I swim varsity but know firsthand what being trapped below the surface feels like. This. Chest-crushing, head-pounding panic as you fight for just one breath. Fingernails clawing into my palms, I struggle for air on this dry-as-dust stage, in front of science fair judges, strangers from across Washington State, my family, and Jack, who also qualified for this competition.
Dr. Lin, the head judge, and physics teacher at my school, taps his clipboard as he waits for me to convince him of my project’s relevance to society.
Even though I fear a tide of hopelessness will rush in to flood my lungs, I force my mouth open a fraction. “Scientists have identified, uh, many genes associated with specific disorders, so . . .” My heart’s a machine gun in my chest, my voice a lost cause.
Dr. Lin cocks his head. “Miss Hollings?” He glances at my knocking knees. “Aislyn? Are you feeling well?”
I nod, and summon the strength to finish answering his question. But my vision goes fuzzy and I struggle for another breath, which only increases my light-headedness. The books all say to “accept” a panic attack, as if there’s a choice, letting it flow through and out of your psyche. Here’s what they don’t tell you—panic doesn’t flow, it jolts your body like an earthquake, leaving you unmoored and flailing from a deep chasm intent upon sucking you in.
Dr. Lin raises his eyebrows, waits an unbearably long moment, and angles the microphone back to himself. “If you could fix genetic mutations, where would you draw the line? What about the person who claims their baldness or height must be fixed?” He’s reading from the playbook of those crazies who protest in front of the Nova Genetics labs, shouting that gene therapy is “playing God,” who’d halt all life-saving cures if they could.
But knowing how wrong the anti-everything folks are doesn’t spark any brilliance in my next words, which limp out like refugees. “Frivolous gene alterations aren’t being approved for development.” I blink at the audience. In the front row, Mom leans forward, her chin nudging the air, as if that could spur me forward. Her anxiety about how to finance my college tuition has grown into an ever-present entity that I’d hoped to chase away with tonight’s hefty prize.
Dr. Lin sighs at this pathetic student who can barely describe her project, much less win a competition, no matter how many leading questions he feeds her.
There’s so much more I need to say, but my knees threaten to give out at any moment. I lean against the table holding my tri-fold display. Big mistake. The table tilts and the cardboard charts teeter. I jump to stop the table’s shift, but not in time to prevent the display from toppling and my handouts from flying across the stage into the person standing at the next table, who happens to be Jack. Lanky, blond, sweet-smiled Jack.
He picks up the papers and hands them to me, whispering, “You’re doing fine.”
No. Fine performances aren’t met by gasps and snickers from the audience. And they don’t lead to asphyxiation on stage.
A traitorous blush sears my face. Hundreds of eyes watch, watch, and, oh hell, did a camera just flash? I fumble with the papers, my neck burning. Every molecule in my body screams, “Run.” But I will not. I convinced myself long ago that if I ever let myself flee from my anxieties, I’d never stop running. So I’ll stand here and endure.
Dr. Lin scribbles onto his pad. “Anything you’d like to add?” His persistence is either due to the fact that I go to the school where he teaches or sadism. Not that it makes any difference.
I gulp a breath and glance at Mom, whose lips press white. She must wonder why I spent countless hours on this project instead of on something useful like helping her out with my brother, Sammy.
I swallow. “I hope you have a chance to read my report.”
He blinks as if he hasn’t heard me correctly. “We’d like you to tell us in your own voice.”
Yeah, so would I. But all I can do is nod dumbly.
He says, “Okay, then. If that’s your decision.”
I cringe at how ominous this sounds, but can’t summon the words to convince him of how important this topic is, how gene therapy’s given sight to the blind and life to the dying. Someday it’ll fix the genetic mutations behind cystic fibrosis, which causes Sammy to feel like he’s suffocating every single day. Every single damn day.
That’s what I should say. But it would be easier to fuse atoms than force another coherent sentence from my mouth.
Dr. Lin moves on to Jack’s presentation. I try not to lock my knees. Don’t run, don’t hide, don’t crumple. My threshold for success has dipped to this shamefully low mantra.
Avoiding Mom’s and Sammy’s gazes, I focus on Jack’s presentation, delivered in his calm, confident, Jack-like manner. Usually I have to catch him in glimpses, often aborted when I discover him watching me first. On afternoons when we edit stories for The Drizzle, he always tries to strike up a conversation, which leaves me as wobbly as I feel now. It’s only a matter of time before he gives up. The way every other guy has, no matter how many compliments they invent, usually along the lines of comparing my long, white-blond hair to unicorns or Nordic princesses. No, I’ll end junior year the way I started, more untouched than one of those princesses locked in a tower.
