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

Timing

By mile 70, it’s getting dark and spooky.

This is a bit of an issue, because by my own reckoning, it’s only about four or five in the afternoon. When Jonas was around mile 31, Kevin was just waking up at 10:00 AM. According to this website the sun shouldn’t finish setting for another hour or so, at least.

Lemme show you a quick spreadsheet: the first column is the mile number, then the next column is Jonas’ time on that mile, then the total time elapsed since the start of the race, then Jonas’ average pace thus far. The last column shows the current time, based on Kevin’s alarm at 10 AM, in red.

spreadsheet.pngI’m not stressing about the realism of the race’s chronology right now. By changing the time in the red box, I can adjust the whole column at once. Maybe Kevin sets his alarm for 11 AM, or noon. It’ll be whatever makes sense when all’s said and done.

I’ve watched some documentaries about ultra-marathons, and it seems the races normally begin early in the morning, before sunrise. So the beginning of the race is about right, but I don’t mind changing it a little.

I’ve also made a little elevation map. So far it doesn’t look too ridiculous.

elevation.png

See you next time!

Next 12 Miles
Table of Contents

PS. The first time I wrote this, Georgie Masawa was a Tarahumara, from a South-American tribe of natural runners providing campfire-legends for ultra-racers. I think the running community at large first learned of Tarahumara from the book Born to Run.

This draft, Georgie is more mysterious and the Tarahumara are only briefly mentioned. For me to use a real tribe would require, like, research, man, and could come across as exploitative. I think Georgie’s more meaningful when he’s more abstract.

Race Map

Jonas is behind the horse again. Bummer.

I made a little map of Alphonse’s estate. By my reckoning the Bronson Estate must be about a million acres—the size of Rhode Island—which is ridiculous, but not too ridiculous.

The race started and will end at the front gate, where Kevin, Whitney, and Hermes were held up. Then every ten miles, there’s a fork in the trail. Whoever gets to the fork first gets to choose which direction the race goes. There’s are mountains around mile 10-20, 25-30, and 60-70.

The green inner wheel is the service road Kevin and Hermes are driving on, which meets the trails every ten miles.

I hesitate to make this more detailed. I think a map of a fictional setting is only helpful insomuch as it empowers the story. Being too precise would just limit my ability to hand-wave inconsistencies away (or change things later, if I have cool ideas). There’s no canonical map, just this sorta abstract one.

See you next time!

Next 10 Miles
Table of Contents

To Mile 40

(This is part 4 of a story about an ultra-marathon-runner who makes a million-dollar bet that he can beat a billionaire on horseback in a hundred-mile-race. The ultra-marathoner will soon learn that without a million dollars to lose, the billionaire will demand his legs.)

cardFront

2019

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

Kevin turned off his alarm-clock. It was ten in the morning. He slumped out of bed and started a pot of coffee.

As the coffee dribbled, Kevin checked his Facebook, his Instagram, and his Twitter. He smiled; he’d doubled his followers since Jonas’ book came out. What was the title? Live to Run? Kevin would never bother reading it, but apparently he came across quite well. He’d have to thank Whitney for the publicity.

Kevin checked his texts and almost dropped his phone. “Jonas! You idiot!” He dialed a number and put the phone to his ear. “Whitney! Your ex is making an ass of himself again! Call your Uncle Hermes, I’ll pick you up.”


BEEP. Mile 31: 8:04 / 4:10:22.

The maps said there was a river running down this side of the mountain, and technically, there was, but I hesitated to fill my three-liter water-backpack. The water flowed crystal clear from a rusty industrial pipe. It never occurred to me that this river might be man-made, and chlorinated, or worse.

Anyway, I filled up my three-liter backpack and tossed in a water-purification tablet. The backpack sloshed every step. After half an hour bouncing on my back, the water might be drinkable. I crossed my fingers; I couldn’t run seventy more miles without water.

On a typical ultra-marathon there’d be regular stations where runners could load up on supplies, or seek medical attention, or even quit the race. Some ultras over hundreds of miles were just lots of loops around small courses, so runners passed one aid-station over and over. A runner might even have a partner, a ‘pacer,’ who could carry things like a squire for a knight.

I was Whitney’s first squire.

BEEP. Mile 32: 7:32 / 4:17:54.

She’d signed up for a fifty-miler by the beach. We’d planned it for months. I’d be at each aid-station every ten kilometers. After thirty miles I’d be allowed to run beside her and pace her for the rest of the race.

Her Uncle Hermes taught me the rigmarole of race-staffing. He was an old hand at ultras. “Here, Jonas, hydro those guys.” At a marathon I might hold out a paper cup of water for the racers every mile. At the ultra I filled up a guy’s water-backpack while he puked into a bush. His stomach-capacity impressed me; he was skinny like a skeleton, but hurled up whole pints. Hermes pat him on the back and offered him some pretzels. “Whitney should be here soon,” Hermes told me. I wondered if she’d be as gaunt as most of the people who’d already passed.

“Hoy!” Whitney waved as she came around a cape. She was exhausted but jubilant. She tossed me her water-backpack. “Fill ‘er up and put ‘er on!”

Hermes untied Whitney’s shoes while I filled her water-backpack. I turned the backpack upside-down so the air-bubble floated to the top, where I could suck it out the hose. That’d keep the backpack from sloshing every step. “You’re the seventh woman overall,” I said, “and fourth in your age-group.”

“Am I on pace?”

“Perfectly.” I donned Whitney’s water-backpack to carry it for her while Hermes finished retying her shoes. If Whitney had crouched to tie them herself, she risked cramping and collapsing. “Let’s go.”

BEEP. Mile 33: 7:27 / 4:25:21.

It was fun to work pit-stops for Whitney, and I treasured running beside her when she was already fatigued. After she’d run thirty miles I could actually keep up with her, and I felt useful pacing her to the finish-line in ten hours. She ran the last mile in eight minutes, then kicked off her shoes. Her toenails were black and bleeding. We collapsed together near the ocean and let waves lap at our legs.

