By: Gabriel Arnold
RISE â€“ Chapter 14
Rusty was tired. His head hurt. His back did too. His chest rose and fell in heavy, slow rhythm, eyes red and bloodshot. Sweat beaded at the tip of his nose and fell from his face, staining the blue padded floor below him. He stood, arms heavy at his sides, staring at the crash mat before him. How long had he been at this? How many attempts had he made? He wasnâ€™t sure anymore. A thick strand of wet red hair hung in front of his eyes but he didnâ€™t bother to pull it away. Instead he lurched forward, breaking into a fast jog, feeling the bounce of every step in the soles of his sore feet.
As the mat came ever closer he brought his arms into the air and planted his feet sideways, left foot first. Jumping up and out he tried to keep his head straight, tried to focus on a single point, but it was no use. He became disoriented, frantic, and forgot to tuck his legs. He came down hard a moment later, landing on the crash mat with a loud wet smack on his side. Gritting his teeth, Rusty groaned in pain and rolled off the side, laying face up on the floor next to the pad. Heâ€™d landed on the same spot for the fourth time in a row and the sting of the bruise on his ribs was worse than ever.
Jenna grimaced and shook her head. â€œItâ€™s been almost three hours Rusty. Youâ€™re not going to get anymore done tonight.â€
Rusty sat up, wiping his forehead off with the edge of his sleeve. â€œI canâ€™t stop now, thereâ€™s no time left. The Freestyle is tomorrow and without a solid inverted trick I donâ€™t stand a chance.â€
â€œWell at least take a break.â€ Jenna hopped off the padded gymnastics cube and walked over to Rusty, offering him a nearly empty bottle of water. â€œIf you keep going like this youâ€™ll just end up exhausted and hurt. Then you really wonâ€™t have a chance tomorrow.â€
Rusty accepted the bottle and finished off the contents, dropping the empty plastic at his side. He hauled himself to his feet, gingerly moving his left side, saying as he rose, â€œI know, I know. But what choice do I have? Cartwheels arenâ€™t enough and my front tucks are too slow. Side flips are the only ones Iâ€™ve landed cleanly so far.â€
â€œYeah, two hours ago. You only started learning them in the past week. You might have the mechanics down but youâ€™re still sketchy and bail out half the time. Theyâ€™re not nearly consistent enough for competition.â€
Rusty sighed heavily, knowing that what Jenna said was true. He was able to land side flips well enough but they took way too much preparation and his success rate was barely one out of ten. If he tried to throw one in the middle of a timed heat heâ€™d most likely end up bashing his elbow into his face. Walking away from the practice area, Rusty stopped at his duffel bag and peeled off his soaked shirt, stuffing it into a spare side pocket. He fished in his bag and withdrew a fresh shirt, slipping it on. As he did he glanced at the clock on the wall: 11 oâ€™clock. Only an hour to midnight.
He turned and said to Jenna, â€œIt is late. Thanks again for letting me use the schoolâ€™s gym for practice.â€
Jenna grinned and replied â€œHey, if you canâ€™t use a spare key to have fun after hours, then whatâ€™s the point of being a gymnastics captain?â€
Rusty grinned too, knowing how fortunate he was to have this time and privacy. Even though the regular indoor training gyms were open late because of the Pro/Am they would be crawling with competitors. Rusty couldnâ€™t stomach the idea of embarrassing himself in front of all of them. Imagine, the son of JK, who blew apart the speed round, fumbling around the practice floor like a novice. The idea made him cringe.
Rusty stretched out his sore legs and picked up his bag, slinging it over his shoulder. â€œWhat now then? Dinner?â€ he asked.
