(This is part six of a story about an ultra-marathon-runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a hundred mile race. For now, Jonas is ahead of the horse.)
BEEP. Mile 51: 11:52 / 6:48:51.
Hermes’ compression-sleeve was a lifesaver for my left knee. The knee ached without a sleeve ever since I broke my leg cross-country skiing as a Wisconsin teen, but I hadn’t worn a sleeve this morning because the only one I owned was cotton. After just twenty miles it would’ve rubbed my knee red-raw. Hermes’ compression sleeve was silky nylon. The man knew how to live.
“Drink.” Whitney gave me the hose to her water-backpack. My mouth was still dry from twenty miles with hardly any liquid. As I chugged, Whitney put something in my palm. “Swallow these.”
It wasn’t my place to ask what she’d given me. I just swallowed them.
“That’s two ibuprofen and a salt tab,” she said. “You’ll thank me for the painkillers, and hyponatremia is a death-null. You’re already acting confused.”
BEEP. Mile 52: 8:11 / 6:57:51.
“Can’t too many meds cause kidney-failure?” I asked.
“If you win a million bucks tonight, you can buy as many kidneys as you want from the Bronsons,” said Whitney. “If you lose, you’ve got bigger problems than your kidneys.”
I gulped. As we ran into the shade of trees, a chill ran down my spine. “Change the topic, squire.”
“You just finished two marathons in under seven hours. Nice job.”
“I don’t want to think about running.”
“What have you explained so far to Thog, the caveman?”
“Just cars and crosswalk-signals.”
“Airplanes are usually good for a few miles,” said Whitney. “Explain airplanes.”
“Well, Thog, do you know about birds?”
Whitney smiled. “Thog know bird. Thog eat bird.”
“Have you ever wanted to fly like a bird, Thog?”
“Why Thog want that?”
“You could fly up high to see where all the animals were hiding. You could drop rocks on enemy tribes. You could spy women from afar to take back to your cave—I’m sure flying would be a hit with the ladies.”
“Ooh. Thog want that,” said Whitney. “Tell Thog about airplane.”
BEEP. Mile 53: 8:03 / 7:05:05.
I felt the ibuprofen kicking in. It didn’t help my aching legs much, but it helped. Whitney was right to worry about hyponatremia, too; low salt-levels could make me cramp or even hallucinate. “Well, Thog, I already explained cars, remember? An airplane is like a car that can fly like a bird.”
“How Thog get one?”
“Ooh.” I bit my tongue. “It’s harder to get an airplane than a car. Airplanes are expensive.”
“Eckspensif?” asked Whitney. “What that?”
“You know, you have to trade a lot of berries and animal skins and stuff for an airplane.”
“Oh. Thog have many berry and animal skin. Thog trade for airplane. Bring many woman back to cave.”
“The tricky thing is, though, piloting a plane is a lot harder than driving a car. You’ll probably have to get a license, or something.”
“I mean, you gotta prove you can fly without crashing and killing everyone aboard.”
“Ooh. Scary. Thog reconsider.”
Whitney and I laughed. My cheeks were red. “I missed running with you, Thog.”
“I’m glad to see you again, Jonas.” Whitney pointed up through the branches above. “You should tell Thog about helicopters next.”
I looked up. I’d prayed the helicopter flying overhead was a hallucination. “Alphonse.”
BEEP. Mile 54: 8:09 / 7:13:14.
Kevin paced around his car, smoking a cigarette and swearing. Hermes napped across the back seat. The sixty-mile flag fluttered in light breeze.
“…Finally!” Kevin waved both hands in the air.
Hermes opened his eyes at the buzz of an approaching aircraft. “What’s that?” A plastic craft the size and shape of a bird of prey hovered before Kevin and gently set a pizza-box on the dirt.
“I’m friends with a guy who runs a start-up delivering stuff by drone. I figured we couldn’t get Jonas’ pizza into the estate any other way, considering the hassle we had at the gate.” Kevin opened the pizza-box to check its toppings, then gave a thumbs-up to the drone’s camera. “Pineapple-olive, just like Jonas ordered. Eeugh. Well, it’s his shitty pizza.” Kevin showed the drone’s camera both sides of his credit-card. “Christ, who orders a cheeseless pizza? Pretentious pricks, that’s who.”
Hermes watched Kevin inhale the last of his cigarette and blow the smoke at the drone as it took off. Hermes pursed his lips. “You don’t seem to like Jonas very much, huh, Kev? Why’d you want to come here and help him?”
