The Runner Who Smelled Purple

By Matthew Ulmer

1994 Man once thought everything was magic. When the world was dark, and suddenly a small golden orb hung light in the sky. When the land was dry, and a special dance could bring rain. When a woman was sick, and a concoction of leaves and roots could cure the illness. Then man learned of science. And of medicine. And magic went away. But it didn’t. It still exists, in some minds. For instance: when a baseball player swings a tiny stick and hits a tiny ball traveling ninety miles per hour, sometimes, it’s magic. Sometimes, when a baseball player focuses his mind, time can actually slow, so that the player can see the red stitches of the ball, spinning in a certain direction, coming closer, slowly, impossibly slow. And then that player swings, and the bat cuts through the air, and it moves fast, very fast, as fast as well-trained and well-toned arms can drag it, but the ball is slow, still slow, and upon impact, when the wood clacks against the ball, when the two expertly propelled forces meet, the spell is broken, and time catches up, and the ball rockets far far across a green field and over a wall and into the stands of fans beyond. And sometimes, that magic crosses over into other things as well. Like a boy, a young boy, who when he was even younger thought all people saw colors when they heard numbers. And thought all people could see bright shapes in the dark. He could, so why couldn’t they? Another magic trick, or a trick of science? He didn’t know then. Not when he was seven-years-old, at a shooting range, watching his father fire a revolver at a target. Not when he first experienced the sensation of slowed time. Pop.

The crack of the revolver split his head, made him jump in shock, every time it fired. Pop. The sound came again, the crack, the echo, and it made his skin turn pale with discomfort. Standing against the white booth of his father's favorite stall, he practically faded into the background, the few freckles on his cheeks seeming to rise off his skin and hover over the ground. Pop. Just like all the other times; it’d be dull if it weren’t so horrific, if the crack of the weapon didn’t make his bones shudder under his skin. Just like all the other times; but this time, different. An odd feeling, something he wouldn’t remember after the ensuing chaos. The first time he bent time occurred three seconds before his father's revolver backfired, bursting in the man's face and destroying his eyesight and leaving him a blind and bitter cripple for the remainder of his life. With hands cupping his ears, half expecting to find small rivers of blood dripping from them, this seven-year-old boy watched the chamber spin, saw sunlight glisten off the revolving metal, heard the chamber click into place. Then he waited for the crack, the shock, the jump. He stood ready to cringe. But the moment seemed to stall. He stared at the pistol, at the slowly spinning cylinder, and realized he could literally count the seconds. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi… Then the flash was so bright he had to look away. Thirteen Years Later The sun was orange. When viewed from the ground of the Nevada desert, it flickered like a golden flame, shimmering through waves of sky, and this special effect made the day feel hotter than it was; gave the impression that the sun was a giant gas stove cooking everything on the grill of the earth's body. The ground was brown. When viewed from the side of the road, the bruised and battered stretch of asphalt looked all the more dismal in contrast to the striking blue of a wide lake that ran alongside it. The sun above must have absorbed this lake's qualities

during evaporation, because it’s orange body did all the rippling while the cool blue surface of the lake remained perfectly still; smooth and wrinkle-free, the flawless face on a box of age-reducing makeup. A light wind built up from the depths of the planet and leaked out as a sigh from the earth's core. Hot, a burst of air from an oven, sending flecks of dirt skittering across the cracked ground. The dirt tossed about and kicked up and then something squashed it down; a foot, shuddering against the ground and lifting up again. Repeating. Hard, heavy thumps that slammed against the earth's skull and may very well have been the reason for its lazy sigh. Thump thump thump went the stomps of the solitary figure, crunching the dirt. One of the only sounds, those stomps. And the wind. And his breaths. Labored, but controlled. Systematic. His calf muscles sunk in and bubbled out like the throat of a giant toad, and his thighs rippled like a caterpillar's torso, and his legs formed a flawless semi-arch in their movement, reaching out for solid ground, hitting it, pushing off, and repeating, all while moving in opposite sync with the other. His arms swung in a similar arc, bent slightly at the elbow, pointing him in his direction, urging him onward with the chug of a locomotive's brass bar rising and falling to the spinning of the wheels. His head bounded up and down on his neck, hair flapping behind him, follicles digging into his scalp so as not to fly off. There was nobody in front of him. There was nobody behind him. There was nobody. As he let long strides carry him forward, he stared ahead at the lonely expanse of road, flat and clear, offering an unobstructed glimpse of miles ahead. Of miles of nothing but dirt and more dirt and the occasional small cacti. And that calm, still lake. It was the only thing to look at, that lake on the side of the road. The only thing to keep his mind occupied as he ran. And then he realized he was only trying to distract himself, and in the realization, ceased to be distracted. The reality of the situation became clear. It was hot, dangerously hot. And he wasn't sweating.

