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The Death Runner by Thomas Sullivan

Updated: Dec 13, 2019

The jogger found himself in the race of a lifetime against his deadliest opponent himself.

Round and round you go, and where you stop. . . '' Cy Harvey, country boy turned track star turned old man, repeated the phrase to himself as he ran. It was what he said to his wife when she nagged about running. How could a woman understand? How could a man, until his dreams were clouded and he turned inward? When you're over the hill, you run against yourself.

The five a.m. track at Barker High School was a phantom place in the spring. Half night, half day, its infield flashed with dewdrop emeralds, its cindered surface was richer than velvet, and over all there hung a mist that reached from the distant rim across the bowl to the elevated tennis courts.

From one end Harvey could just see the spars of the far upright framed against the nether blackness of woods and river, and beyond that the ghostly battlements of Durfey Hospital. When he covered the one hundred thirty-seven steps, give or take two, that kept him on the pace, he would be at the far curve, able to see the high school gym on the hill.

In this hand he held a stopwatch. He could not actually read it as he ran. Mist and movement conspired to blur the numbers. But he saw the position of the sweep hand in relation to the stem, and familiarity told him his splits. Even without it he knew. He knew within two seconds each quarter. The whole two miles must be evenly split --1:44 a quarter. No negative splits, no pace changes, he must run perfect quarters. He wished . . . he wished he could pace himself, that he could race a hologram of himself taken from one of those perfect days. Such are the musings of a runner in transit.

When he was done, he passed slowly up the hill, through a break in the trees, and into his own backyard. For a long while he sat on the terrace, and then, when he heard his wife stirring, he went in to take a shower.

''Honestly, you're going to get mugged out there,'' she chided.

''For what? My stopwatch?''

''They don't need a reason nowadays.''


''I know it's important to you, but it's not worth your life. You're going to die running. Honestly.''

He nodded happily. A good way to die. It takes a quiet spring morning with only a jay calling from the woods, and a perfectly black oval on a green apron, and a secluding mist that shapes fantasies, to kick your heart and stir your pulse. That is your setting, predictable and constant. And you are the variable for which it was made. You are the free will, the creator of change. Your footprints tear the early morning lace; your breathing is the metronome.

The next morning was the first day of fall. He wore his blue track suit and new pair of Nikes. The shoes left crisp prints on the first lap. He listened to their meter and his own biological rhythms filling the dell.

Pad, pad, pad . . .

He was the clock, sweeping harmoniously around the face of the visible world.

As he ran that morning he thought very hard about pace. He could almost divide it by steps, by units of energy. Residual quanta still remained from yesterday's analysis. The hung in the air like a miasma from the decomposed echo of that vanished runner -- and of other days, too.

He thought more and more about this each time; and more and more his own presence seemed already there, lurking behind the goalpost, running just ahead, accumulating somehow into shadows and currents. On this particular morning he had trouble sorting the sound of his steps from their return off the far wall of the dell. They were out of sync. Source and echo seemed to have strayed -- or multiplied. Every few measures the cadence was broken; pad-pad-tap-pad-pad-tap . . . He had the eerie feeling of being watched, as his gaze traveled up the hill of Durfey Hospital. Someone was throwing rocks on the track, he decided, and stared hard at the mist to separate a flash of blue at the far turn.


His next quarter was 1:42.

That was the beginning. A break in the pace.

He knew it in the next morning, because the echoes and flashes were back, diametrically opposite. Louder and brighter. And on the final lap he saw and heard them move ahead. Two seconds. Exactly two seconds. a 1:42.

For a longtime he stood on the infield looking for it, waiting for it to pass. But it didn't, of course. The race was over. Eight laps. Two miles. If it was still there, it was waiting also. Opposite him.

He knew what he must do.

At dawn the next day he came down the rim, crossed the dewy grass at the same point, and ran in place several seconds. Then he started. Slowly. Slower than he had ever run before. Immediately he saw the crease of color pass behind the far goalposts.

