Here is Kenneth's morning routine. It starts like this: after rising from his sleeping creche, Kenneth slips into his Smart Chair and allows it to take him to his Workout Station. Once he signs on to the Neural Network, all he has to do is call up the jogging App, leaning forward to facilitate the sub connection. His Third Eye Implant locks into the app, and with a flourish of rotating symbols his jogging avatar appears in the holographic field. Within seconds Kenneth, or rather his holographic avatar, starts to jog.
He sits back and enjoys his jog. The avatar starts off at a light pace, but Kenneth can already feel his heartbeat slowly increasing with each step. Energy starts to course through his system - his muscles, his blood stream, his lungs. On the view screen all of the various measures of Kenneth's body and physiology are on display: Heart Rate, Blood Pressure, Lung Capacity, Synaptic Rate. There are other measurements on the screen that Kenneth does not himself understand, but he is confident that the A.I. will detect any anomalies should they arise.
The Avatar picks up the pace, and Kenneth feels himself responding in kind. It's a good workout; precisely measured and calibrated to maintain a peak physical condition for its subject. He watches his avatar as it now settles into a continuous and steady rhythm, moving smoothly and efficiently before his eyes.
Anytime he wants to, Kenneth is able to slip into a first person point of view to that of the avatar, choosing amongst a near infinite variety of environments from within which to see himself jogging. But for some reason this morning he's chosen to eschew this option, even though that's his usual preference. Instead he feels content to just sit in his chair and watch the rising and falling feet of his avatar, synchronized with the internal movements of his body.
And over time Kenneth finds his mind turning back in memory; through the rhythm of the jog he is falling back in time, into the past…
He remembers jogging when he was young. Jogging for Gym class, not because he wanted to, but because he had to. Several times that year, the entire seventh grade, both the boys and girls, would go for a long run through McLellan Park, across the street from the school. It was a pretty lengthy jaunt, first up along the western side across the park, then along the creek that ran into the southern section, and finally down through the valley ravine that followed the creek back along it's eastern bank.
Kenneth had always dreaded these marathons, because he was by far the worst runner in the school. He would always find himself completely out of breath and having to stop and walk while everybody else ran on ahead, until one of the teachers would double back and yell at him until he got moving again. And he would have always come in last, if not for his two friends, Lars and Jacqueline - "Jackie", both of whom would hang back with him as he struggled to finish the gruelling run.
Lars would let himself come in last because he just didn't care about the whole thing. And Jackie stayed back because she was in love with Kenneth.
He'd known all along, of course, but Kenneth had been insecure and not yet able to accept that someone could really love him the way that she did. And so he'd remained aloof to her attentions which had made her hang around him all the more - or that is, hang back, because as it turned out Jackie was an excellent runner. But she cared more about Kenneth than proving herself to anyone else, and so… On one day in the late spring, during the last run of the year, the three of them found themselves rounding the corner from the north of the park back down into the valley next to the creek, taking them back to the finish line, and the school.
They'd been making a pretense of running as they skirted the north edge, due to some feeling of exposure being alongside the road that crossed over the creek- as if one of the teachers was going to pull up in a car and tell them to get a move on.
"I wouldn't put it past them," Lars had chortled, as they trotted down the path leading into the park.
Kenneth wheezed in response, wincing from the pain in his lungs. Eventually they slowed down into a walk. They were on a cement path situated on a wide strip of mowed grass between two rows of trees, the row to the right sloping downwards to a gully where the creek followed alongside the path.
Kenneth slowed to a stop and put his hands on his knees, desperately trying to catch his breath. His legs felt wobbly and his head was spinning, and the sun overhead felt so hot. Jackie stepped over to him and put her hand on his shoulder.
"You okay Kenny?" She always called him Kenny whenever she was concerned about him, something that Kenneth couldn't stand. He looked up at his two companions. Neither one of them seemed to be out of breath, or barely even sweating for that matter. What the hell was wrong with them? Couldn't they tell how hot it was?
After close to a minute he managed to straighten up. Lars smiled at him and motioned down towards the creek. "What say we take the shady route for a while?"
Jackie hesitated. "I dunno… I heard there was hobos down there sometimes."
