We arrived at the school and a deserted parking lot. Mags parked her minivan at the athletics entrance.
"Are you sure it starts at 6:45?" she asked.
"Positive," I said.
She yawned. "Looks like you're the first one here."
"I doubt it."
Today was the first day of swim season. Tryouts started at 7 a.m. The coach had instructed all wannabe swimmers to be on the pool deck no later than 6:45. My experience as a varsity athlete told me that anyone with any degree of competitiveness had already arrived. I had five minutes to spare.
"Want me to walk in with you?" Mags asked.
My horror at her suggestion must have been all over my face, because she said, "Sorry, having a teenager is new to me. My girls would beg me to walk them into that big, scary building." We looked at the three-storied hodgepodge put together over the years to house Two Rivers High School.
"I can take it from here," I said, sure I’d remember the meandering route to the pool area from the tour we took when we registered for my senior year.
She still looked anxious. "Sure you're all right?"
"Don't worry," I said. "I've got this routine down pat." Two Rivers would be my third high school. I played the role of new girl so well I deserved an Oscar.
I opened the door and hopped out. Reaching back to grab my bag, I said, "Don't hang around waiting for me to call for a ride home. I don't know when I'll get out, and I don't want to mess up your day. I'll walk." Aunt Mags nodded, and I shut the door.
"Don't forget we're going school shopping later on," she said through the open window.
"Got it." I appreciated her taking me out to the mall more than she knew.
“Go get 'em, Aerin." She gave me a thumbs-up.
I shot her a grin, hoisted my bag over my shoulder, and went off to join the Two Rivers High School Girls Varsity Swim and Dive Team.
I found a place to stand against the wall and blocked out the curious glances shot my way, using the time before practice began to check out my surroundings. Aunt Mags had said the natatorium, built just a few years ago, was state-of-the-art.
A wall of windows on the farthest side and a ceiling loaded with skylights filled it with light.
Championship banners hung from the rafters and on clean white walls, touting the team's success over the years, and an enormous leaderboard named all of their champion swimmers and their accomplishments.
The floor tiles were a mosaic of white and three shades of blue.
The six-lane pool had blue and white flags and lane lines, the Trailblazers logo laid out in blue tiles on the bottom.
The air was thick with the smell of chlorine.
I checked my expression, not wanting anyone to see me gaping over the finest natatorium of any team I'd joined. The thought of swimming in it, of calling it "home" for the next few months caused a thrill of excitement in my belly. Around me, the other girls talked and laughed, none of them seeming to appreciate the beauty of the pool and the privilege to use it.
"Good morning girls." A man's voice cut through the chatter, and each girl sat up at attention. "Let's get started."
The voice belonged to an older man, with bushy white hair and bifocals, dressed in the school's colors: navy blue shorts and a white polo shirt. Coach Steven Dudash. I hadn't met him yet – he was out of the building when my father and I visited the high school – but I'd heard good things about him from Maggie and her husband, Pat. He’d coached the Two Rivers boys and girls swim teams for more than 20 years, and they were both winning teams.
He pulled a chair behind him and positioned it in front of the bleachers, sat down and organized the paperwork on his clipboard. “Good morning,” he said, studying us over the rim of his bifocals. “It’s good to see all of last year’s team back for another year. And welcome to those of you here for the first time. I’m happy you decided to give us a try.”
He took a swig from an extra tall cup of coffee before continuing. “For those of you new to the team, I’d like you to meet Coach Denise,” he said, introducing the young woman who accompanied him. “She happens to be my daughter, and I coached her for six years when she swam for Two Rivers. See her name on the leaderboard?” I looked and saw her name posted as the record holder in the 200 IM and the 100 breaststroke. Good creds. “This is her second year as assistant coach,” Coach continued. “She did a pretty good job last year, so I invited her back.” The young blonde smiled at Coach, and the swimmers cheered.
“It’s great to be back,” she said. “Ready to win another championship?”
The applause was deafening.
