Episode 2: Donna Quixote

A creaking sound woke her, one like that of someone stepping on a squeaky floor board. Her eyes opened wide absorbing only the soft glow from the faint night light that she kept plugged into the wall opposite her bed. She kept still except to pivot her head toward her bedroom door. The slight glint of the meager night light shining onto the door knob winked at her. Her heart, the drum beat of her fears, pounded in her chest. She slowly placed her right hand on her heart as if to soothe it. Her ears remained on alert, but no other dissonant sounds greeted her.

She panned around her room. All of the shadows looked familiar. The chest of drawers stood as dark as tar in her sparsely-furnished room. In the opposite corner of her room, the cushions on her comfy chair, the one where she’d nap on occasion reflected an unseemly yellow in the exasperated night light. The block numbers on the tiny clock on her night stand glowed a blood red. She sat up and reached for her glasses on the night stand. Once she put them on, she could read the blurry red digits on the clock – 4:45.

Her heart beat had settled down, but she felt light-headed from sitting up. She was tempted to lie back down, but she knew she had to check her blood pressure. She couldn’t miss any signs that may put her in peril. She kicked her feet into her worn house shoes and padded across the room to the door. She slowly opened it as if she expected someone to be on the other side, but she was greeted with nothing but more darkness and more familiar shadows. She shuffled down the short hallway to her kitchen.

She kept the light above her stove on all of the time. It comforted her to descend into her kitchen at night to see the soft dome of light coming from her stove. She didn’t need any other light to see what she wanted. The blood pressure cup sat on her kitchen counter near the edge of the light. She picked it up and wrapped it around her left arm. Going through the usual motions revealed that her blood pressure had not changed since her last reading. She viewed the display skeptically and considered taking it again until she realized that the package that her neighbor had left at her door still sat outside. She hadn’t opened her door to retrieve it yesterday because she didn’t want her neighbor to see her.

It had almost become a game for her, one in which she tried to avoid seeing her neighbors. She didn’t really know any of them because the neighborhood had changed so much. Many of the people she had known had either died or moved away. Even some of the houses that she had known so well had been torn down and replaced by unfamiliar structures often much larger than the small homes that had been the setting for much of her life. It felt as if the neighborhood had changed around her without her consent, so she avoided these new people that she didn’t know by only venturing out during the day on weekdays when most of them weren’t home and couldn’t spy her.

She walked to the front door and opened it peering out onto the dark street. The county had never installed street lights in her neighborhood, so she could only see the ambient light from the houses across the street including the Anderson’s house. They had installed a series of small lamps leading from their driveway to their front door. Theirs was one of the houses that had replaced a much smaller home that had been there since she was a little girl. She remembered the old couple that had lived there once. The wife had died first, and then, the husband had died a few years later. The old house sat vacant for a few more years before it had been unceremoniously razed to make room for the Anderson’s big, new house. She missed the old couple.

The package, a small box wrapped in plain brown paper with a single, white label attached, sat at her feet on the worn welcome mat she had at her front door. She quickly grabbed the box and shut the door behind her. The label showed her name and address, but the return address had no name, just a street she didn’t recognize. The weight of the package suggested something substantial within it. She shook it slightly, but the sound did not betray what might be inside. She hadn’t been expecting anything, and she wondered why her neighbor had had her package in the first place. Was it delivered to her by mistake? Or did one of her children take it and she had returned it?

Donna placed the package on her kitchen counter next to the blood pressure cup and walked into her living room just beyond the reach of the stove light and sat in her recliner. She felt a chill in the stale air, so she pulled the blanket from her chair and covered her arms as she lay back and closed her eyes. Her ears remained on alert, but no sounds greeted her other than that from the cranky refrigerator. She drifted off to sleep.

