My latest (longest!) video is about five different books all about running. Born to Run, Eat and Run, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Running with the Mind of Meditation, and the Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei all provide a weird insight into long-distance running and how it affects us.
(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.)
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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“I’m enlightened, Thog. I don’t care if I win a million bucks. I don’t care if I lose my legs.”
“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!”
“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.”
“In some races, that would disqualify you.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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!”
“We’ve got a publisher!”
“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 Race! That’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.”
(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.)
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.”
“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?”
“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.
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 heels? Fucking 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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
(This is part eight 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, and this section is gonna get gruesome, so be warned, like, really, but first, a flashback.)
Jonas was running drunk. He’d run to the Bronson Place so many times he knew the way even after a few too many beers. A narrow trail carved by dirt-bike-traffic led between valleys to a cement bunker in a little-known portion of Alphonse’s estate. Jonas jogged to the bunker through a motorcycle parking-lot and thumbed a code on a keypad. A metal door opened to velveteen stairs into the earth. The stairwell was lined with silk curtains lit by chandelier.
“Yo, Jonas.” A man in a leather jacket took Jonas’ water-backpack like a butler taking a coat. The security at Alphonse’s estate was exclusively bikers, or at least dressed like it. The clientele themselves arrived by helicopter in tuxedo. “You ran all the way here again, huh?”
“Of course.” Jonas twisted sweat from his headband on the stairwell into the deep. “It’s only twenty miles.”
The man in leather gave Jonas a vodka tonic, on the house. Jonas drank it down. “Need a ride home after this?”
“Nah, nah, I’ll just run. It’s only twenty miles back, too.” Jonas and the man in leather passed through oak doors into an underground casino. Billionaires in black tie bunched around roulette-wheels. Jonas turned away from them and walked into a slim service-corridor. “Can I use your showers again? I worked up a sweat.”
“Sure, sure. I’ll put your water-thingy in a locker. Oh, and, uh, Jonas.” The man in leather pat Jonas’ shoulder. “After your shower, Alphonse wants to speak with you.”
“Seriously?” Jonas scratched his head. “How come? We’ve never met in person before. I don’t even know why he invited me to the casino.” The man in leather shrugged. “I’d rather not see him. Your boss gives me the creeps.”
“Ha, yeah, Alphonse does that. When he’s done talking your ear off, join the gang in the laundry room. We’ve got the nudie-deck again.”
As he showered, Jonas dreaded meeting Alphonse. Jonas had deep antipathy for the Bronsons even if he enjoyed playing cards in the casino’s laundry room, and all the free drinks. Maybe Alphonse had invited him to apologize for the childhood charity-race—or maybe Alphonse had forgotten about that charity-race entirely and had ulterior motives.
Jonas changed into fresh running gear from his locker. He wondered when and where he’d meet Alphonse, but he didn’t wonder long. Alphonse was standing outside the door to the showers when Jonas stepped out. “Jonas!”
“Uh, sir!” Jonas almost saluted at the sight of Alphonse’s gaudy military jacket. “I heard you wanted to see me?”
Alphonse took a good, long look. He appraised Jonas like a horse. “Have you enjoyed my private casino, Jonas?”
“Yeah. No clue why you invited me, but I’m sure glad you did. This is a nice place.”
“You haven’t seen half of it! Let me give you a tour which will explain everything.” Alphonse led Jonas around roulette tables. Jonas felt awkward in his running gear among the tuxedos. “I heard you ran here this morning. Is it because you like my estate?”
“Of course. It’s gorgeous.”
Alphonse laughed as they passed poker-tables. “This casino is in the estate’s back-lot. The estate proper is truly a spectacle. Please, through here.” Alphonse led Jonas through diamond-studded platinum doors. Jonas sniffed: he smelled horseshit. “Welcome to where the real action happens. My heart and soul is in this room, Jonas. Sit down.”
Jonas joined Alphonse in stadium-seating. A whole horse-track had been excavated under the Bronson Estate. The stands were optimistically large; barely a tenth of the seats were occupied by extravagantly wealthy businessmen or members of their entourage.
A gun went off, and Jonas jumped up in surprise. “Ha!” Alphonse pulled Jonas back into his seat. “You’re an eager one, aren’t you?” Now Jonas noticed ten horses racing across the track. They ran from one wall to the other where sliding gates hid the horses both before and after the race. “In this room, we don’t bet money. We bet whole horses! Everyone here brings a horse or two to ante.” Spectators cheered or ripped up bad bets. “I wager my own horses all the time. It’s a thrill!”
“Wow.” Jonas rubbed his chin-stubble. “How does it work? Does the owner of the winning horse get to take the losing horse home, or something?”
“Or something!” said Alphonse. “I knew you’d understand! You’re a racer, too, at heart.”
“Yeah, um… I don’t know if you know this, Alphonse, but I’m sort of… off the racing circuit, ever since my book came out. I just run for the sport of it, now.”
“Even better! It’s more natural that way.” Alphonse clapped. “I want you to give me an edge against the competition, Jonas. My horses are already the best, but only because I learn from the best. Now I want to learn from you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Beat my best horse in a race. I’ll pay handsomely if you can show me room to improve.”
Jonas gaped dumbly. “You want me… to run… in there?” He pointed to the track. “I can’t run half as fast as those horses. No one can.”
Alphonse chortled and slapped Jonas on the back. “You’re right, too right! But I’m proposing a race on your level—an ultra-marathon, a hundred miles around my beautiful estate. Could a human beat a horse then?”
“Um… maybe. It’s been done before, but I can’t guarantee I could do it.”
“Would you give yourself 50/50 odds?”
Jonas considered. Alphonse licked his lips. “I guess.”
“Then let’s make a wager! We’ll each ante a million dollars, and the winner of a 100-mile race takes it all.”
Jonas shook his head. “No way.”
Alphonse pretended not to hear as he flagged down a cocktail-waitress. “Bring my friend and me two of those Mojitos. Jonas, the rum in these drinks is worth more than most of those horses. Drink up!” Jonas never turned down a drink. It wasn’t a bad Mojito. “Now, what were you saying?”
“I don’t have the liquid funds for that bet, Alphonse. I just play cards with the security gang in the laundry room. What we gamble would be pocket-lint to you.”
“Jonas, Jonas, Jonas. It’s not about the money! You’re a winner! You won The Great Race, didn’t you?”
Jonas inhaled. “Well, not really. It turned out someone else had won.”
“Who cares? You came first first. Who cares who came first second? I won’t take it easy on you, but I pray you can outrace Champ, Jonas. I’m begging to pay you your winnings.”
“I… I’ll think about it.” Jonas stood, staggering drunk. “But for now, the answer is no.”
When Jonas made it to the laundry room, the security gang in leather jackets were playing cards around an ironing-board. “Yo, Jonas!”
“You really ran here again this morning?” A man in sunglasses dealt Jonas a hand and a free drink. “What did Alphonse want with you?”
Jonas drank up. “I think I’m gonna race a horse.”
BEEP. Mile 71: 21:34 / 11:13:59.
“I think I’m gonna die,” I said. Whitney rolled her eyes and passed me the hose to her water-backpack. I drank. “I fuckin’ inhaled that pizza. I’m bursting.”
Whitney drank, too. “I once watched you eat a full Thanksgiving dinner ninety-seven miles into a 144-mile race. You’ll survive.”
“Ooh, that cranberry-sauce was worth bursting for.” I pat my stomach. “Don’t they make a cranberry-flavored running gel? Do we have one of those?”
“I thought you hated the fruity ones.” Whitney checked her backpack. “I’ve just got peanut-butter and chocolate.”
“Man, screw peanut-butter. Gimme a chocolate.” I tore open the silver packet of running glop and slurped it down. “Aaugh, I’m popping like a balloon.”
“That Turkey Trot was a nice run, wasn’t it,” said Whitney. “The weather was perfect.”
“And that cranberry-sauce.”
“I’ve had years of fun running with you, Jonas. I’m sorry I kicked you out after The Great Race.”
“I didn’t mean to cheat. I promise.”
“I don’t know if I believe you, but who can say what’s good or bad?” Whitney grinned and punched my left shoulder. “It made a great book. I’m sorry you come across as the bad-guy.”
“Nah, nah. Considering you wrote the book from my perspective, you could’ve been a lot more vindictive. Thanks for pulling your punches.”
“I didn’t know you ever read Live to Run.”
“I haven’t, but I’ve read comments on internet forums about it. It’s cathartic to see people online arguing about whether I’m a shithead or not.”
“Why’d the jockey pick this path?” wondered Whitney as we panted up the mountain. “Hermes said the horse didn’t look so good. Maybe you were right: the jockey picked left at mile 60 because the horse couldn’t take the steeper slope. So why’d she pick more uphill at mile 70?”
“Hermes said Alphonse injected the horse with something,” said Whitney. “Maybe it gave Champ a second-wind.”
“I gotta get me one of those injections.”
BEEP. Mile 72: 18:51 / 11:32:50.
“Yeah, you could use a pick-me-up,” said Whitney. “I promised you’d beat the horse to mile 80, didn’t I?”
“Are you hiding a syringe you didn’t tell me abououwoah.” Whitney took off her visibility vest and sports bra.
I could only obey. Her naked back demanded I keep up. “Whitney, you don’t need to do this. It can’t be comfy bouncing around like that.”
