“Runner” by Justin Carroll

On the Television, an infomercial audience is clapping. That must have been what woke you.  No.  There is knocking, so you walk to the door. It’s Emily. She’s giving you a ride to the airport so you can visit your parents for Christmas.  There’s no telling how long she’s been standing on the front step, but judging from the knocking it’s been a while.  She’s mad, furious, standing out in the frigid December morning as the wind nips up her shirt and gives her flabby stomach goose bumps.  These are your last moments in Montana.

“Your cell phone’s turned off again,” she says as she brushes the cold off and heads for the furnace.  “Jesus, you’re twenty-three.”

“Oh?” you say.  It’s probably for the best, you decide.

Theodore, the twenty-five-year-old with braces and a nine millimeter, has been leaving threatening voicemails for a week.

“Are you packed yet?”


“Shit, Gerard, you’re going to miss your flight.” She rushes to your bedroom, grabs your suitcase from the corner, and starts picking up clothes that lay scattered on the floor. She stuffs them into the bag without folding. This pisses you off, but you don’t say anything. As she packs, you look at the room you’ve been living in for three years. There is a leaning tower of boxes, a musty towel, and a nest of blankets lying in the corner by your pillow. There is no bed, no chair, no dresser, and no exercise bike.

When Emily is finished, you go to the bathroom and get on your knees. You pray that you don’t drink or get high.

You walk with her to the car. It smells worse than usual. You scoot over a heap of crumpled fast food fry cartons and sit. The cold, cracked vinyl of the seat touches your skin between your jacket and jeans. You shiver. Her heater doesn’t work. It’s going to be a cold twenty minutes to the airport.

The sun rises in an orange blast on Emily’s side. Instead of noticing the miracle of it all, or marveling at the horses prancing in the field blowing clouds from their nostrils like dragons, you focus on how you fat she looks. She’s gained twenty pounds since dumping you for the eighteen-year-old bass player in the noise punk band. You hate her face, the way her eyes scrunch up in defense from dawn. You love what she used to be, and what you used to be. She lights a joint, hits it, and you accept it.

“Have a good trip,” she says as she pulls up to the loading zone.

You take a step towards her, which makes her look away. When she looks your way again, you kiss her on the lips. They are cold and still.

“I love you,” you say.

“Take care of yourself,” she says and without another look she gets into the car and pulls out.

After you check in your bag, you look in your wallet. Two dollars. In searching for more cash you find a baggie that once held half a gram of cocaine. You head to the bathroom and, once there, lick it until your teeth feel vaguely numb. Bags hang your eyes. A patchy beard has sprouted on your chin. You still have a cut on your neck from when the mill worker put your head through the pawn shop window next to Al and Vic’s. You head to the bookstore and steal a Rolling Stone. On the plane, you start to read an article about Iris DeMent. She’s your mother’s favorite singer. Two lines in, you fall asleep. You’re out until Little Rock.

You spot your father standing by the gift shop. He’s giving his patented smile, not showing any teeth. With each step closer, his smile fades. By the time you’re shaking his hand, his brow is knit in a frown. He sticks a hundred dollar bill in your pocket.

“Good to see you, son.”

“You, too,” you say. You mean it. Walking to the baggage claim, he puts his arm around you, and you put your head on his shoulder. His arm stays on your shoulder as you go to the car. Stella is in it. Her face seems gray, but she’s wagging her tail the way she did the day Mom brought her home from the breeder’s ten years ago.

“Stella looks good,” you say.

“Her health’s not too hot,” he says, reaching over and scratching her ears. “We’re not sure how much longer she has.” You both sit in silence, and you can sense your father is working on the right way to go about saying something. He clears his throat.

“You drinking again?” Dad asks.

“A little,” you say. He pats you on the knee and Stella licks your face.

When you get to your parents’ house, you walk to the guest bedroom and lie down. It’s dark when you open your eyes again. There is a note hanging on the microwave written in your mother’s loving hand.

Went to a dinner party at the Finleys.
There’s salmon in the fridge.
Glad you’re home.


You ignore the salmon and look for wine, but there isn’t any. You fish your phone out of your back pocket. When you turn it on, you have twenty new voice mails. The first eighteen are from Theodore, and you delete them without listening.

Then there is Jared:

“Dude, twelve assholes just came to the house lookin’ for you! You stole money from them or something?” He sighs. “I don’t know, man, Sarah is freaked. Call me when you get this.”

The last one is from Emily:

“So, I turned your phone on. This is the last time. Hope you’re having fun. It was nice to see you.”

