Time to change the tune from stories of conflict to stories of love. Here are some scenes from END OF THE RACE that give a picture of Annika’s and Brian’s childhood bond.
Brian, Age 10
Brian braked his bike. Ahead, where the creek alongside the path drifted into a pond, a girl in a red swimsuit was hopping in and out of the water, dodging around a pair of boulders. “What are you doing?”
She jumped and turned. “Catching tadpoles.” She wiped a hand across her brow, leaving a smear.
He recognized her now, her wide-set blue eyes, the halo of frizzy red hair. “You’re Eddy’s sister.” Younger than he was by a couple of years. Eight, maybe. He’d seen her in the playground after school, flying off the monkeybars, practically doing handsprings. Not like a girl. He’d been going to talk to her, but then he saw Eddy Berglund calling for her and backed off. He had to catch the bus, anyway.
But he’d kept watching her, the way she moved—like on springs. He leaned his bike against a tree and headed down the slope. “You’ll never catch them that way.”
“Got two, already.” She picked up a jar and thrust it at him. “You a friend of Eddy’s?”
“My brother is.” Which wasn’t exactly true, though he’d seen Jon with him a couple of times, in spite of Dad’s warning. “I’m Brian.” He studied the jar. “That’s pretty good. Want some help?”
She blinked, then raised her shoulders and let them drop. “I guess.” She gazed around at the pond, the woods, the creek, as though looking for an answer, then pointed to the boulders. “You chase them around to me.”
He shook his head and laughed. “Never heard of getting them that way, but okay. Here goes.”
Fifteen minutes later, soaked to his knees, Brian gave a huff and climbed the bank. “Aren’t you numb? That water’s like ice.”
She shrugged. “Some. I don’t mind.” She joined him and studied the jar where a half dozen tadpoles dodged about. “That’s enough.”
“Enough for what? What’re you …”
“Annieee …!” A faint voice from the beach beyond the hill interrupted him.
“Gotta go.” She jumped up and looked around.
“Yep.” She peered around into the rushes. “Do you see my flip-flops?”
He spied them under a bush and handed them to her as the call came again. “You’d better scat. He sounds upset.” He watched her slide into the sandals. “Where’re you supposed to be?”
“At the beach is all.” She picked up the jar, then looked up and grinned at him. “Bye. That was fun with two.” She turned and splashed across the creek and up the hill.
“See you at the beach!” he cried after her.
She waved, crested the hill and was gone.
Brian retrieved his bike and followed her until the sand sucked his tires, then, tossing the bike aside, climbed to the top of the hill and gazed down at Lake Fontenac’s public beach. He only came here once in a while, looking for his town friends. The Wolfsons had their own beach, so there was no reason to. Sometimes in the afternoons, they followed the sun over to the Lake Michigan beach, but not in June. Lake Michigan was too cold still, and except for one or two hardy kids up to their knees in the water, most of the people below weren’t swimming in Fontenac yet either. He spied her—Annie—at the far end, holding her jar up to Eddy. Brian frowned. Was she always attached to him? He didn’t mess with the older Berglunds, though he wasn’t sure why except Dad didn’t care for them. He didn’t see anything wrong with Annie.
As he watched, she set the jar down on a blanket, turned and ran for the water. In three seconds she was under and in another three emerged, shooting to her feet with a yell of glee. Then she swam a circle before running for shore. Brian gave a belly laugh, echoing her delight. That’s exactly what he did, exalted in defying the cold. Now she was shaking water on Eddy, who’d spread out on a towel. He gave a howl and pulled her down, tickling her.
After watching for a few more moments, Brian turned back down the path, collected his bike and headed toward home. The June sun was gathering heat as he emerged from the woods into the abandoned orchard behind the old stone house. There he spread his arms and legs, whooping as he let his bike run free down the final hill.
Annika, Age 8
“There’s gold on Bear Island!”[Brian yelled]. “ I read about it in history class—an old shipwreck …”
“Really?” Annika sat down on the sand where they’d beached the boat and looked out across the water to the distant island.
“Let’s go find it! The Shirley Ann will take us.” He nudged the little boat they’d found abandoned on the beach. They’d spent half the summer repairing and painting, patching her sails, making up stories about this battered lady who’d been cast adrift by some faithless lover.
“That’s too far, Brian. It’s Lake Michigan. You’re not allowed to come even this far.”
“Nuts! We just came through the channel, that’s all. Come on!” He gave the bow of the boat a shove, backing it into the water. “Want me to go alone?”
“No!” She jumped up and headed for the boat. “She’s mine, too, so I get half the say.” She splashed into the water and climbed in the stern.
“Sure.” Brian vaulted in as the boat went afloat. “You get half the gold, too!” The summer breeze gave the boat a gentle puff, sending her out across the water. “You want to take her for a bit?” he asked.
