“I think you’d better forget about running for a few months,” the doctor said after the X-rays came back negative. This was not the report Milo Fortescue wanted to hear after dropping eight pounds in the last two months. He scanned the skeletal image of his right heel clipped to the light box on the wall. Nothing about the gray picture of his painful bone looked ripe for interpretation, but the doctor rolled closer to it on his wheeled stool, seeming ready and anxious to explain its mysterious topography. He’d already hinted that Milo’s symptom of a stabbing pain in his heel was likely not the impaled needle his patient was guessing, but humored him with the time wasted to get an X-ray.
“As you can see, there isn’t anything abnormal inside the heel,” Dr. Willoughby said, eyebrows lofted again at the X-ray. “No foreign object.”
Milo suddenly felt silly for suggesting it. “So, I guess it makes sense now. The plantar fasciitis.”
“Yes, it seems so. It’s mostly about the ligament under your foot. The heel spur is a secondary result. I’ve seen a lot of it.” The doctor produced a sheaf of papers he’d probably had ready even before Milo left for Radiology. “These exercises work pretty well if you do them consistently. Try them all if you can, but most patients tell me the towel pull and leaning into the wall to stretch the calves work best.”
“How did it happen, doctor?”
“Well, you can read through the handout here, but essentially, the condition could be caused by any number of factors, from poor arch support to suddenly increased exercise, weight gain, or tight calf muscles,” he said, sounding tired of the recitation he’d probably given a thousand times.
Milo flipped through the photocopied exercises. Letters were missing from the left hand margins after years of hurried jobs at the machine by the clinic’s clerical staff. His condition was obviously a common one. It didn’t matter; the illustrations themselves were clear enough, and all four of the causes the doc had just mentioned he could easily own. It was plantar fasciitis, no question, and he’d just have to resign himself to the recovery exercises.
The no running advice, though, was a heavy blow to the new lifestyle that had picked him up and was surely staving off another depression. In particular, the late spring forays to the park had made him feel almost social again. Running the same route every day, neighbors had begun to recognize him and wave as he passed, and he eventually reciprocated. Beyond the obligatory grunts of his coworkers each morning at the insurance office, these silent greetings from strangers along his jogging route helped confirm that he was not invisible.
It also just plain felt good to be outdoors more often. Noting the seasonal changes had reengaged him with his faded interests in botany and zoology. Flowers of all colors were now joining the first yellow blossoms and the new tree leaves trying to shade them. Thin tufts of grass began to green up the buff lawns, and birds were building nests out of last year’s dry leftovers.
He’d recorded a few of these facts in his journal and, for the first time since high school, some of his new emotions about it all. Real enthusiasm that his new target weight seemed well within reach. Feeling present outside of his apartment. The couple of times at the park when he’d engaged the forgotten muscles of a smile. His life was really turning a corner.
Next to his X-ray was a stock anatomy poster that illustrated blue veins and red arteries inside a plumpish outline of a human body that resembled his own shape too closely. Before all the other benefits had accrued, he’d allowed himself to believe that the weight loss might help with future overtures to the brunette in 204 of his apartment building. A few months previous, the object of his wishful thinking had loaned him four quarters in the laundry room and been gracious in declining his attempt to pay her back. No palpable flirtation, but a genuine kindness that was just as attractive to his isolate existence.
After the laundry room encounter, he saw her frequently from across the parking lot, since his daily jog seemed to line up with the time she got home from work. But they were only occasionally near enough to acknowledge one another. When Milo passed her in the building’s foyer, she would smile and nod, and he always reciprocated with the same, but faintly, to appear as non-threatening and casual as possible. It had been far too long since he’d hazarded interest in a woman, so he was hopelessly out of practice and confidence. Plus, lonely had never been as painful as rejection.