You call her back and it rings once and goes to voicemail. You don’t leave a message. You turn on the TV and turn it off immediately. You check your pants for another baggie. There isn’t one. You check the pants Emily packed. Nada. You check the bookshelf, where two summers before you stashed your weed. There is nothing to smoke and nothing to drink. You decide to take your father’s station wagon for a drive.

There are no stores in the gated village your parents retired early to. You drive ten miles to get out the gates. A man in a brown uniform gives you a salute as you pass. You suppress the urge to give him the finger. You pass two supermarkets and a few gas stations. Then you spot a liquor store. Your stomach feels queasy as you lay eyes on the endless ocean of bottles. You get Jack Daniels and smile at the clerk.

At your parents house you crack the bottle and get ready to chug. When you smell it, though, you get sick. Your hands shake. Your gorge rises. You cannot take a drink. You pour a shot, but cannot drink this either. You take the shot glass to the back door and throw it as hard as you can into the woods, and go back to TV.

When your parents get home you are still sober. You’ve hidden the liquor, but can’t stop thinking about it. Your mother rubs your beard and kisses the top of your head like she’s done since you can remember, then heads to the kitchen to heat the salmon. Her eyebrows are thinner, but her rosy cheeks are the same as when she used to pick you up from soccer practice. Her graying brown hair is cut the same way, too.

“Are you still working at the independent paper?” she asks.


“Oh, that’s too bad. Why not?”

“I missed an interview with Iris DeMent,” you say. The real reason was a woman accused you of being drunk during Family Day at the Clark Fork Park.

You’re sure Mom knows that’s a lie, but she doesn’t say so.

“Have you looked for another one yet?” she asks.


Since the paper fired you two months ago, you worked as a sushi roller for three weeks and at Burlington Coat Factory for two. Without thinking about it, you go to the grandfather clock and pull out the whiskey bottle. You bring it to the sink, open the bottle, and pour it down the drain. Your mother silently watches.

“Have you been drinking again?” she asks.

“A little,” you reply.

The next night you allow your mother to drive you to a church. In the basement there is a cluster of smiling faces. The people shake your hand and tell you they’re glad you could make it. For an hour they drink coffee and talk about how they haven’t drunk booze in a while. You’ve been to places like this before, once when you were eighteen and once three years ago when you were twenty. After the hour you help stack chairs. A woman with white hair and yellow teeth rubs your back.

“Hope to see you again,” she says.

“I think you will,” you say.

A week later you still haven’t taken a drink. You’ve been going to those gatherings every day, back at that church a few times and in a trailer outside the village gates. You went to a gathering in an abandoned school house behind the horse track in a town twenty minutes away, too. You had Christmas with your family. Stella had to be put to sleep the day after. You dug a hole in the garden like your father asked and you held Mom’s hand as she cried. It was the first time since before high school you felt like a part of the family.

Jared continues to call, as does Theodore. You only pick up calls from Emily, and she’s called just twice.

On Sunday, you go for a walk with your father. It’s brisk outside, but it seems tropical compared to the cruel mornings of Montana. You walk by the golf course.

“Have you been looking for a new reporting job?” Dad asks.

“Not since I’ve been here, no,” you say.

“You can look for jobs online, you know, and you better be aggressive.  The newspaper industry is dying, so it’ll be hard to get another gig.”

“I know.”

In your head, you try to count the reasons for going back to Montana.  Emily is the only one you can think of.

“I may not go back, if that’s all right with you,” you say while walking up the driveway.

“Your mother and I would love that.”

Jared is rude when you tell him you’re not coming back.

“Rent is due in five days!” he shouts over the phone.

“I’m sorry. I’ll send you next month’s rent ASAP.”

“You still owe for this month.”

You hang up the phone. You write your dad an email, asking if you can borrow the money for rent.  In the morning, there is a blank check sitting on top of your wallet on the night stand.

Ten days into your new life, you get a job at a café. It’s in the golf course, and pays six dollars an hour, plus a cut of the tip jar. One woman works with you. She is a big, dark-haired woman named Cleo.

“Where you from, boo?” she asks on your first day. When you tell her, she makes a high pitched sound and pretends to shiver.  “Way too cold up there for me.”

“And you?” you ask.

“I’m from the mud of Louisiana, where it don’t dip below seventy in the middle of winter and races past a hundred in August,” she says.

The day after your first shift is New Year’s Eve. You talk to Dan, a friend from Montana.

