I am enveloped by the total blackness. Everywhere is completely black, save a cool, almost eerie turquoise glow twinkling up through the ripples in the water that engulfs me. I can see the light reflecting off the black jagged rocks around and above the pool, making their shadows seem even blacker. The silky smooth water is cool and crystal clear. My teeth should be chattering, but strangely, I feel exhilarated by the low temperature. I peer down into the water, past my feet and into the black depths.
Totally black except for the glowing blue light. The doll. The doll is what gives the flooded cavern light. The doll is what I am here for. I know I have to get that doll, whatever it takes. I can not see it clearly, it is just a blue fuzz of light, a pinprick of turquoise shining out of the black. But I know exactly what it is, I know exactly what it looks like. I have seen it too many times to forget it.
I fill my lungs with the cool, fresh air of the cave and plunge my head under the water, twisting my body and kicking down through the cool, silky substance as fast as I can. I can feel the pressure in my ears rising, but I can see the glowing blue pinprick of light slowly growing until it begins to take the form of the doll.
I keep swimming, pulling my arms back, kicking my legs as hard as I possibly can, focusing on nothing else but the fuzzy blue light. My lungs grow tight, screaming for air, but there is no turning back. I need that doll.
It is almost within reach now, just a few meters left to swim. I can feel my lungs jerking, struggling to take in the air that isn’t there. Instead they take in water. The exhilarating twinkling blue liquid leaks slowly up my nose and slides down my throat into my lungs.
I stop swimming to cough it up, choking on the water. My precious air leaves me, rising up in twinkling blue bubbles, back to the water’s surface. I make one last stretch for the doll, but it is too far. My mouth opens and I breathe in a gulp of the fresh water. I spit it out, but more comes in. The water is choking me, I’m drowning, drowning…
Charlotte sat bolt upright in bed, clutching her throat, coughing and gasping heavily, gratefully taking in deep breaths of the air she had been so certain she would never breathe again. She looked at her bedside clock, still gasping for air. Six forty three. Her alarm would be going off in about fifteen minutes anyway. She lay back down on her pillow to catch her breath again before dragging herself out of bed to get ready.
She stripped off her loose summer pyjamas and strung on her pair of yellow and blue school bathers. The straps dug into her back and shoulders, as they did with everyone, but she had to wear them. This was a statewide competition; the winner was to be sent to the country’s capital to compete in the nationals.
She yanked a brush through her wavy black hair and pulled it back into a ponytail. Not happy with the effect, she shook her hair out and tried again, still without success. After a third unsuccessful attempt, she growled in frustration and braced her hands on her desk, staring hard through her tussled hair at herself in the mirror.
“It’s okay, you’re just nervous,” she told herself sternly, “That nightmare was just meant to scare you because of today. You’ve trained for today for months, and you can win. The dream was just a dream, get over it.”
She pulled her hair back again, finally managing to get it right, then wove it into a long plait that reached all the way down her back. She brushed out her fringe, pulled on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, slipped on a pair of thongs and made her way downstairs for breakfast, still feeling nervous. She wasn’t sure what she was nervous about exactly, the dream or the upcoming competition. Possibly both.
She and her mum made it to the pool right on the dot of ten. Charlotte stood for a moment to breathe in the smell of the chlorine and the warm scent of the beginnings of a hot day. She could do this. It wouldn’t be easy, she knew, but she could do this.
She directed her mum to the stand where her school’s supporters were seated then made her way to the sign-in station. As she ticked her name off, she felt someone tap her shoulder. She turned around to face her friend Elly.
“Ready?” Elly asked, her eyebrows raised in question.
Charlotte smiled, trying to put aside her nightmare. “Ready as I’ll ever be,” she assured her friend.
The two made their way to the school stand to wait for Charlotte to be called up. She was in the big race, the hundred-meter freestyle. Out of her whole school, they judged her to be the fastest. Elly wouldn’t be swimming, she was just there to cheer her best friend on. She herself was water phobic and wouldn’t even go near a pool if she could avoid it.
“You okay?” she asked Charlotte after they had been talking for a while, “You seem a little fidgety.”
“Just nervous,” Charlotte replied.
Elly raised an eyebrow. They had both been friends since before kindy and Elly knew something else was bothering her. Charlotte never got this nervous about swimming, even races as big as this. “Sure you are,” she teased, “Come on, seriously, something’s up. Did your cat die?”
Charlotte smiled. She didn’t have a cat. She sighed and looked at her knees, debating whether or not to tell her friend.
“I had a really bad nightmare last night,” she said, still looking at her knees. “I was in an underground waterhole thing, and I could see this blue glow under the water, some doll, and for some reason I just had to get that doll. In the dream I knew why, but now, I wouldn’t have the faintest. Anyway, I dived down to get it, but I started drowning when I was just a few meters away from it, then I woke up.”
Elly stayed silent, as though she was thinking. Charlotte looked over to her. Her blue eyes looked worried. She frowned, as if dismissing whatever thought was in her head. “Don’t worry about it,” she reassured her friend, “It’s just a dream.”
