The Scrambag

(This is part two of a story starting here.)

The Scumbug shot through space faster and faster. Julia floated around in the co-pilot’s seat watching the cosmos streak by until she got bored and turned to her phone. “Do you have wifi? You’ve got bad reception, Scumdaddy.”

“Please, please, please don’t call me that,” said the Scumbug. “What’s reception? What’s wifi?”

“My phone doesn’t have the little bars that let me talk to people. I can’t text my friends back on Earth.”

“Good. No one can know where we’re going. If you’ve got air, you’ve got enough.”

“I’ll need water, too.”

“Water?” The Scumbug rippled skeptically. “Humans drown.”

“Yeah, but we still need water.”

“You guys are picky.”

“And food.” Julia played a phone-game which worked in airplane-mode. “I’m not that picky. I’ll eat spaghetti or whatever kind of noodles you can cook.”

“Slow down, short-stuff. What’s spaghetti? What’s a noodle? What’s cooking? My translator can’t keep up.”

“You have a translator?”

“Duh. Can’t speak human, can I? And you can’t speak Scumbug.”

“But… where is it?” She looked around the Scumbug. There were twenty fist-sized lumps embedded in its mass. “Are your kids translating for you?”

“Close. Those aren’t just my kids. Whenever I blorp anything up, I crunch it down and it joins the lumps. They’re digestive stones—like, a flaybo might eat rocks to mash stuff in its stomach.”

“A flaybo?”

“Humans don’t have a word for flaybos, so the translator gives you garbage. But like I was saying, I blorped up the translator, so it’s locked in these lumps. Anyway, what’s spaghetti?”

“It’s a noodle.”

“But what’s a noodle?”

“I answered your question,” said Julia, “now you answer one of mine. What’s the Big Cheese?”

“Um.” The Scumbug’s membrane wavered. “It’s hard to explain to someone who’s just entered the cosmic theater.”

“Why? Is it like a really big seahorse?”

“No. What? No. The Big Cheese is… well… Your phone has reception, connecting you to your friends, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’ve got reception, too. Everything in the universe makes a little impression on you, and you make an impression back on them. All of that together—all the connections between everything ever—that’s the Big Cheese.”

Julia frowned. “The—the interconnectedness of all things put a bounty on me?”

“Yeah.”

“What does that mean?”

“Hold on, I’m looking through my translator’s dictionary.” The Scumbug bubbled. “What do you call it when humans pool resources to secure more resources?”

“A bake-sale?”

“That doesn’t have the political connotation I’m looking for.”

“A fundraiser?”

“Does ‘fundraising’ imply the inevitability of physics?”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Osmosis,” said the Scumbug. “That’s the word. Water goes where there’s no water. Exploitation goes where there’s no exploitation, and that’s the Big Cheese. You got a bounty because mob mentality decided to pluck Earth like a ripe berry.”

“…But… who would you collect the bounty from? How does it work?”

“Look, kid, if I understood economics, I wouldn’t be an assassin. Now tell me: what the hell is a ‘noodle’?”

“It’s… um… It’s a food, and you cook it, and it’s floppy and starchy.”

“Cook? What does it mean to cook?”

“You know.”

“I really don’t.”

“Um. You boil water with noodles in it for a few minutes, and then you get rid of the water and eat the noodles.”

“Let me get this straight,” said the Scumbug. “See, I do bad things for a living. I once fed a flaybo to his own jeorbs. I don’t know noodles from spaghetti, but I can learn what’s lethal. What’s lethal to humans? Combustion and drowning. And, uh, decapitation,” it mumbled. “But now you’re telling me, before you eat stuff, you put it in boiling water?

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you homeopaths?

“What?”

“Never-mind.”

For a while the Scumbug and Julia were quiet. In the cosmic distance, bursting supernovae colored black space. When Julia’s phone-battery was almost empty she took a portable charger from her skirt-pockets and plugged it in. “Do your lumps have a power-outlet?”

“Julia, did you know you’re the most polite victim I’ve ever kidnapped?” asked the Scumbug. “Usually people are screaming their heads off.”

“Well, you’re planning to kill them, aren’t you? You said you were taking me to a safe-house.”

“Maybe I’m lying. Maybe I’m cashing in your bounty, and you’re gonna be a hostage for the Big Cheese.”

“All my daddies lie to me, but at least they had power-outlets and wifi.”

“Kid, what’s your deal?


“We haven’t found your daughter and the Scumbug.” The seahorse wore a sling carrying his numerous young, whom he gently rocked as he spoke with the ambassador. “Tracking the Scumbug is tricky because of its… eu natural transport method. I’m sorry it destroyed your robot.”

“Bah,” said the ambassador, “that’s what the robot’s for.” His current office was exactly like his other office under the Marianas Trench, and equally ambiguous in location. “And don’t worry, that wasn’t my daughter—I don’t have any kids. Rescuing Julia would be good for Earth’s image in the cosmic theater, but losing her is a punch we can roll with.”

“Huh?” The seahorse covered his children so they’d sleep. “But you told me—”

You told me the Big Cheese put bounties on successors of leaders for leverage,” said the ambassador. “I don’t have kids. I adopted one. I’m told Julia was a problem-child. She won’t be missed. Leverage minimized.”

“Um. Wow.” The seahorse bobbed dismissively, like a shrug without shoulders. “If you need any consolation, the Scumbug won’t cash the bounty and doesn’t hurt children. Julia is paradoxically safe.”

“Why? Is the Scumbug a softie?”

“Oh, no. The Scumbug is an abominable monster. It once fed a flaybo to his own jeorbs. But unlike amoral entities like Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid, the Scumbug has rigid morality. The Big Cheese trusts the Scumbug only when its ethics can be exploited.”

The ambassador smiled. “…What if we exploit them first?”

“Sir?”

“Shh.” Now the ambassador was grinning ear-to-ear. “With the Scumbug involved, I’ve finally found the reason we went to space in the first place. Do you know why I’m ambassador, Charlie? Why I’m spokesperson of Earth?”

“My name’s not Charl—”

“Because I sent the Ultra-Voyager,” said the ambassador. “I funded the space-probe which traveled far enough to alert the Big Cheese to our presence. Do you know why I sent that probe?”

“To explore the cosm—”

Branding!” The ambassador clapped. The seahorse flinched, but the eight armed guards in the office had nerves of steel. “My company makes useless electronic crap and commercials which convince you to buy useless electronic crap. There’s no value in a space-probe which won’t find anything for a bazillion years unless it convinces chumps that your GPS-chips are faster, or some bullshit.”

“You told me your company revolutionized Earth’s transport-infrastruc—”

“I revolutionized Earth’s cash-flow into my wallet. And look at the mess it landed me in this time! Adopting a daughter to be kidnapped at the behest of a seahorse! But we’ll come out on top of this, lemme tell you.”

“How?” asked the seahorse. “Even as we speak, Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid are on this very planet narrowing down our location. When they find us, they’ll make us talk. When we say the Scumbug captured Julia, they’ll chase her down, even if they know she’s worthless to you, just because the Big Cheese doesn’t know—or they might kill us for the inconvenience!

Perfect.” The ambassador clapped again. “Get me in contact with Germa.”

“Wh-What?”

“Or is Lady Mantoid more accessible?”

“Everything we know about these assassins comes at the expense of top-secret espionage. You want to expose our spies to the risk of death or torture just to contact their targets directly?”

“Why are you here?” asked the ambassador. “Is all that espionage just for fun?”

The seahorse shook. “We hope to protect budding civilizations from the Big Cheese.”

“For what purpose?”

“Altruism, obviously, and to establish mutually beneficial trade-relati—”

“The bounty is two trillion units,” said the ambassador. “If we can wring just a billion units out of that, that’s 100,000 units per seahorse-baby you’ve got there—isn’t that like altruism for your budding little darlings? …Is 100,000 units a lot? It sounds like a lot.”

“Well, it’s not a lot a lot, with inflation lately, but most of these spawn won’t live older tha—hey, what? How, and why, would you profit from an abduction? Julia isn’t your child, but—”

“As long as the Big Cheese doesn’t know that, there’s two trillion dollars waiting to be cashed. Maybe more if we play our cards right.”

The seahorse shuddered. “Sir—Before we go on, can I send my children in your escape-pod to their mother on our home-planet?”

“Why?”

“I don’t think my kids should see this.”

“See what?”

“I won’t explain until I send them away.”

The ambassador pushed his glasses up his nose while looking at an armed guard. That guard opened a panel on the wall, and another guard took the seahorse’s sling of numerous young.

“I don’t think they’re old enough to hear the truth about the Big Cheese,” said the seahorse as the escape-pod shot off. “I’ve looked through my translator’s dictionary; there’s an Earth personality, called, um—Saint Nick? Santa Claus?” The ambassador nodded. “Do you believe in Santa?”

“Can’t say I do.”

“Is that little girl Julia old enough to know Santa isn’t real?”

“Maybe? I certainly wouldn’t spill the beans in front of her.”

“So you understand why I had to send my kids away,” said the seahorse. “I didn’t want them to hear the Big Cheese doesn’t exist.”

“…Then who put a bounty on the kid?”

“Who leaves presents under the tree?”

“Everyone.”

Bingo.” The ambassador squinted. “Aliens all over the galaxy contribute to the subjugation of newcomers. Every Earth-day, a hundred planets just like yours enter the cosmic theater to be crushed by the Big Cheese. You could set your watch by it. Even my retirement-fund invests in these bounties. It’s a decent ROI.”

“You. Paid. For the kidnapping. Of my daughter. Whom you were protecting.”

“If Earth had buckled under Julia’s capture, my family would enjoy the fruits of humanity’s capitulation,” said the seahorse. “We’re altruistic, not stupid. But even I wouldn’t suggest what you’re suggesting, sir.”

The ambassador grinned. “What am I suggesting?”

“You want to call an assassin and sell them information to kidnap a little girl you adopted. Earth didn’t need protection from the Big Cheese after all—the Big Cheese was here, waiting ready.”

“Ah, ah, ah—Come on. Look. You’re a good guy—you came all the way to Earth just to help us out. But like you said, you’re not stupid—if you saved Julia, you’d profit in trade with Earth, and if you didn’t save Julia, you’d make a dime at the backdoor! But the Scumbug nabbed her, so you didn’t even profitNow we’ve got a chance to make a dime when we would be in the red, or even dead. I’m only suggesting it because I know you’re thinking it. Don’t be a Charlie Horse.”

“You’re not bad at this, ambassador.” The seahorse took a glass tablet from a hidden fold in his flesh. He tapped the tablet with his snout and it lit up like a screen. “I can contact Germa the Gerbil if you’ll sign a contract.”


“There it is.” The Scumbug made a long pseudopod point at the approaching planet, which was yellow like a desert. “Home of the flaybos.”

Julia stirred awake. “Huh?” She rubbed her eyes. “How long have I been asleep?”

“How long have you been what?

“Asleep. Sleeping. Lying down with my eyes closed.”

That’s how humans sleep? I thought you were being passive-aggressive.”

“I was doing both,” said Julia. “I was sleeping because it’s so boring here. I can’t charge my phone, I can’t go online—you’re the worst, Scumdaddy.”

The Scumbug bubbled. “Julia, I hope you always think I’m the worst thing in the universe. That’s success, for me. I’m a good little Scumdaddy, if that’s really how you feel.”

“You’re weird. All my other daddies said they’d be the best daddy ever.”

“And they were liars, right? Well, I’m telling the truth.” The Scumbug fell into the planet’s gravitational pull. Julia, in the co-pilot’s seat, pressed against the Scumbug’s ceiling. “There are way worse things in this universe than me, and I hope you never meet them.”

“Like what?”

“Flaybos,” said the Scumbug. “Quick, kid, how fast can humans hit the ground without dying?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then I’ll play it safe.” The Scumbug’s volume flushed downward, faster than Julia was falling, becoming thinner and thinner until it hit the ground a mile ahead of her. The Scumbug looked like a green lollipop with a mile-long stick whose shortening decelerated Julia to the sand. “There. Are you dead?”

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“No.”

“Okay, get out. Wait. What air you breathe, kid?”

“Um. Earth-air?”

“So, nitrogen?”

“…Maybe?”

“Kid, I need to know what keeps you alive. There’s a little argon in Earth-air, is that the stuff?”

“No, that doesn’t sound right. When Ambassadaddy took me to the Marianas Trench, he said we need oxygen.”

“But…” The Scumbug was hopeless. “But oxygen combusts.”

“And?”

“You’re the most fragile creatures in the universe, huh? Do humans need to be decapitated sometimes, too?

“No, but we need oxygen, and water, and noodles.”

“Fine.” The Scumbug churned. One of its twenty dark lumps lost a pea-sized mass which popped from the Scumbug’s membrane and rolled to Julia. “Eat this.”

“This ain’t no noodle.”

“It’s one of my translators. If you eat it, it won’t matter what you breathe—or even if.”

Julia took the translator and wiped off some slime. “Ew.” She swallowed it. “Yuck.”

“Okay. Get out.” The Scumbug opened and Julia walked onto the sand. “Are you dead?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then dig.” The Scumbug shaped itself into a scoop and shoveled a ton of sand. “Flaybos live underground.”

“Um. I think you’re better at digging than I am.” Julia scooped sand with both her hands.

“Just participate, kid. Humor me.” In a few minutes the Scumbug had dug a hole so deep Julia couldn’t see the bottom, not that she cared to look; she was busy with a sand-castle.

“I thought you said flaybos were worse than you. Why are you bringing me straight to them?”

“Not all flaybos, kid. Remember I said I fed one to his own jeorbs?”

“Yeah.”

“A flaybo doesn’t forget something like that. Okay, get back inside me.” The Scumbug opened for her.

“Why?” asked Julia.

“Because it’s a deep hole. I don’t think you’d survive the drop.”

Julia entered the Scumbug. “Scumdaddy, promise me you’ll get a spaceship. This really isn’t working.”

“You’ll fit in the scrambag.”


The ambassador perked up when the seahorse’s glass tablet vibrated. The seahorse touched it and the tablet played audio—heavy breathing. “Who’s this?” asked a voice like a rusty asteroid.

“You’re coming for us, o Germa the Gerbil. You’re on speaker-phone with the human ambassador.” The seahorse touched the tablet again and Germa’s face appeared onscreen. The ambassador thought Germa looked blind and dumb, more like a naked mole-rat than a gerbil.

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Germa spat black spit. “I found your coordinates through this call—you’re hiding under Mount Everest. I’ll be there in minutes. Prepare to face me.”

“You’ll get no benefit from meeting us,” said the seahorse. “Instead, you’ll benefit from hearing what we have to say.”

“Scream it now, or you’ll scream it while I eat your insides.”

The seahorse gave a sour look to the ambassador, as if to say ‘see what I told you?’ but the ambassador waved it away and spoke. “Germa, by the time you get here, it’ll be too late to cash in on this opportunity.”

“If your screams are useless, your intestines alone still sustain me. I don’t mind if you don’t survive my interrogation—humanity can replace you with an ambassador more willing to compromise when I kidnap their loved ones.”

“What I’m saying is,” said the ambassador, “you’re the second assassin we’ve called. We told Lady Mantoid where she can kidnap Julia at her leisure. She’s well on her way.”

Germa snarled, revealing long, dull teeth. “Why? You’d betray your own daughter?”

“I met Julia for the first time about two weeks ago. She means nothing to me. But if the Big Cheese doesn’t know that, the bounty is on. Lady Mantoid paid quite a price for Julia’s location.”

“Don’t lie. She would never pay for something she could squeeze from you for free.”

“I thought so too,” said the ambassador, “but she changed her mind when she heard.”

“Heard what?”

The ambassador leaned in. “We don’t know where Julia is, either.”

“Then you’ve got nothing to scream. Prepare to die.”

“Wait wait wait!” The ambassador chuckled and held up one finger. “We don’t know where Julia is, but when we told Lady Mantoid why we don’t know, she knew right away, and she was in a hurry to get there. You should be, too.”

Germa trembled. “…Why don’t you know where Julia is?”

“A trillion units,” said the ambassador. “Final offer. Take it or leave it.” The seahorse objected, but the ambassador shushed him.

“The girl’s bounty is two trillion,” said Germa, “and with Lady Mantoid already on her way, I might not see a unit of it. I’ll save myself a trillion units and void the bounty by revealing Julia’s worthlessness—or just by killing you. Dead ambassadors have no leverage, and Earth’s next ambassador will know that I mean business.”

The ambassador tutted. “Lady Mantoid knew you’d say that. That’s why she paid us not to call you. She knows every second counts. You could steal her thunder if you leave now.”

Germa puffed. “I was humoring you, fool. I know Lady Mantoid is still on Earth at this very moment because I’m tracking her spaceship.”

“You’re sure trying! She’s counting on you sticking around while she hunts down the bounty. Maybe she’ll claim it before you get word out that Julia’s a dud. Maybe she’s already cashed in! Tick tock, Germa.”

Germa deflated.

“A trillion units, Germa. Lady Mantoid paid us more than that.”

Germa grumbled. His nude pink claw appeared on the glass tablet as he poked something on his screen. The seahorse nodded to the ambassador.

“The Scumbug got Julia first,” said the ambassador.

Froth bubbled from Germa’s lips. “The Scumbug!”

“The Scumbug took off, I don’t know where. But Lady Mantoid seemed to know, and she’s on her way. The Scumbug wouldn’t lay a finger on Julia, so the bounty is wide open, and it’s nowhere near me.”

Germa climbed into a spaceship and set his screen on the dashboard. Beeps booped when the gerbil bopped buttons. “After I capture Julia and collect the bounty, the Big Cheese will learn she’s worthless to you. Then the Big Cheese will choose another way to crush your planet, Ambassador, and I’ll be back. I want to be paid for eating your insides.”

“Pleasure doing business with you.” The ambassador touched the glass tablet. “How do you hang up?” he asked the seahorse, and the seahorse retrieved his tablet.

“Lady Mantoid is still after us,” said the seahorse. “You’ve scammed Germa, but she’s not half the fool. I wouldn’t dare contact her even if I could. We must change safe-houses before she gets here.”

“No need.” The ambassador leaned back. “Germa left, and if he’s tracking her spaceship, she’s tracking his. She’ll be off this planet in a heartbeat. Now tell me…” The ambassador kicked his feet onto his desk. “What will a trillion units buy us?”


The home of the flaybos was a subterranean catacomb of rooms like sandy tombs lit by glowing mold on all the walls. As the Scumbug led her through sandstone corridors, Julia peered down halls to see what the flaybos looked like. Even seeing them she didn’t quite know what to think.

“Hold on.” The Scumbug crunched up tight to fit into a narrow hall. “You’re gonna stay here for a few hours, probably longer.”

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A bunch of little thingies were listening to a big thingy tell a story in another language. “Are these flaybos?”

“Yeah, but most of them are jeorbs.”

“What’s a jeorb?”

The Scumbug wiggled. “Huh? You don’t have a word for jeorb?” Julia shrugged, and the Scumbug flared. “You’ve got a word for sons, and you have a word for daughters, but you don’t have a word for jeorbs?” Julia shrugged. “Kid, I got business. Ask the flaybo what a jeorb is.” The Scumbug slurried away. “Her name’s Julia! She’s with me!”

Julia joined the jeorbs. The flaybo smiled at her. She thought he was smiling, at least. She still wasn’t totally sure what she was looking at. She eventually decided that the flaybo was a giant beaked head on a few tiny tentacles. “What’s a jeorb?” asked Julia.

“It’s a little flaybo!” squawked the flaybo.

“So what’s a flaybo?”

“It’s a full-grown jeorb!”

The jeorbs looked at Julia like chicks waiting to be vomited into. When the flaybo bleated, the jeorbs paid attention to him again, and the flaybo kept telling his story.

Julia’s translator floundered on most of the flaybo’s recitation, and the few words which were translated weren’t so clarifying. Eventually she got bored and wandered the chamber looking for power-outlets, but didn’t dare stray too far in the labyrinthine corridors. She wondered if the flaybo’s story would end eventually, and then they could all play parcheezi or something, but the flaybo kept rambling. The jeorbs hung on every word.

So she was surprised when the jeorbs all leapt upon the flaybo and devoured him alive. When the flaybo was totally dismembered and eaten, the jeorbs had doubled in size, but their hunger had doubled as well. They ate each other until there was only one jeorb left, twice the size of the original flaybo.

Julia hid in a narrow corridor while the giant jeorb ate rocks. As it paced searching for more, the rocks in its belly knocked together.

Then the giant jeorb vomited a slurry until it deflated to the size of the flaybo—which, Julia guessed, meant that it became a flaybo. The slurry he had hurled up congealed into a student-body of jeorbs.

“You don’t need to hide, Julia,” said the flaybo.

“I think I’ll hide anyway.”

“Now you get to hear the story from the beginning. I’m sure it’ll make sense then.”

“Why?”

“Our story starts when the Scumbug fed a flaybo to his own jeorbs.” Julia peeked from her hiding place. “The Scumbug told the jeorbs its own story to hide its scrambag.”

“How?”

“I can’t tell you,” said the flaybo. “That’s part of how it works.”

“All you do is tell people things, it seems like,” said Julia.

“Exactly. I can only tell the story. The Scumbug changed the story.”

“Is that how all flaybos work? Telling stories to jeorbs?”

“I wish I could tell you,” said the flaybo. “Other flaybos aren’t in my story anymore.”

Julia frowned. “So… Scumdaddy is making you keep secrets?”

“The Scumbug doesn’t make me do anything,” said the flaybo. “The story is the thing.” With that, the flaybo began reciting the incomprehensible story to its jeorbs. Hours later the jeorbs ate the flaybo and each other, and the surviving jeorb became a flaybo when it vomited the next generation. Julia watched this happen again and again until her boredom overcame her fear of getting lost. She walked down a narrow corridor.

“Kid.” The Scumbug filled the whole corridor before her. “Get inside me. The scrambag is ready.”

“You’ve got weird friends, Scumdaddy.” Julia walked into the Scumbug, who carried her through corridors. “This flaybo just kept… um… eating himself over and over, I guess?”

“No, his jeorbs were eating him. Didn’t they teach you anything?

“Not really. They said they couldn’t teach me, because you changed their story.”

“Right. That’s what they taught you. That’s how flaybos work. Flaybos tell stories to jeorbs about how to live their lives. When a flaybo dies, a jeorb replaces them seamlessly, telling the same story. That’s the word—a jeorb is a replacement, but for yourself, across time.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Do humans have a word for ‘the person I’ll be tomorrow’? That’s a jeorb. I fed that flaybo to his own sense of a continuous self, so he’ll just keep doing that forever. Every other flaybo in this planet tells a story which makes jeorbs into a twisted little secret-police which would kill you in a heartbeat. Now get ready, there’s gonna be like a billion of them in here.” The Scumbug oozed out a corridor into a great subterranean hollow. It became completely dark, but Julia heard slithering tentacles.

“…Scumdaddy?”

“Are you scared of the dark?”

“Not usually, but I’m making an exception.”

“I could make my lumps glow, but I won’t. You’d be more scared with the lights on.”

“Just a little?”

