The sun burned down on my sweat-streaked face as I sprinted around the corner and began the last lap up the mountain. The boy beside me was clearly as tired as myself; his face was flushed dark red and he was breathing heavily, yet he kept on with the same determination. Darn it, would he ever fall behind? All the other kids had dropped out long ago, yet this one kept on. This could present a problem.
I put on an extra burst of speed, although all my muscles seem to shriek in protest. I was gasping with the effort now, sweat pouring down my face, heart pounding wildly...I didn’t think I could maintain this pace that long - if only the other boy would drop behind!
I risked a glance behind me, and to my utter frustration, the other boy had also increased his speed and was slowly gaining on me. I grit my teeth and forced the last little bit of energy out of my aching legs, but it was no use. He was again in line with me, racing neck-in-neck for the finish line.
A shadow fell across my burning face, and I looked up to see that we were passing under a rocky overhang. For a moment, I only thought of how wonderful the momentary shade felt to my aching body, but then another thought entered my mind. This was probably the one spot on the entire mountain where the judges could not see the contestants.
I mentally shook myself at the sudden thoughts that rushed into my head. No, a thousand times no, I would not cheat, I would win by my efforts, and my own efforts alone, I didn’t need that, I would do it myself…
I glanced across at my companion and realized with a sick feeling in my stomach that he was not slowing down; on the contrary, he seemed to be speeding up.
At that my limbs faltered slightly. I could not go any faster, could not force another iota of strength from my burning legs. My throat ached with thirst, my face was on fire, sticky rivers of sweat were pouring down the back of my neck…
The temptations came crowding back into my mind thick and fast. It would be so simple, just one little motion, and my competitor would be sprawling in the dust, giving me the few extra moments I needed to pull ahead.
Again I resisted. I couldn’t do this, it wasn’t like me, it was wrong, but my leg twitched in spite of myself.
I glanced over at my companion and caught the look of determination in his eyes. It was that look more than anything else that made my unconscious decision. This was a boy who intended to win.
Almost before my mind was aware that my body was doing anything, I felt my foot reaching out through the suddenly still air, coming in contact with his unprotected leg…
He stumbled suddenly, lurching forward, yet even as I began to pass him, he tripped on a large stone, jerked sideways, and plummeted off the edge of the cliff.
I came to a complete halt, suddenly incredibly sick. My mind seemed to burst open as the sudden realization of what I had done hit home: I was a murderer.
On legs that had suddenly turned to water, I stumbled over to the edge of the cliff and willed myself to look over. I didn’t want to know what had happened, didn’t want to maybe see his crushed and mangled body on the rocks below...My heart was pounding again, but not from running.
I looked over, and felt myself suddenly go limp with relief. The boy was not dead; he had miraculously landed on a small ledge just over the edge of the cliff.
“Hey, um, you alright?” I heard myself asking, my voice loud in my own ears.
The boy looked up. “Yeah, I’m ok, but I don’t think I can climb back up alone.”
“No problem. Here, give me your hand.”
In a few moments, I had drawn him back onto the cliff and we stood there looking at each other, panting with the recent exertion. I didn’t know what to say; what could you say to someone you had almost killed? I was so wrapped up in my own guilty thoughts that I didn’t realize I was crying until my mouth suddenly stung with something hot and salty.
I desperately tried to wipe away my tears before the boy noticed, but I could already feel another one slipping down my cheek.
“I’m sorry,” I gasped, completely starting to lose it, “I don’t know what came over me. I’m never like that, I-”
Just then a thought flashed through my head, shocking me with its implications. Of course, it was the only right thing to do...But did I have the strength to do it?
Taking a deep breath, I squared my shoulders and said in a mostly steady voice, “I know that no amount of apologies will ever make up for almost killing you, but I just wanted to say, you can go first.”
The boy looked back at me, and I suddenly realized that he was crying too. He cleared his throat twice, trying to speak, and finally managed,
“I just had to say, I’m sorry too.”
I stared at him, not comprehending. “What?”
“I’m sorry. I almost did the same thing to you.”
As I looked into his eyes, I felt something lifting inside me. It was not my fault entirely. I was not the sole cause of a near tragedy; he could have done the same thing.
The boy must have seen some of the relief on my face because he smiled suddenly.
“So, you see, I don’t really deserve to go first.”
I shook my head. “No, I’m not going to go first. You might have considered it, but I actually did it.”
The boy looked puzzled for a moment, but then said, “Ok, let’s go together.”
The judges had probably never seen such a strange finish to a race, but I didn’t care. As we trooped across the finish line in perfect synchronization, I realized that this was probably the first race I had ever lost. And yet, it somehow didn’t matter; something had changed for me at the edge of that cliff .
The delicate thread that holds life and body together had almost snapped in my hands, and forced me to comprehend its value. It had forced me to weigh the importance of my own decisions over the value of another life, shaking my world to pieces in the matter of a few moments. I knew I would never race, would never make any decision in quite the same way again; death had brushed too close for me to ever consider myself in the same selfish way.
As I was leaving the racing grounds with my family, I glanced once more at the boy, who was also preparing to leave. Once he became aware of my gaze, he looked up suddenly and gave me a quick half-smile. Yet there was something in his face that seemed different from before….Was it only my imagination, or had the experience so gravely shaken him as well?
I tore my gaze away and looked off broodingly into the distance.