Friday, November 19, 2010

Fiction: The Runner by Igor Yankilevich

It was 6 am on a Friday. That’s when he did his usual running: just before the sun rose and began to blind the daily crowd.

The Runner was an athletic man. His cheeks, once thin from all the running, were now slightly rounded out. His wife had passed years before and his existence began to lose meaning, just as the World began to lose its meaning as well.

It was the year 2050. The Runner was two months shy of his 35th birthday. On this particular day, the air was dewy sweet and the clouds miles and miles away from civilization. The weekend was nigh. He had no plans, though. A typical Friday night was a steak, beer and a ballgame. He was a fan of the New York Metropolitans. They were playing Atlanta on David Wright commemoration night. Game time was set for 6:15 pm.

The Runner would never see the game.

Home to The Runner was an elegant, two bedroom apartment in Chelsea Park West. He shared this apartment with Angie, before she passed on. It was never clear what killed her. Some say of a broken heart. Others say it was due to a voodoo curse placed onto her by an old gypsy woman who didn’t like the color nail polish she had on one day.

At 6:59 am, he slowed down for a few moments and then stopped altogether. He walked over to the wire fence facing him and looked beyond the water at the rest of the city. He was sad as he thought about his days as a marathon runner. He thought about his parents, who were killed in an auto accident when he was still in college. He subsequently quit marathon running for good. His biggest supporters no longer existed. His motivation… gone. He would still jog every now and then throughout his 20s. But he would never race again. Even after he met Angie and she persuaded him to run for charity, he had still managed to weasel out of it at the last moment.

Still looking over the fence, The Runner suddenly heard a wailing sound behind him.

A team of World-Alliance-Regime officers, in their green and white KopKars, surrounded him.

The Runner loathed the World-Alliance-Regime. They were quickly rising in power amongst the public. After the destruction of the Americas during World War III, the country was in shambles and needed a leader. Halter, the man who organized the group, later became Governor of New New York, and was now in complete control. The Runner admired his ambition, but despised the absurd laws of his regime.

He recognized one of the officers. The uniformed policeman screamed out, “What are you doing here on this pathway? Do you not recall Rule 14F Article 9D, which states no pedestrians on public walkways before 8 am? This is the fifth time I’ve had to remind you of this, and I’m quite tired of it!”

The Runner simply smirked and shook his head.

“How dare you turn your back on me? Do you not recall rule 7A article 72-14? This is unacceptable. I am giving you a blue card for this. Give me your auto-mated hand stamp.”

The Runner refused to show his auto-mated hand stamp.

Shall I remind of you rule 17R-42-42! Refusal to show auto-mated hand stamp to a badged officer of the law.”

The Runner smirked again and muttered under his breath, “I remember a time when you were able to walk freely without hesitation.”

As he turned around, the head officer, red with anger, stared back at him.

He clubbed him over the head. The Runner fell to the ground.

When he awoke from his relatively short nap, The Runner felt a bit of nausea. He awoke, although he felt as if he were still asleep. A figure approached him and gave light to his world.

As the hood was removed, The Runner winced at the sun. For this sun gave life, but was also harmful in several ways. The sun could be compared to God himself. For He too gave life to the world but was harmful in several ways.

Once out of the truck, The Runner looked around and only saw others like him. A few were not walking, rather being carted off, on makeshift gurneys by the other prisoners unfortunate enough to be their ride-along’s in the truck.

All of the fellow prisoners were handcuffed. The men were all led into a gaping hole that was as dark as night itself.

He was quite depressed. He thought of crying, but he knew that would only incite the others. He had to remain calm. He had to understand first, before making any judgment calls.

Once inside, The Runner noticed rows and rows of men all chained together along a stretch of old pavement. The place reeked of rotting flesh and another stale odor which The Runner could not properly place.

