You will know me, p.3
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       You Will Know Me, p.3

           Megan Abbott
 

  A week later, Eric had confided to Katie that Devon had come to him to ask if she could start wearing Dance Paws at the gym so it would be harder for people to see. Because even Mom thought her foot made her look like a monster.

  Hearing it was like a punch in the stomach.

  “Why didn’t she say something to me?” she asked Eric, and he said she was probably embarrassed.

  She always assumed Devon never really thought about it, the telltale white rings of scar tissue banding her forefoot. It just doesn’t feel as much, she confided once. She had less sensation there, and could hold the beam longer without pain. But she never felt pain anyway. Not like the other girls. Besides, her feet, both of them, were, more than anything else, the feet of all gymnasts. Ripped and peeling from the beam. Deformed, clawed, just like that nightmare Drew once had (Devon was a chicken hawk, Mom. With needles instead of feet).

  “I’m the worst mother ever,” Katie said, and Eric shook his head, reassured her.

  That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself. Especially Devon, who kept so much inside.

  “She’s a thinker, a worrier,” Eric sometimes said. “She never stops.”

  A serious girl, that’s what all her teachers said. An intense one.

  Old beyond her years; they said that too.

  That was what gymnastics did, though. It aged girls and kept them young forever at the same time.

  And the face Devon wore at three years old, full of stiff determination and a native opacity, was the same one she wore at BelStars today, her nimble body spearing over the vault.

  Ice Eyes, the other girls called her. Staring at her from the sidelines. They all wanted to be like that.

  Look at Devon, Coach T. always said. She doesn’t give away any of her secrets.

  Chapter Two

  First the Foot, then the Fall. Katie would always wonder if the first begot the second, but she was certain both begot what came next.

  “Whatever happens today,” Katie assured her, Devon’s face drawn and ancient-looking, the oldest thirteen-year-old in the world, “we’re so proud of you.”

  “But I don’t know if I’m good enough, Mom,” Devon whispered in the muffled dark of the garage, waiting for Eric and Drew. “I really don’t.”

  It was the day of Junior Elite Qualifiers.

  At last, Devon Knox would compete and become a Junior Elite gymnast, as the Track had prophesized, set in Sharpie.

  And so what if it was happening a year later than they all wanted? That hamstring injury, which Devon concealed from them for months until after one long practice, the back of her leg turning an angry violet. It looks like grape jelly, Drew had said. Or a smooshed beetle. But now the hamstring was long healed, and this was Devon, after all. She would make up for lost time. She was still on the Track.

  “You can do anything,” Katie promised as Devon finally slid into the backseat.

  “That’s what Dad said,” she whispered. “You guys always say the same thing.”

  The four Knoxes, Drew swinging from his parents’ hands, entered the building, a conference center, a hundred girls and their twitchy, caffeine-palsied parents hiving everywhere.

  Today: Elite Qualifiers. Registration to Left. The banner so modest, like it had been rushed off at the copy center moments before.

  This next step was a big one, but they were all big. Everything with Devon was big.

  “Bye,” Devon said, waving as she walked backward, slight as a grass blade, into the Gymnasts Only area.

  Next up, Devon Knox!

  High in the stands, Eric clasped Katie’s hand.

  There Devon stood, on the competition floor. Four feet ten inches tall, nary a curve on her, but her dark eyes heavy with history, struggle. Squinting down, body pressing forward, Katie wondered at those eyes, that face. It was as if this weren’t her teenage daughter but a woman deepened by experience, a war-battered refugee, a KGB spy.

  She has a sense of mystery, she’d heard a judge say once about Devon. Like a sphinx.

  And it was true. Where did it come from?

  A nearly fourteen-year-old girl but with a voice like Minnie Mouse who still slept with her good-luck stuffed animal, the same plush tiger she used to hold, age eight, between her knees on the horizontal bars, trying to keep her legs together.

  Except out there on the competition floor, her eyes like hawk slits, that little girl was gone.

  Beam, floor, bars. She was achieving.

