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The following is an excerpt from Going Under, available September 5, 2017.
Making a Splash
The summer sun is still blazing down over the cracked, sun-bleached asphalt of the parking lot outside the athletic center.
The humidity is building already; it surrounds Gabriel as he veers around another half-empty row of cars, making his way toward the front of the lot. There’s no way he’s walking out to the back fifty once he’s done practice. Not today. Not tomorrow. He knows for fact Gord is going to give him hell, work him overtime in the pool. He’d better not be so cocky as to assume he’ll be able to limp or crawl the extra distance to his car. It will be a miracle if he can drag himself to the front-row spot he always parks in.
And the other students know well enough to leave that space for him. Usually, he arrives early enough that it doesn’t matter, but even when he’s late (ha, late—perhaps a seven o’clock practice instead of the usual ass-crack of dawn thing Gord has going on), the space is strangely vacant.
They know him. They respect him. He’d even go so far as to say they fear him, but that’s probably pushing it. He’s just a swimmer, after all, not some sort of football goon. Yes, he’s ungodly tall at six feet, four inches, but he’s lanky and awkward, with too much limb. On land, he’s a mess. In the water, he is pure grace. It’s like he belongs there. “A fish out of water,” as his mother might say.
He feels it, a lot. Which is why he won’t say the other students fear him. Know who he is? Sure. He’s that guy who went to the Olympics, got back to the States two weeks ago toting four medals (only one of them is gold, and as far as he’s concerned, it’s the only one that counts). He was all over their television screens, their laptops, their tablets. He’s all over campus right now; he’s dreading going through the university center and the library, because he knows there’s banners of him and there will inevitably be students who gape and point, making their own fish-faces at the fish-man.
Most of the students know him. And those who don’t soon will.
And that’s why most mornings, his parking space is open, even when the rows around it are jammed full of early birds and keeners, half-asleep teenagers with eight am classes.
Except this morning. Just as he pulls around the final corner, a shiny, red BMW whips into his spot—the last open spot in the row.
He knows it’s his spot, because he always parks there—number two, second to the left. He never parks right on the end, never takes number one because that is just far too pretentious, even for him.
He drives by real slow, glowering at the Beemer and its sole occupant—the driver. The guy doesn’t even seem to notice Gabriel’s trying to glare holes in the back of his head. He seems to be fussing with something in the glove compartment.
Gabriel huffs, whips around the corner, and drives up the next row. He finds a spot, not nearly close enough to the pool for how badly Gord is gonna beat him up with reps and sets, but it will have to do. He cuts the sputtering engine of the beat-up Toyota Tercel (he’s waiting for his post-Olympics sponsorship contracts to come through before he gets new wheels). He pockets the keys, grabs his swim stuff, and checks the time.
He has about fifteen minutes to get on deck.
He swings himself out of the car, kicks the door shut behind him, then meanders along behind the taillights of the first row of vehicles, idly contemplating their license plates, eyeing the Beemer in his spot.
Guy is just getting out of the car now. Gabriel resists the urge to sneer at him; he’s clearly a first-degree douche. Gabriel knows them to see them, and this guy is first-class. He’s shorter than Gabriel, but still probably pushing six feet. He’s not lanky at all; oh no, he’s stocky, a lot of muscle, broad through the shoulders. He’s wearing board shorts and a neon tee that pulls across his chest. He’s fiddling with his phone, staring down at it as he swings a backpack over his shoulder. He doesn’t even seem to notice that Gabriel’s now almost on top of him, sticks one sneaker-clad foot out in front of him and bashes into Gabriel, dropping his phone in the process.
Gabriel glowers at him. The guy seems surprised, but looks up at him with bright, blue eyes and a thousand-watt smile. “Oh hey,” he says, “sorry. Didn’t see ya there—”
And that is not at all the reaction Gabriel was expecting from Douchebro. He was waiting for a sneer, a “watch where the fuck you’re going,” something football-player typical.
Gabriel is vaguely aware he should say something, almost growls something about stealing his parking spot, but realizes that will sound idiotic. So he points at the guy’s iPhone instead, says, “You dropped that.”
There’s the sarcasm: the guy rolls his eyes. “Like I didn’t notice,” he says, and Gabriel frowns, wonders where he’s from. He has this vaguely weird accent, like not even an accent. But it’s not a Southern drawl, it’s not a New Yorker or a Jersey Shore accent, and it’s definitely not Midwestern or Californian, so …
The guy has retrieved his phone. The screen is shattered, and Gabriel can see pieces of the glass sticking into the guy’s thumb as he tries to get his latest text. “You can get that fixed,” he says, “over at the UC.”
