Coach allows me the pleasure of swimming all the way up to the arrival of the opposing team. I know it's a ploy – intimidation – but it's still nice to get some extra laps in.
Knowing her ploy, I play it up a little, swimming faster than I usually would, just to show off what they could have been up against. They'll figure out soon enough that I'm not here to compete.
"Okay, Michael," she calls as I reach the close end of the pool.
When I pull my head free of the water, she waves to me, an unspoken indication it's time for me to get out. I nod in return and pull myself effortlessly from the pool and climb onto the deck.
Coach hands me a towel. "Go get your warm-up suit on. You can sit the bench even."
"Really?" I say, elated. In the two years I've been eligible for the swim team, I've never made a meet. One reason or another has kept me from seeing what actually happens at one of these. I mean, practice meets have given me a gist, but, I'm pretty keen on taking in the main event.
I rush to the locker room, run under a quick shower to clean the chlorine off my skin, and then dress – fearful of missing even part of the upcoming events. Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I wheel out the locker room and swiftly walk back to the team's bench. I take care to tuck my duffle under the edge of the bench and then lean forward, folding my hands between my knees, and watching the teams prepare for the main events.
It's fascinating how the events are organized – team events staggered between individual heats. Watching the progression through the different events stirs a hollow longing to truly be a part of the team – to be able to compete.
I laugh humorlessly as I remember someone suggesting a "gemue swim team" so we could all compete against each other. Only… even if all of us were down for that kind of segregation, which we're not, there would only be ten of us. That's not a swim team, that's a few people competing in a couple of events.
Besides, being gemue doesn't guarantee swimming prowess. Some of the students I've seen haven't swum a day in their lives, despite their genetics. Other aquatic gemues, having to swim every day just to get to and from their homes, have no desire to swim competitively, even if they are good at it.
I rub my hands together as that thought completes itself. The grin lingers as I continue to soak in the competition.
Several time I find myself leaping to my feet and cheering on our team on as several races are so close it's almost a photo finish. We don't always win them, but the adrenaline rush is amazing. I also find I'm giving unsolicited advice to my team mate – tips and trick I've picked up that would help anyone swim faster. The part that is astounding, is that they are listening to me.
My feeling of acceptance grows once again.
As I high five Arturo Cruz for a spectacular last-minute dig for the first-place win on the 200 butterfly, he actually says, "Thanks for that tip, man, it really saved my race."
A warm feeling spreads through me as I reply. "Glad it helped!"
I am doing some stretches while I'm on my feet and in the process, I notice one of the girls in the audience. She is waving enthusiastically towards the two of us, and I think she's trying to get Arturo's attention. I tap him on the shoulder as I sit down next to him. As he glances at me, I point behind us and say, "You've got a fan."
His gaze jerks around for a moment, only to drift back to me. His expression is more than a little confused. "I don't know her, man. You sure she's not looking to get your attention?"
"Huh?" Once more, my gaze swings for the audience. The redhead looks a bit flabbergasted when I find her again among the crowd of on-lookers. When she sees me looking, she once more waves enthusiastically.
"Michael!" she calls.
Anything else she tries to say is drown out by increasingly loud cries of horror from the crowd. They rise to their feet, engulfing her before I can figure out who she is, and in turn why she's saying hi to me.
Torn between finding out who my mystery admirer is and the action taking place in the pool before me, I decide to find out what's got the crowd in an uproar. I face front, just in time to see an upset over one of our best team swimmers by the other team.
Our supporters disappointed sounds are almost matched by the small group here to cheer the opposing team on.
"Damn," Arturo and I say simultaneously. Then we both laugh.
As the people in the stands resume their seats, I glance back again, seeking out the redhead. It doesn't take long to find her, and I find myself staring, even as she shrugs about the interruption and smiles my way.
I'm mortified when I realize it's Andrea. Heat moves into my ears as I wave back, and make an apologetic face, hoping she gets the meaning.
We've seen each other in passing since last year, say hi in the halls whenever we see each other. Despite her friendly overtures, she never really asked to rejoin our group or hang out this year. I've noticed since, she runs in a completely different social circle than I do.
But still, it bugs me that I didn't recognize her right off the bat. So, at the next long break between events, I stand up from the bench and head over to the stands. They're pretty empty by this point with only an event or two to go.