Even though he was three-fourths of the way through a near-marathon, his skin was dry; the air so hot that it caused his sweat to evaporate off his body the instant it formed. An odd sensation, to not be sweating in 100-degree heat. It caused a feeling of death, of running in a limbo; not heading in any real direction, not actually arriving at any place, just running, running, running for eternity. Heavy breaths, timed with each stomp of a foot. His body felt like it would never tire. His stomach – wouldn’t he need to eat or drink? No, if he wasn't sweating out liquid, he wouldn’t need to ingest liquid. Right? Right. He was just a wax figure, running mindlessly forward. Not from something. Not toward something. Just running. Just staring at the lake, the only thing that could distract his mind. But it didn't help much. Just as his body wasn't sweating like it naturally should, the lake wasn't rippling like it naturally should. It was resting perfectly calm, as if it had tensed in preparation for something horrible. If the lake were a living entity, it would be holding its breath. But of course, the lake wasn't alive, just like he wasn't alive. He was just a wax figure running through Purgatory. But wait, wouldn't wax eventually melt? Wouldn't it, in essence, sweat? Why was his body so eerily dry? His feet pounded into the dirt, his legs moving in a steady rhythm, a ticking even. A clock, running and running. Am I crazy? he thought. No, not yet. But still he stared at that lake and its unmoving water, like a sheet of ice, only brilliantly blue. He stared out at it, his legs never breaking stride as his neck tilted, and thought the following: Look at that perfect blueness. Look at it sitting there thinking it's so great. What a bitch. It's teasing me. That's what it's doing. It's taunting me. That bitch. It's laughing at me, and it's so arrogant it doesn't even need to ripple as it laughs. It's like the thing got plastic surgery. Like it's Botoxed. And even though it's laughing at me, its cheeks don't change. No ridges form in its skin. It stays exactly the same. Totally calm. It's Linda

Evans. No, Cher. No, it's God damned Joan Rivers. Its face doesn't move, because it's a damn Botoxed Joan Rivers lake. Damn you Botoxed Joan Rivers lake. Damn your creepy plastic water. My body is eating me alive and this damn lake is staring at me, laughing without moving, beckoning me to come drink from it, to prove that I have water to sweat out. No, it wants to prove that I can't win this race. It wants me to stop. To quit. It's trying to… Shit, now I am crazy. The soles of his shoes slushed against the brown gravel. Tick tock. Tick tock. His arms propelled him forward. A human locomotive. Chugga chugga chugga chugga. He laughed suddenly, a foreign noise that drifted across the endless plane. He tilted his head back and shouted into the nothingness. "Choo choo." He laughed again, and the sound caught in his throat, lodged just below his dried tongue. The words must have been holding daggers, he thought, because he felt tiny stabs inside his skin. Like his throat was about to erupt. And then it did. He felt his flesh melt away right where his Adam's apple used to be. He could feel a burn form and then slowly spread out. Could smell the white flesh quickly singeing black. He pictured what he must look like now, with a gaping hole in his throat. Perhaps it was still expanding, and eventually his entire body would burn to ash that would blow around with the dirt by his feet. Or maybe it wouldn't get any bigger. Maybe he would just look like a tracheotomy patient for the rest of his life. Can anybody see my tonsils? he asked himself. Step right up: just look straight through this big hole here and take a look at my tonsils. Are they infected? Should I see a doctor? Hey, while you're there, what does the bottom of my tongue look like? Or did that burn away too? I hope not, cuz I like to taste my food, and I don't think you can taste without a tongue. Course, it wouldn't do much good to eat if I have this big hole in my neck; the food’ll just fall right out. Probably land right back on my plate. Damn, that's $30 down the tube. Ha, down the tube. Just like the food going into and then out my throat. Plop, right down the tube. His eyes suddenly snapped open, as if he had drifted to sleep. But he was wide awake, he was running a race, and he was doing well, too. His throat hadn't burned away,

