One moment, there was just the usual kind of suffering – burning sun, hot breath of desert, strong wind with dust showers in your face, strains and pains in the legs, difficult terrain of deep sands and sharp rocks – all-inclusive of the Marathon des Sables, the “toughest footrace on earth.”
The next moment, it was hell. The light went off, and all of the mass of sand was lifted in the air. In the red twilight, the shadows of the dunes were moving like waves in a sea storm. But that was a sandstorm, a much deadlier kind of monster.
Before it happened, Ryuta Kobayashi, number 127, still had all the chances to be among the ten first finishers of the toughest 85-kilometer leg of the ultra-marathon. He was content with his performance this year. He could feel how much stronger he became compared to last year. His gruesome year-long workouts of running half-marathons without a drop of water made his body efficient and never-complaining. Last year he spent all of the distance in the company of other Japanese runners. He made great friends and had fun. But this year, he could stick with the strong dark-skin Moroccan runners. Even though he could not understand their tongue, he felt ecstatic to be there, on one level with them. He copied their pacing and foot placement technique and learned from them to cut across small dunes to save time. Even after the storm began, he could still see their silhouettes ahead of him and tried to reach them until he could not see them anymore.
“I have to stop moving,” he thought. But it was not easy because he had to move to not be buried in the sand. He could see absolutely nothing. The sand punched him off his feet many times, but he rose up. He swallowed sand, and he breathed sand, and the sand was even inside his goggles. Finally, he found some shelter behind a big rock and managed to cover himself with his heat reflective blanket.
The storm went on for hours. When it was finally over, it was night. The landscape was not recognizable, and there was not a sign of human presence. Ryuta considered his choices. He could stay where he was and wait for the rescue, or he could try to follow his compass and head to the northwest – the general direction of the race. He chose a second variant. There were so many people running that surely he would soon meet somebody. He checked his water supply – only half of a bottle.
He conserved his energy, moving during the cooler hours and sleeping under his blanket in the hottest hours. When the water was over, he peed into his bottle but decided to resist drinking it for as long as possible because he knew that salts in the urine will only make his thirst worse. One time he managed to catch a lizard. He held it in his grip and saw the liquids pulsating in its translucent body. He felt an urge to rip through the flesh of the lizard with his teeth and suck its blood. But part of him resisted. That part that was presently looking into the lizard’s eyes and having a mental conversation with it. Saying, “It is only natural. You are part of nature. You should understand.” The lizard was not understanding. It was scared and wanted to live. And Ryuta surprised himself by letting it go. “I am too civilized or not that close to dying yet,” he thought.
That night he saw his first hallucination. A giant stag burning with phosphorus green light was standing on a dune before him. The stag nodded to Ryuta and started moving in the north direction. At this point, Ryuta was sure that the northwest course he had chosen was a mistake. Might as well follow the hallucination stag. And he did.
As he walked, he started to notice many desert animals around him moving in the same direction. That was a good sign; there must be water somewhere ahead. The stag disappeared, but Ryuta followed the trail of animals, and they soon led him to an abandoned building, half-buried in the sand.
It was dark and damp inside. Moist air pleasantly tickled his sore nostrils. What was left of the interior resembled some Ancient Greek shrine. It had an altar with a giant clay amphora on it. That is where all the small animals were heading. When he approached, he could not believe his eyes. The amphora was full of clear water. Probably, it has accumulated the raindrops over time, and the conditions inside prevented evaporation. Carefully, he started drinking, scooping water with his hands, never minding all the mice and snakes hanging on the rib.
When he was strong enough, he took off his shoes, his backpack, most of his clothes, piled them up on the roof of the building, and set them on fire. He left out the blanket. Whatever happens, he thought, I will not leave this place until I’m rescued or dead.
The rescue helicopter came down the next day, attracted by the smoke.