Still, he thought about her a lot. The calm, sure voice. Her long, wavy hair and slender figure. She had pretty blue eyes, and for some reason, over the years, he’d let himself imagine having children with blue eyes, though his were decidedly algae green. He decided to call her Linda, the name he remembered from middle school Spanish as meaning “pretty.” Just saying 204 was too clinical. He wouldn’t dream of asking her name, though. Too forward, too…everything.
“Are you sure I have to stop running?” Milo asked the doctor, who’d moved on to recording their meeting in his laptop. Milo knew he sounded desperate, maybe even pathetic, but he figured doctors were used to patients coming off like that. Everybody they saw was a little broken in some way, or they wouldn’t be there. “Couldn’t I just do these exercises at the same time?”
The doctor leaned into the wall behind him, affecting the weary physician-sage pose with his fingers laced across his chest. Peering over the top of his black bifocals like he was in a commercial, he said, “It’s up to you, Mr. Fortescue, but on average, it takes a year to get better, and that’s without further aggravation from running. Frankly, your cholesterol needs some regular flushing, but even distance walking isn’t advised for a few months. Swimming would certainly do the trick, and be ideal, really, if that’s an option for you. Gets you off your feet while still keeping the blood flow regular. It’s excellent for the lungs, and it might even do your spine some good.”
Milo wasn’t surprised when the doctor mentioned his spine. The slight hump on his back, or kyphosis, was almost obvious to everyone in the warm months when he wasn’t wearing a thick sweater or coat. He’d never seen this particular doctor before, but it would’ve been standard procedure to read Milo’s file and know that the Scheuermann’s disease he’d had as a kid had mangled his upper vertebrae. What startled him, though, was the suggestion that he swim his way out of the problem. He’d given up swimming in high school after a series of incidents and swore he’d never go near a pool again.
“Anything besides swimming?” Milo asked. Come on, throw me a bone, doc.
“Why? You can’t swim?”
“It’s not that…”
“Well, yeah, you could try something like a rowing machine at the gym, though your spine might rebel against that level of stretching. I’d like to recommend bicycling or the stair-step machine, but a lot of my patients tell me those activities still bother their arches. Swimming is really the best if you’re not uncomfortable with the water.”
Milo couldn’t believe the doctor had put it that way. If ever there was a place he felt at home, it was immersed in water. He never got out of a bath until it had turned stone cold. Even walking in the rain was nothing but soothing to him. It was public pools that he’d avoided for the last twelve years. He bit his tongue and thanked the doctor for the swimming advice. Outside, he gingerly shuffled toward his car, trying not to moan aloud from the pain that felt like broken glass was coming up through his shoes.
From his living room, he could see 204’s, Linda’s, white Corolla parked in its assigned space. He scanned page 1 of the prescribed exercises. The seated towel pull against the bottom of his bad foot felt so good that he alternated with his left foot and repeated it well beyond the recommended five times. Same for the calf stretches, leaning against the wall. The rest of the day, he thought he detected a slight improvement, and allowed himself to feel encouraged. About recovery. About it all. From the determination to continue his runs through the explosion of spring to losing another eight pounds, the next encounters with Linda, maybe a first date.
It was still early enough to test out a short run before nightfall, and Milo was anxious to see if the stretches could have a speedy effect. The doctor had let on that “everyone was different.” He got into thick sweats, laced up, and headed out for his usual jog from the apartment building to the local city park. He trudged just beyond a fast walking motion on the three blocks of sidewalk before he reached the dirt and grass of the open space and then loped carefully at about half his usual speed to continue easing into things. He’d made it about a hundred feet toward the park’s lake when he felt the stabbing pains return to his right heel. But worse, the tissue in his arch wrenched itself into what felt like a twisted ball of flaming barbed wire. He went down in a heap on the grass and lay there breathing in mechanical bursts, trying to alleviate the pain from all the micro-tears in his burning muscles.
