I tap each knee two times. I don’t mean to do it, but it’s become habit. I wish I could remember to stop myself because that would really piss off Dallas, but it’s too ingrained in me at this point. I double knot my shoelaces. I stretch my upper body (arms, shoulders, neck, torso) then my lower body (hips, quads, Achilles, calves). I touch the start line with my toes—that’s when I tap each knee two times and place my feet in the starting block. I’ve done it so many times now that it feels impossible to interrupt it or change it in any way. It would be like trying to spell my own name incorrectly.
My name. I used to want to change that, too, but I’ve given up. I was only six when Dallas convinced my mother to rename me Dash and I resented it for years, refusing to answer to it. But now it actually feels right and I can’t even remember who Genny was. When I see the name on old documents sometimes, I don’t connect the word, the literal sequence of those five letters, to myself. It feels like it describes nondescript seed, something that’s completely meaningless beyond its potential to become something else. Once the world started seeing me as Dash, it became natural to see myself that way. When crowds are chanting “Dash!” or when it’s painted across banners in big thick letters, you want to be that word that makes them so excited. I brought up Genny less and less, and then, once I heard Josie Franc say my name on her program, I knew I wanted to be Dash forever.
Josie Franc has large almond eyes and does her long auburn hair in a French braid that swings back and forth as she walks, brushing the back of her navy windbreaker. She used to be a collegiate sports correspondent for the top media conglomerate in the country and she quickly became one of their most popular reporters. Even people who never really cared about sports like track and field fell in love with her. Her interviews were her most-watched segments. She was warm with her subjects, but never at the cost of letting them off the hook. She’d create a friendly environment to get their guard down, then she’d ask the really difficult questions and she wouldn’t let anyone weasel their way out of the truth. After negotiations with her employer broke down, Josie went independent and started her own online network, Franc Conversation, now one of the most viewed networks in sports media—getting interviewed by Josie is a huge milestone for any athlete.
Stupidly, I think: maybe today’s the day she interviews me.
As I settle into position, the pads of my fingers graze the textured polyurethane of the track. I press my feet into the starting block, my legs becoming coiled springs, and I feel like if I aim myself just right I could shoot myself to the moon. I find something about 30 meters ahead of me to stare at. There’s a little bit of gray discoloration on the track that will work. I focus my eyes on it and then I wait, knowing that I will push myself to that little spot of gray with the force of a jet engine. I will build on my power through the next 120 meters, my limbs moving with extreme precision, like steam-fueled pistons. In the last 50 meters, I will do a complete inventory of all the energy left inside my body, and use every last microgram of it to propel me down the straightaway, the balls of my feet sending me on a perfect horizontal trajectory, and by the time I reach the finish line and there are no competitors in my peripheral vision, I will feel like I’m flying.
And then the gun goes off and that’s exactly what happens.
I set the world record.
I grab some water and catch my breath and give nods of respect to the other runners. A few of them won’t look at me. One of the race managers hands out bananas and another gives us all our phones back. I eat the banana and log into my phone, but I can’t stop looking over to the media pit, to where Josie Franc is standing with her cameraman. It’s sunny today and she’s wearing a white visor and she looks like a sailing coach. I hope that she’ll call me over.
But instead, she motions for Dallas. He knew this was coming. He and my mother were already eagerly pressing against the rope to the media pit and the moment that Josie waves him over, he ducks under it and heads straight to her, pushing other reporters’ microphones out of the way. He’s going to give Josie the exclusive, of course. He probably negotiated it with her a week ago.
I pull up Josie’s channel on my phone and watch the interview live. As Josie lightly turns her microphone toward Dallas—a graceful bit of practiced choreography—I catch myself in the deep background of the shot. There I am, behind Josie and Dallas, watching Josie and Dallas. People sometimes tell me my life must be surreal, and I say, “No, not really,” but in moments like this, when I feel like I’m completely inside my own head but also wholly outside my own body, I guess I know what they mean.
Dallas shoots Josie a proud smile. He talks to her like she’s an old friend—which makes sense, because this is the fourth time she’s interviewed him. “You know, I can’t say I never imagined this,” Dallas says and Josie’s eyebrows raise as she nods. “This was always one of the goals for Dash. World record in the 200. She’s been training non-stop.”
“But of course,” Josie chimes in, “it’s a little disingenuous to chalk it all up to the training.”
Dallas looks down and smiles. It’s a move he learned from his favorite
actor, who always acts very humble when giving acceptance speeches. Dallas had to learn how to be humble by watching someone else, because he’s never felt humble for a single second of his entire life.
“Well, yes, the coding can’t be discounted,” Dallas says, acting like it only just occurred to himself to give his sequence some credit. “That is true.”
