Rex Conner fell in love with a body of water.
The popular lake was part of Chris Greene Park, located in Albemarle County, Virginia, just a few minutes from Charlottesville’s northern city limits.
By the summer of 1970, the teen was also in love with his new job, employed by the county’s Parks & Recreation Department as a lifeguard.
But mostly, he loved a girl.
The young brunette had thick, long hair that made her easy to spot from his wooden perch overlooking the lake’s sandy man-made beach.
Rex spotted her often.
They met after his shift on July Fourth as Rex played Frisbee with friends in a field by the water.
The brunette made trips with her mother to and from their station wagon carrying picnic supplies. When she made the first trip alone, Rex accidentally launched the Frisbee in her direction.
The girl introduced herself, and after a few minutes of awkward small talk, Rex looked her in the eyes and asked permission to give her a nickname. He’d given nearly everyone he knew a nickname.
“I guess,” she said, gathering and tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.
She laughed. “Sparks?”
“Sparks. Because that’s what I see all around you.”
She blushed, just as he knew she would, and that was the beginning of the summer that changed Rex Conner. Rex angled with his boss to work the days she promised she would be coming to the lake. Which, given their budding romance, was often.
Though far from a seasoned lifeguard, he’d learned the first rule: Keep your eyes on the water.
Sometimes Rex watched Sparks swim alone in the deeper water, back and forth between two orange buoys. She was, at least in his eyes, an expert in every stroke. He particularly enjoyed watching her towel off standing back onshore. She would carefully remove her bulky swim cap and shake her head back and forth, breathing life back into her matted, tangled hair. He saw sparks then, too.
Sometimes watching the water meant he could watch Sparks play with her younger sister. The two squeaked and danced in the shallow waves like SeaWorld dolphins. Their mother would sneak up and take pictures, then race off screaming in delight as her daughters chased and kicked water at her.
The younger sister was a wiry eight-year-old with light brown hair --- shorter than her sister’s but styled the same --- and a laugh you could hear from nearly every shallow corner of Chris Greene Lake. Rex gave his pint-sized friend a nickname, too. He chose
“Flick,” because she was just like her older sister, but smaller and full of potential to light the world on fi re. He promised her that someday she’d sparkle just like her older sister. Sparks’s sister flickered and beamed every time he called her by the new name.
By the end of the summer, even Flick’s mother had adopted the moniker.
The relationship between Rex and Sparks became a classic summertime romance.
Rex ate Sunday dinners with her family. He went with them on a sightseeing day trip to Williamsburg and, later, one to the Shenandoah Valley. They invited him to family game night, picnics, church, and even a church picnic.
When Rex wasn’t working at the lake, he was pulled to Sparks’s side, stuck between love and lust and feeling like an older, more mature soul trapped in the body of a sixteen-year-old. More often than not, Flick was right there at his other side. Rex enjoyed watching the two girls interact. Not simply sisters, they were friends --- best friends, despite the age diff erence. Seeing them together made him wish he weren’t an only child. When Sparks took a break from the lake water to soak in the sun on a beach towel, Flick followed.
When Sparks rolled from her back to her stomach, Flick did the same, even discreetly and awkwardly adjusting her swimsuit in the same way.
When Sparks stood, stretched, and returned to the water to cool off and show off for her lifeguard boyfriend, Flick followed. While swimming, Sparks often arched her back and leaned backward into the water to remove the hair from her forehead and face. She held her nose as she lifted her head slowly out, face toward the sky, thick hair streaking behind her and clinging to her shoulders and the back of her swimsuit. Then she looked at Rex in his tall wooden lifeguard chair to see if he’d been watching.
Of course he had.
So Flick did the same, awkwardly dipping her head backward and choking on dirty lake water as she surfaced. Then she also looked over at Rex.
He would laugh and blow her a kiss.
Flick giggled and covered her cheeks, so Sparks caught the kisses instead.
Usually, when Sparks took out her sketch pad at a picnic table to practice her charcoal drawings, Flick would sit across from her and color on sheets borrowed from her big sister. Many of the drawings read “For Rex” in one of the corners. Rex’s favorite creation was a crayon drawing of a boy in a red swimsuit overlooking a deep blue oval lake fi lled with round, fat fish with bubble eyes and smiley faces. The boy had a crown and oversized eyes, and sat high in a throne that looked more like a tower than a lifeguard’s chair. A sun with thick rays shined from the left corner of the paper. A few pillowy clouds sat to the right. There were no swimmers in the lake, just a stick figure lifeguard with spiky hair and bumpy muscles watching over the water with wide, attentive eyes and a grin. Whenever Rex reminisced about his summer with Sparks and Flick, which he had so often through the years that the details never blurred, he found time to praise the girls’ mother. Worried that her daughter and Rex would make a mistake that would haunt them and effectively end their adolescence, Flick was often sent to accompany the two hormone-crazed teens.
Neither seemed to mind. The threesome saw movies on the downtown mall, ate pizza on the famed Corner by UVA’s campus, played volleyball at the lake, and walked the heavily wooded trails. It was on those walks that Flick most often appeared at the most inopportune times.
“Wait up, guys!” Flick said, running toward them as they disappeared into the woods. “Mom said I could come.”
“Oh she did, did she? Well, I don’t know about that,” her older sister said.
“Uh-huh. She did. She said she didn’t want you to get lost.”
Rex would smile and tickle Flick under the neck with his fingertips. “What if you get lost?” he said, and he and his sweetheart would race ahead, around a corner, and out of view.
Flick followed, racing and hollering, “Hey! Wait up! Hey, guys!”
But they were never far ahead. The couple snuck into the trees, shared a few clumsy but passionate wet kisses, and then jumped out onto the trail when Flick approached.
