Afternoon rays cast golden hues over the marble sill. Joyce wrung lemon-scented suds from her dishrag and gazed through the window. Tweeting mounted around their backyard’s birch. A robin swooped into the tree, nudging a scraggy-feathered youngling.
The front door banged shut.
Joyce turned from the window. “Alyssa?”
She grinned at the sound of her daughter’s voice. “How was school?”
“Fine.” Keds thudded against the mudroom wall.
Drying her hands, she mumbled, “Standard teen answer.”
Alyssa padded into the kitchen on shamrock-patterned socks. She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Guess what I signed up for today?”
“The un-holiday club?” She pointed to the green toe-socks. “Saint Patrick’s Day was last month.”
“They’re my lucky socks. Least I hope so.” Her backpack clunked like a sack of bricks onto a counter stool. She drew out a yellow flyer and thrust it toward her mom. “Big day’s in six weeks.”
Megaphone clip art framed its bold heading, “Cheerleader Tryouts.” Joyce smoothed the crumpled paper against the cool granite counter. “I’m surprised you’d be interested in something like this.”
“Whaddya mean?” She cocked her head.
“Well . . .” Joyce bit her lip and studied her daughter’s hazel eyes. The same eyes which had burst into tears at the mention of an oral report last month. “You feel you’ll be comfortable doing this?”
Alyssa rolled her eyes and sighed. “That’s not the point. Jeannie said it’d be good for me. She signed up, too.”
“I see the registration fee’s due tommorow.” Joyce tapped the flyer, then looked up. “Is there anything else you need?”
“Well, you could watch me practice.” She squinted up at her. “Not to coach or anything. Just kinda be there.”
Joyce patted her hand. “Sure, sweetie.”
“Thanks.” Alyssa withdrew her hand and grabbed an apple from the fruit basket. “If I back out, I’ll feel like such a loser. I gotta do this.”
She shouldered her pack and headed down the back hall. After the bedroom door hasp clicked, Joyce sighed.
Twittering snapped her attention to the tree outside. The chick tumbled over the nest’s rim and plummeted toward the earth. She hurried out the French doors. Tender spring grass pressed into the arches of her bare soles as she crossed the yard. She halted at the edge of the canopy and scanned the birch’s shadow.
No chick. She crept to the trunk, careening her neck upward. The robin warbled near a tuft of woven moss and twigs. Two mature chicks flapped at their mother’s prodding. A third youngling chirped from a nearby branch.
Joyce exhaled and rolled her shoulders. Her neck crackled and warmth bled in to ease stiff muscles. She leveled her chin and strode back into the house.
When practice began the next day, Joyce’s muscles twisted back into their familiar knots.
Alyssa clutched a pair of homemade pom-poms in front of her chest. “Ready. Okay.”
She squatted. Hands to her sides. Arms together. Kick.
Joyce purred her comments, careful not to speak in sudden tones. “Good.”
She held her breath as her daughter jumped.
Alyssa wavered mid-air and stumbled into the landing.
Joyce squeezed words from her starved lungs. “It’s okay, sweetie. Just go with it.”
Fists trembling at her sides, Alyssa’s nostrils quivered in shallow breaths. She teetered, muttering something.
Joyce squeaked on the vinyl seat of her lawn chair and leaned forward.
Alyssa raised her head and glared. “Don’t get up, Mom. I got this.”
Joyce’s heart lurched. Her toes clawed the insoles of her Toms. Everything in her yearned to rescue her baby girl. With a white-knuckled grip on the armrests, she pushed herself against the back of the lawn chair.
Alyssa squeezed her eyes shut. With a deep breath, she drew the pom-poms to her chest. And started the routine over again.
So went the next day. Certain moves flowed like oil. The jump almost worked. About halfway through the routine, another misstep triggered a shut-down. But Alyssa shot her mother that look, refusing help.
Joyce stood, knees quaking. “Do you want me here, or should I just—“
“Sit!” Alyssa raised an open hand and patted the air. “Please, Mom. I need you. Just to be here.” As her mom settled back into the lawn chair, she added, “But don’t say or do anything, okay?”
Each afternoon wrenched tangles into Joyce’s muscles. She rubbed her abdomen at night to coax away the snarls in her gut. She won’t let me help. Jesus, protect Alyssa. Don’t let her get hurt.
As dusk yawned across the horizon one evening, Alyssa grabbed her mother’s forearm and dragged her into the back yard. Joyce unfolded the chair and sat in the customary spot.
Instead of launching into the routine, she rested the cheery frizz on her hips. “Okay, so this is it.”
“It?” Joyce cocked her head.
“My last practice. Tomorrow’s the day.” She shook the pom-poms high. “Excited for me?”
“Oh, I didn’t realize.” Joyce swallowed the bile rising into her mouth. She forced a grin. “Of course, honey. You’ll be awesome.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Alyssa beamed. “Ready. O-Kay.”
