Susan stared up at the ceiling. She often imagined the cracked plaster taking shapes above her, finding tigers, giraffes and other exotic animals in the intricate shadows cast on the peeling paint. Tonight there were no shapes. The cracks were their own; dead and unimportant in her mind. There was an uncomfortable hot feeling at the back of her neck, sweat breaking out on her forehead. All she could think of was the water; the cold, mean water that she would have to face in the morning. Every day of school, all week, she had dragged herself out of bed, dressed, gone downstairs and ate the breakfast her mother made her like an inmate sentenced to death, chewing on eggs and toast with a dry mouth, as if it was her last meal. Every day, for the past week, she had walked behind her schoolmates to the gym, with its drafty, cavernous interior that smelled of chlorine; felt the cold white floor beneath her bare feet; seen the tiles of the pool under her, their generic pattern distorted and perverted by the sheen of icy water. Heard the stern voice of her teacher, the bark of command.
She couldn’t dive. She never dove into the water; in a way she wanted to, to get it all over with, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. Some paralyzing fear in the back of her throat stopped her, so instead she sat on the edge, shivering as her feet touched the frigid pool, and then slipped into it, feeling it close around her head, feeling as if she wouldn’t rise out of it. She always came back up, gasping and freezing cold, ashamed of her fear. But she couldn’t help it; something about that great horrible old gym terrified her; even the thought of it made her break out into a cold sweat.
Susan shivered under her blankets. She thought about tomorrow, about getting up and eating breakfast, about walking toward the hateful pool, the freezing tiles, the disapproving face of the teacher; she couldn’t. Her heart beat faster. She couldn’t do it again, not tomorrow. Her heart was beating fast enough to explode, just thinking about it.
She sat up in bed suddenly and put her bare feet on the floor. The carpet was warm and comforting. She tiptoed silently out of her room, walking slowly through the hallway as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She walked past the bathroom, into the kitchen. Her feet touched the cold tiles and she shivered. She went over to the telephone and took a pen out of the mug sitting there. Painstakingly, she ripped a page out of the lined yellow notebook her mother used for writing down messages, so as not to make any noise. She brought the pen and paper over into the dining room, the floor turning to hardwood beneath her feet, walking to where the great mahogany table lay bathed in moonlight from the window. She pulled out a chair. The legs squeaking on the floor sounded like a klaxon in the silence, and she froze for a moment, her heart galloping like a gazelle.
After a moment Susan relaxed. She sat down and poised the pen over the paper. She hesitated a moment. Then memories of the pool returned, drowning out the formidable, sacred silence of the moonlight, and she brought the pen down over the page feverishly. She wrote:
Susan is ill. Please excuse her from swimming with the rest of the class.
Susan paused again. She knew her mother’s signature, but still she hesitated. Fear prevailed, however, and the pen descended to the paper once more with a vengeance. It was done.
That morning, Susan put on her slippers and walked into the kitchen. She didn’t feel the cold of the linoleum floor beneath her feet; the events of the night seemed like a dream. But the precious, sacrilegious note was there all right, tucked into her pocket. She ate breakfast, her heart beating quick with anticipation. She could barely stomach her eggs and toast. She went back to her room and got dressed, taking the paper out of her pocket and looking at it for a moment. There was her mother’s signature, clear in the sunlight drifting through the curtains. She folded it tenderly and placed it in her jacket pocket.
At lunch, at school, she walked through the hallway, the blue lockers towering on either side of her, staring down disapprovingly like judges, as she tiptoed over the grey tiles. She took the yellow note out of her pocket and unfolded it. It shook in her hand. There was no one else in the hallway, and every step she took echoed deafeningly around her.
She came to the teacher’s door. It was tall, thick, grey—like a barricade. She held the fluttering yellow note in one hand. The other rose, trembling, as if on its own, closing into a fist before the imperious door. She brought it forward, her eyes closed. Her knuckles brushed the door. It made no sound. She steeled herself and tried again, bringing her hand forward. Her heart stopped as the knock rang out like a thunderclap. There was movement on the other side of the door. It opened, and Susan found herself caught in the gaze of her swimming teacher; a tall woman in a plaid dress and black cardigan with greying hair and steely eyes blockaded behind wire-rimmed glasses.
“Yes?” she said.
Susan thrust out the note, fighting to keep her hand steady. She couldn’t look the teacher in the eyes. She flinched as the note was taken. She glanced up furtively, her heart barely daring to beat.
“Oh, all right,” the teacher said. “Feel better.”
The door closed. Susan stood there for a while longer.
That night, Susan stared up at the ceiling. The dancing shadows cast by the blue moonlight over the plaster changed as she grew more tired. The fear was gone. It had fled the moment she signed that note; replaced by a more formidable trepidation. It hadn’t come back yet. She wasn’t sure it would ever come back. She wasn’t sure if she would get caught; she didn’t even care anymore. She wasn’t ashamed, just tired. It had been a long day.
The ceiling took on different guises as she slid away from the moonlight, into sleep. First there was an elk, running through tall, tall grass, which morphed into the face of a roaring lion, dark and fierce. The last thing Susan saw in the shadows before she fell asleep was a dragon, twirling, caught in a wreath of its own flames.