The next morning, he got up and made his crippled pilgrimage to the bathroom. The condition of his foot had actually worsened overnight. It felt as high sprung as a cat’s back, nothing touching the floor but the bony heel and padded ball. It was so bad, he resorted to hopping on his left leg between rooms and had to call in to work, pretending he had a migraine. He was sure no one would believe that this fasciitis thing could be immobilizing. By the afternoon, following a long, slow treatment of the towel exercise, painful massaging, and calf stretches, he was able to limp around the apartment without wanting to scream.
There weren’t any swim trunks waiting for him in his dresser. He hadn’t owned a pair since quitting the swim team his senior year. He drove to the closest sporting goods store and bought a pair of the new jammer style nylon trunks for lane swimming, a swim cap, and goggles—all black to match his attitude. Although he wasn’t happy about a return to pools, he felt like he was enough years and miles away from the teenage humiliations to make way for his goal. And if he stood a chance of ever getting a date and maybe not spending his life completely alone, he would have to keep up the fitness routine in some fashion that didn’t result in the hobbled walk he’d acquired. It couldn’t hurt, either, if the doctor was right about helping his spine. Any reduction in the curvature would be a godsend.
It didn’t take long to find two recreation centers with lane swimming reasonably close to his apartment and one of them within the trajectory of his work commute. The first evening, there was only one other swimmer there in an outside lane, so he eased in on the shallow end of the opposite side, startled by the first rush of adrenaline from the 78-degree water.
He pulled on the cap and goggles and dropped under the surface, pushing off the wall with his left foot to get a good gliding head start. Within two kicks of breaststroke, he was shocked at how instinctive and normal his motions felt after shunning pools for over a decade. Each time he dropped his body into a full immersion with the kick strokes, it felt like slipping on a whole-body glove. He wasn’t ready to admit that he’d missed it, but the return to his old sanctuary was immediately soothing.
Milo had been a natural from the time he’d started competitive swimming in club sports at age ten. The odd kid with the crooked back had found a way to stick out that was actually positive. His technique and endurance got steadily better, and his junior year in high school had been huge. He took state in the 100-yard breaststroke and helped the Tigers place second in the 400 medley relay. Team talent had been building in other events, too, so expectations for a title the next year couldn’t have been higher, though it wasn’t to be.
Milo tried to stick out the season of his senior year for his parents and the coach, but from the big, humiliating incident forward, the pool began to feel like an aquarium, with him as the main attraction. By the time state championships rolled around, he’d left the team, and his absence was roundly blamed for their third place finish. The rest of the school year, he was considered a pariah by the whole campus. He skipped classes so often to stay out of view that he barely earned his diploma.
And now, his first time back in a pool after all those years, he suffered a few flashbacks to those weeks of swim team ridicule before he quit, but they passed and, four laps in, he was deeply grateful that the frog kicks and tapered glides of his comfortable old breaststroke felt like all those years before when he’d really loved swimming. When it felt so right. The winning, the gathering of medals and trophies that made his parents so proud. Before the name calling escalated and the cruel obsession with his back.
As he relaxed into the rhythm of the stroke, Milo was amazed to hear again how loudly the bubbles coming out of his nose broke the surface next to his ears. He’d hadn’t thought for a long time what else that sounded like, but it reminded him now of the time the tornado had bitten into his edge of town, ripping the corrugated metal roof off his tree house. When his father found him, eyes squeezed shut, still clinging to a branch on the emptied platform, they both started believing in miracles.
After the first quarter mile, the initial kinks in Milo’s shoulder muscles had dissolved, and his body propelled him almost without effort. He felt once again truly at home, like his mother always joked about his time in utero. “You used to love just paddling round and round in the womb. When your due date came, you didn’t want to come out for another three whole days, and we had to go with the caesarean.”
When he got back to his apartment, Milo was famished. He’d forgotten how hungry swimming always made him. As a kid, he’d finish two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after practices and still inhale a lunch or dinner soon after. There was little in his fridge now but produce. So intent on cleaning up his act, he’d begun forcing himself to eat more vegetables and fewer carbohydrates. What he wouldn’t do for a stupid hamburger and fries from anywhere right now, he thought.
