The red wolf whistled.
”Wiggin's class, let's go,” Mr. Wiggin called, walking backwards across the cross-walk. On the other side, he tallied all of his charges. “C'mon, Max, that means you!”
Ms. Hupp's class waited, as the beaver-kid lagging behind shuffled over the zebra stripes. He was only three-quarters of the way when the light turned green, so the cars still had to wait just a few seconds before beginning their roll.
The kids waited on opposite sides of the cross-walk as the cars dashed along, the wind stirring as each one passed. A few kids on Mr. Wiggin's side were cautioned to step a little further back from the curb.
Lyza clutched her day-pack apprehensively, her long ears, swiveled-back ears bracing for each blast of sound that approached; in particular when an unmuzzled, growling red car passed.
The light turned yellow, and an SUV slowed, easing on its squeaky breaks. It stopped a little too far in the intersection, and backed up, before settling with a guttural purr.
Ms. Hupp blew her whistle. “Okay Hupp's class; hustle-hustle.”
”Hey!” Emeral growled as they started to cross the stripes.
”G'ossa make sh'rr ya cross safe'l.”
The raccoon tweeted the whistle. “No playing around! Ritzer, get over here!”
The lion trotted ahead, trying to hold onto the tigress's hand, but he stumbled a step when the tension broke between them, and she remained behind him.
The tigress shoved her hands in the pockets of her jean-shorts amidst the giggles and murmurs of the others, gritting her teeth. She should have figured he would pull something like that, since he was just in front of her in the class-amoeba.
The worst part was, she would have liked to have someone's hand to hold to cross the street. It was actually a kind of scary cross-walk, unlike any near the school. But, the one hand she wanted to hold, she dared not.
They were already a ten-minute's walk away from their school, with the bright sun beating down on them and the warm air occasionally ruffling their fur and clothing.
The walk was an unknown distance, but the destination was known to all: the public pool. All week the kids had been looking forward to the little trip. Ms. Hupp and Mr. Wiggin's classes were the last pair to have their chance at the cool water; and, as the end of April transitioned to early May, the weather was perfect for it.
They had eaten lunch with the first-graders. It was a little amusing the way they were stared at like they were aliens that had casually stopped at their Earth for a meal.
Then, just a half hour that felt longer after, they had started on their walk.
They trotted along the sidewalk for a few more minutes, and their destination approached. There was a square-trimmed hedge against a green-painted wrought-iron fence that was the perimeter of the tennis courts by the pool. The hedges broke to a cobblestone delta that spilled out onto the sidewalk, where the curb bowed outward into the gravel of the parking lot.
The group of nigh-forty kids, two teachers, and a quiet student-teacher assigned as a chaperon, passed through the entrance and down the crumb-rubber path to the concrete deck that surrounded the main attraction.
Their arrival was met with the sound of kid-friendly oldie-moldies that played from speakers lining the two white-painted buildings on the far side.
A life-guard in a red-and-white one-piece swimsuit approached the teachers with a clipboard. The otter spoke with their teachers for a few moments, fighting with the bottom corner of the paper as it popped up with every little breeze while she tried write.
Meanwhile, all little eyes were on the pool. Shimmers of light danced upon the rippling blue water like twinkling diamonds in a sapphire bed. The smell of chlorine wafted along the breeze, which carried a sudden heat that made the pool all the more enticing, and the wait to dive into it all the more frustrating.
Their conversations and attentions were seized by the shrill tweet of a whistle.
The rabbit grabbed her ears and cringed.
”Okay!” The life-guard said in a tone that felt louder and more striking than necessary. “Everyone with swimsuits, the changing rooms are over there: girls on the left, boys on the right. If you're not swimming, sit at the shaded picnic tables over there.”
”Guys, follow me,” Mr. Wiggin ushered.
”C'mon ladies,” Ms. Hupp said, clapping and bouncing a couple times.
”Non-swimmers,” the student-teacher said meekly, holding up her book in her gesturing hand, and pushing her glasses to her brow. Three kids followed her: two boys from Mr. Wiggin's class, one with a cast on his arm, and Cathy from Ms. Hupp's class.
The other boys and girls split and went to their respective changing rooms, along with a life-guard that quickly told them where to put their valuables is needed.
The changing rooms were also the bathrooms, with a large common area and stalls; the boys room had no urinals. The floor was much like their still-untiled cafeteria floor, a smooth slab of sandy-colored foundation with drains here and there. The back had a sudden set of tiles that lined the floor and the walls, where the showers were; seven heads with haphazard dividers between them and a crusty, plastic curtain at the entrance. The florescent lights above hummed, occasionally flickering. The music continued to play within the rooms, the kids currently listening to Jungle Boogie.
Most of the boys changed in the common area, but a few went to the stalls.
They started to emerge out in almost a crowd, while the girls trickled out in twos and threes. There were only six stalls—five regular and one handicap—and naturally the girls changed within them.
Despite Ms. Hupp telling them not to come to school in their swimsuits, Emeral did just that. After all, it wasn't like they were going to check and make sure. That would have been weird. It was a little uncomfortable, and thankfully she was able to hold off going to the restroom until now, but with how hot it was she didn't want to deal with trying to pull on the swimsuit after all that walking.
Emerging from the stall in the swimsuit she had worn to the beach just a few months prior, she walked her bag to the cubbyholes and dropped it off. She, like a few others she saw, didn't bother locking it, as she didn't have anything valuable. Just her change of clothes, sunscreen, and towel. She pulled out her hair-tie, fluffed her locks, and set the tie just inside the cubbyhole.
She tried to find Lyza inside, but when she didn't see her friend right away she guessed that the rabbit had already changed and went outside. She was behind two girls from Mr. Wiggin's class, one not dressed in the appropriate attire.
The calico feline in front of her was wearing exactly what they told was inappropriate: a turquoise bikini with a thin white trim, that covered well but still showed off the orange and black inkblots on her back and tummy. As soon as they rounded the little wall that prevented anyone from peeping into the changing room, Ms. Hupp was right there, as if she anticipated the girl that violated the rules.
”Ah-ah-ah!” The raccoon said, standing in front of the two girls.
Emeral walked past, but paused behind her teacher and looked back to see what happened.
”What?” The calico questioned in a disgusted tone.
