"Welcome to The World Races! I’m your host, Chip Brubaker, and you’re about to undertake an incredible journey around the globe." He spread his arms in a magnificent gesture. "You’ll travel to exotic locations and foreign countries, competing against each other for a quarter of a million dollar prize."
We cheered and clapped appropriately at that. Brodie was getting excited. He bounced on his feet in place, which was just making me anxious. I clutched the straps of my heavy backpack and concentrated on Chip as he rattled off the rules of the game. Blah blah find a clue, perform a challenge to win a World Games disk. Each teammate had to compete to win an individual disk and then there was a team disk. Once you had all three disks, you could advance to the finish line for that round. It was the same as it was every year.
"This time on The World Races," Chip said, and then gave an ominous pause. "We’re switching the rules up on you a bit. The team that conquers the first country on our map? Wins an Ace in the Hole." He held up a big, obviously fake looking Ace of Spades that was larger than a sheet of paper. "This ace will allow that team to save one other team at any point in the game."
"Why would we want to do that?" I hissed at Brodie under my breath. "I thought the object was to get rid of everyone else?"
He shrugged and gave me a ‘shut up’ look.
"You can use this ace to your advantage and save a team you’re allied with," Chip said. "Or not. The choice is yours. There will only be two aces in the entire game."
The cameras suddenly swiveled again, startling me. All but one began to film our reactions as Chip raised his hand in the air.
"Are you ready to begin The World Races?" Chip bellowed. "At the far end of this stadium, you’ll find that the opposite end zone is covered with hundreds of footballs. Ten of these footballs are numbered, and the number you get pertains to your airline seat. Only teams one, two and three will be on the first flight out. Good luck! May the best team win!"
Nervous butterflies began to sprout in my stomach.
Chip lowered his arm. "GO!"
Brodie was the first one at the massive field of footballs, and I wanted to cheer my brother on. I stumbled early, twisting my ankle, and yelped in surprise. I recovered quickly and limped over to the footballs, the last one to arrive. Ignoring the cameras that hovered like vultures, I stared at the others as they pushed forward. People were tossing their packs aside and grabbing footballs like they were covered in gold.
Okay, clearly I’d missed out on the memo that told us we had to act like insane people.
I picked my way forward and kicked aside a football, looking for a number.
"Hurry it up, Katy!" Brodie bellowed at me. "Flip them and flip them fast!"
I sighed and shrugged off my backpack, tossing it aside and then diving into the fray. People were shoving and pushing like wild animals. I charged into the fray, grabbing the first football and flipping it over. Nada. I tossed it back down to the ground and headed for the next. And when that one was blank, the next. And the next.
"I got six," someone called. Another team yelled out their number – nine – and were less excited. No one wanted a high number.
I grimly picked up football after football, looking for a number amidst the chaos. I’d probably flipped about twenty footballs and dodged the other pushy contestants (and rolling balls) when I noticed one sitting alone at the back of the field, clearly overlooked. I could see a hint of white behind the football stand and a clench in my stomach told me that this was a numbered ball. Perfect!
As soon as I began to run for it, the rocker guy did too. Frowning, I picked up the pace, running faster. He didn’t slow down. That son of a bitch had seen it and was going to race me for it.
We both dove for it at the same time. I landed on the ball, triumph rolling through me.
He landed on top of me.
The air blew out of my lungs. I groaned, wheezing, even as the ball popped out from under me and launched into the air a foot.
It bounced once. The rocker rolled off of me and neatly plucked it from the ground.
I remained on the ground, struggling to breathe.
He moved to stand over me and offered a hand down, ball tucked under his arm.
I slapped it away, my chest burning with the need for air.
He looked down at me a moment longer, shrugged, then flipped the football in his hand. "I got number two," he called out. Somewhere in the distance, I heard his partner squeal with delight.
Damn it! That jerk had just stolen second place from me. I clutched my ribs and groaned, forcing myself to my feet. A camera hovered nearby, no doubt catching my black scowl as I staggered to the next football and began to flip.
The field was clearing out as teams departed. Brodie trotted up to me, a football in hand. "I can’t believe he stole number two from you. You should have fought him."
I rubbed my ribs. "Thanks for asking, Brodie. I’m fine."
He raked a hand through his hair, clearly frustrated. "Sorry, Katy. You ok? Seriously? Want me to get a medic or something?"
"No. I just need to suck it up. My pride smarts more than anything." I nodded at the football under his arm. "What’s that one?
"I found number ten," he told me, disgruntled. "Keep flipping and maybe we can find something better."
I rubbed my ribs one more time. "’Kay."
More teams departed around us, and after about five minutes, I looked up and realized that the team that had found the number nine was handing in their football to Chip Brubaker. That left just us on the field. We were stuck with number ten. Brodie straightened and tossed aside the football he’d just picked up, as if coming to the same conclusion.
The race had just started, and we were already last.
