Running With The Dead
By Larry Hodges
Ben closed his eyes as he jogged on the bike path through the forest, enjoying the cool misty early-morning breeze on his dead flesh. He could feel his dried-up heart loosely bouncing up and down inside his chest cavity in rhythm to his long strides. Toby, his pet mouse, squeaked in protest as he anchored himself deep inside his hole in Ben’s stomach, his claws dug firmly into the lining. It tickled.
The mile run was this afternoon, right after school. He’d be the first dead person ever to run in a high school track meet. Running strengthened the will, but too much would wear it down. His will throbbed through his muscles, begging him to leap into action. He’d better save it for later, when he’d need it; this was just a loosen-up jog before school. If he wanted to win the mile, he’d need every bit of his will to overcome the hostile crowds and the Mile Mafia.
He especially wanted to beat Fitz.
Ben wore the same tattered blue warm-up suit he’d worn when Fitz had killed him a year ago. His face felt tight with thin, parched skin pulled over his skull and jaw. Most dead people lose their hair within a year, but Ben was proud that his thick brown mop was as full as ever.
He filled his lungs with air and luxuriated in its pinecone taste. He’d gotten out of the habit of breathing in the year since his murder, but sometimes he sucked in air just for the joy of it. Life was worth living, even if you were dead—even if the Mile Mafia was after you. If he let them weaken his will, he’d be just another dead body rotting away, its spirit gone to the great vacuum.
He opened his eyes and came to an abrupt halt, his heart and Toby slapping into his front with a smack and a squeak. Several maggots fell out of the infestation under his right armpit.
Standing before him was Fitz, the leader of the Mile Mafia, aiming a pistol at Ben. Perhaps it was the very Beretta he’d used to murder Ben. Or would the police have confiscated that gun? Ben wasn’t sure.
Fitz wore the all-black warm-up suit of the Mile Mafia, recently adopted by the school track team. It sagged over the sticklike arms and legs of his emaciated body. Over the heart was the emblem of the Nathan Hale High School Running Dragons, with the letters NHHS enclosed inside a yellow silhouette of a dragon. Next to the emblem was the Mile Mafia patch, a pair of feet in running shoes stomping on a misshapen human head in red over a white pentagram. He had the Mile Mafia dyed black crew cut with a bare two-inch strip shaved down the middle, sort of a reverse Mohawk. It looked to Ben like a runway for a tiny airplane. Fitz’s flushed face was all sharp angles with a thin, pointy nose. He was short, a mere sapling of a boy, which had always struck Ben as an unlikely trait in a gang leader. But when Fitz spoke, he seemed seven feet tall.
“I told you not to try out for the team,” Fitz said in his deep voice, twirling the Beretta’s muzzle slightly but keeping it aimed at Ben’s face. “I told you last year. You didn’t listen, and look what happened. And here we are again. Could my instructions have been any more clear, zombie boy?”
Ben tried to ignore the Z-word (the politically correct term was living dead) as he fought to keep his will. Fitz’s instructions had been pretty clear, yet Ben had shown up for the team trials a week before. He’d made the team, finishing a step behind Fitz, a step ahead of Wade, and two steps ahead of Jimmy. The top three made the team.
He was already dead; what more could they do? Lock him in his school locker? As long as he kept his will, he should be fine. He’d been avoiding the Mile Mafia at school since the tryouts.
As a new member of the team (technically, he’d made the team last year, but didn’t live long enough to get the uniform), he’d get his uniform, including the black warm-up suit, minus the Mile Mafia patch, that afternoon. The thought raised his spirits and his will.
“Your instructions can go to hell,” Ben said.
Fitz seemed to look down at Ben even though he was four inches shorter. “That’s where you shoulda gone a year ago, fishbreath. We don’t want you around, zombie boy, so don’t even think about showing up today. Deadies shouldn’t mix with the living.”
Ben took a reflexive deep breath. Most living dead lost their will in their first year and moved from the shantytown where they lived to the nearby graveyard. As the body deteriorated, it became harder and harder to keep the spirit from departing for the great vacuum. Ben knew his time was near. No amount of will could keep his spirit earthbound forever. It was a constant struggle. Fitz and the Mile Mafia were only a few of the living who strove daily to weaken and destroy his will, hastening his spirit’s departure.
He was the first openly dead boy or girl to go to school with the living. In a dramatic decision that was being appealed, the courts had upheld his right to do so. It wasn’t fun being the first. The ruling would probably be overturned, since there were politics involved, and the dead couldn’t vote, and it probably violated the Dead Separation Amendment in the Constitution anyway. It would almost be a relief if they overturned the decision, sending him back to his own kind. He took another breath.
