“All right, girls. You did a good job in practice today, although I would like a little less talking between laps. . Now, don’t forget that we have a big meet this Saturday, so I’d like you all to get a good night’s rest before then. Be at the Westwood indoor pool on Main Street at nine-thirty, and the meet will start at eleven. We need lots of time to warm up and practice before it starts. I posted a list of who will be swimming what, so be sure to check it on your way out. See you tomorrow at nine-thirty.”
Coach finished his speech and began packing up all the swim boards and weights. Becca rushed to her feet. “Thanks, Coach!” she called on her way to the locker room. A rush of girls followed her, chatting and giggling. The locker room was warm, damp, and smelled of chlorine. Becca quickly walked across the checkered wet floor, aiming for her locker, but slid a little and grazed Alicia’s arm. “Sorry,” she said.
Alicia responded halfheartedly, “That’s all right.” Alicia’s eyes looked dull and lifeless, and her body hung on its thin frame. She must have been sick, Becca concluded.
After sliding towards, and luckily reaching, her own locker, Becca began digging through her bag. She found a bag of potato chips sitting there, only slightly squished. “Hey!” she exclaimed loudly. “Does anybody want some chips?”
“No thanks,” Silver said, looking at her scornfully. Quieter, Silver spoke to Kayla. “All I’ve had today was a cup of tea, and that’s how I’m going to keep it.” Kayla nodded and whispered something back that Becca couldn’t quite pick up.
“Oh, OK.” Becca turned, a little confused and hurt, and put the chips back in her bag, to be discovered again another day. As the girls changed back into their clothing, Becca thought about what Silver had said. Instinctively, she thought back to her waffle for breakfast and her bowl of mac and cheese for lunch. A feeling of self-consciousness and regret seeped through her veins, a feeling she had been experiencing when she happened to catch a sentence or phrase spoken from the girls who usually stood in the corner of the locker room. She hugged her arms around her damp body, trying to hide herself from the rest of the girls in the locker room. She hated this feeling that pulsed through her body and made her heart beat quickly. She hated this feeling of… Becca gulped, unwilling to admit it, even just to herself.
Becca packed her swim bag, changed back into her original clothes, and left the locker room without another word, for her thoughts were enough to keep her occupied all the way home, and for many days to come.
* * *
The sidewalk was a gray streak that seemed to go on forever. The sky was just as gray, and the leaves hung on the trees. Becca walked slowly down the sidewalk, her thoughts as gray as the world around her. “All I’ve had today is a cup of tea,” kept ringing through her mind. Did those girls have eating problems? The thought had occurred to her before, but she always pushed it to the back of her mind. Eating disorders were dangerous, even Becca knew that. Becca had heard of kids and teenagers being hospitalized for long periods of time, sometimes even dying. It was too awful. What if Ashley and Silver and…
“Becky!” Becca looked around, startled. She had been too focused on her thoughts to pay attention to the world around her. Her friend Katelyn from the swim team hopped down the sidewalk, awkwardly trying to run with her giant swim bag draped over her shoulder. Becca snapped out of her thoughts, dug deep inside her, and plastered a fake grin on her face. It was the best she could do.
“Hey, Becca! What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing much. Where are you going?”
“I’m just going to my friend Jennifer’s house. She lives pretty close to you.” Katelyn switched her bag from one shoulder to the other. “So what stroke and length are you doing?”
Stroke and length? Becca frowned and crumpled her brow, sifting through her thoughts and memories. Stroke and length? “Ohhhh,” she realized, her brow unfolding. “Oh no!” she exclaimed. “I completely forgot to check the sheet!”
“Oh,” Katelyn said sympathetically. “Well, I guess you’ll find out at nine-thirty on Saturday. I’m doing the 100-meter butterfly.”
“The 100-meter butterfly?” Becca was impressed, very impressed. That was the hardest stroke. “Wow, impressive.”
“Yeah,” Katelyn shrugged. “To be honest with you, I’m a little nervous about it.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You’re a great swimmer.”
Katelyn smiled. “Thanks, Becky. I’ll see you soon, OK? Jennifer’s house is right here.”
