20. Raise The Bar
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"I'm gonna choke!" I spluttered.

"Mel, you're gonna be great!" said Drew.

"I'm not good at public speaking!" I said, "I don't even know what I'm meant to talk about!"

"It's easy!" Drew said, "You just go up there, you say thanks Michelle, thanks everyone for comin', see you at the Christmas party. You're done!"

"But what if I mess it up?" I said.

"Mel, no one's gonna be paying attention anyway! They'll all be fuckin' exhausted!" said Drew.

We were off in a side room at the conference center I had rented out for our work team-building exercise. Right now, Michelle Champion herself was up on stage, delivering the first part of her "Raise The Bar" seminar.

It was pretty standard corporate team-building rhetoric, but Michelle Champion, being a renowned fitness expert, had added a physical twist. The seminar approached corporate synergy through the metaphor of weightlifting.

I had watched the sample videos on her website. She had a squat rack set up on stage, and started off with a bare bar, which represented productivity. She would bring a volunteer up on stage to squat the bar, demonstrating how it was easy to keep productivity high without a bad corporate culture weighing you down. Then Michelle and her team of fitness model assistants would start loading up the bar with plates. These represented negative influences: miscommunication, low morale, disorganized workspaces, non-ergonomic office furniture. These negative influences weighed down the bar until it was impossible for even Michelle Champion herself to lift it. The team-building exercises that she was going to run us through over the next hour were supposed to help us take away those metaphorical heavy plates, so we could lift our productivity to new heights.

That was all fine. What was freaking me out right now was the revelation that after Michelle's seminar finished, there was a space in the schedule for the event organizer to deliver a quick speech to wrap things up. The event organizer being me, and my speech being... currently non-existent.

I was already super worried that something would go wrong, and this wasn't helping. When I woke up this morning, I was too nervous to eat breakfast, and I was grateful for that now. Thinking about speaking in front of everybody was making me sick, and the last thing I needed was to throw up on stage.

"Mel, you can do this," Drew said soothingly, "You're smart. Everyone here likes you. Just keep it simple, it'll be fine."

I winced. I definitely didn't feel smart. And, sure, everyone at the office did genuinely seem to like me enough. I mean, I was really surprised how many people had agreed to come to the event when I asked them. People really seemed to respect me more now that I was spending more time at the office, helping them out with stuff. But would they still respect me if I went up on stage and made an idiot out of myself?

Michelle Champion finished her introduction and the crowd broke up into their assigned groups, each group being lead by one of the Raise The Bar models, who also seemed to be qualified personal trainers.

I joined the group from my department and tried not to show how nervous I was. If the trainer needed someone to help demonstrate an activity, I would volunteer if the rest of my team were too shy. If anyone got stuck or was having trouble I tried to help out. I should have been enjoying myself. I liked working out, and it was kind of fun seeing my coworkers in such an unusual setting. All the people I saw from day to day wearing business attire were sweating and laughing in their workout gear, as we tried to flip over a truck tire that represented passive-aggressive emails. A few people even complimented me on how good I looked in my tank top and leggings, but I was too distracted to appreciate it. The whole time, I felt like I had tunnel vision.

Before I knew it, the hour was up, and I still felt sick. Even worse, the combination of skipping breakfast and intense exercise had me feeling super hungry and lightheaded. I still wasn't sure what I was gonna say. Just keep it simple. Maybe I should make a joke? But what if it didn't land? Michelle Champion was back on stage to deliver the closing part of her seminar. Two of the models helped her remove the plates, and she invited volunteers from the audience to lift the now empty bar. I watched anxiously as Linda from Marketing triumphantly lifted it on her shoulders. Drew suddenly snuck up beside me, as he often did. I jumped.

"This was fuckin' awesome," he said, "This has gotta be the most fun I've had at one of these bullshit things. You nailed it, Mel. Just go up there and say anything and it'll be fine."

I bit my nails, "You really think so?"

"Hell yeah," said Drew, "Plus, one of those trainers said I had a nice beard."

He grinned proudly. I smiled. Drew had been working on a five o'clock shadow for about three months now.

