Jacky kept a steady pace, enjoying the scenery around his neighborhood. His old, worn sneakers kissed the asphalt every time he took a stride. The sun was out, and clouds scattered the sky like the stuffing from a ripped pillow. Jack felt his heart pound in line with his breathing. His legs slowly relaxed as Jack continued on his run. It was good to be alive and moving.
As he approached his house, Jack slowed to a jog and stopped on the front lawn. He sat down and stretched, easing the muscle he had just warmed up. The grass felt cool against his thighs. He took a sip from his water bottle, stretched some more, and walked inside.
“How was your run, Jack?” Jack’s mother greeted him. “Was it hot out?”
“It was fine, Mom.”
“Well, it’s nice to know that you’re not wasting this beautiful day.”
Jack’s mom had dark brown hair that matched her eyes, with a serious smile that radiated her affection for her kids.
Jack plopped down at the kitchen table. Grabbing an apple, he opened the track-and-field magazine his grandfather had given him. It was a collection of a bunch of neat articles about the different events in track and field, tips for staying fit, and how to have a healthy diet. His grandfather had given it to him as a birthday present, knowing that Jack had recently made his school’s track-and-field team.
“Hey, Mom? When’s my next meet?”
“I wouldn’t know, honey. Why don’t you go check the calendar? I’m sure it’s sometime this week.”
Jack smiled. He threw the apple core into the trash and walked to the family calendar, tracing his finger over the paper.
“Hmm. My practice on Monday goes until 5:15 this week, Mom. My meet is on Tuesday. You’re all coming, right?”
Jack’s mom came into the room, wiping her hands on her kitchen apron. “This Tuesday? I’m sorry, Jack, I forgot to tell you. Grandpa said he wasn’t feeling well these past few days. I have to go stay with Grandpa on Tuesday, but I think your dad might be able to come. I’m sorry about your meet, but your grandpa will have to go some other time.”
“What’s wrong with Grandpa?” Jack looked at his mother. “Is he all right?”
“Yes. He’s just feeling a little ill. He complains that his ankle hurts more than usual. Why don’t you go visit him after practice tomorrow? You could run there, and I’m sure Grandma will be happy to see you too.”
* * *
“Oh, is that what she said, ill and not feeling well?” Jack’s grandpa chuckled the next day. “I’m as fit as a violin.”
When Jack gave his grandpa an odd look his grandpa merely said, “I never really liked fiddles.
“I just have to stay in bed for a few days. My doctor said my ankle’s acting up again. Nice of you to come though, Jack.”
Jack put his backpack down, relieved at seeing his grandpa so well.
“Good to see you too, Grandpa. I’ll have Dad tape our meet for you.”
“Your meet on Tuesday? I haven’t forgotten, you know, but I’m sorry I won’t be able to come. But you know what? I used to be on the track-and-field team too, back in high school.”
“Really?” Jack looked surprised. “You never told me that, Grandpa.” “
I haven’t now? Didn’t I ever tell you how I busted my ankle?”
Jack shook his head no.
“Well. It was a very long time ago. My junior year, I think. I had joined the track-and- field team and was as excited as ever for our last meet. Let’s see now. I was doing the long jump and the 400-meter dash. Huh, I never was good at jumping.” Jack’s grandpa sat up higher in his bed.
“My baby was definitely the 400-meter dash. Fastest on the team, I think, except for maybe the few seniors that were too lazy to sprint more than 200 meters. I was pumped that day, expecting to break my personal record.”
“Did you?” Jack asked.
“Well, almost.” His grandpa gave a sigh of disappointment. “I was coming around that last bend for the straightaway when I saw one of the runners from the other school gaining on me. I sprinted as fast as I could, but he kept on getting closer. I was about 50 meters away from the finish line when he closed in to just a pace behind me. Suddenly, I felt something clip my heel, causing my right leg to buckle. I tripped and fell hard onto the track. I tell you, it wasn’t pretty.”
“He tripped you?” Jack was indignant. “That guy should have been disqualified!”
“No one ever proved anything, and the official wasn’t exactly paying attention,” explained Jack’s grandpa. “Heck, I don’t even know myself. I might’ve tripped myself by accident. But I learned to accept it over time. After all, if life throws mushy apples at you, you can always make applesauce. Anyway, I twisted my ankle and felt a deep pop. Heard it, more like. I didn’t feel the pain until five seconds later, sprawled there on the track. The people had to call 911 for a stretcher to bring me to the emergency room. Well, I could still walk then, but I had to be extremely careful. In my old age now it’s been bothering me more and more. I spend so much time in bed now I wish I could have just finished that last race. If I had kept my lead over that kid and ended the race, I would still be up and walking now.”
