Short Fiction: The Winner

Note:  This is a rewrite of a story I wrote 30 years ago in the mid 8 as part of a fiction writing course.  I got a good grade, but I when I pulled out the story last week, it seemed cliched, out of date, and saccharine.  I’ve spent the last week trying to rewrite it to improve it without changing the basic story line.  I had hoped to reduce the word count, too, but failed at that.  The style of this story is probably inspired by the kinds of stories I used to read as a child in Jack and Jill magazine.  Mom was asking about this story the other day, so here it is, Mom.  See if you like the new version.

The Winner

Cara King is winning.  Cara King is winning.  Cara King is winning …

Over and over again Cara silently repeated these words in time to her paces as she ran past the library, the pool, the playground…

Cara King is winning.  Cara King is winning.  Cara King is tired…no, WINNING!  CARA KING IS WINNING. Cara King is thirsty…no, WINNING! Cara tried to push herself harder and drown out the voices in her head urging her to stop.  She imagined race day and the crowds amazed at her performance as she approached the finish line near the community building.  She poured on the speed and gave a victory salute to the empty stairs.

Cara King is winning.  Cara King is winning. Cara was whispering now as she slowed to a cool down pace.  The last few blocks always seemed hardest, but Cara was determined to keep going.  Cara would not quit this time.  And she would NOT lose her bet with her little brother Dillon.

Dillon was “little” only in the fact of being a year younger.  At 16 years of age he towered 5 inches taller than Cara and excelled in everything he touched.  Many of the people at high school assumed he was the older sibling, a fact that embarrassed Cara.

That humiliation would all be over when she placed first in her division of the annual Westchester Fall 10K. Well, maybe not all over, but Cara would finally have a victory of her own.  In the last few years she had quit a part-time job, quit band, quit the softball team, and even quit cross-country team.  That last one was because of a personality conflict with some teammates and an incompetent coach, not because she didn’t love the sport.  She knew that people were calling her a quitter behind her back.  Couldn’t people see that she had good reasons for moving on from activities that weren’t good for her?

After she won this race, they’d understand.  She would have proof that she could commit to something and see it through. Plus, Dillon had bet her the price of a concert ticket that she wouldn’t win.  Without that job, she literally couldn’t afford to lose.

“Cara King has won!” Cara yelled it out loud as she reached the end of both her driveway and another training run. She was doing cooldown stretches in the carport when Dillon poked his nose out the kitchen door and called, “There you are!  I’m glad you’re finally back.”

Cara narrowed her eyes.  Dillon was never glad to have her back.  “Afraid I’m actually going to win with all this practice?”

“Pfft.” Dillon made a dismissive noise.  “No way.  It’s just that the Crocketts  have been calling every two minutes to see if you can babysit tonight.  An unexpected something or other came up and, of course, you are little Davy’s favorite sitter…”

“That’s little Savannah!” Cara yelled as she hurried inside to call back.  Dillan never seemed to notice when a joke had worn thin.

As Cara hung up the phone and headed for the shower, she laughed to think that, for anyone but Savannah, she would have gone for another run before accepting the job.  Generally Cara hated babysitting, but her cousin Savannah was different.

Cara was twelve when Savannah was born, and since then she couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t enjoy playing with Savvy, teaching her, and watching her grow.  They grew up as close as sisters; Dillan once said they were closer than siblings because they weren’t forced to see each other when they didn’t want to.

They grew even closer when tragedy, in the form of a drunk driver, struck Savannah at age three and had gravely injured her legs. Cara was so thankful that nothing worse had happened that she resolved never to dwell on the negatives of the situation.  She continually thought up new ways to cheer Savvy, and in return, Savannah never failed to make Cara smile.

This evening, though, something was on Savannah’s mind.

They were playing a game of Go Fish when Savannah blurted out, “I wish I could run with you next Saturday! I’ll never be able to race like you.”  She clutched her rag doll, Baby, and said, “Baby wants to run too.  Then we could practice with you and it would be fun.”

For a moment Cara felt a pain in her heart, but she smiled at Savannah and said, “Don’t be silly.  Five year olds can’t run as fast 17-year olds.  And believe me, it’s not as much fun as you think.”

“Baby thinks it’s fun.”

“Well, Baby hasn’t had to exercise every day— in the hot sun—even when she didn’t feel like it! And eat healthy foods –like cabbage and liver!  And stay away from too many sweets– even too many chocolate chip cookies–even on her birthday!” Cara kept piling on negatives until Savannah gave the proper response and wrinkled her nose.

“Then why do it?” Savannah asked.

“Well, it makes you healthier.” Cara was reluctant to tell Savannah about the bet with Dillon but added, “And my brother doesn’t think I have the self-discipline to win a race.  I’ll show him.”

