You will know me, p.7
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       You Will Know Me, p.7

           Megan Abbott
 

  Katie knew the tree, an elm that always seemed to erupt from the ground just as you made the turn, springing up like a giant’s claw.

  At night, though, you could barely see it.

  “There were some wreaths and flowers leaning against the trunk.” His voice was slightly breathless. “You never think you’ll know the person.”

  “He hit that old elm?” Katie asked. A picture came to her, blood on the asphalt, like those driver’s ed movies. Ryan’s long golden arm hanging from an open car door. “It can jump out at you after the turn if you’re—”

  “He wasn’t driving,” Eric said. He sounded very far away, like he was talking through wind or his hand was over his mouth. “He was walking.”

  “Walking? On Ash Road?” This revelation seemed worse still to Katie in ways that would prod and tear at her in the hours to come. “Was he…do they know if he was drinking or something?”

  She’d never seen Ryan drink. Once she saw him at a boosters’ barbecue with a nonalcoholic beer snug between two fingers. Sometimes, when glasses were passed around, it seemed like Teddy studied him closely, as if watching for something.

  “It’s not really the safest place to walk,” Eric said. “There’s almost no shoulder.” A pause, the sound of a car horn, of Eric taking a breath. “At that age, you don’t think anything will ever happen to you.”

  Nothing ever felt so true. But the way Eric said it, voice creaking slightly, made her wonder why it felt true for him.

  “Eric,” she started.

  But there was a siren coming from somewhere, and he had to go.

  Hair wet from the pool, slicked back like a miniature financier, Drew stood in front of the Y, head bent over his phone.

  “Business?” Katie asked, stepping out of the car. “Or personal?”

  Just looking at him, Katie felt better about everything. Her sweet, serious boy.

  “Look,” he said, pointing to a silverfish squashed on the sidewalk.

  She smiled. “You’re going to be one of those photographers who takes pictures of taxidermy and headstones.”

  “It’s a night insect,” he said. “It doesn’t have wings, but it runs really fast.”

  He handed her his phone. There were dozens of snapshots, extreme close-ups of metallic scales glimmering, antennae like points on a star. And other photos, beetles and cicadas. An explosion of jewels, a glamorous bracelet fallen, sprawling its gems everywhere.

  “You, kid, are something else,” she said. “Wanna go to the museum?”

  “We can watch the rest of Devon,” he said, shrugging. “I have stuff I can do.”

  He always made it all so easy, never seemed to mind any of it, or at least he never complained. His entire life had been sitting in bleachers. And ten o’clock dinners, weekend trips to far corners of the state, strapped in the backseat for most of his early years, all the hours high up in the stands, the noises of the gym, of all the squeaking girls and mat pounding. Katie tried to make it as fun as she could, bleacher picnics with a steaming thermos of hot chocolate, fat cream cheese sandwiches stained with grape jelly, greasy-papered blondies from Zerillo’s bakery. It was always the two of them, with a stack of coloring books and puzzles and crazy eights. It was the kind of mother-son time they’d never have had otherwise, up there in the echoey stands, their elbows and forearms striped from the aluminum ridges.

  These days, he’d mostly read by himself, books about magic and electricity and volcanoes. Earbuds in, he never seemed to mind.

  He’d never known any other way.

  “It’s damn late, Katie-did. I’m sorry.”

  It was nearly nine o’clock, and there was Coach T. at their screen door, a six-pack of beer sweating in his big red hands.

  “Is Eric around?” he asked.

  From the kitchen window, Katie watched them at the picnic table, crouched over cans of Schlitz. It was a beer Katie didn’t even know existed anymore but that reminded her of her granddad, of long, crowded Sundays with crunched beer cans and football and the front door always swinging open. Every other night of the week, she and her mother had their Lean Cuisines, hands burning on the puckering pouch, but Sundays were filled with leisure and the encroaching smell of pot roast, carrots broiled to tinder sticks. Her grandparents, both long dead, always had real Sundays like no one had anymore—comics in the paper and football on TV and God is great, God is good, we thank you for this food, amen.

