“Hey, Sam, I challenge you to a jump rope match,” Sarah yelled at her brother when he walked by. With all her practicing, she was confident that she could beat him. Plus, everyone knew that jumping rope was a girls’ sport, and that would give her an added advantage. Today, she would finally beat her brother at something.
Sam never backed down from anyone, especially his sister. As far back as he could remember, they competed at everything, and he always won. Both siblings were athletic, but Sam always ran faster in races or scored more points in basketball or knocked down more pins in bowling. Both were smart, but Sam always got a few more points on homework assignments or received commendations on projects or got the extra credit question correct on tests. And he beat all her friends, too.
“Sure, I have some time to kill,” Sam chuckled.
He and his friends walked over to Sarah’s group. When the kids nearby heard about the contest, they all ran over to watch, creating a small crowd that got the attention of the playground monitors. And when the monitors rushed over to check on the commotion, all the other kids on the playground dropped what they were doing and ran over, too. What started out as a simple jump rope contest between two siblings had now transformed into a heavy weight championship match that involved the entire playground. After learning the details of the challenge, the crowd quickly separated into two distinct groups – a group of boys and a group of girls – that encircled Sam and his sister. The two monitors agreed to be judges.
Sam insisted that Sarah jump first since she challenged him, and so it was. The rope turners started the ropes, the girls’ side of the crowd cheered, and Sarah jumped in. She started by jumping on both feet to warm up. Then she jumped on her right foot twenty times before switching to her left foot for another twenty jumps. After that, Sarah ran in place for one minute. She cycled through these tricks for five minutes and jumped a total of four hundred sixty-three times before being tripped up trying to turn around.
Sarah’s face radiated with confidence as she approached her brother and said, “Your turn.”
The boys roared as the rope turners started the ropes again. Sam told the two girls turning the ropes to increase their speed, which caused the boys to cheer even louder. Sam performed the same tricks as his sister, but also threw in jumping jacks, pushups, and turns during his routine. At six hundred jumps, he told the rope turners to slow down because he had one last trick to show off. Sam performed a backflip and exited the ropes with a front flip. The boys cheered and gave Sam high fives.
Sarah stood alongside the girls with her head down, the smile having left her face at his four hundred sixty-fourth jump. She didn’t need to watch the rest of his routine, for it was just her brother showing off. When her friends gushed over his backflip, she just sighed and looked away.
Sam walked to Sarah and said, “Nice try, Sarah. Better luck next time.” He didn’t need to say anything else; beating her at her own sport in front of the entire school was enough humiliation.
So Sam’s winning streak continued, but this was all about to change.
On his way home that afternoon, Sam whistled to himself and walked with the proverbial spring in his step. Life was good. He turned the corner onto Grace Road and continued down the street with a smile firmly glued to his face. Sam lived at 316 Grace Road along with his sister and parents, George and Jenny, and considered it the best place to live.
The neighborhood had everything he could want. Because it was in an older section of town, the house wasn’t crammed onto a tiny lot. No, the extra-large yard gave him plenty of room to run and play, as if he were at the park. And with only twenty houses on his block, the street lay empty most of the time, allowing Sam and his friends to play street hockey any time they wanted.
Sam grew up on Grace and during his nearly ten years there, only a handful of families had moved out. But this year two families moved away because of the bad economy – the most recent being Sam’s next-door neighbors, the Owens. Their house was purchased by a new family, but he was still in school when they moved in so he didn’t meet them.
The next morning George took his family to meet their new neighbors. They brought along a plateful of chocolate chip cookies Jenny and Sarah had baked as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood present. George rang the doorbell and waited.
His face beamed when Mr. Santos opened the front door. “Hi, Peter, remember me?”
“Yes, you’re George. You live next door and helped us move in yesterday,” Peter replied.
“Right, my family brought yours a little welcoming gift,” George said, and he handed Peter the plate of cookies.
“Thank you, that’s very kind. Please, come in.”
Peter led them through the foyer, across the dining room and into the family room. It was a familiar trip, one they had taken many times. But now, the rustic dining table of the Owens’ that only seated four was replaced with an elegant table with eight equally beautiful chairs that dominated the dining room. And the walls, once adorned with abstract paintings, now stood bare.
In the family room Peter’s two daughters sat quietly on the carpet playing a board game. His wife was in the kitchen preparing a midmorning snack of trail mix and fruit. As George and his family sat on the couch, Peter asked his elder daughter to go get her brother. She sprung to her feet, ran upstairs, and returned a minute later with him. Peter gathered his family and introduced them.
“This is my beautiful wife, Maria,” he began. “Next to her are our three children: our son, Joshua, who just turned sixteen; our older daughter, Michelle, who is twelve; and our younger daughter, Ashley, who is nine.”
They walked over to the couch and shook hands with George and his family. George then introduced his family.
