September comes and September goes. When I was a junior in high school, I remember our English teacher, Mr. Majerus, informing us how September has been historically a hard month, and he recounted a few natural disasters and assassinations that devastated our country. He didn’t have to mention the most obvious, which was days away - the first anniversary of 9/11. Later, when I was in my mid 20’s, I lost the ability to run. It was my knees that went bad, and on the heels of this new, debilitating pain came the hard decision of letting go. This may sound absurd if you’re not a runner, but running changed my life, and to lose something that had such an impact was a tremendous blow. For some time, I wanted to write a story about it. Years later, I finally did. But sometimes stories – like our lives – don’t turn out as planned. I wanted to put to paper this loss, and yet what came out instead was a pain far more profound. It’s an eclectic mashup of fact and fiction, when memoir meets fantasy. What parts are real and what aren’t? I’ll let you figure that out. But know this: I believe in a creator God who dares to give us what we need, which is ironic. We all want heaven on Earth, and yet sometimes what we need is a taste of hell - something that comes and goes. Like September.
A note on all issues prior to 2023
In 2023, we switched email sending services. Converting entire issues into our new sender and their formatting is a fair bit of work, and with our limited resources, we've decided to expedite the process by focusing on converting only the story and intro. Perhaps some day we'll get around to the rest of it, but for now, enjoy the story.
You slow for a crumpled body at the foot of a ditch. The broken asphalt under your feet feathers to loose gravel and glistening weeds where crickets and toads and other creatures chirrup in the darkness. A sallow, wrinkled hand reaches out to you from a cavern of old flannel, like an offering frozen in the exchange. You should be petrified; instead, you pause your run mix, place your hands on your hips, and consume the night air. Back in the 90s, they built an overpass a half mile from your house. Every night you climb the beast, which marks both the beginning and end of your route, where a mere right turn takes you home. Tonight, you took a left. You blitzed past the Happy Joe's Pizzeria, the auto body shop and into the countryside, propelled by an unusual expulsion of energy. Years from now you will look back upon this run and wonder if the choice was really yours to make, or the work of some divine hand reaching down and angling your course, and ultimately, your life. Your pace is fast - perhaps too fast - and coupled with the added distance, it reminds you that you are still mortal. When you come across the body, your reactions are muted by your exhaustion. You steady yourself and squat, linking fingers over your head to increase the flow of oxygen. Moonlight shines upon his scalp, his silver hair thin and scruffy around the edges. His face is tanned like a farmer's, weathered from sun and abuse and all the storms of life. You're so drained that you just now notice the pair standing over. Again, you should be petrified, but you simply breathe. They don't regard you, smiling gently as they watch over the body. A sound like music radiates from them, though their lips move not. You don't recall their features, only their pale robes ruffling lightly from a breeze. Somehow, you deduce they are waiting. A magic like fire leaps from the chest of the man and rockets into the sky. The pair snap their necks skyward, and sing. Previously hidden wings unfurl, and effortlessly they sail into the atmosphere like reverse shooting stars until they are lost amidst the very things they resemble.
You were 14 when you stepped out into the night. The holes in your sweatpants drooped like the excess under your shirt. You didn't stretch, don earbuds or bullet off the start - that was all much later. This was simply a means to an end; getting picked first on the team, getting the girl, not getting winded climbing three flights of stairs.
The pain came hot and fast, as if a man held your lungs in his fist and squeezed. You staggered through it for another minute before succumbing to the agony. Glancing behind, you could still see your driveway — the starting line.
You walked the rest of the way back.
At age 20 you buy a house. It's a split-level fixer-upper with nasty shag carpeting, rotting kitchen cupboards, and bedrooms with annoying old switches that control outlets instead of lights. Right now, it's without power, along with half of the city.
