Every year in our town there is a race, but it’s not just any race. In this race anything goes and the winner gets to have their deepest, darkest desire filled. You’d like someone dead? They’ll hand you the gun or do it for you. Want a million dollars? It’s in your bank account before you even get home.
Not only that, however, but during the race all bets are off. Within the confines of the race track anything and everything becomes legal. Whatever it takes to win. Competitors aren’t allowed to bring any weapons with them but if you manage to kill someone on the race track to get ahead you’ll never be held accountable. It’s considered part of the risks for the incredible rewards. And so year after year people sign their lives away to take part, sometimes literally.
This year I was one of those people.
My family is small, just myself, my younger sister and our mother. She’s been raising us alone since our father died of cancer when I was only five years old. My sister was too young to remember it but I remember watching him fade away and die before my eyes. Now our mother is sick, too, and she needs a heart transplant. Of all the things… I sometimes wonder if we’re cursed. Of course you can’t just come by a free heart, and that’s why I signed up for the race. If I could win I could get my mother to the top of the transplant list. I could save her. I could save both myself and my sister the pain of having to watch another parent die. I didn’t care about the free-for-all that many people used the race as an excuse for. I just wanted to win and get that heart. I just wanted to save my mother and be the hero.
How stupid I was.
The competitors gathered at the starting line the morning of the race. Like previous years there was close to perhaps a hundred runners or more. It was like those marathons you see on TV where a giant group of people move en-masse, like a giant wave of ants moving to devour a carcass. Only these people were even deadlier. A good deal of these ants weren’t likely to make it to the finish line. That was exactly why a lot of them were here. A chance to kill with impunity. It attracted a surprising amount of people.
Oh. Oh no…
It was my friend, Jo. My heart dropped. Why was he here?
“You’re racing this year too, huh?” he asked.
I pointed to the race number displayed on my chest and shrugged.
“Me too!” He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. “So what’s your deepest, darkest desire? What’s big enough to get you out here with all these crazies?”
“A heart transplant for my mother,” I replied. Jo nodded and mouthed ‘ah,’ like it all suddenly made sense. “You?”
“Perhaps not as dire or noble as your cause, but money.” He shrugged. Jo also had a younger sister, and although our family was very far from well off, Jo’s family seemed to struggle even harder. He came to school without lunch more often than he did, he’d been wearing the same shoes for the last two years now, and I’m pretty sure that he was using the same school bag he’d gotten in the second grade. Of elementary. His family certainly could benefit from the money, there was no denying that.
“Competitors, to your starting positions,” an announcement blared across the track from the speakers set up either side of the road. The course changed every year, this year it would be taking them through the mountains, down past the local river, around the school and finally ending at one of the biggest parks in town. It wasn’t a terribly long race, all things considered, but you tell that to a hundred people trying to kill each other for that grand prize.
“Good luck, hey!” Jo smiled again. How could he be so happy? He was surrounded by people who for the next hour or so would be trying to kill him. “May the best man win!”
“Yeah.” I smiled meekly. If life worked that way we wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place.
The starting gun went off and like murderous lemmings the crowd of racers surged forth. I wasn’t even 10 metres down the track when already I had to jump over fallen bodies and dodge projectiles coming my way. I’ve seen the race enough times to know how it begins every year. It’s always the same. A rush of bodies, the initial thrill of the chance to kill. A good number of people go down and for them the race is over before it even began. Ambulances and clean-up crews stood nearby ready to pick up the pieces once the rush was over.
My plan was simple. Stick to the back of the pack initially, let the lead runners pick each other off, maintain a good pace and as the finish line drew closer I’d make my move. Whatever that mood needed to be.
In the week leading up to the race I questioned myself often over whether I could do it. Could I kill a person? If it was for my mother, for my sister, could I kill another human being? What if it was just me and one other person drawing in on the finish line? Would I be able to take that person’s life with my own hands in order to save my mother’s?
Honestly, I didn’t know. I wanted to believe that I couldn’t, but who really knows what dark, horrible acts a person can commit in the heat of the moment.
“Phew, that was close!” It was Jo. He kept a steady pace beside me as we followed the violent stampede up the mountain. Bodies continued to drop like flies. I jumped over a man with his skull crushed in. A bloody rock lay beside him, discarded like he was. I remembered him from the front of the pack. That’s why you never started at the front.
Few spectators lined the mountain road. Most of them would be waiting near the finish line, where all the real action was. Nobody cared about the insignificant ants who died early on. It was the furious battles near the finish line that people camped out for days to secure their spot for. That was what the crowd really wanted; blood. Not just any blood, but the kind of blood that could only be spilled by those on the verge of having their biggest wish granted… or about to have it taken away.
