Joel asked me if I wanted to join "the Race," and I said yes. The Race is not actually a race in the traditional sense of the word. It's more of a competition to determine the most talented boy in
the city, incorporating several types of games and activities, such as running, singing and/or performing with a musical instrument, answering trivia questions, etc. As I viewed myself as fairly
talented all-around, having been reinforced in this view by my supportive parents, I accepted Joel's proposal without hesitation.
He seemed quite confident himself, as he claimed to have been training for years. He also appeared to be on-edge, for he was laughing quite nervously when he approached me. His hair, which was usually combed and gelled, was obstreperously unkempt, as though a balloon had been rubbed on his head multiple times. Moreover, he grimaced and wrung his hands as he spoke. That said, he spoke with contrasting confidence, and his anxiety seemed only natural for one who wanted to win as badly as he did.
"I'm ready," he said, his body trembling all the while, "ready to give it my all, my everything. Tom, do you really think you're prepared for a competition of this magnitude? I mean, nothing against you or anything, but this is something you have to train for for years."
"Yes," I answered. "It can't hurt to try, anyway."
"I guess so," he replied uncertainly, but nodding in agreement. "Well, I'll make sure to sign you up. See ya later, Tom."
With that, he ran down the street and vanished around the street corner before long. I ran back to my house, eager to prepare for the Race. Noticing my excitement, my mother asked what was going on.
"No time to explain, mom," I responded, heading straight for the stairway. "I have to prepare for the Race."
She just stood there smiling, looking affectionately at me, and said, "I just know you'll do well, Tom. You're one of the most talented boys in this city, and your father and I are behind you all of the way."
I smiled back and hurried upstairs to my room to begin the preparation. I spent all night lifting weights, singing, and running outside around the block several times. The Race was only two weeks away, and I had to be ready for it, especially if I was going to have to face the likes of Joel, whom I slightly feared, given all of his practice over the years.
One day during the week before the competition, I was sitting against a tree in the park, having just finished running a couple of miles around the park, beads of sweat streaming from my forehead. All of a sudden, a shadow appeared next to my own. Turning, I saw Joel leaning against the tree with arms crossed, a smug smile on his lips.
"So," he started in a snide tone, "this is how you've been training, eh?"
"Give me a break," I replied laughingly, thinking that his words were in jest. "I just ran two miles."
"Two miles!" he cried derisively, his face contorted in scorn. "That's nothing! I ran twice that on the way here, for crying out loud."
His attitude surprised me, for he had never been anything but friendly to me before, and I had never known him to be a competitive type. Still, I figured that he was probably just joking around, so, to keepthe exchange lighthearted, I retorted slyly, "Well, look at Mr. Hotshot here, outdoing me in just about everything."
His face flushed red from anger, as he obviously took himself quite seriously. Frowning for a second and then scowling at me, he bent over me, grabbed me by the neck, effectively pinning me up against the tree, and said between clenched teeth, in a hushed voice livid with anger, "Look here, Tommy boy. I don't intend to lose this competition, so I suggest you stay out of my way." His eyes widening and his voice taking an eerily high pitch, much like a maniac's, he added, "Or else, something real bad might happen to you, Tommy boy. I don't think you want that, do ya?"
My face purple from asphyxiation and my body shivering from fear, I shook my head. He let me go and ran away far into the park, laughing as he did so and singing some folk tune during intervals of laughing. I sat there for another hour in sheer amazement of what had just transpired before finally lifting myself and heading home pensively, trying to fully comprehend Joel's madness. I slept uneasily that night, the anxiety induced by that day's events having taken its toll on me.
A few days later, I had regained my confidence and even some pride. I fully dismissed Joel's threats, viewing them as just that: threats. Whenever I ran into Joel, I simply looked away sternly and avoided him, not with trepidation, but with obvious pride. I wasn't going to cower before him as he probably expected me to do.
One time in particular, I was walking past the schoolyard, thinking deeply about something -- I don't remember what. Suddenly, I heard Joel's voice booming in the air, saying: "Look, everyone! There's Tommy boy!"
I turned to the schoolyard and saw Joel standing on a large crate, surrounded by a large group of kids our age, many of whom I knew from school. Joel wore a deviant smile with his flashing green eyes. He stood with grace and composure, equal to that of a great leader of some sort. His evident followers looked curiously at me, some of them recognizing me and looking away, others looking disdainfully at me. Ignoring his remark, I hurried my pace and didn't look back.
"He's just jealous of me because he knows I'm going to win," I heard him say to his disciples, "and so he's become my sworn enemy, I suppose. But honestly, I can't look at him as more than dirt."
