Layla’s room was what every little girl wanted, filled with stuffed animals and soft blankets. But there weren’t any pink walls. All the walls were sky blue. One even had an underwater castle with fish swimming around it. Layla perked up in bed while she waited for her parents to come to tuck her in. The nightly routine was never broken, ever.
“What book do you want tonight?” her mother's sweet but toned down, southern accent asked before ever stepping foot in the door.
“The fishie book!” she called back.
Her parents came through the door. First, her mother was already in her comfy clothes, as she called them, followed by her father. A few of Layla’s friends told her that they were afraid of her dad. But she couldn’t understand why, because to her, he was the funny man who made voices while her mom read stories, making them last longer than they should. One friend told her that her daddy had a deep scary voice that was as loud as thunder.
“Little one, you have a hundred books on fishies. You have to pick one.” Her father fixed his glasses on his face.
“Oh, Charles, you know which one she is talking about.” Mother plucked a book with duct tape holding the spine together from the shelf above the bed.
“Right.” He settled in next to Layla. “The fishie book.”
It didn’t matter that, as her parents read, Layla would read right along with them. The book’s pages were yellowed from age. It was her mother’s book from when she was Layla’s age. The artwork didn’t look like Layla’s Disney books. They were different. She asked her mother if they were painted, but there was no way to really know. With the last page coming up, Layla fought back her yawns. She was a big girl now. Six years old. She could stay up through the fishie book.
Her father tucked her in with the last word of the story. He didn’t need to see the text any more than she did. With a kiss from both parents placed on her forehead, she was almost in dreamland. Her mother gives her the final bit of the recipe, the click of her otter night-light. Knowing that the glow from the silly little otter helped keep the monsters away, Layla knew it was okay to let her heavy lids finally come down.
Sometime during the night, a storm must have come through because that could be the only reason why her otter would be off. Layla listened to be sure no monster was in the room. As she listened, her eyes adjusted. Even though she hadn’t heard any monster, she was so scared to get out of bed. Taking a big breath, she placed one foot on the rug. Nothing happened. Good, now it was time for the other. Layla made her way by moonlight across the room. When she clicked the switch on the lamp just liked her mom did, nothing happened. Layla found where the plug was, and it was plugged in. At this point, she didn’t know what to do, but she wasn’t going to be able to sleep in the dark.
Layla didn’t want her parents to think she was still a baby. Mommy just started letting her watch scary movies with daddy, and she said if she started having nightmares, there would be no more scary movies. After a moment, Layla knew she had to wake her mom. Tiptoeing down the hall, Layla made her way to her parents’ door. At first, she knocked with just the nail of her finger. Her mother was always a light sleeper and usually woke when Layla opened her door, but this time, nothing.
“Mommy?” Layla whispered.
When she went to turn the knob, she found that it was open, so she gave it a gentle push. The bathroom light to the left of the bed was on and gave off enough light to see her parents both in bed. Just as she was about to wiggle her way through the door, she stopped. There was someone else in the room.
“Don’t see me, don’t see me, don’t see me.” Layla couldn’t stop the pleas from escaping her.
Layla quickly ran back down the hall to her room. She shut the door and locked it. Her mom said if a monster was ever in the house, she was to go into her closet and hide there. She did her best to do what her daddy had shown her and barely moved the stack of blankets out of the way to expose the little door. She slipped in and waited for morning.
When the birds started to chirp, Layla crept out from her hiding place. If the sun was up, it meant it was safe. The monster never came to her room last night. Maybe it was all made up in her head. She wasn’t going to tell her mom, but she was right. She wasn’t big enough for the scary movies. That had to be it. It was just a figment of her imagination. Layla wasn’t sure what that meant, but she heard her father say it a few times.
When her tummy started to rumble, Layla couldn’t believe her mom hadn’t come to get her yet. It’s not like she needed to be told to get up, but her mom still did it every morning by tickling her till she thought she would pee. The hall was a lot less scary with the bright sun pouring in through the windows.
Her parents’ door was wide open. That made Layla smile and skip all the way into the room. She saw her mommy sleeping in bed, but her dad was nowhere to be seen. But it didn’t matter anyway since Daddy wasn’t very good at making Mickey Mouse pancakes.
