The hoop was right in front of her eyes, and she flew faster until it was the only thing that filled her view; Sixty feet in the air, the ball levitating just above her palm, and the small hoop, worth twenty points. As she drew closer, leaving both her teammates and the opposing team behind, she couldn’t even hear the crowd going wild, screaming her name.
“Salia! Salia! Salia!” They said, in a thundering chant.
Salia raised her hand, preparing to shoot. The timer was ticking down the final seconds, but her heart was calm, as she slowed down her accent to focus on aiming. She took a deep breath, keeping her eyes on the hoop, then with a controlled release of power, she sent the small ball sailing. She watched the graceful arc with a serene smile and closed her eyes. She didn’t have to look to know that she’d scored the winning goal, and the roar of the crowd confirmed her victory.
She remained like that for a moment, eyes closed, soaking up the cheers of the crowd, letting their excitement sink into her body and stir her soul, hoping desperately that it would be loud enough to chase away the emptiness that she’d begun to feel creeping in at the end of each match. She opened her eyes, to take in the view of her face on the wide holo-projection, when suddenly she felt a sharp impact on her right cheek, and the world lit up with tiny bright lights. Salia was sent spiraling down, below Gelbrt Lea’s acidic grinning face. She quickly righted herself, and faced the hateful girl, but before she could return the favor, the referee and the rest of their teammates stood between them.
“Now calm down girls, let’s not end such a great match with a fist fight,” the referee said. “Ms. Lea please apologize,” he continued with a smile, and Salia instantly disliked him. Throughout the match, he had constantly ignored misdemeanors by the other team, and now he was trying to brush over obvious violence.
“You’re kidding,” Salia said. “She hit me during a match, and you think a simple apology will be enough? This should call for a suspension.”
“No way. First, the match is already over, and besides, it was an accident,” Gelbrt said, staring down the referee with a hard glare.
The referee said nothing, and Salia wondered how much he’d been bribed to maintain that disgusting smile on his face, meanwhile Gelbrt was already turning to leave like nothing happened. Salia tried to follow her, but her coach placed a firm hand on her shoulder. “Salia, that’s enough, let’s not make a big deal out of something so small. You’ve already won the match,” He said, then added in a whisper, “think about your image. The sponsors pay for Salia the fairy of ril, not some brawler. Let it go.”
Salia felt her chest tighten, and the bitter taste of disappointment filled her mouth. This too was a feeling she’d become accustomed to recently. “You’re kidding, she punched me in the face, and all you can think about is the sponsors?” Salia said wide eyed. She turned to her teammates to seek support, but they all looked elsewhere and shrugged their shoulders. She placed a hand over her mouth, to keep words laced with bitterness and anger from spilling out. If this happened a year ago, they would have stood by her, Salia thought.
“We’ve won our sixteenth consecutive match Salia,” The coach said proudly. “Now smile, the camera is on you,” he added patting her twice on the back before moving away so that she stood alone in the spotlight.
She looked at her face projected in a large hologram that filled the stadium. She looked strong, and in control, as she collected the trophy, and raised it above her head. Across the top of the projection, the words “The prodigy does it again. Salia the fairy of ril secures another win,” scrolled through in bold letters. Yet, as she looked at herself, the only thing she could think about, was how the large projection only served to emphasize hollowness in her eyes.
# # #
After a few interviews, the team returned to their hotel, where they showered and got ready for their customary after match lunch. They rented out one of the hotels private lounges, and all the players and their families celebrated together. Salia sat with her parents. Her father talked about various things, from brand deals to movie offers, while she and her mother remained silent, sipping their fruit juice.
“You know Salia, were thinking of moving. We simply can’t live in that rundown shed of a house anymore,” Her father said, and Salia stared at him in bewilderment.
“Are you being serious, there is absolutely nothing wrong with our current home. You just renovated it three years ago, and didn’t you always say that you’d always live in the house your grandfather built with his own hands?” She said, and the anger was evident in her voice. First it had been cloths; all of a sudden, they couldn’t be seen wearing ‘just anything,’ then they needed two new cars, now a house. When would it end? Salia wondered.
“You don’t need to get so upset. I’m doing this for you. None of the top ril players live in the countryside,” her father said, then continued before she could get a word in. “And don’t you think you should have put some makeup over that bruise, it’s starting to swell. What would happen if someone wanted a picture?”
Her mother reached to touch the bruise, but Salia brushed her had away. The coach then asked her to give a small speech as the team captain. Salia stood quickly, still upset, but she tried to push down those emotions as she looked at her friends and family.