â€œI think itâ€™s a little beyond dinner Matchstick, but yeah, food sounds good. Letâ€™s go to Geneoâ€™s, I heard theyâ€™re having a two for one sandwich sale during the competition.â€
â€œCool, Geneoâ€™s it is. By the way, when did Lee leave? I couldâ€™ve sworn he was just here.â€
Jenna stared at Rusty for a moment before saying, â€œWow. You must have really zoned out for a while. He left an hour ago, said he had a project to finish up for you.â€
â€œOh right, right.â€
â€œWhat kind of project is it going to be anyway?â€
The edges of Rustyâ€™s lips curled as he tried to hide a smile. â€œYouâ€™ll see.â€
As the pair walked to the door of the gym Rusty suddenly stopped and reached into his bag again, rummaging and searching for something. Jenna stopped at the door and asked, â€œNow what are you doing?â€
Rusty retrieved a large white bandana from his bag and folded it over, forming a triangle. Pulling his long hair back in a pile, he placed the fabric over his head and tied it tightly, wrapping up everything. â€œHad to hide the hair. I figured out thatâ€™s how most people spot me and I really donâ€™t feel like dealing with fan boys and reporters tonight. So, letâ€™s eat!â€
Downtown was a hive with activity. The sky had cleared and the moon shined down brightly, bathing the unlit sections of the street in an otherworldly color of white. The streets were packed bumper to bumper with parked cars and the sidewalks overflowed with pedestrians. Nearby music could be heard filtering through the avenues as lively packs of people hustled from one area to the next. Rusty and Jenna had to constantly slide past thick waves of teenagers and twenty-somethings, a few clearly not in the soberest of states.
â€œYou know,â€ Rusty said, â€œFor all the years theyâ€™ve held the Pro/Am here Iâ€™ve never been to the Downtownâ€™s block party.â€
â€œReally?â€ Jenna asked. â€œNot even when your dad competed?â€
â€œNo, it was always too much of a hassle. When I was real young I think we tried to go one year. But I remember my dad got swarmed with fans and all sorts of people. And after he died my mom didnâ€™t want anything to do with PKFR so I wasnâ€™t allowed to go.â€
The music grew steadily louder and Rusty could now see small groups of local Runners practicing in the small side streets, laughing and horsing around. â€œSeems a lot bigger than I remember it though.â€
Jenna pulled the hood up on her jacket and said, â€œYeah, itâ€™s the yearâ€™s biggest party, except when the Nationals were here a few winters back. But because the competition got split into two days, and since Andre Levyâ€™s supposed to be here, it looks like everyoneâ€™s out tonight.â€
They turned the last corner onto Main Street and suddenly a cascade of sights, sounds, and smells hit them. It looked like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Huge throngs of people crowded the shutdown streets, each one decked out in their favorite PKFR gear. Sales tents and product shows lined the street edges and, several blocks down, capping off the other end of the street, a huge stage had been erected. On it was a popular area hip-hip group, backed up by a performance group of Trickers and Runners. Stores up and down the avenue had signs shouting competition sales and the bars and pubs were overflowing with customers. Every street lamp was turned up to full power. Streamers fell from the windows of the buildings with huge white screens across some, projectors replaying highlights from the dayâ€™s events. On one far away, Rusty could see himself swinging on a rope like Tarzan.
â€œWhoa.â€ Rusty and Jenna said in unison.
â€œGuess this is a bad time to tell you thisâ€¦â€ Jenna said.
â€œWhat?â€ Rusty asked.
â€œGeneoâ€™s is at the other end, behind the stage.â€
Rusty stared ahead, silent. He adjusted the bag on his shoulder and said, â€œBetter get started now then.â€
Forty minutes later, sitting on the sidewalk curb outside Geneoâ€™s, Rusty opened their takeout bag and handed Jenna her sandwich, then quickly tore open the wrapping on his own, the first of three heâ€™d bought. With huge, gaping bites he devoured the first one and was working his way into the second before Jenna had even taken a bite.
â€œI canâ€™t believe you bought three,â€ she said incredulously. â€œAnd that awful kind too.â€
â€œCome on,â€ Rusty said in between bites, â€œAvocado, turkey, and peanut butter is great. At least itâ€™s more interesting than that tuna fish you got.â€
â€œUgh, whatever. I hate avocado. At least we found a spot to eat.â€
Now quietly munching on their sandwiches, they watched across the street as a pair of local breakdancers challenged each other to a battle. The crowd formed a circle and each man took turns pulling off their best moves, using the music from the nearby stage as the beat. Everything seemed to be going well until the ever growing circle of spectators began to crowd the dancers. With nowhere else to go the larger man accidentally kicked his opponent in the leg during a windmill rotation. Angered at the inadvertent attack, the smaller man kicked back and, before long, the pair was throwing haymakers at each otherâ€™s head. It took three each of their friends to pull them apart, the crowd cheering the fight the entire time.
