By Sir Brass of the Pen
"The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honors out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge cup.
And round that early-laureled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's."
~"To an Athlete Dying Young" by A.E. Housman
A misty fog blanketed the valley that day, covering the procession with tiny droplets of water, as if Nature herself was saying a final tearful goodbye. Ben walked slowly beside the black hearse, staying with it as it turned into the cemetery to bring Jake to his final home.
It had been hard for Ben earlier that morning in the church as he read the eulogy, and finally having to confront the fact that his best friend was gone forever. It had seemed like yesterday when Ben had met the man who would be as close to him as a brother. It was at a normal high school track meet where he and Jake had first met. They were from opposing schools, and they the only ones running in their event: the mile. The starter fired his pistol and they were off. They had stayed with each other the entire race until the last straightaway where Jake suddenly burst ahead with amazing speed and won by a difference of over two seconds. However, it was not just a victory for Jake, it was a victory for his school because not only had he beaten Ben, he'd also managed to beat the previous State record for the 1 mile run. Needless to say, Jake was a hero.
"Hey, nice race man," he'd said to Ben after he got his excited teammates off him, "You kept me going the whole time. I was amazed at how far you could go full speed."
"Talking of speed," Ben joked, "Your sprint at the end caught me off guard."
"Oh, that was just a little trick my coach taught me about always keeping a supply of energy around for that final straightaway."
Their talking had gone on from their, and as time passed, they hadn't stopped keeping in touch. Then, soon enough, Ben realized he had gained not only a friend, but a brother as well, for they read each other's mind like twins, yet never argued half as much. Only five years since the day Jake Rebbar had become a household name in their small town, five years Ben had had a true friend.
Now he was gone. Struck down by some disease doctors had been unable to diagnose, a disease which, thankfully, took Jake away quickly with no pain. However, Ben was still shaken and confused by the death of one so young with such promise, yet having gone so quickly may have been a mixed blessing. As Ben had said at the funeral, Jake's proudest moment was when he broke the state record for the mile run, a record which hadn't since been broken, till the day before the funeral that is.
"Be glad you were not there to see it," Ben said quietly, laying his hand quietly upon the casket, "I don't think you would have been able to bear seeing a student from my old school beat your record."
Ben was also thankful that his friend hadn't been one of the ones who lived longer than their fame and still strove to regain it. Now, at least, Jake would be forever remembered, as well as his record would be kept as well.
Now Jake lay in a casket, his arms folded over his chest calmly and with a peaceful look on his face, with no strength left to ever run again, let alone run at all. As the priest said the prayer for burial, Ben prayed a separate, silent prayer, a personal prayer for his friend.
After the burial service, Ben saw Jake's little sister come up and place a little crown of flowers on her big brother's casket.
"A crown for the fastest runner in the world," she said when she looked up and saw the question on Ben's face, "He is the fastest, right uncle Ben?"
To that question, Ben could only nod, as he didn't know what to tell the curious and innocent eight year-old. There would be other runners who would break Jake's record, and there would be more people who would die, but at the moment, none of that mattered. What mattered was getting on with his life, and being the best person that he could. That was how he would honor his friend, who once again beat him to the finish line.