Darius Hansen was allowed into the Daniel S. Gumpter Memorial Community Center in Uptown Oakview at any hour of the day, specifically the swimming pool, and even more specifically, the diving board. He even had his own key.
Darius was the town hopeful, a sure-fire Olympian. And he needed a place to practice his diving. More to the point, it was hoped that Darius’ success would mean the success of the whole town.
Once, Oakview was a middle-class haven that also hosted a strong working class, too. It had once hosted an airplane seat manufacturing plant that employed most of the town; line workers, administrators, and middle managers, too. But, that was a few years ago. Since then, the plant closed down and relocated to China. If you had a dark sense of humour, you could say the town was grounded.
The only thing left in Oakview was anaemic strip malls, unemployment lines, the crumbling Gateway Bridge over the Spencer River where a guy committed suicide a few years ago, and the desperate search for a way out alive.
Darius Hansen was more than just a gifted athlete. He was a symbol for hope for everyone in town.
So, it was local parades, dedicated pages in the high school yearbook, the opening of fast food outlets, judging of local beauty contests, a key to the city. Not bad for a seventeen year old kid. But, no one thought of him that way, anyway, as just a regular kid. There was a light around him.
11PM. That was Darius’ favourite time to dive. It was too late for the regular townsfolk to be out and about, so no need to engage in small talk on the way. Darius always walked to the pool. Also, Darius had trouble sleeping without his nightly dive. He was too young to understand the connection between the whole town’s hope on his shoulders, and his intermittent insomnia. His parents never helped him make that connection, either. They were just so proud that he was so dedicated. There was a bumper sticker on the family car to that effect.
It was a clear night in Autumn, and unseasonably warm. The town was beginning to doze off in front of the late evening news, or with their faces down on the bar at Al’s downtown. The good kids were asleep in their beds. The bad ones were scattered in the night, with vague plans in their heads about doing some damage, but without the focus to carry them out.
Under the shadows of the trees set in relief against the cold glow of the street lights, Darius fumbled with the keys to the community center. He looked up to the sound of human voices not far away. They seemed to belong to young guys like him, but with something feral in them as well. He couldn’t see anything at all, but he knew that they were chasing something, or someone. Darius decided that it had nothing to do with him. He turned his attention back to the key, turned it, and then he was in.
He felt a rush of safety when the doors closed behind him. The community center was his sanctuary. It was his place of solitude, especially at 11PM when not even his coach was around. He would climb the ladder to the board, stand, breathe, turn off his brain, and dance outward into space, let his instincts that were honed by hours of training take over, and feel the magnificent fall and the cool rush of the water. Then, he’d do it all over again for another hour. It was the reason he was alive.
Darius went down the hall to the change room, changed out of his clothes and into his speedo, and doused himself in tepid water in the change room showers. He walked out into the pool enclosure and turned on the lights, and strode toward the high-diving board at the opposite end. Darius could feel the transformation as he walked, from smalltown boy to God of Dive. That was the way he thought of himself; a god ascending a heavenly stair to Mount Olympus, looking down a blue world below.
Climb. Stand. Breathe. Turn off the mind. Dance into space. Let instinct that has been informed by years of training take over. Then, the magnificent fall and the cool rush of the water. It was more than training. It was a sacred ritual.
Darius’ head broke the surface of the water after the dive. He suddenly knew he wasn’t alone.
Darius saw it at the opposite end of the pool. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. It was an alien, like the ones you see on posters with pale grey-green skin and large, bulbous black eyes. It sat there plain as day on one of the plush red chairs near the lifeguard’s office. Before the outrage of being intruded upon hit him, the basic elements of a joke about an alien invasion, of privacy, floated around in his head. But, it dissipated before it could form as the outrage won out and began to build up a head of steam.
He swam to the side and pulled himself out of the pool.
“Hey!” he said. “You’re not supposed to be here!”
He didn’t believe in aliens. He did believe in his right to have solitude at 11PM at the Daniel S. Gumpter Memorial Community Center, and not to be observed by anyone.
The alien didn’t move. But, it made a sort of mewling sound that suggested something like fear.
Darius strode toward it, although in a different way that he’d done toward the high-diving board. The God of Dive was gone, and an angry seventeen year old with all of the pressures of the world was in his place.
“Who are you and what are you doing here!” Darius demanded, standing hero-like in his red speedo, his eyes narrowed in anger.
The alien looked up at him, and then peeled the skin of its face off in a single swift movement. Underneath was the flushed face of a boy of eleven with wide eyes that would only seem slightly smaller than the alien eyes which had hidden them.
“Please … I’m sorry. I had to come in here. They’re after me!”
Darius could practically smell the fear rolling off of the kid. “Who are you?” Darius demanded.
“I’m .. I’m no one!”
