Lifeguard

by Rachel Cochran

The tortilla puffed with heat, one large pocket of air shoving up from against the pan, then suddenly ripping and steaming, making a sound like a very faint train whistle.  Michael pinched the corner and flipped it. The air rushed out, and it flattened, and now two dark brown spots stared at him from the cooked side like deadened, uneven eyes. Juan Carlos was no longer sleeping in his room – Michael had heard him moving around nearly half an hour ago – but there was no noise now coming from the room above the kitchen. Michael was under strict orders not to bother him, but he was also on strict orders to walk Juan Carlos to the hospital this morning, and it was already nearly eleven.

ringMichael lifted the tortilla from the pan and tossed it onto the plate on the kitchen table. It slipped from the pile and fell onto the stack of newspapers Mom had bought from HEB first thing that morning. When Michael picked it up, the warm dough had pulled an impression of the newsprint onto its two-eyed side. Michael smudged the ink and hid the marked tortilla in the middle of the tortilla stack.

“Something smells burnt.”

When Michael looked, Juan Carlos was leaning against the doorway like when he would come to breakfast hung over some days.  Michael hadn’t heard him come down the stairs. “Shouldn’t be,” said Michael. “It’s me making it, not Mom.”

“Where is she?”

“Work. Come sit. It’s all done.”

When Juan Carlos moved Michael could see how stiff his joints were, like how Grandpa Serapio moved on days it rained. He braced his hands against the table before he lowered himself onto his chair. Michael switched off the burner.

“You’re not having anything?”

“Not hungry,” Juan Carlos said.

“There’s coffee.”

At Juan Carlos’s nod, Michael filled two cups. They both sipped, and Michael unfolded the top copy of the Beacon. It still smelled like the rack at HEB where they sold the newspapers, between the fresh-cut flowers and fresh-fried doughnuts. “Where’d they get this picture?”

“It looks like my yearbook picture,” Juan Carlos said, although Michael did not know how he could tell. He did not even look at the paper.

“Yeah, I guess they called the school for it or whatever.” Michael flipped the pages in search of the rest of the article. “They’ve got quotes from you. You talked to this guy?”

“I don’t remember.”

Michael put the paper down. Juan Carlos was drinking his coffee and looking away out the window. Now that Michael thought about it, something in the room did smell burnt, although the tortillas were fine, and all of the burners were off.

“Mom bought some flowers, too.”

“For me?”

“She said they were for you to take to the little girl.” Michael nodded at the paper. “This says she’s in the hospital still.” When Juan Carlos did not reply, Michael said, “Did you hear me?”

“So I’ll go to the hospital. It’s on the way to the pool.”

“You have to work today?”

Juan Carlos shook his head. “I left my wallet in my locker. After everything yesterday, I guess I forgot it.”

“You can walk that far. I’ll go with you. I got nothing to do.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Mom said I should.”

Juan Carlos frowned but didn’t say anything. When they had finished their coffees, Juan Carlos stood as if to go. “Where are the flowers?”

“You don’t have shoes on.”

Juan Carlos looked at his bare feet on the pale yellow kitchen linoleum. “Okay,” he said, and he turned back and went up to his room. Michael got the flowers from the hall table and stepped outside. The grass in the front yard was a pale yellow, much less pleasant than the green grass in the shady backyard where Michael liked to sit and read sometimes. The yellow grass had only gotten drier the longer Palacios went without rain, and some days it was brittle enough that it snapped underfoot like straw.

Something on the front window caught Michael’s eye, and it was not until he read it again that he remembered the argument he and Mom had been having when Juan Carlos came home the night before. The three-letter word – drawn in glass chalk like the jocks and cheerleaders used on their car windows for school spirit slogans on Homecoming Week – was only half-smeared away.  Michael set the flowers onto the lawn, walked around the side of the house, and unwound the garden hose. He turned the spigot, then brought the hose back to the window, directing the water to spray at it. The chalk letters warped, dribbled down the window, streaking it red. It was far from clean, but at least it was now unreadable. When Michael came back around from turning off the hose, Juan Carlos was on the front step, locking up the house.

“You know there’s a drought going, don’t you?”

“The window was dirty.”

