Mark Hansen shut his car door and looked in through the glass entryway. Kelly wasn’t there. He looked down at his watch. She had told him to pick her up at eight, and it was a quarter after now. He kicked at the step, looked up through the door again, and bit his lower lip.
She knows I don’t like places like this, he thought. I ought to leave, and then she’d have to walk home. He smiled picturing her walking the ten miles to their house. He softened—no that wouldn’t be too good. Besides, he thought, Mom would be furious.
He leaned against the glass door. It swung open. He stepped inside. The air was warm and stank of antiseptic and pine deodorant that only partially covered other smells.
He remembered the smells from when he was younger. His mother pushing him forward, he saw his grandmother’s sunken face and felt her cold skin. There had been a strong smell in her room mixed with the odors of wilting flowers and stale perfume.
He was ten then, and now he was seventeen. He pushed the memory back.
How can she stand to work here? he thought.
“Kelly,” his voice echoed in the empty halls.
“Hi, Mark,” Kelly leaned out from a door, her dark hair hanging back over her white uniform.
“You’re late.” Mark furrowed his brows and turned the corners of his mouth down, trying to look angry.
“Sorry,” she said and smiled. “How did your track meet go?” She was still leaning out of the doorway. Mark kicked at the polished floor with the toe of his shoe.
“I’m going to state.”
“That’s great. What place did you take today?”
Mark smiled. “First in the mile.”
“Not bad for a kid.” She smiled again. “Mark, I’m going to be a few more minutes. Is that okay?”
Mark took a deep breath.
“I guess,” he turned and walked toward the doors. “I’ll wait in the car.”
“Mark, why don’t you go into the lounge and talk to Jackson. I think you’ll like him. He doesn’t get many visitors.”
“All right,” Mark mumbled. He pushed open the lounge doors and walked in. The room was quiet. A window was open, and fresh cool air blew in, waving the curtains.
Mark looked around the room. He felt his throat tighten. In the far corner, near the open window, half in the light and half in the dark was a thin figure in a wheelchair. Mark had expected Jackson to be an older man, but the figure in the chair looked young. Mark moved closer.
“Hi,” he said. His throat was dry. He felt a small aching pain somewhere deep inside his chest.
Jackson reminded Mark of a string puppet that had had the strings cut. He was sitting limp in the chair, his head bowed down with his chin resting on his chest. His arms, wax-white skin stretched loose over bones, were resting on his legs. There was a lifeless quality about the form. Jackson’s hands moved slightly, shaking. Then his head moved up slowly and stopped, his eyes looking directly at Mark. His eyes were warm and brown. A smile curled on Jackson’s face.
“Hi,” the voice was weak but pleasant.
“I’m Kelly’s brother.” Mark tried to smile.
“You’re Mark, aren’t you? Kelly talks about you a lot.”
“Yeah,” he couldn’t think of anything to say. He felt empty inside. He was back again in his grandmother’s room. The smell and the sound and the sight of her dying came rushing up at him. The aching pain in his chest grew and spread to his stomach. He felt weak.
“I’ve got to go,” he said. “I just wanted to say hello.”
Jackson leaned back, resting his head against the back of his chair.
“It’s nice in here at night when the windows are open and the outside air blows in. It smells like rain tonight, like a slice of watermelon. The others, they don’t like to have the windows open when the cool air blows in. They say it’s too cold.”
Jackson closed his eyes. His chest moved up and down with his breathing.
“It’s not that I don’t like them. I do. They’re fine people, but they make me feel so old. I don’t want to feel old. Come and see me again, Mark.”
“Sure.” He looked up. “I’ve got to go now. See you.” He waved and left.
Mark stood next to his car. The air was cool. A few drops of rain fell. Mark breathed in deeply and smiled.
“It does smell like watermelon.”
“What does?” Kelly stood smiling on the steps. “I’m finished. Are you ready to go?”
Mark got into the car.
“Did you talk to Jackson?” Kelly asked.
“What’s wrong with him? He looks like a skeleton.”
“Well, it’s a muscle disease. I don’t know much about it. I guess no one does.
He’s had it all of his life. There’s no cure, and they don’t expect him to live much past 20. He’s 17 now.”
“It’s sad, isn’t it?” Mark said.
“It is, but you know he doesn’t look at it that way. He just does the best he can with what he has. He’s been places inside of himself that most people will never come close to.”
She turned her head and looked forward. Rain fell lightly on the windshield and sparkled like diamonds and rubies in the light from neon signs and street lights. She smiled again and turned back toward Mark.
“What smells like a watermelon?”
Nearly a month passed. Mark stood on the steps looking through the glass doors. He felt his heart beating hard with excitement. He felt the smooth surface of the medallion deep in the pocket of his letterman’s jacket. Gold, he thought. First place in the mile. He remembered standing highest on the three-tiered platform, the red-and-blue ribbon with the gold medallion being hung around his neck, raising his arms up in victory, the sound of the crowd cheering and the handshakes and smiles and slaps on the back.
He couldn’t wait to tell Kelly. He looked through the doors. As usual she wasn’t waiting for him. He opened the door and went in.
“Kelly.” There was no answer.
She must be in the back somewhere, he thought. I’ll go say hello to Jackson. For the past month, whenever he had gone in to get Kelly, he had stopped and waved his hand up and said hello to Jackson.
Mark pushed the door open and stepped into the lounge. Always before he had found Jackson alone. Now there were about ten people in the room, most of them old. They were all smiling. Kelly was standing next to Jackson. They were all looking at Mark, then turned and looked at Jackson.
The room was silent. Mark noticed a table with paper cups filled with punch, and there was a large cake that had “State Champion” written on it in gold letters.
Jackson was looking directly into Mark’s eyes. He smiled slightly. His claw-like hands shook and began to rise slowly. The smile faded, and Jackson’s hand rose another inch. It came halfway up to his face and dropped slightly. Mark felt the muscles in his arm twitching with the effort. He remembered running the mile that day, the sound of feet hitting the track and the sound of his own heart.
He remembered the pain in his lungs and in his legs and calves. He remembered reaching inside of himself trying to find the strength to push on the last lap. He saw and felt that reaching in Jackson’s whole effort. The arm rose above Jackson’s head. Mark knew what he was seeing was incredible. Kelly had told him Jackson couldn’t move his arms more than a couple of inches. The hand dropped suddenly. Mark felt his lungs gasp for air. The hand stopped halfway down and slowly started up again.
“Come on, Jackson,” Mark whispered.
The hand was above Jackson’s head. The arm straightened. There was sweat on Jackson’s forehead. He took a deep breath. A smile spread wide and warm on his face. His eyes sparkled.
“Hi, Mark, congratulations.” The hand fell.
There was a loud cheer. The old people were shouting and clapping. Mark’s eyes were moist. He felt the medallion in his pocket. He remembered meeting another man who had done what others said was impossible.
The man was an Olympic gold medal winner and had broken the record for the mile. Mark saw the same look of inner strength in Jackson’s eyes that he had seen in the eyes of the athlete.
Mark stood in front of Jackson. The room was silent again. Mark tried to talk and choked. He cleared his throat. He took out the gold medallion and hung the ribbon around Jackson’s neck.
“I want you to wear this,” he said.