Friday, March 22, 2013
Slow and Steady
The race is on.
I hang back to take it all in and stay where the heat only touches the tip of my nose. The others, they jet forward.
Red and orange line the top and bottom of the cavern. Stalactites and stalagmites are like jaws ready to snap each of us into bits, and they will, one way or another.
There’s a girl beside me, taller, hair almost as red as our surroundings. From what I can see of her profile she has a purple splotch on one side of her face. One of her eyes slides to stare at me but I look away, back to the cavern, to the runners sprinting through the jagged ground not even thinking about the end of the course just pushing through.
“Idiots,” she murmurs at the same time I’m thinking it.
I’m about to send her a smile in solidarity but I hesitate. She’s in this for the same reason I am: to win, to save a life.
The first one falls, a shriek follows and arms disappear into the chasm. Someone else makes a wrong move too. A kid whose body is air-lifted, legs dangling wildly but he doesn’t scream. The saw-toothed rocks look wetter now, but there’s still a mix of red, orange, and now yellow as the sun peeks through the end of the course, teasing us with the promise of closure and a winner. The end is a small yellow dot miles away.
I’m glad at least the bodies are swallowed by the course, that we don’t have to see the fallen as we race, but there are still traces. And when, if, you reach the end there are those waiting on the other side where it’s bright and warm in a good way from the air and heat of the sun, not the growing humidity inside this dank place.
Outside will be the families of the participants waiting to see if their child wins. All but a couple will be let down and I don’t intend to see any more pain on my mother's face. But, most importantly, on the other side of all this will be the Enchanters. The Enchanters are nomads who drift from place to place, landing in a new town once a year and granting the chance to save a life. One life. They test the youths’ endurance, sheer will, but you have to be willing to play the game.
I think of Mom coughing up her own blood into a napkin outside. I remember her splattering our walls at home with it when she has a fit.
I try to get out of my mind and focus on the missteps being made. I watch the footing of one girl as the ground folds in, folding her with it. A bulky boy tries to jump crevices but there are too many. Another boy is quick, spry but not fast enough to avoid a falling stalactite that impales him. That’s when I notice what they’re doing wrong. I take a step forward and feel the heat push into me like a wall. I also feel the girl’s eyes behind me.
On the course the others are thinning out. I don’t hesitate, if she’s going to follow me so be it. I jump onto one jagged rock and hold on. I’m at a tilt but twist myself to the nearest one ahead of me and squat before hurling myself forward. I’m a few ridges in when I hear a huff behind me. It’s her. I keep moving, attempting not to go too fast so I don’t slip, but getting ahead nonetheless.
The girl copies my movements, she probably has an idea of what my plan is. She’s gaining, about to make another leap when a scream from farther ahead causes her to stumble. She’s an arm length away, one stalagmite between us. She looks at me, her eyes and mouth open wide. I jump to the pillar between us and hold out my hand in offering. She gulps before reaching out and just when her fingers snatch mine she releases the rock and I release her onto the ground.
I don't look back anymore as I hear the floor swallow her and her jumbled moans. I move forward. I ignore the yelps and cries in front of me and take my time once I know I'm the only one left in the race.
Story by Jenn Baker
Photo by Amy Parker