"Don't be so chicken," Kenneth panted, glad for both an opportunity to get in the shade and to make himself look brave. "There's three of us."
Jackie frowned her doubt at the two boys, but they had already both started down towards the creek. As they made their way to the trees, Kenneth had time to think over how it had come to be that he was so poor at running. For the whole year he'd chalked it up to his mom's cigarette smoke - he was a victim of second hand smoke, and it was his Mom's fault. Never mind that she'd quit for good last year; the damage was done and he would always have this problem.
But thinking about it now, he realized that it was most likely all of his bad habits - too much time spent in front of the TV, or sitting at his desk, drawing pictures. And junk food; way too much junk food. And because he was still relatively skinny he'd enjoyed the luxury of denial… But the truth was, he was just a lazy and out of shape kid.
They reached the edge of the trees and slipped into the shade. It was instantly cooler here, and Kenneth breathed deeply in relief. The creek gurgled lightly off to their right, reflecting brief sparkles of the dappled sunlight. They walked along the banks of the smoothly flowing waters, gradually winding their way down lower amongst the trees.
"I guess if they catch us down here they'll think we were fooling around," Jackie said with an awkward laugh. Both Kenneth and Lars looked at each other, and everyone walked in silence for a few more seconds.
"Pervy!" Lars quipped, shooting a grin over at Jackie, and they all laughed aloud at that. They began to pick up their pace, and Kenneth could feel his strength returning. He even started hopping across the rocks that stuck up from the water, moving back and forth from one side of the creek to another. Jackie followed him from rock to rock. At one point she slipped and got her foot soaked, swearing in embarrassment. But she kept on going. Lars was content to walk alongside the creek, keeping pace.
They came across the camp a few minutes later. It turned out that Jackie was right - there were homeless people living in the gully. Luckily no one was at the site at that particular time, but there was no question that people had been sleeping there very recently.
They all stood together at the edge of the small clearing, staring in fascination at the derelict camp. There was a small campfire, still smouldering, surrounded by a circle of blackened scorched bricks. Beyond that lay three filthy sleeping bags in a disarray around the fire, as well as some kind of grille that looked like it had been constructed with metal clothes hangers. Some ratty towels and a few shirts hung from a branch overhead, flapping eerily in the shallow breeze. And countless beer and wine bottles carpeted the ground of the entire area, making Kenneth wonder how the people who'd been there had even managed to move around without stepping on one.
"Kind of makes you wonder how people end up this way…" Lars whispered. And Kenneth realized that he'd been thinking the exact same thing. Homeless people were not yet common in their town at that time; the global changes that would wreak havoc on the local economy were still a few years off for them… to say nothing of the sorts of changes that were to follow even later.
A cold chill ran up Kenneth's spine, but he knew that it wasn't the chance of some crazy bum coming back that was making him so nervous. It was himself. He suddenly could see himself living in exactly that way, in his own future. He knew without a doubt that someday not too far off, he could very easily find himself sliding down and down until he finally just fell off of the edge of the world. Fell away from his family, his friends, his school… Until he plummeted so far that there was no way of ever coming back. Because he couldn't keep up. He couldn't keep up.
"We should go…" He said, trying to quell the rising panic in his voice. It was obvious to all of them that they shouldn't be here. This was somebody's home. They began to step sideways along the edge of the camp, picking their way between the bushes and trees. As they approached a break in the trees and the open bright space of the grass and the main path, Kenneth heard Lars suddenly make an abrupt retching sound.
He looked down. Right in front of him - just before his upturned foot, in fact - someone had dug a shallow hole in the ground. And filled it with human shit.
Kenneth stood frozen, his shoe still raised before the makeshift latrine. The stench hit him like a wall. He'd almost stepped in it. And there was something about the site of actual human feces out in the open like that, just lying there as though it had been dropped by a dog, that escalated Kenneth's dread to a fever pitch.
He finally brought his foot back from the edge of the pit. There was newspaper mixed in with the contents of the latrine. They used newspaper… Flies buzzed up from the hole, swarming his face. He lurched back, knocking into his friends, whipping his head from side to side. He did not want any of those flies to touch him at all.
