Last Sunday, Dwight Busby had been in the zone, feeling great, three-quarters of the way through a ten-mile training run that would bring him home in under an hour. He was unstoppable, a train barreling along the uneven sidewalk.
The endorphins hadn't just kicked in, they'd flooded over him, carrying him ever faster past the seedy storefronts and oil-stained parking lots that were the very heart of his hometown of Dagmar. He could kick it up a notch and run faster still, and nothing could stop him.
The Dagmar Dragons would host the District championships this year, and the team was talking about how the cheerleaders would be out on the course for them. Cheerleaders at a cross-country meet! It boggled the mind. He didn't need any new incentive to train his butt off, but he had to admit, that put the glide in his stride. Cheerleaders!
He liked his early Sunday runs because there were few cars and no pedestrians to dodge. He could settle into his zone, let his thoughts surf on the endorphins, and come out all the stronger for these bonus miles, snatched while his rivals were sleeping in.
As he passed through the choking, yeasty cloud that floated in front of Delaney's Bakery, Dwight saw a man kneeling by the sidewalk in the next block. The man seemed to be waving his arms over the path in some strange ritual.
Dwight was tired. He was coming up on eight miles, with the last seven or so quite brisk. He just didn't know that he was tired yet, and that's what this training was all about, wasn't it? So he barreled forward, even picking the pace up a step as he concentrated on maintaining his form and daydreamed about cheerleaders lining the finish chute at the District meet. And a tiny corner of his mind was still free to wonder what the heck was that guy doing, spreading his arms this way and that over the sidewalk? Casting some kind of spell? What's up with that?
As he drew closer to the kneeling man, he saw that a wooden frame bordered the sidewalk, and the surface of the path itself was smoother, darker and more pristine than any he had run over in all these miles. It looked as slick as the icing on a birthday cake.
But he'd taken five wobbly strides through the fresh cement before he understood the situation. The man's curses led him to this realization. And a glance over his shoulder showed a series of deep impressions left by his feet. Hey, it looked like a good, long stride, he thought, as he dodged the man's trowel.
By the time he got home, most of the residue had fallen from his shoes, and he was able to sponge away the rest of it.
That's why this weekend Dwight decided to take his run in the forest preserve, far from angry pavers, flying trowels and the heavy air of bakeries.
He could run the trails with his eyes closed, he knew them so well. And the trails let him sharpen his racing skills. Accelerate into the turn or up the hill: go faster when the instinct was to ease up. Little things would make the difference between winning and losing in the District meet.
Dwight settled into the seven-mile west loop that wound its way deep into the woods. The air was crisp, the trees were just turning and the rich, damp earth cushioned his feet.
Running through the red and orange blaze of the maple grove, he came out of a downhill twist, ready to power through the next, short straight patch, when he pulled himself up short.
A little boy sat on a fallen tree, kicking his legs idly against the trunk and humming something tuneless to himself.
The boy--maybe three or four (Dwight held a weak grasp of early childhood development) had a few wisps of blond hair, and eyebrows so fine you had to catch them in just the right light to see them at all. He wore a red Indiana sweatshirt, blue jeans with the cuffs turned up just right, and sneakers that doubled the size of his feet.
They were three miles from the nearest parking lot, and Dwight shook his head as if something had clouded his vision. He looked around but there was no sight of an adult, an older sibling, anyone who might have planted this kid on Dwight's path.
"Hey!" Dwight said, getting a grip on himself.
"Hey!" the kid said, waving.
"Are your folks around?" Dwight looked this way and that again.
Dwight bent over and took a few deep breaths--both to catch up from his run, and to consider what to do next.
"How did you get here?" is the question he settled on.
"How did you get here?" the kid asked back.
"I ran here," Dwight said, glancing at his watch. "I ran three miles. But that's a long way to walk."
"I can run, too!" The kid brightened up. "I can run fast!"
Dwight couldn't resist pulling rank. "Oh yeah? Well, I'm captain of the Dagmar Dragons cross country team!"
"Dragons don't have captains." This kid was no push-over.
"So," Dwight said after a moment. "What do you want to do?"
"What do you want to do?"
"I mean, how are we going to find your folks?"
"What do you want to do?" the kid insisted.
Dwight looked around again, still without seeing anyone. So he sat down on the log and played along, "I want to run faster."