“Other geneticists have been trying to replicate your coding for almost a generation now, but Dash is still the gold standard for genetic editing, at least for speed. Now that she’s broken her second world record, are you more inclined to share the secrets of your sequence, or do you feel that much more pressure to keep it under lock and key?”
Dallas performs a light little laugh, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to think he finds funny about the question. After a moment of pretending to really internalize her question, he says, “Dash is special. She’s not just the sum of my edits. There’s so much hard work involved every day. From both of us.”
I knew he was going to say “from both of us,” but it still makes my blood boil when I actually hear it. Josie starts to take the microphone back, but then he adds a little more: “When I finished perfecting the sequence, I knew that that was the beginning of my journey with Dash, not the end. That’s what the other amateur geneticists out there need to understand.”
I’m so enraged I throw my banana peel on the track and I smash it into the track with the heel of my shoe. I immediately worry that Josie’s audience saw me in the background of the shot but when I check the interview again, I see that the cameraman has shifted the angle and I’m now completely hidden by Dallas’ giant head.
Dallas has a big grin on his face. I can see it in the rearview mirror from the backseat. He catches me looking and narrows his eyes. “Don’t pout.” I’m immediately embarrassed. I wonder if my face is that transparent, or if Dallas intuited my state of mind. More often than not, Dallas is able to simply look at me and know exactly how I’m feeling, even if I haven’t been able to fully articulate it to myself yet. It’s like he’s hacked my brain and taken over my inner monologue and I’m just constantly playing catch up, autofilling the ends of his statements about me.
I know that there’s nothing too special about Dallas’ ability to know what I’m thinking and feeling. He’s just observant. He’s been paying close attention to me since I was born. Well, actually, since before I was born. More than my mother and sometimes even more than myself, he’s aware of who I am and what I need. It drives me insane because he’s almost always right. So I often tell him he’s wrong, because I think it’ll make him ashamed, but he always knows that I’m lying, and then it’s me who feels ashamed.
And that’s exactly what happens. “I’m not p-p-pouting,” I say as I turn my eyes toward the window. Dallas turns to my mother and they share a knowing a look, although my mother doesn’t put much effort into it because she’s too busy screengrabbing stills from Dallas’ interview with Josie. She’ll print them out later for her scrapbook.
The shame of being caught in a lie starts to come over me like a shadow, so I try to explain it all away. “I’m just disap-p-p-poin-pointed that I didn’t get to talk about my r-r-race.”
Dallas presses his tongue into the back of his teeth, a sure sign that he’s annoyed to have to explain something he thought was already clear. He may have learned all of my habits and giveaways, but I’ve learned plenty of his, too. “So, let’s imagine this again, shall we? Josie holds up the microphone to your mouth and asks you how it feels to set the world record. What do you say?”
I freeze up. Normally, Dallas just explains the situation away so we can move on to another topic. Switching it around on me is a new tactic. I squirm in my seat, unprepared for this line of attack. His eyes meet mine in the mirror again: “Well?”
“I… I tell her that I feel—”
“No, don’t explain it to me. Pretend she’s here in the car and she just asked you the question. And you say…”
I turn to my mother for back-up, but she’s oblivious to the discussion. And I know that every second of my silence is a victory for Dallas, so I launch into the answer. “J-J-Josie, thank you s-s-so much for asking about that. I’m deeply p-p-p-proud, but there’s still… I have work to d-d-do…” And then I shut up. Because I’ve proven his point and we both know it. If my stammer is this out of control right here in the car, we can only imagine how bad it would be if I was actually standing next to Josie, looking at her big eyes and the zig zag of the French braid across the top of her head. I’d probably be completely unintelligible.
“You and Dallas make such a good team!” my mother suddenly says without looking up. “You handle the actual physical feat and he articulates your success beautifully.” Perhaps she was listening all along. “I know no one calls short-distance running a team sport, but maybe you should think of it like a team sport, and Dallas is your teammate. Like a relay!”
Dallas beams at my mother, places his hand on her thigh. “I think that’s a beautiful sentiment, my dear.” Then he looks at me in the rearview again. “We’ll get a mountain of written interview requests tomorrow, anyway. You’ll be able to use all of those to discuss the race.”
My mother suddenly looks up. She shoves her phone toward Dallas, showing him a screengrab. She explains to him that it’s the best one and I shift between the seats to get a look at it and I have to agree. Josie’s in profile and she has a big smile on her face, like she couldn’t be more excited to have witnessed my historic run.
That night, after the nutritionist and the sports masseuse leave, my mother asks if she can do something with my hair. I nod. I don’t know what she’s planning on doing with it, but I trust her well enough.
