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

Names

Will Jonas keep his legs? Alphonse won’t give up so easily. In the meantime, let’s check out some names.

I choose names for my characters based on whatever feels right, and there’s no objective rule for that. Jonas. Alphonse. Naira Nightly. Mike Mann. I think these names are pretty nice to say. I can change ’em when I like.

More importantly, I think, they all start with different letters. Here are the named characters so far that I remember off the top of my head:

Bronson (Alphonse, Father, and Grandpa)
Champ
Craig
Danny, Debra
Georgie Masawa
Hermes
Jonas
Kevin
Mike Mann
Naira Nightly
Sandra
Whitney

I think that’s it? Other than that it’s anonymous men in leather and unnamed athletes. Hardly any characters have last names.

“Craig” and “Kevin” start with the same sound, as do “Jonas” and “Georgie,” but that’s okay. When I read I find myself not really pronouncing names in my head, just seeing them and moving on, so a C is different enough from a K and a J from a G to distinguish the characters’ names at a glance. Conversely, Champ and Craig start with the same letter, but they’re rarely mention together and the “Ch” is kind of a unique character on its own.

As for Naira Nightly and Mike Mann, alliterative names sound like comic-characters a la Peter Parker and Bruce Banner. I figure they take up less reader head-space that way. Georgie Masawa gets the odd-one-out non-alliterative name because he’s special and cool and important and maybe I’ll change it later I dunno.

Next time, let’s see if Alphonse can wring a positive public-image out of this mess.

The Aftermath
Table of Contents

 

To Mile 92

(This is part nine of a story about an ultra-marathon-runner who bets his legs he can win a 100-mile race against a horse. Even though he was tricked two miles off-track, Jonas barely beat the horse to mile 80. Now Champ is ahead again.)

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2019

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

Naira Nightly groaned and pulled herself from her evening bubble-bath to pick up her beeping cellphone. “I told you,” she said to the caller, her camera-guy, “this is my night off.”

“This is big,” said Mike Mann. “You wanna break into sports-news, right?”

“Can’t this sport wait until morning?”

“It’ll be over in a few hours, and we’d basically be the only journalists on-scene. I’m driving to your place as we speak.”

Naira toweled off and dressed, holding her phone to her ear with her shoulder. “What’s up?”

“Have you read that book Live to Run?

“No, but I’ve heard of it. Gimme the cliff-notes.”

“Ultra-runner Jonas cheats at a 100-mile race to beat his girlfriend.”

“What a shithead.”

“Yeah, but he’s up against king of the shitheads. Bronson. Jonas has been racing Alphonse on horseback all day and people are just learning about it now. It’s almost over and it’s neck-and-neck!”

Naira Nightly marched out her front door with a microphone. Mike waited in a van with a camera mounted on his shoulder. Naira continued the conversation in the shotgun seat. “Bronson won’t let us newsies into his estate. We’ll have to film outside the front gates.”

“There’s already a guy in there posting photos online.” Mike pulled onto the highway and passed Naira his phone displaying Kevin’s blog. “This guy is in Jonas’ race-crew, and he’s got the best photos of the Bronson Estate in decades.”

“How come they’re Kodaks? The guy doesn’t have a smartphone?”

“Kevin says Alphonse is screwing with anything attached to wifi. I brought an older camera, just in case.”

“Whoa.” Naira scrolled through the blog. Kevin had photographed a mob of spectators crowding the front gates to the Bronson Estate.


The entry-booth was manned by a security-guard in a leather jacket. He eyed the gathering crowds then the walkie-talkie hidden under his desk. He knew Alphonse had to hear about the mob, but he also knew Alphonse hated to be interrupted with bad news and would probably take it out on the messenger.

“Hey!” Two cyclists wheeled their bikes to the entry-booth and rapped on the glass. The security-guard opened the window. “Can you open the gates?”

“Fuck off,” said the security-guard, “and tell everyone else here to fuck off, too.”

One cyclist scowled. She was a woman about 30 years old. Her slightly older husband flipped the bird to the man in leather. “Hey, fuck you too, pal.”

The man in leather flipped the bird right back. “Sporting in the Bronson Estate is ten thousand bucks per mile, and that’s if you have permission from the boss.”

“So…” The cyclist’s wife pondered. “Does that mean it’s free if we don’t have permission?”

“Um…” The man in leather watched the cyclists chuck their bikes over the gates. The gates were electrified, but the cyclists climbed the brick wall beside them and crawled mostly unscathed over barbed wire. The crowd cheered. The man in leather took his walkie-talkie. “Sir? We got a situation here.”


BEEP. Mile 83 (81): 13:02 / 13:22:39. 

My missing finger was half hurt and half numb. It felt like a missing tooth whose absence is constantly noticed by the tongue. The real pain came from my left knee and my feet. I’d be peeling skin off my soles for days, and every step, my left quadriceps quivered.

“Drink.” Whitney gave me the hose to her water-backpack, and I drank. “The horse isn’t really that far ahead. Sandra’s just playing the mental game with some distance. You’re going to win, Jonas.”

“Why was Kevin taking pictures of us?”

“Huh?” Whitney checked over her shoulder. Keven and Hermes were long gone. “Who knows? Kevin’s an influencer, or whatever.”

“What does he influence?”

“The internet, I think? He keeps talking about how many followers he has. I guess he makes money just being the center of attention. That sounds like Kevin’s style.”

BEEP. Mile 84 (82): 9:14 / 13:31:53.


Alphonse waited in his helicopter with three men wearing leather jackets. In addition to leather, the helicopter-pilot also wore sunglasses and a baseball cap. He was about sixty, but he popped gum like a disobedient school-boy. “My jockey should be here soon,” said Alphonse. “We’ll see how my horse is doing.”

The helicopter-pilot’s cellphone rang. He put it on speakerphone. “Hello, police?” asked the caller—it was Hermes.

“Yes, this is the police,” said the helicopter-pilot. He popped his gum. Alphonse and the others in leather suppressed their smirks. “What’s your emergency?”

“My name is Hermes. I called a few hours ago, and the situation’s gotten worse. Remember I said Alphonse Bronson shot down a drone?”

“A drone in his private airspace, yes,” said the pilot, “quite legally.”

“Well, I think Alphonse just cut off my friend’s finger.”

“You think he did, or you know he did?”

“Uh… I think. It kinda looked like a bullet-wound.”

“Well, unless you’ve got more evidence than thinking, I’m afraid our hands are tied when it comes to the Bronson Estate.”

“Um… Okay. Can you send an ambulance to the front gates, at least?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The pilot hung up. Alphonse and the men in leather jackets laughed and slapped each other on the back.

Along the trail, Sandra stroked Champ’s mane. “Easy, boy. Easy.” She empathized with her horse’s distress: she’d worried about Alphonse’s reaction to her loss at the last flag ever since she saw his helicopter land just up ahead. Now Alphonse stepped from the cockpit.

“My word! What a catastrophe!” Alphonse got on his knees to inspect Champ’s hooves. “This hoof is half-missing! It’s grotesque!”

“Jockey-juice ain’t gonna fix it,” said Sandra. “To be honest, I think jockey-juice caused it. Coming downhill after that injection, we were overconfident. Champ took a nasty step in a gopher-hole. But don’t worry—we’re miles ahead of Jonas.”