”Where do you think you're going in that?” Emeral heard her teacher question in the rhetorical tone she had come to know. She habitually tensed because of it, as if she was the one in trouble.
”Swimming? Duh.” The girl replied.
Emeral's fur stood on end; she couldn't imagine talking to her teacher like that.
”You know the rules. One-pieces only.”
”Ugh, c'mon,” her friend huffed.
”I don't have a one-piece,” the calico protested, her arms flying out to emphasize just how much she didn't have one. “I couldn't get one in time,” she explained, in a tone that Emeral could tell was rehearsed—mostly because she had used that tone a time or two.
”You had all week,” Ms. Hupp replied. “It said on the paper your mom signed that girls have to wear a one-piece suit, and you can wear gym shorts if you want.”
Emeral's hand fidgeted with the red soccer-shorts she wore, making sure the square-knotted tie was secure.
”Courtney, what are you doing?” Mr. Wiggin questioned as he approached. “I said every day this week: 'No bikinis, no speedos.'”
”Her mom said she could,” the lamb with the calico bleated.
”Kylie, I wasn't talking to you.”
”C'mon, Mr. Wiggin,” the calico pleaded in an emphatic, sugar-sweet tone. “This isn't skimpy or anything,” she gestured over herself, “if I have to I'll wear shorts.”
”Nope,” the teacher replied definitively. “Change, now.”
The calico then took on a defiant glare. “You can't make me.”
”I can,” Ms. Hupp said, snagging her hand. “Come on, let's go.”
Emeral took a step back as her teacher dragged the calico girl, practically kicking and screaming, back into the changing room. Kimberly squished up against the back wall of the entryway to get as far away from that as possible until she could pass.
Emeral's ear flicked, and she glanced behind her. Lyza was a few feet away, hand rubbing her forehead like she was coddling a headache. Her swimsuit was a paint-splatter design, with blotches of hot pink, neon green, and baby blue, and flecks of each color dappling the dominant blotches.
Just as the tigress took a bare-footed step toward her friend, she was bumped from the side. Her foot was already in mid-step, so she let out a quiet huff and allowed her momentum to carry, shifting her balance so that she didn't stumble; she landed facing the bumper.
His chest was bare. Abs were surprisingly well-toned, as if he spent quite a bit of time working out. His shoulders and arms were broad and thick. His legs, however, were fairly mundane, if a bit diminutive compared to to his upper-half.
Without the collar of his shirt to obscure it, the fullness of his recently-sprouted mane hung down from his neck. It had clearly been trimmed, for the sides were neat and tidy; but, the patch over his throat was still scraggly, and long enough to settle over his clavicle, nearly reaching the manubrium of his sternum.
“S'ry,” he apologized, while his blue eyes flicked down, and back up, and he let out a low purr. “Go'd a bi' dis'rac'd.”
The raising of her hackles went all the way down her spine and the backs of her legs.
”What's there to get distracted about?”
Both felines half-turned to see the root-beer-foam-colored rat standing with her arms folded. She wore the same shade of purple as the tigress's suit, but it appeared a tad darker because of the black polka-dots that it was paired with.
”That squealing girl was really distracting,” Lyza muttered. “Bet Kimmy can't even squeak that high. Gave me a headache.”
”Careful what you bet that on.”
A bit of relief calmed Emeral's fur at the sound of the tiger's voice. Something about the lion's gaze made her toes go numb, but as soon as his voice touched her ears she felt them tingle again.
”Took y'er swee'd'ime, Keto,” the lion grinned. “Emm's 'ere waitin' by 'er lones'm. An' I don' go'sa buddy'et.”
The tiger turned to the side, looking at some of the walking kids. “Virgil's over there,” he pointed. “Beck's still changing.”
”I's thin'g'in'a as'gin Emmy,” he motioned to the tigress.
”Can't,” the tiger replied.
”Why'zat?” Ritzer folded his arms. “Ya gonna claim 'er f'r y'er'zelf?”
The tiger shrugged. ”Nope.”.
Emeral's relief spoiled into tension again, and she tried to step a little further out from between the two boys.
Lyza sighed impatiently. “What are you even talking about?” She asked the lion, begrudgingly.
”Buddy sys'm.” Ritzer replied. “Go'sa pick'a buddy—budd' up'n'a'that.”
”And if you were here last year,” the tiger replied, “you'd know that boys and girls can't be buddies.”
The lion wrinkled his nose at the comment, but all were distracted with the call of the whistle.
The stragglers skipped from the changing rooms, and all huddled around the teachers near the corner of the pool, while the female otter stood a few feet off to the side.
”All right, boys and girls,” said Mr. Wiggin, reaching behind his head to settle his pony-tail upon his shoulder. “Before we get into the water, you all need to pair up with a buddy. You don't have to stay with them all the time, but if you have to go to the restroom or away from the pool, you must be with your buddy—so girls with girls and boys with boys.”
The commotion was almost immediate, Mr. Wiggin having to speak over the voices as friends tried to claim each other.
”Hey, Emmy,” came a little squeak. “Wanna be buddies?”
The tigress glanced to the mousette, a bit startled. “Uh...” She wasn't expecting someone to ask her; she was expecting to ask Lyza. But, to keep from the moment getting awkward, she reluctantly replied, “sure.”
”Awesome! C'mon,” she took the tigress by the hand, going to the life-guard to have their names written down.
”Huh... I figured Emmy would be buddies with you,” the rat said to the rabbit.
Lyza glanced away, as if pretending she didn't hear.
”I could be your buddy, unless you had someone else in mind.”
The rabbit didn't move for a moment, and then she took in a slow breath. “Fine,” she mumbled. “Whatever.”
Rini smiled. “Cool.”
”Like he said,” Lyza reminded, “it's just for bathrooms and whatever; doesn't necessarily imply we have to stay within arms reach in the pool.”
The smile faded.
”Wha'say'a Kesso?” The lion said, extending his hand. “Buds?”
”Sorry,” the tigress replied. “Can't.”
”S'matter? Don' li'g me 'r som'n?”
”Nothing personal,” he replied, turning to look around, “I just spoke with Panda earlier.” The tiger spotted the bear, and lifted his hand to the lion in a parting wave as he went to meet his friend.
