When I leave the kill floor, my legs are wasted. I shuffle to the women’s locker room. I can’t stand anymore, but I know if I sit, I’ll never get back up. At least, not for another hour.
I prop myself up on my open locker. My hands are shaking, too. My fingertips are blue, my skin receding from chawed-down fingernails.
“You don’t look good.” Shell, one of my training partners, spooks me from behind. Her blonde hair is half-brown with sweat. “You can’t afford to train this hard, Coach. You won’t have anything left for the race.”
I don’t meet her eyes. I can’t. She’s right. But she’s also wrong. I know my body. I’m so far gone that I have to win the cure. If I don’t at least place, I probably won’t survive Race Day, even if I stop training for the next two weeks. Placing in the top three means two shots of the good stuff. One for me, one for Honey.
I straighten up, push my sopping curls off my forehead, and smile. “I just need to eat.” And curl up in a corner to die. Plenty of time for that later, though.
“Here.” Shell hands me my water bottle, refilled. I must have forgotten it on the kill floor. I dump in my usual post-training powders: the medrazine to steady the shakes, peradone for the pain I can already feel radiating from my quadriceps and up my spine to throb in my temples. And, of course, a standard berry-flavored recovery mix to wash it all down and make me forget that I’m training for the last chance to save my sorry life.
“Where’s everyone else?”
“Rowboat is stretching. You should, too. You can’t nag me about yoga and then skip out.”
I wince. But I can’t stay. I’m half a minute away from fainting or vomiting and it’s all I can do to keep one Shell in focus. “Gotta get home. Honey’s waiting and I have to plan Little’s workout for tomorrow.”
Shell smiles. I swear, you’ve never seen so much love and pain in one look. “Go easy on her.”
“Since when do I go easy?”
Shell snorts. “Start tonight. I’m gonna tell Honey to dump your ass on the couch and sit on you. Rest. We’ll clean up the floor.”
And that doesn’t sound half bad, honestly. I make it a plan. Her skin is clammy with sweat when we hug.
Even though we call it the kill floor, no one’s died there. Not yet. Every day we train, though, we pull the disease a little closer to us. We, me and Shell and the others, take a calculated risk to train for the Race. Training accelerates the disease, but it makes us stronger, faster, when we have to hit the dirt and drag ourselves to the finish line.
This is not my first Race.
The night doesn’t go as planned.
Honey takes one look at me and says she’ll make dinner.
I use the railing like a cane, all my strength bent to keeping my feet for one, two, three, four. Five, six, seven, eight, nine. Ten, eleven, twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen stairs. My hips scream at the end, without the railing to support my weight. My desk, on the other side of the office, is impossibly far from the doorframe where I gather my strength.
It can’t be more than five steps away.
I don’t make it.
The carpet is thin and cheap and rough against my cheek, but clean. We only rent, but it’s a nice place. It smells like Honey vacuumed it while I was gone.
“Honey?” I call.
It takes a long time for the lightning pain in my ankles, knees, hips to dissipate to a dull throb. When it finally does, it only takes a ginger test, pushing myself up, to send it flaring back. Bright and illuminating. With my eyes closed, I see: constellations of my future—the hero, the lover, the companions, the enemies to slay.
Her footsteps on the stairs, then, “Ah, shit, babe.” She wedges under my armpit and helps me drag myself to—she angles me away from the bedroom. “Nuh-uh. You smell.”
I sit on the closed toilet while she runs hot water and dumps in epsom salt. I crawl into the tub and sink down to my neck, eyes closed, legs crossed to keep them in that glorious heat. Honey sighs and I raise one eyelid.
“Hm. You know what ‘hm.’ Is it worth it?”
“It will be when we can be happy and alive together. You can dance again.”
“Or you race yourself into the ground and I’m heartbroken and alive alone. If you stop, you can level out. It won’t be a long life, but we’d stress less.”
I close my eye. The minutes draw on, and then she leaves. I can almost hear her shaking her head.
I pick up Little when she gets out of school and take her to the kill floor. Before I get the fans turned on, she’s monkeying across the wall.
“Hey, punk! Get down here!” If she falls and breaks her neck, Shell’ll break mine and Honey will let her.
I think of my own fall on the carpet at home; my body is still sore from the impact. The drugs helped me sleep, though, and I feel better. All the same, I’m happy to take the day off.
