This is Part 3 in a short story collection. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.
“Alright, this is pretty simple. You’ve got the tent. If you need more water, catch up with me. I’ve got a filter pump in my pack. It’s thirteen miles to the campsite. Whoever gets there first wins.” Mark chances a half-smile to his charge as he deftly lifts a large pack to his knees, swings it on to his back, and snaps a belt buckle into place.
“Why do I have the tent? It’s heavy,” Austin gripes, stumbling as he tries to haul his own pack to his shoulders in one graceless motion.
“Weigh your pack against mine if you want. We’re even, unless you threw in anything else back home.”
“Nah, just some Cope.”
“No, dump the chew. None of that shit.”
“Mrs. Johnson said the Mexicans chew it to keep them going when they’re hiking.”
Mark suppresses a violent groan. “That would be the Incas, bro. And they chew coca, not tobacco.”
“Goddamn, you’re lucky you’re a goalie. I’d pound you so hard in practice if I could.”
“This is what you wanted, right? You wanna get your life back in line? This is how we’re gonna do it.”
“Didn’t realize you were a torturer. Can’t I at least take the water pump?”
“Guess you might need it more than I do. Should be right in that outside pocket.” Mark turns so Austin can reach the zipper and cringes when he hears Austin’s pack go crashing to the gravel parking lot. “I’m keeping the bourbon bottle, though.”
“You brought booze? Thought you were trying to clean me up.”
“I am. Never said I was trying to clean myself up.”
Mark shrugs. “Hey, I’ve got my vices. But they haven’t kept me from getting anywhere I want to go.” He makes a show of taking off his Yale snapback to throw back his hair, the one flourish he’s added to his otherwise spartan trail running attire.
“Some help you are.”
“You said you wanted help, I’m giving it to you my way. You’re in deep now. Hope you can keep up, cuz I don’t let up.”
“You think I can’t keep up? You know how much ice time I was getting last year?”
“You smoke shit and you don’t work out, Breyer. I’m gonna kick your ass.”
Without another word, Mark sets off up the hiking trail at a brisk trot. After a few yells, he hears Austin hoist up his pack and come stumbling after him. Mark decides to toy with him and lets him barrel on ahead. He hangs back for the first two miles, just close enough to hear Austin trundling up the path ahead of him. He closes the gap around the muddy stretches so as to watch in amusement, and tries not to laugh too loudly as he watches Austin stumble through the slop with all the elegance of an obese walrus. For the most part, though, he lingers out of sight, lest he become too distracted by the kid lumbering through the woods in his bulky boots and wife-beater. He should enjoy this, after all. Mark drinks in these woods he’d hiked in his younger years, even takes some time to admire the lowland stands of aspen in a way he doesn’t when he careens down trails. He should have brought along that tree ID book he’d picked up to annoy his ex. He’s forgotten how fun this can be. But another instinct sets in before long.
Mark waits until he gets to the first serious climb up a ridge, and then turns on the burners. He flies past Austin in no time, and while he hears a string vulgar yells and the loud footfalls of an inexperienced trail runner trying to keep pace, he blocks out his feeble follower with a passive smirk and pushes harder. No matter if flying up the first hill is bad trail running form: it’s all a psychological game, and this is where he can destroy the competition. He always does.
Not only that, Mark muses, but he has home ice advantage. He is back in his element, back in his home along Lake Superior’s North Shore, and he could shut out everything else and keep on like this until the end of time. When the trees fade into scrub on the upper reaches of a ridge, he chances a glance backward. He can see Austin laboring a quarter of a mile below him, and the gap widens with each step. But this is no time for cruise control.
He comes to an overlook over a pair of inland lakes, mildly regretting that he can’t linger if he wants to humiliate Austin as thoroughly as he does. Middle school Mark wandered these hills when he found himself desperately out of place in Silver Bay, snuck up to this very spot to steal a first kiss with the ever-so-eager Emma. They didn’t have much in common, but at least she had some understanding of how alien an East Coast blueblood felt in a mining company town. That lost kid seems so far removed from this cynical bastard who now inflicts pain on Austin for his own pleasure, so innocent compared to this craven and compulsive high achiever who simply can’t restrain himself.
But no, he tells himself as he barrels down the next slope as quickly as he dares: he was always like this. He was just as troubled as a fourteen-year-old, grumbling his way through dark and bitter thoughts. Above all, the bitterness: a function of his pride, he supposes, his insatiable ego that even now has him humiliating someone out of some noble quest to save him. Austin is as skilled a defenseman as his high school has ever produced, but with lackluster grades and a fondness for illicit substances, he’s failing to live up to his hype. Mark had lashed out at him in front of the entire team in a summer captains’ practice, and Austin replied by calling Mark a spoiled daddy’s boy who hadn’t had to work for anything. In response, Mark offered to teach him a lesson on what a work ethic could do, and to his shock, Austin took him up on it. That was all the spark he needed to know there’s something worth saving beneath a kid who otherwise struggled with anything beyond monosyllables. He’d like to think he’s in a different league from this bumbling hick with his souped-up truck littered with empty cans of chew, but in the end they’re both vain, horny boys whose athletic exploits are their claim to fame. This, of course, is too close for Mark’s comfort.
