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The Night Swimmers
By Betsy Byars
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Houghton Mifflin Company
All rights reserved.
WHEN THE SWIMMING POOL lights were turned out and Colonel and Mrs. Roberts had gone to bed, the Anderson kids came out of the bushes in their underwear. They moved silently over the moss-smooth lawn, across the Moroccan tiled terrace.
At the edge of the pool they stopped. Retta, the girl, said, "See, I told you it was beautiful." She stared at the shimmering water as proudly as if she had made the pool instead of just discovered it one day.
"But what if somebody sees us?" Roy asked. He hiked up his underwear uneasily. The elastic was sprung, and he wasn't sure the safety pin was going to hold.
"No one's going to see us. It's too dark." She shrugged as if it didn't matter anyway. "The shallow end's down here. Come on."
She led them to the end of the pool, and together the three of them started down the steps.
"It's cold," Roy said. He clutched his underwear tighter, pulling it toward his chest.
"You'll get used to it."
Abruptly Johnny pulled away. "I want to go down the ladder," he said. He started around the pool.
Retta frowned slightly. Lately Johnny had started doing things his own way. "All right," she called after him, belatedly giving permission, "but then you swim right over to the shallow end, you hear me? I don't want to have to come in and save you."
"You won't." As Johnny took hold of the smooth metal ladder, an adult feeling came over him. He entered the water slowly—it was cold—and then pushed off. He dog-paddled to Retta and Roy, turning his head from side to side in a motion he thought made his dog paddle look more powerful.
"Now you two play here in the shallow end while I do some swimming," Retta said when Johnny joined them.
"I don't see why I have to stay in the shallow end," Johnny said.
"Because only one can go in the deep water at a time. That's a rule, and you already had your turn."
Beside them Roy was pretending to swim. He had one hand on the bottom of the pool and was lifting the other arm in an elaborate swimming stroke. Then he put that hand on the bottom and lifted the other. "Want to see me swim, Retta?"
"That's nice, Roy," she said. She moved toward the deep end and began to swim silently. She was aware that Johnny was watching her, hoping to find fault, so she moved with deliberate grace. She copied the movements she had seen the Aquamaids do on television. She turned on her back. Then she swirled and dived under the water. Her bare feet rose, toes pointed, and shone in the moonlight.
Johnny was both impressed and irritated. Since he could find no fault with Retta, he looked down at Roy and said meanly, "You aren't really swimming."
"I am too!" Roy paused in the middle of the stroke to look back at Johnny.
"Your hand is on the bottom."
"It is not," Roy said. "Here's my hand right here."
"The other one is on the bottom."
Roy made a quick switch. "It is not. See, here's the other one."
"You aren't fooling anybody."
Johnny turned back to watch Retta. She was under the diving board now. She reached up and grabbed the board with both hands. She glanced around to see if Johnny and Roy were watching. When she was sure they were, she skinned the cat and dropped into the water without a sound.
She swam to the side and pulled herself out of the water without bothering to use the ladder. Then she got the inflated mattress that Mrs. Roberts always used. She carried it to her brothers at the shallow end of the pool. "Want a ride?"
Roy paused in the middle of a swimming stroke; one arm was raised as high as if he wanted to be called on. "Is it all right if we use that?" he asked, peering at Retta from under his arm.
"Sure, get on."
The boys crawled onto the mattress and stretched out self-consciously. Their arms were stiff at their sides.
"I'll push you around the pool." Retta began to move the float into deeper water. "Doesn't it make you feel elegant?"
Johnny nodded. He was shivering in his wet underwear, chilled with the excitement and the evening air. He tried to relax, to feel the elegance Retta mentioned. He tried to imagine that he was a movie star in his own swimming pool. It began to work. He relaxed. He pantomimed smoking with a long cigarette holder.
"Aren't you glad you came?" Retta asked, spitting water out of her mouth. She was now in the deep water, kicking silently, moving the mattress under the diving board.
Roy reached up and touched the diving board. Retta smiled. She had a wonderful feeling of belonging tonight, as if it really were her pool.
"Want to go around again?"
Without waiting for an answer, she turned the corner. Retta considered herself a sort of social director for her brothers. She often told them, "We're going to do all the things rich people do." Then she usually added, "Only we have to do them at night, that's the only difference."
Both of the boys were relaxing now. In the brief time they had been at the pool, they had come to associate the smell of chlorine with elegance. They breathed deeply as their sister pushed them through the water. Johnny had his hands folded behind his head, a pose he associated with famous people. Roy was waiting, arm lifted, to grab the diving board again.
Suddenly a light went on in the upstairs of the Roberts's house. The Anderson kids froze. All three faces turned to the window. Retta stopped kicking and waited, froglike, in the shimmering water.