he was just thirsty. And there was something that could quench that thirst. Something right next to him, staring at him, unmoving. As the dirt kept circling his ankles, little brown handcuffs trying to hold him down, the lake wasn't moving. It was waiting for him. It was ready for him. Just one little drink. But then he saw something ahead of him. Not a cactus or a bush. It was a color, a solid blotch of color in a circle. He knew what that color meant. He knew what was in front of him. A person. There was a person in front of him, a woman. She seemed to materialize out of nowhere, to simply pop into existence, but she was there, really truly there; he knew it. And she was running forward, but her stride wasn't as strong as his; she was tired. He could catch her. Other colors materialized in front of him as well. A whole group of colors, different in their shades and in the sizes of the circles, but all there, clustered together. He came closer and saw that the one group was really two, flanking either side of the dismal road. Waiting. This was the end. The finish line. He'd made it. And he could pass this woman, he just knew it. The steady tick tock of his feet on the gravel quickened. His legs kicked furiously back and forth in that perfect arc. The muscles in his arms quivered, like a body with hypothermia. Cold from ice. The ice of a frozen lake. A lake that doesn't move. He ignored Lake Joan Rivers to his left and focused all his energy on that blotch of color that symbolized a fellow runner, and as he got closer, the blotch grew larger, and when he was closer still, he realized it was the most beautiful color he had ever seen; a powerful, vibrant blue that shamed and spat upon the dull-by-comparison luster of the lake. It almost slowed him down for a second. But in this sport, a second can kill you. So he quickened his pace, and pushed even harder, and felt his throat burn away yet again.

But it didn't bother him this time; an extra hole just meant that oxygen had an additional path into his body; more strength to run. So he ran, and he approached the woman, and he felt her head turn and knew her eyes were on him, but he couldn't risk moving his head, couldn't waste the inevitable change in pace that action would cause. So he stared forward, at the group of people ahead of him, and was amazed at how quickly he reached them. Legs spinning, arms pumping, the two posts of the finish line rushed toward him. His hands reached out. The people were there. The finish line was there. But so was that damn woman and her beautiful blue glow. No, he couldn't look over. He was so close. He was approaching. He was going to make it. Her eyes were on him. He wanted to turn, just one glance. But he couldn't. But he had to. And still the finish line was so close. And still that blue was so bright. Just one glance. No, he was at the end. There it was. This was it. He whooshed forward. Thirteen seconds later The man was a comma. Body curved at the waist, bent forward, hands resting on knees. He stared behind him, at two wide white posts jutting from the ground and reaching skyward, reaching nearly toward the sun, that orange lake that still shook and shimmered high above its perch, looking down on him. As it flashed in the heat, it looked almost like it was winking at him. "You beat me this time," it seemed to say. "But I'll get you eventually." Wink wink. There were a few things he knew for certain: he knew he was bent forward, and that if he tried to stand he would puke. He knew that his arms felt comfortable resting on his knees, and that if he tried to move them they would ache. Beyond that, however, everything preceding that feeling, everything that led up to the moment where he was bent forward experiencing the pain of exhaustion, was lost. He had no idea how he had gotten to this point.