“You even fake breathing to be like us,” Fitz said, shaking his head. “You’ve had your warning. I told the others you wouldn’t be there, that I’d take care of it, and Jimmy would get your spot. You show up, you show me up, and when someone does that, I take care of ’em.” He pointed the Beretta between Ben’s eyes. “Permanently this time.”
Ben stared at the gun, and his will soared. Fitz had put a bullet in his brain a year ago, so who cared if he had a second one? He’d convinced his dad not to press charges or even tell anyone who did it, saving Fitz from juvie. When the police at the morgue interviewed Ben, he’d clammed up and left as soon as his dad came by to pick him up. He’d hoped the gesture would convince Fitz and the others to accept him back, but it obviously hadn’t worked.
Forget trying to be accepted. As long as he kept his will, he could forget Fitz. Forget the Mile Mafia. Forget the protesting parents and students. Forget the media and their distorted reports. He’d done nothing wrong. Why shouldn’t he go to school and run on the track team with the living? He wanted to race. He wanted to win.
“I’ll see you at the starting line,” Ben said.
“Wrong answer,” Fitz said. He fired the Beretta. Ben jerked sideways and felt a searing pain in his right ear. Before he could regain his balance, Fitz jabbed him with the gun; the muzzle dug painfully into Ben’s lifeless flesh as he fell to the dirt on the side of the bike path.
“Next time I won’t miss, zombie boy,” Fitz said. “Oh, look!” He pointed. Most of Ben’s ear lay on the ground. Fitz mashed it with his foot. “I guess your dad won’t be sewing that back on, will he?”
Ben gingerly rose to his feet, checking himself to make sure he hadn’t lost any more body parts. He could feel Toby shaking with fear. Ben knew he, too, would be shaking if his body still had that reflex.
“Do you really think you can kill me again?” Ben asked.
“You think I’m an idiot?” Fitz again aimed the Beretta between Ben’s eyes, a crooked grin on his face. “I got special bullets.”
“Special bullets?” Ben asked. What difference would that make? Then he grinned. “Don’t tell me you have silver bullets!”
The crooked grin disappeared. “Of course. Normal bullets won’t do anything more to you.”
“Silver bullets are for werewolves, you moron. And they’re just superstition, anyway.”
“They won’t hurt zombies?”
Ben felt an electric shock go through him at another use of the Z-word. Enough was enough. “I’m not a zombie,” he said, trying to control his voice. “I’m just dead.”
“Oh, you don’t like being called zombie? That’s good to know, zombie boy!”
Ben lunged at him. Fitz jerked the Beretta up and fired. The bullet entered Ben’s chest, went through his heart and out his back. He yanked the gun out of Fitz’s hand and smashed him in the face with it.
The Beretta went off.
For a split second, Ben stared into Fitz’s face as blood poured out of the hole in his forehead, a match for the one in Ben’s own head. Then Fitz pitched backward onto the ground. His arms and legs shook for a moment as if in an epileptic fit, then he lay still.
Fitz was dead.
Ben stared for a moment, feeling dizzy. He’d never killed anyone. Sure, he’d thought about taking his revenge on Fitz and the others that taunted him daily, the cries of “zombie boy!” echoing inside his skull and desiccated brain. But to actually do it?
“No you don’t!” he cried, kneeling besides Fitz. “You don’t get away that easy!” He pounded Fitz on the chest with his fists. “Wake up! We’re racing today! Don’t you dare leave!” How could he beat Fitz in the mile if Fitz was dead?
He slapped Fitz in the face, feeling guilty pleasure in doing so. The first few minutes were crucial; once his spirit went to the vacuum, Fitz would be gone forever.
“I know you can hear me!” he cried. Somewhere, deep inside, there had to be a spark of will left in Fitz, enough to hold his spirit back.
He remembered his own death, when Fitz had shot him in front of the Mile Mafia. A cacophony of sounds and bright lights had summoned him as he prepared to leave for the vacuum. Something on the edge of his awareness had drawn his attention away. He’d followed that unexpected sound back and awoken to find Fitz alone, crying over his body. It was a Fitz he’d never seen before and had never seen since.
“I know it’s all an act,” Ben said. “All this posturing with the Mile Mafia. You leave now, that’s your legacy.” He kicked Fitz in the side. “Wake up! You have the will. Use it!” He kicked him again, extra hard.