At one o’clock the announcer called out Charlotte’s race over the loudspeaker. Charlotte stood up and stripped off her shorts and t-shirt, focussing on the race ahead.
Elly grinned and rested her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “You can do it, Charlie, just ignore the dream, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a dream. Go out there and beat their backsides.” The two friends giggled and Charlotte made her way down to the pool.
She fitted her cap over her head, tucking her plait and fringe up into it, then settled her goggles over her forehead and began stretching to warm herself up. She was in lane four, one of the two centre lanes. That meant she was one of the favourites, the fastest always race in the middle. Next to her, in lane five, was her main opponent, a tall girl with shoulder-length brown hair.
“Good luck,” she told Charlotte, swinging her arms around in circles.
“You too,” Charlotte answered.
When all eight girls were ready at their starting blocks, the call of “Take your marks” came from the speakers, and at the crack of the gun, eight pairs of legs launched themselves into the clear blue water and kicked harder than they had ever kicked before. Charlotte tried not to think of the dream, but it just kept coming back to her. She growled under the water and powered on.
She could see when she lifted her head to breathe every six strokes that everyone in lanes one to three were at least a body’s-length or two behind her, but she knew that there was still the other half of the pool to contend with, and continued. When she had reached the end, she made a perfect tumble-turn and thrust herself from the wall, a streamlined arrow through the water. She lifted her head again for air and could see the three outer lanes were about the same distance from her as the girls on her other side.
But the brown haired girl was neck and neck with her. She pushed the water past her and kicked her feet so hard she could feel the water tickling in-between her toes. She could feel her heart beating fast and found herself breathing after every second stroke, rather than every four or six as she knew she should be.
She saw the row of orange flags pass above her, indicating there were just ten meters left to swim. She pushed her way through the water, using every ounce of strength in her, stretching out as hard as she could before finally feeling the hard tiled surface of the wall she had dived off of.
She spun around and lifted her goggles, staring up at the board at the end of the pool. Lane four, one minute, three point oh three seconds. Lane five, one three oh three. Charlotte collapsed in the water and laughed. A dead heat. She vaguely heard the announcer call out that the two would race again at the end of the day, in one hour’s time.
She collapsed back into the water, regaining her breath. Her opponent was resting on the lane rope dividing the two. She was just as puffed out as Charlotte. She smiled when Charlotte looked over to her, but both were too exhausted to speak. However, they weren’t allowed long to relax in the pool, as the announcer called for the next swimmers to get ready for their own swim.
Charlotte managed to haul herself out of the water, pull off her goggles and swimming cap and meander over to the stands, where Elly was eagerly waiting.
“Charlie!” she cried, as her friend collapsed thankfully onto her towel, “That was fantastic! You can so beat her in the next one!”
Charlotte smiled. “Hope so,” she puffed. The feeling of drowning hit her like a wave, but she forced it down and just focused on her rematch.
An hour later, Charlotte and her opponent were called up to the starting blocks for a second time. Whoever won this race would take home a golden medallion and compete in the nationals, whoever came second would take the silver and stay home.
Charlotte rolled her head around on her shoulders and jiggled her arms, relaxing her muscles and warming herself up. Everyone in the stands was going to be watching this one, given the identical times of the first swim. Elly had told her that in the last race, everyone in the stands had been cheering for various swimmers, most for either Charlotte or key opposition. Charlotte hadn’t heard anything but for the splashes of the water and her rhythmic breathing.
Charlotte fitted her goggles and looked down the fifty-metre length of the pool. Already she had butterflies in her stomach, and she was beginning to itch all over. She took a few deep breaths to calm down again, and tried to ignore the nightmare coming back to her, clearer than ever.
“I’m not going to drown,” she muttered fiercely under her breath, “so just leave me alone.”
The announcer told the two girls to stand up on the blocks and get ready. At the crack of the gun, they threw themselves into the water and screams broke out around the pool, cheering on the two swimmers.
She could feel the water rushing past her, tickling her toes and running bubbles along her sides. Each arm she stretched out as far as she could, grabbing the water and pushing it behind her, kicking her legs harder than her first round. She didn’t take her first breath until halfway down the pool, and didn’t need to breathe again until she reached the end, making a tumble-turn and launching off the wall with all the strength she had.
When she next took a breath, she could see that, just as before, she was neck and neck, stroke for stroke with her brown-haired opponent in lane five. She pushed on, stretching out as far as she could, spearing the water with her fingers.
She passed under the orange flags signalling the last ten meters, still stroke for stroke with the brown-haired girl. She gave it everything she had, pushing harder, kicking faster and stretching further than she'd ever thought she could. Both girl’s fingers touched the wall at the same time, and both flung around, panting heavily and hearts beating so loudly they drowned out the noise of the cheering.
Lane five, one three oh three. Lane four, one minute three flat.
Charlotte jumped high in the water, squealing with excitement, her face rendering nothing but pure delight. She hugged the silver medallist, who whispered in her ear between breaths.
“You’re a freak!” she teased, grinning.
Charlotte just laughed. She’d won the gold medal by three hundredths of a second. It didn’t get much closer than that.
“Hah!” she taunted at her nightmare, “Told you I could do it!”