“Jonas, you once ran ten miles without pants pacing me on a hundo. Just keep this up, it’s downhill for the rest of the race.”
BEEP. Mile 73: 11:19 / 11:44:09.
Hermes’ fanny-pack bounced against his fanny as he puffed down the trail.
Jonas said he lost his visibility vest around mile 68. Why did Jonas turn down a new vest in favor of finding the old one? Hermes could only imagine Jonas was trying to lead him somewhere.
Hermes pointed a flashlight off the trail. The light blared back off the neon-yellow vest, ten feet down the steep slope. It was tied to an old tree’s roots.
Hermes sat on the side of the trail and slid down the slope on his ass. He thought he would grab the vest and keep sliding down to the next switchback, but he suddenly slid into a ditch hidden in the dark. “Whoa!” He braced his legs against the opposite wall before he fell more than a meter. “Phoo-boy.”
He glimpsed down the ditch. It was so deep his headlamp didn’t illuminate the bottom, but what it did illuminate made Hermes double-take. There was a skeleton down there.
BEEP. Mile 74: 8:46 / 11:52:55.
“Easy peasy.” The downhill slope agreed with me. “Georgie Masawa would’ve been home-free if he made it over that peak.”
“You’ve run almost three marathons,” said Whitney. “How’s your knee?”
I extended my left leg for a few paces. As my leg straightened, the kneecap clicked from right to left, and it clicked back when my leg bent. “Starting to click, but it hardly aches yet. I pity myself in ten miles.”
“Hey, what’s that?” Whitney pointed, and I pulled my gaze from her chest to see bright white flour or chalk-powder poured in an arrow. It pointed right, toward a narrow trail. “There’s another fork in the road.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. “This fork wasn’t on any maps.”
“Well, any maps of the Bronson Estate are probably out-of-date anyway.” Whitney bounced on her heels waiting for me. “Who drew this arrow? It must have been some estate-agent clarifying the path for us.”
“Maybe it was Alphonse, trying to trick us into going the wrong way.”
“You’re overthinking it, Jonas.” Whitney followed the arrow right.
BEEP. Mile 75: 8:51 / 12:01:46.
“I don’t know,” I said, following. “Does this really match the other trails in the estate?”
Whitney scanned the ground with her headlamp. “I guess you’ve run fifty more miles here than I have, so you’d know. But you’re also hallucinating, so I’m not sure I trust your senses.”
“I don’t think I’m hallucinating right now. I mean, do you see that?” I pointed just off the trail to an old discarded toy: a plush horse’s head on a wooden pole. It had a little cowboy-hat.
“I do see it. Weird.”
“So I’m seeing straight, at least. Doesn’t this zigzag in the dirt look like a tire-track?”
“It does, a little. But you couldn’t get a car out here on the trail.”
“Not a car-tire.” I grit my teeth. “This trail was made by motorcycles. Alphonse sent his dirt-biker goons to mislead us.” Confirming my paranoia, the trail ended, drowned by grass and brush. “There’s nowhere to go from here. We have to turn back.”
BEEP. Mile 76 (75): 9:02 / 12:10:48.
“Shit.” Whitney fiddled with her GPS-watch while we turned around. “By the time we get back to the fork, our run-tracker will be off by two miles. It’ll say 77 when you’re at 75.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Should I restart the watch with a fresh run?”
“No, no.” I panted uphill. It was so steep we had to walk again. “I have a sinking feeling the GPS-record of this race will be historically important one day.”
Whitney led the pace. “Come on. The faster we get back to the fork, the faster we can head downhill again.”
“…Whitney…” I cupped my hands around my ears. “Do you hear a helicopter?”
She looked at the sky. “You’re not hallucinating. I hear it too. Better dress up.” She donned her sports-bra. “Maybe Alphonse is bothering Hermes and Kevin again. I don’t know if I should tell you this, but Alphonse shot down two drones.”
“Kevin got your pizzas here by drone—you know, those itty-bitty helicopter-robot things. Try explaining that to a caveman.”
“And Alphonse shot them down? Holy shit. What a loser.”
“Excuse me!” Spotlights blew out our vision. Whitney and I almost collapsed in shock. Alphonse was waiting for us at the fork. Behind him, two men in leather jackets emerged from the helicopter as the blades spun down. “A loser, am I, Jonas? At least my jockey stayed on-course.”
“There’s an arrow leading to a dead-end.” Whitney tried to show him, but the helicopter’s arrival had blown the arrow away. “Well, there was.”
“That wouldn’t excuse your exploration,” said Alphonse.
“There are tire-tracks,” I said. “It looks like your security gang made this dead-end with their dirt-bikes and motorcycles.”
The men in leather shrugged, and Alphonse shrugged with them. “How my security-personnel choose to patrol the estate is none of my concern. I didn’t tell them to do this.”
“I bet you didn’t,” I said. “I bet you just winked at them and they knew exactly what to do. But—that doesn’t matter. I’ve got a horse to catch.” I started running down the correct trail, and Whitney followed me, but we both froze when we heard a pistol click.
Alphonse pointed the barrel at my heart. “You ran a mile off-course, and then a mile back. The nominal fee for sporting in the Bronson Estate is ten thousand dollars per mile. I waived that fee for this gamble, but if you’re going to tour, I’ll have to charge. I need twenty thousand dollars, Jonas. Here and now.”
I had my hands up, almost speechless. “Dude.”
Whitney filled in for me. “We don’t carry that kind of money on us, Mr. Bronson.”
“Oh? But you’re already halfway there.” Alphonse walked close enough to count the horses engraved in his pistol’s grip. He plucked the toothpick from my shirt-collar. “This silver ruby-handled toothpick is worth ten thousand on its own. You’re just ten thousand short.”
“Maybe you can add it to the gamble,” I suggested. “If I lose, I owe you another ten grand.”
“I want my money now, Jonas, but I’m not an unreasonable man. I’ll settle for—your finger.”
Alphonse pointed the pistol at my left hand. “I saw you flip me off at mile 55. You thought I wouldn’t notice, hmm? I value the offending digit at ten thousand dollars.”
“Ridiculous,” balked Whitney. “Where were you at mile 55? I sure didn’t see you. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever seen you in person. When did Jonas have the opportunity to flip you off?”
“You’re a bad liar, young lady.” Alphonse presented the toothpick and depressed the ruby handle with his thumb. The toothpick spoke with my voice and with Whitney’s.
“I don’t need any help to flip someone off,” said the toothpick, as me. “Take that, Alphonse.”
“Careful,” said the toothpick, as Whitney. “If he’s really spying on us, he might take that personally.” Alphonse released the ruby handle.
“You… bugged us?” asked Whitney.
“I heard everything,” said Alphonse. “I heard you talk to Thog. I heard you flip me off. I heard you vomit all over my beautiful estate. You owe me ten thousand dollars, Jonas, and you’re going to pay.”
“I’ll pay,” said Whitney. “I’ll call my bank while we run and arrange a transfer from my savings. Just leave us alone.”
“Stop talking, young lady,” said Alphonse. “You’ve run twenty-seven miles on my property so far, and you’re lucky I’ve elected not to charge you for it. By all rights you and your friends owe me well over a million dollars. Instead I’m asking for just one finger. And you can’t take another step until I get it.”
“No,” said Whitney. “I knew you were a twisted sicko, but get fucked, scumbag.”
“Wait.” I showed him my hands. “Which finger, Alphonse?”
“The middle one, obviously,” said Alphonse. “I’ll let you choose your left or right hand, since I’m not sure which you used to insult me.”
“I used my right hand. Now, can we go?”
“Not with my property, Jonas. I want that finger now. And I want the left one.”
I sweat. “Why?”
“Because you flipped me off with your left hand, Jonas. I took photos.” His goons in leather flanked me. “Besides, I know you’re left-handed. Leave double-reverse-psychology to business-men.”
“Leave him alone!” Whitney was crying angry now. “You’re holding us up!”
“Just take it, Alphonse, and make it quick.” I held up my left hand for him. “Stop wasting our time and do what you’re gonna do.”
“Okay. So you see, I own this toothpick now, and I own this finger now, so I’m well within my rights to—” Alphonse jammed the minty metal toothpick under my middle-finger’s nail. I yelped in surprise, but that didn’t stop Alphonse. He grabbed my wrist and pushed the toothpick an inch into my finger. His goons in leather held me steady by my shoulders.
Even if I could describe the pain, I’d still spare you the details. It made me forget my aching legs, my bleeding palms, and my foot-blisters. All I could do was shout and swear and knock my knees. The minty flavor burned. “Alphonse—” I sputtered, “—take the finger!”
Alphonse shot the knuckle with his pistol. He plucked the fallen finger from a puddle of my blood and his goons dropped me into the same puddle, writhing. Whitney sobbed, but it was actually a relief to lose the needle under my nail. “Jonas!” she wept.
“Aaaugh!” I rolled, clutching my fist. “Alphonse, you sick bastard!”
“Careful. You might accidentally hurt my feelings.” Alphonse squat beside me. “Do you know why I want your legs, Jonas?”
“Of course not, you crazy cretin! The bet’s off, get me outta here!”
