The Lifeguard by Jenna Moquin
Shonda wrapped her arms around her waist and shivered as the sky darkened. When the clouds came in, Andy had texted she should close the pool early, and she’d made the announcement from her lifeguard chair.
“But it’s just clouds!” Mrs. Moulaison had protested.
“Sorry, Mrs. M—Andy said to close up. You know how he is.”
Shonda shrugged and gave Mrs. Moulaison an apologetic smile. She didn’t want to upset the woman whose family owned half the town, but she had to follow her boss’s orders.
She glanced at the bulletin board above the check-in desk, and the “Missing” flyer caught her eye. Margaret "Maggie" Townsend had been missing for weeks, and the edges of the flyer were frayed, discolored.
When most people saw the flyer they’d do one of two things: avert their eyes, and, Shonda assumed, make themselves think about something besides the poor girl and what might’ve become of her. Others would look directly into the face of Margaret “Maggie,” sigh and cluck their tongues, and say what a shame it was. How pretty she was. They’d speak of her in past tense, as if the verdict was already in, and she was no longer of this world. Shonda was part of the first camp, trying not to look at the flyer as she thought about other stuff, like the summer school classes she had to take because she failed English this year.
She stashed her copy of Wuthering Heights with her notes in her locker. She pulled on her hoodie and got everyone out of the pool with a few short whistle blows while the first tentative raindrops fell from the sky.
Mrs. Moulaison griped as she gathered her things, and said she’d speak to Andy personally about how cautious he was over a few harmless raindrops. Shonda smiled and nodded. If anyone could get the rules changed in this town, it would be the Moulaisons. That name was plastered on almost everything in McDonough Park from the bed and breakfast to the auto shop, with several apartment complexes in between. And now that her father-in-law had passed away, Mrs. Moulaison’s standing in town had risen even higher.
After everyone left, Shonda went inside to the locker room. There was an eerie emptiness heightened by the cold grayness the day had become that gave her goosebumps. The picture of Margaret “Maggie” on the flyer made Shonda pause, and instead of averting her eyes, she looked at the girl’s eyes in the photo. They were dark, and very round, penetrating, intense for such a young girl.
The day she went missing was the last day of school, and it had been raining just like today. She was in the same class as Shonda’s sister Luci, and although they weren’t really friends, they were friendly enough to smile and say “Hi!” every day and “Have a fun weekend!” on Fridays.
“She was just walking home from school…and then she never made it home!” Luci had wailed the day she went missing. She was so upset she cried in their mother’s arms and slept in her room that night. Shonda recalled Luci clutching her pink bear Rufus, although she’d said that twelve was too old for stuffed animals.
The police didn’t have any suspects, or leads. No strangers seen in town, no relatives wanting custody, unlike Shonda and Luci, whose father went back and forth from deadbeat dad to self-righteous recovering-alcoholic dad. Lately he’d been threatening their mother for full custody, which didn’t seem likely to happen.
Shonda sighed and looked at the rain, and the wet gray color it made the concrete surrounding the pool where the children ran everyday despite whistles and shouts of “No running!” from her and her fellow lifeguards.
It was mid-July, about six weeks of summer left. Classes would start right after Labor Day, which was early this year, on September 2nd. Shonda’s last day at the pool would be a week before school started, which gave her just enough time to buy some back-to-school outfits and supplies.
This was her senior year, and she’d have to start looking at colleges in the fall. She didn’t want to think about life after high school just yet. Eighteen didn’t sound like an adult age, though she would turn that magic number just after Christmas. She didn’t think she was going to become an adult just because she would be one legally. As much as she enjoyed feeling like a grownup earning her own paycheck at the pool, she liked being in this middle state of not having too many responsibilities but also being somewhat independent where she could drive her mother’s Subaru to the movies by herself, but didn’t have to pay the car insurance.
There was a noise behind her. It sounded like someone with wet feet slapping against the floor as they walked. Shonda turned. The locker room was empty.
She locked the back entrance, and took the large golf umbrella Andy kept by the door. She rushed out into the rain to lock the gate, and saw movement near the pool.
“Hello? The pool is closed!” Shonda called out.
She looked toward the diving board, where she could’ve sworn she saw a dark shape shifting, but no one was there. She shrugged and locked the gate, figuring it was a dark flash from the rainstorm, and rushed back inside.
Her bag was underneath the check-in desk, and her car keys fell out when she grabbed it. The clanging sound they made startled her. Shonda reached down to pick them up, and when she stood up someone appeared in front of her.
The rotted green skin and sunken cheeks on the girl standing there made Shonda hold back a retch. She looked like she’d crawled out from her own grave. The resemblance of the green-skinned girl and the girl in the “Missing” flyer was unmistakable. She had the same eyes from the photograph.
