Megan Abbott talks gymnastic thriller 'You Will Know Me' and excerpt
Megan Abbott is a masterful writer of thrillers set in the tenuous world of female adolescence, from The Fever to Dare Me (both of which may be coming to a television near you). Her next novel, You Will Know Me, follows a tight-knit gymnastics community as a brutal death sends shockwaves through everyone. Parents Katie and Eric Knox have a 15-year-old daughter, Devon, who is both a gymnastics prodigy and an Olympic hopeful — but now, they worry that everything they’ve sacrificed for her might be at risk. Can Katie hold her family together even as she’s distracted by and drawn into the crime itself?
EW talked to Abbott about the novel’s genesis, and why the worlds of adolescent girls keep pulling her back. Below that, check out our exclusive excerpt and cover reveal. You Will Know Me is slated for a July 2016 release.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Where did the inspiration for You Will Know Me come from?
MEGAN ABBOTT: It was so specific in this case. I was watching footage of the parents of gymnast Aly Raisman as they watched her compete in Olympic qualifiers. It became a brief viral video phenomenon because in part it was funny how invested they were. But their intensity and nervousness, the way they would mimic the moves in the bar routine, you could feel your heart in your throat just watching. I began thinking about what it must be like to be the parent of a prodigy, to be in the family of a prodigy. How power must operate in those kinds of families. The books sprang from that.
What is it about the world of adolescent girls that you find fascinating — and scary? Why do you keep coming back to it?
I still feel like teenage girls are not taken seriously by the culture at large, especially not their darker or more complicated feelings—of aggression, desire, ambition. To me, these feelings and drives are so fundamental to girlhood and to womanhood, and I love exploring them. And trying to give voice to them as best I can. I think women are always trying to figure out their own adolescence. We never stop.
What kind of research did you do about the world of gymnastics (and gymnastics parents)?
I read many, many gymnast and coach memoirs, and some parent-of-gymnast memoirs, and I talked to some former gymnasts. In the end, you want to know enough that you can put the research down and just find yourself standing in a gym, chalk dust in the air, nerves on fire—that was what I was hoping for.
What was the most surprising thing you learned?
The impact of very serious, very elite gymnastics on the female body—how it can in some ways postpone puberty. You can have this immensely developed muscular machine of a body and yet other aspects of development (breasts, menstruation) are necessarily stalled. It was fascinating to me, and complicated. Teenage girls’s bodies are so often on display, but in the case of gymnasts, that’s magnified by a thousand. All eyes are on you. In some ways, it’s every nightmare of adolescence and in some ways it strips adolescence from the equation (at least temporarily).
You’re currently developing and writing the pilot for an HBO TV show based on your novel Dare Me, and you’ve written a pilot script for The Fever, which is under option at MTV. What are the biggest challenges when distilling your novels into TV scripts?
It’s a weird contradiction because you’re both distilling and “building out” the worlds of the books. My novels tend to be pretty interior and that’s a challenge in the adaptation process. I’m constantly trying to find ways to hold onto to the intimacy of getting in these characters’ heads while also placing them on a broader canvas. I watch a lot of Friday Night Lights, Mad Men—to try to understand how they pull it off.
How do you keep track of all the projects you have going on at once? Can you work on them concurrently, or do you have to finish one at a time?
I can do them concurrently, thankfully. I have separate playlists, a separate set of images, a separate voice in my head for each. Sometimes, though, I feel like Carrie Mathison in Homeland, all my color-coded post-its spread out on the wall as I sit in the corner and sob.
Read an excerpt from Abbot’s new book below.
EXCERPT from YOU WILL KNOW ME by Megan Abbott
Go Devon! Knox Rox! Next Stop: Elite Qualifiers!
BelStars 4-Ever! Regional Champs!
The vinyl banners rippled from the air vent behind them, the restaurant roiling with parents, the bobbing of gymnast heads, music gushing from the weighty speakers keeled on the window ledges.
Slung around Devon’s neck were three medals, two silver and one gold, her first regional-champion title on the vault.
“I’m so proud of you, sweetie,” Katie whispered in her daughter’s ear. “You can do anything.”
Later, Katie would come to think of that night as the key to everything that came after, the secret code.
But at the time, it was just a party, a celebration like dozens of others, all to honor their exceptional fifteen-year-old daughter.
In six months, Devon would compete in Elite Qualifiers and, after years of bruising toil and hamstring tears and twenty-five thousand dollars in credit-card debt and one fateful misstep at her last qualifier, would at last assume the mantle of Senior Elite. From there, anything felt possible.
