Every school has sports day: it’s an institution! But what if the students weren’t merely competing against each other, and what if the teachers got to participate in some way or other too?. Clearly I was thinking of The Hunger Games when I wrote this one, so read on and … cheer …?
(15 minute read)
The air hung heavy with the scent of supermarket perfume, grilled sausages, and the sweat of young children. A light breeze blew ribbons lazily around the poles that entrapped them. The nervous buzz of anticipation hung in the chatter between the parents, family members, teachers and friends gathered to watch the day’s events. Birds hid in the trees, bemused by the mass of people and eager for their space and silence to be returned to them.
Children, free to play once their scheduled events had concluded, ran through the field, dodging fold-up chairs and picnic blankets, excited to show off their medals. The shrieking of a victorious parent coloured the background din. A lone bird cawed its disapproval and was swiftly joined by its neighbours.
Late to the games, Suzi fought her way through the crowd searching for the only person she wanted to see: her son. Perhaps he had already completed his race and had disappeared across the field somewhere to play with his friends. Perhaps he was helping to set up the next race. Perhaps he was eating. Perhaps he was—
“Suzi!” A woman’s voice barked from behind her. “Darling, how are you?”
Suzi’s mind snapped away from the troubled place her thoughts were carrying her to and tried to place the woman who was now beaming at her. It took a second of torture until the costume of expensive gym gear that didn’t quite fit brought the name back.
“Oh, Mary!” Suzi did her best to smile. “Have you had … a nice day?”
“Oh, have I! So wonderful to see the little ones out in the fresh air isn’t it?”
Suzi nodded. “Did Charlie—?”
Mary reached through the wall of people surrounding her and pulled out her son, pointing eagerly to the “First Place” ribbon pinned to his shirt. “He won! Isn’t that wonderful?” She was almost breathless with excitement.
“Oh. Well done, Charlie. You must be very proud of yourself.” Suzi managed another a small smile and then looked at Mary. “Listen, have you seen, Kieron?”
Mary, still smiling, shook her head. “Oh … no, I haven’t. Charlie, dear, have you seen him?”
“No, Mum. He hasn’t raced yet.”
“Oh, I see.” Mary’s smile faltered. She looked across the crowd, suddenly struggling to meet Suzi’s eye. “Oh, look, Charlie, we should, um … we should go and say thank you to Mr Godfrey before … oh, lovely to see you, Suzi. Good luck.”
Mary disappeared into the crowd without waiting for a reply. Suzi watched her go, the will to keep moving forward draining from her limbs. Perhaps if she stood there long enough the crowd would simply swallow her up too, make her disappear. Then this day could be over.
But she didn’t want that. She wanted to see her son: her son who hadn’t raced yet—he hadn’t raced yet! She needed these moments before it all happened—before it might never happen—to last forever.
She forced her way to the fixtures board, a series of paper sheets taped harmlessly to a wooden blackboard. There was only one race left: the final race of the day. The names were always left off the running sheet. That was it. She knew Kieron would be running next. She felt exposed, as if every eye was on her and revelling in her shame. She imagined people glancing at her, then swiftly retreating into the protection of their group.
What if it was you? she wanted to scream at all of them. What if it was your son?!!
A violent concussion erupted across the speakers, breaking the moment, and forcing her to attention. Mrs Douglas, the headmistress, stood atop the podium with a pen in her hand, striking the microphone at repeated intervals until she was sure she had everyone’s attention. The hubbub reluctantly settled, and Mrs Douglas began her broadcast.
“Good day everyone.” She smiled coldly and inspected the crowd. She was dressed in her usual muted suit, tightly buttoned, with her hair tied back in an especially severe bun. “Yes, good day, parents, teachers, children and friends, and what a splendid time we’ve all enjoyed here already today, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
Mrs Douglas paused to clap her hands together, refusing to stop until the rest of the audience joined in. Once an adequate expression of appreciation had been delivered, she raised her hand for quiet. “And now we arrive at our final event of the day: the traditional Chiefs vs Cowboys race, in which the fine teaching staff of our establishment are pitched against our eight very lowest performing students.”
