A Parkour Story

By Gabriel Arnold

[2]

PROLOGUE
“Hello and welcome back everyone! In case you missed it before the break, England’s Phil Doyle just threw down one of the most spectacular displays of skill ever to grace this arena. He started out a little slow but his final Tech has landed him firmly in first place with a comfortable half point lead. Doyle finally nailed the Heaven n’ Hell Drop. Yes, you heard that right, a wall hanging inward front flip, a drop of EIGHT feet straight down, CATCHING the next wall lip, and then seamlessly popping off into a layout back flip. Keep in mind; no one has even attempted that combo since Romero Nunez nearly ended his career trying it a year ago. But that flash of insanity might clinch 37-year-old Phil’s chances at a fourth international title. A good thing too for the oldest competing Runner because he has confirmed this is his last shot at glory.” “The volume has doubled and the screams are more intense than ever. That can mean only one thing: Andre Levy has taken his position at the starting gate. 24-year-old Andre just entered the international scene early last year but he has already taken the PKFR world by storm. He’s won three back-to-back continental titles, landed the first ever Wall Double Side Simi in competition and now, he’s taking aim at the world title. His music is blasting, the bass rocking the arena seats. Andre signals that he’s ready to begin and there he goes! Diving front flip over the starting gate, a trademark of his, rolling out of it and seamlessly dropping in off the first wall. He takes aim at the monkey scaffolds and…” “…10 seconds left on Andre’s 90 second run here. It’s been pretty impressive so far but I don’t know if it’ll be enough to top Doyle’s. He’s slow as he climbs back up the retaining wall, breathing hard. These Freestyle runs are rough on everybody, especially at this top tier of competition. A bit of lag as Andre regains strength at the wall top, staring down the Big Gap. Probably looking for one last big Tech here. He winds up, leaps and…WHOA! Oh my God! Holy, holy shit! No way, NO WAY! Pray you did not just blink folks, pray!” “Coming out of a dead sprint, Andre pulled a Layout Gainer over the Big Gap, dropping down six feet into a BLIND RAIL PRECISION! And he hit it clean, standing straight on the rail as the buzzer blared! The crowd is going ballistic, even the judges are on their feet! The other Runners are losing their minds, tackling Andre to the ground in excitement! No question about it. Andre Levy has upset Phil Doyle to take this year’s 18th Annual World Parkour/Freerun Championsh-!“ Rusty pointed the tiny silver remote at the drop screen and paused the playback. He had watched this run dozens of times in the past week. Every time it ended the same way: Andre twisting and soaring, the entire world holding its breath. Silence as he hit the bar. Then the cheers erupted, the explosion of noise, every time. Each time Rusty would pause the video, right as Andre hit the peak of his jump, trying to imagine himself there. There, in the crowd, or as one of the Runners, or even as Andre himself. Trying to imagine that feeling of accomplishment, of awe, of pure unadulterated freedom. But his imagination always fell short. Without being there, without knowing what even a single jump or Tech felt like he could never measure up to what he saw on screen. So he’d watch the run

[3] again, and again, and again. Frustrated and annoyed, he’d turn it off again and again, unable to taste that pure feeling. He glanced at the clock and did a double take. Damn, 7:54, now he’d have to run to catch the Mag-Lev train at 8:05. He snatched up his backpack, swatted the light switch to off, and hustled out the door, locking it behind him. Then he ran.

This year is 2028. PKFR, the abbreviation for Parkour/Freerun, has become a household name, nearly replacing soccer and football as the most widely practiced and watched sport in the world. Every child, parent, and even grandparent knows about it. There are PKFR clubs in every town, basic Techs (the slang term for moves and tricks) are taught in school P.E. classes, and competitions are held regularly for amateurs and professionals alike. The champions become legends, idols, and bigger celebrities than David Beckham in his prime. PKFR has become the mainstream, and the mainstream has become PKFR. Russell Klein, nickname Rusty, is a 17-year-old high school student living in The City. Ever since he could remember he has worshipped Runners, the name for PKFR athletes. Their power, skill, and confidence captured his imagination. But he has never trained in the sport. His mother has forbidden training of any kind ever since his father, one of the first massively popular Runners, died from a fall in the middle of downtown. So Rusty has been forced to merely watch his dreams, to follow the champs online, and to sneak the occasional vault into his classes at school. But today he will miss his train. He will meet a man. And nothing will ever be the same.

[4]

CHAPTER 1
The city air was humid and thick, the hazy early heat of a late May morning. Houses and store fronts slid by in flashes of murky colors, wood and metal, paint and glass all melding into one. Faces emerged and disappeared quick as firecrackers, faces of men and women he’d never know. Sprinting down Washington Avenue, Rusty darted through the crowds, side stepping stragglers and barely missing a herd of baby strollers. Early 90’s grunge rock blasted into Rusty’s eardrums, his SEED music system buds canceling out the screech of commuter traffic in the street. Sweat soaked the undersides of his arms and dripped heavily off the edges of his fire red hair. But through this mayhem all he could hear, all he could feel, was his breath surging in his chest and his legs pounding the pavement. It was a mad dash of Hollywood standards. Three blocks to go, five minutes left. A runner stealing home in the World Series couldn’t have put on a better show. He swiped his train pass through the electric reader and crashed through the revolving gates in one haphazard motion, barely keeping stride as he took the stairs three steps at a time. He skidded around the final corner and his hundred-fifty pound frame was almost knocked off its feet by the weight of his overstuffed backpack. He caught himself just before he hit the ground and came to a halting, jerking stop at the edge of the Mag-Lev platform. It was past the normal rush hour for trains and the station was practically deserted, with only one or two businessmen lazily reading newspapers. Hands on his knees, soaked shirt clinging to his wet skin, he panted hard and stared down the tracks. He could see the train’s headlight coming through the tunnel a half mile away. He’d done it; he’d made the train on time. Eight blocks in barely ten minutes that had to be a new personal record. Rusty smiled despite the burning cramp in his side and pulled away the stray end of a hair that was threatening the corner of his eye. Looking up at his mop top of red and debating a haircut, Rusty sighed and continued to grin anyway, realizing he should relax. It was May 31st after all, the last day of school before summer vacation. In just a few short hours he’d be free, free for three whole months. Three months without Shakespeare reports or lazy teachers or lockers with broken locks. A chance to sleep, soak up a little sun, maybe even try his luck with asking Jenna Harrison out on a date. The Mag-Lev was quickly approaching and Rusty felt so good that he started to rock out on air guitar, fingers picking the hot air as the solo took off. He closed his eyes and bobbed his head as the heavy finale reached its peak. He hopped up on his toes, bouncing from foot to foot and trying to remember how the rock stars acted on stage in those old concert videos. He spun in place, stepped side to side, and started really laying into the groove. For a moment Rusty actually felt like he was flying through the air, weightless in the moment. A sickening crunch to his stomach snapped Rusty back to the real world. Eyes wide in confusion, he looked down and saw he was lying on top of something hard and metallic, something digging into his gut. He whipped his head around frantically, craning his neck and cringing as the pain in his stomach grew. What the hell had just happened? Rolling off the metal object and onto his side, one of Rusty’s earbuds came loose and dropped onto the ground, rolling away and bumping into a nearby rail. It exploded instantly, letting out a loud pop and sending bits of plastic flying everywhere. A bright, hissing white electric current arced across the metal where the earbud had once been.

[5] Rusty suddenly figured out where he was: on the train tracks. Somehow he had fallen off the platform and dropped six feet down onto the rails, barely missing the electrified portions that kept the train rolling. On either side of him were smooth cement walls, painted white like clouds. Below him was the steel and electronic infrastructure of the Mag-Lev’s tracks, sparking and buzzing with millions of volts of power. And bearing down, barely a hundred yards away and closing fast, was the Mag-Lev itself. Rusty’s wide eyes grew even wider as he realized the horrifying truth. He was going to be run over, flattened- killed - by the speeding train. His muscles wouldn’t move. His bag felt like a house on his back. He was frozen to the spot. This was it. A solid wall of a man appeared in front of Rusty. He didn’t make a single sound as he landed and with one arm he scooped up the fallen boy and hoisted him over his shoulder. Moving with surgeon’s precision in between the electric rails, the man tip-toed his way to the track wall and leapt towards it, gripping the smooth edge with only the fingertips of one hand. In the same leaping motion he pulled both Rusty and himself up, topping out with ease. He rolled Rusty to safety on the platform before snapping his legs up and under him. The train came blasting into the station a fraction of a second later, so close to the man’s back that a quarter couldn’t have slid in between them. As the Mag-Lev came to a stop the man walked over to where Rusty lay on the ground, staring up at the roof. Hyperventilating and on the verge of shock, the emotionless man reached into a small bag at his hip and pulled out a slim plastic bottle of water. Unscrewing the cap, he emptied the contents onto Rusty’s head without hesitation. The cold shower brought him back to the world and Rusty sat up, sputtering and stammering in disbelief. “Wha-hhhuuuhh-ah-ttt, what, haap-happened?” The human wall placed the empty bottle back into his bag and looked down at the kid with stern eyes. He replied in a quiet voice like worn leather, “You weren’t paying attention and danced your ass right off the edge. You should keep a closer eye on your surroundings.” At last Rusty’s mind was catching up to the situation. In a slow, humbled move he glanced up at his rescuer. The mysterious man looked like something out of the post-apocalypse. A middle-aged man, perhaps early to mid forties, but unlike any man Rusty had ever seen. Six feet of solid, deeply tanned muscle, every tendon and fiber in perfect definition. He wore a black cotton sleeveless shirt, tight around his chest and back, and loose white pants that looked like monk’s robes. The pants were stained with dirt and flecks of dried blood by the pockets. He wore tattered sneakers of a brand Rusty couldn’t see because the emblem had been worn away. The man’s head was shaved nearly to the scalp and, even with the closeness of the cut, you could see he had a deeply receding hairline. His hands were gnarled and his fingers thick and clenched, as if they’d born as muscular claws. There were several scars on his forearms and one especially prominent one that started just to the edge of his right eye and traced a faint, curving white arc across and behind his ear. But it was his eyes, his so crystal blue they were practically grey eyes that caught Rusty’s undivided attention. They were the eyes of a man fully confident and capable in every movement he made and word he spoke. There were as solid and unyielding as everything else on his body. This guy, Rusty thought, looks like he was carved from a solid block of granite. “Th-Thanks man. Sir. You saved my life.”

[6]

“It’s fine. Just promise you’ll look around next time and take a step back when you want to jam.” “Yeah, yeah I will.” The man was continuing to stare down at Rusty, his pale blue eyes now squinted slightly, as if trying to see through the boy and straight into the ground. Rusty started to pick himself up and finally asked, “What? What is it?” “That red hair…I feel like I’ve seen you before.” “Me? I, I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve never seen you.” Rusty shouldered his backpack and started ringing the excess water from his shirt. Looking up again, he said, “Who are you anyway?” The man took one final look up and down the length of Rusty’s slim, five-foot-eight body. Seemingly satisfied with what he saw, he fixed his gaze and looked directly into Rusty’s eyes before replying, “Owen.” The loud speakers of the station blared. The Mag-Lev would be leaving in thirty seconds, all passengers had to be onboard. Not wanting to miss his final day of school, Rusty slipped his other arm through the straps of his bag, his back bending slightly under the strain. His stomach still hurt but he hid the pain, not wanting to appear any weaker before this wall of a man named Owen. Stepping through the open doors, Rusty looked back and said awkwardly, “Well, uh…thanks again, Owen. I hope you don’t mind me asking but, um…are you a Runner? Do you practice PKFR? I’ve never seen someone that strong move that fast.” Owen’s previously stern eyes slammed into thin slits and his chapped lips flushed red with anger. In a rough, intimidating voice he replied, “I’m not a Runner. I don’t practice PKFR. I’m a Tracer. I practice Parkour.” Rusty could only blink and stare at the man. He swallowed hard. “A Tracer? What’s a Tracer?” Rusty replied meekly. Owen’s heated demeanor cooled but only slightly. Sighing to relieve his tension, he reached into the same small bag at his waist and pulled out a slip of paper and a pencil. He scratched out an address in short hand and handed it to Rusty, saying, “I don’t expect you to understand. Come to this spot tomorrow at noon. I think you could use this training.” The doors closed with a hiss of releasing pressure and the train started to hum with electricity. Through the glass of the doors, Rusty watched as Owen turned and walked toward the exit, his heavy form appearing unusually light and controlled. It was almost an unnatural kind of sight. The train reached full power and took off, gaining speed rapidly. Within half a minute the station was far away and Owen along with it. All that remained was Rusty. And the surreal vision of what was to come.

[7]

CHAPTER 2
“1…2…3…” The ride from the station to the school had been uneventful, save for Rusty’s humorous attempts to dry off his soaked clothes. The rest of his final day before summer break passed in similar fashion. He shuffled from room to room, lost in the memory of what had happened barely hours ago. Had it been real, his near death and rescue? Could someone like Owen – someone as inhumanly strong and agile as Owen – truly exist? And training, real PKFR training, under someone like him? The possibilities and questions bloomed uncontrollably inside his mind, and his normally bright emerald eyes shone even brighter in the daze of excitement. In fact, Rusty was so far gone he didn’t realize he was in his last class of the day until the guy behind him snapped both fingers right next to Rusty’s ears. Rusty’s entire body spasmed and lit up like a Christmas tree. He flailed his arms across his desk, knocking textbooks and pencils to the ground. He had nearly fallen right out of his chair by the time he was able to settle down. The two girls in the row next to him giggled and snickered. It wasn’t all that uncommon. Rusty was always drifting off and coming back again in an awkward burst of energy. It was simply Rusty, always making silly mistakes, never quite there. He was considered cute by most of the girls in the class, at least in a lost-puppy-dog kind of way. He was so loopy and uncoordinated; it was almost painful to watch. Always bumping into lockers and tripping over his feet. At least once a week he was nudged awake by a frustrated teacher, and he always sheepishly confessed to drifting off. It was especially pitiful when compared to all the other guys in the school. This particular branch of The City’s public high school system was well known for being a hotbed of sports and physical disciplines. A few of the school’s teams were ranked in the national top ten and many of the students were Runners or athletes of some kind. A few of them were near or at pro-level. And then there was Rusty. It was hard to believe all right. Rusty Klein, son of James “JK” Klein, the most talented Runner of the past decade. Guess talent and genes really could skip a generation. “4…5…6…” Lee, the finger snapper, joined in the fun and shook his head side-to-side in pity, saying to Rusty in a loud whisper, “Poor, poor Rusty, off on another wild daydream. What was it this time, white water rafting in the Amazon? Kong vaults over the Pyramids of Egypt?” Rusty readjusted himself in his seat and tried to get the blood in his cheeks to stop matching his hair. He leaned over to pick up his books and turned his head half-way around to whisper back, “Gimmie a break Lee, okay? I had a rough morning, got a lot on my mind.” Lee grinned, a huge jester style smile. Lee was a small guy, barely five-foot-six, and had about as much meat on his frame as a thumbtack. But he was handsome and naturally tan, having halfChinese, half-Hispanic heritage. He was also a natural born comedian and computer whiz. His pastimes included hacking old Internet websites and pretending he was Bruce Lee with a Mexican accent. He was also Rusty’s best friend. And he, like Rusty, also didn’t practice PKFR, though for different reasons. Though a huge fan, Lee preferred to watch. In most respects he was more

[8] knowledgeable about the history and current status of the sport than most actual Runners, a kind of PKFR supercomputer database. Still smiling at Rusty’s reply, Lee’s jokester talents kicked in. “Oh, a lot on your mind huh? Does ‘it’ have a name? Does ‘it’ sit in the front of class, have long blond hair, and go by the name…” “Shut up!” Rusty hissed. “I know who you’re talking about and no, for once, ‘it’ isn’t the reason.” Rusty glanced back up at the teacher to make sure he wasn’t looking their way. Seeing that he was busy writing summer reading lists on the board, Rusty continued in a low whisper. “I got saved from being run over by a train today by some old guy named Owen.” Rusty saw Lee’s eyes widen with concern. Rusty quickly played it off and replied, “Don’t worry, I’m fine now. It was this guy that was weird. He said he wasn’t a Runner but you should have seen him Lee, it was insane. He picked me up and did a one arm top-out like he was skipping stairs. Even the elite guys have trouble with those.” “7…8…9…” Lee’s grin diminished and he leaned back, folding his arms over his chest. A seasoned Runner that he didn’t know about? Lee was mildly insulted. “That good, huh? How come I never heard of him then, this Owen guy?” Rusty shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, he seemed way older than most, had to be like mid40’s. At least old for somebody that good. But see that’s the funny thing, he was really adamant about me not calling it PKFR, or him a Runner. Like, to the point of being scary. He said he was a ‘Tracer,’ and that it was called ‘Parkour.’” “Hmmm…well, those are the old terms. You know, from back in the early days, like thirty years ago. But no one uses them anymore, they just caused problems.” “Yeah, it’s weird, you know? The way he moved and the way he looked and talked. It was like meeting an ancient monk or something, like a Shaolin-Runner monk.” Lee laughed under his breath. “Sounds like the start of a bad kung-fu flick. What happened after the rescue?” Rusty grazed his fingertips over pocket containing Owen’s note. Rusty paused a moment, debating whether to tell Lee about the rendezvous. For whatever reason, Rusty decided against it. He took one last look at Lee before turning back around to the front, saying, “Nothing. I got on the train and he didn’t, disappeared right after that.” Lee rolled his eyes. “Okay, whatever you say, man. Sounds like one of your daydreams to me. Just watch your back in case ol’ Jackie Chan isn’t as friendly next time you meet.” Rusty laughed quietly and nodded but was surprised at how inadvertently close to the truth Lee had gotten. “Yeah, I will.” he said softly. “10…11…12…”

[9] The ear splitting final bell rang a few minutes later and there was instant pandemonium in the halls. Papers flying, trash bins overflowing, Freshmen and seniors alike rejoicing, slamming locker doors and running for the exits. Rusty and Lee followed the pack and collected their bags, grinning from ear-to-ear like Cheshire cats . Their bags were light as feathers, which meant no homework and freedom for three whole months. Having already emptied their lockers ahead of time, the pair weaved their way down the tiled corridors. At one point they barely ducked around a tall junior with an Andre Levy dreadlocks hairstyle as he attempted a side flip over three green recycling bins, stacked end over end. It was always fun to watch the end of the year stunts. If they hurried they’d just be in time to see the school’s senior club captains doing the traditional backflips off the gymnasium entrance roof. They were mere steps away from sunshine and tricking when a voice as smooth as vanilla and perky as coffee called out, “Hey, hey Rusty! Hey Lee!” Rusty froze in mid-step, eyes growing wide. It was as if he had caught sight of another Mag-Lev train barreling towards him. He might as well have, a Mag-Lev would at least have been quick and painless. This on the other hand, was much, much worse. And it went by the name of… “Jenna Harrison!” Lee called out in reply. “13…14…15…” Jenna Marie Harrison. Born on the opposite coast but raised in The City, she was the same age and grade as Rusty and Lee. At five-foot-three and a lithe hundred and ten pounds of stretched muscle, she was the petite version of the American girl-next-door. She wasn’t drop dead gorgeous, not by models’ standards, but with long, straight blond hair, dark, ocean blue eyes, and a contagious smile, she was as addicting as cotton candy and easily as sweet. Though some people couldn’t handle her eternally bubbly personality, no one could find a reason to hate her. All agreed that they had never once seen her upset. She was also the next in line for the title of captain on the women’s gymnastics team. The nationally ranked, five-time state champions gymnastics team. And for the last two years of high school, she has been Rusty’s biggest, most heart rending crush. Lee knew it all too well, too. Jenna didn’t. At least, Rusty hoped she didn’t. She came jogging up to where the two stood, backpack bouncing from side to side. Rusty and Lee were far from the tallest in school but she still had to look up slightly to talk to them. It was so unintentionally cute that Rusty had to glance away for a moment. “What’s going on guys? Going out to watch the annual trick session?” Lee smiled back at Jenna and said in his lighthearted tone, “As a matter of fact we are. Just let me dig out my camera…wait. Aw, damn it! I forgot it in my locker! I’ll be right back guys, wait outside for me okay?” “16…17…18…”

[10] Rusty stared, horrified, as Lee took off running down the hallway. That rat! thought Rusty. He hadn’t even brought his camera today! That was an excuse, his idea of a joke. Leaving him and Jenna alone, just to see him squirm and tease him about it later! Some friend, that lying, dirty… “Hey Rusty?” Jenna’s voice cut through the chain of silent expletives in Rusty’s head. His focus now firmly attached in the present, a cold sweat broke out on the back of his neck. Rusty somehow managed to find his tongue and said calmly, “Yeah Jenna?” “I’m going to be competing in next month’s Gymnastics Open. I was wondering if you and Lee would be there. I know how much you two like PKFR but regular gymnastics is pretty close, and I’d really like a cheering section. Can I count on you guys?” “19…” Rusty stared, the red strands of his hair barely covering the edges of his eyes. Thoughts careened like thousands of pinballs. Jenna was inviting them? To the Open? He only knew her through a handful of classes they had together. They had maybe a dozen conversations through the entire year. What was going on? Jenna cocked her head to the side. “Uh…Rusty? Hello? Rusty?” She waved a hand in front of his face. Damn it, he’d zoned out again! Crash landing back to Earth for the hundredth time, Rusty replied instantly, without hesitation. “YES! Yeah, uh-huh! Of course we’ll be there! Count on it!” Jenna’ reeled back a half step at Rusty’s sudden response but smiled wide nonetheless. “Awesome!” she exclaimed, “Thanks Rusty, and thank Lee for me too. I really appreciate it. Sorry to talk and run but I gotta get going to catch my ride home. Hopefully I’ll see you sometime during the month, okay?” “Yeah, you got it Jenna!” “20!” Rusty collapsed to the ground, dust and dirt clinging to his bare sweat drenched chest. His arms and chest felt stiff as boards and weak as wet noodles. Panting hard, he rolled onto his back and draped a grimy arm over his eyes to shield them from the blazing June 1st sun. He’d been there barely fifteen minutes and the temperature felt like it had only managed to rise since then. It had to be nearly a hundred degrees at this point. How he was still functioning, he didn’t know. Maybe that flashback he just went through was because of the heat and the exhaustion, like a hallucination. Only it wasn’t really a hallucination - it was yesterday’s events. Today, on the other hand, was the day he had agreed to meet the mysterious Owen. He was now regretting ever having made that train on time.

