Read Breathless Online

Authors: Jessica Warman

Tags: #ebook, #book

Breathless (8 page)

Later that day, in study hall, I’m sitting a few rows away from Estella, looking over the pile of Latin homework that’s already been assigned. She and Stetson are in the back row, deep in hushed conversation. There’s no way I’d have the nerve to join them. As I’m staring at a page of conjugations, I feel something hit the back of my head. It’s a balled-up piece of paper. When I open it, it reads,

Hey Sasquatch—

    I’m going to pluck your eyebrows for you tonight. C U in my room after dinner.

                                        XOXO
                                                                                —E

I don’t know whether to feel embarrassed—I mean, she
did
just throw paper at my head—or happy. When I look back at her, she gives me a wave, fluttering each of her long, manicured fingers individually. And when I glance around at everyone else in study hall, nobody is laughing at me. If anything, the other girls seem curious to know what the note says.

Estella, I think,
knows
how obnoxious she is. She’s more clever than people give her credit for. It seems like everyone assumes she’s a spoiled bimbo, when she’s neither. I can see it in the way she looks around sometimes, quietly, her face tight with concentration, just taking everything in. If people weren’t so quick to judge, just based on what she looked like, she might not be able to get away with so much. Then again—her stepdad
is
on the board of directors.

A few weeks into the year, I’m sitting at lunch with Estella and Lindsey. I’ve started eating with them every day. “You have an accent, you know,” Estella informs me. So far she’s plucked my eyebrows, showed me how to roll the waistband of my skirt up so that it’s at least a few inches shorter than regulation (although none of the teachers say anything), and openly expressed her hopelessness that I’ll ever be able to properly apply eyeliner. I keep waiting for the day when I can relax around her. So far, it isn’t looking good.

“Do I?”

“Yes. Very Pittsburgh. My mother’s first husband is originally from Pittsburgh.” She shakes her head, oblivious to the hint of a West Virginia drawl in her thick, accusing tone. As her hair spills over her broad shoulders, her movement sends a swirl of perfume across the table. It smells so good—so clean and lovely—I can almost see it. “He trained himself to get rid of it. You should do the same thing.” She digs into her cake—Estella eats three huge pieces of cake for lunch every day, and her body is perfect—and chews silently, staring at me.

“You’re so mean,” Lindsey says, staring at her own untouched piece of cake. The minute she takes a bite, Estella will narrow her eyes and kind of cock her head to one side, looking at me, expecting us to share a smirk.

“I am not
mean.
I’m
honest.
You know, nobody is ever straightforward. But sometimes people need to hear the truth.”

“Hey, look”—I put my hand on Lindsey’s arm—“there she is.” We’ve been trying to spot Mazzie every day at lunch, without any luck. Now the three of us stare as she takes small steps, balancing her tray in one hand, looking around the room for a place to sit. I catch her gaze and try to wave her over to us.

“You know, she’s super smart,” Lindsey says. “She’s in my advanced abstract mathematics class.”

“She’s in my advanced abstract mathematics class,”
Estella mocks. Even though she’s pretty smart, there’s no question Estella isn’t good at math. She’s taking geometry for the second year in a row. “Big deal. Eat your cake already. You know you want to.” Underneath the table, she kicks Lindsey.

“Ow!” Lindsey’s eyes well up with tears. “That really hurt!” Estella is cocaptain of the girls’ field-hockey team, and you can tell who the other team members are by the way their shins are covered in bruises so purple as to be almost black. Each day after school, they cringe as they peel off their knee socks. Only Estella and the other cocaptain—Amanda Hopwood—are almost bruise-free.

“Go get her,” Lindsey urges me.

“Yeah,” Estella echoes, giving me a much lighter kick under the table, “go get her.” She rubs her hands together. “She can’t avoid us forever.”

“I don’t know,” I say, watching as Mazzie—who pretended not to notice my wave—sits by herself and begins to eat at a deliberate, fast pace. “Maybe we should leave her alone for now.”

I feel protective of Mazzie already. I’m not sure why. Maybe because, at first, it also occurred to me to hide out during lunch, as she’s likely been doing up until today, but I managed to force myself to do otherwise. Or maybe because I keep hearing her talking in her sleep, her voice as angry as ever. I’m not sure why I don’t tell Estella and Lindsey about Mazzie’s restless nights—it’s definitely a juicy piece of info. I just don’t. Somehow it feels cruel even for me to
know
, because I think Mazzie would be mortified if she found out.