Then she asked, “when are you doing one?”

So I was obligated to let Whitney pace me on a 50-miler. And let me tell you, she looked different after I’d run thirty miles.

She was like peanut-butter: on a long run, I couldn’t get enough. When Whitney ran beside me, my body demanded her. She was salt and sugar and oil.

That’s why I signed up for a 100-miler. I was eager to speedball my girlfriend when my body was battered and bruised. “Are you sure?” she’d asked. “My Uncle Hermes ran few hundos back in the day. He says it’s a whole new world of pain.”

“Running is all about suffering,” I’d said. “The one who suffers best is the one who wins.” And boy, did I suffer. I ran from sunrise, to sunset, to sunrise, and Whitney was an irresistible siren luring me on when I wobbled.

BEEP. Mile 34: 7:44 / 4:33:05.

That hundred-miler was at a national park in the Midwest. About twenty-two hours in, I saw a bird I didn’t recognize. “Whitney?”

“Need water?” She offered me the hose from her water-backpack.

“No, the bird.” I pointed at the sky, near the sun. “Look. A big red bird.”

“There’s no bird, Jonas.” Whitney shook her head. “You’re hallucinating. Hermes warned you this would happen eventually.”

“Huh?” I couldn’t believe it. The bird looked real as anything I’d ever seen. “It’s right there, though. You must see it, it’s huge. It’s got a wing-span like a semi-truck.”

“Does that really sound real to you?”

“I guess not.” The bird dissolved into clouds. “Maybe I should quit now and take the DNF—‘Did Not Finish.’ Hallucinating doesn’t seem healthy.”

Whitney puffed as we jogged uphill. “You can stop at the next aid-station if you want, but you’re just a few hours from the finish. Hallucinations can’t hurt you, Jonas.”

“I… I don’t know.” I wondered which rocks and trees were real or not. “I don’t know.”

“Look. Jonas. Look at me.” Whitney pulled off her sports-bra. “These are real. These are right in front of you.” I drooled. “Keep running.” I could only obey.

BEEP. Mile 35: 7:21 / 4:40:26.


Kevin rolled down the driver’s-side window. “Hey! You! Open up the gate.”

A security-guard sitting in a booth crossed his arms. He wore a leather jacket and sunglasses. “No one gets onto the Bronson Estate without permission.”

“Call Alphonse. He’s gotta be expecting us.”

“Lemme see your ID.” Kevin gave the guard his driver’s license. “All of you.” Whitney gave the guard her license, too.

“I don’t have an ID, man,” said Whitney’s uncle Hermes. “I try to stay off the grid.”

“Then look at the cameras, sir.” Hermes noticed a security camera on each side of the wrought-iron gate into the Bronson Estate. The security guard returned their IDs. “I’ll tell Mister Bronson you came, and you can schedule an appointment. Mister Bronson doesn’t want to be disturbed today. He’s on important business.”

“So are we,” said Whitney. She sucked the air-bubble out of a water-backpack. “Could you please contact Alphonse? I think he’ll want to let us in.”

“No dice.”


BEEP. Mile 36: 7:51 / 4:48:17.

I sucked water from the hose of my three-liter backpack, then spat it out. It tasted bitter. The water Alphonse pumped up the mountain was chemically treated to look pretty. No wonder there was barely any wildlife in the Bronson Estate besides rodents, lizards, bugs, and birds. Fish weren’t welcome. A deer stranded here would die of thirst.

And so would I. I hadn’t had a drop of water in six miles. My mouth was dry. I couldn’t keep this up. I didn’t stand a chance.

My phone rang.

I pulled it out of my backpack. “Hello?”

“Jonas, you idiot!”

“Hi, Kevin. I guess you got my text. I’m racing the horse as we speak.”

“Jonas, I’m here too.” It was Whitney. “We’re outside the Bronson Estate.”

“Oh… I’m sorry you came all this way for me.” I wiped tears off my cheek and licked them off my palm to conserve water. “I need supplies, guys.”

“We’ve got all you need, Jonas,” said Uncle Hermes. “We’re gonna get you through this. But there’s something you’ve gotta do.”

“Okay. What?”

BEEP. Mile 37: 7:43 / 4:56:00.

“I just heard your GPS-watch beep,” said Whitney. “Are you using the running app I introduced to you? Do you have a premium membership?”

“No. I’m still bumming off your premium membership.”

“Perfect. I’m logging in on my own watch,” said Whitney. “Alright, I’m monitoring your run live. We can track your GPS-location and meet. I see you’ve got an eight-minute-mile average so far. Not bad. You might actually do this.”

“Jonas, they’re not letting us onto the estate without permission,” said Hermes, “but they won’t call Alphonse to ask if we can come in. Can you make him open the gate?”

“Uh…” I looked at the horizon. “I don’t know. He must be miles and miles ahead.”

“Catch that horse, Jonas,” said Whitney. “We can’t help until then.”

Kevin hung up. I tucked the phone back into my backpack.

BEEP. Mile 38: 7:21 / 5:03:21.

Whitney’s voice rejuvenated me. I felt her assessing my form from afar.

This was possible. I had a chance. I just had to catch the horse.

My blister was bigger than a half-dollar. Each step, I stomped my right foot until the blister popped and soaked my sock with warm fluid. It hurt—it burned like a salted wound—but now it wouldn’t mar my stride.

Whitney, Kevin, and Hermes. What a nice reunion. I’d texted only Kevin about racing the horse because I didn’t think Whitney cared for me anymore, but I suppose texting anyone about my dumb decision was just a cry for help. “Help, I’m going bankrupt staring at a horse’s ass!”

But what an ass.

And there it was.

Champ and Alphonse were stopped by the side of the trail halfway down the mountain. No wonder I hadn’t seen them from above—I’d assumed they were twenty miles passed, not waiting for me just ahead.

