My 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…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 gets 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.
Will Hollister, 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 is 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 no, 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 you. 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 last word that will get tossed around in any of my headlines.