(Author's note: like I said, I wrote this for a short story contest at my school, and it actually won! I was quite happy. This, along with Paper Flowers, is one of my favorite stories and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it! ~not Ross)
Don't talk. Just listen.
Maybe I shoulda come to you sooner. After all, the case closed nearly four months ago, didn't it? Well, I'm not gonna lie to you, I was scared, I was dead scared. Murder's pretty serious.
That kid who died, his name was Luke Nakamura, little Asian kid with glasses and legs so scrawny you'd think someone might've grabbed them off a chicken and stuck 'em on him. You've got pictures, probably loads more than you know what to do with.
The day he showed up in my math class, I figured he was one of those Asian calculator types that ignores me because I can't get y to equal x no matter how hard I try. Well, who cares? Math, algebra, it's not my thing. I passed him by in the hall at lunch, when he was tearing into a sandwich all alone, but I didn't care. I've got people to see, man. Then I forgot about him entirely. Until after-school practice.
Some guys think that cross-country is for the wusses who are too chicken to go for the "real" sports like the football or basketball teams. I bet none of them have ever tried on a decent pair of running shoes in their lives. It's brutal, man, and I'm the best on the team, and it's been like that since last year. Now I'm captain. I make varsity every race, first place, no problem. It's not for wusses. The wusses drop out the minute they find out you actually have to run, and not just goof around.
Coach Thrasher – no joke, that's his name – introduced Luke to our team that day, and I practically laughed out loud. The kid looked like the genius, science, wrote-the-manual-on-his-graphing-calculator kind of person, not the running kind of person. Whatever. It's a no-cut team. Maybe it was the only thing he could get for PE credit.
We started our run and the kid, Luke, he was right up next to me from the beginning, little chicken-legs and everything. Dude, he ran with his glasses on. I tried to ignore him.
"You're in my math class, aren't you?" he asked after a couple minutes, the first time I had actually heard him talk.
"Yeah, I guess."
"My name's Luke," he reminded me. "How about you?"
I shoulda run with the pack that day. Maybe I would've avoided all this trouble.
But I wasn't wrong about Luke. Kid came into our class on Tuesday, and that Friday, we had the hardest test we'd had all year. And guess who got the highest score on that test? Yeah, Luke Nakamura, the calculator with glasses. The guy who sat next to me had enlisted Luke as his tutor by that weekend.
Luke's math genius wasn't what had me worried, though. Let him be smart, you know, I didn't care. He ran with the varsity pack every day at practice, and it wasn't even like he was pushing himself that hard. I didn't know nerds could be so fast.
Thursday was the first meet our team had with him. Thrasher put him on JV because he was new and we didn't know what kind of racer he was. That meant I got to see him run, and I wasn't sure I wanted to.
He was fast, man, way too fast. I'm sure everyone else was thinking, Dude! That kid should be on varsity! Whoever was thinking that was right.
In the middle of the race, Thrasher came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder, talking about how amazing that new kid, Luke, was.
"Yeah, he's good," I muttered as I watched the slow kids straggle on past us. Sometimes I think cross-country should be a tryout team, if only to spare those kids at least a little dignity.
"You gotten to know him?" Thrasher asked.
"You should, Phil. You'd push each other."
And I was thinking, push each other, sure, but no one's supposed to be able to push the top varsity guy, the captain of the team. I'm that guy, and I don't want anyone pushing me. But really, I knew he could.
You got a place to sit down in here? We're gonna be here a while longer. Cool.
By the end of the race, I knew any shot I had at being the fastest on the team was gone, gone, gone. Most guys, especially JV, come through the finish ready to throw up or pass out or both, but not that Luke kid. Sure, he was dripping sweat – who doesn't? – but he wasn't staggering around like he'd just gotten kicked out of a bar, or sprinting to the nearest trashcan, or doubling over with his hands on his chicken knees. He just walked back to the tarp with all our stuff on it like he'd just finished a half-mile jog. I was ready to bust, because I'd been watching the clock as he ran through, and I'm never gonna forget what time it said.
