Authors: Olivia Lancaster
I pulled my baby blue Volkswagen Jetta into a front parking spot behind the gym and turned down the overhead visor to look at myself in the mirror for a moment. It was early in the morning, the sun just barely creeping over the horizon behind me, its orange face a tentative glow in my rearview mirror. I surveyed my own face, checking to make sure I didn’t look like I didn’t sleep last night.
Because, well, I didn’t. Not for more than a few hours, anyway.
Last night, my little sister Alice had to finish an art history project she’d been procrastinating on for weeks-- and it was due today. Of course it was. At fifteen years old, she was already brilliant, getting excellent grades and running circles around her fellow classmates. But she did have a tendency to put things off until the last minute. I wondered how I managed to dodge that gene, as I had always been just the opposite. I was a planner, obsessively and compulsively outlining every day of my life in a little green journal. My schedules were color-coded, as was my wardrobe and my collection of running shoes. I’d always spent my life looking several steps ahead, trying to dictate my future from the present.
Alice, on the other hand, was content to just live life in the moment. It was an endearing trait, and one that helped balance us out as sisters, but it also got her into trouble sometimes. And by extension, it got me in trouble, too. I knew the principal at her private Catholic school had his eye on both of us. I went to public school my entire life, and up until three years ago, so did Alice. But after our father died when Alice was just twelve, I had to step up and take over parenting. I became Alice’s legal guardian, and the stakes were raised by a million levels.
Suddenly, it became imperative for me to get my little sister into the best school I could possibly afford and make sure she stayed on track for a college scholarship. After all, there was no possible way I would ever be able to send her to university without financial aid. So, I figured it would be worth pouring thousands of dollars into her high school experience now in the hopes that a prestigious Catholic school record might give her a leg-up on college applications.
But the principal knew we weren’t the typical kind of family who paid for tuition at Saint Seraphina Preparatory Academy. All of Alice’s classmates came from wealthy backgrounds, with dynamic lawyer-doctor, contractor-designer parent combinations. They lived in three-story mansions and were driven to school by private chauffeurs in shiny BMWs and Mercedes. They carried designer bags and wore designer shoes with their neatly-pressed school uniforms. Alice, however, lived in a tiny two-bed, one-bath apartment with her physiotherapist older sister. She carried her books in a patched-up hand-me-down backpack and clunky combat boots she bought with her lunch money at a thrift store. She was dangerously smart and self-assured, but neither of those traits did much to help her blend in at Saint Seraphina.
Looking after her was a full-time job in itself, but I didn’t have the luxury of dedicating all my hours to watching out for her. Unfortunately, it was just the two of us. So I had to work.
I sighed, wincing at my reflection in the tiny overhead mirror. I would be lying to say I wasn’t attractive; I was pretty in a fresh-faced, doe-eyed kind of way that made me look even younger than I really was. But I couldn’t deny that I also looked absolutely exhausted. I was up until one in the morning helping Alice build a papier-mache and modeling clay replica of an ionic column. After shuttling her into bed, setting out her ironed plaid skirt, white shirt, and navy-blue blazer, putting her lunch money in an envelope, laying out my own gym clothes for this morning, prepping a salad to take to work, showering, and getting myself into bed-- it was close to 3 AM. And then I got up at five-thirty this morning to get here at six.
And it showed on my face. There were purplish half-moons under my eyes and my cheeks looked paler than usual, the smattering of freckles across my nose standing out against my ivory skin. My strawberry-blonde waves hung loose around my shoulders and I stepped out of my car to flip my head over and scoop my hair into a bouncy ponytail. A couple rebellious pieces still slipped free to frame my face. I heaved a deep breath, grabbed my gym bag, and headed for the back entrance to the gym. The name, THE FIGHTING CHANCE, glittered in massive gold lettering along the side of the building. I smiled to myself, feeling a wave of familiarity and fondness wash over me.
Sure, I never planned for my life to turn out this way, but I did love my job. When my father passed away, I decided to shelve my dreams of becoming an Olympic runner in order to take up a more stable lifestyle so I could take care of Alice here in Las Vegas. I had been on the fast track - excuse the pun - to success up until then, with a wall full of gold medals and a hefty college scholarship sustaining me. I was twenty-two, fresh out of college and headed to a summer training camp in California to foster my talent and further my career, when suddenly, I got the call that changed my life forever.
Our travel bus had stopped at a fill-up station when I checked my phone to see several missed calls from Alice. Confused, I had called her back immediately. In a parking lot near the California border, I crumpled to the pavement and burst into inconsolable tears. Alice hysterically explained to me that Dad had been involved in a terrible car accident. The driver of an eighteen-wheeler fell asleep at the wheel after two straight days of travel, careened into an intersection, and smashed my Dad’s old Lincoln town car into a concrete guard rail.
He was dead within minutes of arriving at the hospital, leaving Alice alone and panicked in the waiting room, suddenly an orphan.
So I had immediately cancelled my summer plans, putting my career on indefinite hold, and returned home to arrange the funeral and take over guardianship of my sister. Since then, it had been a back-and-forth struggle to become financially stable and keep Alice in line. For a while after Dad died, Alice just shut down, spending hours in bed just motionless and silent. Both of us got grief counselling. I couldn’t afford to lose Alice, too, so I did everything I could to draw her back out of her shell. I loved her so intensely and unconditionally, refusing to let her recoil from the world, until slowly but surely she returned to her former self. In fact, she even picked up a surprising new hobby: ice skating.
