They ran together across the trails toward Twin Lakes, so close on the narrow path that their slick shoulders touched.
June stayed just beside him, thin, tiny, her straw-colored hair tied back, her blue shirtsleeves rolled up, her arms damp. The feel of her skin kept him awake, alert, possibly even alive. Fourteen hours ago, Caleb Oberest had started running these trails outside Leadville, Colorado, at four in the morning. He still had not stopped.
The Leadville 100 ultramarathon course had taken him fifty miles along alternating patches of sage and gold forest, over open chestnut earth, and up twelve thousand feet of narrow, tawny trails skitting between the bluestem and switchgrass. He had run over Hope Pass into the small mountain town of Winfield, and now he was making his way back.
Two hundred other runners were scattered along the course behind him. Just a few hours earlier, there had been three times as many; Caleb knew they would thin down to half that before long. He was sixty-seven miles into the race, the point where bodies began to break apart, when runners collapsed along the trails, when the goal shifted from distance and time, to survival.
Caleb’s tall forty-three-year-old body and narrow face had long since been depleted of all fat. His thinning brown hair dangled just below his ears. When he ran, a straight line could be traced from the top of his head to the balls of his feet. His arms pumped as pistons. His long, reedy legs leapt over roots and rocks. Only his eyes moved freely, drifting upward, sweeping the ground in front of him for stones and tree roots. They focused on nothing. Circles. Blurs.
Mack had instructed him to finish in the top ten. To accomplish this, Caleb would need to reach the finish banner in the old mining town of Leadville in under nineteen hours. Last year he had finished in twenty, placing thirteenth. The year before that, he had collapsed in agony on the eighty-first mile, two of his abdominal muscles torn and a small bone in his heel broken. But none of that mattered now. The outcome, Caleb knew, had nothing to do with the past, or the banking crisis, or the value of the dollar. It was dependent only on his own focus and desire. They called it the Race Across the Sky, but Caleb understood it was just the opposite, a race into himself.
The course markers led diagonally down the mountain along a trail filled with different sized stones. Caleb’s left leg was a good eight inches above his right. It would be simple to tear a knee, or fracture a hip. In the distance the sky seemed to signal the end of day.
Beside him he felt June, heard her breathing, and her soft encouragements. Of course she didn’t need to speak. Having her there was enough.
June was nowhere near as strong a runner. She was solid for seventy miles give or take, but after that her body broke down quickly. She had volunteered to pace him these last thirty miles. Caleb had not approved; it raised too bright a flag. Mack did not allow romantic relationships of any kind in the Happy Trails Running Club. They were, he taught, defocusing. During Caleb’s ten years in the Happy Trails house, he had seen Mack expel many members who breached this protocol. And he had agreed completely.
Caleb had come to Happy Trails seeking pure isolation, focus on himself, and forward motion, and for eleven years he had lived in this exact state. He had never been afraid of mud-slides, bears on the trails, having to make it nine more miles with a fractured ankle, or suffering weeks of pneumonia without antibiotics, even though all of these things had happened to him. But now he felt a desperate fear of losing something he could not bear to.
During these two months since June had moved in, Caleb had found himself watching for her in the house, in town, on the trails during their daily eight-hour run; it seemed to be out of his control. For a month now, he had been meeting her secretly in the fields around the mountains, and there they would consume each other with a veracity which overwhelmed him. If Mack had understood just how deep they had already gone, he would have enacted drastic measures. He would expel June from the house. And Caleb was no longer sure that he could continue without her. The thought of breathing this same air without her weakened him more than any seventy-degree ascent. The burn of his feelings had to be pushed deep inside, where they would be invisible to anyone else. And so to move now with June through these darkening trails was a bliss that overwhelmed the agonies ripping through his bones and lungs.
The two of them ran down into Twin Lakes. A few townspeople stood there watching, some clapping for them, and then the paved street led back into the wilderness. A copse of branches extended over the path ahead like witches’ fingers, trying to pull them into the woods. Caleb raised his free hand over his eyes and broke through into an open field, which spread to the granite peaks of La Plata and Elbert ahead. He pulled away from June and ran free under the vast sky, lost in the raw energy of the world.
