Out of bounds the summer.., p.24
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       Out of Bounds (The Summer Games #2), p.24

           R.S. Grey
 

  So then why is he leaving without me?

  “Brie, the cab is waiting for us.” I was vaguely aware of Lexi talking to me as I watched his cab pull away from the curb. “We should really get back to the village since we have practice early.”

  She pushed me toward our own cab and talked my ear off about my dancing, about how everyone had “FREAKED OUT” when I’d climbed on stage. I wasn’t paying attention to her. I was too busy staring out at the dark night and wishing it had ended differently.

  “That club was insane,” she said, jostling my arm to get my attention. “It really felt like we were in hell, didn’t it?”

  I nodded. More than I care to admit. I’d been intoxicated in the moment, dancing for the devil himself, and now that it was over, I felt nothing but burned.

  Chapter Thirty

  Brie

  It was easy to blame Erik for the darkness I felt when I was near him, but my fantasies were all my own. He wasn’t poisoning the well; he was drawing from it. At times, I wondered if he knew me better than I knew myself. It felt like he’d split open my chest and pulled out my heart, watching it beat for him—only him. We didn’t know the little things about one another. He couldn’t say how I took my coffee or which cereal I preferred in the morning, but he spoke my body’s language as if he’d spent years studying it. I’d only been around him for a little over a month, and yet I couldn’t fathom the idea of living without him.

  After the Olympics were over, I’d get on a plane back to Texas and I’d slink back into my old life—well, my new old life. I’d spend time with my mom, find a part-time job, and apply to college. I’d smile at boys my own age and attempt to date, deluding myself into thinking they could ever measure up to Erik. No one could give me what he gave me.

  Freedom.

  Just the night before, Noah had freaked out when I took that stage. To him, it was wrong, unchaste, and out of character, but Erik understood that character is never absolute, and it was useless to try to cap the well of darkness once I’d unearthed it.

  I smoothed a hand over my chest, feeling the ache there. I wanted him in a way that hurt, and the more I let myself consider life without him, the worse I felt. After the games, he would also return to his old life. In Seattle. I forced myself to picture the women he’d bring back to his house, the lucky ones who’d make it up to his bed. Jealousy burned through me when I imagined his hands on their thighs, his lips on their skin. They might scream louder or moan with exaggerated ecstasy, but they wouldn’t appreciate him the way I did. He wouldn’t consume them the way he consumed me.

  The morning after Sete Pecados Mortais, I woke up earlier than the rest of my teammates, wide awake and ready to make some changes. Erik had left the club on his own. He could have stayed, but he’d left, and I knew I couldn’t continue on the path I was heading down. I’d competed well the day before, but I couldn’t let myself feel comfortable this early. I needed to focus my energies on gymnastics for the next five days or I’d go home with nothing to show for more than a decade of training but a broken heart and a bare neck.

  If I couldn’t have Erik, I could still have gold.

  The men’s gymnastics team was competing in the HSBC Arena later that day, so after I changed into practice clothes and grabbed a protein bar, I headed to the smaller training facility they’d set up for us to use between competition days. It was housed in a building right beside the arena, so I hopped on the first outbound shuttle from the village and took a seat near the back. Everyone onboard was sleepy and quiet, coaches headed out early or athletes on their way to practice. I recognized a few members of the U.S. women’s soccer team across the aisle from me. One of them—a pretty blonde—had a tight wrap around her wrist, and I cringed thinking of how agonizing it would be to get injured smack-dab in the middle of the Olympics. She brushed a strand of short hair out of her face and caught me watching her. I nodded a quiet hello and she smiled.

  “Did that happen during a game?” I asked, pointing to the injury.

  She glanced down at the wrap and frowned. “Yeah, diving to block a shot. It was a few days ago.”

  “Sorry to hear that.”

  She shrugged. “It’ll be okay. I should still be able to play in the finals.”

  Her teammate beside her grunted in disbelief.

