“Do you want to see another alternate version of your final self? Maybe this one will be more to your liking.”

Another duplicate Joseph Lewms appeared next to the running track. The seventh, so far. Again, dressed in the same cut-off shorts and plain white T-shirt bearing his middle school’s name. Again, wearing the same off-brand sneakers with the too-long laces. Except, this Joseph Lewms wasn’t shivering from the cold winds coming off the lake. This Joseph Lewms wasn’t weighed down by gelatinous pale skin that looked as if it had never been exposed to sunlight.

“He’s much faster than what you are now, and his stamina will allow you to run the two-lap race without stopping. You’ve never been able to do that before. It could be your greatest personal achievement.”

“Does it even matter anymore?” Joseph heard the helplessness in his own voice. “Everything’s gonna turn out the same way for me, no matter what I do.”

“That part, regrettably, is true. You will always be in the same eighth grade class at the same school. You will always be signed up to participate in this specific phys ed class at this specific time. This phys ed class will always be assigned to conduct its physical fitness drills on this side of the school, next to the train tracks. None of the alternate timelines we are able to offer you will diverge far enough from your native timeline to provide a way out of this.”

“What if I run the race in the opposite direction?”

“It will not matter.  You will still be within range.”

“What if I leave the course right now and go back to the school?”

“All such realities show that Mr. Unger’s staff will not let you leave the running track area until phys ed class is over.  You will not be able to take the bridge across the lake, and you will not be able to seek safety inside the school.”

Joseph felt his body go tense with fright, welling up into sorrow.  “What if I tell Mr. Unger what’s going to happen?”

“If we suspect you will attempt to disrespect our generosity of having revealed your immediate future, you will find yourself back in your native reality, with no knowledge of ever having been offered a more dignified alternative.”

A more dignified alternative. What a joke. There was nothing dignified about what was being dangled in front of his face.

He just wanted to be left alone. Although… it was his classmates’ bullying and his parents’ constant fighting that first guided him down his treasured escape route of video games and microwavable foods. There was no ridicule there because there was no one around to judge him. There was no confrontation because there was nothing to fight about. His parents’ pleading to get out and play like all the other kids his age was now so distant and so easy to ignore. His pediatrician’s barely noticed warnings about being so heavy for his age now seemed so laughable. Yes, he was quite content in this perfect world he invented for himself.

Now, these — these, what? Entities? — were teasing him with a life he could not keep. It was a crueler brand of torment than anything he experienced in the life he thought he forgot.

His sorrow turned to anger. He’d never experienced anger before. He never allowed it. He’d always gone straight to his perfect world. His hiding place.

Except, these entities were ripping that hiding place away from him. They were exposing him to this feeling he had always hidden from. They were forcing on him a reason to fight back.

He never knew he could.

Maybe, if he did, they would leave him alone.

Joseph motioned to the more athletic version of himself. “So, he’s in really good shape?”

“Excellent shape.”

“I’ll take that version.”

“It is done.”

Joseph felt a flash going through his head. A second later, he was standing in the shoes of the alternate Joseph Lewms. He felt more energetic. More alert. Definitely more ambitious.

“Your group is being called to the starting line.”

Joseph bent down to tuck in the laces.  “I’m going to outrun this.”

“It will not happen.”

“But that won’t stop me from trying.”

“You honor us, Joseph Lewms. We have offered countless dozens of people just like yourself — just like what we used to be — an opportunity to leave in dignity. All of them argued. All of them mourned. But, ultimately, they bowed down and accepted the dignity without a fight. Just as we did. But, you are showing defiance. This is the spirit of life we have been searching for. We look forward to you joining us in a few minutes.”

Joseph stood up and walked towards the starting line. Furious determination etched a snarl on his face. “Ain’t gonna happen.”

Mr. Unger held his arm up in the air. He called out something, but the approaching train horn drowned him out.

Joseph crouched forward in his starting stance. He could see the fuel tanker train’s headlight stabbing through the trees. It was going way too fast for the upcoming turn.

Mr. Unger threw down his arm, and the contestants charged down the track.

Joseph veered left and cut across the grassy infield to the other side of the track.

The train’s desperate braking was deafening.

Joseph ran down the hill and dove towards the dark and frigid lake. He could see the flash behind him. The screams of his classmates ended almost as quickly. Burning fragments splashed all around him, bringing with them the nauseating smell of fuel.

The water felt way too warm for this time of year.

“Perhaps, we should strive to join you.”

The voice sounded as if it was coming from right next to him.

The water suddenly didn’t feel all that bad.

Steve Husk has two full time jobs: web applications development, and fathering three kids. His has discovered fragments of time between the two, and uses them to create a writing career. That makes three full time jobs. He used to know what sleep was like. Steve practices his craft in Manassas, Virginia, USA.

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