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You Champion

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A.

Again the game is Run from Rebecca. It's where they chase her around the playground and scream out her name, and run away as soon as she turns on them. Run from Rebecca, they run and they scream. Here she comes.

Watch her climb the ladder and sit at the top of the slide. It's firetruck red. Her mouth wide and smiling, she claps her thighs. Andrew calls her name from the wood chips below, and then he spits up at her. Watch as more come spitting.

Rebecca spits back down and laughs like she's part of the game.

Rebecca the spitter, Andrew's singing from the wood chips. The song catches on. Rebecca the spitter, they sing, all together, like she's the one spitting.

Rebecca has Down Syndrome and that is the name of all that's wrong with her because when you asked once at dinner, Dad said so.

Down Syndrome, Chris.

There is nothing wrong with Rebecca, Mom said then.

Now from your place on the swing pump your legs like she taught you. Rebecca the spitter, they sing, all at once. Swing your legs, don't sing their song. Don't stop it either.

When a whistle blows and Miss K calls out, Learning Lizards, line up, the singers stop singing. They line up, all those Learning Lizards.

Then Miss K calls for Starfish, but the Starfish do not line up. Miss K has to hunt through the playground to pick them out like always. Jordan's hiding in a tunnel with his sneakers sticking out. Davey's hanging from a monkey bar and kicking his legs with no way down but down. Sara's running for the fence.

Rebecca, though, she holds your hand the way she does whenever whistles are blown, the way that you and Aunt Kathy taught her. Her fingers are wet, hold on to them anyway. Walk her to the door and wait for Miss Maya to come. Our birthday boy, she says to you. Today you are six.



B.

The sticker-starfish by the classroom door run in columns beneath photos of Davey, Milly, Sara, Jordan, Rebecca, Steven, and Tamika, but mostly beneath yours: Christopher Burke, Inclusion Student.

One, two, three, four, five, tell Davey, and spread out your fingers along the way to show him how.

High-five, says Davey. He slaps your hand and rolls back on the carpet, howling and laughing.

Tell Davey, No, Davey. Then stand up and call for Miss Maya.

From across the room where she reads with Rebecca and Jordan and Tamika, Miss Maya looks. She tells you to try the count-a-grams again with him. Listen to Christopher, Davey, she says. I know you can do it.

The idea of a model for the class, its a novel one, Aunt Kathy had said in the Summer. She said you ought to be commended, really. Inclusion Student, and when she said that, Mom had touched the top of your head.

High-five, says Davey. His fingers are spread so far apart it hurts just to look at. His head is enormous, he's eight years old. This should make him the older one but it doesn't.



C.

When Seth waves you to the back of the bus, for the first time, go to him. Sit down, and when he asks what's your deal, are you a retart or aren't you, don't ask what he means. Say you are not. You are sure you are not.

Of course he's not, says a big kid from the seat behind you. This isn't the retart bus, idiot.

Seth calls him an idiot back, and the big kid smacks him in the head, they are brothers. When the bus starts rolling, Seth sits back down and turns to you. He says, What are you doing in their class, then?

Say you don't know. In the Summer Mom said you were going to start the school year off as a Starfish because you did so great in Little Genius Pre-K, in the ninety-sixth percentile, and plus this way you get to be in the same class as Rebecca. She needed you to be a best friend to Rebecca, she said, and to be a help to Miss Maya, too. It's a very special job for a very special guy, Mom said, and she asked you if you were up to the job.

You said that you were, you were sure that you were.

Tell Seth you don't know.

SETH, he writes on the back of the seat in front of you both and gives you the marker, another kind of test. Give him your name, Chris.



D.

Aunt Kathy is not your mom's sister, or your dad's. Sit up in bed and ask how that works.

Mom closes the book and says that Aunt Kathy isn't really your aunt, exactly. Just a very good friend of Mom's and Dad's.

From before I was born?

From before you were born, yes.

Watch a blade on the ceiling fan. Lose it, follow another. When it's set to low like this you can keep up, for at least a few loops.

Because Aunt Kathy is Rebecca's mom, but Rebecca's not my cousin.

No, little duck, she isn't.

