• Joshua Lawson

"The Runner"


Sixteen miles.

Broken up, strategized, it had seemed utterly doable: two miles out and two miles back in each direction. Quantifying it. Breaking it down. Adding it up. That was the ticket.

Sixteen miles.

But when she’d passed the auto shop and the diner and hit two miles just after that strange, small school for an indeterminate student population from which she’d neither met nor heard of anyone in all her time spent growing up two miles away, the clean, straight sidewalk beckoned Rebecca onward. Even having prepared for the quadruple out-and-back for a week, when it came time to do it, turning heel, turning back, it felt like a small, boring admission of defeat.

So onward. Onward past the weird, little school, past neighborhood after neighborhood, past the lake and the golf course and the parkway. Four miles. Five. Six. To turn back now, to revisit the parkway and the golf course and the lake? And for what? Twelve miles? Twelve of sixteen? Nonsense. No. A loop. A loop was what was called for. A sixteen-mile route estimated and jerry-rigged by cobbling together the numbered highways and shopping centers within her normal driving diaspora.

But approaching mile ten without so much as a single retreaded step, Rebecca found the flaw in their plan.

The water.

Two miles out. Two miles back. A gulp of water every mile. Refills back at home base. That had been the plan ten miles ago. The boring, tedious plan. Now the water bottle was empty, periodically coughing out tufts of air when she forgot and went for a drink, dry little breaths on a dry tongue.

There would have to be a refill. There would have to be water or the cramps would come, locking up her calves like bear traps and dragging her to a humbled walk or a painful tear.

Stupid. Running out of water. Stupid.

Rebecca had imagined herself far nearer to a grocery store that just was not coming around. The promise of familiarity and commerce looking up from the bottom of every hill dashed at the top by another view of bland, infinite highway. The grocery store was up ahead, undoubtedly. Rebecca knew the road she was on. She had driven on it and knew where it went, but had no idea how long it took to get there. Time and distance were so different on foot.

At last, with her early morning start meaning less and less as the sun crept up and up, bogging her down in sweat, there came a church. No sprawling Baptist complex or Catholic campus, it was a small church with a gravel parking lot and Asian writing on the sign out front. Korean, she guessed, based on little more than the demographic of people she’d gone to high school with. It was small. Even compared to some of the less robust houses in the area it seemed small. The meager building was painted an immaculate white, but the sign was battered and old.

Asked twelve miles earlier or four miles later Rebecca would have expressed a sense of decorum, of courtesy, that would never allow her to intrude on some random church asking for water. It was an incursion. A minor faux pas. It was not done. But twelve miles in, four miles out, religion in its entirety was getting off far too easy. If organized religion was going to impede social progress in the name of methodically bolstering its own ranks all while enjoying a tax exemption for their trouble then it was going to do some good, to pay what it owed, to fill up a 24-ounce water bottle with a slip-on handhold and zip-up pocket for keys.

Do you knock on the door of a church?

Rebecca trotted down to a walk, knees groaning. In the movies where folks hung out in empty churches and plotted or brooded or did whatever extracurricular activities one does at a church in a movie, did they knock? The movies never showed.

Certainly one does not walk in unannounced. But to stand at the door, to knock and wait like a trick-or-treater, felt far too reverent, too submissive.

Turning the handle and pushing the door open with one hand, knocking on it with the other, she called out into the tiny lobby.

“Hello?”

At the end of the lobby opposite her were double doors. It was hotter inside than it had been in the sun and the air was thick and dusty. The only light came in from the windows, vertical rectangles up near the ceiling. There was a rack of pamphlets, presumably in Korean, tucked away in a corner, and doors leading elsewhere to the left and right of the lobby.

There was a man. Grey suit. Grey dress shirt, untucked. Bright yellow bowtie. Brown shoes.