"Retta!" Roy wailed. He turned to her. In the moonlight his twisted face revealed his fear. He was the youngest and the most sensitive to being caught.
"It's all right," Retta assured him. She reached forward and put her hand on his trembling shoulder. "That's just the bathroom light."
"How do you know?"
"I know. If you'd shut up, you could probably hear the toilet flush."
"I'm getting off this thing," Johnny said. He felt exposed. If somebody looked out the window, he thought, the first thing they would see would be him. The water was safer. He rolled off the mattress with a splash.
"Be quiet or they will hear us," Retta warned.
"Don't topple me!" Roy cried. He struggled to get in the middle, but the mattress tipped. With his arms clutching Retta's neck, he plopped into the water.
His head went under, and he came up sputtering. "Don't let me drown!"
"Shut up!" Retta said.
The three of them were at the side of the pool now. Johnny was holding on to the mattress; Retta was holding Roy. Their faces were turned up to the square of light above them.
"I'm scared," Johnny said. He was shivering hard now. His teeth began to chatter.
"There's nothing to be afraid of."
"Let's go home."
"I hate it when people run us off," Johnny said.
"Me too," Roy said. He always spoke in a loud, positive voice when he was agreeing with his brother. "And I want to go home too!"
"Look, the reason people run you off is to make you feel bad," Retta explained. "They figure they'll run you off and you'll feel so bad that you won't come back. Only that is not going to work with us. We are going to swim here every night this summer."
While she was saying this, the light in the upstairs of the Roberts's house went out.
"See, I told you," Retta said. "It was the bathroom."
"I'm cold. I want to go." Johnny was the thinnest of the three and felt the cold most.
"We'll make one more lap of the pool and then we'll go. Come on, we'll all hang on to the mattress. Kick, everybody."
"I want to go. I'm cooooold," Roy wailed.
"Not yet," Retta said firmly. It was her policy never to leave at once. Even if the colonel had appeared in person and had yelled at them in a military voice, she felt she would still insist they make this one extra lap.
They kicked their way around the pool without speaking. Johnny was kicking with all his strength in order to get the swim over with. The only sound was the chatter of his teeth.
When they were back in the shallow end of the pool, Retta straightened. "Now we'll go home," she said.
She pulled the mattress out of the pool and set it where she had found it. "Come on," she told her brothers.
Together they ran across the lawn and got their clothes from the bushes. They pulled on their jeans as they walked under the trees. Retta had come to like the feel of dry clothes pulled over chilled wet skin.
"Didn't that make you feel good?" she asked.
Roy nodded. He was hopping on one foot, trying to get the other foot into his pants leg. His wet underwear sagged, and he yanked it up. Retta held on to his elbow to steady him.
Then they moved together across the lawn, past the rose garden, past the orchid greenhouse, past the lemon trees from Florida, over the wall made from stone from Mexico.
As she walked, Retta wore a faint, proud smile, as if she were being cheered by an invisible crowd.CHAPTER 2
THE ANDERSON KIDS ENTERED their house noisily. They called to each other. They snapped lights on and off as they moved to their bedrooms. Roy paused in the living room and turned on the television, but as soon as Retta heard The Tonight Show she came back and turned it off.
"Why not?" Roy whined.
"Because it's late. Now get to bed." She pointed with one hand to his bedroom. Her other hand was on her hip. When she stood like that, like a real mother, Roy knew there was no point in arguing.
"I never get to do anything!" he yelled. He stomped out of the room.
There was no reason for them to be quiet because the house was empty. Shorty Anderson, their father, was a country-western singer who worked at night. Their mother had been dead for two years, and Retta was raising the three of them.
"Want me to get you something to eat?" Retta asked. The success of the evening had made her feel more maternal than usual.
In the hall the sound of Roy's stamping feet stopped. "Peanut butter sandwich," he said quickly.
"You want anything, Johnny?"
Johnny mumbled, "No," sleepily. He was already in his pajamas. He got in bed, rolled over, face to the wall, and fell asleep.
Beside him Roy was getting ready for his sandwich. He smoothed the sheet over his body as carefully as if it were a tablecloth. He wiped his hands, front and back, on his T-shirt. He loved to eat. The thought of the unexpected sandwich—Retta usually did not allow them to have bedtime snacks—made his face glow with pleasure.
"Kool-Aid too, please, Retta," he called out in a polite voice.
In the kitchen, in the bright light over the sink, Retta was humming under her breath. She was slicing the banana, placing the slices in neat rows on the peanut butter. In the window she could see her reflection, her long wet hair swinging about her face. She smiled at herself.
Retta was happier tonight than she had been in months. She had been taking care of her brothers all her life, but this summer, since they had moved to this neighborhood, it had become a lonely task. Tonight, however, they had had fun. She and her brothers were like friends now, she decided, doing things together. The summer vacation stretched ahead as one companionable, fun-filled day after another.
