Thursday, June 2, 2011

FICTION: Time Trials By J. Scott Kunkle

 It was going to happen again.

Even as I stood looking down the long, hot stretch of asphalt, I knew what was going to happen near the end of the track, knew it with a certainty that made my blood run cold. It was the same every time, but knowing that it would happen did nothing to lessen the intense feeling of fear that swept over me as I stared at that certain spot just ten meters from the white ribbon.

I wiped my sweaty palms on my shorts and did a few quick squats to help stretch out my legs. The others were engaged in the same sort of rituals, shaking out their arms and legs, doing their own little warm-up dances, running in place and other exercises. A few guys from the Santa Monica club were checking out their starting blocks and it seemed like an ideal thought under the circumstances so I joined them, trying to keep my mind away from the end of the track.

I knelt down beside my blocks, ensuring that they were set firmly into the cinder track. I needed everything to go just right if I were to have any hope of pulling this off and making the team. It was nearly impossible as it was without having my blocks slip under me. Every fraction of a second was going to be crucial.

I stopped fidgeting with my blocks and found myself staring down the track again at the spot ninety meters away. I tried to convince myself that it might not happen this time, but I knew it was pointless. It happened at every big race, without exception and only the big events.

And this was the biggest!

I had easily won my qualifying heat, cruising into the finals without a hitch. There was only one person within a quarter second of me, but his knee was giving him trouble and I didn't think he would even finish in the top five. The favorites in both heats had all managed to make the cut without much of a problem and it figured they had all taken it fairly easy, but then so had I. It was a good field but only the top three got the nod for the Olympics. The rest watched from home unless there was another event or you made it on the relay. This was the big one. The Hundred Meters. The fastest man in the world.

Shaking my head, I felt the sweat break on my brow again. My trainer motioned to me and I moved away from my blocks, stretching. My trainer always warned me when there was one minute left before the gun. Gave me time for a kind of last minute psych job. Hell of a lot of good it was going to do me now. I had already psyched myself out.

The time at the World Championships in Japan had been the worst. I had nearly broken the world record during my qualifying heat and was feeling really good just before the big race. I got off to a fantastic start in the finals and was just beginning to pull away when . . . pop! I was gone. It had been nearly twelve seconds that time and it was a long twelve seconds. I had even started to wonder if I was ever going to come back, when there I was, back on the track. It had happened so fast it had caught me off guard and it had cost me the victory. Everyone had thought I had run a good race but a lot they knew. They didn't see me leave. Nobody ever sees me leave, it all just happens too fast.

Third in the world was good, but I can do better. I wanted to be recognized as the best, and I knew I could do it! Even with all the obstacles, I was only off a fraction of a second. Winning that final race was the reason I trained so hard. The reason I put myself through the endless torture of that final ten meters of Hell.

The starter motioned for the runners to assume their positions so I squatted down over the blocks in lane four and kicked the kinks out of my legs. After a moment, I carefully set my feet into the blocks, making sure their position was firm and edged my fingers toward the white line on the track taking long, slow breaths.

Another runner moved up beside me in lane three. It was the man who finished behind me in the semis. He would be running on my left so I would have to keep a close watch on his movements. His bad leg would cause him to drift to the right at the start of the race.

I had no idea of where I was going when I went on those little 'trips' of mine. No clue as to where I had been for those twelve seconds in Japan, or the five seconds in LA. Or even the half-second in Montreal, now that had been a bad one. I was back almost before I realized I was even gone. Screwed me up so bad that I finished sixth. That really sucked.

I carefully halted my fingers at the line and coiled my legs beneath me, tensing for the start as the man stepped forward with the pistol elevated. Taking a deep breath, I waited, watching the spot in the distance.

And then we were running.

The starter's gun took me by surprise, but that was the way I liked it, my body reacting even before my mind was aware of the fact. My arms and legs pumped as I put everything I had into my stride, focusing on getting a quick start, determined to get out in front early, far enough ahead to counter the effects of my journeys.

At forty meters I opened up, my stride long and fast, so I dared a brief glance out of the corners of my eye. I fully expected to be ahead slightly at this point, I felt that good, but to my surprise I saw that several others had also gotten off to superb starts and I was now running in a pack.

Incredibly, one man was right beside me and two others were a pace ahead. I forced myself to go faster, lengthening my stride, determined to pull forward. I had to have the lead at ninety meters. I needed it. There was no other way.

