Chapter 1

A light November breeze manipulated through the trees, covering the lawn of Crystal River High School with leaves of gold, orange, and red. The bell rang and the square became filled with students, eager to get home on that Friday afternoon.

A petite, brunette senior, Joy Kessler, wheeled herself through the hallway. The hallway crowd avoided eye contact with her. However, one mousy boy awkwardly opened the oak double doors for her.

Ever since her family's move from Tennessee to Crystal River three years before, Joy had experienced difficulty making friends. She was unlike anything the students at the high-profile school had ever seen and they weren't used to different people. But that was alright for her. Joy had gotten used to the uneasy glances and ignorance after time and now, she barely even noticed it.

Freedom, Joy thought as she left the school building, inhaling a deep breath of cool air as if it were her first drop of water after an extended stay in the desert. As usual, her mother, Vanessa Kessler, was waiting in the circle drive to help her. Joy smiled with an exhausted sigh as her wheelchair ascended into their van.

"How was your day?" she asked her mother, securing her chair into its special accommodations. The mother and daughter told each other about their day's events during the short drive home. Mrs. Kessler was a vocal music instructor and taught lessons at their home so she provide extra help to her youngest daughter.

"Oh yeah," Joy remembered, "The first basketball game of the season is tonight. It's here. At seven."

Mrs. Kessler scratched her forehead. "That sounds like fun. We'll see if your dad wants to go. His case dismissed early today, so he should feel up to it. Hey, what do you think about grilling some chicken on the barbecue for dinner? He'd love that, wouldn't he?"

Joy nodded her approval. In the back of her mind, she had always felt that she was to blame for her father's stressful working conditions. She was, after all, the reason the Kessler family moved across the country. The specialists near Crystal River were widely known for their research on her condition and had been strongly recommended by the doctors in Tennessee.

Her sister, Emily had stayed behind with a friend for her senior year and was now finishing her undergraduate studies at Boston College. Mr. Rodney Kessler, a prominent lawyer, had left behind a top law firm to an area that was unfamiliar with his work. Joy's mother had been forced to start teaching voice lessons again to maintain their modest, yet comfortable standard of living. Despite all of this adversity, Joy's family was supportive of her dream to walk again and she knew that the sacrifice was worth it to them.

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Mark Johnson awakened to a strange prodding in his ribs. He located its source, the toe of one of his teammate's sneakers. Slightly disoriented, he slowly realized that he'd nodded off while looking through some chemistry notes before his team's first basketball game of the season.

"Wake up, Johnson. You can sleep any time! We've got ourselves a game to win!" John Gram exclaimed, jerking Mark to a sitting position and nudging him with his knee.

Mark whistled. As with every other game in his basketball career, the few hours before a game were meant for focus and for working out any mental glitches. The debut of his senior season was no different, and he certainly felt the familiar butterflies. He sighed, trying to relax, and stretched. His teammates left and he wandered into the varsity locker room.

Breathing in the familiar smell of sweat and pine, he fingered the outline of his jersey and remembered a successful last season. The Crystal River Comets had finished with twenty-four wins and one loss – state runners-up. He had earned a spot on the all-district first team and was named an honorable mention for the state all-star team, the first junior nominated in over twenty years of the state's playoff history.

At school, he was a revered social figure. With his athletic physique, striking blue eyes, and prominent parents – Dr. Mark and Jan Johnson – everyone in the high school knew him by name. People seemed to be attracted to his mysterious, quiet nature and carefree attitude.

He was basically oblivious to his peers, including their fashion trends and temporary fads that were perfect opportunities for squandering their parents' paychecks. In fact, his wardrobe was practically limited to the same three hooded sweatshirts, plain t-shirts, and basketball shorts or track pants.

Although many of his teammates drank alcohol and partied often, he didn't get mixed up with that stuff – his parents were devout Churchgoers and Mark had the common sense to avoid the ill effects alcohol could have on his future. Besides, he preferred to keep to himself most of the time and usually watched social events from a close corner.