As the life-guard wrote down their paired names on her clipboard, the kids were then free to splash into the pool. The water was surprisingly chilly, sending shivers down spines and raising neck-fur.
The pool was soon filled with swimmers, splashers, and divers. Many brought toys to play with: squirt guns, beach balls, diving sticks, noodles, and rubber torpedoes. A few boys had brought super-soakers, and they were swiftly denied by the life-guards; and, of course, the boys protested at the smaller squirt guns, which resulted in those getting denied as well.
Emeral kept an eye on Ritzer. Ever since that day Ket had been absent, and she had taken the mantle of watching out for his antics, she felt like Robin to Batman.
He did not jump into the pool right away, like the other kids did. He and Virgil had gone back into the changing room briefly, and then came back out, the lion holding a pair of goggles in his hands.
She got a squirming feeling in her stomach as the lion took some time to fix the shaded lenses over his eyes. She felt a little paranoid; it was sunny out, and other boys and girls were wearing goggles. Him wearing them didn't mean anything.
The whistle blew in admonishment. “Stay away from the diving area,” the life-guard reminded some of the kids, who were chasing and splashing each other.
The boy on the diving board was waved at, signaling he could go. Max looked over to the girls, spotting the poodle, with the rat, and twin kittens. They glanced at him, and his stomach bubbled. But he took a breath, and started to run. The diving board bowed and rattled as he jumped off, and he had somehow forgotten how to dive. He let out a shout as he approached the water, his belly clapping against it.
When he emerged, the whistle blew. “No belly-flops!” The life-guard told him. He glanced at the girls, the cats and the poodle giggling at him, while the rat cringed as if in sympathy.
”What a dork,” the poodle muttered.
”Ugh, I can't laugh at that,” Rini said, relaxing from her wince. “That sounded painful.”
”If he didn't;”
”Know what he was;”
”Doing why did;”
”Did he look at us?” Kelly-Elly questioned.
”You.” The twins finished together.
”Looks like someone's got a crush on you, Kelly,” the rat smirked.
The poodle splashed the root-beer-float-foam-colored rodent. “Don't even. He's weird.”
”What, cuz he bites his nails?”
”Uh, yes,” the poodle affirmed. “It's weird and gross.”
Rini suddenly took on a somber expression. She slipped off the ledge into the water, and started to paddle away.
”Where you goin'?” Kelly-Elly questioned.
”Just to swim around.” Rini replied, speaking when she faced them during a full spin. She scanned the pool, and spotted a pair of ears sticking up like periscopes. She paused, waiting for a good moment.
The rat watched as Emeral took in a breath, and went under. Bubbles arose from where she was, and her blurry form settled on the bottom of the pool.
Lyza flipped over, floating on her back.
Ket and Panda were nearby, playing with a few boys from their and Mr. Wiggins class, diving for sticks.
Rini approached the rabbit. “Hey,” she said.
The rabbit remained motionless, eyes closed, her tummy, kneecaps, and toes bobbing up and down within the water from the gentle turbulence of the other swimmers.
The white tigress's head burst to the surface, and she shook the water off of her while sucking in a breath at the same time. When she settled, and she brushed the hair out of her face, she opened her eyes to see the rat. “Oh, hey,” she said. “What's... up?”
”Just came by to see if my buddy needed anything,” the rat said, pointing her thumb at Lyza, before the hand plopped back into the water to resume treading to keep her afloat.
”You're her buddy?” Emeral asked, one eye squinting in confusion.
”Well, I mean, I guess you got taken by Kimmy.”
”Where is Kimmy?” Emeral muttered, looking about.
The rat looked as well. “Diving board,” she pointed.
The mousette was next in line, after Virgil.
The cheetah did a plain, but elegant dive into the water.
Kimberly unfolded her arms, and adjusted the shoulder-straps of her pink-and-white, skirted suit. She stepped onto the diving board, and her left foot lifted into the air in a precise sort of manner.
Her foot landed, and she skipped forward, making rapid steps, and hopped just before the end of the board, to then depress it a bit further when her feet settled on the very end proper. It pushed her up, and she leapt off, curling her body into a ball. She rolled forward twice before breaking her posture and her head parted the water cleanly, only a bit of a splash popping up when her feet were submerged.
When the mousette came out of the water, the whistle shrieked. “No flips!”
Behind the tigress and the rat, the rabbit suddenly burst into motion, sinking in the water. They turned, distressed, when Lyza emerged again. “I freaking hate that whistle,” she growled, then opened her eyes.
”You okay?” Asked Rini.
”I'm fine,” the rabbit mumbled, and went back under.
Emeral's whiskers flicked as she exchanged glances with Rini.
When Lyza came back up again, she was rubbing her eyes. “What the heck is Ritzer doing?” She asked.
”Where?” Emeral asked, looking about. “I don't see him.”
”Underwater,” the rabbit replied.
”You opened your eyes underwater?” Rini questioned.
”It's not that bad,” Lyza responded. “Just don't do it for long.”
The rat's eyes flicked down, and she used her arms to help submerge under the water. Opening her lids up, the water stung for a few seconds as she looked about, but after that it wasn't so bad.
She spotted the lion cub.
He was nearly sitting against the side of the pool. He had a hand pinching his nose shut, and was looking upward.
She stayed under for a moment more, before her lungs started to tingle. But, just before she was about to rise up, he appeared to turn his head toward her. She let out a flurry of bubbles as she pulled herself up.
”So?” The tigress asked, while the rat sucked in a few breaths.
”Dunno.” The rat replied. “He's just sitting on the bottom of the pool and pinching his nose.” She looked in the general direction, and saw him pop up. “Want me to go ask him?”
”I wouldn't bother.” Lyza suggested.
”Odd that he'd be holding his breath that long, though...” Emeral muttered, mostly to herself.
”Why's that?” The rat questioned.
The lion took in a breath and went back under.
”Uh...” The tigress's eyes pulsed when she realized she had said that aloud. “Um... Just, I dunno. I'm just being dumb,” she said, evasively. She didn't want to mention about the lion's lung-condition. In truth, she wasn't sure if it necessarily impacted his ability to hold his breath.
”Whoa, Em, look out!”
