This story is by Michael Horner and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
“What are you running from?” the anonymous voice from the rolled down window yelled as the car drove slowly past.
“If only you knew, you fat, out-of-shape ox!” was my muttered reply as the car rolled on. “If only you knew.”
I didn’t mean to become a runner; in fact I used to hate running. However, on my last tour overseas; which resulted in a Medal of Honor I had never looked at, the bar became my best friend until I realized I couldn’t drink the images away and began to search for healthier options. A nice long run preferably in the mountains where there were no other humans around and I didn’t have to remember the destruction and chaos caused by my occupation. Here is where I could be at peace, on a mountain trail putting lots of miles under my feet. I could breathe and relax and forget the nightmares and hope beyond hope that I wouldn’t receive another assignment. I just wanted to keep on running from the ghosts of the past and hold out for the belief that there wouldn’t be more ghosts in the future. I thought I was living a normal life now: Full time job, training for an ultra marathon, no enemy combatants, and no sneaking across borders to deliver the special kind of chaos I had been trained for.
If only I knew what was coming and how poignant that shout from a rolled down window was going to be.
My race was in three days but it was the date of my bi-weekly check-ins with my handler. Nothing had come up for months so it was more just a routine and a huge sigh of relief when no assignment came my way. So the shock of seeing something in my in-box made me pause.
“Click the email, don’t click the email. If I don’t click it they’ll just come find me and eliminate their problem. If I click it I’ll just have to enter my other persona and leave this peaceful life once again.” The debate raged inside of my head over and over like a thunder cloud.
Finally I clicked it and read “The race you’re running on Saturday is going to require a little extra effort beyond the 50 miles you’re due to run. In this race is a person of interest who is planning a major attack. Your assignment is to stick with him and take him out somewhere on the race where it will look natural.” I memorized the face and read his statistics, thinking that I was really in for quite the race on Saturday. He had placed in the Top 25 in five ultra races around the world. What a perfect cover though as shortly after his races there always seemed to be a terrorist attack that took the lives of innocent victims. I was going to have to be on top of my game to stick with this guy and get close enough on the only place in the race possible to take someone out.
This was the dreaded Cliffs of Insanity, not their real name but what the running community quaintly called them. Sheer five hundred foot drops into nothing but more rock lined a two mile traverse up the side of a mountain before dumping out into the most amazing mountain meadow and lake you have ever seen. This was the only possible section to take this guy out on and it was right after the aid station at mile 34, about a mile up from there.
Race day dawned and I took off with everybody else. I shadowed this fellow for the first thirty miles, stopping when he did, changing shoes and socks from my drop bag when he did but I picked up a little something extra from my drop bag at mile 34 and as we pushed off I sprinted out of the aid station and got in front of him. There was one other runner that went out in front of me but I purposely held back to let him gain some room in front of me. Other than that there was nobody around and as we wound our way up the mountain side I saw what I was looking for. A switch back in the trail ahead of me had two trees growing right out on the right edge of the canyon with nothing around to stop a fall from there. I bent at the waist as I approached these two trees acting like I was having a hard time catching my breath.
Just as my target began to pass me on this narrow precipice with the runner friendly “on your left” l quickly rose pulling the specially made knife out of my water flask and driving it deep into my target’s stomach with a twist upwards. As I watched the light go out of his eyes I muttered “race over” and then kicked his body into the canyon abyss below me.
When I crossed the finish line, quite to my delight with a Top 25, there was no celebration for me as even in my most peaceful setting once again my government had called on me to perform the duties I had been trained for.
“What are you running from?” I muttered as I collected my finishing swag and received and gave high fives on my way out of the finish area. “I’m running from me and what I’ve become. That’s what I’m running from.”