Your breath frosts as you carefully navigate the pavement. Snow covers everything - it is the ice you avoid, the same ice that coats trees and envelopes power lines and takes both down like a million ants would a beast. You don't run during the winter - it destroys your lungs and you can never figure out the proper attire - yet here you are, navigating the black ice and complete darkness with only the moon as your guide because your house is freezing and you realize how truly worthless you are without power, without heat.
You have a different route now - the overpass is miles away - which takes you up what you refer to as Hill 400. It's a brutal battle, as long as it is steep, and as you sidestep your way to the top, your feet strike what you cannot see, and you pinwheel forward, twisting over the cold cement until you land in a heap.
You never told a soul about what happened, years ago. You remember headlights in the distance, flagging down a driver, and the ensuing flashes of red and blue, but you didn't reveal to them exactly what you saw. As time passed, you told yourself it was all hallucination, a runner's high coupled with the shock of stumbling across a dead man. Who would believe you when you didn't believe yourself?
The snow is powder against your skin, brushing aside to reveal a blanket of ice. Pushing off the ground, you pull back your hands and cup fingers to mouth. When you look up, you see them - dozens - both far away and close; that fire like magic, rising into the sky like a meteor shower that's lost its way.
You run at night. It started that way because you didn't want anyone else to see you, to laugh or scoff at your pace, and how a fat boy was trying to break free from his own prison. You tried diets, lifting weights and workout videos, but none of those were sustainable, and as you look back you don't know how you mustered the courage to sprint on, but you did. Meters turned to miles and the calories began to melt. It was the desire which prompted you to the starting line and the results which carried you across the finish.
To your great annoyance, adults would make comments about growing into a young man, ignorant of the hard work you had put in, as if you were a magical bean planted by Jack himself that was finally shooting to the clouds. You learn a valuable lesson; when you conquer giants in the darkness of the night, who is there but you to see them fall?
You meet her at a duathlon - or rather, the idea of one. It was with a large group over calzones when you confess to your friends that you ran the wrong route. You didn't know the course, and local columnist Jack Marlowe was supposed to be directing the way, but instead of pointing, he just stood there at the intersection shaking a stick.
"How was I to know the stick meant 'turn right'?" you say. You realized your error when you finished 10 minutes ahead of the pack. The story makes for a good laugh, but the better, unforeseen result is that she asks you to join her for a race. You play it up and pretend to weigh your options, but the answer was always yes. And even though the duathlon gets rained out, it leads to racquetball and car rides, dinner and movies, and a diamond sparkling under the warm glow of Christmas lights.
With matrimony comes new challenges, lifestyles, and rhythms. Your running suffers. You lose your job and remodel your house while waiting for work. You acquire a cat, then a second. Plus signs march across your vision unannounced, and your house - once filled with shouts and grunts of single young men - now stays awake amidst other cries. One child blossoms into two. You start a business. Your wife is due shortly with a third.
It's just another Monday morning, standing in your driveway when you take the call and listen in shock as the words touch your ears, "They can't find a heartbeat."
Later - much later - after the hospital, the waiting and induction, the birth and burial, selecting fonts over colors, headstones instead of cribs, you go for a run. You crawl out of bed in the middle of the night, slip on your shoes, and escape.
Earlier that day you'd taken the family to the cemetery and placed a bouquet of bright flowers for his first birthday while your daughters let loose solitary red balloons to heaven. You watched through tears as your wife uncapped her water bottle and filled the vase.
You return to life the same way you return to running - one step at a time. They're heavy steps at first, slow and awkward, but as the days pass they pick up speed until you are finding your way among streets you've never been down. Sometimes you stumble, other times you glide. Tonight, you run hard, the direction and distance moot, only the energy matters - the exertion.
You are the master of your body - the one thing you can control - and you push it to the limits. You cruise by the post office, the water tower, lighted paths and darkened alleys. There's pain and ache but you ignore them, just keep hammering the pavement, feeling the rise of your pulse and the wind against your face. The torment spreads from your gut to your joints; a slow cascade down your skin like a lover's caress, until you are so consumed that you halt at the edge of a cornfield, sucking in agonizing gasps of air.
