Here’s the prologue and first three chapters of Heroes’ Day. No fancy e-book readers or Flash plug-ins required, no DRM or hidden fees. Simple, huh?
They came for him on a Saturday afternoon.
The shuttle was unmarked, breaking off from Pacific Skyway and descending upon Darren’s oceanfront property with a discreet hiss. He’d been playing catch with the twins on the front lawn; the game was quickly forgotten as his driveway became a makeshift landing pad.
“Who are they, dad?” asked Ben, pointing as the shuttle settled itself.
A pair of uniformed men got out, started up the driveway, their boots clicking against the concrete.
The ghosts of your daddy’s past, Darren thought, catching a glint of sunlight off the mens’ badged collars.
He handed Ben the ball. “You and George go inside and help your mom get dinner started, okay?”
George started to whine. “But dad—”
“Go. I’ll be in shortly.”
The boys pouted only a moment longer before retreating towards the house. Darren watched them go, envying their carefree laughter, wanting to be beside them as they argued over who was to pick out the evening’s videobox program.
Darren faced his unexpected guests. “That’s right.”
The military men removed their hats. One of them handed Darren a notepad. “Lieutenant Gutierrez, NPAA personnel division. This is Lieutenant Teague. It’s an honor to speak to you, sir.”
“Sir,” Darren thought, and not without a trace of amusement. Sixteen years later and I’m still getting the Patriot treatment. He activated the notepad, skimmed over the enclosed letter (a sugar-coated order, really), blinked in surprise when he saw the signature at the bottom.
He handed the notepad back to Gutierrez. “So, Zor’s a commander nowadays, eh? And aboard Olympus, no less.”
“Yes, sir,” said Gutierrez.
“You guys still looking for a couple of good soldiers, then? Bright faces, sound bodies, boundless spirits?”
“Of course, sir,” said Teague.
Darren chuckled, glanced westward, his gaze following one of the planked pathways that led down to the shore. There, a couple walked hand in hand, a little boy reinforced the walls of his sand castle, seagulls coasted on the breeze. “You’d never guess there was still a war going on, would you?”
Neither Gutierrez nor Teague said anything. They weren’t here for smalltalk. They’d been given orders—they’re waiting for me to comply.
Indeed, when he’d let more than the appropriate amount of time pass without speaking, Gutierrez cleared his throat and asked, “Will you accompany us voluntarily, sir?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Do any of us have a choice, sir?”
A moment’s pause, another glance in the direction of the house, where Danielle, his wife, stood on the deck, her mixing bowl in hand, a questioning look on her face. She was a stickler about dinnertime, a firm believer that no order of business should ever interrupt a good meal shared in the presence of family.
Alas, today she would have to wait.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Hades,” Teague said assuredly as he gestured towards the shuttle. “We’ll have you back in time for dessert.”
* * *
The National Training Center was smaller than Darren remembered—and uncommonly empty. “Closed for renovation,” if you believed the large sign posted out front (though there was a suspicious absence of building materials, scaffolding, or custodial mini bots, even). Gutierrez and Teague led the way into the main training room, with its impressive fleet of podiums and various gymnastics apparatus spread out over 75,000 square feet of taxpayer-funded floorspace. Above, the air-conditioning system hummed away dutifully, slightly muffling the distant sound of a door opening, closing.
Geoffrey Zor—once head of security, now, as his insignia denoted, a commander aboard Olympus—sat in a foldout chair that had been positioned at the center of one of the podiums. He’d been studying his notebook screen intently, but when he saw Darren his expression lightened, and he smiled.
“Darren, my boy!” Dismissing his men, he switched off his notebook and rose to his feet. He shook Darren’s hand. “My goodness, look at you! I see you’ve kept up your training—still hard as a rock! Good to see you again.”
“I can’t say I’m not…intrigued,” Darren said, and fingered one of the medals on Zor’s uniform. “You’ve been busy.”
“Oh, take a bullet, earn a promotion. That’s usually how it works in the Patriot world.”
“Some things never change.”
“It’s a work in progress. How are the wife and kids?”
“As well as can be with their husband and father having been suddenly spirited away by a pair of mysterious military men.”
“Come now,” said Zor, “I’ve only asked to borrow you for a few minutes.”
Darren nodded, folded his arms—and found his old competitive modes suddenly reactivating themselves as his brain quickly assessed and analyzed, summed up in a single glance all of Zor’s fundamentals: tall, moderately-built, bearded (most of it had faded from brown to gray), soft lines, relaxed waist, noticeable worry behind the eyes. Sixteen years of Patriot work had affected Zor inversely. “All right, then. Let’s get to it.”
Zor’s expression shifted from superficial to grave. “You’ve heard that we lost four of our top gymnasts?”
“Mental breakdowns,” said Darren. “Political differences cited by the parents. It was in the news, yes.”
“Then you’ve probably heard the rumors that the NPAA is retooling their approach for the upcoming season. The entire girls’ team has been scrapped. We’re rebuilding the roster from the ground up.”
“If I’d wanted a news report, I’d peruse the appropriate video feed—”
“There’s more, Darren.” Zor sighed. “The Patriot program has come under heavy fire.”
“The Patriot program has always been under fire.”
“Yes, well, it doesn’t help that America—and the rest of the NAU, for the most part—has bypassed the gold and silver for three straight terms. The media has decided that we’re battering our children for a lost cause, or that we’re not training them hard enough, or that we’re simply mismanaging taxpayer resources. ‘We’re paying for it!’ they shout. ‘We want results on Heroes’ Day!’ Yet, in light of recent events, it’s apparently become popular to shun the months and years of practice it takes to get our athletes into top fighting condition.”
“War without casualties,” said Darren, nodding. “Not such a new idea. Isn’t that the NPAA’s secret credo?”
Zor chuckled. “That, and, ‘Train hard or bend over for the EU.’”
Both men laughed.
“You know,” Zor said, grasping Darren by the shoulders, “you were our first and last true Hero. Perfect attitude, perfect body, perfect scores across the board. Media sweetheart. Poster child. You could have been a spokesperson for the sport, an actor, a dancer, a model. I never did understand why you retired prematurely. I’m sure your coaches were a hundred times as confounded.”
“It was six years of my life,” Darren said. “Training, eating, sleeping, training, six days a week, year-round. I was tired.”
“You were good—”
Darren snorted. “What’s the score here? Tell me you didn’t set up this little meeting just to rekindle old regrets.”
Zor let him go. He turned away and strolled a few steps towards the edge of the podium before facing him again. “The NPAA is unhappy with the present-tense. Hence, we are to look outside our current predicament. A little of the past to hasten the arrival of the future. Effective immediately, I’m putting you in charge of the girls’ Patriot division.”
Darren felt an unexpected twinge in his gut. Truthfully, he’d known as soon as the shuttle had landed in his driveway that something big was up, that his days as a competitive elite hadn’t been entirely lost to the ages—he hadn’t expected a coaching job, though. “Just like that, huh?”
“Just like that.”
“Never mind the fact that I’ve never coached a day in my life?”
Zor smiled. “You already know that the NPAA wants to do things differently. They want someone who knows discipline, someone who has experience with publicity, someone who once captured the hearts of every American man, woman, and child. They want the star power.”
Sounds like the videobox sitcom that won’t die, thought Darren. “I’m a family man now. I did my time, served my country.”
“And you will again,” said Zor. “Don’t forget the reactivation clause in your contract.”
“And if I’m out of touch? If I’ve forgotten all the twists and turns?”
“You’ll have an assistant—not that I suspect you’ll need one. You were a warrior at twelve, and from the look of that hulking physique of yours, you’ve never stopped training.”
