We walk along the shore to our favorite fishing spot. I walk on the sand. He walks on the water…
Though we left early, the sun is already beating down on us. I look forward to reaching the coolness of the cove. Our tackle boxes are blessedly light. We have brought no food; we will eat only what we can catch.
I lower my protesting body onto the ground, shifting to find a comfortable seat. I am not as young as I used to be. He — he seems just as old as he always did.
We cast our lures. He leans back, stretch his arms, and adjusts his hat. I pull up a blade of grass, and reflexively begin to chew. I close my eyes.
“How’s work?” he asks.
I pop the clutch, ram the gearshift into place, tap the breaks. Swearing, I yank the wheel right to avoid the crash just up ahead. I don’t even allow myself time to think about the fate of #51 and #132, though I’ve known them both for years. I see an opening, and I lower my foot to race towards it.
The Malacci brothers are right on my tail, like a pair of yapping hounds scenting blood. I ignore them, for now. My eyes are fixed on the Hogg, two lengths ahead on the inside track. He’s good, I’ll give him that. Veins like ice, the mind of a poker player, and more trophies than bricks in the brickyard. He’s not going to make any stupid mistakes.
I grin. That’s my one advantage. I know that the only way I can win is by taking gambles no sane driver would consider. I slow down almost imperceptibly. The roar of the Malaccis’ engines tells me they’ve taken my bait. It is soon drowned out by the beating of my heart. As if in slow motion, everything finally clicks into place.
This is it, the moment I’ve been waiting for. My chance to shine. All the years of study, the endless hours on the track, the sleepless nights, the humiliating defeats, it all comes down to this one split second of action.
I slam the pedal to the metal…
“Stressful,” I reply.
She is the embodiment of beauty. And as deadly as she is beautiful.
I crouch motionless on my branch, watching her. I’ve been at this for days, weeks, months. Maybe years. She must be aware of my presence, but gives no sign. Or perhaps even no thought. To her, I might just as well be another part of the jungle.
My mouth goes dry. I tighten my hands on the vine net I have so carefully woven during my long vigils. Tracking her movements. Learning her patterns. Identifying her weaknesses. Measuring her strength.
This will not be easy. If all I wanted was to kill her, I could have done that long ago with the spear back in my cave. It is easy — and tempting — to lob death from a distance.
But her beauty has captivated me. It is the height of folly, I know — but I mean to capture her. I should have slain her the first day I saw her, when I first discovered a feline predator had invaded my hunting grounds. There’s plenty of game to go around; but a man alone like me can ill afford to take chances. One swipe of those knife-like claws and my life’s blood would fertilize the ground.
True, she has never shown an inclination to attack; though she would give a warning growl if I prowled too close to her kill. But this is my land. I have conquered it with my own blood and sweat, using tools shaped by my own two hands. I will not spend my life skulking about in fear. Yet neither do I dare harm this creature of the night who brings beauty and danger to my home.
I must master her, or die trying.
I measure the distance between us, and I pounce…
I pause to catch my breath, straightening my arms and legs to hold my back against the side of the ventilation shaft. Getting into the building was child’s play, and even a 100-foot climb like this one has become routine. The real danger lies ahead.
I close my eyes to review the mental map I had so laboriously constructed. As I do, visions unbidden unfold behind my eyelids. The explosions that started me on this perilous quest. The shining city I hope to build. The years I’ve spent toiling in the shadows, with countless more yet to come.
I shudder, remembering the close calls and failed missions that litter my past. Then square my shoulders, glance upward, and resume my climb. No time for fear. Or regrets. I’ve got a job to do.
I finally reach the horizontal shaft that will take me to my destination. It is low, but wide. I spider crawl for a dozen or so yards until I reach the dim light of a vent. Glancing within, my breath is taken away by the beauty of the jewels I have to come to steal: a brilliant sapphire and a fiery ruby. Woven about with lasers, booby traps, and alarms. Timing is everything. The slightest false step and all my hard work will be in vain.
I slowly lower myself on a winch to avoid activating the motion detectors. I puff smoke into the room to reveal a maze of lasers, then contort my body into unnatural positions to reach the glass case containing my prize. I hold my breath as I delicately trace a circle using my diamond cutter. I pull on the suction cup, and the disc pops out easily.
Too easily, it turns out. The case was filled with gas under pressure, which the chemical sensors in the room quickly sniff. The darkness is shattered by wailing klaxons and blinding spotlights. I shade my eyes and look around for the inevitable response.
From a series of concealed hatches in the roof pour a stream… of monkeys? Howler monkeys gibbering, swinging, tossing fruit. And other things.
I sigh as I sink to down the floor. Monkeys. Why did it have to be monkeys…
“Yeah. I know, son. Trust me. I know.”
He turns and looks me in the eye.
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll do fine.”
I leap upward, arms stretched to the extreme. My fingertips barely graze the pigskin, but somehow catch hold. I land hard, my legs already pumping. I stagger, but keep my balance. It is a long way to the end zone, but there’s nobody in front. The crowd goes wild.
I glance back. The cornerback who leapt for the ball with me is just now scrambling to his feet. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse the Man who passed me the ball. It should be impossible at this distance, but I could swear I see him wink.
He has given me everything I need. All I have to do now is run the race that is set before me.
I lift my eyes, and charge…