The Scumbug relented and its twenty lumps glowed dimly. Julia curled up. It was like being in a car-wash from hell—jeorbs were everywhere. The Scumbug was burrowing through a heap of them, and they seemed angry about it. “There’s a reason I hid my scrambag here, kid, and it’s not the view, and it’s not the hospitality. It’s kinda like burying contraband in a cornfield full of angry gophers. And, um, made of angry gophers.”

Julia watched a jeorb trying to attack the Scumbug’s amorphous mass. From this angle, the jeorb looked like a furious sea-star. “Why’d you have to leave me behind for so long?”

“Imagine I buried a locked safe in that gopherfield,” said the Scumbug, “and I didn’t want the gophers to attack you while I put in the combination, so I left you with a gopher I lobotomized. And also, I used his lobotomized brain to bury the safe in the other gophers.”

“Scumdaddy, you’re bad at metaphors.”

“Your language is bad at giving me material to work with for metaphors. What matters is, here’s the safe.” The Scumbug blorped up a large white orb.

“So… what’s in the safe?”

“The safe is actually a spaceship.” The white orb opened. “Get in and let’s leave these gopherfield behind.”

“Oh, wow, Scumdaddy. This is way better.” Julia relaxed in the orb and it shut closed behind her. “Does it have power-outlets?”

“Julia, this scrambag is the vessel I was born in. It’s like an eggshell older than your planet. Of course it has power-outlets.” A small panel shifted into the orb’s wall, and behind it were power-outlets. “Now hold on tight, we’re leaving.”

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“…Hold on tight, to what?

“It’s an idiom, kid. Gird your loins.” The Scumbug’s scrambag accelerated using unseen humming mechanisms. The orb was transparent enough for Julia to see jeorbs and sand sliding off the Scumbug as the scrambag rose unstoppable into the sky. “If Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid have caught wind that I kidnapped you first, they’ll be here soon. We’re going off the grid.”

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Daddy, Daughter, Scumbug

“I’m not gonna lie and pretend this’ll hurt me more than it hurts you, but it is gonna hurt me. A bit. I don’t like pickin’ on the little guy, ya know?”

The bodyguard cried and wretched on his gag. He rolled in his bondage, thick iron chains. He was in a circular clearing in a cornfield. He spat out the gag, one of his own socks. “What are you going to do to me? Who are you? What are you?”

“I’m the Scumbug,” burbled the Scumbug. The Scumbug was greenish ooze, like swamp-sludge—about 600 gallons, over 6000 pounds. A host of objects cluttered its interior. One of those objects—a large wooden crate—moved through the Scumbug’s membrane and flopped wetly onto the cornfield. “From beyond the stars I’ve brought your worst nightmares, buddy.”

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“Oh god, oh, please!”

“Earth should’ve kept to itself. Now you gotta deal with me. I combed your whole planet for the most awful animals your monkey-ancestors ever met. If you don’t answer me, I’ll sic them on you.”

“What do you want! What do you want!”

“Where’s the ambassador who represents Earth?”

The bodyguard sobbed. “I can’t tell you.”

“Then suffer.” The Scumbug tore open the crate with abominable amoeba-strength.

“No, no! I—Umm.” From the crate, a flood of puppies and kittens mobbed the bodyguard. They playfully licked his nose. “Scumbug?”

“Save your pleas. I’ll fish your broken body from the beasts when you’re ready to talk.”

“Uh. Okay.” Bunny-rabbits hopped by. “Is this your first time on Earth, Scumbug?”

“Yeah. Until humanity entered the galactic theater, this solar system was off-limits. Now…” The Scumbug extended a pseudopod and plucked the bodyguard into the air. The kittens bat at his dangling shoelaces. “Where is the ambassador?”

“I won’t tell you.”

“Last chance,” said the Scumbug. “Tell me or I’ll chuck you back to the ravenous beasts.”

“I’ll take my chances with the beasts.”

“Are you sure?” The Scumbug hung the guard near the rabbits. “You’re not… um… terrified?”

“Of course I am,” said the bodyguard. “Please don’t throw me to the bunnies, I beg of you, spare mercy.”

The Scumbug sighed, somehow, deflating in disappointment. “It’s always tough to interrogate a new species. Are any of these animals intimidating?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Not even these?” The Scumbug held the bodyguard above the crate to peer inside, where a pile of piranhas had dehydrated to death.

“You were close with those ones, actually,” said the bodyguard.

“Fine. I’ll do it the old-fashioned way. I’ll cut off one of your legs, ask you again, and if you don’t answer, I’ll cut off your other leg.”

“Oh, lord, please, no!”

“Quit whining. Legs grow back.”

“No they don’t!”

“Really? How about fingers?”

“No!”

“Can’t you grow anything back? I’m trying to let you off light here.”

“I’ve heard… um…” The bodyguard knew he shouldn’t say this, but couldn’t stop himself. “…Nipples grow back.”

The Scumbug vibrated. “Don’t foist your fetishes on me, freak. Tell you what: fess up where the ambassador is or I’ll cut off your head. Then you’ll be just a sad little coconut, rolling back to your friends to tell them not to mess with the Scumbug.”

“…Humans don’t live as just a head!”

“Oh, you guys are pathetic!” The Scumbug smashed the bodyguard on the ground. The hoard of adorable animals scattered into the corn. “Don’t make me blorp you up! Where’s the ambassador!”

The bodyguard sobbed. “What are you alien assholes gonna do to his daughter?”

The Scumbug said nothing.

“You’re after the bounty, aren’t you? Why do you alien assholes want the ambassador’s daughter? She’s eight!

“You’re pretty tight-lipped, bud,” said the Scumbug. “If I had your children, do you think you’d be so cocky?”

“Don’t you dare threaten my kids, sicko! I don’t even have any kids!”

“That’s exactly why the Big Cheese wants the ambassador’s daughter,” said the Scumbug. “The Big Cheese knows it could blow up your planet before you’d surrender, but with the right child-hostage you’ll be under the thumb. Earthlings are more useful as slaves than debris.”

“Then you know why I can’t tell you where to find her.”

“And you know why you gotta tell me,” said the Scumbug. “I’m humanity’s only friend right now, and with friends like me, hoo boy, you’d better hope you never meet your enemies! Now.” The Scumbug smashed him against the ground again. “Where is the ambassador?”


The ambassador pushed up his glasses. He and his daughter sat at a desk in a darkened office. Behind them were four armed guards. Before them was alien who looked like a man-sized seahorse. “It doesn’t look good,” the seahorse bubbled.

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“Lay it on me,” said the ambassador.

“The Big Cheese upped the bounty to two trillion units,” said the seahorse. “My sources know of at least two hit-men out to capture your daughter. They were spotted in your solar system.”

“Don’t worry, Julia.” The ambassador pat his daughter’s head, but she just played disinterestedly with her smartphone. “Who are they?”

“The first is an awful mammalian-type, Germa the Gerbil.”

“A mammal? If we can milk it, we can kill it.”

“The other is Lady Mantoid, an infamous insect.”

“I swat flies for breakfast.”

“Don’t take these professionals lightly,” said the seahorse. “Both want the bounty for your daughter’s capture, but if capture seems unlikely, they’ll assassinate your daughter instead, just so no one gets the bounty. In fact, if one captures your daughter, the other might kill you so the girl is worthless to the Big Cheese.”

The ambassador cocked his head in smug disbelief. “Why? You said the Big Cheese wants my kid for leverage over Earth’s representative.”

The seahorse shook his head. His snout bobbed. “Not leverage the way humans understand it. You think the universe is a game with Earth and the Big Cheese on opposite sides. In reality, Earth is one of the paltry tokens with which the game is played. The Big Cheese placed the bounty to teach you your place. Whether you or your daughter live or die is beside the point. The galactic theater is a hell you know nothing about.”

Julia tapped her phone.

“What do we do?” asked the ambassador.

“We wait,” said the seahorse. “This secure location is still secret. Our sources are spying on Germa the Gerbil and Lady Mantoid. If either advances on our location we’ll deploy the appropriate countermeasures. We can show the Big Cheese that Earth isn’t just a paltry token—it’s a token so paltry that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

There was a knock at the door. The seahorse turned to see there was no door in this office.

“Ah, that’s my ringtone.” The ambassador pulled out his phone. “Oh. One of my bodyguards is video-calling me.” He tapped the screen. “Hello? Holy crap, what happened!”

The bodyguard was black-and-blue in a hospital bed. “I’m sorry, sir. They know where you are. They beat it out of me, and threatened my parents. I can’t believe they let me live.”

“Who?” asked the seahorse. “Describe your alien assailant. Were they mammalian, like a furry nightmare?”

“No,” said the bodyguard.

“Then it’s not Germa the Gerbil. Were they sleek and chitinous, with chattering mandibles?”

“No,” said the bodyguard.

“Then it’s not Lady Mantoid. What did they look like?”

“They were a pile of sludge. It called itself the Scumbug.”

The seahorse screamed and jumped from his chair—it had three floppy legs. “We’re doomed!

The ambassador turned off the video-chat and chased the seahorse flailing around the room. “Don’t panic! This is the safest bunker humanity’s best scientists could build!”

“Where’s the escape-pod?” The seahorse scrambled on the walls. “Open it! Now!”

“Don’t!” said the ambassador to his armed guards. “You said it yourself: the Big Cheese will decide if humanity’s worth plundering based on our reaction to his goons. If we take the escape-pod right away we’re spineless.”

“Would you rather be spineless or dead?” asked the seahorse.

“I don’t mind dying.”

“It’s not just your own life you’re wagering,” said the seahorse.

Julia looked up from her phone. “We have to take that risk,” said the ambassador. “Tell me about the Scumbug. It knows where we are. Can it get here against the whole might of Earth’s military?”

“The Scumbug likely won’t realize there is a military opposing it.”

“We’re at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Can it survive this deep in the ocean?”

“The Scumbug won’t notice the water, either.”

“Well, can the Scumbug get through sixty bank-vault-doors guarded by the most highly trained—” A sizzling sound interrupted the ambassador.

“Oh, please, open the escape-pod, I’m begging you!”

The ambassador and his armed guards looked around the room for the source of the sizzle. “Um. Sir?” A guard pointed to the ceiling, where a solid metal circular vault-door was starting to glow.

“Open the escape-pod for Charlie-Horse over there,” said the ambassador.

A panel opened on the wall. The seahorse jumped into a closet-sized space and coiled into the fetal position. “Ambassador! Your daughter!”

Julia looked up from her phone. “Should I get in the escape-pod, Ambassadaddy?”

“No, Julia. Stay right there.” The ambassador pulled a pistol from his jacket pocket. “It’s take-your-daughter-to-work day.'”

The vault-door melted.

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The Scumbug dripped through the ceiling shining like the sun. The armed guards opened fire, but the bullets shot right through. The Scumbug splashed over them like a wave. The guards screamed, burned, melted, and died. “Hello sir.” The Scumbug released the red-hot magma it had carried. “Did you know your planet is filled with this stuff? It’s a security hazard if I’ve ever seen one.”

“Get in!” shouted the seahorse. The ambassador and his daughter stayed still. The seahorse shut the panel, sealing himself in the escape-pod.

“I was expecting you, Scumbug.” The ambassador walked behind his daughter and pointed his pistol at the Scumbug.

“Also, did you know humans drown? Why are you hiding under all this water if you drown? I asked a couple people, but they didn’t tell me. They just kept bubbling. You guys have weird interrogation-resistance techniques.”

“You can tell the Big Cheese mankind won’t be pushed around.” The ambassador stuck the pistol in his daughter’s right ear. “You want the two trillion units, don’t you? If you move to kill me, I’ll kill her and then myself. You’ll get nothing.”

The Scumbug burbled.

“Humanity won’t be bullied. We’d rather die here and now than give in to the Big Cheese.” The ambassador pulled the pistol’s safety. Julia stared down the Scumbug without moving an inch, as if her thumb was stuck to the screen of her phone. The Scumbug had no eyes to stare back, but its surface bristled with heightened awareness. “Leave my office, Scumbug.”

The Scumbug swung a pseudopod slimmer than piano-wire and cut off the ambassador’s head. Nuts and bolts and shrapnel flew from the decapitation. The ambassador slumped, a pile of broken machinery.

“Huh. That’s new.” The Scumbug rolled over to the ambassador and blorped the whole guy up. The ambassador floated in the Scumbug, and his arms and legs popped off. “Oh, I get it. He’s a robot. I’ve killed robots before.” The Scumbug swelled, then contracted to the size of a tombstone. The Scumbug’s contents were crunched until only twenty fist-sized lumps remained. Then the Scumbug expanded to its usual size. “Kid? Where’d you go?”

The escape-pod panel clicked closed. The Scumbug crawled to it.

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Launch the escape-pod,” said Julia.

“I’ve been trying since I closed it,” said the seahorse.

“I disabled the escape-pod before I came in,” said the Scumbug. “That was, like, the first thing I did. I don’t know kittens from puppies, but escape-pod-disabling is rookie assassin stuff.” The Scumbug oozed through the razor-thin gap between the panel and the wall to pry open the escape-pod. The panel clattered to the floor.

Seeing the Scumbug, the seahorse shook. With a gut-wrenching grunt he spurt ten-thousand young from his stomach. Tiny pale seahorses quivered.

“…You got lucky, daddio. Take your kids and scram.” The Scumbug scooped the seahorses out of the escape-pod, then contracted to fit into the pod beside Julia. The Scumbug snaked oozy limbs into the circuitry and reconnected some wires. The escape-pod rocketed up into the bottom of the ocean. “I’m the Scumbug. What’s your name?”

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“Julia.”

“Your daddy turned out to be a robot.”

“I’m adopted. But that robot was controlled by a real guy, the guy who adopted me.”

“Well, I’m adopting you now. You’ve been double-adopted.”

“Octuple-adopted,” said Julia.

“Oh. Is that normal on Earth?”

“Nope. When Ambassadaddy heard the Big Cheese would put a bounty on his kid, he adopted me because I’ve been passed around so much. He figured I wouldn’t mind being kidnapped. Or, at least, no one else would mind me missing.”

“That’s… really sad.”

“All my parents tend to die,” said Julia. “Maybe that’s why Ambassadaddy had a robot. He knew adopting me put a target on his back.”

The Scumbug shivered. “Are you making this up?”

“This wasn’t the first time one of my daddies pointed a gun at my head,” said Julia.

“…Was it the second?” Cryptically, Julia did not answer, but raised her eyebrows and looked away.

The escape-pod shot out of the ocean into the sky. A military jumbo-jet swooped down from the clouds and caught the escape-pod in open bomb-bay doors. A soldier opened the escape-pod and saluted. “Are you safe, Ambassad—oh my god!” The Scumbug swallowed him and digested him, and everyone else on the jet.

“This ride will do for now. C’mon, kid.” Julia sat in the co-pilot’s seat while the Scumbug flooded the rest of the cockpit. “Julia, right? If I could break into your bunker, Lady Mantoid and Germa the Gerbil could’ve done it in half the time. I’m taking you somewhere more secure.”

“Where?”

“I’m not sure yet. Saving kids from the Big Cheese has been a hobby of mine for a while, but I’ve never gotten this far before.”

“That’s not very reassuring.”

“Then we’re going to Neverland, baby.” The jet steered up toward the sky.

Ten minutes passed. Julia kicked the Scumbug’s surface. It was like viscous water. “When you said Neverland, did you mean we’d never get there?”

“This spaceship is awful. How long does it take human vehicles to leave the atmosphere?”

Julia laughed. “This isn’t a spaceship, it’s an airplane!”

“You mean… humans invented a vessel that can only go where there’s air? But why?

Julia shrugged. “There’s air everywhere we want to go, usually.”

“Okay, well… We’ll get high as we can, then we’ll go the old-fashioned way.”

Julia kept kicking the Scumbug, making it ripple slowly. “What even are you, Scumdaddy?”

“I’m begging you, please don’t call me that. I’m an alien. Humans entered the galactic theater a few Earth-weeks ago, so now all us space-folks are swinging in.”

“Enter the galactic theater? What does that mean?”

“The Big Cheese ignores most sentient life that keeps to itself, within a few tens of millions of miles. Your ambassadaddy burst that bubble and broke your egg. The Big Cheese wants to scramble that egg.”

“Why?”

“It’s how you make omelettes, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s how you make scrambled eggs.”

“Look, kid, in this big ol’ universe, there are two kinds of life-forms: the kind that eats their kids, and the kind that eats their parents. The Big Cheese thinks Earth is a tasty little youngin’.”

“What kind are you?”

“See these?” The Scumbug swirled the twenty fist-sized lumps within its volume. “I was born with kids, and I blorped ’em up. I got that allll outta my system.”

“…So, if you’re no longer the kind of life-form that eats their kids, then now you’re the kind of life-form that eats their parents?”

“No. There are three kinds of life-forms: the kind that eats their kids, the kind that eats their parents, and me, the Scumbug. Now close your eyes.”

Julia closed her eyes. “Why?”

“To keep calm. We’re high as this vehicle can take us.” The Scumbug bubbled up Julia and her co-pilot’s chair. “I’m taking you to a safe-house in another solar-system, and we’re going the old-fashioned way.”

“What does that mean?”

“When humans first went to space, did they use spaceships? Did they use airplanes?” The Scumbug raided the munition’s bay for explosives. “Of course they didn’t. They swam to space with nothing but their birthday suits.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“Really? It’s how every other species first gets to space.” The Scumbug blew up the jet’s payload. The jet detonated and the Scumbug was thrown into orbit. “Humans are weird.”

ch1-7

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Table of Contents

The Aftermath

(This is the eleventh and final chapter of a story about an ultra-marathon runner who bets his legs he can win a race against a horse. Jonas crossed the finish-line first, but that’s not enough for Alphonse.)

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2019

After an emergency-room sponge-bath and some morphine for my torn-up leg, I fell into coma-like sleep. I woke on a king-sized bed under a chandelier, completely alone.

I prepared for the onset of accumulated aches and pains, but somehow felt as good as I possibly could after an ultra. Even my left knee was sewn back together. My patella rolled like new. Frankly I was surprised they didn’t stitch my missing finger back on, too. The knuckle-nub was just nicely bandaged. “Hello?” I sat up and looked around. This was no ordinary hospital: marble columns supported a vaulted ceiling. I heard a bubbling hot-tub. “Is anyone here?” No nurses or attendants were near to advice me.

On the nightstand stood a bottle of champagne. I couldn’t read the French label, but it tasted expensive to me. I drank a quarter of the bottle before testing my body-weight on my left foot; the knee didn’t disagree. I limped to the hot-tub, shrugged off my medical gown, and sank right in. The bubble-jets melted my bones out my pores.

Who paid for this? Maybe Alphonse ponied up my million bucks and the hospital transferred me to the hoity-toity wing—but I doubted it. Alphonse wouldn’t pay so eagerly.

I finished the champagne before Whitney walked in. “Jonas! You’re awake!”

“Hey Whitney! Did you bring me some ice-cream sandwiches?” I offered her the last drops from the bottle. “Get in the hot-tub! The bubbles are on!”

“You’re talk of the town,” said Whitney. “You made the 11 o’ clock news nationwide. Everyone knows about Georgie Masawa’s corpse, too. You didn’t tell me you found a body at the time, and I’m kind of glad you didn’t. Would’ve put me off my stride.”

“Awesome!” I splashed at her. She backed away from the hot-tub and I knew she wasn’t in the mood for games. I drank the last drops of champagne myself. “How long have I slept?”

“About 36 hours.”

“I could use another 36.”

“Sorry to hear that, because we’ve got business.”

“Where am I? Whose champagne was this?”

“I’ll get to that,” said Whitney. “Alphonse is suing the pants off everyone in spitting distance. You. Me. Hermes. Kevin. Everyone.”

“For what?”

“Anything he can think of. He’s charging hundreds of people $10,000 for every mile they traveled in the estate, even the news-crew in that helicopter.”

“Geez.”

“Alphonse is also suing our publisher preemptively. He doesn’t want us writing a book about this. The publisher paid for you to be treated here, and for your champagne. How’s your knee?”

“Better than ever.” My left knee never felt so strong even before my boyhood skiing accident. “So do we need, like, a lawyer, or something?”

“Nope. The publisher wants to handle the lawsuits, too. Their legal-department is negotiating with Bronson’s right now. It sounds like there’s gonna be one catch-all mass-settlement. Alphonse might pay out for the dangerous conditions of his estate, and mutilating you, and all that.”

“Good. Sounds like I’m not needed.” I tilted the empty bottle hoping for another drop. “Can you ask the publisher for more champagne?”

“Ask them yourself,” said Whitney. “We’re meeting soon to discuss the trial.”

“Ugh.” My quadriceps protested when I pulled myself from the hot-tub.


The hospital staff lent me a wheelchair for my tired legs and Whitney rolled me out to a limousine. The chauffeur, in tuxedo, opened the door for us and supported me on their shoulder as I stepped into the back. I recognized the three other passengers.

“Hey Kevin. Hey Hermes.”  Whitney sat beside me. “Hey, you. What are you doing here?” Sandra was across from us with her arms folded, silent.

Kevin slapped my back. “How are you enjoying your million bucks, Jonas?”

“Um.” I looked at Whitney. “Where is that money, anyway?”

“Alphonse hasn’t coughed it up and doesn’t want to.”

“What’s his excuse?” I asked.

“He’s got thousands,” said Whitney.

“Fuck that,” said Kevin. “If he’d won, he’d demand Jonas pay a million bucks, for sure.”

“Uh. Yeah.” I shivered. “For sure.”

“I’ve never ridden in a limo before,” said Hermes. “Your publisher must be loaded, Whitney.”

“I’ve never met them before,” said Whitney. “Kevin knows them.”

Kevin shook his head. “Nuh-uh. I know of the publishing company, as a business. I’ve never met anyone in person. I get phone-calls from representatives.”

“So… Who are we meeting?” I asked. “A team of lawyers?”

No one in the limo said a word. Sandra smirked.


A sixty-flight elevator up a building downtown opened to an office with dark glass windows. Behind a mahogany desk, Craig smoked a thick cigar. “Come on in and take a seat, unless you brought your own.”

“What the fuck,” I said, “I know you!” Whitney pushed my wheelchair alongside Sandra’s as we all entered the office. “You and I bet booze-money over nudie cards at Alphonse’s casino! Aren’t you Craig, the helicopter-pilot?”

“I’m a lot of things,” said Craig.

“I’ll say,” said Kevin. “Three days ago I knew you as an ex-military drone-geek on an internet forum. Who the hell are you, really?”

“I really am an ex-military drone-geek, Kevin. I’m just more than that, too. Thanks for plugging my delivery-business on your blog. Sit down, and drink up, if that’s your style.” Craig poured himself a little brandy. Sandra rolled up for a shot. “We’re here to celebrate. Congratulations on the race, Jonas.”

I wanted a shot, too, but Whitney held back my wheelchair and I figured she was right to do so. “Craig, right?” asked Whitney. “Is it just a coincidence that you published our book and you work for Alphonse?”

“Mmm… Let’s say it was in the stars I would be your inside man.” Craig ashed his cigar and looked at us over his sunglasses. “Kevin, Alphonse says you owe him over ten million dollars.”