“Aesthetics,” said Darren. “Good health. Force of habit. Nothing more.”
Zor went over to his chair, picked up his notebook and tucked it under his arm. “Look around you. The National Training Center is a ghost town. This isn’t just a minor glitch in the system. Americans are questioning their very belief in the system itself. I need you, Darren. America needs you.”
“Oh, don’t give me that.” Darren shook his head. On the way into the training room, he’d been horrified by the barrenness; now he was beginning to think it was better this way. “Do we really need to go down this road again? Do we need to put yet another batch of boys and girls through the rigors because it’s cute and noble and the popular thing to do?”
“Children are resilient,” said Zor, shrugging. “They learn to cope, and it makes them stronger individuals for it. You yourself are a perfect example.”
Darren spread his arms. “I only did what I knew.”
“And if you’d known different? Would you have gone back on your contract? Would you have resisted ever competing at a national event, perhaps refrained from ever setting foot inside a gym if you’d known there was more to it than just numbers on a scoreboard?”
I ask myself that every day, thought Darren. But what was done was done. He had his regrets, yes, his accolades, sure, but he’d managed to move on. Danielle had helped loads. She’d been a gymnast, too, and while she’d never become a Hero, she’d competed at enough of the bigger meets to know fantasy from reality. Bowing out rather than burning out, regardless of what our coaches told us was right. I did what I had to do—and now the NPAA is after retribution.
Zor started off the podium. “Your girls will adore you. They’ll look up to you as their hero and their coach. If all else fails, you’ll have their undying respect. My guess is that the NPAA wants some of that to bleed over into the public domain. Think of it as motivational speaking.”
Darren started to protest, but trailed off when it became apparent Zor wasn’t interested in continuing the conversation any further. He’d made his decision, and so had the NPAA.
“I’ll have the paperwork sent over first thing in the morning,” called Zor, now heading towards the exit. “My men are waiting outside to take you home. Goodbye, Darren.”
He disappeared through the door.
Darren stood, still and quiet. The air conditioning system hiccuped. From civilian to Patriot in under an hour.
What did I do to deserve this?
An hour before the recruiters were to arrive, Monica Sardinia limped into her coach’s cluttered office and set herself in one of the plastic foldout chairs usually reserved for parents or guests.
“Problem,” she said, wincing.
Greg Keene, founder, owner, and head coach of Keene’s Gymnastics, set down his sandwich, sighed, and said, “It’s been almost a week since you banged anything up. I was getting worried.” He left his desk, knelt in front of Monica, taking her foot in his hands. “What are we looking at?”
Monica flexed her ankle and felt pinprick shards shooting up her calf. “I landed a dismount the wrong way.”
“You’re supposed to be on your lunch break,” Greg said, an eruption of wrinkles creasing his forehead as he probed her ankle gently. “Was Donna supervising?”
“Was she looking in your direction?”
“Most of the time.”
Greg’s eyes narrowed. “Her skill or yours?”
Monica bit her lip. She’d had this discussion before with Greg. No doubt he was wondering why on Earth she’d felt compelled to try something behind his or his wife’s back on this afternoon, of all afternoons.
“It was mine,” she admitted after a moment’s hesitation. “I guess I had a little nervous energy.”
There was weary disapproval in Greg’s eyes. “You go the entire season with little more than a few mild scrapes and bruises, but you pick today to bring out the big guns. And on a Friday, no less.”
“It’s only a sprained ankle,” Monica said. “Don’t be so stressed.” She patted Greg’s bald spot.
“Me? Stressed? Hah!” Greg reached for the med kit. “All I do is work with a room full of bouncing, jumping, twirling, tumbling, chattering, utterly tireless little girls six hours a day, six days a week. Who’s stressed?”
Out came the nano gel, along with the control wrap. Greg spread the gel over Monica’s ankle, applied the wrap. Then, using the remote, he infused into her flesh a miniature fleet of nanites, probing, knitting, healing.
Monica sucked in her breath. “Ooh, ooh! They’re pinching me!”
“Don’t be so stressed,” Greg cooed, imitating her earlier tone. “Their work will be done in a few minutes if you keep still and quit complaining.”
Monica clenched her fists. The nanites didn’t hurt, per se, but it certainly felt like millions of tiny insects had invaded her ankle—the bane of modern-day instant medicine, convenient as it was.
“So.” Greg propped one arm across his knee. “You’ll help with the car wash next week?”
Monica groaned. “Another car wash?”
“We were a huge success over the summer.”
“What does a car wash have to do with our club, or with gymnastics—or with…with anything?”
“It gets the community involved. It helps pay the bills.”
No, thought Monica, it only gives creepy grown men and high school boys a chance to have their crappy Dodges scrubbed by little girls in T-shirts and gym shorts. “I don’t know. I start school on Monday. And my parents will probably have me unpacking all week. Maybe, if I have the time—but if I do help out, I’m wearing a jumpsuit and boots.”
Greg laughed. “Well, think about it. Think about us when you’re out there in the real world, a high school freshman, going to raffles and dances and meeting boys who’ll wonder how you spent seven good years of your life cooped up in Greg Keene’s little old gym.”
“I could never forget you guys!” Monica proclaimed. True, Keene’s Gymnastics was a small club, with no more than ten gymnasts enrolled at any given point in the season, and true, you could easily miss the old converted general store with the silhouetted acrobat sign while passing on the street—but what the gym lacked in fancy, cutting edge imagery, it more than made up for in rustic charm. Monica had been training here since she was six years old. It was her home away from home.
And today’s my last day, she thought.
Greg, ever the uncannily-perceptive conversationalist, nodded and said, “Last day. I know. It seems like only yesterday you and your mother came in here looking for some tricks to take home. Now look at you, my finest junior elite, worth every headache, every gray hair on my head.”
Monica smiled, appreciating the sentiment, but to her, the past seven years hadn’t been “only yesterday,” they’d been a lifetime—her lifetime. And she wanted it to go on forever. Through college, at the very least. Certainly she didn’t want her career at KG to end because of money, politics, or, in her case, a hearty sampling of both.
“Buck up, kiddo,” Greg said. “The recruiters are on their way. With any luck we’ll be able to get you on some crutches. The girls can rig up a system of ropes and pulleys. You’ll go out in a blaze of glory, knock everyone’s socks right off! Send the military men back to their commanding officers with a tale or two about the spunky little girl from Sussex who did a beam dismount, crutches and all, without even breaking a sweat!”
Sarcasm. It was one of Greg’s many tools, in the office and on the mat—regardless, Monica found herself pondering three seasons’ worth of ignorance from the United States’ governing athletic body: the National Patriot Athletic Association. She’d been all-around champion at three consecutive National Conventions, and had placed in the top five at nearly two dozen of the smaller conferences, national and regional—and yet she was ignored. Every year the military men came to KG, and every year Monica’s friends were snatched up, taken to the National Training Center to train as Patriot athletes while she herself was relegated to staying behind. She would be turning fourteen next April, making her the oldest in the club—and the only junior elite (Greg had a small elite program, two to three juniors at a time, and the other two girls he was working with—Amy and Sarah, respectively—wouldn’t be ready skill-wise until next season).
Nowadays, though she kept her skills polished and fresh, Monica was more of an older sister to the younger girls who were rotated in each season. She showed them the ropes, made sure they warmed up properly, stuck to their diets—in fact, while her training partners had celebratory badges sewn onto their leotards with labels like “Cadet” and “Junior Keene in Training,” Monica’s read “Big Sister,” and was supposed to reflect genuine recognition of her mentoring contributions to the gym. But sometimes she almost felt embarrassed to walk around with her badge, her “rank,” showing like an unwanted blemish, a reminder of how she was stuck in her own little niche.