The physics of running one hundred miles was simple: for the first thirty miles, his body burned protein and glycogen. The protein he could restore with food at the aid stations that appeared every seven miles. Glycogen was another matter. When the body exhausts the liver’s store, it assumes that whatever it is running from has either gone away or is about to kill it, and stops production. If pushed forward beyond this point, the body begins digesting itself. This had begun happening to Caleb seven hours ago.
His feet had swollen a half size; they pushed against the thin fabric of his running shoes. A tight knot of compressed heat had begun burning in the ball of his left foot. Ahead the sun dipped behind a distant peak, like a lamp being shut off, and the bruise-colored sky lowered behind the mountains. Caleb tensed. Nights were his weakness. He suffered hallucinations. Strange deliriums would descend; anything might happen.
The course turned toward a creek. By its bank he recognized Lynette Clemons, a music teacher who had been last
year’s women’s champion.
“Nice job,” she smiled. “Awesome day.”
But Caleb did not speak during runs. For him, talking ruined the inner exploration that he had thought everyone did this for: the digging to the bottom, the scraping of the deepest nerves. Instead, he plunged into the creek. The cold pierced his body to his waist, took away his breath. He felt June’s fingers brush his, slip away, and finally grasp his hand, a nearly symphonic energy flow between them, his depleted body recharging.
“Slow down,” she told him. So he did.
They were nearing the next aid station. Inside these tents were coolers of food and drink, and a cluster of spouses, friends, and children of competitors, waiting nervously for their loved ones to limp inside like refugees. Caleb had no relatives here, but he had something demonstrably better: the Happy Trails Running Club.
Sixteen people who were his housemates, his partners, his team. Half of them were scattered somewhere behind him, running through the Rockies. Mack had installed the other six as pacers, waiting to run beside their housemates for twenty miles, and sacrifice their own opportunity to finish Leadville to urge them on.
On the far bank a blue tent fluttered silently. He glanced at June as he emerged from the creek, to be certain she was all right. As he did, his left foot scraped a jagged stone, and the hot ball inside it broke open. Caleb gasped. Everything spun madly. As he doubled over on the rocky ground, he felt June touch his back.
She slipped her thin arm under his shoulder and tried to pull him toward the aid station. It did not seem like a work
able solution. His body began to feel shockingly tired.
“Look,” June pointed encouragingly.
Distantly he saw Rae and Kyle running out toward them from the tent. Rae was dark-skinned and stocky, her straight black hair pulled back in a tight and ever-present ponytail. She might have been of Pamlico or Sicilian descent, but Caleb had learned that her parents were prominent members of a western Long Island synagogue. She had been living in the Happy Trails house for two years when he had arrived.
June took a self-conscious step away and let Rae help him into the tent, where a twenty-eight-year-old former methamphetamine addict named Kyle stood with a kit bag. Caleb sat on the cold ground, shivering as he watched Kyle pull off his left shoe, roll his white sock down his ankle, and unwrap his Elastikon tape. Caleb chanced a look at his bare foot. His toes were permanently swollen into unrecognizable shapes, the nails black and violent. On the ball he saw a blister the size of an egg pulsing with his heartbeat.
Kyle held a razor blade between his fingers. With a grimace, he sliced the blister and pushed its sides together. Caleb cried out, his eyes rolled up to the dark sky. The stars there spun, he saw, like circus toys, pulling him into their glittering orbit, then dropping him with disregard back to the cold ground.
Kyle rubbed benzoin over the wound, wrapped his foot in fresh tape, and shook baby powder around the edges. He pushed new shoes, a half size larger, onto his feet and helped him stand.
Caleb pulled deep breaths as strands of wet brown hair fell across his eyes. Rae handed him a cup of chicken broth, and the salt absorbed into his starving cells; the small pieces of soft carrot were gone before his tongue could taste them.
“Twenty-five more,” Rae told him.
Twenty-five miles seemed impossible. An essential rhythm had been broken, was gone and could not be recaptured.
Rae turned to June. “I can pace him from here.”
“I’m with him,” June replied.
He hoped Rae had not caught the underlying meaning.
“Yeah? You feel good?”
“She’s warm,” Kyle agreed. “We can wait for Juan and Leigh. They’ll both need a pace.”
