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Who needs an alarm clock when you have a dog who likes to yank off your covers as soon as the sun rises? Not me. Tugger, my adorable two-year-old Sheltie mix, loves to wake me up early. If yanking my blanket doesn’t do the trick, she’ll grab my pillow by one corner and pull it out from under my head. If that doesn’t work, she’ll bark. But it usually works.
That’s fine. I had a swim meet that morning.
“Wish I could take you to the meet,” I said to Tugger as I was finishing my breakfast.
“Yeah, ’cause the dog paddle is a super-fast stroke,” my older brother, Jordan, said. “And a wet dog smells so wonderful.”
He can be a total Weenie. And he’s the last person who should talk about how things smell. When he comes home after basketball practice, I have to open all the windows in the house. But I didn’t feel like trading insults, so I ignored him and scratched Tugger on her back. If I didn’t do that, she’d yank at the tablecloth for my attention.
After breakfast, I grabbed my gym bag and headed for the school. It’s just three blocks from my house. Tugger followed me to the edge of the lawn, then she flopped down and put her head on her paws. That was as far as she felt like going. But after a yawn and a stretch, she let out a woof that I knew meant “Good luck.”
“Nervous?” my teammate Angela asked when I got to the locker room.
“Never,” I lied.
“We’ve got this one,” she said.
“For sure,” I said. I know it’s not good to boast or to get overconfident, but Angela and I were one half of a really strong relay team. We’d come close to beating the state record in the 4-by-100 freestyle. This was the last local meet. The winners would go to the regionals, and then to the state championship. It felt great to be part of a strong team.
“Who’s that?” I asked when we were getting ready to start the race. I nodded at the lane next to us, where four swimmers I didn’t recognize were lined up. They all had long towels wrapped around their waists, covering them all the way to their feet. When the first swimmer on that team hopped up onto the starting block, she didn’t let go of her towel.
“No idea,” Angela said. “Not that it matters.”
It turned out it mattered a lot.
Angela swam first. I was the anchor, going last. When the whistle blew and the swimmers dived into the water, the girl in the lane next to us finally dropped her towel as she leaped off the block.
That has to slow her down, I thought. Fractions of a second can make a difference. But even though she hit the water behind the others, she quickly made up the lost distance and then started to pull ahead.
“Go, Angela!” I screamed. She was holding on to second place, but was half a body length behind the lead. The next two swimmers on the towel team also shot through the water like fish fleeing a shark. The lead grew greater.
Now it was my turn. We were at least five yards behind when I dived into the pool. The swimmer next to me had already dived in, doing the same strange thing with her towel as her teammates. They all stayed wrapped up in their towels when they weren’t in the water.
I tried my best to catch up, but it was impossible. The anchor on the other team was even faster than the first three swimmers.
We were way behind the winners, but ahead of all the other teams in our heat. Our time would probably be good enough to get us into the finals, but if the team with the towels swam the same way again, our hopes for the regionals would be destroyed.
I looked over at them again. I noticed they kept their feet close together. And when one of them went to the locker room, she walked with an odd shuffle.
An idea hit me. It was so wild, I pushed it out of my mind right away. But it kept creeping back, like a dog sneaking back to the dinner table after being carried away. So I shared it with Angela.
“No way,” she said. “That’s totally ridiculous.”
“It makes sense,” I told her. “I can’t think of any other explanation.”
“Then keep thinking,” Angela said. “Because there has to be.”
There wasn’t. I got more and more sure my wild idea was the only possible explanation. We were swimming against mermaids. If that was the case, there was no way we could win.
No. There was one way. It was another wild idea, but it was all I could think to do. I borrowed a phone from a friend in the bleachers, and called my brother.
“I need a favor,” I told him.
He laughed and said, “No chance.”
But when I told him what I wanted, he decided it would be fun. The best way to get a Weenie to do something is to make him think it’s a prank.
I watched the clock. I hoped Jordan would get here in time. He wasn’t the fastest kid. He liked to slack off. I guess he’d decided to do just that, and let me down, because by the time the last race started he hadn’t shown up.
Once again, the other team pulled into the lead.
The lead widened with the second and third swimmers. It was hopeless. Even if I swam like a speedboat, I’d never catch up.
Right before the fourth leg, as the other swimmer prepared to drop her towel and dive in, I saw someone slip open the side door and peek inside.
It was Jordan. I hoped he wasn’t too late. He flashed me a smile, like we were sharing a joke, then put down Tugger. I guess he thought Tugger would run wild, bark at people, cause a commotion, and maybe dive into the pool. He had no idea what I expected to happen.
It didn’t matter, as long as it worked.
Tugger looked around, and then dashed toward me. I kept an eye on my teammate, so I wouldn’t miss my dive, but I glanced toward Tugger, too.
Don’t let me down, I thought.
And she didn’t. Just as I’d hoped, Tugger lived up to her name, and her habit. She ran up to the swimmer next to me, clamped down on the end of her towel, and gave a mighty tug.
As the towel pulled free, the swimmer stumbled back off the starting block. Tugger ran to the other side of the pool with the towel. The girl looked at the water and then toward the locker room, as if she had no idea whether to dive in or run away.
That gave me enough time to get a good look at her. It took me a moment to realize what I was seeing.
Her legs and feet were fake!
She was wearing something that slipped over her tail and ended with feet. Her legs and feet could pass for human at a quick glance, or when churning through the water. But right now, as she hopped, stumbled, and slid toward the locker room, I could see my wild idea was true.
She was some sort of mermaid. So were the other three. They all dashed away. I had a feeling we’d never see them again. At least, not at a swim meet.
That was fine with me.
I wanted to pet Tugger, who’d run back over to me to show off the towel, but I had to do my part in the race. I dived in, swam hard, and locked in a win for our team. We were going to the regionals!
Then, I got out, hugged my teammates, and petted my dog.
“You saved the day,” I said to Tugger.
My hand was wet. But she didn’t seem to mind at all. She wagged her tail. Then, she grabbed my towel and ran off back to Jordan, who was waiting for her by the door.
“We’re bringing her to the regionals, right?” Angela said. “Just in case.”
I smiled and nodded. “Good idea.” You never knew what you might run into at a swim meet.
Copyright © 2019 by David Lubar
Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Bill Mayer