FICTION

Boy Wonder

Somehow, Bill Myles had to convince two people he wasn't a quitter. One was himself... the other, Julie

Robert Thomas Allen February 15 1947
FICTION

Boy Wonder

Somehow, Bill Myles had to convince two people he wasn't a quitter. One was himself... the other, Julie

Robert Thomas Allen February 15 1947

Boy Wonder

Somehow, Bill Myles had to convince two people he wasn't a quitter. One was himself... the other, Julie

Robert Thomas Allen

BILL MYLES was tilting his coke to his lips when he saw Lucas and the girl. They were corning toward the stand, the wind off the bay plastering the girl’s striped skirt and flimsy blouse close to her young body.

She was about 19, Bill judged. A youngster. Yet not like the youngsters who kibitzed around The Bay. Even at that distance Bill sensed that something troubled her, something important. It showed in her eyes, in the sullen set of her mouth. He’d forgotten there were girls in the world who didn’t have life eating out of their hands as Barbara did. That was one thing the past few months of seeing Barbara had taught him when anything troubled her, she did something about it. If someone happened to stand in her way, she did something about that too.

Lucas bought drinks for himself and the girl. Although the day was not exceptionally hot, his face was flushed. He pushed back his Panama and dabbed under his fat chin with a snow-white handkerchief.

“How’s the training going, Myles?”

“All right.”

“Any plans about what you’re going to do with the five thousand?” Lucas laughed, an effortless, liquid chuckle t hat made his body jiggle gently; but his eyes, shrewdly unsmiling, studied Bill’s face.

Instead of replying, Bill sipped his drink. He’d kept clear of newspapermen during the two months he’d been training fhr the swim, and if he’d wanted to talk to any of them, he wouldn’t have chosen Lucas.

Lucas motioned to the girl with his handkerchief. “Friend of mine, .Julie Roydon. Gerrard Roydon’s niece.” He looked up at Bill as he dabbed his lobster-pink neck. “You know Gerrard Roydon, don’t you?”

Bill nodded. He looked into the girl’s eyes and grinned. He had heard Barbara speak of Roydon’s niece. He recalled now Barbara telling him that Roydon, still in his middle thirties, had been her guardian since she was a kid. .Julie gave him a quick smile, her teeth flashing white against biscuit-brown skin. Bill thought: You’ve really got

something there, Lucas. I hope she has brains enough to brush you off.

“Julie,” Lucas went on, “This is Bill Myles. The Bill Myles. He was the talk of the country when you were in pigtails, but he hasn’t been heard from much since then. Lots of kids your age wouldn’t know his name, I guess.”

¡Atok, I was only 19. I'm still only 26, Bill thought. Don't make me sound like, something from another era.

Lucas said, grinning at Bill: “You’re not. being much help. I have a column to get out. The swim’s only three days away. Let’s stop playing hard-toget, eh?”

Lucas drummed on the counter with fat, pink fingers. He wore a heavy gold ring. The man irritated Bill. He didn’t like his jolly-fat-man act or his grating, high-pitched voice.

“What do you want to know?”

“I want to know what you think your chances are.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Above Lucas’ fixed smile, his eyes were bright with annoyance. “That water’s going to be cold,” he said. “Think it will be better than your best the last time?”

Bill could feel his chest tighten. He managed to

keep his voice steady. “Why don’t you swim along with me and find out?”

“Tough, eh?” Lucas chuckled mechanically. “How about Schmidt? He looked pretty good at Lake Summers last month.”

“I told you, I’ll do my best.”

Lucas dropped all pretense of jollity. His tone became sharper, higher-pitched. “Listen, sonny. I was talking to greater swimmers than you before you were born. I helped make them. You clam up on me and it won’t do your press any good.”

Bill glanced quickly toward Julie. She looked frightened.

“What’s the matter?” Lucas kept on, his face flushed. “Afraid you’ll fold the first time someone passes you?”

Bill was sorry the moment afterward. He didn’t really hit the man. He just caught him under the jaw with the heel of his hand. But it was with an arm that had been plowing through water for two months now.

Lucas saved himself by catching hold of the counter. His hat fell to the ground. When he pulled himself up he was pale.

