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Rico the chicken dreams of being champion of a sport dominated by bigger birds

Chanting echoed through the dark tunnel. “Rico! Rico! R-I-C-O!” It got louder and louder as I neared the end of the tunnel, and the light got brighter and brighter. I tightened my beak strap and bounced up and down a few times. This was it, the greatest moment of my life. I took another step forward and the cheering flooded into my ears. I knew one more step would take me into a life of excitement, adrenaline, and air rushing through my feathers. I spread my strong, muscular wings, lifted my front leg, and took that step. “Rico! Rico! Rico! Rico . . .”

I woke up with the same feeling I woke up with yesterday—the feeling of being admired and loved by everyone. But, like yesterday, that feeling faded quickly. The reality of waking up in my room—again—and having to pee really badly—again—always seemed to kill the dream.

I sat up in bed, swung my feet over the side, and slipped on my red slippers. Sauntering to my bedroom door, I glanced over at the mirror on the wall and paused to look at my muscles. Maybe half a millimeter bigger than last week? Maybe a millimeter? Whenever my older sister, Macy, talked about my wing muscles, she always made quotation signs in the air with her wing tips and laughed, “Muscles!” I sighed and let my wings hang as I dragged myself over to the bathroom.

I was only halfway done with my business when I was interrupted by Macy yelling from downstairs. “Rico! It’s, like, 8:47! You’re gonna be late! So you’re gonna make me late!” I hate being rushed in the bathroom; it just sorta ruins my peace and quiet.

“Alright, already! Don’t lay an egg! I’m almost done!” I pulled up my pajama pants and ran to my room. I quickly changed into a pair of cargo shorts and a red T-shirt and kicked off my slippers as I ran down the ramp. Macy was waiting in the living room, tapping her talons on the floor. “Where’d my backpack go?” I murmured and checked behind the wingchair. “Found it!” I said, and lugged the heavy bag up and over my shoulders.

“Hurry up!” Macy yelled from the front door. I was heading through when my mom put a wing on my shoulder and placed a warm, fresh piece of cornbread in my wing feathers.

“Thanks, Mom!” I yelled back as Macy practically dragged me into the car. I perched myself next to her in the front seat.

“I’m gonna be so late because of you,” Macy muttered.

“Sorry,” I half-heartedly apologized through a mouthful of cornbread. She rolled her eyes and started up the car. It hovered up to around ten talons off the ground, and then she stepped on the gas pedal and we were off.

*          *          *

It was a smooth, short drive, but I wished it was longer. I was not a fan of school. I’d rather just stay at home and play Super Cluck Bros. I’d even prefer just doing homework at home to going to school. But we arrived, as usual, and I slumped out of the car right after Macy lowered it to the ground. Before I could even close the door, she was revving the engine and called through the window, “See ya later, R!” I quickly waved back at her through the window, slammed the door, and watched her speed off to high school. Then I turned around with a sigh and faced what I dreaded every day. Thunderflight Middle School. TMS. Trample. My. Soul.

I heaved the heavy doors open and made my way through the usual morning crowd of students. Birds will wait till literally the last second before the bell rings to get to their classes. But I don’t like the noisy flock thing and prefer to just get to my empty classroom early, so I successfully crept past a group of raucous ospreys without being noticed and made my way to classroom number thirty-six. Phew! Empty. I took a seat at the back table. My usual spot. Far from the bigger birds.

I put my backpack next to my perch and waited for the bell to ring. Just then, the door to the classroom opened. I held my breath. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to get to class early and alone. I looked frantically around for Mrs. Hew, but she hadn’t arrived either. I glanced nervously at the door. Thank the Griffins! It’s just my friend Carl, the mallard!

Carl waddled up wearing a yellow sweater, black sweatpants, and a tattered brown hat. Yeah, I mean the type of hat that you see Birdiana Jones wearing in those explorer movies. “Hi, Carl,” I said.

