Excerpt for Smoke And Water by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Smoke And Water

By ORIGIN

Distributed By Smashwords

Copyright 2018 ORIGIN

This e-book is licensed for the personal enjoyment of the individual reader only and is not to be re-sold or distributed to other people. If you wish to share this book with others, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you did not purchase this book or it was not purchased for your use, please return it to your favourite e-book retailer and purchase your own copy.

Thank you for respecting the hard work of this team.

Please note that this is entirely a work of fiction and any similarity to actual people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Any references to actual places or events should also be considered coincidental and any products referenced or mentioned are assumed to be the property of their respective owners and no endorsement or sponsorship should be implied therefrom.

Table of contents

Start

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Epilogue

About ORIGIN

Contact ORIGIN

Next Release

Smoke And Water

By ORIGIN

They said it started in the basement; an overloaded plug, a frayed wire, a mouse chewing on a cable . . .

It’s irrelevant now.


I’d been at swim training, as I always was till late on a Thursday night, and afterwards I’d stopped at Siwon’s to pick up hoddeok for my mother, as I also always did, lingering to watch Min Jun in the kitchen and catching up on the latest gossip. I wasn’t in any particular hurry and I didn’t feel any particular need to be as there was never any significant change in the routine. By now, my much younger brother and sister would have been long in bed and Mom and Dad would be up in bed, too. Dad would most likely be on his laptop, catching up on business e-mails or an overdue report, or checking out the markets, or whatever it was he did on his laptop before going to bed, and Mom would be reading her latest romance novel. Chances were they might even be asleep by the time I got home and Mom would take the hoddeok to work with her in the morning. I’d forgotten that my older brother was home on study leave, sleeping in the downstairs den and, if I’d remembered, perhaps I’d have gone home sooner.


That is also irrelevant.


I heard the sirens as I turned the last corner into our street, not that I paid a whole lot of attention. For one, sirens were not an uncommon occurrence in our neighbourhood and for two, I’d already seen the chaos; people milling helplessly in the street while smoke billowed in great shadowy waves through the incredible brightness that was now our house, engulfed in flames.

I don’t recall much beyond that.

By all accounts I’d pedalled like a mad creature, screaming for my parents, my little brother, my little sister and, before anybody could stop me, I’d thrown my bike to the curb and launched myself at the front door. It was hopeless, of course. They said afterwards that what I thought I’d heard, the screaming, was only the house collapsing in on itself, that realistically my entire family were already dead, but I was on a mission and nobody but nobody was going to stop me. Nobody did. The house did. The front door frame collapsed even as I stormed into it with my shoulder and several of the neighbours risked their own lives and limbs to drag me clear of the burning debris.

I spent the next eight weeks in hospital and another six months in rehabilitation.

# # # # # # # # # #

Chapter One


I walked onto my college campus well into the first semester and a year behind most of my peers, in a new town, a new State, and on my own. My grandfather had offered to come with me but he’d already accompanied me for the late registration process and all the requisite paper-work, I had my class schedule and had toured the campus with Grandfather and the Dean so that I knew the basic layout and, hopefully, where to find my classes and I’d rather, as I’d said to my naturally concerned grandparents, do this on my own. Bad enough to walk in alone, knowing full well the reaction I was likely to receive, without the added awkwardness of walking in accompanied by my grandparents.

The reaction, even amongst what I would have hoped were semi-mature College students, was much as I’d anticipated; girls stared and giggled and whispered behind less than discreetly raised hands and boys simply stared. Nobody spoke to me. I liked to assume that this was mainly because of my exotic appearance and not because of the secret I did my very best to keep buried deep, deep inside but, you can never really be sure, can you?

My mother is, correction, was, Korean. My father was of Finnish/ German ancestry. I have my father’s height and broad shoulders, his athletic physique, and his love and, I guess, talent for swimming. I inherited my mother’s distinctly Korean features and jet-black hair, though with the exception of a single lock of pure white which insists on growing in my forelock, and her coffee and milk complexion. Where the jade green colour of my eyes came from is anybody’s guess but, as might well be imagined, the combination tends to make me stand out, and not necessarily in a good way. For me, at least.

Additionally, there was the tattoo.


Most of the scars resulting from the fire that claimed the lives of my family and very nearly claimed mine were easily covered; on my back and shoulders. But there was the one that ran up the right side of my neck, under my ear, and up into my hair line. A network of white lines and a single heavy raised thread where shards of glass and timber had embedded themselves in my neck. It was Grandmother’s suggestion, quickly embraced by my grandfather, that I get it tattooed, to take the edge off the stares and questions and perhaps divert some of the inevitable curiosity to the tattoo rather than the scar. They even personally introduced me to a tattooist, an old family friend, and then helped me pick the tattoo. I now had a beautiful Korean dragon embracing my neck rather than the hateful reminder of the deadly flames.

I loved my dragon. I still struggled, as I always had, with the stares.


“Hey, you’re the new guy, aren’t you? Transfer? Late admission?”

I was between lectures and I was sitting, by myself, out in the Meditation Park at the east end of the campus and completely absorbed both in my lecture notes and my own thoughts. Startled, I looked up and immediately my breath caught in my throat and my heart began to beat decidedly erratically behind my ribs.

The speaker was tall, conceivably even taller than me and with that same broad-shouldered physique I personally always associate with swimmers, and there was something impossibly electrifying about him. Magnetic. He was standing with three others but, to be honest, I could find eyes only for him. He raised an eyebrow above Paul Newman-blue eyes and tipped his head.

“Do you speak English?”, he asked. “Are you a foreign exchange student?”

I blinked and lowered my head, my white forelock covering my eyes and face.

“I, uh, I . . . you caught me by surprise”, I mumbled.

“Sorry about that”, he continued, extending a hand towards me. “I didn’t mean to intrude but, I’m Damon.”

None the wiser, I nevertheless lifted my head and took his proffered hand. His grip was strong and firm and elicited a sharp electric tingle clean up my arm, and I barely managed to refrain from pulling back my hand, the warmth of an unexpected blush instead threatening at my collar. Damon nodded at his three companions.