Bill slapped his bottle on the counter and started grimly along the beach. He heard Lucas call after him, “Don’t think you’ll get away with that, Myles.”

The worst part of it was he knew Lucas wasn’t bluffing. He was one of the top men in the sports business. He had plenty of connections. Bill cursed himself for losing his temper. It had piled more odds against him when he needed all the breaks.

There had been plenty of his friends who had thought him crazy when he had quit his job in the insurance office and come here for the swim. Barbara, for one. Riding the crest of her own skyrocket career, at 27 already personnel manager of an important industrial firm, she was one of the most incredulous.

“Bill, what is it?” she had asked. “What are you trying to prove to yourself?”

“It’s hard to explain,” he had told her.

“I don’t see what’s so hard about it. Athletes don’t stay champions forever. You won an important swim when you were at your best. You were young, you came from a poor family, and you had a grin, so the papers gave it a lot of publicity and you became a public hero. Nobody expects you to keep on being a world beater.”

It had been impossible to explain to her that it was something that concerned himself only, something that had happened to him when he was out there for his second big swim. An overwhelming fear of failure had obsessed him even before he had gone in at the gun—fear of the Boy Wonder folding up. When he had been passed, the fear had become something physical, as if the cold water had become a vice. His arms had become immovable. He had longed to go down and take a bellyful.

Public amazement had given place to criticism, criticism to ridicule. From a public wonder boy, he had become a public joke.

That had been seven years ago. But the feeling of defeat had stuck with him. The fear of failure had entered intô his work, his relations with other people, even his relations with Barbara. And he’d found Barbara a part of his life not easy to give up. He was not sure yet how much Barbara’s spending her summers at The Bay had to do with his entering

the marathon. Or how much it was a last attempt to salvage some of the confidence in himself.

HE WENT back to the cottage where he boarded.

He could hear Mrs. Stanley, his landlady, moving around in the kitchen. Her husband did not appear to be around. Bill lay down on his bed. When he awoke he put on his swim trunks and went down to the bay.

He did about three miles that afternoon. No use punishing himself with long distances now, three days before the swim. The water was bitter cold, something he hadn’t figured on in this small lake. He came out shivering. He saw the girl, Julie Roydon, sitting on a big rock, her knee in the cup of her hands, watching him. As he came up to her he decided that he had never seen such beautiful skin. Clean and flawless. Back in the city, he thought, when the tan’s gone, it will be like white satin. He thought of Lucas with an unexpected twinge of jealousy.

He called to her, “You’re smart. That’s where everyone should do their swimming today.”

“It .looks too cold for me.” She gave him a curious glance. “How do you learn to swim like that?”

Bill squeegeed the water from his legs. “You have a father who was a bargeman. You fall in a few times. You also get born very poor so you need money, the kind of money you win in swims.”

For a moment the sullenness that he had noticed that morning seemed to leave her. “I’ve been trying to improve my stroke for years. I still can’t breathe underwater—breathe in or out.”

Bill grinned. “Then you should go back to the side stroke. You’ll have more fun.” He picked up his towel. “I’m sorry about your friend this morning. I guess I just don’t like some reporters.” Julie shrugged. “It’s nothing to do with me. He’s a friend of my uncle’s, not mine.”

The troubled expression came back into her eyes. She looked down and traced a pattern in the rock with her finger. Bill sensed that she did not want to talk any more. He turned to go.

“Well, I’ll see you around.”

“Good luck in the swim.”

“Thanks.”

He found himself unable to get her out of his mind all the way back. He was still thinking of her

when he’d dried off and dressed and had started to walk out to the cottage on the Point where Barbara was staying.

She was mowing a lumpy patch of lawn when he saw her. She wore big leather gloves and a kerchief over her head, and looked out of place.

“Is that gardening act on the level, or are you just trying out that expensive-looking pair of slacks?”

She ldoked around quickly, then started toward him, a tall, dark, vital woman, who carried her shoulders arrogantly squared against the world. Only a year older than Bill, she still managed to make him feel awkwardly immature. She pulled off her gloves and regarded him from beneath lowered lids, her lips pursed as if she were about to

listen to the explanations of a small hoy.

“What’s this 1 hear about you being in a brawl this morning?” she asked.