“So your parents agreed to you doing this?” I asked Jo as we reached the top of the mountain. It gave us a view of the race ahead. There were probably 20, maybe 30 runners ahead of us. A few bodies lay by the side of the road. Not the biggest starting race massacre ever but it still wasn’t pretty. The lead was about 300 metres down the road, a physically imposing man with something large in his hand. Probably the rock that had taken down at least a few of the bloodied bodies lying nearby.
“They don’t know I’m here,” Jo replied, leaping over a hand grasping for his ankle.
“They don’t know!?”
“Nope!” Jo smiled as though it was all a big game. “Although they probably do now, haha!”
“Are you crazy?”
“Maybe. Did you ask your mother first?”
“Well… not in so many words, no…” It was true. I mentioned the race to her but never specifically said I was taking part. But I think she knew deep down that was why I brought it up anyway, and she never objected. That was permission enough for me.
“Look out!” Jo grabbed my shirt and yanked me back. Something whizzed by my head and landed by the side of the road.
“A knife?” Competitors weren’t allowed to bring knives. It was strictly what you found on the way. A woman coming down the track behind us spotted the knife and slowed down to pick it up. She turned to us and smiled. It was a feral smile, like a starved animal about to take down its first prey in weeks. It was also the last smile that would ever touch her lips. Mere moments after she picked up the knife a rifle sounded and the woman’s head split open. The knife hit the ground, followed by her crumpled body.
The sound of a taser drew my attention from the sight before me. One of the few spectators on the mountain descent was twitching as he hit the ground. A man in raid gear spoke into his mic before the body was dragged off. Jo and I looked at one another and started running again. Just need to keep moving.
“You’ve got some blood on your…” Jo pointed to my face. His hand was shaking. I just kept running. It was all I could do.
We reached the river. By now maybe ten people were in front of us. We’d reached the part of the race where most of the runners were spaced out enough to just keep running. Other than the sound of our breathing, our feet hitting the dirt and the trickle of the river everything was quiet. I was okay with that. Quiet was nice.
The sight of that woman’s head exploding haunted me. She broke the rules. She picked up a weapon tossed onto the track by a spectator. Everyone knew what happened when you broke the rules. But I couldn’t get the image out of my head. It was like her head just exploded. Blood and bone showered in every direction.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” I muttered.
“Do what?” Jo’s feet continued to hit the ground in sync with my own.
“Kill a person. I don’t think I can do it.”
“You don’t have to kill anyone to win the race. Stop thinking about it.”
“I know, but you saw that guy up there. You think he’s going to just let us peacefully pass by and take first place?”
“Probably not, no.”
A scream sounded ahead of us. Another competitor down?
“What are you going to do with the money if you win?” I asked. Jo didn’t seem like the type to really care about material possessions, but with a million dollars in front of you, well that could change a person.
“Send dad to that training course he needs to get that promotion at work finally. You know they’ve skipped him over three years in a row now simply because he can’t drive the forklift and they’re too scummy to pay for his license?”
“I didn’t know that. I’m sorry.”
“And it’ll let mum quit her night job, and I wanna get Mari some new clothes and such for school. She doesn’t say anything but I know the other kids tease her. They teased me.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just nodded as we ran.
“We’re about to lose the house too,” Jo said after a few moments. “We have nowhere else to go. I don’t know what to do. Even if I got another part time job, another five part time jobs, it wouldn’t help. This is our last chance. No-one can do this but me…”
Jo hit the ground in front of me, sending me tumbling over the top of him.
“Boohoo, what a sad story. Let’s all have a pity party about it.”
One of the runners was standing above us with a large, thick tree branch in hand. He must have been hiding behind one of the trees. I turned over and saw a body lying in the river. That must have been the scream we heard.
The branch connected with my torso and pain exploded throughout my side. Another strike, this time my shoulder. His aim was getting higher. Another hit and…
Jo’s foot connected with the man’s jaw and sent him flying. Jo scrambled for the branch before the man caught his bearings and before he knew what was happening it was all over. Jo battered his face in, over and over the branch came down until there was nothing but a pulpy, bloody mess in the mud.
Jo stood up and turned to me. His face and upper body were almost entirely red. I opened my mouth a few times but Jo just dropped the stick and held out a hand. “Come on, we’re not winning this race sitting around here.”
I swallowed my words and looked at his bloody hand, still in shock. He’d just murdered a man right in front of me. He was about to kill us, sure, but… I’d known Jo since we were five years old. We grew up together. He was always so sweet and kind to everyone. The joker who never took anything to heart.