She turned about, only to squeal and flinch when a big orange-and-blue beach ball smacked her right in the face. Several kids around looked and giggled. “Oh my gosh!” She growled, and snagged the ball. “Why do I have to get hit by a ball or something every time I swim!” She tried to throw it, but it only went a few feet before plopping onto the surface of the water.
”Sor-ry,” said one of the girls with a bit of attitude, as she retrieved the ball. She started to swim back, when a tiger chasing a torpedo cut in front of her, splashing her. “Ugh, rude,” she snarled at him.
”Sorry,” the tiger said, genuinely, before diving down to get the torpedo. He groped around for it, finding it while keeping his eyes cosed, and swam back in the direction of the others. “Got it,” he said, tossing it up in the air with a flip.
It slipped into the water, curving back from the direction the tiger came, and the panda sighed.
”Hey,” one of the other boys from Mr. Wiggin's class spoke up. “Bet I can hold my breath longer than you guys.”
”You're on,” said the chihuahua, “We go all the way down to the bottom.”
”What do we win if we hold it the longest?” Asked the beaver, who had belly-flopped earlier.
”Bragging rights,” replied Beck. “You gonna challenge me, or ya too chicken?” He taunted his classmates.
The tiger and the bear exchanged glances.
”Blubber floats,” the bear replied. “I'll stay up here. Judge,” he offered.
The tiger shrugged. “Nothing better to do.”
”Cool. Count us down, Pandy.”
”Never call me that again.” The bear said. “Three, two, one... dive?” He declared, not sure what to exactly say.
Ket and the others sucked in their breaths and went down.
Panda couldn't really tell much with the water turning them into rippling blobs of color. But he did notice the life-guard get up from her station. She padded around the pool toward them, making the bear nervous.
Ket listened to muffled squeals and a splash as someone dove into the pool. Though he had practiced breathing exercises with Emeral countless times, holding his breath was a bit trickier with about six feet of water above his head. But, as he tried to tough out the tingling, someone grabbed his arm and tugged.
Acquiescing, and wanting to breathe again, he pushed off the floor up to the surface. The sunlight blared in his eyes when he opened them, and then he felt another tapping at his shoulder.
”Okay, you, outta the pool,” said the life-guard, her buoy proffered to him.
He held it, and used it to help himself out of the pool. The other four boys that had contested with him were also standing on the deck. Water dripped from his shorts into a good sized puddle about his feet, not unlike the others. Now that he had gotten used to the water, the air was chilly, despite the sun on his shoulders.
”You guys can't be having breath-holding competitions,” the otter told them. “I'm setting my timer for five minutes,” she said, looking at her water-proof watch. “You guys might as well sit down and drip-dry for a bit.”
The life-guard's watch beeped as it started. Then, she looked back at the water, spotting the bear. “You wanna come out here, too? I saw you with them.”
The bear lowered his muzzle. “Do I hafta?” He asked.
The otter smiled. “Not if ya scram,” she replied.
Taking the hint, Panda doggy-paddled away. He spotted Emeral, Lyza, and Kimberly a short ways away, and treaded over to them.
”Look out, girls, here comes trouble,” said the tigress with a smirk.
”Nuh-uh,” protested the bear.
Lyza's legs slipped into the water, and she went from lying on her back to treading. “I dunno. He seems pretty docile,” she said with a smile.
”Docile?” Kimberly asked. “Whassat mean?”
”It means I'm too lazy to go 'rawr,'” the bear replied. He went to the wall, and climbed out of the pool, huffing. “Man, I gotta tell ya, fat don't float as much as I thought, I'm still havin' to put a lotta work into keeping my head above the water.”
”Ugh,” the mousette scoffed. “You are not fat.”
”Oh yeah?” He smirked, grabbing his belly with his hands. He used his thumb and fingers to press his belly-button together. “Who you lookin' at?” He said, making his own belly-button “talk.”
The rabbit and mousette giggled.
Emeral scanned the water, smiling at the bear's antics, but preoccupied. She quietly dipped into the water, opening her eyes. The volleyball splashed against the surface in the distance, along with a kid that floundered after it, stirring bubbles. But, her eyes quickly went to the bottom of the pool.
She scanned around, but didn't see anything. Just as she was about to rise up to the surface, she looked almost directly beneath her. There, staring up, was the maned lion, who took off just as he was spotted.
She let out her breath in surprise, and as soon as she broke the surface she scrambled up onto the deck.
”Whoa, hey, what's the matter?” Panda asked, leaning out of the way as the tigress nearly bowled him over.
”Uh, n-nothing,” she stammered, shivering from the chilly air. “I just, thought I felt something brush my feet, and got spooked,” she explained. “I'm... not really used to deep pools like this, kinda scary,” a finger went to her forehead. To distract from the bit of silence that followed, she spoke up again; “Hey, you guys wanna dive?”
”Sure,” the bear said, standing up.
”Nah, I'm okay,” Lyza replied, motioning to float on her back once again.
”I better not, 'least for a while,” Kimberly declined. “I think I made the life-guard mad with my flip.”
”It was a good flip, for what it's worth,” the bear complimented.
The mousette smiled, “thanks. I do that kinda stuff on the tramp in gymnastics a lot, so it's not that impressive.”
”Still,” he shrugged, and then looked to the tigress. “After you,” he motioned.
Emeral walked ahead of him around the pool, all the while glancing within it to see where Ritzer was. Something about the way he was skulking about was raising her hackles. She was actually sort of glad for the day Ket had been absent; while she was sure he was also keeping an eye on the lion, she didn't feel like she had to rely on her secret boyfriend. Especially since they were purposefully not hanging around each other.
The tigress and the bear got in the diving-board line, which was only a few kids long. Good Vibrations ended, and a few commercials came over the speakers. The sun hid behind a cloud, and a gentle breeze tickled wet shoulders, sending a shiver or two down backs.
It was Emeral's turn on the board. She wasn't much of a diver, but she knew how to run and jump. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds as she ran, illuminating the water to the bottom of the pool, and sending shimmers of light to her eyes as she leapt off the board .The blue rapidly consumed her vision, until she closed her eyes at the last moment and felt the bubbles and water swirl around her.
She swam a ways in the direction she was in before popping up, shaking the water from her muzzle. She paddled over to the side of the pool, out of the way of the board.
