I never meant to run forever. I was just a callow teen, pimply and spindly, from the orange-grove country of central Florida. I was out of the loop in a new city, Unpleasantville, and a new high school, a new senior looking for a clique to join. So I tried out for the cross-country team. I placed second after the first lap on the first day but dropped out after the second lap because I was winded. On the next day, I didn’t show up for practice.
“Where were you?” said Ron in the lunch line. “We need runners!”
So this looked like the clique for me after all. I returned to practice and ran all the races, sometimes placing, until the November regional in Bloomington.
But I am getting ahead of myself. My father lost his job selling insurance—although, from scanning the headlines, you would think that if any business could do well in Unpleasantville, it would be insurance: Fires, murders, work “accidents.” Anyway, he couldn’t afford to send me to Uzhas College, even though it was just on the other side of town.
But the founder of the college, a Russian oligarch two steps ahead of the Kremlin cops, offered a full ride to the winner of the regional race. That could be me, if I took enough Edge-Go, a drug that generated dopamine to mask pain. The problem in long-distance running is to think about anything other than the race, since contemplating your running would remind you of the pain and of the lunacy of augmenting it by continuing the run. The athletic associations sanction Edge-Go, of course. But for career reasons, our coach provided it to us on demand. Or not on demand. So I had accumulated a respectable number of those little blue pills.
True, not everyone partook. “I vow,” said Alex Smith, the president of the senior class and the spitting image of Brad Pitt, at the organizational meeting, “never to take a performance-enhancing drug.” His usual bevy of blondes applauded. He was the odds-on favorite to win the race.
“Why are you even in the meet?” I said. He smirked at my Southern drawl. “You don’t need the athletic scholarship,” I continued. “You’re the valedictorian. You qualify automatically for a full ride.”
“Competition is what makes our country great!” He flashed his famous grin. The blondes cheered.
The meeting ended. My minister, who was to give the invocation at the tournament, was in attendance, following his months of absence from Unpleasantville due to his annual trip to a secret destination. Reverend Jones was a close friend of my father, who often sought his advice on family matters. The Reverend, quiet and observant, touched my arm. “Ed, what is the Tenth Commandment?”
“The Tenth? I don’t know.”
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” He paused. “If you need financial aid for college, the congregation will take up a donation for you.”
I refused the offer. I had stronger reasons now to race. Alex just wanted to prove that he was the best in everything, and I was going to prove him wrong. I didn’t see what the Tenth Commandment had to do with it. Alex wasn’t my neighbor and wasn’t even married. Reverend Jones smiled sadly, made the sign of the cross, and left.
On the morning of the race, the skies were cool and clear, ideal for a three-mile run except for the distant threat of a thunderstorm. An out-of-tune brass band serenaded the runners while friends and kin waved their plastic pennants—pure black for the Unpleasantville Demons. In the near distance awaited the hills, sere and steep. The race would end at the hulking black monolith in the park.
The start gun went off. I downed a final handful of Edge-Go and settled into the scattering crowd of fifty runners. I positioned myself just behind Alex, so that I could save my energy for the final sprint. He waved at the adoring Becky.
On the final half-mile, Alex and I were thirty yards ahead of the pack. Aside from the grim tolling of a church bell, we almost seemed alone in the world. We began the last, long hill, Heartbreak Climb. As we neared the summit, I revved up for the chase.
But Alex pulled away from me. I looked about me: I had made no progress in topping the hill. I sped up again. And again Alex pulled away. I was no closer to the summit than before.
I gasped for breath like a locomotive, and my heart hammered, as I accelerated anew. But I might as well have stood still: The same boulder on my left as before, the same toppled oak on my right.
The heavens broke, and great sheets of water deluged the hill. Drenched, the meet officials were canceling the race. The runners behind us sprinted for shelter. “The storm is a sign!” Reverend Jones shouted to me. But Alex and I continued. I slipped and sloshed from side to side, but Alex was as sure-footed as a deer.
As of today, by my reckoning of erratic time, I have been charging up Heartbreak Climb for fifty years in this godforsaken unconsummated race. Despite the Edge-Go, my lungs are afire with pain, and my knees are convulsing. A charley horse has seized up my right thigh, and I cannot suppress my growing moans. My vision is blurring, my heart is misfiring, and a black stain is trickling over my consciousness.
But just five yards more, just one minute more, and I will show Mister Alex Smith who is king of the hill.
Leon Taylor teaches economics at a university in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He has written fiction for the 96th of October, Schlock!, Sanitarium, Space and Time, 365tomorrows, and other magazines. He maintains a blog at firstname.lastname@example.org .