Cover Art

The Running Man

by

Marquis Black

John is a man at his wits' end. In love with a person he cannot fall in love with, he needs time -- and space -- to reconcile his feelings with reality, and thereby understand who he is as a person.

Chapter 1

John couldn’t remember the last time he hadn’t felt angry.

He knew he hadn’t always been angry, of course — that was just psychologically impossible. You’d go nuts after some time, after all. Even so, the last happy memory he had seemed so distant, so far away by this point that it could’ve just been yesterday, and he just wouldn’t have realised it.

The worst part was that the only thing he was angry about was himself.

Rationally, John knew he had little to be angry or sad about. He had a decent paying job, he had opportunities, he had a few friends, and his family was, for the most part, tolerable. Loving, some might say — though instances of this seemed to come about rather erratically in his opinion.

He was even in love — and that, perhaps more than anything else, was the problem.

John had fallen for the one person he’d vowed he never would: his oldest friend in the world. A girl he’d known since he was literally in diapers. A woman, now, who was beautiful, smart, sociable, and kind. A woman with eccentricities that were adorable, not weird; magnetic, yet self-effacing. Fun, yet measured.

It was honestly rather obvious, in hindsight, that he would fall for her. Still, it rather derailed things for him. After all, he had rather enjoyed her friendship, and getting romantic feelings sort of detracted from the casual ease of their interactions as he began to overthink everything. Where he could just chat with her before, or watch her chat with others on occasion, every conversation they had was now processed and analysed in his mind for the slightest clue or indications of where her affections lay.

The jealousy was the worst. Like a dark rage festering in one’s chest, yearning to take over and do something stupid — possibly violent.

Not directed at her, though — no, never. She was blameless in all of this.

Nor was it aimed at the other guys who spoke to her — many were just friends of hers, and if any of them also fell for her, how could he blame them? She was a wonderful person, after all!

No — the dark rage was directed at himself. The one coward who could not bring himself to speak to the woman he secretly loved.

Usually, however, this had been a manageable state of affairs. They’d only seen each other erratically, due to their busy schedules; she would always have something to do, and he, though substantially less busy, would distract himself from his yearning with work. This left them with precious little time to see each other, and usually for a quick chat or event.

He’d ever tried falling for other women in the interim — and while partially successful in this endeavour, he always found his affections wandering back towards his oldest friend. Eventually, he’d stopped trying altogether — John realised he had basically been lying to himself, and that pursuing other women regardless of his feelings was both dishonest, and morally repugnant.

And then, serendipity struck, and they joined the same community theater — she, looking to expand her horizons and meet new people; he, a lover of theater and yearning for a more active social life.

It was possibly the biggest mistake of his life.

John couldn’t fathom how he had made such a misstep. He lived for rationality, for making decisions logically and with a view toward the long-run. If anything, he’d been accused on more than one occasion of being overly cautious, to the point where he deliberately avoided certain activities and events just because he felt the odds weren’t in his favour.

So why had he stayed in the theater when he realised how close he’d be to his oldest friend? Why take the risk? Why hadn’t his logic centres in his brain kicked in and reminded him that he loved her, and that being so near to her, yet so far away would be like putting your heart through a grinder every passing day?

He didn’t know. He honestly didn’t know...and it wasn’t like he had anyone he could speak to about this. John hadn’t spoken about his affections for her to anyone, not trusting anyone — not even his friends — of being able to keep this secret. Even if they swore on their lives, the non-zero probability that it might leak back to her was just too great to risk.

So John had to find another solution. Something to get away from her, bring his emotions back under control, and move on with his life. Just as he had for years.

And then the opportunity came.

“Why don’t you go visit your brother? I’m sure they’d appreciate any help with your nieces.”

It was like someone opened up the sky and let a ray of divine light upon him. As horrible as it sounded, family made for a stupidly convenient excuse to leave. He certainly had the disposable income for it. He’d be on vacation in a short while. What, really, was keeping him here?

Well, aside from a rather significant fear of flying, but then no plan’s perfect.

And he needed the break from her. If he had to see that smile again and know he didn’t mean nearly as much to her as she did to him, John swore he’d hang himself.

For now, though, John just had to survive the play. Once they were done, he could make any number of excuses to not see her for some time, and the added distance of the trip would make things even easier.

