The Foothills, Part I

The Foothills 1

The U-Haul truck pulled up to the red light, idling in the rising heat of the Saturday mid-morning that was already making the foothills appear wavy. David North sat in the driver’s seat, hands at 10 and two, with his son, five-year-old Charlie beside him, staring out the window at the Jack in the Box and the row of cars queued up at the drive-thru. David was tall, six foot, one inch, and slender, with close-cropped, dark hair and a strong face, with magnetic blue-green eyes and slightly pronounced cheek bones. Crow’s feet by his eyes and some expressive lines in the skin around his mouth—a la Mick Jagger—made him look wise and much older than his 32 years. His hands were big and his fingers long, wrapped around the steering wheel. Charlie, his own dark hair cut in similar style, looked like he was going to be tall and thin like his father.

[Editor’s Note: Until now, we’ve published rarely published fiction on iRunFar, so we’re excited to once again test the fiction waters today with the work of talented writer Willie McBride. Be sure to leave a comment and let us know what you thought of this piece and whether you think iRunFar is a good place for the occasional fiction story. Willie has more to this story if you enjoy it!]

The light changed. David pressed his foot down on the gas pedal and the fully loaded truck lurched forward with a mechanical groan. They drove along in near silence; the only sound, barely audible, was the radio set to the classic-rock station.

“Alright, Charlie boy,” David said, “this is our turn. See? Not too far from the old house.”

“It’s different out here,” Charlie replied, still looking out the window, his searching gaze scouring the passing sights. He leaned into the glass, which was rolled up because the air conditioning was on, wanting to see all he could. His forehead and nose made marks on the clear surface where they had pressed.

“Yes, you’re right about that. It is different out here,” he switched on the right-turn signal. “But it’s only about 20 minutes from the old neighborhood and we can go back to Indian Rock whenever you want. And we can have your buddies over and you’ll be back at their houses for sleepovers and play dates and parties. You’re going to love it.” David paused, taking a long breath. “We’re all going to love it.”

David made the turn onto Vista Nueva Drive, off the strip, and into the residential area known as Sage Flats, near the town of Livermore, on the western edge of California’s Central Valley. Rows of nearly identical, mostly white or light-colored single-family homes stretched on down the streets they passed, most of them with Spanish names: De los Reyes, Aguas Frias, Punto Blanco. David thought this was ironic since the architecture had no Spanish influence at all and there were few Hispanic or Spanish-speaking people actually living in the neighborhood.

“Why do we have to move?”

“You know why we’re moving Charlie, because we have another member of the family on the way—your little brother or sister! We need more space for our growing family. It’s going to be great, and it’s more affordable for us too. We can have a little more space, a bigger yard,” David explained, turning his gaze from the road to Charlie and back, and forth. He studied Charlie’s face, fascinated by watching his young brain trying to comprehend all that was changing around him.

“We’re going to love it.”

“You just said that, Dad.”

“I know I did, Charlie. I said it again because it’s true. I could even say it a third time, or a fourth, or a fifth!” They laughed together and David reached over and put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder for a moment.

David fixed his eyes back on the road, resetting his hands at 10 and two, his palms quickly sweaty again and his grip overly tightened on the wheel. He seemed to realize this suddenly and relaxed his fingers, taking another long, deep breath in doing so. He then held each hand, one at a time, in front of the air vent in the dash to dry his palms.

“Here we go Charlie boy, this is our street. Almost there.” Charlie sat up higher, pulling at his seatbelt to free himself up. David took a left and then, after a few hundred yards, pulled right into the white concrete driveway of 1421 West Caballero Viejo Drive.

The house was a one-story, three-bedroom, two-bathroom affair with small front and back yards. It was bigger than the apartment they’d been in, more space for the family, but was by no means a big house. It was modest, affordable, and cookie cutter.

The sprinklers were going in both yards when they pulled up, set by the realtor to turn on by timer to ensure the place looked verdant and inviting for the newly arriving North family: David, his wife Silvia, their son Charlie, and in another six months, a new baby.

David pulled the moving truck into the driveway and cut the engine. He looked over at Charlie whose eyes were wide and taking in as much of his new home as possible, though he’d seen pictures before and had come with his parents for a visit a couple months prior. David tried to imagine what his son was thinking. They got out into the heat of the day and David opened up the latch on the big back roll-up door of the truck, revealing stacks of cardboard boxes, a standing lamp, some bikes, a dresser, and more. They hadn’t rented a huge truck as they were planning on doing more frequent, smaller trips over time. Some of the bigger stuff, like the beds, had been moved in earlier that day by professionals.