“Mommy, I’m hungry.” Layla didn’t need to whisper anymore. There was no monster, and it was way past the time for Mommy to be up.
But nothing came from her. When Layla wiggled her arm like a jelly worm, and still her mother did not stir, Layla climbed into bed and looked at her mom. She was so pretty. Even when she slept, she was pretty. Layla got real close and opened one of her mother’s eyes. It was a lot harder than it usually was.
“Mommy, you’re sleeping too much.” There was still no answer. “Fine! I’m going to ask daddy to make me pancakes.”
Layla stormed out of the bedroom and into the kitchen. But her father wasn’t there. She saw his keys and wallet in their basket, so he had to be here somewhere. After looking basically everywhere, she plopped down on the couch and started to watch cartoons. Before a whole show was over, her tummy rumbled again.
Layla went out front to see if she missed her dad. Sometimes he worked on his car and would hide under it. He said it was his secret place from Mommy. And she didn’t check there last time, so that had to be it. After looking under the car and not finding him anywhere, Layla sat at the end of the driveway. Maybe he went with a friend somewhere.
“Layla?” A woman’s voice called from across the street.
“Hi, Miss Rachel!” Layla sprung to her feet and dashed to her neighbor's yard.
“What are you doing outside?” Rachel was young and looked different from mommy. She had long brown hair that looked like it was painted like a tiger with red stripes.
“I was looking for my daddy, but I can’t find him. Could you make me pancakes?” The little girl squinted from the sun as she looked up.
“Layla, where are your parents?” Rachel wasn’t sure if it was the sound coming from Layla’s stomach or the fact that it was Tuesday and she wasn’t in school, but something wasn’t right.
“My mom is sleeping, and I don’t know where dad is. But I’m starving. Do you have any cookies?” Layla put her hand on her stomach. It was starting to hurt.
“Let me go grab my phone, and we’ll see about waking up your mom.” Rachel grabbed her phone and her pepper spray. She didn’t know what to expect, but that was about the only thing she had to defend herself if anything went down.
Layla led the way in the house. Rachel knew it well. She had been babysitting for Layla since she was born. Everywhere she looked, everything seemed to be in place. As they went down the hall, Rachel noticed the office door was open, and it’s never open. The office always stayed locked.
“And then I saw a monster in mommy’s room last night, so I hid in my little room.” Layla broke Rachel’s investigator mood.
She stopped dead in her tracks. “Layla, what did the monster look like?”
“Like a man, but he was all black. It’s okay, I’ve seen them in movies, and they can’t be outside when the sun is up.” The little girl made her way into her mom’s room. “Moooooom, you have to get up. I see your eye is open.”
Rachel was shaking. There was a pool of blood on the floor below the dangling arm. And Layla was right. Her eye was open. Rachel didn’t need to look anymore. The woman was dead, and this little girl had spent the day with a dead body and didn’t know it. She didn’t want to alarm her, so Rachel made sure to do it in another room when she called the police.
The doorbell rang, and Layla beat Rachel to the door. “Hi! Are you friends with my dad?”
The police officer smiled down at her. But when he looked up at Rachel, he knew it was about to be a long night. “No, I’m here to see your mommy."
“Well, good luck. She’s been sleeping all day.” Layla didn’t care anymore about the new person, her cartoon was on, and there was no way she was going to miss it.
15 years later
Layla, you've got me on my knees.
Layla, I'm begging, darling please.
Layla, darling won't you ease my worried mind.
My namesake's song rang out from my cellphone. It had been my alarm since Rachel gave me my first cell phone. If I wasn’t woken up by it, my day was most definitely shitty.
“Good, you’re up.” Rachel peeked her head in the room.
“Mooooooom, of course, I’m up. I have a meet, don’t I?” I rolled back over and faced the wall. God did my head pound.
“How was I supposed to know. You were out until three. Is five hours of sleep really a good idea after a night of drinking for your first swim meet?” She chastised me, but it was clearly playful. “You know most swimmers don’t come out of retirement by showing up hungover and kicking everyone’s butt.”
“Michael Phelps got high and did one even better.” I loved reminding her. “He’s the most decorated Olympian ever.”