The kid nodded. "You're a kite."
"The string goes here." Dwight flinched the slightest bit when the kid touched him on the sternum. "The string pulls you up."
"I thought the string keeps a kite from going too far off the ground."
The kid shook his head. "You're a ground kite."
"You're really something," Dwight said.
"Try," the kid insisted. "Run! Someone pulls string."
Dwight laughed, but the kid was looking at him as seriously as he could without eyebrows to furrow.
"Okay. Wait here." Dwight took a few easy strides and then was amazed that he felt like he could practically defy gravity. His chest lifted, his feet skimmed the trail, he sprinted without fatigue. He'd never gotten advice this good from Coach, the old son of a bitch.
But when he jogged back to the fallen tree, the kid was gone.
Hard to imagine now, but Dwight hadn't always liked running. In junior high, a lap on the track under the eye of a bellowing gym teacher was enough to do him in. But his older brother Logan won the varsity conference championship in the mile when Logan was only a sophomore. And that had been just the beginning of his brother's achievements.
By the time Dwight entered Dagmar High, Logan was a senior, getting write-ups in the local newspapers. Their parents weren't pushy, but Dwight idolized his brother, and somehow he found himself stumbling along Grace Street with Logan and four other varsity runners, half-way through his first one-hour run.
"Maybe we can go for a real run when we're done here," Eddie Sternbach whispered to Logan, but not so quietly that Dwight couldn't hear. His ears burned nearly as badly as his thighs.
"It'll get better," Logan said that night, as Dwight moaned in the bathtub. "You'll get better."
And so he did. Logan was always right. In a few months, Dwight could go an hour without stopping. Then he could pack seven miles, eight miles into that time frame. He still felt guilty about slowing his big brother down. It couldn't be doing Logan much good to run at Dwight's pace--he never even got out of breath.
"Don't worry about it," Logan said. "Just stick on my left shoulder. I'll break the wind. I'll be your human guardrail."
And that's how they did their early morning runs on the back roads of Dagmar for most of Dwight's freshman year. Looking back, he thought that was probably the best year of his life.
"Hanging in there?" Logan asked, looking over his shoulder just outside of Dagmar at half-past seven on a Sunday morning in mid-April.
They'd eased into a decent pace, and Dwight was able to croak, "Yeah!"
"Let's pick it up a little until we get to that red barn."
"Yeah!" Dwight croaked again. What else could he do?
Dwight fixed his eyes on his brother's shoulder to shut out the world and its doubts. Could he keep up this pace to the barn? That was a moot point if the world faded out and Logan's shoulder was the only thing that mattered.
Dwight's breathing grew deeper, a little more ragged. His stomach knotted and his arms grew heavy. But the rise and fall of that shoulder pulled him along, as if in a trance.
"Asshole!" shouted Logan, missing a beat and twisting to shove Dwight into the ditch. Dwight spun, tripping and thrashing his arms to break his fall. He heard the dull thud just as the ground knocked the last of his wind out of him. He rolled over and drew ragged breaths, trying to reorient himself, brushing the dirt off his arms and chest.
"Logan?" he called out, pulling himself up from the mud.
Dwight's history class had finally made it to World War I, and he felt like a doughboy peeping out of his trench as he climbed back up to the road. And the horror of war hit home when he saw his brother splayed at impossible angles on the asphalt.
"You're the man, Dwight," Coach said, flashing the stopwatch so he could see it. "I don't know what's got into you, but that's the best split Dagmar has ever seen."
"Thanks, Coach." Dwight knew enough to be wary of any praise from Coach. It always had strings attached. Why did adults have to be such jerks? Kids could be jerks, too, but at least kids gave it a rest once in awhile.
Still, Dwight knew he had been flying through the workout. And he knew why.
"You've got the magic feet today," Ronnie said, slapping him on the back. "What got into you out there?"
"It's crazy." Dwight shook his head. "I met this kid on the west loop last weekend, and he told me how to run faster."
Ronnie screwed up his face. "You met a kid on the trail? What kid? What are you talking about?"
"Just a little kid. I don't know his name. I ran the way he told me, but he was gone by the time I got back to him." Dwight's words slowed down as he spoke, as if he were listening to himself for the first time.
"You're weird," Ronnie observed.