“Jonas! Good to see you.”

“Alphonse,” I panted, “What are you doing here?”

“You’ve got the advantage now!” Alphonse cheekily displayed a band-aid wrapped around his middle finger. “I endured an injury a few miles ago, when Champ brought me too close to a tree branch. I hoped to hold out until mile forty, but I fear I must throw in the towel here.”

BEEP. Mile 39: 7:32 / 5:10:53.

I slowed to linger beside him. “You mean… you give up?”

“No, no—My best jockey is tapping in! She’s arriving here by helicopter. She’ll ride Champ in my stead. Thirsty, Jonas? Catch!”

He tossed me a plastic bottle of water. I walked a few steps to drink two-thirds of it. “You can’t switch out. This race is between you and me.”

“Actually, if you read the contract you signed, you’re racing the horse, not me. The jockey is irrelevant.”

I locked eyes with Champ. The horse flared its nostrils. Alphonse’s spurs had bloodied Champ’s ribs. “My crew needs your permission to enter the estate, Alphonse. Can you let them in?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Alphonse, “but we have something to discuss. It’s come to my attention that you lack funds for our wager. If you lose, you can’t afford to pay up.”

“Really? Gosh.” I feigned surprise and jogged away. “I’m sure your people can talk this over with my people, once you let them in.”

Alphonse jogged after me. His spurs clattered every step. “I’d rather talk to you directly. I want to propose a deal.”

“What kind of deal?”

“Let’s call it…” Alphonse laughed. “Charity! If Champ wins, you’ll make a donation within your price-range and we’ll call it even.”

I tried running faster to leave him behind, but while I followed the trail around back-to-back switchbacks, Alphonse cut corners to keep up. “A donation? To who? How much?”

“Nothing you can’t afford, and for a noble cause. You might know that the Bronsons have significant holdings with wings of the medical industry.”

“Horse medicine, or human?”

“Both! If you lose, I’d just ask you to provide a sample for the labs. I’m sure they could learn from your impressive physique.”

“What do you want? Like, a spit sample? Blood?”

“No, no, Jonas.” Alphonse covered his mouth to hide giggles. “Jonas, I want your legs.”

“…Huh?”

“Your legs, Jonas. I value your legs at one million dollars, and accept them as your ante. If you lose, in lieu of one million dollars, I will take ownership of your legs.”

“Like… cut them off?”

“For medical purposes! And remember, only if you lose.”

“I can’t accept that. No one could.”

“Jonas, Jonas. If you win this race, you expect me to pay up, right? It’s only fair you keep your end of the bargain and put something at stake. You must restore the bet to make up for your deception. I can’t forgive you otherwise.”

“No deal.”

“You should really consider my generous offer. Remember, you’ve run almost 40 miles on my private property; at my standard rate of $10,000 a mile, you already owe me about half a million! You’ll ante both legs, or we stop the race here and now and I’ll settle for just one of your legs, or both legs below the knee.”

I was about to say I’d shove a leg, or both legs below the knee, right where the sun didn’t shine, but then I heard distant whirring helicopter blades. I was ahead of the horse, and would be at least until the new jockey arrived. For the first time in this whole race, I had the advantage. I couldn’t physically bring myself to turn down the wager. “Okay,” I whimpered. “I’ll take the bet.”

“You mean it?” Alphonse laughed and clapped. “I’ll call the front gate and let your crew into the estate. Oh, what fun!” He finally stopped following me. I left him and Champ behind.

BEEP. Mile 40: 9:13 / 5:20:06.

I plucked the red flag at the fork and tossed it toward the trail to the right. That trail was rocky and narrow, and I hoped a horse would have trouble with it.


2012

“And the winner is…”

Father Bronson’s coughing drowned out the announcements. He sounded like he’d hack up his last lung. Alphonse pointed to the stadium’s sparse spectators. “Look at all those winners, Dad!” Men in expensive suits cheered or tore up bad bets.

“Where did—” Father Bronson coughed again. He gripped the wheels of his wheelchair to hork up phlegm. “Where did you find these people?”

“They’re colleagues, and colleagues of colleagues,” said Alphonse. “None of them is worth less than a billion bucks, and they relish the thrill of putting millions on the line. I truly have the people’s support!”

The gates at the finish-line slammed shut before the last horse. Their jockey howled and shook the reins until a dart shot him in the neck. The jockey fell from the saddle, unconscious.

Six men in leather jackets led the horse into a big metal box, and tossed the jockey in afterward.

“Son, what’s happening?” Alphonse shushed his father.

The six men turned a heavy iron crank. Horse-glue poured from a spout into a bucket. The spectators cheered.

A woman in a white lab-coat and rubber gloves led two men carrying a white cooler to the big metal box. She opened a drawer on the box, where her two men retrieved another cooler full of eerie lumps. “Organs!” said Alphonse. “Even a losing jockey’s organs are economically valuable. Think of how many lives we can save with transplants, and how much we can charge!” While her two men loaded the box’s drawer with the empty cooler for the next race, the woman with the lab-coat withdrew a syringe from a panel on the box. She brought the syringe to Alphonse. “Look, dad!”

“What is that?” asked Father Bronson. “Hey, don’t!”

Alphonse relented and didn’t yet inject his father with the syringe. “Once we’ve extracted every organ with medical value, there’s chaff leftover. Our labs have perfected a technique to turn that chaff into a nutrient-paste. It’s a cure-all! Don’t you want to walk again, Dad? You could even ride a horse!”

Father Bronson blanched, then rolled the wheels of his wheelchair to turn away. “Son, I don’t think you’ve understood the finer points of my advice. My enemies in the media may disagree, but even have standards, and what you’re describing is beneath me.”

Alphonse struggled for words. “Oh. I get it. This is the jockey that came last. I can’t inject you with a loser. Your blood is too royal for that.”

