By Sigmund Brouwer
“ Whale! Run, everyone. No, wait. I’ve got a harpoon and whale season just opened!”
I squatted with my back to the voice as I tied my track shoes. I heard my teammates laugh. I didn’t have to turn around to know who was yelling the insults. Steve Quinn — the fastest runner on the team.
I untied and retied my shoe so I wouldn’t have to look. I hoped I had guessed wrong at the person he was insulting.
“ That shows how stupid you are,” a loud voice retorted. “Whales aren’t land mammals. I am walking on land, so I couldn’t possibly be a whale. If you had an IQ above your shoe size, you would know that.”
I’d guessed right. The person being insulted was my younger brother, Aaron — younger by a year. Mom likes to describe him as husky, but she’s being nice. He’s gone beyond husky. Way beyond.
I straightened and turned. As I’d expected, Aaron stood there wearing loose sweats and an old sweatshirt. The team had gathered behind the school, waiting for the coach.
“ Oh, yeah?” Steve fumbled. He was tall with dark, curly hair. “I’d rather be dumb than look like you.”
“ How fortunate,” Aaron replied. “You got your wish.”
“ Look,” Steve said, instantly angry.
I stepped between them and spoke to my teammates.
“ See you on the track, guys.”
They took the hint. Even Steve. Aaron and I are both a little taller than Steve.
“ What’s up?” I asked Aaron.
“ Normally I don’t like to consort with jocks,” he said. “But I’ve been compelled to do so because Mom wanted you to know that she won’t be home for dinner tonight, and you’re supposed to pick up a bucket of chicken.”
Consort? Compelled? Who talks like that?
“ Aaron,” I said, “you could make things easier on yourself at school. I’ll help you get in shape — and you can help me with homework.”
We’d talked about this before. He dressed like a slob and spoke bookworm, almost like he wanted to prove that he was so smart he didn’t care what people thought.
“ Jimmy,” he said. “Don’t bother.”
He turned and walked away. I didn’t blame him.
A couple of days later, I sat in the den watching television when Aaron sprawled on the sofa with a big bag of potato chips. I knew he’d be here, because he rarely missed his favorite game show, “Jeopardy.” This program allowed him to demonstrate how smart he was.
“ What?” he asked in mock horror. “Not practicing today?”
“ Not today,” I said. “I thought I’d make a deal with you.”
I pointed at the television as the opening credits started. “If I get more answers right than you do, you come to the track with me every day after school for two weeks.”
I hoped that if I got him started with exercise, he might see how much good it could do.
“ And when I get more answers right than you?” he asked with a smirk.
“ I do your chores for the next month.”
“ Deal,” he said, ripping open the bag of chips and grabbing a handful. “I watch this show all the time. What chance do you have?”
Seconds later the show started: “James Madison University is located in this southern U.S. city.”
“ What is Harrisonburg, Virginia?” I said calmly.
Aaron’s mouth fell open, scattering bits of potato chips.
I was proud of Aaron.
He wasn’t a sore loser.
He showed up at the track as promised. No television. No potato chips. He worked as hard as he could, a slow jog as I stayed with him.
He couldn’t talk, though. He was puffing too much. Sweat rolled down his face, even though it was a cool, cloudy day.
I’d picked a time I expected we’d be alone, but Steve showed up to run laps.
“ Thought I felt an earthquake,” he said, passing us on the first lap.
Aaron was breathing too hard to reply.
“ I could crawl faster than you,” Steve taunted, passing us effortlessly on his second lap.
I bit back a response. Aaron ignored him.
“ Hey,” he jeered on the third lap, “I bet I could beat you blindfolded.”
Maybe it was the fact that my brother wasn’t in the library where his brains could protect him, but after Steve’s fourth pass, I saw tears in Aaron’s eyes.
I felt horrible. I had wanted to help him, but instead I’d forced him into a place where he couldn’t defend himself.
But Steve’s insult about a blindfold gave me an idea.
The next time he was about to pass us, I stopped him.
“ Ever hear of the tortoise and the hare?” I asked.
“ Like your brother could ever beat me in a race,” he snorted. “I’m Olympic caliber, baby.”
“ But you’re a jerk,” I said.
He grinned. “A very fast jerk.”
It was true. I trained hard, and I’d never beaten him.
“ Look,” I said, “give us a month. Let me pick the time and place. He’ll beat you in a race, no problem.”
“ Jimmy,” Aaron begged, “don’t do this to me.”
“ Any time, any place,” Steve sneered. “Just wait till I tell the whole school about this.”
He sprinted ahead.
“ Why are you doing this?” Aaron said. Gone was his usual attitude. He was nearly in tears again.
“ The why is easy,” I said. “You’re my brother. I love you.”
“ That’s how you show it? Setting me up to be humiliated in front of the entire school?”
“ Maybe not,” I answered. “I have a plan. You’re going to have to work hard for a month, but I think it will be worth it.”
We started training — the next day — in Veteran’s Park. A narrow path stretched from one end to the other along the creek.
Aaron and I stood at the beginning of the trail. He looked at the twisting path with trees on both sides.
“ This might actually work,” he said, cracking a smile.
“ We’ll run it every day for the next two weeks,” I said. “Memorize how many steps it takes to reach each turn.”
“ In two weeks,” I said, “you’ll be ready to run it blindfolded.”
A month later, on a cloudy day, I issued the challenge to Steve with the whole track team listening.
“ Remember you said you could beat my brother in a race?” I said. “Any time, any place?”
“ I’ve been waiting,” he sneered. “Thought you guys were afraid.”
“ Nope,” I said. “We’re ready. The place is Veteran’s Park. One end to the other.”
We lived in a small town. I didn’t have to explain any more.
Steve laughed, turning to the guys. “He actually thinks making it a cross country race is going to help his tortoise-shaped brother.”
He got the laughs he wanted.
“ So you agree?” I asked.
“ Any time.”
“ Good,” I answered. “See you tonight at eight.”
The forecast was continued clouds. No moon.
I shrugged. “Unless you’re afraid of losing.”
“ Eight o’clock,” he said. “Better bring a towel to cry in.”
Everything went exactly as planned.
Steve didn’t have a chance. Veteran’s Park was so dark that every time Steve tried to go faster than a walk, he smashed into a branch. Twice, he fell off the path and into the creek. A lot of kids had come to watch. They couldn’t see Steve, but they could hear him howling every 30 seconds.
Aaron, on the other hand, had spent the previous two weeks jogging the path blindfolded. He beat Steve by five minutes.
The next day, Aaron wandered into my bedroom as I struggled with math homework.
“ You’re not going to believe this,” he said, stretching his pants at the waist. “These don’t fit anymore. Could you keep working out with me?”
I smiled but felt guilty.
“ Sure,” I said. “But I have a confession about the Jeopardy game.”
“ Like how you cheated to beat me?” he asked.
“ You knew?”
Aaron had gone to a dentist appointment the day before our deal, and I’d taped the episode he missed, including commercials before and after. It gave me a chance to memorize the answers ahead of time.
“ I knew,” he said. “You forgot to take the tape out of the VCR. Smart way to beat me. Dumb thing to do after.”
“ But you pretended you lost that bet fair and square.”
He shrugged. “I figured if you wanted to help me that much —”
“ If I hadn’t rigged it, I would have lost,” I said. “I’ll do your chores for a month. That was the deal.”
Aaron grinned. “I’ve got a better idea. Just keep dragging me to workouts. Deal? ”
“ Deal,” I said.
Aaron gave me another grin. “Want some help with your math?”