When I was a child, my friends and I used to love swimming. During the summer, every Friday we would all go to my friend, Harry’s house, and go to the village pool, which was just down the road. Harry’s dad wasn’t just a qualified lifeguard but was also a member of the local council, and of course, was in charge of the pool. Thanks to this, even though the pool was only open during a select few months, my friends and I could catch the last of the good weather during July. Some years, we were even lucky enough to use the pool right up until the middle of September.
Me, Sam, Harry and Jack were as close as young friends could possibly get. Our year group was made up of about thirteen, fourteen people, so becoming friends with everyone was a guarantee, yet we shared a much deeper bond. We did absolutely everything together, and unlike a lot of friend groups, where you may prefer some members over others, we all shared the same amount of admiration and respect for one another. It was like hanging out with the cool kids and feeling like the leader at the same time, and it was an unmatched period of time in my life in terms of acceptance and true, unrivalled happiness.
Until Harry was taken.
I believe it was a Monday. We had a bank holiday, and so we had an extra day to spend together. And of course, it was towards the end of July, right when the pool closes for the public. Sam and I cycled down to Harry’s house, which took about fifteen minutes. Harry and Jack were already standing outside, with their bags on their backs and holding their towels in their hands. Sam hopped off his bike and ran to go and greet them, while I offered to take both of our bikes into Harry’s garage, where his dad currently was.
“Hi, Jacob! Looking forward to swimming?”
“Hi, Mr. Davies. It should be really fun!”
Harry’s dad was an incredibly kind man, seemingly always full of life and never angry. There was a certain childish passion that made him feel like an honorary member of the group, without ever overstaying his welcome. I left the bikes up against the wall and ran back to my friends. Harry and Sam were looking at something on Sam’s phone, while Jack was sitting on the wall next to Harry’s front gate. I jumped up and sat next to Jack on the wall. We were just launching into a conversation, presumably about some schoolyard gossip, when Harry’s dad came out of the garage, walking down the road and beckoning to us to follow him. Jack and I jumped off the wall, and we walked as a group of four, taking playful verbal jabs at one. At the age of 12, we had just about developed the bravery to start using all of the four-letter swear words, and Harry’s dad couldn’t have cared less. In fact, I often heard him sneak a laugh when one of us said something particularly crude, something that only someone new to swearing would think was funny, but that held a lot of charm.
We got down to the park, which was adjacent to the park, and spent about ten minutes on the climbing frame, while Harry’s dad unlocked the metal gate leading to the pool, and made sure that everything was safe.
“I bet I’m the fastest out of all of us!” Jack quipped.
“We settled this last week, I beat you!” Sam snapped back.
“No, idiot, I mean in the pool. I can outswim all of you, hands down!”
Jack was a great friend and, as the strongest of all of us, always kept us out of harm's way if any older kids ever tried to pick on us. He never hurt anyone, but he knew that his physical presence was enough to make most think twice. His pride was unmatched, but he was always good-humoured when playing the role of the bad loser, making terrible excuses as to why he lost and laughing at himself along with the rest of us. Sam, by contrast, was the smallest and the meekest of us all but was lightning quick both physically and mentally. I’ve never met a faster thinker, and I don’t think I ever will. He had an unnatural way of making sure that we all avoided trouble, and could talk his way out of anything.
“Come on boys, we’ve only got a few good hours left!”
Harry’s dad didn’t need to tell us twice. We all made a mad dash towards the gate, with Sam making it to the toilet, which doubled as the changing room, faster than all of us. He let out a mocking laugh, before slamming the door shut, and bolting it. All three of us made it to the outside of the toilet, panting, short of breath and boiling under the hot sun. As soon as Sam came out, Jack moved, filling the doorway, making sure that he was next in line. Sam ran past us, cannonballing into the pool, soaking both me and Harry. We shouted out in mock rage, as Sam laughed, before diving straight underwater. Harry’s breathing was still rather ragged, so I got out my inhaler, and gave it to him. He took a quick puff and thanked me. Harry was the only one of us that had asthma, but we all kept a spare inhaler, just in case he was ever without his. We cared about each other like that.
