Here’s the draft first chapter from my current project called The Fire Within, which is a story about a young, war veteran who returns home under dramatically different circumstances and tries to pursue a lifelong dream that is seemingly all but dead. It’s a story of determination to overcome insurmountable odds, one that I hope many will find inspiring.
The young man sat on the tailgate of his truck looking out at the track that looped in an orange oval before him. He loved the beauty of the track with its smooth, soft surface perfectly cantilevered and the crisp white lines that divided it into even lanes. He imagined himself in one of those lanes, shoulder-to-shoulder with other gifted athletes, waiting for the starting gun to fire. The crack of the pistol propelled him forward with an amazing force that precious few in the world could ever experience at that level. He pumped his arms and thrust this bulging thighs with such force that he left many of his competitors in his wake. His breathing synced with the pounding motion of his fists as he entered the first turn. Sweat formed and glistened on his muscular frame. He could feel his competitors next to him and behind him. Their breathing lapping his, their fists pounding an imaginary table before them as if they were protesting his lead. The chase motivated him, pushed him ahead further from his competitors. They were all there, the track stars from Jamaica, Ethiopia, and China, but they were no match for the farm boy from Kansas. He could feel the sense of pride and joy as he blew through the next few turns and broke the imaginary tape. He could hear the roar of the hometown crowd and feel the envy of his competitors as they stacked across the finish line behind him. He grabbed an American flag and draped it across his body as he did a victory lap and waved to the adoring fans in the crowd. Tears streamed down his face, tears of joy.
Such visualizations helped motivate him, made him keep going despite the incredible odds he faced. He smiled at the thought of realizing these dreams some day. Some day. He shifted his weight on the tailgate of the truck and the shocks on the old truck squeaked in protest. He grabbed the water bottle next to him and took a long swallow of the saccharine-sweet sports drink that left a trail of aftertaste across his tongue. He smacked his lips in displeasure as he put the bottle back on the tailgate. The day had barely begun. Glorious pinks and oranges splashed behind him in the east as the sun peered above the horizon. The cool morning comforted his exposed skin and belied the oncoming hot day that threatened to send everyone indoors. He had to get his training in before the sun got too high or he’d run the risk of dehydration in such perilous summer conditions, but for the moment, he enjoyed the comfortable chill of the morning, the sweet smell of the freshly cut grass in the field, and the pregnant dew that peppered the green strip that ringed the oval.
He took one last swig of water and swallowed it slowly as if he were massaging his dry throat with it. He could feel the anxiety pitted in his stomach. It ached dully. This was the first time he’d been on a track in years, the first time he was going to try to run with his new legs. He looked at the prosthetic legs that sat twisted at the end of the truck bed behind him and a sense of that old despair overwhelmed him. It’d taken him so long to get used to walking in these legs, painfully long. He remembered the first time he put the legs on and how the hard plastic made the stumps of his thighs ache and rubbed the scarred skin raw. He could still feel his old legs, phantoms from a lifetime ago.
The stumps of his legs still shocked him. The smooth skin of his thighs, covered with light reddish hair, seemed normal until it gave way to hairless, chafed skin irritated by the prosthetics. He rubbed his stumps subconsciously with each of his hands, something he’d done so often when he had first returned home from the hospital. He did this to convince himself that his legs were in fact gone. Forever. He winced in pain, more from the thought of what had happened than from any physical pain he actually felt at that moment.
He lay back in his truck bed and reached for his running legs. The “blades” as he called them were curled up on the near the wheel well behind him. He hitched the right one over his head and sat up in one motion. He pushed his right stump into the pocket and attached the leg to his thigh working methodically to attach it correctly and securely. He studied the myriad attachments and gave the leg a slight tug. It clung tightly to his thigh. Satisfied that it was properly attached, he leaned back again to get the other leg and proceeded to attach it just as carefully. Another tug. Another slight smile of satisfaction.
He leaned back and braced himself on his arms to stare at his carbon fiber legs that curled before him. He moved his thighs and the legs dangled over the edge of the tailgate. He took a deep breath. He’d been practicing walking in the new legs during his therapy sessions. He’d even tried running a little on them on a treadmill at therapy, but he’d never run outside in them. That nervous pit in his stomach fired up again.
He looked around the track. He was alone. He’d purposefully woken up early to get out here before anyone else. The summer ensured that most of the high school kids wouldn’t be on the field. Most of them were probably still sleeping. He remembered his lazy summer days as a high school kid staying up well past midnight and sleeping to noon. It didn’t seem that long ago that he was on this track in the spring running laps at speeds that made others stop and stare. Of course, he had his real legs then. Real legs or fake ones, this was the line of demarcation in his relatively short life. He sighed.
The sun rose behind him and glistened off the back of his nearly shaved head. He’d kept the tight haircut ever since he returned home. His red hair had lightened since his high school days, but it still sparkled in the sunlight like a field of wheat, light and golden-red. He heaved himself up onto the spongy legs. He bounced a bit on the tips of the blades, and a dull, throbbing pain tinged the ends of his thighs. He ignored it but braced himself against the tailgate. The hems of his running shorts fell down to the top of the bindings on his thighs. He adjusted his singlet across his torso and tilted his head side to side to stretch out. He summoned the courage to take that first step.
Instead, he stretched his arms above his head and leaned to one side. He’d never been one for warm-up stretches in his track and field days, but it seemed like the thing to do now, anything to delay what he’d come to do. He interlaced his fingers and twisted to each side intermittently. His lean, muscled arms bulged from the loops of his singlet. The shirt hung from his protruding chest like it was desperately trying to contain him. That was another thing that was different from his track and field days. He’d honed his upper body through years of work, but the last 18 months had afforded him much time to focus on his top half, and he’d poured himself into it like he had once dedicated his focus to the 400 meters. The result was impressive, his entire upper half was carved from stone, not body-builder bulbous, but clearly strong and defined. It was the only thing that offset his disappointment about his legs.