A knock at the door startled her awake. She sat up quickly, the blanket fell into her lap as she rubbed her eyes. Light pushed against her tightly closed blinds, but the sun had yet to descend into her backyard, so it was still before Noon. Another knock. She stood up to a chorus of her years with pain blaring in her hips and her shoulders causing her to stoop and shuffle to the door slowly. By the time she made it to the window to peer onto her porch, the man at her door had already turned and walked back to the street. She only caught a glance of the back of his light blue shirt as he disappeared from view. She angled the blinds to look down onto her porch, and there sat another package. She sighed and closed the blinds tightly.

The pain in her shoulder radiated through her back. She couldn’t lift up her arms up because it hurt too much, so she dropped them to her side and shuffled back to her kitchen as if her head were an unbearable weight. Leaning on the counter, she began her morning ritual of taking her medicine. She had three pill boxes stacked upon one another, each with 14 compartments for AM and PM and the day of the week. She took the first pill box and flipped open the lid labeled “W-AM”. She popped the pills in her mouth one at a time and swallowed with a sip of water. After she had downed the contents from the third pill box, she took her blood pressure again. The static reading concerned her. She wondered if the electronic panel had broken and was giving false readings.

She took one step back and her leg gave way. She grabbed the counter to steady herself, but she could not grip anything before she fell to the floor. She came down hard on her shoulder and the pain reverberated through her like a shock wave. She felt dizzy and maybe she blacked out for a moment. As she lay there, she looked up at the single dome light in her kitchen, stained from years of use such that the outline of the bulbs could be seen through the opaque plastic of the dome. She wondered when she had last changed the bulbs and if the light would burn out before she was able to get up.

She rolled her head to the side and stared at her phone on the wall. The long cord curled and twisted up the wall to the yellow plastic case. The end of the cord dangled just above the floor in her line of sight. She summoned the energy to crawl toward the wall, and after much effort, she reached the end of the cord. She tugged on it. At first, it just rattled in place, but after she gave it another, more forceful tug, she pulled the receiver on top of her. The receiver struck her stomach as it fell to the floor. She pulled it to her face and punched 9-1-1 on the key pad and waited for the voice to respond on the other end of the line. The female voice sounded familiar, or maybe she just imagined it so. When she hung up, she hoped that the EMTs that were dispatched were different from the two men who had come last time. She didn’t like the way they talked to her. They didn’t understand. Few people did.

The World We Must See

I’m just back from vacation with my soon-to-be 12-year-old son. I took him on a trip to New York City to catch the sights and sounds of one of the most dynamic cities in the world. We visited many of the usual tourist spots in the city including the 9/11 Memorial, the Statue of Liberty, and, of course, the iconic Empire State Building. As much as this trip was about fun, it was also about giving my son some experiences outside the norm of his everyday life. It’s too easy for all of us to become cloistered in our own little space in the world and fail to see all the wonderful things that surround us. Too many adults I know have very limited experience outside their immediate area and view the world through the myopic lens of TV and internet news, which do nothing but promote fear and ignorance.

If my kids learn nothing from me (that’s possible given how well they listen to what I say), I hope they at least are able to see past all of the negativity and make their own, informed decisions about the world around them. The beauty of it lies in its variety, and the differences that sometimes separate us shouldn’t be feared but embraced. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York City where the concept of the American melting pot is on full display. You can practically travel around the world just by walking its streets. This is the world I want my kids to see. It’s exciting, vibrant, and full of life.

I didn’t have an opportunity to travel until I was 25 years old, and once I did, I began to realize a lot of my preconceived notions about the world were wrong. Even at the height of my youthful enthusiasm back then, I held many ignorant beliefs that were clearly unfounded once I gained some experience outside of my own little world. At that time, I thought my education was over since I had recently finished college, but the truth was that it was just beginning. By the time I reached 30 years of age, my entire world view had changed. I had a much greater appreciation for the differences that sometimes divide us but mostly make the world much more interesting and exciting. I’m thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had and the lessons I’ve learned. Now, I just hope that my kids can catch on a little earlier in their lives than I did.