He leaned in and strapped a Petzl headlamp around Caleb’s skull. Caleb felt its band snap tightly around his hair.
“You’re awesome,” Kyle nodded.
Rae looked at June. “Keep him slow, okay?”
Hobbling out of the tent, Caleb took in the situation. The neon course markers pointed a path toward Halfmoon, a steep ascent he knew well from previous years. He attempted a very slow jog. It was not too bad; June was next to him, whispering affirmations as they moved upward. Just then the sky gave up, and he was propelled into absolute darkness.
The circle of bright yellow light from the Petzl was all he could see. Even with June there, Caleb felt an isolation so immense he could not grasp it. His other senses heightened, he heard the air echoing through his lungs, animals scurrying, a metallic taste ran over his tongue. He pushed into a light run, but the course seemed against him now. At some point the orange course markers lifted off the ground and floated in the air, leaving tracers behind them. His teeth chattered violently in the mountain wind. Once he had chipped a bottom tooth on a night like this.
“Slow it down,” June called from behind him.
But he couldn’t. There was no way to get through the night but to try, ridiculously, to outrun it.
Some miles later the dirt trail under his feet became paved road. His bones took this poorly. The road had been closed to cars, but in the darkness the headlamps of the runners behind him appeared like headlights. He slowed to a fast walk, and June ran her hand along his thin shoulders.
“Smile with the sky,” she whispered.
Caleb forced a smile onto his face. This was one of Mack’s infamous techniques. Other runners joked uneasily about the Happy Trails Smile, but it created oxyendorphins, which helped push pain aside. Amazing, Caleb thought, how kinetic energy works in the world.
They approached the Fish Hatchery aid station. Under the fluttering nylon they slammed Powerade and some thick orange puree. A surprisingly large crowd had gathered here in the pitch of night, cheering anyone who made it by. He heard runners who had dropped out exchanging stories of what had broken them. What was it about night, he wondered, that compelled people to talk so much? He had prepared for agony; he had prepared for blisters and night terrors; he just had not prepared for so much jabbering.
Outside, the paved road returned again to dirt, signaling the climb up Sugarloaf. As he began to ascend inside his circle of yellow light, he remembered what he had done.
He had sent the letter.
It had been hidden beneath his mattress for a week. At night, Caleb could feel the energy seeping up through the fibers of his futon. Just having written it, he understood, had altered him somewhat, rearranged the chemicals of his cells.
Before the start, during the distraction of the weigh-in, the crowd, and the darkness of three in the morning, Caleb had slipped briefly away, pulled the letter from his waistband, and dropped it casually into a Leadville mailbox.
Now he shivered. What events had he just set in motion? After eleven years of silence, how would Shane react? How much at risk had he just put himself of losing everything?
The idea of this blue envelope journeying to his brother carried him up the incline. He passed a runner who was clearly sleeping as he shuffled up the path. At Hagerman Pass, he felt strong and believed he could finish the final fifteen miles without walking. They passed the next aid station, but he kept running. Even though he knew June would stop to rest, he could not risk stopping. That was past him now.
In the dark the course corkscrewed downward; a vertiginous spiral appeared before him. He focused on his legs, one foot, then the other. He found the void. It seemed to be going well.
But at the turn of the trail, somewhere near ninety miles in, Caleb’s legs suddenly convulsed, and before he understood what was happening he had stopped, pushing his hands into his swollen quads, willing the blood to reverse out of them, tears rolling from his eyes. He opened his mouth and began to vomit.
A tall runner caught up to him then, panting, slid around him, and continued down the course. How many more were ahead of him? Less than ten? Had he failed his promise to Mack? Time passed, he had no concept of how much. He stepped off the trail to urinate. What came out was brown and thick.
And then, next to him, he heard a different voice, softer, gentler.
“Blend with the air, Caley.”
A bluebird’s voice. June had not stopped back at the pass; she had been out here behind him this whole time. He had given up on her, but she had not on him. He stared up at her, amazed.
And the two of them began to run together though the dark terrain. Caleb wanted to hold her, but there was nothing left in him now except this putting of one foot in front of the other, this breathing in of air, the lifting of his legs.