Bright blue and gold balloons hung around the room connected by matching streamers. The seniors' parents usually decorated the locker room on afternoons before big games. His eyes came across a handful of pep notes the cheerleaders had constructed. He selected one written in an unmistakable, loopy cursive: Go get 'em, Mark! Love, Winn.

He smiled as he thought about his long-time friend. Whitney Glover, affectionately deemed "Winn," was the senior captain of the cheerleading squad. With her beautiful green eyes and sun-streaked blond hair, she was also a Crystal River socialite; every guy wanted her and every girl wanted to be her. People had always predicted Whitney and Mark would eventually date because of their close bond, but he knew in his heart that she was more like a sister than anything else. They'd been best friends from their care-free elementary school days to the gangly, awkward phases of junior high and remained remarkably close in high school when they'd both emerged gracefully from puberty and into the limelight of peer stardom.

He leafed through the thick pile of blue and gold papers and then replaced them on the shelf.

Mark checked his watch. A little less than an hour was left before opening tipoff. He could hear a large crowd cheering for the girls' team and a fresh bout of nervousness brought him back to reality. He put on his basketball uniform and began to loosen his muscles while his teammates slowly trickled in and follow suit.

I can't believe this is it, he thought as he performed a calf stretching exercise, Senior year. Get it done, he told himself and before he knew it, his team was warming up on the court.

Casting a glance at the opposing team, Mark noted that the Herman Hills squad seemed to be generally shorter than his own team. The Comets had scouted the Demons and concluded that they were lethal from three-point range, but their inside players were no match against Crystal River's own center, Rob McGraw, who was Mark's best friend on the team. Mark was determined to keep the Herman Hills guards from scoring and deliver one of his best performances to set a strong, confident pace for his last season on the CRHS squad.

The Kessler family arrived five minutes before the game started as the team was warming up with a free-throw drill. Joy's eyes shone with excitement as she prospected the improved Comet team with Mr. Kessler.

She listened as her father commented, his eyes fixed on the warmup drills occurring below them on the court.

"The McGraw boy sure looks stronger than he did last year. He's gonna come in handy for the Comets this season. And boy, that Mark Johnson is going to go far," he predicted as Mark landed a series of consecutive three-point shots. "He could play Division I ball because he's tall and quick, but he can still ball handle and shoot the lights out."

Joy nodded in agreement, watching as Mark made two consecutive free-throws. It was common knowledge that Mark had been seriously considered by North Carolina's basketball program.

The buzzer sounded, warning the beginning of the game, and the starting players took the court. The game went smoothly in the first half; the Comets were always ahead by about ten points. Mark had played an amazing game, contributing twelve out of twenty-eight points in the first quarter alone. The only player that came close to touching his talent was Will Ferguson, a senior that Mark had barely beaten for all-district merits at his position the previous season.

Will had expressed feelings of bitter and insistent rivalry in newspaper articles, but Mark didn't really pay much attention to the competition. He felt that whoever worked the hardest would come out on top and, well, he couldn't imagine anyone working harder than he had. Rigorous hours had been spent in the gym, shooting, conditioning, and giving himself experience early in the mornings before school, in addition to the five hundred extra shots after practice. The coach had even given him a key to the gym and locker room so he could pursue this strict workout regimen.

Mark noticed that some scouts from the University of North Carolina had arrived at the game watch him and keep their eyes on a couple of other players, as well. They had discussed some scholarship options with Mark, both for basketball and academics.

He smiled inwardly as he noticed Randall Moss intercept the ball from the opposite team and saw an opportunity for a fast break, one of his favorite parts about basketball. Mark raced down the court and Randall flipped him the ball.

An indescribable exhilaration surged through his veins as he dribbled to the basket. It had only been a few weeks since his last scrimmage, but playing in a competitive setting appealed to him much more.

His adrenaline gave him a burst of speed as he closed in on the basket. Just as he reached the goal, ready to make an easy lay-up, he noticed the black and red jersey of Will Ferguson approaching him with uncontrollable speed.

They collided as Mark came down from his shot. As the referee's whistle sounded to signal the foul, Mark crashed hard, landing awkwardly on his left ankle. His elbow hit the polished wood floor with a loud thud, echoing throughout the gym.

