You will know me, p.6
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       You Will Know Me, p.6

           Megan Abbott
 

  The lower-level girls, tender and pink-faced, hived together in their BelStars leotards, their feet so light, dipping their heads in the quietest of sobs.

  Not so with the older ones, the Level 10s, who remained poker-faced, as they did after a big loss, an accident on the floor. With their matching solemn expressions, arms crossed, ponytails tight, and posture erect, the 10s ranged from ten to seventeen but all looked the same age. Under five feet, each was one of two types. The ballerinas, graceful, spritely, and pixie-ish; and the powerhouses, the corkers—barrel-thighed, thick-necked fireplugs who succeeded by strength and will and shoulders like a man’s fists.

  All of them, Katie knew, had, long ago, learned to shake off, hide tears. Even, it seemed sometimes, to sort of reabsorb them, draw them back inside so no one else could see.

  They had learned it from watching Devon, though she had never needed to learn it herself.

  As Eric talked briefly with Gwen, with fretful Molly Chu, as Katie helped Drew pack up his things, Devon slowly drifted from them, walking farther and farther toward the empty center of the massive gym.

  Chapter Five

  “I just can’t believe it,” Katie said. “Who does something like that and just drives away?”

  Next to her in the car, Eric was making calls, talking on the phone with one booster after the next.

  “Well, I know…yes, but we can’t get into those questions yet, and you know it, Jim.”

  In the rearview mirror, Katie could see Devon’s face, her eyes glassy.

  “Do we send flowers?” Drew said. “When Mr. Watts’s wife died, you sent flowers.”

  “Yes,” Katie said, relieved to have someone talking to her. “We’ll do it right away.”

  “And I’ll call Teddy tomorrow,” Eric said, setting down his phone, rubbing his face wearily, “after they’ve had some time.”

  Then the car went quiet, just the pfft-pfft of the tires on the highway, and Katie flitted back into her thoughts. No one that young, with eyes so bright and the loping walk of a boy who would live forever, be a boy forever, could die.

  Abruptly, Devon spoke.

  “Poor Hailey,” she said, her voice high and grasping. “She loved Ryan so much.”

  “I know, honey,” Katie said.

  In the mirror, Katie saw Drew looking at his big sister, puzzled and maybe unnerved. As if he’d never seen her so openly upset, but probably he hadn’t.

  “I’m sorry,” he said to Devon in that lisping voice of his.

  Devon looked at him, startled, like she’d forgotten he was sitting next to her.

  “It’s so, so sad,” she said, more quietly now, to no one in particular. “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

  Staring helplessly into kitchen cabinets, wondering about dinner, Katie could hear through the laundry chute. The whir of the treadmill from the basement.

  First canceled practice since February’s snowstorm, and qualifiers six weeks away, Devon wasn’t going to let her body go soft.

  “I wish she’d just take it easy,” Katie said.

  “She needs to work off some of these feelings,” Eric said, reaching out to knead her shoulder.

  Neither of them was saying the thing they were both thinking: the rotten, rotten timing. Right before qualifiers.

  “Becca said Ryan just bought Hailey a ring,” Katie said, remembering. “He was going to propose.”

  Eric looked at her.

  “Oh Jesus,” he said. Then, after a pause: “He was so young.”

  Katie drew a bath for Devon, even lit her favorite Island Nectar candles.

  “It’s okay to feel bad,” Katie said. “We all liked Ryan.”

  “Thanks, Mom,” she said, but she wouldn’t meet Katie’s eyes, just like after a bad meet, when she’d hide in the concessions-area restroom, as if she’d been caught doing something shameful. As if everyone had seen her with her clothes off, or read her diary.

  The bathroom door closed behind Katie.

  They were never home this early, and for a few minutes, Katie didn’t know what to do with herself.

  “Mom,” Drew said from across the kitchen. “You said you’d take me to Petorium for more shrimp eggs.”

  “More? What happened to all the ones we did last night?”

  “The container spilled in the garage.” He pointed to the recycling bin, a squashed two-liter bottle, its sides veined with crusting salt. “I have to do it all again.”

  “Tonight?” she said.