  BelStars, of course, didn’t leave room for Sundays like that.

  Silver hair glinting under the moon, Teddy leaned over his knees, shaking the near-empty can, saying things softly to Eric, too softly for Katie to hear.

  They’d been talking a long time, Eric nursing the same can and Teddy peeling off two more from the plastic curlicue.

  Finally, as the neighborhood quieted, the dishwasher cycle shushed, and the beer gave ballast to Teddy’s voice, she could hear them.

  “She’d had a few drinks at dinner, you know? So Ryan drove her back to her apartment in her car and left it there for her. She says she hates herself for letting him walk home at that hour. Just thinking of it makes her want to die. What do you say to that? To your little girl saying she wants to die?”

  “She doesn’t mean it, Teddy.”

  “I only had sons, all off to college and beyond. Not a flipper in the bunch. So Hailey’s special to me. She’s like my own.”

  Teddy peered into the beer can as if looking for something.

  Katie waited, hoping Eric would offer a soothing phrase. It took a long ten, twenty seconds. For a crazy moment, she was afraid he was going to ask Teddy when he was coming back to the gym.

  “Hailey’s strong, Teddy,” Eric said, at last. “She’ll get through this.”

  “Sure,” he said, with a hint of his usual buoyancy and vigor. “Sure she will.”

  Eric glanced over at the house as if looking for her.

  “It’s hard not to think of doing things different, though,” Teddy said, pulling on his ball cap. “I had my worries about him.”

  “What do you mean?”

  Katie moved over to the screen door, so close her earlobe pressed against its mesh.

  “Drugs. He was just a kid. An arrest for possession, no charges filed. Petty stuff.” Listening, Katie felt her eyebrows lift in surprise. “But it makes you wonder. I always had one eye on him. For Hailey.”

  “You have to be that way,” Eric said, shifting in his chair. “You have to protect them.”

  Teddy nodded, pointing a finger at Eric, like That’s right, that’s right.

  “We do. And like my own granddad used to say, if you get down to the nub of it, people don’t change.”

  That’s not true, Katie thought. Not at all. Everyone changed, all the time. That was what was so hard.

  As if sensing her at the screen door, Eric waved her outside eagerly.

  She walked over and when Teddy looked up at her, she could see the measure and breadth of his face under the bug-eyed security light, a look of such weariness, hollowed-out dismay.

  With both hands, she grabbed for one of his massive shoulders, rubbed it. She’d never seen Coach T.—or any of the strong, durable, steadfast men she’d known—like this.

  “Oh, Katie, thank you, honey,” he said, smiling up at her. “I’m sorry to be taking up your night. Sorry to be…”

  His voice drifted helplessly into nothingness, and Katie felt her eyes filling, though it was too dark for anyone to see.

  It was after ten, Eric and Teddy still talking outside, when Katie peeked behind her daughter’s half-open door. At her desk, Devon was leaning over her book, Physics Principles and Problems, brow wrinkled, face close enough to touch the pages.

  “It’s all so strange, Mom,” she said, not lifting her head, her earbuds dangling. Katie hadn’t even realized she’d seen her at the door.

  “Which part?” Katie said, stepping inside quickly.

  “Everyone at the gym was saying things today.” Devon looked up, her e
arbuds sliding off. “I hope Coach hasn’t heard what they’re saying.”

  “What do you mean? About Ryan?”

  “I don’t know,” she said. “Is it true the police are interviewing people?”

  “What?” Katie said. This was new. “That’s their job, honey. Who told you that?”

  “I don’t know. Lacey Weaver, I think. I was trying not to listen.” She flexed her thumbs, staring down at them. “I’ve completely lost my double Yurchenko. My turnaround is pathetic. There was just so much noise.”

  “People are going to gossip. Don’t listen. Just keep your focus. Like you always do.”

  “That’s what Dad said.”

  “You already talked to him about this?” Feeling a twinge.

  “Yeah.” She tapped her highlighter on the edge of her desk for a second. “He said he saw the spot it happened. On Ash Road.”

  Katie looked at her. “He told you that?”

  “He seemed freaked out by it. Is he okay, Mom?”

  Katie felt herself taken aback. “Your dad? Sure he is, honey.”

  They looked at each other for a moment, then Devon’s eyes darted away. Katie tried to hold on to a thought she had, something about how Eric sounded on the phone earlier, but couldn’t.

  Then, realizing: “Devon, are you okay?”

  “Everything feels different.”

  Katie reached out to touch her shoulder. It was the most Devon had talked to her about anything other than gymnastics in so long and it made her want to throw her arm around her daughter, do something. With Drew it was so easy, Drew who would still rest his pelted head against her when he was tired, asking her questions until her head ached from them.

  She wanted the moment to last, to deepen.

  “Honey, did you…did you like Ryan a little?”

  There was a brief silence, the only sound a pop in Devon’s jaw, gum between her teeth. The highlighter rat-a-tatting on the pages of the book.

  Then—“What? No. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m worried because qualifiers are—who said that?”

  “No one. I…”

  “Boys don’t look at me,” she said, uncapping her highlighter pen briskly. Straightening her back.

  “Honey, that’s not true,” Katie insisted. “What—”

  “Did someone say something to you, Mom? At the gym? Because the girls there are all…you know how they are.”

  And she did. They talked about Devon all the time, speculating and watching and wondering. Whenever she appeared in the local paper, they pored over the article for clues. Whenever Coach T. pulled her aside, they tried to eavesdrop, to hear what he whispered in her ear and what she whispered back.

  Still, Katie felt like she’d struck a nerve, the mortification of having someone stumble upon a secret feeling.

  “But, honey, if you did, it’s nothing to feel bad about,” she said gently. “I’m sure half the girls at the gym did. He was so good-looking and nice to all of you. It’s only natural—”

  “I know,” Devon said, cringing back in her chair. “But I’m not like that. Not like the girls at school, talking about boys and their abs and muscles. And their phones. All they do, Mom, is take pictures of themselves all day and send them to each other.”

  “Well, that’s what girls do,” Katie said. “Some girls. And it’s okay if you look at boys. Because, Devon, they’re definitely looking at you.”

  Devon pressed her highlighter hard onto the page, a blot spreading.

  “Everything’s always ending,” she said.

  Katie had no idea what she meant. What was ending? Childhood? She started to ask, reaching out, but Devon pulled her book up, gathered it closer to her face, as if starting to read.

  Like any teenage girl might.

  The hard thud of adolescence still hadn’t fully arrived for Devon, or for any of the other girls at the gym. Like any parent, Katie’d braced herself for it, and then at some point stopped waiting. Ages thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, even seventeen came and went for the BelStars, and their bodies remained flat and smooth as scythes except their perky muscled behinds.

  Once, when she was seven or eight, Devon announced that she didn’t need to worry about growing, as if she could control it through sheer force of will. “I’ll grow a few inches when this is all over,” she said, her eyes grave, as if the words all over bespoke an unimaginable horror.

  We need to get her before she changes. That’s what Teddy had said, all those years ago.

  But Devon’s body didn’t seem to change. It only got harder.

  It wasn’t until a few months ago, February, that she’d had any reminder at all that Devon was a teenager, nearly a woman.

  Arms pushed in the laundry basket, Katie saw it. Glaring at her from the knot of leotards, white, blue, red. The glossy red-brown stain, smaller than a dime, at the center of one crotch.

  At last, she thought, and smiled to herself.

  But it was fleeting, then the next thought: Oh no.

  The Mom Moment anticipated and dreaded was, in Devon’s case, magnified a hundred times. So many years past the expected age, the anticipation had stretched thin, the dread deepening as Devon would talk about other girls who’d “turned,” their hips and breasts slowing them down, heavy and monstrous.

  Can you believe what happened to Michele McAlpine, Mom? She was so good, but look at her now. I feel so sorry for her, all that new flesh dragging her down.

