The Bet

photo New York Post

A short story by Jeannette Miller Mickenham

*This time, he’s running for his life.

It wasn’t even about the money. It was a lot of money, Steve was sure, but running was going to keep him alive. Steve had been running his whole life. Literally. From the moment he learned to walk, he was off and running. His mother couldn’t keep up. His father, well, no one really knew who he was, so…at least his mother wouldn’t tell anyone who he was. Steve thought he had figured out who his father was one day when he had come home from a school track meet earlier than was expected. When he came through the door, his mother was in an embrace with an older gentleman wearing a suit. Not old, old, just older than her. And it wasn’t a loving embrace but more like he was holding her by the arms real close to him. They both turned and looked at him as if it was completely natural to find two people this way. The gentleman gently let go of Steve’s mother and smoothed out the wrinkles in her dress sleeves. Steve’s mom still wore dresses everyday even though the fashion of the times showed women wearing bell bottom pants and crocheted tops. She was traditional that way.

“You’re Steve,” the gentleman said. “I’m a friend of your mother.”

“Hello,” Steve said looking at his mother.

“You’re home early,” Steve’s mother replied, smoothing out her dress while she walked past him toward the kitchen. “How did the track meet go? You must be hungry.”

Steve stood there looking at the gentleman wearing the suit. It was like looking in a mirror but seeing an older version of himself. The gentleman stared back. Not in a grimacing kind of way but curious. Like he was looking at a younger version of himself.

“Steve?” his mother called. “Steve, are you hungry?”

“What? Oh yeah, sure.” Steve replied turning toward the kitchen. Steve’s mother was standing there with a plate piled with a sandwich, chips, and a pickle. He took the plate, sat at the kitchen counter, and began eating. His mother stood at the end of the counter, looked at the gentleman, then at Steve.

“So, you didn’t say how the track meet went,” his mother said.

With his mouth full, Steve replied, “Oh yeah, so the coach said some of the parents didn’t like that I was always winning. I guess they want their kids to get a ribbon once in a while.” Steve swallowed his food. “It isn’t my fault I’m fast. I just run when they say run. Anyway, coach thinks I would be better doing something else.” Steve took another big bite of his sandwich and shoved a couple of chips in his mouth.

“Something else?” his mother asked. “What does he mean? Do I need to talk to the coach about keeping you on the team?”

“No, Ma. Jeez. Coach wants me to run a marathon. On the long-distance team.” Steve replied through his chewing.

The gentleman in the suit finally spoke up. “The long-distance team. Sure. I bet you’d be good in a marathon.”

Steve stopped chewing and looked at the gentleman, “Thanks, Mister. But how do you know? You haven’t seen me run.”

“Naw, but I read the papers. There’s stories about you in there all the time. My associates and I make friendly wagers on your meets every week. So far, your running has kept me in the black all season. What do think a that?” the gentleman asked Steve.

Steve didn’t know what to say. First, he couldn’t believe this guy who looked like an older version of him was standing there watching him eat. Second, he couldn’t believe this guy was making money betting on whether he would win a track meet. And third, people read the track meet reports in the papers? Before he could answer, his mother chimed in.

“Now Reggie, don’t give Steve any silly ideas. He’s just a kid,” his mother gingerly interjected.

“Aw now, Rose,” the gentleman said shrugging his shoulders. The gentleman walked over to the end of the counter, put one hand on Steve’s shoulder and the other under Steve’s mother’s face squeezing her cheeks together. “I know he’s a good kid, relax, alright? I’m just saying he’d be good at running a marathon. Lighten up, will ya?” The gentleman looked at Steve and said, “Am I right kid?”

Steve wasn’t sure but he answered anyway, “Yeah, Ma, lighten up.”

The gentleman let go of Steve’s mother’s face, “So kid, when’s this marathon thing going down? I want to have time to talk to my associates,” the gentleman asked.

“Next Saturday?” Steve replied hesitantly.

“Saturday, huh? Doesn’t give you much time to train,” the gentleman said.

“Coach doesn’t think I need to train much since I run practically all the time,” Steve replied.