And so he’s hatched this ridiculous trail run to make his power clear. Not that it won’t tax him some, too. The next descent is so filled with choppy rocks that he doesn’t move any faster than he would if he’d been hiking. He stumbles, and scrapes his hand as he catches himself on the trunk of a birch tree. A few more mornings at the gym and a few less wine-and-deep-thoughts nights with Evan would probably have made his dominance that much more thorough. A slight price to pay, he supposes, to steal a few final nights with his departing best friend to confront life’s great worries. Evan may have left Duluth, but he still has a question to debate with him the next time they talk: is he leading Austin on this run because he truly cares about the kid, or is it just to prove to himself that he can capture anyone, make them bow down before him as he shows off his control? Mark Brennan: egomaniac, his every maneuver a ruse to win at another slice of life.
Mark begins to mount the largest hill on the route, a gradual but unending 700-foot climb, and shuts out his meandering mind to focus on his ascent. He surges with energy and finds another gear, even as his lungs struggle to keep up with his legs. Finally, he summits the hill. He comes to a rocky outcropping over a complete panorama, both inland lakes nestled among the hills to the north and Superior, lost in a light haze, to the south. The fog will come rolling in before long, he expects; hopefully Austin doesn’t do something stupid and wander off the trail, or, worse yet, bail on him when he gets to the state park and hitch a ride back to his truck, which they’ve stationed at the tail end of the hike.
He does some rudimentary math, decides he has some time. He nibbles on a granola bar and cracks open the bourbon, sips lightly. The fog rolls in even faster than he’d expected, and suddenly even the inland lakes begin to fade. He’s caught in a cloud. Symbolic of something, he figures, laughing to himself. His younger self had loved the metaphor of running up hills, always in pursuit; it had become sort of a credo for him and his closest friends, all Type A athletes who push themselves to the brink in every aspect of life. Even now, he still gets that runner’s high. But it doesn’t take long now for it to lapse into frustration. All this running, but for what?
He hypes the chase, but he’s not sure when he’s ever done much that wasn’t expected of him. He’s been an utterly conventional all-American boy, a straight-A student and a hockey star who’s always had his choice of girls. His one failure, he figures, was with Jackie, the unrequited lover in Evan’s grade who’d strung him along for a couple of years when he always knew he was merely a Plan B. He’d come away hardened, content to view love as a cynical pact between himself and anyone who would open up her legs for him. This past week, that meant a college-age friend of some ex-teammates, one willing to take a ride with the smooth high school senior who knows just how much he can drink before going over the edge. She’ll blur in with the rest before long.
And where has it all left him? Alone in his monumental solitude, and for all the culture and knowledge he’s accumulated, for all of the accolades, he is still no better than anyone else at controlling the impulses that flow through him. He should be able to pause and think clear thoughts like this at will, to step back and play a long game, master tactician that he is. Instead, he just pushes harder. His meeting of goals has only grown more relentless and the thrill he gets from them only shrinks, perhaps because they all seem so instrumental, merely another line on a résumé that cannot be anything less than perfect.
Is he just an achievement machine, incapable of intimacy? No: he’s had it, both in fleeting moments with Jackie and of course with some of his boys through those male bonds he cherishes. But that’s all disappearing now. Jackie is going to college in Chicago, and Evan is off to junior hockey in Fargo. Mark, meanwhile, is left behind in a dead end Rust Belt town where all the girls seem to fall short somewhere on the three-legged stool of ambition, attractiveness, and brains. And despite his seeming status as the big man on campus, his list of close male friends left is also vanishingly small, a frustrating collection of sexually desperate and dim jocks, insufferable self-seekers who think they’re cultured because they own guitars or read Kerouac, and decent people whose idea of fun somehow involves sitting in the cold for endless hours with fishing rods or guns. His family, forever trapped in its infighting, is no fallback, either.
Mark hates himself for how uncharitable this all sounds. All his urges to diagnose and analyze leave him estranged from anything resembling intimacy. He scolds Austin for being an addict, but sometimes he thinks his own addictions are far worse. He has that insatiable hunger, the same desperate search for everything that led his father to make millions and dump both his first wife and Mark’s mother. He doesn’t want that life. How he’d like to build something of his own, find some way to resist all the entropy around him and marvel at something beautiful for more than a few fleeting seconds.