Panda was already on, waiting for her to clear the way. He swung his arms a few times, before cupping his hands around his muzzle. “Cannonnnnn baaaall!” He announced, and then several meaty footfalls followed. He curled up as he jump off the board, and gravity took over from there.
There came a clap when he hit the water, a small crater forming around him before he sunk in and it imploded, shooting a wide wheel of water over two feet high.
Emeral whistled while other kids cheered, before spotting Ritzer on the side of the pool by Virgil and some boys from Mr. Wiggin's class.
The life-guard's whistle called out someone who was jogging too quickly toward the diving board. A few seconds later, her timer beeped. “All right. Five minutes are up, but,” she set the end of her buoy on the deck, like a surfer holding their surfboard up. “Since you boys want some competition, we're gonna do a race.” She then blew her whistle again.
The splashing, squealing, and commotion settled after a few more blows. When it was silent, a rabbit's head popped up, holding her ears. “Okay, real quick,” the otter announced, “I need everyone to go to the sides of the pool—you don't have to get out, but clear the lanes.”
The kid that was at the diving board jumped off into the water, and the next kid made to get on, but the life-guard instructed the line to break off and either sit on the side or get back in the water. Sulking, the boys and girls went back into the water.
”A'ight, so these guys are itching for some competition,” the life-guard said, speaking loudly, “but breath-holding competitions aren't allowed. So, they're gonna have a little race.”
”Is it just them?” Asked a cheetah boy. “Or can I race, too?”
The otter shrugged. “If you wanna race, c'mon. Line up here.”
He, and the lion cub next to him, both got out of the pool to quickly get to the other end.
The boys all slid into the water, lining up along the narrow end of the pool, starting with the tiger and beaver, and ending with the cheetah and lion; the other boys in between.
”Teachers, can you judge?” The life-guard asked.
Mr. Wiggin and Ms. Hupp walked to the other end of the pool, Mr. Wiggin bringing a deck chair for his colleague to sit on. They both gave a thumbs up that they were ready.
”Okay, boys. First one to the other end of the pool wins.”
”What do w—”
”Ready-set-go!” She barked quickly, blowing her whistle.
The cheetah, tiger, and lion reacted quickly, dashing off of the walls and starting to swim, using different strokes. The other boys were following just a half-second later, caught off-guard by the quick mark, with the beaver taking up the rear.
Emeral grinned as she saw Ket pulling along the water. She shouted to him only when Panda did, her voice almost certainly drowned out by the others shouting and hollering anyway.
Sadly, her tiger was falling behind. At the halfway point, he was only a few strokes ahead of the other average swimmers. Ritzer and Virgil were still ahead, but Ritzer was also beginning to tire.
As the swimmers neared the three-quarters mark, some of the boys flat-out gave up, stalling to catch their breath. Ket was struggling with weariness, but still kept with it, and managed to pull up to Ritzer. Virgil maintained a predictable lead—until just over a yard from the goal.
Emeral watched as the beaver suddenly dashed forward.
His tail slapped on the surface as he practically ran on top of the water. He broke the lead, and grabbed onto the deck, pulling himself up in a smooth motion. By the time he was sitting and looking back at the distance he'd crossed, Virgil had just arrived at the wall.
A moment later, the lion's hand slapped upon the deck, his feet clambering along the wall to lift himself out.
Shortly after, the tiger's hand touched the wall, and he tilted his head to the side so he could still breathe, but otherwise remained mostly in the water.
The lion struggled, splashing as he tried to get out. Mr. Wiggin rushed over, and told him he was going to help. The lion held onto the teacher's arm, and the red wolf pulled Ritzer the rest of the way out of the pool.
The life-guard trotted up, along with Ms. Hupp. “Is everything okay?”
Ritzer was heaving, his breath raspy, and he started to cough.
”He has a lung condition,” his teacher replied. “I forget what it's called—I think he's okay, he's just over-exerted.” As she said that, the lion turned his head, and his breathing lost the wheezy hitch.
”Okay, can you go get some water?” The life-guard requested to Mr. Wiggin.
Some of the other kids were starting to gather around. “Stay back,” the life-guard instructed. “You guys can get back in the pool, just no horse-play.”
Mr. Wiggin came back with the bottle of water, and Ms. Hupp helped Ritzer to sit up. He had simmered down to heavily panting, and took the water eagerly, switching between taking a few gulps and gasping.
”You all right?” Asked the beaver boy.
”I's fin',” the lion managed to mutter, setting the bottle down next to him and standing up.
”Easy,” the otter insisted, but he pushed her hand off his shoulder.
”Said'm fine,” he growled.
”That was a good race, you two,” Ms. Hupp said. “How 'bout some ice cream, hm?” She looked to the lion with sympathy.
The beaver looked toward the pool. “Uh... yeah, that sounds cool,” he replied.
”Okay, you guys go see what you want, I'll get my purse.”
”So you're okay, huh?” The life-guard asked the lion cub one last time.
He gave her a teeth-gritting glare.
She squinted at him. “All right, but you take it easy from now on, got it?”
A balled fist was added. “Wha'ev'r.” He growled, and walked after the excited beaver who scurried toward the concession counter.
The beaver waited for a little while, his tail fanning, but when no one came he turned to the raccoon teacher that approached. “Where's the ice cream?” He asked.
”I got it,” the life-guard said, quickly tapping in a code next to the door. She pushed through, and a second later was at the counter. “We got drumsticks, 'sicles, sandwiches...”
”I'll take a drumstick,” the beaver said.
”Sa'm'ch,” the lion mumbled.
The otter got the ice creams, and went back through the door. “Here ya go,” she offered, and dismissed the raccoon when she asked how much it cost. “Don't worry about it,” she insisted.
Ritzer walked away with his ice cream sandwich, not at all hungry. He watched the beaver kid, Max, make a bee-line for some of the girls in his class.
The beaver started heading directly for the girls, but then decided to stop and look about a bit. He took in a breath, and started walking with a more casual pace, trying to keep his tail from patting against his rump. He approached the girls.
There were two kittens that made him feel like he was seeing doubles, were it not for one wearing an orange suite with white sides and the other wearing a red suit with orange palm-fronds that spread across her torso from the left side. They spotted him, along with the rat and the chipmunk. But, the poodle in the turquoise suit and black shorts was sitting on the deck, shins in the pool, facing away from him.
