Silence. A single breath cuts through the silence, and then again silence. Two labored breaths begin a rhythmic pant that strips away the silence, getting louder until you wish the silence would return. But it is too late. The silent is gone.
In, out. The breathing is heavy. It’s measured and patterned. It purposefully inhales and exhales. It is in control.
‘Just breathe. Just breathe,’ the runner thinks.
A crackle joins the breathing. It’s a crisp crunch of dried something; wheat, perhaps? Maybe stones?
‘It’s the sound of stones cracking under my feet,’ the runner thinks. ‘I’m running away from something and I have to keep running,’ the runner realizes, before he wonders why and slows to a stop.
The exhausted runner leans over to catch his breath. From above, he is just a dot, a speck of stillness in a field of movement. The grass around him sways. The air thickens with a red haze that slowly creeps toward him.
Feeling a chill, the runner stands. Terror washes white across the runner’s face as he remembers why he was running. He quickly looks around. It’s too late. The horizon has faded away and the grassy field is following. In a second, the entire earth vanishes and all that’s left around the runner is darkness.
‘It’s coming,’ he realizes as the darkness rumbles.
Turning toward the sound, he sees it. It is like death. In its majesty and feel, in its shape and size, it is like death. But it isn’t death. Instead, it glows red. It is like death but red.
The runner fights his panic and again runs. That-which-is-like-death disappears. The earth and sky return. The darkness is replaced by running and the runner again feels free.
With no one chasing him, he begins to understand. Running is freedom. To stop running brings death. No, it brings something like death. Running is freedom; not running is like death.
He must keep running and running. When he is tired, he must keep running. When all hope is lost, he must keep running.
‘I can’t keep running,’ he thinks.
The runner looks ahead and sees a building. It’s a factory in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a fence. Knowing he can’t keep running, he plans his escape.
Approaching the chain link, he jumps. Grabbing the jagged metal, he climbs. It tears the flesh from his hands leaving the links blood-soaked. But moving up is not moving forward, so everything around him fades.
Darkness returns. With it comes the rumble that thunders like a stampede. The Red Reaper, that’s all like death but not, all like fury but not, approaches. With its sickle in hand, it aims. But when the runner throws himself forward over the fence, it again fades away.
The runner, crawling forward, leaves a blood trail as he escapes the darkness. In front of the factory’s wall, he stops. The darkness returns, but this time the Red Reaper isn’t alone. Scores of black-cloaked, mini deaths line up beside the runner and attack.
The runner spots a ground-level window. Crawling towards it, he forces his attackers away. Breaking the glass with his shredded hand, he wriggles through.
The runner stares into the dark building and remembers the rules: never stop moving forward because forward movement brings the light.
As he stands scanning the darkened space, the building fades and the deaths reappear. With the building gone, the Red Reaper and all of the little deaths pour towards him.
Remembering the rules, the runner gets up and runs. This time, when the building returns, the Red Reaper goes away, but the mini deaths remain. He panics.
‘Stairs!’ the exhausted runner notices. ‘I can’t keeping running, but maybe if I can get high enough they won’t be able to reach me.’
The mini deaths follow him to the stairs but only the runner goes up. Ascending, he remembers the rules: never stop moving forward, even when it’s up.
‘I’m so tired,’ he thinks. ‘Why must I keep running if I’m so tired?’
But he continues to run. At the top of the stairs, he breaks through the door and then stops. The room is small and has no other doors. With no space, he runs in a circle. It works. The room remains lit.
Realizing he can’t circle forever, he peers through the windows. Through them is a hanging catwalk and beyond that is a smelting press. So instead of circling, he throws himself through the glass window onto the catwalk.
Looking up from the bloody glass shards around him, the runner scans the catwalk. The Reaper’s mini deaths wait for him on both sides. He’s trapped. But remembering the rule to never stop running, he turns to the smelting press and climbs in.
As the runner touches it, the machine turns on. Steam billows as it threatens to crush him. But as the top plate lifts, the runner sees his escape.
First crouching and then jogging, the runner stops at the edge of the press. Forced to crouch by the lowering plate, he frantically scans for another escape. Five feet ahead is a horizontal pole that extends towards a window. Now on his knees with no place to go, he launches himself off the plate onto the pole.
‘Never stop running,’ he thinks and then shimmies across.
At the end of the pole is a track. From the track hangs chains attached by rollers. Reaching the end of the pole, the runner lunges at a chain.
“Got it,” he gasps.
Letting go of the pole, his momentum rolls him forward. When the rollers reach the end of their track, he’s close enough to grab a chain on the next track. Transferring across, he again glides forward.
Staring in front of him, his heart soars. He sees that he is about to get away. The window ahead frames his escape. The only thing that could stop him now is luck – horrible luck.