“It’s not for the scientific merit. Oh, the lab-boys will have fun examining your musculature, but there’s nothing for me to learn from your legs, Jonas.” I hyperventilated; maybe if I breathed hard enough, I’d get my finger back. Whitney moved to help me up but men in leather stood between us. “Jonas, do you imagine I’ll take your legs all at once?” Alphonse leaned in close. “I’ll take your legs millimeter by millimeter, Jonas. Your agony will be legendary.” He just stared for a moment. I looked back breathlessly. “Run, Jonas. You too, young lady.”
We could only obey.
BEEP. Mile 77 (75): 27:23 / 12:38:11.
“Holy shit,” I panted. “Holy shit.”
“Jesus Christ.” Whitney fished in her water-backpack. “Quick, have some ibuprofen.”
“Are you kidding me Whitney ibuprofen is not gonna fucking cut it.”
“Drink!” I drank from the hose of her backpack and swallowed the pills she handed me. “That’s some salt tabs, too. Lemme get my first-aid-kit.”
“I can’t believe that actually happened.” The helicopter flew right over us. Adrenaline made me run faster than I thought I was possible. “Oh my god, oh my god.”
“Here.” Whitney doused my knuckle-stump with alcohol. She put medical-tape on a cotton-ball and stuck it to the nub. “Hermes will do better than that once we get to mile 80.”
“82,” I corrected her.
BEEP. Mile 78 (76): 7:12 / 12:45:23.
“That’s a mighty-fine pace, Jonas.”
“Of course. I weigh less now.” I held up the knuckle-stump. “A finger’s gotta weigh, what, a pound?”
Whitney almost chuckled. “See, sometimes gallows humor is all that can keep us moving.”
“If I win the race, I’ll buy my finger back from Alphonse. Maybe a hospital can reattach it. Hell, maybe they could reattach my legs, too, if we collect the dough.”
“Maybe we won’t need to.” Whitney pointed. “Look!”
Fresh dung! “Champ must’ve been here not too long ago.”
“And he’s struggling.” Whitney pointed her headlamp at some bloody hoof-prints on a rock. “We can still win the flag at mile 80. 82, I mean.”
“Beep,” I said. “I just finished three marathons in under 13 hours. Not too shabby.”
“If Alphonse hadn’t tricked us out of two miles, we’d be ahead of the horse by now,” said Whitney. “Let’s cut the chatter and bomb this hill.”
BEEP. Mile 79 (77): 6:52 / 12:52:15.
BEEP. Mile 80 (78): 5:46 / 12:58:01.
Kevin honked his car’s horn. “Yo! Hermes!”
Hermes looked over his shoulder and ran to the side of the service-road while Kevin parked. Hermes sat in the car and buckled up. “I figured I might beat you to mile 80 on foot. What took so long?”
“I got your photos developed.” Kevin tossed Hermes the pictures of Sandra and Alphonse with Champ. “You can really see her spurs, huh? They’re reflecting the light from Alphonse’s helicopter. And the horse’s blood shows up pretty well, too. Nice shots, man. Didn’t take much Photoshop to clean up.”
“What are you gonna do with these?”
“Already done, chief.” Kevin sped along the winding service-road. “I posted those photos online everywhere I could. I’ve got two-hundred-thousand followers on Instagram alone. Some are big names in the media who’ll be eager to get some dirt on the Bronson family.”
“Do you really think they’ll see?”
“Of course! I tagged Jonas and Whitney in the post. Half my followers are fans of their book. They’ll share those photos everywhere.”
Hermes pulled a water-bottle from his fanny-pack and gulped most of it down. “Are you sure about this, Kev? Alphonse is gonna flip.”
“I hope he sues me,” said Kevin. “Craig’s been talking with his lawyers since Alphonse shot down the first drone. Jonas bumbled into a social-media diamond-mine, and Craig’s got the capital to put it on billboards. Hey, what happened to you, Hermes? You’re bleeding on the seat.”
“Yeah, sorry. Jonas asked me to find a visibility vest he lost, and I took a tumble.”
“Huh.” Kevin examined Hermes’ scratches. “Did you find the vest?”
“Yeah, but I left it where I found it.”
Hermes chewed his beard. “You ever heard of Georgie Masawa?”
BEEP. Mile 81 (79): 5:37 / 13:03:38.
Whitney couldn’t restrain herself from shouting. “Hoy, hoy! Outta the way!”
As we passed her, the jockey sat up straight in the saddle and spurred the horse. “Yah! Yah!” Champ limped a little quicker, and his limping kept up with our sprint.
“What’s your name?” shouted Whitney at the jockey. I was shocked she could shout so loudly at this pace. “You! Answer me! What’s your name!”
“Sandra,” said the jockey. “Who’s asking?”
“Well, Jonas, is it her?” I nodded. “Then say whatcha gotta say.”
“You’re not in your wheelchair,” I panted. “I only knew your name because it was written on the back.”
Sandra blinked. “Huh?”
“I’m sure you don’t recognize me,” I panted. “You were ahead most of the race.”
“What the hell are you on about?”
“I was the kid on the crutch, Sandra. And then you ate my pizza.”
I sprinted ahead. Whitney ran interference.
BEEP. Mile 82 (80): 5:59 / 13:09:37.
I grabbed the flag. Champ plodded just behind us. “Pfft. Big deal,” said Sandra. “Which way?”
“Nuh-uh.” I clutched the flag in both hands, all nine fingers. “You can’t continue the race until I choose left or right, so now you gotta put up with my bullshit!”
Sandra squinted at me. “Okay, get on with it.”
“I— I—” I pointed the flag at her. “I pity you, Sandra. I really do. I’m glad I lost that charity race. If I became Alphonse’s lackey, I’d be living in hell, like you. I’m missing a finger and I pity you. I pity you, I pity the horse, I pity Alphonse!”
“Okay, so toss the flag,” said Sandra.
I considered the fork. Both trails led downhill, but the trail right was more rocky.
Whitney waved at the service-road. “Here come Hermes and Kevin!”
Kevin parked and stepped out of his car with a disposable camera. “Sorry we’re late. Say cheese!” He took a photo of Whitney and me, then tossed us our own disposable cameras. “Exposing animal-abuse is newsworthy stuff, so take plenty of pictures of that ho, ho, holy shit! Jonas! Your hand!”
I looked down. Blood had streamed down my body. “Yeah.”
“Now do you believe me, Kev? I told you what I saw.” Hermes brought a first-aid kit. “I found your vest, Jonas.” I nodded in understanding. Before he treated my finger, he offered me race-food from his fanny-pack. I ate fistfuls of salty roasted almonds.
“Kevin, look at this.” Whitney took photos of Champ’s hooves—all three and a half of them. “The horse lost half a hoof a few miles ago. No wonder we caught up.”
Sandra folded her arms. “I’m waiting for the flag, you guys.”
Hermes wrapped tight bandages around my wound. “Do you have the finger?” I shook my head. “What happened to it?”
“Alphonse owns it now.”
“Do you want to keep running?”
“Don’t have much of a choice. I’m in it to win it.”
“I’ll call the police anyway. Keep this elevated.” Hermes pat my butt. “Which way are you headed, left or right?”
“I haven’t decided.”
Sandra groaned. “Come on, already!”
Kevin shot close-ups of the horse’s injury. “The trail to the right looks more rocky, Jonas. I bet it’d chip more off this hoof.”
I shook my head. “I don’t wanna do that sorta thing on purpose. I already feel bad for Champ.”
“Jonas. Buddy.” Kevin slapped my back. “Give ’em hell, Mountain-King.”
I tossed the flag right. Sandra took off.
Whitney and I ran after her. Kevin and Hermes got back in their car. “More pizza!” I shouted at them as they pulled away.
“And a veggie-smoothie!” shouted Whitney. “Jonas, you’ve told me why you’re racing the horse, but how did you get the opportunity?”
I pursed my lips. “Long story short, I’m an idiot, and Alphonse knew it. He wanted my legs and he suckered me in. I guess he wants to outdo his father’s race with Masawa.”
“Hm.” Whitney considered. “But why did Father Bronson race Masawa?”
“Why did your father race Masawa?”
Alphonse and Sandra were drinking tea on the veranda overlooking the estate. Alphonse polished the buttons of his gaudy military jacket, which he’d just received as per his father’s will. “Georgie Masawa came to our mansion without warning. I think it was my birthday, because I recall my father gave me a gift. It was a plush horse’s head on a wooden pole.”
“Aw. That’s nice.”
“I hated it,” said Alphonse. “My father was trying to make me love horses, and I wouldn’t comply. I threatened to destroy the toy he gave me, but as a child I wasn’t strong enough.”
“But back to Georgie. What did he want with the Bronsons?”
“Oh, something or other about his tribe in South-America, or maybe South-Africa? He blamed my father for their plight.”
“Well, what was the plight? Was it really your father’s fault?”
“I think he confused my father for my grandfather,” said Alphonse. “My grandfather was a real Bronson. This is his jacket, you know. When he left the old country, they blamed him for the collapsing economy.”
“What was that country? Where are you from?”
“No way to know,” said Alphonse. “Without my grandpa, the country crumbled so pathetically no one knows its name anymore. I don’t, anyway. Losers. Anyway, Georgie was upset about it, and he demanded my father make amends. My father asked him how he got to our mansion without a horse. Back then there were no service-roads in the estate, and narrower trails, so Georgie couldn’t have driven. Georgie said he ran here from Cape Horn. My father was impressed, and said if he could win a race against a horse, the Bronsons would sponsor the tribe, or whatever.”