Little will be eight in December. As she scrambles down at my orders, I watch the play of her small muscles, so young that they don’t even look like muscles, just smooth skin. That doesn’t stop her from flexing a junior bicep when she lands in front of me.
I secure her into her harness and make sure our carabiners are locked tight. “Ready, punk?”
“Aye, aye, captain!” She salutes me.
And then she’s racing up the wall, thinking through puzzles and struggling to reach holds she has no business reaching for, and I am most definitely not crying.
We train without incident—without major incident—for the next week. But Race Day creeps toward us. We all manifest anxiety in different ways. Shell hasn’t been eating. She bonks through sets she used to crush. Rowboat eats even more, hoping another protein shake or spoonful of peanut butter will grow new myofibrils out of nowhere. I know what my problem is. We all do. But I ignore it.
Six days out, we’re at the kill floor again. We just finished our windsprints. I beat everyone, and the air I pull into my lungs feels purer than anything I’ve breathed in weeks. It might be my pre-workout, kicking me into overdrive. It might be fear of my own inadequacies being my downfall.
I hunt for my climbing harness and everyone snaps out of the post-set stupor.
“Coach.” Rowboat’s hands are on his knees as he huffs for breath. “Shut that shit down. You just ran—a mile’s worth of sprints.”
I didn’t need him to tell me that. I calculated our needs the night before, our weak spots. I accounted for his lack of stamina, for Shell’s lack of speed. My pain. Our weakness will come with us to the race. The wall will be there, too, and I need to be able to take it.
I slap the gray wall with the flat of my palm. “Just one time, quick. Promise.” I let Shell double-check the harness. We won’t have harnesses on Race Day, but that doesn’t mean I want to tempt fate sooner than I have to.
Shell glances back anxiously at Rowboat, up the wall, and back to me. “You want me to belay?”
Rowboat growls and snatches the biggest harness we have. “I got it. But if you hurt your dumbass, Coach, I swear to shit—” He grumbles as he shimmies and buckles himself in.
I shake the lactic acid out of my legs and swing my arms across my chest. It makes me wonder what it would be like to stretch wings out and soar across open sky. I imagine it feels like sprinting, nothing in my way but the air on my face.
The colorful rubber is rough under my fingers. I think of Little, and try to imitate her gibbon’s grace. Each contraction of my lats pulls me higher and my biceps thrill at their strength. My legs forget their fatigue and I’m—
I’m a goddamn orchestra.
Until I’m not, and numbness webs across my back, a note out of tune. Maybe it started in my fingers and I didn’t notice and now it’s too late.
“Row—!” My scream starts but doesn’t finish. My legs are gone and I catch a face full of bright pink handhold before I bounce away again.
Below me, Shell is shrieking. I crash again, arms useless to push me away. They shout below, only blurs as Shell scurries and Rowboat lowers me.
“I’m okay,” I slur, lying on mat-covered ground.
“I’m calling an ambulance—”
They stop at my outburst.
“I can’t afford it. And if they lock me down there, I won’t get to race.”
No one tells me I shouldn’t race anyway, not in this condition.
I’m dying. We all are; it’s the only condition. Degeneration from the inside out, one broken down cell at a time. I’m just a lot farther along than anyone expected.
No one can voice it.
Now the rest of the kill floor knows it, too.
The day before the race, Honey and I host the crew’s traditional last supper.
Shell comes with Little and a bottle of fancy sparkling water since no one drinks, not even Honey, who doesn’t even have her race performance to worry about; Rowboat shows up with an armful of board games; we eat pasta with chicken and fancy Kalamata olives, heavy on the pasta, except for Little, who pushes all of her olives to the edge of her plate so I can steal them, and I return the favor when she wants to steal bites of my chocolate cake; it’s this same cake that Rowboat sneaks a third piece of—half of a third piece, since I manage to snag a hunk of it and run away with my mouth full to hide behind Honey, who’s strategizing with Shell over their half of the co-op game; but Honey gives me that, “not my circus, not my monkeys” look, so I hide behind Little instead, and Rowboat tackles her with tickles until she yells, “I’ll pee on you, I’ll pee on you!” and laughs even harder; of course, I do, too, and chunks of chocolate cake land on Rowboat’s cheek; and then we’re all laughing and the game’s forgotten, and the race is forgotten, and the pain’s forgotten, too.
Finally, they leave Honey and me alone.
The house should feel too quiet, like the blood’s been let out of it, but it doesn’t. It feels like burrowing down to your ears in a blanket your grandma made you.