When the chain hit the end of its track, the rolling came to an abrupt stop. Swinging forward, the runner throws out his hand. He grabs desperately at the window but misses. His heart sinks. He is still three feet away. Hanging thirty feet in the air with nowhere left to go, the window is just out of reach.
As the runner’s swinging slows, his heart pounds. Terror rips through him as he realizes that there is finally no escape. Helpless, he watches as his world disappears.
When a chill ratchets up his spine, the runner thinks that death is approaching. It isn’t death that approaches, though. It is that-which-is-like-death that approaches.
Standing in front of the runner, the Red Reaper reveals its sickle. Frantic, the runner looks down into the darkness. He reaches his toes hoping that the ground will appear. It doesn’t.
The runner looks up as the Red Reaper lifts its sickle to the runner’s chest. The empty darkness swallows the runner’s whimpers. In the painful silence, that-which-is-like-death steps back and aims. When it steps forward, it swings its sickle and the runner’s body jerks on impact.
Stunned, the runner looks down in time to watch his severed legs disappear into the darkness. Staring at his bloody stumps, the runner screams. There is no use, though, because the silence remains deafening and the Red Reaper has won; that which is like death has occurred.
Overcome suddenly by heart-wrenching despair, the runner loosens his grip on the chain. He has nothing left to live for. Slowly consumed by the darkness, he lets go of everything and follows his legs into the void.
Once again moving, the earth reappears. The runner hits the ground with a jolt and coughs.
When he opens his eyes again, things are different. The red haze is gone and the surrounding night sky is as normal as any other night.
The runner fights to recognize where he is. He is in the driver’s seat of his car. He looks around and finds the passenger seat empty. Looking forward, he sees a white light approaching him.
‘What is that light?’ he wonders.
But as soon as the light is close enough to recognize, there is no time to react. The cars crash.
Jon Manor clutched onto his steering wheel when he heard the crash. Startled out of his quiet appreciation of Bach, he turned to Nicki. Jon and his passenger craned their necks searching the dark country road for what had occurred.
“I think someone hit a deer,” the fit, thirty-two-year-old man guessed.
Their curiosities were soon quenched when a pair of intertwined cars appeared around the bend. One had only lost a bumper, but the other was a mess of twisted metal. Jon pulled his car onto the side of the road and raced to the mangled car to help.
“Are you OK in there?” Jon yelled, brushing back the tips of his unruly dark hair.
“I think so. I think I’m fine,” the runner yelled back.
“Coach Thomas?” Jon replied, recognizing him.
“Jon, is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Jon pulled back, quickly assessing the situation. He smelled smoke.
“Coach Thomas, your car’s on fire. I’m gonna have to get you out.”
“Yeah, help me out,” Thomas agreed, smelling the smoke.
Jon rattled the driver’s side door. It didn’t budge. Circling the car, he opened the passenger door and climbed onto the seat.
“I’m gonna take off your seatbelt and drag you out, OK?”
“OK,” the coach said, preparing himself.
Jon unlatched Thomas’ seat belt and grabbed his friend by the arm. The ease at which his friend moved surprised Jon. But when the coach landed on the ground next to the car, it became clear why.
Remembering the flames, Jon pulled him across the street. Releasing him at a safe distance, Jon was quickly joined by Nicki and the driver of the other vehicle. Unsure of what to say, they all stared down at Thomas in horror.
“Do you feel anything?” Jon eventually asked.
Seeing his rescuers’ faces, Thomas searched his body. Without touching, he knew his head and chest were fine. He was also sure about his arms.
“I um… I don’t feel my legs. I don’t feel my legs,” the coach said in a panic.
Coach Thomas looked down his body. His thick runner’s legs were severed in the same place that the Reaper had cut them. Watching as his stumps wiggled uncontrollably, Thomas quickly considered what his life would be like without his ability to run.
‘It would be like death,’ he thought.
Suddenly overwhelmed by an avalanche of pain, Thomas screamed. It was the type of scream that said ‘everything in my life is over.’ It was a scream of absolute resignation. The Red Reaper had caught him. The Red Reaper had won.
Jon watched helplessly as his friend screamed in pain. It was heartbreaking, but slowly his screams gave way to crying, then, unexpectedly, to laughter. Jon assumed that his friend was becoming hysterical, but the louder his friend laughed, the more Jon felt like he was on the outside of a cosmic joke.
Jon stared down into his friend’s unfocused eyes trying to imagine what he was thinking. As he did, his friend stopped laughing. Again lucid, his friend locked onto Jon’s eyes, grabbed Jon’s arm, and spoke.
“Don’t be afraid of the Reaper,” he said, before turning his head and relaxing into a peaceful smile.
When the coach released his arm, Jon turned to Nicki. He was hoping she would have an explanation for what they had just seen. But she was as much disturbed and confused by it as he was.
