Valerie had been driving for three hours when she saw the billboard. At 2 a.m., the blended browns and tans of the image would have been incomprehensible had it not been for the flood lights that illuminated it from below. The billboard depicted Jesus Christ in a field of wheat up to his neck, holding a sheaf aloft. There was no message with the picture, but his eyes seemed to follow her as she pressed the accelerator and barreled past him.
“You had your chance,” she said, unable to resist touching the silver cross she still wore around her neck.
It took a few tries, but eventually she was able to set the cruise control to 80 miles per hour. This was her father’s car, and it was unfamiliar. Giving up control to the vehicle made her anxious, but her legs were terribly stiff. She flexed and twirled her ankles, then brought her knees, one at a time, into her chest, trying to loosen her joints and stretch her muscles.
She was always stiff, her body always tired. That sort of fatigue was an occupational hazard for a swimmer. So were 4 a.m. wakeups, forced feeding to maintain her strength, hundreds of thousands of laps, and a single-minded focus she had been forced to adopt from the time she was ten years old. If she really thought about it, she had probably spent more of her waking life in the pool than she had on dry land.
Whole lot of good it did her. Here she was, 25 and without an Olympic medal.
Dwelling on what she had been through made her think about where she was headed. She glanced at the GPS. It showed she would arrive at her destination, a set of coordinates located in the heart of Kansas City, in four hours. She wondered whether the man would be awake at 6 a.m., if he existed at all.
When Valerie first heard about the man and his treatment, she had been in Rio at her first Olympics, a baby at 18. She assumed it was an urban myth, a legend made up by the also-rans to explain why they never won. She had laughed at it, young as she was. She had still believed in her abilities. Now she was older, humbled by incessant defeat, desperate to recapture the promise of her potential, and hurtling east along Interstate 70 because of a rumor.
But what other option did she have? Had she been more of a masochist, she could have reread the email, the one that had officially relegated her to alternate status, salt in the wound that her coach had opened in that devastating conversation a month before. She would travel to Paris in 2024, but she wouldn’t swim, not unless one of the primaries had to drop out. Unless the worst happened, she was no longer worthy of representing her country in the thing she had trained for her entire life.
She looked at the five rings tattooed on her left wrist and felt the heat of embarrassment spread up her neck and across her scalp. She fought the urge to tear at the skin with her fingernails, to rip the design off her body. What sort of hubris had compelled her to get the tattoo before she medaled? All it did was serve as an incessant reminder of her failures. Every conversation she’d ever had with someone who noticed the tattoo went like this:
“You’re an Olympian?”
“Did you win any medals?”
She had driven in silence since she left Colorado Springs in the middle of the night, scared that if she turned on some music, even hundreds of miles from home, the noise would somehow alert her parents that she had gone. But by 4 a.m. the cruelty of her own memory had become too much to bear. Valerie reached for her phone, ready to choose a song to drown out her thoughts.
Just as she took the phone in her hand, the display went black, and “Daddy” appeared on the screen.
Her ringtone, an instrumental version of the national anthem, began to play as the phone vibrated in her hand. The song had been her father’s idea, an ill-conceived motivation to hear the song played when she finally stood atop the podium after winning gold. It taunted her now.
She let her father’s call go to voicemail, but he called again right away. She knew he wouldn’t stop until she answered.
“Where the hell are you?”
“I’m fine. I needed to go for a drive.”
“You’re supposed to be at the pool in an hour.”
There was only the sound of tires on the road and her father’s breathing for a while.
“Well? Where the hell are you?”
“I just needed a break.”
“I can’t believe this,” he said. “Your response to a demotion should be to train harder, not run away. That’s what a champion would do.”
Valerie was glad her father couldn’t see what his words were doing to her. Her jaw trembled and tears welled in her eyes. She cleared her throat before she spoke.
“I’m sorry, Daddy. But maybe we need to do things differently. The way we’re training isn’t working. There’s got to be another way.”
“Is this about a boy? Are you with a boy right now? These distractions, Valerie, I swear. You have to put your passion in the water, not some boy. You’ll have time for relationships once your career is over. You’re still in your prime and you need to focus.”
“It’s not about a boy!”
In the moment, she hated him for making her feel like a petulant little child. She was an adult. Her knuckles went white around the steering wheel.
“You’re not on drugs, are you? You can tell me. We’ll figure something out.”
“Jesus Christ, Daddy.”
“Hey!” he snapped. “Don’t you dare.” She could see him in her mind, crossing himself, asking God to forgive her for taking his name in vain. He took two deep breaths. “I know you’re frustrated, honey. But Mom and I can take some more time off work. We’ll do anything, make sure you have whatever you need to focus on swimming faster. You just have to tell us. Tell me, honey, what do you need?”