A group of three runners ran by the house at an easy pace, conversing and cruising smoothly on the blacktop, sweating under the immense heat, sheltered partially by hats and visors while drinking from water bottles and hydration packs. David, starting to pull boxes from the truck, stopped and watched as they passed, his eyes following them down the block until they turned a corner and went out of sight.

“Dad, are we going to keep this here forever?” Charlie was standing by the sign in the yard that said ‘SOLD’ next to the real-estate company’s logo, the realtor’s name, and the realtor’s head shot.

“Dad?” David was silent, his gaze locked on the passing runners, hand on a box, one foot up on the rear bumper of the U-Haul.

“Dad!” Charlie repeated, louder this time.

“Yeah, Charlie,” he spun around, snapping out of his brief trance. “Sorry, what’d you say?”

“Are we going to keep this here forever?”

“Oh no,” David said with a smile, “no, we won’t keep that there forever. Besides, it would be in our way when I wrestle you to the ground on our nice, new lawn!” He suddenly made a growling noise like an exaggerated bear and stumbled toward Charlie with outstretched arms. Charlie squealed and giggled as his father enveloped him in a bear hug and brought them both down to the soft grass.

 ***

David was a runner, although if you asked him he’d say he used to be, that he wasn’t anymore. The frequency of his runs and his weekly mileage had steadily decreased since Charlie had been born, though his life as a runner had derailed long before that. He’d run in college in North Carolina and there had developed a love of running fast, timing his splits around the track in the early mornings and under the nighttime lights with his friends, teammates, and coaches. His team had been the Tigers but David didn’t feel so fierce when he ruptured his Achilles during the biggest meet of the season in his senior year. He had thought he was going to go places with his running, taking his talents into the post-collegiate world, competing nationally, maybe even internationally. All that ended on a gusty day in late spring when his Achilles vehemently rejected his future plans with an audible ‘pop.’

The year following was filled with anger, depression, and drinking. His tendon healed slower than hoped due to unhealthy living and never felt quite the same. The track didn’t hold the same magical excitement as before either, when he halfheartedly did some sessions at the local high school. The simple giddy, childish thrill of those movements seemed lost to him now. Running fast no longer brought him the sensation of freedom and power and unlimited potential that it previously had. Instead it simply hurt, both his pride and his scar-tissued tendon. So he ran less and less until he didn’t run at all.

The year before the accident one of David’s friends who ran cross country convinced him to start running trails with some of the guys and girls on the team, and he accepted. He enjoyed the loops they ran near campus in a small state park and on the wood-chipped paths near the school; he might even have joined the cross-country team himself but the fall season had more conflicts for him. His desire for speed was still his greatest thrill and the track was his focus, so he would frontload all his most demanding classes in the fall months so that he could have an easier academic schedule in the spring when training and racing started up in earnest. Of course he kept in shape and would run through the summer and fall, but the spring was when he really got serious.

There was one trip that would stick with him forever, one of his best memories of running, though it wasn’t around the track and there was no competition or fanfare. His friend Rob had a family house a few hours from campus in the Great Smoky Mountains, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway near the town of Boone. A group was going up for a long weekend in late summer before classes started his senior year, one last hurrah before buckling down to a semester of hard work, and they invited him along. He knew a couple of the people who were going, but not well, and others he didn’t know at all, but he went anyway.

Two carloads of college-kid runners descended on the mountain cabin and settled in for the stay. They came with groceries, beer, things to grill, sleeping bags and a couple guitars, running shoes and gear, and not much else. Things were simple and good—their last year of college nearly upon them—and David instantly felt at home with the seven other guys and girls. After a quick unpacking of the cars, everyone changed into running attire and headed out, eager to stretch their legs from the drive. They had a nice run and a wonderful first night with songs, food, friends, and fire but it was the next days, and one run in particular, that etched themselves into David’s memory. It was one person, one strong, beautiful, brilliant athlete named Silvia who began to etch herself into David himself.

On the third day the group was split on where to go so they divided up; the car David was in (and, not coincidentally, Silvia too) headed for a place called Stone Mountain.

They parked in the small lot and set off, starting slow on the trail and warming up, talking and staring off at the sights, their heads darting different directions, following sounds, movements, and light. David, Silvia, Geoff, and Amos ran through the open, tall-grass meadows beneath the glowing birch forests at the base of the giant dome of Stone Mountain itself: 600 feet of golden granite with one prominent soaring arch in the center. The group splintered further; Rob and Peter stuck to the trail while Silvia’s desire for exploration sent her through the boulders and on to the immaculate lower-angled slabs of the dome. She asked David to join her and he eagerly agreed. They arranged to meet the others back at the car in a couple hours.