Jon and Clay sat on throw cushions in a small room adorned with prizes claimed at Native American yard sales and flea markets. None of the items were worth very much, but they all had sentimental value. The sentimental value was to the previous owners, not Clay.
Clay was in his early thirties. He was tall with thoughtful eyes. He accepted that he was psychic, but the label didn’t mean much to him. ‘Psychic’ was simply what Clay was. The dream catchers and wolf prints didn’t interest him. But, “When you charge $200 for a session, you had to, at least, look the part,” Clay had once said.
A session with Clay started out with the usual motions. He guided his client into the back room of his shop and then toward the throw cushions on the floor. After the client sat, he would then join him. He wasn’t sure when this ‘you first’ tradition started, but it probably had something to do with the time he was robbed.
Once seated, Clay walked the client through some guided meditation. Again, this did nothing for him. It was all simply part of the show. After that he mentioned a few generic statements like, “You’re looking for something,” or, “Only you can find what you’re looking for. I can’t find it for you.” They were all harmless enough and were, again, part of the show.
Clay wasn’t a fraud, though. The reason he felt forced to include all of these pieces of dazzle was because his psychic ability required nothing more than his client to be in his presence and to wish for what he or she wanted. But if Clay told that to a client and then followed it with, “And that will be $200,” she might not understand. So instead he lit the incense, uttered the generic phrases, went through the motions, and everyone went home happy.
Jon looked at Clay wondering what made him worth $200. Clay didn’t seem to be anything special. He was Jon’s age and acted like he didn’t believe in what he was saying either. So why did his best friend, Nicki, recommend this tall, dark-skinned, attractive man? Jon didn’t know, but so far Jon was unimpressed with the session.
“What is it that you want?” Clay asked, genuinely interested in the answer.
“I would like to find a girlfriend, make more money, maybe buy a house… You know, the usual.”
Jon felt Clay’s eyes lock on him. The psychic didn’t like that answer, Jon decided. That didn’t surprise Jon because Jon didn’t like that answer either. But when you’re asked this question, that is the answer you give, Jon thought.
“Sometimes there is a part of us that’s screaming out for something more,” Clay said a little more engaged.
“What is it screaming out for?” Jon asked wondering if he was being hit on.
“I don’t know. Like to be a musician or something. You know, something not every day.”
“Are you saying that I want to be a musician?” Jon asked, becoming upset with himself for wasting his money.
“Maybe. There’s something unusual about what you want. It’s… different somehow,” Clay added.
“Is that bad or good?”
“I don’t know,” Clay admitted.
“Uh oh, what does that mean?” Jon said, leaning back onto his hands.
“No, no, I don’t mean to scare you. Just that sometimes we want things that you don’t see in magazines.”
“Hmm. Well, I’ll keep it in mind,” Jon replied, deciding that he had had enough.
“Don’t worry. When the time comes, you won’t have to look for it. It will come to you, and you will be amazed.”
The latter was how Clay ended all of his sessions. This was the one thing that he could count on. His clients always contacted him sometime after their session expressing their amazement. For Clay, the only question was what series of Rube Goldberg events would lead to them getting what they wanted.
“Well, there it is,” Jon said, gritting his teeth as he moved to leave.
“I should tell you that some people say they see spirits around them when the process is happening.”
Jon offered a patronizing smile. “Really?”
“And that’s what it is too, a process.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Ya know, I think this is gonna be my favorite session all week. That will be $200.”
Jon left Clay’s shop with a knot in his stomach. He had spent $200 on the equivalent of a self-help pamphlet. He felt disgusted at himself, and the only thing that made him feel better was remembering that he hadn’t used his real name.
Walking down the sidewalk back to campus, Jon retrieved the phone from his winter jacket and gave Nicki a call.
“Jon, how was it?” Nicki asked excitedly.
“Be honest, was that some ill-conceived attempt to set me up with him?” Jon asked annoyed.
“No! Why? Do you think he’s into guys?”
“Were you into him?”
“Nicki, I’m not into anyone right now.”
“Oh. So what did you think of the session?”
“I think that you owe me dinner at a really nice restaurant,” Jon said resentfully.
“Really?” Nicki moaned disappointed. “He was so good when I saw him.”
“And you’re gonna drive. That’s how good it was for me.”
“OK, that’s fine. I can pick you up. But that’s too bad. He really blew me away.”
Jon considered what that said about his friend. He had always thought of Nicki as an intelligent woman yet she had been taken in by meaningless platitudes. It disappointed Jon.
“Well, I have class so I’ll expect you tonight at seven?”
“Can we make it eight?”
“You got it. Later.”
Jon ended the call and turned onto the walkway of his snow-dusted Midwestern liberal arts college. It had snowed six days ago and the effects still covered the campus. Two-foot banks lined the brick paths and the pristine white blankets that stretched between them were seven inches deep.
