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It Was My Fault – Contest Entry

By @AlongTheWriteLines

It Was My Fault

“Lynn,” my mother called, “Watch Toby in the pool while I’m gone.”

“‘Kay, Mom,” I shouted back, busy texting Adair from the poolside chair. Lately I had been honing the skill of texting popular girls and receiving actual responses.

But I didn’t watch Toby in the pool.

“Lynnie,” Toby squealed, accompanied by the sound of splashing water, “Watch this new trick Ronan showed me at his swim party!”

“Sure, Tater Tot,” I replied slowly, using the affectionate nickname I bestowed upon him as a chubby, rather potato-shaped baby. I carefully strung together a few choice words with a corresponding emoji and reread the text, scrutinizing.

But I didn’t watch Toby in the pool.

And when performing his new trick, something went wrong, I was too late.

I change for bed on the first night of summer vacation, inspecting the potato-shaped tattoo that lies between my shoulder blades in the mirror. Save for perhaps less surrounding pink skin, it looks exactly how it did about a week ago, when I happily accompanied Adair and a few others in her clique to the tattoo parlor. As a newly minted eighteen-year-old, she could do whatever she wanted. I couldn’t. It was a spur of the moment decision, urged on by my friends and my own stupid, rebellious inner demon. It was a spur of the moment decision I can’t take back. I figure I’ll keep it hidden until I turn eighteen and go off to college. Then when I come home, Mom and Dad will hopefully come to the conclusion I visited a tattoo parlor sometime when I was gone.

At least, that’s what the plan is.

Am I a weirdo for permanently inking myself with a potato, of all things? Maybe. But while the other girls in my class have boyfriends, the true love of my life are potatoes. They have so many different forms, all delicious beyond compare. But for the past few days, potatoes have disappeared when I approached. I thought I was going mad until my mom asked where all the potatoes in the house vanished to.

I had the expressions of my teacher and classmates to verify that I wasn’t hallucinating when homework I handed in was covered in crayon doodles. Thank God my teacher didn’t question my mischievous-younger-brother excuse. But she did warn me not to let it happen again, and the next day the situation repeated itself.

I lie down, pull the covers over my head, and close my eyes.

“Lynn-ie.”

My eyes fly open but I don’t move. I really am hallucinating now. Is it PTSD? I’ve finally lost it; will I have to go to therapy?

“Lynnie.” More urgent. Hesitantly I reach up and finger my ear canals. No earbuds. Of course, it wouldn’t be possible for there to be earbuds, but I could have sworn that wasn’t spoken out loud. It’s in my head.

It’s in my head.

It’s all in my head.

“Lynnie, it’s me.”

It takes a few seconds before I’m aware I’m screaming, trying to drown out the insanity worming its way inside my brain. This is a dream. This isn’t real.

I stop, heartbeat racing in my temples, and listen. A few moments later I hear, “Lynnie, pwease,” and it’s him, I know it’s him, but it can’t be him…

“Toby,” I breathe. “Tater Tot,” and I don’t even know why I’m saying his name because this is a dream, this has to be. Ghosts aren’t real. Spirits aren’t real. I’m imagining this, and even though my voice is but a whisper to me, any second now my mom will come softly into my room, and tell me I’m having a nightmare and yelling in my sleep…

“Lynnie, it’s me,” comes Toby’s voice again. “I’m gonna have to leave soon. But you gotta listen. I’ve gotta go to heaven. That’s what they’re saying. But I can’t go. I’m not gonna go the other way, but…” his voice trembles. “I’m in the middle. I’m stuck – stuck to your potato drawing.”

I had been right, then, that his soul or spirit or something is tied to my tattoo. I shiver under the thick blanket, goosebumps popping up everywhere.

“You gotta do somefing, Lynnie,” Toby pleads, and I can feel my heart melt.

“What can I do?” I whisper.

There’s a pause.

“They’re saying you gotta save someone from the pool,” he answers hesitantly, “In my place.”

Tears spring to my eyes at the words, but before I can process his meaning, he says, “Bye,” in a small voice.

“Toby? Toby!” I cry, my voice rising uncontrollably, and when there’s no response I close my eyes again and dissolve into tears which seem to rack my whole body and empty my insides.

My parents are surprised when the next day, I announce my intention to sign up for a lifeguarding course. And I’m surprised by how much I enjoy the training. The weeks pass by quickly. I miss potatoes, but I don’t hear another word from Toby. I’m starting to think I dreamt the whole ordeal when one day, I spot him.

Among a group of rowdy kids in the pool, there’s a stout, curly-headed little boy who could have been Toby’s lookalike. Everything seems to slow down. Before my eyes the boys take turns daring each other to perform various tricks in the pool. The boy who looks like Toby pulls himself out of the pool, bounces over to the deep end, and executes a complicated flip into its waters.

The group of boys are laughing. Toby – no, this little boy who reminds me of Toby – is flailing around, and the group doesn’t notice among their chatter, or they think their friend is pulling a prank, or…

The curls disappear.

I leap into the pool.

The boy’s breaths begin again audibly, chest rising and falling with the last of the water spouting from his mouth.

And so subtly that I don’t feel it, I just know it’s happening, Toby’s spirit departs.

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