  Yes, there were a few stumbles, which were surprising but nothing that couldn’t be overcome. Katie could barely breathe, Eric kneading his jean legs with red hands. More than ever, watching Devon had become a profound experience for them. Taking in each routine with their whole bodies, every nerve on high, their hearts jammering against each other. Because she was theirs, but now she was also so much bigger than they were.

  “She’s got this,” Eric said now, knocking the bench as he said it.

  But then it happened.

  Devon’s final routine, the vault.

  Eric’s fingers laced in hers, Katie watched their daughter stand at the foot of the runway.

  Watched her gaze fasten on the vault table, four feet long, three feet wide, its white spring top like a shiny orb, a womb.

  Watched her jump up once and explode into her sprint.

  Catapulting into the air.

  Glorious height, strong landing.

  And then, in a heartbeat, it happened.

  On the stick, her feet safely on the mat, Devon’s right ankle rolled slightly, and one foot landed just outside the corridor. Only an inch, maybe. (The judges would say it was a shoulder’s width.) And, yes, maybe there was the slightest of wobbles. A minuscule ankle cave.

  But Devon lifted her chin high, her face showing no sign that anything had gone wrong.

  When the final scores came, however, Devon was out. By seven-tenths of a point.

  Down on the floor, Katie wanted to sweep her daughter into her arms, but you weren’t allowed, and all she could do was reach for her shoulder, squeeze it.

  “It’s all over. My life’s over,” Devon said, looking up at Katie, her hand shaking slightly as she pushed back a stray strand from her ponytail. “You know it is.”

  Words every adolescent says—grounded, a humiliation at school, first crush.

  But Katie secretly felt its partial truth. No Junior Elite meant no Senior Elite, which meant—she could see the black marker skating across Coach T.’s flow chart—no national team, no international. No Olympics.

  Devon’s life wasn’t over, but her life, their lives, had changed, in a foot bobble.

  “Everything’s gone,” Devon said, eyes shut and face twisted. “Now there’s nothing.”

  “Honey,” Katie began. Then, the words slipping from her mouth, the words that would haunt her for years to come, “You’ll compete in college, the best programs in the country will want you. Gymnastics aren’t everything. The Olympics were a long shot anyway.”

  The look Devon gave her in return was so savage Katie flinched.

  She knew at once she’d been wrong to say it, at least so soon, in the teary heat of everything. But it was too late.

  There was an awful quiet second, Katie stuttering, before Eric seized Devon’s shoulders, making her face him, look into his eyes.

  “Hey,” Eric said, “we’re coming back. This was just the first shot. Next qualifiers, we’ll be here. You’ll nail it.”

  This is why I married him, Katie thought. Why hadn’t those words come out of her mouth?

  Instead, the shameful thought whirring in her head was You’ve fallen off the Track. You’ll never make the next Olympics now. By the one after that, you’ll have pendulous breasts and dragging hips. You’ll be too old, an ancient nineteen.

  “I don’t want to do it again,” Devon said. “Ever.”

  In the weeks following the Disappointment, everything see
med to shift, perceptibly.

  Before, they’d all stay at the dinner table long after the plates were cleared, talking about new recruits, about Devon’s hand rips, about the gym’s aging equipment, and about the need for an inground pit and a new spring floor.

  But now, Devon spent dinnertime in her room, over her homework, headphones never leaving her ears. Which is what teenagers did, but Devon wasn’t a teenager, really. Not like other teenagers.

  “I just wish she’d talk about it,” Katie said.

  But Devon had always held her feelings so tightly, as if balling them up in her clenched fists. Even when she got a staph infection from the torn flaps on her hands and they had to drain fluid from incisions on her palms, she would not cry. She refused to.

  Her brother, Drew, always slipping around corners in the house, small and invisible, told Katie he’d peered through Devon’s half-open door and seen something.

  “She made a mess,” Drew said, shaking his head. And he told her how Devon had pulled a milk crate of old stuffed animals out of her closet and dumped them all over her bed, teddy bears and Beanie Babies, so many monkeys in leotards, and the bright, blazing stuffed tiger she’d so loved.