“Oh, hello,” he gasped, a hand fleeing to his mouth. He was a stick, his body, his limbs, his fingers, all sticks. Though he was short, about even with Rebecca’s chin, his slight frame gave him the illusion of height, which had the strange effect of making the building’s interior appear just slightly larger than it was.

“Welcome,” he said, his mouth still hidden behind bony fingers. Even in silence, Rebecca could tell from his bouncing cheeks that his mouth flickered this way and that, perhaps flashing smiles, perhaps something else.

“Hi,” she said, affecting a casual, neighborly cool, eyebrows raised in greeting. “I was hoping I might be able to fill up my water bottle. Way hotter out there than I thought it would be.”

“Because we’re a church?” he asked, voice trailing as if he were attempting to lead her, dangling the question like bait.

“Yeah,” she replied with her best verbal and visual poker face.

“Yeah,” the man nodded. “I suppose we are.” His hand retreated back to his side, revealing an excited smile. Despite his strange figure, he possessed a peculiar handsomeness, the sort of smooth features and striking gray hair that might mystify aging experts on an infomercial.

“I’m not looking to interrupt or anything,” she affirmed. “Just hoping for a little hospitality. I can try the grocery store up the street. It’s just further than I remember it being.” She offered a friendly laugh.

“No, no, no. Happy to be hospitable,” he said, holding his hands out as if to offer the world. “Do you know what kind of church we are?”

“Well, you don’t look Korean.”

“Vietnamese.”

“You?”

“The church. The old church. The sign out front.”

“Right, right. So, what, you just got here?”

“Very recently,” the man said.

“Nice. Well, welcome to the neighborhood,” Rebecca offered.

“Oh, you live nearby?”

“Kind of. Close enough. Wouldn’t make a habit out of running here, though.”

“Oh yes, of course, let’s get you that water,” he beckoned her to follow him through the door on the right of the lobby. It lead to a small office. Papers were strewn about a modest desk. There were stacks and stacks of books on the floor and off to one corner was a water cooler and a gurgling coffee pot.

“Here you are,” the man waved a hand to the water cooler. “Unfortunately it’s room temperature. We’re still getting the utilities squared away.”

“Oh no worries, thank you very much.” She crouched by the cooler and began to fill her bottle, eyes on the man, who watched and smiled. Rebecca smiled back for several long seconds before breaking and glancing absentmindedly about the office.

The books, the papers, they were in Vietnamese.

“So,” the man started.

“Left in a hurry?” she asked, twisting the cap back onto her full water bottle and nodding to the books.

“Oh yes,” the man pouted dramatically. “Foreclosure. Unfortunate of course, but ultimately to God’s great pleasure.”

“Yeah. Thanks for the water,” she offered, stepping away from the water cooler, positioning herself between the man and the door to the lobby.

“Of course, of course,” the man waved it off. “Hopefully you’ll come back sometime and get more when it’s actually cold.”

“Careful what you wish for. I run a lot.”

“Oh, very good, very good. Of course, I do have to at least ask that you come back.”

“Excuse me?”

“To the church. To my church. I must at least ask you to come back sometime. To hear our message. To hear God’s message.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m not a very religious person,” she replied.

“No matter, no matter, neither was I. Before I met The God.”

“Met him?” she asked.

“Oh yes. Met him, heard his words, heard his voice.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry man, that ain’t me.”

“Well, I still must at least ask.”

“I don’t know, buddy. I put my faith in people. In the good and the bad of people and what we make and what we break and all that. Law and order and flesh and blood. Things I can see, you know? Things I can watch at work.”

“Sure, sure. But I must at least ask,” the man smiled.

“Sure. Fair enough,” she replied. The two stood in silence for a moment.

“Will you come back?” he asked, hands clasped together in a beggar’s prayer.

“I mean, no,” she answered. “I’m sorry, but no. Thank you. But no.”

The man sighed, dejected, looking down at his shiny brown shoes for a moment as if talking himself up in their reflection. He straightened up after a moment and looked back at Rebecca, smiling with a renewed vigor.