Finishing his second sandwich, Rusty took a swig of his water and said, â€œThatâ€™s what happens with competition. Everything seems fine, then one thing goes wrong and bam, fighting.â€
Jenna swallowed and replied, â€œNot always. That wasnâ€™t even those dancersâ€™ fault. The crowd was too big and forced them into each other.â€
â€œYeah but thatâ€™s a problem in itself. So many people staring. The guys felt like they had to push themselves harder and ended up doing something stupid. Besides, if it was just an accident they shouldnâ€™t have blown up like that anyway.â€
Jenna leaned back, resting on her outstretched arms. She pushed a stray lock of blonde hair out of her eyes and said, â€œYou really donâ€™t like competition, do you?â€
Rusty was opening his third sandwich but stopped to think about what Jenna said. â€œSort of, I guess. I donâ€™t know, it just seemsâ€¦useless I guess. Like, whatâ€™s the point? Why try so hard? For your ego or something?â€
â€œMost people just do it for fun, Rusty.â€
â€œBut then why have sponsors? Why all the flash and everything? Seems like something other than fun.â€
Jenna leaned forward again, this time resting her elbows on knees. She tucked her arms under her armpits and said plainly, â€œSo whyâ€™d you enter the Pro/Am? Why do you compete?â€
Rusty, inches away from starting into his last sandwich, stopped short. He closed his mouth, gently pulled the sandwich away from his lips, and set it down next to him. He stared ahead, completely quiet. Finally Jenna nudged him with her shoulder and said, â€œWell? You gonna tell me? Or did you just do it for your ego too?â€
Rusty breathed deep, letting out the breath in a thin fog of chill white. Turning to look Jenna in the eye, he said, â€œI did it for you.â€ Then silence.
Jenna stared for a long moment. She opened and closed her mouth once, with no sound coming out. Finally she said, â€œMe?â€
Rusty looked down at his clasped fingers, hands held between his legs, rocking slightly, back and forth. â€œYeah. I overheard you saying how much you liked Runners and I, I guess, I thought if I won the Pro/Amâ€¦you might like me.â€
Jenna stared for another moment before looking away, unsure how to respond. She knew the troubles between him and Lee had been caused by her, indirectly at least. But she had no idea he had gone this far because of it. She was about to say something to break the awkward silence but Rusty beat her to it.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, I shouldnâ€™t have told you that.â€ Rusty started to stand to leave.
â€œNo!â€ Jenna exclaimed. â€œI mean, donâ€™t be sorry. Iâ€™m glad you told me. Itâ€™s just, I wasnâ€™t expecting it. Please, stay.â€
Rusty sat back down, now holding his head between his hands. â€œI was, I was just so mad. I wanted to get back at Lee, wanted you to like me. I acted without even thinking. Now I donâ€™t know why Iâ€™m here.â€
Another awkward silence. This time Jenna spoke first. â€œDo you stillâ€¦like me? Like you did before?â€
Rusty grinned, but a sad kind of grim grin. â€œYes? Maybe? I donâ€™t know. Iâ€™m not sure of anything anymore.â€ He paused for a moment before saying, â€œDid you ever like me?â€
It was Jennaâ€™s turn to grimly grin. â€œSort of. I mean, I thought you were cute and all. A lot of girls did actually. But I could never figure out what you were thinking, what you thought of me or anything like that. Itâ€™s likeâ€¦thereâ€™s a piece of you hidden, something no one ever sees. A mystery that kept people out, kept them away.â€
â€œReally?â€ Rusty replied, â€œIf so, I donâ€™t know what it is.â€ He wrapped his arms around his legs, watching as the crowd from the breakdancing fight finally broke up and filtered away. â€œWe missed our chance, huh?â€
Jenna wrapped her arms around her legs too, mirroring Rusty. â€œYeah, I guess so.â€
The hip-hop group on the stage finished their set and was leaving the stage to thunderous applause. A DJ began playing a remixed version of the latest rock single and all around them the crowd talked and yelled in celebration. But between Rusty and Jenna, there was only silence.