“Hey, Rico! Guess what? The new Wild West novel is out! It looks so good! But I haven’t read it yet. Here! Lemme show ya.” He stuck his entire bill in his bag and fished out his phone, then swiped through too many photos until he found what he was looking for. “Check it out!” Carl said and showed me a picture of a book with a desert as the background and with “Wild West” printed in bold, yellow letters on the front cover.

“Yeah, it looks cool,” I told him.

“Yeah, and I can’t wait to read it. You should come over so we can read it togeth—”

“Read what, losers?” a voice interrupted from the door. Carl and I froze. We knew the voice too well and hoped that if we just sat motionless, we’d disappear. But we didn’t, and there they were: Tony Rayburn and his gang looming over us.

He took a threatening step forward and lifted one of his feet, and his claws glistened in the morning light that streamed in from the classroom window.

“Uh-uh—nothing. It’s nothing. Just a book, Tony,” I stuttered.

Right before Carl could shove his phone back in his backpack, one of Tony’s goons snatched it and gave it to him. “Wild West? Ha! You peckers and quacks are such nerds,” Tony said with a smirk.

“Hehe, ‘peckers and quacks!’ Good one, Tony!” a big golden eagle chimed in.

“N-no we’re not! We just like good books!” Carl protested, pushing his glasses farther up his beak.

“Oh really, four eyes. You like books, huh?” Tony leaned down so he was eye to eye with Carl and jeered, “How ’bout I shove a book down your beak?”

A lean, tan hawk behind Tony made a gagging sound.

“Just leave us alone!” I cried. A hot wave of anger rushed from my chest to my talons. Tony turned his head slowly to face me. He took a threatening step forward and lifted one of his feet, and his claws glistened in the morning light that streamed in from the classroom window. Uh oh. Why did I open my beak? I had no doubt that Tony wouldn’t hesitate to claw my feathers off, and I was expecting the worst, but at that moment the door opened again and Mrs. Hew stepped into the classroom, followed by a few other students.

“Good morning, boys! What is going on? Early birds catching worms?”

Tony stepped away from me. “Oh, Carl here dropped his phone and I’m just lending him a wing,” Tony explained innocently. But when he turned back around to face me, he looked everything but innocent. A wide, menacing grin spread across his beak as he placed the phone firmly into Carl’s wingtips. “See you later, Rico,” he whispered and sauntered back to his table on the side of the room. His gang perched around him. Carl and I exchanged worried and relieved glances as we took a seat. We were lucky that time. But we knew better than to think Tony would leave us alone. His last words, “see you later,” were code for “beat you up later.”

*          *          *

I see school as a video game. You have to get through the hard stuff first, like the monsters and the puzzles, before you can get to the treasure chest at the end. When the last class bell rang, I said goodbye to Carl at the front gate, scanned the pickup zone to see that my mom was late again, hurried over to the edge of the parking lot, and fluttered over the fence. There was a dip, covered by overhanging cedar branches, and a boulder that I could climb over to get to the athletics zone. My secret shortcut. I slid down the muddy slope, grasping at the cedar branches to slow myself, then climbed up the boulder. The athletics zone was made out of four different areas: the track (where we have the choice to fly or run), the field (where we play games like dodgeball and capture the flag), and finally—the treasure of my day—the Skyclash arena.

I glanced around for Tony and his gang because I knew he had Skyclash practice on Thursdays. No sign of Tony yet. This was my chance. I jumped down from the boulder and bolted forward across the field. Once I reached the pavement surrounding the arena, I ducked under the bleachers and popped up again at the lowest bench near the edge of the arena. It wasn’t super big, definitely not as big as the Skyclash stadium arenas, but it was big enough so that all the birds who played the sport could practice.

Before long, I heard voices coming through the lower doors of the arena. Two falcons and an osprey walked in and set down some very heavy-looking bags on the padded arena floor. Of course, I knew what was in them. A beak protector and beak strap, a pair of talon protectors and leg straps. Helmets, chest guards, water bottles, and wing stretchers. Man, I’d do anything for a wing stretcher!