“Ed, Brett, and Ox”, he informed me. “Welcome to Seven Oaks.”

“Eike”, I replied, not knowing quite how to respond. “Uh, thank you.”

Damon released my hand and I involuntarily found myself rubbing it as if I’d been shocked, which I rather felt I had been. Fortunately, Damon seemed oblivious and merely grinned, showing perfect white teeth.

“I’ve been reliably informed that you swim”, he said. “You planning to try-out?”

“Swim?”, I asked, blind-sided by the question as much as by Damon.

Damon’s grin expanded.

“Yeah, you know, get in the water and move your arms and legs as quickly as possible to get to the other side of the pool?”

His friends chuckled amongst themselves and colour immediately rose from my collar and into my cheeks.

“I, uh, I don’t know yet”, I managed to respond. “I only just got here.”

Damon’s eyebrow rose again and he nodded.

“Sure. Of course. Well, when you decide, pool’s in that big building at the south end of campus and practice runs most mornings at six and every afternoon, four till six. Might see you there, then.”

I muttered something that could have been interpreted as semi-affirmative and this must have satisfied him because he straightened and nodded at me. Then, his posse in tow, he turned and walked away. I stared after him with the heat only slowly receding from my face.


Truth be told, I’d not been in the water since that night, not even as part of my rehabilitation though there’d been no lack of attempts by my therapists to encourage me otherwise. I couldn’t face it, couldn’t face the water, couldn’t face the memories. Survivor’s guilt, the post-trauma counsellor had said. Misplaced, of course. It would have changed nothing if I’d not been swimming that night, except that I would undoubtedly have died in the fire, too. Not that this would have been a bad thing, in my opinion. I was swimming while my family were burning. I was counting laps. I was happy. And meanwhile, they were dying. How could I go back?

I sat there for some time after Damon and his friends had left, thinking not only of the past but of the inexplicable response I’d had to Damon’s presence and, as a result, I was late to my next class.


“Mr. Nylund, I presume?”, the lecturer inquired of me as I walked into class.

I bowed my head.

“Yes, sir. My apologies for the disturbance to your class, sir.”

The lecturer smiled magnanimously at me.

“I imagine you got lost. Never mind. Perhaps you could take a seat next to Mr. Taylor over there.”

He pointed at a seat near the rear, next to a lanky youth with glasses and a profusion of acne, and I did my best not to make eye-contact with anyone as I headed that way. Mr. Taylor did not seem in the least displeased at the seat allocation and instead grinned broadly at me as I took my seat next to him.

“Parker”, he whispered at me out of the corner of his mouth, offering me his hand. “But you can call me Spex.”

“Eike”, I murmured back, taking his surprisingly dry hand and correspondingly firm shake (somehow, I’d expected damp and limp).

“You’re the new guy”, he observed. “I’d heard you were coming.”

He had? What was with all these people having advance notice of my arrival? It wasn’t as if I was a celebrity or anything. Probably more of a freak. I shot Spex a suspicious glance but he appeared oblivious and instead I merely nodded at his observation.

“Yeah”, I admitted casually. “I guess I am.”

By the end of class, we were friends.


“You in dorms?”, Spex asked as we walked out of our last, mutual, lecture together.

I shook my head.

“My grandparents live not far from here. I live with them.”

“Oh? Whereabouts? I live near here, too.”

“Ferndale”, I replied. “My grandparents run the Korean mini-mart.”

“True?”, Spex asked, eyebrows rising above the rims of his glasses. “My parents run the bakery on the corner. Quincy’s. You know it?”

“Yeah”, I agreed. “I do. Grandfather sends me to get him cheese scrolls from there every other Sunday. He swears they’re the best ever.”

Spex laughed.

“That’s awesome. You biking? Bike home with me and I’ll get you some cheese scrolls for your grandfather.”

I nodded.

“Yeah, I am and sure, I’d like that.”


Spex and I were virtually inseparable after that. He never asked after my tattoo or my scars or my past. It wasn’t that he wasn’t interested, I could often see the curiosity in his eyes, but that he simply seemed to know what was appropriate and when. He was also just happy to have a friend who, like himself, didn’t judge. He was smart and when I struggled with notes and assignments, especially because I was still in the process of trying to catch up, he was more than happy to help out. And I, for my part, took him out biking and hiking and taught him how to shoot hoops. His skin cleared up and he developed a healthy tan, probably for the first time in his life, and I had someone to take my mind out of myself.

That whole first semester of our friendship passed surprisingly quickly and easily. Sure, there were still murmured comments and giggles behind raised hands as I passed and there were some brief resentments in relation to my reluctance to participate in any of the athletic endeavours on campus but, eventually, the novelty of my presence died down and life developed a kind of casual, easy rhythm. It wasn’t as if the past had gone, how could it ever? But life, as it does, simply went on.


Only life doesn’t ever just go on, does it?


I recall that night almost as clearly as I recall that other ill-fated night.

# # # # # # # # # #

Chapter Two


I was in my room, sprawled on my bed and listening to NCT, one of my current favourite K-pop groups, on my I-pod and struggling with an Ethics assignment. At High School and in my previous life, I’d got into College primarily on a swim scholarship and I was now rather belatedly learning that the alternative was hard work. I was struggling just a little.

There was a knock on my door.

“Eike?”

“Yes, Grandmother?”

“Have you got a moment to come downstairs and talk with Grandfather and I?”

I pulled my earplugs from my ears and pulled my study books into a pile.

“Sure. Just a moment.”

I ambled downstairs, completely innocent as to the purpose and gravity of my grandparent’s request, and stopped on the bottom tread. There was somebody in the parlour, I could hear the deep baritone of a stranger’s voice. A guest? Not Korean, that was for certain. I shrugged and straightened out the rumples of having been sprawling.

“Grandfather, Grandmother”, I said, bowing respectfully as my mother had always taught me to do in the presence of my grandparents.

“Eike”, Grandfather acknowledged.

