Running On

by Reed McColm

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    Honorable Mention Fiction

    Elder Mark Macklind watched his new companion jog ahead and shook his own head in awe. He pedaled his bike to parallel Elder Hilversum and asked, “Do you run like this every day?”

    “Yup,” Elder Hilversum replied, puffing between words. “Every day, same time, same route. You can join me tomorrow if you’d like.”

    “Yeah, you already said that.” Mark shifted gears to accommodate the slower pace. “But I’d rather hang by my toes overnight. Just give me a cookie, and I’ll wear the sofa out.”

    “Oh, come on, elder,” the runner pleaded, jumping off the curb to cross the street. “You’ve got to admit that it’s good for you.”

    “So is prune juice. I can hardly stand to watch you, let alone join you.” He pedaled ahead a few yards, scanning the road.

    “Where are we going?” Mark asked flatly, uncomfortably perplexed. Transfers had just occurred that day, bringing the reluctant Elder Macklind to a new area with which he was wholly unfamiliar, and pairing his antiathletic body with jog-happy Elder Hilversum. Mark felt very unsettled, and yet Elder Hilversum didn’t seem to notice. He just serenely breezed through the day as if nothing was new, which Mark found somewhat depressing; it’s tough to be gloomy without company, and this cheerful Hilversum guy just wasn’t cooperating. Mark frowned at the ground. His mind was still in Cedar Court, on the Caufields.

    Elder Hilversum wiped a stream of perspiration from going into his eye. “Why don’t you ride behind me, if you don’t know where you are?”

    “Thanks for the advice, but I prefer being upwind. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but joggers carry a peculiar scent about them.” Elder Macklind rode a large figure eight.

    “You’re just afraid to sweat,” the runner accused, smirking.

    Mark grimaced. “Do not mistake fright for what is actually disgust, elder.” He allowed his companion to plod past him and followed around the corner. “I just have a strong aversion to shin splints.”

    Elder Hilversum laughed. As he silently watched the hiking figure in front of his bike, Mark had to admit a grudging respect for his companion’s tenacity, though he also thought it was insane to willingly submit oneself to such inevitable pain. Mark wondered why there wasn’t an easier way to get fit. Why isn’t there ever an easier way?

    His thoughts wandered again to yesterday’s area, to the Caufields. What didn’t they understand? Maybe he should have said something else, done something more. But what? It was so frustrating. Honestly, he thought he had done all that he could. It was someone else’s responsibility now. But still, it was an awfully hard thing to understand why their enthusiasm died.

    “Oh, boy,” Elder Hilversum sighed, waking Mark from his abstraction and finishing the run by slowing to a walk. “That was a lot of fun.”

    Mark made a face. “It looked like torture,” he hissed.

    “Oh, but, Elder Macklind, it feels so great!” Elder Hilversum exclaimed, wiping his face with his shirt.

    “Only when you stop,” Mark said, hopping off his bike and pushing it up the driveway. “Nothing could get me to do that to myself.”

    But the next day the tire on his bike popped, and when the time for the daily exercise ritual rolled around, Mark found himself jogging beside his persistent companion. “Glad to have you with me,” Elder Hilversum puffed, grinning widely. Elder Macklind only growled in return. He wasn’t sure that he clearly understood how this had happened.

    Mr. Caufield had grinned so widely, too, after accepting the baptismal challenge. His wife had cried and hugged Mark tightly as he left; he told her she would look so pretty in white. And she would have, too, if they had only tried harder. Mark winced at the memory. All the plans, filling the font, so much excitement, smiling all day, and then finding their note instead of them: “We just do not want to be baptized after all.” Mark shut his eyes tight.

    “Hey, Elder Macklind! You’re beginning to sweat!” Elder Hilversum laughed, enjoying the sight. Mark could feel it too.

    “Ssh!” he motioned. “Don’t broadcast it!” His hairline was beginning to glue to his skin, bringing a strange sensation over his body. How could he do this every day? Elder Hilversum hopped ahead a few steps. Mark trudged on.

    Sometimes Mark wondered why he had come on a mission at all. Just like this stupid run, it often seemed like a lot of effort for no good purpose. He just got sore legs and an aching heart that beat too hard as if it were going to explode out of his chest. And he went back three times, but he never saw the Caufields again before the transfer. Maybe never again, period. Mark contorted his eyebrows into a knot, and tiny trickles of water fell down his face. He gritted his teeth. Why does he keep running?