I know it’s crazy for a nerdy chicken like me to get excited about Skyclash, but the only thing I enjoy about Thunderflight Middle School is catching a few minutes of the Skyclash practice battles at the end of the day. I was just settling into my perch when the lower arena doors opened again and Tony and his gang appeared at the entrance. I almost jumped under the bleachers.

What is up with this guy? He’ll just appear out of nowhere and scare the grain outta me! He’s only a seventh-grader, but even the osprey and two falcons, who I knew were eighth-graders, made way for him and his goons as he stalked to the far end of the arena and started unpacking his bags. It was around ten minutes before everyone was there, and then Coach Greg, an older bald eagle, blew a high-pitched whistle. Coach Greg had a reputation for being grumpy and tough on pretty much everybody.

All the students in the arena quickly got into a line when they heard the whistle, facing the coach. “Are we gonna let these little sparrows at Redfeather beat us?” Coach Greg asked harshly.

“No, coach!” the students responded.

“We’re gonna crush them and win the tournament!” Tony added loudly.

“That’s right! So prove it to me!” Coach Greg yelled and made a motion with his right wing. Redfeather was a rival school that our team competed against. Tony and everyone else ran to their dumped bags and started putting on the protectors and straps. Tony was the first one to finish. He took a sip from his water bottle and then ran to the center of the arena. “Tony, you’re gonna practice against Wyatt, okay? Wyatt, get over here!” Coach Greg ordered. Wyatt, the eighth- grade osprey, rushed over with dread in his eyes and faced Tony nervously.

“All right, boys! Take your spots!” Coach yelled. Wyatt and Tony flew up to ledges that were both about forty-five feet off the ground and on opposite sides of the arena. Everyone else backed away and took seats on the bleachers, luckily nowhere near me. I could feel the adrenaline rising in my own body as if I was actually up there, getting ready to battle. “All right—three, two, one, dive!” Coach Greg yelled and he blew the whistle even more ear-splitting than last time.

Wyatt and Tonyjumped off their ledges and dovedown toward the trampolines. The moment they hit the trampolines, I whispered, “Hit!” And when they bounced off, I whispered a little bit louder, “Bounce!” They spiraled above the ledges, hovering there for a few seconds before Wyatt made a move and catapulted straight at Tony. Tony dove down at the last second, causing Wyatt to just miss him by half a feather. With one strong flap of his wings, Tony flew up and Wyatt shot through the empty space and nearly hit the arena wall. As Wyatt turned, still confused by what had happened, Tony shot down towards his opponent like a torpedo and grabbed him with his talons. Feathers flew everywhere as Wyatt tried to defend himself. Both birds were using their talons to push the other closer to the ground. Finally, Tony freed himself from the knot, flew up above Wyatt, and then swooped down so fast he might as well have been a peregrine falcon at full speed. The brown blur knocked Wyatt right out of the air. He plummeted down to the padded arena floor and just lay there gasping for air. He clearly had the breath knocked out of him. He slowly got up, limped back to the bleachers, and took a seat next to Hallie, one of the falcons. Tony landed dramatically next to Coach Greg and flexed his wings in front of the small audience.

“Yeah, Tony! You crushed him! Haha!” his friends cheered. Coach Greg patted Tony on the back before telling him to go take a seat. Tony strutted past Wyatt and made some snarky remark. What a jerk, I thought. But my anger toward Tony wasn’t going to ruin my excitement. The feathers on the back of my head were still ruffled and messy from imitating the moves that Wyatt and Tony had made. My heart was still beating a hundred miles per hour, and I imagined myself up there, diving and spiraling and swooping and doing a bunch of other super cool stuff. But then I observed one of my wings. Short. Scrawny. Useless. Just like the other wing. I sighed and could feel my excitement fading like a deflating balloon. My phone buzzed in my pocket and made a riiing riiing riiing sound. I grabbed it, quickly clicked to silent mode, and put it up to my ear.