  But he looked so anxious, she couldn’t say no.

  On the drive, Drew seemed unmoored by everything, asking a hundred questions about Ryan (But how do you know he died right away? How does breaking your neck mean you die?).

  But once they returned home, the science project focused him.

  He looked so serious, measuring the rock salt, studying the dried shrimp eggs under the light, and taking notes, pencil tight in his careful fingers.

  And he never said anything about what happened, seemed to have forgotten it deep in the marrow of his effort. Of the winning project he was creating.

  He was like Devon that way.

  Nearly midnight, Eric clapped his laptop shut, lifting his handsome head and watching as she turned off all the downstairs lights, one by one.

  She couldn’t remember the last night they’d gone to bed at the same time. Eric working fifty hours a week, Katie working twenty-five from home, creating commercial logos, designing annual reports on her overloaded computer between carpooling, car repairs, more errands. They had such a meticulously coordinated schedule, calendars synced, pop-up reminders, both of them always needed somewhere and then always coming home to the rest of it. All their duties hung like heavy raiment over them all the time, only the sight of Devon spearing into the air lifting them up.

  So it was nice to walk up the stairs together, the only balm on a gloomy day.

  “I sent out a mass e-mail,” he said, “to try to settle everyone down.”

  Walking past him earlier, she’d seen his in-box filled with breast-beating messages from parents, the gym’s Facebook wall cluttered with concern and prayers. What shocking news! Has anyone talked to Hailey? God bless him and keep him. He was loved by all.

  “The Connors told me they already saw a wreath on Ash Road,” he said. “They said it’s that spot with that dangerous turn. The hairpin.”

  Lying in bed with the cruel clarity that can come in late-night thinking, Katie foresaw how hard this would be for the gym, a tear in the seam of everything.

  Ryan had been such a welcome and constant presence since that very first day he’d arrived at BelStars to help build the landing pit. That dark ruff of hair and easy smile, he was always around, waiting for Hailey in the parking lot, at competitions. Who could forget him selling raffle tickets out of the Weaver’s Wagon or wielding the power hose at the booster car wash, his T-shirt soaked through? The younger girls had squealed, whispering behind hands. The older ones, Devon’s age, twitched and fidgeted helplessly, their faces red.

  For the BelStars girls, he was that perfect crush age, the older-than-high-school-boy-but-not-yet-dad guy. So many of them homeschooled or marginally schooled, he was the only young man in their lives. Part of it was an infatuation with Hailey too, unerotic (probably) enchantments with Hailey’s sun-bleached hair and swimmer’s shoulders and womanly body, so different from their own straight lines (whenever anyone asked her why she hadn’t been a serious gymnast herself, she’d laugh and say, “Not with these,” finger guns aimed at her apple-round breasts).

  The girls marveled over Ryan’s gallantry, the way he carried her gym bag, opened doors for her, bought her perfume and chocolate-covered raspberries on Valentine’s Day. The flush of their love, his devotion. Even their lovers’ quarrels, like the epic one at the Ramada Inn almost two years ago, were part of their allure. Their fights were exciting, and always ended with a flashy clinch.

  And now he was gone. For all of them.

  Being a g
irl is so hard, Katie thought. And it only gets harder.

  The next day, Monday, they arrived to find no Coach T. again, his absence like a new scar.

  “I don’t understand,” Molly Chu said, “why he can’t at least be in communication with us.” She looked at Katie. “Have you heard anything? There’s a rumor that the police are very involved.”

  “I don’t know,” Katie said carefully. “Aren’t the police always involved with a hit-and-run?”

  The other parents in the stands nodded, all eyes returning to the floor. Bobby V. and the skills coaches were straining to simulate a normal day, but without Teddy, that great oak in the center, it felt awkward, stilted.

  There was a peculiar tension among the girls, all of whom wore the blank expressions and big eyes of figures in Keane paintings. No one would listen to the substitute tumbling coach pitching in for Hailey or to the halfhearted drilling by Amelise.

  Girls kept falling. Dominique Plonski rolled her ankle in the landing pit and limped off to her mother’s arms.