Becca waved goodbye, then continued her walk. Her damp hair swung in its ponytail as she walked with renewed confidence down the sidewalk. Katelyn always had a way of cheering her up, whether she realized it or not. However, her confidence lasted barely a minute, for as the sun peeked out from behind a cloud it glared off a billboard, right into Becca’s eyes. Blinking, Becca looked at the billboard. A model was posed on it, and her eyes seemed to sear through Becca. Her glare seemed mocking, as she was dressed in a bikini, showing off her tan legs, which were about as thin as Becca’s wrists. Her long hair flowed under the words, “Try the newest Super Diet from Michelle Miracle! You’ll look better than ever in that new swimsuit!”
* * *
Becca trudged through her front gate. “Hi Susie,” she said dispiritedly.
Susie, a ball full of energy and Becca’s six-year-old sister, bounced around Becca, grabbed her hand, and gleefully shouted, “Can you play with me?”
Becca looked at the front door longingly, desperate to sink into her bed, plug her headphones into her iPod, and tune out the rest of her world. But she knew that if she did that, Susie would never cease to constantly demand, “Can we play? Can we play? Can we play?” over and over and over.
“Fine,” she grumbled, “but not for long.”
Susie sprung two feet into the air. “Yayyyy! I want to climb that big tree!”
“That tree? It looks a little big for you.”
“I can do it! You can help me, Becky.”
“Fine,” Becca grumbled again. “Just please don’t kill yourself.” Susie bounced over to the tree with Becca following, dragging her worn sneakers across the dry dirt. Susie, standing on her tippy toes, struggled to reach even the first branch. With a little boost from Becca, she was perched precariously on it. Groaning, Becca followed in her footsteps. Susie was already trying to scramble onto another branch that clearly wouldn’t hold half her weight.
“Susie! What are you doing? That branch won’t hold you up!” Becca hauled her off and onto the branch she was standing on. “Although that branch may look nice, it’s much too thin! It wouldn’t even hold your pinky toe!” Pointing to a much fatter branch, she lectured, “Now look at that one. It may not look as perfect.” Sighing, she continued, “But it will hold you up.”
A short while later, or a very long while later as it seemed to Becca, they were as high up the tree as they could get. Becca took a breath of fresh air, relieved at the stress-free environment of the smooth pine, bright sun, and blue skies. “Look!” Susie squealed. “It’s Maizie’s house!” Maizie was one of Susie’s best friends.
Becca nodded. “All right, Susie. We climbed your tree. Now let’s go.” After helping her down the tree, Becca felt a rush of worry as her feet touched the ground again. “Come on, Susie.” Leading her sister into the house, Becca still couldn’t shake off the memory of what happened at her swim practice today. Her mind raced. What if I’m fat too, and everyone talks about me behind my back? What if… What if.… Becca couldn’t let this happen, even if it meant not eating at all.
* * *
Beeeep. Beeeep. Beeeep. The devastating sound of Becca’s alarm clock blared in her ear. Beeep. Beeeeep. Beeeeep. Groaning, Becca rolled over, pulled her covers off, and slapped her hand down on the snooze button. “Why does Coach have to make us get there so early? It’s eight o’clock in the morning on a weekend!” Still grumbling, she rolled off her bed, blankets wrapped around her, and sat on her soft carpet. Yawning, she tugged on her clothes and put her swimsuit in her swim bag. Her stomach growled with hunger as she tumbled down the stairs, still half asleep. Her mom greeted her at the bottom of the steps.
“Hi, honey. Did you sleep well?” A grumble that was not understandable followed this question. “That’s nice, sweetie. Do you want some yummy blueberry pancakes that Dad made?” Becca couldn’t understand how her parents could get up so early. It was ridiculous to her. However, blueberry pancakes did sound very good, and her stomach rumbled in agreement.
Her lips moved to form the words “Yes, please,” but no sound came out. She was suddenly struck with the memory of the past day and that dreaded feeling that she had to hide herself from the rest of the world. “No thanks, Mom.”
“Really?” Becca’s mom looked at her strangely. “You need energy for your big meet.”
“Nah. I’m not hungry,” she said, as her belly growled again in disagreement. “No thanks. I’ll… I’ll just grab a bar to eat before the meet.” Becca doubted she would eat it, but she didn’t want to make her mom worried. “I’ll be fine. Are you, Dad, and Susie coming to the meet?”
