Leon the Professional

In part two of Scumbug Scrambag Julia and the Scumbug retrieve a spaceship while humanity cuts a deal with Germa the Gerbil.

When I described the idea for this story, someone mentioned Leon the Professional, a movie about a hitman protecting a twelve-year-old girl. I watched it. Let’s talk about it!

First of all, wow is the little girl in that movie sexualized. Leon’s love for Natalie Portman is fatherly, but she busts out singing Like a Virgin and Happy Birthday Mister President dressed as Madonna and Marilyn Monroe. It’s seriously off-putting, like, wow. She’s meant to be 12.

Second of all, I like little Mathilda deciding she wants to be a hitman. The evil guys who killed her brother are the final villains of the movie, and she initiates those confrontations by venturing out to them herself. Its narrative is efficient—no lose ends, and the beginning causes the end.

Scumbug Scrambag should be very different even if it steals inspiration.

First, eight-year-old Julia shouldn’t have such a Lolita thing going on. I think her calling the Scumbug “Scumdaddy” will be the beginning and end of the sexual tension. While that explicit tension is played for laughs, implicit themes about child-trafficking dominate the plot.

Second, I don’t think Julia wants to be a hitman, even if her backstory is hilariously tragically dark. I’m not sure what her deal is, but I do think, like Mathilda, Julia will initiate the final confrontations by setting out on her own. The Scumbug has serious misconceptions about how the universe works, and Julia will have to set them straight.

Overall, I’m glad I watched the movie. It’s always nice to see what’s been done with the story-elements I’m playing with, and it makes me consider how I want to approach tropes I’ll inevitably butt against. But wow it’s uncomfortable watching Natalie Portman telling Jean Reno she loves him. Phoo boy.

Next Chapter
Table of Contents

The Scrambag

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll need water, too.”

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

“Yeah, but we still need water.”

“You guys are picky.”

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

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

“You have a translator?”

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

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

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

“A flaybo?”

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

“It’s a noodle.”

“But what’s a noodle?”

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

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

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

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

“Uh-huh.”

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

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

“Yeah.”

“What does that mean?”

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

“A bake-sale?”

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

“A fundraiser?”

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

“Nuh-uh.”

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

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

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

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

“Cook? What does it mean to cook?”

“You know.”

“I really don’t.”

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

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

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you homeopaths?

“What?”

“Never-mind.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Kid, what’s your deal?


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

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

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

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

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

“Why? Is the Scumbug a softie?”

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

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

“Sir?”

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

“My name’s not Charl—”

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

“To explore the cosm—”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wh-What?”

“Or is Lady Mantoid more accessible?”

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

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

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

“For what purpose?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

“See what?”

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

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

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

“Can’t say I do.”

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

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

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

“…Then who put a bounty on the kid?”

“Who leaves presents under the tree?”

“Everyone.”

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

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

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

The ambassador grinned. “What am I suggesting?”

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

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

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


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

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

“How long have you been what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

“I don’t know.”

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

ch2-4.png

“No.”

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

“Um. Earth-air?”

“So, nitrogen?”

“…Maybe?”

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

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

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

“And?”

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

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

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

“This ain’t no noodle.”

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

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

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

“I don’t think so.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Why?” asked Julia.

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

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

“You’ll fit in the scrambag.”


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

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

ch2-3.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heard what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germa deflated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

ch2-2.png

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

“Yeah, but most of them are jeorbs.”

“What’s a jeorb?”

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

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

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

“So what’s a flaybo?”

“It’s a full-grown jeorb!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I’ll hide anyway.”

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

“Why?”

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

“How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t get it.”

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

“…Scumdaddy?”

“Are you scared of the dark?”

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

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

“Just a little?”

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

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

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

“Scumdaddy, you’re bad at metaphors.”

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

“So… what’s in the safe?”

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

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

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

ch2-1.png

“…Hold on tight, to what?

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

Next Chapter
Commentary
Table of Contents

Daddy, Daughter, Scumbug

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

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

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

ch1-1

“Oh god, oh, please!”

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

“What do you want! What do you want!”

“Where’s the ambassador who represents Earth?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t tell you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m afraid not.”

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

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

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

“Oh, lord, please, no!”

“Quit whining. Legs grow back.”

“No they don’t!”

“Really? How about fingers?”

“No!”

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

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

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

“…Humans don’t live as just a head!”

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

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

The Scumbug said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

ch1-2.png

“Lay it on me,” said the ambassador.

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

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

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

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

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

“I swat flies for breakfast.”

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

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

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

Julia tapped her phone.

“What do we do?” asked the ambassador.

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said the bodyguard.

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

“No,” said the bodyguard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t mind dying.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The vault-door melted.

ch1-4.png

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

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

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

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

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

The Scumbug burbled.

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Launch the escape-pod,” said Julia.

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

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

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

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

ch1-5

“Julia.”

“Your daddy turned out to be a robot.”

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

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

“Octuple-adopted,” said Julia.

“Oh. Is that normal on Earth?”

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

“That’s… really sad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

“That’s not very reassuring.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“What kind are you?”

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

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

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

Julia closed her eyes. “Why?”

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

“What does that mean?”

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

“I don’t think that’s true.”

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

ch1-7

Next Chapter
Commentary
Table of Contents

The Aftermath

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

cropped-cardfront2-4.png

2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About 36 hours.”

“I could use another 36.”

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

“Where am I? Whose champagne was this?”

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

“For what?”

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

“Geez.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“What’s his excuse?” I asked.

“He’s got thousands,” said Whitney.

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

“Uh. Yeah.” I shivered. “For sure.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“I’m a lot of things,” said Craig.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beg!”

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?” asked Kevin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swallowed. “I’m in.”

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


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

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

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

“Where’s our legal team?” I asked.

“I’m it, baby.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” said Alphonse. “I ch—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead,” said Judge Fairfax.

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course. Everyone knows.”

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

“He opened the gates,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did Jonas do anything of the sort?”

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

“How do you know?” asked Craig.

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

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

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

“Can we hear that audio?” asked Craig.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we hear any more?” asked Craig.

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

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

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

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

“I am,” said Craig.

“And head of a publishing company?”

“Mm-hm.”

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

“I’ve got fingers in lots of pies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Language,” said Judge Fairfax.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is just slander,” said Lloyd.

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

The casino,” said Sandra.


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

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

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

“How often did you run here?”

“Every weekend. Totally hammered, too.”

“Oh, Jonas.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alphonse shrugged. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Uh huh.”

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

“You invited me to your casino.”

“And you came knowing of the cost.”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“A lot?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

“You’re fired,” said Alphonse.

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

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

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

“I’ll represent myself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My feet were weak. My knees knocked.

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

“Mm-hm.”

“Alphonse, I am your tech-security.”

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

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

Wait.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Craig laughed, just once. “Ha.”

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

“Alphonse.”

“Eighty thousand.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll drag you down with me.”

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

“Yes I do! I’ve got—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay?”

“Take it all. Just leave my dignity.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Craig! What are you doing!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

“…The Masawas?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END

Commentary
Table of Contents

Phoenix Wright and Moving On

Jonas and company engage in a trial to determine whether Alphonse gets paid or pays out. If Alphonse can’t keep his mouth shut, he’ll lose everything.

