Julie Wise has been teaching dance at Mountain View High School in Tucson, Arizona since 1996. She received a BA in English Literature from Indiana University and an MFA in Dance/Choreography from University of Arizona. Julie is fascinated by artistic construction in all art forms. Her favorite YA authors are John Corey Whaley and Cassandra Clare. She is obsessed with Kanye West and Arcade Fire, and if she had to choose between music or books, she would explode.
Book Excerpt from COLLAPSE by Julie Wise
My heartbeat, my breath, and the splash of my body are the music in my head as I warm up in the lane. The water erases everything else, even the weight of my body. I move through space without resistance.
Angie and Hannah were standing at the side of the pool when I started my warmup, their eyes hidden behind the darkly tinted goggles we all wear. They’re my captains, and we’re a team, but only one swimmer can be State champion next week. I’m their competition.
I block them out of my bubble and try to think in movements instead of words as I work myself through the water, swimming slowly during my first four laps. When I pick up the speed, words come back to me. Well, just two words. Not lift your elbows or straight legs or any of things I used to tell myself in the water when I was a little kid. Now, it’s just two words: go faster.
Breath. Burn. Go faster. Go faster. My movement is clean. My mind is clear.
I swim until I’m warm. I don’t even bother counting laps. I know when my body is ready to sprint. I climb out of the pool and watch Angie swim her warm-up laps in the center lane as I stand, dripping, on the pool deck and start to slow down my breath. Angie’s fast, but she’s sloppy. Her times have been all over the place this week. Her right leg is stronger than her left, and even though she’s longer than me, she doesn’t get her fullest range of motion from her shoulders. I shake my arms and legs and circle my arms to keep my shoulders warm as I wait for Coach to signal for sprints.
The Arizona Daily Star ran a story about me on the front page of the sports section this weekend, because I’m only a sophomore, and I broke the state record for the 100-meter girls freestyle at Regionals. I was pretty sure I was going to break it before I ever stepped onto the block. I’d been killing that time in practice all week, but still, in a meet, anything can happen.
I look over to the stands absent-mindedly as I run through all of the stuff that could affect my sprints today. Have I had enough protein today to keep pushing? Am I hydrated? Did I get enough sleep? Am I loose enough?
But then, my eyes stop. There he is, sitting in the shallow stands with a group of his friends. He doesn’t wave, but he looks me up and down over the top of his RayBans. His look makes me feel bare. His smile, lifted on one side of his mouth, breaks my rhythm.
I don’t look back at the stands for the rest of practice.
Coach blows the whistle, and it’s time. Angie arranges the swimmers, placing herself, me and Hannah in the center lanes as the swimmers to beat. We step onto the blocks. Even though this is only practice, this is always my worst swimmer’s moment, out of the water, hoping I’m warm enough, nerves pulsing, keeping my breath under control. Don’t think, don’t think, I think.
I never hear the shot, but my body does. I shoot off the block, skimming the top of the water, and then, I’m in my stroke. Angie is just behind me, Hannah, one body length in front. Breathe. Push. Faster.
I go into the flip, but when I push off the side, I catch the edge of my foot on the tiled wall. Hannah and Angie are both in front of me now. Go faster, go faster. I push my pace, moving like a machine. Motion, breath, speed. I do what I’ve trained to do. I don’t think. I act and react. I pass both of them and push myself through the burn. My muscles are red-hot.
I touch first, and I surface. Coach yells out my time, a pro finish, breaking my own state record again. A full second faster than last week. I want to yell into the air and shake my fist at the sky, but instead, I spin my goggles around my neck. Blood rushes in my ears, blocking out the sounds from my team. I take a deep breath and duck back underwater, smiling in the chlorine for a second before I come back up to the top.
We do three more sprints, and I win each one easily, even as my times naturally slow with each attempt. I practiced this morning before school too. I’m wasted tired by cooldown and swim easily in the practice pool, keeping it slow and loose.
Alec was in the stands. Why?
And why did I botch that flip turn? I still killed the time, but what if that happens at State? Or what if I get a cramp? Anything can happen.
I walk into the locker room and collapse onto the concrete bench, leaning against the cold metal of the lockers. My legs are rubber, for now, but soon, the pain will settle in.
“Hey, congrats on your record, Mel. Great swim,” Angie says as she opens her locker near mine. “You’ve really stepped up your times. No one else can touch you.”
