The energy of the Race filled him. He pulled on his left sock, smoothing it out carefully to remove any wrinkles. Then his left shoe, taking care that each eyelet had just the right amount of tension. Right sock, right shoe.
"Yo, Jasonian! You ready to go? Think you'll finish?"
He looked up. It was Joe Hillsen. Jason smiled, but couldn't ignore the insult.
"Ready?" He glanced side to side, pretending to look around. "I'll be ready when I see an athlete around here. I didn't know they were having a "Grandma's" run this year. That's what you're here for, isn't it?"
Joe nodded, dismissing Jason's statement, and then gave Jason an expression as if he had just had a great idea.
"Hey! Why don't you see if you can beat my little brother? You know, the third grader. He's about your speed—9-minute miles."
Jason had been through this before—the pre-Race trashing.
"Well what?" Joe said, interrupting. "See me beat your little brother?"
Jason turned and said nothing. He could hear Joe walking away, and then Joe saying softly, "Hey, speedy, good luck. I'm sure you'll do well."
Where was Cody anyway? Jason shook his head. How could anyone remotely serious about the Race not be here by now?
He grabbed his backpack and slipped it on. After a few minutes of jogging, he leaned against a tree to lightly stretch his calves and then lay down on the ground, pulling each knee in turn to his chin. He pulled deep breaths into his abdomen and tried to relax.
"Good morning, Jason."
Sitting up, he saw the Cordoza family—Mrs. Cordoza and the youngest three children. They lived two houses down from his parents.
"Hey, Mrs. Cordoza. How are you?"
"Oh we're fine, thank you. Are your parents here? How are they doing?"
"No ma'am. They're not."
Did he need to say more? Didn't that explain how they were doing? How could you go out of town on the week of the Race?
"Is Cody here?"
He turned to the Cordozas' youngest daughter.
"No, he's not here yet, Emma."
Could they sense the scorn in his voice? Mrs. Cordoza seemed not to notice.
"Emma loves your brother. He taught her to ride her bike."
Jason said nothing and tried to smile, hoping they would move on.
"Your mother says you're doing great at college."
"Oh, I'm trying to make a go of it. Since school's been out, I've just been concentrating on the Race."
He hoped they would get the hint. "Hey!" he wanted to shout, "it's Race Day, not time to sit around and yak about nothing."
Mrs. Cordoza smiled again.
"Well, good luck, Jason. I know you're a fast runner."
"Thanks. Same to you."
He watched them walk off. Mrs. Cordoza's backpack was quite large. The children's packs were all smaller, with the youngest child having the smallest and the next oldest's a little larger. It was always that way, the backpacks growing bigger with time. The children's backpacks would look a lot like their parents' when they were older. That was how it usually worked.
She was right; he was fast. He had taken third in his age division in last year's Race. He hoped to improve on that this year. Third for the open division would be better.
Where was Cody? Unbelievable. The Race happened once a year and the guy couldn't even get here early to prepare. He glanced toward the parking lot, hoping to find him. No Cody, but he saw Will Mueller jogging slowly toward him. He stood up straight and tried to look his best.
"Hey, Mr. Mueller."
"Good morning, Jason. How are you?"
"Not bad, not bad."
Mr. Mueller sized him up from top to bottom.
"You look good. You look like you are ready to move up."
"I hope so."
"There's no "hope" in it. You do it or you don't, Jason."
"Yes sir. I'm going to do it."
"Where's your family?"
He didn't know what to say.
"My parents are out of town and my brother isn't here yet."
"Out of town?"
Jason couldn't imagine anyone sounding more incredulous.
"Yeah, uh, they had some other things to do."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
There was a long silence. Jason studied his new Reeboks.
"What about your brother? Late in getting here? Isn't it about time he left the children's league and stood up and became a runner?"
"You're right sir."
"You need to encourage him, Jason. There is obvious wasted talent in him--anyone can see that. He can still be great. Your parents could have been great. Continue forward and you will be great."
Mr. Mueller paused and his voice quieted.
"You might be your brother's only hope."
"I know it, sir, I know it. So many people act like the Race means nothing, like other things are more important, like they can't win or even place."
Mr. Mueller's eyes were iron.
