My family and friends continued spending time together far later than I anticipated yesterday. If my client hadn’t canceled due to illness, I very likely would have needed to cancel the job myself or face father’s disappointment. The constant stress of managing his business took its toll on him too often these days. He rarely discussed the details of running his business with me, but I had overheard him telling mother that several competitors were working toward buying him out. His hotels were luxurious places designed to make the guests feel like royalty. The clientele stayed there for the experience as much as a need for room and board. Unfortunately the extra expense incurred to maintain the exuberance raised the price of the rooms considerably. The poor economy of the last decade caused fewer people to be willing to pay the extra money required to stay at one of father’s hotels when they could get by with a lesser establishment. Seeing him laughing and smiling while enjoying the company of my new friends was too rare a treat for me to miss.
Instead of returning home after the movie, we all went to an amusement park. Aaliyah was far too short for most of the rides, but she seemed to have a wonderful time beating us all at the various games. Father seemed determined to find a game at which the girl wasn’t amazing, but he had to take some pleasure in occasionally beating the rest of us. Mother was quite amused by father’s antics as he challenged everyone to one thing after another, winning her stuffed animals here and there. He probably would’ve given them to Aaliyah, but Chad already had to run to his car twice to deposit stuffed animals larger than his daughter. Security was obviously curious how he was getting so many. A couple of their officers had shown up shortly after his return and had stayed long enough to witness Aaliyah winning yet another animal. Father was asking Chad what he was going to do with them all when Aaliyah surprised us by saying, “One of the girls from dance invited me to her birthday party, and daddy hasn’t bought a gift yet. Then daddy’s suppose to take me to visit kids at the hospital.”
Visiting the ill was apparently Aaliyah’s idea, much to the surprise of us all. She was in a car accident a couple years ago and wanted to help the kids be happier, since she knew what a long stay in a hospital was like. Chad was very obviously proud of his daughter, his little prin-… TheLittlePrincess. How many extremely talented hackers would use such a gamertag? If Chad was right about Aaliyah’s computer talents, she very well could be the girl who literally altered the game when Emma and I were playing. I sent Emma a text while I was thinking about it. I wished I would have realized the connection when I was with them. Now I was laying in bed, waiting to prepare for my track meet. I hadn’t gotten around to calling coach until late last night, when I returned home. With all the excitement in the day, I had missed practice completely. Coach would have surely made me sit out at the meet, but Nathan had sprained his ankle at practice yesterday, which left him not wanting to be another runner down.
Another half hour had passed with no word from Emma, so I decided to get out of bed and start preparing for the meet. I generally made a good effort to focus on what was ahead as coach always encouraged. Unfortunately, all I could think about at the moment was whether or not the sweet, little girl I babysat was also the most impressive hacker around. I was very excited to babysit her again, knowing Chad said I could ask her computer questions. I always had felt computer savvy, being able to take them apart, reassemble them, and even write a fair amount of code, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin if someone asked me to interrupt a game over a secure network and insert an alternate game environment without interrupting the stream. Most likely, I would tell the person that it couldn’t be done within a reasonable timeframe without the source code for the game and a fair amount of help. To think that an eleven-year-old pulled such a job off was completely mind-boggling. Part of me was saying there was no way Aaliyah could be TheLittlePrincess, but I would have denied the possibility of numerous things she did before seeing her do them.
Father had already left for work by the time I went out to eat breakfast, but mother was there with two bagels, fresh fruit, and some yogurt ready for me. She never liked cooking for me before a track meet, claiming that she always worried that she’d fix the wrong thing and throw me off. Some part of me had still been hoping for an enormous stack of pancakes with a light coating of syrup dripping down them, but I always appreciated what she did. If I managed to over-indulge my stomach, my race times might truly suffer, a prospect I didn’t want to face with my whole team counting on me holding third. Of course, I had a fair shot at second place with Nathan being out today, but I would have preferred him racing today, taunting me to run just a bit harder. I finished breakfast and got a ride to school from mother. She wasn’t coming along to the meet, but she always wanted to see me off. Several of the guys were already there and more were arriving as I hugged mother and waved as she drove off. In no time, we were all heading onto the bus and on our way.
