Chapter One CHAPTER ONE There's a difference between expecting something and wanting something. That's why I always close my eyes when I'm swimming. I close them right after I turn my head and take my last breath. I don't need to see where I'm going. I just know. This gives me an edge over the other swimmers, the ones who reach uncertainly, desperate for their hands to make contact. My opponents search for an ending that I have already found. As soon as I touch the concrete side, I pop out of the water. My chest heaving, I hit the lap timer on my Apple Watch with a wrinkled fingertip. Not bad. But not great. I lift my goggles, breaking the tight suction around my eyes, and immediately get hit in the face with a tidal wave of overchlorinated pool water. "Incoming!" I rub away the water clouding my eyes and watch Harold in the lane next to mine close his final meters. A pale white pinball bumping off the lane dividers, he flings water up with his inefficient backstroke as if he were starring in his own aquatic ballet. Harold and I met at the beginning of last summer. I got my driver's license and my sister's old car, and I didn't have to wait anymore for Mom or Dad to wake up to drive me to the community pool. Harold and I both came to swim laps when the pool opened first thing in the morning. We bonded when Harold complimented my backstroke and mentioned how he can't stand the younger people who come to the pool just to sit on the benches or float on noodles and talk instead of swim. I told him that I, too, noticed that most people around my age don't actually swim at the community pool, which is why I started coming early. I'm glad that Harold--even without goggles and with his questionable technique--takes swimming as seriously as I do. Now that school and swim team have started, I can only come on weekends. Still, we manage to make the most of it. "I'm surprised you haven't cracked your head on the wall yet," I say, making both of us laugh. "Well, I'm sharper than you think," Harold says, still laughing. "You know you can borrow my goggles," I say for the second time today. I'm so conditioned to swimming in a straight line, it's like second nature to me. Harold, on the other hand, bounces around so much, I'm afraid he might bounce into me one of these days. I always look for his silver hair to figure out what direction he's going. "I don't need those silly things," he insists. "Would I be a good friend if I let you repeat whatever it was that just happened?" I add, gesturing to the water still thrashing back into place. "We're only friends on land," he says, tapping the side of his head to shake some water out of his ear. "In the water we're competitors." "Harold." "Rematch?" I raise my eyebrows, pretending to be surprised, even though we race almost every day. But I take the hint of competition--Harold's smack talk--as far as I can, and pretend that all of his misguided splashing is an opponent in a swim meet, coming up beside me. The hardest thing about summertime at the South Glenn Community Center is that there aren't meets. Up until a couple of weeks ago, Harold was my only taste of competition. Now he works to keep me on my toes so that I can still prepare for meets outside of swim practices. "There and back," Harold says, eagerly pointing to the other end of the pool. "Breaststroke. On the count of three. One. Two--" "Harold, just please wear my goggles. I--" He sucks in a huge breath. "Three!" I shake my head. Even when people have to double up in lanes for laps, no one swims in Harold's lane. I watch his silver hair bobbing up out of the water with each stroke. When he reaches the other end of the pool and starts swimming back, I reset my lap timer, pull my goggles down over my eyes, and streamline into the breaststroke. Even after practicing all summer, doing the most to get ahead before swim season started, it's still my weakest stroke. I should probably start going to the gym to strengthen my legs. I slip under the surface and savor the feeling of the water pulling at every hair on my skin. I envision the wall ahead of me, and let the water muffle every sound. I don't think about my day, everything that will begin once I step out of the pool. I don't think about my upcoming math competition or the history paper I still have to outline. I just focus on the water. Every stroke releases another ounce of tension. I pretend it's last year's championship meet. Except this time I win. I pass Harold making his way back down the lane, the water around him looking like a small-scale storm at sea, but I know I still have plenty of time. I focus on my form. Focus on pulling my body through the water, on my breathing. I reach the end of the lane, tap the wall, and streamline into the next lap. At the shallow end of the pool, there's a cloud of bubbles. I see a pair of legs beneath the water in Harold's lane, legs that lead to a daisy-print bikini bottom. Instead of kicking off into a stroke, the legs start running. I watch as Daisy Print shifts to the side and then back, and I realize she's trying to dodge Harold, who is blindly swimming right at her. Her legs buckle, and both of them appear under the water. I suck in a deep breath and push off again. I watch them as I close the space between me and the end of my lane. Daisy Print's hair floats around her like white smoke. Harold struggles to get his footing on the slick tile. He grabs the woman's arm, making her slip again. I push myself to the end of the lane, gasping for air when I finally surface. "Miss!" I hear Harold say. "Are you all right?" "I'm fine," she tells