“I know, it’s such bullshit,” said Kevin. “He’s charging me ten grand per mile I drove in his estate, plus a million bucks for each photo-set I posted online.”

“Hermes, Whitney,” said Craig, “you each owe Alphonse more than half a million. Hundreds of people are being charged up to 200,000 apiece for running to meet you, Jonas.”

“I wonder if Alphonse will let them pay with body-parts,” said Sandra. She raised her eyebrows at me and I shuddered. I thought only Alphonse and Whitney knew I’d wagered my legs, but of course Craig and Sandra knew too.

“That won’t be necessary, Sandra,” said Craig. “We just need to play our cards right. I know more about Alphonse than anyone but his father, and Father Bronson is dead. I’ve negotiated Alphonse to an assailable position. I need all of you on my side to tip the scale.”

“Didn’t you betray Alphonse at his most desperate moment?” asked Kevin.

“Boy, he was furious! But we both have secrets to keep, and that let me strike a deal. We’ll meet in court to determine what’s owed to every involved individual in sort of a class-action lawsuit. You might make more money than just your race-winnings, Jonas.”

“Oh yeah? How about this?” I raised my left fist, flipping him off with my middle finger’s ghost. “You were in that helicopter when Alphonse fucking mutilated me. You watched him do it. Your goons in leather grappled me.”

“The goons are gone, and that event is our Ace.” Craig opened his leather jacket and half the room almost vomited. Sandra yawned. “Alphonse gave me your finger, toothpick under the nail and all.”

My finger had half-mummified and smelled like a corpse. “Holy shit, dude!” said Kevin.

“This toothpick heard most of the race,” said Craig. “Alphonse thinks I deleted the audio record but I didn’t.” He grabbed the middle finger and depressed the toothpick’s ruby handle with his thumb. The toothpick screamed my scream.

“Alphonse—” I sputtered, “—take the finger!”

“Beg!”

“Please!” A gunshot. Craig pressed the ruby handle again to cease reenacting my trauma.

When my neck’s raised hair settled, I managed to speak. “Okay, you have evidence Alphonse is a twisted sicko. Let’s skip a civil suit and lock him in the slammer.”

Craig tutted. “It’s not that easy, Jonas. Like you said, I watched all this happen. If we run for the end-zone, Alphonse will spill some dirt and destroy my credibility. You won’t stand a chance on your own. Alphonse can make anything and anyone disappear unless I’m here to wrangle him.”

“Then wouldn’t Alphonse spill dirt right away, destroying your credibility?” asked Whitney.

“No!” said Craig. “I know enough about Alphonse to go down swinging. Revealing our connection is the nuclear option, and there’s no telling who’d go down in the crossfire. Five hundred people might end up paying fines with body-parts, including everyone in this room. I’m not joking. This trial has got to be a controlled demolition.”

“What does that mean?” asked Kevin.

“Alphonse almost certainly has his own copy of the toothpick’s audio-record,” said Craig. “As long as we let him think he’s controlling the narrative, we’re at truce. When he digs himself a deep enough hole, I’ll have a clear shot at his vitals. I can detonate him at a safe distance.”

“You’re making this sound like a death-match,” said Hermes.

“Damn straight,” said Craig. “I’ve watched a Bronson collapse before. If we can’t defuse Alphonse, we want this to be an implosion.”

“I’m in,” said Sandra, “and you’d be in, too, if you knew best. Without this settlement there’s no telling how bad it could be. If we’re in this together, we’ll do better than break even.”

“Hell, I’m in.” Kevin shook Craig’s hand. “You seem to know what you’re doing.”

“I don’t think I’ve seen half a million bucks in my life,” said Hermes. “I couldn’t begin to pay. I guess I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Whitney rubbed my shoulders. “What do you think, Jonas?”

I wished I was more drunk. “You got me into this, Craig. In Alphonse’s underground casino, you and your goons buttered me up into racing Champ.”

“And you won,” said Craig. “Let’s keep winning.”

“Jonas.” Sandra shook the arm of my wheelchair. “You said you pity me, and I get it. I pity the horse, too! But there’s no pitying Alphonse. Let’s bury Alphonse, crutch-kid.”

I swallowed. “I’m in.”

“What’s the plan,” asked Whitney. Craig cracked his knuckles.


The courtroom was packed. As I limped through the audience, I recognized Danny and Debra and a few other folks who ran with me. Whitney led me across the bar to join Craig, Sandra, Kevin, Hermes, and a man and woman I didn’t know. “Who are they?” I whispered to Whitney.

“That’s investigative-journalist Naira Nightly and her camera-guy Mike Mann. They filmed your news-spot. Alphonse says they owe him a hundred bucks for every frame of video they recorded in the estate.”

To our left, Alphonse sat with his lawyer. Alphonse’s broken arms were repaired good as new, just like my knee. He wore his gaudy military jacket and sucked a minty metal toothpick. His lawyer wore a pastel yellow suit and had blonde hair, expensively cut. He typed on a laptop. Craig bumped my elbow. “That’s Alphonse’s top lawyer, Lloyd. The rest of his legal team is probably video-chatting on that laptop from across the country.”

“Where’s our legal team?” I asked.

“I’m it, baby.”

“All rise for the honorable Judge Fairfax,” said the court clerk. It took me a moment to join the rest of court in standing for the judge, a portly man who already looked fed up. Judge Fairfax took his seat. “Please be seated,” said the clerk.

Fairfax smacked his gavel. “Court is now in session. Alphonse Bronson, stay standing.” Alphonse remained risen. “I watched that news-spot about the race, Mister Bronson. There were many concerning elements.”

“Assuredly,” said Alphonse, bowing, hand over his heart.

“Don’t interrupt,” said Fairfax. Alphonse soured. “That news-crew over there uncovered a corpse suspected to be Georgie Masawa, who disappeared in your estate when you were a young boy. You’ve denied our requests to collect the body to perform an autopsy. Correct?”

“Yes,” said Alphonse. “I ch—”

“Don’t interrupt,” said Fairfax. “With your permission or without, we’ll recover that corpse. More immediately pressing, the news-spot reported the poor condition of your horse. You wore spurs—”

“Spurs are entirely legal,” said Alphonse’s lawyer Lloyd.

“—spurs with long pointed tips, spurs which got you banned from multiple riding associations, spurs which you jabbed inches deep into your horse’s gut. A local veterinarian also said he personally inspected your horse and determined it was delirious and unresponsive. At the finish-line, two hooves were totally missing. I almost threw up seeing that.”

Lloyd interjected again. “Bronson-brand cutting-edge medical-technology makes such injuries irreverent.”

“I’d like to examine the results of those technologies,” said Fairfax, “but Alphonse, you won’t let us see the horse, either.”

“Champ wants to rest,” said Alphonse, “and out of the goodness of my heart, I’m leaving him alone.” I wondered if Champ was already glue.

“The veterinarian said your ‘goons in leather’ accosted him and spray-painted his face and his favorite tank-top. Many people in your estate said they felt menaced by this ‘biker gang.'”

“You’ll have to take that up with my head of security.” Alphonse grinned, knowing Craig wouldn’t confess to the role.

“Regardless, these events happened and you acknowledge they happened. You agreed to pay 6.6 million dollars for fines related to animal abuse and zoning violations, and a replacement tank-top.”

“I’m glad to make things right.” Alphonse bowed again, this time sweepingly. “May we begin to make our case that I’m owed more money than that?

“Go ahead,” said Judge Fairfax.

“I think questioning the ultra-runner, Jonas, would be illuminating,” said Lloyd.

“Hell yeah.” I stood to take the stand. “You better cough up some dough, Alphonse. I won the race.”

Alphonse smiled and let Lloyd speak. “Jonas, we could spend all day explaining why your victory was illegitimate, but more importantly, Alphonse is owed money regardless.”

“Not a penny from me,” I said. “Alphonse charges $10,000 per mile but he waived that for the race.”

“Aha. So you knew of the charge,” said Lloyd.

“Of course. Everyone knows.”

“Aha, indeed, aha. That means everyone in this class-action lawsuit knew they would owe Alphonse money when they set foot inside the estate.”

“He opened the gates,” I said.

“And they passed through those gates knowing they would be charged. The estate is no charity. Alphonse is calling in the tab. Over five hundred people owe over $200,000 apiece. The bulk is owed by Naira Nightly and Mike Mann, who recorded and released video footage knowing it would cost them. I assume their studio will pay on their behalf.”

Judge Fairfax stroked his fuzzy black beard. “Mister Bronson, does anybody actually pay these exorbitant rates?”

“Of course,” said Alphonse. “My typical guests are more esteemed gentlemen, mostly business-associates who enjoy discussing deals on horseback. They pay for every meter of every mile, even for their arrival and departure by helicopter. Those fees keep the estate in tip-top condition. So you see, when Tom Dick and Harry in the class-action suit claim they felt ‘menaced’ or ‘endangered’ on my property, despite my more than thorough security, I’m the financial victim, and demand compensation.”

“Tom, Dick, and Harry?” Craig flipped a few papers at his desk. “Alphonse, do you know who Tom, Dick, and Harry are, and why they’re included in this suit?”

“No, and expecting me to know the names of my intruders is unreasonable.”

“Tom, Dick, and Harry were three preteens who disappeared in the late 2000s,” said Craig. “They were last spotted near your front gates. Their parents requested I add them to the class-action suit in honor of longstanding theories that the boys died somewhere in the Bronson Estate. You and your father refused to reveal security-footage or admit rescue squads to conduct a search. Then you electrified the gates and put up barbed wire.”

“Objection—” said Lloyd, but Alphonse silenced him by raising one gloved hand.

“If you want to question me, Craig, why don’t I take the stand?”

“Why don’t you?” Craig gestured for Alphonse, and I returned to Whitney’s side.

“I know of those conspiracy theories,” said Alphonse as he sat. “Just another example of how we Bronsons are notoriously portrayed in bad light. Some kids go missing in the tristate area and I’m expected to open my estate and share private footage. Let me tell you something—if those kids had climbed the gates, and did die on my property, then the parents shouldn’t come to me for evidence, or for an apology—they should come with payment for the time their kids spent on my land.”

A groan rolled across the court. Craig smiled. “Only the time? Or could Tom, Dick, and Harry be charged for anything else?”

Alphonse relished the audience’s seething. “As a matter of fact, there might be additional fees. For example, disturbing a topiary-bush could incur a botanical-repair fine. I take pride in my pristine estate.”

“Are you charging any of the five hundred quote-unquote intruders for property-damage?”

“I wish,” said Alphonse. “Tree-branches were broken, grasses trampled, and strategically-placed rocks turned and overturned, but I cannot attribute the damage to anyone in particular, so I must cover the restoration myself.”

“Did Jonas do anything of the sort?”

The court was silent, but up close, I saw lightning crack between Craig and Alphonse. Craig coyly stared him down, daring Alphonse to reveal unscrupulous behavior. Lloyd nodded no, no, no, but Alphonse eventually grinned, which I recognized as the nefarious concoction of a spin. “As a matter of fact, Jonas wrecked havoc across my estate.”

“How do you know?” asked Craig.

Alphonse showed the judge his minty metal toothpick. “Jonas accepted wearing a toothpick which recorded the race with an audio receiver. He dropped it around mile 75 when he went off-course and lost his finger. Isn’t that right, Jonas?”

I swallowed. Telling the truth, that Alphonse had taken my finger, would endanger Craig, and without Craig, we might have less than nothing. “That’s right,” I said. Whitney squeezed my hand.

“It wasn’t easy to retrieve that toothpick,” said Alphonse, “like finding a needle in a haystack the size of Rhode Island. But its audio captures Jonas disturbing my property! I’m charging you for it, Jonas.”

“Can we hear that audio?” asked Craig.

Alphonse beamed. “Lloyd?” Lloyd sighed and brought Alphonse the laptop. Alphonse clicked and typed, hunt-and-peck. “This is Jonas filling his water-backpack from my river.” The laptop played the sound of the stream around the 30-mile mark. “This is him drinking it.” The laptop gulped. I remembered the bitter taste. “This is him deciding my water isn’t good enough, and dumping it on a cactus patch.” The laptop splashed. “That water was chemically treated to sparkle photogenically. You stole my water and you killed my cacti, Jonas. You’re going to pay, for this and for a hundred other things.”

“But you’ll pay right back,” said Craig. “Please, play the audio of Jonas losing his finger. Let’s see if your estate’s hazardous conditions are at fault, and if you owe Jonas medical expenses.”

“Ha!” Alphonse selected a file. “Let’s hear, shall we? To set the scene, Jonas and Whitney are both hallucinating and Whitney has removed her top.”

Whitney blushed while the laptop spoke our voices. “Hey, what’s that?” it asked as her. “There’s another fork in the road.”

“Maybe it was Alphonse, trying to trick us into going the wrong way,” it said as me. Alphonse chuckled.

“You’re hallucinating, Jonas.” Kevin squinted at the telltale clip of an audio edit.

“I don’t think I’m hallucinating right now. Doesn’t this zigzag in the dirt look like a—” Then my voice cut off, replaced with the sound of me sliding down a ditch next to a skeleton. Alphonse had edited together miles 76 and 69.

Alphonse stopped the playback. “Jonas lost his finger because he and his lady-friend went off the trail. He was probably distracted by his topless waif. Can I be blamed?”

“Can we hear any more?” asked Craig.

“No,” said Alphonse. “The fall also corrupted the toothpick’s audio. We’re lucky to have what evidence there is.”

“And where is this toothpick now?” asked Craig.

Their eye-contact was electric. I worried I was close enough to be zapped. Alphonse leaned on the stand. “I sold it to you, Craig! My trusty helicopter-pilot.”

The court murmured, and Judge Fairfax rubbed his temples. “You, Craig, are Alphonse’s helicopter-pilot?”

“I am,” said Craig.

“And head of a publishing company?”

“Mm-hm.”

“And you run a drone-delivery service? And you shot down your own drones?

“I’ve got fingers in lots of pies.”

Judge Fairfax sighed, resigning himself to a tedious fate. “I knew this case would be complicated. So, Craig, where is this toothpick?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Alphonse. “The toothpick’s audio-record was wiped by the head of my tech-security.”

Craig grinned. “And who is that, sir?”

Alphonse pondered. “I can’t remember. I recently fired most of my help” I knew Alphonse and Craig were tiptoeing around dirt, but I think Alphonse had genuinely forgotten Craig’s many roles in the estate.

“Maybe they’ll come forward later,” said Craig, as an oblique threat. “For now I’d like to talk to my friend Sandra.”

“By all means.” Alphonse descended, and court-security helped Sandra take the stand from her wheelchair.

“I’ve been Alphonse’s best jockey for years now,” said Sandra, “so I know all the horseshit. Where to fucking start.”

“Language,” said Judge Fairfax.

Sandra rolled her eyes. “Alphonse has factories where he grinds cheap horses into glue.”

Lloyd raised a hand. “This is publicly known and irrelevant to the trial.”

“When racehorses lose, he grinds them into glue, too,” said Sandra.

Lloyed kept his hand raised, and when the audience quieted enough, he spoke. “It’s still irrelevant, and besides, when you eat a hamburger, you know a cow went into it. When you eat jello, you know it’s made of bone. When you use glue, you worry an animal was needlessly harmed, but there’s no worry with Bronson! Bronson glue uses every part of the horse! Not an ounce of harm goes to waste!”

“Not an ounce of jockey, either,” said Sandra. “The losing jockeys have their organs harvested and sold on the black market. There’s a rumor among his staff Alphonse has two livers.” Alphonse chuckled. “What he can’t sell, he grinds into a paste we call ‘jockey juice.’ I took it all the time. It let me walk.”

Now Alphonse laughed. “What a story! I tell you, Bronson medical-technology is second to none and has achieved marvelous miracles, but is there any evidence of the wrongdoing you suggest?”

Lloyd spoke before Sandra could: “How could Alphonse possibly pull off the organ-harvesting operation you claim? It’s baseless and preposterous.”

“Nah, it’s easy,” said Sandra. “Alphonse and his billionaire buddies train folks on the fringe like me into jockeys with nothing to lose. How many people go missing every year? I bet some end up in glue.”

“This is just slander,” said Lloyd.

“I’m afraid I have to agree,” said Judge Fairfax. “Ma’am, do you actually have any tangible proof of these claims? It seems like there should be plenty.”

The casino,” said Sandra.


A warrant was quickly drafted. Alphonse graciously and generously allowed select few to enter his estate free of charge. Craig piloted one helicopter ferrying Sandra, Whitney, and me, while Alphonse and Lloyd followed in another police-chopper with two officers.

Whitney leaned on the window. “This side of the estate isn’t half as pretty.”

“I kinda like the desert charm,” I said.

“How often did you run here?”

“Every weekend. Totally hammered, too.”

“Oh, Jonas.”

“There it is!” Sandra pushed me aside to see through the window. “That’s the bunker!” She prepared her wheelchair.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” said Craig.

We all landed near the cement bunker. Alphonse stepped from the police-chopper and shouted over the helicopters’ roars. “Let’s see if there exists such a fabled casino!”

“Let’s.” I led the group to the bunker and typed a code onto the keypad. It blinked red. “Um. I guess he changed the pin.”

“Or maybe you never knew the pin, because this casino is a fantasy,” said Lloyd.

Alphonse brushed me aside and typed the code himself. The bunker clicked open. “Officers?”

The police-officers opened the steel door. Gone were the silk curtains and chandeliers. The walls and stairs were stone lit by flickering LED. Below was a concrete room full of canned beans.

“Nothing at all!” said Alphonse. “Just my personal safety-bunker!” The officers rubbed their mustaches. “What a bizarre allegation—a casino on my property! How ridiculous!”

“I’m disappointed,” said Whitney. “I wanted to see that casino. You made it sound pretty lush.”

“It was.” My stomach twisted. Had Alphonse disintegrated the casino in a day and a half?

“How’d you do it Alphonse?” said Sandra, but Craig just shook his head and blew bubblegum.

The officers descended into the bunker and we all followed. Craig carried Sandra in her wheelchair down the stairs. “Well, I don’t see a casino down here,” said one officer.

The other officer examined a can of beans. “What’s this bunker preparing for, Mr. Bronson?”

“You don’t have to answer that,” said Lloyd.

“The bunker is for whatever may come,” said Alphonse. “I appreciate safety, but I don’t put much stock into conspiracy theories.”

“Neither do I,” said Craig, “but a bunker is a good thing to have. Have you checked the thickness of the walls to ensure safety against nuclear strikes?”

Alphonse shrugged. “Yes.”

“I’ll check again.” Craig produced from his leather jacket a handheld device like a tiny metal-detector. “This is a ground-penetrating radar. It makes maps of subterranean areas. It’ll make sure the outer walls of your bunker are built to last.”

Alphonse bit his lip. “You didn’t mention this in the warrant,” said Lloyd, but Craig waved the device definitively and gestured for the officers to look at its screen.

“See?” said Craig. “This bunker isn’t safe at all. It’s over a huge, hollow cavern.”

Alphonse shook. “My my. Thank you for alerting me. I’ll deal with it on my own time.”

One officer took the radar. “The cavern below us has some precise corners, Mister Bronson.”

“Doesn’t this remind you of Vegas?” said the other. “It looks like Caesars Palace.

Alphonse clenched and unclenched shaking fists. “Entirely coincidental,” said Lloyd, “and even if there were a casino down there, it was discovered via unlawful means, and as fruit of the poisoned tree—”

“Alphonse invited us onto his property without condition,” said Craig. “No rule against ground-penetrating radar.”

“Get out!” shouted Alphonse. “All of you, out!” Lloyd palmed his face as Alphonse chased us back to our helicopters.


Alphonse was so humiliated by the incident that he reappeared in court on Lloyd’s laptop, video-chatting from the veranda of his mansion in the estate.

Judge Fairfax reviewed Craig’s radar-map of the casino. “Is this, in fact, a casino, Alphonse?”

“It could be a peculiar cave,” said Lloyd. “In any case, Alphonse has already paid 6.6 million dollars in fines. Let’s finish this civil case before considering some fantasy criminal one.”

“It’s a casino!” said Alphonse, over the laptop’s speakers. Lloyd groaned. “A little social gambling is perfectly legal in the district! I don’t make a dime from my associates except my fair winnings, and the fee for their footage in my estate. It’s no business, just friends who enjoy the aesthetic of a casino. Jonas, every weekend for four months, you ran to that casino, correct?”

“Uh huh.”

“Then you owe me for the privilege! Each time you visited the casino, you ran twenty miles on my property. You owe me $320,000.”

“You invited me to your casino.”

“And you came knowing of the cost.”

Judge Fairfax ran his hands through his hair. “Alphonse, if you charge an entry fee, it’s not social-gambling!”

“Many elements of that are debatable,” said Lloyd.

Judge Fairfax slammed his gavel. “Jonas, in the casino, did you gamble money?”

“Yes.”

“A lot?”

“Not personally. I tried not to lose more than fifty bucks at once. But I heard the billionaires bet whole horses.”

“And Alphonse,” asked Judge Fairfax, “did you report your winnings on your taxes?”

Alphonse said nothing. “My client’s taxes aren’t up for discussion,” said Lloyd.

Sandra shouted. “He launders the money by pretending to sell glue!

The court was silent. Judge Fairfax cradled his face. “Mister Bronson.”

“Yes?”

“I’m trying to make sense of what I’m hearing. You’re widely known as a successful glue-manufacturer who controversially uses animal-products. Now I’m to understand that not only do you source those animal-products from the losers of races you host in an illegal gambling ring, but also, no one even bought the glue?”

“No, no! You’ve got it all wrong!” said Alphonse, but Lloyd typed a private message to him on the laptop.

Perhaps that statement could be called partially accurate, in a technical legalese sense,” said Lloyd, “but it’s hardly the matter at hand. If you want to bring criminal charges against my client, do it later. And there’s still no evidence of organ-harvesting.”

“You’re fired,” said Alphonse.

Lloyd pushed up his glasses to see Alphonse on the laptop. “I’m sorry?”

“Your attitude makes me look guilty. Get out of here.”

“You fired the rest of your legal team,” said Lloyd.

“I’ll represent myself.”

Lloyd’s lower lip trembled, then stiffened. He glared at Alphonse like this wasn’t the first disagreement they’d had. “Alright. Goodbye.” Lloyd packed some folders into his suitcase and left the laptop on the table when he stormed from the courtroom.

Judge Fairfax rubbed his eyes. “Oookay. Let’s take this from the top.”

“Jonas,” said Alphonse, “you owe—Hold on. You. Lady. Yes, you in the front row! Turn the laptop toward Jonas.” Debra turned the laptop. “You owe me your legs, Jonas! And so much more.”

The whole court gasped. Alphonse played another clip from the toothpick, my agreement to wager my legs around mile 40. Whitney and Hermes squeezed my shoulders, but Kevin was just flabbergasted. “Dude. Seriously?”

“What else could I have done?” I said. “He said he’d take 40% of my legs if I quit the bet.”

Kevin grunted. “You’re lucky I bothered saving your ass. Literally, I saved your ass.”