He checked his calendar as he booked his trip. Three weeks left before the play was done.

Oh, what the hell? He’d survived childhood bullying, he could survive this, right? 

“Thanks again for tonight, and great work!”

John performed his best No. 2 “Maximum Politeness” smile as she waved goodbye near the front of the theater, getting into her oversized car and driving away into the night. The moment she was out of sight, John dropped the pretense and palmed his face in frustration.

He’d seriously underestimated the effort it was taking to keep things under a lid. In a very reasonable decision by the directors, she had been made the backstage manager for the play, and he her partner — in name, anyway. The only problem was that the play didn’t really require a second backstage hand, outside of running around fetching items and helping with set construction during the prep stage. Once that was done, however, John both knew and felt as though he’d become sort of redundant.

Hell, she’d all but told him that she could basically handle like 99% of the backstage activities by herself — and it was a point well made, considering most of the technical stuff had been mechanised to avoid human error. What little jobs were assigned to John during the play honestly felt more like pity than an actual need for a partner. He’d thought about walking away — why waste your time sitting around in the green room, literally twiddling your thumbs, when you could basically do anything else? Moral support for the cast? For the directors?

His ex-girlfriend would’ve laughed. John was hardly a pillar of emotional support for anyone. If anything, he felt uncomfortable being depended upon emotionally by people who were basically friendly acquaintances. Fun acquaintances, sure, but no one he could call friend just yet. That was a title you earned — on both sides of the equation. If they wanted something physical, like a prop or some food, he could do that. Emotional support, though? A rock had more stable emotions than he did.

And besides, asking him to idly sit in the green room with nothing to do, knowing she was just a door away and was actually having fun — fun that in no way included him, but certainly included others — was torture. Sure, it was selfish. Sure, it wasn’t the noblest of thoughts, but idle hands — or, in this case, idle thoughts — were the devil’s playthings, as the saying goes.

But in any case, his one attempt at walking away had provoked a rather ugly fight with his friend. Accidentally leaking his plan to her (and virtually the entire cast), she’d confronted him and demanded an explanation — an explanation he was in no emotional state to give. So he blamed literally anything else for wanting to walk away: he blamed his feeling of redundancy; he tried to blame his disconnect with the cast — they weren’t mean to him or anything, he just didn’t feel any real connection with them!

A dozen excuses, many of which ended up so mixed up in his mind that he actually forgot he’d said them — a turn of events that greatly displeased her, and nearly torpedoed a two-decades long friendship. Honestly, by the time they’d finished fighting, John would’ve abandoned himself, too, in her shoes.

It spoke of her character that she did not — she was furious at him for some time, sure, but she was also convincing, making him realise he’d made a commitment, and John valued his own word. If he walked away now, he was nothing more than an honorless liar.

It didn’t make being around her any easier, though. Even though their talks had resumed their normally friendly tone, he was still quite redundant, spending most of his time in the green room staring at posters or making idle chit chat with actors who had to be focused on their cues. He’d never felt more lonely than when he was in that room, waiting for an hour and a half to pass so that the show was over and he could go home to be alone for real, and not just feeling alone in a crowd.

Oh, he could not wait to be done with this! The airplane ticket in his metaphorical pocket felt like it was burning a hole there, just aching to be used.

Just a few more days, and he could be free of this torment. A few more days, and he could finally have some peace and quiet.

Of course, that sort of thinking is precisely why karma seemed to hate him with a passion lately, and dropped two constantly unhappy toddlers on his lap — both literally and figuratively.

“Sorry,” his sister-in-law apologised as she handed him one of the screaming toddlers. “It’s just a phase.”

He smiled awkwardly as he patted his crying niece on her back, humming a song she’d enjoyed when she was a few months younger. The crying didn’t stop, although the intensity did seem to drop a bit.

“It’s alright,” he reassured her with a small smile. “I came to help, didn’t I?”

His sister-in-law nodded with a relieved smile before moving away to feed his other niece. John returned his attention to the one in his arms and, despite the little girl’s whimpers and snot-covered face, he couldn’t help but feel like his heart soared every time he saw them. They were perfect, in his eyes. For all their crying and fussing, his nieces never failed to soften his heart, making all his anger drift away.

Like a reset button, his nieces managed to push anything and everything that was wrong with his life out of the way, letting him bask in the joy of being an uncle to two beautiful little girls who, he hoped, would grow up to see him as some sort of adequate role model.

