from the bottom of her parents' swimming pool. It was May, and the weather seemed unable to decide when summer should begin. She could hear birds singing, a distant click and whine as the air conditioning unit kicked on. Clementine checked her watch: five minutes exactly. She was doing so well! She didn't feel like she needed to swim for the surface at all!

All at once, she felt her attention drawn to a lengthening shadow on the floor of the pool. With mounting dread, she raised her eyes to the figure standing on the edge, her dread turning to horror as she recognized him, even through the broken mirror of the water's surface.

In a flash of motion, Clementine's father leapt into the pool.


About the Creator

Daniel Bradbury

Big fan of long walks in the woods, rye Manhattans, Spanish literature, jazz, and vinyl records.

Lover of all things creepy and crawly.

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Comments (11)

  • Dr. Jason Benskin26 days ago

    Congratulations on having your story featured as a top story on Vocal! This is a remarkable achievement, and it's clear why your work has received such recognition. Your storytelling is truly exceptional. The narrative was not only compelling but also beautifully crafted, holding my attention from start to finish. The way you developed the characters and plot was masterful, making the story both engaging and thought-provoking. Your unique voice and perspective shine through, setting your work apart. It’s evident that you poured a lot of passion and effort into this piece, and it has certainly paid off. I look forward to reading more of your incredible stories in the future. Keep up the fantastic work! Best regards, Dr. Jay

  • Natasha Collazo26 days ago

    Congrats on your TS!!!

  • Golam Kibriaabout a month ago

    Write more stories like this

  • Ameer Bibiabout a month ago

    A beautiful flow if writing I saw in your writing style bud Congratulations on TS

  • Daniel Bradbury (Author)about a month ago

    Thank you all so much for your lovely comments! I’m really glad you enjoyed the story. ❤️

  • Cyrusabout a month ago

    Congrats on TS!

  • S.J. Frederickabout a month ago

    Very well written, great job!

  • Andrea Corwin about a month ago

    Wow! This story drew me in and kept my attention. I began thinking this is a girl trying to see if she can hold her breath underwater longer than normal. However, it led to something else entirely. How many more of these incidents will happen to her in her life.....Congrats on TS!🎉

  • JBazabout a month ago

    You writing has a beautiful flow to it. I love how you foreshadowed the ending. Congratulations

  • Christy Munsonabout a month ago

    Breathtaking writing! I loved your story, and your writing style. Your words draw me in and hold my attention. I feel as if Roxy lead me on a wild chase that brought me right back where I needed to be. Brilliant! Congratulations on Top Story! I'd be delighted to return to congratulate you on the win as well. This one has winner written all over it.

  • Sweileh 888about a month ago

    Interesting and delicious content, keep posting more now

Daniel BradburyWritten by Daniel Bradbury

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