“Of course! Susie wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Becca’s mom smiled at her. “What stroke are you going to swim for your team?”
Shrugging, Becca walked toward the pantry. She snatched up the smallest bar she could find and grabbed a juice box for good measure. Shoving them into her swim bag, she ran upstairs to brush her teeth and grab a hoodie. She stopped for a minute and stared at herself in the mirror, imagining her looking like that model she saw on the billboard. Flat stomach, super-thin legs, and an even smaller waist. Nobody would be able to call her fat then. Smiling to herself, she grabbed her swim bag and hopped into the car with her mother.
* * *
Pulling her green swimsuit out of the bag, Becca glanced around the locker room. Katelyn and Becca’s friends weren’t here yet, but Silver, Kayla, and their whole crowd was here, gossiping in the corner. She slipped into her bathing suit as fast as she could. Becca grabbed her towel and walked to the bathroom. She glanced at herself in the mirror, again imagining that tiny figure with Barbie legs and waist. Although her stomach growled, for probably the fifth time this morning, she didn’t care. Bending over the sink, she splashed a bit of cold water on her face to help stop the butterflies flittering through her empty stomach. Grabbing her towel, she strolled out of the locker room.
Coach was standing by the side of the pool, watching as the opposing teams warmed up. Becca saw the gears in his mind turning quickly. Sometimes, Coach’s genius was the only thing that kept them from not finishing in last place. He knew exactly who should swim what and how. “Hi, Coach,” Becca greeted him brightly. “How are you today?”
“Good,” Coach grunted in reply. He never spoke more than he had to.
“So what stroke am I going to swim today?”
With his eyes still riveted on the swimmers in the pool he pointed to a corner of the humid room, without turning his head a smidge. “Thanks, Coach.”
Becca walked slowly toward the corner as the butterflies pounded once more on the sides of her empty stomach. Soon she was in sight of the sheet and scanned the names. “Jennifer, Silver, Ashley, Kayla, Sydney, Josie, Becca!” she mumbled to herself. She moved her eyes to the right of her name and read quietly to herself, “200-meter breaststroke. Darn.” Becca preferred swimming quickly, and for a short period of time. Her favorite strokes were the freestyle and butterfly. Breaststroke wasn’t bad, it was just boring. Well, it is what it is, she thought.
Turning, she saw that her team had begun filing out of the locker room. Katelyn and Sydney, her two best friends on her team, were also there. They walked out in a straight line and sat on the cold metal bleachers. Becca rushed over and took a seat next to Sydney. “Becky!” Sydney greeted her. “I didn’t see you in the locker room.”
“I had to go out early to see what stroke and length I was swimming.”
“Ooh,” Sydney laughed. “You forgot to check?”
“Yes,” Becca muttered sheepishly but began laughing with Sydney after a second. They began chatting, and after a minute Katelyn joined the conversation too. After the conversation had turned to the latest school gossip, a shrill scream split the air. Everything was silent. There were no whistles screeching, kids chatting, or swimmers splashing, then came a rush of movement.
“What happened?” Katelyn whispered. Becca and Sydney shrugged. A crowd had begun to form around where Ashley and Kayla were. Becca could just pick up on what they were saying.
“Oh my God.”
“Is she OK?”
“What happened?” Coach rushed over, and the crowd parted. Becca, her eyes full of worry, snuck a glance at the commotion. Silver was lying on the floor, her eyes shut. She looked like a ghost, her face pale and sallow. Becca gasped. Coach ran over, scooped up Silver, and began to gently shake her, his face ashen. After what seemed like decades, Silver began to stir. Gasps of relief echoed throughout the room. Coach carried her outside, probably to get medical help. Becca, Sydney, and Katelyn all exchanged worried and confused glances.
“Oh my God,” Katelyn whispered.
“Why did she faint?” Sydney asked, her face worried.
Becca didn’t respond but was sucked back into a memory from the day before.
Becca had been digging through her bag and found a package of chips. “Hey!” she shouted. “Anybody want some chips?”
