Updated: Feb 27, 2022
Are the walls to keep us in? Or to keep the earth from finding us? The shrill morning whistle blows and my feet slap the paved track. I suck air through my oxygen mask, exhale gray. The sun slaps my back, coaxing beads of sweat under my uniform. I run until my head spins, inky blotches angulating in front of me. I have to stop at one of the sideline vending machines, I insert six green tickets and and extract a nutrient pack. I unwrap it, swallow it down, and discard the wrapping through the chute that carries the plastic somewhere on the other side of the wall, far from the racing grounds.
My timekeeper taps his pocket watch and the look in his eyes commands me forward. I shake my head, I’m too thirsty to keep running. He adjusts his bowler hat, tallies something, marks me down. Am I falling behind? So much farther to run before my next MileStone.
We have deadlines to reach each MileStone. Some take days, others, years. It’s hard to think of taking even another step right now. I push a few more tickets into the machine until a bottle drops. The vibrant orange liquid burns down my throat. Grandma says the bottles used to be filled with water, that the clear liquid was everywhere, but I don’t know if I believe her.
I glance to the last water tower that stands in the distance in front of Mayor Green’s house, up upon the charred high hill. It’s a massive plastic hourglass where slowly the tiny, sticky drops of water scrape their way down the inside like tear drops. I feel the energy from the drink pervade me and I toss the bottle down the same chute. It gurgles and a spits back up my bottle and a few plastic wrappers that flutter to the ground. It’s jammed, overflowing. A Landscaper sweeps behind me quickly and plunges the pieces down the chute until they’re out of sight. The Landscaper returns to his team where they’re repairing the cracks in the wall. They’ve been busier than ever lately, repairing the breakages that keep appearing, as if the outside world is pressing itself in. The top of the high wall is barbed and scrapes against the dark sky. Darker yet each day, pressing lower down toward us as if the lid to a can being squashed by the palm of a giant.
A group passes me by and I feel my worth plummet and know my marks will too. I can hear my TimeKepeper tapping the glass of his pocket-watch again, each little tap stinging me. They’ll reach the next MileStone far before me. The competition is so high between this MileStone and the next. I hear it only gets worse until the final few, until the final Finish Line. But we get to celebrate for each MileStone we reach. Parties, feasts, balloons, plastic hats, colorful plastic plates, gowns, certificates. I try to think of that as I run. The air is so thick and , in a constant smoldered slumber, and its full limp weight drapes over me, smothers me. I start feeling faint again and am tempted to rest despite my TimeKeepers warnings. But then I see him. That long, strong back, that uneven run, that tube of his oxygen mask that he painted blue. Julian. He’s a splash of color amidst the dry gray race, he overflows outside the lines and his color trickles over into me.
I smile and feel my weariness lift. I catch up with him and he slows, matching his meter with mine. I’ve never seen his lips under his mask, except in dream, but I know he’s happy to see me, too, because the edges of his ochre eyes crinkle. We don’t talk, can’t afford to exert that energy, but our feet pound the ground in harmony and I feel a pulse in me, a pervading feeling that I can only describe as the way I imagine the fireflies from Grandma’s stories. We dart around the corner together and to a pathway lined with stumps. We jump stump to stump, each one our little stage, straying for a moment, for the speed demanded of us. Grandma says these stumps used to be something called trees, but they were removed early on to make another shortcut and help accelerate the race . I jump to Juliann’s stump and he catches me and holds me for a moment. I feel like I’m in a thousand little pieces, drifting outside my body. Like the glowing ash I used to see falling every fire season. When I first saw it I thought it was rain; Grandma had told me about how it used to rain, and I’d always wanted to see. Water just falling from the sky? It sounds like the fairytales they play on the screens. We haven’t seen ash fall either in years now, the oxygen levels are too low to fuel any fire. But Julian, he ignites whatever was dormant inside me and I combust. We jump down from the stump and pick up pace again. I wish we could just walk, slow down this time we have together, but the whistles and the ticking of the TimeKeepers and the pressure from those racing around us keep us going. After the seventh MileStone of the race, which I still have years before reaching, racers can complete the race with a partner, every step of the way side by side. I let my thoughts drift forward into the future, imagining racing beside Julian for the rest of time.