I don’t want to tempt the ache in my body, but I don’t want to die tomorrow without remembering the good things my body does. So we’re two bodies, in flexion, extension, the slow eccentric stretch and the isometric clenching hold, over and over, until we can release.
When I fall asleep, I dream of falling off the wall.
The next day, Shell, Rowboat, and I march to the starting line like pallbearers. Some of my other gymrats are there, too, young enough that this race is just a trial for them, to help them strategize future runs. There are so many of us for one city. Eligible entrants between eighteen and forty, no criminal records, no outstanding government debts, etc, etc, etc.
Honey kisses me one more time, while Shell squeezes Little until the little girl complains—then Shell squeezes some more. Then Honey takes Little to get popcorn and wait.
I breathe. I check my shoes. Breathe. Squeeze Shell’s and Rowboat’s hands on either side of me. Breathe. Release them.
The starting horn blows.
I surge forward, hoping to get just far enough out of the press to pace myself I’m hit pushed scratched the blood tickles I’m shoved and tripping and sliding in my tennis shoes across muck that smells like cow shit smeared on someone else’s calf unlucky they’ve fallen and probably won’t get up for a while and I didn’t stop to help them up, there just wasn’t time to do anything but dodge an elbow cracks into my jaw I’m still standing I think I’m pulling clear and sliding again one foot two foot feet three across more mud and into the first obstacle a foxhole so close close close forward someone on my ass but really just my feet and elbow by elbow I drag myself forward and fuck but how did I forget how dark it would be get a fucking move on he says to my feet fuck yourself I yell go die he yells you first I yell and then the sun is out again and I push myself up don’t let that shit hole pass you, don’t let him and I keep ahead two steps his arm flies for me as he passes I dodge left mark him with his yellow laces gray shoes perfectly bifurcated calf muscles I hope he tears with a matching yellow watch telling him everything how fast how long how far where on earth where in the race pace split pace how many goddamn heartbeats he’s wasting—
I know none of that. Only what my heart is whispering to my throat, the hurried message, “Isn’t this fun, my love? You perfect thing?”
My throat growls back, a laugh—yes. Yes.
I don’t register the obstacles until I reach the wall. I have to crane my neck to see the top. Four stories easy. Maybe more. A wall built to keep people out. Shoes slick with mud. Hands dry thanks to the terry cloth wristbands. Black. I swipe my hands on them one more time and then I go.
There is no feeling in the world like knowing the only thing in the world between you and a plummeting death is your own strength.
There is no feeling in the world like knowing that, and knowing your strength cannot be trusted.
The thought freezes me, two and a half stories up, hand cramped like a dead spider and all I can think of is how badly I don’t want to die in cow shit. Better a hospital bed. My couch, next to Honey. Crushed under a bar on the kill floor.
Someone passes me. “Let’s move it, champ, you got this.” He wears ratty shorts but almost-new shoes. Good luck charm and a sensible breaking in period. He doesn’t reach out with his hands. He doesn’t need to.
“Closer to the top than the bottom,” someone else grunts. She’s got a shaved blonde head, a black headband, already looks like a skull.
They go. Uncurling my fear-clamped body, reaching up, it is amazing. It is awful. I hear them whoop, I don’t know who, and then we are going, all of us are going.
When I finally drag myself over the top and rappel down the other side, my angels are gone. I don’t pass her until the monkey bars from hell, wet slick and wobbling. I pass him at the net crawl, where he fights to unsnarl his almost-new shoe from a loop.
I catch up to Shell and together, we slide unbelievably into the top four. Number one gases out, slows to a broken jog as he sees us coming. Too fast out of the gate. Not my business. Not his Coach. His wide eyes roll with horse-fear as he watches us take his chance. My chance. Our chance. If we take second and third, that’s four shots, four cures.
The other one jerks and shudders at the live wires. Too wet or too much zing or a weak heart. Short hair on end. The shock burns, grabs me and holds me still for one, two seconds, and then it’s me and Shell and the mudpits and a straight shot to the finish line on the other side.
Only she’s not beside me as I wade through the sucking expanse of water like chocolate milk. No yelp, the earth didn’t bubble after it swallowed her—she’s just gone.
“Shell?” I yell. I swish my hands in the water, reaching for a waterlogged ponytail, a bra strap, anything.
Someone else—yellow-laced bastard with perfect calves—crashes through. He spares me half a glance before stalking through, the mud sucking at his thighs. And then another comer, blonde skull woman. This time, she doesn’t look back.