“Hello?” I said softly.

“Rico, honey, where are you? I’m at the pickup area in front of the school.”

“Oh, hey Mom. I’m coming, I just had to go to the restroom. I’ll be right there in a second.”

“Why are you whispering, honey?”

“I’ll be right there!” I repeated as loudly as I dared. I hung up and snuck back under the bleachers and out of the arena. I ran back over the boulder, up the slope and over the fence, then strolled to the pickup area, where my mom’s car was waiting for me. I opened the front door and slumped next to my mom without bothering to take off my backpack.

“You okay, Rico?” Mom asked in a concerned voice.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I responded. I could barely see the Skyclash arena through the window. I looked at my wings again. “Ma, why couldn’t I have been born an eagle or osprey? Or even just a crow? Why’d I have to be a chicken?”

“Ohhhh, honey! You’re technically not a chicken. You’re a rooster.” She looked at me with a sympathetic expression, then smiled. I sighed and kept looking out the window. Mom changed the subject, “You know, Dad is picking up Grams and Gramps on his way back from work. They’re gonna stay with us for a while.”

“Oh really? That’s great,” I acknowledged.

When we got home, I dropped my backpack by the door, plodded up to my room, plopped on my soft, pine-shaving mattress, and gazed at one of my posters. It had a picture of my favorite Skyclash player, Clay Bassner. He had a speech bubble saying, “Anyone can play the game!” I groaned and turned over on my side. “Yeah right,” I mumbled. I lay there for a while, until I heard the doorbell ring downstairs.

“Rico! Can you get the door, please?” Mom shouted from the kitchen. I got out of bed and went back downstairs. Grams and Gramps were waiting outside, and the moment I opened the door, Grams said, “Rico! You’re growing so fast! I thought you were an eagle!” And then she pulled me in for a hug.

“Hi Grams! Hi Gramps!” I said.

“Hey, buddy. Good to see ya!” Gramps grinned and patted me on the shoulder. Mom appeared behind me and hugged my grandparents as well. My dad walked in behind them with luggage in both hands and the keys hanging from his beak. “Family reunion!” he squawked, and the keys dropped to the ground. “Isn’t this great?”

After the hugs and kisses and small talk, I escorted Grams and Gramps to the dinner table. “What’s for dinner?” Dad asked Mom and perched next to me.

“Pumpkin soup with the seeds, cornbread, and cooked, seasoned watermelon rinds,” she replied. My stomach rumbled. My mom makes the best food. I licked my beak and started pecking away as soon as the meal was served. I was surprised how hungry I was.

Mom gave me a stern look. “Rico! Use your fork, please!” I picked up my fork and continued eating. The only noise in the room was the sound of hungry chickens munching on the delicious food. Finally, I broke the silence: “Where’s Macy?”

“She’s at her friend’s house working on job ideas and business stuff,” Dad responded.

“It’s good that she’s engaged in getting into jobs and businesses, planning her future, that sort of thing,” Grams said, waving her spoon in the air. Gramps nodded in approval. Grams continued, “Speaking of businesses and jobs, Rico, you’re in seventh grade already; you should start getting into what you’re going to do when you get a little older. I mean, it’s just a few years before you’re in college,” she continued and spooned a mouthful of pumpkin seed soup into her mouth. A few years?! I had six years before college!

“I agree,” Mom jumped in, passing the cornbread to Dad. “Rico, are there any entrepreneur clubs at Thunderflight? Maybe you could learn something about getting a life job. You know, just to get ahead of things a bit.” And then the adults got into this whole conversation about what sort of jobs would be great for me, and how important it is to “be prepared.”

“I have really good grades,” I mumbled. “You guys don’t have to worry about my future. It’s fine.”

I could never be a Skyclash player. I’m a chicken. I can hardly fly, I can’t fight, and I’m not strong at all.

