Marathons are Dangerous
Erik was running a marathon when his life got flipped over like crêpe. He’d just passed the 25-mile mark and realized he’d have to sprint the last mile if he wanted to finish the race in 160 minutes, his personal goal for that year. So Erik pressed his right foot against the road to speed up.
That was when he felt it: a strong push from the sole of his right foot, launching him off like a rocket. It was powerful enough to send him flying.
What the freak?! Erik howled in his head as the filthy asphalt came closer and closer. Then he landed hard on the road and his thoughts went: ’ow’.
Erik lay prone for several heartbeats. His situation was so absurd, getting back up didn’t occur to him.
Then someone yanked him out of his prostration.
“YOU CAN DO THIS!” yelled a stout, middle-aged woman wearing a pink shirt and matching tutu, as she single-handedly hauled Erik back to his feet. “DON’T GIVE UP!”
Please stop shouting into my ear, Erik thought irritably.
“I’ve got you!” Pink Tutu Lady cried, now dragging Erik alongside her. “We’re in this together!”
Erik nodded vaguely. He remembered he was in the middle of a race and the clock was still ticking. The crowd of onlookers cheered when Erik started to move his battered legs.
“You’ve got this?” Pink Tutu Lady asked when Erik started jogging on his own. “You okay now, hon?”
“Yeah,” said Erik, as he waved a scraped and bloody hand. “Yeah, I’ve got this. Thanks so much.”
Pink Tutu Lady beamed before joining the mass of runners. Erik watched her jog ahead for a second before turning his attention back to sprinting.
It happened again. The mysterious force tossed him into the air via left foot, making him jump two feet. Erik staggered upon landing but didn’t lose his footing this time. Erik tried to run at normal race pace after that, but every time his thoughts strayed to sprinting, the force came back.
In the end, Erik stopped fighting against the strange force and used it to jump his way through the last mile. I’m not buying any photos, Erik grouched to himself as the race day photographers took mortifying pictures of him leaping across the finish line amidst the flying streamers and confetti.
Erik hobbled towards the nearest first-aid tent. Burning pain, gnawing hunger, and bone-deep exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him as he forced his stiff and bleeding legs to move. Mid-way, Erik checked his watch. It recorded two hours and forty-two minutes plus a few seconds. At any other race, Erik would’ve castigated himself for failure, but at the moment, only one thing concerned him: what happened to me?
Erik was still brooding over the mystery when his friends and fellow runners, Sam and Susan Tate, barged inside the first-aid tent. Sam was as brown as a roasted chestnut shell, and Erik fancied he smelled like an old leather bag left too long in the sun. Susan, whose golden freckles doubled since this morning, was holding a disposable cup full of soup in one hand, a bagel in the other, and had bottles of water tucked under her armpits.
“Erik! Didn’t you hear us calling you?” Susan cried through a mouthful of banana.
Erik shook his head. He wondered if Sam and Susan saw his crazy leaping and, if so, what they made of it.
“We were screaming your name! Even the commentator guy mentioned you at the finish line! How did you not hear all that?” Susan asked in flat disbelief.
“He was in the zone. Duh,” drawled Sam.
“You call prancing around like an antelope being in the zone?” Susan scoffed before turning her attention back to Erik. “Were you trying something new?”
Erik shrugged, doing his best to look too tired for words.
“Well, whatever it was, you looked like an idiot,” Susan declared. “Therefore I want photos. You must buy me photos.”
“No,” said Erik.
“Oh, c’mon!” Susan whined.
“No,” said Erik flatly.
“Jerk-face,” huffed Susan. Then she resumed stuffing her face with bagels and watery crab soup.
Erik eventually left the first-aid tent with the Tates to stretch. He only half-listened to Sam lobby for grabbing Mexican and Susan Italian, for his thoughts were elsewhere.
What was that? Erik wondered as he tried to touch his toes, wincing whenever he jolted the bandages plastered all over his knees. Seriously, what the freak was that?
Erik got up and cast his gaze around furtively. Sam and Susan were still arguing what they should eat to refuel, and looked ready exchange blows. Everyone else appeared like they were either minding their own business or joining the post-race festivities. So why not experiment now?
Erik gazed down at his feet. He commanded his body to stay still as he pictured an invisible force pushing him off the ground through the soles. At once, his body shot up a few scant inches. Then he landed back on the ground with a quiet thud.
I have superpowers, Erik concluded with considerable shock.