Still, she wished she didn’t have to leave.
Greg let go of her foot. Somewhere along the way he’d unwrapped her ankle, and was tucking the medical supplies back into their kit.
“All patched up,” he said.
Monica got to her feet, tested her newly-repaired ankle. She was about to thank Greg for services rendered when Donna stuck her head inside the office and announced, “The recruiters are here.”
* * *
Badged and uniformed (and looking more than a little doggered by the late August heat), the recruiters—two of them—sat in a pair of foldout chairs that had been set at the periphery of the KG training room. Since there were no other qualifying elites at the club, it was just Monica, changed into her leotard, stretching, waiting as her guest judges spoke to one another in hushed tones, fussed with their notebooks. Off to the side, the other KG girls sat, smiling, watching, silently cheering her on.
At long last, one of the recruiters lifted his hand and said, “You may begin, Ms. Sardinia.”
Monica stood straight, presented, and took a deep breath. She started on the vault, then moved on to the uneven bars, followed by the balance beam. Her performance on each apparatus was utilitarian, her skill choices up-to-date with the current Code of Points, her combinations seamless. She focused specifically on her neatness, her toe point, and covered up any wobbles with clever adjustments. She finished with her floor routine, a solid set choreographed to a thundering techno beat and ending with an impressive tumbling pass, which she landed perfectly. Then, raising her arms and presenting once again to the recruiters, she jogged over to where the other girls were waiting.
“Stellar-high marks!” whispered Amy.
“Oh, you are so going to Olympus!” whispered Sarah.
The younger girls offered words of encouragement as well.
Monica thanked them, taking a swig from her water bottle and catching her breath. She paced slowly, eyes fixed on the recruiters. Greg and Donna were talking with them, no doubt quoting statistics, records, wheeling, dealing—doing what coaches did when it came time to promote their product. Nevertheless, Monica knew not to expect much. Despite the appraising looks, the nods of approval, she knew she was well past the pivotal age preferred by the NPAA.
As such, her heart missed a beat when Donna waved her over.
“Wonderful to meet you, Ms. Sardinia,” greeted one of the recruiters as Monica stepped up to the group. “Your routines were quite impressive.”
“Yes,” added the second recruiter. “We were particularly impressed by your ability to incorporate fluid dance elements with your more difficult acrobatic skills. Very nicely done.”
“Thank you,” said Monica, smiling on the outside—frowning inside, for although the recruiters had readily dispensed with the compliments, she could see it in their eyes: Having said that, we regret to inform you that we will be unable to offer you a contract for the upcoming competitive season.
In quite the cookie-cutter fashion, the first recruiter knelt so that his face was level with Monica’s and said, “Having said that, we regret to inform you that we will be unable to offer you a contract for the upcoming competitive season.” A pause, a sincere sigh that may or may not have been practiced beforehand. “Ms. Sardinia, the NPAA has had its eye on you for quite some time. Your scores are among the top in the country, and from what your coaches tell me, your work ethic is impeccable. But, unfortunately, your overall presentation isn’t quite what we’re looking for.”
The second recruiter nodded. “Please understand, this in no way reflects on your technical abilities. It’s merely our experience that the world-class stage requires a certain…technique, shall we say? We feel an athlete with your specialties would be best suited in the collegiate arena.”
Monica kept her posture straight, her tummy tight, her chin up—she managed a polite smile, even. “I understand. Thank you for your time.”
“No, thank you, Ms. Sardinia.”
“Yes, Monica. It’s been a pleasure.”
Everyone shook hands. Then the recruiters donned their hats, tucked their notebooks under their arms, and headed for the exit, fanning themselves as the Keenes showed them out.
Afforded a moment’s privacy, the girls flocked to Monica, asking what the word was.
“The word,” Monica sighed, “is no.”
Amy’s expression faltered.
Sarah snorted and folded her arms, aiming a glare in the direction of the club entrance. “Typical military suits. They probably don’t know a cartwheel from a somersault.”
But they do know their sweetheart types from their ordinary, everyday athletes, Monica thought.
Amy put her hand on Monica’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Monica.”
Though she wanted to curl up somewhere and cry for a while, she forced it down, kept her composure as she shifted gears. “It’s three hours till quitting time,” she said, addressing the younger girls, “and Donna’s going to want you warmed up when she gets back—so come on. Lunchtime is over.”
On most days, it took a little prodding to get the girls motivated after their afternoon break and study period, but today everyone seemed to sense the need for compliance. Without the slightest protest, they all ducked into the changing room, swapped their casual clothes for their workout gear, then reemerged to take their places on the floor.
Monica had them start off with a series of stretches. She herself joined in, counting out loud until Greg and Donna returned and took over. Greg looked like he wanted to take her aside, ask her how she was holding up—but he knew her well enough by now, knew the best thing to do was pretend it was any other day at the gym.
Even though her last chance had come and gone.
Doesn’t matter, she told herself as she slipped into the well-rehearsed motions, flexing arms, legs, neck, and spine in succession. The odds were never really in your favor—you saw how quick the scouts were to get out of here, to get on with their business. They’d made their decision long before setting foot in the gym.
She let the memory of her display stew in the back of her mind, kept coming back to the recruiters’ lame excuses for turning her down. They’d stated it quite succinctly: She was a very technical gymnast. Her lines were neat, her skills impeccably executed—but she was no sweetheart, no dainty little pixie trailing fairy dust wherever she walked. She was utilitarian, neck too thick, hips too narrow, overall musculature a little too prominent. Instead of a cute ponytail or braided hairstyle like that of the other girls, she’d opted to cut her hair short and have it flipped out in the back. While the other girls said they would gladly kill for her calves, give up an extra slice of pizza for a tummy as toned as hers, she, conversely, would have preferred softer lines, larger breasts, a less boyish figure. She wasn’t the spritely type at all, but rather a rugged, dependable athlete, and the military men knew this. They wanted to win hearts first, points second, and Monica simply wasn’t a looker.
But, she reminded herself, supposed setbacks such as these were auxiliary annoyances. She could only imagine what it was like for normal girls who came home from public school every day and, with nothing better to do, stood in front of the mirror counting their various imperfections.
That’s not me, she thought. I’m better than that.
* * *
At just after five, when the parents started pulling into the KG parking lot to pick up their daughters, Greg, Donna, and the girls decided to spring Monica a surprise “graduation” party. In hindsight, she should have seen it coming; for the first time in her seven years at the club, the shower was free, the dressing room empty. But there was a lot on her mind—and so she missed all the signs until, back in sweatpants and T-shirt, her duffel bag slung over her shoulder, she emerged into the training room to find everyone gathered in the center. Donna bore a cheesecake.
“Surprise!” the girls shouted, whooping and clapping.
Reactivating her happy face, Monica swooned appropriately and, setting her bag down, exchanged hugs with her coaches and training partners. She allowed herself a sliver of cheesecake and half a can of soda. She sat on the balance beam, posed for pictures with the girls, with the Keenes. She pretended it was the most wonderful experience in the world to be leaving behind everything and everyone she knew and loved.
One by one, the parents wrangled up their daughters. When it was time for Amy to go, she jogged up to Monica and hugged her tightly.
“I’m going to miss my Big Sister,” she said.
Monica returned the hug. “Hey, I’ll still drop by from time to time, just to make sure you’ve done all your crunches.”
Amy laughed. Then, summoned by her mother, who’d started to get impatient, she started towards the club entrance. “E-mail me!” she called over her shoulder.
“I will,” said Monica.