I'm not a little duck. I'm a boy. The sheets are spotted with dinosaurs. They're blue and red and green, like fruit snacks.

When she reopens the book, ask her why she always brings you to play with Rebecca when she's not even a real cousin and you never get to see Derek and Teo. Those are your real cousins. She says you do too get to see Derek and Teo but they live all the way in Baltimore and Aunt Kathy and Uncle Rob are just across town.

Just across Arlington, you mean.

Yes, duck, she says. Just across Arlington.

I'm not a duck I'm a boy.

Yes you are. She reads on: The idea of the herd of elephants made the little prince laugh.

Ask do you have to go to Aunt Kathy's tomorrow.

She says that you do and that Aunt Kathy and Uncle Rob and Rebecca are family even though they aren't related by blood. If it makes you feel better you can think of Rebecca as a cousin.

It doesn't make you feel better.



E.

The wind sends waves through the pool and the leaves overhead so that the shade from the trees opens in places and closes in others. It's the last weekend before Uncle Rob closes the pool for the Winter, even though it's only October. Aunt Kathy tells you Rebecca's still napping even though you didn't ask.

Mom wants to know what Christopher Columbus is famous for.

Some of the leaves are already yellow, and one of them falls and back-flips into the middle of the pool. You already told her but she wants to show Aunt Kathy you know.

Kick off your flip-flops instead, and run into a cannonball, into the water. The sound of the splash underwater's like wind. Feel how it warms on your way to the top, feel the sun on your shoulders again at the surface. Grab the yellow leaf and swim to the side of the pool, put it back on dry land. Catch your breath. Dad jumps in and Mom yells, Sunscreen.

Show Dad how you tread water, the way that he taught you: bicycle-kicks and wing-flaps. Then get him to throw you high, tucking your knees to your chest and screaming. When Uncle Rob gets in, make them see who can toss you higher.

Whoever gets the biggest splash, says Dad, and when he bends down to toss you he whispers in your ear to cannonball like hell.

Cannonball like hell, but when it's Uncle Rob's turn, straighten out into a pencil to shrink the splash, and smile underwater. Try to do serious-face before kicking back up to the surface, you can't.

When Uncle Rob says you rigged the game only shake your head and smile harder, and sing the song that Dad sings: We are the Champions. No time for losers, up on his shoulders and out of the pool, up to the grill for victory dogs. Breathe in the smell of the smoke and the chlorine, and the creamsicle sunscreen Mom's spreading cold across your shoulders.

Christopher, Aunt Kathy wants to know, says Mom. What happened in fourteen-hundred, ninety-two?

Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Tell them all about it, then—the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria, how everyone thought the world was flat, but Christopher Columbus, he knew it was round like a ball.

When Mom says, Christopher Columbus, your namesake, ask what namesake means.

You know what it means, says Dad. Namesake, Chris. He winks at you.

Namesake. He's right, you know what it means. Try to wink back and blink instead.

Rebecca comes outside all ready to go: Sponge-Bob swimmies and goggles. She takes her finger out of her mouth and holds to your hand. Tell her you can't but she only pulls harder. Tell her you just got out, that you're eating, and when Mom looks at you like that, tell Mom that she just put sunscreen on you so you have to let it sink in or it'll only wash off, and does she want you to get burnt? Mom takes Rebecca's hand from yours and walks her to the pool so she can sit on the edge with her feet in the water, as far as she's gone all Summer. As far as she'll ever go, probably.



F.

Again the game is Suicide. It's where someone throws the ball at the wall of the school and you have to catch it off the bounce, but if you botch the catch and the ball touches the ground you have to run and touch the wall before someone else can get to the ball. And if someone throws you out you have to face the brick wall and spread your legs and stretch out your arms, and then they get to peg the ball at your back as hard as they want as long as they're standing behind the white line. You've never played before but the rules are easy to follow if you watch and listen closely, and they play all the time. Watch and listen now from the swing. Pump your legs.

Seth dives and makes the catch. He throws out the runner, you don't know his name. After he pegs the kid in the butt he laughs and gives out high-fives. Laugh a little from the swing until he looks and waves you over.

