You will know me, p.8
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       You Will Know Me, p.8

           Megan Abbott
 
“What do you mean?” she whispered, pushing against him, claiming the cool space on the sheets between them.

  “He got hit so hard he was knocked out of them. One rolled down into the ravine. They missed it the night before. But there it was.”

  “That’s not true,” she found herself saying. It just seemed too awful to be true.

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “Forget it.”

  He was still whispering in her ear for a while, saying things that Katie couldn’t hear, his mouth on the back of her neck.

  She wasn’t sure why, but they were breathing so hard, like there wasn’t enough air for them both.

  Chapter Six

  “Kirsten, tell them what you told me. About Saturday night.”

  All of them were straining toward each other, phones in hand.

  Gwen, Molly Chu, Becca Plonski, all the regulars, their tinted water bottles tumbled at their feet.

  Katie had stationed herself far from everyone, her laptop propped on her knees. With Drew off in the rec area, absorbed in the timeworn Puzzle Bobble video game, she could put her earbuds in, focus on the screen, and get some work done. And not have to talk about things.

  But they were unusually loud today, a level of animation typically reserved for an injury, a bad call at a meet, the time Missy Morgan’s mom was ejected for spitting on a judge.

  “…at Randello’s. They were in the corner booth. Everyone knows that’s the engagement booth. It must have been just a few hours before the accident.”

  It was Kirsten Siefert. Standing above them, holding court. She almost never came to practice and had asked on her first visit where the pommel horse and rings were (At the nearest boys’ gym, ten miles over, Gwen had snapped). Today, however, she brought an invaluable tale from Saturday night.

  “He looked as adorable as ever, but Hailey did not look her best. Sweats and no makeup. A girl with those shoulders needs to wear makeup. Greg and I decided he must’ve sprung it on her. Maybe she suspected something, because she couldn’t sit still, practically jumping out of her seat the whole meal, didn’t touch her primavera. Boy, did that sweet boy make her wait!”

  The story felt more than a little gilded, but it was sad to hear, just the same.

  Hell, let’s do this thing had been Eric’s proposal all those years ago. The circumstances so different, a beer-can pull tab as an engagement ring, cutting her finger so badly it bled for hours, and they didn’t care. I never thought I’d get married, Eric kept saying, dazed and smiling. I never thought I would.

  They’d known each other five months.

  “So how did he do it?” Molly asked, huddling closer to Kirsten.

  “I didn’t see the actual proposal part,” Kirsten admitted, puncturing the moment for everybody. Then, trying to recover through sheer conjuring, she added, “We were waiting for an engagement ring in a tiramisu. Then champagne. What a romantic guy, right? And a gentleman. You know, Ryan always opened the door for me.”

  “Me too,” Becca said, rubbing her wrists together. “He always did. Every time.”

  “Once he gave me a jump in the parking lot,” Molly added, face pinkening.

  “Champagne? On his salary?” Gwen said, stroking one groomed eyebrow. “If that happened, I better have Carlos check the bar supply.”

  No one said anything for a minute, or looked at Gwen.

  Kirsten took a seat next to Molly. Something still seemed to be fluttering behind her eyes, in her mouth.

  “But it was odd too,” Kirsten said, slowly. “Greg saw her on his way to the men’s room. He said her face was dirty.”

  “What?”

  “Sweaty. He said she looked sweaty and worked up.”

  Katie glanced at Kirsten, who didn’t appear to like the turn her own story had taken.

  “Then we looked up at one point and they were gone,” she said, more quietly now. “And the dessert just sat there, melting.”

  “Well, that’s just sad,” Becca said. “Gosh.”

  There was a pause, then Molly said, “But why did he walk home? Who would walk on Ash Road at night? Jim nearly got sideswiped running there years ago, I won’t let him near it.”

  “Maybe they had a fight,” Gwen said. “She was a moody girl.”

  “Hailey?” Kirsten said. “Come on. My girls are in love with her. Tansy wants to marry her.”

  Gwen’s mouth twisted. “She wasn’t just sunshine and vanilla cupcakes.”

  “What does that mean?” Katie interrupted, jerking her earbuds out. “And why are you talking about her in the past tense?”