I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even know any lawyers personally. Luckily, accuracy is hardly relevant to courtroom-drama. Fudging it is probably more exciting than the real deal.

Have you ever played the video-game Phoenix Wright? I haven’t, but I’ve watched those boyish nimrods The Game Grumps play it, and it’s exactly what I’m talking about. Phoenix Wright is a defense-attorney in a world of cartoonish mystery. In court he spars with the prosecutor using a system of legality which only vaguely resembles reality. The law is flexible because Phoenix Wright is in a game, and a game is supposed to be fun even if going to court is usually like pulling teeth.

Likewise, I’m not concerned about realism in this court-case, just making a compelling back-and-forth. I want Alphonse to lose for his inability or unwillingness to understand how others perceive his actions, and his simultaneous egotistical attachment to his public image. I also want as few new characters as possible, so I limit myself to Alphonse’s lawyer Lloyd and Judge Fairfax, both of whom have limited roles.

And, uh, that’s a wrap. Thank you so much for reading all this way (about 40,000 words total, a proper novella!). I’ll periodically reread and edit this story; I think Jonas’ and Whitney’s relationship needs some work, and I should probably learn more about horses eventually. My writing motto is “First get it down, then get it right.” Let me know if you have any comments, or noticed any plotholes, or anything like that.

Eventually I’ll start a new writing project, but I’m not sure what it’ll be quite yet. I’ve got a few ideas bumping around.

In the meantime, why not try reading another story, or checking out my YouTube channel?

Stay frosty, and don’t bet your legs unless it’s a sure thing!

Table of Contents

To The Finish

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

cropped-cardfront2-4.png

2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great,” I said.

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

“Less than two miles,” said Debra.

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

“Uh-huh,” said Whitney.

“But now it’s got two brown hooves.”

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

“That happened once, Deb.”

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

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

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

“You broke my arm,” said Sandra.

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

Sandra drank the beer. “I’m in.”

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

“What? But then who are y—”

Craig poked his phone again and the call went through.


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

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

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

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

“That’s the spirit,” said Alphonse.


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

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

Or maybe I was hallucinating again.

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

“Huh?”

“The horse! How far ahead?”

“Oh, uh, yeah. About a mile.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I need to talk to Thog.”

“Thog here.”

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

“How come?”

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

“You can’t run angry, Jonas.”

“I’ll run angry or not at all.”

“It’s Live to Run, not Rage to Run.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um. What?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“I should hope so,” said Alphonse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a special occasion.”

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

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

“Did you cut off Jonas’ finger?”

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

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

“That’s their business.”

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

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

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

The officers shrugged. “Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“What about him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I bet he does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh-huh.”

“In some races, that would disqualify you.”

“Uh-huh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think I’m gonna make it.”

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

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

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

Then everything went to hell.

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

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

“Jonas!”

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

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

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

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

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

Fifteen.

Ten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Craig! Sandra!”

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

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

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

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

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

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


2018

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

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

“Oh? Yeah?”

“We’ve got a publisher!

“No shit?”

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

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

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

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

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

Jonas sat up. “But—Whitney, no!”

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

“But it’s your book!”

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

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

The Aftermath
Commentary
Table of Contents

After the Race

With just one chapter left in this race, Jonas is mere miles behind the horse. Will he keep his legs?

Well, yeah. It’s a story, and stories often have predictably happy endings. But the end of the race won’t be the end of the story as a whole; I think Alphonse needs a reckoning.

So here’s the plan: Alphonse’s media scrutiny will prompt a criminal trial and we’ll learn more about the Bronson-family’s finances. Alphonse will flee prosecution by holing up in his estate, attending his own trial by video-conference. Jonas, Whitney, Kevin, Hermes, and Sandra will have to combat Alphonse’s silver tongue before he manages to go the way of his grandfather and brush his dirty deeds under the rug.

Craig will initiate the end of his plan: he’s got Alphonse’s ten-thousand-dollar toothpick with a complete audio-recording of the race up to mile 75-ish, demonstrating the depth of Alphonse’s depravity. Alphonse is at Craig’s mercy and doesn’t even know it yet. We’ll see what Craig demands from him.

Man VS Horse doesn’t just relate to Jonas VS Champ. Superiority and social-structure are integral to this story. Is Alphonse a ‘man,’ who decides his own destiny, or is he a ‘horse,’ slave to impulse? Craig flies Alphonse’s helicopter—chauffeuring him, like a horse—but if Craig makes off with the Bronson fortune, then he was actually pretending to be a horse on his way to greatness, and Alphonse was a horse pretending to be a man.

Alphonse oversimplifies society, dividing people into ‘men,’ like him, and ‘horses,’ like Jonas, who are means to an end for men. But truthfully, there is no such division, and Alphonse’s delusions only harm himself and everyone around him.

Father Bronson was evil. I mean, he ground horses into glue and shot Georgie Masawa! But he was a subtler evil. He didn’t have a hundredth of the media-attention Alphonse will attract. I won’t say “a certain amount of evil is okay,” but at least Father Bronson controlled his evil, instead of being controlled by it. Maybe this fictional world would be better-off if bad-guys were all like Father Bronson, not Alphonse or his grand-dad.

Or maybe their world is better off with obvious evil, like Alphonse? At least now they know where to look.

Next time, let’s watch Jonas win his legs.

Last 10 Miles
Table of Contents

 

To Mile 92

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

cropped-cardfront2-4.png

2019

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

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

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

“Can’t this sport wait until morning?”

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

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

“Have you read that book Live to Run?

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

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

“What a shithead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Why was Kevin taking pictures of us?”

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

“What does he influence?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Society and the media?”

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

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

Alphonse sniffed. “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Always on it, Boss.”

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

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

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

The pilot smiled. “Craig.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Ownership of my legs, I hope.”

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

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

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

“Therapy, I think.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Call who,” asked the man in leather.

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

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

“Then call him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my god, your hand!” said Danny.

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

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

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

“Cranberry and lime-kiwi,” said Danny.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, ah, ah.” Alphonse wagged his finger and opened the cooler. “Behold!” He posed beside several severed horse-feet on ice. “You’re lucky, Kevin. You’re the first person outside my labs to witness the latest in equine medicine.”

Even Sandra didn’t know what was happening as Alphonse took a horse’s severed foot from the ice and held it next to Champ’s sloughed hoof. “Where did you get those, sir?” she asked.

“Why, these spares come from horses who died of old age, or in unfortunate accidents!” Alphonse did something Kevin recorded closely: he used a mysterious metal tool from within the cooler to replace Champ’s injured appendage with the new one. “Good as new!” He tossed Champ’s old hoof into the cooler and grabbed another spare from the ice. Champ seemed too deliriously fatigued to even notice his new foot.

“You’re Frankensteining him?” said Hermes. “That’s fucked, man!”

“It’s gotta be illegal,” said Kevin, “or at least against the rules of the race.”

“Hey! The contract is unbroken!” Alphonse replaced Champ’s other injured hoof and closed the cooler for his men to take back to the helicopter. “Jonas is missing a finger. If he doesn’t have to get his whole body across the finish-line, neither does my horse!”