Jenna turned to look at Rusty again. â€œAre you going to be okay?â€
Rusty sighed. â€œYeah, Iâ€™ll be okay. Iâ€™d be lying if I said it didnâ€™t hurt. But itâ€™s better to know the truth now.â€
Jenna brought a hand away from her knees and was about to touch Rusty on the shoulder but hesitated and pulled it back. Smiling slightly, she said, â€œIf it makes you feel any better, my friend Renee thinks youâ€™re hot.â€
Rusty laughed under his breath and said, â€œYeah? The one with the braids?â€
â€œYup. She especially likes the long hair. She loves that rock star look.â€
â€œIâ€™ll be damned. She is pretty cute. Iâ€™ll have to look into itâ€¦â€
It was nearly one in the morning till Rusty and Jenna left the main party square, even though the celebration was still going strong. Turning down the same street they had come up from, Rusty said to Jenna, â€œAre you sure itâ€™s okay to sleep in the gym? I donâ€™t want to get you in trouble or anything.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry about it Carrot-Top. Just keep the lights low and youâ€™ll be fine. I know youâ€™re gonna want to keep practicing anyway. Even though you should be SLEEPING!â€
Jenna gave Rusty a small playful shove but ended up hitting him in his bruised side instead. Groaning from the pain wave, Jenna shook her head and said, â€œSee? Youâ€™re already banged up. Just go to bed and worry about it in the morning. Your divisionâ€™s runs donâ€™t start till one in the afternoon anyway.â€
â€œI still need to work though. I canâ€™t afford to do anything but my best and I know I can still learn something before the nightâ€™s over.â€
Jenna was about to crack a joke in reply but was distracted by something she saw down the alleyway next to them. She grabbed Rusty by the arm to get him to stop walking and pointed down the dim passageway saying, â€œSee that cement block the Runners set up earlier? The one they were using as a step up to the fire escape? Iâ€™ll make a bet with you. If you jump off it, attempt a side flip, and donâ€™t succeed, Iâ€™ll shut up about going to be bed and you can practice all night. But if you make it, you tell me I was right and go to sleep the second you get back to the gym. Deal?â€
Rusty gazed down the alley, then at the small blonde, then back down the alley. What harm could it do? Even if he screwed up he was already in pain. â€œFine, deal. But if I break my neck, you call the ambulance.â€
Jenna pulled out her cell phone. â€œParamedics on stand-by. Letâ€™s see it.â€
Sighing for the umpteenth time that night, Rusty walked into the deserted alley. He tested the block, made sure it wouldnâ€™t move or break, and did a test run up to check the distance and timing. Jenna yelled back to him, â€œIâ€™m wait-ing!â€
Not bothering to reply, Rusty smacked his hands together and dashed forward. He stepped up onto the block and popped off, tilting his body sideways and feeling like he might actually pull it off. But just like before he didnâ€™t stay tucked long enough and bailed out, forced to throw his hands out at the last second to avoid smashing his face into the asphalt. Sprawling out on the ground, Rusty stared up at the full moon above him and called out, â€œIf I won, why am I the one hurting?â€
Suddenly a blur of black passed before his eyes, blotting out the moon for a split instant before disappearing again. Shaken out of his post-bail stupor, Rusty scrambled to his feet and turned around to face the direction the blur had gone. Seeing nothing but empty alley, Rusty swiveled on his heel, looking in all directions. Still nothing. Had it been a stray cat? He yelled back, â€œJen, did you see something ju-â€œ
But instead he heard the soft thud of someone landing, followed by the pitter-patter of shoed feet coming closer and closer. He turned around just in time to see a large shadow running toward him, a form like a man but faceless, too fast to distinguish any details. Backpedalling in shock, Rusty watched as the figure leaped off the cement block and flew over his head, twisting and shape shifting like a demon from a movie. The shadow came to a standstill behind Rusty and the red head spun around as fast as he could, eyes wide in terror. With the black form finally at rest Rusty could see that it was a man of average height, dressed from head to toe in black gear, and wearing a long black bandana that covered the top half of his head. His back was to Rusty and all that could be seen was his neck and the countless strands of light brown dreadlocks that hung out from underneath.
Jenna ran up and stopped behind Rusty, peeking out from the side of his shoulder. The man spoke, a soft, youthful voice. â€œBring your knees to your chest more man, it helps with the rotation.â€ Both of them stared, speechless, as the man turned to reveal his face. Jenna voice exploded.