Alphonse stopped the recording. “Jonas, you put your legs in the pot, and I won the race. You’ll pay.”

Naira Nightly stood so quickly her chair fell behind her. “We broadcast Jonas winning the race from two different angles on national television. Half the people in this courtroom witnessed it firsthand!”

“He had to win by some duration,” said Alphonse.

“Yeah,” said Mike Mann, “and your horse didn’t cross the finish-line for twelve minutes.”

“But Jonas had to win by several hours,” said Alphonse. I felt fire in my fists. “I mentioned, at the time, some police-officers stopped me for three minutes around mile 98, but there were other delays. For example, I had to wait for Jonas at mile 40 to inquire about gambling his legs. That was at least an hour lost! And, by the way, those police-officers will pay $40,000 each for intruding on my land. So will that meddling veterinarian.”

“You rat!” I pointed across the court. “You weren’t waiting for me at mile 40! You said you stopped because you injured yourself and were swapping with Sandra!”

“Oh?” Alphonse leaned close to his camera and his face became large on the laptop. “That part of the audio-record is missing. Do you have any evidence to back up your claim?”

My feet were weak. My knees knocked.

“We might,” said Craig. “Alphonse, you said the head of your tech-security wiped the toothpick’s memory before you gave it to me.”

“Mm-hm.”

“Alphonse, I am your tech-security.”

Alphonse blinked and backed away from the camera. “Wait.”

“I managed to recover that audio. In fact, there’s more audio on the toothpick than you let on.”

Wait.

“Maybe we should play the whole thing for the court? It’s only thirteen hours or so.”

“Craig!” Alphonse shouted so loudly he clipped his microphone. “You can’t share that evidence until we have access to it too!”

“Who’s we?” asked Craig. “You’re alone, Alphonse. Do you want to discuss this over coffee?”

Judge Fairfax slumped back in his chair. “I need a recess anyway. I’ve got a headache.”

As the court cleared up, Craig punched my shoulder. “Mountain King. Your check’s in the mail.”


“I’ll buy the toothpick from you,” said Alphonse.

Craig smiled and sipped some tea. Alphonse had boiled the water himself; it was the finest culinary art he could handle now that he’d fired all his help. The seating on his mansion’s veranda was luxuriously adjustable beach-chairs. “How much will you pay, Alphonse?”

“I produce the toothpicks for ten thousand dollars each. I gave that one to Jonas for free. I bought it from Jonas for ten thousand dollars. I gave it to you for free. I’ll buy it from you for twenty thousand. It’s more than fair.”

Craig laughed, just once. “Ha.”

Alphonse hadn’t touched his tea. “Forty thousand.”

“Alphonse.”

“Eighty thousand.”

“Alphonse, I own a sixty floor office-building in every country worth dirt. Every floor of every building does something unrelated, but they all report to me. I made eighty thousand bucks last year working as your helicopter pilot, and I half-assed that. You didn’t even remember my name, but I owned all those men in leather. I owned some of those tuxedos walking around your casino, too. You’ll have to do better than eighty thousand dollars.”

Alphonse’s mouth hung open as he gathered words. “What do you want?

“I want your military-jacket. I want your pistol. I want your estate. I want all your assets. And I want your body, Alphonse Bronson. The whole thing. Head to toe.”

Alphonse cleared his throat and straightened his back. “Why would I give you one percent of that? Do you know something I don’t know about the audio on that toothpick?”

“No, I just know how the public would react,” said Craig. “That’s never been your strong-suit, has it? You’re the kind of guy who can put needles under someone’s nails and wonder why no one sits with you at lunch. If the court hears your cackling after you shot Jonas’ finger off, it won’t matter if there’s proof you harvested organs. You’ll be underground before you’re dead.”

“I’ll drag you down with me.”

“You’ll try, but I’m mist. I can be gone in an instant. You don’t have those kinds of connections.”

“Yes I do! I’ve got—”

“You had me, Alphonse. I was your go-to guy. See that’s your problem: you only remember the names of your enemies, but you didn’t know I was one, so I was invisible. You know nothing about me, but I know everything about you. You can’t disappear. You get to barter with me.”

“Oh.” Alphonse’s eyes widened. “Okay, I’ll give you the jacket, the pistol, and ten million dollars.”

“Alphonse.” Craig chuckled. “I’m not just selling you a toothpick here.”

“I have to pay for Jonas’ finger, too?”

Now Craig burst out laughing. “No, Alphonse, I’ll give you the finger! You’re buying your dignity! I want your jacket, your pistol, your estate, your assets, and your life. It’s a small price to pay for what remains of the name ‘Alphonse Bronson.’ You’ve messed up. I’m your only way out with a scrap of esteem.”

Alphonse spent a long time biting his fingernails, pleading, and not drinking his tea. Finally he wiped tears from his eyes. “Okay, Craig.”

“Okay?”

“Take it all. Just leave my dignity.”

“Here.” Craig opened his leather jacket and gave Alphonse the finger with the toothpick stuck in it. “The audio dies with you.”

Alphonse smeared his sobs away and surrendered his gaudy military jacket. Craig put it on. He made it look good. “What are you going to do to me?” asked Alphonse.

“Now that I own your body? Anything I like.”

Alphonse swallowed. “Are you going to harvest my organs?”

“No, no–though I would like to count your livers. See, Alphonse, you’ve done too many strange drugs to trust your organs. What’s in those toothpicks, anyway?”

“What are you going to do to me?” Alphonse asked again.

“I might make you into glue. Let’s go.” Craig led Alphonse through his mansion into a back-entrance to the casino by way of the horse paddocks. As they walked, Craig listed factual statements. “You have conceded the race to Jonas and the class-action lawsuit to me. Your estate is now a non-profit nature preserve. We’ll find Tom, Dick, Harry, and Georgie, and your lab-boys will help perform the autopsies. We’ll confirm your father’s biggest cock-up. He was a lot better at hiding his shame than you, Alphonse, but you helped me dig up Masawa’s murder.” He led Alphonse to the glue-grinding and jockey-harvesting machine, covered with an unsuspicious tarp. “Get in,” said Craig.

Alphonse, clutching the toothpick to his chest, climbed into the big metal box. Craig shut the hatch behind him. “Um.” There was a TV in the box with Alphonse, tuned to the news.

“Get comfy. You’ll be here a while,” Craig said from outside the box. “Don’t worry—I’ll bring you food and water, and I’ll move you somewhere more hospitable when this is all over. I just thought the box would be poetic.”

“Craig! What are you doing!”

“Alphonse, you’re not worth glue. Your estate is gorgeous. Your jacket is gaudy. But your pistol? This is a work of art, Alphonse. This is the real prize. Do you know why I came to you offering my skills as a helicopter-pilot and security expert? Do you know?”

“Um. I thought it was to exchange your service for currency.”

“Your father and I were born the same year, Alphonse. I know because we met in the early fifties, when we were both eight years old. We met because my father was a diplomat, and your grandfather was a diplomat, of sorts.”

The TV in the box showed Alphonse news about the trial. “Diplomats of where, exactly?”

“I’d like to know!” said Craig. “I was one of the few survivors, and as a child at the time, my memory is hazy. It was either South America or South Africa, or maybe Eastern Europe. What matters is, it’s my father’s pistol, Alphonse.”

“Well, now you’ve got it back. Congratulations!”

“He brought this pistol to meet your grandfather because he heard rumors, Alphonse. Rumors your granddad was a de facto dictator through military power and assassinations. The gun did not keep my father safe.”

“What happened?”

“Your grandfather shot my father dead with this silver pistol, in front of me, and he tried to shoot me dead, too.” Craig lifted his shirt. Alphonse couldn’t see it from inside the box, but Craig had an old scar across his belly. “He dumped me in a river, Alphonse. I woke up with some local native tribe.”

“…The Masawas?”

“Georgie was a babe at the time. The tribe helped me escape the country while your granddad tore it apart to cover up his crimes. My father’s murder was the beginning of the end for your home country.”

“So in the race’s last moments, you betrayed me by refusing to bring Champ Junior back across the finish-line.”

Craig laughed. “Alphonse, my betrayal was planned the moment the first shithead crawled from the ocean onto land. I sent Champ Junior across the finish-line to stop you! I convinced you to race Jonas with a book I published! At the charity-race which produced Jonas and Sandra, I made that sadistic donation to tempt you! Did you even remember betting on Jonas as a child? You’d remember if you actually read the book, Alphonse, because Whitney wrote about you. Destiny foretold that Jonas would race the horse, and Sandra would ride it.”

“You couldn’t have planned every minute detail!”

“Pfft! If I told you I arranged Jonas’ boyhood skiing-accident, you’d have no choice but to believe me.” Craig examined the silver pistol’s hilt, embossed with horses. He pressed one horse’s eye and the hilt opened. There were cold-war era electronics inside. “My father put an audio-recorder in this pistol. It recorded his own murder, my attempted murder, and the next six weeks. We’ll see exactly what your ancestry did.”

“If your beef is with my grandfather, why are you doing this to me?

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the organ-harvesting. Maybe it’s the horse-grinding. Maybe it’s because I don’t like your breath after all those toothpicks. But I promise you, Alphonse, the public will never hear of you again, and won’t learn another tidbit about little baby Bronson. But they, and you, and I, will hear this pistol’s record. What was your granddaddy so ashamed of that he destroyed his country to escape it? Let’s find out, Alphonse.”

Craig left Alphonse in the box. Alphonse sat in front of the TV and watched the news.

Outside the paddock, Craig walked along the horse-stalls. They were all empty except for one, which he opened. Champ and Junior followed Craig in walking freely onto the estate.

THE END

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Table of Contents

To The Finish

(This is part ten of a story about an ultra-marathon runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a 100-mile race. Let’s see if Jonas keeps his feetsies, but first, a flashback.)

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2018

In the front row of the underground-casino’s racetrack, Craig and Alphonse watched ten horses vie for the finish-line. Sparse spectators cheered for first-place. “The winner was one of mine!” said Alphonse. He bought Craig a beer to celebrate. “Do you have any steeds to wager?”

Craig laughed. “I’m no cowboy, sir.” He sipped his beer. It tasted like a million bucks. “Unless you mean the chopper. I bet my helicopter could outrace any horse.”

“Maybe, maybe.” Alphonse slapped Craig on the back so hard he almost lost his sunglasses and cap onto the racetrack. “But you’d better hold your helicopter—it’s why I hired you, after all! Where’d you get the wheelie-bird, anyway?”

Craig nodded and sipped more beer. He drank with infinite patience. “I have some connections from my stint in the military.”

“Oh, right!” Alphonse drank a shot of liquor which could have bought a car. “Which war were you in, again? Vietnam?”

“Something like that,” said Craig. “Have you picked a human to race your best horse, sir?”

“Not yet,” said Alphonse. “I need the perfect patsy.”

“I’ve got just the guy.” Craig took a hardcover book from his jacket. “His name is Jonas. He’s an elite ultra-runner whose name is suddenly on everyone’s mind.”

Don’t Run to Live, Live to Run,” read Alphonse from the cover. “What makes you think he’s the one?”

“Read the book,” said Craig. “Jonas’ girlfriend left him for cheating at an ultra-marathon. He’ll beg to redeem himself for her by racing the horse. Invite him to the casino and we’ll win him over with a nudie deck and some free drinks.”


2019

BEEP. Mile 93 (91): 11:10 / 14:59:59.

Whitney ran alongside me. Ten strangers ran ahead and behind us, and more arrived every few minutes. They each slapped me on the back but I didn’t appreciate the sportsmanship. I’d finished ninety miles alone or with Whitney, and that’s how I liked it. Now I couldn’t get away from company. The news-chopper’s light cast shadows around us. Was their footage live? Or would my fate be released as a documentary?

I licked pizza-sauce from my chin. Even after scarfing a pizza and a half I was still starved. My stomach was bursting and I was hungry. I lost over a hundred calories per mile, so I was still thousands in the hole no matter what I ate. When I finished this race I’d eat like I was expecting quintuplets.

“Let’s see,” I said aloud, to no-one. Whitney was the only one who seemed to hear. “If I burn more than a hundred calories per mile, I’m over nine thousand down. Each of those pizzas is two or three thousand calories, and I’ve had like ten of those silver packets of running glop—those are a hundred apiece. So I’m three thousand calories out, at least.”

“What do you want to eat?” Whitney passed me silver packets of running-glop, but I turned them down.

“I want ice-cream,” I said. “I want ice-cream sandwiches hand-fed to me while I soak in a Jacuzzi, with bubbles.”

“You’re almost there, Jonas. Just a few more miles.”

“Hi!” Danny and Debra approached from ahead and flanked us. “We’re back!”

“Great,” I said.

“How far ahead’s the horse?” asked Whitney.

“Less than two miles,” said Debra.

“You know, the strangest thing happened,” said Danny. “The first time we saw that horse, I swore it was black all over.”

“Uh-huh,” said Whitney.

“But now it’s got two brown hooves.”

“I told him he’s seeing things,” said Debra. “Like when he leaves for work with mismatched socks.”

“That happened once, Deb.”

BEEP. Mile 94 (92): 9:12 / 15:09:11.


At the front gates, six men in leather jackets revved their motorcycles. One shouted at the crowd of spectators through a megaphone. “Hey! Everyone! Eyes over here!”

The crowd turned. Only about half remained at the gates; the rest had entered the estate.

“We’re the safety crew,” said the man with the megaphone. His friends shook orange spray-cans. “There’s lots of opportunity for unfortunate accidents around the Bronson Estate. Our job is to make sure nothing bad happens to you. Please, for your safety and the safety of race-participants, mind the orange lines.”

The six men in leather revved their engines and rode single-file through the throngs. They spray-painted behind them so an orange line cut the trial in two.

“Okay, this is getting ridiculous,” said one bystander in a tank-top commemorating the Winter-2018 Biannual Colorado-Veterinarian-Association 5k. He pulled out his phone. “I’m calling the police.”


Craig’s phone rang. With just one hand on his helicopter’s controls, he prepared to put the phone on speaker for Sandra and the other men in leather to hear. “Listen to this! Every phone-call within a mile of the Bronson Estate goes through me. I screen 911 like a hawk to keep Alphonse’s shenanigans off the radar. It’s priceless!”

“Hello, is this the police?” asked the caller.

“That’s who you dialed, isn’t it?” Craig’s friends in leather giggled. Sandra held the elbow of her broken right arm. “What’s your emergency?”

“I’m at the front gates to the Bronson Estate and things keep getting worse. Aren’t you keeping an eye with this situation?”

“Enough to know it’s a nonviolent gathering on private property,” said Craig. “Doesn’t sound like an emergency to me.”

“But—”

“Wait a sec.” Craig put the caller on hold and turned to Sandra—he seemed confident piloting the helicopter with his back turned. “What’s up? Isn’t this funny? Are we bothering you?”

Sandra shook her head disbelievingly. “What’s your angle, old man? What are you doing?

“You’ve worked with Alphonse for a few years. You know he runs an underground casino and harvests organs to sell on the black market, and stuff like that. The law’s not on our side, Sandra.”

I work for Alphonse,” said Sandra, “but do you work for Alphonse? We all saw that news-chopper follow Jonas, and we all heard you lie to Alphonse about it.”

Craig smiled. “Craig works for Craig. Until now that meant working for Alphonse and keeping my ear to the ground. Tonight it means putting my feet up and letting the river carry the Bronsons away.” He popped the cooler. The others in leather dug around the horse-feet for two cold cans of beer amid the ice. They cracked them open and gave one to Craig and one to Sandra’s unbroken left arm. Craig sipped. “You in?”

“You broke my arm,” said Sandra.

“Following Alphonse’s orders. Gotta keep up appearances,” said Craig. “You told Jonas Alphonse pushed you off the horse, and you were right. Join the mutiny.”

Sandra drank the beer. “I’m in.”

“Welcome to the club, Sandra.” Craig poked his phone and spoke to the 911 caller. “Hello sir! I’m about to transfer you to the real police. Tell them whatever you want, okay?”

“What? But then who are y—”

Craig poked his phone again and the call went through.


Alphonse wrapped the reins around his wrists. Champ hadn’t quite adjusted to his new hooves. Perhaps he’d accidentally added or subtracted a few millimeters when replacing the appendages.

Ahead he heard rumbling engines and saw headlights. Six men on motorcycles were painting an orange line along the trail. Runners had to jump out of the bikers’ way. “Just six miles left, Boss!” one called.

“Bless you, gentlemen.” The bikers in leather made hairpin-turns to roll alongside and behind Alphonse. “Do the spectators know they must stay on their side of the orange line?”

“They’d better.” A biker revved his engine and onlookers knew to be scarce.

“That’s the spirit,” said Alphonse.


BEEP. Mile 95 (93): 8:58 / 15:18:09.

My GPS watch was drowned out by the other runners’ constant chatting, but I reluctantly enjoyed the waterfall of sound behind the mob. Three hundred feet rhythmically hit the dirt. I didn’t feel like one man. I was member of an amoeba.

Or maybe I was hallucinating again.

“Hey, you!” Whitney pointed at the latest runners to join us. “What’s the news from the front?”

“Huh?”

“The horse! How far ahead?”

“Oh, uh, yeah. About a mile.”

“They spray-painted me!” A woman turned to show a line of orange paint across her shoulder-blades. “Some guys on motorcycles said I was in the horse’s way or something, and they spray-painted my back!”

“They split the trail with paint to keep people away from the horse,” said the latest arrival. “You can see the paint starts just ahead.”

“Not a bad idea,” said Whitney. “Everyone out of Jonas’ way!”

BEEP. Mile 96 (94): 9:02 / 15:27:11.

“More than that!” I said. “If you can’t keep quiet, scram far enough I can’t hear you.”

The mob of runners murmured, but moved. The loudest talkers ran ahead or walked a while to stay behind. The runners around me zipped their mouths. Freed from voices, I ran a little faster.

Whitney kept up. “Bitter much, Jonas? Maybe I should shut up, too?”

“No. I need to talk to Thog.”

“Thog here.”

“I’m enlightened, Thog. I don’t care if I win a million bucks. I don’t care if I lose my legs.”

“How come?”

“I get to stop, but the horse doesn’t. If Alphonse wins today it’ll whet his whistle and he’ll want to win tomorrow, too—and if he loses today he’ll want to win even more.” I panted through my teeth. “Look at all these people. They won’t let this end. Champ will race for the rest of its life, and its kids will race, too.”

“You can’t run angry, Jonas.”

“I’ll run angry or not at all.”

“It’s Live to Run, not Rage to Run.”

“That’s backwards,” I said. “Anger is easy. Self-actualization is hard.”

“You don’t see angry lions chasing antelope across the Serengeti. Just hungry lions. You’re dehydrated, Jonas. Take a drink.” I drank from the hose of her water-backpack. “Win or lose, you’re headed for an elite time. You might finish a hundred miles in under sixteen hours.”

BEEP. Mile 97 (95): 8:54 / 15:36:05.


Kevin wasn’t sure if he should be frustrated or giddy. At the front gates to the Bronson Estate the crowds were so thick he couldn’t pull off the service-road. “Look at all these people!” He honked.

“How’d they get here so quick?” asked Hermes. “You posted those photos just hours ago. These folks must live nearby.” He rolled down his window and shouted at the spectators. “Hey, let us through! We’re race-staff!”

The crowds slowly parted and Kevin parked his car some distance from the front gates. “Jonas will be here soon,” he said, unbuckling his seat-belt.

“We can only hope,” said Hermes, shutting the car door after him.

Red and blue lights lit them from behind. Kevin and Hermes turned to see a police-car cruising toward them, led by a man in a tank-top commemorating the Winter-2018 Colorado-Vet 5k. “Did you hear that, officers? They said they were race-staff!”

A cop with a mustache leaned out the shotgun window. “Is that right, sirs?”

“Uh. Yeah.” Kevin shook the officer’s hand. “What can we do for you?”

“One question: what the hell’s going on here?”

“Man versus horse,” said Hermes. “Alphonse Bronson is on horseback racing a famous ultra-marathon runner, and those front gates are the finish-line.”

“That explains the crowd,” said the officer at the wheel. “Who are these hooligans on motorbikes I’m hearing about?”

“Alphonse’s gestapo,” said Kevin. “They took Jonas’ finger!”

“Um. What?”

“Yeah, check this out!” Kevin showed the officers Polaroids of Jonas holding the mile-80 flag in blood-stained hands. The officers gaped, aghast, and retched.

Hermes nodded. “I told the 911-responder about it the second time I called, but they didn’t sound like they’d send anyone. I’m glad you came.”

“The… second time you called?” The officers turned to each other. One spoke to a walkie-talkie. “We need backup at the Bronson Estate.”


“Back up, back up!” The men in leather revved their bikes’ engines to make bystanders move aside. Alphonse made Champ trot off the trail into secluded wood. “Clear out! Champ wants some privacy!”

“How far behind is Jonas,” Alphonse asked the closest biker.

“A mile and a half. You’ll win this easy, Boss.” The bikers took makeup kits from their leather jackets and hid Champ’s injuries with coal-black cover-up.

Champ strained to raise a leg for makeup on a cracking hoof, and Alphonse inwardly whimpered. “The new feet aren’t compatible. I shouldn’t have showcased my medical ingenuity.”

“Nah, the feet are fine,” said a biker concealing spur-marks. “You were just off by a little, see? This leg is a tad longer, and that leg’s a tad—” Another biker punched his shoulder and pointed to Alphonse, who was silently fuming. “But Champ’ll get used to it.”

“I should hope so,” said Alphonse.

“Hey! Get back!” A man in leather raised both hands to ward off spectators, but shrank and scurried back to the group. “Guys, it’s the cops.”

All the men in leather groaned. “Quickly, quickly! We’ve prepared for this!” Alphonse tossed his silver pistol to his gang, who hid it in a nearby bush. Alphonse checked his Rolex. “Ah ha! Good evening, officers!”

Three cops stepped off their motorbikes and marched to Champ’s side. “We’ve had reports of all kinds of hooey, Mister Bronson.”

“Hooey is right!” said Alphonse. “I assure you any misconduct is exaggerated. You know we Bronsons aren’t a photogenic bunch.”

“You can carry on in a minute,” said an officer, “but we’ve heard you and your men might be packing illegal arms.”

For a moment Alphonse panicked about Jonas’ mutilated finger in his military-jacket’s breast-pocket, but sighed in relief when he remembered he gifted that finger to Craig. The officer was referring to weaponry. “Frisk us if you must, but make it quick.” Alphonse dismounted. He and his men put their hands against tree-trunks while the officers patted them down.

“You don’t let people into your estate very often, Mister Bronson.”

“It’s a special occasion.”

“Folks along the trail said your men in leather menaced them.”

“Racecourse-safety demands assertion. Surely you understand, as officers of the law.”

“Did you cut off Jonas’ finger?”

“Of course not,” said Alphonse, not lying. He’d blown off the finger with his pistol.

“Your men seem very interested in makeup, Mister Bronson.”

“That’s their business.”

“I like a little blush,” said a man in leather. “It brings out my eyes.”