Sandra tossed the flag left. “May I resume, sir?”

“No. Get off.”

“Huh?”

“I’ve decided to take your advice and use the controversy to my advantage. I ordered the front gates open to allow onlookers into the estate. I’ll ride from here so they have a good view of a Bronson on horseback. You can take the helicopter with the security crew.”

“Okay, but—” Sandra’s legs were numb and she had trouble pulling her boots from the stirrups. “Did you dilute my jockey-juice?”

“Of course. From the beginning, I planned to finish the race myself. You don’t need your legs this evening. Get off.”

Sandra gasped as Alphonse’s men in leather pulled her from the saddle. She flailed and fought, and fell to the ground. She snapped her right wrist. “Augh! Alphonse!”

Alphonse swung his feet into the stirrups. “Keep her comfy, men.” Men in leather carried Sandra to the helicopter as she swore. Alphonse prepared to start Champ at a gallop, but noticed Kevin focusing the lens of his old-timey video-camera. “Thank you for your help,” said Alphonse. “I’m using you to boost my public-image, Kevin!”

“This dude is weird,” Kevin said to his camera.

“Oh, puh-lease!” said Alphonse. “In your footage I’m a knight in shining armor! I miraculously heal a horse, and I take over for my disabled employee in an authentic display of valor!

“Dude,” said Hermes, “your horse is effed up because you’re a dickhead, and your employee was just carried away by leather-jacket storm-trooper types.”

“Oh. Ohhhh. I see how it is.” Alphonse rolled his eyes and started Champ at a trot. “Your type always knows how to take things wrong. I shouldn’t have bothered trying to curry your favor in the first place.”

Alphonse and Champ galloped away. Kevin checked his video-camera to make sure no mysterious forces had affected it. Hermes wandered to watch Sandra loaded into the helicopter. “Hey, you,” he called to the pilot in leather, “where are you taking her?”

Two men in leather stood menacingly, but the pilot raised a disarming hand and peeked over his sunglasses. “I’ll take Sandra to a doctor on the estate, but we’ve got time to chat. Hermes, right? You came to the front gates without an ID.”

Hermes bit his beard. “I like to stay off the grid.”

“I can tell, but I’m afraid it hasn’t worked. I read Live to Run. I know exactly who you are.”

“That’s some FBI shit, man.”

Before Kevin could enter the conversation, his phone rang. “Hello?”

“Naira Nightly. Is this Kevin?”

“Yeah. Hey, I know you! You do that late-night show on—”

“Are you in the Bronson Estate right now, Kevin?”

“Uh-huh.”

“How did you convince Alphonse to let you publish pictures?”

“He didn’t let me. He’s already filed a lawsuit for each photograph on my blog. His lawyers won’t stop emailing me about it.”

“Do you think it’s safe for us to come in with a helicopter?”

“Oh, hell no, it’s—” Kevin locked eyes with the helicopter-pilot. Craig winked. “The floodgates are open, Miss Nightly. Bring all you got.”


BEEP. Mile 89 (87): 9:19 / 14:23:01.

“Just eleven more miles!” said Danny.

“Thirteen,” corrected Whitney. “The GPS-watch says 89, but we went off-course around 75 and added two miles.”

“Gosh,” said Debra, “if you were two miles ahead right now, you’d be barely a mile behind the horse!”

I bit my tongue. It didn’t matter if I lost by a mile or a meter. I’d lose my legs.

“To bet a million bucks like this, you must be loaded,” said Danny. “How much money did you make from Live to Run, Jonas?”

I made eye-contact with Whitney. “Live to Run sold over three million copies,” I said, “but I didn’t see much of the profit. A lot of it went to the publishers. A lot of it went to my ghost-writer—Whitney, here. I ended up with about a million bucks.”

“And you bet it all on this race?” asked Debra.

“Uh.” I swallowed. “…Yeah.”

“You must be pretty confident,” said Danny.

“He’d better be,” said Whitney.

BEEP. Mile 90 (88): 8:56 / 14:31:57.


Mike Mann and Naira Nightly shouted over their helicopter’s din. “Naira, are you sure about this? Alphonse already shot down two drones. Maybe he’d do the same to us.”

“Remember what Kevin said?” Naira surveyed the estate from above by spotlight. “Alphonse’s helicopter-pilot is on our side.”

“I’ve heard of the guy,” said their own helicopter-pilot. “If he weren’t on our side, we’d be shot down already.”

“Mike, do you see that?” Naira pointed at the side of a mountain. “There’s a neon-yellow spot down there.”

Mike focused his camera. “I see it too. It looks like caution-tape, or a safety-vest. But it’s not moving, so that can’t be Jonas or the horse.”

“Terrain looks pretty rocky,” said the pilot.

“Land anyway.” Naira gave Mike her phone to show him an article on Kevin’s blog with eight-thousand likes and ten-thousand shares.

Hey Muchachos!

Kevin again. Remember Hermes, the wise old hippie-type in Live to Run? He said he saw something spoOOoky in the Bronson Estate! There’s a neon-yellow visibility vest somewhere, and what’s nearby will shock you! Or it would, if Hermes took any photos.

I’d rather not spread rumors, so let’s leave it there until we’ve got more reputable sources.

“Huh. I guess that’s Kevin’s way of winking at us.” As the helicopter landed, Mike stepped onto the trail. Even with the copter’s bright lights, the path was dark as sin. “Whoa! Careful, this is pretty precarious.”

Naira protected her hair from the copter’s last gusts. “Why am I wearing heelsFucking flip-flops would’ve been better.” She took off her shoes and tiptoed out with her microphone. “Are we rolling?”

Mike adjusted his camera and checked the lighting. “Rolling.”

“Naira Nightly, reporting for the first time ever inside Alphonse Bronson’s estate. Alphonse has famously guarded the right to film or even photograph his property, but an unfolding story demands attention. Guerrilla reporting can be incredibly dangerous, so we’ll keep this quick. We found a neon-yellow visibility-vest which a reliable source says is spoOOoky.” Mike shifted the camera’s focus to the vest, which was ten feet off the trail down a steep slope. “Mike, go over there and take a look.”

“Um. Really?”

“Mike, I’m barefoot, and you’ve got the camera. Come on.”

“Hm.” Mike turned away from the vest and bent to his knees, then crawled backwards on his belly. “Uh… Okay… Put the copter’s lights on me, I can’t see a damn thing!”

Naira and the helicopter-pilot moved spotlights as Mike descended. Near the vest, he flopped onto his back and pointed the camera down his body. “I feel something,” he shouted. “There’s a vest tied to this tree, but right before it—right before it, there’s sort of a hole. More light!

Naira sighed. “Okay,” she said to the pilot, “let’s fly above for a better angle. Stay high enough you don’t blow him away.” As they took off, she spoke into her microphone. “The helicopter is giving Mike plenty of light. Let’s see what’s in the spoOOoky vest-hole.”

The wind buffeted Mike’s comb-over. He tried to resist swearing because he thought the camera’s microphones would hear him, but eventually cussed because he knew the helicopter’s roar would drown it out. He sat up and pointed the camera down the ditch. “Um. Jesus Christ. There’s a skeleton down there.”