  At the vault, Devon struggled with her Yurchenko, the first twist so painfully slow she couldn’t make the second. Foot hopping on the dismount, her face dazed and puzzled.

  Then, from the corner of her eye, Katie spotted Gwen Weaver’s approach, that shimmering bob and sleek purple jacket, the one Molly Chu called a Glamorak.

  “I went to Coach T.’s house, to pay my respects,” she said. “Hailey was there, but he wouldn’t let me see her. The doctor sedated her because they couldn’t calm her down.”

  “How horrible,” Katie said, shaking her head.

  “It is,” Gwen said, almost impatiently. “And, you know, Hailey’s nerves run high under the best of circumstances. But I thought you might know more.”

  “Me?” Katie said. “Why would I know?”

  Gwen shook her head, her eyes veering to her daughter, Lacey, charging down the runway. The number-one vaulter in her age group, Lacey still couldn’t approach Devon’s talents at her age, much less Devon’s now, legs fused, all air and drive. When Devon’s palms hit the table, everyone gasped. Up she went, a torpedo. What was gravity, then?

  “Jump big, like you dream!” Gwen shouted, one of her favorite motivational phrases. They both watched Lacey spring onto the vault table, lock into a handstand—mouth open, that slightly panicked look in her eyes always, like a wee bird that couldn’t believe it was flying—then somersault off.

  “Well, I’m sure Eric’ll hear more. Teddy confides in him,” Gwen said, leaning on the riser, rocking on her knees. “Did you know Hailey had to identify the body?”

  “No,” Katie said, wincing. She wondered how Gwen knew so much. But she always did—which gym let girls skip levels, which one sandbagged, the parent-lobby drama at the one on Route 7, and the gym over in Hartswood where a coach had a cozy live-in-guardian situation with a sixteen-year-old gymnast.

  “His skull was crushed,” Gwen said, and Katie felt her body tighten. “When I was little, my mom ran over our border collie, Hanro. I saw the whole thing from my bedroom window.” She paused. “Obviously, this is much worse.”

  Neck snapped, skull crushed. Katie couldn’t say anything, and she wanted Gwen to stop talking.

  “That’s why I never let Lacey have a pet,” Gwen concluded, unzipping her jacket with a jerk and leaning back.

  She thought of Ryan, that graceful boyish body, how he moved so easily, his arm like a slip of silk sliding across Hailey’s shoulders, head dipping. At Weaver’s Wagon she’d always see him coming from the kitchen in his line-cook apron, that bright ribbon of teeth, waving to the booster club, to Eric, to her.

  “I have to go,” Katie found herself saying, rising abruptly, gathering her bag, book, headphones. “I’m taking Drew to the museum after swim class. I’ll be back.”

  “Right,” Gwen said. “Well, I’ll talk to Eric later. About everything. A plan.”

  “A plan?” Katie felt her ponytail unfurling slowly from its band but didn’t want to stop to fix it. She hadn’t intended to leave or take Drew to a museum, but now it seemed like the perfect thing.

  “I wouldn’t say it to everyone,” Gwen said, lowering her voice and moving closer, “but we do have to think ahead. I don’t need to tell you Elite Qualifiers are forty days away. I know Devon’s had that clock ticking inside her for two years.”

  “You’re right,” Katie said. “You don’t need to tell me.”

  “Teddy says he’ll be back by tomorrow,” Gwen continued, “but who knows if he’ll be in any condition to address gym issues. I’m going to send out some feelers.”

  “Gwen, this isn’t the time. It was just two days ago.”

  Conversations with Gwen often felt like assaults and Katie never knew when to duck. Best to duck the whole time, Eric always said. He suffered the most, from the constant e-mails, the way she tried to dominate at meetings, the courting of other club members for key votes (“Gwen took me to Haven for a spa day and we talked a long time about the new floors. And I think the extra money is worth it. It’s a safety issue, really”).

  She’s passionate, Eric once said, with a shrug.

  She’s passionate when you agree with her, Katie replied.

  She was nearly to the final set of steps, nearly free, when Gwen called out after her.