Off they went, Silvia clambering with seemingly boundless energy, leaping among boulders and over logs, scrambling like an animal, her long, lean, strong legs transfixing David in their effortless movements. David tried to keep up and concentrate on staying upright, but this was a far cry from the track. He had never done anything like it before and was mesmerized watching Silvia dance through the forest, her long dark hair in two braids flowing through the air, kissing her bare shoulders on either side of the straps of her tank top. He’d never seen anyone move like that; he hardly knew what to say when he caught up to her at the base of the cliff. It wasn’t just her that he was falling for though, it was also the movements of the running of which he had never made before. He found himself smiling as he ran through the forest and he realized, unfortunately, that it wasn’t the usual case. Normally running on the track felt like a much more serious affair and he didn’t usually just break into a wild grin or laugh at random like he did that day.

The Foothills 2

All photos courtesy of Ian Sharman

They followed a creek out of the white wallpapered birch trees of the forest, down into thicker rhododendron, and onto clean, smooth sheets of scoured rock that sloped gently into clear pools. It was hot and humid and sweat glistened on their skin, and so they stopped and waded into the silken flow of the cold water and splashed water on themselves and each other. David was 22 years old, Silvia was 20 and things were good; they were falling in love and life was filled with excitement and potential. That was 10 years ago.

He could still remember the sounds of the water, the soft murmuring of it pouring over rocks and returning back on itself in a bubbling, smooth spin cycle, and her voice over top of it, filled with happiness and buoyant with her infectious enthusiasm.

 ***

David’s stream of memories was cut off abruptly by the sound of a car in the driveway; Silvia was home, he could tell it was her by the noise of the engine. Charlie was proudly pulling things at random out of a smaller box of his own belongings: books, wooden building blocks, Legos.

“Guess who’s home?” David asked in an excited voice, the pitch rising as he spoke. Charlie’s eyes widened.

“Mom!”

“That’s right. Let’s go meet her.” They started for the front door, pretending to race for the first few steps. Looking through the glass of the big bay window as they approached, they saw Silvia pulling a bag of groceries from the backseat of their tan Toyota Corolla.

David opened the door and Charlie, without breaking his stride, ran out into the sunshine. Charlie flew to her side and threw his arms around her legs. The groceries fell to the ground as Silvia instantly reached for her son and let them drop, forgetting all else in that moment. The groceries landed with a muffled, crunching thump. It was obvious eggs had broken and there was the dull crack of a glass jar. Some liquid seeped from the corner of the now sodden-bottomed brown paper bag.

Charlie held his breath in shock for a moment and gripped his mother tighter. He tried to look at the mess beside them but Silvia held him close and pulled his head into her body, obscuring his view. He didn’t resist, instead he just hugged her with all his might, knowing something was wrong.

David walked over, trying to stay calm although his heart was starting to pound and there was a dizzying buzz strengthening in his head, and embraced them both. He looked at Silvia, searching for answers but unsure of how to begin. Her eyes were swollen, weary, and taut, her cheeks stained with tears. His hands trembled and his muscles twitched.

“Is something wrong with the baby?” David managed, his stomach tightening. Silvia just stood there and shook slightly, unable to speak.

“Is it that? Is it the baby?” He stammered again, louder now, pulling himself into her body. Charlie instinctively squeezed himself into his parents’ embrace with increased pressure too.

“A miscarriage,” she mumbled, lifting her head up suddenly like a far-off voice had called her name. Her eyes were vacant, staring without destination, like the unfocused gaze of an infant.

“I, I… miscarried,” she said as if in a daze. “I went to the bathroom in the grocery store. There was spotting. Something was up. I was freaked out. I called the doctor… She said…” Her words broke apart into pieces and were sobbed out of her in fits.

“And? What? Wh… when was all this? Just now? Why didn’t you call?” David pulled back and tried to look into Silvia’s eyes, but she wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“Yes, a couple hours…”

“And what did she say? What did they say? I don’t understand honey.” There were no words for a minute, just the sound of quiet crying and labored breathing. She closed her eyes and tilted her head down again, into David’s shoulder.

“I just went in. They checked. I did try to call…” Silvia’s body shook more, first little, vibrating tremors and then full-body convulsions, like a strengthening wind through the leaves of a Quaking Aspen.

“When did you try to call?” David’s voice grew in volume, quivered. “When? And what? What happened?! What is the deal?”

“I tried to call right away. I tried, I tried a bunch of times. I couldn’t reach you.” Her body shook.

“Of course I tried to call you!” She yelled. “What do you think?! Of course I did!” David reached quickly into his pocket and pulled out his phone. It was off.