"Yeah, well you're weird, and you couldn't outrun a barefoot fat man." Dwight punched Ronnie in the arm and jogged away, just now beginning to wonder what had really happened in the woods last weekend.
Their last dual meet pitted the Dragons against the Lowden Lions, a team they should have shut out in a heartbeat. But when Ferguson, the Lions' top runner came around Dwight's shoulder, there was nothing left in the tank.
"Looks like the Dragons are draggin' ass today," Ferguson shouted as he opened a lead.
A string of runners in the Lions' tan singlets followed suit, taking the Dragons' winning streak and stomping it in the dirt.
Afterwards, Coach, an unhappy man in the best of times, did not look pleased. He paced and spat and raised his face to an angry sky.
"What are you going to tell your families and your friends after this?" He barked. "Are you going to make up some excuse about why you lost? There's nothing worse than a liar and it looks like you've all been lying out your asses to me all season long."
Coach's eyes made a slow sweep of the team, sitting cross-legged, or with the knees pulled up to their chins. But none of them met that wrathful gaze.
"You told me you were winners, when it was easy," he snarled. "But things get tough and it turns out that was just a lie."
There was a long silence, but none of the runners needed to look up to know that this was not over yet.
"There was a time when being a Dragon meant being a champion," he went on. "Not so long ago we had a runner who was probably the best this state has ever known. You've seen the plaque on the wall--Logan Busby. Well, I guarantee he's turning over in his grave right about now."
Dwight stiffened at the sound of his brother's name. And then his own name.
"Dwight!" Coach shouted so that Dwight had to finally look up at that burning, twisted face. And he stared in horror at the business end of a gun.
"I am so disgusted I don't know whether to kill you, or kill myself." Before Dwight could even grasp what was going on, Coach raised the gun briefly to his own head, and then shot the starter's pistol into the air, causing the whole cross country team to either fall backwards or jump to their feet in shock.
"You'd best never lie to me," Coach said more softly now, stuffing the pistol back into his pocket, and making his way slowly back to the locker room.
Dwight needed a long, slow run that Sunday, to reflect on what had gone wrong, and how he might make it right before the District meet. Ten or twelve miles on the easy grades of the east loop would have been the perfect tonic.
Instead, he set out on the west loop again. And just like before, about three miles in, he pulled up short when he saw the little kid sitting on his log.
"What are you doing here?" Dwight demanded.
"I was here first," the kid pointed out. "What are you doing here?"
"So you've been here all week or what?"
"Here is where I am," he said. "Here is always where I am. Where are you?"
Dwight looked around half-heartedly for the parents.
"How old are you?"
The boy scratched his head, and looked off at a large black bird that seemed to be inspecting something very interesting in the clearing. "I'm three," he said at last.
"Well, I just turned eighteen, so you have to answer all my questions." Dwight thought he had him now.
"You're funny," the boy said.
"Where did you go last week?"
"Always here," he said. "You can be here."
Dwight pursed his lips and shook his head. He was used to hanging around with teen-agers. He didn't know how to deal with a kid like this.
"Look, you told me how to run faster, and I ran faster," Dwight said, getting to the point. "How did you know that?"
"I can run."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Dwight crouched to eye level with the kid. "Who the heck are you? Where are your parents? What are you doing here? And what else can you do besides sit on a log?"
The kid puffed up and folded his arms across his chest. "I can run real fast."
"And I can give you three things."
Dwight eyed the boy, and scrolled back through his own childhood. "You can't even count to three," he said. "Not at your age."
"Can too! I already gave you one."
"Right. So what kind of things can you give me?"
"What do you want."
"I want to see my brother," Dwight blurted, without even thinking. Before he knew it, he was wiping his eyes, and he was alone again.
When he finally dropped off that night, he and Logan were running along Grace Street again, Dwight lost in the rise and fall of his brother's shoulder on an early morning run. Their breathing, their arms, their strides synched up, mile after mile, and nothing could tire them.
But this time, instead of Logan's voice--"Asshole!"-- Dwight heard the squeal of rubber on asphalt, looked over his brother's shoulder, and tackled him so they both tumbled into the ditch.
"Asshole!" Logan said.
"I saved your life," Dwight protested.
"Yeah, thanks, but what about yours?"
And in the way of dreams, Dwight once again found himself grimacing at the business end of Coach's gun.
He woke up soaked in sweat. It was two o'clock in the morning on a school day.