Instead, he threw himself into making a gigantic salad topped with black olives, slices of onion and red bell pepper, Navy beans, and a hard-boiled egg. He drizzled a little vinaigrette over the vegetarian mess and couldn’t believe how delicious every bite came across, like he was having the first salad of his life. He wondered if the swimming could have had such a powerful effect. As he chewed, he was practically hallucinating energy streaming into his cells from all of the nutrient-rich ingredients, especially the lettuce, for some reason. Everything pointed toward more weight loss and the realization of his new dreams.
A couple days later on his second trip to the rec center, Milo put his swim gear aside and got into his gym clothes. He’d decided to do a little weight lifting for both the upper and lower body, and it paid off right away. When he did hit the pool, he instantly felt the improved strength in his strokes. Since he’d concentrated almost exclusively on breaststroke in high school, pretty much all about the legs, he’d never put any effort into the weights. Now he had some real motivation. He might even force a little noticeable bulk into his arms and shoulders.
Within a few weeks, he was going 72 lengths already, a full mile, and taking fewer breaths in the front crawl, much like the old days. Though the breaststroke allowed a fresh inhalation with each stroke, he’d always been good at just putting his head down and plowing through the crawl with half the breaths of the average swimmer. It trimmed some of the time lost in the earlier years to his competitors, whose power and efficiency weren’t compromised by a deformed spine. No matter in the end. Breaststroke was his game, and he’d taken it all the way to the podium at state.
Each time Milo transitioned from the weight room to the pool, he could feel the contractions of his muscles unravel in the water with increasing speed. He felt like the new flexibility was allowing his arms and legs, even his torso, to whip through the water more naturally than walking or running. It was a strange kind of freedom, but he was ready for it.
Although Milo had seen Linda only from a distance a few more times during his new swimming regimen, and they’d continued the same polite nods with the occasional cautious wave, he was several steps ahead of the late winter Milo. The new muscles, another five pounds stripped from his waist, and the return of an almost normal gait had emboldened him. One day after work, he spotted her lugging a laundry basket piled chin high with clothes, detergent box, and bottled softener across the lobby. He didn’t think about it but automatically swooped in beside her and tapped the elevator’s down button. “If you’re not going to let me pay you back the quarters,” he said, “at least allow me to take that weight off your arms” and reached for the basket.
Linda looked relieved as she let Milo lift the clothes. “That’s pretty cheap labor,” she said, pushing the basement button inside the elevator. “You probably shouldn’t let that get around, or you’ll end up really busy with nothing in the bank.” She was smiling but kept her eyes on the elevator’s floor readout above the door.
“Right,” Milo answered. “Good thing I still have a day job.” He’d forgotten what it was like to stand so close to her, but in the tight space of the elevator, he noticed the sweet fragrance of her hair right away. And then what he assumed were her natural body odors mixed with a bit of perfume in the laundry. His sense of smell had really taken off and, like his new appetite for salads, he thought it might be connected to the deep lung work of swimming. In so many ways, and every day now, he felt a little fresher. Reborn didn’t seem off base in describing his transformation.
Linda asked Milo about his job and shared for the first time that hers was at a local electronics store. Her Bachelor’s degree in psychology hadn’t paid off, but her facility with digital technology had. By the time he deposited her basket in the laundry room, he learned that her real name was Elizabeth, she’d moved to Denver from Chadron, Nebraska two years earlier, her parents and sisters were still there, and before she’d come out to the suburbs, the sirens and traffic in downtown Denver had almost made her hightail it back home.
Milo felt like sprinting up the stairs to his floor, but recovered his wits and rode the elevator. He decided that the next time they crossed paths, he could mention a good Mexican or Thai restaurant nearby and see if anything developed from there. He’d remembered correctly that her eyes were a grayish blue like stormy ocean water. When he got back to his apartment, he did his foot exercises for double the normal time and went to bed feeling such a strong sense of renewal that his old schlubby self of two months earlier seemed like a sad stranger.