“What’s your name?”
“Matthew. Matthew Flannery. ”
“Who’s after you?”
“Some guys. They didn’t like my costume.”
“Why are you wearing a costume?”
“It’s for Halloween!”
“That was two days ago!”
“I like wearing it!”
“Because when I put it on, I get to stop being … being me for a while.”
Darius looked into Matthew’s frightened eyes and paused.
“What?” he asked finally.
“I hate my school. I don’t have too many friends. And everyone thinks I’m weird.”
“Aren’t you? You’re wearing a Halloween costume two days after Halloween.”
“Well, yeah. But, I don’t see what that has to do with anything. I don’t see why that should make other people so … angry. I mean, why should they even care that I’m weird?”
Darius didn’t know the answer to that. He’d never considered the question before.
“Shouldn’t you be home in bed by now? What are you, in the fourth grade, right?”
“Do your parents know where you are?”
“I don’t think so. I have five brothers and sisters. I think they have a hard time keeping track of us.”
“Why are you up so late and on your own?”
“I climbed out my bedroom window. I wanted to see the stars, but we live too close to town to see any of them. So, I wanted to go to Observation Park to get a better look. It’s, um, darker there. Less light pollution, so it’s easier to see them. Those guys saw me when I was on Harrison Street. So I had to run here.”
“And why are you dressed as an alien?”
“It seemed appropriate. I was looking for stars, and maybe for, um, aliens, too. Real ones.”
“If there are aliens, why would they land here in Oakview? Intelligent life wouldn’t be caught dead here if they didn’t have to be!”
“Hey, aren’t you supposed to be defending Oakview? This is your town. That’s what I read.”
“Don’t believe everything you read, kid.”
“You mean you aren’t proud to be from Oakview? I read an interview with you in the local paper …”
“Never mind that. That interview was my parents’ idea. And my coach’s.”
“So, you really don’t like it here?”
“Look, kid; I just want to dive. And to get to the Olympics. That’s all I care about.”
“I want to get out of here, too.”
“OK, OK. Wait a minute. Let’s get back to how you got in here.”
“I saw the lights were on. And the door was unlocked.”
Darius cursed himself. Sometimes in his enthusiasm, he forgot to lock the door behind him when he got here. He was always thinking of his diving board.
“Well, you’ve got to go now.”
“I can’t. They’re still out there!”
“Who? Do you know these guys?”
“They’re Big Kids. They’re teenagers!” The word “teenagers” might well have had the same meaning as “rabid wolves” to Matthew. Darius had a brief moment of remembrance. Big Kids were always a threat, even when Darius was eleven himself. That’s the way it was in Oakview.
“Can’t you just call your parents to come and get you?”
At that, Matthew’s eyes filled with incredulous fear, with a dash of utter disappointment at the suggestion.
“OK, OK! You can stay! Did you lock the door behind you when you came in?”
“Hey, Golden Boy!”
Darius looked up. Harvey Sinclair stood in the doorway of the changing area holding a bottle of scotch in his right hand that was one-third full. Evan Thomas and Derek Ritchie stood behind him, snickering. They wore leather and denim, their eyes ringed with darkness, their hair long and greasy, and their skin pale as a sickening moon. Even though Darius spent a lot of time out of school and not mixing in too much, he knew these guys. They were in his year. And they had a reputation for senselessness.
Darius kept his voice as even as he could, in the way that his teachers, his parents, and his coach did.
“You’re not supposed to be here.” He said.
In that moment, he realized that the reason adults used that tone of voice is because, deep down, they were as afraid of teenagers as Darius now was afraid of Harvey Sinclair and his two henchmen. It was a perverse thought. It felt like a revelation and a betrayal all at once, although he wasn’t sure who it was he was betraying by thinking it.
“We know we’re not supposed to be here. That’s the point, Golden Boy. What fun would it be if we were allowed to be here? The question you should be asking is: now that we are here, what are we going to do now?”
Harvey was a violent kid, or at least he was known to be. There were countless stories about random acts of terrorism and violence to which Harvey was central, although if pressed not many in school could point to any one of them for any specific details. The possibility that they were true was enough. Darius knew about the power of reputation more than most.
Matthew stood up, the alien mask hanging limply in his hand. “Don’t hurt him! Take me! It’s me you came for!”
They laughed. Darius felt himself cringe with embarrassment at a line of dialogue that Matthew was sure to have seen from television. Then, Harvey threw the bottle of scotch against the wall of the swimming pool, sending shards of glass and amber liquid everywhere. The smell wafted into the noses of all of the boys, even above the smell of chlorine. Matthew shrieked, and sat back down, clasping the rubber alien mask in both hands. Any courage he’d had to try and defend Darius was completely gone.
