by Larry Brooks
(Originally published as “Pressure Points”)
It was the echo of gunfire that kept him running. His body had long ago abandoned hope, pushing through a fog of pain and fatigue on faith alone. Logic screamed that this was pointless, while another voice whispered it was all a lie. Both were old friends that had served him well, and like Jesus on his fortieth desert night, he was tempted.
But neither voice was real. The gunshot had been real. The echo of it was real.
And so he ran. For his very life, and for those left behind. He knew that precious little time remained, and what was left was as critical as it was dwindling. Everything he had ever learned or believed or dreamed was at stake. He was out of options, down to a final chance that, win or lose, would be his statement to the universe.
It was his time. He had come full circle.
It is not paranoia when they are really out to get you. When they are right on your ass, downwind of the scent of your blood, closing fast.
Whoever the hell they are.
He ran all through the night’s relentless downpour. Low branches whipped his forehead and cheeks until they bled. He could feel his heart pounding in every extremity of his body, his vision clouded by sweat and rain. Both elbows were bloodied from a fall when his foot caught an exposed root, sending him skating wildly across a patch of decaying leaves. Leaping over a rotting log, he felt his right ankle turn impossibly inward, and the ensuing bolt of pain seized his leg like a pair of gigantic hands twisting with the enthusiasm of a gleeful sadist. But he had no time for this or any other distraction, not on this night, when, one way or the other, his past would finally and conclusively catch up with him.
From that past he summoned his God and pleaded for mercy. No deals this time, no hollow promises in exchange for salvation. Just a simple mercy. For it, he had only his humility to offer. Things would be different if he survived. He would be different. And he could never go back. Not after all this.
He ran well past the point at which he would have assumed he’d give it up. His mind was consumed with every step, there was no world beyond the trees, no business that mattered other than moving forward. When he was unable to run another step, he would collapse to his hands and knees, taking cover as he desperately gulped down air, listening for some audible trace of a pursuer. It was in these quiet respites that truth descended, and in that truth, made clear after a night as prey, he found his last and best hope: success, like failure, was nothing more than a choice. It could be willed into being. All his life he had been succeeding on instinct while he steered clear of obstacles. He was a master of the low road. Underachievement had come so easily, and now, it was time to pay. He would have to survive on sheer will alone, here in the frigid night on the high road where survival and success were one in the same. Where mediocrity dies.
A wall of blackness suddenly appeared in front of him. His body was weightless as he ran full out, his legs unresponsive as he attempted a sudden stop. There was nothing to grasp as he fell forward, the soft ground below him had vanished. He tucked his shoulder and rolled, landing hard on his back. He bounced between protruding roots and fallen branches as he tumbled down a steep embankment, finally landing on the smooth rocks of a riverbed. He was immediately conscious of an absolute penetrating coldness, and his mind wrestled with it until he realized he was lying in a shallow but urgent stream. Mountain water, not long removed from the ice from where it came. The only other sensation he could perceive emanated from his twisted ankle, which was throbbing angrily in the frigid water.
Just a few breaths, a moment to summon his will. To remind himself that he was no longer mediocre, that mercy was forthcoming. And then he would go on.
He crawled from the river on his hands and knees, then struggled to his feet. He wouldn’t last long now, not soaked like this. After a few steps he realized the ground had changed into something smooth and hard and black. He lowered to his knees, feeling it with his hands.
He had found the road.
He thought he heard a voice, barely audible over the roar of the river behind him,. A moment later he heard it again, calling his name, and knew this was not his imagination.
The earliest hues of dawn had turned the trees into black cutouts framed against a blanket of pale pink. The road snaked ahead in a dark path of open space, dissolving into the tree line. After a moment, coming into focus against the trees, a shape seemed to float into view, looking down. A faceless ghost, materialized from mist, with a smile as cold as the water that had moments earlier enveloped him.
The ghost said his name again. It was a familiar voice, calm and pleased with itself, and only then did he recognize the face. And because it was the last face he expected to see, a face that couldn’t possibly be here, he concluded he was already dead.
He closed his eyes and gently sagged to the pavement, waiting for what was next, at peace with the knowledge that he had given everything, and that there were no more choices remaining.
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