Father Bronson opened his mouth, but decided against the rebuke he had in mind. “I’m leaving, son. Contact me when you’ve made something of yourself.”

As his father wheeled away, Alphonse shook. He took a minty metal toothpick from the breast pocket of his gaudy military jacket and suckled it. “You, Doctor,” he said to the woman in the lab-coat, “bring me the jockey who won that race.”

“In a syringe, you mean?”

“No, just send them over.”

The doctor walked to the finish-line and addressed the winning jockey. The winning jockey didn’t get off her horse; she rode it to Alphonse’s track-side seats. “Howdy, boss.”

“Congratulations.” Alphonse tossed her the syringe. She cringed, but caught it carefully. “That’s a month of medical care in a hypodermic needle. Good for what ails you.”

The jockey smiled. “I appreciate it, sir, but you already pay all my medical expenses.”

Alphonse cocked his head. “Huh?”

“When I was a kid, I came second-to-last in a charity race, and since then you’ve funded my healthcare. Thanks to you, I’ve got the best wheelchair on the market.” She pat her horse.

“Oh.” Alphonse shrugged. “Well, with that injection, you won’t even need a wheelchair for a while. You’ll be able to walk. I’ve seen lab-rats with terminal illnesses get a new lease on life.”

The jockey inspected her new syringe. “If I come first again, will you give me another?”

Alphonse laughed. “Let’s make a deal.”

Next 10 Miles
Commentary
Table of Contents

Cartoonish Villainy

The bad guy in Man VS Horse is eccentric billionaire Alphonse Bronson. Alphonse is cartoonishly evil.

We see Alphonse twirl his mustache at the end of the first ten miles, when he gives Jonas false hope before choosing the harder trail. Then we see Alphonse’s childhood, when his father teaches questionable lessons about winning and losing and business. After another ten miles, we see Alphonse make bets on disabled kids running in a charity race. In this chapter we see the almost hilarious extent of his wickedness: he shows his father a horrible competition where the losing horses are processed into glue.

I’m not sure how much of a horse actually goes into glue, but it doesn’t matter. The feasibility of a horse-to-glue pipeline isn’t important. What’s important is that the image of turning horses into glue is potent. Horses are romantic animals. If you’ve ever seen a horse in person you know they’re sorta smelly and not that bright, but in stories, horses are beautiful majestic creatures. Ponies and unicorns are staple cutesy icons. Processing them into glue is exactly the laughably heinous act I’d expect from the Snidely Whiplash type.

And that’s good. Storytelling is the place for such abstract symbology. In real life, bad guys are usually more subtly devious. Alphonse will be more up-front in his disregard for the value of nature and living things.

I want to compare how Alphonse treats horses to how he treats humans. He’s willing to gamble on racehorses, and even turn the losers into glue. Given the chance, he gambles on disabled children and has no sympathy for the defeated. Humans and horses are both living beings, but it’s socially acceptable to make horses perform labor without pay. Humans expect a certain standard of living, and aren’t satisfied with just a barn to sleep in and alfalfa to eat. Yet, the way Alphonse treats horses is unnecessarily cruel, and he’s not much more kind to humans—his morality will decay over time. The way Alphonse gradually treats humans more and more like he treats horses highlights the inhumanity of treating any animal poorly.

I’ve heard you can get an impression of someone’s character by seeing how they treat the wait-staff at a restaurant. Someone who’s nice to you but rude to whoever takes their drink-order isn’t a nice person. Similarly, Alphonse’s treatment of horses is emblematic of his fundamentally twisted worldview. Although that worldview manifests more clearly when he processes horses into glue, it affects his every action, and he’ll get worse at hiding it.

Let’s see how bad this gets.

Next 10 miles
Table of Contents

To Mile 30

(This is part three of a story about an ultramarathon-runner who makes a million-dollar bet he can beat a billionaire on horseback in a 100-mile-race. Our runner Jonas is far behind the horse, but just crested a mountain—only to see another mountain he’ll have to summit soon.)

cardFront

2019

BEEP. Mile 21: 6:51 / 2:45:35.

Running downhill is easy. Running downhill well is hard. Anyone can jump off a cliff. Only mountain-goats survive.

In high-school, each week of Fall, all the local cross-country teams competed on some rough trails. I was proud of my personal record: I could run three hard miles in just under 16 minutes. I could even keep up with the best varsity runner, Kevin, for the first two miles.

But in the last mile, he’d leave me behind, because the last mile was downhill, and Kevin knew how to handle downhill. Lord, Kevin could sprint. He always finished at least two minutes ahead of me. After each meet I was exhausted, but standing. Kevin usually collapsed and puked. That’s how the coach knew Kevin had done his best and I’d slacked.

On this hundred-mile run, I’d puke eventually. It was just a matter of time.

BEEP. Mile 22: 6:21 / 2:51:56.

Kevin had taught me how to run downhill, but Whitney taught me again.

“What are you thinking?” she’d asked me on a twenty-mile run. We were training for our first marathon. We’d promised to run that marathon together, and beat four hours. “Slow down!”

“It’s downhill,” I’d said. “Downhill is easy, so we should sprint every step.”

“No, no,” Whitney’d said. She easily matched my pace. “Did Kevin teach you that? You can sprint downhill at a three-mile cross-country meet, but you’ve gotta be more careful on a marathon. Didn’t you once break your leg skiing? You’ve gotta take care of your body! Think about your knees!”

Runners often thought about their knees. Knees are important. Knees tell us a lot.

BEEP. Mile 23: 6:13 / 2:58:09.

My knees could tell the downhill slope I’d enjoyed was starting to level out. I looked at the mountain a few miles ahead; Alphonse and Champ had probably climbed most of it, if they hadn’t already started descending the other side.

Even though the scenery was idyllic—the valley between mountains was lightly forested, and birds chirped in the trees—I knew I had to keep my mind off my dismal situation. I focused.