Once the guards left, the silence began. He kept his mouth shut instead of conversing with the men around him; he felt it best to stay quiet like most of the others, although the pain from the handcuffs tightly wrapped around his wrist made it difficult to keep quiet. The hours became days. The hope of survival dwindled down. He remembered stories of his grandfather in a prison camp during the Vietnam War, and it brought new meaning to those ghastly tales of torture and brutality. He looked around him, wondering what he was doing amongst this pack of hoodlums and rats. Perhaps they see me and think the same, he thought.

One man had actually managed to cut his hand off with a tiny penknife that the officers didn’t catch. He screamed and screamed. No officers came. He cut away for hours and hours and still nobody came. The fellow prisoners had to endure the noises for a full eighteen hours. He finally cut it off completely and jumped up as fast as he could. Blood was dripping on all the men he ran past. He ran and ran towards a light. A light that seemed to come from heaven itself. Finally after five or ten minutes of running the men heard several shots. And then nothing. In a way, it was a pathway to heaven, for he would never see earth again.

A few days after his arrival to The Zone, The Warden entered the holding area. He was a short, slim, mean son of a bitch. Maybe he didn’t get enough love from his mother, The Runner thought. It had been several days since he’d eaten. The hunger pangs were unbearable and the stink of the air was even more so. But this was the first time any officer had stepped out since he entered the building. The Warden was followed by Natasja, a tall, skinny, mannequin-faced woman. As usual, she held a clipboard in hand, but did not write anything on it.

The Warden began to speak, and his words flowed out like a river of waste.

He looked at the men below him like they were rats in a trap. The Warden began to explain to the men that they would be led out, ten at a time, into another section of the chambers. The Runner was upbeat about the current state of affairs. He believed it could not get any worse than it already was.

Now in a strange part of the chambers, there was nothing but an empty space to the right of the men that streaked down a long alleyway. To the left of them, a brigade of machine guns and several soldiers standing near it. The Runner looked back at The Warden who ordered his men to unlock the chains on each of the prisoners. At least I won’t be chained any longer, he thought.

Finally free of the handcuffs, he massaged his bloody wrist. The Warden spoke.

“In this arena, you will find that there are two walls. One here, and another at the end of this hallway. This hallway will take you approximately sixty seconds to reach the end of. To prove I am not a complete monster, I will allow you a ten second head start. At the end of these ten seconds, these men to your right will begin to fire at will. Those who make it across the hallway and over that wall will survive and win a chance to participate with the next group of men. Those of you who do not reach the wall will not be participating with the next group of men. At the sound of my gun, you will begin to run. Good luck.” And without a moment of hesitation, The Warden fired his gun into the air.

Then, the ammunition fell, and the runners followed suit.

The Runner ran out of the way, deceiving the poor shooters. Rookies, he thought.

He finally reached the wall, as did another man: Henry.

In the old days of the 2020s, Henry was an executive at a high level realty company. But he was of the wicked kind and sold property he didn’t have permission to sell. With the profits he netted, he purchased other property, pocketing 75% of it, with another 25% going into an offshore account. In case the authorities or bosses ever found out, at least his family would be taken care of while he was away for a while.

A long while in which Henry’s wife would probably re-marry and use his money with her new husband.

Back in prison, he saw his wife and child for the last time. She was “going away, on a trip,” she said. By the time of his release, they would be far, far away, and he would never see them again.

After the race was over, both men were exhausted from the running, and Henry thought of one thing and one thing only: pussy.

When awoken, The Runner saw another ten men chained, being led into The Zone. He and Henry were led in with them. The rules were explained again.

Henry looked at The Runner. “Don’t you see? We gotta’ stick together. There’s no other way we’ll get away with it.”

The Runner nodded as the gun fired once more. And once more, he ran. “3 seconds, 4 seconds, 5 seconds, 6 seconds,” he counted internally. “7… 8…. 9…” And then… BOOM! The bullets flew. This group did much better, with several other men still running on all cylinders. Henry had tripped midway through. The Runner stopped to help him up. But now he and Henry were both behind. The bullets were not slowing down and they still had half a lap to go.

