After practice, Mel and I walked to her house to have lunch and hang out. As soon as we walked through the front door, I shook off a chill.
“Justin,” Mel called. “Turn the AC down. It’s like a refrigerator in here.” She turned to me. “I’m sorry. He always keeps it this cold. I swear he’s an Eskimo in disguise.”
Footsteps pounded down a staircase and a tall, gangling boy with arms and legs like a windmill barreled into the kitchen. He almost plowed into me and stopped short, grabbing on to the doorframe.
“Whoa! Who’s this?” he asked.
“This is my friend, Aerin. She’s new on the swim team.”
“Hey, Aerin. I’m Justin.” He held out his hand for a handshake, and I took it. His grip was strong, and a little charge passed between us.
“Hey,” I said looking up into robins’ egg blue eyes just like Mel’s, complete with the thick, dark lashes. After that, no resemblance. He was blond, his hair almost down to his shoulders and parted on the left, his bangs falling over the right side of his face. He had the clearest complexion and a most contagious smile. I worked at keeping a straight face and failed. I broke eye contact, dropped his hand, and stuffed both of mine in my pockets.
“He’s my big bother,” Mel explained.
“Don’t you mean big brother, baby sister?” he asked.
“No, I mean big bother,” Mel said as she dropped two pieces of bread in the toaster.
“I thought you guys were twins,” I asked, confused.
“We are,” Mel said, “but he was born five minutes before me and claims the title ‘Big Bother.’”
Justin tapped out an innocuous rhythm on the kitchen counter. “That and the fact I’m so much bigger than she is.”
He towered over her by at least half a foot. His shoulders were almost as wide as the door frame and padded with muscle. He wore a raggedy old T-shirt that read, “Win or Die,” and a pair of silky basketball shorts, his long legs with thick, ropy muscles ending in feet like flippers.
“And, Big Bother,” Mel went on, “I thought I asked you to keep the AC at a minimum in the morning. I don’t want to come home to a freezing house after being in the pool for four hours. You wouldn’t like it if I turned the heat down when you’re in season, and you came home to a Frigidaire.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I forgot. I’ll reprogram the thermostat, okay? I’ll keep everything at a cool 68 degrees.”
“Try 70,” Mel said.
He left the room and came back seconds later. “Done,” he said. “So, how was practice?”
“It was practice,” she said, opening the refrigerator and pulling out some eggs and a carton of milk. “You know how Coach is.”
“You’re making eggs?” he asked. “I’ll take mine over easy.”
Mel snorted. “Make your own.”
He pouted and turned to me. “So, where are you from, Aerin?”
“She’s from Manhattan,” Mel said as she placed a frying pan on the stove and lit the flame below it.
“A city girl, huh?” He gave me an appraising glance and I squirmed under his attention. “Well, you’re a long way from the Big Apple.”
“All right by me,” I said.
“How do you like the swim team?”
“Just ‘okay’? They’re the best girls’ team around here,” he said. “You’ll be lucky if you don’t get cut, being the new girl and all.”
“Justin!” Mel spun away from the stove, spatula raised. “What a dumb thing to say. And how would you know, anyway? Aerin is an awesome swimmer.”
“Yeah? What do you do?” He crossed his arms over his chest and gave me a hard stare.
“Distance,” I said, meeting the challenge in his eyes. I’d met his type before.
“500? 800? 1500?”
“We don’t even swim the long events at the high school,” Mel said as she flipped an egg.
“All of them,” I said.
“You swim club?”
“What’s your best time?” he asked.
“Gosh, Justin, leave her alone, why don’t you?” Mel asked. “Drop the third degree. Don’t listen to him, Aerin. He thinks he’s the next Michael Phelps.”
“Do not,” Justin retorted.
“Do too,” Mel said, eyes narrowing, “and besides, Coach Dudash likes her. I doubt she’ll get cut, although, I’m not too sure about a few others.” She lifted two eggs out of the pan and placed them on a plate. “Here,” she said, handing it to me. “Eat them before they get cold.”
I took the plate and sat down at the table, digging in. I hadn’t had much breakfast, and it was almost noon.
Justin took the seat across from me. Mel cracked two more eggs in the pan and they started sizzling.
“So, who do you think is getting cut next?” Justin asked.