We pass a billboard illuminated with a slogan of the Great Race that commands us all Forward! Faster! Farther! We’re supposed to reach each milestones within specific time limits, or we risk being tallied, marked down, denied opportunities. For each Milestone, the exchange of our Green Tickets grows, we’re given more, we spend more. “This,” Grandma says, "is the only reason why mayor Green is so keen to have us go faster. In my day we called it a Pilgrimage.” Her voice shakes with wear but is staccato in spirit. “This journey is to be savored, Child. Not raced.” She repeats to me her replacement slogan,“Beyond. Beneath. Between.” Her words resonate, quake with earnestness. “Forget faster, Child. Forget farther.”
But I pretend I don’t hear her when she talks ill about the Race, same way I pretend I don’t hear the racers when they talk ill about Grandma.The old one, she’s taking up precious resources and giving nothing back to the Race. She’s a waste of an oxygen mask. Why’s she not accepting her Fast Track Ticket?
Fast Track Tickets are distributed to the time-whittled, the wheezing, the sick and the old. The officials make their rounds every week. For the past few years, the most common recipients have been those with lung disease. The officials come in their trucks, blue and red lights blazing atop. They load the Fast Track eligible in the back and barrel off down short-cut vehicle-only paths at full speed, carrying them to the finish line. Sometimes I’m envious of those who are Fast Track eligible. They get to escape the pains, the pressure and the competition, the choking heat. They get to lie back on the benches inside the trucks and be carried to the end without exerting anymore effort. They pass by every MileStone in minutes and they are celebrated, hailed for the rest of time even if they weren’t the fastest or strongest. No one ever speaks ill of those who have crossed over, and that, perhaps, is what I long for most. I’m tired of wearing this heavy shawl of judgement, weaved from the debris leftover from the insults thrown at my Grandmother for her refusal of obedience. Grandma’s already been given two Fast Track tickets and she denied them both. The third ticket has a mandatory fulfillment call, but Grandma’s convinced she can wheedle her way out of that one should it come.
“Why Grandma, why won’t you just go to the finish line? I wish I could.” “Hush, Child! Don’t utter such a cursed wish under this roof, I beg of you.” “But you’ve worked so hard to get to every other MileStone. Why slow down now, why not keep going forward?” “Forward? How about beyond, beneath, between?” Her eyes pool and cover in a distant glaze. I feel her distancing as she swims through some gulf of memory. Drowning, maybe. She swallows, and sits me down in front of the window on one of the plastic chairs. She has me stare out the pane. Directly outside the window is the gray face of the protecting wall.
“Beyond,” comes her lilting whisper. “Think beyond the wall.” She strokes my hair as she tells me of blue oceans, midnight swims under silver moonbeams and stretching skies. She tells me of hikes in the mountains, just walking, not racing, breathing air without a mask, cool and crisp. Her words paint lambent images of life in my mind, swarms of color and movement. The shape of her words melt and mold into the form of the frothing of waves, the patter of rain on a roof, the crackle of a fire in a hearth, the trickle of a spring stream, the rustle of summer wind through singing aspen leafs, the soft curve of flower petals, the—-
A heavy fist wraps on the front door and knocks her voice quiet. I keep my eyes closed, clench them, trying to trap the images behind my eyelids, trying to stay in her stories. I feel Grandma’s gentle hands leave my head and hear her distancing shuffle and the unlatching of the door. The voices that come are muffled by masks and I can’t distinguish the exchange. I don’t open my eyes until I hear a sudden guttural sob escape Grandmas mouth and scratch shivers down my spine. My plastic chair falls backwards as I shove to standing and run to the door. She’s crumpled on her knees, a wilted flower.
