“I didn’t want to do this, but you made me,” the small boy said.
“Nobody made you do anything,” his dad countered.
“You signed me up for this. Now, here I am a fool for all the world to see.”
“No one twisted your arm. You walked up to the starting line all by yourself, all on your own.”
“Yeah, but they called my name. What else was I supposed to do? All my friends were watching. If I didn’t get out there, they would have made fun of me all week long at school.”
“And now, what do you think they’ll do? You finished dead last. But this is what you can say…”
His dad’s voice faded into the noise of a cheering background. Benji kneeled on the track, doubled over from feeling like someone had punched him the gut. His uneasy stomach sent breakfast to his throat where it sat there on the verge of becoming a worse scene. He could taste the acid which began to eat away at the overdone eggs his mother made. He swallowed hard to send it the other direction. His father watched him from the infield. He stood his distance waiting for Benji to rise to his feet, the feet that he knew were swift enough to outrun his peers but didn’t. Instead, the tape which fell around the ankles of his best friend could not be undone.
“There’s always the next race,” his dad said.
The day was over, and Benji was relieved for that. Soon enough, he began to feel like the pieces could be put back together. He wiped the tears back, blaming them in part for his embarrassment, then tucked his small head into his father’s side. His puffy jacket shielded him from the slight fall breeze which cut across the track. A race official waved him out of the lane where he walked retracing his defeat. His aching feet felt the comfort from black cinders to green grass. There was nothing he could do. The memory already etched in his mind, while others who had witnessed his failure, including his best friend, would soon have moved onto thoughts of what girls they liked in the first months of school.
Benji would replay how he hunched down at the starting line, so confident that his legs could carry him like that day he raced a big kid down the block. The bigger kid had mocked him for being so little. He wasn’t mean but said it as though it needed to be said, like that’s what big kids do, make fun of the little ones, so they know who they are, even better, what they are.
Doug looked down at Benji like he was lost stray puppy. His freckled visage of the larger kid was expressionless. Doug patted Benji on the head like he was one, acknowledging him for his handicap.
“Don’t you know, you’ll always be little?” Doug said. “It’s just the way you were born. You can blame it on your parents. Just accept it.”
For some reason, it lit something in Benji. He could feel a fire spreading from his feet up through his legs to his back all along his spine to his sweaty head, crowned by the matted black hair underneath his stocking cap. He imagined what his favorite super hero might say. Captain America wouldn’t stand for this.
The weight of the books in his backpack felt lighter. In his mind, they had become the red, white and blue shield of his hero, the poster on his bedroom wall coming to life. Seeing Doug walk ahead, proud of what he had told Benji, as though putting people in their place was his sole responsibility, prompted the smaller kid to grab the strap of his shield tighter, and gallop to the fore.
Not knowing he had this voice in him, he grabbed the jacket of the larger kid, stopped him in his tracks, and said, “bet I can beat you in a race.”
Doug sized up Benji, as if to say, is there something I’m missing?
Benji’s best friend came up to his side, and timidly said under his breath, “what are you doing dude?” As he did, he pushed his best friend back, then removed his shield, with all his homework, and unbuttoned his thick coat, handing both to his friend.
Benji turned back to the larger kid, and said, “I’ll race you from the end of this block,” the street they had just passed, “to the other side of my house. That’s two whole blocks.”
Doug eyed the distance, scanning the street for traffic. There was none, and never really had been any, not in the early afternoon of being released from school. A small town ensured that. The intersection was clear as was their course. Benji looked different out of his jacket, not exactly a lightweight for his age. He was 9 and had thick strong legs. The big kid was in sixth grade and almost 12, a hint of peach fuzz on his upper lip.
“Yeah kid, I’ll race you,” Benji announced, as other kids had gathered around their little cluster thinking there was going to be a fist fight.
“Do you think you want a head start? Might not be fair if we start out the same.”
Benji looked at the group of fresh-faced kids. His best friend’s eyes cast to the ground, gave his opinion by shaking his head. The smaller kid didn’t say anything and began walking back to the intersection. Doug shrugged his shoulders and took off his light jacket, handing it to one of the other bigger boys. They got to the intersection, where Benji decided where he would draw the line. It was a gravel road. Dragging his foot caused some dust to rise. Someone in the group volunteered to say ‘go.’ Both kids nodded.
Benji leaned down into a stance, getting mad all over again. He didn’t know why, exactly. He was always called short but wondered why it bothered him now. He guessed that maybe he was getting tired of it, and the one way for kids to see him as different was to show them what he could really do. Doug merely stood at the line, with a slight grin on his face. To him, there was nothing at stake. Benji was short, and he’d still be short after the race.
The kid who volunteered to say ‘go,’ stood up to the line, shooing the others back. He raised his arm like he was going to wave the start flag at the Indy 500; his hand was flat, and he yelled out the words, “on your mark, get set,” in a falsetto that made a few of the other kids giggle. There must have been a dozen or so faces along the block, and a few others already jogging to the finish line, just past Benji’s white house on the corner. The end of a white picket fence along Benji’s lawn would mark his fate.
He took one final deep breath of the autumn air, as he watched the kid’s hand descend, and he heard the high-pitched tweet of the word ‘go,’ spittle flying out of his donut-hole shaped pink mouth. The smaller kid felt the burning in his feet, and he lurched forward. Doug gasped as he stumbled, not expecting the younger kid to shoot out like a rocket. He gathered himself near the middle of the first block as Benji’s legs churned like pistons, his head and shoulders leaned back. He had held the lead just past the second intersection.
All the other kids cheered wildly, some trying to keep pace as they ran alongside Benji. Doug’s gangly figure caught up to Benji, who peered to his side, and gathered up what was left of his reserves, feeling both his legs burning like they were going to catch fire. His legs became like lead weights, but there was no way he was going to give up. Half way down the second block, Doug pulled even again, and Benji could see his eyes grow big. There was a chance he might lose. The white picket fence was getting closer. Benji could feel his lungs starting to burn, and his breathing became like razor blades slicing through is throat, but there was no way he was going to slow down. Then, just like that, it was over. The slow motion of time had shifted back to normal.
Benji was bent over, spitting and coughing, and he thought for a moment he could taste blood. The clear splotches on the ground proved that it wasn’t. He could hear Doug heaving, trying to catch his own breath. The bigger kid drew near, and slapped Benji on the back.
“Got to hand it to you kid,” he said. “You’re small, but you sure can run.”
The kids at the picket fence mobbed Benji. “Way to go,” they yelled. “You won!”
That memory was what replayed in Benji’s head at the track, as his best friend was being pinned with a blue ribbon. That race at the meet that day didn’t mean anything to him. As for his dad, Benji realized he just wanted to spend some time with his son.
“At least you tried,” his dad said. “Sometimes, that’s half the battle.”
Benji grabbed his dad’s hand, and said, “yeah dad. I’m ok now.” His other hand pulled his jacket over his shoulder, proudly carrying it like a red, white and blue shield.