“Yeah,” I say back. “You too.” Then I remember that I beat her in every sprint. “I mean, you’ve been doing better. Just not today,” I say. Shit! I never say the right things.
Angie looks away from me and shakes her head. The rest of the girls on my team nod when they walk by to acknowledge my new record, but no one else, thankfully, tries to really talk to me. I always mess it up. It’s painful to be ignored, but it’s better than kicking myself forever for the dumb things I say when I’m out of the water. When I surface, everything always blasts up like an ugly siren.
My head is full; that’s my excuse. I’ll do a lot of easy flip turns tomorrow morning and really work on keeping my feet flexed and even. Outside of the locker room, the chilly autumn air surprises me as the setting sun turns the desert mountains red. I’m glad I put on my thicker sweats for the walk home.
The heavy metal door of the boys’ varsity locker room swings open and hits the cinder block wall behind it with a bang, shaking me out of my head for a second, and then, out walks Alec.
He nods hello. His light hair is wet from the shower, and he throws his head back and shakes his curls out of his eyes. I walk a little faster. He makes me nervous, always teasing me in Chem class.
“Hey Mel,” he says. I wish I had my headphones in so I could pretend like I didn’t hear him. No, that’s why people think I’m a bitch. I can’t just ignore him. I slow down, and he walks up next to me on our way out to the parking lot. “I saw your sprint. You’re breaking records? That’s tight.”
“Thanks,” I say. “Why were you at practice?”
He shrugs. “My practice was over, and I stopped by on my way to the showers.”
My legs are starting to get heavy, but the walk home will keep me loose until I can stretch again before dinner. I shake my shoulders, circle my arms.
“Sore?” he asks.
“Not yet. But soon,” I say.
“Are you going to the game on Friday?” he asks.
“Yeah,” he laughs.
“Do you play?” And I looked down at his shirt. Northside Football in huge red letters.
He smiles his tilted smile, and my face gets hot. I pick up the pace and start to walk away.
“Melanie?” he calls out again. Damn. I just want to get away from him and the stupid things that I’m sure I’m about to say. I turn and face him in the gold light of the low sun. “Are you walking?” he asks.
“Do you want a ride?”
“No, I like walking.”
He frowns and looks down.
“Are you sure?” he asks again.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” I answer again.
He shakes his head, a small tremor, like he’s trying to cue the right answers, but I’m not getting the hint. “Well, I’m beat from practice.”
“The game on Friday is going to be a good one.”
I nod again, even though I have no idea how good the game will be or who we’re even playing. I’ll be at practice or sleeping during the game.
“It’s the first home game, you know.”
“Sure,” I say. I had no idea.
“Do you want me to get that?” he asks, pointing to my gym bag.
“Why?” I ask, puzzled.
This is the dumbest conversation I’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot, but I can’t get myself to walk away and put an end to the pain. Alec yawns, stretching his arms up over his head, his own gym bag in one of them. His shoulders are rolled forward, his weight shifted over to one of his feet. Strong hands, I think. In swim, we don’t have to deal with anything but water, and you can’t hold water. I wonder if he can wrap that hand around the whole football.
“How wide is a football?” I ask.
He squints his eyes a little.“Why?”
“You have big hands.”
He grins. “Yeah?”
“And I wondered if you could fit a whole football inside your hands,” I finish.
For unknown reasons, he smiles more deeply as his eyes squint more from the sun, but he doesn’t answer me. He arches his back and stretches out the cords of muscle down his neck and into his shoulders.
“So you don’t want a ride?” he asks.
I thought we covered that. “No, I like to walk,” I repeat. “And think.”
“What do you think about?” he asks through a yawn.
“State’s next week,” I say. “So I think about going faster.”
He nods and yawns and stretches again. I’m so lame, this conversation is going to put him to sleep standing up in the school bus lane.
“Okay, well, good talking to you, Alex,” I say, and I turn to go.
“Wait,” he calls out again. “Sorry, I always yawn when I’m nervous.”
“Why are you nervous?” I ask and look around, frowning. For a second, he doesn’t say anything.
“Melanie, are you going to Homecoming?”
Suddenly, everything feels a little weird and precarious. I can deal with weird. I bring weird to the party, I know. But this feels different. Uncharted territory.
“No,” I answer warily.
