Runner-Up 2023 Spring Fiction Contest
- Rick is traveling east on his motorcycle at 45 miles per hour. Wind speed is 6 miles per hour. He left Sierra’s five minutes ago at 3:05 PM. They spent the past hour arguing after Sierra, having borrowed Rick’s computer to complete a job application for the Foot Locker, stumbled upon a string of Facebook messages he had sent to other women over the past several months. Rick maintained that these exchanges were harmless, perhaps a bit too flirtatious at times, okay fine, like the one to the girl he met at the tattoo expo in which he mentioned off-handedly that he liked women with tongue studs. Still, it would be a reach to call that sexual—although that didn’t matter to Sierra, whose previous boyfriend had been notoriously unfaithful; more than once she’s rehashed for Rick the saga of her grisly gonorrhea bout, as though she believes this gives her some sort of street cred. She demanded that Rick delete his account immediately, or else she would contact each woman’s place of employment to notify them that they were paying bona fide whores. Rick, no stranger to Sierra’s idle threats, told her to go ahead and contact them, he didn’t give a flying fuck, and then he stormed out of the apartment. Where he is headed now, he does not know, nor does he care—away from Sierra, that’s all that matters. After six miles and minimal traffic, Rick accelerates to 66 miles per hour. He weighs 225 pounds, much of it flab, though he likes to imagine it is muscle from his years as a varsity wrestler, a period of time that now seems both ancient history and disturbingly recent, like a vivid dream that lingers even after he’s awoken. And if there is anything that 41 years on the planet has taught him, it is that this is how it is with most of the things he wants: they only seem real, but look a little closer and you find that there was nothing worth chasing in the first place. The motorcycle weighs 655 pounds. The friction coefficient between the tires and the road is 0.7.
Q: What time will Rick accidentally run the red light and collide with the front end of the Rav4, and how far (in feet) will his body be thrown?
- Ashley’s resting heart rate is 70 beats per minute. Or at least that’s the case when Dylan isn’t shrieking in the backseat, as he is now. He wanted Sour Patch Kids from Kroger, but Ashley insisted it would ruin his dinner. The truth is that she would have gladly gotten him something to shut him up if she could have afforded it. But as Wayne is constantly reminding her, they aren’t rolling in cash these days, not since the stump removal company for whom he worked since 2017 folded during the pandemic, leaving him jobless. She offers Dylan a packet of raisins, but he smacks them out of her hand. They scatter across the floorboard, at which point her heart rate spikes to 120 beats per minute. Just one more thing she’ll have to clean out of the backseat this weekend, along with the spilled juice and the stray Cheez-Its, the splotches of unidentifiable fluids on the door panel and floorboards that leave her fingers tacky, all while Wayne sprawls on the sofa watching Better Call Saul, too despondent over his run of bad luck to lift a finger. This is what you wanted, he always whines on the rare occasions that she complains about the demands of motherhood. The way he says it always makes it sound as if her frazzled patience is somehow an affront to him. No point in telling him about the number of times she’s sat in the Rav and wept while Dylan dozed in the backseat, or how she sometimes wonders if they should have gone to the women’s clinic in Charleston like they discussed that one time, or the ghastly fantasies she’s had of abandoning him at a fire station. She supposes it’s not Wayne’s fault, not totally; as her mother used to say, there is only so much that men can understand at any one time. The light turns green and Ashley inches forward onto the highway. She spots the motorcycle out of the corner of her eye only a fraction of a second before it plows into the front left corner of the Rav, catapulting the driver over the hood. He barrels onto the hardtop, rolling a few times, arms flailing like one of those inflatable figures outside car dealerships, until he comes to a stop, face-down, several yards from the vehicle. Her heart rate accelerates to 174 beats per minute.
Q: What is the difference in beats per minute between Ashley’s current heart rate and the maximum heart rate of a twenty-four-year-old woman?