He tried thinking about the cheerleaders along the finish chute at the District meet.
"Two, four, six, eight! Dragons gonna dominate!"
He finally drifted off just half an hour before his alarm blared. He was still rubbing his eyes when Teacher sprang a pop quiz in history class. It was going to be a long week, and frankly, Dwight didn't know if he would make it through until three o'clock Friday.
"This is what it's all about with running," he remembered Logan telling him. "You make yourself hurt, so that nothing that comes along can hurt you any more than that."
Logan had winked. "Pain is like money in the bank."
Dwight had tried to get Ronnie to go with him on the west loop that last weekend before the District meet.
"You are hallucinating if you think I'm going to get up on a Sunday morning and run through the woods looking for fairies," Ronnie said.
So Dwight started the west loop alone again. But when he got to the kid's tree, no one was there. He looked around and called out. Nothing.
At first, he felt abandoned, even betrayed. Then he thought maybe Ronnie had been closer to the truth--maybe he had been hallucinating. This abandoned kid, this gnome in the woods uttering cryptic messages--it sounded pretty crazy, once the merry-go-round stopped.
One last look-around, one last call-out, and he set off to jog through the rest of the loop.
A mile later, the trail wound around a granite outcrop, and that's where the kid waved him down from his perch on a gray boulder.
Dwight bent over and grabbed his thighs, although he wasn't tired at all.
"What the what?" he said as he straightened up. "How did you get here?"
"Here is where I am." The kid said and looked at Dwight as if he were incredibly stupid. "I told you. Here is always where I am."
If he were hallucinating, Dwight thought he might as well play along. It wasn't much different from dreaming about the cheerleaders.
"You told me you could give me three things," he said.
The kid nodded, looking a little impatient to Dwight's eye.
"You told me how to run faster, and I ran faster. I wanted to see my brother, and I saw my brother."
The kid drew little circles in the air with his finger.
"So I get one more wish?"
The kid nodded again.
Dwight had seen enough horror movies to know that the genie always had a way of parsing your desire for a disastrous result. Something wasn't right about this kid--beyond the fact that his eyebrows were practically invisible, or that he seemed to have no ties to anyone, or that he just appeared and disappeared in the woods.
So this was Dwight's moments of moments. He could ask for a million dollars. Or for a championship at the District meet. Hell, he could ask for the whole fleet of Dagmar Dragons cheerleaders to fawn over him forever.
Instead, he told the kid, "I wish you would leave me alone."
"You're funny," the kid said, pointing over Dwight's shoulder.
Dwight looked in time to see a big, black bird taking wing from a low tree limb. But when he turned back the kid was gone.
At the District meet, Dwight jogged with his team mates to warm up. They did a few wind sprints and stretched.
Dwight put on his spikes, took a few strides, and adjusted the shoes. Stride, adjust, repeat. He was a nervous wreck. He couldn't even lace his shoes properly, and he felt like he might puke at any moment.
They went to the line and he was aware of a murmur of voices, but they seemed so far away, echoing another place, and another time. He pumped his legs and bent over and shook his arms to work out any last kinks.
And then Dwight looked back at the cheerleaders who would be lining the finish chute fifteen minutes from now.
And he heard the crack of the starter's pistol.
About the Creator
Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Original narrative & well developed characters
Excellent take on the challenge
Very good and unique take on the challenge. Well done.
I appreciate the magical realism route (it IS still fantasy!), and the name of your main character, both of which you might surmise from my own submission. 😂 This is wonderfully written; it drew me in and kept me reading. I liked the mystery surrounding the toddler—his odd turns of phrase and barely-there eyebrows. I'm curious about some of the symbolism around the coach's gun, the black bird, etc. Are they all sort of centered around Dwight's pre-race jitters, or is there something in the nuance that I've missed on my first go-through? I'll have to read it again with more intention, and I definitely want to! Well done. :)
Definitely a different take but I feel like your story holds up well against the fantasy dragon stories. I think the kid was what drew my attention the most. Cryptic, wish-granting kids from the woods would certainly set off red flags for me. Thank you for sharing your approach to this challenge!!
Such a cool story! It had so much mystery. Loved the way you incorporated the flashback as well. Great work :)
Yeah, great take. Fun to make it different
This was really well written, and I appreciate this story not being your typical dragon story. Great work!