“I know Champ will win. That’s not the problem.” Alphonse bit back tears. “I just received word that fans of Jonas are gathered outside the estate. Apparently Kevin, that fiend, posted pictures of the horse’s state on social-media. Social-media combines the two things I hate most—”

“Society and the media?”

“—quite right—and my lawsuits against Kevin won’t make those pictures disappear. I can’t control this narrative anymore.”

“You don’t have to—because Kevin will control it for you.”

Alphonse sniffed. “Huh?”

“Meet me at mile 90 and make a big show of pampering Champ and cooing and all that. Let Kevin show the world what great people you Bronsons are. As long as that’s the only footage that makes it on the news, you’ll smell like a rose.”

“Wow.” Alphonse stood and took Sandra’s hand. “You’re always a beacon of focus. It’s you and me to the end! Thank you, Sandy.”

“Sandra,” said Sandra. Alphonse shrugged. “Keep your head, Boss.” Sandra and Champ took off down the trail.

Alphonse climbed back into his helicopter. The pilot adjusted his sunglasses and prepared for take-off. “How’s the horse, sir?”

“Not particularly well. And you’ve got your work cut out for you: remind the Nightly News that our airspace is private. No filming! None!”

“Always on it, Boss.”

In the helicopter’s spotlights, Alphonse glimpsed Jonas just a few miles behind the horse. “Oh, how could this happen? This was supposed to be my narrative, and it’s falling apart! Did Jonas arrange this?”

“Not him,” said the pilot. “Kevin. Gotta be. He’s the mastermind.”

“You’re right.” Alphonse mopped tears with his sleeve. “Um… What’s your name again? ”

The pilot smiled. “Craig.”

“It’s you and me, Craig. You and me to the end.”

Craig smiled and looked at the night-black horizon. “Hey, Boss, you still got Jonas’ finger?” Alphonse nodded. “Can I buy it from you?”

“I’d hoped to display it like a trophy.”

“I was thinking the same,” said Craig. “You’re getting Jonas’ legs anyway, so you hardly need another souvenir. You bought the finger and toothpick for 20,000 bucks, so I’ll buy ’em off you for that much.”

“Hmm… Okay. But the toothpick must have its audio-record wiped by my tech-security.”

Craig laughed. “I am your tech-security, sir. I’d wipe it first thing, I promise.”

“Oh! Right!” Alphonse laughed with him and pulled Jonas’ mutilated finger out of his gaudy military jacket. “Take it for free, Craig! I couldn’t do this without you.”


BEEP. Mile 85 (83): 9:31 / 13:41:24.

“I need another compression-sleeve.” My knee ached like it was oppressed by a glacier. Tears streamed down my cheeks. “This wimpy silk one isn’t cutting it.”

“Keep your mind on something nice, Jonas.” Whitney handed me a silver packet of running glop. I slurped it down: peanut-butter. “Think about what’s waiting at the finish-line.”

“Ownership of my legs, I hope.”

“Besides that! Win or lose, you’ll have all the pizza you want. We’ll put you in a Jacuzzi and you can pig out, legs or no legs. You’ll never buy another drink in your life—you’ll have the best bar-story on Earth.”

“What would you do with a spare million bucks, Whitney?”

“Cruise-ship vacation,” she said. “What’re you gonna spend your winnings on?”

“Therapy, I think.”

BEEP. Mile 86 (84): 9:25 / 13:50:49.


Naira Nightly and Mike Mann weaved their van around a thousand people crowded around the front gates to the Bronson Estate. Mike rapped on the glass of the security-booth. “Yo! Open up!” said Naira.

The guard in leather opened the glass window. “Get outta here. No cameras.”

“I see two cameras already.” Naria pointed to the security-cameras flanking the front gates. “And someone’s posting photos online.”

“That activity is already under investigation by the Bronson Est—hey!” Naira was mockingly flapping her hand like a blabbing mouth while Mike filmed her. “You can’t film here without permission from the Bronson brand manager!”

“Call them for us, then,” said Mike. “Call them right now.”

“Call who,” asked the man in leather.

“Call whoever can let us film in the estate,” said Naria. “Come on, we haven’t got all night. I have a bath waiting at home.”

“I’d have to call Alphonse himself to get—”

“Then call him.”

“I can’t and I won’t,” said the man in leather. “Alphonse wouldn’t let in you journalist-types with or without cameras, and I wouldn’t contact him over something so stupid even if I could.”

“He can.” Mike and Naira searched for who said this. A middle-aged man pushed through the crowd onto camera. He wore running shorts and a tank-top commemorating a race: the Winter-2018 Biannual Colorado-Veterinarian-Association 5k. “I saw him call Alphonse earlier, when two folks chucked their bicycles over the gates. He’s got a walkie-talkie.”

“Okay, call Alphonse and let us in,” said Naira.

“Look, like I said, I’m not calling him. Fuck off.”

Mike Mann gripped the steering wheel. “You know, Naira, there are more people here than I expected.”

“You’re right, Mike. I bet there’s enough buzz to borrow a traffic-copter from the studio.”

The man in leather laughed. “Lady, I dare you to come back in a helicopter.”


BEEP. Mile 87 (85): 9:42 / 14:00:31.

“Hold on. I gotta take a dump.” I waddled to the side of the trail and dropped trou. Whitney looked away obligingly.

Books have been written about proper pooping procedures on ultra-runs, but I didn’t care to be discreet on Alphonse’s property. I left my colon’s contents beside a bush.

“Hi!” Two cyclists wheeled up. Their bike’s lights were brighter than our headlamps, and illuminated me pooping beside the trail. “Oh! Sorry!”

Whitney stepped between us while I wiped. “Who’re you, and what do you want?”

“Oh! So hostile!” said the first cyclist. “My name is Debra, and this is my husband Danny. We read Live to Run! We saw this race online, and we live only a few miles from the front gates. We biked all the way here, and jumped the wall! I haven’t crawled over barbed-wire like that since high-school.”

“The horse isn’t so much farther ahead,” said Danny.

I pulled up my shorts and kept running. “Let’s go.”

“Oh my god, your hand!” said Danny.

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

“Can we do anything for you?” asked Debra.

“You got any running gels?” I asked. “Like, the energy gloop?”

“Cranberry and lime-kiwi,” said Danny.

“Ooh, gimme the cranberry.” I slurped down a silver packet of running glop and drank from Whitney’s hose. “Gimme your pants, too.” After some bickering, Danny gave me his compression-shorts. The extra wrap around my knee was a god-send.

BEEP. Mile 88 (86): 13:11 / 14:13:42.


“There it is.” Beside the mile-90 flag, Kevin waved his arms at the sky.

Between the stars Hermes spotted the blinking lights of a drone, and more blinking lights not far behind it. “Ah, crap, dude! That’s Alphonse’s helicopter! He’s gonna shoot down the drone again!”

“Nah, he wouldn’t repeat that shtick.” Kevin had another camera with him, an old video-camera with a puffy microphone—an antique. “While those photos developed, I picked this up from my apartment. It’s vintage! Let’s see Alphonse hack this.”