Whitney. We wanted to run a marathon together.

Well, she wanted to run a marathon. I was initially on-board, but after that twenty-mile training-run, I shuddered at the thought of more. “No, no,” I’d panted, “I don’t think I could take another step.”

“You hit the wall,” she’d said. “Hitting the wall means you’ve trained hard. Each time you hit the wall, you push it back—if we keep this up, we’ll push the wall beyond marathon-length and finish just fine.”

“You know a lot about this,” I’d wheezed.

“I want to write a book about running,” she’d said. “Maybe it’ll star us, and this marathon.”

BEEP. Mile 24: 7:02 / 3:05:11.

Kevin wanted to join. He asked me on the high-school track: “How long is that marathon you signed up for?”

“Marathons are officially 26.2 miles,” I’d said. “I think it’s historical. Whitney could tell you.”

“I could run 26 miles,” he’d said.

“26.2. Whitney says every step counts. She also says the last six miles are harder than the first twenty.”

“How fast are you gonna run?” asked Kevin.

“Whitney wants to finish in four hours. That’s about nine minutes per mile.”

“I can run better than nine-minute miles,” said Kevin.

And boy, did he. Kevin signed up for our marathon and crossed the starting line alongside Whitney and me, and 20,000 other people. Like Champ, Alphonse’s horse, Kevin initially begged to run faster than Whitney would allow. “Wow, they give out water every mile?” Kevin took a paper cup from a volunteer. He drank mid-run, while Whitney and I walked a few paces to swallow efficiently.

BEEP. Mile 25: 6:58 / 3:12:09.

“They’d better,” said Whitney, starting to run again.  “Even the fastest marathon-runners take at least two hours, and exerting yourself like that, you’ve gotta drink.”

“I wouldn’t mind being thirsty for four hours,” said Kevin, “and if I’m not weighed down by water, I bet I can finish faster than that!”

“Go ahead,” said Whitney. I recognized the dismissive roll of her eyes. “Do what you want.”

So Kevin ran ahead.

We caught up with him at mile 16. He didn’t look happy; his features were gaunt and sweat had dried in salty streams down his arms. “Hey guys—” He almost asked us to wait, but he didn’t. “Take off without me,” he said. “I’ll be right behind.”

BEEP. Mile 26: 7:11 / 3:19:20.

Back in the Bronson Estate, the trail began to grow steeper. While I sipped water from my three-liter backpack, I ‘beeped’ in my head: 26.2, 3 hours 22 minutes. It didn’t quite qualify me for the Boston marathon, but after the Boston marathon, you get to stop. I still had almost three more marathons to go today—and they’d all be slower than 3:22.

Whitney and I didn’t finish our first marathon in four hours. We took an extra 45 minutes. We started walking at mile 22; that was our ‘wall.’ We barely managed a photogenic jog for the cameras at the finish-line.

To his credit, Kevin finished, too. It took him five and a half hours. He confided in me that he’d never, ever run a marathon again, or any distance over ten miles. He’d hit the wall, and it hit him back.

The wall. What a quaint idea.

You could push the wall beyond marathon-distance. But a hundred miles, no.

BEEP. Mile 27: 7:43 / 3:27:03.

When Whitney and I trained for longer distances, we learned not to call it ‘the wall.’ It’s not an insurmountable obstacle; it’s a temporary circumstance to make peace with, like a surfer diving under harsh waves. Ultra-runners call it ‘bonking,’ because it’s like a sledgehammer smashing your skull.

Instead of training to push back the wall, you train to run through the bonk. All the bonks. Over a hundred miles, I’d bonk at least a few times. The first one would come soon.

The trail became steep and demanded every atom of my effort.

I tore open another silver packet of running glop. I aimed to slurp one down every hour or so. I’d finished off the flavors I liked; no more chocolate or peanut-butter. This one was orange-creamsicle.

I washed it down with a sip from my three-liter water-backpack. There wasn’t much left.

Maps of the Bronson Estate showed a river at the top of this mountain. I could refill my backpack there, if the water was palatable. If it wasn’t, I carried some purification tablets.

Racing the horse was the most well-researched stupid-ass decision I’d ever made.

BEEP. Mile 28: 9:39 / 3:36:42.

The scrapes on my hand and knee still trickled blood, but they didn’t hurt anymore. I actually almost forgot about them. But the blister on my foot had grown to the size of a quarter, and I felt it every step. Eventually I’d have to stop and lance it with something from the little first-aid kit I kept in my backpack.

I sniffed. I smelled horse poop. A pile of round, brown droppings waited in the trail ahead. It looked fresh. Alphonse and Champ must have passed less than an hour ago.

This was possible. I could do it. I almost smiled.

Then I got bonked.

BEEP. Mile 29: 10:44 / 3:47:26.

“Oh, old friend,” I said to myself. “Here we go again.” Pain wandered up and down my legs, but worse was the cold wash of pessimism and self-loathing. I started walking. It’s not shameful to walk uphill. Soon I’d hit the top of the mountain. Then I could recover.

While I walked, I opened my backpack. I carried a plastic baggie of peanut-butter and two bananas. I peeled a banana and used it to scoop peanut-butter into my mouth.

Running does weird things to your taste buds. When I’m not running, I don’t care for peanut-butter. After twenty miles or so, I can hardly think of anything else. Whitney likes vegetable-smoothies after running seven hours, not a step before.

When I finished the banana and half the peanut-butter, I sealed the baggie and put it back in my backpack. I tossed the banana peel off the trail; I never liked litterers, but banana skins decompose, and anyway, this was Alphonse’s estate, and I hated that son-of-a-bitch. I wouldn’t mind if he slipped on my banana peel. I wouldn’t mind if he choked on it.

BEEP. Mile 30: 14:52 / 4:02:18.

Alphonse had plucked the flag at 30 miles and tossed it toward the trail to the right. That trail was broader and smoother, all the better for Champ to sprint.