BEEP. Mile 91 (89): 9:05 / 14:41:02.

I drank from the hose of Whitney’s water-backpack. “I like that backpack,” said Debra, on her bike. “Want me to carry that for you?”

“No thanks,” said Whitney. “Debra, are you and Danny the only people here?”

“Oh, no,” said Danny, “there were a thousand people at the front gates! Most of them were dressed like you, ready for a footrace.”

“I used to run when my knees were better,” said Debra. “Danny, do you remember that 10k…”

I ignored the conversation. The only person I wanted to talk with was Thog, but I’d be embarrassed to play that game in front of the cyclist-couple. I was already humiliated Alphonse had heard us. I think Whitney sensed my blank expression, because she interrupted. “Debra, Danny, our crew is waiting for us at that flag. Would you please bike ahead and report back on the horse?”

“Can do!” Danny and Debra biked away while Whitney and I approached Kevin’s car.

“Thanks, Thog.”

“No problem.”

BEEP. Mile 92 (90): 7:47 / 14:48:49.

“Jonas!” Hermes waved us over. He gave me a pizza-box, and Whitney her veggie-smoothie. “There were some cyclists coming your way, but they just sped ahead. One lost their shorts?”

“Yeah, we know.” I ate two pizza-slices and rolled up Danny’s left pant-leg. “I needed more compression. Now I need ice.”

“Oh, boy.” Hermes covered his beard in shock. My left leg was red and bent out at the knee. “I’ve got you, Jonas.”

While Hermes fetched an ice-pack, Kevin filmed Whitney rubbing my shoulders. “Say hi to the camera, Jonas! You’re famous!”

“I know.” I swallowed pizza-crust. “I was in a best-selling book.”

“That’s peanuts! You’re in the big-league now!” Kevin took my left hand to show the bloody bandages to his camera. “Tell us what happened to your finger, Jonas.”

“Alphonse owns it now.”

“What’s that mean?”

Whitney explained for me. “Alphonse tricked us two miles off-course and then claimed a finger for it, because he’s a shithead.”

“Here, Jonas.” Hermes taped an ice-pack around my knee. It might slow me down, but the chill was worth it. “You’ll never guess where I got this.”

“7-11? Antarctica?”

“No, look.” Hermes pointed to Alphonse’s nearby helicopter, where three men in leather jackets talked with Sandra over a cooler. One of the men, in sunglasses, snapped a finger-gun at me. “Apparently Kevin knows Alphonse’s helicopter-guy. His name’s Craig.”

“I know that guy. We played cards sometimes.” I ogled the cooler. “Any beer in there?”

“Uh. No, and don’t ask any more questions about it.”

“Hey!” Sandra waved at me with her left arm. Her right arm was in a sling. “Jonas, right?”

“Uh-huh.” I finished another three slices of pizza and gave the rest to Hermes to save for the finish-line. “Did the horse throw you?”

“Alphonse threw me,” she said. I nodded. “Beat him for me, crutch-kid.”

“Planning on it.”

Kevin crouched to get a low-angle shot of me. “Expect company. Craig is letting in news-copters.”

Whitney massaged my cramping calves. “Wait. Did Craig shoot down the drones?”

“Yep! And they were his drones.” Kevin circled me; when he sped up the footage, it’d be like a matrix-shot. I ruined it by scratching my ass. “Craig says his delivery-drones are a side-gig. He was thrilled to shoot some down on Alphonse’s behalf, for publicity.”

“Gotta be honest,” said Craig, “working for Alphonse is a side-gig, too. To me, everything is a side-gig. I’m just lucky my gigs got together.” Craig threw me a peace-sign. “I’ll bring you a beer at the finish-line, J-Man.”

“Hey!” We all turned: some shirtless guy panted down the trail toward us. “Just a mile and a half behind the horse!”

“Who the hell are you?” asked Whitney.

“Um. I’m Rob. I ran here. Alphonse ordered the gates open like an hour ago.” Rob waved for us to follow as he ran back the way he came. “You’re almost there, bro!”

Whitney and I ran after him. “Are more people coming?” I asked.

“Oh, heck yeah!” said Rob. “You’ll have company every step from now on!”

Whitney noticed me wince. “You’ve got this, Jonas.” The buzz of a news-chopper blared above us and put me in the spotlight. “No time for stage-fright.”


“No time for stage-fright,” Alphonse whispered to Champ. “Smile for the cameras.” He nodded politely at a group of runners. Two took out their phones to snap pictures and video. “Excuse me, young lady?”

“Yeah?” She took another picture of the horse. “I’m allowed to take photos, right?”

“Strictly speaking, no, but—” Alphonse shook his head. “I just wanted to ask, are there more runners behind you? I’ve seen at least ten people pass by already, and we’re eight miles from the entrance.”

Loads. Half the folks at the front-gates were runners. We’re near the front of the pack.”

As soon as the runners continued on their way to Jonas, Alphonse grimaced. He’d expected the crowd to remain along the last mile of the course and spectate, not intrude farther. If the trails clogged, runners could impede the horse. Alphonse took out his phone. “Craig?”

“Yeah, Boss?” asked Craig.

“You’re keeping out the news-helicopters, right?”

“Yep,” lied Craig. “Not one in sight.”

“Send a few motorcycles to keep onlookers out of my way.”

“You got it, Boss.”


2013

On his deathbed, Father Bronson wagged one finger to draw Alphonse near. Alphonse brushed aside doctors and nurses to hear his father’s trembling voice. “Yes, Father?”

“I fear these may be my last words, son.”

Alphonse brushed tears from his eyes. “Father, I’m begging you to reconsider the injection.” He raised a syringe, but Father Bronson shook his head. “You’ll feel like a new man. Rejuvenated. Replenished.”

“I’ve seen how you make that stuff, son. It’s abominable.” Father Bronson coughed. Weak as he was, his coughing was thunder. “You remind me of my father.”

“Grandpa Bronson?” Alphonse covered his heart. “What an honor. Thank you for saying that, Dad.”

Father Bronson shook his head. “Grandpa Bronson was a failure.”

“But he was a war-hero. Without him, his country crumbled. You said so.”

“I was naive then. I believed what my father told me when I was young. I know better now.” Father Bronson coughed and spat phlegm. “Grandpa Bronson was an evil man, and he wasn’t even good at it.”

“What do you mean? What did he do?”

“There’s no way to know, because he failed. Grandpa Bronson’s villainy was so foolhardy that to escape punishment, he destroyed his own homeland. He arranged coups. He razed cities. He had rulers assassinated, all to save his face.”

Alphonse threw up his hands. “He doesn’t sound like a failure! If he was as powerful as you say, he’s worthy of veneration and I’m proud to be like him!”

“He wasn’t powerful, son.” Father Bronson locked eyes with Alphonse. “Grandpa Bronson spent his life running. He failed, and he ran from failure. He failed to run from failure, and he ran from that, too. His wake of destruction was weft of weakness. If the world ever learns of our sordid history, the Bronson name is bunk.”

“But he was rich.”

“He was like a burglar who locked himself in a bank-vault, then set most of the money on fire trying to escape. There’s no telling how tremendous the Bronsons would be if not for his hubris.”

