I was no stranger to pressure of competition, but this eco-challenge race in the Pacific Islands was a different new game. Nearly a thousand participants joined to complete a race through one of the most dangerous mountain ranges in the world, aptly called the Devil’s Playground, in pursuit of glory and riches.
I could feel all eyes on me -- Ben Kelly, younger brother to Andrew, Greg, and Sean Kelly, all of whom dominated the same race one after another nearly two decades ago.
“Hello, sponsor’s ace,” a voice beside me said as we listened to the organizer’s final instructions. I was immediately conscious of the main sponsor’s colors on my uniform. Sean’s outdoor gear company was bankrolling this event.
I turned to wryly smile at the man and recognized him as one of the runners-up during Sean’s race, the New Zealander. His answering smile was mocking.
II. The Superman Curse
I looked over to where my brothers were standing. Andrew wheeled himself forward and motioned for me to come closer, ignoring the stares. Many of the spectators, especially those who raced with him, reacted with shock and dismay when he arrived in a wheelchair.
“Osteonecrosis. It happens to the best of us,” Andrew had explained good-naturedly to people several times in the last thirty minutes. He had adapted gracefully to his change of lifestyle, but there were times when his true feelings about his disability became obvious.
“Go get them, boy!” Andrew said fiercely, grabbing me by the arms as he pulled me down for a hug. “God knows, if I still had my legs, I’d be racing with you today!”
His eyes were as bright as his ultramarathon medals. My eldest brother won his race by sheer endurance, even if he never took the allowed shortcuts. He simply ran the trails faster than everyone, refusing to rest the whole way. Cagi laba, the natives called him, a very strong wind that passed through the mountains.
Nearby, Greg made a face, not bothering to hide his disapproval. Funny how it was Greg who adamantly dissuaded me from joining the race when I came of age. Of the three, Greg finished the fastest, twenty hours before any of his competitors – an unbroken race record – and he did it with much aplomb. Contrary to Andrew, Greg took all of the allowed shortcuts at daredevil speed. Watching videos of his amazing stunts was what got me into parkour.
Greg’s nervous breakdown was more of a shock than Andrew’s bone disease diagnosis. Some gossipmongers talked about illicit drug use, which was ludicrous. Apparently, people thought serious athletes in tiptop shape would be immune to mental health problems.
Others began talking about this thing called the Superman curse, in reference to the personal and professional failures that afflicted all the actors who played the superhero in movies. Why would two all-around athletes suddenly fall ill seemingly from out of the blue?
Cursed. Yeah, right. I scoffed silently, looking over to the man who had everything going for him since he won his race. Sean still looked the way he did when he stood on the makeshift podium. A beach-blonde Tarzan. He became a millionaire in his twenties and was currently womanizing his way through his third divorce. Still a stud at thirty-eight.
Sean came over to join the bro-lovefest with Andrew, squeezing my shoulders hard. “Remember what we talked about,” he whispered urgently before pushing me forward to the starting line.
Last night, my brothers came to my hotel room and bequeathed me their talisman. It’s a moldy betel fruit, brown with age, with a thick fraying black string tied knotted around it. A leather cord had been attached to the top so one can wear it like a long necklace.
“According to the rules, you’re allowed to hire up to two locals to serve as guides when you reach the darker parts,” Sean said, leaning forward intensely, “you pay them, of course.”
“Wear that thing outside your shirt for our aborigine friends to see when you reach the shadowed area,” Andrew said sagely with a glint in his eye, pointing at the talisman, “They know these mountains better than the more civilized locals that hang around the stops.”
Andrew had befriended a Veli tribesman in that same area and bribed him with money and a local drink called yaqona to entice them to help him and not his competitors. A deal was made. The native gave him the charm to brand him as a friend of the tribe and offered to help him again the next time he passed through. Greg and Sean who came after him were treated in the same way.
“No,” Greg interrupted quietly from his spot near the door, not looking at me, “Ben should decide for himself who he asks help from. It’s his race.” He stepped out with no other comment. Andrew and Sean exchanged a meaningful look.
“Poor guy. Lost his nerve,” Sean muttered under his breath, glancing at the door. Andrew grunted in reply.
A great war cry from the contestants mingled with the excited cheers of the spectators as the race started. The first leg required a non-stop sprint toward the water edge, building fragile bamboo rafts, and using them to traverse the wide lake to reach the foot of the mountains. It was twilight when I arrived to where transactions were made between contestants and the local guides.
