The Runner by Jens Grabarske

The cool air cut into my lungs like a blade. My sides screamed for a change of pace, for a stop. But I refused. I had to. I had to catch up with Mike. That was all that mattered. Nothing else.

Not the rapid drum of my pulse in my ears.

Not the flaming pain of sweat and rain in my eyes.

Not the soggy shirt that clung to my body.

Not the agonising sensation from my knees and ankles and feet.

All of that was unimportant.

So I kept on running, like Mike.

I always wondered how he did all this.

He had always been strong and fit and handsome.

When we had first met, the adults had chosen to call me “socially awkward” to avoid words like “weirdo” or “freak”.

The bullies in my class had chosen not to avoid any words when it came to me.

They even had invented some of their own.

The school library was my sanctuary, where I hid from people like them. And in its books I found friends who took me on their adventures. Nobody hurt me there.

One day, this guy had just strolled in, plopped on the couch, smiled at me and said “Hey, I’m Mike. Wanna be friends?”

“I don’t do ‘friends’!”

“What makes you say that?”

I had glanced around. But no bully was in sight waiting for an inevitable prank. Only Mike. He had sat there, with a smile that would have ended wars.

“I’m… listen, the others don’t like me very much and I…”

“What are you reading?”

The question had caught me off guard. Bullies weren’t interested in what I’m reading.

“‘The Bell Jar’. By Sylvia Plath.”

“Cool. What’s it all about?”

And I had told him. As I had told him about every other book I had read after that. He said that he wasn’t much of a reader, but he liked to listen to me talk about my favourite books.

I always thought that that was a lie and that I surely must have bored him – but it was a warm lie. A lie that felt just as good as his arm around my shoulders and that smile which was warmer than the sun.

And after our meetings at the library, we would jog back home. That is, he would jog and I would trot, trying to keep up with him.

Running was his thing. He was a member of the race team at school and that made him one of the “popular people”.

For him, a jog like the one we did after school seemed to be nothing.

He liked to tease me with that a little. But that was alright. When Mike teased me, it never felt like bullying, it never felt like the abuse I got from the others.

“Hey, catch up!” he would say, smile and dash off. But he would wait at every corner and intersection for me to follow him.

And although my body was made for sitting on couches, reading books and feeling miserable, I didn’t mind going after him. Sure, running felt awkward. But he seemed to be happy and I liked being in his company.

After the run I would drop by his place for a drink, getting a little envious and self-conscious when he changed his shirt and I could see his perfectly shaped body.

“You’re getting better at running!” he would say every time.

“You’re lying, you’re only saying that to make me run after you!” I would say, not knowing whether that was the truth or not.

“Well, don’t worry, I will still wait for you.” he had said.

He had waited for me all summer long and through the autumn.

He had waited for me in winter.

And he had waited for me the following summer.

He wasn’t waiting for me now. Not at this intersection. Or this intersection. Or this corner.

That was alright. I knew that he wouldn’t. I knew where he was.

The cold morning wind made me shiver a little. It was still dark. I wanted to pick up the pace. So I pictured a pack of wolves behind me. That didn’t help.

Then I changed it to Mike. I imagined Mike at the edge of that cliff. Like back then I charged, I ran as fast as I could. Not fast enough to grab him in time. Like the last time.

Finally I reached the gate and followed the path. My body seemed to give off a sigh of relief as I slowed down to a trot and then stopped in front of the stone with a name and two dates.

“Hi Mike.”

He didn’t answer or put his arm around my shoulder and I felt cold.

“I will go back to school on Monday. They say I should be alright now. Don’t feel it.”

The stone didn’t answer. I took a deep breath. The air smelled moldy and of rain-drenched soil.

It didn’t smell like Mike.

“I’m reading ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ now, by J.D. Salinger. It’s… it’s about this boy… a boy who wants to save kids from falling… falling into an abyss…”

Tears, rain and sweat gave me a salty taste. I brushed off my face with my bare hands.

“I want to tell you, that I’m sorry I wasn’t standing next to you. I was too far behind you and I couldn’t see you clearly. I couldn’t help you. But I’m changing, Mike. I promise you that I will change. I will become a friend like you. Someone who sees others.”

In my mind I wished for a sign. I don’t know. For the stone to glow, for the crows to caw, anything. But there was only the stone and the rain and me in the dark and gloomy cemetery at dawn.

“Well. So long, Mike.”

All the time people had told Mike how good he was at running.

And nobody had asked him what he was running from.

I hadn’t asked him.

All these years I had thought that at least I was smart.

What a fool I had been.

I had read about all these things but I hadn’t understood any of it.

Not really.

Not when I had stared right into its face. Back when we had first met.

“Cool. What’s it all about?” he had asked and had grabbed the book ‘The Bell Jar’.

“Well, you see, it’s about this woman. She’s very successful and pretty and all and to others, she seems to be doing really well. But she suffers from depression and that leads her into dire situations. She then tries to kill herself.”

“Oh.” you had said and your smile had disappeared.

“I know, pathetic me, reading stuff like that.”

“I don’t think that you’re pathetic. I think you are smart!” and your smile was back.

“How does she try to kill herself?”

“Swimming out too far into the ocean… sleeping pills…”

“I see.” you had said.

I hadn’t been smart, Mike.

I hadn’t seen it.

You saw me, but I hadn’t seen you.

I wasn’t a friend when you needed one.

But I will catch up with you.

You’ll see.