“Jonas and I go way back, back to high-school cross-country. But he was always a pretentious prick. Always ragging on about skiing and the Wisconsin countryside and crap like that.” Keven sat in his car’s driver’s seat with the pizza-box in his lap. He used his smartphone to add a tip onto the delivery. “If he wins a million bucks today, Jonas better pay me for the pizza. It costs two hundred bucks to deliver like this. And he got it cheeseless, the pretentious prick!” Kevin lit another cigarette and puffed.
“Why do you smoke, man?” asked Hermes.
“Calms me down,” said Kevin, apparently unsarcastically. “Don’t tell me you’ve never smoked anything, hippie-beard.”
“Nothing legal,” said Hermes. “I just mean, as a cross-country runner, I figured you’d worry more about your lungs.”
Kevin reclined his seat. “Spare me the speech, dude. I’ve heard it all before.”
“Bet you have,” said Hermes. “I heard it all the time when I was drinking myself to death.” Kevin tapped ash from his cigarette. “When I was Jonas’ age, all I did was drink and run, but I only really learned to love running after I quit drinking. Got better at it, too.”
“I’m not like you weirdos,” said Kevin. “I don’t run ultras. I run on a treadmill in my air-conditioned basement, three miles at a time, three times a week. The treadmill doesn’t care if I smoke.”
“Running is running. Don’t Run to Live, man, Live to Run.”
“If that kinda thinking got Jonas into this situation, he should’ve just settled for living.” Kevin puffed his cigarette. “Should’ve just left the Bronsons alone.”
“I’m just saying, you could really… Uh…” Hermes pointed skyward. “Hey. Look.”
Kevin shaded his eyes from the sun. A helicopter was flying toward them. “Huh,” said Kevin. “Must be Alphonse.”
“Do you think it’s coming clos—” Hermes’ words were blown away by the helicopter landing abruptly before them.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen!” Alphonse Bronson stepped from the cockpit. “I suppose this is yours?” He tossed the drone onto the dirt. It was mangled and torn.
“Whoa!” said Kevin, “Did you fucking shoot it?”
“No, I didn’t. My helicopter-pilot shot it.” Alphonse saluted back to the helicopter as the blades spun down. “Your drone was in my private airspace, and my pilot has an itchy trigger-finger regarding invasion of my privacy.”
“It’s not a government spy, crackpot! It’s a pizza-delivery bot!”
“I see. Please, forgive me.” Alphonse bowed, sweepingly. “I’ll pay for the drone, but I hope you understand I don’t want any unauthorized visitors on my property, flying or otherwise. If you’re hungry, please, call me and I’ll have a trusted estate-agent bring you something more sophisticated than a pizza.” He passed Hermes a business card.
“The pizza’s not for us,” said Hermes. “Jonas asked for it specifically.”
Alphonse blinked. “Oh.” He pat his gaudy military jacket’s pockets for a minty metal toothpick. “May I see it?”
“Excuse me?” Kevin pulled back the pizza-box. “Hell no.”
“Please excuse my abruptness. I’m fascinated by athlete nutrition,” said Alphonse. “What pizza-toppings does an ultra-runner order? Maybe my horses could learn a lesson from Jonas.”
Kevin raised an eyebrow.
“There’s really no need for suspicion,” said Alphonse. “I assure you, I’m not nearly nefarious as the media portrays me. The Bronsons aren’t a photogenic family, but we’re much more personable in person.”
“It’s pineapple and black olive,” said Hermes, “and cheeseless.”
“Cheeseless!” Alphonse clapped. “How intriguing!”
“Yeah, I’ve met lots of runners who say cheese makes them nauseous,” said Hermes. “They don’t do dairy on a run.”
“You know, when I was young, my father took me to Italy. I learned that cheeseless pizza is perhaps the most historically authentic,” said Alphonse, “and definitely delicious!” Kevin rolled his eyes. Pretentious prick. “But how might a runner eat a whole pizza mid-stride?”
“Jonas is hungry enough to eat a horse,” said Hermes. “It won’t take him long to finish this. Maybe he’ll walk for a few steps to scarf it down.”
“Is the pizza cut into squares,” asked Alphonse, “or are slices more convenient?”
Hermes shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”
“The things you perceive not to matter might matter most!” said Alphonse. “My father always taught me—”
“Fine you pretentious prick!” Kevin opened the box. “It’s cut into slices, okay?”
Alphonse kicked the bottom of the box. The pizza flopped onto the dirt. Alphonse stepped on it and smeared it with the heel of his boot.
Kevin stared at the pizza. “You asshole!” He rolled up his sleeve and approached Alphonse. Alphonse just smiled and pulled a pistol from his jacket. It was silver and had horses engraved on the handle. “What the fuck.”
“You visit my property at my mercy. I don’t approve of flying-machines intruding to deliver mysterious pizzas—especially flying-machines with cameras.”