Valerie wished she had an answer. If she did, she’d have turned around and driven right back to Colorado Springs. She thought hard, staring out the windshield at the black Kansas night. He might not believe her, but she wanted to be a champion as bad as he wanted it for her. She was just no longer confident she knew how to do it. And if she couldn’t figure out a way, the last 16 years of all-consuming effort — of sacrifice and deprivation and pain — would have been for nothing.
“I’ll be back tomorrow, Daddy. Please try not to worry.”
She hung up before he could protest, quickly setting her phone on airplane mode. She wouldn’t be able to stream music, but the GPS would still function so long as she kept it open.
And she could drive the rest of the way in silence, she decided. All those hours in the pool, unable to use headphones as a distraction, would at least be useful on this journey.
* * *
The text message had come from a blocked number, containing only a set of coordinates followed by a dollar amount. Ten thousand dollars for the promise of a gold medal had seemed like a bargain, and now Valerie was standing on a corner in an industrial part of Kansas City, underneath a sign welcoming her to the Crossroads Arts District. The city was waking up around her, cars and early-morning joggers moving purposefully about the streets.
Without an address, she had no idea how to proceed. There was no sign of a doctor’s office or a lab, no athletic facility, nothing indicating anything she could tie to the man and the treatment. She didn’t know whether she should just wait here, at the coordinates, until someone came for her, or wander until she found a clue. She was cold and uncertain.
This whole experience had been the strangest thing she’d ever done. Once she made the choice to pursue the treatment, the entirety of the information she was able to gather came by word of mouth. “I heard Jerry Connors had it done before he won gold in ’96.” “Yelena Ivanovich, the gymnast, did it in ’88.” “Someone told me Flo-Jo took the treatment. But that might just be a rumor.”
Everything was a clue. Nothing was a clue. All the information seemed isolated and random, none of it connected. Athletes from different eras and countries and sports. No one could even say with certainty what the treatment was, and rarely did anyone claim to have known one of the athletes personally.
That was the case until the funeral. Valerie and her parents had attended the service mourning a downhill skier, Brady Travis, who died in a training accident shortly after setting a world record. Their family was from Colorado, too, and Brady’s father had been his coach, same as Valerie’s. She noticed that Brady’s father seemed oddly at peace with his son’s death. He kept saying that “he died doing what he loved,” or that “he made the necessary sacrifices to become a champion.”
There was something in the father’s eye that told Valerie to approach him.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Travis,” she said.
“Thank you, Valerie.”
“Brady was a great champion.”
He smiled. “Yes, he was.”
“I’d like to be a great champion one day soon.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“I’ll do anything.”
Mr. Travis glanced at Valerie’s father. Then he looked back at her and nodded, knowingly. He patted her on the shoulder and went to get a drink.
Then, one week ago, she got the message from the blocked number. The coordinates. She plugged them into Google and found the corner where she now stood.
Valerie shivered. She would walk, she decided, and if she couldn’t find anything, she would return to the spot to wait. She began to walk around the large brick warehouse that encompassed half the block. At the edge of the building, she turned into an alley to continue her loop.
The smells of the alley almost compelled her to turn back. She walked by dumpsters that reeked of rotten eggs and burnt rubber. But, about halfway down the alley, something caught her eye. She stopped in front of a staircase that led to a door below the grade of the street.
In all white, on the black metal door, someone had painted four interlocking rings. She looked at the tattoo on her wrist. A normal person might not have recognized the design, but she did. These were the Olympic rings, only one was missing from the top row.
This could be it, she decided. Despite the nerves that erupted in her stomach, she descended the staircase.
The door gave way when she pushed on it, and she was relieved that the hallway into which she stepped was well lit. There was nothing on the walls, no windows or other openings, only a red door at the other end. Even in sneakers, her footsteps echoed in the emptiness.
There was a slot on the door, at about eye level, that looked like it was meant to be slid open from the other side. She knocked twice and waited.
Soon, she heard soft, shuffling footsteps. They stopped just on the other side of the door. She waited, but when nothing happened, she knocked again.
The panel flew to the side, and Valerie found herself staring into a pair of hazel eyes that looked almost yellow in the hallway’s fluorescent light. She let out a yelp of surprise, but quickly covered her mouth.
“The money,” said the person behind the door. The voice was rushed and husky.
Too startled to question the command, Valerie pulled out the envelope she had been keeping in her jacket pocket and held it halfway through the slot. The person with the yellow eyes yanked it through the rest of the way and slammed the panel shut.
In the renewed silence of the hallway, the sensation that she had just been robbed overtook Valerie’s awareness. But before she could fall to pieces, she heard the click of a lock. Cautiously, she pushed on the door. She let out a heavy breath, relieved when it gave way.
The room on the other side was bright white and sterile, like one in a TV hospital. An examination table, like might be found in any doctor’s office, sat in the center of the room. On the wall opposite the table was a set of cabinets, painted the same white as the walls and ceiling. Between the cabinets and the table was an ergonomic desk chair. In the chair sat a woman in a white coat with jet black hair.