It was no use. Fitz was gone. They’d probably name Jimmy the new Mile Mafia leader, and Jimmy was truly depraved.
He gave Fitz one more kick and then turned to leave. Forget Fitz. He deserved his fate.
“Wait.” Ben almost missed the whispery voice. He turned back and saw Fitz’s mouth trembling, then his eyes opened and he looked up at Ben, a scared little boy.
Blood covered Fitz’s face and chest. He tried to raise his head, but he fell back onto the hard surface of the bike path.
“Stand up,” Ben said. “Get up, now!”
Fitz’s body twitched, then went still. “I can’t. It’s like I weigh a thousand pounds.”
“You barely weigh a hundred,” Ben said, kicking Fitz again. “It’s all in your head. Get up!”
Once again, Fitz struggled, but it was no use. His spirit was on the verge of leaving.
“You have to try harder!” Ben said. “When you run the mile, you push yourself to the limit. You have the will; use it. Just get up!” Ben grabbed Fitz’s hand and pulled. “Do it, or just collapse back and die, really die, because you’re too gutless to go on.”
“I’m trying!” Fitz croaked. Ben felt Fitz’s fingers tighten around his. Fitz’s legs kicked awkwardly.
“I swear, if you don’t get up, I’ll dress you in girls’ clothes and tie you to the school flagpole.”
“You do that, I’ll—” Fitz grabbed Ben’s arm in both hands and slowly, arms trembling, pulled himself up. His body spasmed as he balanced on his feet, leaning on Ben.
“Welcome back,” Ben said. Nathan Hale High had its second dead student.
Fitz let go of Ben and stepped back unsteadily, like a scarecrow taking its first steps. He raised his hand and felt at the bullet hole in his forehead. “It’s the same spot I shot you.”
“Yeah, we’re a matched set now,” Ben said.
“I’m really dead,” Fitz said, his facial expression looking the part.
“Welcome to my world. The only one left that’s politically correct to dump on. I hope you enjoy it as much as you’ve let me.”
Fitz stared at his blood-stained hands. “I guess I won’t be doing that anymore, not with the Mile Mafia. We—they don’t like dead people.”
“Duh.” Ben couldn’t help but feel a bit smug. Fitz deserved the same treatment he’d been giving out.
“How am I going to tell my parents?” Fitz wiped the blood on his warm-up pants. “They hate dead people. Say they take jobs away from honest living folks.”
“And now you’re their dead son.” Ben pulled off his blue warm-up jacket. “Here. Wipe off all that blood.” He’d be getting a new warm-up that afternoon, anyway.
Fitz began to wipe the blood off. Then he stopped. “Does anyone else have to know?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if I don’t tell anyone I’m dead? Can’t I fill the hole in my head with something, then cover it with makeup?”
“Sure you can,” Ben said. “And how long do you think you can keep that up?” He’d tried the same thing when he died. Unfortunately, Fitz had known he was dead, and on the first day back at school, he walked up to Ben, poked his finger in his bullet hole, and exposed his secret. There were a lot of screams from other students and even more screams that night when he came out of the coffin to his dad.
“Unlike you,” Ben continued, “I can keep a secret. But think it through. Every time you fake eating with your parents or go out for pizza with your friends, the food stays in your stomach. You don’t have a digestive system anymore. The food just sits there and rots, and all the will power in the world won’t keep it from stinking up the place. You’ll have to cut into your stomach every day and empty it out. The rest of your body gets pretty ripe, too, so you’re going to spend a fortune on deodorant and all sorts of cosmetics. And, as you and your friends always remind me, mouthwash won’t cover up the smell that’ll come out of your mouth in a few weeks.”
“Aren’t there preservatives or something I can use?”
“Sure,” Ben said. “You can inject yourself with embalming fluids, and your body’ll last twice as long. But it’ll slow your thinking down, too, and you’ll be like a movie zombie. You can also slow it down by sleeping in a refrigerated coffin, like I do. But that’s just putting things off. How long can you keep it up?”
“As long as I can,” Fitz said, tossing Ben’s jacket back. Ben held it gingerly, avoiding the blood. “I don’t want my parents and friends to know. Don’t you tell anyone, or else.”
“Or else what?”
“Or else—” Fitz stopped. Then he began to laugh. “I guess there’s not much I could do to you, is there?”
“No, there’s not,” Ben said.
Fitz stopped laughing. “I’m really dead. I can’t believe it. Why me?”