“Well,” Mel said, her back to us as she tended the eggs. “I wouldn’t be too surprised if Jordan Hastings finds herself on the outside looking in.”
“No way,” Justin cried. “Coach can’t cut Jordan. Her father’s on the school board.”
“I’m not too sure that matters anymore. I heard Coach talking to her after practice. He told her to change her attitude, to lighten up on the younger girls. She had two of them in tears yesterday.”
“She’s one mean girl, but I don’t think she’ll get cut. Coach needs a breaststroker. She’s not great, but she’s the best he’s got.”
“Not anymore,” Mel said. “This new girl, Charlie, looks pretty good for a middle-schooler. She’s been keeping up with Jordan, although she’s in lane six and Jordan’s in lane five.”
The faster swimmers swam in the middle lanes, and the slower swimmers swam out toward the edges. Two Rivers had a six-lane pool, so the slower swimmers were in lanes one and six.
“Jordan doesn’t know because she doesn’t pay attention to the slower swimmers,” Mel went on. “But I noticed, and so did Coach. He’s been spending a lot of time with Charlie. She’s working hard to make the team. She comes to practice on time and does what Coach tells her to do. She never complains. Jordan’s always the last in the pool and the first one out, a big-time slacker. Don’t be surprised if he lets her go.”
All of this was news to me. I didn’t waste time on team politics and drama. I didn’t care who was on the team, as long as I made it.
“That would make headlines,” Justin said.
“Tell me about it,” Mel said, a smug smile on her lips. She placed a plate with four eggs, over easy, and four pieces of buttered toast on the table in front of her brother.
“Thanks, Mel, you’re the best,” he said before stuffing his mouth with a whole egg.
Mel made her breakfast and joined us at the table.
“Oh,” she said, “I almost forgot. Did you hear about the Allison Singer scholarship? It’s up to fifty thousand dollars.”
Justin raised his eyebrows and whistled. “You girls are so lucky. We don’t have anything like that challenging our team. Think Mighty Mouse will do it this year?”
“Mighty Mouse?” I asked.
“He means Tatiana,” Mel explained. “Everyone calls her Mighty Mouse because she’s small and strong. I hope so,” she said to Justin. “I’d love to see someone break that old record while I’m on the team. I wish I had a shot.”
“What about you, Apple?” Justin asked, his eyes on me.
“Yeah, I’m going to call you Apple because you come from the Big Apple.”
“Everyone on the team has a nickname. Consider it an initiation rite.”
“Oh yeah? What’s your nickname?”
“Tonka,” Mel answered for him, “like the toy truck. Everyone calls me Bunny because I’m like the Energizer Bunny – I keep going, and going and – “
“Going.” Justin finished for her.
“So,” I said, “everyone has a nickname. What’s Jordan’s?”
Mel and Justin exchanged glances and burst out laughing.
“Viper,” he said.
“No way!” I laughed. “She lets you get away with that?”
“Of course not,” said Mel. “That’s what we call her. Everyone else calls her Ariel, you know, the Little Mermaid?” She smirked.
“I like Viper better,” I said, and we laughed again.
Mel pushed her chair away from the table and started stacking our dirty dishes.
“Let me help,” I said, springing up. Together we loaded the dishwasher and cleaned up the rest of our mess.
“What’s your agenda this afternoon?” Justin asked.
“Floating,” Mel said.
In the afternoons, Mel liked to float on an air mattress in their pool and snooze. She’d invited me to join her.
“I’m off to the Y,” said Justin. “Dozens of little kids are waiting for me to teach them how to swim, and then I’m guarding until six o’clock.” He went to the sink and washed his hands.
“Have a good shift,” Mel said. She also worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor at the YMCA, and had promised she’d put in a good word for me so I could get a job, too, after swim season ended.
Justin pulled a set of car keys out of his front pocket and jingled them. “Nice to meet, you, Apple,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around.”
The intensity in his blue eyes as he stared deep into mine unnerved me. “Yeah,” I stammered. “I’ll be around.”
“Come on,” Mel said, grabbing my arm. “Let’s put on our suits and get outside.”
I allowed her to pull me along as she headed to her room. A few minutes later, a car sputtered to life outside. I peeked out of Mel’s bedroom window just in time to see Justin speed away in a beat-up Jeep Wrangler.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “I’ll be around.”
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