- There are roughly 5.2 x 106 cubic centimeters of blood in Rick’s body. Having forgone a helmet (not a requirement in South Carolina), his head is hemorrhaging 20 cubic centimeters of blood per second which, even despite his fractured skull and collar bone and his splintered pelvis, imbues him with a flighty, weightless sensation that drifts through his body like a breeze. Actually, it isn’t all that dissimilar from when he and Sierra went skydiving last year. It had been her idea, the two of them strapped to the fronts of their respective instructors like oversized babies being toted around by their parents. He hadn’t been prepared for the serenity of freefalling, the way the tension drained from his limbs, easy as vapor, as he plummeted toward the earth. When his instructor had told him to pull the chute, he’d resisted. Pull the goddamn cord! the man barked in his ear, but still Rick refused. Finally, the instructor pulled his own cord, deploying the red and white parachute, but already the experience had broken something open in Rick, something that even then he knew he would never be able to stitch back together. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to. No, what he wanted in that moment was to keep falling for as long as possible, even if it meant slamming into the ground and turning into jelly. Upon landing, he found Sierra, still strapped to her harried-looking instructor, in hysterics, the fall having been far more frightening than she’d anticipated (and hadn’t Rick tried to warn her about this, how someone for whom even a Ferris wheel ride is an exercise in dizziness didn’t have the stomach to jump out of an airplane?). Once the man had freed her from the tandem harness, she’d dashed to Rick and buried her face in his chest. I didn’t know it would be like that! she’d sobbed. He comforted her the best he could, stroking her sweaty auburn hair and rubbing her back. Neither did I, he’d wanted to say, but he’d kept quiet because it wouldn’t have meant the same thing. The average adult can tolerate a 30%-40% loss of blood before the onset of shock.
Q: If Rick’s blood loss remains steady, how many milliliters of transfused blood will he require to prevent cardiac arrest?
- Cardiac arrest is inevitable
- The ambulance skids to a stop on the graveled shoulder, scattering the crowd of onlookers that has emerged from the nearby fast-food joints and auto parts stores to gawk at the motionless body. The man—heavyset, jowly, face coated with scruff—reminds Ashley of Wayne, the thought of which sends a surge of bile into her throat. No helmet—oh god. She is standing a few yards from the body, Dylan clinging to her neck, both of them puffy-eyed from crying. The motorcycle lies in the road a few yards away like roadkill, front wheel and handlebars grotesquely bent. As the EMTs scurry around the scene, checking the man’s eyes with a penlight and gingerly transferring him to a gurney, a police officer with a grape-sized mole on his nostril takes Ashley’s statement, assailing her with questions: How fast were you going? When did you notice the motorcycle? How quickly did you apply the brake? Dylan squirms in her arms, desperate to go home, and Ashley has to keep adjusting him on her hip. Christ, what if there’s a trial? How will they afford an attorney? And if they lose, what then? It wasn’t her fault, surely any of the witnesses would attest to this, but people have gone to prison for far less. You hear about it all the time, some poor sap locked up for decades over something that barely constitutes an offense. As the EMTs are loading the body (no, not body, person, loading the person) into the back of the ambulance, Ashley shoulders past the officer, dashing around the gritty smear of maroon on the road toward the vehicle. Is he okay? she says. Is he alive? The EMTs don’t answer, they are too busy fitting the traction collar around the man’s thick neck and monitoring his pulse, but she can see the rise and fall of his chest, and she can make out a choked moan escaping his throat like the sound of the ancient pipes underneath her modular house which are always giving them problems, despite Wayne’s attempts to repair them. The man is alive, and that’s at least something, though it’s anyone’s guess what might happen between now and the time he reaches the hospital. The ambulance weighs 10,000 pounds. It pulls onto the road at an initial rate of 3 feet per second and then accelerates to 88 feet per second.
Q: What is the ambulance’s rate of acceleration after 10 seconds? Bonus: What is its relative speed to that of Ashley if she is walking in the opposite direction, back toward the bored-looking officer with a snotty-nosed toddler in her aching arms, at a rate of 4.5 feet per second, though to her it’s like battling her way through waist-high surf, each step demanding more effort than the last, all the while feeling as though she might lose her footing at any moment and be swept out to sea?