Everything was glowing: the disco ball spinning above, and the Sterno lights flickering under the kebabs and lomi-lomi atop long tables skirted with raffia, candles in coconut shells and pineapples that Katie had helped hollow out with ice cream scoopers.
Everyone was wearing a lei in honor of the booster club’s Polynesian theme, and Katie spotted Devon smelling hers, the only one made with real orchids, purple and green, the exalted Coach T. himself having draped it over her head as she walked under the thatched arch to great applause. Hail our Devon, he’d intoned, that big voice of his, for the future of BelStars rests on these powerful shoulders!
It was the giddiest Katie had ever seen her daughter. Maybe it was the night, or the plastic cup of rum-spiked punch Eric let her have, offering some small release from the tight pincers that held her constantly.
In a corner, her son, Drew, sat with two other quiet fourth- grade boys, eating frozen bananas dipped in chocolate, their heads craned over handheld games. He was quieter than usual, having been scolded earlier for spilling, or pouring, chocolate milk all over Devon’s perfectly softened good-luck grips.
“But Devon never gets in trouble,” he’d said. “Not for sassing, or doing the treadmill when she’s supposed to rest her knee. Not even for sneaking out at night.”
“I never snuck out,” Devon had insisted.
“You were dreaming,” Katie had reminded him. He was always dreaming about his sister, saying he’d heard her, seen her doing things impossible and forbidden. Mom, Devon was on the roof, flying. Her bed was on fire, Dad. When he was little, he used to dream she had claws for feet.
“Buddy,” Eric had said. “Let your sister have her night.”
But Katie had whispered a promise to him: all the coconut cake and pineapple kebabs he wanted as long as he behaved.
By her second cocktail, fabric petals tickling her cheek, Katie had forgotten about Drew’s misdeed, forgotten even about the uncomfortable moment, hours before at the stadium, a dozen rows ahead of them in the stands, that beet-faced dad in the GymDreamz cap, upset over his daughter’s ranking, who’d shouted that disgusting thing (Devon Knox! Devon sucks c — ), only stopping, midsentence, at his wife’s glare.
But Eric had heard it. She could tell by the way his back stiffened, his jaw tightened.
She’d grabbed for his hand. Held it firmly.
But the moment passed, and now Eric stood at one of the banquet tables, carving the glistening ham, pink as a newborn.
Coach Teddy, a parasol’d mai tai impossibly dainty in his bear-paw hand, pulled Katie aside and said he was counting every second until July’s qualifiers, when Devon would gain Senior Elite status and everyone would finally see.
“Because look at her,” he said. “Just look at our once-and- future champ.”
And Katie did, peering through the candy-colored crowd at the poppy and cobalt of Devon’s jacket’s sparkling BelStars logo.
Less than five feet tall, a hard, smooth shell of a body. Hipless, breastless still, but the way she’d transformed her body in the last two years, thighs like trunks, shoulders and biceps straining her tank-top straps, staggered Katie.
“The world is hers now. Is yours. Is ours,” Teddy said, his face animated, and then diving in for a loud rummy smack of a kiss flush on Katie’s lips. “Just like I promised, Katie-did!”
Had that really happened?
It had, and it all made sense that night, the holy consummation of everything.
“I wish I could do what you do,” Kirsten Siefert kept saying to Katie. “I want it for Jordan. I want to know everything you did. If it’s not too late. Have you seen Jordan’s breasts? But Tansy’s only seven . . .”
The music boomed louder, and soon enough the adults started dancing, taking over the playlist from the endless thump and squeal of teen pop and club music, playing every song they’d loved fifteen years before, every opening chord releasing a chorus of Yeahs and Oh God, remember?
And there was that remarkable conversation with the booster vice president, Molly Chu.
In front of the ladies’ room, capri-panted, soft-shouldered Molly — who rarely talked about anything but gymnastics and carpooling — leaned close and told Katie how, when she was a little girl, all she wanted was to be a majorette, like Erica Neubauer, the prettiest girl at Shelby West High.
“I used to watch her in all the parades, marching in those red- tassel booties, hurling her batons up to heaven,” she said, giggling like a girl. “I remember watching her and thinking: That is all I want.”
And she told Katie how she’d stolen a piece of pipe from her father’s tool bench, sprayed it silver, and jabbed a cork on one end. “I’d twirl in the front yard for hours,” she said. “It looked like a pinwheel in the sun.”