Finally, the judges excuse us for now. Head down, I make my way to Mom, and Sammy, who’s coughing into a tissue as quietly as possible. My brother is eleven, but like most kids with CF, looks years younger due to a body that has difficulty absorbing the nutrition it needs.
In the too-loud voice Mom uses to show houses, she says, “No one else’s research is as sophisticated as yours. How many teens learn how to sequence DNA?”
I hang my head. How many DNA-sequencing teens can’t get a decent word out when they most need to?
We stand there, arms crossed, feet shuffling. I check the time every twenty seconds. Waiting is always a challenge; tonight it’s enough to make my head throb. Endless minutes later, they call the finalists back onstage. I stay with Mom and Sammy, who’s coughing again. Dr. Lin announces that Jack’s project on restoring salmon streams wins first place, and a chance to compete for an even larger prize in the national competition this summer. Somehow, I get an honorable mention, but no scholarship money.
Mom puts her hand to her mouth, but only for a moment, quickly recovering and giving me a brave shrug. Sammy’s coughing increases to a red-faced gasping, something Mom and I are used to but not the people around us, who point and stare.
Mom claps Sammy’s back. I dig frantically through her purse for more tissues. We shuffle as a threesome past pitying eyes. One woman offers to call for help, but we assure her that isn’t necessary. This time.
Outside, when Sammy finally catches his breath, he says, “Sorry for the spectacle.”
I tap his sneaker with the toe of my boot. “Don’t apologize for that. Besides, my spectacle was bigger than yours, buddy. I had props and a stage.”
He doesn’t argue the point.
On the way home, I text my best friend, Evie, with highlights of the fiasco, even though she won’t see her phone until her debate competition is over. My next text is to my mentor at Nova Genetics, Dr. Sternfield. At least the work I’ve done with her will count toward early college credit.
When we’re inside, Mom smiles half-heartedly, which must take superhuman effort. “I know you tried your best.”
If only my best were better. I rub my arms. “I’ll help Sammy with his treatment tonight.” It’s the least I can do.
We head upstairs, where I clap his back and chest to loosen up the stuff that’s doing its damnedest to destroy his lungs. Normally, he tries to sneak in jokes between the pounding, but tonight he hunkers down in silence with his sketchpad. I don’t force a conversation; it would be callous to complain about college tuition to someone dealing with an average life expectancy of thirty-something years.
After I’m done, Sammy fills his nebulizer with several drugs that he’ll inhale for the next thirty minutes. He doesn’t need help anymore with this nightly task, but he likes the company. With his mask on and the aerosol flowing, he sits on his bed with a sketchpad while I sink onto the armchair next to him.
All around us, his bedroom walls are filled from floor to as tall as Sammy can reach with vibrant paintings of dragons and other creatures that only he knows the names of. On his pad, he adds shading to a pencil drawing of the Space Needle under attack by robots.
“That’s really good,” I say.
He sucks air from the mask. “Lots of time to practice.”
Yeah, too much time. And, yet, maybe not enough.
Forty minutes later, I get ready for bed, nestling under the covers with my laptop on my knees, wishing I could avoid school tomorrow. But it’s the last day of junior year, even though technically it’s a half day and there’ll be zero learning.
My phone beeps. I accept a video chat, and Evie’s neon smile fills the screen. Her thick black hair is pulled up into a topknot to show off gold filigree earrings her mom bought on their annual trip to Indonesia.
She’s all dimples and sparkle. “I won!”
We fist-bump our screens.
Her face settles into a more serious expression. “I totally owe you for prepping me. Wish I could’ve done the same for you with the science competition. Heath Roberts is an ass for posting that picture.”
My gut spasms. “What picture?” Before she answers, I shift her image to check out Heath’s page. Underneath a picture of me knocking over my exhibit at the science finals, he’s written: “Hot? Yeah! Hopeless? Hell, yeah!”
What was he even doing there? Then I remember his little brother qualified for the middle school division. The queasy hopelessness from earlier rises again in my stomach. “Everyone’s seen this?”
Evie waves dismissively. “Yesterday it was Shoshanna’s butt crack. And she landed a few dates from the attention. You get major exposure therapy points for even entering the science competition. That was brave; you hear me?”
Thanks to psych class, Evie’s been pushing exposure therapy to treat my shyness. To be fair to myself, it’s not like I haven’t tried to get beyond this problem. So far, I’ve endured anti-anxiety meds (caused heart palpitations and didn’t work anyway), hypnosis (put me to sleep), visualization exercises (couldn’t focus), a sugar-free diet (made me grumpy), and, now, exposure therapy, which according to all the texts is the most effective way to treat social phobias. However, there’s always that percentage of people, like me, who try, and try, and fail. Evie insists it’s only a matter of time. But I know every bell curve needs its outliers.