Finding no firearms, the officers gave each-other thumbs-up. “Okay, sirs, you’re good to go. Although, that horse doesn’t look so great; are you sure it can handle the last few miles?”

“Of course, of course!” Alphonse mounted Champ and checked his Rolex. “Officers, could I ask a favor? You occupied us three minutes, by my watch. Would you agree, approximately?”

The officers shrugged. “Sure.”

“Then it’s only fair Jonas must finish three minutes before Champ to win the race,” he reasoned. “I hope I can count on your testimony, should the need arise.”

“Sure thing. Just keep these people safe, okay?”

“Why, that’s what the orange lines are for! Everyone will be fine if they stay on their side.” Alphonse watched the officers mount their motorbikes and take off down the trail. The men in leather instantly retrieved his silver pistol. “Finish that makeup. Quick!” The men in leather hastily made Champ presentable. “We can only hope we’re not interrupted again.”

“Hey! You!” A man in a tank-top commemorating the Winter-2018 Colorado-Vet 5k ignored the orange lines and strode right up to Champ. “I’m examining your horse.”

“Champ is fine! The picture of health!” Alphonse slapped Champ on the side and Champ didn’t react. “Trust me, I’ve raced horses for years!”

“And I’ve been a veterinary horse-specialist for years. Allow me a second opinion.”


BEEP. Mile 98 (96): 8:45 / 15:44:50.

“Jonas, look.” Whitney pointed at some guy running next to us.

“What about him?”

“A mile ago, he was one of those who ran ahead to talk. Now you’re passing him. You’ve run almost a hundred miles and he’s run less than twenty, but you’re leaving him in your dust.”

As we passed him, the guy pumped a fist. “You’ve got this, man!”

“Wow,” I said. “Honestly, I don’t feel ready to outrun anyone.”

“You might outrun me, soon, too,” said Whitney. “These 48 miles have seriously wrecked me, Jonas.”

“What, really?” For the first time I saw in her face a feeling I knew well: she was bonking, hard. “You’ve paced me on plenty of hundos, Whitney. You’ve never had trouble keeping up—even when I’m pacing you, you exhaust me.”

“I get to prepare for those hundos,” said Whitney. “I get warning—not a surprise phone-call when you’re thirty miles in. I ran an ultra last weekend, Jonas. I had all-I-could-eat sushi last night, and I ate all I could. I’m not in shape to pace you. I was hardly able to join you this far.”

“But… I don’t want to run the last miles alone.”

“Then catch the horse, Jonas.” Whitney fell behind. I ran on.

BEEP. Mile 99 (97): 8:37 / 15:53:27.


“This race is over.” The vet pointed to Champ’s feet. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, here, but this horse isn’t in any condition to take another step. Is this makeup?” He wiped a cracked hoof and his finger came back blackened. “Despicable.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” Alphonse tapped a leather jacket’s back with his boot. The man in leather understood, and brought another man behind the vet. “I think my men would like to speak with you, doctor.”

“Huh?” The vet turned and the men in leather lay hands on his shoulders. “Hey!”

“We told you,” said one, “crossing the orange line is very dangerous. Shall we escort you somewhere more secure?”

“Yes you shall,” said Alphonse. The men pulled the vet into the dark woods.

“Whoa! Help!” The vet kicked and pushed, but the men in leather overpowered him. “Where are you taking me? What are you doing?”

One man cocked his shoulder to sock the vet in the jaw, but his phone rang. He checked the caller-ID: it was Craig. “Take over for me,” he said to his partner. “Hey, Craig?”

“Howdy,” said Craig. “I forgot to tell you, we’re on mutiny-mode. Don’t let Alphonse get your hands dirty.”

“Gotcha, Boss.” Before the other man could clock the vet, the man with the phone signaled for him to stop. Instead he presented the vet with an orange spray-can. “You see this?” He shook the can. “We told you not to cross the lines. Now you gotta pay the price.” He sprayed the vet in the face, then zigzagged the paint across his Winter-2018 biannual Colorado-Veterinarian-Association 5k tank-top. “Now scram. We don’t wanna see your ugly mug again.”

The men in leather kicked the vet onto the trail a hundred yards back, then rejoined Alphonse. “He won’t bother nobody, Boss.”

“Excellent.” Alphonse grit his teeth. “But he’s not wrong. My horse is in dire straights. You,” he said to a man at random, “bring Champ Junior to the finish-line. That will give Champ something to run for.” The man mounted his motorbike and took off. Alphonse started Champ down the trail. “That damned vet. He cost us more time than the police, and since we disposed of him, we can’t even penalize Jonas for the delay!”

As soon as Alphonse mentioned Jonas, he heard a roaring helicopter and an electronic beep.

BEEP. Mile 100 (98): 8:43 / 16:02:10.

I only saw Champ for a moment, out of the corner of my tired eyes, but cheers of the runners around me promised I had the lead.

Alphonse spurred Champ’s ribs and trotted alongside me. “Jonas! I wondered if we’d meet again before my inevitable victory.”

I didn’t even look at Alphonse. “Save it for the finish-line.”

“This helicopter above us isn’t one of mine,” said Alphonse. “I suppose the man in charge of my airspace must have his hands full.”

“I bet he does.”

“You should know, Jonas, some kindly police-officers delayed me for three minutes. You’ve got to beat Champ by that much.”

Bystanders groaned in protest, but I was far beyond anguish. I’d resigned myself to Alphonse’s scheming. “What happens if your horse doesn’t finish the race at all?”

Alphonse chuckled. “That won’t be a problem.”

“Don’t laugh,” I said. “I’m running your horse to death. And I’m winning.”

BEEP. Mile 101 (99): 7:37 / 16:09:47.

I wish I felt confident as my words. Beyond just an ultra-marathon’s fatigue, angst echoed from my belly-button down. I couldn’t help but wonder if these were the last sensations my heels would ever feel. Would I wiggle my toes much longer?

“You know, Jonas, I happened to overhear, around mile sixty-something, you fell, and your girlfriend helped you to your feet.”

“Uh-huh.”

“In some races, that would disqualify you.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You’d better finish this last mile under your own power,” said Alphonse, “or else—”

“Oh my gosh!” said a runner behind us.

Champ lost both black hooves—they sloughed right off. Underneath, Champ had red, stringy, bloody, fibrous mass. Champ slowed to a walk, even when Alphonse jammed the spurs an inch deep. “Move!”

“Thank God.” I walked beside the horse. “Hallelujah, I’m saved.”

“Like hell!” Alphonse and Champ strode their fastest, but I outsped them with an easy gait. “Remember, Jonas, you’ve got to win by three minutes at least! A millisecond less and I’ll take your l—” Alphonse noticed about fifty runners within earshot, and recalled the helicopter above. Could it hear him? “I’ll take the race, Jonas!”

“Jonas!” Whitney jogged around motorcycles to run beside me. “Don’t just walk. Let’s move!”

“Whitney!” I jogged with her and we left Champ behind. “You said you couldn’t pace me.”

“I had to puke up some sashimi,” she said, “and I didn’t want to hold you back. Come on, you can gain three minutes over a mile.”

“What a love-story.” Alphonse reached into his jacket. “Here’s another.” I worried he’d pull out his pistol, but he had just a silk hankie. He held it to Champ’s nose and Champ trotted faster, just behind us. “My secret weapon. Champ has a child—a promising young race-horse who’s waiting for us at the finish-line, and whose scent is on this kerchief. The promise of their reunion will speed us along.” It didn’t seem to help; Champ was hardly cognizant.

“Ignore him, Jonas.” Whitney and I pulled ahead of the horse. It hurt like rebar driven up my heels and through my hips.

But was it enough? “I have to win by three minutes.”

“Just beat Alphonse across the finish-line. Fuck up his photo-op.”

“I don’t think I’m gonna make it.”

“Breathe, Jonas. The horse is far behind.”

I tried. Along either side of the trail, hundreds of onlookers shouted and cheered, but I could hardly hear them. My blood pulsed panic. I was about to lose my legs. I was about to lose my legs.

“There’s the finish,” said Whitney. I saw the estate’s front gates. All around me, roaring crowds urged me on. I felt their cheers like wind at my back.

Then everything went to hell.

It didn’t even hurt at first. I just heard a soft wet tear and felt cold fabric slide down my left leg. I saw my agony in the eyes of sympathetic spectators before I felt it myself.

For the last few miles the ice-pack around my left knee was the only thing holding the leg together. Now it split, and the compression shorts couldn’t keep me from crumpling on the dirt like a jenga tower.

“Jonas!”

My left knee hyper-extended a hundred eighty degrees, so my own foot kicked my gut. I was fifty feet from the finish-line and I’d flamingo’ed myself.

Alphonse and Champ were less than a quarter-mile behind.

Whitney and twenty other onlookers moved to help me, but I pushed her away and the audience stayed back. “Stop! You can’t help!” I crawled for the finish-line on three limbs, dragging my left leg behind me. From behind the finish-line, paramedics brought me a stretcher, but I shouted. “Don’t touch me!” Thirty feet to the finish, I heard the horse’s gallop.

Phones and cameras flashed: everyone at the finish-line took photos except Hermes, who covered his face in concern for me, and Kevin, who filmed me with a vintage lens, and Sandra and Craig, who just watched coolly. Craig’s subordinates in leather led a black horse, smaller than Champ but identical.

Champ’s approach was unbearably loud. I had twenty feet to crawl.

Fifteen.

Ten.

When Champ was loudest I knew he’d overtaken me.

Then he was suddenly silent. He’d stopped on a dime.

Alphonse shot off the saddle, twirled through the air, and rolled across the finish-line, breaking both arms. If I were racing him, not the horse, this would have been his victory.

I crawled the last ten feet to join him on the other side.

BEEP. Mile 102 (100): 11:09 / 16:20:56.

The crowd went wild, but I flopped on my back to watch Champ.

I saw immediately why the horse had stopped: Champ Junior had crossed the finish-line to meet his father. Champ, having no reason to take another step, did not.

Craig pat me on the shoulder and handed me a beer. “Nice race, Mountain King.” I dropped the can and it rolled away. I and Alphonse were fixated on Champ.

“Okay, let’s get you two on stretchers.” Paramedics moved to collect Alphonse and me, but Whitney fended them off. “Hey! What’s your problem, lady?”

Kevin filmed my wretched leg. “Jonas, you won!”

“Not yet.” Alphonse wrangled a broken wrist to check his Rolex. “Two minutes and twenty seconds,” he said. “Champ’s got two minutes and—and fifteen seconds, now, to finish the race.”

“Are you joking?” said Kevin. “Jonas won—we all saw it!”

“Shh, shh, shh.” I beckoned for Kevin to keep quiet, as if his voice might attract Champ across the finish line. “Shhhh.” Champ settled on his knees to be nearer his child. I sighed in relief.

“Craig.” With broken hands, Alphonse pulled Craig’s pant-leg. “Bring Champ across the line.”

“No!” said Whitney. “If no one can help Jonas, no one can help the horse!”

“But I could bring Champ Junior over the finish-line,” said Craig. “No rule against that. And then Champ would follow.”

“Yes!” said Alphonse. “Quick, Craig! Less than two minutes left!”

Craig didn’t move. He just kept his arms crossed, with a giddy smirk that Alphonse couldn’t see while lying on the dirt.

“Craig! Sandra!”

“He hears you, Boss,” said Sandra, “and so do I.”

“What are you waiting for!” said Alphonse. “I’ll pay you! What do you want!”

Hermes gave me the last of my second no-cheese pineapple-olive pizza. I ate ravenously while Alphonse begged. Then I drank Craig’s beer, despite advice from Whitney and the paramedics. It was ice-cold.

Alphonse whimpered. His Rolex counted down the last minute, and Champ didn’t move an inch. Even the news-copter, espying from too close, couldn’t buffet him away.

I gestured for the paramedics. “Take me away. I’ve seen enough.” Whitney joined me in the ambulance. “Does the emergency-room have a hot-tub?” I asked.

“We’ll get you a warm sponge-bath,” said a paramedic. “You smell like you need one.”


2018

Jonas was recovering from a long run in a hot bath with a cold beer. Whitney knocked on the door. “Come in!”

Whitney sat by the tub. “Good news about the book!”

“Oh? Yeah?”

“We’ve got a publisher!

“No shit?”

“Remember Kevin, from high-school cross-country? Kevin has connections in the entertainment industry, and a publisher contacted him asking about us! They think books about ultra-running are hot right now. They can even get us into The Great RaceThat’ll be worth writing about.”

“Wow.” Jonas slumped deep into the water. “Congratulations.”

“You helped!” said Whitney. “I really couldn’t do this without you. I think the publisher reached out because you won that hundo last year.”

“You’re the best runner in this bathroom, and you’re the only writer.”

Whitney smiled. “Actually, you might look like the writer after this. The publisher said listing you as the author would a good business-move. I agreed to ghost-write in your name.”

Jonas sat up. “But—Whitney, no!”

“It’s fine!” Whitney lay him back in the water. “I mean it when I say I couldn’t do this without you.”

“But it’s your book!”

“Listen,” said Whitney. “Kevin said the publisher’s got a plan. They think the book will be really successful, and even more successful if it has your name on the cover. It’s all just marketing.”

Jonas blew bubbles. “Okay, I guess. If it’s for you.”

The Aftermath
Commentary
Table of Contents

To Mile 70

(This is part seven of a story about an ultra-marathon runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a 100-mile race. Jonas is behind the horse.)

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2019

Hermes rolled down his window and poked his head from the car like a dog. “Wow, this is steep.”

“My car can take it.” Kevin’s car grumbled in disagreement, but still slogged up the slope. Kevin pat the dashboard appreciatively.

“I’m not worried about your car,” said Hermes. “Remember, Jonas has to climb every step of this mountain.”

“He always called himself ‘King of the Mountain’ in high school,” said Kevin. “Pretentious prick. He said cross-country skiing made him better than me at running uphill.”

“Well?” Hermes pulled his head back into the car. “Was he right?”

Kevin shrugged. “He could run hills all day, but he ran them slowest on the team.”

“Endurance might be all Jonas needs right now,” said Hermes.

“It didn’t help him win The Great Race.” Kevin ashed his cigarette out the window. “Jonas had to skip two miles to beat Whitney.”

Hermes sighed. “I was never sure Jonas did that intentionally. He’s not that kinda guy.”

“Oh, come off it.” Kevin gave Hermes another cigarette to light. “I’ve run a marathon, and every mile after 14 punched me in the gut. If I’d accidentally skipped two miles at the end, I’d have noticed—I’d have been ecstatic to avoid gut-punches. But I wouldn’t pretend I’d finished legit, let alone won. Jonas pretended. Jonas broke the tape.”

“Ninety-plus miles will do stuff to you, man. Maybe Jonas was delirious.” Hermes lit the cigarette. “Half the folks I’ve ever met at ultras have hallucinated.”

“Because they were running for days, like lunatics, or because they were 60’s kids, like you?” Hermes didn’t answer. He held up the cigarette and Kevin took it in his teeth. Kevin puffed smoke and shook his head. “Jonas felt guilty, and he felt guilty because he was guilty.”

“I don’t think so, Kev.”

“I know him better than you do. Did you know Jonas lived with me for a while after The Great Race?” Kevin took a hairpin turn on the service-road up the mountain. “Whitney kicked him out of her apartment, so Jonas slept on my couch for a few months. All I ever saw him do was drink.”

“Geez. Now I feel even more sorry for him.”

“Don’t. What he didn’t spend on booze, he gambled.”

“Jonas gambled? Really? What’d he gamble?”

“Anything he could get his hands on.”

“I mean, what’d he play? Internet poker? Gambling’s not legal around here, and Vegas is a little far.”

“He didn’t gamble legal, Hermes, he—” Kevin wiped his eyes. “Jonas went to the Bronson place. You know the Bronson place?” Hermes shook his head. “Alphonse runs a little underground casino. I think it’s literally underground. I’ve never been there, just heard about it. I hear it’s invite-only.”

“How did Jonas get invited?”

“Beats me,” said Kevin. “I just know whenever Jonas got a paycheck waiting tables, he drank half of it and gambled the rest hoping to double-or-nothing his drinking. He always lost, and then he’d always ask to borrow money from me. I lent him fifty bucks before I realized what he was doing with it; I figured he was buying running shoes, or something. He still owes me.”

Hermes stroked his beard. “Gambling at the Bronson place must’ve inspired Jonas to race the horse.”

“He talked about the horse-race sometimes, but I didn’t think he was serious. I bet he’s doing this to be cheesy and romantic for Whitney. Pretentious prick. If he wins a million bucks, he’d better pay back the booze-money he owes me.” Kevin blinked. “Wait. If Jonas has the funds to make a million-dollar bet, he never needed to borrow money at all! What an ass-hat!”

“Maybe Jonas didn’t have to ante anything,” said Hermes. “Maybe Alphonse just wanted to race a human on horseback, like his daddy did with Georgie Masawa. Alphonse said he’s interested in athlete nutrition, right?”

“Yeah, and then he kicked our pizza.”

“But only after learning about it! Maybe a million bucks isn’t much to a guy like Alphonse, and he’s set up the gamble to sort of buy the experience of racing Jonas.”

“You saw that jockey streak past. Alphonse isn’t even on the horse.”

Hermes shrugged. “Whatever. Maybe Alphonse thinks the sport is its own reward, man.”

“Yeah, whatever, man,” dripped Kevin. “Alphonse is fucked up. I never thought I’d meet a more pretentious prick than Jonas, but baby-Bronson’s got him beat. Alphonse better bring that pizza to mile 70.”

“He won’t,” said Hermes, “and if he does, maybe no one should eat it. Do we really trust Alphonse with race-catering?”

“Yeah, you’re right. He’d probably poison it.” Kevin gripped the steering wheel. “Hey. Wait.” He pulled out his phone. “I bet we can fly another pizza in here.”

“By drone? Alphonse would shoot it down again. I can’t imagine your friend would send another drone just to be destroyed.”

“Don’t doubt my connections. You don’t know Craig.” Kevin scrolled through his contacts.


BEEP. Mile 61: 12:13 / 8:12:07.

The mountain was steeper than I’d given it credit for. Whitney stayed ten paces ahead to scan the trail for debris. She kicked rocks aside so I wouldn’t trip on them. Then she slowed to run beside me. “Drink.” I drank from Whitney’s water-backpack. She donned a headlamp and handed another to me. “Put this on. It’ll be dark soon.”

“Oh, no.” I refused the headlamp. “I hate wearing headlamps as much as I hate—”

“—wearing hats and sunglasses, I know,” said Whitney. “Just put it on, Jonas.” I pulled the elastic band around my forehead. The headlamp bounced on my face with my stride. I suppose the annoyance was worth it; up ahead, groves of trees would be thick with shadows come sunset. “Put this on, too.” She gave me a neon-yellow visibility vest.

“What, really? Why? There’s no traffic out here. I’m not gonna be hit by a car.”

Whitney glared, and I knew she wouldn’t let this go. I put on the vest. “Visibility isn’t just for alerting traffic,” she said. “If you fall off this mountain-trail, we’ll need that reflective vest to spot your corpse by satellite.”

“Gallows humor gives me nausea,” I said, “and so does this neon-yellow vest. It’s worse than Alphonse’s dumb military jacket.”

Whitney rolled her eyes. “You know why he wears that, right?”

BEEP. Mile 62: 11:58 / 8:24:05.

“No clue. I’d never wear it.”

“The jacket belonged to Grandpa-Bronson.” Whitney puffed. The incline winded even her, even after she’d run only twelve miles. “He was a Major-General back in the old country.”

“What country is that?”

“I don’t think it exists anymore.”

“What happened?”

“Grandpa-Bronson happened. He stole the nation’s treasury, and then whatever he did next, he did it so thoroughly there’s not much evidence to go off. I’ve read everything there is about Grandpa-Bronson, and it’s not much.”

“What was the country called before it disintegrated?”

“I wish I could tell you. Evidence of his war-crimes was buried with the bodies.” Whitney noticed my souring expression. “That’s the rumor, anyway. With his fortune he started a glue factory in the states. His motto was Use Every Part of the Horse.”

“Change the topic, squire.”

BEEP. Mile 63: 12:02 / 8:36:07.

“How’s your knee?”

“Not clicking yet.” For a few paces I bent my left leg more than usual, to test it. “But it’ll start soon.”

“Is the compression sleeve helping?”

“Yeah.”

“Got a headache?”

“A little.”

“Cramping?”

“Obviously.”

“You’ve got hyponatremia. You need more salt.” Whitney fished in her backpack for salt-tablets.

“I’m fine. I’m just bonking.” I suddenly realized that was a lie. I wasn’t just bonking—the shadows cast by our headlamps made the earth shimmer with shadows, and for a moment I worried I was lost at sea. “Wait, no. I’m not fine. I’m hallucinating.”

“That’s hyponatremia. Take the salt.” I swallowed the tablets. “Salt-loss can kill you. Hallucinations can’t.”

“Hell yeah they can.” I slowed to a walk. “I’ve already slipped and fallen on this run. If I can’t see straight, I’ll fall again, and I might not get back up.”

“Okay.” Whitney walked beside me. “Drink.”

BEEP. Mile 64: 13:41 / 8:49:48.

I drank from her water-backpack. “What did Georgie Masawa eat for hyponatremia? You read all about him racing Alphonse’s dad, right?”

Whitney laughed. “Not a lot to read, and certainly no diet tips. Georgie was a recluse. All those ultra-running South-American native-tribes are tight-lipped.”

“Was Georgie one of those famous Indians who run hundreds of miles before breakfast? A Tarahumara?”

“Nah, nah, Tarahumara are talkative compared to whatever Georgie was.” When Whitney shook her head, her ponytail whipped at me enticingly. “We don’t even know how many there were, or where they lived, or what they called themselves. We just call them the Masawas, after Georgie.”

I bit my tongue. “So why did Georgie come all the way to the Bronson estate? Did the Bronsons invite him?”

“Beats me,” said Whitney. “Georgie never said. He was basically mute. And then he died, probably somewhere around here.”

My knees knocked, and not just with fatigue. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. All we know is Georgie died between sixty and seventy miles. If Father Bronson raced him on the same trails we’re running now, he’s not far from us. No one ever found his body, so we’ll never know for sure.” She tugged the corner of my visibility vest. “So don’t complain about the neon-yellow. It might be your only ticket to a proper burial.”

BEEP. Mile 65: 18:21 / 9:08:09.

My stomach churned. “I’m no Georgie Masawa.”

“Good. You need to be better than Georgie Masawa.”

I puked off the side of the trail. Retch after retch, it just kept coming.

Whitney pat my back. “Let it out, soldier. You’ve got a pizza coming in a few miles.”

I dry-heaved a few times. Vomit trickled down the mountain. “I can’t do this,” I said. “I can’t keep moving.”

Whitney walked anyway and pulled me along behind her. “You bet your legs, Jonas. You can’t stop moving.”

“Stopping is for the best.” My steps were trembling. “I bet if I stop now, I can convince Alphonse to settle for one whole leg and the other leg below the knee.”

“Jonas.”

“Or both legs up to mid-thigh.”