The course wound down to the Tabor boat lake. The mist was stunning in the light of the half moon, swirling around their ankles, whispering toward the water. Just before eleven o’clock, they jogged on smooth pavement, passing parked cars, toward the distant lights of Leadville.
A few people stood in front of the old, solid houses, clapping. A few filmed them on phones and video cameras. A thin red neon tape, he saw, had already been broken and lay crumpled across the street. June stepped aside, applauding, and Caleb crossed under the gray finish banner, and it was done.
He fell into the arms of his housemates.
“What’s my . . .” He panted, unable to force the words out. He shook his head roughly.
Hank Gutterson, a smaller, buzz-cut kid of military bearing, ruffled his hair.
“You’re eighth,” he laughed.
Someone pulled off his tank and handed him water. He grinned. It was incomparable, Caleb thought, being so complete. He sat on the curb, watching the next runners jog, stumble, and crawl across the line.
Juan finished nineteenth, Leigh twenty-sixth overall, eleventh among women. Alice, Kevin, and Makailah all placed in the top forty. As they had each of the previous fifteen years, the Happy Trails Running Club owned Leadville. Caleb pulled off his shoes and limped barefoot down the dark street to a parking lot. The license plates rose and waved like banners. They shouldn’t be doing that, he knew. He needed fluids.
Mack was waiting for him by his dusty black Jeep, standing with his ankles crossed. The first time Caleb had ever seen him, at the Rocking Horse Tavern a decade ago, he had experienced this same sensation of running into a wall of solid energy. Mack was a small man. Black hair curled around his ears and tufts of black beard were spaced sporadically around his sunken cheeks. His face was a riverbed of wrinkles. With his tie-dye, he had the appearance of an aged roadie. His teeth, long stripped of enamel from decades of running these mountains, were the gray of tombstones. His eyes were a blue so brilliant they seemed not to belong to him at all.
“Ride with me, buddy.”
Inside the Jeep, Caleb was overwhelmed by the scent of sweat and pine. The leather seat irritated his raw thighs as he pulled Band-Aids from his nipples and set them in the ashtray. His body spasmed violently. Mack handed him an old sweatshirt, and Caleb pulled the green hood tight around his head. For all of the rocks, creeks, ascents, dehydration, snakes, and hallucinations, the biggest danger he faced was right now. The total demolition of his endocrine system from the constant exertion, stress, and the chemicals in the sports drinks had left his body defenseless. Any inconsequential virus that happened to be wandering through the Colorado air would find its way in without resistance.
Mack spoke in an animated manner, waving his hands. He preferred to drive off-road, even when a highway presented itself, and so they bounced roughly between firs and black-eyed aspens, a blur of hieroglyphic eyes dancing around them.
“You know Anne Luchamp?” he asked in his nasal voice.
Caleb shook his head.
“She finished third in Women’s. She’ll join us next year. I didn’t speak with her, but I felt her energy,” Mack stated matter-of-factly. “Let’s bring her to a party at the house.”
Reading the waves of kinetic energy that propelled all living things was not a unique gift, but Mack possessed it as strongly as anyone Caleb had ever seen. It was how he healed them, helped them push past any barrier, physical or emotional. As a coach it made him, Caleb understood, a genius.
“I saw June pacing you there at the end,” Mack turned, a wry grin across his small mouth. “She giving you some special training these days?”
Caleb tried to shake his head no, a trembling taking over his entire body.
Mack laughed and sang out, “‘I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.’ You are bequeathed to the dirt, right Caley?”
Caleb nodded. Yes, he thought, he was bequeathed. This was the pledge he had made, all of those years ago.
When they passed Superior, Mack turned back onto the old dirt road. They drove for some time, and then he pushed the Jeep around a cluster of oaks, their long roots intermingled as the fingers of lovers, and a simple house made of planks and beams appeared in the distance. It lay just two hundred open yards from the base of South Boulder Peak. Safe, hidden from the toxic world, and plugged directly into the real one.
Mack shut the engine off and looked at him. “I got a surprise for you. It’s crazy good.”
“It’s a secret. I’m announcing it Sunday night. You’re gonna love it. Let’s get you iced.”