I stomp up the benches, listening to the thrum as it vibrates the metal, and then pause just in front of her.
"Hey, Andrea," I begin.
She beams up at me. "Hi, Michael!"
"Sorry, I didn't immediately recognize you," I scratch the back of my head in embarrassment.
Andrea laughs shortly. "Well,I didn't realize you were on the team. Guess we're even."
Twisting, I sit down on the bench a respectable distance from her and sigh, "Uh… no. Coach gave me a special invite tonight."
"Oh?" Her interest is evident in that one word. "I would think they'd kill to have your skill at hand."
A crooked, embarrassed grin crops up on my face. "Well, I was. But, even then, I couldn't compete with them." I shrug on the tail end. "Then I had to forfeit my spot after November happened."
"Oh, bummer they didn't let you race." She does a double take after her brain processes the other half of my statement. "November? What happened in November?"
The heat in my cheeks comes back three times as hot. Pushing up my sleeve, I show her the house arrest band. "Almost went to Juvie for defending myself," I huff.
I find myself feeling guilty for making it sound like I was completely innocent.
"Oh, that," she says, her tone and the wave of her hand dismissive. "I think everybody overreacted on that, big time. Anybody would have done the same if they thought they were going to get beat to death."
I lift my brows at her. I want to dissuade her from undermining how badly I mangled three people in my defense, but it's rather nice to hear that someone isn't strongly traumatized by the news.
Or scared of me.
"So, what are you doing here?" I ask, never staking her as a water-sports kind of person.
"Oh! Collette is on the medley relay team. I come to be her moral support for home meets."
I follow where Andrea is pointing to see Collette – whom I hardly recognized – stretching and practicing the wall touch for her portion of the relay. "That's nice of you."
"So now I have two reasons to come," she smiles widely at me.
"Did you miss the part where this is a one shot?" I laugh.
She shrugs. "You never know."
I spend what little is left at the meet listening to Andrea talk about things – which change moment to moment – one moment about our combined knowledge of swimming to the ocean to sailing? It's a bit quicksilver, but I'm having fun trying to keep up with her seven degrees of separation.
When I see the last heat coming to a close, I turn to Andrea and say, "Well that's my cue. My payment for being allowed this privilege is to help Coach get things put away. So, I've got to go."
She smiles and nods. "I understand! It was good talking with you again, Michael! We'll have to do it again sometime!"
"Likewise!" I answer, rising with a flattened posterior and stiffened legs. "Take care, Andrea!"
With that, I tromp back down the benches again to the pool deck and head over for Coach. I skip the last two steps before I stop in front or her.
Appearing dubious about me remembering the list of things she needs to get done before leaving, she tics them off anyway.
"Got it," I assure her. Immediately, I turn away and begin taking care of things.
Coach is my ride home. The faster I get things done, the more padding I'll have on my Cinderella minus three curfew. I don't even want to come close to that deadline.
As I'm working, I'm appalled to see that maybe two others – team members – and I remained behind to help pick up equipment and personal items and trash from the pool deck. The rest have scattered, cockroaches when the lights of work come on.
I'm picking up dive goggles, jackets, even abandoned swim trunks from the team's area. I mean, the visiting team did a better job of picking up after themselves than we did. Under Coach's orders, I toss them in a lost and found bin located in the storage room next to the diving board. When I return, I help coach and some night shift janitorial staff get the pool covered again.
When everything looks to be in order, I grab my things and return to Coach's side. She's glancing around the pool deck with a slight look of incredulity on her face.
"Huh," she utters.
"What?" I ask, a twinge of guilt going off in my gut for no apparent reason. "Was there something else we missed?"
She shakes her head, shooting me a small grin. "No. That just went faster than normal." With a sigh she adds. "Well give me a minute to get my things and we'll get you home."
I nod, glancing around the pool deck, feeling as if I've missed something despite Coach's assurances to the contrary. I shift from foot to foot, feeling time pressing on me as Coach is rummaging through her office. I can't help the relief that floods through me when she returns a few moments later.
As she heads my direction once again, she shoos me towards the exit. "Gotta secure the lights."
"Oh." My body reacts quickly to the idea of being caught in the dark. I may not have inherited Dad's poor vision, but darkness is a bit of a weakness. As I clear the edge of the entrance the darkness nips at my heels, killing the light.
