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  • Writer's pictureNick Janicki

Tuesday Tales: Running Buddy

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

Running Buddy

If not now, when? was the question that had poked the back of Corey’s head for the last year. He was pushing thirty-five—his wife had already passed that a few years back—and they had four parents who made it well known that they, too, weren’t getting any younger. He and Sarah had been fending off their demands for grandchildren since their wedding seven years ago. And once they popped out a kid—well, that’d be the nail in the coffin for any chance of getting the hell out of there.

Things took a turn for the better (at least from Corey’s perspective) that following fall. They packed up their two-bedroom apartment and set off for New Hampshire with nothing but a U-Haul and a Toyota Corolla hitched to the back that had been in its prime about a decade and a half ago. Why New Hampshire? Because it wasn’t the endless sea of cornfields nicknamed Nebraska where they’d both spent all but four years of their life. (Even those four years were spent a mere single state away in Iowa. Not exactly exploring the country, let alone the world.)

There was nothing in them but elation during that life-changing multi-day drive. That feeling didn’t dwindle when they entered their new home (yes, an actual home) for the first time. It stayed with them for two more months after that. At least it seemed like it did, anyway. They were keeping busy, repainting the bathroom, buying an ottoman for the living room, securing a Costco membership. The essentials. And staying active with to-dos was healthy. But as is the case with all of life’s big milestones and the smaller tasks that follow them, elation eventually faded until it was gone entirely. It went further south from there, too.

They found themselves going through the motions of daily living, only now they didn’t even have family (annoying as they were) nor friends to serve as additional distractions. Their home was in a decent enough condition now, at least appearing lived in. With these people and things behind them, all they had was each other in this new, strange land. That should’ve been enough. It wasn’t.

Not wanting to throw in the cards so early and call their move a mistake, Corey sought other outlets to keep his time occupied outside of work. He figured it only fair; the big move had largely been his wish, after all. These were distractions, really, both to drown out the town’s crippling unfamiliarity as well as his growing irritability toward the love of his life. These included trying his hand at woodworking, unsuccessfully committing himself to a few self-help podcasts, and experimenting with buying cryptocurrency (he knew that last one was a mistake before he did it).

Out of these countless distractions, the only one that stuck was one he hadn’t considered since college, maybe even before that: running. Not light jogging, either. Actual running, pushing himself to the edge of exhaustion in one workout and then pushing himself a little harder the next day. It went on this way for awhile, and always with rigid routine. He’d finish up working from home (he suspected these working conditions were contributing to his unhappiness), spend five minutes stretching, chug a glass of pre-workout, and hit the road.

His workout ritual didn’t stop once he was running. He didn’t know the neighborhood all that well yet thanks to Waze and Google Maps while he was behind the wheel, so he stuck with the same route. This allowed him to focus on performance rather than directions. And performance was what drove him right now. Fortunately, this didn’t put a cap on his distance, because most all of his runs took place around the perimeter of the park nearest their house.

The park itself was vast, a few football fields in both length and width. Once during a slightly earlier run (back when the sun hadn’t disappeared by five o’clock), he’d seen a group of high schoolers in the middle of soccer practice in the center of it. Another time, one of the several baseball fields was packed with little leaguers and a sea of over-enthusiastic parents cheering them on.

It was well into the fall now, though, and winter was poking its head out from the corner every few days with either a light flurry or a steep drop in temperature, which left the park a ghost town most times he drove by it, and certainly by the time he arrived for his evening run. The parks and recreation department must’ve lost interest in it, too, as even the spotlights beaming down on the perimeter pathway were now on hiatus, presumably until warmer weather.

None of this was an issue from Corey’s perspective. He found it easier to focus on his training, pushing himself harder and harder without anything (or anyone) to get in the way. He tried not to think about this training being for nothing (although, deep down he knew that to be the truth), clearing his mind of anything and everything every time it reminded him of that. Only the path in front of him mattered once he stepped foot in that park, and for that time—be it twenty minutes or an hour—his growing troubles didn’t exist. Not the job he was still stuck with from afar, the town he hadn’t warmed up to, nor the ever-growing tension between him and Sarah.

The end to this routine—or rather, the beginning of the end—came with an untied shoe. Corey had noticed it coming undone as he crossed the street leading to the park during a particularly frigid evening run. He’d figured he could make it at least one lap before stopping to retie it, which proved idiotic after only a few strides from the path’s start. His overconfidence toppled as he did the same, tripping over the lace and landing on his hands. He felt them skid on the asphalt along with the rest of him. In that moment, it almost seemed cartoonish.

“Goddammit,” he grunted through his teeth. There was no one around to hear him, but he felt screaming would be giving into the universe and all its misfortunes. So he left it at that.