Juan Carlos looked. His fingers clenched around his keys, clinking them together. “What did they write?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Michael stooped and picked up the flowers again. “Let’s get out of here.” Michael was at the front gate when he saw that Juan Carlos had not followed him, but had crossed to the window, and was now using his sleeve to rub away the wet chalk. When he pulled away and joined Michael at the gate his white shirt was smeared with red and still wet in patches, but the window was clean. Michael held the gate for him.

In summer, heat warped the air above streets in town, rippling it like desert mirages. Even on the residential streets where the trees grew there was no shade, because the leaves had long since dried in the sun and fallen from their brittle branches which were no match for the sunlight. When they were too far from the house to double back, Michael said, “We should have brought water.”

“For the flowers?”

“No,” Michael said.  “For me, man.  It’s hot.”

“Gets like this on the stand sometimes. At the pool we’ve had to ration the drinking water,  you know, ‘cause of the drought. So the guards aren’t supposed to drink from the fountains. We’ve got to get our own bottled water from concessions. And sometimes I don’t got money for it, and I end up sitting up there, drying out, watching all these kids splashing around up to their eyeballs in the only thing I’m thinking about.”

“If it gets too bad we could snap the flowers, drink from the stems. I think I saw that on TV once.”

“I don’t know. Those are HEB flowers. Don’t they add shit to the water there to keep those alive longer?” Juan Carlos took the flowers and looked them over. “I wouldn’t trust it. They fly these in from Colombia, you know that?” He handed the bouquet back to Michael. “Next biggest export after coffee and cocaine.”

“How do they get them here?”

“In a plane. There’s one guy flying this plane just filled up with cut flowers in the back.”

“That sounds like a pretty nice job. I bet it’d smell good.”

Juan Carlos shrugged. “They’re always stopping those planes, though. Checking to make sure they aren’t smuggling nothing.  Plus, I think the ones who get jobs like that are the ones who don’t do that well in pilot training or something.”

Talking helped keep Michael from thinking about how hot it was, but as soon as they stopped it came back. Michael couldn’t think of anything else to say, and they were on Henderson Avenue now, and the zoom of cars going ten to twenty over the thirty-five limit would have blocked out his voice, anyway. There was no sidewalk on Henderson, and the grass tilted away from the road sharply, so Michael and Juan Carlos walked single-file, Michael leading the way. The occasional breeze from the passing cars helped ease the painful heat. Michael held the flowers in front of himself, and he could smell them on the air mixed with the breeze off the bay and with car exhaust.

“Did you hear that?”

Michael stopped and turned around. His brother had stopped walking and was looking down the road, where a red pickup with GO #10 written on the back windshield had just passed them and was zooming away. “No.  What?”

“Some asshole just shouted at you.”

“What did he say?”

Juan Carlos only shook his head, and Michael knew. Juan Carlos took the bouquet and walked in front now, and Michael was glad for the shadow he cast, a little piece of moving shade, blocking him from the sun and from the street.

The hospital was really only a medical center, a squat building just off Henderson. The woman at the desk looked up when Juan Carlos and Michael entered. “We’re here to see the little girl,” Michael said.

“Little girl?”

“Mindy Zamora,” Juan Carlos said.

The woman told them the room number and pointed down the hall. They went, Juan Carlos still holding the flowers, and counted the numbers above the room until they reached 17. The door was a little ajar, and Michael knocked at it gently. The sound of beeping machinery from inside set him on edge.

A man appeared in the gap of the door. He was a young man, not much older than Juan Carlos. He looked the two over. “Y’all just leaving flowers?”

“Yeah,” Juan Carlos said.

“Come on in, but be quiet. She’s asleep.” Michael and Juan Carlos stepped into the room, careful that the shuffling of their shoes did not make too much noise.

The first thing Michael noticed were the flowers. There were flowers everywhere, ringing the room, some set up in vases and some lying on the windowsills. Some had little pots of their own, with glitter-hearts on sticks pushed into the soil. Some had teddy bears hugging the stems tightly against them. Get Well cards and balloons were clustered away in the corners, stacked on the guests’ chairs, shoved into a woman’s purse left hanging from the coat hook. It was only after taking in the flowers that Michael noticed the small girl on the hospital bed, nearly lost in the folds of her sheets.

“They kept her up late, checking her ribs,” Mindy’s father said. “One of them fractured during the CPR. They said that was real common, but they want to keep her to see how it’ll heal up.”

Juan Carlos was silent, staring at the girl in the bed.  Mindy’s father took the bouquet from him, set it on the windowsill with the rest. When he noticed Michael watching, he said, “We’ve been getting these all morning. Cassie’s family’s been in and out all day.  Y’all cousins of hers, too?”

“No,” Michael said.  He and Mindy’s father both watched as Juan Carlos stepped closer to the bed. The little girl moved in her sleep, then let out a pained whimper.

“Jess?” There was a woman in the doorway, now, watching Juan Carlos, too.

“Cassie. These guys was just bringing some flowers for Mindy.”

“It’s you,” said the woman, staring at Juan Carlos. There was a silence, then she crossed the small hospital room and wrapped her arms around him tightly. After a moment, Juan Carlos held her back. When she pulled away, there were tears in the woman’s eyes.  “Jess, this is the guy. The lifeguard.”

Mindy’s father looked at Juan Carlos with wider eyes. “I didn’t know. Here, man.” The two shook hands warmly, and Mindy’s father’s voice wavered as he said, “Thank you.”

“It’s just my job, you know,” Juan Carlos said, but his voice was thick like it had been the night before when he came home, before Michael had heard him crying in his room. Mindy’s father didn’t stop shaking his hand for a long while, and Mindy’s mother didn’t stop crying.

“I didn’t even see what was going on until Rita tapped my shoulder. And then there she was, caught under the water, and the lifeguards was yelling for everyone to get out of the water and this guy just jumps off of his seat – one of those high ones, you know? – he just jumps off and into the water and he pulls her out.  She wasn’t breathing, so he got started with those compressions or whatever you call them, and then she was spitting up all over and asking for me, and I was so paralyzed I couldn’t thank you properly then, so I’m real glad you came by.”

“Don’t mention it,” Juan Carlos said. “I gotta go. Just tell her to get better quick, yeah?”

“Of course,” she said. She had moved to the hospital bedside now, and she was stroking back her daughter’s hair away from her sleeping face. “Thank you.”

When Juan Carlos and Michael left, it was high noon outside, and fumes curled up from the pavement like steam. There were no shadows anywhere along the street. Michael shaded his eyes with his hand.

“That was crazy,” he said. “Was that the way it really happened? How she said it?”

Juan Carlos kept walking.

“Hey, slow down.” Michael trotted to walk alongside his brother. They were quiet a long time, and Michael remembered a story his mother had told him once. He couldn’t remember it himself, but she insisted that, one summer when Michael was five or six, he had been playing with his brother by the street, and Juan Carlos had just gone around the house when a car pulled up, a man reached out, and pulled Michael inside. The car was two blocks away when Juan Carlos caught up to it at a corner, running alongside and hammering the passenger door with his fist until they opened it and pushed Michael back out, then zoomed away.

Michael had taken this as gospel in the years before he had realized the gravity of it. As soon as he was old enough to understand what it really meant, he had begun to disbelieve it. He could not remember any part of it – not being pulled into a strange car, not the disorientation or confusion that came from it, not a sinister man’s face or a song playing on the radio or whether the air vent was blowing into his eyes or his brother’s fist hitting the car door, and not the pain of being shoved out onto his hands and knees by the stop sign. Only his mother seemed to remember that this had ever happened, and she had always had a tendency to mistake embellished memories for real ones. He could have merely been talking to a stranger in the supermarket, or accidentally attaching himself to another family at the Fisherman’s Fest. This realization that the story had been a lie had come at around the same time that Juan Carlos stopped speaking to Michael at school, and only contributed to the greater realization that his brother was not a hero, after all. If he could ignore the skinny boy with the long eyelashes and the strange clothes, that didn’t make him special.  That made him just like everyone else.

Juan Carlos did not slow to let Michael walk beside him. Michael put a hand to his brother’s shoulder. “Hey,” Michael said.  “What is it?”

“Nothing, man,” said Juan Carlos.