  “Are you a gymnast?” she asked, eyeing my gym bag on the seat beside me. “I didn’t see you during the opening ceremonies.”

  I nodded. “Yeah, they had us go to a little gymnastics mixer instead.”

  She smiled. “You didn’t miss out on much. We all had to wear these hideous red jumpsuits.”

  “They were cute!” her teammate cut in, defending the designer.

  The shuttle pulled up in front of my stop and I stood to exit.

  “I hope your wrist feels better,” I said, tipping my head in her direction. “For the final.”

  She nodded and smiled. “Thanks. Good luck.”

  I walked off the shuttle and pulled open the door to the practice gym. The place was still dark; apparently I was the only gymnast who wanted to wake up at the crack of dawn the day after qualifications. I appreciated the quiet though, because it meant I wouldn’t have to put on a fake smile for anyone.

  I flipped the light switch near the door and fluorescent lights stuttered on overhead. Every gym has the same familiar smell of stale air. I settled into the space, feeling a calm roll over me. Soon the place would be packed with other gymnasts, but for a while I hoped I would remain alone.

  I dropped my bag near the door, stripped off my extra layers, and rolled out my shoulders as I walked around the space. Early morning light streamed in through dusty windows, highlighting the row of beams in the corner of the room. I stepped toward them and felt the worn leather beneath my fingers. The beams were old, tearing near the ends and stained from years of chalk and bare feet. After stretching out for a few minutes, I hopped up and eased into my practice, finding my balance.

  I loved that familiar tension in my body; I was a tight spring about to pop open, so much more powerful than I gave myself credit for. I stood on one side of the beam and strung together three back handsprings, listening to the rhythm of my hands and feet hitting the beam in a steady cadence. The sound calmed my nerves as I landed and arched back, lifting my arms in a V.

  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been alone in a gym, not performing for anyone. I was practicing for myself, taking Kira’s advice to trust my body and putting it to good use. I spun on my heel, stretched my arms overhead, and dipped into another tumbling pass.

  Gymnastics is the sport with a strong marriage between body and mind. Your body hesitates in fear and cries out in pain while your mind wills it to push beyond what should be possible. The only thing separating good gymnasts from great gymnasts is the ability to overcome that fear. I’d realized that very early on in Texas, while learning how to do an aerial and being too scared to pick my hands up off the ground. I was seven at the time.

  “It’s just a cartwheel with no hands,” my coach insisted. “Bend your knee hard and go for it.”

  “I can’t,” I cried, nerves eating away at me.

  “You can!” he boomed, rattling my fears. “Try!”

  I couldn’t explain the roadblock in front of me, the fear trying to weave its way through my body. Don’t do this. You could get hurt. Play it safe.

  “Try Brie. TRY.”

  It’d taken two days and a whole lot of tears before I’d finally picked my hands up off the floor. I’d eaten shit, hard, but I hadn’t given up. A week later, I could do an aerial in my sleep.

  At this point, I had the skills. I’d done them a million times over. The trouble came when I considered the fact that I’d never done them on an Olympic stage. The pressure had gotten to me a bit the day before, but I knew finals would be so much harder. The only thing I could do was trust my body and conquer my fears.

  By the early afternoon, I’d worked through the skills I thought might give me trou
ble the next day. For every three skills I stuck perfectly, I got a water break and a few minutes of stretching on the floor. Gymnasts slowly started to trickle in, but we didn’t talk. We carved out our own space in the gym and stayed there.

  I was gently moving through my floor routine, marking the tumbling passes, when Erik walked in with the rest of my team. Rosie, Molly, and Lexi smiled and waved when they saw me, but I finished marking my routine before walking over to meet them.

  “How long have you been here?” Molly asked, eyeing the chalk staining my navy blue leotard.

  I shrugged. “A while.”

  She nodded. “I would have come with you, y’know.”

  “I know.”

  I just needed some space—from the team, from Erik, from everything.

  Too bad I wasn’t going to get it.