Jack came out, and I let Harry go in next, so he could get out of the sun and recover a little easier. Harry’s dad looked a little concerned, but I gave him the thumbs-up, and he returned the gesture, mouthing the words “Thank you” as Harry walked in. Jack made a beeline straight for Sam, letting out a roar as he divided into the pool. Sam had resurfaced, and let out a squeal of childish delight before diving straight back under. I watched the abstract shapes of Jack and Sam fight underwater, and shivered with glee as I watched Sam struggle violently as Jack grabbed him by the shoulders, pulling him back up towards the top. Sam and Jack broke the surface of the water, both laughing violently, so much so that they began coughing through their mirth. Harry came out of the toilet, giving me a high five before pencil diving into the water, sinking to the bottom before Sam and Jack could notice. I knew this technique, as Harry often liked to grab us underwater, with us unaware of his presence. It scared the crap out of us and brought Harry an unlimited source of joy.
I went into the changing room, being careful to untie my new shoes instead of just kicking them off, and got changed into my trunks. I put all of my clothes into my bag and left my bag alongside the others. Coming out of the toilet, I ran towards the pool, seeing Sam, Harry and Jack lined up along the wall, preparing to swim the length of the pool as fast as possible. I hopped into the pool, lining up with the rest of them. Harry’s dad, sat in his lifeguard chair, had a faux-steely look on his face, making us all giggle.
“CHAMPIONS! ARE YOU READY?” he bellowed.
“SIR, YES SIR!” we roared back.
“READY… SET… GO!”
All four of us launched ourselves off the wall, making a mad dash towards the other end of the pool. I vividly remember putting every fibre of my being into that sprint, cutting through the water at a blistering pace. Meeting the wall, I somersaulted in the water, pushing myself off the wall once again, and felt pure exhilaration as I saw that both Harry and Sam had only covered half the difference. Jack, however, was hot on my heels. I concentrated my efforts, moving even faster than I thought was physically possible. I arrived at the start, finishing my length, as Jack came crashing in after me. I stood up in the shallow water, taking a deep breath, before roaring in victory, as Jack screamed in defeat.
I felt incredible. Jack pretended to sob in sheer woe. I laughed in his face, and he got up and playfully pushed me into the water. I rolled over onto my stomach and pulled myself along the floor until it became deep enough to swim again. Jack followed suit, and I swam towards Harry’s dad, as both Harry and Sam stayed panting at the wall. Harry’s dad helped me out of the pool, and raised my hand in the air in victory, as Jack stayed outraged, while Sam and Harry cheered for me between deep intakes of air.
“Gentlemen, your superior!” Harry’s dad exclaimed.
Harry hopped out of the pool to fetch his inhaler “just in case” as I hopped back into the pool. Harry’s dad went to the shed where the heater was kept, raising the temperature of the water slightly. From the shed, he brought out a bunch of inflatable floats and lilos. I and Sam got on top of a huge yellow float, and Jack took up the role of the sea monster. Jack dived under the water, and swam underneath our float, pushing upward on the float to try to unseat me and Sam. We wobbled and shrieked, as Jack roared. Even underwater, his incredible strength was a marvel. I looked over and saw Harry and his dad, sitting together talking. They both looked rather sad, and I assumed that Harry’s asthma was stopping him from coming back into the pool. I called Jack’s name, and he resurfaced.
“I’m gonna go over and see if I can get Harry to come back.”
“Alright, that’s cool. Guess I’ll just have to eat Sam alive.”
“You can try, shithead!” Sam yelled, with pure smugness on his voice.
Without a word, Jack dived down, and pushed himself off the bottom of the pool, breaking the surface of the water, and barrelling Sam off the float, into the water with a shriek of fear. I made my way over to the pool ladder, and stepped out, making my way over to Harry and his dad. Harry’s dad turned towards me, a somewhat melancholy smile on his face.
“Is everything OK, Mr. Davies?” I asked.
“It’s fine, it’s just Harry’s asthma, he just got a little frightened.”