“Me?” She eyed at the tiller. “Okay.” She giggled as they switched places, making the Shirley Ann wallow into the wind. Once seated, she took the rudder in hand, pushing the boat into a tack. The sails filled. She’d never thought she’d be able to sail, much less have a boat. But she was good at it, for a novice. Brian said so. She nudged the Shirley Ann closer to the wind and laughed as the boat heeled and gathered speed.
Brian waved at a passing boat.
Annika pulled the mainsail in further. “Coming about!” She swung the tiller.
Brian ducked and shifted sides as the boat passed through the wind “Atta girl!”
Annika grinned as she settled the boat on the new tack. The breeze stiffened a bit as they went, and she let the sail out to ease the heel.
“Better let me take her, now,” Brian called, shifting toward her along the gunwale. “We’re gonna hit big water soon.”
Reluctantly, she moved forward, relinquishing the mainsheet and rudder to him. “That was fun.”
“Yeah, and pretty soon it’ll get better.” Brian watched the telltales.
The boat gave a sudden thud and slowed at an onslaught of wind and water. “Oh!” she cried, clenching the jib sheet.
“Big water.” Brian settled himself to resist the much heavier pull on the mainsail. “We’ve left the shelter of shore,” he explained. “Now the fun starts. Let’s see what this old lady will do!”
Annika turned her attention to the flapping jib and concentrated on slowing her gasping breath, calming her rapid heartbeat. Have fun, she ordered herself.
The glare of sun on water vanished like a light turned out. Clouds. Where had they come from? The wind came in gusts, almost jerking the rudder out of Brian’s hands. The water pounded the boat. The island didn’t get closer.
She stared fixedly at Brian as her mind raced with warnings they’d both grown up with of sudden storms on Lake Michigan. A gust yanked the rudder free.
She slid from the gunwale and felt the boom graze her head as the Shirley swung wildly and icy water washed over her.
“You okay?” Brian yelled. “Hold on!”
She grabbed the gunwale and looked up at the sail, its homemade patches coming loose in the wind.
Brian reached past her and released the mainsheet from its cleat. The sail fell in a sodden heap. “Lower the jib!” he cried.
She reached up and unwound the jib sheet.
Released from the wind, the Shirley Ann righted for a moment, then began to pitch as the waves had their way with her. Annika gripped the gunwales. They had no life jackets. No one knew they were out here. They sank into the middle of the boat and held onto each other.
Brian, Age 26
“Let’s go!” He raised his hand for a high five as she came out of the locker room.
Annie laughed, returning the greeting then gazing around at the USA Swim flags. “It isn’t real, is it? Just some magical dream …”
For four years they’d done it, apart and together, surviving the weeks between, living for weekends when he joined her in Ann Arbor. He’d survived his terror when she went off on field trips with her environment class, insisting she did better if she had a break. No one knew that those breaks sent him reeling toward the void. He joined the sailing club, made the team and sailed, then sailed some more, happy enough to avoid the two creeps he’d met at Cottage Inn. He never felt his feet hit firm ground, though until she returned. “It’s real.” He reached over and gave her a pinch.
“Ouch!” Annika gave him a slap.
“Every day, week, year of it. And now you’re here.” He waved his arm at the crowded stands, then stood letting echoing din of voices swell his chest.
The loudspeaker came alive, calling the 500 Freestyle to the pool.
He threw his arms around her and kissed her. Right on the mouth. He’d never done that before, and it surprised him as much as her. “You’re off!”
Mouth agape, she started to say something, gave a laugh instead, then turned and fled toward her lane.
He stood grinning at himself until the call to the marks, then came to and trotted to the benches behind the start line, arriving with the gun. His head moved with her body, his own muscles stretched as she stretched for the water, rocked with her rhythm, turned and stretched again. A beatific calm descended as he watched, reliving the feel of her lips on his, knowing exactly when she would pull ahead of the group, when that liquid stroke would speed up as others tired. One glance at the clock brought him to his feet, cheering, feeling Joe’s hand clapping his shoulder from behind, turning his face to the stands to see his mother and Stephanie on their feet, yelling as Annika’s fingers hit the wall. A record. Not just a personal record. A national record.
“You did it! You did it!” He cried running forward as the last swimmer reached the wall.
She gasped, then croaked a laugh as the times went up on the board, then reached across to receive the congratulations of the swimmer in the next lane.
When she heaved herself out of the pool, he was there, putting her towel around her shoulders, taking in her smell.
She spun around and threw her arms around him, laughing. “We did it!” And kissed him squarely on the mouth again, right there with their families watching.
END OF THE RACE is a love story. Love of the water, love of the race, and love of each other are inextricably fused and carry the pair over boundaries that inhibit most.