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Hold My Breath(9)

By´╝ÜGinger Scott

After a long second, he nods and tugs the men’s room door open, disappearing inside and leaving me alone under the covered patio. I look out at the water, the surface smooth—no breeze to make ripples. My insides are the exact opposite.

My father is talking with two of the younger swimmers as I walk out to the main lobby. He’s holding one girl’s arm out and splaying her fingers, then cupping them.

“Grabbing the water, are we?” I say through a closed-lipped smile. My dad’s expression reflects mine.

“That’s how it all started with this one, you know. She was always coming in second. It was like this curse we just couldn’t seem to break until I told her she needed to grab more water,” he says.

“I’m really excited to be swimming with you here…I’m…I’m a fan,” the girl says, shaking her arm out and flexing her fingers in and out like she was just instructed. I reach down and grab her palm, squeezing it lightly, but with enough muscle to live up to her idea of me.

“I’m nothing special. I’m excited to be swimming here with you,” I say, pausing and tilting my head, waiting for her name.

“Amber,” she says.

I repeat it and smile, and I can feel her grip grow a little stronger just before she lets go. Confidence is a funny thing. The slightest sentence can be either a rocket or a missile to self-esteem.

My dad always keeps the negative away from ears, especially young ears. Even now, as the two girls leave us alone in the lobby, he waits for the door to close to tell me what he really thinks.

“She’s not ready. She’d get eaten up at trials. But…she can train. She’s young, just graduated high school. Maybe…maybe in four years, if she sticks with it,” he says, turning to me, our eyes locking.

I nod, grateful that my father spares me of the negative, too. It doesn’t mean I don’t think about it, though. And in a way, that’s almost worse. I bet there have been times when my dad has thought I wasn’t ready, or that I was lucky to win. He would never say it, but I know better than to believe he’s never thought it.

I’m about to let my dad know I don’t need a ride when Will steps through the men’s doors, his eyes settling on both of us.

“I just need to run my things upstairs and we can go,” he says, holding up his bag. His gaze darts between my father and me before he moves to the stairs, leaving us alone.

“We’re…I thought maybe it would be good to…breakfast. I invited him for breakfast,” I stammer.

“Good,” my dad responds quickly. Both of us are watching the empty stairwell, waiting for Will’s return, and several seconds pass without a sound from his door or his footsteps.

“I just don’t want there to be any distractions,” I start, stopping when I sense my dad looking at me. I turn to meet him.

“I think it’s good, Maddy. You two need to talk. You’ve always been good teammates…and friends…” my dad says.

“That’s what I was thinking,” I say after a sharp inhale.

My dad nods, and eventually we both look back at the steps again. They remain silent, but I can hear the sounds of drawers sliding in and out upstairs followed by a few muffled words. I wonder if I should invite his uncle?

“Will is an important part of this,” my dad says, catching my attention. I twist my neck and pull my lips in tight, waiting for him to elaborate. His brow is heavy, and his eyes seem to be lost somewhere else entirely, but eventually he shakes his head and breathes out a short huff through his nose, turning to me and patting both of my shoulders twice before squeezing them. “He’ll never make it past trials, though, so just…don’t torture yourself more than you need to.”

My father finishes speaking just as the door creaks upstairs, leaving me alone with just one more dose of his brand of honesty. I force my wide eyes to normal before I face the stairs, and then I remind my mouth to smile again when Will walks toward me—gray T-shirt, faded jeans, hair dark from being wet, not the normal light brown, and a scent that is, of course, familiar.

“Ready?” I ask. He looks at me with pause, and my chest tightens because for a brief second, I think he must know—he must have heard my dad or read my face. That hint of suspicion in his expression fades quickly, though, and soon his keys jingle in his palm and his head gestures toward the front door.

“Or would you rather climb out through the back, maybe hop the fence in the alley?” he says. I stop walking, and he spins to walk backward, the left side of his mouth tugged up in a teasing grin. I purse my lips and say something I haven’t said in years.