Alphonse pointed at his father’s face. “You’re just jealous of his success. You coasted on his coat-tails.”

“Oh, no. I spent my life fixing his failures. Grandpa Bronson had no sense for society. I salvaged the Bronson name in the public eye by keeping my head down. But you?” Father Bronson pointed back. “You’re just like him. You’re evil in the most pitiful ways. If the public finds out who you really are, you’d better be as legendary a bungler as your grandfather. You’ll have to drag nations down with you to escape.”

Alphonse’s lower lip quivered. “But—”

“But nothing. In the Bronson family, failure skips a generation. My father was a failure and I paid for it. Perhaps someday your children will pay for you.”

When Alphonse finally found words, it was too late. His father had died, grinning like Georgie.

Last 10 Miles
Commentary
Table of Contents

Intense injury

Jonas and Whitney are tricked into $20,000 of debt to Alphonse Bronson, and Alphonse takes the opportunity to inflict Jonas with a terrifying injury.

I mentioned here that Man VS Horse is inspired by Stephen King’s Misery and an anime called Kaiji: The Ultimate SurvivorIn these stories the characters lose fingers, get needles under their nails, and have their legs chopped up. Man VS Horse hits all those marks, or at least threatens to.

Alphonse is inspired by Kazuya Hyoudou, one of the bad guys in Kaiji. Kazuya revels in setting up macabre gambles in order to prove his perverse worldview. We learn his perspective is warped by a childhood memory of his mother, and also his father is a dickhead, too. Kazuya tries to explode peoples’ heads and drop Kaiji off a building.

I used to get nervous about torture in fiction, and still do. Do you remember in The Princess Bride, Wesley gets strapped into a thing that makes him scream? That creeped me out as a kid, even though I think it was sorta played for laughs. Even today, stories about catastrophic injury give me the heebie-jeebies, but now I’m sometimes morbidly curious, too. Everyone can relate to the fear of harm, and that makes it an ancient staple of fiction.

I try to make it quick. Needle under nail, gunshot, boom. Most of Jonas’ running-troubles worsen gradually over time: thirst, hunger, a blister, fatigue. I hope the sudden loss of a finger caught you off-guard even though I warned you at the beginning of the chapter.

I promise Jonas will win the race and keep his legs, but without this scene, I think the threat could come across as hollow. I want readers to believe Jonas might lose his legs, even if everyone knows it’ll be okay because it’s just a story.

Next 10 Miles
Table of Contents

To Mile 70

(This is part seven of a story about an ultra-marathon runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a 100-mile race. Jonas is behind the horse.)

cropped-cardfront2-4.png

2019

Hermes rolled down his window and poked his head from the car like a dog. “Wow, this is steep.”

“My car can take it.” Kevin’s car grumbled in disagreement, but still slogged up the slope. Kevin pat the dashboard appreciatively.

“I’m not worried about your car,” said Hermes. “Remember, Jonas has to climb every step of this mountain.”

“He always called himself ‘King of the Mountain’ in high school,” said Kevin. “Pretentious prick. He said cross-country skiing made him better than me at running uphill.”

“Well?” Hermes pulled his head back into the car. “Was he right?”

Kevin shrugged. “He could run hills all day, but he ran them slowest on the team.”

“Endurance might be all Jonas needs right now,” said Hermes.

“It didn’t help him win The Great Race.” Kevin ashed his cigarette out the window. “Jonas had to skip two miles to beat Whitney.”

Hermes sighed. “I was never sure Jonas did that intentionally. He’s not that kinda guy.”

“Oh, come off it.” Kevin gave Hermes another cigarette to light. “I’ve run a marathon, and every mile after 14 punched me in the gut. If I’d accidentally skipped two miles at the end, I’d have noticed—I’d have been ecstatic to avoid gut-punches. But I wouldn’t pretend I’d finished legit, let alone won. Jonas pretended. Jonas broke the tape.”

“Ninety-plus miles will do stuff to you, man. Maybe Jonas was delirious.” Hermes lit the cigarette. “Half the folks I’ve ever met at ultras have hallucinated.”

“Because they were running for days, like lunatics, or because they were 60’s kids, like you?” Hermes didn’t answer. He held up the cigarette and Kevin took it in his teeth. Kevin puffed smoke and shook his head. “Jonas felt guilty, and he felt guilty because he was guilty.”

“I don’t think so, Kev.”

“I know him better than you do. Did you know Jonas lived with me for a while after The Great Race?” Kevin took a hairpin turn on the service-road up the mountain. “Whitney kicked him out of her apartment, so Jonas slept on my couch for a few months. All I ever saw him do was drink.”

“Geez. Now I feel even more sorry for him.”

“Don’t. What he didn’t spend on booze, he gambled.”

“Jonas gambled? Really? What’d he gamble?”

“Anything he could get his hands on.”

“I mean, what’d he play? Internet poker? Gambling’s not legal around here, and Vegas is a little far.”

“He didn’t gamble legal, Hermes, he—” Kevin wiped his eyes. “Jonas went to the Bronson place. You know the Bronson place?” Hermes shook his head. “Alphonse runs a little underground casino. I think it’s literally underground. I’ve never been there, just heard about it. I hear it’s invite-only.”

“How did Jonas get invited?”

“Beats me,” said Kevin. “I just know whenever Jonas got a paycheck waiting tables, he drank half of it and gambled the rest hoping to double-or-nothing his drinking. He always lost, and then he’d always ask to borrow money from me. I lent him fifty bucks before I realized what he was doing with it; I figured he was buying running shoes, or something. He still owes me.”

Hermes stroked his beard. “Gambling at the Bronson place must’ve inspired Jonas to race the horse.”

“He talked about the horse-race sometimes, but I didn’t think he was serious. I bet he’s doing this to be cheesy and romantic for Whitney. Pretentious prick. If he wins a million bucks, he’d better pay back the booze-money he owes me.” Kevin blinked. “Wait. If Jonas has the funds to make a million-dollar bet, he never needed to borrow money at all! What an ass-hat!”

“Maybe Jonas didn’t have to ante anything,” said Hermes. “Maybe Alphonse just wanted to race a human on horseback, like his daddy did with Georgie Masawa. Alphonse said he’s interested in athlete nutrition, right?”

“Yeah, and then he kicked our pizza.”

“But only after learning about it! Maybe a million bucks isn’t much to a guy like Alphonse, and he’s set up the gamble to sort of buy the experience of racing Jonas.”

“You saw that jockey streak past. Alphonse isn’t even on the horse.”

Hermes shrugged. “Whatever. Maybe Alphonse thinks the sport is its own reward, man.”

“Yeah, whatever, man,” dripped Kevin. “Alphonse is fucked up. I never thought I’d meet a more pretentious prick than Jonas, but baby-Bronson’s got him beat. Alphonse better bring that pizza to mile 70.”

“He won’t,” said Hermes, “and if he does, maybe no one should eat it. Do we really trust Alphonse with race-catering?”

“Yeah, you’re right. He’d probably poison it.” Kevin gripped the steering wheel. “Hey. Wait.” He pulled out his phone. “I bet we can fly another pizza in here.”

“By drone? Alphonse would shoot it down again. I can’t imagine your friend would send another drone just to be destroyed.”