  Erik turned his attention to me and his blue eyes were as sharp as knives. His hair was tousled and his gray shirt was tight enough to display the defined slope of his chest and shoulders. My stomach clenched with nerves. I wanted to ask him where he’d gone the night before. I wanted to ask him what he’d thought of my performance and most of all, I wanted to know why he’d left me there, why he hadn’t taken me with him.

  “What have you worked on already?” he asked, his voice even and calm.

  I moved my gaze over his shoulder. “Everything.”

  He nodded. “Go back to the village then; I don’t want you getting hurt before tomorrow.”

  “I’m not done yet.”

  “Brie.”

  He was already annoyed, which meant his fuse was even shorter than normal.

  I turned and threw my next sentence over my shoulder. “I’m going to eat lunch, but I’m coming back after that.”

  I took the shuttle back to the village and ate in the food court on the first floor of the athlete complex. There were athletes everywhere, and most of the tables were already taken by the time I slid into a spare seat in the corner. I scarfed down my grilled chicken and vegetables, starved after my morning workout. Erik didn’t want me to work too hard, but I wanted to go through a few more routines before I called it a day.

  By the time I made it back to the training complex, it was late afternoon. Most of the gymnasts were trickling out, done for the day. I passed Lexi and Rosie on my way back inside.

  “There you are,” Rosie said, smiling tentatively.

  “You good, Watson?” Lexi asked.

  I stared past them to where June and Molly stood near the vault talking to Erik. “I’m fine. Just needed to train solo today.”

  Lexi nodded. “I was watching you earlier. You looked really good.”

  I inhaled her words and finally turned to face them. I could see the hidden worry there; they weren’t sure if I was cracking under the stress or just focused. Hell, I wasn’t sure myself. “Thanks.”

  Rosie reached out for my hand. “Will we see you back at the condo soon? We were going to hang out and take it easy before tomorrow.”

  “Yeah, definitely.” I forced a fake smile. “Save me some room on the couch.”

  She smiled as she released my hand, and a flood of nerves replaced her warmth.

  The next day, the top five countries were slotted to compete in team finals. All five teams were good, and unfortunately there hadn’t been a clear winner after qualifications. We’d placed first, but only by the skin of our teeth, which meant the next day, every single event and every single routine would be a battlefield. Out of the five gymnasts on our team, only four were competing in each event. Of those, only three scores counted. I was one of the gymnasts picked to compete in every event, which meant I had the weight of the team on my back. If I bobbled on beam even once, if I took a step on vault, if I stepped out of bounds on floor, it could cost Team USA the gold.

  I tried not to think about the possibility for error as I stashed my bag in the same spot where I’d left it earlier that morning. There was no going back. If I even opened the door a crack, it’d be game over. The stress would eat me alive.

  I felt Erik’s presence behind me before I glanced up and saw him standing near me. He was checking his phone near the cubbies. He scrolled through something and then locked the screen, turning to me. His head tilted to the side, studying me for a moment. I turned away.

  “Are you heading back with the team?” I asked, nodding to where Rosie and June were gathering their bags.

  “It’s up to you. As long as you’re here, I’ll stay.”

  I stood to meet his eye, hating the height difference between us. It felt like I could never quite be on his level. He would always overpower me, just like he had the night before.

  “I just want to work through my bar and beam routines a few more times.”

  He nodded. “I’ll set the bars. Grab your grips.”

  I tugged off my clothes and adjusted my leotard, reaching into my bag for my worn grips. By the time I turned and headed for the bars, Erik was standing, watching me with his arms crossed. There was a darkness clouding his gaze as I stepped up to join him on the far side of the gym.

  I expected him to move aside and tell me to get warmed up, but instead, he held my gaze, tilted his head, and asked a question.

  “Why are you here right now?”

  I frowned, confused. “To practice.”

  “Why?”

  The silence in the empty gym was deafening.

  “Because I want us to place first tomorrow.”

  “Why?”

  I narrowed my eyes and propped my hands on my hips. “Why?” Why was he doing this? He needed to step aside and let me get started. “Because who doesn’t want to win gold?”

