Chapter One: Don’t Think

My heartbeat, my breath, and the splash of my body are the music in my head as I warm up in the lane. The water erases everything else, even the weight of my body. I move through space without resistance.

Angie and Hannah are standing at the side of the pool when I start my warmup, their eyes hidden behind the darkly tinted goggles we all wear. They’re my captains, and we’re a team, but only one swimmer can be State Champion next week.

I block them out of my bubble and try to think in movement instead of words as I work myself through the water, swimming slowly during my first four laps. When I pick up the speed, words come back to me. Well, just two words. Not lift your elbows or straight legs or any of the things I used to tell myself in the water when I was a kid. Now, it’s just two words: go faster.

Breathe. Burn. Go faster. Go faster. My movement is clean. My mind is clear.

I swim until I’m warm. I don’t bother counting laps. I can feel when I’m ready to race. I climb out of the pool and stand, dripping, while Angie swims her warm-up laps in the center lane. She’s fast, but she’s sloppy. Her times have been all over the place this week. I shake my arms and legs and circle my shoulders to keep warm as I wait for Coach to signal for sprints.

I look over to the stands as I run through all of the stuff that could affect my sprints today. Have I had enough protein today to keep pushing? Am I hydrated? Did I get enough sleep? Am I loose enough?

Coach blows the whistle, and it’s time.

“Melanie, you’re next to me and Hannah.” Angie arranges us in the center lanes as the swimmers to beat. We step onto the blocks.

Even though this is only practice, this is always my worst swimmer’s moment, out of the water, hoping I’m warm enough, nerves pulsing, keeping my breath under control. Don’t think, don’t think, I think.

I never hear the shot, but my body does. I fly off the block, skimming the top of the water, and then, I’m in my stroke. Angie is just behind me, Hannah one body length in front. Breathe. Push. Faster.

I go into the flip, but when I push off the side, I catch the edge of my foot on the tiled wall. Hannah and Angie are both in front of me now. Go faster, go faster! I push my pace, moving like a machine. Motion, breath, speed. I do what I’ve trained to do. I act and react. I pass both of them and push myself through the burn. My muscles are red-hot.

I touch first and surface. Coach yells out my time, a pro finish, breaking my own state record, a full second faster than last week. I want to yell into the air and shake my fist at the sky, but instead, I spin my goggles around my neck. Blood rushes in my ears, blocking out the sounds from my team. I take a deep breath and duck back underwater, smiling in the chlorine for a second before I come back up to the top.

I pull myself out of the water. When my eyes focus on the crowd, there he is, sitting in the stands with a group of his friends. He doesn’t wave, but he looks me up and down over the top of his RayBans. His gaze makes me feel bare. His tilted smile breaks my rhythm.

I don’t look back at the stands for the rest of practice.

We do three more sprints, and I win each one easily even as my times slow down each time. I’m wasted by cooldown and take it easy in the practice pool, keeping it slow and loose.

Alec was in the stands. Why?

And why did I botch that flip turn? I still killed the time, but what if that happens at State?  Or if I get a cramp? Anything can happen.

I play back each sprint in my head. Every lap has its own story to tell. Behind the moving pictures in my brain, I hear Alec’s whispered words during Chem Lab yesterday.

Your shoulders have freckles.

Why do you care so much about school?

You don’t carry a purse like other girls.

You’re a hot shit swimmer, right?

I’m gonna come see you at practice.




J. K. Wise lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she writes novels and teaches high school Dance. She is a PhD student in Adolescent Literacy researching fan fic and dance as text. Things she loves: books, the place where the desert meets the beach, monsoon storms, midcentury architecture, the music in her headphones, cats, travel, abandoned places, and, most of all, her family.

NATURAL DISASTERS is her young-adult debut novel about Jared and Melanie, two teens who come together as everything is falling apart after an earthquake destroys their Arizona town. NATURAL DISASTERS is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. 

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