Thirteen

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ThirteenI am the last.  The only one left.

We are defeated.

If I can’t do what I need to do now, what they need me to do now, we are defeated.

In the beginning, there were so many sides.  In some ways, those early days were easier.  Easier because who was paying attention to me when there were so many of us?  But then they began to fall away, and all those many were whittled down to two.  That’s when it truly began.  Two sides.  Theirs.  And ours.

My hand ached.  My arm felt heavy.  The air was chill but I felt a trickle of sweat run down the right side of my face.  I took a breath and prayed I didn’t end up in the gutter.  I knew what to do.  Everyone knows what to do.  That’s not the problem.  That’s not the question.  The question is whether or not I could do what I knew I had to do.  I hadn’t done my best so far.  But I also hadn’t flinched.  That was something.

It was up to me.  There was a slim chance for victory.  I was certain before.  Strong and steady.  But I was never the best of us.  I realized that now.  Even if I was the best, I wasn’t the best at the moment.  I was injured.  My left arm in a sling.  I refused to take medication because I needed to focus, but the nurse said the pain would be just as distracting.  I compromised and took just a little something.  So both arms were throbbing.  One from pain.  The other from exhaustion.  Even if by some fluke my aim was true, I would have to do it again.  I could see the targets.  So far and yet so near.  They were standing still.  They were right in front of me.  There was nothing between me and them.  There was everything between me and them.  Air and earth and forces both cosmic and subatomic.

Behind me, I felt the eyes of my team on my back.  One of them should have been where I was now.  This was the zero hour.

Sheila had the steadiest hands I’ve ever seen on a human being.  Her aim was so true, so sharp, especially at night.  We called her the Hedgehog.  Night fell long ago.  Sheila had felled every target that came into her sight.  She should have been standing where I was standing.

Or it should have been Barton.  He was a legacy.  He came from a family of victors.  His hands were never sweaty.  He was tall and strong.  Things and people tended to end up where he wanted them to go.  He was our leader.  It should have been Barton.

Or it should have been J. B.  We called him Jibber sometimes (his middle name was Ivan or Isaac or something like that).  There’s a verb “jib” that means “to procrastinate” or “to refuse to do something you’re specifically supposed to do.”  It drove him nuts, but we only called him that when it seemed as if he were showing off and doing something risky instead of just hitting targets like he was supposed to.  He was young and brilliant and arrogant.  But the people loved him.  When it comes to people, he was suddenly humble and kind.  He fooled around when the stakes were low-ish.  But he wouldn’t let the people down at a moment like this.  Not J.B.  He would let it all fall away.  Any doubts and fears he had.  Everyone and everything around him.  I’ve seen his face on the monitor sometimes.  His expression.  Calm.  Focused.  Calculating.

I tried to do the same.  I tried to block out all the noise.  I inhaled.  I squinted my eyes just a bit.  I exhaled.  I took aim.  I hit them.  All of them.  They all went down, but I didn’t feel good about it.  I heard no response from my team, nor did I turn to them.  Not yet.  Not until it was finished.

The prize was too dear for me to fail.  Not money.  Not renown.  Not power.  Not land.

Victory.

That’s what was really at stake.

***

I joined because, well to be honest, I thought it would be fun.  I thought I would be left behind.  That I wouldn’t be doing any of the heavy lifting, as it were.  I didn’t know I would make it this far.  I didn’t know there would be so much pressure.

Our opponents?  They called themselves the Scorpions.  They attack from above.  From the high ground.  (Get it?)  I would say they were conceited, overconfident jerks.  I have said it actually.  But like J.B., they had skills to back up their arrogance.

We were on even ground now.  But I was still scared.  The one thing that gave me comfort was Thirteen.  For me, thirteen had always been a lucky number.  My sister and best friend were both born on the thirteenth.  My graduation days both fell on the thirteenth.  And who can argue with the concept of the baker’s dozen?

The others weren’t sure when we ended up on Thirteen.  When Thirteen was to be our battle ground.  We are a superstitious bunch.  Lucky socks.  Lucky rituals.  So they spent a few seconds with grim faces until they accepted the challenge.  But I had to fight down an irrational surge of hope and giddiness when it occurred to me that my dumb luck, granted to me by “thirteen,” might help me and my team best the skill and experience of our opposition.

Sure, it wouldn’t be fair, but so what?  I’d had my share of bad luck as well as good.  And if getting injured was my bad luck of the day, couldn’t I hope for some good luck to offset it?

So I took a breath.  I walked out into the open.  I squinted my eyes just a bit.  I thought about the sorcery of it all.  Being able to hit so many with one strike.  But only if my aim was true.  The weight left my body.  The weight left my mind.  I inhaled and watched.  The world slowed down.  Freeze frame.

I already knew that I had failed.

*****

The ball veers just a little off the center.  The Scorpions, though they must see what I can see, have the surprising courtesy to remain silent.  So does everyone else in the alley.  So you can hear my ball hit.  You can hear pins falling.

“Dinner bucket!” someone yells.

Yes, it is.  The two, four, five, and eight pins are standing.  They remain standing.  It’s done.

The Scorpions have won.

They and their supporters burst out in cheers and whistles as I turn around and face my team.  They are standing.  Confetti and balloons drift down around us and on us.  My gut is broiling.  I feel defeated.  I feel relieved.  I feel regret.  I regret that I let them down.

Barton steps toward me with his hand out and we shake.  He glances at my left arm, looks back up at me, and gives me a solemn nod.  It means he’s proud of me.  The sting of defeat is somewhat eased.

“That was heroic,” J. B. says.  I expect to get a wink, like the ones he gives both ladies and gents when he, the rock star of our team, struts cockily around before the start of a game.  He doesn’t wink.  He gives me a charming salute.

Then he shakes his head and sighs.  “This is my fault, guys.  If I hadn’t left such a huge gap for the rest of you to fill, we would have locked this in last frame.”  It’s big of him to say that.  But he left nothing to chance during his turns.

“Or maybe it’s my fault for tripping over my own feet and cracking my arm in the middle of the finals,” I say.  The embarrassment is still worse than the pain.  But at least they had counted my strike.

“Be thankful you didn’t fall on your head,” Barton says.  “And we’re a team.  We lose or win together.”

Sheila crosses her arms.  There’s a twinkle in her eye.  “You know, next year’s tournament will be the thirteenth year.”

I smile.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.

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