[11] Rusty flicked his dust dry tongue against his chapped lips and heard the girl standing above him say, “Not bad new guy. You managed to make it to twenty again without a break.” “Fantastic. Does that mean I get the break now?” “Are you kidding? You’re only half-way through the six sets of pushups! Jeez, you new guys these days, not a drop of balls in your entire body. Fine, take two minutes then flip back over to the start position. Today’s your first day of conditioning and we’ve gotta toughen you up, fast. Now move it!” It was going to be a long, long afternoon…

[12]

CHAPTER 3
“Parkour is not jumping across rooftops. It is not somersaulting off your front porch. It is not vaulting trashcans, balancing on handrails, or crawling on all fours. Parkour is not what you make of it. It is not an art form like painting. It’s not expression. It’s not even a mindset or some stupidass training system for self improvement.” “Parkour is a discipline. It is real and it is a purpose. It is the desire to escape, to reach, to help, or to defend, put into physical practice. It is reason. To truly be a Tracer, one must become both selfless and unyielding. The will to carry forward, against all odds, is what starts you down the road of Parkour.” “But having that yearning inside is not enough. Desire without focus, without direction, is wasted energy. You need direction.” “…So what do I have to do then?” Rusty asked, his voice shaking. He was staring up into the ice blue eyes of Owen. The old man looked like he would snap Rusty in half at any second. Owen’s eyes never flinched but a tiny, knowing smirk stretched out from the corner of his mouth. “Right now? You need to condition like a motherf-” Well, you get the idea. Lasting only forty-five seconds, that was the extent of the first day’s conversation between Rusty and Owen. As soon as Owen had stopped speaking, a slim, flat-chested woman, barely into her late-twenties, with dark, chestnut brown skin, came walking up from behind a nearby cement wall. She was just below Rusty’s height and she wore loose capris and a plain tank top, both an immaculately white color. Her long, frizzy hair was lashed back into a tight ponytail that puffed out behind her head like a cotton ball. As she approached, she was lazily putting the finishing touches on a series of finger wraps. The woman and Owen exchanged a silent, understanding nod and then exchanged places, with Owen casually walking off and disappearing behind the same wall. Alone with the young redhead, the girl’s hazel eyes were the direct opposite of Owen’s. Her eyes were inviting, youthful, almost like a big sister. “Hi, my name’s Kirra. I’m going to be working with you for today, Mr…?” “Uh, Mr. Klein. But my first name’s Rusty, everyone calls me that.” “All right then Rusty. Owen told me you’re very much a beginner. So today, we’re gonna start easy. Okay?” “Yeah, sure.” “Great! Let’s take a jog around the place so we can warm-up and you can take in the sights. Follow me.”

[13]

Kirra hopped twice in the air then took off running, setting a pace that, to Rusty’s inexperienced eyes, looked more like a sprint than a jog. Sneakers scratching against the grey gravel, Rusty came up to speed and stayed just behind Kirra, arms swinging wildly and skinny legs pumping. Any other time he might have found it hard to breathe after only fifty yards of such a pace, but the beauty of his surroundings captured his attention so vividly that he could even ignore the pebble that had crept its way inside his shoe. Sneaking out from his house had been the easy part. He told his mother he was going to Lee’s house for an end of school year party and that he’d be home by dinner. Until now Rusty had obeyed his mother at nearly every turn, so it was easy to get her to agree. He had already begun crafting the story he would use to continue fooling his mother so, with luck, she’d never even know he was there. There ended up being the problem. The address Owen had given him was unfamiliar territory for Rusty. It was a nameless site, one that barely even registered on the Internet mapping services. Several miles outside The City’s limits, it was nestled far away from the metropolis’s heart and the suburbs. In fact, Rusty had had to trek through a densely overgrown forest, taking the last two miles of the trip on foot, following the sketchy directions of his computer printout. It had just turned over to high noon and yet the air was already sizzling, a dry heat that sucked the moisture right out of Rusty’s mouth. Arms rubbed raw from thorns and his water bottle nearly empty, Rusty had begun to lose hope and had seriously debated making a retreat. Upon reaching the location, however, Rusty was absolutely floored. It was enormous, easily 15-20 acres square, filled with every kind of environment you could imagine. If one had to describe it in as few words as possible, you might say it was a mixture of a blown apart war bunker, a rolling pasture of craggy rock slopes, and an oak tree forest, complete with river, all rolled into one. Rough, triple thick concrete walls jutted up out of the dusty, reddish-brown dirt, with steel beams lying across them at varying angles and degrees. Metal railings lined the edges of the boxes, while steps, stairs, and over-hanging walkways wound their way to and fro amongst the wreckage. Lush green trees dotted the landscape, some barely taller than Rusty’s knees, while others towered overhead, many stories above the surface. Interspersed between the man made litter and nature’s shade were piles of granite stone, heaped up in great mounds of rock and bits of soil. It was as if a company of giants swinging baseball bats had come through, destroying and reshaping the land as they saw fit. This was, to Rusty’s eyes, an almost perfect mix of natural and urban training spaces. Truly, a Runner’s paradise. As Rusty and Kirra picked their way through the landscape, Rusty managed to save up enough breath to ask the questions that had been pecking at his brain since he first arrived. “K-Kirra. *huff* Where are we? Wh-what is this place?” Kirra showed not the slightest hint of being tired. There wasn’t even a sprinkling of sweat on her skin, despite the raging heat. She glanced back with a smile and said, “I don’t know. It doesn’t have a proper name, at least not anymore. Owen found it a long time ago, way before I met him.

[14] He said it was a military factory at one point. Now he likes to call it ‘Notre Endroit,’ which is French for ‘Our Place’, I think.” Now heading up the slippery side of a rather large boulder, Rusty continued his line of questioning, pausing mid sentence frequently to catch his breath and to concentrate on taking the right step. “So…so you know, ouch, Owen? Like, who he is?” “Sort of, not much really. I met him about three years ago while I was visiting The City. See, I used to work for the Olympic PKFR team, as a physical fitness trainer. I was here for a business conference when I randomly saw this bald guy training, doing things I never thought possible for any person, let alone a man in his forties. I had my reasons for leaving but mostly work was getting, you know, dull. Seeing him was…inspiration. The next week I relocated my job to The City and I’ve been meeting with Owen ever since.” “You train with him-whoa! Almost lost it there…umm, huff, what was I saying? Oh yeah, a lot then? You train a lot?” The pair came to a flat, wide straight away and Kirra took the opportunity to slow down a bit, chuckling as Rusty still struggled to keep up. His shirt was soaked through and through with sweat. Her reaction seemed innocent enough but Rusty could sense that, just below the surface, she was enjoying Rusty’s trials and tribulations. Her own guilty pleasure. “Once or twice a week usually, mostly in the Downtown area though. He more often comes here to train, instead of The City. I only come out on rare occasions. He likes to be alone, says it helps him focus.” “He, puff, doesn’t teach others, huff, a lot?” Kirra turned to the right sharply and began looping back toward the start, blazing a line only she could see. Her head was held high, effortlessly bouncing and stepping in between ruts in the trail. Rusty stumbled along behind, eyes pinned to the ground in a desperate attempt to stay upright. “No, practically none,” she replied, “I was surprised when he called me up and asked for help with you. Usually he’ll thrash new blood himself, to weed out quitters and scare people off. I guess he has high hopes for you or something.” This final exchange stopped Rusty’s questioning for the reminder of the run. He felt it better not to get any more intimidated by the situation. When the duo arrived back at the start, Kirra instantly launched them into a series of dynamic exercises, everything from ballistic stretches to body planks to jumping in place. A test of ability, as Kirra described it. Sweat poured from Rusty’s thin frame and stained the dirt, his bright red hair a wet mop on top of his head. He ditched his shirt half way through and dust was now caked to his torso. His hands were cracked and bleeding and his shorts had a tear on the inside leg from when he slipped and fell during a lunge. He looked like he’d been through Marine boot camp, three times in a row. An hour and one hundred twenty pushups later, Kirra was resting comfortably on a rock, sunning herself like a lizard, while Rusty panted like a dog in the shade of an oak.

[15]

Her clothes were pristine, except for her dusty shoes, and Kirra’s ever-present smile grew a little wider at the sight of Rusty. She knew that he had a lot of work ahead of him and this wouldn’t come naturally to him. But she could see the potential Owen saw, that shine in his eyes, the way he never doubted or really complained. It was an odd combination of curiosity and determination in such a young man. “Kirra?” Rusty called out, flat on his back, arms splayed out to the sides. “Yeah Rusty?” “When do we start working on the technical stuff? You know, vaulting and climbing and all that.” “Oh, not for a long time. Your body’s not nearly strong enough yet. And not until Owen says you’re ready.” “Okay. Right. Umm, what about a time frame or something then?” Kirra tapped a finger against the side of her cheek. “Hmmm. Judging by your performance today, taking into account the novice effect of gains...maybe a month or two. With dedicated work. And if Owen’s in a good mood.” “Got it. Where is he anyway? I thought I was going to be training with him.” “He’s right over there. He’s been watching you doing your own thing. That’s how he prefers it. To watch first, then get involved once he’s seen what you got.” Rusty tilted his head side to side on the ground, trying to see what she meant. “He’s where?” “Up over there.” Kirra pointed toward the most heavily congested area of cement and metal. Rusty pushed his upper body up off the ground and propped himself up with his elbows, scanning in the direction Kirra had mentioned. It took a long moment before Rusty caught a glimpse of him. Then, he was impossible to miss. He was a hundred yards away, scaling the slopped side of a blasted out bunker. That wall of a man, seemingly more beast than human, nimbly making his way up the steep face. He was practically dancing from one hand hold to the next, his body never ceasing in its upward motion. When he reached the top he popped up over the lip and continued to run, bounding over low walls and swinging around upright poles to avoid exposed patches of steel rebar. In seconds he was at the other end and hopping from ledge to ledge on his way down to the ground, never hesitating, never diverting. The magic of the scene cast a spell on Rusty. Something with so much unrelenting power and speed and force…it simply wasn’t possible. Noticing a black colored blob strapped to Owen’s back, Rusty asked, “What’s that he’s wearing on his back?”

[16]

“A weight vest. He sometimes trains with one. Today he’s going light like us. I think he attached only thirty pounds.” “Thirty!” Rusty cried. Kirra smiled. “Yup. Like I said, he’s inhuman. Like something out of a fairytale.” Rusty head dipped low, realizing how deep a hole he had dug for himself by agreeing to train with these people. “Yeah…” “So then Rusty. Today’s Thursday right? Wanna meet Saturday, Downtown, by the park? Same time? We can pick up your conditioning where we left off.” “We’re not coming back here?” “No, you’ll come back here when Owen’s ready to test you. In the meantime, you’re going to be hitting the streets and the gyms with me. Cool?” “Yeah…cool.” “Excellent!”

[17]

CHAPTER 4
Rusty panted and heaved, sweat seeping out of every pore. Swollen, blistered hands were clasped tightly over his shaggy red head. His mouth felt like a wad of gauze and his limbs burned like fire, an hour’s worth of lactic acid buildup. His fair skin was covered in a fine layer of grass, dust, and dirt, with the cold sweat forming zigzag streaks through the dark film. Everything, from his baby toes to the tips of his sun burnt ears, was sore, tired, and weak. But, for the first time in over a month, he was still standing at the end of the workout. It was Kirra, his trainer and self described ‘slave driver’ who was the first to notice the milestone. “Rusty!” she proclaimed, louder than he was ready for. “…Yeah?” he replied, wincing at the sudden outburst from the thin woman. “You’re still standing!” “I am?” Rusty looked down at his feet, noticing that they were still under him. He glanced side to side at his surroundings before saying, “I can’t even feel my legs but yeah, looks like it. What’s so great about that?” Kirra’s smile grew even wider. “It means you’re ready!” Rusty winced again and groaned under his breath. That meant Kirra had prepared for him yet another set of pushups or squats or wind sprints or some other vomit inducing exercise. For such a small girl she sure knew how to punish a guy. “More conditioning sessions?” he asked meekly. Kirra laughed loudly, a laugh something like a feminine coffee grinder, and swatted him playfully though way too hard on the arm. He gritted his teeth and hid the pain, discretely rubbing his bruised shoulder. But his ears perked up the instant the words left Kirra’s mouth. “It means you’re ready to be tested by Owen and me!” Any discomfort Rusty felt seemed to vanish into the humid, late June air. A great weight was lifted off his shoulders and the skinny redhead straightened to his full height, emerald eyes suddenly glittering. Cautiously, he said, “For…for real? No more conditioning? No more pushups and pullups and bruises? I get to start training Techs? Real Parkour?” Kirra stopped chuckling but kept the smile wide across her lips. “Well sort of. There’s gonna be plenty more conditioning down the road, but, yeah. You can start training the more specific movements. If you pass the test of course.” “Of course!” Rusty belted out, excited beyond all Christmas mornings combined. At last! This was his chance, to put all those back breaking days of physical abuse to the test. To show off the gains he had made! Though he was relatively thin to begin with, he had already dropped five pounds, although that was misleading since he had actually burned through ten pounds and added five back on in pure muscle. His quads were rapidly beginning to fill out his pant legs and his back was starting to strain against his tight T-shirts. His hands were covered in popped blisters and ever-growing calluses. Rusty had gotten so wrapped up in the training that he hadn’t cut his hair

[18] either, the red bangs now long enough to conceal his eyes. The weak, clumsy boy was now quickly becoming a man, at least visually, with the body to prove it. “When do we meet? When is the test?” Kirra held her hands up in surprise, trying to hold off his newfound energy. “Easy kid, easy. We’ll do it as soon as possible, say, two days from now? Saturday morning?” “Perfect!” “All right then, see you Saturday morning. Two hours after dawn. We’ll meet at “Notre Endroit”, Our Place. You remember how to get there?” “Yeah,” Rusty said, pointing to his nearby backpack, “Got the directions saved in my wallet.” “Great! I’ll contact Owen and let him know you’re ready. I don’t want to scare you but, uh, rest well. It’s not going to be an easy exam.” Rusty simply grinned and nodded, too overcome with happiness to continue speaking. Everything was working out. He was faster, stronger, and about to start real training. And on top of all that, Jenna had her gymnastics competition that Friday, the day before his test. What better way to get motivated than watching top-class acrobats and finally getting a chance to be alone with the girl of his dreams? The next morning, Rusty and Lee arrived bright and early at The City’s convention center, home for the 2028 Regional Women’s Gymnastics Open. Neon colored banners fluttered outside in the generous breeze as throngs of spectators, families, coaches, and competitors milled around the entrances and filed down the corridors. The ten thousand seats were nearly filled to capacity. In the wake of PKFR’s rise to cultural and sporting dominance, interest in gymnastics had risen as well, with many Runners moonlighting or starting out as gymnasts. The strength, precision, and beauty of gymnastics found new life in the eyes of PKFR fans, those hungry to see what was possible for the human body. Taking their seats in the upper decks, Lee rambled off stats and figures for nearly every competitor there today, taking his unofficial role as a supercomputer for all things PKFR, tricking, and gymnastics very seriously. He went to especially long lengths to detail the finer points of Jenna, the school’s top performer for floor exercises. “…and though her specialty is the Floor Routine she’s also has been working hard on developing her Vaults…” Rusty simply smiled and nodded much like he did the day before with Kirra. He was genuinely interested to hear about Jenna but the other ninety or so competitors he could have done without. He hadn’t seen Lee very much in the last month and he would have liked it if his friend would talk about something else, or at least Rusty’s new look. Still, he knew Lee was enjoying himself so Rusty stayed quiet, chiming in when necessary but mostly scanning the convention floor for a glimpse of Jenna. Finally after a half hour of waiting, the opening ceremonies began and the competition officially went underway.

[19] At the risk of sounding cliché, what a competition it was. The stakes were high and the women were pulling out every trick in the book. Over at the vault, the top performers were throwing round off half turns with handspring fronts, and a 5/2 twist for good measure. A precisely executed back handspring layout step-out on the beam. And Jenna, blond ponytail snapping in all directions, scored a silver medal on the Floor Routine, stunning the crowd with a flawlessly landed full-twisting-double-layout. Rusty and Lee screamed at the top of their lungs when she took the winner’s box, feet stamping and drawing numerous annoyed stares from the unlucky fans below them. As the final awards ceremony took place and the national anthem played, Rusty and Lee hurried down the stairs, dodging slower people with their nimbler feet and uncanny luck. They were fighting to make their way towards the back on the center in order to congratulate Jenna in person. Just before they arrived at the end of the hallway, Lee suddenly froze in place, his feet glued to the floor. He was nearly bowled over by the rampaging Rusty behind him. Side stepping his Asian friend and missing by mere inches, Rusty came to a skidding halt in the long corridor and yelled back to him, “Yo man! What’s wrong? We have to hurry or else it’ll get too crowded to even breathe.” Lee’s usually happy demeanor was gone, replaced by a look of pure horror. In a monotone, dead voice he said to Rusty, “I think I left my camera back at the seats.” Now it was Rusty’s turn to be horrified. That camera was Lee’s pride and joy, his baby. He had spent over a year earning enough money to buy it, then another six months tricking it out to fit his exacting specifications. To lose that camera meant losing a piece of Lee’s soul and most of the day’s footage as well. The two young men stared at each other, unable to speak. Finally Rusty snapped out of the trance and began sprinting for all he was worth in the opposite direction, heading back to the center’s main floor. He cried back over his shoulder, “Go on ahead Lee, catch Jenna before she leaves! I’ll run back and check the seats, I’m faster than you anyway. Go!” It was a brutally tense five minutes as Rusty fought his way back upstream, like a single salmon fighting an entire river. Shoulder to shoulder, he pressed his way forward, shoving and getting shoved back in return. When he finally made it to the now emptied seating area, he dashed up the closest stairway, consuming three, four, and five steps at a time. His arms and legs pumped for all they were worth, the last month’s conditioning showing itself in his speed and power. Upon reaching their section, Rusty tore through the area, diving to the ground to check under seats and hopping from one plastic chair to another. But to no avail. There was no camera to be found, only the remnants of snacks and ticket stubs. Crushed at not being able to get there in time, Rusty sulked on his way back down the dozen or more flights of stairs, head hung low. How was he going to explain this to Lee? It was Rusty’s idea to leave in such a hurry. Back through the corridor and into the mass of people, Rusty had drifted away like he usually did, lost in his own thoughts. Lee would be heartbroken, he’d be practically suicidal, heWas holding his camera. He was taking a picture, a picture of him and Jenna. Rusty stopped, eyes unwavering and staring straight ahead, catching glimpses of the scene as people passed in between. Lee and Jenna were laughing, hugging, and…kissing. The two were acting just like a

[20] newlywed couple, holding each other by the waist and talking in exaggerated tones. For Rusty, it was as if a sociopathic psychic had peered into his mind and, on a whim, decided to torture him with his deepest, darkest fears. Unable to do anything but stare, Rusty spent what easily amounted to several minutes rooted to the floor, leering at the scene laid out before him. After an eternity through Rusty’s eyes, the pair parted ways with a goodbye and a deep kiss, leaving Lee to head back in Rusty’s direction. Lee spotted Rusty a moment later and smiled, running over awkwardly through the crowds and holding his camera over his head. He pointed and gestured towards it, saying when he came within earshot, “Look, I didn’t lose it! It was stuffed into a side pocket on my pants. You know how light these new holographic ones are, I guess I just forgot it was there.” Rusty on the other hand was the polar opposite of Lee. His eyes were closed to half their normal size, mere slits at this point. His lips were sealed tight and his cheeks flushed red with blood, matching his fiery hair. In a harsh tone, sounding suspiciously like Owen, Rusty said to Lee, “How long?” Lee, surprised and taken off guard by the total reversal of Rusty’s personality, said quizzically, “Uh, the camera? Like, when I found it? Five minutes ago, I guess, I don’t kn-” Rusty interrupted Lee’s clumsy words and nearly spat his words onto Lee, stepping forward and screaming into his friend’s face, “No you asshole! Jenna! How long have you been going out with Jenna!?” Lee acted surprised and tried to hustle backwards, away from his fuming friend. “What? What are you talking about? I’m not hooking up with her, do you think I’d even have a chan-” “I JUST SAW YOU LEE! I just saw you and her and, and everything! Was the whole camera thing just an excuse to get me to leave? Oh my god, you little, backstabbing bastard!” Lee, finally realizing the gravity of the situation and seeing himself backed into a corner, slumped his shoulders and said quietly, “I, I’m sorry man. It, uh, Jesus, it just kind of happened, you know? Jenna and I started hanging out more and, you know, one thing led to another…” “What?! You knew I liked her Lee, you knew better than anyone! You were my friend Lee, I trusted you! And this, this bullshit is how you repay me?” “Look, Rusty, I’m sorry, I really am. I was going to tell you but you haven’t been around. I had no idea what you were doing. You’ve disappeared man, nobody sees you anymore. Jenna wanted to hang out with us and I called you a bunch of time but you never replied. So it was always me and her and, well, like I said…” “I don’t believe this, I don’t fucking believe this! You know what, forget you Lee! Forget you and your backstabbing, skinny little ass. I’m out of here!” Rusty turned in fury and stomped his way to the nearest exit, elbowing pedestrians out of his way left and right. Lee called out from behind him but Rusty’s rage was so deep, that all the sounds around him died away. He was left in a quiet, eerie world, drifting away into his own personal hell. He didn’t remember the walk to the station, the train ride home, nor the single hot tear that scalded his cheek as he walked down the

[21] road to his house. The orange and gold sunset silhouetted his hunched form as he climbed the few stairs to his doorway, the warm summer air showing no sign of breaking for the night. Rusty entered the house and immediately made a beeline for the staircase, to lock himself in his room and forget he ever knew Lee or Jenna or anyone else in the entire world. But just as he was starting to climb the steps a stocky woman in her late thirties came around the corner from the kitchen. She had short, bright red hair and emerald green eyes, the same as Rusty’s. Though past her best years it was obvious she had once been exceedingly pretty. She saw him and said, “Rusty, you’re home early. You said you wouldn’t be back till at least after dark.” Rusty muttered something about not feeling well and his mother said, in that classically motherlike tone, “What Rus? What did you say?” Rusty’s voice cracked. He snapped at his mother, “I said I wasn’t feeling well, okay! Can I go upstairs to my room now?” Rusty mother was shocked. Rarely, no more than a half dozen times in all his seventeen years, had Rusty raised his voice in such a way to her. He had always been kind to her, especially after the death of her husband, his father. He had taken on the role of man-of-the-house quite well and was always patient and helpful, even when other teenagers were dying their hair pink and blasting punk rock on overpriced stereos. Something extreme must have happened for him to have screamed like that. “Russell Klein! What was that? What’s wrong?” “Nothing! I just don’t feel like talking. I’m skipping dinner tonight, see you in the morning.” “Didn’t you say you had work at the scrap yard in the morning? Do you want me to wake you?” At the mention of the scrap yard Rusty stopped climbing the stairs and gripped the hand railing tight, remembering the lie he had told her. He had needed a way to cover up his constant conditioning sessions and times away from home, something that would explain his filthy appearance and growing muscle each day. He had settled on an imaginary place on the outskirts of town called Frank’s Scrap Yard, a metal recycling plant. Knowing he couldn’t let his rage blow his cover, he quickly said, “No, no, that’s okay. I think I ate something bad at the convention center. Don’t get me up. I’m going to just sleep it off, okay?” Rusty’s mother, normally quite intuitive, was too worried about his sudden outburst to notice how poor his lie actually appeared. Giving him a nod and her okay, Rusty finally made into his bedroom and collapsed onto the unmade bed, eyes glazed over. Tomorrow he wondered. Tomorrow is the test. Today was supposed to be the fuel. I can’t cancel it; this might be my only chance. But after Lee and Jenna…damn it. Why now? Rusty stared at the pale blue ceiling above him, until the sky outside grew black and the clock clicked by from midnight to two to four. Before he knew it, Rusty looked over and realized it was nearly dawn. He had to be leaving now or he’d never make it on time. He hadn’t slept at all. “Just, damn it” he thought.

