George Jones and the Champion's Gauntlet

One.

A Perfectly Ordinary Beginning

In the hushed twilight of George’s room, a monster watched him from the mirror’s edge. It didn’t present as a monster of course. At first glance, one might even think it a girl; soft of feature, long of hair, surrounded by a gentle glow of an angel. But then one might notice the hunger that burned in those pitch-black eyes, and a smile that hinted at needle-like teeth and think better of it. Its long fingers tapped together, tips dancing in anticipation. Soon, that smile said.

Soon…

“George, breakfast!” His mum hollered from downstairs.

George opened his eyes to the retreating image in the mirror. For heartbeat he thought he caught a glimpse of the fading creature, but blinking and rubbing his eyes, he told himself it must have been a trick of the shadows. After all, it was only his own sleepy-eyed reflection staring back. In the past, something like that would have scared him enough to get out of bed and flick on the light. But things didn’t scare George as much as they used to, not these days. Not since…

His attention drifted to the gentle whir of the ceiling fan’s constant revolutions pushing warm air around the room. He didn’t want to think about it. Waking up had become his second worst part of the day. The first was going to sleep, the dark closing in, the silence that crept over him like a blanket. In the dark he couldn’t keep the thoughts at bay, or the sadness. At least when he was asleep, he forgot, even if it was only temporary. But then he would wake and like a fog lifting it all came crashing back. He hated that moment right before, that heartbeat between forgetting and remembering when everything was almost normal like it had been.

Light poked in from the edges of the thick curtains made to keep out both the heat and the light. If the sweat-damp sheet beneath him was anything to go by, then it was already hot.

But then, Australian summers were always hot and today was set to be a scorcher.

Today’s also the day Uncle Dean’s new book is being released.

A book he had written before the accident in Egypt, one George had helped him work on.

His last book…

George’s chest tightened like it always did whenever he thought about his uncle this past summer, and he couldn’t hold back the thoughts anymore. He hated how alone his sadness made him feel. No Uncle Dean and his stories. No sitting in his study helping him dream up new adventures.

Tears blurred the edges of George’s eyes, and he blinked hard, forcing them and the sadness in his chest away. Hauling himself up, he kicked off the sheet twisted about his legs, freeing himself to stand. Except the sheet caught around his ankle and George tumbled face first into the carpet below, forehead smacking against the edge of something sharp and half hidden under a pair of discarded shorts.

“Ow,” he groaned, rubbing the tender spot on his head.

He lifted the object from under the shorts, the culprit a framed picture of him and Henry. It must have fallen from the bookshelf at some point. His dad had taken the photo a few years back, one summer when George and Henry were only nine. They had all gone fishing in the estuary not from far home. The day was one of the best of George’s life. Henry had pretended to fall out of the boat so he could swim with the dolphins that used the estuary canals to herd salmon from the sea. Chuckling, his dad had told George he could swim too. The dolphins were curious enough to come close but not close enough to touch. George had been scared at first, but Henry’s fearless laughter had given him courage the way it always did when George was doing something new. After that, they had some lunch and spent the afternoon fishing, George landing a huge salmon that took all three of them to haul it in.

In the photo, George and Henry struggled to hold the salmon up between them, grinning ear to ear. The memory only made George’s chest ache harder, his tears returning. Henry was his best friend, and had been since first grade when George was picked on by James Curry, the class bully. James had turned his sights on Henry after that, but little did he know, Henry is the youngest of six siblings and when you mess with one of the Walker children, you mess with allllll of them. James was quick to leave the boys alone after a full term of constant wedgies by the Walker siblings. To George’s delight, they had been inseparable ever since. Not that you would think it to look at them. The two were complete opposites in every way. Where George was small—the smallest in his class in fact—Henry was big. George had pale skin and sky-blue eyes inherited from his father’s Scottish blood that peered out from a thoughtful face. Henry on the other hand had large expressive features, a larger mouth—which rarely knew when to stay shut—and wonderfully brown skin more suited for the punishing heat of Australian summers. George was indeed well versed in lathering himself in sun cream before he went outside to save his peach-like skin from turning beet-red and peeling off. In the photo, both boys smiled so wide their heads threatened to split in two. Henry hadn’t been that much taller back then, but he had a growth spurt last year. His crazy hair was the same though. Mrs. Walker, Henry’s mother, cut all her family’s hair, and in the Walker household you got what you got, and you better be grateful for it. Currently, Henry was sporting a cool Mohawk which was entirely by accident of course. At least, he had been the last time George saw Henry at the start of the summer…

A tear finally slipped free, tracking down George’s face to fall onto the frame. He wiped it away, and stood, returning the picture back onto the shelf of the bookcase.

George missed Henry. A whole summer without Uncle Dean or his best friend. Worse, it was his fault too.

After Uncle Dean died, Henry had kept pushing George to do things, but George didn’t want to do things. He wanted his uncle back. Gripped in grief, George had shouted at Henry, had told him to leave him alone…and Henry did, all summer long.

It was the longest and loneliest summer of George’s life. No days spent at the beach with Henry and his brothers or sitting in Uncle Dean’s study. Instead, George had kept to himself for the most part. Uncle Dean had left him an antique typewriter. George had wanted his uncle’s computer, but his dad took that. So, this past summer he had spent most of his time teaching himself to type—to write bad stories and pretend he was a writer too. Deep down, that was George’s biggest dream—that one day he too might be special enough to create something as great as his uncle’s books…

“GEORGE!” His mother shouted again, her voice coming from the bottom of the stairwell.