He opened the door. Inside, a warm smell of root stew filled the open room. They climbed up creaking oak stairs to the second floor. In the bathroom was an old ceramic tub, which Mack filled with ice. Caleb felt a need to go to his room, sweep his hand under his futon on the floor, and determine if his memory of mailing the letter was a hallucination.
But Mack took his arm and led him into his bath. Ice water rose to his waist. Time revved forward violently, then stopped like a navy jet landing on a carrier, and a seizure rose through him all the way to his lungs. Caleb lost his breath and sank into the tub. Mack leaned over and held him under his arms. And then Caleb blinked, and shuddered gently, and smiled.
He had placed eighth at Leadville. At forty-three years old, after eleven years of work, he was ready to win a major ultramarathon. His next one would be the Hardrock 100, up and down thirteen peaks of the San Juan Mountains. His next months would be devoted to training for its dangers. He could have no distractions, nothing could threaten his focus.
Somewhere outside, he heard June’s voice.
When Caleb’s letter came, Shane was out selling drugs.
It was a stunning San Francisco afternoon. He could see the city behind the gleaming bay from his parking spot in Larkspur. Blue sparks fluttered between the shoreline trees like fairies, beckoning him someplace, he wasn’t sure where, perhaps to drown.
Shane opened his trunk and peered down at the white cardboard boxes full of pills. Purple ones, blue ones, annular and elliptic. He balanced a stack on one knee, shut the trunk, and walked toward a flat, single-story building baking in the sun.
He carried samples of two new drugs: Epherex, for anxiety, was in high demand. Solistan, for otolyrangological infection, however, was a dismal failure. The drug was under-performing in its clinical trials, with scripts running 20 percent below estimates. His mandate from Saint Louis was to reverse this trend, this quarter.
There were four doctors in residence at Larkspur Internists. Three men and one woman; two Asian, two Caucasian. Pulling open the door, Shane went over his calculations. Male Caucasians were the most amenable, he had found, and female Asians were the toughest sell. It was telling that he had married one.
Inside, the air was accented with redwoods.
“How’s the puppy, Anne?”
The receptionist’s face lit up, pleased he had remembered. “Ate a box of Claritin last night. Have a seat, sweetheart, I’ll get you in.”
As Shane waited beside three patients to see the doctor, he studied the Solistan logo, which had been created at great expense. Some of Shane’s high school friends had possessed a talent for band names; now he knew what they had done with their lives.
These names and logos were worth the cost, because they worked. Patients walked into practices asking for them. In fact, sometimes Orco would develop a drug just to fit a particularly sticky name. “Confilox” had tested so well with adolescents that the company had reformulated a failing antidepressant by one molecule and created a thirty-million dollar-a-year brand. Drugs, names, sales: for years Shane had felt that this cycle was a thing of beauty.
Twenty minutes later, Shane followed a nurse down the hall. The air felt stuffy; germs, it seemed, might thrive. He passed examination rooms with color-coded charts on the doors. What was blue, versus red? Was his own chart colored in any specific code? Was Janelle’s?
Shane possessed a round face; his eyes, the color of amber ale, were alive and welcoming. And yet their warmth was betrayed by the sly curve of his mouth, which produced an unintended air of superiority. A college girlfriend had suggested that this was simply the muscle makeup of his face, but from birth, an almost ethereal self-confidence had bloomed inside of Shane. He had never known a time when it had not been there, prodding him forth.
So it was really no surprise that life had led Shane right up to sales and introduced them with a knowing wink. After only a few years at Orco Pharmaceuticals, he had been handed the prized Bay Area territory as incentive to stay with them. He had spent the last decade driving through Marin County farmland like an Old West medicine man, stopping to display his potions. For years, he had felt content and unrepining.
But recently, his sense that all was right in the world had begun slipping. Frenzied mandates were coming from headquarters to grow scripts by 12 percent, an astonishing number. The sales reps he saw now seemed more desperate than the patients they passed in the waiting rooms. They had shifted to seamier tactics: spreading online falsities about competing medicines, hiring ghost writers to write glowing articles about ineffective drugs, and paying editors at esteemed medical journals to run them. This new breed handled their expense accounts like investment bankers, taking doctors on lavish trips. Orco raised prices accordingly, and the insurance companies did the same. This new cycle made Shane uneasy.