There were more hugs, a few tears, even, as everyone cleared out. Monica stayed behind to help the Keenes tidy things up. (One of the reasons she’d been able to stay at the club so long was the fact that it was a small, family-oriented gym. Recognizing Monica’s talent from the outset, Greg and Donna had offered the Sardinia family a considerable discount, and had even provided free transportation, with Monica’s mother driving her to the gym in the mornings, the Keenes driving her home each night. The only stipulation—and it was more than fair—was that she serve as custodian in lieu of an expensive cleaning bot.)
Once the training room was dusted and brushed, the mats folded, the medicine balls and rubber bands put away, Greg announced that it was time to go.
Outside, the sun was fast retreating below the horizon. Monica stood by Greg’s van, waiting for him to finish locking up. She watched the sky with heavy eyelids, studied the speck-tiny shuttle paths—Earth’s skyways, leading to and from the various high-altitude skyports—criss-crossing against the azure and amaranth canvas. Among the first points of light to brave the night was Olympus, the international space station, the jewel of the heavens—a promise that was, for Monica, to go unfulfilled.
Donna came to her side. “How are you managing?”
“Kind of bummed out,” she replied.
“Don’t be?” Monica snorted. “My competitive career has all but fizzled out!”
Donna leaned against the van. “It’s been hard for us all. No major U.S. victories for the last three Olympic terms, Canada and Mexico getting restless—the entire North American Union is hurting, and we’re getting the blame. It’s not a very prosperous time for the sport.”
“That’s a lousy attitude,” Monica said.
“I’m not saying I like the way things are, nor do I agree with how the NPAA has handled its affairs as of late. I think it’s been decades since they put their athletes before their image. But what can we do? You’ve seen the military men, this afternoon and all the other afternoons. You’ve seen how they come here and watch our elites, and when it’s time to go, who do they pick for Olympus?” Donna sighed. “I love each and every one of my girls, mind you, but I can see as plain as the next person that it’s looks before skills. Who has the right smile, the right curves, the right charm—who wiggles her butt the right way. Greg and I, we train athletes, Monica. Not pop stars. If our girls have been taken to Olympus, it’s because their parents have decided they want their daughters to join America’s current pop culture posse. It’s their decision. Our influence ends once you step off these premises—while you’re here I wouldn’t dare spoil you by emphasizing flirtatious winks and scandalous gyrations over good, solid sportsmanship.”
Of course, Donna was right. Monica hadn’t the slightest desire to alter her look or step up her willingness to “put out” in order to snag herself a spot on the Patriot team. She’d always believed, perhaps naively, in a world where image was supplemental to hard work—now the utter reality was sinking in, and she was certain that someone of her make could never excel beyond a few local competitive circles. The worst part: failing to find a way around the Catch-22, failing to live up to her own expectations.
Failing to live up to her parents’ expectations.
Greg approached the van. When he saw Monica’s downcast expression, he tossed the car keys to Donna and wrapped his arm around Monica’s shoulders. “Come, now. No soggy memories.”
“I’m fine,” Monica insisted, surprised to find a tear trickling down her cheek. “Really.” She shrugged out of Greg’s grasp, hauled open the van door, and climbed inside.
* * *
The ride into Sussex was a somber one. Monica stared out the window the entire time, taking in the familiar side streets from an objective point of view—as if she were coming home from an extended stay elsewhere. As a young child, the small-town village feel of her neighborhood had always been comforting, but now it seemed claustrophobic. Many considered Sussex quaint and cozy, but Monica could see the cracks, the chipped paint, the rust. Her family was at the lower end of the middle class bracket, citizens of what the news folk frequently referred to as “a nation rapidly falling into disrepair.”
The Keenes dropped her off in front of her parents’ house. She waved goodbye and then let herself inside, softly opening and closing the door and stepping between the stacks of boxes as she made her way towards the staircase.
Her mother was in the den, grading papers.
“Dinner in half an hour,” she said, catching Monica in passing.
“How was practice?”
Starting up the stairs, Monica called over her shoulder, “It was fine.”
In her room, she closed the door and stood very still with her bag resting at her feet. She tried to feel like a champion would, tallying the accolades around her, the medals and certificates hanging on the walls, the photographs of her on the balance beam, the bars, the podium, in group pictures at various conferences. Her entire competitive career was encapsulated in this bedroom. She should have been proud; instead there was a feeling of constriction, a renewed urge to jump or cry out loud offsetting the day’s soreness. It might have helped if her mother had offered more than a mere, “How was practice?” Something to mark her awareness that this wasn’t just the closing of an average day—something to show that she understood.
Instead there was quiet. Soft noises. The muffled sound of a news broadcast emanating from down the hall, silverware rattling downstairs, trees rustling gently outside.
I’m really home, she thought, glancing at the half-packed cardboard boxes, the piles of clothes. And even home is mine no more.
At six-thirty sharp, the Sardinias assembled at the dinner table: Monica, downtrodden, still wearing sweats and her favorite T-shirt; Chris, her younger brother, rounded up from whatever corner of the house he’d made his fort for the night, his school clothes untucked and disheveled; Mr. and Mrs. Sardinia (Mike and Sharon, respectively), the former still in his pressed white shirt and tie and leading the table in prayer, the latter looking like she was still in the den correcting her students’ worksheets.
Conversation was sparse, and came in the form of brief, sporadic bursts—mostly when someone wanted another chicken wing, a fresh roll, more peas or carrots (no one mentioned, or even insinuated, the impending move…even though the dining room was bare, all the portraits tucked away, the china cabinet empty). Mike asked how Sharon’s day was, and Sharon responded with a pre-recorded comment about her affinity for Fridays. That out of the way, Mike offered a blow-by-blow account of his day at the store. Lastly, nodding at Monica and Chris and taking another mouthful of mashed potatoes:
“And you two?”
Chris immediately availed himself of the opportunity to relay a schoolyard tale involving himself and a wounded pigeon.
Monica waited patiently, finishing her meal and nibbling on a slice of sweet potato pie. She’d resisted talking about anything gym-related (or anything at all, for that matter), but now that everyone was shifting into dessert, now that only the tail-end of dinner would be ruined if she got into it with her parents…
“I’m going to miss the conferences,” she said, once Chris had stopped talking. “KG, too.”
Mike diverted his attention to his piece of pie, and Monica caught Sharon shooting him a betrayed glance before sighing, taking a sip from her glass.
“We’ve already covered this territory, Monica,” she said, her face a portrait of quiet discomfort. “It takes money, and gymnastics isn’t a money sport.”
“I’ve made money,” Monica said. Not Patriot money, but enough to help offset the costs of training and traveling.
Sharon set her glass down. “Monica. Let’s not pick at scabs. You’ve had seven good years. It isn’t as if you haven’t had a good run.”
“That’s right,” Mike piped in between mouthfuls. “First in the county, and never lower than fifth in the state—”
“And no contract,” Monica said, almost accusingly. She wasn’t outright mad at her parents—how could she be? They’d been generally supportive since the beginning, money and motivation…although in recent months they’d become less and less involved in her gym-related affairs, not even showing up at meets if the Keenes could be counted on to provide transportation. Time was always an issue. Time and money. Years of holding out, waiting for Monica to explode onto the Patriot scene. Now that another season had come and gone without result, they were finally moving on to other, more important matters. Survival instinct—that’s all it was. Trimming back, buckling down, selling the house in order to move a step or two ahead of their credit debt. Many of her neighbors had done much the same. No one was at fault. It was how things were. Yet Monica still felt the need to place blame for the state of Patriot athletics, circa 2099. She needed a reason why her scores seemed to mean nothing to the NPAA.