I straightened and my heart dropped like a stone. The ‘stranger’ in my grandparent’s parlour was the head coach for the Seven Oaks State College swim team though I only knew this due to Spex’s having pointed him out to me and not by virtue of having attended the pool for training or otherwise as I still had not been wet on any occasion not associated with either having a shower or getting caught in the rain.

What was he doing here?

Coach Harmon stood up and extended a hand to me.

“Eike”, he said, smiling pleasantly. “I’d rather hoped we might have met before now but I figured that if the mountain will not come to Muhammed . . .”

Colour rose into my cheeks.

“Sir”, I murmured, shaking his hand.

“Sit down, Eike”, Grandfather instructed. “Mother, perhaps some tea?”

Grandmother bustled off to fetch the tea-tray and I, rather a lot more than a little apprehensively, took a seat as far away as possible from both Grandfather and the coach as I could without seeming rude. I said nothing but somehow it didn’t take any great stretch of the imagination to know what was coming.

“I’ve read your application and resumé”, Coach Harmon began, “so I know your swim record and also that you received several scholarship offers. I also know about what happened and, for what it’s worth, I’m truly sorry.”

“Thank you, sir”, I acknowledged, staring at my feet and struggling to keep from wringing my hands.

The scars on my back burned and the dragon around my neck seemed to tighten its inky grip, restricting my breathing. Coach Harmon coughed self-consciously.

“Your grandparents and I have been discussing the possibility of your returning to the pool.”

The words fell like a rock dropped from a great height into a water barrel and the coach seemed suddenly flustered, the resultant strained silence interrupted by Grandmother’s return with the tea. It was Grandfather’s turn to clear his throat as Grandmother poured.

“We know its been difficult for you, Eike”, Grandfather said, “and we can fully appreciate why you haven’t been back.”

I still said nothing and merely clung to the cup of tea Grandmother offered as if it were a flickering torch in a lightless abyss, and my head rang with white noise, almost drowning out Grandfather’s continuing words.

Your parents were very proud of your achievements, Eike, as were, are, Grandmother and I. We think it would be a terrible shame, a great loss, if you didn’t at least try to go back and carry on.”

My vision blurred and my face burned in sympathy with my scars.

“Coach Harmon has a suggestion, if you’d at least be willing to hear what he has to say”, Grandfather concluded, almost apologetically.

I nodded, but any words refused to budge from my throat.

“I understand you’ve not been back in a pool since, well, since the fire?”, Coach Harmon ventured.

Again, I merely nodded.

“I thought that maybe, instead of coming along to an official practice, which might understandably be more than a little overwhelming”, Coach Harmon began, “you might consider coming to a private session, get back into the water without an audience, as it were.”

He paused and glanced at Grandfather as if for reassurance before continuing.

“I have a volunteer, one of our senior swim team, who would be more than happy to be your training partner and personally help you get back into it. Whenever suits you, of course. You just let me know and I’ll arrange a time.”

The coach took a deep breath, seemingly glad to have got his thoughts out uninterrupted, and I tried to breathe at all. Get back into it? Go back into the water? Go back to swimming? I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of me, as if I had suddenly been plunged into an icy bath. How could they ask this of me?

“Just think about it, ok?”, Coach Harmon asked, rising to his feet.

He nodded at my grandparents and reached into a pocket for keys.

“I think perhaps it’s best if I go now”, he said. “Perhaps you should talk this over with him without me.”

You think?’, I thought. ‘And this couldn’t have been discussed with me before you came?’

I bit my lip and struggled not to vent my sudden anger in words I might later regret.

“Thank you for your hospitality and for your time”, Coach Harmon continued as Grandfather escorted him out.

I sat in a vacuum.

“Please don’t be angry with us, Eike”, Grandmother said, sitting beside me and gently placing a hand on my shoulder. “We only want what is best for you and for you to not later regret opportunities lost.”

My face burned anew but this time with shame. How could I ever be angry with my grandparents? Of course, they only had my best interests at heart. I knew this. I had no doubts. At all. And yet, still. Swimming? They knew, didn’t they, how I felt about it?

“I know you feel guilty, Eike”, Grandmother said, snatching the thought straight from my mind, “but you oughtn’t to. Your mother”, Grandmother’s voice caught and more guilt exploded in my heart. “Your mother was so very, very proud of you. She’d be heartbroken you’d given it up, especially if she were to think it was in any way because of her.”

I’d not thought of it quite that way before, how my mother might feel if she were able to look down on me now. Tears threatened to overflow from my burning eyes and I tipped back my head and clenched my teeth to keep them at bay.

“We don’t want to force you to do something you really don’t want to”, Grandmother continued, “but we just want to give you the best possible opportunity to go back to something you love. Because we love you. Do you understand?”

I couldn’t help it; a hot tear escaped to roll down my cheek.

“Yes, Grandmother”, I whispered, my voice hoarse. “I understand.”

“Then will you at least give it a try?”, Grandmother asked, putting her arms around me.

How could I say no? How could I refuse my grandparents’ request? They had taken me in when I had no other place to go, they loved me unconditionally, and I was the last living legacy of their only child, their beloved daughter. How could I not do this one thing they asked of me? If not for my own sake, then at the very least for theirs?

“Yes, Grandmother”, I managed to say.

I blinked back the rest of my tears and hugged her back.

“Can I think about it for just a little while?”, I asked. “Prepare myself?”

Grandfather had by now come back into the parlour and I could feel he and Grandmother exchanging glances.

“Of course, Eike”, Grandmother said. “But don’t wait too much longer, alright? It’s already been so long.”

“Yes, Grandmother”, I agreed. “I promise, I’ll do this. Just, well, just give me till after the weekend?”

“Promise?”, Grandfather asked me. “After the weekend you’ll go and see Coach Harmon and let him make a time with your new training partner?”

“Yes”, I agreed. “I promise.”

# # # # # # # # # #

Chapter Three


“Seriously? So, what are you going to do?”

