You’re making good time. Keep this up, the splits will be amazing. There’s one guy ahead, a kid, really, who won’t even feel this tomorrow, the pain of achievement, his legs like spokes on a bicycle wheel, cycling, cycling, all legs and concave torso, a kid who hasn’t grown into form, into ache. You are thinking at the marker what left’s in the tank, what is left for the hardest part, when every part of you screams to stop but you have to go on, on, not seeing who’s ahead and who’s behind, only the end. There is nothing human against you, only the slight drifts of rain that the wind swirls through the park, the threatening downpour, the slightly broken asphalt dusted with dirt, asphalt that should have been repaved years ago and now threatens to twist an ankle like a wrench to a bolt. It almost got you, right there, and your knee locked slightly and you lost maybe a second, half a second, to Gumby up there but this is yours, you’ve worked for this and mismanaged Parks and Rec funds won’t get in your way, nor squirrels that zig, then zag, nor that person you just passed who you swear just tried to freaking throw something at you, what was it? Asphalt? Was it the kid’s mother? Fucked-up brother? Autistic sister? Homeless guy who sleeps in a bush near the duck pond and tried to catch one of the ducks to kill and eat for dinner?
You check your app, the app you got that tells you everything, your distance, your splits, your calories, winning lottery tickets, and you’re thirteen seconds faster than when you did this a week ago, spotting out the course, looking for the smoothest parts of the path, the side of the hill where the incline is slightly less steep, you are on, on, on, all you need to do is make your move at the next marker, dig your reserve out of that tank like coins from a slot machine, and blow past that piece of shit up there, he’s got other races, plenty of time, has he even gotten laid yet or maybe just a hand job from a girl he’s not going to marry and will only remember awkwardly at the reunion.
Your phone rings. It’s your wife, your wife who is stationed two markers up, who you last saw thirty-eight minutes ago, who couldn’t wait fifteen more minutes to call you, when it’s over, are you serious? Are you on the same page here? Did she think it would be helpful, to cheer you on, pep you up, when a single word out of your mouth in return is a wasted breath, a wasted second, more distance between you and Napoleon Dynamite? You hit ignore and now you have to navigate your way back to your app, and when you finally get there you’re only eleven seconds faster and you hear someone closing on you probably that guy who looks like Nick Cave who you’re more accustomed to seeing smoking at the bar down your street than in shorts and sneakers and holy fuck, boy, are you going to let her have it when you win this thing. If you win this thing.
There’s no time to think like that. Thoughts are for losers. Visualize the win, the winning, the pistons that are your legs and your fuel-injection heart and you aren’t even human in the neurotic, pathetic sense, just an organic marveling mass of energy moving faster than electrons, than light, than time. You are going so fast your thoughts are behind you.
Your phone rings. It’s your wife again, and she’s knocked out your app and you’re staring at her beaming face behind her name and number and you. Want. To. Fucking. Kill. Her. It would totally be a deal breaker if you didn’t have your son, whose four and will probably be faster than that kid in front of you, than you, he’s all lightning bolts and air through the house, the park, bouncing off things. Even some days you have a hard time keeping up with him, and your keeping up time is mostly regulated to Saturdays and Sundays, even the three hours Saturday morning when your soccer league is on satellite and you drink beer, lots of it, for breakfast. So maybe it’s only Sunday, really, that you have to keep up with him and you can see her point, your wife’s, if she ever thought to make it, that you are kind of a selfish louse but does it mean she can fucking call you right now, in the middle of everything?
Your phone is still ringing. You shove it to your ear and turn on your jets prematurely, not sticking to your plan but so fucking worried she is going to distract you and shave more precious seconds off your time. This better be a fucking emergency. It has to be, right? Why else would she call? And if it’s a fucking emergency, what kind of emergency would make you stop, that couldn’t wait for you to finish?
How long has he been missing? You say the words in irritation. Not an emergency that will make you stop. Can’t you keep looking for him? The kid is fast, like you said. Out of your sight in half a second, at the Target, the hardware store, and you wanted to buy one of those leashes, like a dog, only for a kid, but your wife would have none of it. You bet she wants that fucking leash now—how long has he been missing? Ten minutes? Why were you by the duck pond and not by the agreed-on marker? I don’t care that he wanted to look at the ducks. I don’t care if he’s fucking restless. When you were his age you had to go to church, your Methodist church, and you were expected to shut up and sit still. If anything, you think you’ve been too easy on him, she certainly has.
What are saying? Calm down. I can’t hear you. You think he fell into the pond? The kid can’t swim. It was something you planned on, lessons at the neighborhood Y, next year, when he was a little older, a little more mature, less off the wall. It’s amazing you put it off that long, he loves Finding Nemo, the Little Mermaid, has a plastic turtle that lights up at night and projects sea horses and sea shells and fish on the walls of his room. He loves the freaking water.
He probably didn’t fall in the pond. That’s the kind of stuff that happens in movies, that you read online, kids drowning in two feet of water in the swimming pool, but you know your kid isn’t stupid enough to do. He’s your kid. He is stupid enough to chase a duck somewhere. But would that homeless man abduct him, trying to eat him? Your kid is not as fast as a duck.
You are losing time. So much time. You could barely see him, in front of you, darting around that last turn. He is moving so far away from you. But you can’t stop. You can’t. You have to keep going, no matter how much it hurts. No matter how scared you are that you will lose, you have already lost. You can’t even remember what he looks like now. You prepared for this; you worked so hard, even if you had those beers on those Saturday mornings, spanked the kid a little too hard now and then. And now it will all be taken away from you. You didn’t do anything wrong, but how could you have planned for this?
Your wife is crying, throaty, guttural. Like large prairie animal, left on the plain to die. She whispers his name, over, over. You stop. You stop because you have lost. There is no point now. You stop, hands on your knees, sucking in air. Waiting to start hurting.
Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Her debut novel, The Tide King (2013; winner of the Big Moose Prize and “Best Fiction,” Baltimore City Paper, 2013), and second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water (2017, originally published by Queen’s Ferry Press), were published by Black Lawrence Press. She is the author of two collections of fiction, Close Encounters (So New, 2007) and From Here (Aqueous Books, 2013), and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press 2010), which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the weekly literary journal jmww, host of the monthly reading series Starts Here! in Baltimore, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown.