The television sparked to life as Grover Hoffman punched the power button, anticipating coverage of the RAP (Rank Assessment Program). The Rank Assessment Program, was created to train the best military men and women. First place grants entrance into a prestigious group called Rank, comprised of previous winners, but to earn entrance you have to make it farther than all your fellow competitors in the toughest obstacle course ever built. I’ll never make it into the Rank. I’m too short and skinny to win any competitions like that. My long, auburn hair and dark blue eyes sure catch the ladies though!Anyway, I’m not exactly sure how Rank began, or whether the RAP or Rank came about first. This was always something Grover pondered, late at night when he couldn’t sleep. Why? What exactly is the point of the competition? What does Shane see in it? I mean sure, the publicity is insane, and the media covers the event like wildfire raging through a field of dry grass. I’ll bet they make millions, but how did it all begin? The news channel popped up and the television drew Grover out of his thoughts. Sure enough, they were babbling about the RAP.
“Jim, do you remember last year?” An over-excited female broadcaster exclaimed. “What a disappointment!”
Grover remembered this lady, he had seen her on the news channel before. The man with her must be some ‘special guest’ or something. He reasoned.
“Well, Brianna, last year was certainly action-packed, but-”
“Before we get to that I should explain a little about how the RAP works, for those who don’t know.”Brianna butted in. “Ten candidates are chosen from thousands of submissions, and whoever makes it the farthest, the fastest is declared champion. The week long events feature brutal courses testing endurance, intelligence , strength, marksmanship, and agility. Completing the course is so difficult no one has ever made it past strength! Alright Jim, back to last year!”
“Well everyone thought Miles Gamble had a shot at defeating the unbeatable course.” Jim replied in a rich, smooth voice. “I can’t believe Craig Forclip won. Shocker!”
“Yes, Miles Gamble was the favored competitor, who tragically lost his life during the intelligence portion of the course.” Brianna exclaimed.
“A tragic accident. Accidents happen someti-”
Grover snapped off the television, cutting out Jim’s voice and silencing the room. He had suspicions about Miles Gamble’s death.
A sudden BRRRING snapped Grover from his pondering. Ugh. Stupid phone. Grover laboriously dug the phone from his jean pocket. He didn’t recognize the phone number.
“Hi, may I ask who’s c-”
“Youidiot! Ican’tbelieveyouhitmycar! Doyouknowhowmuchtroubleyou’rein? WhenIgetmyhandsonyou…” She paused for breath, “…I’llbreakyoursorrylittle-”
Grover hung up the phone. Man, I just can’t shake this lady. All I did was bump her stupid car. How did she even get my number?
Shane Griswald was a creature of habit. He woke up every morning at 5:30 A.M. He rolled out of the same side of his bed before remaking it perfectly. He proceeded downstairs for a protein shake before heading off to the gym. This routine was important. He based it on military regiments he had read about. When he told his best friend Grover about the training, Grover called him ‘a buffoon who wouldn’t last a week on a such a schedule’. That was seven years ago. Now, Grover respected Shane’s stubbornness. Shane had been fascinated by the RAP since he was young. This fascination kept him training. Qualifying for the RAP was extremely difficult, but that didn’t stop Shane from trying.
If only I could win the RAP and get into the Rank! Shane thought as he ambled down the front steps of the small ranch toward his new Jeep Wrangler. Grover often teased him for living with his parents, but Shane didn’t mind. If I was accepted, I would no doubt win, proving to everyone that dreams can become reality… Shane failed to notice how quickly he was approaching his Jeep. …and when I stand on the podium to receive my honorary induction into the Rank –cameras flashing wildly of course– I’ll tell everyone “My dream has finally–
Shane’s face smacked the window of his car, interrupting his fantasy. Then his wristwatch beeped 6:00 A.M.
How can this be? Leaving after 6:00? Disgraceful. He always left before 6:00 to maximize his time at the college gym before classes. Stepping back, he quickly unlocked his car and slid into the driver’s seat.
After the short commute to Baintucky college, training in the gym, and a quick shower, he was lounging next to Grover in History class. The most difficult thing about history was paying attention. Mr. Miller’s voice was deep and soothing, and no matter how hard he tried to stay focused, it was too difficult. His thoughts swirled and he was soon in dreamland.