There were more questions about the girls who showed up at practice and more than a few lewd remarks when I said that I was with them yesterday. None of the guys wanted to believe I was spending time with the girls and my parents, but I just smiled and shook my head as the various jests about what we were really doing started. I was surprised when the bus pulled up at our opponents’ school. The trip passed by incredibly quickly. I was even more surprised when an outrageously pink bug was spotted in the parking lot fifteen minutes later with three very familiar girls stepping out. I had just finished warmups when several of the guys started commenting about how the girls weren’t finished with me yet. I knew I was blushing as I had surely done on the bus, but what could I do. The twins and Emma obviously were staying to watch the meet. What really brought me into focus was the last thing I had expected to happen. Luke, our fastest runner who rarely spoke to anyone, started teasing me.
“Don’t think you get off easy just because Nathan’s not here to push you” he started. Coach had told Nathan to stay at home and off his ankle, since he wanted him back as soon as possible. “He sent me a text earlier to make sure you weren’t going to slack. He says that no one who isn’t on our team gets to eat my dust.” Luke was all confidence, but who could really call him arrogant when no one ever could catch him. I smiled and told him “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure to tell Nathan what second place tastes like when I see him.” I was starting to feel the pre-race excitement, wondering how fast the other teams would be, when I noticed the signs. Few enough people brought signs to track meets that the twins and Emma holding them was unmistakable. Emma’s was simple and straightforward, cheering on my entire team. The twins each had some sort of electronic sign with scrolling letters. I felt Luke pat my back as we both watched Mai’s sign say, “Run, James! Run!” He laughed and said, “At least they like you, right?” I was seriously wondering about that as I read Ai’s sign, which said, “Stop, James! Stop!”
Once the meet began, I did my best to ignore the girls, even as they cheered for me. I gathered with the rest of my team, shouting and clapping to encourage whoever was up. Before I knew it, I was up for the first heat of the 100 meter dash. I easily qualified for the final race and was feeling anxious when the time arrived. The competition was tough, and I pushed myself hard to stay on Luke’s heels, but he really took off on the last twenty meters. I still managed to set a new personal record of 10.48 seconds and take second place. As I was huffing and puffing, Luke was casually sipping some water and telling me that he was really going to push me on the 400 meter dash. When the race came and I made it into the final, I remembered running from the wolves. I pictured them chasing me again with exceptional clarity, and I ran faster than ever before. Luke somehow had the breath to laugh well before we were told our times. “I’ve never seen you run quite like that, man. Maybe those girls need to show up more often.” He was right. My previous record was 49.32 seconds, and I had beaten it by 1.64 seconds.
By the end of the meet, a number of us had set new personal records, and our coaches were thrilled. We won that meet for the third year in a row, and it was time to celebrate. The girls were waiting by the bus when it was time to load up. Emma gave me a hug and congratulated me. The twins said I was far too sweaty to touch, but congratulated me on becoming so sweaty. They offered to give me a ride, but I told them I wanted to celebrate with the team, which brought a trio of dramatic sighs. I told them I’d give Emma a call after I was back at school. Then the twins spoke in unison, saying, “Emma? Why won’t you call us?” I smiled and told them “Who knows who I’d get if I called your phone. Emma’s reliable and has a car in case mother can’t give me a ride home.” They merely turned to Emma and told her they should have taken a limo. The troubles of ordinary people would never touch Ai and Mai, but they were great at inventing their own. After surviving a short bus ride with comments about the girls that made the previous ones seem tame, we all celebrated with pizza and eventually ended up back at the school. When I called home for a ride, I wasn’t honestly surprised to hear mother say that the girls would be picking me up. Life would be much simpler after the break was over and the twins returned home.