But as he stared up at the sun, looking flat as a plate against the desert sky, he felt a sense of familiarity wash over him. I beat you, he thought, but beat you how? He remembered the sensation of heat blasting him in the face. He remembered the feeling of thirst as he ran across crunchy road. He remembered the temptation of the lake. What was so special about that lake? Ah yes, Joan Rivers. What had pulled me away from the lake? Ah yes… The girl. He remembered the woman. Gaining on her. Crossing through the threshold with her on his left. But what had happened next? A pat on the back. A clear bottle. Water dripping down his throat. My throat. Hands shot to his neck, discovered that the imaginary hole in his throat had closed. But thinking about it just made it harder to breathe, made each huff burn like fire was trying to escape his mouth since it couldn't escape through that hole. A person approached him from the back, slapping a hand on his shoulder to congratulate him on finishing, but he couldn't speak a thank you. He could only stand there bent over, breathing out fire. What happened? He realized he wasn't just thinking the words, he was trying to speak them. But nothing came out, and the person eventually disappeared into the cluster of people, leaving him there still wondering his outcome in the race. A wad of liquid built up in his throat, refusing to sink back down, and, having no sense that only moments earlier he had longed to put water in his mouth not expunge it out, he spit saliva and watched it sizzle on the black tar. Leaning closer, staring at the liquid pop and crackle, he noticed something deeper within it; a darkness visible through the white coating. It looked almost like a building incinerated in a monstrous wave of heat. It looked almost like the end of a civilization. Then he blinked and it was gone, the spit evaporated by the intense heat, the street completely clear as if he had never been there. And as the image faded, so did his desire to know the outcome of the race. It should have been eating away at him, he knew; it should have been chewing on his lower intestine and trying to gnaw through his stomach to form another imaginary hole in his

body, and maybe it had been; maybe that was what had caused the intense cramp in his side, but now it was gone. Now, he didn't care where he placed in the race, and what that did for his rankings. He didn't even care whether he had qualified for the circuit. Now, all he wanted to do was speak with the woman who produced the radiant blue light. As his breathing slowly eased, and the burn eventually cooled, he stood and searched for her, searched for that bright blue in the crowd. He saw many colors swirling around, bouncing passed each other, and then his squinted eyes finally focused on that unmistakable blue. It was moving away from him. He tried to dart after her, but the crowd was too thick, it pushed in on him, trapped him there, prevented him from reaching her. It was as if the group of people were collectively working to separate them, and then this thought was further solidified by the appearance of what looked like an FBI agent stepping up to him with a stiff hand held out. What's the deal with this guy? the young runner asked himself through pauses, as if even his brain were gasping for breath. What's the deal with this guy? as he stared down at the person in the black suit, at what looked to him like a reverse yarmulke; a perfectly circular bald spot within an otherwise heavy thicket of black hair. The deal with this guy, whose deep black eyes matched the deep black of his stiff suit, was that he had a job to do, and the allusion to the FBI wouldn’t have been too far off in his mind, because that job was to police the qualifying round of a professional racing league. And he took his job very seriously. His hand still hung in the air, and reluctantly, the young runner reached out and grabbed it. “Mr. Breckensaff,” the man spoke the instant their flesh connected. “Very honored to meet you. I'm Jim Donavan, the commissioner of this race." Whoopdie freakin’ do, Bradley Breckensaff thought to himself, and "It's very nice to meet you, Mr. Donavan," is what he said. "As you are no doubt aware,” Jim continued, “by placing twelfth, you scored no points." I'm aware that your bald spot’s freakin’ creepy, I can tell you that much. "This means you missed qualifying by six points.”

I won’t miss seeing your ugly mu…oh you gotta be shittin' me. He pulled his hand free from Jim’s grasp and rested it on his hip. "What does that mean?" he said in a high voice that spat the words quickly, as if afraid that lingering on them would just confuse him, cause him to forget what to say next. Jim found that he liked this voice, that it had a certain comforting gentleness to it, and the face that belonged to the voice was warm and inviting, the smile wide, as if greeting his closest friend after a long separation. Staring at this friendly face, Jim didn't like bestowing bad news, but he had a lot of runners to speak to that day, so he had to move on. "Danielle Friedan placed one spot ahead of you, and took the final qualifying position." Danielle Friedan? Is that the woman with the blue glow? "Of course, all hope is not lost." It sure isn’t, cuz now I know her name. "We are holding a wildcard race where the top three finishers will earn their way into the circuit." Brad fought to bring his attention back to the little man in the black suit. "Oh. Oh really?" "Indeed." Jim nodded his head authoritatively, clearly proud of his own statement. "May I presume you would like entrance into this race?" Brad could see a ring of brown around the otherwise white collar under Jim’s black suit, and wondered why this man could sweat while he couldn't. Because I'm dead, he thought. I knew it. Because I’m dead. Which means hell, I got nothin' to lose. He stared at the random bald patch within the thicket of thick hair and said, "Yes, sir, please sign me up." And Jim nodded once, and said, “Quite right,” and spun away, and glided on black shoes that shined in the sun like the glassy pebbles of his eyes toward a thin man just now tripping through the two white finish line posts that stared up at that damn burning sun. And so it was that, not five minutes after his last race, Bradley Breckensaff had to start thinking about training for the next.