A few giddy whoops erupted from deep in the crowd. Mrs Douglas responded with a disapproving glare over the rim of her glasses and silence fell once again.
“As you all know, the Chiefs vs Cowboys race is a valuable fund-raising opportunity for our school. Whether you choose to place your money on a Cowboy or on a Chief, we are both happy and privileged to take your money.” Mrs Douglas stopped again to allow herself a hollow chuckle. A polite, fractured ripple of laughter followed from the audience. “And thanks to everyone’s generosity, I am delighted to announce that this year’s prize pool—which is, as always, distributed evenly between the winner of the race and the classrooms of the teacher or teachers who score the highest number of points—is a bountiful $2537.”
Mrs Douglas nodded benevolently as her audience offered their unprompted applause this time. She held her hand up and the crowd hushed with anticipation. Suzi’s guts clenched viciously as the air constricted around her.
“And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. At last, it’s time to name our student participants in this year’s Chiefs vs Cowboys race.”
There was spotted applause while most hung on for the rollcall of names to commence.
“From East 4, we have Suneqa Piori.”
The buzz from the crowd picked up momentum as a girl was led through the school gates at the far end of the sports ground and brought to stand before the podium. She grinned at the attention, but her eyes were wide and wild. Disconnected. She struggled to keep still.
“From South 5, we have Lexas Corby. Also from South 5, Kieron Montrose …”
The crowd applauded again. The sound spun and flattened in Suzi’s ears as she questioned whether that had really been the name of her own son she had just heard. Were they really going to make him race. She tried to look up, wanting to see him, wanting to let him know that she was there, but her eyes were locked onto the ground. Everything fell around her at angles. The sound of the crowd lurched and swam. If she looked up, she knew she would fall too.
“… from South 7, Abadon Maguire …”
The voice continued, the names fading into the background as Suzi struggled to keep her legs from crumbling beneath her. The crowd was in a frenzy, but the din barely reached her ears. Somewhere out there stood the parents of the other seven children who had just been named. Were they going through the same hell?
She could run. Pretend that none of this was about to happen. But how could she leave Kieron out there on his own? She needed him to know that she was there. She needed him to see her and then run for his life. She straightened her back and began pushing her way towards to the front of the crowd. A wall of grey cloud drifted across the sun overhead, unleashing a cruel breeze that prickled her flesh. Anonymous elbows and shoulders jostled her brutally. Voices shouted in her ear. None of it mattered.
The crowd disappeared from around her and she found herself standing at the boundary of the track. The officials had cleared the North and East sides the moment the children had been brought out. They were now assembled at the starting line, each wearing the same look of confused elation. None of them were able to keep still. For the first time, Suzi wondered what they were given to make them that way: what had they given her son to make sure he ran?
Finally, she saw him. Runner number 4. Her son. A wave of conflicting emotions ran through her. Excitement that she could see him. Fear at what was about to happen. Anger that they had let it all come to this. He noticed her and waved, his hand shaking enthusiastically. For a long moment she couldn’t move. She forced herself to breathe. Then she smiled and raised her hand. It was time. It was over. All she had left now was the regret of not having done more.
“Wonderful,” Mrs Douglas announced. “Wonderful. Our Chiefs are ready to run. Now it’s time to invite our Cowboys—our excellent and dedicated teachers and our privileged parent volunteers—to step forward and take their positions.”
A group of adults moved through the crowd and lined themselves up within a cordoned-off area at the south side of the track. As per tradition, the Cowboy group comprised one teacher from each class that had a student in the race alongside four parent volunteers whose names were drawn from a ballot. Suzi’s mouth dropped as she recognised one of the parents. She fought her way to the cordon.