True enough, the drone landed without incident and Alphonse’s helicopter landed behind it. Hermes collected the drone’s payload—pizza and a veggie-smoothie—and stowed it in Kevin’s car. Kevin loaded the drone’s empty cargo-hold with disposable cameras. “Yo, A.B.,” he said to Alphonse stepping from the chopper. “You shoulda shot down this drone when you had the chance. I’m sending it back full of photos. Even if you mess with our electronics, we’re getting the word out about this crazy horseshit.”

“By all means.” Alphonse marched to the flag, waiting for Sandra and Champ. “Take all the footage as you like.”

“Really?” Kevin recorded Alphonse from behind while the drone took off. “We don’t need to ask your Brand Manager anymore?”

Alphonse laughed. “I fired my Brand Manager years ago. I am my Brand Manager!”

Sandra and Champ trotted up and she plucked the flag. “Which way, Boss?”

“Surprise me. And Kevin, please, allow me to surprise you! Gentlemen?” Alphonse gestured to the helicopter. Two men in leather jackets carried out a heavy cooler and placed it beside Champ.

“That horse has gotta quit, man,” said Hermes. “Look, it’s missing a whole hoof and a half! They’re just sloughing off!”

“Ah, ah, ah.” Alphonse wagged his finger and opened the cooler. “Behold!” He posed beside several severed horse-feet on ice. “You’re lucky, Kevin. You’re the first person outside my labs to witness the latest in equine medicine.”

Even Sandra didn’t know what was happening as Alphonse took a horse’s severed foot from the ice and held it next to Champ’s sloughed hoof. “Where did you get those, sir?” she asked.

“Why, these spares come from horses who died of old age, or in unfortunate accidents!” Alphonse did something Kevin recorded closely: he used a mysterious metal tool from within the cooler to replace Champ’s injured appendage with the new one. “Good as new!” He tossed Champ’s old hoof into the cooler and grabbed another spare from the ice. Champ seemed too deliriously fatigued to even notice his new foot.

“You’re Frankensteining him?” said Hermes. “That’s fucked, man!”

“It’s gotta be illegal,” said Kevin, “or at least against the rules of the race.”

“Hey! The contract is unbroken!” Alphonse replaced Champ’s other injured hoof and closed the cooler for his men to take back to the helicopter. “Jonas is missing a finger. If he doesn’t have to get his whole body across the finish-line, neither does my horse!”

Sandra tossed the flag left. “May I resume, sir?”

“No. Get off.”

“Huh?”

“I’ve decided to take your advice and use the controversy to my advantage. I ordered the front gates open to allow onlookers into the estate. I’ll ride from here so they have a good view of a Bronson on horseback. You can take the helicopter with the security crew.”

“Okay, but—” Sandra’s legs were numb and she had trouble pulling her boots from the stirrups. “Did you dilute my jockey-juice?”

“Of course. From the beginning, I planned to finish the race myself. You don’t need your legs this evening. Get off.”

Sandra gasped as Alphonse’s men in leather pulled her from the saddle. She flailed and fought, and fell to the ground. She snapped her right wrist. “Augh! Alphonse!”

Alphonse swung his feet into the stirrups. “Keep her comfy, men.” Men in leather carried Sandra to the helicopter as she swore. Alphonse prepared to start Champ at a gallop, but noticed Kevin focusing the lens of his old-timey video-camera. “Thank you for your help,” said Alphonse. “I’m using you to boost my public-image, Kevin!”

“This dude is weird,” Kevin said to his camera.

“Oh, puh-lease!” said Alphonse. “In your footage I’m a knight in shining armor! I miraculously heal a horse, and I take over for my disabled employee in an authentic display of valor!

“Dude,” said Hermes, “your horse is effed up because you’re a dickhead, and your employee was just carried away by leather-jacket storm-trooper types.”

“Oh. Ohhhh. I see how it is.” Alphonse rolled his eyes and started Champ at a trot. “Your type always knows how to take things wrong. I shouldn’t have bothered trying to curry your favor in the first place.”

Alphonse and Champ galloped away. Kevin checked his video-camera to make sure no mysterious forces had affected it. Hermes wandered to watch Sandra loaded into the helicopter. “Hey, you,” he called to the pilot in leather, “where are you taking her?”

Two men in leather stood menacingly, but the pilot raised a disarming hand and peeked over his sunglasses. “I’ll take Sandra to a doctor on the estate, but we’ve got time to chat. Hermes, right? You came to the front gates without an ID.”

Hermes bit his beard. “I like to stay off the grid.”

“I can tell, but I’m afraid it hasn’t worked. I read Live to Run. I know exactly who you are.”

“That’s some FBI shit, man.”

Before Kevin could enter the conversation, his phone rang. “Hello?”

“Naira Nightly. Is this Kevin?”

“Yeah. Hey, I know you! You do that late-night show on—”

“Are you in the Bronson Estate right now, Kevin?”

“Uh-huh.”

“How did you convince Alphonse to let you publish pictures?”

“He didn’t let me. He’s already filed a lawsuit for each photograph on my blog. His lawyers won’t stop emailing me about it.”

“Do you think it’s safe for us to come in with a helicopter?”

“Oh, hell no, it’s—” Kevin locked eyes with the helicopter-pilot. Craig winked. “The floodgates are open, Miss Nightly. Bring all you got.”


BEEP. Mile 89 (87): 9:19 / 14:23:01.

“Just eleven more miles!” said Danny.

“Thirteen,” corrected Whitney. “The GPS-watch says 89, but we went off-course around 75 and added two miles.”

“Gosh,” said Debra, “if you were two miles ahead right now, you’d be barely a mile behind the horse!”

I bit my tongue. It didn’t matter if I lost by a mile or a meter. I’d lose my legs.

“To bet a million bucks like this, you must be loaded,” said Danny. “How much money did you make from Live to Run, Jonas?”

I made eye-contact with Whitney. “Live to Run sold over three million copies,” I said, “but I didn’t see much of the profit. A lot of it went to the publishers. A lot of it went to my ghost-writer—Whitney, here. I ended up with about a million bucks.”

“And you bet it all on this race?” asked Debra.

“Uh.” I swallowed. “…Yeah.”

“You must be pretty confident,” said Danny.

“He’d better be,” said Whitney.

BEEP. Mile 90 (88): 8:56 / 14:31:57.


Mike Mann and Naira Nightly shouted over their helicopter’s din. “Naira, are you sure about this? Alphonse already shot down two drones. Maybe he’d do the same to us.”

“Remember what Kevin said?” Naira surveyed the estate from above by spotlight. “Alphonse’s helicopter-pilot is on our side.”

“I’ve heard of the guy,” said their own helicopter-pilot. “If he weren’t on our side, we’d be shot down already.”

“Mike, do you see that?” Naira pointed at the side of a mountain. “There’s a neon-yellow spot down there.”

Mike focused his camera. “I see it too. It looks like caution-tape, or a safety-vest. But it’s not moving, so that can’t be Jonas or the horse.”

“Terrain looks pretty rocky,” said the pilot.

“Land anyway.” Naira gave Mike her phone to show him an article on Kevin’s blog with eight-thousand likes and ten-thousand shares.

Hey Muchachos!

Kevin again. Remember Hermes, the wise old hippie-type in Live to Run? He said he saw something spoOOoky in the Bronson Estate! There’s a neon-yellow visibility vest somewhere, and what’s nearby will shock you! Or it would, if Hermes took any photos.

