Night falls on Chichen Itza, covering the bustling city in darkness. Cold winds draft the narrow streets, the torch flames waggle, flickering shadows on the walls. Moonlight pours down, painting in silver the roof-tops and huge stairs of the pyramids. Focused on the moonlight bathing his arm, Gabor cannot sleep. His heart speeds up like a wagon dragged by a startled horse. He thinks of tomorrow. It is the biggest event in Mayan culture: The Ball Game. It happens every ten years, and has lasted as long as the Empire. As captain of the city team, he has more reason to be excited. If his team wins, Chichen Itza will receive the highest honors. It will be favored by the gods, with the promise of a good year of harvest. He, personally, will go face to face with the almighty, serving them by sacrificing his life on the altar.

Gabor is turning twenty in three months. He has high cheekbones, a tall nose, and powerful jawlines. With tanned skin, curly hair and a pair of big brown eyes, he looks kind, smart, an average lad. Nobody imagines him the beast he is in the ball game.

He’s gained a lot of attention this past month. Excited crowds follow him everywhere. It’s been satisfying, but also confusing. He still remembers his grandfather bursting into tears when he became captain. Father’s words still echo in his ears, “The god of heavens, Itzamna, gave you your name, Gabor, ‘God’s bravest warrior’. And you are, my son. You deserve it. You have the body, the mind, and God’s will to support you. It will be a hard game, and you are facing a cruel world. But always be brave, my son. Trust yourself. I am proud of you!”

Slowly closing his eyes, Gabor feels his confidence grow. He can see his team and the whole city cheering him on. He imagines the wooden statue that will stand in the pyramid, next to all the great heroes. He sees his parents and grandparents and his little sister, Sacniete, whom he loves so much, wipe their tears as he steps on the altar. He even sees the gods, appearing on top of the clouds, smiling and reaching out to him. But as soon as Gabor touches their hands, the gods turn into the priests with wicked smiles and shiny blades. The cheers of the crowd get louder and louder and suddenly, turning into howling; “BLOOD, BLOOD, BLOOD!” They chant. He slowly turns his head, finding his family standing in the center of the crowd, in horror. As if the world collapses, Gabor gasps in shock and opens his eyes. It has been a dream. One that pinned Gabor down and beat him up.

The first light of dawn reaches the vault behind the stadium. It is game day. Kneeling before the fire and the giant statue, Gabor lets his mom put on his leather protection. As the armor wraps his chest, his elbows, hips, and knees, Gabor feels safer. It is not the armor, but his mom. Her hands have magical power. The slim fingers protect him more than his muscles. “Lift up your head, honey. Right here, hold still,” says the warm voice. He opens his eyes and sees his grandma. She is holding paint in a bowl with her left hand. She sticks her fingers in and starts to trace around his face. Gabor feels the gentle wrinkled fingers. He remembers the years when they went into the jungle and raced each other to compete for insects and wildflowers. Sacniete’s voice interrupts the memory.

“Are you nervous?” she asks. Juno, her dog, looks up at him with innocent, adoring eyes.

“I am.” When he looks into their eyes, a strange feeling fills him. He is being split apart. He wants to win the game for honor and glory, but is unwilling to leave this world and its familiarity. He wants to stay, to keep talking to them, to see them smile.

“Be careful when playing; do you hear me?” Mom mumbles while tightening the armor; “Don’t get hurt!”

“You hear her?” Grandma replies, “When you were a boy, you always went out so hard and didn’t stop. You ended up with wounds on your arms and acted like they were trophies. Stupid! Every time, I told you…”

Listening to the words, Gabor feels safe and calm. This comes from nowhere else. His mom and grandma have both grown older. They have put all their energy into him and his sister. He looks at them. There are tears in their eyes. Strangely, Gabor almost feels relieved. At that moment, he decided that there is nothing in the world that can make him happier than being together with his family.

Everything is ready. Gabor stands up. He looks at the statue’s shiny surface. He sees a guy with thick pads on his body, paints on his face. A warrior. He sees his family surrounding him. Grandma puts her hands on his shoulders. “The gods are just. Don’t think too much. Follow your heart and do what’s right. Itzamna already has a plan for you.”

After hugging his family for maybe the last time, Gabor lifts up the curtain. Sunlight hits him. He faces the sun and the cheering crowds. He steps into the arena. His teammates await.

They huddle up, putting arms on shoulders, forming a circle with Gabor in the center. Excitement is written on their faces. Looking at those sincere, determined eyes, Gabor feels guilty. When they were young, he and his teammates sneaked out in the afternoon while their parents were asleep, to this very same spot. He remembers they huddled up, arms around arms, dreaming about playing here and bringing victory to the city. Now that dream has come true. Although everyone has grown a little older, and stronger, the brotherhood and passion for the game has never changed.

Moved by his childhood dream, Gabor says, “boys, it’s a fine day out here. We’ve come a long way. Today, we get to prove that all the sweat and blood we put in is not wasted. Win for the brothers! Win for the people! Win for gods’ glory!”

“Let’s goooooo!” The team shouts back.

Looking around the arena, Gabor feels a heavy pressure. Before him is an I-shaped ball court, where the fate of the city, and his own, will be decided. Inside the “I” is a grassy field. To the sides are mud slopes. Walls surround the arena, and there are two loops on the walls at the top of each slope.

All we need to do is pass the ball and get it through the loop. Gabor thinks. He takes a deep breath, deciding to put everything aside and play his heart out.

Drums beat. Cheering crashes down from the seats beyond the walls, like huge waves of the ocean. On the opposite side of the arena, Gabor sees the silhouette of five large men. They are from Coba, Chichen Itza’s rival state. The sun is shining on their backs, their faces are hidden in its glare. There is only the shadows of their bulk.

