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Carnival


There was only one pool in town – an Olympic-sized thing, with eight lanes cornered off by brightly coloured plastic and a stand big enough for eighty high-schoolers to cram into the morning shade. Today it was a mass of colour, blocks of red, green, yellow; blue, mingling at the edges like a fraying blanket. By midday, the sun had shifted enough to consume the shade, baking the concrete stands into blocks of sweat and heat. 


They had the best chips though. Five bucks, hot and crisp and covered in so much chicken salt you could feel the cholesterol in every bite. One serving was just big enough for two, so long as you didn’t offer any to the guys. The canteen must’ve made a killing at swimming carnivals – at least off of whoever bothered turning up.


You could tell at a glance who wanted to be there. The sporty ones, of course, spending more time waiting in their racing lines than in the stands and barely wearing zinc after it had been washed off the third time they’d dived. The cheerers, who somehow took house pride seriously – as if it meant anything when it wasn’t one of the three appointed days a year. They wore their colour like a second skin, baked onto their cheeks, painted across their backs, a solid coloured flag wrapped loosely over their shoulders. They were the loudest, cheering every race, calling on their houses to join in, chanting for people they’d never spoken more than two words to. Then there were the socialisers – girls in bikinis that they knew would get them sent home and guys peacocking about shirtless, burning quicker than if they’d been thrown right into the sun. They hid Redbull in towels, devoured paddle pops by the box, and every now and then shifted their seat so the teachers would think they weren’t just sitting by.


And then you had Emma. Emma swam, cheered, and spent an hour in the overhead box, her heavenly voice calling out names through the ungodly crackle of the microphone. Her voice had washed over my shoulders when she called out for me, I could hear the smile press against my ears, urging me to win.

I didn’t win, but that didn’t bother her. She was there when I climbed out of the pool, breathing harder than I wanted to admit, cold water clinging to my swimming shirt.


Emma had told me to come, so here I was, racing, buying chips, as much a socialiser as anyone else. I’d worn a blue bikini, dreaming of doing the same confident strut in it as the others, playing casual at the eyes I knew would be watching. But I hadn’t found the nerve to take off the overshirt. Not for the boys, like Stacy or Hannah down below, and not even for the girls, even if I looked pretty good in it. But for Emma.


Emma.


Emma with her long red hair, soaked and dried out from the chlorine, mingling with the red zinc painting her skin. Her swimsuit was black and blue, worn without a shred of shame – and why should she be ashamed? – her long legs drawn up to her chest, her delicate hands reaching into my lap for chips. She smiled with every bite, smiled at me as we talked, her long fingers brushing my ankles, my calves, raising to offer me a chip right from between them.


She could burn me with just a look, her every touch as sharp as a bolt of lightning, as soft as the caress of silk. We sat crowded on her towel, mine wrapped about our shoulders. I was still wet beneath it, and as she spoke, her voice was low and raw. 


She had been cheering for me, up in that overhead booth. Cheering out of reach of the microphone, but still just loud enough that she’d been kicked out.


I found it in me to take off the shirt. I made a show of it, stretching, lifting, and arching my back so my stomach tightened and my chest stuck out. I’d swear she watched every moment of it, her pale eyes slow as she took me in. Her lips twisted into a lethargic smile.


The crowd around us broke out into a cheer and I retreated, back into the towel, the shirt held loose over one knee. Emma leant closer again, her lips so near I felt them brush my cheek.


“It’s cute,” she said, her voice still low, still raw, but still normal too. Like I’d twirled around in a dress for her. “You should wear it more often.”


“Thanks,” I murmured back, feeling embarrassed and pleased and shy all at once. She shifted beside me, her hand brushing my ribs – an accident, probably, a mistake, but at the same time…


“You should put some sunscreen on,” she warned, reaching past me for the tub. “Last thing you want is spaghetti strap burn. Trust me.”


And I did – trust her, that is. And admire her, and dream of her, and love her. I loved her as much as any teenage girl can love their friend – and more too. 


“Can you get my back?” I’d asked, wanting nothing more than her hands on my skin again, than those little lightning bolt brushes. 


“Only if you let me draw on you too,” she’d countered with a grin, a stick of red zinc already in her hand. Her grin was cheeky, secret, her lashes low over her eyes. 


Of course, I agreed. It was only the best moment of my life. 


Her hands drew across my back, slick with sunscreen, with sweat, as smooth as a painter on a canvas. She drew her name in zinc down my spine – I stared at it later in the bathroom mirror, snapped a picture on my phone, and then stared at that all night. 


I hadn’t needed it. I still got burnt, all across my shoulders and back, everywhere except her name.


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