Moment of Truth - Kasie West


I moved my arms in a windmill as I stared out over the pool in front of me. The water had calmed from the last race and the still night made it look like glass. I couldn’t wait to break through its surface. I rotated my head side to side to the beat of the music blasting through my headphones. My music was loud but I sensed a hush come over the watching crowd. That wasn’t normal. I brought my brows together, determined not to think about it. I needed to stay in the zone. No distractions.

The shrill sound of microphone feedback cut through my music. I tugged out a single earbud and looked up. The first thing I saw was my dad. He sat in the middle of the bleachers with a goofy grin on his face. He waved. Mom was next to him, typing something into her phone.

The feedback sounded again and then someone cleared their throat into the microphone. The noise wasn’t coming from the booth, where the announcer was looking around, just as confused as the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice said. “May I present Heath Hall.”

“What the—?” I mumbled. “No.”

A low buzz of chatter rippled through the audience.

“The guy from the movies?” someone behind me asked. “Is he here?”

I knew the real Heath Hall wasn’t here. Well, obviously. Heath Hall was a spy hero character played by the actor Grant James. But the person about to appear was neither the character nor the actor. The person about to appear was some attention-seeker who I’d successfully ignored until this point.

The coaches and officials moved around the pool, searching for the interruption. That’s when a guy in a Speedo and rash guard emerged from the locker room across the way, hands in the air. He was wearing a Heath Hall mask. Not one of those cheap, plastic, fake-looking masks but a high-quality, very realistic version of Heath Hall encased his head. The same exact mask I’d seen in online pictures classmates had posted over the years of him causing public disturbances. If I were closer I would’ve seen the electronic eyepiece and scar running along his right cheek that some mask maker had painted on so we wouldn’t mistake this mask for another one of Grant James’s characters.

The impersonator let out a guttural yell and charged straight for the pool. My mouth dropped open. The coaches rounded the pool but weren’t fast enough to catch him before he jumped in feetfirst. The voice over the rogue microphone said, “Go, go, go!”

The crowd soon joined in as fake Heath Hall swam the length of the pool and crawled out right next to my starting block, mask still concealing his entire head. He gave me a thumbs-up, water flicking off his hand and onto my arm, then took off at full speed toward the open gate. I wiped off my arm and watched the coaches attempt to catch him. He was too fast. A few moments later they walked back, defeated.

“Okay,” the real announcer said. “That was interesting. Are we ready for an actual race? One hundred free, take your places.”

What? No. My chest tightened in a panic. My goggles were still pushed up onto my forehead, very much not in place. The other racers were heading toward the starting blocks. I swallowed my protests about needing more time, realizing none of the officials seemed to care, then quickly tugged out my other earbud, dropped it on top of my parka at my feet, and pulled down my goggles, pressing them into place.

Less than thirty seconds later I dived into the pool. I was glad this was my last heat of the night; my body was tense. The lines on the bottom of the pool were there just like they always were, but as I fell into my rhythm, the image of the guy wearing a Heath Hall mask seemed to take over my vision.

Stop, I told my brain.

My shoulders burned and my eyes stung with the pain. I winced and pushed through, forcing my arms to make the rotation even though they tried to tell me as loud as possible that they didn’t want to. I touched the wall and then flip-kicked off it. Just one more length of the pool. The adrenaline masked some of the pain. I stretched out and with one final kick, touched the wall.

My eyes went straight to the results board. I was three seconds slower than my normal time, putting me in fourth