(Note: this for a fiction writing competition I participated in and only serves obligations related to it. Posts should resume here in the fall. It's been a very busy summer. Cheers.)
“Of course they melted,” Sean Pratchett thought to himself. “What was I thinking?”
The last of the runners made their way across the finish line, the heavy salt air absorbing the sound of the pok-pok-pok of their thin-soled shoes slapping against the asphalt.
Nearly six hours had passed while Sean sat in the canvas folding chair he’d borrowed from one of the race administrators. Six hours of scanning the thousands of runners as they broke through their miles of monotony, finally finding rest under the creaking redwoods of Carmel.
While he sat, the Whitman’s Sampler box had balanced on his lap. The heat from his body had slowly turned the contents into a gritty, sticky ooze which now seeped onto his worn khaki Capri pants, leaving a faint brown square.
“Another failure?” His mind hesitated. Surely he’d missed her. He wouldn’t have missed her, right? She would be twenty-two now. The last time she had seen him, she had been a mere ten years old. But he had a good idea of what she looked like now.
Through access to free library computers and myriad pseudonymous email and social media accounts, he’d been able to superficially piece together her progress through adolescence, young adulthood, and college. His amateur sleuthing had brought him here.
“Lorelei Anne Pratchett will be celebrating her recent graduation with honors by running the Big Sur Marathon,” the alumni bulletin had read. “After that, Pratchett hopes to study for her Master’s at...”
He’d forgotten the rest because it involved high-minded aspirations in far-flung places. Pride in accomplishment – his own or his daughter’s – had never been a vice he’d grappled with.
“Another failure,” Sean concluded, dropping the withering chocolates into one of the temporary trash barrels. “How could I have ever worked up the nerve to give them to her anyway?”
The late April morning had started with a vibrant, tickly energy on the fierce headwind. The drum circle had beat loud and the local arts coalition had assembled a group of shaggy folks to enact a twisting, arrhythmic dance at the outer fringe of the finish line, past the reporters’ trucks and near the patron-choked cafes and restaurants. The dancers sang blessings to the emergent victors, hanging medals around necks. When the medals ran out, daisy chains were employed. When these disappeared, hugs were freely given. When the dancers’ cosmic mission took them elsewhere – either beach or bed or brunch – the straggling runners were left to the devices of friends and family.
The crowd’s applause was softer and more obligatory now, coming in faint clusters delivered by spectators cradling their phones between their ears and shoulders. All but twenty-six of the runners were accounted for.
Sean stretched and shook out his limbs, his mind beginning to wander to practical concerns: where he’d sleep tonight and who with (a few of the lady dancers had been favorable); how to score a little hash for the road and, speaking of that, how he’d get back to Los Angeles in time for work Monday. He lit a cigarette.
In the distance, a tall female form limped with the help of one of the race’s volunteer EMTs. Lorelei, if he wasn’t mistaken. A few steps forward revealed he wasn’t. The sudden realization made his palms go limp and wet.
When he occasionally admitted to having had a family, whether in a mess of drunken warm feeling or because of some official document, the admission would shock and scare him. Thinking about it too long was like staring into the flame of a welding torch. He feared blindness from prolonged exposure.
Her gait was unbalanced, weakened. There was in it the same cautious shuffle he remembered from two decades ago, when she’d navigated the living room carpet for the first time. In her wincing – audible now as she closed the distance between them – he heard strains of the slow rising wail that signified a nightmare, the one that meant he or Ruth would be sprinting down the hall to murmur reassurances. It’s all just a dream, dear.
Sean’s mind flickered to the nightmare that hadn’t been a dream: Too many drinks, too few people looking out for him. A minivan in his headlights arriving way too fast. The realization that he’d crossed the double yellow lines occurring to him way too late. A family of five dead. A sentence served. A family of three lost.
“They’re better off without me,” he would say when asked about it, adopting a benevolent wistfulness. “They’re happy now. Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.”
Sean’s friends knew him as the wry one, the one who could deliver the gallows punch lines. They didn't know about Lorelei or the minivan. He didn't remain friends with the ones who found out.
“Demons took me for a test drive but they decided they’d keep shopping around,” was his favorite woe-is-me, delivered in the gentle mocking tone he’d affected for so long that he couldn't remember his original melody anymore.
She was limping mere yards away from him now. Their eyes met without the flash of recognition he’d been terrified of. She was beautiful, even in her pallid distress. She limped past, the EMT murmuring reassurances. “You’ll be fine,” Sean heard him say. “You’re lucky though.”
Sean remembered reading about hyponatremia, the potentially deadly state of overhydration that affects some runners. Too little salt in their blood. He wondered if this had happened to her. He thought of his own bland, watered-down life and then felt – for an ecstatic moment that was instantly gone – a moment of pride. She’d run. She’d tried. She was here. She’d be fine.
“God is awful yet kind,” he said to himself, realizing that it wasn't his own thought. It was from a book or a movie or song or something he’d encountered long ago. He began walking south with half a mind to stick out his thumb, allowing the headwind to propel him homeward.