The pound on the door is harsh and fast. I’ve been up for more than an hour, but it still startles me as if I was roused from a dead slumber.
“Rise and shine. We’ve got some serious conditioning to do,” my dad says, his voice trailing off as he moves down the hallway.
“I’m up!” I yell, my voice sounding defensive, like a teenager rather than a twenty-three-year-old who’s had her own apartment and knows how to pay her bills on time.
I glance at the water bottle on my floor then push it over on its side with my foot.
“Half as hard as this, huh?” I chuckle to myself.
I grab my packed bag and slide my feet into my flip-flops before opening my bedroom door. My mom ordered a mattress so I wouldn’t have to sleep on the futon now residing in my old bedroom. It’s an odd mix of things that used to define me in this den-slash-guest room my mom transformed the space into the second I signed a lease near the university. It didn’t make sense to spend the money on a place while I was here, especially since it’s temporary, so for the next few months, this time warp is my home.
Dad is already in the driveway with the car engine running, and my mom is holding a power bar out for me to take along with one of her special drinks.
“I can drive myself,” I say, ripping the bar open and taking a bite before leaning into her and kissing her cheek.
“Yeah, but he likes this idea of you and him doing this together. Humor him. Underneath that tough-guy persona, he’s scared shitless,” she says with a wink.
My mouth tugs up on one side.
“Fine,” I sigh, feigning frustration with a roll of my eyes.
“Good girl. Now drink your shake. You’re going to need the energy,” she says, shoving the smoothie into my right hand. It’s green, and her shakes make me gag, but they seem to do the trick.
I tilt the glass and take a big gulp, turning before she sees my disgusted face. My dad has his music on when I get in the car, and I’m hit with a second whammy—Abba’s greatest hits.
“Are you and mom trying to make me quit?” I ask, raising a brow.
“What? Who doesn’t like Abba?” he says, turning the music up and singing along, off-key as always. I shake my head and smile, looking out my window while I force the rest of my drink down, chasing it with what’s left of my protein bar so I have some hope that I don’t burp the awful flavor up over the next four hours.
When we get to the club, a few other cars are in the lot. I know most of the swimmers. A lot of them aren’t really ready for this, but one or two have a shot at some of the distance trials. There’s only one that I’m interested in, though. And by interested, I mean interested in avoiding.
Will’s already warming up when I pass by the glass doors to dump my things in the women’s locker room. It’s going to be impossible not to look at him. I came to terms with that fact sometime around three in the morning. I’m going to have to get used to looking at him; I need to become numb to the similarities. Only now that I’m here, at the pool, faced with the reality of actually looking at him, I’m not so sure I’m strong enough.
I sit on the bench and let my head fall back against the metal locker door behind me, pulling my phone into my palm. I text Holly.
I think I made a mistake.
That’s the thing I love most about my best friend; I can be raw and honest with her. She’s one of a handful of people I’ve always been able to cut through the bullshit with and get right to the heart of things. The other two people were Evan and Will.
My phone buzzes with her response.
Don’t be a pussy.
I laugh out loud.
After tucking my phone away, I push my locker closed and grip my goggles and cap tight in my hand. It’s just a pool. Fifty meters that I can cross in seconds. My lane—I see nothing but my lane. I remind myself of the words my father used to tell me when I got nervous before a race when I was a kid, and it works for the few seconds it takes me to walk to the pool’s edge.
And then nothing will help. Nothing could ever help, or ever will help this. Will is standing on the opposite end, dripping from warm-ups, his body strong and similar. His hair wet…and similar. The blue of his eyes…piercing.
There are maybe a dozen other athletes around—splashing and chaos between us—my father whistles, orders to begin, but we’re both locked in the past, and I just can’t seem to tear my eyes away. The hurt is almost good. It reminds me that something real was in my heart once, and as much as I want to run away from it, in this moment, I also want to hold onto it. I want to remember what exceptional felt like so I make sure I never settle for less. I wonder if exceptional comes along twice in a lifetime?