Authors: Ginger Scott
Text copyright © 2016 Ginger Scott (Ginger Eiden)
All Rights Reserved
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For anyone who has ever had to fight through their demons.
* * *
y coffee is sour
. It isn’t sour enough. Nothing is ever quite sour enough.
And bitter. I crave bitter.
I need to hold something harsh in my mouth, swallow it down, letting it slide away pieces of me from the inside, sip by sip. That…
is what I crave. It isn’t the taste or the buzz or the high or low left in the wake. It’s the torture. I crave the torture.
I deserve the torture. For wasting time. For being the one who
to waste time. I’m not sure if I’ll ever quit feeling like that completely, but I promised I’d try.
I haven’t had a drink in three hundred and sixty-six days. Yesterday marked the anniversary of when I told the world I was done giving up. Or maybe it was the world that told me. Every day since has been a decision—go back to bottom or keep clawing. That’s why everyone is here today. The real reason why. Nobody would care if it weren’t for the bottom I hit, and for the horrible road that led me there. They’re all here because I fell a great distance to land at their feet. They’re here for my story—
for my pain.
a loser to root for.
“It’s a lot more crowded than I thought it would be. That’s good, yeah? I think it’s good. Definitely…good.”
My uncle Duncan sounds out of breath, and he grunts as he wedges his wide body into the small frame of the chair next to me, milk from the last sip he took of his coffee still fresh on the tips of his overgrown and graying mustache. I hand him a napkin. He squints at it, not understanding.
“You’re wearing half-and-half,” I smirk, my lips falling back to the flat line that rules my face.
“Oh, right…sorry,” he says, taking the napkin from me and running it around his mouth, chin, and cheeks.
This is his first press conference. It isn’t my first. Not even close. It
the first one I’ve had in a long time, but the ones from a few years ago are still fresh in my memory. They were like a media-frenzy boot camp—nothing can be as tough as those were. My uncle is nervous enough for the both of us. He’s also a bit of a mess. Not like me, where things are all messy on the inside, but rather…disheveled. His hair is a white tuft of a comb-over; his short-sleeved button-down permanently stained with a touch of grease near the pocket. He’s a watchmaker, and he’s always carrying a few small tools in his breast pocket. I don’t think he owns a single shirt that doesn’t have evidence of his trade spilled on it somewhere.
I’m about to answer a barrage of questions from every major news media outlet in the country, as well as a few others, about my miraculous bid to be on the US Olympic swim team, and the only man I have in my corner doesn’t even know how to swim.
“You have a speech or somethin’ prepared?”
I glance at him and shake my head
folding my hands together in my lap and working a pop from each knuckle only to start back at my thumbs and go through the routine again.
“Will…” he says. I barely hear him as I mash my lips and breathe in through my nose, my focus drifting in and out on the crowd growing in the room. I’m pretty sure we’re over capacity. Maybe a fire marshal will show up, throw a few people out. I can only hope.
“Will,” my uncle repeats, this time a little more forcefully. I cup my knees and exhale, turning to look him square in the eyes. He tilts his head forward, his wire-rimmed glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose as he peers at me over them. “This is the easy part. Just give them what they want. Give them
Everything else will come out in the water…just like it always does.”
I hold his gaze and search his eyes hoping to steal an ounce of his conviction.
“Evan would have handled this so much better,” I say.
“Maybe,” he shrugs, and I wince a little at how easily he agrees with me. “But no one is expecting you to be Evan, Will.”
“They’re expecting a miracle,” I say, giving my attention back to the crowd, the row of cameras lining up and the glare of the hot lights making me sweat. “I’m pretty sure I used up all of my miracles by now.”
“I think maybe you’ve got one more left,” he says, patting my knee twice with his heavy hand. I have no idea how he does such delicate work—his fingers are fat and his palms enormous. I guess the Hollister men have a habit of doing things they aren’t supposed to.
The sound of the crowd begins to even out, becoming a hum in my head while my eyes scan slowly around the room. I wore a royal-blue polo shirt because I wanted to look patriotic—I wanted to look ready and irresistible, ripe for the team. The collar is tight and now I wish I’d worn the green one. I glance down the row I’m sitting in, nothing but khaki pants and pretty skirts and dresses covering honed muscles. I recognize almost every single swimmer, and my mouth starts to curl. Everyone here is an example of discipline until you get to me. I’m in suit pants desperate to be laundered and a scratchy polo shirt that I had to iron the hanger indents out of this morning, and discipline is the
word that will get tossed around in any of my headlines.
The Wrong Hollister Brother.
My mouth frowns at that last thought. More than any of it—more than the questions I know are coming about my drinking, about my fall from grace, about the tragedy that
my life—the fact that I know everyone in this room, including myself, wishes it were Evan sitting in this chair instead of me is what burns the most.