[22]

CHAPTER 5
The two hour trip to Notre Endroit was grueling to say the least. Rusty left without eating so he was hungry, and he hadn’t slept so he was tired, and his best friend had stolen the girl of his dreams, so, yeah, he felt pretty wretched. Hastily picking a path through the dense undergrowth, he lost his way several times before he finally managed to find the trail. He was already dripping with sweat, his hair matted and slick, when he broke through into the hidden clearing. It had been only a month since he’d set foot in the area, but the sight of it still took his breath away. Rocks, trees, trails, cement walls, steel rails, ladders and walkways and tunnels. It truly was a Runner’s paradise. Rusty scanned the area from the entrance high point and spotted Kirra and Owen far away at the other end, waiting for him, perched atop a crumbling brick wall. Finding new strength at the sight of them, Rusty broke into a jog and quickly covered the length of Our Place. Arriving at the base of the wall, he placed a visibly weary hand against it and looked up, breathing deeply. Kirra, dressed in that impossibly white outfit from their first meeting, slid down a banked wall next to the bricks and walked over to Rusty, a warm smile on her dark lips. “You ran that faster than the first time you came here. Though you still look just as tired.” “That’s because he didn’t sleep.” The rough, commanding voice of Owen pierced the early morning air. Rusty’s attention snapped from Kirra to Owen, the sound of his voice unfamiliar yet unmistakable since their last encounter. Barely after he finished speaking, Owen leaped from the wall and sailed over Rusty’s head, landing softly in the dust and rolling out perfectly. He came to a halt in one effortless motion and stood up turning and walking back casually. Rusty jaw dropped. Owen hadn’t made a single sound. Only the settling of dust from his landing could possibly have been heard. His large frame seemed to dwarf the red head, his body blocking much of the sun. The middle aged man stopped a few feet from Rusty, gazing on the young man with a criticizing eye. Finally he spoke. “You didn’t, did you? Kirra told you to rest and be ready. You’re not ready. Go home.” Rusty was dumbstruck. Go home? Had Owen really told him to leave? It didn’t seem real. Owen however never hesitated and turned his back on Rusty, motioning for Kirra to follow suit. Kirra frowned, the first real sign of unhappiness Rusty had ever seen on her, but began to follow, glancing back only once. There was nothing she could do her bright eyes seemed to say. Owen had spoken. “No.” The word echoed out, strong and powerful, from Rusty’s mouth. Owen and Kirra froze. Even Rusty was surprised by his own assertion. But he was either too tired, too stressed, or too mentally drained to back down. Swallowing hard and fixing his stance, Rusty stared at the backs of his teachers and proclaimed, “I’m not tired. I am ready. And I’m not going home until you test me.” Kirra looked back, eyes wide in astonishment. Was this really the same kid she’d met a month ago? Owen looked back too, though without the same amazement. His pale blue eyes retained

[23] their hard, piercing look. Turning to face the young man once again, Owen said bluntly, “You’re a wreck. You could barely make it here. Your eyes are completely bloodshot. And I can hear your stomach screaming. Go home Rusty. This isn’t your day.” Rusty would not be moved. “No. I’m ready, now. And you’re going to test me.” It was Kirra’s turn to have her jaw drop. She had seen only one other potential student act so brash. And that student had been chased straight out of Notre Endroit with a furious Owen hot on his heels. Nobody spoke that way to Owen and expected to get any kind of respect from the man. Owen chuckled. Nothing loud, merely a soft chuckle. His unyielding eyes flashed. “Well, when you put it that way, all right.” Kirra practically had a heart attack. "Funny how that just reminded me of someone. He was as stubborn as you." Rusty wanted to ask who but his strength and courage evaporated. He was left leaning against the brick wall, breathing hard again. What had come over him? First he yelled at his mother, now Owen. Where was all this fury coming from? Rusty didn’t have much time to ponder as Owen and Kirra came to stand at either side of him, nodding silently to each other, before Kirra exclaimed, “Let’s go!” Off they ran, over the hills and down through the bunker tunnels, climbing up spiraling rusted staircases and zig-zagging through thickets of trees. If the jog across Notre Endroit had been difficult, this run was excruciating. Rusty’s lungs breathed fire and his legs kept gaining weight till they felt like cinder blocks under his waist. Dirt and grime collected on his skin and leaves caught in his mess of hair. He trailed along behind Kirra and Owen, the two bounding easily down the trails. No words were exchanged, none had to be said. Rusty knew what the drill was for today: keep up, or go home. After a few miles of twisting trail running, the trio came to a grassy clearing. Scattered around the clearing were several handmade pieces of exercise equipment, such as pull up bars and squat racks. Rocks and logs and sandbags of varying sizes and weights were piled around in stations, forming a circle with the grass in the middle. Rusty’s heart sank and his stomach flipped. He understood immediately. Kirra gave her best encouraging smile and rubbed Rusty’s shoulders while Owen remained stone faced, prepping the first station. All the dark skinned woman could say was, “Good luck Rusty.” Never in his seventeen years had Rusty experienced such pain. One after the other, minute by terrible minute, rep after terrible rep, Owen tested Rusty. The young red head was moaning in agony as the final sandbag squat was finished, only to be ushered forward to the next station. Calluses turned to blisters that turned to open wounds on the pull up bars. Chips of stone nearly blinded him when one accidentally landed on top of another. Once, twice, three times Rusty collapsed to the ground, sinking to his knees or even further, desperate for a break. And Owen stood above him, his jaw set tight, his eyes narrow. Every time it looked like Rusty would throw in the towel, Owen would start to say, “You’re done. Go…” But Rusty rose every time. Just before Owen could finish, Rusty would dig down deeper than the center of the Earth and muscle his way to his feet. Dry heaving on the dinner and breakfast he

[24] never had, Rusty continued his tortuous circuit for nearly a full hour, only once being given enough time to gulp water and keep from dying of thirst. At last, Owen called stop. Rusty’s legs wobbled, his chest rose and fell violently, but he remained standing. Kirra clapped her hands together excitedly, running over in a flood of happiness. Rusty had passed the test. He could continue his training. Owen held up a massive hand and stopped Kirra cold. She looked at him, puzzled. She couldn’t understand what he was doing. That last log lift was always the end of the testing. Instead, Owen tapped Rusty on the shoulder and, without a word, pointed to the top of a nearby smokestack, one nearly 85 feet in height and leaning over at a slight angle. It might as well have been Mount Everest. Rusty looked from the wall to Owen and back to the wall. Owen said coldly, “Go. And you’re done.” Rusty didn’t say anything. He couldn’t. If he had uttered even one syllable he would have passed out. Instead he took off running, as fast as his scratched legs would take him. As he ran off, Kirra cautiously walked up behind Owen, saying to the big man, “Why? You’ve never done that before.” Owen never turned to look at Kirra. He focused on the thin form of Rusty as he reached the base of the curved, cracked wall. He said, “You told me while we were waiting that he had great potential. I want to see how great.” “But this is dangerous Owen. You know that tower isn’t for beginners, it’s not even solid. And with how tired he is, he could slide right off the side.” Owen folded his arms over his chest. “He won’t.” “How can you be so sure?” “I saw his eyes. He won’t fail when it counts.” Quietly, so quiet that not even Kirra standing right behind him could hear, Owen finished by saying, “Not like me.” Rusty meanwhile was in the seventh ring of damnation. The climb up the wall had started easier than he had expected and he had dashed up more than half of it before he’d been forced to lean down and grab hold with his hands. But now, with the wall nearly vertical and the cracks and exposed bars becoming farther and farther apart, his progress had slowed to a crawl. Rested, he could have managed the climb in no time. But now, an hour and half into the most grueling day of his life, he was gnashing his teeth just to hold on. Step after cautious step, he pushed his way skyward. He was less than five yards from the summit when disaster struck. The hand hold he was using turned to powder beneath his fingers. He lost his balance and started sliding down the wall, flailing his legs and arms wildly, grasping like a madman at anything that would hold. Kirra turned away, horrified. Owen remained still, staring. Twenty feet into his freefall, Rusty caught hold of an exposed reinforcing wire. His shoulder nearly dislocated at the sudden jerking stop, but his body and the wire held. But that was it, he was spent. Anymore and he wouldn’t be able to make it back down the wall again. He had failed. “Dad,” he said to himself, “I’m sorry.”

[25] Then Rusty heard scuffing sounds from beneath him. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw Kirra and Owen making their way up the wall, with fast and practiced motions. Within seconds they were on either side of him, holding onto him and protecting him from falling. Rusty was fighting back tears. Kirra tried to console him, saying “It’s okay Rusty, it’s okay. You did really well, Owen says you’ve done enough. You’ve passed.” Rusty managed to get his breathing under control and used his free hand to wipe sweat from his eyes. “But it wasn’t enough. Not for me. I couldn’t finish.” Owen was the one to speak this time. “Then go. We’ll wait here for you.” Rusty looked from Owen to Kirra and back again. He nodded his head. And began to climb. It was as if nothing had ever happened. He scaled the rest of the wall easily, sat on the top, and dangled his legs over the side. He was grinning from ear to ear. Kirra shook her head and muttered through a grin of her own, “How the hell did he do that? He looked like death a second ago.” Owen stared up at him. He didn’t know the answer, but he knew what it meant. “I don’t know, but let’s find out. Meet him Downtown a week from now. It’s time to start serious training.”

[26]

CHAPTER 6
“Hard to believe it’s been three months already.” Owen remained silent for a long moment, rewinding the summer’s events like a movie reel. After careful consideration of his words, the he said plainly, “Three months…he’s improved a lot.” Kirra sipped from her water bottle and said proudly, “He’s incredible. In June he could barely run a mile. Now he nearly has Kong-to-Cat Leaps down.” Owen and Kirra stopped speaking and watched quietly from atop the wall as Rusty eyed their perch, like a tiger measuring up his prey. The two seasoned Runners knew that look all too well. And they knew it meant he wouldn’t make it. “Should we tell him?” Kirra asked. “No,” Owen said, “Let him fall. Bruises teach faster than words.” Finally pushing aside his fears, Rusty exploded into a sprint, arms pumping and cheeks puffing. Planting his right foot and heaving his body forward, he leaped off the small stone safety block and sailed through the air, over the gap, fingers and toes ready for the landing. But the landing never came. He fell short and crashed into the brick wall, unable to get his feet under him in time to block the impact. Bouncing like a rag-doll off the side, he tumbled six feet down and landed with a hard thud on the sidewalk below. He was slow to get up, rubbing his tailbone gently, the sting of many failed attempts still fresh on the skin. Looking up at the pair above him, Rusty said, “I don’t get it. I’ve hit jumps bigger than this before. Why am I freaking out now? What’s different?” “You’re thinking now,” Kirra said. “Look.” The thin dark skinned woman stood up and took a stance similar to Rusty’s before he attempted the leap. “You spend so much time going over the details and psyching yourself up that you miss the big picture.” Rusty pulled sweaty strings of hair from his eyes, saying, “And what’s the big picture?” Owen cut in and stood up, saying in his deep voice, “That some movements, like this one, you can’t prepare for. They just have to happen.” He lowered himself down the wall and dropped off, landing next to Rusty without a single sound. Three months of training and still Rusty was awestruck; Owen was always, permanently, silent. Owen continued by saying, “Those movements, those moments in time, can’t be drilled into submission. They simply happen, and you’re either ready…or you’re not.”

[27] More cryptic mumblings. Rusty may have been impressed by Owen’s power and grace, but his vague answers annoyed the young man like hell. Parkour is real, your desires fuel your abilities, your mind is the key. Why couldn’t he speak as plainly as Kirra did? Rusty looked at the ground and shook his head slowly, the sign he had developed over the months that signaled when his brain simply couldn’t comprehend the old man’s logic. Owen saw it and knew when enough was enough. “Okay,” he said, “That’s good for today.” Kirra, who had worked her way down off the wall by a different route, joined the two men and said, “Hey Rusty, today was your last day of summer vacation right? You ready for school tomorrow?” Rusty forced a weak smile and said, “Yeah, got my supplies in order and classes set. Can’t say I want to go back though. I feel like I’ve learned more in three months here than in three years there.” Kirra smiled back warmly and said, “Maybe. But precisions and climbups don’t earn you a degree.” “Yeah, I know. Gotta stay in school and all that.” “Since you’ll be busy with classes, we’ll have to scale back your training dates. How does once a week on Saturdays sound? We’d expect you to train on your own in between.” “Saturdays sound good,” Rusty said, “And I’ll train whenever I can. Gone too far to stop now.” The electronic billboard on the building above them chimed while a female announcer stated the time and temperature. Five o’clock, time for Rusty to leave. Packing up his worn backpack, he waved goodbye to his teachers and jogged off down the street, heading for the train station. Owen and Kirra remained at the training spot, watching the leanly muscled redhead bounce down the road. Kirra finally broke the silence by saying, “He’s not a natural, that’s for sure. But he’s worked hard and it always seems to pay off. He’s really grown, hasn’t he?” Owen was not nearly as impressed though. “Only on the outside. He’s still got a lot to learn.” Kirra huffed loudly. Owen was never satisfied. “But he has that personality mix you always talk about, determination and curiosity.” “I know.” Owen said. He stared off into the distance, cautiously running a callused finger across the scar on the edge of his eye. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

[28] The hot August sun was low on the horizon when Rusty finally returned home. His thoughts were in the clouds, like usual, and he slipped through the door absentmindedly. He nearly ran headfirst into his mother, who was standing on the other side. Jolted back into the moment by the near collision, Rusty stumbled sideways and fell ass first onto the wooden steps. Hitting his bruised bone dead on, he groaned through gritted teeth and jumped up, hand swift to hold the tender spot. His mother never budged from her spot the entire time. When Rusty had regained his composure, his mother held out a mailing order slip. “Rusty, what is this?” Her voice was unusually serious. Rusty was dumbfounded for a moment as he tried to understand what was happening. He dropped his bag to the floor and bunched his eyebrows together, confused. “What’s what mom?” His mother’s face was colder than he had seen in months, colder than the time he racked up three hundred dollars worth of PKFR pay-per-view events. She held the invoice out like an attorney offering proof of murder charges. “This mailing slip, Russell. What is this slip about?” Rusty finally took a careful glance at the paper and realized what it was: an order for a pair of PKFR sneakers, the brand new edition of the Libertas. The realization hit him harder than a baseball bat. He had ordered the shoes last week, a gift to himself for completing a summer’s worth of hellish training under Owen and Kirra. He had sent the shoes to an anonymous mailing box at the postal station, but had forgotten to have the bill sent there as well. And now his mother had found it - a woman who had lost her husband to a PKFR accident and had forbidden all forms of training for her son. On top of that, Rusty’s father had been the lead consultant of the shoe’s first version. For Rusty, his mother finding that shoe order was the equivalent of declaring himself a professional Runner while simultaneously burning the house down and killing a puppy. “Well Russell? Care to explain this?” Rusty scratched the back of his head, playing dumb. “Uh, well…mom, let me explain…” “I am Russell. And it better be good.” “They’re…they’re for Lee.” Rusty’s mother stared blankly back at him. “Lee? Your friend Lee?” Rusty hadn’t told his mom about the problems with Lee, about him and Jenna. Why was Lee the best excuse Rusty could come up with?

[29] “Yeah mom, Lee. See, they, um, the shoes…well, they’re a new style. And Lee, he uh…wanted to test them.” Skeptically she said, “…Lee doesn’t do PKFR, Russell.” “No, no he doesn’t. But, uh, you know he still loves it. And he loves science and stuff, but, he’s been getting into this kick about applying science to PKFR stuff. You know, clothes, shoes, stuff like that.” “Then why did he want these shoes? There are dozens of other styles.” Rusty was going to lose the lie any second. “He, he wanted to experiment with them, test ‘em you know. Like I said.” “So why did you order them? Why didn’t he do it?” She was pulling at every loose thread. Rusty had to tie this up fast or the whole thing would unravel. “Well, he lost his wallet. Didn’t have his credit card. So I told him I’d get them for him and he could pay me back.” Rusty’s mother stared him down. Finally she said, “Then these aren’t for you?” “No mom, of course not.” “Don’t lie to me Russell Klein. Don’t you dare lie to me.” Rusty held up his hands in defense. “I’m not mom, I swear.” Rusty’s mother looked him up and down once more with her burning emerald eyes. Satisfied with her son’s answer, she pushed the invoice into his hand and said, “Fine. But they don’t come inside this house, understand? They stay at Lee’s. Is that clear?” She practically forced the last three words down Rusty’s throat. “Crystal.” Rusty squeaked. As quickly as he could he gathered his belongings and bolted up the stairs. He dove into his room and locked the door behind him, breathing heavy and hard, a cold sweat on his forehead. That was close, way too close. Back on the first floor, Rusty’s mother looked up the steps where her son had disappeared a moment before. Quietly, as if asking herself the question out loud, she said, “Why was he in pain when he first fell on the stairs? Where have I seen that before…?” The night passed and a swift sunrise came. With it came the first day of senior year. Standing

[30] outside The City’s newest and biggest high school, Rusty gazed up and out at the huge complex. Steel, wood, glass and open space melded together to create a seamless line of office buildings, science labs, sports fields, study halls, and the brand new top-of-the-line gymnasium. It was an impressive display of academics and athletics working in harmony. Though known for all types of athletics, it was widely regarded as the home of the best youth PKFR team in the state, a team that was looking to win Nationals this year. With the painted iron bar jungle gym in the corner of the front courtyard spelling out PKFR, it wasn’t hard to see why. The place was quite simply built with movement in mind. Picking his way through the first day’s crowds, Rusty happened to spy Jenna, Lee, and several other students standing beneath a floor-to-ceiling poster. The poster announced The City’s 10th annual New Year’s Day Professional/Amateur PKFR competition, this year to be hosted on the high school’s own grounds. A tall girl with tightly wound braids exclaimed in a high-pitched voice, “Can you believe it, it’s gonna be here, here! All the best Runners in the country!” Another girl chimed in saying, “I even hear the Champ, Andre Levy, is gonna come! This is going to be so cool!” Jenna spoke next, saying, “Andre huh? I’ve always wanted to meet him. He’s always so smooth and strong when he’s moving, and…” Lee cut her off and said jokingly, “Jen, you better not say good looking.” Jenna teased Lee and said, “Why? Afraid I might fall for him over you?” Jenna’s two friends chuckled but didn’t hide their laughs well enough. Lee became visibly agitated. “Come on Jen, that’s not funny.” “Oh why not Lee-Lee? You’re always so paranoid, lighten up. Don’t be intimidated, even if Andre is kind of sexy…with that long hair, the hazel eyes, and that, that…” Jenna’s braided friend finished the sentence for her. “That ripped body?” Rusty smiled mischievously. What a treat. Lee was well known for his biting jokes. But Rusty knew two things about Lee that few others did: one, he hated it when people returned the favor and made fun of him. Two, he was the jealous type, the overly jealous type. So when he brushed off Jenna’s remarks and walked away in a huff, Rusty was acutely aware it was because Jenna had gotten to him on multiple levels, even if by accident.

[31] Leaving the blond girl alone with her friends and the poster, Rusty stuck around just long enough to catch Jenna saying to them, “Ugh, why does he always do that? Oh well, he wasn’t really that far off. I do have a weak spot for Runners…” Bingo. Like a flash of Einstein-level genius, Rusty had his ticket back into Jenna’s heart. Shouldering his heavy pack, the grin reached out further and spread across Rusty’s lips. The plan was forming. He knew what he had to do. He had to win the Pro/Am contest.

[32]

CHAPTER 7
Scretccch…raatcchhh…shaattshh… Steady, rhythmic scratching filled the air, the harsh tones mixing with the far away wails of the city at night. It was the scratch of shoes on thick walls, of thighs on scaly brick, the sounds that all Runners burn into their ears. Huff…huff…rraahh…ahhh… Next came the sounds of strain and challenge, of hands bit by concrete edges and lungs burning for a full breath. Inch by inch, fingers shaking under his weight, Rusty shimmied himself along. His shirt was stained with sweat, his eyes locked on the final lip several feet to his right. With one last trembling reach, Rusty caught the metal capped edge of the roof and hauled himself up over the side, elbows and toes clawing for solid ground. It was late October and the night air was unusually warm though the wind was cool. Rusty sat on the edge of the roof, gazing north toward the neon and LED lights of downtown. Banner blimps hovered over the cityscape and skywalks crisscrossed the buildings like strands of spider webs, connecting everything. It had rained earlier that day and stray streams of light bounced off the wet solar panel arrays that lined the city limits. The deep hum of the late night train floated in from off to his right and the occasional crunch of car tires could be heard on the asphalt below. The air smelt of wet earth and the coming of winter. To Rusty the city appeared as a steel and glass jewel, lit up as if light burst forth from within. It was past midnight but the city never slept. Rusty’s aching legs dangled over the side as they had done months earlier at the tower in Notre Endroit. This building that he had scaled was only half the height of that tower, but this was the third time tonight he had made the ascent. The breeze shifted Rusty’s long hair, blowing damp bangs into his eyes. He didn’t bother to pull them away. He was simply too tired. He felt this way a lot lately, this feeling of utter exhaustion. For the past two months he had been training nonstop, seven days a week. Afternoons after school were spent drilling techniques in the park and in back alleys, away from the eyes of others. His nights consisted of homework and late night conditioning, when his mother wouldn’t hear the endless reshufflings of exercises big and small. Saturdays he practiced with Kirra and Owen, though mostly with Kirra, learning new movements and refining old ones. Sunday mornings and afternoons he spent with his mother, to avoid suspicion of his other activities. But Sunday nights, like tonight, he disappeared into the dark, far past curfew. He went to run the empty streets of his neighborhood, to train and climb amongst its playground, and to dream of the glory of winning and the possibilities waiting for him in the future.

[33] Falling slowly back to Earth from his dreamland, Rusty picked himself up and worked his way back down the side of the apartment building. It was rough going and Rusty realized too late that his forearm muscles had been so far fatigued that they could no longer hold his weight. Cramping and locking up, Rusty could only stare as his grip failed and he slipped off the window ledge. He fell backward, free falling, and then landed with a plastic thud in a large garbage bin below, sinking into the mounds of black, stinking trash. Luckily he had been only one story above the bin. “Yuck!” he moaned, as he fought to free himself from a mound of rotting banana peels. He grabbed hold of the side, stepped out, and dropped down to the street, picking sticky wrappers off his clothes. “So much for this shirt,” he said, and sighed. “But I wonder why my hands gave out. That’s never happened before.” Too tired to think much more on the subject, Rusty wiped his hands on his pants and turned to leave the alley, heading back home.

“Russell…Wake up!” The high pitched scream snapped Rusty to full attention. Sitting bolt upright like a masthead, Rusty looked up with bleary eyes at the source of the sound. It was Mr. Grant, his biology teacher, standing over his desk. The vein on his forehead was throbbing. “Sorry, did I wake you? I know cell division isn’t exactly riveting material, but you could at least try to hide your naps, instead of drooling all over my desk.” Rusty glanced down; he was right. There was a puddle of drool, smack dab in the center of the wood. “Now then, maybe you could tell me in which phase of mitosis the cell’s centromeres divide. Or haven’t your dreams upgraded to this chapter yet?” Rusty balled up his fists in panic. He hadn’t gotten through this latest chapter yet. He had left earlier than usual last night to find a suitable building for climbing. Too tired to continue studying, he’d passed out on his bed and barely made it to school on time. Feeling a cold sweat start to break out on his forehead, Rusty was saved by another voice behind him. “The answer is Anaphase.” “Thank you, Lee. At least somebody read the chapter. Right, anaphase, in which the cell’s…” Mr. Grant’s voice trailed off as he walked back to the head of the class. Lee, however, continued to speak, much to the chagrin of his former friend. “Rusty, man, you look terrible. What have you been doing to yourself?”