Lars and Jackie were calling out to him as he bolted towards the main pathway. He had to get away right now. Thrashing through bushes and stumbling over roots, Kenneth scrambled in a blind panic until he finally emerged careening out onto the grass. He continued to run up to the path, and could hear his friends following behind him, giggling with nervous fear as they ran through the trees.
It was once he'd made it to the path that he heard Jackie cry out his name, with a sharp desperation that made Kenneth stop and turn around.
Jackie and Lars were just outside of the tree line, and she was holding him up as he gripped a hand on his right ankle. It was obvious that he'd tripped over something during the mad rush through the trees. Jackie cast an imploring look up at Kenneth. "Come on, Kenneth! Help us!"
Kenneth stood uncertainly, watching as Jackie pulled Lars up towards the path. He turned away from them and looked up the path as it led over the rise of the hill before him. It was just that he was so energized now, that for the first time ever he'd felt like he could finally catch up…
"He's okay," Kenneth said, shifting from foot to foot. "Right Lars? You're okay." He glanced up the path again, itching to run. Neither Lars or Jackie answered him, but as they approached the path it seemed that Lars was starting to regain control of his leg. He was fine. Kenneth turned back to the path. "Come on! Let's go!"
"KENNETH!" Jackie shrieked, and there was an edge in her voice that Kenneth had never heard before. "Just wait up for a second! What's gotten into you?"
She didn't understand. He needed to GO. The energy was in him, and he didn't know how long it would last, and he needed to go now. Lars was shaking out his foot, starting to loosen up. Kenneth clapped his hands together.
"Okay all right he's better now. Let's go!" He turned to run, and both Lars and Jackie reactively started to run after him. Lars grimaced in pain and slowed down, Jackie reaching back to him. He waved her off, and so she hesitated a moment, then looked desperately up at Kenneth.
"Kenneth!" She called out one last time, on the verge of tears, now. And the way her voice was almost breaking made Kenneth stop and look back at her, also for one last time.
Kenneth held out his hand. "Run with me…"
Jackie stood wavering, looking back and forth from Kenneth to Lars. Kenneth was now perfectly still, all of his anxious need coiled up within him like a loaded spring. As Jackie looked back to Lars he waved her off a second time. "Go on ahead. I'll catch up."
She took a step away from Lars and looked up towards Kenneth. He smiled down at her while he waited, an expectant yet patient smile. And there must have been something in that look on his face, because suddenly Jackie's own face grew hard, and she stepped back to Lars and put her hand on his shoulder.
They both looked up at him. For a second Kenneth could see the pain in Jackie's eyes, and it was almost enough to make him change his mind. Almost.
She'd made her choice. Kenneth turned away from his friends and started to run up the path. He ran fast and strong, breaking over the rise and into a full sprint. Trees rushed by on either side and the wind filled his lungs to an exhilarating capacity. The sun overhead didn't feel hot at all now, but rather like a battery that was charging him up the further he ran. He felt great.
And of course as he ran, Kenneth couldn't help but be aware of his own seeming hypocrisy. Both Jackie and Lars had stayed back for him all year, and the moment that it was his turn to do the same, he'd abandoned them, and no question that certainly didn't look good on him at all. But they didn't understand. It was easy for them to run, not like for him. For Kenneth it had always been a struggle. So they really didn't have as much at stake, did they? They could afford to hang back. He couldn't.
He couldn't afford to be a loser. He had to catch up.
As Kenneth rounded the final corner he spotted the finish line, where everyone else was gathered. No one could see him yet, due to a small switch back after the corner that had a few birch trees, serving as a blind for him. He began to slow down, resisting the urge to look back, but as he rounded the birch trees he was almost walking again, and suddenly the whole thing seemed completely absurd to him.
He emerged from the trees into the final straightaway. At first no one paid him mind, but then one of the gym teachers spotted him, lifting a burly hand to shade his eyes and peering forward at Kenneth. Then the teacher began to call out encouragement to him, soon to be followed by a few of the others.
It was ridiculous. The race was over. What difference did it make now? Kenneth slowed to a walk and finally turned to look back. And to his surprise he saw Jackie and Lars, now starting to make their way around the corner.