She glanced at Katie, her eyes filling.
“Remember that kind of wanting? That kind that’s just for yourself? And you don’t even have to feel guilty about it? You wouldn’t know to.”
Katie nodded and nodded and nodded, because it felt true even if she couldn’t name the thing she’d wanted. But some- thing. Looking around, she wondered, Is it this?
In front of them, a group of the littlest girls, still in their leotards — they never liked to take them off — started dancing in a circle together, chins lifted high and faces pink like ice cream.
“It’s free then,” Molly said, watching the girls, tilting her head and blinking fast. “It’s never free again.”
“What?” Katie said, because she’d lost the thread, if she’d ever had it. “What?”
But the music swallowed them, and then someone brought out a tray of shots, flaming.
Later, she found herself dancing with Eric (which hadn’t happened in years, since that night they’d snuck to the hotel bar after a TOPs meet, Devon and Drew asleep upstairs, that lounge singer inexplicably crooning “Smells Like Teen Spirit”).
Eric had always been a terrific dancer, and the championship and the lanterned loveliness of the old catering hall — they all en- livened him, his smile and his fingers moving so delicately, his arm grabbing her so firmly, and didn’t everyone in the hall look at them?
A thought came to her rum-soaked head: He’s never loved me more than this. Because of Devon. Because of Devon. Something else I owe Devon.
But they were changing partners, and Molly, who would later pass out in the wrong car, wiggled over, lassoed Eric, while Katie, who was tired anyway, ambled toward the ladies’ room looking for Devon or Drew.
When she returned, there was Coach T. spinning his wife, Tina, around, a splotch of maraschino on her immaculate white shirt.
And the starry new arrivals: Coach’s niece Hailey, yanking at the hand of that boyfriend of hers, Ryan Beck, both of them so tanned and love-blissed.
This would be the piece that mattered most later, months later when Ryan was gone. She would think of their arrival and wonder why she hadn’t seen it all coming. But who could have seen anything at all that night but their bright-spangled beauty?
Hailey, the favored junior tumbling coach, blond and magnificent, a towering five feet seven, was beloved by her eight- and nine-year-olds (Kiss those knees, sweetheart! she’d tell them as they did their back hip circles), all of whom stared at her now from the corner, gaping at her lanky prettiness as if it were an achievement to strive for — after nailing the front tuck, before the back layout.
And Ryan, whose arrival sent all the girls into satellites of whispered frenzy.
“The only one here more handsome than your husband,” said Becca Plonski, laughing.
And suddenly there was Molly Chu again.
Improbably, she was tossing a tiki pole into the air like it was a baton, like she was still the star twirler of Shelby West High.
My, Katie thought, it is like a pinwheel.
The music kept getting louder, the Forbidden Tiki playlist spinning, and Greg Siefert corralled Katie, pitcher of blue Hawaiians in one hand, reaching for hers with the other, and he was telling a story about Eric shouting at some man in the parking lot.
“It was great, it was great. That one who’d been talking trash about our Devon. And Eric just let him have it. Hell, I was glad to see it.”
… But Katie was drunk, and it didn’t register, the music loud in a way that reminded her of when loud music was an urgent necessity, a full-body sensation, and the next thing she knew she was back at the punch bowl and Greg was limboing with Hailey, freckled and game.
Then came the part that seemed like nothing at the time. Later, after Ryan was gone, its meaning would change, as if by magic, every time Katie thought about it:
Ryan, dark-haired and grinning, took Katie’s hand, spun her once, twice, three times, to a power ballad she remembered from age fourteen, an art-class infatuation, a fumbled encounter behind the shop room, then another girl and her heart breaking.
Before she knew it, though, Hailey was grabbing him back, a wink and a gleam in her eye like, Don’t you dare, he’s mine!
At some point, she lost Devon, but there was Eric talking to Gwen Weaver on the chilly loading dock, sharing a purloined cigarette and laughing like they’d been shouting for hours.
Everyone was smoking, it turned out. She’d even caught Ryan sneaking a puff in the hallway, the back door propped open, the cold air giving her goose bumps.
Ryan, who smelled like soap and had the nicked, brambled hands of a cook.
And she’d ended up in some long conversation with someone about something, and she never could remember anything about it after except the feeling of sticky, pineapple-streaked wall against her back.
Finally, she and Eric shared one last dance before everything broke, and pressing against his shirt she smelled candle wax and a dozen perfumes; he was teasing her about the coconut husk furred onto her chest from the dance with Greg Siefert, or Bobby, or Ryan, who’d since been charged with making some- thing called a momtini, carrying a tray for all the ladies.