“They really love their uncle.”

John looked to the side to see his brother smiling from near the kitchen, where he’d dropped off his bag of clothes from work. Judging from his tired countenance, it’d been another long day at the restaurant.

“I just do what I can,” John replied humbly.

His brother shook his head in amusement before going off into his room, likely to greet his wife and other daughter. He’d be back soon to greet this one, too. John raised his niece to eye level and smiled at her, hoping to elicit one from the sniffling girl. She wasn’t hungry, or dirty — they’d already checked. At this point, it was mostly just a want to be held.

“I love you, my little flower,” he whispered to her, drawing her near so he could gently kiss her forehead. The action probably meant more to him than it did to his toddler niece, but it still managed to make John smile in contentment as he brought her to his chest and let her rest there. She loved being held and hummed to sleep.

So focused was he in getting his niece to sleep that he hadn’t even realised his brother had come back out, and was staring at him from about six feet away.

“Why’d you come, John?” he asked bluntly. His brother never did like to beat around the bush, and honestly, he’d done a great job at holding back from asking for the past three days. In four, John would be back on an airplane, heading home.

John shrugged. “Wanted to see my nieces and help out,” he answered.

“And we appreciate that,” his brother assured him, motioning toward his bedroom, “but that’s not the whole story either, is it?”

John tensed up, and a brief jerk from his sleeping niece caused him to try and relax his body language again. He’d just gotten her to sleep — was that what his brother had been aiming for? After all, he knew John loved the girls dearly, and would never do anything to disturb them.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he answered guardedly.

A simple eyebrow-raise was enough to tell John what his brother thought of his answer. Even so, John refused to answer, staring his younger brother down with all the experience of their shared childhood backing his will.

Still, his ability to withstand the scrutinising gaze was not infinite, and he eventually broke down.

“I had to get away.”

His brother nodded. “From?”

John told him, and he nodded again, although less assuredly — he was clearly surprised by this turn of events. “How long?”

John was honest. If he knew as much as I’d just confessed to, what was the harm in giving him a straight answer? “Fifteen years.”

“That’s literally half your life,” his brother observed, sounding and looking a bit shocked. “That’s...crazy.”

John shrugged. It was nothing he hadn’t told himself already.

“You’re obsessed,” his brother said flatly, crossing his arms and tutting in disapproval.

“I’ve considered that,” John confessed. “But I don’t think I am. I’ve gone months without speaking to her before. Years, at one point. I even thought I’d completely pushed her out of my mind.”

“But you still came back to her every single time,” his brother observed. “That’s obsessive.”

“Maybe,” John conceded, shifting his arms a bit to better accommodate his sleeping niece. “I’ve started going back to a shrink over this. I don’t like the way I feel nowadays.”

“That’s a first. Usually, you just bottle it up and go nuts one day.”

A shrug. “I’m turning over a new leaf,” John replied blandly, looking down and smiling at the sleeping face of his niece. “I want to be a good uncle.”

“You want to be good boyfriend material, too,” his brother observed calmly, going over to the kitchen to pour himself a drink.

“That’s farfetched.”

“Did you tell her about the shrink thing?”

“...Yes.”

“Then you’re trying to prove your maturity,” his brother concluded, gulping down some fresh apple juice. “Trying to show her that you accept your flaws and want to improve as a person.”

“I just wanted her to know what I’m doing,” John defended himself. “If she suddenly found out I’m visiting a shrink from someone else, she’d get worried and start asking questions.”

“Why would she find out?” his brother asked archly.

“You know how it is back home; everyone’s always up in each other’s business.”

“You’re making excuses,” his brother countered flatly. “You always do. Anything but face your own demons.”

“I’m going to a shrink, aren’t I?”

“For the wrong reasons.”

It wasn’t anything John hadn’t told himself a thousand times, but it still stung. That seemed to be his modus operandi, really — he always had good intentions that backfired spectacularly. Even the times he’d tried actually having a girlfriend had backfired, as he ended up being utterly emotionally unavailable. Figures, right?

“And what’s your suggestion?” he asked, finally.

His brother shrugged. “No suggestion. Not my place.” He finished drinking down his juice and wiped off his mouth with his wrist. “Well, maybe one. Make a choice.”

