I can’t believe it. Is this some sort of joke? Jake thought after Mr. Holcombe, his history teacher and wrestling coach announced the pairings for their projects.
He glanced around the room, his angry eyes resting on Alana. He returned her shy smile with a disgusted grunt.
Okay, my life is over. I’ll be the laughing stock of the wrestling team, of the whole school!
The bell rang and he hung back as the other students filed out.
“You want something, Jake?”
“Yeah, I want to know if assigning Alana as my partner is your way of punishing me for that prank I pulled on Kevin.”
“You mean the prank where you hid his leg brace while he was in the pool? And you and your friends laughed at him as he limped around looking for it?”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s not like we hurt him or anything,” Jake said, angry that he felt even a little ashamed. After all, they didn’t actually hurt Kevin; and it didn’t take him too long to find the stupid brace.
Mr. Holcombe looked disappointed and shook his head. “I assigned Alana as your partner because I think she could help you with the project.”
“Help me? She’s from Russia. She can barely speak English. What could she know about freedom in America?”
“She’s from Kosovo, and she’s your partner. That’ll be all, Jake.”
Mr. Holcombe’s look told Jake the conversation was over.
Over the next couple weeks, when Jake ignored her attempts to get his input on the project, Alana would just smile shyly and go back to writing.
Nothing seemed to faze her. She had a quiet calm about her and he found himself thinking about her more than he’d ever admit. Sometimes he found himself wishing for the simple peace that shone in her eyes.
And when she started showing up at his wrestling matches, he told himself the sudden pounding in his chest came from being pumped up for the match.
A week before the oral presentations were due to begin, Jake caught up with Alana in the halls, “Alana, do you want to get together over the weekend so we can work on our report together?”
“Sure Jake,” she answered. It sounded musical, the way she said his name. And when she smiled up at him she went from being plain to pretty. His heart double pumped and this time he had no wrestling match to blame it on.
They met on Sunday. “Hello Jake. Congratulations on winning tournament yesterday. I read it in newspaper.”
“Thank you. Have you always liked wrestling?”
She beamed up at him, her blue eyes bright. “Ah, yes. My brother, he wrestled in Kosovo.... before the war. He was almost best in our country.”
“Oh yeah? That’s impressive. Does he still wrestle?”
“No.” She shook her head. “During the war soldiers found him hiding his friend, a Muslim. As punishment, two men held him up as another shot at his legs. Too much....wreckage. Doctors cut off both legs.”
Jake felt like he had been punched in the gut. “Is he here in America with you?”
“No.” She sadly shook her head, “There was no food. Too much infection.” Her eyes glistened with tears. “He died one week before eighteen birthday.”
“I’m sorry Alana, that’s horrible.”
She wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands. “Thank you, Jake. You know, you people in America do not know how blessed you are. In Kosovo, during the war, we could not worship God without fear of prison or death.” She tucked her hair behind her ear.
Her eyes lit up, “And grocery stores! I cry when I see all that food. It is great blessing. We were happy for loaf of bread. And school. How blessed you are, such wonderful education. And no landmines....America....she’s truly the land of the free.”
In spite of her strong accent and broken English, Jake understood her perfectly.
And for the first time in his life he considered his many blessings and gave thanks to God. He thought of Alana’s brother. And Kevin. And every careless, heartless thing he had ever done; and for the first time ever, guilt consumed him. He asked God to forgive his sins. Sins he had never realized he had committed.
Jake stared at Alana in wonder. How could he have been so wrong about her? Smiling, he shook his head. He’d have to remember to thank Mr. Holcombe.
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