They were both running at a good clip, with Lars only slightly limping. Still, Kenneth was surprised that they'd managed to catch up to him so quickly. He'd really been moving, for a while there. The two of them came around the birch trees, and at the sight of Kenneth, they both slowed down. He decided to stop and let them catch up to him.
Kenneth stood with his back to the waiting crowd. They would all walk to the finish line together, like they always did. As the pair approached him they both shared a quick glance at each other. He got ready to say something but then -
Jackie and Lars bolted into a sprint and tore straight past Kenneth, who stood frozen with his mouth agape. He stared at their backs for a second more before finally forcing himself to move, breaking into a full run, desperately trying to catch up to them as they raced on ahead.
Everyone was cheering now that there was a race between the three of them along the final stretch. Actually, Kenneth realized, Jackie and Lars were keeping pace right next to each other, both shooting glances back at Kenneth. They were only racing him, not each other. And as he plunged on, trying to catch up, all of the fatigue he'd felt before suddenly rushed back in, and his lungs began to burn while his arms went numb and the pain of his feet slapping against the pavement sent shocks up his legs and along his spine.
And to his growing horror Kenneth could see that they were both pulling ahead of him, quite easily it seemed. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't keep up. They were too fast. They were going to beat him.
The crowd roared as Jackie and Lars crossed the informal finish line. Kenneth reeled and tried to keep running, further back. For a brief mad second he thought that maybe if he did a face plant on the pavement he'd get a little sympathy. If he really busted himself up maybe Jackie would come back and help him, like she did for Lars. But he knew it was useless. He began to slow down, ready to give up, but the jeers of the other kids got him to move again, and so in this start and stop manner he eventually made his way to the end of the run.
Kenneth blundered his way into the shade of the trees, desperately trying to find somewhere to sit down. Everyone was laughing at him. He saw Jackie walking back and forth, breathing hard, while some of the kids congratulated her. She wouldn't look at him. As he made his way to a rock several of the other students were heaping ridicule and abuse upon him, calling him a loser and more, until one of the teachers broke up the taunts for now. He settled onto the rock and stared at the ground for several minutes.
After he got his bearings, Kenneth stood up and began looking around on shaky legs. Everyone was completely ignoring him now. It occurred to him that it must have looked as though his friends had betrayed him, but this knowledge gave him no reassurance. Quite the contrary, in fact.
He found the two of them sitting on a bench beneath a tree, next to a rock wall that led back to the school. When Jackie saw him she looked away in disgust, and as he approached she walked off towards the school.
Lars looked up at him with a smile that might have contained some sympathy; it was hard to tell at this point. "Hey."
Kenneth stopped a few feet away, looking at his feet. Then he glanced up haltingly at Lars. "Sorry, man…"
Lars shrugged. "Whatever. It doesn't matter, anyways…"
Those last words are what echo in Kenneth's mind as he returns to the present. It doesn't matter... He opens his eyes and gazes at the soles of his running avatar before him. The view screen displays a series of red numbers - his system is all out of whack. And he can still feel the effects of this memory, as if he has just lived through it in a way more real than any simulation he could call up - that warm plume of shame rising up from his bowels and through his chest, sharpening into a hard acid edge just below his neck… The heavy thump of his heart at the memory of Jackie walking away from him. It's so strange the way that someone he'd taken for granted could have suddenly had so much power over his mind.
The running App is demanding his attention, insisting that he do something about these anomalous spikes in his physiological settings. It offers him several pharmacological solutions, available quite literally at the blink of an eye - or at least a pattern of blinks. But he doesn't accept the offer. In fact Kenneth does something that would have been unthinkable to him just a few minutes ago - he disconnects from the Neural Connection and prematurely shuts down the App, before the completion of his morning run. Several alarms go off on the view screen as his Third Eye fades from sight.
Kenneth leans forward in his chair, elbows on his thighs. He breathes shallowly and tries to understand just what he's going through right now. The feelings he's experiencing are certainly anything but pleasant, but he seems to want to go through them. Or at least he needs to go through them.