He found Doctor Felger at a spartan metal desk, his narrow back hunched, writing with a sharply turned left hand, the posture, Shane thought, of a schoolboy. Felger was a fifty-five-year-old Caucasian, right in the top spot in Shane’s target, but he had never been easy to sell. When he looked up, his eyes were tired. Dots of black and gray stubble sprinkled his jaw in irregular patterns.
“What have you got?” he asked wearily.
“Solistan,” Shane offered. “And Epherex.”
“Leave the Epherex. Can’t use the Solistan.”
“I saw a patient out there who was holding her ears.”
“The Swedish Institute of Otolyrangological Studies said that—”
“The Swedish what?” the doctor looked up in angry disbelief.
Shane continued gently. “Doctor Felger, you write fewer scripts for Orco brands than any doctor at this practice. May I ask if there’s a reason why?”
Felger’s eyes filled with an expression of amazement. “How do you know that?”
Shane had purchased this data from a national chain drugstore data retailer. He smiled peaceably.
“That’s very powerful information and I want to know where. . .”
“What could we do to up your participation level?”
Clenching his jaw, Felger muttered nearly silently, “We need a laptop.”
Shane nodded. “Mac or PC?”
He placed his boxes of Solistan samples on the edge of the doctor’s desk and walked out feeling unwell. Ahead he saw his dusty, ten-year-old Civic. It had become a joke among his friends; clearly he could have bought a new car anytime he wanted to. But there was something in Shane that clung stubbornly to the things he loved.
That afternoon, he went for a five-mile run through the Marina.
On his way home he had stopped at the corner grocery and carried back a collection of pink plastic bags filled with produce. Sautéing Chinese eggplant and garlic for Janelle, he still felt the sensation of soft earth against his falling feet.
“How’s the camel’s back?” she asked him as he brought their plates to the dining room table.
“Hanging by a ligament.”
“The Russian Hill Starbucks,” she told him, “is looking for baristas.”
Over dinner they discussed his options. Pfizer and Bayer would be no different, he knew. He could take time off, she suggested. The baby weighed in on that with a sudden kick to Janelle’s abdomen. She laughed loudly.
His wife was the most astonishing woman he had ever known. Her father Liu had been a mechanical engineer in Anhui when something fearful had sent him and his wife, Hua, onto a rat-filled ship over the endless ocean to restart life as American peasants. Liu had gone to work in a distant cousin’s tofu plant, which he now managed. Liu and Hua had named their only child Janelle, because it sounded to them like an Americanized form of Jinsong—sturdy pine. And sturdy pine she proved to be. Janelle worked her way through the uncertain North Beach public school system to UCSF and joined the biotech giant Helixia just after their late-nineties surge.
Janelle possessed a beauty that could shift forms. She could exchange her sleek biotech persona for hiking shoes and a sleeping bag in the time it took to change shirts. Shane loved her as completely as he might have loved anyone. Time with her was his only real concern in life.
“We don’t work like that at Helixia,” Janelle said when he had explained his meeting with Dr. Felger.
“Because you guys are biotech.”
“Because,” she explained, pushing excess garlic away with her fork, “we’re Helixia.”
“Are there any more places like you?”
“Dennis knows about every pharma and biotech company here. He could tell you who the good guys are. You should see what he thinks.”
Shane raised his eyes. “Will you run into him before maternity leave?”
“Sure, I can ask him. Or talk to him yourself.” Janelle touched her belly and looked down frowning. “I don’t think our boy’s a garlic lover.”
She stood up. Shane watched her move through their narrow hallway and open the front door. He felt the salt-swollen air pour in. Their narrow blue house was possessed of chocolate wood floors and rounded archways. They had kept it minimalist but were trying to brighten it for the baby. Janelle had found a cheerful cerulean for the nursery walls, which Shane had painted on a breezy Sunday. They had hung a copper wire mobile he had picked up in Berkeley above the empty crib, abstract shapes to lull anyone into slumber.
When Janelle came back in, she was staring at him.
“You got a letter.”
He saw a blue envelope between her elegant fingers. Who sends letters, he wondered? Shane extended his hand and recognized the handwriting instantly: Caleb’s impossibly small block letters.
