Since the first day of seventh grade, Aaron had been a runner. He loved the freedom of the winding roads, the slice of the cool wind, the rhythm of his clopping shoes.
Years later, when his high school health teacher talked about the dangers of heart disease, the ravages of diabetes, and the importance of exercise, Aaron smiled to himself and looked out the window. Thanks to his love for running, he knew his health would never be a problem, so he stopped listening and pressed two fingers to his wrist. He liked to count his pulse to see how low he could get it to go.
In college, while standing at the start of the New York City Marathon, the icy November air slicing through his moisture-wicking running clothes, Aaron met a girl from Long Island named Libby. By the time Aaron crossed the upper level of the Verrazzano Bridge, he and Libby were already good friends.
After college Aaron and Libby moved back to Aaron’s hometown of Topine, NY. There they started working as teachers at Aaron’s old high school. Each fall Aaron coached the boys cross country team, and Libby coached the girls.
Then, on what was supposed to be the first day of his fourteenth year as coach of the Topine High Boys Cross Country team, Aaron stayed home with the flu. To cover for her husband, Libby called the school and told them she would be coaching cross country for both the boys and the girls for the next week.
Sometime before noon, Aaron climbed out of bed and went into the kitchen for a banana. An instant later he found himself face down on the floor in the hallway, his lips slicked with blood, his left cheek bruised and aching. For the first few moments after waking up, he didn’t know who he was, where he was, or what the universe was. Soon this information came back to him, so he stood up and went into the bathroom to clean himself up. When he looked in the mirror, he found a horseshoe-shaped bite mark on his tongue. The bite mark was bright red and leaking blood. Seeing this he called Libby and told her to meet him at the hospital.
After various blood tests and an MRI, the doctors informed Aaron that he’d had a seizure caused by a tumor in his brain. But since the tumor was tightly wrapped around his brain stem, it was impossible to operate. They gave him six to twelve months to live.
Following his recovery from the flu, Aaron tried to go back to work to get his mind off the tumor. He only lasted a week. He was terribly afraid of dying, and he had never been a good actor.
On the following Monday, while Libby was at school for her final week of work before taking a leave of absence to care for her husband, Aaron sat at the kitchen table and tried to imagine what it would be like to be dead. He saw himself falling through infinite blackness, his body emptied of love and passion and sport and friendship.
An hour later he came to a conclusion. The blackness he could handle. The emptiness he could not.
So he went around the house and gathered all the things he could not let go of. These included his favorite pair of running shoes, the bronze medal from his first middle school race, some glossy photos from his and Libby’s second marathon, and his Coach of the Year plaque from when his boys won the state championship.
Now he laid these things on the bed and opened a black garbage bag from the kitchen. From here he looked at the items and thought about what they meant to him. All the emotions they evoked, all the memories they brought to the surface. Once he had done this with each item, he tried to put them in the bag. But he couldn’t do it. They were everything he’d ever been, and without them he would be empty forever. So he picked up his Coach of the Year plaque and smacked himself in the forehead with it. Not hard. Just hard enough to force himself to accept the reality of his situation. But this first little hit didn’t do anything, so he hit himself again, this time a little harder. Still nothing. Following this, the next few minutes saw more hits: first nose, then chin, then cheekbone. Soon he grew tired of this game, so he bashed the plaque against his jaw and felt something break. Now his entire head roared with pulsing pain. Despite this, he still felt empty and afraid. To rid himself of these feelings he grabbed the baseball bat beside his bed, smashed his plaque in half, and jammed the splintered wood down his throat. Then he grabbed his running shoes and choked those down as well, one right after the other. Next came the photos of him and Libby from their second marathon, the bronze medal from his first middle school race. All of it down the hatch.
None of it helped. He still felt empty, alone, terrified. Then, as he sat on the floor and thought about where he had gone wrong, he finally realized his mistake. All these objects were just symbols of what he loved, not the real thing. If he wanted true peace, he’d need the genuine article.
So for the next few hours he cleaned himself up and started preparing a special dinner in anticipation of Libby’s return. His broken jaw still hung loose and limp beneath his face, but that didn’t matter now. He had no more use for words. All that mattered was dinner. Dinner was going to be a very special meal tonight, the most special one he had ever shared with his wife, and he wanted everything to be perfect.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in A-Minor, After the Pause, Barren Magazine, Maudlin House, Pithead Chapel, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. His fiction can be found at: stevegergleyauthor.