Twenty-Six

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
November/December 2009

Adrienne Hohensee

Rain, to Gracie, had always seemed like the tears of hope. Instead of closing all the windows and playing board games, she walks half a mile to the nearest park. Running away from home was simple now. She had gotten used to it. Most of it was to the park, and most of it was in the rain. The two things just clicked.

When Gracie arrived at the park, it was almost always empty. Occasionally there would be a lone skateboarder, lining up the benches and crashing at the end. But on those days when the park was silent except for the pounding of the rain and the croaking of a lost bullfrog, Gracie took over the playground. It was astonishing the way she moved so well with the rain, silently but firmly. She looked as if a part of it. And the look on her face—so free.

What she is doing requires strength and endurance. But most of all, determination. She steps to the bar and grips it, but do you see that her knuckles are not white? See how relaxed she is as she pulls her body up in the air? Watch her chin pose directly above the fragile bar. Then watch it all tumble down, the bar above her once more.

Twenty-Six playing on the bar

He lacks the grace that she has. But the power, the will—it’s all there

This act of power and grace combined continues twenty-six times. Her goal. She drops down, feet reuniting with the earth. The look on her face is the same as if she is a bird landing softly in the hills of heaven. She is ready. She has practiced for two months, ever since the last fitness testing. Then she had gotten four chin-ups, and with a heavy heart she remembers having to write that number on her sheet. Now she can write twenty-six and go to the fitness competitions. But there is one face she needs to see before all that is done.

*          *          *

“Hey, Louis! How many this time, huh, bud?” Coach Winters slaps him on the back like a long-lost buddy. The dumbest thing is that Louis replies in the same buddy voice.

“Twenty-four,” says Louis, grinning across at his coach’s amazed face, although he’s heard and spoken the number at least a hundred times. They babble about the upcoming fitness stuff like it was the world.

But Coach has another period to attend to, and although he’ll wait until the last minute to talk to Louis, Gracie knows he has to leave. She waits until they say goodbye and Coach walks off, whistling and grinning.

“So… twenty-four, huh?” she asks, trying out the buddy voice. She’s just got to start drawling a little and smiling really hard.

He looks at her like she’s stupid. Why would she be interested in what he was doing? But because he is a show-off and likes to tell people that, he nods.

She leans in close. “Twenty-six,” she says, carefully enunciating each word. She doesn’t leave yet, though. His expression is what she’s looking for.

It’s first confusion, like he has to piece together exactly what she’s saying. Then it’s obvious he’s finding the difference between the numbers. When that’s done, recognition—pure, surprised recognition —flashes across his face. All in a matter of two seconds.

She doesn’t wait any longer and hurries away, swinging her books so that she looks relaxed, leaving him to contemplate.

*          *          *

Gracie can’t focus. It’s the last period of the day, and all she can look at is Louis. He’s angry, that’s for sure. There’s something else, too. He keeps looking up at her, and seeing that she is still watching him, turning away.

Louis is like a snake—if you challenge and corner him against a wall, he’ll bite. Any little thing will tick him off now.

He keeps frowning and glancing around. He confronts her when the bell rings. She has been expecting it, and has the whole thing planned out.

Twenty-Six seeing the sun

“I can do it,” he tells her. “Twenty-seven.

“Prove it,” is all she answers, asking if he knows where her park is. When he nods, she only smiles and pats him on the back. Good sportsmanship. It can go a long way.

It’s raining, again, when she arrives at the park. To her surprise, he’s already there, huffing and puffing under the bar. It’s not what she expected, but Gracie ignores that and keeps going.

Right when he sees her he flops down, as if he was planning what to do. “I can do it!” he says again, but he doesn’t sound like he’s too sure.

“Lemme see it,” says Gracie, who is equally nervous. It’s the first time she’s let someone else be in her park, her kingdom.

The first few are easy—he does them good and quick, using energy to impress. He hits ten before he dwindles a little below the bar. His eyes flicker to match hers, and he sees her outstretched fingers— ten of them.