“They’re getting further ahead of us.”
I shook my head and took his hand. It was sticky.
“Yeah, right. Sorry.”
“Come on, let’s go.”
I took one last look at the body and started running again.
The longer I ran with Jo the more I realised that things were going to get very complicated. Only one person could win. It may not be either of us, but if it came down to it, what would we do? I needed that heart transplant for my mother. He needed that money for his family to survive. It wasn’t like either of us could just give up for the other.
We neared the school. There were a few more spectators here. We were closing in on the end.
“Do you hear that?”
There was a fight up ahead. It was the big guy who’d been in the lead. A woman and two men were circling him, his brow cut and dripping blood into his eye. One of the men, tall but skinny, had something small and sharp in his hand. The woman was swinging a chain she’d probably lifted from the trash cans.
Jo put a hand across my chest and brought a finger to his lips. He pointed through the middle of the school.
“Leave them be. If we go this way we can avoid them. It’s a bit longer but…”
“Hey!” The big guy saw us and called out.
“You go deal with them,” the tall man said. The smaller one started running towards us. He had a baseball bat in hand. It appeared to be wrapped in something sharp. Barbed wire? Where did he manage to steal that from?
Jo and I took off at full speed. I was tired. The run itself was wearing me down but the rise and fall of adrenaline was taking its toll on me as well. I didn’t know how much longer I could keep doing this. My legs burned like molten lava and my chest heaved like it was going to explode.
Jo fell to the ground once more. The back of his head was bleeding. The man had thrown the baseball bat at him and was quickly closing in.
I picked it up. There was no time. As the man got closer I swung with all my might. The sound of his jaw cracking was a sound I’d remember for a long time. Jo had saved me before. Now we were even.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I think so… I’m just bleeding… Come on, let’s keep moving.”
I held a hand out and helped Jo back to his feet. He was a little wobbly but we pressed on before the others could follow.
“Once we clear the school we’ll be in first place. There’s only 500 metres between here and the finish line. We’ll make it.” Jo smiled. More and more blood was pouring from the back of his head.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Stop asking me and keep running.”
We cleared the school gate when we heard it. It was an almost inhuman growl. I turned. It was the big guy, covered in blood. He was holding the woman’s chain in one hand and what looked like a steel pole in the other. He hurled it towards us and was moving before it even hit the ground.
The finish line was straight ahead, the park at the end of the street. Spectators lined the road and wild cheers went up. It would appear we were the final three and the last leg was about to begin. The crowd wanted blood. They always wanted blood.
It’s only another 500 metres, I kept thinking to myself. Just keep moving. Nothing else matters. Just keep moving. He can’t touch you once you pass that finish line. Nothing else in the world matters but being the first across that line. Then everything would be okay.
My legs pumped across the hard asphalt. It was awkward running with the bat but I refused to let it go. Jo was not far behind me. I couldn’t turn to look. It would be precious wasted time.
“He’s gaining!” Jo screamed.
“So run faster!” It was all I could get out. My entire body and mind were focused on moving forward and nothing else.
400 metres. Already I was slowing down. I could feel it. I couldn’t keep up this pace much longer. Not anymore. The cheers of the crowd were drowned out by my heartbeat throbbing in my head and chest and throat.
300 metres. Jo caught up to me. The cut on his head was still bleeding a scary amount of blood but it didn’t appear to be holding him back. Sweat poured down the side of his face, mingling with the dried, caked-on blood. His face was sickly pale but he didn’t say a word. We just kept running.
200 metres. I could hear the footsteps behind us. He was closing in. I could almost feel his breath on my neck. I could hear the chain hitting the ground as he ran. For such a big guy he sure had some stamina. The finish line was in sight. People were standing up and cheering, urging us on. Not to win, but to fight. Blood. They wanted more blood.
100 metres. I tasted asphalt. So close, yet so far. I don’t remember exactly what sound I made as my face planted into the ground at full speed but I’m sure it wasn’t dignified. The baseball bat flew out of my hand and clattered nearby. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘It’s all over. I’m a dead man, and right before the finish line. How fitting. I’m sorry, mum. I tried.’
A huge weight suddenly pressed down on my back. An almost maniacal laugh sounded near my ear. The crowd grew even louder. I didn’t have to turn around to know who it was. I braced myself for another impact. The last one of my life, no doubt. Just what the audience wanted. A grand finale.