The stalks are wet with dew, an orchestra of insects plays on an endless loop. A faint light appears in the eastern sky. It's pale at first, like the thin wisps of dawn crawling through a frost-covered timberline, but rises impossibly fast, absorbing the darkness in glittering gold until you're standing in full daylight. The cornfield is new and beautiful, proud and soldiered in perfect rows. The concrete under your feet now sparkles, and as you turn around you behold the city skyline, farther away and more majestic than you ever knew it to be. Children come running out of the woods, laughing and playing, their words like melody. You follow them down a path etched in old stone. It winds under towering trees and blooming wildflowers until you burst into a clearing.
A cozy log cabin is nestled against a forest. A group of adults smile and laugh next to several piles of leaves. The children throw themselves into the mounds and giggle. You approach one of the men. Although you were never acquainted, you recognize him; the last time you met, he wore flannel.
He beams at you - his scars and wrinkles now washed by a tide of vigor - and stretches out his arm, as if to say, "This way." You follow him around the cabin. A woman leans on a stool, reading from a large, leather-bound book to a group of small children sitting cross-legged in the grass.
Behind them are the cribs.
The rails are hand-carved, beautiful specimens, and are smooth to the touch. They are the product of a master craftsman and take you back to your days in shop class. Your teacher was a slob, with a tangle of greasy hair and a beer gut peeking out from under a faded T, but he cared about his craft. He taught you how to miter, dovetail, and sand with the grain. At the end of the project, as you stared at the creation of your hands, he told you that lacquer wasn't just the pretty sheen covering old furniture - that it's a process; the unpleasant task of restoration, the hard work of making something battered beautiful again.
Your legs carry you forward; you know which crib to approach. You dare to peak over.
He's curled in a ball. His features are soft and smooth; he is as perfect as he is peaceful.
You close your eyes, take a deep breath, and when you open them, you're standing in front of a cornfield illuminated faintly by the stars, your heavy breathing drowned out by your run mix.
In time, what was once unbearable became bearable.
The first few years were hard, but your lungs grew bigger and your legs stronger. Running transformed from a necessary evil to something that you simply did, and from that into a joy. You began to stretch, bought a CD player, and started timing yourself. You climbed the overpass, dashed under the orange and white street lights, caught your reflection in the windows as you blitzed past all the shops closed on Main Street.
You ran your first race - a Moonlight Chase with a few thousand others because it was the only race at night. You changed your diet to break a 5:30 mile, bought an I-pod, even suffered through a triathlon where you finished 10 minutes ahead of your partner because you took a wrong turn at the stick-shaking Jack Marlowe.
Your run mix swelled with bands like Shinedown, Default, and Seether; Linkin Park and Pillar, and any modern rock with a quick tempo. Their music gave you strength and pushed you on, daring you to reach new heights. Out of all the challenges ever laid before you, you were never more at peace than when you were crushing pavement under the stars.
In time, what was once unbearable became bearable.
Your father wasn't much older than you are now when his knees went bad. It was a sharp pain, an invisible needle sliding above the kneecap every time he took a ladder or stair. This is identical to what you experience, the only difference being he didn't run.
You're working in your basement the first time it happens. Taking the lowest step on the stairwell, you collapse at the pain, surprised more than hurt. You stand, regain your composure and slowly try again, alarmed at the increasing torment above your socket. You test the other leg with the same results. Frustrated, you spend another 10 minutes attempting alternative ways up the stairs, but there is no substitute for legs. Once you've expended all options, you opt for a nap on the floor.
Months later, and with more inner torment than physical, you admit that running is furthering the damage. You take a break and seek professional help. You run the gamut on experts; doctors and surgeons and specialists, but for all their degrees they can only offer generic reasons as to why you aren't yourself.
