A “LITTLE” PROBLEM
“I’M OPEN, TIKI!”
Ronde Barber threw his hands up into the air as he ran. Way back down the street his twin brother hauled off and threw a perfect spiral, high and long. Ronde, in full stride, reached out to grab it. He could feel his fingertips brush the ball—
The car horn made Ronde wince, pull his hands in, and dodge to the left, all in the same instant. Ronde leaned against Mr. Evans’s parked Oldsmobile, while the speeding car swerved to avoid the bouncing football, then continued on down the block, its horn blaring.
The driver yelled something out the window about “… kids! Playing in the middle of the street!” But Ronde couldn’t make it out, and he didn’t care to. He knew it was nothing he wanted to hear.
“Man!” he said breathlessly as he retrieved the ball, then trotted back to where Tiki was standing, shaking his head. “Why’d you throw the ball, dude? Didn’t you see him coming?”
Tiki shook his head. “That guy was bustin’ it! He wasn’t even there when I let it loose.”
“He must think this is the highway,” said Ronde. Amherst Street was a dead end, and kids were always playing in the middle of the road. That was one of the great things about living here, in his opinion. Cars came by only every ten minutes or so.
“Come on,” Tiki said. “Let’s play that down over.”
The twins were in the middle of one of their favorite pastimes—a kind of fantasy football that was the perfect way to spend a late summer afternoon. It had been eight whole months since they’d played in a real football game. Eight months! Every year by the end of August they were totally football-crazy.
Luckily, today was Labor Day—only a few days until real football started back at Hidden Valley Junior High!
“I would have had that ball, easy,” Ronde pointed out as they walked back to the manhole cover that served as the line of scrimmage. “Stupid cars.”
“Man, I can’t wait till we’re playing again for real.”
Ronde had to laugh. “I never thought I’d see the day when we couldn’t wait for school to start.”
The next day school would be back in session, and they would be ninth graders at last—not to mention that they’d be team co-captains of the Hidden Valley Eagles, reigning champions of the entire state of Virginia!
“This year’s going to be awesome,” Tiki said. “Our last year, and we’re gonna go out with a bang!”
“A big bang,” Ronde said, a huge smile on his face. “Can you say ‘all-star’?”
“Can you say ‘two-time state champs’?”
“Can you say ‘undefeated’?”
“Can you say ‘record books’?”
They exchanged their special handshake—not the one everybody on the team used to celebrate big moments, but the one known to just the two of them, that they brought out only for very special occasions.
“Can you say ‘NFL’?” Ronde said, voicing their deepest wish, the one they both dreamed about at night.
“The only thing is,” Tiki said, his smile fading, “every kid in school is expecting us to do all that.”
“So, you know it’s not gonna be easy. What if we…” He swallowed hard. “You know…”
“Don’t talk like that!” Ronde told him. “You know what Mom would say.”
“And Coach, too,” Tiki said.
Ronde and Tiki understood that once you let negative thoughts into your brain, they made themselves at home, took over the place—and all of a sudden, your confidence was gone, and so was your game!
“Okay, same play again,” Tiki said, clapping his twin on the back. “Third and ten, right?”
Ronde loved these sessions of theirs—no pressure, and you could let your imagination go wild. In real life he played cornerback and kick returner. But here in the street he could be a wide receiver, or a running back like Tiki, or even quarterback if he felt like it. It was a real summer luxury. Starting tomorrow it would be back to school, and the team, and the Barber boys would be all business.
“Hut! Hut!” Tiki shouted. Ronde took off at full speed. He made one killer move, then another, and whooshed down the side of the street, alongside the parked cars. The ball met him in full stride—
“Not again,” Ronde moaned, flattening himself into the side of a parked car to let the new intruder pass. But then he saw that it was their mom, driving the old brown station wagon.
She rolled down the window and pulled up beside him. “Can’t you see when there’s a car coming, Ronde?”
“Sure I can!” he said. “I knew you were there, Ma.”
She frowned. “You’ve got to keep a better eye out than that,” she said, “or I’m going to have to put my foot down.”
“Yes, Mom,” Ronde said.
“Now come on home,” she said. “I’ve got a pile of new clothes for you and your brother to try on.”
She continued on down the street and pulled into their driveway, while Ronde trotted after her, tossing the football to himself as he went.
Ronde hated trying stuff on, and he wished his mom would let him and Tiki pick out their own clothes. But Mrs. Barber was very strict about certain things. Every year she waited for the Labor Day sales, then spent the day hitting all the stores, looking for bargains.
