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art by Agata Maciagowska

The Race

Sadie Mattox is a librarian living in the heartland with her two boys. Follow her on twitter @sadiekie.

I've learned a few things since my first race with the Martian. I learned clothes are nothing but extra weight. I strip off my shirt and kick off my skirt until I'm standing, shivering, in my skivvies. They used to be pink, but being passed down through three sisters has turned them grey, and my Nana says that's what happens when stuff gets old whether it's panties or people.
Lan Delson skipped out to watch the race. I spy my kid sister thinking she's smart, hiding behind a tree, leaving her shadow stretched in plain sight. The other kids would just have to hear about it later, I guess.
My legs won't tolerate school and Ms. Wilson won't tolerate my fidgeting. Fine with me, I figure the only things worth knowing are how to stretch the fence, or plant seeds, or have babies, or whatever else thing our parents do that their parents did that will lead to terraforming Mars. They don't teach that stuff in school. We're five generations in and so far we've got a small village, a hard farm, and the nano-wires separating us from the Martians. The suspended dome over my head keeps our atmosphere breathable, and the Martians don't want to be crossing over. If I get too close to the Martian's side, I start choking on the rough air seeping through the gaps. The fence is there to protect us. Still, it unnerves me to know the fine wires could cut us to ribbons.
I can't talk to the Martian cause he's too stupid to figure out words. Sometimes I think he's trying to tell me something, but it doesn't make sense. Maybe I'm the stupid one. Ms. Wilson says, "Shelby, all your wits combined could rattle round a thimble." Maybe she's right. Me and the Martian, we communicate in races.
His arms hang too long for his body. The first time I saw them I laughed, until he dropped down onto his fingers, pushed with his legs and sprinted faster than anything. I stopped laughing and started racing and now I can't stop, even when my air is short.
I stretch my leg, letting the muscle pull and get warm. Far away, down the slope, I can see my daddy's crew inspecting the fence, crawling along the towers connecting the nano-wires, shouting curse words. The nano-wires are flexible and can be stretched without much effort. Seems my daddy is always stretching wires, making more space for us. Yesterday the water crew was out hosing the hill down to get this patch ready for planting, and the whole row along the fence ended bogged, on both sides.
Today I'm running barefoot like the Martian does, and mud slurries squish between my toes. The Martian is ready. I can tell by the way dark slivers dart across his eyes or whatever the gray orbs are. We nod across the fence. I crouch low, in a runner's start, and he stretches out, his fingertoes buried in the mud.
Lan Delson cheers. My sister creeps closer.
"Don't tell mama," I call.
I take a big breath, hold it in, taste the smoke from the machinery, and when Lan yells, "Go", I'm off like a shot.
The Martian starts out front. Not as far as last time though. I pump my arms to make up ground. There's nothing like the feeling of my hair long and tangled behind me, hearing my heartbeat and the wind whipping up a rhythm together.
"Racing is what you were born to do," Lan told me once. "It's why your mama had you early and why you got those big feet, just in too much of a hurry to get out and start running."
A glance to the left shows me Martian legs, coated to the ankle in mud. Grunting, I dig my heels in to surge forward. The Martian's right there when I slip.
I'm heading down the slope of the hill and toward the finish line and then I'm facing sideways, sliding and flailing. I can't stop. Not in this race, I plead with the mud, let me fall some other time. I pinwheel my arms and stabilize enough to stay up. Maybe I'll just glide across the finish line like the dogs when they've got worms. I'm going too fast to stop or change direction. Lan's screaming and my sister's crying and it takes me a second to understand why. I'm gunning for the fence. I'm going to be sliced into a million pieces.
A few paces ahead, the Martian stops and turns back, the slivers flying across the orbs. He's trying to tell me something but, like always, it doesn't make sense. He spreads his hands out, those funny toefingers curling and uncurling, and plunges them deep in the mud. He's making a strange moaning sound and I'm too stupid to guess what he's saying. Something in the mud?
I've been fighting sinking into the ground the entire time I've been running but now I give it up. Mimicking the Martian, I go down hard, landing on my tailbone with my arms out behind me. Mud splashes to my elbow only I don't stop. Instead, it looks like it will be my feet that get nipped off first. My mind is filling with images of my funeral when I strike rock. My finger catches a ridge running through the mud like a river. I hook it, though the momentum is too much. The pinky snaps. I cry out, with pain and hope. There's solid rock in the mud and I can use it to stop myself. My palm slams against a round slab and I hold on, the impact jarring me all the way to my teeth.
Who cares? It works. I wrench my shoulder, twisting until I'm face down in the mud, inches away from the fence. So close I can hear it hum. Skin tingling from the excitement of near-death, I grin gratefully at the Martian and drag my mangled hands out of the mud.
"Good race."
Far away and down the slope, my daddy's crew stretches the wire.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, December 24th, 2012

Author Comments

This story came out of an assignment given by Jeff Ford to kick off the Clarion Workshop. I had been attempting to write a story inspired by my wild sister for a while but it never came together. With the constraint of a 1000 words (no more, no less), I was forced to get the race going.

- Sadie Mattox
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