Bill eyed her curiously. “How did you find out about it so soon? Don’t tell me it’s got around The Bay already?”

A slight frown appeared between her finely arched eyebrows. “Gerrard Roydon told me. He heard about it from his niece. But that’s not the point. You were in some sort of trouble.”

That is the point. Bat not the. point, you mean, Bill thought. It's still early afternoon, and you’ve already seen Roydon. Or have you two a direct telephone line nowf*

He said: “I pushed a guy named Lucas in the

face because he was Continued on page, 24

Boy Wonder

Continued from page 21

working up to toiling me I was yellow.” “You might have tried thinking your way out of the situation. It wasn’t very clever to solve it with your fists.” “I wasn’t trying to be clever. I’m not very good at it.”

“How childish!” She snapped open a gold cigarette case, took out a goldtipped cigarette with long, perfectly manicured fingers. “Bill, why don’t you give this thing up and go back to your job?”

“Maybe it’s because I don’t want to be an insurance salesman. I want to be a chemical engineer. For that I need money—the kind of money this swim will pay me if I win.”

“You know that isn’t the reason. You can make money in the insurance business. You’ve done splendidly, everything considered. You can’t expect to start right in where you left off when you went overseas.”

Bill could see her sitting behind her neat, polished desk marked “Personnel Manager.” It was the same tone she would use on some unreasonable $18a-week stenographer.

“Okay, so it isn’t the real reason. I want to win another swim. Maybe I just want to be a hero.” Hands crammed in his pockets, he eyed her aggressively. “Besides, I didn’t think it would make any difference to you whether I went in the swim or not. I thought you’d be too busy to notice.” A faint flush came to Barbara’s cheeks. “It makes just this much differ-

ence,” she flared. “If you don’t drop the whole crazy idea I’m going to marry Gerrard Roydon.”

“I thought that was the general idea anyway.”

He turned abruptly and started back along the road. He wished he hadn’t come now. It was always the same: a longing to see her, talk to her; then a quarrel, and self-criticism for not forgetting about her completely.

He was still tense from his outburst when he stopped at the store and bought a city paper. He turned to Lucas’ column. It was full of news about the swim, but there was no mention of himself or the incident of the morning. Lucas could have wired or phoned a story in plenty of time. It made him uneasy. Evidently riding him in the papers wasn’t the way Lucas had chosen to even up the score. He wondered what way he had chosen.

He found out the next day at lunch time. It came in the form of an announcement made at the table by Stanley, his landlord, who was going to row for him in the swim.

The old man, who had been silent through most of the meal, looked up suddenly and said, “I guess you’ll have to count me out for Saturday, Bill.” “What do you mean?”

Stanley looked sheepish. “I’m rowing for someone else.”

“You’re what!” Bill’s eyes studied the old man’s face.

“I’m rowing for another swimmer.” “But there’s not another boat to be had in the district. You know that. We’ve made a deal. You can’t back out now.”

“We didn’t have any kind of contract.” Stanley looked up belligerently, then his manner suddenly gave place to one of genuine apology. “I’m sorry, Bill. I didn’t want to let you down. But I need money. Need it bad. This man offered me a crazy price to row for him.”

“Who was it?”

“Syd Williams. He’s the kid that lives in the village.”

“The one that paddles around herein the afternoon?” Bill’s voice was incredulous. “But he’s no swimmer. He couldn’t swim a half mile with that stroke of his.”

“Well, he’s going in the swim.”

Bill put down his knife and fork and crammed his hands into his pockets. It was all clear now. Lucas was tricky. He hadn’t done anything spectacular. Just entered some phony swimmer in the race and bribed Stanley to use his boat and row for him.

IT WAS dark when Bill returned. As he turned off the road toward the cottage, he noticed that no lights were showing. Evidently the Stanleys had gone for one of their evening strolls. Then he became aware of a vague white shape in the darkness ahead of him. He was caught up in the beam of a flashlight.

“Hello.”

His heart began to pound absurdly as he recognized Julie’s voice.

“Hi.” He tried to keep his own voice from showing too much surprise. “What goes?”

The flashlight flicked off, making the night seem blacker.