“What brings you good folks to our neck of the woods?” George asked Peter after everyone was introduced.
“I was hired by the high school to teach U.S. History and coach J.V. football.”
“That’s wonderful! You’ll love it here. We’ve been here for years and the people are nice and friendly. Where did you move from?”
“Phoenix. We lived there the last five years.”
“Well, it’s definitely not that hot here,” George chuckled.
“You got that right,” Peter agreed. “Everybody seems nice so far, willing to help us move in and all. I think we’ll like it here.”
Maria brought the trail mix, fruit, and some lemonade from the kitchen and offered the snacks to everybody. They talked for an hour before George and his family left, but not before being invited back for dinner, which they accepted.
At school Monday morning, Sam and Sarah spotted Ashley wandering through the halls.
“Ashley!” Sarah waved and called out from across the hall.
Ashley walked over to them. “Hello, Sam and Sarah, right?”
“Yes,” Sarah answered. “Did you find your class okay?”
Ashley blushed. “No, I think I’m lost.”
“It’s kinda tricky how the classrooms are arranged. Let me see your schedule,” Sarah said. She looked at Ashley’s schedule for a moment. “Okay, you’re almost in the right area. Your class is in the portable building the school put in this year. It’s next to the playground over there. Go down this hallway to the next row of classes and make a right. Room 16 is the last classroom. C’mon, I’ll show you.”
She took Ashley’s hand and led her away, leaving Sam behind. At lunch, Sarah introduced Ashley to her friends. She fit in like she had always been part of the group. And during the lunchtime soccer game, she amazed everyone with her speed. She outran all the girls and two boys – one of whom was Freddie, Sam’s best friend. Where was Sam? He was eating lunch and watching intently from behind the baseball diamond. He was the type of person who scouted potential rivals. “Always be prepared,” that was his motto. No one, boy or girl, was going to catch him off guard.
The Santos family lived quietly in the neighborhood for a month, going about their business and saying hello to everyone they ran across. Everybody liked them, even the kids in Peter’s classes. One Saturday evening Peter dropped by to talk with George. He had an idea he thought the entire neighborhood would enjoy.
“Back in Phoenix, we held a block party every year. We roasted a pig and all the neighbors brought their favorite dishes. There was a live band and activities for everyone; my favorite was the races. We also blocked off the street so the kids could play in it. Do you think the neighbors would be interested in such a thing?” Peter’s heart raced as he waited for an answer.
“I think that’s a fantastic idea,” George replied. “I would join in, and I think a lot of the neighbors would, too. Have you discussed it with anyone else?”
“No, I wanted your opinion first since I know you best.”
“Like I said, I’m all for it. Tell you what, why don’t the two of us go around the block tomorrow and ask?” George suggested, always happy to help.
“Okay, that sounds like a good idea,” Peter answered. They exchanged more ideas for another half hour before Peter left.
The next morning George and Peter knocked on all the neighbors’ doors and asked if they would participate in a block party. Everybody thought it was a terrific idea. In fact, most wondered why they had not thought of it before. A date one month away was set in order to organize, obtain city permits, and give the neighborhood band, a group of brothers, time to practice.
The day of the party arrived and all the neighbors came out, even those from nearby streets. Everyone brought his favorite dish and placed it on tables set up under colorful canopies on George and Peter’s front lawns. Streamers were hung on trees, balloons were tied to fence posts, carnival-style games were set up on lawns, and the street was blocked off at both ends with concrete blocks. The neighborhood looked like a fair.
Across from George’s house, a stage as large as the driveway on which it was being built was prepared for the band. With ten people working on it, the stage was quickly erected. The band set up its musical equipment and played a set of songs. Those who weren’t busy pulled up chairs and sat down to listen.
Meanwhile, preparations were made for the main attraction: the races. A broad yellow line – the same yellow used on school buses – was painted in the middle of the unmarked road, dividing it into two equal running lanes. White starting and finishing lines were also painted on the road and a giant scoreboard was affixed to Peter’s fence. Races were created for everybody, kids and adults.
While all this was happening, George and Peter were grilling hamburgers and hotdogs for lunch; their wives arranged the neighbors’ dishes on the decorated tables. When they finished grilling, lunch was served, buffet- style. After lunch, the band played their second set of songs. This time everybody gathered around to listen. Some little kids even danced in the street. After forty minutes of music, the carnival games started. The few who didn’t play sat and talked with each other. When the games ended at four o’clock, the races began. They were based on age and were run in ascending age groups, except for the eight-to-ten-year-olds, who would run last. When dinner was ready, the races were halted.
Just after six, the final set of races was run. The eight-to-ten-year-olds were featured because they were the largest group. The girls, who had fourteen runners, raced first. The first three races were close: the winners winning by only one or two steps. Ashley’s race was next, and she beat her opponent by no less than five steps. She continued winning the elimination rounds, eventually winning the girls’ races. The boys had twelve runners. Sam ran in the second race and advanced to the final round, which he barely won.