I was at Spex’s house, lying on my back on his bed, my hands clasped behind my head as I stared at his bedroom ceiling. There was a poster of Troye Sivan directly above my head and I was thinking, ‘Why?’ Mind you, I was thinking ‘Why?’ in relation to the poster and not in relation to the subject of Spex’s question.

“Huh?”

Spex sighed.

I asked you what you’re going to do, about this whole swimming thing”, he repeated. “Weren’t you listening?”

I rolled onto my side and looked at my friend, who was at his desk re-arranging some kind of in-depth study notes.

“I’m going to go, of course”, I said. “They’re my grandparents. It would be disrespectful not to.”

“Oh”, Spex said, scribbling in the margins of the notes. “And you’re ok with that?”

I shrugged and sat up, running my fingers through my hair and absently wondering if it was now standing up on end.

“It isn’t”, Spex commented randomly, not lifting his head from what he was doing.

“What?”

“If you’re wondering if you’ve made your hair stand on end”, Spex elaborated, taking a moment to glance at me, “you haven’t. It’s fine. So, are you? Ok?”

I frowned at Spex and shrugged again.

“You are so weird sometimes, you know that?”

“Yes”, Spex agreed. “I am and I do.”

“And I’m ok”, I replied to his question. “I guess.”

Spex put down his pen and took off his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose with two fingers and rubbing his eyes.

“You want me to come with you? When you go to the pool?”, he asked, replacing his glasses and returning to his work.

I briefly thought about this and lay back down on his bed.

“No, that’s ok. I think this is probably something I have to do on my own”, I said, closing my eyes.

“You know that if you change your mind . . .”, Spex volunteered.

“Yeah, I know. Just ask”, I said, eyes still closed.

“Yeah”, Spex agreed, his voice seeming suddenly to be a good deal closer than it had been.

I opened my eyes to discover him staring down at me, his brown eyes large and wide behind his glasses.

“Spex?”

Startled, he blinked rapidly and backed up the three or four steps to sit back down at his desk.

“Sorry”, he stammered. “It’s just . . .”

He cleared his throat self-consciously and stared at his notes. I bit my lip.

“Um . . .”

Awkward much. What was that all about, then? I sat up again.

“So, are you ready to get started?”, I asked, hoping to distract him from whatever had just happened.

“Uh, yeah, sure. You?”

“Better now than later”, I agreed. “Mid-terms are next week and I’m still struggling with section three . . . and four . . . and five . . .”

I gave Spex a crooked grin and he laughed and the awkward spell was broken.

“And that’s why you have me”, he pointed out. “And just as well, right?”

“Right!”

I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.


True to my word to my grandparents, I went to see Coach Harmon first thing after my last class on the Monday with a further promise to Spex that I would go to his house to study with him straight afterwards. Coach Harmon seemed more than a little surprised to see me though simultaneously very pleased.

“Eike, what a pleasant surprise.”

“Good afternoon, sir. Thank you for seeing me.”

The coach waved a hand at me and indicated I take a seat as he dropped onto the edge of his desk.

“We don’t stand much on ceremony here, Eike. Coach will suffice. You’ve thought about my proposition?”

I took a deep breath and did my best to remain calm.

Yes, sir, uh, Coach. If you can make a time for me, then I’ll make sure I’m here.”

Coach Harmon nodded encouragingly.

“Excellent, Eike. Very good. How does tomorrow night suit, then? Say nine? That’s after the pool is officially closed so there’s guaranteed to be just the three of us.”

“Three?”

Coach raised his eyebrows.

“You and I and your partner. Is that alright? Of course, you can ask your grandparents or another support person to be there if you want to. Whatever makes you comfortable, it’s entirely up to you.”

I shook my head. What would actually make me comfortable would be forgetting about it altogether but . . .

“No, that’s alright, Coach. Three, three is fine.”

As fine as it could be, at least.

Coach smiled.

I’ll be there just in case”, he reassured me. “Not that I’m anticipating there’ll be any difficulties. After all, ducks, fish, water. Right?”

I wasn’t so sure and though I tried to smile I think it probably came across as more of a grimace because Coach Harmon gave me an extremely odd look in response.

“Yes, well”, he said. “Was there anything else?”

I stood up and gave him a short formal bow before I realised what I was doing. Coach looked a little taken aback.

“No, thank you, Coach. Tomorrow night. Nine. I’ll see you then.”

I turned and practically bolted from the coach’s office, went looking for the nearest Men’s Room, and promptly threw up.


I’d recovered somewhat by the time I got to Spex’s place but I must still have been looking fairly green.

“Are you alright?”, he asked as I came in. “You look decidedly ill.”

“I’ve been to see Coach Harmon”, I said by way of explanation. “It’s all go tomorrow night at nine.”

“No wonder you look ill”, Spex said sympathetically. “Come on, I’ll make you a coffee or something.”

“Coffee sounds great.”

I followed Spex through to his kitchen and took a seat at the breakfast bar while he made us coffee.

“Can I ask you something?”, Spex asked as he put my coffee in front of me. “Something personal?”

I blew on my coffee and tried not to allow my mind to wander through the possibilities.

“Sure”, I said. “You can always ask but I won’t guarantee an answer.”

“Fair enough”, Spex agreed.

“So?”, I asked, keeping my focus on my coffee.

I was just wondering if you’ve ever had a girlfriend”, Spex said. “You don’t seem to have shown any interest in the girls at Seven Oaks, and there’s certainly plenty of them interested in you, and I just wondered if, I don’t know, you’d maybe left one behind, like, you know, from before.”

He took a deep breath as if he’d run out trying to get his thoughts out all in one go and I almost spluttered my coffee out my nose and instead had to swallow coffee far too hot for my internal health.

“Is that an actual question?”, I asked while I attempted to regain my composure. “Where’d that come from?”

Spex shrugged self-consciously.

“I was just wondering, that’s all.”

I blinked back the tears resulting from scalding my throat from my eyes and wiped my face with the back of my hand.

“No”, I admitted. “On both counts. No girlfriends and no girl I left behind.”