I’d rather not spread rumors, so let’s leave it there until we’ve got more reputable sources.

“Huh. I guess that’s Kevin’s way of winking at us.” As the helicopter landed, Mike stepped onto the trail. Even with the copter’s bright lights, the path was dark as sin. “Whoa! Careful, this is pretty precarious.”

Naira protected her hair from the copter’s last gusts. “Why am I wearing heelsFucking flip-flops would’ve been better.” She took off her shoes and tiptoed out with her microphone. “Are we rolling?”

Mike adjusted his camera and checked the lighting. “Rolling.”

“Naira Nightly, reporting for the first time ever inside Alphonse Bronson’s estate. Alphonse has famously guarded the right to film or even photograph his property, but an unfolding story demands attention. Guerrilla reporting can be incredibly dangerous, so we’ll keep this quick. We found a neon-yellow visibility-vest which a reliable source says is spoOOoky.” Mike shifted the camera’s focus to the vest, which was ten feet off the trail down a steep slope. “Mike, go over there and take a look.”

“Um. Really?”

“Mike, I’m barefoot, and you’ve got the camera. Come on.”

“Hm.” Mike turned away from the vest and bent to his knees, then crawled backwards on his belly. “Uh… Okay… Put the copter’s lights on me, I can’t see a damn thing!”

Naira and the helicopter-pilot moved spotlights as Mike descended. Near the vest, he flopped onto his back and pointed the camera down his body. “I feel something,” he shouted. “There’s a vest tied to this tree, but right before it—right before it, there’s sort of a hole. More light!

Naira sighed. “Okay,” she said to the pilot, “let’s fly above for a better angle. Stay high enough you don’t blow him away.” As they took off, she spoke into her microphone. “The helicopter is giving Mike plenty of light. Let’s see what’s in the spoOOoky vest-hole.”

The wind buffeted Mike’s comb-over. He tried to resist swearing because he thought the camera’s microphones would hear him, but eventually cussed because he knew the helicopter’s roar would drown it out. He sat up and pointed the camera down the ditch. “Um. Jesus Christ. There’s a skeleton down there.”


BEEP. Mile 91 (89): 9:05 / 14:41:02.

I drank from the hose of Whitney’s water-backpack. “I like that backpack,” said Debra, on her bike. “Want me to carry that for you?”

“No thanks,” said Whitney. “Debra, are you and Danny the only people here?”

“Oh, no,” said Danny, “there were a thousand people at the front gates! Most of them were dressed like you, ready for a footrace.”

“I used to run when my knees were better,” said Debra. “Danny, do you remember that 10k…”

I ignored the conversation. The only person I wanted to talk with was Thog, but I’d be embarrassed to play that game in front of the cyclist-couple. I was already humiliated Alphonse had heard us. I think Whitney sensed my blank expression, because she interrupted. “Debra, Danny, our crew is waiting for us at that flag. Would you please bike ahead and report back on the horse?”

“Can do!” Danny and Debra biked away while Whitney and I approached Kevin’s car.

“Thanks, Thog.”

“No problem.”

BEEP. Mile 92 (90): 7:47 / 14:48:49.

“Jonas!” Hermes waved us over. He gave me a pizza-box, and Whitney her veggie-smoothie. “There were some cyclists coming your way, but they just sped ahead. One lost their shorts?”

“Yeah, we know.” I ate two pizza-slices and rolled up Danny’s left pant-leg. “I needed more compression. Now I need ice.”

“Oh, boy.” Hermes covered his beard in shock. My left leg was red and bent out at the knee. “I’ve got you, Jonas.”

While Hermes fetched an ice-pack, Kevin filmed Whitney rubbing my shoulders. “Say hi to the camera, Jonas! You’re famous!”

“I know.” I swallowed pizza-crust. “I was in a best-selling book.”

“That’s peanuts! You’re in the big-league now!” Kevin took my left hand to show the bloody bandages to his camera. “Tell us what happened to your finger, Jonas.”

“Alphonse owns it now.”

“What’s that mean?”

Whitney explained for me. “Alphonse tricked us two miles off-course and then claimed a finger for it, because he’s a shithead.”

“Here, Jonas.” Hermes taped an ice-pack around my knee. It might slow me down, but the chill was worth it. “You’ll never guess where I got this.”

“7-11? Antarctica?”

“No, look.” Hermes pointed to Alphonse’s nearby helicopter, where three men in leather jackets talked with Sandra over a cooler. One of the men, in sunglasses, snapped a finger-gun at me. “Apparently Kevin knows Alphonse’s helicopter-guy. His name’s Craig.”

“I know that guy. We played cards sometimes.” I ogled the cooler. “Any beer in there?”

“Uh. No, and don’t ask any more questions about it.”

“Hey!” Sandra waved at me with her left arm. Her right arm was in a sling. “Jonas, right?”

“Uh-huh.” I finished another three slices of pizza and gave the rest to Hermes to save for the finish-line. “Did the horse throw you?”

“Alphonse threw me,” she said. I nodded. “Beat him for me, crutch-kid.”

“Planning on it.”

Kevin crouched to get a low-angle shot of me. “Expect company. Craig is letting in news-copters.”

Whitney massaged my cramping calves. “Wait. Did Craig shoot down the drones?”

“Yep! And they were his drones.” Kevin circled me; when he sped up the footage, it’d be like a matrix-shot. I ruined it by scratching my ass. “Craig says his delivery-drones are a side-gig. He was thrilled to shoot some down on Alphonse’s behalf, for publicity.”

“Gotta be honest,” said Craig, “working for Alphonse is a side-gig, too. To me, everything is a side-gig. I’m just lucky my gigs got together.” Craig threw me a peace-sign. “I’ll bring you a beer at the finish-line, J-Man.”

“Hey!” We all turned: some shirtless guy panted down the trail toward us. “Just a mile and a half behind the horse!”

“Who the hell are you?” asked Whitney.

“Um. I’m Rob. I ran here. Alphonse ordered the gates open like an hour ago.” Rob waved for us to follow as he ran back the way he came. “You’re almost there, bro!”

Whitney and I ran after him. “Are more people coming?” I asked.

“Oh, heck yeah!” said Rob. “You’ll have company every step from now on!”

Whitney noticed me wince. “You’ve got this, Jonas.” The buzz of a news-chopper blared above us and put me in the spotlight. “No time for stage-fright.”


“No time for stage-fright,” Alphonse whispered to Champ. “Smile for the cameras.” He nodded politely at a group of runners. Two took out their phones to snap pictures and video. “Excuse me, young lady?”

“Yeah?” She took another picture of the horse. “I’m allowed to take photos, right?”

“Strictly speaking, no, but—” Alphonse shook his head. “I just wanted to ask, are there more runners behind you? I’ve seen at least ten people pass by already, and we’re eight miles from the entrance.”

Loads. Half the folks at the front-gates were runners. We’re near the front of the pack.”

As soon as the runners continued on their way to Jonas, Alphonse grimaced. He’d expected the crowd to remain along the last mile of the course and spectate, not intrude farther. If the trails clogged, runners could impede the horse. Alphonse took out his phone. “Craig?”

“Yeah, Boss?” asked Craig.