Walk over to the game with the wind blowing loud through your hair and tell him, yes, you know how to play.

The ball whistles when they throw it hard because Seth's brother Mike cuts little holes in them to make them do that. Let it whistle by you. Don't go for it unless it's a sure thing.

Not yet. Don't reach out, let it come right to you.

No, wait.

This next one, go. Make the catch and throw out Seth. Stand behind the white line while Seth stretches out against the wall and looks back over his shoulder. The pink ball in your hand is harder than you thought it would be. When he turns back around peg him half-strength, it barely even whistles.

He's laughing now, like, that's all you've got?

That's not all you've got. Go on and show them, but when you go for the grab you botch the catch and get thrown out by Andrew. So play by the rules, face the brick wall and laugh a little even though you don't know why. Wait for the throw. Hope that nobody makes a joke about how with your hands and legs spread out like this it probably looks like a starfish holding tight to the wall. If only you wore pink. Keep your eyes open.

When you hear the whistling coming at you, you flinch. You can't help it.

It claps like hands against the brick and Andrew says, I thought he knew the rules.

You can't duck, Chris, says Seth. Now he gets to throw again. Turn back around and when the ball comes screaming lean in to the wall, don't duck this time. The sting of the ball, it sits tight in your shoulder but don't let them see it, don't rub the spot. Laugh it off, like, that's all you've got?



G.

Trace the dotted uppercase G the way the packet says, starting at the top and circling back down and around, and then adding the lip so it's not a C. Like that. Now do it again, three more times. Green, Glad, Guppy, G. Mom says dinner's in five.

When you asked Mom on the way home from school today when you were going to get to be a Learning Lizard, so that you wouldn't have to do the packets Mrs. Silver makes for you to do after school to keep up with the rest, Letters and Numbers, she took two sips of water from the Nalgene.

Why don't we see how it goes, okay? Then she said you were doing super duper with the packets, and Miss Maya says you're such a big help, and think of Rebecca, duck.

I'm a boy not a duck, now trace your last G. What if you weren't such a big help? What if you weren't super duper with the packets? At dinner ask, What's retart mean.

It's retard, corrects Dad.

It is not retard, corrects Mom, and she says that that's a disgusting word and we don't use that word in this house and who told you that word? Who told you that word?

It's the first thing you ever keep from Mom on purpose and it sits on the table between you now, you can feel it. Look at your plate, can she feel it too?

It's a bad word, Chris, says Dad.

It's a very bad word, says Mom, and she says it is not to be repeated, especially in school and especially at Aunt Kathy's house. The way she's looking at you now it's like you said it about Rebecca.

Later when she's upstairs ask Dad again. What's retard mean?

He squints at the TV. The crowd's going wild, touchdown Ravens. You know, Dad says, Uncle Rob played for the Ravens. Years back, he was their third string quarterback for a season and a half. Injury in the off-season. All this before either of you were born.

Ask him again. What's it mean?

He looks at you now. You know what it means, Chris.



H.

Hold hands with Tamika and Davey on the way to art class, where when you get there the Learning Lizards are already finger-painting. It's the only mainstream class that the Starfish join in on, and only the Starfish who earn sticker-starfish in the morning. And only on Fridays, but this Friday is different.

This Friday Seth is patting the seat next to him.

Go ahead, Christopher, says Miss Jasmine. Her lips are gone she is smiling so wide.

Take the seat. Seth and Andrew are talking about how the Redskins are the greatest team in the NFL. Agree with them, say they are better than the Ravens. On your other side, Samantha's painting dolphins. They're swimming in outer space. There are stars and planets put down on black paper, and each of Samantha's nails is a different color and wet. She uses a fingernail now to put pink eyelashes on a dolphin. She is squinting at the painting like she doesn't care about anything else.

Give Seth five not because the Redskins are going to take the Superbowl for sure this year, like he said, and not because you hope they will, but because he's holding out his hand to you. Then, with your finger, stir the blue into green with the yellow, and put leaves down on your paper, the way trees never start, from the top. Connect them then with branches and nod when Andrew asks if you play Madden. You played it once at Derek and Teo's in Baltimore.

You could come home on my bus one day and we could play on my Xbox. Both of you could.

