Flash Fiction: Tug-of-War

“What strange creatures brothers are!”
— Jane Austen

The only time Ned could ever be pulled away from a book was when his mother spoke to him in That Tone — or when a potato was tossed into his lap.

He just stared at it for a moment, at this dirty vegetable marring the white pages of his book, and felt rather as if someone had not only come over and turned off a show he’d been watching but also broke the television for good measure.

“The heck?!” Ned flipped the potato onto the grass. He looked up.

Bull was standing in front of him, holding a long rope and grinning. “Tug-of-war bet?”

Ned raised an eyebrow. “What’s the bet?”

“The next three months of choosing take-out night.”

Ned stilled. Normally, they took turns deciding where the family would eat out each week, and while Ned would usually try to shake things up and pick something new, Bull always chose pizza. And not even with creative, artisan toppings — just plain cheese and loads of greasy pepperoni.

Three months was a long time to go without Bull’s “famous” pizza, but —

“I never win,” Ned pointed out. “You’re bigger and . . . stronger than me.”

It was hard to admit, though it was true. Ned was thin and gangly, and Bull was . . . bullish, with broad shoulders and thick arms.

Bull shrugged. “Use one of your old nerd inventions to help this time.”

Ned let the barb slide. “Isn’t that cheating?”

“It’s not cheatin’ if I let you.”

It sounded too good to be true. Ned stood up, trying and failing to be intimidating toward his much taller brother. “Why do you want this?”

Bull looked somewhat evasive. He was silent before finally saying, “There’s a promo goin’ on at the pizza place. Twelve stamps gets you a free large pizza and wings. But it only lasts for ninety days.”

“Ahh . . . ” Now Ned understood. “So, instead of just asking me if we could have pizza for the next three months, you want to make a bet about it?”

Bull snorted. “Would you’ve said ‘yes’ if I’d asked you?”

“No.”

“Well, there ya go.”

Ned looked at the rope. It was the one they always used, and it was very thick and incredibly long. They had a big backyard, and it could span the whole thing, even with the little grove of trees along the side fence. So, there was plenty of room for setting up something to help even the odds.

“All right,” Ned said. “You’re on. Tug-of-war, winner gets dinner. And I get a handicap in my favor.”

“Sounds good,” Bull agreed, and stuck out his hand. Ned took it hesitantly, suspicious of Bull’s goodwill. But the handshake was solid — even as Bull said, “Hurry and set up your nerd stuff.”

*****

It was well over an hour later before Ned was ready. (Bull had dozed off under the tree grove, and Ned had to toss the potato at him to wake him up.) Half of the rope was strewn neatly across the lawn, a blue ribbon tied to mark the middle. The other half was . . .

Bull blinked. “You made a pulley system.”

Ned’s mouth fell open. He looked between Bull and his wonderful invention. “I, er, well — yes!” he said, caught mildly off-guard. “Very good, my dear brother!”

He bounced over to his side of the rope, which was mostly strung up amongst a series of pulleys and weights. “You see,” he began in his best lecture voice, “how it works is — ”

“I’m ready when you are,” Bull called out, already holding the rope taut, clearly not at all paying attention.

Ned scowled, but took up the rope on his side, near its end.

“One!” he called.

“Two!” said Bull.

“THREE!” they chanted together.

Ned yanked on the rope with all his might, using every ounce of his spindly strength. The pulleys groaned, the weights squeaked, and he thought, it’s working, it’s working, I haven’t fallen! Oh joyous day!

Caught up in the excitement of this milestone, it took Ned a few seconds to realize that though Bull hadn’t pulled him down yet, he hadn’t pulled Bull down either. In fact, the rope hadn’t moved. At all.

Still grunting with effort, Ned peered past his invention. HIs brother looked to be pulling just as hard as Ned was, but the rope hadn’t even moved an inch, the ribbon in the center barely even quivering.

What?” Ned couldn’t believe it. His beautiful machine! Failing him?!

Something above him went snap! and Ned knew the pulley system wasn’t going to hold out much longer (it was indeed made mostly of old scrapped projects and bits of duct tape). He cast a desperate look at Bull, who was . . . smiling?

Bull winked at Ned and gave the rope a huge, final TUG.

Then there were a lot of snaps! and also groans and creaks all around Ned’s head, and he let go of the rope and dove out of the way just in time, as the whole thing came crashing down.

It was a splendid mess and one that Ned would have otherwise appreciated if it hadn’t meant that not only had his invention failed, he was also going to be eating the same gross pizza for the next three months.

He looked over at his brother, feeling both dazed and nauseated. Bull was dancing around the yard. “Yeah, boiii!” he crowed.

“Ugh,” Ned groaned. But a deal was a deal. He got to his feet and made the walk of loser’s shame over to Bull.

“Congratulations,” he sighed, holding out a limp hand.

“Glad you’re being such a good sport about this,” Bull said. “And here I was, thinking maybe I’d pick something besides pepperoni for a week or two.”

Ned knew pity when he heard it. “Yeah, yeah, save your platitudes. You’re just lucky my machine failed, otherwise you would have . . . ”

He trailed off as he noticed the rope, which was strangely still somewhat taut, even though Bull had let go of it. His gaze followed it up the grass and into the grove, where —

“You tied your end to a tree?!”

Bull had the decency to look sheepish, though the impact was significantly lessened by his wide grin.

There was no way Ned was letting this one go.

“THAT’S CHEATING!”

 


 

So, these two characters are based off an old idea I’ve had rattling around in my head for awhile. Basically, Bull is reformed bully, and Ned is a reformed nerd (hence their oh-so-creative names). Their adventures involve them trying to put their pasts behind them as they explore new avenues of interest, make new friends, etc. I feel like I still need to work out their personalities, so this was a good exercise for me. ^^

This story was inspired by a prompt found in this book: Write the Story

“Rope” by Artiom Gorgan is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

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