“He is a momtini,” whispered Kirsten Siefert, nearly rubbing her hands.
Crushed cocktail parasols gathered on the sills and crumpled leis collected in the corners like parade remnants catching on her feet, heels too high, too narrow, and she found Devon in the restroom, washing her face, washing all the performance makeup away.
Turning to her mother, she looked oddly blank.
For a second, Katie wondered about that look, but the second passed, and then there was more dancing, and more visits to the punch bowl, and the next morning she would puzzle over when she’d even been outside, finding grass blades between her toes, dried mud on the pad of her foot.
The ride home, Devon covered her head and wouldn’t speak, and they thought she probably had had more than one glass of punch but left her to it.
And then Drew, gorged on coconut cake, threw up into Katie’s hands.
But none of it mattered, everything felt wonderful and she and Eric laughed and laughed.
Back in the bedroom, Eric standing over her, his face hidden in the dark.
“Wait, wait,” she asked, remembering what Greg had told her, “did you get into an argument with that dad after the meet? The creep who called Devon that name? In the parking lot, did you — ”
“Who told you that?” he said, laughing, his hands hooked around her legs, throwing her back on the bed. It reminded her of when they first met, that laugh. She’d sold him cotton candy at the Kiwanis fair.
That was more than sixteen years ago, and now, sometimes, they didn’t see each other for days other than in the blue hours of late night and predawn. They knew each other most deeply through body-warmed sheets and the tangle of half dreams.
You might think it would doom the marriage, unless you pondered it for one more beat. Consider the prospect that your spouse could forever remain slightly other from you, his body never too familiar, his hands on you almost wholly to seduce you. You were mysterious to him and he was mysterious to you.
Other moms, in the confidences of long huddles in the stands, waiting in line for the restroom during a meet, would confess sexless stretches lasting for months, barren and mutual. Katie could only nod kindly and say nothing because Eric still felt like her secret lover, furtive and surprising, a bristly mouth on her neck, half-asleep murmurs and, in the morning, the soft welt on her shoulder, the lingering shiver of her legs.
They had been together more than sixteen years, so long, and a part of it was this. They had shared it long past when all the other couples they knew had stopped sharing anything other than credit-card debt and casual, or focused, resentment.
Strangely, in part it was because of Devon. They shared so much in sharing her, her endeavor. She held them together, tightly.
The morning after the party, Katie turned over and saw a violet smear on her pillowcase.
It took her a while to remember. After midnight, trundling Drew across the ice-ribbed parking lot and into the car, Eric still inside, trying to find Devon, saying final good-byes.
A tap on the shoulder and it was Ryan Beck again. Smiling that chipped-front-tooth smile.
“Devon’s?” he asked. Dangling from his open palm was a fa- miliar lei, purple and green orchids, petals shredded. “I found it over by the dumpsters.”
“What a shame,” Katie said, feeling it more sharply than she should, blaming it on the rum. “Thanks.”
He draped it over her head, its dampness tickling her, his sneakers nearly slipping on the rimy concrete. A squeak, a skid. Later, she would wonder if he’d slipped like that on Ash Road seconds before he died, his sneakers on the sandy gravel as the headlights came.
“Careful,” Katie said, a catch in her voice. “It’s not safe.” “Nothing ever is,” he said, winking, his white tee glowing
under the lights, backing away, into the dark of the emptying lot.
“Good night, Mrs. Knox. Good night.”
“The eyes of a young girl can tell everything. And I always look in their eyes. There I can see if I will have a champion.” — Neshka Robeva, gymnast and coach
If she ever had to talk about it, which she never would, Katie would have to go back, back years before it happened. Before Coach T. and Hailey and Ryan Beck. Back before Devon was born, when there were only two Knoxes, neither of whom knew a tuck from a salto or what you called that glossy egg-shaped platform in the center of the room, the vault that would change their lives.
And Katie would tell it in three parts. The Foot. The Fall. The Pit.
You could only begin to understand what happened, and why, if you understood these three things.
And Devon’s talent. Because that had been there from the beginning, maybe even before the beginning.
In proud-parent moments, of which there were too many to count, she and Eric would talk about feeling Devon in the womb, her body arching and minnowing and promising itself to them both.
Soon, it turned to kicking. Kicking with such vigor that, one night, Katie woke to a popping sound and, breathless, keeled over in pain. Eric stared helplessly at the way her stomach seemed to spasm with alien horrors.