Over the following several days, when he saw Elizabeth a few times from across the parking lot, Milo kept his cool and just gave a small wave and smile like before. He was pretty sure that a series of casual moments would build up an easygoing rapport to make him look normal and let her feel safe. Definitely smarter than a rush job of approaching her too boldly with the restaurant hint, and he was pretty sure he’d read something once about going slowly. Besides, more days at the weights and in the water would make him feel even more confident and relaxed when the time was right.
Two weeks passed, and Milo kept himself in check with the subtle greetings toward the former Linda. He felt like the time was about right to mention the dinner thing if they could cross paths a little more closely.
While driving into the parking lot of his apartment complex after work, scanning the perimeter in hopes again that he could bump into her naturally, he thought he noticed in his rear view mirror something familiar about a man who was carrying a box and setting it onto a hand truck. When he got out, he saw that the guy was helping a woman unload a pickup full of furniture and boxes into the freight elevator. Most likely a new tenant.
The mystery was solved before Milo got to the lobby door, when the man called out his old high school nickname. “Hey, Froggy,” he shouted at Milo across the parking lot. Dots connected. It was Reed Neiswanger from high school, a co-captain on their senior year swim team. He looked like he and his wide shoulders were still in competition shape. He’d grown one of those designer stubble beards recently popular. “Holy shit,” Reed said, crossing over to Milo. “Froggy Fortescue.”
“Yeah, Reed. What’s up?” Milo couldn’t believe his lousy luck. He’d hoped never was the next time he’d run into the sonofabitch.
“Just movin’ my little sister into these apartments. You live here?” “Yeah, I live here.” Milo looked over Reed’s shoulder at the sister, hoping his old nemesis would notice and go back to work.
“Where you been hidin’ out all this time, Frog?”
Milo didn’t bother with an answer, and just then Elizabeth showed up, walking across the lot from her car straight toward them. She waved at Milo and smiled broadly, and he waved back.
Reed leered at Elizabeth and began to sing, “Froggy went a-courtin’, and he did ride, uh huh,” while glancing back and forth between her and Milo. The same song that had wrecked Milo’s shot at going to the prom with Jan Swenson, from the girls swim team. After a week of it being chorused to them in the school hallways and during practice, Jan told Milo her parents insisted on her going with her dateless cousin, an old family custom. Milo abandoned the swim team the next day. The years of taunting from teammates and other students, his dateless life history, and the new confirmation that it would probably never happen had finally taken their toll. Winning races wasn’t compensating for the pain anymore.
Elizabeth stopped and said hi.
“So, is this the new Miss Mousie?” Reed asked.
“Cut it out, Reed. She doesn’t need to hear that old crap,” Milo said. Elizabeth leaned instinctively backward and then held still, eyes rocking between the two men.
“I don’t really give a shit, Froggy.” Reed squared his shoulders at Milo, his smirk replaced by a hard glare. The years had not softened his resentment. “We lost state ‘cause of you, and prob’ly six scholarships for seniors. If you’d stayed for the 200 and the relay, we totally would’ve taken state.”
“I doubt it. Loveland was pretty good that year.”
Reed took a step forward. “Fuck you, Quasimodo,” he said and threw both palms hard into Milo’s chest, knocking him off balance.
Milo didn’t remember anything that happened after cocking his right arm and letting go with the first of many jabs at Reed’s mouth. A minute later, he saw Reed lying on the ground groaning, his nose bent, his cheeks, hair, and ears covered with blood. Before Reed went down, Milo had pummeled the face and ribs of his antagonist like a boxer behind on points in the twelfth round, his mind gone blank with the fury that had simmered for twelve years, and his flexible new muscles taking over.