Their young lives have certainly been different from mine when I was a kid. They’ve lived in a foreign country and visited several more. My son has been on four different continents already. Of course, my kids are too young to appreciate any of this at the moment, but years later, when they look back at their lives, I hope they see that these experiences gave them a foundation to look beyond the noise around them and challenge preconceived notions and unfounded fears to see the world for what it really is. That’s my hope at least.

Who Is Buster McElroy?

In The Things We Cannot Keep, three brothers reconnect when the oldest one is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction that happened two decades ago. At the insistence of the youngest brother, they go on a camping trip hoping to recapture the magic of the camping excursions from their youth, but things quickly go awry when the weight of their tattered family proves too much. Buster McElroy is the middle brother, a somewhat unreliable narrator who is opinionated, confrontational, and more than mildly provocative.

Now in his 40s, Buster came of age in the chaos leading up to his brother’s conviction and hardened into the cynical critic that he is in the aftermath of his brother’s incarceration. He lacks the empathy that often betrays his younger brother and leaves no kind words in his wake. In the story, he’s the one that changes the most after the unfortunate events unfold following his brother’s release, but he’d refuse to admit it.

To a writer, characters are real people, maybe not in the flesh-and-blood sense, but they are very real in every other way. My characters tend to emerge, not as fully-formed persons in their own right, but as ones that evolve over time. It’s much like when you first meet someone and they introduce themselves in an often-superficial sense, but as you talk to them and learn more, you get a better idea of who they are. As you spend more and more time with them, you learn more about them, and the picture of their personalities develops like old-fashioned film coming to life under the sheen of chemicals in a dark room.

Buster is no different. When I first came up with the idea for this novel (it’s only a concept at this point), he was more defined by his birth order than any singular character trait he possessed because at that point he had none. Slowly, as the story idea turned over in my mind, he became the narrator. Then, he became the skeptical voice that resonated throughout the story. Then, I started thinking “What would Buster say?” whenever I thought of a new twist in the tale. Before I knew it, I had a fully-formed novel outline bustling around in my brain and Buster was the driving force.

For my main characters, I like to write the story of their lives before I write the novel that surrounds them. This gives me reference material as the actual novel unfolds and helps me keep them in character during the inevitable gyrations of novel development. It’s too easy to introduce inconsistencies over the months-long process of developing the first draft, and even later, during rewrites, characters can fall off the wagon if you don’t have a strong idea of who they are.

So who is Buster McElroy? He’s the narrator of The Things We Cannot Keep. He’s a provocative, somewhat unreliable narrator who cajoles the other characters in ways that exploit their weaknesses. He’s an unrepentant critic of everyone whose steadfast opinions color the world around him in ways that blind him. He’s also still evolving as a character, but one thing is certain. The events that unfold over the course of the novel will change him. For better or for worse has yet to be determined.

A Labor of Love

I recently finished reading John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, which is another excellent book from the author featuring eccentric, young characters facing a challenge that ultimately plays out over the course of the story. Green’s books are reliably good, and although I’m not the demographic he targets, I enjoy a well-told story. Green thoroughly develops his characters such that they come alive for the reader, and then, he surrounds them with an intriguing plot. There’s a lot to admire in his writing.

After I finished the book, I turned to the acknowledgments, as I always do when I finish a novel, and read through what the author had to say to those who helped him through the writing of this book. I was surprised to learn that he spent six years writing the book. While Green isn’t as prolific as Stephen King, he has released six books in the last 13 years starting with Looking for Alaska to this most recent book. He’s averaged about a book every three years since his first release. Given the time it takes to write a good book, every three years is about right.

But six years. That struck me as a long time for an established author who writes reliably good novels. I’d love to chat with him about why it took so long, not because I’m being critical, but because I want to understand the creative process he went through. Quite frankly, it’s comforting in some way that even big-name authors plod through their work. It’s proof that the creative process is not a nice walk down a breezy lane on a cool, spring day. Sometimes, it’s a slog through a rainstorm in knee-deep mud.