- Rick isn’t sure how he ended up in the ambulance. One second he was coasting down the highway, the August sun on his face and neck, the next he was strapped to the gurney. Vaguely, he recalls crashing into the car—an SUV, he remembers that—but only as a series of disjointed images: there’s the bike, then the car, then the road. In some remote channel of his consciousness, he’s aware that he is severely injured, and it occurs to him that he might die, might already be dead—the thought of which isn’t as terrifying as he might have predicted. In fact, it’s curiously comforting: no more worrying over his bank account, his weight, his future, no more battling with the ill-tempered forklift at Home Depot, which he’s been driving for the past two years and would probably otherwise drive until the day he retires. No more wondering when his fortune will change, when he’ll finally get his moment, find a better career, take the bike out to Sedona, maybe get back into playing guitar, write and record some songs, an album, win the Powerball, clock Nancy Pelosi, whatever. No more Sierra either, which is sad, though on some level he’s always known that they wouldn’t last. Whether she realizes it or not, they’ve simply been biding their time, waiting for something better to come along. Or at least he has. And now that he’s come face-to-face with his own mortality, he feels bad about that. He does. He could have been better to her; he should have eased off the fooling around, been more honest, less of a hothead. He could have done Christmas with her in Asheville last year like she pleaded, instead of insisting that they stay in town, hit up the few bars that would be open on the 25th. What was the point? Why not grant her that one simple request? Because something in him longs to harm the people closest to him. To throw around what little power he has. He’s never understood it, but there it is. He’s a jerk, a bastard. He’s shit. He’s lower than shit. If he really is dying, then he deserves it. Only, he doesn’t want to die. Even if it means freedom, he’s not ready—no, God, not now, not when he’s started to see the world for what it is, to see beyond the veil of the self that clouds everything, beyond what he believes he knows into what he actually knows and holy shit is it something, so much light, so much to behold when you step outside your own body—how has he lived his whole life not knowing how small he is, how irrelevant, and how wonderful it is to recognize that there is nothing separating you from whatever lies beyond the physical? How is it that trying to exist achieves the exact opposite outcome? How have all his questions about life, about himself, always been the wrong ones? On average, the human brain contains 86 billion neurons. Rick’s neurons are dying off at a rate of 2 million per minute.
Q: How long will it take Rick, currently in the throes of a hallucination brought about by trauma to the hippocampus and temporoparietal junction, though blessedly free from any pain, to lose all his neurons? Bonus: if Rick’s rate of neuron loss equates to 4 years of brain aging per hour, what age will his brain approximate once all the neurons have died?
- After the ambulance has sped away, and after Ashley has tearfully phoned Wayne about the accident, only to be subjected to a ten-minute rant about what this might do to their insurance, she straps Dylan back into his car seat. He is tired and scared and hungry. To pacify him, she offers a small bag of Cheetos, dinner be damned, but he swats at her hands as she fumbles with the buckle, wailing at the top of his lungs. Unable to stop herself, Ashley shrieks at him to shut the fuck up. For a second, he regards her with silent terror as if she’s just struck him. Ashley, too, is silent, mortified by what has just escaped her mouth. When his wailing recommences, it’s even more shrill. Desperately, she walks back the outburst, Oh baby, I’m so sorry, Mommy didn’t mean it, please please please, Mommy is so sorry, trying to wrap her arms around him, but he pushes her away, No, Mommy, no! Too spent to cry anymore, she slumps against the vehicle’s open door. Her body aches; it feels cumbersome and alien. She wonders what Wayne would do if he were here but then pushes the idea aside, because he isn’t here, and truth be told she’s glad. For all of his blustering, Wayne doesn’t have an eye for solutions. Sure, he can fix a busted dryer or change out a car battery, but he doesn’t know how to make his life, their lives, any better. Which is not to say that Ashley does, but she tries, goddammit. Only, she’s tired of trying, tired of her efforts continually failing. For example: the raisins she offered to Dylan, which she now spies constellated across the dirty floorboard beneath his feet. Should she have just gotten him the candy, if only to spare herself the headache? When is it okay to do what is easy over what is right? She doesn’t know. Nor does she know what compels her to gather them up and start popping them into her mouth one by one. Grains of sand from this past weekend’s beach excursion stick to them, grinding between her teeth. It’s enough to make her queasy as she swallows (if it were Dylan, she would knock them out of his hand), but she can’t help herself, not until she notices that Dylan has stopped bawling and is watching her with a curious grin, as if he thinks it’s a performance, and he says Why you eat that, Mommy? to which Ashley, her self-disgust overruled by a wave of affection for her only child, flashes him a smile, the chewed-up raisins mashed against her teeth, which elicits a giggle, and it’s the most amazing sound she’s ever heard, better than being told she was going to be a mother, it makes her almost woozy with relief, and if she weren’t so spent from crying she might break out into sobs right now, but instead she holds her boy’s head to her chest, buries her nose in his honey-colored hair, takes in his sweet earthen smell, like an herb used to heal a wound, something restorative, revitalizing.