“Peter? Peter!” she called out. The man she was shouting at turned around, his face wearing the same peculiar and heightened expression she had seen on the kids. “Peter? What are you doing? Lexas is in this race! Your own … I don’t—what are you doing?”
Peter grinned at her, his mouth stretching a little too wide. “I’m evening out the odds, right? Giving her a fighting chance. Or this’ll teach her a lesson she won’t forget, right?”
Peter’s voice buckled a little at the end, then fell into hysterical laughter. He turned away from Suzi and focused on the track as if she had never been there. Suzi had nothing she could say. A stench suffused the air: a fog of sweat and fear, and something even more grotesque swimming beneath it all. It threatened to overwhelm her.
“Gentlemen! Cowboys!” Mrs Douglas announced. “We invite you to take up your arms.”
The solemnity of business descended upon the group of men as they drew and inspected their weapons. Once those brief formalities were concluded, they arranged themselves in a line facing the track. Each of the teachers held a standard issue hunting rifle. The parents were allowed to carry whatever non-automatic weapon they happened to own: two held pistols; the remaining pair had armed themselves with rifles.
Suzi focused on the children, watching Kieron as if all the attention she could possibly throw at him might act as a shield. The seconds crawled by, labouring the moment. The sound of everything thundered into the distance.
The teachers raised their weapons into the air. There was a hushed pause. Then the weapons fired once in shambolic unison.
And the race was on!
The children bolted across the starting line. The teachers hurried to reload their weapons. One of the runners at the back stormed through the others, knocking a smaller child to the ground. Suzi tried to remember what his name was. Jono? Jona? It troubled her that she couldn’t remember.
The fallen child rolled over and pushed himself back to his feet. The sound of a shot cracked through the air. The boy fell to the ground, clutching his thigh. Just a wound—the lowest possible score—but he was legally out of the race as long as he could get himself clear of the track. He crawled desperately away from the painted lines, tears streaking his face, blood trailing behind. Suzi started wishing the same fate for Kieron.
The other children ran, working hard to keep up with one another. Stragglers in the race made for easy targets.
Two more shots sounded, both missing their mark.
The crowd, wild at the start of the race, grew quiet and tense as the runners drew to the near side of the track. The teachers now had the opportunity of a close-range shot, but at the cost of less time to aim. All weapons pointed forward, barrels following the children as they approached. The jostling amidst the runners increased, faster ones trying to flank slower ones, forcing them to take the shots.
The guns roared, a staccato chorus barking at the runners. The air filled with a tinnitous ringing as the echo from the shots faded. A savage howl rose from the crowd: two runners had fallen. One had taken a bullet to the head and lay unrecognisable in the middle of the track. The second clutched his chest, fighting for breath that no longer had any chance of reaching his lungs.
Suzi heard a scream in the background. It could have been grief or elation; there was no way to tell. The sound quickly vanished beneath the clamour of the crowd.
Five runners left, Kieron still among them. The teachers reloaded again. The children had reached the far side of the track and slowed, trying to avoid getting close to the guns again while keeping up enough speed to avoid becoming an easy target.
Two guns fired. One of the runners whirled round and fell, struck in the back. The remaining four quickened their pace and raced on. Once again, Suzi tried to remember the fallen runner’s name—someone else’s child—and couldn’t, the absence of that knowledge further hollowing out the emptiness she felt.
Four runners. Suzi forced herself to search for their names. Kieron, of course. Lexas, Suneqa. The last one was Albed. No, Abadon? No, it was Abadon who had just fallen. The fourth child was … her name was …
Suzi looked up, drawn back to the race by an urgent murmur building within the crowd. The runners had clutched together as they approached the teachers’ enclosure, except for one who had fallen behind and had started weaving erratically from side to side across the track. It was Lexas, making it as hard as she could for the guns to find their target.
The runners came close. The teachers raised their weapons.
Then Lexas straightened her trajectory and ran directly towards the teachers’ enclosure. She propelled herself over the cordon and lunged at her father.
