FICTION FRIDAY: “Race”

I’ve lived a really good life, looking back now that I’m at the end of it all, and the only real regret that I have is having spent so many of my early years running. Back then, Maggie and I were outrunning Death since day one, and we were good at it. Even before the earth started to rot, Death tried to swipe both of us up on multiple occasions. It was always her and me. Just us. Only us.

In middle school, she nearly drowned in my family’s lake, and I barely managed to pull her out in time. She repaid me years later by not leaving my side during a particularly bad DMT trip. When I woke up, she kissed me on the cheek, and I told her I loved her. We were always friends, but something about that mutual exchange wordlessly sealed a pact between the two of us. That is: “I’m here until the end.”

We were never dumb enough to call ourselves invincible but plenty dumb enough to act like we were. I gambled with drugs, and she just wanted attention. We were both fucked up in our own ways, but Maggie always bounced back faster than I ever could. She had the shit beaten out of her on a near daily basis when she was younger; I guess she had to bounce back. What other option did she have? We all cope differently, I guess, but if you were to ask either one of us, we would have said that I was going to kick the bucket first. She knew she was reckless. She just didn’t care.

I, on the other hand, was trying to destroy myself, and I had no idea why. The only thing I knew was to check over my shoulder to make sure Death wasn’t too close.

A week after my high school graduation, we threw everything in the back of my SUV and disappeared into the east horizon. We both had baggage at home that we were ready to forget: neglectful parents, parasitic friends, bad faces, and even worse actors. The thought of a fresh start in a new city was too alluring to pass up.

“We might not get this chance again if we don’t do it now,” I told her, “All of our friends said they were going to leave ‘next year,’ and then they got hitched or pregnant this year. Life is just a steam roller that will smash you into the pavement if you don’t stop moving.”

We wandered around for a good, long time as vagrants, and I picked up odd jobs here and there to pay for gas and food. For how little we had, we were surprisingly happy.

Then the accident happened.

I was drunk. I was high. I was out of my mind in the worst kind of ways, and luckily, Maggie was with some new friends we had made there in Kentucky. Honestly, I don’t even remember running off the overpass; hell, I barely remember putting the keys in the ignition.

That was the first time I actually met Death. He was outside the window, standing there in beat up sneakers and a canvas jacket sporting a white patch that read: “Uh Oh!”. I was upside down, neck cocked unnaturally under the weight of my body, and I watched grease drip from the smashed hood of the SUV as I hung there in the tension of my seat belt.

“This is a big mess,” said Death. I couldn’t speak, but I could see him crouch down, elbows propped on his knees, “You’re a mess too. You pissed yourself.”

With a grip like a vice, he yanks me out of the wreckage in one swift motion. I can feel the grinding of my broken bones crunch and crackle up my spine. Blood is oozing from my mouth, and both of my legs are twisted and angled in ways that don’t even seem possible. He rolls me on my back, and I get lost in how white his teeth are.

“If you are wanting to kill yourself. Just kill yourself,” he says with all the sincerity in the world, and all I can manage in reply is a blink. “Nah,” he follows with a wave of his hand, “I’m not here to kill you. I only show up after all that business is settled.”

I blink.

He laughs, “Right? I know. I get a bad wrap, but I’m basically just a glorified taxi driver, getting people to where they need to go once they start on their new path.”

I blink.

“But not this time, my guy. This time I’m here to pick a bone with you,” he sighs as he sits beside my battered, gasoline soaked body, “Too many close calls, dude; you gotta stop teasing me like this. It’s not a race.”

I blink.

“She’s going to go first, anyway. I know you can’t bare that thought. I know you want to beat her there, but that’s just not how things are going to pan out. How about this,” he mumbles as he hoists himself to his feet, “I’ll let you be there for it. I’ll even give you the chance to say goodbye. Seriously though, clean it up, dude. You look ridiculous.” He is walking off when the first ambulance arrives, and over the blare of the sirens, I can barely hear him yell, “Bye bye.”

I cry.

The doctors won’t let Maggie in when she arrives with our friends; they say I’m barely hanging on and wouldn’t be able to handle it. I was too tired and drugged up to open my eyes, but I could hear her moaning and pacing just outside the room. Our friends plead for a long while, and the last thing I remember before the coma set in is smelling Maggie’s hair when she crawls into my bed.

The coma was cozy in a lot of ways. It was quiet and warm; sometimes I could hear ghostly, familiar voices reverberate around the darkness. However most of the time I was just locked inside the crystalline silence of my broken mind. It was lonely. That was the worst part of it all: the solitude. At first, I tried to stay sharp with mental exercises and mantras, but thinking felt more akin to trudging through trenches of molasses. Eventually, I was too fractured and under stimulated to even remember how to think. Death wasn’t even there to run from anymore, not until I woke up.

I came to in my childhood bed. It felt like waking from a dream into another dream full of sensory overload. Everything was so loud, so pungent, so bright, so painfully vibrant. After only a few minutes of consciousness, I fell back asleep for a short while and woke up again that night to the metronomic bleeps of the EKG machine. I ventured another peak into the world of the living and caught my breath. There she was, waiting after who knows how long, waiting because she couldn’t leave me behind.

Death was there too, stroking her muzzle, “Hey, sleepy head.”

Maggie wags her tail, and we lock eyes.

Death guides my hand onto her face, “She stopped in her tracks when you did.”

“When?”

“Years ago,” he says as he helps me scratch her ears like she always liked, “She knew this wasn’t a race either, and even if it was, no one wants to be the winner.”

She wags her tail.

“Years?”

“Three years and two months,” Death lets go and gives me a moment of silence before speaking again, “It was going to be four years and seventeen days, but I pulled some strings. I made a promise after all.”

Maggie breathed shallow sighs that blew ripples in the sheet beneath her nose. She looked happy. She looked old.

I could feel sweet sadness well up in my eyes, “Where is she going?”

“Wherever she wants. Her path has really only just started; she has a long way to go, just not here.”

Tears stain my tongue with the taste of salt, “Is she scared?”

“We are all scared, and that’s okay.”

Her tail stops as she lays her head on my lap.

I stare Death in the eyes, depriving myself of Maggie’s somber glances, “Is it going to hurt her?”

“She hurts now. She’s ready, I’d say, ready to run again,” Death offers a muted chuckle that fills the room with the scent of lavender and goldenrod.

It takes me a couple minutes to finally say goodbye, but when it comes out, it rings like the shot from a starter pistol.

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