Mason felt a hint of fatigue creep into his legs, and he smiled. Eighteen miles, he thought, reading the number off his GPS watch. The flat terrain and low elevation of the Kansas farmlands boosted his endurance. I’m going to set a PB marathon time if I keep this up.
He’d been running for two hours, and dusk was falling. Originally, Mason hadn’t planned on being out this long, but the joy of the back roads and his own speed had made him to create a larger loop. Eight miles to go, and the sun is setting soon, he thought, some of his earlier excitement diminishing. The heat of Kansas summer forced the late evening start, an extended breakfast with his wife and her family consuming the cool morning hours.
But there’s hardly any cars out here, he thought, checking the stretch of dirt road behind him and finding it empty. Two vehicles had passed in the last two hours, one a friendly old man in a blue pickup, and the other an oblivious teenager. The truck had slowed down, and he’d waved with gratitude, but the teenager flew by, sending up a cloud of dust. Probably texting and driving, he speculated, his mind wandering.
A rumble penetrated his thoughts, and Mason turned to see another truck approaching. It had its headlights on, and appeared to be a semi. He moved to the far left edge, hoping the dirt road was wide enough without him having to go into the ditch.
Realizing the daylight was fading faster than he anticipated, Mason pulled out his lightweight reflective vest and slipped it over his head. He wore it at all times when running at night around his home in Colorado Springs. When Mason and his wife had been packing for this trip, he almost didn’t bring it, but now he was grateful. He’d make it back to his in-law’s house before complete darkness, and he wore bright colored running clothes, but the extra safety couldn’t hurt, especially since runners were uncommon out here.
Mason quickly checked over his shoulder once again, wondering if the truck had turned. He didn’t want to slow his pace for a longer glance. Personal best, personal best, he inwardly chanted, feeling stronger than he ever had at this distance. The truck was nearing, but had slowed down considerably. Good, Mason thought, not wanting to inhale another dust cloud, especially not one from eighteen wheels. It seemed odd to Mason a semi truck would be out here. Perhaps a driver returning home?
The low burbling of the diesel engine grew nearer, and Mason put his left foot into the grass, wanting to give the large vehicle plenty of space. Then, it drew up beside him and Mason realized the vehicle wasn’t a semi after all. Instead, it was a giant white pick up truck. Loud country music twanged from rolled down windows. Three teenagers glared at him.
“What are you doing out here?” the driver yelled, dark spittle flying out of his mouth. He wiped his chin with a tanned arm, the truck swerving towards Mason as he did so.
Turning to face the road ahead, Mason felt his anxiety rise. The teen was big, and had two large friends with him. If it had been daytime, in the city, he probably would have profanely told the kid to mind his own business, but out here, Mason felt isolated. He couldn’t see any houses nearby, just row upon row of corn and hedges. Stay quiet, he thought, and they’ll tire of harassing you.
A silver object flew past his head and Mason ducked reflexively. The rumble increased to a roar as the truck sped ahead. Those little shits just threw a full can of beer at me, he thought, stopping as the cloud of dust obscured what little light remained.
He took in a deep breath, tried not to cough, calmed himself, and resumed his pace. Don’t let it throw you off, he counseled. Good athletes overcome adversity, no matter where it comes from.
After a minute, the breeze carried the dust off the road, and Mason felt his anxiety lessen. Just some kids out making bad decisions, like we all did. Mason had never chucked a can of beer at someone, but he supposed some places manifested their teen angst differently.
More time passed, and Mason once again lost himself in the running rhythm. His eyes adjusted to the dark, and despite the gloom, he easily avoided pot holes and ankle twisting hunks of gravel. Just four more miles, he thought, checking his watch. Hopefully Abi won’t worry too much. He’d left his cell phone at home, not wanting the extra bulk in his running shorts. Mason often ran longer than planned, and it was a source of conflict between them. I’m supposed to be getting better at this.
Taking an energy gel out of his pocket, Mason tore open the foil package. As he squeezed the chocolate flavored paste into his mouth, he heard a familiar sound. A diesel engine, he thought, anxiety slamming back into his gut. He looked behind him to see a vehicle turning in from a side road. Its high beams flared, making it impossible to see exactly what was behind them.
What are the odds it’s a different truck? Mason thought, paralyzed with fear. The night, normally his ally, had become an impenetrable foe. Vast, empty Kansas farmland stretched before him, and he didn’t know where to turn for help.