Tears well up in Mark’s eyes. It’s an alien sensation, one he can’t remember happening since some preschool playground injury. His parents’ protracted divorce, those crushing season-ending losses, the end of the affair with Jackie: they had all inspired bitterness, self-flagellation, wistful wishes of what could have been. But never this. Is this really sadness? he wonders. These are spontaneous tears, and he’s not sure quite exactly why they come. He sinks to his knees on the hard rock, shivers slightly now that he is fully swathed in this blanket of fog. He reaches up to wipe his eye, but decides he should just let the tears flow. Evan would be proud of him; he’s been trying for years to draw this sort of raw sincerity out of his best friend. Mark won’t say a word about this to him, knowing he’ll get a full lecture on the power of the world beyond him or some such nonsense. And yet, here he is: he can still break through the cynical shell when he pushes himself to the limit in some new way. Half a laugh escapes his lips, and a smile forces its way across his face to divert the tears sideward.
Now, finally, Mark reminds himself who he is. The Yale-bound renaissance man, the most formidable goalie in the state. The Platinum Curtain, a nickname for the rich kid with sweeping blonde hair that he must outwardly disdain but secretly loves. He may not have a girlfriend, but he knows what he wants in one, and he’s had no trouble finding mutual pleasure in the interim to satisfy his cravings. And above all, he knows he has the wisdom to continue a search for meaning through all of this, that his dithering and dwelling on his past need not be a weakness. He runs to cleanse his soul, to bring new clarity to his many pursuits, and the aches in his knees just purge his pent-up frustration. There you go, Evan, he thinks to himself: he’s a believer after all, even if that belief never quite goes beyond his own self. He hops to his feet and careens down the next slope faster than ever before.
Mark feels a pang when Austin stumbles into camp two hours after nightfall. He is a disheveled wreck, leaves caught up in his shoulder-length hair and one leg dragging behind him and in obvious pain. Doing his best to keep up a businesslike front, Mark offers him a first aid kit, a hairbrush, and a few sips from the bottle. Austin is so drained he cannot even muster up any anger at Mark for his death march, even though Mark suspects he would deserve it. Proof he isn’t as soulless as he pretends he is: he feels guilty, not only because he knows how vicious he’s been, but because he’s known it all along, and never done a thing to change it. He must repent now, somehow, even if his audience is a woeful meathead who won’t understand a word. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t kick that Christian instinct.
“Goddamn, you can run.”
“Been running all my life, one way or another,” the sinner confesses.
“I’ve been running from losing. Afraid to lose. Afraid of losing more than I already have…which is plenty.”
“You, lose? You’re the golden boy.”
“You don’t know…no. I’m not going to rant about that.”
“Shit, I’m sure you’ve had it rough.”
“Fine, you wanna know why I did this to you? It was cuz you called me a daddy’s boy. Well, try having a dad who tells you that having you was a mistake. That he wishes he’d never slept with my mom. Wanted her to get an abortion. Who can’t manage one word of praise for his kid who’s only ever done everything right. Or try having a mom who’s sweet to you but who’s so fucking clueless cuz she doesn’t get your dad’s world or any of this drive he’s infected me with to never lose. Or maybe try watching your brothers and your sister never talk to you cuz they hate you for ruining their family. Try getting forced to move to a place that feels like the end of the earth filled with shits like you.
“And you know what I did? I made myself a home. Home in a dead end city in a fracturing world…but, god, I love it to death. It was the only place I could do it. The golden boy figured out what he was meant to do. And you wanna tell me I’ve never worked?”
“You think you’ve got something you’re meant to do?”
“Yeah. A destiny.” The words sound almost hollow to Mark; it’s the sort of thing Evan or some of those athletes who slap Bible verses in their social media profiles would say. But he loves the taste of them as they roll from his lips, and figures he could get used to them.
“You’re fucking crazy.”
Mark purses his lips, manages to hide any sense that he’s been struck dumb. He casually stretches out his legs, knowing Austin has no such dexterity left after his run.
“Crazy enough that you’re here with me cuz you know I know something you don’t.”
Austin looks at him in incomprehension, but Mark doesn’t care: he pulses with power, and loves every second of it. But he has to bring Austin along. What good is his power if he doesn’t use it? Everyone in his life has a lesson for him, if only he can unlock it. Those cruel dismissals of other people in his life? That’s his father talking, not him. He is not that man. That isn’t what Mark Brennan does. He rises above.
“Sit back and relax, man, let me cook ya some food and tell ya what I know. I can’t guarantee I’ve got answers, but at least I know I’m asking the right questions.” For once, Mark even believes it.