Runner by Marissa Coon

Marissa Coon is currently finishing up her undergraduate degree at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. When she isn't writing or studying, she also works as a librarian.

I hear my heels on the sidewalk underneath me, the only sound this early in the morning. Quick, rubbery rhythms, thwick-thwack-thwick-thwack-thwick-thwack. Most teenagers my age are still in bed at this hour, before the light has even started casting shadows, but I need it quiet when I run because movement is how I remember. When I run, I raid my brain to try and fill in the blanks about my life before the suitcases, and keeping my place in time with my steps helps me sort it out, like journal entries that come only when my soles smack the pavement. Maybe today a spark will fly, and I'll have another glimpse to hold on to. I wipe the sweat off my brow, push ahead.

When I was five, I wanted to grow up and be an airplane. I didn't understand about inanimate objects yet. I just knew that Dad was an Army man and a pilot, so I wanted to impress him. I had a dress-up set, a bomber jacket with goggles, which I thought made me look Very Official. I'd dress up in it and coax my older brother Thomas to grab our skateboards and race me down the hill, for practice.

"Race me, Thomas," I'd say. "Race me and when Dad gets back I'll tell him who wins."

"No," Thomas would say. "If Dad ever gets back from the jungle he's not gonna care about a stupid skateboard race."

But I'd push his buttons and whine and get my way. We'd race. I'd usually win. I'd use a pen to groove a tally into the soft wood of my headboard. Mark: 15. Thomas: 2.

I was wearing my bomber jacket outfit, wings outstretched in the middle of a flight practice on the staircase, when Dad got home from Vietnam. I didn't see him come in. Thomas had been loosely supervising me while Mom was out on a secret errand, but I didn't know that on television Cronkite was voicing over grainy footage of sad-eyed young men lifting off into the sky.

And then he was there, in the doorway, wearing his dog tags. To tell the truth, I didn't even remember what he looked like. There was no sudden slap of recognition when I saw his blondness and sunken, stubbly cheeks, his whole body lanky and awkward in his white t-shirt. It was the suitcases. Sort-of football colored, I saw them and I knew this must be him, coming back to us. "Mark," Mom said. "Hug your father."

I stared. He didn't smile. He looked tired, like every part of his arms and legs had struggled through quicksand, and one more stretch might kill him. I took a few steps forward. He embraced me, but it didn't feel right. I just as easily could have been hugging a telephone pole.

He didn't say much for the next few days. He sulked in bed and didn't ask for Mom or Thomas or me, and he left the suitcases by the door. Never touched them, no interest in unsnapping the little gold hinges and pulling out the things he needed to get back to life. It was Mom who finally did it, two weeks later, her tiny arms doing their best to clunk those massive beasts up the stairs into their bedroom. By then he'd started having night terrors, and no one slept. I'd hear him gnashing and I'd start to cry in my Scooby-Doo pajamas, looking across the room to Thomas for comfort. One night, Thomas said, "Told you that psycho wouldn't care about a skateboard race." I looked at my skateboard, piled in the corner of our room next to my night-light and my bomber gear. I felt so ashamed to be lying in bed, comfortable, and staring at my toys while listening to a grown-up man sob over dead people I never knew.

After that night, I started to look into career options other than airplane. I thought about being a dentist, since no dentist I'd ever met had problems with hurling things at the television whenever the news came on. I was sure dentists never had flashbacks at dinner.

My parents divorced and I started high school. I never thought about flying again. I took anatomy last year and learned that the danger of having a nervous system and an inflexible spine is that we aren't built to be like airplanes, we aren't strong enough. Better to learn how to run.


After this mile, I'll lap around the sidewalk and head back to Dad's apartment. It's my weekend with him, and it's been lonely there since Thomas graduated a few years back and refuses to come over anymore.

If I could just remember something else. Something about him before he became the telephone pole in my doorway who wouldn't unpack. But after this mile, I'll unlock the door and he'll be asleep on the couch in his V.A. hat, and even when he wakes up at two in the afternoon, he won't, really. Something else. Anything. But I'm only a runner, my feet are bound to the sidewalk, and to Earth. The small flashes I get of him when my feet pound are all that I have.

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