“Ahhhh dammit!” He made the motion of throwing it on the ground, shook his head ashamedly, and twisted up his face. “This thing never, ever holds a charge. I cannot believe it. Oh my god, Silvia, honey, I’m beyond sorry. I’m sick with this.” He paused, looked into her eyes.

She looked up at him: “Yeah, I’m sick about this too.”

“What did she say? What the doc say?”

“That I miscarried.” The words tore into David’s chest and his world went into slow motion. “I miscarried…” Charlie squeezed his parents’ legs ever tighter, feeling his parents’ exchange in his bones, though without knowing what any of it really meant.

“Are you okay? How do you feel?” The questions fluttered out of David’s worried mouth. “Wh… what can I do? What do you need?”

“I’m okay, just tired, drained. I couldn’t reach you so I sat in the car and cried for 45 minutes before driving home. I think I’ve almost run dry already.” She attempted to smile.

The dropped groceries and leaked liquid made stark markings on the hot, white concrete of the driveway. The small stream of 1% milk rode the slight downgrade, following the path of least resistance onto the manicured lawn. The sun was still strong and the North family could feel it upon them as they held their wordless embrace, standing together on Caballero Viejo Drive. The ribbon of milk would soon be gone, evaporated, erased by the radiant heat.

Charlie’s face was somehow nearly expressionless, his young mind grappling with practically numbing, never-before-felt levels of emotion. He tried to comprehend the new development in the life of his family, in his parents’ eyes. He looked up toward their faces buried in the napes of each other’s necks, though David’s large hand enveloped most of Charlie’s head and pulled him unceasingly into their bodies. Charlie’s tears made wet marks on his mom’s white summer dress at hip level, while his arms reached around them both like a human trying to feel the magnificent girth of a redwood.

They stood in the driveway for a long time.

  ***

Their early dinner that still-bright evening was a quiet affair, and when they spoke it was not at full volume, as if their batteries were dying. They ate sandwiches; no one had wanted to cook. Charlie ate without speaking, looking as dazed as his parents though glancing at one or the other of them occasionally, studying their aghast expressions, looking for feedback, slowly gaining a tacit understanding. David was drinking bourbon from a juice glass with a couple of ice cubes. Silvia was red eyed and cheeked, with puffy-looking lips; her nose was irritated from blowing it so much from crying. She drank ice water. They all pecked at their food.

David hadn’t drank very much or very often since his days of overdoing it after his injury in college. Silvia had known him then and witnessed some of his drunkenness, at the time they were just starting to date. She saw through it and they became serious, and with her support he pulled it together, working to curtail his drinking the year after the worst of the injury and recovery had passed. His Achilles still didn’t quite feel the same and his frustrations with running lingered but he had successfully managed to check his most damaging vice.

It wasn’t unusual for David to have a drink now and then, maybe once a week, twice a week at most, but Silvia knew the circumstances were obviously different that night and could tell he was having too much. His eyes were becoming unfocused, his movements loose. He got up suddenly and walked into the kitchen. He opened the door of the refrigerator with too much force and the drinks and jars of food and condiments on the racks all rattled and clanked loudly. David grabbed the carton of orange juice, shut the door, grabbed a glass from the cabinet, and poured it full. He chugged the contents in a few gulps and then refilled it straight away. As he turned toward the refrigerator again his hand swung down and he accidentally knocked the glass over, sending the bright liquid leaping onto the grey linoleum countertop. Luckily none of it got on his phone which was charging nearby. He’d plugged it in the second they reentered the house.

“Ahhh, shit!” He looked at the mess with his hands in the air for a second like he was genuinely surprised and then exploded a moment later, like his anger was one pace behind.

“Goddammit!” David bellowed suddenly and swatted savagely, backhanded, at the overturned glass. His knuckles knocked against it with an audible crack and the glass sailed smoothly through the air and smashed on the tile floor, dotting it and some of the lower cabinets with little flecks of orange.

Silvia ran into the room in a panic with Charlie close behind, though she stood back by the door and made sure Charlie stayed out of the potential range of broken glass. David stood there and looked down at the floor, in the middle of the mess, breathing heavily and sighing loudly every few moments. No one spoke. Charlie looked like he wanted to cry but had nothing left at the moment. Silvia hugged Charlie close to her and led him into the living room and sat with him on the teal loveseat, the only furniture in the house besides the table they ate at, the few chairs they’d moved in already, and the beds and things that the movers had brought in earlier. David turned to the cabinet got out another glass, filled it with water at the sink, and drank it all down in one go. Then he went to the closet by the backdoor and got a broom and a mop and started cleaning up the mess. When he was almost all finished Silvia came into the room and walked up and put her arms around him. She hugged him tightly and put her head against his shoulder, the few teardrops on her cheeks quickly absorbing into the material of his shirt.

