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For SY, as always.
One day before the dive that would change his life forever, Olympic hopeful Robert 'Cerulean' stood at the edge of the 33-foot dive platform in the University of Memphis swim hall, trying to focus on the dive ahead. It was an arm-stand triple pike flip with twist, a dive he'd mastered a year ago, so the technical elements were not the problem.
The real problem was focus.
He took a deep breath and looked out over the hall. He'd only been training here for six months, after Coach Willings had gotten him membership in advance of the final Olympic trials. It was a cavernous space, like an airport hangar, with windows that ran floor to ceiling and offered a gorgeous view out over the university's green campus. Below lay the deep blue dive pool, with all its lane marker buoys removed and bundled off to the side, its surface rippling under the lights. On the two remaining walls stood tall bleachers, which tomorrow would be filled with hundreds of dive fans, the judges and his Olympic agent.
Everything was as it should be, except for Green-O.
Goddamn Green-O. He was standing by the locker room entrance like a fat toad in his red parka, glaring up. Robert hadn't seen him for precisely a year. That was shitty timing.
"Brother, are you gonna be all day?"
Robert blinked and turned. A guy was waiting at the platform ladder-top behind him. Really he shouldn't have even climbed until Robert had dived.
"Would you drop out of sight, please?" Robert asked, keeping his temper. "I'm doing an arm-stand."
The guy sucked his teeth. That sort of thing would get him shot in Frayser. But no, Green-O was not here for him.
The guy dropped down and Robert set his feet at the edge of the platform with his back to the pool. Behind him the fall stretched out and down, 33 feet and an aching two seconds of 'flight' to the water. Take-off, flight, landing: every part of the dive was judged, from difficulty and execution to height gained and smoothness of entry into the water. Even the tiniest mistakes could lead to a loss of control, a loss of points, a loss of his Olympic dream…
Focus! The grooved tile at the edge of the platform was rough and solid underfoot, grounding him. He'd been training non-stop for this for seven years, almost aging out of the full training package and this time he had to make it, or…
He bent down and set his palms firmly on the tile. This had always impressed the girls in his teens, letting him show off his strength. Smoothly he shifted his weight to his arms, finding balance. This was the most precarious moment, when nerves could flavor the judges' impression and ruin a performance. Carefully he raised his legs until they were arrow-straight up into the air, and for a long moment held the handstand at the edge.
This was the reason he dived; for that moment when he lost himself in the dance between his body and his mind, in pure focus where nothing else mattered. It blocked out the blood in his past, the swamp that was Frayser, Green-O, the shitty duplex he shared with his mom, everything.
He took a breath, tucked his head straight, and allowed his body to tip outward over the pool. For an instant he was falling, then he bent his legs at the knee and kicked his heels in a sharp jack-knife. The jolt pulled him bodily off the platform and into the air at a dizzying spin. He clasped his knees in a perfect pike and spun backwards one, two, three rapid turns, followed by a flick of his elbows for a full twist, then smacked into the water.
His clasped palms punched a deep hole in the surface, drawing the splash down after him, and his body curled round as his rotary momentum died out.
Hell yes. It was good and it felt good.
He kicked and surfaced, rubbing water out of his eyes. Green-O was doing a slow clap. Green-O didn't have a goddamned clue. Robert swam over to the edge where Coach Willings was grinning, and Green-O ducked out, headed for the locker room.
"That was damn good," Coach Willings said, as Robert climbed out of the water to stand dripping on the side. The Coach was 63, on the verge of retirement, but had the diver's frame of a much younger man; legacy of being a top level national dive competitor well into his forties. He'd been the one to discover Robert nine years ago when he was just 14, pulling off neat quadruple somersaults from a 16-foot board in the Frayser Rec pool, and stuck with him despite all his many setbacks. "Robert, I really think you've got it this time."
Robert grinned and nodded. "It felt right."
"It looked amazing. I'll never get over the height you get on the kick. You're like Michael Jordan up there."
Robert laughed. The Coach slapped him on the shoulder. "Get home and rest up. You'll need your A-game tomorrow."