“Have a seat,” said the woman. Hers was the same husky voice that had asked for the money.
Valerie hesitated. “I was expecting a man. Everyone said the treatment was administered by a man.”
The woman smiled, and Valerie was surprised to find she felt comforted by the smile. It was understanding and unaffected. The woman, Valerie could now see, was very beautiful.
“Would you be more comfortable with a man?”
“Not necessarily.” Valerie toyed with the zipper on her jacket. “I don’t know if it’s possible for me to get comfortable with this.”
“Allow me to try and help.”
The woman indicated the examination table with one hand. Valerie walked with her eyes downcast, verifying each step she took, battling a stream of intrusive thoughts. She was reminding herself of all the things she’d already done and sacrificed in the name of swimming when the paper on the examination table crinkled loudly under her backside. She looked up to find that the woman had rolled the chair closer to the table. They were eye to eye.
“My name is Lillian,” she said.
“And how old are you, Valerie?”
“I’m twenty-five. Twenty-six in a couple of months.”
Lillian looked toward the ceiling, calculating something.
“That means you will be twenty-seven just before the next Olympic Games, correct?”
After a moment’s thought, Valerie said, “Yes.”
“Very good. How is your health?”
“It’s good. I’m healthy.”
“What is your sport?”
“I’m a swimmer. Sprints, mostly.”
“Exciting. Very exciting.”
Lillian stood out of the chair and took Valerie’s face gently in her hands. She ran her fingers over Valerie’s skin, probing at the glands under her chin, looking in her ears and down her throat. Satisfied, she moved to the cabinets on the wall behind her and began to rummage through one. When she turned back around, her face was serious, no trace of the comforting smile from before. She held a soft measuring tape in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other.
“Get undressed, please.”
Instinctively, Valerie glanced at the door. The hairs on her arms stood on end and, suddenly, she had the urge to pee.
“Lillian, what exactly is the treatment?”
“Before I can even consider administering the treatment, I have to determine whether you are a viable candidate.”
“But I’ve already given you $10,000.”
“Which I will happily return if you are unable to receive the treatment. Now,” said Lillian, taking a step forward, “get undressed or get out. Neither of us have time to dawdle.”
Valerie unzipped her jacket with trembling fingers, wondering whether all the other athletes had gone through this evaluation. Despite her doubts, she removed the rest of her clothes under Lillian’s unwavering gaze, taking pains to fold and stack everything as neatly as possible on the end of the table. As she slid her underwear to the ground, she began to hum the national anthem. She could think of nothing else to distract her from the anxiety attack she felt percolating at the base of her skull.
You’ve been through worse, she told herself. That thought reminded her of the cross she still wore. She touched it.
“Do you want me to take this off, too?”
Lillian moved in front of Valerie and began to study her body in great detail. Her eyes were hazel, Valerie decided, not yellow.
“No,” said Lillian, “that’s all right.”
Valerie began humming once more, though the song was occasionally interrupted by a spasm of fluttering breaths. Lillian ignored the sounds and set the scissors on the examination table to measure her.
First, she measured the distance from Valerie’s shoulders to the tips of her fingers on each side. Then she measured each finger, then the distance from the tip of her index fingers to the tip of her thumbs. She measured Valerie’s feet and the circumference of her hips. She turned Valerie around and measured the width of her broad, swimmer’s shoulders. She measured her wrists. She measured the length of her spine.
Valerie closed her eyes and continued to hum. She imagined herself in Paris, standing atop a podium that was 40 feet tall. She could look down and see the silver and bronze medalists below her. The gold medal hung heavy around her neck, as big as a dinner plate, and she waved to a stadium full of screaming fans. The national anthem swelled.
The fantasy was interrupted by the sound of scissors closing. Valerie turned around to see Lillian, scissors in one hand, a lock of Valerie’s chestnut hair in the other. She was smiling, her face once again transformed by warmth.
“All done,” said Lillian. She took a glass jar out of one of the cabinets and put Valerie’s hair inside before screwing a cap on top. “You can get dressed now. Just a few more questions and we’ll be through.”
Valerie opened her mouth, then closed it. Instead of asking one of the dozen questions racing through her mind, she put on her underwear. Once she had covered her privates, she began pulling on her jeans.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” asked Lillian.
Valerie paused with her pants around her thighs. “No.”
“No. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“It’s all relevant to the treatment. How do you spend your free time?”
“I don’t have any free time. I’m always training.”
“But what about once you’re finished competing? What will you do then if you haven’t cultivated any additional interests?”
“I haven’t thought a lot about it.” Valerie pulled her shirt over her head and sat back on the examination table. The paper crinkled again. “My dad always says that ‘winning requires complete commitment to the present moment.’ He says thinking about other things besides swimming will slow me down.”