“–Shane now holds first place by a landslide!” The announcer was shouting. “Nobody can catch him! He’s about to complete strength! No other competitor has ever–
The bell rang, suddenly interrupting Shane’s fantasy.
The bell. Finally! Grover stood, ready to escape class. Catching a glimpse of Shane’s notes, he frowned.
“Shane!” Grover scolded, gesturing to his papers.
“What?” Shane replied innocently, quickly covering his doodles.
“Were you ever listening?”
“Ummm, he mentioned something about Ittalia The Hunt?” Shane replied uncertainly.
“Attila The Hun.” Grover corrected him. “You should pay more attention. You’re lucky Mr. Miller didn’t notice. What were you doodling over there anyway? More stick figure animations of ‘Shane wins yet again’?” Grover shoved his naive friend as they strode to their next class.
After school, Shane drove home through a magnificent rainstorm. The torrent was so thick he couldn’t see his mailbox from the garage. Sighing, he decided to wait it out. Ever since he was sixteen years old, he had been sending in applications for the RAP. He used to wait in eager anticipation for the mail truck, watching it putter along until it reached his house. As soon as he could, 16-year-old Shane would dash to his mailbox and rifle through the letters. Eventually, his eagerness dwindled from a raging fire down to its last embers. Now, 23-year-old Shane checked purely out of habit.
As Shane was wondering whether or not he should check the mailbox in all the rain, the lights flickered and a thunderclap shook the car. Shane jumped over the hood and scrambled for the door. He ripped it open, plunging through before slamming it behind him. Shane had one major fear: thunderstorms.
Shane forgot about the mail. He thought only of the storm. Collapsing into bed early, Shane slept restlessly.
Grover was drifting off to sleep when an obnoxious BRRRING jarred him back to reality. It was his phone. This better be important. “Hello?”
“Grover! Grover!” An ecstatic voice exclaimed. “Igotin! Ican’tbelieveit! Whatishappening? I–”
Grover hung up. I can’t believe that obnoxious lady is still bothering me. She hasn’t given me a break! Calling at 6:00 A.M., that’s just rude. He rolled over and closed his eyes once more.
BRRRING. The phone rang again. This time, Grover had the presence of mind to glace at the caller ID. It was Shane. Even if he was annoying, Grover would never hang up on his best friend.
“Grover? Did you just hang up on me?” Shane sounded mad.
Oh no. Grover thought, wide awake now, connecting the dots.
“Shane, I’m sorry. I mistook you for this lady who keeps calling and screaming at me and-” He stopped mid-sentence. “Wait, why are you so excited? Slow down, I’ve never heard you talk that fast.”
“I’ve been accepted for the RAP! Can you believe it?” Shane exclaimed.
“Wait, you actually GOT IN? What, did they get bored and start throwing darts to decide who gets in?”
“Shut up Grover.” Shane laughed.
“So who’s your trainer?”
Trainers were like sponsors. A submission letter required a trainer’s name along with the contestant’s. I wonder who Shane found to be his trainer. He’s not exactly the most favored guy to win the RAP these days. The trainers give advice, administer first aid, and turn in paperwork. It was like being a sidekick secretary. Grover felt bad for the trainers. The papers and forms numbered somewhere close to a thousand, an overwhelming amount of work. Shane’s trainer would have a mere month to fill them out before the start of the RAP. Absorbed in thought, Grover almost overlooked the silence from the other end of the phone.
“Shane?” Grover asked suspiciously.
“Grover, I never got anyone to agree to be my trainer…” Shane said slowly.
“So whose name did you put on the submissions? How did you get their signature?”
“Ummm.” Shane was shifting nervously. “I never thought I would be accepted, but it was my dream, I couldn’t give up.”
“Shane. Whose name?” Grover asked sternly.
“I put your name Grover. I faked your signature. It wasn’t difficult, all you really do is write a capital “G” and then a bunch of little squiggles after that…” Shane stammered. “…You’re my trainer.”
Grover hung up.