I sit on the ground, ice packs on my legs. She sits above me on the couch and turns on some Curtis Mayfield, but keeps the volume really low, so it sounds like it’s a few rooms away. She always does this. I think she likes the way it makes it feel like there’s a party happening nearby, and we don’t need to have been invited, it’s just enough to know there’s a party and people are having a good time. When “So in Love” comes on, we both sing along to it. I can usually sing through the first couple verses without a single stammer.
She gets to work on my hair, tugging, and I feel an immediate sharp pain in my scalp, but it’s a pain that’s so familiar and connected to my mother’s process that I don’t even classify it as pain. It feels more like love.
She doesn’t say anything and I don’t either, but I’m thinking about asking her about my father, which I always think about in the rare quiet moments we have together. I know she’s probably wondering if that’s what I’m thinking about. I can sense, in the silence, her steeling herself just in case.
It’s been a few years now since I last asked about him. I had gotten into an argument with Dallas about the color of my shoes and, I hate to admit it, but I don’t even remember what color I was arguing for or against. We were at the gym when things got heated, and I shouted “Fuck you, Dallas!” right in his face, but I stammered on the F and over the course of just three words—just four fucking syllables!—my act of defiance transformed into a moment of humiliation. I stormed off and raced home to my room, where I started searching online for how to cure stammering. I knew that my elongated quadriceps had come from Dallas’ genetic meddling, but where the hell did my stammer come from?
I had zero solid leads when my mother entered the room. Thinking that maybe there was a simple explanation for the origin of my impediment, I looked her in the eye and told her to tell me about my real father. I was operating on a full tank of spite so I probably didn’t ask very kindly.
I knew very little about him at that point. All I knew, actually, was that
he was dead. And I only knew this because I had heard Dallas tell the story so many times to so many reporters. The story always went like this:
I was visiting a friend of mine, an OBGYN and fertility specialist, because I felt that I had perfected my sequences but I wanted another set of eyes on it, specifically a set of eyes who’d better understand the practical process of implementing them. And while I was waiting for him to get a break between patients, this luminous woman stepped into the lobby.
(If my mother was with him during the interview, he’d turn to her and smile at this point and she would squeeze his hand and blush.)
She was luminous, yes, but there was also a profound sadness to her. I couldn’t help myself—I had to know why this beautiful creature seemed so heartbroken. I took the chair next to her and asked if she was alright and she told me that shortly after getting pregnant, the child’s father had died. And now she was four months along and she was so scared to raise this baby by herself. She was struggling to find hope and stability and—I’ll never forget this—she said she needed a sense of purpose. Not just for herself but for her child. It was like she was an angel that had been sent into my life, but I think, after I explained what I was planning to do, maybe she thought that I was the angel who was sent to her. Because purpose is what I was offering, although I’m not sure I thought of it that way at the time.
So, when I finally confronted my mom, that’s all I really knew. He died right after he donated his genetic material to the cause of me being born. That wasn’t enough for me anymore. I wanted her to give me something precious and incredible. I wanted a hero story. What I wanted most was to hear that he was special in a way that Dallas was not. I wanted a man, even if it was just an idea of a man, to whom Dallas could never measure up. And then I wanted to find ways to wound Dallas with that information.
I waited for my mother to say something. It took her quite a while to formulate her answer. I watched her thinking, rearranging words and ideas in her head as she stood in place in my doorway, staring into the trophy case in the corner of the room, the sun hitting a few of them so that they flung golden geometry across her face.
She took a deep breath: “He died in the war, Dash. Do you know how hard that was?” Her voice was hollow and metallic. “I need this to be the end of the conversation.” I nodded my head and she left me alone, closing the door behind her.
I curled up onto my bed, sealing myself in a cocoon of shame. I had never recognized that my mother’s life was missing such an essential piece. I had never known my father and I had never tried to understand who my mother might have been when he was around. I had never considered that parts of her may have died right along with him and that grief had worked her over like sandpaper, smoothing her out and simplifying the shapes of her personality. The combination of my mom and Dallas and me had always felt like a complete unit, but I could suddenly see that wasn’t quite true. There was this giant empty space in my mother’s life, and I had always looked right through it, focusing my angry gaze on Dallas.
Confused by the revelation and simmering in a stew of guilt and self-pity, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to nurture or be nurtured. I searched the house for my mother and found her on the pale blue sofa by the window and I sat at her feet. I had never done that before, but it felt right. Later, I wondered if I was acting submissive as an unspoken plea for forgiveness or if I just wanted to make myself seem small and childlike to play on her maternal instincts.
She rubbed her hand gently over the top of my head. “It’s time to do something new with your hair,” she said. I sat at her feet for hours as she had her way with it.
