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Authors: Carol Clippinger

Open Court

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For my mom

I
don't want to sound like I'm bragging or anything, because I'm not. Honest. Everyone's good at something. For me, it's tennis. I play on the junior circuit and travel to all sorts of tennis tournaments to compete. I usually win. I want to turn pro eventually. My friends think I've got it made. But expectations creep under my skin like soldiers, taking my brain hostage, demanding I conquer or crumble.

Tennis ruins my feet. Makes them ugly. The stop-start motions and side-to-side movements of the sport breed blisters. They plague me, attack my soft flesh. I always keep a small box full of blister treatments with my tennis gear.

All athletes have rituals, game day or not. Some eat the same carb-loaded breakfast every morning or have specific sports drinks nearby at all times; others wear lucky underwear or socks. Me? I wouldn't dream of leaving the house without popping my blisters first. Especially today, with this infected blister.

First I placed a towel under the offending foot. (My mom doesn't want blister puss on her carpet. Who can blame her? It's gross.) One click of a lighter produced a perfect oval flame. I sterilized the needle by roasting it in the middle of the heat. Clenching my teeth, squinting, I forced it in, piercing the flesh before I lost my nerve.

Puss oozed immediately. Ooze is the worst. Hate the ooze. I applied pressure to the opposite end to let the puss trickle out until only a white pocket of empty skin remained. For the moment I placed a Band-Aid over the empty pocket. I'd drain it again before practice.

Coach yells if I show up for practice with an untreated blister. Even when drained they make me walk tender. A delicate gait isn't allowed in tennis. Ever.

“Quit limping. It doesn't hurt that bad,” Coach always says. “Suck it up and be a man.”

“But, Coach, I'm a girl.”

“No excuses. It's only pain, get over it.”

I pressed my hand on top of the Band-Aid to let the
heat from my fingers ease the throb underneath. It'd feel better in a minute.

There isn't much to do in Colorado Springs, Colorado. That's probably the conclusion of anyone who has lived their entire life in one place, like I have. After a while boredom sets in and suffocates me. But today was the first day of summer vacation and my possibilities were wide open. I put my blister remedies away and headed down the street to Melissa's house.

I'd rather have hung out with Eve, my best friend, but she was gone for the day. Melissa was never my first choice because she was a few years younger than Eve and I. There weren't any kids her age in the neighborhood, so she was pathetically grateful for our friendship. She had the sad eyes and constant whine of a lost puppy. Most of the time her clothes didn't match, and she didn't even care.

Melissa O'Donnell often solved our hunger problems. She was one of five kids, and her mom probably spent a thousand dollars a week at the grocery store. I'm not kidding. Opening the O'Donnell refrigerator was a religious experience. It was crammed with brand-name junk food, free for the taking. I can honestly say I've never spent time at Melissa's without eating something. Melissa didn't really mind, though. We never asked for
food, she
offered
it. I can't really say no to a free Snickers bar—who can?

Three houses away from Melissa's I spotted a girl drowning a lilac bush in her front yard. I recognized her from school. We'd never spoken.

“You going to Melissa's?” she called.

I'm not a person who enjoys dumb questions from people I don't know. I wondered if I should answer or pretend I didn't hear her hollow voice and keep on walking. I paused for half a second and took another step.

“You going to Melissa's?” she said again.

I faced her. “Yeah.”

“I know Melissa,” she said, dropping the hose.

I took a few steps toward her; she took a few toward me. “Oh yeah?” I said.

“I'm Polly Cassini,” she said.

“I'm Hall Braxton. Did you just move here?”

“Yeah, we've been here two months. Used to live in Briargate. We just finished unpacking. I've seen you and Melissa and that other girl—”

“Eve?”

“Yeah, Eve—walking together,” she said.

“Oh.”

We watched water spill out of the round garden hose opening and creep into blades of grass. The thirsty earth
underneath quickly sucked it in. I hate talking to people I don't know; I can never think of anything to say until the conversation is finished. I'm quite articulate after the fact.

“Melissa's mom just got back from the grocery store,” Polly said, her brown hair flying in the wind. “Got home, like, five minutes ago. I saw her carrying the bags from the car. I counted thirteen.”

“Thirteen bags?”

“Bet she bought ice cream. And Red Hots, too. They have gobs of Red Hots.”

I smiled. “They have cans of Coke, not two-liter bottles. Cans are the best.”

She grabbed my sleeve, suddenly eager. “I could use a snack,” she said. “What are we waiting for?”

We walked, with purpose, the short distance to Melissa's. I snuck a glance at Polly. She wasn't pretty, exactly, but her face was interesting. Pouty cheeks. Small earlobes. A chameleon; she could be a lot of different things if she chose. My face wasn't as generic as hers, which could be good or bad, I wasn't sure. A wave of déjà vu swept over me, like I knew this girl from somewhere, but where?

“I'm not eating anything,” I proclaimed. It was wrong to use Melissa this way, even if she didn't mind.

“Yeah, sure,” Polly said.

“I'm serious.”