But why? This is all such ancient history by now. It's been - what? Close to fifty years since he'd last seen Lars or Jackie, at the end of high school. And by then the whole running incident had been largely forgotten - she'd had a steady boyfriend at the time; he seems to remember that they'd even gotten married sometime after graduation, and Kenneth is pretty sure that Lars had probably turned out to be gay. As for Kenneth, he'd had a number of girlfriends by then, and throughout his college years as well. Then a marriage, and then another marriage within which he'd raised his own family, and now he was here. So it was just like Lars had said - it doesn't matter.
And that's when it hits him. Sitting here now, alone in his perfectly comfortable apartment, facilitated by technology he couldn't have even imagined back in his youth, it all turns out that nothing really matters these days. Sure, for a few seconds after logging off he'd wondered if there might be any consequences to his actions - enforced strictly out of concern for his own health, of course. But whether the authorities choose to act on his apparent rebellion or not, it really doesn't matter, because the world is just way too contented now for that much to come of any of it.
Of course, Kenneth is quite able to remember how bad things had gotten in the world as he'd grown older, until the new societal regime had been implemented. And so it was easy to see why he would have wanted - why everyone would have wanted - to forget that pain for awhile, after having gone through it all. But this current state of luxurious sedation was no real cure for what had preceded it.
He misses being uncomfortable. He misses the feeling of failure, of not being good enough - of knowing that he'd betrayed someone and there was no taking it back. It was a pain that had to remain, even if it never made him a "better person" or anything. It mattered.
He misses fear.
Kenneth rises from his chair and makes his way to back to his bedroom. As he passes his living room he looks out the main viewing window onto the city skyline. Vast skyscrapers connected by automated roadways shine brightly in the morning sun. It is an astonishingly beautiful sight, completely taken for granted by the majority of the population. He considers venturing out to his balcony, just to get some fresh breaths of the outside air, but he knows that won't do. It isn't enough.
And so he continues on into his bedroom. On the wall a monitor suggests to him a selection of clothing for the day, based on the weather outside, as well as the social custom in accordance to the specific date. He shuts it off with a wave of his hand. Further along the wall are pictures of his grown children, smiling at him. They're good kids, all with families of their own by now, that visited him a perfectly reasonable number of times each year. Very nice. He even sees their Mother from time to time.
His first wife is dead - murdered during the bad times. He hadn't been there to protect her, and now he embraces the mixture of shame and impotent rage; distant as it may be for him, there's still enough of it for him to appreciate. And the fact that he keeps no picture of her at all only makes the pain all the more worthwhile to him.
At the back of his walk-in closet he keeps an old chest. He opens it and pulls out his old workout clothes - a blue tracksuit hoody and a decrepit pair of running shoes that reeked from the rotten leather. He dresses right there on the floor of his closet, realizing to himself that this was why he had never gotten rid of these clothes. He'd always known he'd wear them again someday.
Kenneth slips on the stinking shoes, then stands up and looks at himself in the full length mirror. He looks absolutely terrible. This makes him smile a grin most unfamiliar to his own mirrored reflection.
Shortly afterwards he emerges from his apartment into the outside hallway. It took him a while to find the physical keys for the place, and now it takes him almost as long to figure out how to lock his door with them. There isn't really any practical reason for doing this, since crime is virtually non existent these days. But it feels right.
He wonders when was the last time anyone had gone running out in the streets below. Will the spatial monitors in people's phones react quickly enough to his presence, using subtle frequencies to alter their owner's course and clear his way? He knows that his won't because he'd left his phone behind. Maybe now he could run straight off the edge of the world…
The elevator doors open smoothly before him. Several people look up, first bored, then in surprise - all neighbours that he doesn't know. He steps in and his shoes immediately stench up the enclosed space, so that a jet fan discreetly starts up, pumping chamomile scented air into the elevator.
As the elevator lowers to the street Kenneth can feels their eyes upon him, silently judging. He is all wrong and he knows it, someone who has stepped way out of line and surely there must be consequences for this sort of behaviour. A feeling of being completely shaky and off and on the verge of dying courses through his veins. But he doesn't want to die; he's afraid to die. You're in trouble now…
This story, the image, and the song were all created by Greg McCann, the author of this post and owner of this Steemit channel. You can listen to the song on Soundcloud in the field below.