What was inside her, they wondered, her rib poking over her sternum, dislocated while she slept.
It was no alien, but it was something extraordinary.
It was Devon, a marvel, a girl wonder, a prodigy, a star. Devon, kicking her way out. Out, out, out.
And they had made her.
And, in some ways, she had made them.
For years, Katie would touch the spot the rib had poked, as if she could still feel the tender lump. It was reassuring somehow. It reminded her that it had always been there, that force in Devon, that fire.
Like that line in that poem, the one she’d read in school, a lifetime ago. Back when life felt so cramped and small, when she never thought anything so grand could ever happen.
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.
“She’s been doing it since she was three? How is that even possible?” That’s what other people, never gym people, always said. Making private judgments, unspoken charges of helicopter parenting, unmet maternal, or paternal, ambitions, Olympic dreams. No one ever believed Katie and Eric had never cared about sports, or even competition. Eric had played high-school baseball, indifferently. Katie had never been athletic at all, de- voting her adolescence to art class and boys and sneaking off to see bands, the vestige of which was the Fight Like a Grrrl tattoo snaking around her left thigh.
“My three-year-old just wanted to play,” they’d say smugly. “We just let her play.”
As if it had ever been a choice, or a decision.
“It started as play,” Eric always told people. “It started with the trampoline.”
Then he’d tell them how, one long Sunday, he’d installed it in the yard, leaning over the auger rented from the hardware store, a pile of chicken wire, empty beer bottles at his feet.
The trampoline was the better story, an easier one, but it wasn’t the truth.
Because the trampoline came after the accident, came after the Foot. And the accident was how it truly began. How that force in her found its fuse.
Three-year-old Devon, barefoot, running across the lawn to Daddy.
Her foot sliding on a grass mound, she stumbled into their idling, rust-eaten lawn mower, her foot so tiny it slipped behind the blade guard, the steel shearing off two toes and a squeak of soft foot flesh.
A few feet away, face white with panic, Eric slid to his knees beside her and somehow managed to pluck both toes from the grass.
Packed in ice, they looked like pink peas and Katie held them in her hands as Eric drove with careering ferocity the six miles to the hospital where doctors tried (but failed) to reattach them, like stringing beads, Devon’s face blue and wet.
“It could have been worse,” their pediatrician, Dr. Yossarian, told them later. “Sometimes with the riding mowers, the whole foot pops off.” And he made an appalling pucker sound with his mouth.
“But what can we do?” Eric asked, even as Dr. Yossarian assured them Devon would be fine. “There must be something.”
So Dr. Yossarian suggested kiddie soccer, or ice-skating, or tumbling, something.
“It’ll help with balance,” he said.
In years to come, this would feel like a moment of shimmering predestiny, in the same way everything about Devon’s life eventually came to feel mythic within the family. Fate, destiny, retroactivated by a Sears Craftsman.
That fall, Katie drove Devon to the Tumbleangels Gym on Old Taylor Road and signed them both up for Mommy & Me Movers & Shakers.
“At first, she’ll be overly cautious,” Dr. Yossarian warned, “but try to push her.”
Except it was just the opposite. Within a few weeks, Devon was forward- and backward-rolling. Next came chin-ups, hand- stands, cartwheels as accomplished as those of girls twice her age.
The Human Rubber Band, Katie called her.
Supergirl, Eric called her. Monkey-bar superstar!
And, in some mysterious way, it was as if the foot were helping her.
Frankenfoot, Katie dubbed it. Making it their private joke.
Show Mommy how you work that Frankenfoot.
By the end of her first month, Devon had graduated to Tiny Tumblerz, and within a year, Devon was the gym’s VIP, her cubbyhole sprayed silver and festooned with sticker stars.
Watching her on the practice beam, Katie would think, This piece of wood is four inches wide, two feet in the air. Four inches. And I’m going to let my daughter plant her dimpled feet on that and do kicks and dips?
“Do the O,” the other girls would say, cheering as Devon arched her back from a handstand until her tiny bottom touched the top of her head. Every now and then, Eric would lift her up in the air to see if her backbone was really there.
Prodigy, Katie whispered in her most private thoughts but never said aloud. Eric said it. He said it a lot.
And so Eric installed the trampoline.
Hours, days devoted to making the yard ready for her talent, laying thick mats like dominoes. Just as he would eventually do in the basement, hanging a pull-up bar, scraping the concrete bumps off the floor, covering it with panel mats and carpet remnants, wrapping foam around the ceiling posts. For Devon.