“Baby and me would like to show him too!  We have self-discipline too! If only we could run.” Savannah was getting pouty and Cara hated the self-pity in her voice.  “Come on, Cookie! Remember, you’ll be playing baseball in Miracle League this spring and having plenty of your own sports fun!”  Cara decided to change the subject.  “Let me tell you a story.”

Cara’s story wandered off on several silly tangents, and she kept Savannah interested and giggling until bedtime.  Then Savannah went off to dreamland and Cara went off to TV land—for forty-five minutes. Just as the detective started gathering suspects before his final reveal, Cara heard Savannah calling.

“What now?” Cara grumped.  She immediately felt guilty about her annoyance when she saw Savannah’s bright eyes and feverish face.  “Cara, I don’t feel so good.”

Thankfully, Savannah’s parents hurried home to take care of their sick girl, but not until Savannah started talking about the race again.

“I’d really feel better if I knew Baby could race with you.”  Savannah said. “My throat hurts, and I know you couldn’t race with me anyway.  Someday I might get to race, but Baby never will.”

“Don’t be silly,” Cara answered.  “I’m sure Baby will race someday.  In fact, I bet she’s already run in dozens of races and won them all.  Didn’t you Baby?”  If Savvy could pretend Baby was upset, maybe I can pretend Baby is happy, Cara thought.

“Don’t YOU be silly,” Savannah responded.  “She TOLD me she hasn’t.  She was born on Christmas Day, the day Aunt Dina gave her to me and she’s never been farther than the yard.  Aunt Dina said she has weak legs like me and won’t ever be able to run. See?” Savvy tried to stand Baby on her rag doll limbs with predictable results.

Cara picked up Baby and cradled her in her arms with a scowl. She was upset with the way Savvy was carrying on and upset with Aunt Dina too.  Life could be tough enough without people continually reminding you of that fact.

Savannah started to cry.  Not because of Baby but because she wasn’t feeling good.

“Your mom and dad will be here soon,” Cara soothed.  “How about if Baby runs in this race with me?” Cara continued talking, thinking another story would get Savvy’s mind off her sickness. “We can enter her in the race and you can watch. She’ll be the first rag doll to win the Westchester 10K.  Then we can celebrate with chocolate chip cookies!”

Savannah giggled through her tears.  “That would be great!  I’ll feel better by then, won’t I?”

“Of course you will.  And here’s your parents now!” Cara was happy to end this conversation.  Before she left, she called to Savvy, “You get better, Cookie, in time for Saturday.”

“Thank you, Cara! I will!  Baby will be so happy to run with you.  Are you going to take her piggy back or in a front pack like a baby baby?”

“Uh,” Cara was momentarily speechless as she realized Savannah thought she had been serious.  “Uh, maybe tied around my waist.  I’ll have to think about it.  You just concentrate on getting better.”

The week sped by as if it, too, were in some kind of race.  Cara was relieved to hear that Savannah’s fever was a simple infection that was under control with antibiotics.  Cara was also relieved that she herself had not caught the same bug.

By the time Cara saw Savannah again on Friday, she had succeeded in coming up with a solution about what to do with Baby.

“Hi, Cookie!” Cara said brightly, glad to see Savannah back to her old self. “I have a great plan for tomorrow.”

“Me too!” Savannah seemed about to burst with a secret.  “You first!”

“Well, I thought we could take a picture of Baby.  See, I brought a little sweatband for Baby.  I’ll take a photo of her and carry my phone in my armband.  It will be just as good as the real thing!”

Savannah narrowed her eyes.  “No.  Don’t be silly.  That’s not what you promised.”

“I promised to take Baby with me.  We can pretend Baby jumps into my phone, and runs with me that way.”

“No, that won’t work.  That won’t work because I haven’t told you my secret.”  Cara had a sense of foreboding.  Savannah had totally dismissed Cara’s good idea but was still eager and excited about—what? Cara hated the thought of disappointing Savvy .  It would feel like stomping on a flower.

“When I got back to preschool after being sick, Baby told everyone about you! She invited all her friends!” Savannah went to a special needs preschool and every one of her friends had some kind of health challenge. Cara’s heart sunk but she tried to keep a smile on her face as Savannah pulled a green stuffed animal out of a tote bag.

“Cara the Runner, meet Fergus the Frog.  He belongs to Toby.  This is Brownie the Bear belonging to Martin.” Cara briefly wondered if alliteration was required for the naming of stuffed animals.  Fergus and Brownie weren’t too large, and the next doll was a small fashion doll. “This is Gina who belongs to Melissa.  And the last one is Pixie Pie, but Mom has her now.”  Cara hoped Pixie Pie would live up to her name and be small.