Things loosen up after the first couple of months at school. On paper, Woodsdale Academy is a model of academic excellence. Its students’ days are planned down to the minute. We wake up in time to get dressed and hurry to breakfast by 7:15. Homeroom starts at 7:50. Classes begin at 8:00 and last until 3:00. Every student is required to participate in at least one extracurricular event, preferably a sport, and practice is held at a minimum from 3:30 to 5:30 every day. A sit-down, family-style dinner follows from 6:00 to 7:00. Study hall in the dorms—bedroom doors open, no talking or music allowed—lasts from 7:30 to 9:30. Lights out is at 11:00 for underclassmen, midnight for upperclassmen.

But most of their “model of excellence” is a load of crap. It’s just so people like the Ghost can feel great about packing up their kids and sending them away. Once you know what you’re doing, it’s easy to break the rules. Take our uniforms, for example. In the student handbook, there are five whole pages devoted to their care and cleaning. During our first dorm meeting of the new school year, we even have a visit from a member of the housekeeping staff, who explains how we should hang and fold each article of clothing in order to keep our shirts and skirts in pristine condition. As we lounge on the sofas and on the floor, we pretend to pay attention as she demonstrates how to properly fold—never roll—a pair of nylon-and-cotton-blend knee socks to be stored in our drawers.

This is how it really works: after school every day, most of us have loosened our ties and untucked our shirts before we even get back to the dorm. At the end of the hallway, there are two piles: one for neckties, and one for navy blue knee socks. We add our own clothes to the pile, toss our shirts over the back of our desk chairs, and leave our skirts wherever they happen to fall on the floor of our bedroom. Anytime we put on our uniform, we pluck a tie and a pair of socks from the collective pile. At the end of the week, when they come to collect our laundry, the housekeepers know where to find everything. In the student handbook, “improper uniform maintenance” is supposed to be punishable by half a dozen demerits. But nobody ever mentions what a departure we’ve made from Woodsdale procedure—not even Jill, who is usually so rule conscious that, as Estella loves to say, “She would have made a great Nazi.”

It’s the same kind of thing with sports and academics. Officially, academics come first No Matter What. But Woodsdale has a widespread reputation for its fine swimmers. The varsity team practices year-round, and we compete in scrimmages all fall.

In my first scrimmage, I come in first in every one of my heats. Most of the other girls tell me how excited they are to have me on the team this year, but I’d bet anything they glare at me the second I turn my back, especially Grace.

The following Monday, Coach Solinger tracks me down during a boring lesson on sentence diagramming in English class, tapping me gently on the elbow and nodding at the door.

No matter what time of year it is, Solinger looks like he just wandered off a beach in Malibu. His blond hair is sun streaked, and he’s always in swimming trunks, flip-flops, and some kind of T-shirt. I guess he gets away with it because he’s the swimming coach. Today he’s wearing a threadbare Tom Petty T-shirt that you just know he’s had since college.

Solinger is flirty and has a reputation for picking favorites among his varsity swimmers.

“Katie, I have to tell you, you’re my favorite swimmer,” he declares, leaning against the wall in the empty hallway, gazing at me with a combination of hope and adoration. He rubs an open palm against his whiskery chin, shaking his head. “I simply don’t know where they found you.”

He’s probably in his late thirties now, but I heard he spent the early part of his twenties swimming professionally, and even had a mediocre turn in the Olympics, where he walked away without a medal. He has his doctorate in sports medicine, and I can already tell he’s a great coach. He’s so cute, it’s embarrassing to make eye contact, especially when we’re alone in the hallway like this.

My breath catches. “Hillsburg, Pennsylvania,” I supply.

“What?”

“They found me in Hillsburg. It’s about an hour east of Pittsburgh.”

“Oh. Right.” He grins for a split second before growing serious. “Listen,” he continues, “your schoolwork is important. I mean, nothing is more important than your education, right?”

I’m not sure I’m completely sold on the idea. So far, it seems to me that good looks and money are more important than anything. But whatever—Woodsdale’s slogan for the year (they have a new one every fall) is, “Education is the most valuable tool a person can have.” “Right,” I agree. “I mean, it’s the most valuable tool a person can have.”

