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Today was my sixteenth birthday and Ms. Shriver, my former third-grade teacher, was trying her hardest to kill me. As she chased me, she furiously waved a curvy dagger long enough to harvest wheat. Or a head.
Some birthday present. Not exactly the iWatch I’d asked for.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t really Ms. Shriver swinging that sharp blade at my head, but it sure looked like her at first. Same squinty hamster eyes that flashed tardy slips and multiplication tables (“Five times five is not twenty-two, Max! It can’t possibly be twenty-two!” Couldn’t it though?).
Yeah, I stank at math in third grade.
And science. And sports. Even lunch was a challenge. The politics of figuring out where to sit and where not to sit so the older kids wouldn’t steal my slushie was beyond me. Then the school got all health conscious and removed slushies altogether. After that, I ate in a third stall in the boys room. It had the most graffiti so I had something to read while eating my egg salad and peanut butter sandwich. I may have added a few witty lines myself.
Things were a lot better by ninth grade. I still sucked at most everything, but at least I had one subject I was really good at: history. I mean, I was really good. The kind of really good where teachers called on me when no one else knew the answer. It bugs me when you ask someone if they’ve seen a movie or heard a band and they smugly dismiss it with, “That was before my time,” or “I wasn’t even born then.” Most great things happened before they were born, that doesn’t excuse people from not being curious about them. A famous American philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” What he meant was, if you stick your finger in an electric socket, you either learn from that pain not to do it again—or you don’t.
What makes humans exceptional is that they write down all their history so we can learn from it even though most the stuff happened before we were born. All of human history and wisdom is right there on our cell phones. That some people choose to ignore it is like ignoring a road sign that says “No Road Ahead. Long Screaming Drop to Your Painful Death.”
I knew a lot of facts about a lot of places and people. Like, did you know that in 1845, at President Andrew Jackson’s funeral, they had to remove his beloved pet parrot because it was cursing so much? How many mourners were cracking up at that funeral? If only they’d had TikTok back then.
Remember that action movie 300 about all those muscle-bound guys in pleated skirts in Sparta? Did you know in about 400 BCE, Sparta had only 25,000 citizens—but 500,000 slaves? Twenty slaves for every non-slave, yet the slaves didn’t rise up and put an end to slavery. How is that even possible? I haven’t been able to watch the movie again since learning that. I mean, I just couldn’t care about whether or not Sparta survived.
Did you know that the last cavalry charge ever was during World War II when Mongolians on horseback attacked a German infantry division? Two thousand Mongolians were killed but not a single German died. I guess after that someone said, “Yeah, we definitely should not do that again.” They probably made him a general.
None of that is the kind of information that makes you popular. Better to know Taylor Swift’s dating history or Pete Davidson’s next movie.
I can’t really take much credit for knowing history. My parents were both famous historians, respected university professors with a bunch of fancy degrees and bestselling books they wrote together about stuff like the Black Plague (which was called that because the glands in the neck and armpits filled with blood that looked black) and the Viking invasions of England (Vikings never referred to themselves by that word, which means “pirate raid”). They also had a popular TV show on the History channel. Well, popular for cable. Still, it was surprising how many people recognized them when we were at a restaurant or a bookstore. They always seemed embarrassed but I thought it was cool.
Back to the psycho woman trying to kill me. I could see now that she didn’t look like Ms. Shriver at all. She was a lot thinner and prettier. And had this deep dimple at the corner of her mouth. Her eyebrows arched like two drawn longbows.
Is it weird that I could be running from a woman who was swinging a dagger at my head and still think she’s hot?
I suddenly felt tears running down my cheeks. I’d hoped that my frivolous monologue with myself would make the terror in my gut subside. But it hadn’t. Tears and snot flowed freely and I realized I was on the verge of a total breakdown. All I wanted to do was drop to my knees and cry. I wanted a cop to appear out of nowhere and save me, even though once he knew who I was, I might be in even more danger.
My life sucked. Even if I got away from her, I would still be on the run from half the world. Still living every day in disguise. Still avoiding closed-circuit TV cameras on the streets and in stores. Why not just give up and end it now, I thought.