At this exact moment, The Runner recalled the time in his freshman year of college, when everyone counted on him to win his state-wide track meet. Everyone in his family had gathered to see him run. But after the gun was fired, The Runner began to feel a pain in his left leg. He slowed down for a moment, thinking he would only cause more harm than good if he kept going. After massaging his leg a bit, the cramp dissipated, but he was now dead last in the race. He sped up as fast as he could and still finished in second place. For his friends and loved ones, it was a victory. For The Runner, a failure.

When he realized that his life was on the line this time, failure ceased to be a word in his vocabulary. Henry ran beside him.

Finally, the wall was in sight.

A bullet grazed The Runner’s shoulder and he winced. The Runner stretched out his hand and cried for help. Henry looked at him and jumped over the wall without a second thought.

The Runner ran to the side where there seemed to be less bullets flying and leapt over the wall.

He landed hard on his back and screamed.

“Why had he left me to die?” he wondered.

Henry had his reasons. He was a man who knew that you only get one chance to live. And half of his life had already been taken away from him. He would be damned if he didn’t do everything necessary to live out the next half.

A splash of water awoke The Runner. This time, The Warden was absent, and currently at work with his secretary on some important business: intercourse on his desk.

The Runner looked at Henry and winced. They exchanged a mutual look of pity.

The Warden entered a few moments later, looking prim and proper, just as he had every time he had been in view. He shouted at the men to continue into the next room.

The Runner, still weary from the pain, gave Henry another look. This time around, there were fourteen total men. The gun fired and the men began to run. Some of were overweight and slow, and could not keep up with the others. They were the first to go. Some of the other men who survived the previous round were gunned down, too. The Runner, still suffering from his wound, slowed down a bit and nearly caught a bullet. From beyond him a voice shouted, “C’mon you gotta’ keep up! Otherwise you’ll be six feet under this time tomorrow.” The Runner sped up and made it to the wall. Henry was a few steps behind, and as he climbed over the wall, a bullet hit him. The Runner stayed up in an attempt to save him. He grabbed Henry’s hand, but more bullets arrived, dragging the now dead body down to the ground. The Runner ducked and fell over, victorious again.

A tall, muscular African-American man approached him. “Told you, you got to keep up. You’ll learn eventually.”

Later, the games were halted by something unexpected: lunch.

After a meal of bread, water and pea soup, The Runner walked over to the slightly large black man. “Hey, thanks for the advice back there. What’s your name?”

“They call me Strider around here. And you’re a newbie, aren’t you?”

“You could say that. How about you?”

“I’ve been here too long. Too long.”

Another day, another race to doomed salvation. The first race included twelve participants. They did not know why they were running. They did not care.

A moment later, the officers opened fire. Once again for The Runner, his life flew by in an instant. His mind flooded with everything he'd ever known. Childhood memories, all the pretty girls he’d loved, all the family get-together’s, marked by fights and arguments.

He recounted the glories of his marathon wins. Clinging to all the dreams and hopes he'd held for himself, The Runner felt all he'd known was now bypassing him.

All in a split second.

Yet, he felt no resignation. For him, life couldn't end in some hallway. Not in some passage, book ended by two blank walls. It couldn't. Not after what he endured, survived and surpassed. Not after all of that.

Reaching the end first this time, The Runner jumped over. Strider followed. The other men were not so lucky. Or able.

This time, the men were allowed to rest. The day included six hours of sleep. They spent the remaining 18 hours in cold showers, lying in empty chambers during “quiet period”—usually when The Warden was taking his afternoon nap.

But, most of the time, the men spent those hours running.


The Runner approached Strider, near his space in the corner of the campsite. Addressing Strider, a behemoth of a man, he asked “Strider. How do I get out of this alive?”

Strider laughed. As if he knew something for certain what The Runner didn't.

“Once you’ve convinced yourself that you won’t," Strider replied. "There’s nothing standing in your way of reaching that wall. Nothing. Nothing.”

“How long have you been a prisoner here?”

“A couple of months. Maybe more.”

