Playing for love, for glory and for all of the marbles [Part V]

Editor's Note: This is the fifth part of a short story that has been appearing. It will conclude next week.

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Fred always played with a marble he called "Tiger." I had watched him play and had seen an orange mark on the marble that he said was a tiger.

Even though he was good, I felt that he would be no match for me and my bull's-eye flint.

Before I realized it, it was Friday. This had been the greatest week of my life. I was the new marbles champion of Madison Elementary and I had met the most wonderful girl in the world. Every night I had been afraid of going to sleep for fear of waking up and finding that it had only been a dream.

Kenny and I walked slowly home from school. My marble bag felt heavy as it bounced against my leg with each step. I felt super-confident of winning a lot more, an as Kenny began to tell me of a big marble game on Saturday morning, I knew I was going to win a lot more.

Kenny seemed proud of my accomplishments this past week, and I had heard him brag about being my best friend. As first I had been afraid that he would be resentful or jealous, but instead, he began to take charge and set games up for me to play.

As we talked, Kenny told me how good I had become and how he thought I was the best player in school. Then he mentioned that the Saturday morning games brought the best players in town to play. I began to fee some doubt. I had gotten pretty good, but to go up against the best players in town? It was a very scary thought.

That night, for the first time that week, I began to think of something else besides marbles. As I lay in bed, I remember thinking of a girl with short, brown hair. When I closed my eyes, I could feel the touch of her fingers on my hand and the warmth of her body as she sat next to me.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to spend more time with her. I wondered if she would like to go to the Saturday matinee at the Egyptian Theater and what it would be like to hold her hand. Somewhere in those thoughts, I fell asleep.

If Kenny hadn't come over, I probably would have skipped that marble game. He seemed surprised that I wasn't dressed and was still eating breakfast.

I quickly gulped down the rest of my cereal, put my shoes on and, grabbing my marble bag, we headed out the door.

As we entered an alley that ran behind some houses I could see several boys, all of them carrying marble bags. These were the best marble players in town, I thought.

Kenny and I hadn't talked much on the way there. A million thoughts raced through my mind, and although I would never have admitted it, I was more than a little scared.

I felt trapped. I knew I had to play. Maybe if I lost the kids at school would stop looking up to me and start leaving me alone. But then I thought about Ann and I wondered what she would think of me if I lost.

Some of the boys were just finishing a marble game. My heart sank when I saw who was playing. There, on his knees, a white marble in his hand, was Fred.

Fred was oblivious to everything around him. As he lined up for a shot, I would hear him talking to his marble.

"OK, Tiger, who's next? The green one? You like the green one? OK, it's yours."

He shot and the green marble left the circle. This continued until the last marble was knocked out of the ring.

After that last shot, Roger, one of my classmates, came over to where we were standing.

"Hi, Walt. Glad you could make it," he said. "Did you bring your marble?"

I was momentarily embarrassed as all of the boys gathered around while I dug in my pocket and pulled out my bull's-eye flint and listened to the now-familiar chorus of "oh, wow," and "gee!"

All of the boys, that is, except Fred. He stood apart from the group and just stared. I wondered if he was jealous of the attention I was getting.

I had tried to take all the attention in stride, but it hadn't been easy. Before this week, any time I was the center of attention was because of something really stupid I had done.

I looked again at Fred and I could see the challenge in his eyes. I knew right then that no matter how many other players were in the game, it was going to be just between Fred and me. I felt a strange foreboding and I pictured what I knew would be a duel to the death between his Tiger and my bull's-eye flint.

One of the boys started sweeping the ground smooth with an old broom and then a circle was marked out. As we began to lag for turns, I heard Fred issue the challenge.

"Let's not just play for keeps. Let's play for all the marbles."

All the marbles. This was a serious challenge. That meant that if you missed, your shooter stayed in the ring and became part of the pot.

I had to shoot before Fred and unless I was really lucky, he would soon own my new marble. I could not back down now, not now. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done, to stare back at Fred, look him square in the eye and repeat, "for all the marbles."

The first boy shot and to everyone's surprise, his marble went clear across the ring without touching anything. Then the second and third players shot and missed. I did not realize it at the time, but they were aiming to miss. They were looking forward to the big showdown.

As my turn came, I looked at the marble in my hand, staring into its eye. As I did so, I began to feel strangely calm, like everyone had disappeared and I was all alone.

Finally, I got down onto my knees, positioned the marble and shot.

The bull's-eye flew out of my hand, into the center and knocked a marble flying out of the circle. Quickly I picked it up and prepared for another shot. Again I knocked a marble out. I lost count of the number of marbles I had won. That did not matter. All that mattered was what was left, and not leaving Fred a shot.

I shot at a bright blue marble. It started rolling out, bounced against a small rock that had mysteriously appeared, bounced into the air and stopped an inch short of the line.

I was stunned. For what seemed an eternity I knelt there, trying to will the marble across the line. Then from behind me, I heard the most evil laugh imaginable. It was Fred reminding me that he was still there, waiting to exact his vengeance.

"My turn," he growled.

Drunkenly, I stood and stepped out of the ring. Fred knelt down and prepared to shoot. I thought he would go for the blue marble near the edge, but then realized there was only one marble he was interested in: my bull's-eye flint.

In that alley the only sound to be heard was Fred's voice. "Are you ready, Tiger? Which one do you like first? There's a pretty red one. What do you think? The red one? OK, Tiger."

Tiger leaped from his hand, raced toward the center and knocked the red marble out of the ring and stopped no more than six inches from my bull's-eye flint.

I was dead.

I looked over at Fred. He was standing there with a strange smile on his face. He appeared to be making the moment of victory last as long as possible. Right then, I hated him with a feeling I never knew existed.

To be continued ...