“Ten, keep going!” she calls, swinging her legs. The key, she knows, is to look relaxed and believe in herself. She shouldn’t sweat it, but in the back of her mind, she finds the difference between the number he’s on and twenty-six. What if she’s really not ready?

He’s got fifteen. Five to twenty. Then another six to twenty-six. Suddenly, to Gracie, the numbers feel small and weak, unable to hold the strength that Louis has. Louis himself, under the bar, feels totally different. They are painful and unwelcoming. He is going into new territory. But he’s got the determination that Gracie has. Even if every bone breaks, he’ll go on and smile at the end.

Twenty. He recognizes the number portrayed on Gracie’s fingers. All of a sudden he’s in the tens just like the goal. He hangs under the bar, fists clenched but a determined smile on his face. He won’t quit on his dream, that’s just not who he is. He passes his old goal and hesitates. He’s never done more. But—of course— someone else has. So Louis doesn’t stop. He keeps at it. Slowly, painfully, he sucks up a breath and pulls his weight up above the bar. His hands feel weak, but once again, his eyes are lit up with some magic that brings him ever forward.

Twenty-five. It’s more than he’s ever done before and he knows it. His arms look like string from the Dollar Store as he plops back under. You can see the white knuckles, the difference between Gracie and him. He lacks the grace that she has. But the power, the will—it’s all there. He has strength. Gracie has endurance.

Suddenly he has the power and yanks himself up like a puppet on a string. It breaks Gracie’s heart. That was her number, the special one she claimed as her own. He looks at her straight in the eyes. There are water petals clinging to her eyelashes, refusing to let go. She swears it is the rain, silently, to herself.

With the number in his mind, he pulls it up. Gracie’s index finger cannot move. Now the race was not only a tie, but had a winner. Once again, Louis’s hand would go up in the air, held by a referee’s. Once again, Coach would smile at him and pat his back. It was as if nothing had changed. Gracie hadn’t beaten the record. She hadn’t done a thing. At least, she hadn’t done anything he couldn’t do.

Letting himself down, Louis stands there, panting. She gazes at him from her spot on the sidewalk curb, hugging her jacket tighter around her as if trying to keep the number close. But she knows as well as he does that it is gone forever.

He finally turns to face her. The sun captures his face in such a way, how the shadow of his nose fades over his cheek. She looks down.

“Nice job, Gracie,” he says, and she knows he can distinguish the difference between the raindrops on her face and the tears. He’s just trying to make her feel better. Gracie feels like she doesn’t need his help.

“I can do it!”

He turns. She’s standing up, looking at him with the magic. When she sees that he’s watching her, she leaps to the bar. Unlike Louis, she takes her time. She wants to get this right.

Nothing’s running through her head like usual. The days before, she would wonder how far she’d get in the fitness records. She’d picture Louis’s face when she told him. Now, her mind is blank. She’s in her own world now, back when the clouds were fluffy and the sunshine really was liquid gold. It was all too easy. There was nothing there. It was her and the bar. In a way, she knew Louis was standing behind her, counting, but he couldn’t enter her world, the world where there truly were happily ever afters.

She’s gotten to twenty-six with no trouble. It was like meeting the same stranger you met yesterday on the road—like all of a sudden they really were someone to talk to just because they appeared in your life twice. But all of a sudden, the world disappears. She’s opened her eyes, and before her is the red setting sun, bold and miserable, taking a worthless journey across the sky.

Gracie watches the bar above her. Why? Why did she have to go again? Wasn’t this the last one? But Louis has done it. So, ever so slowly, she comes up above the bar.

She hears a gasp. “Twenty-seven?”

She swings down. “You betcha,” she tells him. With extraordinary beauty, as if she hadn’t done a single thing to exhaust herself, she flies up to rest her chin on the bar.

Her breath gets caught. She’s going to start crying—right here on this bar. But this time, of joy. Of pure, real ecstatic joy. Right up here, on top of this bar. Right up here, in the hills of heaven.

Twenty-Six Adrienne Hohensee

Adrienne Hohensee, 10
West Linn, Oregon

Twenty-Six Athena Gerasoulis

Athena Gerasoulis, 10
Edison, New Jersey

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