“Don’t doubt my connections. You don’t know Craig.” Kevin scrolled through his contacts.


BEEP. Mile 61: 12:13 / 8:12:07.

The mountain was steeper than I’d given it credit for. Whitney stayed ten paces ahead to scan the trail for debris. She kicked rocks aside so I wouldn’t trip on them. Then she slowed to run beside me. “Drink.” I drank from Whitney’s water-backpack. She donned a headlamp and handed another to me. “Put this on. It’ll be dark soon.”

“Oh, no.” I refused the headlamp. “I hate wearing headlamps as much as I hate—”

“—wearing hats and sunglasses, I know,” said Whitney. “Just put it on, Jonas.” I pulled the elastic band around my forehead. The headlamp bounced on my face with my stride. I suppose the annoyance was worth it; up ahead, groves of trees would be thick with shadows come sunset. “Put this on, too.” She gave me a neon-yellow visibility vest.

“What, really? Why? There’s no traffic out here. I’m not gonna be hit by a car.”

Whitney glared, and I knew she wouldn’t let this go. I put on the vest. “Visibility isn’t just for alerting traffic,” she said. “If you fall off this mountain-trail, we’ll need that reflective vest to spot your corpse by satellite.”

“Gallows humor gives me nausea,” I said, “and so does this neon-yellow vest. It’s worse than Alphonse’s dumb military jacket.”

Whitney rolled her eyes. “You know why he wears that, right?”

BEEP. Mile 62: 11:58 / 8:24:05.

“No clue. I’d never wear it.”

“The jacket belonged to Grandpa-Bronson.” Whitney puffed. The incline winded even her, even after she’d run only twelve miles. “He was a Major-General back in the old country.”

“What country is that?”

“I don’t think it exists anymore.”

“What happened?”

“Grandpa-Bronson happened. He stole the nation’s treasury, and then whatever he did next, he did it so thoroughly there’s not much evidence to go off. I’ve read everything there is about Grandpa-Bronson, and it’s not much.”

“What was the country called before it disintegrated?”

“I wish I could tell you. Evidence of his war-crimes was buried with the bodies.” Whitney noticed my souring expression. “That’s the rumor, anyway. With his fortune he started a glue factory in the states. His motto was Use Every Part of the Horse.”

“Change the topic, squire.”

BEEP. Mile 63: 12:02 / 8:36:07.

“How’s your knee?”

“Not clicking yet.” For a few paces I bent my left leg more than usual, to test it. “But it’ll start soon.”

“Is the compression sleeve helping?”

“Yeah.”

“Got a headache?”

“A little.”

“Cramping?”

“Obviously.”

“You’ve got hyponatremia. You need more salt.” Whitney fished in her backpack for salt-tablets.

“I’m fine. I’m just bonking.” I suddenly realized that was a lie. I wasn’t just bonking—the shadows cast by our headlamps made the earth shimmer with shadows, and for a moment I worried I was lost at sea. “Wait, no. I’m not fine. I’m hallucinating.”

“That’s hyponatremia. Take the salt.” I swallowed the tablets. “Salt-loss can kill you. Hallucinations can’t.”

“Hell yeah they can.” I slowed to a walk. “I’ve already slipped and fallen on this run. If I can’t see straight, I’ll fall again, and I might not get back up.”

“Okay.” Whitney walked beside me. “Drink.”

BEEP. Mile 64: 13:41 / 8:49:48.

I drank from her water-backpack. “What did Georgie Masawa eat for hyponatremia? You read all about him racing Alphonse’s dad, right?”

Whitney laughed. “Not a lot to read, and certainly no diet tips. Georgie was a recluse. All those ultra-running South-American native-tribes are tight-lipped.”

“Was Georgie one of those famous Indians who run hundreds of miles before breakfast? A Tarahumara?”

“Nah, nah, Tarahumara are talkative compared to whatever Georgie was.” When Whitney shook her head, her ponytail whipped at me enticingly. “We don’t even know how many there were, or where they lived, or what they called themselves. We just call them the Masawas, after Georgie.”

I bit my tongue. “So why did Georgie come all the way to the Bronson estate? Did the Bronsons invite him?”

“Beats me,” said Whitney. “Georgie never said. He was basically mute. And then he died, probably somewhere around here.”

My knees knocked, and not just with fatigue. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. All we know is Georgie died between sixty and seventy miles. If Father Bronson raced him on the same trails we’re running now, he’s not far from us. No one ever found his body, so we’ll never know for sure.” She tugged the corner of my visibility vest. “So don’t complain about the neon-yellow. It might be your only ticket to a proper burial.”

BEEP. Mile 65: 18:21 / 9:08:09.

My stomach churned. “I’m no Georgie Masawa.”

“Good. You need to be better than Georgie Masawa.”

I puked off the side of the trail. Retch after retch, it just kept coming.

Whitney pat my back. “Let it out, soldier. You’ve got a pizza coming in a few miles.”

I dry-heaved a few times. Vomit trickled down the mountain. “I can’t do this,” I said. “I can’t keep moving.”

Whitney walked anyway and pulled me along behind her. “You bet your legs, Jonas. You can’t stop moving.”

“Stopping is for the best.” My steps were trembling. “I bet if I stop now, I can convince Alphonse to settle for one whole leg and the other leg below the knee.”

“Jonas.”

“Or both legs up to mid-thigh.”

“Jonas! You’ve run a hundred miles tens of times. You know this pessimism doesn’t last forever. If you give up now, you’ll kick yourself later. Well, you couldn’t kick yourself, but you know what I mean.”

“Prosthetics are pretty good nowadays.”

“Okay, come on.” Whitney checked her GPS watch. “If you stop right here, you’ll sit on your hands until you die. You can’t really quit until we reach the service-road at mile 70. If you can honestly tell me you want to stop every mile until we smell your pizza at 69, then you can quit. I won’t badger you.”

BEEP. Mile 66: 21:04 / 9:29:13.

“I want to stop.”


Hermes waited with his arms crossed by the 70-mile flag. After the fork, Jonas would either start downhill or have two more uphill miles to go.

“A-ha!” Kevin waved his arms at an approaching pizza-drone. “I knew Craig would come through!” He used his phone to photograph the delivery.

“How’d you convince your friend to send another drone after Alphonse shot down the first?”

“Every start-up wants one thing: for their story to get out.” Kevin took a picture of the pizza-box next to the drone. He gave a thumbs-up to the drone’s camera. “Craig was delighted Alphonse shot down his bot. I told him about Jonas racing the horse, and he said he’d sacrifice ten drones to put his pizzas in this narrative. Whether Jonas wins or not, if this race goes viral, investments will sky-rocket.”

The drone took off and circled about 500 meters above the 70-mile flag. “What’s it hanging around for?” asked Hermes.

“Craig’s waiting for Alphonse to shoot this one, too.” No sooner had Kevin said this than Alphonse’s helicopter crested the mountain. Kevin grinned while he filmed the drone with his phone. “Here it comes!”

“I don’t know if recording is a good idea,” said Hermes. “Alphonse takes that sort of thing pretty seriously.”

“Shove it. This is social-media gold.”