He was still reeling from his discovery when Susan grabbed his arm and Sam flanked his other side.
“Where are we going?” Erik sputtered as Susan urged him forward.
“The Naan wrap place!”
“It’s thirty miles away!”
“So?” said Sam, as he side-eyed a white-haired woman incongruously dressed in tweed, who scurried past. “It’s closer from here than back home, and we don’t go there often enough. Now is our chance.”
“Nope. Not listening. Just surrender. We’re going,” Susan said. And with that, the Tates dragged him off.
Erik escaped Sam and Susan’s clutches three hours later. His first act after locking the door to his apartment was taking a long, hot shower. He needed it. Not only was he grimy, but he also had tiny bugs that landed on the sticky morass of sunblock coating his exposed skin and died there. The sunblock itself was a hassle to clean off, and even after three rounds of soap and scrub, it still felt like his face was wearing a layer of wax.
A waning half-moon was floating above the dark city skyline when Erik emerged from the bathroom, his hair damp and curling. If Erik felt weary before, he felt positively destroyed now. While putting on a gray cotton shirt and flannel pajama bottoms, Erik eyed his bed. It never looked more inviting, and every joint and fiber in his body seemed to plead for sleep.
At last, Erik tore his eyes away from his bed and drew the curtains to his windows. He then tried to lift himself up in the air once more, as he did back at the race. Again, his body shot several inches off the floor without any muscular exertion on his part. Thus reassured his first experiment wasn’t some kind of exhaustion-induced hallucination, Erik looked around. His eyes landed on his dining table, which had a wooden bowl full of apples, tangerines, plums, and one lone avocado.
Erik focused on the avocado. Move, he thought.
The avocado stayed where it was.
Erik glared at it. C’mon, move, move, move, move, move…
The avocado remained immobile.
Okay, so it’s not total mind over matter, Erik decided. Then he poked at the avocado, wondering: why won’t you move?
The avocado shot out of the bowl. It hit the opposite wall, bounced off the floor and rolled wobbly away. Erik gaped open-mouthed for several blinks before moving towards it.
So there’s a physical contact requirement? Erik thought as he stooped down like a rheumatic old man to retrieve the avocado. Did this mean he could use the power with any part of his body, as long as he touched his target?
Erik placed the avocado on the table. He then touched it with his right elbow. The fruit jumped five inches when he focused on mentally pushing it and toppled off the table’s edge. Okay, seems to work best with my extremities, Erik thought as he picked up the avocado from the floor again.
Erik put the avocado back in the bowl. He then glanced at his barbells, wondering if his power was a subset of super-strength. Next moment, he was opening his eyes with a start.
I’ll do it tomorrow, he thought fuzzily.
Erik staggered over to his bed and collapsed on top of it. As he melted into the sheets, eyes closed, one final thought bubbled to the surface before he passed out:
So I have superpowers. Now what?
Now what? was first conscious thought that registered in Erik’s brain when he woke up six hours later. But he forgot about it as soon as he got out of bed, groaning like a resurrected mummy rising from its sarcophagus.
The question remained under the radar while Erik puttered around his apartment in search of food. Then it hit him like a beer bottle attack to the head when he turned to his fruit bowl, thinking to add something sweet to his breakfast salad. He noticed the battered-looking avocado nestled in the center and recalled last night’s experiments.
Erik’s first reaction was squinting at his windows, for it didn’t seem unreasonable to hope a nocturnal bird bearing a letter of acceptance to a superpower training school would swoop in through the glass. When no birds or letters were forthcoming, Erik sat down, clutched his hair and forced himself to think.
The first issue he had to consider was who may suspect he had superpowers besides him. At this point, only the crowd of onlookers who’d seen his superpower-fueled leaping had the potential. Runners did all sorts of crazy things at races for giggles and laughs. In yesterday’s race, there was a group of runners clad in beer can costumes, and a man in farmer overalls running while juggling six bowling pins. Would a guy imitating a hunted gazelle draw much attention in comparison? Probably not. Erik then considered calling in sick to further assess his situation at home, but he decided: why should he? His job paid him to sit and think, and wouldn’t a deviation from routine look more suspicious?
So Erik ate, dressed and went to work as scheduled.
“Dude, didn’t you run a marathon yesterday?” exclaimed Sean the System Admin, as he blinded Erik with his ugly pink Aloha shirt.
“Yes,” said Erik, with a strong hint of so?
“I’m shocked you can still stand,” Sean remarked. “So how long did it take you to finish?”