If anything I can sympathize. I’ve been working on my current novel for almost two years (it will be two years in July), and I don’t feel I’m close to finishing. I’m on my third full re-write. There have been moments where I’ve wanted to throw it in the virtual trash bin and work on something else. Some mornings, I look at my manuscript and just write a blog post or a short story instead. My motivation waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon. There are moments of pure inspiration that drive me to write two thousand words in a single sitting, and then there are moments, where I’m lucky if I can get two hundred coherent words to fit on the page. I’d change the title of the book to The Neverending Story if it didn’t sound like a flashback to the 1980s.

Nevertheless, I keep plodding along. This book may never go anywhere, but I’ll be damned if I don’t finish it. I have to see if it works. It may not, but I want to give it a chance even if it takes another two years. Then, I will work on something else.

Some Kind of Nothing

Sometime in the middle of the night on Saturday, I woke up. It took a moment for me to realize that it wasn’t near sunrise. The full moon outside shined impossibly bright giving the illusion, at least to the half asleep, that a dawn was imminent. It wasn’t. Even summer mornings in Seattle don’t begin that early. I closed my eyes, but my mind wouldn’t let me go back to sleep. Something festered in crawl of my brain, a half-finished dream of some sort that fizzled slowly like the mist on a spring morning. I tried to shake it loose, but once my mind latches onto something it doesn’t let go.

I normally sleep very well. I believe I do so because I follow a very regular routine. Sleep, like brushing your teeth is a habit. At least it is to me. I also immortalize anything that could potentially worry me by writing it down before I go to bed. It relaxes me to write the things down that I must do. The act itself gives my mind permission to forget, at least for the purpose of a good night’s rest. I have a pretty comprehensive to-do list that precludes me from worrying about things, so it’s very rare for me to lie awake worrying about what needs to get done.

Likewise, once my mind groks a story idea, it will run like a hamster on a wheel until every conceivable facet of the story is exhausted. On this particular morning, that’s why I found myself involuntarily awake. I’m not exactly sure where this story idea will go, but when I finally wiped the sleep from my eyes and listened to what my brain was telling me, I had a title and a general story concept floating in front of me. I’m not sure if this story idea came from a dream I was having or if it had been brewing in my mind based on something I had read or thought about earlier in the day or the week.

I think the idea requires some background to make any sense. Again, I’m not sure where this is going, but the title that reverberated in my head is Some Kind of Nothing. The story is a first-person narrative that follows a man through a series of strange events that leave him wondering what is happening to him. It’s a primordial tale of existentialism. It borders on the paranormal, which makes the whole concept odd for me since I don’t read or write in the fantasy genre.

The “Nothing” in the title refers to death. While I often explore mortality and the philosophical musings it engenders, most of my writing focuses on more uplifting topics. I like my characters to change for the better or at least impact the fictional world around them for the better. I don’t think this story will be any different should I choose to continue to develop it, especially since its base topic is morbid and there needs to be some counterbalance to make it palatable to readers.

Like most of my other stories, there is something personal in the idea. I don’t subscribe to any religious beliefs. I believe death is simply a step into the dark abyss where nothing exists. It’s the end of all ends. That doesn’t cause me so much consternation or discomfort that I seek another explanation. Some things we can never know, and I’m okay with that. Instead, I focus on living the life I have to the fullest. Life is a gift, something to be cherished and fulfilled in the way that I feel satisfies me. Living life in misery, real or imagined, is pointless. Quite frankly, were that my primary disposition, I would gladly step into the abyss voluntarily. My comfort in my own skin doesn’t prevent me from exploring other ideas. I’m confident enough to disagree with myself, to challenge myself and my thoughts in ways that I hope make me grow and, I hope, help my readers grow, too. That’s what this story is about. Nothing isn’t one thing. It could be many things, some we choose to see and some we don’t. What would happen if some core belief you hold isn’t true? That’s the engine that drives this concept.