The impact never came. There was a thud followed by cursing. I turned to see Jo kicking the man in the face again. The finish line was right there and here he was, helping me out once more. The big guy’s face turned murderous. He swung the chain over his head and then towards Jo’s side. He couldn’t get out of the way in time and crumpled to the ground.
“You think you little shits are gonna keep me from my prize? Think again.”
Pain exploded through my head once more as his fist connected with my cheek. He grabbed Jo and yanked him up by his T-shirt, delivering a swift punch to his jaw as well.
Jo just smiled at him.
“Oh you like that, did you? You some kind of sicko, kid? Is that why you’re here?”
Jo said nothing. I wasn’t sure he could. His lip was busted and his jaw bruised. He just kept smiling.
He then held up his other hand. He was holding the other end of the chain. Before the big guy knew what was going on he wrapped it around his neck, planted his feet against the guy’s chest and pushed with all his might.
He grabbed feebly at his neck, the veins popping out and his face rapidly turning red. Jo kept pushing against him with his feet and pulling on the chain, not letting go even as the body slid off me to the ground. He just kept pulling tighter and tighter. The big guy’s eyes bulged, his breath rasped. The crowd cheered even louder. He was going to kill him.
I looked over. My heart dropped. My mother and sister were in the crowd. Why? Why was she here? Why did she bring my sister here? She was only 12. Too young to see any of this. I didn’t want them to see any of this.
My heart dropped even further. Next to her was Mari. Jo’s sister. His parents were nowhere in sight, presumably at work.
“Jo,” I called out but my voice refused to work. My throat was so dry I could barely swallow. My head was spinning. I got up to my hands and knees and tried again.
The big guy had stopped moving. Jo kept pulling the chain like his life depended on it.
I put a hand on the back of his leg. He looked down at me, eyes full of fear and confusion and adrenaline. He was like an animal cornered with nowhere to go. He looked awful.
“Jo, you can let go now. He’s… he’s not breathing.”
Jo turned back to the man and after a few more moments he dropped the chain. He fell to his knees beside me.
“It’s just us now.”
“What are we going to do?”
“We need to finish this race.”
I stood up on wobbly legs. The finish line was just there, 100 metres ahead of us. I put an arm over Jo’s shoulder and we stumbled forward. Together. The crowd was cheering. It was no finale they’d ever seen before. I could hear voices calling for blood. Calling for one more bloody finish. I could hear my name coming from somewhere. I turned back and my family were gone. Did I imagine them? It didn’t matter.
Forward. We kept moving forward. Step after step. Blood ran down my face and dripped onto the road below. Jo was silent, one arm across his battered side and the other helping to hold me up. What a sight we must have been.
We reached the finish line and stopped. We made it. One of us was about to win, and that’s when it hit me again. One of us. Only one person could win.
Jo smiled again. “Hell of a race, huh?”
“Hell of a race,” I agreed.
“This is it.”
A silence fell between us as the crowd got even louder. I could hear one of the race commentators blaring over the loud speakers but I had no idea what he was saying.
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking,” Jo began. I opened my mouth to reply when he let go of me and shoved me over the finish line. I hit the ground, hard.
I looked up, confused. Jo was still smiling, but it no longer reached his eyes.
“Your mother needs that heart. I can’t keep that from her. She was one of the few people who was kind to me growing up, you know? She never said a word but she always gave us extra food when we came over to play, or tucked a few bills into our pocket when we weren’t looking.”
I didn’t know what to say. Tears filled my eyes. I was so confused.
“I took out an insurance policy before the race. Just in case.” He gave a small laugh. “Even if I didn’t win, well I wanted to make sure that my family would be okay.”
“This is the only way both of us wins. Watch out for my sister for me, will you? And give your mother my regards. Her pain is going to be over very soon.”
He looked around, as though for the last time.
“It’s so cold,” he whispered. It was the last thing he ever said.
Everything afterwards was a blur. Ambulance officers rushed towards Jo while I was picked up and put on a stretcher myself. The race organisers were congratulating me at the same time medics were plugging a drip into my veins. They told me later I was suffering from blood loss and heat exhaustion. They were amazed I made it to the finish line at all.
My mother got her heart transplant. Turned out the big guy was a perfect match. Jo’s family also got their money. Unbeknowst to them he’d taken out a life insurance policy on his own life before the race. A sort of backup measure in case he didn’t win.
Jo bled to death from his wounds. He was dead before they reached the hospital. I never got the chance to say goodbye to him. To say thank you. Because of Jo my mother is still alive. Because of Jo I’m still alive. Mari got her new clothes and books for school. She hasn’t been the same since the day of that race though. She doesn’t speak very much and just spends all her time running…