    The jog had become rudely taxing. Mark began to punctuate each plop of his heels with a gutterul groan, partly out of exhaustion and partly in an effort to complain: “Ugh!”—step—“Ugh!”—step—“Ugh!” His seeping energy was beginning to upset him. He could feel anger well up deep inside and churn up toward his head, as if his feet were pumping it farther with every plod. What’s the point in trying anyway? There was so much to be angry about. Mark wanted to give in to it.

    They came to a crosswalk, and Elder Hilversum was jogging in place waiting for the light to change when Mark caught up to him. “Is anyone watching us?” Mark huffed to his companion, the pogo stick.

    Elder Hilversum grinned again, glancing from side to side, “Nope.”

    “Good!” Mark blurted, and promptly fell to the ground in a lifeless sprawl, moaning, “All over. All over. Any time now.”

    Anxiously, Elder Hilversum reached for his land-grabbing companion. “Get up, Elder Macklind, get up! Are you all right?”

    “Dying. Dying,” Mark lamented from among the grass blades and dirt.

    “No, you’re not dying,” Elder Hilversum retorted impatiently, pulling at Mark’s arm. “But you’ll cramp up if you lie there much longer.”

    Mark slowly stood again, leaning on Elder Hilversum with dedicated weariness. “Aren’t we done yet?” he wailed.

    “Press forward, Elder Macklind,” Elder Hilversum advised, his patience returning with his place-running. “Have a perfect brightness of hope.”

    “I’m beyond hope,” Mark murmured. “I’m well into despair.”

    The pair jaunted on, Elder Hilversum slowing his pace to stay beside Elder Macklind. Mark wanted to cry. So hard. Thud, lift, thud, lift, thud.

    Elder Hilversum began to gasp out a hymn, managing five words at a breath: “Let us all press on … in the work of the … Lord that when life is … o’er we may gain a …”

    Mark couldn’t join in, because he wanted to scream. How could he act happy under these conditions? Another thud, lift, thud, lift, thud, lift … every day like this? And Elder Hilversum plowing ahead in breathy song with his permanent smile, like a marathon minstrel harboring a secret pleasure. Mark stared at him with aching eyes, torn between sincere anguish and raging rebellion.

    “Elder Hilversum,” Mark called, turning the warbler’s sweaty head in mid-chorus, seeing the grin melt to concern, “how can you go like this every day, running on?”

    Two hard plods. “This is silly,” Mark panted, unfinished. “I’m killing myself on this road; I really am. But you just keep going. Why, elder? Why?” And then, after a thud, “How?”

    Elder Hilversum furrowed his wet, hot brow. “I don’t know, Elder Macklind,” he said, still tramping on. “I just keep reminding myself that the feeling of accomplishment will always be worth the temporary pain of effort.”

    They stepped up to a curb, in lock-jog.

    “You make it sound like spiritual persecution,” Mark muttered.

    The senior companion grinned. “Do I?” he asked and laughed. Then he stretched the stride.

    That grin was ingratiating. But the memory of the Caufields demanded his depression, and so Mark moaned. “I can’t imagine anything being worth this pain!”

    “Don’t dwell on how much it hurts, Elder Macklind.”

    “Everything hurts.”

    “Just keep moving. Don’t worry about how fast you’re going, just keep going, and give it all you’ve got. I’ll run with you.”

    Mark nodded, swallowing. “I know.”

    “Elder Macklind, do your best. Push yourself, and don’t stop at less. You’ve been doing your best. Don’t quit now because it’s getting more difficult. Give it all you’ve got, and that’s all you need to give. Elder Macklind, all you can do is all you can do.”

    Mark watched the sidewalk disappear under his feet. “Yeah, okay,” he said, but wanted to say something better. Elder Hilversum ran beside him, and so Mark pushed a little harder. Elder Hilversum grinned. He was always doing that. And the house wasn’t too far now, anyway.

    Mark wiped his face with his hand and threw the sweat behind him. He was beginning to understand a little better, and the day didn’t look so bad now. Running on, he reflected, “All we can do is all we can do,” and smiled a little. That made sense, he decided, and brought his head up to see the sun, thinking, “Maybe I’ll run again tomorrow.”

    Photos by Jed Clark