“Huh.” Sandra surveyed the estate. “Then what?”
Three shots echoed across the estate. Masawa made no sound when he hit the dirt. Father Bronson stowed his silver pistol in his gaudy military jacket. “That’ll teach you to make threats on my property.” Georgie rolled and clutched his chest, but he was smiling. Father Bronson scowled. “What’s that look for?”
“You finished the job,” said Georgie. “You Bronsons killed my whole family.”
“You keep saying that,” said Father Bronson, “but from how you spelled it out, I’ll sleep easy tonight. My family has never touched yours.”
“Your father took everything from us.”
“Is there any evidence of that? Besides, that’s my father, not me.”
“You continue his legacy. You pipe chemicals through our homeland. Last month the pipes leaked, and killed my parents and sister. The pipes read Bronson.”
“Those pipes are vital to glue-manufacturing, and completely safe as determined by the letter of the law. If your people are so good at running, why don’t you just run somewhere else?”
Georgie chuckled while he bled to death. Father Bronson pushed Georgie’s corpse with the heel of his boot until it slid down a switchback and tumbled into a ditch. Then Father Bronson mounted his horse and returned to Alphonse, several miles away. “I bagged the deer, son. Back on, boy.”
Alphonse dismounted his toy horse and prepared to board the real one, but hesitated. “I don’t wanna ride the horse. My legs hurt. I don’t wanna race no more.”
Father Bronson furrowed his brow. “Not much longer, son. Just thirty miles back home. And the race is over; I can’t find Masawa anywhere. He must have given up, or gotten lost. So join me in the saddle with pride.”
“But I don’t wanna!” Alphonse threw his horse-toy like a javelin. It landed somewhere in the night.
Father Bronson bit back his anger. He picked up his son by the collar and set him on the saddle. “You’ll learn to appreciate horses, son.” Alphonse pouted. “Tomorrow I’ll take you to the races. You’ll love it, and learn the finer elements of life.”
“And I did,” said Alphonse. “Now I understand horses are the mark of a fine man.”
“Okay, so how’s your own horse-race fit into this?” asked Sandra. “What do you want to improve on your father’s race with Masawa?”
“Well, the race ended prematurely.” Alphonse poured more tea. “What an anticlimax. Hardly masculine, accepting surrender. I want to race a man who can’t afford to quit—a man who will chase me to the end. I want to establish my indomitable dominance over a public figure more well-known that Masawa. Someone with farther to fall.”
“Why?” Sandra poured sugar in her tea. “Do you really want to attract all that attention? You always tell me the media is a Bronson’s worst enemy.”
“I’ll control the narrative.” Alphonse sipped his tea. “I’ve already arranged things with my teams of lawyers. No one’s allowed to film on my property, and I own this land from heaven to hell—no news-choppers. Have you met my private helicopter-pilot?”
“A genius in every sense,” said Alphonse. “A military man who fought in… some war, I can’t recall. He owes his life to the Bronsons, like you owe me your legs.” Sandra felt the wheels of her wheelchair. “He manages my security personnel, among other things.”
“Oh, the guys in leather jackets? What’s his name?”
(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.)
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.”
“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?”
“Got a headache?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
Tears streamed down my cheeks. Whitney gave me the hose to her water-backpack. I drank deep. “I can’t stop here, Whitney.”
“Don’t let me stop. I have to win the race.”
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.”
“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.”
“You should know something, Masawa. My horse can run a bit faster than this.”
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.”
“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?”
“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 native 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.”
By mile 70, it’s getting dark and spooky.
This is a bit of an issue, because by my own reckoning, it’s only about four or five in the afternoon. When Jonas was around mile 31, Kevin was just waking up at 10:00 AM. According to this website the sun shouldn’t finish setting for another hour or so, at least.
Lemme show you a quick spreadsheet: the first column is the mile number, then the next column is Jonas’ time on that mile, then the total time elapsed since the start of the race, then Jonas’ average pace thus far. The last column shows the current time, based on Kevin’s alarm at 10 AM, in red.
I’m not stressing about the realism of the race’s chronology right now. By changing the time in the red box, I can adjust the whole column at once. Maybe Kevin sets his alarm for 11 AM, or noon. It’ll be whatever makes sense when all’s said and done.
I’ve watched some documentaries about ultra-marathons, and it seems the races normally begin early in the morning, before sunrise. So the beginning of the race is about right, but I don’t mind changing it a little.
I’ve also made a little elevation map. So far it doesn’t look too ridiculous.
See you next time!
PS. The first time I wrote this, Georgie Masawa was a Tarahumara, from a South-American tribe of natural runners providing campfire-legends for ultra-racers. I think the running community at large first learned of Tarahumara from the book Born to Run.
This draft, Georgie is more mysterious and the Tarahumara are only briefly mentioned. For me to use a real tribe would require, like, research, man, and could come across as exploitative. I think Georgie’s more meaningful when he’s more abstract.
(This is part six of a story about an ultra-marathon-runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a hundred mile race. For now, Jonas is ahead of the horse.)
BEEP. Mile 51: 11:52 / 6:48:51.
Hermes’ compression-sleeve was a lifesaver for my left knee. The knee ached without a sleeve ever since I broke my leg cross-country skiing as a Wisconsin teen, but I hadn’t worn a sleeve this morning because the only one I owned was cotton. After just twenty miles it would’ve rubbed my knee red-raw. Hermes’ compression sleeve was silky nylon. The man knew how to live.
“Drink.” Whitney gave me the hose to her water-backpack. My mouth was still dry from twenty miles with hardly any liquid. As I chugged, Whitney put something in my palm. “Swallow these.”
It wasn’t my place to ask what she’d given me. I just swallowed them.
“That’s two ibuprofen and a salt tab,” she said. “You’ll thank me for the painkillers, and hyponatremia is a death-null. You’re already acting confused.”
BEEP. Mile 52: 8:11 / 6:57:51.
“Can’t too many meds cause kidney-failure?” I asked.
“If you win a million bucks tonight, you can buy as many kidneys as you want from the Bronsons,” said Whitney. “If you lose, you’ve got bigger problems than your kidneys.”
I gulped. As we ran into the shade of trees, a chill ran down my spine. “Change the topic, squire.”
“You just finished two marathons in under seven hours. Nice job.”
“I don’t want to think about running.”
“What have you explained so far to Thog, the caveman?”
“Just cars and crosswalk-signals.”
“Airplanes are usually good for a few miles,” said Whitney. “Explain airplanes.”
“Well, Thog, do you know about birds?”
Whitney smiled. “Thog know bird. Thog eat bird.”
“Have you ever wanted to fly like a bird, Thog?”
“Why Thog want that?”
“You could fly up high to see where all the animals were hiding. You could drop rocks on enemy tribes. You could spy women from afar to take back to your cave—I’m sure flying would be a hit with the ladies.”
“Ooh. Thog want that,” said Whitney. “Tell Thog about airplane.”
BEEP. Mile 53: 8:03 / 7:05:05.
I felt the ibuprofen kicking in. It didn’t help my aching legs much, but it helped. Whitney was right to worry about hyponatremia, too; low salt-levels could make me cramp or even hallucinate. “Well, Thog, I already explained cars, remember? An airplane is like a car that can fly like a bird.”
“How Thog get one?”
“Ooh.” I bit my tongue. “It’s harder to get an airplane than a car. Airplanes are expensive.”
“Eckspensif?” asked Whitney. “What that?”
“You know, you have to trade a lot of berries and animal skins and stuff for an airplane.”
“Oh. Thog have many berry and animal skin. Thog trade for airplane. Bring many woman back to cave.”
“The tricky thing is, though, piloting a plane is a lot harder than driving a car. You’ll probably have to get a license, or something.”
“I mean, you gotta prove you can fly without crashing and killing everyone aboard.”
“Ooh. Scary. Thog reconsider.”
Whitney and I laughed. My cheeks were red. “I missed running with you, Thog.”
“I’m glad to see you again, Jonas.” Whitney pointed up through the branches above. “You should tell Thog about helicopters next.”
I looked up. I’d prayed the helicopter flying overhead was a hallucination. “Alphonse.”
BEEP. Mile 54: 8:09 / 7:13:14.
Kevin paced around his car, smoking a cigarette and swearing. Hermes napped across the back seat. The sixty-mile flag fluttered in light breeze.
“…Finally!” Kevin waved both hands in the air.
Hermes opened his eyes at the buzz of an approaching aircraft. “What’s that?” A plastic craft the size and shape of a bird of prey hovered before Kevin and gently set a pizza-box on the dirt.
“I’m friends with a guy who runs a start-up delivering stuff by drone. I figured we couldn’t get Jonas’ pizza into the estate any other way, considering the hassle we had at the gate.” Kevin opened the pizza-box to check its toppings, then gave a thumbs-up to the drone’s camera. “Pineapple-olive, just like Jonas ordered. Eeugh. Well, it’s his shitty pizza.” Kevin showed the drone’s camera both sides of his credit-card. “Christ, who orders a cheeseless pizza? Pretentious pricks, that’s who.”
Hermes watched Kevin inhale the last of his cigarette and blow the smoke at the drone as it took off. Hermes pursed his lips. “You don’t seem to like Jonas very much, huh, Kev? Why’d you want to come here and help him?”