The astonishment in Elizabeth’s gape at him was laced with real fear while she tended to Reed, who was choking on the blood backing down his throat. The sister arrived and started screaming profanities at Milo, slapping at his forearms as he tried to guard his head until he turned and shuffled inside the building. On the elevator ride up, he noticed the splash from the beating that covered the backs of his hands and shirt cuffs. Inside his apartment, he could hear the looping wail of the approaching ambulance. As it pulled into the lot, the red lights lashed his window, and he closed the curtains. He went to the bathroom to hold his aching knuckles under cold running water in the sink, eventually filling the tub and climbing in.
The next time Milo saw Elizabeth across the lobby of the apartment building, she averted her eyes and strode past him with no more acknowledgement. The same stony reception repeated itself the following day in the parking lot. He thought about explaining the history that had led to his eruption, but her behavior said he’d never get a chance to start.
For the first few days after the incident, he completely blew off his gym schedule. A week went by, and he gave in to the craving for fast food on the way home from work but vomited all of it a half hour later. He recognized his old self in the mirror and wasn’t surprised about the slide back toward depression. He stopped reading and fell into a new habit of numbly watching whatever showed up on TV till it was time for bed. Soon he was downing two shots of whiskey before turning in.
At his follow-up appointment with Dr. Willoughby, Milo dutifully reported the facts of his recovery from the fasciitis. He told the doctor that his heel wasn’t killing him anymore, and he could live with the pain on the bottom of his foot since the exercises gave him enough relief each morning and night.
“Well, you must be doing something right. Did you start swimming? I mean, you look like you’ve lost another ten pounds. I’d guess more.”
“Yeah, I started swimming,” Milo answered with a flat affect. He absently scratched at the itch from the new shaving cut where the back of his lower jaw met the neck. Again.
“A little trouble with the razor?” the doctor asked. “Both sides, same place, it looks like.”
“Yeah, it’s an awkward spot.”
“Well, they don’t make a mandible-shaped razor yet, but in the meantime, keep those cuts clean so they don’t get infected.”
“You know, the swimming and weights seem to have really delivered more than expected. I think your back’s even looking a little straighter,” the doctor added.
“Yeah, I guess.”
Dr. Willoughby pulled the chained glasses off his nose and let them rest on his chest. “Everything else all right?”
“You seem a little down. I don’t mean to pry but, as your doctor, I want you to feel free to talk about anything.”
“I’ve been off my exercise schedule lately.”
“I think the exercise has been doing you a world of good, Mr. Fortescue. You should really get back to it, is my advice.”
Milo left the clinic and drove back to his old neighborhood instead of to his apartment. There was a strange car in the driveway of his childhood home. His parents had just moved back to his dad’s hometown to be closer to Milo’s aging grandparents. He drove past the rec center where he’d started swim club. Those early days in the pool had probably been the happiest of his life.
He kept going to the high school. Classes were finished for the day, but the cars of janitors, late-working teachers, and students at practice in spring sports still spotted the parking lot. He sat listening to the radio, napping off and on for another five hours, and watched the building empty itself until all the other cars were gone before he drove around behind the cafeteria and parked again. He hadn’t broken into the high school pool for so long, he wasn’t sure he’d remember the route in, but as soon as he started climbing the kitchen’s dumpster to jump onto the pool building’s roof, it came back to him.
Inside the cavern of his triumphs and indignities, he stood on the diving board inhaling the sharp chlorine air and peering through the dark space at the memories. The lights were off everywhere, including the pool’s underwater illumination. It was like being at the reservoir on a moonless night.
The same “No Long Breath Holding” sign that had gotten him in trouble at the rec center near his apartment was there on the wall with its profile of someone holding their nose, bubbles being released nonetheless. Not really holding the breath, Milo thought. He stripped to his underwear and dropped into the deep end of the pool, hanging onto the bottom rung of the ladder to hold himself down. He’d always been able to go much longer underwater than anyone he knew, but since watching a documentary that said big wave surfers could hold it for seven minutes, he’d begun building up personal records in his bathtub. Later, he’d read in a National Geographic article that the nomadic Bajau divers of Southeast Asia worked their way up to thirteen minutes after generations of evolving enlarged spleens that supplied more oxygenated red blood cells to their circulation. Would some biologists call it adaptive devolution, Milo speculated? A diligent atavism? Later, he’d heard that Danish, German, and Spanish divers had eclipsed the Bajaus with intensive practice, though they were just submerging and holding still, not chasing fish or gathering pearls. Now Milo was determined to see if he could push nature’s envelope himself.