"It is a nice beard," I said, "Which trainer said that?"

"That guy up on stage," he pointed. I looked up and gasped. The model Drew was pointing at was a short, bulky man with a very thick, full beard of his own. I had been so panicked about my speech that I hadn't noticed any of the other trainers during the workshop, but I definitely recognized him now. It was Dilruk. That explained how he managed to get a selfie with Michelle Champion. But... my pulse quickened. If Dilruk was working here, could that possibly mean...

No. No, that was crazy, right? Adam hated putting his body on display. There was no way he would sign up for a job like this. Unless... I mean, it had been a year. Maybe he had gotten over his fears? Maybe he didn't care about strangers staring at him, because... he already had someone who cared about him for who he was.

I felt my eyes prickle. Fuck! I didn't need to be thinking about this right now!

"Drew," I said, trying to keep my voice steady, "I think I need to go for a walk or something."

"You okay?" he asked.

"Yeah, I just... I'm just gonna, just, think about my speech some more," I said, and quickly walked away.

Up onstage, Michelle Champion was putting the final twist into her already strained analogy. Now that my coworkers had demonstrated how easy it was to raise the bar without a negative corporate culture weighing them down, she was introducing a new challenge. The models were bringing out new plates, just ten pounds instead of twenty-five, and loading them onto the productivity bar. These plates represented goals we should be working towards: increased profits, streamlined workflow, healthy work-life balance. The stronger our corporate culture was, the easier these things would be to... pick up? Something like that. I hurried past the gathered crowd, nodding politely at various friendly coworkers, and darted into a little room behind the stage.

I leaned against the wall and took a deep, shaky breath. Fuck. The last thing I needed to think about right now was Adam. But I couldn't help it. Ever since my trans-niversary party he had been constantly on my mind.

I just missed him so much. I wanted to make breakfast with him, and teach him how to play video games, and cuddle him when he had a rough day. But it was never gonna happen. Sure, I was a girl now, and I had lost a bunch of weight, and I had gotten a promotion, but what was the point of any of that? My life had changed but I hadn't. I was still a whiny, selfish, insecure piece of shit. Even if he wanted me back, which he obviously never would, I would only ruin things again. And I still didn't know what I was gonna say for my fucking speech!

I started crying like an idiot in the back room of the conference center.

I heard a tentative voice from the other side of the room ask, "Are you okay?"

Fuck! I sobbed harder. Great, now I was fucking embarrassing myself in front of some stranger as well. I tried to wipe the tears from my eyes as best as I could and looked at where the voice was coming from. This room was clearly just meant to be a passageway behind the stage. It was a long, narrow hallway with a door at each end, and it was almost entirely filled with spare lights and speakers, and stacks upon stacks of metal chairs. In fact, the chairs took up so much space that there was only a tiny gap for people to squeeze through. I couldn't see the guy who had called out to me at all. The stacks of chairs and the weird acoustics muffled and distorted his voice, making it sound tinny and strange. At least the same thing was probably happening to my voice, although obviously he could still tell I was crying.

"I'm okay," I sobbed, "I'm just... just freaking out about going on stage. I'm sorry."

"I get it," the voice said soothingly, "I always get nervous at these things. Everyone staring at you."

"Yeah," I sniffled, "And... everyone always tells me that I'm, like, a good person, and I can do this, but it doesn't feel true. I feel like I've just tricked everyone into thinking they like me, and I'm gonna up there and fuck everything up and then everyone's gonna realize what a piece of shit I am."

The voice hesitated, then asked, "You're not one of the other models, are you?"

I cry laughed, "No. Definitely not. If you could see me you wouldn't ask."

"So what do you have to go up on stage for?" he asked.

"I'm the one who organized it," I said, "I'm meant to do this stupid speech."

"Hey, that's awesome," said the voice, "I think you did great. Everyone here seems like they had a really good time."

"Well that's not because of me!" I protested, "That's you guys! You put on the event I just fucking told people to come! I didn't do anything, I shouldn't get praise for that!"

"Okay," said the voice quickly, "Fair enough. But, just so you know, we do a lot of these events. And a lot of the time everybody shows up expecting to hate it, and then they usually do. But everyone here was really on board today, and I think that's because they trust the person who organized it."