Shonda shook her head and backed up, and the heavy lock hanging from another locker dug into her back. The girl stepped closer, her movements jerky as if she were in pain. Her feet, covered in dirt and moss, slapped against the floor. She held out her scraggly hands as dark water dripped off them.
Shonda didn’t know whether to help the girl, or run for her life. She froze while the girl reached out and grasped her arm, her green fingers colder than ice and almost glowing against Shonda’s brown skin.
The girl leaned forward with her teeth bared. Shonda screamed and tore her arm away. She ran. Her keys jangled in her hands and she stashed them in her pocket. The wet feet slapped behind her, slow but heavy.
She reached Andy’s office in the back, and locked the door behind her. Breathing heavily she crouched behind the desk and peeked out from the side, keeping her eyes on the slat between the floor and the bottom of the door. She waited to see a scraggly shadow of feet appear through the slat. She listened for the sounds of wet footsteps, but all she heard was the pounding of her own heart, and the harsh breath coming from her throat.
She didn’t see any foot shadows. She didn’t hear any wet slapping sounds. Shonda began to breathe evenly when her phone vibrated and dinged, loudly, with a text.
Shonda sucked in a breath and her heartbeat quickened. She glanced at her phone.
>>Can u pick me up at the library ?
It was a text from Luci. Shonda checked the bottom of the door. Still nothing appeared there. No movement. Her heartbeat settled down and she stepped out from behind the desk. Having her sister on the other end of the phone, even just texting, made her feel a bit safer. She could focus on something real, a task to be done, and not dwell on what had just happened to her. Her mind wasn’t yet ready to deal with making something real that shouldn’t be real. She tapped out a text to Luci.
>Ok b there soon
Shonda opened the door to Andy’s office, looked to her left and then right. The hall was empty. She tiptoed out, clutching her phone to her chest. She felt the outline of the key fob in her pocket, and ran down the hall keeping her eyes peeled. She didn’t see the green-skinned girl, but there was a muddy footprint on the floor, near her locker.
She rushed out into the rain. She glanced around the pool grounds with her hand cupped over her eyes. A clap of thunder rumbled when she reached her mother’s Subaru. She unlocked it and threw herself into the driver’s seat, shivering so badly her teeth chattered.
She looked through the window, and peered around the edge of the pool. It was empty. Shonda breathed evenly and started the car. She flipped on the windshield wipers and drove the half mile to the library.
Luci stood under the awning holding a pile of Harry Potter books. She ran to the car and Shonda opened the door from the inside.
“Thanks, Shon!” Luci said and fastened her seatbelt.
“No problem. You’re lucky the pool closed early,” Shonda said.
“I knew it would be closed from the rain. Andy closes the pool if a bird poops from the sky.”
Shonda nodded. Luci looked at her.
“Was he there today, or did you have to close up by yourself?” Luci asked.
“He had to do some work over at the graveyard,” Shonda said with a sigh. “He’s the groundskeeper there, too.”
“Are you okay? You look…kinda freaked out.”
“You don’t look fine.”
“Thanks,” Shonda snapped. She flipped down the sun visor to glance at herself in the mirror. Her face was ashen and her eyes were so wide she could see white all around her pupils.
“Shon, what happened?”
Shonda took a deep breath and told her sister what she’d seen at the pool. How frightened she was crouching behind the desk. The muddy footprint by her locker.
“She looked like one of those zombies from the movie we watched last week,” Shonda said.
“Come on, you were just imagining it. You saw someone leaving the pool, and the noises you heard were from the rainstorm. And you said you were looking at Maggie’s flyer, that’s probably why her face was in your mind. I’m pretty sure you didn’t see a zombie girl!”
Luci chuckled. Shonda managed to crack a smile. She knew her sister was right. But she also knew what she saw.
“What about the muddy footprint?” Shonda said.
“Probably from someone rushing through the locker room.”
Shonda nodded, but she couldn’t ignore a nagging thought, that the area surrounding the pool was concrete—how would someone’s feet get muddy?
She pulled into their driveway, and they rushed inside the house as thunder rumbled. Luci plopped her books on the table by the door.
“Mom said we can order takeout since she’s working late. Let’s get Chinese food!”
Later on, while the sisters enjoyed egg rolls and fried rice, Luci asked how summer school was going. Shonda shrugged.
“Are you ready for the Wuthering Heights test next week?” Luci asked.
Shonda’s eyes widened. “Oh no! I can’t believe I forgot my notes!”
“Where are they?”
“I left them in my locker at the pool.”
“I’ll go back with you to get them.”
Luci nodded. “And I’ll prove it was just your imagination when we don’t see any zombies at the pool.”
Luci smirked. It was moments like this when Shonda wondered who the true older sister was.