Mr. Kessler winced, shaking his head. Joy's eyes followed Mark as he struggled to get on his hands and knees.

"He might not get up after that," Joy noted, chewing on her thumbnail. "Do you think he broke his arm?"

"No, it looks like it's his ankle."

Mark's elbow stung from the fall, but something about the way his ankle had unnaturally bent beneath him sent an disconcerted feeling to his mind. He flexed his ankle and gasped as pain shot through his leg.

"Get up, Johnson!" the varsity basketball coach, Roy Brown shouted.

Mark slowly got to his feet and balanced on his right foot. He tested his ankle and pain cut through it, but he managed to limp to the free throw line and made both free throws. Mark stole a glance at Will, then at his coach, Rob – who looked as if he were ready to kill Will – and his mother. Her eyes were fixed on him in a worried gaze. The empty seat next to her indicated that Dr. Johnson was on call at the hospital as he otherwise usually attended Mark's games faithfully.

"He looks okay," Mr. Kessler sighed, stretching his back.

"Nah, look at him. You can tell it's definitely bothering him," Joy replied pointedly. Her heart swelled for Mark as she watched him hobble down the court for defense, trying to shake off the pain.

Will guarded him tightly and had a satisfied, mischievous smirk on his face. Herman Hills' center missed a shot and Mark instinctively jumped to rebound the ball. His ankle buckled and the top of his foot hit the floor, drawing a collective murmur of disgust from the audience.

"Owwwwww!" Mark gasped and crumpled to the floor, calling time out. His coach and Nikki Stuart, the team's sports trainer rushed onto the court. Coach Brown reached him first with a worried look in his eyes. Rob also crouched next to him to see if he was alright.

"Are you all right, son?" the coach asked.

"It's my ankle," Mark breathed. He leaned back onto his elbows as Nikki gently attempted to remove his left shoe. Mark covered his mouth with one hand to stifle his cry of pain. She peeled off his sock and he groaned at the sight of the ankle. It was already beginning to swell on one side. Rob gripped Mark's shoulder with a pained expression on his face.

Nikki took his foot in her lap and applied slight pressure to the tender spot.

"Yes, it hurts right there," Mark said, a trace of sarcasm in his voice.

"That looks pretty bad," she said after a bit of prodding, "We'd better get you to the locker room."

"So he's done for the game?" Coach Brown asked nervously, a tinge of disbelief in his gruff voice. The coach put his fingers to his lips automatically, a trademark developed from many years of smoking.

The trainer nodded grimly and helped Mark sit up.

As much as Mark wanted to alleviate his pain by shouting and cursing, he knew that he had to at least appear brave if he was going to pull off a quick comeback. Rob and Coach Brown grasped both of his arms and pulled him to his feet. As the blood returned to the ankle, it throbbed intensely, as if icy hot knives of pain were slicing his foot in half.

One look at his mother told him that his attempts to convince the spectators were failing terribly. She raised her eyebrows and he understood her message: Are you okay? He nodded, but she cocked her head to the side and her expression asked, Really?

From her place on the sidelines, Whitney looked worried, too. She left the rest of the squad and jogged over to him.

Mark swung his arms around Coach Brown and Nikki's shoulders and leaned on them to slowly hobble to the locker room. Whitney was not far behind.

"Get him," Mark told Rob.

With a nod, the tall center rejoined the team, which had huddled near their bench gulping down water and taking a much-needed breather.

The audience applauded politely as he exited the court. Joy glared at her feet, remembering her own accident. She felt sympathetic for him because although Mark, like most of the CRHS students, had not exactly made an effort to reach out to her, he had smiled in her direction a few times and she could tell that he wasn't an egotistical person. In fact, Joy thought he acted a bit like a loner – someone who liked to be by himself.

She had seen him in the gym during lunch breaks and assumed that he spent many hours practicing even after his teammates had gone home. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, she thought with a reminiscent frown.