“What do you mean, why you?” Ben exclaimed. “How about me? You killed me for making the track team to save face, and now you complain it happened to you? I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.”
Fitz stared at him, his eyes panicky. “I had no choice; I’d promised your spot to someone else. You know how that works. If I show weakness, I’m out. But I never thought…” His voice trailed off as he looked at his bloody hands again. “This can’t be happening.” He turned and ran off, once again a scared little boy. A scared, little dead boy.
Ben watched him go. Fitz would learn to be dead. But he got what he deserved. Ben wondered if Fitz would even have the will to go on. Probably not. Jeez, Ben thought. What was I thinking? I should have let his spirit go.
Ben picked up his ear, but it was too mashed up to sew back on. Using the muzzle of the Beretta, he dug a hole well off the path and buried the gun, the bloody blue warm-up jacket, and his ear. He’d be late for school, but he knew he wouldn’t be paying attention, anyway. He had bigger matters on his mind.
Ben kept to himself during school, ignoring the pointed stares and comments. After his last class, he went to the locker room by the gym.
The other members of the track team kept their distance as Ben changed into his new all-black school uniform—shorts and shirt and the crisp, new warm-up. About half the team had the Mile Mafia patch and black reverse Mohawks. Mile Mafia members always got first dibs on the team, within reason. Fitz insisted they be pretty good before letting them on the team. Non-Mile Mafia members knew better than to finish ahead of members in any track and field event. There were usually spots leftover for them as long as they knew their place.
But the mile was their specialty. Ben had to give Fitz, Wade, Jimmy, and the others credit that they took the event seriously and trained hard for it.
Of course, with a little blackmail, most opposing teams learned not to beat them either. The Mile Mafia dominated the mile event at all the high school track meets.
And now, Ben was a member of the Nathan Hale High School Running Dragons track team as the number two miler. He would represent the school along with Fitz and Wade. Jimmy was the backup.
Ben was a bit self-conscious about the maggots under his right armpit and tried to keep his right side against the wall while he was changing shirts. But there was little he could do about the growing pile of maggots that fell to the floor, gathering attention as they wiggled about. When he thought nobody was looking, he nonchalantly scooped them up and put them back in. He was secretly proud of the infestation, which was working its way into his chest. They were a part of him, just as much as his mummified heart and other internal organs. Removing them would be like amputation.
“Oops! Sorry,” Wade said as he slammed the door to Ben’s locker into him. “Welcome to the team.” He rabbit punched Ben in the stomach, then dashed off to the door, laughing as Toby squeaked. Ben hoped the mouse wasn’t hurt.
As Ben watched him go, something slammed the back of his legs behind the knees. He fell on his backside. Maggots exploded out of his armpit onto the floor, and Toby raced about inside his stomach, frantically squeaking.
“Ooh, sorry about that!” Jimmy said as he, too, made for the door. On his hands and knees, Ben stuffed handfuls of maggots back inside as other members of the team snickered.
Eight schools would compete in the track meet hosted by Nathan Hale High. As Ben made his way to the track in the back of the school, he saw the stands were filled. Perhaps the local fans would favor loyalty toward their home team over their prejudice against the dead?
As he approached, he heard boos from the crowd. The media circus began as reporters and photographers jabbed microphones and flashed cameras in his face, shouting questions.
“Why have you rejected your own people to hang around the living?”
“Do you think it’s right for dead people to take jobs from the living?”
“Should the dead be allowed to marry the living?”
Ben walked rapidly to his team’s bench, which was off limits to the press. As he sat there in the bright sunshine, ignoring the teammates who moved away, he could feel all eyes on him. Long ago, he’d given up on trying to hide the bullet hole in his forehead; now, he had the torn-up ear as well, not to mention the pale, stretched skin over his face. He fit in with the others like a pimple on a prom queen. Maybe he should ditch the school uniform and just wear a shirt with a target on it. He hoped he’d used enough deodorant that morning.
“You’re here, huh?” said Coach Perkins, avoiding eye contact. “Anyone seen Fitz?”
Wade, his face in perpetual scowl mode, sat down next to him, which surprised Ben. “Look, deadie, are you really going to go through with this?” The freckled giant, also the team’s star shot-putter, seemed too big and muscular to be a long distance runner.
Ben glanced at him but didn’t answer.
Jimmy sat down on Ben’s other side. He was the joker of the team, mostly at Ben’s expense. Unlike the diminutive Fitz and the massive Jimmy, he looked like a miler with his long, lean legs and tanned body.