Geez, 15:33? I thought. Sixteen seconds faster than me. When you're running three miles, I bet you think sixteen seconds isn't that big a deal, huh? But I've been the fastest on the team since last year, and sixteen seconds was about seventeen seconds too many. Make it eighteen.
Thrasher posted everyone's scores and the varsity list the next day on the window of the school office. I saw that varsity list and the name Luke Nakamura next to my number one and I was ready to go shove that idiot into a trashcan or something. Or worse. You have no idea, Officer.
Of course, no one knew about it. To the team, I was the captain, and all I wanted was to have the fastest team possible, and if Luke could help us with that, well then sure I was all for it! I let them think that. No point in letting anyone know I hated the kid's guts because he was messing with the unquestioned superiority I'd worked so hard to get for myself. The team knew, or thought anyway, that I appreciated Luke's effort, but no one ever wondered why I never talked to him. No one else bothered to talk to him, either. Luke was the only person who had the bus seat to himself on the way to meets.
My girlfriend's in my math class, too. Antara Bird, she's the greatest girl in the school, I gotta say. Long red hair, green eyes, and the prettiest smile you'll ever see anywhere. Yeah, anyway, she's in my math class, and three weeks after Luke invaded my life, Mr. Stivers, our math teacher, switched around our seating chart. Luke got sat right next to Antara, which made me nervous. Didn't know why then, but I know now. I sat opposite from them, on the other side of the room, and I watched that kid, just to make sure he wasn't ruining my girl like he was ruining my team.
He was totally hitting on her. Whenever she dropped her pencil, he got it for her. Whenever she didn't understand something, he'd lean in real close and "help" her solve it. Sure, I'm all for… what's it called… chivalry, yeah, but not when people practice it to hook up with my girlfriend. He tried too hard. She doesn't need help with her math. Antara's great at math!
As if wrecking my team wasn't bad enough. Now he was swooping in and trying to steal my girlfriend.
Dude, you'd think I'd have known Antara wouldn't betray me like that. You'd think. I'd heard her say she loved me. I shoulda known she wouldn't go falling for another guy.
But I didn't.
We went on a date a couple nights later, out to the movie theater. She stopped me outside the building by a coffee shop and asked basically what the heck was wrong with me. Though not in so many words.
"Nothing," I told her. "Nothing's wrong. C'mon, we're gonna be late."
"I don't care." She grabbed my hand. "You told me you wouldn't ever lie to me."
There was a bench outside the coffee shop, and I sat down on it and pulled her up next to me. I told her about Luke and how he was wrecking the team and eventually how he was hitting on her. He was trying to ruin my life.
She told me I was being ridiculous. "He's a nice kid," she assured me. "And it's good that he's doing so well in cross-country. It helps the team out, and besides that, I think he needs the confidence. Don't worry about it."
That's exactly what she said. I remember. It was supposed to comfort me, but her defense of him made me even more suspicious, angry. He was already making an impression on her!
During workouts, Thrasher was always so pleased with the way Luke performed, how he just seemed to get better and better. And, from the day everyone realized that Luke was consistently faster than me, the coach started pushing me harder and harder, always yelling at me to, "Catch up with Luke!" See, before, Thrasher was always pleased with me, and I was the one to be caught up with, and then suddenly, I wasn't. I knew I hadn't changed. It was all Luke's fault that the coach was never satisfied with me anymore. All his fault Thrasher realized I wasn't as perfect as I could be.
Then one day, I heard some of the sophomores talking about Luke. I remember exactly how the conversation went.
"That new varsity guy, what's his name?"
"Luke, yeah, him. Thrasher should make him the captain now."
"What about Phil?"
"He's not the fastest anymore. Or maybe they should make Luke and Phil, like, co-captains."
Oh, no. That snapped me, man. Now the team was starting to think that maybe I wasn't the best captain after all. But they had always loved me!
I had to come up with some kinda way to get him.
Say, what? No, I'm not thirsty. Thanks, though.