"That is just an excuse for laziness. It is easy for them to believe something that allows them to vegetate and do nothing. We're all created equal and each of us decides how fast to run. Slowness is nothing but the deliberate refusal to work. Remember Jason: Believe something false long enough and it becomes your reality."
Mr. Mueller jogged off. He had been overall champion 10 years ago. He usually won, or at least placed in, his age division each year. He was truly a great runner. His backpack was small, smaller than most--the size of a double-sized soup can on his back.
What would it be like to wear another's backpack? As a child, Jason had tried many times to pick up someone else's pack, but they always fell through your hands; you couldn't even feel the straps. A backpack was yours it seemed, and no one else could handle it.
The loudspeaker announced the Race would start in 30 minutes. Where was Cody? By the time he arrived and grabbed his Race packet, there would be no time to warm up. Typical who-cares-about-the-Race Cody.
Runners were warming up everywhere—jogging, stretching, plotting strategies. The excitement for the Race surged through the crowds. Jason breathed it in.
Jason turned. Finally. Cody. Jason hadn't seen him since the beginning of the semester. He was getting bigger all the time. Halfway through high school and the kid was turning into a mountain. Tall, cut, slender, but with thick legs. Maybe not the perfect build for a champion, but pretty close.
Jason hugged him. Cody was solid, like he could pull a tree out of the ground if he wanted to.
"Where've you been? The Race is starting and you haven't even stretched or warmed up."
"I'll warm up during the Race. You know me. I'm not trying to set any speed records here."
The irritation Jason felt was tangible. His nose always itched at such times. He could feel his forehead crinkle downward.
"And so you're just going to..."
And then he stopped. He felt the angry words coming. He had tried that road many times. Today would be different; today he would take an alternate route. He mustered up the little humility left in him.
"Look, Cody, I just want what is best for you. You're my brother. Would you try for one Race, just one Race? I'll go at a pace that is hard, but not impossible, and you stay with me. Will you do it for me? For your brother?"
Cody had that same uncomfortable look he always had when they talked about the Race, maybe even more than usual.
"But you don't understand. If I can just finish..."
"NO, you don't understand, Cody. This is your LIFE we're talking about. We've been down the "If I can just finish" road before and I don't want to get into that today. I'm asking you a question: Yes or no? Will you run with me today at my pace? I'm asking for a favor as your brother."
"There is no try; you do it or you don't, Cody."
He looked trapped. Jason knew he had him, knew this would be the day. Finally, Cody nodded.
"Okay, I'll do it."
He and Cody pushed their way through the throng of runners towards the front, where the elite runners waited. No reason to start the Race already behind, back with the losers. He glanced at Cody. His face still looked as uncomfortable as ever. Typical Cody. Why didn't he realize this is what he was made for?
Backpacks were everywhere in the crowd. As they pushed through, it was easy to examine each one. Some were huge like a pack used for an overnight stay in the mountains—not exactly helpful come Race time. Others were mere knapsacks, hardly noticeable. Jason thanked fate that his and Cody's were small. In fact, Cody's was one of the smallest packs he'd ever seen--a definite advantage for speed.
Over there was Sheila Simms. Despite one of the biggest backpacks around--that thing had to be like an anchor--she was always first in her age group. Incredible. And there was Mrs. Cordoza's oldest son. As expected, his backpack looked almost exactly like his mother's or maybe more of a combination of his fathers and mother's.
The weird thing was, no one really ever talked about the backpacks although everyone could see them all around. It was always hard to see your own because you wore it on your back, so a lot of times you forgot about it.
"Jason. Hey, Jason..."
He was well known. His name echoed through the crowd of elite runners as they approached the front. They knew he would beat most of them. He could see the question in their eyes: Why was Cody up front with the elite runners? They would see today; they would understand. His brother would finally break out. At the front of the elite runners was Mr. Mueller staring at Jason and Cody. He seemed to have a look of approval. This was going to be the best Race Jason had ever run. And Cody, too.
Less than a minute to the gun. He tightened up his backpack straps and reminded Cody to do the same. Cody still had the look of indecision. Jason wanted to shake him. At some point, he was going to have to grow up and start doing some things for himself. Jason was going to make that day today. Today was the start of something new.