But my body was in full survival mode and didn’t really care how I felt or what I thought. It wanted to live. I wiped the tears from my eyes and the snot from my nose with the back of my hand and kicked my legs into a higher gear.
Live, it said. Just live.
“Stop!” she yelled as she ran. Now she was only twenty feet behind me. I’d kicked my legs into a higher gear but so had she. “Stop!” she commanded again. “Stop right now, you little jerk!”
Does that ever work? I mean, I see it in movies all the time. The maniac killer wearing the bloody face he skinned off his last victim is running after a college girl in a tight t-shirt yelling for her to stop. Does he really expect her to stop when he’s chasing her with a chainsaw? I hate movie logic. Like when there’s a shootout with bullets flying everywhere and, for no reason, some guy jumps out from behind his perfectly safe wall of bricks and starts firing away. Of course he gets gunned down immediately. Movie logic is teaching us all to do stupid things and I couldn’t afford to do anything movie-stupid.
Right about now you’re probably wondering how it can be that we were running outside in broad daylight, her waving that creepy dagger, me screaming for help. Yeah, that’s right, I was screaming like a Dalmatian puppy with Cruella on his spotted tail.
“Help me, somebody! Please help me!” My voice sounded high and desperate.
The reason she felt comfortable chasing me out in the open was because it was a Sunday and we were in a deserted warehouse district in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, population 43,268 (most of them attending the monster truck rally at the county fairgrounds because it was the last appearance of Death Masher). This was just the kind of place chainsaw maniacs and dagger-wielding women like to hide out.
The upside of people trying to kill me on a Sunday was that at least I wasn’t missing any tests. My grades couldn’t afford that.
The downside was, well, death.
How’d I get in this situation? A couple blocks behind us was a self-storage place where my grandmother and I had stored some of our stuff after the last middle-of-the-night getaway and identity change. It was registered under one of our many aliases but my grandmother still warned me to stay away from it. They have eyes everywhere, she’d said. But all I wanted was my bike. I was tired of taking the stupid school bus that was as hot as a coffin and smelled like old sweat socks and moldy grilled cheese sandwiches.
I was actually biking home from the storage unit, pretty proud of my cleverness (I’d used a disguise: baseball cap and sunglasses), when Dagger Lady back there had tried to run me over with her car. I managed to jump off my bike just before she crunched all ten speeds under her white Honda Odyssey.
Seriously? An assassin driving a mini-van?
Not even a sinister black Humvee with tinted windows and cool chrome running boards. It was as if I was being attacked by the PTA instead of some international hitman. Hitperson.
If that’s what she was.
I wasn’t going to hang around to ask.
Unfortunately, when she’d nearly run me over, my burner phone skid out of my pocket and under one of her tires. There was no calling for help. So I ran.
At first, I figured there was no way an older woman of about thirty would be able to keep up with a skinny young dude like me. She was almost twice my age. I’d simply wear her down with my energetic youth. But she must have been one of those intense joggers you always see running through the park with weights on their ankles and AirPods screwed into their ears listening to their Lady GaGa playlist.
I looked over my shoulder to see her gaining on me. I was drenched in sweat, panting like a sled dog. She looked cool and determined. Not a drop of sweat on her.
My legs started to slow down. My right knee ached as if a nail had been hammered into it. I vomited a little in my mouth.
In less than a minute she was going to be within slashing distance. My back tingled where I guessed the first cut would slice through.
Why the funky knife, I wondered. Shooting me had to be a lot easier than running after me in a short skirt and knee-high leather boots (I told you she was hot). Apparently, she was more interested in hacking off some body part than just killing me.
And I knew exactly which body part and why.
Which left me with one choice. One choice that I really didn’t want to make. It was a last resort for a reason: the pain was excruciating during and even worse after, like being held under water for a full minute after you’ve run out of breath. Your brain feeling like it would explode if you didn’t get a breath right away.
But, like I said, no other choice. I punched myself hard on my left forearm until the pain radiated across my skin and shot straight into my brain. I stumbled from the pain, nearly toppling onto the pavement. It was starting.
I looked at the smooth skin on my forearm. Except for a red splotch where I’d punched myself, nothing. Nothing?
I punched myself again. Harder. The pain stabbed my brain again. A dull throb pulsed behind my left eye.