There was a muffled cheer from outside, which must have been Michelle Champion lifting the now goal-laden bar upon her shoulders. That was the grand finale of all her seminars, which meant now she just had to lead the crowd through a cool-down, and then it was my turn to talk.

I sighed. Maybe this guy was right. Maybe I was just catastrophizing. Ashanti always told me that I was great at talking myself into hopelessness when I was actually totally capable and deserving of something. But it was so hard to snap out of it.

"Maybe," I said, "But I still feel like I"m gonna make an idiot of myself. I probably look like a mess right now."

"Oh, hey," said the voice, "There's a box of napkins back here. I could pass you some."

"Thank you," I sniffled.

I heard a rustling noise as the man behind the chairs got the napkins, then a bunch of clanking and grinding of metal on concrete as he began to make his way through the tiny space between the chairs and the wall. I giggle despite myself. Whoever this guy was, he must be huge. Makes sense, really, if he was one of Michelle Champion's fitness models. They all seemed to be nearly as ripped as her.

The guy made it almost all the way through the chairs, then stopped. I could see his shadow against the wall. He stretched his hand out from the metallic jungle, holding a stack of napkins.

"Here," he said, "I won't look at you until you've had a chance to, uh, get pretty."

I giggled, "Thanks. I'm gonna be so pretty."

I reached out to take the napkins, and then paused. Now that the guy was closer, his voice sounded clearer. And... familiar. I looked at his hand. Even the fingers were muscly.

"Adam?"

He was quiet for a couple seconds, then softly said, "I thought it might be you. Your voice sounds a little different."

"Oh, yeah," I blushed, "Um. I took lessons. And, you know, hormones and stuff..."

"Should I still call you..."

"Yeah. Melanie, technically. But Mel's fine."

"Hi, Mel," said Adam.

I took a deep breath, "Hi, Adam."

A pause, then, "Can I come out?"

I sighed and tried to wipe my face clean as best as I could. I straightened my shirt. I doubted it helped much but I had to at least try to look like I had one percent of my shit together,

I took another deep breath and said "Okay."

Adam squeezed himself out from behind the stacks of chairs. He was wearing the Raise The Bar uniform, a black polo shirt with the little emblem of Michelle Champion holding a barbell over her head emblazoned over his heart. The shirt was so tight it was almost cutting into his biceps, showing off every facet of his incredible body. He was still as clean-cut and handsome as always, with his square jaw and bright, gorgeous eyes. I felt more self-conscious than ever, huddled in the corner, fat and sweaty with puffy eyes and a blotchy face from crying. He looked a little worried, but he smiled when he saw me.

"It's nice to see you again," he said.

"I'm so sorry you had to deal with that just now," I said, "I swear I didn't even realize you worked for Michelle, I would have hired a different company, or--"

"It's okay," said Adam. He smiled sheepishly, "We actually get to choose which jobs we go out for. And I remembered that you used to work here, back when we still lived together. I was kind of hoping I would see you."

"Oh," I said. I wasn't sure what else I could say. He had wanted to see me. Oh.

"Congrats on the promotion," he grinned, "And congrats on... being yourself, right? You look amazing."

I shifted uncomfortably, "Ugh, you know, it's just... I keep trying to eat right and work out, and I'm taking hormones, and... you know, I'm, like, obviously not where I want to be right now, but, like, I'm just tryna hold it together--"

"You're beautiful," said Adam.

I blushed and stopped stammering. I knew he was probably just being nice, but it still made me feel warm and tingly all over.

"Thanks," I said, "You look really good too."

Adam shrugged ruefully, "Yeah. It's kinda my job now."

"Oh, right," I blushed, "Sorry. Um, well, Michelle better give you a raise, because you are definitely exceeding my expectations as a client."

Adam laughed, "Thanks. You too."