She bats her eyelashes exaggeratedly. “By the way, a certain soccer player who may be the weak link on the debate team, but is mighty pretty to look at, asked me three times about Drew’s party tomorrow.”
My stomach drops. “You should go with Abby and Zoe.”
She wags her finger. “You haven’t been to a party in a month, and summer vacation is almost here. Best friends do not let best friends commit social suicide.”
“Best friends do not push each other beyond their comfort zone after they tank at the one area they’re supposed to be good at.”
“You’re better at way more than science and helping me maintain my glorious GPA. Do not be a shy-girl cliché. Starting Saturday, you’ll be the blond lifeguard babe. Remember that.”
I exhale a raggedy breath. My summer job, which I applied for in a fit of exposure therapy and the backing of my swim team coach, is something I’ve avoided thinking about, even though it starts the day after tomorrow. “I’ve had enough exposure therapy.”
“For today. I’ll see if I can get Heath to delete that picture.” She pops offline.
Ugh. Maybe I’ll break my leg before school tomorrow. Or maybe I should expose myself to a quick bout of the flu. Now there’s exposure therapy that could do some good.
Dreaming of ways to avoid the reality of being, well, me, I put my laptop on the end table and fall asleep with my arms crossed tightly across my chest like a mummy. But I awake every couple of hours. As usual. Each time I do, Sammy’s coughing and gasping. As usual.
It strikes me that life-as-usual for both of us is an endless struggle to simply breathe.
Group Protests In-Depth Genetic Testing
by Norman Kim, Seattle Health Blog
Marchers stormed out in force to protest the joint announcement by Seattle Reproductive Specialists and Nova Genetics, a gene therapy developer, to evaluate embryos for thousands of potential defects. Dr. Madeline Olevsky, Director of SRS, claims, “Anything we can do to fulfill our clients’ dreams of having a healthy baby is progress we celebrate.”
Others, however, believe that genetic testing traverses a dangerous path. Nita Farthing, President of Humans for Equality, argues, “Any thinking person should be terrified by the potential of unnatural selection. In a society where the divide between haves and have-nots is already alarming, science that differentiates us at a DNA level will thwart the American ideal of egalitarianism, this time permanently. We will do what’s necessary to prevent this attack upon humanity. Developers of species-altering treatments should be prepared for whatever consequences their actions bring forth.”
At school the next day, I meet Evie at our side-by-side lockers. No one’s gotten between “Handojo” and “Hollings” since middle school.
A pale gold batik-print dress sizzles against her olive skin, and her waist-length hair, something we have in common despite hers being as dark as mine is light, hangs loose, save for a tiny clip on top filled with luminous green stones. Her eyes travel up and down the pink T-shirt and gray pants I’ve paired with ballet flats. “Cute, but I’d have gone a wee bit flashier for the last day of school. Make some memories, you know?”
“I have to meet my science mentor this afternoon.”
She blinks rapidly. “Oh, no, no, no, we’re all going to the mall for lunch.”
“Sorry. I have to do the wrap-up with Dr. Sternfield if I want college credit.”
“Ask her at the family event Sunday.”
“That’s for so-called fun. This is business, so she insisted on separate days.” My family’s attendance at the event will be on account of Sammy, who participated as a research subject in a trial at Nova Genetics. Even though Sammy wasn’t helped by the drug, he, Mom, and I became part of the Nova Genetics “family,” which means a ridiculous number of “bonding” events and support sessions. It’s how I met Dr. Sternfield.
Evie blows upward. “Fine, then I’ll pick you up tomorrow at eight for Drew’s party.”
My purse strap slips from my shoulder. “I might have to hang with Sammy if my mom’s meeting clients.”
“On Saturday night?” She pokes a freshly adorned fingernail on my collarbone. “Do not use your brother as an excuse. Last party of junior year is a big deal. Your mom’ll understand. She was a sorority girl.”
A sorority girl who was widowed before her second kid started kindergarten, and has had no social life since. I hike my handbag back up. “My first shift at the pool is tomorrow. I’ll be wiped out afterward.”
Evie rolls her eyes slowly, letting the white-whites glimmer between the black of her irises and the kohl that lines her lower lashes. Seriously, if eye-rolling were competitive, she’d score straight tens.
Fresh out of excuses, I head off to my abbreviated classes, between which I catch glimpses of Jack’s dark blond hair. But I hurry out of the way before he can offer condolences on last night’s showing. Five minutes after the bell rings at noon, I’m in my car heading out of the parking lot.
