Treading Water: A short story

Now used for a short story about treading water
s. bennett/Creative Commons

In high school they called him Omaha — his last name. His charismatic smile, V-shaped build, unassuming intelligence and kinked dark brown hair gave his last name so much character that it dropped the “proper” in “proper noun” and simply became a noun. Scoring a hat trick in the the first round of states — that’s Omaha. Showing up 30 minutes late to the ACT and scoring a 33 — classic Omaha. Cheating on tennis team captain Marissa Mays — doesn’t sound very Omaha, but at least he was sorry. But now, three years out of high school, he was just Jim. Jim the communications major. Jim who had arguments with his roommates about whose turn it was to do the dishes. Jim who still jogged but couldn’t play soccer anymore because of a surgery with an imposing-sounding acronym.

Just Jim.

Right now he was Jim who didn’t prepare for his final on Thursday. Marketing 163: “American Advertising.” He had talked himself into taking it in a moment of existential career crisis common among communications majors — what was he really going to do with his degree? He figured it would look good on his resume. He figured it would be an impressive way to stand out from his peers on paper. He figured he would study. He hadn’t.

He packed his things and headed to the academic center closest to his apartment. He walked in laughing to himself at the name: REAGAN LIBRARY AND GYMNASIUM. It reminded him of a party he’d attended late in his sophomore year. It was one of those parties that was hard to forget. Probably because of the atmosphere that surrounds students near the end of semesters. Upperclassmen were using and abusing to push back the threat of their coming lives after college, and underclassmen were trying to keep up. In this fog of anxiety and substance, Jim had found himself on a couch. He remembered it had smelled like weed, but he couldn’t remember if he had had any. What he could remember was a conversation about the Reagan Library.

“It’s a library with a gym,” someone said between inhales. “It’s like the school is trying to tell us what’s important: studying and fitness, man, studying and fitness.”

More wisdom came from farther down the couch: “It’s not just the school, man, it’s the whole thing.” He was speaking with his hands at this point. “Reagan donated in the ‘80s, wanted Americans to be smart and in shape in case we got Red Dawned.”

Jim remembered being confused by the reference. The first couch philosopher, pontificating with his spliff, responded: “Yeah, like if the Russians invaded we were supposed to be ready, man. Fit, ready to kill. That’s why we got a library with a swimming pool on top of it.”

A library with a swimming pool. Jim laughed to himself as he picked a quiet spot near the window, opened the class’s reader and prepared to battle boredom.

Maybe 30 minutes later the hum started. It started small, just some chitchat about a weekend from a nearby table. He glanced over to where the sound was coming from and could make out the signs of someone giving an account of how many drinks they had on their night out. Big hand motions, pauses for dramatic effects and a facial expression that seemed to say, “How much can I really embellish the truth?” He watched as another male at the table began to murmur in disbelief, auditing the account. It died for a brief moment. Then someone mentioned Sarah. The escalation of voices was a clear sign to Jim that the opposing study group was not her fan club. The shit-talking became distracting. Jim felt bad for Sarah, whoever she was, but he felt worse for himself. How was he supposed to cram in this noise?

“It’s quieter at the apartment,” he thought. But he knew that was an out. Going home meant hours misspent bingeing something he wasn’t that interested in on Netflix, or worse, YouTube purgatory. So Jim packed up his belongings and set off to find a quieter space. He found himself in the library’s sublevel — it was notorious for its lack of Wi-Fi and cell service, which meant it was empty. He decided he would just study the reader today and catch up on online problem sets tomorrow. It made sense, a great way to split his time. He headed for a study room at the end of the hall. Opening the door, he was surprised to find stairs leading down to a tiny room beneath an engorged ceiling that swelled down into the room like a bowl. Jim surmised that this was the room under the pool, but most importantly, it was empty. Empty and quiet. He sat down and began reading again. Minutes turned into an hour or two.

Somewhere between the pedantic sentences describing the “elegant simplicity” of the Nike Swoosh campaign, he felt movement. Then his water bottle fell off the table. The floor vibrated under his feet, the fluorescent lights bent and flickered out before exploding as they hit the beige tiles, and a low rumble, as if the walls were regurgitating, encompassed the room. Jim became dislodged from his seat. Then, the room’s indigestion stopped. He got up and wiped himself off. He tried to reason with his breathing.

“What do we know?” Jim thought. “We know that was an earthquake.” He dug through his memory for anything he knew about earthquakes, unburied some information from a class the school made him take freshman year. Earth Science 3 was boring but easy, and it fulfilled his physical science requirement. His memory of the class started with his professor’s syllable-distorting lisp, but he fought past that too — earthquakes! That was it! It must have been an earthquake. “Earthquakes are just plates shifting; that’s all. And the school was constructed on a fault line. Californians deal with these things all the time,” he told himself, pleased he remembered anything of substance at all. He was grinning at the small facts he had retained. When he surveyed the room, however, his smile disappeared. The earthquake took most of the light out of the room, but a singular flickering overhead fluorescent created an outline of his surroundings. There was a crack in the ceiling, like a stretch mark on the room’s belly. It was right over his head. He decided it was time to go. He gathered his things and ran up the stairs.