Hermes covered his ears just in time. The helicopter fired seven blaring shots. The drone crashed into the brush and burst into bits. Kevin’s phone recorded the helicopter descending over them. Alphonse’s voice boomed from megaphones: “I brought you your pizza. No need for impatience.”

“Yeah, feed the camera, scumbag.” Kevin stopped recording as soon as the helicopter touched down and Alphonse stepped out. Hermes stowed Jonas’ pizza in the car to protect it. Keven stepped defensively between the car and Alphonse. “Hey, A.B.”

“A.B.?” Alphonse Bronson parsed the nickname for a moment. “Oh. A.B. Quite.” He gave Kevin a pizza-box. It was tiny, the type of pizza a pretentious prick would order at a hoity-toity restaurant. “Kevin, isn’t it?”

“Uh-huh.” Kevin pretended to continue recording Alphonse while he tapped his phone’s screen to save the video to the cloud. “Care to comment? You just shot down another drone.”

“You knew that I would. Would you please stop filming?”

“I’m not filming.” Kevin showed Alphonse his phone’s screen: he’d switched to Tetris.

“If you have been filming,” said Alphonse, “please delete the videos, and any photographs you may have taken. Coverage of the estate is highly regulated. If you want to buy a license to film here, please contact my brand manager.”

“Okay, okay.” Kevin put away his phone. “Did you come all this way just to deliver this pizza? Should we tip?”

“Don’t patronize me, I’d be tempted to charge you.” Alphonse smiled and marched to the 70-mile flag. “I’m here for my own sake. My jockey is arriving as I speak.”

Champ’s hoof-beats roared up to the fork. Sandra knocked the flag to the right, then saluted. “Howdy, boss.”

“Sandra, I told you to go right at mile 60. Why did you go left?”

Sandra noticed Kevin and Hermes. She leaned toward Alphonse so only he could hear her. “Champ is fatigued, sir. I didn’t think he could take the more strenuous route.”

Alphonse tutted. “We discussed this. I didn’t want Jonas poking his nose in that direction. You know Champ’s fatigue doesn’t matter anymore.” He procured two syringes from his gaudy military jacket.

“Hey, what’re those?” asked Hermes.

“I don’t pry into your medical history, do I?” Sandra injected the smaller syringe into her thigh. Then she flexed her ankles. “Lay off my jockey-juice.” Her spurs bit Champs belly, while Alphonse injected the horse with the larger syringe.

“I think those spurs are illegal,” said Hermes. “Can’t you see he’s bleeding?”

“Bah. Champ isn’t bothered by such war-wounds.” Alphonse slapped Champ’s flank and Sandra galloped away. Alphonse retreated to his helicopter and the blades spun up. “Remember, delete any footage of the estate!”

“Yeah, yeah! You got it! Edgy twat.” Kevin lit a cigarette as the helicopter lifted off. “What a caveman. That video is already copied to Craig’s PC by now. Hey, wait…” He browsed through his phone. “Where is it?”

“What’s up?” asked Hermes.

“I had a great connection a minute ago, but now the video is just gone. It’s like—” Kevin blinked. Ash fell from his cigarette. “It’s like reception went down as soon as Alphonse arrived. Damn—He must be wearing a signal-jammer. He suspected I’d sneak footage past him.”

“Or maybe he wears it all the time,” said Hermes. “Maybe he’s just that paranoid.”

“But how’d he delete the recording from my phone?” Kevin scratched his head. “This is fucked. All I’ve got left is photos of the pizza-drone. He’s hacking into my shit.”

“Huh.” Hermes pulled a plastic disposable camera from his fanny-pack. “Maybe my caveman tech won’t have that problem. I snapped a couple pics of those spurs.”

Kevin gawped, then guffawed. “You hypocrite! You warned me against filming Alphonse!”

“Yeah, but I have friends in Greenpeace and PETA who’ll wanna see that poor horse.”

“Nah, nah.” Kevin took the camera from Hermes and climbed behind the driver’s seat. “I know exactly what to do with these photos. I’ll be back in an hour to drive you to mile 80. Give Jonas his stupid pizza for me.”


BEEP. Mile 67: 22:13 / 9:51:26.

“I want to stop.”

“Uh huh, uh huh.” Whitney walked behind to make me plod with decent pace. “Tell me, have you really thought through losing your legs?”

“When Alphonse takes my legs, they won’t hurt any more. He’ll cure my bum knee for good.”

“But you won’t be able to run, or walk, or stand.”

“Like I said, prosthetics are pretty nice nowadays. They can 3D print limbs that make paraplegic Olympic-contenders.”

“And how’re you gonna afford those fancy prosthetics?” asked Whitney.

“Book-money.” My foot slipped on a rock. Thank goodness the trail was so steep that the incline broke most of my fall.

Whitney gave me a hand to help me up, but I just flopped onto my back. “You spent all your book-money, Jonas. That’s why you bet your legs.”

“I’ll write a new book.” Both my palms were bloody. I brushed them together to knock off pebbles and dust. “I’ll have a story worth writing about. I raced a Bronson on horseback and got farther than Georgie Masawa before throwing in the towel. That’s a best-seller.”

“You weren’t so good at writing, if I recall. I wrote Live to Run almost cover-to-cover.” Whitney tapped her foot impatiently. I finally started pulling myself upright. “And before you ask, no, I won’t write this book for you, too.”

“You can buy the story-rights from me,” I said. “You’ll write the book and your name will be on the cover.”

Whitney considered it as we continued to walk. “Maybe if you finish the race. Quitting at seventy miles would be anticlimactic. You’ll run a hundred miles or you’ll write about it on your own.”

BEEP. Mile 68: 21:48 / 10:13:14.

“That’s not happening. I want to stop.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Whitney tore open a silver packet of running-glop. “Eat this.”

“Eeugh.” I shuddered. “No way. You wanna see me puke again?”

“It’s peanut-butter.” Whitney pressed it into my hands. “You love peanut-butter.”

“My stomach doesn’t. Not right now.”

“What does your stomach want right now? Chocolate?”

I shook my head. “Pizza.”

Whitney slurped the peanut-butter glop herself. “You gotta keep moving for pizza.”

“How much farther to the flag? About a mile?”

Whitney checked her GPS watch. “More like a mile and three quarters.”

I stopped in my tracks. “Whitney.”

“Move, Jonas.”

“Wait. Whitney. Do you hear that?” I cupped my hands around my ears. “Hoof-beats.”

Whitney looked around. The narrow trail hugged a cliff-side on our right, and a steep, scraggy grove of trees on our left. The sun had set on the other side of the mountain, so it was dark as night. Our headlamps cast eerie illumination. “I don’t hear hooves, Jonas.”

But I did. I heard a hearty gallop.

A horse rounded the cliff-side, charging right toward us. It wasn’t Champ. This horse was fiery-red and puffed steam from its nostrils like an engine.

Its jockey was a skeleton. I didn’t realize I was hallucinating until I’d already leaped left off the trail. “Jonas!”

I rolled and rolled downhill. My body broke dry branches. I caught an old tree-trunk with my ribs, and held it for dear life.

“Jonas, grab on!” Whitney leaned off the trail ten feet above me. She lowered her water-backpack by one strap, dangling the other strap almost within my reach. I reached.