I looked past Harry’s dad to Harry, and he looked very cold.
“Hey, we can get back in the pool and you’ll warm up, and I’ll make sure I don’t leave your side, so if you need your inhaler, I’ll make sure you get it as soon as possible,” I said.
Harry looked somewhat convinced, but I could tell he was still full of trepidation.
“If we don’t have you, we’ll never kill the sea monster. He’s quite fat, and I’d really like to stick his arse in a frame and hang it on the wall of the toilet,” I smirked.
Harry laughed, and I knew I had him now. He got up and gave his dad a hug. His dad laughed, his shirt wet, but he held Harry tightly. Harry let go and quickly spun, running towards the pool, diving into the water. He climbed onto the float with Sam, but before I could follow suit, Harry’s dad grabbed my arm, and I turned to face him.
“Jacob, thank you. Harry has a hard time with his lungs, and I know how much you and the guys mean to him,” he said earnestly.
I smiled, and shrugged my shoulders humbly, before jumping into the water, attacking Jack with my special sea monster-slaying dagger. He fought viciously, but with the help of the brave men atop the float, we managed to kill the foul beast. Jack came back to the surface, whilst Harry and Sam dropped off the float so that all four of us were treading water. We started playing superheroes under the water, darting from one side of the pool to the other, corkscrewing and somersaulting through the water. Eventually, Sam and Jack went to the shallow end of the pool, while myself and Harry moved towards the deeper end.
Harry and I always played a game with the floor vent at the end of the pool. The floor vent, small and circular, no longer and wider than both feet put together, sucked water through. As such, it had a small pull, not nearly enough to keep one of us in place, but it was enough for us to feel a small rush of adrenaline, almost as if we were, in fact, trapped. When one of us was “trapped” the other would have to swoop in and save them. Essentially, it was a game to see who was stronger and could force the other person to move. Harry and I played this game for about ten minutes, laughing under the water and joking around, screaming “HELP ME, OH GOD, HELP ME!” before chortling at the warbled sound of our voices under the water. Eventually, I moved from the vent, over to the left side of the pool, at the middle point between deep and shallow. Harry was still over by the deep end of the pool, along the right side. We were both dipping under the water together, making rude signals at one another, laughing even harder this time.
After some time, Harry turned towards the wall underneath the water and pretended to be typing on a keyboard, presumably as part of some sort of joke.
At that moment, something changed. The vent always had a small stream of bubbles rising from it, all the way to the surface of the water. All of a sudden, they stopped. I watched the stream of bubbles die. The water looked too calm, and even while surrounded by the heated water, my blood ran ice cold. The vent started moving ever so slightly, almost as if a light vibration was running through it. It shook more and more violently as seconds that felt like hours passed. Harry was still engrossed in the setup of his joke, not noticing as the vent opened slightly as if someone were opening it from the inside.
A long, thin, red arm, glossy and perfect, snaked out of the vent. It had a cartoonish white glove on the end of the arm. At first, I didn’t believe it was real, frozen in abject fear underneath the water. More and more of the arm came out of the vent, and an incredible limp mass lay on the bottom of the floor. It still trailed into the vent, and I have no idea just how much of this thing there was. The white-gloved fingers twitched, as Harry turned, about to execute the punchline of his long-forgotten joke, before looking at the thing on the floor of the pool. Without warning, the gloved hand balled into a fist and immediately lunged for Harry’s ankle. I heard the bone crunch underneath its vice grip, and Harry screamed under the water, yet little sound came out. The thing straightened out, as Harry kept screaming, in too much pain to resist. Its entire mass had become straight, leading a diagonal line from Harry to the drain. In a split second, it retracted back into the vent, still holding onto Harry, and with another scream of abject terror, he went with it. His legs went through the vent opening, but he became trapped at the ribs, his torso too wide to move through the hole. The sound of cracking, splintering bone filled my ears, yet neither Sam or Jack had noticed, arguing with their heads above water. I heard Harry’s ribs snap, his sternum giving out and his muscles tear, as he shook violently in the vent. Blood started gushing from his mouth, like crimson clouds, and his eyes rolled violently into the back of his head. His body began jolting, moving slowly through the vent.