As the slope leveled out, I started running again. I sipped the last of my three-liter water-backpack to swish peanut-butter from between my teeth. The bonk would be back, but so far so good.

On the horizon, there was another mountain—a third, looming incline still veiled by the distance. In maps of the Bronson Estate, every trail eventually went up that mountain, but somehow I was less daunted by that final foe. With any luck, Whitney was right, and Champ would be more fatigued than me by then. I’d be king of the mountain.

How did Alphonse know I didn’t have the funds to pay up if he won? Could he see my empty bank-account? I could only hope to finish first, or, if not, hope that Alphonse Bronson was a reasonable man. I swallowed.


2011

Alphonse Bronson gripped his father’s shoulders. “Dad, are you watching?”

“I’m watching an empty stadium.” Father Bronson pulled the wheels of his wheelchair like he wanted to roll away, but Alphonse kept him there. “Fill the stands with spectators before you bother showing me.”

“But father, look!” Alphonse pointed to the starting line, where ten horses stamped the ground behind their gates. “I know you’ll be proud! I’ve invented a new, efficient kind of racing!”

“Racing is already efficient,” said Father Bronson. “The winner wins. The loser loses. The difference is efficiency. The most efficient finishes first.”

“…And the least efficient loses!” Alphonse waved his hand and the gates opened. Jockeys bounced on the horses’ backs. “And what do we do to the losers?”

“Glue, son,” said Father Bronson. “The most efficient use of an inefficient horse is glue.”

“Right!” said Alphonse. “So look!” He pointed to the end of the track, where nine gates waited open. “Ten horses, nine gates. Think of musical chairs.”

The gates swung shut behind the first nine horses. The tenth horse whinnied and threatened to throw their jockey from the saddle. “Son—”

“Watch,” said Alphonse. The tenth jockey dismounted to help some men in leather jackets lead the tenth horse into a big metal box in the center of the track. The jockey shut the box’s iron door while the men climbed onto the box to lay hands on an iron crank. When they turned the crank, white goo oozed out of the box’s spout into a bucket. “Glue! The last horse is processed into paste with corporate efficiency, as God intended!”

“Hmm.” Father Bronson stroked his beard. “Hmm.”

Alphonse stopped grinning. “What’s the matter, Dad?”

“Horses are one thing. Humans are harder. However many horses you have, you need humans on your side.” Father Bronson cast his gaze over the empty stadium. “If you can’t get the people’s support, you’d might as well be paste yourself.”

Alphonse misunderstood. His father was dismayed with the empty stands, befitting such a grotesque scene, but Alphonse kept watching the tenth jockey. “I’ll impress you, Dad. I’m sure I will. I’ve got a tournament planned.”

“A tournament?”

“Yes! A whole tournament, where the last in each race will be turned into their…” Alphonse rubbed his chin. “Their useful components.”

Next 10 miles
Commentary
Table of Contents

 

 

 

The Bucket

(This story won the Most Excellent Prose award from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. I’ve edited it since then, and I think it’s much improved.)


My colleagues at the lab thought my nightly vomiting was a symptom of alcohol poisoning. I would have shared the hypothesis, except I regurgitated eyeballs.

I don’t recall swallowing eyeballs, mind you. With optic nerves dangling like spaghetti.

And twitching! I typically vomited into a toilet and flushed the eyes before the horror set in, but after a midnight joust with a bottle of gin, I heaved into an orange, plastic bucket in my closet, where the eyeballs struggled like fish flopping for the water. When I regained consciousness in the morning, the eyeballs had died trying to escape under the closet door.

I elected not to take them to the lab, my reputation already strained, so I turned to the meager equipment of my apartment. According to my bathroom scale, the weight of the eyeballs exceeded five pounds, yet I’d lost little mass myself. I must have conjured the eyes from my stomach.

For a while, I could not look at liquor without imagining the eyeballs I should surely vomit.

Then a spontaneous rendezvous with a fifth of whiskey forced my hand. I puked six eyes and a pair of lips into the bucket. The lips squirmed like drowned worms into the shape of a mouth.

“We gotta talk, Arnold.”

I slammed the closet.

After staging a coup on a few more shots, I mindlessly returned to the bucket. Two more eyeballs, six more lips. My throat’s last spasm threw an ear onto the pile.

“Can I call you Arnie?”

“Please, don’t talk.”

“Your universe isn’t fully developed, so this might be hard to take. Trust me, the eyeballs were the quickest way to communicate. Hey, it’s not polite to stare, don’t give me that look.”

“Oh god, I’m smashed.”

“Hey, lucky guess. Our universes are on a collision course.” I moved to close the closet, but the lips interrupted. “Pick up that ear, Arnie, it’s hard to hear ya.”

“Please, no.”

“Into the ear, Arnie. C’mon.”

I leaned into the bucket. “Go away. I don’t want this.”

“You need my help. I won’t get into details, it involves trans-dimensional mathematics, and you Stage One guys aren’t usually hot on that. Can you even make Quantum Foam?”

“What?”

“Okay, time for a crash course. Not literally, I hope,” murmured the lips. “Universes are bubbles. Our bubbles are about to bash. This ain’t my first rodeo, but I think you guys are gonna pop.”

“Who are you?”

“Look, you’re bright enough, I’ll level with you. I’m not a person. I’m a reality. The whole thing. Consciousness is mostly fabricated, so lots of realities develop self-awareness. We call that Stage Two. Whole ecosystem out there, Arnie.”

“Uh…”

“Yeah, trippy, huh? There we go: call me Trip.”

“Trip.”

“Quick learner. Anyway, you guys won’t survive Stage One if you pop now, okay? Gotta work with me here, alright?”

“This is too much.” I slumped on the carpet. The world blurred in my vision.

“I’m not as mobile as I used to be, but your reality is pretty spry. If you pass me the reins to your universe for a bit, I can jettison some of your space-vacuum. Push you guys out of harm’s way. Dig?”