I kneel beside her. “What’s happened, Grandma? Who was it?” Then I see it. Clenched in her right fist. A Fast Track Admission Ticket. “Your third one!” I can’t stop the excitement from bubbling in me. “Why are you crying? I know you’ve resisted, but I’m excited for you. The final MileStone, that’s a big deal. They say you never have to run again, never have to wear your oxygen mask or be in pain. Everything changes when you cross the finish line. We should be celebrating.” Grandma’s silent now, but convulsing, suppressed sobs like creatures in her chest beating her back and forth, raging. Trapped. She stares forward at the waxed floor, our distorted reflection splaying in front of us. The silences stretches long and thin until it snaps with of another sob. “You’ve been here so long racing, it’s your time to complete.” She looks away from me to the left, head downwards, as if ashamed, as if she’s failed me. “Grandma?” I say gently, now afraid any word to heavy will drop upon her and shatter her fragile form. Finally she whispers, “It’s not my ticket over which I grieve.” “Then what it is?” She shifts slightly and I see she has something clenched in her other hand as well. She slowly unfurls her fingers. A second golden ticket. She lifts her sunken eyes to meet mine. “Its yours, Child.” They come for us within the hour. The walls have already begun to give in, crumbling. The Landscapers attack the breakage with sprays of concrete and enhanced plastic resin but it’s not the walls who have given up, it’s the earth below them. The ground is cracking, disintegrating.
Grandma and I are swept into the crowd and separated. I yell for her but my voice is lost in the chaos. Every Racer of every age has been issued a Mandatory Fast Track ticket, the oxygen levels have dropped five percent more tonight, the final drop of water has fallen into the bottom of the hourglass. There is no return. We’re all herded towards into the trucks, the humming of all of the electric vehicles sounds like the growl in the starved basin of a monsters stomach. The air is suffuse blue and red from the flashing lights.
I scan desperately and see a glimpse of Julian as he’s herded toward another truck. We catch gaze but we too are distanced by the well of people and he’s swallowed, lost in the crowd. I feel my future torn from my grasp, light choked out of whatever fireflies lived within me.
We’re piled onto the benches lining the truck’s inner walls. The back curtain hangs white and limp, like gauze and doing nothing to conceal the wound. The trucks barrel toward the Finish Line. Hundreds of trucks, they swerve to avoid each other, each piled with coughing and dizzied Racers, adjusting the knobs of our oxygen levels to no avail. I’m jostled between strangers, between questions and cries. I grasp the curtain, trying to hold onto something, but it rips off and someone behind me catches me to prevent me from falling. Now hot air blasts after us full speed. Angry winds sweeping in and stealing out breaths to fuel its flow, last breaths. Someone crumples in a heap. I dip in and out of consciousness and catch blurred glimpses and gasps of the world. The walls are gone now and reveal the world on the other side. The world that’s been hidden from us, that we’ve been hiding from. I’m dizzy, gasping for air that denies me. I think I see a mountain, then see it’s plastic, it rises at the end of our trash chute, congealed and rising from thick black water. The trash chute was supposed to take our discards far, far from the track. All along it’s been this close?
The world beyond the walls is not the world Grandma carried me through on the back of her memories. The world is one big scar. Blackened, the only light is the glimmer of the truck headlight on the skeletons of animalistic forms I’ve only seen on the screens. The truck hurtles down the hill and I’m thrown forward. Pixelated, slashed billboards try still to cry their message over the chaos: Forward. Faster. Farther. But the only thing that’s forward is the Finish Line, it’s in view. The final MileStone is not a single stone, it’s a long stretching yard of erected cement slabs. There’s a slab down there for me. It waits for my arrival, and then it will wear my name and my date of birth with a slash connecting it to the date I completed the race.
No. I don’t want to cross the Finish Line now. I want to close my eyes and be in the moonlit pools of Grandma’s memory; I want to find those pools of my own in my own life. No, please, I don’t want this. What about all the miles I was going to run beside Julian? Would I never once get to see his smile behind his mask, or feel his meet mine? What about the future, when I could have a Grandchild of my own and stroke her hair and coo her into dreams. I want to see tomorrow, but all I see is a billow of dust and green tickets swirling in the deadened air.
Green tickets, the basis of this whole race, now falling like clipped wings, like torn feathers of the birds from Grandma’s stories. I try to hear Grandma’s words in my head, “Beyond, beneath, between.” Beyond. Beneath. Between.
Something gives way below us and Grandma’s words trip and tumble from my mind. With them, with the drifting green tickets — the clipped wings —, I feel myself fall.