His brother had recently touched this; something of his DNA remained on it. When it brushed against his fingers, Shane felt himself fighting a childlike impulse to store the envelope away unopened, to save it for later.
He felt Janelle watching him. Inside of her, their little boy was spiraling and twisting, testing out appendages, luxuriating in warm amniotic fluid. How was he to know that soon he would enter a world in which hundred-foot redwoods dappled against a buoyant blue sky, companies created drugs capable of fighting disease, and his uncle chose to live in an antiworld, running an endless marathon into himself?
Then he tore the envelope open. There was just one small sheet of paper. Handwritten, of course.
“Hello, Caleb,” Shane muttered casually. “What’s going on?”
He read aloud. “Dear Shane, I hope you’re well. I need to talk to you about something important. Do you want to come out here for a weekend? You can write me at my job. Love to Janelle.”
“Love to me,” Janelle said merrily.
“And he’s never even met you. You’re that loveable.”
“What job?” she asked.
The concept of Caleb working again filled him with hope. There were consultants in Boulder. Perhaps he had rejoined the world? Shane flipped the small envelope around.
“O’Neil’s Copies,” he whispered. He pushed his hand roughly through his short black hair. “Jesus.”
“Go this weekend.”
“This weekend?” He pointed at his letter. “He said a weekend.”
“That’s not what he means.”
“The baby . . .”
“The baby will be here in two weeks. You should go now.”
Janelle walked to the kitchen. Somewhere far away Shane was aware of the sound of a refrigerator opening and closing. The whir of its motor, the hum of its light.
Ten years ago, Shane’s older brother had unexpectedly quit his high-salaried consulting job and gone to live with a running club in a cabin near Boulder. No phones, no Internet. Neither he nor his parents had seen him since.
Over the years, Shane and Janelle would google him and find his name listed among the entrants of races through a hundred miles of wilderness. They read other ultrarunners’ online musings about what went on in the Happy Trails house under a man called Mack’s direction, which were profoundly disturbing. Occasionally, Shane would send a letter to Caleb care of Happy Trails. He was careful never to demean his lifestyle; instead, he wrote about their parents, Fred and Julie, who lived outside of Seattle in Issaquah. About meeting Janelle. Inviting him to their wedding, which Caleb had not attended, crushing them all.
These letters were never answered, but once or twice a year he would receive a blue envelope with a two-line, small print note. Thanks for your letter. Western States was insane. Finished twenty-second.
Ten years of this. Shane tossed the blue paper onto the coffee table.
“I’m not going to Boulder just because he asks,” he announced to the room.
Janelle placed her hand against the back of his neck, calming him somewhat. He could feel the warmth from whoever it was inside of her, like a ghost trying to make its presence known.
After Janelle went to bed, Shane nursed a glass of pinot in the darkening house. In the stillness he could hear the beeps of plastic toys, Janelle running after a toddler, like ghosts from the future. He wondered how much he would miss this quiet. His thoughts turned again to his brother.
Running had been an Oberest family sacrament, a fact of how one lived, like brushing your teeth. Their father Fred had been a paunchy thirty-six-year-old lawyer when the jogging craze hit Seattle in 1975. He had been converted by a senior partner one Saturday morning along the road to Lake Washington. When he saw the effects of his new hobby upon his clarity of mind, he decided to pass this gift along to his children.
And so on weekend mornings, regardless of weather, Fred would stretch in his nylon red shorts and white headband, and guide Julie, Caleb, and Shane onto the misty Issaquah roads, where they would follow in his wake like Mrs. Mallard and her Ducklings.
Shane imagined them the way a passing motorist would have seen them. A thin middle-aged man running with his hands held limply in front of his chest in late-seventies style. His wife behind him, wearing a white terry-cloth headband. Behind her, a six-year-old boy keeping up as best as he could. And in front of them all, a tall, thin eleven-year-old, clear plastic running goggles strapped around his head with a thick black band, loping effortlessly like a palomino.
In a decade, Shane’s letters had not provoked a single invitation to speak, let alone visit. Caleb had to know what reaching out like this meant. Didn’t he? He sat there, wondering, until Janelle was asleep, and the wine was empty.