With one deep breath, Robert Sims, III took that first tentative step from the edge of the paved lot onto the moist, green grass. Unsteady and unsure, he wavered at the change in the surface, but he soon hit his stride and moved with determination toward the track. His stomach hollered and his mind shouted objections, but he ignored them and stepped onto the rubbery track with a resolve he hadn’t felt since realized what he had to do after 9/11. He had to do this. He had to get himself back to where he was. He had a dream that he didn’t want to die, just like he hadn’t wanted to die on that god-forsaken stretch of desert outside Baghdad.
He perched himself on the blades as if he were balancing on a skateboard. He didn’t trust them enough to feel like they were part of him, and he knew that this would have to change if he was ever going to run again. He had to run again. He bolted from his position in a rickety tick-tack motion that would have been comical had it been any other situation. He felt his balance shift and almost fell before he halted his precarious motion. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply with his hands firmly placed on his hips as he walked back to the starting point. He kept his head down watching the track move below him. Finally, he threw his head back and let out a groan.
He shook his head side to side and bounced on his blades a little trying to loosen himself up. His physical therapist would be angry with him for being out here by himself. She’d told him that he needed to be careful and that he needed to shed his foolish pride and admit that he needed help. The last thing he needed was help. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life as someone who needed help. He’d rather be dead than spend his life tethered to the kindness of those around him. He had too much pride for that. He didn’t give up all he had to fight for his country only to return and depend on it for sustenance. He just didn’t.
He bounced side to side on the blades. The joints crimped his thighs, but he didn’t care. Without another thought he thrust himself forward pumping his arms in that familiar beat. His gait felt uncontrollable like he was on some bumpy ride at the country fair, but he continued forward into the first bend in the track. He kept going straight and tried to shift his momentum into the turn, but he lost his grip on the surface and tumbled to the ground chest first. He placed his hands out in front of him to brace himself for the fall and they scraped across the track stinging like a thousand bees had attacked the heels of his hands. His chin hit the track and rattled his skull. His sunglasses flew in the air from the impact and he rolled into the fall coming to rest just outside the outer white line. He groaned and grunted as he come to a stop.
His head lolled to the side before he let out an exasperated scream. He pushed himself onto his back and lay their staring up at the sky. He screamed again and then realized where he was. He pushed his head up and looked around the track, the field, and the parking lot. No one was around. No one had seen him fall. He felt relieved, but he pounded the track with his fists at his side.
He looked at his thighs with the lifeless blades attached. His prosthetics laid at an angle that would have been grotesque had they been his real legs. He sat up and felt down his legs to the connections. They remained intact but loose. He adjusted the blades to ensure they fit snugly and then he fought his way to his feet. He hated the way he had to struggle to get to his feet in situations like this. He felt helpless, a feeling he despised.
Ignoring the sharp pain in his thighs, he walked back to the starting point bouncing on his blades as if he were trying to stretch them out. The movement wasn’t all that odd considering he often bounced on his toes before big track meets back in his high school and college days. He resumed a starting position frozen in place as he summoned the courage to push forward.
In an instant he bolted forward clumsily again, but this time he navigated the turn and moved into the long stretch of the track gaining speed as he thrust his thighs forward. The blades didn’t feel like a part of him. They were just an aid to get him what he wanted. He pushed harder despite the turn approaching him. He hit the bend in the track and continued with speed unabated. A smile crept into one corner of his mouth as he hit the third turn and didn’t fall. The last long stretch poured out before him and he hefted the blades up and down like pistons fired in an engine. His lungs lagged him and he could feel the exhaustion creeping up on him. He had a long way to go to get back to where he was physically. The obstacles were numerous, but his determination was boundless.
He took the last turn at an uncontrollable speed and tried to halt his forward progress, but he lost his footing again and tumbled onto the edge of the track. The fall wasn’t as unexpected as the first one, nor was it as disappointing. He had done it. He had successfully run one loop around the oval for the first time in over several years. He rolled over on his back and let out a scream, one of joy. He smacked his palms on the track under him and looked up into the blue, cloudless sky. For the first time in a long time, he felt hopeful like the weight of the past few years no longer pressed on him or at least not quiet as oppressively.
He threw his arm over his eyes to shield them from the sunlight. His sunglasses had been thrown from his face on the fall and the bright light was too much, but he didn’t let that dampen his mood. He thought about what he had just done. The possibilities were not just figments of his imagination any longer. They were real. He sat up and adjusted the blades again before he rose to his feet. This time he rose with more confidence although the struggle was the same. He picked up his sunglasses placing them on his face in one smooth motion and returned to his starting point on the track.
For the next hour, he circled the track alternating between a steady, controlled pace and bursts of speed. It was nothing like he had done a lifetime ago, but at least he was moving. At least he was running again.
After a time, the pain in his thighs became too much and he stopped. He ambled over to the grass that ringed the track and dropped himself down onto it. He sat perched on against his arms with the blades strewn out in front of him. He felt the heat of the morning sun upon him and for a moment, before the heat became too much, he basked in the warmth.
No one else had joined him at the track, which surprised him. When he ran in high school and college, the tracks were almost always populated by at least a handful of walkers and runners who ventured out in the morning hours to do their workout. Despite the oncoming heat, it was still a beautiful, comfortable morning conducive to exercise. He spun his head around to see if he had missed someone. He was truly alone. It didn’t matter. He had done what he had come to do, prove to himself that there was still a chance to realize his dream. It wouldn’t be the same as he had originally hoped, but it was still his dream nonetheless. Nothing would stop him. Nothing.