Now the two of us were the best of friends, and even though it was a struggle, we had settled into a kind of routine that worked for us. I was content to split my time between Alice and my work at Fighting Chance, the latter of which gave me a chance to still be involved in sports, even if I couldn’t be the star athlete I wanted to be. I still kept myself in great shape, though. I mean, how could I possibly gain the trust and respect of a client if I didn’t walk the walk?
Even though I was impossibly tired, I couldn’t let today be any different. So I held my head high and tried to perk myself up as I walked into the gym. My best friend and fellow physiotherapist, Trina Thompkins, came out of a side office and fell into step beside me. She gave me a welcoming smile and nudged my arm.
“You look a little tired, Gemma. You okay?” she asked, perpetually concerned about me. She was my closest confidante, besides Alice, and she knew how hard I worked. I was new to Fighting Chance, the youngest and least experienced of the therapy team, and Trina was a seasoned professional, several years older than me. She was tall and leanly muscled, with gorgeous cinnamon-brown skin, thick black braids that fell to her mid-back, and friendly eyes.
“Late night,” I replied, trying to wave her worries off with my hand. I had to prove myself tough and resilient enough to handle this job alongside my duties as Alice’s guardian. But I should have known by then not to worry about proving myself to Trina. She already knew what a hard worker I was. She was constantly trying to get me to take days off and relax a little.
“Alice?” she commented, raising an eyebrow.
I laughed weakly. “Yeah. As usual. Art history project.”
Trina shook her head sympathetically. She had two kids of her own, both young boys, so she understood just how much effort went into parenting. However, she was also lucky enough to have a doting, attentive husband who was an ex-fighter and a former Marine. He had struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder a year ago when he returned from Kuwait, but apart from that, he was a model husband and father. Dequan Thompkins was still somewhat of a legend around here, and every time he came in to work out or just to surprise Trina with a visit from him and their kids, at least one person came up to shake his hand. I loved the Thompkins and regarded them almost like extended family. Alice sometimes babysat the little boys, Jayden and Trey for pocket money when Trina and Dequan wanted a night out for themselves.
I hadn’t even been here at Fighting Chance very long, but I was already treated like a valued member of the family. And my boss, Danny Gilchrist, was a fantastic supervisor, always looking out for his employees and clients alike. Ever since he found out that Alice and I were on our own, I think he kind of subconsciously adopted us as his surrogate daughters. I certainly wasn’t going to complain about that. It was nice to have an older guy around who genuinely cared about me and my sister, without some shady ulterior motive.
Back when I first entered physiotherapy training a few months after my father’s death, I had the misfortune of getting involved briefly with an instructor at my technical school. While Danny saw me and my vulnerability and immediately wanted to shelter and protect me, the instructor at physiotherapy school saw me as an easy target. I was still somewhat in a state of shock from Dad’s passing a few months prior, and I was obviously pretty lost. I had no real idea of what to do with my life. I had no clue how I was going to support Alice and myself long term, as I was just working part-time at the front desk of a local gym at that point to make ends meet. That’s why I went into physiotherapy in the first place, someone at the gym where I worked tipped me off to a new course starting up, told me it might be a good way to kickstart a more reliable career. With nowhere to go and everything to lose, I signed up that same day.
The very next day I showed up for the course with no idea what was going to happen. I had always been in the position of athlete, not trainer. I was always the patient, not the medical professional. And the main instructor, Dr. Warren, seemed to take a liking to me from the first second I walked in the door. He was a former bodybuilder himself, still impossibly strong and muscular. He could have broken me in half or tossed me like a javelin with ease, even though he was pushing fifty by then. I was only twenty-two, slender and sleek from years of professional running, and I must have looked like a fresh daisy waiting to be plucked.
So he did.
Within the first week of the course, he asked me out to dinner several times until I finally gave in. I hadn’t been looking for a relationship, or even a fling. I was so numb and confused at that point in my life, the last thing I needed was a confusing, complicated entanglement with an older guy who also happened to be my teacher. The other students whispered and snickered, picking up on the obvious tension between Dr. Warren and me. The whole ordeal was incredibly uncomfortable, sometimes even humiliating. People accused me of making good marks purely because I was sleeping with the teacher.
But we only slept together once. And I didn’t even want to do it. Up until my father’s passing, I had been dead-set on making running my life’s ambition. As a result, I had never even been on more than a few innocent dates as a teenager. So when Dr. Warren swooped in on me, nearly thirty years my senior, I was unsuspecting and totally defenseless prey. Once the rumours about the two of us got to be unbearable, I finally broke things off for good and went to the head of the technical school. Needless to say, Dr. Warren was relocated to a different school. He continued to badger me for weeks, but after a month or so of silence from me, he finally gave up and let me go. Despite all of this, I managed to complete the course in record time, and with flying colors. I was dedicated to making physiotherapy work out for me-- it was my only chance at carving out a successful, comfortable life for Alice.
Now, I was terribly grateful for Danny Gilchrist’s authentic, innocuous tutelage, especially in comparison to the older male mentor I thought I’d found in Dr. Warren years before. Trina clucked her tongue at me, shaking her head.
“Girl, you have got to get some sleep. I don’t mean to be rude, but you look like you haven’t slept in days. Why don’t you and Alice come stay with us this weekend? Dequan can teach her how to fish, and you know the boys would love to see the both of you,” she offered sweetly. They had a lovely little house near a pond on the outskirts of town in a quiet suburb. Alice loved it out there, away from the neon lights and constant hubbub of the city.