[34] Rusty didn’t even bother to turn around. It was bad enough the class had assigned seats and he was being forced to be near Lee. Rusty didn’t want to talk to him too. “Forget it Lee, don’t worry about it.” Rusty could hear Lee leaning forward, trying to make his point more sincere. “Look, I know you still hate me, but I’m telling you this because you need to hear it. You look like hell.” Rusty gazed into the monitor of his desk’s computer. Though shut off at the moment, the screen was reflective enough to give Rusty a fair depiction of his face. Lee was right. Though his body looked to be in the best condition yet, his face told another story. There were dark circles under his eyes and creases at the edges of his mouth that had never been there before. His hair was messy and knotted, dull in color. In fact, he looked like all those old rock stars, like Cobain or Keith Richards, a kind of worn out shell of a man. Rusty groaned. “Whatever Lee, I’m fine. Just been staying up too late.” To win the Pro/Am competition and steal your girlfriend he silently added in his head. “Well, whatever it is, it’s wrecking you. Maybe you should take a break…” “I’m fine!” Rusty hissed through his teeth, effectively ending the conversation. Slumped in his seat, Rusty was fuming, thinking about the last week or so. First his mother was pestering him about his sour looks and why he never hung out with friends anymore. Then the leg spasms last Wednesday. Then there was Kirra warning him about overtraining while Owen scolded his lack of focus on Saturday. Then the fall last night and, finally, Lee rescuing him only to say he looked like crap. What the hell was everybody’s problem lately? Why couldn’t they just leave him alone? Lee shifted back into his seat and got in a final word by adding softly, “I’m sorry. Just trying to be a friend again.” The rest of the week passed uneventfully but Rusty’s exhaustion only grew worse. He was being forced to scale back his workouts and falling asleep in class was becoming more and more of a problem. The ending bell on Friday rang sharply and Rusty limped out the front doors, nursing a swollen ankle he had rolled slightly the day before. It had been such a simple precision too. Deciding that he simply didn’t have the energy to train normally, Rusty chose to take the afternoon off and make up for it that night in his room, perhaps with an extra set of pushups. The sunset was early now and by the time Rusty stepped off the train and onto his home street it was nearly dark. Coming up the front porch steps, he shuffled in through the door, spent and tired. But just as he entered the house he heard a scream from the backyard. A woman’s scream.

[35] His mother’s scream. Tensing in a moment of sheer panic, Rusty dropped his bag at the door and sprinted through the house, swerving around the kitchen table and bursting out through the screen door in the back. Wasting no time, he leaped over the banister of the small porch they owned, placing one hand on the wood and vaulting the barrier in one fluid motion. He landed on the grass below and rolled out perfectly, coming up in a top speed sprint. Again he heard his mother cry out, this time calling his name. She sounded like she was in pain. The family yard was not large but it shared ground with the home across the way. There was a six foot wooden plank fence that crossed the center, dividing the run into two sections. Hearing the scream from the other side of the fence, Rusty popped over the top and dropped down the other side, landing seamlessly, as if his ankle didn’t hurt at all. He brought his eyes up and found his mother standing there, waiting for him. She seemed completely fine, except for the look of naked fury in her squinted, green eyes. Suddenly Rusty knew the score and knew the game was over. His mother had tricked him into using his new skills to ‘save’ her. There was no way he could have moved that fast and fluidly without PKFR training, and both Rusty and his mother knew it. He was screwed. “I knew it,” his mother said coldly. “I knew you were hiding it from me.” Rusty tried to play dumb. “Hide what mom?” “Don’t you dare play dumb Russell, don’t you dare! You know exactly what I mean!” No use anymore. Rusty’s shoulders slumped and he hung his head low. “I…I’m sorry mom. It’s just, it’s just…” “It’s just nothing!” his mother cried. “You’ve been doing PKFR! Even after everything that’s happened to us because of it! You lied to me, you lied about everything!” Rusty wanted to curl up and die. “Mom, please, I didn’t want to hurt you. This is just something I wanted to do.” “You wanted? Russell, that sport, that…thing, is a death wish. Over thirty people in the last decade have died while training, your father included. You want to die too, is that it?” “No, mom, please hear me out. This is what I’ve been missing. This is what I needed. I’m, I’m happy doing this.” “No, not another word! I knew I shouldn’t have let you have anything to do with PKFR, not even

[36] watch it. No, no this does it. You’re finished. As of now, consider yourself on lockdown. No computer, no television, no trips outside the house, nothing, till after the New Year.” Rusty looked up, shocked. “What! That’s ridiculous! Mom, you can’t be serious, PKFR is the best thing that’s ever happened to me! I’m stronger, I’m faster, smarter. It’s making me better!” “You think you’re doing better? At what cost, Russell? You never see your friends anymore, you’re tired all the time. You’re injured every week. Don’t think I haven’t seen you nursing bruises and limping around the house. Recycling scrap yards aren’t that tough. Soon you’ll be doing bigger obstacles, bigger jumps. You expect me to sit at home, watching you fall apart, waiting to hear how my son fell to his death like his father? No, I won’t. So forget it, you’re through.” Rusty’s voice grew louder, loud enough to match his mother. “Don’t talk about dad like that! He loved what he did and it’s what made a life for us! You can’t stop me from doing this! I’m not stupid, not a little kid. I’m not a child!” Out of nowhere, Rusty’s cheek began to burn. It took several seconds for him to comprehend that he had just been slapped by his own mother. Placing a hand on his stinging cheek, Rusty looked up into his mother’s eyes and saw tears. Though the fury had not left her face, his mother had tears welling up in her eyes, threatening to start running down her own red cheeks. Slowly, almost trembling, as if on the verge of sobbing, Rusty’s mother said, “You are my child Rusty. You’re the only thing I have left. Please, don’t do this. If you want to keep training, if you want to become a Runner…you might as well leave this house now.” Rusty had heard his mother speak enough times to know when she was deadly serious. He didn’t even try to argue his point any further. With the angry weight of all his frustrations fueling him, Rusty stepped away. He raised his chin and said defiantly, “Fine. I’m gone.” He hopped the fence, went back into the house, and packed as much of his belongings into a duffel bag as he could fit. Then he picked up his backpack, walked through the front door, and slammed it behind him.

[37]

CHAPTER 8
Kirra stepped from the doorway, her eyes half closed and her nose scrunched up. She hopped down the steps and stopped in front of Rusty, rubbing her ears between the palms of her hands. “Oh man, can that woman scream. Well Rusty, I finally talked her down and she agreed to let you stay at my place for a while. At least until things settle a bit.” Rusty sat with his knees between his arms on the yellow curb of the street. His head was dipped low and his long, red hair hung in his face. His few belongings were propped up next to him on the sidewalk. Without even lifting his eyes to meet hers, he said “Thanks Kirra. I really appreciate this.” The dark skinned woman stared down at the young man, unusually quiet and cold. She looked back toward the house and finally said, “Don’t be too appreciative, I’m only doing this because Owen convinced me to. If it were my choice you’d be back inside right now on your knees, apologizing to your mother. What on earth did you say to her anyway?” Rusty curled up a little more on the curb, huddling his legs further between his arms. Even though it was near noon he still felt cold, his fingertips unable to feel the denim of his jeans. He had spent most of the night on the streets, walking aimlessly through the now frigid suburbs, his mind a wasteland. He was losing it, losing everything; first his friends, then his mother, now his home. He had wandered to the edge of The City before realizing the sun was coming up. That’s when he had called Kirra. “Don’t worry about it Kirra. Just teenage drama.” Kirra stood where she was, looking down at the boy’s huddled form. She wanted to be angry at him, wanted to yell and rant and be as harsh as Owen and maybe teach the stupid kid a lesson. He had called her, hoarse and exhausted, saying that he had run away from home. At first Kirra had thought he was playing a prank on her. Then, as he explained further, she realized the gravity of the situation. She’d then called Owen, who had convinced her to help the young man, another unusual first for him. He never usually took any interest in his students’ personal lives. But he seemed especially forceful in telling Kirra to help the boy, saying, "Everyone's has a path to walk. Rusty has fallen from his. We're supposed to help others; we can't stand by and let him suffer for a mistake." She didn’t yet know what that mistake was or the whole story but she knew this went far beyond simple teenage drama. Still, as she watched him shiver with each gust of wind, she couldn’t bring herself to condemn him. Not yet at least. She took a step forward and slowly sat down next to Rusty, mirroring his hunched over pose by draping her long arms over her knees. As gently as she could she said, “I’m sorry Rusty. This must be pretty overwhelming for you right now but, well, I need to understand what’s going on. I can’t help if I don’t know the problem. And I don’t want to get mixed up in something way over my head.” Rusty slid away from Kirra. He ran his fingers through his hair, taking a deep breath but remaining silent.

[38] "Rusty, please." He let out a long sigh and clasped his hands together beneath his knees, fingers locked tight. “All right. All right, fine. But you have to promise me you’ll answer one of my questions after I tell you. Okay?” “Deal.” Kirra said. “The problem is…the problem is my dad.” Rusty said. “Your father?” Kirra repeated. “Yeah. See, he died a long time ago, about ten years ago. It was really sudden. I was only seven at the time so I don’t remember the details too well. I mean, I remember my dad, just not all the stuff when he died, like the funeral. Kind of a blur to me now. But I do remember, really, really well, how hard mom took it.” Kirra was now listening intently, her dark eyes watching Rusty. This was all new to her. Rusty had never talked much about his family. She knew he lived at home with his mother but everything else was a mystery. The pieces were starting to fall together. “I didn’t know that. I can imagine how rough that must have been.” “Yeah. Mom was like a ghost for a long time. Real quiet and withdrawn. It took almost a year before she started coming back, started moving on. She never forgot him though. Sometimes I still hear her, talking upstairs in her room. Acting like he's still around. When she does that she always ends up crying, eventually. She really loved dad.” “So then I’m guessing this whole fight got started because of your dad?” Kirra asked. Rusty fidgeted on the curb, turning his face away from her but remaining seated. “Yeah, something like that. More like because of what happened to him. How he died.” “Rusty, if you don’t mind me asking, what happened to him?” Rusty turned back around and looked Kirra dead in the eye. The normal shine in his emerald gaze was glazed over, distant, as if he were seven years old again and reliving the news of his father’s death. “He fell off a roof.” “A roof?” Kirra asked, puzzled. “Was he a construction worker or something?” “No. He was…he was a Runner.” This was the landmine Kirra had been digging for. Now the story was making sense. Rusty’s mother had lost her husband to a PKFR accident. And now Rusty was training, pushing himself, following suit. Of course she would be angry. She'd be furious. “I’m so sorry to hear that. PKFR deaths are rare, even ten years ago, but accidents happen. They tend to get a lot of news play though, I might remember what happened. What was your dad’s name?”

[39] “James.” “James, okay, your last name is Klein so James Klein – wait a minute. James Klein, the James Klein? JK! Your father was JK!” Kirra yelled loudly. Rusty slid down even further on the curb, upset by Kirra’s outburst. Sensing this, Kirra calmed down and apologized, to which Rusty replied flatly, “It’s okay. Most people get a little worked up when they hear about the famous JK.” He said the last two words with a distinct air of sarcasm. That was, of course, a huge understatement to Kirra. To PKFR fans of a decade ago, hell, even up to the present day, JK was a hero - a legend. His name was said with awed reverence. The three time, back-to-back-to-back winner of the World Parkour-Freerun Championship. Undefeated in any Pro/Am competitions he entered. The first man to successfully nail a running Gainer to Cat Leap in competition. Star of the most watched online videos of 2015 and 2016. And also the cocreator of the most widely used shoe in the sport, the La Libertas. In short, he ranked right up there with the old giants, like David Belle and Danny Ilabaca. He practically created the professional Runner’s life and made PKFR a household name. Kirra fumbled for words. “Wow, um, okay. So that explains a lot then.” Kirra didn’t need Rusty to explain anymore. The Fall, the death of JK, had been a huge blow to the PKFR world. JK had been in the heart of The City on top of a high rise, helping film a commercial for a non-profit health group. According to eyewitness accounts, he slipped on a rail and fell off the roof. The safety net below broke loose and JK was hurled off the side of the building, plummeting dozens of stories to his death. A dark day for the world, it was considered a freak accident. But that did little to console the family he left behind. Apparently, Kirra had somehow stumbled into training the son of one of the greatest Runners of all time. Also, apparently, his mother didn’t approve of her son’s sudden, exploding interest in the very thing that destroyed their lives years earlier. Kirra didn’t need a crystal ball or Owen’s intuition to figure that much out. Leaning back and taking in the sudden enormity of it all, Kirra whistled an awestruck tune quietly to herself. She picked herself up off the ground, dusted off her pants, and held a hand out to the tired and shivering boy. Rusty looked up, a little confused by the small smile Kirra gave back to him. She said, “You may not believe me, but I understand what you’re going through. Sort of. And right now, the thing you need the most is a safe place to sort your head out. Come on, we’re going to my place.” Rusty did his best but only mustered a grim grin in reply. He took her hand and stood up, legs shaking underneath him. “All right. But you need to answer my question now.” Kirra had almost forgotten that end of the agreement. She nodded her head and said, “Of course. What is it?” Without skipping a beat, Rusty said, “What’s the deal with you and Owen? Are you two going out? Is that why you left the Olympic team?”

[40] Kirra’s comforting demeanor vanished. Dropping her voice to an unusually low tone, she said, “No, we’re not. And why I left the team doesn’t matter to you, so don’t worry about it.” Rusty opened his mouth to protest but he quickly closed it. He was tired of arguing, tired of fighting, tired of everything. He just wanted to sleep and forget the world for a while. “Okay, fair enough. Would you mind if I met up with you a little later? There’s something I need to do first.” Kirra relaxed and said it would be fine. She collected his belongings, gave Rusty her address and told him his stuff would be waiting for him at her apartment downtown. She waved goodbye and Rusty turned to walk the other way, heading for the train station. An hour later he was standing in his high school’s auditorium, leaning on a small folding table, while a crowd of young men and women filed in behind him. A large sign tacked up on the wall behind the table proclaimed in bold letters “New Year’s PKFR PRO/AM: Sign Up Today!” A middle aged man with graying hair sat behind the table and placed a thin stack of papers in front of Rusty. He spoke as if he’d said this same thing hundreds of times before. “Sign on the first line here, the last line on the next page, and initial on the third. As an amateur this is your first time in the contest so you’ll want to read over the rules and such before arriving. Event date is two months from now, on New Year’s Eve. I suggest you take the time and train hard, competition will be tough this year.” Rusty thanked him and filled out the forms as instructed. His heart was in his throat and it took all his concentration not to stab the pen tip through the table top. What was he doing? This was a bad idea. This Pro/Am was ruining his life. Why was he still signing up? And yet, Rusty couldn’t stop himself, even as he finished the final K of his initials. Something - a feeling, a desire, almost like a raging wildfire - was building in the pit of his stomach. He couldn’t back down now. He had come too far. An unshakable, yearning force had been awakened, driving him forward. Rusty couldn’t name it, couldn’t place his finger on it. But it seemed hungry, starving, dying to unleash itself. A need to move, to conquer. He was interrupted from his dream state by the annoyed cough of the man behind the desk. Sliding the papers back to the older man, he was about to turn and leave when the man called out. “Excuse me, Mr. Klein. It’s probably a silly question but, you wouldn't happen to be related to James Klein, would you? JK?” Rusty felt a twinge of foreboding but answered truthfully anyway. “Yes. I’m his son.” The gray haired man’s eyes grew a little wider and he said “That so? Well that’s very interesting, is this really your first competition? Where have you been all these years?” Rusty was growing agitated. “I’ve been around. And yeah, this is my first contest.” “Well now, the son of JK, making his glorious debut. That’ll be a crowd pleaser.” “Yeah, right, whatever.” Rusty glanced at his watch, saying, “Look, don’t make a big deal out of it, okay? It’s still kind of a sore spot, you know? I want to lay low.”

[41] The man held up an open hand, saying, “Right, right. No worries. We’ll try to be discreet. Have a good day Mr. Klein.” Rusty had just left the auditorium when the gray haired man touched the button of a small square device at his waist. The speaker bud in his left ear switched on and he verbally dialed the number of the PKFR League’s advertising bureau. Skipping through channels until he reached the vice president’s office, he was patched through by the secretary and heard through his right ear bud, the microphone, a burst of static. “Hello, Mr. King? Yes, yes I hear you. This is David Aames at the Pro/Am signups. Fine, thank you. Listen, remember how you were looking for a new spin on the amateur portion of the contest? Yes, you said how you wanted a fresh face and an angle, someone or something that would look good in ads and things around town. Television and billboards, right. Well, I think I may have found our boy…”

[42]

CHAPTER 9
“Hey, Rusty.” “Let’s see, double kong tutorial…build up speed, jump forward, and keep the hips high. Tap fast, prepare for landing. Maybe my hips aren’t high enough…" “Ruusss-tyyy.” “So what about double kong to precision? I know I’ve seen that before – OW!" “Good, got your attention!” “Ouch, my ear! What the hell was - Jenna!” “About time you realized who it was. Day dreaming again?” “Uh, yeah, I guess so.” Rusty straightened up in his chair and scrambled to compose himself, quickly closing out of the video. He had been day dreaming, in a sense. It was physics study hall at school and Rusty, to his credit, was studying like directed, just not classical physics. It was physics but more of the inverted twisting aerial variety. He had been researching technique combinations and tutorials, absentmindedly flipping through old video clips, when he’d felt the sharp pinch on his ear. The torturer turned out to be Jenna, who was sitting right behind Rusty at the next table. Why now?, he wondered to himself as he pulled his hair out of his eyes. Why here? I picked this spot to be away from people. Jenna returned to her computer screen, her back to Rusty’s, to avoid attracting the teacher’s attention. She whispered behind her, trying to pick up where she left off, “So what were you looking at?” Rusty tapped the console screen and flashed through a few text and audio files, trying to remember what he had seen already. “Nothing special. Newton and gravity’s rate of accelerating speed.” “Ah, I see,” said Jenna, “Gravity and how it applies to 360 Cat Leaps?” Rusty froze his finger an inch away from the screen. “What, did you hack my screen!” Jenna giggled behind Rusty, obviously enjoying her torturing. Rusty could hear the clicking and tapping as she went through system commands. “Just watching. But that must have been some day dream, I’ve been watching for ten minutes and you never noticed.” “Jeez, who showed you how to do that? These systems are usually pretty secure.” “Lee did.”

[43] At that moment Rusty was glad Jenna had her back to him and couldn’t see him cringe. Hiding the scowl from his voice he said, “Really? He’s getting better then. It used to take him all study hall to work through the fire wall.” “Yeah, but I couldn’t help but notice all the PKFR stuff. I guess the rumors are true.” Rusty’s scowl was suddenly replaced by confusion, his eyebrows bunching together over his eyes. Trying to act calm he said, “What? What rumors?” “That you’re gonna be in the Pro/Am. Wow, you must be daydreaming 24-7, people have been talking about it for nearly two weeks.” Rusty buried his head in his hands, groaning silently to himself. This was not what he wanted, not at all. It was just over a month to the Pro/Am and already word had leaked out that he was going to compete. He didn’t want to deal with rumors and speculation. It was common knowledge in the school that he was JK’s son. But as long he remained out of the limelight nobody really bothered him. Now he’d have to worry about the pressure to perform and win. He’d have people breathing down his neck. After all, how could the son of a legend fail? If the rumors were ever confirmed his life would turn into hell, all the way until the show. Rusty wanted to ignore Jenna and change the subject but his desire to get on her good side won out. Reluctantly he whispered back, “Okay, yeah I am. But don’t tell anyone okay? It’s supposed to be a surprise. I don’t want anyone finding out ahead of time.” Rusty could almost hear Jenna smile as she said, “Your secret’s safe with me. But, I mean, wow, the Pro/Am? I didn’t even know you did PKFR. You think you’ll win?” “I hope so. It might be a little tough.” “Why? You look strong enough.” “Well, uh, it’s that…” Rusty was scrambling again. What could he say? He couldn’t admit he’d only been training for less than six months. It’d completely blow his cover. Stammering a little, Rusty decided to tell half the truth and said “…I’m not good with flips. And tricks and stuff.” “Well that’s not a problem,” Jenna replied, “In the amateur division flips usually aren’t the deciding factor. Actually, I think someone won with only a cartwheel and a palm spin a few years ago. But he could do triple kongs too.” “Um, Jenna, that’s the problem. See, I…I don’t know any.” Jenna was confused. “Any what?” Rusty swallowed hard. “Flips. I don’t know any flips or tricks.” Jenna didn’t answer at first. The silence of the study hall gnawed at Rusty. Finally she said, “None?” Now Rusty felt even worse. “No. I’ve never even been to a gym.”

[44] Then the silence again. Rusty began to quietly smack his forehead with the palm of his hand, muttering, “Why, why, why? Why’d I even open my mouth.” But then suddenly Jenna spun around in her chair, faced Rusty and said excitedly, “I’ve got it, no problem! Come to the school’s gym today after classes. I’ll show you a few things.” Rusty’s eyes bulged wide open. He turned around and said, “What? Really?” Jenna beamed a toothy smile and Rusty nearly fainted. This was the first time he had seen her today. She had her blond hair in a long braid and her eyes sparkled. Damn she looked beautiful today. She said happily, “Sure, I’m teaching a beginner class for kids today anyway. It’s part of my community service project for the team. Just tag along.” “Okay, yeah! I’ll be there!” Rusty gushed, far too loud. The teacher shushed the pair and they had to turn back to their monitors abruptly. But Rusty kept grinning, all day long. Classes seemed to crawl twice as slow as normal. When the bell finally rang Rusty sprinted across the courtyard, dragging his bag and jacket behind him. He whipped around the corner and entered the gymnasium’s double front doors, just in time to see a little colorful ball flash past him. It was a ten-year-old, doing back handsprings the entire way across the tumbling floor. Rusty dropped his bag and jacket and then his jaw. This was the beginner class, for kids? In front of him was a scene from a kung fu movie. Nearly two dozen children, aged roughly six to twelve, were bouncing around the gymnastics hall like super balls. There was one on the trampoline, doing consecutive front tuck-back tuck combos. There were three on the balance beams doing walk-overs and jumping from one to the next without hesitation. And there was an entire herd of others on the spring floor, challenging each other to one-up the next, and pulling somersault combinations that Rusty had only seen in videos. Jenna came running over from the locker rooms, dressed head to toe in a tight blue track suit, and welcomed Rusty inside. Rusty stuttered for a moment and finally managed to say “Jenna, this, this is the beginners?” Jenna gave him a funny look and then chuckled to herself. She gripped Rusty by the shoulders and pointed him in the direction of the room adjacent to the main hall, a room padded door to door with soft mats and mirrors lining the walls. The room was littered with soft, child size obstacles and about half a dozen three to six year old kids. Jenna said, “No Matchstick, that’s the beginner class. In here is the advanced city youth league. They use the gym same time as us. Come on, we’re gonna get started soon.” Rusty was both relieved and a little embarrassed. He was glad to be learning but did it have to be with toddlers? Of course, Rusty soon realized the truth: he wasn’t even ready for this. Half way through the class he had sweat beads on every inch of his skin, not from exertion, but from frustration and failure. He could barely perform a proper cartwheel and he was banging his head against the mats every time he tried to do a back handspring. He was pretty sure he even heard one of the four-year-olds

[45] snickering when he crashed into a pile of padded vault boxes. He was getting shown up by kids who were barely potty trained. By the end of the class Rusty was tired, annoyed, and his head ached from the constant falling. This was a lot tougher than it looked. The red headed teen stripped off his shirt and sat dejected in the corner, watching as Jenna said goodbye to the kids and walked back into the room. She could see how Rusty felt and remained calm, taking a seat next to him on the mats. She waited a moment, thinking of how sad yet cute Rusty looked when he was angry, his long hair hiding his face. At last she said, “Don’t get mad Rusty. It was your first day, you actually did a lot better than I expected.” “Gee, thanks Jen.” “I’m serious, you pretty much have back handsprings down. They’re just a little crooked. And your cartwheels are extended and in line. With a little more practice you could probably get aerials by the end of the month.” “Not exactly high-class stuff for the Pro/Am.” “Better than nothing.” “How can you always stay so happy, Jenna?” Jenna looked up toward the ceiling, going into a mock thoughtful pose. She answered, “Just an optimist I guess.” Rusty scoffed and said, “Yeah, but at this rate it won’t matter. I mean this is tough stuff, it’s almost as tough as the first time I trained with Kir…oh no.” Rusty jumped to this feet, streaking across the mats and gathering up his belongings. He kept repeating to himself, “No-no-no-no-" Jenna, shocked, stood up slowly and said, “What? What is it? You forget something?” Rusty stuffed his sweaty shirt into his backpack and said, “Yeah, I did. Today I’m supposed to meet with O- I mean, my personal trainer. Today was a big day. Damn damn damn, shit, I’m gonna be late…” Rusty rushed out the door and yelled behind him as he left, “Thanks Jenna, I’ll be back soon!” Rusty ran the entire ten blocks to the front of a condemned office building on Third. Why? Why did Jenna have to invite him today? Why today of all days! Arriving at the meet up point huffing and half dead, Rusty was frightened to see no one there. Had they left without him? If they did he’d never hear the end of it. This was the first time he had been invited along for the Trace. But then he heard the faintest of a thud from someone landing behind him, followed by the vibration of someone landing but no sound. Only one man could land without a single sound. Rusty spoke without turning. “I’m sorry I’m late guys. Got held back for talking in study hall.”