“Gotcha!” Rex teased, and Flick breathed easy.
“Stop it. Mom said if you lost me out here, I’d be in big, big trouble. And so would you.”
Sparks hugged her little sister. “We’d never lose you, Flick. Never.”
Then, like many times before, and a few times after, they raced back to their mother.
Every single day that summer, Rex felt as if he were one step closer to being a man.
He was almost right.
He was just seventeen seconds from growing up. Rex joked that virtually everyone who swam at Chris Greene that summer knew that Flick’s birthday fell on Labor Day. She’d convinced her parents to throw a huge party at the lake and, naturally, Rex was invited as a guest. Flick clapped and jumped twice in the air when Rex said he would be honored and that he wasn’t scheduled to work that day. He’d worked the Fourth of July and his supervisor at Parks & Recreation said he shouldn’t have to work both holidays.
Still, Rex knew his invitation to the party wasn’t just for fun. Sparks’s mother wanted another set of trained eyes for the gaggle of girls who would be running in and out of the water, playing games, doing what kids do best at birthday parties. The afternoon was filled with pizza, cake, silly hats, balloons, plastic cups of root beer, and gifts. The gifts sat stacked high in a pyramid on a picnic table near the food. Flick wanted to open them last.
For many years after, Rex remembered Flick wanting to save the gifts until the end. Not because it was the most exciting thing about the party or the best part of the day, but because it was the least important. What mattered most was having friends there, having family around.
Rex followed that example and taught his son to do the same. “Presents are nice, and who doesn’t enjoy unwrapping a gift?” he would say. “But the real gift is your time. Your laughter. The memories we make together.” The lesson was old-fashioned and Rex knew it. But it didn’t just stay with his son, it may have saved him. After Flick’s birthday lunch and a short nature hike --- some of the children at the party had never been to the lake or seen the trails before --- Rex and Sparks led the younger kids out to the lake for water games.
Flick’s mother stayed behind to watch the gifts and to position herself where she could still easily keep an eye on the girls. The group played in the shallow water on the lake’s manmade beach. They played tic-tac-toe in the sand with their feet. Rex took a turn playing tag with a plastic water gun. He showed off a little, too, squirting some of his friends and being silly for the two lifeguards on duty, both of them friends from a long summer of working side by side.
At one point Rex began throwing a Frisbee for the kids to catch in the knee-deep water. They took turns diving and splashing, sometimes one at a time, sometimes in a frenzied scrum to see who could emerge with the bright yellow disk. When Rex tired of the game, he tossed the Frisbee on the water’s edge and spotted Sparks twenty yards away. She was arching her back again in the deeper water, gathering her long hair and pulling it into a thick rope against her neck and back.
Rex took his time enjoying the view and snuck up from behind. He covered her eyes. “Guess who?” he said. “Clock’s ticking.” Then, as the game demanded, Rex began to count.
“One, two, three.” It wasn’t the first time they’d played the game, and Sparks played her part.
“Four, five, six,” Rex continued.
“Nine, ten, eleven, twelve.”
“Faster! Thirteen, fourteen.”
“Hey!” Rex cackled. “Fifteen, sixteen.”
“The handsome Rex Conner?” “ Yes! Seventeen seconds! But that’s way too long.” Rex stole a kiss and Sparks instinctively turned to see if her mother had seen.
She hadn’t, Sparks reasoned, because her mother was standing near the table with both hands on her forehead, shielding the sun, studying the water, her focus far beyond the young lovers. Sparks’s eyes went to the spot where her sister and the others had been.
Flick was gone.
Rex’s eyes went to the deeper water, as he was trained, and easily spotted the yellow Frisbee floating atop the surface, glowing in the darker water like the sun peeking through black rain clouds. But Rex saw more than just the Frisbee; he saw frantic splashing, twin thin arms grabbing and clawing at the water.
“Lifeguard!” he screamed, and he dove forward, slicing through, then knifing through, the surface and swimming freestyle, churning the water fast and violently, his arms and legs fueled by fear and an adrenaline his body had never known. He reached the child well before the other lifeguard and pulled her to the surface. He put his arm around her, just as the training and practice and manuals had shown, and swam with the other arm, towing her on her back to safety.
A crowd had gathered at the shore.
Sparks and her panicked mother stood like twin statues, stiff , hands over their mouths.
Flick’s body was blue and limp.
Rex performed CPR, but his own panic made it impossible to keep proper form and the other lifeguard pushed him out of the way.
They worked on Flick, counting aloud and regurgitating lessons learned as another parent ran to a pay phone to call an ambulance.
Rex backed away from the scene and covered his face.
Sparks trembled and squeezed her mother’s hands.
“Lisa!” they shouted together. “Flick!”
Sparks’s mother pulled away. She pushed another teenage boy to the side and stood nose to nose with Rex, her face flaming red with rage and confusion. “How could you?”
The other lifeguard took over CPR and the race to save Flick continued.
“How long were you horsing around, Rex?” She breathed and the anger faded to tears. “How long, Rex?” Tears morphed into deep sobs as she pounded on his bare chest.
Rex answered by covering his face and calling on a God he barely knew.
Just a few feet away, in the shadow of a stack of unopened birthday gifts, Sparks knelt beside her lifeless sister, saying prayers and crying teenage tears of her own.
Flick’s mother gathered her breath and slowed the sobs long enough to look Rex in the eyes and say the words he would live with for years: “Rex Conner, you just couldn’t keep your hands to yourself, could you?”
She followed those with four words only age and disease could wash away: “You killed my angel.”
Excerpted from THE SEVENTEEN SECOND MIRACLE © Copyright 2011 by Jason F. Wright. Reprinted with permission by Berkley Trade. All rights reserved.