|Fantasy Fiction posted February 27, 2021||Chapters:||-1- 2|
Jon enters a Steel Driving Contest
A chapter in the book Jonetta's Rhythm
by AJ McCall
Jon's ready to prove herself worthy of the title.
“Are. You. Ready?”
Roaring cheers of the crowd answered in a unison cry, ricocheting off the trees and making my fingers throb harder around the handle of my sledgehammer.
Deep breaths Jon, deep breaths.
I could feel the steady beat of Rhythm already pounding through my fingertips, causing them to shake. And I knew soon enough, my whole body would be too. If I let it.
“Steel Drivers,” the announcer boomed.
That was my cue.
I tried not to focus on my nervousness and instead on the people jostling each other in excitement as they were crowded around the railroad track, waving their syrupy beverages in the air. I wove my way through them, avoiding flying elbows and hands until I reached the steel rails outlining the track’s horizontal path. It was lit only by the stars and the mellow-green glow of lanterns strung up in the treeline looming over us.
I blew out a breath.
I’d done this a hundred times, well at least the practice ones. This would be my first big contest. I was sort of used to the noise and the clamor. But still, tonight felt… different.
The throbbing in my fingers pulsed stronger.
Deep breaths, Jon.
“Where’s Kenny?” The cavernous voice jolted me back to reality as the announcer stepped forth from the throng of brown faces and towered at the head of the track.
Mory’s size alone was intimidating if not his voice. His muscles strained against the cotton tunic he wore as he leaned over the crowd, searching for the boy.
“Has anyone seen Kenny?” he asked again. I rolled my eyes after silence filled the air.
A few seconds later, a man rushed forward and whispered something in his ear. Mory let out an exaggerated sigh but nodded when the man was finished.
“Do we have any volunteers willing to race?” Mory asked afterward, almost sounding desperate. I didn’t blame him. Most nights of the weekends, everyone gathered to watch the Steel Driver contests. Nothing could get that blood pumping and egos inflating like Steel Driving. And for it to be cut short like this, would be a disaster.
For a short moment, only a ripple of soft murmurs and visible head shaking followed. Then, a deep voice.
“I’ll race,” A looming figure approached from the opposite side of the track.
I craned my neck slightly.
Dark muscle emerged through cut-off sleeves of his outfit, the overalls, left dangling on his hips, doing little to hide the rest of his mass. One of his massive arms leaned on the mahogany haft of his hammer, its stone head, unlike anything I’ve seen before. My eyes almost got lost in the depth of the dark steel— a glowing head of black-blue, the same complexion of his skin.
I could almost hear the girls in the crowd drooling.
“Seems we got a real man,” Mory joked, clapping the stranger hard on the back. “No offense,” he said to me, but I wasn’t listening as the comment drew chuckles from the crowd. I was drawn to the tattoo I’d first missed on the man’s right shoulder before he turned to face Mory.
The rising flames, swirling designs of black and grey, seemed to ripple under the lanterns, pulsing against his skin.
I caught myself staring and blinked, tearing my eyes away before he could notice.
“The game’s simple,” Mory now explained. “The first to pound all their spikes into the ground with their hammer wins. With a bonus… the winner takes the loser’s mallet and the title of Steel Driver Champion. Do the contestants understand what they are taking part in?”
We took the cue and nodded.
“Alright, tap hammers.”
I squeezed my wooden haft tight and raised my hammer as my competitor did the same, trying to ignore how much his dwarfed mine.
It was carved from cherrywood, slightly redder than my opponent’s handle, and had a normal silver stone head, marred with scrapes and dents. It wasn’t the prettiest but it sure could beat out a lot of others. And hopefully this one too.
We tapped hammers— I don’t know what happened, but I stumbled at the hot flash of electricity that shot through me at the touch.
Snickers rang out from the crowd as I steadied myself and avoided the concerned look Mory sent my way. On the other hand, my competitor didn’t break a smile or laugh. Instead, his amber eyes looked me up and down, slowly moving to my face. I tugged the denim brim of my cap lower.
"On your marks—" Mory’s voice then thundered.
I dropped into a mid-squat like a batter, planting my feet firmly in the dirt scattered around the track, hammer steadied over the first spike.
My hands were visibly shaking now from the Rhythm starting to pulse through me. I had done my best to ignore it and now all I could do was hope it wouldn’t ruin all of tonight.