Solinger continues to rub his chin. “You’re going to be our key swimmer this year on girls’ varsity. I hope that isn’t too much pressure for you.”

I shake my head. Pressure can feel good, especially if you can push through it. Swimming is all about forcing your way through endless resistance.

“What you need to do,” he continues, “is practice, practice, practice.” He pauses, waiting for a reaction from me. When I don’t say anything, he adds, “Practice.” Then he puts his hands on my shoulders and squeezes. “Practice. Practice. Practice.”

I nod. “Three thirty. I’ll be there.”

“That’s not what I mean.” He takes me by the elbow. “Come with me.”

I glance toward the classroom door. “What about—”

“Don’t worry. You’re clear.” And he tugs me down the hallway, in the direction of the pool.

In a few minutes, I’m standing on deck beside Solinger, feeling ridiculous in my full school uniform. At the opposite end of the pool, in a three-lane area sequestered by buoyed ropes, the ninth-grade girls’ phys ed class is running through a synchronized swimming routine to some kind of classical music. They wear identical maroon swimsuits and bathing caps made of thick, fancy latex that covers their ears. They are operating—all of them—on an insane level of concentration. The effect is both eerie and beautiful, all of them wet and cloaked in stinging fluorescent light.

At first I think Solinger and I are the only people in the natatorium besides the girls. But then I notice somebody swimming in the lane closest to me. His body is parallel with the water, almost beneath it, moving quickly and without too much visible effort, exactly the way it should be.

Solinger kneels at the head of the lane, waiting for the swimmer to reach us. Before the body can curl into a flip turn, Solinger grabs hold of an ear, tugging the swimmer to his feet.

I’d recognized him just by the way he moves in the water. But to see his face as he stares upward at us, his faint scowl at being interrupted, his annoyance with the ninth graders at the other end of the pool—all of it combined with the way he looks dripping wet, his hair stuffed beneath a swimming cap so that only a few lone, blond curls escape from a corner behind his ear—only one thought goes through my mind:
I love boarding school.

Drew Bailey spits into the water, his breath heavy. “What is it? I’m in the middle of a five hundred.”

Solinger, annoyed, says, “Keep your panties on, Bailey. Get out for a minute.”

Drew pulls his goggles away from his face, perching them on his forehead to reveal big blue eyes. “But I’m in the middle of—”

“Uh-huh.” Solinger snaps his fingers. “Up.”

Drew stands between us, still panting, oblivious to a white thread of booger at the edge of his nostril. “What’s up? I’ve got”—he glances at the clock—“thirty minutes before I have to be in chem lab. I’ve got a B minus, and I can’t be late or I’ll lose points, five points for every minute you’re late. Education is the most valuable . . .” He realizes Solinger is smirking at him. “Oh, forget it.”

Solinger strokes his shadow of a beard. His other hand is on the small of my back. He gives it a reassuring pat, as if to say,
I know. What. A. Jerk.
“You won’t lose any points. I’ll take care of it.”

Drew shakes his head. “You said that about trig, and I—”

“Later.” He nudges us together. “Katie Kitrell, Drew Bailey. Drew is our number one on the boys’ varsity. Drew, this is the girl I was telling you about.”

Drew nods, looking at Solinger, not me. I’m not sure why Solinger is even explaining any of this to us—I guess he wants to make a formal introduction. Drew and I have been in practice together every day after school, but the girls’ and boys’ scrimmage meets are separate, so we haven’t exactly had a chance to see each other in action. “I know who she is. She hangs around with Estella.” Drew finally looks in my general direction, narrows his eyes, and mouths,
“Trouble.”
I notice that he’s wearing a thin silver chain with a tiny crucifix around his neck.

Right away I’m curious about what his problem is with Estella, because Drew’s best friend is none other than Stetson McClure. The two of them are always eating lunch together and talking around the pool, when water polo and swim team practices overlap.

Solinger couldn’t be less interested. “Shake hands,” he directs.

When neither of us moves, Solinger reaches out to physically lift our hands and bring them together, pumping our arms in a forced shake. Drew avoids making eye contact for as long as possible. Finally, after we shake hands, he wipes his nose clean and meets my gaze. But he doesn’t smile.

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