The last month had been insane. The stack of papers had been intimidating, but Shane knew Grover could manage. Shane intensified his training, and now that the day had come he was confident. They had flown from Baintuckey last night and stayed in a hotel. Currently they were in a meeting listening to the rules for each stage of the course. The speaker reminded Shane of Mr. Miller. How can Grover focus?
“We will start the endurance section tomorrow at 9:00.” The fake Mr. Miller was saying. “Remember, you’ll only have five hours to complete it. Good luck.” The man ended his speech and left the room, but the ten competitors and their coaches lingered to talk. Shane was about to ask Grover if they should leave when a middle aged competitor sauntered up to him.
“Hey mate, you’re Shane I believe. The name’s Victor. Victor Campbell.” The man held out his hand, and Shane shook it.
“Hey mate,” Shane mimicked, “the name’s Shane. Shane Griswald.”
Victor chuckled softly. His laugh made both Shane and Grover smile.
“I like you already, Shane. You’re more amiable than that Tristan Morgan guy.”
“Isn’t Tristan a highly respected competitor?” Grover asked.
“Yeah,” Shane replied, “he’s quite popular, and people think he might get past strength this year!” Shane’s inner nerd was making an appearance. “What’s so bad about him? Dude has an awesome mohawk.”
Victor scowled. “He called me a ‘crusty old geezer who’s past his prime’. I’ll whip his arrogant butt on the course.”
Shane and Grover stayed a few more minutes to chat before saying goodnight to Victor.
It was a blazing morning. The sun beat down relentlessly on Grover’s auburn hair, making life miserable. He stared down at the piece of paper in his hand. How do they expect me to decipher this? He wondered. The paper was a map of the endurance section of the course. It was covered in markings of various color and shape, all meaning different things. Glancing up at Shane in utter confusion, Grover said, “I’m sorry man, I can’t figure this out. It’s like trying to read Chinese when you’re blind. I think this triangle means there’s a hill by the finish, though.”
Shane laughed. “No worries, I should be able to find my way through.”
“If you do get through.”
“When I do.” Shane shot back.
“I guess you can always follow the people whose dust you’ll be eating. The course is a massive semi-circle, I’ll be waiting at the finish. You should get to the starting line. Good luck!”
At a gunshot, the race began, and Grover started his stopwatch.
The endurance portion proved to be an absolute drag. Last year only about half of the contestants were able to finish. The fastest finisher ever, Grover learned from a fan, was none other than Victor Campbell. Victor set his record last year with a time of 3:52:24. Three hours and fifty-two minutes. That’s fast. It takes me longer to do my math homework! He settled down near the finish line, content with his view of the course. From where he sat, he had a clear view of the last five hundred or so yards until the track dropped away in a steep hill. The crowd continued to flow like a slow moving river, all heading toward the finish, and soon people lined the sides of the course. They dropped out of Grover’s sight when they got to the hill. Brutal, having that massive hill right at the end, but it’s the RAP. What should I expect? After an excruciating three hours and forty-seven minutes, Grover was startled by a sudden bustle from ahead. Frantically, he checked his stopwatch. No way. This can’t be a competitor! He strained his eyes, trying to spot movement. The cheering intensified as a single runner burst around the bend, legs pumping as he glimpsed the finish line. The man was short but thick, with tree trunks for legs and the branches for arms. His spiky brown mohawk was recognizable from a distance. It’s Tristan. Grover realized with disappointment. Glancing from his watch to Tristan, he calculated that Victor’s record wouldn’t hold up much longer.
Shane felt like death. His legs screamed for him to stop. If he counted correctly he was in fourth place. Fourth place! I can’t stop now. He fought his way up a steep hill, and as soon as he appeared, a thunderous cheer greeted him. His heart fluttered into his chest before he realized it wasn’t really thunder. People! I have to be getting close! They’re cheering! An announcer shouted Shane’s name through a microphone. The crowd cheered louder. Their energy fueled him, driving him forward. Shane finished in a sprint. As he crossed the finish line, his legs gave out and he slumped to the ground. He heard footsteps, glancing up to see Grover jogging over.
“Shane, you did it!” Grover exclaimed.
