by AJ McCall
14-year-old Jon participates in an underground Steel driving competition.
"Are. You. Readyyyyy?"
The loud cheers and whoops following the announcer's words should've scared me that the noise could make the walls cave in, that we could be buried alive. But... everyone did tell me I was stubborn.
I had done this thousands of times. Besides, the beat was already pulsing hard in my chest -dah dum, dah dum-
"Steel drivers," the announcer boomed.
That was my cue.
I stepped forward from the growing crowd, standing parallel to a railroad track crafted from long metal rails and grayed planks of wood. Ballast, almost resembling pebbles, surrounded the railroad, creating a path that stretched across the room to halt at a dirt wall.
The steel gleamed from the joined glow of the lanterns hanging above and the black and gold glittering rock lining the outside of the track. Each stone had a spike protruding from the top, meant to be hit downward toward the ground like hammering a nail. And these were very big nails.
I winced, rubbing my ears t get rid of the ringing.
"Well, this oughta be fun,"
The words seemed to ring louder than my competitor's attempt to pop my ears.
He stood on the opposite side of the track across from me, leaning on his gigantic seven-foot hammer. It sported a reddish-brownish wood handle, polished to a shine, shimmering like its stone-gray head.
He had to be a few years older than me, cocky. He combed at his short hair, adjusted his rolled-up sleeves, and smiled yellow teeth at me.
I glared at him.
"Seems like we gotta stand-off,"
The announcer, a towering six-footer, stepped forward so that he stood at the head of the track, his eyes wavering between me and the boy.
I met his gaze, he winked. I rolled my eyes.
Mory wasn't even twenty just sixteen with fierce, brown eyes and skin as dark as black wood. Swollen arms burst through his worn leather vest.
"The game's simple," Mory rumbled in his thunderous voice.
"The fastest to pound through the rock with the help of his sledgehammer wins.” Mory winked at me again.
“With a bonus... loser gives up his hammer."
There were the usual gasps and excited chatter.
I squeezed my wooden haft tight. It was cherrywood, slightly redder than my opponent's, and had a silvery stone head dented from previous contests. But it was mine, and there was no way I was giving it up.
"But there's a catch,"
I frowned, arching an eyebrow at Mory. Everyone watched eagerly as he dug into his trouser's pocket, retrieving two strips of red cloth.
"You have to be blindfolded."
I bit my tongue, the beat thumping harder in my chest.
I had done plenty of contests. I wasn't scared, but not being able to see? Maybe this was more dangerous than the walls caving in.
Mory made his way over to me first, stepping behind me.
"Had to make this one juicy?" I asked as the cloth came down over my eyes.
I had to make myself comfortable somewhat.
"Yeah, somethin' like that," he replied softly as he could, a smile in his voice. His fingers knotted the fabric with a tug.
"Show him what ya got, Jon."
"Hmm," I grunted, and he gave me a heavy pat on the shoulder before he moved.
The gears were turning in my head.
You got this, Jon. Just focus.
"On your marks-" Mory began.
I dropped into a mid-squat like a batter, lowering my hammer to where I could feel just feel it brush the top of the spike. I let out a breath.
Find the pace, Jon...
Find the rhythm… follow the rhythm!
Instinct took over. My arms swung the hammer 'round in a giant arc-
I didn't feel my arms painfully throng or rock crumble onto my feet.
I missed. Missed.
“C’mon!” someone yelled. “Move it boy-”
I gritted my teeth, let the anger fuel me. I shuffled to the left, swinging again.
This time my bones rattled hard, the vibration thronging through my body as I heard a crack of rock splitting and felt something pebble the top of my boots.
I shuffled again and raised my arms--
The sharp pings sent my ears ringing, almost to where it drowned out the roaring and screaming of the crowd. But I swung again.
My arms were numb by the fourth swing, the rhythm of my hammer thrumming so loud, I could almost feel it pulsing against my skin.
Every hit sent wave-like vibrations humming through me; I couldn't even hear the boy's hammering. Sweat poured down the side of my face, soaking the cloth.
I couldn’t hear anything except my swings. And... singing.
I quickly realized it was a woman's voice, strangely and perfectly in tune with my hits.
This one's got it, this one's got-
-a rainbow's wrapped 'round her shoulders-
-she'll bring 'em up, she'll bring 'em down-
My fingers slipped from the hammer’s handle.
I reached for it, but my fingers only grasped air. I went stumbling forward, knees scraping something hard.
I lost. Lost.
And all because of what? A voice?
What was Nana going to say? (Not about the contest, she didn't even know about that.) But the hammer... what if I didn’t come back with it? What was I going to tell her?
Stupid voice, stupid hammer--
A rough hand grabbed my wrist, then my arm, and my leg.
What in the-
Then I was yanked up, feeling myself rise higher and higher until I wasn’t sure where I was. Noise suddenly poured into my ears again; I pulled my hand free and yanked off the blindfold.