As I fell asleep later that night, I realized I didn’t know if my father was a soldier or a civilian or who-knows-what. And I had no idea what war she was talking about.
Every time she does my hair now, I know she’s waiting for me to ask those follow-up questions but I’ve never been able to get the words out. And then “So in Love” will come on and we’ll sing together and when it’s over, we’ll both feel relieved.
Dallas was right. A mountain of written interview requests comes in. Or so he says. Everything flows through him, so I don’t know how many actually come in, but I know that there are at least six requests from prestigious publications because he forwards me their questions with a message that says, “These are the only ones worth responding to.”
I flip through them and they’re all variations on the same questions over and over. When I was running, was I thinking about the record? When did I realize I had beaten it? What special rituals or superstitions play into my running routine? What’s next for Dash? I’ve often wondered if journalists always ask the most boring and basic questions or if Dallas only forwards me the blandest questions possible. I asked him about this once and he patted me on the back and chuckled.
I start typing my answers and I copy and paste them into similar questions across the six interviews. Then I go through and rearrange sentences in different answers. I look up words in the thesaurus and change ones here and there so that no two journalists are getting the exact same response. Every time I do this, I wonder if this is what it was like for Dallas when he edited my genetic sequences. Did it feel like moving around punctuation and playing with word choice until he ended up with me, his Perfect Sentence?
I’m working on an answer about how I keep my focus, but as I type it up I realize that I said almost the exact thing last time I broke a world record. I go online and do a quick search of some of my past interviews to make sure I’m not repeating myself too egregiously. As I scroll through, it suddenly occurs to me that I’ve never actually read them before. Dallas has always encouraged me not to pay attention to news about myself and even though I push back against everything he says, this seemed like particularly sound advice for me. I think I had always assumed, though, that when I sent my answers back to the journalists, they just posted everything as I had written it. I expected it to look like a generic Q&A. In my head, I assumed that they were copying and pasting my answers from the email into the article in the same way that I was copying and pasting my answers from one reply to the next.
But none of them were like that. They were all long, in-depth articles about my running career, and how my success marked a tipping point in how society viewed genetically edited individuals. The writers marveled at my accomplishments. More than once, my physique was described as godlike. There were breathless descriptions of how my legs move and how my ponytail becomes nearly horizontal by my third step. There were allusions to the fact that I rarely ever speak in public and a few theories about why that is, ranging from shyness to monk-like humility to am ambiguous philosophy about “letting the speed speak for itself.”
And I shouldn’t have been surprised, but there was so much about Dallas. Dallas’ pithy quotes were splashed across the articles or paraphrased in their titles. There were photos of him in a track jacket looking off into the distance, his furrowed brow suggesting he was deep in thought. There were photos of him in an expensive suit and track shoes, posing inside a giant double helix statue made from scrap metal. Sometimes, these photos were posted right next to mine, as if to say, “Here is the Brain, and here is the Brawn.” Most of the articles treated Dallas with great reverence; one writer went so far as to call him the “spiritual heir to Jonas Salk and Thomas Edison.” A couple articles seemed to imply a whiff of suspicion, however, and delicately addressed the initial reluctance of collegiate sports to let me participate and, more interestingly to me, the mixed public reaction to Dallas’ successful edits.
I was only peripherally aware of the fact that, when I was little, my very existence was a bit controversial. The rise of in-utero genetic editing was seen as a way to prevent birth defects or susceptibility to certain diseases, but once the tech went commercial, amateurs could play around with it. No one really expected anyone to start building super-humans, but anything was theoretically on the table. “It was the Wild West,” as one article put it. Dallas had been a competitive runner in college but often finished in the back half of all his races. He believed that, with the right embryo, he could edit together the perfect runner. Well, I was that embryo and Dallas’ edits became the most famous secret recipe since Coca-Cola.
After reading the articles, I looked up the names of some of the organizations or political figures who had condemned Dallas. They had said pretty vicious stuff fifteen years ago, stuff that made even me bristle. It was unusual, the experience of feeling sympathy toward Dallas. A few people compared him to Nazi doctors, suggesting that he violated the Nuremberg Code. “Mad scientist trying to play God” was a common refrain, as was “Dr. Frankenstein.”
A few critics bypassed the ethical and went straight to the personal, calling Dallas’ feat a transparent and cynical quest for the glory that had eluded him in his youth. These charges seemed so ugly, mostly because they echoed my own darkest analyses of Dallas. To see some of my harshest judgements of Dallas in print—written by someone I had never met—gave me the odd sensation of having been violated. If anyone should get to crystallize negative opinions of Dallas on the time capsule of the internet, it should be me—but others had beaten me to it. They had stolen my sentiments and made them more cutting. They took my fleeting, angry thoughts and gave them the gravity of truth. Maybe they were truth.