At sixty it was a dead heat, the four of us running neck and neck. It was then I saw the blur in the lane ahead of me and felt my insides turn icy. As always, it was in my lane only. Though I had expected to see it, having it appear in front of me always set my nerves on edge. So much so this time that I nearly broke stride. Less than a second later, I was gone.

It happened so quickly; I wasn't sure when it had occurred. It just happened. One moment I'm running along at top speed, feet slapping the pavement and then I'm running in grass, or in sand, or even over a mountain. Once, in Los Angeles, I had been in a long hall with thousands of doors, all swinging open as I ran past. The floor was as slick as glass and any change of pace nearly flattened me. I almost stopped once to see what was behind the opening doors, but the sounds coming from the openings changed my mind and before I could do anything stupid I was back.

This time I was outside, and the surface was thankfully not grass or sand, but concrete. I kept up my pace, running all out, determined not to be caught off guard when I went back. I had to keep my pace. I glanced about quickly and saw only the blue of the sky and the gray of cement. It went on as far as the eye could see. There was nothing dotting the landscape, no break in the horizon in this . . . place? Time? It beat the hell out of me.

I just ran.

My legs were beginning to ache and I was forced to slow my pace slightly, unable to continue running full tilt. After all, I was running the longest hundred meters in the history of the world.

A few seconds later, I saw something in the distance, lying on the ground. As I drew near I could see what it was and realized it was not just a randomly discarded item. I stumbled and nearly fell, as my heart seemed to skip a beat. It was all I could do to keep from sprawling on the concrete. My mouth went dry and I felt ill.

It was a hand.

Or rather, an arm. A real arm, not cement. A living flesh and blood arm, thrashing about, trying to free itself from the million pounds of concrete from which it was protruding. As I sped by, not looking at the clutching thing in the ground, I saw the concrete around me begin to crack and bulge upwards, as if propelled by dozens of other hands.

Though my cramping legs were complaining mightily, I closed my mind to the pain and willed myself to keep running, ignoring the sounds of crashing cement from behind me. I tuned it all out and ran as fast as my tiring legs would move, praying for my return. For five seconds I did nothing but run head down and heart racing. I had covered nearly two hundred and fifty meters in the last thirty seconds and my legs were quickly beginning to go numb. With a slight whimper, I was forced to slow my pace to a jog, knowing this was not over yet. After a second to catch my breath at this slow pace, I looked over my shoulder. There was no evidence of any broken cement behind me. Just the hands.

A lot of hands.

They dotted the landscape behind me, and then suddenly they were all around, all struggling to free themselves from their concrete prison. There were hundreds of them. Thousands. They were everywhere! The hands became so numerous that I began to stumble over them as I jogged along. I increased my pace again; leaping over the outstretched fingers, but more appeared barring the path. The clutching hands ripped at the exposed flesh on my calves and I nearly fell.

I did my best to avoid them, but there were just too many. They grabbed at my feet, as if sensing I was growing weaker. My legs hurt so bad it was all I could do to keep upright and moving, always moving.

Some hands stopped trying to grab my feet and lashed out at my legs, striking painful blows to my already aching limbs. I kicked back as I ran past, doing little or no damage to the hands. My only hope was that I would be gone before whatever was attached to those arms came through the cement.

I had been in this hideous place for well over a minute now, longer by far than any other instance and I suddenly believed I was not going back. I knew it with a paranoid certainty that comes with a loss of sanity. I could feel the scream building up in the back of my throat, and then I saw the path leading through the arms and continuing on as far as the eye could see. Hope ignited a fire in my legs and I virtually leapt over the remaining hands and sped down the clear lane as fast as I could get myself going, gasping for air with each step, ignoring the stabbing pain in my side.

It couldn't be much longer now. I should pop back in any second now. I just hoped I had enough for the end of the race. It was sure to be close. Gradually increasing my speed, I panted and waited expectantly.

The noise came from behind me, of that I was sure, but at first it had seemed to emanate from everywhere. A deep growl that was as near to deafening as I cared to imagine. My head began to pound with pain almost immediately and I was forced to stop running and drop down onto one knee, ripping the skin painfully, cradling my throbbing head in my hands. I waited, but the sound gave no sign of diminishing, so I forced myself to my feet, fighting the power of the noise. Once on my feet I did something I had thought impossible up to that moment.

I turned around.

And saw it.

It was the most disgusting and terrifying sight I had ever beheld and it was the cause of the unearthly growl I had heard. My scream came as a bit of a shock since I didn't realize that it was me who was doing the screaming, and that alone sent my already frazzled nerves over the brink.

