The Fastest Runner in the World
Dave Bennett

The race that determined The Fastest Runner In The World took place on the field named after Sara Gray’s grandfather, Emerson Fletcher Gray. To Sara, Emerson was just “Grandpa Colonel.” The park was quiet that day because it was too hot to exert the energy required to be noisy. No one was riding the swings because the fake leather plastic seats were too hot to sit on in shorts. The mirrored metal slides might as well have been giant barbecue grills. So most of the class was gathered around the soccer goalposts waiting for the race to start. There was a cloudless sky over the base on this muggy Thursday in June, the kind where the sun bakes the concrete and the prairie winds refuse to provide relief. Isaac hopped up to the start line on his left leg and faced the two competitors, Oscar and Charles N. Charles N has a last initial because Oscar and Charles N’s class also has another Charles. Charles V. The N in Charles N was necessary, but the N does not stand for ‘necessary’.

Isaac stared at the runners and into the sun behind them. He squinted and asked, “You know where you two are going?”

“Yea,” Oscar sneered. He always had a look on his face that teetered between accusatory and astounded, the look of determination to assert his proclivity at any challenge. The one time Isaac went to Oscar’s house, there were more than a few thimble-and wheelbarrow-shaped dents in the walls of his room from unfavourable Monopoly outcomes. Oscar killed a toad with a rock later that day and Isaac decided not to go back.

“Well I’ll say it again anyway.” Isaac pointed behind him. “Both of you run straight down the path and up around the playground, around the side of the school, through the posts and down the field to the other end. My shoelace is the finish line. The first one to cross my shoelace wins. Okay?”

Charles N just nodded. He hadn’t spoken since the race was declared; delivering all the instruction he needed through pointing, head movements, and shrugs. The race weighed heavier on him, and Isaac was the only other person around who knew it. Oscar did these competitions because he liked competitions, but Charles N was competing because he had something to prove.

Even though there was no wind and he knew it was ridiculous, Isaac was convinced he could taste the salt of ocean water in the air. Instead of the typical smell of decomposition and horse crap, this day smelled like the ocean, like he was standing on a beach on Vancouver Island. No, that’s impossible, he thought, he had been in Alberta almost two years now. But the day was building momentum, speeding towards a pre-destined significant moment, a shared event that would galvanize the bonds of what constituted a community. The night before the race, Isaac was woken up by his dad kicking his shoes off and shutting the front door with a swift hand. He snuck out of bed; he could claim it was the June bugs slamming into the window that woke him up. Even though he felt like he had been asleep for a while, his Mom was still downstairs when his dad came through the door. Isaac crept towards the bars on the upstairs landing, his favourite incognito view.

His father leaned against the entrance to the living room and said, “Come on,” but his mom never appeared. His father said more hushed words, and suddenly they were magnetic to each other, her stroking his hair, him moving his hands up and down the small of her back as she cried even more than the nights where he came home late and went straight to bed. Isaac pushed his ear as far as it could go between the bars. His dad had said a word Isaac had only learned a few weeks ago from similar whispers between adults when they thought he wasn’t listening. Afghanistan. Isaac knew it meant that he was in for a long summer. He shivered and held his breath.

His father mentioned something about Charles N’s dad too. His mom was bawling after the first announcement, but she must have got the hint because she lowered her voice to somewhere between timid and hesitant. She sat down in the living room chair and Isaac could only see her legs now, crossed tightly and glued at the ankles. The words drifted in and out but he heard that Charles N’s dad wasn’t going with all the other dads and soon Charles N was going to be moving off the base. Isaac’s parents found him passed out against the banister posts but decided to let him sleep, at least until morning, and just hope to God their boy was smart enough not to say anything about what he had heard.

The whispers in the quickly-forming crowd seemed to slightly favour Oscar, if only because he had just won the title of Best Hurdler Ever in afternoon gym class against Charles N, Isaac, and Joshua. Joshua and Isaac didn’t care so much that Oscar had won, but Charles N thought he had a good claim until he tripped on the second-last hurdle. He claimed he was distracted by Oscar and lost his footing.

“You may be able to jump higher than me but I can run faster,” he said.

“That’s ass,” Oscar replied. “You’re ass.”

“Naw, you’re a fat jerkass.”