“Hey, zombie boy,” Jimmy said, “can dead meat win a track meet?” He stopped to laugh at his joke along with several others. “No one wants you here, and we’re not going to let a deadie win.”
“We’ll decide that on the track,” Ben said.
“You think so?” Jimmy shook his head smugly. “You think you have a chance?”
“I’m going to win,” Ben said, immediately regretting his rashness.
“Really? Hey everyone, zombie boy here says he’s going to win!” Jimmy turned back to him. “How sure are you?”
“Okay, zombie boy, here’s what we’ll do,” Jimmy said. “If you win the race, we’ll let you alone. I’m saying this in front of everyone.” The other members of the track team were edging closer and listening. “Sound good?”
It sounded too good. “And if I lose?”
“Then you quit school here for good.”
“Deal,” Ben said before he could shut himself up. What was he thinking? What were his chances of winning his first track meet, beating out everyone in eight schools? Even if he won, what were the chances the Mile Mafia would fulfill their promise? Who would enforce such a bet?
He was alone against the Mile Mafia and everyone else. It was a lose-lose bet. How stupid could he be?
He wished his parents could be here. His mom had died from a stroke when he was eight. He’d been alone with her when it happened. She’d collapsed to the floor, unconscious, and so had no conscious will. He’d yelled and cried at her to wake up, but like most folks, her spirit departed immediately. Perhaps, if he’d tried harder, as he had with Fitz, he could have brought her back. He’d wrestled with the thought for years.
His dad, a tailor, couldn’t get off work. The profession was helpful those times when Ben needed a part of himself sewn back on. Their family used to live in the affluent suburbs, but after Ben’s death, they’d moved into an apartment near the shantytown that many of the living dead called home. The apartment manager didn’t want Ben there with the other living people, but his dad convinced her by offering to pay extra rent. There weren’t many places where a mixed family like theirs could live. To pay the rent, Ben’s dad worked long hours, so he couldn’t get time off to see Ben’s first track meet.
As the starting time for the mile approached, Fitz still hadn’t showed. Ben wanted badly to beat Fitz, but it looked like he’d be the only dead runner in the race. Fitz should be able to run by now, Ben thought. If he has the will. Perhaps he’s already lost it, and he’s lying around somewhere rotting away. Ben put the thought out of his mind; he’d done all he could for his nemesis.
“Okay, Jimmy, since Fitz isn’t here, you’ll be running today,” said Coach Perkins. “You, Wade, and…” His voice trailed off. At first, Ben thought he just couldn’t bring himself to say Ben’s name. Then he saw that the coach was staring off into the distance.
Slowly jogging over from the far side of the track, silhouetted against the setting sun, was Fitz. As he approached, Ben saw that he’d filled in the hole in his head with something and covered it with makeup, so it didn’t show.
“Sorry, Jimmy,” Coach Perkins said. “Fitz has decided to join us after all.”
Ben jumped to his feet and removed his warm-up suit. It was time to run. Time to beat Fitz. He took his spot on the inner part of the track amidst the crowd of runners. It would be four laps around the quarter mile track. Other than the team trials, it had been a long time since Ben had raced. He could feel butterflies in his stomach, as well as Toby, who was scampering about.
One of the runners pointed at Ben. “We’re not running with a deadie.” He and another member of his team walked off. The third member of their team followed them, staring at the ground.
“Me either,” said another from a different school. Soon, eight of the twenty-four runners had pulled out.
“See what you’ve done, zombie boy?” Wade said. “Go back to your graveyard. Of course, you are helping the team by getting rid of the competition.”
“It’s not Ben they’re protesting,” Jimmy said from the sideline. “It’s his smell.” Several runners laughed nervously. Fitz stared at Jimmy and then looked down as he took his place at the starting line.
“Oh, gross,” one said, holding his nose. He moved to the outer edge of the track.
Ben gritted his teeth, fighting to keep his will up. Anger filled him, and that helped. Maybe hating everyone would energize him, give him the will to win.
The starter called, “Runners, take your mark.” Ben took a reflexive deep breath, not that he’d need to breathe to run. Some thought it was an unfair advantage for the dead to compete with the living since they didn’t have to breathe, but the living had no idea how much will it took for the dead to run. Fighting exhaustion was a lot easier than fighting to keep your will, especially when everyone around you did their best to sap it.
“Set!” Ben leaned forward slightly, ready to spring forward. Toby stuck his head out of Ben’s stomach, wiggling his whiskers at Ben.