“Hm?” Douchebro looks up at him, blinks. “UC?”
Gabriel points, realizing he’s stumbled on a freshman. “There’s a kiosk in there,” he says.
“Oh, cool,” the guy says, “thanks.”
Gabriel nods once, then glances down at his watch. He scuttles off for the athletic center. He’ll deal with the issue of Douchebro Freshman stealing his parking spot later. He’ll have bigger issues if he’s late to their first swim practice after the summer.
Gabriel’s been at the pool pretty much all summer; he had Trials and then the Olympics in London. Unlike other members of the team, he hadn’t drifted off when school was done for the semester. It isn’t like he has far to go anyway; his mother lives around the block from his apartment, which is both helpful and the bane of his existence. On the one hand, she still does his laundry or cooks him a meal. On the other hand, she knows where he lives and can be at his door within five minutes—problematic when Gabriel’s trying to pretend he’s a self-sufficient adult male.
She seems to have some sort of sixth sense about when he’s trying to impress a member of the opposite sex too.
He has no time to ruminate on that, however; Gord flashes him the evil eye as he darts by his office—a silent warning that he’s been seen and his presence has been acknowledged. He glances up at the clock on the wall, notes the time. Five minutes.
He changes and showers in record time, steps onto the pool deck as he settles his goggles on his head. His feet smack the tiled floor, that characteristic wet slap of toes on the floor near a pool, and he starts his warm-ups.
A couple more guys filter out of the change room. He recognizes Brody and Connor, not the third guy they’re with. Mel appears from the women’s change room a moment later.
“Heyyyyy!” Brody cries. “Look who it is, it’s the famous Olympian Gabriel Foss. Didn’t think you’d come back to a small-time college swim team after being on the world stage.”
“Oy, shut up,” Connor says, gives Brody a shove, nearly knocking him into the pool. “If you wanna be an Olympian, maybe you should practice more.”
“Pfft, who says I wanna be an Olympian? No thanks—I’ve seen what Foss has to do.”
“Mel doesn’t work that hard,” Connor argues, “and she’s an Olympian.”
“Oh, good idea, maybe I can go into the women’s competition!”
“We’d still kick your ass, Brody,” Mel calls from across the pool.
Another girl has joined her on the deck; she has long, dark hair and big, brown eyes. She looks like she’s maybe all of sixteen years old. She glances around at all of them, nervous.
Gord appears on deck a moment later, clipboard in hand. “All right, enough of yer jawing’,” he grumbles, “if ya’ll have time t’ talk, I clearly ain’t given ya enough t’ do.”
“You’re slacking, Coach! You ain’t given us squat to do!”
“Brody, shut up,” Connor hisses.
Good grins wickedly. “That’s about t’ change. First, however, we’re gonna do a roll call.”
He looks down at his list. “Appleton.”
“Here,” Connor says, lifting his hand.
“Egerton, yes, hello Mel.”
She’s waving enthusiastically from the other side of the pool, because they know Gord hates that. “Stoppit, or I’ll wipe that smile right off your face.”
She splashes her feet in the water as a response. Gord’s eye twitches a little.
“Foss,” Gord says stiffly, with a nod to Gabriel. He pauses, looks around at the other swimmers who are now gathering on deck. He points at Gabriel. “This here is yer captain, ya’ll can do any bellyaching t’ him, ‘cause I won’t listen.”
There’s laughter from the sophomores and seniors, nervous tittering from the freshmen.
Gord nods. “Jennings.”
That’s the girl with dark hair.
That’s one of the guys, the sheepish-looking giant who was with Connor and Brody earlier.
“Herrrreeee,” Amy calls out as she parades over to her teammates.
Gord’s eye twitches. That’s almost late. “Larsen.”
“Here,” JT says, without enthusiasm. He looks like he just woke up. Gabriel wonders if he slept-walk over. Wouldn’t surprise him in the slightest.
Gord pauses slightly, as though he’s contemplating the next name. Gabriel doesn’t miss the slight twitch of the coach’s lips; he knows the name, recognizes it from somewhere. “Lockwood,” he calls, and the deck is dead silent.
Good inhales sharply, lifts his pen. He eyes them all, like a dragon, bellows, “Lockwood!”
There’s the slap of feet on wet tiles again, and a guy barrels out of the change room, yelling, “Here!” at the top of his lungs.