"Over the next two weeks,” Coach continued when the noise died down, “you'll all be working hard, doing drills both in the pool and in the gym, four hours a day, six days a week. During the season, you'll be practicing from after school until five or six every weekday, and four hours on Saturday. Sunday is a resting day. And, of course, you will compete in swim meets at least twice a week. So, if you don't think you can make it through the first two weeks, you might as well leave now." He paused, waiting to see if anyone would opt out before we even got started. No one moved.
"Okay," he said, moving along. "Most of you know that Two Rivers won the division championship last year, and the two years before. I plan to win again. I need performers, swimmers who aren't afraid to push themselves, to try new things and discover where they best support the team. So, in practice you're all going to swim every stroke, you're all going to swim distance, and you're all going to swim sprints. Each person will do all she can to defend our title."
Silence filled the pool deck as the girls looked each other over, wondering where each would fit in.
"That's the good news," Coach Dudash said. "Now, the bad news. Over the years, the school board has been supportive of our team, and we've reciprocated by working as serious athletes and turning in winning records. Most years, the team can support as many as 38 swimmers. This year, due to a budget crisis in our school district, funds have been cut, and I can only put 28 girls on the team."
Raised eyebrows and shocked inhalations followed this bit of news. I counted bodies: 36.
"Yeah, eight of you will be cut," Coach said, "either at the end of this week or the end of next. Anyone want to leave now?"
Again, no one moved.
Coach Dudash smiled. "I like your level of commitment," he said. "Let's see if you can keep it under pressure."
He spent the next half hour reviewing team policies and going over the schedule for the season. I'd heard such talks before from other coaches and tuned him out while I studied the other girls, trying to figure out what their position might be on the team.
Most of them focused on Coach’s every word, but last year's champs ignored him and whispered among themselves. One of them, a lanky girl with sun-bleached hair and a killer tan, looked over the group of wannabes and held up her fingers one to five, scoring them, I guess, on whether or not they had a chance. Her friends snickered, trying to act cool as if they were paying attention to Coach instead of fooling around.
At last, the lanky girl's frosty blue eyes rested on me, and I met her gaze straight on. We stared at each other for a few seconds before she looked away first, then held up three fingers. It seemed she was ambivalent: I could go either way.
I was ambivalent too. I joined this crowd as a walk-on,
someone with no history with the team and questionable ability. In their eyes, I was no better than a wannabe who needed to prove herself to gain a spot on the team and the other girls' respect.
I showed up because it's what I did at the start of the school year. Swimming was my only sport, and in the past, I'd been good at it. Real good. Still, I almost skipped tryouts today.
The truth was, I didn't have the energy to join a new team, in a new school, for the third time. I was here to satisfy my parents. I didn't plan to stay in Two Rivers for long, so there was no sense forming any ties. I came here to swim and not make any waves.
The glimmer of challenge in the way the lanky girl looked at me caused a stirring in my gut, and I shot it down. I didn't come here to get involved in any personal challenges. I just wanted to get through the senior year and go away to college, away from my troubles, and on to a new life that I could control. I turned away from the girls judging the rest of us and focused on what Coach had to say. At last, he stopped talking and let us get in the pool.
I got behind the wannabes and dived into lane 6, the slow lane. I started stroking freestyle, breathing on the third stroke, taking my time. I came into my rhythm and swam lap after lap, gliding through the water like an eel, oblivious to the other girls around me. I focused on the black line on the pool's floor, kicked off the walls with a light push, and kept pace with the swimmer in front of me.
After I had finished the set – 1,000 yards - I stopped for a break and pulled off my goggles. Catching my breath, I looked around and watched the others. In the two middle lanes were last year's champs, moving through the water in flawless formation, making perfect turns. In the other lanes, the wannabes and the slackers struggled to make it from end to end, splashing needlessly, their arms and legs out of sync.
"Hey," said a voice behind me. I hadn't noticed the swimmer who'd popped up in lane five. She pulled down her goggles and peered at me with the most exquisite blue-green eyes, like robins’ eggs, the lashes dark and thick and not from mascara. "You're new here, aren't you?" she asked, a little breathless.