I’m sure the man noticed because he looked up at me again as he got into his own position.
I blew out a puff of air.
Just run the course, Jon.
Nothing to worry about.
You’re John Henry’s sister after all.
The crowd exploded into a massive clamor at once, nearly deafening to the point of distracting me and my opponent. But we were used to it, and instinct took over our bodies.
Our arms went up quick, almost in unison, left hip swinging outward as we brought the hammer around in a giant descending arc. My spike sunk into the earth first, bitting the dirt with an impact that rattled my bones. I shuffled over to the next one.
“Agh!” I swung harder this time, my momentum driving the second spike deep and sending ripples under my feet. Rhythm hummed through my body.
My thoughts chanted, blocking out the screams and hollers of the crowd. The memory of every afternoon I spent hammering away at my own makeshift track replayed in my head, reminding me of how hard I worked to get here.
Sweat poured down into my eyes as the twelfth spike dropped into the ground.
The Rhythm was getting bolder, making my whole body hum and my limbs throb harder than before. My hammer smashed three more in easily, already onto the sixteenth. It was tempting to let it fully take control, but there was always that voice reminding me of what happened to my grandmother’s backyard the last time I’d been careless.
Too risky, I told myself.
I pounded in another spike, my limbs aching. My arms felt like stone. There had to be at least twenty more, and the dark blurs of my opponent’s swinging hammer were starting to grow closer.
We were only inches apart.
His pounds were hard and fast, sending tremors so powerful under that I started to lose my balance. Then—WHUMP. My foot fell into a pocket as his hammer thumped again and moved ahead, causing me to stumble and miss my spike completely.
My mind succumbed to the noise again, angry shouts flooding in from behind.
“Git up boy—”
“JON… GET UP!”
I knew the last voice was Mory’s as it cracked. I gritted my teeth. C’mon Jon! I felt a rush of adrenaline and then could hardly hear him or anyone anymore. The world went silent. All that filled my ears was the pounding of Rhythm. And a voice.
Mmmm… this one's got it, this one's got it—
The Rhythm thrummed louder.
A rainbow's wrapped 'round their shoulders.
They’ll bring it up,
they’ll bring it down.
The song echoed around my head.
Swing, the voice sang. SWING.
Heat spread throughout my body like a wildfire at the words, and I clenched my teeth as Rhythm pushed through fully, pounding like a steady drum. My sledgehammer pummeled earth and steel a second later, streams of light blasting out of my fingers— a bright flash that exploded across my face, warm and nearly blinding.
The back of my head slammed against the ground as I fell, pain rippling through my skull. Agh. I gritted my teeth, trying to blink away the stars.
Stupid! I scolded myself. You could’ve gotten someone hurt.
I exhaled deeply in order to steady myself, glancing at the dark heaps of people on the ground.
Some relief washed over me though as I watched them stumble to their feet or sit up or pull up another. At least no one was dead.
The voice came from above. I used the light from the remaining lanterns to pinpoint Mory’s face. His dark eyes were wide and for a second, I thought my hat had fallen off, dread filling me.
But my friend’s face broke into the widest grin. “That was one hell of a swing, Jon.” I saw a couple of other heads nod fast in agreement.
I didn’t have time to respond. He reached down and grabbed my arm, yanking me up, almost off my feet, and raised my hand in a victory fist. “WE HAVE OUR WINNER!”
An explosion of applause and hurrahs filled the air, even from the people who were still getting to their feet. A sea of faces beamed at me; they jumped up and down, clapping, whistling. Caps and fists pumped into the air. I was confused.
"Stop looking so dumbfounded," Mory said, grinning at me.
I… what… how?
I spun to face the track, pushing through pairs of arms. My eyes widened. The spikes on my side were in. All of them. Even the ones I hadn’t gotten to. Could that have been from the surge? It had to be.
On my opponent’s side, he was short by three, the steel heads untouched by his hammer.
I was breathless. My chest, still aching from the fall tightened slightly as my excitement rose.
I turned back to Mory and watched as he dug into his overalls front pocket and pulled out a gold medal. A pair of sledgehammers engraved on the front, crisscrossed to form an X, catching the light of the lanterns, winking at me.
Mory draped the red and blue ribbon over my neck and raised my hand in another victory fist, declaring me Steel Driver Champion. More cheers went up.
This win was nothing like how I rehearsed it in my head. The crowd was beyond my expectation and so was Mory, but me? I felt nothing like how I had imagined. Besides the ache from the fall, I was humming. My skin tingled, reveling in the excess warmth from my fingers. Questions raced through my mind faster than I could comprehend, leaving me even more confused and trying to blink away the colorful light dancing at the edges of my vision.
"EXCUSE ME, I need to get to the winner — HEY JON!” A girl’s voice reached me over the cacophony of the crowd and my head swiveled.
Instantly, my mind was taken off the surge.
My friend Shawna, wearing her hair in two dark frizzy puffs, pushed her way to me, flanked by her two older brothers, Darrick and Corben.
Shawna hugged me mid-rib and stepped back to smile at me.
“You smashed that spike hardddd, Jon. Wanna tell everyone what you’ve been eating?”
I managed to smile as her teasing drew laughs from the surrounding crowd, their once-packed formation now starting to disperse. For the first time since I’d fallen, I fixed my cap, exhaling a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
“Actually, I missed dinner for this.” I said, slowly. “Baked chicken and mac and cheese,”
“Baked chicken?” Darrick asked, arching an eyebrow. “You must’ve really wanted to win to miss out on that.” He smiled at me, his dark nose flared in excitement.
“For sure,” Corben added. “But damn, Mory was right. That was one hella swing, Jon.”
“Yeah,” Shawna nodded fast. “You happy?”
“Yeah.” I nodded and looked down to thumb the medal. “Honestly, I’m glad it’s over.”
“Over?” Corben shook his head, laughing. “You’re going to the Championships now!” He punched my arm, and I had to resist reaching out to rub the spot.
“And you’ll have to face off with me, Corben, and Mory,” Darrick added.
“Mory?” I arched an eyebrow. Despite being the host of the Steel Driver games, I’d never seen him play, not once since I joined his competitions. There were rumors though that before he came to Summerstwon, he’d used to Steel Driver and race with legends like King hammer, Dylan Driver, and even John Henry. People I dreamed of meeting.
“Alright, and after him?” I asked.
“Alright, and after him?” I asked. “Do I get to challenge the Greats?”
The brothers grinned as Mory slightly frowned. “After?” he repeated, a smirk tugging at his lips until he couldn’t help it.
“I think Jon’s about ready to take us now.” Corben laughed.
“You two?” Shawna snorted.
“Please, your practice isn’t even on this gir—” I quickly nudged her before she could finish, and she caught on, coughing awkwardly. “—boy’s level.”
I gave her a look. A slip-up like that was the last thing I needed.
“You okay, Jon?” Mory asked, and I looked up to find him and the others staring at me.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just still processing everything.” I gave a sheepish laugh and reached back for my hammer which I’d neglected for the time being.
“Hey, wasn’t Mr. Tattoo supposed to give up his hammer?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Yeah,” Darrick frowned.
“He was.” Mory rubbed at the scruff on his jaw and sighed.
Now that I thought about it, I realized I hadn’t seen him at all after the surge.
“Wait, why you call him tattoo, Jon?” Shawna asked.
“Oh, uh, he had a tattoo,” I said.
My friend frowned and shook her head. “He did?”
“Yeah, I didn’t see one,” her brother added.
“You sure he had one, Jon?” Corben asked.
I didn’t know how to answer. If I was the only one who saw it, did I imagine it? Or was I the only one who could see it?
I shrugged, deciding to play it off. “I don’t know.” I caught Mory eyeing me but I tried to ignore it.
“I should head back though… my grandmother’s probably already found the pile of clothes under my sheets.” I joked and was relieved by the laughter that followed.
“Classic sneak-out tatic.” Darrick grinned.
“Let's hope she doesn't kill you.” Corben chuckled.
“Whatever.” I rolled my eyes and waved goodbye to them, before turning around, heading in the direction of home. But not fast enough to avoid Shawna’s shout to me. “See ya JON HEART!”
I winced. I’m sure even the people across the field had heard her. “And how are you encouraging him about sneaking out?” She argued with her brother in a smaller tone. “ You never do that with me…”
I heard a faint snort from Corben, and his brother made “you’re a girl, he’s a boy,” type of remark as their voices faded.
Jon Heart. The name swirled around my head. I sighed, gripping my sledgehammer tighter. If only I was him.
Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/work-sledge-industry-jobs-5327892/
© Copyright 2022. AJ McCall All rights reserved.
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