My cheeks burned and I looked away. There was no way he meant that. Sure, I looked... okay. I even thought I looked pretty sometimes. But at the end of the day I was still overweight, and... I could still see aspects of the boy I used to think I was. Adam must see it too. He probably just wanted to cheer me up before my speech, because he was... so fucking perfect. I realized I was blocking the door and quickly stepped aside so that Adam could leave. He didn't move. I glanced up at him and realized he was still looking at me, still smiling, but with a twinge of sadness in his eyes. I couldn't believe it had been a year since we had last spoken. Right now, in that shitty conference center back room, I felt like we were back in our old apartment, and all I had to do was reach out, and he would wrap me up in his arms, and we could be together again.

"Adam," I said shakily, "After this is over, would you... would you maybe want to go get a drink?"

Adam sighed, "Yeah. I really would."

My heart fluttered.

"Great," I said, "Um. Just... just as friends, or....?"

Adam looked at me seriously, "Is that what you want?"

Fuck. That wasn't fair. I didn't know what I wanted. I wanted to be with him, I knew that, but... not just as friends. But we couldn't be anything more, could we? That wouldn't be fair on him. But I wanted him so bad. But what if I fucked it up again? What if I fucked everything up and then he never wanted to talk to me again?

"I don't know," I said quietly.

"Mel..." Adam said, "If you want to be friends, I can do that. I really like you, and I want to see you again. But... I can't do it if you're gonna walk out on me again. I don't think I could handle that. If we do this, are you gonna stick around?"

I wanted to say yes, but I didn't know. I didn't know if I could do it, I didn't know if I even deserved the chance to be with him at all.

"I don't know," I whispered.

Adam leaned back against the wall and sighed deeply. He shook his head.

"That's okay," he said, "I should go and start packing up the equipment. I'll see you around, Mel."

I bit my lip and nodded, trying to hold back tears. Adam passed by me and paused at the door.

"I think you're gonna do great with the speech," he said, "Just be yourself and they'll love you."

I nodded shakily. Adam smiled and left.

I sank down to the floor, hugging my shoulders. Fuck. Fuck, fuck fuck. Well done, you stupid asshole. One year, one full year to work on yourself and you still weren't ready. You'll never be ready.

There was a knock on the door. I lifted my head.

"Hello?" I said.

The door burst open, it wasn't Adam. Instead, Michelle Champion stood before me, bronzed skin and luminescent white teeth gleaming. She was even more incredible in person than she was on tape or on instagram. She seemed to fill the room with energy. She pointed at me, and it felt like a bolt of electricity. I sat up straight. Michelle Champion was wearing skintight shorts and a crop top with a picture of herself on it, but somehow, incredibly, pulling off. She had a headset mic on, but it was pushed away from her mouth, and must have been switched off.

"There she is!" she exclaimed, "Woman of the hour! Time for your speech, baby, get up on stage and show em what you got!"

"Shit!" I gasped, "Oh shit. I'm so sorry, I'm not ready yet."

"Sure you are, girl!" said Michelle Champion, "Just speak from the heart!"

"I'm sorry," I babbled, "I've just never really had to talk in front of a crowd of people like this, I feel like I'm gonna fuck it up."

"Yeah!" Michelle Champion grinned, "Probably!"

My jaw dropped. I stared at her. She nodded confidently.

"You've never done it before, and you look like you're gonna throw up!" she said, "This could be a disaster!"

"I can't do this!" I said.

"You gotta!" said Michelle.

"But you just said I was gonna fuck it up!" I said.

"Yeah!" said Michelle, "That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it anyway! How often do you think I fail at something?"

"I don't know!" I sputtered, "Never? You're fucking Michelle Champion!"

Michelle Champion laughed, her abs rippling, "Babe, I fail every single day of my life! It's the only way to improve! You'll never push your limits if you don't even try to reach them!"

"But, but," I protested, "It shouldn't be me up there! It should be someone who's good at this stuff, someone who deserves to have people listening to them!"

Michelle Champion shook her head, "That's bullshit. Babe, if I want to hold a plank for thirty minutes, I don't get there by worrying about whether I deserve it. I get there by holding a plank for ten minutes, twenty minutes, ya know? I get there by failing over and over again, and sticking with it anyway, because it's what I want. You want to be good at your job, right?"

