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So she didn't see the little boy. Catch his face in the blankets.
"Mariah, sweetie, I'm so proud of how well you're doing in school!" Mom chirps as she decorates Thanksgiving turkey cookies for a bake sale.
"Thanks." I turn the pages of my report, trying to imprint each word solidly in my head. I can't believe the presentation's after this weekend. A month's worth of work in five torturous minutes. Still, it looks pretty awesome.
I made a poster showing the process of knighthood in three stages: page, squire, and knight. Underneath I made a collage representing the purpose of knights, with an explanation below and authentic coats of armor at each corner. I've set it on the kitchen table so I can memorize a little more at every meal. Much better than the less-than-scintillating conversation that my family normally has.
I really want to do this presentation well-- call it redemption, if you wish. I want to stand confidently in the front of the room, look Courtney straight in the eye, and slam down every word without stumbling. Quinn's helped me practice during our runs.
"Don't you think Mariah's doing well?" Mom coaxes Dad, who's reading the Business section over a cup of ice-cold coffee.
"What--oh, yes, very well," he murmurs. Like he's been paying attention.
"Will you come to my quilting meeting this Saturday, honey?" She asks sweetly, her voice surprisingly sincere. It's almost with dismay that I turn her down.
"Sorry, Mom, I have that charity thing, remember? The one with the little kids?"
"Again?" Brief wrinkles skim across her face, but smooth out just as quickly. "Oh, you little social butterfly! You know, back in the day, I was pretty popular too..." I let her ramble on. No harm in that, is there?
"Uniform linear motion: Chapter 5, Section 3." Mr. Wainsworth announces, each word enunciated precisely. "Please turn to page one hundred ninety five in your textbooks and begin the lab as stated. All materials can be found on the central table. Partners of two. If you have a question, ask your neighbor." He shuts his Physics book neatly and marches back to his fort of a desk, back to his second life or romance novel writing, or so I imagine.
I'm about to look for Hanna, a smart, sweet girl who also volunteers at daycare, to be my partner, but I feel a tap on my shoulder.
"Partners?" It's Quinn, thirty seconds late, cheeks flushed.
"Please." Hanna spies me, shoots a glance at Quinn, and gives me an understanding wink with a thumbs-up. Gotta love that girl.
We gather our materials and head out to a quieter section of the hall. Our job is to make a cute little insect robot go in a straight line. Simple, right? Well, that's a lot harder than it sounds. The bot jumps, flickers, spins, and reverses all over the hallway as we dash to catch it.
Breathless, we finally corral it against a locker with our notebooks. Quinn scoops up the struggling bot and flicks the "off" switch.
"Tricky little devil. Thought we'd never catch it."
"How the heck do we make it go straight?"
"Yardsticks." He decides. "That should do it."
"There's only one in the classroom. How will we get the rest?"
"Look around us," he gestures expansively, "over thirty classrooms, each with its own. All we have to do is ask."
"Really? In front of everybody?" I feel a nervous tingling in my belly.
"Come on. It'll be great practice." He grabs me by the hand. I pretend to resist, but really I like his fingers wrapping around mine.
He knocks politely on the first door, Algebra 1. The teacher, an ascetically thin old lady, peers at us sharply over minimalist glasses. She rolls her eyes and beckons wearily with one bony finger.
Quinn boldly pushes the door open and strides into the classroom. I follow timidly, trying to stop the blood from rushing to my face. I chance a quick scan of the class, and immediately wish I hadn't. Courtney's in it, snickering, smirking behind glossily-straightened bangs.
"Pardon me, but do you have a meter stick we could use?" I'd forgotten how proper he sounds when he wants to be. Such a golden boy, him and his shy accomplice. But accomplice is better than nonexistent.
"What do you need it for, young man?" She asks suspiciously.
"An intricate experiment involving stylized robots and uniform linear motion," he proclaims grandly. I stifle a laugh. Intricate? Yeah right.
She raises her spare eyebrows, but wordlessly hands him the meter stick. Out of the classroom, he turns and grins down at me, meter stick in hand.
"That was fun, wasn't it? Only four more to go!"
His enthusiasm gets so annoying sometimes.
When we finally return with five meter sticks, he smiles triumphantly.
"See? You can do anything if you have the guts!"
"Mmm..." Suddenly I don't feel so great about my oral report. If I'm afraid of standing silently in front of a class, I don't know how I can make a speech. "I don't know if I can do this."
"I'm scared standing in front of a half-asleep class while you do all the talking! How can I expect to tell them what I need to when my body won't let me?"
"Trust me, you'll be fine. You don't have a problem with that kind of thing. I do." He says bitterly.
"What? But-but you're amazing at speaking in front of an audience of a hundred!" I splutter. What in the world is he thinking? He could be an actor!
He sighs, head hanging low, and lets the meter sticks clatter to the floor.
"But I can't do it in front of one. Do you have any idea how hard it is to talk to you, Mariah?"
"Me?" I don't get it. What's he trying to say?
"Yes, you-- see, the thing is--" He bites his lip slightly." Well, I, um, I asked you to go running with me because... er..."
Poor Quinn. I've never seen him at such a loss for words. If I only knew what he wanted to tell me.
"OK, the thing I wanted to say, was, um, you're really-- uh-- great, and, uh, would you, um" His face is brilliant red, but I know where he's going with it now.
"What time?" He glances up from his shoelaces, relief flooding his face.
"Seven? Monday night?"
His usual composure returns. "It's a surprise."
"Good." I smile, the first real one in such a forever time. "I like surprises."
Childish laughter floats on the bitter winter air, like the sound of angelic sleighbells. Miguel's husky chuckles mingle with Gabriela's sweet high giggle, a melody soothing to my ears.
The cause of this is handstands.
I have been trying to teach them, you understand, but in spite of their wiry little bodies, they cannot hold themselves up on their tiny hands. I show them time and time again, help them kick up and balance, but they claim my hands tickle. They collapse, convulsing with helpless laughter on the frosty dead grass.
"Show us again!" Miguel shouts, spring up from his last fall.
"All right." Toe point, right leg kick, left leg up to join it, breathe and hold. I am suspended perfectly, at equilibrium, with only myself to trust. I cross my eyes at Miguel, and he sticks his tongue out at me, angel-devil boy that he is.
I come down slowly, controlled and perfect, like my old gymnastics coach would want. I watch as the two try again. Gabriela kicks up slowly, cautiously, but with a measured power that I know will get her somewhere soon. Miguel throws himself recklessly upside down, as if he knows that someone will bet there to catch him. He balances for a second, legs flailing, before tumbling onto his back.
"I did it! I did it!" He crows jubilantly, punching the air with a clenched fist. Gabriela watches him quietly, enviously.
"Mariah? Why do we always fall down?" She wants to know.
"We can't balance forever, Gabriela. But we can try. Don't worry. You're doing great." She nods calmly, so I sit back and watch them tumble across the winter-bitten lawn.
"We can't balance forever." I don't think I have ever said truer words. Because I'm right. It's impossible. We think we have found our balance, and all is right and true and good, but there is a point, I don't know what time, when it isn't. Maybe a finger slips or a leg falls out of line, but whatever it is, our back arches and our arms twist and we come crashing to the ground in a heap.
So as I push myself into a handstand one last time, there is only one thing I know for sure: I am going to come back down.