“You’re keeping out the news-helicopters, right?”

“Yep,” lied Craig. “Not one in sight.”

“Send a few motorcycles to keep onlookers out of my way.”

“You got it, Boss.”


2013

On his deathbed, Father Bronson wagged one finger to draw Alphonse near. Alphonse brushed aside doctors and nurses to hear his father’s trembling voice. “Yes, Father?”

“I fear these may be my last words, son.”

Alphonse brushed tears from his eyes. “Father, I’m begging you to reconsider the injection.” He raised a syringe, but Father Bronson shook his head. “You’ll feel like a new man. Rejuvenated. Replenished.”

“I’ve seen how you make that stuff, son. It’s abominable.” Father Bronson coughed. Weak as he was, his coughing was thunder. “You remind me of my father.”

“Grandpa Bronson?” Alphonse covered his heart. “What an honor. Thank you for saying that, Dad.”

Father Bronson shook his head. “Grandpa Bronson was a failure.”

“But he was a war-hero. Without him, his country crumbled. You said so.”

“I was naive then. I believed what my father told me when I was young. I know better now.” Father Bronson coughed and spat phlegm. “Grandpa Bronson was an evil man, and he wasn’t even good at it.”

“What do you mean? What did he do?”

“There’s no way to know, because he failed. Grandpa Bronson’s villainy was so foolhardy that to escape punishment, he destroyed his own homeland. He arranged coups. He razed cities. He had rulers assassinated, all to save his face.”

Alphonse threw up his hands. “He doesn’t sound like a failure! If he was as powerful as you say, he’s worthy of veneration and I’m proud to be like him!”

“He wasn’t powerful, son.” Father Bronson locked eyes with Alphonse. “Grandpa Bronson spent his life running. He failed, and he ran from failure. He failed to run from failure, and he ran from that, too. His wake of destruction was weft of weakness. If the world ever learns of our sordid history, the Bronson name is bunk.”

“But he was rich.”

“He was like a burglar who locked himself in a bank-vault, then set most of the money on fire trying to escape. There’s no telling how tremendous the Bronsons would be if not for his hubris.”

Alphonse pointed at his father’s face. “You’re just jealous of his success. You coasted on his coat-tails.”

“Oh, no. I spent my life fixing his failures. Grandpa Bronson had no sense for society. I salvaged the Bronson name in the public eye by keeping my head down. But you?” Father Bronson pointed back. “You’re just like him. You’re evil in the most pitiful ways. If the public finds out who you really are, you’d better be as legendary a bungler as your grandfather. You’ll have to drag nations down with you to escape.”

Alphonse’s lower lip quivered. “But—”

“But nothing. In the Bronson family, failure skips a generation. My father was a failure and I paid for it. Perhaps someday your children will pay for you.”

When Alphonse finally found words, it was too late. His father had died, grinning like Georgie.

Last 10 Miles
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Intense injury

Jonas and Whitney are tricked into $20,000 of debt to Alphonse Bronson, and Alphonse takes the opportunity to inflict Jonas with a terrifying injury.

I mentioned here that Man VS Horse is inspired by Stephen King’s Misery and an anime called Kaiji: The Ultimate SurvivorIn these stories the characters lose fingers, get needles under their nails, and have their legs chopped up. Man VS Horse hits all those marks, or at least threatens to.

Alphonse is inspired by Kazuya Hyoudou, one of the bad guys in Kaiji. Kazuya revels in setting up macabre gambles in order to prove his perverse worldview. We learn his perspective is warped by a childhood memory of his mother, and also his father is a dickhead, too. Kazuya tries to explode peoples’ heads and drop Kaiji off a building.

I used to get nervous about torture in fiction, and still do. Do you remember in The Princess Bride, Wesley gets strapped into a thing that makes him scream? That creeped me out as a kid, even though I think it was sorta played for laughs. Even today, stories about catastrophic injury give me the heebie-jeebies, but now I’m sometimes morbidly curious, too. Everyone can relate to the fear of harm, and that makes it an ancient staple of fiction.

I try to make it quick. Needle under nail, gunshot, boom. Most of Jonas’ running-troubles worsen gradually over time: thirst, hunger, a blister, fatigue. I hope the sudden loss of a finger caught you off-guard even though I warned you at the beginning of the chapter.

I promise Jonas will win the race and keep his legs, but without this scene, I think the threat could come across as hollow. I want readers to believe Jonas might lose his legs, even if everyone knows it’ll be okay because it’s just a story.

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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 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.)

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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.”

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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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To Mile 20

(This is part two of an ongoing story about an ultra-marathon-runner in a 100-mile race against a horse. The runner might win a million bucks, but doesn’t yet know he stands to lose his legs.)


2019

BEEP. Mile 11: 9:45 / 1:13:14.

Alphonse immediately galloped far ahead. Champ didn’t seem to notice the steepening trail. Already the horse and rider were a dot navigating the switchbacks above me.

After that 4:22 mile, I was in no condition to catch up. I walked a quarter-mile to catch my breath. As if to help me slow down, the incline gradually made each footstep harder than the last, forcing me to trudge.

When this was over, what would I tell my ghostwriter? “That horse, Champ, he’s a beaut. I mostly saw its rear-end, but what a rear-end!”

Why’d I ever think I could beat the horse?

Oh, right. My ghostwriter.

Whitney.

BEEP. Mile 12: 10:15 / 1:23:29.

I met Whitney through my cross-country-running team in high-school. Well, she wasn’t actually on the team, but that’s how we met.

I’d grown up cross-country-skiing in Wisconsin. When my family moved to Colorado, I figured the closest sport would be cross-country-running, but it wasn’t my jam. I could ski for hours and hours over miles and miles of countryside. The running team sprinted across city streets like they couldn’t wait to stop. Every morning during training, they’d say, “six miles!” and finish fast as possible, then collapse.

They left me in the dust every time, but I didn’t mind. Kevin, the quickest varsity runner, didn’t mind lazing in the back of the pack with me until the coach found him slacking and chewed him out. No matter how much Kevin lingered to keep me company, he was always first to finish every run.

Once, when I was left behind during off-season training in the Summer, I met Whitney.

BEEP. Mile 13: 9:44 / 1:33:13.

We both stopped at the same crosswalk signal. She was obviously in the middle of a run; she wore a headband soaked with sweat. I asked if she was on the girl’s cross-country team, because I’d seen her in the hallways at high-school. What was her response? I tried to remember, it was priceless.

“Nope,” she’d said. “I’m a real runner.”

Wow. That ego sparked my interest. “The guys on the team are way better runners than I am. They’re a mile ahead, and probably always will be.”

“Nah,” she’d said. The crosswalk signal changed and we ran across the street together. “After enough distance, the tortoise beats the hare. If you guys were running a marathon, their jackrabbit start would tire them out and you’d pass them up. Over a hundred miles, a human could beat a racehorse.”

God, Whitney, I hope you were right.

BEEP. Mile 14: 9:13 / 1:42:26.

Before the train of thought turned pessimistic, I decided to change my mind. The mental struggle was half the battle. I’m sure every runner has a dumb game they play to pass the time. Mine was talking to Thog.

“Crosswalk signals,” I said aloud. “How would I explain crosswalk signals to a caveman? Well, first I’d explain cars. They’re like fast animals you can climb inside and control.”