Such is the life of a professional runner. Thirteen hours later The glass was uncomfortable. Cold and hard, flattening his forehead, as Bradley leaned against an oval airplane window. He stared at a cluster of passing clouds, watching their gray and white mist pulse with color as they absorbed the varied rays of the setting sun. Ah, the sun. That glowing orb that had served as the race's largest spectator was continuing to taunt him, this time by setting just as he had escaped its heat. It was sinking into the ends of the earth, and it was pulling its light down with it, bathing the world in a cool palette of blues and purples that would eventually fade into harsh black, bleeding as they plunged into the abyss. Brad found it impossible to sleep as he watched this action play out on the canvas of the nearby clouds. Every time he tried to close his eyes, something compelled him to pull them open again, to continue to stare out at the clouds, the light now popping off the cotton like faint explosions in the distance. When his plane landed in Philadelphia, all he wanted to do was collapse in his bed, but as he waited for his luggage to arrive on carousal seven, he felt a sudden shift in his stomach; a sharp stab of pain that migrated from his stomach down, forcing him to bend forward in frustrated hurt. The sky outside was dark, but the florescent lights in the terminal beat upon the inhabitants, providing dim, almost orange light, as if the sun was being blocked by nuclear fallout. The airport brimmed with life, but it was the walking dead type of life, with people shuffled along the dirty blue, almost black carpet in near comatose states, reaching dumbly for something that never seemed to be in their grasp, mumbling stupefied expressions that never seemed to be understood. Every once in a while a sinister audio recording would play from hidden speakers and tell everyone to, "stay with your bags at all time," and not to "let anything out of your sight." As he stood against a lifeless gray wall, he half expected to hear, "keep your luggage with you, but you can leave your brains with me. Mmm… brains."

He abandoned this post-apocalyptic illusion of the luggage carousel and searched for a bathroom, finally seeing, in the distance, down a sloped floor, the cartoon image of a white man with a floating head standing flat against a blue sign; the only splash of color in an otherwise dim world. Bradley pushed open the bathroom door, and its hinges bent like ancient unfurling fingers, and its joints creaked like old bones, and the door banged against the wall. Upon entering, he noticed a slight flicker of light pulsing from the back corner and was drawn to it as an insect would be pulled toward the glow of a bug zapper. His slow steps took him passed a row of sinks with a long mirror hanging over them, and his head turned to face the mirror, and his eyes absorbed his reflection, taking note of his hunched posture and his odd style of walking, moving his hips and swinging his arms perhaps just a bit too much. He didn't like what he saw before him: the high forehead and long, pointed nose; the overly wide mouth; the deep black mole resting on the tip of his top lip, bothering him with its unavoidability for as long as he could remember. Others often found him attractive, but he was either oblivious to their opinions or simply ignored them, and when he saw himself, as he did now through his sideways glance in the mirror, he perceived his features to be harsher than they actually were: his normal sized forehead became, in his mild blue eyes, a receding hairline; his arrow-head nose became a raven's razor-sharp angular beak; his slight mole became a massive tumor eating his entire face. He could look at that reflection and instantly pinpoint all the strands of dark brown hair that he thought were out of place, even when others would see no issue with how his hair lay across his scalp, parted on the left side of his head and pulling toward the ears, raised ever so slightly in the front. If he didn't have to go to the bathroom so badly, he could have stared at that hair for another ten minutes, working relentlessly to pull every strand into its proper place, and while some could take this for narcissism, they’d be wrong, for he would not be staring in the mirror out of any degree of self-worth, and he would certainly not be enjoying his own appearance; he would simply be worried that other people would take note of his sloppy hair and form a negative impression of him. This, of course, could be argued as its own version of narcissism – he did expect people to be staring at him, after all – but if he had ever bothered to see a therapist, he would have been told that he suffered from an ailment