"Some of these people are stronger than they look. That short blonde with the pigtails? She looks all sweet and innocent, but she’s scrappy as hell. The brother’s kind of a jackass, though. I hope they go home soon." — Liam Brogan, Greenland Leg of The World Races
To my surprise, when we got to the airport and purchased our tickets, we found all the other teams seated at the terminal, still waiting and looking not too happy about it.
"Good," Brodie said under his breath. "We’re caught up."
We couldn’t really be caught up if nothing had happened yet. Something wasn’t quite right. I watched as Brodie bee-lined for Tesla and Liam, and then proceeded to greet and smile at everyone else. He jumped right into the throng of people, clearly forgetting about his little sister, who wasn’t quite as extroverted as him.
I hung on the fringes of the group, then glanced around, deciding to get answers on my own. Another person was hanging back from the boisterous group – Abby. Dean’s wife and the woman from Endurance Island. Luckily for me, she was the only person I was even halfway interested in chatting with. I headed toward her. "Hey. What happened? Why’s everyone still here?"
She smiled over at me and waved a hand at the empty flight attendant stand in front of the rows of seats. "Air Iceland doesn’t fly out until the morning, and we all hit Reykjavik at the same time. From there, the charter flights are staggered, but it looks like we’re starting this race all grouped together." She shrugged and stuck out her hand. "It’ll give us a good chance to get to know each other. I’m Abby."
"I know," I said with a grin. "I saw you on Endurance Island last year."
She groaned. "You probably saw way too much of me, then. I swear, I’m never going to live that down." She thumbed a gesture at her spouse a short distance away. "That’s Dean, though I guess that was easy to figure out."
"I do. I’m Katy." I pointed at my brother, who was shaking hands with the black-dressed duo. "That’s my brother, Brodie."
"Ah, the brother-sister team." She nodded, as if this answered some things for her.
She glanced over at me. "Not sure why we’re sharing names. We’re practically tattooed with them." She gestured at the bold ABBY written across the chest of her shirt. "They think viewers won’t remember who’s who unless they brand us."
I chuckled at that. Abby didn’t seem dazzled by all of this, and I liked that about her. "We can at least try and be normal about it.” I studied her. "I’m kind of surprised to see you and Dean here. I thought after watching Endurance Island that you guys were done with this sort of thing."
She sighed, as if suffering. "I thought so, too. But we do strange things for love." Her gaze warmed and she watched Dean’s back with affection. "It’s not so bad, though. At least in this, no one can backstab us out of the game." As a cameraman circled close, she grimaced. "Though I can’t say I missed that aspect of things much."
I didn’t blame her. It was getting a little weird for me, too. I carefully stepped aside as a cameraman zoomed past and headed for Liam, Brodie and Tesla. I guessed they were more exciting than we were. "You’re old hat at this sort of thing. Any advice for me?"
Abby tilted her head, thinking. After a moment, she gave a calculating grin and leaned in. "Make good TV."
"Yep," she said, and flipped one of my perky pigtails. I flushed at that – she must have guessed that it hadn’t been my hairdo of choice. "Make good TV," she repeated again. "Dean doesn’t believe me, but I know I’m right. You make good TV and the producers will tweak things to go in your favor so you last longer. Not all of the challenges are random."
Interesting. As we stood there, I heard Brodie burst out into a wild laugh, and it was joined by Tesla’s flirty one. I glanced over at them and they seemed to be having a grand old time. Well, except for Liam, who was ignoring my brother as Brodie proceeded to make a fool of himself all over Tesla. Liam stared out the window onto the tarmac, his fingers drumming a beat on the bag across his lap, as if he were writing a song.
"Looks like your brother’s already decided he wants to make good TV," Abby commented. "Unless he’s wrangling for an alliance with them."
I snorted. "He’s more likely trying to get her phone number." Though I did frown a little in Brodie’s direction as Tesla flipped her red and black hair and giggled at whatever my brother was saying. We were not about to ally with those two. Not when the guitar-playing jerk had knocked me to the ground and stolen my number. Forget that. I glanced back at Abby. "I don’t want to ally with them."
"Well," she told me in a low voice. "You look harmless and you’re not hamming it up for the camera, so you’re on my good side. We could always have a private alliance just between us two. Help each other out if we get the chance and all." She raised a pinky in my direction.
I locked mine with hers and grinned. "Now you’re talking. Us wallflowers can stick together."
She laughed. "I knew there was a reason I liked you."
Abby and I ended up chatting for hours off to one side as the others played social butterflies – including her husband, Dean. She didn’t seem to mind that, though. She was relaxed and comfortable in her own skin, and it showed. Dean didn’t ignore Abby the way Brodie did me, though. He flirted with her, teased her, brought her snacks, and pulled her into his lap when the seating area got full. She would give me tolerant looks, as if she were enduring this for his sake, but there was a constant smile on her face and a glow to her that bespoke happiness.