He spotted a nearby bench and jogged over to it (I’m not out here in the cold to walk anywhere, he determined). The lower half of his thighs along with the top of his calves hugged the wooden bench, which felt like lying little spoon in front of an icicle. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and flipped its flashlight on. Shining it down on his hands, he was staring at skid-marks of black and red, part asphalt and part blood. It stung, but for whatever reason he found the sight funny. And when he thought about that cartoonish slide again, he actually laughed out loud.

“You all right there, pal?” a man’s voice struck him like a storm’s first crack of thunder. A perfectly normal thing, but unexpected.

Corey stopped laughing at once. He instinctively scooted himself a few inches over on the bench before turning to identify who’d spoken to him. For the first time in his New Hampshire running career, he felt a trickle of fear run down his spine. There was someone else on the bench with him. He couldn’t make out much of them, not much more than a silhouette that was impossibly darker than the night’s early arrival. Despite this, he could tell they were staring right at him. He could feel it.

“Jesus, man,” Corey said. Now he wasn’t avoiding giving the universe a reaction; he just didn’t want to come off as so easily freaked out. He leaned in, finding this to be appropriate given the guy next to him had decided to take a seat alongside him in a park that was emptier than a grocery store the morning after Thanksgiving. “What are you doing here?” The question wasn’t supposed to sound interrogative, but it did. He didn’t much care either way; he wanted an answer.

A bit more detail broke through the blackness as Corey’s eyes adjusted. The guy was decidedly around his age. His face was clean-shaven. He had hair combed ever so neatly backward, each strand so firm in its place against his head that even the winter wind didn’t seem to send it out of position. Normal, was the word that came to Corey’s mind. Surely not homeless, psychotic, or approaching him for any sexual favors. While all assumptions, they made his heart beat a little slower.

The stranger laughed. That, too, came off as normal, which was good. “Same as you, it seems.” He lifted a shoe and brought it within inches of Corey’s. It was a running shoe, tattered and worn, but a running shoe nonetheless. “That was a pretty nasty spill there. You sure you’re all good and well?”

He had a funny way of speaking, both his choice of words and the way he said them. Although, Corey hadn’t yet gotten used to the people of the Northeast, so he chalked it up to a regional accent and vocabulary. Beyond that, this man was as average as he was. Hell, he was even in the middle of an evening jog. Nothing to be alarmed about at all.

“It’s just a scratch,” Corey assured him. “I think I’ll survive.” He laughed again—still a real chuckle—and the stranger did the same. Corey stuck his hand out. “I’m Corey. What’s your name?” The stranger studied it, considering whether to shake it or not, then Corey recalled the fresh scrape on his palm and retracted the pleasantry. “Sorry, you probably don’t want a stranger’s blood all over your hand.” No laugh from the stranger this time.

“Never mind that,” he said. Corey’s sight had improved even more, and he could spot a smile on the man. The stranger did a fake bow, continuing, “I’m Clark Linderman. Pleasure to meet you, Corey. Say, I’m not sure where you’re at in your workout, but would you care to do some laps together?” He stood up and started stretching in the middle of the path as if Corey had already agreed.

The proposal came off as odd. Here was this guy, parking himself on the same bench as him for no good reason, and now he was asking to workout together. It wasn’t like he was approaching Corey like that, but there was still a certain uncomfortableness stirring in the air between them. Like an attempt at asking someone on a date after bumping into them on the street. He didn’t want to say yes. He wanted to go about his business and grind his shoes on the pavement for the Nothing he was training for. So he was confused when he responded, “What the hell, why not?”

They chatted for the first lap, Clark telling him all about how he’d lived in this town for his whole life. Corey reciprocated by talking about his thirty-plus years stuck in a small town in Nebraska. Cornland, U.S.A. The second lap was more quiet, their pace picking up a tad compared to the first. By the time they hit the third lap, the only thing he could hear was his own heavy breath forcing air out and sucking it back in. When he glanced at his side out of the corner of his eye, he saw a grin on his new friend’s (if one could even call someone that so soon) face. It could’ve been his deafening breaths, but Corey couldn’t hear a peep coming out of Clark’s mouth. His breaths must’ve been calm, cool. He was in great shape—much better shape than him, it appeared.

They parted ways after lap four, and Corey found himself actually having to walk part of the way back home. It was the workout of the month—hell, the decade. And it felt good. He told Sarah about it over dinner, not leaving out the part about his new friend, and she came off as genuinely happy for him. It was clear he had a positive mood shift after the experience, so she was feeding off his energy. He recognized this and spoke of the experience some more.

“So, did you get your new boyfriend’s number, Mister Friendly?” she asked.

He shook his head through a mouthful of pasta. “Nah, guys don’t really do that. I don’t know, it was nice to talk to someone other than you and the dozen people I see on Zoom for work every day. I don’t need much else, just a pleasant encounter every now and again.”

