The line blurs as I toe it. To my left, Skarsgaard, who ran like a goddamn gazelle to beat me in Boston, wearing the white and blue and these ridiculous bug-eyed sunglasses. He looks like a mosquito with his lanky neck and those big bubbles on his face. To my right, Ellersen, a hotshot kid who came out of nowhere and shot up the charts at trials. He’s shorter, stockier, more beetle than mosquito, but he’s got a closing kick like nobody’s seen. Don’t let him get in front of you.
Behind me, a host of nobodies. Fastest in the world they may be, but I won’t know it because they won’t pass me today. Bring what you will in qualifiers, but all that matters is what you can do on the day.
We wait for the gun, crammed in like cattle, restless as dogs still on the leash scenting a jackrabbit.
Fog rests on the track like whipped cream on a slice of pumpkin pie. Won’t burn off until breakfast time, which isn’t for another three hours.
Metronome in my head. Left-right-left-right. The track flies underfoot, the crisscross of dashes and hash marks seeming to paint some ethereal pattern that I could discern, if only I could slow down. Shapes emerge out of the soup and glide past me. Bleachers. Hurdle stack. Coach Cross.
“Nice finish,” she says. “Two seconds ahead of last time.”
Not good enough. I lower my head and tear into another lap as the fog swallows her up behind me.
Skarsgaard matches me stride-for-stride on the left, but we’ve left that little hotshot Ellersen behind. We’re at the end of the first leg, and there’s a nasty hill up ahead, like a ramp that could send a rocket car into orbit. Skarsgaard and his mosquito legs blast off up the hill, but I hang back. A glob of Russians splits and reforms in front of me, and I clip along at their heels as we trudge up the hill.
“The hell’s all that about, then?” Cross barks when I finally stop, three more laps on.
She gave up on calling me in and waited in the bleachers until I stopped. It was the dizziness that got me. I felt like a drunken giraffe on the last lap, my knees buckling under me like a couple of rickety umbrellas.
I raspberry the sweat off my lips and nose and shrug, not really looking at her. “If I’m going to qualify, I’ve got to work harder.”
“You stick to the plan or you’ll burn out.” She thrusts a bottle of water into my chest. “And I don’t coach burnouts.”
The hill feels like it could go on for miles, but we finally top it and the valley spreads out below us: a tiny model city just waiting for Godzilla to trample it. And I feel absolutely radioactive.
I lean into the hill and flow past the Russians like greased goose shit through a flowing stream. They exclaim to one another in their curt, clipped tongue, but their voices are fast drowned out by the whistling wind in my ears. In moments I come up on Skarsgaard, wheezing and panting like my old Chevy. He’s hit the wall, I can tell by the hunch of his shoulders, the shuffle of his feet, the downward cast of those weird bug eyes.
I smack him on the ass as I pass. “At least you took Boston!”
If he’s got a response for that, I’m not waiting around to hear it.
Another workout without Coach Cross. No more chirping in my ear on every pass to “back off,” “be smart,” “hold your pace.” Just me and my watch and the blistering July heat. It’s muggy and still and I can look backwards over my shoulder and see the grass trimmings off the track swirling in my wake.
I sail across the line and check my watch: another second off my last lap. I brush the sweat out of my eyes and laugh to myself.
I top the last of the foothills and see a smooth downgrade leading into the last straightaway, like a red carpet leading straight to heaven. The only footsteps I hear are my own. Far behind are Skarsgaard and the Russians and everybody else. I can feel the medal around my neck already, its heavy weight dragging my shoulders down, the glare of the sun off my chest blinding the spectators in the home stretch. Their cries even overtake the hammering of the blood in my ears, but something’s wrong. They aren’t screaming my name.
I feel him as I turn, and in my dream, he’s monstrous, leering, a hungry wolf staring down a broken-legged sheep. The shock of seeing him — in perfect lock-step with me, I never even heard him closing in — makes me jump. I stumble. Fall. Like a toddler’s block tower in a slow collapse to the ground. Knees, elbows, chin smash against the blacktop.
Swish. Ellersen blurs past me, moving like lightning in slow motion.
Swish-swish-swish. Three other nobodies right on his heels.
The medal evaporates from my neck. The podium dissolves in smoke. Ellersen’s slightly squashed face looms large, cackling, swallowing me up as I lay on the pavement, bleeding and spent.
I can’t lie here another minute.
I kick off the covers. Ignore my phone. I don’t need all my friends and teammates asking me what happened. I don’t need anything except that medal that goddamn Ellerson’s wearing instead of me.
Which means I need to make a phone call.
Of course she’s awake already. She doesn’t even say hello. “Ready to get to work?”
Yes, I am.
Been a while since I partook, but this one comes to you courtesy of Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Friday challenge. This week’s challenge: Insomnia. Inspired by the upcoming Olympics, and a documentary I just watched: Fittest on Earth.