I turn back towards the pool building, wondering how Coach is going to get out of there without hurting herself. Twelve seconds later she emerges from the gloom, shoving her hand in a jacket pocket and pulling out keys.
She pulls the heavy metal door closed behind her and secures it. "Well, that's that," she sighs as she turns my direction. "Let's get you home, Cinderfella."
She smirks at me when I groan. I hadn't realized she'd overheard Uncle Steve's reference to my curfew. She starts towards the few vehicles left in the parking lot and I fall in half a step behind her. The truck she's heading for is completely filthy, hiding its true shade behind streaks and textures and globs of mud. The mud flaps are caked in it, and the windshield's only clean surface is where the wipers have cleared the dirt so the driver could see. Big knobby tires leave the doorframe about mid-thigh, running boards the only thing making it possible for anyone to get into the truck without gymnastic being involved.
As Coach pushes a button on her fob, the lights flash, and a deep bleat lets us know we'll be allowed entrance.
"Okay, as promised, you're in the back seat." She points that direction as she grabs the close handle.
Dutifully, skirt the front end of the truck and open up the right rear passenger's door. While I begin to climb up, any hope of sitting down is thwarted by a wall of equipment and other stuff. My gaze moves up the pile in dismay.
"Oh," Coach says when she sees why I hesitate. "Just shove that over – onto the floor."
"Uh… okay." As I'm pushing items around, I feel weird and guilty for touching someone else's things. When there is enough space for me to sit and access the seatbelt and buckle, I quickly climb in. Time is pressing yet harder on me to get home.
I buckle up and nod at Coach Palmer.
She returns her attention up front and the truck growls to life. Before I can really settle in, she accelerates and whips a hard U-turn to get at the driveway behind us.
Grabbing for anything to stabilize myself, I question the wisdom of accepting her offer and pray I get home in one piece.
When her driving smooths out after that initial craziness, I manage to relax somewhat.
"So, I was thinking," she says before I can settle my muddled thoughts. Seems she's feeling uncomfortable with the silence. "Who do I need to talk to, to… I dunno… get you to come to the last two meets of the season?"
"Wh… what?" I blurt, goggling at the back of her head.
A snort escapes her. "Don't think I didn't notice you giving advice to your teammates."
I feel completely abashed, my face and ears get hot. "I… I'm sorry Coach, I didn't mean to…"
Her laugh comes harder this time, cutting off my apology. "Sorry? For helping your peers improve? They were excellent suggestions." She glances back a moment. "I noticed. Those that listened swam better."
"Oh." I glance away, embarrassed for a completely different reason. "I just… there's things you pick up when you grow up swimming all the time."
She nods, pursing her lips. "You seem to know your way around the events pretty well, and I could use someone to help with score keeping and stats for the swimmers. If I can get you dispensation, would you be interested?"
I'm stunned by the offer. "Uh, yeah! Thank you, Coach."
"So, who would I need to talk to about that?"
When Coach Palmer and Uncle Steve convince the judge that my being involved in a positive social activity will do me good, I am elated.
It's a case by case basis and my conduct at each meet will determine if I can go to the next meet. So, I am minding my manners carefully, fearful of losing this tentative new freedom.
Being scorekeeper is work. I have to keep accurate track of multiple events occurring at the same time throughout the night. It's also more responsibility than I thought, but I am really enjoying being part of the team dynamic again. The first meet Coach stayed pretty close to be sure I was getting things right in the logs – er, rather I had to tail her around the pool deck. But once she was confident in my record-keeping, she allowed me a longer leash.
This particular meet is an away game and required a significant adjustment to my normal house-arrest schedule. This meet promises to put me home after ten tonight, simply for the distance we've traveled to get here. Good thing it's a Friday night or I would be wrecked for school tomorrow.
As we're wrapping up the 100-meter freestyle, I hear my name being called in a familiar voice.
I spin towards the bleachers and notice Andrea waving enthusiastically my direction. While I wave back, I can spare her no more attention, because I have to switch pools to record the results of the next race.
It's more than an hour later before I can catch enough of a break to even say hello. I dash over knowing the break will be brief.
"Well you came a long way to watch Collette compete," I breath.
She smiles grandly. "Well there was another incentive to be here, you know."