Jon hadn’t known how long his session with Clay would last so he had left his briefcase and class notes in the lecture hall. In hindsight, it seemed to be a bit of brilliance because now he could make the entrance that he tried to make numerous times in the past.
Entering the nineteenth-century building through the emergency exit, he threw open the door beginning his lecture without once glancing up at his students.
“Freud was known to say that our minds consist of three parts: the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious.”
Jon wrote the three terms on the board and turned for the first time to the full auditorium.
“The conscious mind consists of the babbling of everyday thought; how much hairspray you’re gonna use, or just how low you can get your jeans to hang before they fall off.” The class laughed.
“The subconscious is the part of the mind which houses the thoughts which might not be readily available. These thoughts can be made conscious. So if you wake up from a drunken stupor to find yourself in bed with someone who looks disturbingly like your mother, then you might one day discover why. I’m talking to you, ladies.” The class laughed again.
“And the unconscious is the house of all those things that no matter how hard you try, will never be made conscious. Like for example why you chose that haircut, Mr. Barry.”
The class laughed as the Jewish student with the blue Mohawk touched his hair and smiled.
“Freud was a genius. Add in his morphine addiction and his obsession with penises and you’ve found him, the perfect life-coach.”
The class offered a final laugh as Jon scanned his audience, pleased.
Jon and Nicki sat across from each other at Palermo’s, a popular Italian restaurant in their working-class college town. Jon ran his hands through his wavy black hair as he processed Nicki’s news.
“I can’t believe he quit,” Jon said. “He could have kept coaching. Where is he now?”
“Someone told me that he moved back to Michigan,” Nicki replied.
“That’s really too bad. You know running was his entire life. He used to get up every single morning and run ten miles. That’s all he ever talked about. Remember the Christmas party?”
“I know,” Nicki acknowledged.
“I tried to talk to him and he went on about his diet and the sole of his shoes and… I don’t know. He was crazy about it. He was obsessed,” Jon reminisced. “He lost his life in that accident.”
“I feel so sorry for him,” Nicki offered.
“I couldn’t handle that.”
“Well, his life isn’t over,” Nicki corrected.
“But it practically is.”
“Actually, the last thing I heard was that he was upbeat.”
“Yeah. Terry told me the same thing. Explain that,” Jon said bewildered.
“He was optimistic and looked really good.”
“But that’s mostly because he lost weight,” Jon stated with a devilish smile.
“You mean from the waist down?” Nicki asked, confirming Jon’s uncharacteristically dark joke.
Jon stared back, allowing his statement to float between them for a second.
“How are you doing, Jon?” Nicki asked, surprising her friend.
Jon took a long look at Nicki. He needed to gauge how much he could say without setting off alarm bells. She was a good person, but Jon often found her to be naïve when it came to the darker sides of human nature.
Nicki had gotten a scholarship for both undergraduate and graduate school. After a few successful publications, she landed an assistant professorship which later turned into tenure. In other words, Nicki never knew struggle.
“Winter break. Bring it on. I’m ready,” Jon answered, choosing the easiest route. “Are you gonna stick around?”
“I’m heading back east to visit my mom.” Nicki stared at Jon for a moment. “I’m worried about you.”
“No, you don’t have to worry.”
“You ever think about what you want, Jon?”
“What is up with people asking me that question today? I really don’t know what I’m supposed to say to that.”
“You’re supposed to say what you really want. I’m thinking that you need to shake things up a bit.”
“What, you mean, like start up with a student or something?”
“I was more thinking that you could kill a man to watch him die, but your thing is good too,” she said lightening the mood.
Jon laughed. Nicki continued.
“In all seriousness, having a fling with a student wouldn’t be such a bad idea for you.”
“Oh my god, you’re not joking,” Jon said surprised.
“There’s gotta be a girl in one of your classes who’s developed a crush on you by now. And if not, there’s always a football player looking to experiment.”
“So your recommendation is that I deflower a football players?”
“It’s interesting that I gave you two perfectly good options, but that was the only one that you heard. But sure, deflower a football player. You ever deflower a football player before?”
“Ya know, Nicki, I don’t think I have.”
“See! And when was the last time you were with a guy?”
Jon thought. “Before Catherine.”
“Then it’s been a while. Perfect. Bring on the football players. People need change. It keeps them sane.”
“I already have my sanity-plan.”
“Ok,” Nicki chuckled. “Which is?”
“If I ever get too close to losing my mind, I’m just gonna get a dog.”
Nicki looked at Jon amused. “I’m suggesting that you have sex with a male student and you’re talking about getting a dog. Yeah, they’re about the same.”
“Hey, why ruin my perfect streak of monotony?”
The two shared a smile.
Silence fell between them. When Nicki spoke again, it was in a more thoughtful tone.
“You know what I learned from Clay?” she mused as she pushed the food around her plate. “We all have things we want that we would never say aloud. Do you know what I mean?”