“The best ones are taken,” a familiar voice said. The kiwi with his local guides already strapped to the nines with rappelling gear, packs, flares, and headlamps. I didn’t answer. I was out of the clearing like a shot to the amazement of everyone.
Unlike them, I was unencumbered by local companions. I would find my own guide elsewhere, but it was fun to let them think that I needed no help.
I slowed down to a walk when I reached the forested part of the crags. I peeked through small gaps in the trees looking for small tribal huts amidst the thick trunks of trees in the foggy distance.
“Bula! Bogi!,” I called out, using the traditional greetings for entering someone’s house at night. No response. I shook out Andrew’s talisman, hoping the aborigines would see it. I was starting to feel stupid when I saw a shadow move.
“Vakabilo, you have returned,” a quiet female voice said, her low-timbered alto muffled by the fog. I can just make out a tiny girl with long dark hair that reached her waist, covering her breasts. She was wearing a fraying brown sack for a skirt.
“You mean my brothers. This is my first race,” I chuckled, amused that locals could hardly tell us apart. The Kelly brothers did look identical – very Caucasian with long blonde hair, with tall and muscular stature-- though I‘d like to think that I looked the most like Sean.
“Bula,“ I repeated my greeting when I approached, my headlamp illuminating her small brown face dominated by almond-shaped eyes and a smile showing uneven teeth. “Should I pay now or later?”
“You pay when you win,” she replied. The strange echo in her tone must have been the effect of the dense air around us. I watched her skip ahead in the direction of the marked trail, lithe and sure-footed. Suddenly, she stopped.
“No zoom-zoom,” my guide said from under the fern where she ducked when the lighted camera drones passed by. Right. My brothers had mentioned that the aborigines were camera shy.
We were on the first of the two legitimate shortcuts –– an easy sprint through hairpin bends on the cliff’s face. I looked up to see several flares bursting upward along with the sound a helicopter’s whirling blade. Some contestants have given up.
Along with the helicopters came the camera drones taking videos of our progress through the mountains. I waved to the lighted drone above while doing a series of somersaults, showboating a little. On my third jump, however, I had a sinking feeling that my landing would be bad.
My foot slipped, and I skidded farther down until I landed on a narrow rock protrusion.
“You are not dead,” my guide said from above.
"Nope. Wait there, I’m coming back up,” I called out, preparing to haul myself up.
“No! Look!” she pointed to my right. Across the narrow gap, three meters away from where I fell was the middle part of the second legitimate shortcut. We were supposed to rappel from the top of the opposite rock. I could just make out the thick, white ropes resting on the black surface.
There was also a long ledge going at the side of the flat area, hidden from view of anyone looking up or down. It was also shadowed enough that even the light from the drones wouldn’t reach it.
A blind spot. An unsanctioned shortcut.
My heart was pounding as I realized I could easily make the jump to that ledge. I could reach the middle part of the rappel without having to go up the long trail to the top of the opposite cliff.
“Do it! While there is no light!” a harsh voice said. With the rush of blood in my ears, I could hardly tell if it was the native speaking or if the voice was from inside my mind. It would be outright cheating. My stomach dropped as I realized I was about to do.
What I absolutely did NOT want to do.
What would I tell my family if I were caught cheating on the most important race of my life? The sponsor’s ace exploiting a loophole like some desperate amateur. I imagined Sean, the company president, red-faced and defensive during a press conference while trying in vain to defend my misdemeanor.
I made the decision to go back to the long trail, even as I felt my chances of winning plummet. My competitors would be way ahead now.
“Last chance…” It’s that voice again.
“No!” I shouted in reply, and climbed faster.
I reached the top and stared at the native standing there. I could feel her irritation, though she was silent. Her stony face was as cold as the sudden drizzle that struck my skin.
“You disappoint,” I seemed to hear her whisper as I turned and sprinted away.
I saw her or others like her in my peripheral vision as I ran like the wind toward the rappel area. They were watching me. But, it was nearly dawn, and the early morning light might have been playing tricks on my vision. I forced myself not to think about my choice on the opposite cliff face and focused on the rappel down.
I looked down just in time to see the smug face of the kiwi at the bottom of the ravine, staring up at me. He stuck a middle finger out in my direction, and he was gone.
VI. The thing that makes you live
I could feel the sting of defeat gather around my eyes as I reached the final pitstop in the mountains just as the morning rays broke through the clouds. The kiwi was at least five minutes ahead, even if I ran like a maniac. I also needed to stay at the last pitstop for the mandatory fifteen minutes. There was no way I could still win.