”Hey,” spoke the rat, “nice race.”
The poodle turned about, spotting the beaver-kid.
”Uhm... th-thanks,” Max said, “I got this for... for winning, I guess,” he lifted up the drumstick, the wrapping crinkling a little.
”Looks yummy,” the chipmunk said with a smile.
”I uh... I don't... really like nuts and stuff, s-so...” He lowered it to the poodle. “Um, if you want it, y-you can have it.”
”Ooo, Kelly, loves drumsticks,” the rat said with a mischievous grin. “She'd do practically anything for 'em.”
”We thought that;'
”Bars,” the twins said, exchanging glances.
”What were you sayin' earlier Kells?” Asked the chipmunk. “Something about wanting to know the name of the impressive swimmer?”
The poodle gritted her teeth, throwing a few daggers at her supposed friend.
”Uh-hm, if-if you don't—”
The poodle twisted about, a smile on her muzzle. “If you don't want it, I'll... I'll take it,” she replied, extending out her hand, though it was a little tense.
”S-Sure,” the beaver said, handing over. “M-My name's Max, b-by the way,” he said, the hand he relinquished the ice cream from nearly going into his mouth before he caught himself, and quickly brushed his knuckles over his chest.
”Thanks... Max,” Kelly replied, saying the name a bit tersely.
”A-anyway, I'm g-gonna go swim some more,” he said, before quickly rushing off. The whistle blew, and he winced, knowing the life-guard was just telling him not to be so fast.
”You really know how to pick a winner,” said the chipmunk.
”Don't talk to me,” the poodle snapped, pulling the seam of the drumstick apart. She bit into the nut-and-chocolate covered cone while the other girls giggled at their own stupid antics.
After witnessing the beaver's move, the lion spotted the tigress and mousette, heading toward the bathrooms. His thumb rubbed over the ice cream sandwich, feeling the little pips of the fudge breading beneath the thin plastic packaging. He made his way over.
Kimberly skipped into the open doorway, with the tigress walking several steps behind. “'Ey,” she heard someone say. She turned, only to see the lion cub take the last two steps to her.
”Uh... Jus' wan'ed to see if ya wan'ed s'me ice cream,” he said, raising the sandwich to bring attention to it.
She thumbed toward the girls' room. “I'm going in there,” she said, “and you're not following this time.” She glanced down at the ice cream, blinked, and turned.
”W-Wai',” he reached for her arm.
”Don't touch me!” She barked, whipping round and slapping his hands.
The ice cream sandwich popped out of his hold, and smacked upon the deck. He looked down at it with his lips parted, and then back up. But, he only managed to just catch site of her white tail as it disappeared into the doorway.
He squatted down, resting his hand on the sandwich for a few seconds, before picking it up. He wandered over to the tables, where the non-swimmers were reading and playing variants of Checkers to keep themselves entertained. He pulled the seam of the sandwich apart. It had already begun to melt. He bit into the fudge, sucking a bit to pull the melted cream out with the bite. He winced as the cold hurt his teeth.
The oldie-moldies played, as did the kids.
A game of Marco-Polo had started in one corner of the pool. The Polos taunted and teased by trying to swim up as close as they could behind Marco.
There was still a rotating group of five or more kids at the diving board, some trying to out-cannon-ball Panda.
A few kids were racing across the pool, short-ways. They bickered and fought after each lap, as there was no one to serve as judge.
A girl whom had brought an inner-tube had her legs pointed straight down with ankles locked. She laid upon the tube, and used her legs to spin around and around as fast as she could, before abruptly flipping back and trying to withstand the oncoming rush of dizziness.
Two boys with noodles spent some time riding them like horses in the water. They would fill them up with water and then blow into the other end to spit the water out and spray others, which was an inventive way to make up for the loss of squirt guns.
After some time, the boys got with the kids playing with the beach ball, and schemed a game. They stood upon the deck, holding the noodles like bats, while the beach ball was tossed at them. They swatted at the ball, knocking it back into the water, trying to get it all the way across the pool to the other side of the deck.
This lasted for a good while, before one of the noodles suddenly broke just beyond the boy's grip with a crackle. The other boy started to freak out, for he owned both noodles and was sure his parents would not like that one of them would come home busted.
The life-guard got up to address the fussing kids. Other children were beginning to take notice of the tantrum that was about to be thrown.
Panda saw the beach ball rolling away on the deck. He started to swim to the wall, when he felt someone tug on his leg, pulling him down. He whipped round, to see Beck popping out of the water behind him. Giving the chihuahua a stink-eye, he started to paddle off again, but Beck was at his heels. “Stop it!” He said, yanking his leg free, and trying to swim faster. The canine kept trying to grab his heels, to which Panda started to call for help. He made it to the wall, and started to get out of the pool.
But, on his way up, Beck grabbed at him. The bear's knees made it onto the deck, but his shorts went back into the pool, along with the chihuahua, and a splash.
At first, it almost sounded like the life-guard had blown her whistle again. But, the onlookers quickly realized the otter was not, and that the sound was moving quickly.
Panda sprinted as fast as he could to the bathroom. Heart hammering, and legs colder than before, he stumbled from the slick floor and his wet feet. He scurried on hands and knees into one of the stalls, and slammed the door shut. It bounced back, and he pressed up against it, locking it.
Amidst his panicked breaths, the song played over the speakers in the bathroom.
”I love you... Oh my darling-Knock. Three Times-on the ceiling if you want me... Mmhmm, twice on the pipe, if the answer is noooo-ho-ho-ooh...”
He closed his eyes when he heard the slapping of wet footfalls and soft breathing; someone entered. The footfalls paused, and then picked up again, at an almost cautious pace.
”...Means you ain't gonna show-oh-oh-oh. If you look ou' ch'your winda' toni-ght...”
He held his breath as the footfalls neared his stall. He stared at the toilet in front of him, and pressed his back against the door, as if to keep it shut.
”Oh my dar-lin'—”
He let out the breath and flinched when three gentle knocks, along with the words of the song, nudged the door at his back.
”Panda, you in there?” Asked a girl's voice.