“We gave you water,” he said.

“And I thanked you for that small kindness. Thank you. I appreciate it. I’m going to be on my way now.” She made for the door and exited to the lobby.

“A small kindness,” the man called after her. He didn’t pursue, still standing in the office by the water cooler. “A small kindness is all I must ask. Come back. Come back and visit us. Hear the word of God.”

He seemed deflated, desperate. Like a bad salesman, or perhaps an excellent one.

What harm could come of lying? Stick it to the church. Tax them in false hope. Lie. Sin.

“I mean, look, if you’ve actually got any kind of congregation and you don’t do those crazy three hour services I’m sure I can swing by sometime. Not today. Not tomorrow. Sometime though.”

“Excellent,” he smiled, though his body remained slouched, loose, defeated. “No, no marathon services here. God has no patience for such things.”

“Ha,” she chuckled. “Now there’s a god I might get along with.”

“The God. He’s quite charming, I assure you. Though I am, of course, biased,” the man said, his smile giving way to a more business-like composure. “Now, I must at least ask you to swear that you will come back.”

“What?”

“I must at least… at least ask,” the man said, taking a few eager steps forward.

“Alright whatever, I swear. Look, I have to get running dude, my legs are going to start cramping up.”

“Of course, of course, however, I do have to at least ask, more specifically, that you swear to God that you will come back.”

Lie. Sin. Never come back. Leave the schmuck hanging on his bullshit. Hit the creep where it hurts, right in the faith, right in the god.

Rebecca made a point of looking the man in the face, right in the eyes, emphasizing her words by pointing her water bottle at him.

“I swear to god I’ll come back.”

The man made to say something, opening his mouth then smiling and tilting his head in a non-verbal “actually.”

“I hate to turn such a serious request into a comedy routine, but I at least have to ask that you swear to my God. The God.”

“What?” she rolled her eyes.

“Swear to my God,” the man repeated plainly. “I need not serve as envoy. Would you like to meet him?” he asked, motioning to the double doors at the end of the lobby. She said nothing. The man moved to the doors and swung them open with a slow reverence.

There was a knocking at the far end of the small nave, a muted sort of clip-clop. There were five modest pews on either side of an aisle leading down the middle of the space to a kid in a beat up orange recliner who sat flipping through the pages of a biblically thick book of comics, his cheek smooshed against one hand while the other thumbed along absentmindedly. The kid was draped in long, dark hair that flowed out from beneath a comically oversized army helmet, resting on his shoulders, down his chest, and along the back of his chair. He boasted gigantic army fatigues to match. Black, brown, gray and green, the sleeves were rolled up to the elbow so that they puffed out like water wings leaving little kid arms sticking out like brittle bones from a thick drumstick. The legs were rolled up halfway as well, pinned up by clothespins at the top of clownish combat boots that had been tied tight with D-ring belts.The boots knocked against the recliner as the kid swung his feet.

Rebecca felt a quick and vivid flash of a hard future, then her eyes went immediately to search for the orange cap on the assault rifle leaning up against the recliner.

None.

There was nothing to it, no pretense or formality to the thing. It leaned casually against the recliner like an obedient dog.

“What do you want?” the boy whined, never looking up from his book. “I’m bored.”

“Yes Lord, I know, I know,” the man placated, approaching with great reverence. “We have a visitor.” He motioned to Rebecca, who stood in the doorway surveying the situation with caution, unwilling to approach, unable to back away.

“Hello,” the child rolled his eyes and offered her the quickest of glances.

“She was out for a run,” the man explained. “We’ve given her water.”

“Did you bring me a present?” the boy asked, now affording her some semblance of attention.

She looked to the man.

“No,” the man explained. “No Lord, no presents today, but she were going to swear. To come back and see us. Perhaps then?” he turned back to Rebecca expectantly.

“Man, is this your kid?” Rebecca asked.