But when I look at what these critics said now, nearly everyone has changed their tunes. They all begrudgingly accept the churn of human progress and the value of “looking past traditional self-imposed so-called ethical barriers.” Dallas has won them over with his charm and his constant emphasis on the idea that genetics only get you so far. “Ninety-nine percent of success comes down to hard work and smart training” was a Dallas quote that popped up in a few different articles.
I read article after article after article. Some from now, some from years ago, some from apologists, some from supporters, some from staunch resistors. And after that initial discomfort of seeing writers echo some of my most hateful secret thoughts, what took over was a profound, hollow sadness. Not a single person—no journalist or academic or activist—had made any attempt to capture my personality. They all mentioned me as if I was a concept, a walking (or running) challenge to the old ways of thinking about human ability. I represented ideas that were beautiful or terrifying or complicated, but who was I? No one seemed to care. Maybe that’s because Dallas limited their access to me, sure, but they also didn’t even ruminate about my life outside of running. They certainly made no attempts to understand it. A speeding bullet, after all, has no dreams or hopes or vulnerabilities—it only has its destiny. I would have given over my whole heart to read a sentence that marveled at my smile instead of my calf muscles.
I was desperate to find something like that, some kind of validation that I wasn’t Dallas’ pet or project or robot because hell, I wasn’t even his daughter. I was just a very fast young woman who liked strawberry milkshakes and Korean animation and Curtis Mayfield and yellow headbands and Josie Franc.
I knew that a lot of my fans were big Josie-watchers, so I figured if I looked through the comments on some of her videos about me, I’d find some compliments, which I really needed. Of course, with a comments section, there’s always the risk of stumbling upon the most disgusting thoughts people could form, but I was feeling brave. I hoped that if I found vitriol, it’d at least be aimed at Dallas. Every interview, after all, was with him, not me.
I scrolled through pages of comments and most of them were just about Josie and how great she looked in the visor. I couldn’t disagree with those and, since I was logged in under an anonymous account, I even hit the thumbs-up button on a few of them. There were some about my training regimen and some about the excitement of witnessing history and a lot of comments about how the world record probably won’t last very long since the government will build someone even faster any day now.
But there was one comment that seemed to float away from the others and it had generated its own discussion thread.
“i have a theory,” it said. “dallas seems like one of those guys who acts all humble but really loves glory. so what i think is when he was editing dash, he started to think he’d have to share the glory with her. he hated that. he wanted all the credit. so he edited her to be mute too, so that she can’t talk about her running and he gets to do all the interviews and be all visible and get the glory.”
My head was already swirling as I read the discussion points below. A few people posted footage of me and Dallas chatting on the practice track and, even though it was too far away to hear anything, it was clear that I wasn’t mute. Someone even mentioned a “rumor” that I had shouted “Fuck you!” at Dallas at a practice years ago.
The original poster responded: “ok, fine, she can talk but maybe he did something to her genes to make her not wanna talk.”
A sound came out of me, from deep in my gut. It felt like a scream, but it sounded like a sigh.
The next few days, leading up to the 400m, I couldn’t think about anything else. But Dallas made the rare mistake of misreading me. He appreciated that I seemed singularly focused. In all our training exercises, I never pushed back against him or complained. I executed all the drills with a precision that can only be attributed to muscle memory. The idea that Dallas had edited my stammer into me had soaked through to my bone marrow and it had turned me into the machine that Dallas had always wished I was.
We were at the practice track for hours every day, so I could only check on the comment thread late at night and first thing in the morning. I would refresh and refresh, hoping other users would elaborate on the theory or maybe someone would emerge with incontrovertible proof. But no one did. Someone replied “doubt it” and another accused the original user of peddling conspiracies. The only time I got a jolt of satisfaction was when I saw the post get more Likes, and even that was a rare occurrence.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I couldn’t confront Dallas about it—I’d never get the truth. I could make a public accusation, but Dallas could shut that down too since I had nothing but angry ideas and gut feelings. I could go looking for evidence, but who knows how long that would take? Or if it even exists? I couldn’t go on simmering like this for much longer.
I had to cleave myself from Dallas. I had become—no, I was designed to be—the blue ox, a magical creature who’s only present to prop up a man’s mythological reputation. Well, the ox deserves a few stories of its own, I think. It’s a magical fucking ox. But how does it get the world to ignore Paul Bunyan for a few minutes?
The idea came to me in a dream. I was carrying a baby in my arms and I was running through the house, looking for my mother because I knew, somehow, that it was hers. I could hear her voice in another room, but every time I entered it, she wasn’t there.