“You'll cave.”

Polly rang the bell.
Ding-dong.

Melissa opened the door and grinned like it was Easter and we were the bunny. “Hey, you guys know each other?”

“We just met,” Polly said. “Can you hang out?”

“I gotta put the groceries away first,” Melissa said.

“No problem. We'll help,” Polly offered, gliding inside. She pretended to be sly, but I could tell she wasn't there for the food—she liked Melissa. Her tone of voice was affectionate.

We sat on the kitchen counter while Melissa shoved groceries into cupboards. She didn't want help, only our company.

“Don't you have tennis practice today?” Melissa asked me.

“Not till later.” The last thing I wanted to talk about was tennis. Leave it to Melissa to bring it up.

“You play tennis?” Polly asked.

“Tell her all the stuff you won.”

“It's no big deal,” I said.

“What'd you win?” Polly asked, curious now. She shoveled a fistful of Red Hots into her mouth.

“Tell her what you won.”

“I got to the semifinals of the United States Tennis Association National Open in Utah, and won the Junior Orange Bowl the last two years. Won the Great Pumpkin Sectional Championship, did well at the Columbus Indoors. It goes for a while—stop me anytime.”

Polly shrugged.

“She's a nationally ranked player,” Melissa said. “Ranked number one in all of America, right, Hall?”

“I'm not number one,” I protested.

“What number are you?” Polly asked.

“I'm number four in the USTA, Junior Division, Girls 14's—I'm thirteen, but Girls 14's includes thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds. “

Melissa nodded. “That means only three other girls in the whole world are better.”

“No. It means in the
United States,
in my
age group,
only three other girls are better. An international ranking is more important. You have to play foreign tournaments to get one, starting when you're thirteen. I've only played one so far—in Mexico. I lost.”

“Yeah, but her coach used to pay the Cheyenne Mountain boys’ tennis team to hit with her. She kept winning. Now they don't want to play her anymore. Isn't that right, Hall?” Melissa said.

“You beat high school boys? No way!”

“Jeez, Melissa. Do you have to tell her everything?”

“No way!” Polly said again. She looked at Melissa, then me, trying to decipher if we were playing a prank.

“Can we talk about something else?” I said.

“You don't like it, do you?” Polly asked.

“Like what?”

“Tennis. You hate it,” Polly said.

“I don't hate anything,” I protested.

“OK,” Polly said like she didn't believe me. “Whatever you say.”

“I'm saying I don't hate tennis.”

“OK.”

I've been a “prodigy,” a “tennis phenomenon,” since I picked up a racquet at age six. That's what my dad says, anyway. It's probably what lots of fathers say about their kids’ abilities, except in my case it's true. As my dad puts it, I “hit the hell out of the ball.”

Tennis is what I do. It's who I am.

My coach, Trent, says I'm so good it
hurts
to watch me. But my talent, and trophies, and crap I've won are starting to backfire. There isn't any competition left within my region: I play the same twenty girls over and over. Sometimes I “play up” in tournaments, against sixteen-year-olds, and win. Without competition my game won't improve.

Suddenly I'm a problem, concern, difficulty. My parents are considering sending me to live at a tennis academy to advance my tennis career. They say it's the next step for me to turn pro. The Bickford Tennis Academy—in
Florida
—is high on their list.

Tennis academies turn tennis talent into tennis legend. Academy kids live in dorms and attend private school four hours a day. The rest of their day is devoted to tennis, cross-training, and more tennis. Homework gets completed in the wee hours of the morning, apparently.

Academies are particular about who they let in. Only the top players survive. Tennis doesn't have the same age restrictions as other professional sports. Girls as young as
fifteen
turn pro. The younger, the better.

Most tennis academy kids won't end up turning pro, but they'll at least get a full athletic scholarship to Harvard, Notre Dame, or Stanford. The best that can happen—the goal—is that a kid will turn pro and start raking in serious amounts of cash on the ATP or WTA tour. This happens maybe two percent of the time.
Two percent.
I know, I've read the statistics.

These adults that claim to love me, my own flesh and blood, might be sending me away to live at an academy. The thought of it makes me sick. I'm a champion in Colorado. At a place like Bickford Tennis Academy everyone
is a champion. Maybe better than me. At Bickford I might be the worst player. Worst of the best. It's not worth the risk. I want to stay in Colorado, be coached by my own coach, and win. I'm a champion here. Why would I want to go anywhere else?

“The only thing I'm good at is math,” Polly said, returning my thoughts back to the real world. “I hate math.”

“I'm good at piano,” Melissa offered.

My promise not to eat was short-lived. Without thinking, I dug my hand into a bag of pretzels and popped several into my mouth. Polly raised an eyebrow at me as I chewed. I shrugged. She smiled.

“I gotta get going,” she said, glancing at her watch. She thanked Melissa profusely for the Red Hots.

“Want to ride bikes, Hall?” Melissa asked.

I had nothing better to do. Tennis practice didn't start for another couple of hours. “OK. I'll go get my bike. Meet me halfway?”

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