  Everyone looked at Katie, then back at Gwen, who shook her head ruefully.

  “I’ve seen things you haven’t. That girl has eyes on the back of her head. She’d surprise Ryan at the restaurant. Wanted all the waitresses to know he had a girlfriend. Young women can be that way. Especially when they lack self-worth. It’s not a criticism. It’s just the kind of person she was. Sorry, is.”

  “Well, she loved him,” Becca said, punctuating with a head nod. “Loves him. Loved him.”

  “Hailey was a runaway, you know,” Gwen continued. There was no stopping her now, that mouth of hers, its lilac lines whirring, like a clatter toy.

  “Her mom kicked her out of her house when she was just thirteen,” Katie said. “That’s not a runaway.”

  Gwen shook her head. “Teddy likes to tell it that way. Auntie Tina told me the truth once. Auntie Tina likes her gin and tonics.”

  And Gwen proceeded to share how Hailey had snuck out of her bedroom window with her mom’s credit card to chase after some boy.

  “Poor little rich girl. Once her mom canceled the card, she ended up sleeping in strangers’ cars, in lounge chairs at apartment pools,” Gwen said. “Finally, the police found her in Tampa, sitting on a bench, smoking a cigarette. Torn shirt, scratch marks up her whole face. She claimed a girl she’d been hitching with had jumped her and beaten her with a sandal.”

  “A sandal?” Becca said, as if that were the worst part of the story.

  “And she said to the cop, ‘What took you so long?’”

  Katie rolled her eyes, nearly laughed. “That is definitely made up,” she said. “Besides, she was a kid. We all did crazy things when we were that age.”

  The other parents always tried to do this. To drag her into their little circle, their gym drama, their coven, rubbing their hands over their water bottles, fire burn and cauldron bubble.

  She had stories she could share too, but she never would. Once she found Hailey in the parents’ lounge, hand stuffed wrist-deep in a bag of ice. She said Ryan had fallen asleep after his shift, missing their date.

  I got so mad I punched my own wall, she said, and then started laughing, a jangling, sad laugh, her face pink and crimped like a carnation. I love him so much. I just want to be with him all the time.

  And Katie had taken her hand and held the ice there and said some things, about young men, men at that age, and how he’d come around. And that Hailey just needed to be patient, she just needed to hang on a little less tight. It was hard, Katie knew, loving that much.

  Sliding her earbuds back in, she turned her eyes to her laptop. But before long, her gaze wandered to the gym floor, to Devon swinging hypnotically on the bars, hands gloved with chalk, the arrow of her body, her feet melded into one sharp point.

  This is why I’m here, she thought to herself. Not for the boosters, not for BelStars. Devon needed her at practice, always had.

  The rumbling din, the hum, the freighted silences, the smell of damp leotards and pit foam, the tarry Bag Balm—they were all linked intricately to Devon. Sometimes it felt like the gym was Devon, was her body, its rhythms and pulses and tremors.

  At night, the gym left its trace. Its thumps and thwacks still echoing in Katie’s head, swirling chalk dust and raw puberty still in her nostrils, under her skin. In her sleep, she could hear the panting of the girls, their fire and desperation.

  “Is it him? Really?”

  “I saw
him, I did!”

  “Quiet!”

  A slam and the sharp twang of a springboard and groan of bars ceased.

  On the floor, there was a flurry of leotards assembling, Bobby V. shouting, Tut-tut.

  Smiling to herself, Katie watched Devon stride elegantly to her spot. Coach T., he’s back!

  The parents rose to their feet. Thirty or more of them in pockets throughout the stands.

  Then Coach Teddy swept in, his familiar red polo and bright blue track pants swapped for a graying dress shirt and sagging tie.

  He stood at the bottom of the bleachers, one foot on the stands like a ship captain with his foot on the prow, an even bigger presence than when Katie first met him all those years ago.

  He wiped his face three times before lifting his head and trying for a kind of smile, the one he wore when they lost badly but forgivably.

  “I want to thank you all so kindly,” he started, voice catching slightly. “We are all touched by the outpouring of support. Tina says we have more flowers at home than a French cathouse.”