  Katie looked in later and found Devon buried under them, sound asleep, surrounded.

  “What matters is that she doesn’t let this shake her,” Teddy told them, having summoned them to his home for the postmortem. “You can’t let her see your disappointment.”

  “We’re just disappointed for her,” Eric clarified. “She wanted it so much.”

  “Well, don’t be,” he said sharply, eyes on them both, chin lifted. “Because she’s not like us. She’s better than all of us.”

  On the car ride home, Katie put her hand over her face.

  “I made it worse. I shouldn’t have said that thing about the Olympics. About—”

  “No,” Eric said, eyes on the road, “you shouldn’t have.”

  In the weeks that followed, Katie decided to give Devon her space. She spent more time with Drew, their little stalwart, just starting first grade, pullet head perpetually bent over his science projects, the ant farm, the earthworm composter, the tree-bark samples lit over a can of Sterno, stopwatch ticking in his hand. There was so much going on in his head that she hadn’t known before.

  Each night, however, Eric sat beside her in bed and watched the footage from the qualifiers over and over. Studying it, rubbing his face, trying to make sense of it. It was all he talked about, his eyes twitching from the screen.

  “Eric,” Katie finally said one night, “stop.”

  But the next day, he came home with a thick catalog from Champeen Athletics.

  “I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” he told Katie, nearly bouncing on his toes. “We all know it. The equipment’s been holding Devon back. We need to push Teddy. We need that inground pit.”

  “A landing pit?” Katie said. “She doesn’t need a pit. Teddy always spots her and he’s never missed.”

  “Katie,” he said, his eyes glittering with energy, his hand pressed on her wrist, “I’ve been reading about it all day. There’s so much I didn’t know. Gymnasts who practice their vaults with a pit to cushion the impact have fewer injuries and perform better in competition. It’s easier on their joints.”

  And then, more quietly, he added, “And it helps control the fear.”

  “But Devon has no fear,” she said, and he wouldn’t look at her. For the first time, it felt like he knew something she didn’t about Devon. Or thought he did. Watching the video from qualifiers again and again, he thought he’d figured something out.

  But Katie had her own theory. After all, the foot that had bobbled—why, it was the same foot that had been caught in that mower blade. Part of her wondered if that slim bit of flesh where the skin-graft tissue sealed over might have played some small role.

  Sometimes, she caught Devon looking at her foot, examining it very closely, and wondered if she was pondering the same question.

  “The landing pit is the solution, Katie,” he said, his hand on her arm, eyes fixed on her. “I’m telling you.”

  It was so hard not to believe him, his palm pressed on the catalog’s glossy page, the photo of the enormous pit dug deep into a gym floor, filled to the brink with bright foam cubes like casino dice.

  “I want to support this, Eric,” Teddy told them, “but I ran the numbers.” He jabbed the catalog page, his butcher’s thumb over the price. “That dog won’t hunt.”

  “Teddy—” Eric began.

  “It’s gonna have to come from the boosters,” Teddy said. The BelStars Booster Club, a barely functioning klatch of four parents who held an occasional bake sale to buy competition tees, preshrunk.

  “Tell you what,” Teddy said, “why don’t you show them the Eric Knox charm?”

  And Eric did, inviting them to the house for dinner, making his famous (only) dish, Cajun gumbo, extra hot sauce, and drawing each of them out with earnest questions, lavishing them with attention. Within days, an election was called just for him. Four votes were cast and Eric was the new president of the BelStars Boosters.

  “We’ve always hoped Eric would get involved,” Kirsten Siefert, the booster secretary, said, adding snidely, “I guess this is what it took.”

  Within days of the election, the BelStars Boosters issued a calendar of revenue generators: summer camp, free gym days for the community, party-room rentals, a car wash, smoothie days, a pro shop carved out of the parent lounge. And Eric recruited sponsors, a local dry cleaner, a tanning salon, their logos splashed over leotards, water bottles, tracksuits.