The high beams came closer, making Mason squint. As the truck approached, the idea they might run him down seemed likely. When the truck was less than a hundred feet away, Mason finally snapped out of his hesitation and moved into the ditch.
The truck roared past, and Mason heard laughter mingled with the country music. Same white truck, same kids. He threw up his arm, giving them the finger. They wouldn’t be able to see it, but the outlet made Mason feel better. Just wanted to scare me, he thought, shaking his head. A moment later, brake lights flared, illuminating the newly formed dust cloud.
“Oh shit,” he muttered, wondering what they were doing. Mason thought about turning around, or running off into the corn, but he’d had enough of these kids and maybe confronting them wouldn’t be the worst thing. Besides, if they are drunk, I can easily outrun them if things get out of hand.
Mason strode forward confidently, trying to shut out the remaining bits of dread from his mind. It took a moment to reach the back of the truck, and he half expected them to roar off at any second. Instead, a bright light exploded in his eyes. When they finally adjusted, he realized the truck had a row of high intensity LEDs mounted over the cab, facing backwards.
“What are you doing out here, asshole?” the driver yelled, jumping down from the cab. Some of Mason’s confidence melted when he saw the kid stood over six feet. His two buddies piled out of the passenger side, and were nearly just as tall. They’re just kids, Mason thought, and kids respond to authority.
“What gives you the right to harass me?” Mason shot back, remembering how they had nearly run him over. “I’ve got a picture of your license plate,” he lied, “and I’m gonna call the cops if you don’t get back in your truck and get the hell out of here.”
“Dumbass,” one of the friends said, large frame silhouetted in the bright light. “Ethan’s dad is the sheriff.”
Mason wondered if the kid was bluffing, but had no way to find out. They’re just trying to scare me, he thought, just getting some kicks on a Saturday night. He decided to challenge them.
“Answer my question, asshole,” Ethan snarled before Mason could reply. “Maybe you need to clean out your liberal snowflake ears. Or maybe we need to teach you to respect the heartland.”
“What?” Mason said, feeling like he was in a movie. “I’m running. What does it look like I’m doing?”
“I don’t like your tone,” the third member of the group said, sleeveless t-shirt doing little to mask his chubby bulk.
“Neither do I,” Ethan said. “I think it is time someone showed you how to be respectful.” He strode towards Mason, cowboy boots crunching through the gravel. For a moment, Mason considered turning around and running. The kid easily had a hundred pounds on him, and if this turned into a fist fight, he wouldn’t have any advantage. It wasn’t like he was a fighter. I’m not going to let this damned kid back me down, Mason thought. He’s probably never had anyone stand up to him. With his decision made, Mason stood up tall and kept from flinching as Ethan got within inches of his face.
“You’re alone out here, snowflake,” he said, his rancid beer breath almost making Mason gag. “No one will hear you scream, and even if they did, they’d think your liberal, greenie ass deserves it.”
“Get back in your truck,” Mason said, trying to keep from trembling, not from fear, but from anger. He’d had enough, and if this kid wanted to throw down, he’d gladly oblige.
Mason tasted blood in his mouth. He blinked his eyes, wondering what had happened. Gravel pressed into his cheek, still warm from the day’s scorching heat. He had no memory, but the pain in his jaw told him what had happened. That asshole hit me, Mason thought, pushing himself to a sitting position. Looking up, he saw Ethan had his back turned, looking towards his friends.
“Nice hit,” the skinny kid in the cowboy hat said.
“Get the diesel,” Ethan replied. “Let’s see how the snowflake burns.”
For a moment, Mason wondered if he was dreaming. This couldn’t be real. Both the skinny kid and the chubby one hopped into the pickup bed, however, and Mason could hear scraping and clunking. They really are gonna light me on fire, he realized, eyes going wide.
As Mason pushed himself to his feet, he felt a large chunk of rock under his hand, and kept hold of it as he rose to his full height. Anger and fear burned within him, a caustic mixture that made him want to fight and flee simultaneously. The corn. Run! No. Back turned. Strike!
When Mason took a step forward, the crunching gravel gave him away. Ethan began turning, and the fight instinct took over. Swinging the rock with all his might, Mason aimed for his attacker’s head. Ethan caught sight of him just a fraction of a second before the rock struck his skull, not giving him enough time to bring his hands up. The full weight of Mason’s swing landed squarely on the kid’s temple, and he crumpled to the ground instantly.