John cocked his head to the side slightly, unsure what he meant.

“Either confess to her, or get over her. Stop running away.”

“I’m not running away.”

“You literally flew to another country.”

Alright, so he had a point. Even so, John didn’t have an answer ready for him. His mind was awhirl with confusion and depression. He loved her, and yet he couldn’t imagine a life without her, either. If he confessed, he was sure any bonds they’d had up to that point would shatter into a million fragments, and he’d lose her forever. If he tried to get over her, he knew he wouldn’t be able to — after all, he’d already tried. In the end, her smile and winning personality always drew him back.

John idly wondered if he was perhaps a masochist.

“I don’t know what to do,” he admitted at last.

His brother nodded sagely. “I figured.”

“Thank you again so much for your help!”

John smiled as he played with his nieces one last time before heading through airport security. He’d miss the little balls of energy and their beautiful smiles. They always made him feel relaxed and happy — hopeful for the future, in a way. As in past occasions, John felt almost like a different man around them — less like the emotional trainwreck he usually was, and more like a responsible adult figure they could one day look up to. 

It was reaffirming, in a way. He’d always struggled with a rather significant inferiority complex that made him feel worthless compared to his younger brothers and sister. He certainly topped no one’s list of friends, and his social life was entirely composed of him trying to get others to go out with him, rather than the other way around, or trying to get himself invited to outings.

Depressing.

But with his nieces, he didn’t have to try so hard. He just sang to them, played with them, and napped with them, and they were happy. They made him feel unconditionally loved and wanted, which was something no one else had ever achieved with him.

Perhaps that was the wake-up call he needed?

He pondered the matter as he said his goodbyes to his brother’s family and eventually boarded the plane to go back home. Pushing aside the very real dread of flying he felt, he focused his attention on his possible realisation.

Could he really call a relationship friendship if it was entirely one-sided? Did it make sense to try so hard for people who couldn’t be bothered to return the favour? He eyed his phone and reminded himself that 99% of the time, he was always the one who had to initiate conversation — something he hated more than anything, considering his social anxiety. At no point did anyone ever really chat with him to see how he was doing, how his day had been...even though he always made an effort to be there for his friends.

Perhaps his brother was right — he had to make a choice...just not the one they’d thought. Perhaps it wasn’t a matter of whether or not to confess or get over the one girl, but rather to keep or break the friendship altogether — and all the other one-sided friendships he’d cultivated over the years.

Part of him was adamantly against this. He was overreacting, surely, and focusing only on the negatives of his relationships. Surely, he thought, there had to be something good about them?

Well, he had to admit that being around his childhood friend had made him want to become a better person...but had it been for the right reasons? Had he been trying to improve himself because he wanted to be a good person, or because he thought she’d like it? Surely, the latter option was horrible in itself, no? Or could he really say that the ends justified the means/intentions — that because he was a better person today, it didn’t matter that he had basically deceived himself into changing.

The fact was that there was no easy answer to any of this. The more John thought about it, the more frustrated he got. Taking out his smartphone and connecting it to the airplane’s wifi, he was about to surf the web for news articles or other things to distract him when his messenger app beeped. Puzzled as he recognised his brother’s username and the icon for a picture, he unlocked the phone and opened the app. 

Almost immediately, his face broke out into a touched smile. There was his sister-in-law, holding the twins, who seemed to be rather enjoying the picture judging from their wide grins. Underneath the picture, he saw the caption read: “Miss our uncle already! Be back soon!”

His dark thoughts vanished in that instant. For all the mental torment he heaped on himself, the thought and sight of his nieces continued to warm his heart. And sure, maybe that feeling wouldn’t last as they grew older. Heck, they might even end up considering him weird or annoying — children were fickle that way.

Even so. Even so, they loved him thus far, and as unconditionally as a human being could. They had no agenda; they had no ulterior motives. They didn’t play mind games or treat others like inferiors or annoyances.

John smiled as he texted back a quick reply and settled in for the rest of the flight.

He might not have reached an epiphany about his own situation back home, but at the very least he was now left with a sense of confidence as he resolved to put his life back in his hands. Whatever he chose, he had to decide things now based on what was best for him and his well-being. That meant doing something he could be proud of later on, when he retold this story to his nieces years down the line. What did he want? Who did he want to become?

He had no idea, but he sure would have fun finding out.

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