I may as well be a band without a record deal, she thought, a painter who’s never had an exhibition, a writer who’s never seen his books on a single store shelf.
Sharon said, “Greg and Donna promised you can stop by the gym anytime you want. No appointment necessary, of course.”
Monica’s face brightened (if only slightly). “Then…you’ll drive me after school?”
“We’ll see what we can work out,” Sharon replied, smiling—
—though Monica knew it was mostly for show. Which wasn’t to say her mother didn’t want to be more supportive; she was merely caught up in her daily routine, her job, raising two kids. And Mike, he never got home before six on weekdays.
I’m being unrealistic, Monica thought. Holding on to a lifestyle that was never mine to begin with—oh, don’t start sulking. It was on the tip of her tongue to politely decline any further connection with KG, to simply let it go, make it through the next four years at Hamilton, then college. It looked like that was exactly what her parents were expecting, glasses, forks poised in mid air, mouths slightly open, waiting. Time to accept your failures and move on. We’ve managed it. Why can’t you do the same?
“I’d like to keep in touch with the Keenes,” Monica said. “I’m sure Greg can use the extra help around the gym. He’s been so nice letting me train there all these years—I’d feel bad if I didn’t do something to reciprocate.”
Mike and Sharon looked at each other. No doubt they, as parents who hadn’t been athletes themselves, were trying to figure out a way to break it to their daughter that they wanted to do things differently now that the shit had hit the fan.
After a moment’s silent prodding from Sharon, Mike pushed back his plate and folded his hands on the tabletop. “Why don’t we wait and see how it goes next week. We’ve got a big move ahead of us. You don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. And you’re in public school now. There’ll be homework, a new schedule. I’m sure you’ll want to spend more time with friends.”
“In other words,” said Monica, “you just want me to forget about gym.”
“No one’s saying that.”
Monica stared fixedly at her plate. “Maybe if I’d saved my prize money instead of letting Joe flit it away we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and we wouldn’t be moving into Aunt Deborah’s basement.”
Sharon reached across the table and slapped her hand warningly. “You don’t mean that. Family looks out for family. Right?”
“Right,” Monica said, immediately regretting having mentioned Joe’s name.
Beside her, Chris covered his mouth with his hand, as if he’d been the one to talk out of turn.
“What would Reverend Coates say if he heard you talking like that?” asked Sharon.
“He probably wouldn’t like it,” replied Monica.
“I don’t think he would.” Sharon leaned back, folded her arms. “Your uncle Joseph came to us in a time of need. It was very noble of you to agree to part with your earnings. Joe helped us when we bought this house. But the tables have turned. Times are tough for everyone.”
That was Mike’s cue. He said, “Some of us have been hit harder than others. Remember how Joe was going to be the successful entrepreneur of the family? He spent ten years working part time and attending college. He was going to make something of himself. Now, with all his certificates and degrees, where is he? Where does he work? It’s been one failed business after another. He’s only recently begun to make a few inroads—and his debt is waiting for him like a storm cloud.”
As is ours, Monica thought.
“We’re of a certain make,” Sharon said, “and it just so happens we’re part of the working class. You have to realize it’s not your skill set that matters, it’s your connections. There are no other elites in our family. Never have been. We’ve been trying to start a blaze without the proper kindling—it’s just not catching. We’ve known that for some time. We’ve held on for as long as reasonably possible, now it’s time to cut our losses and move on, stop pretending that a Patriot contract will somehow appear out of thin air…lest we end up like dear Uncle Joe.”
And there it was: the Sardinia Family State of the Union Address, delivered in impromptu fashion over sweet potato pie. Sorry, honey, but you’re just not enough of a moneymaker, so it’s time to get our heads out of the clouds, time to hunker down and stop chasing after silly dreams.
Monica’s mood was hardly improved, though in all honesty she knew she couldn’t hold it against her uncle for going broke. It had been almost a year ago, in November. Joe’s third child had been only months out of the womb; the Sardinia family had had to scrounge for cash. Brothers called sisters, sisters conferred with husbands, and daughters with sizable caches of gymnastics prize money—college money—were requisitioned. Now Monica was out of her club, out of money, and her parents were trying to reassemble the pieces before she graduated high school.
It was frustrating, to say the least—and that, she realized, was a big part of what was going through her head. In the gym, she was away, mind and body. She didn’t have to witness first-hand the lower middle-class entropy she’d been born into, didn’t have to hear an exasperated sigh from her mother and connect it with her most recent KG enrollment fees. She didn’t have to listen to her father’s dire murmurings about the crumbling economy and how precariously her family was perched on the financial totem pole.
She finished her dessert, helped with the dishes afterward. In the kitchen, while wiping down the cleaned plates as Sharon handed them to her, she told herself to be mature about things, to accept where she was at, to accept her mother as a grade school teacher, her father a store manager.
After all, it wasn’t their fault; they just didn’t know any better.
* * *
That night, while Monica was checking her e-mail, Sarah sent her an instant message:
gymsprite: OMG, Monica, you’re online!
msardinia: Well, I’ve got loads of free time nowadays, don’t you know?
gymsprite: Aww, it can’t be that bad. I just got done with my math homework. My mom thinks she’s going to win Teacher of the Year by cramming three chapters into a single night.
msardinia: Speaking of Teacher of the Year, my mom’s been talking about taking on longer hours at her school. I’m going to be walking my little brother home on weekdays.
gymsprite: That sucks.
msardinia: He’s not that bad…not really.
gymsprite: I meant about your mom’s longer hours.
msardinia: Oh, well, she’ll manage.
gymsprite: My parents are never around either. They make it out to the meets and all, but my grandma’s the one who’s around most. She says everyone’s so stressed out because of all the crop burnings in Africa. Biofuel prices are through the roof—by the time I get my driver’s license, it’s going to be too expensive to go more than a couple of blocks!
msardinia: Things are tough.
gymsprite: Sure are. But hey, you’re getting to go to public school—there’ll be boys!
msardinia: Don’t remind me.
gymsprite: You say that now, but I bet you fifty ameros on Monday night you’ll be calling me with news of some cutie who wants to take you to the mall.
msardinia: You think about boys entirely too much. No wonder you tumble like a drunkard.
gymsprite: Oh, don’t be bummed out, Monica.
msardinia: I’m not bummed out.
gymsprite: You are too—spill it, babe.
msardinia: What do you want me to say? KG was such a big part of my life. I mean, I worked on my skills, my combinations, my form—I’ve always kept my national rank up where it matters, or where it’s supposed to, anyway. And now here I am, about to get a good night’s rest so that tomorrow I can help with the packing, so that on Monday my mom can take me to have my tag updated, my elite status removed.
gymsprite: Oh, Gloomy. At least you’re not going common because of a debilitating injury.
msardinia: Ugh. Don’t call me Gloomy.
gymsprite: Sorry. I didn’t realize you were so down about the whole thing.
msardinia: I should have known after my third National Convention that it’s looks before talent.
gymsprite: Says who?
msardinia: Donna. We spoke earlier today, at closing time.
gymsprite: Well, the Patriot girls do have that “I just spent three hours in the salon” look.
msardinia: It seems to be working for them.
gymsprite: Oh, pish. Patriots spend two-thirds of their time just looking pretty. You and me and Amy could probably punch-front them out the door at any NCPA meet.
msardinia: You’re only saying that to make me feel better. You want to go to Olympus as bad as I do.
gymsprite: Hey, babe, we all want that chance.
msardinia: I’ve run out of chances.
gymsprite: Those military jerks should be fired for not picking you.
msardinia: Not that I was expecting any special treatment, but…I wanted my time at KG to be more than just a hobby. I wanted it to do something for my family. I mean, if you make the national team, you aren’t just an athlete anymore, you’re a Patriot athlete, certificate, contract and all. You get free health care, free city transportation, housing for life. You get to represent the NAU overseas—you get to compete for your country during Heroes’ Day.
gymsprite: Yeah, but do you want those things strictly for the money and the recognition, or for the sport?
msardinia: What do you want?
gymsprite: I asked you first.
msardinia: I want to compete for America—
gymsprite: Fudge-fudge! Hey, my parents are bugging me to get off the computer, but you just keep that frown upside down, okay?
msardinia: No promises. Goodnight, Sarah.
