Read Breathless Online

Authors: Jessica Warman

Tags: #ebook, #book

Breathless (5 page)

chapter 3

Woodsdale’s campus is nicer than any school I’ve ever seen in my life. Most of the buildings, including the main school building, are restored old mansions. The administrative building is all wide hallways and winding stairwells and shiny hardwood floors covered with Oriental rugs. After the admissions test, which takes only an hour or so and isn’t hard, I sit beside my parents in the admissions director’s office and watch the Ghost write a check. I figure the real “admissions test” is whether or not the check clears.

The admissions director, Dr. Waugh, is a lean, blond woman with a South African accent. She leans against the front of her desk and beams down at me. “Katie,” she pronounces. “We’re so thrilled to welcome you to Woodsdale.”

Before I can say anything—like reminding her they couldn’t possibly have had time to score my admissions test—she continues. “There are only two new sophomore girls this year. You and your roommate. Her name is Madeline Moon. She comes to us from a boarding school in Connecticut, and I’m sure you two will really hit it off.”

Dr. Waugh doesn’t seem like the kind of person to use the expression “hit it off” in everyday conversation, unless she’s talking to someone like me, who comes from someplace like Hillsburg. Dr. Waugh wears tailored black pants that look
expensive,
a white shirt with a narrow black tie, and high-heeled white sandals. Her office isn’t air-conditioned and it’s at least ninety degrees outside but she isn’t sweating at all. On her ring finger, there’s a band with a single diamond so big I can’t stop staring at it. The wall behind her desk is covered with half a dozen framed degrees and certifications of merit, most of which are from Harvard; the others are from Brown.

“So . . . are there other new kids? In other grades?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “Most of our students begin their Woodsdale career in ninth grade, but we certainly make exceptions for . . . special circumstances.”

“So there’s nobody else? Just me and, uh, Madeline?”

She nods. “That’s right.” And then she leans over, her face only a few inches from mine, and smiles so big that I can see all the fillings in her bottom teeth and feel her warm spearmint breath on my face. “Don’t be nervous, Kathryn. We’re a family here. Everything will be fine.”

They call the two weeks before school begins “preseason,” which is an intensive, all-day, every-day practice session for school athletes to prepare for the upcoming year. Even though swimming is a winter sport, there is practice year-round for the varsity team. So, three days after my first visit, my parents drive me back to Woodsdale—this time with our car packed full of my things—and drop me off at my dorm, Wallace Hall.

We hug each other. None of it feels real. My mother has tears in her eyes, and the Ghost cups my chin in his hands and says, “I’m proud of you.” He smiles. Even though the room is piled with boxes of my stuff, there is a tactile void surrounding us, so heavy that it’s like standing in the eye of a hurricane and trying to pretend the weather is perfect. The room is big, bigger than my room at home. Its walls are bare, the bunk beds unmade—there’s no sign yet of Madeline Moon. I can’t stop thinking about what Will would say about all of this.

“Shipping my little sister off to boarding school? Oh, that’s low.” He’d shake his head in disappointment over the whole sorry situation; probably light a cigarette in the middle of the room, indifferent to the smoke alarm going off. “You know what you should do, Katie? You should get yourself kicked out right away for something so bad it gives the Ghost a heart attack.”

Over the next day or so, the dorm fills up with other girls. Wallace Hall is a long, narrow building with a single hallway and rooms on either side. On one end of the building, there’s a huge common room with tables and sofas and a piano and TV. On the other end there’s a huge apartment where our house mother, Mrs. Martin, lives with her husband.

All of the girls seem to know each other. Most of them are freshmen or sophomores, except for a couple of dorm assistants, who are seniors. Even the freshmen all know each other from somewhere—either they went to the same private schools or the same summer camps or
something.

Everyone seems friendly at first; girls introduce themselves, look me over, and then continue talking to their roommates or other friends. In my first twelve hours, I meet an Alison, a Gretchen, an Estella (who is gorgeous, probably the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen), a Lindsey, and one of our dorm assistants, a senior named Jill. Jill is the only person who doesn’t smile when she meets me.