And so gymnastics became the center, the mighty spine of everything for them.
Devon turning five, six, seven, thousands of hours driving to and from the gym, to and from the meets, a half a dozen emergency-room visits for the broken toe, knee sprain, elbow popping on the mat, seven stiches after Devon fell from the bars and bit through her tongue.
And the money. Gym tuition, meet fees, equipment, travel, booster fees. She and Eric had stopped counting, gradually becoming used to swelling credit-card debt.
Then, when Drew came along, their delicate, thoughtful son, nothing changed. Quiet, easy, he fit so perfectly — in temperament, in disposition — with everything that was already happening. Devon was happening.
After one meet, Devon medaling in three of four events, in the car on the way home, their fingers stiff from cold, Eric asked Devon, age nine, how it was, how it felt.
“I beat everybody,” she said, solemnly. “I was better than everybody.”
Her eyelashes blinking slowly, like she was surprised.
And Katie and Eric had laughed and laughed, even though Katie felt sorry, always did, for all those other girls who just weren’t as good, didn’t have that magical something that made Devon Devon.
“You gotta get her out of there,” a competition judge confided to Eric the following day. “Ditch that strip-mall gym. Get her to BelStars. Get her to Coach T.
“You keep her here, it’ll all go to waste.”
And that very night Eric began researching second mortgages.
It was, Katie had to admit, exciting.
Coach Teddy Belfour watched Devon’s tryout, rapt.
“Let me offer you a big, mouth-filling oath,” he told Katie and Eric, never taking his eyes from her. “Bring her to BelStars and she’ll find the extent of her power. We’ll find it together.”
That was how he talked, how he was.
The next day, Devon was on the BelStars beam, under the tutelage of the exalted Coach T., the most decorated coach in the state, the silver-maned lion, the gymnast whisperer, the salto Svengali, molder and shaper of fourteen national champions at the Junior Olympic and Elite levels.
That night, Eric told Katie how he and Devon had walked past the long rows of beams and bars, the fearsome BelStars girls whippeting around with faces grim as Soviets’.
He thought she would be terrified by the time they finished the gauntlet. But instead she’d looked up at him, her eyes dark and blazing, and said, “I’m ready.”
And overnight BelStars became their whole world.
Twelve thousand square feet, a virtual bunker, it had everything that jolly Tumbleangels, run by two sweet women both named Emily, didn’t. The color-coordinated foam wedges and cartwheel mats were replaced by mammoth spring floors, a forty-foot tumbling track, a parent lounge with vending machines. All of it gray, severe, powerful.
And she had Coach T., nearly all his energies devoted to Devon, beneath her on the beam, the bars, spotting her at the vault. Barking orders at everyone but Devon. (“She doesn’t need it,” he said. “She just needs our faith.”)
This was the place Devon began spending twenty-five hours a week, before school, after school, weekends. And, because it was thirty minutes from their house and Eric’s work schedule was unreliable, it was often the place Katie and thus little Drew spent four, five, seven hours a day, Katie’s default office, her lap- top open, trying to do her freelance design jobs.
But it was impossible not to watch Devon. Everyone watched her.
Katie and Eric tried never to say the word Olympics. But it was hard not to think about. Because it was all anyone at BelStars thought about.
“Once in a generation,” one of the other parents said, watching Devon.
You never think you’ll hear a phrase that big in real life, much less find yourself believing it.
You never think your life will be that big.
Just after Devon’s tenth birthday, Coach T. pulled Katie aside. “Let’s meet tonight. You and Eric and me,” he whispered so no other parent could hear. “To talk about our girl’s future. Because I see things bright and bountiful.”
And so it was, that night, sitting at the grand dining-room table of his grand home, Coach T. pulled out a large easel pad and showed Katie and Eric the flow chart, punctuated by fluorescent arrows, Sharpied hieroglyphics. It was titled “The Track.”
“My friends, this is a decision point,” he said, perpetually bloodshot eyes staring over at them. “Are you ready?”
“We are,” Eric said.
“Yes,” Katie said. “Ready for what?”
Teddy laughed buoyantly, and then they all did. Then, turning the easel paper toward her, he waved his pen, magician-like, and explained.
“Devon’s on the brink of becoming a Level Ten gymnast,” he said. “The highest level.”
“And she can top out at Ten,” he said, shrugging a little. “And be proud of herself. Compete in big events across the country. Attract recruiters for a college scholarship.”