While Sam was running his races, Sarah found Ashley and congratulated her.
Sarah gave Ashley a big hug. “You were great, Ashley!”
“Thanks, you weren’t so bad yourself,” Ashley replied.
Sarah laughed. “Are you kidding? I didn’t even make it out of the first round. Anyway, it looks like my brother is going to win the boys’ races. How would you like to race him?”
“Yes, but you’re faster. Remember Freddie from school?”
Ashley thought for a second and then nodded.
“Well, he’s faster than Sam and you beat him,” Sarah reminded her.
“I’m not so sure,” Ashley continued wavering.
After more nudging, Ashley finally agreed and the two discussed it with Ashley’s father, the judge. He thought it was a great idea and agreed to it if Sam was willing. Sarah was elated; she had been waiting endlessly for a friend who could beat her brother…at anything.
At the conclusion of the races, all the runners were invited onto the stage. It was time to award the ribbons and trophies. Once again, the eight-to-ten-year-olds were saved for the end because of Sarah’s plot to embarrass her brother. Sam accepted his trophy first and left the stage. After Ashley accepted her trophy and left the stage, Mr. Santos announced the challenge.
“May I have your attention, please?” Peter said. “Before we call it a night, we have a special challenge. Ashley, the girls’ winner, is challenging Sam, the boys’ winner, to one last race. What do you say, Sam?”
Led by Sarah, the crowd erupted into chants of “Sam, Sam, Sam.” Ashley ran back onto the stage and waited for an answer. Sam was at the refreshments table when his sister found him.
“Aren’t you going to accept the race?” she asked.
Sam was in no hurry to answer her. He drank his cup of soda and looked around the table for something to eat. After opening a bag of potato chips, he answered, “I do not think so.” He remembered Freddie getting beaten at lunch a month ago, and he wasn’t about to be humiliated in front of the entire neighborhood. He poured himself a plateful of chips and tried to escape his sister’s plot, but that didn’t work because the boys from Sam’s races made their way to the siblings.
“What’s it going to be?” one boy asked.
“Don’t tell us you’re scared,” another teased.
Of course, they would not have accepted
Ashley’s challenge had they won. They only wanted to see Sam lose, and they knew he would because they also saw Ashley beat Freddie.
“C’mon, is my big brother
afraid of a girl?” Sarah continued piling on.
Finally, Sam couldn’t stand the taunting anymore. “Okay, okay, let me go use the bathroom first.”
He left the mob and walked inside his house, knowing it was over for him. This time he was going to lose, for Sarah had finally found a friend who could beat him. His head began to spin as he thought about what to do. He couldn’t let Ashley beat him fairly, but how would he go about orchestrating that? And then an idea came to him. It was devious and desperate, but at the moment, pride was more important than principle. So in the bathroom, Sam tightened the shoelaces on his left shoe and loosened those on his right. He returned outside where everybody was still yelling for him to accept the challenge. He strutted onto the stage and approached the microphone.
Sam stood up as tall as he could, puffed out his chest and cleared his throat. “I accept, but just for one race. No matter what happens, no rematch.”
Ashley accepted the stipulation, and as the crowd roared, she and Sam walked to the starting line, where a referee was waiting. No trophy was at stake, just pride and bragging rights for a year.
They got into position behind the starting line and waited for the gun. 1…2…BANG! Sam beat Ashley off the starting line and had a short lead fifty feet into the race, but she began to catch up slowly. By the halfway mark, the race was nearly a dead heat. The crowd shouted and jumped up and down as the race tightened. Then a most tragic thing happened: Sam’s right shoe flew off his foot and into a neighbor’s flowerbed. The crowd gasped. Sam stumbled along the remainder of the race in his sock, losing easily to Ashley. After he retrieved his shoe, Sam joined Ashley on stage.
“Congratulations, Ashley,” Peter said.
“Thanks, Dad,” she replied.
“However, that wasn’t really a fair race since Sam’s shoe came off halfway. It looked to be anybody’s race.” Turning to Sam, he said, “I know what you said earlier, Sam, but would you like a rematch in light of what happened?”
“No, no,” Sam insisted. “I am a man of my word. Sure, my shoe flew off, but I said no rematch no matter what happened. I just want to congratulate Ashley on a good race and on her win. I will see you again next year, Ashley.”
Peter congratulated them once more and then led them off the stage as the band returned to perform its final songs. Sam had succeeded in ruining his sister’s scheme, but he knew it was just the first of her plots.
2 My Shoe Was Untied
With ten minutes left during lunch, Sam and his friends ended their baseball game and headed back to the classroom buildings. On their way back, they passed his twin sister, Sarah, who was jumping Double Dutch with her friends at the edge of the blacktop. She started jumping rope months ago after seeing a jump rope contest on television, and now she was good at it.