The day Billy Hamilton drowned at the New Highland Public Swimming Pool, it was hot. It had been hot for weeks, even for West Texas in June. The weather was a tick on a tired dog, heavy and bloated. Afternoon tornadoes square-danced across the dusty horizon like fierce lovers; thunderstorms crackled in at sunset and setup to stay the night. By morning, the storms were long gone, leaving a few downed power lines and wind-shorn trees, but never a drop of rain. It was hot.

That’s why Billy was at the pool. Of course—every kid in New Highland was there that day, except for the losers like Keith Mackenbrook, sentenced to summer school for failing math and art. Who flunks art class? Or Scooter Jones and the rest of the football jocks—busy tackling colorful burlap dummies, and running sweaty laps round the dirt patch the town called an athletic field.

I’d been pissy all morning. Moody and distracted. Maybe it was the weather—it was barely eleven o’clock and already the concrete deck around the pool was hot enough to burn your feet, sandals or no. Or maybe it was Kari Larson in her pink two-piece, with her long legs and perfect Cover Girl smile—Kari and that slutty Marla Koepnick, who’d been banging Scooter and most of the Varsity team since homecoming. Whatever the reason, I never saw Billy go under.

I knew the kid couldn’t swim. “Stay in the shallow end,” I’d yelled earlier from across the pool, pointing my finger so he knew I was talking to him. I should have climbed down off my lifeguard chair, walked over there and screamed into his face that he was going to be dead as his Uncle Frank if he didn’t stop screwing around. But the pool deck was hot and I didn’t want to go down there, not with Marla and Kari watching me, laughing at the zinc oxide I wore on my nose because I burned so easily, or my pathetically flat chest, or any of a hundred different things.  

Why didn’t the little idiot just listen to me? No matter how much I yelled at him, he kept inching his way towards the deep end, gripping the tiles that ran around the pool’s edge, the robin’s egg-blue contrasting starkly against his freckled little boy’s hands, his scrawny arms pulling his sunburned body one tile at a time closer to where I sat.

But the kid wouldn’t listen, or maybe he didn’t hear. Maybe there was water in his ears, or the noise of all the other kids yelling and playing had made him deaf as well as dumb. But then why was he looking up at me the whole time he did it, as if he was daring me to come down from the lifeguard chair and kick his scrawny little ass?

 It was my first year as a lifeguard. Coach Monson had warned me once already about getting distracted, that I needed to watch the water—especially the bottom—all the time. As it turned out, he was right. When I heard Marla and Kari talking shit about me, I finally did go down there, hot pool deck and all.

Never mind that the fat kid from down the street had just cannonballed off the high dive, or that the Martin twins were fighting again. I got down from my lifeguard chair and walked over to ask Marla what was so damned funny, and how did she like screwing Scooter in the back of his Dad’s minivan, and that’s when I heard the screaming, and the splash of Coach Monson hitting the water.


I married right out of high school. Keith Mackenbrook, he of the summer school losers. My husband never did pass Algebra I, and quit school in 11th grade to work in his Dad’s garage. So I became Mrs. Mary Mackenbrook, and thought on my wedding night how good it would be to stop being Mary Hamilton, Billy Hamilton’s big sister.

Maybe I could stop being the girl who let her kid brother drown, or the woman who would never watch young Billy grow up: to fall in love and have children, get a beer gut and turn gray and grow old as I’ve grown old. Billy and I would never have to talk about which of our parents to side with during the divorce—discuss the funeral arrangements for Mom after the accident, or argue about whose turn it was to have Christmas each year.

No, I don’t have to worry about any of these things, and when I think of Billy now, all I have to think about is how quiet the swimming pool was that day, as I watched Coach Monson do CPR, listened to the sirens wailing in the distance, and watched as Billy’s lips turned blue.  

Kip Hanson lives in sunny Phoenix, where he chronicles the life of an exiled Nordic Warrior King at His stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Every Day Fiction, Full of Crow, A Twist of Noir, and a few other places. He also makes a few bucks on the side, cobbling together boring articles for technical magazines (but don’t tell the IRS). He writes to keep the flying monkeys away.

As is true of most of my stories, Billy Hamilton contains a kernel of truth—a glimpse into one of those moments which change the course of one's life, in ways that nobody can ever know or understand. I was Billy Hamilton; it was indeed hot that day in Texas, and the pool noisy and crowded, but my luck was better than Billy’s—my big sister never was cursed with a lifetime of remorse over my death (nor was she the lifeguard). If anything, the remorse is mine: I wish I knew the name of the teenaged girl who dragged me up from the bottom that day, and breathed life back into my little boy’s lungs. I’d like to thank her.




Copyright 2009