From our school in north Tacoma to the Nova Genetics campus near Gig Harbor takes twenty minutes. But because the drive passes over the towering Tacoma Narrows Bridge, its taut cables resembling a giant harp suspended over churning waves below, the journey to the Olympic Peninsula always feels like traveling to a distant city.
And today it’s under siege.
My insides tighten as I pull up to the visitors’ parking lot just outside the gated grounds. Dozens of protestors march between the lot and the guarded entrance. Their bobbing signs demand: DESIGNER JEANS, NOT GENES and KEEP FRANKENSTEIN IN THE FICTION DEPARTMENT.
My frustration with their ignorance sets off pressure in my skull. They should focus on the good news, like kids who don’t have to live in sterile bubbles anymore.
A beady-eyed man scowls as I approach, backpack clutched tightly to my chest. He chants, “No justification for abominations! No justification for abominations!”
He and the others shake fists and signs, glaring as if I’m an abomination in the flesh. They block my way to the gate, where a guard speaks into a phone.
I try ducking between protesters. “Excuse me.”
A middle-aged woman with Cleopatra hair snarls in my face, “There’s no excuse for anything that goes on in there.”
No, there’s no excuse for not trying everything you can to save lives. I’ll bet this woman doesn’t have family members with anything more crippling than a closed mind.
The guard holds up his hands and shouts, “If you continue to block the entryway, I will be forced to call the police.”
The woman and the man part a couple of inches, nowhere near enough for me to get through.
“Excuse me,” I squeak again, wishing I could tell these trespassers off, or, better yet, stick their signs where they belong.
They shout, “No justification for abominations! No justification for abominations!”
I scoot to their side, desperate to slip through a gap in the swarm, but they stomp in a circle, cutting me off. Blocking my way is illegal, right? My brain fumbles to form words that my mouth won’t say anyway. Maybe Dr. Sternfield will understand if I reschedule.
The guard blows a whistle, which only fires up the protesters, now hollering at an Audi that pulls up. I see my opportunity to squeeze between the bodies as the gate rises to let the car inside.
Someone yanks at my shirt. I yelp.
The car screeches to a halt and the guard barges toward us. Finally, the pressing against me lessens enough to lurch forward, but there’s no way to avoid brushing against the protestors.
“You’re siding with evil,” the Cleopatra-haired lady hisses into my ear with oniony breath.
Shriveling, I gain another few inches. The door of the Audi opens and Dr. Sternfield jumps out, pointing her phone at the protestors. “I suggest you leave that girl alone before this video ends up with the police. You know what the penalty is for assaulting a minor?”
The crowd shrinks back. Dr. Sternfield nods to the guard and smoothes a hand against her auburn hair, pinned in an elegant knot at her aristocratic neck.
“Why don’t you get in the car, Aislyn?” she says.
I hurry in and she drives to a reserved spot near the main entrance. My legs shake violently. It takes a moment to find my voice enough to thank her.
She waves me off. “Paradigm shifts always cause angst. Look at how people protested against civil rights and knee-length hemlines. Did you know hand-washing was once considered taboo?”
I want to wash my whole body after squishing between the protesters. Why couldn’t I have fended off those awful people? My phone has a perfectly good camera to threaten them with. If I had a spine.
We step into a pavilion of massive wooden beams supporting walls of glass. The airy architecture is misleading, though. Belowground sprawl nests of laboratories that connect all the above-ground structures.
In the main lobby, a two-story ceramic sculpture in the shape of a double helix tempts the earthquake gods. Around it, clusters of people make their way to hallways that spoke outward. A pair of tall, muscular men stride into the north corridor. Behind them rolls a woman in a wheelchair, oxygen tubes in her nose. Nova Genetics will study her genes as intently as the “model” genes of the athletes in front of her.
Dr. Sternfield pauses to say hi to Xavier Dionisio, one of her college interns. He’s Asian with a banker’s haircut and the chest and shoulders of a weight lifter.
Dr. Sternfield asks, “How’s the sequence for the dancer coming?”
Xavier’s voice is soft, but clearer than I’ve heard it before. “I’ve identified a few interesting alleles.” His thick eyebrows rise on the word interesting. Maybe he’s discovered a mutation that explains the difference between a ballerina who’s destined for stardom and one who’ll never be promoted from the corps.
“Great. I’ll check it out as soon as Aislyn and I are through.”
I follow her past a door that requires a thumbprint scan. We end up in a corner office, where I take my usual seat across her desk and pull out a binder. After being one of her mentees the past school year, and seeing her at events for years before that, I’m more comfortable with her than with most adults, a hundred times more at ease than I was with Dr. Lin on stage, anyway.
She folds her hands on the desktop. “Your project should’ve been a shoo-in at the science competition.”
I rub a callus on my finger. “Yeah, well, I’m not the best public presenter.” Understatement so major that it borders on irony.