“How do I… What do you mean?”

“I’ll need your universe’s address. Know it off your head?”

I shook the whiskey. Only a tablespoon remained in the bottle. I drank it. “…Can’t say I do.”

“You know Physics?”

“Some. I’m a chemist. I mostly study alcohols.”

“Find a Physicist. They’ll know if anyone does.”


The next morning, I fumbled my way to the physics department.

“Arnold? Are you drunk?”

“Not yet, I just…” I pushed my wire glasses up my nose. “You don’t happen to know the universe’s address, do you?”

“…What?” They squinted from behind their desks. “Little early to be hittin’ the sauce, Arnie.”


Some bourbon made me consider gifting Trip a fresh load of facial features. “Sorry, they don’t know what you mean.”

“No prob, it was a long shot. I didn’t know address in Stage One either.” He somehow bit his lips at the bottom of the bucket. “There’s an equation for it, but you can only really solve it at Stage Two or Three…”

“…I can do equations.” I felt bile rising in my throat. “What’s the equation?”

“Nah, nah, it’s too complicated. You guys don’t even have Quantum Foam, no way you’ve got the computing power. Hey, you’re lookin’ a little green, Arnie, you gonna chunder?”

“I can hold it down.”

“Then have another drink. I can’t calculate your address from here, I gotta send you a Neuron Pod. Be careful with it, I’ve only got about eighty-six billion. These are Stage Three tech, Arnie.”

The brown bottle’s last drops trickled from its neck to mine. I gagged on the odor. “What’s a Neuron Pod?”

Trip surprised me by licking his lips with a tongue from under the pile of eyeballs. “You ever study biology? Get to mitochondria?”

“Yeah.” I doubled over the bucket and opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Saliva dribbled between my teeth.

“They’re like mitochondria. Sub-realities, distinct from me. Gotta delegate, that’s Stage Three. Outsource your computation. Find some Stage Zero podunk reality and convert its mass to brain matter. One Neuron Pod is like a septendecillion human brains. Smart brains, too, like yours, Arnie. Alright, here it comes!”

Huge, like a cantaloupe. It shouldn’t have fit in my mouth, let alone my throat. The eyeballs watched it flop into the bucket. The lips smiled.

A Neuron Pod was a brain with a hagfish mouth and chattering needle-teeth.

“Trip—What do I do with this?”

“It’s looking for your address. Just keep it safe.”


Friday night. Party night. In a dark alleyway, I popped the cork on two-dollar wine. Grape foam spilled onto the dirt.

I put the Neuron Pod on a trash-can lid. The needle-teeth were the worst part, like a sex toy from hell. “Can you talk?”

The needle teeth chattered.

“Answer questions?”

More chattering.

“What’s Quantum Foam?”

The brain’s needle-teeth shifted and clattered, filling the alley with heinous clicking. Almost… speech. After a quick drink of wine—like fermented olive oil—I held the Neuron Pod to my ear. “Tiny… universes.” The queer, snapping voice had a thick accent from somewhere eldritch.

“Can you elaborate?”

“Quantum Foam is the primal fabric of the multiverse… Each bubble is a universe beginning in Stage Zero, the absence of conscious thought…”

When I put down the wine, the bottle was two-thirds empty. “I’m not drunk enough. All this stuff about our universes colliding, it’s all real? We’re going to pop?”

“…You are left with an ultimatum: be annihilated by the ballistic force of a careening reality, or entrust my Master with your universe.”

“Well… You’ve known him for a while. Is Trip… trustworthy?”

“My Master is… Stage Four.”

“Four? What does that mean?”

The brain squirmed on the trash can lid. “…Stage One universes contain sentient beings. Stage Two universes have attained consciousness themselves… Stage Three is marked by the assimilation of Stage Zero universes. Stage Four is… the enslavement of Stage Three universes.” The hagfish mouth went silent.

“Enslaving universes? Sentient universes?” I looked at the brain. “When Trip said you were ‘Stage Three tech,’ he meant—You’re saying Trip enslaved eighty-six billion sentient realities, and you’re one of them?”

“Yes…” The Neuron Pod flopped off the trashcan. When it hit the ground it almost burst, brain-folds expanding with juices. The hagfish mouth puckered. “Kill me.”

I poured the rest of the wine down my neck.

“Please…”

I smashed the bottle against a wall.

“Kill me…”

I threatened the Neuron Pod with the bottle’s broken neck.

“Please…”

“I… I can’t.” I dropped the broken bottle. “If I kill you, Trip will just enslave my reality instead. You need to help me.”

The hagfish mouth took a deep breath. The brain’s folds inflated.

“We need to make Quantum Foam.”


I poured a shot of Scotch. “Need a drink?” The Neuron Pod twisted, which I interpreted as a ‘no.’ I downed the drink. “Okay. Okay.”

When I opened the closet, lips, ears, and eyes spilled out. Trip’s shifting eyeballs had toppled the bucket. “Hey, hey, Arnie! What’s the good word? That old Neuron Pod got your address yet? Might take a while depending on the cosmological constants in your reality.”

I put the Neuron Pod on the floor. “What next?”

“Well, ordinarily you’d hafta swallow that thing, but our universes are close enough I can toss you a Synapse Cable. You feel like hurling, Arnie?”

“I’m pretty sober right now.”

“Well, either you’re gonna hafta swallow that Pod, or you’re gonna hafta start drinking so I can throw you this Cable.”

Ignoring the shot glass, I drank from the Scotch-bottle. The nausea set in instantly. With one animal-like retch, I felt a strand jump up my throat and catch on my teeth. I pulled the strand until a whole rope of meat and fat dangled from my jaw. The Synapse Cable was two inches thick, plugging my esophagus.

“Put it in,” said Trip.

I waggled the meat-rope near the Neuron Pod. The hagfish mouth slurped the frayed ends and locked on with needle-teeth.

