Bang! The gunshot made my heart skip a beat. I sprinted like a fox desperate for escape. My legs pumped in furious rhythm, the muscled hind quarters of a cheetah. Sweat dripped into my eyes, stinging them and blurring my vision, but I already knew that it was too late. I had fallen behind.
My spirit sank as I watched my nemesis Tiffanie Grimes cross the finish line, followed by Sara Jenkins and Misty Goins. My foot finally found the white mark, as I came in last place with a time of 27.42, setting a personal worst.
Jealousy pulsed through my veins as I watched the winners bask in their glory. I couldn’t believe how badly I’d blown it at the state track meet. I’d worked so hard all year to get here with my team. Now, I felt humbled and embarrassed.
My crush, jumper Amy Hendricks, watched me. She’d performed exceptionally well today. She seemed abashed on behalf of the entire team. Her expression burned me, and I felt flushed. After all, I had joined the team to impress her.
As I passed my coach, she scowled and hissed, “Come on, Angie! Why don’t you take up mall walking? There’s plenty of old ladies you can out move!”
Matters worsened. I stumbled and fell. My hand landed on a sharp rock. Pain shot through my palm and blood trickled from the wound.
Coach Jones shook her head. The face she pulled was somewhere between pity and disgust. I hated to disappoint her. She’d believed in me all year, and I’d let her down. I deserved her disdain.
I pulled myself up and soldiered on to the locker room. As I showered, my ego became my bully, and I gave myself an inner beating fit for a pimply nerd with B.O. My faults looped repeatedly in my mind. I should have trained more, tried harder, ate better.
On the bus ride home, I continued to loathe myself. No one gave me a hard time, but they didn’t sit with me either. Amy wouldn’t even look at me. I checked my cell phone. No messages. Mom didn’t even care how the meet went. I would always be a failure in her eyes.
The bus arrived at my school just past sunset. The other students had waiting rides, but Mom worked second shift, so I started to leg it home on my sore and tired stems.
An afternoon rain had cooled the spring air. My route took me by the cemetery where Daddy slept for eternity, and I decided to visit him before heading on to my empty home.
The tombstones stood in line formation, row upon row like a legion of cold, hard soldiers, an army of granite and marble. They ranged in size and shape from noble obelisks to small stones, some crumbling, others new, all monuments to loss and grief, a reminder that the war on death can never be won. Upon the graves remembrances were placed, sacrifices to commemorate ancestors and tributes paid to ghosts. There were wreaths and vases of flowers, old dried husks and fresh cuttings as well. Clusters of stones were piled upon the Jewish plots. Weathered flags fluttered upon the markers of heroes and water logged teddy bears adorned the graves of babes. A wrought iron fence, ornate with filigree like a dead language written in cursive script, confined the grounds. The surrounding trees seemed to mope with heavy shoulders, as if they themselves mourned the dead. A delicate fog swirled about the graveyard like a sorcerer’s breath on a cold morning. The smell of moist earth completed the eerie vibe, yet I found the cemetery comforting none-the-less. Peace could be found amongst this garden of resting souls. Any judgments they passed, they kept to themselves, and their silence was golden.
I made my way to his grave and knelt down there in the wet grass.
“Hey, Daddy. I messed up again. I wish you were still here to help me train! I know I would’ve won if you’d been here to help me!” Tears welled.
Daddy had been my personal trainer and, more importantly, my biggest fan. When he told me I could do something, I believed it. When he was proud of me, I felt proud of myself. He gave me the confidence I needed to win. He told me to always push myself and challenge my limits because the only way to reach the stars was to spread my wings.
He had died so suddenly. My grief hadn’t eased, not even a little bit. Every competition I entered, I ran for him, and every time I lost, I felt like I’d let him down.