  Everyone tried to laugh a little, straining to hear Teddy in the cavernous gym, all the girls lined up like soldiers, shoulders back but heads down.

  “We picked up Ryan’s mother from the airport yesterday. She asked me to tell you that you are all welcome to attend the services tomorrow. And I know I speak for her as well when I thank all of you for your notes, your thoughtful remembrances of Ryan. And of course Hailey thanks you.” He bit his lip, stared down at his white sneakers.

  Having seen Teddy the night before, the beers and self-reflection, Katie found it hard to watch him now, attempting to play the part.

  “As Pastor Matthews reminded me this morning,” Teddy said, chin up, jaw tight, “blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

  Katie had never heard Teddy talk this way. It felt mysterious and moving, his head bowed and a few parents crossing themselves or Amen-ing.

  Scanning the girls, their respectful attention, she found Devon, who stood stock-still, arms folded across her chest.

  Her face, what Katie could see of it, looked formal, composed.

  Like Devon always looked when Coach was speaking, or when she was waiting for her score.

  The practice that followed was clumsy and tense, with yet another substitute tumbling coach and Teddy distracted, his phone ringing all the time and the mistaken delivery of a laurel serenity wreath to the gym rather than his home.

  At first, Devon struggled too, standing on the beam, doing her counts over and over, postponing the one-armed back handspring, not engaging with the encouraging Amelise (“Come on, girl, I know you got it!”), not even looking at her.

  As soon as Amelise turned her attention to other girls, though, everything changed. Taking a breath, Devon threw herself into a beauteous back handspring and double full dismount, her feet landing on the mat with a tight smack.

  Then back up on the beam to do the full routine, her lovely switch leap and aerials and cat-leap half turn, that one-armed back handspring, as if she were weightless, a gossamer strand. The eight- and nine-year-olds kept sneaking glances, like they always did, craning heads, ponytails twitching. Trying to figure out what they needed to do to get to that, to Devon.

  To be capable of shutting the world out, even death itself, and surrendering to the body, trusting in its powers, its secrets. No feeling but this. No feeling.

  The striated bands of old flesh tight around that foot.

  It just doesn’t feel as much.

  After practice, they picked up Eric at the studio, his car in the shop again, a hundred and ten thousand miles on that barge, the side door unlocking only with a butter knife and both of them wondering what they would do when Devon moved past lurching practice turns with Eric in the church parking lot and got her license.

  He was waiting outside, looking sweaty and adrift.

  Katie wondered if he was getting sick. Though, like Devon, he never, ever got sick.

  “Let’s go to the Wooden Nickel,” he said. “We could all use a break, right?”

  Dinner out with just the four of them, which almost never happened. It was like old times, before BelStars, even. As if, walking under the thickly varnished rafters to the corner booth, its puckering vinyl and doily-edged place mats, they all decided to forget everything else.

  Patty melts on big china plates, waffle chips with three kinds of relish, Drew’s favorite “Italian spaghetti,” thick as rope, its sauce sweet as candy.

  And there was Devon, even eating a breadstick, or part of one. Chewing the soft dough languorously, stretching it between her fingers like taffy.

  “I bet you’re glad Teddy’s back,” Katie said.

  “Yeah,” Devon said. “But it’ll be better when he can lead practice again.”

  “Is Hailey coming back?” Drew asked. “What’ll she do now, without a boyfriend?”

  “She’ll be okay,” Eric said. “Ready for the science fair, kiddo?”

  “Yeah,” Drew said, then spoke excitedly and with conviction for several minutes about his experiment with the brine shrimp (“Some kids call them sea monkeys, but they’re not like monkeys at all so that’s wrong”) and motor oil.

  “Well, that sounds terrific,” Eric said, fingers tapping the edge of his phone absentmindedly.

  “The first batch spilled in the garage,” Drew said, looking at his dad’s phone too now, “so I had to start over.”

  “I’m sorry about that, buddy,” Eric said, ceasing the tapping and looking at Drew at last.

  Devon stared down at her butter-glazed hands. “I’m going to the restroom.”