Seth says Andrew has the biggest TV in the world, probably.

Andrew says to take the Four Bus.

Davey says to high-five. He is suddenly behind you and grinning, hand held up. Each finger is a different color, like Samantha's, but with Davey they're all mixed together in a brown mess in his palm. Tell him to go sit down, he's not allowed to walk around. The fingers stretch farther apart and the grin does too, like they're two parts of a same thing. High-five, he says.

Miss Jasmine's at the sink so she doesn't see any of it. She's washing paint out of Tamika's braid, already.

High-five, he is saying.

Seth asks if that's all he knows how to say.

A blue drop falls to the floor from Davey's hand and sits in a circle. His eyes are as wide as his fingers are now, as far as they go. He's not going to sit down. High-five, he is begging.

So tell Davey high-five. Slap your clean hand down on the table.

High-five! Davey slaps the same spot and makes it a mess.

Seth and Andrew are laughing, so laugh with them now. They high-five the table and they high-five the wall, and Davey does too, laughing with them like he's part of the game.

Andrew high-fives the dolphin painting before you can think to stop it.

Don't say a word to Samantha when she starts to cry, or to Miss Jasmine when she pulls Davey to the sink by his upper arm and his laughing turns into crying, coming in shrieks like it does with Davey. They all have their own kind of crying.

Miss Jasmine holds his hands under the water and he's pulling away like crazy, like it burns.

Samantha's got her head down now and Seth and Andrew do too but they're laughing and looking up at you, like, can you believe it? You get to hang out with that kid every day? If you can't quite laugh, you can smile with them. Even if it hurts your cheeks. When the burn starts to set in the back your nose, turn down to your work. Dip a finger brown and ground those branches with a tree trunk. Don't look up, put grass on the ground. Last make the sun in the sky and when walking back with Tamika's and Davey's hands in your own, paint washed away, don't say a word. Listen to the way your sneakers squeal against the wooden floor. Even when you try to walk lightly those sounds bounce all the way up and all the way down, the hallways are empty.



I.

There's a frog named October in the back of the Starfish's classroom that all he gets to do is tread water forever. The hum from his tank is enormous at naptime, the only time you remember to hear it. Starfish stickers glow a pale green from the ceiling, but real starfish hold to the ocean floor. Lay there not napping and look up at what should be the bottom until you get an upside-down feeling in your stomach. They hold to the ceiling like hands, don't they?

Think of what Mom will say if she ever finds out you are failing on purpose.



J.

What are you going to be, Chris? You can be anything you want to be.

Say you don't know and flip through the catalogue: Astronaut, Firefighter, Batman, Wizard. Across the yard there's the sound of Uncle Rob blowing leaves. Ask Dad, what's he going to be.

Halloweens I'm the Candy Man, says Dad. On account of I man the candy. He winks at you then and says that what you do is what you are. Blink back at him.

If that's true then I get to be two things, says Aunt Kathy. Leaf-Blower-Man's Wife and Frog-Girl's Mom. Rebecca wants to be October, from class, she says.

Right now Rebecca's bringing the leaves one by one to the pile in the middle of the backyard, and falling back laughing when Uncle Rob points the leaf-blower at her. Aunt Kathy asks if you're excited to start with the mainstream class on Monday.

Mom's watching you now, you can feel it. Say yes, you are.

He was falling behind on the packets, says Mom, even though nobody asked.

I thought he was doing well, says Aunt Kathy.

Mom says that you were and she's still watching you. Keep watching Uncle Rob blowing leaves across the yard. There's a bunch on the cover of the pool, out in the middle where no one can reach.

I never woulda thought, my son, a lizard, says Dad, and he flicks his tongue at you. Then he says to go long.

Run out into the yard and when you catch the ball bring it in to your chest like he taught you. Throw it back, toss it around a little. When Uncle Rob throws the football, the spiral is tighter than even Dad gets it.

The man could throw for miles, says Dad.

Once upon a time, says Uncle Rob. Then with his finger he draws routes on his chest for you to run through the yard, weaving through the defenders: Aunt Kathy, Rebecca, Mom and Dad. Blow by them so fast that they can't keep up, again and again, and every time you make a catch Uncle Rob claps and pumps a fist. Make this next catch and dive into the pile of leaves for the touchdown. Then roll out, spin the ball in the grass and do a dance like Jacoby Jones.

