AFTER THEY’D FLOWN • by Helen Merrick

Left, right, left, right… keep going, keep breathing. Her chest burned, rasping breaths tearing her parched throat. Still, she battled on. Left, right, left, right… Pumping dance music pounded her ears but she’d long since abandoned keeping time to the beat. Now, it was merely a distraction, a way to drown out slap of feet on tarmac and the racing thump of her bursting heart.

“Must keep going,” she muttered, gasping. She licked her lips, tasting salt. Desperately wanting water, she’d regretted draining the last of her bottle a mile back. She crunched the empty plastic in her fist, wishing she’d made it last.

Left, right… She glanced at the runners around her, aware that their numbers had thinned. A bigger pack ran ahead, a dazzling display of outlandish costumes glittering into the distance. Only a few runners were behind. Determined not to fall back further, she urged her legs to move faster but they refused to cooperate. Never mind, all I have to do is finish. And the finish line was close – hiding around the next corner if she wasn’t mistaken. She could make that. She had to. 

She’d entered the race on a whim, an advertisement on the local radio news catching her attention while she was eating supper. A road race would give her a goal, she’d thought. Fitness and fun. Win-win. Enthused, she’d looked it up online and entered immediately, bought trainers and sweat pants then taken her sponsorship form into work even before she’d torn the tags off her new gear.

How was she to know that training would be so hard? She’d run in her youth, been a regular jogger before having kids. But, in middle age with a dodgy back and more weight than was healthy, running to the end of the street and back clean wiped her out. By session three, she questioned what had possessed her to enter a race. Was it a mid-life crisis? Panic, loneliness, a sense of encroaching age?

Probably. She’d spent the last twenty years juggling a full-time job with single parenthood, her life revolving around her kids. Entirely around them. Now that era was over, she was utterly lost. It had hurt when her eldest had flown the nest but she was taken aback by the strength of her emotions when her youngest waved goodbye and drove, car stuffed with belongings, to the other side of the country. It was devastating. Suddenly without purpose, she found herself alone in a house as dead and empty as her heart.

Initially, she’d filled the hole with DIY and redecorating. She painted and cleaned the whole house, landscaped the garden, and slowly ticked-off all the jobs from a to-do list dating back decades. But it wasn’t enough. The house was just four walls — four freshly painted characterless, magnolia walls — that may as well be bars. She took to staring at them, hating them. Hating her life.

Thank goodness she’d been jolted by that radio commercial.

“I’m doing this,” she wheezed through gritted teeth. “I will make it.”

A lady wearing a red and white checked clown costume, complete with huge nose and curly wig, sprinted past pushing a buggy. “Nearly there,” she encouraged while her giggling toddler twisted sideways and waved a pudgy hand.

“Keep going,” yelled someone in her peripheral vision. A woman running close by shot her a wide smile.

I. Can. Do. This.

She rounded a bend — and the finish line loomed into view. Finally. Never had there been a more welcome sight. Marshalls wearing fluorescent yellow beckoned to her and, beyond them, a field was packed with smiling, red-faced runners congratulating each other and clutching their medals. Families congregated, parents comparing times with their children. Music played from the concession stands, giving the field a fairground vibe. Or circus, with all the eclectic costumes. The atmosphere was electric — and she was part of it.

Wiping sweat from her brow, she quickened her pace, pushing past the twinges in her calves that threatened cramp. When she crossed the finish line, she threw up her arms in triumph. I’ve done it! Getting her second wind she jumped up and down then hugged the marshal who handed out her medal. It may have been only a 5k family fun run but to her, it was the start of a new chapter: a chapter about herself.

Originally from North Wales, Helen Merrick writes short fiction in many genres. She began writing in 2012 and posted her first short story online that same year. She has since won awards for her online work and been published in Open Pen London magazine.

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