“I’m so sorry sweet pea. I’m so sorry.” She paused and David remained silent. “Listen though, honey. You have to listen to me now. You need to go for a run.”

“What?!” David jerked at the suggestion. The word “run”, when applied to David, not only sounded foreign and strange to him but just downright wrong.

“What? How do you mean?” His voice rose, eyes narrowed in irritation.

“You don’t need to drink but you DO need to go for a run,” Silvia said without lifting her head from his shoulder. “A run, a walk, a hike, whatever. Just go.”

“You know I hardly drink anymore and we both know I don’t need to drink. And my Achilles… come on! I mean, I don’t run, Silvia. Jesus Christ!” His voice rose higher, hers stayed calm.

“You don’t run like you…”

“I don’t run at all!” David burst and held Silvia suddenly at arms length, looking into her eyes with the intensity of someone whose deepest wound has been touched. She looked back at him with equal astonishment and ferocity.

“Listen to me! You fucking listen to ME!” She yelled back at him with great force, gripping his arms with all her might. “Listen to me because I love you and because you love me. Yeah, you don’t run like you used to, I was going to say. That’s true, a fact, a harsh, shitty fact. But you can still run, and don’t try to tell me you can’t. That’s just not true. Think about all the people who really can’t run at all, or can’t even walk a step, people in wheelchairs. Seriously.” She paused. “I love you to death, this is the only reason I’m saying these things. You got to get over it though. If you never want to run again that’s fine by me. The point is you can if you want to, maybe just a little slower.” David was calming down, breathing deeply and listening to his wife.

“That lovable, charming ego of yours always had an issue with running slowly. You can run and you know it. Just go slow. You don’t always have to run fast. Keep reminding yourself of that if you have to.” She pulled their bodies together again and squeezed him tight.

“Go to the foothills. You always talk about going out that way.”

David turned instinctually toward the window, like a dog beaconed outside: the suggestion had suddenly resonated, like an old memory coming suddenly into one’s mind.

“Go. You’ll feel better,” she said. “You still have almost three hours before sunset. I’m fine here for now; I can use the time alone. We both can use the time to think. We’ll be together later. I can unpack some boxes, keep me from going crazy.” She looked up at him with matted bangs and teary eyes and a brave, slightly trembling but reassuring smile.

“You better take your phone and make sure it stays ON this time!”

David simply nodded. He turned away, went to the box that had his clothes in it, and started rooting through the contents until he pulled out a pair of running shorts and a shirt. Then, from another box, he produced a pair of old track shoes. Silvia had gone into the living room, back to Charlie on the loveseat. David changed, standing there in the middle of the bedroom, then grabbed his phone from the kitchen and passed through the living room, heading for the door. He planted kisses on the foreheads of Silvia and Charlie as he went.

“See you soon. I love you both more than anything…”

 ***

David decided to take it as a special challenge to himself to run really slowly, just as Silvia had said. It was so unusual for him to do such a thing but the day had been far from usual so he felt it an appropriate deviation. He was determined at least to find the comedy in it, to just do it with a light heart. Silvia’s impassioned words had stirred him; he’d been called out. He was ready for a new (old) experience, anything to clear his mind. He closed the front door and set off into the evening.

At first, with each and every step, he had to remind his body and his feet and legs to relax and not strike quickly, not automatically push the pace like he’d been trained to do forever. By the end of the first block, the brief, initial elation of the activity had already worn away. He felt stiff and old, his Achilles felt tight, the movements awkward. There was no flow, no joy in the motions. He stopped on the corner and put his hands on his hips, looked up and looked down, like he was about to say something, curse or shout or start crying again.

“Face this challenge David, be strong. Be strong like your sweet Silvia,” he said to himself, shaking his head from side to side and facing the ground, eyes closed.

“Just relax… and slow your roll. Slow your roll. Slow your roll.” He repeated it under his breath, whispering almost inaudibly a few times after he spoke it aloud. He began to run again, even slower this time. When the movements began to feel awkward or the voices in his head began chattering for him to stop, he would shake his arms out at his sides and let his legs flop about and say aloud to himself:

Relax, slow your roll… Relax, slow your roll…

The blocks started to drift by, though not effortlessly, and the voice in his head began to chatter less loudly. He tried to suppress the feeling that he was actually beginning to enjoy himself. The sensation was in him whether he wanted to feel it or not.