He looked at them, that forever-ruddy face, the dampness of his bloodhound eyes.
“Or she can take the other path, the narrow one. The challenging one. The one for the very few indeed. The Elite path.”
E-lite. It was all anyone talked about in the gym. Elite-Elite- Elite. A constant purr under their tongues. The trip of the l, the cut of the t.
“Going Elite means going from competing nationally to competing internationally,” Teddy said. “If this is the desired track, she needs to qualify as an Elite gymnast. First, Junior Elite, and she’s not even close to ready yet. I’m shooting for her thirteenth birthday. Then Senior Elite, the year she turns sixteen.”
All three were silent for a moment. Eric looked at Katie, who looked back at him, trying not to smile.
“An Elite career lasts five or six years, max. But each year, the hundred, hundred and twenty Elites compete to land spots on the national team. From the national team, you are only one step away from…”
Teddy paused, briefly, watching Katie and Eric, letting the moment sit with them.
Then, with his thickest Sharpie, he underlined the words Olympic Team and circled it, and starred it.
The words themselves like magic, an incantation.
Katie felt for Eric’s arm and then began to pull back, embarrassed.
But Eric grabbed for her, clutched her hand. And Katie could feel it, an energy vibrating off him, like sometimes when they watched the meets together, their bodies humming beside each other, so alive.
“Then, God willing, Devon makes the world championship team. And, every four years,” he said (and the way Katie remembered it, they all held their breath), “the torch.”
Eric exhaled, looking down at the rug. “So,” he said, “you see it?”
Teddy nodded once, slowly.
“But you need to commit. Both of you.” He paused. “It takes a family to make this happen. And it takes action. Devon needs to be here at least thirty hours a week, maybe more. We need to get her before she changes.”
“Changes?” Katie asked.
“Changes,” he said, nodding again, grimly this time. Then, in a flash, turning a smile on. “They all change. Become women. Glorious women.”
“Well, you can’t stop that,” Katie said, smiling too.
“No,” Teddy said, laughing with sudden loudness. “Of course not.”
And it happened, just like he’d said it would. Just as the Track foretold.
First came constant, vein-pulsing work, more five-hour practices, more out-of-town meets, countless jammed fingers and torn palms and two weather-beaten cars with blistered tires and dent-pocked doors, Eric’s in the shop half the time, and the credit-card debt ticking up, and a gym that cost almost as much as one of their two mortgage payments.
But it happened. That spring, Devon reached Level 10. One of only ninety-six in the state.
“There’s no telling how far we can go now,” said Coach T., watching Devon dive, flip, stick.
A few months later, after placing sixth on beam and bars in the Level 10 Junior Nationals in sunstruck Orlando, she was ranked first among all Level 10s in their home state.
“The greatest day of our life,” Devon said, and everyone laughed at the our, except it was true, wasn’t it?
“A star is born,” announced Coach T., rocking back on his heels, beaming, holding up that dazzling photo of Devon in the local paper — stoic and grand in her snow-white leotard, her dark eyes, Eric’s eyes. Alongside, there was that crackling inter- view with Coach T., and the next day, BelStars was flooded with new recruits, its coffers swelling.
“Nothing can stop her now,” Coach T. assured Katie and Eric over a celebratory dinner for Devon at Shell Shuckers, the best restaurant in town.
They took up the largest table: all four Knoxes, kindergartner Drew, the shrimp cocktail bigger than his little head, alongside Coach T. and his wife, Tina, and a young woman whom Katie had never met, with hair like Rapunzel’s — that’s what Drew would say later.
“I’d like you all to meet my niece,” Teddy said. “Well, she’s like a daughter to me.”
And that was how they came to know Hailey, whom Coach had taken care of since she was thirteen and going down what Tina euphemistically called “the wrong path.”
“I couldn’t deal with my mom,” Hailey confided, leaning close to Katie. “And she couldn’t deal with me. We were both being brats.”
With Teddy’s help, Hailey had thrived, starting gymnastics, joining the swim team, winning a scholarship, and now soon to graduate from State. Which just showed the kind of man Teddy was, why Devon was in such able, loving hands.
“I was always good on the beam, but I wasn’t anything like Devon,” Hailey added. “And my mom was nothing like you.” And Katie, maybe a little tipsy, found herself tearing up. “One more toast to our Devon — the Invincible!” Teddy hurrahed, and Tina hear-heared, jumping in, “So long as she doesn’t grow three inches or get hips,” with a wink.