But nobody could hear me over all their chirping. Then I started feeling that rush of annoyance and anger flowing from my chest to my talons, the same feeling I had when Tony caught me and Carl earlier.

“I want to be a famous Skyclash player!” I blurted out. Everyone went silent and turned to me with surprised expressions.

“Honey, what?” Mom questioned, as if she didn’t hear me correctly, but she did. I immediately went stiff, and thought to myself, Why did I say that so loud? But I couldn’t take it back now.

“I said . . . I want to be a famous Skyclash player, Mom,” I repeated.

“Rico, I know that you really like Skyclash, but maybe think of something more . . .” Mom replied in her oh sweetie, I’m sorry to break it to you voice as she looked over to the other grownups for help.

“Realistic?” Dad said.

“Yeahhh, that. Rico, here’s the thing. Being a Skyclash player wouldn’t work out for you because, well . . . you’re just . . .” Mom glanced at my tucked-in wings with uncertainty. I already knew what she was going to say.

“I’m just a chicken. I know.” I finished the sentence for her. I perched there and looked out the window, avoiding eye contact with my parents and grandparents.

The rest of dinner was awkward silence, and when I was excused, I slinked to the back door and stepped into our backyard. I stood on the steps leading to the small plot of grass and stared at the sky. The longer I stood there, the more I was beginning to think my family was right. I’ve spent all my life studying the game, observing the techniques and moves, researching its history, and reading about all the rules in the All Air Sports Encyclopedia that I keep on my nightstand. And for what? I could never be a Skyclash player. I’m a chicken. I can hardly fly, I can’t fight, and I’m not strong at all. But even with the doubt and discouragement, there was something in me that wouldn’t let me give up on it. Like a little flame in me that wouldn’t go out.

*          *          *

The next day, I trudged down the halls of the school, half asleep and feeling sorry for myself. I had walked to school that day because, although I was very tired, there was no way I was going to be stuck in a car with my mom or dad after what had happened the night before at the dinner table. I could not imagine the level of awkwardness I would have to sit through for the entire twenty-minute car ride. I shook the feeling off as I neared the math classroom.

Carl appeared behind me and put a wing on my shoulder. “Rico. Walk a little faster, man. You look like a zombird that just woke up from the grave.”

“Mrhggg,” I mumbled sleepily and then managed to add, “I’m fine.”

Carl turned to look at me with concern-filled eyes. “Whatever you say, buddy,” he said with a hint of doubt and ran off into the classroom.

Before I could enter with him, something caught the corner of my eye and stopped me in my tracks. Something shiny. Something blue. A big, electric blue poster was taped to the wall and in bold yellow letters announced:

Skyclash Tournament of Champions!
Compete against the school’s best Skyclash players to become the new Thunderflight Champion!

Suddenly all the sleepiness was gone from my body and my mind. I felt like the poster was screaming my name, and that flame from the night before burned hotter than ever. A chance to beat Tony Rayburn in a Skyclash battle and become the champion of the school? The thought caused me to have the same explosion of adrenaline and excitement that I always have when I watch other birds Skyclash— the feeling that I’m actually up there, in the arena, fighting for glory. And then it hit me like a bullet. I was going to be the first chicken to join a Skyclash competition. My entire life, I’d thought it was impossible for a chicken to do Skyclash. But I would make my own moves—moves no one had ever seen before! And I was going to win! Not although I’m a chicken, but because I’m a chicken!

Suddenly, as if the universe wanted to reward my determination with a glimpse of the future, a vision came to me. There I was, in the middle of the Skyclash arena, with hundreds of birds sitting in the bleachers that surround the space, and Tony Rayburn hovering above me with rage-filled eyes. Just as he’s planning to catapult me to the ground with one fell swoop, I leap to the nearest trampoline and bounce up into the air. And then I dive at lightning speed, straight at Tony, who doesn’t have enough time to react. I ram into his chest with my feet and completely knock the breath out of him. He is left breathlessly flapping in the middle of the arena and I jump to the nearest trampoline again. Then I bounce high up into the air, with my wings tucked, and let myself fall, straight onto Tony, who drops to the ground. I’ve won the battle and everyone is cheering my name: “Rico! Rico! Rico! Rico!”