  “How did they spill?” Katie asked Eric, who shrugged.

  “It’s okay,” Drew said, reaching out for the clouded decanter of salad oil on the table. “Mom helped me do it over.”

  “Mom’s the best,” Eric said, stacking all the plates for the lurking bus boy, placing the utensils in the center on top, ever the former waiter.

  “I think the oil will make the shrimp die faster,” Drew said, holding the decanter between his pink fingers, peering at his dad through the filmy oil.

  “Makes sense,” Eric said.

  Katie could see something dimming on Drew’s face, following his dad’s drifting gaze as he watched Devon return from the ladies’ room.

  “That sounds like a good hypothesis,” Katie jumped in. “Look what cars are doing to the environment.”

  Drew paused a minute as Devon slid into the booth soundlessly.

  “But Dad”—Drew tried again—“they’re at the bottom of the food chain.”

  “What are?” Devon asked.

  “The shrimp. So if the oil kills them,” Drew said, bringing the salad oil closer to his face for a better look, “everything else goes away too.”

  “Everything?” Devon asked.

  Drew nodded solemnly. “Everything.”

  “Well, maybe not everything,” Eric said, a slight rasp to his voice. “But it sounds great, kiddo. You’ll tear the lid off that science fair.”

  Eric’s phone flashed. Coach T.

  “Maybe I’ll win,” Drew said.

  “You always win, buddy,” Eric replied, rising and picking up his phone. “Be right back.”

  “But even if you don’t win,” Katie added, throwing her arm around him, “I say you win.”

  “I hope I get first place,” Drew said, tilting the decanter so precariously Katie reached out to upright it. “But I know the shrimp will die.”

  * * *

  Back at the house, Katie had just begun to confront the kitchen, the counter stained by gritty creep of that morning’s coffee, a scattering of Cheerios mysteriously caught in the stovetop burners, when she heard Drew calling her name from the den.

  “It’s on TV,” he said, remote in his hand.

  “What is, honey?” Katie asked, Eric and Devon behind her.

  “Ryan,” he said, pointing. “Being dead.”

  On the screen a stern-faced re
porter stood on Ash Road in front of the grappling elm. Despite the harsh lights illuminating him, everything looked so dark.

  …The third accident in a year at this location. The latest victim is twenty-five-year-old Ryan Beck, who was struck and killed Saturday night in an apparent hit-and-run.

  A photo of Ryan appeared. Chin lowered, mouth slightly open, eyes vacant, like he was staring down a hole. He looked no more than sixteen.

  “Why are those lines behind him?” Drew asked.

  “Christ,” Eric said. “Did they have to use a mug shot?”

  “I guess that’s all they had,” Katie said. “I didn’t realize…”

  “Is that Ryan?” Devon said quietly, her gym bag slipping from her arm. “Is it him?”

  No one spoke for a second, all eyes on the TV. Ryan’s glower.

  Behind her, Katie heard a soft thud and realized Devon had left the room. She couldn’t blame her.

  …Speculated Beck’s fall down the shoulder and into a ditch is the likely cause of the fatal head and neck injuries. A formal autopsy will confirm…

  “What’s a mug shot?” Drew asked.

  “I’ll explain later,” Eric said, hand on Drew’s shoulder, turning him. “Time for bed.”

  Police are urging possible eyewitnesses to come forward.

  Ryan’s image remained on the screen for a second. He looked both baby-faced and sullen, a spray of acne up one cheek like a scar.

  A memorial service for Beck will be held tomorrow at noon.

  “Are we going to go?” said Drew, looking at Katie. “To remember Ryan?”

  “You both have school,” Katie said, fumbling. “So.”

  She looked at Eric, who was still watching the TV.

  There were no skid marks on the road, the reporter continued, gesturing down to the inky asphalt. Whoever the driver was, he never even set his foot on the brake.

  “We’ll figure it out,” Eric said, not moving, not blinking. “Don’t worry. Everything’s okay.”

  Chapter Seven

  Car still up on the lift. I’ll get there as soon as I can. Eric’s text arrived as Katie drove to the funeral, alone. I’m so sorry, K.

 
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