He let the pulse in his ears settle for a few seconds. Then, the voice's familiarity came to him. “E-Emmy?” He asked.
”I got your shorts,” she said, “heads up.”
He heard the soft slap of wet fabric above him, and the tie-strings of his trunks dangled down at him.
”Can you reach 'em?” She asked.
”Yeah,” he replied, and pulled on the ties. “Thanks,” he said with relief.
”No prob. But, you probably wanna come out quick, Beck's getting scolded, bad.”
He let out a worried mumble.
She chuckled. “By the way, no one saw anything. Anyway, Ket's outside, so I'm gonna go.”
”Okay,” he replied, even as he was putting a leg through his trunks again. The embarrassment and desire to curl up into a ball quickly left him, replaced by anger and agitation. He gritted his teeth as he slid the latch to the left, and pulled the stall door open. Heck, he was almost ready to yell at Beck himself. What the heck!
He steeled himself, and started toward the entrance. His buddy was waiting against the wall between the two rooms, and he pushed off with his elbows as soon as the bear was seen.
”You okay?” He asked.
The bear wrinkled his muzzle, letting out a puff of air. “Watch this.” He stomped across the deck, heading over to the pool. He lifted his hands to his muzzle. “Hey, Beck!” He hollered.
The chihuahua, and their teacher, both looked over from the life-guard's chair.
”Since ya wanna see my butt so bad,” Panda yelled, and turned about. He placed his hands on the waistband of his trunks, and squatted over, motioning like he was going to pull them down—but didn't actually.
He grinned at Ket, and heard what sounded like all of the girls screaming, and the other boys laughing. Amidst it, the life-guard blasted her whistle. Knowing he was now also in trouble, he briskly walked toward his teacher.
Ket saw Kelly pop up from the water.
”Oh my gosh, that was nuts,” the poodle declared.
”He didn't actually moon anyone,” the tiger replied.
”Well, now we know how to get Kelly in the water,” smirked Angela.
”Uh, Kells,” the rat spoke up.
”Huh?” The poodle treaded water, turning about.
”Did you not want to get in the water cuz you're shedding?”
Kelly's treading hitched with surprise. “Uh, excuse you? No, I don't shed. Even if I did, I'd've gone to the groomers way long ago.”
”Uhm...” The rat lifted up her hand.
Kelly and Angela exchanged glances. “What's that?” They swam closer.
”It looks like;”
”Curly hair,” the twins observed.
Sure enough, the rat held several strands of curling hair that clung to her wet hand. There were even a few still floating about on the surface of the water.
Ket had a vantage on the girls that they did not. After hearing the twins' observation, he glanced at the poodle's head. “Hey, Kelly,” he said.
The girls looked up at him.
He looked to the side to figure out how to say what he wanted to say, but wound up just pantomiming placing his hand on the back of his head.
Following his motion, the poodle placed a hand on the back of her own head, and yipped. Before she could do anything, the chipmunk was behind her in one stroke.
”Oh my gosh!”
”Hey! Hey Ms. Hupp!” Squeaked a voice from the pool.
The teacher gritted her teeth, and looked to Beck and Panda. “You two wait here.” She said, sternly. She walked to the side of the pool. “What is it, Kimmy?” She asked, a little impatiently.
”There's something at the bottom of the pool!”
Emeral swam to her buddy.
”Okay, just—” Ms. Hupp saw the tigress dive under. She sighed, frustrated. A moment later, Emeral emerged.
”I got it!” She announced, and started swimming toward her teacher.
The raccoon turned to see one of her students running over to her. The whistle blew, and her student was scolded.
”Kelly-Elly, what's the matter?” She asked, while the girl whimpered and whined.
”M-M-My hair!” She sobbed, turning about, holding the two locks of curly hair that were on either side of a two-inch-wide gap, where the curly tresses were only a few inches long.
Ms. Hupp caught Emeral approaching, but noticed the tigress hesitate. “What'chya got, Emmy?” When the tigress finally approached, she extended her hands up. The teacher took the object, and pursed her lips.
The pair of scissors were like so many other pairs she had seen. Red handles, long blades good for cutting construction paper or paper plates. She turned the scissors over, and her lips fell ajar.
”What's the problem?” Asked the otter, as she approached the raccoon. The teacher handed over the scissors, and knelt down by Kelly, consoling her.
The life-guard looked at the scissors, and then the whistle went into her muzzle. She stepped to the side of the pool, and blew, hard. The shrill call startled everyone, something that she didn't necessarily like to do.
”Listen up!” She barked. “Anyone here named Max?”
The children were nearly frozen, the ones in the pool treading water like they weren't sure if they should swim to the nearest side, or stay where they were.
”This is very important: is anyone here named Max, or knows a Max?” Silence as kids exchanged glances. “Anyone at all?” She spotted Mr. Wiggin as he headed over to her.
Kelly surveyed the pool, when something caught her eye. Someone was walking out of the boys' bathroom, and her eyes pulsed when she saw him.”You!” She called, angrily, pointing at the beaver that had paused in his walk toward the pool. “Your name is Max!”
”C'mere,” the life-guard ordered, flickering her hand.
Mr. Wiggin was also waiting for him.
”Oooooo,” said some of the kids in the pool.
The life-guard tweeted her whistle again. “Swim quietly.” She told them.
”Max, why are your scissors in the pool?” Emeral overheard Mr. Wiggin ask.
”I... Mnh...” the boy's fingers went into his muzzle, and he started to chew on them.
”Fingers out, Max,” his teacher admonished patiently.
Kelly disturbed the questioning. “What did you do you creep!?” She yelled, getting in the boy's face. “What'd you do with my hair!?”
”Kelly,” her teacher said, holding the girl back and walking her away from the boy. The poodle began sobbing.
Emeral was spotted by her teacher, and sensed that she should probably get out of there before the virtue of her bringing the scissors got her involved.
She slipped into the water as quietly as she could, stalling to overhear just a little more as the life-guard questioned why he was in the bathroom without his buddy.
The tigress looked to the bathrooms with thought, when someone popped up through the surface just behind her. She swirled about, to see her friend. “Hey,” she said.
The rabbit looked up at the conversation. “They're not getting anywhere with him,” she said, her ear flicking to show she was listening in on the conversation.