“Jonas and I go way back, back to high-school cross-country. But he was always a pretentious prick. Always ragging on about skiing and the Wisconsin countryside and crap like that.” Keven sat in his car’s driver’s seat with the pizza-box in his lap. He used his smartphone to add a tip onto the delivery. “If he wins a million bucks today, Jonas better pay me for the pizza. It costs two hundred bucks to deliver like this. And he got it cheeseless, the pretentious prick!” Kevin lit another cigarette and puffed.
“Why do you smoke, man?” asked Hermes.
“Calms me down,” said Kevin, apparently unsarcastically. “Don’t tell me you’ve never smoked anything, hippie-beard.”
“Nothing legal,” said Hermes. “I just mean, as a cross-country runner, I figured you’d worry more about your lungs.”
Kevin reclined his seat. “Spare me the speech, dude. I’ve heard it all before.”
“Bet you have,” said Hermes. “I heard it all the time when I was drinking myself to death.” Kevin tapped ash from his cigarette. “When I was Jonas’ age, all I did was drink and run, but I only really learned to love running after I quit drinking. Got better at it, too.”
“I’m not like you weirdos,” said Kevin. “I don’t run ultras. I run on a treadmill in my air-conditioned basement, three miles at a time, three times a week. The treadmill doesn’t care if I smoke.”
“Running is running. Don’t Run to Live, man, Live to Run.”
“If that kinda thinking got Jonas into this situation, he should’ve just settled for living.” Kevin puffed his cigarette. “Should’ve just left the Bronsons alone.”
“I’m just saying, you could really… Uh…” Hermes pointed skyward. “Hey. Look.”
Kevin shaded his eyes from the sun. A helicopter was flying toward them. “Huh,” said Kevin. “Must be Alphonse.”
“Do you think it’s coming clos—” Hermes’ words were blown away by the helicopter landing abruptly before them.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen!” Alphonse Bronson stepped from the cockpit. “I suppose this is yours?” He tossed the drone onto the dirt. It was mangled and torn.
“Whoa!” said Kevin, “Did you fucking shoot it?”
“No, I didn’t. My helicopter-pilot shot it.” Alphonse saluted back to the helicopter as the blades spun down. “Your drone was in my private airspace, and my pilot has an itchy trigger-finger regarding invasion of my privacy.”
“It’s not a government spy, crackpot! It’s a pizza-delivery bot!”
“I see. Please, forgive me.” Alphonse bowed, sweepingly. “I’ll pay for the drone, but I hope you understand I don’t want any unauthorized visitors on my property, flying or otherwise. If you’re hungry, please, call me and I’ll have a trusted estate-agent bring you something more sophisticated than a pizza.” He passed Hermes a business card.
“The pizza’s not for us,” said Hermes. “Jonas asked for it specifically.”
Alphonse blinked. “Oh.” He pat his gaudy military jacket’s pockets for a minty metal toothpick. “May I see it?”
“Excuse me?” Kevin pulled back the pizza-box. “Hell no.”
“Please excuse my abruptness. I’m fascinated by athlete nutrition,” said Alphonse. “What pizza-toppings does an ultra-runner order? Maybe my horses could learn a lesson from Jonas.”
Kevin raised an eyebrow.
“There’s really no need for suspicion,” said Alphonse. “I assure you, I’m not nearly nefarious as the media portrays me. The Bronsons aren’t a photogenic family, but we’re much more personable in person.”
“It’s pineapple and black olive,” said Hermes, “and cheeseless.”
“Cheeseless!” Alphonse clapped. “How intriguing!”
“Yeah, I’ve met lots of runners who say cheese makes them nauseous,” said Hermes. “They don’t do dairy on a run.”
“You know, when I was young, my father took me to Italy. I learned that cheeseless pizza is perhaps the most historically authentic,” said Alphonse, “and definitely delicious!” Kevin rolled his eyes. Pretentious prick. “But how might a runner eat a whole pizza mid-stride?”
“Jonas is hungry enough to eat a horse,” said Hermes. “It won’t take him long to finish this. Maybe he’ll walk for a few steps to scarf it down.”
“Is the pizza cut into squares,” asked Alphonse, “or are slices more convenient?”
Hermes shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”
“The things you perceive not to matter might matter most!” said Alphonse. “My father always taught me—”
“Fine you pretentious prick!” Kevin opened the box. “It’s cut into slices, okay?”
Alphonse kicked the bottom of the box. The pizza flopped onto the dirt. Alphonse stepped on it and smeared it with the heel of his boot.
Kevin stared at the pizza. “You asshole!” He rolled up his sleeve and approached Alphonse. Alphonse just smiled and pulled a pistol from his jacket. It was silver and had horses engraved on the handle. “What the fuck.”
“You visit my property at my mercy. I don’t approve of flying-machines intruding to deliver mysterious pizzas—especially flying-machines with cameras.”
“We don’t want any trouble,” said Hermes, with his hands up. “Mr. Bronson, sir, would you please send us a pizza with pineapple and black olives but no cheese? For Jonas.”
Alphonse put the gun back in his jacket. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“You’re a dickhead!” said Kevin. “Aren’t you supposed to be riding a horse right now?”
“My best jockey’s on the job.” Alphonse climbed back into his helicopter. “You’ll see her soon enough, as she streaks by.”
BEEP. Mile 55: 7:59 / 7:21:13.
“Anyway, Thog, that’s what helicopters are all about,” I puffed. Whitney’s pace was demanding but manageable.
“There it is again.” Whitney pointed up at Alphonse’s helicopter. “Maybe he’s spying on us.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it.”
“I can’t believe he switched out for a jockey,” said Whitney. “I read all about the Bronsons when I was researching Georgie Masawa. Alphonse seemed like the kinda guy who’d wanna do things himself, if only to gloat.”
“He flipped me off,” I said. “He said he was injured when his horse brushed against a branch, and he was eager to show me the band-aid on his middle finger.”
“Pathetic,” said Whitney. “He can’t even give the bird himself. He has to blame his horse.”
“Yeah.” I chuckled. “I don’t need any help to flip someone off.” I raised my middle-finger at the helicopter. “Take that, Alphonse.”
“Careful,” said Whitney. “If he’s really spying on us, he might take that personally.”
“You think he’s that petty?”
“From what I’ve read, no one is more petty than Alphonse Bronson.” Whitney passed me the hose to her water-backpack. “You know that better than anyone.”
I sure did. I grit my teeth.
BEEP. Mile 56: 8:02 / 7:29:15.
“Let me talk to Thog.”
“I told my friend Whitney that racing the horse was a corny attempt at romance,” I said, “but that’s not it. I have a grudge against Alphonse I couldn’t put off any longer.”
“You’ve told this story to Thog a hundred times,” said Whitney, “but Thog is happy to hear it again. You’re good at telling it.”
“I broke my leg cross-country skiing when I was fifteen,” I said. “If I ever wanted to ski again, I needed surgery my family couldn’t afford.”
“We heard about a big charity event in Colorado,” I said, “sponsored by the Bronsons. The Bronsons had an awful reputation, but if they were funding a charity event, maybe they weren’t so bad. So I went, and they gave me a crutch for free. I just had to run in a charity race.”
“How’d that go?”
“Alphonse offered free medical-care for life to every kid in that race except last place. As the kid on a crutch, it came down to me and the girl in a wheelchair.” I took a deep breath. “I would’ve been nothing but thankful if I’d just gotten the crutch, but taunting me with the possibility of getting my knee back, good as new—it wrecked me. I still see the girl in the wheelchair when I close my eyes. She beat me by meters.”
BEEP. Mile 57: 7:48 / 7:37:03.
“Thog understands,” said Whitney. “The Bronsons have hurt a lot of folks. You’re among an elite crowd, including Georgie Masawa.”
“Hoy, hoy! Outta the way!”
Whitney and I heard galloping hoof-beats. Champ streaked by us, full-tilt.
“Yah! Yah!” shouted the jockey. The hoof-beats became quiet in the distance ahead.
“Oh my god.” My knees quaked.
“It’s okay,” said Whitney. “Don’t panic. The horse won’t always be behind us, or ahead. Races are about change.”
“No, it’s not the horse.” I held my head in my hands. “The jockey was her, Whitney. The girl in the wheelchair.”
“You’re hallucinating, Jonas. She could have been anyone.”
“I’d know the back of her head anywhere.” Now I led the pace.
BEEP. Mile 58: 7:32 / 7:44:35.
Whitney sped a few steps ahead to slow me down. “Drink.” I drank from her water-backpack. “Swallow.” She ripped open a silver packet of running glop. I slurped it down: peanut-butter. “Drink.” I drank from her hose. “We’re closing in on that mountain.”
“Is there another flag at mile sixty, to choose which way we run at the fork?”
“Have you looked at maps of this place?”
“Does either way, left or right, avoid that mountain?”
I puffed. “Nope.”
“Then save your gas, Jonas. The fork’s the jockey’s. Let her choose. You’ll choose at mile eighty, I promise.”
BEEP. Mile 59: 7:15 / 7:51:50.
I let myself slow down. “Thanks, squire.”
“Think about your pizza.”
“Ooh.” I salivated. “Kevin’s such a snob about pineapple on pizza, but I can’t get enough.”
“The combination of savory and sweet is old as cooking,” Whitney concurred, “and you never know what tastes good after sixty miles until you get there.”