Good. It was locked into the pace -- yesterday's pace. It had to be yesterday's because the slip of color wasn't blue this time, but white. He had worn white yesterday's because the slip of color wasn't blue this time, but white. He had worn white yesterday. At his near walk, he knew it would be close quickly, and he was glad - until he heard the multiple thuds behind him and glanced back into the mist.

Now there were two flickers. One white, one blue.

Suddenly they were there, and he quickened his pace. Stride for stride. A thrill of

power invested him. He had peripheral awareness of white track pants unzipped at the cuffs and Nike Trainers kicking out next to his. And he knew it was himself. Atom for atom. Not the Cy Harvey in shirt and tie, not the meek husband of Edith Harvey, but the real one -- the runner!

He knew it existed yesterday. It didn't even know he was here. But that didn't matter. Pace was communion.

A grueling, killing pace.

And at the end of self from two days ago -- in a blue track suit -- pulled out. That was the 1:42. Tomorrow there would be a fourth runner, he thought.

And there was.

And each day another, multiplying his joy. Edith clucked and pondered his sudden, secret strength, and finally went back to warning him: ''Someday you'll find yourself facing a gang of those crazy drug fanatics. Then you'll run. You'll run for your life!''

Run for his life. Of course he ran for his life. The literal meaning of that became clearer each day. There were almost thirty of them out there now. A great silent horde rumbling two miles at the inviolable pace, dredged up each dawn by the solitary being who existed ''now''. All alone one minute, he would start it with a quick kick, and suddenly they were breaking through whatever it was that defined time from energy. Crescendoing at his heels. The sound made him sweat, made him tremble. He no longer dared look around.

And then there was the lone runner way behind. The echo of the day he ran the slow lap to let them catch up. The pack continued to lap that one. It didn't bother him until the morning he finished and turned quickly. His bowels were awash to see so many images of himself lunging across the finish with silent, gaping mouths. But the real horror was final runner -- the one that was lapped. Because just before he staggered across the finish and faded, Cy Harvey saw that his face was covered with blood, his track suit torn and smeared.

He had been trampled.

Cy Harvey no longer came in the dawn with a clear heart. Because running had been his small acknowledgement. Yes. I am physical. Evolution gave me a body I must use. But now the surrogate manhood was becoming real. The danger was real. The chase called him at sunrise and he became. Because if there was danger there was victory. And he couldn't keep up, couldn't stay the extra step ahead of yesterday's pace, he would accept the consequences. And each day until then he would be a victory . . .

But one night a simple thing happened, something he had not thought about. It rained. There hadn't been a heavy soaking rain at night for a long time. It didn't occur to him that it would change anything. Everyone ran the same track. He came down the hill onto a surface that had drained but was soft and slow.

In the serene stillness he kicked it off - kicked the door open for the furious mob. For the next thirteen minutes and fifty-two seconds, they would thunder around on his heels. But it was yesterday's track for them, and all the days' before. His track was today's.

He gulped lungfuls of air and returned cotton. There was no rhythm, no pace. Today was a sprint.

The tennis coach saw his body from the courts at eight; it was lying in the mud. ''Looked like a tractor ran over him,'' he told the other teachers at lunch. But his wife knew that, of course, he had been beaten by unknown assailants.

She found instructions attached to his will in their safe deposit box and dutifully had the headstone inscribed: Round and round you go, and where you stop . . .


USA Today best-seller and Pulitzer Prize nominee Thomas Sullivan has been a gambler, a "Rube Goldberg" innovator, a coach, a teacher, a city commissioner, and an All-American athlete.  Self-described as “well-ranged if not deranged,” the itinerary of his life is as eclectic as his writing.  Having lived in a dozen countries by the time he was six, Sullivan is at home in many cultures and across the literary spectrum from mainstream to genre.Labels mean little in describing his writing.  The constant is that he writes “people stories,” timeless tales of individuals and relationships whether caught in fun-house mirrors or in the twists of thrilling intrigues.  It is not unusual to find his books and stories reprinted in several categories as well as contemporary mainstream.  Or as he puts it, “When you don’t belong anywhere, in a sense you belong everywhere.”