“Jonas! You’ve run a hundred miles tens of times. You know this pessimism doesn’t last forever. If you give up now, you’ll kick yourself later. Well, you couldn’t kick yourself, but you know what I mean.”

“Prosthetics are pretty good nowadays.”

“Okay, come on.” Whitney checked her GPS watch. “If you stop right here, you’ll sit on your hands until you die. You can’t really quit until we reach the service-road at mile 70. If you can honestly tell me you want to stop every mile until we smell your pizza at 69, then you can quit. I won’t badger you.”

BEEP. Mile 66: 21:04 / 9:29:13.

“I want to stop.”


Hermes waited with his arms crossed by the 70-mile flag. After the fork, Jonas would either start downhill or have two more uphill miles to go.

“A-ha!” Kevin waved his arms at an approaching pizza-drone. “I knew Craig would come through!” He used his phone to photograph the delivery.

“How’d you convince your friend to send another drone after Alphonse shot down the first?”

“Every start-up wants one thing: for their story to get out.” Kevin took a picture of the pizza-box next to the drone. He gave a thumbs-up to the drone’s camera. “Craig was delighted Alphonse shot down his bot. I told him about Jonas racing the horse, and he said he’d sacrifice ten drones to put his pizzas in this narrative. Whether Jonas wins or not, if this race goes viral, investments will sky-rocket.”

The drone took off and circled about 500 meters above the 70-mile flag. “What’s it hanging around for?” asked Hermes.

“Craig’s waiting for Alphonse to shoot this one, too.” No sooner had Kevin said this than Alphonse’s helicopter crested the mountain. Kevin grinned while he filmed the drone with his phone. “Here it comes!”

“I don’t know if recording is a good idea,” said Hermes. “Alphonse takes that sort of thing pretty seriously.”

“Shove it. This is social-media gold.”

Hermes covered his ears just in time. The helicopter fired seven blaring shots. The drone crashed into the brush and burst into bits. Kevin’s phone recorded the helicopter descending over them. Alphonse’s voice boomed from megaphones: “I brought you your pizza. No need for impatience.”

“Yeah, feed the camera, scumbag.” Kevin stopped recording as soon as the helicopter touched down and Alphonse stepped out. Hermes stowed Jonas’ pizza in the car to protect it. Keven stepped defensively between the car and Alphonse. “Hey, A.B.”

“A.B.?” Alphonse Bronson parsed the nickname for a moment. “Oh. A.B. Quite.” He gave Kevin a pizza-box. It was tiny, the type of pizza a pretentious prick would order at a hoity-toity restaurant. “Kevin, isn’t it?”

“Uh-huh.” Kevin pretended to continue recording Alphonse while he tapped his phone’s screen to save the video to the cloud. “Care to comment? You just shot down another drone.”

“You knew that I would. Would you please stop filming?”

“I’m not filming.” Kevin showed Alphonse his phone’s screen: he’d switched to Tetris.

“If you have been filming,” said Alphonse, “please delete the videos, and any photographs you may have taken. Coverage of the estate is highly regulated. If you want to buy a license to film here, please contact my brand manager.”

“Okay, okay.” Kevin put away his phone. “Did you come all this way just to deliver this pizza? Should we tip?”

“Don’t patronize me, I’d be tempted to charge you.” Alphonse smiled and marched to the 70-mile flag. “I’m here for my own sake. My jockey is arriving as I speak.”

Champ’s hoof-beats roared up to the fork. Sandra knocked the flag to the right, then saluted. “Howdy, boss.”

“Sandra, I told you to go right at mile 60. Why did you go left?”

Sandra noticed Kevin and Hermes. She leaned toward Alphonse so only he could hear her. “Champ is fatigued, sir. I didn’t think he could take the more strenuous route.”

Alphonse tutted. “We discussed this. I didn’t want Jonas poking his nose in that direction. You know Champ’s fatigue doesn’t matter anymore.” He procured two syringes from his gaudy military jacket.

“Hey, what’re those?” asked Hermes.

“I don’t pry into your medical history, do I?” Sandra injected the smaller syringe into her thigh. Then she flexed her ankles. “Lay off my jockey-juice.” Her spurs bit Champs belly, while Alphonse injected the horse with the larger syringe.

“I think those spurs are illegal,” said Hermes. “Can’t you see he’s bleeding?”

“Bah. Champ isn’t bothered by such war-wounds.” Alphonse slapped Champ’s flank and Sandra galloped away. Alphonse retreated to his helicopter and the blades spun up. “Remember, delete any footage of the estate!”

“Yeah, yeah! You got it! Edgy twat.” Kevin lit a cigarette as the helicopter lifted off. “What a caveman. That video is already copied to Craig’s PC by now. Hey, wait…” He browsed through his phone. “Where is it?”

“What’s up?” asked Hermes.

“I had a great connection a minute ago, but now the video is just gone. It’s like—” Kevin blinked. Ash fell from his cigarette. “It’s like reception went down as soon as Alphonse arrived. Damn—He must be wearing a signal-jammer. He suspected I’d sneak footage past him.”

“Or maybe he wears it all the time,” said Hermes. “Maybe he’s just that paranoid.”

“But how’d he delete the recording from my phone?” Kevin scratched his head. “This is fucked. All I’ve got left is photos of the pizza-drone. He’s hacking into my shit.”

“Huh.” Hermes pulled a plastic disposable camera from his fanny-pack. “Maybe my caveman tech won’t have that problem. I snapped a couple pics of those spurs.”

Kevin gawped, then guffawed. “You hypocrite! You warned me against filming Alphonse!”

“Yeah, but I have friends in Greenpeace and PETA who’ll wanna see that poor horse.”

“Nah, nah.” Kevin took the camera from Hermes and climbed behind the driver’s seat. “I know exactly what to do with these photos. I’ll be back in an hour to drive you to mile 80. Give Jonas his stupid pizza for me.”


BEEP. Mile 67: 22:13 / 9:51:26.

“I want to stop.”

“Uh huh, uh huh.” Whitney walked behind to make me plod with decent pace. “Tell me, have you really thought through losing your legs?”

“When Alphonse takes my legs, they won’t hurt any more. He’ll cure my bum knee for good.”

“But you won’t be able to run, or walk, or stand.”

“Like I said, prosthetics are pretty nice nowadays. They can 3D print limbs that make paraplegic Olympic-contenders.”

“And how’re you gonna afford those fancy prosthetics?” asked Whitney.

“Book-money.” My foot slipped on a rock. Thank goodness the trail was so steep that the incline broke most of my fall.

Whitney gave me a hand to help me up, but I just flopped onto my back. “You spent all your book-money, Jonas. That’s why you bet your legs.”

“I’ll write a new book.” Both my palms were bloody. I brushed them together to knock off pebbles and dust. “I’ll have a story worth writing about. I raced a Bronson on horseback and got farther than Georgie Masawa before throwing in the towel. That’s a best-seller.”

“You weren’t so good at writing, if I recall. I wrote Live to Run almost cover-to-cover.” Whitney tapped her foot impatiently. I finally started pulling myself upright. “And before you ask, no, I won’t write this book for you, too.”

“You can buy the story-rights from me,” I said. “You’ll write the book and your name will be on the cover.”

Whitney considered it as we continued to walk. “Maybe if you finish the race. Quitting at seventy miles would be anticlimactic. You’ll run a hundred miles or you’ll write about it on your own.”

BEEP. Mile 68: 21:48 / 10:13:14.

“That’s not happening. I want to stop.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Whitney tore open a silver packet of running-glop. “Eat this.”

“Eeugh.” I shuddered. “No way. You wanna see me puke again?”

“It’s peanut-butter.” Whitney pressed it into my hands. “You love peanut-butter.”

“My stomach doesn’t. Not right now.”

“What does your stomach want right now? Chocolate?”

I shook my head. “Pizza.”

Whitney slurped the peanut-butter glop herself. “You gotta keep moving for pizza.”

“How much farther to the flag? About a mile?”

Whitney checked her GPS watch. “More like a mile and three quarters.”

I stopped in my tracks. “Whitney.”

“Move, Jonas.”

“Wait. Whitney. Do you hear that?” I cupped my hands around my ears. “Hoof-beats.”

Whitney looked around. The narrow trail hugged a cliff-side on our right, and a steep, scraggy grove of trees on our left. The sun had set on the other side of the mountain, so it was dark as night. Our headlamps cast eerie illumination. “I don’t hear hooves, Jonas.”

But I did. I heard a hearty gallop.

A horse rounded the cliff-side, charging right toward us. It wasn’t Champ. This horse was fiery-red and puffed steam from its nostrils like an engine.

Its jockey was a skeleton. I didn’t realize I was hallucinating until I’d already leaped left off the trail. “Jonas!”

I rolled and rolled downhill. My body broke dry branches. I caught an old tree-trunk with my ribs, and held it for dear life.

“Jonas, grab on!” Whitney leaned off the trail ten feet above me. She lowered her water-backpack by one strap, dangling the other strap almost within my reach. I reached.

I slid deep into the dirt. The tree’s rotting roots straggled into a dark, narrow ditch down which I tumbled until I was face-to-face with a skull.

I breathlessly watched the skull, waiting for it to fade like any other hallucination.

It didn’t. It stayed. The skull connected to old, broken bones.

Nausea gripped me again, but I couldn’t puke it out. The sick felt tethered to my spine. “Georgie,” I whispered.

“Jonas!” shouted Whitney. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah!” With renewed adrenaline, I scrambled from the ditch. At the surface I shed my neon-yellow visibility vest and tied it around the roots of the rotting tree. “Help me up!”

“Hold this!” Whitney dangled her water-backpack. I grabbed the hanging strap and she pulled me back onto the trail. “Don’t jump off again, nimrod,” she said.

“You don’t have to tell me twice.” We kept walking.

“Where’s your vest?” she asked. I shrugged. “You’re lucky I could spot you. You almost Masawa’d yourself.”

BEEP. Mile 69: 24:19 / 10:37:33.

“I want to stop.” I looked at Whitney expectantly. “I’ve said it five miles in a row. You have to let me stop.”

“Say it again at the end of 69, when you smell pizza,” she said. I groaned. “If you want your pizza sooner, then jog with me. Come on.” We jogged slowly. The worst of the incline was behind us. “Once you’re over this mountain the rest of the race is downhill or flat.”

“I still want to stop. The pizza won’t change my mind.”

Whitney sighed. “You really want to give up your legs?”

“Just seven-tenths of them.”

“Why does Alphonse even want your legs?”

“I wish I knew. He just said ‘medical purposes.’ Alphonse says my legs are worth a million bucks to his laboratories, or whatever.”

“And apparently you agree,” said Whitney, “since you took the bet.”

“No, no.” I covered my face. “Initially I lied I had a million bucks to ante. When Alphonse found out I don’t have the money, then he said he wanted my legs.”

Whitney’s lips popped. “How did he find that out?”

“I don’t know. He said something about his accountant running numbers.”

“But… wouldn’t he…” Whitney trailed off. “Wouldn’t he check before the race?”

Her realization dawned on me with agonizing crawl. “Oh God,” I whimpered. “Alphonse always knew I didn’t have the money. He was after my legs this whole time. This was his plan from the start.”

“Keep your head, Jonas.”

“At this rate? My head’s all I could possibly keep, because it’s empty and useless.”

“Jonas.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks. Whitney gave me the hose to her water-backpack. I drank deep. “I can’t stop here, Whitney.”

“I know.”

“Don’t let me stop. I have to win the race.”

“I know.”

BEEP. Mile 70: 14:52 / 10:52:25.

The jockey had tossed the 70-mile flag to the right, toward more uphill. I looked around; where was Kevin’s car?

“Jonas! Whitney!” Hermes approached with a pizza-box. “Kevin drove out to develop some photos.”

“Seriously? He’s gotta post pictures to social media now?” Whitney rolled her eyes. “What a pretentious prick.” I didn’t mind. I was already scarfing down my second slice of pizza. The oil soaked my mouth and throat. Whitney traded her empty water-backpack for a full one from Hermes. “Jonas has got some cuts and bruises. How’d the horse look?”

“Not great, honestly.” Hermes treated and bandaged my injuries while I ate, then pointed to his own ribs. “The jockey was really giving him the spurs. Alphonse injected the horse and jockey with something, too. I figure that means they’re in bad shape.”

“How long ago did she pass by?”

“About an hour ago.”

I shoved the rest of the pizza in my mouth. Whitney smeared sauce off my cheek. “An hour ago, we were barely three miles away,” she said. “We can make up three miles over thirty.”

“Just let me know if there’s anything I can do,” said Hermes.

“Mm!” I swallowed the last of the crust. “There is.”

“Yeah?”

“I lost my neon-yellow visibility vest.”

“I’ve got another you can wear.” Hermes opened his fanny-pack.

“No!” I walked down the trail. “I lost my vest around mile 68. Promise me you’ll find it.”


1987

“You should know something, Masawa. My horse can run a bit faster than this.”

Georgie nodded.

Father Bronson pat his horse’s mane. Behind him on the saddle, eight-year-old Alphonse Bronson clutched a plush horse’s head on a wooden pole. He and the toy horse were wearing little cowboy hats.

“We’ve raced almost seventy miles—”

“Sixty-three.” Georgie spoke without eye-contact to Father Bronson.

Father Bronson twirled his mustache. “I rounded up. In any case, you must understand you have no hope here.”

Georgie shrugged.

“I’ve been humoring you so far. My horse could have finished a hundred miles hours ago.” At this, Georgie smirked. Father Bronson gripped the reins. “What’s that look for?”

“I just wonder,” said Georgie, “who’s humoring who.” He accelerated for a few steps, in jest, just until Father Bronson flinched and sped his horse in chase. It was hard to tell whose gait was more naturally perfect, the horse’s or Masawa’s. Georgie laughed and returned to his ordinary pace.

“I mean it!” said Father Bronson. “I agreed to this race suspecting you had no chance of winning, but I hoped you would prove me wrong! I wanted to analyze your form to enhance my race-horses. You would have been a whetstone to sharpen my blade. But I’m afraid you’ve got nothing to teach me. If you were a horse, I’d make glue.”

Georgie’s smirk became incredulous. “Mister Bronson, sir, do you race for fun, or profit?”

“Both.”

“I race for food.” Georgie subtly sped up. “I’ve raced horses to death, far faster than this, from Columbia to Patagonia.”

“I told you, I’m humoring you!” Father Bronson made his horse match pace with Georgie. Alphonse bobbed his toy horse up and down with the gallop.

“Mister Bronson.” Georgie kept speeding up; he bounded majestically like a deer. “You killed my family. You threatened my people.”

“Well, actually, technically,” said Father Bronson—

“—and you demand I win a race to save our homeland.”

“You’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” said Father Bronson. “Besides, you leapt at the opportunity to race me today.”

“Because this isn’t really a race.” Georgie stopped laughing and locked eyes with him. “Mister Bronson, I’m chasing you to death. Not your horse—you.”

Father Bronson shivered. He wanted to say the peculiar Indian was japing, but he realized he’d never seen a human run as fast as Georgie was right now. Masawa had just run a half-mile in a minute, and he didn’t even look particularly winded. “Stop looking at me like that!” Father Bronson whipped the reins and his horse galloped at a pace no human could hope to match, until Georgie was a speck miles behind them. Finally Father Bronson stopped on the side of the trail. “Off, boy.”

Alphonse was glad to dismount; he and his father had ridden for hours today, and his thighs had chafed since mile three.

“Stay right here, son.” Father Bronson turned his horse around. “Mount your pony.”

“But my legs hurt.” Alphonse withered under his father’s glare. He mounted his toy horse.

“Stay put until I come back. I’m going hunting.” Father Bronson pulled a silver pistol from his gaudy military jacket. “I saw a deer back there. They’re rare in the estate.”

“Are you gonna mount it over the mantle, papa?”

“No, no, no, son.” Father Bronson made sure the pistol was loaded. “This one’s a loser.”

Next 12 Miles
Commentary
Table of Contents

To Mile 60

(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.)

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2019

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.”

“Lie…sense?”

“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.”

“Thog here.”

“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.”

“Mm-hm, mm-hm.”

“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.”

“I know.”

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.”

“Yep.”

“Is there another flag at mile sixty, to choose which way we run at the fork?”

“Yep.”

“Have you looked at maps of this place?”

“Yep.”

“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.


2014

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.”

Next 10 Miles
Commentary
Table of Contents

To Mile 50

(This is part five of a story about an ultramarathon-runner who bets his legs that he can beat a horse in a 100-mile race.)

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2019

BEEP. Mile 41: 7:45 / 5:27:51.

I drank the last of the water Alphonse had tossed me. I threw the empty bottle over my shoulder.

Did Alphonse really mean to take my legs? Was that… legal? It couldn’t be, but knowing the Bronsons, legality wouldn’t stop him. I shuddered. I had to beat the horse.

If Whitney and Kevin and Hermes could meet me with supplies, maybe I had a chance. If I won, it wouldn’t matter what I’d bet.

Whitney. God. How could she be here, after what I did?

Or, what she thinks I did.

BEEP. Mile 42: 7:33 / 5:35:24.

I recognized my pessimism rising, but I couldn’t change my mind. I was bonking again and my brain took off without me. I settled into harsh memories in exchange for a healthy downhill pace.

By the time I turned 26, Whitney and I had run more ultra-marathons than I could recall. Most were a hundred miles or more; we had a knack for hundos. We’d even won a few of the less popular ones, so when I signed up for The Great Race, I intended to finish first. But Whitney wouldn’t pace me: she was running against. “I won’t go easy on you,” she’d said. “I plan to win The Great Race, too.”

“After I get my gold medal, I’ll fix you a veggie-smoothie for when you finally finish.”

“The Great Race is the most popular ultra in North America,” Whitney warned me. “The best of the best will be there.”

“We certainly will,” I’d said. She laughed. “It’s okay if I come second by a hair. I’ll forgive myself.”

“That wouldn’t be a bad twist for the book we’re writing together,” she’d said. “I plan to title it Live to Run.”

“Lemme spoil the ending: I’m gonna win.”

BEEP. Mile 43: 7:19 / 5:42:43.

The Great Race was as strenuous as it was infamous. Three quarters of it were uphill over rough, narrow trails. For the last thirty miles Hermes would pace me, and another race volunteer would pace Whitney.

After seventy miles I met Hermes at an aid station. “Lemme take that.” He filled my water-backpack and put it on himself. “How’s your knee?” I gave him a thumb-up and swallowed a fistful of pretzels smeared with peanut-butter. “Ready?”

I shook my head. “Uh-uh,” I mumbled through stuck-together teeth. I pointed to my left shoe.

“Want me to take it off?”

“Uh-huh.”

He removed my left shoe. “Oh, Jesus, Jonas.” Hermes pulled off my bloody sock. Two toenails were loose. “I’ll count to three, okay?” I nodded. “Three.” Hermes tore off the loose toenails.

“Mmmnn,” I groaned.

“Good job, soldier.” Hermes wrapped bandages around my foot, put on a new sock, and retied my shoe. “Let’s go.” We ran. “You’re not far behind the runner in fifth.”

“Who’s first?” I’d asked. “How many miles ahead?”

“Whitney is first, but don’t worry about first, Jonas. There are mountains between you and first.”

“I’m king of the mountain.”

BEEP. Mile 44: 7:36 / 5:50:19.

And I was. By mile 90, I was in second-place with Whitney just a mile ahead.

Even Hermes had trouble keeping up with me. At the last aid station, he gasped for breath. “You go on, Jonas. As a pacer, I’m just holding you back.”

“Uh-huh, uh-huh.” I pulled my water-backpack from his shoulders. It took all my brain-power to remember to say “thanks” before I kept running.

At mile 97 there was a fork in the trail. A pink ribbon tied to a tree-trunk told me I was on the correct path, but I wasn’t sure whether to go left or right. I had to choose fast: Whitney wasn’t far ahead.

I heard voices. Cheers. At first I thought I was hallucinating again, but no, it was real: I heard onlookers at the finish line, and the voices were louder when I looked left. So I ran left.

Biggest mistake of my life.

I finished first—I broke the tape—but I never saw Whitney and her pacer along the way. I thought maybe I’d just missed them when I passed. I didn’t see whoever put a gold medal around my neck, either; my vision was foggy. Hermes was there, having taken a shortcut.

BEEP. Mile 45: 7:29 / 5:57:48.

When Whitney finished a few minutes later, she accused me of taking a shortcut, too. “How’d you get ahead of me, Jonas?” she panted, glaring.

“I’m not sure.” I massaged my bandaged foot. “Didn’t you see me pass?”

“No,” she seethed, “I didn’t.” Her volunteer pacer shook his head and shrugged.

Kevin hadn’t seen me, either. Kevin was race photographer, in charge of snapping each runner at the 99-mile-mark, and he didn’t have a picture of me. Race officiators skeptically eyed my gold medal. “At the last fork, were we supposed to go left or right?” I asked. “I went left.”

Whitney groaned. “You cut two miles off the end! We studied the maps, Jonas, we’d prepared for this!”

“I’m sorry! My mind was cloudy, you know how it is.”

“Uh-huh, sure,” she said.

“Look, I’ll run back to the fork and do it legit! I’ll bet I can still finish second or third.” I prepared to take off, but Hermes put his hand on my shoulder. He took my gold medal and gave it to the race officiators, who passed it to Whitney. She still glared a hole in my head. “I didn’t mean to,” I said. “Honest. Just give me a DNF—‘Did Not Finish.’ I don’t mind. It’s fine.”

BEEP. Mile 46: 7:32 / 6:05:20.

I slurped my last silver packet of running glop. This one was lime-kiwi. I gagged. Without water to wash it down, my mouth tasted like runoff from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

The Great Race didn’t let me DNF; they just ejected me from the competition. That’s a black mark.

Whitney never believed me that it was just a mistake. She was so bitter that she finished our book alone: Don’t Run to Live, Live to Run. Contractually, she was obligated to put my name on the cover, but the story was all about the first woman to win The Great Race. Sold like hotcakes.

I sipped from the hose of my three-liter water-backpack, then spat. I forgot the river was bitter. I dumped water from the backpack mid-run. That saved me about seven pounds.

The water trickled down a ditch into a cactus-patch. The trail was so rough and steep I had to slide down on my butt. I chuckled, wondering how Champ would deal with the path I’d chosen for us. This was hard enough for a human. It would be agony for a horse.

Then I remembered Alphonse’s spurs, and the dark red spots they left on Champ’s ribs. This was already agony for a horse.

And it was approaching agony for me. My bum left knee had started to tingle. Soon my patella would slide around like a hockey-puck.

BEEP. Mile 47: 7:41 / 6:13:01.

The bottom of the mountain gave me a much-needed gift: flats were less brutal on my joints than downhill, and I finally saw a car driving toward the trail. Kevin, Whitney, and Hermes were just a few miles away.

I watched the car chug along the slim service-road. To preserve attractive sight-lines, the roads were far from the trail, but the car drove off the asphalt and crushed a topiary on the way toward the 50-mile flag. Kevin must’ve been behind the wheel.