Still no Shell. I don’t know why I’m still here. It’s a matter of life and death. If she’s stuck under this muck, no air for—how long? I calculate the wasted seconds of my lead.
She isn’t in the mud. She can’t be. And I don’t have it in me to go back.
Another runner comes for my pit. I roar at them, guarding my territory.
What good is this body if I can help no one else? What good is this work?
One leg is an iron barbell, the other one is numb. Me and Wannabe Third Place come out of the mud at almost the same time. Almost.
They beat me out of the water.
My gooey fingers catch their singlet by both arm loops and I pull, pull, pull. We slip under the muck, together.
Everything goes mud and sputter and cough as we wrestle in the pit, but it’s not me putting out less and less fight with every gasp of shitty water. It’s not me who goes still.
I drag my sorry carcass out of the sludge without looking to see if they crawl out. I walk.
Family members shout for their loved ones to run faster, to overtake me. Did Honey just watch me kill someone? Does she care if I did?
Who else will I kill, just by winning?
Shell. Rowboat and maybe every other kill floor buddy I have.
But I can sleep the night through. Honey and I can make love anytime and nothing will hurt. We won’t taste the breakdown of our bodies in our sweat.
I stagger across the finish line and drop to my knees.
Mud drips off my body or clings in sticky clumps, like a smeared diaper. I smell like one, too, if cows wore diapers.
On my hands and knees, I finally look up. Rowboat has Shell draped around his shoulders as they cross the finish line. They don’t bother to run. There are no more prizes.
And there’s Little, grinning as she bear-crawls toward me. Like this is all a game the grown-ups play, a game that she’ll get to play, too. She writhes like a spider above the ground, small fingers splurging mud, miniature shoulder muscles flexing on her slight frame. She’ll be a compact athlete, like her mother. Sometimes, the light ones with endurance are the winners. Sometimes they aren’t.
The victors’ tent is full of nurses, all sterile, sharp needles and sharper smiles. They usher my family in behind me, Honey’s arm on my sweaty, muddy back as I limp.
They guide me into a chair, and a nurse tries clear a patch of skin on my flaking-dirt arm. I can’t feel her scrape at me, but I jerk away anyhow.
“Her first.” I point to Honey.
The nurses share a glance, shrug, and give Honey the shot instead, a swipe of alcohol and jab before she can protest.
The shakes start up in my torso. I put my usual powders in my water before the race, but—it was a long race. Maybe I’ll pass out before I can make the decision, and they’ll shoot me up regardless. No.
“Hey, Little. Auntie’s big girl. You’re not afraid of needles are you? Take Auntie’s shot for her?” I pull her up onto my lap.
Honey’s neck stiffens with fury and she’s working on spitting something out at me, at the nurses, at Shell—but I shake my head.
“Let her have this,” I say, though I don’t think anyone else hears.
Honey won’t forgive me, but at least she can find someone else after I die. Someone who listens better.
Little bites her lip when the needle goes in. I pull her closer and press my nose into her soft curly puffs.
I open my eyes when someone clears their throat. My family is watching Yellow-Lace Calf-Bastard, standing awkwardly in front of us with one of the nurses from his side of the tent.
He looks healthier than anyone has a right to be but that’s no surprise, not with gear like he has. Still, his brown eyes sit in haunted pits and I wonder what his training has been like.
“My—I signed up—this was for my mom.” He points to his nurse, who holds a capped needle. He blinks hard at the ground. “She didn’t make it.”
I stare hard at Shell. She hesitates for just a tick, but she can’t hold up under my Coach glare. It’s the same look I give her when she tries to push through an injury. Ironic.
I hear Rowboat’s heavy sigh as Shell gets her shot and I don’t know if it’s jealousy or relief, but I feel it, too. Little’ll grow up. She’ll live and love her body without any of this pain, and her mom’ll be there for her.
And Honey will live long enough to love and dance again.
Next year, me and Rowboat’ll try again. Us and all the people I left behind in the mud today.
If we survive long enough.
But even if we don’t, even if I die tonight, on that couch, in Honey’s arms, it’s worth it. I stroke Little’s hair with a trembling hand, and kiss her head one more time.
Another throat clears, barely a scrape in the air. The nurse holds her lab coat open and two more needle plungers peek out of an inner pocket. Her gaze flicks sharply between me and Rowboat.
The nurse puts a finger to her lips. “We do what we can.”
© 2020 C.L. Clark