Monica closed her notebook and set it atop one of the boxes beside her bed. She’d already showered, stripped down for the night; all that remained was the physical manifestation of sleep—which, despite her exhaustion, didn’t come easily. She curled up in her favorite plaid comforter and blinked at the walls, the ceiling, her eyes refusing to stay closed for more than a few seconds at a time.
She felt like it was the eve of a humongous competition.
After dinner, she’d dusted her certificates and polished her medals for the last time before carefully wrapping them in felt and packing them away. When she got her new room, she would replace the empty spots on the walls with posters of her favorite musicians and movie stars—she would keep her champion trinkets to herself, stored in a box at the back of her closet. If you’d never met her personally, you’d never know she was a junior national champion. It wasn’t denial, she told herself; it was… acceptance.
Close to midnight, she got out of bed, knelt on the floor, and said a prayer, asking for forgiveness and apologizing for slandering her uncle at dinnertime. Then she got back into bed, tossed, turned, tossed some more. Finally, she threw on a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants and left her room, went down into the den, with its quiet darkness, the familiar shag carpet beneath her bare feet, the feel of the beanbags and overstuffed sofa in the little video nook. She curled up between the cushions and, reasonably assured that no one would hear her crying, let it all out, one sobbing fit at a time. The reasons behind her need for emotional release didn’t matter. Maybe she was angry at her parents for spinning their wheels the last few years, maybe it was the NPAA’s unwavering ignorance, or maybe she was merely unused to change, growing up—shifting from girl to woman in uncertain times. In any case, when it was over and she was all cried out, sleep came, swift and sure.
Aunt Deborah’s basement was pretty nice, as far as basements went. The boiler and furnace area were to the right of the stairs, the guest room and billiards room down a hallway to the left—but it was still a basement, and the Sardinias were still a family of four without a home for the next few months. Monica was understandably introverted as Deborah (seemingly oblivious to any of the awkwardness associated with the situation) gave them the grand tour.
“Isn’t it cozy?” she kept asking. “This was Kit’s domain before he was shipped off to UNL. We’ll have to share the bathroom upstairs, but there’s power and heating, and network reception is quite good. You’re welcome to stay for as long as you need.”
Monica smiled and nodded politely, breaking off from Mike, Sharon, and Chris. She set her backpack down and ran her hand over the wood-paneled wall, discovered a discreet handle—closet space.
The billiards room was windowless, slightly smaller than the guest room. The pool table had been pushed over to one side; a cross-trainer, weights, and some mats were tucked towards the back. Monica examined the equipment, brushed her finger over the plates, which were caked with dust, but otherwise fit for use. She wondered if her parents would be keen on letting her arrange a miniature gym, something for old times’ sake. She wasn’t really into weight-lifting, nor was there any reason to keep herself conditioned—but it somehow seemed important to score a small sort of win in the midst of a larger defeat. A small bonus to offset an overwhelmingly crappy chain of events.
“Ah, I see she’s found the training room,” said Deborah, guiding the rest of the family inside. “Kit’s idea. Bodybuilding was a major hobby for him during his teenage years. Evidently impressing girls was more important than finishing his homework.” She winked.
Sharon glanced around, started to murmur something about dismantling the equipment and storing it in the garage—
—Monica cut her off, put on what she hoped was an irresistible smile. “Do you think I could use it? You know, to keep in shape and all? The weights and mats, at least?”
A sigh from Sharon. We need the space, her expression read.
Monica pushed nonetheless: “This can be my area. I’ll put my bed here. You’ll have the whole rest of the basement—er, guest room—to yourselves.”
Sharon sighed again, looked like she was calculating an infinite string of numbers in her head. Monica knew it wasn’t the time to be asking for favors, but she also knew her mother would rather not stage a confrontation in front of Deborah. At least, not on moving day.
“I suppose so,” Sharon said slowly. “That is, if your aunt doesn’t mind.”
“I think Kit would be perfectly okay if little Monica here used his weight machine,” said Deborah, still smiling, still oblivious. “What’s that old saying? You can take the gymnast out of gymnastics, but you can never take the gymnastics out of the gymnast?”
“Something like that,” said Sharon. She hid her displeasure behind a forced smile.
“Well, if it’s heavy lifting you’re after,” said Mike, hustling Chris towards the doorway, “there are plenty of boxes out in the car that need unloading.”
“Yes,” said Sharon. “Let’s get started.”
* * *
That first Monday morning waking up in Deborah’s basement, Monica sat yawning at the edge of her bed for a good few minutes. She did not want to get up, did not want to scavenge the boxes for clothes and school supplies, did not want to spend the rest of the day sitting in a cramped desk while some teacher droned on at the head of the classroom—but, like it or lump it, she was no longer an elite, and so was no longer exempt from her everyday duties as a common citizen.
She went into the guest room. The others were already awake, Chris stumbling into his pants, Sharon setting out bowls and spoons atop the card table, Mike fiddling with the videobox as he tried to get a decent signal. Above, a confused garden bot continuously bumped against one of the windows.
“Good morning,” murmured Sharon. “Amenities are in the box beside the door.”
Monica nodded and tried not to pay too much attention to the clutter, nor to how common she felt, how derelict she must have looked as she rummaged for her robe, a change of clothes. When she found what she needed, she quietly slipped upstairs for her morning shower.
Deborah caught her en route, delivering a kiss-and-hug combo with impeccable timing. “Your first day back in public school—oh, aren’t you excited?”
“A little,” Monica replied, though really she wasn’t the slightest bit eager to discuss or even acknowledge her newly-appointed mediocrity.
“Today’s the first day of the rest of your life. You’re going to make so many friends!”
I already have friends, thought Monica, ducking into the bathroom. Training partners who are this very moment preparing for another day towards the new season. I should be with them, earning credits for my community—not making casual friends and distant acquaintances to fill my address book.
Breakfast was quick and dirty. Monica spent most of the time getting the kinks out of her hair. Then it was off to school, Chris and herself walking placidly alongside all the other neighborhood kids whose parents were unable or unwilling to drive them to the Hamilton Quad Hub.
The campus had changed little in the last three years. Everything was still humongous, overcrowded—a miniature Tokyo bringing in students from Sussex, Lisbon, Lannon, and Butler. Monica managed to make it through her classes without bungling her schedule. At lunchtime, her friends made sure she was up on all the latest gossip. All in all, it wasn’t that bad of a day…if you didn’t count the after-school trip to the records office. Monica had gone there at the start of her elite career, three years ago, to have her citizen’s profile upgraded, her tag’s elite flag activated. Then, the Sardinias had celebrated over dinner at a fancy restaurant; now, they simply went home.
And so went Monica’s new routine. School and homework and puttering around Deborah’s basement. Without gym practice, there was time, so much time. Time to do the dishes, time to spend at the laundromat, time spent minding Chris’ affairs, running errands—explaining to neighbors why she was unwilling-and-or-unable to continue with her gymnastics.
“I thought you were away at camp,” said some.
“I thought you were busy training for the new season,” said others.