Most of the arms I had seen protruding from the concrete were now attached to the dark, furry underbelly of the massive creature. Its great shaggy head swung toward me, looming before me the size of a garbage truck. The four, lemon yellow eyes stared at me through a thick covering of mucous, chunks of cement still lodged in what could only be considered eyelids. The ground trembled as it lumbered deliberately toward me.

The stench exuding from the beast nearly sent me sprawling. It smelled of earth and decay, foul and nauseating. I had smelled the odor once before, when my brother and I had discovered the long dead body of a vagrant under the road near our house. We had both lost our lunch on that occasion.

And this was worse by far.

I managed a feeble step backwards, my stomach heaving. Bile sprayed from my mouth, staining the concrete at my feet as I regarded the hideous monstrosity before me. It towered above me, juices spilling from the distended jaws, nearly a hundred feet tall. The thing emitted another bellowing roar and sent me sprawling along the cement.

Rolling to a halt, my head pounding even more fiercely, I struggled to my feet, gasping for breath. As I looked at the thing above me, it suddenly burst open. The matted fur on its chest pulled apart and millions upon millions of writhing snakes spewed forth to lie in a massive, undulating pile almost at my feet. I shook with terror as the mound slowly began to ooze toward me, the bodies intertwined, reminding me of the pictures of intestines shown in textbooks.

The similarity seemed to break the horror induced trance I was in and I again vomited, this time on the first of the snakes at my feet. With a last fearful look I turned and sprinted away, my feet never seeming to touch the ground. The sound of hissing snakes faded in the distance and still I ran.

I began to laugh a trifle hysterically as I ran, my breaths coming in short gasps. I had already run the first four minute hundred meters in history and still had not finished. Fighting for control of my faculties and hearing yet another sound behind me, I disregarded the intense pain surging throughout my entire body and increased my speed.

And then I crossed the finish line.

It happened faster than a blink of an eye. I was feeling the fetid breath of another beast on the back of my neck and then I was leaning instinctively toward the tape at the finish line, as exhausted as I had ever been in my life.

It was close. It was a lot closer than I could have hoped or expected in my present condition, mentally and physically. After all, I had just completed the rough equivalent of a mile in less than ten seconds. Four of us crossed the line together, each leaning toward the tape for that fraction of an inch advantage. From where I stood, I was again on the short end of the stick, but it was almost too close to call. I was just glad I had still been running. If I would have been standing still when I came back, or in the clutches of that hideous creature, I don't know what would have happened.

I admit, right then, I really didn't give a shit if I had won or not. I was here and in one piece and that was enough.

Walking around to ease my belabored muscles, and nearly collapsing in the process, I looked at the crowd and saw that again, nobody had seen a thing. Even the other runners hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary. I moved away from the others, who stood waiting anxiously for the judges to finish their review of the videotape and announce who was headed for the Olympics. I couldn't care less since I knew it wasn't me. This had been the longest afternoon of my life, another failure in a long history of failing.

I surprised myself by chuckling as I crossed the track. I smiled up at the cheering crowd, still amazed and yelling over the finish of the race. I shook my head at their antics and stopped by my gear, quickly pulling on my sweats and stuffing the rest of my things into my gym bag. My coach asked me where I was going, but I only smiled. I knew I had lost. It was time for me to go home. Shouldering my bag I left him standing there, waving his arms, his face beet red. I crossed the track and headed for the exit, liking the feel of the warm sun on my face.

The loudspeaker crackled and the crowd grew silent. I suddenly found myself unable to continue and stood near the exit, listening to the announcer's voice, cold sweat forming on my forehead as his words struck home.

It was a dead heat. All four runners had crossed the line at the same time, a feat that had never before occurred at this level of competition. The race was to be run again first thing in the morning. The crowd approved of this decision, letting out a fresh burst of applause. I stood very still and slowly turned to look back at the track, my eyes moving down the length of the course and coming to rest on the spot ninety meters distant. The blur appeared briefly where it had been earlier, but this time larger, enveloping the entire width of the track.

I stared at the shimmering shape on the other side of the blur with mixed emotions. Sighing, I walked across the track again and handed the bag to my coach. He looked genuinely concerned about my behavior and I patted his shoulder reassuringly. With a smile I jogged off down the track. The blur faded as I ran past, as I knew it would. With a sneer I spit on the ground where it had been and ran on.

Maybe a few sprints to work out the kinks. I could sure use it after my marathon earlier, and then it would be time for a cold shower. A long and very cold shower.

After all, I had another race to run.