Jack looked in wonderment at the determined look on his grandpa’s face. “The 400-meter dash? I’m doing that for Tuesday too, Grandpa!”
“Really now? Well, good luck, Jack. I wish I could watch, but I’m still expecting great things from you.” His grandpa beamed at him.
“I’ll win the race just for you, Grandpa. I promise.”
* * *
Jack’s heart thumped in his chest as he gulped. He repeated those words he had said to his grandpa just yesterday in his head. The day of the meet had come.
He was standing on the field, watching the events before his. The meet had started with hurdles, then proceeded to the 200-meter dash and 1500-meter run. Already Jack felt his heartbeat speed up. His hands started to sweat as he gripped the bar of the bleachers. Watching his teammates perform so well made him even more determined to win the 400-meter dash.
The gun for the 100-meter dash rang out, and the flurry of sprinters took off. Jack watched as they pounded the track, pumping their arms and breathing wildly. They stumbled across the finish line, panting and gasping for breath. People cheered for their friends. And then it was Jack’s turn.
“Calling all 400-meter runners. 400-meter runners, first call.” The official spoke into his microphone, then loaded his gun with another blank.
Jack stepped out into the track, balancing his feet in his new racing flats. He felt light and full of energy. Almost feeling faint with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, he took his position in lane three.
“Calling all 400-meter runners. 400-meter runners, final call.”
Jack stretched, took a deep breath, and shook out his legs. The runners from the other schools lined up in the lanes on either side of him.
The official came up to them for a brief explanation of the rules. Jack nodded dumbly. The official stretched the runners along the stagger positions for lanes two through six. He walked out of the way and held up his gun.
“Runners to your marks!”
Jack spread his feet apart, leaning forward.
“Bang!” The starter gun went off.
Jack’s stomach leapt to his throat. And then he was off, sparks flying off his feet. He sprinted fast to gain a bit of lead. Jack concentrated on his pace as he rounded the first curve. Now the race was just him, the track, and his own fatigue. Jack fought the tiredness that seeped through his muscles as he dogged ahead of his opponents. He strove to stay ahead as he coasted down the second hundred meters of the track.
Jack’s feet pounded the ground as his breathing became hard and labored. His lungs were giving way. But Jack still did not give up. He saw the runner on his left inching his way up to him. How did he catch up? Jack increased his pace, sprinting for all he was worth.
Jack thought of his grandpa. He thought of the promise he had made to win the race for him. Jack’s chest screamed as he continued his mad pace, but Jack’s mind screamed back in defiance. He felt his feet burn as they dug into the shoes.
And now the runner to his left was gaining as the second curve played the advantage to the inside lane.
Jack felt his feet falter. His arms turned to stone as his oxygen-deprived muscles started to shut down. The man on his left started to pass him. Jack’s heart cried out. His grandpa would be disappointed.
But Jack was not done yet. Determined, he gritted his teeth, ignored his pain, and willed his feet to turn faster. The straightaway for the last 100 meters loomed up.
Jack imagined his grandpa tripping, the ankle snapping. He closed his eyes and ran as fast as he ever had. The soles of his shoes seemed to be burning off. The finish line was getting closer, but Jack knew he couldn’t let up. The man to his left was neck-and-neck with him. At the last few meters, Jack summoned all his energy into the final strides, breaking the finish line just as his body gave up.
But it had not been enough.
He stumbled, and then crashed. Jack heaved as his chest strived for oxygen. The track was hot, and he lifted his face. Second place. Jack felt as if he had failed. Everything was blinding. He saw dark, and a crazy, dizzying feeling swallowed his mind. All he could think of was the promise he had made to his grandpa. Second place. But suddenly, his grandpa appeared in his dream.
Jack’s vision cleared and he saw his grandpa in a wheelchair next to him on the grass. “Is that really you?”
Bowl of Strawberries
“You bet it is,” said his grandpa cheerfully. “I was feeling chipper so I decided to persuade your mom into hightailing down to your meet. That was a nice race, Jack.”
Jack felt tears spring to his eyes. “But I lost, Grandpa. I promised you I would win.”
He sobbed, grief overcoming his exhausted body. He saw a few parents staring, but he didn’t care.
“Jack.” His grandpa looked him straight in the eye. “I’m proud of you. Never forget that. I wanted to come to thank you personally for finishing my race. I owe that to you. You did well to place second. And now I want you to enjoy it. Life’s just a bowl of strawberries, you know.”
Jack smiled through his tears. His grandpa was right. It had been a good race.