And then there’s
Maybe deep down, a small part of her wishes Evan were sitting here, too, but still…
Maddy takes the last seat on the end of our row, the farthest chair away from mine. She tucks the pink skirt of her dress under her knees, crossing her ankles under her body as she laughs at something the guy sitting next to her says. He’s a much better suitor for her. Yet even knowing that…
Her dark brown hair slides down her arm and obstructs her face from my view. I watch her anyway. I wait.
She is why I’m sitting here. She’s why I keep going. Maybe she’s why I picked myself up from bottom in the first place.
is the last person I should be swimming for, but she’s the only one I want to.
None of that matters the second her brown eyes open on mine.
One more miracle, my uncle says. He has no idea that I used that last one up, too—and she’s sitting two-dozen feet away from me.
* * *
anyone has sat up here since the last time I waited for the Hollisters to drive through the trees and pull into the gravel parking lot outside. There’s a layer of dust on the windowsill thick enough that it practically looks like fur, and the window has a yellow film permanently burnt on the outside from where the sun hits it all day long.
A spot on the glass looks like a handprint, and I reach up to press my fingertips along the matching marks. The fit is exact. The print is mine. Four years old, but still my hands are the same.
I’ve known the Hollister boys since I could swim, which in a family like mine pretty much means
. My father, Curtis Woodsen, won the gold in the fifteen-hundred freestyle in back-to-back Olympics two decades ago. It was the same Games my mother, Susan Shephard, won the gold in the one hundred and two hundred. My parents were made for each other. They wanted me desperately. After two lost pregnancies, I was their third and final attempt at having a baby. I wasn’t supposed to survive. My mom’s uterus was “hostile” according to the nine different doctors she sought care and help from to conceive me. But her insides weren’t hostile—they were…competitive. Like her. Like
I took to the water fast. I won young. I broke records, and I made them proud. This place—they built it for me…and it brought me Evan.
We were both sixth graders when we officially met, though I’d known of them from school. My parents had just opened the Shore Swim Club here in Knox, and the Hollisters were the first family to join. I remember my dad shaking hands with Mr. Hollister, their forearms flexing with their grips, competing even in this. It didn’t take long for their pissing match to send me and the two Hollister boys into the pool for a sprint. I lost to Evan by two strokes, and Will beat us both by a full body and a half. He should have; he’s two years older.
Every weekday evening began this way—the Hollister boys came to practice early, and we raced. I won twice over the seven years we sprinted in that water, and when Evan’s body caught up with Will’s in size, the race between the two of them was always close and could go either way. We trained hard; we laughed harder. We were close, more than family maybe. The three of us wanted things—wanted to win, to push ourselves.
We pushed each other.
Sitting up here in the attic office and waiting for them to arrive were some of my happiest memories. Only twice I sat in this window box seat without feeling joy—four years ago, when I knew their car would never come again, and today, when I know it’s only going to be one of them…the
“Maddy, their plane only landed an hour ago. I doubt they’ll be here for another hour or so yet.” I startle hearing my mother speak behind me. “Sorry, I guess it is kind of quiet and eerie up here.”
“Like ghosts,” I say, my words soft. I didn’t mean for that to be aloud.
My mom breathes in deep enough that I hear it. She does it on purpose, a way for her to tell me she thinks I’m being dramatic without really saying the words.
“It’s not going to be as strange as you seem to think it will be. You haven’t seen him in years, and you two were so close. Somewhere, deep down in there, you’ve missed him,” she says. I close my eyes and breathe out a tiny laugh, then twist enough on the small window seat to see her. My eyes don’t bluff, and her head falls to the side when she reads my expression. “Maddy…”
“You have no idea how it’s going to feel for me to see him. Quit pretending you do,” I say as I stand and turn my back completely from the yellowed glass.
My eyes meet hers and our glares match, neither of us flinching. Eventually, my mom’s focus falls to my chin, and she sucks in her top lip hard. She’s frustrated with me, quite literally biting her tongue to keep herself from engaging.
“You shouldn’t waste your time by the window is all. It could be hours,” she says, spinning on her heels and gripping the doorknob. She steps through and pauses short of closing it completely. “It isn’t Will’s fault he survived.”
My eyes flutter to a close again, and my chest burns. I hate her honesty. Perhaps because I’ve never mastered it.
She’s right, of course. Every single word out of her mouth is truth. But I still don’t know if my heart can handle seeing Will Hollister, and I think maybe there’s a part of his heart that can’t bear to see me either.
Too many reminders.
Too much that’s familiar.
Somewhere along the way, Evan Hollister and I fell in love. It happened both slowly and all at once. Will left for college, leaving only the two of us to train together in the evening hours. The first time my father left us to swim our laps alone, Evan kissed me. He said he’d been waiting to do it for years, only he lacked the courage. He kept kissing me every day since, until he no longer could.
We both went to Valparaiso together, an unpopular choice Evan made not following in his older brother’s footsteps and going to State. I’d gotten into Valpo, though, and Evan came for me.