  Whenever Katie asked Dr. Kemper, the BelStars’ favored pediatrician, about it, about what he called “delayed-onset puberty,” he’d assured her everything was fine and it would come.

  “You’ll be sorry then,” he said. “They all are.”

  But it had happened, and Devon held the tampon Katie handed her as if it were a loaded gun.

  “Do you need me to show you how to put it in?”

  Devon looked at her like she might die.

  Together, mother and daughter curled on Katie’s bed. Heating pad, half a muscle relaxant, Devon’s hands between her legs, Katie stroking her hair. It was what her own mom had done, one of the few motherly things she’d managed, her life so full of the tripwires of bad men and paycheck-to-paycheck living and now the slippery signs of early dementia at only fifty-eight, the result of a brain softened by margaritas and two bad marriages.

  “Oh, honey,” she said, her hand on Devon’s back, workout T-shirt stiff with sweat. “It’s okay. Everything will be fine.”

  “No, Mom,” she said, running her hand over her stomach queasily. “You know it won’t.”

  Katie did know. No matter what, it was a sharp slash into the center of your life. It changed things and you couldn’t pretend it didn’t.

  “Don’t tell Dad,” Devon said. “Mom, don’t tell Dad.”

  “Why not?” Katie said without thinking. Then adding, “I mean, of course. It’s private.”

  She knew it wasn’t possible that Devon might fear her dad’s disappointment, that he might see it only as the loss of that aerodynamic missile of a body, low, tight, no drag. An efficient machine. Devon knew her dad better than that.

  (“Oh,” Eric said when she finally told him. “Okay. Well. You sure? She’s so small.” Almost as if he didn’t believe her.)

  “I don’t want anyone to know,” Devon said. “Not anyone.”

  And moments went by, Devon descending at last into some kind of sleep, the telltale shift of her body weight.

  “No one ever tells you there’ll be so much blood,” she whispered, ebbing away.

  “How much blood?” Katie asked. “There shouldn’t be—”

  “No one ever tells you any of it,” Devon mumbled. “No one warns you.”

  “Baby, it’s nature. Your body.”

  “I made it happen,” Devon murmured, and she had to be talking in her sleep. “And now it’s forever.”

  Which was true, in a way.

  The next day, Katie had been unable to stop herself. So she repeated her most shameful act as a mother.
Stretching across Devon’s bed, she dug for it, breathlessly. And there it was, though wedged much, much deeper: the I Heart Everything diary, Victorian-novel-thick, its velvety cover rubbed worn in spots.

  When she opened it, she saw it was no longer the training log it had been a year and a half ago but seemed filled with thoughts, feelings, phrases jumping out at Katie—so nervous! And next year, trig and there’s more homework than ever—but she unfocused her eyes, vowed not to read anything but the most recent entry.

  And there it was, dated the day before and written with silver Sharpie:

  It finally happened. I’m a woman. Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

  The pressure of the pen leaving marks on three pages to follow.

  And that was it.

  A complicated but palpable relief spread through her.

  To know that, deep down, Devon was just a teenage girl in the throes of her first period. A regular girl, with feelings, big feelings she couldn’t explain.

  It was late, and Teddy had finally left, but Katie could still hear Eric outside, returning phone calls, his voice echoing up to the bedroom where Katie sorted laundry.

  She waited for him until she couldn’t wait any longer, her eyes dry-socketed, her body giving way.

  Sometime later, she woke to his hand resting on her stomach, his body collapsing beside her on top of the comforter, the bedside lamp still on.

  They both climbed under the sheets wordlessly and she burrowed up against him, sighing in his ear.

  She was glad she had him to herself at last. His familiar smell, cotton and shampoo and the faint secondhand tang of the Kools his technician Jimmy smoked at SoundMasters all day.

  And later, the lights off and the house quiet, he threw his heavy arms around her, which was her favorite thing.

  Just sunk back into sleep, the light off and socks tugged free, she heard his voice, and it was almost like a dream voice.

  “I saw one of his shoes.”

  “What?”

  “I saw it. One of Ryan’s shoes. On Ash Road.”

 
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