Short Fiction ~ Sam Szanto
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 18
Rachael Sparks was the best runner at her school. She considered this was because she was the tallest, with the longest legs. On Sports Day, she won all of her races. Her PE teacher asked if she wanted to join the Athletics Club. When she said not really, thank you, he emailed her parents to ask the same question.
Please give some thought to this. In my opinion, Rachael would bring a lot to the team.
‘Why wouldn’t you join?’ her mum asked. ‘Running’s your talent, Rachael. Your gift. You could be the next Paula Radcliffe.’
‘Your grandad would have loved seeing you win those races,’ her dad said.
Rachael’s grandad had died before she was born; there was a framed picture, in the toilet, of him post-London Marathon, face scraped of feeling despite the medal he was holding up. Her dad often reminisced about the cross-country runs they had done together when he was a boy. He would like Rachael to go running with him now.
Her dad thought of himself as a runner. Rachael thought of herself as someone who won races. Running was fine, but she liked finishing a race more than taking part. The thrill was in streaking past the line and lifting her head, the stretch of sky flung backwards, the sound of her breath going back and forth. While she was running, words pulsed in her brain and flowed alongside her. The words listened to her body. In normal life, Rachael found it hard to be listened to.
Rachael couldn’t make her parents see that she didn’t care about being part of a team, people shoved together on a coach at weekends just because they were good at one thing. None of Rachael’s friends did Athletics. If she had to join something, she would choose Library Club.
‘How about you come to the next Park Run?’ her dad asked. ‘There’s a Junior 5K on Saturday, I’ll sign you up. If it’s not for you, we won’t mention Athletics again.’
‘I’d rather not,’ Rachael said.
‘How lovely for you two to have some bonding time,’ her mum said.
Rachael’s dad, head to toe in Lycra, opened her curtains at seven o’clock on Saturday. The sky had been coloured in with grey pencil. Rachael, slowly sloughing on her school PR kit, hoped it would rain so the race would be cancelled: she could finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Fingers of rain tapped on the car windows.
‘Great to run in a shower,’ her dad said. ‘It helps your speed.’
There were three car parks in Bushy Park, where the race was taking place, but only space in the one furthest from the start. Rachael’s dad said that as the junior run started before the adult one, he would drop her off then park the car.
Rain hammering on her head, Rachael hurried to the group of runners.
‘Race is about to start,’ a woman with a face full of wrinkles called. ‘Name?’
Rachael told her, and the woman consulted a list. ‘I can’t see you. We’ll sort it at the end. Find a space: thirty seconds.’
Rachael squeezed into the front middle of the runners; there was nowhere else. Looking around, she felt a beat of nerves. The others had on proper running gear; the type of leggings and tops her dad wore. They had long skinny legs like her, but most were even taller. They looked a lot older, too. Was this really a Junior 5K?
A whistle blew, the runners streamed forward. Not knowing what else to do, Rachael ran.
The wind and rain rushed behind her. Strangers stood at the sides: cheering, waving. She felt free, like an animal.
By the time she reached a split in the course, Rachael’s breath was catching at the back of her throat. She inhaled a midge and choked. Her body was tiring, her muscles sore. Each breath was followed by an ellipsis.
‘Bit young for this, aren’t you?’ A man threw out a grin as he passed her.
Rachael’s temper flared. She might be young, and not a real runner, but she had never lost a race. Breaths burning, she sprinted. Level with the front of the pack, she slowed slightly so as not to use all her energy.
The end was in sight. And for the first time, she felt inside the run.
One… final… spurt…
There was a single person in front of her, the man who had said she was too young for this. Rachael took in lungfuls of air, pushed on. The path shouted at her feet. Then she overtook the man and joy surpassed pain. Her feet skidded over the muddy finish line.
A shimmering silence; then came the applause.
Her dad was striding over, looking like someone who had found a new room in a house they thought they knew. ‘You won, Rachael. You won an adult race.’
As the wrinkled woman put a gold medal around Rachael’s neck, she asked: ‘How old are you, love? Fourteen?’
‘I’m ten.’ Rachael tried to catch her breath. Sparks of pain flared inside her thighs. She was given a bottle of water, and gulped it down. ‘Can I keep the medal?’
‘Sorry, Lindsey,’ Rachael’s dad said to the woman. ‘I mixed up the races; thought the Junior 5K was first.’
The man who had come second smiled at Rachael. ‘You must be the shining light of your school’s athletics club?’
He turned away to high-five another competitor before she could reply.
Sam Szanto lives in Durham, UK. Her short story collection ‘If No One Speaks’ was published by Alien Buddha Press in 2022 and her collaborative poetry pamphlet, ‘Splashing Pink’, by Hedgehog Press in 2023. Over 90 of her stories and poems have been published/ listed in competitions. She has won first prize in the First Writer International Poetry Prize, the Shooter Flash Fiction Prize, the Charroux Poetry Prize and the Mum Life Stories Prize. She is an editor for the Afterpast Review.