It is the end of a four mile cross country run on a mild September afternoon in 1967, it’s 100 yards up a moderate slope on a wide green meadow to the finish line where the coaches and a handful of spectators gather. I’m the seventh man on our seven-man team. The sixth man is finishing fifty yards ahead of me. My five other teammates are screaming encouragement to us.
There are three runners from the other schools between me and the finish line. I’m content to finish behind them. Our team will still do well. For some reason I look off to my left and there’s a girl on a patient gray horse watching the race; she looks at me and shakes her head in disgust like she could read my mind.
It stings me, startles me like an electric lash from a thousand-volt whip. I charge after the closest runner and catch him in a few yards. I accelerate, pick up steam. I catch the second runner thirty yards later dead on my feet, an empty tank, spent legs, but I see that look, mocking me. I move forward drawing on the cheers of my team mates and the stuff at the bottom of my well that I never knew existed.
All I see is the finish line. I don’t see the other runner. I don’t know that I have beaten him by inches. I stumble and collapse on the ground; lose consciousness for a few seconds or minutes or days.
Next week the school newspaper photographer shows me the black and white 5×7 picture. I’m leaning into falling. My chin and cheeks are covered with dried and fresh spit, snot is covering my upper lip and nose, my eyes have rolled up into my head. Face twisted and distorted in anguish. My lips are peeled back to my gums. My teeth pale white bones in my mouth.
He wants to know if I want it. The school paper is not going to use it. He gives it and the negative to me in a large brown envelope.
I show it to my mother. She looks at it for a long time. She kisses me on the cheek. She frames it and stands it in a place of honor on our mantle.
I show it to my girl. She studies it forever, turns to me, “You have never looked so beautiful.” She means it.
I have never looked so beautiful since then.
My only regret is that I can’t share the picture with the girl on the placid gray horse.
Frederick K. Foote lives in Sacramento California and enjoys writing short stories and plays. You can find his work at spectermagazine.com and akashicbooks.com.