I heard the crowing laughing and jeering, joining in on his scorn and looking up to him as a sort of messiah figure. I just kept walking, however, ignoring their idiotic taunts and laughter.
The day of the competition, I woke up eagerly to the wail of my alarm clock and practically sprinted downstairs for breakfast. I bestially devoured my waffles, my parents looking at me endearingly and my father chuckling and saying, "Boys will be boys."
We arrived at the stadium where the competition was being held. The parking lot was filled almost to the brim, but we eventually found a spot. I ran ahead of my parents to the ticket booth and declared myself a contestant to the man operating the booth. He told me to go ahead in and talk to the man wearing sunglasses and a blue hat, who was waiting by the entrance.
I did so accordingly, and the man told me to join the group of boys waiting behind him. Joel was unfortunately one of them, and he cast me a malicious glance. He was carrying a guitar case in his right hand, while the other was occupied with flattening his damp and unruly hair. His face was stern, yet he seemed filled with nervous energy, for I noticed him biting his nails and twitching his neck muscles fairly often.
After waiting a half-hour for the other boys to arrive, the man in the blue hat led us all to a room adjacent to a hallway which led to the field of the stadium. Checking off a list of attendance, he called us by name. When that was finished, he addressed us as a group.
"Alright, boys," he said loudly. "Welcome to the Race. The first matter of business is the rules."
He proceeded to go over the rules, which I will not repeat, as they are not too fresh in my memory. The first competition, he said, would test our athleticism; the second, our musical ability; and the final, our intelligence. The whole event was expected to last most of the day and into the night, but not all of the boys, he said, would last that long; that's why there were judges, he explained.
I could hear my heart pounding rapidly, and I'm pretty sure the other boys' hearts were doing the same, for there was a general thump protruding the air. One of the boys, unable to stand the pressure, began sobbing, tears dropping from his pale-blue eyes.
"I- I can't do it," he sobbed, putting his hands over his face. No one comforted him, as everyone else was just as anxious, and the man in the blue hat just scowled at him.
"Get ready to enter the stadium, boys," said the man, ignoring the blubbering boy and opening the door to the dark hallway, the only light illuminating it coming from those of the stadium. "On the count of three, you'll all run out onto the field."
My stomach was churning, and my heart was hammering my chest furiously.
I felt the roaring wave of the crowd shaking the foundation of the stadium. It resonated throughout my ears.
Joel looked at me cautiously and then away at the green field with great ambition in his eyes.
We ran onto the field, and we were met with booming applause from the crowd as we emerged.
"Ladies and gentlemen, your contestants!" the announcer exclaimed. Some of the more audacious boys, Joel included, ran around the field, waving to the crowd. I simply stood there, paralyzed by fear.
A few minutes later, the competition was ignited by the national anthem, which the crowd sang faithfully, their hats off and their hands over their steadfast hearts, looks of reverence on their grave faces. I did the same, of course. It was quite a stunning show of patriotism. With the close of the anthem, the announcer announced:
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Race! The first competition is the sprint, in which the contestants will run five times around the track."
The blue-hatted man yelled at us to take our assigned positions on the track. The track, now that I was actually on it, seemed endless. It seemed to stretch out further and further. My stomach grew queasy, and I felt I was going to vomit.
With all of the boys in position, the announcer boomed over the P.A.: "On your marks. Get set. Go!"
A blare from a horn erupted, and we jolted. It was all confusion and madness, however. The cheer of the crowd was tearing at my ears, and I was sweating wildly, my legs quivering. Even with all of this chaos, I kept running, though I was far behind the other boys at that point. The stadium lights were beating down on my eyes, and I could feel the violent humidity swooping in on me. The whole stadium was crushing me, and I stopped to catch my breath. I had to walk off the track; I couldn't go on like that.
I could hear confusion spreading through the crowd as the man in the blue hat walked over to me and asked what was wrong. The other runners just kept on running. I looked at the vain Joel running at full speed, smiling proudly, obviously satisfied with the attention he was receiving, and I replied, "I don't want to be a part of the stupid Race anymore."
The blue-hatted man looked at me oddly and told me I could go sit with my parents and watch the rest of the competition if I wanted to. However, I wanted nothing to do with it, and I wanted to be spared the humiliation. He agreed, but said it was a shame, me quitting out like that.
Shortly after, I exited the stadium completely, having had to suffer the glances of a few people who had witnessed my odd action. At that point, I didn't care, though. Any pride I previously held was, by then, completely gone.
As I walked through the parking lot, I saw a little boy and his mother walking from their car. The little boy had golden hair and glanced at me innocently; I simply smiled in return. Suddenly, he tugged at his mother's skirt, vying for her attention, and asked curiously, "Mommy, why is it that people are always racing each other?"
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