It was. Rusty had no doubt about it as he knew the manâ€™s face well from competition tapes. It was Andre Levy, PKFR World Champion, in the flesh. Struck dumb at the presence of the man, Jenna spoke instead saying, â€œWhat, what the, what in the world are you doing here!?â€
Andre smiled. â€œTraining. Iâ€™ve been on the road all week, havenâ€™t had a chance to explore the City yet. This was the first chance I got.â€
Jenna continued to speak for both her and Rusty. â€œBut, but, I donâ€™t get it. Why here? Why not one of the gyms? And why alone!?â€
Andre continued to smile and brought his hands up to his mouth, breathing on them to warm them up. â€œI snuck away. I sometimes do. Iâ€™m always training in gyms. But I need the city, the solitude. I need something hard and real. You canâ€™t get that surrounded by fan boys and pads.â€ Andre jerked his thumb towards Rusty and said, â€œIsnâ€™t that rightâ€¦Rusty Klein.â€
Rusty finally snapped out of his daze and said, â€œYou, you know who I am?â€
â€œYup. Seen your face on all the Pro/Am commercials. And I saw the video of your speed run. Nice work by the way, I liked the light pole thing.â€
Rusty barely managed to stammer a thank you. Jenna didnâ€™t seem to know how to stop talking. â€œThen why talk to us, why show us who you are?â€
Andre lifted one eyebrow and replied, â€œJeez girl, Iâ€™m not god or something, relax. I was cutting across the rooftop when I saw Rusty here attempt a side flip and bail. Figured Iâ€™d come down and see whatâ€™s going on.â€
Rustyâ€™s face flushed a deep crimson red. Heâ€™d been avoiding embarrassment at regular gyms for weeks and instead, in a nameless back alley, he ends up losing it in front of the biggest name in the sport. Dropping his head low, Rusty said, â€œS-Sorry you saw that.â€
â€œWhy? You bailed, we all do it. No biggie.â€
â€œY-yeah.â€ Rusty replied.
â€œBy the way Rusty, tell me something. Howâ€™s Kirra?â€
Rustyâ€™s head snapped back up to attention. â€œKirra!? You know her?â€
Andre never stopped smiling. â€œSure. She was at the Olympic training camp when I visited there a few years back. Only she could have showed you that Tarzan move with the rope.â€
â€œOh. Um, yeah, she did. And yeah, sheâ€™s great.â€
â€œGood to hear. Tell her I said hi, next time you see her.â€ Andre took a step back and said, â€œWell I have to keep moving, Iâ€™ve got a lot more of the city to see before sunrise. Iâ€™ll see you at the Freestyle tomorrow, man. Iâ€™ll be cheering for you.â€
Andre turned and was about to leave but stopped just long enough to say, â€œRemember what I said about tucking the legs. Wouldnâ€™t want that week of practice to go to waste and not even use the move tomorrow, would you?â€
And with that Andre turned into a blur again, popping off the nearby wall and shooting himself up the outside of the fire escape, never hesitating once in a single movement. If Owen was brute force personified and Kirra was elegance incarnate, Andre was the missing link: fast, strong, graceful, and almost supernatural; like a ghost sliding across the physical world at will. Within moments he had scaled the building face and disappeared over the roof edge, as quickly as he had arrived.
It was a long time before Jenna finally stepped back from Rusty and started walking back to the main street. She had her cell phone in her hand and was texting at the speed of light, yammering excitedly, â€œOh my god, oh my god, wait till Renee hears this, oh my godâ€¦â€
She was all the way to the entrance of the alley when she looked around and realized Rusty wasnâ€™t with her. Turning back around, she found him stuck in place, staring up at where Andre had just been. She called out, â€œYo, Rusty! Come on we have to tell people about this, theyâ€™re going to freak!â€
Rusty nodded his head but never budged. Quietly, so quiet that even Jenna couldnâ€™t hear him, he said to himself, â€œHe knew. He saw me do one flip and he knew exactly how long Iâ€™d been practicing. And exactly how to fix them. How? Thatâ€¦that canâ€™t be possibleâ€¦â€
Far away, back at the stage, the DJ announced the time, 1:00am. Exactly twelve hours to the freestyle.
It was going to be a long night.