That’s all Mr. Bling says. I’m huddled inside his massive, souped-up motherfucker of an Escalade and feeling sick to my stomach. I’m sure it’s nerves and the fact I haven’t eaten all day, plus the stench of Mr. Bling’s spicy cologne is killing me. Mr. Bling isn’t the man’s real name. It’s my nickname for the gangster who rules my neighborhood. He’s got enough gold chains looped around his bulldog neck and even more expensive rings on his fat cigar-like fingers that I’ve always called him Mr. Bling. His reputation is as lethal as the show-off Jeep I got hauled into on my way home from school. For once in my life, I keep my big mouth shut.
I’m watching but don’t want to. For a few minutes nothing out of the ordinary happens unless you like boring, no-traffic roads and skinny pine trees as a landscape view. Then a toothpick white teen pulls up to the run-down gas station. He fills up a red gasoline can, goes in and pays for it and then gets back in his beat-up blue Chevrolet. I start to fidget on the white leather seats, thinking to myself these must be custom-fitted.
“Pay attention, Eje,” says Mr. Bling, forcing me to look out the window.
The car pulls out of the gas station and goes about a mile down the road and then…boom. The kind of blast you feel all the way to the marrow of your bones rocks our vehicle.
“What the fuck!” I scream. I’m about to open the door to run and help the kid when Mr. Bling slaps his beefy paw on top of mine.
“That’s what happens when debts don’t get paid. I heard you were a smart kid so that’s why I had you come along for this ride. That there boy took the only option left to him. My reputation is key and I’m not about to let some punk take advantage of me. His other option was to watch as I had my guys have some fun with his family …you feel me…then of course, we’d off them. You understand what I’m telling you?”
I nod, but I can’t process what he’s telling me. Inside I’m screaming what the fuck over and over again, trying to figure out how the hell I ended up in Mr. Bling’s car in the first place.
“What’s that got to do with me?” My voice cracks and I can’t help but gulp as the stench of smoke fills the area like a mean storm cloud. Another minute passes before the sounds of sirens fill the space, but still we don’t move from our hiding spot. We’re parked on a dirt road halfway between the gas station and the burnt-out car. I’m trying to hold it together but the image flashing in my head is that of a skinny white kid on fire.
“You,” says Mr. Bling, unwrapping another expensive Cuban cigar, which he casually lights. “Eje, you are my collateral. You see, your father owes me a lot of money and he missed his last payment, so considering how kind I am, I thought—why go to the father when I could go to the son?” He grins. I shiver. “A son, who I’m sure will want to help his family.”
I blink. “My Pa owes you money.” I know that comes out sounding stupid, but I’m in shock. First the kid who literally blew up in front of my freaking eyes and now this…this shit, Pa said he’d never do again.
“Smart. That’s right, your father owes me a good twenty G’s and normally I’d laugh that away but since he didn’t pay his interest, well, you know how it is. Reputation is key.”
He laughs, like the dozen fire trucks screeching to a halt is nothing new to him. “So you want me to talk to him?” My glance keeps sliding to the car on fire and that sick feeling I had earlier comes back to life. I force myself to calm down. Mr. Bling loops his arm around my bony shoulders, drawing me in close. His body sweat, cologne and cigar do nothing to ease the bile trying to work its way up my throat.
“No, Eje, I’m giving you a month to get me five thousand, or I’ll be collecting what was owed to me my way and trust me your sister won’t like it.”
Okay, I’m not a genius but only an idiot wouldn’t get his meaning. I might not like my sister, Keisha, much at the moment because of our early morning fight, but she’s still my sister. And, right now the hatred I feel for my Pa is roaring like the car fire down the road, totally out of control.
* * *
You’ve got to be kidding me! I should have stayed home today. Instead I do what I’m told. Get my butt in gear and go to school, like Pa orders. Why can’t he do what I want? Stop gambling. Since that’s about as likely as me ending up without a detention today, I’m not holding my breath. Instead I’m here and hurting from round three with the school’s bully. Since he’s twice my size and thinks of me as his latest punching bag my gut still feels on fire. I knew I should have waited for Charlie this morning. Charlie’s my friend, but more than that he’s a homegrown boy who’s got tough stamped all over him. One side glance from Charlie to bully means I’m safe. Not so today because Charlie overslept and my attempt to get to class on time only earned me a black eye and fat lip along with any hope of not being labelled a coward in my neighborhood .
My lip’s bleeding and my knuckles hurt like hell. My feet feel like lead as I make my way to the office. I stick my head inside the room and the secretary gives me the look. Disappointment. Yeah, that I understand. Thing is, I’ve been disappointed with my life since I came to this place. God I hate it here. Well, that’s not entirely true. I just hate where we live and the how of it. Don’t get me wrong, this place is like a freshly mowed lawn compared to the refugee camp we were stuck in for five years. But Canada, with its cold, sleet and snow hasn’t offered up one of those cozy Hudson Bay blankets for an immigrant like me.
