Short Story: The Finalist

The man can hear muffled voices coming from outside. The sounds reach through the door, having already gone past the thick blue curtain that he will soon pass. The man rubs his hands together, and mutters to himself, that he will not cry, he will not cry, he will not cry. He paces inside the waiting room. So quiet, but considering the walls there must be thousands of them watching. He sits down on the small chair provided then immediately gets up and resumes pacing. He knows some of the ones outside want to see him fail. He can imagine their cutting words- so casually cruel, they will grab hold of anything at all; his hair, his weight, whatever it takes to reduce him. So he says to himself: a giant attracts many stones.

There is a round mirror on the wall, in front of the man’s inhaler, his lucky dice and the baseball cap he’s worn to every game since he was thirteen years old. He tries to avoid his reflection. Even back when he was thirteen he took it more seriously than the others. Over a decade of people telling him he wasn’t good enough. Countless memories of mockery and naysayers. Oh god what are they saying outside? He wonders if she’s there- I mean no chance, he rebukes himself for daring to hope. Too late, the flame catches, and it’s igniting- that enthusiastic voice inside himself says: She’s there. She’ll be watching, even if she doesn’t understand. Besides they may mock him, sure, they always have. But they aren’t up here. And also, some of them will cheer.

A lot of them will cheer.

The man punches his hand, once, twice, three times. The same old sweat on his forehead. Music plays inside his mind- old tunes, like the sound of horns. Battle songs. His heart is racing, chest bursting, the fear is cackling now. He goes towards the door of the trailer, puts one clammy hand on the steel knob and turns. Sound rushes past him, fills the empty place he’s leaving. This is it, this is the point. This is everything he’s ever wanted. He approaches the velvet wall. The curtain is there, soft beneath his clammy hand- big and blue, and behind that the spectators. He waits. He’s got to wait for his turn now. The fear grabs at his gut, and pummels him with questions- what if’s. What if you forget the build. What if you’re too slow. What if you slip and what if you choke. There are no two ways around it, he either clenches hard, somewhere inside, and lets the doubts have their moment, or he finds some kind of inspiration to overide the niggling fears. He is a samurai preparing for battle.

The voice that led him all the way here says: In order to win you must be prepared to die.

Everyone told him it was just a game. He always knew it wasn’t just a game. It was The Game. He’s died so many times, and he’s always felt it. The man is prepared. Now, thousands of people outside sit on the edge of their plastic chairs, hoping or cursing him. And all smiling with anticipation. His name is called through the velvet curtain. Not the name his parents gave him but the one he defined, the one he chose, the one that people know, even if they’ve never seen his face, when his name comes up on the screen they know. They call his name. The curtain begins to part so slowly, and for a moment the entire thing overwhelms him. He never dared to dream, as he spent so many sleepless nights training, that one day he would be here, at the top. A history of insults, of self-doubt, of tears that no one thought were worthy of shedding and finally….

Big bright white stars on his face. He resists the urge to bring up an arm. They told him during the rehearsal that there would be a glare. The what if’s stop. The fear settles, coils, hardens into that adrenaline moment, that sheer edge. That’s his blade- concentration, skill, and courage. He walks towards his seat. An ocean of cheers vibrate around him, flowing like a cape. All that he’s worked for, and still, it isn’t enough. He’s not the best yet. Not unless he wins. He takes his seat in front of the computer. Puts on his headphones and gives his mouse a few clicks. He couldn’t explain to most people how the game works. The voice says: Just like cricket. Or ice hockey. Or shogi. The man couldn’t easily explain about last hitting, or micro, or good openng strategy. He couldn’t tell a layperson exactly what he was about to do- only someone that played might understand.

And yet as the crowd began to coil, into silence, and wait, he realized that right now, for these few minutes, he shared a moment with champions. With anyone that’s ever had to contend with the exhilaration and the final challenge. For a moment he was kin to boxers, gladiators, olympians and chess masters. With anyone that has had to measure a lifetime against one opponent. The man’s opponent takes his seat, recieves his share of cheers. His opponent is the only reflection worth comparing himself to. The man imagines she’s watching, and even if she does not understand the game, she’ll understand what this is like- the moments before.

He nods, and types: GL HF.

The rules are different. The game is different. The feelings have always been the same.

He smiles, feeling the phantom hands of winners on his shoulder.

In front of thousands, with his headphones on he mouths:

Let’s dance.

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