I nodded, still wondering about those eyes. Contacts?
"I'm Mel," she said.
"Aerin," I answered.
"Where are you from?"
"Manhattan," I said.
"The city?" she asked, her eyes lighting up.
"That's the place," I said.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, then said, "Sorry. I mean, Two Rivers is such a small town. We almost didn’t make it on the map."
"No problem," I said. I liked the way she looked, her face open and honest as though she were genuinely interested in me. "I needed a change."
"Change? In senior year? That's weird."
I raised my eyebrows.
"I don't mean you're weird," she was quick to clarify. "I just think it's weird someone would want to change schools in senior year."
"Well, it wasn't like I had a choice," I said.
A whistle blasted right behind us.
"Cut the chit-chat, girls," Coach Dudash said. "No time for talking. Now start over."
Mel and I groaned, pulled on our goggles, and pushed off the wall.
Forty minutes later, we sat on the pool deck as Coach wrapped up practice.
"Great first practice, girls," he said. "Go home and get some rest. We have another early morning tomorrow. First cuts are on Friday."
A lot of grumbling combined with excited chatter. The lanky bleached blonde who had been judging us all earlier raised her hand. "Hey Coach," she said, "What's up with the Allison Singer scholarship?"
"Jordan, thank you for asking that important question." Coach waited for us to stop talking.
Mel sat across from me, and I mouthed, “What?”
She smiled back and mouthed, “Listen.”
"Allison Singer called me the other day," Coach said. "She is very disappointed that no one has broken her record."
"So does the challenge still stand?" Jordan asked.
“Oh yes,” Coach said, trying to keep from smiling. "And she tells me she’s had such an excellent year business-wise she's increasing the scholarship."
All around me, the girls sat in silence, some wearing expressions that showed they had no idea what Coach was talking about. Others leaned toward him, waiting on his every word. I was clueless and studied my nails. Whatever he was saying, it didn't have anything to do with me.
"The scholarship is now at 50,000 dollars."
Last year's champs broke out in a collective whoop. The rest of us looked at each other like dopes. What was going on?
The lanky blonde, Jordan, was the loudest. "No way!" she shouted. "Hear that Tati? Fifty grand."
The tiny brunette sitting next to her ducked her head. "Wow," she said, "that's a lot of money."
"And you're gonna get it," Jordan said, "Right, Coach? I mean, she's four and a half seconds from breaking the record. She'll do it this year, won't she?"
All eyes were on Tati, who blushed and shook her head. "No, not me,” she said. “Swimmers faster than I am have tried and failed. I probably won't make it either."
"What kind of an attitude is that?" asked Jordan. "You've got to think positive, Tati."
Coach stared at Tati. "She's right," he told her. "Be positive, Tatiana. You’re the best distance swimmer I've had in years. If anyone has a shot at breaking Allison Singer’s record, it's you."
Her teammates erupted in cheers.
"Go home, now," Coach said, rising. "We start again early tomorrow morning."
We all made for the locker room, showered, and changed. I took my time, lagging behind the others. I noticed Mel was in no hurry too, and we ended up leaving together.
"So, what do you think?" she asked as we headed out the door.
"It's okay," I said. "Like any other practice."
"You swam in the city?"
"Well, yeah, I didn't just start today. Why, do I look like a wannabe?"
I'd started swimming at age five for a big club in the city. For most of those years I swam eleven months out of twelve. When life as I knew it came to a dead stop after my parent's divorce, I moved out of the city to live with my dad in the suburbs. I quit my club and left my awesome coach. I wasn't done with swimming though, and joined the team in my new high school because it was the only team in town. Over the last four years, I went back and forth from one parent to another, from the city to the suburbs, and from club swimming to varsity. It was a complicated system, and I tried to meet my goals and my potential, but after what happened to my mother last spring, I quit swimming. There seemed little point in going on. I hadn't been in the pool for months. Still, I doubted I was so out of shape I'd be mistaken for a wannabe.
"You've got a good stroke," she said. "What are your best events?"
"The 200 and 500 free. You?"
