Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Third Wind

Andy chugged up the incline, sweatsuit shadowed with perspiration. His Nikes compressed on the asphalt and the sound of his inhalation was the only noise on the country road.

He glanced at his waist-clipped odometer: 25.7.

Not bad. But he could do better.

Had to.

He’d worked hard doing his twenty miles a day for the last two years and knew he was ready to break fifty. His body was up to it, the muscles taut and strong. They’d be going through a lot of changes over the next twenty-five miles. His breathing was loose; comfortable. Just the way he liked it.

Easy. But the strength was there.

There was something quietly spiritual about all this, he told himself. Maybe it was the sublime monotony of stretching every muscle and feeling it constrict. Or it could be feeling his legs telescope out and draw his body forward. Perhaps even the humid expansion of his chest as his lungs bloated with air.

But none of that was really the answer.

It was the competing against himself.

Beating his own distance, his own limits. Running was the time he felt most alive. He knew that as surely as he’d ever known anything.

He loved the ache that shrouded his torso and even waited for the moment, a few minutes into the run, when a dull voltage would climb his body to his brain, like a vine, reviving him. It transported him, taking his mind to another place, very deep within. Like prayer.

He was almost to the crest of the hill.

So far, everything was feeling good. He shagged off some tightness in his shoulders, clenching his fists and punching at the air. The October chill turned to pink steam in his chest making his body tingle, as if a microscopic cloud of needles were passing through, from front to back, leaving pin-prick holes.

He shivered. The crest of the hill was just ahead. And on the down side was a new part of his personal route: a dirt road, carpeted with leaves, which wound through a silent forest at the peak of these mountains.

As he broke the crest, he picked up speed, angling downhill toward the dirt road. His Nikes flexed against the gravel, slipping a little.

It had taken much time to prepare for this. Months of meticulous care of his body. Vitamins. Dieting. The endless training and clocking. Commitment to the body machine. It was as critical as the commitment to the goal itself.

Fifty miles.

As he picked up momentum, jogging easily downhill, the mathematical breakdown of that figure filled his head with tumbling digits. Zeroes unglued from his thought tissues and linked with cardinal numbers to form combinations which added to fifty. It was suddenly all he could think about. Twenty-five plus twenty-five. Five times ten. Forty-nine plus one. Shit. It was driving him crazy. One hundred minus —

The dirt road.

He noticed the air cooling. The big trees that shaded the forest road were lowering the temperature. Night was close. Another hour. Thirty minutes plus thirty. This math thing was getting irritating. Andy tried to remember some of his favorite Beatles songs as he gently padded through the dense forest.

Eight Days A Week. Great song. Weird damn title but who cared? If John and Paul said a week had eight days, everybody else just added a day and said . . . yeah, cool. Actually, maybe it wasn’t their fault to begin with. Maybe George was supposed to bring a calendar to the recording session and forgot. He was always the spacey one. Should’ve had Ringo do it, thought Andy. Ringo you could count on. Guys with gonzo noses always compensated by being dependable.

Andy continued to run at a comfortable pace over the powdery dirt. Every few steps he could hear a leaf or small branch break under his shoes. What was that old thing? Something like, don’t ever move even a small rock when you’re at the beach or in the mountains. It upsets the critical balances. Nature can’t ever be right again if you do. The repercussions can start wars if you extrapolate it out far enough.

Didn’t ever really make much sense to him. His brother Eric had always told him these things and he should have known better than to listen. Eric was a self-appointed fount of advice on how to keep the cosmos in alignment. But he always got “D”s on his cards in high school, unlike Andy’s “A”s, and maybe he didn’t really know all that much after all.

Andy’s foot suddenly caught on a rock and he fell forward. On the ground, the dirt coated his face and lips and a spoonful got into his mouth. He also scraped his knee; a little blood. It was one of those lousy scrapes that claws a layer off and stings like it’s a lot worse.

He was up again, in a second, and heading down the road, slightly disgusted with himself. He knew better than to lose his footing. He was too good an athlete for that.

His mouth was getting dry and he worked up some saliva by rubbing his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Strange how he never got hungry on these marathons of his. The body just seemed to live off itself for the period of time it took. Next day he usually put away a supermarket. But in running, all appetite faded. The body fed itself. It was weird.

The other funny thing was the way he couldn’t imagine himself ever walking again. It became automatic to run. Everything went by so much faster. When he did stop, to walk, it was like being a snail. Everything just . . . took . . . so . . . damn . . . looooonnnngggg. The sun was nearly gone now. Fewer and fewer animals. Their sounds faded all around. Birds stopped singing. The frenetic scrambling of squirrels halted as they prepared to bed down for the night. Far below, at the foot of these mountains, the ocean was turning to ink. The sun was lowering and the sea rose to meet it like a dark blue comforter.

Ahead, Andy could see an approaching corner.

How long had he been moving through the forest path? Fifteen minutes? Was it possible he’d gone the ten or so mile length of the path already?