[46] “What have I told you about being silent at all times?” Kirra jokingly said, nudging Rusty on the shoulder. Owen was less jovial and said sternly, “Poor excuse for being late.” “I know, I know.” Rusty said, “But I’m already warmed up so we can get going right away.” Kirra held up a callused hand and said, “Slow down Firefoot, first let’s go over what we’re doing today, one last time. I don’t want you getting mixed up halfway through.” “Fine, okay.” Kirra cleared her throat. “Today we’re going Tracing. This is your first time so listen close. A Trace is when we cut an unplanned line across the city. We run from one destination to the next, always staying as straight and true to speed and power as we can. Today’s Trace is going to be 3 miles. It’s going to be a little rough so try to keep up. You sure you’re ready?” “Yes, yes, I’m ready.” Owen cracked his knuckles and pointed through the entrance of the condemned building. “Let’s go.” And they were off and running. It wasn’t so bad at first. Rusty was thoroughly warmed up and kept within a few yards of Kirra and Owen, vaulting over piles of debris and swinging on door frames as they sliced their way silently up and across the building’s floors. When they reached the third floor the trio leaped through an open window and onto a fire escape outside, popping over the escape’s railing and dropping down level by level on the outside edge without hesitation. Within seconds they were back on the ground and tearing through a back alley, dodging overturned dumpsters and bounding off the brick and cement walls of the buildings that surrounded them. Kirra and Owen kept the pace constant. By the second mile, Rusty was starting to feel the exhaustive effects of his gymnastics class a mere hour before. They had left the former business district and its empty buildings behind and were now blazing a path across an outdoor mall, popping over benches and using bike racks as launch pads to clear multi-tiered flower beds. Pedestrians barely gave them a second look – just another day of Runners in the neighborhood. Though some wondered why they never once stopped. Rusty occupied the slower running stretches by analyzing Kirra and Owen’s opposing styles in his mind. Kirra tended to be more flexible, more nimble, bouncing from step to step. She used this to her advantage, especially during climb ups, where she would use a unique swing foot method to twist her body up and overcome the relative lack of strength in her arms. It was funny to watch her cotton ball of a ponytail fluff around in the wind. Owen on the other hand was simply a beast. Despite his age he seemed as powerful as a raging bull, literally muscling through obstacles with perfectly controlled brute force. He seemed to plow through crowded sections of obstacles, barely touching the ground, moving ever forward like an arrow, never wavering. His breathing remained constant and cool, his running gait solid yet easy. It was truly an awe-inspiring, if not frightening, sight.

[47] By mile three Rusty was sucking down air and starting to trail behind. His soaking wet clothes clung to his skin and the frosty chill of the late November air was creeping into his bones. His fingertips were nearly numb and he could feel his teeth wanting to chatter. Kirra and Owen hadn’t looked back once the entire time. Now they were hitting the heavily congested Old City section, an upscale yet crowded area full of 20th century architecture that was clumped oppressively close together. That meant lots of climbing and dropping which sapped what little strength Rusty had left in his arms. But still he soldiered ahead, not wanting to give Owen or Kirra any more reason to lecture him about his training than they already had. It was near the end of the final mile that Rusty finally realized that he didn’t know the ending point. Owen had never mentioned it. Now worried that his teachers would pick somewhere ungodly difficult to get to, Rusty started to zone out. The trio hit a long straight away and Rusty became lost in his mind, trying to think of all the places Kirra and Owen could pick. The Fountain? The Drop-In? Cat Square? Where would they go? “Rusty! Damn it, look up!” Kirra’s shrill voice finally cut through the haze and Rusty’s eyes snapped to attention. There was a low stone pillar before him, then a gap, then a brick wall. They were all closing in fast. Without thinking, without knowing, only sensing, Rusty planted his foot on top of the pillar and launched himself forward. He seemed to hang for minutes, suspended like a marionette, watching the wall draw closer. The top edge filled his entire view. The only sound he heard was the air rushing around him. As his shoes touched solid wall and his numb fingers felt rough brick he instinctively grabbed hold and eased in, his body accepting the huge Cat Leap without question. His muscles worked on autopilot and he hauled himself up on top of the wall in one graceful, swinging motion. He stood atop the wall and breathed out, letting the tension relax. Then he finally realized that Owen and Kirra had stopped. He also realized where he was. On top of the wall he failed to scale dozens of times, the one he had nearly broken his tailbone falling from right before he went back to school. He had done it. And he didn’t know it was happening. Stunned and speechless, Rusty simply stood in place, staring forward. Kirra was jumping up and down, whistling loudly and clapping her hands. Owen was, of course, calm but…smiling. A real, honest to god smile that seemed to stretch the only muscles in his body that never got a workout. Stepping forward and placing a rough, massive hand on Rusty’s shoulder, Owen said, “Congratulations. That is the unthinking movement. Letting it happen, a mind that only works in the here and now.” Rusty’s stunned face broke open into the biggest smile he’d ever had, a big goofy Christmas day grin. He still couldn’t speak he was so happy and shocked. Owen continued, saying, “Now we can-” But Owen was cut short by the internet billboard high above him. The soft holiday music that had been playing suddenly clicked off and a commercial began playing. A commercial for the New Year’s Pro/Am competition. Not unusual really, they had been playing them for over a week now. But this commercial was different. Because it started with an old video clip of James “JK” Klein.

[48] The commercial’s announcer declared, “Ten years ago…The Tragedy. JK, one of the most prolific Runners of all time, died at the age of 29, the peak of his career. Since then, the world has been awaiting the next great Runner, someone to carry on his legacy and bring PKFR to a whole new level. This year, at The City Pro/Am, that person may step forward.” A picture of Rusty flashed on the screen. “Russell ‘Rusty’ Klein, the only son of The Legend, JK, will be in competition for the first time ever! Where has he been? What has he been doing? Training? Perfecting? Will he compare to, maybe even exceed his father? Only one way to find out! Tune in to Pay-Per-View or watch the event LIVE at ‘PKFR’ High School, January 1st, New Year’s Day! Don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to see singer Queen Katrina, the prodigy Rusty Klein, and the World Champion, Andre Levy, LIVE!” The commercial ended and holiday music again filled the air, an instrumental version of Silent Night. Rusty, who had been staring at the billboard screen the entire time, slowly brought his head back down. Owen had not budged or moved to view the screen. But he’d heard everything. Kirra stared at Rusty, horrified. His shaved head bowed low, Owen quietly said, “Is that true, Rusty?” Frightened beyond all measure, Rusty squeaked, “Yes.” Owen breathed in deeply through his nose, held it for only a moment, and then breathed out heavily through his mouth. Without budging at all, without picking up his head, Owen said hotly, “Leave.” Rusty stepped back, unsure what he meant, unsure what to do. “Wha-What? Leave?” “Don’t make me repeat myself. Leave now. Go home. Your training days are finished.” Rusty took a step forward but hesitated. “Wait. Wait Owen. Owen, please.” Owen finally lifted his head, his steel eyes locking onto Rusty’s thin form. He seemed to pierce straight through Rusty’s soul and into the center of the Earth. Rusty could see a small vein begin to throb at the edge of Owen’s eye near his scar. Channeling a kind of ancient, cold fury, Owen said, “I told you, Parkour is real. Not a game. Training…is life. I trusted you with it. And you would use it, pervert it, into that?” “…Owen.” “You’ll never understand. You were a waste of time. Go. Run. Because if you don’t, I swear to god, I will kill you where you stand.” His voice was seething with hatred. There was not a hint of exaggeration on the old man’s tongue. He meant every word. Rusty was breathing fast, far too fast. He was shaking uncontrollably. He managed to tear his eyes away from Owen and looked to Kirra, asking pathetically, “Kirra, please. I just…please.” But Kirra merely looked away, not even catching his gaze. There was no safety net this time. Rusty looked back at Owen, shivering and cowering in fear. He shuffled backwards, first one step, then two. Then he ran, as fast and as far as he could.

[49]

CHAPTER 10
“Hey, you’re Rusty right? Rusty Klein?” Rusty pushed a pile of soggy peas across his plate, separating the carrots from Wednesday’s mystery meat. For three years he’d been going to this high school and they still couldn’t cook a half decent pork chop. Rusty sighed. Without looking up at the energetic freshman to his left, Rusty quietly said “Yeah.” The slim, lanky kid gave a wide grin and sat down on the bench. “Awesome, I wasn’t sure if it was you or not at first. You look different than the commercials.” “People have been telling me that.” Rusty said obliviously. In fact Rusty looked very different from the television ads. The competition’s advertisers had managed to track down old photos he had posted on the internet and were using them in media flyers. Of course, those particular photos were from before he started training, over half a year ago. Now his shirts clung tightly to his body, stretched taut across his wide back. He stood a full inch taller but sat like an old man, his shoulders hunched and loose, his eyes distant and head hung low. Gone were the goofy grin and the awkward, twitchy movements. Light red stubble was dusted on his lip and chin and small, puffy bags hung under his green eyes. His hair, once a short mop of bangs, was now nearing his chin, a thick mess of waves that nearly concealed his entire face from view. He looked ten years older than his real age. The freshman ignored the signs and happily continued. “You’re doing the Pro/Am, right? Right?” Rusty hesitated. “No. Not anymore.” The kid blinked twice and paused. He wasn’t expecting that. Maybe he hadn’t heard correctly. “What? Why not? You’d probably crush it!” Rusty gripped his fork hard but then gently placed it on the table next to his plate. He still hadn’t looked up from his food. “Change of plans.” “Huh? What does that mean?” Rusty exploded. He whipped his head to the side and screamed, his voice hoarse and cracking, “It means I’m not doing it! Or do you need me to spell it out for you?” The freshman’s eyes reeled in horror and he leaned away, frightened and confused. Several girls at the table behind them fell silent at the outburst, making the scene even tenser. Rusty gritted his teeth, jaw locked tight. A few agonizing moments later the kid finally took the hint and stood up, backing away slowly without a word. He turned and walked away, glancing back just once to see Rusty brush a few strands of hair out of his face and return to pushing peas and carrots around his plate. One of the girls spoke up and said quietly to her friends, “So much for ‘like father, like son’ huh?”

[50] Across the dining hall, Jenna and Lee sat next to each other, frowning. Even in the enormous, noisy lunchroom they could hear Rusty’s screams. That made the third time this week and who knew how many before that. It was almost a daily occurrence at this point but it had been worse before. Now he only exploded if he was pestered. First, Rusty had disappeared from school for three days. Then he came back, moody and silent, like a bad soap actor. Then he started lashing out at everyone who even mentioned his father, competition, or ‘Pro/Am’. Jenna turned around and looked at Rusty, sitting alone near the windows. She leaned over to Lee and said, “There he goes again. Wish I knew what was going on with him.” Lee turned around and stared at Rusty’s sullen form for a long minute before saying, “Whatever it is, it’s serious. He was always a little touchy but this is the worst I’ve ever seen him.” “Then why don’t you go talk to him Lee? You’re his best friend.” Lee turned back and balanced his empty water bottle on edge with his finger. “Was his best friend, Jen. I tried to say something last week but he wouldn’t even look at me. He wants the bridge to stay burned.” Lee stopped balancing the plastic bottle and let it fall over with a hollow thud. “Can’t say I blame him either.” Jenna frowned again and hugged Lee’s shoulder, trying to comfort him. “Don’t say that. You already told me what happened, it wasn’t your fault. You didn’t want to hurt him.” “Yeah, and see where it got me? The worst things always come from the best intentions.” Jenna huffed but remained quiet. She said, “Fine, you know what? I’ll talk to him after school. You have to get to work at the library anyway, right?” “Yup. More archiving to do.” Lee folded his arms on the table and laid his head down, staring at the empty bottle in front of him. “I’m telling you, someone should of done that stuff a long time ago.” The last bell rang and Rusty shuffled out of the math classroom, carrying his books loosely under one arm. He walked with gloomy, measured steps the entire time, a ghost in the hallway. He came to his locker and sorted out what he’d need for homework, piling it all into his backpack with little feeling or care. Slipping on his jacket, he reached into his pocket and took out his cell phone, numbly dialing a number. The other end rang twice before it picked up. “Hello?” “Hey mom,” Rusty said. “School’s done, I’ll be heading home soon.” Same time, same place, same call. After the incident with Owen, Rusty had collected his belongings from Kirra’s apartment and moved back in with his mother. There were, of course, severe penalties and conditions. Calling home at the end of every day to let her know his whereabouts was just one of them, and a soft one at that.

[51] Rusty’s mom replied, “Good, remember to bring home the groceries on the list I gave you. We’re having pasta tonight.” “Right, gotcha.” Rusty closed his locker and turned to leave, only to bump right into Jenna, who had been hiding behind the door. Startled out of his daze, Rusty stopped speaking and pulled the phone away from his head. Jenna mouthed the words can we talk and Rusty nodded, covering the speaker with his thumb. It took a moment before he managed to say, “What’s up?” Jenna grinned a little and said, “Haven’t seen you at the gym lately. Been avoiding me?” Rusty opened and closed his mouth, tried to come up with a good excuse, but failed. Jenna chimed back in and folded her arms over her chest, saying in a sarcastic voice, “Whatever it is doesn’t matter.” She finished by putting on a fake drill instructor’s tone and saying, “You’re coming with me, soldier. Now.” Rusty stared down at her, blinking dumbly, much like the freshman kid from before. He couldn’t risk it. He shouldn’t risk it. His mother had him on a short leash as it was. She’d never allow him to go. In addition, he hadn’t trained or even spoken to anyone besides her in nearly two weeks. But Jenna stood there, grinning mischievously, knowing exactly what buttons to push. Rusty took a deep breath and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. He lifted the cell phone back to his ear and said “Mom, I have to stop by the computer store and pick up a hard drive expansion for a school project. I’ll be home a little later than I thought.” The other end of the line was silent for longer than he would have liked. Finally his mother said, “Okay, but you call me the second you get on the train heading home. We’re eating by 5 o’clock, got it?” “Yeah mom, got it.” Rusty ended the call and swallowed hard. It was starting all over again. He wondered how badly he’d screw up his life this time around. “What did you have in mind?” Jenna grinned even wider. “Funny you should ask…” “Gguuaaaaaa!” Rusty yelled like a banshee as he spun through the air, tumbling end over end, watching the world turn into a colorful blur. He felt like he soared for an hour before he landed in a pile of foam bricks, sinking deep into the soft pit. Only his head stuck out as he began clawing his way out of the hole for the twentieth time. Or was it the twenty-first? He pulled himself out of the spongy quicksand and lay out on the nearby spring floor, breathing hard as the adrenaline pumped through his system. “Okay, the trampoline was not a good idea.” he puffed. “I could have told you that.” said Jenna. She reached out a petite hand and helped Rusty get to his feet. He staggered for a second and she laughed, saying, “You okay there, Matchstick?”

[52] Rusty found his composure and dusted flecks of foam-rubber off his shirt, saying, “Yeah, I’m okay. Just not used to that much height from a jump is all.” “Guess not,” Jenna replied. “Are you sure you haven’t been training? Last time you were here you could barely get high enough to even try a back tuck. Now you’re practically clearing the parallel bars.” Rusty put a fist over his heart. “I swear, I haven’t hopped a rail or done a pushup in two weeks. I don’t know what it is, it’s like I’m lighter than I’ve ever been.” “That’s probably it you know. The two weeks. You finally gave your body some repair time. Although if you were that broken down before I don’t even want to know how hard you were pushing yourself.” Rusty shrugged his shoulders and glanced at the clock on the wall. The sun was already setting and he had to get going. He turned to walk away and said, “I guess. Made sense at the time. Look, Jenna, thanks for all this but I gotta get going.” Jenna ran ahead and blocked his path, her ponytail bouncing the entire way. “Not yet.” Rusty stopped and groaned, exasperated. He held up his hands and said, “What? What do you want?” Jenna held her hands behind her back and said sweetly, “You haven’t smiled. And you haven’t told me what’s bugging you yet.” Rusty didn’t even hesitate as he coldly said, “No.” Jenna was stunned. He’d never been that blunt around her before. “But Rus…” “NO, Jenna. I don’t want to talk about it.” Rusty stepped around her, knocking his shoulder into hers as he did. He picked up his backpack, shouldered it quickly, and picked up speed, heading for the exit. He was nearly out of earshot when Jenna called out, “Damn it Rusty! Don’t do this! Talk to me!” Just like before, Rusty exploded. It was as if any restraint he’d previously had had melted away, burned to ash in the rage he now felt at everyone and everything. He spun around, threw his backpack into the ground, and marched back towards Jenna. “Fine! You want me to talk, want to hear what’s bugging me? You! Everyone! People asking me what’s wrong. All these people coming up to me and acting like they’re my friends, just because they saw me on TV. People who didn’t give a rat’s ass about me until they figured out who my dad was!” Rusty stopped a few yards away from Jenna; spit was forming at the edges of his chapped lips. He was beyond help now. “I’m sick of this, all of it! Sick of school, sick of my mom, sick of being told what’s right and what’s wrong. Sick of PKFR, sick of hearing about my incredible dad. I don’t understand it. Any of it! I don’t understand what the hell I’m doing anymore!”

[53] Rusty collapsed to the ground, rocking back and forth on his rear, slamming his fist into the palm of his other hand. It was a borderline breakdown, a total loss of control. He sat there, taking sharp, shallow breaths as everyone in the gym stopped what they were doing and stared. Jenna too stared, at a complete loss for what to do. She stood stock still, unsure and unoptimistic for the first time in known memory. She turned away, hand over her mouth, unable to see him that way. Finally she gestured to the other people in the gym, trying to assure them that everything was okay. Rusty started in again, quieter this time. He sucked at gasps of air as if he’d been crying. “I’m just…lost. For years I felt like I was in a bad dream that never ended. Barely drifting along. Then I started training, started moving. And I thought I’d finally found a way out of the dream. Something to live by. I could finally start to understand my life, my past. My dad.” Rusty stopped rocking and hung his head pitifully low, staring into his lap. “But I just traded one dream for another. Only this dream’s a nightmare. Every day I beat my body to hell and told myself I was doing it for something better. I was getting closer to the end. But it was a lie. I hurt my mom. I hurt Owen and Kirra, the only family I ever had. I lost my friends, lost myself.” Rusty looked up with watery green eyes and fought against the crying chokes in his throat. “And I lost you.” Jenna’s lips moved but no words came out. She took a step forward but then retreated. “Rusty…I, I…” Suddenly, a phone began to ring. Jenna looked around frantically and realized it was her own cell phone going off. She pulled it out of her pocket and looked at the screen indicator - an urgent call. “Oh god, Lee, not now…” She tapped the screen and said, “This is a bad time Lee, what is it?” Rusty could only hear a constant stream of tiny sound pouring out from the speaker. Jenna shook her head and said, “Whoa Lee, slow down, what? Is Rusty here? Yeah, he is, but this is seriously a bad time…no, I really don’t think he wants to hear…fine, fine! I’ll put you on!” Jenna pulled the phone away from her ear and angrily tapped the screen again, turning the speaker on high so Rusty could hear. Rusty listened as a frantic Lee exclaimed, “Rusty, Rusty! Look man, I know how upset you are right now and I know I’m the last person you wanna hear from. But I have something you need to see!” Rusty sniffed and said, “Go screw yourself Lee.” “No, Rusty, please! It’s about your dad! I found something about your dad and that guy who you said saved you!” Rusty froze. He stared at the phone in Jenna’s hand and said, bewildered, “What?” “It’s a video, I found a video. I’m working at the library part time, helping them archive old websites for that national internet history project they’ve got going. I was working my way through an old, tiny video hosting site when I found one called ‘JK Speaks’. It turned out to be a video of your dad.”

[54] Rusty tried to play it off. “That’s nothing new, Lee. People still watch his videos today and they still find old clips of him.” “Yeah but this is different, it’s just him talking. But then this guy appears and I remembered you describing that Owen guy and, aw hell. I’ll just send it to you. You’ve got your phone right?” “Yeah.” “Okay good. I’m sending the file to you now with a codec so you can play it. These old video formats are a pain in the ass to decode these days.” Rusty heard a bing from his backpack that told him a new file had been delivered to his phone. He stood up and walked over to his bag but hesitated, watching his phone flash from the mesh pocket on the side. Finally he reached over and pulled it out, flipping open the extended fiber optic screen and opening the clip. The quality was terrible, even on the small three-inch screen, but the title page was just as Lee had said: JK Speaks. His dad’s face magically appeared. It was shocking, like staring into a mirror. His father was young, probably only in his mid-twenties, smiling and grinning from ear to ear. He had the same facial features as Rusty, a heavy jaw line and a nose slightly too big for his head. He had fire red hair, only his was cropped short and close at the sides. The only major difference was that his father had deep, royal blue eyes that looked like cold winter oceans. The picture shook slightly as he came more into focus. It looked like a home movie with someone holding the camera. JK laughed and said, “C’mon already! You’re the one who wanted to do this, remember?” A young woman’s voice, pretty and lighthearted, cut in saying, “Oh calm down. It took us over an hour to get here! You could at least give me a few minutes to set up.” It sounded like the person holding the camera was the woman. JK laughed again and said, “All right, okay. Just gimmie a cue or something, I’m not good at interviews.” The image finally came into sharp focus and the woman holding the camera said, “Okay, there, got it. So introduce yourself. And where are we?” “As if you didn’t know. OW! Okay, don’t throw stuff at me, geez! My name is James Klein, JK for short. I am a Freerunner, soon to be professional Freerunner, hopefully. And today we are in a very special place, Notre Endroit. That’s French for ‘Our Place’.” “Good. Why’s it called that?” “It’s called that because it belongs to everybody, any Freerunners or Traceurs or anybody who wants to come. You know, our ‘place’, our ‘home.’” “Cool. So you just won your third Pro/Am which qualifies you for the National Championships next month. How’s that feel?”