“In ways. In ways, I am His. As are we all.”

“Hey kid, is this your dad?”

“I am God!” the boy slammed his book down onto the ground, churning up a puff of dust. “My name is Lord! My name is God and Dad and Daddy! His and yours too! Yours too!”

She took a step back into the lobby, still staring through the opened doors, sporadically glancing to the rifle.

“Lord, forgive them” the man pleaded softly, picking up the book and placing it on the arm of the recliner. He knelt beside the child. “She does not know. She has only heard just now. But she’ll learn. She’ll come back. She swore.”

“Not to me!” the boy bellowed.

All eyes were on Rebecca now.

“Swear it,” the boy hissed. “Swear it to me or I’ll chop your little privates off and kick out your eyeballs! You’ll go to Hell! You’ll go right to Hell!”

Now it was Rebecca’s hand that retreated to her mouth, stifling something, perhaps a laugh, perhaps something else.

“It was my understanding you intended to swear you’d return. To swear to God,” the man said, once again dangling his voice. Rebecca looked at the two, the God and his congregation, taking in every detail.

“Yeah sure, sure I swear.”

The kid growled, a low animal growl, that slowly ascended into a petulant whine.

“Liar!” he screamed, throwing the book down the aisle where it collided with the floor some two feet from the recliner. Rebecca’s eyes were wide. The man knelt awfully close to that rifle, that mean, ugly thing. She looked the boy in the eye and spoke slowly, calmly.

“I swear. I swear I’ll come back. And thank you for the water.”

“If you don’t come back,” the boy warned, “I’m going to poke a hole in your belly with a big, big sword. A really sharp sword. It’s going to go through your tummy and out your back and I’m going to rip it out and all your guts are going to come out all over the floor and you’ll have to clean them up before you go to Hell and you’re welcome for the water but only if you come back.”

The man was smiling, he stood up next to the boy like a monument, like a proud trophy.

“Right on,” Rebecca replied. “I gotta go. My mom will worry.”

“And bring a present. A big one. A big present,” the boy demanded.

She waved and backed away slowly, watching the man, watching the gun, until finally, her back was up against the front door. Casually, she opened the door with her back, slipped outside of the church, then broke into a rabid sprint down the road, taking quick looks back and zig-zagging spastically to create a harder target. No one came out after her. She dumped the contents of her water bottle, then doubled down and ditched the bottle all together along the side of the road. Standing around stationary had stiffened her legs, but the mile to the grocery store still went quicker than any of the previous twelve.

*

“Yeah, checked it out,” the cop confirmed over the phone in a voice that communicated an attitude of vigorously chewing gum with one’s mouth open.

“I was just at this old church out on 231 near the grocery store and there was this dude and some kid that might be his son and a really nasty looking machine gun or something,” Rebecca had reported several days prior, after borrowing the cell phone of someone in the grocery store parking lot to call and get a ride home from a friend. She’d used her friend’s phone to call the police, the two of them doubling back to drive by the church and get a more precise location. Neither the man nor the boy was outside, just the beaten up Vietnamese sign. By the time they’d reached Rebecca’s house the phone call had ended.

“church gun boy cult vietnamese"

The days that followed brought an increasing frequency of internet searches and a general, unpleasant sense of uncertainty.

Nothing on the local news. Nothing online. They’d taken her for a kidder, for a punk ass trying to clown the cops. Or they’d gone and investigated and the man and the boy had put on a show, a real convincing show. Or they’d sent a detective and the boy had shot them, shot them with that gnarly gun. Or they’d probed the detective, asked about who had complained, gotten a name, done their own internet search and the cops thought everything was fine but the boy and the man, they were looking. Looking for the runner. Looking for Rebecca. Waiting to see if she returned.

Or they’d shot the kid. They shot the kid and they shot the man and nobody could ever find out and that’s why the cops hadn’t called back.

