© 2011/2012/2013 Revised per WordPress Daily Prompt, 975 words
He runs in circles, a miles-long loop through town, up into the foothills, back to where he started. As always, he takes the last two hundred meters at an arse-kicking pace—panting, arms pumping, a flat-out sprint. Running for his life.
Because he is.
Linda has seen to that.
“We can’t go on like this,” is how his wife had gotten him started. “I’ll give you a week to decide.”
He’d been taken off guard by her appearance in the kitchen at the early hour, by how cold and unruffled she’d seemed.
“I’ve given you fifteen years,” she said. “I think that’s enough.”
Too late he understood that she’d been waiting for him, waiting to be noticed.
“Enough time to get your priorities—straight,” she’d said.
Impossible to ignore her insertion of the humiliating pause, her stoical smile—as if it were all so sadly funny; that and the emphasis she’d placed on the word.
How like Linda to condense even disaster to a single word. It had taken all his will power to resist bolting past her down the hall. Out to the street.
“Seven days,” she reiterated, turning to retrieve a mug from the cupboard.
Like out of a movie, the way she’d played it: the scene where the long-suffering spouse calmly declares, “the jig is up,” and then goes on with an everyday task—pouring coffee, stirring in creamer.
“Where is home? You’ve got to decide,” she said pausing to sip. “Do you sleep here, or with him?”
Again the shadow smile—cool, impassive. Premeditated.
No mischance either, the way Linda doesn’t name names anymore—the way she reduces the third party in their little triangle to a generic pronoun: Him.
Even her exit line seemed carefully rehearsed.
“If ‘home’ isn’t here, then there’s nothing for it but to hit the road.”
And so he has—six days running.
Setting off before sunrise, he pushes himself faster, farther each time. At forty-two, the effort requires fantastical incentives:
If I break under an 8:50 mile, I’ll stay with Linda, he tells himself. If my last split makes 8:40, it’ll be—Him.
Disaster can be postponed, he had almost convinced himself.
Until this morning.
“What’s going on with Uncle Paul?” his daughter, staging a sneak attack, accosted him.
Inexcusable that he’d not anticipated the encounter, that he’d never thought to find Annie slumped at the kitchen table in the pre-dawn darkness. Like her mother, she’d been waiting for him—her emphasis on the honorific, Uncle, unmistakable.
“How come he’s stopped coming ‘round? How come Mom never mentions him anymore?” she asked, studying him closely when he stooped to double knot his running shoes.
The sound of Annie’s voice, splintered ‘round the edges, had shattered the vision of the run unfolding in his head.
“Sometimes I think dead would be better,” she’d blurted while he’d been dashing ‘round for a convincing dodge. “Better than waiting to see how things’ll turn out.”
Chilblains, like a burst of dread, had gone stippling up his legs, the precursor to cramps crippling his calves, his left foot. Bolting upright, he’d tried shaking out the knots. But how to escape anything so fundamental as Annie’s pinched face?
“No, you’re wrong,” he’d answered, clinging to the notion that she was yet a child, barely twelve, still chewing at the frayed ends of her hair, still too self-absorbed to notice anything beyond what registered on her smart phone. Yet there it was along with the freckles and peek-a-boo bangs—a full-grown despair. Too much knowing for a little girl.
“It will turn out okay. I promise,” he’d said.
Such hypocrisy. Such a fraud of a father, a shambles of a man heading nowhere at a steadily improving pace. For a moment he’d thought to say so, thought to confess to his daughter how lying alone in his study night after night, he’d been thinking the same as she, wondering if oblivion might be preferable to the shame of being ashamed, to the terrible longing to be somewhere else. To be with—Him.
He’d almost spoken to unburden himself before thinking how unfair that would be.
Instead, he’d gone running. And now, in a full sprint, he wonders—to what end?
If I break under the mid nines, Annie will be okay, he tells himself, setting more reasonable odds; 9:40 or better, and she’ll be fine.
It is the last thing he thinks before it is upon him—a calamity three strides removed.
The cyclist, the local paperboy, swerves in front of him from behind a parked car so suddenly that veering toward the curb is unavoidable. Likewise his stumbling somersaults across the median, his arse-slamming, leg-splaying sidewalk landing.
It is over in a heartbeat.
For a moment, he sits on cold concrete, strangely clear-headed—thinking it would be just as appropriate to laugh as to cry.
But now someone else is making a fuss.
“Jesus-God! Are you okay?”
The McFarland boy is yelling at him, scrambling up from his bike, tripping over the handlebars, spilling newspapers.
“Oh shit! Is that you, Mister Courtman?”
Yes, it’s me, he thinks, standing slowly, laughing, brushing the dirt from his knees and elbows, wondering where all the new aches and pains will bloom.
“Christ, Annie’ll kill me if you’re hurt! Should I go for help?”
“I’m fine,” he answers, testing his footing to be sure. “Still alive,” he says.
“Then, can I help you make it home, Sir?”
A good kid, the McFarland boy. All gangling, legs and arms.
“No. I’ll get there on my own,” he decides, thinking for the first time that he can, that he knows where that is.
“But first, let’s deal with this—mess,” he says, indicating the boy’s papers. “Get you back in business,” he thinks to add, wondering if that’s really all there is to it?
Note: A previous version of this story appeared in Bibliographic Blather, Flash Fiction Fridays, January 20, 2012; web site sponsor, Karen Wojcik Berner.
This story posted in response to WordPress Daily Prompt: Do-Over! April 9, 2013