“Why are we here?”

“Because they dictate things now. The cabinet has been emptied, and now they’re the ones in control. The people will buy anything, you know that. The coloreds and the Jews were the first to be obtained. Now its regular folk like you. Nobody’s survived longer than me. You’re in The Zone now, boy, remember that. The Zone doesn’t hold prisoners. It makes them vanish into thin air.”

“This is a dream.”

“You think so?”

“It can’t be real. It just can’t.”

“You’re lucky. In ten days, it’ll all be over. They’ll be transferring us to another location, one without these sick fucking games. I overheard them talking about it last week.”

“Why don’t they just do us in already? I don’t know how much longer I can run.”

Strider smirked, then glanced at The Runner. “Look. Any asshole knows how to die. The thing to learn is how to survive. Survive. Do you know what I mean? Don’t let them know they scare you. When you can do that, you've already won half the battle."

From that point on, Strider and The Runner forged a close friendship. Their bond came from the fact they had more similarities than differences. They shared common experiences. During their lives, they'd endured the heartaches of losing the women they'd loved.

But, more significantly, both men survived many races together. Many races.

There was the matter of The Warden. He grew angered by the men's unwillingness to die. He knew that within a few days, the unit would be transferred to another location. Another warden would get access to the camp site.

The only thing that calmed him was sadomasochistic lovemaking with his secretary—a woman who moonlighted as his mistress.

The morning of the penultimate day arrived. They ate, if you could call it eating. Both The Runner and Strider were anxious. They needed to survive one more day. Before the first run, Strider explained how his family was murdered by fellow fascist neo-punks. They broke into his home while he was away on a business trip. After enjoying a few rounds with the missus, they went on to the kids. You see, these were highly disturbed fascist neo-punks. Ones who had no regard for human life. Even the little one got it in strange places. Then they lined them up outside. One by one. And were never heard from again. Once Strider arrived back home, he found the officers enjoying his food and wine. He was taken away immediately, after being told his family had been slain, and it was explained that this was his doing. They had concluded that he was part of the cause of the downfall of humanity over the last five decades. Now, in the year 2050, the powerful World-Alliance-Regime was finally taking control of the government.

It wasn’t all death and destruction though. The pair liked to talk about their favorite things in life as well. They both held a passion for classic baseball stars like Jose Reyes and Roy Halladay. Strider revealing his favorite place in the world made him smile.

He recalled a small beach at the southern tip of the West Arizona Settlements. It was a unique spot because the ocean got you high if you swam in it. Legend had it that many years ago, in the 20th Century, there was a ship of Jamaican pirates carrying tons of heroin on board. One day, a storm hit the ship and they got swept away. Everyone on board died. The ship went down. The drugs were lost forever. The sea ate it up and had been spewing it out ever since.

The Runner also thought of a remote beach, one that he used to visit with his wife quite often on a small boat he had purchased after they got married. He smiled at the image of a pleasant memory. He remembered how once, they stayed there all night with the moonlight providing a beautiful glow. He was carving a coconut, while Angie swam in the water. She came out, water dripping down her beautiful skin, staring at him. He would remember her face forever. Forever.

When he snapped back to reality, he found himself in a row of a dozen men again.

He looked at Strider, who glanced back for a moment, and smiled with confidence. He was going to survive this motherfucker.

The starting gun sounded. The frenzy began.

The wall was near. The Runner could see it. He could smell it. He could sense the smooth, rock hard surface.

Nearer. Closer.

Suddenly, a cloud of gray smoke surrounded them and The Runner stopped in his tracks.

Coughing, he turned around to look for his friend.

“Strider!," he yelled out. "Strider! Hey!”

Ominously, there came no answer.

The Warden had decided to take matters into his own hands, and used a smoke bomb he had in his artillery belt. The bullets continued to fly, and The Runner, unsure of the fate of his friend, quickly jumped over the wall.