Retta finished making the sandwich, set it on top of a glass of milk, and carried it into her brothers' bedroom. "No Kool-Aid," she said firmly as she handed the sandwich and milk to Roy.
"Thank you." Roy was polite when it came to food. He said "please" and "thank you" without even knowing he was saying the words. In kindergarten he never had to be reminded by Miss Elizabeth, "Now, what do you say to Mrs. Hartley for the cupcakes?" because he gasped out, "Thank you," at the first glimpse of a white bakery box.
He turned his sandwich carefully, like a dog circling a bone. When he made his decision and took his first bite, an expression of contentment came over his face.
As usual, he began to eat the crust of the bread first. He nibbled around the sandwich, trying to be dainty. He believed that you got more if you ate daintily.
Retta leaned against the chest of drawers, watching him work his way around his sandwich. Just when he finished the last of the crust and was ready to sink his teeth into the peanut butter and banana, she said, "But, tomorrow, Roy, I'm putting you on a diet."
He was so startled that he almost dropped his sandwich. He looked at her. In the soft bread remained the horseshoe print of his teeth. "What?"
"I'm putting you on a diet tomorrow."
"Why?" It was a cry of pain. "I'm not fat."
"You have to wear Chubbies now. Before long you'll be in Huskies."
"We'll talk about it tomorrow."
"I won't be in Huskies. I promise!"
"We'll talk about it in the morning," Retta said in the mature voice she had gotten from TV mothers.
"I promise I promise I promise—" He went up on his knees in a beggar's position. "I promise I promise I—"
"Will you shut up and lie still?" Johnny rose up on one elbow and gave Roy a look of disgust and anger. "I'm trying to sleep!"
"Well, I'm not going on a diet no matter what!" To emphasize his point he began to take huge bites of his sandwich, gnawing at the bread like an animal, poking stray bananas into his mouth with his finger. When his mouth was completely filled, a solid mass of banana, peanut butter, and bread, he folded his arms over his chest. He stared defiantly at Retta. He smacked. He chewed. He kept on working his jaws long after the sandwich had been eaten.
Then he sat, arms folded, staring at Retta. "Drink your milk," she said.
He drank it without pausing, eyes always on Retta.
"Now, good night," she said.
"Good night, Loretta," he called after her, wanting to hurt her and knowing how much she hated to be called by her full name. She alone resented that she had been named for a country singer. "Loretta Lynn!"
She turned. "Good night, Roy Acuff!"
"Shut up!" Johnny yelled. He sat up in bed and glowered at them both.
Roy lay down. "Johnny Cash," he said, just mouthing the words, silently taunting his brother.
He smoothed the covers over his stomach. It was nights like these, he thought, when he missed his mother most. Suddenly Roy imagined her coming into his room in one of her country-western outfits, the white satin one with the sequined guitars on the skirt.
In the daytime he could never remember what his mother looked like and stared at her photographs in vain. But on lonely nights he could remember every detail. Tonight she surprised him by bringing with her a tray full of tiny cakes with lighted candles on top. She was still coming to his bed, smiling, when he fell asleep.
In the living room Retta was sitting on the sofa. She picked up the evening paper. Usually she went through the paper at night to check for possible outings. She circled them in Magic Marker, things like free Cokes at McDonald's, a wedding reception at the Catholic church.
Tonight, however, she had no interest in such minor events. Now she had the pool. And it was only five blocks away—that was the best part—just on the other side of the park.
Tomorrow, she thought, I'll get some inner tubes at the filling station. Suddenly she sat up straighter. And bathing suits! I'll get us bathing suits!
The picture of them crossing the colonel's lawn in bright new bathing suits was so clear, so beautiful, that she was determined to make it real. She got up and went into the kitchen. Her father kept household money in the breadbox.
She opened the lid and counted. Seven dollars and thirty-nine cents. She would need at least—she paused, estimating—at least seventeen dollars.
She left the kitchen. As she passed her brothers' room, she glanced in. The boys were both asleep: Johnny, a long, thin line under the sheet; Roy, a round ball.
"We," she told them quietly, "are going to have inner tubes and bathing suits." And she went into her room feeling as satisfied as if they already had them.CHAPTER 3
IT WAS TEN O'CLOCK in the morning, and it was raining, a hard, solid rain, the kind that could go on for days unless the wind shifted and the southwest weather moved in.
Retta sat on the top step of the porch, eating a piece of toast. She finished, licked her fingers, got up, and went slowly into the house. She eased the screen door shut behind her. Her father was asleep in the front bedroom, and he did not like to be awakened by slamming doors, loud television, or shouting children.
Excerpted from The Night Swimmers by Betsy Byars. Copyright © 1989 Houghton Mifflin Company. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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