“I wanted to see you.” There was a pause. “I have a boat—a rowboat. My uncle gave it to me a long time ago. You can have it for the swim.”

“What made you go to this trouble for me?”

Julie flicked the flashlight onto her sandals, switched it off again. “Partly because I didn’t like the trick that was being played on you. I think Mr. Lucas deserved what he got yesterday morning.”

Bill said: “If you’re going home, I’ll walk back with you.”

They started toward the road, following the spot made by Julie’s flashlight. Bill was disturbingly conscious of her presence, so close to him in the dark, the occasional touch of her naked arm.

“You said Lucas was part of the reason for helping me,” he said. “What other reason did you have?”

There was a long pause. Her voice, when it came to him, was low and vibrant with emotion. “Because of her.” “Who? Who do you mean?” “Barbara. She thinks you won’t win. She thinks this whole thing—the swim —is some sort of childishness. I want you to win. I hate her.”

The intensity of her tone took Bill by surprise. He turned toward her quickly.

“I know what she did to you,” Julie went on. “She’ll leave Uncle Gerrard just as easily too, when someone else comes along. I’d like to see him get married—but not to someone like her. He wouldn’t, if she didn’t keep after him.”

Bill made no reply. He’d never Continued on page 26

Continued from page 24 thought of Barbara having so bitter an enemy as this. He’d never thought of her affair with Roydon or her treatment of himself as particularly deserving of criticism. It was Barbara, that was all. She’d never let sentiment stand in the way of what she wanted. It was as much a part of her character as the arrogant set of her shoulders or her bright nail polish. It had enraged Bill, but his rage was at his luck, not at Barbara.

He walked on for a while, saying nothing. Finally he asked: “Are your parents dead?”

“Yes. They died when I was a child. I was sent to boarding school, but Uncle Gerrard kept a closer eye on me than most fathers. We had wonderful times together during holidays and when I left school. We went fishing and sailing together — sometimes he took me deer hunting.”

Bill felt an impulse to help her. Maybe the swim would do it. If he could stay out there in front, perhaps the excitement of being connected with the winner would get her mind off Roydon and Barbara.

Julie had stopped at a white gate set in a cedar hedge. “This is where I live. Thanks for walking home with me.”

“You said I could have your boat,” Bill said abruptly. “Will you row for me, too?”

“Yes, if you think I’m good enough.”

“There’s not much to it. You just move along easily, keep your eyes on me. You’ll have to give me a hot drink now and then. We’ll get somebody else from the village—a good husky boy— to give you a hand if I need help getting out of the water.”

“I’ll see you in the morning then. What time?”

“Nine o’clock, if that’s okay with you.”

She was there on the dot, rowing along the shore obviously at home with the oars. Bill had an easy workout. Afterward he walked back with her to her cottage.

“Well, that’s all,” he said when he turned to leave her at the gate. “There’s nothing else to do now but win 5,000 bucks.”

Without warning she stepped close to him and kissed him on the cheek.

“That’s for good luck*,” Julie told him. She quickly went inside.

The next day broke bright and windless. The swim was scheduled to start at 10 o’clock. Bill went to the registration tent early. The course was already cluttered with press boats, yachts, a hospital launch. In the dressing tent, breathing the familiar, hot stuffy air, heavy with the smell of grass and naked bodies, he felt the nervous tightening of his stomach that was always there before a race. He wondered what the score would be that evening. Would he be grinning before press photographers, rid of the shadows that had haunted him for years? Or sitting alone in his room, reading the first sneering headlines, like a nightmare out of the past: Myles Quits!

At 9.30 he started to smear himself with grease. He gave Julie her final instructions. She was to wait for him with the other boats outside the line of buoys about 200 yards from the starting barge.

There was not a big field of contestants: 40 altogether. But it included some of the best long-distance swimmers on the continent. Bill recognized about half of them from previous swims. Lining up on the barge he saw Schmidt, the big blond German, grinning and posturing. He would be a tough boy to beat.

Bill crouched, waiting for the starter’s gun, his toes gripping he edge of the barge. It was important to get in

fast. If you didn’t, you were in danger of getting kicked or knocked under completely.