Meanwhile, the coach and trainer helped Mark sit on the soft, plush couch in the locker room. Coach Brown left to retrieve a bucket of ice, while Nikki retrieved a chair and placed the foot in her lap to examine it. Her cool fingers wandered the ankle, pressing softly onto its tender skin. Mark watched the game on the TV across the room, but looked up when Nikki applied pressure to his joint.

"Does that hurt?" Nikki wondered, her gentle brown eyes searching his with concern.

"Yeah, it's a little sore, right there," he explained, pointing to the tender spot. Nikki felt his ankle and rotated it a few more times, much to Mark's discomfort.

"A little sore?" Whitney repeated skeptically from behind him.

"Well, it's not broken and your ligaments and tendons feel intact, just tender." Nikki placed the leg in the bucket of ice that Coach Brown had filled. Mark winced at the biting cold, but was grateful that it countered some of the throbbing.

"You need to get it checked out, just to make sure. That swelling doesn't look good." She took a tube of pain relievers from her bag and handed them to him with a bottle of water. "Take these. It will take the edge off of the sprain."

When she left, Mark buried his face in his hands, his hopes, dreams, and happiness flashing through his mind in tune with the taunting throbs in his ankle. Whitney scooted next to him and began to silently rub circles on his back.

He tried to convince himself that he was simply exaggerating his injury and that this sprain would heal up fast. That thought made him even more discouraged. Why did this happen to me? I am so stupid! He swallowed four pills, but they were slow to take effect.

A glimpse at the TV showed that the game had resumed. The next time Will Ferguson drove in for a lay up, Rob put his hands up in the air and Will "ran into" his elbow. Will fell to the ground, clutching his face and gave Rob a terrible look. The referee blew his whistle; Will's nose was bleeding.

His satisfaction was brief, though, for in the background Mark noticed the North Carolina scouts leaving their seats. Who would want a player with a hurt ankle? He yelled in frustration and threw a basketball at the wall, knocking down a framed picture of the team at the state awards presentation the previous season. Whitney jumped, her eyes wide.

"Sorry," he mumbled.

Whitney wrapped her arms around him in consolation.

Exhausted and uninterested in the game on the screen, he fell asleep amidst the soft cushions with his head in Whitney's lap, awakening only when his teammates had returned at the conclusion of the game. Whitney had left him when he fell asleep, he assumed, to lead the cheerleading squad.

"Johnson, you okay" Paul Reynolds, a junior, asked him. The five teammates who had entered the room huddled around him, peering at him curiously. Mark squinted his eyes, not moving.

"Yeah," he said.

"Good, because we need you. We almost got beat, 76-72," Paul replied. He and Rob helped Mark up and formed crutches on either side of him. They eventually scooped Mark up and carried him out to his car. Mark watched the gravel crunch beneath their feet, his anger transformed to a sense of despair and hopelessness. After what seemed like an eternity of ankle-jostling steps, they reached Mark's Lexus SUV, where his mother was waiting for him.

The guys lowered Mark uneasily into his car, while Mark's mother began to rattle off questions. Annoyed by his predicament, he easily became irritated by her protectiveness. He put his head down on the steering column and squeezed his eyes closed, trying to counteract the throbbing in his ankle and the new ache between his temples.

"Oh, Mark," Mrs. Johnson said, "That looks broken. Do you need to go to the hospital?"

"No, I'll be fine," he practically growled through his teeth.

His mom shook her head, looked unconvinced. "Well, we'll have Dad take a look at it when he gets home. I'll see you there." She moved so he could close his door and he kissed her through the window.

"Do you want me to take you in?" Rob offered. "Your parents don't have to know about it."

Mark was grateful for his friend's concern and although he was tempted to take him up on the offer, he declined. "I'm okay, just need to take it easy for awhile."

Rob looked at him skeptically. "Okay, but don't hesitate."

"You sound like my mother," Mark laughed.

"The difference is: I'm only interested in what's best for the team," Rob joked.

"Yeah, yeah. Get out of here."

When Rob had turned around and was walking back to the locker room, Mark's grin had faded as panic and pain became two very unwelcome strangers in the body of an athlete in his prime.