The air wasn’t quite cold enough anymore to see my own breath.

“Cars are useful, because they can travel very far very quickly. But if a car hits someone, it would hurt. Imagine a mammoth trampling you—you know about mammoths, right, Thog, mister caveman? So we have crosswalk signals. They’re clever little boxes which put up a hand when it’s not safe because cars are coming.”

I held up a hand for Thog to see as an example—just in time to catch myself, because my foot slipped on a rock and I fell.

BEEP. Mile 15: 9:23 / 1:51:49.

My grunt of pain sounded like Thog: “Ugh!” My left knee and right hand were bleeding. I scrambled to my feet and kept running. From another pocket of my three-liter water-backpack, I withdrew some alcohol wipes and cleaned my injuries as I went. The sanitizer stung.

I could cry later.

I tore open another silver packet of running glop and slurped it down. This one was flavored like peanut-butter, a close competitor to chocolate. I washed it down with a sip from the hose of my three-liter water-backpack, which was almost half-empty. I’d be left thirsty by mile thirty.

My bleeding hand wasn’t a huge issue. It hurt, but lots of things hurt, and in a hundred-mile run, eventually everything would hurt.

My bleeding knee was more concerning. The impact threatened to reignite an old skiing injury.

I also felt a blister growing on my right foot ever since my 4:22 mile. It was about the size of a dime.

But so far so good. This pain was surface level.

Eventually hell would seep into my bones.

BEEP. Mile 16: 9:41 / 2:01:30.

I plugged my left nostril and fired a snot-rocket from the right. It landed in a neatly trimmed rosebush.

I had to hand it to Alphonse, the Bronson Estate was a sight to behold. With territory overlapping Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, the Bronsons owned a million acres of precisely cultivated wilderness. Alphonse brought business-partners here to ride horses and talk about whatever multi-billionaires talked about. It was the perfect place to luxuriate in richness. The view from the top of the mountain would be glorious.

Once I got there.

I couldn’t even see Alphonse and Champ anymore. They’d passed over the peak. Alphonse had probably made mile 20 and tossed the next flag to choose left or right at the fork. I knew he’d chose whichever trail was helpful for horses and harder for humans.

BEEP. Mile 17: 9:37 / 2:11:07.

The pain in my knee reminded me to watch my step along the trail. I didn’t want to slip again or stumble on a gopher hole.

I narrowly avoided another kind of obstacle: a stinkbug. Stepping on stinkbugs wasn’t the worst, but I’d rather not.

A lizard skittered across the path. A chipmunk or squirrel chattered near a tree.

A cool, low-flying cloud brushed by me on the switchbacks. In the last eight miles, I’d climbed at least 2,000 feet. I turned my head to see the trails stretching behind and below me. The morning sun cast long shadows of hills and trees.

I smiled. This connection to my surroundings was why I enjoyed endurance sports to begin with.

BEEP. Mile 18: 10:13 / 2:21:20.

Then I recalled the severity of my circumstances.

What would Alphonse do if he beat me to the finish line? His lawyers could claim my every possession and it wouldn’t come close to a million bucks.

I hadn’t lied when I said my bestselling book made me a millionaire, but money doesn’t last long when you have a habit of drinking, or gambling, and especially both at once. But that was behind me, and about 81 more miles were ahead. I had to win. I literally couldn’t afford to lose.

Of course, if I won, Alphonse could cut me a check and not even notice a million bucks missing from his bank account. He could blow his nose with a million bucks. He could wipe his butt with it.

BEEP. Mile 19: 9:52 / 2:31:12.

Finally the incline shallowed out and my pace naturally quickened. Within minutes I passed the peak and the landscape opened below me.

I almost cried.

Another mountain stood a few miles away, just as tall and twice as steep. At mile twenty, the trial forked; Alphonse had already tossed the flag toward the right, the quickest path to Mount Doom. I would only have a few easy miles to recover before climbing again.

I refrained from swearing and just ran. On the downhill slope, my strides were long and easy. If I really barreled, maybe I had a chance of passing the horse down the line.

BEEP. Mile 20: 7:32 / 2:38:44.

As I passed the flag, I noticed a note taped to a trashcan. I took the note and walked briskly with it.

“Hello, Jonas,” wrote Alphonse. “I hope you’re enjoying the view. Unfortunately, my accountant has bad news—he says he’s investigated your expenses and calculates that you might not have the funds to pay me back if you lose.

“Don’t worry, Jonas. If it comes to that, I’m sure we can work out an alternative arrangement. If you catch up, we can discuss this in person!”


2009

“And the winner is…”

Alphonse Bronson politely clapped for a cadre of school-children crossing the finish line. He knew he had to clap no matter how bored he really was when the cameras were on him and displayed him on the stadium’s jumbo-tron.

“Isn’t this fun?” A teacher bumped elbows with Alphonse. Alphonse dusted off his sleeve. “What a great experience for these kids, and for such a good cause! Thank you again for your generous donation to our organization.”

Alphonse smiled and nodded. His marketers said donating to charity would help his family’s public-image problems, but he’d have donated elsewhere if he knew this charity would make him waste an afternoon watching kids with medical problems run around a track. “Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.”

As the next group of kids lined up for the next race, the jumbo-tron displayed a celebrity in a tuxedo. The celebrity threw up peace-signs while an announcement played over the loudspeakers. Alphonse couldn’t hear, but the crowds of spectators cheered.

“What’s happened?” Alphonse asked the school-teacher beside him.

“He’s just made a donation,” she said. “From the cheers, it must have been a big one.”

Good, thought Alphonse. The cameras were off him. He took out a metal toothpick and sucked it. The minty flavoring was an appetite suppressant that kept him slim.

The teacher conferred with a woman beside her. “Really? Oh. Oh, dear. That’s… macabre.”

“What?” asked Alphonse.

“The donation,” the teacher relayed. “People normally donate to the charity itself, but that man in the tuxedo wants to fund medical care for the winner of the next race.”

Alphonse dropped the toothpick when he gaped. “Is that… legal?”

“I guess. And we are a charity—we couldn’t just turn down such a generous offer.” The teacher crossed her arms and shook her head. “Oh, look—that boy has a crutch, and that girl’s in a wheelchair. Those poor kids. It seems cruel to dangle that prize at the finish line.”

Alphonse swallowed. Here he was, bored out of his mind, and he hadn’t even thought to gamble. This changed everything. Suddenly the children looked like racehorses. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “The disabled kids were put in the race just for publicity. Neither could possibly win. They’re battling for second-to-last.”

“Well, maybe one of them will win. You never know. It’d be a good underdog story. And surely this will inspire more donations.”

“No, no.” Alphonse took out his wallet—crocodile skin—and withdrew a blank check. He waved it for the cameras. “We shan’t rely on fate. I’ll even the playing-field.”

“Oh! Mr. Bronson!” As Alphonse appeared on the jumbo-tron, the school-teacher kissed him on the cheek. “You’re so selfless!”

“I’ll pay every medical-bill for every kid on the track—for life—except,” he said, smiling wide, “last place. That’ll make this a race worth remembering.”