Elation and triumph surged within Mason until he heard the roars of anger from the two teens in the back of the truck. All his previous desire to fight evaporated and he knew he wouldn’t be able to defend himself against two. Run!
It took four woozy steps for him to get into the corn field, then his head cleared and he accelerated into a run. The corn stalks slapped against his face painfully, but he ignored them. He heard the two kids pursuing for a minute, but he quickly lost them. Mason kept running until he popped out on another dirt road.
“Maybe next time, bring a headlamp?” Abi said.
“Yeah, that’s smart,” Mason replied absently, looking down to check his watch. The flight from Wichita to Denver was supposed to leave at 1 PM. All he saw was a lighter patch of skin where his watch normally was.
“We’ll get you a new one soon,” Abi continued, noticing the motion.
Mason smiled at her, grateful she hadn’t berated him when he’d returned to her parents house much later than expected. As he’d ran back through the darkness, Mason struggled with the decision of what to say. If Ethan’s father really was the sheriff, things could go poorly for him. It wouldn’t matter there were three of them and one of him, he was the adult. And even if he hadn’t put Ethan in the hospital, chances were they’d charge him with assault. You’re from out of state, with no witnesses. They can say you did anything, and since they’re kids and local, everyone will believe them.
So Mason had crafted a story. He’d purposely tripped himself, sprawling his forearms across the rough gravel road. The rocks had scratched his watch, but that wasn’t enough. A careful strike with a large stone rendered it believably broken, and Mason had run the rest of the way home.
When he’d arrived, it hadn’t been a hard sell to convince everyone he’d run into a branch in the darkness, which had knocked him down into the road. It explained everything: the scratches and eventual bruising on his face and forearms, as well as the broken watch.
The device would have auto-synced when it was within range of his phone, publishing the GPS data about his run to the web. Even if he deleted it before anyone saw, he worried it might still be accessible to law enforcement somehow. And if that wasn’t the case, Abi and her family would want to see his run data, which he couldn’t allow. Destroying the watch had been necessary, and as time had gone on, Mason grew more pleased with his forethought. He hadn’t done anything wrong, and perhaps the stupid kids would think twice before they hurt somebody else.
A familiar face on one of the gate area TVs snapped Mason out of his reverie. It looked just like Ethan, but older, face creased with lines, and a sheriff’s hat on. Mason’s heart began to beat faster. He tried to keep his expression casual, not wanting to tip Abi off.
“Last night,” the sheriff said via closed captioning, a look of steely determination in his cold eyes, “a man pretending to be a hitch hiker assaulted my son and two of his friends when they stopped to give him a ride. He hit Ethan, my boy, in the head with a rock and fled. EMS took Ethan to Wesley Medical Center, but they were unable to save him.” The sheriff paused, and Mason felt the magnitude of the situation settle heavily on him.
I killed Ethan, he thought, knowing he was screwed.
“Please, if you see this man,” the sheriff continued, call authorities as quickly as possible. A picture of a police sketch came on the screen. Thankfully Abi had her back towards the TV, but Mason was unsure if the channel was on any of the monitors behind him. As he studied the sketch, however, he felt a cautious relief bloom within him. It looked almost nothing like Mason. Apparently the two friends either never got a good look at him in the dark, or didn’t want their hitchhiker story closely examined if Mason was caught.
“We will now begin boarding for United 4573, service from Wichita to Denver,” came over the announcement speakers. Abi began gathering up her things, and the news channel moved on to talking about a candlelight vigil for the slain teen.
Mason followed Abi towards the boarding line, and he wondered if the Sheriff’s Department would find any evidence linking him to Ethan. It seemed unlikely. None of the wounds inflicted by the teen had bled, so DNA evidence seemed unlikely. Can they fingerprint the rock? This too seemed improbable. Besides, my prints aren’t in the system anyway.
Mason quietly took in a deep breath, feeling he might be in the clear. “Ready?” Abi asked, turning to smile at him.
“Back to the grind,” Mason answered, returning her grin. At first, the emotion felt fake, but then he realized he actually did feel good. Why don’t I have any guilt about killing a teenage kid? he wondered as the attendant scanned his boarding pass. Not my fault, self-defense. Still, as he walked down the boarding hall way, he felt have some remorse or something. No, Mason shook his head slowly, the asshole got what he deserved…