quite the opposite of the one that plagued the ancient mythological figure who lost himself in his reflection in a lake. A lake that did not ripple, even as it laughed at the man in its own imagined way. But he had never seen a therapist, and he had no time to stop and obsess over the non-existent sloppiness of his hair: a sharp pain in the lower half of his stomach had to be relieved. And he therefore pulled himself away from his horrid self-image and focused instead on that flickering light, beckoning him toward it like the bug zapper. He followed its gravitational pull on him and moved directly under it, to the last stall in the bathroom, reaching for the handle, and as soon as his fingers touched the metal, a small burst of blue electricity jumped from the door to his skin, accompanied by a short pop that perfectly emulated the sound of an insect getting zapped. "Damn static," he whispered to himself as he stepped into the stall, letting the door bang behind him and then turning the lock and hearing it click reassuringly into place. He sat on the toilet seat and released a part of him into the water, staring down at the floor as he did this, focusing on the small white tiles around his feet. He focused and refocused his eyes, forming small shapes from the squares. If he looked at it one way, he saw a large diamond appear before him, and if he looked another way, he could see a clean zigzag pattern become clear. As he let his eyes pull out of focus, the tiles jumped out at him in a three-dimensional puzzle, and then a demon's face appeared within the squares, staring back at him with a grotesque smile that made his stomach drop along with his bowels. He shook his head to free himself of this image and stood from the seat and reached for the toilet paper, and just as he ripped a string of paper from the roll, the bathroom door banged open, and he plopped back down on the cold surface, and stiffened his back, and listened attentively as the new entrant moved toward him. And after a few biting clacks of heel on tile, marble brown loafers appeared next to his stall and turned to face the wall, and the sound of the man's pants unzipping seemed amplified in his head, as if projected through a megaphone and blasted directly into his ear lobe. It made him cringe. The loafers were too close, just a thin metal frame away, and it made Brad uncomfortable; invaded. Through running, he had learned to control his breathing, and he

used that skill now to keep his breaths short and quiet, as if he were trying to hide from his bathroom mate, as if he were trying to pretend that his stall was empty. Then the man finished urinating and re-zipped his pants and exited the room without washing, and when Brad heard the door close, he leapt from the toilet and wiped himself as quickly as possible and was pulling his pants to his waist when he heard the door open again. "Oh, come on," he mouthed to himself, and sat back down on the toilet, and impatiently watched dirty white sneakers embroidered with a blue Nike swoosh move passed the gap between his door and the floor. He heard the door of the stall next to his shut. Then he heard the lock. Then he heard the man sit down with a heavy sigh. "Oh yeah," the man exclaimed. Brad pulled up his pants and tightened his belt and darted to the sink, happy to wash his hands and leave this bathroom behind. Thirty-seven minutes later The bag was heavy. It slumped to the floor in a great thunk and left a thin rivet in his skin. “Uhhhh.” He shut and dead bolted the door. Arched his back into a deep stretch. “Uhhhh.” His feet barely lifted as he scraped down the hall, approached the first door on the right, eased it open. Through faint blue light he saw a figure bundled under the warmth of a heavy blanket, and he smiled to himself, and considered sneaking in and kissing the figure on the head. But he worried such an act might wake the person, and he wanted to keep this person sleeping even more than he wanted himself to be asleep. So he pulled shut the door and lumbered through the darkness to his own bedroom, and the heavy stone of his eyelids slid closed the instant he collapsed onto the bed, over the sheets, thinking fleetingly, but I really should change out of my cloth... His eyes snapped open what felt like an instant later. Ugh, it can't be time to get up already.