After two weeks in a Moroccan hospital, a flight back to Japan, and a few days of relaxing at home, Ryuta felt like facing the world again. He turned the sign to “Open” on the doors of his little izakaya in the Ningyocho district of Tokyo and started cleaning up. Before any visitors arrived, the owners of the neighboring stores began to flock in congratulating him on his miraculous survival. Ryuta suspected many of them were just curious to see if he sustained any irreversible injuries that they could rumor about. Soon, he picked up his usual routine of mixing up drinks and preparing appetizers, shouting out greetings, and memorizing the orders.
His good friend, Kamijo, a tempura chef, has already closed his shop for the day and was sitting at the bar. Next to him was a frequenting salary-man, whose name Ryuta never asked, but with whom he often engaged in friendly conversations.
“So, what’s next for you?” asked Kamijo.
“I am just waiting to fully recover so that I can go back to training again,” – Ryuta replied.
“Training for what?” salary-man asked.
“Next years’ Marathon des Sables.”
At those words, Kamijo and the salary-man both intoned a surprised “e-e-e” sound.
“You think I’m crazy,” he said, and it was not a question.
“I am worried about you,” said Kamijo.
“It’s hard to explain. But I just feel most alive when I’m out there running, pushing myself to my limits. I almost died, it is true. But now, when I think of it, I sort of miss it.”
“Post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Kamijo. “You do not know how to adjust to your normal life anymore.” Salary-man was nodding energetically.
“Maybe. But when veterans remember the battlefield, those are not happy memories, I think. Mine are — I would not say happy but — euphoric of a sort. I feel like I did something great. Like I finally found myself there and got to the essence of my life.”
“You convinced me. I’ll try dying of thirst when I hit my next identity crisis,” said Kamijo.
“You have too much free time,” was a verdict of the salary-man.
New visitors came in, and Ryuta was busy taking their orders. After a while, he returned to the conversation.
“It is not only that,” he said. “I also hate leaving the job unfinished. I was in the greatest shape of my life, and I was so close to the biggest achievement of my life. It just bothers me a lot to leave it like that. I will not rest until I finish the race next year.”
His companions completely ignored him. Salary-man was staring into his drink. Kamijo was studying the “today’s special” boards above Ryuta’s head. They did not show in any way that they heard him or acknowledged his presence. This is not funny, he thought. But he decided to be above it, and instead of getting angry, he offered, “Would you like a refill?”
Nothing. Not a single reaction.
“Common guys, it’s not funny.”
Not a blink.
Fine, he thought, you can act childish all you like. I’ll wait until you call me.
Somebody called for a check. When Ryuta arrived at the calling table, there was nobody there. Escaped without paying? But why call for a check then? Weird. Suddenly, all sounds disappeared, as if he dipped his head underwater. He looked around him and saw that the whole store was empty and quiet, and the chairs were lifted on the tables.
Cold sweat covered his forehead, and his stomach turned. Something weird was happening to his vision. Everything looked like those magic eye pictures that change when you focus your eyes a certain way. He could see the walls of his store, but when he moved his eyes just slightly, he saw gray ruins instead and planes flying low dropping their bombs, all in silence. Then, finally, he could force his focus back on the familiar world. Still, he could not escape a sickening feeling that at any moment, he could focus his eyes on something he was not prepared to see. Something that could destroy him.
Gripped by panic, he ran out to the street. It was autumn there, with a chilly wind, yellow ginkgo leaves on the ground, and Halloween decorations. Never mind that he started that morning in early May. Ryuta sat down on the pavement and tried to breathe. There must be a reasonable explanation. He is having some bad trip from the medications they gave him at the hospital — that was it.
“Already falling out of time, buddy?” somebody said above his head.
Ryuta looked up, but nobody was there, just a jack-o-lantern decoration installed on a postbox pole.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s me talking,” Jack-o-lantern reassured him. “Now, try not to move too much. I need to talk to you, and you are very hard to catch.”
Ryuta opened his mouth, but he didn’t seem to have anything intelligible to say, so he just closed it.
“There. You’re doing great!” said jack-o-lantern in a cheerful coach voice. “Listen, things might be confusing now, but you’ll be fine—actually, much more than fine. The thing is, you drank from the source of life. As a result, you are much higher being now than you were before.”