Episode 1: Donna Quixote

The refrigerator purred to life startling Donna Scott as she padded across the cheap linoleum floor in her kitchen. She took a deep breath to settle her frayed nerves and placed her hand above her heart feeling for anything that seemed abnormal. Her heart thumped and stuttered and her chest tightened. This was it. The end she feared had come and caught her off guard in the late morning in her kitchen. She grabbed the edge of the counter to steady herself, to wait for the inevitable wilting to floor. Her knees wobbled and her breath hitched.

The kitchen brightened in her widened eyes. Her pulse shot fireworks in her field of vision, which blurred at the periphery. She glanced at her blood pressure cup folded upon itself on the counter next to the row of medicines, vitamins, and assorted herbal remedies she had yet to consume for the day. None of it had helped. Nothing she had done had really mattered in the end, and this was the end.

The refrigerator clicked off returning the room, the whole floor of her tiny house, to the silence she craved. Her heart still thumped wildly in her chest, but she felt a surge of meek determination that pushed her across the small kitchen to the counter near her neat line of vials. She grabbed a bottle and shook two pills into her palm. She popped them in her mouth and swallowed. She did the same for each bottle in the line, pausing briefly to ensure she had swallowed each pill.

After she had finished taking all of her medications and supplements, she feared that some of them had become lodged in her throat. Suddenly, she couldn’t swallow. This was it. She would die from a clogged esophagus. She hadn’t considered that possibility. She stumbled to the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of water. She checked the date she had written on its side before she opened it and drank half the contents. She thought the water had dislodged the blockage in her throat, but she wasn’t sure. She considered calling the doctor or perhaps 9-1-1, but then she relented as the air hissed from her inflated fear.

Satisfied that she wasn’t under immediate threat, Donna grabbed the blood pressure cup from the counter and snaked her arm through the loop. She pulled it snug around her bicep and pushed the button on its electronic panel. It inflated and cramped her arm before it slowly deflated. She could feel her pulse cranking in her arm. The tiny screen on the panel blinked and beeped until it displayed 117/78. She swallowed hard as she wrote the reading onto her notepad she kept on her counter. She compared the current reading to the four readings she took yesterday, and her worst fears had come to fruition. Her blood pressure was dropping. Her high blood pressure medication had overcompensated and forced her into a state of hypotension. She’d have to call her doctor as soon as possible.

Before she could do that, she needed to shower or at least clean up. She couldn’t remember the last time she had showered. She tugged the sleeve of her night gown and inhaled. The sour smell of sweat and body odor greeted her. She needed to sit down because the gush of thoughts in her mind made her dizzy. She shuffled over to the old recliner near the edge of her living room and dropped herself onto its tired cushions. She could feel the grit of food crumbs at her seat beneath her thin night gown. She caught a whiff of something she couldn’t name, something tangy and sweet but unpleasant nonetheless. She pushed back into the recliner and closed her eyes.

A beam of sunlight shot across the room from an opening in the tightly closed blinds. Dust particles floated through the beam as if someone had beaten a path down a dusty road. Donna watched the dust float in the sunlight as her eyes adjusted to the brightness. She had fallen asleep in the recliner and most of her day had passed her by. The sun was already in her backyard, which faced the western sky.

She kicked at the footrest trying to push it down, but her weak legs couldn’t move it. She pushed herself up with her arms and leaned all of her weight onto the footrest until it folded beneath her. She sat up and her neck and back ached. A pain shot through her arm as she reached up to massage her stiff neck. She needed to get an x-ray of her neck and spine. She had too much pain there for it to be nothing other than cancer or some sort of early onset of paralysis. One of her medications had warned of potential paralysis or was that an article she had read in some magazine? She couldn’t be sure, but her doctor had to know. He wouldn’t dismiss her concerns this time. The evidence was clear.