  “Oh, and Katie,” she said, swooping down the steps like a falcon. “I meant to tell you, it was so nice of Devon to come to Lacey’s party Saturday night. The girls look up to her so much. I always tell Lacey: do as Devon does.”

  “She wouldn’t have missed it,” Katie said. She couldn’t summon much memory of Saturday as separate from any other night. Laundry. Lawrence Welk bleating from Mrs. Martz’s house next door. Going to the dollar store, late, for rock salt for Drew.

  Had she gone to bed early? When had Eric taken Devon to the party? Had Devon had any fun at all?

  The only thing she could recall vividly was that two a.m. surprise. Feeling Eric reach across, sleepily grazing the small of her back, the tenderness turning so quickly into something else, his hands between her thighs. Something different about it that she couldn’t put her finger on, but it made her face warm now just thinking about it.

  By then, she realized with a jolt, Ryan Beck was probably already dead. The thought was so odd and ugly, she shivered.

  “So how is Devon dealing with all this,” Gwen asked, looking closely at Katie, “with Ryan?” As if she could read her mind.

  “It’s hard for all of us.”

  “You know how dramatic girls can be at that age. With their crushes.”

  “Crushes?” Turning too quickly, Katie nearly lost her footing on the bottom step.

  Gwen paused, looking at Katie, blinking three times.

  “Well, who didn’t have a crush on that sexy young man?”

  “Everyone liked him,” Katie said, dropping her foot to the floor.

  “Didn’t you?” Gwen added, head tilting like a debutante.

  “I wasn’t the one who bid a hundred bucks for a dance with him at the spring booster auction,” Katie said, returning the head tilt.

  Gwen’s eyebrows lifted. “The things I do for BelStars,” she said, laughing throatily. “Though he couldn’t samba to save his life.”

  Katie flinched, but Gwen seemed not to notice. “As for Lacey,” she continued, relentless, “she appears to be constructing a kind of pagan memorial altar.”

  “Well,” Katie said, “that’s not really Devon’s way.”

  “No,” Gwen agreed. “That girl’s all head. Ice, ice, baby.”

  Katie started to nod, and then stopped.

  Radio crackling, antenna thwacking in the wind, Katie turned the key over and over again, knowing she was flooding the engine, but anything to shake Gwen Weaver’s voice from her head. Every conversation, she dropped in a half dozen tiny bombs. You only realized after, when the ticking grew louder.

  Neck snapped. Skull crushed.

  Crushed.

  And crushes. Had there ever
been a more perfect word for a feeling? The way the girls looked at Ryan—sometimes it had made Katie’s heart hurt. She wished she could spare all of them the pain of those infatuations. The ones doomed from the start.

  They were all, including Devon, young for their age in many ways. And so inexperienced in the countless ways boys could break your heart.

  Her phone rang, the violin strokes of “Assassin’s Tango.”

  “Eric,” she said, fitting on her headset, “I’ve been calling you all day.”

  “I’m sorry,” he said, sounding tired. “Was I supposed to get Drew? The car’s been giving me trouble. That goddamn alternator. It’s going to cost us another two hundred when that goes. And it’s been so busy.”

  When Eric first started as an audio engineer at SoundMasters, back when Katie got pregnant and they decided to get married, it was going to be temporary. But everything happened so quickly, Katie’s growing belly and the city hall nuptials and a mortgage. Except it turned out he was good at it, very good, with his way with people and his “sensitive ear,” and eventually he’d taken over the business.

  Sometimes Katie convinced herself there were parts of the job he liked, in the dark studio, that cocooning, the way he could curl into himself, ears trained, and eyes sometimes shut.

  Occasionally, he seemed lost in it, in sound, and it was hard to shake him out.

  Devon’s concentration, her single-mindedness, it came from him, from Eric.

  “Frank from WKBR called,” he said. “You know how last-minute he is. And they use these cheap mixers, so I had to go back to the studio and get one of our own.”

  “For tonight’s news?”

  “Yeah.” A pause so long she thought she’d lost him. “They sent me over to Ash Road.”

  “Oh,” Katie said. Neck snapped, skull crushed.

  “They were shooting that redheaded reporter. A standup in front of that crooked tree, her talking about the accident.”

 
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