That was one of the insane anomalies of running these marathons of his. Time got all out of whack. He’d think he was running ten miles and find he’d actually covered considerably more ground. Sometimes as much as double his estimate. He couldn’t ever figure that one out. But it always happened and he always just sort of anticipated it.

Welcome to the time warp, Jack.

He checked his odometer: 29.8.

Half there and some loose change.

The dirt path would be coming to an end in a few hundred yards. Then it was straight along the highway, which ran atop the ridge of this mountain, far above the Malibu coastline. The highway was bordered with towering streetlamps, which lit the way like some forgotten runway for ancient astronauts. They stared down from fifty-foot poles and bleached the asphalt and roadside.

The path had ended now, and he was on the deserted mountaintop road with its broken center line that stretched to forever. As Andy wiped his glistening face with a sleeve, he heard someone hitting a crystal glass with tiny mallets, faraway. It wasn’t a pinging sound. More like a high-pitched thud that was chain-reacting. He looked up and saw insects of the night, swarming dementedly around a klieg’s glow. Hundreds of them, in hypnotic self-destruction, dive-bombed, again and again, at the huge bulb.

Eerie seeing that kind of thing way the hell out here. But nice country to run in just the same. Gentle hills. The distant sea, far below. Nothing but heavy silence. Nobody ever drove this road anymore. It was as deserted as any Andy could remember. The perfect place to run.

What could be better? The smell was clean and healthy, the air sweet. Great decision building his house up here last year. This was definitely the place to live. Pastureland is what his father used to call this kind of country when Andy was growing up in Wisconsin.

He laughed. Glad to be out of that place. People never did anything with their lives. Born there, schooled there, married there and died there was the usual, banal legacy. They all missed out on life. Missed out on new ideas and ambitions. The doctor slapped them and, from that point on, their lives just curled up like dead spiders.

It was just as well.

How many of them could take the heat of competition in Los Angeles? Especially a job like Andy’s? None of the old friends he’d gladly left behind, in his hometown, would ever have a chance going up against a guy like him. He was going to be the head of his law firm in a few more years. Most of those yokels back home couldn’t even spell success much less achieve it.

But to each his own. Regardless of how pointless some lives really were. But he was going to be the head of his own firm and wouldn’t even be thirty-five by the time it happened.

Okay, yeah, they were all married and had their families worked out. But what a fucking bore. Last thing Andy needed right now was that noose around his neck. Maybe the family guys figured they had something valuable. But for Andy, it was a waste of time. Only thing a wife and kids would do is drag him down; hold him back. Priorities. First things first. Career. Then, everything else. But put that relationship stuff off until last.

Besides, with all the inevitable success coming his way, meeting ladies would be a cinch. And hell, anyone could have a kid. Just nature. No big thing.

But success. That was something else, again. Took a very special animal to grab onto that golden ring and never let go. Families were for losers when a guy was really climbing. And he, of all the people he’d ever known, was definitely climbing.

Running had helped get him in the right frame of mind to do it. With each mileage barrier he broke, he was able to break greater barriers in life itself, especially his career. It made him more mentally fit to compete when he ran. It strengthened his will; his inner discipline. Everything felt right when he was running regularly. And it wasn’t just the meditative effect; not at all. He knew what it gave him was an edge. An edge on his fellow attorneys at the firm, and an edge on life.

It was unthinkable to him how the other guys at the firm didn’t take advantage of it. Getting ahead was what it was all about. A guy didn’t make it in L.A., or anywhere else in the world, unless he kept one step ahead of the competition. Keep moving and never let anything stand in the way or slow you down. That was the magic.

And Andy knew the first place to start that trend was with himself.

He got a chill. Thinking this way always made him feel special. Like he had the formula; the secret. Contemplating success was a very intoxicating thing. And with his running now approaching the two and a half-hour mark, hyperventilation was heightening the effect.

He glanced at his odometer: 43.6.

He was feeling like a champion. His calves were burning a little and his back was a bit tender, but, at this rate, with his breathing effortless and body strong, he could do sixty. But fifty was the goal. After that, he had to go back and get his briefs in order for tomorrow’s meeting. Had to get some sleep. Keep the machine in good shape and you rise to the top. None of that smoking, or drinking, or whatever else those morons were messing with out there. Stuff like that was for losers.

He opened his mouth a little wider to catch more air. The night had gone to a deep black and all he could hear now was the adhesive squishing of his Nikes. Overhead, the hanging branches of pepper trees canopied the desolate road and cut the moonlight into a million beams.

The odometer: 46.2.

His head was feeling hot but running at night always made that easier. The breezes would swathe like cool silk, blowing his hair back and combing through his scalp. Then, he’d hit a hot pocket that hovered above the road, and his hair would flop downward, the feeling of heat returning like a blanket.

He coughed and spit.

Almost there.