Later on, shaking in a corner, The Warden appeared before The Runner. He held in his arms the human head of a familiar face—Strider. The Warden flung it into the corner. The Runner looked down on it and cried.

As more races followed, The Runner was more motivated than ever. He needed to survive. For him, for Strider, for Angie.

The day ended and The Runner was out of breath, and out of energy, but still living, still moving, still going.

That night, The Warden approached The Runner.

“You are a smart one. You would have made a good soldier. But as fate would have it, you are on that side, and I on this one. I know about your past, boy. We all suffer from past mistakes. I too made errors in judgment as a young man. And if I could return to that time and change things, I would, but, I am not God. Neither are you. And those of us, who are strong, use the past as lessons for the future. You know you cannot win, runner. So why not go out with a little bit of dignity, hmm? Do you really want to get thrown away in a waste disposal with the other dead prisoners? Stop running, and I personally guarantee a gentleman’s funeral for you.”

At that moment, Natajsa approached him and whispered, “There is a matter of urgent attention for you.” The Warden stood up and looked down at The Runner. “Listen. I’m a fair man. I’ll allow you until tomorrow to make your decision. If your mind is still unsure, then I’m afraid I will have to end your participation myself.” The Runner knew full well that in less than twenty-four hours, the games would come to a halt, and he would be transferred to another site, with another warden. They can’t all be the incarnations of the devil can they? The Runner thought.

The next day approached and The Runner was nervous, but confident.

Today was a special day. For today, the head of the regime, Halter, was present at the holding camp. He was to personally oversee the transfer of the group. He had heard of this game, and was curious to see what was so fascinating about it.

Race after race, The Runner won with ease. He knew he was close. If he could only survive a few more races, then his ticket out would be secured. The Warden knew as well. At lunch time, The Warden approached The Runner once again.

“Made up your mind yet, runner?”

“Yes, I have.”

“I know you may think low of me. But I am doing this for your benefit. You see, those men out there, they have no regard for humanity. I, on the other hand, I give you a chance to live a while longer. I give you a chance to breathe the air for a while longer. To eat food a while longer. We all leave this life sometime. Remember that.”

“You’re a sad man, you know that?” The Runner remarked before spitting in his face and walking away.

The Warden signaled for his secretary. She approached him with a napkin and wiped his face. She got the saliva off, but The Warden’s ugly mug still remained.

As the day became night, The Runner grew more and more anxious and began hearing voices. From his mother, from his father, from Angie.

He fantasized about breaking through the wall, into another dimension. A heavenly other world, where the birds chirped harmoniously. And the bushes were always pristine green, and the clouds powder white. The sky blue and the world peaceful and gay. He was sad at the thought of never seeing the Mets play again. He was sad that he would never see light again. Never eat a roast beef sandwich from Adelman’s again. Never smoke a cigarette again. Never jog down the East Side Park to think about the time you asked her to marry you right at the end of the jogger’s path, with fences overlooking the water again. “It was worth it,” he said. “It was worth that last trip.”

The Runner started to think about that fateful night. The night that Angie’s spirit seemed to vanish. It was a cold and rainy evening. The Runner had just come home from work. As soon as he stepped inside, he knew something was amiss. He usually smelled a pleasant odor when he returned home from work in the evenings—Angie was quite the cook. But there was no cooking today. He entered the bedroom as she lay in bed, twisting and turning in pain. He immediately called for help, but by the time help arrived, she was already gone. He could not understand what caused her death and the authorities provided no assistance in solving the matter either. He spent years blaming himself for it. Perhaps she had been in pain before but did not reveal it to him. Perhaps there were signs that he missed, or that he ignored. He quickly started re-living every moment and conversation they had together trying to piece together the puzzle. Her official cause of death was natural causes. “Natural causes?” he thought. “At 28 years old?” Her dying figure would haunt him for the remaining years of his existence.

Finally, the last race approached. It was dark outside, and The Runner knew that the games stopped at dusk.