“The booze! What did you do that for?”, It was Derek Ritchie, who was legitimately put out at the destruction of the bottle. Darius knew whose father’s liquor cabinet the scotch was taken from in an instant.
“Shut up, Derek.” said Harvey. Derek shut up.
“OK. So, what now?” said Darius.
“What now? We watch you dive, Golden Boy. That’s what now!”
Somehow to Darius, it was the worst thing he could have said. Darius wished they’d pulled out spray paint cans or sharpies to deface the tile walls of the pool. Even the three thugs taking a leak in the shallow end would have been preferable to being asked to perform, to reveal his ritual to these gorillas.
“I’m not diving with you here. It’s my training.”
Harvey smiled and stepped closer. “Then, we beat up the kid. And then we beat you up too. Don’t think you’re untouchable, Golden Boy. I’d enjoy proving to you that you’re not.”
Matthew eyed Darius expectantly, making a faint sound at the back of his throat that sounded like a sob.
“Look, why don’t you guys just get out of here. This kid isn’t worth it. He’s just a weird kid, a nerd. Why would you bother?”
“It’s not about ‘worth it’ to me, Golden Boy. What you think is worth it or not worth it doesn’t matter a gracious goddamn to me. It’s about what I want, when I want it. And it’s not about the freak anymore, anyway. It’s about you, Golden Boy. I want you to dive for me. I want to see an Olympics Golden Boy dive. I want to see what all the fucking fuss is with you that everyone in town won’t shut up about. I want to know why everyone says we should all be like you every fucking place we look. Because, I gotta be honest with you, Golden Boy; I don’t see it. I don’t see why you’re supposed to be hot shit on a silver platter. So, you have to prove it to me. Now.”
“How do I know you’re not going to beat up the kid anyway?”
At that Harvey smiled and said nothing. Darius felt foolish even for asking the question.
“Huh, huh. The board’s that way man!” It was Evan Thomas, as drunk as could be. They were all drunk. But only Harvey didn’t show it overtly. As wild as he was known to be, Harvey apparently understood the value of control.
Darius nodded. Harvey nodded in turn, smiling with one eye-brow arched gleefully.
Darius walked to the board on the opposite side of the pool to avoid the puddle of scotch and the broken glass. Approaching the ladder to the high-diving board was no longer the transformative experience it normally was. He didn’t become a god even as his foot hit the first rung of the high-diving board ladder. The transformation had been short circuited by these thugs. Maybe it would never return. Darius felt the burning sensation of fear, humiliation, and a feeling of intrusion. Maybe it was this last thing that cut him to the core of his being the most. This had always been a sacred time. It was his time. It was the only time he had to himself, and it was pure. He needed it. He wanted it. He deserved it, goddamn it!
As he climbed the ladder to the high-diving board, he looked at the four boys at the opposite end of the pool down below. Evan and Derek flanked Matthew, whom they’d dragged into a standing position. Harvey stood apart from them, with his arms crossed.
“This is it, Golden Boy. Make it good! Show me what the big deal is and then we’re outta here. Scout’s honour!”
Stand. Breathe. Turn off …
No. The mind wouldn’t turn off. It kept going. How did these thugs manage to invade Darius’ private world? What did they know about trying to achieve something? What did they know about following a passion, a dream? What did they know about finding a way to pull oneself up out of the muck using inborn talent and hard work?
Nothing. These guys had no dreams. They had no prospects. They would never get out of here.
Darius opened his eyes and looked down at them as though he’d spent a lifetime doing it. Perhaps he had. Then, it struck him suddenly that he admired Matthew for being weird, for rejecting other people’s expectations of him. He really was an alien in a strange way, and that was somehow good. He even found himself admiring Harvey for his rage, and for not hiding that rage, even if Darius didn’t agree with how he dealt with it. Deep down, Harvey was a smart kid who was bored as hell, and maybe feeling like as much of a rat in a trap as Darius himself felt in Oakview, but without a way to get out of it.
He thought about the randomness of life, and even about his parents who did not really understand that he was more than just his talent, but did their best to support him even if they overdid it. What if these guys had that kind of support? Darius just didn’t know the answer to that. Suddenly that thought made Darius feel selfish, and lonely all at once. And he knew that he had to put the God of Dive to rest. The God of Dive was alone, diving for himself, and removed from the real world.
Maybe that’s what all the fuss was about in the end, the thing that Harvey demanded he be shown. Beneath the violence and the anger, that’s what he was asking for; to be shown something extraordinary to prove that there was more to aspire to, more to dream about. But, he’d kept it from all of them. None of them had ever seen him dive. He had hoarded it to himself. Meanwhile, every kid in town had been told that he was supposed to be a role model. But, a role model for what?