Despair churned inside me and I sat in silence, contemplating the pointlessness of my life. Part of me wanted to join Daddy in the cold comfort of mud, but I knew he would be disappointed in me for thinking such things. He taught me perseverance. I felt as sullen and useless as the teeth rotting away in daddy’s head. This thought disturbed me greatly, so I lay down in the wet grass and wept.
The melodious voice of an intoxicated man singing a folk ditty interrupted my solitude.
I sat upright. His red wool suit blared like a baboon’s behind as he passed beneath one of the street lamps scattered along the main path. Dressed like someone from history, perhaps George Washington or Paul Revere, he wore a tricorne hat and powdered wig.
He veered from the trail and weaved amongst the stones, dragging his long fingernails across the tops of them. He headed right for me. The isolated, gloomy atmosphere enhanced my feelings of vulnerability, so I stood up. I reached into my pocket and gripped the can of pepper spray on my key chain. I considered running away.
As he neared, I saw that he wore an ornate, antique mask of carved wood in the image of a lamb, with the curls of its fur incised in great detail and painted a pearlescent white that seemed to glow like a moonbeam. The off-putting, garish ensemble frightened me, and I gasped loudly.
“Good evening, Miss,” he said. He pulled down his mask, revealing a pale face with chiseled features and dark eyes. “My name is Faolan,” he said, bowing.
An owl cried out a warning, “Who? Who?”
Faolan proceeded, “Forgive the mask. I’m coming from a costume ball. I’ve a bit of drink, and I forgot I was wearing it. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
I realized he was just a cos-player or maybe a goth kid. I could punch his short, scrawny, effeminate lights out if he tried anything. I felt silly for having been scared, so I laughed. “That’s some costume,” I said. “I’m Angie.”
“What brings such a lovely young lass to the graveyard this dreary eve?” he asked. The odd, singsong manner in which he spoke revealed he was still in character.
I felt like a kid talking to a giant puppet in a television show. “Just visiting Daddy,” I replied.
The empathy he emoted seemed genuine. “I’m sorry. You’re far too young to bear such grief,” he stated. “What do you do for fun, Angie?”
I told him, “I run.”
He said, “You do? From whom?”
I laughed. “I race!”
With a serious expression, he philosophized, “Do you ever feel like life is a game you can’t win?”
I didn’t know how to reply, so I just stared blankly at him. He smelled familiar, like Daddy’s pipe tobacco and favorite whiskey, and I remembered what it felt like to feel safe and cared for.
Faolan continued, “There’s no trophy, no medal waiting for you at the finish line. There is only disease and death, sorrow and heartache. Inevitably, prayers are eventually answered with a resounding ‘no.’”
Indeed, I often felt this way, but I never spoke it aloud. It was the kind of thought one held inside for fear of sounding blasphemous. It unnerved me to hear it laid bare, and hearing it made it all too true. My face contorted to reflect my complex state of mind.
Faolan condoled, “There, there Angie, cheer up. Even if you can’t win at the game of life you can win during the game of life.”
He played on my emotions. “Remember when you were little? I bet your daddy had a nickname for you.”
I smiled as I recalled the memory. I could hear Daddy’s voice inside my mind. I said, “He called me his Lil’ Champion.”
“You miss your daddy don’t you? You want to make him proud, don’t you? And what about that crush of yours? Wouldn’t you like to make a great impression? Wouldn’t you like to win, Angie? Just once?”
I whispered my response, as if it were a confession. “Yes, I would love to win. Not just once, though. I want to win again and again.”
“What are you willing to do to make that happen? What price would you pay?” Faolan inquired.
I replayed all of my failures in my mind, and I relived the feelings of defeat. “Anything. I’d do anything to be a winner.” I thought of my mother and realized I’d answered too quickly. “Well, just about anything. I wouldn’t hurt my mom.”
“Hmm. I think I can accept those terms,” Faolan muttered under his breath.
“What?” I asked, thinking I had misheard him.
He said, “Your terms. You’ll do anything to be a winner, with exception of hurting your mother. Now, about my terms…”
“Terms? What are you going on about?” I inquired, my face etched with bewilderment.