She nods. “Sometimes it’s not enough to have the best research or work the hardest, is it?”
I slide a form across the desk. “At least I’ll get some college credit.”
She glances at the paper. “So many forms to consider for your family today. The group running the AV719 trial wants my recommendation on whether Sammy would be a viable candidate.”
My pulse spikes. AV719 is an experimental treatment targeted to Sammy’s particular CF mutation. Preliminary results have some folks already using the M-word, and a miracle is what my brother needs before his lung capacity gets much lower.
Hands clasped, I say, “You couldn’t find a kid who deserves it more. And we’d make sure he followed every protocol to the letter.”
“Of course you would. It’s just a matter of far fewer slots than applicants. And he participated in the NSB-12 trial. But you know how highly I think of your whole family.”
Does she still, after last night? “You would not be sorry if you backed him.”
“Well, I’m only evaluating suitability. The final selection would still be random.”
I’ve never cheated at school, but I can’t help wondering how a person might rig the randomness of a drug trial. Theoretically.
Dr. Sternfield scans my form, but doesn’t pick up a pen to sign it. She can’t deny me credit because I bombed at the science finals. Can she?
Still not signing anything, she pulls her computer over so it sits between us. With languid movements, she opens a few files that I recognize as screenshots of DNA samples I worked on. Chromosomes she taught me to identify under a microscope. Chromosomes that happen to come from a blood sample she drew from me my first day on the project.
She pulls up image after image and uses the cursor to mark off specific sequences. “Remember that gene? It’s partly responsible for that stunning blond hair of yours. And this one contributes to your silver-gray eyes.”
I nod. Maybe this review is necessary for the college credit. A waste of time, but, if that’s what it takes. She continues, pointing out this feature and that while I dig my toes into the Oriental carpet. And then she brings up a dozen images all at once. A few are genes I recognize, many more are not. She highlights a bit from each slide and turns to me with eyebrows raised.
“This is a combination of alleles that add up to a phenotype. Can you guess what it is?”
A test? Seriously? I rack my brain, but can’t recall anything about this combination or even what all the components are. Hell, I’d fail this too. I stammer, “I d-d-don’t know.”
She leans toward me. “Sociability.”
I squint. “But wouldn’t that be affected by thousands of genes? And our environment?”
“Yes, but I believe this combination is key. Alter them appropriately and a person’s Q factor would explode. You know what that is?”
Thanks to Evie, I have a clue. “A score they use to measure a celebrity’s likeability and fame, right?”
The impact of what she’s saying hits me. “Wow. If you developed a therapy to boost that, people would line up for it.”
Her eyes gleam. “Oh, yes they would.”
I motion my head in the direction of the front gate. “You’d also piss off those people outside even more.”
She grimaces. “Yes again.”
I bite my lip. “The stuff I’ve read says tying genes to personality traits is too complex. They can only explain a tiny bit of how we act.”
She stares at the images and gently traces a slender finger along a stretch of genetic code that happens to spell C-A-T. “Most people haven’t been looking in the right places. I’ve done preliminary work that suggests it’s very possible.”
“Really? You never mentioned it.”
She steeples her hands. “Why do you suppose that is?”
It only takes a nanosecond to answer, “Because it’s ridiculously controversial. And you wouldn’t be allowed to take it past animal trials anyway.”
Her finger stabs an imaginary button in the air. “Bingo.”
I gaze out of her window, onto the overcast June afternoon. On the lush lawn, I spot something brown and crumpled—a bird that’s crashed against the pristine glass panes. Too bad gene therapy can’t raise the dead.
I quickly look away. “Um, no offense, but if you’re working on stuff this advanced, why not focus on diseases?”
“Who says I’m not? But so are a thousand other researchers.” Dr. Sternfield’s eyes burn despite the rest of her cool demeanor. “However, I know firsthand how crippling a social disorder can be. And you do too.”
I swallow. “Is that why you’re sharing this with me?”
She rests her arms on the desk and takes a long breath. “I want you to know there’s hope, Aislyn.”
Hope. I eye the computer again. “You think you’ll really be able to do something about shyness someday? By altering genes?”
Her smile is conspiratorial. “Really. But for now, let’s keep this between us, okay? The party line around here is disease only, especially with my father.” Her dad, Dr. Gordon, is the president of Nova Genetics.
She picks up a pen and signs my form. “See you at the family event on Sunday?”
“Sure.” I have what I came for, plus a bit more. But I still can’t stop my eyes from wandering once more to the tiny heap of brown feathers in the grass outside before I leave her office.
Feeling privy to a secret, I head past the giant helix and into a day that’s become darkly overcast. Thankfully, the threat of rain has scared off the protestors.