During this season you ponder: you think about the things you've seen, the secrets you've held close to your chest your entire life, never quite sure what to make of them. You didn't dare tell a soul, but you theorized; a runner's high - you'd heard addicts talk about seeing other dimensions, planes of existence, things that they couldn't describe. Was this that? Was it a gift? A curse? What you once thought was imaginary you later began to believe, and now you've cemented the reality once and for all. But what for? And why you?
And could there be more?
This last question haunts you the most. You recall each episode; the common thread is that you were running. Something pushed you on, whether mental or physical, past your normal limitations, and when you were totally spent, your eyes opened.
You greatly desire to put this theory to the test, only there's one problem; your knees. Younger days drift to mind - the useless weights and futile workouts - and you conclude there is no alternative.
Then one day your wife suggests something in passing, and it stops you in your tracks.
A bike ride - why hadn't you ever thought of that?
The idea had never occurred, and yet once it was spoken, it was like a cog falling perfectly into place and setting the machine back into motion. You purchase a new bike, padded gloves, a water bottle and an LED headlight and pedal into the darkness. The pavement rolls by, the wind a gale against your face. You cover immense distance, riding over sidewalks and sewer grates, jumping curbs and cutting through parks. You grind the ascents and blaze back down. It tires and exhausts you, but not absolutely, like how working out your arms does nothing for the core.
You sample different avenues, remove the seat post, increase the inclines and double the distance, but it's not the same. No matter how hard you crank the wheels, you cannot spend yourself.
Despite the time and energy invested, you gain some of your weight back and are forced to eat clean - the lack of carbs sours your mood and strips bare your patience. The enemy you once thought vanquished returns, and with it, the struggle, made all the more burdensome under the load of an adult's responsibilities. Your waist size increases, and as the days melt into months, you begin to realize that there is no substitute for running; you will never empty your tank, and the skies will never reopen.
You didn't expect the pain to return, yet when it did you were almost as angry as you were surprised. Anniversaries are supposed to be joyful, sanguine allotments. You see it coming every year, like a semi barreling down the highway. You anticipate leaping out of the way, but at the last moment your legs buckle and you are swallowed by its indomitable force.
Your wife eventually succumbs to sleep, but you cannot. You crawl out of bed, throw on a pair of shorts and just drive; past your old high school, the grocery store where you once stocked shelves, and the neighborhood of your youth.
Your parents have moved out, along with most of your former neighbors. There are new houses and newer cars and nothing you remember, except the overpass. It hasn't changed; two lanes at 25 mph, a sidewalk with a chain-link fence covering the sides and top.
Last year you stumbled across a video of some Indian doctor who specialized in knee damage - he even wrote a book about it. He spoke to your every pain and frustration. You bought the book, did all he instructed; stretch this, eat that, exercise the body in a million different ways. His confidence gave you confidence. His regiments didn't offer an exact end date, only recommendations. You were going to wait another month, but as you gaze up at the overpass stretching across the highway, you think, why not?
Why the hell not?
You grab your phone and press play. The solemn peel of an electric guitar fades out all other noise, and you jog; beneath street lights, past your old house and starting line, empty parks and closed shops, under the glow of gas station and fast-food signs, and your reflection in every car window. The air is warm, your breathing heavy; your side throbs and chest constricts. You push past, grind on, muster all you've got. The overpass - the beginning and end to all your adolescent runs - accepts you without pleasure. As you climb, your knees begin to falter, like glaciers cracking and breaking free and falling into the abyss. You're so close you can feel it. Knowing what it will do, you gun it, and as you crest the top of the overpass, it happens.
Gunshots fire off in your knees, the cliff on the edge of the ocean breaks away, and you fall.
You cry out, but not because of the concrete ripping into your flesh or even the explosions in your joints. You cry out because you know this is the last time you'll ever run, because you will never be whole, because you want your knees back so you can run but not because you miss jogging but everything else that jogging meant to you. You think of the future, the past, and the miserable struggle that is now; of the hills you've climbed, the mountains you've moved, and the mountains that moved you; of playing catch in the backyard with a worn pigskin, shooting hoops on cracked cement, blowing out birthday candles, burning fingers on bottle rockets and learning how to drive a stick; you think of all the things you'll never do together, and running is the least of these because you always ran alone.