“Wow, do your coaches know you’re not in the gym?”
“How can you find the time to train and take your little brother shopping for new shoes?”
To them all, Monica could only offer a sigh, a shrug, and, “I’ve moved on.”
Sharon wasn’t much help in the PR department. Though she probably wasn’t doing it on purpose, her lack of tact in explaining why her daughter was out shopping for groceries instead of brushing up on her drills and skills was embarrassing, to say the least.
Tuesday evening, Monica and Chris accompanied her to the supermarket. As soon as they entered the produce section, Monica knew she was boned, as no fewer than six of her mother’s village acquaintances were standing near the lettuce and chattering excitedly about money this, politics that. When they noticed the Sardinias were approaching, they waved and smiled, immediately assimilating Sharon into the group.
Monica waited off to the side with the cart, watched as the women proceeded to point at bad spots, gasp at price tags. Chris darted away, returning a moment later with a box of Chocolate Schnauzers cereal under his arm.
“What’s that?” Monica asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Mom said we can each pick out a special item. A treat. What are you getting?”
“But mom said you can pick anything you want!”
“I’m not getting a treat. You shouldn’t either.”
Chris frowned. “Why not?”
“Because we can’t afford it.”
“But mom said—”
“I know what she said. It doesn’t change the facts.”
“Why would she say it if it wasn’t true?”
Monica sighed. “She’s being polite. It looks good to the other mothers to say, ‘Sure, honey, get whatever you want,’ when really she’s going to end up putting it on credit.”
Chris gave her a sidelong glance. No doubt he hadn’t a clue what credit was—nor pride, for that matter. He only knew that he wanted what had been promised to him. He put the Chocolate Schnauzers into the cart, then climbed inside, pushing the canned goods out of the way so he could sit cross-legged. He hummed a cartoon theme to himself as Monica turned away, watched the neighborhood women watch her, halfway catching their conversations:
“…Monica’s no longer an elite?”
“Oh, that’s too bad. We could really use those community credits right now…”
“…it all comes down to those exemptions we all know and love. Have you readjusted your tax information?”
“How much of a hit are you going to take next year?”
“…shelf prices must look absolutely criminal without your elite discount…”
“…a shame. Such a shame. Couldn’t come at a worse time. The neighborhood’s lost three good elites this year. We had that Disch girl, you know, the tennis player whose family moved to Ohio. There was that Leung boy who had his hand shattered in a biking accident—they say his new hand has to be retrained from scratch. It will be years before he gives another public performance. Oh, and the chess player, what was his name? Mark? Matthew? Offered a job in California.”
“Ugh. They all end up in California, don’t they?”
“Land of the Elites.”
“…and here we are, little ol’ Waukesha County. Last on everyone’s list. If ever there was a time for our remaining champions to band together…”
“…what can I do? She trained hard, she had the right skills, the right body type—by all counts she should be on the national team, but she’s just not mastered the right mentality. I’m darned proud of her, but let’s face facts: she’ll never be a Patriot. Her career has plateaued at the junior level, I’m afraid…”
“…not that I’m in any way suggesting she’s given it anything less than 110%, but, well, young women these days oftentimes don’t realize their worth to the community…”
“…maybe the irony here is that all she needed was 112%…”
“Oh, don’t be like that. She’ll hear you….”
Amazingly, no one made the slightest attempt at being discreet. Monica heard it all, the lost expectations, the disappointments, the prissy commentary regarding today’s oblivious youth.
“I hate this,” she muttered, and forcibly shifted her attention away from the produce section.
“Hate what?” asked Chris.
“Being a consumer.”
“You’re a consumer?”
“You, me, mom and dad, their friends—we’re all mindless, driveling consumers digesting ourselves nine to five even when it’s all over and there’s no more money left and all we can do is stand around the vegetable aisle talking about how crummy things are.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “Mom and her friends always talk like that.”
True, thought Monica, recalling weekly Greet and Grumbles that went all the way back to when she was the one riding in the shopping cart—but it was different now. She waved her hand over a cup of cottage cheese; the price tag flickered a moment before settling on full retail.
From contributing elite to common dependent—one more hungry mouth to feed.
She pulled her hood over her head, stuffed her hands into the pockets of her sweatshirt, and told Chris to keep quiet until checkout time.
* * *
August exhausted itself with dizzying speed, and September proceeded to whiz by just as fast. Monica’s fears that her days back in the fold would drag themselves out indefinitely were gradually replaced with the daily bustle of school, family, and a burgeoning new social life (many neighborhood friends were eager to play catch-up, as well as make Sussex’s former champion one of their own again).
And yet, try as she might, her previous life was not so easily disregarded, her acrobatic tendencies not so readily laid to rest. Though her mother never truly embraced the idea, she did allow Kit’s workout equipment to remain in the billiards room. Thus, Monica was able to fulfill her inborn obligation to keep herself conditioned, as long as she promised not to do anything to herself that might warrant the purchase of excessive amounts of nano gel. “The stuff’s expensive, so no using the bigger weights—and I don’t want you doing anything Greg or Donna wouldn’t want you doing behind their backs!” were Mike’s exact words.
October arrived, and as the shadows grew longer, so did Monica’s nostalgic tendencies come and go with less and less intensity. Every now and then, her brain chanced to produce an emotional hiccup or two (especially when her parents, in good faith, came around with that “Do you want to talk about it?” attitude regarding her various adjustments to normal teenage life), but she was always able to get a hold of herself before escalating to tears or tantrums. The world quietly rotated beneath her feet, never so crazy that she couldn’t stand it.
On a Sunday afternoon Monica and her family gathered together in front of the videobox to watch a live broadcast of the Patriot Cup. One of the more prestigious pre-season gymnastics conferences, the Patriot Cup was, as the title implied, Patriots-only, a progress report on Olympus’ would-be Heroes—assurance that taxpayer muscle was being put to good use. Already the U.S. teams were beginning to take shape with a varied squad of four-dozen boys and girls gathered from all over the country. These were the top picks, fresh from their first few months at the National Training Center. They lined up for the march-in, their postures perfect, their eyes bright, their smiles reaching ear to ear.
Sitting on the floor, her back against the sofa, her eyes fixed on the video screen, Monica felt the usual surge inside herself. Some of it was longing, but most of it was the mere excitement, the novelty, the hope and promise of an Olympic year waiting just around the corner.
Even if it’s me on the outside, looking in, she thought.
The affiliate station handling the Waukesha County broadcast ran its obligatory music and graphics introduction, followed by a brief “Raise the Bar” promotional showing a young gymnast in a time-lapse morph, first as a boy doing cartwheels and somersaults on his parents’ bed, then as a junior elite winning his first gold medal at an NCPA meet, and, finally, as a Hero, standing alongside a fictitious Team USA as smiling dignitaries gave out wreaths, medals, and plaques.
Momentarily, a pair of commentators—a man and a woman—came into focus against a wide shot of the interior of the stadium. Monica recognized the pair as Tommy Shire and Megan Townsend, two former Patriots themselves who’d become regulars during the more recent broadcasts.
Dispensing with a brief greeting, Tom launched right into his signature, just-slightly-over-the-top spiel:
“Wow! You can hear it in the intensity of the fanfare thundering from the stands, you can see it in the looks of utter determination on the faces of the gymnasts and their coaches: we are going into an Olympic year! The world is watching each and every one of these athletes, these Patriots gathered from across the globe, living and training away from their respective homes for months at a time—putting in blood, sweat, and tears to make their Olympic dreams come true!”
