Young hands, scarred and calloused from years of training kept a white-knuckled grip on a phone. Twitter was open, the feed filled with the quickly unfolding news.
The newest headline “Molly Nielson first gymnast to report abuse by team doctor to USA Gymnastics” followed by “Five weeks since Nielson statement, FBI launches investigation” and “Over a year after investigation, doctor put on trial”
New stories continued appearing. Gymnasts, dancers, swimmers, softball players, more and more women speaking up.
“How do they do it?” Leah whispered. She shook her head. It didn’t matter who spoke out; nothing was going to change. As she put down her phone, disturbed to see the popsocket imprinted on her palm, a picture on her dresser caught her eye. In it, a five-year-old Leah, wearing a black and pink bedazzled leotard stood with her arms back and her chest up, grinning like she had just finished a flawless routine at the FIG World Cup. Leah heard a voice next to her.
“I did my first back walkover in a competition!”
Standing beside Leah was the girl in the picture. She had sequins next to her eyes, and was grinning from ear to ear.
“I can’t wait to compete again! Maybe I’ll be able to do a back handspring soon,” the little ghost said to no one. She started spinning in a circle, singing tunelessly to herself.
“I love gymnastics. Gymnastics is the best and I love doing gymnastics cuz I’m the best and doing back walkovers and a front roll cuz gymnastics is great.”
Leah’s eyes misted, but she wiped them away before any tears could fall. She left the five-year old to her singing and spinning and picked up her phone. It had buzzed again, notifying Leah of six new tweets, all detailing the charges being brought against doctor Barry Vassar. Leah threw her phone on her bed; the words were making her dizzy.
Above her bed she saw her first trophy–first place at the Massachusetts All-State 10 and Under Girls Gymnastics Competition. Leah felt a presence behind her. She turned to see a nine-year-old Leah dressed in a fiery red and orange leotard, her dark hair pulled into a severe bun. The girl held a ghost version of the trophy that was as equally as translucent as her.
“This was too easy. I want to go bigger. I can handle it.”
Determined to push Dr Vassar out of her mind, Leah opened up her closet to get dressed. On the shelf on top she saw the stuffed bear her mom had given her after she fell off the balance beam attempting a front aerial. The purple bear had a tiny sling and a little pink sign that said Get well soon.
In front of Leah, a twelve-year-old ghost with her arm in a sling held the little bear. She rocked the toy in her arms, crooning to it.
“Don’t worry. We’re going to get better. I met a doctor. He’s really nice. He likes to tell me how pretty I am. He said we were friends. Isn’t that great?”
The girl smiled and continued rocking the bear. Leah slammed the closet doors, shutting the bear and the twelve-year-old girl inside. Today everything reminded her of him. Of his cold, gloveless hands on her shoulders, her thighs, her–. She fell backwards onto her bed and squeezed her eyes shut.
“It’s over,” she whispered. “I’m gone. He can’t touch me anymore.”
She heard a soft whine and slowly opened her eyes. Standing next to her bed was 15-year-old Leah, dressed in her red, white, and blue leotard, about to perform her floor routine at the Junior Olympics. The translucent girl kept shifting her weight from side to side, crossing and uncrossing her legs. She bit her lip and whimpered.
“I’m fine,” she said to the empty air. “I’m just a little…sore. Maybe I pulled something while I was practicing yesterday. I guess I didn’t stretch enough.” She laughed nervously.
Leah watched the one-sided conversation with horror. She remembered this exchange with her coach vividly. Dr Vassar had “examined” her the day before. She’d gone in complaining of a minor shoulder ache and instead of her usual treatment, she’d experienced a pain so violating and vile it left her limping.
“No no,” the apparition continued. “I don’t need to see Dr Vassar. I’ll be fine. See?”
She launched into a back handspring and landed with a wobble and a small gasp of pain.
“I told you, coach, totally fine.”
Leah felt sick. She’d had an opportunity to speak up and she didn’t.
“Why didn’t I say something?” she thought aloud.
“Because it would have ruined you,” said a cold voice. “Because no one would have believed you.”
Leah stood up and searched the room, trying to find the source of the voice.
“Because he had been the team’s trusted doctor for 20 years, and who were you? Some half-rate gymnast who would never amount to more than 7th place at Juniors?”
“Who are you?” Leah yelled.
A figure dressed in a black sequined leotard stepped out from behind the door. Unlike the other figments, who were translucent, this one has substance. She appeared as opaque and real as Leah herself. Leah gasped. Before her was 18-year-old Leah, dressed as she was at her final competition.
“It’s your fault,” the young woman said, taking a slow step towards Leah. “You should have said something.”
“You know I couldn’t. You said so yourself,” Leah said, scrambling backwards.
“You could,” the girl hissed. “You could but you didn’t because you were too worried about what would happen to you.”
“And now, because of you, that man was able to continue to sexually abuse little girls. This could have ended five years ago, but you didn’t want to give up your scholarship to UCLA.”
“That’s not true. It’s because–.”
“Save your lies for someone else.”
Leah continued her retreat as the girl stalked forward. The backs of Leah’s thighs hit the edge of her bed and she tumbled backwards. As her head hit the mattress, her phone received another notification. Doctor Barry Vassar to face 40 to 175 years in prison.
Leah began to weep. It was joy, relief, exhaustion. She didn’t understand how she felt, but it was as if a dark, slimy weight had been lifted from her. Her room, which had been bustling with ghostly girls and young voices went silent. All the girls faded away until Leah was left with only her 18-year-old self, who merely nodded, bent into a back handspring, and was gone before her feet hit the floor.