“I’M UP!” He shouted back, and then turned from the bookcase with a sigh.

Henry would be back at school today. George’s stomach twisted at the thought of Henry ignoring him. The idea of being alone for the entire school year and then having to start High School by himself turned the sweat beading on his skin to a clammy-like gel. He wished Uncle Dean was here so he could talk about it. Uncle Dean always had a knack for solving things, some of his earliest books were sleuth mysteries after all.

He shuffled across his room, navigating around the abandoned clothes, sporting equipment and comics littering the floor, to stop by his fish tank to wish his turtle good morning.

“Good morning, Franklin,” he said with a small smile, tapping on the glass so the hand-sized creature followed his movements. “Stay cool today, please.”

He slipped from his room and out into the hallway, his feet silent on the carpet as he made his way to the bathroom, sighing as his feet touched the cool tiles of the bathroom floor.

He desperately needed to relieve himself, only he wasn’t alone. There, standing at the sink, was Grace.

Grace—who was actually Iona Grace, the same way he was Oban George—was busy brushing her teeth.

Both siblings had been named after one of the many isles of Scotland, however, having names like Iona and Oban might sound cool in theory, it was not in real life. At least, not in his small town.

Like most siblings, Grace and George shared a lot of the same features. They had the same blue eyes, the same small nose, and even the same smile. Except, Grace’s mouth was bigger, and she had dark freckles over the bridge of her nose. George was only two when Grace was born, but he remembered his dad saying that Grace would have red hair like their mum. George took his blonde hair after their dad, yet, Grace’s hair was a long straight mousy brown, nowhere like either of her parents. She usually wore it down, but, today, it was up into a high ponytail, George assumed, to keep all that length off her neck and to stay as cool as possible. Her white and blue uniform was its usual pristine neatness, something George could never manage. How on earth could she keep her shirt so wrinkle free and perfectly tucked all the time? Or her knee-high socks from slipping down her knees?

Just Grace being Grace, of course.

Grace was, much to George’s annoyance, on her way to becoming an athletic and academic prodigy. Top of her class in gymnastics and dance, she had skipped a grade in school and was only one year below George himself. To George, she seemed the best of both their parents, a fact that irked him even if he would never admit it out loud.

Now, George was good at sports in his own right, but he wasn’t prodigy good. What made it worse was that Grace seemed to get her athletic excellence from their father, who was equally gifted in anything physical. George’s grandparents were always going on about how, as a child, if the sport involved a ball, his dad would be top of the team, scoring goals, points, wickets, and everything in-between. It’s because of this love of sport that George’s father had gone on to become a sports presenter on TV. Something his grandparents said George, too, could one day do. George wasn’t so sure about that; he didn’t like speaking in front of the class let alone the idea of being on television with the eyes of the nation on him. But his grandma was insistent, always telling George how he looked exactly like his father had at his age, just smaller mind you—a notion that always soured the compliment. He found his slighter stature incredibly annoying already, and did not need any reminding, especially not when his parents were both tall and especially not when Grace had overtaken him in the height department. Her “big little brother,” she would often tease.

He hated it. But he couldn’t deny she was exceptional, while he was just…ordinary.

Grace caught his eye in the bathroom mirror and arched an eyebrow.

“Can you hurry up? I need to pee,” George said.

Grace turned on the tap, cupping the water to rinse out her mouth. The gesture was dainty, perfect even. Grace never spat her toothpaste, not like him. She also took her time to clean her toothbrush and wipe her mouth with a hand towel while George crossed his arms over his chest, tapping his foot.

“Come on, Grace!”

Teeth thoroughly clean, she turned the tap again, so the water gushed faster into the sink. With a grin, she winked. “Almost done, Georgie.”

The sound of the running water made George’s need to use the bathroom a whole lot worse, a fact not lost on his sister.

“Don’t call me that!” George snapped automatically.

“George!” His mother called again, from downstairs, “Hurry up, you’re going to be late!”

“Coming!” George shouted back, pushing Grace out the way to turn off the tap.

“Hey!”

“You’re done. Out!” George insisted, pushing his sister toward the door.

Grace giggled, but didn’t make it easy for him, fighting the whole way.

“Grace—GET OUT!”

Grace grabbed the doorframe.

George pushed harder which only made Grace giggle louder.

George was so distracted trying to push his sister out the door and not pee himself that neither he, nor Grace saw the unusual movement in the mirror’s edge. Perhaps if Grace hadn’t teased him, he wouldn’t be so distracted and so might have noticed that Grace’s reflection had stopped copying his sister’s movements, that it wasn’t Grace in the mirror at all. He might have even seen the dark hungry eyes, fixed on them both, the smile that flashed sharp teeth.

Of course, George didn’t see any of this, he was too busy finally pushing his sister from the bathroom, slamming the door in triumphant glee. With his back still to the mirror, he stepped over to the toilet, hopping on foot to foot, thankful for some privacy at last.

Except he wasn’t alone. Not completely, the monster in the reflection continued to watch him, continued to track his movements, lip curled in disdain before stepping away at the last second as George flushed the toilet and turned back to the sink.

Then George was alone, and as he leaned into the shower to turn on the water, he was also utterly unaware his perfectly ordinary days were numbered.