Shane smiled, but was too exhausted for words. Grover informed him that he finished third, not fourth, and his time was just over four hours and fifteen minutes. Shane couldn’t stop smiling. After a few minutes, he struggled to Grover, who was watching for more finishers. Where’s Victor? I haven’t seen him since I passed him earlier. Isn’t the endurance his best event? The fourth finisher finished with a time of 4:45:23. Only fifteen minutes left! As the minutes ticked away, there was still no sign of Victor. The crowd grew restless, everyone had Victor on their minds. Shane shot Grover a worried expression, but Grover just shrugged and turned to spectate. Shane checked the stopwatch. It read 4:57:34. Suddenly, a tremor floated through the crowd. People started whispering, then shouting, then cheering. Butterflies fluttered in Shane’s stomach as he stumbled to his feet and focused his gaze on the bend. Sure enough, it was Victor. Something’s wrong. Victor didn’t run, he stumbled. He barely kept his feet underneath him, and Shane could tell he was struggling to remain upright.
“Run Victor!” Shane screamed, his tired voice cracking. “Run!”
As Victor’s foot crossed the finish line, his exhausted body collapsed.
“What a finish!” The announcer shouted. “He barely made it! Victor Campbell has completed the endurance with a time of 4:59:07 and not a second to spare! He’s moving on!”
After endurance, they weren’t allowed to go back to the hotel. It made sense now that the RAP had begun, and locker rooms were provided if you were waiting to compete and wanted a shower. It’s weird to think that I have time to kill if they don’t call my name first. intelligence started directly after endurance. It was run individually, and each contestant’s name was randomly chosen, deciding who went first. There was no time limit, all you had to do was finish. Easier said then done. The announcer drew a paper from a clear glass bowl, unfolded it, and read it aloud.
The crowd hushed. You could have heard a pin drop. Shane watched as Victor’s face showed no signs of emotion. He’s one tough dude. To keep things fair, contestants weren’t allowed to watch. intelligence was supposed to be done with no prior knowledge of the course, so there was no way to prepare for it. I might as well take advantage of those locker rooms while I wait.
“Later Grover, I’m gonna shower.” Shane called to his friend.
On his way through the locker room, he realized his toiletries were at the hotel. He was turning on his heel to ask someone about this when he spotted Tristan and his trainer near the back of the room. I’ll ask them, they might know. As he approached, he realized they were absorbed in conversation. Not wanting to interrupt, Shane settled on a bench out of sight and waited. The conversation began to grow heated. Voices rose until Shane began to make out what they were saying.
“–said you were going to take him out!” Tristan’s trainer was shouting. The man looked silly the way his face scrunched up with his big glasses around his graying hairline.
“But I did! I did everything you told me.” whined Tristan.
“How come he finished then, huh?” Tristan’s trainer sounded furious.
“I– I have no idea.” Tristan backed away. Obviously, he feared the man.
“Did you administer a 10 millimeter dose like I told you? He shouldn’t have been capable of finishing!”
“I made sure of it.”
“And you’re sure you measured Millimeters, not Micrometers?”
“Millimeters?” Tristan backed further away.
“Blast! I should have done it myself. Victor should be eliminated! We can’t get to him now, he’s already on the course. The effects should be wearing off. We’re in trouble.”
Shane had heard enough. I have to get back! Grover will know what to do. He stood, not daring to take his eyes off the conspirators as he backed toward the door. Without warning, he tripped over a stack of towels piled neatly next to bottles of soap and shampoo. Both men spun, charging the pile of limbs and assorted shower equipment.
“Don’t let him escape!” Tristan’s trainer barked.
Shane scrambled to his feet. Well, I found the shower stuff. He thought, disgusted by his stupidity. He didn’t get far, Tristan and his trainer caught up easily. They brought him back to the locker room, and shoved him onto a bench. I can’t believe this. Shane thought.
“What am I going to do with you?” Tristan’s trainer asked. “You’ve ruined my plans.”
Shane paled. Can I escape? He needed time to think.
“I won’t tell anyone!”
“Fool,” Tristan said, “We can’t believe that. You’ll have to be–”
“Shane Griswald!” The announcer’s voice shouted from outside.
Tristan’s trainer cursed. “We’ll have to let him go, or they’ll notice he’s gone.”
“How do we keep him from saying anything?” Tristan asked.
