It’s twenty minutes until race time. The racers are getting ready behind long purple and gold curtains. Sometimes I get a glimpse of an arm or leg and my pulse thumps through my veins. I’m praying to see Alexio before the gun fires. Mostly I see nervous girls. For the first time in decades, the Council is going to run fifty females as well as fifty males. All the races during my sixteen years, although the first five I can’t remember, have always been male only, ages eighteen and up. Overcrowding in the orphanages and work camps, plus a ten-year drought, threw us back centuries to arcane rules.
Only the top ten winners of each sex will survive to see tomorrow. They’ll follow the path from the Battle of Marathon to Athens. The first guy who did that died. Everyone who finishes 11-50 will be sacrificed to the gods for rain and grain. Not good odds then or now.
I bring my hand up to shield my eyes from the piercing summer sun. Golden paint shimmers on my fingers. Early this morning, before anyone had arrived at the staging area, Alexio let me paint wings across the skin of his anklebones. They stood out tiny and delicate against his tanned and lean legs. I painted larger versions across his shoulder blades. Anything to make him recognizable in the dust on the trail. Any excuse to touch him for possibly the last time. Alexio’s fast, but he’s never run that far in one go. He’s never been selected for the race by the House of Hermes.
Last night I laid out the cards and asked them if Alexio would win the race. They remained quiet. They did reveal that someone close to me would enjoy a great feat. No one else in my life means as much to me as he does. No one can make a fire burn inside my chest the moment he enters a room.
Alexio and I have lived in the orphanage since we were born. Rumors say his mother was a prostitute and my mother, an unwed mother, died during childbirth. When no one else is around Alexio and I discuss the possibilities of being fathered by the gods. He believes that Hermes was his father and that’s why he can run faster than the rest of us. I think his mother was Aphrodite. Who else could have given him pale blond hair and eyes so blue they match the sea in winter? I don’t make such boasts. None of the Olympians match me in looks or temperament.
The gun explodes above the crowd signaling the start of the female’s race. None of them are allowed to wear clothing. They barely wear shoes on their feet. It’s tragic to be sure, but as I have no interest in their stakes, I twist the flyer between my fingers, tearing it to shreds. The males begin to mill about the start line soon after, finding the perfect place to begin their mad dash across the hot plains. They all know that only ten will make it. In my heart, I know that they might as well sacrifice me tonight if he doesn’t make it.
My eyes find Alexio’s in the crowd. How I wish I had told him that I loved him before painting those brush strokes against his naked flesh. In my mind I play our last moments over and over again.
“I’ll stay in the middle of the pack for most of the race,” he says, standing on his toes so his flesh is taut beneath the brush. “Then, when the old have given up and it’s down to the last of us, I’ll pray to my father to give my feet real wings to carry me across the finish.”
Silently, I think he’ll need more than gold paint and a prayer. I don’t voice such beliefs. Instead I stand up, force him to face away from me and begin to trace the outline of wings on his strong shoulder blades before dipping the bristles into the paint. He could carry me on his back the entire 26.2 miles, but he’ll never win. Winning is for those that will bring their Houses glory and fame. The House of Hermes, though aptly named, has never won. Every year our ranks dwindle until a fresh harvest of orphans and thugs swells the numbers again. Behind every corner is another mouth to feed.
I put the brush down, smooth a line of gold with the fingertips of my skin and breathe, “Make sure you’re in the top ten.”
I don’t know if he heard me or not. He was wound so tightly he could have flown. My imagination takes the scene to places that never happened in reality. He turns abruptly and grabs my hand, causing me to drop the brush and smearing paint across our joined hands. I look up into his eyes. He looks down at me. Then he leans in. It’s slight enough that it takes me a moment’s hesitation to know what he wants. I lean up and press my lips against his. His fingers lace into my hair, pulling me closer into a kiss filled with longing and shared history.
But my mind can’t go farther than that frozen moment with our lips touching. I replay it over and over and over, trying to find a future in it. The race today and all it’s broken promises have erased any future I might be able to conjure from the deep recesses of my mind. And all I have is an imagined kiss to hold on to.
Now, he waves from his position, somewhere in the middle of the group of males. The old and broken are at the back. They know their hopes are slight, but they’ve made it a point to show up. Not showing up means death. Everything means death.
The man with the smudge of a pistol stands above them. A loud speaker gets the attention of the crowd.
“On your mark. Get set.” And then the sharp sound of my entire world breaks above our heads. I can’t watch any longer. I climb down out of the stands and walk the fifteen miles back to the House of Hermes. It takes much longer than I would have expected. The crowds are thick and the oppressive air sucks all the life from my lungs.
I walk up the steps expecting to find Alexio’s smiling face waiting for me to go play pool or cards. When he’s not there, something inside me bottoms out.
In the morning I’ll know his fate, but until then I want to pretend that he’s safe in the bunk above me.
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Photograph © Copyright, Anne Marie 2008. All rights reserved. Used with permission.