“Angie, I’m going to offer you a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he stated coolly.
I should have been skeptical, but I wanted this to be real. Who doesn’t want a golden ticket? I bit. “Okay, what is it?”
He said, “I’m a talent scout for The Eris Agency. I think you’ve got what it takes to be a winner. With a good coach, the right opportunities, and luck, you could make it to the Olympics.”
“The Olympics? You really think so?” The tone of my voice divulged my self-doubt.
“I believe in you, Angie. I’ll make you a winner, and in exchange, all I ask for is your leg.”
He still spoke in that oddball style, invoking surreality. Surely he joked, or possibly I didn’t understand him. “What? My leg?”
“Do you know how most runners make their money?” he quizzed.
“Yeah, sure. Corporate sponsorships.”
“That’s right! One company buys your chest and plasters their name there. Another buys your feet, adorning them in shoes with oversized logos. I get to put my sigil on your leg.”
“Sigil? What’s that?” I asked.
He explained, “It’s like a logo. I want to mark your leg.”
“Like a tattoo?”
“Similar. What do you think? Do you accept my offer?” He appeared confident, legitimate, successful. He seemed to have everything I wanted, and he was willing to share.
I turned it over in my mind. It seemed too good to be true, and I should have looked for the catch. However, I knew I wouldn’t get to the Olympics on my own. Not training on the run down equipment at the local recreation center. Not without some help. I’d die a loser, a nobody. I’d never make Daddy proud. I didn’t have it in me to go to college and become something important like a doctor or lawyer. The best I could hope for was an average future as a bank or office manager or some other dull, soulless existence. This was my chance. Daddy said to never look a gift horse in the mouth. I shrugged and agreed, “Ok. I’ll do it.”
“There’s just a matter of the contract,” he said. He pulled a piece of parchment from his jacket pocket and unfolded it.
Finding this outré, I inquired, “Do you carry contracts everywhere?”
“Of course not. My meeting at the party was a no show.” He retrieved a reservoir pen. “What is your full name, Dear,” he asked.
“Angela Marie Taylor,” I responded.
He leaned over and used Daddy’s tombstone to write upon, filling in the blanks as I supplied the answers. Then he handed the contract and pen to me. “Just sign on the bottom line and date it,” he told me.
I placed the document on Daddy’s headstone and proceeded to sign it, but the pen wouldn’t make a mark. “The pen doesn’t work,” I said.
Faolan said, “Ah, that’s too bad. I don’t have another one.”
“Can I come by your office tomorrow and sign it?” I asked.
He looked nonchalant as he squelched, “Oh no, Dear, I’m afraid not. I’m prone to black outs and there’s no way I’ll remember you tomorrow. Perchance it’s just not meant to be.”
I could feel the opportunity slipping from me, my future swirling away like a bulimic’s Birthday cake. Daddy always said that if you want something bad enough, you will find a way. In desperation, I jabbed the pen into the scabbing wound on my hand. Pain rushed up my arm, and I thought of Jesus and the crucifixion. I’d never been religious, and it seemed like a strange thing to be thinking about.
I smiled, hiding my discomfort. “No worries,” I said, and I signed the contract in my own blood. Then I handed it back to him.
Faolan grinned an easy, slippery smile. “Now that’s the kind of resourcefulness that makes a winner.” He folded and pocketed the parchment. He said, “It’s nice doing business with you, Angela Marie Taylor. I’ll be in touch.” He winked at me, put his mask back on, and turned from me. As he slowly sauntered towards the back gate, he resumed singing that folk ditty.
A rain drop splattered on my cheek. Cold and disoriented, I realized I was still lying on the wet grass in front of Daddy’s grave. I had been so upset that I had forgotten to eat after the race. I must’ve blacked out from low blood sugar. I rubbed my eyes to wipe the strange dream from my mind. I got up, brushed off the muck, and headed home.
