A young man with a remarkable ego learns the true nature of excellence.
| The eleven other players on the volleyball court readied themselves for my serve. I watched with a certain pleasure as the fear became evident in their eyes. They tracked the ball’s progress as I tossed it casually into the air, rotating it slowly with a subtle backspin. My right arm pivoted around in a wide arc, bringing my hand down upon the volleyball and smashing it to the other side of the net. Ace.
Their lips, like their legs, were frozen. They looked at each other, silently questioning why the person next to them had not gone for the ball. While they basked in the shame of incompetence, I, contrary to any racial stereotypes against my pale skin, performed an interpretive dance of celebration. I called it my “I Rock” jig.
One of the untalented youths on the far side rolled the ball back to my corner, cutting off my White Usher moves early, but allowing me another chance to dominate.
My voice combined with the smack of my hand striking the volleyball, the echo reverberating around the gym. The trajectory of the ball took it to the youngest member of our group, Tim—a babysat, nervous boy of fourteen years who was giddy about being drug along with his older brother’s friends. He pumped his fist wildly at the incoming ball, punching it into the rafters, where it proceeded to play pinball between the fluorescent lights.
The ball dropped down beside my friend—and Tim’s older brother—Chris, and he spiked it back at his embarrassed sibling.
“Way to suck, Timmy!”
“I’m sorry!” Tim’s voice cracked and, much to his further discomfort, a flood of laughter came from the other players.
I looked at the young lad and decided to give him my advice: “Don’t be sorry, just be better! Oh, and you just lost your team the game.”
The teams dissipated and the gaggle of friends formed by the door. Between changing out of my sweat-drenched tee shirt and applying additional deodorant for the homeward voyage, I met up with Chris, who was giving his brother a lesson on returning difficult serves. We exchanged the ritual handshake and dismissed Tim to grab a Sobe from Chris’s car.
My friend gestured at my nearby gym bag. “Did you finish that book?”
“I did indeed—I sat down for a few hours last night and polished off the final few hundred pages.” I reached into my bag and tossed him his dog-eared copy of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. “She definitely waxes bombastic at times, but it was a decent novel.”
“It’s a one-time read.” He wiped away sweat from his forehead. “Objectivism is such a load of bull, though. ‘Screw the others for your own ego’? That’s crap.”
“You're such a socialist. You have to admit that there’s a certain appeal to the idea--individual greatness and solitary genius.”
“You fancy yourself a Xerxes, O god-king? Perhaps I shouldn’t have lent you Gates of Fire, either.”
“I’m just saying that you should sell your sunglasses, buddy. You’re going to be in my shadow for many years to come.”
We laughed and exited the gym, knowing full well that beneath our veneer of humor was a masked sobriety. We would always be competing against each other for first place; fortunately, I had claimed more victories than losses thus far.
With another elaborate handshake, we parted ways and I headed across the parking lot to my Chevy Cavalier. I threw my bag in the trunk and hopped into the driver's seat. The engine roared as I revved it to 4,000 RPM and burned out of my parking spot. Passing Chris’s pickup truck, I rolled down my window and leaned my head out to call out to him.
“Maybe next time we can play a match that you actually have a decent shot—”
I felt my car recoil, stall, and skid at the same time that I heard the hood crush and headlights shatter. I slammed on the brakes and was thrown into my steering wheel and struck my head on the dashboard. My car slid to a halt, and I was temporarily frozen, gasping for breath. I stumbled out onto the pavement, anxious to see what I had struck. I had hit a deer before, but this felt bigger--it felt like a whole herd of elk.
Doubled over from pain in my ribcage, I heard a wild string of profanity coming rapidly from behind me. Chris sprinted past as I turned the corner of my hood and saw Timmy’s prone body on the road. His legs were twisted at obscene angles and there was no visible sign of consciousness—a pool of blood was collecting under his head.
I fell against the side of my car and tried to recover my thoughts and breath, neither of which was cooperating. Chris flew to Tim’s body, fumbling to do anything that would help his brother.
“Didn't you watch where you were going?” He turned on me with a fire that I had never seen before--his voice was a distortion of fear and rage.
“I thought he was still in the gym!”
“How the f—”
"I didn't see him!
"That's my little brother! Why weren't you watching the road?"
“Because I didn’t think!” We were standing inches apart, both breathing heavily. Chris took several slow breaths and tried to calm himself down.
“Call 911. You’re the one who did this; you’re the one who’ll accept the blame.”
My hands were shaking as they fought to dial the number on my phone. I finally got through and gave the dispatcher our address.
“The ambulance should be here in ten minutes,” I called over to Chris, still trying to save his little brother. He raised his middle finger in acknowledgment.
I fell to the ground and leaned against my front tire, watching my friend work hopelessly to reverse my own mortal mistake. My chest was reeling from an unbelievable pain, and my left eye was blinded by a trickle of crimson liquid. The blood from my forehead mixed with the unstoppable tears that had begun pouring from my eyes.
Seventeen years of self-deception flowed from me in that salty concoction; hubris had been proven a lie. I had just ended two lives, forever gone from everything but painful memory.