“Nah. I’ve been praying for that pizza since mile five,” I said. “I hope they could get it into the estate.”
“I hadn’t thought about that.” Whitney put a hand over her mouth. “I should’ve asked for your pizza-order before we came in.”
“I need that pizza, Whitney.”
“There they are.” Whitney pointed ahead. Beyond the trees, beside the flag at mile sixty, Kevin and Hermes waited in the car.
BEEP. Mile 60: 8:04 / 7:59:54.
Hermes made a gesture for Whitney I couldn’t see. “Jonas, do some stretches and check where the jockey tossed the flag,” said Whitney.
“It’s not good, Whitney.” Hermes brought Whitney behind Kevin’s car.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Alphonse stopped by.” Hermes opened the pizza-box in the back-seat. The pizza was mushed and dirty.
“Ah. Shit.” Whitney put her hands on her hips and breathed through her teeth.
“That ain’t half of it, sister.” Kevin tossed the destroyed drone before her. It was still smoldering. “Alphonse is packing heat. We called the police, but they said Alphonse is legally justified shooting down drones in his private airspace. Who’da thunk.”
“Okay. Okay.” Whitney covered her mouth. “I’ll handle this. Get another pizza to mile seventy. It’s uphill the whole way, so it’ll take us a few hours.”
The jockey had tossed the flag left, and I was glad. The trail right was steeper.
“I’ve got bad news,” said Whitney.
“I’ve got good news, so lemme go first.” I pointed left. “The jockey chose the shallower path. Champ must be getting tired.” I grinned. “She was just galloping past to freak us out.”
“There’s no pizza,” said Whitney.
I looked at her dumbly. “Huh?”
“Alphonse stole your pizza and gave it to the jockey. She ate one slice, and the horse ate the rest.”
My blood boiled.
Sandra knocked on the door. “You sent for me, sir?” There was no response. The door was ajar, so Sandra peeked into Alphonse’s bedroom. Alphonse was bundled up in blankets in the fetal position. He waved a finger to tell Sandra to come closer. Sandra rolled her wheelchair to his bedside.
“My father died this morning,” said Alphonse.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Sandra.
“He said I hadn’t made anything of myself.” Alphonse coiled into a tighter ball. “He still thought himself a bigger man than me.”
Sandra tutted. “Well, he raised you. If he considers you a failure, he must’ve failed as a father.”
Alphonse considered. He sat up, still wrapped in blankets. “Yeah. That’s right!” He turned to Sandra. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If he calls my aspirations twisted, he has only himself to blame. And now, without him holding me back, I can be a real Bronson!”
“Exactly, sir!” Sandra clapped. “Let’s celebrate! Do you have any jockey-juice? If I can stand, we’ll tango!”
“Yes, lets!” Alphonse opened a drawer on his nightstand. He passed Sandra a syringe which she injected into her thigh. Then she stood from her wheelchair as if she never needed it. “Come here!”
Sandra had practiced dancing ever since she first tried jockey-juice. She and Alphonse danced around his bed. “What’s the first thing you want to do, now that your old man isn’t around?”
“The same thing I’ve done all my life,” said Alphonse, “dwarf my father’s legacy! My father made millions, I’ve made billions. My father raced glue-horses, I breed champions.” They wheeled around the room. “Anything he did, I’ll do with ten-fold the grace!”
“Yeah! That’s the spirit!” Sandra let Alphonse dip her. “Show your daddy who’s daddy!”
Alphonse kissed her on the lips.
Sandra grunted and pushed him away. “Whoa! Hey! I didn’t mean it like that!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Alphonse adjusted the cuffs of his gaudy military jacket. “I just thought—My father… was a father, and I thought you meant—I thought you were volunteering to make me a father, too.”
“No, no, no.” Sandra sat back in her wheelchair; Alphonse had diluted the jockey-juice, and she felt it wearing off. “I’m sure you’ll find the right woman to carry the Bronson genes.”
Alphonse looked out a window over the estate, and, sighing, shook his head. “I think I’m the last of my lineage. I can’t imagine meeting a suitable receptacle for my seed.”
Sandra breathed in relief. Some lucky lady dodged a bullet.
“No, I know exactly how to put my father’s memory in its place.” Alphonse smiled at the sun. “I’ll follow in his footsteps and beat a modern Georgie Masawa. Maybe I’ll run him to death, too.”
Sandra bit her lip. “With all due respect, sir, if you follow in your father’s footsteps, you’ll always be a step behind.”
Alphonse paused and turned to her. “I understand what you mean, but there’s a little more to Georgie Masawa than the history books tell. There’s room to improve on my father’s ambition.”
(This is part five of a story about an ultramarathon-runner who bets his legs that he can beat a horse in a 100-mile race.)
BEEP. Mile 41: 7:45 / 5:27:51.
I drank the last of the water Alphonse had tossed me. I threw the empty bottle over my shoulder.
Did Alphonse really mean to take my legs? Was that… legal? It couldn’t be, but knowing the Bronsons, legality wouldn’t stop him. I shuddered. I had to beat the horse.
If Whitney and Kevin and Hermes could meet me with supplies, maybe I had a chance. If I won, it wouldn’t matter what I’d bet.
Whitney. God. How could she be here, after what I did?
Or, what she thinks I did.
BEEP. Mile 42: 7:33 / 5:35:24.
I recognized my pessimism rising, but I couldn’t change my mind. I was bonking again and my brain took off without me. I settled into harsh memories in exchange for a healthy downhill pace.
By the time I turned 26, Whitney and I had run more ultra-marathons than I could recall. Most were a hundred miles or more; we had a knack for hundos. We’d even won a few of the less popular ones, so when I signed up for The Great Race, I intended to finish first. But Whitney wouldn’t pace me: she was running against. “I won’t go easy on you,” she’d said. “I plan to win The Great Race, too.”
“After I get my gold medal, I’ll fix you a veggie-smoothie for when you finally finish.”
“The Great Race is the most popular ultra in North America,” Whitney warned me. “The best of the best will be there.”
“We certainly will,” I’d said. She laughed. “It’s okay if I come second by a hair. I’ll forgive myself.”
“That wouldn’t be a bad twist for the book we’re writing together,” she’d said. “I plan to title it Live to Run.”
“Lemme spoil the ending: I’m gonna win.”
BEEP. Mile 43: 7:19 / 5:42:43.
The Great Race was as strenuous as it was infamous. Three quarters of it were uphill over rough, narrow trails. For the last thirty miles Hermes would pace me, and another race volunteer would pace Whitney.
After seventy miles I met Hermes at an aid station. “Lemme take that.” He filled my water-backpack and put it on himself. “How’s your knee?” I gave him a thumb-up and swallowed a fistful of pretzels smeared with peanut-butter. “Ready?”
I shook my head. “Uh-uh,” I mumbled through stuck-together teeth. I pointed to my left shoe.
“Want me to take it off?”
He removed my left shoe. “Oh, Jesus, Jonas.” Hermes pulled off my bloody sock. Two toenails were loose. “I’ll count to three, okay?” I nodded. “Three.” Hermes tore off the loose toenails.
“Mmmnn,” I groaned.
“Good job, soldier.” Hermes wrapped bandages around my foot, put on a new sock, and retied my shoe. “Let’s go.” We ran. “You’re not far behind the runner in fifth.”
“Who’s first?” I’d asked. “How many miles ahead?”
“Whitney is first, but don’t worry about first, Jonas. There are mountains between you and first.”
“I’m king of the mountain.”
BEEP. Mile 44: 7:36 / 5:50:19.
And I was. By mile 90, I was in second-place with Whitney just a mile ahead.
Even Hermes had trouble keeping up with me. At the last aid station, he gasped for breath. “You go on, Jonas. As a pacer, I’m just holding you back.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh.” I pulled my water-backpack from his shoulders. It took all my brain-power to remember to say “thanks” before I kept running.
At mile 97 there was a fork in the trail. A pink ribbon tied to a tree-trunk told me I was on the correct path, but I wasn’t sure whether to go left or right. I had to choose fast: Whitney wasn’t far ahead.
I heard voices. Cheers. At first I thought I was hallucinating again, but no, it was real: I heard onlookers at the finish line, and the voices were louder when I looked left. So I ran left.
Biggest mistake of my life.
I finished first—I broke the tape—but I never saw Whitney and her pacer along the way. I thought maybe I’d just missed them when I passed. I didn’t see whoever put a gold medal around my neck, either; my vision was foggy. Hermes was there, having taken a shortcut.
BEEP. Mile 45: 7:29 / 5:57:48.
When Whitney finished a few minutes later, she accused me of taking a shortcut, too. “How’d you get ahead of me, Jonas?” she panted, glaring.
“I’m not sure.” I massaged my bandaged foot. “Didn’t you see me pass?”
“No,” she seethed, “I didn’t.” Her volunteer pacer shook his head and shrugged.
Kevin hadn’t seen me, either. Kevin was race photographer, in charge of snapping each runner at the 99-mile-mark, and he didn’t have a picture of me. Race officiators skeptically eyed my gold medal. “At the last fork, were we supposed to go left or right?” I asked. “I went left.”
Whitney groaned. “You cut two miles off the end! We studied the maps, Jonas, we’d prepared for this!”
“I’m sorry! My mind was cloudy, you know how it is.”
“Uh-huh, sure,” she said.