My mouth flapped helplessly, "Um, um... I guess?"

Michelle Champion pointed at me decisively, "If it's what you want, go after it. If you're not strong enough, get stronger as you go."

"But..." I tried to articulate a response, but pointing out how much of a fuck-up I was seemed pointless when Michelle Champion was already totally on board with that, "But... but..."

"Babe, whatever happens, it's gotta be better than spending the rest of your life sitting in here by yourself," Michelle said, almost softly. Then she clapped her hands and said, "Now! I've got shit to do this afternoon, and I can't do it until we wrap things up! So stop fucking around and bring this seminar home!"

Before I could say anything else, she grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me out the door and up onto the stage. She pulled her mic back into position, then reached down into her mic belt and flicked it back on.

"Alright!" Michelle announced as she pulled me onstage after her, "Let's get a round of applause for the woman who organized this whole event!"

Dimly, I heard the sound of people clapping. It was almost drowned out by the sound of my heart pounding in my ears, the squeak of my sneakers on the wooden stage, and my own shaking breath. I felt light-headed. Fuck. I really should have had breakfast. My eyes were fixated on Michelle Champion's hand clutching my wrist, then she let go and I felt like my lifeboat had come untethered from the dock. I raised my eyes to her, and she grinned and handed me a microphone that one of her models had passed her. I took it, trembling, and turned to face the crowd.

For the first I really took in the whole scope of the conference centre. It wasn't huge, just enough space for the sixty or so employees who had come to work out and get to know each other better. Michelle's team had set up floor mats so that the tiles wouldn't get scuffed by their equipment, or drenched in sweat by the people using it. At the back of the room, some of her models were packing up the equipment, carrying out weights and taking apart machines. Closer, in fact, almost oppressively close, was the large matted area that had been set up for the warm up and cool down. The crowd of my coworkers were there, sitting or standing on the mat, staring up at me expectantly. The applause had totally died down by now. Right at the front of the crowd was Drew, who was frantically gesturing at me to start talking.

"Thank--" I swallowed, but my mouth was still so dry. I tried again, "Thank you for coming, everyone, I... it means, uh, a lot. To... we're a team, and... Michelle, also, thanks. To you, for... the..."

I trailed off and glanced over at Michelle. She nodded encouragingly. I took a shaky breath and looked back at the audience. About half of them were still looking up at me. Half were glancing around the room, checking their watches, or whispering to one another. At the back of the room, Michelle's team were still packing away the equipment. I saw Adam, in a far corner, taking a break from disassembling a chin up bar, watching me struggle to speak.

At this point I had been completely silent for about ten seconds.

I was officially fucking it up.

Fuck it.

"This is scary," I said. A couple of my coworkers laughed, not cruelly. I went on, "I'm not good at public speaking. Um. Obviously." That got a few more chuckles, "I don't like being up in front of people. This whole situation is... very intimidating, to me."

At the front of the crowd, I saw Drew wince. But a couple people around him were nodding. I took a breath and powered on.

"But sometimes you have to do things you aren't ready for," I said, "That's the only way to improve. Thank you, Michelle, for that....little... lesson. Um. Yeah. That's the way to grow, um, as a person, and as a team. By stepping outside of your comfort zone."

"Absolutely," said Michelle Champion. Fuck. Yeah. Michelle Champion had my back. I kept going. My mouth didn't feel as dry.

"And, and I am so proud and grateful to all of you," I said, "For stepping outside of your comfort zone, and volunteering your time -- although you will receive paid overtime for this, don't worry, I made sure of that -- but, yeah, for agreeing to do this, for trusting me, and I hope that you enjoyed it, I hope that it brought you all closer together, and I hope, actually, I know, that we will be an even stronger and better team moving forward. And thank you all!"

I lowered my microphone and smiled. The crowd of coworkers began to applaud. Drew whooped and cheered from the front. I did it! I got through it! Michelle Champion was right, I fucked up at first, but I got stronger as I went!

I raised my microphone again, "And thank you to Michelle Champion and her amazing team!"

