The crack of the pistol sets him free.
The blocks behind him a one time obstruction no longer holding sway. The pulsing of blood in his ears and the drum of his heart drowns out the crowd and footfalls behind him. He is a flash into the first turn. A gale force wind as he rounds the bend. A striding thoroughbred coming into the straightaway.
Born for this. Raised for it. Trained for it. This is his world. His life. Once threatened and now reclaimed. The others shouldn’t have even shown up. They might as well not exist. In this realm he is king, here to reclaim his throne, and no one will defeat him.
Then…the pops. The tears.
His right knee buckles. His leg wobbles loosely, unable to function. His own limbs tangling underneath one another, he stumbles and then crashes to the track. The smell of the rubberized paving made hot under the near summer sun rises up to mingle with the sweat dripping from his nose.
A collective gasp escapes from the crowd. The footfalls that had been behind him break from their rhythmic beats, a scattering reminiscent of a toddler playing on a snare drum. As they wash past him the steps fall back into their rapid syncopation. The slaps against the ground fade along with the murmur of the congregation. Silence carries from the stands, across the football field, to his isolation on the opposite side of the track. The opposite side of the world.
“You’re that hotshot sprinter I read about in the paper.”
He turns his head to the right. An old man stands outside the fence lining the track, his knobby fingers interlaced in the links. The man’s face is weathered and lined with deep crevices. A thick stand of perfectly white hair sits slicked back on his head. Despite the heat of the day he wears a sky blue tracksuit, white lines in triplicate running down the sleeves and legs.
“You’re that grouchy old guy coach is always chasing away so we can practice.”
The mans sniffs in response. “Not like I don’t pay my damn taxes for this school. I ain’t even had a kid here in forty years.”
His mouth opens and he squints his eyes, momentarily distracted by the sudden conversation. The old man goes on.
“What are you doing down there?”
“It’s…it’s my knee. I think it’s ruptured,” he replies, lowering his head.
“You need to get up.”
He looks over at the man, eyebrows furrowed. “You don’t understand.”
“Sure I do. I know all about your injury last year. Your comeback. Doesn’t explain why you’re still down there.”
“What?” he says, getting perturbed. “Of course it does you old fool. This race was everything. States. My scholarship. It all hinged on today.”
The old man coughs into one hand, a wet hacking. “There’s bigger things at stake here.”
“Dammit, what could possibly be bigger than that?” Rivulets of perspiration course down his forehead and join with the tears running from his eyes. The salt tastes bitter on his lips. A smattering of cheers and claps rise from the stands as the competitors cross the finish line. The old man gets down on one knee.
“Their race is over. Your coach and trainer are on their way across the field to see to you. But your race isn’t done. You need to finish. Get up.”
“Don’t you get it old man? It’s over! I can’t fucking walk. Leave me the hell alone.”
“Young man, look at me.” After a moment the old man repeats himself. “I said look at me.” He twists his head, his eyes red and trembling.
“Right here, in this moment, is when you prove to yourself that this won’t be it. That you won’t give in. Your future probably won’t be running, sure. It seems something else is in store for you. But I’m telling you, if you don’t finish. If you allow this to keep you down, it’ll keep doing so for the rest of your days.”
The old man looks off, past the stands to nowhere in particular. “You don’t want that haunting you. Trust me.”
He searches the old man’s eyes, and although he can’t see the ghosts he knows they are there. When the old man looks back at him his creased mouth gives the smallest of wry smiles. “Now. Get up. Cross that line.”
Taking a deep breath and swallowing, he turns to look across the field and holds up a hand. His coach and trainer freeze in place. Pushing off with both hands, he gets up to his left leg, right cocked slightly to be kept off the ground. The old man stands with him.
“That’s it. Now start moving.”
He takes a hop. And then another. Small, progressive skips that propel him forward. The old man paces along with him outside the fence. “Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Keep going.”
He hops and then tumbles again. His cries are overshadowed only by those of his mother in the stands. The old man’s voice cuts through them both. “Get up young man. Cry if you have to, but get up.”
Pushing through the tears he forces himself to his feet. He wipes his eyes and takes a hop. His father calls his name, his voice quivering. Encouragement echoes. He hops some more. Someone starts to clap. The crowd takes it up. Home and visitors alike begin to cheer.
The hops come in quicker succession now. He gains rhythm and momentum. The old man strides alongside him. “That’s it,” he says over the spectators. “That’s it. Don’t stop. Don’t you dare stop.”
As he enters the final bend his teammates break from the sidelines, rushing over to meet him on the track. They jog beside and behind him, matching his pace and adding their motivation to that of the old man’s. No longer able to hear him, he looks over his shoulder to make sure the old man is still there. The figure in blue nods to him as they continue their progression around the turn and into the final straightaway.
He grits his teeth through the exertion. He defies the tears streaming freely down his face. The finish line looms ahead, ten miles for every hop. The crowd reaches a fever pitch as he crosses in front of the stands. His teammates riot around him. His coach steps onto the track, a foot beyond the line.
Deep down a stalwart hardening rises up. The crowd fades. The pain fades. All else loses focus, his eyes filled now with steely reserve. His face becomes a placid mask of determination.
The eruption as he crosses the finish line brings him back. He collapses into his coach’s arms as his teammates rally to his side and swarm him in a massive huddle. The competitors of his race join them, coming over to shake his hand and pat him on the back.
As his coach and trainer lift him in their arms to get him off the track he searches the fenceline. There, through several bodies and beyond the stands, he catches a glimpse of the blue tracksuit walking away into the parking lot.