“Okay, good. Saturday it is. Tell you what kid, I’m gonna cut you in on the deal. You run that marathon on Saturday.  You win, I’ll give you a piece of the action,” the gentleman offered.

“Reggie, I don’t think-“ Steve’s mother interrupted.

“That’s the thing, Rose. You don’t think,” the gentleman said strongly, shutting Steve’s mother up. “Now look kid, you run the marathon and win, I give you part of take. Do we got a deal?” the gentleman asked.

“Isn’t gambling illegal?” Steve asked sheepishly. 

“What? Who said anything about gambling?” the gentleman retorted. “I’m just talking about a friendly wager amongst friends. There’s no harm in that.”

“What happens if I don’t win?” Steve asked the gentleman.

The gentleman looked at Steve, looked at Steve’s mother, tapping his fingers in a wave motion on the counter. After what seemed like forever, the gentleman looked back at Steve and said, “Don’t lose.” The gentleman’s eyes held Steve’s.  “What?!” the gentleman laughed. “I’m kiddin’. So what if you don’t win. It’s just a friendly wager. Come on, what didja think? I’m gonna give ya cement shoes or somethin’? You gotta watch less television, kid.”

Steve and his mother laughed along but looked at each other acknowledging the joke wasn’t really a joke and Steve had better win the marathon on Saturday. That was a week ago. Now, here he was, at the starting line. Steve thought about his mother. He turned and saw her behind the tape along the road. She was waving and smiling, but Steve knew the look in her eyes meant what ever happened, they would figure out how to get out of the mess together. How was he supposed to concentrate on running with the gentleman’s face in his head every time he closed his eyes?

Lost in thought with his eyes closed, he felt like he was being pushed, or carried, forward. The starting shot must have gone off. He hadn’t heard it. The wave of runners pushed him forward. It felt like he was running in slow motion. He saw his mother. The gentleman was standing right behind her. Something inside him kicked in. His feet began to move. Faster and faster. Steve pulled ahead of the runners. He knew he should pace himself but if he got enough distance between him and the rest of the marathoners, it would buy him time to think. Think of a way out of this weird friendly wager mess. The easiest way, of course, was to win. Take the money and quit running. Or not take the money? Is it an insult if you don’t take the money? How did she know the gentleman? Was he Steve’s father? It would explain a few things. For a kid with a single mother, he sure had the best running shoes. They weren’t the most popular running shoe and he never saw them in stores and these came from a friend she knew who had connections with a shoe company. He remembers her buying them from a guy who had boxes of them in his trunk. He liked the way they hugged his feet. They weren’t pristine white anymore and you could barely see the blue stripe along the sole but on the inside, his feet felt like he could run forever.

It felt like he had been running alone for miles when Steve heard a runner coming up behind him. As long as he didn’t let him pass or get too far ahead, he’d be okay. Let him pass? What did Steve think he was going to do? Trip the guy? Push him into the bushes? The weight of the friendly wager and winning was too much pressure. What if HE tripped? What if HE fell in the bushes? Then losing wouldn’t be his fault! He couldn’t be held responsible then, could he? Steve decided he wouldn’t take any chances. As the runner approached, he struck up a conversation.

“Hey,” Steve called out, “Do you want to run together for a while?”

The runner was passing him but slowed down to answer. “Sure, I mean my stride’s already broken so I might as well take it easy for a few miles. It’s just us.”

“Cool,” Steve answered. If he could keep the runner talking, the runner would lose some breath control and then when the time was right, Steve could sprint ahead leaving him in the dust. Steve never had trouble running and talking. He talked to himself so much while running, he figured he must have built up a stamina for it. He never seemed to get out of breath.

“Do you run marathons often?” Steve asked the runner and immediately felt lame for such a cliché sounding opening line.

“Yeah, I run a lot. I haven’t seen you before, though. You new?” replied the runner.

“My first marathon,” said Steve. “I mean, I run all the time; but this is my first marathon.”

“Thought so. You took off like a rocket instead of setting a proper pace for yourself,” said the runner.

“Proper pace?” Steve inquired.