The rain slowed down to a drizzle while they drove to the pool. Shonda kept thinking she saw the missing girl, flitting through the edges of the trees that lined the sidewalk. But when she blinked, she’d see nothing out of normal place. Nothing but swaying images, breezes through the brain caused by paranoia.
They pulled up to the pool, and Shonda parked. She took out her set of keys to unlock the gate.
“You ready?” she asked Luci, who nodded.
They got out of the car and walked toward the fence surrounding the pool. The chirps of crickets in the grass greeted them and the silhouette of the streetlamps glowed onto the ground. A quiet night, but a hesitant one. The kind of atmosphere that breeds just after a thunderstorm.
Shonda’s eyes darted left and right as she hurried along the fence with Luci behind her. She got to the gate and unlocked it, and they went inside to the locker room.
Shonda’s locker was the third one on the right. She twirled her combination, Luci’s birthday, and the door opened. Resting atop her fanny pack with first-aid supplies and spare whistle was her copy of Wuthering Heights, with pages of notes sticking out making a bookmark.
Something moved and shuffled behind her. Shonda gasped and whipped around, her book in her hand.
Standing before her was Mr. Gregory, the chemistry teacher who died of a heart attack last spring. His cheeks were sagging, his eyes hollowed out. He was so decomposed most of his skin was missing. He reached out toward Luci, her face frozen in a scream, as green slime oozed off his wrists.
Shonda grabbed Luci and tugged her arm as they ran down the hall to Andy’s office. She took one look behind just before they reached the door, and saw them.
There were a dozen of them. The missing girl in front and behind her was Mr. Gregory. And next to him was Mrs. Moulaison’s late father-in-law, his skin waxy green and decaying with rotted hollows.
They inched closer, the shuffling sounds of their feet magnified, intensified as if every creature standing there had just climbed out from their wet graves, wanting to taste the air. Their desperate arms reached out while their rotted feet inched closer, shortening the distance between them, and life.
Shonda pushed open the door to Andy’s office and shuffled Luci inside. She slammed the door behind them. She could hear wet muddy footsteps pacing around the door. Thick, throaty warbles in the air. She was so scared she could barely breathe.
They crouched behind Andy’s desk, and hugged each other. Shonda squeezed her eyes shut, and prayed it was just a dream. That any moment she’d wake up in her bed, her mother soothing her from a nightmare, and offering her a gross cup of warm milk.
“I c-can’t believe it,” Luci whispered. “Did we just see…were those really…zombies?”
“I don’t know,” Shonda whispered.
“That girl in front…was Maggie, wasn’t she?” Luci was shivering. Shonda rubbed her shoulders.
“W-what are we going to do?” Luci asked.
Shonda glanced at the window behind Andy’s desk. She stood and went over to it, her sneakers squeaking against the floor.
“Come on,” she whispered. “We’re on the ground level. We can just climb out.”
Shonda unlocked the window and eased it open. She looked out and checked the surrounding bushes. No movement. She went back to the desk and wheeled out the chair.
“Step up here,” she whispered to Luci.
Shonda held the chair steady as her sister climbed out through the window. From the other side of the door, she could hear rushed, wet shuffling sounds. The doorknob started to twist and jiggle. She couldn’t remember if she’d locked the door. She didn’t wait to find out and climbed onto the chair while it teetered on its wheels.
As Shonda pulled herself over the window pane and landed on the lawn outside, the door to Andy’s office eased open. She looked through the window, her pulse racing faster than ever. Mr. Gregory came through the door, followed by the rest of the creatures.
“Let’s go!” Shonda turned and pulled Luci, but she didn’t move.
“Andy?” Luci’s voice trembled.
Shonda looked up at her six-foot-four boss Andy, who stood there aiming a shotgun at them.
“Get down!” Andy shouted.
Shonda tugged her sister to the ground and covered her. The ear-splitting sound of the shotgun firing was rattling. She looked up and saw part of Mr. Gregory’s head gone while his zombie body dangled half out of the window.
“Come on!” Andy pulled the girls up from the ground. “My truck’s parked over here.”
He ushered them into his pickup truck idling near the curb. Shonda kept her arm around her sister, who was trembling so hard her teeth were chattering.
“What are you two doing here?” Andy said as he stashed his shotgun behind the driver’s seat.
“I left notes in my locker for my test next week,” Shonda said, her voice shaky.
“Stay away whenever it rains…they always show up here when it rains, especially after a thunderstorm. That’s why I always close the pool as soon as clouds appear.”
“Do they only come out in the summer?” Luci asked.
“Yup,” Andy said. “It’s like a zombie summer vacation.”
As they pulled into the road, Shonda saw one of the creatures walking in the middle of the street. She pointed it out to Andy, who ran over it with his truck as they drove away.