As I approached, one of the local organizers ran toward me eyes wide with what seemed like fear. Panicked I twisted around, but found only empty path behind me.
“Bula! What’s the matter, man,” I asked, alarmed.
“Dark shadows follow you,” he replied fearfully in broken English, reaching inside his pocket and sprinkling what looked like white crystals on the ground. “Salt. To keep away the tesovo. Evil beings live in the mountains”
“What?” I exclaimed, “Relax, man. Those might be the Veli tribes people I met. Chill!” I tried to calm him down as he dragged me hurriedly toward the tents, muttering epithets beneath his breath. The man seemed to become even paler at my words.
“Veli? No, no,” He shook his head, whispering urgently, “Veli are small creatures who never interact with men. They come to camps sometimes and steal iron pots, but nothing more!"
"If you met someone and spoke with them like civilized men... they are not Veli! They are tesovo! Shapeshifters! They take the face of people who died.”
It was my turn to be paralyzed with shock as goosebumps ran up and down body. I could see in my mind’s eye the girl who served as my guide, the way she spoke without seeming to move her lips. And the way she looked at me when I did not do what she wanted me to.
“Shapeshifters…” I swallowed hard, forcing myself to ask a nagging question, “What is a vakabilo?”
The local stared at me intently for a full minute before answering.
“A vakabilo means cupbearer. He is someone who carries a cup to drink with a tesovo when asking a big favor. In exchange, the tesovo takes something from the vakabilo as payment. Did you make this deal?”
“No, of course not!” I answered quickly. Although I did not make a deal, I knew someone who did. Andrew. My most competitive brother to whom winning was everything.
"What do they ask as payment?” Is this like a pact with the devil? Do they take someone’s soul?
“They take the thing that makes you live…” The man said weakly, suddenly looking like he wanted nothing to do with me anymore. He bolted.
What makes a person live? I ruminated on this as I grappled with my shock. Andrew’s legs were his life. The tesovo might have taken them in payment for his win. Now, he could no longer join the ultramarathons and triathlons he loved so much.
And then, with dawning realization, I realized that Greg, too, might have succumbed to the cursed offer. They took his nerve, his fearlessness and daring, until what was left was an anxiety-ridden man, a slave to medication.
Sean, though, was left untouched. The golden boy. Was it possible that Sean won it all by his own power? I had never felt prouder of my favorite brother than at this moment.
With unsteady hands, I removed the cursed necklace from my neck and dropped it on the ground, stamping on it as I ran to the finish line .
The podium was filled with celebrating people, mostly New Zealanders and Australians who were celebrating their win against the Americans this year. Around the podium, though, the vibe was dismal, especially in the sponsor’s booth. I finished fourth over-all, not even making bronze.
Andrew, as I expected, was inconsolable. He left by helicopter as soon as they awarded the medals to the three finalists. He didn’t even look at me.
Greg was beaming, wearing an expression I had not seen in a long time. He hugged me and kissed my cheek, thanking me for making a good choice. Our eyes met, and I understood why he was happy. He knew.
Sean, though, was acting odd. After making sure that I was fine with not winning, he ignored me completely. He just stood staring at the emptying podium until sunset. He had a faraway look in his eyes.
“The yacht’s here,” I said, touching his arm gently. Sean sighed.
“You probably don’t know…” He began, his voice nostalgic. ”No one talks about how I got married right after my win, right on this island, on that podium. She worked for the sponsoring organization and we fell in love right here."
" A Fijian shaman officiated the impromptu wedding. We were supposed to get married again in the states, but she got bitten by a spider and died soon after.”
Whoa. I didn’t know about this, but no surprises there. They only ever told me about their wins, never about their losses, and never about their pain. I was saddened by the expression on Sean’s face. For the first time, I saw all the lines on his face without the boyish smile. He looked old.
“I’m sorry, bro” I said gently.
He opened his hand and showed me a folded photograph of a young Sean hugging a small Asian girl in sponsor gear. She was looking directly at the camera, almond-shaped eyes bright with love; her captivating smile showing uneven teeth. I was speechless as I realized that I have seen her or seen someone who looked like her very recently.
“Her name was Miyako,” Sean was saying softly. “I guess this explains why I’ve only dated Asian women since that time, eh? I never got over her.”
With a sinking feeling, I realized that Sean, too, drank from the cup of temptation and lost something irreplaceable on this island. And worst of all, he had absolutely no idea how happy he could have been if only he didn’t give in. If only.