Q: Assuming that Ashley is 78 years old at the time of her death, and that the probability of her having outlived Wayne is 0.63, how many years is she likely to survive him? Bonus: Using the Ebbinghaus equation, R = exp(-t/S), determine the likelihood that Dylan will retain the memory of the accident, if -t is his age at the time of his mother’s death, and S is the relative strength of the memory, which is evidenced by its unbidden resurfacing at her funeral when he is 57, its presence in his mind enough to make him flinch as Father Figgis reads from Ecclesiastes, the man’s grainy voice somehow thrusting Dylan back into that moment: his mother’s hand on the back of his head, the feel of her sweat-dampened shirt against his cheek, which recollection is accompanied by the fleeting but nonetheless compelling understanding that none of our protections are everlasting, our defenses are only temporary, and that the world, for all that we invest in it, feels nothing for us in return.
- Is he flying? Floating? Falling? He senses the flurry of activity all around him, doctors and nurses scurrying through his periphery, the banks of machines beeping and hissing, but he’s only aware of it in the dimmest reaches of his mind. Someone is tugging on his shirt—no, not tugging. Cutting it off like wrapping paper. Remotely, he’s aware of his exposed gut slumped against his belt buckle, which is soon also removed, along with his pants, until he’s lying there in his jockeys. Through a cognitive fog that, unbeknownst to him, has been brought about by an intracranial hemorrhage, he observes the team of scrub-clad figures tending to him, only the more he watches the more detached he feels from the bulky body on the gurney: who is that man with the bloodied torso and the crooked, unshaven jaw, the faded pinup girl tattoos which, if given the chance, he might reconsider? Even semiconscious he knows he should be panicking, but instead the thought that comes to mind, unaccountably, is the skydiving instructor calling him an asshole after they had reached the ground. He’d grumbled it as Rick was escorting Sierra back toward the hangar. Rick might have knocked the dude’s teeth down his throat were it not for Sierra, who insisted that he just leave it alone, as well as the lingering high from his 120-mile per hour freefall, which left him feeling cheerful for the rest of the day, and if only there was some way to hold onto to that feeling all the time, that sensation of plummeting toward the earth, unencumbered, except even joy is too unwieldy to sustain for long, better to unburden oneself of whatever tethers you to this life, although now they are shocking him with a defibrillator, each jolt like an off-note in an otherwise glorious chorus, a hairline crack in a resplendent hallelujah, until finally the jolting stops, the chorus quieting, and it’s just him, and all of his aimless wanting dissipates like mist burning off the earth at sunrise, and here comes the ground, closer, closer, the trees and roads and houses coming into focus, cars inching along winding residential streets, the air blasting in his ears loud as an engine’s roar, and he knows what he’s supposed to do, pull the cord, it’s so easy, except no, that’s not his decision to make anymore, is it?
Q: Had Rick left Sierra’s ten seconds later, had he never lent her his computer, had wind speed been great enough to limit his own velocity, had Ashley given the green light an extra moment or two before inching forward, or had she taken Dylan to the playground before the trip to Kroger, as had been her initial plan until realizing that they were out of fajita seasoning, which they would need for dinner tonight, or had it rained, one of the spur-of-the-moment thundershowers that are common this time of year, or if the Kia that Rick had been tailing for three miles changed lanes an instant sooner, thereby revealing Ashley’s Rav in his path, or had there been a hurricane, tornado, wildfire, earthquake, tsunami, had the earth’s rotation inexplicably slowed, causing gravity to abate, or if it hastened, sure, or had the moon vanished and with it its authority over the tides as well the planet’s axial stability, what is the likelihood of the accident having been avoided?
D. Not enough information available to determine
JEREMY GRIFFIN is the author of the short fiction collections A Last Resort for Desperate People: Stories and a Novella, from SFAU Press, and Oceanography, winner of the 2018 Orison Books Fiction Prize. His work has appeared in such journals as the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Bellevue Literary Review, the Indiana Review, the Hopkins Review, Oxford American, and Shenandoah, among others. He teaches Creative Writing at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.
Art: “Coral Reef” by Jim Ross, Digital Photography