The Warden spoke up before the race. “For tonight, this ends another day of participation of our activities. Those who will survive will live to see another day. Those who do not, will not. Goodbye, Runner.” And with this, he faced his pistol at The Runner, and shot him in the belly. The Warden looked at the other men. “Well? There’s your signal! Run! Run I said!”

The Runner bent over in pain. The Warden laughed. The Runner stood up and began to walk in half-completed steps.

The officers began firing off shots, and the men fell as usual, The Runner thought of nothing else but victory. The Runner had seen nothing but dying men all around him for two consecutive weeks. He finally knew what it felt like for the Jews in Roman times. He knew what the Spanish Inquisition was like. He knew what it was like being put on trial as a witch in Salem. He knew what it was like to be faced with the torments of the Nazis. He knew what pain was. He knew what defeat was. He knew what the devil was. He knew what God was.

A man ran past him, limping from a bullet wound. The Runner recognized him as his former neighbor. He remembered the barbecues they had together so many summers ago. The neighbor used to be such a handsome man, he thought. Now, he was nothing more than a brittle skeleton of his former self.

The Runner, expecting to die any instant, did not run, but floated. Like an angel above clouds. Somehow the man next to him was shot and killed and fell to the ground like a mosquito hit with a fly swatter.

The Runner managed to escape.

He did not know how. But he did. Lying on the ground beyond the wall, he began to cry hysterically. The blood continued to pour out of him. Halter, the head of the regime approached him. He yelled for his men to assist him. The Warden, dismayed and furious, looked at his secretary, and then looked back at The Runner, who had been victorious after all.

Halter, angry at the proceedings, looked back at The Warden.

“You will know that your actions are not welcome in this regime. We are not a pack of animals. Your game is cruel and inhuman. You disappoint me, Benjamin.”

Halter looked at his guards and motioned them to take charge of The Warden.

“What is going on, sir?” The Warden cried out.

“You are… dismissed, Benjamin. Take him away. Out of my sight. Filthy animal.”

Halter turned his attention to The Runner. “Young man, you are strong. And resilient. You are truly worthy of life and all its glory.”

Quickly, Halter’s staff ran over and tended to The Runner.

“This is my own personal physician. He will take care of you. But now, please… rest.”

The Runner closed his eyes and only darkness remained.

When he opened them up again, his mind was in a haze. All he could see were moving lips.

“How are his vital signs, Nurse?”

“They’re good, doctor.”

“What should we do with him?”

“I don’t know, ask him.”

“Well, what should we do with you, then, eh?”

The Runner, still unable to function properly, closed his eyelids again.

A few more days went by, and The Runner regained use of his mind and body. Recovery at the hospital was pleasant. The Runner spent his days playing classic card games his parents taught him like Solitaire and often joked with his nurse.

“Am I going to be alright?”

“Yes, of course,” answered the nurse.

“Like new?”

“Better than new.”

One day, another nurse entered the room. The first nurse turned toward the second one, who’s faced was covered with a mask, and said “Hey, I’m going to grab a cup of coffee, make sure to give him his shots before he goes to sleep.”

The second nurse nodded her head.

The first nurse turned towards The Runner. “Good night Martin.”

“Good night Michelle.”

The first nurse exited the room.

The Runner turned to his side. “Are my shots ready? I’m tired. I’d like to go to sleep now.”

“You enjoy sleeping?”

“Yes. It is the only time I can dream.”

“Do you have a favorite dream?”

“Yes, I do.”

The nurse uncovered her mask, but with his head turned, The Runner did not notice who it was.

As the mask fell, Natajsa’s face was revealed. She had a syringe in her hand, and inserted the needle into the IV of The Runner. He remained oblivious and simply smiled before shutting his eyes.

Now he was on an island. It was dark. He carved a coconut. A woman swam in the water, which shimmered in the moonlight. She exited the ocean with water dripping down her smooth skin. The Runner smiled.

He took a look at Angie as she approached him. He thought, “It cannot get any better than this.”

He smiled once more. He knew that this night would never end. That he would always be there with her. And she would always be there with him.


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