The creativity of the combinations increased with every retort (“You greasy big bitch asshole!”) until Oscar pointed to the middle of Charles N’s shirt. “What’s that?”

Charles N looked down and got flicked in the nose. An easy trick, and one that made him sorry and angry and frustrated that had fallen for it. “What are you gonna do, huh crybaby?” Oscar asked. “You mamma’s boy.”

Charles N said “Don’t call me that.” The tension was thick because the wind refused to sweep it aside; the words hung in the air. His cheeks were as red as raw meat. “Race me right now for Fastest Runner In The World.” After that, Charles N did not say anything. He just looked at Oscar, locked right onto his eyes.

Even Oscar was left slightly stunned by Charles N’s intensity. “Fine,” he said, but he looked away first.

Joshua had called over Ricky and Stephanie H., and Sara’s two friends named Laura went around and gathered everyone else. Isaac kicked off his shoe and undid the lace, handing it to Joshua for when they needed it. Sara watched as Isaac detailed the course and nodded, approving of the use of the park named after her Grandpa Colonel.

“Go!” The pair both dug into the dirt and darted away, burning worms two feet underground with the friction from their feet. It felt to Isaac like the crowd was holding their breath.

The two were neck and neck as they disappeared behind the hill. Isaac wondered if Oscar was a bully or not, and decided that he fit the profile. He was a bit bigger than everyone else his age and maybe thought he really could run farther and jump higher, but Oscar’s dad’s problems were old news and Oscar was mostly forgiven for his faults. “These are tough times,” Charles N’s mom used to say to Isaac’s mom. Isaac knew that Charles N’s departure would become just another sign of tough times.

They both sprinted up the hill and passed under the goalposts. As Oscar ran over the foul line for the baseball diamond in the field, however, he dipped the front of his shoe into a clump of chalk and flicked it across the field with his ankle. A cloud shot up from Oscar’s toe and blocked Isaac’s view of Charles N from the finish line. Charles sprinted through the fog even faster than before. The shoelace was pulled tight. Isaac booted his right shoe off to the side.

Oscar crossed the finish line first, with barely half a second between the runners. Sara invited him to go behind the portables because she wanted to kiss him but was too shy to do it out in the open. A crowd formed around the winner, anxious for his story.

Charles N was in more pain than the baseball chalk in his eyes or the cramps in his legs were causing. He was devastated. Oscar would forever think of him as the guy that he beat twice in one day. The whispers would continue. He had wanted to be The Fastest Runner In The World.

Charles N picked up Isaac’s shoe. He swung his arm in circles, taking eight or nine rotations to wind up before finally letting it fly up into the sky, much higher than the school, maybe even higher than the radio tower. Charles N and Isaac watched as Isaac’s right shoe traced an arc through the air. Both of them lost the shoe as it peaked in the sun and they could only see blue when they closed their eyes. The shoe was now descending very quickly over the concrete handball courts by the portables. Isaac, still blinded but indoctrinated from three years of everybody-gets-a-trophy baseball, yelled, “Heads up!”

Oscar turned around in search of the voice just in time for Isaac’s shoe to land, sole first, perfectly aligned with Oscar’s nose. There was a sound similar to a twig snapping and blood dripped onto the pavement. Charles N remained silent, but threw both arms up in the air and punched his fists towards the sky like he was trying to take down the sun. The crowd turned against the teary-eyed and bloody-shirted Oscar and started towards Charles N yelling, “Bull’s-eye! Bull’s-eye!” If nobody had said anything, the sky would have shattered from the pummeling.

That’s how Charles N became known as Chuck Bullseye. Oscar later rationalized it by saying that the wind had picked the shoe up, but everyone remembers the still mugginess of that afternoon. Charles N moved away on the last day of school; Oscar was still wearing his metal nose brace and always complained that the sun made the plate hot if he was outside for too long.

Chuck Bullseye only acknowledges the incident more than a decade later in a sports bar after his fourth drink. He looks up towards the television, a hockey game between the Who Cares and the Whatevers, and sees a goalie take a puck to the side of his helmet. He starts laughing, small at first but growing, clearly escalating too quickly until the announcers are dwarfed by the noise coming out of this man’s mouth, riding the wave as long as he can, even if it means paddling back from three beaches over. After he catches his breath and wipes away the tears from his eyes he looks at me and says, “Shit, I threw that shoe pretty hard.”

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