“I don’t intend to pay extra money just so you boys can dress in the latest styles that’ll be old-fashioned the day after tomorrow,” she would say.
The clothes she picked out were always well made, so they would last a long time. Mrs. Barber worked hard at two jobs, and she knew that money didn’t grow on trees.
Ronde and Tiki helped her take the bags inside. Then the free-for-all began, both boys grabbing whatever items caught their eye, trying to get their pick before the other one claimed it.
“Don’t fight over them!” Mrs. Barber ordered. “There’s plenty for both of you. I got two of everything too, just in case you’ve grown a size. Whatever doesn’t fit, I’ll just return tomorrow.”
Ronde gathered his choices in both arms and headed up to their bedroom. There he started trying on jeans, shirts, pants, and sweaters.
Tiki was over by his bed, doing the same thing.
“How do these look?” Ronde asked, showing Tiki the brown corduroy pants he was wearing.
Tiki shrugged. “Not too bad.”
“Great,” Ronde murmured. “At least you didn’t laugh.”
“Funny,” said Ronde, getting ready to try on another pair. “Very funny.”
“Hey,” Tiki said suddenly, looking down at his legs. “These pants are too small for me.”
“Too small?” Ronde repeated. “Didn’t Mom say she got a size larger, just in case?”
“Well, not these,” Tiki said, taking them off. “See for yourself.”
Ronde eyed the pair of pants. They were gray, and he kind of liked them. Of course, if they were small for Tiki, they were sure to be small for him, too. After all, they were identical twins. Until junior high they’d shared all their clothes.
To Ronde’s surprise and shock, the pants fit him perfectly. He whipped them back off as fast as he could, hoping Tiki hadn’t noticed.
No such luck. Tiki’s eyes were bugging out, and he wore a big grin. “Hey,” he said, “stand next to me, Ronde.”
“Just come on over here by me,” Tiki said, pointing to the floor at his feet, “and let’s stand back-to-back.”
“What do you think?” Tiki said, pointing again. “I bet you I’m taller than you.”
“Come on. Let’s just see. What are you, chicken?”
Seeing that there was no way out, Ronde sighed and stood back-to-back with his brother in front of the mirror.
“Look at that!” Tiki crowed. “I’m at least three inches taller than you!”
“Three inches? No way!” Ronde protested. “Maybe one inch at most.”
“Three, my man. One, two, three. Maybe even four!”
“Wait a second,” Ronde said. “Something’s wrong with this picture. Maybe I’m just all scrunched up.” He went over to the chinning bar that was set into the doorway of their room, and hung from it for a few seconds. “Now try again,” he told Tiki.
But he hadn’t stretched out at all. Tiki was right. He was at least three inches taller than Ronde.
Tiki looked him up and down. “You look skinny, too, next to me,” he commented. Making a muscle, he said, “Come on, let’s see yours.”
Ronde rolled up his sleeve and matched biceps with Tiki. “They’re the exact same.”
“No way! Come on, now. You’re not blind. I’m taller than you, and I’ve got bigger muscles.”
Ronde opened his mouth to say something, but he couldn’t for the life of him think of a single word. His head was pounding, and the whole room was starting to spin. He sat down on the bed and put his head into his hands.
This was a major disaster!
“Come on over to the scale,” said Tiki, grabbing Ronde’s arm and dragging him to the bathroom. “Here—look at that. I gained fifteen pounds!” He stepped off and said, “Your turn.”
Sighing miserably, Ronde stepped onto the scale. The needle stopped at 82, the same exact weight he’d been at the beginning of the summer!
“Hey, Mom!” Tiki yelled.
“Shush!” Ronde told him, but it was too late. Their mother was already coming up the stairs.
“Mom, guess what! I’m bigger than Ronde!”
“Not by much,” Ronde said through gritted teeth.
“Much, much bigger!” Tiki went on. “Look. Look at this,” he said, dragging their mom into the bedroom. He tried on a shirt, showing her that the sleeves didn’t come all the way to his wrists. “I’ll bet this fits Ronde perfectly!”
“AAARRRGH!!!” With a roar Ronde leapt at Tiki, forcing him down onto the bed. Grabbing a pillow, he slammed his twin with it, over and over again.