The crowd picked up the applause. I turned to Michelle Champion and grinned and stuck out my hand. She shook it, very firmly, then turned to the audience and gestured towards her models. I felt flushed with success. Fuck! This felt good! I felt the same rush of dopamine that I got from a good workout. I looked across the room and saw Adam, smiling at me from the corner, and before I knew it I stepped forward and raised my microphone to my mouth again.

"And I have one more thing I need to say," I said. The applause died down, and suddenly I felt my heart pounding again. I ignored it and pushed forwards, "I have always personally had trouble leaving my comfort zone. But about a year and a half ago, I met this incredible person, who taught me that I could be stronger and better than I thought I was."

I looked at Adam. The smile had left his face, replaced by an expression that I couldn't quite read. The microphone was starting to feel really sweaty. I switched it to my other hand and kept going.

"At first, I didn't know exactly what was going on," I said, "And I think I was just so scared of losing what I had, that I tried to convince myself that I didn't even want it in the first place. But... I do. I do want it. And I don't know if it's gonna work out. I don't know if I'm good enough. And I'm scared. I'm really scared. But I'm ready to try."

There was silence from the audience. I was sure that nobody had any idea what the fuck I was talking about right now. Except maybe Drew. And Adam. I kept looking at Adam, and he stared back at me with that same frozen expression on his face.

"Adam?" I said, "I'm ready to try."

When I said Adam's name, I heard a shuffling noise, which I quickly realised was every single one of my coworkers turning around to see who I was talking to. Shit. That was probably the last thing he wanted. I had fucked up, again, but it was too late now to worry about that. I saw Adam glance at the sea of staring people, then quickly look away. He crossed his arms over his chest, like he was covering himself up. He looked back at me, and I could see the conflict on his face, like maybe he wanted to say okay, let's try, but he was too afraid of getting hurt again.

I gripped the microphone tightly and waited for him to speak.

"Prove it," Adam said firmly.

His voice echoed across the silent room.

Fuck. Of course, yeah, I couldn't just say I wanted him back and expect him to come running. But... how could I prove that I wasn't going to leave again? How could I prove that I was really ready to try?

I glanced at Michelle Champion. She looked a little wary. Clearly nobody had taken her advice to heart in such a dramatic way before. Behind her, I could see the squat rack was still set up. The bar was laden heavily with those ten pound plates -- quarterly growth, mutual respect, clean shared kitchen spaces. I felt a little dizzy, and couldn't quite focus enough to make out exactly how many there were. But it had to be at least sixty pounds.

I dropped the microphone, strode over and got in position underneath the bar.

"Oh, shit!" Adam called out, "Never mind! It's okay! I believe you!"

"No!" I yelled back, "I can do this! I'm not afraid!"

I wrapped my fingers around the bar. Oh, fuck. I wasn't even lifting yet and it felt heavy. I heard voices from the audience, people muttering to each other, trying to figure out what was going on.

Michelle Champion clapped her hands, instantly regaining control of the crowd.

"Okay!" said Michelle Champion. "There's clearly a lot going on here! But I'm on board! Dil, give her a spot, please!"

Dilruk quickly shuffled into position behind me.

"I don't know what's going on right now," he muttered, "But you better not be fucking with my boy Adam."

"I'm not," I whispered.

"Alright," said Dilruk, "Turn your feet out more. Rest the bar on your back, don't try to hold it up with your hands. You ready?"

I did what he said, still staring out at the audience. Adam had left the chin up bar partially disassembled, and was pushing his way through the crowd.

"Yeah," I muttered.

"Alright," said Dilruk, "Straighten your legs and take a couple steps back."

I took a deep breath and straightened my knees, lifting the bar up and out of the rack. I still felt light-headed, but I realized that despite all the extra weight, the bar wasn't actually that heavy. Had I really gotten that much stronger since I had tried this with Adam? Or had I just been freaking out for no reason?

Adam had almost made it to the stage. The crowd was watching me, rapt in attention.

"Alright," said Dilruk, "You got this. Hips back, knees out. Keep your lower back neutral."

I took another deep breath and exhaled slowly as I went down. I could do this. It wasn't that heavy. I was strong. I lowered myself slowly down, until my hips were lower than my knees. Maybe I hadn't done this with weight before, but god damn it, Michelle Champion had taught me how to do a squat.