”He seems pretty shaken up,” the tigress observed.
”Max is usually like that,” the rabbit replied.
”You know him?”
Lyza shook her head. “We were both in the Spelling Bee, so I just mean from what I've seen he's like that.”
Emeral looked about, and spotted Ritzer as he was just sitting down near the side of the pool. “Hey,” she asked to her friend. “You hear anything while I was bringing Panda his trunks?”
The rabbit drifted away. “Nah,” she replied, “I've been trying to keep from listening to all the loud noise. I still have my headache, and the dang whistle isn't helping a—”
As if on cue, the whistle blew, and she spasmed and splashed about.
”Okay, kiddoes,” Ms. Hupp said, cupping her hands to her muzzle so her voice carried over. “Hey-hey, quiet down!” She hollered.
The whistle blew again, and finally the kids were silent.
”Everyone out of the pool, it's time to dry off.”
The command was met with much fussing from some kids, while others were quicker to obey. Lyza was the first to hop out of the pool, actually eager to leave.
While Tooty Fruity played over the speakers, the kids eventually got their towels and were milling about the deck, laying their towels down on the concrete or, mostly the girls, sitting on the lawn chairs.
Beck, Kelly, and Panda were confined to being around Ms. Hupp, while Max was near his teacher.
After a few more songs played, the kids were ushered to go get changed in small groups at a time.
Kimberly found her way to her buddy, sitting at the deck chair with Lyza, Rini standing by them. The rabbit stood, slinging her towel over her shoulder, and went with the rat toward the facility.
The mousette raggedly sat down next to the tigress. “Ugh... Emmy,” she groaned. “Next time I'm about to say something, remind me to keep my mouth shut.”
The tigress giggled. “Whaddaya mean?” She asked.
”I think we're leaving early cuz of the scissors,” she replied. “The life-guard asked if I saw anyone with them earlier. I felt like I was in trouble—I didnt' do anything!” She proclaimed.
”I don't think anyone things you did anything,” Emeral reassured. “But it is... weird. Like they were planted, huh?”
”Think that boy was framed?” The mousette questioned. “Like I almost was for just finding the things?”
The tigress shrugged.
”I dunno if we're supposed to still be buddies,” Kimberly said, changing the subject, “but I'm dry, and I just decided to wait till you're ready to change. 'Sides, then you can be a witness that I ain't doing anything fishy.”
The tigress snickered. “Okay. I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” She replied, and stood up. “I think I'm dry, too. My suit and shorts aren't gonna get much dryer and they're just keeping me wet.”
They made their way to the changing rooms. There was a small crowd inside, and they had to wait for a stall to open up. Rini had just emerged from one, and Emeral offered it to Kimberly, but Kimberly said she wanted to chat with a friend from Mr. Wiggin's class first.
Taking the stall, Emeral started to change. The air was uncomfortably chilly, and she shivered as she toweled the rest of herself off. She bundled up her swimwear in the towel, and pulled her bundle of clothes to the center of her duffel-bag. She rifled through them for her underwear.
She didn't find it there.
Rummaging more around the bag, she still did not feel them. She gritted her teeth, but squatted down to look, trying to keep her rump above the skirt of the stall. She moved things around—not that there were many things in her bag. Just her sun-screen, swimwear, towel, change of clothes, a brush, loose hair-ties, and a pill-bottle with Q-Tips in it.
Her hand slowly retreated with worry.
A creeping sense of dread and violation pricked at her neck. She had bundled her underwear with her clothes when she took them off, and now they weren't here.
She pulled out her shirt, and unfurled it, dangling it. Nothing in there. She did the same with her shorts, making sure they didn't get tangled up in the legs. Even on a hunch, she checked the side-pocket, her fingers crinkling an old Peanut M&Ms wrapper.
There was a knock at her stall door.
”Y—Yeah?” She asked.
”Is that still you, Emmy?” Kimberly asked.
”Uh-huh,” the tigress replied.
”Just checkin'. I wanna nab it when you're done,” she said.
”Yeah, sure,” the tigress looked back at her clothes, and bit her lip. Worms started to wriggle in her stomach as she felt dreadful. She was even starting to believe she had imagined them in the first place, wondering if she had actually forgotten to pack them and if she would find them on her bed back at home.
Then, as she slowly came to terms with having to go commando, a thought reluctantly crossed her mind.
Panda had been in the girls' bathroom.
She shook her head, and started putting on her clothes. That didn't make sense at all. Panda wouldn't do anything like that, for one. He also didn't spend that much time putting his trunks back on. The part of her that was thinking like Ket was just desperately trying to make dots so that things connected and made sense.
No, it didn't, she concluded. What did make sense is that another girl probably forgot her underwear, and stole hers. The worst part was, she couldn't go around asking people, “hey, did you take my undies?” Not only would that be horribly weird, she'd basically be letting everyone know she wasn't wearing any.
To say wearing the shorts alone was uncomfortable was an understatement. She flushed the toilet, just to pretend like she had taken so long for a reason other than having a small panic about lack of undergarment, and opened the door.
Kimberly wasn't around; she must have taken another stall.
The tigress felt the denim of her shorts rub against spots that they usually didn't. They felt like they were loose and would fall off at any moment, and she felt like people just knew. The worst part was, this was how it was going to be until she got home.
She wasn't going to tell Ket. She was too embarrassed, almost ashamed. It made her angry. As she tried to keep nonchalant despite the draft and the irritation from the seams, she decided that it wasn't even that a girl stole hers because she forgot her own.
Instead, she sort of decided that it was Rini, punishing her for not revealing that Ket was her boyfriend. It was all she had, and she needed something to distract her from feeling so awkward—and blaming the rat felt justified.
As the stragglers emerged from the changing rooms and they started to gather to head back to campus, Emeral decided to watch Ritzer, to keep an eye on him and make sure he didn't try to do something funny—she didn't want him anywhere near her under these circumstances.
But, the discomfort distracted her while she was watching him, and so he spotted her looking. When she realized, she wrinkled her nose.
His expression relaxed, in an odd kind of way.
She looked to the side, pretending something caught her attention, but in her periphery, she saw his head nod. Looking back, he gave her a smile and wink.
The worms squirmed in her tummy.