“Right you are, Tom,” said Megan. “And what a dream, to compete for your club—your country—as a Hero aboard the Olympus Space Station, the only station of its kind in orbit around Earth, built and maintained by the North American Union, but open to nations all over the world in the spirit of international competition and cooperation—”
Tom, cutting in (and growing noticeably more excited with each passing second): “It’s the pinnacle of any Patriot’s career—in the world of competitive athletics, you can’t get any higher than Olympus. Literally! And today’s competition is the first step towards making the cut.”
“That is so true, and everyone here today knows it. You mentioned the competitive spirit; that spirit has never been more evident than it is going into the new season. We’re seeing an incredible upsurge of international contenders that haven’t produced qualifying athletes in two, sometimes three terms—the Portuguese, for example, the Czechs, the Ukraine. Diversity is certainly an apt buzzword as we approach Heroes’ Day, 2100.”
“Perseverance, too,” said Tom, loosening his tie. “Everyone wants a piece of the pie, and it’s no secret that the NAU has suffered heavy losses over the course of the last three Olympic terms. That’s sixteen years since the United States, Canada, or Mexico produced a winning team—and not only in the sport of gymnastics.”
Megan nodded. “We’ve long had to endure underdog status.”
Tom removed his tie completely, set it on the table. “And with the national rank poised to slip downward another notch, with the economy having to support itself on a Patriot Grant that’s sixteen years old—my goodness, can you believe it’s been sixteen years since Darren Hades, with an impressive sweep of the 2084 Heroes’ Day event finals, brought home the gold for the States? Factor in drought in the Midwest, terrorist attacks on our feedstocks, Congress seriously looking at making some budget cuts in the aerospace industry, and it becomes obvious that what happens this Heroes’ Day will be the dominating factor behind how we live the next decade of our lives.”
Sharon snorted, picking shrewdly from a bowl of buttered popcorn. “They really know how to pour on the drama, don’t they?”
“I’m all wearied out—and they’re not even on vault yet,” said Mike.
(Chris was the smart one; he’d switched to reading a comic book as he waited for the gymnasts to begin their routines.)
Sharon continued: “They were talking politics on the news the other night. They say that if we don’t get the national rank up this term, the government is going to have to cut funding for Olympus.”
“They say that every term,” Monica said.
“Yeah, but if this turns out to be our fourth consecutive Heroes’ Day with nothing but bronze medals, if we lose our eligibility to even get our athletes aboard Olympus in the first place, it won’t matter whether or not the station continues to operate—we’ll be out of the loop.”
“Goddamned government,” Mike said, shaking his head. “No one wants to see an institution like Olympus go to waste, but things have become so bungled we can’t afford to maintain it anymore. You know, they’ve been suggesting that we ‘solve the problem’ by selling the station to a competing nation interested in restoration. Handing over the prestige for pocket change.”
“Oh, I don’t know about prestige,” said Sharon. “We’ve had Olympus for twenty years, and so far most of that has been budget problems and terrorist attacks. The world assumes that the U.S. has some sort of hidden leverage just because we sweep the floors and make the beds. I say, if the world wants Olympus, let them have it—they can fight over it until kingdom come. I have enough to worry about down here on Earth.”
Monica’s jaw dropped. “You mean just give Olympus away?”
“Well,” said Mike, winking, “for the right price.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Oh, honey.” Sharon sighed. “We were never competitors, like you. I suppose it’s only natural that we have a different perspective. You have to admit, though, keeping Olympus is like paying to maintain your own swimming pool and then letting neighbors use it while you stand off to the side, waiting your turn.”
Monica looked away from her parents. There was heat building beneath her cheeks, a feeling of betrayal causing her pulse to quicken—first it was KG that was deemed expendable, and now it’s Olympus. What next? College? The car? Vitamins? Clothes?
Luckily, the U.S. Patriots were beginning their exercises.
“Shh!” exclaimed Chris, putting his comic book down. “It’s starting!”
The gymnasts had removed their warm-up suits. Their tempered bodies were skinned in the trademark Patriot colors: white, with a splash of red and blue across the shoulders. The camera offered a generous closeup of an eleven-year-old Californian named Jackie Davisson as she prepared for her first vault. She was nibbling on her lower lip.
“A star pupil at Sunburst Gymnastics,” said Tom, off-screen, “Jackie made quite an impression at this year’s International Convention of Patriot Athletes. She’ll be doing a Yurchenko-type vault here…” Jackie started down the runway. She planted her hands firmly on the vault table, launched herself into the air. Her amplitude and execution were good, with knees and feet kept together while in flight, but her landing didn’t quite stick. Nevertheless, Tom was ecstatic. “Wow! Incredible speed, great height, a little wobbly on the landing, but what a way to start things off!”
Megan, as Jackie padded back up the runway for her second vault: “Look at that smile. She knows she’s gotten off to a good start. All she needs is to stick the landing in her next vault, and she’ll have a nice average counting towards her final score. Of course, none of tonight’s athletes will have to worry about their national ranking being affected until the 2100 season officially begins, but a preliminary meet like this gives the coaches an idea as to how their athletes will perform under pressure.”
“And here we go,” said Tom. “Vault number two.”
Jackie’s second run-through was as impressive as her first—though her feet didn’t quite know where to plant themselves during the landing. She ended up sliding onto her butt, blinking in surprise for a moment before quickly jumping back up, presenting to the judges, and jogging off the podium. The camera followed her as she threw herself into her coach’s arms, her tears flowing freely.
Tom said, “Wow. You see these incredible feats of strength and agility on the vault, the beam, the bars—you sometimes forget that these athletes are only eleven years old.”
Monica stuck with the broadcast through the first rotation. On bars, beam, vault, and floor exercises, the drama didn’t let up for a second, though it was faraway, confined entirely to the high-res grid of the Sardinias’ video screen. There were other gymnasts as well, other triumphs and tribulations, but Jackie was clearly the American favorite, bleach-blonde pretty, emotionally fragile—ratings paydirt.
“Does anybody want anything from the fridge?” Monica asked, getting up during a commercial break.
“Coke,” said Chris.
Mike and Sharon shook their heads.
Monica’s trip upstairs took only a moment. She fetched a glass of water for herself, a can of Coke for Chris, then returned to the basement—where everyone had shifted to the edge of their seat as they gaped at the video screen. At first she thought that Jackie had perhaps lost a scrunchie, but then she saw the grave look on her mother’s face, the grim set to her father’s jaw.
“God, Monica,” Sharon breathed. “Come look at this.”
Monica reclaimed her spot on the floor, the drinks still clutched in her hands. The Patriot Cup had been preempted by a breaking news report—a hostage situation at an elementary school in Alabama. 300 teachers and students had been crammed into a gymnasium while a group of armed radicals engaged in a heated stand-off against the police. Someone from inside had managed to keep a cell phone, and was feeding the news crew morbid images of women and children sitting huddled, frightened, some bleeding or bruised.
In the background, a man could be heard shouting:
“Give us our sovereignty! The Global Ranking System is a facade designed to take from the poor and give to the rich! Our farmers and workers are forced into slave labor by sneaky U.S. officials and Canadian yes-men who make deals behind closed doors to ensure our teams never advance in the ranks! We will be a slave nation no longer! Your diplomats say the GRS has abolished war—the war has only begun!”
Monica felt herself squirm (as she often did whenever a band of domestic terrorists made the news). The people on the screen looked to be of varying ethnicities. They had American accents—they might have, at one time, been businessmen, politicians, community pillars. Now they carried guns, dealing in desperation, mourning the death of the middle class by making an example of themselves.
“God almighty,” muttered Sharon.
“Christ,” said Mike.
(Amazingly, the two of them were still eating popcorn.)
After a while, the Patriot Cup came back on.
No one felt like watching.
* * *