“Yeah, you know, pace,” the runner panted. “It’s 13 miles. If you run too hard in the beginning, you’ll be too tired toward the end. But, if you don’t run hard enough in the beginning, you’ll never catch up,” the runner panted while he ran. “That’s where pacing comes in. Knowing what pace to start so you’ll be able to stay through to the end.”

Steve had never really talked with anyone else who ran. Well, other than small talk. Here was a runner who was just like him.

“How many marathons have you run?” asked Steve.

“This is my fifth. I mean, I run a lot of cross-country, but officially, my fifth,” the runner replied.

“How far do you run cross-country?” asked Steve.

“It depends. If I’m running around the city, I stick to 10 miles or less. Too many stop lights to slow me down and-“

“Break your stride?” Steve interrupted.

“Ha ha, yeah. But if I’m running in the country, I can run forever,” the runner said longingly.

“The country? Where do you run in the country? Your mom drop you off and pick you up somewhere?” Steve was intrigued. He had never run in the country. He could imagine running along green pastures on long winding roads. Being one with the road.

“Naw, I have my license. I usually drive out somewhere remote on the weekend, run, and come back,” the runner said.

“Do you go alone?” Steve asked secretly hoping he could score an invite to run in the country.

“Usually,” the runner replied. “I mean, I haven’t really met anyone I want to run with. And running, is kind of a personal thing, don’tcha think?”

Steve did think so. He preferred running alone, too. That is until he met this guy. Steve wondered if the runner ever had to deal with gamblers or friendly wagers. He was afraid to ask. He was beginning to feel paranoid.  Steve decided to take this opportunity to break away from his new runner pal.

“Gonna take off, get some blood pumping,” Steve said as he sprinted ahead. “See you at the finish line!” he called back.

“See you at the finish line!” the runner yelled back.

Steve ran until his calves started burning. He looked back and couldn’t see the runner. He saw a sign up ahead and people standing near the road. 2 miles. The people had cups of water. Steve veered toward the side of the road, grabbed a cup of water, and drank it down in one gulp. He didn’t realize he was that thirsty. The people were still cheering after he passed. He felt a surge of renewed energy in his feet. He ran faster. There were more people on the side of the road. Another sign. 1 mile. People were cheering, waving signs, jumping up and down, happy to see him. He started to feel himself slow down reveling in the adoration but then heard a familiar voice.

“One mile to finish line. Wanna see who gets there first?” asked the runner he left behind a few miles back. Where did he come from? All the cheering from the sidelines kept him from hearing the runner come up behind him. Steve could not let this guy win. His legs were burning, his head was spinning with all the chaos from the people, and he could see the finish line in the distance. Steve looked at the runner, smiled, and said, “See you at the finish line!” Steve broke off into a sprint, pushing his legs harder than he had ever pushed, running faster than he had ever run, and burst through the finish line tape with both arms above his head. It was the best feeling in the world. None of his wins made him feel this good. The runner was right behind Steve and grabbed onto him as he crossed the finish line.

“Yes! My best time ever!” yelled the runner. “You really pushed me. Thank you!”

“Me? I pushed you? God, I thought I was going to lose when you came out of nowhere right behind me.” Steve laughed. 

“I’m so used to running alone, I forgot the adrenaline rush at the end,” the runner said panting.

“Steve! Steve!” his mother called out running to him. “You won!” she said hugging him.

“Yeah, Ma,” replied Steve happily. “Ma, this is—wait I never got your name.”

“Frank, Frank Shorter,” replied the runner as he was turning to meet his family.

“I’m Steve. Steve Prefontaine!”

“Good to meet you Steve!” the runner called back. “See you at the finish line!”

Steve beamed and hugged his mother. He finally felt where he belonged. The friendly wager had changed his life and he wasn’t going to let it come between him and running ever again. The gentleman gave him his cut but Steve told him he wouldn’t be a part of any future wagers. He never did find out if the gentleman was his father but it didn’t matter. He was a runner.

*Genre: Historical Fiction. Subject: A Bet. Character: A Marathoner. 2492 words without the synopsis.

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