“You’re missing the big bash at Al’s and Vic’s. It’s an eighties party. Should be pretty sweet,” he says.

It sucked last year,” you reply.

You want to go. Emily calls and wishes you a happy New Year. When you tell her you’re not coming back, she starts to cry.

“I’m gonna miss you,” she weeps, “I wish things hadn’t gotten so screwed up.”

This makes you want to drink more than anything. You go to the schoolhouse behind the track.  You don’t listen to what people are sharing.  Instead, you imagine yourself dressed up as Tom Cruise from Risky Business. You see yourself nodding at Jared, Theodore, and all the others that you usually had to duck away from. You see yourself handling your drinks like a gentleman, like a champion even. There would be no more fights. You wouldn’t puke on the pool table like at last New Year’s party. This time would be different, you say.

After the meeting there is a dance. A man with a very long soul patch backs his Honda hatchback up to the front door and cranks up his stereo. Guns N Roses are playing. Two women start dancing with each other. As you leave, you avoid the man in red extending for a handshake.

You’re going to get drunk, end of story. Your mind says to kill yourself instead, but that’s way too drastic. All the liquor stores look dark. The usually glowing martini glasses are silhouettes, only visible from the fluorescent glow of the beer coolers. You decide to hit the Wal-Mart by your parents’ house.

There is an agonizingly long line. You stand behind a man in a ball cap and listen to his side of a phone conversation.

“I got ’em, honey, don’t worry,” he says. You imagine he’s talking to his wife, probably some beer-chugging, NASCAR fan. Still, though, you feel envious.

“I know, I know, I can’t wait to see you too, baby. I love you.”

Darlene is the name of the woman at the register. She has a smiley face button on her apron, but isn’t smiling. Her neck hangs loosely like a hound dog.  When you put your beer down on the counter, she looks confused.

“You can’t buy this today, sir,” she says impatiently. Two women behind you in line stop their conversation about Allan Jackson.

“What? Why not?” Your voice is panicky.

She sighs. “It’s Sunday, sir.” The women behind are whispering now, and you can feel heat in your cheeks.

“Christ, what’s that supposed to mean?” you yell. The store goes silent. A man behind you somewhere clears his throat.

“Hey, take it easy, buddy,” he says. You ignore him and turn your attention back to a very nervous Darlene.

“It’s against the law to buy or sell alcohol in Arkansas on Sunday.”

Tears are rolling down your cheeks before you make it out the store. You punch the steering wheel of your father’s car. This isn’t fair, you think. Life drunk is miserable, and life without booze is hell. You think about last summer, when you and Emily saw The Decemberists at the Wilma. You drank like a gentleman that night, like a champion. When you interviewed the band for the paper, they laughed at all of your jokes and invited you to the after party. During their set, they dedicated a song to you. When you declined to go to the after party so you could walk Emily home, she told you she would love you forever.

Another memory comes to mind, this one not that long ago. It was just a week before you came to Arkansas. You stay up all night drinking, trying to figure out a way to pay the rent. Finally, you drive your car to Theodore’s, but you have to stop at a gas station and fill up your front tire. When you get to Theodore’s house, you make sure he’s at work. When this has been established, you kick in his back door. Under his mattress, you find twelve hundred in cash. Under his bed, you find half an ounce of weed. You look for cocaine, but find none. You sell the weed to a kid with a nose ring. You decide before you pay the rent, you’re going to celebrate. You call up Darnell, the third string fullback for the Montana Grizzlies and your second string coke hook up. He comes through, and two days later you’re broke without paying the rent.

Then, like a punch in the stomach you’re hit with a sane thought: I don’t want to drink, and I don’t want to die.

It strikes you as the first rational idea you’ve had in a long time. You drive back to your parent’s house.Your mother is asleep and leaning against your father. He is watching The Grand Ol’ Opry.

“How was the meeting?” he asks.

“Great,” you say.

The day you are supposed to head back to Montana, you are cleaning the fryer at the golf course. After you drain the machine, scrub the sides, and fill it with fresh oil, you take the old stuff to the receptacle behind the ninth hole. You take your phone out. The only person who has called you in the past two days is Theodore. You dump the grease. The sides of the container look like a thousand candles were melted in it. You drop your phone in.

Walking back through the course to the parking area, you pass a pond. Steam is rolling off it. The ground is wet, and two Canadian geese have their wings up. They’re honking and circling each other. It looks to you like some sort of dance, something ballerinas in New York would imitate. It’s beautiful.


~Justin Carroll