  But most important of all, he got Gwen.

  Gwen Weaver, the owner of a fleet of parking lots and of Weaver’s Wagons, a mini-chain of family-style restaurants that would prove perfect for cost-free pizza parties, fund-raisers, booster meeting sites. The woman who had single-handedly funded a new junior-high gym floor when her daughter was still in elementary school. Her daughter, Lacey, happened to be an aspiring gymnast.

  “She’s the one we want,” Eric had said, pointing Gwen out to Katie at a town meet.

  The serious-looking woman with the ash-blond bob and the cat’s-eye sunglasses. When she removed them, scanning the gym, Katie was reminded of something Drew had told her: Never make eye contact with a wolf. The wolf will take it as a challenge.

  “First we poach the daughter,” Teddy said, joining them, nearly rubbing his hands. “Then we make the mama treasurer. After that, nature takes its course.”

  And so, a dinner was arranged.

  Shaking her head in wonder, Katie watched as Eric put on his crispest white shirt, his sole tie (later, Gwen gifted him a second, a woven silk one that came in a long green box, when he was honored with State Booster of the Year). He even polished his best shoes with his dad’s old shine box.

  When he came home a few hours later, a little drunk, his face bright, nearly pumping his fist like he never did, even at big competitions, Katie had to laugh a little.

  “She’s in,” he shouted, spinning Katie around the bedroom, her head knocking the lamp, the lamp rolling across the floor and sparking as if in joint celebration.

  Her husband, like a military general, fortifying the flanks. Or, in this case, after a few more wine-soaked dinners with Gwen, maybe more like an ace salesman. A confidence man. A gigolo. Because the long meals always turned, at some point, to talk of the poor state of the tumbling mats, the spring floor, the vault table, and, most of all, of the need for a landing pit.

  So Gwen emptied those deep, silk-lined pockets, and they got a new elite spring floor, new mats, new fiberglass bars to replace the wooden ones, new everything.

  All that was left was the pit.

  There was a dinner party at Gwen’s home, a cherry-walled wonder so grand that Katie felt as if the hushed click of her modest heels on the floor was in bad taste.

  She hadn’t even wanted to go. She dreaded leaving Devon alone these days, her daughter emerging from her dark b
edroom only to take showers, her shoulders hunched, hair covering her face, as if she were no longer a gymnast at all.

  “Gwen,” Eric said, training those gray eyes on her, “look what BelStars has done for Devon. She’s on track to compete nationally. Your daughter can bloom here. We can do this, together. We can make BelStars a place all our girls feel challenged and supported, motivated and inspired. There’s only one thing stopping us. One investment we need to make, together.”

  “And what is that, Eric?” Gwen said, eyes narrowing.

  “What else?” he said, smiling lightly. “A pit. We need a pit.”

  And, remarkably, Gwen nodded. “Of course we do.”

  “Gwen likes the soft sell,” Coach T. whispered to Katie, shaking his head in wonder. “And no one sells softer than Eric.”

  And that very night, all of them flush from old wine and something called drunken prawns, they walked into Gwen’s study and watched as she flipped open her massive white-leather checkbook binder and, fountain pen in hand, signed in her swirling script.

  All for that inground landing pit, which, Katie calculated, cost more than a year of their mortgage payments.

  “It’s a must for Elite training,” Gwen told Katie, as if Katie didn’t know. As if these very words hadn’t come directly from Eric himself. “We shouldn’t skimp on our children’s dreams.”

  “No,” Katie said, “we shouldn’t.”

  “It’s a disgrace,” she added, handing over the check, “that we’ve waited this long.”

  All of this, Eric managed. As if he were born to it.

  It was an Eric Katie hadn’t seen in years and years, maybe even since their first, frenzied dates, those seven-, eight-hour adventures of shots and pool and soul-sharing and Katie hanging over the edge of a mattress, breathless with wonder over him. Nineteen-year-old Eric, who wanted so many things he couldn’t begin to name them all. Or any of them.

 
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