I didn’t give the dream another thought, even as my luck took a miraculous turn for the better. First, I won a free membership to an upscale gym with access to a personal trainer, a nutritionist, and state-of-the-art equipment. Then, the track team’s coach quit and her replacement took a special interest in my future, working with me one-on-one. I thought nothing of Faolan, even as I started to win, meet after meet. Every day I got a little bit faster, and a tad bit luckier. By my senior year, I dominated high school track competitions and won numerous trophies for the team. I earned a cool nickname. “Presto!”
I even got the girl. I took Amy to prom, though officially, we were only allowed to attend as friends. I didn’t mind the discrimination too much. I was too happy to care.
That summer, I competed in the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. I placed first in the 200 meter sprint, attaining the A standard and qualifying for the Olympics. I couldn’t believe it!
My time to shine finally arrived. I was competing in the Olympics! I crouched at the starting line, anxious to run the race. My face stern with concentration, my brow furrowed and determined as I eyed the finish line, I breathed slowly and deeply, my body a temple of …
"Set" a disembodied voice called out. I adjusted my position and waited for the gun to sound.
The hollow bang echoed throughout the stadium, and I dashed from my starting block. I got off to a good start, but the competition pulled slightly ahead of me. The race was still up for grabs as we got off the turn and into the home straight.
I gave it my all and shot to the front. My heart raced, my adrenaline spiked as I realized my proximity to the finish line and that I was in front. Queen of the world, I soared towards victory on Nike’s wings. The crowd cheered me on; though, absorbed in my own world, I heard only the cadenced pounding of my feet.
I felt possessed by the spirit of Victory, pushing my body on. I gazed heavenwards as I neared the end, all the while I maintained my form. I widened the lead, crossing the finish line, setting a personal best of 21.82 and winning by a huge margin.
The crowd roared! I felt exhausted; my heart palpitated so quickly I thought it might explode. I gobbled up air as I caught my breath. A huge smile crossed my face. I threw my arms in the air and did a victory dance. My fellow runners hugged me and gave me high fives. I couldn’t believe it. I just won an Olympic gold medal!
I accepted a flag from my coach and put it around myself like a superhero’s cape. I strutted back towards the track and spread the flag out behind me, displaying it for the waiting cameras, enjoying the best day of my life!
The game had just changed for me. Fame, fortune, and an Olympic Gold Medal, I had it all! High end endorsements awaited me: cereal boxes, international shoe commercials, my own clothing line. The world was my oyster!
When I returned to my room and showered, I noticed a strange marking on my leg. It looked like scar tissue, but it had an ornate pattern to it. It seemed intentional, as if someone had cut the design into my flesh in a scarification ritual. I knew I hadn’t recently injured myself, and I would’ve noticed such a grotesque thing before now if I’d had it for long. As I scrutinized it, I felt vulnerable and wrong, scared of forthcoming bad news. It was probably some fast growing cancer. They’d have to amputate my leg, and I’d never run again. I couldn’t imagine a fate worse than that. How little did I know then!
That night, I awoke from a fitful sleep to a loud noise. It didn’t sound like any thunder that I had ever heard before. It seemed to emanate not from above me, but from beneath my sheets. It sounded as if something had torn a chasm into this dimension from another, and the void created there, desperate to be filled, sucked in the surrounding atmosphere in a violent gasp, like a baby taking its first breath. The noise stirred a primeval fear inside of me. I wanted to run and hide under the sofa like a skittish cat in a storm. The sound seemed so eldritch and alien that I doubted the reality of it. Maybe I hallucinated it in some dream induced stupor.
The air felt charged with current. A terrible pain commenced in my leg, far worse than any runner’s cramp I had ever suffered. It ached deep down to the bone, wreaked havoc on my poor frazzled nerves. Any position I lay in hurt, sending electrical jolts throughout my body.
