Despite the covered area on top of the stairs, heat leaked into my clothes, causing me to break out in a sweat. It was, by far, one of the hottest days of summer. Unfortunately for me, that meant that Ocean Meadows was packed from open to close. My summer job as a lifeguard paid well, but sometimes, bratty kids and their more annoying parents weren't worth the dough. What made it all worth it, though, was Savannah Williamson. She was my coworker who worked at the partnering slide to mine. There were two slides in Ocean Meadows. One covered, the one I worked, known as "The Whirlwind." The other that Savannah worked was an open slide, for those not brave enough to face the darkness, called "The Gulf."
Nothing particularly stood out that morning. Children of all shapes and sizes came barreling through the gates as soon as we opened at nine. Savannah and I were stationed, ready to guard the slides with all our might. Every three hours or so, we'd switch out with other coworkers for a break, and then switch back in a little later. But, it was early morning, and the lines to the slides formed. The job was easy. Estimate that the kid was tall enough, send them down the slide (they had to lay down with their arms crossed), and then watch for them to reach the bottom, where Allison Winklestire swam. Allison was another lifeguard, posted to make sure the children swam out of the way fast enough and reached safety before another hyperactive child came barreling down.
It was about halfway through my first three hours, and, as stated, it was average. The screams of children as they hurled down the slides no longer bothered me. I had to send a kid back down the stairs because he didn't meet the height requirements. Then, I had to speak to his pissed-off parent that showed up five minutes later. I shared glances with Savannah the whole time, and she giggled as the mother yelled at me for being "inconsiderate."
Savannah and I made small talk as we waited for the children to get to the bottom. We talked about weekend plans, and I believe I invited her to see a movie with me Saturday night. Savannah blushed happily and agreed to go with me. Unfortunately, we never followed up on those plans. As what happened that day, that awful, horrible day, left a parent without a child and me without a mind.
It was nearly an hour before our first break. Sweat pooled on my forehead, and I was hoping Savannah wouldn't notice. A teenager in neon green swimming trunks went down "The Whirlwind." I glanced over my shoulder, watched him come out with a splash, then motioned for her to come up. There was nothing special about her. A child, no more than ten, stood, waiting for my signal. She had rosy cheeks kissed with freckles and water droplets. She came forward, stuck her body into the slide, and looked up at me with chestnut eyes.
"It's my first time doing this." Her voice was high-pitched, reminding me of my baby sister back home. She favored her, in a way. The way her eyes sparkled with possibly and comfort. But, somewhere behind those eyes, I saw fear.
I leaned forward, making sure she could hear me over the rushing water. "It's okay. It is loads of fun."
"Hey, buddy," a grown man called from behind me, "Some of us are waiting 'ere."
I held out a finger to silence him, but I heard him scoff.
"You've done this before?" The girl asked, calling all of my attention back to her pale face.
I nodded, and the guy in line groaned. I heard Savannah tell him to keep quiet. "It's fun, I promise."
"But it's dark. And scary. And there could be monsters."
Reassurance coated my words, "I promise that there's nothing bad that could happen. If there was a monster in there, it would have already eaten everyone else up."
She stopped to look around for a minute, eyeing her surroundings carefully. She leaned in closer to me and whispered. "Not just any monster. The monster."
I placed a hand on her shoulder. "It can't get you here." I didn't know what her monster was, but everyone has one.
"You promise?" A new look in her eyes, trust.
"Promise." I held out my pinkie, showing I meant it. And we locked our pinkies together, a sign of friendship in a single gesture.
After I let go, she did too, letting her body fall into the darkness of "The Whirlwind." Shouts of excitement followed her, and I smiled.
"Thank goodness, took 'er long enough." The man in line mumbled.
Not from those waiting in line. They all buzzed with excitement.
No shouts coming from the slide, from the girl, no anything.
I glanced over my shoulder to find that the girl hadn't reached Allison just yet. Puzzled, I turned toward Savannah, who was smiling at me.
"You were so good with her, you know." She said, causing my sunburn to turn a darker shade of pink. I did my best to ignore the warmth she caused in my heart just by speaking. I focused on the problem at hand.
"Has she come out yet?" I asked, but Savannah looked confused, so I added, "The girl. Have you seen her come out of my slide?"
Savannah shook her head, looking down at Allison as she motioned for the next in line to come forward. "No, why?"
"She's not out yet."
