The Visibility Machine
“One senior, one child?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Grandpa said, in defiance of the sign’s ten and under definition of child. “Your scrawny ass just saved me three bucks,” he announced, once safely out of earshot. He ruffled my head. “Go grab us some towels.” We stepped out of the locker room into the boring summer heat.
Grandpa scanned for available real estate, his hand frozen mid-salute to shield his eyes. I lagged behind in the hybrid shadow of man and cooler. “Spot over there,” he pointed toward a grassy vacancy, a missing tooth in the
pattern of beach towels. My flip flops clomped against the pool deck to keep pace with his long strides.
A group of seventh graders, the rung above me in school, occupied the volleyball court, with no intention of playing volleyball. They were unchaperoned, and impressively, both sexes were present. I feigned a deep interest in the opposite side of the pool as we moved past, my fear of recognition a generous assessment of my own visibility at school.
We laid down our towels and made camp. Grandpa removed his T-shirt. His still muscular limbs bulged in the sun, undeterred by his sixty-eight trips around it. My shirt stayed on. Mom’s instructions echoed through my head. “Make sure Grandpa uses sunscreen,” she had insisted, as if I were the adult and he were the child. “Do you want some?” I held up the mom-issued tube of SPF thirty-five. “Nah,” he shook his head. He fished a beer from the cooler and dressed it for the occasion. It looked like an imitation Coke, in its red koozie, the cursive words Road Soda betraying the subterfuge.
The oppressive sounds of other people having fun drifted from the pool. Laughter. Splashing. Shouts of “Marco” and their asymmetric echoes. I put in earbuds. Headphones somehow provided an alibi when watching other
people. License to look around. A high dive lorded over the chemical blue of the deep end like a faucet over a sink. A small line queued behind its ladder, gravity reallocating pool water from dripping suits to a dark cloud of wet on the cement. Two boys whipped each other with pool noodles. They battled with the distinct comfortableness of siblings. “No noodle fighting,” a lifeguard ordered through the geometry of his cone, his monotone at odds with the silliness of the command.
None of it could compete with the biological magnetism of the girls on the volleyball court. The bikini clad Katie Cooper and Megan Martinez—household names at Kennedy Middle—split off from the group to cool their legs in the pool.
Grandpa studied me as if he wished I were his old Camaro, so he could diagnose the problem. “Kid, I appreciate the company, but you oughta go talk to them. I had my first girlfriend when I was your age.”
I slid into the pool, eager for the water to conceal that I had nothing to do and no one to do it with. Goggled children dove around me, chasing rings like trained animals. Just the summer before, I was one of them, testing the pressure ten feet below the surface. Now, adolescence had cracked me over the head with a severe appreciation for Katie and Megan. For the winning lottery tickets stretched across their skulls. I didn’t have anything to say to them, and even if I did, I lacked an excuse to say it. I floated on the edge of their conversation, inviting cosmic intervention.
“Brody tried a flip off the high dive last week. He had this gnarly bruise the shape of Africa on his back.”
“You know his brother, like, almost skated in the Xgames?”
“That’s so hot.”
I’d never jumped from the high dive before. Now, I considered its power. More than a diving board, this was a machine that could provide an invisible person with an outline. Once you had an outline, you could fill it in with anything, I hoped. I watched the girls watch a lanky teenager plummet through the air. He rearranged the water into something different and then the same. The board sprung in the aftershock of his jump, beckoning to me.
There was no line.
The metal rungs of the ladder felt warm with the sun’s borrowed heat. I stepped onto the board. Just as quickly as spontaneity had grabbed my wrist and led me into the sky, it abandoned me. My brain weighed a caravan of possibilities. Of dates and friendships, compounding interest from the social currency earned by plunging into the water below. On the other side were belly flops. And visions of my loose-fitting swimsuit divorcing my body. I stood frozen, a monument to indecision.
“Please jump or vacate the board,” the lifeguard directed his words like a spotlight. Now I felt eyes. The fleeting eyes of pretty girls. The eyes of an old man, his face red with sun. I looked up at the sky, cloudless and indifferent, and for a brief instance, the future was malleable.
Third Prize in Flash Fiction
2020 Stubborn Writers Contest
John Badura is a writer from Seattle, Washington. His writing has recently appeared in Prime Number Magazine and Pigeon Pages. He appreciates boldly painted front doors. He is colorblind, but is pretty sure his is periwinkle.