By: Gabriel Arnold
Chapter 12 â€“ RISE
Rusty sat on his bedroom windowsill, methodically lacing his sneakers. With careful attention to length and distance, he threaded the semi-elastic fibers through the eyelets, stopping every now and again to glance outside. The steely gray of predawn was refusing to burn off like normal. It was going to be a cold, cloudy day today. Figures, Rusty thought to himself, the competition would start on a day like this.
Finishing the prep work on his barely worn Libertas shoes, he double checked the customizable heel cup and toe box suspension before carefully placing them inside his duffel bag. On top of them he layered the bare essentials heâ€™d need for the day - a change of clothes, some energy bars and water, his competition pass and SEED music system. Dropping the readied bag at his feet, Rusty stood up and paced the thin expanse of his room, following the single faint line cast by his desktop lamp. He glanced quickly out at the chill morning again and again.
It was January 1st, the first day of the Pro/Am, and he hadnâ€™t slept at all, though not because of New Year partying. He was nervous, no, scared. This was it; he had passed the point of no return. Over six months of blood and sweat and a whole lot of tears had brought him to this moment. Rusty tried to tell himself to relax, that in the grand scheme of things, this competition barely mattered. He was in the "Boys 18 and Under Amateur" division after all, hardly the cream of the crop. The really good guys his age would have already gone pro and be in the next level up. And with the expected appearance of Andre Levy, the reigning world champion, he certainly wouldnâ€™t be the center of attention, right?
Still, he felt uneasy about the future. The commercials and ads featuring him had been growing steadily bolder. Expectations would be ungodly high. And there was something else, more than jitters. Something just feltâ€¦off. The fact he had chickened out and not spoken to his mother didnâ€™t help. Rusty had hoped to try and explain himself, to detail the reasons why he had to do this, but to no avail. Several days went by since confronting Owen and he kept the secret and the lie going. Now it was too late. Lee would be by soon to pick him up and drive him to the competition grounds. Rusty had prepared the way the night before by hiding a climbing rope in his room so he could slide out the window in the morning, unseen. He checked his watch and paced again â€“ half an hour to go.
But as Rusty made his fifteenth pass near his door he thought he heard voices outside, down the stairs in the living room. Knowing that his mother should have been asleep in bed, he leaned close and placed his ear against the wood, listening carefully. It was voices, familiar voices, but they sounded strange. It took Rusty a moment to figure out that they were electronic, probably from a video. His mom must have left the television on by accident. Turning away, Rusty was about to triple check his sneakers when a phrase from the voices stopped him short.
â€œOh nice, a red hair joke, original. Okay, um, where to startâ€¦â€
That was his fatherâ€™s voice, the same phrase he had said at one point in the â€˜JK Speaksâ€™ video. How the hell was that playing?
Suddenly switching from nervous to utterly confused, Rusty eased opened his bedroom door and stepped out, barefoot, into the hallway. Scanning through the dim light of the house, he decided the coast was clear and crept to the staircase, moving slower than a turtle so as not to make a sound. Reaching the stairs, he bent down and leaned forward, stretching out into a cat crawl. He went down the steps, going hands first with practiced form. With his weight evenly distributed he made barely a whisper as he descended downstairs.
He hit the last step and brought his legs back under his body, standing up and slinking his way around the corner. He felt stupid for sneaking around in his own house but he couldnâ€™t alert his mother that he awake. The living room was directly ahead and by this point the video was nearing the end. He could hear his fatherâ€™s sarcastic edge as he said â€œThank you Owen. Youâ€™re as eloquent as ever.â€ Rusty tiptoed into the room and saw the video, just as he had dreaded, playing on the projection screen. But to his continued horror he also saw someone sitting on the couch, watching it.
The video had just reached the section where the woman holding the camera was reaching forward trying to pry Owen and JK apart while saying â€œThis was just getting good, it was just what the networks wantedâ€¦!â€ In a flash of understanding Rusty realized the truth. The final piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.
Relaxing his tensed shoulders and clenched fists, Rusty let out the breath heâ€™d been holding since the stairs and said â€œIt was you behind the camera, wasnâ€™t it Mom?â€
Rustyâ€™s mother never moved from her position on the couch. All he could see was the back of her head and her fiery hair, piled up in a heap behind her. In a hoarse voice she said â€œHe was only twenty-two when we filmed this. I was twenty.â€ Taking a deep breath, one that Rusty could hear was choked from crying, she added â€œGod, we were so young.â€
Rusty stepped away from the hall and into the room, walking slowly till he was just behind the couch. He watched as the video finished up and his fatherâ€™s face appeared in the frame, sideways and smiling, just before he turned the camera off. He heard his mother click the remote and freeze the video on his fatherâ€™s grinning image. There was a brutally silent pause as the Klein family, gathered in the darkness of the living room, was reunited for the first time in nearly a decade.