My vision faded and I was back to the real world. Not even realizing I had been closing my eyes, I opened them and looked back at the poster. I thought I could win this. In fact, I knew I could win this.

“Rico!” Carl called my name from the classroom. Everyone was staring at me with confused expressions, but I didn’t care, because after I won this battle, “pecker Rico,” “loser Rico,” “nerd Rico” would be gone. I was going to show the entire school, and my family, that I could become a Skyclasher. I was going to show them that I was not a loser. I was going to show them that just because I’m a chicken doesn’t mean I can’t fly.

*          *          *

I burst through my front door and all faces turned to me. “Rico? What are you doing here so early? You usually arrive at least fifteen minutes later,” my mom questioned and tilted her head in confusion. I caught my breath and then dug out a copy of the Skyclash poster that I grabbed from the school office during lunch. I held it up.

“Mom, Dad, I have to do this. It’s been my dream ever since I was a chick. I know I have a chance! And I know you think it’s dangerous, Mom, but I can wear pads and protection and helmets, and I won’t get seriously injured—I think.” I practically shoved the poster into my parents’ faces. “Please. I finally feel like I can do something great.”

Mom looked at Dad, then at me. “Rico, we talked about you a lot after dinner last night. We’re sorry for how we reacted to your dream. We should’ve been more supportive. Of course you can join the tournament,” Mom said. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“As long as you wear protective gear, we’re fine with it,” my dad added and put his right wing tips on mine. I could tell my parents had some doubts, but I was grateful that they were letting me try to make my dream come true.

“Great Griffins!! This means everything to me! It’s on May 21. I have three months to train!” My parents watched with amusement as I bounced around the room, then started doing push-ups on the floor. They completed the parent consent form, and I turned it in the next day. I was actually entering the competition! Step one, complete. The training could begin.

*          *          *

The past couple of minutes were just a blur. The last three months of intense training were just a blur. I couldn’t remember how I got from that moment in front of the poster to this moment in front of the Skyclash arena’s upper doors. Straps tied, body armor attached, helmets buckled tight  It wasn’t until I put my wing tips on the handles of those doors that I stopped. My body was ready to open the doors and get out there, but something was holding me in place. Doubt.

An annoying little voice in my head was still trying to make itself heard: You’re not good enough. For a moment, I felt myself ready to listen to its whispers. Maybe it was right. Maybe I was just a foolish bird living in a foolish dream. You’re a chicken! Not a legendary Skyclasher! I would be putting myself in an unprecedented and potentially dangerous situation the moment I stepped through those doors. The arena outside had always belonged to Tony—the big, strong hawk who had been terrorizing smaller birds since kindergarten. These thoughts scared me, and I almost let the fear blow out the flame that had kept me going all this time.

I looked through the small windows on the door and noticed my family sitting on the bleachers. Mom and Dad. Grams and Gramps. Even Macy! Carl and a few other friends were also there, holding a sign that said “Kick some hawk butt, R!” It made me laugh inside and brought happiness into my heart. I didn’t just have my own motivation to become a Skyclasher; I had my entire family and friends there to cheer me on. I wasn’t alone. They were there for me, and I was ready to be there, in that arena, for them.

I reached out and pushed the doors open. Cheers went up around the arena, and not just from my family and friends. Birds I didn’t even know stood up and clapped. I trotted onto the ledge where I’d make my first dive. Beams of golden light shone down onto the arena, and the loud cheers rang in my ears. A huge, blue banner hung over the bleachers:

“RICO vs. TONY, Thunderflight Middle School Skyclash Championship!”