“Why?”, Spex pressed. “You’re a really good-looking guy, Eike and all the girls seem to really like you. Why no girlfriend?”

I put down my cup and swivelled to stare at my friend. Did he know? Or was he simply fishing?

“Why the sudden interest?”, I asked him. “Tired of my company already? Or looking for a double date?”

Spex had the good grace to blush.

“Sorry, dude. I . . .”

He looked away and shifted uncomfortably.

“It’s just . . .”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Spex!”, I snapped, suddenly irritated with him. “Just spit it out already!”

He looked as if he might actually be about to cry.

“I’ve never had a date”, he mumbled, still looking anywhere but at me. “I thought you might, I don’t know, have some tips, some advice for me.”

I stared at him, open-mouthed, and then, realising my mouth was open, closed it and took another sip of coffee while I gathered my thoughts.

“Dating advice? From me? What on earth makes you think I’d have any dating tips for you? Where have I ever suggested I’m so great at dating myself?”

I stared at him a little more intensely and he finally deigned to meet me eye to eye. My eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“You have somebody in mind, Spex?”, I asked quietly.

Spex blushed. Deeply.

“You do!”, I said, straightening to study him with a smirk on my face. “Who, Spex? Who is she?”

“It’s nothing”, Spex muttered. “Leave it, forget it. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“Seriously? Who, Spex? Do I know her? Have I seen her? Is she in our faculty?”

“I said, forget it!”, Spex practically snarled, stalking out of the kitchen and heading back towards his room. “Come the fuck on. We’ve got exams starting in two days, haven’t we? And you’re nowhere near ready.”

I got nothing more out of him on the subject. At all.


Grandmother had packed my swim bag for me and I found it waiting for me on the kitchen table when I got home after my study session with Spex, along with a meal and a note written in traditional Korean hangul.

Eike, Grandfather and I have gone out for dinner. Make sure you eat. Xxx Grandmother and grandfather.’

I picked up the plated meal and transferred it to the microwave, overcome by a sudden wave of gratitude for my grandparents and sorrow for the loss of my family, and then sat at the table and stared at the bag.

The last time I’d seen this bag had been that night, the night of the fire, and I couldn’t even imagine where it had been in the meantime or how it had managed to come here. I closed my eyes and gripped the edge of the table and tried not to let my mind go back. It was a lost cause, really. For a mind-reeling moment the room spun and all I could smell was smoke and a sickly-sweet smell that I sincerely hoped was an over-active imagination born out of trauma rather than reality. The memory of my own burning flesh? I prayed that was what it was. I ground my teeth and forced myself back into reality just as the microwave pinged. Barbeque pork. Fantastic. I raced to the bathroom just in time to once again throw up. Dinner, needless to say, was carefully wrapped in an old newspaper and then in a plastic bag (so Grandmother wouldn’t know) and disposed of in the garbage. I had a glass of water and took myself to bed.


Classes went far too quickly the following day and I was, apparently, quieter even than usual.

“You want to come ’round to mine?”, Spex asked as we walked out of our last class.

I shrugged apologetically.

“Can’t”, I said. “I told Grandfather I’d help out in the store today. He’s stock-taking.”

“Spex nodded though it was clear he was disappointed.

“You still going tonight?”

“Yeah”, I said. “As if I couldn’t, right?”

“What about stock-take?”, Spex asked.

I stared at him.

We’ll be done long before it’s time for me to go and besides, you really think Grandfather would choose stock-take over my arrangement with Coach Harmon?”, I asked incredulously. “Not even.”

“I guess so”, Spex conceded. “You going to call me after?”

“It’ll be late”, I warned, “but sure. Besides, if I don’t, you’ll be spamming my phone all night, right?”

Spex grinned.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

We biked home together but I continued on alone after we reached his driveway.

# # # # # # # # # #

Chapter Four


If classes had gone far too quickly, helping Grandfather in the store went even faster and before I knew it, Grandfather was calling for me to stop.

“Time to go and get ready”, he said gently, indicating his watch. “Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?”

I smiled gratefully at him but shook my head, even though my blood seemed already to be running cold in my body.

“No, thank you, Grandfather. I’ll be fine, I promise.”

He nodded and patted me gently on the shoulder.

“Be brave”, he said. “It will be good, yes? You’ll be pleased you did, won’t you?”

“Yes, Grandfather. I’ll see you at home later.”

“Good boy”, he said and, as he turned away, I swear I saw tears in his eyes.

Damn.


It was already well into summer twilight by the time I pedalled up to the building housing the campus pool but I could see there were lights on inside. My stomach churned as I locked up my bike and I wondered if I was going to have to literally spill my guts into one of the big concrete garden boxes before I entered the building. Something, or someone, made a noise behind me and I spun around.

“Whoa! Dude! Sorry, did I give you a scare?”

I couldn’t see a face, just a blank shadow, but something about the voice was vaguely familiar, as were the electric goose-bumps which seemed to rise inexplicably on my skin.

“No, well, yes actually. Hello?”

The shadow came closer and I immediately recognised the broad physique of the swimmer who had approached me right back on my first day on campus. Damon. So, this was my training partner, my swim buddy? Despite myself, I felt heat rise into my face and was immediately grateful for the lack of light. Seriously, what was with me in his presence?

“You ready?”, Damon asked, striding alongside me and indicating the steps up into the pool building with an expansive sweep of his arm.

Ready? Hell, no. Not even. Did I have a choice? Really? Also, hell, no. I plucked my swim bag from my bike and steadied myself with thoughts of my grandparents. ‘For you’, I said quietly in the back of my mind. ‘And for Mother.’

I followed Damon less than enthusiastically up the steps and into the building where Coach Harmon was waiting for us by the pool.

“You’re early”, he said with a welcoming smile. “That’s always a good start in my book. Go on and get changed and we’ll get started, shall we?”

I tried not to drag my feet as Damon directed me to the change rooms.

“You shy?”, Damon asked bluntly as we walked in and he threw his own swim bag onto one of the benches.

“What?”