“Do you want to go with me?” he asks. But before I can answer, he reaches out for my gym bag and sets both his and mine on the ground. Then, he reaches for my hand. He leans down and kisses me. He pulls me a little closer, and I’m holding my breath. His strong hand is warm on my back, and then, while his lips are still on mine, I laugh, loud, obnoxious, and full of spit, like a freakish, awkward quacking duck. He jumps away and wipes his hand across his face, and my face burns hot. He looks at me, his head tilted. Like I’m a strange curiosity. A fish out of water.
“Sorry,” I sputter, “But why’d you do that?”
He laughs, deep and cool. “Because I like you, Melanie,” he says, plainly.
“Well, that’s because you don’t know me,” I say.
“We’ve been going to school together since second grade,” he says, lifting his chin.
“I just spit on you.”
“Yeah. That was…weird,” he says, and he grins. “Wanna try again?”
“I’ve got to go,” I say again, meaning it very much this time. He picks up my bag and his and walks with me in the direction of the parking lot.
“Are you coming to Homecoming with me?” he asks again. I don’t really even know what Homecoming is. I’ve never had time for stuff like that, especially during the fall swim season. My head is still spinning from our kiss, my first kiss ever, with anyone.
“Sure. Why not?” I tell him. And then, he smiles the squinty-eye-smile again, and my heart goes freaky.
“Let me give you a ride home, okay? It’s getting dark.” I shake my head, no. No way. Enough is enough. I’m freaked out enough already.
“No, really, I want to walk.” He doesn’t argue anymore, but he squeezes my hand before he lets it go and walks over to his Jeep, throwing his bag in the back with a big arch before he grabs onto a metal bar and pulls himself inside.
Corrina is going to freak out. She’s always telling me that I have “social potential” if I could just look outside of my own bubble. She calls me a “swimmer hottie,” which pisses off her girlfriend, Martina, and makes me turn red. She says that she feels privileged to be my friend, because that means that I actually see her. That’s stupid, of course. It’s no great privilege to be my friend, for sure. Who could love a cold fish? Girls at school think I’m mean or crazy or something, because I walk past people without saying hi or smiling or anything. I’m not crazy. I’m just up in my head. I have goals, and there are tradeoffs. Having an olympic medal vs. having a life…
In the morning, my alarm goes off in the dark, and I roll out of bed and braid my hair automatically while I sit on the edge of the bed. Morning practices are a way of life, if you can even call this morning. More like the middle of the night. I walk into the kitchen and grab an orange out of the bowl. Mom hands me a bowl of oatmeal.
“I don’t remember going to bed last night,” I say, and she laughs.
“You fell asleep on the couch. I walked you up to your bed. I hope you didn’t have homework.”
“I’ll finish it in home room. It’s been a long season,” I mutter. Mom gets it. She gets me. She’s been taking me to practice or the trainer or sitting in the stands every day since I learned my first stroke.
“I know you will,” she says. “Come on, I’ll drive you,” and I finish up my oatmeal.
Later, after practice, the sun is higher, warming up the crisp air. I walk through the halls, gravity pushing me down. My bones are heavy. The halls are narrow and crowded, and bodies crash into each other. People walk slowly in front of me, and I can’t set my own pace. The metal lockers in the walls bounce back sounds, and the echoing laughter is so loud, it sounds like screams. I miss the rush and the swoosh of underwater.
Next to me, I tune into two girls talking loudly as they walk slowly past the gum tree in the library plaza.
“She won’t talk to me anymore. I didn’t even know that she was talking to him. I have a boyfriend anyway. I can’t help it if he texts me,” singsongs the girl wearing a green shirt cut through the neck so it falls off her shoulder. She pauses to take her blue gum out of her mouth and stick it on top of generations of petrified gum smeared across the trunk of the tree. Blue gum. A boy texted her who shouldn’t have, she has a boyfriend anyway, and her gum is blue. True facts.
I go back to focusing on my breath and my voice in my head. Right, left, right, left, I think over and over as I watch my feet hitting the ground in a rhythm and head for the Science Wing. Bi-o, bi-o on my way through the tile-floored hall.
Bell. Bio Class. Bell.
Then, mu-sic, mu-sic as I walk under the mesquite trees to the choir room. A syllable in my head for each step. I float past everyone, blocking out the noise. I think about the next time I can be in the water. I think about being faster.
Then, I see him, and I stop. I come to the surface, sputtering.