When he surfaced, he wasn’t sure whether to believe his diving watch or think that he’d miscalculated the starting point. It had been quite a while since he’d clocked his progress, but the time seemed really high. He dried himself off with his shirt before climbing out of the building and back down to his car. When a cop followed him for several blocks leaving the school, he decided that next time he’d better go to the reservoir or some lakes nearby and use the watch’s timer.
The mild social presence Milo had been developing earlier with a nod here and a “hey” there he let dissipate over the next several months. He kept his head down around people and went back to swimming but increased the frequency to every day. Or night, if need be. When the new girl at work in Accounting invited him to her wedding coming up in a few weeks, he reasoned that she just didn’t know him well enough to keep him off her list. “Feel free to bring a date,” she offered.
“Okay,” Milo responded, though showing up alone to get plastered in a corner of the reception and fuel his coworkers’ gossip was not going to happen.
The changing landscapes of late spring and early summer careened through him as fleeting hallucinations. He could barely pay enough attention to his job to keep from getting a third warning about his productivity. Another June wedding and two births among his fellow employees transpired, and he could barely muster congratulations. Elizabeth’s car was no longer in the parking lot, though it never occurred to him that it was because she’d moved out. The more he swam, the less he felt inclined to integrate himself into his dwindling public sphere. He began to favor outdoor locations over the pools for his water time, noticing that the seasonal moss and grasses had spread clear across the shallows of both lakes and the river he’d been frequenting. Aquatic life was now in full swing again, returned from the inertia of extreme cold.
The next time Milo came back to work late from a lunchtime swim in the South Platte River, his firing was hardly unexpected. Nevertheless, he had to make rent, so he got a couple of temp jobs that let him do some bookkeeping and claims analysis from home or in the empty offices after hours. It turned out to be a double blessing. No more social obligations and less time outside under the sun that his fair skin wasn’t tolerating so well. If he didn’t wear long sleeves, he was prone to blistering within minutes. He thought about doing a record-keeper’s stint in a meteorological station near the Arctic Circle. The isolation and cold sounded like nirvana.
As summer gave way to fall, the drop in water temperature of the local lakes and rivers barely registered with Milo. Through the new winter, his comfort with cold water increased to the point that he could chop a hole on each side of Platte Valley Reservoir before entering from the east and emerging on the west. The sluggish submarine world in cold weather became familiar to him, though the low light under ice turned the dying plant life several shades of gray, and it was often hard to navigate the murk.
The first day of the following spring, Milo celebrated the equinox with an underwater tour of the reservoir’s circumference. Emerging from where he’d first entered, he marveled at how many miles he’d gone. It was inconceivable that he’d held his breath the whole way.
The next day, the water in Lone Pine Lake was a heavy jade green like the milk glass crockery his grandmother collected. A year earlier, the water would have looked opaque to him, but his vision in these conditions had improved markedly in recent months. He noticed that one of the muskrats’ holes on the south bank had collapsed, and the white roots of the cottonwood tree above it showed where she’d been clawing out a new entrance. Far off in the distance, a sizable school of minnows wriggling his way. Good. He was hungry.
He looked over his body. The chest muscles were swollen, just like his thighs. He was in the best shape of his life. The skin of his hands had stopped wrinkling. No more pain in his right foot. Maybe the new webs between his toes were supporting it somehow. Other pains were gone, too. Every day there were fewer reasons to care about his former self. His world on land was losing dimension, melding into an amorphous gray mass that seemed to be tumbling away from him into space. Milo wasn’t sad to see it go. Really, it was already gone. Finally. He opened his mouth and nostrils to the precious liquid.