Joshua gripped his drooping swim trunks. He swallowed down a chlorine flavored breath and stared up the steel ladder with wide blue eyes.
“Chicken!” came from the deep end of a rectangular stretch of pool. A chorus of imitation hens added their teasing clucks.
Joshua forced his fingers to unclench and instead took the banister in two tight fists. He pulled himself forward until his forehead lay upon the fourth step. The metal seemed to vibrate with the splashing waves and the cries from the water. The air grew thick with chemicals and wet clothes. A breeze chilled his skin, leaving it feeling frail, like a piece of paper.
He closed his eyes and imagined the ladder leading to his tree house. The safety of the hidden box hovered above his head, promising relief from the blaring voices and steaming rays of sunlight.
His first foot lifted from the damp concrete and landed on the bottom step with a slap. His arms tensed and he bent his other knee. The next few steps seemed to disappear as his body moved like a mindless puppet. The top curve of the ladder came under his hands before the vision of his sanctuary had time to firm in his mind.
Opening his eyes he took in the mint plank stretching before him. The end wobbled as he shifted and caused the fat spring beneath his feet to contract and release.
He gazed down the ladder behind him, fingers tightening as the deck below spun. Impatient faces and hands on hips glared up at him like tiny ants under a shoe.
His knobby shoulders sagged and he turned back toward the eminent dive. Shuffling forward, his hands tightened into fists and bashed against his twiggy thighs. He thought the pounding might even leave a bruise by the time he reached the other end. He pondered whether the next blow might simply break his leg. They couldn’t expect him to dive with a broken leg.
His two scrawny limbs however stayed intact, and although his knees threatened to buckle, he remained standing. His toes curled around the edge of the diving board.
Licking his pruned lips, Joshua peered down at the soaked ants bobbing, splashing and swimming through the crystal clear water miles below. Weaving black stripes struck out toward the shallows like claws dragging on the tiled bottom.
“Come on, Josh!”
Sarah Anderson’s voice rose like a siren above the jeers and splashes.
Joshua found her sitting with a cluster of other girls from his sixth grade class between the depth labels for four and five feet. Her legs were half submerged, a hand shaded her eyes and her thin ruby swimming shirt fluttered.
The rays on Joshua’s back turned to ice while a sudden fire burned in his stomach. His mouth twisted into a painful grin and he shook out his hands in order to release some of the flooding adrenaline rushing into his veins. Gazing up into the clear sky he blinked away the residual jeweled vision. He swung his arms in front and behind him, palms meeting with loud snaps. A deep breath filled his lungs and he vowed to let it out only after he resurfaced somewhere near the five foot marker.
Closing his eyes he brought his chin to his chest. His left hand lay over his right. His arms extended over his head like a curving swans neck.
Before he could recall the drop, before he heard more jeers, before he could think of another way down, he bent his knees and launched off the board.
The spring sounded like a rubber band shot across the room. Air cupped him for a hovering moment then a rush of wind deafened the watching crowds to a hush. Joshua’s lungs burned, his heart thumped, his fingers itched to drown in waters that seemed to never come.