"Dude, seriously? What's the 'old up?" The man in line grumbled. "I've been waiting for, like, twenty minutes."
"So has everyone else." I shot back, my eyes trained on the bottom of the slide. A few moments later, the girl was still not at the bottom. I leaned down into the mouth of the slide, calling into the darkness. "Hey, kid, are you still going down?"
No answer. More snarky remarks from the guy in line. Another silencing from Savannah.
"Kid?" I called again. Nothing.
I turned to Savannah, "Will you watch my line? Don't let anyone come down. I'm going to ride down and see where she is."
Savannah nodded, her perfect hair blowing in the ocean breeze. She offered me a smile. I smiled back. The moment was ruined by the guy in line who said something about a refund as he stormed down the stairs.
I took off my sandals and sunglasses and placed my feet in the rushing water. It felt good in the summertime humidity. Laying on my back, I pulled myself forward with my arms. The last thing I hear before I plummeted was the eerie and curious whispers coming from the people in line. I zipped down, being thrown left and right in the darkness. I did my best to focus my eyes, looking for any sign of the girl, but it was useless. Water dropped on my forehead, mixing with the sweat that had formed earlier. It was warm water, though, so I wiped it off with the back of my hand just before I splashed into the pool below. Confusion and sunlight crowded my eyes, as I did my best to adjust them on Allison. Her tan skin was scrunched at her forehead. I shook the water out of my ear and frantically looked around for the girl.
"I was gonna ask what was taking so long. Why haven't you sent a kid down in like, five minutes?" Allison watched a child skidded across the water from "The Gulf," helping them cross to the stairs while she awaited my answer.
To be honest, I didn't have an explanation.
"I sent one down. Like a ten-year-old girl. She hasn't come out yet."
"You're pulling my leg."
"I'm not. She's not there, that's why I tried to look for her, but she's just gone."
That got her attention, and she finally snapped her eyes in my direction for the first time. Fear crept over Allison's face as she looked at my forehead, and then at the slide behind me.
"What?" I finally asked.
"Are you bleeding?"
"I don't think so."
"Your hair, and your face, there's blood." Concern was woven into her words as she lifted a shaky hand to point at "The Whirlwind."
I whipped around, and then I swam closer to Allison. Little by little, the water was turning a light pink. Then a darker pink. Unless Savannah had split a pink lemonade, there was no logical explanation.
The two slides were shut down immediately. Allison radioed our boss, and I raced to help cut the water source. Savannah helped everyone exit the stairs in a (somewhat) orderly fashion. Panic swept over Ocean Meadows. The people were utterly irritated and curious.
Allison, Savannah, Mrs. Nash (our supervisor), and two other lifeguards joined us at the top of the slides. Wind tossed our hair as an anxious crowd waited below. There were other lifeguards posted around the pool, keeping anyone from entering. Now, the once pinkish water that was leaking turned a dark shade of crimson. Little bits at a time, blood, we figured, streamed into the pool. The water was turning murky and my stomach ached.
"Alright, listen up," Mrs. Nash was yelling. She always yelled. "As Michael has explained, a child went into this slide," she motioned, "and never came out."
Savannah shivered. Under any other circumstances, I would have wrapped my arms around her and pulled her in close.
"We've shut the water off and a team is working on draining the pool. We've notified the police to help search for the child, but the summertime keeps them rather busy. They'll send one over to investigate as soon as they can. Until then, we need to do everything we can to find this missing child." Mrs. Nash paused, clicking her tongue to the roof of her mouth. "The child's parents are trying to be located now."
As if on cue, a scream echoed from the crowd below. A woman, it sounded like. She was screaming a name, searching, looking. I watched as a lifeguard rushed to her, and spoke to her. The woman's movements were frantic. A sinking feeling slid down my throat and made a nest in my stomach. The woman, unmistakably, was the girl's mother, searching for her lost child. At that moment, Mrs. Nash's walkie-talkie crackled to life. A man's voice on the other end. "The child's mother is here with me. She says the girl's name is Lily Hartwell."
Mrs. Nash replied, but I watched the crowd below. Now, the lifeguards were beginning to shut down Ocean Meadows. A siren blared close-by. All because of this girl, this Lily. I was the last person to see her.
Mrs. Nash started speaking to us again. "We need someone to search the slide since it's dry now. See if there is any sign of her there."
Without a second thought, I shot up my hand.