I flipped on the lamp. I looked to my roommate for comfort, only to find her gone from her bed. I slowly peeled back the covers to inspect my leg. I expected to find a twisted and gnarled tumor, and I readied myself for the worst.
I was not prepared for what I discovered. There, within the glorious calf muscle of my prize winning leg, a hole had formed.
It looked as if someone had bored out a vacuity with a massive drill bit, leaving nothing behind. Skin had tried to scab over it, leaving a jagged rim of flesh around the mouth, but there was naught to grow over, just void and vacancy. It looked so dark within, like the blackness of space. I stuck my finger inside it and felt nihility. There was no self within this cavity, no flesh or bone; it had all been hollowed out like a Halloween pumpkin. I removed my finger in disbelief.
My trepidations increased, for the hole became a womb, and something germinated inside the missing part of me. The thing within grew larger still and soon began to wiggle and kick like a babe in the belly.
I trembled with fear. I didn’t want to know, but I had to. I couldn’t stop myself. I put my finger back inside the hole. Sharp teeth sank into my flesh. I cried out in agony and retracted my bleeding digit. As I put it in my mouth to suck away the blood, I hyperventilated and cried.
Small, rugose hands shot forth from the orifice and sought purchase on either side of the gap. The horrific creature pulled itself from the tenebrous lacuna, ululating birth cries as it crossed into our world. The frightening and monstrous imp, part man and part beast, grew to the size of a toddler as I scrutinized it in disbelief.
Paralyzed with fear and shock, I couldn’t move or scream. My leg was a portal to hell!
More creatures issued forth, diverse in appearance. Some were little men with horse bodies and heads befitting children. Others had the bodies of birds with the heads of adult humans, and a few had children’s bodies with pig heads. Many wore little crowns and carried staffs or pitchforks. Others were bejeweled in sparkly gems. One even rode on the back of a golden goose.
These demons plagued my mind with every transgression I had ever committed, each sin I had sinned, any wrong I had ever inflicted. They tortured me with all of my fears of abandonment, inferiority, and worthlessness. They haunted me with despondent thoughts of depression, insecurity, and feelings of inferiority. Worst of all, they stole my memories of everyone I had ever loved, leaving blackness and void in their places.
The next demon cackled as it violently clawed forth. It looked ever so familiar, and as it rapidly grew to human size, I recognized the devil.
I hadn’t taken performance enhancing drugs, but I hadn’t won by natural means either. Victory came at a price, and Faolan had called in my debt.
“No! I cried out. This is not what I wanted. I never agreed to this!”
Faolan smiled and cocked his head in that reassuring way Daddy used to when he wanted to encourage me. “Oh, but you did!” he said, unfolding the contract. I whimpered when I saw my signature there written in my own blood.
“What am I supposed to do?” I begged.
Faolan said, “For every winner, there are untold losers. Their sorrow and despair feeds the darker side of Nike, Victoria, and the other gods of triumph, and they are ever so hungry. So run, Angie, and disseminate the Olympic Spirit of Failure and Despair! Feed their hunger! Run, Angie. Run for your life, for if you ever stop, they’ll devour you instead!”
I believed him. A procession of monsters continued to swarm from my leg. I shrieked as I raced forth out into the hall of the Olympic Village. Doors opened and heads peered out, as other champions sought the source of the screams.
“Angie, what’s wrong?” one asked.
“It’s my leg!” I cried out “Can’t you see the demons?”
He regarded me as insane, shaking his head. “Demons? What?”
Even as he questioned my sanity, a squamous imp crawled from the portal and scurried past him, into his room, where it would turn a winner into a failure.
“I’m sorry,” I said through tears, and I resumed running.
From this day forward, I would always be running for my life, unable to stop even for a moment, never to catch my breath again, forevermore sowing demons across the land like some evil Johnny Apple Seed, with Faolan cheering me on. There is no finish line, for I am running a race that can never be won. Never again shall I know the thrill of victory, of glory for self or country, for I am the agony of defeat.