Michael was thinking about Mom now, and he felt a tug in the pit of his stomach. They had not resumed last night’s argument this morning, in the wake of everything that had happened with his brother, but there was a coldness there when she told him to take Juan Carlos to the hospital, and Michael knew that meant the argument wasn’t over, and when it was over, Michael would be the one to lose. “You know, last night when you got home? And the word on the window?” There was no response, so Michael carried on. “We’d just been talking about it. She told me that there were things I could do so people wouldn’t say those things about me.  She told me there was something wrong with the way I walk, you know? But I’ve always walked like this.” It was getting harder to say, so Michael imagined someone else saying it, or else like they were words in a play that he was trying out for. “And then I told her well what if they were right, and that’s why she was – ”

Juan Carlos stopped in his tracks. They were just now passing the parking lot of the HEB, and Juan Carlos looked out over the pavement, then pointed. “Look. It’s that truck.”

Near the back of the lot there was a pickup pulling into a parking spot. It was cherry red, with GO #10 written on the back windshield in red chalk. The engine died, and two boys got out. Michael recognized them, although he could not remember their names. “Forget them,” Michael said. “They’re just some dickhead jocks from school.”

But Juan Carlos was already crossing into the HEB parking lot toward them. They did not notice him at first, laughing over something and heading together toward the store, but they looked up when he called to them. “What did you call my brother,” he said, and he shoved bodily into the larger of the two. “I heard you shout at my brother. What did you call my brother.” He shoved the second one away as he tried to approach, then swung out at the first one, who was trying to swing back. “Don’t you call my brother that, you hear me, huh? You fucking hear me?” Juan Carlos swung his arms wildly now, and Michael, who had been approaching as if to intervene, was caught up watching, legs frozen, as the two crushed in on Juan Carlos, shoving their fists at him in a sloppy parody of a fight, and when they had knocked him to the ground they panicked and ran, fleeing for the truck again.  There was a spatter of blood on the smaller one’s Palacios Sharks tee-shirt. GO #10 squealed against the pavement as it turned onto Henderson and went off into the heat-warped horizon.

Michael could not move. He watched his brother push himself up onto his knees. Blood was streaked down his face. He stood, swaying, and he looked to Michael as though he were about to vomit. Michael’s legs became unstuck, and he ran to his brother, supporting him under the arm.

“It’s your eye that’s cut,” Michael heard himself saying. “Let’s get some ice.”

They walked in the front of HEB, drawing glances all over. Michael leaned his brother up against the bakery freezer, and he quickly pulled ice over from the penguin-covered coolers near the door. He pulled a lump out with his hand, held it up against his brother’s face. Only then did he see that the cheeks were streaked with tears. Michael looked his brother in the eyes.

“She was just so little,” Juan Carlos said. “She was so little, and she nearly – ”

“Hey, you helped her.”

“What if I hadn’t, though,” he said. “What if I’d been at concessions buying a bottle of water, or what if I’d stopped paying attention for a while. What if she’d – Michael, I can’t – ”

“It’s all right,” Michael said. He wrapped an arm around Juan Carlos, holding him. “It’s all right. You got her out.”

Juan Carlos’s fists were bloodied, too, and Michael took a newspaper from the nearby stand and peeled away the first sheet, pouring ice into it, folding it into a ball.  He pressed it into his brother’s hands. Juan Carlos buried his face in it, shoulders moving with quiet sobs, and Michael stood protectively between his brother and the people who had already begun to look at them askance. It was Juan Carlos’s own high school yearbook photo on the front page of the Beacon that the ice was now bleeding through, causing the colors and ink from the newsprint to run. They were next to the flower display, and the air smelled pleasant here. It was no longer like the melting tar of the streets outside or the pewter smell of Juan Carlos’s blood, but a gentle smell and a clean one, like the funereal Get Well displays of the little girl’s hospital room, like the flower carriers flying out of Colombia, their pilots looking back into the cargo bay to see mounds upon mounds of cut flowers heaped and seeping out their scent like a hummed song, like being gently rocked to sleep.

Rachel Cochran is a master’s degree candidate in the University of Missouri English department, specializing in Creative Writing. Other pieces of her short fiction have previously appeared in the University of Georgia’s Mandala Literary Journal, Eastern Illinois University’s The Vehicle Magazine, the University of New Haven’s New Sound Literary Journal and The Ohio River Review. She was born in Missouri but spent her formative years in Rockport, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico.

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