The intercom crackled, and the commentator’s voice spoke through the microphone, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Thunderflight Middle School Skyclash Championship!” We have a very, very interesting match here, and I’m sure you all can’t wait to see it play out. Rico, the first-ever chicken to compete in a Skyclash battle at this school, surprised everyone in the first and second rounds of the tournament. Now he’s going against the three-year Skyclash champion of the school, Tony Rayburn! Will this be the best Skyclash battle we’ve ever seen, or will this game end very quickly . . . as many expect?” I couldn’t help but flinch at the commentator’s last words, but I couldn’t let that stop me now. “So, give it up for Rico, our very small but, I will admit, very bold competitor!” Cheers rose up throughout the arena. “And for our three-year champion, the pride of Thunderflight Middle School, Tony Rayburn!” More cheers echoed in the arena.

After his last words, the crowd surrounding the shiny, bowl-shaped arena applauded, but the cheers that rang in my ears came from Carl and my family. “Gooo, Rico! Wooohoooo! Knock his feathers off, Rico!” Macy hollered “Rico! Rico!” and I shot her a grateful smile. “You got this, Rico!” Carl yelled nearby and curled his wing tips into a fist as he shook them in the air and jumped up and down.

A loud buzzer sounded over the intercom, signaling the match was about to begin. The crowd went silent and everyone leaned forward in their seats, anticipating the start whistle and the first dives. I could hear my heart beating. This was the moment I’d dreamed about my whole life, ever since the sport of Skyclash had sunk its hooks in me as a chick. I had watched so many battles and had somehow made it through the first rounds. Now, I was finally up there on the diving ledge in the championship!

Tony glared at me and then swiped his big, brown wing across his broad neck.

He narrowed his eyes and then mouthed “You’re dead.” But this time, I didn’t avoid eye contact or look down at my feet.

I glared back at him and said, “Not today, Rayburn!” At first, Tony looked shocked that someone had talked back to him, and then his expression changed to pure rage. He looked like he was about to explode. If he didn’t have feathers, I’m sure he would have looked as red as a tomato. I couldn’t help but let out a soft chuckle at the thought of Tony the Tomato. In the entire seven years that I’d known him, I had never seen Tony so helplessly confused by such a mix of anger, shock, and disbelief as he faced me, Rico the Chicken, perched across from him.

A second buzzer sounded and a heron dressed in a black and white striped T-shirt and shorts flapped into the center of the arena and held out a green flag. I immediately turned dead serious and bent my knees, lowering myself into a diving position. The referee put a whistle to his mouth and the world stopped.

I sprinted up the slanted wall and let myself fall onto the trampoline under me to bounce myself toward Tony.

I looked Tony in the eyes. I was ready. Ready for whatever Tony would throw at me. The whistle blew, and without a second thought, I lunged off the ledge and plummeted towards the floor below. All the training I had done—jumping from the roof of my house onto my trampoline while doing flips and dives in the air, barreling into the hammock from different angles and heights, even bounding over the fence and jumping from the boulder onto the athletics field—it all came flooding back to me. Around halfway to the bottom of the arena, I opened my small wings to slow my fall and leaned to the right to steer myself to the nearest trampoline. When I landed, Tony was across the arena, and milliseconds later he was catapulting through the air—straight at my stomach. But I was prepared. Before he could pin me to the wall, I quickly jumped to the trampoline on my left and then bounced as high as I could into the air. The crowd howled at my reaction, but I couldn’t get distracted. Tony whipped around to face me and huffed in frustration before flying towards the sky and swooping at top speed, aiming to knock me down and throw me to the floor below, just like I’d watched him do to Wyatt. Staying calm, I waited until the last second, then bounced right over him and let him hit my talons as he passed so that his energy flipped me in the opposite direction. Tony flew into the wall with a thump. His anger was out of control. After that it was just Tony attacking and me jumping out of the way. After five minutes, he hadn’t landed a feather on me.