------

Joy was quiet on the way home, barely participating in the polite chatter her parents were creating as an attempt to get her mind off of bad memories. They discussed the nail-biter conclusion of the game and Joy's dad made comments about the players and their promise for the season.

"I just hope that Johnson isn't out for the season," Mr. Kessler doubted, looking at Joy through the rearview mirror.

"Yeah," she agreed quietly.

"Who wants ice cream?" Mrs. Kessler added, trying to be cheerful.

"No thanks," Joy refused, looking out the window at the passing houses with their tidy lawns and tall oak trees. The van eventually reached their tall Victorian house and pulled into the driveway.

Joy quickly said goodnight to her parents and wheeled to her first story room. She got out of her chair and began to do her leg exercises as she did faithfully every evening before she went to bed. A dull pain penetrated through her legs and up through her back, but were welcomed as a sign of activity and progress. She knew that these exercises were maintaining the circulation in her immobile legs and keeping her muscles fresh. She had some feeling and movement in her legs, but hadn't been able to walk unassisted since the accident.

When she finally finished the exercises, Joy picked up her chemistry book and began to work through some equations for an upcoming test. But flipping through the sixteenth chapter didn't occupy her attention for very long and she found herself losing concentration rapidly. The long previous night had been long – she'd spent it catching up on some reading and the rehabilitation exercises had drained her and she decided to go to bed early and save chemistry homework for another night. Before turning off her lamp beside her bed, she stared up at her wall, which was a giant collage of gymnastics posters, magazine articles, and newspaper clippings. She liked to think about happy, positive things before she went to sleep.

After Joy had rearranged her pillows and closed her eyes, her thoughts returned to Mark. Her heart was filled with a strong sympathy for him and the frustration she knew he must have felt. When she had deliberated it, she decided that she would say something to him. Possibly.

What should I say? Joy wondered. Oh well, I have a whole week to figure it out.

She shifted against her plush, goose-feathered pillows and pulled the covers up around her shoulders, still thinking about him. She could hear her parents checking the answering machine and murmuring above them. Her lips curved into a content smile thinking about them, their strength, happiness, and virtue. They were great people and excellent parents who had sacrificed so much for her and only demonstrated profound love for her.

"Joy!" Her mother exclaimed a while later, when Joy was on the verge of sleep. Startled, Joy used the bar above her bed to move to a sitting position and flicked on her lamp.

"What?" she asked sleepily, half startled by her mother's outburst. Mrs. Kessler entered the room and sat down on her bed, taking Joy's hands in her own. Mr. Kessler was not too far behind her and began to smoothe Joy's hair. Their faces shone with delight.

"We got a message tonight from Dr. Henry," Mrs. Kessler began, biting her lip as she searched for the proper words, "She told us that she just flew back from a convention and, after reviewing your tests, you're eligible for this new surgery that could possibly let you walk again! Isn't that wonderful?" By the end, her mother's usual calmness had deteriorated and a delighted excitement shone in her delicate face.

"We thought we'd discuss it with you to see if you want to consider it," Mr. Kessler interjected, "It sounds like an answer to prayer for you – for all of us."

Joy was dumbfounded, a bit confused as to whether or not she was dreaming. "What are the details?" she asked, searching her parents' faces for a sign that this wonderful news was a figment of her imagination. "What about insurance?"

"Oh, that doesn't matter," her father reassured her. "We can pay for it...Your happiness and future are priceless. Don't worry about that."

"Okay," Joy furrowed her eyebrows contemplatively. "I'll do it. If there's any chance of changing things, I'll do it."

"We have an appointment with her after Thanksgiving. She said we could have the procedure as early as Christmas Break." Her mother's eyes brimmed with excited tears and her lips curved into a hopeful smile.

"That's awesome!" Joy exclaimed. "The sooner, the better."

"Well, we'll let you sleep, if you can sleep after this," Mrs. Kessler said, turning off the light.

"Good-night." Joy lay back onto her bed, trying to find a comfortable position. She didn't sleep much that night, for her mind was filled with many thoughts, hopes, and dreams.