25: The Prize

25: The Prize

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

The Prize

Envy is a waste of time.

~Author Unknown

The gym was stuffy for October. A teacher had pushed the double doors wide open, but the heat from one hundred kids wearing Halloween costumes soaked up the fresh air.

“How do I look?” I asked my friend, Gina.

“Old,” she said.

“Perfect.”

I tugged at the eyeholes of my wrinkled, rubber mask and adjusted my spectacles. My mom and I had worked on my costume for two days, and I looked grandmotherly. Padding in all the right places. Little gray curls. Pantyhose, shoes, handbag, and dress from my grandma’s own closet. I’d even been practicing my walk.

Gina tugged her skirt and twined her fingers through her long blond ponytail. “The parade’s about to begin. Here’s the music.”

The music sounded in the gym, and the procession began. I steadied myself in Grandma’s shoes and grabbed my cane.

The costume contest was a big deal in junior high school. It took forever for the big, round clocks to strike one o’clock on Halloween day. But when they did, the fun began. There was a half hour for costume preparations and then a parade in the gym. The teachers judged the costumes and there was a gift certificate prize taped to a jumbo box of candy.

I’d been thinking about my costume for a long time. I wanted to win. I didn’t care so much about the gift certificate. I wanted the recognition. I wasn’t one of the popular girls, though I had a fair number of friends. Winning the contest wouldn’t be a ticket to being popular, but it would sure make me look cooler.

“Can you move faster?” Gina asked from behind me.

I really couldn’t. Marie was in front of me, and she moved like a snail, though she was dressed as a ladybug. She took tiny steps in her red knee-high socks. Even I moved faster with my grandma-like shuffle.

Marie. Poor Marie. I felt bad for her. She never seemed to have what she needed. She had a hard time with schoolwork. She had many brothers and sisters but I’d never seen her with a friend. Her hair was often unkempt and either stuck out in wild tufts or was matted to her head. Her clothes didn’t fit. Even her ladybug costume had seen better days. From behind I could see that her spots were frayed and were pulling loose. Her antenna was bent. Her red tights had a long snag.

But I stopped thinking about Marie as we neared the judges’ table. “Almost there,” I whispered. Several teachers laughed as I shuffled by, and I was quite confident that I’d win. I’d done a pretty thorough assessment of the costumes before the parade began. Lots of ghosts. Plenty of ghouls. My costume was, by far, the most authentic.

We’d gone full circle around the gym when the music stopped. The judges came out from behind the table and walked in a slow circle, taking one last look at the costumes. A low buzz of conversation spread across the gym as vampires and musclemen talked about who would win.

“You’ve got it,” Gina whispered. “They laughed when you walked by.”

“I think so, too,” I said. “But hey, your costume is great.”

Gina smiled and the teachers walked to the center of the gym.

I was about to burst with excitement. It was getting sticky behind that mask, but I’d take if off after I claimed my prize. Mrs. Bronner blew a whistle and the crowd hushed. It was time.

“I’d like to compliment all of you on your great costumes,” she said. “They are wonderful this year.”

I wasn’t surprised when she started to walk in my direction.

“But we have one costume that is really, really special.”

My heart started to race.

Mrs. Bronner continued to walk. The clack of her heels came closer and closer. She stopped in front of me. “This year’s Halloween costume winner is... the ladybug. Marie, congratulations! You’ve won!”

I looked at Gina to see if I’d heard right. She shrugged. Mrs. Bronner gave Marie a hug. Everyone clapped. Marie jumped up and down. She jumped and jumped and jumped until one of her wings fell off.

Marie had won? My costume was better. I pulled the rubber mask from my face and drew some fresh air. Then I bent to pick up Marie’s wing. “Good job, Marie,” I said as I handed it to her, though frustration filled my heart. Marie took the wing, but she didn’t hear me. She was just too excited.

An hour later, after we’d gulped punch and munched the many cookies that the room-moms brought, I sat on the school bus. I was still disappointed. I knew better than to think one Halloween prize would elevate me to cool-girl status, but I’d really wanted to win. I felt a sense of injustice as I looked at my costume, balled in a shopping bag under my seat.

Our bus moved over the windy, country road. The leaves had turned harvest orange and gold, something I normally would appreciate. But I couldn’t escape my sullen mood.

After a mile or so the bus slowed and stopped in front of a well worn home — Marie’s. She moved up the aisle, toting her costume bag. Then she nearly tripped down the steps. The driver waited patiently then snapped the door shut when her feet hit solid ground outside the bus.

As the bus began to creep forward again, I sighed and looked out my window. I saw the front door of the house open, and Marie’s mother came out and stood on the landing. Marie ran up the sidewalk, dropped her bag, and rushed into her mom’s arms. They clasped hands and jumped together. Then Marie let go to fish through her bag for the prize. She retrieved it and there was more celebration.

I craned my neck to see more but the bus picked up speed. Marie and her mom became tiny people, then little specks lost behind the trees. All of a sudden it didn’t matter that I hadn’t won. I didn’t care that the cool girls hadn’t clamored around me in my victory, and I felt a little ashamed for wanting it so much.

Marie needed to win that contest, and I was so glad that she had. Funny thing was, I felt that in witnessing such a tender scene, I’d been given a prize, too.

~Shawnelle Eliasen

More stories from our partners