The night before my first practice, I stay in my room, listening to all of their loud voices lilting down the hallway from the common room, too afraid to leave even to use the bathroom. Their laughter gets so loud that it makes me flinch in reflex a few times. They are all such good friends already, obviously so comfortable, their lives so easy, I can’t imagine what they would think of me if they knew how I’d come to be here with them.

Since Madeline isn’t here yet, I’ve claimed the top bunk for myself. I lie in bed, listening, staring at the blank ceiling above me until it gets so dark in the room that I can’t see anything at all. Finally, a little after eleven, I hear Jill’s heavy footsteps coming down the hallway, the sound of her voice booming into the common room, ordering everyone to bed. As they trickle down the hallway into their bedrooms, one of them complains loudly that school hasn’t even started yet and she isn’t their mommy and they aren’t freaking
preschoolers,
loudly enough that Jill comes out of her room and screeches, “If I hear one more word you’ll all be pulling weeds outside the field house tomorrow until your fingers are bleeding!”

I wait, staring at the ceiling, until the whole dorm is quiet, until the last giggle drifts into silence. Then I get my toothbrush and towel and sneak down the hallway to the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face.

On my way back from the bathroom, I notice a crack of light coming from the doorway that leads to the common room. Before I can hurry back to my own room, the door opens a little, and I see that it’s Estella, her back pressed against the door. She’s practically being smothered by a tall blond guy as the two of them hold on to each other like they’ll die if they let go, faces mashed together, and I stand there frozen until the boy opens his eyes a little bit and sees me in my pj’s, staring at them. He pulls away from Estella, whispers something into her ear. Estella turns and gives me a long, appraising stare. She’s wearing nothing but day-of-the-week (Sunday) underpants and a pink tank top. Her long red hair spills wet and clingy over her shoulders and down her back. She stands on her tiptoes, whispers something to the boy—who is every bit as beautiful as she is—and then gives him a quick kiss on the nose before heading back into the dorm.

She doesn’t say anything as she passes me. She just holds a finger to her lips, which are curled into a slight smile, goes, “Shhhh,” and walks away, closing the door to her room without a sound.

My first swimming practice starts the following morning at eight sharp. There’s breakfast beforehand in the cafeteria, everyone except me in T-shirts and Woodsdale Academy– issue maroon sweatpants cut off at the thigh to make shorts. I show up five minutes before breakfast ends so I won’t have to talk to anyone.

Everyone looks tired and annoyed while they eat scrambled eggs and buttered toast and bacon. Nobody says much of anything above a sleepy murmur here and there. Estella is the only person whose name I know for sure. She’s sitting with the boy from the previous night. She feeds him bites of her toast and murmurs into his ear while he smiles and keeps his free hand on her bare thigh. Neither of them even looks at me.

I’ve been swimming almost my whole life, but I’ve never been at a practice like this before. The pool seems so clean and flat and cool that I don’t dare even dip my toe in before someone tells me. Everybody but me is wearing a matching maroon swimsuit—to
practice
—and each of the girls has her last name printed over her right breast in delicate white lettering. They all have matching maroon swim caps with big white
W
’s printed on the side. Even the lining of their goggles is maroon.

There are sixteen members of the coed varsity swim team this year. Everybody looks at me—my black one-piece is worn thin and doesn’t say my name anywhere, and my swim cap is pink, with tiny white elephants all over it—but nobody says anything. Our coach, Mr. Solinger, waits with his hands clasped behind his back while we all line up along the wall facing the shallow end of the pool.

His face is dead serious, even stern, for a good long minute, before he breaks into a grin. “Hey, team,” he says. “Everyone have a nice summer?”

We all nod.

“Ready to work hard?”

We nod again. Does he even
notice
me? He doesn’t make eye contact, just strolls up and down the maroon-and-white tile in his bare feet, hands clasped behind his back.

“Ready to win the OVACs again?” He’s talking about the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference. From what I understand, it’s a big deal.

This time, nobody nods. “Yes!” they all shout, their enthusiasm overwhelming, and when I look at their faces, there’s an obvious ferocity in all of their eyes. The girl beside me catches my gaze. Her eyes flicker up and down my body, taking it all in. She whispers, “What’s your name?”

“Katie,” I whisper back.

“I’m Grace. I’m captain this year for the girls’ team.”