“I asked if you were shy?”, Damon repeated. “It’s just, I know some guys are. And you’re Korean, right? I just thought you might prefer to use one of the stalls. It’s ok if you do. I won’t judge.”

“What’s that got to do with being Korean?”, I asked, momentarily confused. “And besides, I’m only half Korean, and I was born in Canada.”

Damon scratched his nose but didn’t look in the least abashed. He shrugged and stripped off his sweatshirt, his tee-shirt quickly following suit.

“No offence meant, dude. Just saying.”

He had already kicked off his sneakers and was hauling off his track-pants and all I could do was stare. Had I ever seen a physique quite like his? I’d been around swimmers, and athletes in general, the better part of my life and I’d seen some pretty impressive bodies but, Damon? Damon was something else.

Suddenly aware that I was staring and that I as yet hadn’t moved, I mumbled something about using a stall after all and scampered inside one, shutting the door and then leaning my forehead against the cool tiles of the wall to catch my breath. What the hell?

“I’ll wait for you”, Damon informed me calmly from the other side of the door.

“Great”, I muttered under my breath. “Of course, you will.”

“What was that?”, Damon asked. “You alright?”

“Yeah, sorry. Just a mo.”

I stared at my swim bag sitting innocently on the wooden bench and wiped a sudden cold sweat from my face.

For fuck’s sake!’, I swore at myself. ‘Pull yourself together and just do it already.

I unzipped the bag and pulled out my swim suit.


If it had been since the fire since I had been in a pool, it had been since at least mid-way through my rehabilitation that I had exposed my scars to anybody, and at no time had I ever done that willingly. Obviously, I’d had no choice when I’d been seeing the doctors and specialists, but this? This was entirely different. I gritted my teeth and got out of my clothes and almost cried with relief when I saw that Grandmother had packed me not only a towel and my goggles but also what appeared to be a brand-new towelling robe. I slipped on the robe and finally opened the stall door.

“Ready?”, Damon asked, making no comment about the robe though he himself stood there in only his suit, a towel slung casually over one well-muscled shoulder.

I felt that nearly overwhelming urge to heave again but swallowed it down and offered Damon the barest of nods.

“Right”, Damon said, far too cheerfully. “Let’s go.”

Coach Harmon stood up from where he’d been seated by the pool as we approached.

“So”, he said, almost as over-enthusiastically as Damon had. “Ready then?”

So not even. But I nodded anyway.

“You intend swimming in that?”, Coach Harmon asked, raising an eyebrow at me still hiding, because that’s what I was doing, in my robe.

Very reluctantly, I dropped the robe . . . and waited.

“Holy shit!”, Damon exclaimed.

And there it was.

“That is freaking awesome!”, Damon continued.

Wait. What?

“How come I didn’t see that before?”, Damon asked, moving up to me in two quick, long strides and grasping my right shoulder. “That is fantastic!”

The tattoo! He was talking about my dragon, not the scars.

Coach Harmon, however, was not as easily distracted as he too moved closer and turned me by the left shoulder so he could get a better look at my back.

“These bother you?”, he asked. “Restrict movement? Slow you down? Cause you pain?”

Damon stepped back and I felt a disconcerting sense of regret as his hand slipped from my shoulder.

Focus!

“The scars?”, I asked. “No, they’re pretty good now. At least, I don’t know about swimming, of course, but they don’t bother me too much doing anything else. They burn a bit sometimes, when it’s maybe too hot or too cold, but the specialist said I should be good.”

“Ok, good, good”, Coach Harmon said, letting me go and returning to his seat by the pool. “So, how about we just focus on getting you into the water and take it from there. No rush and let me know if at any time you’re uncomfortable. Ok?”

Like now? I restrained a sigh and said nothing, merely nodded.

“Here?”, I asked, looking out over the glimmering expanse of the pool stretching out from the edge.

“Sure, if that’s where you want to begin”, Coach Harmon agreed. “Like I said, whatever makes you comfortable.”

What would make me comfortable would be getting dressed and going home.

“Me first then”, Damon grinned, and in a single lithe arc he was diving into the pool, his body carving into the water with barely so much as a splash.

He surfaced a short distance out and flicked water from his hair.

“Come on then, dude”, he grinned, effortlessly treading water. “Let’s go.”

I stood on the edge of the pool and curved my toes over the textured concrete. Right. Let’s go.

# # # # # # # # # #

Chapter Five


Your body doesn’t forget. It’s like a physical memory, an instinct, and my body carved out over that water as if it was simply ready, as if the water were a magnet and I the steel. It was freedom. It was flying. The water beckoned like silk to skin and I closed my eyes at the sheer rush that shot through me like a drug.

And then the water closed over me.

It wasn’t water, it was smoke. It wasn’t the cool, clear embrace of liquid bliss, it was pain. It was agony. It was terror. All I could hear was the roaring of the flames, the crash of falling timber, the shattering explosion of glass and steel and the house collapsing in on me like a raging scarlet beast. I screamed and the screaming didn’t stop until the darkness overwhelmed me.


I came to on the cold, wet edge of the pool and my first conscious thought was, ‘Whose lips are those?’ My eyes shot open and I found myself staring directly into eyes as deep and blue as a Caribbean ocean. I promptly rolled over and vomited a torrent of water.

“Dude! Jesus, you scared the living shit out of me! What the hell was that?”

My chest ached and my back burned and my throat felt as if I’d drunk a half gallon of bleach. I coughed and spluttered and threw up more water and somebody put strong, warm hands on my shoulders and steadied me as I did so.

Damon.

“We should get you to the hospital”, Coach Harmon said. “Can you stand?”

“No”, I mumbled, half-leaning into Damon’s neighbouring strength for support.

I was feeling terribly light-headed but I wasn’t yet able to decide if this was because I’d clearly almost drowned or because of the unnerving effect Damon’s proximity seemed to have on me. I made an attempt to sit up by myself.

“You can’t stand?”, Coach Harmon continued. “Damon, pick him up.”