Savannah’s mom, Cara’s Aunt Susan, came into the room carrying an expensive 18-inch doll with brown curls.  Aunt Susan was gushing, “This is so sweet of you, Cara!  The kids are so excited…” Cara’s face must have been showing more of her real feelings because once Aunt Susan got a glimpse of it she stopped cold.  Cara thought she saw a bad word silently form on Aunt Susan’s lips.  “Uh, but, you know.” She started to backtrack. “I think in spite of your generosity, it would be best for them to just watch you.  I can push them in a baby stroller on the sidelines and you can get your picture made with them when you’re finished.”

“No, Mommy!” Savannah said.  “I promised my friends they would run too, not watch.  Watching is no fun! And Cara promised too!”

Cara and Aunt Susan looked at each other for a moment.  A memory suddenly flashed into Cara’s mind of a summer when she was about Savannah’s age.  Cara was sick and Aunt Susan had stayed in the hotel playing with her and reading stories while her parents and brother had gone to a waterpark for the day. What should have been a bad memory of missing out on the waterpark was a good memory of different fun.

Impulsively, Cara said, “It’s OK.”  She blinked hard, but continued, “Pixie Pie can look out the back of my backpack.  Will she mind riding backwards?  And the four others I’m sure I can tie on to the water bottle belt I bought when I thought I would run that marathon. People race in costumes and stuff all the time.  It won’t be weird.”

Savannah was excited and thankful and could hardly wait for the next day.  Cara let herself enjoy their enthusiasm for the moment but disappointment hit hard when she was alone in her room that night.

The Westchester 10K was big enough that lots of people ran just for fun; sometimes in outlandish costumes.  Yet it was small enough that Cara knew who her biggest competitors were in her age category.  She knew that carrying the toys would cancel out any advantage she had.  She attempted to cheer herself with imagined headlines:  “Winner Triumphs over Impossible Odds,” but he only word that made any sense was the word “impossible.”

Race day dawned bright, cool and clear.  Perfect running weather.

Cara started off well and her confidence returned with the familiar rhythm of her stride.  She tried to ignore the bouncing toys at her waist and the backpack straps digging into her shoulders.

Shortly into the race she passed the spot where her parents and Savannah’s family were watching.  Their encouraging shouts buoyed her spirits.

She passed a runner dressed as Kermit the Frog.  How had he gotten in front of her? She passed a girl she recognized from the cross country team.  I can do this, she thought.

Cara King is faster. Cara King is faster.  Cara silently recited a new mantra in time to her paces.  Maybe she could still win after all!

Then she felt a tickle around her back thigh.  Fergus the Frog was slipping bit by bit down through the loop of rope holding him to the belt.  With every stride he bounced lower.  She couldn’t reach back to readjust him without slowing down. Cara now focused her mind on willing Fergus to stay in place.  Hang on FergusHang on Fergus!

Ten more strides and Fergus slipped to the road.  No! Cara silently screamed.  To observers, she merely turned around and scooped him up, running the final kilometer with the stuffed frog under her arm.  Inside Cara felt disappointment overcoming her.   She just wanted to quit and hide somewhere.  With her hopes of winning gone, she now ran fast just to get it over with.

At the park in front of the community building, Cara cooled down and got a cup of water.  She poured it over her head rather than drink it.  When her family arrived she didn’t want then to notice she’d been almost crying.  She set the toys on a bench and said to Baby.  “I bet you don’t even care. You’re probably angry at me for losing, too!”

“Talking to them now?” Dillon walked up with a bag of popcorn and thrust a Gatorade into her hand. “Mom made me bring this to you.”

The rest of the family arrived. They were excited and happy and gushed over the dolls and Cara, but Cara was still stuck in her own disappointment.  She smiled weakly and tried to put on a brave face, but just wanted to be alone.  When they called the winners in her division, it just made her feel worse.  I’m a loser again, she thought. A loser six times over.

When the last winners in the 65 and older category had been announced and received their awards, the presenter continued.  “In the Frog category, ages 2-6, first place goes to Fergus the Frog, narrowly beating Kermit, I understand.” The crowd chuckled.  “In the rag doll category, ages 2-6, first place goes to Baby Crockett.” Everyone clapped.  As the presenter went on to read three more awards in the “teddy bear”, “fashion doll,” and “18 inch doll” categories, Cara felt a mixture of surprise and confusion.

“I don’t understand; what’s he saying?”

Dillon answered, “Aren’t you listening?  Unfortunately for me, you didn’t lose.” Dillon shoved a fistful of popcorn into his mouth to hide a smile. “Savannah and her friends think you’re a real winner and Aunt Crockett made sure you would know that too.”

“Will Cara King please come up to the stand to receive these awards in their place?”

Cara barely had the presence of mind to scoop up the five dolls from the bench and bring them up with her to the awards stand.  Cara flushed in embarrassment.  She looked back in the audience and saw the smiling faces of Savannah and her friends. That’s the only reward I should have wanted she thought.  That’s the only reward a real winner should ever need.

 

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