Steady gestures. A lithe eagle-spread jump. She performed the routine without a hitch. Three times in a row. No panic attacks.
Twilight whirled in, spangling the skies with the jewelry of night. Mosquitoes chased the mother-daughter pair from the lawn. Despite the insect stings, Joyce nearly danced into the house.
The buoyant spirit carried on into the morning. Joyce folded the towels with a perkier snap than the day before. She even hummed through the vacuuming chore she hated most, and almost missed the phone’s ring.
The lilt spilled into the receiver with an added syllable. “Hello-oo!”
A raspy whisper replied, “Mom? I need you to come get me.”
“It’s only one o’clock. I thought try outs were at two.” She shifted the phone to her other ear as she clacked the vacuum upright to park it.
Alyssa croaked, “I just threw up. Come quick.” Click.
Joyce stared at the handset a moment before hanging up. She strolled to the French doors. Clouds gathered like grey bullies over the back yard, stifling the sunlight. Rain pinged against the lawn chair folded against the side of the house. Warbling drew her attention to the birch tree. She tapped her chin.
With a glance at her watch, she re resumed her vacuuming.
Forty-five minutes later, Joyce headed into the school clinic.
Alyssa leapt from the paper-lined cot. Her trembling shoulders crumpled in her mother’s embrace. “I thought you’d never get here. Did you sign me out already?”
“Not yet.” She patted her daughter’s back.
Alyssa nestled her forehead against her mom’s shoulder and whined, “I wanna go home.”
“In a little while.” Joyce swallowed a catch from her throat. Leaning back, she lifted Alyssa’s chin. “After you finish try outs.”
She squeezed her mom’s hand and cried, “I can’t!”
Despite the roiling in her gut, Joyce straightened her spine. “Of course you can. You’ll be awesome.” She returned the squeeze at her daughter’s hand. “Just like yesterday.”
“I’m a mess.” She wiped her cheeks amid sniffles.
“Just breathe. You got this.” Joyce closed her eyes, picturing a diving chick.
“All you have to do is try.” She raised a brow and folded her arms. “But we’re not going home until you do.”
Joyce supported her from the side as they walked down the hall. At the first corner, a cocoa-skinned girl with a springy ponytail bounded up to them.
Alyssa cleared her throat and faced her bestie. “Hey, Jeannie.”
She grabbed Alyssa’s wrist. “Where’ve you been? We’re gonna be late.”
As Jeannie dragged her away, she glanced back. “See you in the bleachers, okay, Mom?”
Joyce waved, nodding.
A sustained buzz prompted sixty doors to fling open. Handles banged against concrete block walls. Each classroom poured into a teen stampede. Joyce surfed along the waves of students until the throng carried her past the gym. She had to swim against the tide for a few feet to return to the entrance.
Orange oil scents struggled against musty decades of perspiration. Squeaking soles echoed from the floorboards. The fifth candidate stuck her landing. Parent murmurs droned across the stands. Joyce checked her watch as the sixth girl took her place before the judges. Five minutes later, Coach Moore called up number eight.
She stretched her neck to peer at the cluster of hopefuls nestled on the bench. Jeannie’s crinkly ponytail swished against her daughter’s chestnut tresses. They kept their gaze forward. Joyce rose a few inches from her seat. Alyssa held knitted fingers over her bouncing knees.
“Twelve?” The judge scrawled on a clipboard.
Jeannie abandoned the bench and darted to the floor’s center.
The wooden bleachers hardened beneath Joyce’s hip bones. She uncrossed and re-crossed her legs. Her watch lagged two and a half minutes behind the wall clock.
At two forty-five, Coach Moore cleared her throat and called, “Twenty-three?”
Alyssa placed both feet on the floor and gripped the edge of the bench. But she did not move forward.
“Last girl.” The coach pointed at her. “You’re up.”
Joyce stood, clasping her hands until her fingertips purpled. Please, Lord. Let her fly.
Alyssa rose. She shuffled, as if each step fought the rip currents of an invisible sea. Once at her starting position, she looked up into the bleachers. And smiled.
Joyce pressed her knuckles against her lower lip, resisting the urge to chew them. She sipped the tiny breaths between each movement. Strong kick. Short inhale. Fluid jump. Shallow exhale. And then, the chick wound her arms.
Alyssa sprang into the air, executing the flip with magnificent ease. She floated to her landing as if borne on wings.
Joyce burst into applause and stumbled a bit as she hustled down the bleachers. Tears flooded her cheeks. Pom-poms rippled in the rush of air as her daughter swooped into her arms.
“Thanks, Mom.” Alyssa heaved. “For being here.”
Thank You, Jesus. Joyce kissed her dewy forehead, blinking away the blur. “You did it, baby. You flew.”