As I drive back to Tacoma, my thoughts float into the misty air settling over the highway. Imagine what life would be like if Dr. Sternfield were allowed to develop her research. I picture myself with Jack, face to non-blushing face.
My phone buzzes. I stiffen. Even if driver’s ed never forced us to watch texting-while-driving carnage films, I’d have avoided answering. I know who it is. I know what she wants. I’ll tell her I have to stay home tomorrow night after all.
I wipe my forehead as the phone buzzes a few more times. Evie won’t give up that easily. If only Dr. Sternfield’s research were ready now. If I go to Drew’s party, it’ll be a repeat of the last one Evie dragged me to, everyone else knowing how to act and what to say, while I stand at the edge clutching a plastic cup of something that’s supposed to put me at ease.
I drive, wishing I could deal with my own damn shyness. I should be able to stuff some nurture down nature’s throat and get beyond my DNA. People change. And then they write books about it. Why can’t I?
As I park in front of our hedged-in yard on a typically soggy street in Tacoma, I heave a sigh. The way I always do when reaching my hideaway from the big, bad world. My sanctuary.
Which will only provide a safe harbor until my new job tomorrow.
Nova Genetics Internal E-mail
From: Dr. Charlotte Sternfield, Principal Investigator
To: Cecily Frank, Chief Security Officer
Effective immediately, please change the security access roster for Lab 6 on B2 to myself only. This includes primate caretakers and janitorial staff. I’ll schedule with their departments to escort them into the lab as necessary.
The next morning, I wish I could stay in bed, hiding away. But I need to earn money. Now more than ever. Bonus, according to Evie, is that lifeguarding is far from shy-girl cliché employment such as filing assistant or data entry clerk, and provides opportunities for exposure therapy. Many, many opportunities.
Which is why I want to puke.
Sammy hammers at my door. “Aislyn!”
I rush to get it, alarmed by the sharpness of his voice. “Are you okay?”
“Mom said to wake you up so you aren’t late and get fired.”
Yeah, we all know how dismal my college fund is. With heavy movements, I dress. Outside, it’s shaping up to be warm, which means opening day at the pool will be crowded. Great. On the drive over, my body trembles more and more violently the closer I get. Right about now, working in a stockroom or a cave sounds way more appealing.
Janie Simpson, the pool manager, meets me at the entrance and hands me my official whistle. “Remember your training. And don’t be afraid to use this.”
Wait, no warm-up time? As if that would help anyway. I stuff my things into a locker and head with Janie to my assigned station. At least it’ll be a short shift, since swim classes don’t start until Monday.
I climb the chair, which seems higher than it does from the ground. Okay, I can do this, keep an eye on swimmers, and whistle if there’s a problem. Way less complicated than sequencing DNA.
Within minutes, I spot Asher Johnson and his buddy Zeke goofing around as they climb the water slide. Both of these boys tease Sammy for being the smallest kid in his grade. I grit my teeth, keeping an eye on them. Asher bounces at the top of the slide, staring at me, the hint of a grin flickering.
I swallow. Asher’s friends on the sidelines dart glances between him and me. Shakily, I raise the whistle to my lips, just in case. Asher rests all of his weight on the arm rails so his feet swing an inch above the bright yellow slide. Back and forth, while he stares at me. Not doing anything I can flag, but clearly with trouble on his mind.
Then, in a flash, he plops his belly on the slide and whooshes down facefirst. The kids around us spring wild with glee. I squeeze up courage to get air from my lungs through my lips. Breeeeep.
Another whistle screeches and Janie Simpson yells, “Strike one.”
But it’s me, not Asher, she glares at, drawing the attention of all pool-goers my way. Uh-oh. The blood rushes to my face. I blink, trying to look anywhere but at Janie as she marches toward me.
She halts beneath the lifeguard chair. “I know you saw him, Aislyn.”
I nod. “As soon as he went down, I whistled.”
“Barely. Look, I’m sure you’d swim faster than lightning if someone were struggling in the water, but you need to step up if you see a potential problem. You’re the first defense.”
“I know. Sorry.” There should be a tattoo on my forehead that says sorry.
She heaves a big breath and looks to heaven. “As much as your swim coach raved about you, I won’t be able to let you work here if I can’t rely upon you totally.”
“I’ll whistle louder next time.”
With a theatrical sigh, she strides back to the club house. Damn. My pulse races. I scan the pool, biting my lip. Everyone still stares.
The chair beneath me groans as I suffer through the rest of my watch, the knot in my stomach growing with the fear someone will slip on deck and crack a bone. Somehow the clock ticks forward to noon and I get a five-minute break before I have to start maintenance duty, a euphemism for collecting trash.