But then he realized that his heart was fluttering in his chest, and he wasn't sure why. Had he had a bad dream? Had he sleep-ran? The answer came to him a second later, as an odd scratching reached his ears. A gnarled grating emanating from the apartment’s front door. Thoughts swirled: a creature’s low growl, a swarm of insects, a lock being picked. The apartment door’s dead bolt turned with an authoritative snap. It sounded like a gun cocking beside his ear. Then the front door creaked open, and his lean, tired body stayed stuck in bed as if held by invisible hands. The floor moaned under the application of pressure. Once, a hollow cry, and then there was silence. His heart thumped in his temples. His back seemed glued to the sheet. Then another whimper from the floor. Louder, closer. Another heavy sigh – the floor crying, or crying out in warning – and he did nothing, unable to move, barely able to breathe, waiting for something to happen. And then something did. A white blur streaked passed his open bedroom, and the invisible arms released their grip as his body shot up, his heart slamming so hard against his chest that if he looked down he thought he'd be able to see a small rise in his flesh each time it hit. I should stay here. I should grab my phone and get under the bed and call for help, and not go after it. I should not go after it. He went after it. In his heightened exhausted terrified state, he slipped from the bed and grabbed the handle of a bat that leaned in a corner and pulled it toward his body in slow motion. He squeezed it so tight his knuckles turned white. Then Brad was out of the bedroom and turning the corner just in time to see the white image move toward the living room, its glow hovering like a lantern illuminating a dark forest, and though it appeared ghostly in the night, he knew it was a person, a natural living human being, because even as the white glow floated above the ground, the sound of shoes scraping the floor pounded into his head with a steady thud thud thud. The supernatural glow was nothing supernatural. It was the result of a neurological condition that caused Brad’s mind to project colors onto people; a different shade for each

person he met. "This is known as synesthesia," a doctor had explained to him two years after his father’s shooting range accident. "It occurs when two or more senses intertwine, or mix, meaning a synesthete – that's you, buddy – could literally smell someone's fear. You know, like what all those mean, nasty bad guys in movies claim they can do while snarling at the hero. Do you know what snarl means, pal?" Young Bradley Breckensaff snarled at the doctor. And then something thumped in his dark apartment, and he knew he had to protect the sleeping figure in his spare bedroom, and he lifted his bat and stepped forward. The putrid smell of fear swirled around him. Breath escaped his mouth in an acidy yellow mist, freezing the moment it touched the air. The faint aura of household objects reached out to him, shifting in the darkness, tricking his eyes into believing he knew where they stood. He shook his head with a vicious snap. His hands twisted over the handle of the bat. The outlines of objects bent and shifted around him. Call the police, you idiot. Call the police! But now he was in the middle of his living room, far from the phone, and he was nearly blind; all he could see was the yellow fog of his fear and the shifting silver wisps of furniture. So he put his trust in his ears, he closed his eyes and he listened, and crickets chirped outside, and wood scraped his skin, and the floor moaned under his feet, and something thumped ahead of him, calling him on. He should stop. He should turn around and barricade himself in his bedroom, or the bathroom, and call for help. He should. But something compelled him to take another step, and another, some outside entity, perhaps those same invisible arms that had held him to his bed, now pushing him forward, making him follow the glow as it disappeared into the next room, as it illuminated his couch for an instant before moving away and engulfing the furniture in darkness once more, etching a soft outline of the fabric into Brad's retinas. He had to keep going. He had to stop the intruder. He had to protect the sleeping figure, his father, no matter what.

So he took another step forward, and another. And then he heard a drawer in the kitchen open, close, open. Objects rattled around. The drawer nearest to his refrigerator, the long one that seemed to slide forever, slid forever, and Brad knew he had him, even screamed I got ‘em! in his head, but as he cocked the bat and turned into the kitchen, he saw nothing. The drawers were closed. The intruder had vanished. Then he heard quick footsteps behind him and spun to find the moon, large and round and full, staring at him through a tall window, blinding in its stolen light, glowing the same color as the intruder. And in front of the window, his own glow hidden within the moon's, stood that intruder, rigid body silhouetted by the light, transformed into a hulking shadow that glared down at Brad. As if attempting to warn him a second too late, the crickets outside amplified their song, and the harsh, electronic symphony exploded within his ears. The chirping of the crickets, or the creaking of the floor; a cry of warning. And suddenly the figure was closer. Its outline was moving, shifting – the thing was vibrating over Brad’s image, blurring in front of him as the crickets' chirping grew louder and louder. And then the shadow moved again, but not closer to him. Just a subtle shift, an arm raising, elbow bending ninety degrees, and in the darkness, Brad saw a short flash of light. He thought he screamed, but he wasn't sure if he actually made a sound, and then he wasn’t sure of anything except that intense heat burned through his stomach, and when he placed a hand against his shirt, he felt hot liquid pour onto it. Then he collapsed onto his knees. Then he fell backward, onto his back. He knew his head hit the floor, but he couldn't feel the pain. All he could feel was the powerful burning in his stomach, as if he swallowed napalm. The sound of crickets grew louder, a climactic finale, a cry of panic, an ordinary progression of a natural occurrence, as the shadow approached, grew in size, became finally clear, and it seemed familiar to Brad; he almost recognized the round cheeks and thin eyes, thought he could almost speak the person's name. But he couldn't think straight.