I was starting to panic and it felt like the baby was going to slip out of my hands. It was wrapped up tight in a smooth, shiny fabric and I couldn’t get a good grip on it. I kept holding it tighter to my chest which felt so wrong and uncomfortable because my arms shouldn’t be stationary while I run.
I followed the sound of her voice into the kitchen, but she wasn’t there either. In her place was Dallas, standing at the refrigerator, wearing an apron. He reached out and I knew he wanted the baby. I was so scared of handing the baby over to him but I was more scared that I would drop it and my dream instincts kicked in and I gave the baby to Dallas. He smiled at me sweetly and patted my head, just like my mother would, and then he slid the baby into the oven.
I woke up at 2AM, sweat on my forehead. I wiped it off with the corner of my sheet and tiptoed out into the hallway, the sense of panic still alive in my bloodstream. I went downstairs and found my supply bag for the race, doing my best to be as quiet as possible. Dallas and I had packed it already, putting all my essentials in it, so that in the morning we could just grab the bag and head straight to the race.
I pulled out my participation bib, the piece of paper that runners pin to our chests and, with the embedded microchip, pinpoints our exact times. Unlike my competitors, my bib displays my first name—which, really, has become my only name. Dallas negotiated this with the athletic association several years ago and now, staring at these four letters, it looks like a joke all over again. She’s a sprinter and her name is Dash. A flash of righteous anger rises inside me as I think of all those articles that praise his creativity when here I am, staring at the most obvious evidence of his laziness.
I flip the bib over and, with a magic marker, I write across it in big block letters: “MY NAME IS GENNY.
I slide it into the bag, exactly where it was before, and then I go back to bed and I fall asleep immediately.
In the morning, I come downstairs to get breakfast before we leave and Dallas and my mother are waiting for me at the kitchen island. My mother has a half-eaten bowl of cereal in front of her as she stares into the marble countertop like she’s trying to decode the swirls and shapes in it. Dallas, though, is standing and looking right at me and for a split-second, I get a little confused and think maybe I’m still in the dream. He has an aggressive energy about him and I feel like he could shove a baby in the oven if I handed him one.
I reach into the fridge for an electrolyte water and ask them if everything’s OK. Dallas sighs and when I close the fridge door, I see him reaching behind the island for something. He pulls up the bib.
So it wasn’t a great plan, I guess.
The confrontation of it, of having my secret plan presented to me as not-so-secret, sends a wave of adrenaline through me that makes me very confident and very nervous at the same time. I ask Dallas why he was looking through the bag, quickly casting myself as the wronged
“I triple check our supplies every morning before a race,” he says. Which is probably true. So now I feel like an idiot.
He holds up the bib, my big block letters stained across it. “Can you explain to us what this is all about?”
I think about lying, but I can see Dallas watching me thinking about lying and it makes the whole thing feel stupid. So I just talk.
I tell him that I think he gave me the stammer on purpose so that I wouldn’t talk to reporters, so that he can take credit for all my wins, and if I’m not Dash any more than maybe everything will change. When I’m done saying it all, I feel like I just pushed a truck off a cliff.
I wait for Dallas to speak but it’s my mother who jumps in first. “He didn’t do that.”
I ask how she’s so sure.
But it’s Dallas who answers this time. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I wanted you to be fast and, honestly, I didn’t really care about anything else.” It almost sounds like an apology, but I’ve never heard him apologize so I can’t be sure. He taps his fingers across the marble. Bum-bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum-bum. “Speed was my only focus so I only made genetic alterations that would benefit your speed. It’s as simple as that.”
I try to ask how he expects me to just take his word for it, but I struggle to get the words out and halfway through, he interrupts me. “Stammers and stutters and speech impediments aren’t even necessarily genetic.”
He’s being so calm. I hate how calm he is. If anyone was watching, they’d think I’m the unreasonable one.
“Sure, sometimes it can be genetic, but it can also be caused by early childhood trauma or all kinds of other environmental factors. You’re ascribing bad intentions to something that’s just bad luck.”
I feel tears rolling down my face. I don’t know when I started crying. I shout that I wasn’t traumatized and then I quickly amend that, saying that if I was traumatized, it was probably by Dallas.
“OK,” Dallas says, rolling his eyes with his voice. “Whatever you want to believe. Unless you want to believe that I gave it to you on purpose.”
I turn my face away. I don’t like him seeing me cry but, even more importantly, I don’t want him to read my expression. Because I believe him. I hate myself for believing him, but I do and I don’t want him to know that. I want him to writhe eternally in the discomfort of not knowing.
And it works. I hear the anger rising in his voice. “I’m not some sociopathic evil mastermind. What I don’t think you realize is that I rescued you. I gave you a life and I’ve been a father to you.”