"Sprinter, short and fast races. Ever win any titles?"
I bit my tongue. I wanted to swim under the radar here. If anyone found out I was the division champ the last two years in club and varsity they'd expect great things from me. I didn't want the pressure. Swimming was my therapy. I wouldn’t let anyone mess that up. "Nope."
"Me neither," she said. “I’m a fill-in.”
“A what?” I hadn’t heard the term before.
“I fill in second, third and fourth place. I don’t win much.”
I must have looked shocked at her admission because she said, “It’s okay. A team can’t win a meet with first place finishes alone. It needs to pick up points in second, third, and fourth. That’s what I do.”
“True,” I said and changed the subject. “What were they talking about back there? What's with the fifty grand? Who is Allison Singer?" We'd left the building and started walking across the parking lot.
"Allison Singer holds the school record for the 500 freestyle. She made it way back in 1989."
"That's more than 20 years ago. What is it?"
"Wow! She's a jet ski!"
"She held some other records too," Mel went on. “The 100 and 200 free, and she was on all the relays, but they were broken a few times since. No one has broken the 500, but many have tried. For the last ten years, she's offered a scholarship to the swimmer who does. Every year the amount goes up."
"Where does she get the money?"
"She's brilliant. She created that video game Snakes and Dragons. You know it. Everybody plays it."
I did know that game; I played it myself. No wonder she could give away 50,000 dollars.
"She's good to the team, too," Mel went on. "She sponsors our pasta party the night before the Spartans meet and comes to the Division Championships."
"Who's gonna break that record?"
"Who do you think? Tatiana Reese."
"The little girl with the curly hair?"
"She's four seconds off?"
"Four and a half."
"That's pretty close." She’d most likely succeed.
"Everyone thought she'd break it last year, but she got hurt during our last home meet – shoulder injury – and she couldn't get back up to speed before the season ended. We were all disappointed."
"What's her best time?"
“She's a rocket." I knew one other girl who swam the 500 faster.
"Her father sent her to some big swim camp this summer in California where she trained with a bunch of Olympians, so I bet she's faster than ever."
"Lucky her," I said.
"What's your best time in the 500?"
"Not as fast as Tati's," I said, dodging the question. It could be true – I hadn't been to any elite swim camps this summer. Or ever.
"Good, because if anyone else breaks the record Jordan Hastings will have a fit."
"What's up with her?" I already disliked the lanky blonde.
"She's Tati's best friend."
"Is she any good?"
"She's all right. She made the Division Championships last year but not the finals. Tati came in second in both of her events. She was supposed to win."
"Anyone else make finals?"
"Lots of us. Erica Duczeminski won the 100 fly; Taylor Maddox took the 200 IM. Ashley and Kris placed second and third in the 50. And we had lots of fill-ins, including me in the 50 and 100 free. We won two relays and the division title."
"How many teams are in the division?"
"Coach thinks this year's team will be even better, but I'm not so sure if we drop to 28 girls.
"Are you worried?"
"No," she said. "This will be my sixth year on the team. I'm solid."
"Do you plan to swim in college?"
"Of course. Don't you?"
I shrugged. "I'm not thinking that far ahead."
"So," she said, "you never did tell me. What brings you to Two Rivers?"
Everybody asked that question, and I'd perfected an answer weeks before I moved here. The half-truth rolled off my tongue with ease. "My mom's an Army nurse. They deployed her to Afghanistan, and I chose to stay with her best friend Maggie Flynn and her family and finish school here."
I hated lying, but I couldn’t tell anyone the real truth. My mom, an Army nurse, had returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan a wounded warrior, with shrapnel implanted in her hip, chronic pain, an opiate addiction, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She stole drugs from her employer, from her patients, and a coworker turned her in. Given her situation, the judge was lenient but sentenced her to the minimum: six months in a correctional facility where she would also receive treatment for her addiction. It was a long, sad story, and not one to share with the kids at Two Rivers High School. They’d never understand that Mom was more victim than criminal.
"What about your dad?" Mel asked.