And everyone laughed, and all eyes turned to Devon, taking her first sip of champagne, a pinched nose, a sly blush, ponytail bobbing, just like before a routine. She drew her index finger across her front teeth, as if it were too sweet.
“Why are you all looking at Devon?” little Drew asked, head darting from one to the next.
And Coach T. laughed. They all did.
Later that night, their minds racing, their hearts thumping too wildly to sleep, she and Eric sat at the kitchen table and drank dusty bourbon from juice glasses and tried to calm themselves.
It felt as it did after big competitions, when together they’d break it all down, everything that had happened, tell it and retell it until the kitchen table hummed with warmth and achievement.
But this time it took a turn, and here was Eric, his eyes bleary, pained, talking about something a judge had said, and about Devon’s “cross to bear.”
“I’m telling you, he was talking about her foot. That she’d never get that balance perfect, not without two fewer toes on her left foot to even it out.”
Despite countless conversations about Devon’s body, her development, her strength, her preternatural calm and focus, she and Eric almost never talked about her foot. About the accident. “Oh, Eric,” Katie said, wrapping her hands around his forearms. “Like Coach T. says, she figured out long ago how to compensate and — ”
“I think about it sometimes, Katie,” he said, nudging closer toward her.
For a second, Katie thought he might say something, an admission. I can’t believe I didn’t see her. I can’t believe I was so careless —
In all marriages, there are questions you never ask. Instead, Katie could only wonder, less and less as the years went by, how Eric could have left unattended, even for a moment, that relic of a mower, hustled from a garage sale, when he knew it didn’t shut off like it was supposed to. Why he’d taken that chance in spite of the way Devon followed him everywhere, all the time, scurrying after him like an eager, pink-tongued puppy.
“I think about what we did,” he continued. His words landing fully.
“What we did,” she began, head tilting. “We — ”
“She was different before,” Eric said. “Devon was. Before the accident.”
And the we drifted away, forgotten. Bourbon-obscured.
She knew he meant different in ways that went beyond the peculiar maceration at the top of her foot, the places two angel-ear toes had once wiggled.
She wished she weren’t so drunk, could stop a million tiny, pushed-away thoughts from scurrying across her brain. About Devon, about the lonesomeness of her daughter’s life, about —
So she spoke instead, to stop the thoughts.
“She was only three when it happened,” she insisted. “There was no Devon before.”
Feeling the bourbon whirl inside her, a heat under her eyes, she said it once, then said it again.
“There was no Devon before.”
In bed that night, her throat scraped dry from drinking, her head muddied and hot, Katie remembered something that had happened not that long ago. She’d walked into the TV room, thick with trophies and the tilting ribbon rack, and saw Devon, her feet propped up on the sofa, her shins aching, rubbing Zim’s Crack Creme on those ragged gymnast feet, the white of the lotion making her foot bright, conspicuous, a white worm wriggling.
Walking by, Katie had plucked at her daughter’s greased toes, saying, cooing even, “Take care of my girl’s magical Frankenfoot.”
A week later, Eric had confided to Katie that Devon had come to him to ask if she could start wearing Dance Paws at the gym so it would be harder for people to see. Because even Mom thought her foot made her look like a monster.
Hearing it was like a punch in the stomach.
“Why didn’t she say something to me?” she asked Eric, and he said she was probably embarrassed.
She always assumed Devon never really thought about it, the telltale white rings of scar tissue banding her forefoot. It just doesn’t feel as much, she confided once. She had less sensation there, and could hold the beam longer without pain. But she never felt pain anyway. Not like the other girls. Besides, her feet, both of them, were, more than anything else, the feet of all gymnasts. Ripped and peeling from the beam. Deformed, clawed, just like that nightmare Drew once had (Devon was a chicken hawk, Mom. With needles instead of feet).
“I’m the worst mother ever,” Katie said, and Eric shook his head, reassured her.
That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself. Especially Devon, who kept so much inside.
“She’s a thinker, a worrier,” Eric sometimes said. “She never stops.”
A serious girl, that’s what all her teachers said. An intense one.
Old beyond her years; they said that too.
That was what gymnastics did, though. It aged girls and kept them young forever at the same time.
And the face Devon wore at three years old, full of stiff determination and a native opacity, was the same one she wore at
BelStars today, her nimble body spearing over the vault.
Ice Eyes, the other girls called her. Staring at her from the sidelines. They all wanted to be like that.
Look at Devon, Coach T. always said. She doesn’t give away any of her secrets.
Copyright © 2016 by Megan Abbott