“No thanks,” Silver had responded. “All I’ve had today is a cup of tea, and I intend to keep it that way.”
Back in the present, Becca gasped. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “Oh my…” She couldn’t even finish her sentence, because another memory was pounding through her brain. This time, it was from just this morning.
“No thanks, Mom.”
“Really?” Becca’s mom had cocked her head to one side. “You need energy for your big meet.”
“I’m not hungry,” she had said, as her belly grumbled in hunger.
Becca felt sick to her stomach. She saw Coach walk back into the swimming pool room, his arms empty, but she barely noticed when he began walking toward her.
“Becca,” he said in his low, quiet voice. Startled, Becca looked up. “Can you swim Silver’s stroke? She was supposed to do the 100-meter freestyle.”
Becca nodded, trying hard to keep herself from throwing up. Her head spun. She got up and walked as quickly as she could toward the locker room, which seemed to get further and further away with every step she took.
* * *
Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, Becca splashed some cold water on her face. She stared at herself in the mirror, remembering how just half an hour ago, she had imagined herself as thin as Silver. Now the thin shape she had imagined seemed like the face of death. She remembered Silver passed out on the floor, her face pale and lifeless. A shiver passed through Becca, like a wind chill on a bright and warm summer day. A wave of dizziness shook her body, and she sought out a hard wooden bench.
Now I have to swim two strokes and I don’t know if I can even do one, she thought. Well, you wanted to do the freestyle, and you got it. Why aren’t you happy? Her belly growled for the tenth time that morning in answer. Becca’s mind raced, wondering what to do. I can’t let my team down, she thought. I have to do this. At that moment Ashley walked in.
“Oh, hey, Becca,” she looked strangely at Becca whose head was propped up against the lockers, her eyes closed. Startled, Becca opened her eyes and pulled her head away from the lockers.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah, uh, yes, I’m fine,” Becca stuttered.
“I just came in here to get my goggles. We’re going to start soon, so you better come out.”
“Uh, I’ll be right there,” Becca said weakly. A little stronger, “I’ll be right there.”
Ashley gave her one more look, then grabbed her goggles and hurried out of the locker room. Becca let out a long sigh and leaned her head back against the lockers. Letting her eyes close, she let herself have one minute of peace.
After a minute, Becca stood up and began walking toward the exit that led back to the pool. However, a sound that she had become accustomed to hearing stopped her in her tracks. Her stomach growled. Pursing her lips, Becca spun around, dug through her bag, and grabbed the granola bar and the juice box her mother had made her take this morning. It seemed years and years ago that she had grabbed them out of the pantry. Her mother had been right after all. She needed the energy and protein for this big meet. Throwing the wrapper into the trash, Becca walked out of the locker room, crunching away at her granola bar.
* * *
It was two weeks after the big swim meet, and somehow Becca found herself in her yard at the top of the tree she and Susie had climbed. Although Becca would never admit it, she really did enjoy herself while helping Susie climb to the top. Rubbing her hand gently on the smooth bark of the thick branch she was sitting on, she lightly touched a small spot of green. It was a new bud, almost ready to sprout and become a leaf. Becca thought back to Silver and she remembered what Coach had said.
“Now I’m sure you are all very worried about Silver. She fainted before the meet last week, and she has had some medical attention since then. She’s going to be fine, it was just a mix of nerves and dehydration. She’ll just have to take it easy for a few days,” Coach had said in his coach-like way—quiet but firm. Becca felt a sigh of relief, although she wasn’t sure it was only from dehydration that Silver had fainted. Her relief was mirrored on the faces of her teammates. After a get-well-soon card was signed by everyone, the event seemed to be no longer such a huge deal.
Becca knew she would remember it for a long time though. She had come close to traveling on the same path Silver did.
Leaning back against the tree, she closed her eyes, relief and happiness spreading through her. She didn’t have to look like a Barbie, perfect but fake, to be happy.
“Becca! It’s dinner time!” Becca’s mom yelled, leaning her head out the window.
“Be right there!” Becca hollered back. She scrambled down the tree, choosing the branches that could easily hold her weight. She wasn’t taking any chances with the thin ones. Once her feet touched solid ground, she snatched up her hoodie, tucked it under her arm, and bolted into the house.