Ed's right foot had begun to throb with a dull ache as he struggled to keep in touch with the front batch of runners. The field had spread out after the first half mile. Many had stopped running after the first quarter. They were the ones who were in the race by default. They had bowed to the pressure and were there just to make up the numbers. Ed would have believed he was in the same category had he not been charged with the desire to impress Ella and not back down to Scott. He knew now that whether he ran or not wouldn't affect her feelings for him.
Nevertheless, here he was, sweat patterning his face and neck causing his birthmark to appear more inflamed than usual, just about staying in touch with the main bunch. No breakaway had yet been made. It was too early. That would come with about a mile to go. The sun was warm and the ground hard on the well-worn track around the perimeter.
His lungs were heaving with exertion and he was having to exert considerable will power to keep his unfit legs moving. They said that once you hit the wall you found your second wind. All he could say was that the wall had started after the first hundred yards and had shown no sign of retreating. The pacemakers had almost reached the trees, where they would be out of sight of the school and the glinting reflection of the battery of binoculars trained on them, for the first time.
Ed could see MacIntyre's red head bobbing near the front. He couldn't see Wayne or Scott or any of their group. Ed was starting to fade now. Other runners clenched their teeth and pushed hard up the incline towards the trees. On the right stretched the desert as far as Floraville, beyond the high wire fence. Before the fence came the rough scrub and deep, long overgrown excavations; a small ravine of boulders, rubble, hastily buried and long faded porn magazines, uncountable illicit cigarette and joint butts, bottles, cans and several snapped and listing "Keep Out" signs.
Ruth took Ella's arm as they stood watching. Joseph had defrosted a little to the extent of loosening his tie. He bent his grizzled head towards his daughter and said in his gruff voice.
'We are so proud of you, Ella. Look at you, graduating from a place like this. The whole family is talking about it. Even your uncle Isaac is impressed and it would take the second coming to impress him.'
'Thank you. You know I appreciate everything you've done for me. I know you've had to make sacrifices,' Ella smiled at him.
'Don't talk about sacrifices on a day like today,' her mother beamed. 'I've been watching you, Ella. You've never had the slightest interest in sport of any kind. Yet you cannot take your eyes from this race. I say to myself, this is not like my daughter. This is not the Ella Fallon who used to faint at the idea of running to the corner shop. So, what does it mean I ask myself? Only one thing it can mean. Someone you like maybe is running? Am I right eh? Am I right?'
Ella shook her head with amused resignation. 'Yes, you are right, momma, as always. So, I like someone. He's nice. But he's no runner. I just hope he manages to survive.'
Patches of deep shadow striated the bleached track like black teeth. The dark and ugly ravine-like mine workings plunged into undergrowth and rock on the other side of the tree line. Ed jogged in the wake of a line of sweating backs.
Suddenly, he saw Scott Stockton and Wayne Krantz. They were running smoothly in shadow on his left, clearly slowing to match his pace. Scott looked across at him and grinned. Wayne looked at Scott and a nervous expression crossed his face. Up ahead the field was starting to stretch. Ed knew that both Scott and Wayne were good enough to reach the front of the pack by the time they passed in front of the crowd for the first time. So why were they hanging back?
Ed's right foot was now throbbing painfully. He had the sinking feeling that he would not be able to complete a second circuit. He shrugged mentally. At least he had made the effort. He gritted his teeth. Scott's sneering smile had goaded him on to a greater degree of determination. His chest was now aching and his breathing ragged. He tried to concentrate on a running rhythm. At least, he told himself, he was ahead of at least half the field, which had by now given up or collapsed.
A gap had opened up between Ed and the bunch in front. Alternate patches of deep shadow and bright sunlight were causing him to weave erratically. He found himself jogging close to the edge of the steep slope that bordered a deep ditch that ran along the whole length of the track.
Then Scott and Wayne were beside him, Wayne running in front and deliberately slowing him down, Scott by his side grinning. Wayne looked back at Ed and Scott, laughed and accelerated away. Ed looked at Scott. He couldn't talk. He was panting. He decided to focus on his running and ignore Scott who was loping easily by his side.
'Think you can make a fool of me and get away with it did you, Leeming?' Scott's voice grated in Ed's ear. He tried to respond but all that emerged from his larynx was a wheezy gasp.
'I'll admit, Leeming, you've got guts. You've got a lot further than I thought you would.'
The runners ahead had now opened a significant gap between themselves and Ed and Scott. There was no one in sight behind. Scott continued. 'Oh don't you worry about me, Leeming, I can catch that lot easily. But you're never going to catch on are you, boy? People like you don't belong here. Didn't you know that? Hasn't the message struck home yet? You're ugly, Leeming and so's your little girlfriend. You're both freaks, aliens from the planet Mongol. I can't have cruds like you challenging me in public. You're going to have to pay, Leeming. You're going to have to be taught a lesson. You're going to have to be put down where you belong.'
Ed was fighting for breath, awash with sweat and anger. He felt a fury rising inside from a dark corner of his soul. He gasped, determined to speak as he slowed to a painful jog. 'You're a grade A asshole, Stockton. It's your day that's going to come.'
Scott's mouth compressed into a thin line. He glanced behind. Both of them were fluctuating between darkness and light as they moved along the track.
'Asshole am I?' panted Scott in a fury. 'Well, why don't you crawl back into your hole, Leeming. Take a hike.'
Moving suddenly, Scott barged Ed, overbalancing him close to the edge of the ravine. A flash of pain shot along his leg as his damaged foot twisted beneath him. Then he was falling, tumbling, screaming down into the ravine, slithering through the undergrowth, ripping his flesh and cracking his ribs. He slid to a halt at the bottom and his skull cracked against a protruding rock. That's when the lights went out in Ed's brain and everything became dark and peaceful. There was no pain, just a wonderful release.
Time and space stopped then for Ed Leeming and the death dreams began.
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