The commentator spoke excitedly, “Wow! Rico is pulling the jump and dodge move over and over again. This chicken can dance! Tony hasn’t managed to hit him once. It looks like Rico’s using his small size and agility as a great advantage! But when will he start striking back?” Tony glanced at the commentator’s booth and looked like he was ready to fly through it in a rage, but he veered and took another swoop at me.

He’s right. When am I going to attack? I started worrying as I dodged Tony’s attack once again. But then Tony stopped to catch his breath and hovered a few meters away. Now! I sprinted up the slanted wall and let myself fall onto the trampoline under me to bounce myself toward Tony. He didn’t expect me to attack, especially from that angle. I sank my talons into his back and he let out an angry screech. He reached with one of his wings to throw me off his back, but with only one wing flapping, Tony faltered, and we both started falling toward the bleachers.

“GET OFF OF ME YOU . . .” But before he finished his sentence, we both hit the rim of a trampoline and I lost grip on his shoulder. I fell onto the trampoline and watched as Tony flapped back up, where a huge net separated the top of the arena from the sky. I need to get up there too, I thought. I jumped from trampoline to trampoline until I reached the highest one, but Tony was still well above me. He used this advantage to dive at me at full speed and grabbed me by the shoulder. The pain was terrible. Then he started flapping back to the top.

“Tony’s got Rico! He’s got him!” the sportscaster yelled, and the crowd gasped.

“Oh no, Rico!” I heard my mom yell from the audience, and I looked down to see her with both wings over her eyes, but with her feathers spread just enough to watch.

“You’re gonna pay, loser!” Tony barked in my face when we reached the upper netting. Then he wrapped his wing around my chest and dove at lightning speed with me right under him. If I didn’t do something, and fast, I would be punched into the ground at full force. My feet were still free, so I kicked at Tony with one foot and his grip loosened on my waist. I slipped out of his wing barely a second before he could get me onto the floor. I flapped with all my might to get to the trampoline next to me without touching the floor. Tony had quickly spread his wings to halt his dive and avoid landing. He urgently flapped to increase his distance from the ground and I saw my chance to end the game. I looked him in the eye and taunted, “Never gonna get me.”

He immediately burned with rage and growled “Shut up, pecker!” Then he torpedoed at me with hatred in his eyes. That’s when I felt I was living my vision. I rolled to my left, narrowly avoiding Tony’s attack, bent my skinny knees, and kicked with all my strength at Tony’s side. Me feet rammed into him, knocking him back.

“Argh!” Tony shouted, and was left breathlessly flapping in the center of the arena. The kick allowed me to push off of him to reach a trampoline on the slanted wall. I tucked in my wings and winked at Tony as the trampoline reached its stretch limit and catapulted me forward. Tony’s eyes widened helplessly as I shot across the arena like a cannonball and struck him in the stomach. He landed gasping for air on the floor below.

I landed beside Tony, exhausted and holding myself up with my wingtips on my knees. Tony closed his eyes and banged his wing on the ground in frustration. Except for my panting and Tony’s gasping, the arena was silent. The audience was catching its breath too, but all at once let out cheers, screams, and applause like an exploding volcano. I had to cover my ears to prevent myself from going deaf. I had won. I had done it. Tony had underestimated me, and that was my advantage.


“WHAT AN AMAZING, UNEXPECTED WIN! RICO IS THE NEW CHAMPION OF THUNDERFLIGHT MIDDLE SKYCLASH! Well done, Rico!” The commentator’s words rang in my ears. Then the doors to the arena flew open and my family and friends came running through. They circled around me, cheering and hugging me. They picked me up and screamed, “Rico, the new champion! Rico, the new champion!”

“That was amazing, Rico! You beat him! I knew you could do it!” Carl called to me over the noise as the rest of the crowd came to congratulate me. Happiness was exploding inside of me, and tears rolled down the sides of my face. Everybody was calling my name, just like in my dreams. Except this wasn’t a dream. I had really beaten Tony. But more importantly, I had believed in myself and become the first chicken to battle in a Skyclash match at my school. It was all wonderfully real.