“You’ll walk with him to the start, make them think you’re just being friendly. Don’t mess up this time.” He stared straight at Shane. Man, this dude can glare! “I’ll be on the roof of this building watching your every move through the scope of my sniper rifle. If I see any funny business, I won’t hesitate to put a bullet through your skull.”
Shane and Tristan exited the locker rooms together like two best buddies. Tristan wasn’t very intimidating, but he sure knew how to act. He smiled and joked like he’d known Shane all his life. This is crazy. Shane thought as Tristan nodded to a passerby. What can I do? If I run, I’ll be shot. He started to form a plan. I’ll get through intelligence as fast as I can, and as soon as I’m through I’ll find Grover or someone and tell them about Tristan and his trainer. He was feeling much better now that he at least had something to go on.
At that instant, a low rumble of thunder sounded in the distance. Shane jumped like a firecracker. Oh please no. Not a thunderstorm. Sure enough, he glanced at the sky to notice dark clouds creeping toward them.
During his glance up, Shane caught a glimpse of a concrete-walled building ahead. He knew this was the intelligence course. It wasn’t too large, maybe the size of two average houses. It was all light gray concrete, with a single door. The course completely changed year by year, so that returning contestants wouldn’t have an advantage. Intelligence was always made out to be mysterious, and no one was allowed to watch. The RAP filmed the runs though, and would release the film after everyone competed. Oh man, I don’t wanna be in there when the storm hits. What if the thunder is louder in there? What if I have a flashback?
“So, did you hear about the game last night?” Tristan was saying. Of course, there was no game last night, or if there was Shane knew nothing about it. It was just a disguise. At any rate, he didn’t answer. They were almost to the intelligence course.
As they reached the door, Tristan turned and left. Alright, so I managed to avoid getting sniped. Now all I have to do is complete this course before the storm gets here. There were two burly security guards on each side of the door, and as he stepped up the one on the left opened it. Taking a deep breath, Shane looked inside to see a hallway that abruptly took a ninety degree turn. Well, here goes nothing. He stepped through the door.
As Shane stepped into the hallway, a thought flashed across his mind like a warning signal. What if I die in here like Miles Gamble did last year? He knew that intelligence was one of the most dangerous parts of the RAP, because they always had it set up so that you were afraid. A few years ago you had to figure out a way to get across a tightrope while a pool filled with hungry alligators slowly rose up from beneath you. The answer was to swim, because if you swam fast enough the alligators wouldn’t be able to get to you before you managed to get across, but if you tried to cross the rope it was impossible to make it fast enough. He shivered at the memory. I guess that’s why they say they aren’t responsible for any injuries or deaths. Miles Gamble had been the people’s favorite competitor last year. He was a likable guy, with thin black hair and big glasses, and he didn’t look athletic, but when you watched him on the RAP, you realized that despite his looks he was special. They never released how he died, but claimed it was a tragic accident.
Focus, Shane. He turned the ninety degree angle of the hallway, and was faced with a surprise. The hallway continued for about one hundred feet before stopping in a dead end. What do they expect me to do, bash my head through the concrete? He stood still for a moment before starting slowly toward the end of the hall. As he approached, he saw a light coming from the floor. It took a minute for him to realize. This isn’t a dead end, it goes straight down! As he stood at the edge, he could make out a flat wall stretching nearly three hundred feet straight down. On his left was some odd writing cut into the wall, with a single paper and pencil on the floor in front of it. On his right was a dark slit that looked sort of similar to a mail slot. With the light coming from below, he read from the wall. “How much dirt is there in a hole 3 feet deep, 6 feet long, and 4 feet wide?” What in the world does that mean? He wondered. Then a huge thunderclap broke through his thoughts. Shane whimpered. He could feel it coming. The flashbacks weren’t avoidable once they started.
It was ten years ago. Shane and his family were swimming at the beach, laughing and enjoying themselves. Little Shane was daydreaming like always, and didn’t notice his younger brother Kevin going out into the deeper waters. Back then, Shane didn’t know what a wall cloud was. He was about to find out. A wall cloud is a large and often persistent cloud that forms beneath the surrounding base of a cumulonimbus and which sometimes forms tornadoes. This particular wall cloud came out of nowhere. It blew past and although it never formed a tornado, it had effectively hidden the brewing storm behind it. Out of nowhere, the waves became monsters and Shane lost sight of Kevin. A wave crashed over him, and washed him back onto the beach. People were screaming. Thunder shattered the air as lightning lit the sky. No. This is not happening. Get a grip Shane! That’s the past. You can’t save Kevin by reliving it, but you might be able to win the RAP if you just focus! Taking a deep breath, he shook off his memories and concentrated on the problem at hand.