The starting gun rocketed through the air. Memory of Fitz sticking the Beretta against his forehead and firing it a year ago froze Ben in his tracks.
But only for a second, as he felt a searing pain in his right shoulder. Wade had grabbed his arm and twisted, and the arm had come off at the shoulder. Wade, at first surprised at the souvenir he held, yelled “Jeez!” and tossed the arm into the track’s infield. Then, he took off after the pack of runners.
Ben hesitated, but there was no point in grabbing the arm; he’d just fall behind. His dad could sew it back on later. He took off after Wade, Fitz, and the rest, still dazed from the gunshot and having his arm yanked off. He felt his will weakening. Could he even complete the race?
Ben followed closely behind the pack of runners, vaguely aware of the cameras flashing from the press and the cheers and boos of the crowd. He knew who they were booing. Staying back wasn’t such a bad idea. Some runners went out fast and kept going as fast as they could until they tired, and other runners passed them. Others kept a steady pace throughout, speeding up near the finish. Ben liked to hang back, save his will, and run hard at the end. If he could stay within range for three laps, he could take off in the final one.
He felt a bit awkward and unbalanced running with only one arm. He tried to compensate by pumping furiously with his left arm, while leaning slightly to the right. He was uncomfortably aware that with his right arm removed, the maggot colony under his armpit, as well as his missing right ear, were in plain view to spectators, and even worse, to the photographers. Why couldn’t they run clockwise?
He began to fall back as his will weakened. He watched as Fitz and Wade slowly moved past the pack of runners, who conveniently gave them an opening to pass on the inside. Were they letting the notorious Mile Mafia win?
White-hot anger energized him. If the others weren’t going to battle with Fitz and Wade, he would. His will poured through his muscles. He knew what Popeye felt like when he ate his spinach just before punching out Bluto. Except this wasn’t a cartoon; this was real.
Slowly, he gained on the pack as they completed the first lap. After Fitz and Wade had passed, the opening on the inside had closed, making passing difficult. He could go on the outside, but if he got stuck there on the turns on each end of the track, he’d lose ground. If he was going to pass, he needed to do it on the straightaways.
On the straightaway at the start of the second lap, he approached the school’s cheerleading squad. They started up a new chant.
He’s our man,
Stinks up the track,
Like no one can!”
The anger inside Ben burned as he went around the first curve of the second lap. He’d focus his will and run like the wind, pass everyone, and leave Fitz and Wade in the dust. He increased his pace and pulled up behind the pack as they approached the second curve. He’d try passing them after the curve and run the last two laps like a hungry cheetah.
As they came out of the curve, he moved to the outside to pass on the straightaway. The runners fanned out, blocking his path. One glanced over his shoulder at him and adjusted his position to close a temporary opening. Ben moved to the very outside of the track, but the runners spread out again, blocking his path. The cheerleaders were doing the “stinks up the track” chant again, but he ignored them.
The runners were approaching the first curve on the third lap, and he didn’t want to get caught running along the long outer part of the track there. He needed to either pass them now or move back to the inside. Desperately, he tried to force his way between two runners, but they both jabbed their elbows out, blocking him. When he moved too close, one of them jabbed him in the right side, where he didn’t have an arm to defend himself.
Maggots fell out onto the track, and Toby frantically raced about in Ben’s stomach, squeaking furiously. The blow had increased the size of the maggot hole. Seeing they weren’t going to let him pass, Ben moved back to the inside. He’d come back later to gather up the maggots and his arm.
As he did so, his dried-up heart fell out of the maggot hole. He hesitated, but if he stopped to pick his heart up, he’d fall too far behind. He ran on.
He tried passing again after the curve, but again, he was blocked. He could see Fitz and Wade running together about ten yards in front of the pack. As he approached the second curve on the third lap, he was running out of time.
His anger had pushed him so far, but now it was reaching its limit, and his will was leaving him. They weren’t going to let him win, so what was the point of trying? He might as well quit. He could go back, gather up the maggots and his arm and heart, and go home.
No, he thought, I have to try. For himself and for other living dead. The world was watching through the biased eyes of the press. Maybe someday, the world would change, and there’d be a statue of Ben, the first dead person to run with the living. He didn’t want it to read, “He gave up.”
As they came out of the curve and into the straightway at the end of the third lap, he was determined to pass the pack. Once again, he moved to the outside, and once again, he was blocked. He moved back toward the inside, but the boys had spread out. Besides the three from Nathan Hale High, there were thirteen runners, enough to block him. Did they hate him that much? Or was fear of the Mile Mafia that widespread, and they were just following orders?