It was his mother who finally broke the quiet. â€œWe shot this for the TV networks. We had hoped they might use it for the nationals, a little pregame clip or something. They sent it back to us. James wasnâ€™t a big enough star yet they said.â€ She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.
Rusty came around the side and took a seat away from his mother, on the opposite corner of the couch. â€œHow did it end up online?â€
â€œThat was your fatherâ€™s idea. He liked it and figured someone, somewhere, would want to watch it too.â€
There was another silent pause, longer than the first. Rusty was the first one to speak this time. â€œHow long have you known I was still training?â€
â€œEver since you lied and said you were going to the computer store a few weeks ago.â€
Rusty dropped his head and fought the urge to chuckle. â€œI was never good at lying, was I?â€
His mother sighed and said â€œNope. Neither was your father.â€
Rusty stammered for a reply, unable to talk. This was his chance, heâ€™d practiced his speech so many times in his head. Why was he stuttering now? â€œMom, Iâ€¦uh, Iâ€™mâ€¦â€
â€œYouâ€™re going to the Pro/Am to compete. I know. Iâ€™ve been trying to stop you, for years now, but I knew it would end up like this. Movementâ€¦is part of who you are. Itâ€™s in your blood. Like it was in Jamesâ€™. Like it was in mine.â€
Rusty looked up at his mother in wonder. She wasnâ€™t a heavy woman but she was stocky for her height, definitely not like Kirraâ€™s slim frame. He could never remember her being anything like that. â€œYou? You were a traceuse?â€
She chuckled lightly under her breath and said â€œYes, sort of. Itâ€™s been awhile and I was never very good. I just liked to play. Thatâ€™s how I met your father, at a jam downtown.â€
She leaned her head back and stared at the dark ceiling, recollecting her memories just like Owen had done. â€œI was nineteen and in college at the time. He was twenty-one and working at the local gym. I donâ€™t know how it happened, maybe we were both liked red hair, I donâ€™t know. But we started talking. Talking turned into dinner. Dinner into late nights and, well, you knowâ€¦â€
Looking back at the screen, she continued on. â€œWhen we filmed this, I was five months pregnant with you. It was a real pain getting to Notre Endroit like that but I insisted. It was the only place James felt comfortable enough on camera to speak his mind.â€
Rustyâ€™s mother paused for a moment, licking her dry lips as she prepared to speak. â€œRus, your father was a poor man. He was orphaned and never knew his parents. He never went to college and barely finished high school. He was living on the outskirts of the Ironside Projects and working two dismal jobs when I met him. Eventually I dropped out of college and moved in with him to help pay the bills. That was fine though because we were together, just the two of us. We didnâ€™t need much.â€
â€œBut when I got pregnant, he knew he had to do something more. He didnâ€™t want you to grow up in poverty like he had. He only had one skill though: PKFR. Soâ€¦he went to compete.â€
Rustyâ€™s mother faltered at this point, her voice seizing up. She pushed back heavy tears and managed to continue speaking. â€œThatâ€™s the only reason he competed, was to earn money for us. In the end he never cared whether he got paid or not. He could have spent his life training in back alleys and died a happy man. But he knew it was all he had, all he could do, to help us.â€
â€œIt was good for a while. He started to get famous and we moved away from The City. Back then PKFR was popular but not a perfect career. He eventually changed that, made it into a good job. Butâ€¦it took so much out of him. That was what nobody ever saw but me. Heâ€™d smile for cameras and play in the backyard with you.â€
â€œIt was something no one knew, not even Owen. James had incredible talent but his body just wasnâ€™t designed for it, couldnâ€™t handle that level of stress. When he came to bed at nightâ€¦he was always in pain. These were the days before bounce-back surfacing and custom shoes, before there were specialized doctors to diagnose you. He would push himself so hardâ€¦so hardâ€¦â€
Again Rustyâ€™s mother had to stop short, though this time Rusty could see the tears falling down her flushed cheeks. She used the sleeve of her shirt to dry a few away before continuing. â€œBy the time he won his third championship he was falling apart. Stress fractures all through his legs and ligament tears in his hands and God knew what else. He was barely thirty and he needed my help to get up the stairs when he came home. He said it was fine but I made him promise me that it was his last big year. That heâ€™d calm down before he shattered his body for good.â€
â€œIt was barely a week later that he got a call for a non-profit commercial. He always wanted to help people so he said yes even though he could barely walk without medication.â€ Rustyâ€™s mother slowed down and stared forward at the image of his father on the screen. In a voice eerily close to Owenâ€™s when he spoke about the fall, she said, â€œI rememberâ€¦remember he went to the door. And he turned back to meâ€¦and saidâ€¦â€˜I know I can be stubborn and hard to handle sometimes soâ€¦thank you. For loving me.â€™ Then he left.â€
â€œNo one could understand why James fell. He was the champion, the hero. But I knew, I knew how hurt he was. I should have stopped him. Iâ€¦I shouldâ€™veâ€¦stoppedâ€¦â€
Finally she could take no more. Rustyâ€™s mother broke down and wept in great body shaking sobs. Rusty slid down the couch and held his mother, feeling her tremble beneath him. Hot, scalding tears began to form in his eyes, but he held them back, letting only a few escape. This was the longest she had ever spoken about his father at one time. And it was simply too much to take.