“No, no, it’s ok”, I argued. “Give me a minute. I can stand, I just don’t want to go to the hospital.”

I struggled to get my hands behind me so I could sit up and found Damon’s arm unexpectedly wrapped around me. Shit. I was suddenly struggling for breath and my heart was hammering erratically behind my ribs neither of which, I’m fairly certain, had anything to do with my recent abrupt intake of water and plenty to do with Damon.

“Here, let me help you”, Damon breathed in my ear. “That was really close, bro. Coach is right, we really ought to take you to get checked out.”

“No”, I said, more firmly, forcing myself to regain some semblance of control. “I’m ok. I just want to get up.”

Damon lifted me upright and, despite myself, I found myself leaning on him far more than I felt was really appropriate. Then again, my legs felt terribly unsteady and I ached as if I’d been wrestling monsters from the deep even if I did think I was probably going to be alright.

“I’ll live”, I said.

“If you say so”, Damon replied, though he sounded far from reassured.

“You’re bleeding”, Coach Harmon observed with a frown.

“I am?”

“Your back”, Coach said, standing alongside Damon to inspect my scars.

I forced down the heat rising into my cheeks, feeling simultaneously both exposed and self-conscious. My back, however, was numb. I couldn’t feel a thing.

“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about”, I mumbled.

I felt myself begin to shake.

“Get him in the shower”, Coach Harmon instructed Damon, “and dressed. Then we’ll get him to the hospital.”

There didn’t seem much to be gained in arguing any further at this point and so I allowed Damon to help me back to the changing room but once the door had swung closed behind us, I pushed him away.

“I’m ok”, I said, my voice hoarse.

“Dude, you just threw up half the damn pool!”

“It was only about a half a bath-tub’s worth”, I argued half-heartedly, still shaking. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

I could sense Damon staring at me but he held his own counsel and said nothing. I looked around for a towel.

“Here”, Damon said, tossing me a towel. “Use my spare. Yours is still by the pool, and it’s wet anyway.”

I barely caught the towel through my shaking and couldn’t help but groan. I could feel it now, my back, and it really did hurt. I heard water running.

“You’re shaking”, Damon observed bluntly, “and your back’s still bleeding. Get in the shower and I’ll check it out for you.”

I wanted to argue but, to be honest, I really wasn’t feeling too good. I put down Damon’s towel and I did as I was told and stepped under the water. And felt Damon follow me. Shit. Again. I closed my eyes and focused on the water, just the water, only the water, as Damon rinsed my back.

“It doesn’t look too bad”, he acknowledged after a short while. “Probably just scraped it when I dragged you out of the pool. I don’t think it needs anything special but I’ve got some antiseptic in my bag that I’ll put on for you before you get dressed.”

He moved away from me and stepped out of the shower.

“Damon?”

“Hmm?”

“Thanks. For saving my life.”

“No problem, bro. After all, that’s what I’m here for, right?”

I leaned my head against the wall and focused on the water running over my body. What exactly had I gotten myself into?


I managed to convince Coach Harmon and Damon that I didn’t need to go to the hospital.

“It will freak my grandparents right out”, I added as an extra incentive. “And then they might not want me to come back.”

Coach Harmon’s face creased in a concerned frown.

You actually want to come back? After what just happened?”

“Yes, sir”, I said. “That is, if you’re still willing to help me.”

Damon grinned at me and wriggled his eyebrows.

“You want me to play hero for you again, I’m game. Right, Coach?”

Coach didn’t look quite so sure but, after a moment, he shrugged.

Ok, for now. But this happens again, any suggestion of this happens again, and it’s straight to the hospital. No arguments. Agreed?”

“Yes, Coach.”

“And I want you to see the campus nurse first thing in the morning. No note from the nurse, dated and timed tomorrow morning, no swimming. Understood?”

“Yes, Coach.”

Coach Harmon still didn’t seem altogether too certain but Damon got straight to the point.

“When?”

“Huh?”

“When are we going to try this again? You probably need at least a couple of days to recover and we’ve got a Tri-Campus swim carnival on Friday night so, Coach? Saturday morning? Early?”

Coach took a deep breath and scratched his head.

“Eike?”

“How early?”, I asked. “It’s only that I help Grandfather in the store in the mornings and I don’t want to take too much time off.”

Damon gave me a look that suggested to me that he was maybe more than a little surprised, as if he hadn’t anticipated I’d work perhaps. I got that sometimes, though I don’t know why. I wouldn’t have thought I came across as privileged. I shrugged.

“My swim scholarships are obsolete and it helps me earn my keep”, I explained, even though it was nobody’s business but my own. “Grandfather and I open the store every morning at six. I don’t work weekdays because he’d rather I study but I work weekends till midday.”

“You didn’t have to explain yourself”, Damon said, as if having read my thoughts. “But that’s cool. I have a part-time job, too and I imagine most students on campus do. Will your grandfather mind if you’re here at five on Saturday? We’ll have to be out by six-thirty for the early training squad anyway, unless you care to join them?”

I gave him what I hoped he’d interpret as a ‘not bloody likely’ look and he grinned.

“No to joining the early squad, then?”, he acknowledged. “What about five?”

“What about Coach Harmon?”, I asked in response. “He hasn’t agreed yet.”

Coach Harmon grunted.

“As if I have a choice. Damon’s the Captain. I tend to simply just follow suit.”

“Oh.”

“So?”, Damon prompted.

“What? Oh, right, five. Yeah, sure, I guess. I can’t imagine Grandfather will mind too much seeing as he’s the one pushing for this to begin with.”

“So that’s settled then”, Coach Harmon agreed. “Now, how about I give you a lift home.”

Statement, not question.

“My bike”, I argued.

“Don’t worry about that”, Damon informed me. “I’ll take that home for you. You live just up in Ferndale, don’t you? I’m in Parkmoor, not too far past that. I’ll drop by a bit later on and bring your bike then.”

It wasn’t as if I had any leverage to argue so I simply gave him my address and let Coach Harmon take me home.


Coach dropped me at the end of my drive after I’d practically had to beg him not to risk a scene with my grandparents over what had happened.