Nearly 100 publishing credits in all fiction categories, his work includes nine novels in over 20 domestic and foreign editions, journalism, non-fiction and active film options.  His short stories have appeared in nearly every market from Omni to St. Anthony Messenger.  Likewise, the literary awards and prizes have been extremely diverse, ranging from a Hemingway Days Literary Award to a Writer's Digest listing in the Top Ten Horror Stories of All Time to a Catholic Press Association award in their Best Short Story category. 
An avid swimmer, biker, cc skier and kayaker, Sullivan currently lives on a lake in Maple Grove, Minnesota, writing full-time and lecturing internationally.

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Harry Moon romps through time right into your heart in this baroque and bawdy, delicious and daring, sexy and sinful contemporary-historical novel. Journey from then to now with the Moon brothers: Nicki—who was born to be a gangster and loves activities such as breaking kneecaps; Stu—who adores women’s clothing, so much so, in fact, that he wears dresses whenever possible; Stanley—who likes stimulants, depressants, and any other drug he can get hold of; and, finally, Harry—one of the greatest heroes since Don Quixote saw his first windmill. This perfectly paced blending of comedy and drama is a novel that reaches to the heart of life itself. Four eccentric brothers move toward four parallel fates that echo the destinies of four eccentric ancestors. On the way they encounter sexual blackmail, petty crime, political radicalism, space-age illness, and last but ever so much more than least, maturation and purpose—disguised and hard to recognize to be sure, but theirs all the same. The Phases of Harry Moon is violent and tender, inspired and earthy, and Harry himself is one of the most endearing, mad, and moving characters of fiction in the last decade. Harry Moon is a hero for everyone, and his world is our world—full of laughter and sighing and the bright if tenuous light of understanding.


Surviving a near-fatal accident, Michael Carmichael cheats death, which no mere mortal is meant to do, and now, not quite a man, neither alive nor dead, he must find a way to reclaim his soul as the rage of the natural world descends upon him. Original.


No work of fiction or nonfiction has done what CASE WHITE does in this monumental new novel by USA Today Best-selling author Thomas Sullivan. Set in the era of two world wars, this comprehensive work weaves together the bizarre mythology and eccentric beliefs that explain how a nation went insane for 12 years. Told through the compelling lives and loves of a pair of very unique characters, this tour de force will take you into a radical blend of religion and myth frighteningly similar to what is going on in parts of the world today. Certain to be a benchmark work of elegantly written fiction and historical perspective, CASE WHITE delivers a poignant people story played out on a grand stage.


Life becomes a living hell for seven-year-old Joey after the arrival of Uncle Lucien, as Joey confronts a horrible family legacy and becomes certain that his sinister uncle is connected to the deaths of his father and brother and plans a similar fate for himself. Reprint.


Finalist for the World Fantasy Award for best novel... Kurt Hauptmann will learn to make stained glass to help men see the glory of God, one of the many bizarre heritages handed down from his ancestry. But the family has other, more frightening secrets. The path to God runs through darkness as well as light. And the bond of a family is blood, its own and that of its enemies. What is the strangeness in Uncle Detlef, head of the stained-glass studio? Why has he descended from his cathedral roofs to steeplejack the perils of a secular world? What are his secrets? Why do the family's holy rites seem perverse? Most of all, why are men getting killed in bizarre, archaic ways here in South Florida? As Kurt gropes toward the truth, so does the tough and cynical cop, Jack Skelote. What lies before them is a limbo of murdered martyrs, unblessed, unholy, and unburied.


When an elderly woman gets her hands on the Dust of Eden, the bloodred earth from which all else was created, she uses its unholy power to start a rest home called New Eden where she plays God by controlling the lives of all who live there. Original.



A professional dispeller of myths and manipulation, Lane Andersen journeys to Ireland to investigate the legend of the Water Wolf, who guards the gates of hell, where he falls in love with a woman of inhuman origins and discovers an underground world where the evil that killed his father waits for him. Original.

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