I turn suddenly and shout at him. “My f-f-f-father was a war hero!”
Dallas’ head flickers on his neck, a flame on a wick. “What are you talking about?”
Then my mother vomits her cereal across the countertop.
We all stand in place for a long moment, as if my mother has simply redesigned the kitchen and we’re all taking it in before offering our opinions. Dallas grabs a roll of paper towels, tears a few off and tosses the rest of the roll to my mother. She fumbles the catch, drops them to the floor. He runs the towels under the faucet, wetting them and as he wipes down the counter, his eyes drill into the top of my mother’s head because she refuses to look up. “Did you tell her that? That he’s a war hero?”
I jump in before my mother can say anything. I explain that my mother simply said he died in the war and nothing more than that. The whole “hero” part was an assumption on my end.
Dallas throws up his hands, one of which still contains a vomit-soaked paper towel. “What is going on around here?”
I can’t quite explain it, but my mother’s vomit seems to have reset the energy in the room. Somehow, I’m sturdier and Dallas is more off-balance and I feel like I need to take advantage. I do my best to match his annoyingly calm tone from earlier and tell Dallas that it’s only natural that I would seek answers to my past and if he’s surprised by the situation, then maybe he was never prepared to raise a child that wasn’t his in the first place. I think of all that in the moment and I add a little bite to it at the end and I’m very proud of myself. I’ve never felt more like an adult.
And I guess it came off as well as I thought because Dallas looks utterly defeated. He takes a seat at the counter beside my mother and he deflates. My mother still won’t look up at him.
I kind of can’t believe it.
“We always agreed that we’d tell you the truth but we just kept putting it off. You became so… well, you exceeded all expectations. And I didn’t want you exposed to information that could knock you off your path. I’m not sure that earns me any forgiveness, but I hope it at least helps you understand.”
This is why Dallas is so good in interviews. Even when he’s apolo-gizing, even when he’s admitting to a major fuck-up, he still finds a way to make it seem classy. I hate it so much.
“W-w-what war d-d-did he die in?” I blurt out.
Dallas shoots another look to my mother even though we both know she won’t look up. It’s just for my sake, to remind me that I should be blaming her just as much as I’m blaming him.
“There was no war. Well, there were plenty of wars, I suppose, but your father didn’t die in any of them. Your father was one of my teammates from college. He and your mother had a, um, well, a brief relationship…”
There go his fingers. Bum-bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum-bum.
“And anyway, well, he was killed in a robbery a couple weeks after your mother ended things.”
My knees start to buckle. I lean against the fridge for balance. I ask how the robbers killed him. If they were caught.
“Well, no, see. Your dad actually was the robber. He broke into an electronics store in the middle of the night and he shot at the security guard and the security guard shot back at him and hit him in the neck.”
My mother vomits a little bit more.
“But he and I had been teammates in college and he was a great runner. Raw talent and great technique. I went to his funeral and that’s where I met your mother.” His head flickers again. “Well, actually, no, that’s not true. I just heard about your mother at the funeral. I heard someone mention that your father might live on because his ex was having a baby, but then someone else said your mother was planning to terminate the pregnancy.”
I scratch at my scalp. Not hard enough to produce blood, but maybe if I keep at it for a while.
“The circumstances, for me, were pretty ideal. An embryo that already had great genetic material to begin with and would make the editing a little simpler. I just had to convince your mother to keep you. And lucky for you, Dash, I’m very convincing.”
Dallas grabs the roll of paper towels off the floor—the ones my mother had dropped—and starts wiping up the vomit again. He seems relaxed, like the conversation is over. Like he’s the one who got to push the truck off a cliff.
I stop scratching at my scalp and check my fingers for blood, but there’s nothing. I slide to the floor, my back still against the fridge, and I slowly drink my electrolyte water, one sip at a time. After a couple minutes, my mother grabs her cereal bowl and puts it in the sink and slides away into another room like she’s an air hockey puck. But Dallas just keeps cleaning the counter, spraying it with disinfectant and getting it to gleam.
I finish my water and I crush the plastic bottle in my hand because it’s the only way I can think to express my anger. But it’s not the anger I want—I’m angry because I’m not angrier about everything. I can now righteously and accurately claim to be the victim, but my victimhood requires my mother’s villainy and that’s a riptide I can’t step into, not yet. Not today.
I want to hate that I’ve been lied to. I wish I could say it destroyed my life, but the truth is, deep down, I want the lie back. I crave the simple mystery of the lie and I feel childish for wanting it and I feel even more childish for all the times I dreamed of better stories for myself. I wanted to feel like the lie had trapped me in some way, but it had done the opposite. It had freed my imagination and allowed me to see all the potential in myself.