The clock on her wall read 5:30. The doctor’s office was already closed. She’d have to call tomorrow. Hopefully, he’d be able to fit her in this week like he did most weeks. She put her hands on her knees and pushed herself up into a standing position slowly. She felt all 62 years of her existence on her shoulders as she stood up. She grunted as she straightened herself as much as she could nowadays. Her night gown stuck to her shoulders and her torso dampened by sweat.

She glanced at the digital thermometer on her wall, which displayed 76 degrees. The evening sun usually raised the temperature in her house during the spring and summer, but she couldn’t open any windows. She didn’t want to give any thieves or rapists an opening to get her into her home. Instead, she turned on an oscillating fan that sat on a table behind her sofa. The fan cut the thick air with its small blades giving her a temporary respite from the heat, which dissipated as she walked away from the limited radius of the fan. She sighed and wished she had AC, but then, she remembered that AC makes people sick because it recirculates stale air that has become saturated with germs. She couldn’t afford to get sick at her age.

She left the living room and ventured into the darkened foyer leading to her front door. There were no lights on in her house at the moment. She didn’t use lights during the day because she wanted to keep her electric bill under control. She also suspected that the electric company was over-billing her, so she kept her usage to a minimum. She unplugged all of her appliances when they weren’t in use except for that loud refrigerator, which, unfortunately, had to be plugged in all day. She had considered replacing it with a cooler, but that would require her to leave the house to buy ice every day. She only left her house to go to the doctor or to buy groceries from Old Man Smith’s store down the road.

At the window beside her front door, she stuck her fingers in between the slats of the blind and peered out into the street in front of her house. In that instant she recoiled and pulled her face back. Her neighbors across the street were in their driveway. She feared they had seen her looking at them. Curiosity got the best of her and she looked through the blinds again. The wife pulled bags of groceries from the trunk of her car and carried them into her house. One of her kids helped her. Donna watched as they made the trip back and forth until the trunk was empty. The wife slammed the trunk shut and paused a moment. She looked Donna’s way and seemed to stare directly at her. Donna jumped back from the blinds and gasped. Her ears burned as if she had been caught doing something embarrassing. She checked that the blinds were firmly closed and she walked back to her kitchen.

When she had grown up in this house, when her parents were still alive, there had been no black people in her neighborhood. Now, there were black people across the street from her and elsewhere in the neighborhood. She had seen them walk or drive by on occasion. The couple across the street had moved into the neighborhood over 15 years ago. They had been the first black people she had really seen in her life. Over the intervening years, she had said very little to them and they to her. Of course, nowadays, she rarely ventured outside for them to say anything to her.

A sick feeling settled into her stomach. Stomach cancer? She wasn’t hungry. What else could it be? Her doctor had not taken her earlier concerns seriously. Yes, he had done x-rays, but he claimed there was nothing to see. He had even shown her the x-rays, but she couldn’t make sense of the cloudy images.

Before she could return to her recliner, someone knocked on her door. The reverberating sound took her breath away and she almost gasped before she stopped herself. She stood very still as if the intruder could see through her front door. She finally willed herself to turn back to the door and crept up to the window next to it. She poked a finger at one of the slats on the blind and lifted it just enough to see the woman from across the street at her door. She let the slat down slowly and stood back from the blind. She didn’t know what to do.

Another knock. She jumped at the sound.

“Ms. Scott, it’s Jamie Anderson from across the street,” the woman said through the door.

Silence.

A shadow moved across the blind on the window by the door and Donna froze as if the woman could see right through it. The shadow paused, and then, Donna heard another voice, a young boy’s voice, before the shadow moved away. Donna let out a breath and her chest heaved in relief. She hadn’t realized that she had been holding her breath.

After a moment passed, Donna stepped back toward the blind and slowly lifted one of the slats to peer onto her front porch. She jumped back as someone walked away from her door right in front of the window. Her heart raced in her throat. She stumbled backward and caught herself against the wall next to the door. Someone was trying to break in. She tried to calm herself so that she could hear what was happening, but the thumping of her heart drowned out everything around her. She was too dizzy to move.