“But you go and see the nurse first thing tomorrow, right?”, he reiterated. “Or I’ll be here to speak to your grandparents personally!”

With a threat like that, the nurse was going to be seeing me super-early!

“Yes, Coach.”

“Ok, well, take it easy and we’ll see you on Saturday.”

My grandparents were waiting up for me when I walked in but, although they were clearly happy to see me they were discrete enough not to badger me with questions. Grandmother hugged me and told me she would bring supper to my room and Grandfather merely nodded and patted me on the shoulder before retreating to his study for a very late evening pipe and wine. I managed to get up the stairs to my room both without stumbling and without feeling the need to cough up any more of the pool but I wasn’t feeling anywhere near as well as I’d led the coach and Damon to believe.

My phone was lying in the middle of my bed. Damn, I hadn’t even realised I’d not had it with me. I flipped it over and shook my head, and immediately wished I hadn’t because my head was really thumping. I sat unsteadily on my bed. Six missed calls, obviously all from Spex. And an accompanying even dozen texts. Geez, Spex!

I called him.

“Eike?!”

“Of course, it is. Who else would it be? Expecting a call from the Governor, maybe? I just got in.”

“Really? What time is it?”

I checked my bedside clock.

“Just gone ten-thirty.”

“Isn’t that kinda late?”

“What are you suddenly? My chaperone? It wasn’t like I was out on a date, it was swimming, and that shit isn’t exactly a stroll in the park, you know. To be honest, this counts as a short session in comparison to full mid-season training.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.”

For some reason I suddenly found myself hesitating about telling Spex all the details of my first swim session though whether this was because I’d nearly drowned or because it was Damon who had saved me or maybe because of Spex’s own very peculiar behaviour recently, I couldn’t say.

“You going again tomorrow?”, Spex asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“Hm? Oh, no, Saturday morning, early”, I said. “That’s the next time Coach Harmon and my partner are free.

This wasn’t necessarily entirely true but neither was it a lie so I didn’t feel too guilty putting it that way.

“Don’t forget there’s a test tomorrow afternoon”, Spex reminded me.

Actually, I had forgotten and I immediately felt sick again. My throat burned and there were several hot spots on my back where Damon had applied the antiseptic. Despite the fact that I was all by myself in my room, I blushed.

“True. Thanks, Spex”, I managed to reply.

“Ok, well, you want to tell me about it tomorrow? About the swimming, that is?”

No, not really. But . . .

“Yeah, sure, ok. I’m just going to have something to eat and then I’m going to bed. See you tomorrow.”

“K. See you tomorrow then. Night, Eike.”

“Night, Spex.”


I told Grandfather a partial truth, too, that Coach Harmon wanted me to see the campus nurse to check that everything was alright for me to continue and so I arrived early after telling Spex I’d meet him there. The coach had already been to see the nurse and told her to expect me.

“You really ought to have gone to the hospital, you know”, she said as I took off my shirt and tee.

“Yeah, maybe”, I acknowledged.

She looked at my back.

“Those are some pretty nasty scars”, she observed quietly.

She ran a cool hand down the worst of them, the one that ran crossways in a heavy raised ribbon from left shoulder to right hip.

“They bother you much?”

I shrugged absently.

“Not so much anymore”, I said. “Just sometimes, when I get really hot or I’m really cold or when I’ve been working too hard.”

She hummed and hahed a while, checking everything from my pulse to my blood pressure, and finally stepped back and studied me appraisingly.

“Well”, she said at last, “you seem ok. How are you feeling? Honestly.”

I gave another shrug.

“I’m ok. Honestly. Am I good to go?”

She gave me a look I couldn’t interpret and finally gave me what seemed to be a reluctant nod.

“I don’t see anything to immediately concern me but, if it happens again . . .”

“Yeah, yeah, I know”, I sighed. “Go to the hospital.”

She smiled at me.

“Yes”, she agreed. “The hospital. Immediately.”

“Yes, ma’am.”


It wasn’t either Coach Harmon or Spex waiting for me when I came out of the infirmary, it was Damon and the same three friends he’d had with him the first time we’d met. I dipped my head as the heat insisted on returning to my face and focused on the pavement at my feet. What was it about Damon that did this to me?

“Hey”, he said as I walked out.

“Hey”, I mumbled.

“How you feeling today? You alright?”

“Yeah, thanks, I’m ok. Um, thanks.”

“No problem.”

I shuffled my feet self-consciously and looked past Damon and his friends to see if I could spot Spex.

“He’s in the north quad”, Damon said.

“Huh?”

“Your friend, Parker Taylor? Spex? That’s who you’re looking for, right? He’s in the north quad, probably waiting for you.”

“Uh, yes, right, best I get going then.”

“Wait a minute.”

I paused mid-stride and looked back at Damon.

“Want to hang out with us later. We’re heading to the courts to shoot some hoops but Ox here is bailing out on us. You could make up our two pair.’

Damon’s friends grinned encouragingly.

“Uhh?”

“Bring Parker if you want to. He can score for us.”

My heart hammered in my chest, I could feel my pulse thumping in my ears, and I could simply feel the heat threatening to rise back into my face. I bit the inside of my cheek to ground myself.

“Um, alright, I guess. Ok.”

“Sweet, see you round four. Lincoln Courts.’

And just like that, he was leaving.

I stood there for a bit, watching him go and wondering what had just happened. Which was where Spex found me a short time later.

“You ok?”, he asked, hitching his satchel up his shoulder and his glasses up his nose. “You looked like a stunned salmon.”

I dragged myself back into the real world and stared at him.

“A what?”

“A stunned salmon. You’re standing there looking like a stunned salmon.”

“I think you mean a mullet”, I informed him.

“A what?”

“A mullet”, I repeated. “I think you meant I looked like a stunned mullet, not a salmon.”

Spex looked confused, not actually uncommon for him.

“Ok, whatever”, I said to him. “Come on. I’m fine and we’re going to be late.”


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-36 show above.)