“Higher, in a sense that you now exist in a higher dimension.”
“Let me explain. Your normal existence was in the fourth dimension. That meant that you could freely move in three dimensions and could not help but float helplessly through the fourth dimension of time. Also, you could create whatever comes to your mind in two dimensions. Are you with me?”
“I think so.”
“Right. When you drank from the source of life, you were lifted to the fifth dimension of existence. That means that you can freely move in time, and you can change the three-dimensional world as easily as drawing a picture. That’s why I am a jack-o-lantern now, but I could be anything I want. Does it make sense to you now?”
“No, not really.”
“I’ve expected that much. Look, I am not the best one to explain this to you, but I can bring you to the Teacher. From Her, you can learn the craft of five-dimensional life, and things will get much better.”
“Well, ok. Let’s go. Where is she?”
“Right here, as always. You just never tried to look in Her direction. I can point you there. Just hold my hand.”
Ryuta hesitantly, feeling quite stupid, grabbed on a stick that served as jack-o-lantern’s hand. The next moment, the world as he knew it disappeared.
Yes, that was precisely what he was trying not to see under the veil of normal reality when he was panicking inside the store. A monstrous wrinkled pulsating matter was folding in concentric circles from the center of his vision, in any direction he looked. It somewhat reminded him of a rose. If roses were made of pure insanity. Then he had a bizarre feeling that he could only identify as a brain overheat. Like he was trying to solve several algebra problems at once. A terrible headache pierced his head.
“Let’s try in words then,” said a low vibration inside his body.
Ryuta bent over and threw up.
“How about now?” said a melodic female voice. Ryuta lifted his head and saw that he was in a garden surrounded by thick bushes, and a giant yellow rose was sitting on a throne in front of him.
“E-e-em. You are a rose?” he asked stupidly.
“If you say so,” Rose replied.
“Where am I? What is happening to me?”
“As my friend already informed you, now you exist in the fifth dimension. Navigating four dimensions takes some getting-used-to. I am here to teach you or to bring you back.”
“You can bring me back? How?”
“Yes, if you really wish so. Look —” Rose pointed to the nearest bush of beautiful blue roses with her staff made of a thorny vine.
One of the roses turned into a sharp-shaped origami.
“It used to be a living rose that changed with time, but now it is just a three-dimensional object made of a folded two-dimensional plane,” Rose explained. “We can go even further.” She pointed to the origami rose again, and a piece of paper with a drawn rose on it fell to the ground.
“You see, I can just make you one dimension less again if you ask me.”
“So I can return to my normal life?”
“Yes. But I want you to consider first what you will be losing. Right now, you exist outside of time, so you can move in time wherever you want. You do not have to age or die. You can take any form. If you wish to experience relationships, you can live among humans or among inhabitants of other planets. You can have many lives. You can set yourself a goal to help people – that’s what many of us find rewarding. Or you can invent endless pranks on lower beings for your own entertainment. There is no right or wrong. It is completely your choice.”
Ryuta tried to imagine what he would do with his new powers. See the world? Go to the beginning of time? End global warming? Recycle waste into the fifth dimension? He almost felt excited about his prospects, but one thought was bothering him.
“Can I still compete in the Marathon des Sables?”
“You can. But I am sorry to say, it would not be as satisfying as before.”
“Yes, I thought so. If I can be anything or anywhere, there is no joy in overcoming my weaknesses.”
“Does it really mean so much to you?” Rose asked.
Ryuta thought for a while.
“Yes,” he finally replied, “it’s not only the Marathon, it is everything. If nothing is a challenge to me, I can never be happy.”
“Oh, you are one of those,” said Rose, and she sounded sad. “You’ve made up your mind then?”
“Yes. I want my life back,” said Ryuta.
Rose sighed. “You will regret it,” she said quietly and lifted her staff.
In the next moment, Ryuta was lying face-up on the burning sand.
His blind eyes were staring at the sun.
The help was not coming.