She held onto the wall, her palms braced against it ready for the impact of the intruder as he came through her door, but after a while nothing happened. Her terror subsided, and nothing but the humming of her refrigerator shushed away the silence. The light of the day had receded further behind her house and cast the usual shadows through her living room. The dust carried on as if nothing mattered. She stepped back toward the blind and lifted a slat with her shaking hand. No one was on her porch nor was anyone visible on the street in front of her house. A car passed by, a red smear of metal as it rolled down the hill. She panned left and right as far as she could see. Nothing.

She pulled on the cord of the blind and flipped the slats downward so that she could see the floor of her porch. That’s when she noticed something sitting at her door. She held her breath again. The woman had left something there. Curiosity burned her thoughts, but so did fear. She didn’t know this woman. She had only spoken to her reluctantly a few times in the early years after they had invaded her neighborhood. A frown creased her face. Now, she had something else to worry about.

Certainty

Human beings love certainty. That’s why we have comfort zones (a controlled space where we can more or less predict what will happen) and why we put an out-sized value on the past (it already happened, so it can’t change). Uncertainty is nerve-wracking, a darkened path into the unknown that could or could not end well. What is to come is scary because anything could happen and we can’t control it.

Sometimes, certainty is not comfortable or enlightening. This past weekend I ran a wonderful little marathon in Northern Virginia that started and finished at a local suburban high school. The course was a double loop half marathon meaning that I had to run the course twice to complete the full marathon distance. Normally, I like these courses because it helps to know what the second half of the course looks like when I enter the inevitable battle with the mental demons that descend on me around mile 18. Those bastards love pointing out the uncertainty of the course and how it will imminently lead to my failure. With a double loop, they lose some of their ammunition.

The course started like many others – a rush of adrenaline on a luxuriously wide asphalt surface just outside the school. A couple of miles of gently rolling roadway begat more of the same until we entered a wooded trail just before the four-mile marker. This mile-long trek along a peaceful trail through the woods is normally a runner’s dream – no traffic or associated noise and pollution, but this trail had as many twists and turns as a Stephen King novel and meandered through the trees as if some drunken explorer had founded it back in the day. If the twists weren’t bad enough, the amplitude of the undulating hills seemed to accelerate. My legs groaned and the pace displayed on my watch slowed.

After a mile in the wooded path, I plopped back onto pavement, which, although undulating and unforgiving, felt like a relief from the twisting trail I had just left behind. Another mile-long section of trail followed that before I ended up on pavement again. The race course marshal obviously had a sense of humor and a mean sadistic streak, but I hadn’t seen anything truly sadistic yet. Until I did. What followed the short respite of relatively straight roadway was three miles of rolling, twisting trail. I felt like one of those sad, inevitable victims in a slasher film running an aimless path among the trees in hopes that the determined mass murderer wouldn’t be able to keep up with me.

When I finally emerged from the last section of the wooded path on the first loop, my legs and my time had suffered. The slight downhill run on the longest straightaway of the course led me back to where I had started. As I ran by the halfway point, the thought of running through those trail sections again left me with an unsettled feeling. The grind was already wearing on me at the 13-mile point. Normally, I don’t start to feel it until around mile 15 or beyond. In this case, certainty, as in I most certainly had to run the trail sections again, didn’t help me in the least. In fact, it made me very uncomfortable.

The marathon is an exercise in determination, more mental than physical. Certainty helps relieve some of the mental stress in most cases. That’s why many marathoners have specific routines they follow that border on OCD. In this case, certainty didn’t help. Despite the sense of dread that hung over me as I dropped off the roadway onto the first section of trail for the second time, I kept going. The paths were just as grueling as the first time except my legs were lingering near the edge of exhaustion. My pace slowed markedly, but I kept moving forward. I did experience some euphoria when I emerged from the final section of trail and hurled myself down the home stretch. Because I had experienced that about two hours earlier, I knew the worst was over. Finally, certainty worked in my favor.