I really couldn’t imagine why these people had come all this way for me. I was sure, from their perspective, I was a blight on their lives—a cheater who cared more for himself than anyone else, who would betray for personal gain—not even money, or fame, or power, but sheer ego. I wouldn’t have driven here for me, except maybe to watch Alphonse chop off my legs.

As soon as the car stopped at the 50-mile flag, the shotgun-door opened.

Whitney stepped out and hit the ground running toward me. I tried squeezing out all my tears before she was close enough to see them.

BEEP. Mile 48: 8:03 / 6:21:04.

I waved. She didn’t wave back; her focus was on her form, and so was mine. For a quarter-mile my eyes soaked up the sight of her ponytail bouncing with her stride. Suddenly the tension in my muscles evaporated.

When she was close, I waved again. “Whitney!”

“Jonas, you idiot!”

“I know!”

She turned on a dime to run by my side. “Give me your backpack.”

“Okay.” I slipped it off my shoulders.

“It’s empty,” she said.

“The water in this place is toxic. I haven’t had a drink in eight miles.”

“Here.” She gave me the hose from her own backpack. The water was ice-cold. “I see the horse a few miles behind. Nice work.”

BEEP. Mile 49: 7:54 / 6:28:58.

“Thanks.”

“What’s that thing?” She pointed to the collar of my shirt.

“Oh, right.” I showed her Alphonse’s silver toothpick with ruby handle. “Alphonse says it’s worth ten-thousand bucks. You want it? He says it tastes like mint.”

“No way. I’ve read enough about Alphonse’s drug-habits to know not to take anything from him. It’s probably expensive because it’s spiked with something exotic.”

“Oh. Good, I didn’t use it.” I tucked it back through my shirt-collar.

“This is a really… interesting decision you’ve made, Jonas. Win or lose, I’ll have to write another book about you.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Why are you racing the horse, Jonas?”

“I don’t even know,” I admitted. “I think I thought you’d think it was a romantic gesture.”

“Standing outside my window with a boombox would have been more traditional.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“The Bronsons charge good money to let people onto the estate. How’d you get in?”

“I made a million-dollar bet.”

“That must’ve been most of your cut from the book-profit.”

“It would’ve been, but I spent all that on gambling and booze, so I anted up my legs.”

“Holy shit, Jonas.”

“I know, I’m sorry. Don’t tell the others, I don’t want them to worry.”

BEEP. Mile 50: 8:01 / 6:36:59.

“Jonas!” said Hermes.

“You idiot!” said Kevin.

Whitney tossed Kevin my empty water-backpack. “Jonas, sit down.”

“I don’t know if I can. I don’t think I’m physically capable of sitting.”

“Then lie on your back.” Whitney and Hermes helped me collapse onto the dirt.

“We’ve got your favorite flavors of running glop.” Hermes held up some silver packets. “Chocolate and peanut-butter.”

Whitney wiped sweat from my brow with a towel wrapped around an ice-pack. “It’s getting warm today.”

“I noticed,” I said.

“Warm is good,” said Whitney. “Humans handle heat better than horses.”

“Need any footwork?” asked Hermes.

“Please. I need new socks.”

“Okay.” Hermes pulled off my shoes. “Hoo boy, Jonas.” My right sock was wet and bloody. “Blister?”

“Blister.”

He peeled off my socks. “Uh… Whoa” I wiggled my toes. I’d removed all the nails weeks ago. “No loose toe-nails this time, huh?”

“Not making that mistake again.”

“Okay, moron,” said Kevin, “if we’re getting you through this, we’ll have to meet up every chance we get. The service-roads only meet the trails every ten miles, so we’ll see you at mile 60. What should I have ready for you there?”

I pawed at the zipper of my water-backpack he held. I retrieved my second banana and the rest of my peanut butter. I ate it all like a slovenly pig. “Pizza,” I said. “I want a pizza. Large. Pineapple. Black olives. No cheese, it nauseates me on a run.”

Kevin raised an eyebrow and looked to Whitney. “Is pizza, uh, kosher, on a race like this?”

“There’s no diet after sixty miles,” said Whitney. “The body wants what it wants.”

Hermes slipped a compression-sleeve over my left knee and retied my shoes. “You’re good to go, Jonas.”

I lay spread-eagle for another half-minute. Finally I pulled myself to my feet with help from my pit-crew. “I’m sorry, guys.”

“Come on.” Whitney took off in front of me. At the trail’s fork, she asked, “Which way are we going?”

I plucked the flag at mile 50. The trail to the right ran through an expansive clearing of tall grass. The trail to the left ran through a shadowy wood. I tossed the flag to the left. “It’s warm. Let’s enjoy the shade.”


2013

Alphonse left his father’s deathbed, leaving Father Bronson alone with his doctors, nurses, and attendants. In the hallway of the Bronson manor, Alphonse impotently sucked a minty metal toothpick while clutching a syringe.

“He didn’t want the jockey-juice?” asked his best jockey.

“No.” Alphonse gave the syringe to his jockey, who waited in her wheelchair. “He still thinks it’s abominable.”

“His loss.” The jockey injected the syringe into her leg. Instantly she stood from her wheelchair as if she never needed it. “Who was this one?” she asked, returning the empty syringe.

Alphonse shrugged. “Some loser.”

“Oof.” The jockey smoothed wrinkles from her pants. “Do you know the names of any of the jockeys in your races?”

“Nah.”

“What’s my name?”

“Why would I care?” Alphonse petulantly picked his teeth.

“My name’s Sandra.”

“I’ll forget it soon.” Alphonse walked away from his father’s room.

Sandra pushed her empty wheelchair behind him. “Do you even know your father’s name?”

Alphonse shrugged again. “What a loser.”

“I’ve heard he was something to behold, back in his day.”

“His day is done.”

“You mean—” Sandra covered her mouth. “You mean he’s dead?”

“Might as well be, already.”

Sandra released her breath. “Don’t you have any fond memories of your father?”

Alphonse paused. He opened the curtains over an ornate window overlooking the estate. “One, at least.”

“Yeah?”

“I must have been seven, or eight, or nine.” He wiped his toothpick on the curtain and put it back in the pocket of his gaudy military jacket. “My father challenged the best human runner on the planet to a race against a horse. He let me ride in the saddle with him.”

“A human has no chance against a horse.”

“Around a race-track, no, but across a hundred miles, a human might have a shot.” Alphonse smiled. “Gosh, what was the runner’s name? His name was… was…”

Sandra watched Alphonse wrack his brain. She wondered what it meant that Alphonse hadn’t even bothered trying to remember her name, or the name of his father, but seemed to recall a man he’d met decades ago, as a child.

“Georgie,” said Alphonse. “Georgie Masawa. A little Mexican kid, about 5′ 6”. Mid-twenties.”

“How’d the race turn out?”

“Georgie lost. He didn’t make it seventy miles.” Alphonse surveyed the estate. “He tried keeping pace with our horse from the get-go, and my father tired him out. You know, I don’t think we ever did find his body.”

“His body?”

“My father ran Georgie to death. Poor guy. What a shame.” Alphonse reconsidered. “I mean, if he weren’t such a loser.”

Next 10 Miles
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To Mile 40

(This is part 4 of a story about an ultra-marathon-runner who makes a million-dollar bet that he can beat a billionaire on horseback in a hundred-mile-race. The ultra-marathoner will soon learn that without a million dollars to lose, the billionaire will demand his legs.)

cardFront

2019

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

Kevin turned off his alarm-clock. It was ten in the morning. He slumped out of bed and started a pot of coffee.

As the coffee dribbled, Kevin checked his Facebook, his Instagram, and his Twitter. He smiled; he’d doubled his followers since Jonas’ book came out. What was the title? Live to Run? Kevin would never bother reading it, but apparently he came across quite well. He’d have to thank Whitney for the publicity.

Kevin checked his texts and almost dropped his phone. “Jonas! You idiot!” He dialed a number and put the phone to his ear. “Whitney! Your ex is making an ass of himself again! Call your Uncle Hermes, I’ll pick you up.”


BEEP. Mile 31: 8:04 / 4:10:22.

The maps said there was a river running down this side of the mountain, and technically, there was, but I hesitated to fill my three-liter water-backpack. The water flowed crystal clear from a rusty industrial pipe. It never occurred to me that this river might be man-made, and chlorinated, or worse.

Anyway, I filled up my three-liter backpack and tossed in a water-purification tablet. The backpack sloshed every step. After half an hour bouncing on my back, the water might be drinkable. I crossed my fingers; I couldn’t run seventy more miles without water.

On a typical ultra-marathon there’d be regular stations where runners could load up on supplies, or seek medical attention, or even quit the race. Some ultras over hundreds of miles were just lots of loops around small courses, so runners passed one aid-station over and over. A runner might even have a partner, a ‘pacer,’ who could carry things like a squire for a knight.

I was Whitney’s first squire.

BEEP. Mile 32: 7:32 / 4:17:54.

She’d signed up for a fifty-miler by the beach. We’d planned it for months. I’d be at each aid-station every ten kilometers. After thirty miles I’d be allowed to run beside her and pace her for the rest of the race.

Her Uncle Hermes taught me the rigmarole of race-staffing. He was an old hand at ultras. “Here, Jonas, hydro those guys.” At a marathon I might hold out a paper cup of water for the racers every mile. At the ultra I filled up a guy’s water-backpack while he puked into a bush. His stomach-capacity impressed me; he was skinny like a skeleton, but hurled up whole pints. Hermes pat him on the back and offered him some pretzels. “Whitney should be here soon,” Hermes told me. I wondered if she’d be as gaunt as most of the people who’d already passed.

“Hoy!” Whitney waved as she came around a cape. She was exhausted but jubilant. She tossed me her water-backpack. “Fill ‘er up and put ‘er on!”

Hermes untied Whitney’s shoes while I filled her water-backpack. I turned the backpack upside-down so the air-bubble floated to the top, where I could suck it out the hose. That’d keep the backpack from sloshing every step. “You’re the seventh woman overall,” I said, “and fourth in your age-group.”

“Am I on pace?”

“Perfectly.” I donned Whitney’s water-backpack to carry it for her while Hermes finished retying her shoes. If Whitney had crouched to tie them herself, she risked cramping and collapsing. “Let’s go.”

BEEP. Mile 33: 7:27 / 4:25:21.

It was fun to work pit-stops for Whitney, and I treasured running beside her when she was already fatigued. After she’d run thirty miles I could actually keep up with her, and I felt useful pacing her to the finish-line in ten hours. She ran the last mile in eight minutes, then kicked off her shoes. Her toenails were black and bleeding. We collapsed together near the ocean and let waves lap at our legs.

Then she asked, “when are you doing one?”

So I was obligated to let Whitney pace me on a 50-miler. And let me tell you, she looked different after I’d run thirty miles.

She was like peanut-butter: on a long run, I couldn’t get enough. When Whitney ran beside me, my body demanded her. She was salt and sugar and oil.

That’s why I signed up for a 100-miler. I was eager to speedball my girlfriend when my body was battered and bruised. “Are you sure?” she’d asked. “My Uncle Hermes ran few hundos back in the day. He says it’s a whole new world of pain.”

“Running is all about suffering,” I’d said. “The one who suffers best is the one who wins.” And boy, did I suffer. I ran from sunrise, to sunset, to sunrise, and Whitney was an irresistible siren luring me on when I wobbled.

BEEP. Mile 34: 7:44 / 4:33:05.

That hundred-miler was at a national park in the Midwest. About twenty-two hours in, I saw a bird I didn’t recognize. “Whitney?”

“Need water?” She offered me the hose from her water-backpack.

“No, the bird.” I pointed at the sky, near the sun. “Look. A big red bird.”

“There’s no bird, Jonas.” Whitney shook her head. “You’re hallucinating. Hermes warned you this would happen eventually.”

“Huh?” I couldn’t believe it. The bird looked real as anything I’d ever seen. “It’s right there, though. You must see it, it’s huge. It’s got a wing-span like a semi-truck.”

“Does that really sound real to you?”

“I guess not.” The bird dissolved into clouds. “Maybe I should quit now and take the DNF—‘Did Not Finish.’ Hallucinating doesn’t seem healthy.”

Whitney puffed as we jogged uphill. “You can stop at the next aid-station if you want, but you’re just a few hours from the finish. Hallucinations can’t hurt you, Jonas.”

“I… I don’t know.” I wondered which rocks and trees were real or not. “I don’t know.”

“Look. Jonas. Look at me.” Whitney pulled off her sports-bra. “These are real. These are right in front of you.” I drooled. “Keep running.” I could only obey.

BEEP. Mile 35: 7:21 / 4:40:26.


Kevin rolled down the driver’s-side window. “Hey! You! Open up the gate.”

A security-guard sitting in a booth crossed his arms. He wore a leather jacket and sunglasses. “No one gets onto the Bronson Estate without permission.”

“Call Alphonse. He’s gotta be expecting us.”

“Lemme see your ID.” Kevin gave the guard his driver’s license. “All of you.” Whitney gave the guard her license, too.

“I don’t have an ID, man,” said Whitney’s uncle Hermes. “I try to stay off the grid.”

“Then look at the cameras, sir.” Hermes noticed a security camera on each side of the wrought-iron gate into the Bronson Estate. The security guard returned their IDs. “I’ll tell Mister Bronson you came, and you can schedule an appointment. Mister Bronson doesn’t want to be disturbed today. He’s on important business.”

“So are we,” said Whitney. She sucked the air-bubble out of a water-backpack. “Could you please contact Alphonse? I think he’ll want to let us in.”

“No dice.”


BEEP. Mile 36: 7:51 / 4:48:17.

I sucked water from the hose of my three-liter backpack, then spat it out. It tasted bitter. The water Alphonse pumped up the mountain was chemically treated to look pretty. No wonder there was barely any wildlife in the Bronson Estate besides rodents, lizards, bugs, and birds. Fish weren’t welcome. A deer stranded here would die of thirst.

And so would I. I hadn’t had a drop of water in six miles. My mouth was dry. I couldn’t keep this up. I didn’t stand a chance.

My phone rang.

I pulled it out of my backpack. “Hello?”

“Jonas, you idiot!”

“Hi, Kevin. I guess you got my text. I’m racing the horse as we speak.”

“Jonas, I’m here too.” It was Whitney. “We’re outside the Bronson Estate.”

“Oh… I’m sorry you came all this way for me.” I wiped tears off my cheek and licked them off my palm to conserve water. “I need supplies, guys.”

“We’ve got all you need, Jonas,” said Uncle Hermes. “We’re gonna get you through this. But there’s something you’ve gotta do.”

“Okay. What?”

BEEP. Mile 37: 7:43 / 4:56:00.

“I just heard your GPS-watch beep,” said Whitney. “Are you using the running app I introduced to you? Do you have a premium membership?”

“No. I’m still bumming off your premium membership.”

“Perfect. I’m logging in on my own watch,” said Whitney. “Alright, I’m monitoring your run live. We can track your GPS-location and meet. I see you’ve got an eight-minute-mile average so far. Not bad. You might actually do this.”

“Jonas, they’re not letting us onto the estate without permission,” said Hermes, “but they won’t call Alphonse to ask if we can come in. Can you make him open the gate?”

“Uh…” I looked at the horizon. “I don’t know. He must be miles and miles ahead.”

“Catch that horse, Jonas,” said Whitney. “We can’t help until then.”

Kevin hung up. I tucked the phone back into my backpack.

BEEP. Mile 38: 7:21 / 5:03:21.

Whitney’s voice rejuvenated me. I felt her assessing my form from afar.

This was possible. I had a chance. I just had to catch the horse.

My blister was bigger than a half-dollar. Each step, I stomped my right foot until the blister popped and soaked my sock with warm fluid. It hurt—it burned like a salted wound—but now it wouldn’t mar my stride.

Whitney, Kevin, and Hermes. What a nice reunion. I’d texted only Kevin about racing the horse because I didn’t think Whitney cared for me anymore, but I suppose texting anyone about my dumb decision was just a cry for help. “Help, I’m going bankrupt staring at a horse’s ass!”

But what an ass.

And there it was.

Champ and Alphonse were stopped by the side of the trail halfway down the mountain. No wonder I hadn’t seen them from above—I’d assumed they were twenty miles passed, not waiting for me just ahead.

“Jonas! Good to see you.”

“Alphonse,” I panted, “What are you doing here?”

“You’ve got the advantage now!” Alphonse cheekily displayed a band-aid wrapped around his middle finger. “I endured an injury a few miles ago, when Champ brought me too close to a tree branch. I hoped to hold out until mile forty, but I fear I must throw in the towel here.”

BEEP. Mile 39: 7:32 / 5:10:53.

I slowed to linger beside him. “You mean… you give up?”

“No, no—My best jockey is tapping in! She’s arriving here by helicopter. She’ll ride Champ in my stead. Thirsty, Jonas? Catch!”

He tossed me a plastic bottle of water. I walked a few steps to drink two-thirds of it. “You can’t switch out. This race is between you and me.”

“Actually, if you read the contract you signed, you’re racing the horse, not me. The jockey is irrelevant.”

I locked eyes with Champ. The horse flared its nostrils. Alphonse’s spurs had bloodied Champ’s ribs. “My crew needs your permission to enter the estate, Alphonse. Can you let them in?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Alphonse, “but we have something to discuss. It’s come to my attention that you lack funds for our wager. If you lose, you can’t afford to pay up.”

“Really? Gosh.” I feigned surprise and jogged away. “I’m sure your people can talk this over with my people, once you let them in.”

Alphonse jogged after me. His spurs clattered every step. “I’d rather talk to you directly. I want to propose a deal.”

“What kind of deal?”

“Let’s call it…” Alphonse laughed. “Charity! If Champ wins, you’ll make a donation within your price-range and we’ll call it even.”

I tried running faster to leave him behind, but while I followed the trail around back-to-back switchbacks, Alphonse cut corners to keep up. “A donation? To who? How much?”

“Nothing you can’t afford, and for a noble cause. You might know that the Bronsons have significant holdings with wings of the medical industry.”

“Horse medicine, or human?”

“Both! If you lose, I’d just ask you to provide a sample for the labs. I’m sure they could learn from your impressive physique.”

“What do you want? Like, a spit sample? Blood?”

“No, no, Jonas.” Alphonse covered his mouth to hide giggles. “Jonas, I want your legs.”

“…Huh?”

“Your legs, Jonas. I value your legs at one million dollars, and accept them as your ante. If you lose, in lieu of one million dollars, I will take ownership of your legs.”

“Like… cut them off?”

“For medical purposes! And remember, only if you lose.”

“I can’t accept that. No one could.”

“Jonas, Jonas. If you win this race, you expect me to pay up, right? It’s only fair you keep your end of the bargain and put something at stake. You must restore the bet to make up for your deception. I can’t forgive you otherwise.”

“No deal.”

“You should really consider my generous offer. Remember, you’ve run almost 40 miles on my private property; at my standard rate of $10,000 a mile, you already owe me about half a million! You’ll ante both legs, or we stop the race here and now and I’ll settle for just one of your legs, or both legs below the knee.”

I was about to say I’d shove a leg, or both legs below the knee, right where the sun didn’t shine, but then I heard distant whirring helicopter blades. I was ahead of the horse, and would be at least until the new jockey arrived. For the first time in this whole race, I had the advantage. I couldn’t physically bring myself to turn down the wager. “Okay,” I whimpered. “I’ll take the bet.”

“You mean it?” Alphonse laughed and clapped. “I’ll call the front gate and let your crew into the estate. Oh, what fun!” He finally stopped following me. I left him and Champ behind.

BEEP. Mile 40: 9:13 / 5:20:06.

I plucked the red flag at the fork and tossed it toward the trail to the right. That trail was rocky and narrow, and I hoped a horse would have trouble with it.


2012

“And the winner is…”

Father Bronson’s coughing drowned out the announcements. He sounded like he’d hack up his last lung. Alphonse pointed to the stadium’s sparse spectators. “Look at all those winners, Dad!” Men in expensive suits cheered or tore up bad bets.

“Where did—” Father Bronson coughed again. He gripped the wheels of his wheelchair to hork up phlegm. “Where did you find these people?”

“They’re colleagues, and colleagues of colleagues,” said Alphonse. “None of them is worth less than a billion bucks, and they relish the thrill of putting millions on the line. I truly have the people’s support!”

The gates at the finish-line slammed shut before the last horse. Their jockey howled and shook the reins until a dart shot him in the neck. The jockey fell from the saddle, unconscious.

Six men in leather jackets led the horse into a big metal box, and tossed the jockey in afterward.

“Son, what’s happening?” Alphonse shushed his father.

The six men turned a heavy iron crank. Horse-glue poured from a spout into a bucket. The spectators cheered.

A woman in a white lab-coat and rubber gloves led two men carrying a white cooler to the big metal box. She opened a drawer on the box, where her two men retrieved another cooler full of eerie lumps. “Organs!” said Alphonse. “Even a losing jockey’s organs are economically valuable. Think of how many lives we can save with transplants, and how much we can charge!” While her two men loaded the box’s drawer with the empty cooler for the next race, the woman with the lab-coat withdrew a syringe from a panel on the box. She brought the syringe to Alphonse. “Look, dad!”

“What is that?” asked Father Bronson. “Hey, don’t!”

Alphonse relented and didn’t yet inject his father with the syringe. “Once we’ve extracted every organ with medical value, there’s chaff leftover. Our labs have perfected a technique to turn that chaff into a nutrient-paste. It’s a cure-all! Don’t you want to walk again, Dad? You could even ride a horse!”

Father Bronson blanched, then rolled the wheels of his wheelchair to turn away. “Son, I don’t think you’ve understood the finer points of my advice. My enemies in the media may disagree, but even have standards, and what you’re describing is beneath me.”

Alphonse struggled for words. “Oh. I get it. This is the jockey that came last. I can’t inject you with a loser. Your blood is too royal for that.”

Father Bronson opened his mouth, but decided against the rebuke he had in mind. “I’m leaving, son. Contact me when you’ve made something of yourself.”

As his father wheeled away, Alphonse shook. He took a minty metal toothpick from the breast pocket of his gaudy military jacket and suckled it. “You, Doctor,” he said to the woman in the lab-coat, “bring me the jockey who won that race.”

“In a syringe, you mean?”

“No, just send them over.”

The doctor walked to the finish-line and addressed the winning jockey. The winning jockey didn’t get off her horse; she rode it to Alphonse’s track-side seats. “Howdy, boss.”

“Congratulations.” Alphonse tossed her the syringe. She cringed, but caught it carefully. “That’s a month of medical care in a hypodermic needle. Good for what ails you.”

The jockey smiled. “I appreciate it, sir, but you already pay all my medical expenses.”

Alphonse cocked his head. “Huh?”

“When I was a kid, I came second-to-last in a charity race, and since then you’ve funded my healthcare. Thanks to you, I’ve got the best wheelchair on the market.” She pat her horse.

“Oh.” Alphonse shrugged. “Well, with that injection, you won’t even need a wheelchair for a while. You’ll be able to walk. I’ve seen lab-rats with terminal illnesses get a new lease on life.”

The jockey inspected her new syringe. “If I come first again, will you give me another?”

Alphonse laughed. “Let’s make a deal.”