“He’s not very happy with you.” That’s an understatement coming from Mrs. Sharp. Rumor has it she’s been with the school since its start-up. From the look of this place that’s got to be close to sixty years ago. She’s got the right name, too. Everything about her white, pasty face is all hard lines and sharp angles, including her so-called fashionable pointy eye glasses. Someone should tell her they were in fashion in the 1950s.
The “He” she’s referring to is Mr. James Smythe, the principal of Central City High School. He’s tough as nails and won’t put up with shit.
Twenty minutes later, I’m the disappointed one. Should have known better than to think he’d believe my end of the story. Of course, sporting a new shiner and fat lip wasn’t sitting in my favor, but if he thinks for one second I’m following his damn advice he’s so wrong. No way am I picking option one, which basically amounts to me enrolling in something he calls “The Stroke Forward” program, which sounds a lot like a load of crap. And option two, well, getting kicked out of school will kill my Pa, so looks like I’ll have to wrestle up another option. Pull up my marks, keep my head down and try to become invisible in my neighborhood.
Since I’ve got about as much hope for that as a Pit-bull making peace with a cat, I shuffle to class feeling defeated and deflated. The world ain’t offering up any chips in my favor these days. With my luck, Principal Smythe will call home and have a heart-to-heart with my Pa, who then will have a man-to-man talk with me, layering on the guilt about everything he’s sacrificed to get me where I am. Since I have no idea where I am in my life or what I want to do, the guilt feels like well-chewed gum, tasteless.
“Three rotations of five miles,” the coach calls out to the paddlers. He’s new here and that’s good. He doesn’t know my past and I think for a moment that hopefully we’ll keep it that way. “Shannon, can I speak with you privately?”
I’m thinking of playing deaf but I know it wouldn’t do me any good. Might as well get this over with. Turning toward him, my right ankle gives out and I almost falter, but at the last moment I grab the wooden rail and stand straight. I’m praying the coach didn’t notice. I’m about to walk over to him, but he halts me and comes over to where I’m standing, on the side, slightly there but not fully back with the ‘in crowd’.
“So, I’ve been briefed about what happened.”
Shit. That’s all I can think. Please don’t ask me questions. Just let me do this and get that damn K-1 in the water. I look with longing at my sleek, red racing Nelo kayak. The last gift from my mom, ever. I’m half listening to what Tyler, that’s the coach’s name, is saying. My gut tells me he’s going to send me home and tell my father I’m not ready. I am ready. I need to do this. Today. Not tomorrow.
“I think we should work on more dry-land training,” says Tyler.
Christ, that’s all I’ve done for the past three months. If I lift another freaking set of weights I’m going to scream. “Please. Just let me try.”
Tyler, with his shaggy brown hair that seems out of place at the paddling club, leans closer. “You know, I broke my leg once so I get what you’re trying to do.”
I smile, sort-of. He has no idea what I’m trying to do. I don’t even know. All I know is that after the accident, when I woke up in the hospital with a dislocated collar bone, three broken ribs and smashed right ankle, all I thought about while recovering was the stillness of the lake. If I thought about the wreck, about how a drunk driver killed my mother, I lost it. So, I don’t think about that. But in that hospital, I made a promise to my mother. I won’t disappoint her ever again.
“Thanks. I’ll take it easy.”
“I’ll be in the safety boat shadowing you all the way and if anything hurts, you stop. You hear me? This is day one so don’t push it and you’re with the “C” group
I almost sputter. The “C” group. I haven’t been in C group for three years. C group is for the newbies, the klutzes who can’t get off the freaking dock. I’m so mad that for one second I think of ditching. My eyes dart once again to the lake and that longing, that tight-fisted, heart wrenching desire to get in my kayak and skim across the lake hits me like a ripple to turn into one hell of a wave. No way am I letting him keep me in C group. I’ll show him.
I smile for real this time. “Got it.” He nods and I wait until he’s fully engrossed with the newcomers and only then do I shuffle over to the boat bay, trying hard to remember everything my physiotherapist said about watching my gait, keeping my back straight and shoulders forward. I’m about to grab hold of my K-1 when Jennifer, Riley, and Rachel, three girls I’ve paddled with for the past five summers, surround me.
“We got this for you, Shannon.”
“We’re so glad you came back.”