“Oh.” I try to smile. The last name on her swimsuit reads “Waugh,” and I wonder if she’s related to the admissions director.

“Solinger told me you’re good. What do you swim?” she whispers.

I hesitate. “Everything.”

She pauses. “Yeah, but what’s your best stroke?”

I hesitate again. From the side of her swim cap, I notice a few blond hairs peeking out. She has the same long legs as Dr. Waugh, the same sleek confidence.

“Everything,” I say.

Her grin disappears. She stares forward, and I watch as she bites her lower lip and gazes at the water, shoulders creeping up just a bit toward her ears.

“I’m sure you’ve all noticed we have a new face this year,” Coach Solinger continues, and all of a sudden all eyes are on me. “This is Kathryn Kitrell.”

“Katie,” I say. Like I said, nobody calls me Kathryn except the Ghost. I’m determined to keep it that way.

Solinger nods. “Okay then, Katie. So, kids, Katie here comes to us from Pennsylvania. She’s a sophomore, and last year she broke more than a few records in her state finals. I think you’ll all be very glad that she’s decided to join us.”

He looks at me, gives me a lopsided grin. “Katie. We have only one rule for our practices. Somebody want to tell her what it is?”

Almost before the words are out of his mouth, Grace’s hand goes up. She gives me a deliberate, icy look, and says, “Practice isn’t over until someone pukes into the gutter.”

Solinger nods. “Right-o. Okay kids—drills are on the board.” He nods at a chalkboard behind him, four columns of writing divided into four strokes, each stroke divided into a series of different drills. It’s going to take all day.

Before I know what’s happening, everyone around me is in the water, goggles on, shaking their arms and bouncing up and down and shuffling into place. Within seconds, I’m the only one left standing on the ceramic tile deck beside the pool, and everyone is staring at me, half smiling. I know what they’re all thinking:
she’ll be the one who pukes.

Solinger gives me a gentle push toward the water. “Go on, Kitrell. Lane one.”

I get in. Even though the water is much colder than I’m used to, it’s the first time since I’ve gotten to Woodsdale that I can feel myself relax, from my face to my stomach, right down to my toes.

Sure enough, around 11:45, after almost four hours in the water, a girl in lane 6 whose swimsuit reads “Dodd” hoists herself over the edge of the deep end and loses what’s left of her breakfast.

For the past half hour, the boys’ varsity water polo team has been standing on deck in their swimsuits, tossing medicine balls around, waiting for their turn in the water.

“Oh, thank
God
,” one of them says, loud enough for everyone to hear. When I turn to look, out of breath and treading water halfway down the deep end, I see that it’s the same boy from last night—Estella’s boyfriend.

Swimmers are hopping out of the pool in a hurry. Most of the puke has missed the gutter and is spreading across the surface of the water. Solinger is already heading toward the deep end with a net.

One of the boys on the varsity swim team sidles up beside Estella’s boyfriend, nudges him, and says, “It’s always Dodd.”

The two of them grin. They’re both gorgeous. They look like they could be brothers, but Estella’s boyfriend is a little taller, his grin a little more rotten. “Hey, Jamie,” he calls across the room. “Jamie Dodd! You ought to see a doctor about that weak tummy!”

Glancing to make sure Solinger’s back is turned, Jamie holds up both middle fingers and mouths a string of obscenities. She’s still a little pale.

In the locker room, while everyone is pulling on their clothes, Jamie says to nobody in particular, “I hate Stetson McClure.”

“You should stop throwing up all the time, then,” Grace snaps. “Besides, he’s just kidding.”

“I get cramps if I don’t eat for more than a few hours. Then I swallow some pool water and I can’t help it, I just—”

“Then quit,” Grace says, “or stop whining.” She glances at me. I’m trying to pull on my clothes as quickly as possible over my swimsuit. “I was sure you’d be the one to puke. What’s your name again?”

When Grace tugs off her swim cap, I see she has the same wavy blond hair as her mother. Her legs look like they haven’t been shaved all summer, which tells me she’s serious about swimming. The more body hair you have, the more drag it creates in the water. When you finally do shave, right before a race, you can go a few seconds faster.

“Katie,” I say. “Katie Kitrell.”

Grace only nods. “Well, Katie, you need to get down to the school store and order your suits, like, now.”

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