“Ah, perfect. I’m getting your address now…”

For a few seconds I choked on the Synapse Cable. The Neuron Pod contorted and flexed in concentration.

“Hey, you’ve got a cool little reality… No wonder you’re still Stage One, with quantum particles like this. These photons are worthless… And your Planck Temperature! How do you get anything done?”

I nodded. It was all I could do.

“You did good, Arnie. Your universe was almost a splat on my windshield. Just gotta get you outta the way…”

He paused.

“You…” The eyeballs turned to me. “Hey, did you give me the wrong addreeeeeaaaugh!”

The lips flopped on the floor. Eyeballs burst into spurts of blood.

“Aaaaaaugh! God, no, what did youuuuooooaaaaaugh!”

The Synapse Cable retracted down my throat. The Neuron Pod detached, letting the meat-rope whip through my esophagus.

“Are you trying to kill me?! What did you do?!”

“Sorry, Trip.”

“Aaaugh! I can’t—”

“We made Quantum Foam, Trip.” I massaged my neck. “We made new universes.”

“It was trivial to check the infinite realities… for one whose cosmological constants were a perfect snare,” clicked the Neuron Pod. “Of course… if you intended to merely jettison vacuum, as you expressed… your connection to the entrapping universe would be harmless… Your pain indicates, as we suspected, that you intended to subsume this universe into your own… Or perhaps enslave it, as you did with me and my compatriots…”

“Now you’re being slurped like a noodle in soup,” I muttered, lying on the carpet.

Eyeballs, lips, and ears shredded as if stuck in a storm of razor blades. Without lips, Trip’s voice echoed from my throat like shouts in a deep cave.

“Arnie, Arnie, c’mon, I’m sorruuughhh make it stop Arnie please I’m begging you—”

I covered my ears. “I can’t, I can’t—”

“Your address! Give me your address, let me escape, before it’s too late!”

“Not even if I could.”

“Then—then—”

Nausea pumped my guts.

Fingers from my throat pried my teeth open.

An arm stretched through my mouth.

“If you yak me into this universe, I can survive! You need to vomit harder than ever, Arnie, right now!”

The arm grabbed the Scotch.

“I’m close enough, Arnie, I can escape to your universe, but it has to be right now—”

The arm sank back into my stomach. The neck of the bottle stuck down my throat, pouring liquor into me. I tried to scream.

“Now, Arnie! Now now now!” I couldn’t pull the bottle away from the hand in my throat. I flipped on my belly so the bottle didn’t pour down my neck. “No!”

Two arms opened my jaws wide. One flipped me on my back. The other grabbed the bottle and spilled it in my mouth.

I groped the floor for something, anything.

A glass beaker.

I smashed the bottle with the beaker. Scotch soaked the carpet.

“No no no no!”

The arms in my mouth pat the damp floor.

“No, no, no…”

The arms slid down my throat until the fingertips brushed along my tongue.

“No…”

I struggled to my knees, teeth clenched, salivating through my lips, holding myself.


For twenty minutes, I puked. No eyeballs, no limbs, just ordinary stomach contents. I spent the night cleaning vomit and broken glass. “Hey. How are you feeling now?”

The Neuron Pod deflated. “I am well… Thank you.”

“You sure?”

“My torment is at an end… The enslaved Stage Three realities have been released. It is over.”

I threw the vomit and glass into the trash. “And our Quantum Foam…”

I opened my desk drawer.

Milky sand so fine and smooth it could have been liquid, like cream for coffee. Each infinitesimal speck was a universe. One grain had swelled like a pearl. “That’s Trip’s trap, huh?”

“My old Master used the technique to do away with bothersome realities.” The Neuron Pod observed the foam with its eyeless gaze. “I am impressed with your ability to synthesize Quantum Foam. You have a knack for it.”

“It wasn’t that hard,” I said, “since you gave me the directions. It’s just chemistry.”

The hagfish mouth made a toothy smile. “Chemistry is vital for a healthy Stage Two universe.”

Back

To Mile 20

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


2019

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, right. My ghostwriter.

Whitney.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, Whitney, I hope you were right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could cry later.

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually hell would seep into my bones.

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

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

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

Once I got there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I recalled the severity of my circumstances.

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

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

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

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

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

I almost cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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


2009

“And the winner is…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” asked Alphonse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teacher gasped, then walked away sobbing.

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

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

Next 10 Miles
Commentary
Table of Contents

Story Structure

A race has a beginning and an end. A story has a beginning and an end. But races are linear—you go step by step. Stories might loop around and have flashbacks and other chronological anomalies.

My first idea for Man VS Horse would have been more like a race. We’d start at the starting line and end at the finish. We’d learn about our characters’ backstories through dialog or narration during the race. I even wanted the length of the text for each mile of the race to reflect the protagonist’s mile-times: a ten-minute mile would take a page, while a five-minute mile would take half a page, and a twenty-minute mile would take two pages. I still like this idea. I know movies bother me when a character says, “the bomb’s going off in ten seconds!” and you count to thirty before they defuse it with a second left.

But while restrictions can breed creativity, those rules produced something subpar. I’m glad I tried it, but this time I’ll allow myself some more creative liberty.

Longer miles will still take up more text, I hope; I think that should have an effect on the reader, making them exhausted alongside our protagonist.

But I’ll allow myself some flashbacks at the end of every ten miles. If our billionaire is going to claim the protagonist’s legs, we gotta explore his history and figure out why he thinks that’s a remotely reasonable option.

You’ll notice in commentaries I’ll often call the characters ‘the billionare’ or ‘the protagonist.’ I haven’t settled on names for the characters yet. I just chose ‘Alphonse’ and ‘Jonas’ because they came to mind. Maybe I’ll get attached to those names and decide to keep them, or change them to something more thematic. This is a living document; I reread and make edits every so often.

I hope you have fun reading!

Next 10 miles
Table of Contents