[55] JK laughed. “Terrible. But seriously, it’s an amazing thing, I’ve been practicing hard. If I win than I can finally stop working at the smoothie stand in the gym.” “That’d be nice. Now, the big question you’ve been getting is how you got that unique style, how you find lines and angles no one’s seen before and do such technical stuff all the time. Any special trick to it?” “I wish, than I could write a book and call it a day. Nah, there’s nothing special. It’s just, I don’t know, letting go. I guess.” “Letting go?” “Don’t make me start with this, you hate when I start talking like this.” “Mmmmm, maybe. But others want to hear it. So spill it Orphan Annie.” JK raised an eyebrow, pretending to be offended. “Oh nice, a red hair joke, real original. Okay, um, where to start…” JK scratched the back of his head and paused, obviously thinking hard on what to say next. Finally he looked back up into the camera and began saying, “Think back to when you were a little kid. You woke up in the morning, you got ready, you went outside. Went out into the world. Back then everything was new, everything was an adventure. You soaked up stuff like a sponge and you asked questions about everything, but didn’t question anything. Understand?” “Nope. But go on.” “Right, anyway. The idea with moving, with our sport, is to be like a kid again. Ask questions about what is possible but don’t question why. Like, what it means or anything.” “Elaborate.” “Oh man,” JK sighed, “This is so hard to say just right. Um…you need to stop looking for limits. Stop looking for reasons and words. You go out and just…move, you know? Don’t question whether this movement is Parkour or that movement is Freerunning. Don’t even wonder ‘what is Parkour’ or ‘what is Freerunning.’ Just go out into the world and do your thing. Worry later about what to call it, if anything.” “If anything? You’re saying we shouldn’t call it Parkour or Freerunning?” “No, not that. Well maybe, kind of. See, my style is just that, my style of moving. There’s no secret or anything, no way to put it into names or words. It just happened that people found my style to be really cool or something. It fit the bill. But it’s just me being me. Everybody else says it wins competitions and stuff.” “So then why do you do it? Why train so hard, what’s the purpose?” “Does it have to have a purpose?” “People say it seems like a pretty big waste of energy otherwise.”

[56] “But that’s the problem! I do this because I love it. This is me, this is how I am, what I do. Do I have to have a reason? Why do I need to question it, to give it borders and things? As soon as you make a jump more than a jump you get into trouble, your head gets all clouded up and you box in yourself.” “You’re losing me.” “Argh, okay, it’s sort of like the old debate. You know, Parkour is set, it’s not what you make of it, blah blah blah. And that’s sort of true. Parkour doesn’t change. It’s not what you make of it. It’s what it makes of you.” He became very animated, waving his hands and gesturing constantly. “You shouldn’t mold yourself to fit the limits of it. You gotta figure yourself out first. You find the movement that feels right, that you don’t have to force and that makes you happy. Then you can worry about what to call it, how it works, where it fits in, all that jazz. But I don’t even recommend that much. Just keep it as simple as possible.” “Is that how you look at life?” “Hmmmm. Yeah, I guess so. I feel like you shouldn’t worry too much, shouldn’t worry about fitting a mold. Try lots of stuff, never give up a chance. Over time you pull enough things together, things you like and things that feel right. You give it all a certain special twist and that thing becomes your thing. Just like Freerunning and Parkour. I was inspired by them but that thing has become my thing.” Then, out of nowhere, a third unseen voice spoke. This one was rough and deep but sounded very familiar. It said, “Sounds like a bunch of hippy bullshit to me.” JK rolled his eyes and replied, “Thank you Owen. You’re as eloquent as ever.” Rusty stared at the screen in a mix of horror and awe. The lens pulled back to reveal a tall, muscular man behind JK, diligently training a series of precision jumps. The man was in his mid to late thirties, with a deep tan and a shaved head with only a slight recession of his hairline. His movements were nearly perfect and Rusty recognized the bull-like strength and power right away. When the figure looked up directly at the camera there was no mistaking the pale blue, almost gray, piercing eyes. It was Owen. Owen walked toward the screen and said in his gruff voice “Look, all I’m saying is you can’t go mixing things up. You can move how you want Jim but don’t be calling it all Parkour. Parkour was…” “…laid down many years ago by the founders. I know, you say it all the time. I think you need to relax, all that strict talk and ‘efficiency’ is gonna make your head explode.” Then Rusty saw something that he’d only seen once before: Owen smiling. The big man walked up behind JK and wrapped a thick arm around his dad’s neck. He squeezed tight, saying in a brotherly manner, “Yeah, think so? We’ll see who’s laughing when that mugger attacks and I’m in the next state while you’re still spinning on trash cans.”

[57] JK was laughing hard but the laughs came out as little gags. He tapped his hand against Owen’s huge bicep and gurgled, “Ahhh, you win! You win! Lemme go, lemme go!” A pale, thin arm reached out from behind the camera and playfully tried to pry Owen’s arm off of JK. “Come on boys! This was just getting good! It was just what the networks wanted…!” The camera dropped to the ground but kept filming, showing only the image of three pairs of shoes on cracked cement. After some scuffling and inaudible talking the face of JK reappeared in the screen, tilted sideways as he laid on the ground, looking into the camera. Then he smiled, waved goodbye, and reached over as the picture went black. The entire video had lasted all of two minutes. Rusty held his phone in his hand for a long, silent moment. Jenna, who had walked over and seen most of the video as well, held her phone out in silence too. At last Lee’s voice chirped up as he said “Did you see the whole thing? Was it him, Rusty? Was it Owen?” Rusty slowly closed up the fiber optic screen and shut off his phone. He picked up his bag, slung it over his shoulder, and stood up. He pulled a hair tie from his pocket, locked his hair back into a mini ponytail, than looked at Jenna. His eyes were shining again. But it was a different kind of shine. A shine of determination, of anger and desire. A shine of life. He simply said, “Yeah Lee, it was him. Call me later, we have some stuff we gotta talk about. And Jenna, thanks for everything. But I have to go. I have someone to talk to.” Then he turned, ran for the exit, and picked up his jacket along the way. He kicked open the double doors and disappeared, out into the cold, windy twilight.

[58]

CHAPTER 11
Pain and poverty never go away. It was called the Ironside Projects but it was better known as The Slum. The City was a big place with plenty of rundown, forgotten, and otherwise awful parts of town, but there was only one Slum. Located far to the west near the city limits, it was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. Poorly drawn graffiti covered the walls and turned them into splatters of red, black, and faded white. Garbage, trash and the refuse of the uncaring littered the streets, sitting side by side with piles of concrete and steel rebar that had fallen off the buildings. The cars were dirty, the windows were dirty, even the air was dirty. Everything and everywhere had the invisible, suffocating feel and stench of loneliness, apathy, and life without life. Some people embrace their ghettos and slums, accepting their meager means and turning them something like pride. Ironside was not these places. Here, no one cared and no one listened. No one got out. It was nearing sundown, and on the top floor of an abandoned two-tower tenement complex, Owen opened his steel reinforced door and stepped outside onto the freezing, open air walkway. His breath hung in a fog around his head. He could already feel the frosty wind knifing through his ratty sweatshirt. He sighed and closed the door behind him, grumbling. It was going to be a rough training session tonight. He turned and placed his key in the first of the three padlocks but hesitated. He could feel someone nearby. Someone hostile. And looking straight at him. “How long have you been sitting there?” Rusty hopped off the railing and stepped out from the setting sun’s shadows. “An hour. Got a little chilly there towards the end.” Owen stood still a moment before continuing on and locking the remaining bolts. He stashed the single key in his pocket and turned around slowly, facing Rusty. There was no emotion in either man’s face. Owen stared at Rusty, eyes pale and distant. He asked, “How did you find me?” “Kirra told me.” said Rusty. Owen snorted and folded his massive arms over his chest. “She doesn’t know where I live. And she wouldn’t do that.” “She knows more than you think. It took some convincing, and a video. Even then she could only give me a building number. Took me two days of staking out the place before I pinned down your room.” Owen’s stance never faltered. It was December 28. He must have been searching since Christmas. “Fine. Why are you here?” Rusty shifted from foot to foot and pulled a few strands of hair from his face. “Why didn’t you tell me you knew my father?”

[59] A pause. But no flinch, not even a tremor. “What are you talking about?” Owen said. Rusty didn’t waver either. “My father, JK. You knew him. You two were friends.” “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Owen’s voice was becoming sharper, his temper spiking. Rusty persisted. “I saw the video. ‘JK Speaks.’ You were in the video Owen, both you and my dad. Why did you hide that from me?” “I have no clue what…” “Liar!” Rusty’s voice erupted. The sound echoed over the rooftops, painfully harsh in the quiet of Ironside. Far away, a dog began to howl. Owen unfolded his arms and walked towards the smaller man. His glacier blue eyes were mere slits at this point. He stopped, just a few paces away, and stared down at Rusty. A throbbing vein had appeared on his neck. In a hushed tone, seething with anger, Owen said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Go, now, and leave me alone.” He pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt and walked past the boy, brushing his arm against Rusty’s. Rusty stood, still and silent, as the big man floated by. But then, at the last second, he wheeled around and grabbed hold of the fabric surrounding Owen’s right arm. For an instant the world stopped. No one moved. All that could be heard was the faint howl of the wind and the dog barking, far off in the distance. Owen was the first to speak. “Let go.” Rusty did not budge. “No.” Another pause. Then, suddenly, Owen yanked his arm forward, ripping the sweatshirt from Rusty’s grasp and throwing the teen off balance. Reversing the motion, Owen spun on his heel and threw his left arm around. He slammed, palm first, squarely into the center of Rusty’s chest. The smaller man, not expecting such power, was hurled backwards. He stumbled for a few feet before losing control and crashing to the concrete floor in a heap. He coughed hard, the air knocked almost completely out of him. It took only a moment for Rusty to scramble back to his feet but, coughing and sputtering. But in that moment, Owen was gone. There was only one way you could have run and Rusty took off down the walkway in chase. As he rounded the corner he just caught a glimpse of Owen’s white hoodie disappearing over the side of the stairwell. Sprinting to the stairs, Rusty peered over the side and saw Owen descending one floor at a time, skipping entire lengths by vaulting over the sides. Rusty had been exploring the apartment complex for days and knew the layout well. It would only take Owen another four or five flights before he reached the midway point, the walkway that connected this tower to the second on the tenth floor. After that it would be child’s play for him to get out of the building entirely. Once he hit the street he’d be lost forever. Rusty would have to find a way to close the gap.

[60] The young man turned back around, frantically searching for an answer. He ran to the edge of the walkway and looked down. There was no fire escape on this side, only a small retaining wall with a railing on top and an open view out onto the skyline, not unlike a parking garage with multiple, identical levels. From there it was a sheer, straight drop ten floors down to the connector walkway. Rusty wondered for a moment why Owen hadn’t gone this route since it was quite obvious that he could have dropped down from here, floor by floor, much faster than the winding stairwell. Then in a flash Rusty realized the horrible truth and the answer to his problem. This way was a thousand times more dangerous. The building was old and crumbling in sections. The size of the structure was terrifying. One slip, one missed grip, and he could plummet 250 feet to the asphalt below. But it was the only way to beat Owen to the bottom. It was going to have to be Rusty’s path. With a hard swallow, Rusty gripped the rail and hopped over the wall, turn vaulting to land on the building’s outer face. He landed successfully, with his fingers clamped onto the bar and his toes on the wall, the only things holding him up. The wall had a rough, gritty surface that reacted well to the rubber on Rusty’s shoes. He acted quickly, not allowing himself time for the fear to grow, and released his grip. He was weightless now, hundreds of feet in midair. He fell, gently at first but rapidly gaining speed. He let his fingertips glide over the wall face as he fell, feeling them drag and wondering if they’d ever touch a solid object again. Then he saw the next level’s wall and railing approach. With a practiced hand he reached out and grabbed hold of the metal, his feet skidding ever so slightly on the concrete. He gripped the bar so hard his knuckles turned white. But it held. He had done it – an entire story traversed in less than three seconds. One down, nine to go. He breathed fast, hyperventilating, gallons of adrenaline pumping through his veins. Moving as fast as he possibly dared, Rusty let go of this railing and dropped again, latching hold of the next wall down. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, Rusty dreamingly thought that all it would take was a half second’s hesitation and he would miss the railing. Then he would fall, fall, fall, just like his father, and share his fate. But his muscles were strong and his technique perfect. Rusty counted each floor he passed, trying to figure out how close he was to Owen on the inside. It took less than thirty seconds but already he was only two floors from the walkway. As he prepared to drop again Rusty heard a door slam open and looked down to see Owen sprinting across connector. Desperate to catch up, Rusty let go of the rail before he was ready and failed to regrip properly on the floor below. His left hand slipped off the pipe and his body snapped out. Dangling by only his right arm, Rusty’s body twisted round and he looked down, the world spinning out of control below him. Vertigo was setting in. Another moment or two and he could freeze up, unable to think or move. Panicking, Rusty released his grip and dropped the last extra tall story onto the concrete of the connector walkway. He attempted to rollout but the drop had no forward momentum. Slamming into the ground, he

[61] felt a lightning bolt of pain shoot through the soles of his feet. He crumpled to the ground, yelping at the pain, but ignored the thought of bruising or fractures. He had to keep moving. He had to catch Owen. With gritted teeth, he pushed himself to his feet and went off in the direction Owen had gone, limping slightly as he ran. Reaching the second tower, Rusty ran to the stairwell but found no sign of Owen. Then he heard a metallic ping from the outer edge of the floor’s wall. Sprinting to the side, Rusty looked down and saw a network of rusty scaffolding reaching all the way to the street, the remnants of a forgotten repair job. Owen was halfway down the pipes, leaping and swinging from one rail to the next. Without thought for safety, Rusty hopped over the wall and landed on the only piece of wood planking remaining. Grabbing hold of the pipes next to him, Rusty began piecing his way through the maze of metal. It was slow going at first as several rails had collapsed in on themselves and blocked the quickest paths. But as time wore on, and his nerves improved, Rusty found himself nearly able to match Owen’s rate of descent. But matching wasn’t enough. Soon Rusty found himself only two stories above ground level but with Owen already touching down on the street. The big man never broke stride and ran off across the courtyard in between the two towers. Perched on one of the outermost rails of the scaffolding, Rusty fought to catch his breath, sweat dripping from his brow, and laid his head against the cold rust of the piping. All that effort, all that risk, had been meaningless. He could do nothing but watch as Owen got away. He cursed loudly and was preparing to lower himself down the rails to safety when a strong gust of wind raced through the projects. Rusty pressed himself against a vertical pipe, fighting the ripping force of the wind. As he squeezed his eyes and focused entirely on the effort of staying on, he heard the creaking and moaning of metal behind him, one unlike the rattle of the scaffolding. He turned his head round like an owl and saw that there was a large round lamppost behind him, waving in the wind. He realized he was at exactly the same height as the domed bulb that topped it off. A bolt of inspiration cracked through Rusty’s mind. Without giving himself even a second to doubt, he leaped off the scaffolding and sailed out into space. He reached, stretching his body to the limit, and grabbed hold of the thick, circular metal post, just below the bulb. He loosened his grip ever so slightly and instantly began to slide down the post like a fireman’s pole. Foot after foot slid by in the blink of an eye and almost like magic Rusty found himself on the ground, totally unharmed. The sudden recognition that his daredevil stunt had worked lasted only a moment. Rusty saw Owen quickly disappearing around a corner, trying to lose him down an alleyway instead of the open street. Rusty gave chase, dodging broken benches and piles of trash. He came into the alley seconds after Owen had ducked inside. He saw the old man darting down the narrow passage, heading for a barbed wire fence. Owen had better knowledge of the Slum and could lose Rusty instantly once he made it to the other side of the fence. Knowing this was his last chance, Rusty acted on instinct and picked up a fist sized hunk of concrete off the ground. While running, he reeled back and launched the projectile straight at

[62] Owen’s back. The heavy missile caught the big man in the back of his right shoulder and ricocheted up, bouncing off the back of his head. Owen stumbled, off balance, and in rushed Rusty. With a heavy shoulder tackle he knocked Owen into a wall but lost his footing and couldn’t continue the attack. Owen, however, was quicker on the draw and much more experienced. He lunged forward and grabbed Rusty by the front collar of his jacket, heaving the smaller man backwards. He slammed the him into the opposite wall and shoved his other forearm up under Rusty’s throat. With one arm holding his feet off the ground and what was basically a block of granite cutting off his air, Rusty was helpless. He gagged and flailed, kicking out into Owen’s legs and chest, but the old man was a statue, immovable. Rusty could feel Owen’s hot breath on his face. Owen panted hard, his nostrils flaring, his face and eyes a solid wall of hate and fury and rage. Rusty’s strength began to fade, his vision blurred, and his eyes rolled up into his head. Owen was killing him. Then, without warning, Owen released him. Rusty fell to the ground, gasping and wheezing. He lay on his back, staring up at the darkening night sky as the edges of his world slowly came back into focus. Owen spoke, and even though he sounded miles away, the voice was clear. “You’re as stubborn as Jim was…”

Owen and Rusty sat on the street curb, watching the shadows dance on the dirty walls as cars and their headlights passed by. Rusty’s shirt and jacket were ripped along the collar and his throat was sore and painful to the touch. The calluses of his palms were ripped too, something he hadn’t noticed while dropping down the building face. His right foot had swelled and the sole was bruised but no bones were broken. Owen was mostly unharmed, with only a small cut on the back of his head, though the grime from the alley was caked along the side of his face from where he’d bounced off the wall. The big man shifted his weight and looked up, as if collecting thoughts he’d lost a long time ago. He was the first to speak. “I met your father twenty years ago, at a summer jam downtown. Parkour and Freerunning were still relatively young back then, with the idea of PKFR just starting to take off. I didn’t think much of him. He was only seventeen or eighteen. And he seemed too…dreamy. Too wild and unfocused. He had great potential but it seemed like everything was a game to him. A fun game to pass the time.” “But after that I kept seeing him at jams and gym sessions. He was always early and always stayed late. He was always smiling and grinning. It was like he had two settings: too much or nothing at all. Sometimes he sat around, watching, eating up everything with his eyes. Other times he never stopped moving, always jumping and bouncing around, like a spring.” “We started to spend time together outside the jams, as friends. He was a lot younger than me but it was like we shared the same wavelength. We argued about what was Parkour, about flips, the

[63] competitions, about women and life. But in the end it never mattered what we believed. We just knew we were friends.” “He was about twenty-two, I think, when he entered his first Pro/Am. I didn’t like it. I thought he was wasting his time and giving Parkour a bad name. But he was good at it. Or at least other people said he was. And it gave him money so he could practice all the time. He seemed happy. After he won his first National, he started getting offers for commercials, demos, all sorts of stuff.” At this point Owen shifted his weight again, sighing deeply. Something was weighing heavily on his mind. “We started to drift apart. We were still friends and still talked from time to time. But not like before. I kept up my training, staying out of the spotlight. He kept getting bigger and bigger. He had a wife and a kid, he was a brand name. I didn’t resent him, I wasn’t jealous. But I worried what it was doing to him. As the years went on he started to slow down, started to hurt more, and I saw him even less. Eventually a whole year went by I never heard a word from him.” “Then one day, out of the blue, I get an email. He says he has big news for me and wants me to come hang with him while he’s filming a commercial in town. I figured I might as well. Turned out it was some non-profit organization, very low budget, and he was doing it as a favor. We were on top of a skyscraper, getting shots of him balancing on the rail along the edge. I told him he was too reckless, that he didn’t have to do that, but he just…smiled. Just smiled that damn goofy smile. Red hair blazing white hot. And up he went.” Owen dropped his head, looking down at the black ground. “It happened too fast. One minute he was there, the next he wasn’t. No one was ready. No one thought he could fall. I was the first to react and I ran to the roof edge. The cheap wire safety net that they’d bolted into the side had given way and was barely holding on; only a single cable held it up. He was hanging onto the corner with just one hand.” He slowly lifted his right arm, fingers outstretched, as if reaching for something invisible. “I remember reaching out my hand, trying to grab him. And he was reaching out his, trying to grab mine. We were only a foot away. So close. And then I heard a crack, like a gunshot. I felt something slash against the side of my head. I fell back and things went dim. The last thing I saw was Jim. He was falling. Falling away. His hand never stopped reaching for mine…” Owen trailed off and dropped his outstretched arm into his lap. Rusty had been silent the entire time, listening intently. So that was the story. That was the story of Owen’s past. Rusty finally spoke. “The slash was the cable snapping. Which is where you got that scar on your head from.” Owen nodded slowly, tracing the line of the scar with his finger. “I’d been practicing for moments like that my entire life. In an instant it was over. Right when someone needed me - when he needed me - I wasn’t fast enough. I failed. And he died.” Rusty looked away from Owen, looking back at the empty, decaying buildings behind them. “That’s why you train so hard,” he said, “And live alone. You cut yourself off from the world.”

[64]

Owen leaned forward and placed his head in his hands. If he had been capable of crying, this would have been it. Quietly, Owen said, “It’s the why for everything. I have no money, no family. Only Kirra and you really know who I am. And I could never even tell her this much.” The pair sat silently for a long time, listening to the sounds of The Slum. Rusty saw Owen differently now. It was a radical change that he was wrestling to understand. An hour before Owen had been his former teacher, a strict but passionate friend, and at the same time, his greatest enemy, and the source of so much pain and hatred. He had been invincible, an untouchable demigod. Now, for the first time, he looked like an old man. A lonely, hurt man, unable to escape a terrible, self-inflicted nightmare. Unable to escape a dream. Just like Rusty. Rusty stood up, brushed off his pants, and prepared to leave. Owen stayed seated but called up to him. “Rusty, what will you do now? Will you still compete?” Rusty stopped with his back to Owen. He clenched his cold fingers together and said, “I don’t know. I have one more person I need to talk to, before I can decide.” Owen growled, agreeing. He knew who Rusty had to see. “Be careful with her. She can be even more dangerous than I am.”