Like processed meat through a grinder.
I watched, as the life faded from Harry’s eyes, and the water surrounding him became saturated with thick, red blood. Harry was slowly swallowed by the vent, and as his torso went under, his limp arms went vertical, as the vent consumed him. The last thing I saw of Harry were the tips of his fingers, and then, he disappeared entirely.
I broke the surface of the water, so stricken by fear that I said nothing. I did nothing. Harry’s dad, unaware of his son’s fate, sat by the toilet reading a book. Sam and Jack were still arguing, their words abstract and overwhelming. Left with no other choice, I dipped under the water again. I closed my eyes on the way down, too scared to open my eyes again. When I did, the blood in the water was slowly rising to the surface.
The vent grumbled. It appeared.
With a sound like sandpaper rubbing against itself, the white glove appeared again, this time not followed by the red arm. The white fingers were stretched, elongated beyond any reason, and I dared not move, for fear that I was next. I could feel my lungs burning like white-hot fire, begging for me to take a breath. But it was like being hypnotised. The fingers stalked the bottom of the pool and came across the vent cover. Moving at a breakneck pace, the fingers retracted, slamming the vent cover back over the top of the hole.
I broke the water with a gasp, so loud that everyone, Sam, Jack, and Harry’s dad, shot around to look at me. My lungs were screaming, my body demanding air in spades. I was forced to take shallow breaths, as I bawled like a child into the air. Harry’s dad immediately jumped into the pool, and moved towards me, calming me down and asking what was wrong. I fell into his arms, weeping and gasping, pointing into the water towards the area where Harry was taken. As if he hadn’t noticed the absence of his son until this moment, Harry’s dad moved with a frightening pace, wading through the shallow water and diving down towards the drain. For a few moments, I stood in shock, as did Sam and Jack, unaware of Harry’s fate. Those few moments dragged more than I can possibly describe. I waited, knowing that whatever came next would not be anything short of horrific.
Seeing a grown man, a father, someone you’d idolised as everything you wanted to be, broken and sobbing in front of you is a strange thing. Harry’s dad was strong and kind, and more a leader of our group that a separate person. When he broke the surface of the water, wailing in pure fear and sorrow, I think that’s when I realised what had really happened. He flailed like a child who’d never been taught to swim as if he was fighting the water. Nothing separated him from me anymore; he wasn’t the idol he always was to us all. He groaned so deeply, it almost scared me more than what happened to Harry. To take someone who was everything you wanted to be, and reducing him to primal, base sorrow, was like having a hole punched straight through your chest.
His cries pierced my eardrums, his voice radiating all around us. Even Jack, who was not one to become fearful, cowered from the sound, and Sam did the same, breaking into the same weeping and gasping as I did. Harry’s dad fluctuated between screaming and crying, until a family passing through the park came by, immediately rushing in to help all of us out of the water. Harry’s dad flailed and lashed out, not wanting to be taken away from what was left of his son. How they finally managed to remove him, or what they managed to salvage, I can’t honestly say. The entire event past this point is a blur for me. All I know for certain is that the police arrived shortly after, and what happened to Harry was treated as a disappearance.
Nobody was going to believe the kid who testified to seeing the endless red arm take his friend through the vent of the swimming pool. The addition of the white glove didn’t exactly help either. The cruellest part of the entire investigation was that they pretended to take me seriously, and I would go on to find out that, behind the scenes, having me sectioned was a source of constant friction between the police and my family. Despite my lack of detail due to the obvious trauma of the event, my mother always believed me. My father was more sceptical, but he never called me a liar and supported me when telling my version of events to the police.
Harry’s death was listed as a disappearance, despite the copious blood in the water. After thoroughly investigating the pool and its filtration systems, they found nothing at all. In the following weeks, our school went nuts. When the year group has only fourteen people, anything happening to anyone creates a huge ripple. Not only did Harry disappear, but the only lead was my witness of his violent death at the hands of the red monster that lives in the vent of the pool.
