Only twenty yards in, and already fatigue burned like hellfire through every muscle in Rob’s body.
The water was colder than he thought it would be, yet also too warm somehow. He was sweating right there in the ocean. Exhausted.
He was going to fail.
Might even drown.
Maybe it was for the best.
Maybe the wave that had plucked Margaret from the the shallows three years before would snatch Rob, too, and carry him back to his true love.
The ocean had tried to claim him that August evening, too, after all, and would have were it not for that lifeguard. Paul.
Rob had cursed the young man for not saving Margaret, and for bringing Rob back without her. But then Paul visited him in the hospital, and they became friends.
By the time Rob came home, alone, he had a new mission — become a lifeguard and save at least one other spouse from the pain he lived everyday.
But all of his training had not prepared him for the pain of this final swim. Maybe all his critics were right — maybe he really was too old.
Up ahead, he could just make out the younger lifeguards moored in their blow-up boat to the buoy that marked the halfway point. They were checking in on the rest of the class as they passed, the hotshots who Rob could never keep up with.
“The only race is against yourself and against time,” Deb had told them before they jumped in. She was sweet and understanding.
“And each other!” Tyler had interjected. “Only one of you will finish first. The rest are losers.”
The kid had always been a jerk, but he was a strong lifeguard and a capable trainer.
“Let me help you out,” Tyler’s voice echoed across the water now, not far away.
Rob looked up to see Tyler lending a hand to another swimmer, a teen who was splashing sporadically and gasping for air. Pete Rogers, one of the cocky young guns in the class.
Rob dropped his face back into the water.
The fire was almost unbearable. He thought he might seize up, sink to the ocean floor as he rounded the buoy. This was the time to quit. It was the safe thing to do. He could just reach his hand up to Tyler, and the pain would stop.
It would be over.
Rob turned his head to breathe, and he caught Tyler speaking again.
“He’s looking strong,” the young man said, disbelief tinging his voice. “He’s going to make it.”
“I told you he would.” That was Deb’s voice.
Rob looked up, caught her eyes. She smiled and nodded.
They were talking about him.
He wheeled around the buoy and could see the first of the finishers just climbing to shore. A hundred and fifty yards didn’t look so far when you were going strong.
When you were going to make it.
And, really, sixty wasn’t all that old.