“We don’t want any trouble,” said Hermes, with his hands up. “Mr. Bronson, sir, would you please send us a pizza with pineapple and black olives but no cheese? For Jonas.”
Alphonse put the gun back in his jacket. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“You’re a dickhead!” said Kevin. “Aren’t you supposed to be riding a horse right now?”
“My best jockey’s on the job.” Alphonse climbed back into his helicopter. “You’ll see her soon enough, as she streaks by.”
BEEP. Mile 55: 7:59 / 7:21:13.
“Anyway, Thog, that’s what helicopters are all about,” I puffed. Whitney’s pace was demanding but manageable.
“There it is again.” Whitney pointed up at Alphonse’s helicopter. “Maybe he’s spying on us.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it.”
“I can’t believe he switched out for a jockey,” said Whitney. “I read all about the Bronsons when I was researching Georgie Masawa. Alphonse seemed like the kinda guy who’d wanna do things himself, if only to gloat.”
“He flipped me off,” I said. “He said he was injured when his horse brushed against a branch, and he was eager to show me the band-aid on his middle finger.”
“Pathetic,” said Whitney. “He can’t even give the bird himself. He has to blame his horse.”
“Yeah.” I chuckled. “I don’t need any help to flip someone off.” I raised my middle-finger at the helicopter. “Take that, Alphonse.”
“Careful,” said Whitney. “If he’s really spying on us, he might take that personally.”
“You think he’s that petty?”
“From what I’ve read, no one is more petty than Alphonse Bronson.” Whitney passed me the hose to her water-backpack. “You know that better than anyone.”
I sure did. I grit my teeth.
BEEP. Mile 56: 8:02 / 7:29:15.
“Let me talk to Thog.”
“I told my friend Whitney that racing the horse was a corny attempt at romance,” I said, “but that’s not it. I have a grudge against Alphonse I couldn’t put off any longer.”
“You’ve told this story to Thog a hundred times,” said Whitney, “but Thog is happy to hear it again. You’re good at telling it.”
“I broke my leg cross-country skiing when I was fifteen,” I said. “If I ever wanted to ski again, I needed surgery my family couldn’t afford.”
“We heard about a big charity event in Colorado,” I said, “sponsored by the Bronsons. The Bronsons had an awful reputation, but if they were funding a charity event, maybe they weren’t so bad. So I went, and they gave me a crutch for free. I just had to run in a charity race.”
“How’d that go?”
“Alphonse offered free medical-care for life to every kid in that race except last place. As the kid on a crutch, it came down to me and the girl in a wheelchair.” I took a deep breath. “I would’ve been nothing but thankful if I’d just gotten the crutch, but taunting me with the possibility of getting my knee back, good as new—it wrecked me. I still see the girl in the wheelchair when I close my eyes. She beat me by meters.”
BEEP. Mile 57: 7:48 / 7:37:03.
“Thog understands,” said Whitney. “The Bronsons have hurt a lot of folks. You’re among an elite crowd, including Georgie Masawa.”
“Hoy, hoy! Outta the way!”
Whitney and I heard galloping hoof-beats. Champ streaked by us, full-tilt.
“Yah! Yah!” shouted the jockey. The hoof-beats became quiet in the distance ahead.
“Oh my god.” My knees quaked.
“It’s okay,” said Whitney. “Don’t panic. The horse won’t always be behind us, or ahead. Races are about change.”
“No, it’s not the horse.” I held my head in my hands. “The jockey was her, Whitney. The girl in the wheelchair.”
“You’re hallucinating, Jonas. She could have been anyone.”
“I’d know the back of her head anywhere.” Now I led the pace.
BEEP. Mile 58: 7:32 / 7:44:35.
Whitney sped a few steps ahead to slow me down. “Drink.” I drank from her water-backpack. “Swallow.” She ripped open a silver packet of running glop. I slurped it down: peanut-butter. “Drink.” I drank from her hose. “We’re closing in on that mountain.”
“Is there another flag at mile sixty, to choose which way we run at the fork?”
“Have you looked at maps of this place?”
“Does either way, left or right, avoid that mountain?”
I puffed. “Nope.”
“Then save your gas, Jonas. The fork’s the jockey’s. Let her choose. You’ll choose at mile eighty, I promise.”
BEEP. Mile 59: 7:15 / 7:51:50.
I let myself slow down. “Thanks, squire.”
“Think about your pizza.”
“Ooh.” I salivated. “Kevin’s such a snob about pineapple on pizza, but I can’t get enough.”
“The combination of savory and sweet is old as cooking,” Whitney concurred, “and you never know what tastes good after sixty miles until you get there.”