Mrs. Nash nodded at me. "Alright, Michael. You're up." She tossed me a flashlight, as well as a walkie-talkie, and offered me a warning. Savannah squeezed my hand before I began my journey.
And I was off, doing my best to slow myself when needed, pressing my palms against the side of the slide for support. The flashlight beamed up ahead, but so far, I saw nothing at all. Then, I heard it.
Drip, drip, drip.
I stopped myself with my hands and feet. Pulling the walkie-talkie from my belt, I pressed the button and radioed Mrs. Nash. "I thought you said they turned off the water."
A few seconds later. "They did."
I put the walker-talkie back on my belt with a sigh. I slowly let my hand off the side of the slide and slipped down further.
Drip, drip, drip.
It was steady.
Drip, drip, drip.
I rounded the next turn.
Drip, drip, drip.
It was closer.
Drip, drip, drip.
I was closer.
Drip, drip, drip, drip, drip.
It came faster now. I rounded the last corner before the slide ran into the pool, and then, I saw her.
There she was. Not on the slide. On the roof of it. I inched closer. Every part of her body was pinned to the top of the slide. If I went any further, I would be directly underneath her.
What's left of her, anyway. I could tell, upon arrival, that no life remained. In my short time on this earth, I knew life in someone's eyes. Her chestnut eyes once rimmed with possibly, comfort, and fear, were now lifeless. Dull. Bloodshot. Bored.
Her pale face was more of a ghostly white. I could not stop looking. Her throat was slit, causing blood to drip onto the slide from her wound and her mouth.
I nearly vomited.
Drip, drip, drip went her blood.
Drip, drip, drip.
But what shocked me most was the peculiar smile that curved on her lips. It was unnatural, inhumane. She looked like the monster that hid in my closet. I inched forward. Carefully, I reached out my hand, trying to figure out how she was sticking to the top of the slide like that. As soon as my fingers grazed her forehead, a scream escaped her smiling lips, and she plummeted, face first, onto the slide. A gasp escaped from me, a scream about to bubble over.
Mrs. Nash's voice rang out from the walkie-talkie, but I didn't listen. I watched as the girl, as Lily, slid down the rest of the slide. Sliding in her own blood. I believed I imagined it, but, before she rounded the final corner, she picked up her head, and she looked at me.
Her cold, dead eyes stared at me as her inhumane smile grew wider. And wider.
She kept sliding. I didn't dare follow. I heard her body hit the cement pool, as it had already been drained. People screamed. Mrs. Nash kept trying to contact me. I didn't move.
It felt like hours that I sat there. But I knew it wasn't long. After I emerged, bloodied and terrified, Savannah greeted me. She was crying. And for the first time, I realized that I was too. She wrapped her arms around me, frantically telling me about the state of the child. I didn't have the heart to tell her I already knew. That would also be the last time I spoke to her.
Ocean Meadows closed down for the rest of the season. People hung up signs and pictures of Lily as a memorial. Teddy bears were left on the sidewalk near the front gate. Our town cried. The next summer, Ocean Meadows sent out a message saying that we would reopen at the start of summer. People revolted. Ocean Meadows shut down, for good, shortly after.
Despite the questions surrounding the event, even those the police asked, I never gave them an answer. I never once told anyone what I saw that day. I didn't want people to know that I felt utterly responsible for what happened to Lily Hartwell. I told her the monsters couldn't get her. I lured her into "The Whirlwind." And that's where she died. Alone. And scared. Because of me.
No one ever solved the mystery of what happened to Lily. I've gone back to Ocean Meadows, searching for answers. I never found any. Just old bloodstains on the cement pool. Rust forming atop "The Whirlwind." Nothing. Lily's family, her mother, and everyone who knew her were angry. Angry about the ambiguity of it all. To be fair, I was too. There's not a day that I don't think about her. Her sun-kissed cheeks and her chestnut eyes. Her blood, dripping, dripping, dripping, dripping. Her smile. Whatever happened, it made me upset, knowing that I was the last one who ever saw her alive. Something killed her. And we'll never know what. She haunts my dreams every single night. I've been on medication to get them to stop. They don't. Lily Hartwell was an innocent. Her life, gone in an instant. Mystery grew thick. But others forgot. I believe that, if I told anyone what I saw, they'd never forget. But I don't want to tell. Lily's secret, her horrible, terrifying secret is safe with me. I promise.