[65]

CHAPTER 12
Rusty sat on his bedroom windowsill, methodically lacing his sneakers. With careful attention to length and space, he threaded the semi-elastic fibers through the eyelets, stopping every now and again to glance outside. The steely gray of predawn was refusing to burn off like normal. It was going to be a cold cloudy day. Figures, Rusty thought to himself, the competition would start on a day like this. Finishing the prep work on his barely worn Libertas shoes, he double checked the customizable heel cup and toe box suspension before carefully placing them inside his duffel bag. On top of them he layered the bare essentials he’d need for the day - a change of clothes, some energy bars and water, his competition pass and new SEED music system and ear buds. Dropping the readied bag at his feet, Rusty stood up and paced the thin expanse of his room, following the single faint line cast by his desktop lamp. He glanced somberly out at the chill morning again and again. It was January 1st, the first day of the Pro/Am. He hadn’t slept at all, though not because of New Year partying. He was nervous, scared. This was it; he had passed the point of no return. Over six months of blood and sweat and a whole lot of tears had brought him to this moment. Rusty tried to tell himself to relax, that, in the grand scheme of things, this competition barely mattered. He was in the Boys 18 and Under Amateur division after all, hardly the cream of the crop. The really good guys his age would have already gone pro and be in the next level up. And with the expected appearance of Andre Levy, the reigning world champion, he certainly wouldn’t be the center of attention, right? Still, he felt uneasy about the future. The commercials and ads featuring him had been growing steadily bolder. Expectations would be ungodly high. And there was something else, something more than jitters. Something simply felt wrong. The fact he had chickened out and not spoken to his mother didn’t help. Rusty had hoped to try and explain himself, to detail the reasons why he had to do this, but to no avail. Several days went by since confronting Owen and he kept the secret and the lie alive. Now it was too late. Lee would be by soon to pick him up and drive him to the competition grounds. Rusty had managed to swallow his hate and repair the friendship between them, at least for the moment. He’d prepared the way the night before by hiding a climbing rope in his room so he could slide out the window in the morning, unseen. He checked his watch and paced again – half an hour to go. But as Rusty made his fifteenth pass near the hallway door he thought he heard voices outside, downstairs in the living room. Knowing that his mother should have been asleep in bed, he leaned close and placed his ear against the wood, listening carefully. It was voices, familiar voices, but they sounded strange. It took Rusty a moment to figure out that they were electronic, probably from an old video. His mom must have left the television on by accident. Turning away,

[66] Rusty was about to triple check his sneakers when a phrase from the voices stopped him short. “Oh nice, a red hair joke, original. Okay, um, where to start…” That was his father’s voice, the same phrase he had said at one point in the ‘JK Speaks’ video. How the hell was that playing? Suddenly switching from nervous to horrified, Rusty eased opened his bedroom door and stepped out, barefoot, into the hallway. Scanning through the dim light of the house, he decided the coast was clear and crept to the staircase, moving slower than a turtle so as not to make a sound. Reaching the stairs, he bent down and leaned forward, stretching out into a cat crawl. He went down the steps, going hands first with practiced form. With his weight evenly distributed he made barely a whisper as he descended the stairs. He hit the last step and brought his legs back under his body, standing up and slinking his way around the corner. He felt stupid for sneaking around in his own house but he couldn’t alert his mother that he was awake. The living room was directly ahead and by this point the video was nearing the end. He could hear his father’s sarcastic edge as he said “Thank you Owen. You’re as eloquent as ever.” Rusty tiptoed into the room and saw the video, just as he had dreaded, playing on the projection screen. But to his continued terror he also saw someone sitting on the couch, watching it. His mother. The video had reached the section where the woman holding the camera was reaching forward trying to pry Owen and JK apart while saying “This was just getting good, it was just what the networks wanted…!” In a flash of understanding Rusty realized the truth. The final piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. Relaxing his tense shoulders and clenched fists, Rusty let out the breath he’d been holding since the stairs and said, “It was you behind the camera, wasn’t it Mom?” Rusty’s mother never moved from her position on the couch. All he could see was the back of her head and her fiery hair, piled up in a heap behind her. In a hoarse voice she said, “He was only twenty-two when we filmed this. I was twenty.” Taking a deep breath, one that Rusty could hear was choked and cracked from crying, she added, “God, we were so young.” Rusty stepped away from the hall and into the room, walking slowly till he was behind the couch. He watched as the video finished and his father’s face appeared in the frame, sideways and smiling, just before he turned the camera off. He heard his mother click the remote and freeze the video on his father’s grinning face. There was a brutally silent pause as the Klein family, gathered

[67] in the darkness of the living room, was reunited for the first time in nearly a decade. It was his mother who finally broke the quiet. “We shot this for the TV networks. We had hoped they might use it for the nationals, a little pregame clip or something. They sent it back to us. James wasn’t a big enough star yet they said.” She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. Rusty came around the side and took a seat away from his mother, on the opposite corner of the couch. “How did it end up online?” “That was your father’s idea. He liked it and figured someone, somewhere, would want to watch it too.” There was another silent pause, longer than the first. Rusty was the first to speak this time. “How long have you known I was still training?” “Ever since you lied and said you were going to the computer store a few weeks ago.” Rusty dropped his head and fought the urge to chuckle. “I never was any good at lying, was I?” His mother sighed and said, “Nope. Neither was your father.” Rusty stammered for a reply, unable to talk. This was his chance. He’d practiced his speech so many times in his head. Why was he bailing out now? “Mom, I, uh, I’m…” “You’re going to the Pro/Am to compete. I know. I’ve been trying to stop you, for years now, but I knew it would end up like this. Movement… it’s part of who you are. It’s in your blood. Like it was in James’. Like it was in mine.” Rusty looked up at his mother in wonder. She wasn’t a heavy woman but she was stocky for her height, definitely not like Kirra’s slim frame. He could never remember her being anywhere near that athletic. “You?” he said incredulously, “You were a Tracer?” She chuckled lightly under her breath and said “Yes, sort of. It’s been awhile and I was never very good. I just liked to play. That’s how I met James, at a jam downtown.” She leaned her head back and stared at the dark ceiling, recollecting her memories much like Owen had done. “I was nineteen and in college at the time. He was twenty-one and working at the local gym. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe we both liked red hair, I don’t know. But we started talking and the talking turned into dinner. Dinner into late nights at my apartment and, well, you know.” Looking back at the screen, she continued. “When we filmed this, I was six months pregnant with

[68] you. It was a real pain getting to Notre Endroit like that but I insisted. It was the only place James felt comfortable enough on camera to speak his mind.” Rusty’s mother paused for a moment, licking her dry lips as she prepared to speak. “Russell, your father was a poor man. He was an orphan and never knew his parents. He never went to college and barely finished high school. He was living on the edge of the Ironside Projects and working two dismal jobs when I met him. Eventually I dropped out of college and moved in with him to help pay the bills. That was fine though, because we were together, just the two of us. We didn’t need much.” “But when I got pregnant, we knew we had to do something more. He didn’t want you to grow up in poverty like he had. He only had one skill though: PKFR. So he went to compete.” Rusty’s mother faltered at this point, her voice seizing up. She pushed back heavy tears and managed to continue speaking. “That’s the only reason he competed, was to earn money for us. In the end he never cared whether he got paid or not. He could have spent his entire life training in dirty back alleys and died a happy man. But he knew it was all he had, all he could do, to help us.” “It was good for a while. He started to get famous and we moved away from The Slum. Back then PKFR was popular but not a perfect career. He eventually changed that, made it into a good job. But it took so much out of him. That was what nobody ever saw but me. He’d smile for cameras and play in the backyard with you but...” “…it was something no one knew, not even Owen. James had incredible talent but his body just wasn’t designed for it. He couldn’t handle that level of stress. When he came to bed at night he was always in pain. These were the days before bounce-back surfacing and custom shoes, before there were specialized doctors to diagnose you. He would push himself so hard…so hard.”

Again Rusty’s mother had to stop short, though this time Rusty could see the tears falling down her flushed cheeks. She used the sleeve of her shirt to dry a few away before mustering on. “By the time he won his third world championship he was falling apart. Stress fractures all through his legs and ligament tears in his hands and God knew what else. He was barely thirty and he needed my help to get up the stairs when he came home. He said it was fine but I made him promise me that it was his last big year. That he’d calm down before he shattered his body for good.” “It was barely a week later that he got a call for a commercial. He always wanted to help people so he said yes even though he could barely walk without medication.” Rusty’s mother slowed down and stared forward at the image of his father on the screen. In a voice eerily close to Owen’s when he spoke about the fall, she said, “I remember he went to the door. He turned back to me and said, ‘I know I can be stubborn and hard to handle sometimes.

[69] So…thank you. For loving me.’ Then he left.” “No one could understand why he fell. He was the champion, the hero. He was Superman. But I knew. I knew how hurt he was. I should have stopped him. I should’ve…stopped…” Finally she could take no more. Rusty’s mother broke down and wept in great, body shaking sobs. Rusty slid down the couch and held his mother, feeling her tremble beneath him. Hot, scalding tears began to form in his own eyes, but he held them back, letting only a few escape. This was the longest she had ever spoken about his father at one time. It was simply too much to take. They huddled together in the dark, two lost souls, lit only by the glow of the projector. JK smiled down from the screen at his family as if to say, it’s alright. It’ll be okay. It was a long time before the two managed to calm down. Separating the embrace, Rusty pulled the bottom of his shirt up and dried his face. He stood and said in a weak voice, “Mom, I gotta go.” But she held up a hand and said, “Wait. I have something to give you first. Follow me.” His mother led him upstairs to her room and proceeded to rummage through her closet, digging into the back. She pulled out a small, dull box, the kind you would find in a clothing department store. She blew off a film of dust and placed it on the bed. Breaking several seals of packing tape, she opened the lid gently and set it aside. Inside was a T-shirt, the most worn, torn, dirty, and mangled thing he had ever seen. Carefully lifting it out of the box, his mother unfolded it and laid it out on the bed. The shirt had originally been a blazing fire red color but was now badly faded from exposure and washing. Stitches were broken and sticking out along the loose collar. There was only half a sleeve left on the one side and dark circles on the bottom edges that were unmistakably dried blood drops. There were numerous small tears and holes, a few patched, some not. On the center of the chest, written in cheaply stenciled white spray paint, was a single word. It had been touched up several times and splatters of excess white had dripped around the sides. It was the only part of the shirt that still looked relatively fresh and new. The word read:

[70]

Rusty stared for a long time. Tentatively, he said, “Mom, this is…” “Yes,” she replied, “This was your father’s. The kind of shirt he wore to every single competition and in every public appearance. He had many over the years but this was the first. I remember the night he made it. It was the day before his first nationals and he suddenly got the idea that he needed a shirt, something special that would stand out. So he cut out a stencil and spray-painted ‘RISE’ on the only plain T-shirt he had.” She ran a hand over the thin fabric and continued saying, “I asked him what it meant, why ‘RISE’? He told me, ‘Because that’s what it’s all about. Rising up, meeting the challenge, against any obstacle. Never backing down from life. Always looking up.’ It seemed pretty silly to me at the time. Just another one of his big dreams, he was always dreaming. But now I understand.” With tender hands, she picked the shirt up and held it out to Rusty. “I’ve been holding you back for too long, Russell. You deserve your chance to rise too.” Rusty couldn’t believe what was happening. His mother had finally given him permission to move. Taking his father’s shirt, Rusty slipped off the one he was already wearing and pulled on the soft red fabric. It wasn’t a bad fit but it sagged around his shoulders and hung loose on his chest. His mother laughed softly and said “You’re a little smaller than your father was so it doesn’t fit quite right. But I’m sure you’ll grow into it.” The two stood in quiet company till the faint sound of something tapping Rusty’s window in the next room caught their ears. Rusty immediately knew what it was and said “That’s Lee. He was supposed to throw a stone and let me know he was here, to drive me into town. I gotta go, Mom.” Rusty’s mother looked her son over with proud yet stern eyes. “Okay,” she said. “But promise me one thing. Don’t come home with any regrets. Leave everything out there, got that?” “Yes.” Rusty’s mother stepped forward and wrapped her strong arms around Rusty’s shoulders. “Your father would’ve been proud of you. I love you and he loves you. Good luck.” Rusty nodded and stepped back when his mother finally let him go. Walking quickly back to his room, he gathered up his bag, slipped on the jacket with the torn collar and, instead of climbing out the window, dashed down the stairs and out the front door. Shouting for Lee from the sidewalk, Lee came running around the corner, waving his arms and hissing, “Rusty! What the hell man? You’re going to wake your Mom! Wait a sec, have you been crying? What’s wrong?”

[71] Rusty leaned against the door of Lee’s antique coupe and looked back at his house, not catching his friend’s gaze. “Nothing man, nothing. It’s finally okay. I’ll tell you on the way there. Let’s go.”

[72]

CHAPTER 13
“Lee, don’t you know any back roads?” “This is the back road. Unless you want to get out and run across car roofs.” Rusty pressed his face against the window trying to get a look ahead. Lee tried to keep his eyes on the bumper in front of him but was forced to glance over before saying, “That was a joke, Rusty. Please stay in the car.” Rusty smiled and sank back into the fake leather seat. “I know, I know.” he said, not at all convincingly. “I’ll behave.” “Just save your energy till we get there. You’re going to need it.” Rusty nodded in agreement and leaned forward to pull a brochure off the dashboard. Emblazoned across the front were the words “New Year’s PRO/AM” in huge neon colors. He flipped open the cover and browsed through the program listing, seeing for the first time the lineup of the day’s action. Turning the brochure over in his hands, Rusty spoke up and said, “So after we get past registration where do I go next? They’re always changing these things every year.” Lee reached his right arm over and tapped at the small map on the back page. “You need to head to the school for the first speed round at noon. Because of the number of Runners this year they had to break up all the categories into PK and FR rounds, like the Nationals do.” “So there’s the speed PK runs today and the freestyle FR runs tomorrow. But the speed runs aren’t as popular, everybody wants to see the tricks.” “Yeah well tell this traffic that the speed runs aren’t as popular. This is ridiculous.” Rusty tossed the brochure back on the dashboard. “They should separate them entirely and make the PK runs more realistic. They’re always so fake and contrived.” “Well they can’t call it PKFR without the PK. Look we already talked about this. Blow away the competition in the first half and you can squeeze by the freestyle rounds in third or fourth and still win.” Rusty nodded again and pulled out his cell phone to check the time. 10:10, they had to hurry to make the amateur registration deadline at the school in the next twenty minutes. He looked back up from the screen to see a souped-up scooter fly past his car door, nearly taking out the side mirror. “Maybe we should have left before dawn.” Rusty said. “You think!” Lee muttered loudly as he jabbed at his horn. He cranked the wheel hard to his left and edged out around a slow moving line, only to end up in another stalled pileup. “Every damn year! I’ll never get used to this traffic.”

[73] Nineteen minutes later Rusty and Lee sprinted across the high school’s football field and into the registration tent set up in the center, Lee huffing hard but Rusty relatively unfazed. The tent was enormous, with a high canopied roof and probably over a hundred people milling around, a vast collection of fans, competition workers, and Runners. Jogging up to the Boys 18 and Under table, Rusty fished out his pass and just managed to get into line as the clock struck 10:30. He handed his ticket to the seated woman and said, “Russell Klein, non-sponsored Runner, for the Amateur Combine Event.” The blond haired woman smiled and took the pass from Rusty, scanning it with her data reader and tapping out a few brisk commands on the computer screen next to her. “Russell Klein huh? JK’s son? I’ve been hearing a lot about you, we were starting to worry you wouldn’t make it.” Rusty shrugged his shoulders and said matter-of-factly, “Here I am.” The woman smiled again and handed Rusty his Runner ID for the day’s event. “So you are. You’ll be the last Runner in your group. Please head to site #5 for the event briefing, it should be starting soon. Good luck out there, the competition looks heavy.” Rusty thanked her and stuffed the ID into his pocket as he turned away. Slipping his way past the throngs of people near the door, Rusty met back up with Lee and said, “I have to get moving or I’m going to miss the briefing. You good on your own for now?” Lee laughed and said, “Of course, this isn’t my first Pro/Am. I’m meeting up with Jenna in a bit to watch the 18 and Under pros at site #4. But we’ll be sure to get front row spots to watch you at noon.” Rusty sighed and adjusted his duffel bag. “Thanks Lee. I’ll see you later.” But before he could turn and leave Lee reached out and touched Rusty on the shoulder. Rusty stopped and saw that Lee had a grim look on his face, a rarity for the cheerful man. With an awkward start Lee said, “Um, Rus, I’m sorry about all the stuff that happened before. I should have told you about Jenna.” Rusty’s eyes widened and he stood still, blindsided by the sudden apology. But he quickly recovered and said in reply, “Don’t worry, I overreacted. Neither of us has much to be proud of. I’ve been acting pretty bitchy myself.” Lee smirked and wiped the grim look from his face. “Yeah but you’ve always been kind of a bitch.” He held out his hand and said, “We good?” Rusty clasped his callused hand around Lee’s and smiled back. “Yeah, we’re good. Just make sure you bring Jenna by so I can show you up.” Lee knocked Rusty’s hand away and laughed. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. Get going man, you’re going to be late for your own coming out party.” And with that Rusty turned on his heel and ran off through the crowds, nimbly stepping around any and every obstacle in his path.

[74] He arrived at site #5 minutes later and was forced to a standstill by the awesome spectacle laid out before him. According to the map, this site was actually the high school’s science hall, a four story building made of brick and glass that dominated the south end of the campus. But now the entire front of the building and its grass lawn was loomed over by an enormous patchwork of steel pipes and plastic composite panels, transforming the hall into a crazy scaffold and platform arrangement, a seemingly random assortment of levels, landings, ropes and metal connections, each one of differing size and shape. It looked eerily close to the abandoned apartments that Owen lived in. Rusty could only stand and stare at the possibilities. Snapped back to reality by the screech of a bullhorn, Rusty jogged over to the large group of kids who were gathering at the raised judges’ booth nearby. A portly man with streaked grey hair and mirrored sunglasses, totally out of place in the cloudy overcast weather, stood at the railing and called for everyone to quiet down and pay attention. “All right listen up! First off, welcome to the first day of this year’s Pro/Am. This area is for Amateur Boys 18 and Under, PK round, so if you’re in the wrong place, better leave now. I know most of you read the rules and know what to do already but I have to go through the list for insurance reasons.” “The aim of the contest is simple: get to the top of the structure, hit the buzzer, and get back down to the start line as fast as possible. The only requirements are that you stay within the front section marked in red. Everyone gets a single run, best time wins. If you injure yourself in any serious way, leave the marked course, or fail any other requirements, you will be disqualified.” “Runs begin at twelve-noon sharp. If you’re not in position when your name is called you forfeit the run. As is customary, everyone will get thirty minutes before start time to inspect and recon the course. Use it wisely. Till then warm up, stay loose and good luck!” Left alone once again, the crowd of nearly thirty kids turned to leave, most bursting at the seams with pent up energy. Standing at what was once the back of the circle Rusty suddenly felt dozens of pairs of eyes staring at him. Shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, one of the younger looking Runners ran up to him, practically stepping on his toes, and said exuberantly, “You, you’re Rusty Klein right? The Rusty Klein?” Rusty took a step back and pulled loose hair from his eyes saying, “Yeah, that’s me.” “Dude!” the young kid exclaimed, “I’ve seen you on TV! You’re totally going to kick ass here, we might as well give you the title right now.” Several other Runners began chiming in, adding to the first kid’s remarks. Pretty soon Rusty was surrounded on all sides by a sea of faces, some asking for his autograph, some trying to get tips, and still others jeering him and saying he didn’t look all that good. Overcome by the onslaught, Rusty pushed his way through the crowd and ran to the fenced off spectators’ section, hopping the rail in a single jump and disappearing as fast he could in the maze of bodies. This was not what he wanted. He wasn’t some prodigy, some long lost hero. This wasn’t about the contest and it wasn’t about winning. Was it? Rusty continued walking through the crowd until a brilliant flash of white, lit up against the dull grey air, caught his eye. Picking up his head, he was just in time to see a lean, muscled woman in

[75] her late twenties coming towards him. She had incredibly frizzy hair, dark skin, and wore a simple outfit of loose sweats and a tight sweatshirt, all angelically white and pristine. It was Kirra. “What the hell, Kirra!” Rusty shouted, “What are you doing here?” Coming to a stop a few feet away, Kirra smiled a big toothy grin and said, “I’m here to watch you, Rusty. Why else?” Rusty was floored. “But I thought you and Owen hated competitions.” Kirra pushed her hands into her pockets and leaned back and forth on her heels, grinning the entire time. “Well, Owen hates competition. And I’m not a fan of the Freestyle events but I can’t say no to a good PK run, even if it is really artificial. I mean, I told you before; I used to train the Olympic level Runners. I have a soft spot for this sort of thing, even if it goes against Owen’s idea of Parkour.” Rusty started to recover from his shock and realized he had a golden opportunity on his hands. “Then, would you mind doing me a favor? Could you take a look at the course with me, from the sidelines? I’d like your advice on what the fastest way up and down would be.” “Sure, it’d be my pleasure.” It was nearly noon and Rusty was perched on the top of the science hall roof, gazing out over the world below. Below him was a hive of activity, as thirty-plus Runners and officials crawled over the step-like scaffolding, each man testing the sturdiness of the panels, the slickness of the rails, estimating distances, and practicing drops. Farther out laid the spectators’ section at the edge of the lawn and the judges’ booth off to the left. The starting line was just to the right center of the spectators’ area, with the Runners’ waiting section directly across from the judges. Even further out, Rusty could see the numerous other sites, each one variations on the same course he presided over now. Each one incorporated different aspects of the buildings and environments the school offered. Out in the front courtyard sat the Freestyle course, covered up with sheets and plywood to disguise its size and shape. No one would be allowed to see the exact design until tomorrow morning, so that no one could prepare runs ahead of time. The biggest crowds were gathering at sites #1 and 2, the Over 18 Pro sites. A few PK rounds had already gotten underway and Rusty could see small individual Runners taking their chances. He could hear the cheering fans and the faint buzz as the contestants reached the summit of their respective courses. Rusty estimated that there probably a couple thousand spectators spread out over the grounds, a good showing for a local competition. He himself sat next to the small podium that held the red button, the summit of his course. He had been sitting there, silently, for the last fifteen minutes, ignoring all the commotion around him. He and Kirra had scouted the area for the past hour and Rusty knew the layout by heart. The course started as a simple series of five foot square ascending platforms, each one about six feet high and all connected to create a staircase effect to the second floor. From there the scaffolding took over and things became more vertical, with the contestant relying more on wall scaling and possibly pipe climbing to continue onto the third story. At that point the only option to continue

[76] on was either a rope climb attached to the building’s side or a series of tiny ledges that allowed a Runner to Cat Leap repeatedly up and over the roof lip. Going back down was relatively simple in that all a Runner had to do was reverse his process and make sure he didn’t fall too far at any one time. The science building itself was a piece of the equation in that objects like window sills and path lights were in the middle of the course and available for use should the contestant need them. Soon enough an air horn sounded and the man with the sunglasses called for all Runners to come down off the course and line up in their numbered order. As soon as he had said that Rusty noticed that several cameramen suddenly appeared, each one taking up various spots throughout the course while others ran around on ground level. The monitors near the spectators flickered on and showed the course from every possible angle. Rusty was confused at first why there seemed to be twice as many cameras at this site as compared to the other amateur sites. That is, until one of the screens showed a close up of his face and the entire crowd cheered. “Oh right,” Rusty said quietly, “They’re here to watch me.” Within ten minutes all of the Runners were in position. The judges took their seats and the announcer blared on the microphone, whipping the crowd into frenzy. It was an incredible experience for Rusty, standing at the back of the pack, feeling and hearing the vibrations and sounds from hundreds of feet and voices simultaneously. It had been years since he’d attended any kind of competition live. He did his best to appear as uninteresting as possible though, to avoid unnecessary distraction. Leaning against a low brick wall near the edge of the site, Rusty couldn’t help but chuckle to himself and roll his eyes. He didn’t know how his fellow Runners were ordered, whether they were numbered according to ability or by their check-in time. But judging by the performances of the first dozen or so, it should have been ability. They were, for lack of a better word, horrible. Rusty watched the close-ups on the monitors and could see problems in technique and physical conditioning instantly. Arms were flailing during drop downs, stutter steps abounded, climb ups were weak and uncoordinated, and even though they were called Runners, none of them had even passable running form. It was only as the day wore on that Rusty began to see serious competition. As the numbers passed into the twenties several contestants were posting times that Rusty knew would be hard to beat. And even though he was spoiled by seeing the flawless footwork of Owen for months before hand, even Rusty had to admit there was great talent and potential. It was well past two o’clock till Rusty’s number was finally called. Stepping lightly up to the starting line, Rusty cast a shifty gaze on the leader’s time: just over thirty-five seconds. Rusty bet himself he could do it in fewer than thirty. He pulled his long hair back, set it in place with a rubber band, and breathed deeply. The air was chill and white fog hissed from his lips. Rusty unzipped his jacket and let it fall to the ground, revealing the war torn RISE T-shirt beneath. The response was incredible. Camera flashes went off like machinegun fire and his fellow Runners began jumping up and down, pointing excitedly and screaming at each other “That shirt, that shirt!” The announcer and the crowd roared behind him but everything else in Rusty’s world seemed to fall away, piece by piece. His vision tunneled into his planned path, all other objects