"Not an option. My parents are divorced. He's remarried and has a couple of bratty step kids. I stayed with them in tenth grade while my mom did a tour of duty in Iraq, and I hated every minute. When Maggie offered to let me stay here, I jumped at it."
"Starting at a new school must be hard."
I shrugged. "This is my third high school. It's a piece of cake."
Mel came to an abrupt halt. "Three high schools?"
"Keep walking," I said, "and yeah, three different schools in three different places." I counted off on my left hand. "Freshman year I lived with my mom and went to school in Manhattan. Sophomore year I stayed with my dad because my mother was in Iraq. He lives in Westchester County, so I had to go to school in his town. Last year I was back in the city with my mom and went to my old school. Now I'm here."
"That sounds tough," Mel said.
That was an understatement, but I never revealed my weaknesses to anyone, especially someone I just met. "It was okay."
"So three different swim teams," she said.
I nodded. "I swim for myself. I'm not into the whole team bonding thing."
She looked at me with reproach. "Coach Dudash is big on team bonding. He wants all of us to be friends and support each other. He says that's the foundation of our success: Everyone cares."
"Well, that might work for you guys, but I just do my thing and don't get too involved with everything else." Indifference was my suit of armor and kept me from exposing the multitude of hurts that dwelled within my head and heart. I hid them well, not wanting to be the recipient of pity, or worse, too many questions.
We'd been walking for almost twenty minutes. Mags' house came into view. "Where do you live?" I asked.
"Just a few blocks from the high school," she said.
"So why are you walking all this way with me?"
"I wanted to get to know you."
"You're crazy," I said, but I was happy she went out of her way to talk to me. I loved Mags, her husband Pat, and their kids, but I needed a friend my age to hang out with because it was my senior year, and, although I was the new girl, I still wanted it to be special.
"There's Aunt Maggie's house," I pointed to the white colonial with the blue hydrangeas draped over the picket fence bordering the front yard.
"Pretty house," Mel said. "Don't the Flynn's have a bunch of kids?"
"Five. Paige is twelve, Danny is ten, Timmy is seven, and the twins, Mary and Sarah, are five."
"So you've gained a whole family."
I smiled. "I did. It gets a little chaotic, but most of the time it's great always having someone around. My mom works twelve-hour shifts and lots of overtime when she's home, so I'm on my own a lot."
"Do you have to share a room?"
“No, Mags set up a place for me in the attic with air conditioning and everything. Do you want to see it?"
She pulled her phone out of her pocket and checked the time. "Not today," she said. "I need to get home. We have company coming for dinner, and I promised my mother I'd help her get ready. Maybe next time." She repositioned her backpack across her shoulders. "I've got to run. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yeah, and thanks for walking with me.”
She grinned and turned around, heading back the way we came.
I entered the house, and seconds later the twins and Salty, their old yellow lab who still barked at me like I was an intruder each time I entered, rushed at me. Their enthusiasm at my appearance was still a novelty and made coming home a happy time. I dropped my bag to the floor and gave each one a pat on the head.
Aunt Mags sat in the living room by the window with a dog-eared Dr. Seuss book on her lap. "I see you made a friend already," she said, smiling. She was a pretty woman, dark Irish with intense blue eyes and overlapping front teeth.
"Is that Melanie Ford?"
"Her name's Mel. I don't know her last name."
"Her mother's Dr. Ford, our pediatrician. She’s in the Lenten Sewing Club with me." Even with five young children at her feet, Mags always found time to serve on community groups, especially those sponsored by her church. "The Fords are a nice family. Melanie and her brother, Justin, are both swimmers."
"She didn't say anything about a twin brother."
"I'm sure you'll run into him. He helps out at all the girls' meets. He’s the announcer, among other things."
"So I guess I'll see him. What’s to eat? I'm starving."
"I made waffles. Pop a few in the toaster."
I went off to the kitchen in search of carbs, scarfing down the rest of Aunt Mags' delicious waffles, a bowl of cereal, a banana, and a tall glass of OJ. Swimmer's diet.