The school-teacher blinked. Alphonse pressed the blank check into her hands. The crowds cheered, at first, but the teacher’s draining expression on the jumbo-tron made them hush. “That’s… awful. We can’t do that…”

“Could you really turn down such a generous offer?” asked Alphonse. “The little girl’s got the advantage of a wheelchair, but the boy with the crutch is a few years older, taller, and leaner. Maybe he’s a high-school student, and she’s a middle-schooler? It’s really a toss-up.”

“You—you’re a monster!” She slapped his face. The crowds oohed.

“You’ll keep those kids from excellent medical care, just because you think I’m a monster?” Alphonse felt his cheek as he bent over the railing to admire the racers. “Monster-money is legal tender.”

The teacher gasped, then walked away sobbing.

The stadium was otherwise silent as the loudspeakers explained the grim donation. The girl in the wheelchair and the boy with a crutch shared a worried glance.

Alphonse almost drooled when the starting gun went off. All but two kids crossed the finish-line within a minute. Then the crowd watched the last two kids race neck-and-neck, and heard their panting, and the squeak of her wheelchair, and the plod of his crutch.

Next 10 Miles
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Homer VS the Machine, Part Two

(This is part ten of a fantasy serial starting here. Homer the minotaur managed to beat a dwarven machine at table-war, but then lost to the machine the next round. It’s Homer’s first loss, ever, and he didn’t take it well. A maze has sprung up around him.)


1

When the ground stopped shaking, half the dwarven throne-room was rubble scattered over a labyrinth. Then the Mountain Swallower’s laughter rumbled the arena. “I suppose my opponent forfeits?”

“We allow breaks between matches,” replied a gnome. “The minotaur has 15 minutes.”

“Hmmm.” The Mountain Swallower sat back on their throne. “The sun sets on our world reclaimed.”

The audience scrambled for safety as the new branches burst from the labyrinth.

“Fear not, gnome.” The Mountain Swallower pat a gnome’s head; this gnome had one arm and no jaw. “Gnomes will have a place in our dwarven future. As fellow creatures of the earth, only gnomes are fit to serve us.”

The crowd hushed. The Mountain Swallower looked up.

2

Aria Twine wore a new military blazer and a blue ring on her left hand.

“Where were you?” asked Jennifer.

“With my tailors, of course.”

“Homer could have used your support,” said Harvey.

“He won a round without me, didn’t he? If I support him too much, I’ll hold him back.” Aria examined the labyrinth. The walls seemed to breathe. “Looks like I arrived just in time.” A shifting entrance opened like a mouth.

“Your highness, please retreat,” said a gnome. “Entering a labyrinth is a dangerous—”

“If I don’t make it out, choose another Queen.” She tossed her crown onto her throne. “I’m not fit for it.”

She stepped into the labyrinth, and the entrance closed to swallow her.


Aria expected total darkness, but a silvery light came from… her hand? The sapphires on her new ring were glowing. With her left arm outstretched, the walls of the labyrinth showed their brickwork.

She had no plan of attack. She walked with her gloved right hand on the right wall. Voices from the audience outside the labyrinth faded away as she turned corners and found dead ends. Aria swore the only sound was slow breathing—her own, or Homer’s.

She tripped on a loose cobblestone. She knew the walls moved because she’d seen them shifting from outside, but didn’t believe it until she tripped on the same loose cobblestone again.

Maybe the maze’s exit had moved as well. Maybe there was no exit.

“Calm down, Aria,” she said to herself.

Now listening for sliding walls, Aria noticed the floors sloped at odd angles or became staircases up and down. Ladders led into dark chasms. She wondered if the floor moved underneath her.

She felt humid heat pouring around a corner. “Homer?” She followed his breath down a staircase and up a ladder. “Homer!”

As soon as Homer heard her, he turned away. A wall slid to divide them.

Aria dove for the gap, but knew she’d be crushed if she tried to slip by. Instead she tossed a scroll through the closing slit.

Seconds passed. Aria still heard Homer’s breath through the wall. “It took me months to finish that,” she said, hopefully loud enough for him to hear. “Do you remember when Anthrapas separated us for national security? I spent a lot of time on it then. I guess I missed you.”

The wall slid back open.

4

Homer held the maze he’d drawn for Aria ages ago. Aria had solved it.

“I took advantage of you,” she said, “but you’ve done more for me than you could ever know. And not just me—everyone depends on you.” Homer followed Aria’s escape-line with his one eye. “I should have been there for you—but you handled the first round against the machine, and you showed you don’t need me. But now I’m here for you anyway.”

Homer shook his head. “Alreddy over. Lozt.”

Aria wasn’t sure if he meant he was lost in the maze, or he’d lost to the dwarven machine. Either way: “It’s not over till it’s over.” Homer shook his head again. His horns marked the walls. “Every maze has an exit. Every problem can be solved.”

Homer opened his mouth to speak but knew he couldn’t produce the sounds he wanted. He grabbed Aria’s shoulder so gruffly she recoiled, but then tapped his fingers on her shoulder in gnomish. Aria’s gnomish was rusty, but she’d brushed up since becoming queen. “I can’t win. In the second round, the machine knew everything.”

“But not in the first round?” asked Aria. “Why not?”

“In the first round I made a trap in the real world,” tapped Homer, “but that won’t work twice. The dwarven machine is simulating our reality, and the parallel reality of table-war.”

“Then… the walls moved.” Aria held Homer’s hand in both of hers. “But you’ve escaped a labyrinth with moving walls once before, haven’t you?”

Homer ground his teeth. “Maybe the machine can hear us now. Maybe it can hear our thoughts.”

“Then give it something to really think about.” She hugged him.

Homer nodded.

The walls groaned. The ceiling split. As quickly as it had come the labyrinth was gone, like a passing thunderstorm.

5

Homer threw his eye-patch and goggles at the Mountain Swallower. “Negst round.”

The Mountain Swallower smiled. “Gnomes, how long will it take to prepare a new table? More than three minutes?”

“Of course,” said the nearest gnome, crawling over the rubble.

“Then the contest is over,” said the Mountain Swallower. “You had 15 minutes, minotaur. It’s been twelve.”

Homer matched hands with a gnome. “He has far more time,” translated the gnome. “The contest was interrupted by natural disaster, and its conclusion can be postponed for days.”

Aria smirked as she took her throne opposite the Mountain Swallower, who was agape. “A natural disaster? You destroyed the table yourself, minotaur!”

“And it was a natural disaster,” said Aria. “Anthrapas agreed Homer could represent the wild wastes. As an animal from the wastes who isn’t owned by any army, his labyrinth is legally a natural disaster, just like a blizzard brewing around my ice-dragon if it escaped into the wild.”

The Mountain Swallower slumped in their throne.

“Prepare the table,” said Homer, through his gnome. “I’m ready.”

While the gnomes rebuilt the table and floor and seating, an elf tapped Homer’s knee; it was one of Stephanie’s shortlings. The shortling gave Homer some brass cards and figurines. “These are from Victoria and me, on behalf of the queen.”

6

The sphinx, harpy, and centaur brought their own brasses and figurines. They were all beautifully painted. “I hope you find some use in us,” said the sphinx.

“I’m sure you can use this, too,” said Harvey, with another brass and figurine.

A gnome in jewelry gave Homer yet more to hold. “From Emperor Shobai, and Ebi Anago.”