“Nah. I’ve been praying for that pizza since mile five,” I said. “I hope they could get it into the estate.”
“I hadn’t thought about that.” Whitney put a hand over her mouth. “I should’ve asked for your pizza-order before we came in.”
“I need that pizza, Whitney.”
“There they are.” Whitney pointed ahead. Beyond the trees, beside the flag at mile sixty, Kevin and Hermes waited in the car.
BEEP. Mile 60: 8:04 / 7:59:54.
Hermes made a gesture for Whitney I couldn’t see. “Jonas, do some stretches and check where the jockey tossed the flag,” said Whitney.
“It’s not good, Whitney.” Hermes brought Whitney behind Kevin’s car.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Alphonse stopped by.” Hermes opened the pizza-box in the back-seat. The pizza was mushed and dirty.
“Ah. Shit.” Whitney put her hands on her hips and breathed through her teeth.
“That ain’t half of it, sister.” Kevin tossed the destroyed drone before her. It was still smoldering. “Alphonse is packing heat. We called the police, but they said Alphonse is legally justified shooting down drones in his private airspace. Who’da thunk.”
“Okay. Okay.” Whitney covered her mouth. “I’ll handle this. Get another pizza to mile seventy. It’s uphill the whole way, so it’ll take us a few hours.”
The jockey had tossed the flag left, and I was glad. The trail right was steeper.
“I’ve got bad news,” said Whitney.
“I’ve got good news, so lemme go first.” I pointed left. “The jockey chose the shallower path. Champ must be getting tired.” I grinned. “She was just galloping past to freak us out.”
“There’s no pizza,” said Whitney.
I looked at her dumbly. “Huh?”
“Alphonse stole your pizza and gave it to the jockey. She ate one slice, and the horse ate the rest.”
My blood boiled.
Sandra knocked on the door. “You sent for me, sir?” There was no response. The door was ajar, so Sandra peeked into Alphonse’s bedroom. Alphonse was bundled up in blankets in the fetal position. He waved a finger to tell Sandra to come closer. Sandra rolled her wheelchair to his bedside.
“My father died this morning,” said Alphonse.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Sandra.
“He said I hadn’t made anything of myself.” Alphonse coiled into a tighter ball. “He still thought himself a bigger man than me.”
Sandra tutted. “Well, he raised you. If he considers you a failure, he must’ve failed as a father.”
Alphonse considered. He sat up, still wrapped in blankets. “Yeah. That’s right!” He turned to Sandra. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If he calls my aspirations twisted, he has only himself to blame. And now, without him holding me back, I can be a real Bronson!”
“Exactly, sir!” Sandra clapped. “Let’s celebrate! Do you have any jockey-juice? If I can stand, we’ll tango!”
“Yes, lets!” Alphonse opened a drawer on his nightstand. He passed Sandra a syringe which she injected into her thigh. Then she stood from her wheelchair as if she never needed it. “Come here!”
Sandra had practiced dancing ever since she first tried jockey-juice. She and Alphonse danced around his bed. “What’s the first thing you want to do, now that your old man isn’t around?”
“The same thing I’ve done all my life,” said Alphonse, “dwarf my father’s legacy! My father made millions, I’ve made billions. My father raced glue-horses, I breed champions.” They wheeled around the room. “Anything he did, I’ll do with ten-fold the grace!”
“Yeah! That’s the spirit!” Sandra let Alphonse dip her. “Show your daddy who’s daddy!”
Alphonse kissed her on the lips.
Sandra grunted and pushed him away. “Whoa! Hey! I didn’t mean it like that!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Alphonse adjusted the cuffs of his gaudy military jacket. “I just thought—My father… was a father, and I thought you meant—I thought you were volunteering to make me a father, too.”
“No, no, no.” Sandra sat back in her wheelchair; Alphonse had diluted the jockey-juice, and she felt it wearing off. “I’m sure you’ll find the right woman to carry the Bronson genes.”
Alphonse looked out a window over the estate, and, sighing, shook his head. “I think I’m the last of my lineage. I can’t imagine meeting a suitable receptacle for my seed.”
Sandra breathed in relief. Some lucky lady dodged a bullet.
“No, I know exactly how to put my father’s memory in its place.” Alphonse smiled at the sun. “I’ll follow in his footsteps and beat a modern Georgie Masawa. Maybe I’ll run him to death, too.”
Sandra bit her lip. “With all due respect, sir, if you follow in your father’s footsteps, you’ll always be a step behind.”
Alphonse paused and turned to her. “I understand what you mean, but there’s a little more to Georgie Masawa than the history books tell. There’s room to improve on my father’s ambition.”