[77] blurring into a formless mass. Blood thumped in his ears and drowned out all but the electronic beeps of the countdown. His palms were dry and fingers ready but a cold film of sweat encased his forehead and neck. There was no room for error anymore. Far away, barely cutting through the static, Rusty could hear Kirra calling out “Don’t think, react! Just move!” The signal light flashed green and Rusty tore off the start line, arms pumping and legs churning for all they were worth. His sneakers bit chunks of earth from the grass below his feet and propelled him onward like a cannon. Within seconds he had cleared the run up lane and the first series of obstacles appeared. Unlike earlier contestants who had been forced to slow and hesitated coming into the walls, Rusty barreled forward and upward, never breaking stride. His hands clamped down on the plastic-composite panels and, even though they were slick from previous attempts, he flew up and onto their tops in fluid, single sweeps. As he approached the vertical section of the course, Rusty suddenly veered off the path taken by the majority of the competitors and went to the least modified section of the building face he could find. Rusty ran toward an exposed beam and tic-taced off the metal surface, rocketing himself up to a windowsill ten feet above the platform. Continuing the motion, he pulled himself up higher and higher along the window’s edges till he kicked off a scaffolding support pole and landed on the third and final level. Rusty wasted no time and rushed toward the hanging ropes that led to the roof. But instead of coming at them straight on and going up hand over hand like the others, Rusty ran at a sharp angle close to the wall. As he came up to the thick rope, he grabbed a fistful in each hand and dashed along the building face, pulling the rope with him. His lungs burned and his breathing was becoming rapid but his eyes never wavered. Using a spare scaffold to get the final height he needed, Rusty leaped into the air and collected the excess rope in his hands. Then he threw his feet forward, swinging like Tarzan, picking up speed and air as he went along. By the final point of his arc he was nearly level with the roof edge. Reaching out, he snatched at the metal capped roof and held firm, hauling his body up right next to the buzzer podium. He slammed his fist down on the red button and heard the satisfying ring as the buzzer sounded. Turning back the way he came, Rusty ran out, again coiled the rope in his hands, and, when the rope had gone taunt, he literally jumped off the four story roof. This time he really was Tarzan, swinging down and out with such speed and force that he looked completely out of control. But as he reached the third level platform he released the rope and dropped down, his feet slamming into the hard plastic. He groaned through gritted teeth, feeling the bruise on the bottom of his right foot flare and send white hot pins throughout his leg and hip. But he battled through the pain and came up at a dead sprint. He bent down and took hold of the first pipe from the scaffolding section, feeling the cold metal stick to his skin. He swung down, let go of the pipe, and landed lightly on his feet, never once losing any of the speed he had gained from the rope swing. Now at this point all of the competitors had done almost exactly the same thing: they had jumped down from platform to platform like Super Mario, one or two rolling their ankles in the high drop attempts. Rusty, however, completely changed directions and headed away from the platforms,

[78] running headlong instead toward the course boundary. Still reeling from the never before seen rope trick, the crowd was stunned into utter silence at Rusty’s final stunt. With no hesitation and no safety net like before, Rusty again launched out into space, still a full two stories off the ground. He could hear the wind ripping at his hair as he flew. Then, just as it appeared that Rusty had lost his mind and committed public suicide, a free standing light pole came into view. Latching onto the cold steel tube, he slid down the pole like he did a week earlier in the Ironside Projects, slashing his run’s descent time by over half. He touched down on solid ground and sprinted back to the finish line, breaking the tape and stopping the clock at thirty seconds flat. He collapsed to the ground in an exhausted heap, chest heaving and eyes wide with adrenaline. First place. If the cinematic reveal of the legendary RISE shirt had caused an uproar, Rusty’s win was like an atomic bomb going off. Never before had a contestant so fully and creatively used the environment to conquer the obstacles and defeat the clock. The Runners and the crowd descended on Rusty’s fallen body like a pack of wolves, lifting him up and cheering with reckless abandon. Rusty tried to remain stoic but couldn’t fight his ecstatic joy a second longer. He raised both fists in the air, patches of skin missing from both, and screamed with joy. He watched the grey sky shift and fly by as he was carried past the judges’ booth and toward the main event concourse. All over the Pro/Am grounds, monitors were cutting short their live feeds and showing replays of the unprecedented, reckless run and footage of the celebration. Though only an amateur run, the reaction was nearly as great as if Andre Levy had suddenly arrived ahead of schedule. Lost in the heat of the moment, Rusty was jarred back to consciousness when he felt a microphone shoved into face. A reporter yelled up to him, “Rusty, Rusty! Truly you are your father’s son! Can we expect the same history making performance tomorrow in Freestyle?” Freestyle. The word shot through Rusty’s brain and exploded in a rain of piercing shrapnel. Tomorrow was the big one, the real draw of the Pro/Am. As incredible as today’s run was it was still little more than the appetizer, the preliminaries of the event. Only the hardcore followers came out to see the speed runs. Tomorrow morning the tournament grounds would be crawling with thousands more fans, especially the thrill seeking ones. All wanting to see the best of the best The City had to offer. And Rusty still didn’t know how to do a single flip.

[79]

CHAPTER 14
Rusty was tired. His head hurt. So did his back. His chest rose and fell in a heavy, slow rhythm. His eyes were red and bloodshot. Sweat beaded at the tip of his nose and fell from his face, staining the blue padded floor below him. He stood, arms heavy at his sides, staring at the crash mat before him. How long had he been at this? How many attempts had he made? He wasn’t sure anymore. A thick strand of wet red hair hung in front of his eyes but he didn’t bother to pull it away. Instead he lurched forward, breaking into a fast jog, feeling the bounce of every step in the soles of his sore feet. As the mat came closer he brought his arms into the air and planted his feet sideways, left foot first. Jumping up and out, he tried to keep his head straight, tried to focus on a single point, but it was no use. He became disoriented, frantic, and forgot to tuck his legs. He came down, hard, a moment later, landing on the crash mat with a loud wet smack on his side. Squeezing his eyes shut, Rusty moaned in pain and rolled off the side, lying face up on the floor next to the pad. He’d landed on the same spot for the fourth time in a row and the sting of the bruise on his ribs was worse than ever. Jenna grimaced and shook her head. “It’s been almost two hours Rusty. You’re not going to get anymore done tonight.” Rusty sat up, wiping his forehead off with the edge of his sleeve. “I can’t stop now, there’s no time left. The Freestyle is tomorrow and without a solid inverted Tech I don’t stand a chance.” “Well at least take a break.” Jenna hopped off the padded gymnastics cube and walked over to Rusty, offering him a nearly empty bottle of water. “If you keep going like this you’ll just end up exhausted and hurt. Then you really won’t have a chance tomorrow.” Rusty took the bottle and finished off the contents, dropping the empty plastic at his side. He hauled himself to his feet, gingerly moving his left side, saying as he rose, “I know. But what choice do I have? Cartwheels aren’t enough and my front tucks are too slow. Side flips are the only ones I’ve landed cleanly so far.” “Yeah, an hour ago. You only started learning them in the past week. You might have the mechanics down but you’re still sketchy and bail half the time. They’re not nearly consistent enough for competition.” Rusty sighed heavily, knowing that what Jenna said was true. He was able to land side flips but they took way too much preparation and his success rate was barely one out of ten. If he tried to throw one in the middle of a timed heat he’d most likely end up bashing his elbow into his face. Walking away from the practice area, Rusty stopped at his duffel bag and peeled off his soaked shirt, stuffing it into a spare side pocket. He fished in his bag and withdrew a fresh shirt, slipping it on. As he did he glanced at the clock on the wall: 11 o’clock. Only an hour to midnight.

[80] He turned and said to Jenna, “It is late. Thanks again for letting me use the school’s gym for practice.” Jenna grinned and replied “Hey, if you can’t use a spare key to have fun after hours, then what’s the point of being a gymnastics captain?” Rusty grinned too, knowing how fortunate he was to have this time and privacy. Even though the regular indoor training gyms were open late because of the Pro/Am they would be crawling with competitors. Rusty couldn’t stomach the idea of embarrassing himself in front of all of them. Imagine, the son of JK, who blew apart the speed round, fumbling around the practice floor like a novice. The idea made him cringe. Rusty stretched out his sore legs and picked up his bag, slinging it over his shoulder. “What now? Dinner?” he asked. “I think it’s a little beyond dinner Matchstick, but yeah, food sounds good. Let’s go to Geneo’s, I heard they’re having a two for one sandwich sale during the competition.” “Cool, Geneo’s it is. By the way, when did Lee leave? I could’ve sworn he was just here.” Jenna stared at Rusty for a moment before saying, “Wow. You must have really zoned out for a while. He left an hour ago, said he had a project to finish up for you.” “Oh, right.” “What kind of project is it going to be anyway?” The edges of Rusty’s lips curled as he tried to hide a smile. “You’ll see.” As the pair walked to the door of the gym Rusty suddenly stopped and reached into his bag again, rummaging and searching for something. Jenna stopped at the door and asked, “Now what are you doing?” Rusty retrieved a large white bandana from his bag and folded it over, forming a triangle. Pulling his long hair back in a pile, he placed the fabric over his head and tied it tightly, wrapping up everything. “Had to hide the hair. I figured out that’s how most people spot me and I really don’t feel like dealing with fan boys and reporters tonight. So, let’s eat!” Downtown was pulsing with activity. The sky had cleared and the moon shined down brightly, bathing the unlit sections of the street in an otherworldly color of white. The streets were packed bumper to bumper with parked cars and the sidewalks overflowed with pedestrians. Nearby music could be heard filtering through the avenues as lively packs of people hustled from one area to the next. Rusty and Jenna had to constantly slide past thick waves of teenagers and twentysomethings, a few clearly not in the soberest of states.

[81] “You know,” Rusty said, “For all the years they’ve held the Pro/Am here I’ve never been to the Downtown’s block party.” “Really?” Jenna asked. “Not even when your dad competed?” “No, it was always too much of a hassle. When I was real young I think we tried to go one year. But I remember my dad got swarmed with fans and all sorts of people. And after he died my mom didn’t want anything to do with PKFR so I wasn’t allowed to go.” The music grew steadily louder and Rusty could now see small groups of local Runners practicing in the small side streets, laughing and horsing around. “Seems a lot bigger than I remember it though.” Jenna pulled the hood up on her jacket and said, “Yeah, it’s the year’s biggest party, except when the Nationals were here a few winters back. But because the competition got split into two days, and since Andre Levy’s supposed to be here, it looks like everyone’s out tonight.” They turned the last corner onto Main Street and suddenly a cascade of sights, sounds, and smells hit them. It looked like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Huge throngs of people crowded the shutdown streets, each one decked out in their favorite PKFR gear. Sales tents and product shows lined the street edges and, several blocks down, capping off the other end of the street, a huge stage had been erected. On it was a popular area hip-hip group, backed up by a performance group of Trickers and Runners. Stores up and down the avenue had signs shouting competition sales and the bars and pubs were overflowing with customers. Every street lamp was turned up to full power. Streamers fell from the windows of the buildings with huge white screens across some, projectors replaying highlights from the day’s events. On one far away, Rusty could see himself swinging on the rope. “Whoa.” Rusty and Jenna said in unison. “Guess this is a bad time to tell you this…” Jenna said. “What?” Rusty asked. “Geneo’s is at the other end, behind the stage.” Rusty stared ahead, silent. He adjusted the bag on his shoulder and said, “Better get started now then.” Forty minutes later, sitting on the sidewalk curb outside Geneo’s, Rusty opened their takeout bag and handed Jenna her sandwich, then quickly tore open the wrapping on his own, the first of three he’d bought. With huge, gaping bites he devoured the first one and was working his way into the second before Jenna had even taken a bite. “I can’t believe you bought three,” she said. “And that awful kind too.”

[82] “Come on,” Rusty said in between bites, “Avocado, turkey, and peanut butter is great. At least it’s more interesting than that tuna fish you got.” “Ugh, whatever. I hate avocado. At least we found a spot to eat.” Now quietly munching on their sandwiches, they watched across the street as a pair of local breakdancers challenged each other to a battle. The crowd formed a circle and each man took turns pulling off their best moves, using the music from the nearby stage as the beat. Everything seemed to be going well until the ever growing circle of spectators began to crowd the dancers. With nowhere else to go the larger man accidentally kicked his opponent in the leg during a windmill rotation. Angered at the inadvertent attack, the smaller man kicked back and, before long, the pair was throwing haymakers at each other’s head. It took three each of their friends to pull them apart, the crowd cheering the fight the entire time. Finishing his second sandwich, Rusty took a swig of his water and said, “That’s what happens with competition. Everything seems fine, then one thing goes wrong and bam, fighting.” Jenna swallowed and replied, “Not always. That wasn’t even those dancers’ fault. The crowd was too big and forced them into each other.” “Yeah but that’s a problem in itself. So many people staring. The guys felt like they had to push themselves harder and ended up doing something stupid. Besides, if it was just an accident they shouldn’t have blown up like that anyway.” Jenna leaned back, resting on her outstretched arms. She pushed a stray lock of blonde hair out of her eyes and said, “You really don’t like competition, do you?” Rusty was opening his third sandwich but stopped to think about what Jenna said. “Sort of, I guess. I don’t know, it seems…useless I guess. Like, what’s the point? Why try so hard? For your ego or something?” “Most people just do it for fun, Rusty.” “But then why have sponsors? Why all the flash and everything? Seems like something other than fun.” Jenna leaned forward again, this time resting her elbows on knees. She tucked her arms under her armpits and said plainly, “So why’d you enter the Pro/Am? Why do you compete?” Rusty, inches away from starting into his last sandwich, stopped short. He closed his mouth, gently pulled the sandwich away from his lips, and set it down next to him. He stared ahead, completely quiet. Finally Jenna nudged him with her shoulder and said, “Well? You gonna tell me? Or did you just do it for your ego too?” Rusty breathed deep, letting out the breath in a thin fog of chill white. Turning to look Jenna in the eye, he said, “I did it for you.” Then silence.

[83] Jenna stared. She opened and closed her mouth once, with no sound coming out. Finally, quietly, she said, “Me?” Rusty looked down at his clasped hands, arms held between his legs, rocking slightly back and forth. “Yeah. I overheard you saying how much you liked Runners and I guess, I thought if I won the Pro/Am…you might like me.” Jenna stared but then looked away, embarrassed and unsure how to respond. She knew the troubles between him and Lee had been caused by her, indirectly at least. But she had no idea he had gone this far because of it. She was about to say something to break the awkward silence but Rusty beat her to it. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have told you that.” Rusty started to stand to leave. “No!” Jenna exclaimed. “I mean, don’t be sorry. I’m glad you told me. It’s just, I wasn’t expecting it. Please, stay.” Rusty sat back down, now holding his head between his hands. “I was, I was just so mad. I wanted to get back at Lee, wanted you to like me. I acted without even thinking. Now I don’t know why I’m here.” Another awkward silence. This time Jenna spoke first. “Do you still, um, like me? Like you did before?” Rusty grinned, but a sad kind of grin. “Yes? Maybe? I don’t know. I’m not sure of anything anymore.” He paused for a moment before saying, “Did you ever like me?” It was Jenna’s turn to grimly grin. “Sort of. I mean, I thought you were cute and all. A lot of girls did actually. But I could never figure out what you were thinking, what you thought of me or anything like that. It’s like…there’s a piece of you hidden, something no one ever sees. A mystery that kept people out, kept them away.” “Really?” Rusty replied, “If so, I don’t know what it is.” He wrapped his arms around his legs, watching as the crowd from the break dancing fight finally broke up and filtered away. “We missed our chance, huh?” Jenna wrapped her arms around her legs too, mirroring Rusty. “Yeah, I guess so.” The hip-hop group on the stage finished their set and was leaving the stage to thunderous applause. A DJ began playing a remixed version of the latest rock single and all around them the crowd talked and yelled in celebration. But between Rusty and Jenna, there was only silence. Jenna turned to look at Rusty again. “Are you going to be okay?” Rusty sighed. “Yeah, I’ll be okay. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt. But it’s better to know the truth now.”

[84] Jenna brought a hand away from her knees and was about to touch Rusty on the shoulder but hesitated and pulled it back. Smiling slightly, she said, “If it makes you feel any better, my friend Renee thinks you’re hot.” Rusty laughed under his breath and said, “Yeah? The one with the braids?” “Yup. She especially likes the long hair. She loves that rock star look.” “I’ll be damned.” It was nearly one in the morning till Rusty and Jenna left the main party square, even though the celebration was still going strong. Turning down the same street they had come up from, Rusty said to Jenna, “Are you sure it’s okay to sleep in the gym? I don’t want to get you in trouble or anything.” “Don’t worry about it Carrot Top. Keep the lights low and you’ll be fine. I know you’re gonna want to keep practicing anyway. Even though you should be sleeping.” Jenna gave Rusty a small playful shove but ended up hitting him in his bruised side instead. Groaning from the pain wave, Jenna shook her head and said, “See? You’re already banged up. Just go to bed and worry about it in the morning. Your division’s runs don’t start till one in the afternoon anyway.” “I still need to work though. I can’t afford to do anything but my best and I know I can still learn something before the night’s over.” Jenna was about to crack a joke in reply but was distracted by something she saw down the alleyway next to them. She grabbed Rusty by the arm to get him to stop walking and pointed down the dim passage saying, “See that cement block the Runners set up earlier? The one they were using as a step up to the fire escape? I’ll make a bet with you. If you jump off it, attempt a side flip, and don’t succeed, I’ll shut up about you going to bed and you can practice all night. But if you make it, you tell me I was right and go to sleep the second you get back to the gym. Deal?” Rusty gazed down the alley, then at the small blonde, then back down the alley. What harm could it do? Even if he screwed up he was already in pain. “Fine, deal. But if I break my neck you call the ambulance.” Jenna pulled out her cell phone. “Paramedics on stand-by. Let’s see it.” Sighing for the umpteenth time that night, Rusty walked into the deserted alley. He tested the block, made sure it wouldn’t move or break, and did a test run up to check the distance and timing. Jenna yelled back to him, “I’m wait-ing!” Not bothering to reply, Rusty smacked his hands together and dashed forward. He stepped up onto the block and popped off, tilting his body sideways and feeling like he might actually pull it off. But just like before he didn’t stay tucked long enough and bailed out, forced to throw his

[85] hands out at the last second to avoid smashing his face into the asphalt. Sprawling out on the ground, Rusty stared up at the full moon above him and called out, “If I won, why am I the one hurting?” Suddenly a blur of black passed before his eyes, blotting out the moon for a split instant before disappearing again. Shaken out of his post-bail stupor, Rusty scrambled to his feet and turned around to face the direction the blur had gone. Seeing nothing but empty alley, Rusty swiveled on his heel, looking in all directions. Still nothing. Had it been a stray cat? He yelled back, “Jen, did you see something ju-“ But instead he heard the soft thud of someone landing, followed by the pitter-patter of shoed feet coming closer and closer. He turned around just in time to see a large shadow running toward him, a form like a man but faceless, too fast to distinguish any details. Backpedalling in shock, Rusty watched as the figure leaped off the cement block and flew over his head, twisting and shape shifting like a demon from a movie. The shadow came to a standstill behind Rusty and the red head spun around as fast as he could, eyes wide in terror. With the black form finally at rest Rusty could see that it was a man of average height, dressed from head to toe in black gear, and wearing a long black bandana that covered the top half of his head. His back was to Rusty and all that could be seen was his neck and the countless strands of black dreadlocks that hung out past his shoulders from underneath. Jenna ran up and stopped behind Rusty, peeking out from the side of his shoulder. The man spoke, a soft, youthful voice. “Bring your knees to your chest more man, it helps with the rotation.” Both of them stared, speechless, as the man turned to reveal his face. Jenna voice exploded. “Andre Levy!” It was. Rusty had no doubt about it as he knew the man’s face well from competition tapes. It was Andre Levy, PKFR World Champion, in the flesh. Struck dumb at the presence of the man, Jenna spoke instead saying, “What, what the hell, what are you doing here?” Andre smiled. “Training. I’ve been on the road all week, haven’t had a chance to explore the City yet. This was the first chance I got.” Jenna continued to speak for both her and Rusty. “But, but, I don’t get it. Why here? Why not one of the gyms? And why alone?” Andre continued to smile and brought his hands up to his mouth, breathing on them to warm them up. “I snuck away. I sometimes do. I’m always training in gyms. But I need the city, the solitude. I need something hard and real. You can’t get that surrounded by fan boys and pads.” Andre jerked his thumb towards Rusty and said, “Isn’t that right…Rusty Klein.” Rusty finally snapped out of his daze and said, “You, you know who I am?”

[86] “Yup. Seen your face on all the Pro/Am commercials. And I saw the video of your speed run. Nice work by the way, I liked the light pole thing.” Rusty barely managed to stammer a thank you. Jenna didn’t seem to know how to stop talking. “Then why talk to us, why show us who you are?” Andre lifted one eyebrow and replied, “Jeez girl, I’m not god or something, relax. I was cutting across the rooftop when I saw Rusty here attempt a side flip and bail. Figured I’d come down and see what’s going on.” Rusty’s face flushed a deep crimson red. He’d been avoiding embarrassment at regular gyms for weeks and instead, in a nameless back alley, he ends up losing it in front of the biggest name in the sport. Dropping his head low, Rusty said, “S-Sorry you saw that.” “Why? You bailed, we all do it. No biggie.” “Yeah.” Rusty replied. “By the way, tell me something. How’s Kirra?” Rusty’s head snapped back up. “Kirra! You know her?” Andre never stopped smiling. “Sure, in a way. She was at the Olympic training camp when I visited there a few years back. Only she could have showed you that Tarzan move with the rope.” “Oh. Um, yeah, she did. And yeah, she’s great.” “Good to hear. Tell her I said hi, next time you see her.” Rusty thought he saw Andre wink with his last statement but he couldn’t be sure in the dark. Andre took a step back and said, “Well I have to keep moving, I’ve got a lot more of the city to see before sunrise. I’ll see you at the Freestyle tomorrow, man. I’ll be cheering for you.” Andre turned and was about to leave but stopped just long enough to say, “Remember what I said about tucking the legs. Wouldn’t want that week of practice to go to waste and not even use the move tomorrow, would you?” With that Andre turned into a blur again, popping off the nearby wall and shooting himself up the outside of the fire escape, never hesitating once in a single movement. If Owen was brute force personified and Kirra was elegance incarnate, Andre was the missing link: fast, strong, graceful, and almost supernatural; like a ghost sliding across the physical world at will. Within moments he had scaled the building face and disappeared over the roof edge, as quickly as he had arrived. It was a long time before Jenna finally stepped back from Rusty and started walking back to the main street. She had her cell phone in her hand and was texting at the speed of light, yammering excitedly, “Oh my god, oh my god, wait till Renee hears this, oh my god…”

[87] She was all the way to the entrance of the alley when she looked around and realized Rusty wasn’t with her. Turning back around, she found him stuck in place, staring up at where Andre had just been. She called out, “Yo, Rusty! Come on we have to tell people about this, they’re going to freak!” Rusty nodded but never budged. Quietly, so quiet that even Jenna couldn’t hear him, he said, “He knew. He saw me do one flip and he knew exactly how long I’d been practicing. And exactly how to fix them. How? That can’t be possible.” Far away, the DJ announced the time: 1:00am. Exactly twelve hours to the freestyle. It was going to be a long night.

[88]

Only two chapters remain before the epic conclusion to RISE! Stay tuned and remember to show your support on the APK forums. And remember: there are replica RISE shirts for sale, designed by yours truly! http://theflyingfishstudio.com/fortherisetee.aspx