Newcastle Herald short story competition finalist 2018: Running Out

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story
competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

“EASE up Jeff, save it for the stairs.” The trainer’s voice had a tinge of gasp.

A bead of sweat dripped over Jeff’s forehead and stung his eye with saltiness. The voice from behind snapped him out of his zone. He realised he’d been accelerating – the request reminded him he was part of a group. The sweat beads continued despite the cooling southerly and threatening skies as the group pounded up the hill behind the beach.

It had been cloudy for a while. A La Nina event was coming, he’d heard on the weather report. The weatherman had explained how this event would be different from previous, not as wet.

He remembered as a teenager a sense of being different. Nobody had questioned him about his preferences. He’d dated girls but always felt he was missing out on something. Being good at sport diverted suspicion.

His thoughts drifted to his best mate and training partner, Michael, still in hospital following heart surgery. He felt a pang of guilt as he remembered how he’d urged him to come out to the pub the night before the heart attack happened; to have those extra few drinks. He knew that wasn’t the reason for the attack, but still struggled to convince himself.

Michael’s eyes had widened when he’d told him. The conversation stopped. He hadn’t intended to say anything, but the pressure was too much, he had to tell someone.

“I need to go to the bar,” Michael said. They hadn’t spoken since.

The group pushed on towards the surf club at the north end of the beach. He heard the soft, even slap of runners on pavement behind, which indicated his pace was now right. He led the group down the ramp and onto the beach, the slap replaced by the squeak of sand. The tide was high and there’d been a lot of erosion, which forced the group up into the softer sand. The heavy breathing turned to grunts as muscles struggled in the loose footing.

He wondered again about his conversation with Michael. He wasn’t sure what reaction he’d expected, but the silence surprised him. Was he sure himself anyway? He had these feelings, they prowled around his head at night like a howling cat that he couldn’t ignore. Should he keep trying to block them out?

“This soft sand is tough going,” someone said from behind.

“Not far now … See who can beat Jeff to the stairs,” the trainer cajoled the group.

Jeff didn’t need any motivation as endorphins kicked in. He maintained his place at the front.

How would it change things, with the club, his family, work? I shouldn’t have said anything.

The younger guys looked up to him: a club champion; good looks; dated Vanessa, the female club champion. What would they think now? What would he say to her? She might have realised. They all might have realised. He was the first to the stairs.

“Only 10 sets today, that beach section was harder than usual.”

A light mist of rain began to fall which diluted the sweat, so it didn’t sting his eyes as much.

He tried to imagine what his father’s reaction might be.

“It’s not natural,” he’d said many years ago while looking at a newspaper photo of two men holding hands. His mother had shaken her head at him in disagreement. His father still went to church each Sunday, read the first Bible reading and handed around the collection plate, then stayed behind to count the money after the rest of the congregation had left. Jeff and his brother hadn’t minded this when they were younger. They’d had a competition with the other kids to see who could climb the highest in the Moreton Bay fig out the back of the church. His initials were carved several branches above all the others.

He took the stairs two at a time and lapped the rest of the group by the fifth set. He smiled at the others on the way back down and silently cursed on the way up when he had to manoeuvre around them. He remembered how Michael and he would laugh and push each other all the way to the top. He did five more while the rest of the group finished.

The rain was steady now and the trainer shortened the warm down. The rest of the group left and hurried off to their cars and the day ahead. Jeff grabbed his drink bottle and phone and continued jogging on the now empty path behind the beach. He headed up through the carpark and along a track up the headland.

He was high above the water, the ocean to his left. He climbed through the rail fence and found the overgrown path out onto to the ledge where he used to sit as a kid, shielded by bitou bush. The ledge was smaller than he remembered. He would look out over the ocean and dream of being an ironman when he grew up. Now he could see the ocean baths to the north and the bluff to the south. The coal ships sat patiently out to sea.

The rain had eased but the loose dirt near the edge had turned into a slippery mess. Waves crashed onto the rock platform below. Another step and he’d be over the edge. He wondered what it would feel like, the free fall and wind on face, the ground rushing up to meet, the hard rock.

He remembered falling out of the fig tree as a kid and landing with a thump in the leaves. Momentary paralysis. The other kids had kept laughing, playing, climbing, oblivious. Then the realisation he was OK, apart from a headache.

His phone buzzed. There was a message from Michael. “I’m happy for you. Can’t wait to catch-up.”

The clouds thinned, the rain stopped. Streaks of sun were beginning to poke through. He turned back up the path. A rainbow formed over the houses behind the headland.

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