So loud, he told himself. So loud, he said in his mind, trying to ignore the pain. So, so loud. Then the face of the figure was over his, the top part of the moon peaking above it, serving as an oversized halo. And then the face moved again, came closer, blocked the moon entirely, and all sense of familiarity disappeared; the man became no longer a human being, but a demon, the monster from the bathroom. But it was crickets, not tile, that constructed the face; crickets piling over one another, scampering across forehead and cheeks and chin, making it change and contort in awful expressions. It smiled a crooked grin of glee and its empty eyelids shown pure white as it lifted a pistol from its side and aimed at Brad's forehead. The tip of the barrel caught the reflected light from the moon and shot it at him, tricking him into thinking the weapon had been fired, and he turned away with a grimace, focusing instead on the blurred green glow of the digital clock on his microwave. This is the last thing I'm going to see, he thought to himself. Time of death: 4:00 a.m. And he closed his eyes tight as he heard the awful chirping die away, to make room for the muffled sound of a silenced pistol yelping at him. When he opened his eyes again, he could still see the green glow of the clock, the thin lines like digital maggots converging to form the numbers 4:00. Why am I still alive? The question felt odd to him; it was one he never would have expected to ask. I don't understand. He realized suddenly that the clock was not telling him it was 4:00 a.m., but 4:00 p.m. The middle of the day. He also realized that thin slivers of light were bursting through his window blinds and stinging him in the face. But what about? When he sat up, he made another startling realization: he was in his bed, with the covers bunched around his ankles, and his clothes from the night before stiff from sleep sweat. You gotta be shittin' me. A dream?

Relief washed over him. Familiar, knowing relief, as if he were an amnesiac who had gone through this process many times before, and had only the faintest sense of déjà vu; like his mind was trying to grab on to an old piece of his life, like it was right there in front of him, just waiting to be touched, but he couldn't quite reach it, and before long, it was gone: he no longer remembered to try to remember it. He lay back down in bed, and with this new movement came a new realization: he had a terrible ache in his stomach, a searing burn right where he had been shot. No, not shot, that isn't right, he told himself. You don't know what you're talking about, his self responded. You’re me, so if I don't know, neither do you. Shut the fuck up. Ooh, touchy. He lay in bed and clutched his stomach. Part of himself was right: it was not a real pain, not something tangible, just a dreadful sense of anxiety; the feeling he got when about to plunge in a roller coaster, or speak before a group of people. It was the sense that something bad was coming, and he couldn't do anything to stop it. But he was fine, he decided. After all, he had survived a bullet to the gut. Sort of. No, he was fine. He was safe in bed, and everything was totally fine. And then he heard something crash in his living room. Twenty-one hours earlier A foot came down on an old dirt road. Dust particles loosened off the ground and floated upward, out of harm’s way. Another foot came down close to the first, and this time the dust was ready, scattering before it could be crushed under the sole of a dirty shoe. Attached to the shoe was a long, thin leg with a powerful calf muscle that contorted expertly as the leg raised and lowered, raised and lowered, pounding its foot into the ground again and again. Two legs working in perfect harmony with one another, stomping forward.

And sitting atop those two legs: the body of Danielle Friedan. And sitting atop that body: Danielle Friedan’s head, bobbing back and forth on a thin neck, thick lips whispering light words between quick breaths. "My humps." Breath. "My humps." Breath. "My lovely lady lumps." Breath. This was her pattern for running: keep her breathing in check by syncing it with a melody, never deviating from the beat, never fluctuating in the proper exhale of carbon dioxide and intake of oxygen. Breath, beat, breath, beat; a perfect symphony of action designed to keep her focused and relaxed and able to win races. But then something destroyed her clean rhythm. She heard him approach from her right, not realizing he was there until it was almost too late.

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