“Looks like we won again,” she said smiling, and they cheered and clapped. “Remember when we all started playing together, and how everyone told us that a small team of country girls would never make it…” As she spoke, her face throbbed painfully, but she continued. She talked about the pride and love she felt for all of them, and how if they retained their sincere love for ril and worked harder, they would definitely continue to win. But, as she spoke, she noticed with a startling clarity, that although all their eyes were on her, they weren’t seeing her. Their gazes were hungry, and frightfully fixed on something beyond that moment. They were looking at sponsorships, endorsements, clothes, cars, money, and her father, he was envisioning his new house. She felt their desires dig into her like the talons of a predatory bird, so heavy, that she thought for a moment she was sinking through the floor. Could they not see the panic rising in her eyes? could they not see that she wasn’t okay?
She spoke absentmindedly, barely able to keep her voice from shaking, and she looked out the large windows while she spoke. Her own gaze, too, soon became fixed on something beyond. Out the hotel window, ten stories below, and far in the distance, to where she saw a lone tree standing tall and defiantly. It’s large pink leaves shining, in the afternoon sun, like a beacon of hope brimming with life in a pit of metal and glass.
After the lunch, everyone went their separate ways, to after parties, movies, meetings, and Salia went to the tree.
# # #
She flew up, and laid in its branches, cradled in a globe of translucent leaves that casted a rose tint over her, and prevented all but the smallest rays of light from peeking through. The tree was taller than the four-story factory beside it, and its trunk as wide as two cars. She sat with one hand on a tree branch, while the other held her cheek. As she sat there, she indulged in the silence, and wondered why this tree alone was spared, when the rest of the forest had been cut down to make room industry. She stroked the tree gently and felt compassion for it, because it knew her pain. Just as this tree remained the sole remnant of some forgotten landscape, she too, remained alone in the past, while her friends and family had already begun moving into the new chapter of their lives.
“Are you okay being here all alone,” she said softly. “You must be lonely…but I think it may be better to feel lonely and be truly alone, than to be surrounded by people, only to feel the same loneliness, as well as constant disappointment.”
Her eyes remained closed, and one hand continued to stroke the tree; while the other poked, pinched, and pulled at the wound. Then carefully she traced around the swollen area, placing her hand over it to cool it. It hurt, especially at the center where Gelbrt’s ring hit her. Salia’s anger rekindled again. Players weren’t even allowed to wear jewelry during games.
“Just how much were you paid off to not only ignore a ring, but also a punch in the face,” she said to the leaves, shaking her fist. She opened her mouth to shriek, but she heard, from below, the sound of doors opening, and carrier shuttles being loaded up, so she held it in, choosing instead to exaggeratedly shake her fists again. She could already feel her anger fading, leaving her feeling numb and in pain.
The wound didn’t, even hurt that badly, but the fact that no one stood by her, not the coach, or her teammates, that pained her deeply. Even her father ignored the injury as soon as he found that it would not affect her ability to play ril in the future, and her mother looked concerned but said nothing. Every day, the joy she used to feel when she played ril, faded away a little bit more, and soon the only reason for her to keep playing would be to make a living. The thought made her sick.
She laid limp on the branch, and watched clouds moving in the speckled sky she saw through the small spaces between the leaves. One day, she hoped she could dissolve into mist and become transient like the clouds, owing nothing to anybody, and to be free of all responsibilities. She stared at them for a while, feeling a gentle breeze and listening to the sound of leaves moving, then as if possessed by the clouds, she unconsciously lifted herself into the sky. Like a bird freeing itself from its shell, she gracefully and desperately kicked herself off the tree branches, through the leaves, and into the sky where she hung above the tree. She kept an eye on the shrinking tree, as she moved higher, already nostalgic for the brief respite she had in it; then she turned and rose rapidly to fly between the clouds.
She gave herself entirely to impulse. Within the clouds, she was not Salia the fairy of ril, she was just another creation of the universe, moving along with the natural forces of nature. Instead of flying, she let the wind push her like it pushed the clouds, letting it dictate where she rose and fell, when she was fast or slow. She spun and twirled, she screamed and laughed, then she let herself fall freely through the clouds, wet with the moisture of un-fallen rain and plummeting in accordance with the will of gravity. This is freedom she thought, catching herself just before she hit the ground.
“...to rise and fall when I want, to fight when I want, and to give in when I want,” she said, face dripping with water from the clouds that mixed with her sweat. “This is freedom.” She screamed facing the sky that had become dark and spotted with stars. Then she felt the bruise on her cheek sting from the salt in her sweat, and her mind was dragged back from the wispy clouds to the immovable ground. She had to go back home, but the clouds called to her, and the distant horizon challenged her like a finish line.
She didn’t know how far she’d drifted from it, but the image of the lone tree came back to her. How long would it last there? How long before it too was cut down to be replaced with pavement? The image of the its silent immobile form seemed to prod her conscious with thoughts of rebellion. Unlike the tree, she was not bound to the ground by ancient roots. She was not forced to remain suspect to the will of whoever decide what trees were cut down, and what trees spared. She looked to the horizon again and made her decision.
# # #
The next morning, a note was found in her empty hotel room, saying she would be back as soon as possible.