He hadn’t thought too hard about where exactly he was headed when he’d left the house and started shuffling along with light, mincing steps. He was so absorbed and daunted by the curious task that he had little room to consider navigation. Like an animal naturally seeking open space, David had headed south on the streets towards the closest hills, toward Del Valle Regional Park and the Ohlone Wilderness. David jogged along and tried to focus on taking deep, calming breaths through his diaphragm, filling his belly first before his lungs. His body felt clumsy but already, to his amazement, was starting to warm up and recall the muscle memories of those actions of running he’d done so many times before. Just like riding a bike, he thought and then laughed to himself at the cliché. He took a few walk breaks too—to stretch his legs and change up the movements—and was deeply impressed with himself that he was actually able to overcome his pride and simply walk for a minute here and there. He’d never done anything like that before.

The sky was a light beige-orange, the color of Central Valley grass in summer. Jet streams crisscrossed the great surface overhead, starkly made by metal birds in flight, bound for San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, or points beyond. The rows of houses began to thin out under the evening light; more open lots could be seen, more bare land not yet built upon. A Red-tailed Hawk was perched on a telephone pole, proud and searching and ever patient. He noticed the bird and nodded to it as he went by.

The hills seemed to be coming alive with the oncoming twilight. A hot wind blew and made the grasses and scrubby bushes rustle and dance with movement. Even when the breeze ceased the brush beside the road was busy with the movement of insects, rodents, and snakes. The hawk knew where to look.

Relax, slow your roll…

If he followed the mantra, he found he could remain in a positive mental space and that the activity was pleasant, the easy pace surprisingly just fine after all.

David thought about his co-worker Peterson who was always marveling at a middle-aged woman in Human Resources named Luz, who ran marathons and longer distances on a routine basis. Peterson would always come up to David’s desk on his way to the bathroom or the lunch room and stop and say, “Goddamn man! Did you hear about Luz? She won her age group in a 50-mile race this past weekend! Fifty miles. Yeah, you heard me. For real. Can you believe that shit! Fifty freaking miles?! Like five zero. That’s some stone-cold, stone-age-savage, cave-man, cave-lady-type shit right there.” He would throw his hands up and laugh and make crazy faces.

“Do you think you could do that? You used to be a runner, right? Right?!”

“Ah, yeah, sort of. I used to be,” David would say. “Wow, Luz is amazing. I can’t even imagine it.”

“And nothing against women, of course,” Peterson would go on, “but that’s even crazier. A nearly 60-year-old woman?! Running 50 miles in the mountains?! Someone said she does 100-mile races too and that she’s starting to train for her next one. That’s some serious, serious, SE-RI-OUS work ethic to train for something like that. Freaking commitment. I just couldn’t do it, not that I’d want to! I don’t think either of us would have it in us. I don’t think we got whatever it is that Luz has got.”

“We could do it if we wanted to…” David would often say. He had never paid much attention and didn’t know Luz well. They worked at a large non-profit and she was on another floor; he’d only seen her around and heard stories.

  ***

The houses were few now and David was almost where the flat land met the abrupt rise of the hills. A short farm-style barbed-wire fence started beside him and paralleled the now-gravel road that David was on. He shook his arms out and tried to relax his shoulders, then repeated his new mantra and took a deep breath, looking around him, looking ahead at the scenery. He could see something at the base of the fence, a few hundred yards away. It was colored like the grass around it, with some dark patches, and small. There was a flicker of movement as David ran toward it, keeping his eyes on whatever it was. As he got closer he decided to take another walk break to stretch out his legs and tightening hips. David took long strides to loosen everything up, deliberately swinging his arms with greater range of motion and drawing in deeper breaths through his diaphragm.

The Foothills 3

It looked like an animal to David, down there at the base of the fence. The beige, earth-colored mass of it was unmoving; the flicker of motion David had seen from far off was simply the wind blowing through tufts of fur. David walked up the last few paces and stepped down into the ditch beside the fence to have a closer look. It was hard to tell at first but soon David could tell it was a bobcat, a dead bobcat. David screwed up his face and wrinkled his eyebrows like he was confused and concentrating hard to figure out what had happened, then half gagged like he had something caught in his throat.

He picked up a stick nearby and used it to prod the body and investigate the scene, an impromptu animal autopsy as he poked at the carcass and tried to make sense of the twisted body. Then, with a shudder and another furling of his brow, he saw that a length of barbed wire had been wrapped tightly around the neck of the bobcat, cutting into its flesh. He also found two bullet holes, one on the side through the ribcage and the other by the hip. The blood and the matted fur had dried dark and appeared black. Its skull and muzzle had been smashed by something or someone and its eyes were little slits, sealed tightly shut like it had wanted to just go to sleep and get away from it all.