Of course, there’s a reason pools have a no running on deck rule, and even experienced swimmers aren’t immune to the fact that water offers relatively little traction. The guy goes ass over tea kettle, much to most of the team’s amusement.
Gord’s twitching with rage. Gabriel can’t help but sympathize with his coach—this asshole is late to their first swim practice, breaks a cardinal rule, nearly injures himself in the process? Gabriel doesn’t need that kind of idiocy on his pool deck, not while he’s trying to work.
The guy rights himself, pushes his goggles up a bit, and smiles guilelessly, laughs. “Sorry,” he laughs, “sorry, I dropped my phone, I had t’ go get it fixed—”
Gord is redder than a tomato. “You had to?!” he bellows. “You had to, right before practice?! Your phone is so important that you were late to practice so—”
“Uh, yeah,” the guy—Lockwood —says. “I couldn’t read where I was supposed t’ go, ‘cause the screen was busted when I dropped it in the parking lot.”
Lockwood turns toward the pool, catches sight of Gabriel. “’Cause that asshole walked into me!” he cries, pointing a finger at Gabriel.
“You walked into me!” Gabriel barks back, and the entire team stops, stares.
“Holy shit,” Brody says, “it speaks!”
“Captain, my Captain!” Mel cries, and Gabriel grits his teeth.
Lockwood picks himself up off the floor, says, “I guess I could’ve asked you where to go, huh? Oh well—I got my screen fixed, thanks.” He adjusts his goggles.
Gord is still steaming. “Lockwood,” he says.
“Reese,” Lockwood replies.
“No, seriously, that’s my name,” Lockwood says, “you can use it.”
“I’ll call you what I damn well like, get in the goddamn pool! All of you!”
“What about the rest of—”
As it turns out, Lockwood—or Reese, as he insists—is actually not terrible at swimming. Gabriel grudgingly admit the guy does okay at fly (but nobody can touch Gabriel in fly), and he’s decent enough at freestyle. (Gabriel reserves comment on breaststroke, because everyone is shitty when they do breaststroke, even breaststrokers, even Gabriel himself, and he’s pretty much the closest thing to Aquaman or a fish in USA Swimming right now.)
Reese is very, very good at backstroke. Like, shouldn’t be that good. Pisses Gabriel off, because who the fuck does this guy think he is, grinning at him like that when he touches the wall ahead of Gabriel on their last fifty meters, lifts his brows, laughs—genuine laughter, like a little kid.
Seriously, Gabriel thinks, this is unfair. Categorically unfair. Reese looks like he should be playing some other sport, or maybe going into acting or modeling or something, not swimming.
Swimming is not for guys like Reese. It’s a sport for guys like Gabriel, guys who are gangly, with too much limb for their own bodies, nothing but awkwardness. Guys who can’t do a real sport.
But Reese, Reese fucking Lockwood, has touched the wall before Gabriel, is the first on the team to best him in any of their trials that morning, and that is simply not fair.
What’s even less fair is that Gabriel apparently shares a class with the moron. After they get out of the pool, he’s quietly hoping he can go stew at the back of one of his classes and brew about how unfair it is that Reese Lockwood is apparently good at his loser sport—can those asshole jocks not leave anything alone? And he’ll plot, of course, about how to get Lockwood kicked off the team, because fuck if he’s putting up with that idiocy, that moronic laughter every morning from now until …
January, he thinks. Reese is a freshman. He’ll probably drop out. And the sooner Gabriel can make him, the better off he is.
So he showers and changes without so much as a word to his teammates, most of whom are talking to—or listening to, perhaps—Reese, who is loud and grating, and Gabriel decides he hates him. If he didn’t hate him before for stealing his parking spot, he definitely hates him now.
He jams his gear into his bag, swings it over his shoulder, slams the locker shut, and nearly startles out of his skin when Reese is standing right there. He’s smiling, eyes wide, and he says, “What about you, Gabby?”
Gabriel’s eye twitches. “Don’t,” he snarls, “call me that.”
Reese blinks, then grins, his eyes lighting up. “What? Gabby?”
Gabriel grits his teeth.
“I dunno, it seems really fitting,” Reese enthuses, “I mean, ‘cause you’re clearly so … chatty. Gabby loves to gab, right? You got the gift, c’mon—”
Gabriel growls low in his throat, animalistic, because human speech is beyond him right then and there.
Reese is completely oblivious. He laughs and slings an arm around Gabriel’s shoulders, like they’re best friends or something, and he grabs the other swimmer’s iPod, scrolls through it cheerfully. “Whatcha got on here?”