"That's good," said Dilruk, "Now straight up. Keep your knees out."

I steadied myself, and looked Adam dead in the eyes. He was right at the front of the crowd now, alongside Drew, who was eyeing him suspiciously. I gritted my teeth and pushed.

The bar wasn't slipping. My knees weren't shaking. I kept my chest up, and my head forward, and lifted the bar until I was standing straight again.

The crowd erupted with applause. Drew whooped and punched the air. I looked at Adam. He was smiling with relief, and joy, and pride.

"Give it up for Mel!" shouted Michelle Champion, "I'm still a bit out of the loop! But I'm pretty sure she's in love with one of my trainers!"

"Sick one," said Dilruk, who despite the uproar was still focused on the weight on my shoulders, ready to catch me if I started having trouble, "Just step forward and--"

"I'm going for five," I yelled. The crowd cheered. Dilruk couldn't see but I was grinning wildly. Fuck yes. I was gonna make Adam so fucking proud. I felt giddy. Almost delirious.

"Are you sure?" said Dilruk.

"Never been more sure of anything in my fucking life," I said.

"Okay," said Dilruk, "Just--"

I was already heading down. I hit the bottom of my squat and powered back up to the top with barely the slightest pause. The crowd called out with Michelle Champion as I reached my peak.

"Two!"

I sank down again, then boosted myself back up.

"Three!"

I went down one more time, and then stopped. Shit. Okay. I was breathing heavy now. I pushed hard, and raised myself back up. My legs were shaking. Okay. Okay, I had this! Fuck, I really was feeling light-headed now. My vision was starting to blur again, but I could still see the vague shape of Adam watching. Do it for him.

"Four!"

"Steady," warned Dilruk.

"Got this," I mumbled, shaking my head to jerk the sweat out of my eyes.

"Alright," he muttered.

I tried to take a deep breath, but I couldn't quite get my lungs to cooperate. I huffed down a few shallow ones, then started to lower myself. Fuck. It was hard, now. My legs wanted to just drop, but I knew that was a non-starter. I gritted my teeth and carefully squatted down until my thighs were parallel with the floor.

"Keep going," said Dilruk.

I nodded grimly and sank down the last few inches, into a proper squat position. I summoned all my strength. Come on, Mel. I panted for a few seconds, and then pushed. Immediately, I could feel my legs shaking, aching, burning with pain. I started to lean to the left, but tensed my core as hard as I could and pulled myself straight.

"Come on!" yelled Dilruk, "You got this!"

I could feel how close he was to me, ready to grab me if I started to give out. No fucking way. My blood was rushing through my ears. I felt faint, almost like I was drifting away from my body. No! I had this! I had this! I pushed hard and stood up straight, and tall, and triumphant!

"Aagh!" I grunted, incredibly unattractively, but it was drowned out by the crowd yelling "FIVE!"

"Yes, dude!" said Dilruk, "Now step forward and rack it up."

I staggered forward and Dilruk helped me lower the bar back into the squat rack. I felt as if an immense weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and it wasn't just because of the immense weight that had been lifted off my shoulders. Adam. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and saw him, standing there, gazing up at me. I took a step towards him, and then paused.

Oh shit. Now that the weight was gone, I could feel all the blood that had been coursing through my muscles rushing straight to my head. Or from my head. Or...

Michelle Champion was saying something to the crowd, but I couldn't hear it. Dilruk stepped out from the squat rack and reached out for me, but it was too late. I felt my body lurch, and I took another step forward, then another, and then stumbled, helplessly, right off the edge of the stage.

The last thing I saw before I blacked out was Adam lunging forward to catch me.

what happens next?
  • Mel hits the ground and dies instantly Votes: 8 19.5%
  • Mel hits her head and loses her memory, when she wakes up she thinks she's a straight guy again Votes: 1 2.4%
  • Adam catches her Votes: 24 58.5%
  • Adam catches her but the impact makes him fall over backwards. He hits the ground and dies instantly Votes: 8 19.5%
Total voters: 41
18