Next 10 Miles
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To Mile 30

(This is part three of a story about an ultramarathon-runner who makes a million-dollar bet he can beat a billionaire on horseback in a 100-mile-race. Our runner Jonas is far behind the horse, but just crested a mountain—only to see another mountain he’ll have to summit soon.)

cardFront

2019

BEEP. Mile 21: 6:51 / 2:45:35.

Running downhill is easy. Running downhill well is hard. Anyone can jump off a cliff. Only mountain-goats survive.

In high-school, each week of Fall, all the local cross-country teams competed on some rough trails. I was proud of my personal record: I could run three hard miles in just under 16 minutes. I could even keep up with the best varsity runner, Kevin, for the first two miles.

But in the last mile, he’d leave me behind, because the last mile was downhill, and Kevin knew how to handle downhill. Lord, Kevin could sprint. He always finished at least two minutes ahead of me. After each meet I was exhausted, but standing. Kevin usually collapsed and puked. That’s how the coach knew Kevin had done his best and I’d slacked.

On this hundred-mile run, I’d puke eventually. It was just a matter of time.

BEEP. Mile 22: 6:21 / 2:51:56.

Kevin had taught me how to run downhill, but Whitney taught me again.

“What are you thinking?” she’d asked me on a twenty-mile run. We were training for our first marathon. We’d promised to run that marathon together, and beat four hours. “Slow down!”

“It’s downhill,” I’d said. “Downhill is easy, so we should sprint every step.”

“No, no,” Whitney’d said. She easily matched my pace. “Did Kevin teach you that? You can sprint downhill at a three-mile cross-country meet, but you’ve gotta be more careful on a marathon. Didn’t you once break your leg skiing? You’ve gotta take care of your body! Think about your knees!”

Runners often thought about their knees. Knees are important. Knees tell us a lot.

BEEP. Mile 23: 6:13 / 2:58:09.

My knees could tell the downhill slope I’d enjoyed was starting to level out. I looked at the mountain a few miles ahead; Alphonse and Champ had probably climbed most of it, if they hadn’t already started descending the other side.

Even though the scenery was idyllic—the valley between mountains was lightly forested, and birds chirped in the trees—I knew I had to keep my mind off my dismal situation. I focused.

Whitney. We wanted to run a marathon together.

Well, she wanted to run a marathon. I was initially on-board, but after that twenty-mile training-run, I shuddered at the thought of more. “No, no,” I’d panted, “I don’t think I could take another step.”

“You hit the wall,” she’d said. “Hitting the wall means you’ve trained hard. Each time you hit the wall, you push it back—if we keep this up, we’ll push the wall beyond marathon-length and finish just fine.”

“You know a lot about this,” I’d wheezed.

“I want to write a book about running,” she’d said. “Maybe it’ll star us, and this marathon.”

BEEP. Mile 24: 7:02 / 3:05:11.

Kevin wanted to join. He asked me on the high-school track: “How long is that marathon you signed up for?”

“Marathons are officially 26.2 miles,” I’d said. “I think it’s historical. Whitney could tell you.”

“I could run 26 miles,” he’d said.

“26.2. Whitney says every step counts. She also says the last six miles are harder than the first twenty.”

“How fast are you gonna run?” asked Kevin.

“Whitney wants to finish in four hours. That’s about nine minutes per mile.”

“I can run better than nine-minute miles,” said Kevin.

And boy, did he. Kevin signed up for our marathon and crossed the starting line alongside Whitney and me, and 20,000 other people. Like Champ, Alphonse’s horse, Kevin initially begged to run faster than Whitney would allow. “Wow, they give out water every mile?” Kevin took a paper cup from a volunteer. He drank mid-run, while Whitney and I walked a few paces to swallow efficiently.

BEEP. Mile 25: 6:58 / 3:12:09.

“They’d better,” said Whitney, starting to run again.  “Even the fastest marathon-runners take at least two hours, and exerting yourself like that, you’ve gotta drink.”

“I wouldn’t mind being thirsty for four hours,” said Kevin, “and if I’m not weighed down by water, I bet I can finish faster than that!”

“Go ahead,” said Whitney. I recognized the dismissive roll of her eyes. “Do what you want.”

So Kevin ran ahead.

We caught up with him at mile 16. He didn’t look happy; his features were gaunt and sweat had dried in salty streams down his arms. “Hey guys—” He almost asked us to wait, but he didn’t. “Take off without me,” he said. “I’ll be right behind.”

BEEP. Mile 26: 7:11 / 3:19:20.

Back in the Bronson Estate, the trail began to grow steeper. While I sipped water from my three-liter backpack, I ‘beeped’ in my head: 26.2, 3 hours 22 minutes. It didn’t quite qualify me for the Boston marathon, but after the Boston marathon, you get to stop. I still had almost three more marathons to go today—and they’d all be slower than 3:22.

Whitney and I didn’t finish our first marathon in four hours. We took an extra 45 minutes. We started walking at mile 22; that was our ‘wall.’ We barely managed a photogenic jog for the cameras at the finish-line.

To his credit, Kevin finished, too. It took him five and a half hours. He confided in me that he’d never, ever run a marathon again, or any distance over ten miles. He’d hit the wall, and it hit him back.

The wall. What a quaint idea.

You could push the wall beyond marathon-distance. But a hundred miles, no.

BEEP. Mile 27: 7:43 / 3:27:03.

When Whitney and I trained for longer distances, we learned not to call it ‘the wall.’ It’s not an insurmountable obstacle; it’s a temporary circumstance to make peace with, like a surfer diving under harsh waves. Ultra-runners call it ‘bonking,’ because it’s like a sledgehammer smashing your skull.

Instead of training to push back the wall, you train to run through the bonk. All the bonks. Over a hundred miles, I’d bonk at least a few times. The first one would come soon.

The trail became steep and demanded every atom of my effort.

I tore open another silver packet of running glop. I aimed to slurp one down every hour or so. I’d finished off the flavors I liked; no more chocolate or peanut-butter. This one was orange-creamsicle.

I washed it down with a sip from my three-liter water-backpack. There wasn’t much left.

Maps of the Bronson Estate showed a river at the top of this mountain. I could refill my backpack there, if the water was palatable. If it wasn’t, I carried some purification tablets.

Racing the horse was the most well-researched stupid-ass decision I’d ever made.

BEEP. Mile 28: 9:39 / 3:36:42.

The scrapes on my hand and knee still trickled blood, but they didn’t hurt anymore. I actually almost forgot about them. But the blister on my foot had grown to the size of a quarter, and I felt it every step. Eventually I’d have to stop and lance it with something from the little first-aid kit I kept in my backpack.

I sniffed. I smelled horse poop. A pile of round, brown droppings waited in the trail ahead. It looked fresh. Alphonse and Champ must have passed less than an hour ago.

This was possible. I could do it. I almost smiled.

Then I got bonked.

BEEP. Mile 29: 10:44 / 3:47:26.

“Oh, old friend,” I said to myself. “Here we go again.” Pain wandered up and down my legs, but worse was the cold wash of pessimism and self-loathing. I started walking. It’s not shameful to walk uphill. Soon I’d hit the top of the mountain. Then I could recover.

While I walked, I opened my backpack. I carried a plastic baggie of peanut-butter and two bananas. I peeled a banana and used it to scoop peanut-butter into my mouth.

Running does weird things to your taste buds. When I’m not running, I don’t care for peanut-butter. After twenty miles or so, I can hardly think of anything else. Whitney likes vegetable-smoothies after running seven hours, not a step before.

When I finished the banana and half the peanut-butter, I sealed the baggie and put it back in my backpack. I tossed the banana peel off the trail; I never liked litterers, but banana skins decompose, and anyway, this was Alphonse’s estate, and I hated that son-of-a-bitch. I wouldn’t mind if he slipped on my banana peel. I wouldn’t mind if he choked on it.

BEEP. Mile 30: 14:52 / 4:02:18.

Alphonse had plucked the flag at 30 miles and tossed it toward the trail to the right. That trail was broader and smoother, all the better for Champ to sprint.

As the slope leveled out, I started running again. I sipped the last of my three-liter water-backpack to swish peanut-butter from between my teeth. The bonk would be back, but so far so good.

On the horizon, there was another mountain—a third, looming incline still veiled by the distance. In maps of the Bronson Estate, every trail eventually went up that mountain, but somehow I was less daunted by that final foe. With any luck, Whitney was right, and Champ would be more fatigued than me by then. I’d be king of the mountain.

How did Alphonse know I didn’t have the funds to pay up if he won? Could he see my empty bank-account? I could only hope to finish first, or, if not, hope that Alphonse Bronson was a reasonable man. I swallowed.


2011

Alphonse Bronson gripped his father’s shoulders. “Dad, are you watching?”

“I’m watching an empty stadium.” Father Bronson pulled the wheels of his wheelchair like he wanted to roll away, but Alphonse kept him there. “Fill the stands with spectators before you bother showing me.”

“But father, look!” Alphonse pointed to the starting line, where ten horses stamped the ground behind their gates. “I know you’ll be proud! I’ve invented a new, efficient kind of racing!”

“Racing is already efficient,” said Father Bronson. “The winner wins. The loser loses. The difference is efficiency. The most efficient finishes first.”

“…And the least efficient loses!” Alphonse waved his hand and the gates opened. Jockeys bounced on the horses’ backs. “And what do we do to the losers?”

“Glue, son,” said Father Bronson. “The most efficient use of an inefficient horse is glue.”

“Right!” said Alphonse. “So look!” He pointed to the end of the track, where nine gates waited open. “Ten horses, nine gates. Think of musical chairs.”

The gates swung shut behind the first nine horses. The tenth horse whinnied and threatened to throw their jockey from the saddle. “Son—”

“Watch,” said Alphonse. The tenth jockey dismounted to help some men in leather jackets lead the tenth horse into a big metal box in the center of the track. The jockey shut the box’s iron door while the men climbed onto the box to lay hands on an iron crank. When they turned the crank, white goo oozed out of the box’s spout into a bucket. “Glue! The last horse is processed into paste with corporate efficiency, as God intended!”

“Hmm.” Father Bronson stroked his beard. “Hmm.”

Alphonse stopped grinning. “What’s the matter, Dad?”

“Horses are one thing. Humans are harder. However many horses you have, you need humans on your side.” Father Bronson cast his gaze over the empty stadium. “If you can’t get the people’s support, you’d might as well be paste yourself.”

Alphonse misunderstood. His father was dismayed with the empty stands, befitting such a grotesque scene, but Alphonse kept watching the tenth jockey. “I’ll impress you, Dad. I’m sure I will. I’ve got a tournament planned.”

“A tournament?”

“Yes! A whole tournament, where the last in each race will be turned into their…” Alphonse rubbed his chin. “Their useful components.”

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The Bucket

(This story won the Most Excellent Prose award from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. I’ve edited it since then, and I think it’s much improved.)


My colleagues at the lab thought my nightly vomiting was a symptom of alcohol poisoning. I would have shared the hypothesis, except I regurgitated eyeballs.

I don’t recall swallowing eyeballs, mind you. With optic nerves dangling like spaghetti.

And twitching! I typically vomited into a toilet and flushed the eyes before the horror set in, but after a midnight joust with a bottle of gin, I heaved into an orange, plastic bucket in my closet, where the eyeballs struggled like fish flopping for the water. When I regained consciousness in the morning, the eyeballs had died trying to escape under the closet door.

I elected not to take them to the lab, my reputation already strained, so I turned to the meager equipment of my apartment. According to my bathroom scale, the weight of the eyeballs exceeded five pounds, yet I’d lost little mass myself. I must have conjured the eyes from my stomach.

For a while, I could not look at liquor without imagining the eyeballs I should surely vomit.

Then a spontaneous rendezvous with a fifth of whiskey forced my hand. I puked six eyes and a pair of lips into the bucket. The lips squirmed like drowned worms into the shape of a mouth.

“We gotta talk, Arnold.”

I slammed the closet.

After staging a coup on a few more shots, I mindlessly returned to the bucket. Two more eyeballs, six more lips. My throat’s last spasm threw an ear onto the pile.

“Can I call you Arnie?”

“Please, don’t talk.”

“Your universe isn’t fully developed, so this might be hard to take. Trust me, the eyeballs were the quickest way to communicate. Hey, it’s not polite to stare, don’t give me that look.”

“Oh god, I’m smashed.”

“Hey, lucky guess. Our universes are on a collision course.” I moved to close the closet, but the lips interrupted. “Pick up that ear, Arnie, it’s hard to hear ya.”

“Please, no.”

“Into the ear, Arnie. C’mon.”

I leaned into the bucket. “Go away. I don’t want this.”

“You need my help. I won’t get into details, it involves trans-dimensional mathematics, and you Stage One guys aren’t usually hot on that. Can you even make Quantum Foam?”

“What?”

“Okay, time for a crash course. Not literally, I hope,” murmured the lips. “Universes are bubbles. Our bubbles are about to bash. This ain’t my first rodeo, but I think you guys are gonna pop.”

“Who are you?”

“Look, you’re bright enough, I’ll level with you. I’m not a person. I’m a reality. The whole thing. Consciousness is mostly fabricated, so lots of realities develop self-awareness. We call that Stage Two. Whole ecosystem out there, Arnie.”

“Uh…”

“Yeah, trippy, huh? There we go: call me Trip.”

“Trip.”

“Quick learner. Anyway, you guys won’t survive Stage One if you pop now, okay? Gotta work with me here, alright?”

“This is too much.” I slumped on the carpet. The world blurred in my vision.

“I’m not as mobile as I used to be, but your reality is pretty spry. If you pass me the reins to your universe for a bit, I can jettison some of your space-vacuum. Push you guys out of harm’s way. Dig?”

“How do I… What do you mean?”

“I’ll need your universe’s address. Know it off your head?”

I shook the whiskey. Only a tablespoon remained in the bottle. I drank it. “…Can’t say I do.”

“You know Physics?”

“Some. I’m a chemist. I mostly study alcohols.”

“Find a Physicist. They’ll know if anyone does.”


The next morning, I fumbled my way to the physics department.

“Arnold? Are you drunk?”

“Not yet, I just…” I pushed my wire glasses up my nose. “You don’t happen to know the universe’s address, do you?”

“…What?” They squinted from behind their desks. “Little early to be hittin’ the sauce, Arnie.”


Some bourbon made me consider gifting Trip a fresh load of facial features. “Sorry, they don’t know what you mean.”

“No prob, it was a long shot. I didn’t know address in Stage One either.” He somehow bit his lips at the bottom of the bucket. “There’s an equation for it, but you can only really solve it at Stage Two or Three…”

“…I can do equations.” I felt bile rising in my throat. “What’s the equation?”

“Nah, nah, it’s too complicated. You guys don’t even have Quantum Foam, no way you’ve got the computing power. Hey, you’re lookin’ a little green, Arnie, you gonna chunder?”

“I can hold it down.”

“Then have another drink. I can’t calculate your address from here, I gotta send you a Neuron Pod. Be careful with it, I’ve only got about eighty-six billion. These are Stage Three tech, Arnie.”

The brown bottle’s last drops trickled from its neck to mine. I gagged on the odor. “What’s a Neuron Pod?”

Trip surprised me by licking his lips with a tongue from under the pile of eyeballs. “You ever study biology? Get to mitochondria?”

“Yeah.” I doubled over the bucket and opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Saliva dribbled between my teeth.

“They’re like mitochondria. Sub-realities, distinct from me. Gotta delegate, that’s Stage Three. Outsource your computation. Find some Stage Zero podunk reality and convert its mass to brain matter. One Neuron Pod is like a septendecillion human brains. Smart brains, too, like yours, Arnie. Alright, here it comes!”

Huge, like a cantaloupe. It shouldn’t have fit in my mouth, let alone my throat. The eyeballs watched it flop into the bucket. The lips smiled.

A Neuron Pod was a brain with a hagfish mouth and chattering needle-teeth.

“Trip—What do I do with this?”

“It’s looking for your address. Just keep it safe.”


Friday night. Party night. In a dark alleyway, I popped the cork on two-dollar wine. Grape foam spilled onto the dirt.

I put the Neuron Pod on a trash-can lid. The needle-teeth were the worst part, like a sex toy from hell. “Can you talk?”

The needle teeth chattered.

“Answer questions?”

More chattering.

“What’s Quantum Foam?”

The brain’s needle-teeth shifted and clattered, filling the alley with heinous clicking. Almost… speech. After a quick drink of wine—like fermented olive oil—I held the Neuron Pod to my ear. “Tiny… universes.” The queer, snapping voice had a thick accent from somewhere eldritch.

“Can you elaborate?”

“Quantum Foam is the primal fabric of the multiverse… Each bubble is a universe beginning in Stage Zero, the absence of conscious thought…”

When I put down the wine, the bottle was two-thirds empty. “I’m not drunk enough. All this stuff about our universes colliding, it’s all real? We’re going to pop?”

“…You are left with an ultimatum: be annihilated by the ballistic force of a careening reality, or entrust my Master with your universe.”

“Well… You’ve known him for a while. Is Trip… trustworthy?”

“My Master is… Stage Four.”

“Four? What does that mean?”

The brain squirmed on the trash can lid. “…Stage One universes contain sentient beings. Stage Two universes have attained consciousness themselves… Stage Three is marked by the assimilation of Stage Zero universes. Stage Four is… the enslavement of Stage Three universes.” The hagfish mouth went silent.

“Enslaving universes? Sentient universes?” I looked at the brain. “When Trip said you were ‘Stage Three tech,’ he meant—You’re saying Trip enslaved eighty-six billion sentient realities, and you’re one of them?”

“Yes…” The Neuron Pod flopped off the trashcan. When it hit the ground it almost burst, brain-folds expanding with juices. The hagfish mouth puckered. “Kill me.”

I poured the rest of the wine down my neck.

“Please…”

I smashed the bottle against a wall.

“Kill me…”

I threatened the Neuron Pod with the bottle’s broken neck.

“Please…”

“I… I can’t.” I dropped the broken bottle. “If I kill you, Trip will just enslave my reality instead. You need to help me.”

The hagfish mouth took a deep breath. The brain’s folds inflated.

“We need to make Quantum Foam.”


I poured a shot of Scotch. “Need a drink?” The Neuron Pod twisted, which I interpreted as a ‘no.’ I downed the drink. “Okay. Okay.”

When I opened the closet, lips, ears, and eyes spilled out. Trip’s shifting eyeballs had toppled the bucket. “Hey, hey, Arnie! What’s the good word? That old Neuron Pod got your address yet? Might take a while depending on the cosmological constants in your reality.”

I put the Neuron Pod on the floor. “What next?”

“Well, ordinarily you’d hafta swallow that thing, but our universes are close enough I can toss you a Synapse Cable. You feel like hurling, Arnie?”

“I’m pretty sober right now.”

“Well, either you’re gonna hafta swallow that Pod, or you’re gonna hafta start drinking so I can throw you this Cable.”

Ignoring the shot glass, I drank from the Scotch-bottle. The nausea set in instantly. With one animal-like retch, I felt a strand jump up my throat and catch on my teeth. I pulled the strand until a whole rope of meat and fat dangled from my jaw. The Synapse Cable was two inches thick, plugging my esophagus.

“Put it in,” said Trip.

I waggled the meat-rope near the Neuron Pod. The hagfish mouth slurped the frayed ends and locked on with needle-teeth.

“Ah, perfect. I’m getting your address now…”

For a few seconds I choked on the Synapse Cable. The Neuron Pod contorted and flexed in concentration.

“Hey, you’ve got a cool little reality… No wonder you’re still Stage One, with quantum particles like this. These photons are worthless… And your Planck Temperature! How do you get anything done?”

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“You did good, Arnie. Your universe was almost a splat on my windshield. Just gotta get you outta the way…”

He paused.

“You…” The eyeballs turned to me. “Hey, did you give me the wrong addreeeeeaaaugh!”

The lips flopped on the floor. Eyeballs burst into spurts of blood.

“Aaaaaaugh! God, no, what did youuuuooooaaaaaugh!”

The Synapse Cable retracted down my throat. The Neuron Pod detached, letting the meat-rope whip through my esophagus.

“Are you trying to kill me?! What did you do?!”

“Sorry, Trip.”

“Aaaugh! I can’t—”

“We made Quantum Foam, Trip.” I massaged my neck. “We made new universes.”

“It was trivial to check the infinite realities… for one whose cosmological constants were a perfect snare,” clicked the Neuron Pod. “Of course… if you intended to merely jettison vacuum, as you expressed… your connection to the entrapping universe would be harmless… Your pain indicates, as we suspected, that you intended to subsume this universe into your own… Or perhaps enslave it, as you did with me and my compatriots…”

“Now you’re being slurped like a noodle in soup,” I muttered, lying on the carpet.

Eyeballs, lips, and ears shredded as if stuck in a storm of razor blades. Without lips, Trip’s voice echoed from my throat like shouts in a deep cave.

“Arnie, Arnie, c’mon, I’m sorruuughhh make it stop Arnie please I’m begging you—”

I covered my ears. “I can’t, I can’t—”

“Your address! Give me your address, let me escape, before it’s too late!”

“Not even if I could.”

“Then—then—”

Nausea pumped my guts.

Fingers from my throat pried my teeth open.

An arm stretched through my mouth.

“If you yak me into this universe, I can survive! You need to vomit harder than ever, Arnie, right now!”

The arm grabbed the Scotch.

“I’m close enough, Arnie, I can escape to your universe, but it has to be right now—”

The arm sank back into my stomach. The neck of the bottle stuck down my throat, pouring liquor into me. I tried to scream.

“Now, Arnie! Now now now!” I couldn’t pull the bottle away from the hand in my throat. I flipped on my belly so the bottle didn’t pour down my neck. “No!”

Two arms opened my jaws wide. One flipped me on my back. The other grabbed the bottle and spilled it in my mouth.

I groped the floor for something, anything.

A glass beaker.

I smashed the bottle with the beaker. Scotch soaked the carpet.

“No no no no!”

The arms in my mouth pat the damp floor.

“No, no, no…”

The arms slid down my throat until the fingertips brushed along my tongue.

“No…”

I struggled to my knees, teeth clenched, salivating through my lips, holding myself.


For twenty minutes, I puked. No eyeballs, no limbs, just ordinary stomach contents. I spent the night cleaning vomit and broken glass. “Hey. How are you feeling now?”

The Neuron Pod deflated. “I am well… Thank you.”

“You sure?”

“My torment is at an end… The enslaved Stage Three realities have been released. It is over.”

I threw the vomit and glass into the trash. “And our Quantum Foam…”

I opened my desk drawer.

Milky sand so fine and smooth it could have been liquid, like cream for coffee. Each infinitesimal speck was a universe. One grain had swelled like a pearl. “That’s Trip’s trap, huh?”

“My old Master used the technique to do away with bothersome realities.” The Neuron Pod observed the foam with its eyeless gaze. “I am impressed with your ability to synthesize Quantum Foam. You have a knack for it.”

“It wasn’t that hard,” I said, “since you gave me the directions. It’s just chemistry.”

The hagfish mouth made a toothy smile. “Chemistry is vital for a healthy Stage Two universe.”

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