When I was a kid, I wanted to be Superman.
They said he was faster than a speeding bullet. Not just any old bullet, moseying home after a long day at the office. A speeding one, tearing up the atmosphere like nothing in the world could stop it. I wanted to punch through the sound barrier and carry on and on, away from everything.
I started running a year after my mom died. I was nine years old, but already fast enough to beat my army dad to the corner of the street. There was a local cop with a big brewster moustache who was always dragging me back home. I forget his name. His sedan could run faster than my legs, and his hand was quick enough to grab my collar. When he was still fetching me back two years later, he stopped by to have a word with my dad.
"He's pretty quick on those legs of his," he said. "You thought about getting him to do sports? Might burn up some energy."
Peeking through the banisters, I watched my dad shake his head. He'd gained a lot of lines in three years.
"I dunno. Sometimes I feel like that kid doesn't even hear me anymore."
But the next day he took me to town to buy sneakers. I joined the school track and field club the same week.
I ran middle distance at first, on the flat and over hurdles. I even did steeple-chase at junior county once, but I didn't like getting my feet wet. At fourteen I asked to try out for the two-hundred metres.
"You want to try a sprint?" asked the coach - a coat-hanger guy with a mouth like a fish. "Think you got the legs for it, kid?"
His voice was flat, but there were creases next to his eyes. I scowled and whacked my thigh with my fist.
"Got the legs right here," I said. "You gonna let me try or what?"
By eighteen, I had world-class PBs in the two-hundred metre sprint and the four-hundred metre hurdles. A year later, I qualified for the World Athletics Championships.
Nineteen years old and cocky as hell, I waited for the gunshot in my first World Two-Hundred Meter Final. I'd creamed the hot-shot Jamaican in the semis, and his scowl said he reckoned it was payback time. The bang came, and I was necking towards the finish line before I realised it wasn't the right sort of bang. The entire east side of the stadium was coming down, like folded paper under a weight. I saw three shadows shoot over; black Vs against the sky. Then the screaming started.
All track-and-field competitions were cancelled that year. And the year after. And the year after that. My army dad spent eight months on the front line before a grenade sent him home with a shattered pelvis. He arrived through the front door just in time to catch me packing my things. It felt unfair that he couldn't chase me that time.
After six months of training I hit the Red Zone; the bit of new desert that separated our forces from the primary landing site. We'd learned a lot about the bugs in the first year of fighting. We'd learned that all their advancement really just boiled down to a few bits of tech. Maybe they'd lifted it all from some other star-crossers; not much chance we'll ever really know. One thing's for sure, we were the inventive ones. The ones with all the crazy ideas.
Twelve years after I first ran away from my dad, I found myself lying with my cheek to the dirt, waiting for a flare. The Sergeant was muttering on the radio like a man with a shopping list.
"Just get to the generator, plant the package, and get out. No showing off - just get to the generator, plant the package, and get out. Just..."
Moving as little as possible, I pressed my speak button, "Sarg, I got it."
There was radio silence for a few moments while we waited for the light in the sky. I'd spent all day crawling on my belly toward enemy lines, and everything felt like it was full of dust - jacket, trousers, pockets and boot.
"Hey, kid," said the Sergeant at last. "Anyone you want me to - you know - give a message to? If you don't make it back in one piece?"
I grinned against the dirt.
"Sarg, I told you - I'm Superman. I'll be there and back before you can break out the beers."
"Just in case, kid. Just in case."
I thought about it, staring along the desert ground at the dark horizon.
"Tell my dad, it's not his fault that mom died."
"Uh huh," said the Sergeant.
Seemed like the flare should have come then, but it didn't.
"There was a car crash," I explained after an awkward silence. "Dad was at the wheel. Mom didn't walk out."
"Uh huh," said the Sergeant again. "That how you lost your leg?"
For a second or two I didn't answer. Staring along that hard ground, I was nine years old again; running down that dark street away from my home, my dad, and my unfair life. Running away from everything.
"Yeah," I said. "That was it."
A white flame leapt into the sky, scoring a line across my retinas. I was on my feet and running before the artillery bombardment had even begun. The desert ground was torn up like a dog had been at it, but at least it was dry. My spiked metal foot dug in better than the real one, and my prosthetic leg fell into rhythm with the flesh.
I had four pounds of plastic explosive in my back pocket and a six-hundred metre dash ahead of me. But I had the legs for it.
The enemy line was a bit taller than a hurdle, but I wasn't going to get a time penalty for clipping it. The bombardment was keeping the suckers low; the first one only spotted me after I'd already cleared the barricade. I heard him squeal, then the first bullet hissed past my cheek. I had four hundred meters to go, and the bastard was already calling his pals.
Passing through the protective shield was like running through a half foot of warm butter. I had to crush the urge to wipe my face as I broke out the other side and entered their tunnels. The downward slope was steep, but my spikes could handle it. There were more of the bugs ahead, but I had surprise on my side. No one expects a frontal assault by one man.
The tunnel opened out into a vast chamber, and I grabbed the explosives from my pocket. Two hundred metres ahead was the generator, wrapped in a case like a wasp's nest. By that point, the bugs were screaming and shooting wild. With no hotshot Jamaican in sight, I started my final sprint, sucking air like a vacuum cleaner. I wasn't a kid running away anymore. I was a bullet chasing down a target. A bird with one metal wing.
The crack as I slammed the package through the paper skin was like a thousand cameras going off at once. White flashes blazed all around me as I turned to face my adoring crowd. In the clatter of wing-cases, I could hear my applause.
I didn't get my beer in the end. And I didn't make it back to base in one piece.
But I did make it back.
"So, you er… You thinking of racing again?" asked my dad the day after the war ended.
We were out on the porch, my dad in his wheelchair and me leaning against the doorframe.
"I'll give it a try," I said. "Not sure I've got the legs for it anymore."
It was true. My beautiful lightweight prosthetic had gone up in smoke along with the swarm. Funnily enough, that wasn't the bit I was most sad to leave behind.
My dad looked down at his hands, clasped in his lap. "They shouldn't have let you join up. Hell, I shouldn't have let you join up. As if you didn't have it bad enough already..."
"Dad," I said, cutting him off. "You're getting all mopey again."
I pushed off the doorframe and went to lean on his chair instead.
"I've got my life, my freedom, and my good looks," I said. "And you know what the best part is?"
My dad looked up at me, his expression more than a little incredulous.
I grinned and winked. "Now my feet match!"
For a moment, my dad didn't answer. Until at last, he couldn't resist reflecting my smile.
"You're a damn brave kid, you know that?" he said, blinking as he turned away. "Your mom always said you'd grow up to be a superhero."
Well, she was wrong about that. Turns out I'm not faster than a speeding bullet. I'm not Superman.
But that day in the Red Zone, I was pretty damn close.