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The following is the story I submitted for NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction competition, round 1.  I haven’t posted it thus far, mostly because I’ve been sorely disappointed in it.  I wrote this within 24 hours while in the midst of a pretty serious life crisis, that of losing my father.  I couldn’t get my head around the prompts, and I couldn’t access anything inside me that wasn’t trite.

Anyway, here is my offering.

Prompts

Genre: Drama
Setting: A marathon finish line
Object: A box of chocolate

****

Tapering

 All I own are the strides I spend to the finish line, and I’ll give you those.

–Neko Case

Christine and I left Huntington Beach for the East coast work ethic and corporate culture shortly after my graduation. Christine was accepted to the grad program at Tufts. Boston was great during the summer, if a little muggy by comparison. The locals seemed manic in their attempts to squeeze every bit of enjoyment out of the sunshine and the outdoors. They simply shook their heads knowingly at us when we begged off to sleep in or lounge at home.

Southern Californians are major wimps. Once removed from our sunshine and our moderate temperatures, our coping mechanisms crumble. Even Northern Californians with their chillier winters and regular rainfall mock us for this weakness. Boston’s winter brought us up short. Suddenly, beach fleece was not sufficient to warm us. We discovered why people wear boots, and that scarves are not about fashion, but necessity. It was too cold to breathe. Christine, usually the first up to play volleyball or to surf, was practically scratching at herself from inside her skin at the forced inactivity. Exercise was indoors, or it was the ceaseless shoveling of the snowy path.

That first winter, she curled into a despondent ball and fell into herself.

***

“I’ve signed up for the Tufts running club”, she told me one snowed-in afternoon. I was perfectly content under the blankets, wrapped around her in bed.

“You’ve never run a day in your life.”

“No, but I’m relatively fit. I’ve downloaded a couch to 5k app to use until I get good enough to run with the club.”

“You’ll run in this?” I gestured out the window at the snow piled up on the sidewalk, streaked with black and gray from dirty roads and snowplows.

“Mark leads the group. He’ll teach me. I’ll buy the clothes and shoes to do it right.”

So it began. I lost her that winter to week after week of training. I began to hear phrases I’d never heard before. Building and tapering. Hydration stations. Kick and Flex. Carb Loading. Christmas became a time for gifting more running gear: Cool-Tec hoodies, moisture wicking thermal fleece, performance and compression socks. Also, all the way from Christine’s mom in Southern California, a box of See’s Chocolates.

“Are you going to carb load with chocolate for the marathon?”

“No. It’s going to be my reward. 26.2 miles earns me as much of the best chocolate in the world as I want.”

Running eased the ache of cold for her. She’d return from a training run, sweat glistening on her forehead, tickling the hollow of her throat and rolling over her collarbones. Her muscles, previously lean from water sports, became more firm. The striations of intense exercise marked her thighs. She’d touch the box of chocolate, running her fingertips over the raised lettering on the white box. It was as if she were touching a bit of home; the memory of sun on her skin and licking melting chocolate off of her fingers.

“I never see you anymore.” I complained. “It’s work, study, or running. You spend more time with Mark and the running club than with me.”

“That’s not true! You get me every evening. Besides, you could join us, you know.”

“No, thanks. I’ve seen the results of snot freezing while it’s still in your nose.”

***

Christine crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon a few months later. I met her there holding the open box of chocolate. Immediately, she reached for her favorite: molasses chip. The candy touched her tongue and her eyes closed in glorious bliss. The spring sun lit her face, and when I closed my own eyes, her glow was still there.

This began her tradition; two more Christmases, two more boxes of See’s Chocolate, two more marathons with the sweet reward at the end. Two more years until the leukemia came, and the striations in her thighs slowly turned concave. The last bit of chocolate I held to her lips was at the end of a different finish line.

The clock stopped for me. Winter was endless.

***

Christmas came, and with it one pound of chocolate from Christine’s mom. The snow once again piled in dark masses on the sidewalks outside. In the lonely apartment, the white rectangular reminder was luminous. I ran my fingertips over the dark brown embossed script, just as she used to do.

The silver back of her iPod beckoned to me. I picked it up, but my breath caught in my throat and I was still for several minutes. Eventually, I swiped my thumb across. On the first screen was the Couch to 5k app. I opened it, and stared at the weekly summaries, her running journal. Our journey.

I’m not sure how long I sat there, but when I shook myself out of my daze, I picked up the phone.

“Hey, Mark. I was thinking…”

***

I crossed the finish line, having lost every ounce of breath I had somewhere along the trail. The number pinned to the front of my shirt was crumpled and damp, and the dedication pin on my back said ‘Christine’ in streaky red ink. Amid the crowd of well-wishers and cheering supporters, I somehow managed to find Mark. He approached me, an open box of See’s Chocolate in his hands.

I reached for my favorite, the lemon cream. Biting into it felt right, like experiencing heaven drip directly onto my tongue.

“I’m glad I did this.” I said to him as we walked toward the car.

“You should be proud, Dan. She would have been, too.”

“Not really,” I smiled wistfully, then laughed outright. “She would have pointed out that it’s only a 10k.”

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