In that moment, Darius realized that he wasn’t celebrated because he was some superhuman specimen set above the townsfolk. He was celebrated because he was supposed to be a deliverer of vision beyond a dead end town, and above the crushingly predictable life in it. But, apart from basking in the glory, he’d never delivered the goods. He’d never let any of them in on his passion for diving, the thing he was great it. In that moment, Darius decided that he would be true to that passion, and the idea of sharing it. He would dive for the love of it as he always had, but he would count himself among the townsfolk no matter if he got to the Olympics or not. He would come down from Mount Olympus. That was no place for a real person.
Then, Darius dove.
He cut through the air like a crystal blade, his body spinning and careening downward as if he were in flight. He slipped past the surface of the pool as if he was catching it unawares. It was a ten. It was a perfect ten.
Instead of coming up immediately, Darius swam to the bottom of the pool and touched the concrete. Maybe he wanted to buy time before he faced Harvey again. But, maybe too he just wanted to extend the moment. By the time his head popped up and he took his first breath after the best dive of his career, he would be a new person.
When he came up, the tableau at the end of the pool had changed. A new figure had broken it up; a security guard. Darius didn’t recognize her. She was tall, broad, and seemed to give off a vibe that she was not to be trifled with.
“Darius Hansen?” she said in an authoritative alto voice.
Darius swam to the edge, and pulled himself out, pool water streaming off of him.
“Yes, I’m Darius Hansen.”
“I’m Oakview Security. Some of the residents in the area reported noise and movement coming from the community center.”
“I’m sorry. I have a key. You can call Oscar Redford, the center administrator. He lets me use the pool in the off-hours.”
The security guard stepped forward, and the group of boys moved with her, and then away and against the wall. “I know about your arrangement with the center. What about your friends, here?”
It was time to test out his resolve. It was time to be among his peers, even if they weren’t his friends.
“Oh, sorry again. I invited them. I usually train alone. But, they wanted to watch me dive.”
“Right. Does the broken bottle of alcohol belong to you? You’re underage.”
Darius stood for a pause, frozen.
“That, uh. That was mine.” said Harvey. Darius tried not to show his abject surprise.
The security guard turned and cast her suspicious eye on him. “Yours? You’re underage, too.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s my dad’s. He lent it to Derek’s dad, and we were going to take it back home to my dad’s, you know as a favour. But, while we were here, I …”
“You dropped it by accident.” she finished the sentence with a knowing smile. She could tell all three boys were three sheets to the wind. She could tell that they and Darius as friends just did not fit. She could tell that you don’t “drop” a bottle against a wall. She knew the score entirely. She knew the implications of finding an Olympic hopeful on the scene with a broken bottle of scotch, too, even if that smalltown hero hadn’t had a drop.
“What about you? What’s with the costume?”
Matthew squirmed. “I don’t know. I just like wearing it.”
The security guard nodded, smiling. “Well. If you boys clean up the mess, I don’t see any reason to get the police involved. Find a dustpan and broom and mop and get to it. You’ll find them in the supply closet just outside of the office.”
The three older boys scattered, no longer the wolves they’d been. Perhaps they’d never been wolves. Just sheep in wolves’ clothing.
“And you, Mr. Spaceman. You sit there for now. I’ll drive you home when those other boys have finished cleaning up.”
“OK, ” squeaked Matthew.
“You sure everything’s OK, Darius?”
“Yep. Everything’s fine. Sorry about the noise.”
“Yeah, I understand,” said the security guard with a sardonic tone. “Good luck with your training. But, I think you better get on home now.”
By the time Darius had showered and changed into his street clothes, the three teens and Matthew were waiting in the front hall of the community center with the security guard standing behind them.
“Give you a lift home, Darius? I’m taking your friends.”
“That’s OK, Ma’am. My house isn’t far from here.”
“I don’t want no more trouble from you kids from now on on my watch, understand?”
“Yes. There’ll be no more trouble.” said Darius. The others just nodded. Harvey looked at Darius in that moment, and the contempt in his eyes had gone. In that moment, they were just two boys looking at each other, knowing that there was always more to know about someone, even if you never would become friends.
“You were good, man.” said Harvey.
“Thanks.” replied Darius, assuming that Harvey meant the dive, but making room for Harvey’s possible admiration for all of the half-truths Darius had told without batting an eye. But, either way, it seemed that Harvey had got what he needed, and was satisfied. There really would be no more trouble between them.
Matthew said: “See you later, Darius.” There was a question mark underneath the surface.
“Sure thing, Spaceman.” said Darius.
They all went out into the night, and the security guard locked the door. Darius watched her escort the boys to her van, watched the fiery taillights ignite, and the van sped off into the night.
Darius slung his bag over his shoulder, and began a leisurely walk back home, leaving the God of Dive behind him like a wet bathing suit on a change room floor.
He would sleep well and uninterrupted until morning.