They’d made a fool of her, the man and the boy. It was funny at first, the little kid violently threatening her while a man and a gun watched. But what if the child had attacked? Had grabbed the gun? Was that child even the man’s son? Had he been kidnapped? Brainwashed? Was he trapped? Some sort of terrible child soldier in a delusional holy war?

What if they’d followed? Sneaky, secret? Crept to the grocery store? Followed the car? Seen Rebecca’s home? What if she didn’t go back? What if?

What if that terrible little freak was God? Vengeful, mutilating, Old Testament God?

What if that sick monster was just a little boy?

He’d come to her in dreams, the boy, always so, so angry. A quiet anger. The deliberate and confident anger of someone who knows their justice will be done. And always the man was there watching, bored and proud, just out of sight.

“And?” Rebecca asked, after an extended silence from the cop. She’d called the police station on the morning of the third day after the encounter at the church, demanding answers.

“Weird,” the cop replied. “Not illegal, but I’ll give you weird.”

“What? Yeah. Yeah weird. But come on, something is going on there. That gun? That was a big gun. With a very little kid.”

“Yeah, the gentleman has the papers,” the cop explained, in a droning, procedural voice. “Private property, et cetera.”

“How do you know they didn’t, like, kill all the Vietnamese folks in that church?” she asked, grasping.

“Other than the utter lack of bullet holes? That Vietnamese church got foreclosed on sixth months back. That man there, it’s his place now.”

“So he’s just got some kid running around in there with a machine gun now and that’s that?”

“Sure. Look, I checked it out. I had questions too. They got answered. Not my job to relay all those answers to you, but the long and short of it is the weirdo is, legally speaking, on the up and up.”

“You can’t be serious,” she objected. “Kid with a machine gun threatened to murder me.”

“In your report, you said no one, at any point, took physical possession of the weapon,” the cop said.

“Sure, but they could have.”

“Sure. Look, kid’s like eight. And he is that gentleman’s son,” the cop said.“Look, I get it. You got scared. They scared you. Whether they were trying to or not. And that’s messed up, I’m with you. I get it. They’re creepy. They’re creepy neighbors. Everybody’s got creepy neighbors. We’re constantly hearing about creepy neighbors and they are, in fact, constantly, very creepy. But they’re very rarely actually breaking the law or hurting anyone.”

Rebecca groaned.

“You were scared. I get that. Shit’s spooky. I looked into it. Hell, spent as much time with it as I responsibly could. I tell you what, it was more interesting than most of the stuff I wind up looking into. I wasn’t in a rush to be done with it. We’ve made a note of it. Something comes up in the future, we’ll have a foundation to go off of.”

“Uh huh. That little god boy threaten to cut off your genitals and send you to Hell?” Rebecca asked. The cop chortled on the other end, caught herself, then paused for a moment.

“No. Nothing like that. Intense little kid. Gonna be a dozen kinds of fucked up.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”

“We appreciate the tip, but there’s nothing going on there and so there’s nothing we can do. I’d suggest just avoiding the area.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah. You have a good one now.”

“Yeah.”

*

A joke.

What a joke.

Things were not supposed to work this way. Things were supposed to work. Taxes and churches and cops, they were supposed to work. This was not how transgressions were supposed to be treated.

It was as if Rebecca had been standing in front of a broken game of whack-a-mole, so sure she had a cushy mallet in her hand. And now, for the first time, the impossible: a mole. Heinous. Filthy. Upsetting. And the mallet?Some sort of terrible mirage, some functionless nothing. She stared down at one mole with nothing in her hand and for the first time noticed all the holes. Holes everywhere. In the whack-a-mole table, on the roads and sidewalks, in the world, in her.

And she was empty handed.

Driving proved notably quicker than running.

Joshua Lawson lives in Richmond, VA. His stories have appeared in Not Your Mother's Breast Milk, Scarlet Leaf Review and Badlands Literary Journal.


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