The vague outline of an hourglass began to form on my skin like an instant Polaroid photo blooming into recognizable forms and colors.
The time-reaper’s tattoo.
The hourglass was the size of a playing card. The bottom rested on the back of a green and gray tortoise. Yeah, I’d have preferred something cooler, like a shark or panther. Not a sleepy-eyed tortoise who looked about as tough as milk and cookies. It gets worse. On top of the hourglass perched a butterfly with orange and purple and yellow wings.
That’s another reason I would never show this thing to anyone. The other reasons being the people trying to kill me because of it and, of course, the threat to human civilization as we know it that its existence posed.
I punched the hourglass hard with my knuckles, really jamming the bones into the muscle and grinding hard. I don’t know the scientific reasons, but pain stimulated the nerves that somehow powered the tattoo, like a handcrank on a survivalist’s flashlight. The image glowed brighter. The butterfly began to slowly flutter its wings and the tortoise started lumbering forward. He looked pissed that I’d woke him.
A little disclaimer here: it wasn’t an actual inked tattoo that I got as part of a teenage rebellion. It wasn’t even my choice. There was no dank studio that catered to underage kids, no parking lot filled with motorcycle gangs waiting for another skull and dagger on their faces, no whirring ink gun wielded by a pony-tailed dude with grizzled stubble. The real story is much, much worse.
A sharp pain stung my shoulder, like when you scrape your knees on a cement playground.
The assassin’s dagger had just sliced through my vintage Beatles t-shirt and raked off some skin.
I cried out in pain and surprise. Never mind the exact words.
Fear was starting to pinch my vision but I tried to focus on the outlined image on my forearm. It was my only hope. The sudden pain on my back had jolted my body even more than my self-inflicted punches. My brain felt like a red-hot brick burning in my skull. The butterfly was flapping so hard that its wings were a blur of color. Even the stubby little tortoise legs were pumping away. Where before the hourglass had been empty, the top half was now full of shiny black sand.
“Jesse Owens!” I gasped breathlessly. When nothing happened, I took a deep breath and yelled with all my might, “Jesse Owens! Jesse Owens!”
My skin suddenly tightened painfully like a wet suit two sizes too small. Overwhelming heat burned through my body as if I were trapped in a burning building. My head felt strange, light and floaty, like I was in the middle of a major sneeze that wouldn’t come.
As always, the random images came next, swirling around me like dead leaves in a wind storm. A small Black boy eating dinner with his ten brothers and sisters. Jesse, older now, about fifteen, delivering groceries. Jesse at twenty-two, holding up four Olympic gold medals. Jesse, slightly gray haired, racing a horse (and beating it!) while the crowd cheered.
And suddenly my feet were moving faster than they ever had before. I didn’t have to look back to know I was now ten, twenty, thirty feet ahead of her.
Home free, I sighed with relief, sprinting forward.
A loud bang echoed off the buildings and a bullet punched into the dumpster a foot ahead of me.
I guess she’d decided she could get the desired body part from my corpse.
I’m an orphan.
Last year in the U.S. 2.5 million people died. Of that number, 42,116 people died from car crashes—that’s an average of 114 people every day. So, statistically it makes sense that eventually it would happen to someone close to me. We all have to go sometime and that’s a more likely way than most.
But Mom and Dad were such extraordinary people that their deaths should have also been somehow extraordinary—not the clichéd car crash. Ninety people died last year after being struck by lightning. Four people died from shark attacks. Grisly, sure, but somehow, with my parents, those deaths would have made more sense. Struck by lightning while escaping tomb robbers in a giant balloon. Eaten by sharks while diving for ancient treasure. Even a mummy’s curse would have made more sense.
But after that car crash, nothing made sense.
At first, some of my friends tried cheering me up by saying I was like Harry Potter now. But Harry still could communicate with his dead parents through magic mirrors and such. I couldn’t. Plus, their deaths gave Harry a purpose in life: to destroy their murderers and save the world from evil magic. The death of my parents had the opposite effect on me; it seemed to drain me of any purpose.
I started to worry about all kinds of stuff I never even thought about before. You know how most kids go around thinking, “That can never happen to me”? I went around knowing that “that” could very well happen to me. Maybe while walking across a street I really could get hit by a bus. Maybe while I slept a spider really could lay eggs in my ear and they’d hatch and eat into my brain. The possibilities of ways to die seemed endless. Everything could be a death trap.