I wish I could say that Harry was okay. That me and my friends reconnected as adults and went back to the pool where Harry had gone. That we went down into that vent, and slew the monster that took our friend and crippled our childhood.
I wish I could say that we returned Harry to his father, and the two were reunited. That we lived the rest of our lives as friends who once shared unimaginable trauma, and overcome the evils of this world, and emerge victorious. But that’s not true. How could three eleven-year-old boys ever shoulder trauma of that magnitude?
Sam’s family moved away three days after the memorial service. I checked his Facebook yesterday. He’s married, two kids of his own. Only twenty-two, but his family always were the traditional sort. He looks… I don’t know how to describe it.
Like a boy forcing himself to become a man.
He doesn’t smile all that much in the photos.
Jack stayed, like me, but we didn’t talk much after what happened. When we moved to secondary school, he fell in with a rough crowd. It started innocently enough, he and his friends picking on the lower years and gaining a mean reputation. He, in particular, got vicious. So much so his new friends were more like his hired help. As he got older, it got worse. Last I heard, he was out on parole, and his girlfriend has a pretty heavy restraining order against him. I have no desire to help him. I don’t even know that I could.
About a year after Harry disappeared, both his mother and father shot themselves. Still being a child, I didn’t get to hear any details until I was old enough to seek them out for myself. I was told they’d died peacefully when it happened, and I resented my parents for a time when I found out they’d lied to me. Protecting a child, who watched his friend be snatched and crushed by a creature no one else could confirm the existence of, from the truth of the situation felt like they were treating me like a kid. Of course, I was a kid.
I never once felt like it.
They’d shot themselves, laid together on their bed. From what I could gather, Harry’s father had pulled the trigger. The bullet went through her skull and into his. Even in his dying moments, he chose to help someone else first. He couldn’t let her feel the pain of loss, even for a millisecond. I don’t think I’ve ever cried as much as I did when I realised that. In between their two bodies, tens of photos of Harry. Of course, I couldn’t find out exactly which photos, but I know it would’ve been the ones of all of us together. Sam’s ninth birthday, which we had at Harry’s house, where Jack got stuck up the tree for an hour and a half. Harry’s role in the nativity performance as a blade of grass. Me in the staff room with Harry after we both got stung by multitudes of bees the year before we went to the pool for the last time, me and Harry laughing with puffy red eyes from crying. He didn’t take any photos while we were crying. He didn’t pull out the camera until he’d made us laugh.
I got some pretty extensive therapy, always carefully toeing the line between indulging my fantastical recounting of events, and making sure to instil the ridiculousness of my story in my subconscious. I made my way through the school system as something of a loner but still managed to make some friends. Even made a few close ones. They stuck with me through college and, now, university. We’re a close-knit group, but I’ve never really told them what happened. They know the abstract, of course, but not the whole thing. I talk to Mum about it a lot, minus the worst bits. She keeps telling me to talk to my friends about it. I know they’d believe me. They’re wonderfully kind in that way.
Maybe it’s the pressures of being an adult, the strain it puts on certain relationships and the way you interact with the people in your life, but I feel certain I’ll never have what I had with Sam and Jack and Harry. They say the chances of the Big Bang working out exactly the way it did are so infinitely small, it’s difficult to comprehend. I suppose that’s how our friendship felt. Like a miracle. A beautiful accident of chance.
My parents helped me all the way through, Dad making sure, after some time, that I knew he believed what I had seen. I often think they must carry as much trauma as I do, the number of times they’ve heard me re-tell the story, the midnight wails of agony as I’m thrust wide away, ripped from the familiar nightmare of the white glove. The hour-long panic attacks and the guilt of the knowledge I carry. That I will always carry.
I’m training to be a marine biologist. I’m determined to be something, to make something of myself. In a sense, I have to live the life Harry won’t, as well as my own.
I’m doing it for Harry, and I’m doing it for Harry’s dad.
Marine biologist. Huh. How ironic, ey?