It’s my first day at a new college and I’m dragging my feet like it’s an execution. Which makes sense since the man I’ll meet today has the ability to end my life. Life as I know it, anyway.
I seek out the dining hall first, using the crappy, copied map the school sent me last month. Athletes are provided a dining plan whether they live on campus or not. Given that I’ve spent the past three months eating nothing but eggs and ramen, this is probably a good thing.
I get my food and sit alone with the exact breakfast I have every day during the school year: one scrambled egg, plain oatmeal, and one apple. I eat the apple first, praying I can hold it down.
I already know that today’s meeting can't possibly go well. After the incident at my last school, it was a shock that any team would have me, and I’m pretty sure my new coach is about to make his reservations clear. The best case is a series of warnings and threats, and the worst is that he lays out conditions I can’t possibly agree to. They wanted you, I remind myself. They gave you a scholarship. It won’t be that bad.
Somehow I just don’t believe it.
The athletic department is housed in a vast building that dwarfs almost any other on campus. It lets you know in no uncertain terms what matters most at East Colorado University. I suppose I should be grateful for this fact since it’s the reason I’ve got a scholarship.
There’s no wariness on the secretary’s face when she tells me I can go in, which means she must be one of maybe 10 people in the world of collegiate sports who don’t know what I did. Most people watch me now as if I’m a rabid animal or that snake in Malaysia, the one whose bite is so deadly you collapse only a few feet from the site of the attack.
There's no doubt, as I enter the room, that the two men in front of me know exactly what has happened. They're already looking at me sternly—narrowed eyes, arms folded—which means I’m already sort of pissed off.
I brace myself for the lecture I know is coming because I have no other choice. Peter McEwan, the track coach in front of me, is the stuff of legends, and I need a legend right now. People used to call me a “gifted” runner. They spoke of my potential in awed voices. Now they don’t.
But McEwan needs a legend too. ECU hasn’t had a winning women’s track team in nearly a decade, which is why they’ve incurred the vast risk of offering me a scholarship.
They need me to find that thing, whatever it is I’ve lost, almost as much as I do.
I’m willing to act contrite right now for the chance to work with him. I’ll even pretend I’m sorry. But I’m not prepared to do so for the other one. He’s not much older than me and looks like he should be posing for the cover of Men’s Fitness instead of sitting there scowling. He leans back in his chair, blue eyes glittering like ice on his tan face, a smug lilt to his mouth that sets my teeth on edge. I'll let McEwan lecture me, but I'll be damned if I'm going to kiss this guy’s ass. Keep glaring at me, asshole. See how far that gets you.
McEwan rises from his chair and greets me with a handshake. "This is my colleague, Will Langstrom," he says, motioning to the guy beside him. Langstrom shakes my hand, but his eyes remain narrowed and unwelcoming.
He towers over me, and between his size and the way he is looking at me—like I just drowned some small pets for fun—Langstrom feels like a threat. People either cower or lash out when threatened, and I’ll give you one guess what camp I belong to. This is bad.
"Olivia," he says.
"I go by Finn." I meet his eyes once before I look away. I don't need your approval, dickhead.
"Will is the coach for the women's cross country team," McEwan adds.
Oh shit. I do need his approval. Shit, shit, shit.
This is news to me, but did I really think Peter McEwan was going to coach me personally? I know he has his hand in the entire coaching program, but talk about equal rights all you want, no school is wasting a revered coach on the women’s team.
"You have two years until graduation," McEwan continues, "and whether we can make something of your ability before then is entirely in his hands and yours."
I shift uncomfortably. I can't say I love the phrase "make something of your ability.” I still hold three course records. Wasn't that something made of my ability? Am I going to have to keep proving myself for fucking ever?
"I don't feel we need to go over what happened between you and your former teammate," he intones. My spine relaxes, just a little. "I do, however, need to make sure you understand that it can't happen here." I nod again, hands clasped in my lap. Contrite. "And we're not going to wait until you've hospitalized someone before we kick you out of here," he warns. "We get even a hint of that temper and you're packing your bags. Understood?"
Not show a hint of temper? Impossible. You’re on the verge of 'a hint' right now. I somehow manage to nod my agreement.
“The other thing is your extracurricular activities,” he says. “According to the reports from your last coach, they had a huge impact on your ability to practice. That can’t happen here, understand?”
He has no idea what my extracurricular activities really were. How they were so much worse than what he’s imagining. How I couldn’t stop them if I tried. And believe me, I’ve tried.
Just when I think the meeting is over, it gets worse. McEwan stands and says he’ll give me and Langstrom time to chat. My throat grows dry watching him walk out the door, and once it closes I reluctantly turn back to my new coach, who I already fucking hate.
"I don't want you here," he says flatly. "I'm not buying this whole good-girl-made-a-mistake crap. You nearly killed someone."
I stare at the ground, at anything but him, trying to rein myself in. I brace myself, tighten my thighs and my biceps, draw everything in so that I don't explode. Fuck you fuck you fuck you. Why should I have to listen to this guy anyway? He’s tall and broad, the body of a swimmer or football player, not a runner. I wouldn't tell a mechanic how to change my oil, so why should this guy get to tell me how to run?
"I'm curious," he says. "Are you even sorry?"
People always ask me this, but they don’t really want an answer. They simply want to remind me that I should be sorry. And I am. I'm sorry I lost my scholarship. I'm sorry I had to leave and that I’ll never run for a Division 1 school again. But I'm not sorry I did it. When I think of Mark Bell, with his smug smile and that ugly thing behind his eyes, it’s hard to feel much regret.