Their beaming smiles are genuine. These are also the girls who continually texted me while I was in the hospital, keeping me informed of everything that was happening at the club. The only one that visited regularly was Jennifer. The rest of my friends had a life and while Jennifer made excuses for them, I knew none of them wanted to visit. Hospitals are for sick people. They were okay with waiting for me to get better. Wish I still felt like that, like my old carefree self.
Without a word they move my K-1 from the boat bay to the wharf. Jennifer holds the kayak while I gingerly adjust the seat and foot board. The rudder’s a little off-center so I have to fidget with it for quite a while to get it in the right position.
“You do realize I had hoped the club might be making use of this kayak this summer. Guess it looks like I’ll still have to save up my money for my own,” laughs Riley.
“Sorry to disappoint, but looks like you’ll have to keep working at the grocery store.”
Jennifer and Rachel laugh but not Riley. I’m missing something. “What’s up?”
“Sorry, thought you might have heard. Riley made the national team on her trials and the club hired her full-time for the summer to coach, so she can work directly with Tyler and get more time on the water,” says Jennifer, giving Riley one of her ‘I’m so proud of you’ smiles.
“Oh, that’s great.” I say to Riley, making sure my smile is firmly in place. It’s not great. I shouldn’t think that but I do. That was supposed to be me making Nationals, not her. Instead, I’m barely managing not to tip my kayak when the girls let go.
They slide effortlessly into their kayaks and within seconds they are streaking across the calm Kearney Lake waters.
It’s 6:30am and even for late April the mornings are cold. The minute you speak your hot breath leaves your body, taking with it your last bit of warmth. Even wearing my normal layered gear and my wool socks, I’m freezing. I really hate the cold. I give into one shiver and then tell my body to shut up. Mind over matter. Something I know all about since my stint in the hospital.
“You ready?” asks the coach. He yanks a dark wool hat onto his head and adjusts his gloves. He gives me a hard, assessing look. Easily translated; he’s telling me it’s now or never.
I nod, and dip my paddle into the water to launch my kayak from the safety of the wharf. I’m off. I’m not completely comfortable but by the fourth stroke I’ve found a rhythm. It’s not the same beat I used to have—fast and furious with my no-care attitude. Instead, I cautiously make it to the starting buoys. All ten of the high performance paddlers are waiting in their racing lines. I know exactly what they’re all thinking because I used to think it about the newbies. They’re thinking I’m wasting their time. I’m too slow and they want to get moving.
My paddle dips in and out of the water until I’m able to get my K-1 straight in my lane.
“Go!” yells the coach.
They’re off and the wake of those kayaks and paddles moving all at once causes the waters to swell and rock my K-1. I lean forward and force the fear of tipping and looking like a complete failure away. I’m holding my breath. I have to force myself to take a deep lung full of oxygen. All the while I’m praying as I dip my paddle in and out of the water that I won’t tip. Not once does anyone look behind to see where I am. I get that too.
The roar of the safety boat is my constant companion. I’m thankful he at least is staying far enough away not to give my kayak waves. I make it to the halfway mark. The rest are all at the finish, about to turn around to start the second part of the course. I hate that I notice all of that. I hate that I’m not in the front, like where I used to be. My right foot spasms, causing my leg to jerk and my entire body gets thrown off. My strokes falter and for a second I see myself falling face first into the frigid lake. I’d become the laughing stock of the club if that happened. With shallow breaths I work through the pain zinging from my ankle straight up my leg. I hate the stupid foot board which keeps getting out of position. My socks are soaked and normally I’d be hot by now from the workout. Instead my toes feel numb. The doctors told me I’d always have problems with circulation in my right foot because of what happened. Mentally, I make a note to wear two layers from now on.
“You okay?” shouts Tyler.
Christ. He’s moving the boat closer which will cause more waves to rock my kayak. I turn my head and smile at him. “Fine. Just adjusting the stupid foot board.”
He laughs. “Sorry, next time I’ll make sure to put it on for you.” He stops the boat and waits for me to move. When Riley flashes past him he says, “That all you got this morning, Ry? Move it, girl.”
She doesn’t say anything. She’s too focused. I’m not.
With a deep breath I start my rotations over, sliding my paddle back into the water, gathering my momentum to slowly move to the end of the course. When I get there I smile. I did it. Turning my kayak I start the second part, noticing even the newbies have started their second haul down the course. Well, okay, I did part of it, I think, as sweat glides down my back.
By the end of practice I know my face is almost purple with exhaustion. I slide into the dock and let Jennifer help me out.
“You did great,” she says.