“You piece of shit!” she screamed, kicking at him and fighting to wrestle his weapon away.
Shocked briefly into immobility, the teachers recovered themselves a moment too late. Lexas seized the weapon and fired it, the bullet missing her father but striking Mr McGough, her History teacher, point blank in the chest. He fell the to ground, eyes glassy and blank. The other teachers, propelled into action by the brutal reminder of their own mortality, grabbed Lexas and hurled her back onto the racetrack. Three of their guns roared at her, ruining her chest and left shoulder. She lay still on the ground.
Suzi watched Lexas’s father staring at the body, his mouth in a futile, silent scream. He wasn’t going to be taking part in the race again any more than his daughter was.
Three runners left, pacing themselves at the far side of the track. A shot caught one of them in the back, startling the other two into urgency. The stricken runner fell, twitching; Suzi guessed he would probably live.
Two runners. It was between Kieron and Suneqa.
The teachers lowered their guns and conferred, giving the children a few moments of respite. The next shot had to be chosen carefully: if both runners were to fall, the race would be forfeit and the teachers would lose any claim to the winnings. There had to be a winner. The rules forbade anything else.
Suzi prayed that the teachers would decide to target Suneqa. The thought instantly caused her to retch, the poisonous bile fighting for escape. She stood her ground, not wanting to distract Kieron by showing any weakness.
The teachers finished their conference and lined up once again. Suneqa and Kieron fought to tighten up the distance between them, realising the endgame was now upon them. Each tried to position themselves behind the other.
Suneqa claimed the advantage as they rounded the near side of the track, shielding herself on the inside position and leaving Kieron in full view of the teachers. Suzi held her breath. No shots came. It was too close; the teachers couldn’t be certain of hitting only one child at that distance.
The two runners reached the bend and started to swing around to the far side. The teachers readied their aim, but the children were still too close to one another. The Cowboys wouldn’t fire until they were given a clear shot. And Suzi wouldn’t know which one they were aiming at until they fired.
The crowd gasped. Suzi didn’t register the shot until a moment later, her brain shocked into deafness by the sudden conclusion of the race. But something was wrong. Suneqa rolled onto her back and stared up at the sky, her eyes bright and clear. She was blinking. Breathing. Laughing. Still alive.
Suzi forced her eyes to follow further along the track. She saw Kieron lying there. Face down. Maybe he had stumbled too? Perhaps it was just a shadow colouring the grass under his chest. She waited for him to roll over again, the way Suneqa had. Nothing happened. He lay still. No movement. No life. Suzi felt as though it were her own heart that had stopped beating.
A murmur grew through the crowd, building rapidly into a victory cry. They had their winner. The race was finally over. All the emotions—the bloodlust, the horror, the excitement—all of it came out at once. A group of adults dragged Suneqa from the track and carried her to the podium, holding her arms up high in a travesty of a victory march. Suneqa’s eyes were hollow, tears poured from them. She seemed as though she would fall back to the ground if people weren’t there to hold her up.
Suzi looked back to where her son lay. Quickly forgotten. With the race over now there was no hurry to move him off the track. She kept waiting for him to move, but he continued to lie there, blood leaking from him in a steady stream.
Such a simple thing. One runner left. One runner down. That was how the race worked.
Such a simple thing. One bullet. One death. A few seconds ago she had had a son. Now she had no one. Where were the parents of the other fallen children? Were they celebrating too? Mourning? The crowd blurred into a mass of grotesque celebration. And at the head of it all stood Mrs Douglas, smiling and waving, soaking in the great victory of the day.
Suzi walked to the teachers’ enclosure. The murderers were all busy now, celebrating the end of the race. They had thoughtlessly left their rifles stacked against a corner post.
She picked one up and checked the chamber. She weighed it and held it out. She placed her finger on the trigger and aimed.
Such a simple thing.
Exclusive to Slightly Odd Tales!