The Race

Fiction by Lisa Thornton

I thought no way he’d do it. He was all talk, all the time. He’d always been like that. In high school, it was about how many girls, how many Miller High Lifes. He didn’t need to tell us how fast he could swim back then because he showed us.

For the last year, he’d been telling me he could beat me. I’m taking you down, man, and all that stuff. I believed when he told us about Kristen Whatever Her Last Name Was senior year, but there was no way to believe he could cross a pool faster than me now. 

He coughed when he said it. Like “Cough cough, I was number one at State. Cough cough, no one could beat me off the blocks,” and all that. Anyone could see he was not in any kind of shape. His arms were like sticks. The teeth he had left were not the right color. Then it started that, if a bunch of us had been drinking at the bar and decided to walk home instead of driving, he couldn’t even make it. He’d end up lying on the sidewalk, holding his chest as he gasped for air.

That’s what was up with the bike. That motorized one he rode around. Well, first he got his license taken away for not walking home from the bar one too many times, and then he couldn’t pump that bicycle without losing his breath. So, he took a weed-eater engine and welded it to the crossbar. Worked pretty good actually.

Sometimes I’d see him while I was out collecting. Not just metal these days but anything left by the road–cribs, mattresses, tires. Good money in it all right now. If the window was rolled down, I’d hear him coming, the whir of that engine and he’d be pointing his finger at me with a smoke in the corner of his mouth.

He wouldn’t leave it alone. Told everyone he saw he could take me. Easy. I didn’t want to show him up. Let him think he could still swim. What’s the harm, you know?But he wouldn’t let up.Started to call me scared. Put a hundred dollars on it.

I got it pretty good now. My girl stayed. She might not have been all those girls he had, but she stayed. We got that place on almost an acre out by John Deere. It seemed important to him. I didn’t think he’d really do it, but I got sick of hearing him go on and on. So, I took him up on it.

There were kids there and some parents. Not too many. It was a weekday, middle of summer. He said meet him there at 3:00. He leaned that bike against the fence. The high school girl with the metal cash box let us in for free when we told her what we were up to.

I thought no way the lifeguard would move the lane line for us, but she did. Cleared the deep end and everything. He wanted to use the blocks, just like the old days. Stood up there and started shaking out his arms like he was seventeen.

The lifeguard told him to get down.

We dove from the side. All the kids sat on the edge and watched.

He asked his mom to video it. So, I asked my mom. Never mind that we were nearly forty years old. His mom was out there beyond the chain link, his sister’s kid in a stroller with her. Mine showed up in the van, pulled up next to the flat bed.

They stood pretty far apart.

It’s a shame it was recorded. Nobody should have to watch that. Or decide whether to delete it or not.

The lifeguard never blew her whistle. I was already at the far wall when I saw her dive in. All the kids stayed put. I expected them to run. Or cry. But they didn’t. They just stood up. All in a line. There was no sound at all until his mother started screaming. We could tell his lungs were bad, but we never knew about his heart. He never said anything to anybody after that, and they buried him next to his dad out there.

Some people are saying it was his way of going. That he did it on purpose. Used me and the whole situation to duck out early. But there’s no way. I don’t believe that. Maybe I should though because then he’d be the winner. Got to the other side first.

Lisa Thornton

Lisa Thornton is a writer and nurse. She has work in SmokeLong Quarterly, Bending Genres, Pithead Chapel and more literary magazines. She won the WestWord Prize in the flash fiction category in 2023 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthology. She lives with her husband and son just south of Chicago and can be found on Twitter/X @thorntonforreal.