HE WAS in almost at the gun. He came up already cutting the water with the long, lazy, powerful crawl that had once made sports writers turn poetic. There was no sensation of cold, because of the heavy layer of grease, but he could tell that he was in no warm bath. He’d feel it plenty before the day was over.

As he rolled his head he could see that one of the swimmers was already in difficulty, wallowing. Bill stopped swimming. He trod water, moving cautiously toward the man. To touch : him would mean instant disqualifica-

tion. Still, you couldn’t let a man ! drown. Nobody else seemed to be

; taking any notice.

■ Then he saw the lifesaving boat pulling in their direction. Someone waved him away.

s He picked up Julie outside the buoys, i He answered her wave with a grin, t “Stick around. I might need you later ’ on in the day.”

It was the usual thing. The screw; balls, the optimists, the ones who went in just to say they’d been in the race, were through in the first hour. Bill heard Julie talking to someone in another boat. She called to him, giving him his position. Schmidt was leading, ^setting a tough pace. Moffat and • Berkinshaw tied for second, Bill was fourth. This part of the race wasn’t what counted, he told himself. It : would be going on for a long time.

Reaching out, one arm after the other, rolling his shoulders into it, he wondered where Barbara would be now. Probably with Roydon in his launch, following the race. Ready to ; say: “Now, for heaven’s sake, go back to your job and forget this nonsense. After all, you’ve given it a fair trial. You can’t do any more than swim until you sink.”

If he could only pull this one off, prove to himself and Barbara and the thousands of people he’d once let down so badly that the first swim hadn’t been a fluke. And Julie! He realized with surprise that he wanted to do it for her above all.

But the water was getting colder as he drew farther out into the lake toward the apex of the triangular-shaped course. It wasn’t going to be easy.

The past few years moved before his mind with surprising clarity. Jobs he’d held. Waiting at tables, driving trucks, working nights trying to get an education. But there was one thing he wouldn’t let himself remember. His second swim, the feeling of hopelessness that bad weighed down his arms when his trainer had called out to him that he’d been passed; the stunned faces of the crowd as they watched him being carried to the hospital tent. The unbearable, staring silence.

His thoughts broke off as Julie called to him. They were near the buoy that terminâted the first side of the triangle.

He’d planned to make a bid for the lead when he was turning out into the lake for the second lap. It was well into the afternoon when he reached it, with seven long miles to go. When Julie turned the boat out into the lake, he stepped up the timing of his stroke and set tied down to the hard grind.

It was about 10 minutes later that he heard the sound of a launch. Someone shouted. He stopped and looked up. One of the course officials waved excitedly and shouted: “You didn’t

round that buoy. You’ll have to come back.”

Bill glanced over at Julie and saw by her crushed expression what had hap-

Continned on page 28

Continued from page 26 pened. She had cut inside the buoy instead of going around it. From then on things seemed to break wrong.

In spite of the loss of time because of short-cutting the buoy, he managed to maintain his increased stroke until Julie called out that he was in the lead. The next swimmer was about an eighth of a mile back. But the pace and the cold were beginning to tell on him. A cramp seized his leg. He rolled over on his back and kicked it out. When the hard pain slowly released its grip, he took some hot chocolate. He rolled back into the crawl, but it was as if he were in a peculiar, cold, monotonous, rhythmic vacuum.

Slowly he realized that Julie’s voice was coming to him.

“How do you feel?”

It was evident from the expression in her eyes that he didn’t look too good. The boy in the back of the boat stared, his lips parted.

He wanted to make some wisecrack, but he couldn’t think of anything. He sensed too that any attempt át lightheartedness wouldn’t fool anybody. He called weakly, “I’m all right. Don’t get too far away.”

He was plenty cold now. Plenty cold. He moved over to the boat for another hot drink.

It didn’t do much good. The mechanical motion of his arms and legs again. He had the feeling that he wasn’t moving through the water at all.

It seemed only a few minutes later when Julie’s voice penetrated his numbness again.

“Bill! Bill! Are you all right?”

He stopped and called to the boat: “Sure. Everything’s fine. How much farther?”

“You’ve about five miles to go. Can you make it?”

“I guess so.”

“Don’t be foolish about coming out. Are you really all right?”

“Sure. Am I still out in front?”