His eyes light up again. “Ha! Britney Spears?!”
He hits play, even as Gabriel tries to swipe the device back from him. “Guys, our captain listens to Britney Spears!”
“I do fucking not,” Gabriel spits, still grabbing for the iPod. Reese yanks out the headphone cord, cranks the volume.
“Hit me baby, one more time!” Reese warbles, then breaks off laughing.
Gabriel finally snatches the iPod back from him. “My sister borrowed it,” he snaps, “she must have put some shit on here—”
Everyone else nods, but Reese—God, does he just not shut up?—grins, says, “Suuuuuure.”
Gabriel stuffs the player into his backpack and storms out of the locker room. He has a class to get to.
He makes his way across campus, fighting through throngs of students, most of them absorbed in their screens, headphones tucked in their ears. He makes it to class five minutes early and picks his seat: back of the room, tucked in a corner. First-year nutrition. This class is going to be such a breeze.
Gabriel is majoring in pediatrics, because he’s nothing if not an over-achiever. He figures once swimming is over, he’ll need to do something else, and he has the grades. He likes the challenge. He needs another science credit though, so here he is. He might learn something useful from the course.
The Jennings girl, the girl with dark hair, walks in a moment later. Her eyes flash with recognition, and he glares at her, daring her to approach. She glances away quickly, and she takes a seat in one of the middle rows, on the opposite side of the room.
Good, Gabriel thinks. That’s the way it should be.
“Oh hey, man, you could’ve said you had this class.”
His eyes shoot open, and he glares at Reese, who glares back at him from across the room. Well. At least. He thinks it’s a glare. Reese has kind of scrunched up his nose, but he doesn’t look …
Apparently, the moron doesn’t think Gabriel looks intimidating either, because he stalks across the room, slings himself down in the seat next to Gabriel. He starts unloading his stuff—a notebook, three or four pens. Loose sheets of paper flutter about. Gabriel can feel the twitch in his eye starting again.
Reese is completely oblivious. “So, like,” he says without looking at Gabriel, “I thought you were a sophomore?”
Gabriel grunts in reply.
Reese apparently thinks that’s an answer. “’Cause, y’know, this is a first-year class, right? Didja fail or something?”
Gabriel scowls at him. “No,” he says at last, “I did not. I don’t even need to take this class.”
Reese looks confused, and Gabriel’s about to ask him if he understands how college works yet, but class is crowded and the professor has banged the door shut, announcing that they’re about to start.
Reese prods him with a pen. “Psst,” he says, grinning, “can I copy your notes?”
Gabriel swats him off. “Make your own,” he hisses.
Reese kind of laughs, then seems to settle. Finally.
Gabriel glances over halfway through the lecture and just stares at the other swimmer. Reese has his head down on the table and his pen is moving across paper, but he’s not writing.
He’s doodling. Not just random stick figure doodles, but intense geometric patterns, replete with three or four colors (the multiple pens make sense now, Gabriel thinks), over and over again, varying a little as they cross the page.
Idiot. He’s sitting with a Grade-A moron, and the sooner Gabriel can get Reese Lockwood out of his life, the better.
There’s about ten minutes left in class when Reese slips him a hastily scrawled, barely legible note: party @ my place on fri u down?
Gabriel stares at the note for a full minute, uncomprehending. He doesn’t get invited to parties. Gabriel Foss doesn’t do parties. He does swimming and school and that’s about it.
Nobody even asks him to go to parties. Even the Olympic team knew better than to ask him about anything that sounded remotely like having fun.
The last time he was invited to a party …
He suppresses an involuntary shudder. He glances over at Reese, who still has his head sideways on the desk, looking up at him with those aqua-colored eyes of his.
They’re a weird shade of blue, Gabriel thinks.
He shoves the note back at Reese, shakes his head.
The paper comes sliding back. Y not? Itll b fun
Gabriel shakes his head again.
free booze? Reese writes, as though that could entice him.
Gabriel grabs the pen, scribbles out “fuck off.”
Reese frowns at it, then at him. Lossen up! Team all invited
Gabriel glares at the paper for a moment, then writes, what do you not get? I don’t like you, leave me alone
Reese kind of stares at the paper for a minute after that, but he stops writing insipid notes, and when lecture is over, he’s quiet, packing up his stuff in silence. He doesn’t ask Gabriel again; he doesn’t even say “see ya later” or anything like that, just tosses his backpack over his shoulder and leaves the room.
Good, Gabriel thinks, but wonders why it doesn’t exactly feel that way.
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