Rebecca's laughing and Mom's saying, Isn't he silly.

Dad's laughing, too.

Uncle Rob's the only one not looking.

When Rebecca comes, arms out for the ball, grab hold of her hand instead. Run Rebecca past the defenders: Dad and Aunt Kathy, everyone's trying to catch you both. Bring her around in a spin move past Mom, but slowly, don't lose her, she's laughing so hard it's a scream and a smile.

Run with Rebecca right into the pile of leaves for the touchdown, the both of you. Lay still with your chest going strong, all the way up and all the way down, mouth open, gulping and smiling. Breathe in the smell of the leaves until it starts with Rebecca, with that panicked sound coming low from her throat, the way that it always starts.

Arms and legs shoot through the leaves. Find a hand and pull her out so she can cough and scream, sitting up in the grass and reaching for someone to save her, from nothing. There's a look in her eyes like she can't believe you would do that to her, the leaves in her hair come in all kinds of colors. There's already snot.

Even from over Aunt Kathy's shoulder Rebecca looks at you like that, like it's the worst thing in the world, what you did. But it's not. Even Mom knows it's not, the way that she comes and touches the top of your head.

Fall back in the leaves and turn to watch how they float down again against the sky. Leaves are called leaves so they leave in the Fall. They fall in the Fall. What you do is what you are: winners win, lizards learn, and starfish hold like hands. And Rebecca's still going. Listen, there: a cough, a catching of breath and a long, flat wail that falls from the top like a siren. Like somewhere's a house and it's burning down. When you sit up, she's watching you still, and so is Uncle Rob. Look at him and he looks away.



K.

When you walk into the classroom, Mrs. Silver shakes your hand, the first time any grownup has ever done that. She says she's so happy to have you at last, and her smile puts tracks in her face. Take the desk with your name already on it, with a little lizard already drawn next to your name. It's been waiting for you, she says. The one next to Samantha. Then everyone says their name and one thing about them they think is special. Her fingernails are baby blue this time.



L.

At last the game is Suicide and the one with the most kills is someone other than Andrew. It's you. Even though he's been reigning champ for two weeks in a row. Throw another ball screaming into Jacob's back, throw your jacket in the grass. The air's cold against your skin but there's a glow in your chest and it's pumping all through you. Feel it there on your face when Seth says there's a new champ in town.

And when Andrew ties the game back up and calls you Starfish Boy, only laugh. Try to stop smiling, you can't.

And then a whistle is blown. It's not time to line up but Rebecca finds you anyway, the way she does when whistles are blown. Her hair is untied, and up on the wind it flaps like a flag. Her hand's out for yours the way that you taught her, and even though you wave her away she runs to you with her mouth open wide.

When the ball hits her leg it drops to the ground and Andrew calls out that Rebecca's fair game. Make a dive and get to the ball first, but when you stand up he's waiting. C'mon champ, he says. Throw out your girlfriend and win the game. Or get thrown out and lose. Starfish Boy, he says again and he's smiling like it's the greatest thing in the world.

Rebecca's smiling like that, too. Like it's so great she can't believe it, the only smile she ever had, with every tooth showing and eyes shut almost all the way, the way she would smile when you did cart-wheels out in the grass for her all Summer long. It's like that, how she's smiling at you now, like it's you and her and no one else in her backyard forever, the smallest place in the world it feels like.

But it's not like that anymore. Throw her out. Clap the ball against the wall as hard as you can to win the game and the smile disappears from Andrew's face. But she's still going even when you walk her up to the wall, laughing, even. Bring up her hand and spread it out on the brick, warm in the sunlight. Even Rebecca's got to play by the rules. Spread out her feet with your own, and feel the way she's laughing at all of it, how her back is shaking against your chest and how your chest beats back, can you feel the way it's jumping? Breathe in the smell of her hair and once she's spread out, don't walk away. Keep your hands over hers, they are wet like always. When the ball comes screaming at you don't you duck.

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