I entered the NYC Midnight short story contest yet again. I’m never going to win it, but somehow I keep trying. The parameters this time: 2000 word maximum, Sci-fi, an ultra-marathoner, and a hand drawn map. I learned about rogaining while researching for my story, so I did get something out of the exercise, at least. Anyway, here’s my entry:
ON COURSE FOR YESTERDAY
“Oatmeal, bacon, two eggs over easy, wheat toast.” She rattled off her order with one arm outstretched, menu in hand. “Oh, and fruit salad.” Her teammates made similar orders, then Hana made a trip to the restroom. When the food arrived they had trouble fitting all the plates on the table, and Kali remarked, “I think she forgot your fruit salad.” Amid the chaos they deliberated on their strategy once again.
“I’m really looking for that slow burn, you know?”
Previously, they had settled on a plan to hit as many low-score checkpoints as possible in daylight, and save some of the majors for the moonlight. This had been decided after many hours of discourse which included countless rehashing of past competitions. This morning, Hana found the conversation tedious and concentrated instead on wiping up the last bit of egg yolk from her plate.
When they piled up into Kali and Jay’s SUV the team’s game plan was still being discussed. Hana climbed into the back seat next to Ben and gazed out the window at the blinking red and blue neon sign above the diner. There was no point in getting involved in the dialogue. She didn’t care that much about what they did on the course; she only cared that they were doing it.
They got to the site, checked in, set up camp, and got to work on the map. Jay was the map keeper, as usual, and highlighted their movements according to plan. Hana studied the diagram and its intricate details closely. She followed the contour lines, trying to get an idea of what the course had in store for them. The terrain was fairly flat but rugged, with several rock formations strewn about. A shallow canyon cut the course almost diagonally. They would be crossing it a few times, but if they interpreted the map correctly, it would not be a hardship. The biggest challenge for Hana, just as it always was, would be to resist the urge to abandon her team mid-competition. Once out in the field she could easily be distracted by a set of animal tracks, a pile of mystery scat, or even a fluttering leaf.
Time was called, and they set out for the twenty-four hour event. Ben and Kali wore the team’s wrist tags, and while they punched in at each checkpoint, Hana reviewed the map with Jay. By the time they left the third checkpoint, the team was moving in a light jog. They wasted no energy speaking, but they didn’t need to. They had prepared for this. They were all thinking the same thing. “There is no way we won’t win this year.”
The first canyon crossing was a bit more treacherous than they had anticipated. They pushed and pulled each other from one edge to the other, and made up some of the time by sprinting across a shaded gully.
As dusk approached, the team had met their goal and were brimming with confidence. They converged in the long, diffuse shadow of a nearby outcropping, their collective bliss resonating in the cool air surrounding them. They passed around protein bars and fruit and recounted in clipped and excited tones the highlights of the day. After so many hours of not speaking, their words tumbled out, bouncing and ricocheting around them. They each only heard a few of the others’ words, but it didn’t matter.
As the cacophony died out, Kali and Jay huddled together, Ben curled up with a pack for a pillow, and Hana took a journal out to write down some of the thoughts that had come to her during their trek. They had allowed themselves a two-hour break, one sleep cycle, before taking on a few of the high-value checkpoints. Despite being on the move for most of the day, however, Hana could not fall asleep. She had written all she wanted, then made a few doodles in her journal before returning the book to her pack. She sat for a moment, listening to the breathing of her team members. Then she stood and quietly made her way to the other side of the boulder. She took her pack to avoid waking the others with her rummaging. After digging a small hole with her spade for a latrine, she came to a squat over it.
Hana became aware of a buzzing, which gradually became a low hum. It was a less of a sound than a mere vibration; Hana didn’t really hear it, but felt it. The hairs on her arm stood straight out from her skin, and the air became warm and still. She might have seen a light flash, but she couldn’t be sure. Her thoughts were confused for what seemed like maybe a half hour. Or maybe it was only a minute. Just as quickly as she realized that she felt quite weird, she felt quite normal again. It was dark except for the glow of the moon. It was quiet.
Hana gathered herself and walked around the boulder. She nearly made a complete circuit around the object before she realized her teammates were not there. Their packs were gone, and there was no trace of them. Flipping on her headlamp, Hana scoured the surrounding ground for tracks but found none. She stood very still for a long moment. The cold air caused her to shiver, and an idea sparked in her mind. She searched her pockets for her whistle. Poised to sound the distress call, she saw in the distance a flash and a green beacon. It burned for a whole minute then was gone.
Hana put away the whistle and grabbed the journal out of her pack. She squatted on the ground and shut her eyes tight. She had seen the map many times that day. She drew it in her notebook, trying to remember as much of the detail as possible, and hoped she wasn’t remembering some of it upside down. In the upper left corner, she drew a capital D and next to it a question mark. Once she had it all sketched out, she studied it intently with her compass before switching her headlamp off again. She took one step, then another, in what she hoped was the correct direction.
The air had cooled considerably since sundown, but like most other sensations, Hana was no longer aware of it. She was determined to move forward and would not let herself be distracted by minor annoyances. An hour had passed when she encountered a furry lump in her path. It was unmoving, and she knelt down and saw it was a coyote with singed fur and a missing hind quarter. From it emanated a musky, smoky scent, and enough heat to tell her it had not been dead long.
There was no point in dwelling, so she kept moving. She sang camp songs and stayed focused on the ground just ahead of her, pulling out her compass periodically to remain on course. She had reached the transition point where night turns into morning, and she acknowledged that information just enough to allow herself to look beyond her immediate space. The sky was just beginning to separate from earth. Inspired, she began to jog. The horizon became more defined as the dark continued its slow exit. The stars dimmed and birds began to twitter. Eventually it really was morning. Structures appeared in the distance. Hana could just make out a flash of red and blue. She began to run.
Hana stopped just outside the door to catch her breath. Despite the cool air, she was quite hot and went straight in to the restroom. She splashed her face with water from the dingy sink and allowed her mind to relax just a moment. Her shoulders heaved as she considered her teammates. She didn’t know what to do, but she knew crying wouldn’t help. She splashed her face one last time and dried it with the rough paper towels.
Back out in the diner, she was looking for an empty table when familiar voices startled her. She approached the booth and sat down. Ben and Jay were discussing strategy. Kali’s eyes twinged with a sarcastic smile. “I think she forgot your fruit salad.”