Beyond the River
A Novel by Michael Fillerup

Chapter 1

Keith is gaining on the Las Plumas runner coming out of the final turn. One lap, I remind myself. Just once around. No holding back.

Coach Ramirez is on the sidelines yelling through cupped hands: “It’s up to you, Jon! All up to you now!”

I glance down at the chalkline, smeared to obscurity, and shake my arms loose, trying to relax, trying to blot out the brown giant in the powder blue jersey waiting on my inside shoulder.

Cliches: Run your own race. He’s invisible. Don’t wait for the breaks, make them!

The crowd explodes into modulated thunder: Keith has trimmed the lead to five yards. That’s not enough, though. I need three more-at least three.

I get them. Halfway down the straight, rigor mortis strikes the Las Plumas runner who staggers into the exchange lane, extending his baton

like a stick of dynamite he wants to get rid of. Then Keith, converging on me phantasmagorically, his mouth open wide enough to swallow me whole: “Gooooo!”

It’s a good, clean pass, and I quickly pull within three yards. I’m flying effortlessly down the track, floating, but at an incredible speed. I’m Mercury, wings on my heels! I can barely hear the other runners panting a comfortable distance behind. By the time I hit the first curve, they are inaudible, and it is strictly a two-man race, Harry the Horse and me.

I chase him out of the smoky fieldlights and into the dark silence of the turn. The effect is theatrical, as if the lights have been dimmed and the volume turned down, then off. We’re in a giant echo chamber, the only sounds our syncopated breathing and sprinting feet. Angling into the turn, I match him stride for stride, the chipping of our spikes like the ticking of twin clocks.

Relax. Stay loose. Don’t lose him now.

The volume rises as we race out of the darkness and down the backstretch. My legs are gone-ghost-like appendages, an amputee’s -yet they’re spinning like a roadrunner’s. I haven’t gained ground but haven’t forfeited any either.

[2] The home crowd has returned, stomping, hollering, chanting: “Go! Go! Go!” “Reeves! Reeves! Reeves!” The fieldlights begin playing tricks on me, multiplying like Viking shields along the pine tree horizon.

Focus now. Concentrate. This is where you lose him.

I zero in on my focal point: Harry’s shiny blue trunks, his blue behind. All the way down the backstretch I glare at it like a target, an enemy, while he kicks cinders in my eyes.

We enter the final turn, back into the tunnel, the echo chamber. No Man’s Land. The volume fades again. Spikes, hearts, breaths. I feel absolutely no fatigue, no lactic slag. I’m still flying, legless. A spirit. An angel.

Then I do something stupid. I close my eyes for a moment and, opening them, observe the scene through her eyes: the fieldlights like translucent suns colliding above the steepled silhouette, the full moon clinging to one tall tip like a big white balloon waiting to be released.

More reminders: You’re in control here. You can do whatever you really want to. Maybe.

The whisper becomes a roar. I’ve gained another yard on him.

Charging out of the final turn, caught in the centrifugal body lean, like two horses harnessed, I can feel his oily shoulder rubbing against mine. And then it happens. My shoulder edges an inch beyond his. I’m taking him! I’m passing Harry the Unpassable!

It is frighteningly easy. One, two, three strides and he’s gone, out of my peripheral view. My legs are like a thoroughbred’s, gobbling up ground. I’m thinking: school record, meet record, league record. My heart is banging against my ribcage like it wants to jump out. I can see Keith, Annette, Coach Ramirez- they’re all there, screaming, cheering. My mother and father. Streamers. Colliding lights. I’m breaking the tape, falling into eager, admiring arms, my blood bubbling like champagne as they hoist me up and chair me off to bloat myself on Cokes and kisses.

Then I hit the wall. No: it hits me. Plows into me, like a flashflood, like a river. I fight it. Arms and legs churning, going nowhere, I wrestle the invisible current until my thighs catch fire, then go numb. The aluminum baton turns to iron in my hand. I lunge for the tape, grasping frantically, but it’s hopeless. The current is dragging me back, five, ten, twenty yards. Bound in the water’s harness, I watch impotently as [3] flashbulbs envelope Harry in clouds of glory as the twin tails of the broken ribbon encircle his big blue behind.

Then silence. When I finally look up, the stands are empty except for her. She’s sitting halfway up the bleachers laughing her horsey laugh. “Damn you!” I scream. “Damn you and Harry the Horse!”

She looks at me sadly and then grows thin and pale, as if dissolving before my eyes.

“Nancy!” I yell, but too late.

Then I’m going under. Her sinewy arms wrap around my legs like tentacles, pulling me down. I kick, slap, pry, twist, trying to wrench myself free. But her fingers are teeth buried deep in my thighs. I can’t breathe. My eyes go black.

Somehow I manage to pop my head above the surface and take a bite of air, expecting to go under again, but suddenly I’m free. She has let go. My arms and legs- my whole body-are shaking, the bones glowing through my hands like an X-ray. I look around for her- there! To my left! Tall, pale, translucent, wavering like a great white flame. I call her back but once again I’m too late. Already she has melted into the raging white-water rushing downstream.