But then I find a little fleck of anger, buried under all the other anger. It’s when Dallas said he gave me a life. And I water that fleck and I nourish it and now I see my victimhood in the way I want to see it. Now I see the story I can tell myself. Dallas gave me a life, sure, but he didn’t give me my life. He gave me his life, and I’ve been unable to wrestle control of it away from him for nineteen long years. And it’s a version of the story I’ve always clung to, but now it burns so bright with truth that it’s crisp at the edges.
I stand up and I lean on the clean counter and I lock eyes with Dallas and I tell him that if I win today, I want to talk to Josie. Otherwise, I’m not going to compete. I’ll walk the whole four hundred meters, make a big show out of it and embarrass us both.
Dallas doesn’t quite smile, but I can hear a lift in his voice when he says, “So you still want to set the world record today?”
I still tap my knees. I really thought, on the drive to the track, as I sat in the backseat and tried to understand everything new about myself, that I definitely wouldn’t tap my knees. But I did and who gives a fuck?
I lock into position in the starting block and I break down the 400 meters in my head and how I’ll ease into the turns and how I’ll power through the straightaways. The runner to my left sneers at me and I almost laugh, as if she can do anything to me this morning that hasn’t already been done.
I breathe. Focused and alert.
The gun goes off.
I’m out in front quickly, not that I’m looking to my left and right, but I can sense the emptiness in my periphery. I charge forward and I can feel, after 50 meters, that something is off. My run is wild and unstable and I’m not sure what’s happening but all that matters is that I’m moving forward as fast as possible. I keep going and I try to smooth out my gait on the turn but I overcorrect and I dip out of my lane for a split second. I’ve never done that before and I think, “Wow, I’ve never done that before” and if I’m thinking that then I’m not thinking about how fast I’m going.
And now—shit!—here are two of them, in my periphery. I push harder or, at least, I try to push harder, but I’m using everything. There’s nothing else to push. As I come upon the second and final turn, I do everything I can to spread my stride and get more centimeters per step, even though I know Dallas wouldn’t approve of this strategy. My stride is my stride and it comes from my height and if I try to alter it, well…
Yeah. I dip into the other lane again. But this time, because a couple runners have caught up, I step right into one. She and I smash together and we tumble down onto the track, our limbs whipping against each other, the track scraping my palms as I reach out to stop myself.
I look up just in time to see someone else win. The runner I ran into is screaming at me, her voice piercing the air like a siren, but I have no idea what she’s saying. I don’t hear her. I just hear an ocean of static.
I look for Dallas in the crowd and it doesn’t take me long to find him. I think he’ll look furious, maybe there will be actual steam coming out of his ears, but his mouth is just a sad little line and his eyes look scared. He nods at me. I just stare back. And then he nods again.
And now I see what he means. Josie Franc is rushing toward me with her microphone and her cameraman. She still has her French braid but no visor today and her windbreaker is an emerald green that matches the color of her eyes. She gives her cameraman a signal—don’t record yet—and bends down next to me.
She’s talking to me. And it’s not an interview. She’s talking to me like I’m just another person and her voice is all wrong. There’s no honey in the tea. “Dallas, he said you’d give me an exclusive and, well… are you OK?”
I nod. I’m still on my hands and knees on the track and I realize I should probably stand up.
“OK, good, well, I want to obviously ask about what just happened. Hear your thoughts as you’re processing it all. I’m sure, I’m sure it’s a lot.”
I nod again.
“And you’re sure you’re OK?”
I nod one more time.
Josie turns to her cameraman and gives a signal and the little red light comes on and, according to Josie, we’re live. She explains what just happened and how, in many ways, it felt like witnessing the impossible. She says that watching me run is usually like witnessing the impossible, but watching me lose is a whole different kind of flavor. She turns to me: “So, Dash, what exactly happened out there? Can you give us the play-by-play?”
She then does the delicate choreography with the microphone where she dips it from her mouth to mine. I think about what I want to say.
But I have no idea what I want to say. And I sure as hell don’t know how I’m going to say it. My lips don’t open. I just stand there. I see the worry start to cloud up those beautiful green eyes of Josie’s and she starts to dip her microphone back to her own mouth and all I can think about is Curtis Mayfield, the first verse of “So in Love,” and that’s when I finally do it.
I start to sing and nobody stops me.
Aaron Fullerton is a Los Angeles-based writer for film, television, and other mediums. He grew up on a small island in the Puget Sound and graduated from the University of Southern California’s Writing for Film and Television program with honors. He has developed projects with companies such as Amblin, MRC, Appian Way, and Wondery, and has written for and produced a variety of one-hour shows, most recently Happy Face, which will air on Paramount+ next year.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Seven.