“So are you telling me you’re smoking pot now too?” Her eyebrow went up. “Yeah, that’s what I thought, now get your suit on. Or at least your warm-ups you don’t want to be late.”
“Come on. I’m twenty-one. Should I really have my mom drive me to qualifications?” I dragged my sorry butt from bed and looked in the mirror—Jesus, what did I do last night. My hair, which I flat ironed, was back to its natural curl state. The blonde highlights had faded out months ago, and I was left with my mousey brown hair.
“Shower before you get in my new car.” Mom sniffed my head. “Vomit doesn’t come out real easy.”
Every ounce of me wanted to fall back asleep once I got into my mom’s SUV. But she made certain that wouldn't happen with the contestants' question about my night out. Unlike most of my friends, I didn't tune her out. I couldn't. Apart of me felt guilty that I'd taken her twenties away from Rachel. She became my mom the moment she saw my mother lying cold on her bed. Every now and I would say a little prayer thanking God for Rachel because who knows how I would have turned out without her.
The chlorine tickled my nose as I stepped on the pool deck of the Ft Lauderdale swimming hall of fame. I received death stares walking by my old teammates since I spent most of college avoiding any pool deck. I wasn’t here to give the school another record-breaking time. I was here for qualifying. I looked over to my right and saw a few of the guys I went out with last night. They looked like they were having a rough time.
Hey Greg!” My voice carried over the stretching swimmers.
“Ay, Layla.” He cringed. “A bit loud, don’t you think?”
“Sorry,” I moved closer to him. “What did we do last night? I don’t remember”
“You thought it was a great idea to swim out to the buoy. I don’t know how you did it with how much rum you drank.” Greg pushed his sunglasses closer to his eyes even though they were already pressed as close as possible.
“Nooo, I didn’t.” But from the look that Greg gave me, I did. “Who else swam out with me.”
“I did, so did Jess and Brad.” Greg pulled his arms back, waiting for me to stretch them as far as they could go. “Brad couldn’t even beat you this time. Is rum your super drink?”
I heard my heat being called on the loudspeakers. I turned and walked to the blocks and winked at him. “I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”
I looked out and saw my mom on the other side of the pool. She waved and pointed to my left. I didn't want to look, but I knew who I was sharing the center lanes with. Jenna, the evil spawn of satan, a Barbie doll who made racing growing up a living hell.
"Oh, I thought you would chicken out like last time," Jenna said, stuffing her overly bleached blonde hair into her swim cap.
I gave her a nod, but there was so way that she would psych me out this time. The announcers called for swimmers on the blocks. It was the 100 fly. I'm not sure west possessed me to sign up for a sprint first thing, but it felt right.
"Take your mark." The voice rang out over the loudspeaker.
Right as the beep went off, I made sure Jenna heard me. "Eat my bubbles bitch."
The water rushed over my body. I kicked stronger than any of the girls in the surrounded five lanes. I looked over to my right, and I saw Jenna. She had already broken the surface. I knew I had to break soon before anyone noticed. It wasn’t unheard of for twenty-five meters to be swam fully underwater, but not at the speeds I was about to hit.
“Sorry, Mom,” I whispered to myself. But I wasn’t going to let anyone underestimate me. I was about to break not only the female world record but also the men's record. I had to be sure that I didn’t push too hard. I felt the skin grow between my fingers. I couldn’t help but smile. I kicked ack knew that Jenna was getting water in her mouth from my kickback as my toes webbed and my feet became little fins.
“Layla!” Rachel’s voice rang out clear as my head broke the surface.
The discussion we were going to have on the ride home was totally going to be worth it. What did she think would happen when she signed me up for swim lessons all those years ago?
Only a half a length left. I had to focus on making sure my skin was normal before I hit the wall without losing my momentum. Underwater, my hands slammed into the center of the black cross. I wanted to be sure that the display clock got my time in a split second. I kicked back. Before my head broke the surface, I could hear Greg and my mom screaming.
I knew I broke the record when everyone else started to get just as excited. Pulling the goggles from my head, I could already read the red numbers, 46.23, two seconds faster than the men’s world record for the 100 fly short course.
Waiting behind mom and Greg were two grumpy men in suits. I’m not sure what they wanted with me this time, but they weren’t going to take this title away from me this time.