You clench your fists and cry out to the heavens, and the tears fall as freely as you did to the ground. The cement is unprejudiced against your flesh. You bleed, but it's hard to tell where the cuts begin and shadows end. Your breathing is heavy but not heavy enough; you're exhausted but not to the point of delirium.
When at last you look up, two are standing over.
The stars are bright pinpricks lighting the night sky. A static breeze washes in from the countryside, where you faintly make out the chatter of bugs and frogs and other such nocturnal denizens. Your wounds tingle, then dissipate, like everything else.
You don't recall their features, only pale robes fluttering in the wind, and the gentle kiss of air against your skin. They reach out, and you take their hands. There's a moment of idyllic pause - a peaceful regret - and then the blast. It's mute, like blinding light, and its silence is deafening. You're flying through the air, faster than any speed you ever reached on foot or pedal, past clouds and stars and galaxies until they trail into a blurry matrix beneath your feet.
You stand before a city.
A meadow rolls out before towering arches and golden gates. Cotton clouds aglow with autumn color drift aimlessly. The laughter of children dashing across the pasture catches your ear, and you watch them. They glide without effort. The ground is soft, warm, green. You move towards the children and follow their laughter to the bank of a river.
The water is crystal and reflects perfectly the illuminated clouds above, only distorted by the reaching arms of a willow. Bent slightly towards the river, the tree is colossal, its lowest wisps tasting the water and altering the reflection. The children splash their way to the other side, but for one. He stands at the edge of the bank, and somehow you know without knowing that he's been standing here all along - for days and weeks and years and however you choose to describe the painful slogging of eternity in the heart.
You pause, afraid you'll make a sound and he'll vanish like smoke. His feet are burrowed into the sand as he squats and studies the current. He turns, briefly - not because of any noise you made, but because he knows - and you catch the quickest glimpse. His hair is a dark hazel, like his mother's, but his eyes are yours. Even quicker than your glimpse is the smile that dusts his face before his legs, thick and strong and built for sprinting, work the ground. Sand kicks up, and you find yourself pursuing. The mere idea of pain or ache or even falling doesn't register as it no longer exists. You soar on wings like eagles; you run and do not grow weary, you walk and do not faint.
His motions are liquid, the perfect symmetry of something doing the very thing it was created to do. You want to catch him, to hold him, to look upon his face. You have so many questions, so many things to tell, so many stories to share.
He is too fast.
You slow, then stop. There is a peace about this place, about letting go - a satisfaction that tunnels deeply and rescinds all protest. You watch your son fade into the distance. You are whole, replete, and quiet - the ageless longings thirsting within your soul since the moment you were created are - for one flawless, immeasurable moment - satisfied.
Then you blink, and he is gone.
The grass is pavement, and Shinedown whispers a dare in your ear. There's no city, no music or song or angels or souls or flashing lights or sirens. No hospital staff or gravestones or singular balloons flying into the sky. There's only you, a little boy who just wanted to lose weight, a young man with battered knees and a broken soul, a father who knows the truth; that when you conquer giants in the darkness of the night, who is there but you to see them fall?
About the Author Danny Hankner began penning stories about himself and his idiot friends as a teenager. Now, masquerading as an adult, he lives in Davenport, Iowa with his wife and three children, working as a master electrician for his own company. In his spare time, Dan rides and builds mountain bike trails, scrapes infinitely spawning cat hurl off the basement floor, and runs Story Unlikely, an award-winning literary magazine where he floats around self-important titles like 'Editor-in-chief'. His work has besmirched the good reputations of Downstate Story, SQ Mag, Tenth Muse, and many more unfortunate publishers, as well as being awarded semi-finalist in Writers of the Future.
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