David stood up straight from his hunched inspection of the scene and tossed the stick into the ditch and put his hands on his hips again. He looked up at the sunset sky and then down at the earth. He breathed deeply and started muttering to himself:

“Relax… slow your roll, David. Relax… slow your roll.” In an instant he dropped down to the ground and flopped onto his backside and sat on the edge of the road. Few cars were out; only one had passed him in the last hour. He picked up a piece of gravel and flung it into the rustling, blowing grasses beyond the fence.

“What the fuck?” He screamed and put his head in his hands. “Why? Why? Why?” He shouted with increasing volume. Then, slowly, like a far-off siren growing louder, David began wailing and making animal sounds. He began really crying then, sobbing like he hadn’t in years. Great, prolific gushes coursed down his cheeks, left reddish luge tracks of melancholy upon his face and made his eyes swollen and his nose run freely. He sat there beneath the fiery sky, his knees pulled up to his chest in the gravel on the shoulder of the road next to the mutilated bobcat. He cried and convulsed until his sides ached and abs trembled. He lay down on his back and tried to breathe deeply and calm and gather himself, let his churning mind simmer down with the emerging chorus of crickets in the background.

He fell asleep.

There was a buzzing noise and a vibrating sensation through David’s body; his cell phone was ringing. He opened his eyes to stars above and slowly began orienting himself to the conscious landscape. He shifted in the gravel and suddenly felt the full chill of the night. He was immediately aware of the stiffness and soreness of his body from a couple hours on hard ground. He retrieved the phone from the pocket of his running shorts and checked it, a missed call from Silvia. One of four missed calls. It was 11:02 p.m., and he’d left at a seven. He called her back straight away and explained what had happened and that he was fine. She offered to pick him up and he initially resisted but agreed as soon as he stood up and felt the stiffness and soreness in his muscles and his Achilles—the impact of his longer-than-expected run after years of not doing it at all. It was nice though; he felt those bodily sensations were nostalgic. He walked stiff-legged around in circles, waiting for Silvia to arrive and he laughed to himself when he noticed himself grinning while doing it. He hadn’t expected any happy emotions to result from his jog that night and he was pleasantly surprised.

David looked down at the base of the fence in the darkness to take stock of the bobcat once more before he left. He squinted and took a step forward. David strained his eyes to see and took another step. He couldn’t locate it. He pulled out his phone again to use the ‘flashlight’ feature. With a veritable spotlight in his hand, David shone it upon the fence where he had knelt beside the cat.

It was gone.

David’s heart began to beat harder and his breath quickened. He talked to himself:

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” He walked up and down along the fence, shining his light at the darker spots. “What the…?! There’s no way, there’s no way.”

There was no bobcat. In one twist of barbed wire though was a tuft of beige hair, still blowing about in the nighttime breeze. David grabbed the clump of it and stuffed it quickly into the gel pocket of his shorts, thankful for some evidence of the strange occurrence.

He was still shaking his head and questioning himself when Silvia pulled up, but he decided not to mention it, at least not yet. Charlie was asleep in the back. David got in, leaned over, and kissed his wife. She looked tired.

“Thank you,” he said, “for picking me up.” Silvia was silent as David adjusted in his seat. “And for making me run. And I’m sorry, so sorry. I fell asleep.”

“No problem sweetheart,” she said with genuine compassion, but then rolled her eyes a second later as an afterthought. “But Jesus, I’m glad you’re not dead, you scared the hell out of me. And after today, what the fuck honey?! I didn’t know what I’d do if you didn’t come home. I had no idea you’d be gone that long, I thought you’d let me know at some point if you were going to be gone for hours on end. I didn’t even think you could possibly want to run that far.” She took a deep breath and let it out audibly. “But I’m glad you ran, really, truly I am. I’m happy about that. You already seem different, more relaxed.”

“It…” David started to explain and paused. “It was a good run. I can’t thank you enough for pushing me to get out there. I love you. Thank you. Running slow isn’t as bad as I remembered,” he said and smiled.

The gravel road was long gone now and the North family car glided easily along the pavement, back in civilization, to Livermore and the greater Bay Area. They were nearing their new home, 1421 West Caballero Viejo Drive, and it already felt like a comfort. Silvia guided the car into the driveway and put it into park, shut off the engine, and killed the lights. It was silent again. Charlie snoozed easily in the back. David and Silvia just sat there for a moment, enjoying the quiet. David extended his hand out, palm upturned for Silvia to place her hand in it. She did and their fingers entwined over the center console. They just breathed together and let the day sink in. They blinked and tried to make sense of everything, tried to settle back into at least some sort of functioning state.