As he moved back to the middle, one of the boys looked back. Suddenly he slowed a bit, falling back, opening a hole. The boy silently gestured toward the hole, a pained grin on his black face.
Ben raced through, just managing to get ahead and to the inside of the track as they approached the curve.
Just before the curve, lay his heart on the track. Barely breaking stride, he scooped it up. It had been flattened with the imprint of someone’s shoe—either Fitz or Wade, the only two to pass the organ since it had fallen out the lap before. He glanced at the bullet hole from the day before, then stuck his heart back inside his chest through the maggot hole.
As they came out of the curve, Ben felt energized. The runners blocking him and slowing him down had been a gift in disguise; if he’d gotten through early, his will would have already expired. Now, he chased after Fitz and Wade, about ten yards ahead.
There was nothing to hold Ben back; it was now or never, with three-fourths of a lap to go. He pumped his left arm furiously as he ran along the inside of the track, lengthening his stride as he began to close the distance. As they reached the final curve, Fitz was in the lead with Wade just behind him.
Ben dug in deep, running faster and faster, ignoring the pain and emptiness of his dissipating will. Would he have enough?
As they came out of the curve, he moved to the middle of the track, now even with Wade, a yard behind Fitz. He ignored the booing crowd and the screeching cheerleaders.
“No you don’t, zombie boy!” Wade yelled as Ben crept passed him and pulled even with Fitz. Wade grabbed Ben’s hair in the back and yanked, pulling Ben off stride. He felt his neck snap, and his head came off. The world spun about as Wade hoisted the head while Ben’s sightless body stumbled.
Ben awkwardly grabbed for his head with his left arm, not used to coordinating his movements without his head to guide him. He jammed his fingers into his mouth and with his thumb under the chin, tried to pull his head free from Wade. His own teeth cut painfully into his fingers.
“Ow!” Wade cried. Toby had jumped on him and bitten his leg. As Wade swatted at the mouse, Ben pulled his head free. Squeaking in triumph, Toby scurried away.
Fitz had glanced over his shoulder to see what was happening, which slowed him, so Ben had only lost a couple of yards. Now, it was a fifty-yard sprint to the red ribbon that was strung across the finish line.
With his last bit of will, Ben tore into the track, holding his head out in front so he could see. But sprinting with one arm is difficult; doing so while holding a human head is nearly impossible. Somehow, he kept within an arm’s length of Fitz but couldn’t gain on him. Despite all his efforts, Fitz and the Mile Mafia were going to win.
With ten feet to go, Ben heaved his left side forward, shot-putting his head. The world spun about as he sailed through the air, sky, ground, sky, ground, sky, ground. Vertigo swept through him as he reached the finish line, the ribbon hitting his forehead just under his bullet hole. It barely slowed his flight as his spinning head broke the ribbon and flew another ten feet. He hit the ground with a jarring and painful thump, rousing an instant headache.
His head came to a stop on its side, looking backwards. After crossing the finish line just behind Fitz, his body crumpled to the ground in agony. Ben willed his body to come to his head. It did so, crawling on hands and knees, and then grabbing his head. Painfully, he stood up. He heard a mixture of cheers and boos from the crowd. Then he collapsed to the ground, clutching his head to his chest. He had no more will.
Once again, a cacophony of sounds and bright lights summoned him. He had nothing left with which to fight the beckoning, and he drifted away, his pain vanquishing as he shifted into his final state. The light grew brighter as the sounds faded away. There was nothing to stop him, no need to stop. Soon he would join his mother.
No you don’t!
The dreamlike voice seemed to come from all directions.
You’re not getting away that easy, either!
The world seemed to vibrate.
He was vaguely aware that his forgotten body was taking a beating. Someone was pounding his chest and slapping his face. It started to hurt.
“Stop it!” Ben cried. He opened his eyes. The bright lights were gone, replaced by flashing lights.
“On your feet. Now!” Fitz yelled.
Ben struggled, but couldn’t get up.
“I said, now!” Fitz slapped him again.
“I’m trying!” Sitting up seemed the most difficult thing he’d ever done. Then, he stumbled to his feet and fell on the first try, before balancing precariously. Somehow, he seemed short as he looked up at Fitz and the others standing about. Then, he realized he was seeing everything from his chest’s perspective, where he held his head. Gradually, his will returned.
He was standing on the track near the finish line where he’d fallen. Media cameras flashed continuously. Toby came scampering across the track, ran up his leg, and dove into his hole in Ben’s stomach.