him. "See! I told you that you need goggles!" And to the lady I say, "Maybe you should go sit down?" "Here," Harold says, springing to action. He lifts the lady out of the water with surprising strength and then hoists himself out too, and escorts her over to a bench. I try not to focus on how this sixty-something-year-old woman looks amazing in her bikini and how sixty-something-year-old Harold just picked her up like it was nothing. "Are you okay, ma'am?" "I'm fine, dear, thank you." She smiles at me, but holds out her hand to Harold. "I'm Gladys." "Hello, Gladys. I'm sorry I bumped into you," Harold says, running his hands over his face to stop the water droplets from getting into his eyes. "?'Bumped' hardly describes what just happened," she says, but kindly, with a forgiving laugh. "Mia's right. I should get myself a pair of goggles. If I had some, I would have won." I roll my eyes. "Harold." "I was in the lead." "I was letting you win. Like always." "Actually, I made it to the end of the lane before you, so technically I did beat you," Harold replies. To Gladys, he says, "Mia is a star swimmer. She's here almost every morning swimming with me." "You're so... dedicated!" I would take it as a compliment if it didn't hit my ears so weirdly. "It's important to keep practicing," I explain. "If I swim throughout the year instead of only in season, I can always be improving rather than trying to get back to my season level." Gladys nods absently but leaves her eyes fixed on Harold. I notice the way her hair glistens under the fluorescent lights. "Please. No apologies necessary. And I'm glad you didn't have goggles on, or we wouldn't have bumped into each other." My watch vibrates, and I glance down to see it's already seven. Usually Harold and I take a couple of minutes to chat after our last race, but with Gladys sitting between us, I figure I'd waste more time trying to get his attention. I'll just have to share this season's meet schedule with him tomorrow. Harold sits down on the bench next to Gladys with his back to me, and I take my cue to sneak off to the locker room, especially since the air-conditioning is already chilling the water droplets on my skin. I quickly rinse off in the showers and let the water run through my hair. Once I'm dry, I keep my towel around my neck to catch the rivulets dripping from my bun. My stomach rumbles when I sit down to lace up my shoes. I'll definitely need a big breakfast after all those laps. I take a moment to check my Sunday to-do list. Unlocked, my phone is bright with a string of missed calls and message notifications. The only person who would harass me this early in the morning is my sister, Samantha. I open our family group chat. MOM: Peach, can you pick up bagels? SAM: Mia, where are you? SAM: WEDDING EMERGENCY!!! I stop scrolling to shove my towel and swimsuit into my gym bag. DAD: I would like a blueberry bagel. SAM: Mia, answer the phone. MOM: If you have time, there's some clothes at the dry cleaners. DAD: Make that a blueberry muffin SAM: MIA, PICK UP THE PHONE. Sam doesn't specify the emergency, which annoys me. The first couple of times she spammed about an "emergency," it was that the florist didn't have the specific-color tulip she requested for the wedding, or the event room at the bed-and-breakfast to host the reception wasn't big enough to fit all the guests, so her only option was the outdoor garden. Clearly not life-altering incidents that would require me to cut my swim practices short and rush home. So now Sam likes to keep it a secret until we are face-to-face and I have nowhere to hide. MOM: There's no need for all caps. SAM: It's an emergency. SAM: Mia, come home ASAP. I look up from my phone to watch where I'm going, and find Harold standing on the other side of the lobby. "Hey." I walk over to him. He doesn't notice me at first. He's focused on something behind me, but when I turn around to see what, there's nothing there. "Harold?" "Oh, Mia." He smiles, looking a little flustered. "Sorry. I didn't see you." "Are you okay? You didn't hit your head too hard, did you?" He laughs a little. "No, my head is just fine. Though, I think I will give those goggles a try." "Harry, there you are," Gladys calls as she emerges from the locker room. Harry? How do you go from nearly drowning a woman to "Harry" in less than ten minutes? She's wearing a pair of jeans and a light coat over an old Rick and Morty T-shirt. Her hair is soaking wet, dripping dark circles onto the fabric over her shoulders. "Are you ready?" she asks Harold, flashing me a quick smile. "Ready for what?" "We're going to get coffee." I didn't know Harold got coffee , let alone with random people he met five seconds ago. A few weeks after we met, I asked him if he had a family. We'd already had a routine discussion about Sam's wedding, and I was grateful that he didn't have a lot to say about it. Most people get excited and want to know every detail and talk about how lucky she is, but Harold said, That's nice. I wish her the best with that. And we moved on. So, when I extended the courtesy of asking about his family, he said that marriage was not in the cards for him. Romance just wasn't his thing . My phone dings in my pocket, and I glance down to see a new text in the group chat. SAM: Mia, this is important! Right. The impending doom of Sam's emergency . The bagels. The dry cleaning. I leave Harold and Gladys huddled together in the lobby of the community center and bolt out to my car. Excerpted from The Meet-Cute Project by Rhiannon Richardson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.