Mike Beck had run 2,177 days in a row, and he wondered about things when he ran. He wondered if his mother would come back and if his father would stay. If his only friend, Joyce, would go to heaven and if James, the local top jock, would go to hell.
He also wondered if he’d ever find out how hard and how fast he could run.
Mike ran every day and won every time he raced, though no one seemed to notice or care. And by age sixteen, he had absorbed the two most important lessons kids learned as they grew up—one…what teenagers wanted for themselves was almost never what grownups wanted for them, and two, if adults believed their own crap, they’d act differently.
Mike knew adults didn’t like him because he was belligerent and disrespectful, and he refused to take their advice. The official version, arrived at by a lady doctor who had long, straight hair and a soft voice and who had tested and questioned Mike every day after school for two weeks, was that Mike had become belligerent and disrespectful after his pious mother left. His pious mother left because his father drank. Yet, when Robert stopped drinking, Mike’s mother did not come back, so he suspected the lady doctor might be wrong.
Still, the doctor reported her “findings” to school officials as stone truth, and the officials reported the doctor’s diagnosis to Robert as stone truth, and that was that. The doctor gave Mike’s “condition” a name and a set of capitalized initials. She prescribed drugs, which Mike would not take, and recommended counseling, which he refused to attend. Then, at the end of their last session, the doctor had given Mike a minute or two to explain himself.
“I live alone most of the time because my old man is on the road four or five days a week for work, and my mom left when I was twelve. What kid wouldn’t be screwed up?”
“There’s more to it than that.” The doctor leaned forward and put her hand on Mike’s knee. “These situations are complex. Interpersonal relationships are complicated.”
Mike did not believe in complications, and despite what he’d just said, he did not believe he was screwed up. “Nope,” he said and pushed the doctor’s hand away. “It’s easy. Mom prayed, and Dad drank, and I came along before they figured out praying and drinking don’t mix.”
The doctor told Mike she did not believe his situation was irretrievable, and that some significant event or person might intervene, and he’d be okay, but Mike suspected she didn’t really believe those two statements were true.
So while he ran on the logging roads and hiking trails near the tiny town of Silverton, Washington, he wondered about these things. He ran through the old-growth forests soaring out of the lush underbrush, and he ran past vast acres of faded stumps hunkering in neat rows alongside tender saplings. By the end of eleventh grade, he was running ten or twelve times a week. The weather didn’t matter. The time of year didn’t matter. How he felt didn’t matter. He
ran sick. He ran hurt. He ran when he was happy, which was rare, and when he was angry, which was normal.
And on what would have been the last Friday morning of the eleventh grade had he not been suspended for fighting with James again, Mike stood at the bedroom window in the house he sometimes shared with his father, stared out at the dense drizzle, and wondered if he’d drown. The black clouds that brought rain to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains lingered at the treetops and obscured the green hillsides. The grim weather reflected Mike’s gloomy, morning mood. The perpetual gray skies had been blamed for high rates of depression and suicide in the Pacific Northwest, and Mike thought his dark moods might be something else to wonder about because they seemed to be coming more often and lasting longer. Like a lot of sullen boys, Mike was not actually depressed, but he’d never taken the opportunity to become habitually happy either. So he continued to stare out the window, and rain or no rain, he would run, like always.
Mike left his bedroom, headed toward the back door through the kitchen, and was surprised to see his father, Robert, sitting at the kitchen table gripping a porcelain coffee mug with both hands.
“Son?” Robert said without looking up or turning around.
Son? Mike’s father never called him that.
“There’s coffee made.”
Mike took a step toward the old-fashioned percolator on the stove. “Your mother called.”
Mike walked to the kitchen sink, leaned forward on his hands to stretch his shoulders, and stared into the drain. He took a deep breath and held it. After a moment, he responded to Robert’s first statement. “So you made coffee. Congratulations.”
Robert sighed, and Mike thought about leaving his father at the table and running out into the rain. Instead, he took a coffee mug from the drying rack, filled it from the percolator, leaned against the counter next to the sink, and stared at Robert’s back.
“I don’t know what to say about your mother.” Robert slumped forward in his chair and continued to stare into his mug. “She’s been gone a long time.”
“Yeah. A long time.” Mike sipped his coffee, held the mug against his lips, and waited for Robert to look at him.
“She’s right up the road, you know.” Robert finally looked up and turned halfway toward Mike. “She’s been living in Abel, where she grew up.” He turned back and continued to examine the contents of his mug. “What should I tell her?”
“I know where she’s been, but I don’t care.”
“You don’t care? Is that what you want me to tell your mother—that you don’t care?”
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
Mike had always called his father Robert. “I. Don’t. Give a damn. Tell her whatever you want. It’s nothing to do with me.”
Mike was taller than Robert, but they had the same brown eyes. He also had his mother’s long legs and narrow hips. A year earlier, Mike had appeared frail, and though he was still thin, the long muscles in his arms and legs seemed to ripple below the taut surface of his skin. He waited for his father to speak with one heel off the ground and his knees bent, as if he were about to dash off toward some indistinct, invisible, and faraway finish line.
“School’s out, right?” Robert said. “Got plans with your friends?”
“Don’t got any,” Mike said, tapping the rim of his coffee mug.
“Friends or plans?”
“Don’t need friends, and don’t make plans. There’s a party at Junior’s place tonight. Maybe I’ll go.”
Mike waited for his father to say something parental, but Robert merely nodded and continued to spin his mug slowly with his fingertips.
“I guess I won’t be here when you get home.” Robert chewed on his lower lip. “I got to be in Bellingham for the weekend to…um, work.”
“Whatever.” Mike shrugged. “Is she coming home?”
Robert stopped spinning his mug and looked up at Mike.
“No, son. Your mother does want to see you, though.” Robert stared into the porcelain mug again.
Mike took a deep breath, held it for a second, and then escaped through the back door into the rain, leaving Robert behind to stare at the damp coffee grounds at the bottom of his mug. Mike jogged between the house and the garage, turned north onto the highway, and ran toward the mountains. In less than a mile, the rain had soaked his running shoes, and cold water squished between his toes.
By the time Mike reached the gravel road that led past the Sportsman’s Club and the shingle mill, the steady rain had become a deluge. His T-shirt was soon wetter than his shoes, and he shivered a little for the first mile. He crossed the bridge above Silver Falls, a noisy series of foamy cataracts at the end of the last wild stretch of the Silver River, and continued up the highway away from town.
Mike’s mother had been gone 2,177 days.