“I’m so sorry for everything my dear,” David said, squeezing Silvia’s hand. “You are amazing, you are a goddess, you are the rock of my life, you’ve given me a glorious, angelic child and you can do so again if you want. We are so, so lucky to have Charlie and I am so, so lucky to have you.”

“Thank you, David. We are very lucky indeed,” Silvia said, looking over to him with her head leaned back against the headrest. “I couldn’t do it this time though.”

“Don’t say that, baby. It’s just bad luck, drawing the shortest straw. It doesn’t have to do with you or us, or how good or what caliber of people or parents we are. You are amazing and powerful and the fact is that shit happens.”

“Yes, it does happen. Horrible shit can happen to good people,” she agreed, speaking softly. “I love you.”

The North family sat in silence for another moment. The stars in the sky outside were bright and shone down on them through the windshield of their car. David and Silvia released their locked fingers and readied to make a move inside.

“I’m going to sign up for a 50,” David said suddenly as Silvia was reaching for her door.

“What?” She turned back to him. “Fifty what?”

“Fifty miles. A 50-mile race.”

“Running?”

“Yes, running.” David replied. “But mellow overall I think, not fast, not like the track. You said it yourself: ‘Just go slow. You don’t always have to run fast.'”

“Well, I…” Silvia stuttered a bit, “I… I mean wow! That’s… that’s awesome. Yeah, I… go for it. You’ve got nothing to lose.” She laughed and shook her head again, “When I forced you out for a run this evening I had no idea it would turn into this. Who knows what would happen if you listened to me more often.”

“I didn’t expect this either,” he said. Silvia squeezed David’s hand and smiled at him.

“How did this you come up with this idea? It’s totally out of nowhere. It’s the last thing I ever would have expected from you.”  “Remember that woman in my office named Luz? In HR? She’s an ultramarathon runner—that’s what it’s called—and is middle aged, like 50-plus I think, maybe almost 60. I’m not sure. Anyway, she routinely does 50-mile races, and that annoying guy Peterson is always telling me about her and her training. She’s preparing for a 100-mile race now, he says. I guess I just started thinking about her on the run, and her ability to do what she does. Then the running started feeling pretty decent actually. I just ran really, really slow, especially at the beginning, and it felt okay. I’ve seriously probably never run so slow in my life but I was finally able to just relax and accept it better. I couldn’t believe it. My Achilles was stiff and a little rusty feeling but not as bad as I thought it would be. All of a sudden I found myself wondering how far I could go, what I could endure if I just was patient and took my time and really got my mental game in check. And you going through the trauma of a miscarriage and enduring so much, and being so tough and unbelievable and lovable and amazing. The strongest, most amazing woman I know! It made me want to test my own limits again and really push myself. I want to be better. To you, to Charlie.”

“Oh baby. I’m proud of you. I really am,” she said. “You’re brave and sweet. If that’s what you want to do, I say go for it. Any race, anything you choose to do. I believe in you as always, and Charlie and I will be there to cheer you on. Hey, you never know, maybe I’ll start running 50-mile races, too.” Silvia gave him a big grin. Her eyes were still swollen but her smile lit her face up regardless. David looked over at his wife with loving, appreciative eyes and then glanced over his shoulder at Charlie still fast asleep in his car seat. He leaned in toward Silvia and she leaned in toward him and they kissed. They held each other’s gaze for a few wordless moments after that and then opened their doors and got out into the night.

“So,” Silvia began as she opened the back door to get Charlie out, “when are you going to start?”

David looked up quickly at Silvia as she said this, like a dog following the motion of a bird flitting across its line of sight. He cut her off, the words already on his lips and ready to go:

“Tomorrow,” he said, leaning against the car and stretching out his calves and his tight Achilles. “Training starts tomorrow.”

Willie McBride

is an avid hiker, climber, and trail/ultramarathon runner who now resides in Portland, Oregon. He owns and runs Animal Athletics, a personal/group training and coaching business, with friend and fellow ultrarunner Yassine Diboun. The two provide services to aspiring outdoor athletes and people of all abilities in the Portland area and beyond. You can enjoy more of his writing and photos on his blog and Animal Athletics’ blog.

There are 5 comments

  1. TDawgNight

    I guess I may be the only one partial to the non-fiction. I guess it's just nice to be able to relate, or live through, the runners you come to know through your website.

  2. @McKayLandArch

    Great to see you trying a new form of prose and this is particularly well written and engaging. I can't wait to hear what happens next. The Count of Monte Cristo was written in 139 installments. Keep it up, Willie.

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