They huddled together in the dark, two lost souls, lit only by the glow of the projector. JK smiled down from the screen at his family as if to say, â€œItâ€™s alright. Itâ€™ll be okay.â€
It was a long while before the two managed to calm down. Separating the embrace, Rusty pulled the bottom of his shirt up and dried his face. He stood and said in a weak voice, â€œMom, Iâ€¦I gotta goâ€¦â€
But she held up a hand and said â€œWait. Wait, I have something to give you first. Follow me.â€
His mother led him upstairs to her room and proceeded to rummage through her closet, digging into the back. She pulled out a small, dull box, the kind you would find in a department store. She blew off a film of dust and placed it on the bed. Breaking several seals of packing tape, she opened the lid gently and set it aside.
Inside was a T-shirt, the most worn, torn, dirty, and mangled thing he had ever seen. Carefully lifting it out of the box, his mother unfolded it and laid it out on the bed.
The shirt had originally been a blazing fire red color but was now badly faded from exposure and washing. Stitches were broken and sticking out along the loose collar. There was only half a sleeve left on the one side and dark circles on the bottom edges that were unmistakably dried blood drops. There were numerous small tears and holes, a few patched, some not. On the center of the chest, written in cheaply stenciled white spray paint, was a single word. It had been touched up several times and splatters of excess white had dripped around the sides. It was the only part of the shirt that still looked relatively fresh and new. The word readâ€¦
Rusty stared for a long time. Tentatively, he said, â€œMom, this isâ€¦â€
â€œYes,â€ she replied, â€œThis was your fatherâ€™s. The kind of shirt he wore to every single competition. He had many over the years but this was the first. I remember the night he made it. It was the day before his first nationals and he suddenly got the idea that he needed a shirt, something special that would stand out. So he cut out a stencil and spray-painted â€˜RISEâ€™ on the only plain T-shirt he had.â€
She ran a hand over the thin fabric and continued saying â€œI asked him what it meant, why â€˜RISEâ€™? He told me, â€˜Because thatâ€™s what itâ€™s all about. Rising up, meeting the challenge. Against any obstacle. Never backing down from life. Always looking up.â€™ Seemed pretty silly to me at the time. Just another one of his big dreamsâ€¦he was always dreaming. But now I understand.â€
With tender hands, she picked the shirt up and held it out to Rusty. â€œIâ€™ve been holding you back for too long, Russell. You deserve your chance to rise.â€
Rusty couldnâ€™t believe what was happening. His mother had actually, finally, given him permission to move. Taking his fatherâ€™s shirt, Rusty slipped off the one he was already wearing and pulled on the soft red cover. It wasnâ€™t a bad fit but sagged around his shoulders and hung loose on his chest. His mother laughed softly and said â€œYouâ€™re a little smaller than your father was so it doesnâ€™t fit quite right. But Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ll grow into it.â€
The two stood in quiet company till the faint sound of something tapping Rustyâ€™s window in the next room caught their ears. Rusty immediately knew what it was and said â€œThatâ€™s Lee. He was supposed to throw a stone and let me know he was here, to drive me into town. I gotta go, Mom.â€
Rustyâ€™s mother looked her son over with proud yet stern eyes. â€œOkay,â€ she said, â€œBut promise me one thing. Donâ€™t come home with any regrets. Leave everything out there, got that?â€
Rustyâ€™s mother stepped forward and wrapped her strong arms around Rustyâ€™s shoulders. â€œYour father wouldâ€™ve been proud of you. I love you, and he loves you. Good luck.â€
Rusty nodded and stepped back when his mother finally let him go. Walking quickly back to his room, he gathered up his bag, slipped on a jacket and, instead of climbing out the window, dashed down the stairs and out the front door. Shouting for Lee from the sidewalk, the slim Asian came running around the corner, waving his arms and hissing â€œRusty! What the hell man? Youâ€™re going to wake your Momâ€¦wait. Have you been crying? Whatâ€™s wrong?â€
Rusty leaned against the door of Leeâ€™s antique coupe and looked back at his house, not catching his friendâ€™s gaze. â€œNothing man, nothing. Itâ€™s finally okay. Iâ€™ll tell you on the way there. Letâ€™s go.â€