Excerpt: The Gymnast

It had never been done before. No one had dared even imagine it.

But in 1972 she did it. Tiny Olga Korbut, all pigtails and smiles, nailed a backward somersault on the balance beam.

I’ve watched it perhaps a thousand times. The swing of her arms as she generates the momentum. The snap backward, so tight and precise. The sureness of her feet as she lands dead on the beam. Then a forward salto and off. The audience cheering, no one quite believing what they have just seen.

I’ve practiced it perhaps a thousand times. Over and over.

The swing, the snap, the flip.

Only to find my feet twisting and my legs buckling as I collapse into a fall.

She must have practiced it just as many times. Her bruises must have been as tender.

Until one day, she licked it. Flipped backward and landed straight.

That’s how it happens.

So over and over again I go.

Mom says it’s good I have something to take my mind off things.

“Maybe I should take up back flipping myself. Whatdya think, Mae?”

Maybe she should.

Four days from now we have to leave this house and she still doesn’t know where we’re going.

This story first appeared in Carve Magazine as the Editor’s Choice winner of the 2013 Raymond Carver short story prize. Read the full story over at Carve Magazine

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