He pushed on the door, but it wouldn’t open. He remembered it was a pull, but it still wouldn’t budge. He tried pushing it again, but the door still didn’t open. He really slammed it. “I was an athlete,” he told himself. “I can make this door move.”

He couldn’t. A small swell of panic was forming in the back of his mind; it was stopped by a levy of reason. “They’ll come looking,” he said out loud. “They’ll come looking, unstick the door and get me out of here.” For a brief moment he considered resuming reading until the fire department or whoever came. As he started down the stairs, the room got sick again. Jim could hear the reinforcements of his imposing knee surgery break away as he fell from the steps and hit the floor.

It was time to call someone. He reached for his phone, but as soon as he brought it up to his face, he was reminded why he’d picked this study room in the first place: no service. Jim could feel his inability to stand up. But he had to try. He crawled to a chair and lifted himself off the ground. He winced and sat down in the chair. The pain echoing from his knee almost blocked out a low hissing noise coming from the back of the room. He turned his head. Over his shoulder in the back of the room, the ceiling’s cut had begun to bleed. Chlorine singed Jim’s nostrils. Jim looked back at the door at the top of the stairs. “Maybe the aftershock freed it,” he thought. He verbalized the pain in his knee, groaning as he inched back up the stairs on his belly to investigate the door. He’d thought wrong. The door frame had been compressed around the door; Jim could no longer see the light slipping out from under its cracks. His hopes of slipping through it began to fade. He slid down the stairs, defeated.

But Jim was no quitter — he was here cramming for a test, after all, wasn’t he? He would make an effort. He maneuvered to his backpack and removed his reader. Then he forced himself up onto the chair with his good leg. When he got under the newly made spigot, he rolled up his class reader and forced himself to stand up in the chair. He supported himself by placing one hand on the chair’s back and crammed the rolled-up reader into the leak in the ceiling. He reduced the steady stream to a trickle. He sat himself back down in the chair. Water ran down his face as he looked up at his paper stalactite; he couldn’t help but whisper a silent thank-you to Professor Jenkins, who had made the reader so thick. He’d never complain about reading a case study again.

Just as he was putting his mind at ease, he was thrown again. A second aftershock. He could hear the ceiling debating whether it should remain united after this last quake wave passed. The union lost, the crack widened, and his reader exploded out from under the pressure of the flooding water. It was as if someone above him had turned on a sadistic fire hose and pointed it toward him. Jim began to scream. And scream. And scream. No one could hear him; again, he was reminded why he picked the study room: It was quiet beneath the pool.

Jim sat up on the floor. He wouldn’t go lying down. The water was up to his waist. He dragged himself to the table and pulled himself up. He ran through every possible scenario for survival in his head. But no matter how he weighed his ability to tread water while injured, how long he could float on the table or how much force he’d need to muster to to break down the door, he found the scale was not in his favor. The water was rising too fast; it was just below the tabletop now. Jim’s head went numb as the sound of his breathing became louder than the sound of the gushing water. “Don’t pass out,” he thought, “don’t pass out!”

The water was over the tabletop now. Jim needed a plan, a last-ditch effort to beat the rising tide. The water seemed to come faster than he could think. It was at his waist. Frantically, he looked around, then he saw his out: He could swim to the door! He could find an air pocket or just wait for the water to drain out — something had to work out. The water came up to his shoulders, and Jim began to swim toward the exit. He swam right to the top step of the stairs and watched as the waterline rose to meet the door. He waited for the water to seep out underneath, but he waited for nothing; the water rose right past where there once was a space between the floor and the door. Jim splashed and shouted expletives at no one. Maybe there was too much rubble on the other side, maybe the door frame had compressed to seal the door shut, maybe someone up there just didn’t like him all that much, but the reason didn’t matter. He was stuck, and the water was still rising.

Jim looked up and saw the crack above him. Maybe, he thought, air pockets have been crammed down in spaces of the ceiling’s rupture. He could float on his back as the water rose and suck air from the same ceiling that was trying to kill him. He inched toward the ceiling. If he could just keep his head above water, he thought, it could work. Of course it would. He would be rescued and get the sweet satisfaction of telling his friends and family how he “almost didn’t make it.”

“That was some real quick thinking, Jim,” they’d say.

“Way to pull that out of your ass, Jim,” his friends would joke.

“It’s horrifying that it came so close, but we’re just so glad you’re OK,” his parents would fret.

Maybe they’d even call the whole story “pretty Omaha,” Jim thought, eyeing the crack in the ceiling as he was raised closer and closer. His lips touched; he inhaled hard; there was air. He did it! Barely made it, he thought. He became infected with the idea of who he’d be after this adversity. He’d be Omaha again, or just Jim; Jim was more professional, but it would have the same impact. And he’d turn it all around, he thought, not for them, but for me. He was growing more and more enthralled with his prospects. He tried to control his breathing, but he was too excited for himself; he took in hard, deep breaths. He restrained his celebratory respirating after a few moments and began breathing at a regular pace. Then something cool and heavy passed his lips and slid into the back of his throat. He kept trying to breathe, but he was too focused to realize his plan had failed. Too focused to realize that he had begun drinking the water that had filled the pockets of air.

Contact AJ Newcomb at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ajnewcombDC.