I got used to him doing things for me. Coming
to me. Until one day, he didn’t.
The Hollister family loves to fly. Evan’s dad, Robert, had been flying since he was a teenager, probably before he could drive. He had his own plane, and when life got boring, he piled his family inside the cockpit and they took off to see parts of the country. I’d gone with them all…many times.
There was no reason that the Hollister plane should fall from the sky, but that’s exactly what it did on Christmas Eve four years ago. Nobody had to call. A plane crashes onto a country road outside of Knox, killing three on board, and leaving one to fight for his life—that makes the news everywhere in the country. Tragedy…pain and loss. Those are the things that lead at six o’clock.
My eyes were seeing the pictures just as friends and relatives were starting to fill our house with news. I had hope that it was a different plane for almost an hour—as if it could be any other plane. When that was dashed, I began hoping that the one fighting for his life was Evan.
It was Will.
I didn’t want it to be Will, but at the same time…I did.
I keep that thought buried deep, and I’ve never said it out loud.
I haven’t seen Will since days before the crash, which means…years. He was still in a coma when we buried his parents and brother. His body managed to come through the crash virtually unscathed. His head took severe trauma, however. My parents went to see him when he finally awoke, but I couldn’t bring myself to visit. They’re too much alike, he and Evan. I just couldn’t bring myself to see something that was a near match, but not the same, when I looked him in the eyes. It’s the differences that would kill me.
Once Will was released, he moved to Michigan to live with his uncle and complete his rehab. He came back to Indiana a few times—for friends, I guess, and handling his parents’ estate. My dad used to try to tell me about it, and at first, I listened. I actually almost felt a kick in my heart for happy news that Will was improving. But the resentment always took over. It made me feel ugly because I knew it wasn’t fair. I still know it, and I still feel ugly, but I can’t help it. It’s like a sickness, guilt is the only salve.
So I live on a perpetual edge, held up by guilt and the dull ache forever left in my heart because I loved a boy, and fate stole him away from me.
It took me a year of counseling, and my father begging, to get back into the water. It was another year before I remembered how to win. And for the last six months, I’ve started to feel like I can remember how to breathe—how to live without the weight and the constant feeling that something important is missing. I’m going to swim for gold. This is the year. I’ve reemerged, remembered, and I’ll finally be able to consider peace.
Then my dad had to fuck it all up with one phone call.
Will wasn’t looking. He was fine training on his own, working out with coaches in Michigan. Clearly, whatever they were doing for him was effective because, despite falling thousands of feet to the earth in an aluminum tube—that at some point caught on fire—he was back to winning freestyle sprints in the pool. He didn’t need my dad. We didn’t need him. Yet, he’s somewhere on the goddamned sixty-nine highway, barreling southbound right for me, and I can’t hide up here forever.
Eventually, I’m going to have to look him in the eyes.
And eventually, it’s going to hurt like hell.
I’m not sure whom I’m really angry with. My dad for making the deal. Will Hollister for wanting to walk the same path as me. The universe for throwing us in the water together again. Robert Hollister for forgetting one small check in a series of thousands—a critical error that would doom his legacy.
It doesn’t matter, because I’m too far in now. I want to win. The competitor in me is back, with the hunger of a thousand dragons. And Will Hollister is just going to have to be okay with the line I need to draw between us. I can’t get close to him. We can’t be friends. There’s too much Evan there. It will only slow me down.
I move back to the small bench seat and let my forehead fall against the glass, ominously close to the hand print, and eventually the boring wait lulls me to sleep. The crack of a car door slamming shut startles me awake. Before my mind can catch up to reality and realize I’m not dreaming, my eyes see Evan standing in front of a black sedan, his arms stretched above his head, his hat pulled low, and his shirt rising enough I can see the bronzed muscles on his stomach. My arms tingle and my face rushes numb with a single blink.
“Ghosts,” I whisper to myself.
I watch Will walk to the back of the car with a white-haired older man. When they disappear behind the lifted trunk, I leave the window seat and the small attic office, pushing the door closed behind me. I can hear my parents in the lobby, so before anyone calls my name, I grab my keys, walk through the women’s locker room to the pool and leave through the gate on the side to where my car is parked along the alleyway. I crank the engine and look in my rearview mirror. The driveway is clear for me to back out, but I know I’ll have to pass them all as I leave unless I wait long enough for them to move inside. After five or six seconds, though, I decide that saving face isn’t as important as running away. I shift into reverse and back out without ever once looking to the side. When my wheels hit the gravel driveway, I turn hard to pull away. I’m not strong enough to avoid the mirror as I go, though, and I catch a final frame before I disappear through the thick trees around the road. They are all watching me, and everyone looks surprised to see me leave.
Everyone but Will.
* * *
* * *
good the first time I’m seeing Maddy it’s the back of her head as she runs away. She
running away, too. Some things never change, and Maddy has never liked the twist that conflict does to her guts. She always outruns that feeling.