Bang. They were off. He settled in. It was always a little difficult right at first in the crowd with all the jostling, but it would clear out soon enough. Yet another reason to be close to the front--you got through the confusion more quickly. Cody was right beside him and looked good. He looked like a champion. Great stride, fluid, strong.
Jason's heart sang. Truly, this would be Cody's day. At this pace, Cody would win his age division. No more jokes from the other runners about his brother. Finally, someone else in the family who would keep pace.
"I can't keep up."
Jason fought for calm. No, Cody would not quit today; he was not going to let him.
"You can keep this pace if you want to. The reason I can do it is I agree to accept the pain. We're brothers; we have equal potential. You can do the same."
Jason didn't like all this talking. It wasted precious energy and oxygen. Thankfully, Cody said no more. If he would simply reach down and find the champion within himself.
They were approaching the hill. It was big. The hill was always a sifter in the Race. The wannabes crashed here and the champions went on to glory. It would help if he prepared Cody for the hill.
"We'll slow slightly on the hill, but keep a strong steady pace. This is where we lose the others."
Cody said nothing. Jason shot a quick glance Cody's way. His face was completely expressionless. He was doing it! Finally, his brother was performing at his potential, performing as he should.
They started up the hill. Jason loved hills. He slowed the pace and set his will to take the pain. He could hear Cody's breathing growing louder, slightly gasping. They cruised through the halfway point; Cody didn't break a stride. Now they were approaching the summit. Just a little farther and it would be past them. Cody would be done with the hill. He was really gasping now, but he was doing it.
And then Cody fell, collapsing onto the grass bordering the road. He came up on his hands and knees and vomited. Jason looked at him with a single thought pounding in his head: Victory.
"GET UP! Get up and keep going."
Cody's voice was a whisper between gasps.
"Let me go at my own pace. Yours is too fast."
It was all Jason could endure to stand there and let runners pass them. They were losing ground!
"Get up, Cody! There's still time to place."
"I can't keep up with your pace."
Enough. He was tired of trying. Hadn't he shown patience? Jason moved to Cody's side and clubbed him on the side of the head with his fist, knocking him completely to the ground.
"No! You could if you wanted. YOU COULD IF YOU CARED! YOU JUST DON'T CARE!"
Jason knew he was screaming, knew the other runners passing them were watching him shout at his brother; he didn't care.
Cody had his hands out in a peace-making posture.
"Look, running is different for me. I can't run as fast as you."
"NO, YOU'RE A LIAR. DO YOU THINK I'M BLIND? Don't tell me you couldn't beat most people out here if you tried. That is as clear as anything. You want to be a quitter? Fine. You want to be a nothing? Fine. But don't tell me that what I can see as plain as day is something different. GO SLOW IF YOU WANT. RUN WITH THE CHILDREN IF YOU WANT. I'M MOVING ON. I'VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING SO PATHETIC IN MY LIFE!"
Jason started back towards the road, towards the Race. He saw Cody's backpack on the ground where it had landed with his fall. It was so small; smaller than his; smaller than everyone's—yet another reason Cody should be able to keep pace, should be able to blow everyone off the Race-course. He reached down to fling the backpack away, to fling it so far that Cody would never find it.
His hand caught on the strap. Surprisingly, he could feel it; it didn't slip through his fingers. He flung it, or tried to. His arm lurched. He felt the muscles tearing in his shoulder. The backpack hadn't moved.
Shocked, he tried to pick it up, but couldn't with one arm. Grasping it with both hands he lifted it. How could such a tiny pack be so heavy? He thought it must weigh forty, no, fifty or sixty pounds. More? But how was that possible? His own pack was so light that it almost wasn't even there.
Jason set the pack down, already fatigued from holding it. He looked back. Cody was up on his feet, walking toward him, a tired expression in his eyes. With a quick movement, he grabbed his backpack and slipped it on. Jason's mind froze. How had he never noticed the effort it took for Cody to put on his backpack?
Cody looked at him.
"I want to finish the Race, but you should probably go ahead. I can't keep your pace."
Cody turned and started jogging slowly up the road, shifting his back and shoulders slightly to adjust the load. His pace was no more than a waddle. Jason stood and watched Cody disappear over the hill.