This is nothing like any of the previous intelligence courses. Think, Shane! He looked at the paper, pencil, and slot. Then an idea struck him. What if I have to answer the question, and then drop it in the slot like I’m returning a library book? But how do I answer the question? He thought back to his math class, but was completely lost on how to solve the problem. For what seemed like ages, he searched for an answer that wouldn’t sound stupid. If Grover was here, he’d probably tell me my head is hollow. He started to repeat the question for the millionth time. How much dirt–wait a minute… Hollow? A hole is hollow! It doesn’t have any dirt at all in it! Shane took the paper and wrote “the hole wouldn’t have any dirt, because it’s a hole! Duh.” before dropping it down the slot. Then he waited. After a few minutes, a clunking noise sounded, and a platform rose up from below him.
Shane stepped onto the platform. After a few seconds, it started moving down. Shane almost laughed. I did it! That wasn’t even hard! I wonder… I… He began to feel groggy. What is happening? He wobbled, scarily close to the edge of the platform. How far is the drop? He looked toward the ground, and his mind swirled. The world seemed to do a front flip as Shane tumbled straight off the edge of the platform. He passed out before he hit the ground.
Shane’s eyes popped open. Where am I? What happened? He was lying on a bed in a small room with a television screen, curtains, and a nightstand. On the nightstand was a glass of water. Where is the bathroom? Then it all started to come back. The RAP! The platform! The door opened and a nurse strode into the small room.
“I demwand an expwanation.” Shane mumbled.
“I see you’re awake.” The nurse said, smiling. She’s pretty… “You broke a few ribs when you fell. You’re lucky, though. At least you didn’t land on your head.”
“You’re pwetty. Whewe are my fwiends? Why can’t I tawlk wight?”
The nurse laughed. “I’ll admit them, just a sec! We had you on some painkillers.” She turned, parting the curtains, and walked away.
After a few minutes, the nurse returned, escorting Shane’s one visitor into the room. It was Grover.
“Gwover!” Shane exclaimed.
Grover smiled, and dove right into the explanation. He told how after Shane began the intelligence course, Tristan was caught with a 100 millimeter dose of poison made from certain mushrooms. The poison wasn’t deadly unless used in bulk, but would knock someone out cold for a few days if you gave them enough of it.
“But Gwover, how did they find to me so qwickwy?
“Oh, the RAP has cameras recording the intelligence course, remember? They have one on the front door too, and it records a large enough radius to catch Tristan administering the poison. He’s a dead duck.” Grover replied
“What abowt Twistan’s twainer? Did they catch him? Did they find his sniper wifle?”
“Sniper rifle? He couldn’t have a sniper rifle. Do you know how impossible that would be to get through security? I’m afraid he tricked you about that, but yes, they caught him too. Turns out he was the mastermind behind it all. He planned to drug all the contestants and cause so much havoc that the RAP would have to close down. Guess what his name is? Melvin Gamble. Sound familiar? He’s Miles Gamble’s dad. I knew there was more to Miles Gamble’s death, but I would never have guessed this! Also, Victor completed intelligence, and they are going to continue the RAP in a few months. They have to let the publicity die down a bit and hire more security. They decided to pass you through the intelligence, since you had nearly completed it when you went all goopy and tumbled off the platform.”
“Weally? No way! I’m still in?”
“You sure are, and you better recover fast so we can get some training in!”
As Grover left the room, Shane felt an overcoming sense of peace, and sleep soon overwhelmed him. He dreamed of winning that RAP and living out his dreams, and was feeling very happy. Maybe part of that was the drugs, but he knew he could win this thing…
…And then, Shane Griswald does a spectacular back handspring, and as the crowd cheers his vault places him the furthest anyone has ever made it in RAP history! The crowd is cheering wildly of course…