“He’s probably right,” said Lillian. “But you might be happier if you did.”
Valerie clenched her jaw. “I’ll be happy once I win.”
“Then you’re sure?”
“Sure about what?”
“About going through with the treatment.”
“And you are aware of the side effects?”
Valerie swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. “Yes.”
Lillian smiled, gently. “Tell me what they are.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tell me what happens once you win your gold medal. Say the words out loud.”
In the silence that grew between them, Valerie became aware of the almost supernatural absence of noise in the room. The sound of electricity in the light bulbs was noticeably absent. Hard as she concentrated, she could hear no rush of water through the building’s plumbing. Even sounds from the city, what she assumed would be a symphony of car horns and dogs and construction, could not permeate the walls of the room. It was as though they were the only two beings left alive. When Valerie took a deep, tremulous breath, the sound came out sharp.
“I’ll die. Inside of a year.”
“That’s right.” Lillian smiled. “Do you accept the trade-off?”
“It works? You promise it works?”
“All too well.”
“How? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Lillian smiled, but she shook her head. She pointed at Valerie’s chest, and Valerie was aware of the feeling of the cross against her skin.
“You’ll just have to have faith. I’m afraid I can’t divulge the mechanism, or someone else might try to do what I do.”
Valerie’s hands, which had been flat on the table on either side of her, now bunched into fists, gathering the paper beneath them. She stared at the floor. A gold medal, she thought. A gold medal for my life.
Then she laughed. So what if it’s a scam? So what if I don’t win and the treatment kills me? If I keep losing, I’ll have no reason to go on living anyway. What would be the point?
“All right,” she said, looking up. “Let’s do it. Do I need to sign some sort of waiver?”
Lillian cackled, intensely amused by the idea, and patted Valerie on the knee before going back to the cabinets. When she returned, she presented a shiny black pill in the palm of her hand.
“Swallow,” she commanded.
Even without water to aid it, the pill slipped easily down Valerie’s throat. She stayed seated on the table, waiting for the next step.
“Congratulations,” said Lillian. “I look forward to watching your victory next summer.”
Valerie shook her head, skeptical there wasn’t more to it. When Lillian said nothing else, she scoffed.
“That’s it.” Lillian indicated that Valerie should stand. When she did, Lillian rolled a new length of paper onto the table and tore off the portion on which Valerie had been sitting. “I’m afraid you’ll need to leave. Another candidate could show up any minute.” She laughed again. “Let’s just hope it’s not another swimmer, right?”
* * *
As Valerie leapt from the starting platform, under the flash of a thousand cameras and washed in the cheers of five thousand spectators, she smiled. When she knifed into the pool, she barely noticed a difference between the water and the air. Had the noise from the arena not become muted under the surface, she might have thought she was flying.
It had been this way every day since the treatment. Every training session, every qualifying event, she had felt more like a dolphin than a girl in the water.
No, not a dolphin. A shark. A shark was born to swim, too, but it was also born to hunt and kill. That’s what she had become.
Her father hadn’t liked the change in her attitude after her “little field trip,” as he called it. He told her so, and she fired him. Even without a personal coach — someone to plan her meals and drive her to training — she still got faster.
When she told the National Team’s coach that she wanted to challenge for her spot in Paris, he had said no. He needed to concentrate on the younger girls, on getting them ready for their time in the spotlight. Hers, of course, had passed.
But when she leapt into the pool during a race at the training center, a full two seconds after the starting gun, and won, he was forced to reconsider. Then she just kept winning.
So now she was making the turn, launching herself into the final leg of the 100-meter freestyle final like a torpedo. She surfaced and began her stroke anew.
She turned to her right for breath and saw no one. Took three more strokes.
On her next breath, she turned left. The navy polyester suit of Naomi Calenda, the gold medal favorite in lane five, caught her eye. Valerie was losing, if only by a few inches.
And before, she might have panicked. A silver medal, after all she’d been through, would have felt worse to her than watching from the stands. But she didn’t panic. She didn’t consider that Lillian might have scammed her, all those months ago. She didn’t even try to picture a gold medal at the end of her lane.
Sharks don’t think. They don’t panic. They don’t visualize. They only swim and kill.
The cheer that went up from the crowd when the two women touched the wall shook the roof of the arena. Valerie pulled her goggles to her forehead and looked up at the giant video display.
When she saw her name at the top of the list, her entire body flushed with such intense heat that she would not have been surprised had the water around her started boiling. She lowered her head into the water and screamed. When she raised it, she was crying.
The tears stopped eventually, but when she stepped onto the gold medal platform a few hours later, they started again. As she listened to the national anthem, she wished she didn’t have to wait to die. She wanted the pill to do its work right now.
Sure, she had a year left to live, but no part of her believed she would ever feel anything better than this.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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