I slid deep into the dirt. The tree’s rotting roots straggled into a dark, narrow ditch down which I tumbled until I was face-to-face with a skull.

I breathlessly watched the skull, waiting for it to fade like any other hallucination.

It didn’t. It stayed. The skull connected to old, broken bones.

Nausea gripped me again, but I couldn’t puke it out. The sick felt tethered to my spine. “Georgie,” I whispered.

“Jonas!” shouted Whitney. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah!” With renewed adrenaline, I scrambled from the ditch. At the surface I shed my neon-yellow visibility vest and tied it around the roots of the rotting tree. “Help me up!”

“Hold this!” Whitney dangled her water-backpack. I grabbed the hanging strap and she pulled me back onto the trail. “Don’t jump off again, nimrod,” she said.

“You don’t have to tell me twice.” We kept walking.

“Where’s your vest?” she asked. I shrugged. “You’re lucky I could spot you. You almost Masawa’d yourself.”

BEEP. Mile 69: 24:19 / 10:37:33.

“I want to stop.” I looked at Whitney expectantly. “I’ve said it five miles in a row. You have to let me stop.”

“Say it again at the end of 69, when you smell pizza,” she said. I groaned. “If you want your pizza sooner, then jog with me. Come on.” We jogged slowly. The worst of the incline was behind us. “Once you’re over this mountain the rest of the race is downhill or flat.”

“I still want to stop. The pizza won’t change my mind.”

Whitney sighed. “You really want to give up your legs?”

“Just seven-tenths of them.”

“Why does Alphonse even want your legs?”

“I wish I knew. He just said ‘medical purposes.’ Alphonse says my legs are worth a million bucks to his laboratories, or whatever.”

“And apparently you agree,” said Whitney, “since you took the bet.”

“No, no.” I covered my face. “Initially I lied I had a million bucks to ante. When Alphonse found out I don’t have the money, then he said he wanted my legs.”

Whitney’s lips popped. “How did he find that out?”

“I don’t know. He said something about his accountant running numbers.”

“But… wouldn’t he…” Whitney trailed off. “Wouldn’t he check before the race?”

Her realization dawned on me with agonizing crawl. “Oh God,” I whimpered. “Alphonse always knew I didn’t have the money. He was after my legs this whole time. This was his plan from the start.”

“Keep your head, Jonas.”

“At this rate? My head’s all I could possibly keep, because it’s empty and useless.”

“Jonas.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks. Whitney gave me the hose to her water-backpack. I drank deep. “I can’t stop here, Whitney.”

“I know.”

“Don’t let me stop. I have to win the race.”

“I know.”

BEEP. Mile 70: 14:52 / 10:52:25.

The jockey had tossed the 70-mile flag to the right, toward more uphill. I looked around; where was Kevin’s car?

“Jonas! Whitney!” Hermes approached with a pizza-box. “Kevin drove out to develop some photos.”

“Seriously? He’s gotta post pictures to social media now?” Whitney rolled her eyes. “What a pretentious prick.” I didn’t mind. I was already scarfing down my second slice of pizza. The oil soaked my mouth and throat. Whitney traded her empty water-backpack for a full one from Hermes. “Jonas has got some cuts and bruises. How’d the horse look?”

“Not great, honestly.” Hermes treated and bandaged my injuries while I ate, then pointed to his own ribs. “The jockey was really giving him the spurs. Alphonse injected the horse and jockey with something, too. I figure that means they’re in bad shape.”

“How long ago did she pass by?”

“About an hour ago.”

I shoved the rest of the pizza in my mouth. Whitney smeared sauce off my cheek. “An hour ago, we were barely three miles away,” she said. “We can make up three miles over thirty.”

“Just let me know if there’s anything I can do,” said Hermes.

“Mm!” I swallowed the last of the crust. “There is.”

“Yeah?”

“I lost my neon-yellow visibility vest.”

“I’ve got another you can wear.” Hermes opened his fanny-pack.

“No!” I walked down the trail. “I lost my vest around mile 68. Promise me you’ll find it.”


1987

“You should know something, Masawa. My horse can run a bit faster than this.”

Georgie nodded.

Father Bronson pat his horse’s mane. Behind him on the saddle, eight-year-old Alphonse Bronson clutched a plush horse’s head on a wooden pole. He and the toy horse were wearing little cowboy hats.

“We’ve raced almost seventy miles—”

“Sixty-three.” Georgie spoke without eye-contact to Father Bronson.

Father Bronson twirled his mustache. “I rounded up. In any case, you must understand you have no hope here.”

Georgie shrugged.

“I’ve been humoring you so far. My horse could have finished a hundred miles hours ago.” At this, Georgie smirked. Father Bronson gripped the reins. “What’s that look for?”

“I just wonder,” said Georgie, “who’s humoring who.” He accelerated for a few steps, in jest, just until Father Bronson flinched and sped his horse in chase. It was hard to tell whose gait was more naturally perfect, the horse’s or Masawa’s. Georgie laughed and returned to his ordinary pace.

“I mean it!” said Father Bronson. “I agreed to this race suspecting you had no chance of winning, but I hoped you would prove me wrong! I wanted to analyze your form to enhance my race-horses. You would have been a whetstone to sharpen my blade. But I’m afraid you’ve got nothing to teach me. If you were a horse, I’d make glue.”

Georgie’s smirk became incredulous. “Mister Bronson, sir, do you race for fun, or profit?”

“Both.”

“I race for food.” Georgie subtly sped up. “I’ve raced horses to death, far faster than this, from Columbia to Patagonia.”

“I told you, I’m humoring you!” Father Bronson made his horse match pace with Georgie. Alphonse bobbed his toy horse up and down with the gallop.

“Mister Bronson.” Georgie kept speeding up; he bounded majestically like a deer. “You killed my family. You threatened my people.”

“Well, actually, technically,” said Father Bronson—

“—and you demand I win a race to save our homeland.”

“You’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” said Father Bronson. “Besides, you leapt at the opportunity to race me today.”

“Because this isn’t really a race.” Georgie stopped laughing and locked eyes with him. “Mister Bronson, I’m chasing you to death. Not your horse—you.”

Father Bronson shivered. He wanted to say the peculiar Indian was japing, but he realized he’d never seen a human run as fast as Georgie was right now. Masawa had just run a half-mile in a minute, and he didn’t even look particularly winded. “Stop looking at me like that!” Father Bronson whipped the reins and his horse galloped at a pace no human could hope to match, until Georgie was a speck miles behind them. Finally Father Bronson stopped on the side of the trail. “Off, boy.”

Alphonse was glad to dismount; he and his father had ridden for hours today, and his thighs had chafed since mile three.

“Stay right here, son.” Father Bronson turned his horse around. “Mount your pony.”

“But my legs hurt.” Alphonse withered under his father’s glare. He mounted his toy horse.

“Stay put until I come back. I’m going hunting.” Father Bronson pulled a silver pistol from his gaudy military jacket. “I saw a deer back there. They’re rare in the estate.”

“Are you gonna mount it over the mantle, papa?”

“No, no, no, son.” Father Bronson made sure the pistol was loaded. “This one’s a loser.”

Next 12 Miles
Commentary
Table of Contents