Despite his comment, Corey was itching for work to end that next day. He had checked his Apple Watch early on, noting the exact time of his run the evening prior. When that time drew near, he booked it to the bedroom, changed, and commenced his pre-workout ritual. Some stretching, some pre-workout, then off to the races.

He arrived at the park two full minutes after he had the evening prior (Can’t be perfect, he comforted himself), both shoelaces nice and tightly tied. The pathway lights were still off, the park was empty, and all was silent. It was just another night, so he carried on as such.

“Woah, hold up there!” a familiar voice called out from behind him as he was starting his second lap.

Corey kept running, but turned his head around as far as it’d go to get a glimpse of the person he believed to be calling from behind him. Yes, it was him. There, coming out of the shadows at rather impressive speed, was Clark Linderman. Life-longer of this small corner of New Hampshire. He could continue running, nodding to the man as he passed as a gesture of friendliness, or he could once again invest part of his workout in being with this guy. For reasons he couldn’t explain, Live Free or Die, the state’s motto, popped into his head. Screw it.

He maintained his pace (sensing Clark only a few feet behind him now) while responding, “Hey, man. How goes it?” His breath was getting heavier with each word. “I guess we’ve got a like mind, both in our workouts and in our appreciation for routine.”

Clark was next to him now. Right next to him. “Care for another round?” And Corey could sense another smirk on his face as he said this.

This time, he was only able to keep up with Clark for two laps. After that, he told him he wasn’t feeling a hundred per cent and peeled off the path to head home. Again, he found himself walking a few blocks. He still felt exceptional, but it wasn’t as exhilarating as the previous night. All elation dwindled over time, as he had learned the hard way after the move.

He told Sarah what had happened. A coincidence. She joked about him having a little stalker friend.

Another day of worked passed. Corey had to force himself to stay focused, finding his mind resurfacing the second encounter with Clark Linderman every few minutes. Evening arrived, and he told himself this was supposed to be an off day for him. No exercise, just a full, relaxing night at home. But a part of him was curious. That time of day was approaching, and he wanted to make sure a coincidence was just that. This would leave his memory of Mr. Linderman a positive one. Not that Sarah’s joke was getting to him. All right, maybe a little.

Change of clothes. Stretch. Pre-workout. Road.

Three laps in at the park and Corey’s legs were killing him. They were burning, not even remotely recovered from back-to-back runs from hell. Sprints was a more accurate term. He resorted to walking the last half of his fourth lap, unashamed and hoping his knees didn’t give out. His body felt like shit while his spirit was at a high again. Clark Linderman was a single-serve friend, a part of Corey’s life for two brief occasions and now nothing more than a good memory. This was nice, and he took it as a sign of something bigger: this new town had potential. There was hope for him (and Sarah) here. All they had to do was take a few steps outside their comfort zone and—

“Hey there!” Clark’s yell arrived as an echo, somewhere farther than he’d been the last two nights, but somewhere in the park nonetheless.

The park was a blackhole, and Corey was standing in a particular section that no source of light (even the moon) was willing to touch. He could barely see his own feet, let alone where the hell Clark’s voice was coming from. And that scared the living hell out of him. He kept onward, reminding himself, He just has the same running schedule. He added to that, And location. More yet, And some urgent desire to find me and talk to me.

“Wait up, my friend!” another yell from Clark filled up the park. It was closer. He was closer, closing in on him from somewhere within the abyss. It sent chills up and down a body that was exhausted and hoping for no more surprises.

Corey pushed all rationale aside. He acted on impulse. Fight or flight, and in this case flight was the most convenient given his attire. It was also the less terrifying option, although the thought of Clark Linderman’s superior speed was quite haunting, as well.

He was sweating now, drenched despite the freezing temperature. His legs were beyond burning; they had gone numb, as if they weren’t there at all anymore. It was like one of those running-in-place dreams, although he was fully present. Nothing more than adrenaline fueled him, carrying his body down the rest of the path. At one point, he swore he could hear Clark’s footsteps, expecting him to grab ahold of his shoulders and yank him to the ground while insisting—

“Corey, run with me, won’t you?” he took the words out of his mouth. The sound of Clark’s voice was farther, possibly even farther than the first time he’d heard it tonight.

Corey glanced down at his feet and realized he could see his blue Nikes in all their glory. He could see his legs. His shorts and the start of his jacket, too. Setting his sights in front of him, he only now was processing that he was out of the park. There were lights and there were cars, but that didn’t slow him down. He was on autopilot, the adrenaline carrying him all the way to his front door.

Two things would never happen after that night:

Corey’s Apple Watch would never display a faster mile time than that one from the park to home.

Corey would never step foot in that park again, never to see the small plaque on a particular bench that read:

In Honor of Clark Linderman

1950 – 1983

Friend. Runner.

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