“Look, I’ll run back to the fork and do it legit! I’ll bet I can still finish second or third.” I prepared to take off, but Hermes put his hand on my shoulder. He took my gold medal and gave it to the race officiators, who passed it to Whitney. She still glared a hole in my head. “I didn’t mean to,” I said. “Honest. Just give me a DNF—‘Did Not Finish.’ I don’t mind. It’s fine.”
BEEP. Mile 46: 7:32 / 6:05:20.
I slurped my last silver packet of running glop. This one was lime-kiwi. I gagged. Without water to wash it down, my mouth tasted like runoff from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
The Great Race didn’t let me DNF; they just ejected me from the competition. That’s a black mark.
Whitney never believed me that it was just a mistake. She was so bitter that she finished our book alone: Don’t Run to Live, Live to Run. Contractually, she was obligated to put my name on the cover, but the story was all about the first woman to win The Great Race. Sold like hotcakes.
I sipped from the hose of my three-liter water-backpack, then spat. I forgot the river was bitter. I dumped water from the backpack mid-run. That saved me about seven pounds.
The water trickled down a ditch into a cactus-patch. The trail was so rough and steep I had to slide down on my butt. I chuckled, wondering how Champ would deal with the path I’d chosen for us. This was hard enough for a human. It would be agony for a horse.
Then I remembered Alphonse’s spurs, and the dark red spots they left on Champ’s ribs. This was already agony for a horse.
And it was approaching agony for me. My bum left knee had started to tingle. Soon my patella would slide around like a hockey-puck.
BEEP. Mile 47: 7:41 / 6:13:01.
The bottom of the mountain gave me a much-needed gift: flats were less brutal on my joints than downhill, and I finally saw a car driving toward the trail. Kevin, Whitney, and Hermes were just a few miles away.
I watched the car chug along the slim service-road. To preserve attractive sight-lines, the roads were far from the trail, but the car drove off the asphalt and crushed a topiary on the way toward the 50-mile flag. Kevin must’ve been behind the wheel.
I really couldn’t imagine why these people had come all this way for me. I was sure, from their perspective, I was a blight on their lives—a cheater who cared more for himself than anyone else, who would betray for personal gain—not even money, or fame, or power, but sheer ego. I wouldn’t have driven here for me, except maybe to watch Alphonse chop off my legs.
As soon as the car stopped at the 50-mile flag, the shotgun-door opened.
Whitney stepped out and hit the ground running toward me. I tried squeezing out all my tears before she was close enough to see them.
BEEP. Mile 48: 8:03 / 6:21:04.
I waved. She didn’t wave back; her focus was on her form, and so was mine. For a quarter-mile my eyes soaked up the sight of her ponytail bouncing with her stride. Suddenly the tension in my muscles evaporated.
When she was close, I waved again. “Whitney!”
“Jonas, you idiot!”
She turned on a dime to run by my side. “Give me your backpack.”
“Okay.” I slipped it off my shoulders.
“It’s empty,” she said.
“The water in this place is toxic. I haven’t had a drink in eight miles.”
“Here.” She gave me the hose from her own backpack. The water was ice-cold. “I see the horse a few miles behind. Nice work.”
BEEP. Mile 49: 7:54 / 6:28:58.
“What’s that thing?” She pointed to the collar of my shirt.
“Oh, right.” I showed her Alphonse’s silver toothpick with ruby handle. “Alphonse says it’s worth ten-thousand bucks. You want it? He says it tastes like mint.”
“No way. I’ve read enough about Alphonse’s drug-habits to know not to take anything from him. It’s probably expensive because it’s spiked with something exotic.”
“Oh. Good, I didn’t use it.” I tucked it back through my shirt-collar.
“This is a really… interesting decision you’ve made, Jonas. Win or lose, I’ll have to write another book about you.”
“Why are you racing the horse, Jonas?”
“I don’t even know,” I admitted. “I think I thought you’d think it was a romantic gesture.”
“Standing outside my window with a boombox would have been more traditional.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“The Bronsons charge good money to let people onto the estate. How’d you get in?”
“I made a million-dollar bet.”
“That must’ve been most of your cut from the book-profit.”
“It would’ve been, but I spent all that on gambling and booze, so I anted up my legs.”
“Holy shit, Jonas.”
“I know, I’m sorry. Don’t tell the others, I don’t want them to worry.”
BEEP. Mile 50: 8:01 / 6:36:59.
“Jonas!” said Hermes.
“You idiot!” said Kevin.
Whitney tossed Kevin my empty water-backpack. “Jonas, sit down.”
“I don’t know if I can. I don’t think I’m physically capable of sitting.”
“Then lie on your back.” Whitney and Hermes helped me collapse onto the dirt.
“We’ve got your favorite flavors of running glop.” Hermes held up some silver packets. “Chocolate and peanut-butter.”
Whitney wiped sweat from my brow with a towel wrapped around an ice-pack. “It’s getting warm today.”
“I noticed,” I said.
“Warm is good,” said Whitney. “Humans handle heat better than horses.”
“Need any footwork?” asked Hermes.
“Please. I need new socks.”
“Okay.” Hermes pulled off my shoes. “Hoo boy, Jonas.” My right sock was wet and bloody. “Blister?”
He peeled off my socks. “Uh… Whoa” I wiggled my toes. I’d removed all the nails weeks ago. “No loose toe-nails this time, huh?”
“Not making that mistake again.”
“Okay, moron,” said Kevin, “if we’re getting you through this, we’ll have to meet up every chance we get. The service-roads only meet the trails every ten miles, so we’ll see you at mile 60. What should I have ready for you there?”
I pawed at the zipper of my water-backpack he held. I retrieved my second banana and the rest of my peanut butter. I ate it all like a slovenly pig. “Pizza,” I said. “I want a pizza. Large. Pineapple. Black olives. No cheese, it nauseates me on a run.”
Kevin raised an eyebrow and looked to Whitney. “Is pizza, uh, kosher, on a race like this?”
“There’s no diet after sixty miles,” said Whitney. “The body wants what it wants.”
Hermes slipped a compression-sleeve over my left knee and retied my shoes. “You’re good to go, Jonas.”
I lay spread-eagle for another half-minute. Finally I pulled myself to my feet with help from my pit-crew. “I’m sorry, guys.”
“Come on.” Whitney took off in front of me. At the trail’s fork, she asked, “Which way are we going?”
I plucked the flag at mile 50. The trail to the right ran through an expansive clearing of tall grass. The trail to the left ran through a shadowy wood. I tossed the flag to the left. “It’s warm. Let’s enjoy the shade.”
Alphonse left his father’s deathbed, leaving Father Bronson alone with his doctors, nurses, and attendants. In the hallway of the Bronson manor, Alphonse impotently sucked a minty metal toothpick while clutching a syringe.
“He didn’t want the jockey-juice?” asked his best jockey.
“No.” Alphonse gave the syringe to his jockey, who waited in her wheelchair. “He still thinks it’s abominable.”
“His loss.” The jockey injected the syringe into her leg. Instantly she stood from her wheelchair as if she never needed it. “Who was this one?” she asked, returning the empty syringe.
Alphonse shrugged. “Some loser.”
“Oof.” The jockey smoothed wrinkles from her pants. “Do you know the names of any of the jockeys in your races?”
“What’s my name?”
“Why would I care?” Alphonse petulantly picked his teeth.
“My name’s Sandra.”
“I’ll forget it soon.” Alphonse walked away from his father’s room.
Sandra pushed her empty wheelchair behind him. “Do you even know your father’s name?”
Alphonse shrugged again. “What a loser.”
“I’ve heard he was something to behold, back in his day.”
“His day is done.”
“You mean—” Sandra covered her mouth. “You mean he’s dead?”
“Might as well be, already.”
Sandra released her breath. “Don’t you have any fond memories of your father?”
Alphonse paused. He opened the curtains over an ornate window overlooking the estate. “One, at least.”
“I must have been seven, or eight, or nine.” He wiped his toothpick on the curtain and put it back in the pocket of his gaudy military jacket. “My father challenged the best human runner on the planet to a race against a horse. He let me ride in the saddle with him.”
“A human has no chance against a horse.”
“Around a race-track, no, but across a hundred miles, a human might have a shot.” Alphonse smiled. “Gosh, what was the runner’s name? His name was… was…”
Sandra watched Alphonse wrack his brain. She wondered what it meant that Alphonse hadn’t even bothered trying to remember her name, or the name of his father, but seemed to recall a man he’d met decades ago, as a child.
“Georgie,” said Alphonse. “Georgie Masawa. A little Mexican kid, about 5′ 6”. Mid-twenties.”
“How’d the race turn out?”
“Georgie lost. He didn’t make it seventy miles.” Alphonse surveyed the estate. “He tried keeping pace with our horse from the get-go, and my father tired him out. You know, I don’t think we ever did find his body.”
“My father ran Georgie to death. Poor guy. What a shame.” Alphonse reconsidered. “I mean, if he weren’t such a loser.”
(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.)
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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 I 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.”
BEEP. Mile 1: 7:17 / 7:17.
I’d ran hundreds of first miles faster than that. This morning, I paced myself.
The horse had no trouble keeping up. Alphonse tugged the reins to stay alongside me, but his horse Champ begged to pull ahead. “Regretting this, Jonas?”
“Not yet,” I puffed. This was an easy pace; I could speak aloud, coherently, at this pace. “Just ninety-nine more to go.”