He was suddenly hit by a stray raindrop, then another. A drizzle began. Great. Just what he didn’t need. Okay, it wasn’t raining hard; just that misty stuff that atomizes over you, like a lawn sprinkler shifted by a light wind. Still, it would have been nice to finish the fifty dry.

The road was going into a left hairpin now, and Andy leaned into it, Nikes gripping octopus-tight. Ahead, as the curve broke, the road went straight, as far as the eye could see. Just a two-lane blacktop laying in state across these mountains. Now that it was wet, the surface went mirror-shiny, like a ribbon on the side of tuxedo pants. Far below, the sea reflected a fuzzy moon, and fog began to ease up the mountainside, coming closer toward the road.

Andy checked the odometer, rubbing his hands together for warmth. 49.8. Almost there and, other than being a little cold, he was feeling like a million bucks. He punched happily at the air and cleared his throat. God, he was feeling great! Tomorrow, at the office, was going to be a victory from start to finish.

He could feel himself smiling, his face hot against the vaporing rain. His jogging suit was soaked with sweat and drizzle made him shiver as it touched his skin. He breathed in gulps of the chilled air and as it left his mouth it turned white, puffing loosely away. His eyes were stinging from the cold and he closed them, continuing to run, the effect of total blackness fascinating him.

Another stride. Another.

He opened his eyes and rubbed them with red fingers. All around, the fog breathed closer, snaking between the limbs of trees, creeping silently across the asphalt. The overhead lights made it glow like a wall of colorless neon.

The odometer. 49.9.

Another hundred feet or so and he had it!

The strides came in a smooth flow, like a turning wheel. He spread his fingers wide and shook some of the excess energy that was concentrating and making him feel buzzy. It took the edge off but he still felt as though he were zapped on a hundred cups of coffee. He ran faster, his arms like swinging scythes, tugging him forward.

Twenty more steps.

Ten plus ten. Five times . . . Christ, the math thing was back. He started laughing out loud as he went puffing down the road, sweat pants drooping.

The sky was suddenly zippered open by lightning, and Andy gasped. In an instant, blackness turned to hot-white and there was that visual echo of the light as it trembled in the distance, then fluttered off like a dying bulb.

Andy checked his odometer.

Five more feet! He counted it: Five/breath/four/breath/three/breath/two/one and there it was yelling and singing and patting him on the back and tossing streamers!

Fifty miles! Fifty goddamn miles!

It was fucking incredible! To know he could really, actually do it suddenly hit him and he began laughing.

Okay, now to get that incredible sensation of almost standing still while walking it off. Have to keep those muscles warm. If not, he’d get a chill and cramps, and feel like someone was going over his calves with a carpet knife.

Hot breath gushed visibly from his mouth. The rain was coming faster in a diagonal descent, back-lit by lightning and the fog bundled tighter. Andy took three or four deep breaths and began to slow. It was incredible to have this feeling of edge. The sense of being on top of everything. It was an awareness he could surpass limitations. Make breakthroughs. It was what separated the winners from the losers when taken right down to a basic level. The winners knew how much harder they could push to go farther. Break those patterns. Create new levels of ability and confidence.

Win.

He tried again to slow down. His legs weren’t slowing to a walk yet and he sent the message down again. He smiled. Run too far and the body just doesn’t want to stop.

The legs continued to pull him forward. Rain was drenching down from the sky and Andy was soaked to the bone. Hair strung over his eyes and mouth and he coughed to get out what he could as it needled coldly into his face.

“Slow down,” he told his legs. “Stop, goddammit!”

But his feet continued on, splashing through puddles which laked, here and there, along the foggy road.

Andy began to breathe harder, unable to get the air he needed. It was too wet; half-air, half-water. Suddenly, more lightning scribbled across the thundering clouds and Andy reached to stop one leg.

It did no good.

He kept running, even faster, pounding harder against the wet pavement. He could feel the bottoms of his Nikes getting wet, starting to wear through. He’d worn the old ones; they were the most comfortable.

Jesus-fucking-God, he really couldn’t stop.

The wetness got colder on his cramping feet. He tried to fall but kept running. Terrified, he began to cough fitfully, his legs continuing forward, racing over the pavement.

His throat was raw from the cold and his muscles ached. He was starting to feel like his body had been beaten with hammers.

There was no point trying to stop. He knew that, now. He’d trained too long. Too precisely.

It had been his single obsession.

And as he continued to pound against fog-shrouded pavement, all he could hear was a cold, lonely night.

Until the sound of his own screams began to echo, through the mountains, and fade across the endless road.

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Richard Christian Matheson

Richard Christian MathesonRichard Christian Matheson is a #1 bestselling author and prolific screenwriter/producer for television and film who has worked with Steven Spielberg, Bryan Singer, Stephen King and many others. Matheson’s dark, psychological stories have appeared in 175 major anthologies, including many “YEAR’S BEST” volumes. His critically hailed novels and collections include Created By, The Ritual of Illusion, Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks, and Dystopia. His third collection, Zoopraxis, will be published in 2015. He is president of Matheson Entertainment.