You know the drill by now. The Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge for this week is dealer’s choice with a twist, you couldn’t finish the story.
I’ll be quite curious to see what Chuck has in mind (and who’s story I get to finish next week).
As far as unfinished stories go, my mind is still mulling over the Ragnar Florida Keys relay I did last weekend. So that’s what I went with. Here’s my (somewhat) fictionalized account of…
Thomas didn’t know how long he had been running; but he knew it was longer than he’d intended. There was a watch at his wrist that could tell him. But he wouldn’t look. Not yet. Looking was weakness. Looking would make the process take even longer.
His headlamp had run out of batteries at least a mile back, releasing him from the tunnel vision it provided. The moon hadn’t yet risen; the darkness of the swamp around him was absolute. The sky was distractingly cluttered. Far from the pinpricks of starlight that he usually saw, there were great swaths of cloudy stellar light, filling in the spaces between. He kept glancing up, knowing that he needed to keep all his attention on the trail; but doing it anyway.
The trail was as long before him as it was behind. The canal he ran along one of the seemingly thousands of nondescript channels carved into the Southern Florida landscape, scars care of the Army Corp of Engineers. When they told him he would be running in the swamp, he’d expected fetid mangroves and squelching loam underfoot.
Instead, Thomas’ shoes crunched on the loose gravel, his ankles rolling with each step, daring him to lose focus. His mouth was a straight line as he made corrections and forced himself to not speed up. More speed would send him to the ground. A wall rose up to his left, probably the spill dirt left behind by the cutting of the canal, now covered in scrubby trees and anemic grass.
He could hear soft splashes in the canal, alligators most likely. If he had his lamp he could pick them out by the red pinpricks of their glowing eyes. At least that part of the fantasy was real. Now that he was in the middle of it, however, he was thankful for the darkness. With no assistance for miles ahead or behind, it was better not to know.
He should have been there by now. There was a checkpoint. A van. Safety in numbers. As much as he willed it to appear in front of him, nothing did. The horizon remained unspoiled by the spill of floodlights.
His legs ached in places that he didn’t think he even used. The muscles in his thighs were knotted rope, pulled so tight they would snap with a sharp tug.
He kept his ears pricked for the sound of pursuit, heavy breathing and grunting as another tried to match Thomas and overtake him, coaxing their body along to speeds they were not used to. The road behind stayed silent, contributing to the growing certainty that Thomas nurtured in his gut. He was lost. Somehow, in the breakneck rush to get out of the van and accept the baton from his teammate, he had lost his way and ended up, impossibly, on another path.
He grimaced at the memory of that exchange. They were late because he had doubted what the maps were telling him, leading them instead to a spit of civilization that clung to the edge of the swamp. Bathrooms and playgrounds and parking lots. It wasn’t until he’d gone to toe the line at that starting point that he realized the numbers didn’t match up. They were in the wrong place. Even worse, they were twenty minutes behind their runner.
A tense ride in the van as they cursed traffic and inaccurate directions, they blamed themselves for not double-checking Thomas’ directions. A kind of socially acceptable balm meant to take some of the sting away from the person who made the mess. When, in reality the only thing it said was “We shouldn’t have trusted you.”
Thomas was going to regain that trust by running his leg as fast as he could. He sprinted from the van before the wheels had stopped. Half-listened to his teammate, their voice even, the advice they were giving valid, if unheard. Then Thomas was gone, adrenaline already draining as the first limestone rock bit into the pad of his right foot, then his left heel. There would be no speed records broken on this course.
He shook his head to clear the cobwebs gathered there. It was a straight trail, there was no other path. The headlamp wasn’t dead, he’d just shut it off. The van would be there, otherwise they couldn’t continue on.
“Good job” came an exhaled word of encouragement over his shoulder. Somehow, he hadn’t seen the woman’s lights or heard her coming up on him. “Get your light on!” she tossed back over her shoulder as she bounded away, receding from Thomas with alarming speed.
It was then that he realized he could see movement on the horizon, lights traveling North to South. A bend in the road? There was nothing like that on the maps. He really was lost.
“Bridge is ahead! We’re almost there!” Another runner. Another kill for a team other than his own.
He could hear the murmur of the exchange, now. That rumbling disquiet as runners steeled themselves to fling their bodies down the road for miles on end.
Relief flooded in as the copse of trees ahead fell away to reveal the lights behind them. If his legs didn’t feel like someone had been beating them with sticks, he would better appreciate how quickly the swamp claimed the vestiges of civilization, how difficult it was to truly make a mark. This band of runners, these interlopers, could barely make a claim on this section. They were lucky if they could hastily mark a place to come in from the wilds.
Thomas fumbled with the bracelet on his wrist, locking it straight so that he could slap it on the next runner’s wrist. He reviewed the miles ahead in his mind. There was more to go. He could stop moving soon; but he wasn’t done. Not by a long shot. The Florida Keys loomed, the path to the Southernmost Point long and straight.
Runner 3 waited for him.