  He shook his head. “You’re hiding something. You’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. I know the difference between being nervous and being absolutely terrified to fail. So why? Why are you the latter?”

  My throat tightened, constricting my airways. I didn’t want to talk about this. I wanted to slip my grips into place and take the bars, push the rest to the side. “Maybe I just have a little more riding on this competition than other people do.”

  “Tell me.”

  He stepped closer, blocking my path. He looked like an immovable force, a brick house I had no hope of blowing down. I rolled my eyes and turned away.

  “Why don’t you just mind your own business?” His probing was starting to piss me off. I was trying to silence my nerves, not give them a microphone. “We’re not friends. We’re nothing. So just let me finish practicing so I can go home.”

  His thumb hit my chin as he tilted my head up. His blue eyes met mine and I flinched at the anger I saw there.

  “You think you’re nothing? You think I wanted to leave you in that club last night?”

  He sounded pissed.

  “How would I know? It’s not like you ever talk to me. You’re impossible to read and I’m sick of trying. For the next few days, I just need to focus on gymnastics.”

  His gaze flitted back and forth between my eyes, trying to burrow through to the root of my issues. I had to resist though, because digging would only leave scars. I needed us to continue to walk the tightrope for now, where we didn’t talk about life and love, just fucked when we couldn’t resist the urge any longer—anything more than that and I wouldn’t be able to walk away in a week. He’d break me completely in two.

  His face tipped forward as his finger skimmed along my bottom lip.

  “Talk to me.”

  I tried to turn my head away, to regain some semblance of composure, but he wouldn’t let me. His grip was too tight on my chin and then on my waist, pulling me against his chest. My leotard and his t-shirt were the only things separating our two bodies, but it felt like nothing. I could feel every move of his muscles, every inhale and exhale as he hugged me close.

  “I know for you, gymnastics has been everything for so long you feel like when it all ends, you’ll have nothing.”

  I turned my head. “That’s not it.”

  “I
m not finished. I know about your life back home. I can guess you think this is your one shot to pull yourself up and give your family some security. You can’t put that on your shoulders, Brie.”

  I tried to jerk away. “Don’t make me out to be some kind of victim or martyr. I don’t want your pity; I just want you to help me win. Isn’t that your job?”

  “Brie.”

  He bent forward and skimmed his lips against mine, chipping away at my armor. My body arched into him, needing more. The need to be near him was a subconscious response, as necessary as breathing.

  “You have to clear your head and make the decision: do you want to win for your mom, or for yourself? It’s not your job to take on her pain.”

  A tear hit his thumb before I realized I’d started to cry.

  It’d been years since I’d cried about this. I buried my feelings so deep down, they never saw the light of day. I focused on gymnastics and pushed the rest aside, but Erik was there, forcing me to feel them, and suddenly it was too much.

  My mother had been my rock, my everything. She woke up at the crack of dawn, served others all day, and then she was there after school every day, for me. She bought all her clothes at secondhand shops or just took hand-me-downs from friends. She never dated, never went out. She was a beautiful woman and she deserved happiness, companionship, affection, but there was no time for any of that, not while she was busy allowing me to live my dream.

  “I’m here,” he promised, bending low to kiss away the tears on my cheeks. “And you are too. That’s all that matters right now. During the finals, make it your intention to compete for yourself—for all the sweat you’ve spilled, the skin you’ve torn, and the muscles you’ve battered and made stronger.”

  I turned to his palm and pressed my lips there, accepting his kindness.

  “You don’t owe your mom anything. You can’t carry that burden. Do it for you.”

  I let my head fall back and closed my eyes. When I opened them, the lights in the gym twinkled like gaudy costume jewelry through my tears, and my mother’s diamond necklace flashed into my memory. It was the one nice thing she’d held on to over the years. She’d kept it in a tiny broken jewelry box on the dresser in our bedroom. I remembered opening the top of the box as a young child, fingering the diamond hanging on the end.

 
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