He knew the answer before Julie spoke. Her eyes were on him anxiously as she answered. “Two have passed you.”

“Schmidt and Berkinshaw.”

“When did they get out there?” “About 10 minutes ago.”

Schmidt and Berkinshaw. They’d never let themselves be passed now. Exhaustion, like a physical weight, pressed down on Bill’s body. Automatically his arms went into the motion of the crawl he’d kept up since morning. Again the soft green light of the water, then the flash of blue sky as he turned his head to breathe. But his arms felt as if they were dragging weights. He was finished. Lucas and Barbara. They were right. He didn't have what it took. And Julie, Julie . . .

She was speaking again, clutching the gunwale of the boat with both hands, her oars drifting in the water. He stopped swimming.

“Bill—” Fier eyes were large in the pale oval of her face. “—Don’t do anything foolish. There’ll be other swims you can win. It’ll be different now.” Oddly, every detail of the scene came to him with surprising clarity. The late afternoon sun glinting from the water, the brass screwheads in the varnished boat, a white dumpling of a cloud against the blue sky. He looked at Julie. Somewhere in the back of his consciousness, he knew that what she had just said was of tremendous importance to him. Tied in with it, somehow, was a reminder that he was in a swim, trying to keep going through this lousy cold water long enough to win 5,000 bucks.

It was later when, hardly realizing that he had started, he was moving

through the water again, that he saw what had been somewhere in the back of his mind ever since Julie’s remark: “There’ll be other swims you can win. It will be different now.” And when he saw it, it was as if he had always known it.

AND WITH the revelation came a . strange release of energy. His arms slapped one ahead of the other as they had since morning. He was tired, slowly wearing out; but it wasn’t the same total weariness of spirit and body. He knew now that he could go on a long time yet. And as he felt the water pass slowly and coldly behind him, his mind held to the thought that all these years he had been living in the past, clinging weakly to a forgotten triumph, knocked out by one defeat. Something that had happened seven years ago !

Now is the only time that counts, he told himself. You do what you're doing now the best you can. Nobody can do any more.

There was a long time—an hour—a year—time seemed to have run together into a still, cold, black sea, where he shoved one arm ahead of the other, without thinking, without feeling. He was vaguely conscious at one time of the sickening smell of oil, of Julie shouting, “Take that boat away. The oil’s drifting into my swimmer.” He was aware, some time later, that the sun had gone behind a bank of clouds. He tried to straighten his goggles and got grease in his eyes. He made it worse trying to wipe it away. He heard Julie’s voice: “Come out,

Bill. It’s no use.”

“No!” Calling seemed to take his strength away. Why didn’t they leave him alone? He saw the boat coming toward him. They were going to bump him, try to make him grapple onto them so that he’d be disqualified.

He didn’t remember how he managed to keep away from them, but there was a moment when he knew that he was swimming again . . . then fog . . . blackness ... a pistol shot . . . straggled clapping.

Where was he? In the hospital tent —listening to Schmidt and Berkinshaw get a hand? When had they taken him out?

A man’s voice said, “I’ll give you a hand with him.”

When he opened his eyes he could see the stars through an opening in a tent. He felt a hand on his forehead and turned to see Julie.

He raised himself suddenly to his elbow. “What did I do? Where are Schmidt and Berkinshaw?”

He sensed that Julie was having difficulty talking. He waited. When she spoke he realized that the catch in her voice was from relief and happiness.

“They took Schmidt out at five o’clock this afternoon. You passed Berkinshaw around six. You were the only two to finish. You get first prize money and share third money with Berkinshaw.”

Bill lay back. I wonder how Lucas will cover this one, he thought.

He found himself grinning in the darkness. The fear that for the past seven years had held him beneath its dead weight was no more. He wouldn’t always win, life wasn’t like that. But he’d never lick himself again. He’d give whatever came up a fair fight.

He reached out and took Julie’s hand. “I get more than that,” he said.

Julie was fussing around her eyes with a handkerchief.

“What do you mean?”

Maybe it would take a while to teach Julie what he had learned out there in the water. But it would be nice work.

He said, “I’ll tell you sometime. Right now, how about leaning a little closer to this bed?” VF