Chuck Wendig: The History of Courage

This week’s Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge is Choose a Title and Go. Chuck gave us ten titles to choose from and 1,000 words to play with. I messed around with several of them before coming up with this (I hope) sweet little coming-of-age story. It’s exactly 1,000 words long. I hope you like it and will comment to let me know what you think Please to enjoy “The History of Courage”.

THE HISTORY OF COURAGE

I got my first look at true courage when I was fifteen years old. I’m sure I had witnessed it before that but I would have been too young to fully appreciate what it signified.

The summer before I started high school was when I began to come into my own. I was going to be a freshman. I was mature. I was sophisticated. I was a man.

My friends and I went to the swimming pool every day. We had been going there for years. We did what we had always done: we horsed around on the deck, threw Nerf balls at the little kids in the shallow end, and generally made a nuisance of ourselves. All that ended, though, one day when Alan Stewart realized something. “Dudes,” he said, “we’re going to high school this year. We can’t be wasting our time throwing Nerf balls at the littles. That’s middle school stuff.”

The rest of us looked at each other. “He’s right,” said Dean Holman. “We have to act like high schoolers now.”

That afternoon we changed our ways for good. We stopped running around screaming and yelling. We stopped doing cannonballs on top of our little brothers and sisters. Instead, we claimed four of the chaise lounges on the far side of the pool by the fence. We wore baseball caps and sunglasses and laid back to get tanned. I look back on it now and realize how silly we must have looked. Skinny little freshmen-to-be trying to be suave and cool. And then…

And then, like true high school men, we started checking out the lifeguards.

The lifeguards. Oh my God. There were three of them on duty at all times. They were junior and senior girls wearing long hair pulled into ponytails under visors and red one-piece swimsuits. They had whistles around their necks and they sat in tall chairs beside each of the ladders in the pool. They were the most beautiful humans we had ever seen.

We sat there stealing glances at them, entranced by the way the muscles in their legs flexed and relaxed as they climbed up into their chairs. We marveled at the way their lips wrapped around their whistles when they blew into them. We nearly passed out when they reached up to pull their hair back. The way their bodies moved under those red suits!

It was all we could do not to stare openly at them. But that would be ogling. That would be immature. That’s what little boys did. We watched the way the older high school guys did it. The sly side-eyed looks, the nudges and winks among themselves, and we tried to copy their attitudes and actions. We wanted to look like we fit into that world.

Then came the day that Nathaniel Barksdale showed us what courage was. You may think that he got up and walked over and talked to one of the lifeguards. You would be wrong. It was much more than that.

Nate felt a particular attraction to Sandra Keane, the willowy redhead who sat on the chair by the ladder in the deep end. We were sure that one day he would speak to her. Maybe he would even meet her eyes. On this day, though, he went further than any of us had ever dreamed was possible.

We could watch her fairly openly from where we sat. Her chair was to our left and she faced away from us. Nate would look at her for seven to ten seconds at a time without having to look away, afraid that someone was noticing. On this particular day in late July Nate was looking at her. He looked at her again and again and finally set his mouth in a determined line. Abruptly he stood up. “I’m going off the high dive,” he said.

We stared at him in amazement. None of us had ever been off the high dive. It was for the older kids. We had confined ourselves to the shorter board, which the high school guys always called “the baby board”. “If I’m going to high school,” said Nate, “it’s time to go up top. Who’s with me?”

None of us moved. We hadn’t even thought about it before. We had just assumed we wouldn’t be going off the high dive until next year. Nate was jumping the gun. “Are you serious?” I asked him.

He nodded. “I want to.” He tipped his head towards Sandra. “She’s sitting right there. She’ll see me. It’s time to go up.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Alan. “Jackknife? Cannonball?”

“Just do a spike, dude,” said Dean, referring to our term for entering the water straight up and down, arms flat by our sides. “It’s your first time. Don’t push it.”

“I’m going to do a flip,” Nate said. “I do them all the time on the baby board. It’s easy. Once around then a spike.”

“Don’t over-rotate,” I warned him. “You might go too far forward and belly flop.” It was the deepest humiliation a guy could suffer at the pool. A senior had belly flopped off the high dive the week before. His front had been redder than his face when he staggered out of the pool and he hadn’t been seen poolside since.

“Don’t worry,” said Nate. “I’ve got this.” He headed for the diving boards. He started climbing the ladder to the six-meter-high platform. When he reached the top he strode out on the board. He stood, balanced, on the edge of maturity. Middle school was behind him at the bottom of the ladder, waiting for him to chicken out and come back down.

We looked at him, then I glanced at Sandra. She was looking up at him, watching to see how he would do. I grinned and gave him a thumbs-up. He nodded, bent his knees, extended his arms, and showed us what true courage looked like as he left his childhood behind.

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