Instead of grabbing a soda with the other staff, I plunge into the emptiest corner of the deep end. A bolt of cool water rushes over my body, freezing my scalp in a way that makes me feel instantly clean. For the minute I’m submerged, my world is replaced with something bordering on calm, a break from the frequent sensation of drowning I feel on land. White noise fills my ears as I release gentle bubbles around my face. Everything within sight takes on a blunted, gentle edge no more threatening than cotton. I understand what drew my dad to water, even if his passion for it went too far.
I come up for air only as often as necessary and immediately return to my cocoon below. All too soon my five minutes are up and I climb back into the clanging world.
Weirdly, it turns out that stabbing at litter and stuffing it into bags is a relief after my time on the chair. Kind of Zen. I get into a garbage-picking rhythm.
Near the edge of the deck, Heath, who posted that awful picture of me at the science tournament, struts by with another lifeguard. They give me a slow once-over that has me blushing and gluing my eyes to the trash bag. Somehow I resist the powerful urge to drop everything and dive back into the pool.
As they head off, Heath says, “Yeah, she looks like all that, but she’s a mute or something.”
The other guy groans. “What a waste.”
They laugh as I try to shrink my five-nine frame a foot or two. There must be a clever comeback, but even if I came up with one, it would just be filed away along with the thousands of other comebacks I’ve never used.
I finish my trash picking, wash up, and get trained on the snack-bar cash register. Fortunately, I’m paired with a chatty girl named Alicia who interacts with the customers as I fetch ice-cream cones and French fries.
At two o’clock, my work day’s over. Even though it’s been shorter than the shifts scheduled for next week, being around so many people has drained me of every last bit of energy. No time to recover, though. As I trudge to the parking lot, my phone buzzes with another text from Evie.
YOU WILL NOT USE SAMMY AS AN EXCUSE. SEE YOU AT 8.
Crap. She won’t let up until I accept my fate. I drive off, defeated. Maybe there’ll be someplace to hide at Drew’s house. If only he had a pool.
At home, Sammy’s cough is a bit rattly as he gives me the once-over with those wise-beyond-his-years eyes. “Sucky day?”
I remind myself that sucky is taking twelve CF meds a day and probably needing a lung transplant before graduating high school. I say, “Just getting used to the new job.”
If only I could tell him about the chance he’ll be admitted into the pool of AV719 candidates. But I don’t want to get his hopes up yet. When hope’s your most precious commodity, you learn to treat it with care.
• • •
Evie, fresh in a neon-green dress and matching headband, picks me up at eight p.m. As we get into her car, she says, “If you just relax, the party could be super-fun. And it’s not like you have to worry about driving.”
“Maybe I should drive. If we take separate cars, then—”
She revs the engine. “That’s not environmental. If you need to leave early, use the code.”
At the other two parties she forced me into this year, which earned major exposure therapy points, I hadn’t resorted to the code, since I saw that as running away, and Evie knew it.
She tugs at her necklaces. “I should actually make you go more often. For the therapy to work.”
“What if all you’re exposing me to is an ulcer?” I pull an elastic band from my wrist.
She shoots out an arm to snatch the band from me. “How many times do I have to tell you? Girls with Rapunzel hair should flaunt it. Just like their impossibly toned bodies. That shirt bags on you.”
I cross my arms. “It’s comforting. Give me one small exception, okay?”
She sighs. “Aiz, if you really, really don’t think you’re up for it, I’ll turn around and drop you off. But I really, really hope you’ll get beyond this fear-of-the-world thing.”
“Thing? It’s not like I don’t try. You of all people should—”
“I just don’t want you to give up. Ever.”
She’s right. How will I be a successful advocate for kids like Sammy someday if I can’t deal with talking to people? I need to suck it up.
If only my resolve could stop my bones from rattling. “Let’s not stay long, okay?”
No, it isn’t fair that a simple thing like going to a party makes my stomach so tight I skipped dinner, and still feel like throwing up.
The heavy bass of the song on the car radio pounds like a funeral march. I cross and re-cross my legs, hoping that’ll ease my nerves in some acupressure-y way. It doesn’t.
We park a block from Drew’s house and run into kids laughing and shouting hundreds of feet before we reach the yard. Someone must’ve bribed the neighbors to sit through this. My insides drum, increasing in intensity the closer we get to ground zero.
Evie drags me by the arm through the front door, giving quick “heys” to the guys who swarm the entryway, rating all arrivals. She ignores their nods of approval and plows us through to the kitchen in less than a minute.
Before I can protest, she fills a red cup to the brim from a keg and hands it to me. “I know it’s lame to rely on alcohol, but desperate times call for desperate measures. So drink up.”