“Two hours and forty-two minutes,” Erik replied, while inwardly grumbling: off by two minutes! Two—whole—bloody—minutes! Dammit!
“Freak,” said Sean, shaking his head. “Why would anyone pay to run a hundred miles, I’ll never know…”
Because it’s only twenty-six point two, Erik didn’t say as he shrugged his shoulders. Then he sauntered over to his cubicle.
Erik logged in and performed his daily database health checkup routine. Then he checked his emails and decided none of them deserved his immediate attention. As he marked them all as ‘read’, Erik glanced at the pen lying next to his mouse-pad. He stretched out his pinky and touched it. At once, the pen jumped and rolled away.
This could be really useful, Erik thought, feeling awfully pleased. He should check how much mass he could push, and how instantaneous were the effects. Depending on how reliable it was, he could use this power to…
Erik frowned at himself. Generators were the only practical application for his superpower he could think of. But for them to work, he’d have to exert his power to a motor for hours on end, and that would get old quickly. Erik didn’t have the necessary engineering knowledge to design a more sophisticated solution. He could study, of course, but he wanted an application he could build now. This meant he needed to consult someone who had the necessary background for ideas, but that required he tell someone. Who could he trust this with?
His family was out of the question. His father, a mad retired surgeon, would panic and invade his apartment with something outrageous, a live pigeon perhaps. His mother would have conniptions and work herself to death trying to help him. His sister Rena may give him the benefit of the doubt, but she had her second child about a month ago, and infant-induced insomnia set her mood on a combative slant. More likely, she’d suggest he go see a shrink and book an appointment under his name. As for his friends and coworkers, they’d either dismiss a demonstration as a clever magic trick or blabber the news to anyone who’d listen, which was far worse. That left the Internet.
Erik was wary of searching the Internet. The overtly supernatural was an area ripe for crazies and charlatans, and the Internet’s anonymity only made things worse. There was also the nagging worry: what if he got discovered as someone who had superpowers? Would he get caught in a media circus? Would government agents kidnap him and imprison him in a lab? The risk of getting kidnapped worried him the most because he could actually see it happening. Erik worked for the Department of Defense (DOD) as a civilian contractor. Thus all his activities were, at least in theory, monitored. The Defense Act of 2002 granted Congress virtually unlimited access to the data on the Internet, and it was public knowledge the National Security Agency (NSA) monitored certain query combinations to sniff out terrorist activity. What if they flagged him as suspicious?
Around noon, Erik was nursing a headache only thinking too much could produce. On the one hand, he was starting to resent his newly discovered superpower for disrupting his placid life. On the other hand, he was grateful he discovered it now, as a responsible adult, rather than, say, as a teen, because he probably would’ve done something stupid with it otherwise. Erik shied away from speculating any specific act his teenaged self might’ve done, for it gave him the urge to punch himself in the face.
Sighing, Erik headed to the office kitchen to get some coffee. Sean was there, putting a boxed lunch into the microwave. As soon as he saw Erik, Sean bemoaned the air-conditioning unit in the server room now worked on a whim and foreign hacker(s) were attacking their application in earnest. Erik made the appropriate noises in response as he waited for his coffee.
Sean was drawing a breath when Erik stepped away from the coffee machine, full steaming mug in hand. Before Sean could resume his rant, Erik spoke.
“Random question: If you had a superpower that lets you push anything as long as you’re touching it, how would you use it?”
“I wouldn’t,” said Sean without missing a beat. “It’s useless. What kind of superpower is that?”
Erik smiled. Sometimes he shared his more outré thoughts with Sean because the man would tell him he was stupid or crazy, and call him a lot of names. Erik’s brain, rather perversely, would germinate several fresh ideas in response, to prove Sean wrong.
“A more reasonable form of super-strength,” Erik replied. “Don’t you think it has a lot of potential? You could make man-powered generators.”
“Oh no,” Sean groaned. “You’re into self-sufficiency now, aren’t you? I knew it was only a matter of time when you started bicycling to work.”
Erik said nothing.
“You should move to the west coast and join the hipsters,” Sean sneered. “You’ll feel right at home.”
“I’ll send you a photo when I get a vaporizer,” Erik drawled.
“There you go,” Sean huffed. “Now you even sound like one. What the heck are you doing here, man?”
The microwave dinged. Sean took out his lunch and left the kitchen, muttering.
Erik headed back to his cubicle, nursing an idea…