“The judges ruled you won,” Fitz said. “Your head crossed the finish line ahead of me.”
“We’re protesting that,” Wade said. “Ben cheated and should be disqualified. So Fitz won, and I get second.”
Fitz shook his head. “I saw the finish. Ben won fair and square. He wouldn’t have needed to throw his head, anyway, if you hadn’t grabbed him. I saw what you did.”
“How can you take his side?” Wade asked, looking astonished.
Jimmy stared at Fitz. He suddenly leaned forward and jabbed his finger against Fitz’s forehead. The finger went inside Fitz’s head, exposing the hole. “My god, you’re dead! No wonder you’re suddenly a pansy—you’re a zombie boy!”
Fitz nodded. “Wasn’t much of a disguise, was it? Yeah, I’m dead, just like Ben. I was going to come out of the coffin soon, but only after I’d taken care of a few things. But I guess that’s not gonna happen.”
“You bet it’s not gonna happen,” Jimmy said. He yanked the Mile Mafia insignia off Fitz’s warm-up suit. “You know the rules. We don’t hang around deadies.”
Ben was grateful that Fitz’s revived him. But now, poor Fitz faced the same fate as Ben. And yet, Fitz seemed rather happy with himself. He slapped Ben on the back, knocking more maggots free and provoking a squeak from Toby, and said, “Ben, you’re a great kid, but you’re a terrible organizer.”
What did he mean by that?
“If I’ve learned anything from leading the Mile Mafia, it’s how to organize. I’m no saint, but I know when I owe somebody. Or somebodies.”
Wade grabbed Fitz by the front of his warm-up suit, looking like a pro wrestler next to a child. “You used to be cool, but not now. You’re not organizing anything anymore.” He shoved Fitz to the ground.
Fitz stood up quickly. Once again, he seemed seven feet tall as he clapped his hands over his head three times.
People began filing from outside the stands onto the track. Not just people, Ben realized. Dead people!
“After our talk this morning,” Fitz said, “I visited the shantytowns. They’re my people now. I told them what was happening today, and, well, here they are!”
More and more living dead approached. Most wore poor-looking clothing, but all seemed very much alive despite being very dead. The causes of some of their deaths were evident, such as a woman nearby whose head drooped to the side off a broken neck.
Jimmy and Wade slowly backed away.
“From now on,” Fitz said, “no more of this separation of the living and the dead. We’re people, too, and we’re going to stand up for our rights like anyone else.”
“You have no rights,” Jimmy shouted. “Check the Constitution, the Dead Separation Act.”
“Yeah, the notorious thirty-first amendment,” Fitz said. “We’ll see about that someday. But I heard you made a bet with Ben,” Fitz said. “If he won the race, you’d leave him alone.”
“He didn’t win the race,” Jimmy said. “He cheated.” But he took a step back as Fitz stepped toward him. Jimmy and Wade now stood on the inside of the track.
Fitz walked to the outside of the track to join the multitude of dead that stood there. “You all saw what happened here today. All those who think the dead should be persecuted and Ben kicked out of our school, go join them.” He pointed at Wade and Jimmy. “Those who disagree, come join us on this side.” He joined the rest of the dead outside the track and stared back at Wade and Jimmy.
Ben joined Fitz. To Ben’s surprise, most of the other members of the track team—even the Mile Mafia members—joined the dead. So did many of the opposing track teams. Even Coach Perkins joined them, though his face looked like he’d swallowed a maggot. The press, who had hung back and watched the events unfold, also gathered behind Ben, who ignored their shouted questions.
“Are you going to sit there like ostriches?” Fitz yelled toward the stands. “You saw what that dead boy went through to win this race. If you can’t support that, then you’re deader than he is. Choose your side!”
At first, a few at a time and then like a torrent, the students and parents filed over, most joining the dead. Soon, there were hundreds of dead and living on the outside of the track, while Wade, Jimmy, and a dozen others stood alone on the inside.
“Goddammit,” Wade said. Head down, he walked across the track and joined the others.
“No way,” Jimmy said. Jaw set, he walked across the track, then ran through the crowd into the parking lot and was soon out of sight.
Fitz looked over at Ben. “Can we call it even now? But us dead people got a long way to go. Looks like I got a new project.”
Ben smiled as he collapsed to the ground. He’d run the race and won. But he’d won more than the race. The cool breeze felt wonderful on his dead flesh, even as he finally let go, unable to contain his spirit any longer in his rotting body.