Robert toweled off at the bottom of the bleachers, then headed for the locker room. The knot of anticipation, dispelled so briefly by the dive, was coming back.
Green-O would be waiting for him inside.
He pushed through the door and there he was, lolling extravagantly on one of the wooden benches running down the middle of the long locker room. Two guys were getting changed at the far end by the sinks and mirrors, but Green-O wouldn't care.
"Tight swim pants, those," he said, through his chubby, frog-like mouth. There were two black teardrop tattoos inked by the corner of his left eye. They hadn't been there before. "Like a superhero would wear. Are they called pants or panties?"
Robert frowned. "Speedos. You know it's not panties."
"Speedos," Green-O considered. "Sure. You're too black to be a superhero."
Robert snorted. Green-O was always like this now. He'd been like it before too, but it had been funny then. Now it was just a trial.
"You're here about the memorial," Robert said.
Green-O nodded. "Of course I am. You know I remember this shit. I live it. I'm the one who goes by the cemetery every week. When did you last go?"
"A year ago."
Green-O sucked his teeth. "No shame, that's your problem. You should at least pretend."
Robert shook his head. It was old, old news. "Zane died nine years ago, Germaine. I'm not coming this time. You can all go without me. I've got my final Olympic trial tomorrow."
A slab of fat lifted above one of Green-O's eyes, putting a single wrinkle in his glossy forehead. "You haven't got time to stand by a grave?"
"Stand? Last time you took us through Binghamton in a convoy and we shot up three houses. That was on the way to the service."
Green-O laughed. "You bitched like a damn coyote about that."
Robert shook his head. "You're lucky you didn't kill anyone. There could've been kids in those houses."
One of the guys getting changed at the far end of the room looked up. He nudged his friend and they started packing their gear faster. Green-O followed Robert's gaze, saw the muscular young men hurrying, and laughed.
"There weren't any kids," he called after them, then turned back. "I'm not an amateur, son. And kill people, well, that was kind of the point. You're coming."
Robert looked down at his old friend. He had almost the same face as goofy Green-O from the block, but Zane dying had changed them all. Robert had buried himself in his diving, while Green-O only had the Sons of the Harp.
Robert set his feet. "Are you going to make me?"
Green-O laughed. "You look like a superhero standing like that. Put your hands on your hips for me, would you?" When Robert didn't he laughed louder. "It's always like this with you, trying to make me into the villain. You're so dramatic. I come here once a year and we go, that's all I ask."
"To go shoot people. And what do I ask from you, Green-O? What have I ever asked from you?"
Green-O rolled to his feet. He was taller than Robert and much heavier, though most of the weight was round his belly. His red parka inflated his girth even more. He stepped oppressively close but Robert didn't take a step back.
"You don't need to ask. That's what friends are for, looking out for each other right? You won't know it but I'm a sergeant now in the Sons. I protect you, Bobby. No one's tried to bust in your place have they? You don't have any drugs or whores on your street do you? That's me."
Robert stared right back. "That's bullshit."
"Not bullshit, I protect you and your mom. She's looking well, by the way. I like her new weave. It'd be a pity if some gangbanger busted in and knocked it off her head, wouldn't it? Mussed her up a bit or flipped her over, you know?"
Robert blinked. Flipped her over? This was new. "You're threatening my mother? Are you serious?"
Green-O prodded Robert in the chest. "You think you know me, son. Truth is you don't know shit. You see these?" he pointed to his teardrop tattoos. "You know what they mean."
"They mean you're a goddamned idiot."
Green-O slapped him.
It came fast and hard and Robert didn't see it coming. It was a solid smack like they used to do when they were kids with too much time to kill, and it echoed sharply in the narrow locker room. Robert's cheek stung, his face swung to the side, and the smart of it raised tears in his eyes.
"Like I say," Green-O said calmly, "you don't know me at all. You think we're still friends, so OK, let's be friends. You ride with me, front seat for respect because we used to roll together. One day a year and that's all."