The result was that I kept to myself and tried not to get involved in anything. Clubs, activities, sports. My motto was: “Stay out of it.”
I know my attitude would have disappointed my parents who raised me to be curious and adventurous. But their deaths taught me the gut-churning misery that curiosity and adventurousness can bring.
Another gunshot. I felt the bullet brush across my hair.
Crap! I had to stop thinking and just focus on running. About 15,517 Americans died from murder last year. I didn’t want to join them. I was holding out for peacefully dying in my sleep on my hundredth birthday.
To make that happen, I was doing the very last thing I wanted to do.
Jesse Owens had won four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, proving to the world that the Nazis’ whole white supremacy rap was a pretty stupid idea. Though what does it say about a world that needed that proved to them? He’d run the 100 meters in 10.3 seconds. And now that I had his ability to run, I should be able to lose someone in a mini-skirt and leather boots who drives a mini-van.
Two shots this time. One skipped off the pavement ten feet ahead of me. I don’t know where the other one went. But I did know that even Jesse Owens couldn’t outrun a bullet.
I saw a metal fire escape attached to the side of one of the warehouses. It looked rickety and dangerous, the kind that could give you tetanus or put an eye out. But I had to try something. Speed wasn’t enough. I turned the corner, my Chuck Taylor high-tops spanking the pavement as I ran. The two buildings were fairly close. About twenty-five feet of dark, wet alley separated them.
I hopped onto the fire escape and started scrambling up the metal steps. It was even more rickety than I thought. I could feel the metal structure pull away from the wall a little, as if the bolts holding it to the building had rusted clean through.
A bullet pinged off the metal stair directly below me.
Now she was on the fire escape, too, climbing and reloading at the same time.
I made it to the top of the five-story building way ahead of her. I ran across the flat roof to the door that would lead me back down to the street.
Locked! I pulled and kicked at the door like a toddler throwing a sugar-rush tantrum. The door didn’t care.
I ran to the other side of the roof and looked down. No fire escape. No truck full of mattresses passing by. No dumpster filled with Styrofoam peanuts. No typical movie coincidences. Nothing but skull-shattering cement.
In retrospect, this whole running to the roof perhaps was not a good plan after all. In fact, I now remembered that this was one of those stupid movie-logic moments. You never run up when being chased by someone with a gun. You always get cornered on a roof. How many times had I scoffed at some loser character that had done that. Yet, here I was. Loser on a roof.
When I looked back over my shoulder, I saw her tussled red hair coming up over the edge of the roof. She glared with pure hatred and aimed the gun at me.
No choice. I started running.
Straight for the edge of the roof.
My legs felt weird, more powerful than they’d ever felt before. Like my muscles were thicker and heavier, my lungs giant balloons lifting me into the air. My arms were pumping now, faster than they ever had moved before. I expected my heart to start aching from the exertion, but it didn’t. It felt tight and hard, like a football, but not uncomfortable. I felt really great, like I’d just aced an algebra test (not that I knew what that felt like). Then I remembered something Jesse Owens had once said: “I always loved running—it was something you could do by yourself and under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.”
The courage of your lungs. Yeah, I thought, that’s how this feels. And with that thought, my legs started to move even faster, as if thinking directly about Jesse’s words boosted the power. I’d have to remember that for the next time.
If there was a next time.
Because the edge of the roof was coming closer and closer andcloserandcloserand….
When I got to the edge, I jumped.
Three of Jesse’s gold medals in Berlin were for running. But one was for the long jump.
I’d figured that the distance from the building I was standing on and the building across the alley was about twenty-five feet. I knew that Jesse had won his gold for a jump of 26’ and 5.5”. That gave me over a foot of wiggle room. Then again, you remember I’m not that good at math. What if the distance between the buildings was twenty-seven feet?
That gave me a plunge to the ground of about fifty feet. You didn’t have to be a math geek to know I wouldn’t live through that fall. They’d need a snow shovel and a hose to remove what was left of me.
As I flailed through the air, screaming as if my hair was on fire, I decided that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.