She doesn’t look tired or winded. I feel like I’ve used every ounce of energy I had. Normally, Jen would egg me on with something stupid like, “What, you forgot to brush your teeth this morning? That’s why you went so slow”, or “Did you know Peter was checking you out the entire practice?” I look over at Peter. He’s talking to Riley, leaning real close. He’s not wearing the long spandex pants that most of the guys wear underneath their shorts. He’s got on black spandex shorts with the Canadian maple leaf flag embossed on them. A not-so-subtle reminder he’s tough and can take the cold mornings since he’s on the Canadian team. This year he’s trying out for the Pan American Games.
I hear Riley laugh as they both go into the boat bay.
“It’s not like you think,” says Jennifer, as we both grip my kayak to haul up onto the wharf.
“I’m not thinking anything.” I’m hoping she’ll change topics or drop it. I force myself not to watch Peter and Riley. I guess what Peter and I had is gone for good now.
Peter called the hospital once after the accident. I told him not to bother coming in. I knew from his tone of voice he wouldn’t, so me jumping the gun and informing him I understood he needed to concentrate on school and paddling practice gave me the power. Looking back, I’m glad he never saw me at my worst.
“They’re just friends.”
I laugh. “Save it, Jen. I get it. It’s no biggie. It’s all cool. You want to hang out later?”
She doesn’t speak until we’ve secured my kayak back in its berth. “Sure, that would be cool. Just like old times.” Jennifer yanks on her navy club sweatshirt and grabs her backpack. Together we make it to the parking lot. Only at the lot do I realize Dad’s not there. Instead she’s there.
I stop walking and turn to Jennifer. “How about we meet at the library at one?”
“Sure, that would be great. Shannon, I’m so glad you came back.”
Came back? Yeah, that’s what I did. Except instead of me and Mom coming back it’s just me. The hurt that thought brings makes me instantly nauseous. I wave as Jen gets in her father’s car and slowly make my way over to her—my father’s fiancée.
Without a word I open the back of her Porsche and dump my gear inside. I’m about to plunk my ass down on the passenger seat when she says. “Are you wet?”
“If you’re wet you’ll ruin the leather seat. Your father told me to bring along another towel. Here, put this under you.”
I do as instructed, thinking my mother would never have asked that question or cared one whit if I was wet or not. Often we were both soaked but she’d be so excited watching me practice she’d be cranking the heat up, asking me questions while pointing out where I could improve.
“Where’s Dad?” I’m thinking once again he didn’t do what I asked. I wasn’t asking for much—just drive me to the club and you, only you, not her, pick me up. Simple. So not, obviously. I’m going to hate every second of the fifteen minute drive home.
“He had work to do. I told him I didn’t mind picking you up. So how was it?”
I look at her. Her. The woman my father started dating three weeks after my mother, his wife of seventeen years, died. To say I hate this woman would be an understatement. Worse, is the hurt, angry feeling I have for Dad now.
“Great,” I lie. She’ll drop her inquiry because she knows absolutely nothing about paddling.
With her jet black hair swept off her face, she’s wearing a black pant suit. It’s Saturday. Why on Earth would she dress up on a Saturday? My mother worked part-time as a coaching consultant and while I’m sure she owned pant suits, my mother, like me, felt more comfortable in a track suit or yoga pants. Heather isn’t one thing like my mother. I have no idea what Dad sees in her. She’s quiet but direct, hates all my father’s music, doesn’t know a thing about paddling and couldn’t jog if her life depended on it. She’s more into fashion and her business than anything.
We don’t speak again until she parks the car in the garage. This is still the house I grew up in but it doesn’t feel the same.
Heather lays a hand on my thigh, stopping my attempt to leave.
“Listen, don’t be too hard on your father, okay? This is his choice.”
“What?” I say, almost stumbling out of the car.
“Just remember we both want the same thing for him,” she says, not understanding I have no idea what she’s talking about.
I almost laugh. The only thing I want is for Heather to be gone and leave us alone. Since I’m more likely to fall into the lake than for that to happen, I smother the thought and move from the garage into the kitchen. My ankle’s throbbing. I’ll have to ice it if I want to be able to walk normally the rest of the day. Limping is not on my agenda. Plus if Dad sees me limp, he’ll stop taking me to the club. I told him I was ready. He tried to stick with what the doctors and my physiotherapist said. They both said it was too early, but I begged and when that didn’t move him, I resorted to crying. I might be almost seventeen but one thing I know is my father hates it when I cry. The fact I faked the tears might have made me feel guilt at one time but lately he and Heather get on my nerves.
Dad’s waiting for us in the kitchen. I try hard to not make gagging sounds when he kisses Heather. I do, however, want to puke my guts out. He turns toward me and smiles.
“Honey, I’ve got great news to tell you,” he says.
My breakfast almost comes up. The last time he had great news he introduced me to Heather. Great for him, but not for me. I move to the kitchen table and sit, knowing whatever he’s got to say I won’t like it