Far from stopping Tiki, this just egged him on. Between gasps of laughter, Tiki said, “Don’t be mad, Shorty. I can’t help it if you didn’t grow all summer! Ow! Ha, ha, ha! Ow!”
“Cut it out, Tiki!” Ronde shouted, slamming him once more with the pillow, then letting go of it to grab Tiki’s arms and pin them to the bed.
“Stop it! Stop it, both of you!” Mrs. Barber demanded.
In an instant it was over. When their mom got that tone in her voice, they both froze in their tracks. “Now let me see what all this fuss is about.”
She stood them back-to-back, and Ronde could see the surprise and concern in her face. “That’s strange,” she said. “Well, Ronde, I guess you’ll be hitting your growth spurt any day now.”
Seeing the tears he was fighting back, she went on. “Don’t worry, baby. In the end you’re both going to be the same exact size. That’s the way it is with identical twins. It looks like your brother just got himself a little head start.”
“It’s not fair!” Ronde protested. “Why couldn’t I have been the one to grow first?”
“Because I’m better than you,” Tiki teased, drawing a little punch in the arm from Ronde. “Ow! Ha, ha, ha!”
“Tiki Barber, do not let me catch you making fun of your brother again!”
“No, Mom,” said Tiki, his smile vanishing.
“Your job is to stick up for him, especially if somebody else makes fun of him. But whatever happens, don’t let it be you doing the teasing.”
“Now finish up with these clothes,” she said. “We’ve still got to go buy school supplies for tomorrow.”
After she left, Ronde went back over to his own pile of clothes. But he still felt angry, and cheated. “You’d better not even mention it tomorrow,” he warned his brother.
“All right, all right.”
That was the last they spoke about it. But several times that evening Ronde caught sight of his brother checking himself out in the mirror, making muscles and standing up as straight as he could.
That made the sting come right back, full strength. Suddenly Ronde wasn’t looking forward to school—not in the least.
Sure enough, his troubles began before the boys even got to school. On the bus that morning their friend Paco Rivera, who played center for the Eagles and who had known the twins since they were little kids, got onto the bus and sat right behind them.
It was the first time they’d seen Paco since June, when he’d gone off to Mexico with his parents for the summer, to see his grandparents and cousins in the old country.
Paco greeted them excitedly in the aisle, and the twins rose to greet him, giving him the team handshake. Then Paco suddenly stopped, squinted, and tilted his head to one side. “Is it just me,” he asked, “or is one of you guys bigger than the other?”
Tiki opened his mouth to speak, but Ronde squeezed his arm before he could get a word out. “Ow!” Tiki cried. “Quit it, Ronde!”
“So, Tiki,” Paco said, breaking out into a grin, “you’re the big Barber now, huh? Slap me five, jumbo!”
Tiki smiled back at him, and they high-fived with gusto. Then Paco turned to Ronde. “Tough break, little dude,” he said. “But hey, don’t worry. Cornerbacks don’t have to be tall.”
“Don’t be a jerk, Paco,” Ronde muttered.
“Why? What’d I say?”
“Tiki and I are gonna grow up to be the same exact size.”
“Yeah, but look at him, dude. He’s gonna be a monster at running back this year! We’re gonna rule, you guys!”
“Yeah! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Tiki said, nodding. The two of them high-fived a second time.
Tiki had made a promise to their mom not to say anything, and he was as good as his word. But Paco hadn’t made any promises. Within two minutes every kid on the bus knew about Ronde’s “little” predicament—and as soon as they got off, they’d be sure to tell all their friends. Before long “Shorty” would be the talk of the entire school!
Ronde just sat there shaking his head as the others piled off the bus. Was it going to be like this all year long?
He finally dragged himself off the seat and out of the bus. He trudged up the steps to the school as if his book bag weighed a ton. He tried not to walk too close to Tiki, so kids couldn’t tell the difference in size between them. But he still felt their eyes on him.
Since he didn’t look back at them, he couldn’t tell whether they were eyeing him with admiration—the star of the Eagles’ defense—or whether they were comparing him to his brother, and laughing to themselves as they noticed how small he was in comparison.
Luckily, things were not so bad once the bell rang and homeroom started. No one was looking at Ronde now. They were all busy comparing program cards, catching up with friends they hadn’t seen all summer, and, finally, shuffling off to their first class of the new school year.
Heading for Mr. Lerner’s first-period science class, Ronde heaved a sigh of relief. Finally he could think about something other than his own shrimpiness!
© 2011 Tiki Barber and Ronde Barber