“This is gonna be tough!” says Aapo, his teammate.

“Don’t worry,” Gabor pats on his shoulder; “Let’s just enjoy the game, like we always have, and the gods will take care of the rest.” He looks away, trying not to let Aapo sense his fear.

With another wave of cheering and round of drum roll, the chief of Chichen Itza stands up from his throne at the top of the pyramid, “Today, the citizens of Chichen Itza and Coba gather here, to witness the will of the gods. The victorious side will earn the highest honor and a good year of harvest. The captain of the winning side will represent his people in sacrifice, in gratitude to the divine. Remember, players can only hit the ball with their elbows, knees, and hips. Checking is allowed but tripping is not. The first to score wins! May the gods be just! Now, let the game begin!” He takes out a leather ball from a box that his squire holds, and gently tosses it up in the air.

Like a stone dropped into tranquil water, the ball falls on the grassy court. The audience stands up, waving scarves and cheering. It is an intense game. There is no room for mistake, and every possession is crucial. The ball lights up Gabor’s blood. He is full of power. He sprints towards the ball like a mad bull, wanting to get the upper hand. Before reaching it, he sees an opponent charging the same direction. He gets his big, hairy hands on Gabor’s chest, knocking him backward. Gabor stabilizes his body; the other team gains possession. Seeing his teammates struggle, he thinks, being physical isn’t working. I gotta beat them with speed. As another huge guy dashes towards him, Gabor steps to the right, while pushing back against his shoulder; they separate. Be brave! Father’s voice echoes in his head.

Like Cerberus, he begins his pursuit of the Coba’s captain, who is dribbling the ball towards the goal ring. Having no idea of the danger, Coba’s captain jumps high in the air, the ball in one hand, smashing it into the hoop confidently. Silence suffuses the stadium; nobody dares to breathe. Players from Coba have already raised their hands, preparing to celebrate. When the ball almost sinks below the rim, when all the light has diminished in Chichen Itza’s eyes, a magical hand swipes the ball away from the rim. The dunk is blocked! It is Gabor! He is a shadow from behind, his hand refusing defeat. The audience is fired. They scream and dance in a frenzy. They wave and point to the field as Gabor gathers the ball and starts sprinting towards the other end. “Victory, victory is ours!” they roar.

Coba refuses to give up. They regroup and are back like a pack of wolves. With wrath in their eyes, they crash into Gabor and his teammates. Gabor signals a different play. The five men on his team run around the court, cutting in and out, looking for open spaces while making threatening passes. Smart play will always win over brute force. Coba’s violent pursuit leaves a big hole under the hoop. Gabor senses it, cutting in like a boat slashing through untamed waves. Aapo juggles the ball in the air and punts it with his knee. The ball draws an elegant curve above Coba’s heads, flying towards Gabor. He jumps up and raises his arms. The stadium freezes again. Thousands of eyes are on him, expecting him to finish off the game with the slightest touch. He gathers his strength, presses on the ball, aims at the hoop. Glory is seconds away. With a single touch, he will finish the game, and ascend to heaven, to serve the gods.

But when his skin touches the ball surface, its coolness takes him to a long-forgotten memory. It was the first time he picked the ball up and threw it through a hoop. He remembered his father’s encouragement, his grandparents’ smiling faces, and his mom and sister’s cheering. That was when he fell in love with the Ball Game. His family got him started, and without them, the Game would never be fun, or meaningful. Suddenly, he cannot move the ball; it is heavy with memories.

Grandma’s voice appears, “Follow your heart and make the right decision. The gods already have a plan for you.” Yeah, follow my heart. Gabor closes his eyes, focusing on the happiest memories of his life. He does not know what his body does. He hears a loud “Bang!” He falls to the ground. In the dirt, he opens his eyes and sees the ball bounce off the rim and fall into the other team’s hands. He sees his people covering their faces, crying in disbelief. He sees Coba crushing his team, driving towards the hoop. Every sense fades. He feels only the shaking of ground when Coba scores. Even the scorching heat of the sun cannot warm him up.

Another bright morning. Sunlight shines through the dense forest, into the compound of branches. Gabor is already up. For months, he has been living in the forest outside of Chichen Itza, alone. All he hears is the chirping of birds and the howling of wolves. He wonders what his family, what his city thinks of him. He thought losing the game would allow him to return to his family, but he was wrong. He escaped death, but he gave up glory, and faith. He ran away in shame. Walking outside, he sees a flock of macaws hovering high in the sky. They spread out, dancing, showing off their beautiful forms. Then they come together, calling each other, supporting each other with the draft they generate. I wish I could be as free as the birds, Gabor thinks. He comes back inside, sitting down on the dry earth to write a letter.

Dear Mom, Dad, Grandma, and Sacniete,

How have you been since I left? Are you all healthy? Does grandma still walk around the village in the afternoon? Does Sacniete still love the wildflowers? How’s Juno?

I’ve been good. Living in the forests has not been easy, but I got used to it. I have my little camp set up now. Food was hard to get in the beginning, but is no longer a problem. You don’t have to worry about me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about you, and the decision I made in the game. I still don’t fully understand how I missed it. Something took over that split-second. I sit quietly in the darkness, wondering – what if I scored? Will I be happier, dead? I have no answer, and never will. The moment I stepped on the court, my life was torn apart and lost its meaning. I entered a cage long ago. Every decision is a dead-end. What should I do now?

He leaves the letter on the dampened earth.

Jonathan Zhang is an 11th grade student at Lexington High School, Massachusetts. He loves writing in his free time. He published his first story, “Passed Down” on the RavensPerch.