I tilt my head to one side, hearing something in her tone I can't quite make sense of. Before my brain can dig to deep on it she continues.
"I see you found a way to get further away from your anchor." She leans on the side rail, batting her green eyes a few times. "Who'd you have to pay off to make that happen. Or…" she straightens a bit, "did you get your sentence shortened somehow?"
I glance down. "No, still have some time left on that clock. Coach helped convince the court I could use a positive outlet, so I'm helping with stats for these last two meets."
"NICE!" she utters, her smile growing more brilliant. "Maybe after that they'll consider letting you out of your sentence earlier?"
"Well, I'm not going to count on it. But I would be happy if they did," I answer with a heavy sigh. Behind me I hear the call for the next race, and turn to grimace at Andrea. "Sorry to cut this short, but I gotta get back to what I was doing."
"Sure, catch you later!" she says, leaning back in her seat.
I wave a final goodbye as I head back to the pool deck. Another hour is consumed by me frantically making sure our swimmers scores, times, and places are all recorded, and I find it's a relief when the last race concludes.
I turn in the tablet to Coach Palmer and then head over to help the team gather all our gear. The other team members are much more diligent this time around, probably because of the fact that we're fifty miles from home and no one wanted to lose gear.
The work is done quickly and the team starts heading for the bus. I realize I haven't gotten my bag from under our bench.
"Coach?" I call. When she gives me her attention I add, "I'll be right there. I left my bag."
"Don't be too long!"
I dash over and snatch my bag from under the bench. When I turn back around, I pull up short of running Andrea over. When she snuck in behind me, I don't know.
"H… hey, Andrea," I stutter, my voice higher than normal due to my surprise.
"Hi. Sorry," she squeaks realizing what she had done.
"You're still here?" I ask slinging my bag over my shoulder.
"Yeah." She shrugs and her cheeks turn red, making her freckles disappear in the process. "Collette's folks are picking us up and they're not here yet."
"Oh, cool." I start back for the bus, and Andrea matches my pace for a little bit.
Just before we get to the door, Andrea says, "Michael?"
I turn because she's stopped. "Yes?"
"Do you like me?" The red in her cheeks gets yet brighter, nearly matching the flaming red of her hair.
I tilt my head, hearing that same tone I caught earlier. "Well, yeah. I mean I know we haven't seen much of each other, but yeah, I like you."
A small unsure smile rises on her lips like the morning sun. "Would you…" Clamming up a second, she shoves her hands in her pockets hard, which lifts her shoulders. Her gaze has shot off to the side, and she has captured her lower lip between her teeth.
A pang in my gut announces the connection. Yet I give her the space to ask the question – and me to figure out my answer.
Finally, she screws up her courage enough. "Would you go out with me?" Her green eyes lift to meet my gaze, big, doe-like – her lip is back between her teeth. It's like she's expecting me to reject her proposal.
I look away a moment, considering longer still whether I'm ready to give dating with someone other than Mandy a try.
"Sure," I reply jauntily – though I'm not necessarily feeling it. But pining over or dwelling on Mandy isn't good for my health either.
I deserve my own measure of happiness, don't I?
Andrea's reaction is like a nova. She smiles brightly and is practically bouncing on the balls of her feet. She rushes over throwing a hug around my neck, swaying side to side.
A moment later she leans back far enough and plants a kiss on my lips. I back away quickly for her sake. She looks hurt a moment as I move her to arm's length.
"The last time someone kissed me," I start breathlessly. "They nearly lost the tip of their tongue."
She blinks, relaxing when she realizes I wasn't necessarily rebuking her. "Oh, yeah, huh?" She flushes. "I'll remember that in the future."
I smile warmly. "I really should get going, Coach is not above leaving me here if I drag my feet too long."
"Sure, I've got to meet up with Collette anyway. See you at school Monday?"
I flash my sharp teeth before nodding. "Sure! You know where we hang out, right."
"Yeah," she answers. "Bye!
The stupid, smitten grin clings to my face the entire way to the bus, and the entire ride home.
A/N: Geez... this one took me way too long to get out the door... I've had in mind what to do with this chapter for a while but threading it together proved tougher than I thought.
So here we go. I think we'll have an epilogue chapter to follow this! So we're almost there!
Thank you to all who read and reviewed! Please let me know if something needs tweaking!