by Cathy Ulrich
The Paralympian at the end of the world goes to the track to run as she has always done. She straps on her running blades, leaves her prosthetic legs lying at the side of the track. She doesn’t think how they look like dead things there, she doesn’t think how quiet it all is. She thinks ready, she thinks steady, she thinks go.
The Paralympian at the end of the world runs fast and faster. The sky feels like wind on her face.
Before the world ended, the Paralympian was constantly being interviewed.
How did you lose your legs, journalists always asked.
She had a canned story about the car wreck from high school, about how the medics had to tie her off at the thighs, about the sound of the jaws of life as they peeled the car apart to reach her. The Paralympian told the story so many times it didn’t feel like it was something that had ever happened to her. She would look at her hands, which were somehow perfect and pure despite the broken windshield, the gravel. She said I was so afraid, but she couldn’t remember, when she told the story, if she really was.
Before the world ended, the Paralympian lived in a house with her mother. Her mother made chicken pot pies and stacks of pancakes with huckleberry syrup. Her mother sat in the bleachers with energy drinks in a cooler and a little flag that she waved back and forth. Her mother shouted: Go, go, go! Her mother shouted: I believe in you, and the Paralympian would look up to the stands and wave.
The Paralympian and her mother would go home together, the Paralympian’s mother would say isn’t this nice and never waited for her daughter’s answer.
The house is one the Paralympian’s mother picked out, with a very large lawn that was tended by a series of mustached men in straw hats. The Paralympian never learned their names. They called her ma’am, they said the lawn is done, ma’am, and she said okay and they left. Before the world ended, the Paralympian used to see rabbits there. They were so small and brown. Sometimes the wind blows and the grass rustles and the Paralympian, looking out the window, thinks is something there, and the only sound at night is the house’s creaks and groans.
The Paralympian’s mother used to play a game, do you remember before. It wasn’t much of a game, the Paralympian’s mother would say do you remember before the accident, you were in tap class? Do you remember we used to go swimming at the community pool? Do you remember we thought you might marry that boy? and the Paralympian said yes and yes and yes.
The Paralympian doesn’t play games at the end of the world. The Paralympian runs. The Paralympian loops and loops the track till her breath runs ragged, till her thighs burn. The Paralympian eats stale crackers and shrink-wrapped gas station doughnuts and cold cans of green beans. She drinks energy drinks, yellow ones, red, green. She thinks of traffic signals, thinks of light. She thinks of the weight of a medal when it was strung over her neck.
She runs until she can’t; she lays herself down on the track, sharp-breathed, red-faced, looks up into the empty sky.
She thinks: I miss airplanes.
After the wreck, the Paralympian remembers the doctors telling her she would have phantom pains, that there would be a hurt from a leg that was no longer there. The Paralympian nodded, looked at her hands. She remembered one of the medics plucked gravel from her palms, she remembered how gentle his hands were. She never told anyone that in the interviews. She kept it for herself.
The Paralympian lies on the track, sun-warmed polyurethane pebbling her skin. She thinks again of how gentle the medic’s hands were, plucking gravel from her palms, how he said you’re going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, how he said we’ve got you. The Paralympian breathes in ragged gasps, feels the burn of sun on her face, the stutter-stumble of her pulse. She remembers a world that has gone, her mother’s pot pies, the pancake stacks. Her prosthetic legs are on the ground beside her; she feels the ache of their distance, she feels the ache of a world now gone.
CATHY ULRICH always lost count of how many laps she’d gone around the track as a distance runner. Her work has been published in various journals, including Trampset, CutBank and Puerto Del Sol.