Alec leans against the wall outside of the music room wearing the same black-framed sunglasses that he wore to my meet. He looks around, and people nod at him as they walk by. He nods back, the benevolent gesture of a new royal who hasn’t been on the throne long enough to behead anyone. I can’t figure out what he is thinking. Alec asking me to Homecoming last week definitely headlines in the news of the weird.
When he sees me in the hall, he catches up with me and walks me to class. I try to talk as little as possible, but when we get to the plaza, I notice that everyone is watching us.
“What’s up, Melanie? Your face is red again,” Alec asks.
“People are looking at you,” I answer, almost whispering. He shrugs.
“Actually, they’re probably looking at you,” he says, and I feel dizzy. “Who cares?” he says, and he takes my hand and steers me toward the D-Wing. I hear more giggling, and when I look up, a whole table of girls is sneering at me.
Nothing ever changes in the water or on the track. When I’m in my lane, I just want to be fast. Out of the water, I don’t know what I want. Corrina loves to go on and on about Alec. I try to humor her, but her babble gets to be too much. So I dive back into my bubble.
At dinner tonight, I ask my parents if I could go. First, Dad wants to know all about Alec. I tell him that I didn’t know much about him. Dad gets all quiet. Oh god, I hope he isn’t going to give me a “talk” about going out with boys and all of that. He looks away.
“Money’s tight,” he says, and I know it kills him to say it.
He’s stressed about money, but he doesn’t like to tell us about it. His chiropractor practice was hard hit when all of the banks went bankrupt and other businesses started to fold. I heard him talking to mom one night, and I guess that he lost money in stocks too? I don’t really understand all of it. Mr. Willis likes to go on and on in World History class about current events and Wall Street collapse and international debt and blah blah blah. The only part of it that I care about is the part that makes my dad upset and hurts my family.
“Trainers are expensive, Mel. We don’t have a lot of money for extras,” he says. I can see the lines on his face. No extras, like dresses and shoes and whatever else.
“Don’t worry about it, Dad. I don’t need to go,” I say, and Mom clears her throat.
“If it’s important to you, we’ll find a way,” she says, but I shake my head right away. That’s the thing. Homecoming isn’t important to me.
When Corrina calls, I tell her that I’m going to tell Alec I can’t go, and her voice quivers when she finally speaks.
“Well, I guess it’s your choice…”
“It sounds fun, but we don’t have the money, and it’s not a big deal.” She starts to say something, but I stop her. “I’ll tell Alec tomorrow.”
I’m going to tell him tomorrow. I roll over onto my back and think it through. Tomorrow is Saturday. I won’t see him tomorrow. I’ll text him. Texting is like underwater communication. No sound. Just the message, like this game Corrina and I used to play underwater when we were kids. We would hold our breath and try to exhale enough air to sink to the bottom of the pool. Then, we would pantomime a tea party. I close my eyes and remember the blue, how I would close my eyes underwater, even with goggles on. I still do that. My coach yells at me when she sees my eyes closed in the underwater film.
I feel like I’m dreaming already; I’m so tired. My bed is a raft, and I’m rolling back and forth, rolling on the waves. There is a peace to the movement in my mind, like my perfect place underwater, and then, everything goes crazy. I hear a loud, groaning noise, and my eyes shoot open. The noise gets louder and louder, and I notice the posters on my wall shaking. One of the posters tears in half as the wall bucks, and I scream. My heart pounds loudly everyday during a workout, but that’s nothing compared to right now. I hear the moan from the window just before it shatters, and I duck and then, holy shit! The whole window explodes into the room, glass flying everywhere, and I’m on my feet and running into the hall. I hear Erica’s scream of a five-year-old voice from down the hall.
Mom and Dad are already standing in the hall.
“It’s an earthquake,” Dad says.
In Collapse, a contemporary YA love story, Melanie and Jared don’t have much in common except that they have lived next door to each other all of their lives. When an earthquake half-destroys their hometown in Arizona, a common tragedy links their lives together forever. In the week that follows, the natural disaster triggers riots and looting in their town near the international border. Melanie and Jared become unlikely leaders as teens protest the hateful, racist actions of the adults in their community. They come together as everything that was solid in their lives falls apart.
This excerpt is the first chapter of COLLAPSE. The novel is a work-in-progress, and it will be available for publication in 2014.