Homer couldn’t tap messages to gnomes with his hands full, so as respectfully as he could, he set the gifts on the ground and touched the gnome’s shoulder. “I don’t need these,” he tapped.

“You don’t need to use them if they’d be in the way,” said the gnome, “but if you could put these pieces on the table it would mean a great deal culturally speaking, or so I’m told. Feelings of unity, and such.”

“But they might be killed in battle,” tapped Homer.

“That would be even better,” said the gnome.


The table was reconstructed sooner than anyone anticipated, but the dwarven war-machine was always ready. The Mountain Swallower sneered. “Faster, minotaur!”

“Hey!” Across the throne room, Aria Twine lounged across her throne. She pointed her gloved hand at the Mountain Swallower. “That’s my favorite commander you’re addressing.”

“If he’s truly a wild beast, he’s not you’re commander to own, is he?”

“I don’t own him. I’m just his biggest fan.” Aria admired her ring. “Tell you what: let’s make a bet.”

The audience turned to the Mountain Swallower, who already sat beside Homer’s goggles and eye-patch. “When my machine wins, I control the planet. What more could you wager?”

“If your machine won, how quickly could you execute me? I’d still have at least a second left to live, hm?” When Aria raised her ring, it cast blue light across the throne-room. “Time enough to destroy this in front of you.”

“Childish.” The Mountain Swallower chortled. “Dwarfs eat gems, but I’m not so desperate as to grovel for one.”

“But dwarfs aren’t the only ones to eat gems.” Aria gestured for a gnome to come close. “Open wide.”

“Don’t!” The Mountain Swallower’s shout shocked even itself. Aria popped her ring into the gnome’s mouth.

“Nod yes or no,” she said. “Gnomes eat gems, right? Creatures of the earth, and such?”

The gnome nodded.

“But gnomes don’t enjoy it, do they? Gnomes don’t enjoy anything.”

The gnome shook his head.

“So you’re tasting that priceless ring, and you’re not even enjoying it?”

The gnome nodded.

“If Homer loses, swallow, got it?”

The Mountain Swallower grumbled. “Your stalling is embarrassing everyone. What wager were you envisioning?”

“Now you’re talking.” Aria plucked her ring from the gnome’s mouth. “If your machine wins even one point this round, I’ll give you the ring myself. If it wins no points at all, I’ll need…” She reclined across her throne. “Your brain.”

“I accept.”

Murmurs swarmed the crowd. Seafolk bubbled in their tanks.

“My life is a paltry ante for a sure bet. Begin the match. Choose the location for battle, minotaur!”

Homer gave a gnome a brass card. Gnomes pounced upon the table and finished the map in a minute. It was featureless and flat.

Homer put all the figurines he’d received onto the table: a centaur, a harpy, a sphinx, a griffon, a giant crab, and three imps. As if that weren’t enough, he added Scales the ice-dragon and, to the murmurs of the crowd, his own likeness.

7

A gnome tugged Homer’s vest. “Are you sure, sir? If your game-piece dies, you won’t ever play official table-war again. The dwarven machine will win by concession.” Homer nodded.

The machine clicked.

A drawer opened containing six brass cards and six metal beads. Gnomes somberly carried the beads to the table. “Truly these are the end times,” said the front-most gnome.

When Aria squinted at the beads, the Mountain Swallower chortled. “The great demons, in their dormant state. Did you think I would bet my brain if I did not intend to win?”

Homer frowned. “Hou?”

The Mountain Swallower explained: “Gnomes, with flawless and rigorous logic, are the only ones who can control the great demons of old. But our machine, with its own gnome-brains, has the same potential. Even the gnomes recognize this, as they obviously permit the machine to use the great demons on the table,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Usher in the day of the dwarf.”

The gnomes around the table turned to Homer. “The loser of the last round may begin.”

Homer pointed to his figurine. His figurine pointed toward the dormant demons. Homer’s army advanced.

The dormant demons, barely big as beads, suddenly swelled. Homer couldn’t imagine the intricate mechanisms in the demons’ figurines so they could expand in size a hundred times.

8

Homer’s sphinx expanded, also, and bounded across the table. She swatted the two-headed demon and sent it sailing. In the audience, the actual sphinx mewled proudly.

Then the other five demons leapt upon her game-piece. They kept expanding in size until they weighed her down. When they were big enough, they swallowed her whole.

Homer’s other figurines shivered with fear—the gnomes were meticulous in portraying the battle’s gruesome detail.

Homer pointed to Scales. His figurine boarded the dragon and led the charge.

The demons kept getting bigger, and bigger, but their forms were swirling, amorphous, and invulnerable. They smashed the imps underfoot. They crushed the centaur with big, clumsy hands. Scales reared back and unleashed a blizzard upon the monsters, but they didn’t even slow down.

One of the demons pulled a great, black sword from their own chest and used it to cut the crab in half. The other demons retrieved their own weapons from inside themselves and rolled toward Homer’s army brandishing them.

Homer pointed toward the ceiling and tapped fingers with a gnome. The gnome showed how Homer’s remaining army scattered; Scales, the harpy, and the griffon flew in different directions.

“Not soon enough, minotaur.” The Mountain Swallower giggled when a demon cracked his great, black whip and snapped the griffon out of the air. Another demon threw their spear and pierced the harpy through the heart.

Scales kept flying upward, with Homer’s figurine clinging to its neck.

11

“Too easy,” said the Mountain Swallower. The largest demon threw their ax into the sky. It cut Scales and Homer into two. “The game ends.”

The audience was silent. At the same moment, everyone in the throne-room realized why the silence felt so suffocating: the dwarven machine no longer clicked and clacked with calculations. It was utterly quiet.

Homer folded his arms awaiting the verdict.

“Indeed, the game ends.” Six gnomes took the table. “It ends with a tie. The contest is now over. Dwarfs remain bound to the treaty limiting bloodshed to table-war.”

The Mountain Swallower stood. “What do you mean? What happened? The opposing commander is dead!”

“Both commanders are dead,” said the gnomes. They showed Homer’s bisected figurine. “Zero points, all around.”

“My machine is not dead,” said the Mountain Swallower. “It wasn’t even on the table!”

“Correct.” The gnomes rebuilt the table to show how the thrown ax spun through the air, landing elsewhere. “Your machine is over here.” They built a model of the throne room, which the ax split open.

12

Homer put his hand to a gnome’s. “We’re more nearby your throne-room than you thought?” translated the gnome. The Mountain Swallower swallowed. “Homer says the first round, he forced your machine start simulating the real world in addition to the parallel world of official table-war. Because your machine has accidentally killed its own game-piece while killing Homer’s, your machine now believes it is dead.”

Now the suffocating silence even seemed to stop the audience’s hearts, until Aria laughed. “Homer, you really had me going!”

Homer released his translator gnome to recross his arms, and puffed out both nostrils. “My piece,” he said aloud, “for your machine.”

The Mountain Swallower swallowed again, and gestured for six dwarfs to open the machine and inspect the contents. The machine was totally inert.

“I see. Then…”

The Mountain Swallower stood.

“A deal is a deal. Your highness, Aria Twine, I present—”

The lord of the dwarfs opened up its own head.

“My brain.”

It pulled its brain out and held it aloft. It looked just like a gnome’s.

13

Final chapter
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