This must be how people become alcoholics. Trying to escape their personalities.
I guzzle down half the cup. “Enabler.” That’ll teach her to spew psychology crap on me all the time.
“Only enabling you to have a decent time.” She tops off my cup and grabs a soda for herself. “Now let’s mingle.”
Does the English language have any two words more horrifying than let’s mingle?
She pats my shoulder. “We’ll start easy. There’s Abby and the swim teammers.”
We make our way to the sliding glass doors where they huddle. I talk to these girls at every practice, so they should fall into my “safe” territory. In theory. But something about parties—or nearly any kind of social gathering, for that matter—fills my belly with barbed wire. I gulp at my beer, arrange my facial muscles into what I hope is a smile, and gulp some more. My cup empties too soon. Evie seizes it and runs off for a refill even though I tell her not to. While she’s gone, I pretend to keep up with the stories, the jokes, and the flirting with the boys who’ve joined us. But it’s overwhelming and I feel the way I always do around a crowd—as if it’s a living creature with a thousand limbs that move in sync to a rhythm I can’t hear.
What is wrong with me?
When Evie returns I take another sip, hating myself for needing a crutch. Especially a stupid one. Exposure, smexposure.
Evie’s shoulders abruptly pull back and her body goes on full alert. I follow her gaze to the foyer, where Rafe Sellers, a tall guy with shoulder-length black hair and the promise of a UCLA soccer scholarship, has arrived.
I tug her sleeve. “It’s okay if you go talk to him.” She’s not the only one who can push a best friend toward progress.
She bites her lip, reminding me that much of her bravado is an act of willpower learned as a little girl, when our classmates would tease about her family eating chicken feet. Back then, she hid in corners too, but, over the years, she ventured out and has been dragging me along ever since.
She says, “Eventually, he might come over this way.”
He probably would. Evie and Rafe have been flirting for months, even though they haven’t taken things further. Which makes him brain dead as far as I’m concerned. What guy wouldn’t be crazy about my amazing, gorgeous friend?
I will not be the one to spoil her fun. “Go. I’ll be fine here, really.” I take another swig of beer to prove it.
I wipe the corner of my mouth. “If I change my mind, I’ve got the code, and I’m not afraid to use it.”
She nods to herself, still unsure, despite the invisible tether that pulls her toward the kitchen, where Rafe and his buddies disappear.
I push her gently. “Now who’s chickening out?”
She takes a deep breath and flutters off. I turn to the folks around me and try to think of something to add to their conversation about naked bicycle riders at the solstice parade. But, really, what can I say, besides maybe suggesting strategically placed talcum powder?
I sip, nod, and check my phone. We’ve only been here for twenty-five minutes? I burp. Hmm, better slow down on the beer.
Abby O’Keefe, twirling a red curl around her finger, asks me about working at the pool. I open my mouth to respond, and that’s when I catch sight of the latest party arrivals. My breath hiccups. Jack is here.
Abby laughs. “Wow, you’ve got it bad.”
I stand there, unable to form a rational response. Somehow, I blocked the possibility Jack would be here too. Which was stupid. Or denial. I’m a pro in that department. For years I held on to the pathetic belief that Dad didn’t really die in a diving accident; it was all a massive mistake.
Abby’s face gets serious. “I’m going to help you.” She waves toward Jack. What is it about me that launches my friends into pimp mode?
Finally, I get a word out. “No.” As much as I like Jack, when actually confronted with the real live version, all of my systems scream, “Hide!” But my protest is too late. He heads our way, his gaze locked on mine. All I can do is hope my eyes aren’t too glassy and that I’m not blushing too hard. More denial.
As he approaches, I’d swear he gives me a lightning-quick head-to-toe appraisal. Only fair, since I do the same to him, taking in his slightly damp blond hair, blue-blue eyes, and swimmer’s build. He leads the guys’ team in butterfly.
His features soften into a slow smile. “Aislyn, you came.”
“Yeah.” Deep breath, get words out of mouth. “Evie forced me to.”
“I hoped she would.”
“Um, yeah.” I swallow a beer burp. Why is this so hard? Jack and I have what pass for interesting conversations online, and we’ve e-mailed a zillion times about submissions for The Drizzle. But now, no matter how much I will my heart and lungs to slow down, my knees to hold up, and my brain to focus, my body resists on all counts.
I say, “Um, congrats on the science competition.”
“I thought for sure you’d win. Your stuff is always way beyond the rest of ours.” He pulls at his shirt. “This place is crazy hot.”
I resist the urge to tell him exactly what, or who, is crazy hot, and point toward the glass door like a robot.
“Good idea.” He opens it, letting in the evening breeze.