This story is by Candice Burnett and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The air rippled over the sun-baked asphalt causing the distant mountains to waver and dip. Jacob gulped nervously. Nausea was bitter in the back of his throat. Looking at the steep drop before him, the skateboard under his arm felt too light, too thin, too flimsy.
This was a stupid idea, he thought. He liked to skate, but this was suicide. His eyes shifted to the boy next to him.
“What do you think?”
“About what?” Max responded. He glanced over and sneered. “You scared?”
“No!” Jacob automatically protested. Admitting that his knees felt like jelly and his palms were sweating was impossible. If he chickened out, then Max could make his life hell at school. Max already didn’t like him – for no apparent reason Jacob could discern, except that Jacob was new to the school. Max was a shark, circling the school, and Jacob was fresh meat.
“You call yourself a skater, you gotta prove it,” Max said with authority. He could tell the kid next to him was scared. Hell, he was almost shaking with fear. Max smiled confidently. He would chicken out and Max wouldn’t have to skate the deathtrap that lay before them. In his most private thoughts, Max would admit that trying to skate this hill was a very stupid idea. He had never had to skate it before, although he claimed to have done it. Everyone else he had brought out here had always given up first, proving Max was the bravest kid in school.
Max’s Mum had died when he was a baby, so he had been raised by his father and two older brothers. They spent every school holidays camping, fishing, shooting and dirt bike riding. You kept up or you got left behind.
It would probably surprise Jacob to know that Max didn’t hate him. And he didn’t mean to bully the kid, it was just his way. Everything was a competition for Max. Respect meant that you had to be stronger, faster, braver. And respect, his father told him, was important. Respect was more important than friends.
“Man, it’s hot today,” Max said casually. The heat was stabbing through the thin soles of his shoes so that it felt like his feet were boiling inside his sweat-soaked socks. He laid his palm against the road surface and quickly yanked it back. “Ouch! Hot enough to fry an egg.”
Jacob swiped at the sweat beading on his upper lip. “Yeah. I never felt heat like this before.”
“Where you from?”
“You get snow there, right?”
“Yeah,” Jacob nodded. “Some places do.”
Max looked out at the burning landscape that had been home all his life. “I’ve never seen snow,” he said wistfully.
“I snowboard every season.” Jacob paused. “I mean, I used to.” Horrified, he scrubbed at the tears welling in his eyes, pretending he was wiping away sweat. Man, he missed his home so much. His Mum got a job working as an engineer out on the mine site and so he’d been dragged here to this sunbaked hellhole where the only snow came from the frost that built up in the freezer.
No, he had to stop being afraid and wishing that he was somewhere else. This was home now. He tilted his chin at a stubborn angle. “So, we gonna race or what?” Jacob demanded.
Max froze in disbelief. He stole a glance at Jacob and found no hesitation, all determination. This crazy kid was going to do it! Max shifted from foot to foot. “Uh, yeah, of course. Just taking in the view. High up here.”
He thought of the teasing he’d get if he quit now. No way could Max refuse, he’d be a laughing stock at school. An image of his father’s disappointed frown skipped through his head. Nope, no way out now, he couldn’t be left behind. If Jacob went, Max had to go too. He gripped his board.
“How far do we go?” Jacob asked.
Max squinted into the distance. “See those bushes at the bottom of the hill? That’s the finish line.” The adrenaline was rising now, pushing aside his fear. This was starting to sound like not such an insane idea. He could do this.
Jacob placed his board on the ground, one foot on the deck. He had attempted some of the hardest slopes on his snowboard. He could do this. He shook out his shoulders and hands. He shoved the fear aside, the fear that said this was an insane idea, that this hill was too steep, the road surface too unsteady. Fear held you back.
Max spun his board, the skull and crossbones on the deck flashing in the sun, then put it down in front of him, his foot bouncing on the tail. Respect. He looked over at Jacob and grinned. The kid had earned his respect. He held out his fist. “See ya at the bottom.”
Jacob grinned back and bumped his fist. For the first time since leaving New Zealand, he felt like himself. “See ya.”
“Loser buys the winner a coke.”
“Ready?” Max called and Jacob nodded, eyes on the horizon. “Go!” he yelled and pushed off.
They were flying down that hill. It was as bad as it looked from the top. Worse. Or better, depending how you looked at things. They both rode regular, their left foot on the deck and right foot scraping on the road as they both pushed until they reached top speed. Both used a short board, not really suited to racing, but they made it work. They were neck and neck. Neither had an advantage.
Both were grinning like idiots.
Jacob whooped as the hot air blasted him in the face. Max yowled back.
They were going to make it! Max couldn’t believe it. It didn’t matter who won now, he didn’t care.
Then the wheel on Max’s board cracked and his world went upside down. He didn’t even have time to scream or use of one his recently acquired swear words. His face was flying towards the ground and he instinctively put out his arm to break his fall. At that speed, nothing was going to break his fall. The sound of his arm breaking was sickening. He turned his head and puked at the sight of it.
Max dragged himself to his feet. His vision blurred and his stomach churned like a washing machine on spin. He swallowed convulsively, staggered and started to fall.
Then Jacob was there, right there, right next to him. “Hey, Max, hey, I’m right here. You’re alright.” Jacob wrapped an arm around his waist and walked them to the side of the road where a scrubby gum tree offered a hint of shade.
Max felt himself being carefully shifted to the sandy ground, propped up against the rough tree trunk. The ground was hot but he felt freezing. “Jacob.”
“Yeah, buddy, I’m right here. I called and they’re sending an ambulance.” Jacob was proud of how cool he sounded, not horrified at the sight of Max’s gross-looking arm.
Max wanted to say thank you, and maybe sorry for how he’d treated Jacob at school, and please don’t tell anyone I puked. “I owe you a coke,” he offered cautiously.
Jacob’s laugh was a surprised crack, but he could hear the tension beneath the pain in Max’s voice. He knew Max worried about what Jacob would tell people at school. “I tell you what, we fix your arm, fix your board, I’ll give you a rematch,” Jacob promised.
Max smiled, relieved. “You’re insane.”
Jacob took Max’s uninjured hand and squeezed it briefly, offering comfort to his new, and very weird, friend. “So’re you.”
Max leaned a little bit into Jacob’s shoulder. “Guess I am.”
As they sat there in the boiling heat waiting for the ambulance, Max decided that this was an excellent start to a friendship. “I was winning before my wheel gave out.”
“No way!” Jacob shifted so that his body shaded Max’s face. “You put too much pressure on your front foot.”
Max rolled his eyes. “Your balance is off.”
“Yeah well, you’re stupid…”