“That’s the spirit.” Alphonse Bronson stroked Champ’s mane and brushed dust from the horse’s leather saddle. The Bronson Estate’s million acres were landscaped with artisan dirt for rustic authenticity. “With a million dollars on the line, you can’t let your head get away from you.”
“Uh huh, uh huh.”
“A million dollars. A hundred miles. That’s ten-thousand dollars per mile!” Alphonse laughed. “To some people, that’s real money.” I pretended not to see his grin, focusing on my feet slapping the trail. “You’re sure you’re good for it, Jonas?”
“Uh huh, uh huh.” I sipped water from the hose of my three-liter backpack. I took a sip every mile. I could do it by muscle-memory, even without my GPS watch beeping.
BEEP. Mile 2: 6:33 / 13:50.
“Let’s call that mile a tie,” said Alphonse. “We’re neck and neck entering mile three. How exciting!”
“The only mile that matters is the last one,” I puffed.
“Every step matters,” said Alphonse. “You wrote that in your book.”
Did I? I’d never read the darn thing.
“We tied on mile one and mile two! Allow me to treat you to a tasty morsel.” Alphonse unbuttoned the breast-pocket of his gaudy military jacket.
“I’m not hungry.”
Alphonse took out two toothpicks and picked his teeth with one. He held out the other toothpick for me; his horse was so tall that I had to reach far above my head to take it.
“What’s this for?” I puffed. The toothpick felt oddly smooth, and after steadying my eyes to focus as I ran, I saw the toothpick wasn’t wooden, but metal, like a needle.
“Suck it,” he said. “That’s a ten-thousand dollar custom-order toothpick. It’s made of silver, and the handle is a ruby. I mean it, suck it, it’s mint-flavored! Zero-calorie snacks like this are how I keep my figure.”
BEEP. Mile 3: 6:59 / 20:49.
“I’ll save it for later.” I stuck the toothpick through my shirt-collar. This was my favorite shirt, a prize for finishing my first ultra-marathon, a fifty-miler. I didn’t win that race, but even last-place got a shirt, and it was a good shirt. Its light mesh material never rubbed my nipples bloody like cotton did.
With my hands free, I corrected my form. Form was vital. Sure, the only mile that mattered was the last one, but that last mile was built on every step up to then. I guess my ghostwriter knew what she was talking about.
Champ, the horse, seemed to understand, too. His form was impeccable. His ropy muscles wrapped his legs and shoulders and buttocks. Champ’s breathing was strained not by effort but by desire to run faster than Alphonse would allow.
“I don’t know how the view is down there,” said Alphonse, “but here in the saddle I can see the first flag at mile 10.”
I saw it too. At the base of a mountain, the first flag flapped in the breeze.
BEEP. Mile 4: 6:54 / 27:43.
I let Alphonse explain again while I sipped from the hose of my water-backpack: “Don’t forget, the first of us to that flag chooses if we go left or right at the first fork.”
I knew. I knew. I’d obsessed over maps of the Bronson Estate; I saw the race’s possible paths and elevation profiles when I closed my eyes. With scenic environs and a variety of terrain, it would be a fun place to run under better circumstances.
If we went left at the fork, we’d go through a valley and skip most of a mountain. If we went right, we’d go right over it.
I was no stranger to running up mountains. In fact, I’d won some ultras over mountains. I was king of the mountain. But I reckoned Champ would be the mountain’s champion and leave me in the dust. I had to be first to the fork, and I had to choose left… or, if Alphonse was first to the fork, I had to cross my fingers and pray he’d prefer flatter terrain.
I puffed and puffed. The air was just barely cold enough to see my breath.
BEEP. Mile 5: 6:46 / 34:29.
The weather was perfect for a run. Not too sunny; I hated sun in my eyes almost as much as I hated wearing hats and sunglasses. Buttermilk clouds dappled the sky. I could enjoy a long run on a day like this, but today was not that day.
“Tell me, Jonas. Do you want to go around the mountain, or over it?”
The question caught me off-guard, and I considered lying. Maybe I could use reverse-psychology to make Alphonse choose the flat terrain. “Over,” I said. “Your horse doesn’t know there’s a million bucks at stake. When Champ’s terrain gets tough, I bet he’ll stall and slow down. A man’s more nimble than a horse on rocky mountain trails.”
“Ha! Maybe he’ll fall and break his legs.” Alphonse pat the saddle. “Don’t worry about my horse. Champ could jump over the mountain. What would you prefer, personally, over or around?”
I grimaced. “Over. I’m king of the mountain.”
He laughed again. “Jonas, leave reverse-psychology to businessmen. I’d like to go over, too—I’m calling your bluff!”
BEEP. Mile 6: 6:52 / 41:21.
When I was younger, I imagined an average person trying to keep up with me as I ran. It pumped up my pride: “oh, Jonas, have mercy! Slow down! Six miles is too much!”
“Six miles is a warm-up,” I’d say to my shadow. “Don’t give up now—let’s sprint the next block!”
But today I felt like the shadow. Alphonse allowed Champ to pull ahead a few yards. “You should know, Champ can run a bit faster than this. He’s descended from my father’s race-horses.”
“Believe me, I know.” Alphonse had told me many times before.
“My father’s horses never lost a race,” said Alphonse, “because if his horse ever lost a race, it turned out it wasn’t my father’s horse after all. It was retroactively disbarred to preserve my father’s spotless record.”
“Must be nice to be able to do that.”
BEEP. Mile 7: 6:03 / 47:24.
The horse was leading the pace, faster than I would’ve liked to maintain. “So Jonas, where did you get the money for this little wager?”
“Book-money,” I said. “I’m a national best-seller.”
“I’ve read your book, but could you remind me of the title?” Alphonse put a finger over his smile. I knew he was testing me, and delighted that it took me a moment to remember.
I stalled by panting, but finally recalled: “Don’t Run to Live, Live to Run.”
Alphonse chuckled. “If we live to run, surely Champ here is better at living than you. Wouldn’t you agree?”
BEEP. Mile 8: 5:55 / 53:19.
“He’s a beaut,” I said, not lying. Champ’s pure black coat was intimidatingly sleek. “What does he eat?”
“Nothing that isn’t hand-picked by my professional equine-dietitians,” said Alphonse. “My father founded his own company to produce acceptable foodstuffs for his racers.”
I took a silver plastic packet from the pockets of my three-liter backpack. I tore the packet’s top and squeezed the contents into my mouth.
“What’s that?” asked Alphonse.
“I don’t have any dietitians, but companies make foodstuffs for human racers, too.” I crumpled the packet and tucked it into my backpack. “That one’s chocolate-flavored. One of the only flavors I can stand.”
Beep. Mile 9: 5:48 / 59:07.
The flag was so close. It would be embarrassing to choose the left trail, around the mountain, after I pretended I wanted to go over—my reverse-psychology would be laid out for humiliation, and I knew Alphonse would relish the opportunity—but I could take the shame, and I wasn’t sure if my legs could take the mountain better than Champ’s.
I put on the gas.
I shot ahead of Champ, each stride Olympian.
“Oh ho!” Alphonse let the reins go slack and kicked his spurs into Champ’s ribs. Champ effortlessly kept pace with me. “You’re really not so slow, are you?”
I didn’t have breath to respond.
“But we’re pretty quick, too,” said Alphonse. Champ pulled forward. The horse’s hooves tossed rocks at me, but I ran faster and faster.
BEEP. Mile 10: 4:22 / 1:03:29.
Alphonse plucked the flag from the dirt right in front of me. “Photo-finish! Ten miles, still neck-and-neck, but Champ pulls through in the end!” The sarcasm dripped; Champ wasn’t even winded.
I barely resisted collapsing on my knees. I couldn’t speak for panting, but Alphonse filled the dialog:
“Jonas, I was joking about reverse-psychology,” he said. “I know this is just a friendly wager, so I’ll indulge you by choosing what’s best for both of us in the interest of sportsmanship.”
Through my panting, I managed to smile. “Really?”
“The view of the estate from the top of this mountain is breathtaking, especially this early in the morning. I think we’ll both appreciate it.” He tossed the flag toward the trail to the right. “Let’s go!”
“And the winner is…”
On his eighth birthday, on his father’s lap, Alphonse Bronson cheered for another horse-race. “Daddy, was the winner one of yours again?”
“No, no, I didn’t have a horse in that race.” Father Bronson stroked his beard. “But I’ve got another horse in the next race. Look close, guess which one it is.”
“It’s the one that wins, right?”
His father chewed his beard. “You know, son… in every race, there’s a horse who comes last.”
“Yeah!” Alphonse punched his own palm. “What losers!”
“The Bronsons didn’t build their fortune by racing horses. We began with glue-factories.” His father looked away. “I bought those losing horses for cheap, and made them into glue. So at least they were useful in the end, right?”
“I still own those glue-factories and sometimes the horses get mixed up.” His father pointed to the starting gates. “I think the horse racing now might have been destined for paste. You’ll see what I mean.”
The starting gun. The horses raced.
His father’s horse was last.
“What a loser,” said Alphonse.
“Exactly,” said his father. “Sometimes a glue-horse pretends to be a racer. It’s a good thing we Bronsons can tell the difference.” His father’s men led that horse into a white van. His father ripped up some betting slips. Good riddance, thought Alphonse.